Friday, November 16, 2018

Q&A with Rochelle B. Weinstein

Rochelle B. Weinstein is the author of the new novel Somebody's Daughter. Her other books include Where We Fall and The Mourning After. She lives in South Florida.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on online sexual harassment in your new novel?

A: I think the subject matter chose me. Online oversharing in the age of digital media has become rampant, the number of online "scandals" alarming. This phenomenon does not discriminate. It happens across the globe and no one is immune. Take that startling fact and couple it with valuable life lessons about compassion and kindness and the story took root. 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your protagonist, Emma, and her family?

A: As the mother of twin sons, I've observed how in today's world parents and children judge harshly. My goal was to craft a story based on something that could happen to any of us, borne out of nothing more than ignorance, age, and misunderstanding, and turn it into something we can all learn from.

No matter the "mistake" we need to do a better job educating our kids on social media dangers, communicating in general, and accepting that none of us are perfect.

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

A: For Somebody's Daughter, setting was very important to me. Miami is a character in the story. Her sex appeal, charm, and allure. The scandal set against this backdrop made for a heightened reaction and purposely opened up judgments that I hope readers realized and addressed.

The hotel is also a metaphor for the "body" and how it changes and grows. We must accept it with all its flaws. 

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

A: Writers are always editing and polishing. I start with a very rough outline, but as my characters develop, sometimes they take me in a different direction and I let them.

In this story, I knew how it had to end in order to be impactful and not merely spectacle. I didn't need to exploit these victims. I needed to give them a voice. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My fifth novel, This Is Not How It Ends, releases in 2019. It is the story of Ben, Philip, and Charley, and a deep friendship and love that ultimately leads to betrayal and sacrifice. It is set in the Florida Keys. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I love connecting with readers and writers. Find me on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. If you're a writer struggling with a story, don't give up! It just takes ONE. One book, one agent, one yes! Dust yourself off and get back up again. It can happen! 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Adam Zamoyski

Adam Zamoyski is the author of the new biography Napoleon: A Life. His many other books include 1812: Napoleon's Fatal March on Moscow and Phantom Terror. He lives in London and Poland.

Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of Napoleon?

A: When my publishers suggested I write a life of Napoleon, my initial response was a loud groan - for two reasons.

Although writing a biography is straightforward, as its scope is restricted by the course of a single life, I find it more exhausting than other historical forms.

Perhaps because in order to describe the life and actions of a human being, one has first to understand them, and for that it is necessary to delve deep into their background and the psychological landscape in which they grew up.

One ends up having a profound relationship with the subject, while having to keep an analyst’s emotional distance.

The other reason was that there have been so many books about the man. As a historian I like to go where others have not, to explore virgin territory.

Ploughing a field which has been furrowed this way and that many times over holds little appeal. Particularly a field which has been fought over by Napoleon’s admirers and detractors – I have yet to find anyone who is truly dispassionate when his name is mentioned.

Ironically, it was that which in the end decided me to go ahead: I felt I must try to achieve what nobody else has, namely to stand aside from the polemics, the adulation and condemnation, and tell Napoleon’s story as he might have done himself, if he had not felt the need to impress or justify.

Q: What do you see as the most common perceptions and misperceptions about him?

A: The most common perception of Napoleon is that he was some kind of utterly exceptional genius. This is ridiculous and smacks of the fairy tale. He was a man, in many ways quite an ordinary one.

He did have some remarkable qualities, such as a sharp mind which could absorb information and act on it very fast, an astonishing memory and a very strong will. He certainly did not lack courage. He was fundamentally a kind and generous person, though he had difficulty in relating to others.

He was brilliantly successful in military terms, principally because he worked at it harder than any of his adversaries and because he had a remarkable talent for galvanising his troops.

He was also highly successful in the exercise of power and in rebuilding France from a post-revolutionary failed state into the most efficient political structure of its time.

Yet both his military career and his exercise of power ended in ignominious failure. His military defeats were largely self-inflicted as was his fall from being the most powerful man in Europe to being a humiliated prisoner of the British. No genius in evidence there.

Another widespread perception is that he was a warmonger. This too is absurd. What are usually referred to as the Napoleonic Wars were in fact an episode in a century-old struggle for supremacy in Europe by the dominant powers on the Continent.

This particular episode began in 1792, when Napoleon was a humble second-lieutenant, and almost every round of hostilities between then and 1815 was started by Britain, Austria, Russia, Prussia and a collection of lesser states attacking France.

He received his baptism of fire while expelling foreign troops from the French city of Toulon. One of the first things he did on assuming power was to propose peace negotiations to France’s enemies.

He did let himself be drawn too far into the conflict, but only because he believed he was acting in the interests of France, and indeed those of Europe.

He was just as keen on peaceful activities such as rebuilding infrastructure and embellishing areas under his domination, setting up a modern educational system and putting in place a legal system open to all.

By the time he reached the age of 40, he was feeling his age and showed considerable reluctance to go to war.

Most people also assume that he was driven by a lust for power. This too is a serious misconception. As a young officer, he was placed in a position in which he displayed outstanding talent, which gained him promotion.

The post-revolutionary chaos in France turned the army into a player on the political scene, and he was called upon to save the Republic against rebellion in 1795.

The Republic remained unstable and it soon became evident to all those interested in preserving and reforming it that a strong arm was needed.

He himself would say that if it had not been him it would have been another, but in the event he took on the task and seized power in 1799. Not for its own sake, but to restore order and prosperity to France.

He did make that power absolute, mainly because he felt he could achieve his ends more efficiently by cutting out what he believed to be unnecessary debate. The driving force was not lust for power but a determination to reorganise France, and much of Europe, along rational and practical principles for the common good.

Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?

A: Before starting on my research, I took a decision not to read any other biographies of Napoleon. I had of course done so in the past, and I knew quite a bit about him, as I had written a book on his invasion of Russia in 1812 and another on his subsequent downfall, both of which had required extensive research.

But for this book, whose aim was to try and understand the man and what he thought he was doing, I felt I must discard other people’s opinions – and that included many of the so-called memoirs and diaries by contemporaries written after the events.

Many of these contain specific quotes by Napoleon, which most historians treat as first-hand evidence and reproduce verbatim.

I resolved to ignore such dubious sources and relied principally on his own writings and those of contemporaries written down at the time – a surprising number did record their conversations with him on the very day.

Nor did I use those of his sayings written down by his four “evangelists” who accompanied him to captivity on the island of Saint Helena and later published their accounts. He was using them to rewrite history and represent him as he wished to be remembered.

The fact is, there is more than enough real cast-iron evidence and no need to clutter one’s mind or one’s book with questionable anecdotes, however apt or picturesque they might seem.

One has to begin by placing him in context. This requires a knowledge of the ideological and cultural outlook of his generation, which was formed by the literature of the day, both political and sentimental.

We know which books he had read and what he thought of them, as he took notes. We know which of them he re-read, some of them several times. We know which plays he went to again and again.

His observations on them are enlightening, and his letters are peppered with references to characters and situations taken from them, often revealing how he saw himself.

His own writings, be they his 33,000 odd surviving letters or his youthful essays and attempts at literature, reveal a huge amount about the man. So do the records left by his closest collaborators: he could be remarkably open and voluble in conversations he had with them.

The image which emerges from all this evidence is that of a man who is convinced of the superiority of his own understanding and judgment, yet somehow uncertain of his own standing, a man both commanding and socially insecure. I was surprised by how vulnerable he seems to have been as a human being.

Q: What do you see as Napoleon's legacy today?

A: Napoleon’s greatest legacy is undoubtedly the state structures he put in place and the institutions he founded or reformed. They have remained in force in France and in many other parts of Europe, and have become the blueprint for many modern states.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have decided to award myself a sabbatical and do not intend to commit to another major book for a while. I feel I need to step back and consider what to do next.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Adam Zamoyski.

Q&A with Ellen Wittlinger

Ellen Wittlinger is the author of Someone Else's Shoes, a new novel for kids. Her many other books include Saturdays with Hitchcock and Hard Love. She has taught at Emerson College and Simmons College, and she lives in Western Massachusetts.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Someone Else's Shoes, and for your character Izzy?

A: I was actually at a writing retreat called Kindling Words a number of years ago. This is a retreat for published children’s book writers and there’s always a wonderful author tapped to give several morning workshops.

That year it was Gary D. Schmidt, and he was great. He gave us a prompt which I don’t exactly remember, but it was something like, “Write a scene in which two characters who have little in common speak to each other.”

I’m not usually a big fan of writing prompts, but I liked this idea and it was vague enough that I felt I could use it. I went back to my room that night and basically wrote the first part of the first chapter of Someone Else’s Shoes.

I knew that Izzy and Oliver were cousins and that they were very different kinds of kids, but I didn’t yet know what was going on with them, or why Oliver was staying at Izzy’s house now.

This is the way I often begin a book. I see or hear something about a character that intrigues me and I follow it for a while and see where it goes.

I liked the somewhat confrontational relationship Izzy has with her cousin and that was the starting point. I knew Izzy had a chip on her shoulder, but it took me a while to figure out that it was because she was so angry and hurt at her father moving away and starting another family.

Once I knew that, and why Oliver was staying with her, the pieces started to fall together.

Q: The novel includes a road trip--why did you decide to include that, and how did you pick the locations?

A: I always love road trip novels. Something about being away from your normal life and being in the confines of a small car makes things happen. People see each other differently. They begin to talk to each other in a more truthful manner. They have to stay and listen, they can’t walk away.

And at the same time, all sorts of things can happen to them out on the road—their lives are suddenly open to the vicissitudes of the weather and the road and the car itself. 

Picking the locations was great fun. I knew they were starting from around Northampton, Massachusetts (near where I live) so I got out an atlas and decided where Uncle Steve lived, a long walk, but almost doable.

Then I plotted where Wilton, New York, was--a town I made up, where Oliver is supposedly from. I knew that Izzy’s mom would think Uncle Henderson would go there, but only Oliver would know what spot he actually would head to.

I looked further west and came up with a real place on the map, Lake Chautauqua, New York, and decided that would be the perfect spot for Uncle Hen to hide out. Thanks to Google Maps I could find an exact road where he might have hidden his old trailer. That kind of research is the best kind of procrastination!

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

A: I didn’t actually choose this title, I’m embarrassed to say, because it is the PERFECT title.

I was calling the book Be Always Tender, but my fabulous editor, Yolanda Scott, came up with Someone Else’s Shoes, which is the exactly right title, taking into account all of Izzy’s shoe travails, as well as the saying about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, which, of course, all three of the main characters have to do to understand each other.

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

A: I have so many favorite authors this question is always a little confounding. (And the answer is ever-changing.) So rather than give you my usual list of children’s writers, I’m going to go with two authors for adults whom I’ve recently discovered (both of whom would be wonderful reading for teens too.)

Terrible to admit, I had never read The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, believing, I suppose, that it would be just too emotionally difficult. And it was emotionally difficult, but it was also an absolutely gorgeous, poetic, rich book which I think every high school student should read and discuss.

And my second choice is Miriam Toews, a Canadian author, who writes hilariously funny books about very dark, tragic events. I don’t know how she does this, but she’s a master at it.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am now working on writing plays for adults. I have several in different stages of development, and I hope to have a production within the year of at least one of them.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: That’s about it. Thanks again, Deborah!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Ellen Wittlinger.

Q&A with Charles E. Smith

Charles E. Smith is the author of the new memoir Journal of a Fast Track Life and Lessons Learned Along the Way. His career has included serving as the chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, the Tennessee Commissioner of Education, and the chancellor of two University of Tennessee campuses. He also was the editor of daily and weekly newspapers in Tennessee. He lives in Nashville.

Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir?

A: As I neared retirement, I recalled that one of my undergraduate English professors many years ago had told our class that a book was within every person; it was just a question of what to say and how to write it. 

Then a few years later another English professor in my  graduate program remarked in a class that anyone considering an autobiography needed to keep in mind that unless his or her name was George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Helen Keller, or someone of that stature, the autobiography was not likely to be successful.

With those thoughts in mind, I briefly turned to the idea of presenting my life in a work of fiction. However, on reflection I concluded that my life had taken so many unusual twists and turns that the truth was more fascinating than any fictional version I could write.

So, ultimately, I opted to take a somewhat unorthodox approach by compiling the most significant lessons I had learned over a half-century career in public life, breaking them into separate chapters, and then filling in the lessons learned details with specific life experiences, anecdotes, and observations.  

The end result is that a reader may start at any point of the book -- front, back or middle -- and navigate at will.

Q: What are the most important lessons you feel you learned through the course of your career?

A: While each chapter stands alone, a recurring theme that pervades most of the lessons may be summarized as follows: Success as a leader is largely dependent on one's capacity to build trust, earn respect, and communicate effectively. 

Particularly in the public arena where I spent almost all of my public life it is imperative that a leader learn how to reach "across the aisle" and establish relationships with those whose political or philosophical views may differ. 

Given today's divisive nature of our political environment and the general breakdown of civility in our society, the lessons learned in my life make my book particularly relevant at this moment in time.

Another important lesson referenced in a number of chapters is the importance of establishing a strong base of experience early in one's career. 

In my life, I was fortunate to have had three life-changing experiences between college graduation and my 30th birthday. 

Specifically, my early job selections were based not on salary but rather on opportunity to achieve a demanding experience and to learn from strong mentors who could push me to the limit and guide me in later years. My first three bosses did all of that, and more. 

In my book, I write with specificity about how the three bosses provided me with a strong platform that launched my career and made possible my later successes. My only wish is that I had access to the lessons learned at the beginning of my career; I had to learn it on my own.

Q: Did you keep a journal over the years, or did you need to do some research to recreate some of the experiences you wrote about?

A: I did both. Fortunately, I'm a pack rat of sorts. I saved almost all of my public speeches and reports, internal memos, and recorded observations of significant moments of my life. These records were supplemented by research, including the search of newspaper archives and visits to libraries.

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

A: I believe that my book may be read with value at many levels. For young people just beginning a career, I hope that my book may inspire them to broaden their vision, pursue their dreams, and never give up. 

At the same time, my hope is that the lessons I learned will provide them with a blueprint for success in their own lives. I believe my life is a living example that it's possible for anyone to achieve the American dream. My book describes how I was able to do so.

For those readers who may be in mid-career, my book offers important insight into the decision making processes and strategies I used to confront the challenges I faced daily in the public arena. 

And for those who are at or near retirement, perhaps my book may inspire them to reflect on their lives and write a book. The words of my undergraduate English professor should be remembered.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Inspired by the experience of writing my first book, my wife and I are currently exploring the feasibility of a second one. 

Because of my decision to structure the current book as a series of lessons learned, I have literally hundreds of experiences, anecdotes, and observations that just didn't fit within the context of the 32 lessons learned presented in my current book. 

So, we plan to decide by the end of this calendar year whether to tell the rest of the story of my life or to zero in on one or more of the lessons learned in the current book and dive deep into a more narrowly defined focus. We have also not ruled out turning to a work of fiction.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I believe your questions have covered the field. A final word is that my experience as a first-time author has provided me with one of the great moments in my life.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 16

Nov. 16, 1930: Chinua Achebe born.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Q&A with Jennifer Lourie

Jennifer Lourie is the author of the memoir Alone in the Backseat. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: You note that you wrote the first draft of this memoir in 23 days. What compelled you to write it, and how much did you change it in subsequent drafts?

A: "Compelled" is a great verb to describe how my book came into fruition. As I recount in the book, "Nathan" and I went on 11 dates before he decided our age difference was a deal breaker.

Despite him not wanting to be with me, he was someone I not only was in love with but who I also really liked, admired, and respected, especially for the way that he ended things with me in a straightforward manner that left no room for hope or confusion.

Fast forward 15 months and after keeping in touch but not seeing each other, we had an unexpected night together. I was so happy to see him and be near him that, five days later, still on such a high, I sat down to write a love letter, not to send, just to get out the feelings that were in my heart and head.

After reading the letter over, I said to myself, "WOW. This is REALLY GOOD. This is the beginning of a book." I had always known I had a story to tell, I just never knew where to begin.

That night, I started to write. My book flowed out of me and I worked on it non stop for the next three weeks, until I had enough words to form a reasonably sized paperback.

This story can be found in my blog in two different posts, here and here.

The book went through so many rounds of edits. Every time I thought I had finished editing for the last time, I'd find more changes to make. However, I did not change the structure of the book at all. The way I tell the story is the exact way that the story came out.

What I did make changes to were adding descriptions here and there to paint a clearer picture for the reader, tightening up the language, and hopefully improving some of the transitions so that the non-chronological story would flow for the reader in a way that made sense.

Q: What do you feel you've learned from having 71 roommates over the past eight years, and are you still housing renters in your apartment?

A: I learned that I am excellent at reading people and seeing right through them, to their essence. I also learned that I can do what needs to be done with a positive attitude and am adaptable.

I was not unhappy with strangers in my home and I am not unhappy now that I am by myself. You just do what you need to do and when you do it with a positive attitude, you make good stories to tell. 

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

A: I love this question. I actually came up with the title of the book probably 10 years ago. My husband had recently left me and I was in the backseat of my friends' (a married couple) car. They had picked me up to go out to dinner.

Sitting there alone in their backseat, I realized how I had always been alone in the backseat as a child and that even as an adult, I'd often go home to visit my parents unaccompanied by my husband and still find myself alone in the backseat.

That night I was with my friends, alone in their backseat and I said to myself (and possibly out loud too), "If I ever write a book, it is going to be called Alone in the Backseat." 

The title signifies to me the failures of my adulthood based on the expectations I had as a child when I'd be alone in my parents' backseat pretending I was next to someone, a husband actually.

As I recount in the book, even as a little girl, I had wanted to replicate my idyllic childhood with a husband and family of my own. None of that worked out so... now I am still alone in the backseat. 

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

A: There are various messages I want readers to take away from the book. First and foremost, that you should never give up because you never know what can happen.

Secondly, I want readers to take the time to look at the blessings in their lives and to be appreciative of both the big and little things. I want them to be kind in the dating world.

I want spouses to be nice to each other and appreciate each other because no one should take for granted having someone at their side, even when they are annoying. I want people to not be brats to their spouses like I was.

I want them to know that even if you look like everything should be going your way, you can still feel the most painful pangs of loneliness and that lonely people are not alone. Anyone can be lonely.

I want people to learn about different cultures and foods and have the chance to live vicariously through my experiences. I want people to be self-reflective and find strength to be solutions-oriented when life throws them for a loop. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Now I am working on trying to grow my audience so that my book can get in more people's hands. That includes my blog, photography to grow my Instagram to reach more people, and travel. I also have a full-time job. What I really want is for more people to read my story because it is GOOD.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 15

Nov. 15, 1887: Marianne Moore born.