Monday, June 18, 2018

Q&A with Melissa Stein

Melissa Stein is the author of the new poetry collection Terrible Blooms. She also has written the poetry collection Rough Honey, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Ploughshares and American Poetry Review. She lives in San Francisco.

Q: LitHub called your new collection “at once a battle cry and a gentle reclamation.” What do you think of that description?

A: I loved that description. I think it captures well two of the forces at play in the book: fear and violence and grief and decay are set against lushness of language, lyrical beauty, redemption.

The book asks, especially for women, how do we respond to violence? How do we protect ourselves and find our power and at the same time, live fully and freely and compassionately? How fiercely can we notice and experience and cling to and love what’s around us?

Q: Over how long a period did you write the poems in Terrible Blooms, and how did you decide on the order in which they would appear?

A: Most of the poems were written over about four years, though there are several poems older than that. Arranging a manuscript is always so challenging—in every book there are so many possible books, and we have to choose one and let go of the others.

In my work as a whole I’m interested in putting disparate elements together to see what arises, and I feel the same about putting poems next to each other. In Terrible blooms, there are short, compact lyric poems and longer, more discursive poems side by side.

I love experimenting with both lyric and narrative poems, different forms and stanza breaks. Most of all, I love not knowing what comes next. Cultivating the unknown, creating possibility—a sense that anything could happen at any time—to me, that feels like hope.

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

A: I had Terrible blooms in mind early on in working on the manuscript; it comes from a line in the poem “Racetrack.” No other potential title seemed to fit quite as well, though I considered lots of them.

Like Rough Honey, it expresses duality and contradiction, light in dark and dark in light—the idea of awfulness spreading out like ink across paper, but also turning into some gorgeous petaled thing. It has a bit of a goth ring to it, too, which reminds me of my teenage days. And bloom is a term for a swarm of jellyfish.

Along those lines, I had to find a cover image really quickly for Rough Honey when it won the APR/Honickman Prize and I vowed I wouldn’t be caught by surprise again. So years ago I found this amazing photorealistic painting of a split-open pomegranate and planned to use it for Terrible blooms whenever it was published.

But when the time came for the cover designer to work with it, it became clear that the square dimensions and composition just didn’t work for the book cover. I still love that painting! But at the same time, I remembered a photo by the Rough Honey cover artist I adored that wasn’t a fit for that book, and the Terrible blooms cover was born.

I’m tickled by the hidden continuity between the two books; most people wouldn’t guess they’re by the same photographer, Arielynn Cheng.

Q: Which poets have especially inspired you?

A: My first influences were e. e. cummings, Plath, Millay, Hopkins, Sonia Sanchez, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Later on, Louise Glück’s first few books, Mark Doty, Laura Kasischke, Jamaal May, Linda Bierds… just a few.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Usually I work poem by poem, and eventually they gain momentum and coalesce into a manuscript. I tend to resist beginning with ideas or concepts, as they seem to stop me dead in my tracks. (See above re. cultivating the unknown.)

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I have a thing for cephalopods.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Holly Brown

Holly Brown is the author of the new novel How Far She's Come. Her other books include Don't Try to Find Me and A Necessary End. She is also a marriage and family therapist, and she lives in the San Francisco Bay area.

Q: You write, “I suppose you could say How Far She’s Come was inspired by the 2016 election, though it was arguably the least inspirational election in history.” How did your feelings after the election lead to the creation of your character Cheyenne?

A: I was 42 when I started writing How Far She’s Come and my daughter was five; Cheyenne's 24 and just out of college, thinking only of starting a career and not a family.

I liked inhabiting someone who'd react differently to the election than I had, for whom it wasn't a personal blow. She's full of possibility. That was one of the things that felt hopeful to me about writing the book.

She's grown up being told she can do and be anything, and she's now coming up against limitations. She has to recognize that some of them are cultural and societal. But when she's knocked down, she's not going to stay there. She gets a hand up from surprising sources. Many fundamental shifts--like what's happening right now, in the post-Weinstein world--take collective action.

Q: The book is very timely, including various references to the #MeToo movement and other current issues. What do you think the novel says about the treatment of women in the workplace, and why did you choose a television network as the setting for the book?

A: Through Cheyenne and Elyse's stories--Cheyenne's contemporary, Elyse's from 1991--the  novel demonstrates that we still have a long way to go before women are free of roadblocks and landmines in the workplace.

I believe the #MeToo movement has legs, though, and there's more accountability now than ever before. We're fighting to change the larger culture that objectifies women and devalues their contributions, and that's going to inevitably change workplace culture, too. 

The expression of sexism and sexual harassment is, in most cases, more refined than in 1991 but it's still pernicious (though sometimes it's as overt as it was in the Mad Men days.)

I chose the setting in part because of Roger Ailes and his Fox fiefdom; I didn't know anything about Charlie Rose at CBS, or Matt Lauer at NBC, and all the people who turned a blind eye, and toxic cultures that allow monstrous behavior to flourish.

I feel like the media is a microcosm and reflection of society; no reporting can be entirely neutral, because no human can be. So broadcast journalism felt like a natural fit for the story I wanted to tell.

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

A: The book went through seven drafts in a year. I did a ton of research and I let that guide the plot.

The seismic events after the Harvey Weinstein story broke confirmed for me that I was on the right track: that it's not just individual monsters, it's about a culture that aids and abets them, that gets everyone looking the other way and thinking that disrespecting women is normal and beneath comment.

It's like that old expression about how fish can't see the water. I feel like we're all seeing how cloudy the water is these days, and that's a huge first step.

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

A: It was the phrase that came to me immediately, and I was gratified that it resonated with my editor and publisher as well. It signifies that we're all part of a thread of history, but history can make major leaps. We owe a great debt to the feminists who've come before; they've taken us a long way. Now it's about how far we can go. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I've written three domestic suspense novels and enjoy that, but I've got tons of ideas for workplace thrillers. Different settings (some that are really underused) each offer their own potential for intrigue. Also, I love getting to act like a junior anthropologist and follow people around to see how they work. I've learned from How Far She’s Come that research can become inspiration.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: This book was personal to me because of my daughter, but also because of the work I do as a therapist. By becoming more aware of what's happening in the workplace, I'm better at spotting what's individual pain and what's collective.

Sometimes people feel alone in their trauma but now they're coming to see what's crazy-making around them, and that's very empowering. I'm hoping my novel can do that, too.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Patricia Kay Helmetag

Patricia Kay Helmetag is the author and illustrator of the new picture book The TransAm Grannies Bicycle Across America!, which is based on a bicycle trip she and her lifelong friend took across the country. She is also the co-author and illustrator of the picture book Cecily Cicada. She lives in Annapolis, Maryland.

Q: Did you know before you set off on your first cross-country bike ride that you'd write a picture book about it?

A: When we set off from the Oregon Coast in 2011 on our seven-year, segmented, XC bicycling adventure, I never considered that I’d be writing a picture book about it.

I think it was during a red ant attack somewhere in the middle of Kansas in 2015 that enough crazy, funny stuff had happened to us that I began to consider which parts might fit into a book for our grandkids to remember us by someday.

It isn’t my first picture book, though. In the spring of 2004 my daughter, Kita Helmetag Murdock, and I co-wrote, and I illustrated, a picture book entitled Cecily Cicada.

We wrote it in two days, and I finished the somewhat crude drawings in a week. The 17-year Brood X cicadas were due to invade D.C. and there was no time to spare to cobble a book together and self-publish in time.

My granddaughter was two at the time, and terrified of bugs. We couldn’t find a book to explain the phenomenon to small children, so we wrote it for her on the back of a Cheerios box while the child slept in the back of the car on a long road-trip.

That hastily made book was a surprise success that summer, selling over 9,000 books, mostly in the D.C. area. We had our 15 minutes of fame with articles in The Washington Post, radio interviews, and even a local television spot. But then the bugs went underground for another generation.

It all seemed a fun fluke that could never be replicated, as it was born of inspiration and need - all while the bug-phobic little girl slept. Ironically, several thousand cicada books hibernate in my basement, waiting until 2021, and the next Brood X invasion.

After that initial success I dabbled in short stories and worked on a novel. Kita went on to write two YA novels. But nothing compares to the joy of writing about a subject that almost feels it needs to be written. And doing it with a daughter was a plus.

The TransAm Grannies bicycle across America was another inspiration, after finishing the biggest item on my bucket list. The writing came easily. Most of it was written while smiling.

Q: Did you figure out which parts of the story you wanted to tell and then draw the illustrations, or did some of the illustrations come first?

A: The story part came easily, though whittling the initial draft down to under 800 words - a bearable bedtime story length - was a tough order.

I tried doing some drawings, but I have little experience with drawing, and it was overwhelming to think of having to draw 32 illustrations. I wanted it to look more professional than Cecily Cicada. (I think now we were blessed with a short deadline on that book.) I struggled with the correct medium, with the right look, with what felt like an insurmountable task.

I submitted my writing to agents. I sent it to an inexpensive Highlights service for review. I hoped it would be picked up and assigned to a professional illustrator. When that didn’t happen I contacted Maryland Institute College of Art to see if a student might like to take a shot. Nothing looked the way I envisioned it.

Finally, I researched drawing on the iPad - a last resort. I didn’t like the look of many recent children’s books that look too computer generated, so I was skeptical.

I had done graphic design for many years, but I was blown away by the new technology. With an app called Procreate and an Apple pencil I could make my drawings look any way I wanted. They could be watercolors, oils, ink, pencil - anything! In any color under the sun. With textures and overlays! If I made a mistake it could be instantly erased.

I could draw on my sofa, on a plane, at the coffee shop - anywhere! I was fascinated. Obsessed even. I began, and the 32 illustrations were done in about eight weeks. My grandkids even contributed a few details (a pizza box, a radio . . .) while on a family vacation.

Q: What does the story say about friendship?

A: “Fill your life with adventures and cherish your friendships, like the TransAm Grannies.” This is what I write when I sign a book for someone.

Making and keeping good friends is one of the best things we can do for ourselves. It’s easy to let those friendships go. I’ve done it myself. A move, an argument, laziness, many things can make a friendship go off the rails.

But if you can hang on through distance and hard times, and if you can continue to share experiences beyond emails and meals together - real experiences - you’ll have given yourself the most sustaining and meaningful gift of all. A gift that becomes more meaningful with age.

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

A: I’ve had some folks tell me they don’t like the “granny” word in the title. It may be something to do with women dreading the idea of aging, finding it demeaning somehow.

Somewhere along the road Sally and I started referring to ourselves as the TransAm Grannies, and it just stuck. We certainly are a sight with our white hair, riding along on our weird, loaded recumbent bicycles, fully covered to protect ourselves from the sun - even down to our sun gloves and nose covers.

We get a lot of attention due to our age, and the unusual thing we’re doing. Having known each other since we were little girls we find it amusing to think of ourselves as we are now. We think it’s time for some granny empowerment, and we wear the title proudly.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I continue to edit, expand and revise my novel, based on my 25 years living on Lake Champlain in Vermont. It’s definitely on that bucket list of mine to have it published.

My “art shed” is calling to me to begin painting again.

I spend a lot of my time visiting my daughters and their kids in North Carolina and Colorado; drinking good coffee with my significant other, Garrett Mitchell; mowing the lawn, and walking my sweet beagle-mix around Annapolis.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Having completed the “TransAm” route, Sally and I are working on the return trip from east to west this time, on the “Southern Tier” route from St. Augustine, Florida to San Diego, California. We largely depend on the maps provided by Adventure Cycling Association.

An article I wrote about our multi-year system to doing long rides will be the feature article in the July Adventure Cyclist magazine. It’s aptly entitled “The TransAm Grannies.”

Our bikes are hibernating in a bicycle shop in Beaumont, Texas for the winter. The distances between towns there are problematic, and we turn 70 next year, so we’ll just take it as it comes. If we make it all the way, there could be a The TransAm Grannies Bicycle Back in my future.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Melanie Phillips

Melanie Phillips is the author of the new novel The Legacy. Her other books include the memoir Guardian Angel. She is a columnist for The Times of London, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Guardian and The Observer.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Legacy, and for your character Russell?

A: A number of things came together in my mind to create the novel, and I can’t really recall which came first. Certainly, my father’s death in 1998 had a lot to do with it. I was bereft when he died, not least because there were unresolved issues which could now never be explained and put to rest.

So an important part of the novel was the exploration of this vortex of mourning and grief, anger and regret, and the attempt to bring about some kind of resolution.

I think the character of Russell sprang directly from this; he emerged in my mind and then drove the story forward. Over the years, I’ve known a number of Russells – and they have all been men – whose profound ambivalence towards their Jewish identity is inextricably wrapped up with embarrassment or anger or other negative feelings towards their families.

And Russell inhabits a world I know very well – the world of the media, brittle and shallow and merciless towards anyone who doesn’t fit its own ideological template.

Years ago, I knew someone who had stumbled upon a medieval manuscript and that experience lodged in my mind. I also read a book about a particularly dreadful event that occurred in Holocaust Europe and which made an enormous impression on me.

Once I had written my own “medieval manuscript” for the novel, the rest of the story, including the mystery that it represents, gradually fell into place. And it became obvious to me that the journey upon which Russell embarks despite himself would take him into the territory I know so well: the deep ambivalence and discomfort of British Jews with their identity, and the persistent antisemitism of British society.

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: I did a lot of research for this novel. Although it is fiction, two incidents central to the plot actually took place. So I was anxious to ensure that I represented these as accurately and as fairly as I could. As I have already said, I had previously read about one of these incidents; and I then read everything else I could find on that topic.

On the daily life of Jews in medieval Britain, though, I had to do a lot of digging because sources were few and far between. There was more written about Jews in medieval Europe than in Britain, but since at that time Jews had flowed from Europe into Britain the European sources provided some useful detail.

Although I wasn’t surprised, I was still shocked to discover the unspeakable barbarism with which Jews had been treated in medieval Britain (as well as in Europe, of course, during the Crusades).

It confirmed me in what is a key theme of the novel: the ultimately unfathomable continuity of antisemitism through the ages – the way in which it morphed from theological antisemitism under medieval Christianity, through racial antisemitism under the Nazis to its current manifestation as ideological antisemitism in left-wing dogma.

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

A: When I started writing it, I certainly didn’t know how it would end. Indeed, I changed various elements in the narrative several times. The characters and plot started to develop in ways I had not anticipated when I started but which seemed entirely appropriate as I continued to write.

My first draft, though, ended the narrative far too early: I realised I had left too many threads dangling in the air, and so several further chapters then followed before I finally called a halt. And now readers tell me they want to find out what happens next to Russell and his daughter and will I please write a sequel!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Well, despite what I have just said I am not writing a sequel. I have started work on a new novel, but it will be very different from The Legacy. More than that I cannot divulge – but I do hope I’ll be able to write it rather faster than The Legacy, which took forever!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’d like say a bit more about what I was trying to do in The Legacy. I wanted to look at what motivates people to behave in certain ways – to get under the skin of both the antisemite and the Jew who despises the Jewish part of himself.

I wanted to show that life is all about change and growth and that we are all capable of escaping from the traps we create for ourselves, even though fate may have to give us a kicking before we do so. 

I wanted to show that we all need to know what we are, to anchor ourselves in a cultural identity and to feel we belong. And I wanted to show that things are often not what they seem to be, that to avoid pain we sometimes create fantasies in which we hide, including denying our identity; but history lays claim to us regardless, and in one way or another we need to make our peace with it.

People who have read The Legacy tell me how strongly they identified with it, how they laughed and cried over it and how they couldn’t stop turning the pages. I didn’t believe I could ever write a novel. I can’t tell you how much that reaction means to me.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

June 18

June 18, 1913: Sylvia Porter born.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Q&A with Elaine Povich

Elaine Povich is the author of the new book John McCain: American Maverick. Her other books include John McCain: A Biography. A longtime journalist in Washington, D.C., she has worked for a variety of news organizations, including Newsday and Stateline. She is also an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of Maryland.

Q: Why did you decide to write this new book about Senator John McCain?

A: It seemed like an appropriate, if sad, time to put together the story of his life. He was in the news because of his outspoken opposition to President Trump, and his illness brought his remarkable life into sharper focus.

More broadly, it seems like this is a time when actual heroes are in short supply in the United States. People may disagree on his positions on policy, but there’s no mistaking his dedication to serving his country.

Q: The book includes many photographs documenting McCain’s life. How were the pictures selected?

A: I have to give photo editor Christopher Measom nearly all the credit for selecting and editing the pictures.

But we were trying to depict both the arc of his life and snapshots of some of the most important times. We wanted to show him in many different situations and many aspects – his childhood, the Navy, serving on Capitol Hill and running for office.

Of course, his family was included throughout. We strove to find some rare photos that may not have been widely shown before. And if we had some simply great shots, they were put in the book as well!

Q: The book’s subtitle is “American Maverick.” What do you think this says about his life, and what do you think his legacy will be?

A: I think if you break apart those two words, they may say more than they do together. “American,” because his life is about country first. And “Maverick” because he’s always done things his own way. So putting them in a phrase shows a man who is devoted to his country but shows that devotion with individuality. That’s John McCain.

Q: Given today’s political climate, do you think there are other people in public life who can play a similar role to that of McCain?

A: No. That’s simplistic, but I’m afraid very true. Most of the senators are too timid to strike out on their own and forge a path outside party or president.

Those who are cast in the McCain mold – Jeff Flake of Arizona, Bob Corker of Tennessee – are leaving. Ted Kennedy is gone. Susan Collins of Maine is sometimes independent, but she really has to pick her spots.

McCain always talks about serving something greater than self-interest. The current president is all about self-interest. That makes it hard for anyone else to play McCain’s role.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m thinking about my next book, but I can’t say what it is yet! I’m also a full-time staffer for, a news service. We write about state issues, which, given today’s atmosphere in Washington, is a pretty good beat!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: It has been a true pleasure to write about John McCain’s life, not once but twice. Reader’s Digest used to have a feature called “The Most Interesting Character,” or something like that. McCain certainly fits that description.

When you write a biography, the subject pretty much moves into your house and you live with them for a time. It helps if they are interesting!

I wrote an earlier biography of him for a series of books aimed at schools and libraries. This time, the pictures tell the story, woven with, I hope, a few well-chosen words. I understand he’s had a chance to look it over, and I can almost hear him wise-cracking at some of the shots. That makes me happy.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

June 17

June 17, 1871: James Weldon Johnson born.