Saturday, February 13, 2016

Q&A with Ed Regis

Ed Regis, photo by Pepi Khara
Ed Regis is the author of the new book Monsters: The Hindenburg Disaster and the Birth of Pathological Technology. He defines pathological technology as "a triumph of emotional infatuation over reason, logic, and the unpleasant facts of the real world." His other books include What Is Life? and The Info Mesa. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Scientific American, and he lives in Maryland.

Q: What role does emotion play in people's ongoing fascination with a given pathological technology?
A: Emotion is really the driver, in my view.  It’s like being head over heels in love with someone you know is absolutely wrong for you for all sorts of reasons.  But in the case of pathological technologies, you’re besotted not by a person, but by an object and what it does—because it’s so big, impressive, powerful, and mind-blowing that you develop a hopeless romantic passion toward that thing, whatever it is. 
Q: One technology you describe in the book is Project Plowshare. What impact did it have, and why do you see it as pathological?
Project Plowshare was a U.S. government scheme that ran between the years 1957 and 1974 [involving detonation of hydrogen bombs for excavation projects]. This was called “planetary geoengineering.” 
The plan was harebrained beyond belief, but the scientists who worked on it, including Edward Teller and a Nobel prizewinning physicist, among others, were so enthralled by the idea of using the awesome power of H-bombs for peaceful purposes that they systematically downplayed, minimized, and underestimated the minor detail of radiation damage...
The scientists detonated several bombs experimentally but the government finally cancelled the project before using any H-bombs for practical purposes, and so ultimately it had no impact. 
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m between books, waiting for the next irresistible project to come along.  Such ideas are few and far between. Despite the  horror of the Hindenburg tragedy, I loved writing about the airship and the other technologies featured in the book.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: One of my earliest books was also about over-the-top technologies: Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition.  One of the projects I wrote about there was cryonics, the process of freezing the newly dead in order to bring them back to life 200 years later.  I regarded that idea more charitably then than I do today.  It’s just not going to work. 
--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Friday, February 12, 2016

Q&A with Shelley Fisher Fishkin

Shelley Fisher Fishkin is the author of the new book Writing America: Literary Landmarks from Walden Pond to Wounded Knee. Her many other books include From Fact to Fiction, Was Huck Black?, and Lighting Out for the Territory. She is the Joseph S. Atha Professor of Humanities, professor of English, and director of American Studies at Stanford University.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Writing America, and how did you select the landmarks to include?

A: As I looked back on my own intellectual odyssey, I realized that my own first encounter with several of historic sites changed my mental map in key ways. I wanted others to be able to share that kind of experience.

I also felt that since the book would come out on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Historic Preservation Act (which, among other things, created the National Register of Historic Places), it was a good time to draw people’s attention to the ways in which public history and literary history intersect.

My mother’s decision to take me to Mark Twain’s house in Hartford, Connecticut, when I was a child ignited a lifelong fascination with Twain that led me to write or edit 35 books, deliver lectures on four continents; and bring a play he wrote to the Broadway stage.

My visit to the Mark Twain Historic District in Hannibal, Missouri, in 1995 prompted me to think long and hard about the ways in which the town’s erasure of its slave past—of the role of African Americans in shaping Twain’s life and work, and of Mark Twain’s biting critiques of American racism after he left Hannibal—echoed America’s efforts to bury rather than engage its troubled history of race relations.

I became intrigued, as a result, with the broader issues of public memory and public history that this book explores, and those issues have been central to my teaching (courses at Stanford like “Race and Reunion: Slavery and the Civil War in American Memory,” and “Re-imagining America: Cultural Memory and Identity since the Civil War”).

A trip I took to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s home in Dayton, Ohio, in 1999 persuaded me that a reevaluation of Dunbar’s place in American letters was long overdue; it kindled an interest in the writer and his work that led me not only to write several articles about him, but also to propose the international conference that took place at Stanford during the year that marked the hundredth anniversary of his death, and to coedit both a new anthology of his writings and a special issue of African American Review devoted to reappraising his achievement.

My visit in 2002 to the Angel Island Immigration Station in the San Francisco Bay sparked an interest in the place of Chinese Americans in America’s past.

That interest developed most recently, into my decision to create, with my colleague Gordon Chang, the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford University, which involves more than a hundred collaborators across North America and Asia in fields including American studies, history, literature, archaeology, anthropology, architecture, digital humanities, and the arts.

No site made it into the book if it did not serve as a lens through which a significant chapter of literary history might be viewed. Each site had to provide an opportunity to recall, rethink, or revisit literature that mattered to me.

In that respect, my choices are, ultimately, quite personal ones: I chose sites that bore a connection to literature about which I care deeply. 

Q: Your first chapter focuses on Walt Whitman's birthplace. Why did you decide to begin with Whitman, and what impact did his birthplace have on his work?

Whitman had an enormous impact on me personally. It was Whitman’s work that drew me to the field of American Studies, the field in which I earned my Ph.D.

He is a tremendous source of inspiration for so many American writers after him—both poets and novelists. Whitman’s vision of how we learn and grow and how our powers of observation and perception develop has been important to me, as well. He centers that vision on the child. I always think of the lines from his poem, “There was a Child Went Forth” –
There was a child went forth every day;
And the first object he look'd upon, that object he became;
And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of the day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.
The early lilacs became part of this child,
And grass, and white and red morning-glories, and white and red clover... 

Well, Whitman’s birthplace was where his own journey of discovery began – the place from which Whitman as a child “went forth.” I found it intriguing to look through the very windows he would have looked through. 

Also Whitman’s embrace by poets all over the world made it possible to broach the theme of the global resonance of American literature from the very first chapter.  So much of American literature starts with Whitman – and with Twain!

Q: The two landmarks you mention in the title are Walden Pond and Wounded Knee. Why did you select them to highlight, and what do you see as their respective roles in shaping American literature?

A: I would be lying if I did not acknowledge the attraction of alliteration! But beyond that, the two places conveyed some contrasts that I thought were helpful to draw attention to the scope of the book: Walden is a site known for being tremendously peaceful; Wounded Knee was horrifically violent. Walden is in New England; Wounded Knee in the Northwest. Walden is conventionally associated with American literature; Wounded Knee never is. 

These contrasts made it clear that the book would embrace sites that were commonly thought of as “literary” sites as well as sites that were not, that there would be geographic reaching in the book, and a range of tones and timbres.

Q: The last chapter in the book looks at Hollywood. Why did you opt to conclude here?

A: I found it appealing to look at the many ways in which Hollywood and the movie industry for which it stands had a complex relationship with American writers and American literature since its start -- symbiotic at times, uneasy or hostile at other times, sometimes exploiting the work of American writers with their blessing, sometimes savaging their work to their disgust,  and sometimes making them so angry that it prompted them to write books that were powerful and memorable responses.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am researching the history of the Chinese railroad workers who built the Transcontinental Railroad and the fortune with which my university was founded, and I am also examining their role in building other rail lines across the U.S. (part of my work on the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford  that I co-direct).  

I also just completed an essay entitled “Literature and the Future of the Past” that will be published in the Chronicle of Higher Education (in The Chronicle Review). 

I am about to leave for Germany to present a paper entitled “ ‘Originally of Missouri, Now of the Universe’: Mark Twain and the World” at a Transnational American Studies conference in Mainz. And I am preparing to give a talk about Writing America at the Yale Club of New York City.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: In our current environment of rapid social and technological change, of shortened attention spans, and of the commercial exploitation of every visible surface, both American literature and American places are “endangered” -- at risk of being ignored and forgotten, unread and unseen, pulped or bull-dozed. 

But paying more attention to literature and the places that shaped it can help us appreciate and value both the literature and the landscape more fully.

It’s a pleasure to share the adventure!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Q&A with Leslie Kimmelman

Leslie Kimmelman is the author of the children's book Everybody Says Shalom, winner of the Sydney Taylor Honor Award in the Young Readers category. The book is illustrated by Talitha Shipman. Kimmelman's many other books include Everybody Bonjours! and Trick Arr Treat: A Pirate Halloween. A former senior editor and writer for Sesame Street Magazine, she lives outside New York City.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Everybody Says Shalom?

A: A few years earlier, I had published a picture book set in Paris, called Everybody Bonjours! My editor at Random House suggested I might want to try the same kind of thing, but set in Israel.

Since my daughter had just returned from a Birthright Israel trip that had been an overwhelmingly positive experience, it seemed like the right time to give it a try.

Through the first five drafts, I wrote in prose, with more of a narrative; I didn’t think I could come up with enough rhymes for “Shalom.”

But my editor kept pushing and eventually prevailed, and I’m glad she did. The hard part was narrowing down what to show in the book—there are so many fascinating spots to visit in Israel.

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

A: The idea was to focus on the country of Israel without wading into the difficult politics. It’s such a fascinating place—both ancient and modern; arid but abundant with flora and fauna; tastes and smells that are a feast for the senses. And such a mix of people as well.

I hope that the book plants the seed to young readers that Israel is an amazing land to explore, with something for everyone.

Q: What do you see as the right age range for this book?

A: Ages 3 to 7: At the lower range they enjoy the rhyme and the gecko-hunting. At the upper range, I think they will be able to begin to get to know the country and its attractions.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on a number of projects, several of which look like they are heading for publication. But I don’t want to jinx anything!

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: I am extremely grateful to Talitha, whose illustrations are far more beautiful than I ever could have hoped for. They are perfect. And don’t forget to look for the hidden geckos throughout the pages. The scuba-diving gecko is my favorite!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A is part of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour 2016, in conjunction with the Association of Jewish Libraries.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Q&A with Kyung-sook Shin

Kyung-sook Shin is the author of the new novel The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness. Her many other books include the novels I'll Be Right There and Please Look After Mom, which was translated into more than 35 languages and won the Man Asian Literary Prize. She is one of South Korea's best-known writers.

Q: You write of The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness that it “has turned out to be something not quite fact and not quite fiction, but something in between.” Was your writing process different with this book, compared with the others?

A: Compared to my other works built on my imagination, The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness has many autobiographical elements in it. Even the historical moments were described without any adjustments for the background of the novel. So I needed to put more distance between “me as a writer” and “me as a narrator in the story.”

Q: The novel jumps around in time, with some scenes showing your narrator as a teenager and others as an adult. Did you plan the book’s trajectory out before you started writing, or did it evolve as you wrote?

A: I decided to write the present in past tense and the past in present tense from the start. I thought, by doing so the two periods in time would meet in the middle as the present descends towards the past and the past ascends towards the present. I wanted to [show that] the past does not merely disappear but it is interlocked with the present. The trajectory of the book was also enhanced as I felt more confident in dealing with time shifts in the process of writing it.

Q: Your narrator says that she’s skipped over her late teenage years in her memories. Why does she decide to try to explore them?

A: The narrator decides to explore those years because she thinks she cannot avoid facing the wounds any longer no matter how hard [it is] for her to cope with them personally or socially. Though it is a call from an old friend that makes the narrator set out to write the book, she already realized deep inside she could live free in the future only when she was able to look her own pain square in the face.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a story about four characters and their failed love, arranged in an omnibus format. It shows separate stories about each character, but the stories are intertwined with each other.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Kyung-sook Shin, please click here.

Feb. 10

Feb. 10, 1898: Bertolt Brecht born.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Q&A with Leslie Pietrzyk

Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of the new story collection This Angel on My Chest, which focuses on young widows. Pietrzyk's first husband died when he was 37 and she was 35. She also has written the novels A Year and a Day and Pears on a Willow Tree. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Washington Post Magazine and Salon, and she teaches in the Converse low-residency MFA program and in Johns Hopkins University's writing program. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

Q: The stories in This Angel on My Chest are based on your own experiences. How difficult was it to write this book, and over how long a period did you write these stories?

A: I guess all books are difficult to write, though maybe difficult in different ways. This Angel on My Chest was difficult because I didn’t really know what I was doing for a very, very long time.

I knew I was writing stories about Robb’s death, and eventually I knew that I wanted the stories to be linked, though not through traditional linkages such as the same characters or a common setting.

Once I realized that the linkage was incident—in each story, a young husband dies (or has died) unexpectedly—the challenge became how to make that premise work, because it sounded sort of crazy to me. Yet that was the book I wanted to write!

So I plowed ahead on the stories, hoping that the larger narrative of the book would get sorted out eventually—and it was difficult to maintain that faith steadily throughout the writing process.

Finally, while I approached this material from a place of distance and perspective, starting the project 14 years after Robb died, of course there were emotional points to contend, both expected and unexpected.

It feels to me that this book came about after a long and winding journey—yet it was a fast book by my standards: only two years of writing (though “Ten Things” had been written years earlier).

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

A: I’m notoriously bad at titles, so I’m fairly savvy about all the titling tricks: reading poems for lines or phrases; skimming the Bible, which is the source of many wonderful titles (i.e. The Sun Also Rises, East of Eden); studying song lyrics.

Bruce Springsteen was an influence on the book, and “Backstreets” is one of my favorite songs, so I was intrigued by the line “you’re like an angel on my chest.”

But it wasn’t quite right for a book title, and—surprisingly or not—it took me at least a month to find the simple fix that turned the beautiful line into a title I could love.

While using the word “angel” initially made me nervous, suggesting sentimentality, the connotation of an afterlife overrode my fear, and the word “this” brought in a sense of the personal. I liked the sense of heaviness and weight (on my chest). And, of course, the chest is where the heart resides.

Q: Can you say more about whether you planned initially to write a collection of stories focused around the same theme, or whether the idea developed gradually?

A: I never actually planned to write about this time in my life. But I was eating breakfast at an artist’s colony and a poet mentioned a university class she was teaching about the literature of subcultures.

Rather randomly, I decided to spend my day writing about a subculture and started listing ideas. The instant “young widow support group” showed up, I knew that would be really hard to write about and that I was going to forge ahead anyway.

By the end of the day, I had another list going, of at least a dozen memories from that grief-stricken time in my life that I wanted to tackle, and I understood the basic concept: that at the heart of each story would be one hard, true thing from my personal experience.

Q: Many of the stories deal with the writing process, or include a character who is a writer. What is your writing process, and does it vary from story to story?

A: In general, my writing process is fairly standard: sit at the computer and write. Not very glamorous, and certainly harder to execute than it sounds, but that’s really the only way I can get the job done.

I like to write in the afternoons, and I try to write regularly Monday through Friday, about four hours at a time. I’ll print out pages for line editing and revision, but generally I draft and do big-picture revising on the computer.

Maybe if I’m feeling stale, I’ll write by hand or go to a coffee shop or try writing in the morning…but really, I think I respond best to the dull discipline of the writing routine.

This, of course, is my plan for the ideal world, and unfortunately there are plenty of afternoons that are taken up by writing biz tasks and/or teaching duties. But I like that I always feel a little bit guilty if I’m not writing during those hours.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I recently finished a novel and I’m now about to fling myself whole-heartedly into the world of queries as I search for an agent. As for the next writing project, I have a few ideas tickling at my brain, but I haven’t settled on anything just yet. Maybe a couple of short stories to ease back in after the fun of launching this book.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The secret to making great banana bread is to use really old bananas, so old that that they’re almost liquid—basically, the day before the fruit flies show up. This sounds disgusting, but I won a blue ribbon at the Virginia State Fair for my banana bread, so I feel confident offering this advice.

Also, I hope readers won’t be afraid of my book because it’s “depressing.” The book is also filled with dark humor and inventive playfulness and, truly, grief and loss are things that unite us all. If you haven’t lost someone yet, you will. For me, the purpose of art is to try to make sense of our collective sorrows and our deepest, more difficult questions. How is that “depressing”?

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 9

Feb. 9, 1874: Amy Lowell born.