Saturday, April 30, 2016

Q&A with Stephen Kelman

Stephen Kelman is the author of the new novel Man on Fire, which focuses on a man who leaves England for India and befriends another man who tries to break world records in various feats. Kelman also wrote the novel Pigeon English, which was shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize. He lives in St. Albans, England.

Q: Your character Bibhuti is based on a real person. Why did you decide to fictionalize his story, and what does he think of the book?

A: Bibhuti is not just a real person, he is also perhaps my closest friend, so I felt some trepidation in fictionalizing his story – but there were things I felt I could achieve with fiction that I wouldn’t have been able to with a straight biography.

I also knew that, being an outsider myself, any attempt to portray India from an insider point of view would be fraught with ethical questions.

And really, knowing Bibhuti as well as I do, I didn’t have to work too hard to imagine him in some of the fictional situations I put him in throughout the novel.

For his part, and to my great relief, Bibhuti was very happy to feature in a work of my imagination – he was curious to see where the story would lead and he loves the character based on him!

His blessing meant everything to me, and I wouldn’t have proceeded with the book if I didn’t have it. But fiction can take us, as writers and readers, to places that fact can’t reach, and Bibhuti is as interested in that journey as I am.

Q: The story is told by Bibhuti and a fictional character, John Lock, in turn. Why did you choose to have two narrators, and why did you write each in first person?

A: I wanted to introduce an English character and have him and Bibhuti’s character play off each other.

It’s the outsider perspective of the English character, John Lock, that provides the dramatic tension I was looking for, and which allowed me to explore themes of friendship, co-dependency and colonial exploitation and reconciliation.

The relationship between Bibhuti and John is at one level a mirror for the relationship between India and the UK, its former colonial ruler.

It was important that these two characters each have their own independent voice. They begin the story as polar opposites, antagonists in a sense, and end it having rubbed off on each other and found themselves to be more alike than they realised.

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

A: I usually know how the story will end before I know how it begins. The final scene is what comes to me first. It’s just the way my mind works, I guess.

Knowing where the characters will end up, it’s then a very interesting task for me to figure out how they got there. Perhaps that method is what keeps me focussed throughout the writing of the novel – a good thing, as I’m restless by nature and quite easily distracted.

Q: Which authors have influenced you?

A: Although I’m a Brit, I’ve always tended towards North American writers – in particular Kurt Vonnegut and John Steinbeck. I’ve tried not to imitate their styles, but their sensibilities and their politics inform my writing.

Vonnegut is everything to me. His humanity, directness, and appreciation of the absurd are qualities I admire. Steinbeck’s sympathy with the underdog is something I share, due in no small part to the circumstances of my own upbringing. I am always looking to give voice to people who are in one way or another underrepresented.

Going back to the beginning, I wouldn’t be the writer I am had I not discovered The Adventures of Tom Sawyer when I did. I first read it at the age of 7, and it had a profound effect on me both personally and in determining the kinds of stories I wanted to tell.

Q: What are you working on now?

 A: I’m currently writing my third novel, which is actually in an American voice – I hope you guys will forgive the imitation! 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 30

April 30, 1877: Alice B. Toklas born.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Q&A with Pamela D. Toler

Pamela D. Toler is the author of the new book Heroines of Mercy Street: The Real Nurses of the Civil War. It is a companion to the PBS series Mercy Street. She also has written Mankind: The Story of All of Us and The Everything Guide to Understanding Socialism, as well as a biography for kids, Matt Damon. She has a Ph.D. in history, and she lives in Chicago.

Q: How did you end up writing this companion to the PBS series Mercy Street?

A: The simple answer is that they asked me to. 

PBS was looking for a writer to produce a work of historical non-fiction as a companion to their new historical drama about Civil War nurses. A book packager I had worked with before recommended me based on my track record on a previous project. 

But at some level that's just the mechanics of publishing. The fact is that this project appealed to my history-nerd roots in very fundamental ways.

I've been fascinated for a long time with the roles women play in war and how those roles are rooted in and occasionally help change a society's fundamental beliefs about women.

Q: You begin the book with Dorothea Dix. Why did you start with her, and what do you see as her legacy today?

A: Many women were personally interested in volunteering to help the war effort, on both sides of the conflict. Dix had a larger vision: she proposed the creation of a corps of army nurses based on Florence Nightingale's successes in the Crimean War. 

As the Superintendent of Women Nurses, Dix appointed more than three thousand nurses, roughly 15 percent of the total who served with the Union army and more than any other person or organization involved with nursing in the Civil War.

The question of Dix's legacy is more complicated. Dix was a very successful reformer. She knew how to inspire others to action.  But she wasn't good at running an organization. She treated the nursing corps as a web of personal relationships with herself at the center. 

George Templeton Strong, treasurer of the United States Sanitary Commission and definitely not a Dix fan, wrote what I think is an accurate description of her personality and work style: "[Dorothea Dix] is energetic, benevolent, unselfish and a mild case of monomania; working on her own hook, she does good, but no one can cooperate with her for [she] belongs to the class of comets, and can be subdued into relations with no system whatever."

Ultimately, I think we should accept Dix's own assessment of her career, which was that her service in the Civil War was a footnote to her real work as a reformer. 

Q: You write, "Nursing as a skilled profession barely existed in the mid-nineteenth century, with the exception of a few religious orders." How was the profession affected by the Civil War, and how many nurses worked during that period?

A: For the most part, nursing for pay, especially nursing in a hospital, was not considered a job for respectable women in the mid-19th century.

In fact, most women had some domestic experience of nursing. Most women of the time could expect to take care of an ailing family member or neighbor at some point in their lives. 

Beyond this common experience of domestic nursing, a few women worked as private nurses for well-to-do families—they were basically temporary domestic servants who performed the same services a family member might perform in a less wealthy home.

It was a large step down the social scale from private nurses to the women who worked as hospital nurses, due in part to the nature of the hospitals themselves. For the most part, hospitals were charity institutions—Bellevue in New York City was also known as the Almshouse hospital. They existed only in the largest cities. 

Even in large cities, female family members attended the ill at home if at all possible. Only the poor and the desperate went to a hospital when they were ill. 

Not surprisingly, women who were willing to work as hospital nurses typically as desperate as their patients. Hospital nursing was a job for women who had few options left.

For example, at Bellevue Hospital in New York, the nurses were for the most part "ten-day women." These were women who were arrested for public drunkenness or disorderly conduct were sentenced to 10 days in the workhouse. Once they sobered up, these “ten-day” women could be paroled if they agreed to work as nurses in the Bellevue wards for a month.  

British nursing advocate Florence Nightingale summed up the public perception of hospital nurses, describing them as women “who were too old, too weak, too drunken, too dirty, too stolid or too bad to do anything else." 

Nightingale herself was responsible for a gradual change in the reputation of hospital nursing that had begun only a few years before the Civil War, thanks to her ground- breaking work in the Crimean War in 1854 and the publication of the best-selling Notes on Nursing in 1859. 

Her career and her advocacy of nursing as a vocation caught the public imagination in the United States as well as in Great Britain. American women read her book and were inspired by her vision.   When the Civil War brought a need for nursing there were women who were eager to follow her example. 

By one estimate, more than 20,000 women served as nurses during the war. Their collective experience convinced Americans of the need for skilled nurses. 

In 1868, the American Medical Association, then a relatively new organization, recommended that general hospitals open schools to train nurses. By 1880, there were a total of 15 nursing schools in the United States; by 1900 there were 432.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm writing a history of architecture aimed at high school students.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I think the most important part of the story of Civil War nurses is what they did after the war. Many of them used their new experience at organizing and at elbowing their way through hostile bureaucracies to make their world a better place. 

If you look at any reform movement in the last half of the 19th century, you'll probably find a former Civil War nurse or two involved. Or in charge.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Jillian Cantor

Jillian Cantor is the author most recently of the novel The Hours Count. It looks at the lives of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed for espionage in 1953, through the eyes of a neighbor. Cantor's other books include the novel Margot and the young adult novel Searching for Sky. She lives in Arizona.

Q: The novel's title comes from a Pablo Picasso quote about the Rosenbergs, which you include in the book. Why did you choose that as the title?

A: My editor actually found this quote and suggested it as a title. I was about halfway through writing the first draft at the time and I absolutely loved it. 

I loved that it was a real quote about the Rosenbergs but also that it applied to Millie’s life as a mother. I never really understood the expression the days are long but the years are short until I had kids! (And you see this expression makes it into the book as Millie reflects on her own life as a mother to two boys). 

I kept thinking about the fact that Ethel didn’t get to see her sons grow up, all the hours and small moments she missed with them, and how those are the things that really count as a mother. I think the title really gets at the heart of the motherhood aspect of the book. 

Q: As someone who's written for adults and teenagers, is your writing process similar, or are there differences depending on your audience?

A: My writing process is pretty much the same, no matter what I’m writing. I’m most interested in the characters, their relationships and telling a good story. It’s the characters and their emotional journey that draw me in first and foremost.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just finished revising my next historical novel. It’s about a fictional stamp engraver in Austria in the late 1930s and a woman in LA in 1989 who finds a letter with one of his stamps and begins to unravel his long forgotten love story. It’ll be published by Riverhead, sometime in 2017.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Q&A with Anita Hughes

Anita Hughes, photo by Sheri Geoffreys
Anita Hughes is the author of the new novel Island in the Sea. Her other novels include Rome in Love and French Coast. Born in Sydney, Australia, she lives in Dana Point, California.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your characters Juliet and Lionel in Island in the Sea, and why did you decide to have the characters work in the music business?

A: Actually, first I came up with the idea of setting the book in the music industry, then I came up with the characters. I wondered what it would be like to be a famous songwriter who writes love songs but has been betrayed in love. Could you still write about love?

Then, I thought, what if a beautiful young woman appeared who held your career in your hands and you began to fall in love with her. I also threw in Lionel's boss as the person who betrayed Lionel and the man who Juliet answers to.

Q: The novel takes place on the island of Majorca. How important is setting to you in your writing, and could this novel have taken place in another location?

A: Setting is very important to me when I write - it is actually the first thing I think about. It has to be somewhere I want to spend the next three months (the amount of time it takes me to write the novel) and ideally it has to have history as well as natural beauty.

I have always been in love with Majorca (and Spain in general) so I thought it would be the perfect setting.

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

A: I generally know how my novels will end but often there are surprises. As I write, I understand my characters’ motivations better and they can make different choices than I originally intended. There were definitely twists towards the end that changed things a bit.

Q: Your chapters alternate between Juliet's and Lionel's perspectives. Why did you decide to write it that way, rather than just from Juliet's viewpoint?

A: I love writing from a man's point of view! Especially Lionel's. He is jaded and often depressed but I think he offers great wisdom.

I also think you can tell a richer story by writing from alternate points of view. Juliet is fresh and young and has her whole life before her. Lionel is trying to do damage control and pick himself up and start again.

Q:  What are you working on now?

A: My next book, Santorini Sunsets, comes out on August 2. It is about a young New York philanthropist who travels to the Greek island of Santorini for her wedding to a Hollywood heartthrob. Everything is great until she discovers her ex-husband hiding in the rose bushes!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I have a third book coming out this year, Christmas in Paris. It will be released on October 4. It is about Paris and Christmas - two of my favorite things!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Kathy Cannon Wiechman

Kathy Cannon Wiechman and her husband, Jim Wiechman
Kathy Cannon Wiechman is the author of Empty Places, a new novel for young readers. It takes place in Harlan County, Kentucky, during the Great Depression. She also has written Like A River: A Civil War Novel. She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Empty Places, and for your main character, Adabel?

A: I wanted to write a story about how Hard Times impacted people who had always experienced hard times. Adabel came into my mind almost fully formed. She seemed to speak to me and tell her story. 

Q: How did you research Harlan County, Kentucky, in 1932, and how did you recreate the dialect your characters speak?

A: I visited Harlan County numerous times and listened and learned. I spent time in museums and talked to residents. I lined up a coal mine expert, who answered all my questions. I read a lot of books about life during the Great Depression.

Q: Adabel is seeking answers to questions she has about her mother, who disappeared many years earlier. Did you know how the book would end before you started writing, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: I went into it with an idea where it could go, but I changed my mind a few times when new ideas came to me. I even added a new character long after I had thought the book was finished. I used my husband's family as models for some aspects of the story.

Q: Adabel is 13. Why did you select that age for her, and what age do you think is right for the readers of the novel?

A: At first, I envisioned Adabel as 14, but when I discussed her with my editor, we decided she needed to be 13. Anyone eight years old or older is a good reader for Empty Places.

I recently did a radio interview, and the interviewer was given a copy of the book in advance. He read it cover to cover and enjoyed it without knowing it was intended for younger readers. I think no one is too old to like the book.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am currently working on a novel about the 1937 Flood in the Ohio River Valley.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Empty Places is my second published novel. My first is Like A River, A Civil War Novel.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 28

April 28, 1926: Harper Lee born.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Q&A with David A. Kessler

Dr. David A. Kessler is the author of the new book Capture: Unraveling the Mystery of Mental Suffering. His other books include The End of Overeating and A Question of Intent. A pediatrician, he was commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration during the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations and has been dean of the Yale and University of California, San Francisco medical schools.

Q: You write, “When something commands our attention in a way that feels uncontrollable and, in turn, influences our behavior, we experience capture.” How did you come to this conclusion, and how did it connect with your work on food and tobacco addiction?

A: It started with tobacco. Back in the early 1990s as part of our investigation into the industry, we had to learn everything about addiction. Science has evolved over the last two decades.

Addiction is a cue-induced wanting, based on past memory—it grasps my attention and narrows my attention, and stimulates thoughts of wanting: If I smoke, that calms me down and makes me feel better. Next time I’ll do it again. It strengthens the neural circuits…

Addiction really is our learned behavior to this response. That was a decade learning about addiction. Then I became very interested in the chocolate chip cookie and why it has power over you—it’s gooey, warm, you can smell it, your attention will go to it, and there will be the urge to consume. The hand will go to the chocolate chip cookie because the brain is engaged.

A few minutes of bliss, and then a few minutes later, I say, Why did I do this? Then I get cued again. That was the last 20 years, focusing on [food and] eating.

The question is, is that mechanism by which our attention is seized and there’s arousal and it stimulates thoughts, to what extent is a similar mechanism involved in a range [of other behaviors]? It’s the question I set out to explore in the book, to see whether a mechanism was at play.

Q: You begin your book with a discussion of the writer David Foster Wallace, and come back to him throughout the book. Why did you choose to focus on him?

A: I was very interested in understanding whether this mechanism applied in depression. At the time I was beginning to ask questions, David had recently killed himself, and he was viewed as one of the great writers of our generation. We went to the same college, he a decade [later].

What I was looking for were data of the experience of being depressed. I have all the MRIs, neurobiological studies, but what I wanted was what the experience was like. David focused in the great humanities tradition. One of the gifts I was given is the great writers, philosophers, theologians who thought about his in different terms than neurobiological terms.

If you experience depression, what was the experience like?
He tried to grapple in his fiction and nonfiction with these questions. He, better than anyone, was able to articulate what it felt like…

What you see is that capture involves not only the effect on how we feel, but what David articulated exceptionally well was how the output of capture, how he felt, became the input that then maintained his depression.

He was a master of understanding. His intense self-doubt, the sense he was a fraud, made him feel sad, and the sadness that came over him…became input: I can’t shake this sadness. It maintains the cycle. There is this feedback loop.

Q: You write, “While capture is often the source of great pain and suffering, it can also grip us in positive ways.” What are some of the ways it can serve a positive function?

A: That’s a crucial aspect of capture. You can be captured by positive things and negative things. Things we’re captured by can make us feel bad or good. The reason why there’s hope we can be released from capture is that we can be captured by the positive and the negative.

If you suffer…in the end the only real release from capture is to be captured by something else [and in the positive] there’s real hope.

Rewiring is possible because capturing is related to positive things as well—religious fervor, charitable pursuits, athletic [activities]. We’re all going to be captured, some more than others. It’s intensely personal. If you’re captured by negative things, there are positive things that can take their place…

Q: You discuss religion in the book. Where do you put it on the spectrum of things people can be captured by?

A: You see David got it in the rhetorical sense—he said everybody worships, our only choice is what to worship…He said pretty much everything—glamour, perfection, fame, will eat you alive. He understood that.

You can be captured by self-doubt, a sense of being a failure, but you can be captured by things outside yourself. The divine, the transcendent, can have an enormous effect, depending on the form of capture. It can lead to healing, love, caring about another person. Or it can lead to hate and bigotry and violence.

Q: You note that capture can occur not only among those with mental illnesses but with other people as well. What does that say about the current system of categorizing patients’ symptoms?

A: We talk about depression or anxiety or addiction or mania as if they’re different afflictions. They have different symptoms but the book’s hypothesis is that the response to the neural process happens in all of us.

When I started the research on whether there’s a mechanism in play in a variety of conditions, everybody told me David Foster Wallace suffered from depression with a capital D. That label became the cause.

What’s important for me is to pull back the curtain—not be satisfied that this was a label, “depression,” but to understand the underlying mechanism responsible for suffering. No one’s really pulled back the curtain; mental illness is a mystery…

Q: Are you going to work on another book moving forward from this one?

A: This last one has taken me six years, nonstop. What I’m most interested in is, I’m convinced there’s a biological corollary to capture and we can explain it in neurobiological terms, and it helps us understand the experiences which David Foster Wallace, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, understood from their experience--how neurobiology results in these experiences.

The goal was to set out a theory and show in a range of conditions what’s going on and whether capture was in play. When you look at the range of conditions, the data seem convincing, but the question remains, is this the fundamental mechanism underlying mental illness?...

I would love feedback, what did I get right or wrong. That’s essential before writing the next book.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The goal was to pull back the curtain on depression and debilitating conditions. That was the goal. Another critical aspect important to me in studying capture was the realization that people who suffer, while there is a continuum, mental illness is not synonymous with being broken.

When you see some of these cases where it leads to enormous suffering and violence, you see the 13-year-old child with bad thoughts about himself, but he feels he can’t talk about it or he will be viewed as bad, so we move further and further into our heads, and the thoughts that are so salient it’s almost as if the mind devours itself—you wish you could intercede early on and explain their mind is not broken. We’re all wired this way. They can get help, and shift their perception.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 27

April 27, 1759: Mary Wollstonecraft born.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Q&A with Renee Rosen

Renee Rosen is the author of the new novel White Collar Girl. Her other books include the novels Dollface and What the Lady Wants. A former advertising copywriter, she lives in Chicago.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for White Collar Girl, and for your main character, Jordan Walsh?

A: After I finished What the Lady Wants, my editor, agent and I started brainstorming on what my next book should be.

We were all intrigued by the idea of the Chicago Tribune and the Daley Machine, but it wasn’t until I met Marion Purcelli, a woman who started at the Tribune in 1949 as a “copyboy,” that the story really began taking shape. Marion took me under her wing, sharing many wonderful stories of her days at the paper.

Jordan Walsh and her mentor Mrs. Angelo are both based on Marion Purcelli, and after meeting her, the book pretty much wrote itself. I really did not know what would happen from one chapter to the next. The characters took the story and ran with it and I was just along for the ride.

Q: You’ve written three historical novels about Chicago. How did the writing and research process compare this time with the previous two?

A: The biggest difference between this book and my previous novels, Dollface, which was set in the 1920s, and What the Lady Wants, set in the Gilded Age, is that many of my readers were alive in the 1950s. They remember first-hand many of the events that I was writing about so it was important to get the details exactly right.

That was a real challenge, and yet, the beauty of writing about the not too distant past is that I was able to interview people who could give me personal accounts of the very subjects I was researching.

Q: What do Jordan’s experiences say about women in journalism in the 1950s?

A: I think Jordan’s experience of coming up against sexism in the workplace wasn’t unique to journalism. I think women in the 1950s were treated as second-class citizens in just about every field.

They were rarely in management or positions of power and their careers were often stalled in the rolls of secretaries and coffee-fetchers and the like. It took courageous women like Marion Purcelli and Jordan Walsh to challenge their male coworkers and pave the way for the generations to come.

Q: How much were the stories Jordan covers based on real incidents?

A: Great question. Nearly all the stories she investigates in White Collar Girl were taken straight from the headlines. I literally scoured back issues of the Tribune in search of the most scandalous events I could find—and thankfully, Chicago has many of those to choose from.

In a few instances I did shift the timeline and set the events back in the 1950s, but things like the horsemeat scandal, whereby horsemeat was being passed on to the consumer as beef, actually happened. Same for the Summerdale Scandal, in which the cops were helping a burglar in his robberies.

Also, the issue of voter fraud that surrounded the Nixon/Kennedy election has been well documented and given today’s political shenanigans makes it especially timely.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve just turned in my new book, Windy City Blues, about the Chicago Blues and Chess Records, which was a tiny record label in Chicago that introduced the world to such iconic artists as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and Etta James.

Even the Rolling Stones crossed the pond to come record at Chess Records. Chicago’s Michigan Avenue was once known as Record Row because of all the music coming out of this town, including the Beatles’ American debut.

And of course you can’t tell the story of the Blues without going into the Civil Rights Movement, the Payola scandal, and the British Invasion. So there’s lots of themes in this book and it’s told from three different points of view, which was something new for me.

Obviously I could go on and on about this. I’m just on fire about this book. It changed me more than anything else I’ve ever worked on.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m on the hunt now, looking for what I’m going to write about next. This is always an interesting journey since I know that whatever I pick, it’s going to have to be something that I can become completely obsessed with and live with for the next 18 months or so.

Right now I haven’t a clue as to what that next book will be, so wish me luck as I begin the process of searching for topics. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Renee Rosen, please click here.

April 26

April 26, 1914: Bernard Malamud born.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Q&A with Eve Chase

Eve Chase, photo by Clare Borg-Cook
Eve Chase is the author of the new novel Black Rabbit Hall. She lives in Oxford, England.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Black Rabbit Hall, and for the Alton family?

A: I’d been dreaming about four children in a big house in Cornwall for a long time, mulling it over, visualising it, so by the time I actually wrote Black Rabbit Hall, it felt like I had a 360 degree stage set in my head: I knew my way around the house itself, and the basic backbone of the story.

Q: You switch back and forth between one character, Amber, in the late 1960s, and another character, Lorna, in the early 21st century. Did you plan the structure of the book and the ending before you started writing it, or did you make many changes as you went along?

A: The structure was set from the start but not each chapter, which were written in a linear way but freely, not planned in any detail. I wish I could plan more – I suspect it would make the writing process less stressful! – but it doesn’t work for me.

The characters were led by Amber – she was always going to be this sincere, bookish young girl, poised on the verge of womanhood, torn between her loyalty to her wild twin brother and the desire to cut free and fall in love. Only once I knew Amber could I realise Lorna because of the way their two stories intertwine.

Q: Why did you decide to write Amber's sections in first person and Lorna's in third person?

A: The honest answer is that it just read right, sounded right to my ear – as a writer and reader – so I went with it.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A novel called The Wildling Sisters about four teenage sisters from London sent to stay at a house in the English Cotswolds during the heat wave of 1959 - a summer that will change the course of their lives forever, bind them to a terrible secret.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I work from a studio at the bottom of my garden – I have to put an internet blocker on my computer to stop myself Googling plants rather than writing. By far my best ideas come to me when I run – I don’t run very fast, I’m a plodder, but it’s the perfect antidote to writing. I drink too much tea. I cried when David Bowie died. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Hannah Tennant-Moore

Hannah Tennant-Moore is the author of the new novel Wreck and Order. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and The New Republic. She lives in Upstate New York.

Q: You write that you found the inspiration for your novel during a trip to Sri Lanka. What about that location made it the right setting for your novel?

A: In my mid-20s, I spent two months backpacking around Sri Lanka, a country that appealed to me because of its Buddhism, its affordability, its smallness and relative isolation.

Solitude and unscheduled time are probably the conditions most conducive to writing, and I had both in Sri Lanka to an intoxicating degree. I had no cell phone, checked email rarely, and knew not a soul in the country.

I spent my days wandering, looking, listening, sitting, daydreaming, having occasional conversations with people who were open and unguarded because we knew we would not see each other again.

Being all alone in a foreign place creates a rare openness and receptivity to the outside world that has always been good for both my mental health and my writing.

My life had no context in Sri Lanka; I was reduced to an organism of observation. I wanted to give my character that same sense of self-forgetfulness, to put in relief the more chaotic, difficult aspects of her life.

I also couldn’t help writing about Sri Lanka because I found daily life in the country so rich and compelling—the food, landscape, politics, gender dynamics, religion—that I only had to sit down with a pen and paper and wring myself out like a sponge at the end of each day. These notes later helped me create a sense of place in Wreck and Order.

Q: The writer Mona Simpson called your character Elsie "a new kind of feminist." What do you think of that characterization?

A: I’m honored by it and hope there’s truth to it!

To be more specific, I’ll first give my definition of feminist, since the word has become so overused as to be meaningless. To me, a feminist is someone who believes men and women are entitled to the same rights and privileges, and is willing to take action to stand up for this belief. In this way, Elsie is not exactly feminist, but Wreck and Order is.

None of Elsie’s feelings about sex are conceptual or ideological. They are just feelings, and she rarely allows them to inform her decisions, so that she is often caught up in bad, preventable sexual experiences.

But by describing the particular pain she feels when her body is used as the object of a man’s pleasure and her own pleasure is overlooked, I hoped to signal a common problem facing young women in a new way: through emotion rather than prescription. Righteous feminist rage can be off-putting (I know mine is to me) without an acknowledgment of the pain underlying the rage.

The inequality of pleasure in our contemporary “sex-positive” culture has been well documented, through diatribes against porn; the lack of colloquial, sexy words for female masturbation and oral sex; the double standard that gives rare cunnilingus scenes in movies an NC-17 rating, while common depictions of fellatio get a common R.

But a dry observation of this discrepancy does not explain what’s wrong with it. Only a description of how the discrepancy feels—as a bodily, emotional experience—can do that.

I do not presume to speak, through Elsie, for what all women want and need. But I did want to make one woman’s desires, and the inaccessibility of their fulfillment, real, immediate, and relatable—not conceptual, not ideological, but human.

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

A: The whole time I was writing the first half of the book, I thought I knew where the narrative was heading, but I turned out to be very wrong. Elsie’s subtle transformation surprised me, and by the end of the book, I found myself following her lead, moved by the unorthodox inner strength she eventually reveals.

Still, I edited this novel dozens of times, and the particulars of Elsie’s transformation changed a lot along the way. The one thing that I never altered is the book’s final scene, which has always felt to me like the only possible ending.

Q: How did you come up with the novel's title, and what does it signify for you?

A: I’m afraid I can’t give that way! The meanings of the title—both literal and metaphorical—are revealed in the course of the novel.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m about a third of the way into a new novel, which makes playful use of research I’ve been doing for the last decade about the relationship between two of my favorite artists.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just that I’m very grateful to all readers, like you, who have taken an interest in Wreck and Order. Writing a novel can be quite lonely, and it’s nice to feel that the fruits of that solitary labor result in a greater sense of connectedness in the end.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 25

April 25, 1908: Edward R. Murrow born.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Q&A with James F. Brooks

James F. Brooks is the author of the new book Mesa of Sorrows: A History of the Awat'ovi Massacre, which examines an event in 1700 that deeply affected the Hopi community in the American Southwest. His other books include Captives and Cousins. He is a professor of history and anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and he lives in Santa Barbara.

Q: You’ve lived in the American Southwest for many years and been fascinated with the history of the region. How did you come up with the idea for Mesa of Sorrows, and what has been the importance of the Awat’ovi Massacre in Hopi history?

A: I was a fellow at the School of American Research in 2000-2001, and was finishing Captives and Cousins, a history of intercultural slavery in the Southwest.

I was wrapping the book up, and was wondering if there were any cases in transactions of women and children between or within indigenous people.

Ruth Van Dyke, a colleague, said there was a terrible event where some of the survivors were women and children, and were distributed over other villages.

I don’t think I would have done the book unless the story was revealing itself in a way that you could get a sense of redemption and forgiveness…

I really believe these guys [in a Hopi delegation who attempted to negotiate with the Spanish] were trying to figure out a way to avoid all this, but it didn’t work out. Once I was to that point, I thought the book could do some good in the world.

It’s something that’s haunted them [the Hopi people] for a long time. It shaped their fundamental cultural views around communitarian commitments and pacifism.

Q: You write that your previous research on the Southwest involved violence between different groups of people, and this time you wanted to look at violence within a group of people. How did this book develop?

A: I imagined this early on as intra-cultural violence, except I realized it’s the social product of difference even within a group. You may imagine yourself as a community, but when tensions erupt, you may differ. It’s like [what happens] within religious communities: orthodoxy and heterodoxy…

It’s interesting. What I tried to do was to tell a particular story, but this is about all of us.

Q: Yes, I was going to ask you about how you see the universal nature of the story.

A: I was trying to talk the publisher into American Ilium [as the book’s title]. If Troy is the root stock for our cultural traditions, this is for the Hopi.

Q: I know you’ve written about the links you see with The Iliad and also with Neighbors, the book about the murder of Jews by their Polish neighbors in the town of Jedwabne in 1941.

A: The closing line of my acknowledgments is to my now-grown kids, “Let us try not to make strangers of our kinfolk and neighbors.”

Q: You’re writing about a time period hundreds of years ago. How did you bring the characters to life?

A: By trial and error. My writing process is the world’s worst! I just sit down and start, and the story begins to take over. At the end of one chapter, another story begins to bubble up.

I had the opportunity to work with one of the great editors, at Norton—John Glusman. I had to unlearn everything I learned about writing to do a trade book. I don’t know if I can do academic writing again! It’s so much fun to let the story lead.

Q: Was there anything that particularly startled you in the course of your research?

A: I was very surprised, even though people have known about the event for more than 100 years, and the Peabody did work [on it] in the ‘30s, that nobody had called out the odd features we see in the kivas, and the church burials [in the community] were not significantly discussed.

It appears to be very strong evidence for experimental piety going on. When you’re scared and times are turbulent, it makes sense that you would experiment with spiritual seeking.

Q: I was going to ask you about the role of religion in this episode.

A: It’s so hard—there’s a lot of criticism about Westerners imposing the notion of “religion”—there’s not a clean break between the spiritual and the secular [in this culture].

When the Franciscans arrived, there were people, because of their vulnerability, who were receptive to the new message. Some women and younger men who were not invested in kiva society.

Why at Awat’ovi and not other [locations]—I don’t know. Because of the location [as the easternmost town in the area], there was a transfer of ideas between Hopi and Puebloan peoples to the east, especially the Keres peoples of the Rio Grande. Add the trauma of Spanish colonization, missionization, you see people doing things…

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve got a project I’m sitting on, [involving] research in the Colorado coalfields, near the border of New Mexico and Colorado…industrial capitalism comes in. I’ve got oral histories that would lend themselves to a creative nonfiction project…

The academic humanities are under assault from political critics outside the academy. Our best defense, in this case, is to showcase stories that inspire a wider public to reflect on the meaning of the past in their own lives. I hope this book may offer that kind of story.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb