Thursday, April 18, 2019

Q&A with Alan Brennert

Alan Brennert is the author of the new novel Daughter of Moloka'i, a sequel to his novel Moloka'i. The main character in the new novel, Ruth, is the daughter of Rachel, the protagonist in Moloka'i. Brennert also has written the novels Honolulu and Palisades Park

Q: Why did you decide to write this sequel to your novel Moloka'i?

A: The idea was first suggested to me by a member of a book group not long after Moloka’i was published, but at the time I wanted to move on to different subjects and wrote Honolulu and Palisades Park.

Then a few years ago I was discussing ideas for a new novel with my brilliant agent, Molly Friedrich, when she suddenly said, “I think you should tell Ruth’s story.”

Well, you don’t have to hit me in the head with an idea a third time, so I started examining the scope of Ruth’s life and realized that it was as rich a story in its own way as Rachel’s. And the challenge of imagining that life from the clues of what I had written in Moloka’i turned out to be a rich and rewarding experience for me as a writer.

Q: The book spans more than 50 years. What kind of research did you do to write it, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?

A: I visited Manzanar National Historic Site, of course, where a very knowledgeable park ranger, Rosemary Masters, recommended books and videos and was kind enough to keep in touch via email, sending me more information, answering my questions, helping me add dimension to the cruel history of the internment camps. Another ranger, Patricia Biggs, also provided valuable information about the Manzanar Riot.  

I went to Sacramento State University and read through their voluminous files of oral histories narrated by Japanese Americans who had been forced into those camps, and I used those stories and even the tiniest details to form the bedrock of fact that Daughter of Moloka’i rests upon.

As for what surprised me, what struck me most was how similar—depressingly similar—the arguments against Asian immigrants to the U.S. were to those being made against other immigrant groups today.

Organizations like the Anti-Japanese League and the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West claimed that Japanese farmers were taking land away from white farmers; in reality the Japanese were leasing or buying poor-quality land that white farmers wouldn’t touch and using their intensive farming techniques to make the land productive.

They also claimed that Asian culture and religious beliefs were too “alien” and that Asian immigrants were incapable of being assimilated into American culture. But the second generation of Japanese immigrants, the Nisei, fully embraced American culture and thought of themselves as Americans.

This only made their internment after Pearl Harbor all the more shocking to them: they were hardworking, law-abiding citizens, yet the government viewed them all as potential spies, security risks. The truth is that during World War II not a single Japanese American in the United States was ever convicted of espionage or sabotage.

Q: The novel takes place in Hawaii and California. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: It’s not as important as character and story, but it is important because it plays a key role in shaping characters and story. Ruth’s personal history would have been very different had her family remained in Hawai’i rather than moved to California.

Setting—both location and time period—is something I try to present as authentically as possible, right down to the names of the stores and storekeepers in Florin or Honolulu. When you’re writing about the past you’re world-building, and I want that world to be as evocative, believable, and accurate as possible.

Q: What are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about Hansen's disease or leprosy, which features in the novel?

A: That it’s highly contagious (it isn’t); that there is no cure (there is); and that it’s a thing of the past (cases occur in places like Thailand, India, Vietnam, and even the United States).

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Still researching an idea to see if there’s a novel in it.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Daughter of Moloka’i is not so much a sequel as it is a companion novel, one that can be read as a standalone by anyone who has not read Moloka’i. They complement each other, and taken together they form one large overarching story. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Susan Kuklin

Susan Kuklin is the author and photographer of the new young adult book We Are Here To Stay: Voices of Undocumented Young Adults. Her many other books include No Choirboy and Beyond Magenta. She lives in New York City.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book about undocumented young adults?

A: In 2014, my good friend Maryellen Fullerton, who is a lawyer and scholar specializing in refugee and asylum law, said, “It’s time you did a book about immigration.”

I thought, Whaaat? It would be crazy to take on such a complex subject. Besides, what’s the big deal about immigration? Other than Native Americans, we are all immigrants. Was I wrong or was I wrong? 

Maryellen persisted. She sent me lots of material on various aspects of immigration law. The one that stuck out was the controversy surrounding undocumented young adults, the DREAMers, who came to this country illegally as very young children and raised as Americans.

Many of them did not even know that they were undocumented until it became time to get a Social Security number, travel abroad, or go off to college. 

Soon after, Maryellen’s daughter, Eleanor Roberts, stopped by my apartment with her college BFF who happened to be a DREAMer. Y (sorry I can’t use her full name), Eleanor, my husband, and I talked long into the night about many of the issues she faced. I fell completely in love. 

Y’s commentary sounded remarkably familiar. As the granddaughter of immigrants, I had heard many stories about my grandparents’ arrival in America, knowing no English, having no money, knowing they would never see their parents or homeland again. Yes, it was time to do a book about immigration.

Q: You note that you had to make some changes in the book once Trump repealed DACA. What are some of the ways in which the book needed to be changed?

A: After Trump repealed DACA, the publisher and I worried that publishing the book in the normal manner with pictures, names, etc. could be risky for the contributors. We stopped the press and held back the book for more than a year.       

In time, and with the contributors’ involvement and veto power, we agreed that their experiences were too important to leave in a drawer. We decided to publish the book with the following statement: Due to the uncertainty of the status of the DACA program at the time of publication, the photographs, names and other identifiers of the participants in this book are being withheld.

Q: How did you find the young adults you ended up interviewing, and were they initially willing to participate?

A: Y became the first contributor. She told me about her sister and brother, twins S and D, who also agreed to participate. This family make up the first two chapters. Maryellen and ACLU lawyers introduced me to various grassroots organizations, who in turn asked their clients if they wanted to participate in this project. Everyone in the book are volunteers.

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

A: I hope the book opens up an honest, fair, and reasonable conversation about immigration, including who the immigrants are, why they are immigrating, and what they do once they are in the U.S. And I hope it will give some insight into how laws affect its people.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Ah, thanks for asking. I’m sticking with immigration – this time about the experiences of refugees. The book features five refugees and their families who have been resettled in the Midwest, in Nebraska. They are from Afghanistan, Myanmar, South Sudan, Northern Iraq, and Burundi. Can’t wait for you to meet them.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The one addition to this blog would be that the book is based on a series of recorded interviews that were transcribed and rewritten as first-person narratives. I wrote in the first person as a way to bring about a greater intimacy between the subject and the readers. The finished narratives were approved by each participant for accuracy, authenticity, and voice. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Susan Goldman Rubin

Susan Goldman Rubin is the author of the new children's book Degas: Painter of Ballerinas. Her many other books include Coco Chanel and Maya Lin. She lives in Malibu, California. 

Q: Why did you decide to focus on Edgar Degas and his paintings and sculptures featuring dancers?

A: I wrote a book in 2002 on Degas's dancers and when there was an opportunity to revisit this work with art from the Metropolitan Museum of Art I jumped at the chance.

It seemed natural to focus on Degas when he was focusing on ballet dancers. He had many subjects—he wanted to capture motion. It was the same with his paintings of horse races.

When I did the book in 2002, I was able to go behind the scenes at the American School of Ballet. There was a teacher from Russia using a stick to thump the beat, and that gave me the rhythm of the book.

Degas mastered exquisite line drawing. I marvel at how few lines capture a leg, a skirt, a profile. He had to move into pastels and use heavier black lines [as he lost his sight].

Toward the end of his life, he went into sculpture. This book gave me the chance to see his sculptures including "The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer." I had seen these sculptures at the Met when I visited New York and could also view them online. This gave me the complete arc.

We included a glossary of art terms and ballet terms in the back matter of Degas, Painter of Ballerinas. The book includes a self-portrait and photograph he did —a selfie! Degas became very interested in photography. He would pose people and arrange the lighting.

Also, I was able to show an Impressionist painting. I wanted to show the difference between Degas’ work indoors, and the Impressionists outside. I love the one I chose, of a famous place on the Seine. So many of them painted this resort place. 

Q: Do you have a favorite among the works you include in the book?

A: I love the drawings that are included in the Met collection. He used tinted papers and would use white chalk to bring out the white. I’m in awe of his work as a drawer. Not all painters know how to draw. I could look at these over and over.

Q: Did you need to do a lot of additional research for this book?

A: I had to do a lot of research. With any great topic in art or history, there’s so much you want to know and learn and bring out.

I dedicated this book to my daughter-in-law—she’s studying ballet. I went on YouTube. There are videos of teachers describing classic steps, but it’s hard to put into words. My daughter-in-law helped me.

I had a chance to better understand the work, and I had never studied the sculptures before. "The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer" was the only sculpture he ever showed in his lifetime.

Q: Why was that?

A: He felt daring and wanted to show it. He was doing something new and avant-garde, adding real material [to the sculpture]. People hated it! Something brand-new can be shocking. It led the way to much of the art we see today. He was ahead of his time.

Q: What do you see as Degas’ legacy today?

A: Practice, practice, practice. He never married—he said, I was in love with art. His determination to get it right—he would go to the Louvre and really study the art. That’s how you master any profession. You have to practice. You have to make mistakes. He made this his life’s goal.

His father wanted him to be a lawyer. It’s a recurring theme in my books—the parent wants you to do one thing, and the young person with a passion [follows that passion]. Finally his dad gave his approval. I think it’s a very important message. Not that I’m putting down the importance of working for a living, but that doesn’t mean giving up art.

When people would ask Degas for advice, he’d say, A touch of color, a pencil, a few minimum materials to learn how to draw and to observe. He said, Drawing is not what one sees but what I can make others see. In other words, capturing what is vital to you so others can see it.

He didn’t take an easel [on location] and sit and paint. He did his work back in his studio, to compose it. I wanted to show how he worked, the process he used. The captions in the book help a lot.

It was wonderful working with the Met. The details that designers Julia Marvel and Shawn Dahl added were exquisite.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on three books due out in 2020. Sometimes because of production schedules, it just works out that way.

One is a picture book about Mary Seacole, an adventurous 19th century Jamaican nurse. She was rejected by Florence Nightingale, so she made her own way to the Crimean war front to take care of British soldiers.

One is a biography of Paul Robeson, an amazing African American athlete, scholar, singer, actor, and activist. "Ol' Man River" was written for him by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. Robeson was the first black actor to star in Othello on Broadway. He was an activist in the later years of his life. This project involved art and issues of civil rights and social justice. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Susan Goldman Rubin.

April 18

April 18, 1915: Joy Davidman born.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Q&A with Tim Johnston

Tim Johnston is the author of the new novel The Current. His other books include the novel Descent and the story collection Irish Girl, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including New England Review and New Letters. He lives in Iowa City. 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Current?

A: The idea dates back to a short story I wrote just before I began my previous novel, Descent, back in 2007.

That story, called "Water," is set in small-town Minnesota and concerns the drowning of a young woman in the local river and the search for her killer. The law casts a serious eye on one young man, but charges are never filed, the truth is never known, and everyone in the story is damaged irrevocably, The End.
The inspiration, you might say, came seven years later, in a café in Memphis. I was reading student stories, minding my own business, when two young women pretty much demanded that I stop reading student stories and begin writing theirs. (These were young women in my mind, just to be clear, and not actual young women.)

They intended, they let me know, to take me back up to Minnesota, and to somehow bring those characters back to life in a new and longer narrative. Figuring out the connection between these two young women and those older characters was the engine that drove the writing of the novel.

Q: You tell the story from several different characters' perspectives. Did you write the novel in the order in which it appears, or did you focus more on one character at a time?

A: As with Descent, also told from multiple points of view, my process was to stick with each individual character for as long as possible, to get to know him or her as well as possible—which is how you get to know anyone.

Later I took these single-character narratives and broke them into shorter sections and shuffled them in with the other characters' narratives to create the alternating point of view structure of the novel.

Q: The novel takes place in Minnesota and Iowa. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: Setting begins as almost incidental, or convenient, to the story; it just happens to be where my characters live, or have come to. But as the story develops, the landscape, or certain features of the landscape, like rivers or mountains, become more essential to the plot, and take on greater thematic heft.

In The Current, the river facilitates the plot, but it's also much more than that (see next answer). Likewise the icy atmospherics of a small Minnesota town in the dead of winter: the residents of the town have, themselves, been frozen in time since the death of one young woman, and only come to life again when a second young woman drowns in the same river 10 years later.

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

A: On a literal level, the title reflects the importance that the physical river came to play in the novel.

On a thematic level, it ties into my idea of the characters' lives as currents that flow within their own lifespans and also across time—the past and the current—and how those lives flow into each other in meaningful ways.

On the level of writing process, I decided early on in writing the novel that I would not force anything; that I would not bend the story to my will, but would let it unfold according to a natural flow of action and consequence—of what each character would logically and naturally do in reaction to the behavior and actions of the other characters.

This idea of following the logical flow of behavior led to a connection in my mind between process, story and title: go downstream, was the idea. Go with the current and not against it.

To remind myself of this design, instead of the three asterisks I usually use to indicate a section break—the "dinkus," as such marks are called—I used three tildes, which in combination look like this:  ~~~. A visual reminder to stay in the current, to follow each current of each character and not think too much about the larger narrative.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Short answer: A new novel!

Long answer: Readers who've noticed the publishing dates of my books know not to hold their breath for a speedy turnaround. I'm just not one of these book-a-year type writers, but the kind who is likely to take as much time as he can—or must—between books.

Ray Carver once said he liked to give himself time between books to become a different kind of writer, and I have always loved that quote. Which is not to say I'm not at work on the next thing. But I am also one of those uncooperative types who doesn't like to talk about a work in progress, except to say, without hesitation, Oh, yes, for sure, there's a work in progress...

Q: Anything else we should know?

More on that Ray Carver quote here.

Readers who want to read the short story "Water" can find it in my story collection, Irish Girl, published by UNT Press.

Fun fact: After earning my MFA from UMass, Amherst, in 1989, I became a carpenter, and that's how I made my living until 2011, when I returned to academia as a teacher of creative writing. Now, for the time being, I am just a writer...but those carpenter's tools are still around here somewhere. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Neel Patel

Neel Patel is the author of the story collection If You See Me, Don't Say Hi. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Southampton Review and Indiana Review. He lives in Los Angeles.

Q: Over how long a period did you write the stories in your collection?

A: I wrote the stories in If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi over the course of about three years. 

Q: How did you choose the order in which the stories would appear, and do you see themes running through the collection?

A: The ordering of the collection was crucial—as with most story collections. We wanted the first story to be something engaging but not too long or drawn out.

“God of Destruction” is one of those stories that can easily be read in a single sitting, so we went with that, following it with a more poignant story, “Hare Rama, Hare Krishna.” I think in the end we wanted to balance out the shorter, lighter pieces with the heavier, more melancholic ones.

I do see themes running through the collection, primarily those of love and longing, race and identity, and the constraints of social class. 

Q: How was the book’s title—also the title of one of the stories—chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: The title of the book came to me randomly one afternoon. I was sitting on my bed and the phrase “If you see me, don’t say hi” popped into my mind.

I loved it because I felt that it so accurately described my personality. I knew that I wanted the book to have that title, and so then it became a question of writing a story to encompass it.

To me, the title is not just a sarcastic nod to being antisocial, but rather a deeper reflection of the experience of being an Other. Often, when we’re young and different, we get recognized for all the wrong things, for being a freak, an outcast. The title is basically saying “If you’re going to see me for being different, I’d rather not be seen at all.”

Q: In a New York Times review of the book, Shaj Mathew writes, “This collection has everything to do with its characters’ hyphenated identity and yet, somehow, nothing to do with it at all.” What do you think of that assessment? 

A: I love this assessment. I think it's exactly how so many Indian-Americans experience life. We’re Indian, yes, and that definitely means something. But we’re also American, and that means something, too. There are things that differentiate us from people but there are so many things that make us the same.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m currently working on a novel, which is a continuation of some of the themes I explored in If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi. I’m also working on a screen adaptation of If You See Me: a television series. I’ve written a screenplay that I’m shopping around, too. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: If You See Me was my way of challenging some of the stereotypes and misconceptions I’ve had to deal with all my life, and it’s only the beginning.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 17

April 17, 1931: Malcolm Browne born.