Sunday, January 20, 2019

Q&A with N.D. Galland

N.D. Galland is the author of the new novel On the Same Page. Her other books include I, Iago, Stepdog, and The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. She lives on Martha's Vineyard. 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for On the Same Page, and for your character Joanna?

A: There really are two newspapers on Martha’s Vineyard, and they really do have a complicated relationship. Years ago, it occurred to me that this would make a fun premise for a novel, but I wasn’t writing contemporary novels, so I didn’t think it should be “my” project.

After a decade, nobody else had claimed it as a premise, and by then I’d written Stepdog, so I’d demonstrated to myself that I could, in fact, write a playful contemporary story (instead of my usual psychologically-intense historical fiction).

The looming lawsuit of the story was inspired by an actual legal conflict between a wealthy summer resident and the town government, although all other details were different.

Joanna is about 50 percent a younger version of me (a writer who grew up on the Vineyard, returning home as an adult) and 50 percent an archetypal Shakespearean heroine – an unmarried woman who creates a false identity for herself to get out of a difficult situation.

Q: The story takes place on Martha's Vineyard. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: This depends somewhat upon the story. My first historical novel, The Fool’s Tale, is primarily a relationship between three archetypal characters – king, queen, and fool – and honestly I could have set it in many different settings. It doesn’t feel to me intrinsically Welsh, but rather intrinsically human.

On the other hand, On The Same Page is very much about its setting. After Joanna, Hank and Orion, the Island herself is the most important character. The relationships are not archetypal, they are localized.

Q: You've written historical and contemporary novels, as well as speculative fiction. Do you have a preference, and does your writing process differ depending on the type of book you're working on?

A: Depending on how any given workday goes, I either most love or most hate whatever genre or style I am working on that

When I’m in the zone, it doesn’t matter if it’s Shakespeare or the Fourth Crusade or my comic advice column for the Martha’s Vineyard Times – I’m just delighted that’s what I’m writing all day.

On the other hand, when I am blocked, then whatever I’m doing feels just awful, and I completely believe that I’d be much happier doing anything other than writing in that particular style.

My writing process tends to be variations on a theme, no matter what I’m writing. It reflects my theatre background – I rehearse my way toward a finished product. The main difference: contemporary stories don’t require as much “book research” as historical stories.

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?

A: It’s so dependent on what I’ve been reading. I just finished The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, so right now, I love her.

I always love the writers of my childhood – Norton Juster, Ursula LeGuin, Susan Cooper, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

I love the writers of my early adult years, too, predictable names – Margaret Atwood, Kurt Vonnegut, J.D. Salinger, Shakespeare, Homer, Huxley, Orwell.

Look at these names. They are all speculative fiction writers in some sense or another! But then, it could be argued that all fiction is speculative fiction since all fiction deals with “what could be.”

I was just a presenter at the Key West Literary Seminar, which this year had as a theme “archetypes and adaptations.”

Truly wonderful writers, and I can’t wait to read recent books by a number of them – Madeline Miller, Valerie Martin, Eric Shanower, Dexter Palmer, Meg Cabot, Geraldine Brooks, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Stephanie Powell Watts, and Emily Wilson. And Margaret Atwood again.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now I’m writing the sequel to The Rise And Fall of D.O.D.O., the New York Times bestselling speculative/sci-fi novel I wrote with Neal Stephenson, which came out in 2017. I expect to be turning it in near the end of 2019.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 20

Jan. 20, 1910: Joy Adamson born.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Q&A with Mesha Maren

Mesha Maren is the author of the new novel Sugar Run. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Tin House and the Oxford American. She is the 2018-2019 Kenan Visiting Writer at the University of North Carolina.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Sugar Run, and for your character Jodi?

A: Sugar Run came to me as Jodi--like she showed up in my mind and started talking to me, I don’t know where she came from, there is no particular person that I modeled her off of, she just showed up and I became smitten.

I started writing down little scenes, bits of things, most of it came to me as sharp images at first: a curtain blowing in the wind, a plastic cup of whiskey with melting ice, the smell of lemon cleaning product, the way your skin feels when you slide below the surface of the swimming pool after lying in the sun for a long while.

I spent years just gathering these snippets and then following the snippets until a plot began to appear, but at first it was Jodi--her voice and perspective--and images, lots and lots of images.

It was like I had to widen the lens, I would start with this tight perspective on a chandelier and then ask myself, “Where is this? What is happening?” and the scene would slowly appear.

Q: The novel is set in various places, but mostly in West Virginia. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: Setting is everything in my writing. I think West Virginia is as much a character in my novel as Jodi is.

When I was writing the first 3/4 of the novel I was living in Iowa City and missing West Virginia real bad so I wrote a lot of scenes in order to transport myself back there to that lush southern West Virginia summer that I was craving.

Then I moved back to West Virginia and finished the book there while I was dealing with the realities of actually living in the mountains again. West Virginia has always been a place of contrasts and I think that’s what makes it so great to write about.

One of the earliest white settlers who crossed the ridges into what is now West Virginia wrote, “It was a pleasing tho’ dreadful sight to see mountains and hills as if piled one upon another” and that pretty much sums it up still to this day.

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

A: The title refers to a poker term that I made up. In the novel, Paula calls a string of good poker hands a “sugar run”--a stretch of incredible luck before a crash--and Jodi relates it also to what she calls a “run,” which is a creek that only appears after a hard rain and then eventually dries up.

Q: You tell the story in alternating sections between two time periods. Did you write the chapters in the order in which they appear, or did you focus more on one timeline before turning to the other?

A: The 1988-89 sections definitely came to me first and they came to me in a very cinematic way. As I revised I played around with where to place those sections and finally decided I liked it best when they are scattered throughout.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a new novel about Mexican professional wrestling, identity and heritage. It’s set on the U.S.- Mexico border and it’s about a gay romance, a kidnapping and lucha libre. It’s been real fun to write. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 19

Jan. 19, 1809: Edgar Allan Poe born.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Q&A with Jerome Charyn

Q: Why did you decide to focus on Teddy Roosevelt in your new novel, and what was it like to capture his voice?

A: I was first drawn to TR when I understood the relationship between him and his father. He would be invisible today if it had not been for the extraordinary pull of his father, who was as great a man as TR, even if he remains unknown. 

Born into wealth, TR’s father was interested in poverty. He built a shelter for newsboys, because they were vagabonds who were preyed upon by the police and neighborhood tuffs.

TR senior did not believe in the superiority or the advantages of wealth. If he found a stray cat, he would immediately bring it to the little shop on second avenue, run by two women who took care of strays.

If we look for one key into understanding TR, it was his desire to never disappoint his father, to fight for equality and fairness, and to protect the unfortunate. He did not really take advantage of his own wealth.

And the sadness in TR’s voice comes from the fact that he mourned his father every day of his life.

Q: How did you research the book, and how did you choose the episodes in Roosevelt's life on which to focus?

A: I read everything I could on TR, and it was my wonderful editor, Robert Weil, who suggested that I not write the Gone-with-the-Wind of historical novels, but stop at McKinley’s death, just as TR was about to become president. 

Therefore, I could concentrate on his time in the Dakotas, as a deputy sheriff, at his years as police commissioner of NYC and all the mythology surrounding his charge up San Juan Hill.

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

A: I saw TR as a kind of Manhattan cowboy – as a Rough Rider who did not believe in eastern gentility, but was willing to fight against corruption whether it be in New York or on the plains of Dakota. He was a deputy sheriff wherever he went and wherever he lived.

Q: What do you think are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about Roosevelt nowadays?

A: Many of the historians see him as a childlike man, who had tantrums and remained a juvenile all his life. He was much more complicated than that.

With his father’s ghost in the background he was able to take two warring nations, Japan and Russia, who would have fought on forever, and soothe them into making peace. In doing so, he was the first American to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve always loved Louise Brooks, and I am researching a novel that will be called Lulu: a love story. It will take place in 1947 or ‘48, when she was a sales clerk at Saks, completely forgotten as an actress. 

And I will have her fall in love with the hoodlum lawyer who is in charge of the affairs of Owney Madden, the crime boss of Manhattan, who was forced to retire to Hot Springs, Arkansas. The action of the novel will shift between Hot Springs, the town of gangsters, and Manhattan, another gangster haven.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I find myself, in my old age, entering politics, by becoming a member of the board of managers of my own building - I am trying to bring peace to the building, let’s hope I succeed.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a link to Jerome Charyn's blog tour.

Jan. 18

Jan. 18, 1882: A.A. Milne born.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Q&A with Brett Fleishman

Brett Fleishman is the author of a series of poetry books for kids, including Toilet Trouble, Take a Hike!, and Bedtime Story. The books are organized by levels: beginners (K-2), intermediate readers (grades 3-5), and advanced readers (grades 5-7). He lives in the Boston area.

Q: How did you come up with your idea for your series of poetry books for kids?

A: When I first started writing children’s poems, I wasn’t thinking specifically about a poetry series. As I began writing more and more poems, I realized that many of my poems not only varied by length but also by complexity (types of vocabulary words, employment of word plays). 

At that point, I created a spreadsheet and categorized my poems into different reading levels: beginner (grades K-2), intermediate (grades 3-5), and advanced (grades 5-7). It was at that point that I decided to write a series of children’s poetry for each of these three reading levels.
Q: You say that your goals are to make kids laugh and to make them think. What kind of feedback have you had from readers so far?

A: I’ve received a lot of positive feedback from teachers, parents, and book reviewers. I think teachers and parents really appreciate books that have an educational element to them, especially ones that are also interesting enough to keep students engaged.

Q: What do you think the illustrations add to the books?

A: I think in some cases the illustrations are “just fun” and in other cases the illustrations are a critical complement to the poems. There are many times when I am writing a poem that I specifically think about how the illustration will bring out the poem. 

For example, in Toilet Trouble (my second beginner book), I have a poem called Neighbor. The poem reads as follows: I just met my neighbor. He’s a very friendly guy. He has 20 ovens. Gee, how strange. I wonder why?  

With no illustration, this poem isn’t funny and doesn’t tell the reader much, if anything. With the illustration, which shows a baker proudly holding up muffins next to a sign that reads “20 Drury Lane,” it becomes clear that the neighbor in this poem is the Muffin Man.

Q: How did you first get interested in poetry?

A: I absolutely loved reading Shel Silverstein’s poems as a child. So that’s when I got interested in reading poetry. Having said that, I didn’t write my first poem until I was 41 years old. So, there was a loooooooong gap between my interest in reading children’s poetry and my interest in writing children’s poetry!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a 32-stanza standalone poem called Chasing Santa Claus, which is pretty close to complete. Each stanza will be accompanied by its own illustration. The poem ends with a play on words, which is a staple of many of my poems. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: You should know that I am terrible at coming up with answers to super open-ended questions like this one! Sigh.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 17

Jan. 17, 1964: Michelle Obama born.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Q&A with JoAnn Chaney

JoAnn Chaney is the author of the new novel As Long As We Both Shall Live. She also has written the novel What You Don't Know. She lives in Colorado.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for As Long As We Both Shall Live, and for your characters Matt and Marie?

A: ALAWBSL came about in the same way most of my ideas do—it starts with a real situation and becomes something more. I was watching Dateline one night and saw the story of a Colorado man who had two wives die under suspicious circumstances and my imagination picked up from there.

As for Matt and Marie, I wanted to write about a successful, nice couple you might see anywhere. A couple you’d think has everything going for them, including the perfect marriage, and then the reader gets to see the rot underneath. Every relationship has problems, but this one—oh man, this one has some big problems.

Q: You bring back characters from your previous novel, What You Don't Know. Why did you choose to focus on Loren, in particular?

A: I find Loren to be an interesting character worth bringing back around. In many ways, he’s a stereotypical cop we see everywhere in fiction—a cop with a bad temper and a foul mouth.

But I think he’s also a cop who has been through a lot and has seen and experienced things that’ve made him that way in the end, and at his core he’s a good guy.

He’s a man who has seen bad things and done bad things, but he’s also done bad things for good reasons. I honestly think he’s the most realistic character out of the bunch, and that’s why I keep him hanging around.

Q: You tell the story from various characters' perspectives. Did you always plan to do that, or did you change things around as you wrote?

A: Actually, I always planned to write this particular book from several perspectives. There’s a few twists and moments when information is revealed to the reader and not some of the characters, and I needed multiple perspectives to make it work.

And it was work, believe me—it’s a tough thing to pull off a big surprise at the end of a book, but I think I made it happen.

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

A: The original title of the book was All Together Now with Feeling, a line that anyone who reads the book will recognize. My editors nixed the idea—Note: Writers! Listen to your editors!—and we brainstormed for titles that would work for the book and also be appealing to readers.

And since the book is about marriage, we pulled a lot of lines from wedding vows, i.e.: For Better Or Worse, Till Death Do Us Part…and my brilliant editor Christine Kopprasch suggested As Long As We Both Shall Live, I loved it, and the rest is history.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m actually working on two books at the same time now.

One is about a series of murders where the victims are being found through online dating apps. The other is about a mass killer using cell phone technology to communicate and taunt his victims and the police.

They’re both a lot of fun and hopefully I’ll be wrapping them up soon.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: ALAWBSL was recently optioned by Made Up Stories, the production company who most recently worked on Gone Girl and Big Little Lies, so we’ll hopefully see it on screen in the future.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 16

Jan. 16, 1933: Susan Sontag born.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Q&A with Claire Saxby

Claire Saxby is the author of the new children's picture book Dingo. Her many other books include Big Red Kangaroo and Emu. She lives in Melbourne, Australia.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on dingoes in your new children's picture book?

A: I've written a number of books about iconic Australian animals - all plant-eaters. I wanted to write about a predator, to understand their ways and to portray them in their world.

Dingoes don't always get the best press, particularly where their world and ours overlap. If we understand them, perhaps we can coexist more peaceably.

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

A: I read everything I could find about dingoes, both online and in books. I tend to try to search out research papers and books as they have the level of detail I need. Most of that detail doesn't end up in the book but it sits on my shoulder as I write, so that I can almost “inhabit” my character.

The discovery that surprised me was that the head of a dingo is the widest part of their body so if their head can fit through a space, then their body will too.

Q: What do you think Tannya Harricks' illustrations add to the book?

A: Tannya's art is so beautiful. There's an atmosphere to her oil paintings that evokes the mountains where this dingo family live. My words are very specific and introduce one dingo family. Her art brings to life the whole world my dingo ranges through.

I love the colours and the light of the mountains and Tannya has captured it so wonderfully. Her art adds information about family and about landscape.

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

A: Curiosity. I want them to enjoy the story, to discover the world within the pages, but mostly I want to spark their curiosity about our wonderful world. I don't want to provide all the answers, I want to stimulate more questions.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm working on a few things, all at different stages. I pressed “send” on two manuscripts [recently], one for this same series. The other manuscript is full of rhythm and repetition, competition and cooperation and just a little silliness.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 15

Jan. 15, 1929: Martin Luther King Jr. born.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Q&A with Kathryn Schwille

Kathryn Schwille is the author of the new novel What Luck, This Life. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including New Letters and Memorious. She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Q: How did you come up with the idea of centering a book around the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster?

A: In February 2005, I saw an Associated Press story in my local newspaper about a conference of forensic scientists. A police document examiner from Israel had delivered a talk about the unique project she’d undertaken.

Eighteen pages from the Columbia diary of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon had been found on a forest floor in East Texas. The pieces of the metal-bound notebook, which had survived two months in the elements, were battered and stuck together, some even wadded. Her job was to separate the pages and see if there was anything for his widow to read.

I’d never heard about the discovery of a diary, so I began wandering the internet, wondering what else had been found. Thousands of searchers had descended on that very rural area and had found so much we never heard about. East Texans were in a situation that no one had been in before, with space debris at their feet. I couldn’t get it out of my head.

Q: Some of the chapters are written in first person, while the others are in third person. Why did you decide to write it that way?

A: The project began as a collection of linked stories. When I write, I “hear” narrators, and in this case, I heard quite a few. I couldn’t settle on one, which seemed okay, since I wanted to tell the story of a town. In the end, I was able to knit the sections together – I hope – in a way that offered a unity of effect, even though it’s not a traditional novel structure.

Q: The book has been compared to Winesburg, Ohio, and Olive Kitteridge. What do you think of those comparisons?

A: I’m an ardent admirer of Elizabeth Strout’s work and I could only wish that my work ever comes near to her brilliance in Olive Kitteridge. What Luck, This Life might be similar in that the shuttle disaster is in every chapter, if sometimes only nominally, in the way that Olive is in every story, even if she only floats through in the background.

At the end of Olive Kitteridge, the reader has a fuller picture of her character. At the end of What Luck, I hope the reader has a fuller picture of the disaster and what it meant for the people on the ground.

I am, of course, flattered by the comparison to Winesburg, Ohio, a book that’s often cited as ground-breaking, even though it’s also not considered Sherwood Anderson’s best work. Anderson, too, hoped his book would tell the story of a town.

The critics were hard on it in 1919, and they deemed its structure unsuccessful, though perhaps if the stories had not been so uneven in quality, the reviewers would not have harped so much on the structure. George Willard is considered the main character in Winesburg, but he does not become a fuller character by the end to the same degree as Olive Kitteridge.

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

A: The manuscript had four or five titles before this one. None seemed just right. As I was reading through the manuscript, after yet another round of revisions before sending it off on yet another round of submissions, I found what I’d been looking for was there all along, on the last page.

I wanted a title that could hold the whole of the work as a novel. An astronaut looking down on earth, in the midst of an adventure so few humans will have, feels very fortunate in that moment. The reader knows his joy won’t last. I like the irony of the title, the allusion to both the thrills and horrors that await us. To me, the phrase holds the hope that our fortunes can change.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a novel which – though I’m not yet sure how – touches on the new kinds of families being formed by sperm donations.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I knew that the Columbia’s break-up was often overshadowed in American memory by the Challenger – a televised blow-up in 1986 that so many saw on TV. But I’ve been surprised at how often people really don’t remember the Columbia, or repeatedly confuse it with the Challenger.

I call the Columbia the national tragedy that happened between the two larger, horrific pillars of 9/11 and the war with Iraq. I want people to remember it, and know its story.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 14

Jan. 14, 1912: Tillie Olsen born.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Q&A with Katrin Schumann

Katrin Schumann is the author of the new novel The Forgotten Hours, which focuses on a young woman whose father is accused of assaulting her friend. Schumann's other work includes the nonfiction books The Secret Power of Middle Children and Mothers Need Time Outs, Too. She lives in Boston and Key West.

Q: You've said that the idea for The Forgotten Hours was inspired by people you knew. How did the initial inspiration turn into the book, and how did you come up with your character Katie?

A: There was a dark moment in my life when I went through a couple of difficult experiences--through two close friends on opposite ends of the spectrum--involving consent and assault accusations. 

At the time, I was so involved emotionally that it took over my life. I felt protective and afraid, and my loyalty was badly shaken. I learned how incredibly hard it is to admit to yourself that your instincts might be off. I felt unmoored and lost.

I kept thinking, what am I supposed to be learning from this? In a way, I too was a casualty, and I realized that my experience was more universal than I'd initially thought--all those who are accused of crimes, whether they’re guilty or innocent, have loved ones who suffer along with them.

I think of them as peripheral victims, and I wanted to find a way to explore and explain that experience. I chose a narrow lens through which to look: the daughter of the accused, because I wanted to show how much we’re impacted by our limited perspectives, and I wanted the stakes to be high--will the accused man’s daughter, Katie, be able to build a healthy and happy life?

I was trying to create a character who is smart and strong and has a good heart, who is capable of great things, but has been damaged by circumstances beyond her control. I liked the idea that Katie forges ahead valiantly, and that from the outside her life looks pretty damn good, but on the inside it’s a different story: she’s lost her sense of safety and her belief in herself.

Q: What resonance do you see the story having during the current #MeToo era?

A: These are issues we've been struggling with for a long time, and it's an incredible coincidence that my novel happens to be coming out when the #MeToo conversation has been amplified around the world.

One of my goals was to get people thinking about the nuances, the gray areas. It's in our natures to want to point fingers, and my book looks at how it can be dangerous to jump to conclusions.

We have biases, expectations, selective memories, strong loyalties--all this information is competing with itself. I wanted to examine this, and let the reader see how complex navigating truth and reality can be.

But, ultimately, I believe that love wins; in these sobering times, I wanted to show that we—empathic, thoughtful humans—can indeed face our own weaknesses and those of the people we love, and heal. 

Q: The story jumps back and forth in time. Did you write the chapters in the order in which they appear, or did you move things around as you wrote?

A: I did move smaller memories around a lot, because memories are often nonlinear and random, and I wanted to explore that.

I knew where the longer chapters set at the lake that summer night should go--I knew that they provided the all-important spine to the story. They complement and contrast and play off the present day chapters in a sort of dance, both emotionally and in terms of plot.

It was challenging to write this way, but once I found the “voice” of each era, each timeline, the story really seemed to take off. 

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

A: Originally, I had a very different working title that I loved, but it ultimately didn't set quite the right tone. The novel ended up being more of a dreamy pastiche of overlapping memories, butting up against reality, and I needed to find a way to convey that in the title.

I spent weeks brainstorming--listening to my favorite songs and jotting down ideas, thinking in terms of theme, picking important words and playing around with them.

And then one day, “The Forgotten Hours” popped into my head and I knew I had it. It captures what I was trying to convey so well--the idea of being imperfect, out of control, overlooking or assuming things, of looking backwards for answers.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a novel coming out next year that's also about a young woman dealing with circumstances beyond her control--in this case, the aftermath of a war.

It's set in East Germany and Chicago at the beginning of the Cold War, and it's the story of a young photographer forced to choose between her freedom and her child when her husband, a member of the newly-formed Secret Police, discovers she's having an affair.

It also explores this idea that people are not easy to define and label; they’re rarely all good or all bad. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I wrote this book to challenge readers to think deeply about an uncomfortable issue, but I also wanted to point out the beauty of our world—the beauty of our never-ending search for love and connection, of our ability to be resilient and hopeful in spite of our pain and uncertainty.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 13

Jan. 13, 1926: Michael Bond born.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Q&A with Eugene L. Meyer

Eugene L. Meyer is the author of the new book Five for Freedom: The African American Soldiers in John Brown's Army. He also has written Chesapeake Country and Maryland Lost and Found...Again. A former Washington Post reporter and editor, he is the editor of the B'nai B'rith Magazine and a contributing editor for Bethesda magazine. He lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Q: You note that you first learned about the five African Americans who participated in John Brown's raid while working on an article for The Washington Post in 2000. At what point did you decide to write this book?

A: I became aware of the five men when covering a cemetery plaque dedicated to one of them – Osborne Perry Anderson – over Veterans Day that year. Anderson was the sole survivor of the raid and wrote the only insider account. 

When I left The Washington Post in January 2004, I wrote a much longer article about him for the Post Magazine. I learned that he was close to Mary Ann Shadd Cary – both were from Chester County, Pa. -- and had followed her to Canada after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850.

There, as the first black female editor and publisher in North America, she produced the Provincial Freeman, and he worked for her as a printer and sometime writer. She would later help him write his book, A Voice from Harper’s Ferry.

During the war, they were both recruiters for the U.S. Colored Troops, and afterwards, he followed her to Washington, D.C., where she raised money for his healthcare and then for his funeral when he died in 1872.

I speculated there was more to their relationship and in 2007 looked at her papers at Howard University. I found nothing about him. But I did find letters she had published in the Provincial Freeman from John Anthony Copeland, another African American raider, to his family on the day of his execution. They were heart-wrenching.

It was then I realized there was a larger story here, perhaps even a book, but it had to be about all five men.  Thus, was born the idea of Five for Freedom.

The idea languished for a few years until I signed on with an agent. I had been working on a memoir, which he liked but wasn’t able to sell. I then turned back to Five for Freedom, and we signed a contract in March 2016, with a July 2017 deadline.

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

A: I had something of a head start with my earlier research on Anderson, but there was still much to learn in a short period of time on a subject to which many historians would devote years in the normal course of their research and writing—while also employing an army of researchers.

But I’m a newspaper guy used to working on deadlines, so this was a welcome rather than a daunting challenge.

Two of the raiders were from Oberlin, Ohio, so I spent some time there during August 2016, and, on the same trip, I drove up to Chatham, Ontario to learn what I could about that Afro-Canadian redoubt where Anderson had lived and worked before joining with Brown.

I also spent time in Harpers Ferry and Charles Town, West Virginia, and in Winchester, Va., conducting both archival research and interviews. In addition, I traveled around Fauquier and Prince William counties, Va., to view locations that played a role in the pre-raid narrative. 

I traveled to tiny Cannonville, Utah to interview a descendant of Dangerfield Newby, who’d joined with Brown to free his enslaved wife and their children back in Brentsville, Virginia.

One of the most important lessons from my research – which did not surprise me but buttressed what I had long known – was that our racial history, though usually seen in stark black and white terms, was so much more complicated and nuanced. It still is today.

Four of the five men were of racially mixed background, and all were free men of color when they joined with Brown. The fifth, Shields Green, claimed to be a direct descendant of African royalty and was known as Emperor. He had escaped from a Charlestown, S.C. plantation and was generally regarded as not biracial.

That is why I insisted on calling them African Americans, avoiding the racially polarizing and inaccurate labels of black and white.   

I was surprised to learn about the great debate that occurred in the Virginia General Assembly in January 1832 over slavery. 

Following the Nat Turner rebellion, the previous August, some 2,000 Virginians presented 40 petitions to the legislature. They ranged from status quo to graduated emancipation to outright abolition. Thomas Jefferson Randolph, the third president’s grandson, argued the middle ground.

Ultimately, the lawmakers couldn’t agree on anything, and less than three decades later, after the John Brown raid, the nation was engulfed in the Civil War, a bloodbath that resulted in some 750,000 deaths but, alas, also failed to resolve the underlying issues, with which we continue to grapple today.  

Q: In the book's epilogue, you focus on Ashton Robinson III, a descendant of Dangerfield Newby. Why did you choose to end the book with his story? 

A: Ashton’s story is the American story, and I felt that – not only as a descendant of Dangerfield Newby but as an African American man whose identity and heritage had been hidden from him -- his life brought into sharp focus what Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal called “An American Dilemma,” incorrectly defining it then as “The Negro Problem.”

In truth, it was never that. It was and remains that we, as a nation, have never overcome our original sin of slavery, and, until we do, we will never achieve the aspirational goal of, as New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu has put it, out of many we are one. Five for Freedom is very much an American story. It belongs to all of us, and Ashton embodies it.

Q: What do you see as the five men's legacies today? 

A: They died to make us free, but the struggle continues.

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I am looking into the historical intersection of race and gender in the fight for women’s suffrage. 

My memoir also remains a work in progress. Zelig-like, it seems, I lived and reported half a century of recent history, from the antiwar movement of the 1960s on, from inner city streets to Wounded Knee, from Chesapeake to Appalachia, starting as the kid-in-residence at the old New York Herald Tribune Washington Bureau during the 89th Congress, watching LBJ sign the 1964 Civil Rights Act, interviewing the Beatles and Thurgood Marshall, covering the Iran hostage release, and working for The Washington Post during Watergate.

But, also as a reporter of conscience trying not to cross the line into advocacy, letting my work speak for itself. I also address from a personal perspective the challenges of writing about race for a major metropolitan newspaper and my time as a newspaper union activist at a pivotal moment for the industry in the pre-internet era.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Five for Freedom is not only about how these men came together at a fateful time and place, October 1859 in Harpers Ferry. 

It is also about the world into which they were born and raised, their families, their lives and deaths, and their descendants down through the generations. As a National Park Service Ranger told me, “This is not a story of the past. It is a story from the past that is relevant to the present.”  

It’s been a privilege and an honor to be able to tell the stories of these largely forgotten men, overshadowed for 160 years by their martyred commander. They were truly “hidden figures” who came to Brown for different reasons and by different routes. Hopefully, they are hidden figures no more. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 12

Jan. 12, 1876: Jack London born.