Friday, September 29, 2017

Q&A with Rene Denfeld

Rene Denfeld is the author of the new novel The Child Finder. Her other books include the novel The Enchanted, and her work has appeared in The New York Times and various other publications. She is a licensed investigator, and she lives in Portland, Oregon.

Q: You've said that your new book was inspired by a missing-child case in Oregon. What made you decide to write this book, and how did you come up with your characters?

A: It was during an epic snowstorm here in Portland several years back. I had gone out to walk the dog late at night. You know how bright the night becomes when it is filled with snow, how silent? That was how it was.

I hiked down to the bluff and to overlook the cold river, and that's when I heard the voice that first inspired the novel. She said, "I am the snow girl." I literally ran home, whooping with joy, I was so happy to start writing again. 

Once I got started I could see it was inspired by a case here of a child who went missing in the woods. As a parent it is hard to imagine anything worse than a missing or kidnapped child.

But it was also inspired by my work, because like the main character Naomi I am a licensed investigator. It's been my day job for over 10 years. So I was able to take the reader into the steps of a real life investigation. Naomi specializes in finding missing children. I've worked similar cases so I know a lot about the work.

In this novel, Naomi has been asked to find this missing girl who went lost in the forest three years before. As she delves into the case it becomes clear she has her own issues to deal with. 

The characters in the novel all flow from the story. There is Naomi, the child finder, there is the snow girl, who is a little girl being held in a terrible place. There are other characters. It's important to me the characters feel real to me. So they are all people I might know in real life, from my work or family or friends. 

Q: You write, "Fairy tales and fables had a deep influence in my life." What role did they play for you, and what role do you see them playing in the book?

A: I grew up with a lot of poverty and abuse. My sanctuary was the local library, and the books I found there. I escaped into a world of imagination. Some of my favorites were fairy tales and fables. I loved the themes of survival.

As Naomi says in The Child Finder, in fairy tales even those who need to be rescued can be saved, and even those poisoned by abuse can be reborn.

That love of fairy tales greatly influenced this novel. I think fairy tales are immensely powerful. They remind us of a time we knew we could survive the worst harms. They are stories of hope and magic. 

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

A: I had an idea, though when I am writing I am caught up in wanting to find out just like anyone else! It felt like a real page-turner to me. The story just poured out. At times it felt like poetry, and it has been reviewed as a "thriller told like a poem." It's very fast-paced but lyrical.

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?

A: I am a voracious reader. I believe the secret to good writing is good reading. When I teach writing I prescribe as many books a week that a person can read. I read everything from fiction to memoirs to journals. I just love the printed word.

Some of my favorite writers include Margaret Atwood, Ali Land, Louise Erdrich, Jane Smiley, Roxane Gay, Kia Corthron, Josh Weil...I better stop now, I could go on forever. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I don't want to jinx it...but another novel.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Writers are nothing without readers. I think we are all part of the same wonderful connection, linked by stories. Our lives are our stories, and I am honored to have shared mine. Thank you so much for talking to me!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with James Reston Jr.

James Reston Jr., photo by Susan Raines
James Reston Jr. is the author of the new book A Rift in the Earth: Art, Memory, and the Fight for a Vietnam Memorial. His many other books include The Conviction of Richard Nixon and Warriors of God, and his work has appeared in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and a variety of other publications. He lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

Q: You write, "The roots of this book reach back to my own service in the U.S. Army (1965-1968)..." Why did you decide to focus on the Vietnam War Memorial in your new book, and what impact did your own service have in inspiring the book?

A: There are two emotional roots for The Rift in the Earth. The first is that I have a friend on the Wall, who trained with me in Army Intelligence in 1965-66, and who was killed on the first day of the Tet Offensive in the city of Hue on Jan. 30, 1968. His story is told in the last chapter of the book.

The brilliance of Maya Lin’s Wall is that the survivor views the name of his dead comrade as his own image is reflected in the black granite. The death of Ron Ray could easily have been my death.

The second is my friendship with the late Frederick Hart, the sculptor of the three soldiers at the Memorial. I sent long hours talking to him in the 1990s about the “art war” over Maya Lin’s design in which he was a central player.

Q: How would you characterize the dynamic between architect Maya Lin and sculptor Frederick Hart?

A: Bitter. Maya Lin was the winner against 1,420 competitors in a very professional artistic contest. It was, at the time, the largest artistic competition for a piece of public art in the history of American and European art.

The judges of the contest were highly distinguished luminaries in the world of American art and architecture. And so there was a fundamental moral principle about the sanctity and inviolability of a winning design.

But because this was public art, in which agencies of the U.S. government had to accept and certify a work of public art for the most sacred space in Washington, the National Mall, the process was in part political.

When there was a ferocious backlash about Lin’s design for the blackness of its granite, for being underground, for displaying only the names of the dead with no mention of the sacrifice, service, and occasional heroism of those who fought, a compromise became necessary. As a brilliant figurative artist, Hart was the beneficiary.

Lin was horrified at the notion of an entirely different style of art being imposed upon her work. It was an immoral violation of her work, and she was supported by the artistic and architectural community. But Congress and the White House imposed Hart’s statues on the Wall as a way of saving the Memorial.

Hart, in turn, was contemptuous of Lin’s objections, and felt he was the savior of the Memorial. In his testimony during the art war, he was deferential to her winning design. But, in his sharper moments, he referred to her as an “ingénue.”

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

A: “A rift in the earth” is a phrase from Maya Lin’s description of her vision for her work in the Memorial competition. It was her words, more than the simple, almost high-schoolish drawing of her chevron, that won her the big prize. Her handwritten words were moving and poetic, and they captivated the judges.

But I see that phrase in a larger context, as the rift in the entire Vietnam generation, that was divided passionately into different, warring, factions between those who served in Vietnam and those who either protested or avoided service altogether.

No future American generation must ever again face the moral dilemma of the Vietnam generation. 

Q: What role would you say the memorial plays today?

A: The vicious fight over the building of a Vietnam Memorial is now largely forgotten, as the Wall and Hart’s statutes are universally embraced.

But something magical has happened with time. The Wall is no longer a “veterans” memorial but a memorial for the entire Vietnam generation. It is equally welcoming to pacifists as to warriors.

Nor is it any longer just about the Vietnam War, but about all wars. And it is broader still. To see parents bring their young children by the thousands to the Wall is to realize that the Memorial is for all generations, as we contemplate the ultimate cost of any war.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m returning to a 9/11 novel that I began some years ago.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A also appears on Here's a previous Q&A with James Reston Jr.

Sept. 29

Sept. 29, 1547: Miguel de Cervantes born.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Q&A with Andrew Wilson

Andrew Wilson is the author of the new novel A Talent for Murder, which features Agatha Christie as the main character. His other books include Mad Girl's Love Song and Beautiful Shadow, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Guardian and The Washington Post. He lives in London.

Q: What made you decide to write this novel featuring Agatha Christie as the main character?

A: I had always been fascinated by Christie's real-life  disappearance in December 1926, when she went missing for 11 days.  She left her home in Berkshire and drove to Surrey, where she abandoned her car.

The next day the police found the vehicle which contained her driving license and fur coat, but there was no sign of Agatha. There was a huge hunt for her,  involving 15,000 volunteers, bloodhounds, aeroplanes. Her husband was the prime suspect - the police suspected him of killing Agatha so he could marry his mistress.  

Agatha turned up in Harrogate, claiming to have suffered from an episode of amnesia. Agatha very rarely talked about it and missed it out entirely from her autobiography.

I started to wonder … what if there was more to the disappearance than the official line that she had suffered from amnesia? What if someone was trying to manipulate her like a character in a novel? What is someone wanted to use her skills at plotting and she was forced to carry about a murder on their behalf? 

Q: What type of research did you need to do to write the novel, and was there anything that you found out that particularly surprised you?

A: I looked at contemporary newspapers reports of the case - Christie’s disappearance dominated the media and was on the front page of all the papers. It even made it across the Atlantic and was featured in The New York Times.

I also looked at witness statements, given by people who saw Agatha in the hotel. And I consulted various biographies of Christie too.

I had a card index on which I wrote down all the “facts” of the case - what we know for certain Agatha was doing on any day during that 11-day period. And then into this “black hole” - the things we didn’t know - I injected a crime story. 

One of the things that surprised me the most was the fact that fake news existed then just as it does now. Some unscrupulous journalists invented stories - a couple of reporters persuaded a barmaid to go with them to an abandoned cabin in some woods in Surrey near the site of the disappearance.

They scattered some talcum powder down on the ground and asked the barmaid to stand in it. They took a photograph and the next day  the image appeared in a paper next to the headline, “Is this footprint that of Mrs. Christie?” 

Q: How much did you try to recapture Christie's own writing and plotting style as you worked on the book?

A: I didn’t want the novel to be a pastiche or a parody and it had to be enjoyable for a 21st century reader. So it’s probably darker than many of Christie’s novels, with a greater depth of psychology too.

I’ve also been influenced by Patricia Highsmith - she was the subject of my first biography, Beautiful Shadow - so I hope I’ve combined some elements from Highsmith with Agatha’s genius for plotting.

Q: What's your own favorite Agatha Christie mystery, and have you always been a fan of her books?

A: They change over time but my favourites include The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Death on the Nile, A Pocket Full of Rye and Sleeping Murder.

Yes, I’ve always been a fan, and she was the bridge between childhood books and more adult literature. I first read her when I was 11 and when I was 12 my English teacher asked each of us in his class to submit a piece of extended writing. A few weeks later I handed in a 46-page story (which I sill have) called A German Mystery, which was very clearly influenced by Christie.

Q: What are you working on now? 

The second  novel in the series, A Different Kind of Evil, is out in spring of 2018. It’s set in Tenerife, where Agatha travelled to in early 1927. She is sent there to investigate the discovery of a partly-mummified body of a British government agent which is found in a cave. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The book has been optioned for TV by the production company Origin (the people behind Death Comes to Pemberley, The Sense of an Ending, The Crimson Petal and the White). 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Melissa Bixby

Melissa Bixby is the author of the children's picture book Loose Tooth Trouble. She taught for 15 years in the Schaumburg, Illinois, schools, and she lives in Illinois.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Loose Tooth Trouble?

A: Well, my son Bobby was in kindergarten and during dinner one night he actually told us that his tooth was loose and when he wiggled it, it hurt.

We all started coming up with some incredibly outrageous ways to help him remove his tooth, and laughed all the way through dinner. At the end of dinner Bobby said to me, "Mom, you should write a book about that," and the next day I did just that. 

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

A: My purpose in writing the book was to add some humor to a situation that can cause children a great deal of anxiety sometimes. We can all remember the anticipation of the Tooth Fairy when having lost a tooth, and the story will reminds us what it's like to wait for a bothersome loose tooth to finally fall out so the tooth fairy can visit.

Another theme I tried to incorporate into the book was that sometimes the simplest solution is the best solution, and oftentimes your parents are the best source of information available. 

But overall, I wrote and published this book to try and encourage others to do the same. When I go into schools to read aloud the book to the students, I follow up with a presentation titled Let Loose Your Words, where I encourage everyone to write their stories down and share them with the world in whatever format you want.

I hope that at least one or two people leave the room feeling motivated to go home and start writing! 

Q: What do you think the illustrations add to the text?

A: I absolutely fell in love with the illustrations that Adam Barney did for the book. It was like he climbed into my mind and saw exactly what I wanted on the page. He took our ridiculous and outrageous suggestions and drew the illustrations to match perfectly! 

Then as a family, we decided it would be awesome if we could incorporate our newest adopted pet, Joey the Cat, into the pictures because she was a sly little cat that seem to always be underfoot and usually following Bobby. The fact that he has her hidden on every page was an added bonus and just made the book all the better in our opinion! 

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

A: I have always been a huge fan of Judy Blume since I was a young girl. I still enjoy all of her books, the ones from the past and her most recent works. And one of my most favorite authors is John Green. He has written some amazing novels. 

But my true love has always been picture books. All of them! I love reading them to my former students and son, and talking about the pictures and the story together as a finished piece of art.

I absolutely love illustrated books that allow the reader to truly immerse themselves into the story. Of course some of the first picture books I can ever remember reading had very basic low-quality illustrations, and it amazes me every day how far we have come with technology. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Our family is currently working on another children's illustrated book that will hopefully engage children and adults alike, as it focuses on a topic that is very relevant to the technology of the present.

We have spent a lot of time camping this year, and a lot LESS time on technology so it gave me an idea for the upcoming story that I'm hoping is appreciated by all ages.

Of course, Bobby is the main character again, and Joey the cat will make another appearance in the illustrations. We are very excited about adding this future book to shelves all over the world! 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: With every book purchased, I send a list of teacher-created activities, puzzles and follow-up questions that go with the book. All these activities are also available for download, for free, on my website.

I also love to visit schools in person, and via the Internet, to read the book aloud, and answer questions. As a former teacher, those visits remind me how much fun I had as a teacher, and allow me the chance to encourage kids to share their stories and creativity with others! 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 28

Sept. 28, 1856: Kate Douglas Wiggin born.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Q&A with Diana Harmon Asher

Diana Harmon Asher is the author of Sidetracked, a new novel for kids focusing on a seventh-grade boy who joins his school's cross-country team. She has worked in the story department at Columbia Pictures, and in subsidiary rights at Doubleday. 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Sidetracked, and for your main character, Joseph?

A: My first inspiration for Sidetracked was my oldest son’s experience with cross country. He was in the resource room, and, as he’ll be the first to admit, not a gifted athlete. He joined the cross-country team in seventh grade, and he’s now a marathoner and running coach.

I really wanted to portray the world as Joseph saw and felt it, including the confusions and self-doubt. As I started writing, Joseph developed a unique personality, with his own peculiarities and strengths.

When Heather and Grandpa entered the storyline, I realized that a theme common to all of them was the way expectations weigh us down, and I tried to write a story that showed each of them trying to reconcile who they are with what they are expected to be.

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

A: That’s a really interesting question. I’ll try to answer without giving away the ending! I knew that I wanted Joseph to grow, and to have a victory, but in a realistic way. I didn’t want him to join the team and suddenly discover a hidden talent that makes him “okay.” 

But I also didn’t want to give him some consolation prize, like the sportsmanship award. He needed to come through for Heather, and also prove something to himself, but he had to do it using the traits we’ve seen in him throughout the story, and what he’s learned from Coach T and his teammates.

I’ve been to a lot of meets (all three of my sons ran cross country) and it’s common for the faster runners to “lap,” or overtake the slower runners. That gave me a chance to have Joseph cross paths with Trey during the final meet, but it took a while to figure out exactly what would happen there.

I got the idea for Joseph’s other “victory,” when I went to a middle school league meet to cheer on a team that my son was coaching. I realized that there are ways to earn a “win,” while still not being anywhere near the fastest one out there.

Q: Can you say more about the idea of running as the focus of the book?

A: Cross country and track and field are sports that take in all of those kids who have been cut from basketball, soccer, baseball. A lot of kids’ hearts are broken around seventh grade, when they’re told they can’t play those sports for their school. Cross country and track is where they find their “team.” 

There are also some really terrific athletes—boys and girls--who choose cross country and track, so there’s a great mix of talents and abilities. I also love the concept of the PR—the Personal Record. The idea of “doing your best” is great, but trying for a Personal Record is more than that. It means that your goal is to improve, to resist the urge to quit, and to do better than you did last time. 

There’s nothing wrong with competing with others—racing can be incredibly exciting! But for a kid like Joseph, striving for a PR can be so important, as a place to start.

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

A: I could re-read Charles Dickens’ novels over and over and never get tired of them. I spent my junior year of college in London, and I used to seek out the nooks and crannies where his novels took place.

I also love Richard Russo’s novels, possibly because there’s something Dickensian in his characters and humor. I feel the same way about J.K. Rowling. I’ve read some wonderful books for kids recently, including Wolf Hollow and Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk, Richard Peck’s The Best Man, Gary Schmidt’s Orbiting Jupiter, Jacqueline Woodson’s Locomotion, and my friend Carol Weston's Speed of Life.

One of my very favorite books is The One and Only Ivan. I love that Katherine Applegate spent years writing the Animorphs series, then came out with this unbelievably moving story, told in the perfect, poetic voice of Ivan, the gorilla. 

And I can't resist a shout-out to my incredibly talented writing pal MacKenzie Cadenhead, whose edgy sci-fi young adult novel Sleeper was published in August.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on another middle grade novel, this time told from a girl’s point of view. I don’t want to say too much about it, because I’m still working it out, but it moves from the world of middle school running to the world of middle school musical theater.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: This is my first published novel, and I’ve been waiting and working for a long, long time. It’s hard to convey how much it means to me that Sidetracked has gotten such a warm reception.

I’ve spoken with kids who tell me they trudged through their summer reading assignments, resenting every minute of it, then they flew through Sidetracked and really enjoyed it. I can’t tell you how much that means to me.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Sofia Grant

Sofia Grant is the author of the new novel The Dress in the Window, which focuses on two sisters in the period following World War II. Grant has written many novels under the name Sophie Littlefield. She lives in Oakland, California.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Dress in the Window, and why did you set it in the post-World War II period?

A: As a lifelong seamstress and amateur artist, I’m fascinated with fashion illustration and garment construction.

A number of years ago, I stumbled on historic newspaper accounts of the controversy that greeted French designer Christian Dior’s “New Look” in 1947 after the conclusion of World War II. I had no idea that some Americans resisted the lush new styles that came to symbolize an entire era of fashion.

Combined with my interest in the role of women in the workplace during and after the war, I was eager to explore these themes through fiction.

Q: How did you research the time period, particularly the fashion industry, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: I found wonderful resources ranging from books of photographs of New York and Philadelphia in the 1940s and 1950s, to scholarly tomes about the evolution of the fashion industry, to a trove of online resources devoted to the development and adoption by the textile industry of synthetic fibers.

I was surprised by the clash of style makers, politics, and American tastes—the new synthetics were greeted as “miracle fabrics” by some and decried by others as heralding the death of couture!

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

A: As with all of my novels, I have a general idea of where the plot will go, but as I get to know my characters better in the early chapters of the draft, I always find that my initial assumptions shift.

In this novel, Thelma became a far more complex and important character than I anticipated. Indeed, she became my favorite, and I enjoyed giving her the story arc that I felt she deserved.

Q: You tell the story from different characters' perspectives. Did you write it in the order in which it appears, or focus on one character at a time?

A: I do jump around a little now and then, especially when revising—typically, I’ve left myself holes that need to be filled in by further research and plot reworking. But in general, I try to write that first draft chronologically from start to finish, letting each character tell her part as needed.

Early in my career, I learned a very important tip: in a multiple-POV book, each scene should always be in the point of view of the character most invested in its outcome.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m putting the finishing touches on my book that will be out next summer, titled The Girl in the Picture. I loved writing this book about a modern-day young Boston career woman who receives an unexpected inheritance from a grandmother she never knew, and follows it back to her native Texas where she connects with a cousin—and a shared past—that forces her to rethink everything she thought she wanted.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Only that I’m grateful to you and to every reader who gives one of my novels a chance. I’m writing this in my local library, where I spend many happy hours surrounded by books, which as I get older seems a particularly blessed kind of wealth. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 27

Sept. 27, 1840: Alfred Thayer Mahan born.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Q&A with Suzanne Chazin

Suzanne Chazin is the author of the new mystery novel A Place in the Wind, the fourth in a series featuring detective Jimmy Vega. Her other books include No Witness But the Moon, A Blossom of Bright Light, and Land of Careful Shadows. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and Family Circle, and she is based in suburban New York.

Q: Your new novel focuses in part on the issue of DACA, which is very much in the news today. Why did you choose that as one of the subjects of the book?

A: You know how long it can take to write a book. I started this in the spring of 2016. There was a sense that Hillary Clinton was going to be the next president, and there was a dark horse on stage with Donald Trump making strong statements about immigration. I saw the story following, but dismissed it.

But I was intrigued by the idea of someone like him who took a local issue and magnified it through the lens of immigration. DACA was a desperation move by President Obama who tried to [help the Dreamers] and finally created an executive order.

I felt it would explode in the future—either someone like Hillary Clinton would be in office and would change it into eventual citizenship, or DACA would become a road to nowhere.

I spoke to the Westchester Hispanic Coalition and asked, Is there someone this would affect? They introduced me to someone who became a good friend. It’s something near and dear to my heart. Unlike most of immigration, it’s a clearer issue. They came as children, and you’re talking about people who are American in everything but a piece of paper. 

Q: So did you need to make changes in the book given the Trump administration? 

A: The election happened when I was finished. I was intrigued early on. I thought [I would be] writing about someone who was going back to being on television saying “You’re fired.” It was almost dystopian.

[This character in the book] would talk to Jimmy about facts and truth. I made that up! Donald Trump has been a figure in New York forever. I’m not saying this character is Donald Trump. By the time of the election happened, the book was finished. What it is, it was.

Q: Your character Wil, who’s part of the DACA program, discusses his status being very difficult.

A: For DACA kids, there has always been this question, they can’t vote…a lot of fields are not open to them. The greater America is waking up to what DACA means, but for DACA kids it has been nonstop.

Q: How do you see the dynamic at this point between your ongoing characters Jimmy and Adele?

A: They’re the mainstays of the series. They’re not going [away] as a couple; they’re monogamous. But they’re very different people, and that becomes a constant source of difficulty. They don’t see the world the same way, but they really respect each other. In No Witness But the Moon, Adele had to put a lot aside. We needed a chance for Jimmy to be there for Adele.

People’s emotional tenor can change on a dime when something’s close to them. A young girl teaching at an immigration center and disappearing—you see how the town would react, how Jimmy and Adele would. She has a child who’s underage at home, she’s a working mother. Jimmy is past that—his daughter is in college, but he has growing pains with her.

They wear multiple hats and have stresses and strains outside their relationship that add to the stresses and strains inside.

Q: How did you choose the title for this new novel and what does it signify for you?

A: Alejandra Pizarnik is a Jewish poet. One character is a Holocaust survivor. It was appropriate to pick a Latin American poet who is also Jewish. The actual quote—I was taken with a “place in the wind”—it’s that DACA sense that you’re building something permanent and the wind comes and it’s gone….Even [the character] Max Zimmerman, in Poland, Cuba, even here, he’s striving, rebuilding [after his life was destroyed during the Holocaust].

Q: So now you’re working on book five?

A: Voice with No Echo. It’s from a poem by Julia de Burgos, a Puerto Rican poet, "The Quietest One." I’m working on domestic violence, but it’s not just limited to immigrants. Also, Jimmy has someone important from his past in the fifth book, his half-sister. There’s more about his music and his life with his band.

I’m still concerned about these [immigration] issues…Readers will say I didn’t guess the ending so I really loved the book. Others take other things [from the book]. I’m ok with both those readers. I hope people will get these issues after reading the series.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: If people are curious about why DACA is a big issue, this is an interesting book. This is a cautionary tale about a whole town. It’s about Jimmy and Adele, but it’s about what happens when people lose their trust and faith in each other. It’s almost like a three-act play. A stranger comes to town, in the guise of an ambitious politician, and undoes the town.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Suzanne Chazin. 

Q&A with Steve Wiegenstein

Steve Wiegenstein is the author of the new novel The Language of Trees, the third in a series of historical novels about the fictional community of Daybreak, in the Missouri Ozarks. The other novels in the series are Slant of Light and This Old World. He has taught at a variety of universities, including Centenary College of Louisiana and Drury University.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Daybreak, the community you've written about in your novels?

A: I'd studied 19th-century utopian communities for many years, while also writing short fiction with a contemporary setting. Then one morning it came to me that I could combine those two passions of utopian studies and fiction writing, while using my home region (the Missouri Ozarks) as the setting.

I had a location in mind that I remembered since childhood and decided to place an imaginary town there. It's got everything I needed from a thematic and descriptive standpoint--a river, a mountain, a lush valley.

So after that the only issue was to populate it! I modeled my fictional community on the Icarians, a real-life utopian community that lived in the Midwest for about 50 years, but altered many of the particular details of their society. So it's a not-real community that has some real progenitors.
Q: Did you know when you wrote the first book that you'd be writing a series featuring the same characters? 

A: Oh yes. The grand scheme is to portray this same location through the years, with generations coming and going, families flourishing and dying out, the town rising and falling.

I'm interested in the American landscape and especially in issues of rural and urban life, so I wanted a country community that could serve as a kind of microcosm of American ideals and dreams as people struggled with changing economic and social conditions over the decades. So a series was always in the plans.

Q: What type of research did you do to write The Language of Trees, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: For this book I needed to research the social conflicts that occurred in Missouri (and by extension, in all of rural America) with the coming of the Industrial Age.

We think of the main conflicts as occurring in urban environments--the Haymarket riot, the Pullman strike, and so forth. But I learned that rural, agricultural communities were equally affected by the coming of modernity, and that people resisted these changes in some remarkable ways!

Our commonplace notions about history tend to simplify the ways in which people lived, and the ways they responded to changes taking place in society. So I hope to complicate that picture a bit. 

I was also surprised a bit by the degree to which the Ozarks was transformed by the arrival of the big timber operations in the late 1880s. This transformation was cultural, economic, and environmental, and the countryside was never the same again. It's a powerful and under-told story.

Q: You've been writing about some of these characters over several books--how have they changed?

A: This has been the most fun of all! These characters have grown up, aged, deepened. Just to pick one for an example, Charley Pettibone appears in the first book as a rather callow 15-year-old who happens into the community more or less by chance, and who runs off to fight in the Civil War because he thinks it will be a great way to cover himself in glory and make himself a hero to the ladies.

He returns in the second book embittered, angry, a real hard case who has been transformed by his war experience into something very close to a murderer, and who has a terrible time readjusting to peacetime life.

By the third book, he's a husband and father who has tamed (mostly) his wartime instincts and is someone to whom the younger folks look to for wisdom. It is absolutely one of the best experiences of my life to be revisiting these characters as they change.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm working on the fourth novel of the series, which will take us into the 20th century. The Modern Age has taken hold with a vengeance, and inhabitants of the Ozarks are now dealing with a different sensibility, in which country folk are stereotyped as "hillbillies" and considered to be a lesser form of being than the growing urban society, which is bypassing them in technological development and perceived cultural superiority.

But these imagined differences may turn out to be less--and different--than commonly supposed. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I love talking with library groups, book clubs, and civic organizations! I get a great charge out of speaking with groups in person, but also do conversations over Skype and other online platforms. Any book club that would like to have me talk with them can get in touch with me through my website and we can work out a date!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb