Thursday, July 31, 2014

Q&A with author Claire Hajaj

Claire Hajaj is the author of the new novel Ishmael's Oranges, which is based in part on her own family history with a Jewish mother and Palestinian father. She has worked for the United Nations and the BBC World Service. She lives in Beirut, Lebanon.

Q: How did you come up with your main characters, Jude and Salim?

A: The characters were inspired partly by my parents, and partly by the many other stories I heard growing up from Jewish and Palestinian families.

I wanted to answer the question – “what happens when a Jew or a Palestinian chooses to take a different course, to shape a life that doesn’t conform to the traditions of those tribes?" How hard do they have to fight to escape the gravity of the conflict.

There’s a big diaspora not actually fighting, but still very much affected by a kind of referred pain from their people in Gaza, in the West Bank, in Ashkelon. And many other migrant families could identify with these themes, I’m sure.

Q: How was the title “Ishmael’s Oranges” chosen for the book?

A: Great question! I chose it because it reflects many levels of the story I wanted to tell. At one point in the novel a character reminds another of the original Old Testament myth – that Abraham’s original heir, Ishmael, was disinherited and even cast out when Isaac was born. Ishmael became father of the Arabs, as Isaac became father of the Jews. And that first disinheritance has somehow followed the two peoples down through history ever since.

I wanted to capture these tangled themes – rivalry and ownership, the sweetness of the lost inheritance, and the fruits we bear through our actions. Ishmael is the original Ishmael, the Arabs in general and the main protagonist, Salim Al-Ishmaeli – who loses his precious orange trees.

Q: One of the quotes you include in the book is from the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, “Peace is more important than land.” What is the significance of this quote to you?

A: Sadat was a brave man, a peacemaker who paid for his courage with a bullet. What he said in that speech is as important as WHERE he said it – to the Knesset, after years of enmity. 

He had come to realize a truth that others in the region still struggle to see: Peace – whether between peoples or within the heart and mind  - may become impossible if you are constantly seeking to redeem the past. And without peace, life is miserable, dangerous and exhausting.

Jude and Salim, the two main characters in the book, live those words at first – and then come to see that their other dreams and fears and desires are harder to cast away than they thought. The struggle between “peace” and “land” forces them to challenge every belief and test every allegiance.

Q: Given the current situation, do you think peace is possible in the Middle East?

A: Peace is a word that means many things. Will there eventually be some sort of political settlement? Probably. But will it bring people the happiness, security and dignity they need? Only if there’s a profound revolution in leadership and in how these communities view each other.

I did get hope from the #JewsAndArabsRefuseToBeEnemies initiative though. Interfaith families and friendships from around the world posting pictures together, rejecting a narrative of hate. Signs of light at a dark time.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Very excited about my new novel, The Well, based on some of my experiences in remote Nigeria. A naïve young Englishman volunteers for a year a nameless African village, looking to redeem a past wrong – but makes a single catastrophic decision that unleashes devastating consequences on all he’s come to love.

The book explores what happens to a well-meaning people when their moral compass suddenly can’t find “north” any more, what humanity becomes on its own.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Am thrilled that you’re reading Ishmael’s Oranges and I very much hope that your readers enjoy it too. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 31

July 31, 1919: Writer Primo Levi born.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Q&A with Professor Carla Kaplan

Carla Kaplan, photo by Robin Hultgren
Carla Kaplan is the author most recently of Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance. She is the Davis Distinguished Professor of American Literature at Northeastern University, and her other books include The Erotics of Talk and Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters. She lives in Massachusetts.

Q: What is your definition of "Miss Anne"?

A: “Miss Anne” is a derisive term for white women; it’s a categorical term that works like the comparable terms for white men, “Mr. Eddie” or “Mr. Charlie.”

The etymology is not completely clear. It was coined by black Southern domestic workers before the 1920s, who were stuck in the kitchen, sometimes for 18-hour days. They couldn’t afford to disrespect these women to their faces, but they could return to their community and refer to them as “Miss Anne.”

“Miss” is important because of the uneven naming that is part of American history. The black slaves were [not given their own last names]. White people were “Miss” or “Mr.” while black people were just their name, or “boy” or “girl.” “Miss” is a phrase filled with ironies, and it turns the tables on some of the racist history.

I was surprised and thrilled when my publisher let me keep it as the title of the book; it had always been my working title. One of the things I learned early on is that “Miss Anne” was a phrase with real familiarity in black communities, where it resonated in complicated ways. White people didn’t know what it was.

One of the reasons I wanted to use it is that it reminds me, even today, that we live in a world where even phrases have complicated resonance in one community but are unknown in another. Race still divides us, and racism has created different worlds.

Also, the reason I wanted to use the phrase is that it was a way [in which] black people referred to white women. When white women went into Harlem, there was a very negative response from both worlds. Here was Miss Anne showing up in Harlem, and the white women had to resist the white community’s racism and manage to diminish the black community’s skepticism. They were in a double bind. I was reconstructing the white women’s points of view, in six mini-biographies, getting into their heads, [and also looking at] how the black community saw them, hence the title.

Q: How did you select the women on whom you chose to focus?

A: I wanted to recreate their range of outcomes, so I wanted to pick six different women that represented different meanings of this pioneering experiment, from some who were accepted by the black community to women who were considered to have betrayed the black community’s trust in them, so we get a complex picture.

That was my idea, to pick from across the spectrum, but I was restricted by having to pick women for whom I could get enough archives to bring her back in her own words. About five dozen women tried this experiment, but very few left behind much in their own words. The six I selected represented a spectrum, and left enough of an archive.

Q: You write, "Often dismissed as a sexual adventurer or a lunatic, Miss Anne may be one of the most reviled but least explored figures in American culture." What accounted for this portrayal, and why hasn't there been more attention focused on these women?

A: I was so surprised that there had been no discussion of them. The more I looked into them, the more they have to teach us about the long 20th century history of racism and of sexism.

How is it that I’m the first person to do this? The racism of the day, combined with the gender ideas of the day. The two come together in a way that made it possible for white men to cross race lines in a way that was not possible for white women.

In the 1920s, it was not just about blacks being viewed by mainstream America as inferior. Blackness and whiteness were understood in completely different terms. Blackness was viewed as a pollution or pathogen. The idea was that white women were particularly vulnerable to this pollution or pathogen.

Whiteness for white men was seen as not quite as fragile. White men could expose themselves to the pollution or pathogen if they did it in limited doses. It would even reinvigorate them. But white women were warned that if they tried the same thing, they would forfeit one of the only cultural assets they had.

The white women who do this, who make a choice to embrace black culture, were not just choosing a denigrated aspect of society, but giving up their privileges of gender and race. It was a really big thing to do.

That’s a piece of why their history gets buried. Once they pass for black, their history gets buried. Also, many of them buried the record of their activities. Some of the most progressive of the white women felt sensitive to the ways in which white women had not stood up to racism, and felt very ashamed. Many, like Mary White Ovington, felt the only way to do good work in the black community was not to draw attention to themselves. We have the white culture wanting to bury the story, and many women themselves wanting to bury the story.

[Given the] long history of sexism, many women were without an archive. Then there was the long history, starting in the 1960s, where there was lots of work done [on] the lost history of black culture. Black culture had also been buried, so in that context…the white aspects of black Harlem [were not studied until scholars] rounded out the black history of Harlem.

Finally, there was the fact that their story was anything but seamless. In some ways, these women were noble and admirable, and in other ways, they were cringeworthy…Most of them found it a really unhappy experiment, and it didn’t work out. People want to know, what’s the point? Should we cross lines or not? It’s more complicated than the either-or.

The other piece is, to resurrect them would take an awful lot of work. They were hiding in plain sight, but the material about them was not readily available. Sometimes, untold stories are untold for a reason; you need someone who’s willing to give years to it.

Q: So you were that person.
A: Either fortunately or unfortunately! It’s one of those books that choose me rather than me choosing it. I didn’t want to write Miss Anne; I wanted to read Miss Anne!

Q: You’ve mentioned some things that surprised you in the course of your research—was there anything else you wanted to add that was unexpected?

A: One thing I would add is how sophisticated some of these women were about developing a notion of identity that we thought we invented. The social construction that it’s not biology: identity can be a matter of allegiance. Some of them attempted to volunteer for blackness. Some were saying, I consider myself black. And it’s not just that they did it, but that it was backed up by a complex argument that identity need not be wrapped up in biology.

We are still going around about whether identity is biological, whether it’s in the blood. Even the arguments about gay identity. Here were these women almost 100 years ago inventing an identity that we consider avant-garde.

Q: Does the "Miss Anne" phenomenon continue today, and if so, in what way?

A: Absolutely. There are lots of Miss Annes today, white women who construct their identity around allegiance to or reference to black culture. Think about Madonna. Or Eminem—somebody whose identity is drawn in a complicated, amalgamated way. There are lots of folks, particularly in pop culture and music, we can see in these terms.

The crossover phenomenon today is as much with sexual identity as with racial identity. It’s a weird confluence of attitudes—a homophobic culture, but queer is cool. It’s a similar phenomenon under similar conditions; you see the love of the other as you see the denigration of the other.

Trayvon Martin and Renisha McBride would not be dead if white people still didn’t fear and abhor black people. The power of fear of the other existing at the same moment as the fascination—we still live in that cultural moment.

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: I am. I seem to be interested in complicated women who walk away from lives that others might envy or covet. [The women in] Miss Anne were all complicated women who made an unlikely choice. I’m writing a biography of a very complicated woman, Jessica Mitford. She is great fun to work on. She was eschewing aristocratic privilege and throws it over for becoming an American communist—talk about unlikely choices!

Her life story is amazing—running away with her cousin, Esmond Romilly, at 17, marrying Robert Treuhaft, her history in civil rights—and she becomes a world-famous writer.

She lets me think about writing in a whole new way. She may be about the most irreverent writer we have. It’s a joy. Her archive is absolutely immense, and each time I sit down before this mountain of material, I think how will I ever get through this, and each time I end up laughing out loud. She’s a radical with a sense of humor. Miss Anne’s story is often quite grim. Jessica Mitford’s story [has] great moments of triumph.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 30

July 30, 1818: Writer Emily Bronte born.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Q&A with author Rebecca Rotert

Rebecca Rotert is the author of the new novel Last Night at the Blue Angel. She is a singer and songwriter, and a teacher with the Nebraska Writers Collective. She lives in Omaha, Nebraska.

Q: Why do you tell the story in Last Night at the Blue Angel from the perspectives of both Naomi, a singer, and Sophia, her daughter?

A: Sophia is the central character and we first come to know Naomi solely from her point of view. In thinking about how children never really know their parents, I wanted Naomi to “talk,” I wanted the reader to see how Naomi was “constructed” emotionally, and to see the early seeds of her compulsions.

Q: What kind of research did you do to recreate Chicago in the 1950s and ‘60s?

A: I spent a lot of time in Chicago, particularly in its research libraries. I read a lot, looked at a lot of photographs, talked to a lot of people. I learned far more than I was able to employ in the book. Research is beautiful. I found whole elements of the story accidentally, during research.  

Q: You also are a singer and songwriter. What was it like to write about a character who’s a singer, and how did your own musical career affect the writing?

A: Well, I had the vocabulary of that world at hand, though my experience is very different from Naomi’s. There are certain aspects of performers’ lives that are universal, of artists altogether – that hungry return to the work no matter what it costs or how poorly it is going…I think writing music informs writing prose in terms of rhythm and pattern and certainly a deep love for music has informed my work across the board.

Q: Which authors have influenced you?

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The next book. It will be a continuation of the first. A darker continuation, hahaha.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Oh, just grateful to you for your interest.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with poet and writer John Skoyles

John Skoyles is the author of the new autobiographical novel A  Moveable Famine. His other work includes the memoir Secret Frequencies, the essay collection Generous Strangers, and four books of poetry: A Little Faith, Permanent Change, Definition of the Soul, and The Situation. He teaches at Emerson College, and is the poetry editor of Ploughshares magazine. He is based in Massachusetts.

Q: You call your book “an autobiographical novel.” What did you see as the right mixture of fiction and autobiography as you were writing the book?

A: I started to write a memoir, a successor to Secret Frequencies, but once into it, I realized this was a different kind of book, one with opportunities for invention. I saw that I could better depict the experience I wanted to portray by collapsing scenes and creating composites. I distilled the virtues and vices of several people into single figures.

Q: How was A Moveable Famine selected as the book’s title, and how would you compare your book to Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast

A: I took the title as a play on Hemingway’s celebrated book but, actually, my “famine” was very rich in many ways.

There’s not much similarity between the two books except for the title, although in his preface, Hemingway says, “If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction.” 

Hemingway’s book focuses on Paris, while mine lights on various places: Queens, Iowa City, Dallas, Saratoga Springs, Bronxville and Provincetown. 

Further, I intended my book to be comic and so I’m pleased that readers and reviewers have seen it that way. Booklist wrote, “It’s hard to believe a funnier novel will be published this year.” Hemingway was not after that effect.

Q: You write, “We were hell-bent to become poets.” What drew you to poetry?

A: That line is a satirical statement about overly ambitious poets who were poets, but who put a lot of energy into becoming known as poets.  They strove for fame in ways both minor and major.

What drew me to poetry was probably the inability to express myself through other means. When I discovered poetry as a child, and heard the voice of the speaker on the page, it felt different from anything else, and I talked back to it in kind.

Q: In addition to your poetry and this autobiographical novel, you’ve also written a book of personal essays and a memoir. How is your poetry affected by your other writing, and vice versa?

A: They are very separate, although one gave rise to the other—I began writing prose when I found the lines of my poems were growing longer and longer. And the poems began telling stories in narratives I could not control; I felt they were more suited for prose. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have finished another book, The Nut File, which has a strange history. When I worked at the Associated Press in New York City as a graduate student, I typed feature articles, answered mail, and filed documents. One day I found in a cabinet a fat manila folder labeled “Nut File.” 

It was a collection of bizarre memos, crazy letters, and odd articles that the reporters gathered together for their own amusement. On a slow news day, one of the writers would pull out the file and read from it aloud, sending the office into laughter.

I began a similar file of my own. With the additional of short fictional pieces in the same vein, the manuscript is that collection. They range from the absurd to the grave, from the ambiguous to the bombastic, from the ironic to the tragi-comic. Hopefully, each is amusing in itself, and the completed manuscript is larger than the sum of its parts.

I am also working on new poems and preparing the Spring 2015 issue of Ploughshares, which will be guest edited by Neil Astley, the publisher of England’s Bloodaxe Books. It will be the first transatlantic, all poetry issue in the magazine’s 43-year history.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I collect fountain pens, mostly those from Italy (Stipula, Omas, Visconti) and Japan (Platinum, Sailor, Namiki).  For a time I wrote a column called “Pen and Ink” for the Jetpens website. I also hold a license to carry should it turn out that, in the end, the pen is not mightier than the sword.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 25

July 25, 1896: Writer Josephine Tey born.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Q&A with author Sam Kean

Sam Kean is the author of the new book The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons. He also has written The Disappearing Spoon and The Violinist's Thumb. He has written for a variety of publications, including The New York Times Magazine and New Scientist, and he is based in Washington, D.C.

Q: In the book's introduction, you discuss your experiences with sleep paralysis. What did you learn about the brain from these episodes?

A: All sorts of things. I learned how the brain produces dreams and how it temporarily paralyzes our body during them, so that we don't take swings at werewolves or whatever.

But mostly I learned about the interactions between different levels of the brain. Sleep is controlled by pretty low-level brain functions, sometimes called the reptilian brain, while dreams of course tap into our higher brains and memories and language system. Sleep paralysis really involves a malfunction in the communication between those parts.

It also showed me how a small disorder like this could lead to pretty profound insights into how the brain works and is put together, which is how neuroscience progressed for centuries.

Q: How was "The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons" chosen as the book's title, and what was significant about that particular case?

A: The story involves a macho king of France named Henri II who suffered a massive concussion during a jousting match in the 1550s.

I chose it as the title story for a few reasons. First, we usually don't think about people doing neurosurgery in the 1500s, but they were! So it shows the genesis of the field, and how we can trace neuroscience from practically medieval times straight to today.

Second, it shows that we're still learning the same hard lessons today. Because Henri didn't have a skull fracture, he assumed he was fine, as did his doctors - they couldn't conceive of the idea that the brain might be compromised without skull damage.

We might laugh today, but football players do the exact same thing - going right back out on the field despite taking awful blows to the head. This shows that all the tales in the book aren't just entertaining stories, but they really do have something to tell us today.

Q: What are some of the greatest misperceptions about the human brain?

A: One big one is that we have one "spot" that controls each faculty – a language spot, a memory spot, a math spot, etc. That's totally wrong - for any complicated system, many parts of the brain work together.

That also relates to another fallacy, the myth that we use only 10 percent of our brain. (I thought we'd killed that idea, but I see it's back now with that movie!)

Finally, one huge misconception is that we'll explain away all the mystery of human beings or kill the joy of being human if we keep studying the brain.

First, we're not even close to understanding the brain, so people don't need to worry that we're going to run out of mysteries to solve. Second, even if we did solve them, I don't see how that would lessen the joys of being alive. I mean, we have a pretty good idea why cheesecake tastes good - and it doesn't taste any less good for all the science that went into figuring that out. Knowledge and experience are different things.

Q: What surprised you most in the course of your research?

A: The breadth of things that can go wrong. I'm sure we've all heard about people being paralyzed on half their bodies or losing memory or the ability to speak, but there are thousands of other disorders as well, some of them startlingly specific.

Some people lost all fear of death or became pathological liars. Parents suddenly couldn't recognize their own children. Some people lost the ability to recognize any animals (even though they could still tell plants and faces and other things apart.) Some people lost the ability to speak but could still sing song lyrics or swear at you. And on and on.

In every article I read I found something new and amazing. You really don't think about all the subtle things that go into thinking until you see all that can go wrong!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm working on a few magazine articles at the moment, but my editor and I are batting around ideas for a new book. We haven't nailed down the topic yet, but it looks like I'll be returning to chemistry for this one. Stay tuned...

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For an earlier interview with Sam Kean, please click here.

July 24

July 24, 1900: Writer Zelda Fitzgerald born.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Q&A with writer Lorene Cary

Lorene Cary's books include the acclaimed memoir Black Ice; the novels If Sons Then Heirs, Pride, and The Price of a Child; and a book for young readers, Free! Great Escapes from Slavery on the Underground Railroad. She lives in Philadelphia.

Q: Your books span various genres, including memoir, historical novel, present-day novel, young adult. Do you have a preference among those genres?

A: I don’t really. I love learning new things with each book, particularly learning a different genre, a different time period, different characters. The Price of a Child ended with an open ending, and people asked, So that means you’ll do a sequel? But I really want to learn something new.

Q: Your memoir Black Ice has become a classic. When you were writing it, did you expect it to have such a large impact?

A: I did not think about people reading it. It was so hard for me to write it; it was uphill rock climbing learning. The only thing I thought about was that I hoped the first edition of 7,500 books would be sold, so when I went to write another book, I could get another commitment.

Had I thought that years later I’d be in classrooms with young people [reading it], I may have been more cautious.

Q: One of the major themes in your most recent novel, If Sons Then Heirs, deals with property rights. Why did you choose to include that topic in the book?

A: As you get older, you’re still exploring some of the same fields, plowing the same fields to find new things. I very much wanted to look at race, and the time right after Reconstruction is a crazy time. I remember reading Ida B. Wells’s book The Red Record about lynching. I read about that time period.

In terms of thinking about race, I’m trying to understand race, and what happened, and how is it that [so many people have] come to the belief that black people are inferior. How did that happen? I keep trying to understand that.

People can see it in plain sight. In a restaurant in North Carolina, [for example,] all the white people are in the dining room, and all the black people are serving. How can everybody believe all these people are only capable of serving? Some are going to make that choice, but everybody? I keep exploring that….

The way you build in a democracy, inheritance is a key to generating wealth, but not the only key. Property has everything to do with inherited wealth…In Philadelphia, [many] black people are from Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina. All these people talked about land they had, being sent down South. I kept wondering, what happened? It merged with a story from Ida B. Wells’ Red Record I could never forget. …

The two came together. Lynching and property rights are tied together. I started with North Carolina, but the heir laws of property in South Carolina are so egregious, and there’s so much more heir property there, and so much was lost, and lynchings were there later.

Q: Do you know the endings of your novels before you start writing?

A: I have to plan things out, like Jacob’s ladder going to heaven, or else I’m scared to climb. But it’s a book and not heaven, so [it] changes.

Q: Do you have a favorite character among those you’ve created or written about?

A: I feel like it’s bad karma to pick somebody. It really is true, whoever I’m working with right now [is my favorite]. For me, all the energy from writing is about doing it.

Also, there’s the extreme luxury of play and imagination; I’m back to the little girl under the table. That’s part of the reason why I have such a hard time allowing myself to do it without doing other things that are clearly service-oriented. I love it for me. Right now I’ve got a couple of characters I just love, and I think about all the time.

Q: I was going to ask you what you’re working on now.

A: I got very ill a couple of years ago. …Last year, I determined that I had the kernel of a story, and it took me months to write one story. I was getting better and better, and felt strong again, and I’ve rewritten the short story.

Also, the Opera Company of Philadelphia—I gave it to them. They asked me to write an opera treatment, speaking of new genres! I worked with a dramaturge; it was like a great tutorial. We took the story and made it into an opera treatment. The treatment is what they’ll give the composer. It’s classical opera and gospel.

The main character is a man who is a church organist. He’s a gay man who has a love relationship with a man who’s a divorced Philadelphia police officer and says he cannot come out—he has two sons, he’s a cop, he’s running communications for the department.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The other thing I’m doing is a new website that I hope to launch next year. It will feature stories of things people are doing to keep children safe. It grows out of my work with [Philadelphia’s] school reform commission and the safety committee. I heard hundreds of stories of great teaching, mentoring, social-emotional intelligence of people working with children. Generally, the media doesn’t pay attention to that.

Q: Does it have a name yet?

A: I’m working now on organizing it so I can crowdsource the information—get videos, get iPods, have events where people tell stories. My students at Penn will report and write [stories].

Q: So this website will be up next year?

A: It will take me the better part of a year so I have enough stories and a real editorial group to work on it so it’s fabulous. What I don’t want to do is to rush it and undercut the very people I’m trying to celebrate.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 23

July 23, 1888: Writer Raymond Chandler born.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Q&A with author Rebecca Rasmussen

Rebecca Rasmussen, photo by Kristen Papac
Rebecca Rasmussen is the author of the new novel Evergreen, as well as the novel The Bird Sisters. She teaches writing at UCLA, and she lives in Los Angeles.

Q: You tell the story in Evergreen from the viewpoint of several different characters over many years. How did you choose whose perspective to include, and how did you decide on the book’s structure?

A: Evergreen wasn’t always structured this way. In the first draft, there were only two different parts—Eveline’s and Hux’s—and I ended up feeling like something important was still missing. The story needed to open up. It needed to branch out. It needed to give me at least another year of grief.

Naamah, the character who drives much of the action in the novel, didn’t have a voice yet. Once I gave her one, there was no glass between us anymore. I kept hearing her calling for her mother. I kept praying she would find a little grace.  

Q: Love in various manifestations plays a big role in the book. Did you begin the book with that as a major theme, or did it develop as you were writing?

A: All you need is love, right?

For me, the heart of the novel belongs to the women in Evergreen—almost everything that happens depends on them. It’s an enormous weight to have to bear and for the most part they bear it gracefully, with great love and compassion.

The women in Evergreen are survivors. They’ve learned, oftentimes through events beyond their control, when to hold on with all they’ve got and when to let go. They’ve taught me a great many lessons, one of which is this: the world is still a hard place for women, but we are its lifeblood, we keep not giving up.

Q: How did you choose the book’s setting?

A: I have been drawn to nature ever since I was a girl and spent eight wonderful summers at a rustic camp up in northern Wisconsin. The lake was full of leeches, the cabins were overrun with wolf spiders, and because nothing would ever dry there was a pervasive smell of mold. “L’eau de Camp,” my mother used to say.

But it was also a magical place with towering pines and climax forests, frosty mornings and northern lights, a place where for the first time in my life I felt truly free. I learned how to build fires and navigate canoes through narrow sloughs. I learned how to swim and sail and shoot a rifle. I learned what I could do with my hands. What I could do with my heart.

The northwoods is always with me when I sit down to write. That sense of wonder and freedom, those kumbayas.

Q: Which authors have inspired you?

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now, I’m working on a novel about a small-town doctor in Wisconsin and a local fisherman who become implicated in an accident involving a young girl in the south fork of the Silver Birch River. The novel follows Dr. Fields and Everett Byrd as they try to navigate the fallout from this event in a town where people will bring you a cup of sugar if you need it or a gun if you don’t.

It's exciting to be working on something new, but I miss the troop from Evergreen, too, and find they still have a lot to say. The Bird Sisters still pipe up from time to time as well. Maybe one day I’ll have to get them all together and see what happens!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Oh let’s see – I like to run, bake, swim, garden, play with my daughter, read…the usual, I guess. The stuff of life!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 16

July 16, 1862: Journalist Ida B. Wells born.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Q&A with children's author Polly Holyoke

Polly Holyoke is the author of The Neptune Project, a middle-grade novel. The sequel, The Neptune Challenge, will be published next year. A former middle-school teacher, Holyoke grew up in Colorado and is based in the Dallas, Texas, area.

Q: How did you come up with the world you created in The Neptune Project, and why did you decide that dolphins would play a big role?

A: A scuba diver for many years, I wanted to write a book that truly depicted what the world under the waves looks, feels and sounds like. When my characters ventured to places I hadn’t been diving, I spent a lot of time on local scuba diving sites reading accounts of what that area looks like and what marine species my kids would probably encounter.

I’ve always loved dolphins and been amazed by their intelligence, and I knew my Neptune kids would be extremely vulnerable when they went into the sea. The dolphins increased my characters’ chances of survival. What I didn’t expect, though, is the way some of my dolphin characters took on such interesting and strong personalities!

Q: How did you research this book, and as you wrote, how did you find the process of blending the plot and characters with the environmental information you wanted to include?

A: Because I’m more of a literature and history person, I had to stretch my brain researching oceanography and genetics. Of course, swimming with wild spinner dolphins in Hawaii and domesticated dolphins in Florida were my favorite research experiences!

I tried not to get too preachy about environmental issues and state outright the challenges unchecked climate change will cause us. Instead, those problems, such as ocean rise and food and fresh water scarcity, shape the plot of the book and the troubled world that confronts my characters. 

Q: How does your previous career as a teacher help you with your writing?

A: My experiences as a teacher helped and continue to help me understand how kids think and act, particularly when they are in groups. I write about 10- to 15-year-olds, and that’s an age full of social insecurities.

At the same time, readers that age are enormously curious and open-minded in a way older readers sometimes aren’t. I have yet to encounter a kid who has problems believing in the idea that we might be able to genetically alter ourselves to breathe seawater someday!

In a more practical sense, I’m finding I’m a popular speaker at schools because I can actually teach lots of different writing workshops along with talking about my experiences as an author.

Q: The sequel, The Neptune Challenge, will be published next year. Did you know when you started on The Neptune Project that the story would continue, and do you plan to turn it into a longer series?

A: From the start, I plotted the Neptune books as a trilogy. I understand, though, that my publishing team didn’t want to commit to a three-book series until we saw how well the first book did.

Now they have bought the second book, and the plot appears to be all tied up at the end of The Neptune Challenge, but I still have plenty of ideas for that third book if the second one does well.

 Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

A: I’ve always loved Robin McKinley. She won the Newbery for The Hero and the Crown. I also read and reread The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander when I was a child.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The Neptune Project is such a thrilling, fast-paced read, it keeps kids turning pages (or so their happy parents tell me). At the same time, the book contains scientific elements and lends itself well to cross-curriculum teaching. I just finished posting teacher guides on my website.

I also tried to make that website as kid-friendly as possible with colorful pictures along with links to some of the most interesting sites I found on the web about dolphins, sharks, oceanography and climate change.

On my website I’m also giving away free copies of the UK version of The Neptune Project (The Neptune Conspiracy), which has a very striking cover.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb