Sunday, February 1, 2015

Q&A with Carol Matas

Carol Matas is the author most recently of Tucson Jo, a 2014 National Jewish Book Awards finalist in the children's and young adult literature category. Her many other books for young people include Greater Than Angels, Of Two Minds, Pieces of the Past, and When I Die. She lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Q: You based the character of Jo's father on a real mayor of Tucson. How did you learn about him? 

A: My husband I are were visiting California at the time -- our favourite spot, Palm Springs -- and we saw a notice in the L.A. Times advertising an exhibit called "Jewish Life In The American West."

Since we are both fascinated with history and since I often write about Jewish history, (Sparks Fly Upward, The War Within, Sworn Enemies, as well as numerous Holocaust books) we arranged a time to drive in and visit the Autry Museum of Western Heritage where the exhibit was being held.

The entire exhibit was fascinating but something caught my eye -- a father and son portrait -- Jewish cowboys with guns and hats and all decked out!

I immediately was inspired to write a book about Jewish cowboys! Once I began my investigation I discovered that this portrait was of Charles Strauss Senior and Charles Strauss Junior, the first Jewish mayor of Tucson and his son.

It wasn’t until I was well into my research that I found out that the picture was for a postcard Charles Strauss had taken to send to his friends back in Boston. The cowboy gear was rented and the guns were props.

Charles Strauss was actually quite a “dandy” and his mission was to bring culture and propriety to the West, not to become a Wild West cowboy. 

Q: The character of Jo is fictional, but many of the events around her are based on actual history. What did you see as the right blend between fiction and history? 

A: This is a great question and this balance is really at the heart of crafting a good historical novel. Some historical novels, I feel, are so full of every little detail that you can see the author doesn’t want any of his/her research to go to waste. Others just get facts wrong, which is frustrating for the reader.

Somehow as an author you need to walk a fine line – get it all right but don’t let it get in the way of the story. In fact, the latter is just what I did at the start of this writing process. I was so determined to get everything correct re the life of Charles Strauss that the book read more like a biography than a novel.

It wasn’t until I made the decision to change his name and write the book as “inspired by the life of Tucson’s first Jewish Mayor” that I felt free to create my own story and my own characters. 

The other major concern for me re historical fiction is its relevance to today. The themes I write about are themes that have relevance to our present, and the questions I pose are those that young people might want to ask concerning their lives in the here and now.

For instance, I think the basic question of the book, the tug of war between freedom and the rule of law, is something we struggle with as democracies and something we need to think seriously about.

I point out that the only people in town legally able to carry firearms were lawmen. Outlaws were called that for a reason – they were not given the right to carry weapons. It is hard to understand, in our present, regulating banks, cars, lawyers, doctors, but not gun owners who can kill at will with their weapons.

Jo’s fight for the right to dress as she pleases also brings us into the present and the fight for women’s rights that is still very much ongoing. 

Q: What was life like for the Jewish community of Tucson in the 1880s? 

A: It was a very small community then and they had not yet built the first synagogue. The community met at each other’s homes and of course they all knew each other and, it seems, socialized with each other -  but there was very little antisemitism, which is why Jo is so shocked when it surfaces in the campaign. So they were very integrated into the larger community. 

Q: How did you research the book, and what surprised you most in the course of your research? 

A: Let me answer the last question first. The biggest surprise was the realization that the entire inspiration for the book was a lark on the part of Charles Strauss -- a photo he took merely for fun and to impress his friends back East. 

But we had other surprises in store for us. The second surprise came when my editor pressed me about the trousers issue. Jo demands that her father allow her to wear trousers. He adamantly refuses.

I had assumed that wearing trousers was frowned upon and thought it might even be illegal but couldn’t remember where I had read that or if it was true. Morri [Mostow at Fictive Press] wanted proof. And when we started to search what we discovered was amazing.

We discovered that Charles Strauss passed an ordinance about the dress code (see exact wording in the afterword) shortly after his election. There was a lot of misinformation on the Web including stating that the trousers law in Tucson was still on the books.

With help from the City Clerk’s Office in Tucson, Morri found out that the ordinance had been repealed in 1953. Because of all the misinformation floating about, Morri thought it was worth writing about the trousers issue in the afterword, quoting the ordinance and the details of its repeal.

We also discovered that it was city ordinance, not a law per se, the penalty being a large fine. 

In fact our research became so extensive that the Arizona Historical Society was just about to start charging us for our repeated inquiries.

We also talked to the clerks in Tucson City Office and to the librarians at the Pima County Library in our efforts to nail down certain times and dates.

For instance, finding out the exact date of the election was true detective work and was often wrong in the books we were using.

So now to the second part of the question. My husband Per and I travelled to Tucson and that is where most of the research took place- or started at least.

We visited the Arizona Historical Society first and were granted access to primary materials from the Charles Strauss Collection and from other collections from that time.

We also viewed the artifacts on display there, including a grocers from the 1880s -- I used that in my shopping lists in the book. We toured an historic home from the 1880s and I used that for the description of Jo’s house.

We bought many local books about the history of Tucson only available there and bought some map replicas that I was able to use to get accurate street names and places.

When we returned home I buckled down and read all the copies we had made and all the materials we had with us as well as using materials found on the Web and from books I had ordered. It was a pretty big job and I only started writing when I felt I had it all under my belt and I could concentrate on the story. 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I am working on a few projects presently. I’ve just finished a couple drafts of a new speculative fiction book for Scholastic.

While waiting to get the edit back on that I am reworking an earlier book called Past Crimes, which Fictive Press is going to reissue as part of a new series we are launching called “Palm Springs Paranormal.”

This series is about a young Jewish single mom living in Palm Springs who encounters past life events that impact her present. Since a portion of each book is set in the past I can explore history -- in Past Crimes it was the Inquisition, and the second book will be partly set in Italy (can’t give too much away), all in a thriller format.

So the series will combine two things I am fascinated with -- history and the unseen, spiritual forces which affect our lives. Also it will be for the New Adult market, which we hope will be more friendly to e-books than middle grade audiences.

I am also halfway through a fourth Freak book, Fame, about a Jewish girl who suddenly becomes psychic!  

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: Publishing with a small publisher and my best friend, Morri Mostow at Fictive Press, has been an amazing experience. She wanted this book to get out there and made sure it happened.

We had a huge learning curve -- especially when it came to the print on demand editions. For a while we couldn’t figure out how to get the distribution we wanted -- but we overcame just about everything together.

We made all the decisions jointly -- from the size of the book, to the print size, to the afterword, and even where to send the book for review with our limited resources. It was a crazy experiment but I am so happy we did it.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention another book we have published together, When I Die. It is a meditation of life and death for children and their families. My daughter-in-law, Bonnie Brask, did the photos and I think she did a beautiful job. I see it as a jumping-off point for talking about loss with young children.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb


  1. Fabulous post, thanks, Deborah! Carol, I can't wait to read your new work - sounds fascinating!