Monday, October 24, 2016

Q&A with Gayle Forman

Gayle Forman is the author of the new novel Leave Me. Her other books include the young adult novels I Was Here and Just One Day. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Seventeen and Cosmopolitan. She lives in Brooklyn. 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Leave Me, and for your main character, Maribeth? 

A: Several years ago I was on a family vacation when I started having chest pains. This was frightening for a number of reasons—my mother had her first bypass surgery at 48 in spite of having no visible risk factors or symptoms—but also because I had two young children.

If I needed this intense surgery, who would take care of my children? Who would take care of me?  I was the default mom who worked from home. I did everything. The book began almost as a revenge fantasy, but when it turned out my heart was fine, it went into the drawer.

It came out years later, this time with Maribeth. I had some things to say about parenthood and the assumption we still have that mothers are the default parent and should martyr themselves for their families and sacrifice themselves. I wanted to look at what happens when a mother rejects these ideas.

Q: Why did you decide to include the issue of adoption as one of the book's main themes?

A: My younger daughter is adopted. By the time I started writing again I’d begun to see what a tender spot the question of her mother—more specifically: why did she give me up?—was for her, and for most adoptees I met.

When Maribeth came to me, I knew she was adopted but I only realized why I’d made that decision until I was deep in the draft. So many people have “abandoned” her, and when her life almost does, all of the things she has kept buried (because who has time to deal with that?) come to the surface.

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

A: When I started it years ago, I wasn’t really thinking about the end, so much as the beginning: Mom has heart attack, bypass surgery, family can’t stop leaning on her so she runs away.  

When it came back to me, I had a sense of how it would end but there were lots of surprises, and many, many changes in the drafting.

Which is typical. You don’t know your characters so well in the beginning, and just as you get to know people in life through a series of interactions and conversations, so too with characters and novels.

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

A: My brilliant editor Amy Gash came up with the title. My original title was Bypass, and it sort of worked but not really, and not until you’d read the book.

I love Leave Me because it seems to leave a word out that readers can fill in. Leave me alone. Leave me be. Don’t leave me. All of these are resonant for Maribeth (and me).

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A young-adult novel, an ambitious one I’ve been trying to write for years. It’s unlike anything I’ve done before.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Hmmm. Not sure if you want to link but I’ve written a lot about my feelings about default parents, and the decision for my husband to become the default parent of ours.

Here’s one.

Here’s another.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Gayle Forman is participating in The Lessans Family Annual Book Festival at the Bender JCC of Greater Washington, which runs from Nov. 3-13, 2016.

Q&A with Lisa F. Smith

Lisa F. Smith is the author of the new book Girl Walks Out of a Bar, an addiction memoir. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune, among other publications. She is a lawyer, and she lives in New York City.

Q: How did you end up writing this memoir of addiction, and how difficult was it to write about your experiences?

A: I started writing as soon as I got out of the hospital detox in 2004. Somehow, I had managed to hide my addiction from my family and friends, so everyone had a million questions. What had happened? How it could have happened? Why I hadn’t asked for help if I was struggling so badly and in so much pain?

Newly sober, I was up at 5am, well before I had to get ready for work, and just started writing everything down. It was supposed to be a way to convey the story to those close to me, but I ended up loving the morning writing ritual, so I kept going.

Eventually, I started taking writing workshops and then evening classes at NYU. Over time I decided to make it a book in the hopes that I could help the next person struggling with addiction or trying to understand a loved one who is addicted.

I also feel strongly that the stigma surrounding addiction and mental health issues needs to be broken. That can only happen if people talk about it and write about it.

I found the writing process hugely cathartic. It helped me process what had happened. Of course, there are a lot of things in my past that I’m not proud of, but I had to write about some of them for the book to tell the story in a meaningful way.

Those scenes were particularly painful because in order to write them, I really had to put myself back into the brain and body of the person that I was in active addiction. It was like reliving some of the worst parts of my life.

Q: What impact did the detox program and its follow up have on your life, and why do you think you were able to stick with it while others you know have relapsed?

A: The detox and the follow up have completely changed my life – really gave me a chance to save my life. I didn’t think I’d live to see 40 and I happily and gratefully turned 50 this year.

There are two main reasons I think I have been fortunate enough not to relapse so far. First, I believe the doctors in the detox nailed my diagnosis. They told me I had Major Depressive Disorder, which likely had led me to drink and use drugs to self-medicate.

They put me on antidepressants immediately. I think once my brain chemistry problem was addressed, I had a much stronger chance to do the things I needed to do to stay sober.

I did try once to taper off and get off the antidepressants, just to see if I really needed them. The answer was, “yes.” I spiraled back into depression and then decided I would stay on the medication for good.

Second, I had a ton of support when I got out of detox. I hadn’t lost my family and friends. They wanted to do all they could to support me. I hadn’t lost my job. I hadn’t been arrested or worse. I was as well positioned as I could be to succeed.

It’s part of why I feel so strongly about speaking up to help the next person. I got lucky and want to help others who come out of detox or rehab with a rougher road.

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

A: It popped into my brain one day as I was walking to work in New York City. That half-hour walk entails passing about 20 bars on the west side and there was something about me walking past them every day that resonated. I knew I wanted something that didn’t sound depressing or humorless, so I stuck with it.

Q: What reactions have you heard from readers?

A: I feel really blessed that the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. Nothing makes me happier or more proud than hearing that it helped someone who is struggling with addiction or has a loved one struggling whom they’re trying to understand.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a new book. This one will be fiction, but again exposing what goes on behind closed doors among professionals in New York City. They seem to have these “perfect” lives, but actually are hiding some super dark secrets.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I feel strongly about drawing attention to the importance of this issue in the legal community. The American Bar Association and Hazelden Betty Ford released a joint study earlier this year that found that one in four lawyers suffers from a substance abuse disorder. (I wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post on it here.

That’s more than twice the general population and more than other professions. So, being able to help raise awareness of this issue in my field and talk about my personal experience with colleagues and other lawyers is a gift.

I want to do all I can in the legal community and beyond to help break the stigma that surrounds addiction and mental health issues. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Lisa F. Smith is participating in The Lessans Family Annual Book Festival at the Bender JCC of Greater Washington, which runs from Nov. 3-13, 2016.

Oct. 24

Oct. 24, 1904: Moss Hart born.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Oct. 23

Oct. 23, 1817: Pierre Larousse born.

Q&A with Debbie Levy

Debbie Levy is the author of the new children's picture book I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark. Her other books include We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song and The Year of Goodbyes. She has worked as a lawyer and a newspaper editor, and she lives in Maryland.

Q: Why did you decide to write a children's book about Ruth Bader Ginsburg?

A: I think RBG is such a great role model for kids! She’s been dissenting from creaky old ideas and objecting to unfairness since she was a kid herself, and she’s been a change-maker and a path-breaker through her disagreements.

Of course, there’s disagreeing and there’s disagreeing, as we’ve been made way too aware in this political season. There’s flailing, insulting, divisive disagreeing. Not to mention willfully uninformed disagreeing.

And there’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose approach to the proper, productive way to disagree and make change in our society is on display in statements she’s made like this one: “Sometimes people says unkind or thoughtless things, and when they do, it is best to . . . tune out and not snap back in anger or impatience.”

She shows that disagreeing doesn’t have to make you disagreeable. Is it any wonder that I think she’s a great person to introduce to young people in a picture book?

Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what do you think Ginsburg's dissents (on the Supreme Court and elsewhere) say about her?

A: I wrote the book’s title in the email I sent to my editor at Simon & Schuster last year in which I first proposed the “I dissent” theme for the book, and we never changed it!

I think Justice Ginsburg’s dissents reveal a person who will compromise on some issues but not on core principles; and I think they also show a person who hopes that, in time, more people will come around to a point of view closer to her own.

On this, RBG herself has quoted Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes: “A dissent in a Court of last resort is an appeal . . . to the intelligence of a future day. . . .”

Q: How did you research the book, and has RBG seen it?

A: I read endless articles (scholarly and journalistic), books, interviews, and blogs; I read Supreme Court opinions; I watched lots of interviews with RBG on video, and speeches that were recorded on video.

I also became a little bit addicted to audio recordings of her in the Supreme Court. You can listen online, at, to 40-year-old tapes of her arguments in the gender-discrimination cases she brought before the Court as an advocate!

On the Supreme Court’s website, you can listen to her as a justice from the bench questioning lawyers at oral arguments. Hard for me to tear myself away from this stuff. You know I’m a former lawyer!

And yes, she has seen the book! She was kind enough to review the manuscript last year before it went to press. And now she has the final book!

Q: Why do you think RBG has become such a celebrity, much more so than most Supreme Court justices?

A: Apart from the reasons I mentioned earlier about her being a role model who shows that disagreeing doesn’t make you disagreeable, and who shows that change can happen one disagreement a time?

I think a lot of people simply find this tiny 83-year-old grandmother, whose voice is so small people have to lean in to hear her, who speaks her mind, who helped create the field of gender discrimination law, who works out daily, who has lived and continues to live the fullest life she can . . . admirable. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on another nonfiction book about another remarkable woman who isn’t a celebrity at all—but who has a story that I think deserves to be told and that I really want to share with the world! More . . . another time.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Yes! My next book comes out in February 2017. It’s an 80-page picture book called Soldier Song: A True Story of the Civil War, illustrated by Gilbert Ford, and it’s about how music—and one song in particular—brought the two sides, North and South, together for one night after the bloody Battle of Fredericksburg. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Debbie Levy, please click here.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Q&A with Vanessa Hua

Vanessa Hua is the author of the new story collection Deceit and Other Possibilities. She is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, and has worked for the Los Angeles Times and the Hartford Courant. Her work has appeared in a variety of other publications, including The Atlantic and Guernica. She is based in San Francisco.

Q: Your website describes your characters as "immigrant families navigating a new America. Tied to their ancestral and adopted homelands...these memorable characters straddle both worlds but belong to none." Can you say more about this theme, and how it runs through your stories?

A: As the American-born child of Chinese immigrants, raised in a predominantly white suburb east of San Francisco, I knew from early on that I was different, that my family was different from my neighbors. What my parents could not or would not explain about the world outside our home, I figured out through observation and through books.

Later on, I became a journalist, seeking to shine a light onto untold stories about the immigrant experience and I carried that passion into my fiction.

Q: You note that you wrote the stories over a period of more than a decade. Do you see changes in your writing over that time?

A: There were flashes of quiet humor in my work, but in the stories I wrote more recently, I pushed myself to skate the line the between real and the over-the-top, in situations ever more desperate, ever more ridiculous yet tragic.

Q: Do you usually know how a story will end before you start writing, or do you make many changes along the way?

A: I usually don’t know the end when I start writing, but the more I enter the story, the more I understand the characters, the more the stakes are raised, the more the possibilities narrow until the ending feels – hopefully – inevitable to myself and to the reader.

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

A: When I submitted the manuscript to the Willow Books contest, it was entitled “The Responsibility of Deceit” – which happens to be the first story I ever published. I thought the phrase reflected the concerns of the characters throughout the collection.

As I proceeded through the publication process, I presented a few options to writer friends to make a final decision. Some thought “The Responsibility of Deceit” was clunky and might confuse potential readers. I considered “Deceit” or “Deceit and Other Stories” as alternatives.

I asked my mother-in-law her opinion and she repeated it back incorrectly, saying “Deceit and Other Possibilities,” instead of “and Other Stories.” Perfect! The dissonance of the phrase reflected how the characters carry out their secrets and lies with the best of intentions.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: In the spring, I landed a two-book deal at Ballantine. At present, I’m revising my debut novel, A River of Stars, about a Chinese factory clerk who comes to America to give birth, bestowing her child with U.S. citizenship. When her married lover betrays her, she flees.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Thank you for taking the time to read my book and to put together this interview series! 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 22

Oct. 22, 1887: John Reed born.