Saturday, June 22, 2024

Q&A with Susan Coll




Susan Coll is the author of the new novel Real Life and Other Fictions. Her other novels include Bookish People. She is the events advisor for Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.


Q: What inspired you to write Real Life and Other Fictions, and how did you create your character Cassie?


A: The novel was inspired by events surrounding the Silver Bridge collapse in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, in 1967, which resulted in 46 fatalities.


Prior to the disaster, there were multiple sightings in the area of a gigantic creature said to be part man, part moth: The Mothman. The creature was thought to be a harbinger of disaster – not the cause itself.


There were said to be similar sightings of the Mothman prior to the explosion of a nuclear reactor in Chernobyl in 1986, as well as the apartment bombings in Moscow in 1999.


A 2002 movie starring Richard Gere and Laura Linney took the Mothman story it in the direction of horror and suspense.


I wanted to try to capture the same narrative from the point of view of a survivor, which is where my protagonist, Cassie, comes in. She was orphaned at the age of 2 and has always wondered why her parents were in West Virginia at the time of the accident.


Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what do you think the novel says about storytelling?


A: I struggled with this title more than most. The Wonder was my working title, but Real Life and Other Fictions fits in nicely with theme of storytelling, which is at the heart of the novel.


Cassie is a writing instructor who is haunted by the stories her students write. Her aunt is the host of a hugely successful podcast called The Storyteller. And Cassie’s life has been shaped by a story that no one in her family will talk about.

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


A: I made two trips to Point Pleasant, West Virginia, and attended The Mothman Festival. I watched the movie The Mothman Prophecies countless times and read anything I could find about the bridge collapse, including newspaper clips at The Mothman Museum.


And yes, I was definitely surprised by some of what I learned about The Mothman – there are lots of internet rabbit holes one can go down on the subject, and theories to do with aliens, with government conspiracies, and with a curse. There are also some who think The Mothman was simply an owl or a crane.


Q: The Washington Post review of the book said, “Real Life and Other Fictions is quirky without being saccharine. It effortlessly mixes a journey around grief, reinvention and romance in midlife with the myth of a moth and the supernatural.” What do you think of that description?


A: I love this description. It’s always a surprise to learn how other people read and interpret a novel, and in some ways it helps me to better understand my own book.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on a comedy set at a literary nonprofit in DC. It features one of the characters from my previous novel, Bookish People. I’m having a lot of fun with it. It also involves a cat, which is entirely new territory for me.


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

Q&A with Jennifer Berne




Jennifer Berne is the author of the new children's picture book A Tour of the Human Body. Her other books include How the Sea Came to Be


Q: What inspired you to write A Tour of the Human Body?


A: Well, in this case it was the first in a series of picture book tours of interesting nonfiction subjects — ones in which numbers would reveal and enhance the facts and curiosities of each subject.


And what subject is more interesting than our own bodies! Our bodies are built of so many intriguing systems, and yet most of us know so little about how it all works. So to launch the series, the human body— the body of the reader —  seemed like the perfect place to start.


Q: How did you research the book, and what are some of the facts you found especially fascinating?


A: This was a HUGE research project. I had towering piles of research books in my office, each one with scores of post-its sticking out of their pages. And of course there are excellent anatomy and physiology internet sites I continually used. 


Our bodies are a constant source of wonder to me. A couple of the most fascinating facts I discovered were these:

— Your  body renews its cells so fast that 15 million cells were replaced by new ones in the time it took you to read this sentence.

— Your tongue can only taste five flavors. All the rest of your flavor identification is done by your nose, which can detect over 1 trillion odors.

— In your lifetime you’ll eat approximately 55 tons of food. That’s equivalent to eating nine tyrannosaur rexes.

— If all your blood vessels were laid out end to end, they would measure more than 60,000 miles. That’s enough to circle the world, more than twice!


Q: What do you think Dawn DeVries Sokol’s illustrations add to the book?


A: I think Dawn was the perfect illustrator to be a partner on this book. Her background in journaling, collage, and in book design were all called into play here.


Because the subject was so multifaceted and had so many different elements on each spread, Dawn’s sense of design and composition were just what we needed. And then, her sense of playfulness and creativity perfectly matched the kind of playfully geeky voice I used in the text.


Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, in part, “Before finishing off with additional, less number-centric facts about body parts and showing readers how to take personal measurements, Berne brings her selective tour of body systems to a close with a final, entirely comprehensible number: ‘We are 1 people, 1 species, 1 family’ living on ‘1 home.’” What do you think of that description?


A: I like that they focused on that closing sentence. It’s an important one for me. Because, in addition to describing the many wonders of our bodies, I wanted to reach for a higher truth. And that is the truth residing within our bodies, within our physiology —  that we are all one, one species on a shared planet, united in our humanity.


I think in today’s world that's an important thing to be reminded of.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: A couple of projects. First, the next book for Kane Press in the Number Tours for Curious Kids series...A Tour of Outer Space. It’s all written and fact-checked, and Dawn is now creating some absolutely wonderful cosmic illustrations for it.


Another project I’m excited about is titled Dinosaur Doomsday: One World Ends. Another Begins. It’s about the dramatic extinction of the giant dinosaurs and how that opened the world up for the little prehistoric mammals who evolved to become us. That’s for Chronicle Books and it’s being illustrated by the super-talented Caldecott-winning Brian Floca.


Other projects are in the works, but it’s too soon to talk about them. Stay tuned!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: One thing I could mention is that I love to hear from my readers. Once a book goes out into the world it has its own life and its own relationships that the book creators know nothing about. So it’s great when kids or teachers or families reach out to me and let me know how my books have impacted their lives. So if anyone feels like writing to me, I would welcome it!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Jennifer Berne.

June 22



June 22, 1898: Erich Maria Remarque born.

Friday, June 21, 2024

Q&A with Jeffrey Dunn




Jeffrey Dunn is the author of the new novel Wildcat. His other books include the novel Radio Free Olympia. He is also a longtime educator.


Q: How was your new novel’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: In the Appalachian village of Braeburn, Pennsylvania, there is a road called “Wildcat Hollow Road.” It’s a good Appalachian name: free but threatened, just like the wildcats whose coughs, screams, and yowls are familiar to those who know these hills.


Q: The novel’s subtitle is “An Appalachian Romance”--how important is setting to you in your writing?


A: Crucial. Reviewers have pondered and struggled with the word “romance.” Is it sexting with your paramour? Is it a love affair with Appalachia? Is it “Romance” with a big “R,” as in fighting oneself out of the classical/industrial and into the romantic/natural? Yes, yes, and yes. Apparently, many aren’t fans of complexity.


I want all readers to enjoy Wildcat, but I especially want readers connected with the Appalachian Rust Belt to resonate both with the area’s industrial collapse of the 1980s and with the area’s magical potential for a sustainable future.

Q: The BookLife review of the novel says, “Dunn...strikes a graceful balance between the mystical and the everyday in this meditative reflection on acceptance and belonging.” What do you think of that description?


A: Spot on, really. “Everyday?” No argument there. Appalachia doesn’t suffer outsiders gladly and quickly judges people by whether they talk Appalachia’s talk and walk Appalachia’s walk.


“Mystical?” Yes, if by mystical you mean magical—e.g. the transformation the landscape goes through as the sun tracks through the sky as well was the unexplainable “Shadows” of those killed in mine accidents just outside a mine.


And “meditative reflection on acceptance and belonging?” Seems fair. Although the speaker in the novel has retired to the place where he graduated from high school, he, in many ways, remains an outsider. For him, the act of journaling about his return is a chronicle of both the town and himself weaving back together the threads that unraveled during Wildcat’s dark past.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: My new novel, Whiskey Rebel (Izzard Ink), will be out in 2025. This is the story of a shell-shocked soldier who returns home from Iraq only to question the very meaning of American freedom.


While panning for gold, he meets Hamilton, a barefoot, manic, obsessive drummer with a burning desire—to distill tax-free whiskey just like his forefathers during the American Whiskey Rebellion of 1794.


They join forces, set up shop in the rugged western high desert of Washington's Columbia Basin, and begin producing Westcoulatum Good Goddamned 1794 Freedom Whiskey. As they explore their friendship, they assemble a cast of quirky characters who discover that freedom is not a one-size-fits-all proposition.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I am the author of the critically acclaimed novel Radio Free Olympia (Izzard Ink, 2023), have been featured on NPR, and write for Medium. I also advocate for educational reform, drawing on my award-winning 41-year teaching career, my Ph.D. in Cultural Studies and English Literature, and my experience with dyslexia.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Jeffrey Dunn.

Q&A with Stephen A. Sadow




Stephen A. Sadow is the editor of the new book I Am of the Tribe of Judah: Poems from Jewish Latin America. His other books include King David's Harp. He is a professor emeritus of Latin American literature and Jewish studies at Northeastern University.


Q: What inspired you to create this anthology of Latin American Jewish poetry?

A: Since 1987, I have been studying and translating poems from Jewish Latin America.


With my co-translator J. Kates, the former president of the American Literary Translators Association, I have translated poems from over 50 poets, most who write in Spanish and a few in Portuguese. Some of these translations were published in literary magazines in the United States, Great Britain and Sweden.


We have published six book-length anthologies of work by individual poets.

In 2022, I was having lunch with my dear friend Ilan Stavans. I mentioned that I had many, many translations sitting in my files. Ilan’s response was, “Let’s do a book!” As it turned out, he had done translations of poets I’d never worked on. Ilan made a few calls.


Two weeks later, I was invited by Michael Millman of the University of New Mexico Press to submit a book proposal.

Q: How did you choose the poems to include?


A: My goal in choosing the poems was to cover as much literary and geographical territory as I could within the planned length of the book. This meant picking poems from the 16th to 21st centuries, picking poems from 11 countries, while not letting any country dominate the collection.


I had to make judgments about the quality of each poem. I also had to make sure that many themes of Jewish writing in Latin America. Of course, I tried to include poems written by personal friends and acquaintances, but that was not always possible.

Q: What themes do you see running through the anthology?


A: The dominant themes of the anthology are immigration from Europe and adaptation to Latin America, the Holocaust, and anti-Semitism, Jewish religion and holidays, the Hebrew Bible and the mystical Kabbalah, Sepharad (Spain before the Expulsion of the Jews) everyday life experiences, poetics and the question of what is a Jew.

Q: Especially given the current rise in antisemitism, what do you hope readers take away from these poems?

A: I have come to see I Am of the Tribe of Judah as a political document. It provides one more reason for pride in Jewish accomplishments. It is positive and even aggressive in outlook.


As a compendium of fine literature and profound commentary, the book provides a broad knowledge about Latin American Jews and their poetry, something few have heard about.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I will be spending a great deal of time this year promoting the book, through talks at Jewish institutions and a few universities. Also, I am writing an article for an academic journal about self-transcendence in the work of Costa Rican Jewish Poet Rosita Kalina for publication in Latin American Jewish Studies.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I am professor emeritus of Latin American Literature and Jewish Studies at Northeastern University in Boston. Besides translation, I did ample scholarly research in those fields. One of my books won a National Jewish Book Award.


I have made almost 40 trips to Latin America, and immersed myself in Jewish intellectual culture in Buenos Aires and Mexico City.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb


Q&A with Jennifer Schwed and Doug Bradshaw




Jennifer Schwed and Doug Bradshaw are the creators of the new musical audiobook 19: The Musical. It focuses on important figures in the women's suffrage movement. Schwed and Bradshaw are playwrights, filmmakers, and multimedia storytellers.


Q: What inspired you to create 19: The Musical?


A: As multimedia creators, we were considering our next production after finishing a run of an immersive theatrical play about Edgar Allan Poe.


It was the fall of 2016, and inspired by both the storytelling elements of Hamilton and what we had assumed would be the election of the first female president, we arrived at the idea of 19: The Musical.


This would be an artistic homage to the women who fought and won the right to vote in the US, the 19th Amendment. So much of women’s history remains buried and we felt now was a great time to right that wrong.

Q: How did the two of you collaborate on the project?


A: We’ve been collaborating for over a decade, so we’ve developed a sort of rhythm to creating projects. We outline a story together, deciding on the flow and what material will be covered. Then we kind of go into our corners and tackle different parts of a production.


Sometimes, the creative process is just inspired--one of us absolutely wants to write a song for one scene and the other is drawn to another scene.


What’s nice is that you have a partner to work through tricky parts or passages, testing them out loud, trying different words and phrases. And then of course, we do write together sometimes!

Q: How did you research the project, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: Our research consisted of a lot of reading, speaking to many historians and watching documentaries. Almost everything we learned was a surprise as this subject is so poorly covered in most schools.


One of the most surprising things we learned was how often these women put themselves in harm’s way, spending time in jail, being force-fed and beaten. These women were relentless in their pursuit of equality.


And these suffragists were also a blueprint for the Civil Rights movement in America; they were the first group to peacefully assemble and demand their rights by marching to the White House.


Q: What do you hope listeners take away from the project?


A: We hope listeners appreciate how important it is to be involved and stay involved in politics because it impacts every bit of their lives. We want listeners to be inspired by the idea of working together and creating influence that can affect positive change.


And most importantly, we want to credit these women who went before us; we want to shed light on their story, their power and their perseverance. 

Q: What are you working on now?


A: Currently, we’re reworking our immersive Poe production for other mediums, we’re outlining a noir detective series, and there are a few other ideas on the table!

Q: Anything else we should know?


A: We would love for the audiobook of 19: The Musical to be shared in schools and used for educating children and young adults about the inspiring historical actions of the women who fought for and won the right to vote.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

June 21




June 21, 1905: Jean-Paul Sartre born.