Monday, April 12, 2021

Q&A with Philippa Dowding




Philippa Dowding is the author of Firefly, a new middle grade novel for kids. Her many other books include the middle grade novel Oculum, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Adirondack Review and The Literary Review of Canada. She lives in Toronto.


Q: What inspired you to write Firefly, and how did you create your protagonist?


A: Firefly lives in the park across from her mother’s house all summer. Then one night a social worker finds her, and sends her to live with her Aunt Gayle in The Corseted Lady costume shop.


The costume-shop setting of Firefly is inspired by a real costume company run by my extended family, which provides costume and wardrobe for film, television and theatre productions.


It’s an amazing, magical place with 7 million pieces (if you count all the buttons, costume jewellery, boots and so on as well as the costumes), and I’ve always wanted to write a story set there.


So I’ve had the setting inspiration for the book for a long time, but the plot idea came to me in a sudden “who knows where ideas really come from” moment.


A few years ago, I had a vivid image pop into my head: two kids in Halloween costumes stand on a huge bridge, hold hands and look down onto the traffic below. The image was sweet and sad at the same time.


It was so vivid that I started to explore it. Who were the two kids? Why were they on the bridge in Halloween costumes?


I wrote the scene, which is now a pivotal scene in the book, then I realized it was part of a much bigger story about costume and disguise, family and self-discovery.


Once I realized that, the character of Firefly came to me almost fully formed: a smart, indomitable kid, struggling with PTSD due to a difficult home life, trying to take care of herself in a big city.


My real-life setting of a movie and television costume warehouse had found a protagonist, and a story: in the magical, you-can-become-anything setting of The Corseted Lady, which costume is the real Firefly?

Q: What do you think the novel says about definitions of family?


A: One thing I’ve learned from raising my family in a busy city is that our definition of family is constantly changing, and that we help, support and love each other in ways that make us family, whether we’re related by blood or not.


Firefly has a friend in the park who looks out for her, a homeless man named Moss Cart, who despite his own challenges helps her as best he can. She helps him, too.


There’s also a group of therapists at Jennie’s, a women’s drop-in centre, who teach Firefly coping techniques for PTSD (the therapists don’t know she is only 13).


And there’s Aunt Gayle who barely knows her niece, but agrees to shelter and care for Firefly as soon as the social worker contacts her. Aunt Gayle’s staff at The Corseted Lady all care for Firefly, too. As they spend time together in the days before Halloween (a busy time in a costume shop), they give Firefly support and validation in the most unusual way (and a plot twist that I can’t give away!).


When she starts grade nine six weeks later than everyone else, Firefly also discovers a family of school friends she never expected.


The only traditional family member in the story is her mother (who she calls Joanne-the-mother), who has failed Firefly. At the end of the book, they are not reconciled although there are supports in place for Firefly if she ever wants to connect with her mother.


What is a family? Ultimately in this book, it’s up to Firefly.


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


A: There is a scene near the end of the book, where a boy without a shirt, socks, or shoes runs into The Corseted Lady, and Aunt Gayle hands him a shirt. That scene was crystal clear in my head before I started writing.


The bridge scene I’ve mentioned, which is also near the end of the book, was very clear. There is another scene on Halloween day (that plot twist I can’t give away again!) that I saw with a gazer-beam intensity, too.


The entire book was pretty clear to me right from the moment I started writing, which is quite rare for me. They’re not all like that! But I think writing about a real costume shop that I know so well, with such a vivid main character in Firefly, kept the story clear in my head from start to finish.


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


A: I hope that young readers learn some terms they’ve never heard before, or they may have heard but not understood well, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or dissociation.


 I hope Firefly’s story builds empathy in readers for classmates, neighbors, friends, or for anyone who lives in a family experiencing a crisis of mental health, addiction, or homelessness.


I also hope that any child in a similar situation to Firefly’s will ask for help. I want that child to hear: find your crew, let them love you and help you. You're not alone.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’ve just finished a sequel to Oculum, my award-nominated dystopia for middle-grade readers (with Shakespeare and robots!), which is with my publisher.


I’m also polishing a fun, high-fantasy, middle-grade story about kids who hunt stories, The Story Hunters of Fen. And I’ve just started a new horror series for middle-grade readers, one of my favourite genres to write. The first story is about a girl hiking in the mountains, pursued by an elusive bug.


The pandemic has made me spend a lot of time alone in my office, getting better acquainted with the strangers in my head!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Firefly has PTSD because of a tough childhood with her mother, but it’s not what defines her. She’s smart, kind, indomitable, and she’s also quite funny.


In fact, I think this is one of the funniest books I’ve ever written, a balancing act of humour and pain. In one of my favourite chapters, for instance, a main character runs down a busy city street in a huge, leafy carrot costume. I’ll just leave that there!


By the end of the book we know that Firefly has a long journey ahead of her, but she’s got support and her strong, loving Aunt Gayle at her side, no matter what. And of course, Firefly lives in a costume shop so she has all the opportunities she could ever want for fun and self-discovery.


Keep reading, everyone. Here’s my motto these days: we can’t hold each other right now, but until we can, it may help to hold a book.


Thank you for hosting me and Firefly, Deborah!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Nicki Chen



Photo by Lifetouch


Nicki Chen is the author of the new novel When in Vanuatu. She also has written the novel Tiger Tail Soup. She lives in Edmonds, Washington.



Q: What inspired you to write When in Vanuatu, and to create your character Diana?


A: Vanuatu was my original inspiration. It’s such a beautiful, fascinating country that it cries out to be the setting for a novel.


Port Vila, the capital, has a large population of expatriates, so it seemed appropriate to tell the story from an outsider’s point of view. I’d written short stories before about people living abroad, but never a novel. And having been an expat for 20 years, I had a lot to say about that experience.


I chose Diana because I wanted a woman who relocated to Vanuatu for her own reason. Most of the women I knew found themselves in Vanuatu as a result of their husbands’ jobs.


There were occasional unusual stories, though. For example, the woman from Australia whose husband had heart trouble for which his doctor advised the move; the couple who sailed from Alaska, tied up on the city dock, and stayed; the couple from Italy who were heading to Australia but left the ship in Vanuatu instead and stayed.


I chose Diana because her reason for wanting to be in Vanuatu corresponded with my feelings about the country’s quiet beauty.


Q: Did you need to do any research to write the novel, and if so, did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: My first novel, Tiger Tail Soup, required extensive research. It took place during a war I’d never experienced in China, a country I’d never lived in. In comparison, I needed only minimal research for When in Vanuatu.


Nevertheless, my research did turn up a few surprises. I hadn’t realized that so many coups were attempted after former Philippine president Marcos was driven from power.


And, even after experiencing the December coup (which I included in my novel), I was surprised at how bad it actually was. Once the attack was over and we’d survived, it was easy to forget about it.


Another surprise: When I was looking for topics of conversation and gossip at a farewell party for Diana and Jay, I was surprised by how many problems and emergencies happened in the Philippines in or around the date I’d chosen for the party.


Other revelations from my research were related to infertility and associated problems. Most surprising were the open and heartfelt stories women posted online. In my experience, women often seem hesitant to talk about these experiences. So, the posts I read were more candid and open than I’d expected.


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


A: I absolutely did not know how the novel would end before I started writing it. In fact, I didn’t make a couple of crucial decisions about Diana’s fertility issue until I neared the time when one thing or the other would have to happen.


Along the way, I made many changes, some small, others large. The biggest change was my late decision to add a Manila section. Before that, I thought the novel would start and end in Vanuatu.


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


A: All novels give the reader an opportunity to take a peek into the lives, experiences, thoughts, and feelings of other people—people who may be in some ways like the reader and in some ways different.


I hope readers of When in Vanuatu will expand their empathy and understanding of people, especially women searching for their path in life and facing roadblocks along the way, in Diana’s case, infertility.


I hope readers will be entertained by the lives and experiences of an international group of expats in the late 20th century who, successfully and not so successfully, made their temporary homes in foreign lands. And I hope they will enjoy some armchair travel to Asia and the South Pacific.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on a collection of short stories set in the South Pacific.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I wrote When in Vanuatu from my home in Edmonds, Washington, sometimes (before COVID) from a nearby tea shop or from Starbucks. I composed by hand while sitting on a high stool at my kitchen island, afterward transferring the day’s writing to my computer. Although I wrote far from the Philippines and Vanuatu, I consulted my old journals for details.


A big thank you to Deborah for conducting this interview. And I’d love to hear from her readers. Thank you all.

Behind the Story – Across the ocean and back with Nicki Chen (

Blog – Behind the Story (


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Christopher Leibig




Christopher Leibig is the author of the new novel Almost Damned, a sequel to his novel Almost Mortal. He is a criminal defense attorney and former public defender. He is based in Alexandria, Virginia.



Q: How did you come up with the plot for Almost Damned?

A: The prequel, Almost Mortal, ends with Samson Young essentially committing to suing God, or at least the powers that be, for redemption of the descendants of the Fallen Angels who have been cursed to reside on earth forever. (Including some of his own relatives).


In Almost Damned, he has to deliver. Because the Fallen Angels came to earth, according to the Book of Enoch, referencing Genesis, at Mount Hermon in Israel, the story had to culminate there.


How to get there, and why God would consider hearing the plea, is the plot of the book. As more and more of these clients gravitate towards Sam, he gets some ideas.

Q: Do you think Sam has changed from one book to the next?

A: Definitely. He’s realized that through his association with the descendants of the Fallen Angels, he is more powerful than he ever believed before, which also comes with a certain amount of craziness.

Q: Do you know how your novels will end before you start writing them, or do you make many changes along the way?

A: I know the rough ending, yes. The “how to get there” is more free association  until it works.

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

A: The good people, including the powers above, if there are any, are not always too good. Most of the people in powerful positions are no morally better than anyone else, usually worse. In Almost Damned, this includes so-called good Angels, and maybe even more.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I work full time as a defense attorney, so I am always jotting down ideas and interesting things I see or hear while representing clients.


I want to write a novel that is longer and more in-depth than the Almost Mortal/Almost Damned duology that will involve a modern-day component and an ancient component. (But no time travel. Never time travel. Time travel can be good, but I could never compete with Outlander).

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: There is a lot of religious Biblical lore in Almost Damned, but it is not a religious book. The Bible and other religious texts are fascinating even if you don’t buy into the simple narrative we are taught.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 12



April 12, 1916: Beverly Cleary born.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Q&A with Erin Lindsey




Erin Lindsey is the author of the Rose Gallagher historical mystery series, which includes Murder on Millionaire's Row, A Golden Grave, and, most recently, The Silver Shooter. She lives in Calgary and in Brooklyn.


Q: What was the initial inspiration for your character Rose Gallagher?


A: I think Rose developed fairly organically from my research of the setting.


I knew I wanted her to be a young housemaid, and to be intrepid enough to go searching for her missing boss, but beyond that very rough sketch, I don’t know that I had a clear idea of who Rose was until I started researching the Five Points area of New York City in the 1880s, which is where I wanted to set the story.


That particular neighbourhood was still heavily Irish at the time, with an increasing number of Chinese and Italian immigrants joining the mix, which informed the characters of Rose, Mei, and Pietro, respectively.


After that, it was really about finding the voice for the character. This was the first book I’d ever written in first person, and it ended up being more challenging than I’d anticipated. You have to really inhabit the voice fully from the very first line.


And it so happens that the first line of Book 1, Murder on Millionaires’ Row, just sort of came to me one day, and I think it really set the tone for Rose.


“As I tell you this story, I’ll thank you to remember that I was young and in love…”


Q: How do you think Rose has changed over the course of the series?


A: Rose has actually developed a lot over the course of the three books, from a naïve young housemaid to a seasoned Pinkerton agent.


When we meet her, she’s clever and resourceful and pretty sure of herself, but she quickly realizes she’s bitten off more than she can chew, and that feeling certainly doesn’t go away overnight.


She has a difficult time transitioning from working-class housemaid to respected professional operating in high society circles, and Book 2, A Golden Grave, really brings that out. She feels like she has a lot to prove, and she makes some rash decisions because of it. But she also learns to recognize and value some of her own unique talents.


By Book 3, The Silver Shooter, she’s starting to come into her own as an agent, without having to rely so much on her partner, Thomas. She still feels like she has a lot to prove, but these days it’s more about proving to herself that she can live up to her own dreams.


Q: What do you see as the right mix of history and supernatural forces in the books?


A: I don’t think there’s a “right mix” per se; it really depends on the story. The balance is actually quite different between the three books, with Murder on Millionaires’ Row probably having the heaviest dose of the supernatural and A Golden Grave probably having the least. The Silver Shooter is somewhere in between.


At the end of the day, though, the mysteries Rose and Thomas are called upon to solve are very human and relatable. They always boil down to the usual real-world motivations – greed and revenge and ideology and so forth – and the supernatural elements are really just added spice.


Q: Do you usually know how the books will end before you start writing them, or do you make many changes along the way?


A: It’s both, really. I have a pretty clear idea of the endgame, and sometimes I’ll plot out virtually the whole book in advance – only to make changes, often major ones, along the way. I think of my outline as more of a compass than a road map, and I’ll happily take a detour if I think it makes for a better ride.


One of the things I love about writing is how your own characters can surprise you with the decisions they make. That can lead to some unanticipated places that make for better drama and more fun.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Rose #4 is in the early stages, and I’m finishing up a fantasy novel that I’m really excited about. Stay tuned!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 11




April 11, 1908: Leo Rosten born.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Q&A with Michael Farris Smith



Photo by Philippe Matsas


Michael Farris Smith is the author of the new novel Nick, a look at the character Nick Carraway from F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. His other books include Blackwood. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi.


Q: What intrigued you about Nick Carraway, and how do you see your version of the character in relation to Fitzgerald's?


A: It was a combination of re-reading Gatsby a few years ago, and having Nick’s own experience relate to my own life, its questions and curiosities, that came with both living abroad and trying to do something creative and imaginative with my life.


I read Gatsby when I was much younger and didn’t really get it. But when I read it five years ago, each page seemed to speak to me. And when Nick admitted that he was on the edge of a decade of loneliness, I remembered myself at that age, and feeling those same things. I wanted to explore what got him there.

I certainly see my version of Nick relating because I set out to create the character who could tell us the story of Gatsby the way he tells it, with a sense of detachment, a sense of disillusion, a sense of loneliness. I believed he had faced some extreme things emotionally to make him that way and that’s what I set out to create.


Q: In a New York Times review of the book, Ben Fountain writes, "We hear echoes of Fitzgerald, of course, but also of Faulkner, Hemingway and a less baroque Cormac McCarthy." What do you think of that description?


A: When I saw that, I was a little stunned. I’ve been compared to some of those names before, but never all at once. Those are like the Four Horsemen of my influences so it was extremely flattering and humbling.


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


A: I did know where I wanted to leave him. I had no idea how to get there. And this was part of what made Nick a different experience because I don’t usually work that way. I never know the end until I get there with my other novels, but I knew I wanted to leave him laying eyes on the green light.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’ve been finishing up a script I’ve been working on with a couple of directors. And I’m in the very early stages of a new novel. I just feel like you have to keep the wheels turning.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb