Sunday, April 30, 2017

Q&A with Colleen Oakley

Colleen Oakley is the author of the new novel Close Enough to Touch. She also has written the novel Before I Go, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and Ladies' Home Journal. She is based in Atlanta.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Close Enough to Touch?

A: As a health journalist, I wrote a few articles about the astronomic rise in allergies the past 20 years— and I was fascinated by the fact that experts and researchers, while they have their theories, really have no idea what’s caused it.

As a novelist, I knew there was a lot there to explore, but I, of course, wanted to take it one step further— what if you were allergic to other people? How would that affect someone, emotionally, to not ever be able to be hugged by their mother as a child, or to hold hands with their first love? Could you even fall in love?

Q: You write the book from the alternating viewpoints of your characters Jubilee and Eric. Did you always plan to do that, or did you originally think of telling it from only one perspective?

When I started I was only planning to write it from Jubilee’s perspective, but I kept hearing Eric’s voice! So I decided to write a chapter from his POV, thinking maybe it would just help me get to know his character better, and that it probably wouldn’t make it into the final book. But I enjoyed writing his chapter so much that I kept going, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Q: What kind of research did you do on allergies, and did anything especially surprise you?

A: I read everything I could on allergies and also interviewed experts who helped me come up with the theoretical cause behind Jubilee’s condition. What surprised me the most is how many truly bizarre allergies are out there!...It made my fictional “allergy to human touch” not seem so strange anymore.

Q: How was the book's title chosen?

A: I have the hardest time with titles! I went through at least 30 different ones before "Close Enough to Touch" came to me when I was in the shower, of all places. But then, it’s never a guarantee that everyone at the publishing house will like it and that it will become the final title. I was happy that this one stuck.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A book about dream telepathy, based on a study I came across a few years ago. I’m exploring the idea of soul mates and if true love is a choice or fate.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I Skype or FaceTime into book clubs! I love chatting with readers and answering their questions. I’m also happy to help aspiring writers and dole out any advice I can to help them on their career path. Come find me on Facebook or here.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Jenna Hammond

Jenna Hammond is the author of the new children's picture book Downward Mule. She is a freelance writer and certified children's yoga instructor, and she is based in the New York area.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Downward Mule?

A: Since childhood, I have considered myself an author. It was only fitting that I write a children’s book upon becoming a parent. I tinkered with various ideas, from a board book about the seasons to a children’s cookbook.

But once I became immersed in writing a picture book that incorporated yoga and characters with lessons to impart, the protagonist Sam Mule assumed a life of his own.

Downward Mule is the first book to bridge yoga and an actual story. It thrilled me to bring something new to the marketplace, especially a transformative book that could benefit children’s minds and bodies. After all, a major impetus behind the project was the knowledge that yoga has the power to heal, among other wonders.

While a magazine editor in New York City, I became a certified children’s yoga instructor after seeing how yoga helped a child with special needs gain the ability to walk.

I wrote an article about this child, who was largely unresponsive to physical therapy and medical interventions. Practicing yoga with a personal instructor, however, enabled the girl to become mobile and eventually walk – a feat some doctors deemed impossible.

I stopped working full time as an editor and part time as a children’s yoga instructor when I had my firstborn. Yet, the child’s journey and my desire to share yoga with all children, including my own, remains part of my psyche.

I harnessed the benefits of my personal practice, my children’s love of yoga, yoga’s growing prominence in schools and popular culture, and my knack for creativity and humor to pen Downward Mule.

The book brings my upbringing full circle, similar to how yoga means union and how the book’s quirky characters come together (in a circle actually!) through yoga in the end.

Q: Can you say more about what role has yoga played for you, and do you think your readers have to appreciate yoga to enjoy the book?

A: Yoga has played differed roles for me in different times of my life. I started the practice in graduate school as a new exercise to try.

I soon discovered how yoga strengthened my mind-body connection while enhancing everything from my flexibility to my sense of calm. A bonus was how it reduced my occasional back pain before and during pregnancy.

Upon becoming a parent of super active boys, I appreciated how yoga offered my family a chance to channel our energy in positive ways and nurture our creativity with inventive poses. My 5 year old is a champ at creating new poses!

In between, I became a certified instructor gracious for connecting with children through yoga. I learned more about staying in the moment and staying calm down to my core despite any chaos in the world. This has proved monumentally helpful, though sometimes difficult to practice, as a new parent and author in New York City.

Of course, readers need not appreciate yoga to enjoy Downward Mule. The book has a plot, conflict and characters like traditional picture books. From the messages about self-confidence and community to the illustrations that lend magic to the whimsy and enhance the story, there’s much to embrace in the book sans yoga.

Many children tell me they adore Downward Mule because of a favorite character or because of the plot resolution – how Sam overcomes his shyness and acts like a superhero, saving the farm.

Kids tend not to gush about the yoga, although parents tell me that their little ones now bend, twist and pose like Sam and the farm folk during playtime. When it comes to me, I often read the book at home and to audiences without doing a single yoga pose.

The Saturday prior to this interview, I read Downward Mule straight through without pausing for the poses at Barnes & Noble. Children ages 2-10 in attendance were riveted by the prose and pictures.

It seemed best not to interrupt the book’s flow – or the kids’ undivided attention – by posing with the characters. Afterward I led movement inspired by the book. But it was nothing like the yoga you see in a gym or a yoga studio.

Q: What age group do you think would especially enjoy the book?

A: Downward Mule caters to 3-7 year olds. However, people of all ages with an imagination, an appreciation for kid lit or an interest in movement delight in the book.

Q: What do you think Steve Page’s illustrations add to the book?

A: Steve Page’s illustrations help make Downward Mule the zany and inspirational book I imagined. He was receptive to each direction I requested in designing the characters and pages. 

Steve also had the idea to incorporate a silent mouse in the illustrations. A fan of Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon, and an aficionado of whimsy, I was delighted when I saw Steve’s version of such a mouse. Children agree the idea was “wise” (pun intended). They cherish finding the mouse in myriad poses throughout Downward Mule.

Steve also brought to fruition my vision for the complex cover. After nearly a dozen sketches, Steve nailed it!

Fait accompli is Sam doing the downward mule (or down dog) pose atop a barn with Lila in the pose down below peeking at Sam from the outside – not an easy feat for an illustrator!

Yet Steve accomplished this as well as depicting the animals and the farmer’s daughter in pose after pose with aplomb. His skill for drawing the anatomy of animals and other characters in all sorts of positions, without forsaking creativity or wit, is extraordinary.

The end result is an adorable book that dually instructs readers how to do an imaginative form of yoga in the most fun way possible.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My brain buzzes with a number of picture book ideas. Some of these ideas I have started writing. Some I’m developing with my older son verbally as he fancies storytelling as much as his mom relies on writing.

However, as a stay-at-home mom in addition to being an author, I only have time for so much creative writing especially as I continue to freelance edit on occasion. 

Then again, MacLaren-Cochrane Publishing and I are exploring creating a coloring book starring Sam Mule. The story would be different than Downward Mule, yet just as playful and inspirational albeit in a fresh way fueled in part by children’s creativity.

Steve Page has expressed interest in the project too. For now, find printable coloring pages on the Teachers & Parents tab of

Also find me reading Downward Mule and leading interactive entertainment like children’s yoga at bookstores, children’s places and schools. As a new author, I’m enjoying spending time with audiences both in-person and through Skype.

I have at least five book-related events this month alone, including sharing Downward Mule and movement with more than 100 3rd through 5th graders at UBS in New York City for Take Our Kids to Work Day.

I am hoping to bring the book and my brand of children’s yoga to the small screen in the future, perhaps with a stint on PBS or a show like Sesame Street once time permits or the right person and I connect. Stay tuned!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m an open book with a lot to say and share with the world. But read Downward Mule for a glimpse at what yoga, humor and whimsy offers everyone.

I’ll tell my story or a fictionalized version of it if I ever get around to writing a novel or a self-inspired children’s book. For now I just hope that whether or not you’re mooooved by yoga, be open to falling head over hooves for Sam, Lila and the rest of the barnyard in Downward Mule.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 30

April 30, 1877: Alice B. Toklas born.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Q&A with Anita Sanchez

Anita Sanchez is the author of the new children's book Karl, Get Out of the Garden: Carolus Linnaeus and the Naming of Everything. Her other books include In Praise of Poison Ivy and Leaflets Three, Let It Be!. An environmental educator, she lives in upstate New York.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on Carolus Linnaeus in your new book?

A: For a science class I was teaching, I was trying to figure how to make the complex (and frankly pretty boring) topic of scientific classification of organisms seem interesting.

I started reading about Linnaeus and how he decided to take on the immense task of organizing, classifying, and naming every living thing in the world. I soon discovered he had a remarkable personality, and I loved his boundless enthusiasm for nature.

Even as an old man he would leap out of bed in the morning to go see a new bird or flower--he'd run outdoors in his dressing gown, telling his students, "Nature does not wait for powder and wigs!"

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

A: Like Karl, I've always believed that knowledge begins with "knowing the things themselves," and so I went to Sweden to visit Karl's garden. I went hiking in Lapland, north of the Arctic Circle, where Karl studied wildflowers and subalpine forests, and I marveled at the Northern Lights.

Then I visited his garden in the university town of Uppsala, where he became a beloved teacher, and saw the plants he used as his "living textbooks" to teach students about botany. Karl used to lead fun, hands-on field trips into the woods and meadows, and I followed the paths where he led his excited students.

The most surprising thing for me was finding out how young Linnaeus was--he was only about 22, fresh out of school--when he decided to classify and name all of the world's plants and animals, a pretty ambitious goal!

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

A: "Karl, Get Out Of the Garden!" was what his mother would say to him when he was a little boy, sneaking off from schoolwork to revel in the beauties of nature in his father's garden. It made the distant figure of Carolus Linnaeus seem real and human to think of him as a little kid getting into trouble.

The subtitle, Carolus Linnaeus and the Naming of Everything, reflects my amazement at his impossible goal. As he finally discovered, naming everything in the world is a job that will never be finished!

Q: As an environmental educator, what do you see looking ahead in that field?

A: Over many years of teaching about nature, I've seen kids (and adults) become more and more fearful of nature, and disconnected from it. That's why I wrote a book called Leaflets Three, Let it Be!. It's about poison ivy, so that kids will understand what it is and know how to avoid it.

I think the main challenge facing those of us who love the outdoors is simply to get people of all ages outside, and then let nature do the teaching.

Fear is a big reason people don't want to go into the wilds--fear of bugs, poison ivy, getting lost, whatever. A lot of my writing is to try to address people's fears and give them the knowledge to feel confident outdoors.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm working on a book called Itch, which is about all the things in nature that make you itch. It will be released in spring 2018 by Houghton Mifflin.

Like Karl, I'm fascinated by all forms of nature, even the creepy, icky ones no one loves, and the book is about mosquitoes, poison ivy, tarantulas, and even (I'm sorry) lice.

I got interested in this weird topic when I discovered my grandfather's diary from when he was a soldier in World War I and spent a lot of time doing battle with "cooties."

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I'm also working on an activity book (co-authored with George Steele) called Wait Till It Gets Dark!. It's a kid's guide to exploring the night, and has activities to help people feel comfortable and safe outdoors at night. 

It's about using all your sense to explore--listening to frog calls and owl hoots, watching fireflies and stars, and even practicing using your nose to sniff the night scents!

My hope is that the more kids learn about nature, the more they'll want to go outdoors and see for themselves how much fun it is to have adventures. My goal is No Child Left Inside!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Dina Khapaeva

Dina Khapaeva is the author of the new book The Celebration of Death in Contemporary Culture. She also has written Nightmare: From Literary Experiments to Cultural Project. She is Professor of Russian at the School of Modern Languages, Georgia Institute of Technology. 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your new book, and how did you research it?

A: My first personal encounter with the phenomenon that I describe as “the cult of death” happened when I entered a huge retail store to buy a tutu for my daughter, and I was stunned by a new fashion line for newborns and toddlers featuring skulls, crossed bones, and the Grim Reaper.

Dumbfounded, I asked myself – has there been any other time in Western history when millions of mothers wanted to see their kids dressed as skeletons and covered with signs of death? We are surrounded by this fad in our everyday – big retailers routinely sell skull and skeleton patterned beddings, furniture, etc.

What's more, we are no longer surprised to be greeted by the Grim Reaper in pharmacies, let alone pubs and haunted houses all year around, or to have death studies included in high school curricula. So, the question that captivated me was: what does this fascination with death say about our popular culture and is this a unique cultural phenomenon?

Anthropological studies made me realize that the fascination with death has created new industries such as dark tourism, for example, and transformed funerals — this most conservative of rituals — on both sides of the Atlantic to the point that anthropologists speak about a revolution of burials.

How can we explain why, apart from all other extravaganza, people chose to wear jewelry made from the ashes of their relatives, not to mention so-called green funerals, cryonization, promession etc.?

It has soon become clear to me that anthropology or sociology cannot fully explain the reasons behind these changes, and that other sources are needed to understand them. 

Obviously, the fascination with death, and especially with very violent death is remarkable in contemporary movies and fiction. It occurred to me that The Vampire Diaries, Twilight saga, True Blood, the Harry Potter series and the apocalyptic genre such as Rise of the Planet of the Apes may explain the nature of that cultural change.

All these narratives have several features in common: they deny the exceptional value of human life by showcasing how idealized monsters kill undistinguished humans or reduce people to food.

We should not underestimate the novelty of this image: in the entire history of Western culture, people have never been represented in arts as legitimate snacks for other species. 

Q: At what point did this new "celebration of death" become common, and what do you see as the factors accounting for the change?

A: The cult of death is a recent movement that has emerged at the end of the 1970s – mid 1980s, and reached its full expansion in the late 1990s.
The aesthetic cause crucial to its formation was the Gothic Aesthetic.

This powerful trend emerged, in the 1980s and early 1990s, when two features overlapped in fiction and movies: murderous monsters became first-person narrators with whom the audience was expected to identify, and their plots and set ups were designed to immerse the audience into a nightmare trance.

Gothic Aesthetic promoted the normalization and idealization of monsters and the denigration of humanity in contemporary popular culture.

Two philosophical ideas are at the intellectual origins of the cult of death: the critique of humanism and the rejection of human exceptionalism.

In the late 1960s-1970s, these ideas were best expressed by the French Theory, the animal rights movement, transhumanism, and posthumanism. By the 1990s, they penetrated the popular culture and became fashionable cultural commodities.

I consider the tragedies of the 20th century an important historical premise of the cult of death. The experience of the totalitarian regimes and the crimes against humanity brought about a deep disillusionment with human beings, their culture and civilization.

It compromised the Enlightenment belief in human nature and the human race as the one uniquely moral species, and created favorable preconditions for a disappointment in humanity on a large scale.

I think it is important to specify that the rise of the cult of death in the past thirty years cannot be explained away by the decline of religion, which dates back to the 18th century.

Q: One of the themes you examine is the popularity of Halloween in the United States especially. How have celebrations of Halloween changed over the years?

A: Let me begin by saying that, in the 1960s, Halloween was considered by anthropologists as a dying tradition. Today, as we all know, in the U.S. this festival is second only to Christmas in terms of spending on decorations. It flourishes in Europe, Russia, South Africa, and Hong Kong.

Why has this remnant of death-centered Celtic agrarian ritual become one of the largest American holidays in the third millennium?

The popularity of Halloween in America rose in the mid-1970s - early 1980s, when the urban legends about poisoned “treats” given to children by strangers, and the abduction and murder of young children as part of Halloween rituals created a nationwide panic.

In parallel with these urban legends, which were proven completely fake, John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) started a new trend of horror movies. The rise of Halloween’s popularity is unequivocally related to the anti-humanist and anti-modern origins of that festival.

The Halloween costumes and decorations, which have been growing more and more horrific every year, offer one more proof that Halloween, which allegedly involved human sacrifice, was re-invented to promote a denial of the exceptional value of human life as a fashionable commodity.

Q: You also look at the phenomenon of Harry Potter. How do J.K. Rowling's books fit into your thesis?

A: One of my chapters is focused entirely on the seven books of the Harry Potter series. I explain the enormous success of the Harry Potter franchise by these books' ability to express new attitudes toward humans, humanity, and human life that originated in Western culture in the late 1980s-early 1990s.

The series was among the first to combine the main features of Gothic Aesthetic: they feature a plot that imitates nightmares; and wizards, nonhuman protagonists, who despise humankind, those repulsive Muggles, as an inferior race.

Most importantly, Harry Potter – a wizard disguised as a bespectacled boy -- amalgamated the features of the latest, most prominent, and most marketable character types that had just entered the pleasure market in the 1990s: maniac, vampire, and serial killer.

The Harry Potter franchise offered a new commodity -- a violent death of the main protagonist – as a groundbreaking entertainment for children and adults alike. It also suggested new attitudes to death to its audience.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The fascination with violent death is intimately related to neo-medievalism, which I consider a social and political expression of the new attitudes to people spread by the cult of death.

Medieval allusions are omnipresent in vampire sagas, the Harry Potter series, Game of Thrones, etc. To my mind, they represent a specific form of distorted historical memory. So, my new book, Neo-Medievalism: A Social Project explores the meaning of medieval allusions in American and Russian cultures and politics. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 29

April 29, 1933: Rod McKuen born.

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