Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Q&A with author Jeffery Renard Allen

Jeffery Renard Allen's most recent book is the novel Song of the Shank. He also has written another novel, Rails Under My Back; a story collection, Holding Pattern; and two poetry collections, Stellar Places and Harbors & Spirits. He lives in New York.

Q: How did you learn of Blind Tom Wiggins, the real-life 19th century figure upon whom Song of the Shank is based, and why did you decide to write his story as a novel?

A: The long and short of it is that around 1998 I chanced upon his story. I had finished my first novel, and was thinking about my next project.

I had heard good things about Oliver Sacks, but had never read his work, and I read An Anthropologist on Mars and he mentioned Blind Tom in the footnotes. It was a chapter on an autistic savant, and he brought in Blind Tom as an example of the autistic savant phenomenon. I was drawn to his story.

I [had] never actually thought about writing nonfiction, even though my next book will probably be a memoir.

I was fascinated by a number of facts: first, that there had been an extraordinarily popular African American musician who had disappeared from history. He was unusual for an African American in that he had a classical repertoire; he didn’t play the slave songs and other African American music that was popular at the time. Also that he played piano; most played violin or banjo.

I was drawn by the fact that he had an unusual stage show—he would play three songs at once, he performed various feats of memory. It seemed very much ahead of its time. I’m something of a failed musician myself; I’m drawn to writing about music, though I can’t play!

That was 1998. At that point, I was thinking of writing an elaborate novel with four story lines set in different moments of history, with the Blind Tom story as one of the four. I didn’t seriously begin to research his life at that point, but I had in mind that he would be one of the principal figures in the novel.

In the fall of 2001 I received a fellowship from the New York Public Library, and that was the time I began really investigating Blind Tom. I found there wasn’t a whole lot out there. There wasn’t a lot of stuff written since the time of his passing.

It took a while before the book took on substantial shape. I gave a presentation to the other fellows, and I explained the elaborate story line and the four time periods, and one of the other fellows said, Just write about Blind Tom! It took me a couple of years to realize she was right.

Q: What did you see as the right balance between history and fiction as you wrote the novel?

A: My sense of that changed in the process of writing. When I first began, there was very little information I could find out about him that I found useful.

I found a book by a musicologist named Geneva Southall, who had written a three-volume biography of Blind Tom. At the time I couldn’t find the earlier volumes, I could only find the last one.

I happened to be visiting with a friend in Minnesota—this was another serendipitous moment—and she remembered that this professor had taught at the University of Minnesota, and we could see if the library had copies [which it did]. This was very helpful; I now had 900 pages of material.  I was able to read about his life in its entirety—[Southall] was very meticulous.

My initial plan was more like a novelized biography, to write about his entire life, from 1849 to 1908. I went through the three books and pulled out what made for good dramatic scenes. I produced 500 pages or so, in 2003-2004.

At some point it became clear that this approach wasn’t going to work—I tend to be an expansive writer, and I had written 500 pages and hadn’t gotten to the Civil War yet!

I began to rethink my approach. At one point, I became interested in the Civil War draft riots in New York in 1863, and I began to see the book as more of a speculative novel, an alternative history of what would have happened if all the black people had been driven to an island. That’s how Edgemere came about. Blind Tom was living in the aftermath of the riots.

This narrowed the action of the book down to just a few years. I began to think less about the facts of his life. In actuality, Blind Tom came to live in New York City in the 1880s, and this was a leap in facts—I have him living there in the 1860s. The facts became less important, and I began to pursue what was in my imagination.

One of the hardest challenges I had in writing the book was how to indicate to readers that this wasn’t a historical novel.

Q: You tell the story from the perspective of various characters. Why did you structure the book that way?

A: My first novel used a similar approach; it had five major characters. I’m drawn to that. Some find it challenging to write about the other: a different race, a different gender. I don’t find it challenging, just interesting. When I’m writing from the point of view of [the white female character] Eliza, I’m trying to put myself into her mind.

Some of the characters are based on real people…. I chose to write about some of the people who were most important in Tom’s life. One of the things I also found interesting was that these people played an important role in Tom’s life, but there still was very little I knew about them. I didn’t have that much sense of what made them tick. It was interesting to go inside them and see who they were.

My initial thinking was that I would take five or six characters and go from different perspectives, and at some point go inside Tom’s mind. I did a draft using that approach, and [found that] once we enter Tom’s mind, it destroys everything that comes before. By entering his mind, the mystery is destroyed.

I decided to take out those pages. We only see Tom through the perspectives of other people. That is justified in speaking to who he actually was—there isn’t a whole lot on record as to what he actually said.

Q: How did you pick the book’s title?

A: I had written a poem with that title—it had something to do with music. A friend told me the title was too good to be wasted on a poem. In its early drafts, the book was called "Tom." I remembered the poem, and then I started to think how the poem suggested metaphors in terms of Tom’s life. A shank is part of the piano. When I began to do research, it seemed appropriate, being very suggestive of a number of possibilities.

Q: Which authors have particularly influenced you?

A: Everything you read has its influence one way or another. The difference between this book and the earlier one is that there were writers I hadn’t read before. I came to Proust for the first time during this period. W.G. Sebald’s books were published. [I read] Roberto Bolano, 2666.

The usual things—my favorite novel is One Hundred Years of Solitude. [Gabriel Garcia Marquez] delights in the process of storytelling. I’m not that kind of writer, but I’ve always wanted to be. Faulkner—I learned so much about the craft of writing from what he did, his ability to write about the South, about slavery. I did a lot of reading of fiction about musicians. Coming Through Slaughter, by Michael Ondaatje. Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser.

[Looking at] Sebald, it wasn’t my plan to use images before, but I was interested in his use of images and how those speak to the literature.

One other book I would mention is a book I love, The Daydreaming Boy, by Micheline Aharonian Marcom.

Q: You mentioned that you’re considering writing a memoir—what more can you say about that?

A: For the past five or six years I’ve been thinking about one nonfiction essay idea after another. I’ve done a couple of pieces. I was having a conversation with a friend a couple of months ago, who said I should write a memoir about the things that have been of interest to me.

At the center, my relationship with my mother defines so much of who I am. She was a domestic to a wealthy family [near] Chicago. She was born in Mississippi, in the segregated South. I felt she gave in too easily to things because of the past she came from; it was such a painful past. She never talked about it. I thought of myself as different from her—rebellious, confrontational. My [sense] of her really changed; [now I see] how practical and reasonable she is. Who she is made me a writer.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: About the images in the book, for readers who are interested in it, there’s an explanation for how the images relate to the novel’s structure. I had a lot of difficulty organizing the novel’s structure. I was exploring the idea of [the math problem] the Seven Bridges of Konigsberg, and the novel is a Euler path. I was trying to explain this to my editor, and she was completely confused!

I think that how the images work in the novel is comparable to Sebald’s work. Thinking about the usual depictions of music led me to the thing about the Euler paths, and research about patterns in African architecture. It’s kind of esoteric.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 30

Sept. 30, 1924: Author Truman Capote born.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Q&A with author Maud Casey

Maud Casey, photo by Zach Veilleux
Maud Casey's most recent novel is The Man Who Walked Away. She also has written the novels Genealogy and The Shape of Things To Come, and the story collection Drastic. She teaches at the University of Maryland, and she lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: Your novel is based on a real medical case. What did you see as the right balance of history and fiction as you wrote the book?

A: Yes, the 1886 case of Albert Dadas, the original fugueur, who wandered for years in a semitrance state throughout large swaths of Europe. 

It was one of the hardest parts of writing the book, striking that balance. I wanted to capture the era but I also wanted to feature the imagining, if that makes sense. As in, I’m a contemporary fiction writer in conversation with a particular moment in history—in this case, the birth of psychiatry in Europe in the second half of the 19th century. 

I didn’t want to make any claims on telling the real Albert Dadas’ story, out of a kind of respect in a way. There’s the real guy and then there’s my invented guy.

There’s certainly a lot of overlap but I think fiction is always up to something different than history. Both stories, for sure, but fiction is a great cultivator of empathy because it’s interested in the privacy of consciousness. It’s not that I was disinterested in the public record, or the historical moment, not at all, but what I wanted to feature was the feeling.

Q: How did you research the book?

A: I did a lot of crashing around, to be honest. I mean, that’s always what happens while writing a novel but in this case because I was trying to get a handle on the era, I did a lot of reading and a lot of wrestling with how to enter into history while building my own distinct fictional world. 

Thankfully, Ian Hacking’s wonderful book, Mad Travelers: Reflections on the Reality of Transient Mental Illness, which was where I discovered the Albert Dadas case, includes a bibliography that became my reading list. One of my favorites: Edward Shorter’s From Paralysis to Fatigue: A History of Psychosomatic Illness in the Modern Era. A good description of my path through this novel. 

It was also a thrill. It’s such a rich, peculiar moment in psychiatric history. They were crashing around too. There was so much still to know. There still is. I could have gone on reading forever. 

I think that’s often the way. The research becomes a tempting way of avoiding the writing while telling yourself it’s all part of the writing. And it is, but eventually you have to sit down in front of the blank page and, you know, write.

Q: Why did you decide to tell the story from the alternating perspectives of Albert and the Doctor?

A: The novel began with the voice of Albert, which is an ethereal, lyrical, dreamy voice. I wanted to stay there forever but that voice would never have sustained a novel. It would have drifted off into oblivion. It needed the balance of the Doctor’s rational stance, his scientific inquiry. My hope is that the two make a different kind of music together.

Q: Which writers have inspired you?

A: So many! I’d be here all day if I tried to name them all but here are some writers whose work, when I encountered it, changed me forever: Barbara Comyns, Gogol (and Nabokov’s little book on Gogol, which includes one of my favorite essays on reading fiction, “Apotheosis of a Mask”), Bruno Schulz, Gina Berriault, Grace Paley, Max Frisch, James Baldwin, Jane Bowles, Elizabeth Bishop

I’ve been thinking a lot about how art influences me too. To give a few examples, the current exhibit by Andrew Wyeth at the National Gallery of Art, “Looking Out, Looking In”—it’s a collection of all of the windows he painted, a collection of glimpses and mystery. And Alexandra Cool’s photographs of writers with a pinhole camera, which makes them look like specters.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve gotten a little cagey about talking about things in progress. I’m afraid talking too much about them will make them disappear.

That said, the broad strokes are that I’m collaborating with a photographer, which is really a thrill. I’ve always been envious of poets who seem to do all sorts of collaborations with artists. 

And I’m working on a short nonfiction book about the literary quality of mystery. And there’s a seed of an idea for a novel, that needs a lot of watering, but still, a seed!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Hmmm. I like the wide openness of this question. Here’s something I think about often because it was an early experience of encountering a writer who I admired tremendously and wanted to emulate, not only as a writer but as a human being: I once had tea at the Plaza in New York City with Kurt Vonnegut. I was, I think, eleven.

I was a huge fan and my mother and father, also writers, knew Kurt from their days at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop so they set this up. It’s such a lovely memory. His warmth and generosity—wow. How lucky we all were to have him on this earth. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 29

Sept. 29, 1923: Author Stan Berenstain born.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Q&A with author Zachary Lazar

Zachary Lazar is the author most recently of the novel I Pity the Poor Immigrant. He also has written the novel Sway and the memoir Evening's Empire. He teaches at Tulane University, and he lives in New Orleans.

Q: Why did you decide to include Meyer Lansky as one of the main characters in your most recent novel?

A: My previous book, Evening’s Empire, was a nonfiction book about my father, who was murdered by two contract killers when I was six years old. 

That story is very complicated, but it introduced me to the world of organized crime, and in particular the Jewish iteration of organized crime. I began to get more and more interested in the way Jewish gangsters have been represented. 

They are often romanticized, or caricatured, in a way that obscures the reality of how violent they were. The idea of violent Jews is still surprising to people. Many Jews, at least American Jews, don't know how to process the information. 

Since the book came out, I have met dozens of people who are eager to tell me that they had a relative who knew Meyer Lansky. It seems to them to be a "good story." I wanted to explore why exactly they would think it's a "good story."

Q: You include a quote from Lansky at the start of the book, “I’m not a kneeling Jew who comes to sing songs in your ears,” spoken to Senator Estes Kefauver. What about that quote made you want to include it?

A: I admire the chutzpah of Lansky saying that to Estes Kefauver. Who wouldn't admire it? Most Jewish boys in America are brought up to be diligent students, good citizens, to play it safe and go to law school or medical school or business school. How dull. 

Lansky of course went in the completely opposite direction. He was a criminal. He was a badass. There is a romanticism in that, but there is also a very serious reality behind the romance, an ugly reality that in the end means dead bodies. 

My book is an attempt to look at both sides of that reality, not only in Lansky's story but in the story of Jews in the modern era in general.

Q: How did you balance the history and the fiction in the novel, and what did you see as the right blend?

A: Everything I write is a long improvisation, which means a process of trial and error. I started with a very primitive idea, which was to somehow juxtapose the story of Meyer Lansky, a tough Jew of the modern era, with the story of King David, a tough Jew from the ancient era. 

I knew that this would force me to say something about ancient and modern Israel, though I didn't know what, nor did I know what the novel's plot was going to be. It is a bit of a Rube Goldberg contraption, what I ended up with. Either you like it or you don't, but it is exactly as it needs to be.

Q: How did you pick the book’s title?

A: The title is from a Bob Dylan song. The immigrant in that song is an old and bitter man who has led a difficult life, struggling to survive. 

In doing what he needs to stay alive, he has had to toughen himself, harden himself, and this means he has become closed off to other people, isolated. That's the price of survival. 

This kind of dynamic is applicable to many characters in my novel, including Meyer Lansky (and the biblical David). It is their tragic element.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I recently published a long essay about a passion play that was staged at Angola Prison, the state penitentiary here in Louisiana. I spent a week there with a photographer, Deborah Luster, and we have been back several times since. 

My next novel is just getting started, but it has to do with the inmates I met there--their experience in prison and also the story of how they arrived there.  

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My next book is not going to have a Bob Dylan song for the title. At least I don't think so!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Zachary Lazar will be participating in the Hyman S. and Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival, which runs from October 19-29, 2014, at the Washington DCJCC.

Sept. 28

Sept. 28, 1856: Author Kate Douglas Wiggin born.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Q&A with author Matt Bai

Matt Bai is the author of the new book All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid. Bai, the national political columnist for Yahoo News, previously worked as chief political correspondent for The New York Times Magazine. He also has written The Argument. He lives in Bethesda, Maryland.

Q: What about Gary Hart and his political journey first captured your attention, and why did you subsequently decide to write this book about his impact on politics?

A: This is a journey that began for me back in 2002, believe it or not, when I had just started writing for The New York Times Magazine.

I noticed a small newspaper item about Hart considering a comeback and another presidential campaign, and I thought, "Why would a guy who's been so thoroughly humiliated put himself through that?" So I went out to see Hart, and I wrote a piece that everyone seemed to like a lot.

But somehow I started to feel like there was something I'd missed, something deeper that connected Hart's moment to ours. For many years after, as I covered two more presidential campaigns where we learned almost nothing about the candidates and their plans, I just couldn't get Hart's story out of my mind. And here we are.

Q: You write of your generation of political reporters, “The truth was harder to admit: most of the time, we had no real access, and we really didn’t know anything about the candidates personally you couldn’t have learned from browsing their websites or watching speeches on YouTube.” How does this differ from the experiences of the previous generation of reporters, and what do you think the next generation’s experience will be?

A: Well, you always tend to idealize what came before, so I wouldn't want to exaggerate the difference. But certainly reporters in the era before Hart, and before I started writing about politics, had deeper, more genuine relationships with their subjects.

That wasn't always good, and some people would say that was too much coziness for the nation's good. But those reporters had the benefit of context. When you know a guy, when you've heard him share his genuine convictions in a private conversation, then you know when he's said something truly disingenuous or has merely misspoken because he's exhausted. You don't get these overhyped gaffes like "I invented the Internet" or whatever.

I don't know what it will be like for the next generation. The technology that's changing everything in the society has real potential for political reporting, too. I know a few younger national politicians who will simply shoot me an email or text when they have something interesting to share or some complaint to register. You can build up some trust that way.

Q: You discuss Hart’s unwillingness to discuss the events surrounding his dealings with Donna Rice. How does his decision compare to those of politicians caught in more recent political scandals?

A: Night and day, is the short answer. For at least a decade probably, Hart could have ended his political exile by writing some confessional, or unburdening himself to Oprah, or hiring some PR firm to launder his image. He never even took the calls from people asking for those things.

He believed then, as he believed in the moment and still believes now, that what he did in his home and in his private time was nobody's business, and that talking about it had ramifications for every other politician. He believed he had a responsibility not to legitimize that kind of reporting.

He also believed, erroneously, that if he just stayed on the sidelines and wrote some very thoughtful books and articles about current affairs, everyone would forget about the tawdry stuff.

Contrast that with, say, Mark Sanford, who just posted a 2,300-word soliloquy on Facebook, explaining in excruciating detail his legal struggles with his ex-wife, so as to win the battle of public opinion. I leave it to you to decide which approach says more for a man's character.

Q: How was your book’s title selected?

A: Great question! The title comes from a W.B. Yeats poem called "To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing." Hart recited it to Martin O'Malley, now the governor of Maryland, at a low moment in 1988, and O'Malley recited it to me.

Initially I wanted to call the book "Troublesome Gulch," which is where the Harts have lived all these years and is also the title of the first chapter, but most people, including my editor, thought that sounded a little too esoteric, I guess.

Then my wife, who was trained as a medievalist and has a great literary mind, suggested I look again at the poem. And that first line just jumped out at me. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Can't I get through this one first? Are you trying to kill me? Actually, I'm writing my Thursday political column for Yahoo News, which is a very exciting place to be right now, and getting ready to do a book tour.

I've also been working with a friend of mine in L.A. on a movie version of the book, and we're now writing an unrelated TV miniseries for FX. Pus I'm getting my kids off to school in the morning. So I expect there will be another book in my future, but I'm not sure when or what it will be. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: You know, my hope for this book is that it won't get pigeonholed as a political work. I believe very strongly that there's no reason political subjects can't be human and gripping and moving, in the way that other nonfiction narratives can be, whether they're about sports figures or business mergers or whatever.

So I want people like me, who love to read literary nonfiction, to know that All the Truth Is Out is more universal and more narrative than what you'll generally find on the political table. What we've found so far is that once people open the book, they don't easily [put] it down, and that's all you can ask.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 27

Sept. 27, 1921: Author Bernard Waber born.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Q&A with author Ladette Randolph

Ladette Randolph, photo by Tami Turnbull
Ladette Randolph is the author of the new memoir Leaving the Pink House. Her other books include the novels Haven's Wake and A Sandhills Ballad and the short story collection This Is Not the Tropics. She is the editor-in-chief of Ploughshares, she teaches at Emerson College, and she lives in Boston.

Q: You write, “I best understand my life through the houses where I’ve lived.” Why is that?

A: I'm probably not the only adult who has very resonant memories attached to certain houses in my past. There's something very primal about shelter and the ways it represents how people live together. For me anyway, those formative childhood memories of the comforts of home have greatly influenced the way I've gone on to make a home as an adult. 

Q: Leaving the Pink House alternates between chapters in 2001-2, when you’re moving to the house in the country, and chapters covering earlier times in your life. Why did you decide to structure the book that way?

A: The structure of this book arose in an organic way. I first recorded the day to day work of gutting and rebuilding the country house in a journal that I later used as the basis for the framing story in Leaving the Pink House, but once I'd finished that, it didn't really seem to add up as a story.

I let it sit for a long time during which I revisited a series of pieces I'd written years before, many of which I eventually realized had been focused around various houses where I'd lived. Once I combined the two, I felt the story of the house became in fact a story about the meaning of home.
Q: The book mostly takes place in various parts of Nebraska, and you now live in Boston. How would you compare the two as places to live?

A: Boston and Nebraska both have their benefits and their challenges. Nebraska is in my bones, of course, and it's very much in my heart since two of my three grown children are there, my two grandchildren, my mother, and two of my three siblings.

But Boston is full of opportunity. Both my husband and I have good work here, and we've met a lot of great people we're lucky to call friends. The literary community is generous and gracious and I've felt very welcomed by it.

When I first moved to Boston, though, I made a deal with myself that I wouldn't compare it to Nebraska. There was no point in doing so. They're very different places (though the academic circles in which I've always moved have a lot in common no matter where you are in the country), and I felt if I were always comparing I wouldn't adapt to Boston. In a lot of ways that became a habit for me, and I still refrain from making comparisons. I just haven't found it helpful. 

Q: Of the various types of writing and editing you’ve done over the years, do you have a favorite?

A: I've been so fortunate in my work and career. It still astonishes me sometimes, the trust other people have put in me. I can't say I have a favorite type of editing (by which, in my case, you mean acquiring), but I can say there's absolutely nothing like encountering for the first time a great story by a writer you don't know whose work is just emerging. It's the reason I keep coming to work every day.

And it's a great privilege to be in the laboratory of literature, finding writers in the earliest stages of their careers and helping them to build that career.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I've been working on a new novel, and although I have a lot of pages, I'm still in the generative process where I'm reluctant to say much about it for fear of diluting my energy in some way. It's still so all so tentative, I don't even know if it's going to work. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Only that I'm very grateful for this opportunity to talk about my new book!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 26

Sept. 26, 1932: Writer Vladimir Voinovich born.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Q&A with author Laura Silver

Laura Silver is the author of Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times, The Forward, and the Jerusalem Report. She lives in Brooklyn.

Q: You write that for your family, “the knish served as flag, emblem, flower, and bird.” Why did it take on such importance, and why did you decide to write about it?

A: I never thought of it that way—that occurred to me in retrospect. I thought of the idea for the book after Mrs. Stahl’s [knish shop] went out of business. I started writing articles, and I found out that my family was from Knyszyn, Poland. I thought, Oh, wow! It’s part of my identity more than I imagined!

Q: What did you learn about your family from writing the book?

A: Some of it is specific to my family, and some would apply to all families. It’s so much more than it appears on the surface—like with the knish! I had a hard time realizing my nana’s name was different. The biggest thing I [learned] was that there’s a lot that didn’t get passed down, and how much was lost collectively and individually. What else was hidden? There are more secrets…than you can ever know.

Q: How did you research the book, and what else was surprising?

A: The biggest finding was a poem in Poland from 1614. The knish wasn’t inherently Jewish in its first mention. In modern-day knishiana, you think of it as a food that’s intrinsically Jewish, [part of the] contemporary New York Jewish immigrant experience. In fact, it has roots in another culture as well.

And that it’s linked to mourning rituals—I was holding on to it as a symbol of my grandma. After my great-aunt died, my family headed to Mrs. Stahl’s. I had no idea the knish had a long history of comforting.

Q: How did the knish become the “Jewish soul food”?

A: I first came across the team in Ukrainian—“bread for the soul.” I felt that this food was linked to my deepest recesses. It’s a comfort food, but it’s beyond that—it’s a symbol of history and identity, but it gets in the gut, which isn’t too far from the soul.

Soul food is most often identified with African American food. This is a different definition. It’s like the book Chicken Soup for the Soul—it’s a deeply comforting food, part of an identity, part of a people.

Q: How did you find and track down all the photos that appear in the book?

A: Painstakingly! Some I found in the course of my research, some I took. I did do some photo research. The photo of the movie still with two people eating a knish—[a website] had the picture, but didn’t list which movie. I appealed to the New York Public Library arts division, and they cracked the code for me. It’s a testament to amazing librarians and archives. The movie was The Night They Raided Minsky’s.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on [turning part of the knish book] into a kids’ book. That’s one spinoff. One [other] project is about the pomegranate, and one is about family stories. One is about the mermaid of the Lower East Side, a swim instructor, Jane Katz. She’s one of my heroes.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: At its core, [Knish] is really a story of regular people. I feel lucky to have been able to find the stories. I didn’t know where it would take me—I didn’t realize there were so many stories of people who worked hard to make things, and serve their people, and keep a tradition alive. These people laid the groundwork for a lot of the success American Jews enjoy today. The knish has sustained us—now it’s time for us to sustain the knish.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Laura Silver will be participating in the Lessans Family Annual Book Festival, which runs from November 6-16, 2014, at the JCC of Greater Washington.

Q&A with author Leslea Newman

Leslea Newman, prolific author and poet, has written many books for children and adults. Her most recent work is a children's book, Here is the World: A Year of Jewish Holidays.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your newest book, Here is the World?

A: Originally I wrote the text as a poem to introduce another poet at a reading we were giving together. The poet, Andrea Ayvazian, is a very spiritual, joyful person and I wanted my introduction to emcompass this. The original poem had no Jewish content. When I decided to make it into a children’s book, I thought incorporating the Jewish year enriched the original text.

Q: You’ve written for children of various ages, as well as for adults. Do you approach the writing process differently depending on the age you’re writing for, and do you have a preference?

A: To me it’s all the same. Writing is writing. I try to craft the most beautiful piece of literature that I can by writing many, many drafts. I enjoy writing for both children and adults. My favorite thing to write is poetry.

Q: You are very prolific. Are you often working on more than one book at a time? 

A: I am always writing poems, while I am writing book manuscripts. And sometimes those poems are compiled into a collection. But otherwise, I am usually writing a new book and editing already written books (the “many many drafts” I refer to in the answer to the previous question) at the same time.

Q: One of your best known books is Heather Has Two Mommies, first published in 1989. How have reactions to that book changed over the past quarter-century?

A: I like to think that we have evolved into a society that is more respectful of diversity during the last 25 years. I think the book is not considered as controversial as it once was. A new edition with brand new illustrations is being released in March 2015 and it will be interesting to see what the response will be.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on a children’s book about a young Jewish girl who comes by herself to America in the early 1900s. It is based on a true story of a family member.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Yes! I am excited about several forthcoming books:

I Carry My Mother is a book of poetry for adults that explores a daughter’s journey through her mother’s illness and death (Headmistress Press, January 2015)

My Name is Aviva is a children’s book about a Jewish girl who does not like her name and what happens when she decides to change it. (Kar-Ben, August 2015)

Ketzel, the Cat Who Composed is based on the true story of a cat owned by the composer Moshe Cotel who “composed” a piano solo which received a prize (Candlewick, Fall 2015).

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Leslea Newman will be participating in the Lessans Family Annual Book Festival, held from November 6-16, 2014, at the JCC of Greater Washington.

Q&A with author Nick Kotz

Nick Kotz is the author most recently of The Harness Maker's Dream: Nathan Kallison and the Rise of South Texas, which tells the story of his grandfather and other family members. Kotz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, worked for The Washington Post and The Des Moines Register, and wrote five other books, including Judgment Days and Wild Blue Yonder. He lives in Broad Run, Virginia.

Q: What about your grandfather’s life could only have happened in Texas, and what was different about being Jewish in San Antonio during this period, as opposed to other cities with larger Jewish populations?

A: The main thing Jews had going for them, because there were relatively few of them and because of the atmosphere of the South and Southwest, [was that although] they were noticeable, there was less prejudice.

Nathan starts out in Chicago. I describe the fierce prejudice between Greeks, Italians, Jews. Nathan specifically, right at the outset where he moves his business from Chicago to San Antonio--there’s one bank, owned by the [Jewish] Oppenheimer brothers. I don’t think he could have gotten a loan [to meet his goals without that bank]. That is one sign of prejudice.

Something that was very curious to me—I searched Jewish periodicals in San Antonio and in Texas, and these Jews did not want to talk or write about what was going on. The San Antonio rabbi, Rabbi Marks, was lecturing these Jews in a way that would never happen today: Be quiet, don’t do anything that’s going to call attention to yourself and be interpreted by the rest of the community as a Jewish stereotype….

Alex Haley’s book Roots…kicked off a whole movement from different nationalities and religions of people looking at their roots. In that genre is a subgenre of people looking at Jews—it could be in a small town in the South. One way or another, they’re all saying…the same thing—that it’s much easier for Jews to succeed in the South. In Texas, first the German Gentiles in the 1840s and ‘50s, and then the Jews, were bringing to Texas skills that weren’t there, including banking skills.

Q: You write that you wish you had asked your grandparents more questions about their earlier life. If you had asked, do you think they would have told you very much, or would they have been reluctant to do so?

A: It’s one of those what-ifs. I’m hearing this over and over again--it’s analogous to soldiers in World War II—it’s a combination of they didn’t want to talk about it, they were busy getting established, their children were busy getting established, and there wasn’t this reflection on talking about it.

In my own case, this changed my whole idea of how to look at history in the United States. I spent my career writing about wars, elections, presidents. [In this book] I approach it from a family standpoint.

Q: How different was the writing process with this book, given that you were writing about your family?

A: I don’t think of this book as biography, but as a journalist writing about periods of history and using one family to walk through periods of history.

It’s a fluke that pulled me into it—one of the most beautiful parts of Nathan’s ranch became part of a state park. The [state parks] chairman called me up and said we need somebody to write the history of it. I said no, I’m in the middle of another book, and then one thing led to another.

In the case of my family, since we didn’t ask questions, we started to try to do this [research]. Most families don’t have someone who keeps a diary or keeps business records. I’m indebted to the explosion of information on the Internet. There wasn’t a single diary in the family, and all the business records were destroyed.

Once I got hooked, it became an enormous challenge. Not that other stories were not, but it was different because I was looking for clues about my family’s history.

Q: Was it hard to keep yourself as journalist separate from yourself as grandson?

A: It was different in a way. Thank goodness Mary Lynn Kotz is not only my wife, but has edited my books. I was reluctant to get into writing about stuff where there was conflict in the family. I did not want to hurt any of my cousins who are still alive. Thanks to Mary Lynn, she said you have to write about the conflict….

Q: What was the reaction from your cousins?

A: The principal reaction, from my generation and the next—they didn’t know the history. A lot were quite surprised to learn their family played an important role. I don’t think they thought about that. I heard a tiny bit [from] one unhappy person.

Q: So most people were fine with it?

A: And pleased! They didn’t know this [history].

Q: You write, “The first significant breakthrough in researching this book came from a telephone book.” Why was that?

A: The first thing I did, using these incredible new resources, I used these computerized searches, and if the name had been Smith, it would have been a lot more difficult.

I wrote 25 letters to people named Kallison, and the big breakthrough was from a lady in Los Angeles named Tavia Kallison. My wife and I were in Los Angeles, and we met Tavia, and her 96-year-old father, who drove his car all the way across Los Angeles to have dinner with us.

He brought along the jewel—a genealogical family tree with only one Kallison. It gave me the name of the village [the family came from], Ladyzhinka.

Late one night, I typed in Ladyzhinka, and up popped the name of a cemetery where [thousands of] Jews were buried. I sent a graduate student there. There were photographs embossed on the gravestones. She sent me via cell phone the pictures embossed on the Kallison headstones. Here, suddenly, another mystery was answered. There was a very nice picture on the wall in my uncle’s den. We could recognize the young Nathan Kallison [and now I could figure out that next to him] were his brothers.

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: I’m thinking about what I’m going to do next. I’ve decided I would spend my time…traveling with the book, talking to people, reading their e-mails—I’ve learned so much more…You hear wonderful stories.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: This is not a memoir. You don’t even know I’m there, unless you know there was a child named Nathan Kallison. I hope this book tells the story looking at big events--like World War I, World War II, the Depression—in a far more personal way. It’s history from the ground up and relating into wars, politics, and the economy. It’s an attempt to look at the history of the first two-thirds of the 20th century by following a family.

As a Jew, it amazes me, but it’s true of other people as well, we Jews of Russian ancestry know so little about the history of Jews in Russia over 700-800 years. It was a good czar, Alexander, getting assassinated and the arrival of another bad czar that stimulated the Jews to get out. I’m a reporter and I did a lot of reading; following the story of the Jews in Russia over 700 years was fascinating.

One other thing—from the 1880s to 1920, when immigration was cut off, 22 million immigrants came to the United States, and they came primarily from Eastern and Southern Europe. It had to have been one of the largest migrations in history in a short time. There were 2 million Jews.

I thought of the impact of those people, and this was at a critical time when the Industrial Revolution was starting to get going….what would the country be if those 22 million people had not come here at an important time in the country’s history?

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Nick Kotz will be participating in the Hyman S. and Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival, which runs from October 19-29, 2014, at the Washington DCJCC.