Thursday, December 13, 2018

Q&A with Helen Rappaport

Q: You write that after completing several other books on the Russian Imperial family, "I really thought I had come to the end of my written love affair with the Romanovs and Russia." What made you decide to write this new book about them?  

A: I wrote two previous books on the Romanovs, then a book about Lenin in exile and one on Petrograd in 1917 for the anniversary of the revolution, but by the time I got to the end of this last book I felt there was still one niggling unanswered question re the Romanovs that I needed to explore – if only for my own satisfaction.

This was – why could nobody save them? And I mean nobody, not just King George. I had never ever believed it was all down to him – either to offer a refuge or get them out. There were many complex factors involved and I felt that they had not been properly explored–ever.

Instead people have repeated that same tired old accusation that King George “betrayed” them. Yes, he failed the family, but so did many others and I wanted to open the subject up for a more balanced view.

Q: What did you find especially fascinating in the course of your research for this book?  

A: Not fascinating – I was appalled by how many people involved got cold feet, abdicated responsibility in one way or another and repeatedly passed the buck. 

I was also shocked to see the extent to which the whole evacuation/asylum issue was vetoed from day one by the Petrograd Soviet. If anyone has real responsibility for the Romanovs not leaving Russia it is them.

Had they not blocked the initial discussions by Brits and Provision Government, the family could have been quickly evacuated before King George changed his mind.

Q: How would you characterize the relationships between the Romanovs and their royal relatives in other European countries, and why were those relatives reluctant to help them?  

A: The Romanovs had been extremely isolated politically since the 1905 events of Bloody Sunday. They were pariahs in Europe politically and not in close contact really with their royal relatives for security and other reasons.

The main problem though was the war, which had forced their royal relatives to take sides, while others were struggling to remain neutral. All these countries had their own internal political problems and they all privately shared George’s view that to take the Romanovs in would have been very politically compromising.

It’s just they kept shtum about it – so all the blame was heaped on George. Even King Alfonso knew what a risk it was for him to try and help, which is why in the end he enlisted the Vatican in last-ditch appeals – but alas too late.

Q: What accounts for the ongoing interest in the Romanovs a century after their deaths?  

A: Well, there has always been a general abiding fascination with royalty, Russia and the gorgeous wealth of the palaces, the old tsarist regime, etc.

But in the case of the Imperial Family I am quite certain it is the children that keep everyone interested. The tragedy of Alexey and his haemophilia, those four lovely girls. The memory, and the fascination they exude is kept alive by all the marvellous photographs of the family.

The girls have become immortal – symbolic of the lost innocence of another world. That is why we love them and mourn them. I don’t think it would have been the same fascination had Nicholas and Alexandra not had those five extraordinary children.

Q: What are you working on now?   

A: I’m exhausted after 15 books in 20 years and am taking a break and considering my options. Almost certainly I shall be taking a break from Russia and certainly from Romanovs and going back to my other favourite subject – the Victorians.

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: I was saddened that the Romanov centenary in July did not receive the coverage that I had hoped it would in Western media. It was all rather overshadowed by the Trump/Putin summit, which was a terrible shame.

And even sadder and frustrating was the total wasted opportunity of the Amazon Prime series The Romanoffs, which used the Imperial Family as a cheap and specious premise for a very expensive but pointless series that had nothing at all to do with the family. What I would give to be able to tell their story in a proper documentary series for TV.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Helen Rappaport.

Q&A with Anna Humphrey

Anna Humphrey is the author of two new novels for kids, Megabat and Clara Humble and the Kitten Caboodle. Her other books include Clara Humble and the Not-So-Super Powers and Clara Humble: Quiz Whiz. She runs a freelance writing and editing business, and she lives in Kitchener, Ontario.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Megabat and his friend Daniel, and will there be a sequel?

A: I started writing Megabat after my husband, kids and I moved to a new city. We were all more than a little homesick. What’s more, there was a weird leak our new roof. Water was dripping from the ceiling onto the main floor, but everything was dry on the two floors above.

Naturally, I jumped to the logical conclusion: maybe there was a fruit bat hiding somewhere in the walls and it was crying because it was homesick too. 

What can I say? The brain of a fiction writer can be a strange place. In any case, Megabat was born. And yes, there will be sequels. Look for Megabat and Fancy Cat coming in April of 2019 and at least two more books in the series after that.

Q: Your third book featuring your character Clara Humble has also recently been published--why did you focus this one on cats?

A: I love everything about cats: their indifference, their playfulness, their righteousness and independence. I was pretty sure Clara—a girl who speaks her mind and thinks highly of herself—would relate strongly to cats, too. 

Also, since Clara draws a cartoon about a high-tech cat named @Cat throughout the series, a book about real cats for the series finale felt like a natural fit.

Only, this time, instead of drawing comics about her feline hero, Clara is working on storyboards… because she’s busy saving stray cats while writing and directing the greatest internet cat video of all time. It’s a tall order, but Clara Humble is all about tackling tall orders. 

Q: What do you think the illustrations--by Kass Reich and Lisa Cinar respectively--add to the books?

A: When it comes to Megabat, Kass Reich’s illustrations added a softness and warmth to the book that I couldn’t have imagined. Megabat’s shenanigans sometimes have a cartoon quality, but the realism and unbridled cuteness of Kass’s work tone that down and give the story more of a heart-squish feel.  

As for Lisa Cinar’s work, it goes in the complete opposite direction, and I love that about it too. It’s a loose, quirky, cartoony style that I think really captures Clara’s off-kilter sense of humor and way of seeing the world. 

Q: Who are some of your favorite children's book authors?

A: There are many… but, off the top of my head: Gordon Korman, Kate DiCamillo, Sheree Fitch… 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I recently found out that there are miniature spiders (called demodex mites) living in my eyelashes, and in your eyelashes, and in everyone’s eyelashes! Isn’t that the coolest and grossest thing? 

I’m trying to write a fictional kids’ book about mites and microbes and tiny things. I have no idea if it’s going to work. For example, maybe right now you’re wishing that I never told you about your mini eyelash spiders… and if that’s the case, this idea might make for the most unpopular book ever. I guess I’ll find out!  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 13

Dec. 13, 1871: Emily Carr born.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Q&A with B.A. Shapiro

B.A. Shapiro, photo by Lynn Wayne
B.A. Shapiro is the author of the new novel The Collector's Apprentice. Her other novels include The Art Forger and The Muralist. She has taught sociology at Tufts University and creative writing at Northeastern University, and she lives in Boston and Florida.

Q: You write that the characters in The Collector's Apprentice were "loosely inspired by the lives of the art collector Albert Barnes and his assistant, Violette de Mazia." What first interested in you in them, and why did you decide to focus this novel around versions of them?

A: I visited the Barnes Foundation (Albert Barnes’s art museum outside of Philadelphia) in my 20s and was completely taken by the post-Impressionist artwork and the story of his brilliance and eccentricities as well as the mysteries surrounding Violette de Mazia.

This interest only grew as a fight ensued between the Barnes and the city of Philadelphia, which tried—and ultimately succeed—to move his collection from the suburbs into the city against his preferences clearly outlined in his will.

Q: What kind of research did you do to write this novel, and did you learn anything especially surprising?

A: I did all kinds of research including interviews, site visits, extensive reading and museum visiting, etc., and became even more fascinated with both the characters and the artwork. One surprising thing was that even an ironclad will can be broken with enough time and political pressure.

Q: The artist Henri Matisse plays a big role in the novel. Why did you choose to focus on him in the book?

A: Henri Matisse may be my favorite artist of all times. I just love his colorful and bold works. I wanted to know more about him and making him a major character gave me that opportunity.

Q: You tell the story from two characters' perspectives. Was that your plan from the start, and did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it?

A: When I started the book I thought there would be two points of view: Vivienne Gregsby (Violette) and Edwin Bradley (Albert Barnes). Edwin’s POV didn’t pan out and as Vivienne’s grew, I realized I need a strong antagonist who was worthy of her.

That’s where George—I love him and hate him—came in, including all his cons and her counter-cons.

I knew how the novel was going to end when I began, but it didn’t turn out that way. Almost never does.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a novel that is completely different from anything I’ve ever written before—and very different from my latest trilogy of art/mystery/history novels.

This one takes place in the present day, has seven viewpoint characters who are linked through the self-storage units they rent in a medieval-style building in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

They are rich, poor and in-between, they are black, white and brown, they are Christian, Jewish and Muslim, and they would never have come in contact with each other without the randomness of their storage units—and the secrets and mysteries that ultimately draw them into each other’s lives.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with B.A. Shapiro.

Q&A with Peter Stone

Peter Stone, photo by Heather Kincaid
Peter Stone is the author of the new young adult novel The Perfect Candidate, which is set in Washington, D.C. He has worked as a TV and film marketing executive for 10 years, and is based in Tokyo.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Perfect Candidate, and for your character Cameron?

A: I interned for Congressman Gary Condit’s Capitol Hill office the summer after I graduated from high school. Soon after, he would be embroiled in this century’s first notorious political scandal: the murder of young staffer Chandra Levy. 

Levy’s death was the first plot twist of my adult life - a dead young woman from my hometown suddenly dominated the tabloids. (The police eventually cleared Condit of any criminal behavior). 

I was later a research assistant and Spanish tutor for Newt Gingich (teaching Newt the difference between preterite and imperfect tenses while in the green room at Fox News is a whole other essay). 

Those internships made me wonder then – and I still ponder it today - what current interns or low-level staffers are sitting on secrets and just a click or a post or a call away from changing the world?

My journal entries and memories - and these scary questions - are what led me to write The Perfect Candidate: a mystery about an ordinary teen intern Cameron Carter - whose search for the truth makes him an extraordinary kind of spy at his core.  

Q: How much did your own experience working in D.C. affect your writing of the novel?

A: My time in D.C. was my first thrilling, sour, indelible, heady taste of life beyond the small town I grew up in. It’s a cliché, but I couldn’t wait to get out of my hometown and live in a big city. Washington did not disappoint. 

Characters in the novel are composed of various personalities and specific quotes that I remember from those internships (like one senior staffer’s condescending greeting to Cameron: “Hello, Intern.”) Even the monuments, metro stations, and cold marble hallways became characters of the story in their own right. 

Beyond the internships, I also wanted to explore the time in life that immediately follows high school. The whole experience was thrilling and formative for me – and then ultimately disillusioning as the rumors about Condit flew and the media feeding frenzy began. 

Once I encountered the darker side of D.C., the secret bargain of “leaving home” became clear to me: you can never go back. The adolescence I was so ready to leave behind was actually wonderful in its own way – maybe even idyllic. And suddenly gone for good. 

That Cameron has already passed this point of no return helped me to increase the emotional stakes and suspense of the narrative. 

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

A: Without giving too much away, readers of The Perfect Candidate will find some key revelations in the final pages of the book.  I always envisioned this rug-pull and how it makes the reader rethink everything that has come before. 

However - along the way, I did make a number of changes – and I have my agent and the Simon & Schuster team to thank for their invaluable perspective and advice.  One area that came a long way from the first draft is the romantic throughline in the story.  Plot and dialogue came naturally to me; romance did not. 

Q: What do you think the novel says about politics and those who choose to work in that field?

A: I say in the acknowledgements section that the novel may seem like a burn book for Washington, D.C. – but in reality, it’s a love letter. The Perfect Candidate reveals the corrupt roots of many tenured leaders and their associates. But it also shows the power of optimism, specifically among the youthful army of interns that flow into and out of the city. 

While today’s political climate is unprecedented and polarizing, I think there is one undisputed gain: teenagers are more thoughtful than ever about government and how it impacts them. I hope they continue to volunteer for political campaigns, to march and write and speak their beliefs, and to take anxious, lonely airplane flights into the unknown of summer internships in our nation’s capitol. 

Cameron Carter embodies my experiences that summer—but he is also any teenager whose trust is betrayed and then who doubles down in search of the truth and what is right. That same curiosity—that engagement—will change the lives of young people who choose to work in politics. And it may change the world.

And if, like Cameron, they happen to stumble upon and expose a breathtaking and scary political scandal while they’re at it—more power to them. (Let’s just hope they’re spared the death threats, paranoia, and desperate chases that Cameron encounters…)

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My road to publication started at my wedding reception. One of the guests (friends of my in-laws) approached me after hearing the wedding vows I’d spoken. 

Apparently impressed with my speech, she asked me if I was a writer. I joked back that I wrote emails at my job. She then urged me to write a book. I attributed her generous assessment to her probably having had a couple drinks from the bar.

When I later learned that this wedding guest was New York Times bestselling author Margaret Stohl, I listened to the advice more seriously and took a stab at what became the first chapter of The Perfect Candidate

Writing a novel was awkward at first, like learning how to ride a bike (or maybe better put: how to fly a helicopter). All sorts of negative voices and doubts emerged in my mind. But the spark was there, and I couldn’t not chase it. 

Two key takeaways: 1) The first person who needs to believe in you as a writer is yourself; and 2) Invite Margaret Stohl to your wedding.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 12

Dec. 12, 1821: Gustave Flaubert born.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Q&A with Lynne Truss

Lynne Truss is the author of the new mystery novel A Shot in the Dark. Her many other books include Eats, Shoots & Leaves. She lives on the south coast of England.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for A Shot in the Dark, and for your character Constable Twitten?

A: The four main characters in A Shot in the Dark all had their origins in a radio comedy series I wrote over a period of years: young Constable Twitten, his colleagues Inspector Steine and Sergeant Brunswick, and the lovable cockney charlady Mrs Groynes.

The very first inspiration for me was the opening of the film Brighton Rock  (based on the novel by Graham Greene), where the public are reassured that the story of razor-gangs and hoodlums in Brighton that follows does not remotely represent this law-abiding town, which has been completely cleaned up since the war by the police.

I liked the idea of a police inspector in the 1950s who actually believes such propaganda: who insists there is no longer any crime in the town, and therefore discourages his men from looking for it. Having such an inspector in place, it seemed natural that the detective protagonist should be a very clever young constable who is keen to expose crime (but to whom no one will listen).

By the way, the names all relate to Brighton topography. The “Steine” (pronounced steen) is an area in the centre of town; “Brunswick” is a common street name, because of Caroline of Brunswick, married to George IV; “Twitten” is the local name for an alleyway, or cut-through; and “Groynes” refers to the breakwaters. There are signs on the seafront that say, “Danger! Hidden groynes!”

Q: Did you need to do much research to write the novel, which is set in Brighton in the 1950s?

A: I have done a lot of research, yes, and it’s all been very pleasurable. For A Shot in the Dark, I read a lot about music hall acts, and crime reporters, and so on.

The only thing I didn’t need to research particularly was the world of the theatre, because I’ve always been interested in this period, when “angry” plays were first produced. And I suppose I also knew a lot already about phrenology (which is practised as a music-hall act by one of the characters).

I am still learning new and useful things, though. Brighton police in this period wore distinctive white helmets, for example (I have only just discovered this). Brighton was also home to a famous and successful ice-hockey team called The Brighton Tigers who, in 1957, beat the Russian national team!

I haunt the local history archive attached to Sussex University, looking at microfiche of old newspapers, and I’ve tracked down a lot of films shot in Brighton (there was a short-lived film studio in the town). I also count it as research to curl up in the afternoons and read classic British crime novels (but mainly I just like doing that).

Q: You've noted that your characters originated in a radio program you created. What was it like to transfer them to this novel?

A: Well, I did already love these characters, so the main difficulty was remembering that other people didn’t know them at all! But I haven’t been at all hidebound by anything that was in the radio series. I’ve reinvented all the characters, to some degree or other; I’ve lifted fragments of plots but changed their outcomes.

The biggest challenge with the characters was to tone them down while keeping them memorable. For the radio, we had four fantastic comic actors in the main parts, and in the end I was writing the parts to suit the actors’ strengths. In the novels, I can allow the characters to mould themselves more.

Q: What are some other comic crime novels that you've especially enjoyed?

A: I’ve read a lot of Carl Hiassen; also all of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels. There must be others.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The second Constable Twitten novel, The Man That Got Away, has just been through copy-editing; I’ll start the third (for publication in 2020) after Christmas.

In the meantime I’ve been writing and recording three stories for radio broadcast in the spring, for an on-going series called Life at Absolute Zero. The stories are set in a fictional town called Meridian Cliffs, and I read them myself – which again has an influence on how they are written.

As you can probably tell, I do like the challenges of different types of writing. For four years I was a sports columnist for The Times, and although the lifestyle was absolutely horrible, I did embrace the scariness of the deadlines.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I am so impressed by American readers being prepared to overlook how British A Shot in the Dark is. I can imagine what a tall order it is. I’m very grateful.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb