Sunday, May 20, 2018

Q&A with Adam Garnet Jones


Adam Garnet Jones, photo by Jalani Morgan
Adam Garnet Jones is the author of the new young adult novel Fire Song, which is an adaptation of his film of the same name. His other projects include the film Great Great Great. He lives in Toronto.

Q: Why did you decide to turn your film Fire Song into a young adult novel?

A: I was always too much in awe of novelists to ever imagine myself as a "real" writer. Somehow it was easier to work in the world of film, where I could gather people together to tell stories using a vehicle that drew attention toward someone else. In film, the actors are always so much more visible than the writer or the director.

But after finishing the film Fire Song, I was approached by Annick Press to discuss the possibility of adaptation. I figured that if I ever wanted to be brave and take that step toward writing prose, I would never have a more perfect opportunity.

What I had to figure out for myself was, what would a reader gain from the book that they wouldn't gain from the film? The answer I found was that the medium of fiction is by its very nature a deeply interior experience.

In the film you see Shane dealing with the trials of his life, and the performances hint at a level of interiority, but the book really gave me the opportunity to put the reader inside his head, as well as inside the story. 

Q: How similar are the film and the novel, and which was more challenging to work on?

A: The film and the book are quite similar, although there were some key edits that had to be made in order to focus the story on Shane's perspective without losing Tara. One of the great opportunities I had with the book was to give Tara more of a voice via her diaries and poetry. I loved getting to think about her in a different way and write her point of view. 

Q: How did you come up with your character Shane, and what do you hope readers take away from his story?

A: It was important for me that Shane be someone who does well in school, with some loving people in his life and who is seen as a bright light in the community.

Since the story is one where the main character is brought to the brink, but is ultimately able to save himself, I had to have a central with a long way to fall within the story, but someone who also has a core of strength and resilience. 

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?

A: There are so many! I love James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Ursula Le Guin, Richard Van Camp, Cherie Dimaline, Jennifer Egan, Eden Robinson, Thomas King.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a new film script about a group of teenaged boys who murder their fathers. It might become a book instead, though!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I will soon be taking a break from filmmaking to become a Content Analyst and Indigenous Liaison with Telefilm Canada. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 20

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
May 20, 1799: Honoré de Balzac born.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Q&A with Gloria Chao


Gloria Chao is the author of the new young adult novel American Panda. She has worked as a dentist, and she's based in Chicago.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for American Panda, and for your main character, Mei?

A: I wanted to write the book I needed as a teen, and a book that would help Asian Americans feels seen. I hoped American Panda would show readers that they aren’t alone, that it’s okay to not feel wholly one thing or another, and that cultural gaps can be difficult.

For Mei, I wanted a conflicted, awkward teen struggling with her identity, and who loved her parents and culture even though she also had a hard time with them. She needed to be someone who was relatable to many in feeling out of place, but also specific enough to show a window into another experience.

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

A: When I set out to write this novel, I knew each character’s arc and how things would and wouldn’t be resolved at the end. My goal was always to write a realistic but hopeful ending that reflected my life experiences and the experiences of friends and family.

Q: How does your previous career as a dentist inform your writing?

A: I try to use my past to write interesting scenes. For example, American Panda has a scene in a gross anatomy lab and a few scenes in the health center. It’s not common knowledge what a gross anatomy lab smells like, so I was honored to be able to inform everyone that it smells like Fritos.

Q: Which authors have inspired you?

A: I am inspired by the YA POC authors who unapologetically write their stories despite the extra hurdles they have to face to get them published.

There are too many to list, but just to name a few, I’m inspired by Angie Thomas, Zoraida Córdova, Adam Silvera, Jenny Han, Cindy Pon, and Ellen Oh. Also, Becky Albertalli’s Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda and Nicola Yoon’s The Sun Is Also a Star have such fabulous voices that inspired my writing.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Misaligned will be released fall 2019 with Simon Pulse, and the book follows a teen outcast, Ali, who is the only Asian in her small, predominantly white Midwestern town.

The book explores racism and prejudice, and when another Asian family moves to town, everyone believes Ali and the other Chinese boy belong together. Despite her initial resistance, she begins falling for him, the one who understands her in a way no one else can, only to learn that her mother forbids them from being together.

As Ali searches for the reasoning behind her mother’s disapproval, she unearths dark family secrets that threaten her future.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Keep writing, everyone! Dreams do come true, and I’m proof that you don’t need to know people in the business, have an MFA, or grow up knowing you wanted to be a writer. If you love it, it’s worth the rejection and the time. You got this!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 19

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
May 19, 1930: Lorraine Hansberry born.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Q&A with Solange Ritchie


Solange Ritchie is the author of the new novel Firestorm, the second book featuring her character Dr. Catherine "Cat" Powers. Ritchie also has written the novel The Burning Man. An attorney, she lives in South Florida.

Q. How did you come up with your character Dr. Cat Powers and the idea for your new novel Firestorm?

A: I read quite a bit in the mystery/suspense/thriller genre. I got tired of reading about lead characters—all men, who often were either “gumshoe” detective types or ex-Navy SEALs.

I longed for a strong female lead—a woman who was an intelligent risktaker, a crusader for justice, and an ass-kicker if need be, but also who had with real work-life challenges such as raising a young son pretty much on her own. That’s the genesis of Cat.

I came up with the story line for Firestorm, having lived through several wildfires in California. I vividly remember the Laguna Beach Fire, which came close to wiping out my house. All that saved it and halted the fire from coming further was a golf course where sprinklers had been left running.

The arsonist in Firestorm is based on a lot of research and, to some extent, on real-life cases.

Q: Did you know when you wrote the first book about Cat that you would be writing more about her?

A: I didn’t want The Burning Man to have a typical conclusion: good cop gets bad guy. End of story. This kind of ending is neither interesting nor original. I wanted the reader to finish The Burning Man saying, “I want more” so that the story of Cat, her son Joey, and the criminal known as The Burning Man had to continue and come to some sort of fruition in a second novel.

Also, there was much more to Cat and Joey’s relationship that needed to be revealed, as well her own internal doubts and questions about the job she is doing.

Every law enforcement professional at some point in his or her career wonders, “Is what I am doing good enough?” “Am I up for this task today?” Cat deals with these kinds of internal questions, which in turn leads to more adventures and more novels.

Q: Do you know how your novels will end before you start writing, or do you make many changes along the way that affect the ending?

A: I always have a beginning scene and an ending scene in my head before I start to write. And before I start to write I do a ton of research. For Firestorm, my research binder was thicker than the novel.

The middle of a novel is where I develop the plot. I follow a rough formula as for where and when high points in the story line will occur. As a trial lawyer, I have heard and presented so many stories of injustice in court that I know instinctually where the high points should be.

Once I have a first draft, which I write straight through without editing, then the redrafting takes place. Sometimes, this is where changes are made.

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

A: I read all types of genres. I am into Jonathan Maberry and Stephen King for my horror fix. For a thriller fix, I look to David Baldacci, Catherine Coulter, Vince Flynn, J. A. Jance, Charles Todd, and Jeffery Deaver. I also love Michael Connelly. I’m not much into romance novels, although I do believe love can conquer all.

I minored in Japanese and Chinese politics as an undergraduate before attending law school, so novelists such as Arthur Golden (Memoirs of a Geisha) and Mineko Iwasaki (Geisha, A Life) are also favorites.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on drafts of books three and four in the Dr. Cat Powers series.

In the third novel, which is set in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area, Cat takes on a dirty international law firm dealing in sex trafficking, illicit drug trade, and the like. It draws on my extensive knowledge as a trial lawyer.

In the fourth novel, which is more of a political thriller, Cat chases down a team of international terrorist bombers who are spreading mayhem across the United States. It promises to have an explosive ending.

I also just started a horror novel, since many people have commented that The Burning Man and Firestorm push noir fiction to its limit.

I grew up in Jamaica where there is a rich cultural belief in the supernatural and “things that go bump in the night.” I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that an object can take on evil and that as the object is passed along from one owner to the next, the evil can follow and even grow in strength.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: It is important to me that readers see Dr. Cat Powers as a character who embodies women’s self-empowerment. In a genre that often portrays women as victims and femme fatales, I want Cat to represent more.

In this era where women are finally speaking up about sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace, I hope her character empowers women to stand up for justice and themselves. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 18

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
May 18, 1902: Meredith Willson born.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Q&A with Gary Krist


Gary Krist is the author of the new book The Mirage Factory: Illusion, Imagination, and the Invention of Los Angeles. His other books include City of Scoundrels and Empire of Sin. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

Q: Why did you choose to focus on early 20th-century Los Angeles in your new book?

A: I see The Mirage Factory as the third in a trilogy of city books I’ve written for Crown, after City of Scoundrels (about Chicago) and Empire of Sin (about New Orleans).

It’s been fascinating to explore how each city has grown and developed over time, each one coping with similar issues but in different ways, depending on the particular people and circumstances in each place.

What intrigued me most about Los Angeles was the fact that this remarkable urban entity grew up in a place where no city should logically be.

The site was too dry, too far from natural resources and potential markets; it was also isolated by deserts and mountain ranges and without a good deep-water port. And yet it grew from a largely agricultural town of 100,000 in 1900 to a major metropolis of 1.2 million by 1930.

That feat required imagination, not to mention some really unorthodox tactics (including plenty of deceptive advertising), and that’s the story I wanted to tell.

Q: In the book, you look at three people: William Mulholland, D.W. Griffith, and Aimee Semple McPherson. Why did you select them, and do you see them as having anything in common?

A: I seem them as representatives of the three major factors that allowed L.A. to pull off its growth trick.

Mulholland made it possible for a major urban center to develop in this arid land by imagining and then building a technological wonder—the Los Angeles Aqueduct—to bring water from a distant part of the state.

Meanwhile, the city was limited by a lack of heavy industry, but then a brand-new industry was more or less invented—the movie business. D.W. Griffith was the artist most responsible for turning what had been a vaudeville house novelty into a major money-making and job-creating industry.

And evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson helped to establish the ethos of the city as a place of unorthodox spirituality and unconventional lifestyles—an ethos that drew visitors and would-be residents from other parts of the country in droves.

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

A: I naturally spent an enormous amount of time out in Los Angeles, going through archives and libraries, talking to local historians, and just getting to know the geography and the spirit of the place.

One thing that surprised me is how relatively homogenous L.A.’s population was in the early decades of the 20th century, compared to that of other American cities. Given its current identity as a rich multicultural center, I was surprised that the L.A. of the 1910s, for instance, still lacked large Latino, Asian, and African American populations.

That changed, of course, over the 1920s and 1930s, and especially during and after World War II. But until the 1920s, the city was drawing new residents largely from the white populations of the Midwestern and Eastern states.

Q: You've also studied New Orleans and Chicago. How would you compare the three in terms of their development during this period?

A: Chicago was at the opposite end of the spectrum in this era, with huge populations of foreign immigrants from Europe and African Americans from the South.

Its growth spurt happened several decades earlier than that of Los Angeles, mainly because it had all of the urban growth factors that L.A. lacked—a strategic location for trade, proximity to natural resources, mature industries, etc.

New Orleans, on the other hand, was another sui generis city, much older, with a French, Spanish, and Caribbean history that created a unique urban environment.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m just beginning to cast around for my next topic, but I have to say that my curiosity about San Francisco has been piqued by all of the time I’ve spent in California recently.

Talk about another unique city! Thanks to the 1848 gold rush, San Francisco developed much earlier than Los Angeles, but it had to watch its rival to the south surpass it in population and importance in the early 20th century.

I’m not sure yet that I’ve got another big city book in me, but I’m seriously considering turning that trilogy of city books into a quartet.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’ve been amazed at how many people—even people who live in L.A.!—seem to think that the city has no history of any significance, that it sprang up fully formed as an entertainment and cultural capital sometime during the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Granted, L.A.’s history is compressed into a shorter time period than that of most cities, but there’s no shortage of really remarkable stories to tell. I hope I’ve done justice to a few of the important ones in The Mirage Factory.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Gary Krist.

May 17

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
May 17, 1873: Dorothy Richardson born.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Q&A with Ashley E. Sweeney


Ashley E. Sweeney, photo by Karen Mullen
Ashley E. Sweeney is the author of the historical novel Eliza Waite, published two years ago, which focuses on a woman who travels to Alaska in 1898. Sweeney is a journalist, teacher, and community activist. She lives in La Conner, Washington.

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

A: The story of Eliza Waite evolved after discovering an abandoned cabin on a hike on largely uninhabited Cypress Island in Washington’s San Juan Islands in the fall of 2008. I decided that day that a novel set in that locale could be both mysterious and intriguing.

Eliza grew on me during the writing process. I liked her from the beginning, but I can honestly say that I admire her even more now that I’m finished with the novel.

It’s interesting how a fictional character can help an author grow. I’m confident now that if I had been confronted with the same challenges as Eliza faced that I would be able to dig deep into faith and resolve to emerge on the other side as a stronger and more successful woman. Although I wouldn’t have relished living alone for three years on a remote island in an unheated cabin!

Q: You note in your acknowledgments that the book includes some historical figures. What did you see as the right blend between the historical and fictional in the novel?

A: Writing historical fiction hinges on weaving a story in and around actual events and characters. Although Eliza Waite, Pearly Brown, Shorty Richardson and others are purely fictional, placing them in historical context with real persons is necessary for authenticity.

Because Part Two is set in Skagway at the height of the Klondike Gold Rush, it was imperative that I inserted actual events and characters—especially Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith and the story of his infamous murder— into the narrative.

What many people don’t realize is that Skagway was a true boom and bust town, and most of its storied history happened in less than one year. I would have loved to have been there during that time!

Q: This novel takes place in the late 19th century in Washington State and Alaska. How did you research the time period and that particular setting?

A: I’ve lived in Washington since 1978 and know Northwest Washington and the San Juan Islands well. That said, it was still very interesting to research early days in the area, especially on Orcas Island, where some scenes in the novel are set.

Orcas Island has a great little museum of reconstructed 19th century cabins and shops. Just walking through the museum was a visual delight and provided fodder for several scenes.

Researching for the Alaska portion of the novel was brand new. In 2013, I traveled to Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, and Anchorage to do archival research.

Of special help were the historian at the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park and the research librarian at The Anchorage Museum. At both locales I pored over journals, photos, diaries, newspapers, and books of the era. Don’t ever underestimate the help of museum and library staff!

Q: Eliza's story highlights the role of women in that time period and that part of the country. Do you think she was typical of many women in that time and place, or was she more unusual?

A: Eliza Waite is both a product of her time and upbringing and an example of a modern woman. As the eldest daughter of a prominent judge, Eliza’s marriage outlook could have been bright, although her appearance and demeanor did not fit society’s mold.

After an incestuous rape and out of wedlock pregnancy, Eliza’s father brokered her marriage to a pastor leaving for remote Cypress Island north of Seattle. Here Eliza found herself in the short-lived role of wife and mother, but the smallpox epidemic of 1895 claimed the lives of both her husband and son and left Eliza grief-stricken and alone.

After living in an abandoned cabin on Cypress Island for three years, Klondike Fever had grasped the country, and Eliza jumped at the chance to try her luck in the far north. She was now free to make her own decisions in business, relationships, politics, and love. In this way, Eliza breaks the mold of the typical Victorian young lady and emerges as a new woman at the dawn of the 20th century.

Q: How have readers reacted to the book?

A: Since the release of Eliza Waite in May 2016, I've encountered many women and men who've been touched by Eliza's story. Of the 60+ events since the novel's release -- bookstore signings, historical lectures, extensive travels, book club events -- the most memorable encounters have been in intimate conversations with readers.

One reader expressed her gratitude to Eliza for helping her move through her three-year struggle with grief after losing her husband; she said that she was glad to be "on the far side of grief" after reading Eliza's story.

Another reader told me that Eliza helped her grieve the loss of her adult son, and that seeing the moon each night was a reminder that her son was still with her. Powerful words! In these instances, fiction truly transcended reality. I am honored that Eliza was able to touch these readers so deeply.

Two Alaskan readers also pointed out two minor errors in the novel. Goes to show you that all the vetting and editing in the world won't prevent one or two small glitches!

The novel has also been named the 2017 winner of the Nancy Pearl Book Award and placed as a finalist in the Sarton Women's Book Award and WILLA Literary Award and two other contests.

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?

A: My favorite contemporary authors are Geraldine Brooks, Paula McLain, Sue Monk Kidd, Barbara Kingsolver, and Paulette Jiles, whose News of the World was my favorite book of 2017.

I have a long TBR list and try to read 10-15 novels per month. I just finished reading an advance reader copy of a sister She Writes Press author, Ellen Notbohm, titled The River By Starlight. I loved it. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Since my interview with you two years ago, I've finished that second novel, now titled The Illustrator. It's out on review at present. I'm halfway through a third novel centered on the Donner Party and have a fourth in the research stage (that novel will be set in rural Arizona in 1900).

Also, in the past two years, I have added three more grandbabies to my incredible family, bringing the number to six. I'm blessed beyond words.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I love gardening, reading, art quilting, traveling, wine tasting, and chocolate. And my three new grandbabies!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous version of this Q&A.

Q&A with Marti Green


Marti Green is the author of the new psychological suspense novel The Good Twin. She also has written the Innocent Prisoners Project series. She lives in Florida.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Good Twin, and for your identical twin characters, Mallory and Charly?

A: I've always been fascinated by stories of identical twins separated at birth, who know nothing about the other, and find each other by accident (actually, the first time I read about such a case was with identical triplets).

Since I write mysteries and thrillers, I thought, "What if the reunion wasn't a happy one?" The story flowed from that concept.

Q: You tell the story from different perspectives. Did you write it in the order in which it appears, or did you focus on one character first and then another?

A: I wrote the story in the order in which it appears. I knew I was going to tell it from first Mallory's perspective, and then Charly's, but other than that, I don't outline in advance. I begin to write and see how the story develops. 

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

A: I absolutely made changes along the way, and especially the end. Until I wrote the ending, I went through various possibilities, but ultimately, it was the characters that led me to the ending I chose.

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

A: My working title was "Sisters." I chose "The Good Twin" because I wanted to show that people are capable of being both good and bad, and so which one was the "good" twin might change at different points.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm working on the last book in the Innocent Prisoners Project series.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 16

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
May 16, 1929: Adrienne Rich born.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Q&A with Kevin Powers


Kevin Powers is the author of the new novel A Shout in the Ruins, which focuses on a Southern plantation and the people affected by it, from the Civil War period to the 1980s. He also has written the novel The Yellow Birds and the poetry collection Letters Composed During a Lull in the Fighting. Powers served with the U.S. Army in Iraq in 2004-2005. He lives in Austin.

Q: You note that your new novel is based in part on actual events that took place in Richmond in the 19th century. What did you see as the right blend between the fictional and the historical as you wrote the novel?


A: I wanted to tell a story that would allow this period to feel lived in for a reader. I love history, but much of it seems to exist on a macro level, the movement of forces and systems at work and so forth.

So while it was important to me to represent historically accurate details that reflected the character of the times, I wanted to focus more on the micro level of what it might have been like to live in those times.

Although there are examples of diaries and first person records that I turned to in my research, invention allowed me to explore multiple points of view and the kinds of dynamics that would exist within the constraints of the times among individual actors.

Q: The book takes place over more than a century, with different chapters told from the perspectives of various characters. Did you write the novel in the order in which it appears, or did you focus on one character's story at a time?

A: My hope in structuring it the way that I did was that it might prevent a reader from succumbing to the comforting effects of historical distance.

Instead of allowing the reader to think, even subconsciously, “that was so long ago,” I hoped that by interweaving the storylines I could highlight the proximity of all the connections the characters have with each other, so that instead of thinking how far into the past some of the storylines are, they would think instead of how close they are to each other. I approached the writing of it with that in mind.

I will say that my priority when working is to follow whatever thread seems most compelling in the moment, so I deviated quite frequently from the order I’d set out.

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write the novel, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?

A: I read a ton about the region and the periods I was writing about and tried to visit these places in person wherever possible. I spent a significant period of my life in and around most of these areas, so some of that was to make sure my descriptions weren’t being overburdened with memory.

And while I felt like I had a pretty good read on the culture in the upper south, both historical and in the present, I am in a way happy to report that I found and still find the quotidian nature of this systematic violence and oppression utterly shocking and horrifying.

The banality of evil has never felt more apt than after reading the perspectives of those who perpetrated the aforementioned violence.

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

A: The title comes from two places that I felt had interesting correspondences. First, one of my favorite poems is called "Poem to Shout in the Ruins," by Louis Aragon, and second, from Isaiah 52. I might be the only person on earth who sees a connection between these two pieces of writing, but there seems to be some shared characteristics in them both. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now I’m reading and thinking about what I might do next, though I’d almost certainly be wrong if I told you what I thought that would be.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Thanks!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Rachel Devlin


Rachel Devlin is the author of the new book A Girl Stands at the Door: The Generation of Young Women Who Desegregated America's Schools. She also has written the book Relative Intimacy. She is an associate professor of history at Rutgers University, and she lives in Brooklyn.

Q: In your book, you ask, “Why, then, did so many young women and girls file school desegregation lawsuits and volunteer to desegregate schools?” Why do you think that was the case?

A: There’s the moment in which you volunteer, and then there’s following through. I thought about this for many years. First, you have to have the commitment, to see yourself in a white school and believe that being in a white school has meaning.

Girls believed this pretty much uniformly. Young men saw the desegregation of public spaces, of voting, of pools, of libraries, as important, and there were some young men in the ‘60s who desegregated schools, but as a group, they were less sure this was the next step.

What helped girls and young women to see that was they could imagine themselves in these spaces. You can expect hostility, but it’s a mysterious process. Girls had developed skills for dealing with white people—on the streets where there was a great deal of scrutiny. They were familiar with that.

And there was the [experience] of going to work with their mothers inside white homes. In the mid-century South it was very hard to find anybody who didn’t spend time in a white home.

They watched their mothers being verbally combative in social spaces. There was a long history back to the 19th century of verbal conflict between black women and white women, and a sense of, I can confront this hostility and know how to respond.

The other component is the adults expected them to do this work. They had trained their daughters to be personable and pleasant. Some middle-class girls knew how to act in polite company—a lot of them saw what they were doing as a form of acting. All African Americans knew what to do in a dangerous situation with whites, but with a girl it was a matter of degree.

Q: How did you research this book, and what did you find that especially surprised you?

A: The book project started when I was working on my first book, about white adolescent girls in the 1950s. I wanted to compare the way they were treated in the press with the way black girls were treated in the black press…

I kept finding, when I was looking at desegregation attempts, that all the stories were about girls. I wondered is this an editorial choice, or does it reflect a reality no one’s talked about?

I went to the Library of Congress and spent about a year going through the litigation about schools. After World War II people were very active with pickets, and suits were being filed right and left.

I found in the late 1940s over a dozen desegregation cases filed where parents and daughters, junior high and high school students, were attempting to enroll in white schools, and then were filing lawsuits. 

I was surprised that none of these cases had been written about. That’s what got me started. For a while, I thought somebody must have written about this.

The final thing getting the project going was that I called Marguerite Carr, who filed a desegregation lawsuit in D.C. in 1947, and no one had interviewed her. I thought, no one has talked to these women.

Q: In your acknowledgments, you note that cold-calling people for interviews was difficult for you. In general, how did people respond to your questions, and were they usually willing to speak with you about their experiences?

A: Because I was living in New Orleans at the time, and most of the people were living in the South, I offered to go to them. I was reaching out to women who had desegregated, from 1947 to 1965. These were highly successful people, and a lot of them were really busy. Finding time to talk to me was difficult.

They [initially] didn’t know who I was, even though I was a college professor calling from Tulane. Ultimately, these women were very willing to talk. They shared generously; they were very frank.

Interviewing them was the must humbling and astonishing experience of my life. I’d stumble out of their homes and sit in my car trying to absorb [what they’d said]—the violence [they encountered], the sacrifices they made were so profound for young people.

Shockingly few were hostile and hung up on me. One made a date with me and cancelled, saying, I can’t think about this. Overall, most hadn’t been interviewed and wanted to get their story on the record.

Q: How would you describe the legacy of these young women today?

A: I’ve just scratched the surface. I made it a national story on purpose—I wanted to make connections across localities that spoke to gender. All the women I spoke to went on to have very successful careers, as the “first” [to accomplish something].

I would say that many of those who tore down walls in professions had desegregated first in the 1960s. Many desegregated neighborhoods as one of the first black families living in white neighborhoods. These women continued to insist on their place in the broader society.

After these firsts went into these schools, the makeup of the student body has grown—their effect is incalculable. What was seen as impossible to achieve is now seen as central to the mission of the school.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My next project is on interracial rape and the adoption of biracial children. Recently Danielle McGuire has rewritten the history of rape in the civil rights era in her book At the Dark End of the Street. McGuire details how black women organized and protested against sexual violence, and how these experiences shaped the civil rights movement. 

In the interviews I did for my book, histories of rape came up fairly often, but usually in the context of long held secrets and quiet adoptions. 

I will be looking at the painful histories of interracial rape that were often long buried in family histories--only to reemerge when a white family member showed up, or the truth of a child's background suddenly emerged. I will be thinking about how families both keep--and divulge--secrets about sexual violence. 

This is difficult stuff and, needless to say, it will take a lot of research, time and thought to think through this kind of evidence.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The children who filed desegregation lawsuits with their parents really had a lot of agency. Too often, people think of children as being pawns, and this isn’t the case. Look at the teen activists from Florida—it helps us understand how important their work was. So many did that [work] against the wishes of their parents. Teenagers are historical actors.

It became clear to me that there is a standard way most history professors teach a big survey course—they teach the civil rights movement through charismatic male leaders. I want desegregation to be taught where you see black women’s names.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 15

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
May 15, 1937: Madeleine Albright born.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Q&A with L.M. Elliott


L.M. Elliott is the author of the new young adult historical novel Hamilton and Peggy!, which looks at the life of Alexander Hamilton's sister-in-law, Peggy Schuyler. Elliott's other books include Under a War-Torn Sky and Suspect Red. She lives in Virginia.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on Peggy Schuyler, the sister-in-law of Alexander Hamilton, in your new book?

A: My editor, Katherine Tegen— who is so gifted at spotting groundswells in cultural trends and interest—suggested I do something about Hamilton, given the national fascination with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Pulitzer Prize winning musical.

I didn’t want to touch Hamilton himself, as he’s become sacrosanct legend now. I also didn’t want to rehash the Alex-Eliza romance so beautifully depicted in Miranda’s work and already explored in a half-dozen novels. So, I looked for minor characters, those Rosencrantz and Guildenstern style witnesses to a much beloved and known narrative. 

It actually was easy to choose—what about “AND Peggy,” I thought, the littlest sister who makes a tantalizing brief appearance in the Schuyler Sisters Song (by my count given only 36 solo words) and then is gone. The actress playing her doubles as Hamilton’s lover Maria Reynolds in the musical’s second half. 

Of course, I had to find out if “AND Peggy” warranted a whole novel. My first quick-hit bit of research revealed family lore that Peggy dashed into the fray of an attempted kidnapping of her father by a band of 20 Loyalists and British soldiers. 

Peggy runs back into the fighting to scoop up her baby sister, left behind in a cradle downstairs when everyone else, including her pregnant sisters and Angelica’s toddlers, had raced upstairs to safety.

With that, I knew I had a pretty darn bodacious protagonist. Now the only problem was: I had 10 months, no more, to research and write her story in order to catch the Hamilton wave. 

It wasn’t going to be easy, frankly. Peggy left behind next-to-no letters of her own. But OTHER people talked about her. A lot. 

Her peers called Peggy: “A wicked wit.” “Endowed with a superior mind and a rare accuracy of judgment of men and things.” “Lively,” “Charming,” “generous.” “The favourite of dinner-tables and balls.” Ben Franklin, the king of one-liners, even called her “wild Peggy.” 

Then I unearthed something that REALLY made me want to write about her. One of Hamilton’s closest friends, James McHenry (of Baltimore’s Fort McHenry fame), criticized Peggy as being “A Swift’s Vanessa.” Thank God I was an English major! Vanessa appears in an obscure Jonathan Swift poem.

Calling Peggy that was 18th century code for a whip-smart woman who was too insistent on talking politics and philosophy with men to be entirely likeable. “Tell Peggy so,” writes McHenry to Hamilton. “I am sure her good sense will soon place her in her proper station.”   

Ha! Peggy clearly persisted. Now I REALLY wanted to write about her. 

Other things that made me want to know more: Peggy was clearly as much of a revolutionary in her thoughts and conversation as the more famous Angelica, and as much the intellectual, fluent in French and teaching herself German by reading their father’s engineering books.

She was a mere 13 months younger than Eliza, who was 18 months younger than Angelica. Their back-to-back births clearly made the three girls playfellows and a tight-knit trio. What was it like to be the younger sister of the famed “thief of hearts” Angelica and the “little saint of the Revolution” Eliza? 

The novel became a really interesting mixture of a civilians-caught-in-war action novel, for which I am mostly known, with a Jane Austen-style parlor drama of a devoted sisterhood banding together against the rogues of the world. 

Often Peggy was left behind in Albany when the two older sisters went off for romantic adventure. She was the primary caretaker of the family. Her younger siblings were constantly left in her care.

And contrary to what Miranda could include in Hamilton—(there are only so many subplots and minor characters who can be crammed into a two-hour musical)—Peggy, Angelica, and Eliza had MANY younger siblings, including three brothers.

Her mother Catharine survived 12 pregnancies, (including 1 set of twins and another of triplets), and raised eight children to adulthood. From age 21 to 47, Catharine was either pregnant or caring for newborns. Peggy seems to have been her main help. 

Of the three now beloved Schuyler Sisters, Peggy was the ONLY ONE in the right place at the right time to witness and potentially aid her father’s work as: war strategist and commanding general of the Northern Army; as George Washington's most effective spy-master; and as negotiator with the Six Nations of the Iroquois.

(Two of the six tribes allied with the patriots, largely because of Schuyler and his life-long relationship with them.) 

Schuyler is such an under-recognized founding father. It’s fair to say that New York and thereby the Revolution—might have been lost without his knowledge of New York’s dense wilderness forests, his lifelong association with the Iroquois tribes and French Canadians, his facility with many languages, his capacity for diplomacy, his cunning in espionage, his willingness to empty his own pockets to feed and clothe troops, and his stubborn loyalty to the cause no matter the attacks on his reputation by political enemies.

It was Schuyler’s spies who discovered the Brits’ brilliant three-prong invasion plans, Schuyler who knew how to clog forest paths to slow their march, Schuyler who rushed to rally enough militia and begged enough canon and ammunition to ready the patriots for the Battle of Saratoga.

And it was the Battle of Saratoga that finally convinced the French to join our cause and send troops.

In so many ways, Schuyler was Washington’s right-hand man, really. And his library—that saw couriers coming and going constantly, the arrival of spies with intelligence that was literally life-or-death, and the creation of false counter-intelligence documents to confuse the British and get them off GW’s trail—was “the room where it happened”… in New York anyway. 
Peggy was witness to all of that. 

I also knew—thanks to Hamilton dropping bits of gossip about Peggy in his love-letters to Eliza--that she had a romance with a French marquis, who turned out to be one of only eight people recognized with a Congressional Medal of Honor during the American Revolution.

The Marquis de Fleury was fascinating too! He and Peggy would have met in Newport, R.I., when Rochambeau’s army finally arrived to shore up our decimated Continental troops—their encampment and meeting with Iroquois delegates and Lafayette, another little-portrayed aspect of the war.  

Peggy was factually there, visiting Angelica and her husband, John Carter, the commissary for the French Army. 

SO…for all those reasons, Peggy was a delightful focus and enlightening prism. 

Q: What accounts for the ongoing fascination with Hamilton (including the musical), and what did you learn about him in your research that particularly surprised you?

A: Alexander Hamilton embodies the promise of America’s meritocracy—an immigrant, illegitimate and poor, who truly came from nothing, but through his own intellect, quick daring, and stubborn, never-ending hard work, rises to greatness.  

His narrative also has such a Shakespearean tragic arc. Just as Miranda depicts in the song “Hurricane,” Hamilton writes his way up, writes his own deliverance, and then destroys himself—through the very self-pride that gave him the strength and determination to succeed. He grows blind to the consequences of his self-righteous arrogance on himself and those he loves.

Miranda captures all that brilliantly in his musical, besides miraculously tucking in so much history in a palpable, enthralling story. He completely humanizes the $10-dollar founding father and by doing so tells us that each person could have greatness inside.  

Perhaps even more hauntingly, Miranda also tells the story of Eliza, how she survives loving this mercurial man and then goes on to do so much good work of her own after his death. How could we not be captivated? 

What most surprised me about Alexander Hamilton? Hmmm, Miranda’s portrayal is so rich and comprehensive that most of my research simply corroborated the personality shown on stage.

BUT Hamilton’s relationship with Peggy did surprise me. I think she may have been the only woman with whom he had a simple and true friendship, free of double-entendre flirtation. Lots of affectionate teasing, yes, but very much that of a big brother with a vivacious little sister.  

Their affinity is apparent in the very first letter Hamilton sent Peggy in February 1780. He had just met Eliza and asks Peggy to be his confidante in his courtship of her.

He begs Peggy to come to Morristown, where the army is encamped for the winter and Eliza is visiting her uncle, as a “nymph of equal sway” to basically distract his fellow aides-de-camp so he can monopolize Eliza!

Peggy seems to have ridden off in the worst snowstorm and winter ever recorded in American history to do so. Like I said, bodacious!

Hamilton immediately dubs her “My Peggy.” In intellect, wit, a sense of audacious fun, their best traits really are quite similar. He was actually by Peggy’s bedside when she died way too young at age 43, suffering gout like her father and perhaps stomach cancer. 

Hamilton’s letters are beautiful—full of poetry, angsty idealism, braggadocio, but also so much longing and vulnerability. They will take your breath away. 

Q: What did you see as the right balance between the historical figures and your own shaping of their story?

A: Perhaps because I was a journalist for 20 years, I report my biographical and historical novels. Fact tells me what I can or cannot write and historic events completely dictate my plot and character development.

I draw dialogue as much as I can directly from these people’s own letters or writing. I definitely create their personas according to what their peers said of them, what biographers have presented.

With Peggy, when I dramatized the choices she had to make, I was able to double-check my interpretation of bare-boned facts with experts and historians I interviewed during my research. 

For example, given the fact Peggy was a highly-intelligent, well-read “wicked wit” who insisted on talking politics AND that she was in Albany when her father was running his spy ring of double-agents, it’s entirely plausible, even likely, that Peggy would interact with them. Maybe even play secretary for her father occasionally.

Clearly the real life Peggy Schuyler had feminist sensibilities, which I happily showcased, but it would have been totally inappropriate and false to stretch her into a Katniss or Tris. 

Q: What does Peggy’s life say about the role of women in the Revolutionary period? 

A: Peggy is such an icon of what smart, committed female patriots could do: be informed, speak up, and influence the men around them who had the power to enact. And so many women, like Peggy, had to step up as she did to keep her family safe during an attack—quick-thinking and emboldened by love for her family. 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: Something really out of character! A contemporary story mixing whimsy and troubling current events with a clash of old and new cultures within Virginia plus a good dog story. I hope it makes readers laugh and think. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with L.M. Elliott.