Sunday, February 18, 2018

Q&A with Alexandra Zapruder

Alexandra Zapruder is the author most recently of the book Twenty-Six Seconds: A Personal History of the Zapruder Film. Her grandfather was Abraham Zapruder, who took the famous film of the Kennedy assassination. She also has written Salvaged Pages: Young Writers' Diaries of the Holocaust. She has worked for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and with the group Facing History and Ourselves. She lives in the Washington, D.C., area.

Q: You write, “As I worked, I struggled to reconcile the personal and historical imperative I felt to write this book with the worry that it would bring unintended and unwelcome consequences.” How did you balance those demands, and how did you balance your roles as family member and author as you were writing Twenty-Six Seconds?

A: The key word here is “worry.” I was worried about how my family would feel and I was worried about whether I’d be able to be honest and straightforward about all aspects of this history. 

This is because it was such a departure from the culture of our family, which emphasized discretion about the film above all else.

But when I really started working on the book and grappling with the material, I found that I wasn’t blowing the lid off of anything. In the end, this is a human story about people doing the best they could in difficult circumstances and about conflicts that arise from genuine disagreements about all sorts of important things.

As long as I focused on telling that story truthfully and with respect for all parties, I found that the fear faded away and what was left was the truly gratifying work of writing about these ideas.

Q: You note that your family really didn’t talk much about the film as you were growing up. What made you decide to write about it, and do you think writing the book changed any of your beliefs about the film?

A: I decided to write about the film because I realized in the aftermath of my father’s death that our family’s relationship to the film was a very significant one, and that this part of the film’s life had not been told, and that without it, the whole story of the film and its impact on American society and culture was incomplete.

Once I realized that, I felt it was important – and meaningful for me as a writer and a person – to really look at the film’s history in all its dimensions and try to understand its meaning, legacy, and significance not only for us as a family but for American society as a whole.

I’m not sure I could say that writing about the film changed my beliefs, because I really didn’t have many beliefs about it before I started. But I do think it deepened my understanding of all kinds of important questions that the film raised and that continue to reverberate for us today.

Q: What do you see as some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about the film?

A: One misperception is that the film only matters in the context of the Kennedy assassination. It is, of course, the primary visual evidence of the murder. But the dilemmas that the film posed for our family, the media, the government, the assassination researchers, the courts, and others touch on much bigger questions.

These include how to balance public interest and private family values, who decides what the public sees and when and how, who owns the historical record and what it is worth, and cultural questions like whether there is such a thing as visual truth and how we reconcile our differing ways of interpreting the same information.

There are smaller misperceptions – like the idea that the film was the only one taken on Dealey Plaza (it wasn’t: there were 21 other photographers present that day) or that our family sold the film to the Federal government (we didn’t: it was taken by eminent domain and its value was determined by an independent arbitration panel) that I was also able to address in the book. 

Q: What would you say is the film’s legacy, both for your family and for the public?

A: This is a question I took up in the epilogue to the book. I will just say that the film captured a moment that was a turning point in American history and it will always stand for that point in time and all the tumult and chaos that followed.

But I think it also has come to represent other things – like the recognition that even the photographic record doesn’t always capture a universally agreed upon truth or the fact that our faith in technology to answer all our questions may be misplaced.

The film contains within it so many contradictions and it doggedly refuses to give up a clear answer to the question of who murdered the president and how. For me, its meaning and legacy lie in those inherent contradictions.

On a still larger level, its legacy is that of the existential pathos that its narrative reveals. It’s a beautiful sunny day and there is a radiant couple driving down the street in an open car and then suddenly, without warning, it is all shattered.

We know on some intellectual level that this can happen but the film shows it and it reminds us of certain very deep human truths that are painful to tolerate but important to confront.

Q: How have people reacted to the book?

A: Well, I’ve gotten lots of wonderful responses both in reviews and though personal emails and conversations. It’s been especially moving for me to travel and meet people who are interested in this story and to share it with them.

I have found that the book has meant the most to those who were alive at the time of Kennedy’s assassination and who were, as a result, deeply affected by that event.

Many are still searching for answers or to make a certain kind of peace with this. My book can’t do that but it does address very directly the emotional and existential rupture that the film represents and that the assassination itself caused.

Q: Are there any other books about the Kennedy assassination that you would especially recommend?

A: My friend Max Holland is working on a magnum opus about the assassination that I think will be fascinating. It’s called A Need to Know: Inside the Warren Commission and deals much more directly than mine with what actually happened on Dealey Plaza.

Max is brilliant and a great writer. He argues very convincingly that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman. The book is forthcoming from Knopf and I know it’s going to be an important contribution to this topic.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m not ready to start anything new yet. I’m still recovering from this book – which took a lot out of me – and catching my breath before I decide what’s next.

I hope I’ll find another story that has the richness, complexity and unexpected depth that I found in this book and my first one, Salvaged Pages, but I realize that might be asking a bit much for one lifetime. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Alexandra Zapruder will be speaking Feb. 24 at the Temple Sinai Authors' Roundtable in Washington, D.C. Here's a previous version of this Q&A.

Feb. 18

Feb. 18, 1931: Toni Morrison born.

Feb. 18

Feb. 18, 1909: Wallace Stegner born.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Q&A with Jackson Pearce

Jackson Pearce is the author of Ellie, Engineer, a new novel for kids. Her other books include The Inside Job and Pip Bartlett's Guide to Sea Monsters. She lives in Atlanta.

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

A: Ellie is very much based on me as a child (and, honestly, on me at present). Growing up, I loved to make and build things.

My dad is an engineer, and he not only had a very “can do” attitude about making, building, and creating, but also a great attitude about failure—if something you made didn’t work out, that’s okay! Learn from the experience and give it another shot. Ellie very much shares this outlook.

Q: You've said, "While I think we've come a long way in encouraging girls' interest in STEM fields, sometimes it still feels like there's a mindset of 'it's okay for girls to like boy things'--as if STEM fields are inherently masculine." What message do you hope readers take away from Ellie, Engineer?

A: I hope that readers—and I do hope those readers are both little boys and little girls—finish Ellie with the idea that there’s no such thing as “boy stuff” or “girl stuff”. You can like whatever it is you like, and you don’t need to apologize for it! 

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

A: I usually know how I want readers to feel at the end of my novels, but I rarely know the exact way they’ll end. I almost always have a loose outline when I write, because that keeps me moving forward.

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?

A: Whew, that’s a tough question! I’ve just finished reading Laini Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer, a YA that I love. I also love Natalie Lloyd’s books (like Snicker of Magic), and Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novels.

Q: You have another Ellie book coming out later this year--will there be still more? What are you working on now?

A: There will be two Ellie digital short stories in May and August! Right now I’m working on another middle grade story about ghosts…but I can’t say much more about it.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 17

Feb. 17, 1924: Margaret Truman born.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Q&A with Naomi Schaefer Riley

Naomi Schaefer Riley is the author of the new book Be the Parent, Please: Stop Banning Seesaws and Start Banning Snapchat--Strategies for Solving the Real Parenting Problems. Her other books include The New Trail of Tears and 'Til Faith Do Us Part. She is a former columnist for the New York Post, and she lives in the New York suburbs.

Q: Why did you decide to write this new book about parents' role in monitoring kids' use of screens?

A: It was partly personal and partly professional. I have three kids. It’s the journey we’re on trying to find the right balance but also a journalist’s guide. Parents are getting a lot of mixed messages.

I wanted to talk to researchers. When they’re talking to the media, they’re very reticent about making bold claims, even when the research supports it. I didn’t want to be too judgmental, but I really pressed them.

Q: In the book, you describe a Waldorf school and its approach to technology. What about their approach appeals to you, and do you think this approach is possible for kids who attend schools that employ more technology in the classroom?

A: What appealed to me is that I was able to see how the school, despite all the pressures of the modern age to give kids screens, saw the possibility to give kids an education that develops their imaginations and skills in a way that’s [partly] self-motivated—the kids are coming up with a lot of it on their own.

It fits with the research on not micromanaging every minute of their time.

It was interesting to see it on display—it’s hard to go into someone’s house and say, Kids, play! In this setting [at the school], the kids are used to, when they have time for free play, [having] plenty of ways to entertain themselves. The dolls don’t talk, but they’re also very plain-looking. A lot is up to the kids’ imaginations.

For parents who think their kids wouldn’t come up with things on their own, it’s easy to see this was possible. It’s what kids do on their own if we let them.

If kids are in a school that provides a lot of technology, and has kids using screens at school and at home, for some parents it’s a question if this is necessary. We should all be doing more questioning about whether all that technology is adding to educational outcomes. Maine’s had a 1:1 iPad program for 10 years now, and there’s no bump in educational outcomes.

What can parents do? At home, it means counteracting [the focus on screens], encouraging reading actual books, spending time outside.

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

A: I think part of it is that our attitudes toward technology need to be presented in a way that’s similar to the rest of our parenting philosophy. Parents know what to do in other situations. When it comes to screens, we throw that all out the window.

Because the opportunity is always there, we feel overwhelmed by demands from kids. Now as soon as you set foot in the car, the kids want to play on the phone in the car, or when you're waiting in line at a restaurant, or at a swim meet, the opportunity is always there.

Kids know when you’re being inconsistent. They know how to wear [parents] down. This is not any different from if a kid’s demanding chocolate cake all day long. You’d say, this is crazy! Part of the point of the title is [to see that] this is not unlike every other demand kids make on you.

Q: What do you see looking ahead when it comes to children’s use of screens?

A: There’s a little bit of a backlash now…Educators may be prompted by stories about what technology companies are doing to get into the classrooms. That may give pause. Parents may find ways to cut back and encourage children to cut back.

There are stories about giant sexting circles. Parents are on edge about how to handle this. It’s not new, but maybe we’re at the point where people can say, What’s the first step to change this?

It’s hard to do alone if you’re in a community where everybody [has the technology]. You want to be in a community where people share your values…Parents can direct their children in subtle ways.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on another project, about child welfare generally. It’s probably more geared toward kids who are more vulnerable and at risk.

I talk about that group a little bit in this book, about giving kids in low-income groups technology and telling parents it’s a way to solve the gap. Kids in more disadvantaged homes are using screens for more hours than their middle-class peers. I think that will put them at a disadvantage.

The next project is looking at the welfare system, the foster care system, and the opioid crisis.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I try in the book not to be ridiculously judgmental. I don’t think the situation parents are in is all our fault. Parents are under pressure from schools, the culture, technology companies, to hand over screens. And there are times for it—in the emergency room with a child, it can make time fly by for them. We shouldn’t discount the advances when we’re flying across the country.

We’re under all this pressure, and sometimes we’re just throwing up our hands. The book is about making distinctions, and coming up with rules that are appropriate for our family rather than burying our head in the sand.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Naomi Schaefer Riley.

Feb. 16

Feb. 16, 1904: George F. Kennan born.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Q&A with Amanda Searcy

Amanda Searcy, photo by Kim Jew Photography Studios
Amanda Searcy is the author of the new young adult novel The Truth Beneath the Lies. She works for a public library system, and she lives in New Mexico.

Q: You've noted that The Truth Beneath the Lies was inspired by a real set of crimes. What did you see as the right balance between the actual crimes and your own fictional characters?

A: My stories are inspired by real events, but I never intend to write a "ripped-from-the-headlines" book. With The Truth Beneath the Lies, I used real life as a starting place and then brainstormed and created the fictional story. By the time it was all said and done the world Kayla lives in and her general circumstances were really all that was left from the original real events.

More than anything, I want to be respectful of the families who have gone through these terrible tragedies. I would never want anyone to pick up my novel and think it was about their loved one, so whereas real life might give me the original idea, the finished product is completely fictional (and hopefully only recognizable to me as being based on real events).

Q: Did you plot the entire book out before you started writing, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: I wish I had plotted it out ahead of time! That’s something I learned from this book: if you are writing a thriller, having a strong outline before you start makes your life a lot easier. With The Truth Beneath the Lies, I knew how it ended and what happened at about the mid-point, but the rest I wrote as I went along and then had to do A LOT of editing.

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

A: This novel actually went through several title changes. It was originally called “Truth Is” which was Kayla’s catch phrase. Most of the times she said it were edited out so the title made less sense.

For a very short time it was called “I’ll Find You”, but then we settled on The Truth Beneath the Lies. It was a team effort coming up with that title, but it is absolutely perfect and beautifully sums up the story and what I was hoping to achieve with it.

Q: Who are some of your favorite suspense writers?

A: Ruth Ware, Megan Miranda, Kara Thomas, Karen McManus, Lois Duncan, Agatha Christie.

Q:  What are you working on now?

A: My next YA psychological thriller, Watch You Burn, comes out on October 23! It’s about a girl named Jenny who has to move across the country with her dad because the cops are on to her, and the only way she can protect herself is by going far away and staying out of trouble. 

But even after she moves, Jenny still gets the itch. The itch to light a match and then watch it burn. 

It's something she hasn't been able to stop, ever since an accident years ago. She soon discovers that the woods around the motel are the perfect place for her secret activities, but then she realizes someone is following her and watching her every move. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 15

Feb. 15, 1948: Art Spiegelman born.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Q&A with Marilyn Yalom

Marilyn Yalom is the author of the new book The Amorous Heart: An Unconventional History of Love. Her other books include A History of the Wife and How the French Invented Love. She is a senior scholar at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, and she lives in Palo Alto, California.

Q: You write that an experience at the British Museum inspired your new book. What initially caught your attention, and how did that eventually result in this book?

A: In 2011, I was attending an exhibition of medieval artifacts at the British Museum.  In one case I saw a collection of gold coins and pieces of jewelry that were part of the Fishpool treasure hoard discovered in Nottinghamshire in 1966. 

Suddenly a heart-shaped brooch caught my eye.  I noticed the heart’s two lobes at the top and the V-shaped point at the bottom as if I were seeing them for the first time.  Then for a brief moment I was invaded by images of hearts—the ones I had known all my life from valentines, candy boxes, balloons pendants and bracelets.

It dawned upon me that the perfectly symmetrical heart is a far cry from the lumpish organ we carry inside us, and I asked myself how the human heart had been transformed into such a whimsical icon. From that point on, that mystery pursued me.

Q: Has the heart always been associated with love?

A: The heart has been associated with love as far back as I can find in the written records of Western civilization. As far back as Greco-Roman antiquity, the poets have been identifying the heart with love in verbal conceits that would not find their visual equivalents for another two thousand years.

Q: At what point did the image of the perfectly formed heart first emerge, and have those images changed over the centuries?

A: The image of the heart as the symbol of love first appeared in the 13th century, but it was not yet a bi-lobed symmetrical heart. In a French manuscript called “The Romance of the Pear,” circa 1250, a kneeling man is pictured offering a heart to woman in the shape of a pine-cone, eggplant or pear. 

That same shape appeared in both secular and religious “heart offerings” to either a loved one or to God —the secular amorous heart in France and the Catholic loving heart in Italy—in the period around 1300.  

Finally, a French and Flemish manuscript called “The Romance of Alexander” from around 1340 contained an  image of the bi-bilobed symmetrical heart held in the hand of a woman who had received it from a man sitting next to her. He points to his chest as the place from which it had come.

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

A: I researched this book mainly in the wonderful new art history library at Stanford University, but also in places where medieval manuscripts and artifacts are held, such as the Morgan Library in New York, the Cluny Museum in Paris, the Bodleian Library in Oxford, the British Museum and Victoria Museum in London. 

A small museum in Regensburg, Germany sent me images of their Medallion tapestry containing scenes of love’s joys and torments, some of which show the German goddess of Love (Minnekönnigen) shooting an arrow into a lover’s heart.  All the early heart imagery that I know of is either French, Flemish, Italian, or German.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now I am giving talks about this book in the Bay area around Valentine’s Day, in Washington, D. C. in late March, in Boston in late May.  (See the calendar on my website.)  After nine books, I’m taking a break from writing.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: As I look back over my writing career, I realize that I often take familiar subjects and defamiliarize them.  I force myself (and others) to see them as if for the first time.  This is true of my books about the female breast, the wife, the chess queen, and the heart icon.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 14

Feb. 14, 1944: Carl Bernstein born.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Q&A with William E. Glassley

William E. Glassley, by Anton Brkić
William E. Glassley is the author of the new book A Wilder Time: Notes From a Geologist at the Edge of the Greenland Ice. He has written more than 70 research papers and a textbook on geothermal energy, and he is a geologist at the University of California, Davis, and an emeritus researcher at Aarbus University, Denmark. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Q: You write, “Wilderness is the primordial heart of what we conceive of as soul, and as a consequence, it must be accepted as a version of home. For me, Greenland has been the landscape that embodies that lesson.” What about Greenland makes it the embodiment of the wilderness you describe?

A: The thing that affected me most was walking into a place where there’s absolutely no evidence of human inhabitants. You scan that from the ridge top, and for me, it was the first time I really understood humility. I needed that to bring it to an understanding of who I am—in front of me was a powerful complex process unfolding, of which I was a part.

The other part is that as I stood there, I wanted to melt into that landscape.

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

A: One thing that the title attempted to convey is that the world we live in now is so extraordinarily shaped by human activity. There’s so little that’s truly wild. But a place like that is just wilder. In terms of time, it transcends it. It makes time almost irrelevant. Time itself becomes wild.

Personally, as an experience, I, as a human animal, became wilder. I shed the fiction of what [my definition was] as a human being and became a wild animal.

Q: What are some of the most important lessons or discoveries that you learned about on your trips to Greenland?

A: From a non-scientific point of view, it was the necessity for humility. So much that’s happening in the world comes from the belief that we know what’s going on. In a setting like that, [you don’t know]. It forces you to take on a sense of humility.

Another thing I learned was just how extraordinarily fragile things are, we are, life on the planet is in general. We had a couple of experiences where we could have died. Yet most of the time, those threats don’t present themselves.

We live in an extraordinarily fragile film—it really brought that home. Things could happen so quickly—you see evidence of the power of the natural world all around you, and realize we are very fragile.

Q: In the book, you address the issue of climate change. What do you see looking ahead for Greenland?

A: There are two elements of that that are important. One is the effect human-induced climate change will have on the culture there. The Inuit culture has been there for thousands of years. It’s a subsistence lifestyle. Everything that happens on the planet is affecting them. How will Greenlanders maintain their lifestyle in the fact of this threat?

The other thing, standing at the end of an ice sheet, or in a helicopter, you can see the ice retreating so fast. Things are happening that often aren’t recorded that are shaping the landscape in a dramatic way.

On the other hand, the place is adjusting to it. It’s not what I’ve fallen in love with—in 200 years, there probably will be no ice but a series of islands surrounding a bay. It’s staggering to think about.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Two things. One is a collection of short stories related to experiences in the natural world. There’s a lot I didn’t talk about from the experiences I had in Greenland, along with experiences in other settings that bear on the issue of what it means to be human on a planet that a short while ago was exceedingly wild and now is not that.

I’ve come to realize as a scientist I and my colleagues have taken on a responsibility we may not have have taken on consciously—a responsibility to go into whatever part of the natural world we’re looking at…We are representatives of humanity.

We publish papers—our responsibility is to generate information from an objective perspective. But we’ve lost sight of the fact that all of that is done within a human context. We are trying to provide objective information, but we also have a responsibility to present our emotional experiences. They’re no less valid. They’re as important as the facts we bring back. I’m trying to encourage the scientific community to take on that responsibility, to find ways of conveying [that].

The response from the scientists I’ve spoken with is uniformly enthusiastic, and the response to the book has been similar. People are saying, Oh, man, that’s something I wanted to do! It’s like a hunger out there to engage in that kind of thing.

There also is an absence of confidence. We know how to work in an objective domain, but baring our soul to a bunch of colleagues is terrifying!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I did not set out to write a book about Greenland or wilderness. It took literally 20 years to put this together. It ended up being a book because I couldn’t avoid revisiting my experiences, because they insinuated themselves into my mind in a powerful way and I kept writing.

This was the way the idea of responsibility [came up]. It was time to make it into a book and eventually it happened. It’s been an amazing journey.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Laura Madeleine

Laura Madeleine, photo by Rachel Sherlock Photography
Laura Madeleine is the author of the two new novels Where the Wild Cherries Grow and The Confectioner's Tale. She lives in Bristol, UK.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Confectioner's Tale, and why did you set the novel in 1910 as well as 1988?

A: As happens with a lot of my work, the original idea for The Confectioner’s Tale had nothing to do with the story that now exists. I was driving around France in a campervan with my then-boyfriend during the summer of 2010, when I had just finished university.

It was July, the middle of a heat wave, and when we stopped in Saint-Émilion to cool off, we discovered a patisserie that sold canelés – little caramelized custardy pastries. I’d never seen them before, and so when we got home, I looked them up.

They have a fascinating history of popularity and rivalry, an official brotherhood and even secret recipes held in vaults! I was captivated by the artistry of patisserie, especially during the golden era of the Belle Époque, where aesthetics and luxury were taken to absurd extremes; a bubble about to burst.

Eventually, the canelé history itself disappeared. The only trace that remains is in the fact that my main character Gui is from Bordeaux.

After a year of two or working on the draft, I knew it needed something else, something to ground the narrative in more recent history, provide a tug to keep the story moving and give the 1910 sections tension. As the old phrase goes, “write what you know”, and well, I knew Cambridge…

Q: You have another new novel, Where the Wild Cherries Grow, that also covers two time periods. What kind of historical research do you do to write your books?

A: I read a lot of primary sources, diaries, collections of letters, personal histories. Travel guides from the era, while inevitably biased and sometimes pretty unpleasant, are incredibly useful for first-hand details and attitudes.

Sites like Project Gutenberg are fantastic for this, and many university libraries (especially U.S. ones!) have amazing online catalogues where old, out of copyright texts have been digitised and are available as epubs.

I also read a lot about the food, obviously. For Where the Wild Cherries Grow, I relied on two books in particular: The Book of Sent Soví, the earliest Catalan recipe book, written around 13-14th century, and, rather more recent, Colman Andrews’ Catalan Cuisine.

Both of these books provided an excellent overview of the history of Catalan food, its role in the culture, and how it has changed over time.

Q: Both novels feature cooking and food as a major part of the story, and you have a background in baking. What do you see the food themes bringing to your work?

A: Food can tell us so much about a place. It’s immersive, and present, and yet tied to the past. For instance, in Catalan cooking, there’s very little dairy because the land isn’t suited to dairy farming.

Instead, we find goat or almond milk, the almond trees having been introduced to Catalonia, and Spain as a whole, when it was al-Andalus, ruled by the Moors hundreds of years ago. Food is inextricably tied to the culture of a place.

Likewise, all of that luxury in Paris during the 1910s relied on the long-held exploitation of the labouring classes. I think the theme of food makes us look again at characters, at society, and opens up all sorts of fascinating avenues to explore.

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

A: I know vaguely where it’s going, just not how I’m going to get there! I’m not really an intricate planner. There’ll always be changes along the way. Sometimes a first draft can change dramatically when it comes to re-writes.

I never feel like I truly finish a book, but as a general rule, I know I’m getting close when I’m taking words away rather than adding them. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve just finished the page proofs for my next novel, The Secrets Between Us, which will be out in the UK in 2018. It’s set in 1943, in the Alpes-Maritimes, during the period of Italian-occupied France.

I’m also in the middle of researching a brand new book, which I’ll start writing soon. That one is set in Tangier, during the 1920s. I’m planning a trip to North Africa at the moment, very exciting.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My sister Lucy is also a writer! Can I give her a shout out? She writes fantasy, and the last book in her trilogy, The Worldmaker series, comes out in December. By complete coincidence, our debut novels (The Confectioner’s Tale for me and Starborn for her) came out on the exact same day… 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 13

Feb. 13, 1945: Simon Schama born.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Q&A with Cyan Night

Cyan Night is the author of the new novel Girl Fighter, which focuses on a mixed martial artist. Night describes herself as a "martial arts junkie," and has also worked in design, media, IT, and photography. She is based in Australia.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Girl Fighter, and for your character Aliyah?

A: I have always wanted to write about issues that are underrepresented or misconstrued in society.

As a self-professed martial arts junkie I have tried many forms of combat sport and competed at an amateur level for some. In the years of training I came across many fighters with interesting stories with complex personalities that contradict the angry, bloodthirsty image we impose on them. The first half of the book is written with them in mind. 

The second half is written to give a voice to those suffering from an “invisible injury.” I have close friends and family members suffering from schizophrenia, bipolar, depression, anxiety disorder and autism. I learnt about their pain through open dialogues, observations and an absent of judgments. I wanted to use creative writing to bring to the readers some understanding of a world that is not readily noticeable.

To present both aspects of the book I had to create a character that is marginalized in many ways that are not obvious. Aliyah is a flawed everyday person who made an attempt to participate in a sport that most people find daunting.

Q: The book focuses on a woman who competes in mixed martial arts. Are Aliyah's experiences representative of women in that field?

A: The book was set in 2010, as it was a time on the cusp of women starting to take center stage in combat sport.  In 2012, women boxing was inducted into the Olympics and UFC had the first female title fight. Six years on, women in combat sport are gradually closing the gap with their male counterparts in terms of pay, popularity and respect.

However, Aliyah’s experiences are still very real today. She struggles to be taken seriously as a female athlete when many women participants sexualize their behavior in a male dominant gym. Her fights are considered unimportant. Many around her discourage her from the sport, claiming it is too rough for a girl, or dismiss her as a strange and violent person.

Q: The novel also looks at the impact of traumatic brain injury. Why did you decide to focus on that?

A: One day I stumbled upon a book about neuroplasticity. The book opened me up to the notion that the brain can be altered after suffering damages. By then I knew of many people with brain disorders, including traumatic brain injury.

The common complaints are that no one believes their pain and often reject their sufferings as something that is “all in your mind.” If not, they are simply considered as “crazy.”

I wanted the book to open up all layers of Aliyah, explaining the backstory that resulted in her aloof personality and a human side of her before she suffered brain damage.

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

A: Ultimately I like to believe I have given a voice for fighters of any gender, race and creed incapable of articulating their hardship.

The title of the book, “Girl Fighter,” implies it is a story about a female martial artist. My actual intention is to focus on how the “Girl” illustrated in Part One of the book subsequently became a “Fighter” in Part Two battling her way out of an impossible adversity.

Brain injury and some mental illnesses are often regarded as conditions that are irreversible, but through my studies of neuroplasticity, I would like to believe that a willingness to fight for better mental health and well being, with an open mind and a “never-say-die” attitude, one can endeavor to defy conventional beliefs.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on raising awareness of women in combat sports through social media and writing articles as a guest blogger for sports websites. I would also like to raise more awareness for the co-relation between early childhood trauma and a challenging adulthood. 

Aside from that, I am actively looking for ideas for another novel. It would be of a different subject matter but I will continue to focus on subject matters that are generally underrepresented.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The story and all its characters are entirely fictitious. However, many of the events are weaved from real-life incidents, first-hand and close second-hand experiences. Most of the characters are also amalgamations of people I have interacted with.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb 

Feb. 12

Feb. 12, 1809: Charles Darwin born.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Q&A with Mira T. Lee

Mira T. Lee is the author of the new novel Everything Here Is Beautiful. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Missouri Review and The Southern Review, and she lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Everything Here Is Beautiful, and for your character Lucia?

A: In 2010, I wrote a short story called "How I Came To Love You Like A Brother," which eventually formed the basis of the first chapter of my novel. Lucia was one of the characters, along with her sister, Miranda, and her first husband, Yonah.

I’d always loved these characters, and knew they had richer lives, and during the years when my two kids were very young, I kept thinking about a series of situational and moral predicaments I wanted to put them though.

I’ve always been drawn to questions with moral “gray areas,” where good people find themselves in conflict with one another even though no one’s at fault. Such questions fueled the plot.

I wanted to explore complicated family dynamics, the limits of love, what happens when what you want for yourself isn’t in the best interests of someone you love, and vice versa.

And I wanted to explore Lucia as a character who has a mental illness, but refuses to be defined by it, and the ripple effects of her illness on the people who love her most.

Q: Why did you decide to highlight mental illness as one of the book’s themes?

A: I’ve seen my own family members struggle with mental illness, so it’s a subject matter that’s deeply personal. Schizophrenia, in particular, is a devastating illness, often misunderstood, and the stigma associated with it is so strong that the suffering it inflicts is rarely talked about, and that’s really hard, especially for families, who often find themselves isolated, powerless, and silenced.

In recent years, we’ve seen more narratives about these illnesses, but they are usually memoirs told from one person’s point of view, and most often in the context of white, middle class families.

I wanted to portray a 360-degree view of mental illness, told from several different perspectives, and I wanted the illness to be understood in the context of people’s lives - messy lives that don’t stop, even for an illness.

In this case, the family is a bit unconventional, cobbled-together, with immigrants from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Nonetheless, it’s a family that is trying its best to love each other.

Q: Another major topic in the novel is immigration. What do you hope readers take away from the book when it comes to immigration, especially given the current focus on that topic today?

A: I started the book many years ago and had no idea that the world would be in the state that it is today. And I didn’t write with any kind of agenda about immigration (or mental illness, for that matter), but I am glad that the book features a diverse range of characters, because such characters have stories that are just as relevant and human and deserving of attention as anyone else’s.

These multicultural worlds are the ones I’ve always known in my own life, and I think it’s valid and important to see this version of America reflected in literature.

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

A: That line, “everything here is beautiful” was in my original manuscript, but it wasn’t my original title. In fact, we sifted through more than 150 titles before my editor and I agreed on that one!

But once it was settled, I found lots of opportunities to enhance the images and themes of beauty throughout the manuscript, and that amplified the significance of the title.

I like that it’s a bit ironic, but also optimistic. And I do think it captures something of Lucia’s essence, her sense of wonder, her ability to see the world a little differently.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve been trying out a few ideas as short stories, which may or may not turn into something bigger. And also trying to write a couple of children’s picture books. We’ll see what happens….

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: There has been a lot of discussion lately about diversity in publishing, and the need for more inclusion of “marginalized voices” - particularly, voices of complex characters of color who are not stereotypes or archetypes, not what one would necessarily “expect.”

I didn’t write with any of those things in mind, but I do think this book is full of less conventional, unexpected characters, definitely not a typical “Asian-American story” and I’ve felt incredibly fortunate to have the support of my agent, editor, and publishing house (Viking).

That being said, if we want more “diverse books” that break the traditional molds of what’s expected of writers of color, then we also need to find ways to support these books, and make it commercially appealing for publishers to invest in more of them. I

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, about how we might do that. So if anyone has any ideas, let me know!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb