Friday, May 25, 2018

Q&A with Nancy Churnin

Nancy Churnin is the author of the new children's picture books Charlie Takes His Shot, about the golfer Charlie Sifford, and Irving Berlin: The Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing. She also has written The William Hoy Story and Manjhi Moves a Mountain, and she is the theater critic for The Dallas Morning News

Q: Why did you choose Irving Berlin and Charlie Sifford as the subjects of your newest books?

A: I write books about people who inspire me, that I believe will inspire kids and that they might not know about otherwise.

When I learned the story of Charlie Sifford and how he tried to break through the color barrier of golf the way his friend, Jackie Robinson, broke through the color barrier of Major League Baseball, I could hardly believe that my picture book would be the first one about him for kids. A lot of adults don't know his amazing story.

Irving Berlin is by far the most famous person I have written about, but he is not famous to kids. When I was presenting other books, I would ask them if they knew who wrote "God Bless America." They had no idea.

They were fascinated to learn that one of our most famous, patriotic songs was written by an immigrant who came to this country as a penniless five-year-old refugee who didn't speak a word of English.

Q: What do you see as Irving Berlin's legacy today, and also the legacy of "God Bless America"?

A: Jerome Kern once said of Irving Berlin: "Irving Berlin has no place in American music -- he is American music." And yet, his music, great as it is, is only part of his legacy.

The other parts are made up of his perseverance, his charity and the way his story reminds us of the innumerable gifts immigrants have brought America.

Like many immigrants, he took the beauty of his own traditions, in particular the melodies he learned from his father, mixed them with the sounds and words he heard on American streets and came up with new songs and words that went straight to people's hearts.

As Alexander Pope described poetry, he wrote "what oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd." And like many immigrants, he gave back. "God Bless America" was his thank you, his gift to the country that gave him his "home sweet home."

It's also a reminder that "making good" is not about how much money you can pile up for yourself. He gave every penny that song earned in royalties to the Girl and Boy Scouts of America, leaving a legacy of charity that should stir us all to help others. 

Q: What impact do you see Charlie Sifford having on golf, and what's his legacy today?

A: Like Jackie Robinson, Charlie endured years of insults and discrimination with grace and determination in his successful effort to open doors for others.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Tiger Woods said: "It's not an exaggeration to say that without Charlie, and the other pioneers who fought to play, I may not be playing golf...My pop likely wouldn't have picked up the sport, and maybe I wouldn't have either."

Pioneers in any field have to have tremendous conviction and strength. They have to hold fast to their dreams and what they know is right and not be deterred when people jeer or mock them, telling them that things will never change, that things will always be the way they've always been.

I hope that kids who read his story will be inspired to follow their own vision of what is right, even if their victories benefit the next person more than it does themselves.

By the time Charlie became the first African American golfer on the PGA Tour, he won a couple of tournaments and that was sweet, but his best years were behind him.

Still, he had no regrets as he went on to dominate the senior tours. His goal was to make a difference in making things better for the next generation and that became his legacy.

Q: How would you describe the impact of the illustrations of James Rey Sanchez and John Joven on the books?

A: I have been so lucky to work with these fabulous illustrators!

I love the small touches and big emotions in John Joven's illustrations. The kids think it's so cool that when young Charlie sneaks onto the golf course at night, because African Americans aren't allowed to play there, he sees a moon that looks like a giant golf ball.

They also notice the menacing shadow of the watchman, who almost blends into the night, holding a searching flashlight emanating light that feels like danger.

As for James Rey Sanchez's work in Irving Berlin, I am blown away by how artfully he conveys music -- such a hard thing to illustrate! -- with musical notes leaping from Irving's mouth as if he can't keep the music inside.

James Rey Sanchez also brings the Art Deco look of the 1920s and 1930s to exquisite life, while adding a very special touch -- a red scarf that identifies Irving as Irving wherever he goes.

It's like a breath or love of life that grows with him and, in the end, is something we see a child wearing as if the child is following in Irving's footsteps. Glorious!
Q: What are you working on now?

It's the little-known story of how and why the very kind and caring Queen Charlotte of England, who was more at ease with children and her garden than she was with adults and fancy balls, brought the first Christmas Tree to Windsor Castle.

I hope this story will remind kids that there's more to being royal than fancy dresses and jewels. I also hope they'll think it's as cool as I do that we have a new Princess Charlotte in England right now.

Next year, my book Martin & Anne will tell the story of two babies who were born on opposite sides of the ocean, spoke different languages, had different colored skin and religions and answered terrible prejudice with words of love that continue to inspire us today.

Those children are Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank, both born in 1929. They would have been 90 next year.   

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Every one of my books comes with a free Teacher Guide and a project that you'll find on my website at

For Charlie Takes His Shot, the project is We Helped Them Take Their Shots. I'm asking kids to share stories and pictures of how they included someone new in their circle or activities or someone included them.

For Irving Berlin, it's Make America Sing. I'd like kids to share their favorite thing about their immigrant experience -- a favorite food, or song, or holiday or expression, anything at all -- or that of a friend so together we can share the diversity that makes America great.

For The Queen, it will be A Kind Holiday. In the spirit of Queen Charlotte, I'd like them to share something kind they did for others for whatever holiday they celebrate.

I have a special page for each project on my website dedicated to showcasing the great things kids do. I hope the kids will inspire each other by what they do and, in that way, help kindness spread.

Thank you so much, Deborah, for this opportunity to share my books with you and your readers!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Nancy Churnin.

May 25

May 25, 1803: Ralph Waldo Emerson born.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Q&A with Lisa Romeo

Lisa Romeo is the author of the new book Starting With Goodbye: A Daughter's Memoir of Love After Loss. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and O: The Oprah Magazine, and she is thesis director for the Bay Path University MFA program. She lives in New Jersey.

Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir?

A: In one sense, momentum carried me toward it. For about six years, I was writing and publishing essays about my experiences with grief and trying to get to know my father better after he died.

Great writing advice is to write what you can’t shut up about, what obsesses you, and for me, it was this topic. I could never understand why people don’t talk about death and about deceased people with more ease and frequency. I wanted to keep exploring that.

When it seemed a body of work was accumulating, I pulled together an essay collection, which didn’t sell. All the people I trusted told me to rewrite it as a more traditional memoir, but I resisted and I shelved it for a while.

But it kept nagging at me and eventually I challenged myself to do just that, to shape/rewrite/revise all the material into a somewhat more linear narrative (though true to my style, there’s a lot of moving around in time and place, too).

Q: You write, "Can a relationship really continue, and even get better, when one of the two is gone?" How would you answer this question?

A: I believe this is possible, yes! The love remains, and so does the essence of the beloved person; they are part of us and in a very real sense, do not depart this earth as long as they are present in our memory.

I admit this requires some suspension of belief; it’s a stretch. But actively continuing the relationship, the conversation, to me is a lot more healing and makes a lot more sense than trying to forget or “get over it” (which I do not believe is possible).

Now that I’m hearing from readers, it’s clear that many other people experience “conversations” with their departed loved ones but are very reluctant to share that with other people, lest they be thought unstable or just loony.

But who says you have to stop talking to your loved ones just because they’ve died? Or seek their counsel? If that’s how your grief unspools, then go there, indulge yourself, see how it makes you feel and what you might learn from those conversations with your dead dad, mom, sister, etc.

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

A: The title was a genuine collaborative effort between me, a small group of trusted writer friends (my “hive mind”), my husband and sons, and the publisher.

Working with those friends and family members, we came up with 20 possible titles and subtitles, a mix and match kind of list. I sent my top five of each to the publisher, who chose the final title and subtitle from that list.

I think it’s perfect because it’s literally what happened: my father and I started “talking” again when it was time, traditionally, to say goodbye. After loss, I discovered the many ways love had been present all along.

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

A: I believe we as a society should be able to talk more openly about death, loss, grief, and related issues, and this book perhaps is my one small contribution to urging folks in that direction. These are some of life’s most significant experiences and it would be great if they were more a part of our collective conversation.

I also hope the book might help reassure people that grief is not rigid; there’s no way to do grief right or wrong. It does not have to conform to some prescribed set of stages, and however you experience grief is okay.

If talking to your dead parent in the middle of the night while eating his favorite snack makes you feel good, brings back warm memories, then why not?

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Trying to decide on book number two; three nonfiction ideas are currently vying for attention and as is my way, I’m writing essays about them, seeing which one grabs me most.

In the meantime, I’m doing all the things I normally do: teach, run workshops, coach writers, edit manuscripts. I have two sons in college, so those things make up my normal workday, keep the paychecks coming. And the truth is, my own writing is always enhanced by what I learn from all of those activities, by working with so many other writers.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: When I’m having a writing problem, I do something relatively mindless like needlepoint, walking, laundry, or going for a long drive—and the solution always occurs to me. Napping is also a good way to let the writing mind settle and find new direction.

I’d like to say that dark chocolate also has the same effect, but so far, not so. I’ll keep trying though!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 24

May 24, 1941: Bob Dylan born.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Q&A with Jill Orr

Jill Orr is the author of the new mystery novel The Bad Break, the second in her Riley Ellison series, which began with The Good Byline. She lives in Columbia, Missouri.

Q: How did you decide what Riley Ellison's second adventure would be?

A: I'm not much of a plotter, so I really let Riley's character development guide the story and shape the plot.

I knew she was going to go to work for the newspaper (that decision was made at the end of the first book), and I knew whatever mystery she got involved with would be something she'd have to work on her own.

I wanted the main challenge in this book to be Riley learning to trust herself and her instincts and so the plot just grew out of that.

Q: How do you think Riley has changed over the course of the two books?

A: I hope she's becoming more confident, more driven to go after the things she wants out of life. When the series began, Riley was allowing life to happen to her in a very passive sort of way.

I like to believe that when her childhood best friend Jordan died in the first book, it awoke something in Riley that said, "Life is short. Live it with your whole heart."

She's definitely still figuring out what she wants from life and what she's willing to do to get it, but with each passing challenge, I think she's getting closer to answering those big life questions.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Riley's ongoing correspondence with and

A: This is one of those questions for which I wish I had a better answer. The truth is I have no idea how I came up with the idea for - that one just popped into my head with Regina H fully formed.

It ended up becoming a real fan favorite and provided a nice comic relief from the narrative, so I knew I wanted to do something similar in the second book. And of course I knew that would never miss an opportunity to take people's money!

So I came up with the idea that they'd have a sister company,, and give Riley a free trial with a lovable, well-meaning, if a little ditzy, Personal Success Concierge.

I found humor in the idea that a life coach would still be figuring out her own life. I also love reading epistolary novels and the email exchanges gave me the opportunity to play around with that form. Plus, it's always fun as a writer to get to be flat-out silly.

Q: What do you think your books say about the world of journalism today?

A: I hope they add to the message that journalism is more important today than ever before.

I went to journalism school myself and am a firm believer that a free and independent press is one of the most valuable things in our democracy. It sets us apart from other systems of government and provides checks and balances for those in power.

I've known many a good journalist, and good journalists fight to discover the truth. I wanted Riley to be guided by that principle as she begins her new career as a reporter. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm hard at work on Riley #3, which is provisionally titled The Ugly Truth.

There's been a shocking double murder in Tuttle Corner, Virginia, that involves some high-profile movers and shakers from Washington, D.C. This brings national attention to Riley's small part of the world-- and along with it, a lot of big city reporters competing for the story.

Holman and Riley are stunned when they discover that their friend Rosalee, the owner of Tuttle's beloved tavern, is the prime suspect in the violent crimes. But Rosalee insists she's being set up and that her life is in danger because she knows the identity of the killer.

In exchange for protection, Rosalee gives Holman and Riley exclusive information incriminating a very powerful person who she says is the real murderer. But the pair eventually begins to question if Rosalee is helping them expose a killer or using them to cover up her own crimes.

Unfortunately, they disagree on the answer. Riley and Holman end up going down separate investigative paths until one of them finds the truth... and one of them finds the killer.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Not a thing! You now know it all!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Jill Orr.

May 23

May 23, 1910: Margaret Wise Brown born.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Q&A with Ceridwen Dovey

Ceridwen Dovey, photo by Shannon Smith
Ceridwen Dovey is the author of the new novel In the Garden of the Fugitives. She also has written the novel Blood Kin and the story collection Only the Animals. She was born in South Africa, and raised there and in Australia. She lives in Sydney. 

Q: Why did you decide to structure your new novel In the Garden of the Fugitives in the form of a correspondence between your characters Vita and Royce?

A: I knew right from the beginning that only an epistolary form would do: I was excited by how letters between two antagonists allow for an adversarial, dueling wordplay, mimicking the dialogic form of psychotherapy but making it darker, less about healing and more about revenge.

The two contesting voices of the characters Royce and Vita in the book also mimic and anticipate the experience of reading itself, that sense of any book meeting the reader halfway, not only welcoming but challenging them. 

Q: What do you think the novel says about post-apartheid South Africa?

A: I think that is very much a question for each reader to answer for him or herself. It took me a very long time in my years of working on my craft as a writer before I could find the right tone and language to begin to metabolize in fiction some of my own life experiences growing up in South Africa.

For me, the only form in which I feel I can say anything about post-apartheid South Africa is in the form I've chosen, the novel - perhaps because, to paraphrase Elias Canetti on Kafka, it lets me preserve, above all, my freedom to fail.

Q: How would you describe the dynamic between the two characters, especially given the current #MeToo era?

A: I'm interested in understanding the dynamic between young, talented women and older men who act as their benefactors, and also what happens to talented women as they age, and are no longer protected or cushioned from certain kinds of failure by their youth (but at the same time are no longer subjected to the same kinds of male predation they were when they were young).

I've really appreciated Jia Tolentino's brilliant reporting on the #MeToo movement - especially her description of the classic "bait-and-switch" that men like Harvey Weinstein make, linking a young and talented woman's potential to her body, then threatening that body, and forever making the woman uncertain of her talent - and that is definitely a theme that I've tried to explore in the dynamic set up between Royce and Vita.

Yet Vita is not a straightforward victim, as she in turn has to confront a different kind of legacy - what it means for her to be part of a class of perpetrators, as a white South African. As one of the characters in the novel says, "We are all accountable to different phantoms from the past." 

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

A: The novel was named for the actual site in Pompeii, the Garden of the Fugitives, where in 1961 13 body cavities were discovered and made into casts, the first time so many bodies had been cast together as they'd been found, exactly where they'd died.

In the novel, Royce recalls time he spent working with a love interest at a dig site within the ancient city of Pompeii in the 1970s. The Pompeii sections of the book let me explore and deepen Freud's use of Pompeii as a metaphor for what is obscured in human life, a symbol of the hidden depths of human emotions.

It also lets me ask larger questions, beyond Vita's personal history, about the interpretation of the past, of history, and different approaches to the ancient dead: should we try to keep the past familiar, or is it more respectful to keep the past strange, let it remain alien? 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm really enjoying writing non-fiction essays for and The Monthly (an Australian magazine). It's nice to have a change of pace from the long, slow, deep and solitary work of working on a novel for years.   

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Ceridwen Dovey.