Friday, October 31, 2014

Q&A with author Jamie Malanowski

Jamie Malanowski is the author of the new biography Commander Will Cushing: Daredevil Hero of the Civil War. His other books include And the War Came, The Coup, and The Book of Levon. He has written for a variety of publications, including Spy, Time, Playboy, and The New York Times, where he was lead writer for the Civil War Disunion series.

Q: Why did you decide to write about William Barker Cushing, and how did he come to be, as you say in your book, “all but unknown today”?

A: I have known about Will Cushing literally since I was eight years old. On January 6, 1961, Life magazine published the first of six issues dedicated to the centennial of the Civil War.

C.E. Monroe
The editors commissioned 10 artists to illustrate scenes from the war. In addition to creating the cover, an astonishing painting of the cavalry charge at Brandy Station in 1863, the artist C.E. Monroe painted “The Sinking of the Albemarle,” which showed Cushing--the daring 21-year-old naval lieutenant--in the midst of his great David vs. Goliath victory over the fearsome Confederate ironclad.

The painting stretched across two pages, and I was captivated. I'm delighted that Buck Monroe, the painter's son, allowed me to use the image on the cover of my book. 

In the ensuing years, I read Lincoln's Commando, Roske and Van Doren's 1957 biography of Cushing, which showed that there was more to Cushing than one magnificent triumph.

A few years ago, casting about for my next project, I proposed a new biography of Cushing. A half century had passed since Lincoln's Commando; if nothing else, I knew I could tell Will's story in a less stilted, less formal vernacular than Roske and Van Doren used.

I also knew that their book was written at a time when the average reader was less aware of psychological issues than the average viewer of Law & Order is today. I knew I could add that element. Fortunately, Tom Mayer at W.W. Norton agreed.

How is it that Will is all but unknown today? I suppose there are a lot of reasons. America's interest in history is tiny. America's interest in military heroes who held a rank below general or admiral is also tiny.

It didn't help Will's cause that (spoiler alert!) he died so young, at the age of 32; he belonged to one generation, and when that generation died, the memory of his deeds died with them.

It is also true that the North invested rather little in lionizing its heroes. It's not that the North disrespected them, but on the whole, once the war ended, it was back to business, and part of that business was reincorporating the seceded states.

In the South, however, where most of the war was fought, and where most of the destruction took place, and where most of the physical and psychological damage lingered, there was a huge investment in mythologizing the rebels and justifying their cause.

Every year in Plymouth, N.C., the folks mark the April day when the CSS Albemarle came down river and helped “liberate” the town from Yankee occupation; they do not ordinarily celebrate the day in October when a gallant U.S. Navy captain sank the rebel ironclad. This year, however, Plymouth is making a big deal of the 150th anniversary of the event. 

Q: You write that Cushing was “in a great many respects more a hero fit for our times than he was for his.” Why is that?

A: Until the 1950s or so, Americans preferred their heroes served plain--unalloyed great men and a few great women doing indisputably great things.

There were occasional scandals and more than occasional efforts to tar famous people, particularly prominent politicians, and once in a while, we admitted that maybe something we thought was great wasn’t necessarily all that good.

On the whole, however, we liked the way Parson Weems depicted Washington as the silver dollar-chuckin' lad incapable of lying who became the Father of his Country. 

In more recent decades, we have grown accustomed to the idea that a person's greatness usually lives cheek-by-jowl with his or her failings; that sometimes the source of the greatness and the source of the failing is the same thing; that sometimes it takes an insane person to get something done; that conquering the West was a mighty accomplishment, as long as you weren't an Indian or a buffalo.

During this time, we have learned that Nixon, Kennedy and so many other of our great men had monumental failings, and in a not unrelated development, we have also grown to love the antihero: from Bogart in Casablanca, James Dean, Easy Rider, all the way up to Tony Soprano and Walter White, we have seen that darkness can be more intriguing and more revelatory that constant sweetness and light.

Even the most straight up heroes--James Bond, Bruce Willis's John McLane in the Die Hard movies--are sarcastic rule-breakers. Will Cushing was as complicated as any of them: rebellious, iconoclastic, vain, immature, headstrong, and impulsive, but also brave, bold, decisive, and quite brilliant at his business.

Q: How did you research this book, and what surprised you most in the course of your research?

A: I read extensively; I visited key locations; and I tried to make use of original documents wherever possible. When I began, I did not expect to turn up very much original material about Will, but much to my delight, I did uncover a little, and it was choice.

None of Cushing's previous biographers could make much sense of Cushing's rather mystifying dismissal from the Naval Academy mere weeks from graduation. The official explanation was that he had failed his Spanish midterm in January of his senior year.

Ousting a nearly fully trained officer on such a slender pretext even as war clouds gathered always struck Will's biographers as so unreasonable as to be unbelievable, and they pointed fingers at likely suspects responsible for his dismissal.

I'm happy to say that my researcher Katelyn Fossett and I managed to find several letters and documents scattered in four separate official repositories that no biographer had ever used before.

Not only do these letters effectively exonerate previous suspects, but show that the second-ranking officer in the academy's administration really thought Cushing was a jerk—“a talent for buffoonery,'' as he wrote--and should never become a naval officer. He engineered Will's ouster.

Q: You’ve written nonfiction, fiction, plays, screenplays, and magazine and newspaper articles. Do you prefer one type of writing to the others?

A: The longer projects tend to be more absorbing. Creating the narrative structure for a longer piece is also a puzzle, and rising to that challenge offers a satisfaction that shorter pieces cannot. But I like writing short pieces, too.

One of the first problems a writer has to deal with is knowing what his/her piece needs to be. A lot of bad writing results from misjudging this key question. Sometimes you won't be able to tell the story in anything less than 300 pages, and sometimes 100 well-chosen words will be perfect in every respect.

Writing a witty, erudite 250-word intro to a photo essay is infinitely more satisfying than cranking out 5,000 words on a topic that nobody cares about.

Q: Are you working on another book now?

A: I am working on another book proposal, which is a whole 'nother breed of cat. I am also writing the book of a musical based on Henry Bushkin's recent memoir of his 18 years working for Johnny Carson.  Now that's a fun project about a complicated man!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Tell your readers that they should keep reading books, and that they should be proud that they read books.

The next time somebody starts talking about the fab new video game they've been playing, look at them like they have three heads, and start talking about a book.

When somebody starts extolling the latest cool episode of some TV series they've been watching, nod pleasantly and start talking about the latest cool chapter of some book you've been reading.

You can enjoy other activities, but do not waver. Read books. Discuss books. Champion books. Become an elitist bore. The future of the civilization depends on it.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 31

Oct. 31, 1795: Poet John Keats born.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Q&A with author Susan Jane Gilman

Susan Jane Gilman is the author most recently of the novel The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street. She also has written Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, Kiss My Tiara, and Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven. She lives in New York.

Q: How did you create your main character in The Ice Cream Queen, Lillian Dunkle?

A: There was an abstract impulse married to a very specific voice. The abstract impulse was that I wanted to write about a deliciously complicated female antihero. There weren’t many since Scarlett O’Hara…

Then I got the idea for the ice cream story, [and I thought] what if I had a difficult, unlikable, but compelling woman? I had the idea that she would be a Russian Jewish immigrant, and I heard her voice.

Q: Why ice cream?

A: I love ice cream! [I should start] the Susan Jane Gilman Institute for Advanced Gelato Studies! Tom Carvel [of Carvel Ice Cream] did his own commercials. I tried to explain them to my husband, and I Googled the old ads.

It turns out his name was Tom Carvelas; he had been a Greek [immigrant], and it was a rags-to-riches story. I thought, That’s kind of interesting! Ice cream was a natural fit.

Q: Lillian is involved in most of 20th century American history. How did you research this book and figure out which events she’d be a part of?

A: I paid several visits to the New York Historical Society. I walked around the Lower East Side. My paternal grandmother lived on the corner of Orchard Street, so I had my dad tell me about it. I went to the New York Tenement Museum. Then I just read.

When I started, I knew there had been an issue with ice cream and polio. That was it. Then the more I read about history and ice cream, it just gelled. Prohibition and ice cream. World War II.

Just the rags-to-riches story [that Lillian is a woman, is disabled, and is Jewish-Italian], that alone presents obstacles. But she’s completely tied up in American history. It got even more interesting.

Q: Did you know how the book would end when you started writing, or did it change a lot as you worked on it?

A: I knew I wanted to do her rise and spectacular fall. Like Leona Helmsley or Martha Stewart. They were reviled; there was not the [same] hatred toward Ivan Boesky or Donald Trump as there was to Martha Stewart…The actual ending came to me as I was writing.

Q: How did the writing process compare between this novel and your previous nonfiction books?

A: It was harder by the power of ten, easily! But it was also more fun. Writing nonfiction, you know how the story will end, the question is what do you tell? What do you show? How do you show it? What do you leave out? Each book gets exponentially harder.

With fiction, all bets are off. There’s a range of possibilities in how [the story] could go. A couple of times, I wrote 60-70 pages and cut it all. The first draft was vastly different from the second and third.

It’s a process of decision-making. Who are the characters, how do you make them come alive. Pacing. Timing. My husband would come home and say would you like spinach or mushroom ravioli, and I’d say, I can’t decide!

Q: You said each book was exponentially harder. Why is that?

A: Because I’m an idiot and a masochist! I could have written Kiss My Tiara 2. But that doesn’t interest me. It would probably be commercially viable, but it’s not why I wanted to write. With each book, I want to do something new.

Q: Which writers have inspired you?

A: Probably every single person I read. That sounds like a cop-out. When I was little I was influenced by the books I read and by the books my mother read to me.

When I was 7 or 8, I was reading Judy Blume, Little House on the Prairie, All-of-a-Kind Family. My mom was reading me J.D. Salinger, Charles Dickens, Katherine Mansfield. I was falling in love with telling stories, with the young adult novels [I was reading] but also with literature, language, poetry.

As a teenager, probably the people most [responsible] for making me write were John Cheever, John Steinbeck, and John Updike, the three Johns. Dorothy Parker. Truman Capote. Those people seemed obvious; I heard them talked about.

Even a crappy writer [can show me what to] try to avoid!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on selling the Ice Cream Queen. I’m on the second leg of a book tour, thanks to the Jewish Book Council Network. I still haven’t gotten the book out of my system. I’m published by Hachette, which is embargoed by Amazon, so I feel anything I can do to get the book into the hands of readers, I will do….I have to completely get the book out of my system, and then I will get inspired.

Q: Anything else we should know about the book?

A: That it’s 500 pages and it reads quickly….It’s a fantastic read—that’s what every writer wants people to know! It’s dedicated to two people close to me, both of whom have died….

I want people to be moved by it, to learn things, to feel less alone, and to be comforted and inspired.

Writers work alone, so if you read the book and like it, contact me, e-mail me! I like to Skype, and I love meeting with book clubs. It’s a lonely profession. Readers are often afraid to approach writers because they’re feeling that we’re iconic. No!

If [readers] know of any great ice cream in their areas, let me know!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Susan Jane Gilman will be participating in the Lessans Family Annual Book Festival at the JCC of Greater Washington, which runs from November 6-16, 2014.

Q&A with author Judy Chicurel

Judy Chicurel, photo by Marcia Klugman
Judy Chicurel is the author of the new collection If I Knew You Were Going To Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go. Her plays have been performed in New York City theaters and festivals, and her writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and Granta. She lives in Brooklyn.
Q: Why did you decide to set your book in the summer of 1972?

A: This is a book I always wanted to write and many of my beach memories began during the 1970s: Long Beach, where I grew up; Martha’s Vineyard, where I lived on and off for five years; Marblehead, off the North Shore of Boston.

I had initially set the collection in the mid-1970s but the story “For Catholic Girls Who Are Going to Hell When the Guilt is Not Enough,” is about an illicit abortion and Roe v. Wade happened in 1973.

Even though abortion was legal in New York before then, this was a very parochial community where there wasn’t a lot of knowledge, access or money around so things were still fairly underground for a lot of women who didn’t know their options and didn’t want to have to exercise them unless they felt forced to by circumstances.

Q: Elephant Beach is almost like another character in the book. You've said previously that it’s based on a series of beach towns, but how exactly did you decide on which details to include?

A: It’s interesting you should ask this because I was just thinking that writing these stories taught me something about myself: Though my writing is very character-driven, it’s really the setting, the sense of place that drives my work from the very beginning.

The setting for If I Knew... is primarily Long Beach, Long Island, where I grew up, with bits and pieces of other seaside settings thrown in, all those honky tonk, down-at-the heels, oceanfront hamlets left to seed during the 1970s until federal funds revived decaying wharves and waterfronts along the East Coast and turned them into tourist attractions.

The Starlight Hotel, for example, where much of the action in If I Knew… takes place, is a combination of the old Arizona bar and neighboring Americana Hotel (now a parking lot and condo, respectively) and the former Seaview Hotel in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard, which I believe has also been converted to condos.

The beach is, of course, omnipresent throughout the book; you can hear the ocean even when you can’t see it. And all beach towns share certain characteristics; I can remember walking along beaches and boardwalks in Long Beach, Martha’s Vineyard, Falmouth, Salem, Marblehead, watching that rim of gold sinking into the ocean along the horizon, thinking, “I want to write about this,” without knowing exactly what “this” was going to be, or that the motivation would come from the more memorable physical spaces of my past.

Q: How was the book’s title selected?

A: You know, it just came to me one day as the title of the last story in the collection, which I wrote ahead of most of the rest of the book. And then I fell in love with it and wanted it for the title. I was afraid it would be too long, but so far, aside from a few grumblings on Goodreads, it’s been very well-received.

Q: Your book is described as linked stories and as a novel. How do you see it?

A: I definitely see it as linked stories. I always loved the idea of stories of lives that overlap and co-exist within a contextual setting so that you get that sense of community and connection around larger themes that bind everyone together, even though they may not realize it. I hope that’s what’s been accomplished with If I Knew.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a two-book deal with Penguin and am working on the second book now. I’m actually writing two books and trying to determine which is coming out ahead; I did the same thing with If I Knew… and was sending my agent story chapters and she said one day, “I think this is your book.” And it was. I find it an effective way to write so that if you’re stuck at a point in one book, you can move on to the other.

I’ve been trying to write one of these novels for a while, where the story shifts between the New York City of today and that of the 1980s, centering around an East Village bar and the people who worked there.

The other is about a group of women of varying ages who live in a small town in upstate New York, whose lives become intertwined on several levels and through a series of circumstances. So we’ll see which comes out first. I’ll have to decide fairly soon.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just that I’m pretty thrilled about this. I’m a more mature author, shall we say, and have been writing in one form or another for a while, so it’s wonderful to have this particular dream realized. My editor sent me a copy of the hardcover book, which arrived yesterday, and I opened it and started crying.

I had a teacher in college who said that when you write a book and it gets published and you hold it in your hands for the first time, nothing quite compares to that feeling. She was right.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 30

Oct. 30, 1871: Poet Paul Valery born.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Q&A with children's author Ann Wyckoff Carlos

Ann Wyckoff Carlos is the author of the bilingual children's books Emily, The Baby Sea Turtle and Anny the Sea Turtle. She is the education coordinator for the nonprofit group AMA Mexico, which works to preserve sea turtles. Previously, she was CEO of the group Direct Relief International. She lives in California and in Mexico. 

Q: How did you end up writing these children’s books about sea turtles?

A: I never intended to publish them. We were using them as part of the curriculum for educational programs in Mexico. There are lots of people who work with us, and do turtle talks on the beach, and they came up with the idea of publishing books. I have never done any author or book workshops.

The first book, Anny, has been used in classrooms in Mexico for four years, as an animation. It’s done by university students from Mexico. They work as a team with our environmental educator…

The end of the Anny book shows her going back to the ocean. Our interns ask the children, Would you like to meet her children? They say, Yes, of course! They all pile into buses and come down to the beach to the liberation of the baby sea turtles.

Emily is one of Anny’s babies. [Her story] will be used starting this year.

Q: What’s the age of the children you work with?

A: The books are children’s books, so we start with preschool. They seem well received through sixth grade. [Husband] Manuel [Carlos], who’s an anthropologist, started doing workshops with high school students and university students to teach them to develop environmental workshops.

The young people participate. We have high-schoolers developing extra materials around the books and other facts to do with turtles. The children come early to the beach, and play games with the high school students, and the university students teach in the classroom.

Q: How did you first get interested in sea turtles?

A: It was a little bit serendipitous. My family was always interested in environmental issues in California. My grandfather would trek with John Muir. Our family has always been on the coast, Monterey Bay, for seven generations now. We are land-and-sea oriented.

When Manuel and I retired, he said, Let’s go to Mexico. We found a place on a pristine beach, and we discovered that there were sea turtles [there].

Six months into our stay, a hurricane hit the Pacific Coast and wiped out the sea turtle preserve, which was very small. The little staff at the reserve left, thinking the nests had been wiped out to sea.

We were there, and I went out, and there were thousands of babies. They would [normally] have been picked up by biologists. I didn’t have much experience with sea turtles at that point. I worked to try to save them from birds. A local biologist helped. I got involved that way.

We reconstructed a small preserve—we started in 2002. Now there are 10,000 nests a year. We established a nonprofit; the government said it wasn’t coming back. Now we have 60 volunteers and university and high school students.

The beach is no longer pristine. If you look at the drawings in Anny, you’ll see buildings. The beach was targeted by the Mexican government six years ago to be a condo resort beach.

We were able to help with some of the enforcement of setbacks so the nesting habitats were preserved. It went from 500 to 10,000 nests--the sea turtles are not intimidated!

The existing science for sea turtles says they are very put off by lights, and we have a blaze of light. In Mexico, everybody does what they want.

That’s why I like the personality of the two little turtles [in the books]. I’m not sure they think! They come up, and lights are blazing, and there they are, laying their eggs!

The babies are sometimes distracted by the lights, but it’s the call of the sea [that they focus on], and they head in the right direction. It’s mysterious.

Q: How did you work together with illustrator Lynn Clapham Holstead to create your books?

A: I’m also an artist; I do murals on the beach in Mexico, but I’m not a known artist, I just paint little sea turtle pictures!

One morning I was painting a mural, and a young woman asked, Could I help? I said yes. She said, I’m Lyn Clapham, and I love to do murals, and I’ve done several at the [California State University Monterey Bay] campus. I said, my husband was a founding faculty member there, and she said, I took classes from him!

I said I’m working on a little book to present to classes, and would you consider being a book illustrator? She said, That’s my dream; I would love to. It was born out of serendipity….

Q: How do you work on the English and Spanish text of the bilingual books?

A: In the first book, the Anny book, Lupita [Guadalupe Cervantes Camacho] and I were in close contact during the writing of the book. I’m bilingual, and that worked fine….she’s not a speaker of English.

She’s part of the preschool planning group for the municipality, which is a pretty big group—60 preschools and elementary schools in the jurisdiction. She was responsible for the curricular development and had a lot of experience with that. Watching how she worked with the idea of making Annie a little person made me think that was the way to go.

The second book, I wrote myself. Then our environmental director, Sandra Hernandez, did the translation. She is the driving force in the classroom for the program itself, and I wanted her to participate in the book.

Q: Will you be writing more books?

A: I have a little granddaughter, Anabel. who has grown up with the sea turtles. She’s 12. She wrote a play, The Jelly and the Bag. Plastic is a deadly thing that they consume. Anabel wrote this play, about a jellyfish who sees a bag floating in the ocean and tells it to leave.

I talked to her about expanding on that theme. We may have that as the third book. There’s also the idea of [writing about] predators of sea turtles. Raccoons—they eat baby sea turtles. That’s why we have to pick up every nest from the beach. I see this as an ongoing effort.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: We really do want the students we’re working with to become stewards of the wildlife of the ocean. It’s one way of articulating the human value of protecting the planet.

All our volunteers understand that. Each one of us does one small thing, and if we do that, we all contribute. Turtles happen to be the way that we offer.

With the books, my purpose is to make students have affection for sea turtles and understand their plight, and that’s how, hopefully, we get to their parents, uncles, cousins—many are people who poach sea turtle eggs, [which is] quite profitable.

We are working against the tide, but [to focus on] affection for the turtles, it’s very useful to use the little books.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with author Jesse Schenker

Jesse Schenker is the author of the memoir All or Nothing: One Chef's Appetite for the Extreme, which details his career as a chef as well as his recovery from drug addiction. He is executive chef and owner of The Gander and Recette, both in New York City, where he lives.

Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir, and how hard was it to write about the more difficult parts of your addiction? 

A: About two years ago, I began taping my history with no intention of writing a book or turning it into anything or selling it. It was very cathartic. I realized I needed to give back (one of the staple beliefs of AA) and show people that hard work and dedication can make a difference. If you're suffering from addiction, there's hope. You don't have to go to the deep, dark places that I did.

Q: In the book, you write, "I may have been clean, but my addictive behavior never went away." How did that addictive behavior show up in your successful career as a chef, and how do you manage it?

A: The same intensity that got me up every morning to do drugs, I put that into cooking. It's all or nothing for me.

Q: You write that "my time on the streets and in jail prepared me well for the crazy process of opening a restaurant in New York City." How did it help you?

A: Rather than evading reality, I focus on mindfulness, my two restaurants and time with my family. Being in the kitchen has been and always will be this kind of natural Xanax for me and it's been my saving grace. 

Q: You give your parents a lot of credit for your recovery, stating, "I was in awe of the way they cut me off at the knees right when I needed it." How did that moment change the trajectory of your life?

A: Changing my life wasn't easy - it's definitely a dark story but it has very much a light at the end of the tunnel. 

Q: Are you thinking of writing another book?

A: Yes, a cookbook.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb