Sunday, March 26, 2017

Q&A with Tilar J. Mazzeo


Tilar J. Mazzeo is the author of the new book Irena's Children: A True Story of Courage, also available in a young readers edition. The book focuses on the life of Irena Sendler, who rescued thousands of Jewish children during World War II. Mazzeo's other books include The Widow Cliquot and The Secret of Chanel No. 5, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Food & Wine. She is the Clara C. Piper Associate Professor of English at Colby College, and she lives in Maine, New York City, and British Columbia.

Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of Irena Sendler, and how did you research her life?

A: I'm particularly interested in writing about people who, confronted with adversity, do something unexpected. And I'm particularly interested in stories about women who break the mold, so Irena Sendler was a natural fit when I first heard about her and the women in her network.  

I researched her life using the autobiographical materials she left behind in archives in Poland, as well as by talking to a number of the children she helped to save, their families, and the children of the other women in her network.

Q: You write, “In her native Poland, Irena Sendler is a heroine today, although this is a relatively recent postcommunist development.” How well known was she in the decades following World War II, and what were the factors leading to her eventually becoming viewed as a heroine?

A: Well, she was well known to the Soviet intelligence services, which was not a great thing for Irena Sendler or her family. She was in a very difficult and often dangerous situation after the war ended because much of her work after 1943 was funded by the American and British Jewish communities with the help of the Polish Home Army.  

As a result, when the Soviets took control of Poland after 1945, she and those who had worked with her were largely branded Western dissidents. For this reason, Irena Sendler did not talk about her wartime experiences and neither did any of the others involved. It was simply too dangerous.  

That meant that these stories didn't start coming out in any significant way until the end of the Cold War, by which time many of those involved had already passed away.  

Irena Sendler and her network were, however, known in Israel and among the Jewish community. She was awarded status as Righteous Among the Nations in Israel long before the Cold War ended, in recognition of her moral courage. But the Soviets denied her the passport to go to Jerusalem to accept that award.

Q: In the book, you describe the incredible risks she took to save Jewish children during the Holocaust. What motivated her to take the actions she did?

A: I think she was simply a person with an astonishing resolute moral compass. She and her friends were largely social workers and had been committed to social justice for years in their work.
Faced with the realities of the Warsaw ghetto, they acted because they believed it was right.

They risked their lives and the lives of their own families in the process, and Irena Sendler always insisted that she was not a hero. She insisted that she did what anyone of conscience would do. But, of course, what these women did was, in fact, exceptional.

Q: What is her legacy today?

A: Since the end of the Cold War, Irena Sendler has become increasingly well known and honored. There are schools across Poland and Germany named after her, and she was decorated--despite her resistance to that label--as a hero.  

But her real legacy is the story of how a group of "average" people, confronted with something they knew to be wrong, quietly worked for justice.  

If you visit her grave today in Warsaw, people who hear her story light candles there, and I think the best image of her legacy for me is that fact there is always something flickering. It's the kind of quiet tribute that I think Irena Sendler would have most appreciated.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm finishing a biography of another resolute woman, Eliza Hamilton. There has never been a full-length biography of her, and most people don't realize that, after Alexander Hamilton's death in the duel with Aaron Burr, Eliza Hamilton lived decades longer and went on to co-found the first orphanage in New York City. That orphanage still exists today.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Arjun Singh


Arjun Singh is the author of Desert Teacher, which describes his life and his experiences working as a teacher in rural India. 

Q: Why did you decide to write this book about your experiences, and how did you choose the topics you wrote about?

A: There are three basic reasons. First, in 2009 I got the opportunity to visit New York. I stayed there for three weeks. It was a turning point in my life. I experienced that life was so different there. It was a different planet for me with so many differences in every aspect of life, like living style, food, civic sense etc.

During my stay in the U.S.A., whenever I was at an airport, a railway station or a restaurant, I found most people reading books. At that time I thought that books are the best medium to reach people, and if my book is published on an international stage, then I would be able to share my experiences with people abroad. But at the time I had no idea how challenging book promotion is.

Since my school days, I was against dogmatic beliefs and rude traditions like child marriages, the widow system, the death feast, the untouchables, etc. But it was tough to break opinions that had been held for generations.

During my college days I supported my widowed aunt to find a job, and later when I wrote the story "My Widowed Aunt," based on life of my aunt, that got published in a magazine in Hong Kong.

I was very confident that people would definitely read my stories and readers’ comments would be a moral support for me to fight against the rude system in society.

Most of the stories in my book are related to traditions, and in almost every story it is described how a perfect balance can be made between traditions and modernization. In my opinion, an educated person can do this, and life is more comfortable and happier.

Second, Jaisalmer, my town, is popular among tourists all over the world. Nicknamed “Golden City,” it is famous for its prestigious history and unique beauty.

Thousands of tourists come to Jaisalmer every year and they are amused to see the architecture of historical monuments like forts, palaces, temples, havelis, etc., but at the same time they are more interested in culture and life.

But there is no written information available. To respond to their curiosity, I thought that my book would be a good medium to answer some questions related to the life of my town.

Third, one who dares to teach must never cease to learn….so as a teacher I learn everyday and want my students to know that education opens windows to the world. To set an example among my students, I decided to publish my stories on an international stage. I wanted to prove to my students that education matters and my book is the best result of it.

I chose "Desert Teacher"as the title of the book because it’s a collection of stories about life in the Thar Desert of Western India by a teacher.

Q: As you’ve explained, you’re a teacher, and some of the chapters deal with your experiences in the classroom. What do you see as your role in the community?

A: The role of a teacher in the community is most important. I have been teaching in a rural area for 18 years and I personally feel that a teacher plays a prominent role in a community where literacy rate is very low.

In the present, everyone fights for rights and very few fulfill their duties. So as a teacher my job is to educate kids so they could understand their duties for their community and country. Although I got chances to be posted in the city, I think my duty is to promote education in a rural area and it is much needed.

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

A: I want my readers to know that my stories clarify that India is evolving, especially rural India. There is a lovely thread of opening to new ideas, generations by generations, that my family represents in my stories. I hope my readers will enjoy these short stories, written in simple English, about every aspect of life in the desert.

Most of the characters are from my family and even they have no idea that what they think is very normal in their life can be so unusual and interesting for many people.

Readers will not only come to know about the struggles of life in the desert but also understand how the people of the most typical and dry area deal with and intelligently solve their problems.  It’s a journey from darkness to light.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 26

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
March 26, 1850: Edward Bellamy born.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Q&A with Yoojin Grace Wuertz


Yoojin Grace Wuertz, photo by Nina Subin
Yoojin Grace Wuertz is the author of the new novel Everything Belongs To Us. She was born in Seoul, South Korea, moved to the United States when she was 6, and lives in northern New Jersey.

Q: You've said that your inspiration to write this book came, at least in part, from your father's comments about his time at Seoul National University, and that the book became "the bridge between my parents and me." What do your parents think of the novel, and what do you feel you learned about their lives before they arrived in the United States?

A: My parents are thrilled with the book and the reception so far, which means the world to me. I overheard a family friend joke to my mom after my book launch event, “Now you’ll have to write a book about your daughter to tell your side of the story!” and my mom replied, “No, I’m happy with what she wrote. She already wrote my story.”

I should add that the book is fiction and the events pertaining to the characters are made up, but the historical and cultural details of this generation are deeply researched, largely with their help. Perhaps that’s what she meant when she said I told her story.

What I learned about my parents is that they’ve seen more in their lifetimes, and adapted to more changes culturally, economically, socially, politically, than I will likely ever be required to in mine.

Sometimes the transitions were less than smooth, which used to create a lot of conflict between us. Writing this book helped me see what I was missing about their cultural and historical context.

Q: How did you come up with your characters Jisun and Namin?

A: My mom’s story inspired Namin’s character. Like Namin, my mother grew up with financial challenges because her father died of illness when she was just an infant. This was 1954, only a year after the end of the Korean War. Because she was academically talented, my mother took refuge in books and education.

She used to tell me how she felt ashamed of being poor, but when I think of the huge obstacles she’s overcome in her life, I am incredibly proud of her and proud to be her daughter.

Jisun was inspired by a character from an immensely popular Korean television drama series (what we would now call K-drama) from the 1990s called The Sandglass (or sometimes translated The Hourglass). I was 15 years old when this drama aired, and Koreans were obsessed with it.

This was long before Netflix and Youtube, and so Korean-Americans would have to wait until the episode aired in Korea, then it would be taped and mailed to the States, where Korean video shops would make copies and lend them out. There used to be a lot of these immigrant video shops, which have now gone the way of Blockbuster.

At the time I was too busy with school and too snobby about Korean dramas (which I thought were melodramatic) to actually watch the show, but I knew about it since everyone was talking about it. I knew one of the main characters was an heiress who wanted to be a political activist.

When I started thinking about writing this novel, it was 10 or 12 years after the series had aired, and I remembered this character because my aunt loved the actress. I wanted to create my own version of someone who had been groomed for a life of extreme privilege and decided to forge an opposite path.

So I realized I should go back and watch the show. I watched all 24 hours of it in a couple of weeks. It was tremendous. Melodramatic? For sure.

But Korean history is melodramatic. A tiny peninsula divided by one of the most militarized borders in the world, with superpower allies on either side? There’s really no getting around the melodrama.

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

A: About halfway through the novel, I realized how it would end. The writing went so much faster after that.  

Q: You've noted that you did a lot of research on South Korea in the 1970s. What surprised you most, and what do you think are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions in the U.S. about recent South Korean history?

A: There were two paradigm-changing realizations. One was that until the mid-1970s, North Korea was actually more prosperous than South Korea. 1974 was the first year that South Korea pulled a higher GDP than the North, and only just barely.

Can you imagine that? In our current reality, it seems like a foregone conclusion that North Korea was always going to suffer under communism, and that South Korea would prosper under capitalism.

But both Koreas were under dictatorships—South Korea didn’t have a true democracy until the late 1980s—and they were in active competition, economically as well as politically, through the postwar/Cold War decades. It was a competition that South Korea was actually losing for many years.

The second realization is related: the so-called “Miracle on the Han,” which describes the economic transformation of South Korea in the 1970s through 1990s is a bit of a misnomer because “miracle” connotes a magical, inexplicable happening.

In reality, the “miracle” was the result of an aggressively engineered push for development by President Park Chung Hee’s administration at the cost of democracy and human rights.

One fact that astounded me is that President Park agreed to send 320,000 troops to the Vietnam War in exchange for billions of dollars of U.S. aid. This was the second largest foreign troop count after the United States. The money earned by these soldiers, as well as the labor of factory workers, often in inhumane conditions, laid the foundation for South Korea’s modern prosperity.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a novel set in contemporary NJ/NY about an interracial couple—a Korean-American woman and a Caucasian man—who come from very different cultures and have clashing class aspirations. Again, it’s about how intimate relationships fare when issues of class and politics come into play.

I’m hoping it will be funny. At least, I find it funny because I get to write about contemporary Korean-American family dynamics. It’s a totally different lane from the historical voice, and I’m enjoying being a little more casual.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Nothing else I can think of! Thank you so much for hosting me on your blog! 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Rebecca Schuman



Q: Why did Kafka become such a longtime passion for you, and how did it lead you to your fascination with all things German (given that, as you state in your new book, he wasn't German)? 

A: Wow, great question. My relationship with Kafka has changed so much, and my relationship to the German language--and, by extension, culture--is directly traceable back to him.

My original attraction to Kafka was what, I think, attracts a lot of brainy-but-misunderstood teens: He was SO good at depicting this primal, visceral, almost desperate alienation from everyone around him. He was sort of the first-ever goth kid who nobody understands, you know?

There's this really short story (one of many he wrote) called "Bachelor's Unhappiness," about coming home to an empty house and having only a forehead to smack with your hand, and that just pierced directly into my soul when I was a teenager, largely ignored by boys (except for one REALLY important one, as the book reveals).

When you feel like nobody understands you, the best thing in the world is to find someone else to be misunderstood with. For me, that person was Franz Kafka.

But as I began to study him seriously, I realized that that reading of him was only one of many, and that he actually had profoundly sophisticated, prescient and, honestly, brilliant things to say about the nature of language and communication.

When I stopped trying to figure out what his stories meant, and concentrated instead on how they did--or didn't!--my relationship with him became much more rewarding (and much less one-sided)! In order to gain the German fluency I needed to read him in the original, though, I had to major in German in college.

And though I had little patience back then for any non-Kafka-related German thing, as I got older, that language really came in handy when I got interested in Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt and other writers who, what do you know, wrote in German.

By the time I started my doctorate in German, I began to recognize the luminous genius of Goethe, Schiller, Lessing, Kleist, Robert Walser, Ingeborg Bachmann, and the philosophers, too: Nietzsche, Hegel, Kant, Wittgenstein--Kafka brought me to all of those people, and for that I will always be grateful.

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

A: The book's primary title, Schadenfreude, A Love Story, signifies the two polar (but ultimately intertwined) directions of the forces governing my relationship with both Germans and myself.

The Germans enjoyed watching me fail at assimilating into their culture, that's for sure--but there's also this perverse enjoyment I get from watching myself fail that has been hard for me to admit for most of my life. But now that I've published it in a book for God and everyone else to see, I guess that cat's out of that particular bag!

The extremely EXTREMELY long subtitle (or "reading line," as we call it in the biz) is a result of a two-week collaboration between me and my editor at Flatiron Books, Colin Dickerman.

 We wanted every single word of that subtitle to be perfectly indicative of what was to come in the book--and we also wanted it to be a direct play on one of the jokes I make in a chapter about academia, where I say that every professional academic article has the same title template, which is "MILDLY CLEVER THING: Three-Part List, 'Incomprehensible' Scare Quotes, And At Least One Made-Up Word."

Since I'm not an academic anymore, I didn't have to make up any words, but I wanted the MILDLY CLEVER THING, colon, Endless List structure to parallel the structure of the life story that lead up to my own struggle with German-adjacent academia.

Q: How did you decide on the book's organization, and on the different German words you use as chapter titles?

A: I have always been obsessed with interior symmetry (I think it comes from teaching a lot of Greek tragedy to freshmen when I was a professor), and one thing I always noticed about great literature--which I do NOT create myself, but simply try to acknowledge in my work--is that not a single word is wasted, and everything has a purpose.

I wanted the titles of my chapters to work like that, or at least to try; so, because the whole book is titled with an untranslatable German word (that I spend about 288 pages working to illustrate), each of the smaller chapters should also be untranslatable words that I work to illustrate, that also themselves work to illustrate the larger untranslatable trajectory of the book.

Even though the book is a memoir and I technically didn't make it up, I still plotted it (and omitted A LOT of details from my life--future books, I guess), and I plotted it really intricately, like a novel, so that it would have both interior and exterior symmetry.

(It is far from an afterthought that the book begins with me getting dumped, ends with me getting married, and is called "a love story," for example.)

Q: In an interview with Slate, you said, "One of the most endearing things about Germans is that they neither understand nor enjoy exaggeration as humor. Given that hyperbole is my primary form of communication, I imagine many Germans will disagree with their culture’s portrayal." Do you have more of a sense now of how German readers have reacted to the book?

A: So far they've all thought it was really funny. I think I just know a lot of really cool Germans. Several of the Germans who appear in the book have already read it and one said she "peed her pants," but she had literally just given birth when she said that, so I am pretty sure she still had a catheter in and it didn't have much to do with my book. She didn't want to sue me, though! 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My column on The Awl, "Deutschland über US," which is a digressive weekly dive into what's happening in Germany, a.k.a. the last bastion of liberal democracy in the world. Some other long-term projects that are top-secret for now, but that I hope to be able to talk about in public soon.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 25

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
March 25, 1881: Mary Webb born.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Q&A with Margaux Bergen


Margaux Bergen, photo by David Hume Kennerly
Margaux Bergen is the author of Navigating Life: Things I Wish My Mother Had Told Me. She has worked at a variety of organizations focusing on international development and women's leadership, and is now with ORBMedia. She is based in Washington, D.C.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book for your daughter, and did it evolve slowly?

A: I made the decision overnight, when I stared up at the ceiling when she was 9 or 10—[various] miserable events were all happening at once, how do I teach her to survive?

I came up with the title at once, but it took 9 ½ years to write. I wrote it in real time. The complexity of the questions [changed].

Q: Do you think this book is geared toward young adults, or can middle-aged and older people also benefit from it?

A: What I’ve found in the U.S. and the U.K. is that it seems to be read by all generations—"Things I Wish My Mother Had Told Me" could be the lament of an 80-year-old whose mother is long dead.

I found people reading it in diverse ways [such as] reading it on holiday with their children. One friend doesn’t like talking about things directly with her son so she underlines [parts of the book. Some young women] are reading it to each other. I was surprised by the breadth of it.

Q: Have your children read the book, and what do they think of it?

A: Charlotte [for whom it was written] has read it and lost it and asked for it again! I believe my second daughter read it, though she has her own book. My son…sometimes one questions one’s children’s interest in the things we do for them!

Q: So you’ve written books for all your kids?

A: What they get is three of the same chapters so there’s a unifying aspect, and seven chapters written to them specifically…

Q: Will those also be published as books?

A: I don’t know.

Q: The book covers a wide range of issues, and you noticed that the types of issues changed over the years. How did you decide what to include?

A: They really depended on my view of her emerging maturity. There’s a parallel conversation and a parallel journey. She was 9 ½, so it was about right from wrong, if you lie you will get in trouble. By 18, it was death, divorce and addiction. It was a natural evolution of a parental voice to a child.

The complexity of my life had to be presented in a careful manner because I had a fair amount of drama in my life and I wanted it to be written in a way she could understand as she moved through her own ages and stages of development.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The guide to navigating life. It’s based on 10 virtues that appear in the book. Your approach to things can change—I’m interested in vices. There are 10 vices and 10 virtues. Virtue is meaningless without the counterpoint of our vices.

I’m also about to inherit five more children—there will be eight millenials! I’m getting married in July and he’s a widower with five kids—eight millenials ranging from 25 to 11. He lives in the U.K., so I commute between D.C. and London, and I have a full-time job!

Q: Anything else we should know about your book?

A: I like to think it’s for all ages—chronological age and people’s age. I hope it’s useful 10 or 20 years from now. That’s why I decided to cover all the big topics that affect us everyday, but that we don’t often get the opportunity to raise with our children.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Margaux Bergen will be speaking at the Temple Sinai Authors Roundtable in Washington, D.C., on March 25.

Q&A with K. Riva Levinson


K. Riva Levinson is the author of the new book Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa's First Woman President. It focuses on Liberia's Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Levinson is the president and CEO of KRL International LLC, a communications and government relations firm. She is based in Washington, D.C.

Q: How did you end up working with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and at what point did you decide to write a book about your experiences?

A: The book opens in Mogadishu, Somalia. It’s 1989, I am on a mission to sign a contract with a murderous dictator as anti-government rebels are surrounding the city, and then my plane gets commandeered, leaving me stranded. And so my career began. 

I was 28, and already weary and jaded with my work as an international lobbyist, burdened with meaningless client assignments, taking unnecessary risks, and uncertain of my ability to make a difference. 

And then I met Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. It was the summer of 1996, she was serving at the United Nations, in exile from her native Liberia, and considering returning home to help restore the peace. Liberia at the time was in a state of civil war, controlled by warlords, with half of the population refugees, or internally displaced.

I was blown away by Ellen’s presence and her chutzpah, her commitment to democracy, to human rights, to putting everything on the line for her war-torn country, regardless of the risks and the costs. And I made a determination, at that meeting, in her U.N. office that I would find a way to help her, and work with her. Six months later I did.

I went on to work with Ellen for 20 years, through three election campaigns, through the efforts to restore peace, and rebuild the country, and then, in 2014, to help the country battle the deadly Ebola virus disease. It was only after Ebola was defeated, in early 2015, that I felt I had earned the right to tell my story, Ellen’s story, and the story of the people of Liberia.

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

A: The title was not chosen until I completed the book, which is not unusual, because when you write a memoir, and give into the process, you don’t know where you will end up.

Choosing the hero is about the struggle we all go through to find purpose, find something/someone to believe in, about the intersection of lives, the choices we make and the impact we have on others.

The significance of the tile is revealed in the afterword of the book and is explained as follows:

“Working with Ellen has taught me to follow my heart and not to fear being misunderstood. I have come to see that certainty is a luxury, and destiny a journey that reveals itself with time. It is easy to stray off course, to doubt and lose faith, to see compromise as surrender, to feel judged, isolated and even abandoned. But there is always something to hold on to, the belief in yourself. I have come to appreciate that we need people to guide us, those we admire and those we believe in the heroes that we choose.”

Q: What impact has Sirleaf had on Liberia—and what impact has she had on you?

A: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf returned her country of Liberia into the community of nations, from what was a failed state; a state that had destabilized an entire sub-region and gave the world the vernacular of “child soldiers and “blood diamonds.”

She has maintained the peace for 12 years, restored democratic institutions, created the conditions for a vibrant civil society and a free and dynamic press. She has restored civil services, re-built the education system and begun to re-build the country’s infrastructure.

All that being said, many challenges remain and economic growth has stagnated from the collapse of global commodity prices, and the linger effects of Ebola. Moreover, institutional and societal corruption remain, and must be rooted out. But all in all, she is the best president that Liberia has ever had.

Ellen’s impact on me, like her country, has been profound. By permitting me to be part of her personal struggle, and then the fight to bring peace, democracy and development to Liberia, she gave meaning to my professional life, and through the work, I found a mission worthy of the legacy of my maternal grandmother, a refugee of the Holocaust, my Oma.

Q: What do you see looking ahead, for Sirleaf and for Liberia?

A: Liberia holds its presidential elections in October of 2017, and for the first time since 1944, political power will be transferred from one elected leader to another. I am confident that the Liberian electorate will vote deliberately, and hold their leaders accountable, and that the next generation will build upon the foundation of peace that Ellen has laid down Liberia may have its ups and downs, but its path forward is irreversible.

Ellen will be the first retired president of Liberia to live peacefully in the country for half a century. That is something. She will likely spend time with her many grandchildren, work on her presidential library, and continue to raise her voice for women, girls, gender equality, democracy and human rights in Africa and around the world.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: KRL International LLC, my company, continues to work in the world’s emerging markets, in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere. We will be supporting Liberia’s democratic transition in October of 2017, and beyond Liberia, continue to look for the next generation of heroes to support and advocate for.

Most recently, KRL supported the campaign of Nana Akufo-Addo, the opposition candidate in the West African nation of Ghana, who was elected last year as the president of the Republic of Ghana.

He, like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, fought tirelessly for rule of law and democracy in Ghana for nearly three decades, and like Ellen, it took him three tries to become the leader of his nation. We are currently working with the government of Nana Akufo-Addo for which we are honored. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 24

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
March 24, 1834: William Morris born.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Q&A with Ruth Franklin


Ruth Franklin is the author of Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. She also has written A Thousand Darknesses. A former editor for The New Republic, her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New Yorker and Harper's. She lives in Brooklyn.

Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of Shirley Jackson, and did your impression of her and her work change as you worked on this project?

A: I've always loved Jackson's writing, especially The Haunting of Hill House, her classic ghost story, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, her last and most mysterious novel. And of course no one forgets "The Lottery."

But it was actually Jackson's domestic work--her memoirs about her life as a mother--that made me decide to write her biography.

There's a story she tells in her first memoir, Life Among the Savages, about checking into the hospital to deliver her third child. The clerk asks her to state her occupation, and she says, "Writer." (This was only a few months after "The Lottery" was published to enormous sensation.) And the clerk replies, "I'll just put down housewife."

To me, this story perfectly encapsulates what it must have been like to be a writer like Jackson at a time when there was very little social support for that choice. It made me want to learn more about how she navigated that inherent tension.

I'd say my initial impressions of her and her work deepened rather than changed. Though she's best known for her horror stories, I became more and more aware of what a small proportion of her work they actually constitute.

For the most part, she was writing domestic realism, or a slightly more uncanny variant on it. Her main area of interest was the lives of women. 

Q: You write, “Some writers are particularly prone to mythmaking. Shirley Jackson was one of them.” Why was this?

A: Jackson was interested in witchcraft from an early age, and she played up that interest in creating her persona as an author.

She told great stories about using black magic to break the leg of publisher Alfred A. Knopf (at the time he was involved in a contract dispute with her husband, the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman) or "hexing" the Yankees so that the Brooklyn Dodgers would win the World Series. In an oft-repeated quip, one interviewer said that she wrote "not with a pen, but a broomstick."

These stories were great for publicity, but in the long run they worked against Jackson's reputation, making her seem less serious than she actually was.

Q: In the book, you discuss Jackson’s more serious and lighter work. Do you see common themes running through them?

A: Whether she's writing fiction or chronicling her children's lives, Jackson has a great eye for detail and ear for perfectly tuned dialogue.

On a deeper level, her fundamental philosophy is that people are pretty much capable of anything—from her son making up an imaginary classmate to disguise his own misdeeds in kindergarten (in the story "Charles") to the villagers who turn against one of their own in "The Lottery."

Q: What do you see as Jackson’s legacy today?

A: An awareness that what we fear—whether we call it man's inhumanity to man, forces of evil, or the devil—is always just beneath the surface of daily life. We don't have to journey to a haunted house to experience horror; it's always with us. Dark, perhaps, but true.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm thinking about a few new subjects, but haven't decided on one yet.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Ruth Franklin, please click here. Ruth Franklin will be participating in the Temple Sinai Authors Roundtable in Washington, D.C., on March 25.

Updated Q&A with Claudia Kalb

Claudia Kalb, photo by Hilmar Meyer-Bosse
Claudia Kalb is the author of Andy Warhol Was a Hoarder: Inside the Minds of History's Great Personalities. She was a senior writer for Newsweek for many years, and her work has also appeared in Smithsonian and Scientific American. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

Q: How did you select the 12 people you profile in your book?

A: It was both an exciting and challenging process. I looked for a compelling mix of individuals whose talents and livelihoods varied, and who inhabited a wide swath of history.

Among the 12, there is a president (Lincoln), a scientist (Darwin), a Russian novelist (Dostoevsky), an artist (Warhol), a composer (Gershwin), an actress (Marilyn Monroe), and a British princess (Diana).

I also sought cases in which there was ample autobiographical and biographical material about the person, as well as reliable medical studies and expert analysis of behaviors and mental health conditions.

Q: You start the book with Marilyn Monroe. Why did you choose her as the focus of the first chapter, and what do you think are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about her?

A: I wrote the chapters without a specific lineup in mind. Once they were complete, I arranged them in a way that made sense in terms of narrative flow.

Monroe was a natural opener. She continues to captivate people more than 50 years after her death. She was Hollywood’s glamour girl. She had the look, the lure—that mysterious quality that draws people in. She also appears briefly in later chapters, so it also made logical sense to place her first.

There are so many common perceptions and misperceptions about Marilyn Monroe. That things came easy, that she was empty-headed, that she was manufactured by Hollywood.

The reality is that Monroe struggled with deep feelings of emptiness, loneliness and vulnerability. Insecure about her intellect, she took art classes and collected books by Dostoevsky and Hemingway.

People who knew her well talked about her innocence. She talked about the burden of fame. Her life was a struggle—and often a very painful one—from start to finish.

Q: Why was Andy Warhol selected as the person to include in the title, and what did you learn about him that particularly surprised you?

A: Warhol and hoarding jumped out as a winning title combination. Like Monroe, Warhol is a cultural icon who will always fascinate the public. And hoarding, for its part, has become a cultural spectacle through reality TV. It’s also a condition many people can relate to.

Hoarding has also earned new status in the psychiatric world. Formerly viewed as a subtype or symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder, “hoarding disorder” earned stand-alone status as a new diagnosis in the most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published in 2013.

Warhol surprised me in so many ways. I had no idea that he was such a rabid collector of low-end and high-end items—from five-and-dime junk to artwork by Rauschenberg and Lichtenstein.

His 610 time capsules, filled with everything from junk mail to photographs, pizza dough, and even overdue invoices from the surgeon who saved his life after he was shot in 1968, are astounding. And yet he yearned for clean space.

I’m very familiar with Warhol’s famous pieces (the celebrity portraits, the Campbell’s Soup Cans), but one of my most delightful discoveries was his earlier art, which he created for fashion magazines in the 1950s. I fell in love with the artist’s colorful and whimsical illustrations of shoes!

Q: Of all the people you researched, were there some that you developed a particular fondness for? What about a particular dislike?

A: I was particularly drawn to Charles Darwin, who struggled with headaches, stomachaches, dizziness and more while writing On the Origin of Species. I sympathized with his struggles—including the difficult task of writing—and I admired his ethical character.

I was also enormously impressed with Betty Ford’s forthrightness about her battle with addiction. Here was a first lady who fought her way through rehab and then went on to help thousands of people recognize and address their own substance use disorders. She was remarkable.

I struggled most with liking Frank Lloyd Wright’s narcissistic traits—his overwhelming sense of entitlement and superiority. I have huge admiration for his aesthetic vision and architectural creations, but not the way he treated other people.

Q: Are there any figures you considered writing about but rejected? 

A: Yes, I considered quite a number of individuals who didn’t make it into the book, often because I felt that the combination of science, biographical material and expert opinion was not strong enough.

In other cases, I simply had to make a choice. Many famous people have struggled with depression, for example, but Lincoln stood out for so many reasons: his childhood, his presidency, his gift for storytelling and humor amidst the melancholy. Above all, there was so much rich material to mine about his life.

There are other individuals who didn’t make it in, but continue to fascinate me. I’m intrigued by Vincent van Gogh, for example, because there’s such conflicting information about what ailed him. Was it bipolar? Schizophrenia? Maybe syphilis?

Just a few months ago, a group of experts meeting at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam held a very lively debate about this very subject. They concluded that the artist suffered from psychosis, though they could not agree on the underlying cause of his mental illness—further evidence that mental health conditions can be so complex and difficult to diagnose.

Q: Looking at Abraham Lincoln, so much has been written about him. How did you research your Lincoln chapter, and what did you find that especially surprised you?

A: Much has been written about Lincoln’s dark state of mind, the sadness of his face, the melancholy that “dripped from him as he walked,” as his law partner, William Herndon recalled.

I read biographies, newspaper and magazine stories, and medical studies. I interviewed mental health experts who specialize in depression and I delved into historical documents, including reminiscences from Herndon and Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who worked as Mary Lincoln’s assistant and dressmaker.

I especially loved reading the work of the great muckraking journalist Ida Tarbell, who wrote extensively about Lincoln for McClure’s magazine in the late 1800s.

Ultimately, I was most surprised by the depth of Lincoln’s suffering during the depressive episodes he experienced in early adulthood. As one of his contemporaries described it, “he became plunged in despair” and even contemplated suicide.

Q: How have readers responded to the book?

A: I’ve received wonderful feedback from readers both in the U.S. and abroad.

Mental health experts tell me they’re using the book to better understand their patients and the mental health conditions they treat.

One high school counselor wrote to say that the book changed her views on clinical depression. She’s using material from the Lincoln chapter to counsel students who are depressed. Her goal: to show them how much potential each person has and to help them see the full value of their lives.

Readers have also found solace in these stories. Knowing that they are not alone in their struggles with ADHD, OCD, anxiety or any other mental health condition is reassuring. One young woman said that reading about Marilyn Monroe led her to seek therapy for the first time so that her own symptoms don’t worsen.

I’m profoundly grateful that this book has not only appealed to readers, but also enriched their lives.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m at that wonderful stage where I get to emerge from the writing cave and set the book free into the hands of readers. I’m sifting through material that I couldn’t fit into the book and shaping some of it into pieces that I hope to publish. I’m thinking about next writing assignments, next books, next adventures.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My goal in writing this book was to put a face on the complexities of the mind. I unraveled hypotheses put forth by medical experts based on the best evidence available.

In certain cases, the individuals spoke openly about their own diagnoses—Betty Ford and addiction; Princess Diana and bulimia nervosa. In others, including both Einstein and Darwin, I intentionally left room for questions. Even with wonderful advances in science, the brain is still a mystery in so many ways.

My overarching hope is that this book will help chip away at stigma by humanizing the mental health conditions that affect so many people. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Full disclosure: Claudia Kalb is my cousin! For a previous version of this Q&A, please click here. Claudia Kalb will be participating in the Temple Sinai Authors Roundtable in Washington, D.C., on March 25.

March 23

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
March 23, 1912: Eleanor Cameron born.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Q&A with Lynn Povich


Lynn Povich is the author of The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed the Workplace, also a series on Amazon Prime. She spent many years at Newsweek, where she was the magazine's first woman senior editor, and also has been editor-in-chief of Working Woman and managing editor at MSNBC.com. She is a co-editor of All Those Mornings...at the Post, a collection of the work of her father, sportswriter Shirley Povich. She lives in New York.

Q: Why did you decide to write The Good Girls Revolt?

A: I had taken the legal papers home with me when I left Newsweek in 1991; I was one of the few senior women left, and Radcliffe had requested them.

I wrote a book on my dad with my brothers in 2005. Then I thought I should send the [Newsweek] papers to Radcliffe, and I thought I should write a history of the papers [to provide more information about them]. I started interviewing people, and realized this could be a book.

This history was lost—people had heard of the New York Times lawsuit; Nan Robertson had written The Girls in the Balcony. No one knew the Newsweek women had been first.

Q: You begin the book by discussing a group of young women who faced the same issues that you had faced decades earlier with sexism in the workplace. What has changed, and what has remained the same?

A: There’s been enormous progress—women certainly are in the middle-to-senior management, but they’re rarely at the top. In the media, there have been women running news organizations in the past but there are almost none now except for Nancy Gibbs running Time magazine.

Earlier, there were women at The Oregonian, the Chicago Tribune, The Philadelphia Inquirer…Each moment is a picture in time; it ebbs and flows.

There are not enough women in leadership positions, not as many women sources and voices, not enough on television. There are still sexist depictions of women in the media. [There’s] the pay gap, the glass ceiling, and sexual harassment.

What’s interesting about the young generation is that they do really well in school. Girls do better in school. Then they go into the work world, and they’ve never before experienced discrimination in school. They meet obstacles they’ve never met before.

[The young women of today in the book] didn’t identify it with a gender issue, they thought they must not be good enough. That’s the kind of subtle discrimination that still exists--old boys’ clubs.

Q: What was the overall impact of your lawsuit?

A: The immediate impact was that it opened doors for other women to sue. Three months later there was a suit at Time, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated. Then the door opened, and there were suits at the AP, NBC, and The New York Times.

One woman [I spoke with] said that this was not only [affecting] the media, but she had worked in an advertising office, and read about the Newsweek case and [considered a suit]—there was an impact beyond the media.

It changed Newsweek. We started to hire men as researchers, and I became the first woman senior editor in August 1975. Meetings were integrated. There was an immediate impact on the magazine. [Newsweek editor] Osborn Elliott said it made it a better magazine. It changed our lives. None of us would have had those opportunities so quickly.

Q: How difficult was it for you and the other women to go into work every day during the lawsuit? How were you treated in the newsroom?

A: Some of our bosses were very supportive. But a lot of the guys didn’t like affirmative action…Osborn Elliott, had he stayed on the editorial side, would have made changes. He was the father of three girls.

It was the middle-management level where a lot of discrimination took place. The three women who tried out as writers after the lawsuit all failed their tryouts. We knew those guys didn’t want them to succeed…

Going in was a little [testy] with certain people, but most of our bosses were supportive. They worked with us every day, and knew we were talented. But it wasn’t a fun time, particularly for those women who stuck their necks out.

Q: How does the news business compare with other fields when it comes to the treatment of women employees?

A: Women are doing very well as journalists. They are covering wars, the president (not just the First Lady), business and doing investigative reporting. But again, they are not running news organizations. 

But journalism is not alone here. Women are about 50 percent of students in law school and medical school but again, they are not running law firms or major medical institutions...

I find that some of the unhappiest women I know are lawyers in firms. Many leave for corporations. The law firms haven’t changed that much.

Q: How did the Amazon Prime series adaptation of your book come about, and what do you think of it?

A: I was approached by many film and TV producers or readers for producers but my lawyer told me I wouldn't have any creative control over the project, so I rejected them. 

A year later, Lynda Obst called me. I knew Lynda when she was an editor at the New York Times Sunday magazine in the ‘70s. She went on to become a very successful film producer, including Sleepless in Seattle and most recently Interstellar.

So she was my age, knew the era and understood journalism. So I gave her the option on the condition that the series be fictionalized, which it is. Her deal was with Sony, so Sony developed a pilot and sold it to Amazon and Amazon picked it up for a 10-part series.

Q: What has been the reaction to your book and to the Amazon series?

A: It’s been overwhelming to me. I was very worried that no one would want to read about a lawsuit from 40 years ago. I’m lucky that the young women called me, and that allowed me to [incorporate recent material]…

I’ve been speaking to women’s groups, law firms, young men and women at universities. It’s resonating among a larger group. It’s a moment to talk about what hasn’t changed, and what needs to change.

What's been most satisfying is the impact of the Amazon series, Good Girls Revolt. It reached a younger audience so that now, many young women--and men--now know about the courage of the Newsweek women and what it was like for all women back then and they have been inspired by the series to become active again.

And we're beginning to see enormous energy again by women politically, which is thrilling.

Q: As someone who's been in the media and written about it, what do you think of the current headlines about the press, and what do you see looking ahead?

A: I think it's a very critical time for the media, mainstream and new media like Buzzfeed, since Trump is attacking it as fake news.

The press's job is to hold the government accountable to the people who elected it and for the most part, they are doing the job. But people's access to news has become polarized as our political system has, so people are only looking at and reading the sites they agree with.

The question is how to expose what I call "the persuadable people" to accurate reporting when so many local newspapers no longer have bureaus in their state or even investigative reporters. 

The bigger papers, The New York Times and The Washington Post, are adding reporters and non-profits like ProPublica are adding midwestern outlets, so there is some movement. But I fear the press will be under attack during the entire Trump administration.

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: No. I’m still thinking about some issues about young women and where feminism and women are today…I’ve been talking to a lot of people.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For an earlier version of this Q&A, please click here. Lynn Povich will be appearing at the Temple Sinai Authors Roundtable on March 25.