Saturday, July 20, 2019

Q&A with Victoria Shorr

Victoria Shorr is the author of the new book Midnight: Three Women at the Hour of Reckoning. It focuses on Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, and Joan of Arc. She also has written the novel Backlands. She is the co-founder of the Archer School for Girls in California and the Pine Ridge Girls' School in South Dakota. She lives in Pacific Palisades, California.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Midnight, and for linking these three women's lives?  

A: These stories came from three different times and places in my life.  

"Jane Austen at Midnight" came from first listening to Persuasion in my car in Los Angeles. I had read it when I was younger, but when I was younger, happy endings didn't strike me the way they do now. I thought happy endings were the way life worked--then. 

Now, I was moved to tears by the way that Jane Austen pulled everything together for Anne Elliot, righting all wrongs, serving out justice in the most satisfying way possible, and it occurred to me to wonder about her own life. This led me to her darkest hour, when she is essentially broke and homeless. This is the story I tell in Midnight.  

As for Mary Shelley, I was drawn to  her by the unsympathetic treatment she received in several otherwise very good biographies of her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. As I read about the 16-year-old girl who was brave enough to run off with the married poet Shelley, I became first moved and then profoundly impressed by her courage and her passion—that passionate courage, that found its perfect expression in Frankenstein, written when she was just 18. 

This is what I seek to dramatize on the Italian terrace, six years later, as she sits waiting for Shelley's boat that may never come, conjuring the strength to confront all they had done together—only alone this time. 

The Joan of Arc segment was written 20 years ago, when after many years of studying primary sources and oft-told tales, I came upon a story that had never been told: of the last week of this young girl's life, when at age 19, she was forced to confront her own life without her saints, and summon a much more profound courage than had been called for even on the battlefield for France. She does it, step by step, as we watch horrified, in "Joan of Arc in Chains." 

Q: What similarities do you see among the three, and what do you see as their legacies today?  

A: The similarities as well as their legacies lie in the kind of private, women's courage they were able to muster, in the face of an unforgiving world. Isak Dinesen calls it “courage de luxe,”  and that's how I came to see it--the kind of unrewarded, unnoticed courage that women recognize from our daily lives.

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write the book, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?  

A: The Joan of Arc story, which required deep research over many years in the New York Public Library, was also the biggest surprise. Most of us, including me then, don't even know that she went to the stake twice. This is the story I felt I had to tell. The other research I did more perfunctorily, reading some of the standard texts, but bringing my own vision and life experience to them. I was, after all, in my 60s when I wrote the Jane Austen and Mary Shelley pieces. We bring quite a lot by then.

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

A: An appreciation of these three as brave women who, yes, evinced uncommon courage, but the kind that I think the readers will recognize from their own lives. I will hope also that their lives may serve for inspiration. The stories are also a lot of fun!

Q: What are you working on now?  

A: A woman, who has just discovered her husband dead in his tennis clothes, drives up the coast of California, seeking a place to kill herself. This is a meditation about the last part of our lives, when the thrill is gone but obligations remain: does one kill oneself? Or do we continue to stand in the blizzard?
Also, a piece on the poet Elizabeth Bishop, about her life in Brazil, when she fell in love with a woman, and life opened up for her. I too lived in Brazil for many years, and have also written a book of short stories about expatriate life there.

Q: Anything else we should know?  

A: In my other life, I have been involved in founding two girls' schools—one the now-established Archer School for Girls in Los Angeles, and the other, the fledgling Pine Ridge Girls' School, on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. 

We are up the road from the site of the massacre of Wounded Knee, an iconic moment in our history, and we are seeking to redress some of the wrongs done there by educating and empowering a growing stream of young Lakota women in the first college-prep, independent girls' school on a Native reservation in America. 

It's funny—I had my first book, Backlands, about a Brazilian Bonnie and Clyde pair of bandits, published when I was in my early 60s. I had, as one can imagine, fallen in and out of despair many times over, as I faced the possibility that I would never be published, that my work would never quite make it, that, to quote one of the characters in my husband's screenplay, "I didn't get it and I never would." 

But the work itself always kept speaking to me, and I could always hear my heroes—Amelia Earhart, Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, George Eliot—whispering, “Failure is impossible” (Earhart's line). So one keeps going, moving, one trusts, toward the light, and occasionally, one gets there. The important thing, as Jean Rhys so memorably put it, is “to feed the lake.”

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the author of the new novel The Stranger Inside. Her other novels include Small Town Trouble and Bliss House, and her work has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. She lives in Southern Illinois.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Stranger Inside, and for your character Kimber?

The Stranger Inside came from several places: my frequent nightmares about strangers trying to get into my house (occasional zombies, too), my general paranoia, and so many news stories about people whose houses end up being occupied by strangers while they're on vacation, in the hospital, or have listed an unoccupied house for sale. It's often difficult to evict these criminals, which is one of the reasons Kimber's story gets complicated.

I love complex characters. A protagonist who is a good person with only slight or non-tragic flaws is dull to write, which is why my novels often challenge readers' expectations of a protagonist's assumed righteousness. Kimber isn't just a victim of a random crime. She's something more. The book is as much about her as her situation.

Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, "Angry and jealous as a child and teenager, and now a cold, prickly adult, Kimber is the epitome of the unreliable narrator." What do you think of that assessment?

A: I can't disagree. Kimber is self-protective in the extreme--yet with good reason. She's hiding a corrosive secret that has warped her ability to connect with other people. But she does have areas of deep vulnerability, and a few of the people closest to her recognize and are able to reach the real Kimber. My goal was to bring the reader on that journey, too.

As to the "unreliable narrator" quote? All I can say is, mwahahahahaha!

Q: The novel is set in the St. Louis area. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: I won't go so far as to say that setting is everything, though nearly all of my stories grow from their settings. Each of my eight novels is set in a city or state where I've lived. The climate, the culture, the geography--all these things help tell the story.

I've lived in seven states, that, when assembled together, form a contiguous grouping: (in no particular order) Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Kentucky. They're all Upper South or Midwestern states. The flora and fauna aren't too differentiated. It's familiar and comfortable to me.

It would be a challenge for me to set a story in the desert, or the far north. Only very occasionally will I venture outside my comfort zone.

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

A: No, I don't always know the ending of my books. I'd say it's been about 50/50. I try to let the story grow organically as I write (though I've recently become a fan of outlining), so endings as well as middles often change. That's part of the fun of writing. The story is alive and never complete until it's published. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm writing a few new short stories. Some to send out, and a couple to add to a new and collected book of my stories. And, of course, I always have at least one novel brewing.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I'm grateful to every single reader who picks up and reads my work. Thank you! Also, I never wear my glasses in my author photos because I'm a little vain. Dark chocolate, not milk. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo

Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo is the author of Ruby in the Sky, a new middle grade novel for kids. She lives in Ellington, Connecticut.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Ruby in the Sky, and for your character Ruby?

A: There are so many parts of Ruby that come from my life. Ruby, herself, is very shy and doesn’t like to speak in front of people and I was definitely an introvert as a child. In fact, I invented the “trick” of hiding beneath my bangs as a way to disappear.

Nevertheless, the “spark” that really ignited Ruby’s story emerged from a memory of an elderly neighbor who, every afternoon after school, would bring my brother and me to handfeed chickadees at an abandoned house in our rural town. Amidst the noise of my present-day world, I think back to the quiet solitude of those visits – the neglected house in winter and the fact that this lonely man took time to make sure the birds were fed – and I realize how magical it all really was.

Q: The book takes place in Vermont. How important is setting to you in your work?

A: Incredibly important! Ruby is quiet, shy and painfully alone – I love the imagery of Vermont in the winter – dark and isolated. Vermonters are rugged people – it is not easy to get through a Vermont winter, so I also felt the setting helped show how beauty and strength can be found in difficult situations.

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

A: I’ve always been fascinated by the moon and its phases play a large role in Ruby’s story. At the beginning, Ruby is trying to stay, “as silent and invisible as a new moon in a frozen Vermont sky.” Throughout the story, Ruby watches the moon grow – from completely dark (a new moon), to a sliver, through the various phases, and culminating in a total lunar eclipse where the moon is glowing red and impossible to ignore. Ruby follows this journey.

I also find the science behind total lunar eclipses so cool. A total lunar eclipse is often referred to as a “Blood Moon,” but I did not like that name at all. I had heard someone refer to it as a “Ruby Moon,” which is so much lovelier. How perfect, I thought, for my main character to have the name Ruby Moon Hayes!

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

A: Most of all, I want readers to see themselves in Ruby. Sometimes we don’t know how strong we are until we have to face a difficult situation. We are all capable of incredible things. I want readers to know that if they find the right inspiration and the desire to dig deep and find their “own kind of brave,” anything is possible.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My next book is titled A Galaxy of Sea Stars and it comes out early next year. Here is the synopsis:

Sometimes, the truth isn’t easy to see. Sometimes you have to look below the surface to find it. Eleven-year-old Izzy feels as though her whole world is shifting, and she doesn’t like it. She wants her dad to act like he did before he was deployed to Afghanistan. She wants her mom to live with them at the marina where they’ve moved, instead of spending all her time on Block Island. Most of all, she wants Piper, Zelda, and herself—the Sea Stars—to stay best friends, as they start sixth grade in a new school.

Everything changes when Izzy's father invites his former interpreter's family, including eleven-year-old Sitara, to move into the marina’s upstairs apartment. Izzy doesn't know what to make of Sitara, with her hijab and refusal to eat cafeteria food, and her presence disrupts the Sea Stars. But in Sitara, Izzy finds someone brave, someone daring, someone who isn’t as afraid as Izzy is to use her voice and speak up for herself. As Izzy and Sitara grow closer, Izzy must make a choice: stay in her comfort zone and risk betraying her new friend, or speak up and lose the Sea Stars forever.

A Galaxy of Sea Stars is a heartwarming story about family, loyalty, and the hard choices we face in the name of friendship.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: There is no special school you need to attend or degree you need to earn to tell your story. Just be brave and shout it out to the world because the world is waiting to hear from you!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 20

July 20, 1924: Thomas Berger born.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Q&A with Andrew Nagorski

Andrew Nagorski is the author of the new book 1941: The Year Germany Lost the War. His other books include The Nazi Hunters and Hitlerland. He was Newsweek's bureau chief in a variety of cities including Hong Kong, Moscow, and Berlin, and he's based in St. Augustine, Florida.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on 1941, and why do you see it as the year Germany "lost" World War II?

A: Consider the beginning of 1941. Hitler’s armies ruled most of Europe. Churchill’s Britain was a lonely holdout against the Nazi tide, but German bombers were attacking British cities while German U-boats were attacking its ships. Stalin was Hitler’s de facto ally, sending Germany vital supplies under the terms of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. And the United States was still officially on the sidelines. Germany looked to be unstoppable.

But Hitler managed to turn what looked like a winning hand into a losing one in the space of that single year. By the end of 1941, Britain emerged with two powerful new allies, Russia and the United States. While Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7 meant that Hitler had a new partner in Asia, the Allies had a huge advantage in terms of the relative size of their populations, resources and industry.

All of which would come increasingly into play as the war dragged on. No matter how ferociously and how long Hitler’s forces continued to fight, this meant that Germany was doomed to defeat. I was fascinated by the dramas and decisions that took place in that pivotal year to produce that result.

Q: You write of Hitler and Stalin, "Given their predispositions, it was hardly surprising that both leaders were quite capable of making major mistakes." How would you describe the relationship between the two during this period, and how would you compare their actions?

A: Both tyrants were victims of their own megalomania—and their refusal to believe any evidence that contradicted their set beliefs. I write that they almost seemed to be in a contest for the title of “the world’s most willfully blind dictator.”

The difference, however, was that Stalin committed most of his major mistakes early, and tried to make up for some of them later.

In particular, he refused to believe the warnings both of the Western powers and his own spies that Hitler was preparing to launch his attack on the Soviet Union. In his conspiratorial mind, those warnings were all a plot to drag him into a conflict with Germany that he was not prepared for. His troops were not permitted to go on alert until almost the last minute, and they didn’t even have enough weapons to defend themselves. As a result, the Germans scored a string of initial victories and it looked like Hitler’s gamble was succeeding.

But Hitler was so convinced that his forces would achieve a quick victory that he sent his armies in without winter uniforms. He vastly underestimated the capabilities of the Red Army, which began to rebound from their early defeats. Soon German troops were bogged down in a horrific struggle on the outskirts of Moscow, where they came up short and froze during that first winter.

Hitler also helped get Stalin off the hook by alienating those who might have rallied to his side.  He ignored the fact that some Soviet citizens initially welcomed the German invaders, not because they knew anything about Hitler or the Nazi movement but because they were hoping they would liberate them from Stalin’s communist tyranny.

Instead, Hitler immediately unleashed a reign of terror and mass murder of his own. This was evident in his brutal treatment of Soviet POWs and civilians. It was also evident in the first stages of the Holocaust in 1941, when special German killing squads started massacring Jews and anyone else deemed to be “enemies” of the new order. As a result of those policies, Stalin was able to quickly rally his people who might have otherwise turned against him.

Q: How would you describe the dynamic between FDR and Churchill in 1941?

A: Churchill rallied his countrymen and worked diligently to win growing support from the Roosevelt administration, nurturing a strong personal relationship with the president. Soon Washington was providing more and more vital aid to Britain, thanks to the Lend-Lease legislation that Congress approved in early 1941.

Hitler’s attempt to bomb Britain into submission triggered growing American support for the embattled island, but so did Churchill and Roosevelt’s hard work. They bypassed Joseph Kennedy, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to London, who was constantly predicting Britain’s defeat, and set up a direct channel for letters between them. Churchill could be blunt and impatient at times, but he always respected Roosevelt’s difficult position as the leader of a country that was still not formally at war.

Most importantly, the two men, who had not really known each other earlier, came to trust each other. Churchill’s famous sense of humor helped that process. One example: during his stay at the White House in December, 1941, he emerged from his bath one day and, only draped in a towel, kept dictating to his aide. The towel had just dropped to the floor when Roosevelt came into his room. “You see, Mr. President, I have nothing to conceal from you,” he declared.

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

A: I drew on diaries, letters, memoirs and scores of interviews I have conducted over many years. Even at this late date, for instance, I was able to find a few Russian and German veterans who fought in 1941 living in Minneapolis.

I was surprised at times by the stark contrast between what major figures like Churchill or Stalin were saying in public and thinking in private. To bolster morale, Churchill never revealed his doubts in public—but he certainly did have them on more than one occasion, which I describe in the book.

So did some of the lesser known figures who played important backstage roles in this drama, such as General Raymond E. Lee, the U.S. military attaché in London. Lee worked hard to convince American journalists and others that Britain would hold out, but his diary reveals he was in near despair at times.

When Hitler’s forces attacked, Stalin retreated to his dacha and almost gave into despair, believing his own Politburo might turn against him. I also chronicle the panic and chaos in Moscow as German troops approached the outskirts of the city, and even the top-secret evacuation of Lenin’s body from the mausoleum on Red Square. A few years ago, I interviewed one of the caretakers of Lenin’s body during its journey to Tyumen, a city 1,000 miles east of Moscow. All of which paints a very different picture of the early months of the German invasion than the official Soviet histories let on.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m only in the exploratory stage so I’m hesitant to say very much. I’ll be writing about the Third Reich again, focusing on some of the people in Hitler’s inner circle who are much less known than others but far more influential than generally assumed. I’ll leave it at that for now.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: This is my seventh book, and I’d like to think it’s my best one. I was able to draw upon a vast amount of earlier research to try to understand the psychology of Hitler and the other leaders. By focusing on a single year, I was able to scrutinize their motivations and actions in detail in that critical period, and to explain why events took the turns they did. There was nothing inevitable about that course of events; it was a product of a series of momentous decisions. Luckily, in Hitler’s case, most of his actions were based on fatal miscalculations.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Andrew Nagorski.

Q&A with Claire Lombardo

Claire Lombardo is the author of the new novel The Most Fun We Ever Had. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Barrelhouse Magazine and Little Fiction. She is an adjunct professor of creative writing at the University of Iowa, and she lives in Iowa City.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Most Fun We Ever Had, and for the Sorenson family?

A: This novel took several years to evolve, and it started as a short story about a woman whose life is upended by the reappearance of the child she gave up. I quickly, though, became more interested in the characters floating around the periphery—the woman’s difficult sister and her loving-to-a-fault parents.

Some of my favorite novels dwell in the spaces of large families—Brother of the More Famous Jack by Barbara Trapido, Love and Shame and Love by Peter Orner, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, After This by Alice McDermott, to name just a few—and I decided to try my hand at creating my own.

David and Marilyn, the parents, have always been the most distinct characters in my mind, and from there I went on to render their four daughters, and once they existed in my mind and on the page, I was able to put them in spaces together, force them to interact and misbehave and inform each other.

Q: In a review in The Guardian, Hannah Beckerman wrote, "If ever there were to be a literary love child of Jonathan Franzen and Anne Tyler, then Claire Lombardo’s outstanding debut, which ranges from ebullience to despair by way of caustic but intense familial bonds, would be a worthy offspring." What do you think of that assessment?

A: I’m a huge fan of both, so I’m entirely star-struck and flattered beyond compare! Both Franzen and Tyler write the kind of fiction I’ve always aspired to—character driven, patient, and generous, with healthy doses of dark humor and earnestness.

One of my favorite Anne Tyler novels is The Amateur Marriage, and while the central relationship in that book is very different than the marriage at the center of Most Fun, it does so beautifully the thing I’m constantly striving for as a writer—it gives the reader the sensation of existing within another family, privy to the conflicting thoughts and egos and perceptions and insecurities and grudges of its members.

And The Corrections is really just a stunning novel—a deep and comprehensive and funny portrait of a family.

Q: The novel is set primarily in the Chicago area. How important is setting to you in your work?

A: In terms of setting, I prefer to write what I know, even if just for the control it allows—if I set a story in a place I’m familiar with, I’m less likely to get the “if you walk east down that street you’ll run into the library but if you walk west…” details wrong.

But the other reason I chose to set this novel in Chicago is because it’s a really singular landscape, a place like no other (though of course, as a native, I am biased). The Sorensons live in an all-American suburb, but it’s a Midwestern suburb, and that brings with it a host of little nuances: the idiosyncrasies of its residents, the details of the natural world, and the proximity to a big city that isn’t a coastal city.

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

A: The Most Fun We Ever Had wasn’t the book’s original title, and it took me and my editor some time to land on it. I’ve always struggled with titles, and titling this book felt like a particular challenge because it has so many POV characters and plotlines and time periods and I didn’t want to give due to any particular one over the other. I wanted the universality of the first-person plural, because we do spend our time pressed so closely against these characters, and the book belongs equally to all of their narratives.

The title itself is paraphrased from something Marilyn says as a young mother, when she’s underslept and overwhelmed and trying to keep up appearances, and it becomes a part of her marital shorthand with David. It’s not specifically funny or specifically dark, and that’s one of the main reasons we landed on it—that’s a balance I’m trying to strike throughout this novel, that sweet spot between gravitas and humor.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I always have at least two projects going on at once (because I’m a top-notch procrastinator, and if I’m taking a break from one piece of writing to work on another, at least I’m still writing) so I’ve just recently returned to the project I dove into when I was revising and editing The Most Fun—it’s also a family story, but it’s about a very different family from the Sorensons…

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I was recently asked this question and replied, brightly, “I really like dogs!”, but I suppose this isn’t particularly relevant?! 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 19

July 19, 1875: Alice Dunbar Nelson born.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Q&A with Amulya Malladi

Amulya Malladi is the author of the new novel The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You. Her other books include The Copenhagen Affair and A House for Happy Mothers. She is a marketing executive, and she lives in Southern California.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You, and for your character Asmi?

A: I live in the corporate world. As a marketing executive for a global company, I feel that there are no books for me. Every time I look at a book about a career woman, it’s about how she then gives it up to be with her family, or gives it up to start a jam company. Ambitious career women are bandied.

Take Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada—her kids are awful (because she’s too focused on her career), her marriage is ending (because she’s a selfish bitch) and she’s not a role model for our heroine. A woman just doesn’t wear ambition well.

So, I wanted to write a story for women like me. We can’t leave the corporate world—we have bills to pay and kids to put through school AND we like our jobs and we’re ambitious. 

This book came about because I wanted to write a fictional version of Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, which is about women leaning into their careers and getting what they deserve at work—be it promotions, paycheck, and positive reinforcement.

I know, there are mixed feelings about Sheryl Sandberg—but when I read this book many years ago it changed my career. I was talking to my mentor, a man about asking my boss to increase the scope of my responsibilities. He said, “Amulya, be careful. You just got promoted, you don’t want to come across as being greedy.”

But for having read Lean In, I would’ve listened to him but then I thought if he’d give the same advice to me if I was Brian or Peter? Probably not. I asked for the promotion and got it—and it changed my career.

Q: What do you think Asmi's story says about the role of women in corporate careers?

A: It says that there is bias and it’s hard. Let’s not kid ourselves. Women are still struggling to get a seat at the table. We’re not there yet. But we’re working on it.

Q: You begin the book with a quote from Lean In: "What would you do if you weren't afraid?" Why did you decide to include this particular quote?

A: I meet so many women and I’ve been one as well—too afraid to ask for what I want; too afraid to even dream. Leaning In is not just for those women who work in the corporate world. It’s for all of us. It’s about living the life we want and deserve—asking for it and getting it without being afraid.

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

A: I want readers to have a good time. That’s the main thing. But I would love for them to be inspired as well…to silence their inner critic and embrace their dreams.

I just got a message from a reader who wished she’d read this book a decade ago; and another who is in her 20s and is reassessing her choices because she knows some of them are based in fear. That’s why I write!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a book set in 300 BC India. It’s a fascinating time.

I took a break during the release of The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You—but I’m taking two weeks off in August and I intend to spend them finishing the first draft of my historic adventure. There is a spy, there is a courtesan, there is an assassin…it’s absolutely new for me.

And writing in that time period is like writing science fiction—I’m constantly having to do research. How did they tell time? Was cotton there? What did they wear? What did they do for contraception? Did they wax? It’s fun and I’m on a high when I write.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Pick up a copy of The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You. It’s available as an eBook, paperback and shortly as an audio book read by the fabulous Ulka Mohanty.

You can reach me on Facebook, and you can find me on Instagram @amulyamalladi. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Amulya Malladi.

July 18

July 18, 1918: Nelson Mandela born.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Q&A with Susan Richards Shreve

Susan Richards Shreve, photo by Linda Fittante
Susan Richards Shreve is the author of the new novel More News Tomorrow. Her many other books include You Are the Love of My Life and Warm Springs: Traces of a Childhood. She is a professor of creative writing at George Mason University and the former chair of the PEN-Faulkner Foundation, and she lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for More News Tomorrow, and for your cast of characters?

A: One early morning, I was in our attic looking through my mother’s photographs and came upon a lovely one of my grandparents whom I never knew. They are sitting in a rowboat on a lake in front of the boys’ camp which my grandfather owned in northern Wisconsin. On the back of the picture, my mother had written Ollie and Helen, Camp Minnie HaHa, 1909. By the time I went downstairs to make coffee, a story was emerging in my head about a boys’ camp director in northern Wisconsin who confesses to murdering his wife at a camping site. He is sent to state prison, leaving their only child who is four years old. 

The characters emerged slowly but I knew the camp director needed to have a point of view when the event occurs in 1941. The circumstances of the story required that I discover what happens to the child who is left knowing the repercussions of that event would not be known until years later and would likely define the lives of a family. 

Then Thomas surfaced, the 13-year-old prescient outsider—who writes a journal of his family’s trip to the site of the crime. I began with the first journal entry from Thomas which I wrote and the plot emerged from that although his first section no longer begins the novel. 

Q: The novel includes the perspectives of several characters, in different time periods. Did you write the book in the order in which it appears, or did you focus more on one character before moving to the others?

A: The timeline came first. The book takes place on the same date, June 17, 1941 (the night the Nazis enter Lithuanian and so William emerged as a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania) at a time of increasing antisemitism in the United States. I wanted William (imprisoned for murder who dies in 1945) to be a sympathetic character so I include his third person close in point of view alternating sections of the trip to the camping site with his wife and child and some of the counselors.

The surviving child, Georgianna, came next. She is an anthropologist drawn to the field by an interest in the subject of Home, a single mother of three grown children, whose husband died in Viet Nam.

I knew I had to start the book with Georgie as an adult in order to understand the deeper consequences of what happened to her when she was a child. Georgie is a scientist powered by her imagination and was a complicated character to develop. 

But as soon as I had the beginning of the book on Georgie’s 70th birthday when she receives a letter from Roosevelt the only living person who had been at the campsite when her mother was murdered, I wrote the book in the order it appears.

Q: Did you need to do much research to write the novel, and if so, did you learn anything particularly interesting?

A: I researched Wisconsin where I have never been, a Jewish village in Lithuania since I am not Jewish and didn’t want to get it wrong. And anthropology. I wanted Georgie to be an academic anthropologist but realized that she would have to be drawn to storytelling as well as the science of anthropology since her pursuit of that discipline had more to do with her search for Home which was something she had never had.

Q: The book is set in Washington, D.C., and Wisconsin, in 2008 and 1941. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: Setting is important to me. Our lives are lived in context so many, not all, of my books have taken place in Washington, D.C., which is a strange mixture—a predominantly black city of federal workers, elected officials, lawyers and journalists. Transient, self-aware—it is an interesting, educated but socially conservative city. A contradiction. 

With More News Tomorrow, I wanted to write an atmospheric setting with a sense of looming danger and though I did not know northern Wisconsin, it was a place of my imagination likely because it was a romantic recollection for my mother who left Wisconsin when she was eight and her mother died. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Briefly More News Tomorrow was titled Home for the Incurables because Georgie buys a house by that name that had once been a refuge for incurable patients. It is a real place that used to terrify me as a child and I’m stealing the title to write a memoir about raising children among strangers as I did—on the order of Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson.

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: Something I haven’t seen in reviews or heard from fellow writers: When Thomas is young, he tells us at the beginning of his journal that, he loved dinosaurs until he learned about extinction and feared that extinction was inevitable for him and for his family. His final gesture at the end of the book is to bury the journal he has written about his family’s journey as a stay against extinction.

I did not know until I came to the end what central role Thomas would play in the book. And then I did. 

In my early novels, I needed to know the end. There is something liberating in trust that I will find the end along the way.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 17

July 17, 1888: S.Y. Agnon born.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Q&A with Courtney Maum

Courtney Maum is the author of the new novel Costalegre, based on the lives of art collector Peggy Guggenheim and her daughter, Pegeen. Maum's other books include Touch and I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including BuzzFeed and The New York Times. She founded the learning collaborative The Cabins.

Q: Why did you decide to write a novel based on the lives of art collector Peggy Guggenheim and her daughter, Pegeen?

A: I was originally researching Peggy Guggenheim for a different project, and it was in that research—reading Peggy’s memoirs and so forth—that I noticed the erasure of her daughter, Pegeen.

It wasn’t that Pegeen wasn’t in the memoirs, or that her mother denied her existence or anything, it’s just that when the topic of her daughter did come up, (which was rarely), Peggy didn’t seem to ascribe much importance to her existence. Pegeen was like an accessory that Peggy remembered to wear out of the house once in a while.

This marked me. My feelings were hurt for her, for Pegeen. And I started thinking about what it would be like to have “modern art” as a rival for your mother’s love. What it would be like to be forced to move all over the world, to have your formal education halted, in order for your mother to protect the artists she most cherished.

I decided to answer these questions, to explore what life in the 1930s would have been like for this young person who felt so neglected by her art-collecting mother, who yearned to be an artist, herself.

Q: The novel takes place in Mexico in 1937. How important is setting to you in your work?

A: The setting is one of the most important characters in Costalegre. In real life, the members of the Emergency Rescue Committee (founded by the American journalist Varian Fry, you can read more about it in the wonderful The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer that is just out) helped artists and other creatives to find asylum in New York.

I chose to send them to western Mexico instead. For one thing, Costalegre is a beautiful but hostile area, a rural region along the Pacific. The ocean there is very dangerous—in the book, no one is allowed to swim, and in reality, on the Teopa beach that I am writing about, no one swims there, either. There are jaguars, horrible serpents, tarantulas, scorpions, alligators…the irony of Costalegre (which is inspired by the resort Costa Careyes which is on the Costalegre coast) is that it is luxurious and beautiful, but dangerous at the same time.

In this way, the place itself echoes what Lara is going through. Yes, Lara Calaway is a privileged young person, but her material comforts come with no sense of safety or emotional support. She is surrounded by predators, both animal and human.

The location also allowed me to cut my characters off from communication channels. They can’t find out whether or not war has come to Europe; they don’t know if the boat with all their artwork will arrive, or if it ever left. The geographical isolation feeds a desperation that I wanted in the book.  

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write the novel, and what did you see as the right blend between the actual historical figures and your fictional creations?

A: I had a methodical research approach that I intend to use for future books, because I really enjoyed it. I spent most of a year reading about the period—reading not just Peggy Guggenheim’s memoirs, but biographies about her, I read some of the work by the female writers whose careers she supported, I read articles online. Then I spun outward and started researching people in her circle.

Whatever I found interesting from my research, I’d handwrite into a notebook. When I filled a notebook, I’d highlight which notes were the most inspirational. Once I had all my notebooks, I transcribed the highlights onto these huge pieces of paper—watercolor paper, really sturdy stuff. I wrote all the best facts down, and then repeated the same process: highlighted what mattered most to me, what I thought that I could work with.

By this point, with all this writing and transcribing, I had basically absorbed the facts. I had them memorized to a point that they felt like they were part of my own history, or at least part of a dream I could recall. In this way, when I sat down to write the diary, I truly felt like I could write it in “real time” because the things that happened were inside of me, not outside of me, any more.

Finding the right blend of fact and fiction was important. It was crucial to me that a reader could enjoy Costalegre without having any knowledge of art history or of the Guggenheim’s heritage. Ultimately this is a story about a daughter yearning for her mother’s love, and most people can relate to that.

If you want to come to Costalegre with references, you can certainly can—and you might have fun trying to figure out who is who and what is what. Someone recently told me that they hated my depiction of Jackson Pollock—he isn’t in the book!

This being said, my goal with Costalegre wasn’t to make it a game of Where’s-the-Surrealist. The artists who are in the book—if they actually existed—are there in specific percentages for specific reasons. The way in which their art responded to war and other conflicts is important—me including them is a kind of homage and a reminder that art matters, and that artists matter, too.

Q: What do you think the novel says about the role of artists during the pre-World War II period?

A: I’d actually start with the role of artists during pre-World I, because the character of Jack was a war artist—he was actually sent to the front lines to paint what was happening there. It’s incredible to think about, isn’t it? These men on the front lines, next to the trenches, with their oil paints which take so long to dry, with their scalpels, all their fragile art equipment in the middle of a war?

And what started happening was that some of the big war artists like Paul Nash, who was an inspiration to me, were coming home with work that was too upsetting to be shared. So the government officials start asking them to tone it down—don’t depict dead bodies, don’t depict dead livestock. The war art became propaganda of a certain kind, you know?

And I do think that this is how some artists dipped their toes into abstraction and surrealism. Because of the restrictions on what he could portray, Paul Nash started to communicate the horror of what he was seeing through the depiction of his trees.

In his war art, Nash’s trees are burnt, gnarled, warped, they’re terrifying, they carry a lot of emotion.

In Costalegre, the character of Jack goes through a similar metamorphosis—once he is forbidden from painting war realistically, this frees him to explore darker and stranger tools. The creative arts are very important vehicles for the communication of what war actually looks like, feels like, and means. The response of the artistic community to both wars—before and after both wars—this is some of the most influential and important art that has yet to be produced.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a braided memoir about mental illness and equine therapy, and I have a guidebook coming out in January of 2020 that is for sale now: Before and After the Book Deal: A Writer’s Guide to Finishing, Publishing, Promoting and Surviving Your First Book.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I do find it helpful to say that if anyone enjoyed Costalegre (or any of my other books), that leaving a positive review on Goodreads and Amazon goes a tremendously long way toward getting the book in question into the right reader’s hands. It takes a few minutes to do, that’s true. But you’ll gain a grateful writer for life!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Courtney Maum.