Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Q&A with Chiara Barzini

Chiara Barzini is the author of the new novel Things That Happened Before the Earthquake, which focuses on an Italian teenager who moves to Los Angeles in the 1990s. She also has written the short fiction collection Sister Stop Breathing. She lives outside Rome.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Things That Happened Before the Earthquake, and for your main character, Eugenia?

A: I moved to the San Fernando Valley with my Italian family when I was 15. It was 1994 and the city was still recovering from the recent earthquake. The Rodney King riots had happened only two years earlier, and the whole city was still very much in that post-violence vibration.

It was a time of rebuilding–– spiritually, geographically, and architecturally. The city had in some sense collapsed in the course of two years, so it was an intense historical moment and a very formative one.

I always wanted to write about those early ‘90s years in L.A., so I did. The novel is fictional, but very much based on what was happening around me during that time. I anticipated the events two years earlier in the book, but even though I landed in L.A. in 1994, all people talked about was riots and earthquakes.

Q: Why did you decide to write the book using a first-person narrator?

A: I am a great fan of the first-person narrator. I like the idea of a voice that is reliable, but not necessarily trustworthy.

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to recreate Los Angeles in the early-to-mid 1990s?

A: I live in Rome and I had just had my first baby when I started working on the novel so I couldn't travel much. My partner was quite amazing and supported me when I went on a couple of research trips to L.A.

I also relied on David Ulin's anthology Writing Los Angeles. It is the most comprehensive and vibrant collection of writing about the city. Having it by my bedside table made it so I could always feel like I had a foot in the Pacific Ocean.

I discovered an incredible writer in the anthology named Lynell George. She had a heartbreaking story called "City of Specters." It held the exact mood of those early ‘90s shape-shifting times.

She captured a city of ghosts and miracles and violence and misery, but also of hope and powerful, redeeming nature. "In junior high we went to more funerals than weddings." I think that really sums it up.

Q: The middle of the book includes a section where Eugenia returns to Italy. Why did you decide to include that rather than focus it entirely on her time in Los Angeles?

A: I wanted to show that once you migrate your country, whoever you are, you are doomed to feel displaced in the world. Eugenia spends her first year in L.A. romanticizing Rome and thinking about the day when she'll finally go back to Italy, but when she returns she is able to see that her home country is an equally violent and alienating place.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am starting research on my next novel. It's still going to be set in Los Angeles and I'll still be writing about artists and expats, except it's set in the ‘30s.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I will be doing reading and book presentations in August, both in California and on the East Coast. Check my website for updates!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Elaine M. Hayes

Elaine M. Hayes is the author of the new biography Queen of Bebop: The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan. She was editor of the magazine Earshot Jazz and has contributed to Seattle magazine, and has taught classes on jazz, classical, and world music. She lives in Seattle.

Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of Sarah Vaughan, and how many "musical lives" did she have?

A: I didn’t discover Sarah Vaughan until college, and I was immediately drawn to her singing. I loved the way her voice sounded, the musical choices she made, and the sheer presence she exuded when she sang.

A couple of years later, I had an opportunity to study her in graduate school. This is when I learned more about the woman behind the music.

I was fascinated with how she, often the only woman in the band, immersed herself in the very masculine world of jazz. How she always stood up for herself and her musical choices. She insisted on singing the way she wanted, regardless of what others expected.

And I admired her lifelong mission to defy categorization, even when the world around her wanted to label and pigeonhole her. I found this all incredibly powerful and moving.

But after finishing my degree, I left Sarah behind. I went off and lived my life and pursed other projects. I always assumed that someone else would write the biography Sarah Vaughan deserved. (There were already two attempts, but both seemed incomplete.) This never happened, so a few years ago, I decided to do it myself.

Sarah Vaughan had many musical lives. She really could do it all. As a child, she sang spirituals in her church choir and played classical piano. In her teens, as a girl singer in the big bands, she was as at the forefront of bebop, the new avant-garde style that defined the direction of modern jazz.

She also sang exquisite romantic ballads and delightful showtunes. She recorded cheesy pop hits in the 1950s and later made forays into R&B, rockabilly, rock n’ roll, and disco, though she hated these. In the 1970s and 1980s, she became a master of Brazilian music and an operatic diva performing with the word’s finest symphony orchestras. She even did an album where she sang the poetry of a young Pope John Paul II.

She was always exploring, stretching, and trying new things. At her core, she was a singer and creative being.

Queen of Bebop is organized around three phases, or crossover moments, in Sarah’s career: her journey from church girl in Newark to big band girl singer; her transition from bebop innovator to pop star; and finally her transition from jazz icon to symphonic diva.

Q: How did you research the book, and was there anything that especially surprised you in the course of your research?

A: I love immersing myself in the past and sifting through old newspapers, magazines, and recordings. It’s like a treasure hunt and you never know what gems you are going to find.

So I visited a lot of archives and took full advantage of all of the new databases of digitized periodicals that have popped up in the past 10 years. I looked at publications by both the black and white press—be it newspapers from the big cities and tiny towns where Vaughan toured; trade journals like Variety, Billboard, Metronome, and Down Beat; or lifestyle magazines like Life and Ebony.

I then supplemented this wtih my own interviews of her friends and co-workers, oral histories, tapes of old radio shows, press releases, re-discovered videos of her live performances, private tapes of her rehearsals and chats with friends, and, of course, the writings of other historians. In the end, a rich, very dynamic and vibrant portrait of Sarah Vaughan emerged.

There were many surprises. Some came in the form of wonderful anecdotes about Sarah rubbing shoulders with her fellow giants of the day. (I’m not going to spill the beans on these here!)

Others were disheartening. I uncovered new stories about the racism she faced and the true extent of the domestic abuse she experienced. The abuse, in particular, was very difficult for me to write about.

For me, however, the most pleasant surprise was re-discovering Sarah’s own voice. When I first began studying her almost 20 years ago, I couldn’t find that many interviews with her and biographies really didn’t include many of her own words. There seemed to be a void.

Sarah was a quiet, introverted woman, and the interviews that she did give were often curt, abrupt, and adversarial. So I assumed that she simply didn’t give that many interviews.

This was not the case. Thanks to these new, remarkable databases of digital newspapers, I discovered that Sarah, in fact, did many interviews. (She still didn’t enjoy them, but she gave them.)

And here I found more examples of her humor and wit, musings on society and the music industry, and her place in it. She was remarkably consistent in her worldviews. Whenever possible, I’ve re-inserted Sarah’s voice into her life story.

Q: What are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about Vaughan?

A: One of the most enduring myths about Sarah is that she was the creation of her first husband-manager. He’s often described as a Pygmalion or Svengali-like figure who masterminded a dramatic, glamorizing makeover that jumpstarted her career.

Well, it’s more complicated than this. This myth was, in fact, the product of an elaborate publicity campaign devised by her husband to assert more control in their crumbling personal and professional partnership. Queen of Bebop delves deeper, separating fact from fiction while considering why this myth has endured.

Another aspect of Sarah’s legacy that has been overlooked is her involvement with the development of bebop, alongside luminaries like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, in the early 1940s. She was in the thick of it, keeping up with all of the boys, and she played an important role in popularizing the music of her fellow bebop instrumentalists.

Today Sarah is best known for her slow, romantic ballads, which don’t fit our preconceptions of bebop singing. But much of her musical style—her harmonic language and how she used her voice—and, most importantly, her worldviews were established during her early bebop days.

Q: What is her legacy today?

A: There is no doubt that Sarah Vaughan has influenced the generations of vocalists who followed in her wake. When I’m listening to jazz singers, I often hear a vocal inflection or turn of phrase that reminds me of Sarah.

But I think a more lasting part of her legacy is that she really changed the way that vocalists, especially women, thought about their voices, their approach to making music, and their role in an ensemble. 

When I interviewed singers, they told me how much they learned from watching and listening to Sarah. They saw the unwavering respect that the guys in the band had for her, the intimate musical conversations that she had with musicians, how she owned her musical choices, and it reminded them that they were more than just a “chick singer.” They were serious musicians too.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m still in the land of Sarah Vaughan, which is fine by me. I love her! And now that the book is out, people are sharing their Sarah Vaughan stories with me. This has been wonderful. It gives me new ways to think about Sarah, her legacy, and how she moved her listeners. So don’t hesitate to reach out if you have a favorite Sassy memory!

I’ve also been spending more time with my son. He heads off to kindergarten [soon], and I want to treasure these last moments while he’s still my little boy.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Well, I’d like to encourage people to listen to more Sarah Vaughan! If you are already a fan, keep on listening. And if you are new to Sarah, here are a few of my favorites to get you started:

Over the Rainbow” (television broadcast, Holland, 1958) Check out what she does at the 2:54 mark. Amazing!

Don’t Blame Me” (from One Night Stand: The Town Hall Concert, live 1947)

Shulie a Bop” (from Images, 1954, EmArcy)

Whatever Lola Wants” (1955, Mercury)

Send in the Clowns  (live, Playboy Jazz Festival, early 1980s)

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 16

Aug. 16, 1888: T. E. Lawrence born.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Q&A with Julie Sternberg

Julie Sternberg is the author of the new children's novel Everything's Changed and the new picture book Puppy, Puppy, Puppy. Her other books for kids include Bedtime at Bessie and Lil's and Secrets Out!. She is the co-creator of Play Memory, a resource for middle school teachers, and she lives in Brooklyn.

Q: Everything's Changed is your third book about your character Celie. How do you think she's changed over the course of the three books, and did you know you'd be writing a series from the beginning?

A: In the beginning I had no idea Celie would get a series. I just set out to write a story about a girl who hates change and is confronting quite a lot of it.  

In the first book Celie’s best friend has stopped speaking to her; her sister is making decisions she doesn’t understand; and her grandmother has started behaving strangely. It was an unexpected treat to get to continue the story for two more books.  

In the most recent installment, Celie is having to adjust to dramatic developments—a new apartment, a new school, new friends. She’s taking risks she never would have dreamed of when the series began.  

She’s also learning, I think, that she will inevitably make mistakes; that her friends and family will, too; and that it’s important to forgive.

Q: Why did you decide to write this series in a diary format?

A: I didn’t start out using a diary format. I initially tried stringing together the different kinds of writings that can fill kids’ days—notes passed in class while the teacher isn’t looking, for example; texts with friends; homework assignments; family notes left on the kitchen table.  

But the writings ended up feeling too spare and disjointed on their own. So my editor and I decided Celie could tape them into her diary and add context and depth with her journal entries.  

Q: You also have a new picture book out this year, Puppy, Puppy, Puppy. What do you hope your young audience takes away from the story?

A: My family got a puppy a few years back, and it quickly became clear that puppies and babies can make life difficult for grownups in virtually identical ways. But we’ll do anything for them; and, if they bond, they’ll do anything for each other. In Puppy, Puppy, Puppy, I try to capture all of that in an entertaining way. 

Q: What do you think Fred Koehler's illustrations add to the book?

A: The book is infinitely funnier, more poignant, and more alive because of Fred’s illustrations. One of the very best things about being a children’s book writer is getting to send words on a page to illustrators like Fred and then marveling at the visual worlds they create.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: When I was growing up, my family owned a department store on Main Street in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. We were one of the relatively few Jewish families in town.  

For a very long time I’ve wanted to use those details—department store, Jewish family, Southern town—as the backdrop for a children’s book. I’ve tried many versions; and I think I’ve finally come up with one that works, if I can finish it well. We’ll see!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Danya Kukafka

Danya Kukafka is the author of the new novel Girl in Snow, which focuses on the aftermath of a high school student's murder. She is an assistant editor at Riverhead Books.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Girl in Snow?

A: Girl in Snow started with Cameron’s character. I had just read two books that really made me think—The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky.

I started to wonder: what happens if you have a sympathetic teenage boy, who genuinely doesn’t know if he has killed someone? Can you love him anyway? I formed the whole plot of the book around this idea.

Q: You tell the story from three characters' perspectives. Did you write the book in the order in which it appears, or did you focus more on one character at a time?

A: I wrote the book one character at a time, actually—so not in order at all! I wrote an entire draft from Cameron’s perspective. Once that was finished and I had the general storyline figured out, I wrote all of Jade’s chapters and added them in. Russ came much later. 

Q: Did you know the ending before you started writing, or did you change things along the way?

A: I changed a lot during revision—I always knew who had killed Lucinda, but the amount of information the reader got along the way changed constantly throughout the editorial process.

In the end, I had to sit down and decide how much I wanted the reader to have, and edit accordingly. I had to be sure the ending made sense, and that it would satisfy a reader.

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?

A: I love writers who do new and exciting things with the mystery form. Megan Abbott is one of my favorites, and I also love Celeste Ng, Kazuo Ishiguro, Jeffrey Eugenides and Alice Sebold. I’m also a big fan of the bold genre-benders, like Maggie Nelson and Jenny Offill. My favorite writer of all time, though, is J.K. Rowling.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on a new novel. It’s still very young, but it feels so nice to be doing something new!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 15

Aug. 15, 1885: Edna Ferber born.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Q&A with Andrea J. Loney

Andrea J. Loney is the author of the new children's picture book Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee!, which looks at the life of the Harlem-based photographer. She also has written the picture book Bunnybear. She lives in Los Angeles.

Q: Why did you decide to write this picture book of photographer James VanDerZee, and what do you see as his legacy today? 

A: Ever since I was a kid, I loved looking through vintage Victorian-style photographs of African Americans. Years later I read a biography of James VanDerZee and discovered that even though he took up photography as a child, then took tens of thousands of photos throughout his career, he didn’t get “discovered” as an artist until he was in his 80s!

That’s when I realized that I just had to find a way to share his amazing comeback story with children. Ultimately, I think James VanDerZee's legacy lies in his ability to capture the love, pride, and joy of the people of Harlem over the decades, one photo portrait at a time.

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

A: I read everything I could find on James VanDerZee, I looked at hundreds of his photographs, I spoke to people who'd met him --  including his widow -- and I even ended up searching through public records online to fill in some of his family details.

While researching his life I was particularly intrigued by the fact that James VanDerZee never formally studied photography. Although he studied the pamphlets that came with his cameras, he mostly learned the craft of taking and developing portraits by trial and error.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from James VanDerZee’s story?

A: After reading Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee!, I hope that readers will feel inspired to pursue their own dreams, no matter how far away they may seem at the moment. I also hope that it inspires them to take more pictures of their own loved ones.

Q: What do you think Keith Mallett’s illustrations added to the book?

A: Keith Mallett's illustrations are the perfect match for the rich, vibrant, and nostalgic feeling I wanted to create with this book. The amount of artistic and historical detail he used to bring this story to life is truly breathtaking.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: In 2019 I have a new picture book coming out with Random House Knopf -- Double Bass Blues, illustrated by Rudy Gutierrez. But for now, I am working on several different picture books.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Honestly, I am just thrilled that this book is finally out so I can share the details of James VanDerZee's life with the world. He was a remarkable man who created remarkable works. Thank you for interviewing me about the book.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb