Saturday, September 26, 2020

Q&A with Danielle Krysa


Danielle Krysa is the author and illustrator of the new children's book How to Spot an Artist. Her other books, for adults, include Creative Block and Your Inner Critic Is a Big Jerk. She lives in British Columbia.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for How to Spot an Artist?


A: The idea actually came from talking to people who were reading my adult books about creative blocks, inner critics, and self-doubt. Literally hundreds and hundreds of people, ranging in age from 20 to 80, have told me stories about being stopped in their creative tracks when they were just little kids. It always goes something like this:


“When I was [6, 7, or 8] I was told I couldn’t be an artist because [I wasn’t talented, art is just a hobby, you’ll die a starving artist], so I haven’t made art since.”


I decided that instead of writing another book about “jumpstarting your creativity” for grownups who’d be stuck for decades, I’d just sneak around to the front of this problem and talk to the 6, 7 or 8 year olds directly. Hopefully, if they’re ever told to quit, they’ll remember this book and say, "NO WAY!"

Q: Did you work on the text first or the illustrations first, or both simultaneously?


A: I had the story completely written before working on the illustrations. For the longest time I couldn’t “see” what the characters should look like. Should they be boys or girls, which race(s), what about their age? I didn’t want any of those elements to be present, because artists run the entire gamut! 


And then I had a eureka moment while swimming laps at my local pool (that’s where all of my aha moments seem to show up), I pictured a juicy stroke of paint with little graphite legs, and voila, everything came together in an instant. 


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


A: I want them to believe in themselves, even if “an art bully” shows up somewhere along the way and tells them to give up. That happened to me, but not until I was 21 and about to graduate from art school.


I WISH I’d read a story like this over and over and over again when I was little so that I didn’t believe my painting professor when he said, “You should never paint again.” I quit for almost 20 years, and I don’t wish that on anyone.


Q: How did you first get interested in creating children's books?


A: Writing/illustrating a children’s book has been my dream since I was a kid, but it just seemed like exactly that — a dream. However, after talking to all of those people I mentioned earlier, I realized NOW was the perfect time — and the perfect reason — to finally put this dream into action!


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have a new idea for another kids’ book, but I figured I should wait until this one was out in the world — I guess I can get going on it now! Lately I’ve been concentrating on my daily posts about other artists on my contemporary art site The Jealous Curator (est. 2009) and on my own personal artwork. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: You can find me on Instagram at @thejealouscurator or listen to my art podcast, Art For Your Ear (interviews with contemporary artists about their stories, victories, and struggles).


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with David E. Lowe


David E. Lowe is the author of the book Touched with Fire: Morris B. Abram and the Battle against Racial and Religious Discrimination. He worked for the National Endowment for Democracy and the Anti-Defamation League, and is a Washington, D.C.-based consultant for nonprofits.


Q: You write, "I can't believe how many people never heard of Morris Abram." Why did you decide to write a book about him?


A: The quotation is from a partner in Abram’s law firm in Atlanta during the 1950s who sadly died shortly after I interviewed him.


Abram grew up in a small, rural town in South Central Georgia during the height of Jim Crow segregation. His was one of 12 Jewish families in the town.


Yet he rose to become one of the leading civil rights lawyers in the country and the chairman of the Presidents Conference of Major American Jewish Organizations. He led the campaign to end his native state’s racially motivated voting system that resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court’s establishment of the “One person, one vote” principle. It would be hard to argue that this is not a remarkable story.


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


A: My research combined documentary evidence from his voluminous papers at Emory University and his extensive writings and speeches with one-on-one interviews with people who knew him at various stages of his life.


That list includes former law partners in Atlanta and New York;  civil rights activists such as Vernon Jordan and the late John Lewis; past and present Jewish communal leaders; current and former members of the Brandeis University administration and faculty who recall his brief tenure as its second president; and those who worked with him in Geneva, Switzerland during the final decade of his life, when he served as US Representative to the European Office of the United Nations and after he founded UN Watch.

I also drew upon Abram’s series of oral interviews conducted with the acclaimed Southern author Eli Evans over a three-year period after contracting acute myelocytic leukemia (AML).


What I found surprising was how close he came to dying from AML, which arrived just after his 55th birthday. So much that he achieved, particularly with respect to Soviet Jewry, international human rights more broadly, and defense of the state of Israel at the United Nations came after he was declared cancer-free.


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


A: When I started writing the book, I looked to the writings of Abram’s legal hero, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., for inspiration. Holmes had fought for the Union during the Civil War during which he almost lost his life.


On the 19th anniversary of the end of the war he delivered an eloquent Memorial Day oration in which he paid tribute to all who fought in that war on both sides. It was this generation, he proclaimed, whose hearts were “touched with fire” in their youth and who learned early in life that “life is a profound and passionate thing.”


This seemed particularly appropriate for Abram. In fact, a number of those I interviewed pointed to his great passion for achievement and indeed for life itself.


Q: What do you think Morris Abram would make of today's politics and the current situation regarding racial and religious discrimination?


A: Abram, who crossed the political aisle in 1980 to support Ronald Reagan, always thought of himself as a liberal in the traditional sense of that term: one who believed deeply in civil discourse, in a vigorous defense of free speech, and in a fervent respect for the rule of law, the latter of which he argued is the key to holding our diverse country together.


Certainly, he would be appalled to see those values diminished as they are today. And he would be deeply disappointed to see his dream of a color-blind society, one he shared with his friend Martin Luther King, Jr. weakened by identity politics.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am researching the remarkable life of Melvin J. Lasky, the American-born  founder of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, for a biography I will be writing in collaboration with a former colleague at the National Endowment for Democracy. Like Abram, Lasky believed strongly in fighting to uphold traditional Western values of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: At Abram’s funeral on Cape Cod in March 2000, his daughter Ann talked about her father’s insatiable intellectual curiosity. His son Joshua said that until the day he died, Abram woke up wondering what he could learn that day.


It was this thirst for learning that led him from his humble origins in a small, rural community in the deep South to comfortable interaction with presidents, prime ministers, and even Pope Paul VI, whom he lobbied to eliminate anti-Semitism from the Church’s teachings.


What struck me in my interviews was how many of those who knew him best were most impressed by his ability to listen to, think carefully about, and engage with the ideas of others, even when they expressed viewpoints with which he disagreed. A nice lesson for all of us.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. David E. Lowe will be participating in a virtual talk with the Bender JCC of Greater Washington on Sept. 30 at 5pm Eastern. Here's the link for more information. The talk is part of the Lessans Family Literary Series.

Sept. 26

Sept. 26, 1949: Jane Smiley born.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Reverse Q&A about my new book, questions from my father, Marvin Kalb!


I am delighted to present a reverse Q&A, where my father, Marvin Kalb, asks me questions about my new middle grade novel for kids, Thomas Jefferson and the Return of the Magic Hat. It's the third in a series, following George Washington and the Magic Hat and John Adams and the Magic Bobblehead.


Q: Why are you writing books for young people about our nation's "Founding Fathers"?


A: I’ve been interested in history for a long time—it was my major in college. I’ve also worked on books about history and government for adults. But I’ve always had a soft spot for middle grade kids’ books—I was rarely without a book when I was that age—and have always wanted to write fiction. So mix it all up…and there you have it!


The books are about the early presidents, yes, but they are novels. The main characters are a group of present-day fifth graders in Bethesda, Maryland, who go on amazing time travel adventures and meet figures like George Washington, John and Abigail Adams, and, in this new book, Thomas Jefferson.


In addition, the kids deal with problems in the present day, like not speaking to your best friend, or dealing with a newly blended family, or being the new kid in town. They go back and forth between the past and the present thanks to a magic hat (in the first and third books) and a talking John Adams bobblehead in book 2.


Q: Were there any differences researching the Jefferson book from your Washington and Adams books?


A: Not really. I did the same kind of research for all three books. I read books written for both kids and adults about the relevant people. I read various letters and other material on line. You can find John and Abigail’s voluminous correspondence, as well as letters between Adams and Jefferson, and other fascinating information, on various historical websites.

And I visited the historic sites associated with each president—including a visit to Mount Vernon some years back with you!


Q: Racism clearly is a major, yet very sensitive, issue with Jefferson.  How did you decide to address it?


A: Thank you for asking about that. With Jefferson, you have the author of the Declaration of Independence who owned other people, including his own children--the family he had with Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman at Monticello. The children eventually were granted their freedom, but Sally Hemings never was.


One of the main characters in Thomas Jefferson and the Return of the Magic Hat is Madison Hemings, the son of Jefferson and Sally Hemings. As an older man, he wrote a memoir about his experiences growing up as an enslaved person at Monticello. Readers of my new book get some insight into his childhood, and how his life contrasted with that of his father.


Throughout this book and also George Washington and the Magic Hat, my present-day characters wonder how these two early presidents could have reconciled their support for freedom and democracy with their holding other people in bondage.


It’s an ongoing discussion, and ties into the current-day debates over the Black Lives Matter movement and the discussions about whether to retain statues and monuments to Jefferson and Washington. I’ve tried to provide a nuanced approach to these early presidents, acknowledging the good they did while also taking into account their failures.

Q: Which of Jefferson's characteristics appeal to you the most? Offended you the most?


A: I would say his love of learning and of books ranked high on my list. He famously said, “I cannot live without books,” a sentiment with which I concur.


And of newspapers. He said that “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” As a former journalist, I agree with that. Especially when we now have a president who considers the press the enemy of the people.


I also admire his quick mind and writing ability, and the Declaration of Independence is a historic icon.


But, as I said above, there was the other side to Jefferson. Offended is not strong enough a word to describe how I feel about slavery. Like my characters, I don’t understand how Jefferson could reconcile the words of the Declaration with owning other people, including his own children.


Q: Of all your young characters, whom do you admire the most? And why? 


A: Oh, well…I’m going to have to give a non-answer here. I love all of them. I admire Sam, in book 1, for his humor, his acting ability, and his thoughtful demeanor. I admire Ava, in book 2, for her love of writing, her clarinet playing, and her gift for friendship. And I admire Oliver, in book 3, for his capacious brain and his ability to overcome social challenges.


Join me and illustrator Rob Lunsford for a virtual book launch at Politics and Prose Oct. 7 at 7pm Eastern--here's the link:

Q&A with Lori Richmond


Lori Richmond is the author and illustrator of the new children's book Bunny Business. Her other books include Bunny's Staycation. She lives in Brooklyn.


Q: This is your second book about Bunny--did you always know you'd write a follow-up to Bunny's Staycation?


A: Yes! When my agent sold Bunny’s Staycation, it was done as a two-book deal. So I knew from the start that Bunny would have a follow-up. I didn't know at the time what the follow-up story would be. It was unwritten! I had some ideas, but didn't know what direction we would go in.

Q: Do you usually focus on the text first or the illustrations first--or work on them simultaneously?


A: I like to focus on the text. Drawing comes much more naturally to me, so unless I have some sense of the writing and story arc, I can feel a bit of stress while I am working on the project. To begin drawing first almost feels like I am avoiding the hard part, if that makes sense!


When I have a story outline, at the very least, I feel like I have clearer direction and can work more confidently. That said, as I work on the art, I edit the text. So the process absolutely does become simultaneous at that point.


Q: What do you hope kids take away from the story?


A: There is often mystery surrounding what parents do at work. I hope kids and parents can have more conversations about what they do at work, and that the book helps foster curiosity and questions.


I also want kids to think creatively about problem solving. Sometimes we are in difficult situations, but we all possess the superpower to think out of the box and come up with solutions.

Q: What first got you interested in creating children's picture books?


A: I've always been in awe of picture books -- the marriage of text and images as an art form is just so special. And I love how books are often a child's first introduction to different kinds of art! I had an entire career before I started making books -- I was an art director at a media company. So this was a career change for me!

Q: What are you working on now?


A: Since the pandemic began, I have been working on a lot of client projects. Being at home in close quarters with my family has made doing creative work quite a challenge. I just got a new workstation for home, so I hope this ignites my creative fires!

Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I have a book coming out this December called Porcupine Cupid, written by Jason June. It is a really fun Valentine's Day story about mischief and love!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Gill Paul


Gill Paul is the author of the new novel Jackie and Maria. Her other books include The Lost Daughter and Another Woman's Husband. She lives in London.


Q: Why did you decide to focus on Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Maria Callas in your new novel?


A: They are both women I admire, from an era I was fascinated to write about, and the way their lives became entangled through Onassis was intriguing. I started out with the aim of trying to understand what it felt like to be them, to put myself in their shoes – and they were some very glamorous shoes to fill.


Q: What would you say are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about Jackie?


A: Jackie showed incredible self-control in public after Jack was assassinated in Dallas but that certainly wasn’t the case behind the scenes, where she was pill-popping and drinking herself to sleep every night.


And it’s difficult in the 21st century to think that an intelligent, well-educated woman might marry for money, but that’s basically what Jackie did in 1968, albeit with exacerbating circumstances. She always looked so cool in photos, as if she was coping just fine, but underneath she wasn’t at all.

Q: What about Maria?


A: Maria was portrayed by the press, and by biographers, as a difficult, demanding diva figure. Partly it came from a hostile interview her mother gave to Time magazine, and a nasty memoir she wrote about her; partly it was because Maria was very perfectionist about her music and would demand that the company carry on rehearsing till she was happy with the result.


If she had been a man, she would have been acclaimed as being a top professional who drew the short straw when it came to parents, rather than a diva. There’s definitely a double standard there.


Q: What did you see as the right blend between the historical figures and your fictional renditions?


A: It’s different in every novel but when I am writing about a real historical figure, I try to stick to the facts, where they are known. Occasionally I might move the date of an event to fit my narrative, or even invent a scene, but I will confess to any fabrication in a historical afterword.


However, all the private scenes I dramatize, and the thoughts and feelings I attribute to protagonists, are my invention. It’s a novel, and I never claim that my version is the true picture.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Almost a hundred years ago, in November 1922, the tomb of Tutankhamun was discovered in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, and the treasures it held amazed the world.


In photographs taken outside the tomb you see the archaeologist Howard Carter, his sponsor Lord Carnarvon, and a young woman, Lady Evelyn Herbert. She was the first one to crawl inside the 3,500-year-old tomb but hardly anything has been written about her. Now I’m telling her story. It will be out in fall 2021.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’d love to take this opportunity to thank you and all the other bloggers and bookstagrammers who have supported Jackie and Maria in the U.S. I feel very honoured and excited by the reception the book has had. It means a lot to me. Also… beware of Greek shipping millionaires bearing gifts!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 25

Sept. 25, 1897: William Faulkner born.