Monday, August 3, 2020

Q&A with Celia Rees

Celia Rees is the author of the new novel Miss Graham's Cold War Cookbook. Her many other books include Witch Child and Sorceress. She lives in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, UK.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Miss Graham's Cold War Cookbook, and for your character Edith?

A: The book began with a cookery book, the Radiation Cookery Book, given away with gas cookers. The cover boards were stained and faded, the back had gone, and it was held together with parcel tape.

I found it among my mother’s effects and I’d never seen it before. The pages were interleaved with clippings from old newspapers, magazines - and handwritten recipes. I recognised my mother’s writing, and my aunt’s and what I took to be my grandmother’s.

I guessed that it had been my grandmother’s book, passed onto my aunt and then to mother who had kept it after her sister’s death. To my knowledge, there were no existent letters between these women, so these recipes were the only connection.

The book and the recipes suddenly seemed very precious. I knew that there was something I wanted to write about here but had no idea what it could be.

Years later, I was in the Imperial War Museum in London with my daughter. We were in the gallery devoted to espionage. One of the wall panels said that after the Second World War, the British Zone in Germany had been a hotbed of spying. My aunt had been there then, working as an Education Officer.

One of us said, “Perhaps Aunty Nancy was a spy…”. We both laughed. My headmistress maiden aunt a spy? The idea was absurd. But maybe not… I suddenly saw how I could use the Radiation Cookbook and Miss Graham was born.

My aunt directly inspired the book and her life gave me the character of Edith. She was born 1/1/1900, an auspicious date, but on the surface she led an entirely unexceptional life.

She taught in Coventry, never married, lived at home with my grandparents. After my grandfather died at the beginning of the Second World War, she looked after my grandmother. So far, so predictable.

Then, in 1946, much to the consternation of the whole family, she went to work for The Control Commission in the British Zone in Northern Germany. The Control Commission were tasked with re-construction. She was fluent in German and was taken on as an education officer, with the equivalent rank of lieutenant colonel.

Much to the further consternation of the family, she liked the life there and stayed on, well into the 1950s. She only came back to Britain for my grandmother’s last illness. She took up her work in schools again, becoming a headmistress.

I remember her talking about her time in Lübeck and the photographs she had of the devastation: ruined cities and sunken ships.

As a child, I absorbed the family narrative about how irresponsible and selfish she’d been, but as an adult I saw her differently. I admired her striking out, rebelling against the role convention had assigned for her, her sense of purpose and her compassion.

All her life, she worked tirelessly for the Save the Children Fund, never forgetting the plight of those refugee children in Germany.

I also liked that she had a hidden life: her fluency in German, her “friendship” with a German boy before the war; the trips abroad she’d taken with her cousin; the holidays she took in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, often on her own; her lifelong friendship with an American whom she’d met in Germany.

She flew to America to see him, the year before her death, in 1984. She once told me “However old you get, you’re the same person inside. Only your body lets you down.” I’ve never forgotten that.   

Q: What kind of research did you do to write the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: A novel like this takes a lot of research. I use the same technique for any historical novel. First, I need to understand the history of the period, so I can be as accurate as possible. Then I go to eyewitness accounts: diaries, journals, letters memoirs, novels of the time to get the details of everyday lives.

I research while I write, not just in the library and from books, I visit museums, go to exhibitions on anything relevant, visit the places I’m going to write about and take photographs. For this book, I took several trips to Germany, visited locations in London, even went on a spy walk!  

I collect things: photographs, postcards, printouts and keep a scrapbook – a kind of record of the writing of the novel.

With this book, food was an important research strand, so I collected menu cards and researched recipes. I was not just interested in recipes appropriate to place, time and circumstances but also more generally, examining what food could symbolize and signify in people’s lives and its use as a weapon and means of oppression. 

I was shocked by the utter destruction in Germany. The Germans call midnight on 8th May, 1945, the end of the war in Europe, Stunde Null – Zero Hour and that seemed to sum up the desolate aftermath and the gargantuan task of re-construction.

The horrors of the Nazi regime are always deeply shocking but the Euthanasia Project and its connection to the Holocaust took me to some very dark places indeed. I was also surprised by the role women played in the Nazi machine and by the mass suicides that occurred in the wake of Germany’s defeat.

Q: You've written novels in various genres--do you have a preference and does your writing process differ depending on what you're writing?

A: I have written in different genres, but I don’t really have a preference. The genre is dictated by the idea. The only real difference in the process is that historical novels require a great deal more research!

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

A: In one way, yes - at least, I thought I did! But I ended up making a hugely radical change that didn’t exactly change the ending, just changed who was there.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I want my next project to be a sequel to Miss Graham. I want to tell Dori’s story and then maybe Adeline’s. I like the idea of a trilogy about three women, two spies and a war reporter, engaged in arenas that are usually seen as essentially male.

If anyone out there agrees, do please contact me, either via my website:, or Instagram @celiarees1 or Twitter @CeliaRees. I’d love to hear from you!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with J.F. Riordan

J.F. Riordan is the author of the new novel A Small Earnest Question. It's the fourth in her North of the Tension Line series, which also includes Robert's Rules and The Audacity of Goats. She lives in Wisconsin.

Q: This is the fourth book in your North of the Tension Line series--did you know from the start that you'd be writing a series?

A: When I first started writing about Fiona and friends, I didn’t quite realize that it would become a novel—much less a series. But once I got clear that it was a book I needed to write, I knew that the story would continue, because when I’m in need of distraction or comfort, I usually turn to series. I love reading a book whose characters feel like people I know and enjoy hanging out with.

In fact, when I’m not writing my books, I start to miss the characters. They are real to me, and I look forward to going back and finding out what they’ve been up to. That’s the impetus that gets me back to writing again.

Q: The book takes place on an island in the Great Lakes. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: Washington Island—which is a real place—is very much one of the characters in the story.

Although the story lines have universal themes, the island itself—and Fiona’s relationship to it—are key elements in all the books. The lake, the seasons, the northern lights…all reflect the mood of the characters and give them chances to react and engage with the world around them. Without that setting, the books would be very different.

Q: How do you think your characters have changed in the course of the series?

A: Most of them—the ones we like—have grown in one way or another.

Fiona faces her demons and makes decisions that one by one change the course of her life; Roger, the social misfit, is learning to give more and more of himself and to be thoughtful of other people, although he doesn’t quite understand them; Oliver starts to see that his loneliness is of his own making.

Even Pete, whose life is a bit of a mystery, comes to realize that he has some decisions to make.

The only characters who don’t seem to change or grow are Stella, the neighbor from Hell, and Rocco, the empathetic German Shepherd. But Rocco—like all dogs—is perfect as he is, so that’s okay.

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

A: The series name comes from the title of the first book. “North of the Tension Line” is how Washington Islanders describe the peculiar sense of relaxation people experience when they take the ferry crossing to the Island.

In the context of the story, however, there is a certain irony in the phrase, since there is a fair amount of small-town conflict, and however hard Fiona tries to find inner peace,  it is always somewhat elusive.  I confess that when I chose the title I was a little concerned that the Islanders would be annoyed, and maybe they are.

As for the title of this novel, the fourth in the series, there’s a bit of a story.

My copy editor is a good friend and former colleague, and one day we were invited to participate in a meeting highly fraught with office politics. After we had been told about a controversial new policy, she raised her hand and said, in an uncharacteristically hesitant voice: “I have a small, earnest question.” I knew instantly that that would be the title of my next book.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am in the process of developing two very different novels. I’m not sure which one is going to take precedence, but one way or another I’ll probably end up writing them both.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I guess I should say that we will meet Fiona again. Probably sooner rather than later.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Ernesto Cisneros

Ernesto Cisneros is the author of Efrén Divided, a new middle grade novel for kids. He is a teacher in Santa Ana, California.

Q: In the book's acknowledgments, you offer thanks to your children "for asking me to write this book." How did you come up with the idea for Efrén and his family?

A: During the 2016 elections, extremely hurtful misconceptions about the Latino community were handed a national platform. What had always been an underlying bias against the Latino community began to feel like an all-out attack.

I knew that I needed to do something to help change the narrative being created about us. I wanted my children and my students alike to feel proud of their heritage. It was also during the same year that three of my students had a parent deported mid-year. I felt obligated to speak up and help raise awareness of their plight.

Q: Given the ongoing discussions about deportations and family separations, what do you hope readers take away from your book?

A: Efrén Divided was my attempt at letting students everywhere know that they were not alone. That there is ample love and support for them. I also want readers to not lose sight of the humanity of families like Efrén’s.

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

A: Unfortunately, I did know exactly how the story needed to end. As much as I would have provided a fairytale ending, I knew that was not the reality for kids like Efrén. The challenge was finding a way to end with the story with a feeling of hope—one that would inspire kids everything to feel empowered to create change.

Q: What do you see looking ahead when it comes to U.S. immigration policy and its impact on families like Efrén's?

A: As optimistic as I’d like to be, a lot remains to be seen. These upcoming elections will be crucial beginning for helping children like Efrén and their families. Fixing the immigration policy is challenging to say the least, however, blatant biases toward a selected group should have no place in the decision making. 

If people truly want to change the system, we need to do a better job of embracing each other. After all, we are all more alike than we are different.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just completed my sophomore book tentatively titled One Shot. Two best friends starting middle school, both confronting issues tied to their families and self-worth.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Yes. To all the aspiring writers who might read this…KEEP AT IT. DO NOT GIVE UP! The world deserves to hear your story. It took me well over 14 years of trying before my publication dream came true.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 3

Aug. 3, 1920: P.D. James born.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Q&A with Julia Spiro

Julia Spiro is the author of the new novel Someone Else's Secret. She worked in the film industry in Los Angeles, and now lives on Martha's Vineyard.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Someone Else's Secret, and for your characters Lindsey and Georgie?

A: I wanted to show the permanent impact that trauma has on us and the way keeping that trauma secret can shape and mold our lives. By having two characters experience the book’s central trauma, in different ways, I was able to show two different responses to it.

I knew from the start what I wanted the central crime to be, and the basic identity of the two main characters, but they really came to life as I started writing.

Q: What impact did the MeToo movement have on the creation of the novel?

A: Though the MeToo movement actually began years earlier, when I was still an executive in Hollywood in 2017 it was just starting to pick up steam around me. I was so moved by all of these survivors who decided to finally come forward after years of remaining silent. But I was disheartened by the critics of the survivors who refused to understand why anyone would keep a secret like that to themselves for so long.

In many of my conversations with friends during that time, I began to realize that keeping past traumas to ourselves is more common than not, and I wanted to explore that. I wanted to create a character who decides to remain silent for a long time, so that readers could have more insight into why it often feels impossible for survivors to ever come forward.

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

A: I knew that I wanted the book to have a sense of triumph and joy in the end. I needed the end to illustrate human resiliency in an uplifting way. And personally, I’m not the biggest fan of books that end on a really depressing note. But I also didn’t want to wrap everything up in a neat and tidy bow, because that’s just not life.

I wanted the book to remain realistic while still offering a sense of justice. As I wrote, I grappled with this balance, and it did change quite a bit. But even though I tried different versions, I think I always knew how it would end.

Q: Much of the book takes place on Martha's Vineyard. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: The setting of the book is incredibly important to me. In this case, I like to think of the island of Martha’s Vineyard as a character in and of itself.

Not only is it a stunning backdrop for any story, but there’s a fascinating richness to the island’s social and cultural structures that I wanted to play with. It’s a seasonal island, so there’s a really interesting dichotomy between “locals” and “summer people.” I think that lot of the socioeconomic undercurrents of the island can be looked at as a microcosm of our country.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve been working on my second book for a few months now and I’m very excited about it. I can’t say much yet, but I will say that it’s also going to be set partially on Martha’s Vineyard. There might be some secondary characters who crossover from Someone Else’s Secret, but otherwise the story, main characters, and themes will be entirely different.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Silvia López

Silvia López is the author of the new children's picture book Pacho Nacho. Her other books include the forthcoming Queen of Tejano Music: Selena/Reina de la Música Tejana: Selena. A longtime children's librarian, she was born in Cuba and raised in Miami.

Q: You note that Pacho Nacho's story is based on a long tradition of folktales. How did you come up with your own version of the story?

A: For years I enjoyed reading aloud the Caldecott classic Tikki Tikki Tembo. Since I love folktales and knew it was a retelling, I researched the origins of the tale about the boy who had a very long name and learned it had originally come from the Japanese oral tradition, been retold in China, Europe, and the United States, but never in Latin America.

I worked in a school where 97 percent of the children were of Hispanic origin, so I decided to tell the story in my own words giving it a Hispanic theme, using Spanish names, and including a few words in that language. The kids readily identified with it.

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

A: Of course, I want the children to laugh at the funny name! There is nothing better than watching kids enjoy the humor in a story.

But in my version, there are also a couple of underlying themes. The first is that when the silly too-long-name gets the older brother in trouble, it’s the persistence and resolve of his little brother that saves the day. Pacho Nacho is the title character, but Juan is the true hero.

The second is that it’s important to listen to even the youngest child, for he or she may be the wisest among us.

Q: What do you think Pablo Pino's illustrations add to the book?

A: I was blown away when editor Christianne Jones sent me the first set of illustrations. Christianne was wonderful to work with. She asked me what pictures I saw in my mind’s eye that I thought might fit my vision of the story.

Then Pablo perfectly captured the essence of a little town that could just as well be in Mexico as in some other place in Central America, or even in southwest United States. He also portrayed the love of the parents, the extended family, the community, and even the bond between the two brothers. His illustrations have terrific child appeal and are absolutely delightful.

Q: How does your background as a librarian contribute to your creation of children's books?

A: My career gave me the opportunity to spend my entire professional life among books, children, and books for children!

After my Children’s Literature class for my degree I drew up a list of every Newbery and Caldecott, including honor books, and read them chronologically. Then I read everything else I could get my hands on.

When I got my first librarian job, I found that when I recommended a book to a child, he or she invariably asked, “Have you read it?” Believe me, if you hadn’t, they’d see right through you! So, I constantly searched my collection and kept abreast of new publications to see what child I could “pair up” with what book.

Now as I write, I keep in mind enduring works I’ve read through the years and what exactly is about them that appeals to children. It helps me tremendously with my own writing.    

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have several projects going on. I’m reworking some of my favorite folktales to make them more appealing to today’s children (did I mention I love folktales?). I’m also a history buff. I have a picture book project dealing with the women pilots of World War II and am doing research on some of the little-known contributions of some minorities to that war as well. My head and my computer are full of ideas!   

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Besides Pacho Nacho I have a second picture book coming out this year, on Aug. 25. It’s actually two books, because there are both English and Spanish versions. They are biographies of Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla (Queen of Tejano Music: Selena and Reina de la Música Tejana: Selena, by Little Bee Books), beautifully illustrated by Paola Escobar.

The books were chosen as Junior Library Guild selections and part of the 20TruePBs group. I was so honored!

In January 2021, another dual-language book is scheduled for release, part of My Little Golden Books biography series. These are on Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. The illustrations (the cover is amazing) are by Elisa Chavarri.

Aside from that, I think it’s good to know that I published my first book on the same year that I turned 68, and it won the Florida Book Award. I’m only saying that because it’s important to know that age is only a number, and that it’s never too early or too late to pursue one’s dreams. I was fortunate to have a career I loved, and writing is just a continuation of that love.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Barbara Diamond Goldin

Photo by Geraldine Unger
Barbara Diamond Goldin is the author of the new children's picture book A Persian Princess. Her other books include The Passover Cowboy and Meet Me at the Well. She is the director of a public library, and a former teacher.

Q: Why did you decide to write A Persian Princess?

A: I didn’t decide! I’d been doing books with Apples and Honey [Press], and my editor asked me to do a book about Persian Jews—it could be on Iran, or in a historical time, or in the United States.

I like doing stories with multicultural themes. I did The Passover Cowboy, about Jews who were sent to live in South America.

My editor helped me find a contact, who’s been so helpful. I dedicated A Persian Princess to her and her family. She answered all my questions, and sent photographs of her family so the illustrator could see them.

I went with a friend to Great Neck [where there’s a large Iranian Jewish community] to see what it looks like. I read a memoir by a woman who grew up in Iran and came here.

I settled on Purim, and on [the city of] Hamadan because [my friend’s] grandparents were from Hamadan. Esther and Mordecai’s tomb is there, and thanks to the internet, you can watch a tour. Purim seemed the obvious choice.

Q: What do you think Steliyana Doneva's illustrations add to the story?

A: I love the colors. Through the editor, I sent her a lot of [information about the characters'] clothing. She doesn’t live in the United States; she’s in Bulgaria. She brought the characters to life. We did have to go through the details—what the samovars looked like, the hamsah on the wall. The colors, the love of family she brought out, and the costumes—the illustrations brought it to life.

Q: What do you hope kids take away from A Persian Princess?

A: A love of the holiday, a love of family. Speaking up, being inventive with problem-solving, having self-confidence. Women and girls are taking charge.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve been writing for a while, and two of my books were re-illustrated and I’ve revised them. Night Lights, about Sukkot, will be out in August from Apples and Honey. The illustrations are very likable. The other book, The Magician’s Visit, has amazing illustrations. It’s based on a story by the Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz.

I’m working on other ideas. I have a middle grade novel I’ve hoped to revise.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My editor grew up with Persian Jewish people, and said there weren’t any picture books for them. I hoped to do a signing in Great Neck—I would love to do that. Hopefully the book fills the need. I’m in touch with women of Persian Jewish background in Los Angeles. It’s been very interesting to work on it.

I work in a town with very few Jews, and I had the book launch in that town. People who were not Jewish loved the book and were very interested in the whole thing.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb