Sunday, August 25, 2019

Q&A with Lori Handeland

Lori Handeland is the author of the new novel Just Once, her women's fiction debut. She has written more than 60 novels, including romance and urban fantasy, and she lives in Wisconsin.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Just Once, and for your characters, Frankie, Hannah, and Charley?

A: The idea for Just Once came to me over a decade ago when my father, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated photojournalist, was dying of bone cancer. As I sat with him, he suddenly cried out “Where’s your mother? Why isn’t she here?” I could tell he didn’t remember that he and my mother had been divorced for over 20 years and he was married to someone else. And it made me think, what if . . .?

Over the years in between I tried many times to begin the book, but it was too soon. Eventually the time was just right.

There are many things about Charley that are like my father—the talent, the eye, the belief that photojournalism is a sacred calling to illustrate the truth. Many things are also different. Charley was young enough to go to Vietnam. He was in the Army, not the Air Force. He had an easier upbringing but a more tragic family life. It’s the way of fiction to pick and choose.

Frankie and Hannah are totally fictional and came to me as I wrote, as most of my characters do. They talk, they live, they think, they feel, and I decide what to keep and what to toss as they become alive to me and, hopefully, to you.

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 always know the beginning and the ending of my books. How I get there changes along the way. In this case, I “saw” the ending of Just Once clearly enough to make me cry but the ending also gave me hope that forgiveness can heal, and love can change everything.

Q: This novel marks something of a departure for you in your writing. Is your writing process the same regardless of the genre?

A: I was just discussing this with another writer friend who had moved from romance to women’s fiction and we both agreed that the process is both the same and slightly different. I always blab out my first drafts, then read and rewrite, read and rewrite. However, my romances were lineal, so the rewriting was reworking, tightening and so on.

My women’s fiction takes place during several time periods, for Just Once the ‘70s, ‘90s and present day, with all the characters’ stories eventually converging in the present day. This took extensive planning along with color coded charts—not kidding. I also discovered myself moving sections, combining sections, re-researching sections, changing points of view. Something I did not do when writing romance.

Q: What are some of your favorite books?

A: The Stand by Stephen King
Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase
Heaven, Texas by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K. Hamilton
The Perfect Couple by Elin Hilderbrand

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A book set during the Summer of Love, 1967, and tentatively titled Suddenly That Summer where a brother and a sister come to the same conclusion about the Vietnam War in two very different places.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just Once will be available for the first time in trade paperback on Aug. 30 in the U.K. and Oct. 1 in the U.S.

To keep up to date with what I’ve got going on you can join me on Facebook and Instagram, or sign up for my newsletter.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb 

Aug. 25

Aug. 25, 1836: Bret Harte born.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Q&A with Marlena Maduro Baraf

Marlena Maduro Baraf is the author of the new memoir At the Narrow Waist of the World. Born in Panama, she moved to the United States as a teenager. She worked as a book editor at Harper & Row and McGraw-Hill.

Q: Why did you decide to write At the Narrow Waist of the World, and how was the book’s title chosen?

A: I didn’t decide. It really took me by surprise. I’d signed up for a course in creative writing at the Sarah Lawrence Writing Institute near me in Westchester. “Finding Your Voice,” wonderful teacher and seven other writers.

One of the first assignments was to write about a very painful moment in our lives. This one thing surfaced for me. I saw myself at the age of 5 or 6 carrying a white tray with hinged sides, hot milk in the Noritake cup and an English silver setting. I was taking dinner to my mother who was very troubled at the time and was in her bed. A story follows that I won’t reveal here.

This is how the memoir began, inauspiciously, a collage of memories that describe a difficult but also a loving childhood. The title for that first scene was “Mami,” and that’s the name that felt right for what became a memoir.

Over the years I found a group of talented writers to meet with and share our developing work. They were all novelists; I was the only memoirist. We adore each other still today.

Someone suggested I consider another title, something lyrical with the feel of the memoir. There was a line in the book describing the Canal Zone as “a cinch belt that cut across the narrow waist of Panama.” 

The key was “waist,” symbolic of so much. Feminine, like the two main characters. It was also visually Panama, a narrow isthmus that connects North and South America—and the center of the world during my childhood. When I tried “At the Narrow Waist of the World,” we knew it was right.

Q: You write, “I am becoming more and more fascinated by multilingual writing.” Can you say more about you how you employ it in your work?

A: I couldn’t leave out the Spanish of my childhood. Spanish expressions came loaded with feeling and connections to the culture in which I grew up. Phrases that my mother used, for example, are inseparable from who she was.

I tried to weave in the Spanish phrases in a descriptive context that made their meaning clear in English; I almost never employed a literal translation. Readers say it works. People tell me I should do podcast readings because the mix of languages is especially beautiful.

Q: Did you remember most of the details you write about, or did you need to do research to recreate some of the scenes in the book?

A: Most are from my own memory because I was trying to access lived experience. 

But I did rely on my sister and two brothers for their own experiences with our Mami and also things that happened when I was no longer living in Panama. I interviewed elders in the family for details in the past, because I go into generations before mine. I called my old U.S. college roommate, found her in Washington state. That was fun.

I used my sister as surrogate to interview a person in Panama who’d been important in my mother’s life. I interviewed my mother’s elderly psychiatrist by phone. I did extensive research on the history of the Spanish-Sephardic community in Panama and before--even though the memoir is a slender volume.

Q: What do your family members think of the book?

A: My sister and brothers have known all along about the book and have encouraged me to tell the truth of our childhood, It’s of course my version of it. They read portions published in journals. but they haven’t seen it all. I’m a little nervous about one or two scenes.

There’s a book fair in Panama about to begin and I’ll be there and try to communicate the themes and ideas around the memoir in Spanish. I’ll find out what my extended family thinks. I call them the galaxy; we are such a close-knit group.

In the memoir I am revealing family truths, and each person has their own memories and experiences with much of what I’ve written. They’ll either be thrilled to read versions of what they know or upset by my saying certain things in public. I’ve used real names. Please wish me luck!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m so busy now with the launch of the book, articles. events, of course. But once things settle down, I will continue to interview Hispanics in this country, a series I begun called Soy/Somos, I am/We are. I’ve interviewed about 14 people so far. I’d also like to pursue poetry in a serious way.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The broad theme of this memoir-- resonant today—is that there are so many of us in this beautiful country of the U.S. whose backgrounds are mixed in some way. There is intermarriage across culture and race. We travel. We stay in touch with people in other societies via the internet, WhatsApp calls, and so on. These are riches we have and should celebrate.

Not least—Deborah--thank you for this lovely opportunity to tell you about At the Narrow Waist of the World.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 24

Aug. 24, 1936: A.S. Byatt born.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Q&A with Anna Crowley Redding

Anna Crowley Redding is the author of the new young adult biography Elon Musk: A Mission to Save the World. She also has written the YA book Google It: A History of Google. She previously worked as a television investigative reporter and anchor.

Q: Why did you decide to write about Elon Musk?

A: My editor, Holly West, came to me with this amazing idea for a book. Already a space fan, I dove right in. My boys and I watch every SpaceX launch that we can. Holly is so excited about technology and the stories behind the scenes. So between her passion and mine, this book sprung to life! 

Q: You begin the book with a discussion of comic book superhero Tony Stark. Why did you start there?

A: When you start with this parallel between Elon and Tony Stark, you are really looking at him the way most people do… this larger-than-life billionaire who is doing amazing things. But that’s a view from the outside looking in.

So, to start there and quickly pivot to Elon’s back story, his childhood (which is really heartbreaking at times), that approach gives us the chance to peel back the onion layers and really get to know who he is and what’s driving him. 

That, to me, is an interesting way to immediately contrast the way the world sees Elon with who Elon really is by learning about these critical events that shaped him.

Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything especially surprising?

A: Researching this book was so much fun. 

First step is following Elon’s Twitter feed and monitoring the oodles of daily headlines he generates. 

Not only did I read every interview I could find and watch every piece of video that he’s appeared in, but I did something else super fun. I read all the books that were important to him and informed his thinking and the way he solves problems. And I listed them in the book so readers can do the same thing. 

Full disclosure: I did not read the more technical information about rocketry!

Additionally, talking off-the-record to former employees was also hugely helpful in gaining context for the timeline and the stakes Elon’s always staring down.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from Musk's story?

A: I hope that readers take away his sense of commitment to humanity and the planet and his willingness to fail in order to try and solve problems.

One critical take away is this idea: don’t ever give up. We are facing huge problems as a species, catastrophic climate change being number one, and for young readers to see this one example of a problem solver, I think it’s important. This next generation has a tough road ahead and their critical thinking skills will be the difference.

Also, the bullying that Elon endured as a kid was so extreme and so painful and yet here he is...I truly hope that any young people who are facing that level of crisis in their own lives will be inspired by the way he survived.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Oh my goodness! I am hard at work on multiple projects right now and they range from picture book biography, to chapter book series, to another super science middle grade. And I’m so excited about them all.

This spring, my first picture book will debut and I just love the story. Rescuing the Declaration of Independence: How We Almost Lost the Words That Built America is a nonfiction picture book biography about a forgotten hero named Stephen Pleasonton. 

This man was a lowly clerk at the state department during the War of 1812. And he gets this message from his boss, instructing him to save the “records.” Those records were the U.S. Constitution, Declaration of Independence, George Washington’s journals, and other critical documents.

So Stephen sets out on a wild journey to save the words that built this country. If not for him, they would have been destroyed by the British. 

Best of all, this book is illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham who is so talented and his treatment of this story is so energetic and engaging. Oh, I just can’t wait! This book is being published by HarperCollins in April of 2020.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Keep watching Elon. It will be so interesting to see what catches his commitment and drive next. He is often leading the way to topics or problems or research areas that will soon be hugely important. 

And one of the interesting things about Elon is he communicates about failure all the time. He doesn’t wait until the problem is solved to reveal the solution. He is constantly talking about the process. And that is so very interesting. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Anna Crowley Redding.

Aug. 23

Aug. 23, 1868: Edgar Lee Masters born.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Q&A with Eric Steven Zimmer

Eric Steven Zimmer is the author of the new book The Question Is "Why?": Stanford M. Adelstein: A Jewish Life in South Dakota. Zimmer is a senior historian at Vantage Point Historical Services, Inc., and is the co-author of the book Expanding the Energy Horizon. He is based in Rapid City, South Dakota.

Q: Why did you write this biography of philanthropist Stanford M. Adelstein?

A: This is one of those great questions that has several different answers, ranging from the pragmatic to the deeply personal. I’ll start with the former. In short, this project came to me through my now-employer, Vantage Point History.

When I was first approached about the book, I was just finishing my Ph.D. in the History Department at the University of Iowa. I was about to return home to spend a fellowship year finalizing my dissertation and wasn’t sure what to do next, so tried to keep my prospects open.

Sitting in my office in Schaeffer Hall, I received a call with the offer to come back to South Dakota, join Vantage Point, and launch my new gig with a book about Stan Adelstein. 

I was new to the world of client-based history and to writing biographies, so it seemed like a great challenge. Now, almost four years later, I just feel very fortunate to have received this opportunity, and even more grateful that I wasn’t foolish enough to let it slip by!

Personally, however, I felt quite drawn to this project from the very start. Rapid City is a small place, and although I had met Stan Adelstein before, I didn’t know him well. And I knew very little about Jewish people, history, or culture, largely because South Dakota has such a small Jewish community. And I certainly hadn’t studied Jewish history in graduate school. I was curious about the chance to dive into a new subject.

But, deep down, I also understood that because Stan was involved in various aspects of state and local politics and civic life in South Dakota—as it turns out, he was far more involved than I had ever imagined—this project would give me an excuse and an interesting new angle from which to explore the history of my community and region. 

That’s part of the reason why the book offers such a deeply contextualized biography of Stan’s life, situating his family’s journey and his life story within broader historical contexts.

Q: How much did you work with him on the book, and what other research did you do?

A: The Question Is "Why?" is based on an enormous amount of research, including many extended oral history interviews with Adelstein and his friends, family members, and business associates. I read widely on a variety of topics—ranging from the history of Jewish immigration to the U.S., to U.S./Israeli affairs, to the history of the Black Hills, and state and national politics.

I also worked in several archives, most prominently Adelstein’s papers in his company’s private collection—some 80 boxes of correspondence, reports, and internal documents that captured Stan’s life. Several university archives and research institutions across the country also held papers relevant to the story, and Stan and some of his family members read drafts and made suggestions here and there, but almost always as a way to clarify a fact or story, or to fill in gaps left empty by the documentary record.

Q: How was the book's title chosen?

A: The title derives from a story Stan tells about a crystallizing moment in his life. Readers can get the full story on the interior flap of the book jacket or in the preface that Stan wrote. 

But I’ll give the Cliff Notes: In the summer of 1965, Stan and his wife, Ita, were one of 22 young Jewish couples who visited Israel as part of the first outreach mission sponsored by the American Jewish Committee. At the time, the Jewish communities in the U.S. and Israel were struggling through some deep divisions, so this trip was, on its own, an important turning point in the relationship between these groups.

Former Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion attended one of the meet-and-greet events for the AJC mission. While Stan was in Israel, he had grown used to people being surprised to hear that there were Jewish people in South Dakota—many, in fact, didn’t even know where South Dakota was. So he had drawn a little map on a slip of paper, and when people would ask, he’d pull it out and show them where South Dakota was in relation to the rest of the U.S.

When Ben-Gurion approached Stan at the party, Adelstein nervously reached in his pocket, preparing to pull out his map. Sensing what Stan was about to do, Ben-Gurion walked over, put his hand up, and said something like “the question isn’t where you’re from, the question is why you live there.” A devoted Zionist, Ben-Gurion firmly believed that all Jewish people should move to Israel and help build the nascent state.

As he tells it, Stan surprised himself by saying, “It’s my mission as a Jew.” In other words, he felt that a long history of circumstance and chance had landed his family on the rural prairies of western South Dakota, and it was his mission to live out his Jewish values and preserve Jewish culture in that part of the world.

To Adelstein, this moment set the tone for his life’s work, so it made the perfect—and, we hope, evocative—title for his biography.

Q: How would you describe the Jewish community in South Dakota?

A: Small, welcoming, and humblingly persistent. South Dakota has historically had an extremely small Jewish population. In fact, it may be the state with the fewest Jewish people per capital of any state. Stan likes to point out to people that “South Dakota has fewer rabbis than U.S. senators.”

As a result, there’s very little historical material to work with, and when I started the project, I had virtually no knowledge of Jewish culture other than what a person gleans from movies and popular culture. 

Rapid City has a small synagogue, called the Synagogue of the Hills, which Adelstein helped found in the 1960s. For decades, the congregation bounced around, meeting for the High Holidays, weddings, and funerals in the attics of local churches and in the mess halls of a nearby Air Force base.

For the last few years, they’ve been meeting in a small house that Adelstein donated, which happens to be a few blocks from my home. I’ve visited the synagogue a few times, attending holiday services, researching in their little library, and meeting with members of the congregation. I’ve rarely met a more genuine and warm group of people, nor one so dedicated to carving a little space to carry forth their spirituality on this predominately Christian landscape.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Oh, wow. As I mentioned earlier, I’m a consultant at a company called Vantage Point History, and we’re working on all kinds of fascinating projects. They include major museum exhibits for a couple of Native American tribes, an exhibit and interpretive tour centering on the history of brothels and sex work in Deadwood, South Dakota (yes, that Deadwood), and an oral history project for one of the largest philanthropic organizations in the world.

On the side, I’m also working on publishing my dissertation, “Red Earth Nation: Environment and Sovereignty in Modern Meskwaki History,” with a university press. That book offers a history of the Meskwaki Nation, a small Native American community in Iowa, and explores the possibilities of tribal land reclamation in the United States. 

I’m also part of the Rapid City Indian Lands Project, an ongoing, volunteer research initiative looking at the history of property dispossession and urban segregation here in my hometown. We hope to draft a book-length writeup of that project in the next couple of years.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: If it’s not too shameless of a plug, your readers can learn more about The Question is “Why?” by visiting here or looking up the book on Facebook. Also, anyone interested in my other project can visit here or here.

Finally, thanks so much for the chance to share a little about my work! 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb