Sunday, June 25, 2017

Q&A with Tom Rosenstiel

Tom Rosenstiel is the author of the new novel Shining City, which focuses on a political "fixer" in Washington, D.C. His other books, all nonfiction, include The Elements of Journalism and Blur. Rosenstiel is the executive director of the American Press Institute and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and he was a reporter for Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Shining City and for your character Peter Rena?

A: I wanted to tell a story about a political fight in Washington that captured how good people are trapped by the cynicism of the city. 

Supreme Court nominations represent that one of the most cynical events in politics today. Nominees are taught how NOT to answer questions fully or honestly. Almost everyone involved thinks the nomination process is a mess. Members of the court have said this. Vetters have said this. Senators have said this. It really is a spectacle in which everyone feels trapped.

I also wanted unexpected heroes in the story. Some of the most honest people I have met in Washington are consultants, those hired guns who in the popular mind are often thought of as immoral—fixers who work just for money. 

In reality, these people often are the most candid and objective. And many of them are idealists along with being realists. Peter Rena in Shining City is one of those. So is his partner Randi Brooks.

Journalists and consultants often have a fair amount in common in the way they see the world. They live in the world of realpolitik—to see the world as it is. But they wish it were better. 

Q: As you noted, the story highlights a Supreme Court confirmation fight, and we had one of those earlier this year—how would you compare the world of your novel with today’s Washington, D.C.?

A: Each confirmation hearing in its own way seems more jaded than the previous one. The Gorsuch hearings were distinguished, I think, by an even greater lack of candor and willingness to answer questions than his predecessors. 

He knew the math, how many votes he had going in, and the fact that he needed to win over no Democrats and he and his team decided they didn’t care to increase his total or his base of support to make his nomination a consensus or a large majority. 

The world in the novel is dark, but there also is still a spark of an appeal to the center. I don’t know that we saw any such spark in the Gorsuch hearings.

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

A: I wanted something that conveyed this sense of idealism and disappointment about our democracy. I had other possible titles that focused on themes like lies and truth telling and other titles that were more about the character, but the moment I thought of Shining City I knew it was right. 

It is a reference from the Bible, from John Winthrop and also from President Reagan’s famous speech on the eve of his presidency…and all of those meanings, about living a virtuous life in a moral sense, about democracy and about the city of Washington itself are all resident in the phrase. 

That speech was one of Reagan’s greatest, and justifiably one of his most famous. If you mention the title to anyone who tracks politics, they will know it, or it will certainly be familiar. The religious connotations are known by many fewer people.

Q: You’ve spent many years involved in the world of politics and media. How would you describe the relationship between the Trump administration and the press?

A: Five months in now, we have some answers. The administration began its term using some of the most divisive rhetoric about the news media and its role in America that we have ever heard from a president. 

It echoed Richard Nixon at his most strident and probably went further. Calling the press “the enemy of the people” was something a half step beyond even Nixon’s rhetoric. But remember Nixon talked about ordering the murder of journalists, including contemplating putting LSD on the steering wheel of my boss, Jack Anderson, so he would die in a car accident. 

But the underlying notion of Trump’s rhetoric about the press—that it is unfair to conservatives, that it is elitist and liberal and doesn’t understand the problems of many Americans--is not new and has been gradually intensifying for more than a generation. 

I think the intensity of President Trump’s rhetoric, and the challenge it represented to the notion of a free press, has made many journalism outlets better. 

It threw down the gauntlet and made them reflect on how to do their job and be effective under more adverse conditions, and how to win over distrustful citizens. 

It has made their reporting deeper. It has made them more transparent about how many sources they have and the level of knowledge of those sources—particularly when the sources are unnamed. 

And I think what the Trump administration has found is what other administrations have found, including the Obama and George W. Bush administrations before this one. 

That is that in an era of increasing number of outlets, deep enterprise and watchdog reporting still breaks through. The old media may be surrounded by new. Political actors may have ways to reach audiences directly. 

But a story that is important, that is accurate and deeply reported and tells us something new, is instantly relevant. And suddenly all that new media is an echo chamber bringing that reporting to more people than ever.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My publisher, Ecco, which is an imprint of Harper Collins, bought two novels with the same characters. I am just now finishing the second book. 

In this one, the same President, James Nash, calls Peter Rena and Randi Brooks back to help him uncover the truth when there is a terrorist incident abroad that results in the death of an American general. And as in Shining City, they must navigate the world of Washington and its shoals. 

They must stay ahead of a congressional investigation, the press and enter the world of espionage and the war on terror and the efforts today to try to politicize that war at home for political gain, which makes the efforts to fight the war abroad much harder.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: It is fascinating to me how different writing fiction is from non-fiction. There is research involved, but in the end the stories are made up. You are not trying to be accurate. You are trying to be true.

What I mean by that is you are getting inside the hearts of your characters—their motivations, their thoughts, their own conceptions of right and wrong. 

To do that, I find I have to reach a different part of my imagination. The characters have to be real in the sense that they have to be fully conceived. You’re tapping your memory and your unconscious in a way you do not in journalism. And for me that is a great deal of fun. It's the best part of my day.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

June 25

June 25, 1903: George Orwell born.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Q&A with Michael J. Green

Michael J. Green is the author of the new book By More Than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific Since 1783. He is senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and he served as senior director for Asia on the National Security Council staff during the George W. Bush administration. 

Q: You ask, "Does the United States have a grand strategy for Asia?" How would you answer that?

A: Since Thomas Jefferson wrote Colonel George Rogers on the frontier in 1783 warning that the British were sending an expedition to control the Pacific Northwest, the United States has endeavored to prevent hostile hegemons from blocking our access across the Pacific. That is the essence of our grand strategy towards that region.

Bismarck was said to have remarked that America was granted two oceans for safety “by providence,” but America’s strong position in Asia today was established by more than providence–it required strategic thought and action that began in the earliest years of the Republic. 

This involved military power (especially the Navy), trade, diplomatic undertakings, and patient support for the spread of democratic values. 

The United States faltered badly at times, but successfully coopted or defeated the hegemonic designs on Asia and the Pacific by the Europeans, Japan and the Soviet Union. 

Now China is emerging as the next challenge. Perhaps the biggest challenge of all. History strongly suggests that the United States will not retreat from this challenge, but will we be wise enough to craft a strategy that helps us to win the peace and avert war? Our own history is the right place to start answering that question.

The first thing to understand is that while the United States has been effective at grand strategy, we have also been grossly inefficient. 

Part of this is because the founders established a form of government designed to confound dictators and kings by dividing government into three branches and ensuring freedom of expression–the antithesis of the secrecy, patience and discipline that the Europeans considered essential for strategy. 

The United States has also struggled to sustain a consistent approach in Asia because of five recurring problems evident from the beginning of our first encounters with the region. 

First, we have always been a Euro-centric power and diplomacy and military operations in the Pacific have suffered as a result.

Second, we have been divided on the question of whether our interests lie with China—the civilizational center of Asia—or with Japan, a more modern maritime power that allows us to anchor our security and presence offshore in the Western Pacific.

Third, we have struggled to define our forward defense line –at times pulling back and accidentally inviting aggression (against Korea in 1950, for example)—while at other times overstepping onto the continent of Asia with dangerous results (the Vietnam War).

Fourth, we have asserted universal values as the basis for our international engagement, but often been divided about how we apply those values when the offending party is an ally or partner (like China against the Soviet Union, or Korea and the Philippines under the dictatorships of the 1980s).

And fifth, while we have always been in favor of opening markets in Asia and have increasingly reinforced American influence by keeping our own market open, we have retreated to protectionism at the most inopportune times (in the 1930s or more recently by withdrawing from TPP, for example). 

The leitmotif of successfully preventing the region’s domination by a rival hegemon, is interspersed with repeated debates and missteps in these five areas. 

We never learn…though this book is one modest attempt to try. And this is important today, because our margin for error with China is getting smaller all the time. 

Q: Your book covers more than 200 years of history. Are there particular periods that you view as particularly successful or particularly unsuccessful when it comes to U.S. strategy toward Asia?

A: This book is a history of grand strategy, which is to say that it is an intellectual history intertwined with a history of diplomacy and war. So there are some moments where the conceptualization of American interests in the Pacific are brilliant, but they only become actual policy a generation or more later. 

For example, I profile three prominent Americans serving in the Pacific in the 1850s who argued for an assertive American policy in the region. All three were ignored by their political masters in Washington as the Republic veered towards civil war. 

One was a Kentuckian serving as Commissioner in China in the 1850s, named Humphrey Marshall, who argued that the United States’ core interest in the region was to prevent the breakup of China, an insight that later became the basis for Secretary of State John Hay’s Open Door policy five decades later. 

At the exact same time, Commodore Matthew Perry was opening Japan with his famous “black ships.” He later returned to New York to give a series of speeches in 1856 arguing that American strategy must be to align with Britain and Japan to ensure freedom of the seas in the Pacific –and to avoid any entanglement in China or the continent. 

His speeches failed to move the White House or Congress, but the ideas caught the attention of a young Naval officer named Alfred Thayer Mahan who later shaped Theodore Roosevelt’s strategy for expansion in the Pacific at the turn of the century. 

Our contemporary debates about Asia are inherited from these same early seeds of strategic thinking.

There are two men who stand out in this history as successful at both conceptualizing and implementing grand strategy in the Pacific. 

The first is John Quincy Adams, who used his deep understanding of European power politics to ensure that the relatively weak United States was guaranteed access to the Pacific Northwest (a relatively unknown West Coast corollary to the famous Monroe Doctrine regarding European intrigues in Latin America in the 1820s). 

Adams is a fascinating character, who threatened war to defend America’s tenuous toe-hold on the West Coast, knowing from long experience how that prospect would unsettle the delicate balance of power in Europe. His bluff worked. 

The second giant is Theodore Roosevelt, who similarly employed realpolitik but also self-restraint to ensure that the United States emerged as a major power in the Pacific in the early 20th Century without triggering alliances by the other powers (Britain, Japan, Prussia or Russia) to repel the new Yankee entrant into the great game of Asia. 

Reagan ranks high on Asia policy among modern presidents, thanks in large part to Secretary of State George Schultz who had written his senior thesis at Princeton on Asian security and stayed focused on the region ever since. 

One of the worst periods of American statecraft was under the presidency of Herbert Hoover. He refused to built a major navy ship while he was president, allowing the Imperial Japanese Navy to open a gap that the U.S. Navy didn’t close until 1942. 

Then he supported the Smoot-Hawley tariff in 1930, which cut Japanese exports in half and helped to precipitate the rise of militarism in that country. 

The irony of all this is that Herbert Hoover spoke a bit of Mandarin and spent months under siege in Tsientsin during the Boxer Rebellion. The experience clearly did not endear him to the Far East. 

Nixon and Carter each made historic breakthroughs with China that enhanced American power and influence and stabilized the region, but those two very different presidents also made major mistakes. In the end, Nixon made by far the larger mark. 

Q: How did your own experience on the National Security Council inform the writing of the book, particularly the section on the George W. Bush administration?

A: I knew I wanted to write a big book on Asia after returning to the academy, but I wrote this particular book because of my five years on the NSC staff. 

For one thing, I saw too many debates in the Situation Room of the White House where key participants’ only frame of reference was Europe. And this was in an administration that had more senior Asia hands than any before or since. 

In the first and early second terms, for example, the Deputies for Defense, State, the Vice President’s Office, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff had all built their careers serving in the region. The Obama administration had one deputy (Jim Steinberg) with comparable experience and the current administration has none. 

So mission number one was to encourage current and aspiring practitioners and students to think strategically about the region--and that means thinking about history, geography and America’s own experience. 

My time on the NSC staff also inspired me to write this book because I was one of a small handful of officials in government who actually had a mandate to draft grand strategy and coordinate its implementation. 

The reality is that NSC staffers are ultimately just staffers. But I had the pen on presidential directives, speeches, and strategy memos that were truly “grand” in the sense that they covered everything from military planning to trade and human rights. 

The NSC is one of the only places in government where officials have an opportunity to think about the full range of American power (and problems) in a particular region. 

I thought this would give me unique insights–but I also recognized that a practitioner might be disqualified in the minds of some historians who rely entirely on archives and texts to create a more “objective” accounting of the past. 

Before diving into the book, I visited with some of the leading diplomatic historians in the country, including Nancy Tucker, Mel Leffler, Warren Cohen and others. They uniformly encouraged me to undertake this project because of my experience—not in spite of it—and also because so few modern diplomatic historians take on large themes like this. 

They also kept after me and made sure I didn’t mess it up (or tried). Nancy was particularly encouraging, and was sadly taken from us mid-way through the project.

That said, writing about the Bush administration was the most challenging part of all (followed by the chapter on Vietnam, where I was helped enormously by your book with your Dad, and by Marvin’s fantastic contemporaneous histories of events in Indochina). 

There were several landmines writing about the Bush administration on Asia. 

First, I had described the protagonists in previous chapters with a bit of color to engage the reader, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to give similar character portrayals of my peers–let alone my bosses. 

Second, I knew that the White House perch can be deceptive – you think you know the most important decisions and events—but at times you really have no idea. 

Third, I had to get certain elements of the narrative declassified and to protect the information I knew about but did not have permission to print. 

And fourth, I knew that some critics would zero in on my own time in government and judge the entire book from that perspective.

So I took great care: I found multiple citations for each point I made; I sent parts of the chapter to different players in the administration debates to ensure I had their account as well; I was critical where I thought criticism was warranted; and I explained to the reader that the chapter on George W. Bush is partly autobiographical and the challenges that presented for me as a historian and social scientist. 

But I had no option. I needed to carry the debates about Asia strategy through to the present. I did not want a blank space for the years I was actually in the story. I think I succeeded in using my insider’s experience to illuminate the major themes of the book and to propel the historic and narrative arc forward to the present. 

So far the reviews have been very good. One reviewer did focus on the Bush chapter, but surprisingly argued that the administration’s failure was not being hardline enough. Go figure. 

Q: What do you think of the Trump administration's policy toward Asia so far, and what do you see looking ahead?

A: Donald Trump has the potential to best Herbert Hoover and go down in history as the worst president on Asia (not to mention the rest of the world). 

His gratuitous withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership was an act of unilateral disarmament in the contest over whether Asia will be bound by a trans-Pacific set of rules or Sino-centric mercantilism. 

Our friends are absolutely confounded by the move, since we were winning that contest in ways that were forcing Chinese economic reforms to urge greater opening in their own market. 

The president’s inability or unwillingness to differentiate between friends who share our values and interests and foes who seek to undermine them is equally unnerving for the region. Leaders from Tokyo to Beijing and Delhi are constantly guessing what the American president’s bottom line is.

That might be a clever ploy in real estate negotiations in New Jersey, but you can always walk away from those negotiations without serious damage to your interests. 

In diplomacy –and especially in an Asia Pacific region where American consistency, loyalty and leadership are the lodestars of stability – there is no option to walk away without serious repercussions. People who follow Asia on both sides of the aisle and in the region are very nervous, frankly.

On the other hand, President Trump has established a much closer relationship with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe than Barack Obama ever had. 

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has telegraphed a sense of American military resolve which many in the region found wanting under the Obama administration. These are pieces of a successful strategy, even if the president does not have one yet.

Our big allies and partners–Japan, India and Australia–are not going to abandon the United States easily (though we are losing smaller states in Southeast Asia right now). Nor is China going to ignore or confront this president either. In many respects, these Asian leaders know the history of American statecraft in Asia much better than our president does. 

They also know that a majority of Americans say in polls that Asia is now the most important region to America’s future, that public and congressional support for our defense commitment to Japan and Korea is more robust and bipartisan than ever before, and that 50 governors and even more farmers and manufacturers want this administration to make sure that we keep growing with Asia. 

So we will just have to see.  

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a half dozen small projects, ranging from an edited book on democracy in Asia to a short piece on the geopolitics of Tibet. 

My next big book project is on Japan. I have finished a draft first chapter in what should be something of a companion volume to By More than Providence, but this time looking at the geopolitical roots of Japan’s modern statecraft. 

As you know, I lived in Japan for five years and my dissertation and first few books were on contemporary Japanese politics and foreign policy. 

Much of the debate about Japan’s role today –and reaction to Abe’s more assertive policies—focuses on pre-war Japanese militarism. But as traumatic as that was for the Japanese people and the entire region, it was only a brief moment in time. 

There are even more enduring roots in Japan’s historic experience as a maritime state athwart a massive China that are resurfacing in Abe’s own grand strategy. I want to recapture and trace those debates forward the way I did the early arguments about Asia by Americans. 

Maybe the third volume will be a history of U.S.-Japan relations that blends the two….but one book at a time. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. I'm glad to say that Michael J. Green is my cousin!

June 24

June 24, 1813: Henry Ward Beecher born.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Q&A with Elliot Ackerman

Elliot Ackerman is the author of the new novel Dark at the Crossing, which takes place in Southern Turkey near the Syrian border. He also has written the novel Green on Blue as well as the book Istanbul Letters. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New Yorker and The Atlantic. He served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Dark at the Crossing and for your character Haris?

A: I had started to travel to southern Turkey in 2013 when I was covering the civil war there, and became friendly with a number of people who were activists in the revolution.

I was interested in the idea of how you tell the story of the revolution. It can seem impenetrable when you get into the different fighting groups. The more I’d spend time with the revolutionaries, they’d say, “I fell in love with the revolution, the idea that we could reimagine the country, and when it failed, I found myself heartbroken.”

I thought maybe I could tell a story that follows that emotional arc. What is the emotional equivalent of going through a failed revolution? A failed marriage. When it doesn’t work out and you’re left with the emotional wreckage.

To the characters in the book—I wanted to tell a story. I had the idea of a guy, Haris Abadi, a man of two identities. The spelling of his name was intentional. It’s a Western-sounding name with the Arab spelling. It’s a good framework to tell the story.

Since the book came out, I’ve been asked why I have protagonists who aren’t American. Haris Abadi is American.

Q: On that same subject, in a New York Times review of your book, Lawrence Osborne writes, "'Dark at the Crossing' is unusual in that few of its characters are Western — a bold move in a culture obsessed with 'appropriation.'" Do you see it as a bold move? 

A: No, I don’t. I think this whole construct of appropriation is an incredibly cynical way to look at art. The Merchant of Venice, Othello—are they cultural appropriations? Elvis Presley, Mick Jagger—it’s the way all culture forms. People meet, they interact, they blend cultures.

What’s the purpose of art? The idea of asserting our common humanity. People of any background can see a film or read a book and feel something similar. If we erect rules about what’s not allowed in art, it’s borderline fascist…

I look at this from another lens as well. I’m a veteran. People are writing about the veteran experience who are not veterans. People who had that experience feel extremely invested. Was it cultural appropriation when Ben Fountain wrote Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, or Roxana Robinson wrote Sparta? I applaud [those books].

Q: In our previous interview, you noted that your characters often surprise you. Did that happen with this novel as well?

 A: With this novel, it still happened in different scenes. As opposed to Green on Blue, with Green on Blue I was writing a book and didn’t know how it would end, but the characters were clear to me.

In Dark at the Crossing, I felt confident in the characters but I knew how it would end one-third into the writing. For me, the process was moving toward an ending in a way that felt authentic.

Each book felt different. One enjoyable thing about writing is being surprised by the plot, the characters—your day ends in a different way [than you might have expected].

Q: What do you see looking ahead for Syria?

A: I think it’s very difficult to predict. One of the things that’s difficult is that the war has been going on for so long now, the longer it goes on, the more challenging it is.

I don’t think I truly understood war until when I had my first child. She was nine months old when I left the service. It never hit me viscerally [in the same way].

I think wars, when they get to a certain point, it’s not because of ideology, but that people have so much loss. If my daughter were killed, and someone from the regime killed her, there would be no making me whole again. When a war goes on long enough, many people are affected [in that way]. Reconciliation becomes almost impossible.

Q: What impact do you think the Trump administration will have?

A: It’s remarkable in U.S. foreign policy since 2001, that it’s been pretty steady. It’s still yet to be seen, the impact the Trump administration will have. I don’t think it will vary widely between the [policies of the] Bush administration and the Obama administration. There were differences; [likely they will be] incremental between Trump and Obama. I don’t know if it will be a watershed.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m writing a novel set in Istanbul. No more shall be said!

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

Q&A with Laurie Wallmark

Laurie Wallmark is the author of the new children's picture book biography Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code. She also has written Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine. She teaches computer science at Raritan Valley Community College, and she lives in Ringoes, New Jersey.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book for kids about Grace Hopper?

A: I think it’s important to show children that anyone, regardless of sex, race, religion, etc., can become a scientist or mathematician. Grace’s story might encourage a girl to become a computer scientist or open a boy to the wide diversity of people in the field. 

Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?

A: I did most of my research through reading books about Grace and watching videos of her. I was most surprised to find out, contrary to what everyone says, that she was not the first person to use the word “bug” to represent a glitch in a machine. She was, though, the first to use it in reference to computer programs.

Q: What more do you hope your readers take away from Grace Hopper's story?

A: Dare and do! This was Grace’s personal motto.

Q: What do you think Katy Wu's illustrations add to the book?

A: One of the joys of writing picture books is seeing what the illustrator brings to the story. Children (and adults!) do judge a book by its cover. Luckily, Katy created has such a striking one.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m currently revising a manuscript about another woman in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) Amazingly enough, I could only find one trade picture book about a woman mathematician—Hypatia, who died in 415 AD. I’m determined to remedy this situation by writing one of my own.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

June 23

June 23, 1929: Michael Shaara born.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Q&A with Tracy Chevalier

Tracy Chevalier is the author of the new novel New Boy, a retelling of Othello set in a sixth-grade class in the Washington, D.C., suburbs in the 1970s. Her other novels include Girl with a Pearl Earring and At the Edge of the Orchard. She grew up in the D.C. area and lives in London.

Q: You've mentioned your own experience as an outsider--how did that play into your depiction of your character Osei and the themes you explore in New Boy?

A: I think it’s what made me choose the play. (It’s part of the Hogarth Shakespeare Project, where authors like Margaret Atwood and Anne Tyler were asked to write a novel inspired by a Shakespeare play.)

I have lived in London for over 30 years but still sound very American, and often feel as if I’m standing on the sidelines watching the game rather than taking part in it.

Q: Why did you decide to set your retelling among sixth graders in suburban Washington, D.C., in the 1970s?

A: I thought the enclosed society of a school playground would have the right intensity for the story. I grew up in an integrated neighborhood in Washington and happened to go to a school that was mostly black, so I had a bit of experience of having different skin color from those around me.

I liked the idea of setting it when I was 11, in 1974. At 11 you are the oldest on the playground (used to be, anyway, before the creation of middle schools), and you rule it, with adults having less and less say in your world. At the same time, you are not quite a teenager, so you may start imitating adult behavior without really understanding it.

The book is set over one day, and Osei (my Othello) and Dee (Desdemona) have to get together and split up very quickly, torn apart by the actions of Ian (Iago), the school bully. But that’s exactly what happens with kids – it’s fast and intense, and then it’s over.

Q: What parts of the original Othello did you think were especially important to retain in your novel, and what did you feel you could change?

A: Othello is about two things, I think: society’s treatment of people different from themselves, and jealousy. The jealousy part kind of takes over most productions, so that it becomes Iago’s play as he leads Othello into a jealous rage.

I decided that rather than it focusing on Othello and Iago, I would have New Boy be more about the whole community of the playground and how they respond to Osei – both the casual racism of white kids toward the only black person they know, and also the suspicion and cruelty taken out on a new student.

I also felt that the female characters in Othello (Desdemona and her servant Emilia) are woefully underwritten, so I knew I would give them much more to say and do in New Boy.

Q: What do you think your book, and Othello, say about the issue of racism?

A: I wanted to explore where racism comes from. In New Boy, kids learn it from the adults around them – their parents and teachers. I would hope that now adults are a little more aware of and sensitive to such racist attitudes.

Unfortunately, given the political tone in America right now, I’m not so sure we have actually come on very far from 1974...

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am now writing a novel set in Winchester Cathedral (an hour south of London) in the 1930s. In the choir stalls are embroidered cushions and kneelers made by a group of volunteers, mostly women. It features embroidery, bellringing, cathedral life, and the petty politics of volunteer groups, with hints of German fascism thrown into the mix.

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

Q&A with Katie A. Nelson

Katie A. Nelson is the author of the new young adult novel The Duke of Bannerman Prep, a modern-day retelling of The Great Gatsby set at a prep school. She taught high school English and debate, and she lives in Northern California.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Duke of Bannerman Prep?

A: The idea for The Duke of Bannerman Prep took a long time to marinate in my mind. I used to teach high school English, so I was always trying to find parallels between the classic literature that we read in class and my students' lives.

When we were studying Gatsby, it was often hard for my students to understand the context of the novel, the new money vs. old money, and the idea that a young person could make a lot of money in a short time--at least enough to live the lifestyle of the old money crowd. 

But they all knew who Mark Zuckerberg is, and know how much money the tech industry creates, so it made sense to me to move my story to the West Coast and into that world. 

I'd always wanted to write a story about someone on the debate team, as it was such a central part of my high school experience. Once the idea for merging the two stories came together, I had the bones of the book.  

Q: The book is described as a contemporary Great Gatsby. What appeals to you about The Great Gatsby, and why did you choose to set your book among prep-school students?

A: I have loved Gatsby since reading it for the first time in high school. I've always been fascinated with ideas about class. We have this American ideal that anyone can be anything if you work hard enough, but that isn't always the case.

Some people are born into privilege and while we applaud the stories of people who come from nothing and become successful, the reality is that those stories are pretty rare.

Gatsby does such a great job of analyzing that class structure vs. the American dream, but it was written at a different time in our country's history. I wanted to use that context to show what has changed about class in America, and what is the same.

The prep school was appealing to me because it works as a microcosm for those ideas. Even though there are scholarship students there, the majority of the people (at fictional Bannerman) come from a place of great privilege.

So I thought it lent itself well to the exploration of how that privilege works, in relation to hard work and talent.

Q: What's your writing process like? Do you work from an outline or change many things around as you write?

A: My writing process really varies. I tend to get an idea for a novel, but I don't actually sit down to write it until I've thought about it for several months. At that stage, I'll write ideas down in a notebook, but then I put it aside.

I like to have a strong sense of who my characters are, so I'll write dialogue and journal entries from their point of view as well. I usually don't have a solid outline, but I have plot points in my head that I know I want to hit. I'll then start drafting. I do many, many drafts.

For The Duke of Bannerman Prep, I played around with a past/present structure, as well as big chunks in second person point of view.

Neither of those drafts worked for the story, but they helped me figure out what I was trying to do and who my characters were, so I really believe that they weren't wasted (even though I scrapped tens of thousands of words each time).

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?

A: I think I could fill a book with all of my favorite writers! My favorite classic writers are Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, Victor Hugo, Willa Cather, and of course, F. Scott Fitzgerald!

I also love Anne Tyler, Anita Shreve, Maria Semple, and Anna Quindlen. In YA, I have so many writers I love: Melina Marchetta, Sara Zarr, Markus Zusak, Jennifer Donnelley, Rainbow Rowell, Matt de la Pena, Nova Ren Suma, and many, many more!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm working on a story about a young woman who is trying to find her sister, and has to enlist the help of her sister's ex-best friend, who she hates. It's been a labor of love as so much of my heart is tied up in this story, and I *think* I've finally figured out how to tell it. Famous last words . . .

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Thanks so much for interviewing me! I love connecting with readers and other writers! You can find me on twitter and instagram at @MsKatieANelson, or reach out via my web site, 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

June 22

June 22, 1898: Erich Maria Remarque born.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Q&A with Gwen Strauss

Gwen Strauss is the author of The Hiding Game, a picture book for children about the work of her great-uncle and others who helped Jewish refugees escape from the Nazis during World War II. Her other work includes Ruth and the Green Book and The Night Shimmy, and she has written for various publications including The New Republic and the London Sunday Times. She lives in Southern France.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book about your great-uncle’s work during World War II, and how much had you known about it as you were growing up?

A: Growing up, in a family that had many war heroes, but not a lot of talk about what had actually happened to them during the war, I heard just vague references from my grandmother about her brother’s bravery.

There were a lot of artists around my grandmother who were “friends of Danny’s during the war.” One of my grandmother’s closest friends was Max Ernst, for example. Ernst was someone Danny [Bénédite] helped save and later introduced to his sister.

I learned more about my great uncle Danny when I moved to Paris in my mid-20s and I learned enough French to read his book, La filiere marseillaise, which is a rather dry account of what Varian Fry and the rescue committee did to save lives in 1940-41.

It’s also about the early organizations that would form the Resistance, and the world of refugees desperate to get out of the closing Gestapo net.

I met Danny a few times in Paris, but sadly he died only a few years after I moved there. (I probably met him many times as a child, but the huge loud French family kind of blurred.)

In my 20s in Paris, I became interested in his life. He killed himself when he started to feel the oncoming Parkinson’s take away his mental and physical health. I thought it was powerful that he was so determined to choose the manner of his death. He fascinated me as a character at that stage. 

There was also a tragic love story, which held my focus. And there are other more adult parts of Danny’s story that I hope someday to write about.

What set me off to write a children’s book was one particular visit to the U.S. Embassy in Marseille to renew my children’s passports. Right there in the lobby is a huge photograph of Danny. I just started to enthusiastically tell my kids, “That’s your great great Uncle Danny!  He was a hero!” They were embarrassed that I was being too loud.

But I realized they didn’t know the story, and as I tried to tell it to them, I realized I needed to learn more. I have written several other children’s books and so the thought just came then: there’s got to be a good children’s book here.

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write the book?

A: I did a LOT of research. I knew the basic story but I started to read all the books I could find on the subject. Books by Varian Fry, by Danny, but also other people who were with them at the time.

And I read more recent historical books about Fry, the rescue committee, and the refugee situation in Vichy France. I have a whole bookshelf of books and documents. I went to a few symposiums and lectures in Marseille. I talked to family members. I contacted Aube Breton.

I found a strange series of coincidences around this research. I had moved to the south of France for my professional work. I run an artist residency program in the historic Dora Maar House. Aube wrote me that she visited that house many times as a little girl—she asked me if there were still so many scorpions-- (there aren’t). 

Her mother Jacqueline Lamda and Dora Maar were close friends. As I read I saw that many of the artists that Danny and Varian hid, they hid in my village and in the villages all around me. 

The names of the characters are all around me, every day. I was inside the history in a way I wasn’t when first reading Danny’s book in Paris. It’s really a story of this region and suddenly this is my home. So that made it all the more compelling. 

I love research, and I could just do it all the time. But at some point I have to start writing. And that’s when it got difficult. I spent almost as much time crafting a story for children. I knew I couldn’t tell the whole story—I didn’t want to—but I had to find some window into a part of it.

The right structure to fit the format of a picture book. Aube and the Villa were a perfect small peek into the world of the rescue committee. It took a lot of rewriting. Children’s picture books have pretty rigid limitations, in page and word count, and vocabulary etc. So the story has to be honed carefully.

I am grateful to several editors along the way. I had to adjust the story- to make some of it fiction. For example, the real Aube called her mother and father by their first names. They were surrealist artists and non-conventional. So she did not call them maman and papa—but the editors insisted as a children’s book Aube had to.

Q: What do you think Herb Leonhard’s illustrations add to the book?

A: Herb was chosen by the art director Janice Shay, who was very helpful to me in all the stages of this book. She worked closely with him as he developed the art—this was after the text was pretty much written. But occasionally seeing his illustrations I would suggest a change in the text.

I also had more experience with the “look” of the south of France so I sent him reference pictures and ideas as he was working out the sketches.

One reason I love doing children’s picture books is the joy I feel when an artist creates a picture based on my words and it takes the story so much further. It’s really magical. I stand in awe and amazement at how much better the pictures make the story! I love the color palette and the sketchy way he approached the subject.

Part of the challenge of writing a children’s picture book is to structure a story arc that will make each spread have a dynamic “illustratable” moment. But sometimes a spread just isn’t that dynamic, it may be more subtle or emotional. Then I don’t know how the artist will show it.

Herb was able to make those more subtle moments visible, such as when Aube is thinking about the people in the camps and she’s worried about the cold and the snow.

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

A: I think that when you write for children, mostly you want to spark their curiosity, to get them to ask more questions.

As I began working on this story the refugee crisis around the world exploded. The last time there was a crisis of this size was World War II, though now, I think the numbers are much greater.

The majority of the world’s refugees are under 18. They are children. The current refugee crisis IS a children’s story. I want the children who read this book to have a way into imagining what that might mean to be a refugee, to be fleeing for your life. To start to ask themselves, How would I feel?  What would I do?

I also feel that Varian Fry is an unlikely hero. He was a Latin teacher. He simply saw something that he knew was wrong and decided to do everything he could to help.

He knew about the death camps. He was the first person in America to publish an article talking about the Final Solution in the New Republic. He was ignored.

He also did what he knew was right against the odds, against the wishes of his friends and supporters, against the demands of his country—he broke the law, because the law was unjust. And he saved over 2000 lives.

His good deeds were largely unrecognized in his lifetime.  In fact when he returned home from France the office of the Rescue Committee in New York fired him. He had done too much, they said. He was too pushy.

I really am moved by his moral imperative. Why is someone like that? What makes a person behave that way? What would I do?

Finally I really loved the artists’ response to fascism, terror, and fear mongering.  There is this idea that art is irrelevant in extreme times, that in extremity people think only of food and shelter.

But I don’t think that’s completely true. What Breton and the surrealists illustrated by their Sunday games, and with their insistence on maintaining their creative lives, was that fear could not possess them. They would remain free in spirit.

And that freedom expressed itself in collective joy and laughter. The authoritarian destructive Nazi machine would not break them. (Even in the camps, there are accounts again and again of people coming together to create poems, songs, paintings, and theater.)

I hope the children become curious about these artists. At a few of the readings I’ve done we have played Cadavre Esquise. Children love the freedom of collective drawings.

I think the artists in this story show the way out of darkness, artists are our leaders against totalitarianism. They show that fear can’t stop us from living fully creative joyous lives. We live in extreme times, so how should we keep hope alive? How do we maintain our humanity?

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have gotten stuck in the World War II period. Danny married a women named Helene many decades after the war (he divorced his wife Theo soon after the war). Helene was arrested by the Gestapo at age 21, tortured, water boarded, beaten, and sent to a series of concentration camps. Three years later, she escaped with eight other women.

This past winter I retraced their escape route with my daughter. I had interviewed Helene about her story before she died. One of the women wrote a very short book about it, which I discovered a few years later.

Another woman wrote an article in Elle—but it was published in the 60s, and I only recently found it online. And there’s a ten-minute documentary of one of the women. So out of the nine women, I had found four points of view of this same escape story.

I also only knew the names of these four women, but I knew the nicknames of all nine. So slowly with research, and with the help of the German historians we visited at the camps in Leipzig and Buchenwald, I have been able to discover the identities of seven maybe even eight of the nine women.

Each one of them has her own amazing story. They were all young, beautiful, and politically active in the resistance. They had spent at least two years in harrowing conditions of the camps. They had all been tortured, etc. They were starving and traumatized. And they were able to escape and survive together because of their tough friendship. 

I am writing about this and thinking about it. It won’t be for children. I am not yet sure what format it will be: novel, essay, or script. But the process is really so wonderful. I am thinking a lot about friendship and how essential it is, and was for these women. 

But also how differently from men, groups of women organize themselves and behave together. I think this helped women survive longer in the camps. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I am working on the above project about the nine women, but I often work on several projects in tandem. So I am also working out a simple children’s picture book about a girl and her dog. 

And I am working on a Young Adult novel, which is a thriller ghost story, set in the medieval town next door, Lacoste. This is where the ruins of the chateau of the Marquis de Sade are. So for this story I am researching the violent periods of French history from the Dark Ages to the Revolution.

Provence, where I live, is an idyllic bucolic place that is also absolutely steeped in a bloody violent past. I’m kind of exploring that contradiction for young adults!

Here's a link to a video about The Hiding Game

--Interview with Deborah Kalb