Friday, May 6, 2016

Q&A with Marjorie Salvaterra

Marjorie Salvaterra is the author of Her: Meditations on Being Female, a new book of photography. Her work has been shown at a variety of locations, including The Griffin Museum of Photography in Massachusetts and the Musée de L'Elysée in Lausanne, Switzerland. She lives in Los Angeles.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for the book, and how did you find the women who appear in the photographs?

A: I actually only came up with the idea for the photographs and then met Marta Hallett of Glitterati, who after seeing my photographs told me she wanted to make the book.

At first we were just going to make my HER series but after seeing my other female-based work, she had the amazing idea to make a book with all my women.  

The women I use in my photographs are always friends or friends of friends. There has been one waitress, who I thought would be perfect, who I gave my information to and hoped she’d call. My husband told me she thought I was crazy but she did call and ended up shooting for me twice! 

But mostly they are my good friends, some who really don’t even
want to pose but take pity on me and some who call me and ask the next time we are shooting.

Q: Many of the photos are set near the water, and in an interview in LensCulture, you said, "Water can carry you or weigh you down. It’s a choice. From there, the ideas kept coming." How do you see the role of water in these photographs?  

A: I love the idea that one drop of water can throw off your whole day. It’s weighted. It’s powerful. It’s a metaphor for all the outside forces in our lives.

Q: What has been the reaction to these images?

A: The greatest reaction was a post I saw on Facebook where a woman, whom I don’t know, wrote, “I feel like she’s in my head.” I thought people would think I was insane when I made many of these images and I’m shocked to find how many people relate.

Q: How did you decide on the book's title, and do you see these women as representative of their gender, or not necessarily?

A: My 12-year-old son just asked at a recent presentation of my work if I plan to make a “Him” series. He got a huge round of applause. 

The answer, though, is I don’t know what it’s like to be a man. I think there are many crossovers of the pressures we feel but I think there are a lot of differences too that I’m not sure I could honestly represent.

So yes. The women are definitely representative of being female but I hope men can appreciate them too. We love men!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m still working on my ICE series. It’s based on the idea that it’s not who we attract in our lives, it’s who we keep that defines our pathology. 

And while I have a handful of the photos in the book, I still have a bunch in my head that I need to get into the camera! I also have two more ideas for series. Now I just have to get my sh*t together and get to work, which for me is the hardest part.  

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Hmmm. Well, first of all, I think the book makes a great Mother’s Day gift!!! 

Also my gallery, Duncan Miller Gallery in Los Angeles, would like you to know that all the photos in the book are for sale. Said gallerist is a little angry with me right now so I thought I’d give it a plug. Haha. 

And now I better get out of bed and put some clothes or I’ll be late (and naked) to pick up my kids from school.

Oh… and if you’re in Los Angeles, I’ll be signing books at Hennessy and Ingalls in Santa Monica on May 24th! Please come.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 6

May 6, 1915: Theodore H. White born.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Q&A with Tracy Chevalier

Tracy Chevalier is the author of the new novel At the Edge of the Orchard and the editor of the new anthology Reader, I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre. Her seven other bestselling novels include Girl with a Pearl Earring. Born in Washington, D.C., she lives in London.

Q: How did you come up with the idea of the Goodenough family, and what surprised you most in the course of your research for At the Edge of the Orchard?

A: I was reading a book by Michael Pollan called The Botany of Desire.

In it there’s a section about Johnny Appleseed and apple trees in 19th-century Ohio, and about how most of the trees Appleseed sold actually produced sour apples used for making cider and applejack.

If you want sweet apples you have to graft trees from other sweet-producing trees, and Appleseed didn’t believe in grafting. So the whole healthy-lifestyle myth that grew up around him was just that – a myth.

That was what surprised me the most – how different reality was from the stories about him. In reality settlers were drunk a lot, as it was such a difficult life.

This made me imagine a couple fighting over apples – one wanting to grow sweet, the other sour. The book grew from that. Johnny Appleseed is not the main character, but he plays a small, significant role – basically as Sadie Goodenough’s enabler. Sadie likes her applejack.

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 knew emotionally where the main character  - Robert Goodenough, the youngest son – needed to get to, but I wasn’t entirely sure how he was going to get there. In fact, at the start I wasn’t even sure he was the main character, but as I wrote he grew into the role.

Q: The novel includes the viewpoints of several members of the Goodenough family. How did you decide on the use of first person or third person (and two sections in the form of letters) for the various characters?

A: This is one of the trickiest parts of writing for me. I have always found first person easy to write, third person hard – because for third person you have to negotiate the space between the character, the narrator and the writer. Getting that right is tricky.

In the past I’ve agonized over which to use, and haven’t always felt in control. This time I just went with it and stopped worrying.

So most of the book is third person, but Sadie Goodenough’s sections came out of me in first person, and that felt right, for Sadie is a very strong character and needs to tell her story herself. You learn a lot about her from her voice.

There are also two sections of letters, which I used to bridge a long period of time and long journeys where I didn’t want to get into a lot of detail (otherwise the book would have turned into an epic saga of 800 pages) but I wanted the reader to know what was happening to the characters. It was a short cut that tells you a lot in little space.

Q: You also have another new book out, an anthology called Reader, I Married Him, which includes various stories inspired by Jane Eyre. How did you get the idea for this book, and how did you select the authors to include?

A: I was asked by the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Yorkshire to become a creative partner with them for the bicentennial of Charlotte Bronte, author of the much-loved Jane Eyre. It took place on 21 April 2016.

I curated an exhibition – up all year at the Bronte Parsonage – organised a series of events, and edited a book. With Reader, I Married Him I took the most famous line from Jane Eyre and asked 20 women writers to write stories inspired by it.

Some, like Helen Dunmore, Francine Prose, and Audrey Niffenegger, rewrote the Jane Eyre story from another’s point of view. Others – Namwali Serpell, Joanna Briscoe – took elements of the novel such as the moors setting or symbolism like animals and mirrors, and wove that throughout their own stories.

And many writers simply wrote about marriage and love in its many forms. Some are sad, some – such as Lionel Shriver’s and Elizabeth McCracken’s – are hilarious.

Q: Did you write your own story, "Dorset Gap," especially for this collection?

A: I did. I don’t write short stories often, and in fact hadn’t been planning to write one for the collection, but the other writers said, “Come on, Tracy, of course you have to write one if you’re asking us to!” I decided to take the reputation the novel has and write about that. It’s one of the more light-hearted pieces.

Q: What are you working on now?

I am rewriting Othello. A UK publisher, Hogarth Press, has come up with the Hogarth Shakespeare Project, where writers choose a Shakespeare play and write a novel inspired it.

So far Jeanette Winterson has done The Winter’s Tale, and Howard Jacobson The Merchant of Venice. Anne Tyler is up next with a retelling of The Taming of the Shrew, and Margaret Atwood follows with The Tempest.

I have set my novel on an American school playground in the 1970s, and all the characters are 11 years old. One day a black boy walks onto an all-white playground; it’s about what happens to him over the course of that day.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Tracy Chevalier, please click here.

May 5

May 5, 1910: Leo Lionni born.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Q&A with Eileen Pollack

Eileen Pollack is the author of the new novel A Perfect Life. Her other books include The Only Woman in the Room and Breaking and Entering. She is a professor in the Helen Zell MFA program in creative writing at the University of Michigan, and she lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and New York City.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for A Perfect Life, and were the characters based on real people?

A: I came up with it years ago, in the 1980s. My then-husband was doing his Ph.D. research at MIT at the lab of Dr. David Housman, who was working to find the gene for Huntington’s chorea.

I was fascinated by the role of a woman, Nancy Wexler, who was finding families who carried the gene for Huntington’s. Nancy herself was at risk for the disease.

Her mother had died of Huntington’s…Nancy’s father had funded a foundation to carry out research. Nancy had a sister who was also at risk.

Her story is so fraught. Everybody wondered if she had inherited the disease. It would be the first marker for an inherited gene. If she took the test [that was developed], she would know [if she would develop the disease], but there was no cure. I was very interested in Nancy and her decision: would she marry or have children?

Also, there was Arlo Guthrie. His father, Woody Guthrie, died of Huntington’s, and he also was 50-50 for the disease. He did fundraising for the disease. I thought, what if they fell in love with each other?

I knew the biology from living with my husband, and I have a background in physics. I was fascinated by the whole thing, and decided to write a novel.

Q: You’ve written a nonfiction book about your experiences as a woman in science. How did your own experience affect your portrayal of your character Jane?

A: Maybe I was living a little vicariously through her. I didn’t go on to do original research or work in a lab. The nonfiction book is about how hard it is to be a woman scientist. The novel is just about a woman scientist. The focus is not on her gender. It’s pretty clear she’s a wonderfully talented researcher.

So few novels are about women scientists, where you can take for granted she’s a great woman scientist and it’s not problematized…

The thing that’s interesting is that I had a very rough time getting [it] published. I was told no one would want to read it because men don’t want to read fiction by a woman, and women’s book groups wouldn’t want to read about science. It was the same discrimination.

Q: Why did you choose to set much of the story in the past, rather than closer to the present?

A: I wrote it almost as it was happening—it was not written as a historical novel! Now it looks like a historical novel….One thing that’s still very current is they were very lucky about finding the marker for Huntington’s. That didn’t lead to a treatment or a cure, but I read [recently] that they think they might have a treatment.

The story is still very current. You can find a marker, but you can’t cure it—but the question is, Would you take the test? I wrote contemporaneously with the events, but there was the idea [then] that women would be scared off by reading about science.

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

A: It wasn’t my title. It was [originally called] The Valentine’s Gene. The disease I made up is called Valentine’s Disease. The publisher didn’t want me to call it that. We had to come up with another title.

It’s something Willie, the Arlo Guthrie character, says to [the character Jane]. Jane doesn’t want to have a child unless she knows they both don’t have the gene, and he accuses her of wanting to have a perfect life. His philosophy is, You make the best of it. You can’t live your life based on genetic tests.

The people in the book who are not at risk for Valentine’s are at risk for life. The characters are immigrants, one is disabled, one is an African American nurse who says, At least you know your child has a 50-50 chance of growing up fine. She wishes her son would have a 50-50 chance of coming through life unscathed by racism. You can’t guarantee a perfect life.

Q: You’ve described the difficulty of finding a publisher for this book. Can you say more about that?

A: I put it away for a while, and the world just caught up. Mostly, the world just changed.

Q: Why did you name the disease in your book Valentine’s disease?

A: A lot of diseases are named for the person who defines the syndrome. I came up with a [scientist named] Valentine who describes the disease—but it’s a disease of love. You pass it to those you love.

I was thinking of AIDS--any disease that is transmitted through sex or genetically is a disease of love. If you have sexual relations with someone—Do you live your life without procreating or having children? I wanted to emphasize that these are diseases that have something to do with love.

Q: What do you see looking ahead when it comes to research on genetic diseases?

A: …Once you know the fundamentals of how genetics work, which scientists have known for half a century, there’s nothing you can’t do. It’s mechanical; it’s a code.

Some people are thinking about the questions, Do we want to put boundaries on things? But most people haven’t thought about it very much.

I think it needs to be in people’s consciousness—what we’re going to manipulate in terms of the genome, and what consequences it will have…

Q: One character I found very fascinating was Jane’s sister, and without giving too much away, what can you say about that character?

A: Much of this was based on the Wexler family. Nancy is in research, and her sister Alice wrote a book about the family’s experience. That was very helpful to me. It’s not their experience, but it’s formed by it. Nancy and Alice lived very productive lives.

When I was doing research for the book, I would see stories about people with Huntington’s and other neurological diseases. [I read that] many people who [are] at risk decide they have it. They live their lives as if they know they’re not going to survive very long. They don’t finish school; they lead reckless lives. I was fascinated by that…

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m really interested in the notion of what science is going to do and whether people are prepared for it. I’m fascinated by the notion of human life being extended. Are we some day going to be immortal?

Within a relatively short time, we probably are going to be living for hundreds of years. I’m working on a novel that’s not science fiction, it’s based on real things, but have we really thought about the consequences?

I have another novel coming out in early 2018. I had finished it and it took a while to find a publisher. The world is catching up to me! It’s called The Bible of Dirty Jokes. It’s about a female standup comic.

It’s a pretty raunchy book. I was told nobody wanted to read something raunchy written by a woman. That was before Bridesmaids came out...I’m hoping Sarah Silverman or Amy Schumer could play the lead in the movie version!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: If people are interested in the real-life story [A Perfect Life] is based on, they can read Alice Wexler’s nonfiction version. It’s called Mapping Fate.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Eileen Pollack, please click here

May 4

May 4, 1916: Jane Jacobs born.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Q&A with Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is the author of the new book The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World's Most Precious Manuscripts. It looks at the recent efforts to rescue historic manuscripts in Mali from Al Qaeda. His other books include Yokohama Burning and A Season in Bethlehem. He was a bureau chief for Newsweek and is a contributing editor for Smithsonian and Outside. He is based in Berlin, Germany.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your new book, and how did you meet Abdel Kader Haidara, whose story the book tells?

A: I met him first in 2006 on a magazine assignment for Smithsonian. It was one of the first assignments I did for them. I knew Mali a little bit—I had been there 10 years before for Newsweek, and I relished the opportunity to go back. I pitched the idea to Smithsonian.

Because of my interest, and [subsequent] repeated visits to Mali, when the jihadists invaded Mali in 2012 I felt a personal connection. I had been to Timbuktu a few times and had quite a relationship with the people. I wondered what would happen to the manuscripts.

When the dust cleared and the French invaded, I went to Mali again, and picked up the story again…It led to the idea of doing a book about this…

Q: What role did Timbuktu play in the region’s culture and scholarship, and how did it become the repository of these important works?

A: The first Europeans [who visited Timbuktu] in the 1820s and ‘30s were disappointed. It had lost its luster. It was a poor, decrepit, isolated outpost in the desert.

You have to go back [another] 300-400 years to understand the aura of Timbuktu in the 15th and 16th centuries. It’s at the intersection of the Niger River and the desert trading routes. By dint of that, it was a natural international crossroads for the world.

In those days, it had great commercial importance. Because of a couple of enlightened leaders, it developed cultural importance. They were devout Muslims but people open to secular learning, people who took this seriously and were willing to attract artists and writers.

It developed an intellectual atmosphere in the beginning of the 16th century. For 100 years in North Africa, no place was more important culturally than Timbuktu.

Out of that, one of the great manifestations was libraries and universities that flourished for 100 years. They became repositories of manuscripts from all over the Middle East. Manuscripts were produced there and disseminated.

Q: You write that “the original power of the culture itself, and the people…who had become entranced by that power, had saved the great manuscripts in the end.” Why were the manuscripts targeted, and how did Abdel Kader Haidara manage to save them?

A: There was a fear of their being targeted—the top jihadists seemed to know about them, threaten them from time to time. It was not clear that they were out to destroy them [but] there was fear.

Abdel Kader was not willing to take any chances, nor were the donors [involved in saving the manuscripts.]…It was a joint effort between the money people and the people on the ground, working as quietly as they could.

Only at the very end, when the jihadists were fleeing, you saw the maliciousness came to the surface. They grabbed manuscripts and burned them. It was a vindication of what Abdel Kader had been up to.

Q: So when you look at this effort to save the manuscripts, how likely was it that it would succeed?

A: It’s hard to know. Certainly the jihadists had the opportunity to realize what was going on…possibly because they were too focused on other things, [it] never resulted in organized efforts to arrest people and go house to house.

The care and caution and methodical focus of the rescuers, combined with the inattentiveness of the jihadists, allowed the project to unfold successfully.

The smugglers say their real fear was not the jihadists but…the Malian soldiers in the zone of safety. They would open trunks, threaten them, demand bribes.

Q:  Where are the manuscripts now, and what is likely to happen to them?

A: They’re scattered around. They’ve been consolidated into a dozen storage facilities that are supposedly climate-controlled and have accouterments like dehumidifiers. Bamako is a very humid place.

They’re sitting in limbo. Abdel Kader would like to move them to Timbuktu, but…Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has regrouped and is still capable of terror attacks.

Q: So the manuscripts are in Bamako now.

A: Yes. For a short time, there was a fear of a jihadist takeover in 2013, when the French arrived. It’s a relatively stable environment now—[the manuscripts] could remain there indefinitely.

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: No--I would like to get started on it. I’m back in magazine-writing mode and enjoying that. I [recently] won a National Magazine Award…I enjoy writing long narrative pieces. In the next several months, I’ll be looking around [for a book topic].

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: This is an international effort. One of Abdel Kader’s closest associates is an American woman. Americans were connected to the story from the beginning. When the jihadists were coalescing in the desert, Americans were looking at it carefully, trying to train the Malian army, to no avail…They had American involvement running all through [these events].

--Interview with Deborah Kalb