Friday, April 28, 2017

Q&A with Amos N. Guiora

Amos N. Guiora is the author of the new book The Crime of Complicity: The Bystander in the Holocaust. His other books include Cybersecurity and Global Perspectives on Counterterrorism. He is Professor of Law at the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah.

Q: You write that this book ended up going in different directions than you initially expected. What were you thinking you would write, and why did that change?

A: When I began the project, I began it as a traditional law book, and in the first and second drafts, I found it to be boring for the writer. How do I make it more interesting?

I was preparing for a marathon with my running partner. You have hours to kill. The more stories I shared with her, the more I realized there was a story to tell here, and simultaneously to this, my father, a healthy 86-year-old, fell. I realized he was cognitively impaired, and that I knew very little about the Holocaust and my parents’ experiences.

I put it all together and I thought, why not write something that’s law-based but tells a story about my parents as a way to honor my parents and use their experiences as a way to address a very important legal question. It came out to be personal, historical, legal, but not [only] legal.

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

A: I thought long and hard about the title. There’s great significance to titles. I came to the conclusion that the bystander commits a crime, and the crime he commits is complicity. Why not address it head-on, and point the finger at the bystander. There’s a [recent] story in Detroit about a child drowning [that exemplifies this].

Q: You propose criminalizing bystander complicity. How exactly would that work?

A: Take the case in Detroit. Those standing there with a cell phone in their hand are in a position to dial 911, alert law enforcement. Failing to do that is a criminal act. I went back and forth on the extent of liability. I decided the most appropriate punishment was a financial penalty…

Q: How do you apply the lessons from the Holocaust to today’s world?

A: …I’ve been an autodidact on the Holocaust. [The top Nazis] don’t really interest me. The lesson learned is that if not for the bystanders, I don’t think the evil that was perpetrated would have been perpetrated. The Eichmanns of the world benefited from the complicity of bystanders. That for me is the lesson.

I think it absolutely applies to society today…the failure to act on behalf of a vulnerable victim significantly endangers the vulnerable victim. That to me, for me, is the primary lesson to be learned.

As my father was dying, I said, I’ve got to finish this before he dies. I’m in a race against time. Unfortunately, I didn’t succeed; he died before I finished. But out of nowhere, all the wires for three days, two years ago, recrossed, and I was able to interview him about this stuff. It was out of nowhere.

He did not allow me to videotape him; he was conscious of how he looked and would not allow me to tape him. I feverishly took notes as he spoke for three days. He disagrees with my theory. When he was on the death march, the villagers didn’t owe any duty to save him. My mother also disagrees.

Q: So that was the only time he talked about it?

A: Except when I was 12 years old. We were canoeing…he told me his story and her story and took me home…

You write a book like this, you uncover family stories, how he escaped and how he was saved. It’s a lovely story but it’s not true. He told me he was liberated by Tito’s [forces] and a Russian jeep showed up to save him. That’s not true. He hiked through the mountains, with no coat. He never shared that with me.

I know because I met with a Hungarian historian who asked how my dad got through to Sofia. I said a Russian jeep. He said that’s not true, he walked in horrible conditions. I said my perception of my father was that he couldn’t make his way from the living room to the front door without my mother. It turns out not to be the case.

I was a rude 15-year-old, and I said [to him], You never play golf. He said, I survived the Holocaust, don’t you think that’s enough? The book is an attempt to honor my dad through the lens of the bystander. There’s a lot of personal [information] in it.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just had [another] book out [recently] on cybersecurity, and one on Earl Warren. This one took four years to write, longer than the previous ones…there was so much family history in it.

It begins with the drowning of my cousin. It has never been discussed. It’s an unimaginable family tragedy. The first picture in the book—my mother took that picture the day before he drowned. The question of the bystander for me is not an abstract academic question, it’s deeply rooted in me. A child drowning is so awful.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like people to know about the book?

A: Whether people agree or disagree with my conclusion, I leave to the reader. What’s important is that the issue be discussed. I try to make it accessible through the personal stories of my parents.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Amos Guiora will be speaking at the 92nd Street Y in New York on May 22.

April 28

April 28, 1926: Harper Lee born.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

April 27

April 27, 1945: August Wilson born.

Q&A with Phoebe Maltz Bovy

Phoebe Maltz Bovy, photo by Phil Crozier
Phoebe Maltz Bovy is the author of the new book The Perils of "Privilege": Why Injustice Can't Be Solved By Accusing Others of Advantage. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New Republic and The Atlantic. She is based in New York and Toronto.

Q: How did you come up with the idea of writing about privilege, and how do you see the concept of privilege changing in recent years?

A: Around the time of the 2008 recession, I started seeing a lot of privilege call-outs (as in, “check your privilege”) appearing online, on blogs and, especially, in blog comment sections, which were in many ways the precursor to social media as it exists today.

I began writing about the phenomenon of privilege accusation on my blog  (under the tag YPIS, for “your privilege is showing”), but in the course of researching the book, realized extends to other arenas as well: college admissions, cultural criticism, and politics.

What interested me wasn’t online trolling as a broader phenomenon, but rather the specific subset that presents itself not as trolling, but as self-righteous defense of (often absent) marginalized parties.

A culture had developed online where no matter the context, every topic, every cultural object, every political debate had to be discussed in terms of privilege. What struck me was both how ubiquitous the phrase (and framing) had become, and how empty.

With “privilege” functioning as, in effect, a synonym for “bad”, “wrong”, or “oblivious,” its function as a catch-all insult seemed to eclipse its use as a description of society’s structure.

While the hierarchies the (progressive) privilege framework refers to is real, and is really a problem (that is, racism, sexism, etc., exist), it’s not clear that the great privilege-awareness project (with its focus on privileged individuals’ self-presentation) does terribly much to address it. If anything, it makes things worse.

As for how the concept has changed in recent years, what happened is, a concept that has generally been used to refer to wealth and family connections, to a life of luxury and ease, has come to be used to describe every possible form of unearned (and, often, earned) advantage.

Q: In a recent Washington Post review of your book, Carlos Lozada wrote, "Someone needs to book Phoebe Maltz Bovy on one of those television shows featuring people who have the most awful jobs in America, because she has just completed a project so soul-crushing that I can’t imagine anyone ever doing it again, certainly not voluntarily." Was it soul-crushing?

A: It wasn’t soul-crushing! As I understood that part of his review in context, Carlos Lozada was saying that online arguments (and comments sections), which are many (not all) of my sources, are – especially, perhaps, for writers – painful to read. The dregs of discourse.

While I sort of get that when it comes to internet comments on my own writing, I don’t think it’s viable, at this point, to pretend such sources aren’t a big part of what the cultural conversation these days consists of.

Law professor Ann Althouse explained this in a blog post about the review better than I could, but basically, the idea is, online squabbles are sources worth looking at.

Also, as a practical matter, for nearly all the time I was working on what wound up being the background research for the book, and then on the book itself, I was also working.

The embarrassing fact is, I’m someone who has chosen to use some spare time reading blog comments sections and Twitter arguments, because I find many of them genuinely interesting.

Q: Where does feminism fit into the concept of "privilege"?

A: So very many places, particularly since the election, and the great feminist post-election reckoning.

One way to look at it is, feminism exists as pushback against male privilege. (Or, as I’d prefer to put it, against sexism.) What happens, though is that internal feminist debates quite naturally tend to involve highlighting the relative privilege of some women over others.

Within feminism, this is necessary – feminism can’t just be about CEO numbers. But movements have porous borders, and online, it’s often not clear who’s who. Criticisms of so-called elite feminism are sometimes about a needed reprioritization within feminism, but one finds the same sort of rhetoric from anti-feminists.

Put another way: It’s one thing to think women minimum-wage workers should have more of a voice relative to (say) Sheryl Sandberg than they do. It’s another to say that Western feminists have nothing legitimate to complain about, and that it’s fancy and oblivious to care about having women in leadership positions.

The fact that women – even privileged ones! – face sexism gets lost. Women – as a group, and certain individual public figures – remain the face of “privilege,” even while maleness remains one of the major forms of unearned advantage.

All of these issues – which I discuss at length in the book – have become if anything more of an issue since the election. Paradoxically, ever since Hillary Clinton lost, she’s become that much more the symbol of privileged feminism.

Q: Given the arrival of the Trump administration, where do you see the privilege debates heading?

A: I think – and I get into this in the Afterword, which I wrote just after Trump became the GOP nominee – Trump has managed to make the “privilege” approach work in his favor.

Building on preexisting strains of right-wing populism, domestic and international, he’s successfully cast his opponents as “privileged”, his fans (and straight white Christian men generally) as underdogs.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Fiction and non-fiction, both about academia, both still very much at the Microsoft Word document stage…

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Here’s where I’ll reiterate that systemic injustice – racism, sexism, wealth inequality, and more – is real. These are phenomena that need to be addressed more, not less. My issue with “privilege” isn’t that it’s given too much of a voice to historical underdogs. It’s that it’s done the opposite. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Ruth Behar

Ruth Behar is the author of a new novel for older kids, Lucky Broken Girl, which is based on her own childhood. Her other books include Traveling Heavy and An Island Called Home. She is a cultural anthropologist, and she lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Q: You've said that you first wrote the story of your childhood accident and its aftermath from the perspective of an adult looking back. What made you decide to write it from a child's viewpoint?

A: I had the idea in the back of my mind for a long time to write the story from a child’s viewpoint. As a young woman, I wrote short stories with magic and myth woven into them. But I gave up that writing to become a cultural anthropologist, always drawing on my rational mind to write essays and books for adult readers.

In recent years I’ve come back to fiction. I tried writing an adult novel, but was unhappy with the result. I set it aside and sat down and started writing the story of the accident with the child as the narrator. Memories came flooding back.

What I wished had happened otherwise, I took the liberty of inventing and making sweeter and more magical than in real life.

And the child’s voice came easily. I surrendered to that voice, which I found refreshingly honest and bold. It was a voice, as the expression goes in Spanish, “que no tiene pelos en la lengua,” which literally means “not to have hairs on the tongue.”

When I finished the book, I felt so grateful to have been able to tell a story I’d carried around for 50 years.

Q: How did you remember all the details you recount from the 1960s? Did you need to conduct additional research?

A: I have vivid memories of the long months I spent in the body cast as well as the long months of learning to walk again. I drew on everything I could recall—and the lingering trauma that still exists in my body—to write Lucky Broken Girl.

I had been the kind of child, and later became the adult woman, who was obsessed with the family history. Throughout the years I collected stories, old photographs, and memorabilia from my grandparents. I built up a huge archive that helped me conjure the cultural context and the Jewish-Cuban diaspora history that informs the book.

And I have traveled to Cuba, gaining a strong sense of the home we lost and feeling the weight of the nostalgia of those who left, like my family, with little more than a suitcase to start a new life in the United States.

One of the most concrete ways I put myself back in the era of the 1960s was by drawing on popular music, recalling how I loved the song, “These Boots are Made for Walkin’.” Sure enough, those go-go boots from the song became an important symbol in the book.

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

A: My original working title for the book was “The Accident,” but it was vague and didn’t convey Ruthie’s experience. I then thought of “The Broken Girl,” but that didn’t feel right either.

It occurred to me that Ruthie was a girl who was both broken and lucky. She couldn’t leave her bed, but she got to go on an amazing journey of self-discovery during the year she was a convalescent.

I started calling the book “Lucky Broken Girl.” I realized it was an unusual title and didn’t expect it to last. I’d heard that most authors don’t get to make the final decision on their book titles.

But my editor loved the title, as did everyone on the marketing team, and it stuck. I’m glad I got to keep it. I love how it’s contradictory and makes you wonder from the start how it’s possible to be both lucky and broken.

Q: You and your family had arrived in the United States from Cuba, and much of the book deals with the experience of being an immigrant. With the current focus today on immigration issues, what do you hope readers take away from your story?

A: At this moment in history, we are experiencing a disturbing rise in anti-immigrant sentiment. We need to counter this trend by building more bridges between individuals and communities. The stories of immigrants, all immigrants, need to be told and heard, so our shared humanity can rise above the misperceptions.

Lucky Broken Girl is an immigrant story but it isn’t limited to my own Cuban immigrant story. There are intersecting immigrant stories, shown through Ruthie’s friendships with a boy from India, a girl from Belgium, a neighbor from Mexico, and a physical therapist from Puerto Rico by way of the Bronx.

She also has a close relationship with Baba, her Polish Jewish grandmother who finds refuge in Cuba on the eve of the Holocaust and then has to uproot again to the United States. All these immigrants are finding their way in the United States and are contributing to the moral and cultural fabric of the country.

I hope readers will take away new understandings of the immigrant experience and develop greater empathy toward the plight of those who, at great emotional cost, must leave an old home to create a new home somewhere else.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a new middle-grade novel that takes place in Cuba. I’m afraid to say too much about it just yet, except that I’m very excited to be writing fiction again.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The fact that it took me such a long time to write a novel about my childhood accident will, I hope, give other writers the push they need to get going on telling the stories they’ve been carrying around.

It truly is never too late to write a story that’s from the heart. If you’ve been contemplating writing a novel about your childhood story, sit down and get started today!

To learn more about Lucky Broken Girl and the other writing I’ve done through the years, please visit my website.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 27

April 27, 1898: Ludwig Bemelmans born.

April 27

April 27, 1759: Mary Wollstonecraft born.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Q&A with Michael Lesy

Michael Lesy is the author of the new book Looking Backward: A Photographic Portrait of the World at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century. His other books include Wisconsin Death Trip and Murder City. He teaches literary journalism at Hampshire College, and he lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for this book, and how did you choose the photographs to include?

A: How it started is in my line of work you’re privy to different kinds of information that interests you. I had known about [the Keystone-Mast Collection of stereoscopic photographs] for a while. I’d been looking at other collections since 1970 and they were about different things. If you do “items,” as archivists call this stuff—each collection had more and more items. You build up certain strengths, strategies…I decided I was ready to do it.

It was the tipping point between what passes for the 20th century and what passed for the 19th century. I’m crazy about that moment…it turned out to be about the good old days, [Theodore] Roosevelt, the 4th of July, Sousa marches—oh yeah? How come these people [in the photos] are headed to Siberia in chains?

They’re looking like butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths. These guys are the patriarchy…[but] you should read the captions on some of the photographs of African Americans in the South or Eastern European Jews. It makes your hair stand up…

They thought the images meant one thing, we think the images meant that and something else too. That’s the pleasure of doing the book. You can have your cake and eat it too. You can have your nostalgia and be completely cynical…

[Looking at the question of] how did you sort through it? The romantic story is I did time travel. Once you go into this place and start looking at the pictures, you can go into a kind of trance. It’s not corny or cheesy…you’re looking with part of your head that’s entirely usual and with another part that’s educated, sharp-edged.

I was in the zone, five or six hours a day. I’d come up into sunlight and have a power bar and a Red Bull and go back into the tunnel. I want that [photograph] and that one and that one. That was the process.

The people in the archive were wonderful. The photocopies would be neatly stacked. They’d invited me and I’d said yes because we both knew I could penetrate the collection in a way no one had before.

It was so big—the way people had used it would be, Do you have a picture of the assassination of William McKinley? I was prepared to say, Give me that drawer, and work my way through all the drawers.

I’d go home and spend an interval sorting the stuff out. I’d say, Oh look! All these pictures of soldiers? Put them over here. All the pictures of beheadings, put them there. It’s an editing process. It went on in parallel with the research process. Like what street photographers do, in the zone out in the world, and in a different state when editing.

The process went on like that for a year. It just became more and more of an editing process. What kicked in was…amazement and outrage. It’s just appalling.

It’s one thing when you go to school and [learn that] here’s an era when individuals and corporations amassed wealth. But then you look at the people. You see the alley in Athens like when you’re re-seeing something along with everything you know about Greece and Turkey—it’s shattering.

The first part is immersion. The second part is climbing out of the pool and shaking yourself like a dog. It’s very, very hard. It really altered my head. You’re talking to a freak of nature, and that’s okay. That’s what it will take for more historians, anthropologists [to] do this stuff after I vanish…

Q: Do you see common themes running through the photos?

A: Oh sure, there’s wealth and poverty, there’s race. There’s what people said happened and what really happened…Then there’s the title of the book.

Q: Yes, I was going to ask you about that—in the book, you cite the Edward Bellamy classic Looking Backward. Why did you decide on that as the title for your book, and what connection do you see between the two?

A: Bellamy was looking back at what every enlightened American, British citizen, French citizen, German citizen [thought about, that there was] going to be a class war and it will bring the world to an end. The depression of 1877 was based on a national railway network—the railway workers went on strike and burned whole cities.

Then there were anarchists…McKinley was done in by an anarchist. We’re terrified of radical Islam, whatever you call it. Our ancestors were terrified by class warfare…

[For the title,] it was because I knew Bellamy. I’d gone to school and learned American history. My father was an immigrant, my mother was one generation removed. Like any Jewish immigrant, or child of Jewish immigrants, I studied. Bellamy was really important, but he’s been forgotten. At one point, there were Bellamy clubs all over the U.S…

I was playing a game with the title—it’s evident at one level, the guy is looking over his shoulder. And at other levels, it’s based upon things I knew... 

The guy [in Bellamy’s book] is rich, he suffers from insomnia, so he has built a sleeping vault. To go into a trance, he employs a mesmerist. The mesmerist puts him to sleep, and the house burns down and he’s in the vault. No one knows about it…the guy thought there would be a war based on class war.

My book takes a look at what’s going on when the guy went into the sleeping chamber.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: When I started out, my first teaching job was at Yale, and one of the first people I met was Walker Evans. He was in the last two years of his life. When we met, it coincided with Evans being given by the Polaroid corporation an instant camera, very elegantly designed.

Evans took to them—this was different! You got something right away. Until he died Evans was a very horny man. He photographed a lot of really pretty girls. He was Walker Evans.

Most of it ended up in the Metropolitan, some at Yale. I’m doing a book on the SX-70 [cameras] and also about Evans. It’s also a memoir…

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Lawrence Goldstone

Lawrence Goldstone is the author of Higher, Steeper, Faster: The Daredevils Who Conquered the Skies, a new book for children about early aviation pioneers. His other books, for adults, include Drive! and Birdmen. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Wall Street Journal and The Boston Globe.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book for kids about early aviation pioneers?

A: My main goal in writing Higher, Steeper, Faster was to demonstrate to kids (and their parents) that there were stories of real people every bit as gripping and fun as the fantasy and contrived fiction that dominates the young reader market.

That kids can also learn while being entertained is obviously an added benefit.  

If there was more of this sort of non-fiction in the young reader mainstream, I'm convinced, middle school students will be that much more engaged when they get to high school and college.  

I chose the early aviators because they epitomize the commitment, personal magnetism, and heroism that I thought would be most appealing to kids and, again, parents.

Q: You’ve written on a similar topic for adults—what are some of the differences between the two books, and what was it like writing your first book for younger readers?

A: In Birdmen, my book on early aviation for adults, there was a good deal of emphasis on the ferocious competition, both in the air and in the courtroom, between the Wright brothers and Glenn Curtiss.  

There was also a good bit of technical information on the scientific and engineering problems that needed to be solve to enable powered, controlled flight.  

There aren't too many middle schoolers who want to read about patent law, or spend time plowing through technical specifications of airfoils, so these sections had to be severely restricted in a book for kids.  

Also, the Wright brothers were extremely controversial--far more than they are generally portrayed--and I didn't feel it useful to spend a lot of time on personality issues.  

In terms of the writing itself, I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of making the language sufficient explicable for young readers without in any way dumbing it down.  

I sent early drafts out to some middle school kids I know and was gratified...and not a little relieved...that they all like the style a great deal.

Q: One of the figures you highlight in the book is the aviator Lincoln Beachey. What are some of the most intriguing things about his career?

A: Lincoln Beachey, who also is prominently featured in Birdmen, is one of the most unique and fascinating figures in the history of aviation...and perhaps in the history of anything.  

He was a man totally without fear, yet he had enormous respect for the dangers that he courted every time he took to the skies. He was a genius in an airplane, a total natural--a Bobby Fischer or Michael Jordan. He performed feats that not only no one of his era could begin to match, but it is doubtful that anyone since could as well.

Beachey was also a total oddball--he didn't smoke, didn't drink, loved women...copiously...and opened bank accounts under phony names in almost every city in which he performed. He made more money in one day than most Americans made in a year, and was better known than the President.  

There is no way in such limited space to begin to detail either his achievements or his oddities.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have proposed a book on Constitutional Law for middle school, specifically about the civil rights decisions of the Supreme Court in the late 19th century that enabled the horrors of the Jim Crow era. The proposal is currently out with editors.  

Now before everyone goes shaking their heads and saying, "What!!???  Constitutional Law for middle school!!??"  here's an excerpt from the proposal explaining what I want to do and why.

I believe that everything I said in the first answer about Higher, Steeper, Faster is true of this story as well--and am equally convinced that both kids and parents will find it compelling and riveting.

“We are living in a time in which the rules have changed. Donald Trump’s ascent to the presidency not only left most political professionals stunned and perplexed, but inspired fear and despair among the record number of voters that denied him a popular majority. 

No election since that of Abraham Lincoln has exploited such a division in America. But Donald Trump is no Abraham Lincoln. Many believe that under his presidency the very democratic system under which our country has been governed for more than two centuries is at risk.

In the wake of Trump’s election, many of those who had previously thought it unthinkable—both liberals and conservatives—blamed the stunning ignorance of the American voter. How could so many fail to distinguish between legitimate debate about how our government should be administered and diatribe denouncing the institutions of government themselves? 

The answer lies not in what those intoxicated by Trumpian rhetoric chose to watch and listen to as adults, but that they grew into adulthood with no grounding in how American democracy actually functions…and has functioned in the past. Conspiracy theories, after all, can only flourish in the face of ignorance.

There is nothing more vital, therefore, than to begin to correct these errors where they began—in school and in the home. Currently, however, children’s education as to the history or workings of American government is all too often either superficial or reverential. 

Phenomena such as slavery or the savage conquest of Native American homelands are generally portrayed as anachronisms, anomalies, which in no way reflect the overall soundness or fundamental fairness of the American legal system. The Supreme Court in particular is rarely depicted as an instrument of inequality and repression. 

History, however, tells a different, more layered tale. The Supreme Court is made up of men—and more recently women—whose views, politics, and prejudices more often than not seep into and even guide their decisions. As a result, the Supreme Court has been responsible for some of the most important confirmations of freedom and equality in our history, such as in Brown v. Board of Education.  

But it has also experienced frequent dark periods, one of which came at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century when it literally rewrote two Constitutional amendments and thereby ushered in and enabled the Jim Crow era. 

These were terrible times during which black Americans were denied the vote, forced into segregation, and were regularly beaten, raped, and even murdered with no recourse at all to a legal system that had been created to protect them. And, where every schoolchild knows Brown, how many know of these earlier decisions, which made Brown necessary?

Today’s middle-schoolers must be made aware of America’s full history, for this is a time when the rules for what our children read should change as well.”

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

April 26

April 26, 1914: Bernard Malamud born.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Q&A with Carolyn Meyer

Carolyn Meyer is the author of a new novel for older kids, Girl with a Camera: Margaret Bourke-White, Photographer. Her many other books for children and young adults include Diary of a Waitress and Anastasia and her Sisters. She lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Q: Why did you decide to write a novel based on the life of photographer Margaret Bourke-White?

A: I’d been noodling around with a list of American women who were pioneers in their fields. I always focus on the early lives of the characters I write about: who they were before they became Somebody, what their formative years were like. Margaret Bourke-White was high on the list, and she was unique.

Q: What did you see as the right blend between the historical facts of her life and your own imagination?

A: I try to find the best and most interesting facts to form the narrative’s framework; then I invent dialogue and add likely details that suit the personality and are accurate for the time period but for which I have no actually proof.

Q: How did you research the book, and what did you find that especially fascinated you?

A: I read biographies and various books about MBW. Then I backed that up with online research on other characters, like the Mungers, who financed her education.

I used to have a neighbor who collected old cameras; I asked him to show me how they worked. I called the historical society in the town where she grew up and asked if they had copies of the yearbook from her era. Etc., etc., etc.  That, of course, is the fun of it!

Q: Why did you decide to write the novel in the first person? 

A: First person is the best way I know to get the emotional closeness to the character. I’ve tried third person, and it never works as well for me.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Georgia O’Keeffe! She was on my list of pioneers. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 25

April 25, 1908: Edward R. Murrow born.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Q&A with Renée Rosen

Renee Rosen, photo by Charles Osgood Photography
Renée Rosen is the author of the new novel Windy City Blues. Her other novels include White Collar Girl and What the Lady Wants. A former advertising copywriter, she lives in Chicago.

Q: Why did you decide to write about the Chess brothers and the Chicago blues in your new novel?

A: This was definitely a group decision made by my editor, my agent and myself. We all knew that we wanted to do one more Chicago historical novel and we needed a compelling anchor or backdrop.

It was my editor who first said, “What about the blues?” I honestly didn’t know that much about Chicago Blues at the time so I did some preliminary research and it quickly became apparent that any story about the blues had to include the Chess brothers.

I couldn’t have dreamed up better characters than Leonard and Phil Chess. I think what’s so remarkable about their story is that here you have two white Jewish guys, with zero musical abilities of their own, who go on to launch the careers of such icons as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Etta James, Chuck Berry and so many others.

Q: You have a combination of fictional and historic characters--how did you come up with Leeba, Red, and your other fictional creations?

A: Originally this was just going to be Leeba’s story—a young Jewish girl who falls in love with a black guitarist from the Mississippi Delta. I wrote close to 200 pages from her POV before I realized the book wasn’t working and trashed them all.

Those pages weren’t working because the story was too big to be told through one character’s POV. I needed three, someone to represent the music industry (Leonard Chess), someone to represent the bluesman (Red Dupree) and a young woman trying to follow her heart (Leeba Grosky). 

Leeba and Red’s story really takes center stage and both these fictional characters. and the others, sprang out of research. For example, I interviewed a famous deejay from Birmingham, Shelley Stewart. Shelley was a central figure during the Civil Rights Movement and after talking to him, Red Dupree began talking on new dimensions and his storyline grew and deepened.

Leeba is a combination of many women from that time period that I read about, including Carole King. Her memoir gave me some insights into how someone like Leeba would become a songwriter.

Q: Did you learn anything in the course of your research for this book that especially surprised you?

A: Great question! I learned so much. It would be impossible to convey it all here, but some of the key points would be the parallels between Jewish immigrants and blacks in Chicago during this time.

I was also surprised to learn about how important blues music was to the Civil Rights Movement.

Most surprising of all however, was realizing how timely this story is. Even though it’s set in the 1950s and 1960s, we find ourselves facing the same issues today: racism, anti-Semitism, discrimination against immigrants.

Q: You've written several books now about different periods in Chicago's history. How does this period compare with those you've focused on before?

A: I think the 1950s and 1960s played a more crucial role in terms of social change and perhaps because we’re still dealing with these issues today, it makes this time period more relatable than say the Gilded Age or the Roaring Twenties.

Those time periods seem so far away, so quaint and foreign to us whereas, I don’t think you can read about the ‘50s and ‘60s without feeling the significance of what was happening and feeling like you’re still part of what was started 50 or 60 years ago.

As far as writing about this time period, it’s tricky. Many of the people and places you’re writing about are still around and many of your readers lived through the very time period you’re basing your story on, so you have to get it right.

No one’s going to know if you fudged something back in the 1870s or 1920s, but you’ll absolutely pull the reader out of the story if you get even a single fact wrong in this case. It’s a great challenge and very rewarding when I hear from readers who say the book brought back memories for them. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Very excited for my next book about Helen Gurley Brown and how she resurrected Cosmopolitan Magazine in 1965. It’s told from the POV of her secretary. Now, you might be thinking it sounds like The Devil Wears Prada, but HGB was no Anna Wintour. In many ways, she was the polar opposite.

This novel will be a departure for me on several counts. It’s my first historical novel set outside of Chicago. This one takes place in New York City and unlike my other books which have spanned a few decades, this will be more concentrated—just one year.

One of Helen Gurley Brown’s greatest contributions to women was removing the stigma about female sexuality and that’s great fun to write about! I’m having a blast with it—bring on the go-go boots and Nehru jackets. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I love being a writer. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do, from the time I was a young girl. I’m truly grateful that I get to spend my days surrounded by words and books and fellow book lovers.

I’m sure everyone’s TBR piles are at least as high as mine and I know there’s a likelihood that we’ll never get to read all the books we want, and so I never take it for granted whenever someone chooses one of my books to read. I hope that when the last page is turned they feel their reading time was rewarding. 

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