Friday, May 29, 2020

Q&A with Marjorie Sandor

Marjorie Sandor is the author of the new novel The Secret Music at Tordesillas. Her other books include The Late Interiors and The Uncanny Reader, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Georgia Review and AGNI. She teaches creative writing at Oregon State University in Corvallis.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for your new novel, and for your character Juan de Granada?

A: The idea came from listening to music: an album called Music for Joan the Mad by the contemporary Canadian ensemble La Nef.

The musicians were inspired by the story of “Joan the Mad” (or Juana I of Castile)—a queen of Spain who spent most of her life in forced seclusion in a small palace in Northern Castile, and their CD includes both 16th century court music and haunting Sephardic ballads: songs that travelled with the expelled Jews of Spain, and are still with us today.

In their liner notes, the musicians imagined that in Granada, in 1492, the princess Joan (the third child of Fernando and Isabel) might have heard the music of the departing Jews.

Gradually a character began to shape itself in my mind. Not a princess or an imprisoned queen, but an old man curled protectively over an unidentifiable stringed instrument in an abandoned castle.

Who was he? And what did he have to say?

What if he’d been a boy in Granada, in 1492—a boy raised in the now forbidden faith of Judaism? What if he hadn’t left Spain, but stayed, living and playing music inside the very power structure that made the smallest whisper of his family’s cultural and religious traditions a crime?

Q: What role do you see music playing in a society like that of the Spanish Inquisition?

A: Music played an astonishing range of roles in that time and place. It served the monarchs and court in every context, from the great hall to the conjugal bedchamber. Folk songs mirrored the mood of the populace—prejudices included.

At its most hidden, a forbidden music was kept alive in the walled courtyards of the Albaicín (the Moorish quarter of Granada), and even more secretly, in the kitchens, cellars, and caves where a handful of New Christians (converted Jews and Muslims) might have gathered—at incredible risk—to practice their now forbidden faiths, and hold “zambras” or parties rich with music and dance.

Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that particularly surprised you?

A: I began reading—and interviewing scholars—on everything from life at court and 16th century Spanish music to the Inquisition. This led me, in time, to documentary material: Inquisition trial transcripts, palace inventories, recipes, account-books, and journey-diaries.

The trial records of the Inquisition are harrowingly detailed: the defendants’ answers are heartbreaking, and include the smallest possible details of domestic life. It seems that no gesture or bit of clothing was too small to scrutinize and record.

I was surprised to learn that it was often women who were accused of “Judaizing” (practicing Judaism in secret). The simplest rituals of private daily life—from housecleaning to food preparation could send a person—and her whole family—to prison or the stake.

Consider the motivations of an envious neighbor, a disgruntled servant, a spurned lover—or an imprisoned cousin “confessing” under torture.

Q: What do you see as the legacy of the time period depicted in the book, and what do you hope readers take away from it?

A: It’s difficult not to feel the Inquisition’s goals and machinery today, in our own nation, as minority populations fall under increasing scrutiny and restriction. In the last few years, as I neared the last third of the novel, that legacy became clear.

I’m thinking of our government’s stepped-up efforts to round up and deport immigrants who have been longstanding members of their communities; of people afraid to answer their doors or go to the doctor’s office lest ICE be waiting for them.

On the other hand, the experience of writing this book taught me that art can save traditions—and possibly even lives, and this is something I hope my readers will feel, too.

There’s a stunning array of well-researched and reimagined music from the 16th century, from court music to compilations of Sephardic ballads out in the world now. There are books and websites devoted to the recovery of these traditions.

It’s exhilarating and comforting to think about this legacy: the way people kept a beloved tradition alive in the face of utterly daunting opposition. It seems both a miracle, and a hopeful sign.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have two manuscripts in progress: one is a story collection called The Singing Bones of Braehouse: the stories are all, in one way or another, improvisations on very old folktales and ballads of various traditions.

The second manuscript is an essay collection focused on the relationship between music and literature. Some of the pieces are personal essays about my life-long love affair with music, while others were more researched essays and profiles commissioned by Opera News over a decade.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Because The Secret Music at Tordesillas is so heavily “musicked” I am actively working to involve local musicians and singers to join me in creating musical/literary events rather than typical readings.

A couple such events are already scheduled, and I’m so looking forward to listening, with the audience, to someone sing the heartbreaking Sephardic lullaby “Nani, Nani.”

I want music to be at the center of these events.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Lian Dolan


Lian Dolan is the author of the new novel The Sweeney Sisters. She also has written the novels Helen of Pasadena and Elizabeth the First Wife, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Pasadena Magazine and O, the Oprah Magazine. She is the producer and host of the the talk show Satellite Sisters, and she lives in Pasadena, California.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Sweeney Sisters, and for your cast of characters?

A: There are a lot of books, movies and TV shows about multi-generational families with strong matriarchs or patriarchs, but I wanted to write about adult siblings making their way in the world without the “older” generation. 

I wanted to answer the question of what happens when Mom and Dad are gone and the siblings have to create a new kind of relationship. I thought that question might be even more heightened if one of the parents was famous, like the father in The Sweeney Sisters.

And then I started seeing posts on Facebook from people in my circle about welcoming a new sibling into the family, thanks to an over-the-counter DNA test.

That seemed like a great wrench to throw into a sister story. Imagine being in your 30s or 40s and having a new sibling show up. Wow, gamechanger!

The characters of Liza, Maggie, and Tricia Sweeney came very quickly to me.

Character development is my favorite part of the writing process! I love building the pieces of characters that will fit together and serve the story.

I have been thinking about sisters for years, thanks to my podcast Satellite Sisters. And knew I wanted to include the uber-responsible oldest sister, the freewheeling middle sister and the disciplined and independent younger sister. The Sweeneys have the same parents, but different lives, and I thinks that’s pretty typical in most families.

Q: The novel is set in Southport, Connecticut. Why did you choose that location, and how important is setting to you in your writing?

A: As a reader, I love novels with a strong sense of place. It feeds into the “take me away” reason I read books. So. It was natural for me as a writer to want to create a setting that resonated.

My first two novels are set in Pasadena, my current hometown, and I knew from the many, many book club events I’ve gone to that readers love being a part of that world with the Rose Parade, the gorgeous houses, the famous art and architecture and institutions like Caltech and The Huntington.

For this book, I chose Southport, the town where I grew up, because it lent itself to a story about long-kept secrets and chaos behind the perfect façade.  Southport is a picture-perfect town but what goes on behind those doors with the big brass knockers may not be so perfect.

Plus, I miss those East Coast summers, especially Fourth of July. There’s a Fourth of July scene that’s a real centerpiece of the book with the traditional bunting on historic homes, the homegrown bike parade, annual fireworks at the beach and lobster and blueberry muffins on the table.

Q: Can you say more about what you think the novel says about concepts of family?

A: To me, family is an ever-evolving story. But a lot of families get stuck, plain and simple. I think a lot of disfunction comes from families repeating the same patterns of behavior over and over again, without growth or in.

With The Sweeney Sisters, I wanted to write about how families can move through disfunction, can open up to new people and new relationships and build a stronger, bigger unit.  

Q: The Sweeney sisters' late father, William, was a famous writer. What was it like to create a book about a writer?

A: Bill Sweeney is definitely a writer from a generation that is almost gone—when writers were rock stars and covered in gossip columns and The New Yorker in the same week. 

His work is the sort of fiction that would still be read in high school or college, part of a canon that would include Roth, Vonnegut, Knowles, even Salinger. I imagined him looking like John Irving but acting like John Cheever.

That’s the kind of male writer I remember from my youth. In fact, Robert Ludlum, the superstar thriller writer, lived nearby and I used to see him walking on the beach all the time.

Putting all of those pieces together for The Sweeney Sisters was a fun mash-up of memory and make-believe. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I host a weekly podcast called Satellite Sisters and write a monthly humor column for Pasadena Magazine, so I always have a lot of story ideas in the hopper.

As far as fiction. I’m thinking about the next novel but nothing ready to share yet! I’m getting a lot of calls for a sequel to The Sweeney Sisters, which is something I never considered, so now my brain is working on that.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I hope the book’s themes of reconnecting and resiliency resonate with readers during this time. There are laughs and parties and romance in The Sweeney Sisters, but there’s also a lot of love. I hope it provides a hopeful escape for people. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Lian Dolan.

May 29

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
May 29, 1917: John F. Kennedy born.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Q&A with Deborah Lee Rose


Deborah Lee Rose is the author of the new children’s picture book Astronauts Zoom!. Her many other children’s books include Scientists Get Dressed and Beauty and the Beak. She lives in the Washington, D.C., area.
  
Q: Why did you decide to write an alphabet book about the International Space Station, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year?

A: When I was researching my most recent children’s book, Scientists Get Dressed, I found thousands of photos of astronauts doing all kinds of things on the space station—from spacewalking to eating pizza to taking photos of Earth.

Photos from NASA and other international space agencies inspired me to start writing Astronauts Zoom! even before I knew Nov. 2, 2020 was the 20th anniversary of astronauts continuously on the International Space Station.

I had also been wanting to write a new alphabet book for a long time, since my first alphabet book, Into the A, B, Sea, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year too.

Once I decided on the title Astronauts Zoom!, I knew the book should capture what astronauts really do while they’re zooming in orbit around Earth.

The process of creating my children’s books has often started with a title idea, like Scientists Get Dressed or The Twelve Days of Kindergarten.  

Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything especially surprising or fascinating?

A: By amazing chance, I was working on the book when astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch made their historic all-woman spacewalk from the station.

Watching their livestreamed EVA (extravehicular activity), I learned how carefully planned and executed every move is on a spacewalk—with constant communication back and forth between the astronauts and Mission Control on Earth.

In addition to watching live and recorded videos of astronauts outside and inside the International Space Station, I read astronaut interviews to find out how it felt to be away from Earth, what they did in space besides work, and why seeing Earth from space changed their lives.

I learned SO much doing this book, which I why I love writing about STEM, especially as a human endeavor. Here are just a few of the things I didn’t know about astronauts and the International Space Station as I started the book:

When astronauts go on spacewalks, they sometimes ride on the space station’s huge, external robotic arm. That AHA! is captured in the NASA spacewalk photo chosen for the book cover.

Astronauts appear to float because they’re also falling in free fall towards Earth, at the same speed as the International Space Station itself is falling towards Earth.

Astronauts who look like they’re upside down on the station don’t feel upside down. Most of the photos in the book could be turned “upside down” and still be correct!

Astronauts find lots of ways to have fun and relax on the space station—reading, doing sports with unusual moves like soccer somersaults, throwing pizza parties, dressing up as superheroes, and watching and taking photos of Earth far below.

Q: What do you see as the importance of the International Space Station, and what do you see looking ahead for it?

A: Through peaceful collaboration, astronauts from around the world have helped make and continue to make countless scientific discoveries and engineering advances on the space station.

I hope their extraordinary cooperation can inspire people on Earth to work together, to solve the hugest problems of our time like protecting people from COVID-19 and protecting Earth from climate change.

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


A: I hope kids (and the adults who read to them and teach them) take away the fun of playing with language. I took poetic license to phrase two of my favorite spreads for the book: L-M-N-O/Astronauts love to make pizza, but need a space oven; V-W-X/Astronauts view Earth from space. “Wow!!!” they exclaim.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on virtual author visits that let me talk to kids and adults anywhere in the world. To arrange a virtual visit, I can be contacted via my website at www.deborahleerose.com.

Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Astronauts Zoom! includes lots of STEAM ideas for creating a “space station” learning and fun environment anywhere.

Here is one idea using a fantastic resource for photos from space, the TERC Windows on Earth project which is a partner of the ISS National Lab’s Space Station Explorers (https://www.windowsonearth.org/Featured-Galleries/Best-New-Images/i-GM8TGRj).

Using real photos of Earth taken from the space station, you can create/decorate your own “cupola” (dome) area—for reading, doing space-themed projects, or trying hands-on STEM experiments.

The cupola is the area of the International Space Station where astronauts can look out through multiple windows to see huge vistas of Earth below or space all around. 

Photo credits: Astronaut spacewalking, hurricane forming, astronauts “rightside up” and “upside down,” astronaut looking out from cupola, and astronauts with pizzas, all NASA; astronaut taking photos, ESA/NASA; spread from Astronauts Zoom! text ©2020 Deborah Lee Rose.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Deborah Lee Rose.

Q&A with Sloane Tanen


Sloane Tanen is the author of the novel There's a Word for That. She also has written nine illustrated and young adult books, including Bitter with Baggage Seeks Same and Hatched!. She lives in the Bay Area. 

Q: You write of There's a Word for That that "my goal was to write a comedic version of the dysfunctional family drama." How did you come up with the Kessler family?

A: I grew up in Los Angeles in the 1980s, very much the golden age of the Hollywood blockbuster. This is not a Hollywood book, but I was interested in exploring the aftermath of that time, the fall of what would have been perceived as an empiric family.

Though the book is fiction, my father was in the movie business, so it was easy enough soil to mine. 

I do love dysfunctional family novels, so much the better if they happen to be funny. The fall from grace, both professionally, and personally (as we age) is both tragic and comic.

Straddling the line between these two extremes—finding the sweet spot where tragedy and comedy meet--well, that was my goal.
      
Q: You tell the story from a variety of characters' perspectives. Did you write the novel in the order in which it appears, or did you focus more on one character before turning to the others?

A: I got into a big mess with the structure! I would just write whatever character I was in the mood to sit with that day.

The problem, of course, was making all their time lines fit together. I thought it would all fall in like a magic jigsaw puzzle, but it did not.

I had to do quite a bit of editing to get them all in the same time zones, in the same country, and on the same planet!

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

A: The novel was originally called The Injustice Collectors, which I still like. The publicity department at Little Brown thought it sounded like a police procedural. So, we had to go back to the drawing board.

I was editing, and [noticed] that the German words began to play a bigger part in the book. What I love about German is how well the language can combine two words to create something totally new, something otherwise impossible to put a name to. We don’t really have this in English.

The novel is about a point in our lives that is likewise hard to name. Is there a word for that moment when our perceived potential has fallen short of our current reality?  
      
Q: You've written for various age groups. Do you have a preference?

A: I had a wonderful time doing the children’s books and all the humor books with Stefan Hagen. That was just a magical collaboration for me. I’m a visual person so tapping into that was a lot of fun.

I don’t think YA is my thing. It’s very hard to hit the right note and I felt very nervous dipping my toe into that water.

I had a good time writing the adult novel, but the new emphasis on social media presence and the heavy input from editorial and PR and was a bit hard. Novel writing doesn’t feel like it should be collaborative, but finally, it is.

That takes getting used to but it’s all worthwhile and finally very satisfying.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am at work on a new adult novel. It’s about a woman in the 1980s. I don’t want to say too much as I’m still working it out.

It may be a bit more serious than the last book, but I’m still in the early stages. I think anything I write will have an undercurrent of comic absurdity if only because that’s how I see the world.

I’ve been working from 11pm-4am during the shelter in place. I am a night owl so not having to get up and get kids to school and get to work has been sort of nice for me!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 28

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
May 29, 1908: Ian Fleming born.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Q&A with Sonali Dev


Sonali Dev is the author of the new novel Recipe for Persuasion, which is based on Jane Austen's classic Persuasion. Her other books include Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors. She lives in the Chicago suburbs.

Q: This is your second Jane Austen update featuring the Raje family. Did you know when you wrote Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors that you'd be revisiting them?

A: Even before I was a published author, I dreamed of writing homages to my four favorite Austen novels (Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma) under one story universe. So, yes, I did imagine the entire four book series at the outset, and knew that Recipe for Persuasion would follow Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors.

Q: What do you see as the right blend between the original Austen characters and your updated versions?

A: I see my books as being inspired by Austen's novels, an ode to her timeless themes that were formative for me as a person and as a writer.

So while the idea for the character, plot, and themes for my stories are seeded in her novels, once I start writing them, my stories are all my own.

My characters are all their own. Ashna Raje is a Palo Alto chef from an Indian American family descended from royalty, and Rico Silva is a Brazilian-born World Cup winning football star who's an orphan. They make choices based on their life experiences and personalities. They might have echoes of Anne Elliot and Fredrick Wentworth, but they are not them.

My intent is to explore, in the current day, what Austen's themes taught me.

Q: Were you always a Jane Austen fan, and what's your favorite Austen novel?

A: I first read Jane Austen in middle school. Pride and Prejudice was her first book that I read, but it was followed immediately by Persuasion, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility.

I can't pick one as a favorite but I can tell you why each one of them connected with me.

As a young girl Austen's stories spoke to something elemental inside me. Books and stories I was exposed to until then didn't show me women who got what they wanted. They showed me women who sacrificed and suffered for the greater good.

I think Austen’s genius lies in the fact that she wrote from a place of complete honesty when it came to her belief that women deserved to get what they desired.

The culture she lived in should have convinced her that what women desired wasn't worth much, but somehow she wrote women who dared to want things on their terms, and got them. This narrative was powerful reinforcement for me at a formative age.

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


A: I did a lot of research about football (soccer). I grew up with a football fanatic brother, so I knew how very seriously people across the world take it. It's practically a religion and its reach might be more widespread than any other single pursuit in the world.

It's quite stunning actually. As someone who usually rolls her eyes at sports fandom, the deep global socio-economic impact and meaning did humble me.

Q: What are you working on now?


A: I'm working on the next book set in this world. This one pays homage to Sense and Sensibility and it follows the oldest Raje sibling, who is running for California governor when a traumatic event makes him stop and take stock of the life that's been planned for him and the path he's never questioned until now.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: That Recipe for Persuasion came out on May 26 and I hope it helps people find comfort, escape, and meaning in this strange and unprecedented time.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb