Thursday, December 13, 2018

Q&A with Helen Rappaport



Q: You write that after completing several other books on the Russian Imperial family, "I really thought I had come to the end of my written love affair with the Romanovs and Russia." What made you decide to write this new book about them?  

A: I wrote two previous books on the Romanovs, then a book about Lenin in exile and one on Petrograd in 1917 for the anniversary of the revolution, but by the time I got to the end of this last book I felt there was still one niggling unanswered question re the Romanovs that I needed to explore – if only for my own satisfaction.

This was – why could nobody save them? And I mean nobody, not just King George. I had never ever believed it was all down to him – either to offer a refuge or get them out. There were many complex factors involved and I felt that they had not been properly explored–ever.

Instead people have repeated that same tired old accusation that King George “betrayed” them. Yes, he failed the family, but so did many others and I wanted to open the subject up for a more balanced view.

Q: What did you find especially fascinating in the course of your research for this book?  

A: Not fascinating – I was appalled by how many people involved got cold feet, abdicated responsibility in one way or another and repeatedly passed the buck. 

I was also shocked to see the extent to which the whole evacuation/asylum issue was vetoed from day one by the Petrograd Soviet. If anyone has real responsibility for the Romanovs not leaving Russia it is them.

Had they not blocked the initial discussions by Brits and Provision Government, the family could have been quickly evacuated before King George changed his mind.

Q: How would you characterize the relationships between the Romanovs and their royal relatives in other European countries, and why were those relatives reluctant to help them?  

A: The Romanovs had been extremely isolated politically since the 1905 events of Bloody Sunday. They were pariahs in Europe politically and not in close contact really with their royal relatives for security and other reasons.

The main problem though was the war, which had forced their royal relatives to take sides, while others were struggling to remain neutral. All these countries had their own internal political problems and they all privately shared George’s view that to take the Romanovs in would have been very politically compromising.

It’s just they kept shtum about it – so all the blame was heaped on George. Even King Alfonso knew what a risk it was for him to try and help, which is why in the end he enlisted the Vatican in last-ditch appeals – but alas too late.

Q: What accounts for the ongoing interest in the Romanovs a century after their deaths?  

A: Well, there has always been a general abiding fascination with royalty, Russia and the gorgeous wealth of the palaces, the old tsarist regime, etc.

But in the case of the Imperial Family I am quite certain it is the children that keep everyone interested. The tragedy of Alexey and his haemophilia, those four lovely girls. The memory, and the fascination they exude is kept alive by all the marvellous photographs of the family.

The girls have become immortal – symbolic of the lost innocence of another world. That is why we love them and mourn them. I don’t think it would have been the same fascination had Nicholas and Alexandra not had those five extraordinary children.

Q: What are you working on now?   

A: I’m exhausted after 15 books in 20 years and am taking a break and considering my options. Almost certainly I shall be taking a break from Russia and certainly from Romanovs and going back to my other favourite subject – the Victorians.


Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: I was saddened that the Romanov centenary in July did not receive the coverage that I had hoped it would in Western media. It was all rather overshadowed by the Trump/Putin summit, which was a terrible shame.

And even sadder and frustrating was the total wasted opportunity of the Amazon Prime series The Romanoffs, which used the Imperial Family as a cheap and specious premise for a very expensive but pointless series that had nothing at all to do with the family. What I would give to be able to tell their story in a proper documentary series for TV.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Helen Rappaport.

Q&A with Anna Humphrey


Anna Humphrey is the author of two new novels for kids, Megabat and Clara Humble and the Kitten Caboodle. Her other books include Clara Humble and the Not-So-Super Powers and Clara Humble: Quiz Whiz. She runs a freelance writing and editing business, and she lives in Kitchener, Ontario.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Megabat and his friend Daniel, and will there be a sequel?

A: I started writing Megabat after my husband, kids and I moved to a new city. We were all more than a little homesick. What’s more, there was a weird leak our new roof. Water was dripping from the ceiling onto the main floor, but everything was dry on the two floors above.

Naturally, I jumped to the logical conclusion: maybe there was a fruit bat hiding somewhere in the walls and it was crying because it was homesick too. 

What can I say? The brain of a fiction writer can be a strange place. In any case, Megabat was born. And yes, there will be sequels. Look for Megabat and Fancy Cat coming in April of 2019 and at least two more books in the series after that.

Q: Your third book featuring your character Clara Humble has also recently been published--why did you focus this one on cats?

A: I love everything about cats: their indifference, their playfulness, their righteousness and independence. I was pretty sure Clara—a girl who speaks her mind and thinks highly of herself—would relate strongly to cats, too. 

Also, since Clara draws a cartoon about a high-tech cat named @Cat throughout the series, a book about real cats for the series finale felt like a natural fit.

Only, this time, instead of drawing comics about her feline hero, Clara is working on storyboards… because she’s busy saving stray cats while writing and directing the greatest internet cat video of all time. It’s a tall order, but Clara Humble is all about tackling tall orders. 

Q: What do you think the illustrations--by Kass Reich and Lisa Cinar respectively--add to the books?

A: When it comes to Megabat, Kass Reich’s illustrations added a softness and warmth to the book that I couldn’t have imagined. Megabat’s shenanigans sometimes have a cartoon quality, but the realism and unbridled cuteness of Kass’s work tone that down and give the story more of a heart-squish feel.  

As for Lisa Cinar’s work, it goes in the complete opposite direction, and I love that about it too. It’s a loose, quirky, cartoony style that I think really captures Clara’s off-kilter sense of humor and way of seeing the world. 

Q: Who are some of your favorite children's book authors?

A: There are many… but, off the top of my head: Gordon Korman, Kate DiCamillo, Sheree Fitch… 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I recently found out that there are miniature spiders (called demodex mites) living in my eyelashes, and in your eyelashes, and in everyone’s eyelashes! Isn’t that the coolest and grossest thing? 

I’m trying to write a fictional kids’ book about mites and microbes and tiny things. I have no idea if it’s going to work. For example, maybe right now you’re wishing that I never told you about your mini eyelash spiders… and if that’s the case, this idea might make for the most unpopular book ever. I guess I’ll find out!  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 13

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Dec. 13, 1871: Emily Carr born.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Q&A with B.A. Shapiro


B.A. Shapiro, photo by Lynn Wayne
B.A. Shapiro is the author of the new novel The Collector's Apprentice. Her other novels include The Art Forger and The Muralist. She has taught sociology at Tufts University and creative writing at Northeastern University, and she lives in Boston and Florida.

Q: You write that the characters in The Collector's Apprentice were "loosely inspired by the lives of the art collector Albert Barnes and his assistant, Violette de Mazia." What first interested in you in them, and why did you decide to focus this novel around versions of them?

A: I visited the Barnes Foundation (Albert Barnes’s art museum outside of Philadelphia) in my 20s and was completely taken by the post-Impressionist artwork and the story of his brilliance and eccentricities as well as the mysteries surrounding Violette de Mazia.

This interest only grew as a fight ensued between the Barnes and the city of Philadelphia, which tried—and ultimately succeed—to move his collection from the suburbs into the city against his preferences clearly outlined in his will.

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

A: I did all kinds of research including interviews, site visits, extensive reading and museum visiting, etc., and became even more fascinated with both the characters and the artwork. One surprising thing was that even an ironclad will can be broken with enough time and political pressure.

Q: The artist Henri Matisse plays a big role in the novel. Why did you choose to focus on him in the book?

A: Henri Matisse may be my favorite artist of all times. I just love his colorful and bold works. I wanted to know more about him and making him a major character gave me that opportunity.

Q: You tell the story from two characters' perspectives. Was that your plan from the start, and did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it?

A: When I started the book I thought there would be two points of view: Vivienne Gregsby (Violette) and Edwin Bradley (Albert Barnes). Edwin’s POV didn’t pan out and as Vivienne’s grew, I realized I need a strong antagonist who was worthy of her.

That’s where George—I love him and hate him—came in, including all his cons and her counter-cons.

I knew how the novel was going to end when I began, but it didn’t turn out that way. Almost never does.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a novel that is completely different from anything I’ve ever written before—and very different from my latest trilogy of art/mystery/history novels.

This one takes place in the present day, has seven viewpoint characters who are linked through the self-storage units they rent in a medieval-style building in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

They are rich, poor and in-between, they are black, white and brown, they are Christian, Jewish and Muslim, and they would never have come in contact with each other without the randomness of their storage units—and the secrets and mysteries that ultimately draw them into each other’s lives.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with B.A. Shapiro.

Q&A with Peter Stone


Peter Stone, photo by Heather Kincaid
Peter Stone is the author of the new young adult novel The Perfect Candidate, which is set in Washington, D.C. He has worked as a TV and film marketing executive for 10 years, and is based in Tokyo.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Perfect Candidate, and for your character Cameron?

A: I interned for Congressman Gary Condit’s Capitol Hill office the summer after I graduated from high school. Soon after, he would be embroiled in this century’s first notorious political scandal: the murder of young staffer Chandra Levy. 

Levy’s death was the first plot twist of my adult life - a dead young woman from my hometown suddenly dominated the tabloids. (The police eventually cleared Condit of any criminal behavior). 

I was later a research assistant and Spanish tutor for Newt Gingich (teaching Newt the difference between preterite and imperfect tenses while in the green room at Fox News is a whole other essay). 

Those internships made me wonder then – and I still ponder it today - what current interns or low-level staffers are sitting on secrets and just a click or a post or a call away from changing the world?

My journal entries and memories - and these scary questions - are what led me to write The Perfect Candidate: a mystery about an ordinary teen intern Cameron Carter - whose search for the truth makes him an extraordinary kind of spy at his core.  

Q: How much did your own experience working in D.C. affect your writing of the novel?

A: My time in D.C. was my first thrilling, sour, indelible, heady taste of life beyond the small town I grew up in. It’s a cliché, but I couldn’t wait to get out of my hometown and live in a big city. Washington did not disappoint. 

Characters in the novel are composed of various personalities and specific quotes that I remember from those internships (like one senior staffer’s condescending greeting to Cameron: “Hello, Intern.”) Even the monuments, metro stations, and cold marble hallways became characters of the story in their own right. 

Beyond the internships, I also wanted to explore the time in life that immediately follows high school. The whole experience was thrilling and formative for me – and then ultimately disillusioning as the rumors about Condit flew and the media feeding frenzy began. 

Once I encountered the darker side of D.C., the secret bargain of “leaving home” became clear to me: you can never go back. The adolescence I was so ready to leave behind was actually wonderful in its own way – maybe even idyllic. And suddenly gone for good. 

That Cameron has already passed this point of no return helped me to increase the emotional stakes and suspense of the narrative. 

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

A: Without giving too much away, readers of The Perfect Candidate will find some key revelations in the final pages of the book.  I always envisioned this rug-pull and how it makes the reader rethink everything that has come before. 

However - along the way, I did make a number of changes – and I have my agent and the Simon & Schuster team to thank for their invaluable perspective and advice.  One area that came a long way from the first draft is the romantic throughline in the story.  Plot and dialogue came naturally to me; romance did not. 

Q: What do you think the novel says about politics and those who choose to work in that field?

A: I say in the acknowledgements section that the novel may seem like a burn book for Washington, D.C. – but in reality, it’s a love letter. The Perfect Candidate reveals the corrupt roots of many tenured leaders and their associates. But it also shows the power of optimism, specifically among the youthful army of interns that flow into and out of the city. 

While today’s political climate is unprecedented and polarizing, I think there is one undisputed gain: teenagers are more thoughtful than ever about government and how it impacts them. I hope they continue to volunteer for political campaigns, to march and write and speak their beliefs, and to take anxious, lonely airplane flights into the unknown of summer internships in our nation’s capitol. 

Cameron Carter embodies my experiences that summer—but he is also any teenager whose trust is betrayed and then who doubles down in search of the truth and what is right. That same curiosity—that engagement—will change the lives of young people who choose to work in politics. And it may change the world.

And if, like Cameron, they happen to stumble upon and expose a breathtaking and scary political scandal while they’re at it—more power to them. (Let’s just hope they’re spared the death threats, paranoia, and desperate chases that Cameron encounters…)

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My road to publication started at my wedding reception. One of the guests (friends of my in-laws) approached me after hearing the wedding vows I’d spoken. 

Apparently impressed with my speech, she asked me if I was a writer. I joked back that I wrote emails at my job. She then urged me to write a book. I attributed her generous assessment to her probably having had a couple drinks from the bar.

When I later learned that this wedding guest was New York Times bestselling author Margaret Stohl, I listened to the advice more seriously and took a stab at what became the first chapter of The Perfect Candidate

Writing a novel was awkward at first, like learning how to ride a bike (or maybe better put: how to fly a helicopter). All sorts of negative voices and doubts emerged in my mind. But the spark was there, and I couldn’t not chase it. 

Two key takeaways: 1) The first person who needs to believe in you as a writer is yourself; and 2) Invite Margaret Stohl to your wedding.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 12

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Dec. 12, 1821: Gustave Flaubert born.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Q&A with Lynne Truss


Lynne Truss is the author of the new mystery novel A Shot in the Dark. Her many other books include Eats, Shoots & Leaves. She lives on the south coast of England.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for A Shot in the Dark, and for your character Constable Twitten?

A: The four main characters in A Shot in the Dark all had their origins in a radio comedy series I wrote over a period of years: young Constable Twitten, his colleagues Inspector Steine and Sergeant Brunswick, and the lovable cockney charlady Mrs Groynes.

The very first inspiration for me was the opening of the film Brighton Rock  (based on the novel by Graham Greene), where the public are reassured that the story of razor-gangs and hoodlums in Brighton that follows does not remotely represent this law-abiding town, which has been completely cleaned up since the war by the police.

I liked the idea of a police inspector in the 1950s who actually believes such propaganda: who insists there is no longer any crime in the town, and therefore discourages his men from looking for it. Having such an inspector in place, it seemed natural that the detective protagonist should be a very clever young constable who is keen to expose crime (but to whom no one will listen).

By the way, the names all relate to Brighton topography. The “Steine” (pronounced steen) is an area in the centre of town; “Brunswick” is a common street name, because of Caroline of Brunswick, married to George IV; “Twitten” is the local name for an alleyway, or cut-through; and “Groynes” refers to the breakwaters. There are signs on the seafront that say, “Danger! Hidden groynes!”

Q: Did you need to do much research to write the novel, which is set in Brighton in the 1950s?


A: I have done a lot of research, yes, and it’s all been very pleasurable. For A Shot in the Dark, I read a lot about music hall acts, and crime reporters, and so on.

The only thing I didn’t need to research particularly was the world of the theatre, because I’ve always been interested in this period, when “angry” plays were first produced. And I suppose I also knew a lot already about phrenology (which is practised as a music-hall act by one of the characters).

I am still learning new and useful things, though. Brighton police in this period wore distinctive white helmets, for example (I have only just discovered this). Brighton was also home to a famous and successful ice-hockey team called The Brighton Tigers who, in 1957, beat the Russian national team!

I haunt the local history archive attached to Sussex University, looking at microfiche of old newspapers, and I’ve tracked down a lot of films shot in Brighton (there was a short-lived film studio in the town). I also count it as research to curl up in the afternoons and read classic British crime novels (but mainly I just like doing that).

Q: You've noted that your characters originated in a radio program you created. What was it like to transfer them to this novel?

A: Well, I did already love these characters, so the main difficulty was remembering that other people didn’t know them at all! But I haven’t been at all hidebound by anything that was in the radio series. I’ve reinvented all the characters, to some degree or other; I’ve lifted fragments of plots but changed their outcomes.

The biggest challenge with the characters was to tone them down while keeping them memorable. For the radio, we had four fantastic comic actors in the main parts, and in the end I was writing the parts to suit the actors’ strengths. In the novels, I can allow the characters to mould themselves more.

Q: What are some other comic crime novels that you've especially enjoyed?

A: I’ve read a lot of Carl Hiassen; also all of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels. There must be others.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The second Constable Twitten novel, The Man That Got Away, has just been through copy-editing; I’ll start the third (for publication in 2020) after Christmas.

In the meantime I’ve been writing and recording three stories for radio broadcast in the spring, for an on-going series called Life at Absolute Zero. The stories are set in a fictional town called Meridian Cliffs, and I read them myself – which again has an influence on how they are written.

As you can probably tell, I do like the challenges of different types of writing. For four years I was a sports columnist for The Times, and although the lifestyle was absolutely horrible, I did embrace the scariness of the deadlines.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I am so impressed by American readers being prepared to overlook how British A Shot in the Dark is. I can imagine what a tall order it is. I’m very grateful.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Catherine Thimmesh and Melissa Sweet


Catherine Thimmesh, photo by Lori Dozier
Catherine Thimmesh is the author and Melissa Sweet is the illustrator of the children's book Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women, now available in a new updated version. Thimmesh's other books include Team Moon. Sweet's other books include Some Writer!, which she wrote and illustrated. Thimmesh lives in Minnesota, and Sweet lives in Maine.

Q: What led to this new version of Girls Think of Everything, and what's different from the original?

CT: Girls Think of Everything was first published in hardcover 18 years ago, and in paperback two years later. It has continued to find an audience each year — which, of course, is terrific. The publishing team at HMH asked if I’d do an update since we were approaching the 20th year anniversary.

Initially, I wasn’t very inspired to do so — mostly along the lines of: I’ve already done that book and would rather find new projects/subjects to work on. But my editor brought up the idea a few times, so I decided to revisit the book — thinking more in-depth about the content as it was, and what revising and updating it might look like.

Melissa Sweet
I’m so glad I did! I’m very excited about the revision coming out in October – there are seven brand-new, fabulous stories of inventions and the women behind them – and Melissa Sweet’s art is (no surprise) phenomenal.

Q: How did you select the women to include in the book?

CT: It’s actually a tough process. I’m first looking for inventions that I personally find fascinating or incredible and also that I think young readers can relate to in some way and that I think they will also find intriguing on some level.

I try to balance the book (to the extent possible) in types of inventions, different age ranges of inventors, different ethnicities of inventors, and scale and success of an invention.

Deciding who to include is lengthy and fairly subjective. First, one of the things that was so appealing about a revision was being better able to represent diversity amongst women, which unfortunately was quite limited in the initial book.

Researching the original text in 1998, was an enormous challenge: it was pre-Internet, and pre-Google search, and women simply didn’t have much written about them generally — and women of color even less so.

It was extraordinarily difficult back then to find inventions by women of color: in general, but also that were kid-friendly and that I felt would be of interest to a young reader.

So, one of the joys in doing the revision was having a better research tool to find some amazing inventions by women of color and also by women outside of the U.S.

Q: What do you hope kids take away from this book, and is that different from what you hoped the first time around?

CT: At the end of the day, I am trying to highlight inventions and women who I think will inspire young readers in some way — particularly young girls — hopefully to come up with their own creative solutions to problems, whether through invention or some other means.

That said, I’m not super-particular about what readers take from the book — only that I hope they do find something of value they connect with and want to hold onto.

Perhaps that’s creative problem-solving through invention and innovation. Perhaps it’s the realization that anyone, at any age, can invent. Perhaps it’s the realization that invention is an excellent conduit for creative expression. Or perhaps it’s that Melissa’s art inspires one of our readers to become an artist!

Ultimately, I hope readers will be inspired in some way to explore and nurture their curiosity and inquisitiveness about the world around them. And then go out into that world and create — and recognize that each person’s unique skills and creativity and ingenuity can contribute to the greater good, regardless of how large or small the contribution.

MS: I hope readers come away inspired to take an idea to a completed invention. Each of these “portraits” show that inventing something can take persistence, trial and error, yet the process is worth it. These inventions are making a difference.

Recently I found this quote:
"Scientific inquiry involves the formulation of a question that can be answered through investigation.
Engineering design involves a problem that can be solved through design."

Investigation and design is at the heart of this book, and the essence of making anything.

Q: Of all the women you discuss, are there a couple that particularly fascinated you?

CT: Well, the true answer is: all of them! But I’ll give an example of one of the new stories that I love. Trisha Prabhu invented ReThink (TM), an anti-bullying app that has garnered much media coverage and praise. She invented the app when she was 15 years old.

I love that she didn’t let her age discourage her from rolling up her sleeves and tackling a very real, very complex problem. I love that she used technology and her multi-faceted problem-solving skills to impact the greater good. I love that she channeled her outrage to affect a positive outcome. I love that she was outraged!

And, frankly, I love that she wasn’t as darn lazy as I was as a 15-year-old.

MS: Every story in the book is compelling, but I was particularly inspired by two young women, Anna Stork and Andrea Sreshta, who invented the LuminAID lantern.

Their process of seeing a problem, figuring out the solution by way of the criteria that needed to be met, led to inventing a solar-powered, waterproof, durable and lightweight light source. 

I admired their humanitarian spirits and determination. Shortly after I did the art for this book I saw the lanterns in use during a hurricane in Houston.

Q: What are you working on now?

CT: Several things. I’m working on a book for the very young (babies and toddlers); as well as several creative nonfiction projects for middle graders that I’m very, very excited about.

MS: In June 2019 I have a new book coming out by Kwame Alexander, How To Read A Book, which was a fun departure artistically. It’s vibrant, painted in neon, and the story inspired me to let loose. 

Beyond that, Catherine and I have two more books in this new series, and I have more picture book biographies on the way. Every stage of a book is exciting, and I’m looking forward to doing the research for all of these projects. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

CT: I think many people would be surprised to learn that a fair number of boys have told me they’ve read the book (the original) and really enjoyed it (always with the caveat that they don’t like the title).

If the utopia is gender equality (at least my utopia is), then it’s equally important that the boys learn about the amazing things women have accomplished and continue to accomplish on a daily basis. So go ahead and suggest the book to a boy. Tell him, the author says, “It’s OK if you hate the title — but I bet you’ll like a lot of the stories.”

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Melissa Sweet.

Dec. 10

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Dec. 10, 1830: Emily Dickinson born.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Q&A with John Guzlowski


John Guzlowski is the author of the new novel Suitcase Charlie. He is a professor emeritus of English literature at Eastern Illinois University, and he lives in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Q: Your novel was inspired by actual murders in Chicago during the 1950s. How did you come up with your own characters, and what did you see as the right balance between history and fiction as you wrote the book?

A: The Schuessler-Peterson murders that occurred in the mid-1950s in Chicago directly influenced Suitcase Charlie. I was only a kid when they happened, but the fear they generated in me and my friends was something that stayed with me for years. 

I lived about 100 feet from an enormous city park, and every time I passed the park I thought of those murders. The three boys who were killed were found dead in a park not unlike the park I knew.  

My novel, however, doesn't talk about those murders. I guess that's where I leave history behind. My novel imagines the deaths of children but the children who are murdered are children like the children I knew, immigrant kids, refugee kids. I grew up in a neighborhood of refugees, parents and children who had known concentration camps and Displaced Persons camps.  

The fear they feel is in some ways an extension of the fear that was instilled in them by the Nazis.  

Q: You've said, "I wanted to talk about how war continues to affect those that survived it." How does that play out in your novel?

A: The two main characters are detectives and veterans of World War II. One fought in Europe and the other fought in the Pacific. They both express what we'd now call PTSD. As they work their way through the crimes described in the novel, they often are reminded of things that had happened in the war. 

This is especially true of the main character, Hank Purcell. I think he often sees his work as a cop as being somehow an extension of the war he saw in Germany. His partner Marv experience his PTSD in a different way. He lives like the war had never touched him, but he's kidding himself. The war is always with him, in everything he says and does.

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

A: Setting is very important.  

The neighborhoods the crimes take place in are the neighborhoods I knew as a kid, and those neighborhoods were ones, as I said earlier, filled with refugees, survivors. 

At one point I lived in a six-unit apartment house. In that house, there were two Jewish women who lost their husbands in Auschwitz, a family of Ukrainians who had been slave laborers, and my own family, my dad who spent five years in Buchenwald, my mom who had seen her family killed, and my sister and I who had grown up in a DP camp.  

Writing this novel I lived again among these survivors.

Q: Which authors do you particularly admire?

A: That's the wrong question to ask. I love so many writers. The writer who's probably influenced me the most is Marvel's Stan Lee. He wrote the first book I read, a comic book back in 1955. 

What struck me about that comic and all the great comics he wrote after that was that he always wrote as if what a character thought and felt was as important as the action and adventures he found himself living through.  

Other writers who I admire? Dostoevsky and Robert Heinlein. Faulkner and Toni Morrison. 

They are all writers who feel that what a character experiences is as important as the stuff he does.  

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm working on the final edit of my next Hank and Marvin novel. It's called Little Altar Boys, and it picks up my detectives 10 years later in the psychedelic ‘60s. The mystery they're investigating is set in the same neighborhood, but this time the crime is pedophilia, not murder.  


I'm also working on the third Hank and Marvin novel. It's set in the same neighborhood as the first two novels and focuses on a whole bunch of murders that seemingly have nothing to do with each other except for the fact that they all take place within a couple of hundred feet of each other.  

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Did I mention I write poetry? Echoes of Tattered Tongues is my most recent book of poems. It's about my mom and dad and their experiences in the German concentration camps. The book won the Ben Franklin Prize for poetry in 2017 and the Eric Hoffer Montaigne Award for most thought-provoking book of 2017.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 9

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Dec. 9, 1899: Jean de Brunhoff born.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Q&A with Anna Levine


Anna Levine is the author of the new children's picture book All Eyes on Alexandra, which focuses on a family of cranes. Her other books include Jodie's Hanukkah Dig and Freefall. She lives in Jerusalem.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for All Eyes on Alexandra, and for the crane family you write about?

A: There’s a bed and breakfast in northern Israel by the port of Acre (where Napoleon was defeated in 1799) owned by Evan Fallenberg, a writer and a friend. I needed to get away from my routine and decided to stay there for two nights.

The first evening he invited all the guests up to the roof to join him for a spectacle he promised would impress us. At 6 in the evening I climbed up on the roof of the hostel with Evan, his son, two translators from Germany, a writer and her husband, a couple from Paris with two rambunctious young children and a friend of mine who’d come to visit.

As the Muezzin sounded over the loudspeakers, calling the religious to prayer, the birds on their way south began to gather above. At first there was only a handful. Gradually, the cloudless evening sky filled, in what can only be described as a Hitchcock-like flock of thousands of beating wings circling above, turning the sky into a dark thrashing cloud.

The swallows landed on electricity wires strewn haphazardly between the closely crowded buildings. We watched as they perched, settling in for the night, nudging the ones beside them to move and make room, hinting at an unknown hierarchy of who had rank to the better spot, as they nudged off fledglings to stake their claim.

It was while watching these birds that I first imagined Alexandra, a bird who was part of a flock who at the same time wanted to assert her individuality.

Evan’s artist haven is a tribute to what can be achieved when a dream is pursued with the right balance of love and respect to the world it inhabits. His deference to his neighbors, their acceptance and regard for him and his enclave, is a living example of what co-existence can look like.

The experience took root in my imagination. Our motley crew on the roof were like the birds from all over who flock together and live, albeit noisily, but in harmony.

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write the book?

A: I live a short drive away from the Jerusalem Bird Observatory. The researchers and volunteers are enthusiastic about the work they do and about helping people like me who have a million questions. I also drove up to the Hula Nature Reserve to see the birds at sunrise and sunset, their busiest and noisiest times of day.

I really prefer the hands-on approach to research if and when it’s possible.

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

A: First of all, I hope they identify with Alexandra’s spirit and that their take-away is “be yourself.” Be independent. Someone will recognize your spirit and encourage you to fulfill your potential.

The second has to do with where I live and the conflict which surrounds me. When I visited the Hula Nature Reserve and I saw all the different birds from around the world swooping in to chat with each other, sharing food and finding a pace to rest, I thought of how much we could learn from nature about living together peacefully, even if the “peace” can get quite noisy.

Q: What do you think Chiara Pasqualotto's illustrations add to the book?

A: Chiara’s illustrations give so much heart, character and personality to the text. When I saw her illustrations I was thrilled. I looked at Alexandra and thought, “Yes, that’s her!”

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now I have a cozy detective novel in submission. I love reading detective novels and whenever I travel I always pop into the local book store and ask for the local detective fiction.

Writers in the genre are wonderful at catching all the nuances and hidden secrets of the city where they write. The novel I’m working on takes me back to my home in Montreal, Quebec.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: When I’m not teaching at the junior high in my neighborhood, or writing, I help translate texts for my neighbor who is an historian of the Holocaust. Her expertise is the Lodz Ghetto. I have been translating many fascinating memoirs and journals that I’m putting aside as research for a novel that will eventually take shape.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Jaclyn Gilbert


Jaclyn Gilbert is the author of the new novel Late Air. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Tin House and Post Road Magazine, and she lives in Brooklyn.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Late Air, and for your characters Murray and Nancy?

A: One afternoon in graduate school, I was running along the Bronx River Parkway past a local golf course when I wondered what would happen if a stray golf ball hit me. All through my time as a runner at Yale I had trained for cross country on a golf course, and suddenly the threat of this accident seemed terrifyingly plausible. 

I spent the next five years researching this hypothetical accident and writing draft after draft to refract its ghosts as fragments and ruptures through the point-of-view of Murray, a running coach obsessed with training his star athletes as a means of escape from a deep trauma from his past. 

Developing the question of Murray’s past gave birth to his wife Nancy, someone who appeared so unlike him on the surface, but inside she was just as hyper focused and perfectionistic in her pursuits. 

When I tried to imagine a plausible scenario for their falling in love, my mind circled back to my own experience studying in Paris during college, when I felt particularly torn about my dual impulses as an academic and athlete; on the one hand, I was studying French and English literature at Yale, and on the other, I was an athlete consumed by my training schedule; every morning I used to get up early to train around the Luxembourg gardens in Paris’s Latin quarter before my French classes and hours spent writing or researching in my dorm.

In this way, I guess I have always been an obsessive reader and note-taker and thus could easily relate to Nancy’s curatorial interests—that is someone who could appreciate every detail that went into the process or larger story of life and art that made a work of literature complete. 

All goes to say, the narrative of Murray and Nancy’s love story was no easy task; at every turn, it seemed I had to confront conflicts inherent to their marriage. 

For as focused on Murray was on the body, Nancy was on the mind, and I began to realize that while a marriage might have been born out of hopes and dreams, especially in falling in love with the idea of one’s opposite (and “better”) half, making a life with that other half was something different entirely. 

The storytelling of their marriage thus became about a discourse about Murray and Nancy’s shared hopes and dreams torn apart by loss, since their journeys to grieve took opposite shapes through time.  

Out of these two opposing emotional arcs, I could begin to envision a structure for the story that allowed its own kind of suspense and conflict, chapter by chapter, in constantly wondering what it might mean for two sides of the same story to one day reunite in an ending. 

About three-quarters of the way through the first draft of the novel, I happened upon an image of Nancy and Murray in their 60s looking out over gray waters and watching gulls circle that void, and restlessly I started to write my way to that final image. 

It required a ton of rewriting to build in all of the layers I’d need to substantiate it, but it was a vision that filled me with hope and purpose as I went along.   

Q: Why did you decide to focus the book around a running coach?

A: I suppose I decided to tell the story through Murray’s voice because it was one layer removed from my own experience as a college runner; I wanted to be able to observe my experience from the outside rather than become trapped by my own biases. 

Murray also provided me a point of entry into the story because I could identify with his obsessions. Being a competitive college runner, particularly at the Division I level, involves constant training, a condition to which Murray’s past as a professional athlete already naturally spoke, and one with which I was still wrestling myself nearly a decade out of college.

Daily running has always defined me, and the threat of that habit being taken away is terrifying; running has always been a means for me to cope with uncertainty, so to not have that outlet often feels unfathomable. 

When I was a freshman at Yale, I experienced an inexplicable loss that turned my running from something I loved to something I needed to fulfill in a compulsive, constant way; running provided a means for me not to feel the hurt, sadness, and grief that threatened to disrupt my life in a highly competitive academic and athletic space. 

Like Murray, my primary means of channeling the suppression of this pain surfaced as the need to out-perform or out-run it through grueling workouts, long training runs, and the self-obliterating moment of a cross country or track race.

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

A: No, I didn’t know how the novel would end when I began—I think largely because Late Air first arrived to me as a short story told solely from Murray’s point of view. 

But after workshopping this short story my first semester of graduate school, questions about who Murray had been before his star athlete Becky’s accident grew too pervasive to ignore. 

Nancy’s character came to life the summer after the first semester of my MFA, and in documenting her own account of their past in separate chapters, I started to see that despite my initial conviction that I was writing about a singular accident set in the contemporary present, I was really writing about the story of a marriage in conversation, two traumas, past and present, competing at all times. 

My process shifted into becoming about letting the simultaneity of these two traumas ripple into every scene, in the form of colors, or objects, or remembered dialogues that could create a currency between these two different time zones. The more past and present collided and converged into one, the closer I could feel myself inching toward an ending. 

In the process, I also realized that grief was not only about surviving a loss too painful to bear, but it was about finding a way to accept it and self-forgive as a means of transcending that loss and making room to love again. 

Nancy’s journey to grieve independently of what she’d initially needed to believe and blame Murray for as the reason their marriage couldn’t survive, eventually leads her to find running as an ironic means of recovering the truth and finding the compassion she couldn’t find room for in the beginning—running through New York City allows for a meditative experiences that opens her hear to other possibilities for her story; she can accept the ways that Murray had needed to grieve as separate from her own, and it is this empathy that lets her be there for him in the end.   

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

A: The novel’s title came out of re-imagining the much simpler and more direct working title: The Course. But my agent wasn’t a huge fan of it; she felt the story needed something more nuanced to capture the deeper reality of Nancy and Murray’s love and marriage.

It was extremely difficult for me to land on something that could capture the complexity of their shared human condition, while not seeming too abstract or elusive to a lay reader. 

To get over this “title block,” I resolved to read my poetry books and made endless lists of lines and titles I liked from them. I then tried to articulate why I liked them so much, or what I thought they might signify for the story I’d written. 

Eventually, I happened upon Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Late Air,” and after reading it dozens of times and piecing together its relation to the novel, it seemed right. 

The poem is about the elusive nature of love, translated through the moment of the poem as bits of radio or sound wave, and though the narrative of Bishop’s writing wasn’t exactly as mine, the atmosphere and texture filled me with the same feeling the ending of my novel did. 

It helped that my agent was a huge fan of Late Air too--and so we went with it!

I should also add that working with my editor at Little A to revise the story into a finished book became about identifying opportunities for substantiating that title in the text.

At this stage, it became more than evident that air played a key role in the story: there’s the lack of air the novel opens with—the humidity and heat around Becky’s accident, and her rasping breath before the ambulance comes; there’s Murray’s own struggle for breath as he tries to block out images of Becky and move forward with his cross country season but can’t, the hauntings of his past too great to physically contain them in his body; there’s the way he and Nancy lose their first child Jean midway through the novel after she takes her last breath too late; and then there’s Nancy searching to recover her breath out of years of suffocating grief—after she loses Jean, her breath turns shallow; she smokes cigarettes and wants nothing to do with exercise, but when she first tries running with her friend in Central Park, she is surprised to find that struggling toward breath in cold winter air brings her closer to her pain and her child in a way that she realizes she can transcend if she keeps at it. 

The last third of the novel is about Nancy’s and Murray’s search for air late in life—but not too late. Though they realized that breath much later than they might have hoped, there is still a chance for further recovery if they can continue to grow together, in acknowledging their shared experience of love and loss in the future. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am currently working on a second novel based on my experience growing up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, along the thin border that divides suburbia from Amish country.

Throughout my childhood, I was fascinated by the Amish lifestyle: the perfect farms and clotheslines hanging with solid colored garments, men tilling fields, women gardening, and barefooted children behind push-mowers that I used to run past in high school. 

These backcountry roads weaved and curved endlessly through my impressionistic adolescent imagination—but in 2006, while I was a junior at Yale and removed from the immediacy of this landscape, I learned of a horrific shooting that had happened not far from where I’d grown up: in an Amish one-room school house in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. 

I was devastated by the tragedy, and when I read about how instantly the Amish had publicly forgiven the killer as an act of ultimate compassion and sacrifice celebrated in the news and national media, I couldn’t stop thinking about the survivors. 

The killer had taken only young women hostage in the school house, shooting some hundreds of times while leaving others unscathed and left to bear witness to these unfathomable wounds. 

I began to wonder how these women coped; if they were forced to forgive and silence their traumas automatically, how could they find the space to fully and most individually grieve? 

Shortly after Late Air found representation, I began write a draft of a novel set 12 years after the Nickel Mines shooting. It is told from the point-of-view of a survivor named Emma whose chapters interweave with five others alternating between insiders and outsiders of the Amish community. 

In this way, I hope to look at the trauma of Nickel Mines from a variety of angles to most fully explore the question of forgiveness in our society. 

I am looking at the Amish as a conservative religious community in need of repressing the individual’s experience of trauma in the interest of preserving communal sameness; I am also particularly focused on what it means be a woman bound by the ideals of this society; that is, if the Amish woman is limited to the role of wife, mother, and homemaker, she is someone who must sacrifice her individual needs and desires to survive in this world. 

But when tragedy or loss strikes, I think it is important to try to understand how such a narrow definition of the female self and identity must be revised so that she can free herself from this past enough to heal and find her own way. It is my hope that writing a novel, or tracing the landscape of her personal story, can allow for this path.   

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: In the abyss of a writer’s imagination, I feel there is always a desire to pinpoint something else, but I fear I can’t think of anything specific at the moment. 

All goes to say that I am very thankful for all of the thoughtful questions you have crafted here and am so thrilled that Late Air might reach your readership!

I hope it is a story that can remind us all that for as much as we might desire to control or order our lives, we simply can’t, and while it might be devastating to have to realize this each day, I hope we can find solace in doing our best to be kind to ourselves and others, to take each moment as an opportunity to live, love, and let go in the process. 

If this book taught me anything in writing in it—or at least anything I could distill into a single line—it was that, and I hope it can be a truth for readers to take into the world with them long after reading Late Air too.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb