Sunday, August 19, 2018

Q&A with Sylvia McNicoll

Sylvia McNicoll is the author of the new young adult novel Body Swap, in which a teenager and a senior citizen switch places after an accident. Her many other books include Dying to Go Viral and Best Friends through Eternity. She lives in Burlington, Ontario.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Body Swap, and for your characters Hallie and Susan?

A: Senseless death in a young person is the single most event I feel overwhelmed by in life--if only I could change even one factor so that they don’t pay for some inattentive or foolhardy moment with their lives.

Regret is an emotion, therefore, I feel compelled to probe. How powerful is it? Can we change any point of our past if our regret is strong enough?

It’s a theme I also explored in Dying to Go Viral and Best Friends through Eternity. The main character dies in the first chapter and then gets a do-over in the rest of the story so that their regret can change something even if it’s not their ultimate fate.

Enter Hallie. She’s inspired by a real girl (as all of my main characters are) run over by an 86-year-old driver in our local parking lot. While I blamed the senior, she claimed vehicle malfunction and the courts allowed her to keep driving. When I expressed dismay at their decision, my writing buddy told me I was an ageist. I realized she was right.

Q: What do you think the book says about aging, and perceptions of older people?

A: I think Body Swap reminds/warns me, and so perhaps my reader, that with good health and barring accidents, we will all grow older and we should all work together to make that experience more of a reward for living well.

People love to say age is just a number but failing health can be the real determinant or quantifier of your life.  Youth is not a skill or quality we earn, we all start out young. Age is the real privilege, as Eli in the novel says, and reward for good luck, exercise, sunscreen and healthy eating.

Q: Did you make many changes along the way?

A: Initially I wrote Susan’s thread in third person. I felt it separated her strand more clearly, gave it a natural distance for my young readers without cliché ageist mannerisms on both sides of the generations.

But all my writing friends, my agent, and even my editor later insisted I rewrite and then later stick with first person. (I kept wanting to switch back.) They were right.

I think it was important to give my readers the first person extreme closeness with the experience of aging and no matter how you write it, whether for a film like Freaky Friday or for a novel like mine, soul switches are difficult to keep clear in your audience’s mind.

Q: Did you know how the book would end before you started writing it, or did it change.

A: As far as how the ending evolved, (for me they are never set in concrete even though I have something in mind): what I wanted most to do is challenge people’s perceptions of seniors and teens so I needed a twist.

Susan’s an intelligent woman; I knew she should become proactive about accepting some limitations in her abilities going forward which meant living in an assisted living facility of her own choice on her own terms.

But if I want to surprise the reader, I need to surprise myself. So the actual outcome of the vehicle acceleration propelled the surprise for me, and I hope for the reader. Once it fell into place, it seemed so natural to me.

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?

A: I am so indiscriminate. I love reading everything from the Coffee News in diners to the bulletin boards on school staff room walls. Even though they can be longer and more difficult reads, self-published novels sometimes give me a more authentic hit—these writers are so passionate about their stories they defy publishing norms! 

So I guess I have no favourites. Most of my friends are writers, I buy all their books. I love buying and reading an author’s debut novel too. Those are lucky!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Currently I am rewriting a story called What the Dog Knows. It is a middle grade that explores some of the benefits our pets offer us…expanded. Brownie, the dog, is sage, funny, loyal, and loving and he wants to save his 13-year-old person Naomi from drowning. (This is another regret story.)

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I am so grateful and happy to have such a long, evolving writing career. I love my work and my readers.

Thank you.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a link to Sylvia McNicoll reading from Body Swap.

Aug. 19

Aug. 19, 1930: Frank McCourt born.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Q&A with Martin R. Ganzglass

Martin R. Ganzglass is the author of the new novel Treason and Triumph, the fifth in his Revolutionary War series. Other books in the series include Spies and Deserters and Blood Upon the Snow. A former Peace Corps volunteer in Somalia and a retired attorney, he lives in the Washington, D.C., area.

Q: This is the fifth book in your series - how did you choose which events to focus on this time?

A: Generally, I have been following the chronology of the Revolutionary War and the fifth book brings me to 1780 and 1781. While there are many events over these two years, the two most obvious ones are General Benedict Arnold's attempted betrayal of West Point in the fall of 1780 and the combined American French victory at Yorktown in the fall of 1781.

Both are events of high drama and gave me the opportunity to describe them through the eyes of my fictional characters.

For example, I was able to depict the feigned madness of Peggy Shippen Arnold, the general's wife, when Arnold flees West Point after the plot has been discovered leaving his wife and infant son behind, through the fictitious character of Elizabeth Van Hooten.

I had inserted her into Peggy Shippen's rich and privileged Philadelphia social circle in two earlier novels, Blood Upon the Snow and Spies and Deserters. This was pure luck and no foresight on my part. 

Q: One theme running through the books involves the conflict between two brothers. Can you say more about how you created the Stoner brothers and developed their political views?

A: Willem and John Stoner are typical of many families at the time. Particularly in New York and New Jersey, members of the same family were divided in their loyalties, with some supporting the King and others joining the patriots' cause.

I wanted to counter the myth that the colonists rose up against oppressive British rule in a unified and fervent fashion. John, the Loyalist, is also an opportunist (as well as being an evil and immoral person.) He is motivated more by greed than politics and he believes he has chosen the winning side that will bring him wealth and prestige.

Will is an idealist, and through his association with General Knox, comes to believe entirely in the cause regardless of the personal consequences. 

In some sense, the American Revolution was the first American civil war because so many families had members on both sides. In New Jersey there were Loyalist and Patriot militias that waged a violent and vicious guerrilla war against the civilian supporters of the other side. Will and John are simply examples of the existing divisions among family members.

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

A: The two pivotal events of 1780 and 1781 were the shocking betrayal by General Arnold and the victory at Yorktown.

If Benedict Arnold had successfully turned the fort at West Point over to the British, the British would gain control of the Hudson River and successfully split the New England colonies from the others. Then it would have been possible to subdue the Americans piecemeal.

Arnold also attempted to pass to the British the route General Washington was taking to West Point, which would have enabled a strong British cavalry force to capture him, as well as Generals Lafayette and Knox. That could have effectively ended our Revolution then and there.

The evidence of Arnold's betrayal undermined Washington's confidence because he had so misjudged Arnold's character. It was definitely a low point in the Revolution.

Conversely, with the victory at Yorktown, many Americans believed the war was over. Over 8,000 British and Hessian troops were captured along with vast amounts of supplies, arms and munitions. The victory enabled many supporters to at least believe that independence was in sight and the war would end soon. 

Q: What type of research did you do for this book, and did you learn anything that particularly intrigued you?

A: I relied heavily on many thoroughly researched articles in the Journal of the American Revolution and the blog, Boston 1775.

In addition, my favorite memoir is by Private Joseph P. Martin, a Connecticut farm boy turned soldier for the duration of the war. He is an acute observer of physical details and a philosopher one moment and a witty humorist the next.

His book, Private Yankee Doodle - Being a Narrative of Some of the Adventures, Dangers and Sufferings of a Revolutionary Soldier, edited by George E. Scheer, is a well-written, eye-witness ground level account of the War, including the battle of Yorktown.

As I did research for this book, I knew of the starvation and suffering of the soldiers at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-1778.

What I learned is that the soldiers suffered constantly throughout the war from lack of food, blankets, shoes and even clothing. And Congress did little to alleviate their plight, despite General Washington's pleas.

It is remarkable that the ordinary soldier, with few exceptions, remained in service. Ill clothed, with rags around their feet, and endured the lack of rations, lack of pay, and legislative lack of concern. I grew to understand the true sacrifice of these soldiers, far beyond that one winter at Valley Forge.

I also had no idea there were integrated units in the Continental Army. Approximately 500 black soldiers were at Valley Forge and the army census for 1778 listed 755 blacks in combat service. Nor did I know that an estimated 5,000 African Americans served in the Continental Army or Navy.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am writing the sixth and final novel in the series. I have a general idea what will happen to the characters but they have surprised me in the past by taking me in unforeseen directions and may do so again. Hopefully, this novel will be published in June 2019.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Several of my readers have suggested that I follow Will and Elizabeth and their growing family in the next decade after independence, say up to 1800.

I have not yet decided whether or not to do so. Instead of writing another historical novel, I may want to write short stories. I am tempted to try a different genre but I have plenty of time to make up my mind.

First, I will finish the series that I began six years ago in the winter of 1775 with General Knox's noble train of artillery struggling through the Berkshires from Lake George to Cambridge.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Martin R. Ganzglass.

Aug. 18

Aug. 18, 1944: Paula Danziger born.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Q&A with Christina June

Christina June, photo by Hannah Bjorndal
Christina June is the author of the new young adult novel Everywhere You Want to Be, based on the Little Red Riding Hood story. She also has written the YA novel It Started With Goodbye, a modern-day Cinderella retelling. She is a school counselor, and she lives in Virginia.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Everywhere You Want to Be, a modern-day Little Red Riding Hood story?

A: I knew Tilly, the "evil" stepsister from my first book It Started With Goodbye, had a story to tell, and after going with my good friend, Lisa Maxwell, on a research trip to New York (for her New York Times bestseller The Last Magician), I wanted to write a New York book too! 

And what better substitute for the evil forest in Little Red Riding Hood than the skyscrapers of NYC? The rest just fell into place as I began to brainstorm.

Q: What did you see as the right blend of the traditional fairy tale and your new characters?

A: A lot of fairy tales we loved as children have just a few really recognizable elements, but when you dig deeper, it's the themes that stick with us. 

I wanted to make sure the things we associate with the story were there--the red cape, the big bad wolf, Grandma, the basket of bread--but that I also stayed true to what the story is really about. 

It's a cautionary tale about a girl striking out on her own. Ultimately, things work out okay in the end, but not without some complications. When I'm adapting a fairy tale, I look for those "must have" items and then work in the new elements after those are in place.

Q: Do you usually plot out your novels before you start writing, or do you make changes along the way?

A: I normally plot a lot in my head, both in terms of characters and conflict, but this is the book that forced me to write it all down in advance. I sold on proposal, which meant writing a detailed synopsis (seven pages!) and three chapters months before I wrote the whole thing. 

A lot changed in the synopsis, but once it was accepted, not much changed when I sat down to write. I hated it, but in the long run, I think changing my process has really helped me. 

Now I can't imagine writing without doing the synopsis ahead of time. My first drafts are much cleaner and there are less big ticket items to revise, which is great because I am not a lover of revisions.

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?

A: I'm a huge fan of Judy Blume--all-time favorite author. I grew up reading a lot of V.C. Andrews, L.M. Montgomery, and Christopher Pike. In current YA, I love Miranda Kenneally, Katy Upperman, Tiffany D. Jackson, Jenn Bennett, Marci Lyn Curtis and Brigid Kemmerer. 

In adult, I've really enjoyed Alyssa Cole, Liane Moriarty, Helen Huang, Kevin Kwan, Celeste Ng, Taylor Jenkins Reid and Jane Green.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am headed into copy edits on my 2019 book, No Place Like Here, which is a modern twist on Hansel & Gretel. Ashlyn thinks she's going home after a year in boarding school, but instead, she learns her dad's going to jail, her mom's going to rehab, and she's off to work at a wilderness retreat center with her estranged cousin. 

It's about a girl finding her voice and I'm excited for it to be out in the world next spring!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I've got a couple of events coming up in August--8/25 in Richmond, Virginia (with Katy Upperman) and 8/31 in Arlington, Virginia (with Sandhya Menon).  I'd love to say hello to readers who want to drop by!  Check my website for more info.

And, if you're into newsletters, my subscribers are the first to know about events, giveaways and new stuff.

Thanks for hosting me!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 17

Aug. 17, 1924: Evan S. Connell born.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Q&A with Jane Lazarre

Jane Lazarre is the author of the memoir The Communist and the Communist's Daughter, which focuses on her father. Her other books include Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness and The Mother Knot. She has taught at the City College of New York, Yale University, and the New School, and she lives in New York City.

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

A: I decided to write this memoir about my father over 40 years after his death for many reasons – some formal and intellectual, and some in Toni Morrison’s words, “deep story” reasons.

I realized I had large gaps in my knowledge of my father’s life as an immigrant, not even knowing what ship he came on from Kishinev, Romania in the early 1900s, nor much about his life in the American Communist Party, nor of his experiences as a volunteer in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s.

I knew he had been in prison in Philadelphia as a young man for making a political speech, but I did not know much more than that. Finally, I had in my possession a huge FBI file I had obtained many years before, and I wanted to make use of it.

As to formal reasons, I have written memoir as well as fiction since I began writing 50 years ago. I lean toward memoir when I want to explore what I feel is the undisguised truth of my experience, and I love the form for its broad possibilities of voice and point of view.

For example, in this memoir I use some of the forms of fiction, imagining experiences from my father’s point of view, what he might have thought or felt at critical times in his life.

Inspired by such writers as Maxine Hong Kingston and Amos Oz, I alert the reader to these shifts away from my own voice, but I believe I found some entrance into my father’s thoughts – from his letters, from my years of being close to him, from his expressive and undefended nature.

It was important to me to imagine him in this way – though I realize he is not here to approve or disapprove! So this book combines traditional memoir, which often questions the accuracy of memory, some of the forms of fiction, and historical documentation obtained through research.

As to the deep story reasons – I loved my father very much, but we had a relationship also marked by some conflict until his last years. My sons, now in their 40s, have always been inspired by their grandfather, though only one knew him and for only two years.

I wanted to reconcile deeply with my father, reclaim him in a way, to remember the ways I felt loved and respected, as a writer, as a woman and as a daughter -  to explore the ways I was like him.

Because of this deep story, and the research needed, as well as personal events and crises which often interrupt a long work, the book took me about 10 years to write, with some breaks in between to write a series of poems about the writing of the book.

Q: In an August 2017 interview about this book with Lilith magazine, you said, "We are living in frightening abnormal political times in this nation." A year later, how would you characterize these times, and how do you think your father might have reacted to them?

A: We are living in dangerous times. Since the campaign of 2016 and the election of Trump, truth is obscured by blatant lies; long standing American racism is now ever more acceptable in political rhetoric and everyday life; cruelty, especially recently at our border  - where parents and children are separated some of them never to be reunited - has become commonplace, as it is in many other places in the world. 

Friends who were refugees from fascism in the 1930s and ‘40s compare this time to that time in Europe, right before the domination of Hitler and Mussolini.

At that time, Francisco Franco overthrew the Republican government of Spain. Communists and other progressives all over the world warned that Hitler and Mussolini were supplying Franco with arms – arms, supported by large American oil companies – which would ultimately defeat the Republic.

So, I have no doubt that my father would have seen clearly the dangers we are in now. I know he would have written, and witnessed, and done whatever he could do to resist the incipient and overt tyrannies we are facing, as he did all his life.

My father was a Communist from the age of 17 in Romania, to his 60s, when the direction of the American Communist Party diverged dramatically from his ideals, not long after the atrocities of Stalin were admitted to by Khrushchev. 

But he was also, like so many immigrants, a passionate believer in democracy, and he believed democracy, despite all its failings in the United States, was, as Nelson Mandela said, an idea worth living and dying for.

Q: Growing up, how much did you know about your father's political views, and how did his views influence yours?

A: Like most of the children of Communist families I knew, I was heavily influenced by my father’s beliefs and ideals. We were taught how to deal with FBI agents who followed us to school and asked us questions about our parents.

All the people I knew when I was a child were either Communists or “sympathizers.”  I was loved by and loved many of them – friends, aunts and uncles, an art teacher, writers and actors who were blacklisted by McCarthy and never worked again.

When my father appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee – a transcript that is partially included in the book – I was old enough to understand what was happening: that he was in danger of deportation though he was a citizen; that he was courageous in his responses and refused to name names; old enough to defend myself against neighbors who assured us that our parents were “dirty Reds” and would be sent to prison for their beliefs.

We had regular “Sunday Night Discussions” about politics and books by writers such as Howard Fast and Maxim Gorky. I never read Capital until years later as the works of Marx were never pushed on us, though some works, such as the Manifesto, were made available if we wished to read it, which I did. All of these experiences I included in my memoir.

Another factor added to the power of this influence. My younger sister and I lost our mother to cancer when we were very young, and so our father was our only parent. He was a devoted and consistent single parent long before that identity was named, when many fathers would not have assumed that responsibility.

Although I had to learn to cope with his depressions as his world fell apart in crucial ways, as well as of his sometimes criticisms of me, I never doubted his love.

He informed the Party, which frequently sent Communist organizers “underground” or far from home during that time, that once my mother died he could no longer accept such assignments. His priority was clearly his “girls.” 

He died when we were only in our 20s. He knew only one of his four grandchildren, but before he died I was able to create a new and rich closeness to him, along with my husband and my young son, both of whom my father adored. The story of this period is also in the memoir.

Q: What do your family members think of the book, and what impact did the book have on them--and on you?

A: For me, the book, once written, and then even more so when it was published in a beautiful edition by Duke University Press, has been a profound reconciliation – with my memories, with some of my sadness finally relieved, with a more concrete and powerful sense of the commitment and dignity my father expressed, both personally and politically, throughout his life.

For the ways in which we failed to understand each other, as is the case in most families, I think I have forgiven both of us.

My sons, always inspired by the legacy of their grandfather, have been supportive and grateful for the stories I was able to recreate in this work. My husband and sons are African American, deeply influenced by the struggles of Black Americans throughout history.

My husband grew up in total segregation in the South and was involved in the fight for Civil Rights, as was his family. Both our sons feel fortunate to share these legacies of their grandparents on both sides, though they grew up knowing only their paternal grandmother well. They are filled with her stories, as they are filled with my father’s. As grown men, their lives and work are inspired by this inheritance.

Other family members have expressed gratitude for the research now available to generations to come, or were moved by the stories I have told. I am especially glad that my granddaughter will have this memoir to read at different times in her life.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am in the early stages of a novel that is in some ways based on my long relationship with my mother-in-law. I am also collecting about 100 poems I have written over the past 10 years which I have never organized or tried to publish.

In addition, I have written and continue to write and speak about the politics of our time, publishing various essays about race and racism on line as well as in collections edited by others.

This includes “Where Do They Keep the White People,” originally published by TruthOut, soon to be translated into Spanish and Catalan as I am participating in a large biennial there about the dangers now facing democracy and the strong edifices that remain and will always remain.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My life’s work has been to write memoir and fiction that is both literary and political. I reject any false split between these two forces in my life or in our collective life.

My memoir about being a white woman raising Black sons, (Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness) and my novel (Inheritance) are both centered on this theme, one I have learned from and been inspired by the African American writers I have read and taught for many years.

My equally passionate life’s work has been being a mother, and learning from my children as well as from other writers, such as Sara Ruddick, Adrienne Rich and many others, the critical political, as well as the deep story, work that mothers do. I began this effort with my first memoir (The Mother Knot). 

In my new novel about my mother-in-law, I hope to continue this search for the truths of this central identity to human life in general, as well as to my life in particular. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 16

Aug. 16, 1888: T.E. Lawrence born.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Q&A with Inman Majors

Inman Majors is the author of the new novel Penelope Lemon: Game On!. His other books include Love's Winning Plays and The Millionaires. He is a professor of English at James Madison University, and he lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Penelope Lemon?   

A: The idea for the book came after years of coaching my son’s youth baseball teams in Waynesboro, Virginia, a small Appalachian town over the mountain from Charlottesville.  

My teams were populated primarily by kids with single moms who worked at the Little Debbie factory, the Target distribution center, and other places where they punched the clock.

I admired the toughness of these women, their moxie, good humor, and grace.  They seemed to keep a lot of balls in the air at once—working tough jobs, taking kids to sports practices, worrying about the oil light on their cars—and to do so with sense of self intact.

These were women in their 20s and 30s, most of them with more than one child to raise, most of them living paycheck to paycheck. It struck me that they didn’t feel particularly put-upon by life.

This was life: scrambling to be in two places at once, scrambling to pay bills, scrambling when life throws you a curveball like a blown head gasket on the car or the sudden loss of a job.  

The character in this book is something of an homage to all the cool small-town women I’ve known in my life.

I’m also the son of a divorced working mom, one with a great sense of humor and an unshakeable fighting spirit. I decided to fashion a comedy about the same sort of person, one accustomed to meeting life on its own absurd terms. 

Finally, my wife and have had a lot of friends who have gone through divorce and we’ve heard a number of amusing/interesting/strange stories about being middle-aged and dating—as a mom—in the social media era. 
I was always sympathetic to their plight, even when they were laughingly telling us some wild tale or another. 

Through these various, somewhat intertwining, influences was born Penelope Lemon.

Q: What was it like to write from her perspective?

A: To be honest, I didn’t give it much thought. That may sound like a strange answer, but when I teach my fiction writing students at JMU, the first thing I suggest is that the best narration comes down to inhabiting the main character. 

That is, rather than observing the character from afar, it is preferable to become the character. Faulkner said that all good writers are frustrated actors, and I agree, especially if you want to establish a sense of immediacy for your reader. 

So when I sat down to write, Inman Majors went somewhere, and I became Penelope Lemon.

The whole time I was writing, I wasn’t thinking, what would a woman do here? I was thinking, what would a person do here?  How would I react, this weird schizophrenic Penelope Lemon/Inman Majors sensibility at work.

I guess the short answer is I don’t think male/female brains are that different. But, to be safe, I did have my wife, Christy, read the novel chapter by chapter and asked her if anything ever felt false. 

She deserves a producer’s credit for this one, as we brainstormed plot points together, character motivation, and things of that nature. We were partners in crime with Penelope Lemon.

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 never know how my books are going to end up.  The not knowing—the mystery of the process—is the best part of writing fiction.

It’s scary sometimes that you have to go down a blind alley and not know for sure you’re going to come out the other end, but also exciting. It’s like an adventure you’re creating for yourself, making a world up as you go.

When I’m writing a comedy, for example, I’m trying first of all to make myself laugh. My office is right off of our kitchen and serves essentially as our mud room where the kids come in from the carport and dump all their junk. Invariably, there are four pairs of shoes scattered about. 

I realized that I’m a writer who likes a little commotion, a little distraction, while I’m writing, otherwise I get a little too lonely. Anyway, I can’t count the times Christy and the kids have said, “Listen, Dad’s laughing at his own jokes again,” when they hear me chuckling in the office.

So I agree with Robert Frost: “no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” I’m not sure I could finish a book if I knew how it ended before I ever set out.  It would be like doing a puzzle a second time. 

I did know that Penelope’s situation would be improved by the end of the book. That’s the essence of comedy: the book/movie usually starts out with the protagonist at a low point, with the fates seemingly unflinchingly aligned against them.

But, by the end, through guile, toughness, and perhaps just an overdue change of luck, they come out all right. Penelope goes through a lot in this one, but I think you can kind of tell all along that she’s going to pull through.

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers, especially those who bring a lot of humor into their work?

A: I am a huge fan of P.G. Wodehouse and his Bertie/Jeeves books, specifically the way he balances absurd humor with eloquence of language. My idea is to duplicate this stylish balance in a similar series of books. 

I also love Charles Portis, especially Norwood. I like the way he portrays working class rural folks in a way that doesn’t seem stereotypical.

Other favorite comedic novels would be Why Did I Ever by Mary Robinson, Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, Moo by Jane Smiley and the Moby Dick of comedy: John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, which sets the standard for comedic brilliance.

Q: What are you working on now?

The sequel to Penelope Lemon: Game On! Right now I’m calling it Operation Dimwit. As I mention above, I’d love to write a number of Penelope Lemon books.

I’ve spent over half my life in small, rural towns—and have a whole universe of characters in my head. I think I’d like to do my own comedic Yoknapatawpha County as Faulkner did with Oxford, Mississippi.   

In a perfect world, I’d spend a lot more time in the fictitious town of Hillsboro, Virginia. It’s a place I like to visit. Nothing really bad ever happens and there are a lot of funny, goofy people to hang out with. That’s my kind of place.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Penelope Lemon is a short, light, funny read that I think of as the love child of an R-rated Mary Tyler Moore and Parks and Rec. It’s meant to be literary and stylish, but also goofy and fun. Bridget Jones in a ribald Mayberry. 

I’m very fond of Penelope Lemon. She’s not fake, and bad fortune is simply not going to keep her down for long. She’s the kind of friend you could count on in the clutch and a great—if unconventional—mom. 

I’ve been fortunate to be friends with a number of women like Penelope—funny, smart, slightly subversive—and just straight cool.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 15

Aug. 15, 1858: E. Nesbit born.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Q&A with Vanessa Hua

Vanessa Hua is the author of the new novel A River of Stars. She also has written the story collection Deceit and Other Possibilities. She is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Atlantic and Guernica. She lives in San Francisco.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for A River of Stars, and for your character Scarlett?

A: While living in Southern California and pregnant with my twin sons, I began reading news stories about mysterious maternity hotels.

Neighbors were asking why there were so many pregnant Chinese women coming and going from suburban homes. The trash cans outside were piled high with diapers and empty cans of formula. It sounded like a brothel in reverse!

It turns out that there’s underground industry to house these women who were coming to the U.S. to give birth, so that their children would have American citizenship. What was it like, I wondered, to be so far from home and family at one of the most vulnerable times in your life?

When I was pregnant, I found that people treated me very kindly, very generously, offering me a place at the front of the line, or giving up their seat.

But when you have a dozen pregnant women under one roof, who gets the good wishes, who gets the sympathy—who is the Queen Bee? It seemed like a situation ripe for drama and comedy.

As for Scarlett, she’s one of many immigrant strivers that you’ll find in my fiction and in my journalism. I’ve long been fascinated by the journeys they undertake, leaving behind everything to build a life in a new country.

Q: During the course of the book, the main character and the young woman she meets both give birth. What do you think the book says about motherhood, and also about friendship?

A: The transition to motherhood is difficult—even if you aren’t on the run, even if you have the support of your partner and your parents. Scarlett and Daisy spar and snipe with each other, with tensions sparked by differences in class, in age, but come to rely on each other, forming a ragtag family all their own.

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

A: In Chinese myth, the cow-herder and fairy weaver fall in love. The fairy’s mother, the Goddess of Heaven, parts the lovers, but once a year, a bridge of magpies allows them to reunite. For me, the story signifies the longing and loss not only between the couples in the novel, but also of immigrants, and of mothers and daughters.

Q: Scarlett, who is from China, is living in the U.S. on a temporary visa. What do you hope readers take away from her story when it comes to immigration issues?

A: I’m deeply troubled by the rising xenophobic anti-immigrant rhetoric that casts newcomers as criminals, as leeches, that doesn’t reflect the complexity of an individual’s history and circumstances and motivations.

When you deny someone their story, you deny their humanity, and in Scarlett’s story, I hope that readers may aspects they can identify and relate to, and that they’ll enter a vibrant new world, that they will want to share with others.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A teasing glimpse of documentary footage inspired my current project: the jowly Chairman Mao surrounded by giggling teenage dancers. Intrigued, I imagined how one of his lovers might have influenced the course of the country’s youth revolution.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Vanessa Hua.

Q&A with Amy Blumenfeld

Amy Blumenfeld is the author of the new novel The Cast, which focuses on a group of childhood friends who reunite 25 years later. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and The Huffington Post, and she lives in New York.

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

A: There were a few sources of inspiration for this book.

The first was a videotape made by 10 families (40 people in total comprised of my parents’ friends and their children) from our community in Queens, N.Y.

Like the video in The Cast, it was 90 minutes of complete silliness with the single goal of making me laugh while I was in the hospital undergoing treatment for cancer. This was one of the greatest gifts I have ever received and a model for true friendship.

The second source of inspiration was the master’s project I wrote in graduate school about adult survivors of childhood cancer.  I spent several months learning about the physical and psychological long-term effects of childhood cancer treatment and meeting and interviewing medical experts, patients, and their loved ones.

At graduation, my professor suggested I turn the project into a book. Given that I needed a job with a regular salary and benefits after graduation, I couldn’t devote the time at age 23 to writing a book, so whenever I had the chance, I’d write a section and then save it in the “Book” file on my computer, but it never flowed or felt right.

But then….I turned 40. My friends and I were all having these deep conversations about relationships, religion, parenting, where we were in our lives, where we thought we would be at this point, what we hoped to accomplish, etc… and I suddenly had an idea.

Why not combine the important messages from the master’s project with the fascinating topics my friends and I were discussing and weave them all together into a novel that centered on a group of friends?

So, I back-burnered the idea of a non-fiction book, created a bunch of relatable characters and interesting story lines and decided to write the type of book I liked to read – thought-provoking, smart, and fun contemporary fiction.

I had no formal experience writing fiction, but hoped that my passion for the characters and the issues I wanted to bring to light would propel me through the process.

Q: What do you think the novel says about friendship?

A: True, quality friendships really do matter. They can change the course of your life.

Q: You tell the story from a variety of perspectives. Did you write the novel in the order in which it appears, or did you move things around?

A: For the most part, I wrote the novel in the order in which it appears. I did go back and enhance certain sections after finishing the first draft, but I found writing it chronologically to be the most logical way to approach it given that most of the book takes place over the course of a weekend.

When I finished writing each chapter I decided which character I wanted to hear from next. That’s how I determined the order of the voices.

Q: Did you know how the book would end before you started writing it?

A: No! I didn’t know how the book would end! It’s amazing how these characters take on a life of their own. The book ended very differently in the first draft.

When I finished that first round, I sent it to some friends and while some liked the ending as is, others found it to be too predictable. They wanted more of a surprise. So when I went back to make revisions, I changed the ending and that twist added a whole new layer to the book.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now I’m working on my next novel but can’t say much about it just yet.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I am extremely grateful for all the support and interest The Cast and I have received. Thank you!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 14

Aug. 14, 1925: Russell Baker born.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Q&A with Laura Shovan

Laura Shovan, photo by Linda Joy Burke
Laura Shovan is the author of Takedown, a new middle-grade novel for kids. Her other books include The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary and Mountain, Log, Salt, and Stone. She lives in Maryland.

Q: You note that you became interested in wrestling when your son was involved with the sport. What inspired your characters Mikayla and Lev?

A: My son started wrestling in second grade and stuck with the sport through middle school. There’s a lot of my son in Lev’s character, including his best wrestling friends, the Fearsome Threesome.

When our family was active in the sport, there were no girls on my son’s teams. It was rare to see a girl competing at tournaments. By the time I started working on Takedown, that was changing. Over the past several years, women’s wrestling has been growing as a sport.

I had a lot of fun developing Mikayla’s character. Through her, I got to write about what it’s like to be a girl in a male-dominated space.

Q: In our previous interview, you said you focused on fifth grade in your last novel in part because it marked a transitional year for kids. Why did you decide to focus on sixth graders this time?

A: I like the way that starting middle school echoes what’s happening in Lev and Mickey’s sports lives. At the beginning of sixth grade, they’re both learning to navigate the shifting friendships and greater demands of middle school.

Those changes are also happening on their wrestling team, the Gladiators. Lev is trying to understand where he fits on the team. How competitive does he want to be? Is it worth leaving friends behind to reach his goals? For Mikayla, joining an all-boys’ team for the first time means figuring out how to survive in a new culture.

Q: Your previous novel was written in verse, while this novel includes some verse, but is mostly in prose. Why did you choose this format?

A: My initial notes for this book were in verse – little poetic sketches I’d make at my son’s practices and tournaments. When I started working on the book, though, I heard Lev and Mikayla’s voices in prose.

Although Lev writes some poems in the novel – they are a creative outlet for him -- that’s not how his mind works. Lev is the kind of kid who has a running monologue going on in his brain at all times.

Mikayla, on the other hand, is just naturally talkative. Her personality is loud and a little bit brash. For these two characters, working in prose felt more natural than verse.

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

A: When I’m writing, I’m not focused on the takeaway, but on telling a good story. I hope Lev and Mikayla are relatable characters, even for readers who aren’t into sports.

For me, Takedown is a friendship story set in the world of youth wrestling. That friendship happens to be between a girl athlete and a boy who feels really uncomfortable sharing mat-space with her.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Something new! I’m co-writing a book with a friend. It’s about two girls who are both first-generation American, but from very different cultures. They meet in an after-school cooking club.

My co-author and I are enjoying the process of drafting alternating chapters. Each of us is taking the lead on one of the two main characters. And I’m having a great time making their club’s recipes at home.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: For those who’d like more information about girls’ wrestling, check out the Wrestle Like a Girl Foundation. I’m donating copies of Takedown to girls in their empowerment workshops. It’s a great organization.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Laura Shovan.