Monday, November 12, 2018

Q&A with Laura Marshall


Laura Marshall is the author of the new novel Three Little Lies. She also has written the novel Friend Request. She lives in Kent, England.

Q: Three Little Lies centers on a rape case. Why did you choose to focus on that, and how do you think the book resonates in the #MeToo era?

A: As we know all too well since the explosion of #MeToo stories on social media, sexual assault or harassment is something that has been experienced by pretty much every woman. I was interested in exploring the impact of that on my characters. I also wanted to tell a story where anybody could be lying.

Q: You tell the story from several perspectives. Did you focus more on one character before turning to the others, or did you write it in the order in which it appears?

A: I wrote it pretty much in the order it appears. When I’m writing a first draft, although I have a plan, I don’t always know exactly what’s going to happen, so I prefer to write chronologically. That way the story unfolds naturally, and I can adapt the plan as I go along.

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

A: The relationship between Sasha and Ellen suggests that we can never truly know our friends. Whilst I don’t think this is universally true, I have certainly had friendships in my life where there were things going on beneath the surface that I couldn’t see at the time.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I can’t start my writing day until I’ve had at least one cup of tea and one cup of coffee!

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

Nov. 12

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Nov. 12, 1915: Roland Barthes born.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Q&A with Dawn Raffel


Dawn Raffel, photo by Claire Holt
Dawn Raffel is the author of the new book The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies. Her other books include The Secret Life of Objects and Further Adventures in the Restless Universe. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including O, the Oprah Magazine, which she helped launch; BOMB; and New Philosopher.

Q: How did you learn about Martin Couney, and at what point did you decide to write a book about him?

A: I thought I was going to write a novel set at the Chicago world's fair of 1933-34, and was doing some research when I stumbled across an eye-popping photo of the incubator sideshow. I found it extraordinarily strange--on first sight, a mashup of voyeurism, commerce, and the commodification of human life.

Then I discovered that this same doctor was also on Coney Island for 40 years. That did it. I put aside the novel in order to get to the bottom of this story, which turned out to be very different from what I had imagined. What had at first appeared to be exploitation turned out to be a heroic act of rescue.

Q: The book jumps around from one time period to another. Did you write it in the order in which it appears, or did you move things around as you wrote?

A: There are really two threads--one moves pretty much chronologically through Martin Couney's lifetime and the other follows the investigation after his death. I know there are people who'd have preferred a straight-shot, chronological narrative--but I did try it that way, and it felt curiously flat.

I wanted to layer it for a couple of reasons.

First, I wanted to show how history is unpeeled--it's never the work of one person, and so I thought I'd pull back the curtain and show the reader the bewilderment of the prominent late 20th century doctors trying to get to the bottom of this story, and show my own exertions as well.

Secondly, I wanted the reader to meet the "babies" who are still alive, as this historical story and the issues it raises have a toehold in the present. Finally, I hoped to heighten the narrative tension by structuring it the way I did.

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

A: Researching the book was a bear because Martin Couney had left so few records and had fabricated so much of his story—and because this story took place both in Europe and in many different American cities where he had exhibitions.

So my research included: scouring archives throughout the country for any and all records of his exhibitions, especially recorded conversations and correspondence with the concessions committees; finding still-living people who recalled him; pulling out probate records, immigration, naturalizations, birth, marriage, and death records, property deeds, and passports.

Poring through countless old newspapers and magazines and posting on world's fair message boards. Listening to never-transcribed interviews recorded on cassette tapes in the 1960s and 70s with people connected to this story.

And reading a great many books and scholarly articles: histories of neonatology, of the eugenics movement, of world's fairs, of Coney Island and Atlantic City, plus many novels of that era in an effort to capture the flavor.

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

A: I'd like to give Martin Couney his due--he certainly wasn't perfect, but the good he did far, far outweighs his deceptions, and he is the rightful father of American neonatology.

And I'd also like for people to consider the ways medical technology continues to force us to make decisions about which lives have value. Which lives will we save? Where will be put our resources? Prematurity remains a leading cause of infant mortality throughout the world. Who decides who gets to live?

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm taking a breather! It's a little scary not to have an immediate "project" but it might be a while before something takes hold. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Since the book came out, I've had a ball meeting and hearing from more of Dr. Couney's surviving "babies." The oldest is 98 and sharp as a tack. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 11

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Nov. 11, 1922: Kurt Vonnegut born.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Q&A with Tami Charles


Tami Charles is the author of Definitely Daphne, a new novel for kids. She also has written Like Vanessa. A former teacher, she's based in New Jersey.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Definitely Daphne, and for your character Annabelle?

A: Capstone actually approached me with a general idea for this story. From there, I had creative license to expand the idea. My favorite addition to the idea was adding in the military theme.

Q: What do you think the book says about the impact of online media on how kids see themselves?


A: Online media can be equal parts empowering and intimidating. In the beginning of the novel, I believe Daphne was definitely more intimidated by it, hence her decision to disguise herself. But in the end, she realizes how something good can come of it, especially since she is able to help one of the characters in the book.

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?

A: My list is quite long, but I absolutely adore the work of Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Kwame Alexander, Rita Williams-Garcia, Guadalupe Garcia McCall, Jacqueline Woodson, and Meg Medina.

Q: You also have a picture book, Freedom Soup, coming out next year. What can you tell us about that?

A: Freedom Soup celebrates the history behind the Haitian tradition of ringing in the New Year by eating soup joumou. It publishes in December 2019.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Currently, I’m working on some new picture books. I’ve spent the past year writing three novels, so it feels really good to get back to picture books. I’m also planning to write a new middle grade novel in the near future. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a link to a previous Q&A with Tami Charles, and here's a link to the book trailer for Definitely Daphne.

Nov. 10

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Nov. 10, 1960: Neil Gaiman born.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Q&A with Alan Silberberg


Alan Silberberg is the author and illustrator of the new children's picture book Meet the Latkes, which focuses on a family of potato pancakes getting ready for the holiday of Chanukah. His other books include Milo and Pond Scum, and he's written for the children's cartoon programs Double Dare and The All-New Mickey Mouse Club.  He lives in Montreal.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for the Latke family?

A: Meet the Latkes was born from a silly holiday animation that I created years ago for family and friends. It was just a fun procrastination project I did using Flash animation and featured a family of latkes wishing everyone “Happy Holidays.”  

I’d post the cartoon every year and send it to my agent and other publishing pals and after the third year receiving it, my agent Jill Grinberg said, “You know what? This would make a fun picture book.”

Honestly I’d never thought about that. At the time I was working strictly in middle grade and though I love to doodle never considered I was a “picture book” guy. But the seed was planted and I started working on a manuscript and creating sample artwork based on the characters in the cartoon

Q: Did you work on the illustrations and the text simultaneously, or focus more on one and then turn to the other?

A: Great question because I am the kind of creative person who needs more than one thing going on so I can switch back and forth when I get stuck or bored. I wrote the text for the story while also doing sample artwork.

But here’s the thing: The story I wrote that got sent to publishers was pretty much rejected by EVERYONE! The biggest note we got back was that in the original text I had the Latke Family preparing for Hanukkah and they were making latkes. Editors were like, “So it’s about cannibal potato pancakes?”…

Lucky for my Latkes, Leila Sales, who was still with Penguin/Viking, loved the sense of humor and style and asked if I would be willing to edit the text and work with her before she could commit to the book.

In publishing the doors sometimes open in funny ways and I jumped at the chance to collaborate with Leila, who is brilliant. She helped balance the silliness of Grandpa’s far-out story with some of the more “accurate” story from the voice of Applesauce, the dog. Her input was invaluable to making it a better book and ultimately in getting it published!

Oh, and once the book was officially being published I worked with Denise Cronin (art director extraordinaire) to create characters that were a little less buffoonish than my originals… and no teeth!

Q: How much do you assume kids reading the book know about Chanukah?

A: I think that most of the kids who gravitate to my book will know anywhere from a little to a lot about CHHHH-anukah! (as Grandpa would say). By making the story an exaggeration and misunderstanding of the holiday’s origins - some kids will get that immediately.

For any kid who is unfamiliar or just a little bit informed about the holiday the humor and “tall-tale” serves the purpose of bringing them into the book, and Applesauce, the straight man, debunks the silly with more facts.

So no matter how little or how much you know before opening the book, I think you close it with a smile and at the very least an understanding of the Hanukkah symbols.

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

A: One of my goals in creating the book is that I really wanted to tell the Chanukah story with humor. If readers get anything from my book, I hope it is that Hanukkah stories, like Christmas stories, can be told in many, many ways.  

I know of holiday books that are somber and holiday books that are incredible silly and though every one of these books imparts some sort of message about the holiday I like knowing that I am adding my silly-goofy voice to the mix.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m currently working on several projects - a middle grade novel that is a collaboration with Erica Perl, who I met last spring when we both participated in the PJ Library Author Trip to Israel.

I am also finishing my own middle grade book that is part graphic novel and part magical adventure.

And because I still have a foot in the TV world, I’m busy developing my novel Milo into an animated TV series.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Hmm…. I make really great latkes without eggs because my wife is allergic!  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 9

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Nov. 9, 1731: Benjamin Banneker born.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Q&A with Matthew D. Hockenos


Matthew D. Hockenos is the author of the new biography Then They Came for Me: Martin Niemöller, the Pastor Who Defied the Nazis. He also has written A Church Divided: German Protestants Confront the Nazi Past. He is the Harriet Johnson Toadvine '56 Professor of 20th Century History at Skidmore College, and he lives in Round Lake, New York.

Q: Why did you decide to write this biography of Martin Niemöller?

Today few Americans recognize the name Martin Niemöller (1892-1984). Many people, however, are aware of the German pastor’s famous post-World War II poetic confession:

First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.

I wanted to take a closer, more critical look at the man behind the celebrated quotation.

Then They Came for Me tells the whole story of Niemöller’s life: his conservative Protestant upbringing in Germany; his experience commanding German U-boats in World War I; his animosity toward liberals and Jews; his initial support for Nazism; his later struggle with Hitler; his incarceration in Nazi concentration camps; and finally, his embrace of pacifism and peace movements during the Cold War.

On a lighter note, the book also portrays Niemöller as a loving father of seven children (two of whom died in World War II), a caring husband, a devoted pastor, and a charming albeit stubborn man. Despite his blemished past, I found him likable, and I wanted to explore what was behind his contradictory actions/positions.

Q: You describe the book as "a revisionist biography." How does your view of Niemöller differ from those of other scholars, and what would you say are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions of him?

A: The biographies of Niemöller that exist are flawed—they treat him as a hero of the resistance to Hitler, which he was not. I seek to revise this common misconception by showing that Niemöller’s opposition to Hitler was directed solely at the Nazi’s policy toward the Protestant Church, not Hitler’s persecution of Jews and others.

Into his 40s, Niemöller was a supporter of right-wing causes, casting his vote for the Nazi Party in 1924 and again in 1933. Niemöller’s opposition to Hitler’s persecution of the Protestant Church was courageous but his resistance should not be exaggerated. Right-wing anti-Semitic Germans like Niemöller were responsible for aiding Hitler’s rise to power.

Although we cannot call Niemöller a hero because of his limited opposition, we can applaud his political and moral evolution after World War II from right-wing conservative nationalist to left-wing humanitarian pacifist.

Q: How did you research this book, and what did you learn that especially surprised or intrigued you?

A: I conducted research in multiple archives in Europe and the United States, including years of research in the archive that houses Niemöller’s vast correspondence located in Darmstadt, Germany.

What intrigued me the most about Niemöller was the extent to which he was an active and prominent participant in so many of the dramatic events and changes that marked German history in the 20th-century: the First World War, the Weimar Republic, the Second World War, and the Cold War.

The popular Protestant weekly The Christian Century captured this aspect of Niemöller’s persona perfectly: “Martin Niemöller seems always to live at the center of a storm. That’s because he says and does what his conscience approves without bothering too long about consequences.”

Q: You write, "Niemöller's legacy to the twenty-first century is mixed." What are some examples of his legacy today?

A: I say that Niemöller’s legacy to the 21st century is mixed because what we need today more than ever are inspiring examples of men and women whose compassion and benevolence helped to improve the lives of the less fortunate and persecuted peoples of the world. Niemöller failed on this account during the first half of his life.

However, his legacy also includes the inspiring example of his willingness to change: Niemöller the U-Boat commander became Niemöller the Lutheran pastor; Niemöller the Nazi voter became Niemöller the Nazi resister; Niemöller the ultra-nationalist became Niemöller the world Christian leader; Niemöller the anti-Semite became Niemöller the critic of racism and apartheid; Niemöller the anti-Communist became Niemöller the left-wing activist.

Perhaps Niemöller’s greatest legacy to this century is his poetic confession that encourages us to take a firm stance against racism and injustice.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: In truth, I’m taking a much-needed break from researching and writing. I am a full-time college professor with teaching responsibilities. I want to spend less time in an archive or hunched over a computer and more time with my family and students.

That said, I have plans to write a short reader-friendly monograph on the history of the Church Struggle in Nazi Germany.

With few exceptions, the available monographs on this topic are big detailed tomes written for fellow church historians and other academics. It is unlikely that the average reader or an undergraduate student interested in how the German churches responded to Hitler’s regime would get past the first few pages of these texts.

The topic deserves an accessible monograph in narrative form that could be assigned in undergraduate courses on the Nazi era and the Holocaust and would be appealing to a lay audience.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I felt an enormous burden of responsibility while writing Then They Came for Me because I wanted to get Niemöller’s biography right. Scrutinizing a person’s life and laying it out for others to see carries with it the obligation to treat the subject accurately, fairly, and humanely.

I think this book strikes the right balance between criticism of Niemöller’s early intolerance and praise for his later humanitarianism.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 8

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Nov. 8, 1847: Bram Stoker born.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Q&A with Marissa Moss


Marissa Moss. Photo: Harcourt School Publishers
Marissa Moss is the author of the new children's picture book The Eye That Never Sleeps: How Detective Pinkerton Saved President Lincoln. Her many other books include Barbed Wire Baseball and Nurse, Soldier, Spy. She lives in Berkeley, California.

Q: You write that your great-uncle, a Pinkerton detective, was the inspiration for your new book. How did the book take shape, and why did you focus on Pinkerton's effort to save Lincoln's life in 1860?

A: I wanted to restore Pinkerton's reputation. Now when you say Pinkerton, people think of the violent strikebreakers, the agency that sided with industry over workers.

But that wasn't Allan Pinkerton; that was his sons later, after his death. Pinkerton himself started out as a workers' advocate in Scotland and had to flee the country when the Crown considered his activities subversive.

Q: What kind of research did you do to write the book, and did you learn anything especially surprising?

A: I started by reading Pinkerton's own writing. He invented a kind of detective story genre by describing his cases in several books. Once I stumbled on his story about the planned assassination attempt, I knew that was the one I wanted to tell.

I read other contemporary descriptions of the case, fascinating to see since there were friends of Lincoln who wanted to tar Pinkerton, to lessen his influence. Politics is politics, even in the 1800s.

Reading Pinkerton himself, I was charmed by his description of working hard to be fair, to not pre-judge any suspects.

Q: What do you think Jeremy Holmes's illustrations add to the book?

A: I love them! The graphic format fits well with the detective feel of the story.

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

A: I'm hoping kids will find history as fun and interesting as I do -- that these are fascinating stories that are actually true!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm working on a book about a woman physicist who should have won the Nobel prize but didn't (instead her male partner did, though he shared the prize money with her in acknowledgment of her contribution).

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Pinkerton is a good example where the common perception of him (strikebreaker, anti-working class) is entirely unfounded once you know the actual history.

We need history to be better taught, so kids see it as interesting stories rather than a boring list of names and dates. I look for those stories that aren't well-known, but should be.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Marissa Moss.

Nov. 7

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Nov. 7, 1913: Albert Camus born.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Q&A with Lawrence Goldstone


Lawrence Goldstone is the author of Unpunished Murder: Massacre at Colfax and the Quest for Justice, a new book for young adults that focuses on the massacre of more than 100 African Americans by white supremacists in Louisiana in 1873, and the subsequent court case. His other books include Higher, Steeper, Faster and Birdmen, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. He lives in Sagaponack, New York.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on the Colfax murders in your new book?

A: The Colfax Massacre was one of those extremely important events in American history that almost no one knows anything about.

In addition to being among the most heinous racially motivated mass murders, it spawned a Supreme Court decision, United States v. Cruikshank in 1876, which set the stage for future Supreme Court decisions that eventually robbed black Americans in the South of virtually all their rights of citizenship. 

Since I was aiming this book at high school students—and their parents—I wanted a story that was both compelling to read and also gave a sense of immense power of Supreme Court to do good or evil.

Q: You write, "The story of Colfax, then, is the story of America..." What lessons can be drawn today from the events you write about?

A: The racial attitudes during the period in which this book is set are frighteningly similar to what we encounter today. And the terrible frustrations encountered by African-American citizens to gain justice after being horrifically brutalized also retains a sadly familiar ring. 

That the United States Supreme Court could be complicit in such injustices, become willfully blind to lynchings, beatings, burnings, and the theft of the right to vote of millions of American citizens puts the rest of us on notice of the necessity to remain involved and to demand of our leaders behavior more in line with the values Americans claim to hold dear.

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

A: Court records are, of course, easy to find, but the best sources were New Orleans newspapers, which both followed the story in great detail and provided totally different perspectives on the events, depending on which side they were on politically. 

A couple of things surprised me. One was the degree to which Supreme Court justices were perfectly happy to allow horrors to be perpetrated in their nation as long as they could pretend to be “following the law.” But they weren’t. They were making it up to suit the racial attitudes of the day. 

While I was not surprised that many African-Americans showed great courage in their willingness to testify against violent white supremacists, I was surprised that were indeed some white people willing to fight ferociously to try to see justice done. Unfortunately, they failed.

Q: How much do you assume young readers know about this period in history?

A: Not much. Nor do I expect them to know much about how the Supreme Court functions, which is why the book begins when the Constitution begins, in Philadelphia in 1787. It moves forward to discuss the Dred Scott case, which I also assume young readers have likely not heard of, and then on to Reconstruction. 

What I am hoping is that by laying out a time line, the story will build suspense as to what will happen to the defendants, white supremacist murderers, when they appeal their convictions to the Supreme Court.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve completed a second book, Stolen Justice: The Struggle for African-American Voting Rights in the Jim Crow South, which details the only occasion in our history in which American citizens that had been granted the right to vote then had it taken away—African-Americans in the South in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. 

Here, as in Unpunished Murder, the Supreme Court played a pivotal role, contorting both the 14th and 15th Amendments to suit the racial attitudes of the day.

Voter suppression will be a major issue in the coming presidential election, and, again, I think it’s vital that these sorts of stories be made available to students, teachers, and parents. It will be published in January 2020.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I undertook these books for a very specific reason. As you know, many of those who had thought Donald Trump’s election unthinkable blamed the stunning ignorance of the American voter. 

How could so many fail to distinguish between legitimate debate about how our government should be administered and diatribe denouncing the institutions of government themselves? 

Part of the answer, I am convinced, lies not in what those intoxicated by Trumpian rhetoric chose to watch and listen to as adults, but that they grew into adulthood with no grounding at all in how American democracy works or is supposed to work. Conspiracy theories, after all, can only sprout from roots of ignorance. 

As our past is a mirror on our present, I hope that Unpunished Murder and Stolen Justice will help to address that ignorance where it began—in school and in the home.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Lawrence Goldstone.

Nov. 6

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Nov. 6, 1921: James Jones born.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Q&A with Martha Freeman


Martha Freeman is the author of the new children's picture book If You're Going to a March. Her many other books for kids include Zap!, Effie Starr Zook Has One More Question, and Mrs. Wow Never Wanted a Cow. She lives in Boulder, Colorado.

Q: What inspired your new book, If You're Going to a March?

A: Like a lot of people, I have found myself going to a lot of marches since January 2017. To make lemonade out of the situation -- this is a good thing. I think many of us were complacent and the current political situation has shaken us awake. (Shaken us "woke"?)

At these marches, there were a lot of kids. Since many of the issues (gun violence, family separation, climate change) disproportionately affect today's kids today and as representatives of future generations -- this made sense.

But I thought young children especially might not know what to expect at a march, and might not know the larger significance of political action in a democracy even if they'd been to one or two. I also thought parents could use a book like mine as a jumping off point for talking with their kids. 

Q: What has been the reaction to the book from readers?

A: Overwhelmingly positive! Happily, many people have said, "This is exactly the book I was looking for my (child/grandchild/niece/neighbor)!"

One blogger especially lauded me for putting portapotties in the book. He didn't think he'd ever seen portapotties in a picture book before. This made me laugh, but I did want to get down to the nitty gritty of marching, and that's definitely part of the deal (along with traffic and parking). 

I anticipated some pushback from adults who don't think kids should be involved in things they don't understand -- at least I think that's the point they're trying to make. There are a couple of online reviews to that effect. To that I (and most readers) say, so leave kids home from Sunday school and science class, too -- God and science are obviously too big for kids to understand. 

Likewise, I've always rejected the idea that kids' books should be written in kids' vocabularies. How do you learn new words (or new ideas) if you're only exposed to what's familiar? I mean, at the most fundamental level, what is a book for? Learning, right? 

Q: What do you think Violet Kim's illustrations add to the book?

A: A whole lot! I was so grateful that Sterling approached her and she accepted. I think they strike just the right tone, playful without trivializing the importance of the message.

Most of my books are middle-grades, so it's been fun to see my words brought to life in illustrations. I particularly like the final spread where you see my kids' various bedrooms -- definite clues to their varied personalities and backgrounds there.

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

A: I hope kids are informed and families are energized to get back out there and march for what they believe in. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A bunch of things, but today (besides answering your thoughtful questions) a hilarious re-telling of Little Red Riding Hood in which Grandma may or may not be a wicked queen, and Bobby Bear (formerly known as Baby) helps her navigate woods and wolf. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Next year I have a nonfiction book in the queue -- Curious Is as Curious Does, 20 Girls who Grew Up to Be Awesome Scientists. It was really fun to research and to write. I learned a ton, and readers will, too. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Martha Freeman.

Nov. 5

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Nov. 5, 1857: Ida Tarbell born.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Q&A with Meghan MacLean Weir


Meghan MacLean Weir is the author of the new novel The Book of Essie. She also has written the memoir Between Expectations: Lessons from a Pediatric Residency. She is a physician in the Boston area.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Book of Essie?

A: I wrote Essie at a time when my parents had moved in with my husband and me to help care for our children. We were incredibly lucky, but it was also challenging at times to be living with my parents as an adult, and it made me reexamine what it had meant to me, growing up, to be the daughter of a small-town Episcopal priest and to always feel as if I was being watched and judged and reported on.

Essie is under much more scrutiny than I ever was, given that her family is on a reality show and so is watched by the whole country rather than just the parishioners at her father's church, but I think that makes it more interesting for the reader, that the stakes for her are so high.

I also wanted to tell a story that would reflect on the ways in which we, as a society, sometimes fail our young people. As a pediatrician who works primarily in an ER, I see the impact of that all the time. It was important to me to give a voice to the sort of brave and strong young women I am privileged to work with and for when I am at the hospital.

Q: The novel is told from three characters' perspectives. Did you always plan on that structure, and did you write the novel in the order in which it appears, or did you focus more on one character at a time?

A: I intended for it to be Essie's story, primarily, but knew from the start that she would not be able to tell all of it herself.

Because I wanted it to be in the first person and give her a voice, but didn't want to have her sneaking around corners and listening in conversations just at the right moment to reveal some plot twist (though she is listening in on a conversation just as the book opens), I needed to find at least one other character to share the narrative with.

Expanding the narrative to include Roarke and Libby, with whom Essie seems to have very little in common when the story begins, and to see the way they misunderstand each other and begin to slowly develop trust, was part of what was so fun about writing this story.

I wrote the chapters in the order they appear and then went back through during the editing process to try to refine each voice.

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

A: I did. In fact, the ending was the only thing I was really sure about. There's a scene early on, where Essie first meets Libby, and I knew I had to get from that moment to the end where they are all on the steps of the church after the wedding.

I wanted Essie to be given a chance to stand up and tell the truth about the things that had happened to her, but I also wanted to be honest about how difficult that can be.

This is not a story about a victim. By the time the novel starts, Essie already has a plan for how to put her past behind her and take steps toward ensure a safe future, for herself and for the child she is carrying. But even with that sort of resolve, taking that final leap requires extraordinary bravery.

It's been so very inspiring to see women [recently] do exactly what Essie had to and to be witness to this moment in our history as a country when we ask ourselves just what it takes for a women to be believed.

For women who are not famous, the way Essie is, who cannot rally an army around them, who do not have physical evidence of an assault the way she did, it's been gut-wrenching to watch so many women be discounted and dismissed. We need to do better.

Q: What do you think the book says about religion?

A: I think it says a lot about power, not necessarily religion. There are certainly times when people hide behind religion, claim that their righteousness means they can't possibly have done the horrible things they are accused of doing. And that makes me angry not only because it's wrong but because it's incredibly hypocritical.

When far right conservative Evangelical leaders support politicians who openly advocate violence and demean women and support systematic racism, that's very un-Christian, and it's been encouraging to hear more and more religious leaders say that out loud and call for a reckoning.

But that reckoning is not only needed in our churches and other religious institutions, it's needed throughout society. Medicine has been cleaning house, recognizing that patient care suffers when the brilliant surgeon is verbally abusive and others on the team are discouraged from speaking up in emergencies, but it still has a long way to go.

Our politicians have given lip service here and there to needed to be more accountable, but of course they still tend to look the other way when it suits them. I desperately wish Essie's story didn't feel so timely, but the fact that it does just means we need to fight for change and accountability from those in power.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm working on a couple of different pieces. One story is an examination of how increasing isolationism, placing ourselves in little bubbles with people we know will agree with us, is bad - I know it's bad - but can feel like such a relief. And another examines the impact of a hate crime on a group of friends.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: A lot of people comment on the fact that I wrote a book while working full time as a pediatrician and parenting two small children. I just like to be clear that I didn't do it alone. I had a lot of help. And, even so, I may suffocate someday under a pile of dirty laundry.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 4

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Nov. 4, 1916: Walter Cronkite born.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Q&A with Michelle Barker


Michelle Barker is the author of the new young adult novel The House of One Thousand Eyes, which takes place in East Germany in the early 1980s. Her other books include A Year of Borrowed Men and The Beggar King. She lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The House of One Thousand Eyes, and why did you set it in the early 1980s?

A: The idea came to me while I was in the middle of working on another novel set in Germany, right after World War II ends. And it didn’t come all at once. It came in pieces.

While I was researching that novel, I came across an excellent book called Stasiland, by Anna Funder. After the Wall came down, she interviewed several people who’d survived the East German regime.

The story that caught my eye was about an East German band called Renft whose music disappeared from every store in East Germany overnight when the government decided they were too subversive. The government put out a rumour that Renft had split up, and in a way they had: several of them were thrown in jail.

I was stunned that this could happen, and it made me wonder how East Germans handled it: knowing the truth, but not being able to talk about it. A character began to take shape in my imagination: a writer in East Germany who had crossed the line with the authorities. I started wondering, what would it look like to make someone disappear? Because that’s the sort of thing writers think about.

But I didn’t conceive of the full idea until I went to Berlin and visited the Stasi headquarters, the place that Berliners used to call The House of One Thousand Eyes. Part of it has been transformed into a museum, and [Stasi head] Erich Mielke’s offices have been left intact. I was walking through there when it occurred to me: whoever cleaned this place would have incredible access to secret information.

It wasn’t long before I linked the two ideas and came up with Lena and her Uncle Erich.

I chose the early 1980s because it was a time that was rich in conflict: the Cold War threatened to erupt into a real war at any moment. Also, the schrullig world that I describe in the book didn’t open until 1982, so I couldn’t set the story any earlier than that. I didn’t want to set it too close to the fall of the Wall in 1989, because by then the State was beginning to lose control.

Q: The book includes so many details about life in East Germany. What kind of research did you do, and did you learn anything that you found especially surprising?

A: I read A LOT of books, beginning with some generalized history books and then reading everything from memoirs, to novels set in that time period, to books that dealt mainly with the Stasi. I also watched several films—notably The Lives of Others, Barbara, and Goodbye, Lenin—and an excellent series called Deutschland 83.

By chance, I connected with a British blogger named Penny Croucher who is incredibly knowledgeable about East Germany (she lived in Berlin for several years and has written some great guidebooks on the city). I badgered her with questions, and she ended up reading the novel for me for historical accuracy.

I also relied on my mother, who grew up in East Germany (though she escaped in 1953), and on some of her relatives who are still there. When I visited Germany for my research, I spoke to them as well. I visited the Stasi headquarters, as I mentioned. There is also an excellent interactive museum in Berlin called the DDR Museum, which shows what life was like in East Germany.

In terms of what I learned that surprised me? I was surprised by so many things it would be impossible to list them all.

First of all, the extent of the surveillance and repression in the country was crazy. You really couldn’t trust anyone. The psychological tactics the Stasi used to manipulate people were chilling. They would come into your apartment while you were out and move the furniture around—so that when you came home, you knew they’d been there.

People were arrested for mundane things, like making an offhand joke to the wrong person. The environmental disasters in the country, something I do not touch on in my novel, were horrendous.

But I was also surprised by the many things the East German government did well. Women were involved in the work force there long before it became popular in North America. There was universal day care and a good education system. I tried to provide a neutral viewpoint to the extent that I could, so that the reader could see both sides of East German society.

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

A: The House of One Thousand Eyes was the name Berliners had given to the Stasi headquarters. I first read the term in Anna Funder’s book, Stasiland, and I knew right away that if I was ever going to write a novel about East Germany, that would be my title. It was just too intriguing to pass up.

To me the title suggests surveillance—everywhere, at all times. A feeling of creeping shadows and listening walls. Suspicion, mistrust.

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 had a pretty good idea of how I wanted the novel to end, yes. It’s one of the few times the ending of a story has come so easily for me. The last thing I wanted was to tie things up in a neat bow or make things too easy for the characters. That would have been simple to do in this story, but also very predictable.

My goal in writing an ending is to make it inevitable but unexpected. That’s usually easier said than done. With this book, I got lucky.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m still working on the novel set in postwar Germany. Now there’s a good example of a story ending that has given me nothing but trouble! In fact, the whole novel has been difficult to write.

I started it a few years ago, and had a first draft of 114,000 words, nearly all of which ended up in the garbage. And that doesn’t count an additional storyline of about 100 pages that is also. . . in the garbage. But I’m on the right track now—almost done.

The novel is about two teenaged sisters who have to negotiate the difficult postwar landscape of Soviet-occupied Germany, which includes dealing with the desire for vengeance and a terrible realization of the cost of doing nothing.

It was a time when millions of people in Europe became refugees or were displaced. It was also a time when people had to come to terms with the choices they’d made: who they had elected, and how so many of them had stood by and done nothing when they should have spoken out or acted.

Of course, these things are easier to see and say in hindsight. What would I have done in their place? It’s impossible to know. But I believe in Baruch Spinoza’s statement, “If you want the present to be different from the past, study the past.” These are issues and questions that never really leave us, and I think they’re worthwhile to think about in our present society.

The era directly after the end of World War II is not written about often in fiction, and certainly not from the German point of view. But it is something that my mother lived through, so I was interested in exploring it.
        
Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Book recommendations on the topic of East Germany: Anna Funder’s Stasiland and Oliver Fritz’s The Iron Curtain Kid were essential sources for me. Both are nonfiction. In YA fiction, Graffiti Knight, by Karen Bass, and Sektion 20, by Paul Dowswell, are excellent novels. As for adult fiction, I was blown away by The Innocent, by Ian McEwan.

Readers can visit my website or follow me on Twitter @MBarker_190. I’m also on Facebook @MichelleBarkerAuthor. Reviews of my work are on Goodreads and I often post reviews there as well.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb