Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Q&A with Sarah Abrevaya Stein


Sarah Abrevaya Stein is the author of the new book Family Papers: A Sephardic Journey Through the Twentieth Century. Her other books include Plumes and Extraterritorial Dreams. She is Professor of History, Director of the Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies, and the Maurice Amado Chair in Sephardic Studies at UCLA. She lives in Santa Monica, California.

Q: You write that you first learned about the Levy family while working on a previous book project. Can you say more about how you decided to write their family history?

A: I first began working on the Levy family, the subjects of Family Papers, while researching another book: an English-language translation of the first Ladino memoir ever written (Sarah Abrevaya Stein and Aron Rodrigue, A Jewish Voice from Ottoman Salonica, with Isaac Jerusalmi as translator, 2012). 

The author of that memoir, Sa’adi Besaelel a-Levi (1820-1903), spent the last years of his life writing a Ladino-language memoir to air a lifetime’s worth of grievances. 

Extraordinarily, the sole copy of this document, written in soletreo (the unique handwritten cursive of Ladino), outlived wars; the collapse of the empire in which it was conceived; a major fire in Salonica; and the Holocaust, during which Jewish texts and libraries as well as Jewish bodies were targeted by the Nazis for annihilation.

The manuscript passed through four generations of Sa’adi’s family, traveling from Salonica to Paris, from there to Rio de Janeiro and, finally, to Jerusalem—somehow eluding destruction or disappearance despite the collapse of the Salonican Jewish community and the dispersal of the author’s descendants over multiple countries and continents. 

Having spent years considering Sa’adi’s account of 19th-century Salonica, I was left wondering how his handwritten memoir came to travel such a circuitous path, and what had become of Sa’adi’s descendants. 

These questions launched me on a decade-long quest to tell the collective story of Sa’adi’s branching family: a journey that took me to a dozen countries, dozens of archives, and into the homes of a Sephardic clan that constituted its own, remarkable global diaspora. 

Q: How did you conduct your research, and what did you learn that particularly surprised you?

A: Reconstructing the history of the globally-branching Levy family has taken me into the living rooms (and private collections) of family members from Rio de Janeiro to Kolkata, Thessaloniki to Manchester--people who today cannot read the various languages of the documents they hold, but who still have a palpable connection to their deep past. 

To supplement these family papers (which revealed but also kept secrets), I consulted 30 archives in Brazil, Great Britain, France, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Germany, Hungary, Israel, and the United States.  Travel documents; naturalization papers; birth, death, and medical records; letters exchanged by relatives, lovers, and friends; business papers, even a baptismal certificate; all told, these scattered sources have allowed me to trace an intimate arc of the 20th century.

Q: The family includes a notorious World War II war criminal, as well as many relatives who were killed in the Holocaust. What is the legacy of the war for the Levy family today?

A: The Holocaust eviscerated the Levys, destroying entire branches of the family tree (in Greece and France, especially). The losses that so devastated those left behind disrupted intimacies and led to new relationships among survivors driven together by grief, seeking solace in one another and, in some cases, cooperating to file reparation claims from Germany. Slowly, agonizingly, they rebuilt.

As you’ve mentioned, the most devastating drama of Family Papers is the story of a great-grandchild of Sa’adi’s who abetted the Nazi annihilation of the Jews of Salonica. This man, head of occupied Salonica’s Jewish Police, is said to have been a viscous sadist. Recollections of his actions, which swirl through Greek-, Hebrew-, Ladino-, and English-language survivor testimony, are nightmarish. After the war, Sa’adi’s descendant proved the only Jew in all of Europe to be tried by a state (Greece) and executed for his complicity with the Nazis. 

Strikingly, the family never wrote of this terrible trauma, not in letters, memoirs, diaries, or testimonies. They even excised their disgraced relative from family trees. In time, the facts the family buried became unknown to their descendants: including the war criminal’s own daughter. Unknown, that is, until the publication of this book.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the family's story?

A: Family Papers is an Ottoman story, a Jewish story, a Mediterranean story, and a story of single, globally-branching family diaspora. 

But beyond what it tells us about Sephardic Jewry or the Levy family, it is also a meditation on how letters mattered to a family, holding them together after time, distance, and migration tore them apart. I hope the book invites readers to reflect on all that we have lost in the digital age, when so few of us send or receive letters, fret over their crafting, or stain them with our tears.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Just now I’m exploring the astonishing history of a Harlem-based, Sephardic-owned, 1940s botánica—a spiritual supply shop that sold occult, spiritual, and mystical wares (medicinal herbs, oils, amulets, statuary, candles, spells) to Caribbean, African American, and Latin American clients. 

It’s a wonderful story, but also opens up questions about Sephardic Jews’ place within the racial fabric of the Americas. It’s too early to say if I’m on the trail of a book or not, but I always enjoy the hunt!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Beau L'Amour


Beau L'Amour is the co-author of Louis L'Amour's Lost Treasures, Volumes 1 and 2. Beau L'Amour compiled the unpublished work of his late father into these new books. He manages Louis L'Amour's estate, and is a writer, art director, and editor.

Q: Why did you decide to compile these works by your father?

A: Louis L'Amour's Lost Treasures is really the story of my father's professional life. Over that last many years I realized that there were many details about his writing career that would simply never fit in a conventional biography; however, they would be a great addition to the works that they pertained to. 

The Lost Treasures project is bigger than just Louis L'Amour's Lost Treasures Volumes One and Two; there are Lost Treasures Postscripts that are or will be, included in over 30 of his long-published novels and books of short stories, as well as his first novel, No Traveller Returns, now published for the first time. It's a big project intended to fill in, and explain, as many aspects of his career as possible. 

In many ways compiling all of this was just the next step in trying to make everything he wrote available to his fans, and anyone else who might be casually interested in learning what it was like to be a writer in the heyday of 20th century publishing. I hate to say it, but that is beginning to feel like a bygone era!

I admit that the concept is all a bit random access, as opposed to a single narrative that someone could pick up and read from end to end, but much of this material requires a reader to be familiar with the book it relates to and thus would never see the light of day in a traditional biography that was presented in a linear manner.

Q: How did you choose the "lost treasures" that you include in this volume of your father's work?

A: Both Lost Treasures Volume One and Two contain the short stories, treatments, and fragments I thought were most interesting and that told the story of Dad's attempts to break away from writing Westerns. 

I was looking for the most odd and eclectic material as well as examples of how he worked. I intersperse these with Western genre material so that a traditional fan will also have the sort of material that they came for.  In most cases I have combined multiple drafts for a "best of" version for a particular story, but then I try to discuss any important differences between those different versions. 

Asking an audience member to slog through five or 25 drafts would have been quite unrealistic. Where the differences between versions are extreme or important to the points I'm trying to express, I do include the appropriate drafts.

I also included works that, though unfinished, were personally very meaningful to me and my father, like an unfinished story that dealt with the Chinese invasion and domination of Tibet, and the Western novel he was working on when he died. There were a couple of complete short stories that had not made it into previous collections, so those were automatically on the list to go in.

In a more technical sense, I might choose to include a story fragment if it had a reasonable page count and seemed to get somewhere before Dad stopped working on it. Of course, a piece was more likely to be included if it was part of the overall story I was trying to tell, the story of my father trying to expand his career and how he approached writing on a day to day basis. I would also include it if it was part of some larger continuum of stories he was telling.

When it comes to the Postscripts added to the individual Lost Treasures novels, I just looked for interesting anecdotes that I could clearly remember or that I had some documentation on. Often these contain early drafts that are considerably different than the finished novel, or stories about its creation. 

The Key-Lock Man and Kiowa Trail (neither of these postscripts is published quite yet), for instance, are connected to my father's friendship with Katherine Hepburn, the postscript to Callaghen (which has been published) is all about Dad doing research on California's "Desert Road," and a good deal of the Shalako postscript has to do with the making of the movie, one of the earliest and most "independent" independent films ever produced.

In the case of No Traveller Returns, I finished my father's first novel, which had remained in pieces since the early 1940s and did what I could in the Postscript to put its creation and my work on it into context.  It was an important element of his Yondering series of stories which documents some of the world of hobos, sailors, and soldiers of fortune he found himself living on the edges of in the 1920s. As a companion piece the Lost Treasures series also includes a revised version of the Yondering short story collection which rounds out the series.

Q: Do you see particular themes running through this collection?

A: Well, besides it being a look under the hood at the workings of the career of a working writer, Lost Treasures tends to be about overcoming, or attempting to overcome, the odds. Dad struggled to teach himself to write and eventually succeeded in both the literary and pulp market, writing short stories of all genres. 

When his pulp magazine income died (the literary magazines really didn't pay anything at all), he moved into paperback originals but, once establishing himself, there he had a great deal of trouble being accepted outside of the Western. 

Lost Treasures Volumes One and Two really show the reader how broad his interests were, because the material in those volumes includes horror, science fiction, some fairly strange Westerns, historical novels, and an odd genre I've taken to calling spiritual or occult adventure. I suspect that the work that is too ambitious for a serious writer to finish is often the work that tells you the most about who he was.

Q: What do you see as your father's legacy today?

A: I'm not sure that's up to me. I just try to provide the material and put it in context. Maybe others can figure that out. 

Probably the closest I can get is that his story is one of extraordinary perseverance. Dad was self-educated after the 10th grade, so there is perseverance and the confidence that he could break into the world of writers to begin with, and that he could then change his fate and eventually be successful with books outside the Western genre, like The Walking Drum (a 12th century historical novel), Last of the Breed (a Cold War thriller), and Haunted Mesa (science fiction). 

He had a lot of strikes against him; from the time he was 15 until his early 40s he was quite poor. If he could make his mark on the world anyone can ... but few realize it.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm finishing up the last few Lost Treasures Postscripts; we should have enough to last through 2021 and maybe into 2022.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: People can get a good idea of all this series contains by going to the Lost Treasures website there are examples of postscripts, lists of the Lost Treasures books, and copies of the tables of contents of Volumes One and Two so a reader can see the type of material that they contain. 

There are also a lot of great photographs, many notes of Dad's that we were not able to fit into any of the books, examples of TV treatments, various planning documents, and a complete list of all the books my father read from 1930 to 1988.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Marina Budhos


Marina Budhos is the author of The Long Ride, a new middle grade novel for kids. Her other books include Watched and Ask Me No Questions. She is a professor of English at William Paterson University, and she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey.

Q: You note that The Long Ride is based on the busing plan implemented in your Queens neighborhood in the late '60s and early '70s. Why did you choose that as a topic, and how did you come up with your character Jamila?

A: I had been working on some memoir material around my growing up in an unusual international and interracial community. The surrounding neighborhoods, however, in Queens, were very segregated and polarized around race, particularly when school integration plans began coming into place. 

And while I did not personally go through the integration plan that this novel is based on, it was something that roiled the community and our schools. Thus, I was interested in capturing that story, that moment. 

As well, I am mixed (half Guyanese-Indian and half Jewish-American), with a father who taught in a largely African-American high school, in a neighborhood many of my own friends would never go to. Many of my other friends were mixed and so we had a lot of experiences about being in between, at school, in neighborhoods. 

Finally some of the scenes in the novel were drawn from my own junior high, which was a place where different kids from different neighborhoods collided, and yet were very segregated within the school.

Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, "Readers will find a powerful window into the past and, unfortunately, a way-too-accurate mirror of the present." What do you think of that assessment, and how would you compare your characters' experiences with those of their counterparts today?

A: In so many ways I feel as if the 1970s, and the story of integration is the hidden story, the untold story. Children grow up with the iconic images of Ruby Bridges being escorted in by federal marshals to get the chance to go to school. 

But it was in the 1970s that most school districts around the countries tentatively began experimenting with all kinds of ways to integrate.

It was one of the largest social experiments, where we were trying to raise a new generation of children who would go to schools that would be different from those their parents went to. We were using schools to redress all the racial inequities in our society.

Now integration and resegregation is truly on the front burner again—somehow those efforts in the 1970s did not hold. Here in NYC, for instance, the Board of Education is proposing that they make sweeping changes to again re-integrate schools. 

In my own local school district, where we pride ourselves on being diverse, there have been great struggles around true integration and now yet another effort to achieve intentional integration. 

Colleges and universities are also roiling about their capacity to create truly integrated campuses.

Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything surprising?

A: I did a combination of drawing from memory and talking to a few people about their experiences with the local plan. 

I also did some reading up on research that’s been done on integration in the 1970s, and as well, delved a bit into newspaper articles and watched any YouTube videos of protests. The family of a childhood friend gave me their archive of all the PTA bulletins, clippings, materials around our local plan, and that helped me with the texture of the times.

I think the only thing that surprised me is that I found out that this story that was personal to my growing up was actually occurring all over the country. If a person grew up at a certain time—the ‘70s and early ‘80s—they were touched by integration, because that was when so many of the plans were rolling out. 

And so I think there is a whole generation that has been touched by this history, this social change, but their experiences haven’t fully been told.

One other thing I learned that really surprised me was that at that time, no other institutions were integrated—not workplaces, neighborhoods, professions. 

So children were the only one who were living mingled lives. 

That created such a generational gap, a kind of dissonance, where children’s reality was so different from their parents. All the burden was placed on schools and on children—to me this then raises the question of how can we think more holistically about integration?

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

A: One, I want them to know what it’s like to be a mixed-race tween/teen on the cusp of growing up, and yet having such great challenges in terms of fitting in. Mixed-race kids simply can’t be boxed in and yet the middle years is often all about social boxing in.

Two, I wanted to capture this era—full of good intentions—but these grand plans often fell on the slender shoulders of children, and were not carefully or thoughtfully executed. 

It isn’t that we shouldn’t aim for integration—of course we should--but we should be honest about the difficulties; honest about how little we ask of the adults. 

Finally I wanted to pay homage to the early, pioneering mixed-race families. I don’t feel that’s an experience that’s been much written about. 

But in my era, for families such as mine, every single decision bore the weight of race and identity. Sometimes these families had to forge forward without the support of any extended family or community. They were also families who bravely integrated neighborhoods on their own. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a new YA novel, tentatively titled Sanctuary. It’s about a family that comes to take sanctuary in a Jewish synagogue, and it is told from the point of view of the teenage girl and the boy who escorts her to school every day. 

She just wants to have a regular teenage life, but she can’t, of course; and the boy, who has trouble putting himself forward in life, has to learn what it means to give refuge to someone else.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The Long Ride is actually my first middle grade novel. I wanted my readers to know this is a voice and perspective that I can do, and that I quite enjoyed writing. It felt as if I was returning to some purer version of myself and my own sense of voice. I’m just dying to get into classrooms to talk about the book too. 

I am in the midst of developing a fun ‘70s pop quiz—high and low, a mix of fashion, music, movies and all the serious things that were also going on at this time—the Vietnam War, integration, the bankruptcy of cities.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Marina Budhos.

Nov. 19

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Nov. 19, 1958: Annette Gordon-Reed born.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Q&A with Andrea Cohen


Andrea Cohen, photo by Francesca G. Bewer
Andrea Cohen is the author of the new poetry collection Nightshade. Her other books include Unfathoming and Furs Not Mine, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New Yorker and The Threepenny Review.

Q: Over how long a period did you write the poems in Nightshade?

A: I think these poems were written over about a year and a half.

Q: Why did you choose Nightshade--also the title of one of the poems--as the collection's title? What does it signify for you?

A: For me, the idea of, or the fact of that bittersweetness of days seemed pretty emblematic of these poems. Of course, one is lucky to have a bittersweet life. The only probable alternative would be bitterness entire.

Q: In a review in the Washington Independent Review of Books, Grace Cavalieri writes of Nightshade, "Each page has either a conundrum or a puzzle at the center, as Cohen tries to light a dark world by strengthening thought and stripping words to their hidden literal meanings." What do you think of that assessment?

A: I think it’s a thoughtful consideration. And I suspect that trying to assess others’ assessments of one’s own poems is probably folly.

Q: How did you decide on the order in which the poems would appear in the collection?

A: I have a Ouija board. Or I don’t, but wish I did.

The real answer? I just look at the poems and try to imagine how they might connect with each other.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just wake up and see what happens. I mean, I wake up, I sit down, and I write.

There is also coffee involved. A lot of coffee.

And the dog. Asking questions.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I can recommend a couple books that are just out. One is Jane Mead’s To the Wren: Collected & New Poems 1991-2019. Sadly, it’s the last book we have from Jane. And one other is James Arthur’s The Suicide’s Son. And if you get the chance to hear James read, take it.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Andrea Cohen.

Q&A with Kathleen Schrenk


Kathleen Schrenk is the author of The Case of the Left-Hand Trombone, a new novel for kids. She also has written another children's novel, A Dog Steals Home. She has worked as a speech therapist and middle school teacher, and she lives in New Orleans.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Case of the Left-Hand Trombone?

A: I live in New Orleans next door to a 95-pound, pot-bellied pig named Wilbur. Knowing that I write stories about children and their pets, my neighbor suggested I write about her pig. I liked the idea, and I began to consider what the storyline would be.

For me, writing a book is a lot like planting a garden. I don’t draw a blueprint for my garden before I plant it, and I don’t outline my stories before I write them. I start with an idea and go where the garden or story takes me.

My extensive butterfly garden began with one, tiny packet of milkweed seeds for monarch caterpillars. Wilbur the City Pig was my packet of milkweed seeds for this book. I needed to find setting, characters, conflict and plot to make the story “grow.”

At that time, my grandson was interested in chapter detective books. What if, I thought, my pig character (Walter) was a detective with a snout for crime? He could be the pet of a young boy (Wyatt) and live with the child and his family in the French Quarter.

The duo would be special agents for the New Orleans Police Department. The crime, I decided, would be the theft of musical instruments. Throw in Wyatt’s aunt who is a detective for the NOPD, Wyatt’s sidekick, Jeanette, a few eccentric French Quarter characters, and the story took off.

Q: As you’ve noted, the book takes place in New Orleans—how important is setting to you in your writing?

A: Like many Southern writers, setting is extremely important to me because “place” is such a big part of a Southerner’s soul. I am a native New Orleanian whose ancestry in New Orleans dates back to the 1700s. I think it would be impossible to have roots that deep and not have New Orleans influence my writing.

The Case of the Left-Hand Trombone could only be set in the French Quarter. It is an historic tourist area, but the “lower Quarter,” where Wyatt and Walter live, is a living, breathing neighborhood where a child could live with his parents and a pet pig. It has a small footprint, easily traveled by the boy and his pig.

The French Quarter has a quirkiness that works for this book. French Quarter musicians, street entertainers, restaurants, and museums all play into the setting and plot of the story. Many people equate the French Quarter with Bourbon Street, but it is so much more than that!

Q: What do you think Vernon Smith’s illustrations add to the book?

A: I’ll start with Vernon’s cover illustration. I think a book’s cover is an important element in a children’s book. It should catch a child’s attention, hint at the mood of the story, and give an idea of what the story is about.

Vernon nailed it! When he submitted the first illustration of Wyatt to me, I was amazed. It was as if Vernon had crawled inside my head to see the Wyatt I had pictured. His rendition of the pig character is based on a photo of the pig who lives next door to me, and Vernon captured him spot-on.

The bright colors, “musical” font of the title, and the comic magnifying glass let a child know this will be a playful detective story. For anyone familiar with New Orleans, the looming St. Louis Cathedral in the background defines the setting.

I think Vernon’s black-and-white interior sketches help the reader visualize the action and the setting. His drawings will pique a child’s interest and move the story along. I love how he sketched the chapter titles as musical notes coming from the bell of a trombone.

This was my first time working with an illustrator. I look forward to doing it again.

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

A: The most important thing I’d like kids to take away from this story is the joy of reading. Much of early elementary reading involves learning to read and measuring the progress of that learning. I think parents and teachers can lose sight of the fact that, yes, children need to learn to read, but it’s also important for them to love to read…just for fun!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have begun to write my next Wyatt and Walter book, this one set on Bayou St. John and in New Orleans City Park. I’ve written the first couple of chapters, I know what the “crime” will be, and I know how it will end. I just need to figure out all that middle stuff.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Although the book is a fun romp through the French Quarter, children are also introduced to the culture and history of New Orleans through Walter’s Hoofnotes. Walter leaves his hoofprint behind words in the story that are unique to New Orleans culture or refer to New Orleans landmarks.

Young readers can follow his steps to “hoofnotes” at the end of the chapter to learn more about these places and terms. A map in the beginning of the book helps them follow the two sleuths through the Quarter.

I’d also like people to know that New Orleans can be a great place for a family vacation. We have such a reputation as a party city—not a completely undeserved reputation but a somewhat overblown one—that many visitors overlook what else our city has to offer.

I invite you and your readers to check out the blog I wrote last summer about visiting New Orleans with kids.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Kathleen Schrenk.

Nov. 18

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Nov. 18, 1939: Margaret Atwood born.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Q&A with Lori Roy


Lori Roy, photo by Val Ritter
Lori Roy is the author of the new novel Gone Too Long. Her other novels include The Disappearing and Bent Road. She lives in West Central Florida.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Gone Too Long?

A: In the early stages of writing Gone Too Long, I was spending a good deal of time in Georgia as my daughter was attending college there and playing volleyball for her university. 

During my trips to the state, I began researching its history. In doing so, I learned about Stone Mountain, which is just outside Atlanta. 

This location has a long history with the Ku Klux Klan, a history which began in the early 1900s when about a dozen men marched up the mountain, lit a cross and reignited the KKK after its original iteration faded. 

The KKK has continued to associate itself with this landmark in more recent years. They have held rallies there and attempted to hold a rally at this location as recently as a few years ago.

I began to wonder about the descendants of the men who first climbed this mountain to reignite the Klan all those years ago, an action that led to millions joining by the 1920s. I wondered if those descendants knew of their history, what they thought of it, and what had become of them.

From these early imaginings, I developed the Coulter family and the story of Gone Too Long.

Q: The Kirkus Review of the novel says that it's "weighted with real-world resonance." How do you see the book's themes fitting with the news about hate groups in recent years?

A: When I first began working on Gone Too Long and writing about the Coulter family and their long-standing ties to the Ku Klux Klan, I was inspired to write a fast-paced thriller set against the backdrop of a fictional small town near Stone Mountain.  

While I was in the process of writing the novel, the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville occurred, and a young woman was killed by a self-proclaimed white supremacist. 

I had spent many months studying the history of the Klan and white supremacy by that time and had discovered that throughout our country’s history, there has been an ebb and a flow to white supremacy. One set of circumstances has combined to draw it out of the shadows and another set has caused it to recede. 

This rising and falling has occurred several times over the years, and as I watched and listened to the president of the United States address what had happened at Charlottesville, I realized it was rising once again.

The president’s choice to suggest there were fine people among the self-proclaimed white supremacists who organized the rally and to further cast partial blame for the tragedy on the counter-protestors who marched in opposition to such hate – each action by the president an apparent attempt to validate and normalize white supremacy and signal his tolerance for such beliefs—was an integral part of yet another historic emboldening of white supremacy in our country.

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

A: Titles are always difficult to come up with, and Gone Too Long was no different. As has been the case with most of my books, the title was pulled from a phrase that appears several times in the novel.

Gone Too Long is significant for two primary reasons. The title is a nod toward the mystery surrounding a character who has disappeared. She has been “gone too long” is the response given by one of my characters when asked about the disappearance. 

However, the more important reference is a warning against society being gone too long from remembering its past sins. In the case of this novel, the sin I examine is that of white supremacy. 

The major theme of the book is that we are no better than those who came before us and will most certainly repeat the mistakes of the past if we let ourselves be gone too long from remembering. 

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

A: I hope readers are clenching their fists as they read this thriller. I hope the suspense is engaging and compels them to keep turning pages late into the night.

But my greatest hope is that these characters, the struggles they face, the choices they make and the consequences they suffer will punctuate the great danger of being gone too long from remembering our past and believing we are above making those same mistakes today.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on another thriller. I don’t yet have a polished pitch to share but in short, it’s the story of a woman who--believing the most dangerous psychopaths are not those we read about in the headlines but are instead those who live and work among us--aspires to compile a book in which she shares email correspondence she has had with four such psychopaths.

Herself the daughter of a psychopathic father who was beloved by his community but feared by his family, she hopes her question-and-answer format with her four subjects will help those struggling in destructive relationships with people having psychopathic personalities. 

But her project takes a turn when she realizes one of her subjects—Subject #1—will soon be a household name because of his horrific crimes, and that she has become his next target.  

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I think we have covered everything. Thanks so much for the opportunity to chat about Gone Too Long and my next project.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 17

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Nov. 17, 1983: Christopher Paolini born.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Q&A with Jennifer Cody Epstein

Jennifer Cody Epstein, photo by Julie Brown
Jennifer Cody Epstein is the author of the novel Wunderland. She also has written The Painter from Shanghai and The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Wall Street Journal and Vogue. She lives in Brooklyn.
Q: You write that Wunderland was inspired in part by a piece in The New Yorker. What was the article about, and how did it lead to this book?

A: It was a 2013 article that my husband happened upon in The New Yorker, about a new U.S. translation of a somewhat obscure German book.

The article--by a U.S. writer who was also the publisher/editor of that translation (Helen Epstein, of Plunkett Lake Press) --recounted how Melita Maschmann, a former Hitler Youth enthusiast, had in her 1963 memoir Account Rendered written an intimate account of her rise and fall as a national socialist.

It's a confessionary account that takes the shape of a long letter to Maschmann’s childhood best friend, a girl who found herself classified as a Mischling--"mixed-race"--under Hitler’s race laws at roughly the same time Maschmann joined the girl’s branch of the Hitler Youth. 

That story sparked both my interest and my imagination.

I’d known for years that I wanted to write about the Holocaust—not about the monstrous mechanics of the Final Solution (so many other authors have already done that, some far better than I could hope to), but something that would explore the individual choices people made at that time; choices that might have seemed logical or mundane in the moment, but which could ultimately have had a devastating and deadly impact.

At that point I hadn’t really read any historical accounts that shed light on those kinds of experiences. But in both the New Yorker piece and, when I read it, Account Rendered I spotted the seeds of the kind of story I wanted to tell, and the rough trajectories that my book’s two central characters might take in order to explore those themes.

From there sprang Ilse and Renate: two young German girls caught up in the madness of Hitler’s Germany, but in very different ways, as Renate has her life destroyed by the Nuremburg laws, while Ilse rises to the Hitler Youth’s highest ranks.

Since I was also interested in understanding the impact of those kinds of choices on the next generation, I created a third character: Ava, Ilse’s estranged daughter who has fled Germany to live in New York and uncovers the secret of her mother’s hidden history after Ilse’s death

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

A: I researched primarily by reading as widely as I could; mainly memoirs and first-hand accounts.

I probably read dozens of books in the end, but a few that were particularly helpful in addition to Maschmann's memoir were Victor Klemperer's I Will Bear Witness (a meticulous account of how the Nuremberg laws impacted daily Jewish life between 1933 and 1939, written by a German Jew from Dresden), Alison Owens' Frauen (a collection of extraordinarily frank interviews with German women who had lived through National Socialism), Marion Kaplan's Between Dignity and Despair and Erica Fisher's Aimee and Jaguar. A Woman in Berlin, an anonymous memoir written by a survivor of the Soviet invasion/occupation directly following the war's end, was also pretty illuminating. 

Actually, apart from the horrific event of the Holocaust itself (which never ceases to shock me, no matter how much I read or hear about it), the chilling details of the Soviet occupation of Germany surprised me a lot.

I hadn't read or even heard before about the months immediately following Germany's surrender, during which Soviet troops rampaged through the country pillaging, looting and systematically raping millions of German females, including children and the elderly.

It's an extraordinarily brutal but strangely little-known chapter of the war that A Woman in Berlin evokes very powerfully. 

Q: The novel is told from three characters' perspectives, and jumps around in time over a half century. Did you write the chapters in the order in which they appear, or did you move things around as you wrote?

A: I more or less wrote them the way they appear, though Ava's character and storyline changed quite a bit as I got into the story.

I also ended up flipping her timeline around. I'd started having it unfold chronologically, like Ilse's and Renate's, but it felt too repetitive thematically that way (you'd read about Ilse and Renate as schoolgirls, then Ava as a schoolgirl 20 years later, for instance--different storylines but essentially the same setting).

Because of that I made Ava's narrative unfold in reverse, starting with her as an adult in New York in the 1980s and then "unwinding" to her first meeting with her mother Ilse at a Bremen orphanage after the war.

My hope in structuring it this way was to create more texture and tension with the Ilse/Ava narratives, and also build more effectively towards the novel's (somewhat biggish) reveal at the end. 

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

A: I actually try to avoid telling readers what to take away from my work, simply because what I love about reading is how deeply personal and subjective an experience it is.

If I had to name something, though, I guess it'd be that they find in Wunderland as readers what I did as a writer--an opportunity to consider the roots and repercussions of the Holocaust from angles they might not have considered before. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Another historical novel, only this one is set in 19th century Paris at what was then Europe's (and possibly the world's) largest insane asylum for women. There as some pretty wild stuff that went down there in the 1880s, particularly as relates to a mysterious ailment was then being diagnosed at epidemic rates: hysteria. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Jennifer Cody Epstein.

Nov. 16

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Nov. 16, 1889: George S. Kaufman born.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Q&A with Sidney Blumenthal


Sidney Blumenthal, photo by Ralph Alswing
Sidney Blumenthal is the author of the new book All the Powers of Earth: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1856-1860. It's the third in his series of biographies of Lincoln, preceded by Wrestling With His Angel and A Self-Made Man. He is a former senior advisor to both Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, as well as a former reporter for The Washington Post and editor and writer for The New Yorker. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: What do you see as the key to Lincoln’s state of mind during the 1856-1860 period?

A: Lincoln’s state of mind changed over time. He began this period [indicating that] politics were almost completely out of his mind—which I don’t believe. When Stephen A. Douglas proposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which potentially would open the area to slavery, he [became more involved].

But the Whig Party had disintegrated. He had no vehicle. He wrote to [his friend Joshua] Speed and others to say, I’m a Whig, but there’s no Whig Party. It took until 1856, when he invented the Illinois Republican Party.

His state of mind changed as the crisis heightened. It began with Douglas opening the question of slavery again, and led to Lincoln being completely committed and galvanized to a political cause. He realized he needed to make a new political organization.

He asked, How do I hold this together, with its disparate factions? How do I articulate what the politics of the moment are as things are changing?

Events kept intervening. Suddenly there was the lightning bolt of the Dred Scott decision. Lincoln thought the situation was more radical—he was thinking there could be a second Dred Scott decision that could nationalize slavery, not just in the South but in the North.

Lincoln was completely engaged, working on this problem. He was never out of politics. Even when he lost [to Douglas for Senate] in 1858, he recovered very quickly, and said the cause must go on.

In one letter he said there would be another explosion, and he was right: John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry. There was always something that accelerated the crisis. Each time he was both in the forefront of the political organization and at the same time internally figuring out how to respond.

Q: How would you define the relationship between Lincoln and Douglas during this period?

A: Lincoln had always been in competition with Douglas, since the 1830s, even before the 1840 campaign when the Whig Party came together and Lincoln really became a Whig. Douglas always rose above him.

Some of it was personal, dealing with Douglas’s own personal qualities. He was highly intelligent, ambitious, ferocious, and ruthless. He had legislative skill, and was a master demagogue. He had the ability to bring along other people, partly by corrupting them.

In this period, Lincoln was wandering around his judicial district, and was suddenly compelled forward—and it was Douglas who was the trailblazer. Everywhere Douglas went, Lincoln went. Lincoln initially had a sense of inferiority. Douglas was above him, was one of the leading figures of the time, was dominant in Illinois. Lincoln was now competing with him.

In the beginning of Lincoln running for Senate in 1858, Lincoln’s friend Jesse Fell, an industrialist and great reformer, proposed to Lincoln that he debate Douglas. Lincoln found himself standing under balconies where Douglas was speaking. He was not equal to Douglas, and tried to goad Douglas into debating him.

Douglas had an exclusive train on which he went from town to town. Lincoln would follow him. There are description of Lincoln jumping over fences following the crowd. Eventually, he got Douglas to debate.

Q: How would you describe Lincoln’s views toward slavery during the four years before his election as president?

A: Lincoln was always anti-slavery. Before the Kansas-Nebraska Act, everyone in party politics felt slavery had been taken off the national agenda by the Compromise of 1850. Suddenly it was put back on, and it divided the parties. It was the ultimate reason it smashed the Whigs and led to the crackup of the Democratic Party.

Lincoln was opposed to the extension of slavery. He believed slavery had to be dealt with politically. He believed the Constitution had an anti-slavery background and that there were means of doing this.

Q: Given today’s political climate, what do you hope readers take away from this biography?

A: I hope they learn about Lincoln as a man who became a great political leader, and about how he developed qualities of leadership that put him not above politics but in the middle of it.

Lincoln developed as a human being through his extraordinary life, rising through poverty, seeing America as it developed as a new nation, maturing from a raw frontier character into somebody who was incredibly self-disciplined and deeply working on himself to possess the skills required to understand the realities he faced. He anticipated what those were, and persuaded people to his position.

He understood, having encountered this through his political life, the facets and dangers of demagogues. He was in constant friction with Douglas, who was a master demagogue and knew how to manipulate falsehoods. Lincoln learned how to cope with that.

He thought about public opinion, not that it was some neutral thing. He said at various points that it’s been debauched by demagogues, and his dealings with people had been poisoned.

And then there were larger forces he had to deal with. The title of the book is his definition of the slave power. “All the powers on earth” converge to keep slaves in [bondage]. How does he undo that? He has to create the instruments of power himself.

He created a party, he worked with others—but he was the key. He was working on himself all the time, thinking things through at a personal level, a political level, and a moral level. And he captured the full dimension of the crisis, and brought people along. He didn’t shrink from the crisis and the threat to democracy.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on book four. When book three ends, Lincoln is elected, and immediately South Carolina secedes. Four begins with the politics of secession. It will go through Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: If Lincoln were alive today, he would understand that political parties change. He would not recognize the Republican Party to be his Republican Party. He would see it as a combination of the forces that he had to contend with that were opposed to him.

What they have become is the opposite of Lincoln’s Republican Party. They’ve taken on the coloration of the Democratic Party of the slave power, and the Know-Nothing nativist party, both at once. Some Know-Nothings were not pro-slavery, and some of the Democrats were not nativists. This Trump Republican Party is the worst of everything from the past that Lincoln had to deal with. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Sidney Blumenthal.