Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Q&A with Beth Anderson

Beth Anderson is the author of the new children's picture book Lizzie Demands a Seat: Elizabeth Jennings Fights for Streetcar Rights. She also has written the picture book An Inconvenient Alphabet. She lives in Loveland, Colorado.

Q: How did you learn about Elizabeth Jennings' story, and at what point did you decide to write a picture book about her?

A: I saw a list of “unknown women” in history and, after reading just a little about her, I was really struck by her grit, and also by the giant hole in my historical knowledge.

We read about slavery, emancipation, and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. But life in pre-Civil War free states? I wanted to know more. How did she become this woman?

Though my curiosity was piqued, I needed to know she mattered today. Once I found that element, I dove into writing her story. Not only did the event and court case matter, but finding that kids in 1991 and 2007 worked to have her honored with a street named after her in NYC showed me that she was inspiring kids to take action!

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

A: I generally follow source to source, scouring bibliographies and footnotes, and also delve into relevant topics. When I started this manuscript, I hadn’t done a lot of this kind of research.

The story presented many research lessons over several years. I learned to stretch the net wider and dig into specific issues, seeking to understand how history shaped her and inspired her actions.

The broad scope also helps understand consequences and what’s really involved in her decision making—such as possible repercussions of losing a court case, that the black community was divided on how to address issues of discrimination, and how an expanding city increased the importance of transportation.

It’s easy to think of her story as one of discrimination resulting in emotional pain and injustice. But when you dig into the racism as a social structure, it deepens understanding of our society today.

I tried for a very long time, through multiple channels and offices, to find the court records. The end conclusion was that they were lost in a warehouse fire.

So…what do you do when it’s clear you need the courtroom scene? I was fortunate to find an expert on the courts of the time who could answer my questions.

After learning about the many forms of discrimination, I was assuming that the jury would have been all white men, and I wondered if Lizzie, as an African American, could testify.

But…I learned that black men could vote, so therefore could serve on a jury, though the reality of the times makes that highly unlikely. Lizzie could testify as a black woman, but as someone who had a financial stake in the case, she couldn’t.

Her community would have packed the courtroom as the court proceedings were seen as a sort of entertainment of the time. In the absence of records, stretching the net wide had provided enough information to create a scene and made me wary of assumptions.

One person’s story requires much more research than what you find about that one person. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We are not makers of history, we are made by history.” I really got that with this story.

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

A: I really hope that kids and adults from all backgrounds will see that everyone has a role to play in eliminating prejudice and building social justice. We need to question traditions and not blindly follow.

I want readers to notice all the people that sat in silence in the streetcar and members of the crowd who stood and watched. I want readers to understand that, though we need courageous heroes to inspire us, they also need us. No one accomplishes social change on their own.

Letting kids believe the “hero narrative,” that someone greater than the rest of us will come along and save the day, is not helpful. Lizzie couldn’t wait. We can’t wait. We need to step forward – whether it be in a bold way such as Lizzie, or a quiet way as the witness, or by choosing a profession that allows us to work for change.

I hope kids will find inspiration in the story to speak up when they see injustice.

Q: What do you think E.B. Lewis's illustrations add to the book?

A: What an honor to have a book illustrated by E.B. Lewis! His gorgeous watercolors add power and dignity to Lizzie’s story and heighten the emotional impact.

The page with the jurors hit me the hardest—the close up, the colors. And the second spread, there’s so much depth in Lizzie’s eyes. I’m grateful that his reputation as a phenomenal illustrator will help Lizzie’s story reach more people.

Q: What are you working on now?
A: In between Lizzie events, I’m working on revisions for editors of two fun, historic stories that haven’t been announced yet…will have to keep you in suspense on those. I’m also starting research on a new manuscript.

October 13, “Smelly” Kelly and His Super Senses releases – a really fun bit of history with energetic illustrations by Jenn Harney, and actually another hero story of sorts that involves transportation in NYC! I’m waiting for illustrations on two books, and then work begins with that process.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Thank you so much for inviting me to your blog. I greatly appreciate all the support from the kid lit community, friends, and family! Every book is a new adventure!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Beth Anderson.

April 1

April 1, 1929: Milan Kundera born.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Q&A with Suzanne Chazin

Suzanne Chazin is the author of the new mystery novel Voice With No Echo, the fifth in her Jimmy Vega series, which also includes A Place in the Wind and No Witness But the Moon. She is based in suburban New York.

Q: In your acknowledgments, you write, “Writing fiction about current events is a roller-coaster experience.” How did you stay ahead of events when you were writing Voice With No Echo?

A: The terrible stuff at the border is so horrendous. I thought about doing that, but I realized it was possible that by the time I wrote the book the entire separation would be a thing of the past. Now they’re sending everybody back.

My fear is that it’s so in the moment and so emotional that it would be handled before the book came out. It’s hard.

I was writing real stories about immigrants in 2011 and 2012, and I fictionalized it. People were saying this is not going to be an issue, and then the whole world overturned.

My husband is a retired firefighter, and my first series was about NYFD firefighters. 9/11 happened, and then it was, “How dare you write about firefighters?” I have a bad habit…

It’s been a weird thing for me. I’ve been following [the controversy over the novel] American Dirt. When I found out it was this big, I was excited. I thought it sounds like a mainstream book that blends a political issue with being compulsively readable. That’s what I’m trying to do. Then there was the backlash.

I read the book. I thought, Well, some things don’t feel right, but it’s a thriller. But it isn’t positioned as a thriller.

Q: Did you get questions about your own background in writing the Jimmy Vega novels?

A: I’m not big enough to knock down. The critical community—some are very supportive people. Overall I feel I’m the wrong person to write the stories, but I just get ignored. People who read the books come to it very fairly. I do get one-star reviews with no comment, but I get very thoughtful comments.

Q: This is the fifth book about Jimmy Vega and Adele Figueroa. How do you think they’ve changed over the course of the series?

A: They’ve deepened their relationship significantly. They met in the first book, she almost moved to D.C. in the second book, in the third book he shot and killed an unarmed man and she makes the choice to stay with him, in the fourth book he helps her.

They don’t need to get married to be committed. Jimmy is very independent, and Adele is a mother and has her daughter to raise. They’ve grown a lot closer and are strongly connected to each other. They’re yin and yang.

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

A: I knew one of the things I loved about the fourth book was the character of Max Zimmerman. He had more of a story to tell. It was important to me to keep the stories in the New York area. One of the things was the sanctuary movement, people finding ways not to be deported.

I thought, what if a local immigrant needed sanctuary, and decided on Max’s synagogue? Then [in real life] a local synagogue’s handyman was deported, and the Jewish community rallied. He was deported over the border without a wallet or cell phone. They were able to bring him back.

I set out to write a fictional story, but the real thing happened.

What surprises me is that we continue to have so much polarity on the issue. It saddens me. We’re missing the middle—where are the things we can do to make the process humane and see what’s good for the United States long-term. But we’re not doing that. It only gets worse.

I try to show all the sides—there is a center, and we’re missing it right now.

Q: The book’s title is taken from a poem by Julia de Burgos. Why did you choose that?

A: Julia de Burgos was a Puerto Rican poet. All the poems [forming the books’ titles] are from different time periods. When poets write poems, they’re speaking to a different time period, but the echo resonated with me.

There’s a sense of loss, of being ignored, of not being recognized. All these years later, we could say the same things about immigrants in our midst today.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The sixth book. It will come out this time next year. The tentative title is The Fragile Edge of Earth, from a poem by Cesar Vallejo. I always [consider] the notion that people are out there living very uncertain lives; they don’t know their future.

I’m not trying to write necessarily about the immigrant experience, but if there’s a diaspora—some of the family is here, some somewhere else—what if some people are safe and some may be sent back? You live with chronic dread and loneliness. What drove this series was the sense of, What does that feel like?

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: There is gravitas [with the series] but they’re enjoyable to read. These are mysteries—I get a kick out of it when people say, I didn’t know who did it. They’re broccoli brownies—they’re fun to eat but you do get some nutrition.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Suzanne Chazin.

Q&A with Elizabeth Kadetsky

Elizabeth Kadetsky is the author of the new memoir The Memory Eaters. Her other books include On the Island at the Center of the Center of the World and The Poison That Purifies You, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and Guernica. She is an associate professor of fiction and nonfiction at Penn State. 

Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir, and over how long a period did you work on it?

A: I remember the moment I made the decision, weirdly enough. 

It was in 2009, and I was sitting in a giant pod chair in my rented room in Pittsburgh at the end of a one year teaching and writing residency and making plans to move across the state for another writer-in-residence position. 

My primary residence was still in New York City, and I was traveling there several times a month and on semester breaks to help my mother and sister manage things. 

Pennsylvania, for me, was a respite from the chaos and stress of my life in New York. It was also a place to enjoy the quiet and slower pace of things, and to write. 

I say “weirdly” because most of the events of the book hadn’t yet transpired. My mother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s about two years earlier, and I knew that the situation in New York was precarious. 

Something about the cocoon-like environment in Pennsylvania led me to want to immerse myself in my memories of the past. That part, of course—the past—had already happened; but this lens on them—of nostalgia and longing—was also new. 

I was aware that the coming months, and as it turned out years, would continually serve up material that I would want and need to process through the frame of this book project. 

It took me 10 years to write and shape the book, though the most dramatic part of the story ended when my mother passed away at the end of 2011, two and a half years after that moment in the pod chair in Pittsburgh. 

I continued to write, though, as I processed the aftermath. I finished the last essay for the book after the manuscript was accepted for publication, in 2019.  

Q: What impact did it have on you to write the book?

A: When I was writing the central material for the book, I was writing through extreme stress, anxiety, trauma, and PTSD (related to an assault that took place in 2005 and that I reckoned with during the writing process). 

Reading over the manuscript now, I see that there’s no way that I could write it from my current vantage. I am, simply put, a lot more sane now than I was then. The mania of that time is stitched in to the fabric of the text. 

I don’t like the idea that the writing of this book was therapy—the endeavour and motivation for me was to create art. 

I do, though, believe in the use of writing as therapy, for artists and non-artists alike, and the writing certainly was therapeutic for me. Processing the grief over my mother’s death in particular has been helped by writing about what led up to it. 

Somehow, finishing an essay, or, more grandly, finishing an actual manuscript and having that text published as a book, puts a certain, if external, end point on things. 

I can’t say that I will ever overcome this grief over my mother’s death, but the feeling of closure, and having had the mental space to find it by writing, has been a help.  

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

A: The title “The Memory Eaters” came to me long before the book was fully shaped. I ran it by a friend in the publishing industry, and she liked it. 

It’s funny because that title at that time described a different book from the one that I wrote—something more linear, and which much more specifically referenced Homer’s Odyssey (and in particular the Lotos Eaters chapter) and the myth of Persephone, in which Demeter’s daughter eats the food and drink of forgetting in the underworld and never wants to return. 

The title “The Memory Eaters” was meant to reference both of those archetypal stories, which in themselves are related. 

The focus on different ways of thinking about memory—forgetting, willed amnesia, Alzheimer’s and dementia, nostalgia, repetition compulsion, PTSD, ancestral history—came to me later. 

In a way the project came full circle. Having that title throughout was a kind of touchstone, always bringing me back to the original spark, the idea that sometimes forgetting can be a pleasant, even blissful—and ever-dangerous—escape.  

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

A: I was definitely telling a personal story, but all along I felt that it had universal implications. 

As quirky and singular as my mother was, and as odd as my upbringing during that strange and exciting time in New York City was, I think that many people facing the loss of parents through Alzheimer’s and dementia will find a version of their own experience. 

I want to connect with those readers and let them know that they are not alone. 

A lot of people find themselves at this crossroads between the opioid and Alzheimer’s epidemics. A dysfunctional adult child finds her- or him- self caretaking aging parents. The more functional sibling whose life is already cluttered with career and/or family suddenly notices the whole thing crashing down and must manage. 

For children of baby boomers, the similarities may be even more striking. Now-aged parents may have even availed themselves of the liberating divorce wave of the 1970s. Like my mother, those parents might find themselves single by choice in their later years, with few resources for care.

On top of that, the social services are just not there at this point for either the opioid or dementia epidemics. I want my book to highlight that shortcoming, and to ask readers to think about better ways to manage this looming crisis for the American economy and family. 

Our culture has ignored the elderly for generations now, unlike in India or other more traditional societies. This, obviously, doesn’t work, but nor is it a solution for daughters to bear the full brunt of caretaking while also financially supporting their own families. 

Meanwhile, how many families have been untouched by addiction—alcoholism or opioids or what have you? Not very many. 

And yet the extreme degree of pain and logistical upheaval wreaked upon family members and loved ones by these conditions are somehow not a part of the grand narrative of what it means to be American. 

Watching ads and considering the expectations of full time employment not to mention child rearing, one might think that all of our lives simply function smoothly within this structure of work and family. 

It’s as if there’s a huge myth out there of how we’re supposed to live that no one can actually live up to. These impossible myths are held up for us, and in the disconnect between the ideal and the reality we can feel very lost and lonely. 

Systemically, there’s a lot that’s not right. My story is just one anecdote revealing the mechanics of this mass dysfunction.  

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m in India as a Fulbright fellow doing exploratory research for a writing project about preservation and looting of antiquities and the role of museums in stealing and/or preserving ancient history. 

It’s a way of exploring a different spin on memory, but definitely connects to what I’ve been thinking about over the last decade and more while writing The Memory Eaters

Right now I’m a little bit obsessed with some 5th century goddess statues that were stolen from a temple in Rajasthan in the 1960s. The cult of the goddess is calling me, as are the ethical and legal issues brought up by this intriguing story.  

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: A lot of readers and aspiring writers probably don’t realize how much research can go into a memoir. 

All told, I probably read about a hundred books on the topics of memory; genetics; New York City in the 1970s and ‘80s; and the art, self-help, and music movements of that era. I also read every edition of New York magazine published between 1975 and 1980. 

Much of the research was serendipitous—I found bound copies of the latter buried on a basement shelf in the library at a college where I was teaching for one semester, so I decided to read them. 

At one point I thought my book would include neuroscience on the nature of memory, so I read Eric Kandel’s In Search of Memory, Daniel L. Schacter’s Searching for Memory, and Antonio Damasio’s The Feeling of What Happens, among other books. 

While I cited very few of these works in the actual text, they did a lot to help me flesh out the scenes set during my youth in New York or to trigger my memories of it, and to give me a more nuanced understanding of some of the esoteric aspects of memory and epigenetics that I needed to reference. 

On the other hand, all this research slowed down the overall timeline for the book. In my view, it was more than worth it. Process is key.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Erica Ruth Neubauer

Erica Ruth Neubauer, photo by Rachel Neubauer
Erica Ruth Neubauer is the author of the new mystery novel Murder at the Mena House. Her work has appeared in publications including The Los Angeles Review of Books and Mystery Scene Magazine, and she lives in Milwaukee.

Q: How did you come up with your character Jane Wunderly?

A: She honestly just sort of came to me. I had to sit down and work out her backstory--where I wanted her to be from and where her motivations came from, but her voice just sort of popped into my head and started talking. Not in a way that anyone should be concerned about, of course. 

Q: The novel is set in Egypt in 1926. Did you need to do much research to write it, and if so, what did you learn that especially surprised you?

A: I did do quite a bit of research before I wrote the novel, and then even more once I had finished just to make sure that I gotten things right.

Before I started I watched a lot of movies on YouTube about Egypt in the 1920s--and there's something I found surprising, that videos even exist from that time.

I also tracked down an old book about the Mena House Hotel, and that gave a lot of history as well anecdotal stories collected over the years. That was a valuable resource.

I also had a list of questions that I wanted to double-check, so when we actually went to Egypt, our wonderful and very patient tour guide took the time to answer those questions for me. And I found that when I got home from the trip, I only had to change a few details in the manuscript. 

Another thing I found surprising was that by the time my novel happened in 1926, Cairo already had a tram system, and it ran all the way to Giza. I hadn't expected that level of public transportation at all.

I was also shocked that the hotel had a golf course. That seemed absolutely crazy to me, so I wrote it into the story.

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 had no idea who did it when I started writing this. I'm apparently quite the pantser--there was no outline at all, I just sort of felt my way through it. I was probably more than halfway through when I decided who my bad guy was going to be--and then I went back and tried to make sure that wasn't too obvious. 

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

A: I hope readers take away a sense of fun and escape. I really wanted this to be a good time, and give the feeling of having travelled somewhere exciting--in their minds at least. 

Q: This is the first of a series--what's next?

A: In book two, Jane and her aunt are going to England where they will be embroiled in a manor house mystery. And in book three, Jane will find herself on a transatlantic cruise heading back to the States. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Pop by my website occasionally--I'm going to do my best to keep it updated with book recommendations--what I'm reading and loving. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Sarah Tarkoff

Sarah Tarkoff is the author of the new novel Ruthless, the third in her Eye of the Beholder trilogy, which also includes Sinless and Fearless. She is a writer for the CW series Arrow, and she lives in Los Angeles. 

Q: This is your third book about your character Grace. How do you think she's changed over the course of the series?

A: Grace’s journey is intended to mirror the experience of reaching adulthood: thinking you know everything, and then going out into the world (like to college/the workforce) and discovering that everything is more complicated and nuanced than you thought it was. 

Grace starts the series being confident in her beliefs, but timid – she’s been taught to stay in her place. When her beliefs are challenged, she begins a journey that transforms her into a really different character.

In book one, she’s still very hesitant, afraid to take action because she’s afraid of the responsibility that comes along with taking that action. By book three, she’s become almost the opposite of that.

Q: Did you know from the beginning that you'd be writing a series about her?

A: I originally pitched this idea as a film, and the producers loved the world, but they asked me, can you get rid of this teenage girl named Grace and make the main character a 30-year-old man, so it’s easier to cast? 

They ended up passing on the project, and I’m glad – the story wouldn’t have been as emotionally impactful if it was about some handsome adult man worrying about whether he was attractive!

Q: Did you do any research to write the novel, and if so, did you learn anything that surprised you?

A: I talked to some scientists to try to make sure my “fake science” was as accurate as possible. I struggle with wanting all of my sci-fi tech to be perfectly accurate, but at the end of the day, I know there are certain sacrifices that have to be made in order for the story to work. 

Q: What do you hope readers take away from this novel, and from the series overall?

A: The main theme is about challenging one’s own beliefs, which is definitely something we can all take into our own lives. It’s very easy to look at other people and say, “They should be more open-minded,” when we ourselves are stuck in our own rigid worldviews. 

I know I can be vulnerable to that cognitive bias as well!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just finished writing a new novel, adult fiction this time – a bit of romance, a bit of sci-fi, and it’s possibly my favorite thing I’ve ever written. I’m also working on two new scripts as well, a TV pilot and a feature script. 

I took this past year off for personal reasons, and it’s been nice to have the freedom to write exactly what I want to write, whenever I want to write it. I’m aware I may never have that luxury again!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I started off my career writing for television (and I still do!). A lot of my prose is informed by that – fast-paced, dialogue heavy, lots of cliffhangers. I have a short attention span, so I like to write books that would keep me reading!

And Ruthless is in stores on March 31, 2020!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Linda Howard and Linda Jones

Linda Howard and Linda Jones are the authors of the new novel After Sundown. They have each written many novels separately, and they've written three other novels together. Howard lives in  Gadsden, Alabama, and Jones lives in Huntsville, Alabama.

Q: How did the two of you come up with the idea for After Sundown, and for your characters Sela and Ben?

Linda Howard: I don’t know! It probably sprang organically from our conversations; the same with Sela and Ben. The hardest thing for them was coming up with their names. By the way, Sela’s name is pronounced SEE-la.

Linda Jones: I wish our process was organized enough that I could answer this question. We what-if’d our way into the basic idea. Ben and Sela grew from there.

Q: What was your writing process like as you collaborated on the book?

Linda Howard: The process has changed with every book we’ve written together. One thing that has remained constant is that we don’t take turns writing chapters; we each go over and write and re-write and edit almost every sentence, to the point that we don’t know who wrote what.

Linda Jones: Since we’re both pantsters, which means we don’t plot much at all ahead of time, we break with our usual individual writing method to plan a chapter or two ahead. We’ll each write scenes, email them back and forth, tinker, and make sure we’re on the same page. And then we do it again.

Q: The novel is set in Tennessee. How important is setting to you in your writing?

Linda Howard: Sometimes, not very; usually the plot will dictate the setting, and it was the same in this case. The Wears Valley/Townsend area of Tennessee is extremely suitable for long-term survival under the circumstances of the plot. It’s a mild climate, long growing season, plenty of fresh water and game, and people who know how to grow and preserve their food.

Linda Jones: With most books, the setting is not something I can change. It’s too important to the tone of the story and to the characters.

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

Linda Howard: We kind of knew how it would end. The changes were in how we got there.

Linda Jones: We did try to plot a little before we got started, but almost none of what we plotted got written. We knew where we wanted to start and where we wanted to end up, but there were surprising moments in how we got there.

Q: What are you working on now?

Linda Howard:  I’m working on the third and last installment of the GO-Teams.

Linda Jones: I’m working on the next book in my self-pubbed Mystic Springs series. Beauty and the Beastmaster will be out later this year.

Q: Anything else we should know?

Linda Howard: I hope the current situation with the coronavirus, and the very real possibility of a major solar storm such as we used in After Sundown will prompt people to be more prepared!

Linda Jones: I agree with Linda. Be prepared! As the current situation proves, you never know what tomorrow will bring.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb