Thursday, March 31, 2016

Q&A with Sarah Weinman

Sarah Weinman is the editor of the two-volume compilation Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s. She also has edited the collection Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. She is news editor for Publishers Marketplace, and she is based in New York City.

Q: How well known were these novels at the time they were written?

A: It depended, but these writers were generally quite critically acclaimed and successful in their day. Hardcover publications, brisk paperback reprint sales, reviews in The New York Times, The Washington Post, even The New Yorker.

It's also no accident that six of the eight books were made into feature films. Laura, the movie, deviates somewhat from Vera Caspary's novel, but they are both masterpieces. Same with In a Lonely Place, book and film. I sure love both, but I can also see how the novel was not exactly filmable ca. 1950.
Q: What impact did war, or the threat of war, have on the themes running through these books?

A: You see it most explicitly with The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, featuring a middle-aged heroine whose husband is serving in World War II (they exchange many letters), and In a Lonely Place, [which includes] the specter of veterans coming back, broken and traumatized, to a civilian world unsure what to make of them.

But the whole notion that women were tasked with working to supplant men serving overseas hangs over so many of these books - especially when, once the surviving men came home, the "traditional" roles of husband and wife and family were supposed to come back into favor. 

Q: How do these novels compare to the works of male crime writers of the same period?

A: This may be a surprising observation but I found the male crime writers had a real sentimentality streak running through them that the women did not. Chandler is all romanticism. Mickey Spillane all rough and tumble masculinity assertion that, in hindsight, smacks rather of ostentatious insecurity.

The women of the period, the best writers, seemed to ignore romanticism and sentimentality in favor of a ruthless realism. They didn't have to create a fantasy. They were more concerned with telling things like they were.
Q: Which current authors do you see as perhaps the modern equivalents of these writers?

A: One of the reasons I reached out to contemporary authors to write appreciations on the companion website (at is that I saw real connections, direct or otherwise, between past and present generations.

To wit: Laura Lippman is our modern-day Margaret Millar. Megan Abbott reminded me of Dorothy B. Hughes early on and that connection sticks. Charlotte Armstrong is in the DNA of writers like Lisa Unger and Lisa Scottoline. Patricia Highsmith very clearly influenced Gillian Flynn. Sara Paretsky had not read Vera Caspary before I asked her to write about Laura but even she sees the connections there now. And so on.
Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a number of projects on the go, from historical true crime feature journalism to a short story in an upcoming issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine to stuff I can't quite talk about yet. But the #1 question I'm asked is whether there will be another volume of Women Crime Writers and the answer is, I hope so, but talks continue!
Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Only that in the months since Women Crime Writers was published I've been heartened by the response and how many readers have flocked to the collection. I could not be more proud of it and what it's continuing to accomplish in the larger culture. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Q&A with Tony Tulathimutte

Tony Tulathimutte is the author of the new novel Private Citizens. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including VICE, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic. He is based in New York.

Q: In an article in The Atlantic, you wrote that your characters were "1.) exactly as smart as me, 2.) about as privileged, and 3.) freely awful." How did you come up with these particular four main characters?

A: In that Atlantic article I talked about how important it was for me to stop writing the kind of hard-luck characters that made my readers think I was a sensitive, empathetic writer who really understood what was going on with people glaringly different from me.

In other words, I started off by writing four characters that were in various ways similar to me, yet with the kind of fictional distance I need to write with any kind of perspective.

But my relationship to the characters became a pretty distant concern as they ended up coming into their own and playing off one another.

I wanted four characters who’d be good foils for each other no matter how you paired them off; I also wanted characters who’d be naturally immersed in the subcultures and ideas I was interested in at the time—Silicon Valley and technology, the nonprofit sector and progressive politics, writing and literature, higher ed and science.

Q: In the novel, you write from the perspectives of various characters--was there one whose perspective you particularly enjoyed?

A: Writing Linda was hugely freeing for me. She was the first character I came up with, and her precocity, libertinism, and unabashed intellectualism let her get away with things that other characters simply wouldn’t be able to—on the one hand, thinking explicitly about literature and fictional tropes, and on the other, shoplifting, drugs, casual cruelty.

She’s the only one clever enough to be self-aware as a fictional character, and actively pushing back against me as I was writing her; she refuses to be a cliché, and even takes over a significant chunk of the book as the author later on.

Q: The novel takes place in San Francisco around 2008. Do you think it could have taken place in another city and time period, or only the ones in which it's set?

A: I’ve mentioned before that San Francisco is a city of early adopters, and in many ways forecasted the contemporary American city—social networks, smartphones, Uber, gay marriage, tech gentrification, juice cleanses, speculation bubbles.

Much of what happens plotwise wouldn’t be out of place in New York today; but culturally, in the boundless sunshiny optimism and yeasaying, it makes more sense to set it in SF. A lot of the satire also targets Silicon Valley and Stanford pretty specifically, though that’s not the book’s main focus or anything.

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

A: I didn’t even write it from beginning to end. I wrote the whole thing practically all at the same time, writing scenes and sentences without the slightest notion of where they’d be going. It was like fitting together a 5,000 piece Jackson Pollock jigsaw with no edge pieces.

But I did have some notion of the ending—nothing is very conclusive for a 20-something, but failure is a certainty, so I wanted an ending that united the characters in their various failures at just around the time the economy and the Bush era were also to imminently recede.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Three nonfiction books: one about rejection, one a collection of fictitious criticism, one about a family visit to Thailand. My next novel, probably the only commercially viable one, is about standup comedy, video games, and the death of identity. All of it considerably weirder than this first book.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: This very broke writer appreciates any and all patronage and promotion.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Q&A with Joseph Mazur

Joseph Mazur is the author of the new book Fluke: The Math & Myth of Coincidence. His other books include Enlightening Symbols and What's Luck Got to Do with It? He is an emeritus professor of mathematics at Marlboro College, and he lives in Marlboro, Vermont.

Q: In Fluke, you describe coincidences, flukes, and serendipity. How do they overlap, and what are their differences?

A: A coincidence requires a surprise as well as a non-apparent cause. It could be the basis of an interesting story, the bearer of good or bad luck, or simply a benign collision of two events that have no qualitative effect on fortune. 

A fluke is a rare event whose cause might be apparent, but whose rareness suggests a surprise.

The real problem with coincidences is in its definition. Coincidences are events that happen without apparent cause. But we have to ask: Apparent to whom?

It does not mean there is no cause. There is always a cause that could easily be hidden from understanding, waiting to be discovered. The moment we learn the cause of a coincidental phenomenon, its status diminishes to a simple fluke. It means that coincidences are relative to the people affected by them.  

Serendipity is always a good event that might be less of a surprise than a coincidence. 

Q: How would you define a "meaningful coincidence," and what are some particularly striking examples of this phenomenon?

A: Meaning is one of those tricky words used freely without much thought about what it, itself, means. The dictionary definition tells us: meaning is the thing one intends to convey by an act or especially by language.

Ordinarily it is an element of language that — through context and actions — sculpts the definitions of the words we use. Often it is the target study of semiotic linguistic theory, communication theory, and other philosophical theories.

I take your question to be more than just a matter of words or sentences in a language that force us to think of their implications.

The meaning of X — whatever else meaning might be — must excite an emotional experience to the person who is experiencing X. It might even sync with memories triggered by imperceptible associations that can go far back in our long-forgotten past. 

To me, a meaningful coincidence brings with it transference, an imperceptibly swift subconscious enrapturing diversion, possibly spiritual, or possibly something that makes one think differently. This example of a meaningful coincidence appears on page 33 in Fluke:

On the night of October 19, 2006, my wife’s ninety-year-old mother died. A week before, after my mother-in-law announced that she was ready to join her deceased husband, my wife said, “Send me a sign.” The next day, after a heavy rain, the most sharply defined, brilliant, double rainbow appeared, and moments later the two rainbows gradually joined together as one. Was it a coincidence? It could not have happened without the particular timing of my wife’s looking out the window to notice the event. Rainbows don’t last long, and their periods of sharpness are very limited. Was its cause apparent? Well, yes. Scientifically, rainbows are caused by sunlight diffracting through tiny spheres of raindrops in the atmosphere; however, the scientific explanation is not the cause of its timing and being noticed. It may very well have been the promised sign. But what caused the concurrence of timing and being noticed? Whatever it was is not apparent, at least in the sense of how we defined nonapparent in the Introduction. It is a case of evident meaning without an apparent cause. It surely touched us, even tingled our spine. For a few moments, that rainbow and its archetypal connection gave meaning to the entire concurrence.
Q: You write, "People love coincidence stories, and think they are very rare." What intrigues people about coincidences, and are they as rare as people think?

A: I think that people love coincidence stories because they are rare, or seemingly rare. They like diamonds because diamonds are stunningly beautiful, but also because they are rare.

People like to hear about archeological discoveries in remote parts of the world because we subliminally yearn for an understanding of our past and of who we are, but also because those discoveries are rare. In the ‘70s and ‘80s we were intrigued with NASA satellite launches. They were rare then.

We take coincidence stories as surprising events, marvel at their rarities, and ignore any sensible explanations, even though many of the finest can be explained as mathematically predictable.  

We pay attention to apparent rarity, but the deeper reason for our interest in coincidences is that they transmit a strong sense of inclusive human connectivity, encourage evidence of existential significance, and validate our longing for individuality. 

In reality, coincidences happen far more often than we think. Fluke shows us that they are all around us. We become aware of them only when we unavoidably collide with them in the routines of our lives. However, their frequency increases when we pay attention.  It’s all about paying attention.

Q: What surprised you most in the course of your research for this book?

A: Research for my books involve imbedding myself in the surrounding subjects for several months or possibly a year before I begin to write. I think of myself as a journalist with a troop of experts whom I can consult.

Most of my research entails interviews with helpful advisors and with reading articles and books that cover aspects of history, psychology, and literature. It’s straightforward to someone who has written extensively on connections between mathematics and its peripheral fields.

The two biggest surprises are how much people love coincidence stories and that everyone I meet tells me at least one with great excitement. I was not surprised to learn that almost everyone I spoke with in writing Fluke felt that coincidence stories are rare.

Q: What are you working on now?
A: I usually don’t like to say what I’m working on too far in advance of my work. That’s because my work does not always satisfy the great expectations of my followers and friends, a published paper or book. 

Understanding that, I can tell you that at the moment I am exploring the question of luck, what it is, how people think of it, and how it relates to the likelihood of a person’s good or bad fortune. The topic is an outgrowth of two of my books, What’s Luck Got to Do with It? (2010), and my present book, Fluke. 

Another exploratory project is on the history and mental powers of simple geometry, on how we came to the simple concepts of a dimensionless points and breadth-less lines, and on how far we have come from such simple yet powerfully creative concepts.   

Q: Anything else we should know?
A: One thing I learned over the many years of learning, doing and teaching mathematics is that the frontiers cannot be seriously understood without passing through an understanding of the basics. 

I’ve seen too many students bury themselves so deeply in quagmires of advanced jargons that a sound understanding never ripens. I’ve seen students drawn to the language of generalizations in mathematics, learning the language with no ability to apply it to anything specific. Their achievements level off to cocktails of fancy words that amount to generalized jabberwocky. 

My books follow the philosophy of understanding the basics on the way to learning something deep. If I promise that a book is for the general audience, I mean that my writing will guide the general reader through all the layers of profundity that the book offers. 
And so, my writing style is suited to exposing complex subjects in a friendly way. A reviewer once put it this way: “Maybe the greatest compliment I can pay Mazur is that he doesn’t come across like a professor in his writing–he’s more like a very interesting guy sitting next to you on a plane ride out to Las Vegas, who’s got several hours worth of anecdotes and an occasional mathematical proof to back them up.”

I always try to bring readers to places they have never been and to tell them things they have not known, and to keep readers reading with the feeling of being alive in a human experience. 

I do that with anecdotal entrances and anecdotal relief, which are there to hook, amuse and then to give clues to what the book is about or where it is going. When possible, I try to bring in something that the reader can identify with, an historical character, a place, an object, or a brief amusement.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Jakob Melander

Jakob Melander, photo by Isak Hoffmeyer
Jakob Melander is the author of the crime novel series featuring Detective Lars Winkler, which includes The House That Jack Built and The Scream of the Butterfly. He is also a musician, and he lives in Copenhagen, Denmark.

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

A: Well, I knew I had to give something of myself, when I set out to create the main character of The House that Jack Built. So there’s a lot of me in him.

But obviously I’ve turned the different characteristics that we share up or down, in order to make him his own man. And then I added a few traits that are not me at all.

For example, I made him a smoker. I don’t smoke, and I thought I could use that to hide myself. If someone were to ask me, this or that trait in Lars, surely, that must be you. I then imagined I could say: “Well, actually, it’s like Lars smoking: I don’t smoke, and this (that you’re pointing at) isn’t me either!”

As it turned out, this made it possible for me to be even more frank and come closer to my true self. And, well, no one really asked me these questions, when the book came out. Still haven’t:)

Then, The House that Jack Built is a story about being a father, or rather, how to become a good father. And this, as should befit the plot in all good crime fiction, should be reflected in my main character. So it was a given that he had to be a father.

And since the back story from World War II was about a father having trouble to come to terms with his daughter’s growing up and becoming a woman, becoming a sexual being, I knew that Lars’ daughter would have to be a teenager too, and have to have a boyfriend of sorts. So there were all these things that came naturally, you could say. That the story demanded.

Also, his background in the punk scene of Copenhagen in the early 1980s reflects my own. This, I think, makes totals sense in regard to his character. The autonomy and individuality and his having trouble with authoritiies. Also this made it easier for me to get inside him, to write him. I’m sure you’re familiar with the saying: “Write what you know!” Well, I did!

Then there is his name. It had to be typical Scandinavian, but as his father is an American, it would have to work in English too. And I knew I would have to write it a lot, so I wanted it to be short:)

And I think Lars fits the bill on all three points. His last name “Winkler” means something like “Angle.” So I thought that made sense with his troubled character and general social problems.  

Q: Did you know before you started the first book that you’d be writing a series about him?

A: No, I only started out to write this one book. But as work with the novel progressed and his character developed, more stories popped out of me.

And before I’d finished the first draft, the idea for volume two had presented itself. And when I’d finished the first draft of that, BAM! then came the idea for the third. And now, well, I just don’t know. As long as it’s fun and meaningful, I guess I’ll carry on.     

Q: Do you plot out the entire book before starting it, or do you make many changes as you go along?

A: I do plot out the arc of the story and the main idea for each chapter (what will my main character find or learn, who will they meet and where). I use a lot of post-its on the wall of my study – one for each chapter – moving the around as I plot the story.

Then, when I feel the first tinges of fear that I will forget it all and I just feel I have to start writing, THEN I’ll begin writing out the first draft. I’ll do many changes as I go along, as I realize that what I had envisioned originally doesn’t work out.

Then, when the first draft is done, I work through each of them, almost like a sculptor chipping away at his block of marble until he (or she) has found the perfect form and shape. And then I read it all aloud to myself from start to finish, changing as my gut tells me to as I go along. Which brings me to your next question:

Q:  You’re also a musician, and you write on your website that “music has a place in my novels, too.” How do music and writing coexist for you?

A: Well, first and foremost in language. Language is music, too. I often find myself changing the phrasing of a sentence purely on sound – darker vowels in the front, lighter later on, for example, or vice versa – or I want the sentence to have a minor or major sound or feel. And rhythm and timbre too, of course. 

Then, in English, all of my novels have a song title (or a line from a song) as a title. And I use music to enhance emotions, mood and so forth. In The House that Jack Built the plot even pivots around a song by The Rolling Stones. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now my fourth novel, With a Little Help from My Friends (there you go: a song again!) has just been released in my native Denmark, so I’m doing a lot of promotion for that at the moment.

But I’m also working on a novel inspired by the biblical story of Cain and Abel, set partly in modern-day Copenhagen and partly in Athens, Greece, in 1973 during the military junta. I’m working with my editor on the first draft right now. Should be finished before summer.

This novel is not part of the Lars Winkler series, it has a different protagonist, and will be out in Denmark in early October this year under the name Elektra.

And then, around June or July, I’ll start working on Lars Winkler volume 5 for real. Ideas are already spiraling around in my head.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Well, basically, I think your questions really came all around – maybe I could tell a bit about the capital of Denmark, Copenhagen. That has a big place in the novels too. Almost like a sort of second main character.

But it’s in a slightly odd way. I was born and raised in Copenhagen, in the same district where I live now. So for me, the real, existing Copenhagen mingles with the Copenhagen of my childhood, of a remembered Copenhagen, that only lives in my mind and now in my books, too.

So this city is a blend of reality and fiction. And I think writing crime let’s me do just that – write about the city of my memory or dreams in a way rather than the true, existing Copenhagen. I can enhance certain parts, and suppress others that might not fit the story so well…

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Q&A with M.J. Fievre

M.J. Fievre is the author of the new book A Sky the Color of Chaos, which is based on her childhood in Haiti. She also edited the anthology So Spoke the Earth. She has written nine books in French, and has taught writing at Broward College and Miami Dade College. She is based in South Florida.

Q: You describe your book on its cover as “based on the true story of my Haitian childhood.” Would you call it a memoir, or is it partly fictionalized?

A: Until I wrote this memoir, I never told those things that most Haitian women never tell—those terrible, awful, intimate memories. As a Haitian woman, I’m expected to stay silent about whatever embarrassing things happened to me. There are some chapters in A Sky the Color of Chaos that I almost deleted (my legs shook and I felt like a failure) because I thought the events they revealed were too humiliating, embarrassing, and shameful to share with anybody—particularly because these events also involved other people. 

As the publication date of the book approached, I was faced with the same challenges Melyssa Griffin discussed in her article “Is it your story to tell?” where she writes, “We’re often faced with the decision of whether or not we want to discuss the realities of other people in our writing.” I thought about it a lot as I cleaned my apartment. As I took the trash to the curb. As I bleached the bathtub.  (When I breathed in the chemicals a quick pinpoint of pain erupted in my head.) 

In the end, I decided to take some creative liberties to protect the privacy of the many individuals who appear in A Sky the Color of Chaos. As soon as I changed all the names, it became clear to me that I would need to use the “based on” label. It should also be noted that I combined some of the “characters.” All my sisters became one, which didn’t feel inappropriate because, growing up as the youngest of four daughters, I often saw my sisters as one entity whose job was both to protect me and to make my life impossible. (I often think about “Soeur” and the history of our sisterhood, about the rooms we grew up in, the vibrant curtains making shapes on the tile floor, my body cupped up into her arms before bed.) 

I considered combining some other characters as well, but it felt like cheating because these characters were un-interchangeable. At some point, Sister Bernadette and Madame Lemoine almost became one, but it felt wrong, particularly because the chapter dedicated to Madame Lemoine became a sort of homage—an ode—to her memory. It’s okay, I believe, to combine minor characters in order to improve the craft, but I think any ethical writer will agree that it becomes shady business when one tries the same with characters who are larger than life.  

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

There is a section in the book where I find myself at the scene of a shooting: I’ve taken cover behind a dumpster and am lying in the mud, expecting to die. (I’ve got butterflies in my stomach just thinking about it). While people are screaming around me, their cries punctuated by gunshots, the sky remains a perfect blue. There’s a lot of looking at the sky in the book because I’m taken by how indifferent to our human struggles nature often remains.

 When it came time to name the book, I knew I needed the sky to be in the title somewhere. Chaos was another word that came to mind. I’ve had several working titles. I might be good at titles when it comes to short stories (it’s easier to encapsulate what happens in a short tale), but not so much when longer works are involved, contrarily to some authors like Evelina Galang whose amazing titles seem to come effortlessly.

In the end, I had three options. I was a visiting professor in Santa Cruz de la Sierra at the time, and my students at the International University were excited to help with the final selection. It created the opportunity for an interesting conversation: What exactly should a title evoke? Some titles were too violent, others too vague. I’m glad we finally settled on A Sky the Color of Chaos.

Q:  In the book, you describe your own life, but you also include descriptions of what was happening in Haiti during that period. What did you see as the right balance between the personal and the political?

A: To know me well is to know my story—the experiences that have shaped me, the trials and turning points that have tested me. People are inseparable from the place(s) they come from, the places they belong to, the places that molded them. To understand who I am, one must understand where I come from, what created me. I couldn’t possibly write a memoir about growing up in the 90’s in Port-au-Prince, without rendering the events that took place in Haiti around that time. 

During the writing process, I first focused on the personal story and then worked into the prose the circumstances that made this story possible. Some of the political details were slowing down the narrative, however, so I resorted to using footnotes. 

Some reviewers frowned upon that choice. “The footnotes shed some light on political events and define Haitian terms, but, for me, they pulled me out of the narrative,” Debbie Hagan wrote in her review for Brevity Magazine.  Lauren Prastien, from Michigan Quarterly Review, agrees: “I could not find a footnote that couldn’t have simply been woven into the narrative, and it is a disservice to the engrossing prose to have it disrupted.” 

I still believe footnotes constituted the best way to make it work. I only weaved into the story whatever could inform the text. In fact, my research was guided by my memories. For instance, as I remembered the shooting outside my middle school and the “journée de couleurs” that followed, I focused my research on this particular strip of time, and the political facts in turn impacted my work as I spliced images and motifs, all through the alchemy of writing and art. The balance between story and history came naturally.

Q:  What are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions in the United States about Haiti?

A: As an individual who’s lived both in Haiti and overseas, I am at a clear advantage: I can draw on my knowledge of Haitian culture and on my complex relationship with the island-nation to think about the country from both within and “without.” Not everyone, obviously, can have a realistic, balanced perspective if they haven’t lived in Haiti (although it should be noted that, in these post-Internet times, ignorance is a choice, not something unavoidable).

I can only speak of the perceptions and misperceptions in South Florida, as this is where I’ve lived for the past 14 years. Many individuals I meet seem to believe that my people are hardworking and proud, that we’re loud and love a good party. After the earthquake, one word was used over and over by media outlets: resilience. 

Many South Floridians also seem to believe that Haiti is a no man’s land, overrun by poverty and chaos, a place with such a degree of famine that people will even eat cats. Granted, my neighbors did eat two of my cats, but as pointed out by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

Some Americans consider all Haitians to be “boatpeople,” for instance. When I first moved to the United States, I attended Barry University to complete my Bachelor’s degree. I stayed off-campus, renting a room from an American family in Miami Shores. (The bookshelves in my room were stacked haphazardly to fit as many books as possible—some vertically, some horizontally, and some tucked behind the rows because they could not fit on the three bookshelves otherwise.) 

The mother assumed that I had come to Florida in a boat and had no legal status here, let alone a passport, so when I announced that first summer that I would travel to visit my family in Port-au-Prince, she was beyond herself with worry. Would I be taking an illegal boat back? (Lady, please, do you really believe that there are boats smuggling people into Haiti?) She wondered: Why would I go back to a country where starvation and nonstop violence await? I’m not going to deny that there is poverty and violence in Haiti, but there’s also creativity, love, hard work, and beauty. (The mountains in the distance are green, the trees bursting their new leaves.) 

Thankfully, contemporary Haitian writers (such as Edwidge Danticat, Katia D. Ulysse, Marie-Ketsia Theodore-Pharel, and Fabienne Josaphat) are changing what the world thinks of Haiti. Their works illustrate the intersections of literature and social activism.

Q:  What are you working on now?

A: I’m involved in many projects. I’m collaborating with another Miami-based writer and an Irish-American artist to create a graphic novel. I’m also writing a collection of dark tales about downtown Miami. A few essays are in the works, along with several poems for O, Miami Poetry Festival.

I recently received an invitation from Poetry Press Week to unveil my unpublished poetry in front of an audience of editors during O, Miami 2016. During Poetry Press Week, the new poems are not presented by the authors themselves, but under their aesthetic direction, allowing them the freedom to design a multisensory experience of their work; past presenting poets have called on actors, dancers, musicians, video artists, and djs. By encouraging collaboration and bringing together the driving forces of literary production, Press Week hopes to revitalize the poetry publishing industry and revive popular interest in this art form.

I will create and direct a 10 to 12 minute show, which I believe best embodies the work I'm presenting. I've submitted a series of poems in play format: a story about a love triangle titled Shadows of Hialeah.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m honored to be featured on your blog! Readers can follow me on Facebook and on Twitter. My blog is located at

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Q&A with Peter Ross Range

Peter Ross Range is the author of the new book 1924: The Year That Made Hitler. He also has written A Killer in the Family and Murder in the Yoga Store. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Time, The New York Times, and U.S. News & World Report, and he lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on 1924, and why do you see it as “the year that made Hitler”?

A: I discovered a gap in the literature regarding Hitler’s year in prison. It is discussed in all the biographies but no one had ever done a whole book just on this pivotal year (actually it is 16 months from the failure of the Beer Hall Putsch in November 1923 to Hitler’s re-founding of the Nazi Party in February 1925). 

And, to my surprise, no one had ever done a book, in English or in German, on Hitler’s notorious treason trial, which catapulted Hitler into the national limelight in Germany. And clearly the writing of Mein Kampf deserved a closer look, I thought.

Hitler said that “the failure of the putsch was perhaps the greatest good fortune of my life.” He recognized that without having been halted in his tracks, his revolutionary approach to gaining power in Germany would have been doomed to failure. The putsch ended that phase of his political life; the year in prison guided him to the next phase, the electoral phase—the one that eventually succeeded.

While in prison Hitler went from impetuous revolutionary to patient political player. Serving prison time bent the arc of Hitler’s trajectory from simple outrage to careful strategizing. His months in prison were his time of reflection, his 40 days in the wilderness—a period that hardened his world view and fed his soaring belief in himself and his mission to save Germany. He went from mere megalomaniac to messianic maniac obsessed with his savior’s mission

Writing Mein Kampf also significantly fed Hitler’s self-belief. The book’s most important audience was himself. The high school drop-out with no degrees and no profession legitimized himself, in his own eyes, as a serious political thinker and writer.

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

A: I began by reading the important biographies, especially Ian Kershaw’s. I dove into the holdings of the Library of Congress in Washington, along with the collections of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum library and the German Historical Institute plus all the main university libraries in Washington. I used the Rare Book Room at the Library of Congress a bit, as well as the Periodicals Collection, which includes many German newspapers from the 1920s—but with many gaps.

Finally, I spent five weeks in 2015 in Munich working in five different archives. This was indispensable. Obviously I speak German; I don’t know how anyone could do this book without speaking German. 

For example, I relied not only on the 1,600-page original transcript of Hitler’s trial (the English translation is very spotty), but also on a collection of 500 German newspaper clippings from the trial found by my research assistant in Munich. Likewise I read many original documents, including prison files and police documents, at the Bavarian Main State Archive and the Munich State Archive, among others.

In addition, I had the generous help and advice of the scholars at Munich’s respected Institute for Contemporary History who were preparing the new, annotated version of Mein Kampf, issued in 2016.

Also, I traveled to Hitler’s prison in the town of Landsberg, 38 miles west of Munich, where I was welcomed by the director and given a tour by a high official. Standing on the spot where Hitler had lived, slept and written his book, even though the interior walls were gone, was an eerie feeling.

Q: How well known was Hitler in 1924, and what impact did his trial have on his notoriety?

Hitler was well-known in Munich and Bavaria, but little known nationally. Before the putsch, he was one of the few politicians who could regularly fill the 6,000-seat Circus Krone, the largest indoor venue in Munich. 

But his trial in a Munich courtroom in March 1924 shoved him onto the national political stage. Half the seats in the 120-seat courtroom were reserved for the press. Hitler made headlines almost every day for a month. All this coverage put the Nazi brand in play all across Germany.

Q: With the copyright on Mein Kampf having expired at the end of 2015, what is happening now?

A: The new annotated academic version of Mein Kampf, the first republication of the book in Germany since World War II, was released in January 2016. It has been something of a sensation, even a bestseller, with nearly 30,000 copies sold in two months. I consider this a very good thing: Germans are still intensely curious about their past and what went wrong.

There is no danger at all that this book will drive German right-wingers or neo-Nazis to greater misdeeds. The new book is 1,966 pages long, in two volumes in oversized format, and weighs 12 pounds. It is a scholarly reference book, with 3,700 footnotes and annotations. It is unwieldly to use. I know; I have a copy. See my Washington Post article.

The new book is a fabulous resource for research and understanding of the sometimes obscure sources of Hitler’s twisted thinking and contorted logic. For any right-winger seeking a political tract and guidance from the Führer, it is far easier just to download a free, unannotated copy of Mein Kampf from the Internet.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Writing about Hitler and Donald Trump.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: After many years in journalism, I was delighted to find that chasing documents and mining archives is just as exciting—and sometimes more satisfying—than chasing politicians and protestors in the wild world of contemporary politics. Archival research is a great intellectual adventure.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Peter Ross Range, please click here.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Q&A with Matthew Burgess

Matthew Burgess is the editor of the new book Dream Closet, an anthology focusing on childhood spaces. He also has written a poetry collection, Slippers for Elsewhere, and a children's book, Enormous Smallness. He is a poet in residence in New York City schools, and a contributing editor of Teachers & Writers Magazine

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Dream Closet, and how did you select the contributors?

A: Dream Closet is based on the theme of my doctoral dissertation, titled “The Vastness of Small Spaces: Self-Portraits of the Artist as a Child Enclosed.” Around the same time that I was completing and defending it, I contributed several poems to Secretary Press’s book series, Mold

I was struck by how beautiful the book was, and at an event celebrating its publication, Libby Pratt and Michi Jigarjian invited me to pitch an idea for a book. 

Because so many people had responded to my thesis by describing their own childhood spaces, and because I always enjoyed hearing people describe them, an anthology seemed like a promising idea. 

I was confident of my own interest, but the question was whether artists and writers would be inspired to create new work on the theme of childhood space.

During the summer of 2014 I wrote a description of the book as well as an invitation to contribute, and I began sending it to writers and artists—primarily friends, friends of friends, teachers, and in a few cases, students of mine whose work I admire. 

I am incredibly fortunate to have so many talented creative people in my life, which is in part a result of working and teaching in New York City for 17 years.

Much of the process of finding contributors was serendipitous. I met one of the visual artists at a poetry reading, and another at an art opening for a fellow contributor. When I would describe the book and see people light up with examples of their own “dream closets,” I would go home and send them an invitation.

Q: In your introduction, you write of your fascination with small spaces as a child. Why do you think so many people are intrigued by these tiny spaces, and how did you choose the book's title?

A: I try to answer this question in the introduction to the anthology. It’s difficult to summarize quickly. But I would say that most children create miniature worlds, worlds to dream inside. Inside these small spaces they can be alone with their thoughts and wishes and imagination, and here they can learn to enjoy their solitude.

I teach poetry to 2nd graders in New York City public schools, and recently I asked my students about their “secret hideouts.” They get it immediately. They describe to me the places they like to go—a corner behind the radiator where only Victor fits inside, a tree house at Abdel’s grandmother’s house in Puerto Rico where you can see the ocean.

My feeling is that these spaces are inherently creative, and that there is a connection between the small spaces where children dream and the artist’s studio. 

In a way, artists are people who have figured out how to go on playing when childhood ends, and I suggest that the the small space is essentially what Virginia Woolf called “a room of her own.” It is a temporary shelter from the thousand things demanding our attention; it allows us to dream and work in peace, whether it is on the page or the canvas or on the floor of the dance studio.

The title, Dream Closet, comes from a passage in Denton Welch’s amazing autobiographical novel, In Youth Is Pleasure. Orvil Pym, the 15-year-old protagonist, seeks refuge from his father and brothers in the bathroom, which he reimagines as an elaborately decorated, jewel-encrusted “dream closet.”

Q: The selections include both writing and visual arts. Why did you choose to include both, and how did you select the order in which the works appeared?

A: From the beginning I wanted to include both writing and visual art. Secretary Press creates gorgeous books that bring together language and image in interesting ways, so this was part of the plan from the very beginning. Plus, I am a semi-closeted visual artist.

Discovering the order in which the works appear was a daunting process at first. All of the possible organizing principles that I considered seemed false or insufficient. 

Fortunately, when faced with the challenge of putting the anthology together, I was living with my boyfriend in his apartment in Berlin. He has a really large space of empty floor by a series of windows—this never would have been possible at my place in New York. I spread copies of each piece onto the floor and began playing them like a giant puzzle. It was like a terrific hallucination—and I kept returning to it for about a week. 

Most of the quotations that open each section floated back to me from the dissertation, and I moved things around until they eventually they clicked into place. It was an incredibly satisfying process, and I would gladly do it again!

Q: Were you surprised at the range of experiences the contributors chose to write about, and did any of their memories spark corresponding memories within yourself?

A: Yes. I had spent at least three years working on the dissertation, and my analysis focuses on the work of a necessarily limited group of writers—Virginia Woolf, Denton Welch, Anne Sexton, Frank O’Hara, Robert Duncan, Alison Bechdel, Jeanette Winterson among them. Receiving new work from contemporary artists and writers broadened my understanding of “the small space” and nudged me into new territory.

And yes, of course, one of the wonderful outcomes of reading Dream Closet is the way it will spark corresponding memories in the readers.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am on sabbatical at the moment, which gives me the time to work on several projects at once. I am collaborating on a short film with one DC contributor, Matthew Sandager. 

We made the trailer for Dream Closet together—well, I brought a bag of toys over to his apartment, pushed them around on the floor for a few hours, and then he worked his stop-motion magic to create it. 

I also recently sold a children’s book manuscript, and I’m working on another one that I’m illustrating myself. As I mentioned earlier, I’m picking up the paints and brushes again, going back to my roots. When I was a kid I was more of a visual artist than a writer, so I’m backtracking. I’m most excited in that intersection of the visual and the poetic.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Q&A with Michael Putzel

Michael Putzel is the author of the book The Price They Paid: Enduring Wounds of War. It focuses on the life of Jim Newman, a helicopter commander in the Vietnam War, and the impact of the war on him and those who served with him. Putzel covered the war for the Associated Press. His journalism career included serving as Washington bureau chief for The Boston Globe. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: Why did you decide to write about Jim Newman?

A: The decision really caught me by surprise. I had long thought about Newman as an incredible natural-born leader. After I covered Newman as a war correspondent, I was in Washington covering Watergate and other stories, I was in Moscow, I’d reflect back on Newman as a leader, an uncanny person, but not as a book prospect.

Only at his funeral did my interest in profiling him [for a story] turn into, I’ve got to answer some questions. I was asked to make remarks at the gravesite. We all were collecting in the administration building at Arlington. A guy approached me, and said, I know who you are, and not everybody is happy with the way the service is being conducted.

I was nonplussed. Newman was a certified war hero, and he certainly would have expected full military honors. What’s not to like about [the ceremony]?

I looked at the guy very quizzically, and he said, My name is Roger Newman, and I’m Major Newman’s eldest son…they won’t give me the flag.

I didn’t know Roger existed. He also has a younger brother born before the war. Newman was a legend—he would never leave anybody behind when he was in command. He came home from the war and left his wife and two boys behind when they were 15 and 17, and never spoke to them again.

It seemed an incredible contradiction to the man I had known. I had to find out what happened. In the course of that search, I talked to his first and second families, and then I started on the people I had known.

A dozen of his officers came to the funeral. They still worshipped him. I was asking the wrong questions: What was it about Newman? I began to get an inkling it wasn’t just Newman. They had their own problems. I began to ask the right questions.

One characteristic of combat veterans is they don’t talk about it. They know nobody would understand. Many of them told their stories to me for the first time.

Q: How much of Newman’s story is unique to him, and how much is it representative of others who served in combat in Vietnam?

A: It’s very hard to say. Certainly Newman as a leader was very unusual in my own personal experience. Of the people I knew in the field in Vietnam…he really was an unusual commander.

He didn’t look like a commander, he wasn’t an imposing physical presence, but he had a sense of how to make a decision in a hurry…how to keep [his people] going. He kept doing what he saw as his job…

His behavior after the war—I can’t really explain it. I can say what the family said, that Vietnam changed him. It was something about Vietnam.

Though he never as far as I know was evaluated for PTSD, he would never have applied for disability for PTSD--he had 100 percent disability for other things. He did get disability benefits, but never thought of applying as a victim of PTSD.

Q: Looking at the impact of PTSD, was he aware of the effect it had on him?

A: He certainly understood the impact it had on some of his people. He was sympathetic in that way. Even when he was dying of cancer, he found one of the pilots he had rescued—he was living in a one-room shack—[and tried to help him].

He was still devoted to these guys, and very proud of his service. He didn’t question that people had bad experiences after the war, but I don’t think he applied that to himself.

One of the book’s disappointments [is that] he had not told me about his first family. It’s one of the endless frustrations.

Q: How did you research the book, and how did his family react to it?

A: I was a reporter for almost 40 years. I started out the way I would report [a story]—what I know and didn’t know. When Roger approached me at the funeral, it didn’t take me very long to call him and ask to see him.

I spoke to him, his mother, his brother Ronald. I met members of Newman’s family, and interviewed the people around him. His stepson. His youngest son, born after the war, was very helpful. He worships his father. I went around interviewing these people, and then the people who flew for him. Stories began pouring out.

It turned out the people you never would have expected to have problems after the war—career military officers, dedicated soldiers, still waving the flag, proud of the duties they performed, at first it would never occur to me to ask them.

I’d ask a few questions: What are you doing now? Then I began to realize even guys who seemed so immune were anything but…My conclusion was that no one is immune.

Q: What did the family members think of the book?

A: Roger never saw the book, sadly, he was dying of complications from diabetes. His mother told me he was very near the end…FedEx lost the package [with the book I had sent him], and it arrived the day after he died. He was totally devoted to what I was doing.

Flora, Newman’s first wife, was hugely grateful for getting the story told, the true story…she and Ronald were hugely appreciative, and a number of other people.

Jay Newman, the youngest son, has not spoken to me [since the book came out]. We used to have regular visits—he would come visit his father’s grave, and I would go with him or meet him in Virginia. He was tremendously helpful during the process...

Q: In the book, you describe how, at his funeral, the mourners were divided in three groups. How did each group view him?

A: The group of former officers who flew for him still worshipped him and knew nothing of [his actions toward his family]…some knew he’d been divorced, but didn’t know the details. They were still grateful.

The first family had known him before the war, and some of his siblings, one who he’d broken all ties with, they knew Jimmy Newman, the one they’d grown up with, who lied to get into the Army at 16. They were the group who’d known him before.

The third group, Jay and the grandchildren, Jay’s family and some cousins and others—they basically knew him afterwards. They went off by themselves [at the funeral] as well.

Q: What do you see as Jim Newman’s legacy today?

A: Certainly he was a man who believed in duty, honor, his view of the military and what it was capable of was unquestioning loyalty to the Army and his country.

I think when you say, How did he leave things for the people who followed him, it’s hard to answer. The people in Army aviation, what’s remembered is the first part, the amazing leadership. They don’t deny what happened afterwards, but they celebrate what happened before.

One of the things that surprised me about the book—I thought the market for the book would be Vietnam veterans and families who understood. I believe that’s still a large market for the book, and the people in it and the people they know, but the market I did not know to explore was the military community itself, particularly retired leaders.

I’ve given several talks, in which three-star generals are coming up and saying they’d read this book and got to get it to this person or that person. They are tremendously receptive of the book because it tells the whole story. They are not denying it—they’re concerned about it too.

I viscerally expected more opposition, and I have not encountered it, I’m pleased to say.

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: I’ve been married more than 40 years. My wife [journalist Ann Blackman] wrote four biographies in less time than it took me to write this! I promised her there would be time for sailing when the book was done.

Last summer I started sailing with her [many] afternoons, and I will do more before I decide what’s next. She’s been enormously patient and helpful…

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: For me, the turning point was realizing I was writing the wrong book—a biography of Jim Newman—and realizing it was a bigger book…While in one sense, it was a mistake to not realize it earlier, it made it a more important book: [that’s] why it goes in other directions and deals with families and legacy.

Robert Howard’s story, and how [the war] affected his life—those are things that are just as important or more important than the extraordinary heroics people focus on…

People throw around a lot of statistics about the prevalence of PTSD among military people, but those numbers mean little because they include combatants, rear-echelon troops and all sorts of military experiences that vary widely, even among those sent to war.

The Price They Paid shows that in at least one unit that went through intense enemy fire and numerous losses of its own day after day, week after week, all those I found—and some who chose not to be found—were changed by the war in ways they never expected. For those warriors, the price for doing what their country asked of them is measured in lifetimes. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A can also be seen on