Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Q&A with Marina Budhos

Marina Budhos is the author of the new young adult novel Watched. Her other books include Tell Us We're Home and Ask Me No Questions. She is a professor of English at William Paterson University, and she lives in New Jersey.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Watched, and for your main character, Naeem?

A: I had been noodling around for quite a while with an idea of doing a “companion” book to Ask Me No Questions, which is about an undocumented Bangladeshi family in the wake of 9/11. 

Many of my readers had asked me if I would do a sequel, but one, I don’t do that kind of thing, and two, it didn’t feel true to the book, which is intentionally left open-ended.  But I knew I wanted to return to this world, and what I see as the next “beat” in this post 9/11 world, particularly for Muslim teenagers. 

Then one evening I was out with a friend and she told me the story of a young man who came into her law office who was boasting and hinting that while his father was a shopkeeper in Jackson Heights, he was “in the know with the powers that be” as an informant. This completely fascinated me—the idea that he felt empowered, but apparently also trapped--and the novelist in me began to spin with a story. 

I learned just enough about surveillance and sting operations and then focused on Naeem—a well-meaning kid, who is something of a screw-up, who is both trapped and yet strangely enough, gains a sense of self in the process.

Q: Given the current political climate, what do you hope readers take away from the book?

A: This is a tough question and it’s hard not to feel discouraged. There is so much anti-Muslim rhetoric and fear swirling about us right now. At the same time, it’s an incredible opportunity to bring art to the fore, to bring stories like Naeem’s out into the world. 

At this moment, everyone is living in this echo chamber where words such as “terrorism” or “surveillance” are very charged, always carry the bludgeoning and scapegoating power of a political agenda.

I’m interested in taking it down a notch and giving readers a chance to enter into these issues through empathy; through the simple story of what it’s like to be a teenage Muslim boy trying to find his sense of manhood in this atmosphere. 

Art has the power to let us into the skin of others and at the very least, I hope this novel will pierce through some of these hardened attitudes and allow readers to see and feel more.

Q: What kind of research did you do to write the novel, and was there anything that particularly surprised you?

A: I did research, though it’s always a balance in writing fiction, as one has to allow the tendrils of imagination to spin out in their own way. I read whatever I could on the subject, watched documentaries, and many of those resources are now listed on my website. 

I talked to the journalists who broke the story of the NYPD surveillance unit; I interviewed various folks in the community, including a legal group that advises immigrants on precisely these issues and had the manuscript vetted to make sure that I accurately portrayed the technicalities, such as an arrest or how detectives would work with an informant. 

And I also spent a lot of time just wandering around Queens. I wanted to discover the Queens of today, the neighborhoods, the feel, but I also was discovering my own teenage years in Queens, restlessly moving about its streets. So it was research into the here and now of immigrant Queens, but also research into my own teenage psyche growing up there.

And then honestly, my greatest research was with my own sons! I’ve been observing and mothering them for years and so I felt I was a barrel full of insights about boys and brothers. So a lot of my tender love for them, my sense of all the susceptibilities of boys and teen boys were poured into Naeem and his half-brother Zahir.

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

A: I always knew the title would be “Watched.” It just came to me instantly when I got the story idea. I like how one word is a bit confrontational and declarative and speaks to the state that not only are young boys like Naeem living in, but what we’re all living in—surveillance, watching. 

Indeed part of what I wanted to convey is what it’s like to be a minority teenager because you are tracked and watched in a way that is so specific—when I was first conceiving of the novel, for instance, “stop and frisk” was still a big part of life on the streets in NYC. What does that do to your sense of self?

And I want us to think about how we all are living in a heightened and hyper sense of watching and surveillance. It’s crept up on us without our even having thought it through as a society.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am writing a new middle grade/YA novel that is also set in Queens, NYC, but in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s when school integration battles tore the city apart. I’m at an early stage but the most I can say is my characters are mixed race and so are caught in between these battles.

I’m also finishing an adult historical novel, which I have been working on quite a long time. It’s called Sweetness, and it is about the unlikely friendship between an English woman and an Indian woman on a sugar plantation at the end of the 19th century.

And in March, my husband and co-author Marc Aronson and I will publish our nonfiction book, Eyes of the World: Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and the Invention of Modern Photojournalism. So we’re just gearing up for that.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just wanted to mention the happy news that Watched has received a Walter Dean Myers Award Honor for 2017. What makes me especially happy is one, Walter was such an inspiration and two, the award winner is John Lewis for his graphic memoir. 

For me, growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when so many social issues were roiling around us, and when leaders such as John Lewis were putting their lives on the line—this sense of tension and engagement definitely shaped me as a writer. So it’s wonderful to feel this inspiration come full circle.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 24

Jan. 24, 1862: Edith Wharton born.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Q&A with Michael H. Cottman

Michael H. Cottman is the author of Shackles from the Deep: Tracing the Path of a Sunken Slave Ship, a Bitter Past, and a Rich Legacy, a new book for younger readers. It focuses on the slave ship Henrietta Marie, which sank off the Florida coast in the early 18th century. His other books include The Wreck of the Henrietta Marie and Spirit Dive. A journalist, he has worked for The Washington Post and Newsday, among other publications.

Q: How did you end up writing about the Henrietta Marie, and why did you decide to write this book for younger readers?

A: My daughter, Ariane, has always encouraged me to write a book about the Henrietta Marie, underwater exploration, and the African slave trade, for young readers and National Geographic embraces adventure stories like no other publisher. It was a perfect partnership.

Q: How did you research the book, and was there anything that particularly surprised you in the course of your research?

A: I traveled to three continents to piece together a trans-Atlantic puzzle. I studied shipping records and slave-ship captain’s logs in London. I retraced the route of the Henrietta Marie and scuba-dived the ship’s ports of calls in Jamaica, Barbados, and West Africa (Goree Island off Dakar, Senegal) and conducted research in archives and libraries in Jamaica, Barbados and West Africa. 

I was surprised to learn there were children — boys and girls — aboard the Henrietta Marie. Some of the iron shackles — tiny ones — that were found underwater on the ship’s wreck site were used to handcuff children aboard the slave ship. 

Q: What do you see as the legacy today of the ship?

A: The legacy is to teach young people everywhere about the African slave trade through the story of the Henrietta Marie slave ship. The story of the Henrietta Marie is significant because it also informs students about different cultures and ethnic groups which is critically important today as they live and interact in our ever-expanding multicultural nation.

Q: What age group do you think would particularly enjoy the book?

A: Ages 8-16.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am exploring several ideas for my next book and writing a screenplay based on the story of the Henrietta Marie.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 23

Jan. 23, 1940: Alan Cheuse born.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Q&A with Jonathan White

Jonathan White is the author of the new book Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean. He also has written Talking on the Water, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Christian Science Monitor and The Sun. He lives on Orcas Island, Washington.

Q: How did you first get interested in tides and oceans, and why did you decide to write this book?

A: I grew up on the Southern California coast surfing, fishing, sailing. I always had a tide chart in my back pocket. There are some dives you can’t do if the tide is running. I lived around tides most of my life. I bought a very large wooden schooner in my mid-20s and started a nonprofit educational association [the Resource Institute] in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

With the tides on this coast, in Alaska they were up to 25-plus feet; here in the Seattle area they’re 10-13 feet. When you’re sailing around here you have to know what’s going on with the tides.

Knowing the tides was as routine for me as eating breakfast, but I never knew how it worked. I knew the moon had something to do with it. I had an accident with the boat; it got stuck in the mud and the tides went out and came back in. The cabins filled with water when the tide came back in. We eventually salvaged the boat.

[I thought], Oh, I want to know what’s going on here! I thought, I’ll read a book and learn all there is to know. As I read, I was amazed at how complex…the tides are. It started me on a journey.

One book turned into 10, and into 300. Two weeks turned into 10 years. I ended up traveling all over the world where some element of tides were in play, talking to people there, thinking about science and mythology.

Q: You write in the book about a variety of cultures and their theories about tides. Were there any that you found especially fascinating?

A: It’s hard to choose. I would say all are fascinating. One of the things I was very interested in in the book was the [relationship] between science and spirit.

For example, when I went to Panama, I spent time with the Kuna Yala Indians, on the islands that sprinkle the eastern side of Panama. There are 350 islands that are mostly disappearing because of sea level rise.

One of the chiefs I met said they believe the tides are visitors from another dimension, spiritual visitors. They make sure the village has maintained spiritual and social equilibrium. If it’s healthy, they would retreat. If not, they would stay.

It’s a very ancient view for these people, but at the same time they accept the science that this is sea level rise, and they are making plans to move.

It is a very interesting and surprising way to look at the world, and especially interesting that they could live with both the science and the spiritual view. We in the Western world see it as black and white. In the book, there are a lot of examples of this type of thing.

Q: You mentioned all the books you read—can you say more about how you researched the book, and what particularly surprised you?

A: As I read initially I learned about the places that had extraordinary tides. The tidal bore on the Qiantang River in China gets up to 25 feet tall, south of Shanghai. I learned about that early on. I had never heard of it before.

In the early Internet days, there wasn’t a lot on the Internet. “Tide” was a detergent, and when you searched “tidal bore” it was the pig that came up.

I was studying at a monastery in Japan, and the roshi told me about the tidal bore in Qiantang. It took a long time to figure out how to get there. I did finally go—I went three times. I went more than once to most of these places, all doing tidal research.

Q: So it took 10 years?

A: Ten years of research. The first article I wrote was in ’94 for Orion magazine. Then I got a contract to go to China and write about the Qiantang bore. I took a break, my wife and I had a child, but [this topic] never really left my head.

Q: What do you see looking ahead when it comes to tides and the science surrounding them? You mentioned sea level rise before—what is likely to happen there?

A: There’s a chapter in the book about sea level rise and tides. Tides per se are not sea level rise, it’s a different thing, but the platform on which tides occur is the ocean level and as that rises and falls it affects tides.

One element of the tide is vibration, and what’s happening there is like when you pluck the string of a guitar and the body resonates and amplifies the sound. This is one element of the tide but it’s a fascinating part of it.

The various orbits of the sun and moon function like plucking a string of a guitar—the body of the guitar is the oceans of the world. The full moon is a plucked string…different basins might respond to that note…

Global sea level changes [always were happening]—it changes the resonating value of these basins. If it goes down—[thousands of years ago] it was locked up in ice. It had very different tides. The Bay of Fundy didn’t have water in it 10,000 years ago.

The sea level is always changing. It is true that sea levels are rising due to global warming, the melting of ice…generally today it’s rising, but not everywhere. The oceans are not level…it’s relative.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m still ensconced in the tide book, promoting it, writing pieces about it.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: There are still some things that are not known about tides. We’re going to find that they are affecting and relating to so many things we can’t even think about now. [For example,] the relationship of tides to seismic activity is not really known. It’s suspected that there is a connection.

There are internal tides under the surface of the ocean. It’s believed they are playing a role in ocean mixing, bringing nutrients up, that affects the global climate…

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 22

Jan. 22, 1788: Lord Byron born.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Q&A with Susan Rivers

Susan Rivers, photo by Tasha Thomas
Susan Rivers is the author of the new historical novel The Second Mrs. Hockaday. She is a playwright and she teaches English at the University of South Carolina Upstate.

Q: You note that your novel was based on a real incident. Why did you decide to write a novel based on this incident, and how did you balance the historical and fictional aspects of the book?

A: This may sound far-fetched, but I don't actually "decide" that I'm going to write about a particular topic or event. I hear or see something or visit some place with intense atmosphere and -- wham -- the creative part of my brain, the part that spins stories, revs up and tells me to start writing or get left in the dust.

That's how it happened with the book I'm working on now, about a textile mill town at the turn of the century. I saw one of Lewis Hines' photos from his child labor series, taken when he went undercover in the early 1900s.

It shows a lint-covered child standing at the window of the spinning room where she was working 11 to 16 hours a day, in a mill only a few miles from my home. 

I had to leave the slide show at UNC Chapel Hill and collect myself, because the slide caused me to spurt tears like a busted boiler. I knew I was going to tell that child's "story."

It was the same with The Second Mrs. Hockaday, my book that came out Jan. 10. Back in 2014 I was teaching summer school at the local college and had some time to revisit notes I'd made a year earlier on a possible story idea about the Civil War.

I went to the tiny library near my home to look through the jumble of historical material they have and I stumbled across the summary of an 1865 inquest. As soon as I read it, I knew this was a story begging to be told in novel-form. 

A Confederate soldier who had been away from his teen-aged wife for four years arrived home at war's end to confront rumors that his bride had become pregnant while he was away. It was alleged that she had given birth to a son who had been killed and buried on their farm. The baby's remains were unearthed and the angry husband pushed to have his wife indicted for murder. 

For her part the young woman refused to speak about the baby, to name the father, or to explain how he was conceived. She maintained this silence for the rest of her life, even though she and her husband eventually reconciled.

I was electrified by the plight of this young woman and by the extraordinary courage she must have possessed to face this ordeal alone in a war-torn world. She wasn't able to tell her story in 1865, but I knew I could tell it in 2014.  

I gathered up my things and ran home from the library with the voice of my fictional soldier's wife, the second Mrs. Hockaday, already telling me her story and an entirely new novel taking shape around her.

Q: Much of the story is told in the form of diary entries and letters. Why did you choose that approach to the novel?

A: I don't remember having any conversation with myself about how the novel would be written. It began writing itself as it wished to be, in the form of linked primary sources: the inquest record, letters to and from the main characters, and the diary that Placidia keeps as she struggles on her own at Holland Creek, entries written on the backs of illustrations in her copy of David Copperfield. 
I suspect I was strongly drawn to the epistolary form by the dormant playwright in me. A decade of my life was spent writing and working in regional theater, and I think I wanted to steal some of the theater's intimacy for this novel by allowing the characters' voices to speak directly into the reader's ear without narrative filters. 

Even first-person viewpoint was too limiting in this context, because the story extends beyond Placidia's death to those members of the next generation who are strongly affected by her revelations and by the legacy of the blue-eyed man who is her "darker kinsman."

In conveying the character's stories so directly, then, it was essential that these voices be pitch-perfect. They needed to be rooted in details of their time and place while sounding as natural as if the individuals were standing ahead of the reader in line at the post office, chatting with neighbors. 

Long ago I took Henry James' advice to "try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost” and to that end I carry a small notebook with me wherever I go, writing in it things I overhear that strike me as singularly authentic or revelatory. 

Much of this material proved useful when I was crafting voices in The Second Mrs. Hockaday because these notes so often echoed an earlier time, or spoke to a brand of self-deprecating understatement that is so characteristic of Southern story-telling. 

For instance, Nolan Oglesby's prurient personality coalesced around a comment I borrowed from an assistant district attorney who said of two colleagues: "she gets him harder than Chinese arithmetic," while my next-door neighbor, when offered a glass of homemade muscadine wine, declined by saying: "that'll have me seeing double and feeling single."

The latter remark found its way into the voice of Placidia's father, Quincey Valois Fincher. It helped me to shape the contradictions that characterize this Jeffersonian-type planter, an accomplished man who loves his child and values his life of refinement, but who has been so successful at sublimating his role as slave-owner into an identity of gentility that his daughter is traumatized when she discovers the extent to which he exploited his power.

Q: Can you say more about the kind of research you did to recreate the details of 19th century America, and was there anything that particularly surprised you in the course of your research?

A: Where I've lived in North Carolina and now live in upstate South Carolina, the past has always been as close as my backyard. When I broke ground for my north Charlotte garden years ago I turned up old drill bits, horse tack, pieces of pottery and bottles. 

In addition, with the trees cleared on our lot, old daffodils that had been dormant for decades reemerged and bloomed, along with a gallica rose someone had planted long ago. 

Naturally, I researched the land and found out that 150 years earlier it had been part of a 1,000 acre plantation, and after the Civil War, it was farmed by sharecroppers. I felt a powerful connection to the shadows of those people who must have worked, loved, suffered, rejoiced and endured on that land before me.

When the backyard didn't suffice, there was always some historical site a few miles up the road that fascinated. When my daughter Lily was younger and didn't have a choice, I dragged that poor child all over Dixie, along with my husband if I could persuade him, to learn as much as we could about the history of this region, but more than that, to FEEL how that history might have been experienced by the people who lived it. 

Over the course of the last two decades we've traveled to dozens of manor houses and plantations: Brattonsville, Somerset, Drayton Hall, the Mordecai House, Rose Hill, The Hermitage, Mount Vernon and Monticello; to so many southern cities and battlefields of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars: Richmond, Savannah, Charleston, Columbia, Williamsburg, Fredericksburg, Old Salem, Edenton, Macon, Memphis, Corinth, Oxford, New Orleans and everywhere in between; and our family has toured countless historical societies, museums and galleries.   

In fact, I've been through so many Civil War museums I could be a docent, if novel-writing doesn't work out! I didn't do this because I planned to write a book about the Civil War; in fact, I never intended to write historical fiction at all. I simply like to learn, and I like understanding how we got here from there. 

So, in the course of all those years of touring and researching I acquired a body of knowledge that stood me in good stead when I began to write The Second Mrs. Hockaday.

Of course, over the years I've been surprised by much of what I've learned through research, especially in the early days of living in the Carolinas, when everything was new to me. 

But even more recently, I've been shocked by some discoveries. For instance, I've begun to believe that our country is never going to make measureable progress in the area of race relations until we can all acknowledge that slavery was our Holocaust, our original sin, a building block of our social, economical and political system from the days of our founding fathers, many of whom were slave-owners.

(And some, like the extraordinary but flawed Thomas Jefferson, who started fathering children with Sally Hemings beginning when she was only 17, used their privileged positions to enjoy sexual relations with the African American women they owned.)  

We need some kind of national reckoning on this issue, but I don't know how to accomplish that. I'm just a writer, not a world leader!  I've come to this conclusion after reading too many shocking oral histories and bills of sale for human beings, after seeing too many antebellum buildings that were used as slave markets or buildings that were constructed by slaves (including the White House).

In the back of my novel I acknowledge some of my key sources, and one of them is a book of slave narratives edited by Susanna Ashton. I've visited Charleston and the low country many times, so I'm familiar with most of the sites described by former slaves. 

One of the most horrifying stories in Ashton's collection is told by an enslaved man who was confined in the building adjacent to the Charleston jail for three months, along with dozens of other slaves who slept on the floor in their own sweat, waste, and blood.

The “master” who sent their slaves there usually gave a list of penalties to the jailkeeper which were meted out faithfully. One of the penalties was being “pickled,” a horrific process I brought into my novel. In being “pickled,” a man or woman is strung up by their wrists, flogged, and then pickle brine or salt is applied to their wounds to maximize the pain. This “pickling” could go on for days. 

The name of the detention house for African Americans in Charleston was called the "Sugar House," because that's where you sent your troublesome slaves to have their dispositions "sweetened." Can you imagine?

Q: The novel jumps back and forth in time. Did you write the chapters in the order in which they appear, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: I must preface my response to this question by saying that nothing about the process of writing this book was ordinary for me.  This tale gripped me from the first day and made use of me throughout without ever letting me get any distance from it. 

I usually do write in scenes that gradually come together in some order that's not always determined at the beginning of the writing process. But not with this one. 

As soon as I wrote Placidia's first letter to Mildred, describing her initial meeting with Major Hockaday, her future husband, the voice in my head said, "End the scene with Hockaday here, start a new paragraph, and tell the reader 'Dr. Gordon says I should not be in jail more than another day or two.'  They'll want to read on to find out why she's in jail, to find out what happened. That's what you'll be telling them, but you're going to do it incrementally." I did what the voice said, and I was writing it fast, writing for hours at a time.

As soon as I finished Part 1 -- and I knew that was the end of the first part and I also knew there would three parts in total, don't ask me how I knew that -- I asked my husband to read the draft while I kept plunging forward. 

He's a very good editor -- he gives me excellent notes, has good questions. So he read it quickly and came to find me, saying "Where's Part 2?" That's when I knew this story might work out.  I galloped through Parts 2 and 3 and I never knew how the characters were going to weave the past and the present together until they told me. 

And that's key: I try to have a general plan for a book when I'm starting it, although this one was different. But I am always aware that the plan may change and this nearly always happens because the characters make it so.

This is hard to explain. After you've been working with the characters long enough, getting inside their heads and their bodies and hearing their voices and being knocked about in their relationships with other characters, they start to pull ahead of you a little bit. It's weird, but in a good way. 

So, for instance, take the scene in Part 2 when Achilles comes to Holland Creek after he's beaten nearly to death by Cash, his owner's overseer, and asks Placidia for sanctuary.

What I didn't know until I wrote that scene in the barn and Achilles told me this was that Cash had once worked for Placidia's husband as his overseer. This was before Placidia came to the farm. Hockaday had fired Cash when he tried to pickle Bob, the head man. 

So, clearly this was good strategy on Achilles' part, coming to Placidia's farm, because he knows that her slaves won't turn him in, having themselves been brutalized by Cash when he was once the boss at Holland Creek. But the crazy thing is, Achilles came up with this on his own! I didn't plan that!

I guess a psychoanalyst would say, "Well Susan, you had that information stored in your subconscious -- you simply accessed it through the character."

Maybe that's so, but to me it feels like the characters are revealing things to me that I don't know, but which they need to have told. I have to honor that by being flexible enough to accommodate these truths in the story, even if it changes the story's direction or structure.

Q: Can you say more about what you're working on now?

A: I recently finished a draft of my second novel, tentatively titled Fly From All Sorrowing. At one time there were literally hundreds of textile mills in the upstate region of South Carolina and in North Carolina's piedmont, including at least two mills in the town where I live.

The men who built these mills made enormous profits in the days before income taxes and federal labor laws came along to spoil the party.

Their energy sources -- the rivers that flow down from the Appalachian mountains -- were free to exploit, and their labor pool of desperate white tenant farmers and impoverished mountain folk cost next to nothing, especially since children were employed well into the 20th century. All of these "lintheads" were easily replaced if one of them lost an arm in a carding machine or was scalded to death by exploding plugs on a boiler.

The mills shut down in the 1970s and ‘80s when the owners moved on in search of cheaper work forces in poorer countries, but for better or worse, the culture that rose out of the mill communities and the values and attitudes held by the workers who lived and died in them have persisted in this region with amazing tenacity.

One of my students taught me the local saying that set this novel in motion for me: "Don't worry about the mule, just load the wagon." Naturally, my question in response to that was and continues to be: how's that working for the mule?

I don't want to say too much about the book because it's still in a somewhat fluid state, but I will say that I've worked with two igniting incidences based on historic local events.

The first is a double lynching that took place in an upstate mill town a hundred years ago. Two African American bootleggers were dragged out of jail by a mob and were hanged in retaliation for a sexual assault they allegedly committed against a white man.  The "victim" was a millworker, as were the killers, none of whom were ever prosecuted. 

The second event is a catastrophic flood that swept away three mills on the Pacolet River in 1903 not far from my house and killed over 65 people. My protagonist, Calla Goforth, is a woman who works in the mill and is closely involved in both these events.
Courage, adversity, survival; everything I write seems to come back to these themes. I've always loved that poem of Yeats with the line that goes: "Bred to a harder thing/ Than triumph, turn away..." When triumph isn't on the agenda, you have to find a way not to be broken by circumstances. Southerners have turned not-being-broken into an art form.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: To borrow Churchill's phrase: "Never, never, never give up!"
Getting a novel published is not easy; it can take a long time to achieve and it requires every ounce of creative effort you've got in you. 

But if you are a real writer, the publishing isn't what validates you. The work is what validates you. Writing should be what you do because you can't NOT do it, and it should be the thing that tugs at you and speaks to you even when you're working a grueling job day after day or dealing with crises of some kind or pouring yourself into caring for family members. Believe me, I've been there.

If you're lucky enough to have someone in the publishing world recognize that your work has merit, that's wonderful. But even if publication eludes you, that doesn't make you any less of a writer! 

The writer is WHO you are. Don't forget that. You need writing more than writing needs you. So don't turn your back on it just because it's tough to make space for it in your life. Leave a little tiny corner open for it. 

I have a line from Proust's first volume of In Search of Lost Time pinned to the wall above my writing desk to remind me how important it is to do this. 

It says: "I have every unnecessary thing a man could want in my house [in Paris.] “The only thing wanting is the necessary thing, a great patch of open sky, like this. Always try to keep a patch of sky above your life, little boy...”

For me, writing is and always will be that oh-so-necessary patch of blue sky.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb