Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Q&A with Sarah Abrevaya Stein


Sarah Abrevaya Stein is the author of the new book Family Papers: A Sephardic Journey Through the Twentieth Century. Her other books include Plumes and Extraterritorial Dreams. She is Professor of History, Director of the Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies, and the Maurice Amado Chair in Sephardic Studies at UCLA. She lives in Santa Monica, California.

Q: You write that you first learned about the Levy family while working on a previous book project. Can you say more about how you decided to write their family history?

A: I first began working on the Levy family, the subjects of Family Papers, while researching another book: an English-language translation of the first Ladino memoir ever written (Sarah Abrevaya Stein and Aron Rodrigue, A Jewish Voice from Ottoman Salonica, with Isaac Jerusalmi as translator, 2012). 

The author of that memoir, Sa’adi Besaelel a-Levi (1820-1903), spent the last years of his life writing a Ladino-language memoir to air a lifetime’s worth of grievances. 

Extraordinarily, the sole copy of this document, written in soletreo (the unique handwritten cursive of Ladino), outlived wars; the collapse of the empire in which it was conceived; a major fire in Salonica; and the Holocaust, during which Jewish texts and libraries as well as Jewish bodies were targeted by the Nazis for annihilation.

The manuscript passed through four generations of Sa’adi’s family, traveling from Salonica to Paris, from there to Rio de Janeiro and, finally, to Jerusalem—somehow eluding destruction or disappearance despite the collapse of the Salonican Jewish community and the dispersal of the author’s descendants over multiple countries and continents. 

Having spent years considering Sa’adi’s account of 19th-century Salonica, I was left wondering how his handwritten memoir came to travel such a circuitous path, and what had become of Sa’adi’s descendants. 

These questions launched me on a decade-long quest to tell the collective story of Sa’adi’s branching family: a journey that took me to a dozen countries, dozens of archives, and into the homes of a Sephardic clan that constituted its own, remarkable global diaspora. 

Q: How did you conduct your research, and what did you learn that particularly surprised you?

A: Reconstructing the history of the globally-branching Levy family has taken me into the living rooms (and private collections) of family members from Rio de Janeiro to Kolkata, Thessaloniki to Manchester--people who today cannot read the various languages of the documents they hold, but who still have a palpable connection to their deep past. 

To supplement these family papers (which revealed but also kept secrets), I consulted 30 archives in Brazil, Great Britain, France, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Germany, Hungary, Israel, and the United States.  Travel documents; naturalization papers; birth, death, and medical records; letters exchanged by relatives, lovers, and friends; business papers, even a baptismal certificate; all told, these scattered sources have allowed me to trace an intimate arc of the 20th century.

Q: The family includes a notorious World War II war criminal, as well as many relatives who were killed in the Holocaust. What is the legacy of the war for the Levy family today?

A: The Holocaust eviscerated the Levys, destroying entire branches of the family tree (in Greece and France, especially). The losses that so devastated those left behind disrupted intimacies and led to new relationships among survivors driven together by grief, seeking solace in one another and, in some cases, cooperating to file reparation claims from Germany. Slowly, agonizingly, they rebuilt.

As you’ve mentioned, the most devastating drama of Family Papers is the story of a great-grandchild of Sa’adi’s who abetted the Nazi annihilation of the Jews of Salonica. This man, head of occupied Salonica’s Jewish Police, is said to have been a viscous sadist. Recollections of his actions, which swirl through Greek-, Hebrew-, Ladino-, and English-language survivor testimony, are nightmarish. After the war, Sa’adi’s descendant proved the only Jew in all of Europe to be tried by a state (Greece) and executed for his complicity with the Nazis. 

Strikingly, the family never wrote of this terrible trauma, not in letters, memoirs, diaries, or testimonies. They even excised their disgraced relative from family trees. In time, the facts the family buried became unknown to their descendants: including the war criminal’s own daughter. Unknown, that is, until the publication of this book.

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

A: Family Papers is an Ottoman story, a Jewish story, a Mediterranean story, and a story of single, globally-branching family diaspora. 

But beyond what it tells us about Sephardic Jewry or the Levy family, it is also a meditation on how letters mattered to a family, holding them together after time, distance, and migration tore them apart. I hope the book invites readers to reflect on all that we have lost in the digital age, when so few of us send or receive letters, fret over their crafting, or stain them with our tears.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Just now I’m exploring the astonishing history of a Harlem-based, Sephardic-owned, 1940s botánica—a spiritual supply shop that sold occult, spiritual, and mystical wares (medicinal herbs, oils, amulets, statuary, candles, spells) to Caribbean, African American, and Latin American clients. 

It’s a wonderful story, but also opens up questions about Sephardic Jews’ place within the racial fabric of the Americas. It’s too early to say if I’m on the trail of a book or not, but I always enjoy the hunt!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Beau L'Amour


Beau L'Amour is the co-author of Louis L'Amour's Lost Treasures, Volumes 1 and 2. Beau L'Amour compiled the unpublished work of his late father into these new books. He manages Louis L'Amour's estate, and is a writer, art director, and editor.

Q: Why did you decide to compile these works by your father?

A: Louis L'Amour's Lost Treasures is really the story of my father's professional life. Over that last many years I realized that there were many details about his writing career that would simply never fit in a conventional biography; however, they would be a great addition to the works that they pertained to. 

The Lost Treasures project is bigger than just Louis L'Amour's Lost Treasures Volumes One and Two; there are Lost Treasures Postscripts that are or will be, included in over 30 of his long-published novels and books of short stories, as well as his first novel, No Traveller Returns, now published for the first time. It's a big project intended to fill in, and explain, as many aspects of his career as possible. 

In many ways compiling all of this was just the next step in trying to make everything he wrote available to his fans, and anyone else who might be casually interested in learning what it was like to be a writer in the heyday of 20th century publishing. I hate to say it, but that is beginning to feel like a bygone era!

I admit that the concept is all a bit random access, as opposed to a single narrative that someone could pick up and read from end to end, but much of this material requires a reader to be familiar with the book it relates to and thus would never see the light of day in a traditional biography that was presented in a linear manner.

Q: How did you choose the "lost treasures" that you include in this volume of your father's work?

A: Both Lost Treasures Volume One and Two contain the short stories, treatments, and fragments I thought were most interesting and that told the story of Dad's attempts to break away from writing Westerns. 

I was looking for the most odd and eclectic material as well as examples of how he worked. I intersperse these with Western genre material so that a traditional fan will also have the sort of material that they came for.  In most cases I have combined multiple drafts for a "best of" version for a particular story, but then I try to discuss any important differences between those different versions. 

Asking an audience member to slog through five or 25 drafts would have been quite unrealistic. Where the differences between versions are extreme or important to the points I'm trying to express, I do include the appropriate drafts.

I also included works that, though unfinished, were personally very meaningful to me and my father, like an unfinished story that dealt with the Chinese invasion and domination of Tibet, and the Western novel he was working on when he died. There were a couple of complete short stories that had not made it into previous collections, so those were automatically on the list to go in.

In a more technical sense, I might choose to include a story fragment if it had a reasonable page count and seemed to get somewhere before Dad stopped working on it. Of course, a piece was more likely to be included if it was part of the overall story I was trying to tell, the story of my father trying to expand his career and how he approached writing on a day to day basis. I would also include it if it was part of some larger continuum of stories he was telling.

When it comes to the Postscripts added to the individual Lost Treasures novels, I just looked for interesting anecdotes that I could clearly remember or that I had some documentation on. Often these contain early drafts that are considerably different than the finished novel, or stories about its creation. 

The Key-Lock Man and Kiowa Trail (neither of these postscripts is published quite yet), for instance, are connected to my father's friendship with Katherine Hepburn, the postscript to Callaghen (which has been published) is all about Dad doing research on California's "Desert Road," and a good deal of the Shalako postscript has to do with the making of the movie, one of the earliest and most "independent" independent films ever produced.

In the case of No Traveller Returns, I finished my father's first novel, which had remained in pieces since the early 1940s and did what I could in the Postscript to put its creation and my work on it into context.  It was an important element of his Yondering series of stories which documents some of the world of hobos, sailors, and soldiers of fortune he found himself living on the edges of in the 1920s. As a companion piece the Lost Treasures series also includes a revised version of the Yondering short story collection which rounds out the series.

Q: Do you see particular themes running through this collection?

A: Well, besides it being a look under the hood at the workings of the career of a working writer, Lost Treasures tends to be about overcoming, or attempting to overcome, the odds. Dad struggled to teach himself to write and eventually succeeded in both the literary and pulp market, writing short stories of all genres. 

When his pulp magazine income died (the literary magazines really didn't pay anything at all), he moved into paperback originals but, once establishing himself, there he had a great deal of trouble being accepted outside of the Western. 

Lost Treasures Volumes One and Two really show the reader how broad his interests were, because the material in those volumes includes horror, science fiction, some fairly strange Westerns, historical novels, and an odd genre I've taken to calling spiritual or occult adventure. I suspect that the work that is too ambitious for a serious writer to finish is often the work that tells you the most about who he was.

Q: What do you see as your father's legacy today?

A: I'm not sure that's up to me. I just try to provide the material and put it in context. Maybe others can figure that out. 

Probably the closest I can get is that his story is one of extraordinary perseverance. Dad was self-educated after the 10th grade, so there is perseverance and the confidence that he could break into the world of writers to begin with, and that he could then change his fate and eventually be successful with books outside the Western genre, like The Walking Drum (a 12th century historical novel), Last of the Breed (a Cold War thriller), and Haunted Mesa (science fiction). 

He had a lot of strikes against him; from the time he was 15 until his early 40s he was quite poor. If he could make his mark on the world anyone can ... but few realize it.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm finishing up the last few Lost Treasures Postscripts; we should have enough to last through 2021 and maybe into 2022.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: People can get a good idea of all this series contains by going to the Lost Treasures website there are examples of postscripts, lists of the Lost Treasures books, and copies of the tables of contents of Volumes One and Two so a reader can see the type of material that they contain. 

There are also a lot of great photographs, many notes of Dad's that we were not able to fit into any of the books, examples of TV treatments, various planning documents, and a complete list of all the books my father read from 1930 to 1988.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Marina Budhos


Marina Budhos is the author of The Long Ride, a new middle grade novel for kids. Her other books include Watched and Ask Me No Questions. She is a professor of English at William Paterson University, and she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey.

Q: You note that The Long Ride is based on the busing plan implemented in your Queens neighborhood in the late '60s and early '70s. Why did you choose that as a topic, and how did you come up with your character Jamila?

A: I had been working on some memoir material around my growing up in an unusual international and interracial community. The surrounding neighborhoods, however, in Queens, were very segregated and polarized around race, particularly when school integration plans began coming into place. 

And while I did not personally go through the integration plan that this novel is based on, it was something that roiled the community and our schools. Thus, I was interested in capturing that story, that moment. 

As well, I am mixed (half Guyanese-Indian and half Jewish-American), with a father who taught in a largely African-American high school, in a neighborhood many of my own friends would never go to. Many of my other friends were mixed and so we had a lot of experiences about being in between, at school, in neighborhoods. 

Finally some of the scenes in the novel were drawn from my own junior high, which was a place where different kids from different neighborhoods collided, and yet were very segregated within the school.

Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, "Readers will find a powerful window into the past and, unfortunately, a way-too-accurate mirror of the present." What do you think of that assessment, and how would you compare your characters' experiences with those of their counterparts today?

A: In so many ways I feel as if the 1970s, and the story of integration is the hidden story, the untold story. Children grow up with the iconic images of Ruby Bridges being escorted in by federal marshals to get the chance to go to school. 

But it was in the 1970s that most school districts around the countries tentatively began experimenting with all kinds of ways to integrate.

It was one of the largest social experiments, where we were trying to raise a new generation of children who would go to schools that would be different from those their parents went to. We were using schools to redress all the racial inequities in our society.

Now integration and resegregation is truly on the front burner again—somehow those efforts in the 1970s did not hold. Here in NYC, for instance, the Board of Education is proposing that they make sweeping changes to again re-integrate schools. 

In my own local school district, where we pride ourselves on being diverse, there have been great struggles around true integration and now yet another effort to achieve intentional integration. 

Colleges and universities are also roiling about their capacity to create truly integrated campuses.

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

A: I did a combination of drawing from memory and talking to a few people about their experiences with the local plan. 

I also did some reading up on research that’s been done on integration in the 1970s, and as well, delved a bit into newspaper articles and watched any YouTube videos of protests. The family of a childhood friend gave me their archive of all the PTA bulletins, clippings, materials around our local plan, and that helped me with the texture of the times.

I think the only thing that surprised me is that I found out that this story that was personal to my growing up was actually occurring all over the country. If a person grew up at a certain time—the ‘70s and early ‘80s—they were touched by integration, because that was when so many of the plans were rolling out. 

And so I think there is a whole generation that has been touched by this history, this social change, but their experiences haven’t fully been told.

One other thing I learned that really surprised me was that at that time, no other institutions were integrated—not workplaces, neighborhoods, professions. 

So children were the only one who were living mingled lives. 

That created such a generational gap, a kind of dissonance, where children’s reality was so different from their parents. All the burden was placed on schools and on children—to me this then raises the question of how can we think more holistically about integration?

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?

A: One, I want them to know what it’s like to be a mixed-race tween/teen on the cusp of growing up, and yet having such great challenges in terms of fitting in. Mixed-race kids simply can’t be boxed in and yet the middle years is often all about social boxing in.

Two, I wanted to capture this era—full of good intentions—but these grand plans often fell on the slender shoulders of children, and were not carefully or thoughtfully executed. 

It isn’t that we shouldn’t aim for integration—of course we should--but we should be honest about the difficulties; honest about how little we ask of the adults. 

Finally I wanted to pay homage to the early, pioneering mixed-race families. I don’t feel that’s an experience that’s been much written about. 

But in my era, for families such as mine, every single decision bore the weight of race and identity. Sometimes these families had to forge forward without the support of any extended family or community. They were also families who bravely integrated neighborhoods on their own. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a new YA novel, tentatively titled Sanctuary. It’s about a family that comes to take sanctuary in a Jewish synagogue, and it is told from the point of view of the teenage girl and the boy who escorts her to school every day. 

She just wants to have a regular teenage life, but she can’t, of course; and the boy, who has trouble putting himself forward in life, has to learn what it means to give refuge to someone else.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The Long Ride is actually my first middle grade novel. I wanted my readers to know this is a voice and perspective that I can do, and that I quite enjoyed writing. It felt as if I was returning to some purer version of myself and my own sense of voice. I’m just dying to get into classrooms to talk about the book too. 

I am in the midst of developing a fun ‘70s pop quiz—high and low, a mix of fashion, music, movies and all the serious things that were also going on at this time—the Vietnam War, integration, the bankruptcy of cities.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Marina Budhos.

Nov. 19

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Nov. 19, 1958: Annette Gordon-Reed born.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Q&A with Andrea Cohen


Andrea Cohen, photo by Francesca G. Bewer
Andrea Cohen is the author of the new poetry collection Nightshade. Her other books include Unfathoming and Furs Not Mine, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New Yorker and The Threepenny Review.

Q: Over how long a period did you write the poems in Nightshade?

A: I think these poems were written over about a year and a half.

Q: Why did you choose Nightshade--also the title of one of the poems--as the collection's title? What does it signify for you?

A: For me, the idea of, or the fact of that bittersweetness of days seemed pretty emblematic of these poems. Of course, one is lucky to have a bittersweet life. The only probable alternative would be bitterness entire.

Q: In a review in the Washington Independent Review of Books, Grace Cavalieri writes of Nightshade, "Each page has either a conundrum or a puzzle at the center, as Cohen tries to light a dark world by strengthening thought and stripping words to their hidden literal meanings." What do you think of that assessment?

A: I think it’s a thoughtful consideration. And I suspect that trying to assess others’ assessments of one’s own poems is probably folly.

Q: How did you decide on the order in which the poems would appear in the collection?

A: I have a Ouija board. Or I don’t, but wish I did.

The real answer? I just look at the poems and try to imagine how they might connect with each other.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just wake up and see what happens. I mean, I wake up, I sit down, and I write.

There is also coffee involved. A lot of coffee.

And the dog. Asking questions.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I can recommend a couple books that are just out. One is Jane Mead’s To the Wren: Collected & New Poems 1991-2019. Sadly, it’s the last book we have from Jane. And one other is James Arthur’s The Suicide’s Son. And if you get the chance to hear James read, take it.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Andrea Cohen.

Q&A with Kathleen Schrenk


Kathleen Schrenk is the author of The Case of the Left-Hand Trombone, a new novel for kids. She also has written another children's novel, A Dog Steals Home. She has worked as a speech therapist and middle school teacher, and she lives in New Orleans.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Case of the Left-Hand Trombone?

A: I live in New Orleans next door to a 95-pound, pot-bellied pig named Wilbur. Knowing that I write stories about children and their pets, my neighbor suggested I write about her pig. I liked the idea, and I began to consider what the storyline would be.

For me, writing a book is a lot like planting a garden. I don’t draw a blueprint for my garden before I plant it, and I don’t outline my stories before I write them. I start with an idea and go where the garden or story takes me.

My extensive butterfly garden began with one, tiny packet of milkweed seeds for monarch caterpillars. Wilbur the City Pig was my packet of milkweed seeds for this book. I needed to find setting, characters, conflict and plot to make the story “grow.”

At that time, my grandson was interested in chapter detective books. What if, I thought, my pig character (Walter) was a detective with a snout for crime? He could be the pet of a young boy (Wyatt) and live with the child and his family in the French Quarter.

The duo would be special agents for the New Orleans Police Department. The crime, I decided, would be the theft of musical instruments. Throw in Wyatt’s aunt who is a detective for the NOPD, Wyatt’s sidekick, Jeanette, a few eccentric French Quarter characters, and the story took off.

Q: As you’ve noted, the book takes place in New Orleans—how important is setting to you in your writing?

A: Like many Southern writers, setting is extremely important to me because “place” is such a big part of a Southerner’s soul. I am a native New Orleanian whose ancestry in New Orleans dates back to the 1700s. I think it would be impossible to have roots that deep and not have New Orleans influence my writing.

The Case of the Left-Hand Trombone could only be set in the French Quarter. It is an historic tourist area, but the “lower Quarter,” where Wyatt and Walter live, is a living, breathing neighborhood where a child could live with his parents and a pet pig. It has a small footprint, easily traveled by the boy and his pig.

The French Quarter has a quirkiness that works for this book. French Quarter musicians, street entertainers, restaurants, and museums all play into the setting and plot of the story. Many people equate the French Quarter with Bourbon Street, but it is so much more than that!

Q: What do you think Vernon Smith’s illustrations add to the book?

A: I’ll start with Vernon’s cover illustration. I think a book’s cover is an important element in a children’s book. It should catch a child’s attention, hint at the mood of the story, and give an idea of what the story is about.

Vernon nailed it! When he submitted the first illustration of Wyatt to me, I was amazed. It was as if Vernon had crawled inside my head to see the Wyatt I had pictured. His rendition of the pig character is based on a photo of the pig who lives next door to me, and Vernon captured him spot-on.

The bright colors, “musical” font of the title, and the comic magnifying glass let a child know this will be a playful detective story. For anyone familiar with New Orleans, the looming St. Louis Cathedral in the background defines the setting.

I think Vernon’s black-and-white interior sketches help the reader visualize the action and the setting. His drawings will pique a child’s interest and move the story along. I love how he sketched the chapter titles as musical notes coming from the bell of a trombone.

This was my first time working with an illustrator. I look forward to doing it again.

Q: What do you hope kids take away from the story?

A: The most important thing I’d like kids to take away from this story is the joy of reading. Much of early elementary reading involves learning to read and measuring the progress of that learning. I think parents and teachers can lose sight of the fact that, yes, children need to learn to read, but it’s also important for them to love to read…just for fun!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have begun to write my next Wyatt and Walter book, this one set on Bayou St. John and in New Orleans City Park. I’ve written the first couple of chapters, I know what the “crime” will be, and I know how it will end. I just need to figure out all that middle stuff.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Although the book is a fun romp through the French Quarter, children are also introduced to the culture and history of New Orleans through Walter’s Hoofnotes. Walter leaves his hoofprint behind words in the story that are unique to New Orleans culture or refer to New Orleans landmarks.

Young readers can follow his steps to “hoofnotes” at the end of the chapter to learn more about these places and terms. A map in the beginning of the book helps them follow the two sleuths through the Quarter.

I’d also like people to know that New Orleans can be a great place for a family vacation. We have such a reputation as a party city—not a completely undeserved reputation but a somewhat overblown one—that many visitors overlook what else our city has to offer.

I invite you and your readers to check out the blog I wrote last summer about visiting New Orleans with kids.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Kathleen Schrenk.

Nov. 18

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Nov. 18, 1939: Margaret Atwood born.