Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Q&A with Kapka Kassabova


Kapka Kassabova is the author of the new book To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace. It focuses on her family history in the Lake Ohrid area of the Balkans. Her other books include Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe. She grew up in Bulgaria and now lives in Scotland.


Q: You write, "To journey to the place of your ancestors, you must be prepared to see what it is easier to deny." Why did you decide to explore this part of your family history?


A: Several reasons. First of all - artistic. I was called by the place itself, as if by a siren. Lake Ohrid is a place of sublime beauty and great cultural wealth and complexity. The fact that my maternal line originates there is a gift for a writer, and I couldn’t not accept it.


Of course, it was also a challenge, a daring - because by immersing myself in the human  history of the Lake, I had to swim in some pretty deep, dark waters too. But I was ready for it. I’d thought about this kind of ancestral exploration for a long time, and finally the right moment came where experience, courage, curiosity, and urgency came together.


Secondly, temporal - hence the urgency. At the end of my mother’s life and at this point in my own when I have been on many journeys both inner and outer, but also at this crucial point in human history where it’s so important to understand ourselves and our place in history, I wanted to explore the psychological and creative legacy of our family, but also the Balkans as a unique and complex matrix.


By doing that, I felt I was doing generational, collective work too. I sensed that the Lakes presented an encoded topography where the personal, the ancestral, the socio-political, the spiritual, and the environmental converged. As that monk said, “The Lake is a place where souls gather.”


Q: How did you research this book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I always begin my research by actually being there, spending time in a place and immersing myself in its physicality, its people, stories, seasons. The spirit of the Lakes was my muse, as well as memories - both beautiful and painful - of my grandmother and the women in our family. Then I read everything in as many languages as I can get my hands on, related to the region.


But because the place is only a setting, while the story is far more universal, I also read on to the broader subject of my enquiry  - which is the nature of trauma, ancestral memory, trans-generational legacies, and how the psyche and the body may manifest all of this.


Of course, the body of the land and the bodies of those who carry its memories are linked, and I was keen to explore these invisible connections. Just as the two lakes are invisibly connected by underground rivers.


Surprise discoveries, delightful or dark, were everywhere - in the form of paradoxes, correspondences, resonances, contradictions. And so it should be, when you truly get into a subject and especially a PLACE. Surprises are part of the inner expansion we experience as writers and readers. Otherwise what’s the point? 


Q: In the book, you write, "Geography shapes history--we generally accept this as a fact." How would you say the geography of the Balkans--and Macedonia in particular--has shaped its history?


A: Macedonia is a microcosm of the Balkans and the Balkans are a microcosm of Eurasia. It’s an old, much-trodden part of the world. The complex criss-crossings of the land are reflected in the collective psyche of its people.


In particular, the damage of unnatural man-made borders has scarred people and continues to wound them - by dividing nations, families (like ours), and ultimately individuals. By splitting the psyche, just as the triple national borders here attempt to split the lakes - a geographical impossibility.


This schizoid split - the result of cynical, divisive politics - is at the root of illness, and war - the spirit of war - is a form of illness. Borders are one of its manifestations. The lesson of the Lakes is ultimately a lesson about wholeness. 


Q: What impact did writing this book have on you?


A: Profound, as it should be when we embark on a real journey of discovery, inner or outer - in this case both. As with my previous book, Border, I was changed by the sensory, human, intellectual, emotional, symbolic, and geographical exposure to these lakes, which are both a place and a state of mind.


In a way, the full impact cannot and should not be summarised - it can only be experienced individually by the reader.  


Q: What are you working on now?


A: A book called Elixir.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Kapka Kassabova.

Nov. 25



Nov. 25, 1890: Isaac Rosenberg born.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Q&A with Darin Strauss


Darin Strauss is the author of the new novel The Queen of Tuesday: A Lucille Ball Story. His other books include Half a Life. He teaches writing at New York University, and he lives in Brooklyn.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Queen of Tuesday?


A: A kind of nightmare. I woke up one 3 a.m. with a start: I’d dreamed something dramatic, scribbled it down, and thought: “This will be my next book!” I woke up the next morning and scrambled to see what I’d written: “Lucille Ball.” That was it. 




I began doing research, anyway; I found that my grandfather had attended a party with her—a party thrown by Donald Trump’s father, of all people. A party where Trump Sr., in the name of ugly modernity, destroyed a representation of what had been dignified and special about old-time America. What a perfect real-life metaphor! 


Somewhere in my addled noggin, I must have kept that information -- grandpa met Lucille Ball! -- and, the truth was, I’d always had questions about him. About the infidelity he committed around the time of that party. 


With all these elements swirling together, I knew that’d be my next book.


Q: In a Washington Post review, Ron Charles writes, "The Queen of Tuesday is a striking exploration of how fame confounds the lives of prominent and obscure people." What do you think of that description?


A: I love it. That was one of the things I was trying to examine. What fame does to people -- to the famous, and those around the famous.


I was friendly with both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Carrie Fisher. I saw how fame affected them, and a) in Carrie's case, how it changed me around her. And b) in Philip's case, how it changed his friends. Many of his pals were struggling actors, and, seeing the way their behavior toward him mutated as he went from one of them to Oscar-winning movie star, I realized that fame warps everyone. 


And it's such a big force in this country -- an under-examined force, I think. 


Q: What did you see as the right blend of history and fiction as you wrote the book?


A: I studied with E.L. Doctorow, at NYU -- where I now teach, humorously enough. And Doctorow said that, when one is writing a novel, one should do the least amount of research one can get away with. If you do too much research (the thinking goes), it will read like a textbook.


So, I think it's a balance. The "what you can get away with" is a key part of the equation: too little, and you'll lose the reader. I did a lot of research, but, as novelist, my responsibility is to tell a good story more than anything else. I think that's what Doctorow was getting at.  


In this book, the idea was to try to fill it with as many elements -- as much fun stuff -- as I could. A woman in love. Celebrity. Media. Glamour -- and set it in a period we can't turn from: The glitzy 50s, New York and LA, dream-towns at their dreaming best.  


Q: What do you see as Lucille Ball's legacy today?


A: The more research I did about Lucille Ball, the more I came not only to admire her, but to realize what a pivotal figure she was in American culture. 


Not just the most popular TV star ever -- though she was that -- but a kind of proto-feminist icon. She greenlit Star Trek, for example. Without her, no modern sci-fi: because Star Trek paved the way for Star Wars, which paved the way for everything. 


Hers seemed a story that needed to be told now—the first American woman to be a powerful Hollywood executive; the wife in the first truly famous and beloved interracial marriage in American history. Plus, she was there for the birth of TV—and, as we’re now living in the age of Peak TV, this book shows how TV got here. The Queen of Tuesday was a way for me to shed a light on these under-discussed details.


Q: What are you working on now?


Another novel, and a screenplay for Half a Life, my memoir. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I play a mean guitar. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Darin Strauss.

Nov. 24




Nov. 24, 1849: Frances Hodgson Burnett born.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Q&A with Anika Aldamuy Denise


Anika Aldamuy Denise is the author of the new children's picture book A Girl Named Rosita: The Story of Rita Moreno: Actor, Singer, Dancer, Trailblazer!. Her other books include Planting Stories. She lives in Rhode Island.


Q: Why did you decide to write a picture book biography about Rita Moreno?


A: She has a great story. Her life and career has had highs and lows… tragedies and triumphs. She’s an inspiration to anyone working hard to reach their dreams. And I love writing about powerhouse Puertorriqueñas who break barriers.


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


A: I watched hours of archival footage, read Rita’s memoir, and pored over many interviews and articles. It was some of the most enjoyable research I’ve ever done, actually! I got to revisit many of her performances I knew and loved. And I discovered others as well.


I was surprised that Rita’s historic Oscar and other prestigious awards did not shield her more from prejudice and sexism in Hollywood. I probably shouldn’t have been; it’s a problem Latinx and other entertainers of color still face. But when an actor has an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony, you’d think casting directors would stop asking them to play stereotypes.


Rita eventually got fed up and quit doing films altogether for a time.


Q: The Kirkus Review of the book calls it "An inspiring account of a woman who followed her dreams." What do you hope kids take away from the book, especially when it comes to following your dreams?


A: That dreams alone won’t get you there. You have to put in the work. And that success isn’t a straight line. You will have setbacks. There will be people who tell you no and deny you a seat at the table. When that happens, you have to try again—or build your own house, put a table in it, and pull your chair up there.


Q: What do you think Leo Espinosa's illustrations add to the book?


A: Leo’s work is super kid-friendly yet also sophisticated in its stylization. He captured little Rosita and grown-up Rita beautifully. All the details, especially in the scenes of old Hollywood, are amazing. Usually I can pick a favorite spread in a book, but I can’t in this one because they are all so vibrant and lovely for different reasons.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on a book about another trailblazing woman—but I can’t say who just yet because the book hasn’t been announced. Stay tuned!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Just that I’m grateful to those who are supporting authors and indie booksellers in these wildly stressful times. Thank you to the teachers, librarians, bloggers, booksellers, parents, and kids who read and share my books. And to you, Deborah, for having me!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Anika Aldamuy Denise.

Nov. 23



Nov. 23, 1916: P.K. Page born.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Q&A with Casey Breton


Casey Breton is the author of Going Rogue (at Hebrew School), a new middle grade novel for kids. It features a boy who thinks his Hebrew school teacher might be a Jedi master. Breton, a former elementary school teacher, lives in Gloucester, Massachusetts.


Q: You write that you came up with the idea for Going Rogue after trying to answer your kids' questions about why they had to go to Hebrew school. How did you come up with the Star Wars connection?


A: The Star Wars connection also came from my kids, who are big fans. They didn’t connect Star Wars to Judaism, of course, but I think I was trying to stack up all the things they felt passionate about against the one thing they really didn’t - Hebrew school. I tried to imagine what might get kids like mine interested in Hebrew school, or at least curious about it. Well, if the rabbi was a Jedi master…


Once I had the Star Wars idea, I started poking around the internet and found that loads of people have made a link between Star Wars and Judaism, for example, the idea of Yoda being a Jewish sage.


I just sort of ran with it from there. At first it was to spark an interest, but it slowly evolved into something readers might find meaningful.

Q: What do you think the novel says about bullying?


A: I never thought of addressing the topic of bullying in my book, but in an early revision I realized I needed some kind of antagonist for Avery to learn from.


My grandmother and great aunt, who were twins, used to tell me, “There are no bad boys, only sad boys.” It was something their father taught them, and I took that wisdom to heart. I believe it’s true. When I developed Damon, I always kept that phrase in mind.


I don’t see Damon as a bully, but rather as a kid who has a lot of pain inside. Gideon was always able to recognize that, while Avery was consistently skeptical. I can understand Avery’s side too – when someone is behaving in such a cruel and hurtful way, it’s really hard to see anything but a bad person. It was important for me to include both of those perspectives.


Q: What do you hope kids take away from the book, especially about science and religion?


A: One thing I hope kids take away from the book is a sense that their questions about religion are valid and important. Judaism has always encouraged critical thinking, curiosity, and examination.


This aspect of our tradition is a beautiful entry point for the most skeptical among us. Yes, ask questions. Yes, have doubts. Yes, hold a light to the dark spaces. We don’t need to follow blindly, nor are we supposed to. Go ahead, wrestle.


Regarding science and religion – we live in an age of information. Whether we’re learning how to get through a pandemic, or grappling with the effects of climate change and working to mitigate the consequences, one thing is true: understanding science is vital to our survival. And yet we also need to nurture our faith and study our history.


I hope readers take away the idea that science and faith are not mutually exclusive. In fact, being Jewish and being science-minded go together quite nicely!


And if a reader takes away nothing else, I hope they have a fun time reading my book and find a few laughs along the way. One of my greatest rewards from writing this book came when I heard my 10-year-old son, who is a reluctant reader, laughing out loud as he read Going Rogue in bed.


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 didn’t know how it would end before I started it. The first draft was much shorter and didn’t have the football thread. Definitely made lots of changes along the way, and wrote many, many drafts!


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have a completed draft of a young adult novel that I’ve been working on for years – it’s about a boy who stutters and fights to protect wild animals, inspired by a true story. It’s quite different from Going Rogue, and I love it dearly.  And I have started another middle grade novel about one of my personal passions…surfing! It’s an absolute joy to write.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Being Jewish, I wrote this book through a Jewish lens and focused on the experiences of a Jewish main character. However, I imagine children from different backgrounds will be able to relate to the tug between modern life and religious tradition.


A friend of mine who was raised Catholic said she would have appreciated reading this book when she was a kid. She remembers the frustration she felt as a child in religious school, always being told how and what to think, rather than being given the space to think for herself.


We cannot underestimate the strength of our children’s minds and the power of their questions. In the end of my book, Avery doesn’t have more answers. He doesn’t feel more resolved about going to Hebrew school. What changes is that he comes to understand that his questions have value.


I also had a very nice conversation with a mom and her two kids who all read the book together. They are not Jewish, but appreciated the book because it gave them a peek into a world different from their own. It was the first book they’d read with a Jewish main character.


While they thought the story was funny and relatable in many ways, they enjoyed learning about different aspects of being Jewish through Avery’s eyes. What’s nice is that different readers can access the book in different ways, and still find something in there for them.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb