Sunday, September 24, 2017

Q&A with Frances McCue


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

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

A: Thank you for asking about Timber Curtain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: What are you working on now?

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

Q: Anything else we should know?

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

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

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

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

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Ilana Kurshan


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: What are you working on now?

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

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

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

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

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

Q: Anything else we should know?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 24

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

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Q&A with Annie Spence


Annie Spence, photo by Alicia Gbur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: What are you working on now?

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

Q: Anything else we should know?

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

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Jake Burt


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

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

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

Q: What are you working on now?

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

Q: Anything else we should know?

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

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

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 23

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Sept. 23, 1889: Walter Lippmann born.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Q&A with Christopher Bollen


Christopher Bollen, photo by Danko Steiner
Christopher Bollen is the author of the new novel The Destroyers, which is set on the Greek island of Patmos and focuses on two old friends. He also has written the novels Orient and Lightning People, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including GQ and The New York Times. He is the editor at large of Interview magazine, and he lives in New York City.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Destroyers, and for your characters Ian and Charlie?

A: I’m such a place-based writer. Everything is focused around a geographical setting. I think of where I’m going to set a novel, and that defines the whole story. It’s not a story looking for a place, it’s a place, and whatever situation is on the ground will determine what happens.

In this case, I was fascinated by Patmos, the Greek island—it’s famous for being where John wrote the Book of Revelation. I grew up in Catholic schools, and for every 12-year-old by the Book of Revelation was the exciting chapter—it’s a very Hollywood book. I was always fascinated with this island.

In the early 2000s [I heard about] people recommending Patmos as a jet-set island. How do two totally separate realms overlap?

I finally got there in 2012. It’s so beautiful. It’s filled with strange Christian history and also with indulgent hedonistic European vacationers. It was hard not to write about it!

Q: And how did you come up with Ian and Charlie?

A: It’s about how I was perceiving relationships in my life. I hadn’t really written about wealth before [except] about artists and self-earners.

In metropolitan cities, you come across people with inherited wealth. I don’t judge—they’re extremely smart and gifted—but it fascinated me. I grew up having to earn and stretch every penny, and was fascinated by their decision-making process and how they live.

I set up Charlie and Ian as an example of that. Because I get to live in Manhattan, even within a wealthy bracket there are all kinds of wealth. There are just millionaires, and then there are billionaires. Ian is from a moneyed but not an indulgently wealthy family, and Charlie is from billionaire funds.

You have different views about childhood friendships. At 20, you want to escape the friends of your youth. At 40, you try to reconnect, to find that they’re not interested.

It was a yearning to talk about the bonds of friendship. Ian and Charlie are friends as kids, and they’ve drifted apart. When you’re out on a limb, thrown into dire straits, you reach out to those people who have known you longest, and remember you as innocent. It interested me.

Q: Your work has been compared to that of Patricia Highsmith. What do you think of the comparison?

A: I love Patricia Highsmith. It’s humongous fun—it’s an honor. [In a sense] we’re not that similar because she’s so concise and tight and I’m more verbose, but I do love the psychological buildup she provides. She sees something beautiful, and describes the muck around it.

She’s such an astute psychological writer. She strips out all formalities and is not afraid to make them ugly. [Her characters] want something and go after it, and it cuts out all the niceties. She’s a lover of lifestyles—Ripley is very much about Dickie’s hedonistic Italian lifestyle—but she’s a bit of a destroyer.

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 don’t know where [my novels are] going. For all the books I’ve written, I start with no idea of what the reason is. I have a faint vision of what I think will happen at the end; however, if a better story occurs to me, I give it complete freedom. It’s dangerous—you can paint yourself into a corner!

There’s always the postmodern impulse to say, What if we don’t even say what happens? That’s kind of a cheat.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have started two books. I have no business writing two at a time! My first novel, Lightning People, was set in Manhattan and they were trying to get out of Manhattan. Then I went to the North Fork of Long Island with Orient. Then to Greece. I’m going to write one set in Venice and another in South America—hopefully!

It’s exciting. Venice is very hard to write about; it’s been written about so much. It’s a bit like New York—people know it very well, and you can’t really cheat. I love that city—I lived there for six months when I graduated from college.

[I’ve heard,] You should write shorter books. I would love to, but it’s very hard to say, Don’t write that scene.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I knew I was taking a risk writing on the rich—I hope people don’t see it as a book about spoiled rich people, without value. Money is a fascinating substance, and unfortunately it’s a big part of everybody’s day-to-day life, so it merits some focus. I wanted to pick at the corrupting influence of money.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Estep Nagy


Estep Nagy is the author of the new novel We Shall Not All Sleep, which takes place in Maine in the summer of 1964. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Southwest Review and The Believer, and he wrote and directed the film The Broken Giant. He also has written a number of plays.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for We Shall Not All Sleep, and for the two intertwined families who feature in the story?

A: In my experience WASP relationships, even the intense ones, have a kind of silence at their center. They often seem a bit cold, especially when seen from the outside, but in compensation there's this rich interior ambiguity that can sometimes feel like poetry. That’s where the book started, I guess, in trying to populate that silence.

I know the world from growing up in Philadelphia, which is one of the last bastions of the old WASP infrastructure, although I went to Quaker school and my mother is a sort of lapsed debutante from outside of Pittsburgh.  

I went to college at Yale, where it was impossible to miss the complex relationships coming out of the wealthy towns and neighborhoods of the Northeast U.S., the private schools and colleges — relationships rooted in where one grows up, those schools, friends, friends-of-friends, friends-of-parents, certain kinds of work, even war — and I had the clear sense that such complexity breeds strange but compelling intimacies.  

It’s more than just what you might see in a small town, for example, because this crowd overlaps in multiple cities as well as other places, like the Maine Coast, and the connections across those lines really matter, as do the number and variety of them.  

An example from the book would be how Jim Hillsinger and Billy Quick on the one hand hate each other but on the other share an island and have known each other their whole lives and married sisters.  

They have this almost total shared frame of reference, even if their stances toward it are different and they inhabit different, fiercely-guarded quadrants of the larger circle. Their hatred is of a very intimate caliber, which to me is interesting.

Q: The book is set in 1964, during the Cold War. Why did you choose that time period, and did you need to do much research to write the novel? 

A: I’m drawn to people who have callings, and I admire the Cold Warriors' sense of public purpose, which for better or worse was almost 100 percent focused on foreign policy.  

I think the emotional impact of the Cold War on those who fought it — and even on those who didn’t — has been under-written, and as someone whose emotional life was formed during the Cold War (I was 19 when the Berlin Wall fell), I wanted to rectify that.

I did do a fair amount of research for the book, but I’m afraid it wasn’t very disciplined. For example, I spent some time in the Beinecke Library at Yale, where improbably they have the undergraduate papers of James Angleton, the former head of CIA Counterintelligence, who has a cameo in We Shall Not All Sleep.  

He edited a literary magazine at Yale, and in his letters you can really see his mind working, which was helpful. And the Yale English Department, where both Angleton and I studied (50 years apart), is all over the early history of the CIA.

The CIA plotline, by the way, is based on historical events, where two defectors named Golitsyn and Nosenko arrived a year or so apart in the early ’60s and the debate about their authenticity was fierce and cost many people their careers.  

I actually submitted Freedom of Information requests to the CIA for the final agency determinations on the case, which date from 1981, and both my request and the appeal I filed subsequently were denied, presumably on grounds of national security.

Q: How important is setting to you in your work? Could this novel have only been set on this particular Maine island and its surroundings?

A: On a technical level, setting is fantastically important -- it sets the rhythm both of the story and even of the writing.  

Geographically, Maine is unique and irreplaceable. It manages to feel both raw and philosophical, at least the coast feels that way, and in the WASP pantheon Maine looms very large as both a refuge and a marker of status.  

Also, as far as the book is concerned, having just the two families on the island makes for a strange form of intimacy, which I think is crucial here.

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

A: The title is taken from a passage in First Corinthians — “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.” I love the implication of chosen-ness, of the possibility of transformation. I’m not sure what (good) writing is, if it isn’t a sort of transcendental wakefulness.  

And those ideas were all very potent in 1964 among those who experienced the Soviet threat most intensely. That passage is also in the libretto for Handel’s Messiah, which features briefly.

And then -- this is sort of inside baseball in my head -- First Corinthians is the name of a character in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, which is a book that I love. So there were different layers.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Another book in the same world, with many of the same characters. Pray for me.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’ve been astonished by the relevance of the 1964 Cold War world to that of today. Suddenly Russia is in the news again every day, espionage seems to be damaging our democracy, and we’re told that all over the world intelligence operations are impacting elections, arguably much more so than during the Cold War, where there was immense hysteria around just that.

So for me, the atmosphere of We Shall Not All Sleep feels a bit like a letter from a friend who’s living through something vital, something we all need to learn from.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Robin Stevens Payes


Robin Stevens Payes is the author of Edge of Yesterday, a new novel for kids focusing on a girl who wants to travel back in time and meet Leonardo da Vinci. The novel has an accompanying website that encourages kids to share their storytelling skills and learn more about science and history.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Edge of Yesterday and your main character, Charley?

A: I started a long time ago. I have three kids, and when the oldest was reaching the preteen years and I was being a carpool mom—soccer, band practice—I listened to their conversations, how they and their friends wanted to be everything, soccer players, diplomats.

I was thinking about it—in our society we make kids specialize in kindergarten. It began as a thought experiment. Can children growing up today become everything they want? Who was the epitome of that? Leonardo da Vinci was able to do all of that. If Leonardo was born today, could he be Leonardo?

I chose a girl because still, unfortunately, in 2017 there are [obstacles] for girls to get into certain fields, particularly STEM fields that are highly compensated and growing in demand.

Q: What inspired the interactive website that accompanies the novel, and what response have you had to it?

A: It’s been growing quite a bit. The story started as a screenplay. I’d never written a screenplay before. I realized I didn’t have the technology to make it plausible for Charley to travel back and forth through time. She needed an iPhone!

[Later] I had a screenplay and a book, and I started tweeting the novel out. I realized Charley’s voice was coming out. She started tweeting and she continues to do that to this day. It’s the 40th anniversary of when Voyager 1 and 2 launched, and we have a new article by an intern about the Golden Record. It can be very timely in that way.

All of these things seemed to be speaking to a larger need, learning through story. Stories are universal, they are vital for transmitting information, but they’re also for entertainment and inculcating moral values. It seems to be a timeless way to offer the idea that learning can be fun if it’s tied to a story.

Because Leonardo was the master of all things, there’s so much you can learn! We aggregated it on the website. The idea was to make it interactive and fun--here’s something you didn’t know—and include literature, math, science, history. That’s the way the real world works. It’s meant to be transdisciplinary.

Q: What age group do you focus on?

A: It’s designed to be middle-grade fiction, age 9-12. I feel it’s the older, upper end of the age group because some of the concepts are pretty sophisticated for younger readers, though on the website we have a word of the week and words are defined within the book to make it accessible. I’ve had older kids be engaged, and a lot of parents say, This is really cool!

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

A: For me, it’s wonderful because it’s a constant learning and growing experience. When I began, we hardly had the Internet. Research about Leonardo meant going to the library.

There has been a growth of “Leonardo-ana,” especially within the last five to six years; there’s been an explosion of Leonardo-related stuff. There’s just a perennial interest. He was an enigma in a lot of ways, though he was prolific, but it was focused on his work. Plumbing the inner Leonardo has been fun.

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

A: I didn’t start reading this series until I had finished the book, but the Outlander series, by Diana Gabaldon, is an epic; it’s rip-roaring fun, and is meticulously researched. I love her research and her attending to facts and her ability to recreate regular life in historic times…

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I received a grant from the Montgomery County Arts and Humanities Council to start a new adventure, three books in a series.

The next adventure is with an 18th century French noblewoman. Emilie du Chatelet was a consort of Voltaire, a mathematician and physicist. She translated Newton into French for the first time, she laid the foundation for relativity, and she had four kids. It’s natural that Charley is dying to meet her. She was a kick-ass 18th century woman.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: One of the pieces I’m really intentional about and proud of, part of what Edge of Yesterday is about, is promoting curiosity and creativity in readers and people who interact with the website.

The activities energize people to share their creativity with us and other people interested in the story. It’s how curiosity and creativity can express your ability to follow your dreams as a young person.

I started a hashtag, #eoymystory. I want people to share what they’re passionate about, what their dreams are, their story. I love engaging with these young people, and I hope they will enjoy sharing with each other.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb