Monday, September 25, 2017

Q&A with Jen Waite


Jen Waite is the author of the new book A Beautiful, Terrible Thing: A Memoir of Marriage and Betrayal, which focuses on her relationship with her ex-husband. She lives in Maine.

Q: Why did you decide to write a memoir about your experiences with your ex-husband, and what was it like to write about such a difficult time in your life?

A: I did not sit down to write a memoir. It wasn’t a planned, purposeful endeavor. I was writing close to everything when it was happening. It was because my mom and another character in the book, who’s “Nat” in the book, told me you need to start writing and move it out of your body.

The reason for writing it at the time, I didn’t really know. In hindsight, I figured out that I tried to understand what was happening and tried to process it. I didn’t write to help other people, but to figure out what was happening in my own life…

It was entirely therapeutic, and then it quickly turned into, I have a lot of pages, and a plot, and I realized it could be something more than just for myself.

There were scenes where it was very painful and I was releasing a lot of emotion. There were scenes where I had to force myself to write. But most of it, I felt that I had to. It was almost as if every sentence had already formed in my head. It took two and a half to three months to write. It just kind of came.

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

A: That title was not my original title. It was "Human Heroin." But it would have been too confusing. We were brainstorming titles and my editor came up with ["A Beautiful, Terrible Thing"]. I’m really glad now. It’s more appealing to the demographic the book resonates with, mostly women, who have been in these relationships.

The “beautiful, terrible thing” for me is not the relationship…but the fact that I went through this and came out so much stronger. As cheesy as it sounds, I’m so much better a person. And it goes without saying, my daughter is the most beautiful thing that came out of it. It’s what I learned, and it’s the truth.

Q: The book is organized primarily into chapters focusing on before and after you found out about your husband’s affair. How did you decide on the structure of the book?

A: I sat down that first day and it sounds like I’m lying, but it happened organically. I knew exactly what I was going to start with. In my head was a timeline. Certain events were highlighted that I knew would be the “before” and the “after.”

In hindsight, I had to juxtapose falling-in-love moments with the after moments to find out what went wrong.

And it’s important for the reader to go along on the journey in dual time as well. It felt like an amazing beginning and the end was so horrific—what I’m hoping was that people would almost see through my eyes that I couldn’t even believe it myself. People need to experience the before and after at the same time.

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

A: I hope for anyone who’s been in a relationship with a toxic person, not necessarily a psychopath but any unhealthy relationship, I hope they feel validated. A lot of people walk away thinking they’re crazy.

And I hope people who haven’t might, A, take the warning signs and B, understand the psyche of a person in that relationship, why it isn’t easy to extricate yourself. People think, Oh, just leave. I’m hoping it will be a multiple purpose.

A few therapists have contacted me and said it changed how they were treating their patients now, [after having] a glimpse into a person in that relationship.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I haven’t started writing a book. I’m doing a lot of articles that tag along with the memoir; my publisher has contacted me about media outlets that are interested.

I’m working in Portland, Maine, for an insurance company. It’s a 9-to-5 job and I’m happy there.

At the end of the memoir, I was ready to become a therapist. I’m still excited, but I’ve taken a pause to make sure that’s something I want to do, and with a toddler and a book coming out…

I want it to be a thoughtful decision, not one born out of trauma.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The reactions have been all over the board. I learned not to read reviews—the good ones are awesome; the bad ones are so painful. The word “psychopath” is a very visceral, intense word. It’s interesting that people are so fixated on, Is he or isn’t he? That is missing the point, but I get it because I did use that word.

I want people to know there’s more than whether he is or isn’t a psychopath, but it’s being in a toxic relationship, what drew me to him, owning that part of me. I hope it gives other women a direction about where to go. What set me free was looking inward at my own self, doing that scary work about my own vulnerabilities.

It is click-baity that way [the idea of a psychopath], but it’s so much more about forming boundaries, recognizing your own self-worth, finding yourself. For me, it was to find the person I really always was, and a lot got covered up by everything else that was happening in my life. It’s about getting back to the root of who we are and where our power lies.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Robin Roe


Robin Roe is the author of the young adult novel A List of Cages, which focuses on a high school student who comes back into contact with his foster brother, whom he hasn't seen in many years. Roe has run a mentoring program for at-risk teens in Dallas and counseled adolescents in Boston. She notes that she incorporated experiences from her own life and the kids she's worked with as she wrote the novel.

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

A: Right away, I had a general sense of how the book would end, and I wrote the last line very early in the writing process.

Q: Who do you see as the ideal readers for this book, and what do you hope they take away from it?

A: I really see A List of Cages as a book for anyone.

When people experience abuse as children, it shapes the way they view themselves. There’s often this feeling that because bad things were done to you, then you must be bad. So I hope that any reader who’s gone through this can start to release shame about experiences that weren’t their fault.

On the flipside, if someone can’t personally relate to the abuse, I hope it encourages empathy, and an understanding that we have so much power to positively impact the lives of others. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb


Sept. 25

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Sept. 25, 1897: William Faulkner born.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Q&A with Frances McCue


Frances McCue, photo by Hayley Young
Frances McCue is the author of the new poetry collection Timber Curtain. Her other books include The Car That Brought You Here Still Runs and The Stenographer's Breakfast. She was the founding director of Richard Hugo House in Seattle from 1996-2006, and is a senior lecturer at the University of Washington.

Q: Over how long a period did you write the poems in your new collection?

A: Thank you for asking about Timber Curtain

In one way, the book was written in two years and in another way, it took 20 years to write it.

For the last two and a half years, I’ve been working on a documentary film about the tear-down of a beloved old literary arts building in Seattle, a place where I used to live with my husband and daughter. I started writing poems as a sort of soundtrack for the film and they grew into a verse narrative of its own.

Timber Curtain roared out of the “triggering town” (as the poet Richard Hugo would call the initiating seed of a poem) of that film and they have their own life.  

Also, in the mid ‘90s, I was immersed in the study of architecture and I’d been making poems in response to Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project and Baudelaire’s flaneur poems. Those poems about 19th century Parisian glassed-in corridors, set in a series, shaped a glass passage, both in subject matter and in the structure.

I’d left that project behind but the poems rolled around inside me for awhile and then they found new forms and openings. My poetry books are mini-novellas— I’m always interested in having a story driving the accumulation of images and forms.

Q: Why did you focus at least in part on the Richard Hugo House in your new book, and what impact did it have on you?

A: That building is a stand-in for a long dialogue in urban history: the artist vs. the developer. Hugo House defies the stereotype of being a victim of the evil developer who takes over the world of  “hapless” artists who act as “gentrification wedges” that begin the process of upscaling a neighborhood, displacing the artists.  

Hugo House lost its old building to demolition and reconstruction but the development, in this case, is a good progression because the organization, Hugo House, will go on; it will continue in a beautiful new building on the same patch of land. The developers are actually philanthropists. I love stories that defy the easy divisions of the world and this is one.

The other reason that Hugo House is a rich subject is that we loved our time there. I worked as the founding director for 10 years and for some of that time I lived down the hall from my office. It was like being the baker who lived above the bakery.

Q: What themes do you see linking the poems in the collection?

A: Migration and sanctuary themes fill the book— certainly the outside world is filtering into my little story of one old building and ideas of displacement and loss.

Another theme is the making of artists— my daughter appears as a child who is living in the building and who is making art amidst older artists. Ghosts appear as well— and they sort of float from their little nests in the old building and lift over the demolition wreckage, looking for home.

And lastly, erasure is a core theme— the erasure of a city, my husband’s death as the erasure of part of a family, the demolition of our beloved place…

In the book, erasures often appear as censorship marks— In our current political age where the truth is hidden from us— I’m interested in how erasure appears physical and psychological forms— just as buildings are suddenly taken down, and our sight lines are forever changed. Our memories, too, are forever altered.

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

A: For a long time, I’ve been noticing the line of trees left after a logging sweep. The line forms a curtain that partially blocks a clear cut.

I created the term “Timber Curtain” and wrote a “fake” definition: "Timber Curtain. (n.) 1. The name given to a line of trees left after a logging sweep. Origins: Pacific Northwest, mid- to late twentieth century. Strung along the long roads of the Olympic Peninsula, the lines of trees were left to block sightlines of the clear cuts. 2. Urban version: “façademies” (rhyming with lobotomies), the use of façades of old buildings as a decorative “curtain” for new, less ornate and often cheaply-made structures. See also: Façadism.”

In the book, I play on the notion of curtain— it becomes a theater curtain and the poems go back and forth between the constructed theater in the city and the timber curtain in the forest. Both are blocking and presenting performances of a sort.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A little collection of book blurbs in collaboration with Timea Tihanyi, a visual artist who makes porcelain books. I’ve been writing blurbs for these un-openable ceramic books. Also: a nonfiction piece on pilgrimages and falling in love.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m so excited to actually see the book— it has amazing fold out pages that are imitations of buildings— a facademy, I call it, when a new building is inserted in the facade of an old one.

I did that in verse by writing a long column that I inserted within a scooped out shell of a poem that appears earlier in the book. I kept the first and last words of each line in the early version and shoved the column poem inside so that it could be read across and down.

I can’t wait to see how this looks and feels in the book when it falls open in my hands. The reassemblages of poems from previous ones is a fun enterprise and physcical book emphasizes that.  

Also, the film that accompanies the book is called Where the House Was and it will come out in the next year. You can see the trailer here.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Ilana Kurshan


Ilana Kurshan, photo by Debbi Cooper
Ilana Kurshan is the author of the new memoir If All the Seas Were Ink, which recounts her experiences studying the rabbinic teachings found in the Talmud. She also has written the book Why Is This Night Different from All Other Nights?, and has worked as book review editor of Lilith magazine. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Tablet and Hadassah. She lives in Jerusalem.

Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir, and what do you hope people take away from it?

A: I never set out to write a memoir about the Talmud. When I began learning I was in the throes of a painful divorce. I was living in Jerusalem, thousands of miles from my family and closest friends, and I was awfully depressed. I felt like time stretched ahead of me inexorably, and all I had to look forward to was the prospect of growing older with every passing day.

I had a friend I used to jog with, and one morning, on one of our runs, she mentioned that she had started studying daf yomi, Hebrew for “daily page,” an international program to complete the entire Talmud in seven and a half years at the rate of one page a day.

Immediately something lit up inside me. I thought about how if every day I learned another page of Talmud, then with each passing day, I would not be just one day older, but one day wiser. I thought about how moving on is about putting one foot in front of the other, or turning page after page. And I told myself that if every day I turned a page, then eventually a new chapter would have to begin.

And so for a runner like me, daf yomi was like a treadmill, pulling me ahead with each passing day and eventually showing me the way forward.

What I discovered about the Talmud surprised me. Unlike later works that followed from it, the Talmud is not a law code intended to tell Jews how to behave, but a record of rabbinic legal conversations in which the questions are left open and resolved. It is a text for those who are living the questions, rather than those who have found the answers. I found myself drawn into the rabbinic discussions, following the lines of the rabbis’ arguments and adding my own voice into the conversation.

In the classic printing of the Talmud, the Talmudic text appears in the center of the page, and it is surrounded by later generations of commentaries. Soon I began adding my own comments in the margins of my volumes of Talmud. When I had more to say than could fit in the margins, I wrote journal entries and blog posts.

All that writing became the basis for my book. The rabbis teach in tractate Sanhedrin, “Even though one’s ancestors have left us a scroll of the Torah, it is a religious obligation to write one for ourselves.” And so that is what I did – my book is my Torah, my response to seven and a half years of daily Talmud study, and my journal of those years.

Each chapter in the book corresponds to another tractate of the Talmud, and so essentially I seek in the book to provide readers with a personal guided tour of the Talmud.

I hope some readers may be inspired to pick up the Talmud for themselves after reading my book, but perhaps more importantly I hope that readers will take away from my book an appreciation for the power of learning to make the world endlessly interesting. There is always more to learn, so there is always a reason to get out of bed in the morning, no matter how bleak it all might seem.

Q: How did your study of daf yomi change how you think about yourself, and also about religion?

A: Daf yomi transformed my life from the outset. When I began learning, it was a very solitary pursuit – I would listen to podcasts of the daily page of Talmud alone in my apartment.

The Talmud teaches that “One who is walking on his way and has no companion should occupy himself with Torah study” (Eruvin 54a). That’s how it was for me in the beginning – daf yomi was my companion during what was otherwise a rather lonely stretch of life.

But as I soon realized, daf yomi is never really solitary, because it is essentially the world’s largest book club. Tens of thousands of individuals learn daf yomi worldwide, and they are all quite literally on the same page—following a schedule fixed in 1923 in Poland by the founder of daf yomi, Rabbi Meir Shapiro.

For Rabbi Shapiro, the whole world was a vast Talmud classroom with students connected by a world wide web of conversational threads. Invoking a similar image, the rabbis of the Talmud described the Talmud class as a vineyard, with students seated in rows like an orderly arrangement of vines.

Daf yomi was a way of inhabiting a virtual classroom, sitting in a seemingly empty row and learning by myself while at the same time sensing the ghostly presences of those in the rows in front who had studied those same passages in previous generations.

And there were other presences too, because further along in the row where I was sitting were fellow daf yomi learners on the other side of Jerusalem, in Bnei Brak, and in London, Manhattan, Monsey, and wherever in the world there were people of the book.

When I realized this—that I was essentially inhabiting a virtual classroom—I was inspired to join a real daf yomi class that met at 6am at a local Orthodox shul. I was the only woman in the class, but the rabbi welcomed me with a warm smile and a twinkle in his eye, and soon I became one of the guys. And so slowly my community began to form around daf yomi.

A year after I started daf yomi, I began dating again – just when I got up to the order known as Nashim (Women), a large section of the Talmud encompassing seven tractates that deal with issues of marriage and personal status. Over the course of Nashim I fell in and out of love several times.

Four years after my divorce I met the man I would go on to marry—who also began studying daf yomi—at a class on the weekly Torah portion, the section of the Torah that would be read in synagogue on the upcoming Shabbat. And so Torah became a companion, but it also brought my companion into my life.

Daniel and I married just a few months after we met, and by our third anniversary we had three children, a son and twin daughters. When I finished my first daf yomi cycle at age 35, our son was two and a half, and our twins were approaching their first birthday.

And so the Talmud followed me through the various twists and turn my life took – through divorce, Aliyah officially moving to Israel, dating, marriage, pregnancy and motherhood, all of which unfolded against the backdrop of my daily Talmud study.

T.S. Eliot famously wrote in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock— I have measured out my life in coffee spoons. I have measured out my life in Talmudic tractates—I remember various experiences in my 20s and 30s based on what I was learning in daf yomi  at the time, and I associate Talmudic passages with what was going on in my life when I learned them.

Part of what I discovered in my years of daf yomi study is that living a life of Torah is not necessarily about religious observance, but about a way of reading Jewish texts against the backdrop of one’s life experiences, such that one’s life is transformed by the text, and the text is transformed by one’s life.

Over the course of my years of Talmud study, I engaged in conversation with the ancient rabbis while cooking Shabbat meals, composed sonnets about my favorite Talmudic passages to court the man I eventually married, and sang passages aloud to my children while pushing them in the stroller. I discovered that no two people read the same text in exactly the same way.

And here it may be useful to invoke the rabbinic analogy between Torah—a general term used to refer to Jewish learning—and water. Just like water, which takes the shape of its container, Torah takes our shape when we learn it. All of us become vessels for what we learn, and our learning takes on our shape. In my book I try to show how we, as readers, give shape to the text, and how the text can shape us into the people we seek to become.

Q: You combine a discussion of your studies with a discussion of your personal life. What did you see as the right balance between the two?

A: This was a real tension for me, not because I struggled to find the right balance, but because I was so reluctant to reveal anything about my personal life at all.

The rabbis of the Talmud speak of the notion of hezek re-iya, the idea that being seen constitutes a real form of damage. For me this has always felt very real. I grew up as a rabbi’s daughter, From an early age my siblings and I learned never to reveal more than we needed about our family, and I’ve always been a private person.

There are things I was terrified to share in this memoir, and yet I wrote the book initially for myself, never dreaming it would be published, so I guess in the early drafts I was more open and more bold. And then when it came time for publication, these sections had already become so much a part of how I understood the Talmudic text that I could not possibly omit them.

I shared details in spite of myself, because I felt that either they illuminated the text or made an argument for a way of reading the text in which the text is a commentary on life, and life is a commentary on the text. This way of reading necessarily required a certain degree of exposure.

There’s a Tamudic story I love about an encounter between a wise sage, Rabbi Joshua, and the daughter of the Roman emperor. Rabbi Joshua was a great Torah scholar but he was also a very ugly rabbi. The daughter of the Roman emperor took one look at him and said, “How can such beautiful wisdom be contained in so ugly a vessel?”

Rabbi Joshua, the ugly vessel for beautiful Torah, came back at her with a question of his own. “Does your father store his wine in clay vessels?” “Of course,” she said, doesn’t everyone? “But he’s the emperor,” said R. Joshua. “Shouldn’t he store his wine in the finest gold vessels?” She acknowledged that he had a point. So she transferred all her father’s wine to gold vessels – where immediately it spoiled.

This story speaks to the relationship between who we are and what we learn. All of us are vessels for the Torah we study, and the Torah we study fills us and assumes our shape – much as wine and all liquids take the shape of their containers.

And there is a chemical reaction that takes place between who we are and what we learn – we are transformed by the Torah we study, and the Torah we study is transformed by our encounter with it. And so that is why my book is as much about myself as it is about the Talmud, and as much about Talmud as it is about myself.

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

A: The rabbis teach that even if all the heavens were parchment, and all the forests quills, and all the seas were ink, it would be impossible to record all the glory and majesty of God’s Torah.

And this brings me to something interesting that I discovered about studying Jewish texts, which is that the more you learn and the more you know, the more you realize how much yet you have to learn and how much more you want to know.

Our tradition is infinitely dense – between any two lines of Talmud, or any two verses of the Torah, there are an infinite number of commentaries that raise more and more questions and suggest further interpretive possibilities. There is always more to understand, and always more to say.

My book is, in a sense, my attempt to set my quill to parchment to try and capture some of what I learned each day. But even though my initials are ink—my full name is Ilana Nava Kurshan—and even though I have been immersing myself in the Talmud for over a decade now, I am still haunted by the sentiment expressed by the Talmudic sage Rabbi Eliezer on his deathbed:  "I have skimmed only as much knowledge as a dog laps from the sea" (Sanhedrin 68a).

Perhaps that’s why I draw so much inspiration from the prayer traditionally cited upon completing a volume of Talmud, a prayer commonly known as Hadran. Hadran comes from the word for return, though in modern Hebrew is also the term for encore. This is one way the rabbis use the term, suggesting that the text continues to go on even after we have finished with it, since there is always more to learn.

According to this understanding, the prayer means “may we return to you, and may you return to us”: May we have the opportunity to study this tractate again (because inevitably we’ll forget some of what we learn), and may it come back to us (because we hope that some of what we learn with stay with us).

The prayer gives voice to my fervent belief in the power of learning to make the world endlessly interesting – there is always more to learn, which means that yes, even in life’s most difficult moments, there is always a reason to get out of bed in the morning. But in classic Talmudic wordplay, Hadran, from the word Hadar, also means “beauty and glory.”

So the prayer can also mean: “Our beauty is from you, and your beauty is from us,” which conveys the notion that we, with our own individual life experiences and our own unique perspectives, can beautify the study of Talmud; and Talmud can beautify us. I hope I succeed, in my book, in sharing some of that beauty.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I work as a translator of books from Hebrew to English. At present I’m translating a novel set during Talmudic times, a project that combines my love of literature with my passion for Talmud.

My next translation project will be another book in a series of biographies of the sages of the Talmud – I’ve been translating the books in this series for several years.

All along, though, I continue to study daf yomi—I’m now into my second cycle, which keeps giving me flashbacks to where I was when I first learned these pages. Recently my husband and I celebrated our daf yomi anniversary – we came to the page we’d studied on our wedding day seven and a half years ago.

We’ve been through a lot together – four children, 2,700 pages of Talmud, and now a house full of preschoolers. So that keeps me busy, too, but it also continues to furnish me with inspiration for my writing.

I’m not writing a new book, but I keep writing about Talmud as I learn it, so I suppose I’m writing the same book all over again. It’s a book I can’t imagine ever stopping to write, just like I can’t imagine life without learning. It just keeps returning to me, and I keep returning to it, which is what the Hadran prayer is all about.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: What has it been like to study Talmud as a woman? As a modern woman reader of Talmud, it has been very exciting to encounter a text that for 1,500 years has been regarded primarily as the province of men – not to mention men who considered themselves experts in women’s physiology and psychology.

I am fascinated by the rabbis' assumptions about women’s attitudes toward marriage and children, and I wonder how many of these assumptions still ring true in an era in which women can live independently, support themselves, and have children out of wedlock without undue social sanction.

To give just one example – the rabbis said it was so important for a woman to be married that she would do so even if her husband were the size of an ant, because that way she will not lack for lentils in her pot. It seems that the Talmud could not imagine a woman who could be both happy and single.

When I encountered that line for the first time, I was single, and I wondered to what extent this was still true. Is there a sense that a woman would do anything to be married?

Around that time a friend bought me a vase and told me that the next time I had a boyfriend and he brought me flowers, I could put them in the vase. I said to myself, no, I think I'll use it for lentils, because I buy lentils by the kilo.

For me that was very empowering. I copied out that line from the Talmud onto a piece of masking tape and stuck it on the vase: She doesn't lack for lentils if she has a man.

I’m intrigued to see how modern women respond to statements like these-- these texts have been ploughed through by generations of scholars, but for Jewish women they remain fertile ground for gleaning new insights.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 24

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Sept. 24, 1896: F. Scott Fitzgerald born.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Q&A with Annie Spence


Annie Spence, photo by Alicia Gbur

Q: How did you come up with the idea of writing letters to various books, and when did you decide these letters could become a book themselves?

A: At one of the first libraries I worked at, there was a FREE table with discarded books that were unfit even for the annual used book sale. They all looked so sad and bizarre sitting there.

Often when librarians "weed out" a collection, there are some items that make them chuckle or wince and these were all those books. I wrote a break-up letter to one, I think it was Pictorial Anatomy of the Cat.

Then, eight years later, a literary agent told me she liked my writing and asked if I had any book ideas. What became Dear Fahrenheit 451 was the last on the list of ideas I sent her and I'm so glad I added it.

Q: How did you decide on the books to include, and on the order of the letters?

A: I had a small collection of oddball books and one of my librarian friends was kind enough to share her own shelf of weirdos with me. There was a lot to choose from. For example, I didn't end up writing to a book called Whimsical Sweatshirts that I really had my heart set on.

But it came down to whether or not I had strong feelings for the book and could summarize it or familiarize readers with it in the confines of a letter. I tried to make it a decent mix of well-known and more niche items (I have a fondness for the niche).

In terms of organizing the letters, I'm a librarian so it was very important to me. I tried it every which way: I separated the love notes and break up letters, I split them up by where the book "lived" (a library, my home, out and about), and I tried organizing them by Dewey Decimal.

In the end, it was better to focus on the general tone of each letter and try to mix it up, so that readers could experience a little dose of everything. That's how the whole experience of reading, and librarianship actually, feels to me, a bit of everything, coming at you from all sides.

Q: How was the book's title chosen? Why Fahrenheit 451?

A: My editor, Amy Einhorn, recommended the title. She wisely thought that naming the book after one of the letters inside would cue readers in to what the book was about.

Fahrenheit 451 was a good letter to pick to lead the way because it is an important book, I think, for anyone who loves reading or thinking or discovering. It's about a world where all of those freedoms we take for granted have been stripped away.

Bradbury typed the majority of Fahrenheit 451 in the basement of a library, which is poetic to me--using his freedom to read and write to create his own love letter to reading, however frightful.

Q: Who do you see as the perfect reader for this book?

A: Anyone who has ever loved or loathed a book.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am beginning to work on a novel and also make zines for fun. What that really means is that I'm working on laundry, bills, and thinking about what's going to happen next on Game of Thrones when I should be writing.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: September is National Library Card Sign Up Month. I work at the library every day and I still get giddy when I walk through the stacks. There is so much to take in and it's free and if you have any part of your life that you would like to improve, the public library can probably help you.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Jake Burt


Jake Burt is the author of Greetings from Witness Protection!, a new novel for kids. He is a fifth grade teacher, and he lives in Hamden, Connecticut.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Greetings from Witness Protection! and for your main character, Nicki?

A: As a teacher, one of the most onerous parts of my job is proctoring standardized tests. It's basically cycling around my classroom for predetermined chunks of time, telling kids, "Sorry, I'm not allowed to answer that," every so often.

In one particularly boring stretch (I think it was during the quantitative reasoning section), I started thinking about the phrase, "high stakes testing." I asked myself, "For whom might this test have the highest stakes?"

From there, I jumped to a kid in witness protection - she endangers her family if she fails, and she endangers her family if she succeeds spectacularly.

Once I started letting that idea roll around in my head, Nicki (the novel's protagonist) just sort of hopped in there fully formed, eager to tell me her story.

As I was writing, it felt like I was listening to her and recording what she said as much as anything, which made a lot of fun to "discover" what she wanted to reveal about her story.

Q: How much has your work as a teacher influenced your writing?

A: My work as a teacher has influenced my writing considerably. Not only has it been really helpful in allowing me to craft believable school settings, but it's excellent for learning just how far kids will go, what they will and will not say, and how they respond to adversity.

I hope that authenticity comes through, regardless of the trials I force my characters to deal with.

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

A: While the ending of the novel didn't change, there were several major revisions along the way. In particular, Ms. Drummond (Nicki's language arts teacher at Loblolly Middle School) occupied a much more significant place in early drafts, playing the part that Archer does now in driving the plot.

My agent, the incomparable Rebecca Stead, and my brilliant editor at Feiwel and Friends, Liz Szabla, suggested relocating that aspect of the story to a student antagonist, and I think the plot is that much more effective for it.

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

A: I'm an avowed Anglophile, and growing up I was all about fantasy literature. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Sir Thomas Malory. . .that was my wheelhouse.

More recently, I really enjoy Philip Pullman and Neil Gaiman's work. Closer to home, Cathrynne Valente, Nic Stone, Mark Twain, and Neal Stephenson are all favorites, too.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: We just finished copyedits on my second novel, due out in fall 2018, and I've sent a draft of book three (fall 2019) to my editor. Fingers crossed!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: A bit of random Greetings From Witness Protection! trivia for you: the name of Nicki's stuffed cat, Fancypaws, actually began as the name of a cat in one of the class assignments I created to teach writing critique etiquette to my students. I liked the name so much I decided to transfer it to the novel.

Thanks for the opportunity to answer some fun questions about Greetings from Witness Protection!, Deborah! Happy reading!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb