Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Q&A with Gian Sardar

Gian Sardar, photo by Joseph Schwehr
Gian Sardar is the author of the new novel You Were Here. She also co-wrote the book Psychic Junkie. She lives in Los Angeles. 

Q: You've said that you've "always been fascinated with invisible layers." How did that fascination lead to the creation of You Were Here?

A: I love the idea that we’re inside a living, breathing history. That everywhere and everything we touch is full of a life we just can’t see, and that sometimes we might sense those past stories in ways that don’t seem logical; a strange moment of pause on a street corner where someone took their last breath, an unexpected feeling of happiness in a place where someone said “I do,” or a feeling of loss in a place where someone said a final goodbye.

I’ve always been fascinated by those invisible worlds that came before us, as well as with the stories of the past that create our present, yet another layer.

Everything that came before us forms the platform on which we stand and I love to imagine how far back that might stretch - whether it’s your life, your parents’ lives, or even a life you could have lived before. 

In so many ways our histories began long, long ago, and it’s that idea and that fascination that led me to write a book in which one layer is exposed.

In You Were Here, you see the past, and with that you understand the history of objects and places, as well as glimpse the components that shaped characters and their choices, choices that would resonate for all the years that follow.

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

A: Yes, I actually saw the ending right away in my mind – or 90 percent of the ending. I tend to write that way, coming up with a vague idea but seeing the ending rather clearly. With that goal in mind, I create characters who will get me there, but who inevitably take me to many places along the way I’d not seen coming.   

Q: You've noted that research can be a "rabbit hole" for you. What are some examples of things you discovered that particularly fascinated you?

A: I had to research World War II for various reasons, and one thing I looked into were personal accounts from soldiers. I spent days reading testimonials, simply because I was so interested in them, even though what I needed amounted to just about one line of backstory. But they were so fascinating, I just put everything aside to read the words of these incredible people.

I also spent a lot of time looking up plants, how they smell, where they grow, just trying to get the seasons and setting just right.

Another things I loved was trying to determine products that were appropriate and authentic for my past story-line, which involved me buying a 1947 Sears Roebuck & Company’s catalogue. As you can imagine, I spent hours pouring through it. Ultimately maybe four products got listed, but I still have fun with that book.

Q: Dreams play an important role in the novel. How have dreams affected you, and how did they affect the writing of the book?

A: For as long as I can remember, I’ve had dreams that ended up coming true. Of course I also have random dreams that seemingly mean nothing, but dreams have become very important to me because I know they just might be prophetic.

One dream was key in the formation of this book: When I was 12 I had one of those dreams when you’re you but you’re not you, where you identify as yourself though you look different, or you know streets you’ve never actually set foot on.

So I had one of those dreams, and in the dream I was running through a forest with a little boy, a person I knew was my (actual) brother. It was during a war. The sky was white and there were leaves on the ground, all the trees bare.

We were running from something, I don’t know what, and then stopped at a barbed wire fence. And there, when we turned, was a soldier. Because it was winter he was bundled up and we couldn’t see his face, but we knew he was there to help us.

When I woke, I opened my eyes and he was in my room. I blinked my eyes. And he was still there. I blinked again, and he was still there. Finally he was gone, and I just passed it off as a figment of my imagination, or decided I might have still been asleep.

Later that year, my mom decided to take me and some friends to a psychic for my 13th birthday. While we were there, this woman held my hands and said, “You and your brother have been brother and sister in a past life. I see you in a forest, during a war, and you’re running and then you meet a soldier.”

Of course then I stopped her, and said, “I just had that dream. When I opened my eyes, he was in my room.” She just said, “I know, he’s coming back into your life.”

So who was he? My best friend? Husband? Child? I have no idea, but the idea that perhaps we’ve been here before, that perhaps we’ve known the people in our lives before, was a concept that stuck with me.

When I was in my 20s, I was still fascinated by this idea, and I read somewhere you could try and dream of the name of the person you used to be. Over and over as I was falling asleep, I said give me my name, I want to know, and then one night it happened: I had dream of a name, nothing else, repeated over and over.

I’ve never actually investigated the name, since I didn’t know where to begin – what continent, what year, what anything. But it made me wonder, what if a character had a dream of a name, and had just enough to go on? What could she find? In the most basic way, right there, the book was born.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m at work on another novel, but am keeping it a bit quiet to not jinx anything.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: When I’m having issues writing, I tend to throw myself into gardening. So one knows, when my garden suddenly looks amazing, don’t ask me how my writing is going! 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Anne Sibley O'Brien

Anne Sibley O'Brien is the author of In the Shadow of the Sun, a new novel for kids that focuses on North Korea. She has written and illustrated many children's books, including The Legend of Hong Kil Dong and I'm New Here. She lives in Maine.

Q: You've noted that you spent 10 years working on In the Shadow of the Sun. Can you describe the process?

A: In 2007 I was being interviewed on Radio Free Asia in Washington, D.C. (about my 2006 graphic novel retelling of a Korean hero tale, The Legend of Hong Kil Dong: The Robin Hood of Korea), when the interviewer mentioned that the broadcast reached into North Korea and did I have a message for the North Korean people?

Within the month I had an image of two kids on the run, one of whom could pass and one of whom couldn't. But my first response was that I couldn't possibly write a book set in North Korea, because how could I possibly get enough information about what life is like there?

That fall I stumbled on a rare opportunity to view clandestine footage of the modern North Korean countryside and was amazed to realize that I recognized it. It looked just like rural South Korea in the 1960s when I was growing up there.

(Of course it did; the peninsula was all one country the size of Minnesota just over 60 years ago.) I realized that, with enough research, I might be able to find my way.

I wrote the first draft during NaNoWriMo 2008, then spent the next 8 years rewriting — I was also learning how to write a novel, not just crafting this particular story — all the way to draft #13 (my lucky number) which Cheryl Klein bought.

Tons of research and assistance from so many people along the way, including crucial contributions from the seven cultural experts/sensitivity readers who critiqued the close-to-final draft.

Q: As you noted, you grew up in South Korea. How did that affect the writing of this novel?

A: I can't imagine how I could have managed without that experience. One of the issues of writing across cultures is understanding your own lens as an insider or outsider.

Growing up in Korea I was both, a foreign, high-status American child, while living in the Korean community, absorbing Korean life and language through my young eyes and ears, skin and bones.

It's given me the gift of lifelong relationships with close friends and extended and immediate family who are Korean — including our daughter — and so many connections within the Korean American community. All of this informed everything in the book and the process of writing it. 

Q:  You've written and illustrated many picture books. Do you have a preference when it comes to the type of book you like to write?

A: I like to follow the impulse wherever it takes me, into whatever form. I'm not grounded in any particular genre or age group. Right now my grandson, born in 2014, is exerting a powerful influence that's inspiring young picture books, while at the same time I'm getting ideas for older, longer-form work. 

Q: Given that North Korea is very much in the news these days, what do you see looking ahead when it comes to the dynamic between the U.S. and North Korea?

A: I hope that we come to our senses and start listening again to highly informed experts — especially Korean voices — who understand the complexity and delicacy of the situation and why the DPRK leadership behaves as it does.

Based on the history of U.S. carpet bombing of the northern half of the peninsula, when the DPRK was a brand-new country, from a North Korean perspective it's quite sensible to view the U.S. as a dangerous threat. 

So often we view North Korean leaders as cartoonish caricatures, to be ridiculed, but if you look at their decisions and actions from their point of view, they are actually quite rational, focused on the survival of the Kim dynasty, in many ways a continuation of the tradition of Korean monarchies. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: This summer I'm completing illustrations for a companion to my picture book I'm New Here, about three immigrant children and how they learn to adjust to a new country, language and culture.

This one, called Someone New, is like a mirror book: it features the same cast of characters, but tells the story  from the perspective of the new kids' classmates and the process they go through to figure out how to be welcoming.

I've got a handful of other picture books at various stages of development.

And I'm musing over seven or eight beginnings — everything from just a concept to casts of characters to 8,000 words in — for possible novels and waiting to see if one catches fire. I don't know yet if I'm a picture book writer who wrote one novel or a novelist in the making. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I'd like to recommend that readers seek out Korean voices on North Korea, especially those who were born and raised in the DPRK before escaping.

Here are some of the books that helped me most as I was researching my novel, including a number of memoirs. There's also the new collection The Accusation: ForbiddenStories from Inside North Korea, by Bandi, a North Korean writer still living in the DPRK. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Sarah Creech

Sarah Creech is the author of the new novel The Whole Way Home. She also has written the novel Season of the Dragonflies. She teaches English and creative writing at Queens University of Charlotte, and she lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Q: Why did you decide to set your new novel in the world of country music, and how did you come up with your character Jo?

A: I chose Nashville for a few reasons: I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some great musicians like Margo Price, Chance McCoy of Old Crow Medicine Show, J.P. Harris and the Tough Choices, Dale Watson, Jack White (this list goes on and on), and at one point or another in their musical careers, they’ve made Nashville their home.

This musical city full of so much diverse talent captured my imagination and I knew I wanted to explore it. Also, I chose this world because it has such a rich narrative tradition and blends so many different styles that define America, from Appalachian folk songs to African American spirituals, yet the genre itself has been largely overlooked by scholars.

My female protagonist, Jo Lover, was born from deep reading about women’s roles in the history of country music. Her background and her present circumstances are curated from the history I encountered. Her transformation from a world of poverty to a world of fame is a familiar one. (Dolly, Loretta, and Elvis too).

I was drawn to the experience of women in male-dominated fields and what kind of persona a woman must present to navigate those power dynamics.

I’m fascinated too by the way we present ourselves to the world and the great gulf there can be between that presentation and our interiority. The on stage and off the stage experience felt like the right setting to explore this distance.

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

A: I completed a tremendous amount of research before and during the writing process for The Whole Way Home. My research began with scholarship—I’m deeply indebted to the scholar Bill C. Malone for devoting his entire career to the history of country music.

The genre’s association with the South and its cultural ills like racism, misogyny, and poverty has created a barrier around the genre as a topic worthy of serious inquiry, and the genre continues to be associated with a hillbilly status first created in the early 20th century.

After I created a foundation of knowledge through scholarship, I went into the field and met with musicians and spent time in Nashville. What surprised me was the amount of diversity and creativity in the underground/small venue music scene in Nashville compared to the kind of music you find in the top 40 country music charts.

I saw this deep disconnect from the artists living there and the kind of music that represents the place itself in the mainstream culture and I knew I wanted to explore that chasm in The Whole Way Home.

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 how the novel would end when I started writing—so far, I’ve never known the endings of the novels or short stories I write. Part of the fun is discovering how it ends, just like a reader.

I re-wrote the novel eight times. A couple times I started from scratch. It was a tough writing process, but my two main characters Jo and J.D. were withholding from me in the early drafts.

Jo Lover has a very traumatic past and when I first started writing I wasn’t sure exactly what that experience entailed. I had to write and re-write to discover the real Jo and J.D. I cut so much writing along the way. I lopped off entire plots lines, corporations, and characters, but with each revision, the novel deepened. Painful, but worth it.

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

A: I’m always a little embarrassed to tell people the original titles I have for my manuscripts. This novel was originally titled "The Crooked Road" after the historical music trail in southwest Virginia.

However, HBO has a show in development with the same title, and my team at William Morrow asked for a different title. Cue the misery: I agonized over the title for the book—pages and pages of freewriting and associative thinking about the theme only to turn up with terrible titles in the end.

My dear friend who is a Victorian scholar read the novel around this time and spotted the line “the whole way home” in one of the later J.D. chapters. She said, “Well, what about this?” And immediately I knew it was the right title to capture the theme and scope of the novel. Luckily, the William Morrow team thought so too.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now I’m working on short fiction and I’m in a heavy research stage for book number three. I can’t reveal anymore, lest it puff away like smoke.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I love dark chocolate and I love readers who care so much about books that they read smart blogs by other avid readers. Keep it going!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

June 27

June 27, 1880: Helen Keller born.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Q&A with Rachel Kadish

Rachel Kadish is the author of the new novel The Weight of Ink, which is set in 17th-century and early 21st-century London. Her other books include From a Sealed Room and Tolstoy Lied, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and Ploughshares. She teaches in Lesley University's MFA Program in Creative Writing, and she lives in the Boston area.

Q: You've written that the inspiration for The Weight of Ink came from thinking about a question Virginia Woolf asked about Shakespeare's sister. How did that question end up turning into this novel, and what do you think your book says about the role of women in the 17th century?

A: I often start writing when something bothers me and I don’t know why. In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf posed the question: what would have happened to an equally talented female Shakespeare? Woolf’s answer, “she died without writing a word,” haunted me. I thought: what would it take for a woman of that era not to die without writing a word?

Well, for one thing, she couldn't have been obedient. She would have had to be a genius at breaking rules.

I realized I wanted to write a story about what it might take for a woman not to be defeated when everything around her is telling her to sit down and mind her manners.

Q: The book includes both historical and modern-day characters. Did you have a preference when it came to writing the different sections of the book?

A: It was definitely easier writing the modern-day sections, just because the language was native to me and I needed to do very little research. Every time I wrote a 17th-century section, I stumbled across more things I needed to learn!

If a 17th-century character was looking out a window, I needed to understand what the window glass would have looked like and what would have been growing in the garden outside the window; if the scene was a meal, I needed to learn about 17th-century kitchen staples, dishes, clothing…

But I also fell in love with my historical characters, and that made it worth all the hard work it took to bring their world to life.

Q: You note that you did a vast amount of research to write this novel. What did you learn that particularly surprised you?

A: I found it fascinating to think about my 17th-century characters’ relationship to light. I hadn’t understood beforehand how expensive and difficult it was to have light at night. If you were poor, you couldn't afford candles; when the sun went down, you went to sleep. So, reading at night was a privilege of the wealthy.

That little fact became the fulcrum of a scene in the novel: if domestic work filled your days, and you had to do your studying in secret, to what lengths would you go for the ability to get light to read at night?

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

A: It took me a long time to come up with the right title for the book, but I love the title "The Weight of Ink." Ink on a page, or spilled on your fingers, weighs almost nothing--yet it carries the most significant and sometimes dangerous things we have to say. My 17th-century characters in particular know how weighty, and even deadly, words on paper can be.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have some stories and essays in the works, but there’s also another novel on the horizon. Can’t say more about it now, though…right now it’s just an idea and some notes!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: This book took me longer to write than any of my others, and for a very long time I didn’t show it to anyone--I needed to figure out the basics of the story first. Even when I did show it, it was to only a very few people.

So right now I’m having this feeling of delighted shock every time I realize that other people are now reading the book, and getting to know these characters. Whenever I hear someone else talk about my characters, I do this little silent double-take--like Wait, you know these people too?? How do you know them? 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

June 26

June 26, 1892: Pearl S. Buck born.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Q&A with Tom Rosenstiel

Tom Rosenstiel is the author of the new novel Shining City, which focuses on a political "fixer" in Washington, D.C. His other books, all nonfiction, include The Elements of Journalism and Blur. Rosenstiel is the executive director of the American Press Institute and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and he was a reporter for Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Shining City and for your character Peter Rena?

A: I wanted to tell a story about a political fight in Washington that captured how good people are trapped by the cynicism of the city. 

Supreme Court nominations represent that one of the most cynical events in politics today. Nominees are taught how NOT to answer questions fully or honestly. Almost everyone involved thinks the nomination process is a mess. Members of the court have said this. Vetters have said this. Senators have said this. It really is a spectacle in which everyone feels trapped.

I also wanted unexpected heroes in the story. Some of the most honest people I have met in Washington are consultants, those hired guns who in the popular mind are often thought of as immoral—fixers who work just for money. 

In reality, these people often are the most candid and objective. And many of them are idealists along with being realists. Peter Rena in Shining City is one of those. So is his partner Randi Brooks.

Journalists and consultants often have a fair amount in common in the way they see the world. They live in the world of realpolitik—to see the world as it is. But they wish it were better. 

Q: As you noted, the story highlights a Supreme Court confirmation fight, and we had one of those earlier this year—how would you compare the world of your novel with today’s Washington, D.C.?

A: Each confirmation hearing in its own way seems more jaded than the previous one. The Gorsuch hearings were distinguished, I think, by an even greater lack of candor and willingness to answer questions than his predecessors. 

He knew the math, how many votes he had going in, and the fact that he needed to win over no Democrats and he and his team decided they didn’t care to increase his total or his base of support to make his nomination a consensus or a large majority. 

The world in the novel is dark, but there also is still a spark of an appeal to the center. I don’t know that we saw any such spark in the Gorsuch hearings.

Q: How did you come up with the book’s title, and what does it signify for you?

A: I wanted something that conveyed this sense of idealism and disappointment about our democracy. I had other possible titles that focused on themes like lies and truth telling and other titles that were more about the character, but the moment I thought of Shining City I knew it was right. 

It is a reference from the Bible, from John Winthrop and also from President Reagan’s famous speech on the eve of his presidency…and all of those meanings, about living a virtuous life in a moral sense, about democracy and about the city of Washington itself are all resident in the phrase. 

That speech was one of Reagan’s greatest, and justifiably one of his most famous. If you mention the title to anyone who tracks politics, they will know it, or it will certainly be familiar. The religious connotations are known by many fewer people.

Q: You’ve spent many years involved in the world of politics and media. How would you describe the relationship between the Trump administration and the press?

A: Five months in now, we have some answers. The administration began its term using some of the most divisive rhetoric about the news media and its role in America that we have ever heard from a president. 

It echoed Richard Nixon at his most strident and probably went further. Calling the press “the enemy of the people” was something a half step beyond even Nixon’s rhetoric. But remember Nixon talked about ordering the murder of journalists, including contemplating putting LSD on the steering wheel of my boss, Jack Anderson, so he would die in a car accident. 

But the underlying notion of Trump’s rhetoric about the press—that it is unfair to conservatives, that it is elitist and liberal and doesn’t understand the problems of many Americans--is not new and has been gradually intensifying for more than a generation. 

I think the intensity of President Trump’s rhetoric, and the challenge it represented to the notion of a free press, has made many journalism outlets better. 

It threw down the gauntlet and made them reflect on how to do their job and be effective under more adverse conditions, and how to win over distrustful citizens. 

It has made their reporting deeper. It has made them more transparent about how many sources they have and the level of knowledge of those sources—particularly when the sources are unnamed. 

And I think what the Trump administration has found is what other administrations have found, including the Obama and George W. Bush administrations before this one. 

That is that in an era of increasing number of outlets, deep enterprise and watchdog reporting still breaks through. The old media may be surrounded by new. Political actors may have ways to reach audiences directly. 

But a story that is important, that is accurate and deeply reported and tells us something new, is instantly relevant. And suddenly all that new media is an echo chamber bringing that reporting to more people than ever.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My publisher, Ecco, which is an imprint of Harper Collins, bought two novels with the same characters. I am just now finishing the second book. 

In this one, the same President, James Nash, calls Peter Rena and Randi Brooks back to help him uncover the truth when there is a terrorist incident abroad that results in the death of an American general. And as in Shining City, they must navigate the world of Washington and its shoals. 

They must stay ahead of a congressional investigation, the press and enter the world of espionage and the war on terror and the efforts today to try to politicize that war at home for political gain, which makes the efforts to fight the war abroad much harder.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: It is fascinating to me how different writing fiction is from non-fiction. There is research involved, but in the end the stories are made up. You are not trying to be accurate. You are trying to be true.

What I mean by that is you are getting inside the hearts of your characters—their motivations, their thoughts, their own conceptions of right and wrong. 

To do that, I find I have to reach a different part of my imagination. The characters have to be real in the sense that they have to be fully conceived. You’re tapping your memory and your unconscious in a way you do not in journalism. And for me that is a great deal of fun. It's the best part of my day.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb