Monday, February 17, 2020

Q&A with Denis Defibaugh

Denis Defibaugh is the author of the new book of photography North by Nuuk: Greenland After Rockwell Kent. His other book is The Day of the Dead. He is a professor of photography at Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for North by Nuuk, and what inspired you about the work of artist Rockwell Kent?

A: I always had an interest in Rockwell Kent. His woodcut illustrations that he created for the Moby Dick publication of 1930 are amazing, historic, and prolific. The quality of his graphic art work always inspired.

While visiting the SUNY Plattsburgh Rockwell Kent Museum I was introduced to Kent’s photographs of Greenland and the lanternslides that he made following his visits to Greenland. These lanternslides were delicately housed in several small wooden boxes. Each one was like a gem as I viewed them on a lightbox.

This increased my curiosity about Kent in Greenland and my traveling to Greenland as a comparative study. I was inspired by the remote location of Kent’s photographs, the people that Kent so fondly described in his writings, and my intrigue with the idea of living in Kent’s “frozen Eden.”

The title, North by Nuuk, Greenland after Rockwell Kent, was derived from N by E, Kent’s first book that he wrote about his Greenland experiences.

Q: How did you select the photographs that appear in the book?

A: A long process of editing with the help of many people brought together photographs that represented the primal landscape, cultural landscape, and people of Greenland in the four communities that I lived and photographed.

After editing to 300-500 images I was helped by editors Whitney Tressel, Ken Geiger, and photographer Gregory Halpern to finalize the edit for the book.

Q: What do you think the book says about Greenland and its people?

A: I hope the book shows the resourcefulness of the Inuit people, the immense beauty of Greenland, and the Inuit culture and lifestyle.

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

A: Fifteen months of living in Greenland enabled an unforgettable life experience in the communities that I photographed.  

My total engagement with Inuits in their work, play, celebrations, joys, sadness, and daily life enriched my research commitment. I photographed every day in Greenland while experiencing dog sledging, fishing, hunting, kaffemiks, frozen fjords, the arts, culture, and life from quiet settlements of 70 people to vibrant and contemporary Nuuk.

In addition, the project team and I worked with communities and taught eight photography workshops to Inuit students in middle schools with the support of their teachers. Nikon provided cameras and we provided photo basics. The students had about two weeks to photograph their families, friends, and community.

At the end of the two-to-four-week workshops I printed photographs from every student for an exhibition at their school. This became a very popular event. It helped the community learn about our research project and for us to learn about the community. We worked with over 140 students during the workshops.

Twenty-seven one-hour-long video interviews were also produced during my time in Greenland. All but a few of the interviews are in Greenlandic language. The translations and transcripts of the video interviews were very helpful in learning about past and present Greenland.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am still working on this project to gain exhibition opportunities, to promote the book and exhibition, and to send books to many of the people that supported the project.

I hope to produce a photobook of ICE from additional photographs from Greenland. And possibly a book that is more abstract. A study of an ancient glacial runoff flat near Kangerlussuaq, Greenland.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: While my research and photography was directed at the culture and landscape of Greenland, there is much to be said about climate change that is surely affecting the island and its ice cap.

Settlements have been evacuated due to unstable mountains and melting permafrost that has threatened the safety of some areas. The hunting and fishing culture of Greenland is changing and Inuits are adapting to these changes.

"This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Award No. PLR-1524176. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation."

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 17

Feb. 17, 1929: Chaim Potok born.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Q&A with Elleke Boehmer

Elleke Boehmer is the author of the new story collection To the Volcano and Other Stories. Her other books include the novels Screens Against the Sky and The Shouting in the Dark. She is Professor of World Literature in English at the University of Oxford, and she lives in Oxford, UK.

Q: Over how long a period did you write the stories in your new collection?

A: The stories in To the Volcano were written across an intensive period of about three years, from late 2015 following the publication of my novel The Shouting in the Dark, to 2018.

In this period I was fortunate to be able to travel to and through a number of different countries in the far southern hemisphere, and reflect on their contrasts and correspondences, and, especially, their remoteness and their specialness.

Some of the perceptions and ideas on which the stories draw, however, date from far further back.

The first story, “The Child in the Photograph”, has been with me as a preoccupation for many years, for example; the same applies to “Paper Planes”, though its theme, of dementia and the relationship between the elderly and the very young, is very different.

Q: How did you choose the order in which the stories would appear in the book?

A: Sifting and sorting the 12 stories into the order in which they appear in the collection was an interesting challenge.

It was important to me, first, that the two longer short stories, both of which reflect on lives beyond their endpoints, or on life beyond a character's death, as perceived by their loved ones, appeared at the end of the collection, and, second, that “Evelina”, a response to James Joyce's “Eveline”, appeared as the fourth story, as “Eveline” does in Dubliners.

Beyond that, there was a certain amount of chopping and changing, as I wanted to make sure that neighbouring stories resonated.

So we see for example that both “The Child in the Photograph” and “South, North” are about women characters travelling to northern European countries with large hopes, and then finding that the reality there doesn't quite meet their expectations.

Q: How was the book's title--also the title of one of the stories--chosen?

A: As my editors at Myriad will remember, we thought about many different titles before To the Volcano sprang into focus. We wanted to capture the theme of distance and remoteness, but the title South on its own didn't quite cut it, it wasn't evocative enough.

When the title of the third story emerged, though, we knew it was exactly right, signalling as it does journey and quest, reaching for somewhere and then finding that what you encounter is not quite what you were anticipating.

I also enjoyed the resonance of Malcolm Lowry and Virginia Woolf, and, as readers of the story “To the Volcano” will discover, the partial joke that's buried in the title about the volcano in question. 

Q: What additional themes do you see running through the collection?

A: As well as the themes of remoteness and encounter across distance I've already mentioned, and also of places and people eluding our expectations, a thread that runs throughout, perhaps it runs through much of my work, is the idea that the prizes we most fervently seek might be closer to home than we imagine: that thing about arriving where we began and knowing the place for the very first time...

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I've begun a new novel, a love story, about Antarctica, about a passionate love affair between two people, one on the white continent, one elsewhere, that is necessarily carried on remotely, and the consequences of this remoteness for that passion. So the theme of distance will continue. Albatrosses will feature prominently, and the demands and pitfalls of keeping a promise.

I'm also starting on a new short story collection -- I've really got the form now, or it has got me, and can't stop! I currently have three stories on the blocks I'm reasonably happy with.

In the remaining time I'm also beginning a literary history of the far southern hemisphere: the environmental and climactic themes are already proving to be very intriguing. I'm thinking about sharks coasting along the powerful currents of the Southern Ocean, and related topics. More albatrosses!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: All of the characters in To the Volcano stepped forward for me in really strong and compelling ways as I wrote the stories. They had voice, vision, a definite shape. I hope that's how it appears to the reader too.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 16

Feb. 16, 1904: George F. Kennan born.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Q&A with Philip Cioffari

Philip Cioffari is the author of the new novel If Anyone Asks, Say I Died from the Heartbreaking Blues. His other books include The Bronx Kill and Catholic Boys, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including North American Review and Michigan Quarterly Review. He is professor of English at William Paterson University in New Jersey.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your new novel, and for your character Hunt?

A: I came up with the idea for If Anyone Asks, Say I Died from the Heartbreaking Blues in a circuitous way.

For years, off and on, I’d been writing stories set in the time period of the novel—the late ‘50s and ‘60s in New York City. These stories often featured a young male protagonist struggling with entry into the adult world, in other words, coming of age stories.

I think for this book I wanted a larger canvas, a transformational event that would include many of those struggles that we confront on our way to adulthood. One’s 18th birthday is generally accepted as a key demarcation point. So I combined this with senior prom night—two pivotal events in any teenager’s life—and I had my basic structure.

The character of Hunt, my protagonist, came about as an amalgamation of the protagonists in earlier stories, essentially a good-hearted kid who wants to understand the trials and tribulations he’s going through. He wants to make sense of himself: his enthusiasm for life’s experiences, his pain, his loneliness, his yearnings.

Q: The novel takes place over the course of Hunt's 18th birthday. Were there any challenges to writing a novel that unfolds over a single day?

A: There were some challenges to confining the time period of the novel to 24 hours, the day and night of his birthday. In earlier drafts, the time period stretched out over several weeks, but I thought that made the story loose in a way I didn’t want it to be.

I thought by compressing the time, I could add more intensity to the situation and to Hunt’s feelings, and overall add more tension to the story.

But then I had to find a way to make the various activities—the dance lesson, his job at the beach, the overhanging threat of gang violence, and especially his relationship with Debby Ann, the girl he takes to the prom, fit into that one day and night. It took some juggling and telescoping to achieve that.

Among other things, it pretty much eliminated the use of full-on flashbacks. I had to find ways to get all the exposition into the present level of the story.

Q: The book is set in the Bronx in 1960. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: Setting has always been one of the primary elements of my craft. I’d go so far as to say I really can’t write a story unless I have a firm grasp of the time and place. That becomes the foundation on which the story is built. It makes me feel connected to the work in a visceral way.

I guess that’s because, even apart from writing, I’ve always been particularly sensitive to my surroundings.

I remember walking with my father one night in our neighborhood and insisting we walk on a certain side of the street because I thought it had more character. He rolled his eyes but indulged me; from his perspective both sides of the street had the same brick buildings, the same sidewalks, the same street lamps.

For me, even the quality of light is something I consider in the scenes I write. I have to know if it’s morning, mid-morning, late evening, whatever. Is it overcast or sunny? Winter or summer? Cold or warm? And so on.

All of those things affect my characters. They affect what I see in my mind, what I feel, as I’m writing. In short, I believe setting contributes mightily to the verisimilitude of a piece.

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

A: I’d been carrying the title around for several years before I found what I thought was the right story to do it justice. It comes from an old African American folktale/song, the story of “Betty and Dupree.”

I like the title because it seems to sum up all the pain and drama and sadness of love lost, or just beyond reach. I like the romantic implications of it. It’s lack of love that kills us, as much as any disease.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now I’m working on a new novel about various people—at critical moments in their lives—who pass through a diner during the overnight hours this one particular night.

This diner, this night, I hope serves as a microcosm of human need and desire. People on the edge, trying to make what they can of their lives.

I’m also working on a novel about a writer who is asked by the husband of the only woman he’s ever loved to find her when she disappears.

And I’m writing a play and movie script of my previous novel, The Bronx Kill.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: In my novel, If Anyone Asks, Say I Died from the Heartbreaking Blues, I’ve tried to capture the feel of what it was like to live in that year, 1960. At the same time, I hope I’ve captured some of the layers of adolescence, its highs and lows, its humor, pathos, and romance.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb 

Feb. 15

Feb. 15, 1928: Norman Bridwell born.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Q&A with Tina May Hall

Tina May Hall is the author of the new novel The Snow Collectors. She also has written The Physics of Imaginary Objects and All the Day's Sad Stories, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including SmokeLong Quarterly and The Collagist. She teaches at Hamilton College, and she lives in New Hartford, N.Y. 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Snow Collectors, and for your character Henna?

A: The idea for the book came from research I was doing on Lady Jane Franklin, who was the wife of Sir John Franklin (whose 1845 expedition is referenced below). I really thought the book would mainly be about Lady Jane.

Then the idea of a present-day or slightly futuristic plotline came to mind, and I thought it would be a rather evenly-split dual narrative in the vein of A.S. Byatt’s Possession.

But as I wrote, I got more and more interested in Henna’s world, which is our world set very slightly in the future and is a landscape on the precipice of environmental collapse. I was really captivated by the idea of Henna navigating an eco-gothic world that is suffused with loss even as she tries to make sense of the smaller losses she is mourning.

Q: Why did you decide to include the 1845 Franklin expedition of the Arctic in the novel, and how did you research it?

A: When I happened on some of Lady Jane Franklin’s journals and notes in the archives at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, I actually didn’t know she was the wife of Sir John Franklin and was most interested in her as a Victorian lady traveller.

Of course, I rapidly realized the connection to the most famous Arctic expedition of all time and became intrigued by Jane Franklin’s role in haranguing the British Admiralty and American industrialists to send ships out into the ice to look for her husband.

I also quickly found out that far more illustrious writers than I have written about the Franklin Expedition (Charles Dickens, Andrea Barrett, Clive Cussler, and many more), which was a bit daunting, but I felt like my focus on Lady Jane was somewhat unusual.

For research, I read many books and maps and trip logs, of course.

I traveled to the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, UK, where they hold the majority of Jane Franklin’s diaries and correspondence. During that trip, I also visited the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, which has a great collection of artifacts found in the search for Franklin’s lost ships.

As I was writing the book, a wonderful biography of Jane Franklin came out, called Lady Franklin’s Revenge, which was enormously helpful, especially since her handwriting is very small and cramped.

And, rather miraculously, as the book was going through revisions, Franklin’s lost ships were found, after over 150 years of searching. This was an exciting development, and I made two trips to the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau to view their exhibit of items dragged up out of the Arctic waters.

Q: What did you see as the right blend between the fictional and the historical as you worked on the book?

A: I have to say that as I wrote and revised, the historical material (upon which I had spent so much time!) became a smaller and smaller part of the book.

However, it serves as a backdrop and an engine for the present action in the story and seemed essential for a tale that is considering life in a world where most of the blank spaces on the map have been filled in and now the map is disintegrating before our very eyes.

I did take large liberties with the historical data to resolve the “mystery” of the novel, which was a rather delightful and frightening leap to make.

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’m the kind of writer that starts with an image or a line (otherwise known as someone who should maybe stick to short stories), so the twists and turns of the plot were discovered as I wrote and revised.

It was both an exciting and frustrating process but definitely contributed to the sense of exploration as I moved further into the narrative and started layering the threads and details over each other.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have been writing a series of flash fiction pieces based on the fictional “extinction museum” that pops up in The Snow Collectors. I’m also partway through a draft of a new novel that is concerned with perfume, 3D-printed bodies, and abandoned mansions in the Thousand Islands.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just a plug for Mary Stewart, whose Gothic romances have long been an indulgence that I try to wink at here in this novel. And thank you for the wonderful questions!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb