Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Q&A with Vanessa Blakeslee

Vanessa Blakeslee, photo by Ashley Inguanta
Vanessa Blakeslee is the author of the new story collection Perfect Conditions. She also has written the novel Juventud and the story collection Train Shots, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Southern Review and Green Mountains Review.

Q: Over how long a period did you write the stories collected in Perfect Conditions, and do you see common threads running through the collection?

A: The stories in Perfect Conditions were written over a period of roughly 10 years. Some of the stories I had started while I was still living in Costa Rica. A few of these didn’t aesthetically fit into my first collection, Train Shots, or were still in the process of getting revised and published.

A couple of them are very new: “Traps” was written just last summer, and “The Perfect Pantry” was completed this February. Stories can often take years to evolve, which is certainly the case for the title story, and I’m so pleased with the depths that story has finally achieved.

Q: How was the book's title (also the title of one of the stories) chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: When I wrote the story “Perfect Conditions”—the phrase is taken from the surfing culture, the protagonist of that story now living out his “dream” of dropping out of the rat race and retiring as an expat—I just loved how the phrase imbued a sense of trouble underneath the surface.

I had always envisioned building a story collection around that title one day. But that story didn’t fit with the others in Train Shots, as I said, so I had to be patient!

In the story, of course, Jack is finding that his dream isn’t turning out to be so perfect, and the unresolved family matters of his first marriage and relationship with his son have hardly been “fixed” by his escaping to Costa Rica.

More broadly, the phrase as a book title signals the trouble we find ourselves in at this point in human history: not only the dissatisfaction of Industrial Civilization’s “rat race” and our futile attempts to escape, the exploitation of other nations’ natural resources for the gain of those in the West, as in the story “Sustainable Practices,” but even extends to our cultural myths and religious beliefs.

This includes the concept that if a Savior shows up at all in these apocalyptic times, as in “Jesus Surfs,” such a figure may very well not behave or act to “save” us, at least not in the ways many have come to expect.

Q: We've discussed the importance of setting in your writing in previous interviews. This collection takes place in a variety of locations. Can you discuss any of the settings that were especially meaningful to you?

A: The various settings in the surfing story, “Splitting the Peak,” are perhaps most meaningful to me. That story is very much an homage to place, born from my fond memories of traveling to Australia, Hawaii, and Bali in my youth, and wrestling with the rather universal fetish-fantasy of “the one who got away.”

How to write about those places and capture the feeling of that time while also allowing the story to take shape as fiction, not autobiography? I decided to make the story about surfers—I don’t surf at all, and my chances of taking up surfing in this lifetime are about the same as my odds of becoming an opera singer.

The research into the subject was especially fun. Other settings in the book, such as Alaska and Tahiti, I have never been, but would love to visit. My fiction is usually a blend of the two—inspired by the places I know, and those I don’t but at least can visit via imagination.

Q: Are there any short stories you've read lately that you would particularly recommend?

A: Sisters of the Revolution, the 2015 anthology edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, really spoke to me—namely because my short fiction is taking a more speculative and dystopian bent. The selections are timely and superb; I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a new novel called Winterland which is more speculative in nature, about a couple fleeing a post-superstorm destroyed Florida who journey north and attempt to join a collective farm in Nova Scotia.

So far I’m really enjoying the process, and just hope this second novel doesn’t take as long as my first one, Juventud, did (five years). But writing a book takes as long as it takes.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’ve been going on a lot of day trips around Florida this past year, exploring the corners of my state that I’ve been too occupied to uncover these past 20 years—the springs, the Everglades; I even took an airboat ride, finally.

What I’ve learned about the peninsula’s prehistory, history, ecology, has been astounding. Not to mention the kitschy roadside attractions that you can still find here and there!

So be on the lookout as I sense some great writing is brewing, both in fiction and essay form, inspired by these day trips. You can follow me on my Facebook Author page and at

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Vanessa Blakeslee.

July 18

July 18, 1918: Nelson Mandela born.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Q&A with Cherise Wolas

Cherise Wolas is the author of the new novel The Family Tabor. She also has written the novel The Resurrection of Joan Ashby. She has worked as a lawyer and a film producer, and she lives in New York City.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for this new novel, and for the members of your fictional Tabor family?

A: The fictional Tabors have been with me for a very long time. I first imagined them during a snowstorm when I was living in a small town in Washington.

They lived in a rambling house, knew how to speak a dead language, and the youngest child was a hemophiliac who created alter egos for himself. That first iteration is in a tiny story called "Aramaic" that was published in Narrative magazine.

Their second iteration was in a long story called "An Unexpected Conversion." A new version of the Tabors appeared. They were clarifying themselves as a contemporary family and refusing their quasi-magical components.

Their third iteration appears in my debut novel, The Resurrection of Joan Ashby. Joan Ashby is an acclaimed story writer and her second collection, Fictional Family Life, is about a 15-year-old hemophiliac named Simon Tabor and his alter egos; and a 15-year-old boy named Simon Tabor who throws himself off the roof of the family home because he’s sure he can fly; and his family and the doctor and nurses who repair his broken body.

Stories from Joan Ashby’s Fictional Family Life are excerpted in The Resurrection of Joan Ashby.

Despite tucking the Tabors into Joan Ashby, they remained in my mind, and refused to be ignored. They were developing, deepening, changing, and moving in unexpected directions.

And they kept throwing questions at me: Does the past remain in the past or does it spill into the present without our being aware? How do the choices we make to embrace or abandon a love, a marriage, a dream, a faith, a bad act, a lost memory, the secrets and failures of ourselves and others shape us? Do we ever know those we are closest too? How is that what we show to our family and the world can be so different from what goes on in our own hearts and minds?

These were some of the questions that intrigued me and that I wanted to explore.

And thus began their fourth iteration in The Family Tabor. They emerged as a family that is brilliant, accomplished, and worldly. They glow. They are lucky. But these attributes don’t safeguard them (or anyone, whether fictional or real) from confusion and struggle.

Harry Tabor is delighted with the world he’s created, but then everything he believes about himself is upended. Roma Tabor is a “miracle-worker” psychologist for troubled children and teens, and a mother whose love for her children doesn’t prevent her from seeing them clearly.

The adult children, Phoebe, Camille, and Simon, are at personal crossroads, each seeking something we all want—love or connection or the belief we’re living our right life.

Over the course of what is to be a celebratory weekend honoring Harry, the Tabors find themselves peeling back their own layers, having to admit truths to themselves, as they search for new paths they hope will lead them in the right direction.

But peeling away our layers leaves us naked, and truths can be impossible to admit, and every new path signals the end and loss of something.

Perhaps in the future, there will be another iteration of the Tabors. Maybe a sequel to The Family Tabor or maybe I’ll finally write Joan Ashby’s Fictional Family Life in its entirety.

Q: You said in our previous interview that you didn’t know how The Resurrection of Joan Ashby would end before you started writing it. Was your writing process similar with this new novel?

A: It was. If only because I can’t write in any other way. For me, writing is about exploring and engaging and discovering the unexpected, so I’ve learned not to come at my work with preconceived notions about anything.

In the past, when I outlined, I found it cut me off from the mysteries I love finding as I write, and I was instantly bored—if I already knew where the story was going to go, why write it?

Of course, when I begin a project, I have a growing sense about the people, and the ideas are percolating, and there are questions I’d like to figure out answers to with them, and it’s a journey we take together.

These people are my creations, but I never think of them as characters. They’re absolutely real to me, are in my mind nearly all of my waking and sleeping hours, to which the staggering volume of emails I send to myself at night when I should be sleeping attests.

Writing is how I intently listen to them tell me who they are, the problems they’re having, their hopes, dreams, secrets, issues, what they want to do, how they want their stories to go.

Through the writing, all kinds of clues emerge—about these people, their pasts and futures, about the themes, the interactions, the progressions. And each clue leads to a key, and each key leads to another door. And I keep going.

When the writing is going badly, I’ve learned it means I’ve stopped listening, that I’m interposing myself and my own beliefs on them. So I rewind and find my way back into them.

My actual writing process is never about reaching the end of a first draft, and the truth is I never have a first draft. As I write forward, I am constantly going backwards, editing, revising, honing, noticing elements, teasing them out, re-envisioning, contemplating anew. By the time I have a completed manuscript, it’s likely the thousandth draft.

Q: What role do you see religion playing in the novel and in the lives of your characters?

A: Since first imagining the Tabors, they’ve always been a Jewish family. In The Family Tabor, they are steeped in the ancient history of the Jews, but are very modern, and being Jewish barely defines them. Indeed, they celebrate the High Holidays and Passover and little else.

When I began writing the novel, I never expected religion, or faith, or religious identity to play any substantial role, and I never intended to write a Jewish American novel.

But with anti-semitism and hatred for immigrants so loud and ugly again in this country and throughout the world, the Tabors and their various relationships or responses to the faith of their ancestors compelled me to be courageous and brave and follow their explorations.

The family members set their terms. Harry, the patriarch, considers himself a “historical Jew,” who aligns himself with the cultural and ethical lineage of his people, but doesn’t believe in the power of prayer. And yet, on a tennis court, on the day he is going to receive a big award, he sees visions and hears a voice.

Roma, the matriarch, treasures the mind over faith, and although her grandmother believed in her faith, it was luck she relied on. For Phoebe, Judaism means lighting Friday night candles when she remembers. Camille believes in none of it; her religion is her social anthropological work, studying tribes out in the field.

Simon is exhausted from a lasting insomnia, and over the course of the weekend gathering, he realizes that he has a hole in his soul, and thinks that perhaps what’s missing is the foundational underpinning of the faith he’s never seriously considered.

Q: The book is set in Palm Springs, California. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: It’s very important. In The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, the fictional Rhome, where Joan and Martin start their married life, was critical for me. It’s a tiny town, with circular streets, and beyond the town center, it’s nearly rural, with a population of something like 8,000.

And then I created their house. While it sits on four acres, in a new and unpaved development outside of Rhome, the house is very small. When it’s renovated years later, and becomes large and gracious, Joan still doesn’t have a room of her own in which to write.

In The Family Tabor, I again first saw Harry and Roma’s house in my mind. And then I realized they lived in a desert, and it was Palm Springs. I signed up on various Palm Springs real estate sites so I could troll through the listings and determine whether what I was imagining would exist there.

One of the agents called me, and from then on, she sent me pictures of houses to look at, but by then I had already created the Tabors’ mid-century home, with the desert and the cacti right beyond the back patio.

Setting it in Palm Springs had both a conscious and unconscious significance, which, as I continued to write, I came to understand.

The conscious was my childhood recollections of visiting my maternal grandparents and celebrating Passover with them in Palm Springs. Unconsciously, I think Palm Spring represented a certain form of Judaism to me, hewed to by my grandparents who, despite all they suffered, maintained their faith.

And as I wrote, setting it in Palm Springs made even more sense because there are two deserts in the novel, the “newer” one in Palm Springs, and the ancient Negev, in Israel.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: So many amazing fans of The Resurrection of Joan Ashby have written to tell me which of her excerpted stories they think I should write as novels: "The Last Resort," about a woman in a mental institution; "Bettina’s Children," about a married couple who move to Nigeria; the rare babies; and "The Sympathetic Executioners," about the twin boys who become killers.

Perhaps in the future, I’ll explore those possibilities because they continue to fascinate me. I am working on my third novel now, and the main characters did make their first appearance in Joan Ashby, but none of my books are connected, and these characters have their own journeys in their own new world. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Cherise Wolas.

July 17

July 17, 1902: Christina Stead born.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Q&A with Dunya Mikhail

Dunya Mikhail is the author of the new book The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq, which focuses on women who were captured by ISIS. Mikhail was born in Iraq and now lives in the United States. A poet, her other books include The War Works Hard.

Q: How did you end up writing about Abdullah, the beekeeper, and the women he rescued in Iraq?

A: In 2014 when I learned that women were sold, I felt so insulted. I made contacts with friends and relatives back home to ask what on earth was going on.

I spoke with Abdullah by chance. I called his cousin who escaped from Daesh. He translated between us because I don’t understand Kurdish. She mentioned that he rescued her.

When I called him again to ask another question about her, I learned more about his own story. When I asked him what could I do to help, he said that writing and making the world know about what happened to them is the best help.

We agreed that every time he rescued someone, he would tell me their story. Our calls were cut off several times due to the urgency of the other calls he receives from people trying to run away from captivity. So it took us a whole year of speaking on the phone to collect those stories.

Q: Were the people you interviewed hesitant to speak with you at first? How did you conduct your interviews?

A: A couple of them were hesitant in the beginning but most of them did want to speak about what they went through. Some of them I met in person when I went to Iraq in the summer of 2016 after 20 years of absence. Some of them spoke with me on the phone. Abdullah also told me about how he rescued them.

Q: What do you hope readers learn from your book?

A: I hope readers learn about the kindness of strangers, not only about the brutality of the extremists.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on a novel, which is a strange thing to do for me!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I don’t consider myself a fiction writer. I am a poet who is writing a novel, a particular novel.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 16

July 16, 1928: Anita Brookner born.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Q&A with Gavin Francis

Gavin Francis is the author of the new book Shapeshifters: A Journey Through the Changing Human Body. His other books include Adventures in Human Being, and his work has appeared in publications including The Guardian and the London Review of Books. A physician, he lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for this book, and did you need to do additional research beyond your own work as a physician?

A: People come to me as a doctor because they want me to bring on some change in their lives, or influence some ongoing, unstoppable change.  

My first books were travel books about the Arctic and Antarctic, and my most recent book, Adventures in Human Being, brought the perspective of a travel writer to the geography of the human body. I wanted it to explore the body historically, culturally, philosophically, not just anatomically.  

With Shapeshifters my aim was to reflect more on the body as a place in space or a zone that is constantly changing. It changes in very rapid ways from moment to moment, but also in slower ways decade to decade. 

And I wanted each chapter to be grounded in my own clinical experience working as a physician, mostly in Edinburgh, but taking in experiences working as a doctor in polar regions, and in Africa.

Some of the chapters look at the big rites of passage we go through - puberty and pregnancy, menopause and dying. Some look at the way our mental experience doesn't stand still but shifts ceaselessly, woven moment to moment by memory, taking in dreaming and drug use, mental illness and dementia. 

There are chapters that look at crises like anorexia, or those disruptions in the hormonal balance of the body that can make us grow into giants, or those maladies that led sufferers once upon a time to be branded as werewolves. Then there are those changes we impose on the body through willpower - such as building up our muscles, having our bodies tattooed, crafting and sculpting ourselves through cosmetic surgery. 

Regarding research, the clinical passages in the book didn't need much as they're all grounded in what I see and do every day. But there was a great deal of reading involved, all of it pleasurable, and the kind of reading I'd do anyway to fully inform myself about the cultural hinterland of some of these changes. 

The book takes in reference points from Ovid's great poem of transformation The Metamorphoses, to the latest neuroscience and genetics examining the ways in which our DNA is ceaselessly shifting.

Q: You write, "To be alive is to be in perpetual metamorphosis." What would you say are the most common changes your patients seek help with?

A: It's impossible to say - one of the wonderful things about being a general family physician is the plurality, the wealth of diversity, of the kinds of problems you're called on to address. No two days in the clinic are ever the same. 

On a single day I might be checking over a newborn baby, assessing a healing fracture, helping someone mitigate their depression, diagnosing a new cancer, offering condolences over the death of someone's spouse, injecting someone's shoulder joint to ease its stiffness. 

I might assess someone with severe anorexia, and counsel someone else about being overweight, help one woman to conceive, then prescribe contraception for another. And easing the difficulties of ageing is one of the most important roles of medicine today - helping people to live as long and as healthy lives as they possibly can.

Q: Some of the issues you look at, such as aging, are inevitable, while others, like tattooing or bodybuilding, are voluntary. How did you choose the topics on which you focus in the book?

A: The choice of chapters was led very much by my enthusiasms, and particularly vivid stories that I have encountered in the clinic and wanted to share. There are many themes I'd love to have included but the changes the mind and body go through are near-infinite, and the book had to stop somewhere. 

I wanted to keep it within a certain narrative arc, from conception to the end of life, woven through stories from the great literary classics of transformation - whether that was Ovid's poem on Metamorphosis, Kafka on alienation, or Margaret Atwood on pregnancy.

Q: The book includes a section on prostheses. What do you see looking ahead when it comes to scientific advances affecting the body?

A: The technological advances we are witnessing right now are extraordinary, the pace of change  feels dizzying. But we seem to be getting close to prosthetic limbs that can actually sense directly from the brain an individual's intention of movement - though we're not there yet. 

In the chapter on amputation and prosthetics I spoke to someone who has one of the latest generations of prosthetic limbs, and someone else, a quadruple amputee herself, who runs a charity providing low cost prosthetics in Malawi and Zambia. 

The founder, Olivia Giles, said to me, “The most transformative thing about prosthetic limbs is the potential they offer for children. The kids we work with, if they lose a limb in an accident, they become trapped in the home, a burden on their families, often ashamed of the disfigurement. Having a prosthetic leg makes it possible for them to go back to school. You can see it in the mothers’ faces when the new limbs are fitted, their faces light up, because they know that this means that their child has a future. The prosthesis gives them a future.”

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm always working on something, and ideas I'd love to find time to write about are usually percolating somewhere in my mind. Sooner or later one of them will take hold, and grow, and gather its own momentum.  When a book starts to flow it's a wonderful feeling - it takes on its own life. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: From my perspective the necessity, the inescapability, of ceaseless change means there's always hope.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Gavin Francis.