Monday, October 31, 2016

Q&A with David O. Stewart

David O. Stewart is the author of the new novel The Babe Ruth Deception. His other books include The Wilson Deception, The Lincoln Deception, and Madison's Gift. He is a lawyer and is the president of the Washington Independent Review of Books.

Q: Why did you choose to focus on Babe Ruth for your third "Deception" novel rather than on another president?

A: Because Babe Ruth was Babe Ruth! He was an athletic god, funny and high-spirited, a man of the people with common – even crude – habits, a heavy drinker, a relentless womanizer, and such a legend that everyone in America STILL knows his name, nearly 70 years after his death. 

By writing about the Babe’s first two years with the Yankees, 1920 and 1921, I could capture the moments when the young prodigy remade the game of baseball, when the nation plunged into Prohibition and bootlegging, and when the Black Sox Scandal threatened to destroy organized baseball forever. 

The real question is why I didn’t write a book about Babe Ruth sooner? 

Q: The first two books were set a couple of decades apart, but the action in the third book takes place not long after the second book ends. Did that change the way in which you approached your main characters, Fraser and Cook?

A: The two continuing protagonists, Fraser and Cook, are well into their 50s in the second book in the series, The Wilson Deception. Skipping another couple of decades would leave me with rather frail heroes who constantly ask people to speak up and forget everyone’s name. 

Placing The Babe Ruth Deception only a year later allowed for continuity in the somewhat fractious relationship between Fraser and Cook, and was much easier than the 19-year gap between the first two books. 

Fraser and Cook have always been a mismatch:  a white physician from eastern Ohio with social pretensions and a black ex-ballplayer with a thoroughly justified chip on his shoulder. 

In this book, they still find each other foreign in many ways, but begin to understand each other better – as the story forces them to do.

Q: Racial issues are again part of the plot, which includes an interracial love story. Why did you opt to include that relationship in the book?

A: One of the blessings of writing a series is that the characters have time to develop organically. Fraser and Cook have given me an opportunity to explore racial issues which still press on Americans a century later. 

By framing those issues in an earlier time of unfiltered racial hostility, I hope to encourage some insight and reflection about how those issues can still linger. 

The romantic issue grew organically from the Fraser and Cook connection, and interracial coupling has always been part of our racial culture; ask Thomas Jefferson. Finally, it’s never wrong to add sex to your story.

Q: In the author’s note, you write, “Any history writer must take a deep breath before straying into the field of baseball history...” How did your research process differ this time around?

A: I gloried in reading the contemporary sportswriters, who wallowed in the purplest of prose as they strained to relate the quotidian events of the athletic contest before them. 

Heywood Broun, Ring Lardner – these were GREAT writers and it was a hoot to read them wax rhapsodic (and then some) about the Babe. 

The Interwebs provide an amazing resource for grunt-level baseball research.  Every box score of every game from the 1920 and 1921 seasons is available online, plus play-by-play descriptions of every World Series game in those years. 

If I’ve made any errors in describing those events, I’ve only got myself to blame. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m currently hip-deep in a non-Fraser-and-Cook historical novel, and have just opened conversations with my editor at Simon & Schuster about an idea for a non-fiction effort. Fingers are crossed (on both). 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’ll be talking about The Babe Ruth Deception at the Oakton, Virginia, library on Nov. 7 at 7pm (and, if the stars align, might even be passing out Baby Ruth bars). 

I also will be signing copies of the book at the University Club’s Authors Night and Book Fair on Nov. 30, between 5:30-8pm on 16th Street, N.W., in Washington. I hope to see old and new friends at both!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with David O. Stewart, please click here.

Q&A with Jonathan Rabb

Jonathan Rabb is the author of the new novel Among the Living. His other novels include Rosa and The Second Son. In addition to his writing, he has been an actor. He is a writing professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

Q: You write, "The story of the Jews in Savannah is, to some degree, the story of Savannah itself." Why did you decide to write Among the Living, set in Savannah during the time following World War II?

A: I’ve always seen place as a character in my books. When I wrote about Germany between the wars (1919, 1927) I was drawn to the identity crisis – if you can call it that – that Berlin was experiencing at the time: would it become a bastion of socialism, Social Democracy, or something much darker?

We know which way it went but, at the time, Berlin was still figuring it out.

When my family and I moved to Savannah about eight years ago, I found something equally compelling in the city: Savannah has this wonderful dark uncertainty that bubbles just beneath the surface. I knew I wanted to tap into it.

But, as a newcomer, I had to find a way in, so bringing a character who has survived the war – and who, as a Czech Jew, shares my background – made sense. As he figured out southern Jewry, so would I. And then I dove in.

Q: You write from several characters' perspectives. Were there some whom you felt more connected to than others?

A: I suppose in retrospect I’ll always feel the greatest affinity for Yitzhak (Ike) simply because he was the one who allowed me to enter the world.

But – and maybe this is my performing background – I find myself inside of each character as I write each scene. In the end, it comes down to two simple questions: what does he/she want and what is standing in his/her way.

Of course, finding a voice that works for each – from a 50-year-old southern Jewish shoe salesman to a 25-year-old Black housekeeper – demands a “letting go,” but I can’t say I didn’t feel equally connected to all of them.

Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: I’m terrible with titles. For the longest time, the book was simply called "Untitled Savannah Project." I then toyed with the idea of "In the Pockets of the Living" (which is a line from the book), but it was too involved, and might have sent the wrong message.

I mentioned that title to a very close friend of mine – another writer – and he said, why not just "Among the Living." And it clicked because that’s Yitzhak’s hope – to find his way back – throughout the book.

What cemented it was something my father found. I had been reading a lot of Primo Levi in order to understand Yitzhak. My father went looking through some of Levi’s work and discovered the phrase, “We said to each other things that are not said among the living,” and we all knew the title was right. In fact, that line from Levi is the epigraph of the book.

Q: How would you describe the divisions in Savannah's Jewish community, and do they persist today?

A: What astounds me about the Jewish community in Savannah today is how well we all get along. In fact, the Reform and Conservative go to the same Hebrew school, which says it all.

Back in 1947, the lines were drawn, and they were the classic German vs. eastern European, Reform vs. Conservative. It was geography, it was class….it was all the things that can persist even today. But not in Savannah.

Maybe having worked their way through it 50 years ago, they recognize how important it is to support each other. I just don’t know.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I can’t say too much about it but I’ve started researching and writing a book that’s a dual narrative.

One narrative takes place in Venice between 1606 and 1607 (during the Interdict), when Galileo was in the city experimenting with weights, Monteverdi was there and in Padua creating opera, and a monk named Paolo Sarpi (the least well known) was creating the doctrine of the separation of Church and State.

The second narrative takes place today, also in Venice, and has to do with an American geneticist looking for an obscure opera soprano.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’ve got to save something to save for my talk…..

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Jonathan Rabb will be participating in The Lessans Family Annual Book Festival, which takes place at the Bender JCC of Greater Washington from Nov. 3-13, 2016.

Q&A with Jamie Korngold

Jamie Korngold's books include Sadie and Ori and the Blue Blanket, the newest in the Sadie and Ori picture book series for kids. She is a rabbi who serves as spiritual leader of the Adventure Rabbi program, which is based in Boulder, Colorado, and Lake Tahoe, California.  

Q: Why did you decide to focus on the issue of aging in your latest Sadie and Ori book for young readers?

A: My mother has Alzheimer’s and there is a dearth of good literature out there for the youngest readers. I can’t quite imagine how hard a shift it must be for a child who has grown up with a grandparent as a teacher and guide and then slowly, slowly, Grandma can’t do what she used to do.  

From a kid’s perspective, it makes no sense and it seems unfair. [Their] favorite complaint - “It’s not fair!” and they are correct. It truly is not fair, but it is life.  

I want to help kids make the transition from anger to compassion, which is what we all need to do as the ones we love age. 

Q: How have readers responded to Sadie and Ori and the Blue Blanket?

A: Parents have told us that they find the book empowering for their children. Children are sometimes mystified by the declining abilities of their grandparents. The line from this book, “Why can’t Grandma play on the floor with us like she used to?” is a very real and accurate reaction.  

Kids often get angry that Grandma or Grandpa are not as strong as the used to be. This book teaches kids about the natural cycles of aging and empowers them to step up and become the caregivers. 

Q: Did you know from the beginning that you would be writing a series about Sadie, or did that idea come to you later? 

A: No, it just sort of happened.

Q:  Who do you see as the readership for the Sadie and Ori books?

A: The book is written for preschoolers and emerging readers. However, I often read them to older groups because who doesn’t love a good picture book?

On our Adventure Rabbi Rosh Hashanah retreat, I read a draft of a book I am working on, How Sadie Saved Rosh Hashanah (not yet set for publication), to 350 people, with very few preschoolers in the crowd. They loved it! 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: My next book is a hilarious story called Sadie’s Snowy Tu B’Shevat. Once again, clever Sadie and Ori figure out a whimsical solution to a problem. What happens when you live in a part of the country where it is too snowy to plant a tree on Tu B’Shevat?

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: A few weeks ago I walked into my living room and my daughter Ori was sitting on the coach with my mom, who has Alzheimer's. Ori was reading Sadie and Ori and the Blue Blanket to her grandmother. You can imagine my tears and smiles.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Jamie Korngold, please click here. She will be participating in The Lessans Family Annual Book Festival at the Bender JCC of Greater Washington, which runs from Nov. 3-13, 2016.

Q&A with Dante Paradiso

Dante Paradiso is the author of the new book The Embassy: A Story of War and Diplomacy, which focuses on Liberia in 2003. He also has written the novel The Pure Life, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Foreign Affairs and National Geographic Voices. He is a U.S. foreign service officer.

Q: You served at the U.S. Embassy in Liberia in 2003. Why did you decide to write this book as narrative nonfiction rather than as a memoir?

A: This is a story of people and the decisions they made to confront a crisis. 

I alternated between the two narrative forms over several drafts but third-person allowed me to render more vividly those individuals who form the core of the story, such as Ambassador Blaney, Fergy and Jenkins, without wasting time on my own backstory. 

It also allowed me far more latitude to explore the diversity of actors in the conflict, such as journalists or aid workers, without having to continually refer back to myself. 

As I was present throughout the crisis, and knew everyone involved, I was able to provide color and nuance to scenes even as I drew heavily on the many interviews I conducted after the fact.

Q: What do you think are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about Liberia in the United States today?

A: Liberia is so rarely in the public eye it is difficult to guess at what common perceptions may be. 

To the extent that U.S. audiences have heard about Liberia, it would either due to the story of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the first elected woman president in Africa, as well as Leymah Gbowee, a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, or in the context of the 2014 Ebola crisis or, perhaps, more broadly related to the horrors of the Liberian Civil War.  

I think what is less known is the close historical relationship between our two countries and the role Liberia played in supporting the United States during the 20th century, whether as a supplier of rubber for our automotive industry, or an ally during World War II and the Cold War. 

It would be great if Liberia were more widely known to the general public as a place where people value our mutual cultural ties.  

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?

A: I hope to give readers insight into what diplomats really do, as well as the courage and tough decisions needed to make peace. Wars end, and this is the story of how one was ended.  

I also wanted to give readers a sense of what it is to be the middle of a war and humanitarian crisis. There are many actors involved - diplomats, soldiers, journalists and relief workers, in addition to war fighters - and I wanted to place readers along side them to see and feel the experience as much as possible.

Q: How would you describe the situation in Liberia now?

A: Liberia has had stability for 13 years. The country still faces political and economic challenges as any country wrecked by war would, but its ability to manage the very difficult Ebola crisis and partner well with countries like the United States is a sign things are trending in the right direction.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I currently serve in U.S. Consulate Hong Kong and Macau, and live in Hong Kong with my wife, who is also a U.S. diplomat, and our son and dog.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The book is for the general reader and should read like a thriller, far more show than tell, and not a dry recounting of events.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 31

Oct. 31, 1795: John Keats born.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Q&A with Marcy Dermansky

Marcy Dermansky is the author of the new novel The Red Car. She also has written the novels Bad Marie and Twins, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including McSweeney's and Salon. She lives in New Jersey.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Red Car and for your main character, Leah?

A: This book started as a writing exercise for me. I decided I would imitate the style of Haruki Murakami, a writer I love. I would write something that bordered on the surreal.

I decided that Leah would resemble a Murakami protagonist – only American and female. She would think herself ordinary and actually be extraordinary. She would be an object of desire. From there, the book took a life on its own.

Q: I was going to ask you about Murakami. He comes up in the book, and a couple of early reviews compared the book to his work. What do you think of the comparison?

A: The people who have read Murakami can’t miss the influence, but you also don’t have to have read his work to enjoy his book. You also don’t have to be a Murakami fan, because in the end, I wrote my own book. My first reader – I found out later – hates Murakami (which is crazy) but she loves this novel.

Q: How would you describe the relationship between Leah and Judy?

A: It’s a complicated relationship. On paper, Judy is Leah’s boss. She is also a mentor. She is also a friend. Sometimes she acts like Leah’s mother and Leah does not always accept her advice in a kindly manner. They love each other. It is sad that they lose each other, even before Judy’s death.

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

A: I don’t know how they will end. And yet, I don’t make that many changes along the way. This novel, in particular, came out strangely right. The ending never changed. Nothing really changed. My first draft is not that different than the final book. That is not always my experience.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am slowly tinkering with new ideas. Slowly. And I am taking pleasure in the release of this book.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: It’s a nice question. I used to ride a unicycle. I love to make small watercolors of flowers. I have a 7-year-old daughter. I feel so lucky and grateful to have published this third novel. I currently have two cats sitting with me on my office chair making it hard to finish this interview.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with S.C. Gwynne

S.C. Gwynne is the author of the new book The Perfect Pass: American Genius and the Reinvention of Football. His other books include Empire of the Summer Moon and Rebel Yell. He has worked for Time magazine and Texas Monthly, and he lives in Austin, Texas.

Q: You write that this book originated with an interview of Mike Leach that you did for Texas Monthly. Why did you decide to write a book about him and Hal Mumme?

A: There were two reasons. First, in my conversations with Mike I had asked him where his amazing, unstoppable offense—known as the "Air Raid"—had come from.

He told me a story about this world-beating little team at Iowa Wesleyan in the 1980s and its coach, a man I had never heard of named Hal Mumme. He described how they had traveled the country visiting coaches to find the secrets of the passing game.

Second, when I finished the story about Mike, I realized that, as colorful as he was, and as interesting as his Texas Tech team was, I still did not understand how the Air Raid work. And I realized, at the same time, that almost no one else did either.

So part of this was my attempt to figure out how it worked. Trust me, the TV commentators had no clue.

Q: How would you describe the impact the two of them have had on the game of football, and why wasn't passing a bigger part of the game before this?

A: Hal Mumme and Mike Leach were part of a very small group of coaches in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s who revolutionized the game. The list includes LaVell Edwards of BYU, Mouse Davis, Bill Walsh, Don Coryell, and Dennis Erickson.

Of these passing innovations, by far the two most extreme were the run and shoot—invented by Ohio high school coach Tiger Ellison in the 1970s and brought into the modern age by Mouse Davis at Portland State in the 1970s—and the Air Raid.

As I describe in my book, the Run and Shoot did not really survive the 1990s, while the Air Raid was just starting to take off.

There are many ways to measure the impact. One is just to look at total yards through the air. Prior to 1991 (the year Hal Mumme became the first coach to run a full-speed, no-huddle offense for an entire game in the modern era), five NCAA D-1 quarterbacks had passed for 10,000 yards or more in their college careers.

Since then, 90 more have done it. Of the 92 quarterbacks to date who have thrown for more than 4,000 yards in a single season, 78 have done it since the year 2000.  And so on. The game has changed.

Q: The book begins with a description of a game between Texas Tech and the University of Texas in 2008. Why did you opt to start the book here?

A: Tech beat No. 1 ranked Texas using a pure Air Raid attack. It was the first time much of the country got a look at this crazy passing offense.

Q: What are Hal Mumme and Mike Leach doing today?

A: Hal is head coach at Belhaven University in Jackson, Mississippi. Mike is head coach at Washington State.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A book about the last year of the Civil War.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I would say only that, when you turn your TV on today and see Drew Brees throwing 48 passes for 480 yards and 4 touchdowns or Cal's Davis Webb averaging 523 yards through the air per game, you are seeing what, in effect, Hal Mumme was doing back in the 1980s, complete with many of the plays and formations that Hal used. My book is about how that transformation happened.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with S.C. Gwynne, please click here.

Q&A with Anna Claybourne

Anna Claybourne is the author of many books for children, including Sharks: Predators of the Sea, Where's Will?, and 100 Most Destructive Natural Disasters. She is based in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Q: One of your newest books is Sharks: Predators of the Sea. Why do you think so many people are fascinated by sharks, and what are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about them?

A: Sharks are like dinosaurs and mythical monsters - it’s the idea of something so big and powerful that might eat you that is thrilling and interesting. Knowledge is power and knowing about them makes children feel they have a handle on them while still feeling the excitement.

Of course, though, sharks have been cast as “baddies” and have a bad rep, when they are actually just predators that need to eat, like any other, from a praying mantis to a wolf.  

However, I think the message is now quite widespread that sharks are not as dangerous to us as many other animals, we are much more dangerous to them, and most of them don’t harm humans. Attempts to banish or cull sharks in some tourist areas have resulted in protests from people who want to defend the sharks’ right to their home.  

So people do understand and appreciate sharks better than they used to.  

Q: Many of your books deal with scientific topics. How did you end up writing about science for kids, and what are some of the subjects that your readers seem most interested in?

A: Well, as a small child (6 or 7 - like my own daughter is now) I wanted to be a scientist or a doctor, and was really into those topics.  

I would have headed straight for a science career, but sadly as a teenager I became very squeamish and had to drop biology. I ended up going the arts route instead and doing an English literature degree.  

But my love of science was always there and when I got my first job at Usborne Publishing, I was always keen to do the books about wildlife, technology and so on.  

It’s been one of my main specialist areas ever since and I’ve learned a lot about science – but the English degree has also been really useful in developing writing skills.

Q: You also write about Shakespeare. What are some of the approaches you use to bring his work to younger readers?

A: Yes, this is where my degree from Oxford, which required me to read every single Shakespeare play in full, has been really useful! I love Shakespeare and I think he has such great stories and characters.  

I think the reason they work so well still is that they are really about people, types of people, human behavior, and strong emotions – like Macbeth’s desperation for success, Malvolio’s stuck-up silliness, Richard III’s resentment, Lady Macbeth’s guilty conscience, Hermione’s pain at losing her children, Hamlet’s outrage at coming second to his mother’s new husband.  

Everyone can relate to those kinds of things and has first or second-hand experience of them. So that’s what I try to focus on in retellings and explanations - the human feelings. In a modern retelling you can express those ideas in modern language and make them totally accessible.  

At the same time, some of the exotic settings and scenes, like the witches with their cauldron, the magic island in The Tempest, the fairy forest in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the freezing cold battlements at night in Hamlet – are very atmospheric and filmic and it’s good to conjure them up with descriptions and help the reader to feel them.  

When doing school or festival sessions about Shakespeare, I encourage the audience to think about staging the plays, and what they would do with set design, lighting and costume to make it all come to life.

Q: How many books are you generally working on at one given time? 

A: Ooh, it varies. Right now in total I am actually doing writing work for four or five books, and if you include books that are at other stages planning and prep, revisions, design, checking and proofing) then there are around 15.  

But that’s because though a book may be short and so only take a few weeks or even less to write, the whole process is long and involves a lot of stages. I’m not always needed (for example during design) so I have to schedule the books to overlap and fill all the gaps. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I actually have to sign contracts that say I’m not allowed to discuss specific projects I’m working on! - but to be vague, I can tell you I am doing books on space, rocks, travel, animals, and the human body (I’m pretty much always doing something human-body-related as that’s probably my main speciality).  

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I love science and Shakespeare, but I’m increasingly passionate about art and design, and I’d love to write more about those too.  I have so little time to spend on it but I have a big pile of art and craft books and materials. I just love making things… books and everything else!

Also, I’m a Luddite and never read e-books and don’t have an e-reader. I like real books! I’m moving house right now and I just packed up 30 big boxes of books… and I haven’t finished yet...

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Cynthia Kaplan Shamash

Cynthia Kaplan Shamash is the author of The Strangers We Became: Lessons in Exile from One of Iraq's Last Jews. Born in Iraq, she also lived in the Netherlands and England, and now resides in New York.

Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir about your experiences as a child?

A: The thought of writing my story needed time—I wasn’t even aware it was a story until I spoke to people and they said, Wow, what a life! I grew up thinking everybody went through something like that.

I didn’t want to talk about it. I wanted to be like everybody else…be like the other Americans. What prompted me eventually was my kids were confused, and were asking me if I had converted from Islam.

In the yeshiva they don’t talk about Jews from Arab countries. I realized I had to explain to them where I was from…

Q: At a time when immigrants and refugees are a major theme in American politics, are there ways in which you see your own experience as part of a universal immigrant experience?

A: Yes, of course the reason I am an immigrant may be different, but the individual story is the same—they are leaving humbled, destabilized, uprooted. The only difference may be that there are more of them than we were. Jews from Arab countries are not in the limelight.

Their lives, I can relate to. After they’re uprooted, the ramifications of being uprooted are much bigger than you think. After you find an apartment and settle, you are not settled.

The Torah says God said to Abraham, leave your country, you will have cattle, you will multiply. Still, it was hard for Abraham to leave. Leaving your roots is the hardest thing. The ramifications never end.

For me, I was the lucky one. For my mother and older people it was much harder. By the time they find their lives, the reality is that they are getting much older.

In that sense, I completely identify with the refugees. I know there are a few sour apples. But I’m looking at the pictures of refugees leaving Mosul, and the children are all barefoot. I thought maybe I would start an initiative to send shoes.

Q: What are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about the history of the Jewish community in Iraq, and how many Jews are left there today?

A: There are four Jews left now. They are in their 90s. In the 1920s, 25 percent of Baghdad was Jewish. It goes to show what dictatorship can do to a country. Now they are craving to have the Jews back.

On Rosh Hashanah a friend put a video on Facebook—the Muslim New Year coincides with Rosh Hashanah, and he wanted to wish them a happy new year. He still feels Iraqi. He called me—two million Iraqis reached out to him, from Facebook and letters. They would want the Jews back.

They built the country. Immigrants—it’s not like they’re going to destroy the country, they can contribute. There is enough space for everybody. There’s so much hate—the fear of not having enough if somebody comes in. The opposite is true…

Q: What do people know about the Jewish community in Iraq?

A: Since 1948, Iraqi Jews are not known. Before the Iran-Iraq War, I would say I was from Iraq, and people would say, Do you speak Persian?

It is very uncommon. Especially Jews—Jews from Iraq weren’t common. The curse of that is when we went to different countries, we didn’t have comfort in a group setting. We were very diluted.

We were not many in numbers, but also the Iraqi Jews left over a longer period of time. The very affluent left in the 1930s; if they went to the U.S. it was already second generation [by the time later groups arrived].

Within the Iraqi community we didn’t have a social structure abroad. We did find comfort in our building in Holland. We were like one big family. It was a big comfort, though we spoke about nothing. We put on music, danced, laughed, and went home. My mother’s friend named her living room [after a] very famous Baghdad coffee house. Humor helps a lot.

Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: I went through many titles and then I said, What is the essence? I was discussing it with my mother. She said, we became uprooted, and strange. Something clicked. That’s how she feels. I wrote that when a Dutch girl opened the door and we were invited for Christmas…and she sees us at the door and she said, The strange people are here. Children say the truth.

The feeling of estrangement is in nuances. It’s like building a house. Everything is up on the outside, and then you go in, and the electricity and pipes--that is what takes forever. I feel the same way. The outside may look settled, but the inside takes time.

Q: You write, “My family fled Iraq in order to live our religious lives freely.” Throughout the book, you describe your emotions about religion. What role does religion play for you today? 

A: There are a few articles on my website where I describe how estranged we felt about that aspect too. Jews from Iraq—we did not have Reform and Conservative. Jews are Jews. We didn’t have that segregation.

When we went to Holland, it was Yom Kippur and we went to a synagogue. They had a coffee break and a piano. We thought, this is how Jews practice in Holland. We had no concept of Reform or Conservative.

Now I’m semi-Orthodox. It is more Ashkenazi that’s Orthodox. I felt also estranged from [it]…I went to a Dutch Jewish school and still did not feel at home. After all, this is what we left for. Then my grades were not good enough to be accepted at the Jewish school. That’s why my mother sent me to England…

Here, now, in the Orthodox community, [one is] judged by, Does he wear a white shirt? A knitted yarmulke? I explain to my mother; she doesn’t get it. I don’t either. As happy as I am to be living freely, it’s too bad there is this type of choice.

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: Yes. I’m not working on the book, the book is working on me! I’m really thankful to the pages. They ground me. I am writing about a time when Iraq was established and the influence of England in Iraq.

It’s a story—fiction—the historic facts are the facts, so I have to do a lot of research. It is a fascinating time. It’s almost a precursor of what happened during the [U.S.] invasion. The British went in not knowing the culture, putting their seal and footprint on something that was not appreciated there. Fueled by greed for oil, they gave their culture, and thought it would be appreciated…

I am trying to weave in the British influence and the effect it had on the Jews also. [The British] built [a school] in 1919 where my father went, and they wanted assimilation to British culture through the Jews.

The Jews became more modern and very British. They dressed like the British and didn’t wear yarmulkes any more. It got them in trouble—they became envied as if they were loyal to Britain, even though they were patriotic.

It resulted, in 1941, in the biggest slaughter of Iraqi Jews. In two days, 180 Jews were murdered. Women were violated, babies killed. My mother and father were alive and told me stories about it. The Iraqis felt we were on the side of the British and were trying to take over the country.

The influence of the West rocked the country and eventually with the establishment of Israel the straw broke the camel’s back. Throughout the Arab countries since the establishment of Israel, 850,000 Jews from Arab countries were refugees, but we didn’t speak about it much…

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I hope my story evokes compassion for the’s hard to imagine somebody had a rich life and deep roots when you see them at this point in their life [as a refugee] with one bag in their hand and hardly any clean clothing, looking disheveled.

It’s human nature to think this person is no big deal. I hope the book is an eye-opener to respect people no matter what point in life they are, and give them dignity. When you give them dignity they can share; when you don’t you are burying them alive.

I don’t care what religion they are; people are people. Forty-one times in the Torah it says, Be kind to strangers because you were strangers in a strange land. Why mention it so many times? They know this is human nature. They don’t say please eat, [they know] you eat. It does say, Be kind to strangers.

They are extremely sensitive. It’s not human nature to be aware of it. I hope this gives a little depth in the book.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Cynthia Kaplan Shamash will be participating in The Lessans Family Annual Book Festival at the Bender JCC of Greater Washington, which runs from Nov. 3-13, 2016.

Oct. 28

Oct. 28, 1903: Evelyn Waugh born.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Q&A with Dean Robbins

Dean Robbins. photo by David Giroux
Dean Robbins is the author of the new children's picture book Miss Paul and the President: The Creative Campaign for Women's Right to Vote. He also has written Two Friends: Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

Q: Why did you decide to write a book for kids about Alice Paul and President Woodrow Wilson?

A: I’ve been obsessed with heroic figures my whole life. There were so many I wanted to be like when I grew up, and to this day my office wall is plastered with pictures of Abraham Lincoln, Louis Armstrong, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and others who made the world a better place against all odds.

The desire to learn more about my heroes and tell their stories is one of the reasons I became a journalist. I’ve had a chance to write about them for newspapers, magazines, and public radio, and about 10 years ago I struck on the idea of featuring them in children’s picture books. It was thrilling to think of getting kids as excited about my heroes as I am.

After writing Two Friends: Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass for Scholastic, I began thinking about other inspiring picture-book subjects.

One day I was talking with my niece about our favorite feminists—our idea of a good time in my family—and she reminded me of Alice Paul, who deserves a lot of the credit for helping pass the Constitutional amendment for women’s right to vote in 1920.

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

A: I figured there must be plenty of picture books about Alice Paul, given her importance in U.S. history. After checking, however, I found almost nothing. I couldn’t believe no one had told her dramatic story for elementary school kids.

As I started researching, however, it didn’t take long to figure out why. There are some very difficult elements here for young children.

Paul waged a six-year campaign to convince President Woodrow Wilson, Congress, and the American public to support women’s suffrage in an age when women weren’t considered smart or sophisticated enough to trust with the vote. She planned parades, petitions, and protests to keep the issue front and center.

Most famously, she organized the first picketing of the White House. In other words, she creatively exercised her First Amendment rights.

So far, so good, but the U.S. government struck back hard at Paul and her colleagues. They were arrested, thrown in jail, and treated brutally, just for speaking out about democracy.

How do you explain this horrible bit of history to kids? Clearly, young children need to learn what American values are before coming to terms with the fact that we sometimes violate those values in shameful ways.

I know elementary school students grasp the idea of unfairness, as most of them have experienced it in one way or another. So I decided to emphasize Alice Paul’s efforts to make the United States a fairer place rather than dwelling on her mistreatment by the authorities.

Miss Paul and the President shows how she used an American citizen’s superpower—freedom of speech—to thwart President Wilson and others blocking women’s equality.

I hope the story’s triumphant outcome will make young readers proud of the United States. As Paul showed, this is a country where an ordinary citizen can use democratic means to make positive change.

Q: The third main character in the book is Wilson's daughter Margaret. What role did she play?

A: Margaret is not a well-known figure, but I included her in Miss Paul and the President because I found her position so intriguing.

As a young woman, she supported women’s suffrage while her father opposed it. That wouldn’t be easy for a presidential daughter even now, much less in an era when women’s independence was strongly discouraged.

In one telling moment—which I included in the book—she waved to the suffragists picketing the White House while she and her father drove past them at the gate. President Wilson usually pretended the picketers didn’t exist.

With pressure coming from his own beloved daughter, along with Paul’s relentless protests, how could Wilson continue to deny women their rights? He finally capitulated, a remarkable victory for both Alice and Margaret. 

Q: How would you describe Alice Paul's legacy today?

A: After the 19th Amendment passed, Paul devoted herself to women’s rights for the rest of her long life. She authored the Equal Rights Amendment and fought for it into the 1970s.

After obtaining three law degrees, she drafted 600 pieces of legislation and saw about 300 pass. She got the United Nations to incorporate equality provisions in its charter in 1945 and also got a prohibition against sex discrimination in employment in the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

She surely deserves credit for paving the way for two women to run for the presidency this year.

Even though Paul is such an important civil rights figure, she’s been underappreciated for the past century. Happily, that’s beginning to change.

This year, the Treasury Department announced plans to put her on the back of the new $10 bill. President Obama recently designated a national monument in her name, and bipartisan members of congress are pushing to give her a posthumous Congressional Gold Medal.

She even showed up as a Google Doodle, the surest sign that she’s achieving superstar status.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have another children’s picture book coming out next summer with Knopf, Margaret and the Moon. The book profiles the pioneering computer scientist Margaret Hamilton, who was instrumental in getting NASA’s Apollo missions to the moon in the 1960s.

It’s a little-known fact that her brilliant programming helped save Apollo 11’s historic lunar landing when disaster struck. This at a time when women were underrepresented in the sciences and so many other fields.

One nice thing about Margaret and the Moon is that, unlike my other picture books, it’s based on my interview with the subject. I didn’t talk with Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, or Alice Paul for Two Friends and Miss Paul and the President, as much as I would have loved to!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb