Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Q&A with Andrew Burstein

Andrew Burstein is the author, with Nancy Isenberg, of the new book The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality. Their other books include Madison and Jefferson. Burstein is the Charles P. Manship Professor of History at Louisiana State University. 

Q: You write, "Who would claim that John and John Quincy Adams speak credibly, meaningfully, to the modern age? We would." Why is that?

A: Both Presidents Adams lived in the public eye, saw more of the world than the vast majority of their political peers, and they expressed ideas about the human condition that one might find prophetic.

They saw in democracy, for example, the likelihood that voting citizens would be seduced by the glare of a campaign, by charismatic campaigners. How to see through empty promises? they asked. How not to elect those who only represent a privileged class? 

They recognized the tendency in even quite intelligent people to live vicariously through the so-called great, the rich, the beautiful––the social and political elites in every age. Democracy is fragile. This was their message.  

Q: What do you see as some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about John and John Quincy Adams?

A: Their public image has morphed together: two curmudgeons. Americans want their leaders to be “likeable,” and history has falsely labeled the single-term presidents Adams as enemies of democracy, contrasting them with the larger-than-life men who unseated them––Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. Jefferson: serene prophet of democracy; Jackson: heroic symbol of the frontier. 

The irony is that neither Jefferson nor Jackson better embodied the democratic spirit than the Adamses. Who today can say what Jackson ever did to advance democracy, or what John Q. Adams did to undermine it?

In fact, JQA was the first president to pronounce (in his inaugural address) that the U.S. was a “representative democracy.” He and his father before him addressed issues with clear-headedness and an appreciation of human complexity. They were political theorists as well as political executives. 

To write them off as Old World-leaning “monarchists” is close to delusional; yet that’s what a willful misreading of two critical thinkers has led to. We felt we needed to correct the warped perception.

Q: How would you describe the relationship between the two men?

A: The first father-and-son presidents maintained a decades-long correspondence that is beautiful to read. It is warm and witty, and above all, intimate. It contains probing discussions of politics and culture, spiritual questions, history and philosophy. And it has never been collected and published; so we draw on their letters extensively, in addition to their evocative personal diaries.

Q: What do you think the two Adamses would make of today's politics and of the Trump administration?

A: As professional historians, we are reluctant to make definitive pronouncements along such lines. But we can comfortably state that the two Adamses would be revolted by the power of money in political campaigns.

Disparaging Jackson for his violent temper, primitive spelling, and failure to read, process, and learn, makes it fairly obvious what the erudite Adamses would make of a modern president who refuses to shed his crude and occasionally violent vocabulary.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: While pursuing individual writing projects, we’ve combined on some short pieces. We will embark on a new coauthored book––the next “deep dive”––before long. We’re in the process of narrowing down our shared interests to one under-studied topic with historical and present-day resonance alike.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The reward we’ve had after spending these last several years with the Adamses is the constant reminder they offer: that questions of cultural identity are never fixed, that it is the duty of historians to probe the past with as few preconceptions as is humanly possible.   

--Interview with Deborah Kalb  

Q&A with Robert McCaw

Robert McCaw is the author of the new mystery novel Off the Grid, the second in his series featuring Detective Koa Kane. He practiced law in Washington, D.C., and New York City, and he lives in New York and Hawaii. 

Q: This is your second novel featuring your character Detective Koa Kane. Did you know you'd be writing another book about him before you started the first one?

A: I started my first book, Death of a Messenger, more than 20 years ago and wrote off and on as my busy legal career allowed. A second home on the Big Island of Hawaii had afforded me respite from the outside world, and its stark contrasts were fertile ground for my creative juices. 

It wouldn’t be fair to say that in the beginning I knew I would write a second novel. But not surprisingly, that was my dream and in choosing the setting and fashioning the characters, I certainly allowed for the possibility of a second, third, or even fourth book.

And, as I progressed to the editing and production stages, the thought of deepening and adding to my cast of characters proved inspirational. Writing fiction was just too much fun to abandon.

In addition, I became attached to the characters. I began to see more complexities in their nature, and I developed more backstory. These figments of my imagination became friends - friends whose exploits I wanted to share.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Off the Grid?

A: The original inspiration for Off the Grid came from a painting my wife and I commissioned from an artist who lived in a remote part of the Big Island in a rather ramshackle house deep in a rain forest. Entering her home, cluttered with mismatched bric-a-brac, art supplies, and partially finished paintings, was a hoarder’s wonderland. I knew immediately that the house held secrets whose stories I could tell. 

The artist, a talented but eccentric painter, rendered nature in exacting detail and was for me a character in waiting. Learning that her husband had some sort of clandestine military background made the pair a writer’s dream.

When living on a rural island in the middle of the Pacific, local news travels fast and, if nefarious, with lightning speed. So, when a small country restaurant we frequented closed after authorities arrested the proprietor as a fugitive from justice, it piqued my curiosity. 

After pouring through old newspaper archives I realized the restaurateur was not the only wanted man hiding out in the backwaters of the Big Island. Other refugees from justice had been apprehended after living for years in remote corners of rural Hawaii.

The chance coincidence of these two occurrences in quick succession led me to the first inklings of a story about two fugitives, an artist and an ex-military orchid grower, living in a remote dwelling off the grid.

Q: The novels are set in Hawaii. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: In some ways, Big Island of Hawaii is the most important character in this series of mystery/thrillers. The human characters and stories in my novels are informed by the island’s unique history, multicultural population, language, and blended aloha culture. 

Koa Kane, my native detective protagonist, was indelibly shaped by the sugar cane plantations that crippled and killed his father. He, like all native Hawaiians, has enormous respect for his indigenous cultural history and divinities, the foremost of which is Pele, the legendary goddess of Hawaiian volcanoes, who built and continues to build the island.

He feels the pain of the activists who still chafe under the United States’ theft of Hawaiian sovereignty in 1893. And, when Koa takes his place in the second seat of a double-hulled ocean racing canoe, he, like his ancestors, is one with the ocean that surrounds the island.

Other characters reflect the diversity of the island—the Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Philippine laborers brought to the island to plant and harvest the sugar cane and pineapple crops; the Portuguese engineers who built the irrigation systems; and the Spanish and Mexican paniolos who tend the cattle on some of the biggest ranches in the world. 

Finally, the plot arises in part from the setting. Where else can a loner hide from their past, and wind up tortured to death and nearly buried beneath an active lava flow?

Q: What are some of your favorite mystery novels?

A: I read a lot of mysteries and thrillers and am especially fond of those with unique geographic settings. Jane Harper’s books like The Dry and The Lost Man, set in the Australian outback transport me to the hot, dry, windblown flats of the rural land down under. I live in New York City and know it well, but in books like Terminal CityBlood Oath, and Hell’s Gate, Linda Fairstein leads her readers on an exploration of the secret places we walk past every day.

On a lighter note I love to go to rural France with Martin Walker. I can almost taste the cheese, the roast duck, and the wine in books like The Dark Vineyard and A Taste for Vengeance. No one does Wyoming like Craig Johnson or Mississippi like Greg Iles. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve completed the third book in the Koa Kane series, Fire and Vengeance, which Oceanview has agreed to publish in 2020, and I am working on a fourth which will delve deeply into Koa Kane’s troubled past. After that, who knows.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: For me, writing fiction posed a significant transition. As an attorney, my positions, briefs, and arguments were always more or less constrained by the provable facts. An attorney who strays too far from the record loses credibility with the client, the opposition, and the court. Not so the novelist. 

However, it takes a substantial shift in attitude to exercise the full freedom to tailor facts to suit my stories and, if need be, to make whatever corrections are necessary to those that may not fit with the ending. But the freedom is liberating.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Richard Kirshenbaum

Richard Kirshenbaum is the author of the new novel Rouge: A Novel of Beauty and Rivalry. His other books include Under the Radar and Closing the Deal. He is the CEO of NSG/SWAT, a boutique branding agency, and he lives in New York City.

Q: How closely are your characters Josephine and Constance based on Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden?

A: I drew inspiration from many pioneers of the cosmetics industry. I created character personas from a compilation of real-life women who created the first female multibillion-dollar beauty category.

Josephine and Constance are closely based on Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden. Additionally, Constance’s business in the book was inspired by the Avon model. 

Being an adman by trade and having run cosmetic accounts from Revlon to Avon, it occurred to me that this would be the right vein for me to tap.

Rouge is my loving homage to many of the fabulous female executives I knew and worked for and the groundbreaking products they created and marketed.

Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything especially surprising?

A: Writing historical fiction required an enormous amount of research and was a labor of love.

I studied numerous books, articles, films, and photographs to absorb the details of the time period to make sure the book accurately portrayed the glamorous and competitive cosmetics industry of the 20th century.

It was surprising and jarring to be reminded of the prevalence of segregation and racial issues of the times. For instance, Harlem’s Cotton Club, mentioned in the novel, employed performers who played for an exclusively white audience.

Q: What do you see as the importance of the cosmetics industry during the 1930s and 1940s, the period on which you focus in the novel?

A: This was the first multibillion-dollar industry created by women for women. It was an amazing time period that gave rise to some of the richest, self-made women in the world.

At that time, most women didn't work and couldn’t even apply to get business loans.

World War II brought in many societal changes that impacted the traditional roles of women and allowed them to enter the workforce for the first time. When the war ended, many women missed that sense of freedom that came from being in the workforce. The cosmetics industry gave women the ability to earn extra money while still focusing on the home and family. 

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

A: I am a fan of Sidney Sheldon and I set out to create a juicy yet literary beach read that everyone can enjoy. It’s been a balancing act and so far reviewers happily think it’s a balance of both.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m currently putting the finishing touches on a contemporary fiction novel.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m very proud that Rouge was preemptively acquired by Sony Pictures for film development, and will be produced by Wendy Finerman, Academy Award-winning producer of The Devil Wears Prada, P.S. I Love You, and Forrest Gump, among other blockbusters.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Check out Richard Kirshenbaum on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

June 26

June 26, 1892: Pearl S. Buck born.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Q&A with John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro

John Florio
John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro are the authors of the new book for older kids and teens, War in the Ring: Joe Louis, Max Schmeling, and the Fight Between America and Hitler. Their other books include One Nation Under Baseball and One Punch from the Promised Land, and their work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and Sports Illustrated. They live in Brooklyn.

Ouisie Shapiro
Q: Why did you decide to write about the boxers Joe Louis and Max Schmeling?

A: Sports fans know the story of Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, but it may be new to middle-schoolers. We thought a book about their rivalry would be an exciting way to illustrate the many issues that surrounded the world on the eve of World War II—racism/Jim Crow in America, Nazism and anti-Semitism in Germany, and Hitler’s aggression throughout Europe. 

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

A: We spent a lot of time with the autobiographies of both Louis and Schmeling. We also read several books on the two fighters and on world history, as well as countless articles written during the period covered in the book.

What surprised us most was Schmeling’s relationship with the Nazi government. Even though Schmeling never officially joined the Nazi party, he had a mutually beneficial relationship with Hitler. He did Hitler’s bidding to stop the United States from boycotting the 1936 Olympics—and, in turn, Hitler promoted Schmeling, bringing him into the higher echelons of German society.

Q: What do you see as the legacy of this fight today, and what do you hope readers take away from the book?

A: In many ways, the fight is a microcosm of World War II and it served to destroy Hitler’s myth of Aryan superiority. We hope that young readers see that once a playing field is leveled, no one side is superior to the other.

Q: How do the two of you collaborate on your books?

A: Ouisie does the bulk of the research; John does the bulk of the writing. But it’s still a collaborative process. We discuss how to tell the story, choosing the most important elements, and structuring the chapters. Once we have a draft, we go back and forth writing and rewriting.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: We’re planning to do another historical young adult book and have a short-list of ideas—but no final decision yet!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: This was our first young adult book, and since YA books tend to run shorter than adult books, we had to figure out how to condense information without losing the important elements.

Before we began, we asked the editor who acquired the book to define the differences between the two genres. He said, “Length. Other than that, write to a YA audience as you would to an adult one. Don’t write down to a young reader.” We thank him for that advice—we leaned on it throughout the entire process. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Jeanne Mackin

Q: Why did you decide to focus on the designers Elsa Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel in your new novel?

A: Hello, Deborah, and thanks for your interest! When I began The Last Collection – A Novel of Elsa Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel, I was fascinated by the intensity of the rivalry between these two very powerful women. They were both at the top of their fields, couture designers in Paris in the 1930s.

And they stood for such different things. Coco was revolutionary and also down to earth in her designs. Elsa Schiaparelli was rebellious and playful and not always practical. Coco wanted elegance and serviceability in her garments; Schiap wanted to astound people.

I also wanted to continue an exploration of a thread that appeared for me when I was writing a previous novel, The Beautiful American: how war affects all populations, not just the soldiers fighting it. I was reading Elsa Schiaparelli’s autobiography, Shocking Life, and realized that the Parisian fashion industry was as affected by World War II as all other parts of France and Europe. Both Coco and Schiap had to make difficult choices to survive the war.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your character Lily, and what did you see as the right balance between the historical and the fictional in the novel?

A: The balance between fact and fiction is so important in historical novels. When I’m writing about actual historical figures – Coco and Schiap – I embellish facts, but I’m sticking to the facts, as far as we can know them. That’s why I include the fictional characters – Lily and Charlie and Ania – so that I can create a story that adds new layers, new ways of thinking, about the historical figures. 

Lily was fun to work with because she is so very different from me. Lily is about color, the visual word. She’s an artist and she thinks and understands in terms of color and image. I am such a non-visual person, such a word person, that sometimes I dream only in dialogue, no images at all. So Lily was a way for me to teach myself, or at least consider, a very different way of being in the world.

Q: How did you research the novel, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?

A: For me, the biggest surprise in this novel was how connected fashion was to politics. And still is. My wardrobe is pretty basic and I am not what could be called a fashionista, so when I had to start thinking of clothes and what they meant I realized that every clothing decision we make is in fact some kind of statement, and often a political statement. 

The Pink Pussy hats protesting patriarchy and sexism as experienced now are just part of a long line of clothing as political statement. The jeans I wore all during college, the padded shoulders of my first office suits, the boots and turtlenecks I wore when teaching -- they were all statements about my values, my aspirations, my expectations.

The research included lots and lots of reading. Shelves of it. I know Paris pretty well from many trips to my favorite city, but I had to learn about Coco and Schiap and the city as they would have experienced it.

What was the atmosphere in the early 1930s, and how did it change in 1938? What were the balls like, the coffee houses and nightclubs? Some of my favorite research included finding a collection of cocktail recipes from the famous bars of 1930s Paris (yes, I tried a few) and a gorgeous illustrated book called Theatre de la Mode, about how haute couture came back after the war.

Q: Why did you choose to focus on the period just before and during World War II?

A: That war changed so many things and we are still living through parts of it, I think. My father fought in that war, so learning about it is also a way for me to learn more about my family. Most of my friends had relatives somehow involved in the war. 

The war in Paris though, in France in general, was especially complicated. France was still exhausted from World War I and wasn’t ready to fight another world war. People were concerned with surviving and that made for some pretty tough, and often dubious choices. Following the process of how two particular people, Coco and Schiap, made those choices underlined for me how complex the situation was.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m still in France, but went slightly backward in time, to the 20s, and to the south of France, when the Riviera was just becoming popular. I’m working with Picasso and F. Scott Fitzgerald and some of their friends. More than that I won’t say!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Jeanne Mackin.

Q&A with Shelley Noble

Shelley Noble is the author of the new novel A Beach Wish. Her other novels include Whisper Beach and Beach Colors. She lives at the Jersey Shore.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for the family you write about in A Beach Wish?

A: I was kicking around ideas about what happens when your less than perfect, but adequate and fairly comfortable, life gets upended by things out of your control. So I came up with the Bascombes. A well–to-do Long Island family. A mother, divorced, but a community paragon; adult children on the expected path to success . . . Until the mother dies, exposing a secret, that will reshuffle the family deck big time.

Q: The novel takes place at a resort and a former commune in a New England beach town. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: I try not to use setting just as a backdrop, but as an interactive entity with my characters. Setting becomes a character in all my novels. It influences, threatens, calms, inspires, and challenges the people in my stories. And it’s seen through my characters’ eyes.

Q: Do you usually know how your novels will end before you start writing them, or do you make many changes along the way?

A: Both. I know my destination, but sometimes the route changes. I know that it will have at least a hopeful ending. My endings never are “tied up with a bow” which drives some readers crazy. But life isn’t like that. We’re all on a different place on our journeys, but I do try to make each character’s journey end on a positive note. And leave the future to the reader’s imagination.

Q: What are some of your favorite beaches?

A: There are so many. Big Sur, Nantucket, Brigantine, Montauk. I like beaches with landscape. Since I’m not a sun worshipper—I like to walk,  and read, and  explore—I spend a lot of time at New England beaches; there’s so much to  discover.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve just finished Lucky’s Beach, which takes place in Delaware, though I borrowed my favorite Delaware stops to make the imagined Lucky’s Beach. Three school teachers take a detour from their two-week adults-only vacation to hunt down a wayward relative, only to change their plans in order to help save the quaint town’s most closely guarded secret.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A:  I love it when a reader says or writes that they felt uplifted by my stories. I’m totally into stories that challenge and inspire; characters that rise to the occasion, and make us feel hopeful at the end.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb