Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Q&A with Liv Constantine

Liv Constantine is the pen name of Lynne Constantine and Valerie Constantine, who are sisters and the authors of the new novel The Last Mrs. Parrish. They also have written another novel, Circle Dance, together, and Lynne has written the novel The Veritas Deception. 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Last Mrs. Parrish?

A: We were talking about the phenomenon of the “trophy wife,” the women who intentionally go after men with money regardless of the hurt and chaos they leave in their wake. We wondered what would happen if the story didn’t turn out quite how the women intended. From that discussion, the seeds for The Last Mrs. Parrish were sown.

Q: What was it like to write a book with your sister?

A: It was great fun. We have a very similar sense of humor, so our time together is infused with lots of laughs. We wrote Circle Dance, years ago, a women’s fiction book about two Greek sisters.

Q: Did you plot out the story before writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: We typically know the beginning and the end of a story and let the story unfold as the characters develop. There are many changes that occur in the first draft, and often new characters appear that we didn’t originally include.

It’s a very organic process and we give each other the freedom to deviate from the storyline, knowing we can fix any conflicts between scenes in revision.

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

A: Ian McEwan, David Morrell, Susan Howatch, Sinclair Lewis, Dean Koontz, and Edith Wharton

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Another psychological thriller that opens with a woman trying to find out who murdered her mother.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: We’re excited that The Last Mrs. Parrish has been sold in 19 territories and was selected by People magazine as a “People’s Picks” of best new books. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Deanne Stillman

Deanne Stillman is the author of the new book Blood Brothers: The Story of the Strange Friendship Between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill. Her other books include Twentynine Palms, Desert Reckoning, and Mustang. She writes for the Los Angeles Review of Books and and teaches at the UC Riverside-Palm Desert Low Residency MFA Creative Writing Program.

Q: You write that this book’s inspiration came from a story about a horse that Buffalo Bill had given to Sitting Bull. Can you say more about that?

A: When Sitting Bull returned to Standing Rock after traveling with Cody for four months in 1885, Cody gave him a horse. That was symbolic because the horse had been stripped from the tribes during the Indian wars. It was not enough to deprive them of the buffalo; they had to be dismounted. 

Five years later, while Sitting Bull was being assassinated in his cabin doorway, the horse was outside and started to dance as the bullets were flying. That was because it had been trained to do so at the sound of gunfire in the Wild West show. 

Sitting Bull’s murder and the dancing horse that echoed it happened at the height of the ghost dancing frenzy  - an apocalyptic call for a return to the old ways and the resurrection of the buffalo. So here was this horse joining in, a ghost horse really, a representative of the Wild West and all that came with it. 

While I was working on my book, I called Chief Arvol Looking-Horse, a prominent Lakota spiritual figure, for his insight into this matter.  What he said stunned me, beyond what I already felt, and I talk about all of this in much greater detail in my book. 

By the way, I couldn’t shake the image of the dancing horse for years, and it led me to write Blood Brothers. I wanted to know what forces converged in that moment, and how did they lead there.

Q: How would you describe the relationship between the two men, and what does it say about the history of the American West? 

A:  It was complicated and interesting; they had an unspoken bond, in my view, borne of a bloody history on the Great Plains, on two sides of the buffalo coin.

They were both fathers, husbands, warriors; both were charismatic and influential; both were celebrated men among their people, surrounded by fans, hangers-on, envious people, wives and close female associates (in Cody’s case, many girlfriends).

Each was a superstar, an icon, and in that regard, they represented qualities that each culture revered. In Cody’s case, he was fearless and self-mythologizing, yet at the same time he wasn’t kidding, most of the time. Moreover, he was friends with kings and cowboys – a man who knew who he was and everyone wanted to know him. 

Sitting Bull was a true representative of the Lakota – humble, an accomplished warrior, a man who made a point of not standing out, but was well-versed in his strengths. In today’s parlance, you could say he was “comfortable in his own skin.” 

Yet we white folk really don’t have the words to describe who Sitting Bull was and what he meant to his tribe. This becomes very apparent in an interview Sitting Bull did in 1877 with a reporter from the New York Herald, which I recount in my book. The reporter keeps pressing him for labels – “are you a chief?” “a medicine man?” and so on. Sitting Bull just says no….

In his hiring of Sitting Bull, Buffalo Bill allied with the only Native American who was his equal in terms of fame, respect, and stature among his own people…although on a side note, “fame” was not something the Lakota sought in the way that white people did…nevertheless, in coming together for the purpose of show business, they were crossing a cultural barrier – “foes in 76 and friends in 85” as the advertising slogan accompanying a poster of them together in Montreal (on the cover of my book) – indicates. 

The 76 refers to the Battle of the Little Bighorn; Sitting Bull was blamed for killing Custer, though that was not the case. Cody was an army scout during those years and after Custer was killed, he avenged his death by scalping an Indian – and then re-creating the act on the stage back east, wielding the actual scalp – to the dismay of some.

The coming together of these two men - Cody and Sitting Bull – was of course sensational, but very resonant. On the road, Cody tried to deflect the hostility towards Sitting Bull as the perceived killer of Custer, saying that Sitting Bull was “the Napoleon of his people” and a warrior, fighting a good fight – just like the white man. And that he had been wronged by the white man. 

Their first meeting in, of all places, Buffalo, is truly remarkable. What this all says about the American West is loaded – but we see it playing out today at Standing Rock.

Last year during the protests, descendants of soldiers who fought at the Bighorn, themselves army veterans, came to support the Lakota – and in a ceremony that was not widely covered, seek forgiveness for certain activities carried out by the white man in the conquest of American Indians.   
This was a 180 from the old days, and it’s the most significant thing that’s happened in this country in years, in my opinion. Maybe we are finally starting to reconcile America’s original sin – the betrayal of Native Americans.

Cody gave them their due in his spectacle, but that was limited – Indians in the cast were essentially prisoners of war, and traveling with the Wild West was a way off the reservation. But many Indians came to Cody’s funeral, along with the cowboys who were able to continue living an unfettered life inside the confines of the Wild West, even as it was being closed out in the real world.

In its own strange way, Cody’s show inscribed our history forever – and the Wild West is America’s address.

Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?

A: To write this book, I did what I always do, which is traveling to various locations in my story, talking to people on all sides of this equation, reading all sorts of source material (listed in an extensive bibliography in my book), and then spending years sifting through everything and letting it all percolate. 

Also, place is a player in this story, as it is in all of my books, and I love traveling across the Great Plains and coming across its secrets and treasures.

In terms of what surprised me, there was the above-mentioned dancing horse (which some think is a legend, but I believe the tale).

There was also the fact that Buffalo Bill was dispatched by the army to Sitting Bull’s cabin shortly before he was killed, in the hope that Cody could convince his friend to surrender to authorities and thereby quell the ghost dancing, one more thing he was blamed for. Cody was waylaid en route – one of history’s near-misses, as I recount in greater detail in my book. 

Later, after Wounded Knee, the final, tragic act of the Indian wars, Cody made a film about it, re-enacting that with actual surviving participants and victims. At this point in his life, he wanted to tell the truth about what had happened – not the literally white-washed presentation of his show.

But the film was a flop; no one wanted to see the dark side – and talkies were upon us. The days of the Wild West show were over, and in case that wasn’t clear, America’s first traffic jam happened at Cody’s funeral.

Q: What would you say is each man’s legacy today?

A: Each man is revered around the world; they are two of the most famous men ever, but they are not famous for being famous, like so many people today. They meant something and they still do, each representing a way of life that is long-gone but desired, and in some ways existed only in a dream. 

Yet it cannot be denied that Sitting Bull was the last of his people to “come in,” a “rebel” who fought for his homeland for many years, until he could do so no longer, and wanted to come to terms with the white man and forge a world where his children could flourish. 

And Buffalo Bill – hunter, showman, trickster  - conjured the national scripture, the thing that keeps the dream of America going. And let’s not forget that the Wild West was an “equestrian extravaganza” – a description officially attached to the show. Galloping horses, flying manes and tails, cowboys and Indians astride – it’s the American pageant in all its glory. 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I also write plays, and I’m working on a new one, and that’s all I’ll say at this point; I rarely talk about works in progress, especially in the seedling stage.  But thanks for asking!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Yes. It’s time for a message! Let us speak about the unraveling of protections for wildlife and the land and the sea. This is the end game of the Indian wars, the last gasp I hope of manifest destiny. But it’s in full effect at the moment, and should not be seen as something that is apart from our frontier history – a thing borne of, after all, the great wide open.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with L.M. Elliott

L.M. Elliott is the author of Suspect Red, a new novel for older kids. Her other books include Under a War-Torn Sky and A Troubled Peace.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Suspect Red, and for your main character, Richard?

A: The idea for Suspect Red began with the deadly Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 as I listened to the heated debate about surveillance and how to prevent horrific tragedies like it. The issues: National security versus Americans’ right to privacy, proactive caution regarding travel visas versus unfair racial profiling.

As a historical fiction writer, I’ve learned the past often gives us the perfect prism through which to view issues of today. It takes away the heat of immediacy and diffuses the human tendency to dig in and not listen when presented arguments that we already have an opinion about, pro or con.  

One of the most powerful metaphors for McCarthyism, for instance, is the play The Crucible. Yes, it’s about the Salem witch trials, but Miller also meant it as a poignant, powerful statement about the mob mentality he was witnessing during the 1950s Red Scare.

So McCarthyism seemed the perfect springboard for me to explore the debate we’ve been grappling with since September 11, 2001. How do we protect our citizens from those who plot to harm us while still maintaining our core democratic principals and freedoms? How to recognize “clear and present dangers” but NOT succumb to unfounded suspicion, xenophobia, and hysteria?

The same questions had been raised during the 1950s Red Scare, when a handful of people endangered the United States by spying for the Soviet Union.

Much like recent terrorist groups, the USSR was infiltrating and taking over its neighboring countries, aggressively spreading anti-American fervor across the globe, and trying to plant agents to “radicalize” our citizens. Like Hitler, Stalin was rounding up and sending political dissidents, Jews, and ethnic groups he didn’t like to Siberian gulags to labor and die.

We had just witnessed the atrocities caused by our dropping an atomic bomb on Japan. Now the Soviets had developed their own—aided in part by Americans.

Physicist Karl Fuchs confessed to spying for the Soviets while he worked at the Manhattan Project that developed our bomb. The Rosenbergs were also convicted of passing our atomic secrets to the Russians.

State Department official Alger Hiss was convicted of perjury while denying he was a Soviet mole. And a double agent named Elizabeth Bentley accused 37 federal employees of secretly working for the communists. Add to that tension the Cold War and its terrifying nuclear arms race, plus the Korean War.
So the danger was real. As was our national paranoia that Senator McCarthy exploited and fanned, resulting in thousands of innocent people losing their jobs and reputations.

Convinced by McCarthy and fellow Red-hunter, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, that communists were lurking everywhere, Americans turned on one another.

Anyone with “radical” thoughts or untraditional life styles, anyone who signed petitions, protested deportations, or spoke up for civil rights or labor reform; anyone who read the “wrong books” (Steinbeck, Thoreau, Langston Hughes are examples), had “the wrong friends” (social activists, Eastern European immigrants), listened to the “wrong kind of music” (jazz or Russian classical), or liked “the wrong kind of visual art” (cubist or abstract) was suddenly suspect.

Such “subversives” were hauled in front of Loyalty Review Boards or McCarthy’s Senate subcommittee to answer questions about their beliefs and activities, their friends and romances, AND to “name names” of others the government should target for investigation.

If they didn’t, they could be smeared as “Un-American,” fired, blacklisted, or jailed for contempt of Congress. 

“There are no degrees of disloyalty. A man is either loyal or disloyal,” McCarthy barked.

In this kind of world, “guilt by association” or simply looking “soft on communist” was enough to land someone on an FBI watch list. (“If it walks like a duck and sounds like a duck, it must be a duck” became a favorite euphemism.)

As former president Harry Truman said—when McCarthy accused even him of being “a communist dupe”—McCarthyism is the corruption of truth, the abandonment of due process of law. It is the use of the big lie and the unfounded accusation in the name of Americanism or security.

Because I was a journalist first, I wanted to create a novel presenting both sides of the Red Scare—the legitimate concerns versus unfair stereotyping and targeting.  

Suspect Red became the story of two teenage boys caught up in the maelstrom of McCarthyism—one (Richard) who might be pushed to investigate or persecute the other (his best friend Vladimir).
I set it in Washington, the eye of the hurricane.

Richard belongs to an All-American family. His WWII veteran dad works for the FBI and believes deeply in American freedoms. Don is an archetype, a patriot who fought Hitler, sincerely dedicated to making the world safe for democracy.

The Bradleys are the type of family whose admirable principles and sense of service could be exploited by a demagogue. Don might overlook his misgivings about a leader because “he believes in the cause, not the man.”

Then there’s Vlad, whose career foreign service father works for the State Department—one of McCarthyism’s biggest targets.  I added in an Eastern-European immigrant and artist mother, and a bodacious, beatnik sister, so that the White family brings bold, cosmopolitan about culture and politics—(what many would label “radical” or “subversive”)—to Richard’s neighborhood.

Vlad’s family represents those Ivy League intellectuals McCarthy and Hoover hated. (Those “coastal elites” many today distrust and want “drained” away.) 

Vlad is a jazz-loving saxophonist, a sophisticated, well-traveled newcomer who can so expand another teen’s perspectives—if that teen is not conditioned to be prejudiced against differing cultures and lifestyles. Vlad is the kind of promising kid whose future and idealism could be ruined by the juggernaut of McCarthyism-style rumor.

The boys, in essence, are foils to one another. Richard is quickly drawn to Vlad’s musical sensibilities and passion for books, which he shares. “Geeks” rule in this novel!

But as pressures mount on his dad at the FBI and Richard sees things at Vlad’s house that many would suspect “Red,” the lines between friend and foe, to whom Richard owes loyalty, blur.

Richard has to weigh the country’s political definition of patriotism and the needs of his dad as a “G-man” against his best friend—whose father could be ruined by gossip or any hint that he might be sympathetic to Eastern European communists.

I hope Suspect Red shows in very human terms the devastating influence of hate rhetoric on ordinary people. It is a coming of age story in turbulent times, a parable of choices. A look at the heroism it takes to not succumb to pack-mentality, alarmist rhetoric, power cliques, or gossip (stories that have “gone viral”).

It exposes the consequences of blindly accepting insinuation as fact and spreading that innuendo to others; the unfairness of profiling/labeling a group indiscriminately because of the actions of a few; and failing to question the motives or verify the statements of national leaders who preach such condemnations.

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: Oh my gosh—so much! For both questions.

I always research my novels heavily before deciding what to write. For Suspect Red, I read 1950s newspapers and magazines, scholarly analysis of the Cold War, and bios on McCarthy, Hoover, and journalist Edward R. Murrow.

I watched Youtube clips of McCarthy’s speeches, Murrow’s See it Now broadcasts and witnesses’ testimony in front of McCarthy’s committee.

I re-read The Crucible, Fahrenheit 451, and Lord of the Flies—all written during and about the Red Scare—as well as books like I Led 3 Lives, Herbert Philbrick’s chronicle of his experiences as a FBI secret-agent embedded in a communist cell.  

I interviewed former State Department and congressional officials. I watched 1950s TV shows and movies to get the lingo and pop culture details to make my dialogue, clothes, food, music, and settings authentic.  

Current movies like George Clooney’s Good Night, Good Luck and Bryan Cranston’s portrayal in Trumbo of the blacklisted screenwriter infused my thinking.

So much of what I learned surprised (and sickened) me—the loyalty oaths Americans were required to take to keep their jobs, the review boards that could dismiss employees on the flimsiest hints of impropriety or lack of patriotic zeal, defined in Executive Order 10450 as “complete and unswerving loyalty to the United States.”  

In October 1953, Eisenhower announced that 1,456 federal employees had been fired as potential subversives or susceptible to coercion from communist recruiters.

Reasons included having friends or extended family trapped in communist countries; interest in Russian literature, music, or travel; once attending a party where suspected communists might have been; donating money to left-leaning political organizations, charities or refugee funds; or being homosexual (labeled “perversion” at the time).

More people were dismissed from the Library of Congress, for instance, for their sexual preference than for their political beliefs.
Speaking of libraries—books were banned and even burned during the Red Scare if they contained “proletariat” themes. Books like Robin Hood! In 1953, an Indiana State textbook commissioner called for banning all references to Robin Hood in schools because he “robbed from the rich and gave it to the poor. That’s the Communist Line. It’s just a smearing of law and order.”

Across the country, librarians pulled copies of Robin Hood—fearful of local councils, trustee boards, or neighborhood watchdog groups. By that point dozens of librarians had been fired or hounded out of their jobs.

The reasons? They might have refused to remove liberal magazines like The New Republic. Or they wouldn’t sign affidavits swearing they’d never “been a member of, or directly or indirectly supported or followed” a long list of organizations the FBI tagged as suspect. (In California, the list included 146 groups.)

No library was safe from scrutiny. The Boston Post attacked the venerable Boston Public Library for displaying Lenin’s Communist Manifesto. The insinuation being the librarians were facilitating, even encouraging communist thought.

The Post demanded Boston follow the lead of countless other libraries across the nation and “label its poison”— all books by any author thought to have any communist associations should bear a stamp.

Works about socialist governing should be quarantined in reference rooms so their messages could not be carried out into the community. That also required the reader to sign for it, leaving his/her name emblazoned on a list of people interested in Soviet philosophies.

Remarkably, the famous FBI double agent Philbrick said the library should actually stock more pro-Soviet materials to provide the public a way to study communist dogma “to better know the enemy.” 

Another, more inspiring surprise: Against this pervasive inquisition and hysteria rose up five Indiana University students.

Banning Robin Hood was their tipping point. The coeds had been looking for a symbol to use in protesting McCarthyism’s siege on freedom of speech. They found it in the legendary feather-capped green hats worn by Robin Hood and his Merry Men. The IU students went to local farms, gathered bags of feathers, and dyed them green in a dorm room bathtub.

In early March 1954—when McCarthy was in his height of power, arrogant and confident enough to accuse the Army and a decorated WWII general of coddling communists—these daring students proclaimed themselves “The Green Feather Movement” and spread their Robin Hood-defiant feathers across campus.

They were immediately attacked as being “communist dupes” and radical “longhairs.” Newspapers denounced them. Some student groups jeered them. Hoover’s FBI began watching them. 

But even with such intimidation tactics, the Merry Men protests spread. To fellow Big Ten universities, to Harvard, to UCLA (where my fictional character, Natalia, joins its ranks). Their feathers helped knock over that terrifying king-of-the-hill bully, Joseph McCarthy, and his minions.

Their legacy continued into the next decade. Many historians credit these five feather-wielding students with initiating campus-activism that would prove so important to the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s.

Their example prompted me to make my two teenage boy protagonists book-lovers. Richard and Vlad often find their answers, their courage, in what they read. Isn’t that what books are all about? 

Q: The book includes photos and documents from the 1950s. How did you decide on what to include?

A: Each chapter is a self-contained month. The news accounts and photos punctuating its opening are historic fact, occurring in that month.

I begin June 1953, with the Rosenbergs’ execution as spies, and end June 1954 with an attorney’s impassioned outcry during a particularly egregious round of questioning by McCarthy during the televised Army hearings: “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty….Have you no sense of decency, sir?”

That timeline traced McCarthyism’s influence from its height to the beginning of its unraveling. Including photos, posters, headlines, and events of those months added a graphic, first-hand experience and potent immersion for my readers into those disturbing twelve months of American history. Far better to show rather than tell!

Q: Do you see any parallels between the period you write about in the novel and today?

A: Oh my, yes. I didn’t set out to write a novel that would have such relevance to our current political scene—as much as the journalist in me would like to claim such prescience.

Many political pundits and historians have written on the echoes between President Trump and Senator McCarthy. The following is a synopsis of much discussed similarities:
A nation primed: when McCarthy burst into celebrity, a mere five years after the end of WWII’s carnage, the country was weary of what they saw as European-born crises. Many were “fed up” with FDR’s New Deal liberals and their international interests and tolerance. McCarthy played off that by dismissing East Coast Ivy-Leaguers who permeated Washington, D.C., as weak “egg-heads.” 

Compare that to what many term as this past election’s “white-lash” against our first African American president, his progressive policies and erudite diplomacy, plus Donald Trump’s blustery promise “to drain the swamp,” and his dismissal of “coastal elites” as clueless snobs.

Both McCarthy and Trump exuded a brash, irreverent outsider image, a renegade persona, that appealed to the disenfranchised and to voters deep in our nation’s heartland who felt ignored by the Washington establishment.

These were often voters with less personal exposure to immigrants or cultures outside the United States and potentially more susceptible to xenophobia and fear-mongering stereotypes.

Both men used conspiracy theories to whip up support. For McCarthy, it was the specter of Soviet spies embedded in our communities, Eastern Europeans, Jewish intellectuals, the media, and “radical,” anti-establishment writers and artists. Compare that to Trump’s Muslim bans, his promise to build the wall to keep out “bad hombres,” and his birtherism claims about President Obama.
Coining catchy, character-assassination labels. McCarthy’s favorite: “Pinko,” “dupes,” “5th Amendment communists,” “fellow travelers,” and the not-so-veiled threat of “Better dead than Red.” For Trump: “Lying Ted,” “Crooked Hillary,” “criminal aliens,” and the chilling, witch-burning chant: “Lock her up.”
Deflecting criticism by attacking the questioner. When Murrow broadcast his expose on McCarthy, the senator tried to smear the reporter as being a “pinko,” citing Murrow’s involvement with Russian student exchange programs in the 1930s.

McCarthy threatened another reporter by saying he’d hate for that journalist to give McCarthy a reason to investigate him considering the man had six kids, adding, “When you write stuff like that, you’re helping the communists.” 

Trump implies journalists are essentially an enemy of the people and discredits them by demeaning—“fake news,” “lightweights,” “over-rated,” and even debasing female reporters as having “blood coming out of her wherever.”

The irony is both men knew media attention was their ticket to power. At first, the press covered them as titillating sideshows they didn’t take seriously, unwittingly lending them credibility. In 1953, the managing editor of the Raleigh News and Observer said, “The press made McCarthy. We go hog wild whenever he speaks. How long are we going to quote irresponsible statements?” 

Unsubstantiated innuendo and outright lies: McCarthy was all about strategic exaggeration, what Trump himself would later dub “truthful hyperbole” in his Art of the Deal and his staffers would call “alternative fact.”

Bullying: McCarthy browbeat witnesses—sometimes asking if they felt they deserved the same fate as the executed Rosenbergs. Trump egged on crowds to boo or manhandle opponents as he did in Iowa, telling his rally listeners to “knock the crap out of” protestors who had tomatoes, and promising, “I will pay the legal fees.” 

McCarthy urged Americans to boycott businesses that advertised in newspapers critical of him. He threatened to have the FCC review licenses of radio stations that didn’t carry his speeches.

When millions of people were in terrible danger from hurricanes and Kim Jong Un threatened nuclear holocaust—Trump worried about whipping up boycotts to force the firing of NFL athletes exercising their first amendment rights as proof of his “making America great again.” Suddenly standing for the national anthem seems proof of loyalty required for employment.

I would simply add, as Murrow said, we must never “confuse dissent with disloyalty.”

Both McCarthy and Trump seemed determined to dismantle the State Department and target the LGBT community. During the 1950s’ “lavender scare,” any hints of homosexuality became grounds for dismissal from federal agencies.

Compare that to Trump’s recent attempts to bar transgender service members from the military, Vice President Pence’s opposition to gay rights, and Trump’s emptying the State Department.

Finally: The direct connection of Roy Cohn. An attack-dog style attorney, Cohn was an assistant U.S. attorney in the 1951 espionage trail of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. In his autobiography, Cohn claimed it was he who influenced the judge to order Ethel’s execution as well, despite the scant evidence against her and the fact she was the mother of two small boys.

Cohn became McCarthy’s chief counsel and right-hand man. His zealousness and legal expertise turned McCarthy’s investigations into harrowing prosecutions.

After the Senate finally censored McCarthy, Cohn returned to private practice and became one of the most feared lawyers in New York City. He would be indicted and acquitted four times on charges including bribery, extortion, conspiracy, securities fraud, and obstruction of justice.

Right before he died in 1986 from AIDS, Cohn was disbarred for “unethical, unprofessional and particularly reprehensible” conduct. 
Trump was 27 when he met Cohn at a Manhattan club and asked how he and his father should respond to the Justice Department suing them for housing discrimination. The 46-year-old Cohn replied: hit back harder, countersue. Muddy the waters so the actual substance of the allegations was entirely lost.

 For the next 13 years, Cohn was one of Trump’s closet allies, representing him in scores of contentious lawsuits. He tutored Trump in his credo: never settle, never admit fault; attack, counter-attack; counter-sue any plaintiff or person who criticizes you. Play the martyr and claim detractors are simply persecuting you. McCarthy tactics.

Our system, eventually, worked. Those televised Senate hearings let Americans see for themselves McCarthy’s bullyboy tactics. They didn’t like it. Journalists like Murrow and Washington-cartoonist Herblock bravely pointed to the emperor’s lack of clothes as it were—and we finally looked. 

Perhaps the same will happen as Mueller’s investigation progresses and Senate committees hold more televised hearings.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My ninth historical fiction, Hamilton and Peggy!: A Revolutionary Friendship, comes out in February!

The past year has been a bit manic—research and writing these two books overlapped. But I have to say it was a wonderful thing to counterbalance thinking on one of our nation’s darkest and least admirable eras with its awe-inspiring beginnings.

And while a bit schizophrenic, it was great fun to toggle between such different voices, male/female protagonists, and historical periods almost two centuries apart!

Hamilton and Peggy was dictated by research and primary documents as well—beginning with the impassioned letter Hamilton wrote to Peggy in February 1780 to solicit her help in his courtship of Eliza.

Their friendship and his immediate affinity with her—calling her "My Peggy" in his correspondence to Eliza—is the unifying thread that binds the novel.

But my focus is on Peggy herself, her wit and patriotic sensibilities, as well as her witnessing first-hand Philip Schuyler's work as war strategist during the Northern campaign and the Battle of Saratoga, and as GW's most trusted spy-master, negotiator with the Iroquois nations, and liaison with Rochambeau’s French troops. 

So it is not a rehashing of the story we all know so well from Lin-Manuel Miranda's brilliant Hamilton. It is an adjacent and little explored narrative of Hamilton's much loved "little sister" and confidante, a woman who was just as smart and eloquent as the better-known Angelica.

Aide-de-camp James McHenry, for one, wrote to Hamilton of Peggy taking him aback with her keen and insistent interest in talking politics with men. My kind of girl!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with L.M. Elliott.

Q&A with Andrew Larsen

Andrew Larsen is the author of the new children's picture book biography The Man Who Loved Libraries: The Story of Andrew Carnegie. Larsen's other books include See You Next Year and A Squiggly Story. He lives in Toronto.

Q: Why did you decide to write a children’s picture book about Andrew Carnegie?

A: I generally write fictional picture books from the world of my kids or things from my own childhood. I’m always looking to expand what I write about. I knew I wanted to write a picture book biography.

Monica Kulling writes wonderful picture book biographies. She’s fantastic. She talks about it, and I was fascinated to hear about her process.

Around that time I was doing a reading at a local library. I was outside the library and there was a plaque. It was a Carnegie library. I had no idea what Carnegie had done for readers around the world, that he’d funded all these libraries. I thought, that’s really cool!

Every little bit of reading I did said, Yes, keep going! I thought, in the most basic of ways, who’s not going to like a story about libraries, and the fact that this guy who’s so wealthy was gifting these libraries—it was also a gift to me!

I wanted to write a story that tracked on the issue of immigration. I started writing this a year ago, but so much of what the news is portraying of the conversation coming out of Washington made me so sad. Here’s this guy, who is an immigrant, and is giving something back…

Q: You’ve discussed the emphasis on his giving back with libraries—can you say more about how you chose which aspects of his life to focus on in the book?

A: There have been big books, 700-800 page biographies of him. I read those. There have been documentaries made. He had a full life. He did a lot of different things.

I thought, this is a picture book biography, I’m aiming at kids in grades 1, 2, 3, I’m aiming at teachers of kids that age. Less is more. I wanted to focus on that one aspect--he worked hard, and it paid off for him.

I say to kids, we don’t talk about him so much because he was an immigrant, or because he was a bad boss—people say, why don’t you talk about the fact that he’s a robber baron? I didn’t want to cloud the story. In the back matter is a passage about labor strife—there was back-and-forth with my editor about whether to include that.

I wanted it to be about a story of a guy who did well and wanted to give back. There could be other stories written about him. He didn’t just gift libraries, he gifted church organs. I want a kid to think, wow, that library in my city was given by a man I know about, and he was really rich, and what did he do with his money? He gave it away!

Q: What do you see as Andrew Carnegie’s legacy today, and do you see any present-day philanthropists that you think are similar?

A: The giving pledge that Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett started—it’s really important and good, but I wish there were something that caught the imagination of kids…I wish there were something in popular culture…

Q: What about his legacy?

A: Believing in community, his notion that he would give a hand up not a handout, he gave to the community in a way that it continues to live. I will tell kids, people today are really rich, and what do they do with their money—put their name on a hotel or an airplane, and some even think they could be president. He didn’t put his name on any of the buildings.

To me, that’s his legacy. The fact that his money is still doing things now…I was at the ALA conference in Chicago with this book. I hoped librarians would like the book, but what amazed me was the lineup of librarians all of whom had a story about how a Carnegie library was a place they went to in their town growing up, or where they got their first job.

It’s a living legacy. Even in Toronto, there are seven libraries that are hubs of the community. Each was funded by Carnegie. And they’re sprinkled throughout the world.

Q: What do you think Katty Maurey’s illustrations add to the story?

A: They give it a warm life. On the one hand it’s a factual story I tell, cut and dry. The illustrations are really beautiful, and they make the story more human and relatable. They’re evocative of an earlier time. They’re not drawings in a sense, they’re paintings. They give you a feeling that’s very evocative. She’s done a fantastic job with that.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The next work I have coming out—I’m unbelievably excited about it—is The Bagel King. It’s inspired by my father-in-law. He would drop off freshly baked bagels on Sunday mornings…

What I’m working on—I did something in October called the Carnegie Project. I went to each of the Carnegie libraries in Toronto and talked to schoolkids about the building and the man and the idea of giving. I would ask, if you were the richest kid in the world, what would you do with the money?

At the end of the presentation, there would be a Q&A. Kids were trying to outdo each other with their notions of philanthropy, but there were some wonderful, quirky, wacky things about what kids would do if they had all the money in the world. I kept notes trying to organize them into something. It won’t be a story, but I want to work with this. It’s about their hopes and dreams.

One kid, probably in grade 3, with big glasses, well-spoken, it was quite clear he was a smart kid, said he would use three-fourths of the money hunting for dragons, and one-fourth to set up a university to study dragons. I thought, this is just perfect, and why not!

I’m going to try to mold [these ideas] into something—it goes from those kind of ideas to simple ideas. The moral is, the best things, you can’t buy.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: [Your] community often has a story to tell. The story of Carnegie was one I stumbled upon, just being curious about my neighborhood. Our communities, houses, buildings, have amazing stories.

One of the Carnegie libraries I was in, in Toronto, had pictures of the children’s room in the 1920s. Kids were amazed. Most of the kids, their parents were new Canadians. In the 1920s their families were far away—and here the library has pictures of kids their own age, in the same room, reading. It’s something I find very potent. There are lots of stories waiting to be told.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Barbara DiLorenzo

Barbara DiLorenzo is the author and illustrator of the new children's picture book Renato and the Lion. She teaches at the Arts Council of Princeton and she lives in New Jersey.

Q: You write that Renato and the Lion was inspired by your son's reaction to a stone lion on a family trip to Italy. How did that experience turn into this picture book?

A: For years and years I sketched a stone lion coming to life for a little boy. But I had trouble putting their story into a context that made sense. Everything seemed like an adventurous romp–but for what purpose. I even tried to write a novel, but 80 pages in, I realized that didn’t work either.

The plot came together when I learned about World War II Florence, and how the Italian people bricked over their sculptures to protect them from harm. When I had that information, the plot fell into place almost magically. But I had been waiting for a good six years, struggling and sketching, for all that time. 

Q: Can you say more about why you decided to set the book during World War II?

A: A Jewish friend of mine suggested that a World War II story might be difficult to stand out from the collection of quality books already available. She offered that maybe the story take place at a different time, where lions would still be revered, such as ancient Babylon. But I knew the Italian culture and history better, and the specifics of the art preservation.

I wondered if her comment had another meaning–as I’m not Jewish. I thought about whether I had the right to tell the story of a family fleeing from persecution for being Jewish. After extensive research, I made sure that Renato could have been either a Jewish refugee from Italy or another country, or from a Christian family that supported the resistance.

As an ode to my research, and because he was such a fantastic human in saving so many lives, I put a portrait of Gino Bartali in the title page. The renowned cyclist kept training throughout the war, and local police never bothered to check his bicycle as he made his way from town to town.

Inside the shaft, he smuggled fake documents to give to new refugee families in various towns. He quietly worked with a priest and a rabbi, and kept it quiet for most of his life.

But there is a new documentary on his life which is fascinating to watch: My Italian Secret: The Forgotten Heroes (2014).

Q: Did you write the story before doing the illustrations, or did you work on both at the same time?

A: I began with sketches for six years. Then tried to write a novel. Then I went back to sketches for a graphic novel. Then I drew out 50 pages with no words for the Bologna Silent Book Contest in 2014. This dummy is what sold, so we added the words after the fact. My editor, Tracy, is the main force behind the text as it is in the book. 

Q: What do you hope kids take away from the book?

A: I hope that little children that are not yet aware of the specifics of World War II take away a sense that they will be cared for even in tough times. And that those tough times don’t last forever. For the older audience, I hope that the story gives hope that even in dark times, good still can take place. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have another historical fiction mixed with fantasy book in progress about the young Leonardo da Vinci. I learned that he came from a broken home, and the art studio was the first place, under artist Verrocchio, that he felt at home.

I love the idea that the most famous artist persevered from a rough beginning. I just read that his painting of Salvator Mundi broke records and sold for $450.3 million!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: For writers and illustrators young and old, the only answer to getting published: don’t stop. Don’t stop writing, drawing, thinking, being inspired. There will be down days. Rejection takes the wind out of all our sails. But don’t stop. With time, my firm belief is that we are all able to find our voice. Just don’t stop. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 22

Nov. 22, 1819: George Eliot born.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Q&A with Miranda Paul

Miranda Paul is the author of the new children's picture book Are We Pears Yet?. Her other books include One Plastic Bag and Water Is Water. She lives in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Are We Pears Yet?, and did you need to do any research to write this book?

A: I wrote Are We Pears Yet? several years ago. My husband and I were prepping our children for an upcoming 2,000-mile road trip. One day, while waiting to pick up my daughter, my son kept expressing his impatience. Why did we have to wait SO VERY LONG for her to come out? (We were only in the car for 10-15 minutes, by the way). I worried we’d never make it through a 15-day trip.

So I injected humor into the situation. I said, “Are we there yet?” wouldn’t be allowed on our trip. Then I began brainstorming acceptable alternatives. “Are we bears yet? Are we chairs yet? Are we pears yet?” I suggested. He giggled.

I realized there might be a book idea in that last one, and began making up a story on the drive home. Once I’d written the book and revised it, I’m happy to say my agent and editor loved it immediately.

My editor Neal Porter even wrote, “Soooo....Having just told an author that among the inanimate objects that should never talk are fruits and vegetable, I'm ready to break my rule.” It’s fun to break rules.

Although that all sounds so rosy, I did do a fair amount of research (thanks for asking!). I had to learn how long it would take a pear seed to grow into a tree, for starters. Since most pears these days are grafted, I included that in the author’s note along with facts about pears in the back matter.

Since illustrations proved a special challenge for this kind of book, the text did change from the original submission. I have a newfound appreciation for pears of all kinds now!

Q: Who do you see as the perfect audience for this book, and what do you hope kids take away from the story?

A: The “pear”fect audience? Kids who love theatre or acting, or humorous picture books. It’s also useful for teachers in grades K-3 who teach about plant growth and life cycles.

In addition to the science connections, there are the underlying themes of patience and tolerance. The two pear seeds are not alike, but must learn to get along and they eventually become a pair of friends. I like my books to be well-rounded. (Ha! “Pair” of friends! Well-rounded!)

Q: What do you think Carin Berger's illustrations added to the book?

A: Carin Berger is incredible. An artist in the true sense of having a vision and executing it with style. This book wouldn’t be set on a literal stage without her vision and diligence. Imagine cutting out dozens of tiny little shoes and buttons, etc. All of the art in Are We Pears Yet? is three-dimensional and the shadow boxes were staged, lit, and photographed.

I know humorous books (especially with an educational tie-in) aren’t always looked at for awards, but I hope that people will look at the art and realize what a production it is. What an extraordinary model for children to study!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My husband, Baptiste Paul, and I recently completed a book that includes 14 extraordinary stories of children around the world who have a very interesting journey to get to school. It's called Adventures to School, and it's scheduled to come out May 1, 2018. 

I just saw final art from Paige Kaiser for a book called Mia Moves Out. It’s about a girl who outgrows a shared room with her little brother. It will be published in Fall 2018 from Knopf Children’s at Penguin Random House. And it’s just adorable and sweet!

I’m also in final stages for two 2019 nonfiction books—one called I Am Farmer, co-written with Baptiste Paul and illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon (Lerner), and a book called Nine Months with Jason Chin (Neal Porter Books).

Now that I put it all out there, it seems like a lot of projects! But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love making books for children, and it keeps me focused in a world full of unhealthy distraction.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Yes! First of all, thank you to anyone who reads or shares my books, or gives me feedback on how they are used in the classroom. I am grateful for all the support and encouragement as well as all forms of feedback.

I’d also like to let educators know that there are many resources for librarians, teachers, and homeschooling parents on my website. From science and social studies activities to new vocabulary quizlets, there are dozens of ways for students in PreK-grade 5 to interact with my books. Those resources are online at

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Miranda Paul.