Monday, August 31, 2015

Q&A with Michael S. Green

Michael S. Green is the author of the new book Nevada: A History of the Silver State. His other books include Las Vegas: A Centennial History. He is an associate professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Q: What are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about Nevada?

A: It depends in part on which section of Nevada you're talking about. For the tourist cities of Las Vegas and Reno, and especially Las Vegas, many still think life ends where the main resort areas end.

That problem certainly is improving, and the attractions beyond the Strip and downtown Reno are many, but there's also an extremely diverse population dealing with the same kinds of issues that confront others throughout the country.

In rural Nevada, the perception is correct that it's strongly anti-government and heavily tilted toward mining and ranching, but the idea that Cliven Bundy exemplifies that way of life is wrong; a significant number of his fellow ranchers resent his behavior, and there is a well-educated core in the rural areas.

I think a lot of those outside the state continue to think and possibly hope that organized crime still plays an important role in the casino industry. There's no evidence that it does, but if the belief that it does attracts tourists, don't tell anybody! 

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

A: I had written a middle school-level textbook on Nevada, and a history of the coming of the Civil War for a series whose authors were to write syntheses, so I certainly was familiar with the idea of writing something different than the more traditional monograph.

I suspect that anyone who has written a general introduction to a subject, no matter how in-depth it is, will understand what this means: I started researching the book when my family moved to Las Vegas in 1967, when I was two.

Not formally research it, of course, but I started teaching Nevada history in 1987 and did it off and on for the community college and the university for a few years. From 1995 to 2014, I was full-time at the College of Southern Nevada, and taught 2-4 sections of it each semester.

In that sense, I was researching the book by teaching the subject, constantly digesting it, and learning, in turn, from my students about what interested them, what they knew about Nevada history, and what they--and I--didn't know about it.

I also published books, scholarly articles, and popular articles on the state's history over the same period of more than a quarter of a century.

So while I wasn't researching this particular book for most of that time, I was researching Nevada, and doing it in traditional and not-so-traditional ways.

Yes, I spent plenty of time in archives and scrolling through microfilm and even doing formal interviews. But I also had to be a string saver.

A significant amount of Nevada's history went unwritten, not just because few miners and other workers kept diaries, for example, that were available to me, but with so many in the gaming industry originating in organized crime or illegal gambling, they developed the habit of writing down as little as possible. This has meant a lot of listening and pondering and extrapolating.

In terms of surprises, one of them was good for avoiding excessive egotism: I learned how little I actually know! This is due partly to the lack of historical writing about significant chunks of Nevada and its history.

For example, there is one major scholarly history of Reno, and another that compares it with Las Vegas, but for some large parts of Reno's history--especially its ethnicity and diversity--I had to rummage around.

But it also has to do with realizing something about how we teach, especially at the college level. I have used textbooks on Nevada and they were especially good on what happened up to about 1900. So I tended to leave a lot of that material to the books.

Well, when you write a textbook, you don't get to leave it to somebody or something else! You can't hope to get ALL of it in there, but you certainly can't ignore components of it.

I also was surprised by the extent to which mining is still so important to Nevada. While I knew that it played an important role, we need to be reminded of how significant an industry it remains to this day.

Q: You write, "Luck has shaped Nevada." In which ways?

A: Some years ago, Marc Cooper, then writing for The Nation, interviewed me and asked me to sum up Nevada in as few words as possible, and luck struck me as a useful way.

Some of it has been what might be called dumb luck that benefited Nevadans: that travelers to and from the Gold Rush and prospectors in the central part of the state found ore, that Nevada happened to have the right climate and location for federal projects, etc.

Some of it has been the quest for luck: gamblers in particular, but also miners. As Ralph Denton, one of the people to whom I dedicated the book, liked to say, optimism is eternal in the prospector's heart. So it is with gamblers, even though the odds are heavily stacked against them. But they kept trying and keep trying.

Q: Looking ahead, what do you see for Nevada in terms of its people and politics?

A: As a historian, I'm tempted to say that if I knew that, I'd be in the stock market (unfortunately, that's where some of my retirement account is!).

I do see that water will continue to be a determinant of growth or the lack of it, and of prosperity or the lack of it.

Nevada, and especially southern Nevada, has been innovative in its approach to obtaining more water, and sometimes environmentally sensitive (reducing the number of lawns, among others means of cutting usage) and sometimes environmentally insensitive (the proposed pipeline up the eastern side of the state).

The changing climate will have an effect, but so will our (I use the possessive as a Nevadan) ingenuity and intelligence.

Another limitation is whatever is going on elsewhere: Nevada is one of the last states to pull out of the recession, and suffered a great deal with the reduction in travel after September 11, 2001; now corporations that went full-throttle into Macau are feeling the effects of the Chinese government's crackdown on corruption and economic issues. How the world and national and regional economies do in years to come will shape Nevada's future.

I do expect the continuing diversification of the population. The number of Hispanic people moving to the area, and those who have moved here expanding in population through natural growth, figures to continue and to reshape society, culture, and politics. We pay too little attention to the influx of Asian people, and they, too, will continue to come to Nevada.

The state is at a crossroads in terms of political ideology. A Republican governor with a Republican legislature pushed through a desperately needed tax increase, thanks to some of the Republicans and the unity of legislative Democrats. Now some of the more right-wing Republicans are trying to repeal it.

One of the main reasons that some anti-tax Republicans went along was the realization that Nevada's attempts at economic diversification suffered for the lack of progress in the state's educational system.

Problems remain and will continue, of course, but if Nevada's traditional anti-governmental attitudes prevail, Nevada will become even more dependent on tourism and mining, and suffer accordingly.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Recovering from the textbook! Actually, I always have too many projects going.

I am in varying and mostly early stages of work on three books: a history of the Great Basin in the 20th century for the University of Arizona Press, a history of organized crime in America for Rowman & Littlefield, and a book on Abraham Lincoln and Native Americans for Southern Illinois University Press.

The latter project will get me rolling on a bigger work about Lincoln (I'm actually a historian of 19th century America by training, or at least the only Eric Foner student ever likely to write a textbook history of Nevada).

I also am a board member of The National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, better known as The Mob Museum, and hope to work soon on an exhibit for that museum in Las Vegas, and I write for a local weekly (Vegas Seven) and history features for our public radio station ("Nevada Yesterdays" for KNPR).

Oh, and let's not forget my actual job: teaching history as a member of that department at UNLV.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 31

Aug. 31, 1916: Daniel Schorr born.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Q&A with Melanie Sumner

Melanie Sumner, photo by Michael Lionstar
Melanie Sumner is the author of the new novel How to Write a Novel. She also has written the novels The Ghost of Milagro Creek and The School of Beauty and Charm, and the short story collection Polite Society. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's and Seventeen, and she teaches at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.

Q: How did you come up with your main character, Aris?

A: I won a National Endowment for The Arts award to research and write a novel set in Alaska. After my research trip, I rented a dusty little office, previously occupied by some pigeons, and sat down to write the novel.  

To work through the writer’s block I was experiencing, I accessed the voice of this precocious tween, Aris, who was bubbling over with confidence. She had no qualms about writing a novel.
Q: You're writing from the perspective of a 12-year-old girl. How did you capture her voice?  

A: Her voice just came to me, so it must be a part of my psyche. She reminded me somewhat of my daughter, who is now 17, so I looked through old journals to find some things Zoe had said and done at that age.  

My children always reminded [me] of their half-birthdays, so it seemed right to put Aris in that shadowy age of 12.5. As the prologue suggests, she might not really be 12.5 years old. The novel is somewhat Proustian in its approach to time and space, exploring the ways we simultaneously inhabit multiple dimensions of this world.
Q: How did you decide on the premise of writing a novel about someone writing a novel, and did you know how the book would end before you started writing?  

A: I didn’t consciously set up the premise that Aris was writing a novel, but that’s what she was doing, and what she wanted to talk about, so that became a big part of the story. In revisions, I decided to structure the novel around her outline for a novel.  

I did not know how the book would end. Originally, I had a different ending, but when I asked my daughter what she thought about it, she suggested the one I have now.

Q: Which authors have inspired you?

A: I was deeply affected by the books I read as a teenager and a young adult. I read a lot of literary classics: Flannery O’Connor for character, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway for style (they aren’t as different as they seem), and Dostoyevsky for plot.  

On a recent reading binge, I devoured some of the novels and short stories of William Trevor, who inspired one of my favorite writers, Marisa Silver.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: At the moment, publicity work and teaching are filling my days, but I have started the novel set in Alaska, which explores the dynamics of a small, isolated community visited by a pathological liar.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Max is one of my favorite characters in How To Write A Novel. He is the small, persistent voice of truth. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 29

Aug. 29, 1632: John Locke born.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Q&A with Tracy Daugherty

Tracy Daugherty is the author of the new book The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion. His many other books include biographies of Joseph Heller and Donald Barthelme, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. He is Distinguished Professor of English and Creative Writing at Oregon State University.

Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of Joan Didion? 

A: I first read Joan Didion in 1978. I was 23, and wanted to be a writer, though I had no ambition then of becoming a biographer. 

I was a Beatles fan and probably bought Didion's essay collection, The White Album, because of its Beatle-esque title and the promise on the jacket flap that this book perfectly captured the spirit of the 1960s. 

And sure enough, the title essay seemed to me to embody the spirit of the decade that had shaped my young sensibilities. 

Its fragmented, collage-like structure was a revelation--not only because I didn't know you could write like that (all those white spaces! all those silences!) but because it showed me how style and prose rhythm were just as essential in conveying a subject as declarative statements were. 

From then on, I snapped up every new Didion book as soon as it hit the shelves. 

A few years ago, when Michael Homler, my editor at St. Martin's Press, suggested I write a third biography (following my books on Donald Barthelme and Joseph Heller), Didion was the natural choice. 

I consider the three biographies a kind of trilogy about late 20th century American literature: Barthelme an innovative short story writer, Heller an innovative novelist, and Didion one of the pioneers of New Journalism and personal nonfiction. 

Q: How did you research the book, and was there anything in particular that surprised you in the course of your research? 

A: The research was a combination of interviews, archival digging, and travel to Didion's stomping grounds.  

Some of Didion's old classmates, friends, and colleagues offered generous glimpses of her early career, and the archives--most notably her rough drafts, notebooks, and a few letters at Berkeley--rounded out the portrait of her life, in combination with hundreds of articles, reviews, interviews, and profiles published about Didion over the decades.

Q: You note that Didion is a fifth-generation Californian. How did her upbringing influence her writing? 

A: Didion remained a Westerner throughout her career, even when she was writing about New York or American domestic politics. 

Her sensibility and her voice were fashioned by what she once termed the "nihilism" of the West--the sparseness of Western deserts, the vastness of Western landscapes (dwarfing human ambitions), and the feeling that nothing much really matters in life, a feeling reinforced by time's marks in layered rock formations, Pacific ocean waves and the like: demonstrations of eons passing and the relative insignificance of human life.

Didion felt these colliding time-scales, and their consequences, in her bones.

Q: Has Joan Didion seen this book, and if so, what does she think about it? 

A: Didion chose not to cooperate with the book. To the best of my knowledge she has not seen it yet. I was not surprised that she wouldn't welcome a biography. She once said that writers are always selling somebody out. 

As one of our period's pre-eminent writers, she has always been healthily wary of other scribes. (Though I hope she'll feel that, far from selling her out, I've honored and respected her.)   

Q: How was the book’s title chosen? 

A: Didion's early essay, "John Wayne: A Love Song" described the world of her youthful dreams. The phrase "The Last Love Song" echoed that early piece and suggested an examination of her late work. 

Also, her last two books, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, about the deaths of her husband and daughter, respectively, are powerful late-life valentines to the people she loved. 

In general, Didion's work is a long love song--not without criticism--of America.
Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I'm writing fiction--short stories and novellas (recently, I published a story collection with Johns Hopkins University Press called The Empire of the Dead) as well as nonfiction about a Texas writer named Billy Lee Brammer, whose life bridged D.C. politics as well as the ‘60s counterculture, and a study of a Victorian-era astronomer and Dante scholar named Mary Evershed.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 28

Aug. 28, 1913: Robertson Davies born.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Q&A with Margaret Verble

Margaret Verble is the author of the new novel Maud's Line. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including The Saturday Evening Post and the Arkansas Review. She also has worked as a consultant and small business owner for several decades. An enrolled and voting citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, she lives in Lexington, Kentucky, and Old Windsor, England.

Q: How did you come up with your main character, Maud, and with the idea for this book?

A: I came up with Maud because I had been told by several people that in order to get a first novel published, it was best to have a single story character.

I knew I wanted to write about Cherokees; I wanted to set the novel earlier than when I set it, but if I did that, I would have to write about a group because it was still such a tribal setting. I had to set it at the time period where a sense of individuality was arising—that was around the 1920s.

Q: So did you come up with the time period first or the story first?

A: The time period first. I wanted to write about the land. It’s my family’s land; it has sustained me through my life. I started reading and thinking about the time period…

Steinbeck had written about the Depression. I went to the 1920s. 1927 and 1929 had been written about a great deal. I settled on the year 1928. Then I settled on what kind of life the character would be living and the character just appeared!

Q: What kind of research did you do to recreate the 1920s in Oklahoma?

A: I did background reading on the 1920s. I read a couple of books on the great flood of 1927. Other than that, I didn’t read a lot of books; I knew what that life was like.

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: I had no idea how the novel would end. I never know. I finished the first draft of another one--I get 30-40,000 words in, and I think these are dreadful people! It’s always good to get to the conclusion!

Q: Family is one of the key themes in the novel. Is the depiction of Maud’s family dynamics somewhat typical of life in this part of Oklahoma during the 1920s among members of the Cherokee tribe?

A: It’s typical of my family. It’s ultimately my own family I’m writing about. Since I finished the novel, I’ve read a book on the structure of the Cherokee family—it’s a good scholarly piece of work—and evidently that’s what they all were like.

Q: How did you pick the book’s title?

A: The book was originally titled "Maud’s Allotment." I sent it off to New York, and it was bought by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt with that title. They…decided “allotment” sounded heavy, and people who were not Indians would not know what it meant. My editor came up with “Maud’s Line”…I capitulated.

Q: Which authors have inspired you?

A: I guess my favorite author was Flannery O’Connor. My favorite living author is Hilary Mantel. I don’t know—I wouldn’t say Hilary Mantel inspired me, except to be better! Flannery O’Connor got into my bones early on, when I was a young woman…her picture of the world is hilarious and sad all at the same time.

Q: What does the character Maud represent about women in that time period?

A: Cherokee women have always had a lot more independence than their white counterparts. Up until the 1820s they owned all the property and children. Men came and went. Women controlled everything. Into the next century, you see that going on.

They’re all with each other, holding the family together too. [In the book] the matriarch was dead, the grandfather’s wife, but all the aunts were around.

That was a time demographically, when you look at the 1920 census, the first time in the history of America where more people were living in cities. In the 1930 census [you can see that] people fled from the farms. That was going on [including] among Cherokees.

Q: So were the characters based on your actual family members?

A: Maud’s entirely fictional. Booker’s entirely fictional. The other characters are based loosely or very closely on members of my own family.

Q: Were they people you knew as you were growing up?

A: Maud’s Aunt Nan and Uncle Ryde were my grandparents. All of them except Booker and Maud are literally my aunts and uncles. Maud’s little female cousin Renee is my mother.

Q: Is Maud’s brother Lovely a real person?

A: Only vaguely real. My mother had a first cousin I didn’t hear about until I was a grown woman. He was a gorgeous-looking Indian man, Mark—he spent his entire life in an insane asylum.

Mark always haunted me. When I created Lovely, what I wanted to do was give life to people who are dead and never had a real chance. They had to put [Mark] away when he was 16 or 17. I based [Lovely] loosely on Mark.

[The characters] Lucy and Viola—the woman Viola is based on was still alive when I was a little girl; she lived to be 103. They all liked her. She was their aunt by marriage and also a cousin by blood.

Q: You said you’re working on another novel—can you say more about it?

A: It’s set in Tulsa in 1930.

Q: With the same characters?

A: I’ve just done a first draft—we’ll have to see!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: That cow [in the book’s first chapter] really was axed in the back. It was a problem we were having with our neighbors. When a cow was axed, you have to kill [it]. I knew…the neighbors were axing our cows, and that haunted me.

Once I got that scene over with, I didn’t know what to do with the novel! I knew I had a great character in Maud, and then I brought a bright blue wagon along, and Maud was in control of the story. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 27

Aug. 27, 1871: Theodore Dreiser born.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Q&A with Lisa Appignanesi

Lisa Appignanesi is the author of the new book Trials of Passion: Crimes Committed in the Name of Love and Madness. Her many other books include Mad, Bad, and Sad, All About Love, and Losing the Dead. She is Visiting Professor of Literature and the Medical Humanities at King's College London.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for this book, and how did you select the cases on which you focus?

A: This is a book about the theatre of the courtroom and justice on trial. Yet it seemed to follow rather seamlessly from my last two, though I didn’t know when I started out that this would be where my research and fascination with this whole field would take me.

I have always been interested in the ways our minds and emotions work, as well as the ways thinkers and writers of various kinds have understood the processes involved. And of course how these understandings then inflect the way we understand ourselves and each other. 

I’m also intrigued by what we could call popularization or the dissemination of ideas.  It turns out the criminal courts are prime sites for this last. 

In Mad, Bad and Sad, the first book of what I now think of as a loose trilogy, I told the story of the growth of the mind doctoring professions from 1800 to the present, more or less; how madness was understood once it had ceased to be seen as a matter of divine or satanic possession; how patients and in particular women (who were long thought to be closer to madness), fell into or helped to shift the ways of thinking about madness in their times.

I also looked at the "dominant" forms of diagnosis in given historical moments, from hysteria to our own period’s depression, anxiety and eating disorders.

There is a sense that from early on, through Freud and into the present, love and what we could call its deformations are considered as precipitating causes of madness. 

So in my next book, All About Love, I thought I would look at the ways we experience love — how these have in some ways been constant and in others have changed. 

I looked at love not only in its passionate and carnal aspects, but in the way it percolates through the family and amidst friends. I was interested in digging up the more benign aspects of love, since so much of our literature and popular culture (although they urge us to experience it, to find the one and ultimate only) never fail to concentrate on the disasters of love.

It then seemed to me that I hadn’t touched sufficiently on the “mad” extremes of loving – what has been called “l’amour fou.” That’s in part what led to Trials of Passion.

The other historical aspect I felt I hadn’t focused on enough was the way the mind-doctoring professions influenced not only the practices of caring for the mad and the ways we understand various forms of madness, but also one of basic institutions of society, the law. 

So Trials is a book that explores the kind of extreme love which leads to acts of violence, as well as the ways more modern understandings of the mind, have influenced law and justice.  One strand of it deals with the rise of the expert witness.

As in all my books, I like to focus in on individual experience, on cases, if you like. Finding the cases for these books wasn’t easy, since I wanted ones which illuminated the person, the crime, but also the interaction of the law and the psy professions.

And finally ones which gave us a clear sense of the historical moment and how the trials themselves helped to shape public attitudes and understanding. In other words, trials that became famous in their own day and took up substantial space in the papers. I trawled the archives, read books…

This is how I came up with the Case of the Brighton Borgia, Christiana Edmunds, in the Victorian period; the Case of Marie Biere, the performer who travelled the provincial circuit in a Third Republic France where feminist ideas where coming into play, and the other “criminals” who drew some inspiration from her case.  

Finally in the U.S., the case I settled on, in part because it captured the imagination of the epoch but also because the number of psychiatrists who gave expert witness was larger than has ever been seen, was that of Harry K Thaw, the Pittsburgh millionaire who killed the great architect Stanford White, for love of his "poster" and chorus girl, the nubile Evelyn Nesbit.

Q: You write, "Though the line between madness and badness becomes increasingly difficult to draw, the authorities all agree that the line is fundamental to any legal system." How did the drawing of that line change during the period you write about?

A: What happened when the psychiatrists and eventually psychologists came into the legal process is that the complexities and “unreason” or “unwittingness” of human behaviour was illuminated in the courtroom. 

Once the law ceases (only partially, of course) to posit that the person in the dock is a fully rational being, then the idea of evil, of the monster, begins to leave the room. Badness becomes more difficult to pin down. This is what happens in the period I write about. But this is never a once-and-for-all process.

Though the criminal law has changed, it hasn’t changed all that much – in the West, there was always an insanity defence, but what comprises insanity shifts through time. Simultaneously, no sooner is there what we might call a lenient verdict on a much-reported case, then the pendulum shifts and judge and juries grow more punitive. 

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

A: The research for this book was ever surprising – and there was so much more I’d like to have put in. Going through those legal archives, particularly in France, the brittle, frayed pages that contained the “dossier” and the verdict on a life, with all its loose ends showing, was exciting. 

But when it came to it, it seemed to me form needed to govern scattergun content and I had to choose what stories to bring to life. I also felt that I needed to give these “criminals” their due.  They’re real, after all, and inhabited a historical moment, not a movie script.  

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m now working on a book which has the working title Becoming History. My daughter is now a young academic and she studies times I grew up through.

Ever since I wrote Losing the Dead, about my parents’ war and its floating legacies, I’ve been interested in the way memory and history can tell very different stories. So I guess this is a kind of memoir, but not altogether… 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 26

Aug. 26, 1921: Ben Bradlee born.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Q&A with Patricia Raybon

Patricia Raybon is the co-author, with her daughter Alana Raybon, of the new book Undivided: A Muslim Daughter, Her Christian Mother, Their Path to Peace. Patricia Raybon also has written I Told the Mountain to Move and My First White Friend, and her writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times Magazine and Newsweek. She lives in Colorado.

Q: How did you and your daughter decide to write this book together, and did you pass chapters back and forth as you were writing? 

A: As mother and daughter, we wrote this book to heal an impasse. Things were so bad in our relationship we couldn't talk about faith without arguing. Bitterly. Eventually we stopped talking--about faith anyway. It was the elephant in the room. Awkward and inauthentic.

So I approached Alana to invite her to join me in writing about our interfaith struggle. As a writer by training, I use writing to help me think, discover, analyze, learn and grow. It’s also my way of prayer.

To be honest, writing is also safe for me. I’m a journalist by training and I’ve written published books. Alana is a beautiful writer in her own right. For these and other reasons, a book was the only way I could imagine us tackling our division. Gratefully, Alana agreed and joined me on the journey.

As for the writing itself, we wrote journal style, alternating twice in each chapter. So, yes, we passed our writing back and forth. Waiting for the next section from each other was an exercise in great patience! But as we moved through the process, the need to be patient and open-minded hopefully paid off and worked.  

Q: In the book, you ask the question, "How did we come to this moment in time and, by faith, become divided?" What did you conclude when you examined how religion divided the two of you? 

A: What I learned relates to the generational difference between my daughter and me. I grew up in the Jim Crow era of the 1950s and 1960s. For my African American family, not many places felt safe and welcoming--except the church.

So I grew to love "church" and the Christ of the church. The church was my sanctuary literally--and the Bible stories that nurtured me as a child became a lifeline, while Jesus became my Savior and friend.

Alana grew up in the 1980s with a completely different attitude about the church and its role in her life. In the end, she chose to follow a non-Christian belief system. I was shocked. How could she not choose Christ? Answering that question was a key part of this book's journey. 

Q: In one of her sections, your daughter writes, "I want us to become the model for a successful, happy interfaith family." Do you think you've been able to achieve that, and how did writing the book affect your relationship? 

A: For sure, we're not the poster children for a "successful, happy, interfaith family." Instead, we represent a mother and daughter who committed to working through their differences to remain connected.

We disagree on many things, especially related to faith. But we learned to respect one another. If that's success, then I'm happy to say such success is possible.

As for the impact of writing a book on our relationship, the process allowed us to both step back from the tension of our division--to start talking to one another. But also asking questions and listening.

In fact, the work of asking questions--what do you think, how do you feel, why do you believe--was absolutely life-changing, especially for me. As a mother, I'd framed my relationship with Alana as her teacher--as in, let me tell you what to do, think, wear, behave, etc.

Now as an adult woman, Alana was asking me to graduate from that role and respect her as a grown person who has her own points of view--and also has the right to have them.

That's asking a lot of a mother, but when your children are adults, it's time to move on to a healthy grown-up dynamic. Writing this book helped me take that next step, and both Alana and I are grateful I did! 

Q: Do you think your struggles are at least somewhat representative of what many interfaith families go through? 

A: Absolutely. Parents want desperately to pass down their values and beliefs to their children. Doing so says you succeeded as a parent. When a grown child rejects those beliefs, the pain of rejection is devastating.

Alana now admits she didn't realize how hurt I was by her conversion to a different faith. Once she realized the depth of my hurt and worked to show she cared I was hurting--and I, in turn, let her know how grateful I was for her concern--we finally turned the corner.

Many families, sadly, are still stuck on hurt. My prayer is they learn what I discovered with Alana--that peace is a choice. It's a path and a journey which we walk day by day. But peace is also a choice. I choose to live in peace with you.

Choosing kindness over hurt. Consideration over indifference. Friendship over animosity. Love over hate. Intentional peace. When I fail at this, as a Christian, I go back to Christ to spend more time with Him. As the Bible says, "He himself is our peace." (Ephesians 2:14) Drawing closer to him renews me to rejoin Alana on our journey.  

Q: Will the two of you collaborate on more books? 

A: Time will tell! Please stay tuned. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 25

Aug. 25, 1921: Brian Moore born.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Q&A with P.J. Brackston

P.J. Brackston is the author of the new mystery novel Once Upon a Crime. She also has written Gretel and the Case of the Frog Prints, and, as Paula Brackston, has written a series of books including The Midnight Witch, The Winter Witch, and The Witch's Daughter. She lives in Wales.

Q: How did you come up with the idea of having a grown-up Gretel (as in "Hansel and Gretel") work as a detective, and how did you invent Hans and Gretel's respective personalities?

A: I had been thinking about writing a crime novel for a while and wanted a protagonist who would bring something new to the business of detective work. One day a grown-up Gretel just popped (quite loudly) into my head. I could hear her voice, see what she looked like, and knew straight away that I would have a lot of fun writing about her.

Once I’d hit on the idea of having her still living with her brother it made sense to me that she would be the clever one, and he would be, well, not the sharpest pencil in the box. To be honest, there is a lot of me in Gretel, although she is braver than I am, and I don’t wear heels. Otherwise she is pretty much my alter ego.
Q: Which are your own favorite fairy tales?

A: There are so many, it’s really hard to pick just one. I think I like the crueller ones, the ones that really send a bit of a shiver down your spine, or at least, they did when I was younger.

Of course, not all fairy tales were written for children. It’s quite a modern convention to sanitize and soften the stories so that they can be read by or to the very young. Most of the older ones are stark warnings of what can happen if you are stupid or reckless or even just plain unlucky.

I’ve always liked the versions of Hansel and Gretel that included real danger. The ones where the witch herself gets pushed into the oven, or sometimes the heartless step-mother gets her comeuppance, those have more power, I think.

And it is a story where the girl takes charge, which I like. In most tellings, it’s Hansel who comes up with the idea of escape, then gets them into trouble, then his sister gets them out of it. Gretel is doomed to spend the rest of her life saving her brother, I’m afraid.

Q: You also write under the name Paula Brackston. Why did you decide on a different name to write your Grimm mysteries?

A: The two series are quite different. While I’m sure some readers will like both, I wanted to be clear that these are not the historical-fantasies people already might know me for. The Detective Gretel books are new and something a little unusual, so I wanted to flag that up.

Also, it is sad but true, that it can be helpful to take a name that is gender-free. I’m happy for people to know that I am a woman, but I don’t want it to be the first thing they find out about me. It is easy to get pigeon-holed as a woman writer, or writer of women’s fiction.

So far I’ve had just about equal numbers of men and women reading the Brothers Grimm books, and I’ve really pleased about that.

Q: Do you know how your novels will end before you start writing, or do you make many changes as you go along?

A: Well, I like to think I know, but I often find out I’m wrong! When I’m constructing a crime story I am really building a puzzle, so it’s important to know which direction to take, when to take it, what clues to leave where, and so on. That all goes a lot better, I find, if I have a clear idea of where I’m headed.

But it’s great to be surprised while you’re writing, and I love it when a story gathers its own momentum. Gretel has a habit of charging off at an unexpected tangent. I like to follow her and see where she goes.

Having said that, I do have the main facts of each case sorted out in my mind before I start writing. I certainly know who committed the crime(s) and why, although the “how” can evolve a little more slowly.

I have a friend who is a very successful and experienced crime writer and she says of her own books that she doesn’t know “who dunnit” until about two thirds of the way through writing the first draft! I couldn’t do that.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: We are just putting the finishing touches to the next book in the series, The Fickle Mermaid — due out in January. Gretel gets to go on a cruise in order to take on a case. Of course, she has to take Hans…

And then I begin work on another of her adventures. I’ve got the title and the synopsis figured out and am now at the brainstorming stage.

I love this phase. I take huge pieces of paper and draw mind maps and make lists of characters, possible names, locations, clues, twists, etc. It’s great fun.

My family rolls their eyes when they see me doing this, day after day, as they don’t consider it “proper work.” Whatever that is. They prefer to see me hunched over my keyboard for months at a time, frowning at the screen. They think that looks more like writing. Truth is, every stage is as important as the next.

After playing around with ideas I’ll thrash out an outline, some more detailed character notes, a list of key scenes, and then go back to books and maps and films and do further research.

I need to tune into the nuances of 18th century speech. And I love browsing fashions of the time to get ideas for Gretel’s extensive wardrobe. And I always try to find a sub-plot for Hans. And to think of ways to develop Gretel’s will-they-won’t-they relationship with Ferdinand.
I love my job!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Gretel has her own Pinterest board (look for @paulabrackston)! I’d love for people to alert me to anything Bavarian or foodie or fashion-based that you think Gretel might like.

 There’s also a trailer for the books on my website, which has "The March of the Trolls" as its theme tune. Hope you enjoy it!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb