Monday, March 18, 2019

Q&A with Jenn Marie Thorne


Jenn Marie Thorne is the author of the new young adult novel Night Music. She also has written The Wrong Side of Right and The Inside of Out. She is based in Gloucestershire, England.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Night Music, and for your characters Ruby and Oscar?

A: The first spark of the idea was for a fantasy novel, actually.

I wanted to write about someone who was the heir to some great magic, but who didn't have the gift, and what it would be like to be constantly confronted with magic while trying to forge a life as an ordinary person. I wanted the gifted love interest to have been brought up outside of this insular world of magic.

As soon as I realized the book would work just as well as a contemporary set-up, all the pieces quickly fell into place.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on music in this novel?

A: I love music, especially classical music. I've studied it throughout my life, but never quite had the talent to make a professional go of it. It's funny when I think of the first idea I had of this book as a fantasy novel - even if I had gone down the road of making it wizards and squibs, at its core, it was always going to be about my relationship with music.

Q: The novel also addresses racial issues and diversity. What do you hope readers take away from this aspect of the book?

A: Racism isn't a check yes or no box. I think a lot of people, even (and sometimes especially) well-meaning liberals, fall into the trap of thinking they're one of the good guys, immune to any prejudice, and it's those people whose lack of self-examination leads them to commit a million microaggressions that make life more difficult for the marginalized among us.

I wanted to write a book in which the relationship succeeds, not because I've written a "colorblind" world, but because the heroine is willing to do the work of examining herself and her own privilege in order to make herself a worthy partner for someone as exceptional as Oscar.

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

A: I've lived in a lot of different places over the course of my life, and I often return to those places in my books as a sort of homecoming.

New York is funny, though - it changes so quickly that even if you spend a year away, when you go back, you feel like a tourist again. I did have to do some Upper West Side research, because I was always an East Side girl, and pretty much spent the whole process of working on the book longing to be in the city!

So the setting definitely informs the story, I think, but it's mostly a way for me to indulge my wanderlust.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I've got a few varied projects in the hopper, including a co-written historical, an adult suspense, and a YA romance set in Hollywood. I'm also writing a truly ridiculous screenplay and having a lot of fun working in a brand-new format.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 18

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
March 18, 1932: John Updike born.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Q&A with Deborah R. Prinz


Deborah R. Prinz is the author of the book On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao, now in its second edition. She is the rabbi emerita of Temple Adat Shalom in San Diego County, California.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for On the Chocolate Trail?

A: My husband, Mark Hurvitz, who’s also a rabbi, and I were traveling in Paris. We went to a number of chocolate shops. [At one shop] I happened to pick up their company literature, and I read something about how Jews who had been exiled from Spain brought chocolate-making to France. I had never heard this before.

I thought about how Jews followed lines of dispersion from Spain, and what chocolate centers existed in the early part of European contact. There was an overlap. It made sense that Jews who were exposed to chocolate-making would be involved in the chocolate business. I followed that first “oh my gosh” feeling.

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

A: I researched both by tasting and by reading. I tasted as much as I could! And I had three fellowships to pursue my research. I did a lot of reading, and I learned a lot of stories, not only about Jews but Catholics, Quakers, Mayans, Aztecs.

Half the material in the book is about Jews and chocolate, and the second part of the book is about other religions that had lots of chocolate connections.

In terms of surprises, the first was that there was an overlap between religion and chocolate. And how chocolate evolved over the years from primarily a beverage to an eaten product. How involved Jews were in the business surprised me. There was a lot of learning.

Q: What’s your favorite kind of chocolate?

A: The one I’m about to eat that’s right in front of me!

Q: What was the reaction to the first edition of this book, and why did you decide to write a second edition?

A: The reaction to the first edition was great. I was surprised by the number of requests I received, and the publisher was thrilled with the sales. That generated the second edition—the idea was to update it so it was available to people in its current form.

The second edition has additional information, such as about deities being formed into chocolate--Jesus, Buddha and others—and the controversies that raised.

I updated the list in the back of the book about religious and ethical values you could use when buying your chocolate. The last chapter of the first edition was a full conversation about what makes an ethical chocolate, what should I be looking for. I updated and expanded that.

There were 13 recipes in the first book; now there are 25. And there are new sidebars, about halal chocolate and kosher chocolate, and what did Alexander Hamilton drink.

Q: So what should someone look for in terms of ethical chocolate?

A: Is the company committed to sustainability? Is the packaging made from recycled material? Is it a company committed to replanting the rainforest? Is it a company that’s tzedakah [charitable giving]-minded? Are they committed to their community in a meaningful way? Are they assisting farmers and communities and improving their standard of living?

For some Jews, it’s is it kosher or kosher for Passover.

The most compelling question: Is it from a country that has child labor and slavery in chocolate growing and harvesting?...Over two million children are working in harsh situations harvesting cocoa. It’s horrible.

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: I have some ideas. I’m working on a chocolate book relating to the chocolate trail. I have a second book in the series in mind, and I’m working on something different. I’m looking at celebratory breads—challah, babka, and other examples in the Jewish tradition, and lots of other cultures with celebratory yeast breads.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The book became the basis for a museum exhibit mounted by the Bernard Museum of Temple Emanu-El in New York City. That exhibit is now available to travel.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Deborah Prinz will be appearing at the Temple Sinai (D.C.) Authors' Roundtable on March 23.

March 17

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
March 17, 1933: Penelope Lively born.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Q&A with Lauren Abbey Greenberg


Lauren Abbey Greenberg is the author of The Battle of Junk Mountain, a novel for kids. Her work has appeared in a variety of children's magazines, and she has written and produced videos for National Geographic. She lives in Maryland.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Battle of Junk Mountain, and for your character Shayne?

A: I knew from the beginning I wanted to have a main character return to a beloved summer spot, excited to repeat all the usual rituals and traditions, only to have unexpected change confront her from the minute she gets there. That throws her off balance and she spends much of the novel trying to reclaim the fun of yesteryear.

Meanwhile, her grandmother is experiencing problems related to hoarding, and in developing both these characters, I discovered I could use hoarding as a metaphor about the danger of trying to hold on too hard to one’s past.

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

A: Very important. I find I need to have a strong sense of place before I can begin to sketch out characters. In The Battle of Junk Mountain, the beautiful coast of Maine was chosen as the backdrop because I’ve been vacationing there for over 20 years. Much of the setting is modeled after real-life places and experiences.

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you change things around along the way?

A: I had a general sense of how it would end. I’m an avid outliner, because I find plotting very difficult. There’s no way I could write without a roadmap to guide me. That said, during revision scenes were added and dropped and darlings killed, but I always stayed true to Shayne’s emotional growth.  

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


A: In The Battle of Junk Mountain, the power of memory grips both Shayne and her grandmother in unhealthy ways. Change can be scary for many folks, young and old, and often we’re reluctant to leave the comforting bubble of what we know. I want young readers to take away that sometimes “change can surprise you in a good way.”

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on another contemporary middle grade although this time it’s set at a bar mitzvah in Maryland during an ice storm.


Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I love connecting with kids through school visits! If you’re an educator and you’re interested in an in-person or virtual visit, please contact me through my website.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 16

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
March 16, 1751: James Madison born.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Q&A with Laura Kumin


Laura Kumin is the author of The Hamilton Cookbook: Cooking, Eating & Entertaining in Hamilton's World. She is the creator of the MotherWouldKnow food blog, contributes to The Huffington Post, and teaches cooking and food history. She worked as an attorney for more than two decades.

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

A: Actually, I didn’t! The publisher came up with the idea. But all they had was a title. They figured they would get a ghostwriter, but [a consultant] said, I know someone who might be interested!

They expected a straight cookbook, a bunch of recipes…I wanted Hamilton and his food, not just Hamilton and his name. I said that I would only do the book if I could do it in the way I wanted - with context and much more about Hamilton and his times. The publisher agreed and so I began. 

As a kid, I had enjoyed George Washington’s World, a book by Genevieve Foster that stresses the connections among historical figures and events. That “horizontal” concept motivated me to capture much more than just the food and recipes that Hamilton might have eaten. 

Q: How did you select the recipes, and how much did you need to change them for modern cooks?

A: I agreed to do the book without any understanding of what I was getting into! But it turned out to be fine. The Library of Congress has a collection of cookbooks that’s digitized. I found them online, and then I went to the Library of Congress and did research on the recipes that were popular at that time, in the areas where Hamilton lived.

Most of what I found was more geared toward the Founding Fathers who were Southern, and Adams, from New England. In order to decide what recipes were appropriate for Hamilton, I had to think about him and his family, rather than what was most popular. I looked at his background [in the Caribbean and the New York area] and that of his in-laws, who were from a farm near Albany.

Much of my research on specific recipes comes from the old cookbooks themselves —I was in the rare book and manuscript room for a couple of days, and they let me touch and look through some of the very oldest cookbooks. I wanted an illustration, and there were not many in these books. The first time I touched one of those books, it was like touching a Torah! I was transported…

Q: So did you need to change the recipes much?

A: I did change them in some respects, but part of my concept was that I wanted people to look at the book and say, That’s something you can make in a toaster oven. That’s something you can make in a slow cooker. Much of what I did was to translate the recipes into language that a modern reader and cook can understand.

In Hamilton’s day, they did everything in weights we’re not used to. “A teacup”—well, how much is a teacup? With chocolate puffs, they say, Make them the size of a sixpence. I was screaming to my husband to look up the size of a sixpence! Is it the size of a quarter, or a dime?

And people were cooking on fireplaces—“cook until done.” It isn’t temperature or time. In order to write a 21st Century version, I researched modern versions of similar recipes and used what I found to inspire me in updating the 18th Century recipes in the book.

Q: What surprised you most in your research?

A: The book has three distinct parts: Hamilton, his times, and food and entertaining. I learned something about each. (I had not seen the play before writing the book, nor did I listen to the music that Lin-Manuel Miranda used. I didn’t want to be unconsciously limited.)

In learning about Hamilton’s life, I was very touched by how tender and how physically brave he was. Our current president is neither tender nor brave.

The historical context for Hamilton gave me an appreciation for the great animosity between and among the founding fathers. I had not understood that. I hadn’t really thought about the fact that the Adamses, Abigail and John, detested Hamilton. Jefferson wasn’t a great fan of Hamilton’s either.

Another aspect of the context that enthralled me was learning how different the U.S. was at that time. In particular, I loved learning what New York and Philadelphia were like. The internet can be a beautiful thing. Using digitized census data from 1790, I learned how small these cities were. You don’t think about those things.

Perhaps the most intriguing parts of researching food and entertainment during Hamilton’s times was learning about the food and entertainment rules and expectations during that time. 

The American upper classes were trying to do things like their counterparts in France and England. There was great emphasis on rigid rules for how important meals would be set out and what should be included. Also, certain foods that we commonly eat today were thought to be either poisonous or simply not healthy - like tomatoes and potatoes.

Q: What do you think accounts for the popularity of the Hamilton musical and all things relating to Alexander Hamilton lately?


A: I think two things probably. The musical is probably genius...the Ron Chernow book is inaccessible to most people, and Lin-Manuel Miranda has a very complex grasp of it. He read it and internalized the story, and put it out in a popular way. He translated Hamilton in a way that everybody can understand.

But it goes farther back. This is a compelling dramatic story. Aaron Burr and Hamilton knew each other at all these stages. They were in the Revolutionary War together, they were lawyers in the same community, and had even been co-counsel on several cases. In the political realm, they were longtime rivals and their duel was not simply a spur of the moment decision to fight.

Part of the background that makes the Hamilton story so fascinating is the role of slavery in the non-Southern states. Contrary to what many believe in the 21st century (that slavery existed only in the American South and that the northern states and northerners were always against it), slavery was legal in Philadelphia and New York up until the late 18th century. 

In fact, Hamilton himself bought slaves for his brother-in-law. And of course Washington and Jefferson owned slaves. When he dined with those men, Hamilton ate meals prepared by slaves and it is likely that slaves served Hamilton in other ways too, even though he never lived below the Mason-Dixon line. These facts make looking at the issues of slavery and how we should view people who were slaveholders more complicated.

Hamilton and his friends started a society to abolish slavery, but they did not expect or desire to end slavery suddenly. Rather, they looked toward a gradual abolition of the institution of slavery. And Hamilton was the only one [in the group] who didn’t own slaves.

As I researched all the aspects of the book, there was always something that fed my interest in the subject - often what I learned blew me away With this project, there was always something new that kept me going.

Q: What has been the reaction to the book?

A: Overall, I think people are surprised by what they learn from the book about Hamilton, his times, and the food and entertaining of that era. The title suggests that it is just a cookbook. While the recipes are fun to read and make - the book covers much more. Readers who are cooks have enjoyed making dishes that are familiar, like beef stew and gingerbread, as well as others less familiar, such as syllabub.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a couple of ideas. I do really love the idea of marrying history and recipes from the time. There are a lot of books with adapted recipes, old-fashioned recipes, but showing you the actual page it’s written on, it does something for me…

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous version of this Q&A. Laura Kumin will be participating in the Temple Sinai (D.C.) Authors' Roundtable on March 23.

March 15

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
March 15, 1933: Ruth Bader Ginsburg born.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Q&A with Elliot Ackerman

Elliot Ackerman is the author most recently of the novel Waiting for Eden. He also has written the novels Green on Blue and Dark at the Crossing, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Esquire and The New Yorker. He lives in New York City and Washington, D.C.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Waiting for Eden?

A: The book started with the first line, “I want you to understand Mary and what she did …” The only thing was that I didn’t know at that point what Mary had done, only that her husband, Eden, was in this debilitated state in the hospital. I also didn’t know who the narrator was, there was just this voice.

The novel then became a series of questions: Who is Mary? What did she do and why? And who is this narrator who is pleading with us to understand her? Often that’s how my books get started, with a question.

Q: At what point did you decide who would narrate the story? 

A: Early on, I knew that I wanted this book to feel very intimate. I understood the book’s mood immediately and such intimacy usually lends itself to a first person narrator.

But the set up of the book caused all these problems with point-of-view. I’ve got Eden who is mostly non-communicative in his hospital bed, and Mary who for three years has been keeping a vigil with no indications that Eden knows she’s there. Neither of them could narrate the book because neither of them had access to the other.

Then I’ve got this voice, the first line of the book, and I wasn’t sure who that was. Eventually, the realization occurred that I could achieve the intimacy of first person narration and the omniscience of third person narration if my first person narrator was dead.

So the voice is a ghost, and who that ghost is and why that person is narrating Eden and Mary’s story becomes one of the central conceits of the book.

Q: How was the novel’s title selected and what does it signify to you?

A: The title, of course, comes from the protagonist’s name. But the idea of characters attempting to return to an original, purer state of being was one which resonated with me. Personally, politically, socially, it seems we are, all of us, often striving for such a return. This, too, becomes a theme in the book. 

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

A: I hope to tell a story that immerses the reader and leaves them thinking of the characters long after the book is finished.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My first book of non-fiction, Places and Names: On War, Revolution, and Returning, will be released in June 2019. That’s the alligator closest to the boat, though I have several other projects I’m working on.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Elliot Ackerman.

March 14

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
March 14, 1879: Albert Einstein born.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Q&A with Laurie Helgoe


Laurie Helgoe, Ph.D., is the author of the new book Fragile Bully: Understanding Our Destructive Affair with Narcissism in the Age of Trump. Her other books include Introvert Power. A clinical psychologist, she is an associate professor of behavioral sciences at the Ross University School of Medicine.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book, and what is the difference between a narcissist and a fragile bully?

A: During the time surrounding the 2016 presidential election, I noticed a collective illness in our midst -- the kind of illness induced by destructive narcissism.

Rather than engaging from their own points-of-view, people were reacting. And as they reacted to narcissistic displays--whether the grandiose claim or the belittling attack--they were doing exactly that: re-acting.

Whether people were cheering or jeering in response to narcissistic boasts and challenges, these reactions generated more narcissistic boasts and challenges. I wanted to help people -- myself included -- to step back from this destructive dance and recover their own individual voices. 

When people think of a "narcissist," they tend to imagine an overconfident braggart. They are thinking of what we call "grandiose narcissism." At the extreme, grandiose narcissists identify with an inflated self and insist that the world support the illusion.

The other type of narcissism clinicians encounter is "vulnerable narcissism," in which the self is so fragile that any hint of criticism threatens its destruction.

What I was observing was interplay between these two types of narcissism. The fragile bully provokes and belittles, but then when others retaliate, feels victimized and hurt, bringing the focus back on the self and further justifying aggression.  
  
Q: What are some of the common perceptions and misperceptions about narcissism?

A: The biggest misconception is that narcissism is a bad thing. Narcissism is a human thing. At its simplest, the term refers to self interest, and we all need some self-interest to inspire self-care and self-advocacy.

Instead of seeing narcissism as a pathology, it is more helpful to look at it as a continuum, with both the lack and the excess of it being problematic. Looking at narcissism on a continuum also helps us reclaim our shared humanity and vulnerability. Narcissism is not just "out there," existing only within monsters we prop up as examples, but also "in here," fueling our own sensitivities and defenses. 

Q: In the book, you write that "the drama of the fragile bully finds a home in the White House." How would you describe Donald Trump's behavior in the context of your book?

A: I have never met or evaluated the president, so I only see what is available to the public. What becomes very visible is the mix of grandiose provocations (bullying) and retaliatory defensiveness (fragility) evident in Trump's tweets and rallying points.

The reason I resist diagnosing the president is not only because I lack the data and permission to do so, but also because this temptation is part of the drama I refer to. We are far too focused on the personality of Donald Trump, and in our reactions to that personality, we begin to evidence the very behaviors we ascribe to him.

This is the meat of my book--that destructive narcissism is bigger than any of its subscribers, and that we need to understand the ways our "solutions" end up contributing to the problem.

Q: How would you advise people to deal with narcissists or fragile bullies they encounter in their lives?


A: Start by observing your reactions. Do you retaliate? Do you disappear? Do you work to reassure or "fix" the narcissist? In order to pull back from the destructive dance of narcissism, you need to first identify the steps in that dance.

My book goes through these in detail, but most people can predict how interactions will go. Practice pulling back from these reflexive reactions.

In some cases, especially if abuse is involved, pulling out of the destructive dance may mean exiting the relationship. In other cases, where narcissism is more moderate and investment in the relationship is strong, there are ways to reduce the hold of narcissism on the interactions.

Try to find the human between the "fragile" and the "bully," that person who is neither above you or below you, and see if you can engage with that human. This will likely require you to shed the role you've taken on in relation to the narcissist, and for you to bring your own needs into the encounter. You may need help making the shift, as there will be many temptations to revert to the old dance steps.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: As Fragile Bully hits the bookshelves, I am working to educate the public on how to pull back from the destructive dance in our political lives as well as the personal.

If we start observing our reactions -- Do we share the provocative link on Facebook without reading what we're sharing? Do we react as in the Covington Catholic incident, based on dehumanized assumptions rather than honest inquiry? Do we allow ourselves to become obsessed with personality over issues? -- we can start to engage and contribute to a healthier America.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: There is much more in the book, but you have done a terrific job of getting to the crux of what Fragile Bully addresses. Most mental health problems, such as mood and anxiety disorders, induce personal distress. Personality disorders, including the extremes of narcissism, induce distress in the people surrounding the affected individual.

Pathological narcissism is particularly problematic, because even as it repels, it also attracts -- our entertainment industry is built on it. We all feel the pull to engage in this destructive affair, and I hope that Fragile Bully provides a healthier alternative. Thank you for inviting me to share my work!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 13

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
March 13, 1892: Janet Flanner born.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Q&A with Matt Richtel


Matt Richtel is the author of the new book An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System--A Tale in Four Lives. His other books include A Deadly Wandering. He is a reporter for The New York Times, and he lives in San Francisco.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book, and how did you choose the four people on whom you focused?

A: When you see someone rise from the dead, and you’re a journalist, you pick up your pen. You ask: what the heck just happened?! That is especially true when the Lazarus figure is a good friend. This was Jason. He was my buddy in high school, and a charming stud of an athlete with a great sense of humor.

Years later, when we were in our 40s, Jason got cancer. The treatments failed, one after the next. Finally, he wound up with 15 pounds of cancer in his back, his doctor tearfully put him in hospice – sent Jason home to die.

But Jason asked for, and got, one of the first-ever immunotherapy treatments. It was a last-ditch effort, to say the least. A few days after he took his first treatment, Jason’s girlfriend woke him up and said: Jason, get out of bed; you don’t believe this, your tumor is gone.

The treatment had sparked his immune system to fight back, with fury.

So I embarked on a journey to understand the immune system. What is this complex defense network? How does it work? How have we come so far that we can tinker with it to raise people from the dead?

I also realized that the immune system story is not, of course, just a cancer story. And this isn’t a cancer book. So I went looking for other real-life medical stories that I, and the reader, might connect to.

I found some amazing people. Bob Hoff got HIV on Halloween night of 1977 and has never had a symptom. His immune system is so remarkable that the federal government studies it.

Linda Segre and Merredith Branscombe are the other characters in the book. Each suffers from auto-immunity, with very different experiences. I chose them, and Bob and Jason, because each is both remarkable and yet ordinary; they are us, and we are them, and their stories provide accessible entry points to understanding the immune system, the key to health and longevity.

This is an Elegant Defense.

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

A: I combined two essential journalistic tactics: (1) I had the privilege to interview the most authoritative, remarkable scientists in the world, the Nobel prize winners and others who have given us our wisdom about the immune system; and (2) I let myself start by asking the simplest questions.

An editor friend of mine calls these “Smart-dumb questions.” They are the questions that seek to get at the most basic, elemental, core ideas. They are questions that address the basic logic of the immune system, rather than skip ahead to expert-level analyses without first understanding the essentials.

I reported this book, frankly, thanks to the indulgence of amazing scientists who gave me a poor-man’s Ph.D., allowing me to ask the basic stuff, teaching me over the course of two years the building blocks of the immune system, and then layering on the complexities. In short, I got to sit at the feet of the elder statespeople of immunology and I bring forth their wisdom.

The thing that surprised me most, and that comes out in the book, is that the immune system is built around the idea of balance, not around the idea of zealous attack. The immune system works because it seeks to do as little damage as possible in its defense of our bodies. That core idea ripples through our everyday health.

Q: What are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about the immune system?

A: Per the previous question, it is a wild misconception that you want to boost your immune system. When your immune system gets boosted, it is more dangerous to you, arguably, than any infection in the world. What you want to do is to keep your immune system in balance, to let it do its job in the way that millions of years of evolution have designed it to do.

This book explains the science and practicality of that wisdom and I won’t belabor it here, other than to say the ideas inform how we should live day-to-day.

Q: What do you see looking ahead when it comes to understanding the immune system?

A: One word: microbiome. Well, okay, two words: microbiome and brain.

The next big leaps may well come with research into the gut and the brain – particularly around dementia – and how these two parts of the body relate together with the immune system as the point of connection.

That’s a complex idea, so what do I mean? We’re only now beginning to understand how important and complicated is the collection of bacterium in our gut. Do not be fooled by the simplistic promises that it has been figured out yet. There are just too many molecules and interactions to make quick assertions about the microbiome.

That said, as I explain in the book, some early research is showing how essential the gut is to our daily health and in no small part because it is helping inform the immune system beyond the gut’s walls. This is related literally and figuratively to the brain.

In a figurative sense, the gut and brain are related because they have both been thought to be truly apart from the rest of the body, cordoned off, and, in particular, their health governed by forces other than our immune system.

That is not true of the brain as it is not of the gut. We are seeing that inflammation may well be responsible for many of the diseases of the brain. More literally, scientists have begun to peek into the way the microbiome may be directly involved in brain health. Stay tuned.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Chiefly, I’m putting the finishing touches on a year-long project for The New York Times about the rise of drug-resistant bacteria and fungi. It is a wildly ambitious project I’ve spent a year engineering and I can’t wait to get it into the world. The name of the series, at present, is “Deadly Germs, Lost Cures.”

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Matt Richtel.

Q&A with Shelley Sackier


Shelley Sackier is the author of the new young adult fantasy novel The Antidote. She also has written The Freemason's Daughter and Dear Opl. She lives in Virginia's Blue Ridge mountains.

Q: How did you create the world you write about in The Antidote?

A: Sometimes I feel I spend more time on researching my books than I do actually penning the story. But this is where I feel most creatively inspired. I seek out books, experts, and places within the world that will formulate a setting which is the ground where I plant my narrative seeds.

It feels rather effortless to choose a canvas where the sphere of the story will unfold, as long as I pursue those old textbooks, or hedge witches, or biologists, or crumbling castles and steep myself within them. The world is rich with hidden realms waiting to be discovered. I love the sleuthy part of that kind of work.

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

A: In the somewhat unexplainable world of writers, we’ve got pantsers and plotters. Writers who are pantsers are those that typically write by the seat of their pants—as in, you develop the story as you go along and trust the process and whatever muse shows up to shine on light on the pathway forward.

Plotters are authors who typically and diligently outline the narrative arc before they fill in the gaps of how they’re getting from point A to point B. They bullet point every chapter and make sure they nail the ending before fleshing out all the itty bitty details.

I am a “pantser.” Stephen King described the process beautifully in that it’s a bit like being an archeologist, where you find a shard of bone sticking up out of the earth, and then patiently, and meticulously, you use a fine brush to dust away the sand and dirt, slowly revealing the skeleton of a story—large, small, frightening, awe-inspiring, rare, or middling and unexceptional—you sit and see what your labors reveal.

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

A: Although one of my main messages—in each one of my books—is unwavering advice to never enshroud yourself in someone else’s skin, as in “wear who you are proudly and confidently,” I also feel somewhat compelled to encourage kids to challenge the status quo of authority.

Not in a blindly arrogant way, but with diligently collected and persuasive data. If you are unhappy with the rules, challenge them and change them. Not necessarily to benefit the few, but to collectively push our society forward with fresh ideas, compassion, acceptance, tolerance, and wisdom.

Young adults are often cast aside as being argumentative for the sake of being blind with belligerence stemming from hormones, but they are also capable of being highly credible and convincing. I want them to realize that power, and harness it for good—for their generation and the ones before and after them.

Q: You've said that for years you were too embarrassed and wary to believe your relatives' tales about the magic passed down through your family to you. What made you change your mind?

A: Mostly other people. People whose education, philosophy, mindset, and life experience I held in high esteem. Their words to me were, “How can you talk it but not walk it?” In essence, I have to practice what I preach.

My books and school talks are filled with examples of other people living successful and exciting lives as outliers. They did not follow the crowd. They listened to the core voice inside of them that begged not to be squelched—the one that said, “Stop hiding.”

It felt like the right, albeit uncomfortable, thing to do.

I certainly don’t have to admit to any title my clansmen and women embrace, but I do finally feel at ease admitting to being one of the clan. Basically (and humorously), I got comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Q: How do you identify with your character Fee?

A: Like The Antidote’s 16-year-old heroine, Fee, an undiscovered witch disguised as a healer learning to distill plant life as it applies to the creation of medicines within her flora homeopathica textbooks, I have studied the art of distillation for 25 years, as it applies to the creation of a different kind of potion—whisky.

I began studying the science in earnest, apprenticing at a distillery in Scotland. I occasionally intern elsewhere but still see each of my mentors as wizards of the most magical sort. Although, it’s agreed that science explains most of the “magic” away, there are elements that remain thankfully, and artfully, not fully revealed.

Fee and I struggle with similar difficulties: I walk a line between my work writing fantasy, and my tenuous pupilage in engineering and science. I create two things—one needing only a strong believability factor, and the other, a step by step proof of accomplishment, impervious to doubt.

I resist the undisputable explanations of science because it strips away the desperate need for magic I maintain. But one loses credibility with others if one blindly and indulgently replaces fiction for fact.

Fee’s conflicts are mirrored but flipped. In her world, sorcery is legitimate and deadly if discovered. Dismissing her knack with nature—allowing life to flourish within her hand—or refuting her ability to tap into the magnetic essence of life, completes our shared disharmonious circle. But in her case, Fee’s conviction in her self-created deception tears away at the fabric of credibility to trust oneself.

Q: Which authors do you particularly admire?

A: My main source of inspiration are people wholly unrelated to the publishing world of YA books. I am steeped in the writings and thought process of philosophers, mystics, social scientists, and economists. I love economists.

Authors like Seth Godin, Brené Brown, Pema Chodron, Angela Duckworth, Shankar Vedantam, and Stephen Dubner.

These people help me see the world in its most promising and starkly truthful ways. It’s from here that my stories spring forth. How humans survive and thrive within our wishfully ideal ways and also the truest circumstances of today’s challenges.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb