Saturday, February 16, 2019

Q&A with Skip Desjardin

Skip Desjardin is the author of the new book September 1918: War, Plague, and the World Series. He has worked in television for many years and now works for Google. He lives in Connecticut.

Q: Why did you choose to focus on September 1918 in your new book?

A: I’m a big fan of novelist Dennis Lehane, and I read his book The Given Day, which was set in Boston in 1919. It featured two characters that caught my imagination.

One was Babe Ruth, but as a young man, a great athlete, not the fat old guy we’re used to seeing from newsreels later in his career. The other was Calvin Coolidge, whom we think about far ore as president than as governor of Massachusetts.

The book refers often to events the previous year, like the World Series and the Spanish Flu epidemic. As a baseball fan, I wondered why the World Series was played in September instead of October. I also wondered why anyone would go out to see baseball games at the exact time that being in a crowd could literally kill you. 

As I looked into both the questions, I began to discover all the amazing things that happened in that single month. I was struck by how so many of the major issues of the era — the World War, women’s suffrage, the rise of the labor movement, shifting political fortunes — were all connected in some way to Boston.  That’s when I first thought there might be a book in all of this!

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

A: The confluence of events was the biggest surprise, and became the impetus for diving deep into the research. Two tools were key to learning about and telling this story.

First was Google Books, which is an under-appreciated resource. They’ve scanned and digitized millions of books and made them available online. It uncovered books I wouldn’t have otherwise known existed, and saved me from traveling around the country to find actual copies in libraries.

The other is the archive of the six daily newspapers that were in circulation in Boston a hundred years ago.  Reading them now gives you such a vivid picture of life back then, from major world events to the mundane daily activities of people in that time. 

Q: You begin the book with an excerpt from Amy Lowell's poem "September 1918." Why did you choose to include that?

A: I loved the way Lowell’s poem kind of foretells my own efforts. “Some day there will be no war,” she wrote. “Then I shall take out this afternoon and turn it in my fingers.” I felt this was what I was doing in writing the book — taking the events of that month and later, with the distance of perspective, examining it in a new way.

Q: One hundred years later, what do you see as the legacy of September 1918?

A: The parts of the book that deal with the influenza epidemic have the most to tell us about today. The medical profession and the government thought they were prepared for a crisis, but they weren’t. The exact right doctors were in the precise place to identify and fight the infection, and yet they were helpless to stop it.

Now, with all the advances in science over the past century, we feel we’re equipped to handle a crisis as well. But the reality is that nature is almost always more powerful than we give it credit for being, and society is as vulnerable today in many ways as it was then. 

Also, the efforts by the government to hide reality for political reasons has chilling parallels today as well. Steps taken by politicians in September 1918 to protect themselves, their positions and their reputations led to more people falling ill and dying. I fear that has not changed.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I like looking at sports events in a wider cultural context, the way I did with the Red Sox 1918 World Series in this book. So, I’m always on the lookout for stories that reflect a larger truth. 

It took me seven years to complete September 1918, but I’ve already got a couple of possible topics that may help us understand a bigger picture. The research will eventually tell me whether or not they turn into another book.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I work for Google, so I understand the lure of instant availability of knowledge. Having answers at our fingertips is great, but we also need to know what questions to ask.

For that, it’s critical to understand context. History often provides that context, so it worries me that we’re increasingly consuming knowledge in bite-sized portions rather than sumptuous meals.

I hope that telling historic stories with relevance to today’s world will spur some people to want to learn more — the way I did when I read Dennis Lehane’s novel and discovered the amazing events of September 1918.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 16

Feb. 16, 1904: George F. Kennan born.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Q&A with Renée Watson and Ellen Hagan

Photo by David Flores
Renée Watson and Ellen Hagan are the authors of the new young adult novel Watch Us Rise. Watson's other books include Piecing Me Together. She is the founder of the nonprofit group I, Too, Arts Collective. Hagan's poetry collections include Hemisphere. She co-leads the Alice Hoffman Young Writer's Retreat at Adelphi University.

Q: How did the two of you come up with the idea for Watch Us Rise, and for your characters Jasmine and Chelsea?

RW: Ellen and I worked together for several years as teaching-artists and mentors for teen girls, so we know girls like Chelsea and Jasmine—girls who are figuring out what it means to stand up for what they believe in, teens who are emerging artists and who are using their art as a way to speak up. In many ways, this book is inspired by the young people we’ve encountered over the years. 

Q: How did you work together on the book? What was your writing process like?

EH: We truly did everything together. Once we knew what the general idea for the book was, we created a timeline for the storylines and figured out where we wanted the book to go, and the journeys we wanted to create for our characters.

As for the actual writing process, we wrote most of the book in my living room in back to back desks where we would write our individual chapters (I wrote all of the chapters and poems from Chelsea and Renée wrote all of the chapters and poems from Jasmine) and then share our work for feedback and next steps.

It was the most amazing process for me. It helped me stay focused as an individual, but at the same time felt like a truly collaborative format. Writing can feel isolating, but with Renée there it felt like a constant dialogue with each other and the characters in Watch Us Rise.  

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

RW: We hope readers are inspired to take action, even if it’s seemingly small. Sharing a poem, creating art, listening and being open to conversation are all ways to engage in what is happening in the world.

We also hope that the power of friendship resonates with readers. Jasmine and Chelsea are in solidarity with each other. Their friendship is the thing that keeps them rising.

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

EH: Our original title was Write Like a Girl, and we went back and forth with Bloomsbury to determine if it was the right fit. We decided to brainstorm some other options and combed through the novel to come up with word combinations and lines from the poems.

Watch Us Rise was one of our options, and once we started saying it out loud and really thinking about the meaning behind it, we started to love it. It feels like the exact right fit. I love the idea of these young women rising up together, carrying one another, helping and caring for our another as they all show up in the world.

The line is a part of the poem Girlhood, and I love saying it out loud - hearing our voices come together, and knowing that if we show up collectively, as a community - we will all rise.

Q: What are you working on now?

RW: I’ve just finished my next middle grade novel. Some Places More Than Others is about a girl who visits Harlem with her dad in hopes to learn more about her family’s history but the trip doesn’t go as expected.

I’m excited to share this story with readers especially because the main character, Amara, is a fat girl and the plot has nothing to do with her weight. It was freeing to let a big girl exist in a book without her size being mentioned at all. The only reference to her size is the cover, which was illustrated by Shadra Strickland. Some Places More Than Others comes out in September and is available for pre-order now.

EH: I am working on a new collection of poems that I am finalizing - poems about girlhood, identity, my daughters, the landscape of who we are, where we come from and where we live now. New York City and Kentucky show up in the poems. There are praise poems and poems that hope to navigate the world.

I am also working on a new YA love story about two artists and a middle grade novel in verse about a 7th grader who has way more questions than she has answers. All of it is so much fun to work through and begin to craft the kind of stories I want out in the world. I feel excited about all things when I sit down to work, and am grateful to have the time and space [to write].

Q: Anything else we should know?

EH: We hope young people see themselves in Watch Us Rise. I hope they think about what they want out of their relationships and out of their lives - hope they find communities that help lift them up and support who they want to be in the world.

I hope they find time to celebrate friendships and create art, and that this book acts as a guide for them as they figure out who they are and who they want to be in the future.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Renée Watson.

Feb. 15

Feb. 15, 1909: Miep Gies born.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Q&A with Pam Houston

Pam Houston, photo by Mike Blakeman
Pam Houston is the author of the new book Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country. Her other books include Contents May Have Shifted and Cowboys Are My Weakness. She is a professor of English at the University of California-Davis and she lives in Colorado.

Q: You write, "This book has been an effort to write my way to an understanding of how to be the final days, if not of the earth, then at least of the earth as I've known her." What initially inspired you to write Deep Creek, and how did writing the book affect you?

A: I wanted to honor this piece of ground that has healed me, parented me and grown me up into an adult, this piece of ground that taught me how to take responsibility for something larger than myself. That was the original impulse. 

Over the last decade of thinking about it and writing it, I, like many people, have become increasingly aware of the climate trouble our planet is in, and that hard truth, that the earth is dying at our hands and we need to figure out how to be in that dying, is probably, whether we know it or not, the most all encompassing reality of our lives.

Loving and losing my beloved animals, dogs and horses has taught me how to be with the dying, how to love the dying right up until the moment of death and beyond, and I think that is what is being asked of us for the earth right now. We need to celebrate her, make her comfortable, and fight to keep her going as long as we can. 

Q: You note that it took you almost five years to write this book. Did you write it in the order in which it appears, or did you move sections around as you created the entire manuscript?

A: I never write anything in the order which it appears. I write in something I call glimmers. I see something out in the physical world that arrests my attention, and I grab it and record it. The way the light is glinting off a river, a conversation overheard on a hiking trail, the sound of the horses chomping their hay in the morning. 

Those become the building blocks of a story or a book. I accumulate, a little like a collagist, and then when I think I have a critical mass I start moving everything around. I have never written the first line first or the last line last. I just keep moving pieces until I feel like I have gotten the biggest bang for the buck out of the order.

Hmmm. Maybe that phrase, bang for the buck, is not one we ought to use anymore, huh?

Q: The book includes sections that you call "Ranch Almanac." Why did you decide to include those, and how do you see them fitting in with the rest of the book?

A: The calendar is really important to the ranch, and in my earliest thinking about the book, I wanted the form to be some kind of calendar, some kind of almanac.

I ended up letting go of that form in the early writing, because it was causing more trouble than it was worth, but it was always hovering up there as the most intuitive, most natural way to tell the story of the ranch, because the calendar so controls what we do there. Haying season, and lambing season, and first frost, etc. 

I noticed late in the writing that I had a lot of long chapters, and then a lot of shorter, more lyric ones, that were mostly about daily life on the ranch.

I said I am kind of a collagist at the beginning of putting together a book, but then I become a form lover. I love to know the size and shape of the boxes I am trying to fill.

The 12 ranch almanac pieces go in order of the calendar, one for each month. That was hard to pull off, but I managed to do it. I had to rewrite the ranch almanac piece that was called Persieds (a meteor shower that happens in August) to become the Leonids (a meteor shower that happened in November) to make the months run right. 

But I like the 12 calendar pieces. It gives a nice spine to the book. 

Q: You've written about some very difficult parts of your life, including events that occurred during your childhood. How difficult has it been for you to revisit those experiences?

A: Maybe not as difficult as you might think. I have had a lot of therapy over the years, and I also have good friends and students who have all had their own kinds of childhood trauma so we wind up talking about this stuff a lot, in class and out, and we talk about how to bring it to the page. 

I think one thing that kept me from telling this story this directly for a long time was a teacher I had once who said, “You can’t swing a dead cat anymore without hitting a sexual abuse story.”

This is the kind of thing some male teachers say, and some female teachers too, maybe to be funny, but it has the effect of keeping women’s stories down. But I’m older now and unwilling, especially in the current political climate to be silenced.

The hardest parts of this book to write (by far) were the whale that was tangled in the netting, and Fenton’s death. The challenge with the abuse stuff was getting the tone right. I don’t feel like a victim and I didn’t want to sound like one. Also, I love my parents, in my own way, in spite of everything, and I wanted that to come across. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on getting this book in the world, and on being a good teacher and on being a good spouse. I got married on Aug. 25 to a Forest Ranger. 

I run an organization called Writing By Writers and we offer non-University based writing instruction at six different events a year all over the west and in France and that is going great guns now and takes a bunch of my time.

I also teach at UC Davis and the Institute of American Indian Arts, and the work of my students there is very important to me. 

In terms of the writing, I’d like to find a way to write about good love. I have a few short stories for a collection, but I am not precisely sure what is next book wise. We will see when the tour ends.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Pam Houston.

Q&A with Scott Hilton Davis

Scott Hilton Davis is the editor of a new English-language version of Yiddish writer Jacob Dinezon's novel The Dark Young Man, first published in 1877. Davis is the founder of Jewish Storyteller Press, and is a filmmaker and a former public television executive. He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Q: How did you first learn about Jacob Dinezon's novel The Dark Young Man, and how did you become involved in this new English-language version of the novel?

A: To be honest, I first learned about Jacob Dinezon by accident while working on a collection of retold Jewish tales. I was doing research on three 19th-century Jewish authors, Sholem Abramovitsh, I. L. Peretz, and Sholem Aleichem, who are considered the "Classic Writers of Modern Yiddish Literature."

To my surprise, I started noticing another name—the name of a writer I had never heard before: Jacob Dinezon. But Dinezon was always referenced in terms of the other authors: he advised Sholem Aleichem on his literary journal, he published Peretz's first book of short stories, he assisted Abramovitsh with his business dealings.

So I started wondering, who is this guy and what did he write? That's when I discovered that Jacob Dinezon was a very successful Yiddish novelist whose works had never been translated into English. And that his first novel, The Dark Young Man, published in 1877, is considered the first realistic Jewish romance and the first bestselling novel in Yiddish.

Unfortunately, unlike Abramovitsh, Peretz, and Sholem Aleichem, who have had several of their works translated into English, Dinezon has been completely neglected by Yiddish translators. So, as my curiosity deepened and I became more interested in Dinezon's writing career, I decided to commission an English translation of his most popular novel.

Q: How was Dinezon's work received during his lifetime, and why isn't he better known today?

A: According to Dinezon himself, The Dark Young Man sold over 200,000 copies during his lifetime, which is pretty astonishing when you realize it was written in Yiddish and limited to a Jewish audience. Dinezon would go on to write several more novels, but none ever achieved the success of The Dark Young Man.

The question of why he's not better known today is complicated. In many ways, Dinezon is a very old-fashioned writer. His plots are melodramatic—his heroes and heroines are far too good and his villains way too evil.

Also, like Dickens and others of that period, he's a social reformer. He takes the Jewish community to task over such issues as arranged marriages (he calls it slavery) and the cruel treatment of children in elementary education.

Jacob Dinezon (early 1850s-1919)
So he was an author who was committed to educating and enlightening his readers as well as entertaining them. He even admits that "art for art’s sake" didn't exist when he started out.

As the years passed, even though the Jewish masses continued to love his stories, modern critics were less enthusiastic. And frankly, there aren't any happy endings in Dinezon's novels and not a lot of humor.

So, moving into the latter half of the 20th century, if you were a translator or publishing house looking for a project that had the potential to make a little money, I'm sure Dinezon wasn't high on the list. Which is probably why we have so many Sholem Aleichem translations because as a humorist he's an easier sell.

Q: What resonance do you think the story has for today's readers?

A: The Dark Young Man is a very powerful period piece that addresses issues that still confront us here in America: the disparities between rich and poor; lying, deception, and greed; and the challenge of holding on to our values and identity in a modern, turbulent world.

I also find the historical aspects of the novel fascinating. This is not a shtetl story. It doesn't take place in a little village. This is about young Jews—17 to 21—living in the city of Mohilev in the Russian Empire. We get a realistic depiction of Jewish urban life in the 1840s. We see what young people were struggling with in terms of arranged marriages, assimilation, and the impact of modernity on traditional Jewish life.

Plus, once you get into it, it's a real page-turner with a startling ending.

Q: What do you see as Dinezon's legacy, 100 years after his death?

A: In his eulogy for Jacob Dinezon, the author S. Ansky said, "Our entire literature was brought up on his lap." Dinezon's legacy is multifaceted.

He proved with his very first novel that Yiddish was a viable literary language that could reach out and influence the Jewish masses, and he did it in an emotionally powerful way.

He moved way past rehashed Bible stories, legends, and fables, and created a realistic Jewish story that contained real characters dealing with real issues that were challenging the Jewish community in the latter half of the 19th century. He proved to publishers and other Jewish writers that the Jewish masses were ready for novels like this.

And in many ways, in my opinion, this gave a push to the explosion of Jewish creativity that would emerge in the late 1880s with writers such as Sholem Aleichem and I. L. Peretz.

Dinezon was also a significant participant in Warsaw's literary circle. He befriended and mentored many of the most important authors and journalists of that period, and although Peretz gets most of the attention, Dinezon was Peretz's closest friend and adviser. They were like brothers; they did everything together.

And finally, at the end of his life, as the First World War raged between Russia and Germany, Dinezon completely shifted gears, and became a community activist, helping to found an orphanage and schools to care for Jewish children.

When he died in 1919, tens of thousands of Jews poured out onto the streets of Warsaw to mourn the loss of their beloved folk writer and community benefactor. That, to me, is a remarkable legacy.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm still working to get the word out about Jacob Dinezon and his role in 19th century Jewish literature. And, of course, I'm still on a mission to let people know about his novels and stories that are now available in English. So there's still a lot of work to do.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I hope people will check out this website. We've collected an astonishing amount of research material—much of it translated into English for the first time—that details Jacob Dinezon's role in modern Yiddish literature.

There is also a wealth of visuals, including photographs and drawings. They say, "Seeing is believing," and it is quite wonderful to see Dinezon with his friends, I. L. Peretz, Sholem Aleichem, and Sholem Abramovitsh. It really provides an understanding of his remarkable place in that literary circle as we mark the 100th anniversary of his death on Sept. 3, 2019.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 14

Feb. 14, 1944: Carl Bernstein born.