Saturday, September 23, 2017

Q&A with Annie Spence

Annie Spence, photo by Alicia Gbur

Q: How did you come up with the idea of writing letters to various books, and when did you decide these letters could become a book themselves?

A: At one of the first libraries I worked at, there was a FREE table with discarded books that were unfit even for the annual used book sale. They all looked so sad and bizarre sitting there.

Often when librarians "weed out" a collection, there are some items that make them chuckle or wince and these were all those books. I wrote a break-up letter to one, I think it was Pictorial Anatomy of the Cat.

Then, eight years later, a literary agent told me she liked my writing and asked if I had any book ideas. What became Dear Fahrenheit 451 was the last on the list of ideas I sent her and I'm so glad I added it.

Q: How did you decide on the books to include, and on the order of the letters?

A: I had a small collection of oddball books and one of my librarian friends was kind enough to share her own shelf of weirdos with me. There was a lot to choose from. For example, I didn't end up writing to a book called Whimsical Sweatshirts that I really had my heart set on.

But it came down to whether or not I had strong feelings for the book and could summarize it or familiarize readers with it in the confines of a letter. I tried to make it a decent mix of well-known and more niche items (I have a fondness for the niche).

In terms of organizing the letters, I'm a librarian so it was very important to me. I tried it every which way: I separated the love notes and break up letters, I split them up by where the book "lived" (a library, my home, out and about), and I tried organizing them by Dewey Decimal.

In the end, it was better to focus on the general tone of each letter and try to mix it up, so that readers could experience a little dose of everything. That's how the whole experience of reading, and librarianship actually, feels to me, a bit of everything, coming at you from all sides.

Q: How was the book's title chosen? Why Fahrenheit 451?

A: My editor, Amy Einhorn, recommended the title. She wisely thought that naming the book after one of the letters inside would cue readers in to what the book was about.

Fahrenheit 451 was a good letter to pick to lead the way because it is an important book, I think, for anyone who loves reading or thinking or discovering. It's about a world where all of those freedoms we take for granted have been stripped away.

Bradbury typed the majority of Fahrenheit 451 in the basement of a library, which is poetic to me--using his freedom to read and write to create his own love letter to reading, however frightful.

Q: Who do you see as the perfect reader for this book?

A: Anyone who has ever loved or loathed a book.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am beginning to work on a novel and also make zines for fun. What that really means is that I'm working on laundry, bills, and thinking about what's going to happen next on Game of Thrones when I should be writing.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: September is National Library Card Sign Up Month. I work at the library every day and I still get giddy when I walk through the stacks. There is so much to take in and it's free and if you have any part of your life that you would like to improve, the public library can probably help you.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Jake Burt

Jake Burt is the author of Greetings from Witness Protection!, a new novel for kids. He is a fifth grade teacher, and he lives in Hamden, Connecticut.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Greetings from Witness Protection! and for your main character, Nicki?

A: As a teacher, one of the most onerous parts of my job is proctoring standardized tests. It's basically cycling around my classroom for predetermined chunks of time, telling kids, "Sorry, I'm not allowed to answer that," every so often.

In one particularly boring stretch (I think it was during the quantitative reasoning section), I started thinking about the phrase, "high stakes testing." I asked myself, "For whom might this test have the highest stakes?"

From there, I jumped to a kid in witness protection - she endangers her family if she fails, and she endangers her family if she succeeds spectacularly.

Once I started letting that idea roll around in my head, Nicki (the novel's protagonist) just sort of hopped in there fully formed, eager to tell me her story.

As I was writing, it felt like I was listening to her and recording what she said as much as anything, which made a lot of fun to "discover" what she wanted to reveal about her story.

Q: How much has your work as a teacher influenced your writing?

A: My work as a teacher has influenced my writing considerably. Not only has it been really helpful in allowing me to craft believable school settings, but it's excellent for learning just how far kids will go, what they will and will not say, and how they respond to adversity.

I hope that authenticity comes through, regardless of the trials I force my characters to deal with.

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

A: While the ending of the novel didn't change, there were several major revisions along the way. In particular, Ms. Drummond (Nicki's language arts teacher at Loblolly Middle School) occupied a much more significant place in early drafts, playing the part that Archer does now in driving the plot.

My agent, the incomparable Rebecca Stead, and my brilliant editor at Feiwel and Friends, Liz Szabla, suggested relocating that aspect of the story to a student antagonist, and I think the plot is that much more effective for it.

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

A: I'm an avowed Anglophile, and growing up I was all about fantasy literature. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Sir Thomas Malory. . .that was my wheelhouse.

More recently, I really enjoy Philip Pullman and Neil Gaiman's work. Closer to home, Cathrynne Valente, Nic Stone, Mark Twain, and Neal Stephenson are all favorites, too.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: We just finished copyedits on my second novel, due out in fall 2018, and I've sent a draft of book three (fall 2019) to my editor. Fingers crossed!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: A bit of random Greetings From Witness Protection! trivia for you: the name of Nicki's stuffed cat, Fancypaws, actually began as the name of a cat in one of the class assignments I created to teach writing critique etiquette to my students. I liked the name so much I decided to transfer it to the novel.

Thanks for the opportunity to answer some fun questions about Greetings from Witness Protection!, Deborah! Happy reading!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 23

Sept. 23, 1889: Walter Lippmann born.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Q&A with Christopher Bollen

Christopher Bollen, photo by Danko Steiner
Christopher Bollen is the author of the new novel The Destroyers, which is set on the Greek island of Patmos and focuses on two old friends. He also has written the novels Orient and Lightning People, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including GQ and The New York Times. He is the editor at large of Interview magazine, and he lives in New York City.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Destroyers, and for your characters Ian and Charlie?

A: I’m such a place-based writer. Everything is focused around a geographical setting. I think of where I’m going to set a novel, and that defines the whole story. It’s not a story looking for a place, it’s a place, and whatever situation is on the ground will determine what happens.

In this case, I was fascinated by Patmos, the Greek island—it’s famous for being where John wrote the Book of Revelation. I grew up in Catholic schools, and for every 12-year-old by the Book of Revelation was the exciting chapter—it’s a very Hollywood book. I was always fascinated with this island.

In the early 2000s [I heard about] people recommending Patmos as a jet-set island. How do two totally separate realms overlap?

I finally got there in 2012. It’s so beautiful. It’s filled with strange Christian history and also with indulgent hedonistic European vacationers. It was hard not to write about it!

Q: And how did you come up with Ian and Charlie?

A: It’s about how I was perceiving relationships in my life. I hadn’t really written about wealth before [except] about artists and self-earners.

In metropolitan cities, you come across people with inherited wealth. I don’t judge—they’re extremely smart and gifted—but it fascinated me. I grew up having to earn and stretch every penny, and was fascinated by their decision-making process and how they live.

I set up Charlie and Ian as an example of that. Because I get to live in Manhattan, even within a wealthy bracket there are all kinds of wealth. There are just millionaires, and then there are billionaires. Ian is from a moneyed but not an indulgently wealthy family, and Charlie is from billionaire funds.

You have different views about childhood friendships. At 20, you want to escape the friends of your youth. At 40, you try to reconnect, to find that they’re not interested.

It was a yearning to talk about the bonds of friendship. Ian and Charlie are friends as kids, and they’ve drifted apart. When you’re out on a limb, thrown into dire straits, you reach out to those people who have known you longest, and remember you as innocent. It interested me.

Q: Your work has been compared to that of Patricia Highsmith. What do you think of the comparison?

A: I love Patricia Highsmith. It’s humongous fun—it’s an honor. [In a sense] we’re not that similar because she’s so concise and tight and I’m more verbose, but I do love the psychological buildup she provides. She sees something beautiful, and describes the muck around it.

She’s such an astute psychological writer. She strips out all formalities and is not afraid to make them ugly. [Her characters] want something and go after it, and it cuts out all the niceties. She’s a lover of lifestyles—Ripley is very much about Dickie’s hedonistic Italian lifestyle—but she’s a bit of a destroyer.

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

A: I don’t know where [my novels are] going. For all the books I’ve written, I start with no idea of what the reason is. I have a faint vision of what I think will happen at the end; however, if a better story occurs to me, I give it complete freedom. It’s dangerous—you can paint yourself into a corner!

There’s always the postmodern impulse to say, What if we don’t even say what happens? That’s kind of a cheat.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have started two books. I have no business writing two at a time! My first novel, Lightning People, was set in Manhattan and they were trying to get out of Manhattan. Then I went to the North Fork of Long Island with Orient. Then to Greece. I’m going to write one set in Venice and another in South America—hopefully!

It’s exciting. Venice is very hard to write about; it’s been written about so much. It’s a bit like New York—people know it very well, and you can’t really cheat. I love that city—I lived there for six months when I graduated from college.

[I’ve heard,] You should write shorter books. I would love to, but it’s very hard to say, Don’t write that scene.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I knew I was taking a risk writing on the rich—I hope people don’t see it as a book about spoiled rich people, without value. Money is a fascinating substance, and unfortunately it’s a big part of everybody’s day-to-day life, so it merits some focus. I wanted to pick at the corrupting influence of money.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Estep Nagy

Estep Nagy is the author of the new novel We Shall Not All Sleep, which takes place in Maine in the summer of 1964. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Southwest Review and The Believer, and he wrote and directed the film The Broken Giant. He also has written a number of plays.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for We Shall Not All Sleep, and for the two intertwined families who feature in the story?

A: In my experience WASP relationships, even the intense ones, have a kind of silence at their center. They often seem a bit cold, especially when seen from the outside, but in compensation there's this rich interior ambiguity that can sometimes feel like poetry. That’s where the book started, I guess, in trying to populate that silence.

I know the world from growing up in Philadelphia, which is one of the last bastions of the old WASP infrastructure, although I went to Quaker school and my mother is a sort of lapsed debutante from outside of Pittsburgh.  

I went to college at Yale, where it was impossible to miss the complex relationships coming out of the wealthy towns and neighborhoods of the Northeast U.S., the private schools and colleges — relationships rooted in where one grows up, those schools, friends, friends-of-friends, friends-of-parents, certain kinds of work, even war — and I had the clear sense that such complexity breeds strange but compelling intimacies.  

It’s more than just what you might see in a small town, for example, because this crowd overlaps in multiple cities as well as other places, like the Maine Coast, and the connections across those lines really matter, as do the number and variety of them.  

An example from the book would be how Jim Hillsinger and Billy Quick on the one hand hate each other but on the other share an island and have known each other their whole lives and married sisters.  

They have this almost total shared frame of reference, even if their stances toward it are different and they inhabit different, fiercely-guarded quadrants of the larger circle. Their hatred is of a very intimate caliber, which to me is interesting.

Q: The book is set in 1964, during the Cold War. Why did you choose that time period, and did you need to do much research to write the novel? 

A: I’m drawn to people who have callings, and I admire the Cold Warriors' sense of public purpose, which for better or worse was almost 100 percent focused on foreign policy.  

I think the emotional impact of the Cold War on those who fought it — and even on those who didn’t — has been under-written, and as someone whose emotional life was formed during the Cold War (I was 19 when the Berlin Wall fell), I wanted to rectify that.

I did do a fair amount of research for the book, but I’m afraid it wasn’t very disciplined. For example, I spent some time in the Beinecke Library at Yale, where improbably they have the undergraduate papers of James Angleton, the former head of CIA Counterintelligence, who has a cameo in We Shall Not All Sleep.  

He edited a literary magazine at Yale, and in his letters you can really see his mind working, which was helpful. And the Yale English Department, where both Angleton and I studied (50 years apart), is all over the early history of the CIA.

The CIA plotline, by the way, is based on historical events, where two defectors named Golitsyn and Nosenko arrived a year or so apart in the early ’60s and the debate about their authenticity was fierce and cost many people their careers.  

I actually submitted Freedom of Information requests to the CIA for the final agency determinations on the case, which date from 1981, and both my request and the appeal I filed subsequently were denied, presumably on grounds of national security.

Q: How important is setting to you in your work? Could this novel have only been set on this particular Maine island and its surroundings?

A: On a technical level, setting is fantastically important -- it sets the rhythm both of the story and even of the writing.  

Geographically, Maine is unique and irreplaceable. It manages to feel both raw and philosophical, at least the coast feels that way, and in the WASP pantheon Maine looms very large as both a refuge and a marker of status.  

Also, as far as the book is concerned, having just the two families on the island makes for a strange form of intimacy, which I think is crucial here.

Q: How was the title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: The title is taken from a passage in First Corinthians — “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.” I love the implication of chosen-ness, of the possibility of transformation. I’m not sure what (good) writing is, if it isn’t a sort of transcendental wakefulness.  

And those ideas were all very potent in 1964 among those who experienced the Soviet threat most intensely. That passage is also in the libretto for Handel’s Messiah, which features briefly.

And then -- this is sort of inside baseball in my head -- First Corinthians is the name of a character in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, which is a book that I love. So there were different layers.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Another book in the same world, with many of the same characters. Pray for me.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’ve been astonished by the relevance of the 1964 Cold War world to that of today. Suddenly Russia is in the news again every day, espionage seems to be damaging our democracy, and we’re told that all over the world intelligence operations are impacting elections, arguably much more so than during the Cold War, where there was immense hysteria around just that.

So for me, the atmosphere of We Shall Not All Sleep feels a bit like a letter from a friend who’s living through something vital, something we all need to learn from.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Robin Stevens Payes

Robin Stevens Payes is the author of Edge of Yesterday, a new novel for kids focusing on a girl who wants to travel back in time and meet Leonardo da Vinci. The novel has an accompanying website that encourages kids to share their storytelling skills and learn more about science and history.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Edge of Yesterday and your main character, Charley?

A: I started a long time ago. I have three kids, and when the oldest was reaching the preteen years and I was being a carpool mom—soccer, band practice—I listened to their conversations, how they and their friends wanted to be everything, soccer players, diplomats.

I was thinking about it—in our society we make kids specialize in kindergarten. It began as a thought experiment. Can children growing up today become everything they want? Who was the epitome of that? Leonardo da Vinci was able to do all of that. If Leonardo was born today, could he be Leonardo?

I chose a girl because still, unfortunately, in 2017 there are [obstacles] for girls to get into certain fields, particularly STEM fields that are highly compensated and growing in demand.

Q: What inspired the interactive website that accompanies the novel, and what response have you had to it?

A: It’s been growing quite a bit. The story started as a screenplay. I’d never written a screenplay before. I realized I didn’t have the technology to make it plausible for Charley to travel back and forth through time. She needed an iPhone!

[Later] I had a screenplay and a book, and I started tweeting the novel out. I realized Charley’s voice was coming out. She started tweeting and she continues to do that to this day. It’s the 40th anniversary of when Voyager 1 and 2 launched, and we have a new article by an intern about the Golden Record. It can be very timely in that way.

All of these things seemed to be speaking to a larger need, learning through story. Stories are universal, they are vital for transmitting information, but they’re also for entertainment and inculcating moral values. It seems to be a timeless way to offer the idea that learning can be fun if it’s tied to a story.

Because Leonardo was the master of all things, there’s so much you can learn! We aggregated it on the website. The idea was to make it interactive and fun--here’s something you didn’t know—and include literature, math, science, history. That’s the way the real world works. It’s meant to be transdisciplinary.

Q: What age group do you focus on?

A: It’s designed to be middle-grade fiction, age 9-12. I feel it’s the older, upper end of the age group because some of the concepts are pretty sophisticated for younger readers, though on the website we have a word of the week and words are defined within the book to make it accessible. I’ve had older kids be engaged, and a lot of parents say, This is really cool!

Q: What kind of research did you do to write the novel?

A: For me, it’s wonderful because it’s a constant learning and growing experience. When I began, we hardly had the Internet. Research about Leonardo meant going to the library.

There has been a growth of “Leonardo-ana,” especially within the last five to six years; there’s been an explosion of Leonardo-related stuff. There’s just a perennial interest. He was an enigma in a lot of ways, though he was prolific, but it was focused on his work. Plumbing the inner Leonardo has been fun.

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

A: I didn’t start reading this series until I had finished the book, but the Outlander series, by Diana Gabaldon, is an epic; it’s rip-roaring fun, and is meticulously researched. I love her research and her attending to facts and her ability to recreate regular life in historic times…

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I received a grant from the Montgomery County Arts and Humanities Council to start a new adventure, three books in a series.

The next adventure is with an 18th century French noblewoman. Emilie du Chatelet was a consort of Voltaire, a mathematician and physicist. She translated Newton into French for the first time, she laid the foundation for relativity, and she had four kids. It’s natural that Charley is dying to meet her. She was a kick-ass 18th century woman.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: One of the pieces I’m really intentional about and proud of, part of what Edge of Yesterday is about, is promoting curiosity and creativity in readers and people who interact with the website.

The activities energize people to share their creativity with us and other people interested in the story. It’s how curiosity and creativity can express your ability to follow your dreams as a young person.

I started a hashtag, #eoymystory. I want people to share what they’re passionate about, what their dreams are, their story. I love engaging with these young people, and I hope they will enjoy sharing with each other.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 22

Sept. 22, 1908: Esphyr Slobodkina born.