Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Q&A with Richard Ungar


Richard Ungar is the author and illustrator of the new children's picture book Yitzi and the Giant Menorah. His other books for kids include Rachel's Gift and Time Snatchers. He is a lawyer, a painter, and a writer, and he lives in Toronto.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Yitzi and the Giant Menorah?

A: I always wanted to write a story that took place during Hanukkah (I had already covered some of the other Jewish holidays… Rosh Hashanah with Even Higher and Passover with Rachel’s Gift).

My best recollection of how I came up with the idea (it was actually quite a few years ago that I wrote the story and it sat on my computer for a long time while I was busy with other projects) was that I was surfing the internet and came across some images of giant menorahs.

Then I asked myself the obvious question (well, obvious to me at least) … how would the silly people of Chelm react if they were given the gift of a giant menorah? The story practically wrote itself after that!

Q: When you’re working on a picture book, what comes first, the writing or the illustrations, or do you go back and forth between them?

A: For me, the writing always comes first. I need to have the story work as a story before I tackle the illustrations. In fact, when I submit a picture book idea to my publisher for consideration, I always submit the entire story by itself without any pictures. It’s only after they agree to publish the story do I begin thinking about the pictures.

For Yitzi and the Giant Menorah the only twist was that I wanted to use a new illustration technique (watercolour monoprint – which involves painting on glass and then transferring the image to watercolour paper)… so before I began working on the illustrations I submitted a couple of samples of what they might look like using this technique. But I still sent my editor the story first.

There is some editing that goes on with a picture book text so I deal with that at the same time that I am working on the illustrations. But most of my time is spent on the art – doing the rough drawings and then the final illustrations, which in the case of Yitzi and the Giant Menorah, was a two-year project.

Q: You’ve written for different age groups. Do you have a particular preference?

A: Wow, that’s a tough question! I enjoy writing for the people who read my picture books which I expect are mostly younger children and their parents.

But I also really like writing middle grade fiction, where the target audience is probably 9 to 12 years old. I wrote the Time Snatchers series for that age group and the time I spent writing those novels was so much fun. I really mourned the loss of my main characters - who I got to know really well - after the series ended.

Q: Why are stories about Chelm still told and retold today?

A: There is something about the Chelm stories that make them timeless. I fell in love with these stories when I was a child. I believe it is a combination of things - the villagers are very silly and do things that can be quite amusing but at the same time in their own way they are excellent problem solvers and always seem to triumph in the end.

And often the whole village gets into the act trying to solve a problem – so the community aspect of that I believe appeals to a lot of people. The Chelmites are never mean-spirited and their determination is impressive!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I seem to be bursting with ideas these days. I have a couple of picture book manuscripts on the go… these are a bit of a departure for me because neither of them take place in Chelm!

I have also begun writing a middle grade fantasy novel involving alternate worlds and what might be a chapter book set in the Bronx during the 1940s.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I went a little crazy building props for my presentations of Yitzi and the Giant Menorah. I built a giant pink menorah out of foam board that is over 7 feet tall and 9 feet wide… I had to rent a truck to take it to a school reading!

The other fun thing I did was, in partnership with PJ Library, I created a video series on how I created the art for the book which is posted on the PJ Library website blog and also on my own website blog.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb


Dec. 27

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Dec. 27, 1910: Charles Olson born.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Q&A with Craig Pittman


Craig Pittman is the author of the new book Oh, Florida!: How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country. His other books include Manatee Insanity and The Scent of Scandal. He is a reporter and columnist for the Tampa Bay Times, and he lives in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your Oh, Florida! blog and then for this book?

A: I used to help compile an annual list of wacky Florida stories for my newspaper, then called the St. Petersburg Times, now the Tampa Bay Times. When that was discontinued, Twitter was just starting, so I would tweet these crazy stories I saw every day, and tag them as "Oh, #Florida!" stories.

One of my Twitter followers was Laura Helmuth, an editor at Slate who loved the "Oh, #Florida!" stories. In 2013, during the George Zimmerman trial, she commissioned me to do a one-month blog trying to explain Florida to the outside world. That blog became the basis for my book.

Q: What are some of your favorite weird things about Florida?

A: I love the fact that the state park system bought an old roadside attraction called Weeki Wachee Springs, and as a result Florida is now the only state where the list of government jobs includes "mermaid."

I love that we regularly see alligators that accidentally thwart would-be criminals.

I love that we are the Sinkhole Capital of America, the Lightning Capital of the Western Hemisphere and the Shark Attack Capital of the World -- but we tell everyone it's paradise and they should move down here right away!

Q: What impact do you think Florida has on the rest of the country, and why do you think it has more than some other states?

A: Florida men and women have done things that have changed lives all over the U.S. but most people don't realize that Florida was involved. They just think we're the Punchline State, but we're far MORE than that.

For instance, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, started his first business here. The Rev. Billy Graham got the call to preach on an abandoned golf course in Florida. A case involving a couple of crooked Florida cops led to the U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing TV cameras in the courtroom. A guy named John Atanasoff, who grew up in Florida, invented the computer -- so the next time you're watching cat videos, you can thank Florida for that.

Q: Why do you think Florida ended up being, as the book's subtitle says, "America's Weirdest State"?

A: I go through the reasons in some detail in my book, but the basic one boil down to people, geography and weather.

We were the least populous Southern state before World War II, and now we're the third most populous state in the U.S., a wrenching demographic change. We've got 20 million people living here, and about 100 million tourists visiting every year, and because there's no snow we're out doing crazy stuff all year long.

Most of those people are crammed into about a 20 or 30-mile wide swath of land along the coast or along Interstate 4 where the theme parks are, so of course when you put that many people from that many different places together in that small a space, they're going to start ramming into each other's cars, chasing each other with machetes and arguing over whose dog pooped on whose lawn.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm working on a couple of book ideas. I don't want to talk about them just yet, but I will say that one of them is very serious, but with wacky touches. The other one is just plain wacky.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A. In one of the oddest bits of book promotion ever, my book was the answer to the New York Times double-acrostic puzzle on Oct. 30. I couldn't solve it, though. The Jumble is more my speed. Someone else had to show me the answer.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Ginny Daly and Ellen Collins


Ginny Daly and Ellen Collins
Ginny Daly and Ellen Collins are the authors of the new book The Guest Book!: The A to Z of Guestiquette. Ellen Collins also has written a book of poetry, The Memory Thief. They are both based in the Washington, D.C., area.

Q: How did you come up with the idea of The Guest Book and how did you collaborate on it?

Ginny Daly: I’m fourth-generation of a large Irish family of native Washingtonians, was in advertising in downtown D.C., married a man with an ad agency and have had a five-bedroom beach house in nearby Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, since 1979. I’ve also had NYC digs, a Caribbean home, and a ski house. ‘Tis the perfect formula for attracting houseguests! 

I’ve hosted every variety of houseguest from kith’n kin to clients, babies to bankers, ages newborn to 90, family to friends, plus friends of friends, and folks I’d never even met! I began keeping Ginny’s Secret Notebook with “Saints & Sinners” of what worked well and what not-so-well.  

For example: combinations of guests that were delightful or disastrous, same with menus and activities. I added in surefire recipes, tips on laundry, shortcuts to make things easier since I was working fulltime and also entertaining a full house of beach guests fulltime every summer weekend for years on end. 

About four years ago I looked at my very full notebook and realized I might have a book there. I began writing -- but had almost too much material. 

I encountered Ellen at the Rehoboth Beach Writer’s Guild. We’re both writers, both Washingtonians, both have beach houses but have different styles, so we brought differing points of view. 

We worked at both our beach and city homes hammering out the topics, then synchronously both came up with the nifty A-to-Z format while we were apart.

We found an editor, a cover designer, a printer, created our DEVA Press (for Delaware/Virginia and Divas (which neither of us are but it’s fun) and went the self-publishing and self-marketing route.  We’re successfully into our second printing, and maybe making the book into an app for traveling Millennials.

Ellen Collins: The book was originally Ginny's idea, but we know each other from the Rehoboth Beach Writers Guild. We found ourselves at free-writes doing a lot of pieces about house guests, and she asked me if I wanted to collaborate with her on the project.

We came up with the idea of an A to Z format, brainstormed the content for each letter, and divided them up to draft the content. Then we spent lots of time revising and rewriting.

Fortunately, it was easy for us to get together since we both have beach houses (Ginny in Rehoboth and I in Bethany Beach) and also homes close together in the D.C./Virginia area.

Q: As you mentioned, the book follows an A to Z format, and your “O” section is called “Oops! Finessing Sticky Situations.” What are some of the sticky situations in which you’ve found yourselves when hosting guests?

Ginny Daly: All the situations (and more) mentioned in the book have happened to me over the years.  The toilet backing up and overflowing, guest dogs peeing on the rug and/or counter surfing, broken Waterford glasses, red wine on the white rug. 

We suggest: Deep Breathing. Humor. Grace. Apologize. Clean up the mess. Take it lightly. Stuff happens! It’s just stuff. It’s part of life.

One especially amusing and confounding time that didn’t make it into the book was when a top client’s mother wandered into our master bedroom during the wee hours and into our closet thinking it was the kitchen. She was looking for more vodka! I gently led the befuddled old dear back to her boudoir deciding to say nary a word about it.

The next day we were all silent smiles at breakfast and I assume her son was never the wiser. I think Miss Manners would call that Finesse, wouldn’t you?

Ellen Collins: Perhaps one of the stickiest of situations is when guests plan to stay until Sunday and announce the day before that "we really have nothing to get home for, so we can stay a few more days."

Or when you really don't want your guests to leave their "stuff" all over the living areas and can't find a diplomatic way to suggest that they leave their belongings (laptops, phone cords, shoes, kids' toys) in their rooms when not being used.

The third one I can think of is when guests arrive with lots of food (main dish items) when you have already planned and shopped for the meals.

Q: The “T” section is called “The Dreaded Thank You Note.”  What are your feelings about thank you notes?

Ginny Daly: As hostesses we sum it up in the first line: Yes, you have to. Always.

Hostessing for years at our beach and other homes, I’ve been amazed at how the thank yous have shifted over the years. Guests used to bring or send gifts as well as handwriting a thank you note after the visit. Now guests will bring wine or take us out or fix dinner at our home, which is lovely and well received! 

But the thank you note has pretty much devolved to a quick but heartfelt email sometime later, if at all. 

Yes, there have been wonderful handwritten notes over the many years and I have saved lots. I even framed a long illustrated one by a cherished niece highlighting every moment of her week. It has a place of honor in the laundry room. 

Belief in the hand-written thank you note is so strong we even created a packet of cards saying “Thanks!” and included text to crib from. It’s both in the book and in the packet of cute note cards. Just fill in the blanks, what could be easier? Call me old-fashioned, but I think the handwritten thank you note does not have to be long, but it does have to be!

Ellen Collins: A handwritten thank-you note is a must. The host has gone to a lot of trouble to prepare for the guests, has opened her home to them, and a quick e-mail or note on Facebook just doesn't do it.

Social media, while including the word "social," is impersonal. An actual thank-you note shows effort and makes the host really feel appreciated. That's why we included a sample text for a note in our book and also designed an actual note card that guests can use to write those notes.

Q: Ellen, you've also written a poetry collection called The Memory Thief. Many of your poems focus on your mother's struggles with Alzheimer's disease, and you note that when she passed away in 1995, a friend told you, "Your writing will be your healing." Was that the case?

Ellen Collins: Writing the poems was definitely a healing experience. It enabled me to step out of the jumble of feelings I had and to sort them out.

There is an expression that says, "When you name it, you tame it." Naming and describing the sadness and confusion that I experienced enabled me to look at both my mother and myself with new eyes of compassion. This is very hard to explain, but I truly wrote myself through and out of grief.

I also discovered that when I gave my poems to others who were going through similar experiences with loved ones and dementia it gave them some comfort as well. If nothing else, the comfort of knowing they were not alone and that there could be words for what was so difficult for them to articulate.

Q: How did you come up with the title The Memory Thief, and what does it signify for you?

Ellen Collins: When I thought about a title, I gravitated to the poem with the same title, since "Memory Thief" summed up so much of what is true about Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. It seemed that all of the other poems could fit under the umbrella of that title.

I saw the disease as that thief who takes things a little at a time, stealthily and secretly, so that at first no one notices what is missing. This is what it was like when my mother began to lose one thing at a time: the ability to write a check, to read, to lock her apartment door, to use the bathroom, to lift a spoon.

Q: What are you both working on now?

Ginny Daly: I am now working on a family memoir. Feeling the weight of being the youngest of my family, with my Dad having been born in 1888 and my youngest niece born in 2013. I'm smack in the middle.

Dalys have been in Washington since 1820 with four generations on The Washington Post, so it's an interesting look at our hometown as well.

Ellen Collins: Right now I am working on a collection of poems based on yoga, meditative pieces that start with a pose and move into the deeper levels of the practice. My hope is to combine them with illustrations for a weekly calendar for 2018.

I am also in the very, very, very beginning stages of creating characters for a possible novel.

Q: Anything else we should know?

Ginny Daly: My mother, Mary Tinley Daly, wrote a weekly syndicated column for 25 years in 300+ papers in the Catholic press in the U.S. and Canada in the ‘50s-‘70s.  

Titled "At Our House," it covered the doings of a lively household of a large Catholic family in Northwest D.C. with always a little learning lesson with humor and grace. She was a Catholic Erma Bombeck. We didn't save them so I plan to find, compile and publish them.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Leanna Conley


Leanna Conley is the author of the new book The Daily Janet, written with Dave Smitherman. The book is about her mother. A writer and performer, Conley has appeared on the Syfy Channel, Comedy Central, and other venues.

Q: Why did you decide to write about a book about your mother, and how did you pick the book's title?

A: I wrote the book because of the overwhelming amount of funny stories there are about my mom, Janet...and the title is because every day there's something hilarious coming from her. Plus, this is my way of handling the good and stressful about dealing with an elderly, willful parent as a baby boomer.

Q: How involved was she in the book's creation, and what does she think of it?

A: While she has total veto power over anything she doesn’t want in the book, it’s mainly my recollections of her...other than the fact she supplies the material!  What does she think of it? First reaction was, “You could do better.” - LOL! But she does like it - especially the fashion portions and chapter about her childhood sweetheart, David.

Q: How influential has she been in your life, and how would you describe the dynamic between the two of you?

A: My mom, Janet, has been very influential. I get my strengths from her, and she also acts as a cheerleader for me. But her diva perfectionism is difficult, not to mention the embarrassment she sometimes caused.

I guess our dynamic is a healthy dysfunctional. I’m now the parent to my little star. Another reason I wrote the book was as a catharsis, and to let the world know about her as a human being.

Q: Of the stories you tell about Janet in the book, do you have a particular favorite?

A: OMG – there are so many! Well, it’s her flying out of a moving Winnebago in a cat suit or calling Steve Forbes when he was a presidential candidate to urge him to get dermabrasion. She calls famous people all the time. I think she also was invited to the Trump Tower.  But my favorites change daily as they’re always coming!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: More stories for The Daily Janet website, her YouTube channel, and pitching the book for TV and film. I have plans for a stand-up comedy one-person show that includes Janet lore, too.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I would love to have you visit the website and Facebook page, and order the book online, or ask for it at your local bookstore.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with John David Bethel


John David Bethel is the author of the new novel Blood Moon. He also has written the novel Evil Town. Bethel spent 35 years working in politics and government and is a media consultant. He lives in Miami.

Q: Blood Moon is based on an actual case. How did you learn about it?

A: Ed DuBois, the private investigator who was instrumental in solving the case, brought me this story. He was consulting on the film “Pain and Gain” which was based loosely on the events of this crime, and he was not pleased at the comic take the director had adopted. Ed wanted to set the record straight as to the horrendous nature of the crime and asked me to consider writing a true crime novel to balance the direction of the film.

I wrote a treatment that we could rush to publishers in an effort to get something in their hands before the movie premiered, but time was against us. We had to abandon the project, but I was intrigued by the story and asked Ed and the surviving victim of the crime, Marc Schiller, if they minded if I wrote a novel inspired by these events. They gave me their blessing and Blood Moon was born.

Q: What did you see as the right balance between the fictional and real elements in the book?

A: I don’t know that I have an answer as to “the right balance between fictional and real elements in the book.” I simply sat down in front of my computer and began banging out the story. I let my imagination conjure up elements, conversations, character details and the like where I needed these details, while working within the framework of factual events.

That said I was doubly motivated to tell the story by what I consider the lapse in effectiveness of the authorities that allowed the kidnappers to escape detection for a long enough time to kill two people during a botched second kidnapping attempt. 

Furthermore, two of the four perpetrators served minimal time for their horrendous crime and the two major mad men have avoided the death penalty imposed on them by using the system to appeal their convictions. So I created what for me (and Marc and Ed) was a more satisfactory conclusion.

Q: Did you need to do much research to write the book?

A: Marc and Ed had files of information from their interactions with the police and lawyers which they made available to me. And I studied the depositions given by all involved. There was also an article that Ed co-wrote that appeared in The Miami New Times and covered the facts of the case, and reams of newspaper articles on the case and on the trial. There was no lack of factual information to study.

Developing the characters of the antagonists was the greatest challenge since I had no experience with creating such sick individuals. I had to go to some pretty dark places to successfully “imagine” their thoughts and describe how they operated in committing the atrocities they did. It did force me to hone some skills I had not used before and it served to polish my craft. But it wasn’t a lot of fun.

Ed and Marc also cooperated fully providing me their personal take on the events and agreeing to read the manuscript when it was completed. They were also kind enough to contribute to the finished product by writing a Foreword – Marc Schiller – and Afterword – Ed Dubois.  
   
Q: What do you hope readers take away from this book?

A: There is evil in this world; evil that most of us will never have to deal with and cannot possibly imagine. There are also people like Marc and Ed who are courageous enough and good enough to stand against it and defeat it. 

At any time Marc could have succumbed and said “to hell with all this pain and indignity” and laid down and died. That, believe it or not, would have been the easy way out for him. Ed could have given up when the authorities wouldn’t cooperate with him to find the psychopaths, and he could have gone onto to another case, but he refused. He put himself at risk and stayed on it until his efforts forced the police to do their job.
  
Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am on to a new novel, Little Wars. In a way, it is a combination of the political thrillers I have written, like Evil Town, and Blood Moon. It takes place during the final few days of World War Two when a small town sheriff finds himself embroiled in a murder case that propels him into a world of wartime profiteering and national politics.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Janice Law


Janice Law is the author of the new children's book Capitol Cat & Watch Dog Outwit the U.S. Supreme Court. Her other books include Capitol Cat  Watch Dog Unite Lady Freedoms and American Evita: Lurleen Wallace. She is a retired Texas criminal court judge and the founder of the American Women Writers National Museum.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your new book, Capitol Cat & Watch Dog Outwit the U.S. Supreme Court?

A: Marketing potential is a #1 analysis new and even veteran authors often overlook or minimize.

As a lawyer, and as a citizen, I foresaw that the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) will be THE national news topic for at least through 2018. Digging through a box of my 2008 book Capitol Cat & Watch Dog Unite Lady Freedoms, about how Congress works, I dusted off a fully detailed, typed, forgotten outline I had composed in 2008 of a sequel on how SCOTUS works. Marketing nirvana!

In promotion/marketing I could tap into the overlay of a continuing major national news story!

My research indicated there are  (apparently) NO children’s books on this important nonfiction topic. I had the playing field all to myself. Magic!

Might the original illustrator Jason Eckhardt, still be available? His assent popped on my screen. I added a clever new character, Supreme Cat Nino. Over two weeks I converted the “found” outline into text, and wrote all the poetry spoken by characters. Joan Brookwell, my editor from my print journalism days, agreed to edit. My book designer pulled it together late summer, and we sent it to the publisher.

There is a sort of end-of-the-year “deadline” to promote books and apply for book festivals.

Q: What do you think young readers can learn about the Court from your book, and what age group do you think would especially enjoy it?

A: Ages 8-13 are listed. But adults tell me either they learned a lot from reading it, or they want to purchase it because they want simplistic explanations within an entertaining, fanciful story format. Remember vocabulary lists? In both children’s books, I included one.

Everyone enjoys stores involving “sneaking.” So through the eyes of behind-the-scenes interlopers Capitol Cat & Watch Dog, readers “attend” an ultra-private conference watching justices select what cases to hear, witness the traditional formalities of arguments before America’s highest court, and interact with historical judicial figures. Some fun facts children can learn are about quill pens and the court, and how strict court procedures remain.

Q: What do you see as the right blend of fiction and history in this book?

A: To quote the song lyric, “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down”: About 50 percent is an adventuresome romp of two friends teamed, Capitol Cat & Watch Dog; woven around 50 percent of true facts of how America’s highest court works. 

Two SCOTUS Justices, Sonia Sotomayor and Sandra Day O’Connor, sent me complimentary personal notes on how much they loved Capitol Cat & Watch Dog Outwit the U.S.Supreme Court. So I must have got it right.

As a lawyer and author, that was a thrill.

Q: You’ve written for children and adults, fiction and nonfiction. Do you have a preference?

A: I enjoy both. This is my seventh book, and my second children’s book. If you are going to write a book for children, my idea is that the subject matter might as well be useful, important nonfiction through which they could learn something of historical value. As an example, I note famed celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley’s first children’s book is about Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am still doing publicity for “Outwit” because President-elect Trump will soon announce his SCOTUS nominee for one open seat.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My 2015 book (my sixth book) is nonfiction: American Evita: Lurleen Wallace, a never-fully-told biography of America’s third woman governor, part of a husband-wife political team of Southerners, set against the tumultuous backdrop of 1967-68 in American history. If that nonfiction seems to track real life Bill and Hillary from Arkansas, you are right. 

Kitty Kelley told me: “Janice, NO one wants a real biography”. She explained that family members want an authorized, sanitized version of a life. She has written controversial best-sellers about the lives of Frank Sinatra, Nancy Reagan, Rock Hudson and others, where there was high-spirited pushback from the family and friends.

I faced a similar pushback with American Evita: Lurleen Wallace. Interestingly, Wallace family members never complained about how the facts portrayed Governor Lurleen Wallace, about whom almost nothing had been written until my 2015 nonfiction book.

To me, Lurleen, whose racial and social views were not the same as her infamous husband’s, was an inspiring figure, who triumphed over circumstances that would have derailed most women of that 1960s era. She was a non-high school graduate, a dime-store clerk from an economically disadvantaged farm family who, in 1967 was listed as one of the most admired women in the world.

However, some family and friends  joined forces in pushback against American Evita: Lurleen Wallace, because, as they indicated via surrogates in public and private confrontations, they disagreed with my factual portrayal of their father, fiery Alabama Governor George Wallace. The Montgomery NPR station taped an interview with me on American Evita: Lurleen Wallace, which never aired. Some Alabama signing and speaking opportunities disappeared.

But I found validation from an Alabama public figure, who knew George Wallace very well from birth, to death who told me: “Janice, what I liked about your book is that you portrayed George Wallace, exactly as he was.”

Biographer Kitty Kelley was right.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 23

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Dec. 23, 1902: Norman Maclean born.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Q&A with Alessandro Gallenzi


Alessandro Gallenzi is the author of the new novel The Tower. His other books include Bestseller and A Modern Bestiary, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Times and The Scotsman. He is the founder of Hesperus Press, Alma Books, and Alma Classics.



Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Tower?

A: I first had the idea for The Tower over 20 years ago, well before Google launched its Books Library Project or even existed.

It was the beginning of the Internet era, and I could see that among the applications of the world wide web would be information cataloguing and, more importantly, control. I wrote a first chapter in Italian and a long treatment for a novel. The [Giordano] Bruno story was already there, but it wasn’t fully developed.

When I moved to Britain in 1997, I lost the treatment and moved on to other projects. My love for Bruno and his work prompted me in the meantime to read all of his Italian Dialogues and his Latin works, especially the ones on mnemonics.

I also became fascinated with the papers of his Venetian and Roman trials, which I studied in depth, looking at discarded minutes and any other material which could give me context and detail.

When, two years ago, I found on an old computer the abandoned first chapter of the novel, I decided to revisit it, using my experience as a publisher and offering my take on the digital revolution as yet another manifestation of the centuries-old struggle for cultural dominance and mind control.

Q: The book alternates between present-day chapters and historical sections set in the late 16th century. How did you research the historical sections, and what did you see as the right balance between fiction and history as you were writing?

A: Sixteenth-century Italian history and literature have long been among my favourite areas of interest. Being a native Italian and having studied Latin, I had easy access to many rare and obscure documents relating to Bruno and his trials.

I also benefited from the works of Frances A. Yates, especially her landmark book, The Art of Memory, which was in fact the first inspiration for my novel.

Balancing fiction and history is always difficult. Most readers and reviewers prefer my Bruno chapters to the one in the present, but I feel that without its contemporary counterpoint the storyline in the past would lose its purpose and be rather gloomy. I saw the present-day events as a way to lighten up the mood and make the Bruno story relevant to the modern reader.

Bruno and the Inquisition are not very promising subjects for a work of fiction. However, I tried to bring out the Nolan’s voice from his own works and his trials, as well as from coeval documents, weaving a lot of authentic sixteenth-century dialogue into my narrative.

Q: Did you make many changes as you were writing, or did you follow a strict outline?

A: I don’t usually make many changes as I write. I am a slow writer and must be satisfied with what I have written so far before starting a new chapter. When I finish the first draft of the entire novel, however, I tend to look at it in a different way and can be quite a brutal editor.

In the case of The Tower, I lost about 15 percent of the first draft during the last edit, since I was looking for better pace and characterization. This didn’t satisfy me, though, and between the first and second edition of the book I trimmed away another 5 percent of the book.

I tend to follow a loose rather than strict outline. At times what happens is that I write three quarters of a book and then jot down a chapter-by-chapter outline of the remainder of the story, to make sure I don’t get lost, especially when the novel is multi-layered and the plot is complex.

I must admit that I was about to give up writing The Tower when I was only a few chapters from the end, as I felt I couldn’t bring the various strands of the two stories together to a satisfactory ending. Then I had a sudden burst of energy and inspiration and was able to complete the novel. I never felt like a more relieved man!

Q: As a publisher, a writer, and a translator, how do those skills complement one another for you?

A: I firmly believe that authors should always write about what they know and what they feel passionate about, so my experience as a publisher and translator are very important when I come to write an original piece of fiction.

In particular in The Tower I felt I had to call on my translation skills, since great sections of the Bruno chapters were, in a way, translations or adaptations from first-hand sources of his time.

When I write in English I don’t translate in my head from the Italian, but any act of writing, just as any expression of our mind or body, can be regarded as a translation from thought to action. So I believe that a knowledge of the translation process can come in handy in any field of life, not just writing.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have just completed a new novel. It’s the first one I have written in Italian, and it was a liberating experience. It is set in a lunatic asylum in Italy during the 1930s at the time of the Mussolini regime. I will be looking to get it published first in Italy (and later in Britain) in the new year.

I am reading the proofs of my translation of Pope’s Art of Sinking in Poetry and Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, to be published by Adelphi in Italy in February 2017, and I am also researching for a new novel, which will also be set in Italy and will probably take me back to my childhood and my hometown of Genzano, near Rome.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Ann McClellan


Ann McClellan is the author of the new book Bonsai and Penjing: Ambassadors of Peace & Beauty. She also has written Cherry Blossoms and The Cherry Blossom Festival, and has worked for the Smithsonian Institution, the World Wildlife Fund, and the American Association of Museums.

Q: How did you come to write this book, and have you always been interested in bonsai?

A: The original idea for this book was generated by a conversation between Deborah Ziska, a National Cherry Blossom Festival board member, and Jack Sustic, then curator of the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum. 

They thought of me for the project because I am the author of two books about Washington, D.C.’s cherry blossoms: The Cherry Blossom Festival, Sakura Celebration and National Geographic’s Cherry Blossoms, the Official Book of the National Cherry Blossom Festival.

My life-long interest in trees of every size began in my childhood because I grew up on a school campus in New Jersey laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted. Working on Bonsai and Penjing, Ambassadors of Peace & Beauty has deepened my awareness of all trees everywhere and now I see trees in landscapes as if they were bonsai grown large.

Q: For those of us who are not sure, what are some of the differences between bonsai and penjing?

A: The Chinese art form of penjing was the precursor of bonsai in Japan.  It was one of several Chinese cultural elements adopted by the Japanese centuries ago, like calligraphy. The idea of both art forms is to create the illusion of great age in miniature.

Some differences are that penjing tend to be “looser” than Japanese bonsai, and sometimes penjing are created using only rocks, without any plants at all. Containers are important in both art forms, though they typically play a subordinate, complementary role in Japanese bonsai, while they are more “equal” in the overall penjing display. 

The term “bonsai” can be applied to the tiny trees and landscapes from anywhere, including China, but the donor of the penjing that came to the museum in 1986 insisted that “penjing” be added to the name of the museum so visitors would know to expect to see Chinese exemplars.

Q: The book’s subtitle describes the trees as “ambassadors.” What role have they played in international diplomacy?

A: Bonsai and penjing have often served as official gifts between nations, thanks to their powerful impact as symbols of peace and international friendship.

The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum was founded by a gift of 53 trees from Japan in 1976 in honor of America’s bicentennial. Richard Nixon was given penjing when he visited China in 1972 though none of these survive.

As gifts, they represent a living expression of the donor country’s natural environment and artistic legacy. They are also used to make foreign visitors feel at home. Presidents Carter, Clinton and George W. Bush all asked to borrow bonsai from the museum to grace the White House when Japanese dignitaries visited.

Q: The book includes many beautiful photographs.  How did you research the book and also the photos that are included?


A: Thank you for your kind words about the photographs.  I actually began the research for the book based on what photographs were available from the U.S. National Arboretum and the National Bonsai Foundation. 

Yes, I am a writer but I believe the truism that a picture is worth 1,000 words! The images were taken by a variety of people, notably including professional photographers Michael Colella and Joe Mullan, as well as by National Arboretum staff members.

The other “springboard” for my research was Dr. John Creech’s booklet, The Bonsai Saga, How the Bicentennial Collection Came to America. I knew from the outset that most of Dr. Creech’s text would be included in my book, so it was my task to expand upon it and give it a contemporary context.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a novel set in 16th century France when Francis the First was king and Henry VIII reigned in England.  If that sounds odd as a next project, I think of it this way:  my non-fiction world is about Japan; my fiction world is about France.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I hope Bonsai and Penjing, Ambassadors of Peace & Beauty will enhance visitors’ enjoyment of the living works of art on view at the museum and that it will inspire others to visit. Beautiful as the photos are in the book, they don’t compare to the experience of seeing the enchanting tiny trees and miniature landscapes in person.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb