Monday, August 29, 2016

Q&A with Lee Gjertsen Malone

Lee Gjertsen Malone is the author of the middle-grade novel The Last Boy at St. Edith's. She is also a freelance writer whose work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Boston Globe Magazine and Odyssey magazine. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Last Boy at St. Edith's?

A: Oddly enough, I got the idea from a newsletter from my husband’s old high school. He went to a Catholic school that went coed a few years after he graduated, and we still get mail from them.

This newsletter was talking about all the positive changes that had happened since the school added girls – new sports teams, increased applications – but it got me thinking.

Why would a school go coed? And (because this is where my mind goes) what if it didn’t work out? What if instead of every year there were more and more kids of your gender, there were fewer and fewer, until you were the last one?

Q: What do you think the book says about gender dynamics, particularly among middle-school-aged kids?

A: This became one of the most intriguing aspects of the book as I was writing it. I started it with a simple premise – the only boy at an all girl’s school who wants to get expelled – and it brought up so many great ideas.

For me, the best part was being able to show all the different kinds of relationships that boys and girls have at this age. Old friendships, new friendships, family, mentors, crushes.

But there’s still an aspect of gender expectations that really begin to come into play. I liked the idea of talking about those expectations, and how they affect relationships, in a way that was fun and interesting and felt genuine.

In some respects, Jeremy has everything he needs, he just can’t always see it because of what he thinks he’s supposed to want.

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

A: I tend to write endings early in the writing process. I need to know the destination, at least partly, before I can figure out the path.

So, without spoiling the book – yes, I knew whether or not he succeeded in his plan very early on. (I also had a very strong idea of who would be the major player in his failure or success...which anyone who has read the book can easily figure out!)

Q: How have your readers responded to the book?

A: I love how the readers have responded to the book. I like to ask them questions about their favorite characters, and how the friendships play out.

Though I’ve found older kids and adults find the character Emily to be much more sympathetic than younger kids do -- it’s interesting that there’s an age divide in how readers react to that one particular character.

I also ask readers about their favorite pranks – because there are a lot of pranks in the book. There’s one prank that is the most common response (hint: it’s the first big one) but a number of readers have really liked some of the other pranks. It’s always intriguing to me to hear their responses.  

One less positive thing I’ve heard from a few adults is that there aren’t enough consequences in the book (basically, punishments!). But for me I feel like emotional consequences are the important part of the story – I’d rather see Jeremy understand how what he does affects other people than talk about how long he’s going to be grounded. But that might just be me.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The age-old question. Let’s just say: Something awesome that I hope the readers of this book will like just as much that I can’t really talk about now.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: One of the coolest things about this year has been all the amazing authors I’ve gotten to know and all the amazing books I’ve gotten to read. 

There are so many good middle grade novels out there, which makes me very happy (especially since I have an 11-year-old at home who seems to be on a mission to read every book in the library). 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 29

Aug. 29, 1632: John Locke born.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Q&A with Atinuke

Atinuke is the author of Double Trouble for Anna Hibiscus!, a winner of the 2016 Children's Africana Book Awards. Her other books include Anna Hibiscus and Love from Anna Hibiscus!. She grew up in Nigeria and England, and now lives in Wales.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your character Anna Hibiscus, and for the latest book in the series, Double Trouble for Anna Hibiscus?

A: For ages I’d been wanting to write about a little girl growing up - as I did - in a busy African city. The name and character came finally when I was stuck in bed, ill and bored - Anna Hibiscus’s name and personality came in a flash - and I had the time while stuck in bed to write the first four stories about her. 

My sisters and I were called Double Trouble, when there was two of us, and then Triple Trouble, when there was three. I wanted to write about the birth of Double Trouble and the trouble it would cause for Anna, the trouble and upheaval all babies - being babies - cause their older siblings! 

I love writing about Double Trouble, the mischief they get into, and it was fun to think about the trouble that babies - so unwittingly - could cause. 

Q: Did you know when you wrote the first book about her that it would be a series?

A: Most of the Anna stories are inspired by my childhood in Nigeria - things that I did, things I wanted to do (but wasn’t brave enough), things that I wished would happen - they all happen to Anna Hibiscus.

I knew when I wrote the first Anna stories that I had lots more about this that I wanted to write - but I did not know then that I’d be lucky enough to be asked to write so many of them! 

There are eight Anna Hibiscus books now - the first four are available in the U.S. through bookshops or booksellers...and all eight can all be ordered through the U.K. Amazon site -

Q: What do you see as the relationship between the oral storytelling tradition and your own storytelling and writing?

A: I have been telling traditional oral African stories for 18 years now and undoubtedly they influence my work as an author - and that’s a great thing!

Some of the stories I tell are more than 5,000 years old, created by unknown geniuses and honed and perfected by generations of excellent storytellers. They teach me a lot about life - and I like to think that they make me a better writer too! 

Also, maybe because I am a storyteller, as I write I say the words aloud in my head. This also brings a storytelling style to my books especially its rhythm and repetition. 

Q: As someone who grew up in Nigeria and England, what do you see as some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions that people in one country have about the other?

A: I wanted to write about a girl growing up in a busy African city because many children I met in England (and elsewhere in the West) thought that life in Nigeria was one of wild animals, mud huts and poverty. Even now children gasp when I talk about drinking Coca-Cola and playing computer games in Nigeria.

On the other hand in Nigeria many people imagine that everyone in England (and elsewhere in the West) is rich, that it’s easy over here to become a millionaire! It can be hard to get people to believe that there is poverty over here too. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now I’m working on some new picture books - with new characters and a fabulous new illustrator. The first of those will be out next year in the U.K. and the U.S. - and I am so excited about it - it’s a story I’ve been mulling over for years now and it’s wonderful seeing it come to life in such gorgeous pictures.

I’m also working on my first non-fiction project - I won’t say too much about that, as it’s still a long time away from publication - but working on it is satisfying and fulfilling - I love it!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I don’t have a study or even a desk where I work. I write wherever I happen to be - in bed when it’s raining, in a hammock when it’s bright, in my favourite armchair, at the kitchen table, in hotel rooms and trains and airplanes. Ideas come to me in floods when I am travelling.

Then it’s a question of discipline - the discipline to spend the hours and days and weeks and months and years that it takes to turn those ideas into stories, and those stories into books. When I get stuck then it’s time to stop working and wander the woods and beaches near my home.

I can’t really separate writing and living - both of them feed and enrich the other. And I can’t imagine a more wonderful job - making up stories and telling them - it’s playing really! 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 28

Aug. 28, 1913: Robertson Davies born.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Q&A with John Mack Faragher

John Mack Faragher is the author of Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles. His other books include Daniel Boone and A Great and Noble Scheme. He is the Howard R. Lamar Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on frontier Los Angeles, and what do you see as some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about Los Angeles in that era?

A: The decision to do a book on Los Angeles was personal. I grew up in Southern California, outside Los Angeles, went to public school, to the University of California, Riverside, and was a social worker in South Central Los Angeles, and [then received a] Ph.D. in history.

Later in my career I had the opportunity to spend time in Los Angeles. Over the last 10-15 years we’ve spent a lot of time there. My previous book was on the expulsion of Acadian people from Nova Scotia. It got me interested in the historical problem of violence…

My wife said, When you do your next book, pick some place we’d like to be. I thought, why not a book on violence in Los Angeles? The Huntington Library has all the judicial records for Los Angeles in the early period, and the Seaver Center in Exposition Park is a repository of records of the alcalde’s office, in the Mexican period…

There was an opportunity to look at conditions under two nation states, two wars of conquest—by the Spanish and the Americans. The 1850s and ‘60s was a notoriously violent period in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles is such a 20th century city. It came into prominence in the middle of the century, and it’s associated with development and real estate. It all began in the late 1880s. Los Angeles was founded in 1781, and in the 1880s there was the real estate boom. Very few historians have written, and the general public is ignorant, about the history of the city prior to the late 19th century.

Q: You write, “Violence is the dark force of our national history.” Do you see parallels between the violence in 19th century Los Angeles and the violence we see across the country today?

A: Quite definitely. There are a number of ways to approach this. One of the things the study of violence underplays is that violence is a learned behavior. People learn to be violent. It’s not a natural behavior. People are not naturally cooperative, but the natural human instinct, of a healthy person, is not to lash out and physically trash people nearby.

One of the goals I set was I would not allow myself simply to write about public violence without attention to the place where violence is reproduced—the household.

The Huntington Library also has records of the civil courts in Los Angeles in this period, and the justice of the peace record books. The justice of the peace courts were the courts of first recourse. Nearly all domestic violence [cases] went to the justice of the peace courts.

I had hundreds of stories of women who testified. In divorce cases, there were scores of women. In that sense, there’s a direct connection with our world.

One of the great progressive developments of the last 30-40 years is attention has developed to domestic violence, partner violence, violence against children, and the resources victims have and the attention we pay to the perpetrators of domestic violence. The rates of domestic violence have declined.

In the period I study, there was a tsunami of domestic violence going on. It corresponded with a dangerous world, and people [resorted] to violence because of structural factors. Violence was learned in the home. It was as true in frontier Los Angeles as it is today…

There were more violence-inclined people on the streets [then]. The structural reasons why violence was significant in Los Angeles—it was a society that was a conquest society. Spanish men conquered the native people…the use of the lash was omnipresent. There was a structure of violence.

Then it was conquered again by the United States in the Mexican War in 1846-7. It was a violent conquest. In relation to the Hispanic people and the native people, and the Anglo people and the Hispanic people, there was a legacy of bitterness and oppression that manifested itself in violence.

Los Angeles is a long way away—from Mexico City, and from the legally constituted authority after the U.S. took it over. The justice system—of law enforcement, the court system, the penal system—was all amazingly weak and ineffective.

The tendency to engage in do-it-yourself justice, vigilantism, it also could be by vendetta, feud, or personal animus—these were very common forms in a world where legally constituted justice was weak.

When people don’t believe the system can deliver justice, they tend to take the law into their own hands. It’s just as true now as then. There’s a direct parallel between what happened in Los Angeles and other cities, and today in cities where there are large neighborhoods where people feel they have no justice.

Q: The book examines a wide cast of characters. Are there any that particularly captured your attention, and why?

A: One was Judge Benjamin Hayes, a Missourian who came to Los Angeles in 1850 and became a judge in the early 1850s. He was a young man and a very small man, but was a towering character.

He spent his career on the bench doing everything he could to build up the justice system. He was unsuccessful in doing that, but was an enormously admirable character for his attempts.

He treated people equally regardless of race. Hayes also in 1854 or ’55 heard the suit of a black woman held as a slave. He ruled, because California did not recognize slavery, that she could not be held, and she was freed then. It was overthrown by the Dred Scott case, but it was a heroic decision on his part.

Another was Francisco Ramirez, the editor of a Spanish-language paper in Los Angeles. When he edited the paper, he was in his late teens. He was a very gifted man, editor, writer, and was politically passionate about the rights of Mexican-Americans…He spent his career as a political activist. I would pick him out as one I admire greatly.

The book is full of wonderful characters, the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s hard for me to pick out who to put as top on the list.

I would pick James Barton, the sheriff who I begin the book with. He was a Democratic politician murdered at the hands of a Latino gang in 1857. It was the cause of a series of racial pogroms against Latinos. He was a commanding character.

One of the difficulties I had was that the public record emphasizes the contributions of men. I wanted to bring women into the narrative. 

Francisca Perez was the first woman to file for divorce in Los Angeles County. She tried to divorce her husband. As soon as the Americans took over, they made divorce possible, and that was the first thing she did. Unfortunately, the judge refused her request. She was not a woman you’d find in the public record, but digging into the [court] record I found many women’s stories worth repeating.

Q: How did Los Angeles change over the period that you write about in the book?

A: From the period I examine, the 1830s to the 1870s, Los Angeles grew very slowly. The average population of the county was about 10,000 people. It rose from about 5,000 in the 1830s to 15-20,000 in the 1860s.

It was a mud city, adobe, very few trees, watered by a series of irrigation ditches. The landscape would have changed relatively little.

During the Civil War, there was an enormous environmental catastrophe—an extended drought, much like the one now. The economy was based on cattle ranching; tens of thousands of cattle died.

Those large properties were divided and sold in 20-40 acre farm parcels. There was an economic boom; Los Angeles converted to producing high-quality agricultural commodities--walnuts, oranges—a highly productive, intensive, horticultural economy. That created a boom in late-1860s Los Angeles.

They built a railroad that connected the city to San Pedro and to San Francisco and the national economy. That was the beginning of the transition out of the frontier period.

It had a dramatic effect on violence. The court system expanded to take care of the requirements for more business arrangements. More properties were bought and sold. As an incidental consequence, it strengthened the justice system.

The apprehension of perpetrators and incarceration was way up, and people gained new confidence in the justice system. Violence fell, not because of anything they did directly—vigilantism didn’t work at all—but the creation of the new courts…This finally began to inch the violence rate down.

That was the big transition, from a world where the violence was at the level of low-intensity warfare, in the 1850s and ‘60s, to a level where it was very high by our standards but much lower than it had been…

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: I’m writing a history of California for [younger] readers…it’s written in a conversational tone. It’s another opportunity to get the word out.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: There was a horrific massacre of Chinese-speaking people in Los Angeles in 1871…I argue this was a direct consequence of the do-it-yourself justice. That horrific event turned people around, and forced them to pay attention to the consequences of the justice system. It was being reformed as the massacre took place.

The trial of the ringleader—they found him guilty and he was sent to San Quentin—showed people the justice system could work. Before things got better, Los Angeles had to suffer through a terrible racist massacre.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 27

Aug. 27, 1871: Theodore Dreiser born.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Q&A with Bonnie MacBird

Bonnie MacBird is the author of the Sherlock Holmes novel Art in the Blood, now available in paperback. She is a screenwriter, actor, director, and artist, and she teaches screenwriting at UCLA Extension. She lives in Los Angeles.

Q: Why did you decide to write a new Sherlock Holmes mystery?

A: I have loved this character since age 10, and when I sat down to write a novel, I knew at once it would be a mystery, and that it would take me over a year to complete.  

That’s a lot of time to spend in the company of your characters.  I thought… "who do I want to spend time with?"… and the answer came, Sherlock Holmes and John Watson!  

Also, from an artistic standpoint, I knew that the study it would take to do a good emulation of Conan Doyle, whom I consider a genius, would be worth my time, that I would be a better writer for having attempted this. I love learning and I love impossible challenges. They inspire my best work.  

And for another reason as well….I wrote the book I wanted most to read, right then. 

Q: As you were writing the book, what did you see as the right balance between the original Holmes and your own take on him and Watson?

A: My goal was to make these two as close to canon as possible. That being said, we cannot, as writers, avoid putting ourselves in our writing.  

In creating a novel-length Holmes story that would play for modern readers and yet would feel authentic and true to the originals, I knew I would have to make some concessions to strict canon adherence.  

For one thing, Doyle only used these characters in short stories and novellas. Extending an adventure to novel length would require a different structure and a more extendable and complex mystery, because Holmes is brilliant, and yet he can’t solve the thing right away, or the story is over.  

I had to place more impediments to the solution in his path, and do this by layering a multiple mystery that would take longer to unravel as well has have him deal with his own personal vulnerabilities.  

But the man is an alpha male and a bit of a superhero, co he could not be too vulnerable.  Also, Conan Doyle wrote “adventures,” not “mysteries.” 

There is quite a lot of action in the canon, at least in the aggregate. I also consciously chose to include action and danger to both our heroes and the client, which further helped structurally.

In my view, my Holmes and Watson are very like, or as close as I could get, to the originals. I have been accused of writing like BBC Sherlock because I am a screenwriter and an avowed fan of that series. But where Art in the Blood resembles BBC it is primarily because both my work and theirs is inspired by exactly the same source.

There was only one conscious “borrow” from BBC Sherlock, and that is that I like the adversarial and slightly ominous relationship between Holmes and his brother Mycroft.  That is not strictly canonical and yet has tremendous “story juice.” So I think my Mycroft is slightly less strictly canonical, and yet he is not a total departure.  

But a vulnerable Holmes who rises heroically to challenge, the loyal and brave and very active Watson who helps keep Sherlock from his demons and calls him on is BS, all this is right from canon. And the humor. Doyle was terribly funny and my aim was to exactly reproduce that camaraderie and humor of the originals. 

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

A: I knew the crime and who did it… but how they got there, and the complications along the way came up as I went along.

Several characters just walked onto the page without my consciously pre-planning them, particularly the rogue detective Jean Vidocq who claims to be related to the famous real-life character of the same last name, and the little boy, Freddie, in the silk mill.  I had no idea of them ‘til they just…showed up. 

Q: How did you come up with the book's title, and what does it signify for you?

A: The title came first and is extremely meaningful to me.  “Art in the Blood is liable to take the strangest forms” is a canonical quote from “The Greek Interpreter” and refers to Sherlock Holmes and Mycroft Holmes’ hereditary powers of observation----inherited from their great grand uncle, the artist Horace Vernet (a real person).  

It also obliquely refers to the Janus-faced gift of the artistic temperament, a subject very dear to my heart. Like Conan Doyle, I have one parent who was an artist, and the other an amateur but master storyteller…. and I am very familiar with the artistic temperament.  

It gifts those who possess it with the ability to see what others do not, to discern pattern in chaos, and yet often saddles them with a certain lability of emotion that can, when not handled carefully, be a detriment.  

Holmes displays all these characteristics throughout canon, and I felt an exploration of this would be a wonderful underpinning to a longer work featuring him. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am writing Unquiet Spirits, which is book two in my Holmes trilogy for HarperCollins. It has to do with ghosts, murder, and the whisky business. It takes place in London, the French Riviera, and the highlands of Scotland.  

In it, Sherlock Holmes, the ultimate rational thinker, must come to terms with a ghost from his own past in order to solve a complex series of crimes in the present day. But, of course, he doesn’t believe in ghosts. Or does he?

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I love the research part of writing period mystery, and have traveled to most of the locations in my books, and have created annotations and illustrations to Art in the Blood, both available on my website, They are great fun for those interested in the period, and would be great fodder for book club discussions.  

I’m also available for Skype appearances as well as library and other talks.  I teach writing at UCLA Extension Writer’s Program and enjoy teaching and talking about writing. 

Thank you very much for asking!  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb