Saturday, December 20, 2014

Q&A with Heather Mann

Heather Mann is the author of the new book Craft Fail: When Homemade Goes Horribly Wrong. She is the founder of the websites and, and co-founder of the social media consulting company The Blueprint Social. She lives in Salem, Oregon.

Q: Why did you decide to create the CraftFail blog and book?

A: After a string of unsuccessful craft projects, I thought it would be fun to start a blog where I could post them, even though they were fails. The idea took off, and after several years, I was able to develop it into a book.
Q: You write, “We learn a heck of a lot more by failing than we ever will by succeeding on the first try.” What are some of your own favorite craft fails?

A: Some of my most memorable fails are soapmaking fails. Because of the way soapmaking works, you never exactly know what your batch is going to turn out looking like. Some of my first batches ended up looking a lot like food! I had soap that looked like Spam, some that looked like Cheddar Cheese, and a rebatch that looked like refried beans.

Q: How did you choose the examples to include in the book?

A: My husband programmed a private website for me where I uploaded all my fails, and then went through them and ranked them according to how funny they were and how great the photos were. That helped me narrow it down! The hardest part was cutting a few projects at the end of the editing process.

Q: Now that it’s the holiday season, what advice would you offer hopeful holiday crafters?

A: Keep your expectations realistic and if possible, do a practice run before you make the final gift-able craft.

Q: Are you planning to write another book?

A: I would love to write a book for my other site,

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Both the CraftFail site and the book are "friendly fail" publications - we only feature projects that were called fails by their creators. We never go looking for crafts to make fun of.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 20

Dec. 20, 1904: Evgenia Ginzburg born.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Q&A with Tania Malik

Tania Malik, photo by Tina Steadman
Tania Malik is the author of the new novel Three Bargains. Born in New Delhi, she grew up in India, Africa, and the Middle East, and now lives in Northern California.

Q: How did you come up with your characters Madan and Avtaar Singh?

A: The idea for Three Bargains came to me 10 years before I sat down to write it. While my story percolated over those years, I realized that there were several stories written about children searching for their birth parents, or mothers searching for their children, but I had yet to come across a story where a father searches for his lost child.

When I began to write the story I felt I had to know who this man is, this father, to know who he is as a young boy, to follow the events in his life as he grows and matures, and to discover the circumstances under which he loses his child. This is how I came to create Madan, whom we meet when he is 12 years old when he arrives in the fictional town of Gorapur, where his father works for Avtaar Singh, the most powerful man in town.

To give Madan the hope and the possibility of a future, he needed what any child needs – someone to acknowledge that he matters, and to show him how to successfully navigate through life. Avtaar Singh instantly recognizes Madan’s intelligence and a connection grows between them that is as close as father and son. Avtaar Singh arranges an education for Madan, providing him a way out of his impoverished background while at the same time bestowing on Madan his questionable moral code.

Q: Can you discuss more about the impact of the story's taking place over several decades?

A: To allow for all the events in Madan’s life to unfold in a way that would do justice to his journey from boy to man, I felt that the story would have to encompass most of Madan’s life. I wanted the reader to understand Madan as a child, to experience intimately the world he comes from, and what he makes of himself in spite of the hand he is dealt.

The story begins in 1980s India, and Madan grows and changes as India grows and changes. This is a reflection of my own life. I grew up in the ‘80s, in socialist India. As an adult I lived in modern India. It was unsettling and wonderful at the same time to watch how things have changed yet remained the same in many ways.

Q: Can you say more about the father-son theme that plays such a big role in the novel?

A: There are a number of father-figures in the novel, from Avtaar Singh to Madan himself. The father-child relationship can be just as complex as those with our mothers.

I was thinking of my father when I came up with the idea of the novel. My father was a man who would go to any lengths for his children – and I did want to bring that into Madan’s quest when he realizes what holds true value to him.

I also thought a lot about what it would mean not to have a father like the one I have. How different my life would be. A father’s relationship to the family unit always seems more tenuous than a mother’s, and I wanted to explore the many ways this could play out.

Q: Did you know how the story would end before you began writing, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: There were only a few things I knew before I began: the way Madan would have his illegitimate child, and the clash of class and culture that would eventually tear him away from the people he loves most. I also had an idea of why he would feel the need to return to look for his lost child. The rest came about organically as I worked on the novel.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A couple of ideas are taking shape in my mind and I hope to be working on something new soon.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Check out for a short video on Three Bargains. Many pictures in the video are from the places that inspired the town of Gorapur. Also you can follow me on Facebook and Instagram as well as on Pinterest where I pin pictures and information on India.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 19

Dec. 19, 1875: Carter G. Woodson born.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Q&A with Michael Pitre

Michael Pitre is the author of the new novel Fives and Twenty-fives, which focuses on the Iraq War and its impact. The title refers to safety precautions a Marine convoy takes when stopping to investigate a possible roadside bomb. Pitre, an Iraq War veteran, lives in New Orleans.

Q: How did you come up with your three main characters, and why did you decide to tell the story from their alternating points of view? 

A: The novel began as a collection of short stories, but as the characters developed and their lives began to intertwine I knew it could be something more. A complete accounting of the war in Iraq, and the war in Anbar Province in particular, is impossible without multiple perspectives. The experience of the officers was much different than that of the enlisted, and the experience of the Iraqi population was something else entirely. But all those experiences are valid, and necessary for a full examination of the war.

Kateb was especially important to me. Through him, we have a bridge between the Iraqi population and the U.S. military. He’s the ultimate man apart. 

Q: You’ve written of you and your fellow Marines that after coming home, “the war had made us strangers.” How do you think your book could play a role in creating greater understanding between those who have and haven't gone to war? 

A: I’m not sure any book can create a better understanding between those who’ve been to war and those who haven’t. But I hope it at least communicates the truth that when democracies send their armies to war, voters must bear the moral, ethical and material burdens along with their warriors.

I’ve spoken about the times when I was asked that question I’d thought long extinct: “Did you kill anyone?” I don’t answer the question. Instead, I say, “If I did kill anyone, you paid me to.” 

Q: How did you decide on the book’s title? 

A: The admonition to, “Watch your fives and twenty-fives,” had been so ubiquitous in my life for so many years that I honestly missed hearing it when I left the military. The title is really a message to other vets. It’s my way of saying, “Don’t forget.”

Q: Why does Huck Finn play a big role in the novel? 

A: I started thinking about Huck Finn during my first deployment. The war in Anbar Province, as I witnessed it, took place within 100 meters of the highway. The roads were like our rivers. Each road had its own personality, its own particularities and dangers. I started to think about Huck and Jim floating down the Mississippi, and how things always went wrong the moment they beached their raft and left the river. It was much the same in Iraq.

As for Kateb’s relationship with Huck Finn, it’s linked to the way Huck honestly believes he’s committing a grave sin by guiding his friend Jim to freedom. Kateb faces a similar torment. When his divided loyalties force him to make a choice, he always goes for the route he thinks will produce the least possible suffering. When people ask me whose side Kateb is on, I always say that he’s on the side of humanity. 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I’m from South Louisiana originally, and Cajun by birth. Over the last decade, the two most impactful events in my life have been the Iraq War and the oil spill caused by the Deepwater Horizon disaster. I’m working on a novel that follows two Cajun families involved in the offshore oil industry, beginning in the late 1940s and ending with a fictionalized disaster similar to Deepwater Horizon.

My father and grandfather both worked in the oil industry. Like most Cajun men of their generations, they saw the “oil patch” as an opportunity to bring themselves and their communities out of poverty. And they succeeded in that. The offshore oil industry came of age in South Louisiana, and would not have matured into a global industry without the boats and sub-sea technology designed and built by enterprising Cajuns. From Brazil to Scotland, any port adjacent to an offshore oil field likely shelters a workboat or two flagged out of Thibodaux, Louisiana.

But that success cost the Cajuns their traditional way of life. Then the Deepwater Horizon disaster destroyed the ecosystem that had sustained and nurtured their secluded society for over two centuries. There’s quite a bit of drama in that.  

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: Only that I wrote Fives and Twenty-fives with no expectation of an audience larger than my wife and a few close friends. Every reader beyond that is a small miracle. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 18

Dec. 18, 1870: H.H. Munro born.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Q&A with Eric Allen Hall

Eric Allen Hall is the author of the new book Arthur Ashe: Tennis and Justice in the Civil Rights Era. He is an assistant professor in the history department at Georgia Southern University, Statesboro.

Q: Why did you decide to write about Arthur Ashe?

A: I’ve always been interested in sports. I grew up in a suburb bordering the South Side of Chicago; it was racially diverse. I knew I always wanted to do something about sports….At Purdue, I was working under Randy Roberts, who’s written on the boxer Jack Johnson and Joe Louis, and I figured I’d do a topic involving sports.

My wife is a professor in the department as well; she was in graduate school at the University of Michigan, and we were walking the streets, thinking of a topic [for my graduate seminar paper] on African Americans in popular culture, and she suggested, What about Arthur Ashe? Has anybody written on him?

At the time, my reaction was, of course--but in the academic sense, nobody really had. The more work I did on him, I realized what a multi-layered, nuanced character he was. He didn’t fit the traditional mold of an African-American athlete. It went from a seminar paper to a dissertation to the book. It grew out of my love of sports, and I grew up around issues of race, around people who weren’t like me.

Q: Was there anything that particularly surprised you as you researched the book?

A: I was really surprised at how much of an intellectual he was. You get athletes, entertainers, celebrities who have a machine behind them [producing an image]. With Ashe, this was someone who really thought and felt deeply about the issues of the day. He was reading government reports, scholarly monographs. When he did finally speak out on these issues, he brought a tool kit from all his reading. He was able to go toe-to-toe with academics.

Q: As you describe in the book, Ashe was criticized for his civil rights activism by opponents of the civil rights movement, as well as on the other side, by those who thought he wasn’t doing enough for the movement. Why did he choose the middle course he did?

A: It was kind of a long journey for him. Ashe shows that people aren’t static. You need to locate them at different points in their growth. He grew up in a segregated city, Richmond, and was told, Don’t challenge the status quo; it’s the best way to survive.

Then he went off to Los Angeles, and it was different. He started to talk to people in the movement—the civil rights movement, the Free Speech movement. He became a bit more radicalized by being at UCLA. He also spent some time in the Army, which had a strict code prohibiting him from speaking out. He came to the position he did—he believed you should always talk to people even if they are saying things you disagree with.

People ask me a lot recently, with LeBron James and Derrick Rose and other athletes making political statements now—he wasn’t one to make political statements on the court. On the court, he just played tennis. It’s a conflation of all these different forces. He took a path that was a little more conservative than Martin Luther King’s, more gradual.

Q: Why did Ashe settle on South African apartheid as a place to take a strong stand, and what was his impact?

A: He settled on it for a couple of reasons. There was the decision made by the South African government to deny him a visa, that directly affected him….in this case, he was one of the top players in the world, and he was denied entry to play in the South African Open, a very lucrative [event]—it wasn’t a rinky-dink tournament. It drew him in, because it directly affected him.

Secondly, he saw the plight of South Africans as being worse than any conditions African Americans were suffering from in the U.S. In the townships, he saw utter poverty and hopelessness that he saw in the U.S., but so much worse. He wore a T-shirt from time to time that said Citizen of the World. He thought of people of color in an international sense.

His impact was fairly significant in South Africa, a sports-crazed society….He didn’t just go play there, he toured Soweto, he met with black journalists. Mark Mathabane, who wrote Kaffir Boy, remembers going to see Ashe play in Ellis Park. To him, it made a big difference that an African-American man was not only in South Africa, but was paying attention to the local population.

Q: I wanted to ask you about Ashe’s feelings about women tennis players—it seems from the book that he didn’t have positive feelings about their equal rights.

A: That’s the one blot on his record. It’s tough to understand why, but tennis was a very sexist sport at the time, and it was compounded by the fact that the men and women [players] were around each other a lot more than many other sports. At the time, the idea was that the men tennis players were out there supporting families, and the women were already supported, and were taking money away from the men …

The figures surrounding him when he was young were all men; his mother died when he was very young. His mentors were all men…. Ella Baker, a major leader in the civil rights movement, accused Martin Luther King of being a sexist. There was a level of sexism in the culture as a whole. It doesn’t excuse him—if you’re advocating for human rights, why doesn’t it apply to gender? Before he died, he realized that was an inappropriate position to take.

Q: How did his early death from AIDS affect his legacy and how people think of his life?

A: There’s the one year after he announced he had AIDS [until his death], and then from 1993 to the present. Sadly, his AIDS diagnosis and death from AIDS has overshadowed a lot of his civil rights activism. If you ask people on the street, they’ll say he was a good tennis player and he died of AIDS. When certain anniversaries come up, they highlight AIDS and tennis, but don’t look so much at civil rights.  

He knew in 1988 that he had AIDS, but he waited [to reveal it]; he said he wanted to protect his daughter. It was in part to protect his family, [but also] he was so involved in giving speeches and traveling to South Africa. He would not have been able to enter the country if it had been disclosed. To a large extent, AIDS has overshadowed [other issues]. He said his biggest burden was race, not AIDS.

Especially with the demonstrations by athletes about Ferguson and Eric Garner, people are looking at him as an athlete who stood up to injustice way back when. It’s unfair that AIDS came to define him.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m going to write a shorter book, half as long, on the history of the Black Sox scandal, the Chicago White Sox in 1919, and use the Black Sox as a window into America in 1919 to talk about strikes, race riots, the rise of tabloid journalism, and postwar disillusionment: If baseball can be corrupted, what can’t?

Q: Anything else we should know about the Arthur Ashe book?

A: Relating it to the activism we’ve seen in the past month or so, [some of the coverage] drives me nuts because all these athletes-- the six St. Louis Rams’ raised hands--somehow this is new and sports and politics haven’t been intertwined, when there’s the history of sports and politics together through the 20th century—the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Muhammad Ali and Bill Russell. This isn’t anything new, and we shouldn’t be surprised that athletes [use their] platform to talk about something more than their performance on the court and the field….

Had Ashe been around today, he would be talking about poverty, inadequate housing, the lack of communications between the police and communities of color. People are focusing on the minutiae and not on the bigger context. He would have added to the conversation. But I’m not sure he would have been on Twitter.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb