Friday, July 25, 2014

Q&A with author Rebecca Rotert

Rebecca Rotert is the author of the new novel Last Night at the Blue Angel. She is a singer and songwriter, and a teacher with the Nebraska Writers Collective. She lives in Omaha, Nebraska.

Q: Why do you tell the story in Last Night at the Blue Angel from the perspectives of both Naomi, a singer, and Sophia, her daughter?

A: Sophia is the central character and we first come to know Naomi solely from her point of view. In thinking about how children never really know their parents, I wanted Naomi to “talk,” I wanted the reader to see how Naomi was “constructed” emotionally, and to see the early seeds of her compulsions.

Q: What kind of research did you do to recreate Chicago in the 1950s and ‘60s?

A: I spent a lot of time in Chicago, particularly in its research libraries. I read a lot, looked at a lot of photographs, talked to a lot of people. I learned far more than I was able to employ in the book. Research is beautiful. I found whole elements of the story accidentally, during research.  

Q: You also are a singer and songwriter. What was it like to write about a character who’s a singer, and how did your own musical career affect the writing?

A: Well, I had the vocabulary of that world at hand, though my experience is very different from Naomi’s. There are certain aspects of performers’ lives that are universal, of artists altogether – that hungry return to the work no matter what it costs or how poorly it is going…I think writing music informs writing prose in terms of rhythm and pattern and certainly a deep love for music has informed my work across the board.

Q: Which authors have influenced you?

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The next book. It will be a continuation of the first. A darker continuation, hahaha.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Oh, just grateful to you for your interest.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with poet and writer John Skoyles

John Skoyles is the author of the new autobiographical novel A  Moveable Famine. His other work includes the memoir Secret Frequencies, the essay collection Generous Strangers, and four books of poetry: A Little Faith, Permanent Change, Definition of the Soul, and The Situation. He teaches at Emerson College, and is the poetry editor of Ploughshares magazine. He is based in Massachusetts.

Q: You call your book “an autobiographical novel.” What did you see as the right mixture of fiction and autobiography as you were writing the book?

A: I started to write a memoir, a successor to Secret Frequencies, but once into it, I realized this was a different kind of book, one with opportunities for invention. I saw that I could better depict the experience I wanted to portray by collapsing scenes and creating composites. I distilled the virtues and vices of several people into single figures.

Q: How was A Moveable Famine selected as the book’s title, and how would you compare your book to Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast

A: I took the title as a play on Hemingway’s celebrated book but, actually, my “famine” was very rich in many ways.

There’s not much similarity between the two books except for the title, although in his preface, Hemingway says, “If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction.” 

Hemingway’s book focuses on Paris, while mine lights on various places: Queens, Iowa City, Dallas, Saratoga Springs, Bronxville and Provincetown. 

Further, I intended my book to be comic and so I’m pleased that readers and reviewers have seen it that way. Booklist wrote, “It’s hard to believe a funnier novel will be published this year.” Hemingway was not after that effect.

Q: You write, “We were hell-bent to become poets.” What drew you to poetry?

A: That line is a satirical statement about overly ambitious poets who were poets, but who put a lot of energy into becoming known as poets.  They strove for fame in ways both minor and major.

What drew me to poetry was probably the inability to express myself through other means. When I discovered poetry as a child, and heard the voice of the speaker on the page, it felt different from anything else, and I talked back to it in kind.

Q: In addition to your poetry and this autobiographical novel, you’ve also written a book of personal essays and a memoir. How is your poetry affected by your other writing, and vice versa?

A: They are very separate, although one gave rise to the other—I began writing prose when I found the lines of my poems were growing longer and longer. And the poems began telling stories in narratives I could not control; I felt they were more suited for prose. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have finished another book, The Nut File, which has a strange history. When I worked at the Associated Press in New York City as a graduate student, I typed feature articles, answered mail, and filed documents. One day I found in a cabinet a fat manila folder labeled “Nut File.” 

It was a collection of bizarre memos, crazy letters, and odd articles that the reporters gathered together for their own amusement. On a slow news day, one of the writers would pull out the file and read from it aloud, sending the office into laughter.

I began a similar file of my own. With the additional of short fictional pieces in the same vein, the manuscript is that collection. They range from the absurd to the grave, from the ambiguous to the bombastic, from the ironic to the tragi-comic. Hopefully, each is amusing in itself, and the completed manuscript is larger than the sum of its parts.

I am also working on new poems and preparing the Spring 2015 issue of Ploughshares, which will be guest edited by Neil Astley, the publisher of England’s Bloodaxe Books. It will be the first transatlantic, all poetry issue in the magazine’s 43-year history.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I collect fountain pens, mostly those from Italy (Stipula, Omas, Visconti) and Japan (Platinum, Sailor, Namiki).  For a time I wrote a column called “Pen and Ink” for the Jetpens website. I also hold a license to carry should it turn out that, in the end, the pen is not mightier than the sword.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 25

July 25, 1896: Writer Josephine Tey born.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Q&A with author Sam Kean

Sam Kean is the author of the new book The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons. He also has written The Disappearing Spoon and The Violinist's Thumb. He has written for a variety of publications, including The New York Times Magazine and New Scientist, and he is based in Washington, D.C.

Q: In the book's introduction, you discuss your experiences with sleep paralysis. What did you learn about the brain from these episodes?

A: All sorts of things. I learned how the brain produces dreams and how it temporarily paralyzes our body during them, so that we don't take swings at werewolves or whatever.

But mostly I learned about the interactions between different levels of the brain. Sleep is controlled by pretty low-level brain functions, sometimes called the reptilian brain, while dreams of course tap into our higher brains and memories and language system. Sleep paralysis really involves a malfunction in the communication between those parts.

It also showed me how a small disorder like this could lead to pretty profound insights into how the brain works and is put together, which is how neuroscience progressed for centuries.

Q: How was "The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons" chosen as the book's title, and what was significant about that particular case?

A: The story involves a macho king of France named Henri II who suffered a massive concussion during a jousting match in the 1550s.

I chose it as the title story for a few reasons. First, we usually don't think about people doing neurosurgery in the 1500s, but they were! So it shows the genesis of the field, and how we can trace neuroscience from practically medieval times straight to today.

Second, it shows that we're still learning the same hard lessons today. Because Henri didn't have a skull fracture, he assumed he was fine, as did his doctors - they couldn't conceive of the idea that the brain might be compromised without skull damage.

We might laugh today, but football players do the exact same thing - going right back out on the field despite taking awful blows to the head. This shows that all the tales in the book aren't just entertaining stories, but they really do have something to tell us today.

Q: What are some of the greatest misperceptions about the human brain?

A: One big one is that we have one "spot" that controls each faculty – a language spot, a memory spot, a math spot, etc. That's totally wrong - for any complicated system, many parts of the brain work together.

That also relates to another fallacy, the myth that we use only 10 percent of our brain. (I thought we'd killed that idea, but I see it's back now with that movie!)

Finally, one huge misconception is that we'll explain away all the mystery of human beings or kill the joy of being human if we keep studying the brain.

First, we're not even close to understanding the brain, so people don't need to worry that we're going to run out of mysteries to solve. Second, even if we did solve them, I don't see how that would lessen the joys of being alive. I mean, we have a pretty good idea why cheesecake tastes good - and it doesn't taste any less good for all the science that went into figuring that out. Knowledge and experience are different things.

Q: What surprised you most in the course of your research?

A: The breadth of things that can go wrong. I'm sure we've all heard about people being paralyzed on half their bodies or losing memory or the ability to speak, but there are thousands of other disorders as well, some of them startlingly specific.

Some people lost all fear of death or became pathological liars. Parents suddenly couldn't recognize their own children. Some people lost the ability to recognize any animals (even though they could still tell plants and faces and other things apart.) Some people lost the ability to speak but could still sing song lyrics or swear at you. And on and on.

In every article I read I found something new and amazing. You really don't think about all the subtle things that go into thinking until you see all that can go wrong!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm working on a few magazine articles at the moment, but my editor and I are batting around ideas for a new book. We haven't nailed down the topic yet, but it looks like I'll be returning to chemistry for this one. Stay tuned...

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For an earlier interview with Sam Kean, please click here.

July 24

July 24, 1900: Writer Zelda Fitzgerald born.