Saturday, November 17, 2018

Q&A with Shari Green

Shari Green, photo by Pedersen Arts Photography
Shari Green is the author of Missing Mike, a new novel for kids. The story was inspired by the wildfires in British Columbia in the summer of 2017. Green has also written Root Beer Candy and Other Miracles and Macy McMillan and the Rainbow Goddess. She lives in Campbell River, British Columbia.

Q: Your middle grade novels are written in verse--why did you choose that format?

A: Free verse is the format the comes most naturally to me. Still, that doesn’t mean the format is right for every story I want to tell, so with each of my verse novels, there were additional reasons I opted for verse.

With Missing Mike, it was the intense images and emotions inherent in the events – wildfires, evacuations, leaving and losing home, and desperate concern for a missing pet. Those are difficult situations, for sure, and they evoke some tough emotions which could potentially be overwhelming for kids.

The verse format, with its pared-down story-telling and ample white space on the page, seems to make the hard stuff more palatable, perhaps by giving readers room to process and reflect on the emotions.

Q: What do you think the novel says about the bonds between kids and their pets?

A: I imagine it depends on the particular kid and the particular pet, but for sure there’s the potential for an extraordinary bond.

My experience is mainly with dogs, so I’ll narrow the focus a bit here: dogs offer unconditional love, and in a kid’s turbulent world (family stress, trouble with friends, school difficulties, bullies, etc.), that love can be a lifeline, offering real comfort.

Q: How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: I love stories with a strong sense of place. In my own work, the importance of setting has varied a bit with the story, but it always matters.

In Root Beer Candy and Other Miracles, the beach/island setting is very much entwined with the plot, and of course Missing Mike’s story arises directly from the setting (the encroaching wildfire causes the evacuation that is the inciting incident).

In Macy McMillan and the Rainbow Goddess, it’s the “micro settings” that are key – Macy’s garden, Iris’s kitchen, the houses they are both leaving.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: It’s still in the early stages, so I’m not going to say much! I can tell you it’s a contemporary middle grade novel that includes friendship and hockey and mental health issues.

I also have a YA project that’s been calling to me from the back-burner where I left it ages ago, but it’ll have to sit there and wait for me a little longer. ;)

Thanks so much, Deborah!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's another Q&A with Shari Green.

Nov. 17

Nov. 17, 1983: Christopher Paolini born.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Q&A with Rochelle B. Weinstein

Rochelle B. Weinstein is the author of the new novel Somebody's Daughter. Her other books include Where We Fall and The Mourning After. She lives in South Florida.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on online sexual harassment in your new novel?

A: I think the subject matter chose me. Online oversharing in the age of digital media has become rampant, the number of online "scandals" alarming. This phenomenon does not discriminate. It happens across the globe and no one is immune. Take that startling fact and couple it with valuable life lessons about compassion and kindness and the story took root. 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your protagonist, Emma, and her family?

A: As the mother of twin sons, I've observed how in today's world parents and children judge harshly. My goal was to craft a story based on something that could happen to any of us, borne out of nothing more than ignorance, age, and misunderstanding, and turn it into something we can all learn from.

No matter the "mistake" we need to do a better job educating our kids on social media dangers, communicating in general, and accepting that none of us are perfect.

Q: The novel is set in a hotel in Miami. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: For Somebody's Daughter, setting was very important to me. Miami is a character in the story. Her sex appeal, charm, and allure. The scandal set against this backdrop made for a heightened reaction and purposely opened up judgments that I hope readers realized and addressed.

The hotel is also a metaphor for the "body" and how it changes and grows. We must accept it with all its flaws. 

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

A: Writers are always editing and polishing. I start with a very rough outline, but as my characters develop, sometimes they take me in a different direction and I let them.

In this story, I knew how it had to end in order to be impactful and not merely spectacle. I didn't need to exploit these victims. I needed to give them a voice. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My fifth novel, This Is Not How It Ends, releases in 2019. It is the story of Ben, Philip, and Charley, and a deep friendship and love that ultimately leads to betrayal and sacrifice. It is set in the Florida Keys. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I love connecting with readers and writers. Find me on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. If you're a writer struggling with a story, don't give up! It just takes ONE. One book, one agent, one yes! Dust yourself off and get back up again. It can happen! 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Adam Zamoyski

Adam Zamoyski is the author of the new biography Napoleon: A Life. His many other books include 1812: Napoleon's Fatal March on Moscow and Phantom Terror. He lives in London and Poland.

Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of Napoleon?

A: When my publishers suggested I write a life of Napoleon, my initial response was a loud groan - for two reasons.

Although writing a biography is straightforward, as its scope is restricted by the course of a single life, I find it more exhausting than other historical forms.

Perhaps because in order to describe the life and actions of a human being, one has first to understand them, and for that it is necessary to delve deep into their background and the psychological landscape in which they grew up.

One ends up having a profound relationship with the subject, while having to keep an analyst’s emotional distance.

The other reason was that there have been so many books about the man. As a historian I like to go where others have not, to explore virgin territory.

Ploughing a field which has been furrowed this way and that many times over holds little appeal. Particularly a field which has been fought over by Napoleon’s admirers and detractors – I have yet to find anyone who is truly dispassionate when his name is mentioned.

Ironically, it was that which in the end decided me to go ahead: I felt I must try to achieve what nobody else has, namely to stand aside from the polemics, the adulation and condemnation, and tell Napoleon’s story as he might have done himself, if he had not felt the need to impress or justify.

Q: What do you see as the most common perceptions and misperceptions about him?

A: The most common perception of Napoleon is that he was some kind of utterly exceptional genius. This is ridiculous and smacks of the fairy tale. He was a man, in many ways quite an ordinary one.

He did have some remarkable qualities, such as a sharp mind which could absorb information and act on it very fast, an astonishing memory and a very strong will. He certainly did not lack courage. He was fundamentally a kind and generous person, though he had difficulty in relating to others.

He was brilliantly successful in military terms, principally because he worked at it harder than any of his adversaries and because he had a remarkable talent for galvanising his troops.

He was also highly successful in the exercise of power and in rebuilding France from a post-revolutionary failed state into the most efficient political structure of its time.

Yet both his military career and his exercise of power ended in ignominious failure. His military defeats were largely self-inflicted as was his fall from being the most powerful man in Europe to being a humiliated prisoner of the British. No genius in evidence there.

Another widespread perception is that he was a warmonger. This too is absurd. What are usually referred to as the Napoleonic Wars were in fact an episode in a century-old struggle for supremacy in Europe by the dominant powers on the Continent.

This particular episode began in 1792, when Napoleon was a humble second-lieutenant, and almost every round of hostilities between then and 1815 was started by Britain, Austria, Russia, Prussia and a collection of lesser states attacking France.

He received his baptism of fire while expelling foreign troops from the French city of Toulon. One of the first things he did on assuming power was to propose peace negotiations to France’s enemies.

He did let himself be drawn too far into the conflict, but only because he believed he was acting in the interests of France, and indeed those of Europe.

He was just as keen on peaceful activities such as rebuilding infrastructure and embellishing areas under his domination, setting up a modern educational system and putting in place a legal system open to all.

By the time he reached the age of 40, he was feeling his age and showed considerable reluctance to go to war.

Most people also assume that he was driven by a lust for power. This too is a serious misconception. As a young officer, he was placed in a position in which he displayed outstanding talent, which gained him promotion.

The post-revolutionary chaos in France turned the army into a player on the political scene, and he was called upon to save the Republic against rebellion in 1795.

The Republic remained unstable and it soon became evident to all those interested in preserving and reforming it that a strong arm was needed.

He himself would say that if it had not been him it would have been another, but in the event he took on the task and seized power in 1799. Not for its own sake, but to restore order and prosperity to France.

He did make that power absolute, mainly because he felt he could achieve his ends more efficiently by cutting out what he believed to be unnecessary debate. The driving force was not lust for power but a determination to reorganise France, and much of Europe, along rational and practical principles for the common good.

Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?

A: Before starting on my research, I took a decision not to read any other biographies of Napoleon. I had of course done so in the past, and I knew quite a bit about him, as I had written a book on his invasion of Russia in 1812 and another on his subsequent downfall, both of which had required extensive research.

But for this book, whose aim was to try and understand the man and what he thought he was doing, I felt I must discard other people’s opinions – and that included many of the so-called memoirs and diaries by contemporaries written after the events.

Many of these contain specific quotes by Napoleon, which most historians treat as first-hand evidence and reproduce verbatim.

I resolved to ignore such dubious sources and relied principally on his own writings and those of contemporaries written down at the time – a surprising number did record their conversations with him on the very day.

Nor did I use those of his sayings written down by his four “evangelists” who accompanied him to captivity on the island of Saint Helena and later published their accounts. He was using them to rewrite history and represent him as he wished to be remembered.

The fact is, there is more than enough real cast-iron evidence and no need to clutter one’s mind or one’s book with questionable anecdotes, however apt or picturesque they might seem.

One has to begin by placing him in context. This requires a knowledge of the ideological and cultural outlook of his generation, which was formed by the literature of the day, both political and sentimental.

We know which books he had read and what he thought of them, as he took notes. We know which of them he re-read, some of them several times. We know which plays he went to again and again.

His observations on them are enlightening, and his letters are peppered with references to characters and situations taken from them, often revealing how he saw himself.

His own writings, be they his 33,000 odd surviving letters or his youthful essays and attempts at literature, reveal a huge amount about the man. So do the records left by his closest collaborators: he could be remarkably open and voluble in conversations he had with them.

The image which emerges from all this evidence is that of a man who is convinced of the superiority of his own understanding and judgment, yet somehow uncertain of his own standing, a man both commanding and socially insecure. I was surprised by how vulnerable he seems to have been as a human being.

Q: What do you see as Napoleon's legacy today?

A: Napoleon’s greatest legacy is undoubtedly the state structures he put in place and the institutions he founded or reformed. They have remained in force in France and in many other parts of Europe, and have become the blueprint for many modern states.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have decided to award myself a sabbatical and do not intend to commit to another major book for a while. I feel I need to step back and consider what to do next.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Adam Zamoyski.

Q&A with Ellen Wittlinger

Ellen Wittlinger is the author of Someone Else's Shoes, a new novel for kids. Her many other books include Saturdays with Hitchcock and Hard Love. She has taught at Emerson College and Simmons College, and she lives in Western Massachusetts.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Someone Else's Shoes, and for your character Izzy?

A: I was actually at a writing retreat called Kindling Words a number of years ago. This is a retreat for published children’s book writers and there’s always a wonderful author tapped to give several morning workshops.

That year it was Gary D. Schmidt, and he was great. He gave us a prompt which I don’t exactly remember, but it was something like, “Write a scene in which two characters who have little in common speak to each other.”

I’m not usually a big fan of writing prompts, but I liked this idea and it was vague enough that I felt I could use it. I went back to my room that night and basically wrote the first part of the first chapter of Someone Else’s Shoes.

I knew that Izzy and Oliver were cousins and that they were very different kinds of kids, but I didn’t yet know what was going on with them, or why Oliver was staying at Izzy’s house now.

This is the way I often begin a book. I see or hear something about a character that intrigues me and I follow it for a while and see where it goes.

I liked the somewhat confrontational relationship Izzy has with her cousin and that was the starting point. I knew Izzy had a chip on her shoulder, but it took me a while to figure out that it was because she was so angry and hurt at her father moving away and starting another family.

Once I knew that, and why Oliver was staying with her, the pieces started to fall together.

Q: The novel includes a road trip--why did you decide to include that, and how did you pick the locations?

A: I always love road trip novels. Something about being away from your normal life and being in the confines of a small car makes things happen. People see each other differently. They begin to talk to each other in a more truthful manner. They have to stay and listen, they can’t walk away.

And at the same time, all sorts of things can happen to them out on the road—their lives are suddenly open to the vicissitudes of the weather and the road and the car itself. 

Picking the locations was great fun. I knew they were starting from around Northampton, Massachusetts (near where I live) so I got out an atlas and decided where Uncle Steve lived, a long walk, but almost doable.

Then I plotted where Wilton, New York, was--a town I made up, where Oliver is supposedly from. I knew that Izzy’s mom would think Uncle Henderson would go there, but only Oliver would know what spot he actually would head to.

I looked further west and came up with a real place on the map, Lake Chautauqua, New York, and decided that would be the perfect spot for Uncle Hen to hide out. Thanks to Google Maps I could find an exact road where he might have hidden his old trailer. That kind of research is the best kind of procrastination!

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

A: I didn’t actually choose this title, I’m embarrassed to say, because it is the PERFECT title.

I was calling the book Be Always Tender, but my fabulous editor, Yolanda Scott, came up with Someone Else’s Shoes, which is the exactly right title, taking into account all of Izzy’s shoe travails, as well as the saying about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, which, of course, all three of the main characters have to do to understand each other.

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

A: I have so many favorite authors this question is always a little confounding. (And the answer is ever-changing.) So rather than give you my usual list of children’s writers, I’m going to go with two authors for adults whom I’ve recently discovered (both of whom would be wonderful reading for teens too.)

Terrible to admit, I had never read The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, believing, I suppose, that it would be just too emotionally difficult. And it was emotionally difficult, but it was also an absolutely gorgeous, poetic, rich book which I think every high school student should read and discuss.

And my second choice is Miriam Toews, a Canadian author, who writes hilariously funny books about very dark, tragic events. I don’t know how she does this, but she’s a master at it.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am now working on writing plays for adults. I have several in different stages of development, and I hope to have a production within the year of at least one of them.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: That’s about it. Thanks again, Deborah!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Ellen Wittlinger.

Q&A with Charles E. Smith

Charles E. Smith is the author of the new memoir Journal of a Fast Track Life and Lessons Learned Along the Way. His career has included serving as the chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, the Tennessee Commissioner of Education, and the chancellor of two University of Tennessee campuses. He also was the editor of daily and weekly newspapers in Tennessee. He lives in Nashville.

Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir?

A: As I neared retirement, I recalled that one of my undergraduate English professors many years ago had told our class that a book was within every person; it was just a question of what to say and how to write it. 

Then a few years later another English professor in my  graduate program remarked in a class that anyone considering an autobiography needed to keep in mind that unless his or her name was George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Helen Keller, or someone of that stature, the autobiography was not likely to be successful.

With those thoughts in mind, I briefly turned to the idea of presenting my life in a work of fiction. However, on reflection I concluded that my life had taken so many unusual twists and turns that the truth was more fascinating than any fictional version I could write.

So, ultimately, I opted to take a somewhat unorthodox approach by compiling the most significant lessons I had learned over a half-century career in public life, breaking them into separate chapters, and then filling in the lessons learned details with specific life experiences, anecdotes, and observations.  

The end result is that a reader may start at any point of the book -- front, back or middle -- and navigate at will.

Q: What are the most important lessons you feel you learned through the course of your career?

A: While each chapter stands alone, a recurring theme that pervades most of the lessons may be summarized as follows: Success as a leader is largely dependent on one's capacity to build trust, earn respect, and communicate effectively. 

Particularly in the public arena where I spent almost all of my public life it is imperative that a leader learn how to reach "across the aisle" and establish relationships with those whose political or philosophical views may differ. 

Given today's divisive nature of our political environment and the general breakdown of civility in our society, the lessons learned in my life make my book particularly relevant at this moment in time.

Another important lesson referenced in a number of chapters is the importance of establishing a strong base of experience early in one's career. 

In my life, I was fortunate to have had three life-changing experiences between college graduation and my 30th birthday. 

Specifically, my early job selections were based not on salary but rather on opportunity to achieve a demanding experience and to learn from strong mentors who could push me to the limit and guide me in later years. My first three bosses did all of that, and more. 

In my book, I write with specificity about how the three bosses provided me with a strong platform that launched my career and made possible my later successes. My only wish is that I had access to the lessons learned at the beginning of my career; I had to learn it on my own.

Q: Did you keep a journal over the years, or did you need to do some research to recreate some of the experiences you wrote about?

A: I did both. Fortunately, I'm a pack rat of sorts. I saved almost all of my public speeches and reports, internal memos, and recorded observations of significant moments of my life. These records were supplemented by research, including the search of newspaper archives and visits to libraries.

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

A: I believe that my book may be read with value at many levels. For young people just beginning a career, I hope that my book may inspire them to broaden their vision, pursue their dreams, and never give up. 

At the same time, my hope is that the lessons I learned will provide them with a blueprint for success in their own lives. I believe my life is a living example that it's possible for anyone to achieve the American dream. My book describes how I was able to do so.

For those readers who may be in mid-career, my book offers important insight into the decision making processes and strategies I used to confront the challenges I faced daily in the public arena. 

And for those who are at or near retirement, perhaps my book may inspire them to reflect on their lives and write a book. The words of my undergraduate English professor should be remembered.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Inspired by the experience of writing my first book, my wife and I are currently exploring the feasibility of a second one. 

Because of my decision to structure the current book as a series of lessons learned, I have literally hundreds of experiences, anecdotes, and observations that just didn't fit within the context of the 32 lessons learned presented in my current book. 

So, we plan to decide by the end of this calendar year whether to tell the rest of the story of my life or to zero in on one or more of the lessons learned in the current book and dive deep into a more narrowly defined focus. We have also not ruled out turning to a work of fiction.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I believe your questions have covered the field. A final word is that my experience as a first-time author has provided me with one of the great moments in my life.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 16

Nov. 16, 1930: Chinua Achebe born.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Q&A with Jennifer Lourie

Jennifer Lourie is the author of the memoir Alone in the Backseat. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: You note that you wrote the first draft of this memoir in 23 days. What compelled you to write it, and how much did you change it in subsequent drafts?

A: "Compelled" is a great verb to describe how my book came into fruition. As I recount in the book, "Nathan" and I went on 11 dates before he decided our age difference was a deal breaker.

Despite him not wanting to be with me, he was someone I not only was in love with but who I also really liked, admired, and respected, especially for the way that he ended things with me in a straightforward manner that left no room for hope or confusion.

Fast forward 15 months and after keeping in touch but not seeing each other, we had an unexpected night together. I was so happy to see him and be near him that, five days later, still on such a high, I sat down to write a love letter, not to send, just to get out the feelings that were in my heart and head.

After reading the letter over, I said to myself, "WOW. This is REALLY GOOD. This is the beginning of a book." I had always known I had a story to tell, I just never knew where to begin.

That night, I started to write. My book flowed out of me and I worked on it non stop for the next three weeks, until I had enough words to form a reasonably sized paperback.

This story can be found in my blog in two different posts, here and here.

The book went through so many rounds of edits. Every time I thought I had finished editing for the last time, I'd find more changes to make. However, I did not change the structure of the book at all. The way I tell the story is the exact way that the story came out.

What I did make changes to were adding descriptions here and there to paint a clearer picture for the reader, tightening up the language, and hopefully improving some of the transitions so that the non-chronological story would flow for the reader in a way that made sense.

Q: What do you feel you've learned from having 71 roommates over the past eight years, and are you still housing renters in your apartment?

A: I learned that I am excellent at reading people and seeing right through them, to their essence. I also learned that I can do what needs to be done with a positive attitude and am adaptable.

I was not unhappy with strangers in my home and I am not unhappy now that I am by myself. You just do what you need to do and when you do it with a positive attitude, you make good stories to tell. 

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

A: I love this question. I actually came up with the title of the book probably 10 years ago. My husband had recently left me and I was in the backseat of my friends' (a married couple) car. They had picked me up to go out to dinner.

Sitting there alone in their backseat, I realized how I had always been alone in the backseat as a child and that even as an adult, I'd often go home to visit my parents unaccompanied by my husband and still find myself alone in the backseat.

That night I was with my friends, alone in their backseat and I said to myself (and possibly out loud too), "If I ever write a book, it is going to be called Alone in the Backseat." 

The title signifies to me the failures of my adulthood based on the expectations I had as a child when I'd be alone in my parents' backseat pretending I was next to someone, a husband actually.

As I recount in the book, even as a little girl, I had wanted to replicate my idyllic childhood with a husband and family of my own. None of that worked out so... now I am still alone in the backseat. 

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

A: There are various messages I want readers to take away from the book. First and foremost, that you should never give up because you never know what can happen.

Secondly, I want readers to take the time to look at the blessings in their lives and to be appreciative of both the big and little things. I want them to be kind in the dating world.

I want spouses to be nice to each other and appreciate each other because no one should take for granted having someone at their side, even when they are annoying. I want people to not be brats to their spouses like I was.

I want them to know that even if you look like everything should be going your way, you can still feel the most painful pangs of loneliness and that lonely people are not alone. Anyone can be lonely.

I want people to learn about different cultures and foods and have the chance to live vicariously through my experiences. I want people to be self-reflective and find strength to be solutions-oriented when life throws them for a loop. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Now I am working on trying to grow my audience so that my book can get in more people's hands. That includes my blog, photography to grow my Instagram to reach more people, and travel. I also have a full-time job. What I really want is for more people to read my story because it is GOOD.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 15

Nov. 15, 1887: Marianne Moore born.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Q&A with Charis Cotter

Charis Cotter is the author of The Ghost Road, a new novel for kids. Her other books include The Swallow and The Painting. She lives in Newfoundland.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Ghost Road?

A: I live in a beautiful spot in Newfoundland, with ocean on one side and a series of hills and meadows on the other. At a certain spot on the road that leads up over the hill and into the meadows, you can see the very faint outline of where there used to be a road, 60 years ago.  When I first saw it, I started calling it the Ghost Road, and I have wanted to write a story about it ever since.

I’ve also visited some forgotten graveyards in Newfoundland, and they are so lovely and timeless that they gave me story ideas too. And there was a tsunami in Newfoundland in 1929, where whole houses were swept away, along with the people in them, and that also took root in my imagination.

Early in my thinking about the story, I imagined a ghost coming into the girl’s bedroom carrying a candle, and the story just went on from there. My mother’s family is from Ireland, and I have a strong sense of my female Irish ancestors and the burdens of shame and guilt that get passed down in a family. All of this influenced my story.

Q: The novel focuses on many generations of twins. Why did you include that as one of the book's themes?

A: I’ve always been fascinated by twins. For centuries, twins have been held in awe by the rest of us: they seem to have a magical quality and connection to each other.

I like the idea that a twin is never alone, that they have one person who completely understands them. Like they’re two parts of one whole. The essential loneliness of human beings seems somehow mitigated by being a twin, and that idea appeals to me.

All of my books so far have had two protagonists, not twins necessarily, but friends who have a lot in common. I really like the idea of an ally: someone who you can depend on and who is going through the adventure of life by your side. All the poor twins in The Ghost Road have a dreadful time, but at least they have each other.

There’s also something about the repetition of twins in every generation that underlines the power of the curse and the feeling that this family has to keep going through the same struggles until they find a way to break the pattern.

Q: The Ghost Road takes place in Newfoundland. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: Setting is very important. The place a story happens really holds the power of the story for me. I usually start with the setting and the story grows from there.

I find Newfoundland very inspiring, and in both The Painting and The Ghost Road, the presence of the ocean and the lonely landscape function almost like another character in the story.

The Swallow was set in Toronto in two old houses that backed on to a cemetery in one of the oldest parts of the city. This cemetery cast a pall over the houses and their inhabitants, forming a backdrop for the ghostly activities that plague the two main characters.

My next book is set in a haunted Georgian house in a small town that could be anywhere in North America. With that book, it’s the house itself that generates the entire story.

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

A: My all-time favourites are Jane Austen, William Shakespeare, and J.R.R. Tolkien. The classics. I can read them over and over again. I also love Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende and Carlos Ruiz Zafon (the Spanish contingent!)

I love murder mysteries, and my favourites in that genre are Laurie R. King, Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling in disguise!) and Elizabeth George. For children’s writers it’s Christopher Paul Curtis, L.M. Montgomery and E.B. White.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a book about a girl named Alice who has a hard time distinguishing between what’s her imagination and what’s real. Her parents are in the process of splitting up, and she and her mother go to live in a haunted house in the country where Alice has some very disturbing experiences.

As with my other books, I’m exploring how characters can find their inner strength while negotiating a world where nothing is ever quite what it seems. I’m having fun with the ghosts!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I used to be an actor, and I think this helps me when I’m writing dialogue. I believe that many of the creative arts feed into each other. One of the ways I still get to perform in front of an audience is by visiting schools with my books and telling Newfoundland ghost stories. I really enjoy working with kids and it helps me keep in touch with my readers.

Thank you for inviting me to your blog, Deborah. It’s been a pleasure!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 14

Nov. 14, 1907: Astrid Lindgren born.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Q&A with Angela Himsel

Angela Himsel is the author of the new memoir A River Could Be a Tree. She grew up in a fundamentalist Christian family and now is Jewish. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and The Jewish Week. She lives in New York City.

Q: Why did you decide to write your memoir, and how long did it take you to write it?

A: I originally wrote it as a novel. I wanted to write a fictional account—I didn’t want to go into the truth. I was writing essays for Jewish publications, and a friend said, You should write a memoir.

I balked. I didn’t mind writing stand-alone essays, but not the whole thing. I thought I could string the essays together, but there were too many gaps. I started working on it as a memoir 14 years ago. I was working on other things too.

Q: Had you kept a journal or diary over the years, or did you need to do much research to fill in some of the material you write about?

A: Both. I had a lot of primary source material—I had letters and I had journals. They were very embarrassing—you look at the handwriting. It was so childish.

I had my father’s letters, my journals, letters to and from my friend Alise. I interviewed her, my parents, my aunt Viola. I wanted it to be accurate and in the spirit in which they would tell their stories.

It wasn’t just my story—I felt it was part of a larger story. I wanted it to be their story, through my words.

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

A: There was quite a debate about the title. Some of the titles I came up with were trite and silly. I wanted it to indicate change, so the title comes from something my father said.

When I was in my teen years, I started to balk at the church’s sexist views. My father said God created a role for everything. Men have a role, women have a role. What would happen if a river thought it was a tree? Things have to live by their God-given role.

I took it from there. It was a little poetic, a little unexpected, it suggested possibility—a river [could become] a tree. A Christian could become a Jew. It’s something you aspire to. You’re not as limited by what you think you are.

Q: What do your family members think of the book?

A: My sisters have read it. My brothers have not. They’re not as computer-savvy. My sisters liked it. I wanted to show it to them before it went to print. I think they were surprised by some of the material. I had done so much research, asking my mother and father about their childhood experiences. [My sisters] find it fair and accurate.

Q: Were you concerned they might not?

A: I was a little concerned. All families have their secrets, temper tantrums, fights. I felt that to be honest, you have to include that. But I hoped my siblings would see that I didn’t dwell on that. Leaving out a part is to not be honest about the whole. I tried to temper the negative with the positive.

Q: What do you see as religion’s role in your life today?

A: Religion is important to me. I think my notion of religion and God changed over the years, [but] in some sense it has not. I have always felt God’s presence. There’s a higher power. It doesn’t matter what you call it.

I like organized religion, but only to an extent. When you need organized religion—when my parents passed away, when there’s a life cycle event, there’s nothing like that. Even if you have a good group of friends.

Religion does play a unique role—[it takes] ordinary events and elevates them. I like religion a lot. It does play a big role in my life, but I wouldn’t say I’m frum [observant]. I’m not.

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

A: I hope readers find it amusing. I’d like to think there is humor there that tempers some of the more serious parts of it.

I would hope readers would take away that change is possible. You’re not confined to what other people think you should be, whether it’s your religious choice or your choice of partners or part of your own identity—if you’re born a woman and want to be a man.

It’s that notion that we aren’t limited by other people’s perceptions, or by God. It’s all coming from ourselves. If you feel limited, you are limited. It’s being able to forge your own destiny.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: As of recently, I’m working on a historical novel about Michal, King David’s first wife. I’m in the beginning stages. I love to write fiction. I’m really sick of [writing about] myself!...

The plan is to write about the experience of women—what we know and don’t know about them. Michal is the only woman in the Bible of whom it’s said that she loved a man. It never says Sarah loves Abraham, or Rebecca loves Isaac. The fact that she loved him is interesting to me. It must have been common knowledge.

It’s a fun feeling to start something new where you don’t know what happens next. With a novel, I start with a germ of an idea and it flutters off. I’m not certain where Michal will take me, and I’m wiling to let her have her way.

Q: Anything else we should know about the book?

A: There’s the part in Israel. My approach to Israel is a little different. I went with no real expectations. I believe there are a lot of people in the United States who don’t know the cause of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I hope I’ve clarified or given a backdrop to modern-day Israel through my own experiences. I didn’t go to Israel with preconceived notions that I was on the side of this or that.

That’s the important part for me—I hope it can come across as a measured and balanced view of modern-day Israel and its conflicts, as well as historical Israel. Even though this is mostly for a Jewish audience, I think a non-Jewish audience would appreciate it…

I also think that for Jews, I made an attempt to explain Christianity. A lot of Jews don’t understand the conflicts between Catholics and Lutherans, or how Christianity understand Jesus. I’m doing my public service announcement—tell Jews about Jesus, and Christians about Israel.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Christine O'Brien

Christine O'Brien is the author of the new book Crave: A Memoir of Food and Longing. Her work has appeared in publications including The Seneca Review. She lives in Walnut Creek, California.

Q: At what point did you decide to write this memoir, and how long did it take you to write it?

A: My first impulse is to answer this question by saying that I’ve been writing about my life since I was 9 and begged my mother to buy me a very ugly little green diary with gold-edged pages and a lock and key attached. I’ve always had the desire to record my life’s events.

More specifically, I began working on shaping various tucked-away pieces of my writing into a memoir while I was in the MFA program at Saint Mary’s College of California. In the MFA program I worked on the story of the Program for a year and the manuscript became my thesis.

Many more years went into the book after I graduated, in 2011, as I attended to it on and off. If I string together the hours I put into it, I would say that I’ve spent roughly five to six years working on this story.

Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what did you and the other members of your family crave during the years you were growing up?

A: The book was originally entitled Hungry but after Roxanne Gay’s memoir, Hunger, was released my editor at St. Martin’s Press thought we should rename it.

He noticed that I use the word “crave” many times throughout the story and felt the term encapsulated the meaning of the memoir even better than “hungry.”

My brothers and I craved almost anything you could think of because you name it, it was off limits. Literally. Even something like salt or pepper took on larger-than-life meaning because we were allowed no spices, even.

My personal tormentors were chocolate, steak, hot peppers, vinegar. Things I eat regularly now, interestingly, which to me demonstrates how organic to my make up the desire for these foods was. My mother’s admonishment that I “wouldn’t want them anymore once my body was pure” was incorrect though I believed her at the time.

Q: The book includes a great deal of information about your various family members. What does your family think of it?

A: I was worried about my youngest brother, Braddy’s, reaction to the book since his high energy level factors in, heavily, as one of the reasons my mother implemented the Program to begin with.

But when I gave a rough draft to him to read and asked him to let me know what he wanted me to omit and if he’d like it if I changed his name, he told me to keep his name and sent me his favorite line of the book, “the diet my mother clings to to save her marriage is the thing that will tear it apart.” The other two brothers have been equally supportive.

I come from an amazing family, really, and have to give my parents credit for creating a culture of love and support that my siblings and I have been able to perpetuate to this day. I’m also thinking that the fact we were in the trenches together, living with my father’s raging and with my mother’s dietary regimes, engendered an unbreakable bond.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from your story, and what impact did writing Crave have on you?

A: Originally I felt extremely guilty writing this book as I believed it would seem like a condemnation of my mother which was something I didn’t at all want.

I’ve been so heartened to hear that readers are feeling, instead, that I portray both parents in a loving light, as people who, despite their flaws, were doing the best they could. I would like readers to feel the inevitability, based on my parents’ personalities and backgrounds, of the unfolding of unwanted events.

To me the Program represents any playing field in which differing and nonnegotiable human needs intersect. I wanted to present all sides, clearly, so that the family’s implosion and my later implosion as an adult, makes sense. 

A surprising impact that writing Crave has had is I have come to a deeper understanding of my mother’s motivation in implementing her diet regime. Any residual anger has vanished.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on an addendum memoir, The Gods of Point Lookout, culled from that original ugly green diary I mentioned, and two others, in which I document an unexpected plot twist the summer I turn 16.

It’s 1976, the Bicentennial summer, and our tiny beach house town is celebrating the country’s independence. We are one year into the Program and my brothers and I are very hungry.

I am floating blissfully, even so, having fallen in love for the first time, a state of affairs which brings me face to face with the thing that enchains me maybe even more than the Program regime, my inability to insert myself into my own life. Will I overcome the parental messages that have led to my paralysis?

Some of these events are mentioned in the middle section of Crave, but after discovering these lost diaries -- after I finished Crave -- I realized the account of this summer tells a separate story with different themes, one in which the narrator embarks on a challenging and high-stakes journey towards selfhood. As I write, I’ve noticed I’m feeling that old familiar drive that says this is a story that needs to be told.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: When I was growing up, I keenly felt the bleakness that was present in our household. A part of me resonated with the sadness I sensed in my parents and in the world around me.

I was 8 when Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. Vietnam was raging and young people were protesting. I sang “We Shall Overcome” as I walked through the halls of my elementary school wearing my father’s Hanes t-shirts on which I drew peace signs with magic marker. I wanted to change the world and at the same time, I also wanted to escape it.

Despite the fact that memoir is the genre that comes most naturally to me, The Chronicles of Narnia were my favorite books growing up and I desperately longed to find the doorway in, myself.

I am also working on fiction that explores this sort of escapism and enchantment of some kind. Writing it is as close as I can get, I suppose, to losing myself into a magical realm. It’s a challenge to make the unreal, real, and a great deal of fun.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb