Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Q&A with Karen Brooks

Karen Brooks is the author of the new historical novel The Chocolate Maker's Wife. Her other novels include The Locksmith's Daughter and The Brewer's Tale. An academic, social commentator, and newspaper columnist, she lives in Australia.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Chocolate Maker's Wife?

A: I was visiting Hampton Court in England as part of the research for my previous novel, The Locksmith’s Daughter, when I saw a very, very long queue snaking towards a “Chocolate Room.” Not even the promise of “free samples” tempted me to join it when there was this incredible palace to explore, and just as well.

Around the corner, and with no line of people to detract, was a small room cordoned off with a rope. It announced itself as a “Chocolate Kitchen.” Inside were all the tools and shiny accoutrements for making chocolate.

It turns out that King William III and George I and II had specially dedicated chocolate makers. Back in those days, chocolate was a drink, and enjoyed by all classes if they could afford it. Reading the little information available in the room sent my head into a spin, but it wasn’t until I noticed a portrait on the wall opposite to where I was standing, that my imagination went into overdrive.

It was of a rather homely woman with a wide-brimmed hat and a bunch of flowers shoved down her décolletage. Her name was Grace Tosier and not only was she the wife of Thomas Tosier, King William’s chocolate maker, but she was renowned for opening her own Chocolate House in Greenwich, by all accounts a rather decadent place with a reputation almost as disreputable as Grace’s own.

That was it. I turned to my friend and said, “I’m going to write a book and it’s going to be called The Chocolate Maker’s Wife.” Initially, I thought it would be about Grace Tosier, but the more I researched, the more I became interested in the decades before she opened and how chocolate first came to London and its social, political and cultural reception. 

Grace still appears in the book, as a young girl, as does Thomas who is one of the chocolate-making apprentices. I didn’t so much come up with idea as it came up with me!

Q: In our previous interview, we discussed the idea of blending historical and fictional characters in a novel, and you said, "The real figures need to merge seamlessly with the fictional and vice-a-versa to allow the story to both ring true and sing." Did you employ a similar strategy with this book?

A: I did, Deborah – or at least, I tried to. And what was really lovely was I not only had some marvelous books and available documents to give me a feel for the era and its social niceties and politics as I usually do, but I also had access to Samuel Pepys’ diaries. Samuel was a naval clerk and a symbol of not only the rising middle classes, but a growing self-awareness and the growth of individualism. He kept a diary for 10 years across a number of journals.

You can read them in hardback (which I did), but also access them online, which is fantastic when you want to know if anything significant (or even minor) happened on a particular day. He was educated (mostly self, really), and naturally curious, so his journals are full of quirky observations and often quite “naughty” stuff! He made me wince, laugh and feel joy and great sadness – often on the same day! He could be so cruel and kind in his observations, but always astute.

Relying on the codes he used to protect his thoughts, he was also incredibly honest and frank – but then he never thought anyone would read his words. Using his diaries, I was not only able to get a sense of the real people, but include them and their fears, loves, politics, desires, ambitions and past-times in the book, as well as (hopefully) add authenticity to my fictional ones.

Of course, I invented relationships and meetings between the real and the illusory characters, adding fictive flesh to historic bones where necessary. My greatest hope is that these characters – imagined and factual - do indeed “ring true and sing.”

Q: This novel is set in 17th century London. How important is setting to you in your work?

A: I think it’s very important. It’s the frame which must uphold your word-painting – the story. If it’s not solid and authentic, then I think you run the risk of either losing a great deal or fracturing the whole.

Historical fiction particularly (but all genres really) need a solid sense of place (and time) and space to ground the characters and the plot and thus transport your readers. If you get it right, it gives the characters room to breathe and grow.

I work hard to get the various settings right but hopefully without them dominating – though there are times you need a setting to step up and become as much a character as the people. A great deal of work goes into this, but you also hope that this doesn’t show (in a bad way).

Q: In your author's note, you discuss your research into the history of chocolate. What did you learn that especially surprised you?

A: I learned so much and there was a lot that surprised me because I was really quite ignorant about its history before I started. I knew that chocolate had (and still does have) awful associations with exploitation of workers and cultures, but I didn’t realise how dreadful it was, nor how it was so tied up with colonization and appropriation – to this day as well.

On a brighter note, I loved learning about the additives and how the drink itself was regarded as everything from a heady aphrodisiac to, basically, the panacea for all ills. The fact entire “houses” were opened so people (men only at first) could indulge was of great interest as was their close association with the rise of literacy, journalism, business transactions, politics, plotting and planning (likewise, in coffee houses) was fascinating to me.

Chocolate and coffee houses were so dangerous that, a few years after the novel finishes, in the 1670s, King Charles II tried to close them down. He didn’t succeed.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have just finished a book called The Wicked Woman of Fife, which is set in Scotland in the early 1700s and is based on a terrible true story. It revolves around the marvelous and incredibly tenacious fishwives of the east coast and one of the last witch trials.

It was harrowing to research and write and yet strangely uplifting as well – giving voice to the silenced and shedding light on an industry and the women who led it; reclaiming a rather derogatory term for a woman: fishwife. They were anything but women to be demeaned – they were to be celebrated and it was my wish to do that as well.

Currently, I’m researching my next novel, which is tentatively entitled The Mostly True Story of The Wife of Bath and tells the tale of the much-married Alyson, one of the most popular characters in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

I used her in one of my earlier historical fictions, The Brewer’s Tale. In that book, Alyson (who is in her 50s) is the madam of a brothel in Southwark, England. So, basically, it’s the story of how she went from being a well-known businesswoman and desired wife then widow over and over in Bath to a brothel owner in The Stews.

It’s completely stand-alone, so one doesn’t have to read the earlier novel to read this one. It’s about love, lust, marriage, relationships, heartache, secrets, betrayal and why having a business head doesn’t mean you have to neglect a loving heart – or does it? As a consequence, I’m lost in the second half of the 1300s! Loving it.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: How much I appreciate you taking the time to interview me and ask such marvelous questions, and how grateful I am to my readers for their wonderful feedback and for loving books!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Karen Brooks.

Aug. 20

Aug. 20, 1932: Vasily Aksyonov born.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Q&A with the Editors of Avon Books

Erika Tsang, Nicole Fischer, and Elle Keck, all of Avon Books, are the editors of the new book How to Write a Romance.

Q: How did the three of you work together on this book?

Elle: We had a large team who worked on this, including Tessa Woodward, Mireya Chiriboga, and Emma Brodie, who is a senior editor and in charge of the Morrow Gift imprint. She came up with the idea and we all loved it. We wrote the prompts with a lot of collaboration, sometimes in person and sometimes over email.

Erika: I believe pizza was involved at one point. We all had fun with it, coming up with different prompts based on tropes we like to read.

Nicole: There was also wine!

Q: How would you define a romance novel, and has the definition changed over the years?

Elle: I would define a romance novel as a book where the love story is the central focus and it ends in a happy ever after and/or happy for now. I don’t think that definition has ever changed.

Q: How many aspiring romance novelists would you say are out there now, and are there more or fewer than in past years?

Elle: That’s a question I don’t think any of us could answer. Thankfully, there are always new voices to publish, regardless of the year.

Q: Do you write romance novels in addition to editing them, and if not, have you considered it?

Elle: I don’t and have never considered it. I consider myself an editor, not an author.

Erika: Writing exercises a part of the brain that is dormant for me, so no. I’m quite happy being on this side of the process.

Nicole: I used to write stories as a kid, and they always had a romance in them. Actually, some were probably inappropriate, considering I was about 10. 

But I quickly realized I was too lazy to write a full book—it’s HARD, props to anyone who can do it or even just attempts it—and never really had the urge again. I’m much better at spotting the problems or weak spots in a manuscript than coming up with the actual story/idea itself!

Q: What are you working on now?

Elle: Some of the upcoming books on my list include Cat Sebastian’s A Little Light Mischief, a novella and her first lesbian romance, that published Aug. 6; Nisha Sharma’s The Legal Affair, which will be on sale early 2020; and Christy Carlyle’s third book in her Duke’s Den series, Nothing Compares to the Duke, which will be out May 2020.

Erika: I just put into production the next Beverly Jenkins Blessings book, On the Corner of Hope and Main. And Lynsay Sands’ 30th Argeneau vampire novel, Immortal Born, will be published in a few months.

Nicole: I have a lot of fabulous stuff coming up! Vivienne Lorret’s The Rogue to Ruin just went on sale at the end of July, Talia Hibbert’s Avon rom com debut Get a Life, Chloe Brown is out in November, as is Eva Leigh’s '80s movie inspired (gender-flipped Weird Science!) regency historical My Fake Rake

Just finished editing Mia Sosa’s 2020 rom com The Worst Best Man and Scarlett Peckham’s Avon debut, The Rakess, which is out next April. All very exciting!

Q: Anything else we should know?

Elle: I’m very excited about this journal. I think it’s the perfect companion piece for any aspiring author working on their first book, any established author who is looking for a bit of creative inspiration, and any editor trying to discover how to best help their author with their next book.

Erika: Writing is a lot of work, but I hope we also made it fun with this journal.

Nicole: The journal is a really fun, engaging way to flex your creative muscles! Even if you’re not ready to write a full book, or have no ideas at the moment, it’s full of funny, entertaining prompts and thought-provoking tips/advice that might help get the words flowing.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 19

Aug. 19, 1930: Frank McCourt born.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Q&A with Ching Yeung Russell

Ching Yeung Russell is the author of the new children's book House Without Walls, which focuses on two siblings, Lam and Dee Dee, who fled Vietnam in 1979. Russell's other books include Tofu Quilt and First Apple. Born in China, she lives in South Carolina.

Q: How did you first meet Lam and Dee Dee, and at what point did you decide to tell their story?

A: I met Lam first, probably at the end of the 1980s or early 1990s. I went to their Chinese restaurant, which had opened not long before, to look for a job as a hostess on weekend evenings. That’s how I met her.  She was very young and spoke Cantonese, the same language that I speak. That’s how I found out that she and Dee Dee, whom I met later, were boat people who had escaped in 1979 from Vietnam.

At first, it didn’t excite me that much, since I had heard a lot of those stories before. But later on, when we were better acquainted, they began to tell me, little by little, more details of how they escaped. Dee Dee especially gave me more information about what they went through. I was shocked, especially about their boat being towed back to the open sea.

Their story wandered around in my mind for a couple of years. So I asked them if I could write about their story and they agreed. I interviewed them together and separately, off and on, several times. I asked them more and more questions, even when this book was about to be printed. 

Dee Dee said that he wanted to put it all behind him, because it was so far in the past. But I am very thankful that he still answered my questions to enhance the accuracy of my book.      

Q: The story is told in verse--why did you choose that format?

A: Free verse is my favorite writing style in Chinese, and I am good at it.  That’s why I wrote my two previous books — Tofu Quilt, published by Lee and Low Books, and Bungee Cord Hair, which was the winner of the 2012 Scholastic Asian Book Award and was published in Asia — in free verse.

These two books also received more honors than my other books that I wrote in prose, such as First Apple, Water Ghost, Lichee Tree, and Child Bride. That’s why three years ago I converted House Without Walls from prose into free verse.

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

A: Besides listening to Lam and Dee Dee’s stories and others that I heard in the states, or read about on the Internet, I also went to visit a refugee camp in Hong Kong and got first-hand information from refugees about their escapes, plus a book written in Chinese regarding the life of the ethnic Chinese Vietnamese under the new government’s rules, which supported what Lam had told me.

I was surprised that in some cases, refugees had to stay in refugee camps for more than 10 years before being allowed to resettle in other countries or being sent back to Vietnam.

Q: Given that refugee issues are very much in the news right now, what do you hope readers take away from the book?

A: After listening to Lam and Dee Dee's stories, I have gained more sympathy, admiration, and respect for refugees from around the world--for what they have gone through, and how they struggle to start new lives in new countries, particularly for their children's future. I hope my readers will share these feelings, instead of mirroring what Lam was told when she first arrived in this country: "Go back to where you came from!" 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on a picture book regarding the Chinese dragon boat festival and a middle-grade novel about an 11-year-old messenger boy during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong in 1945. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I studied Chinese literature in Hong Kong and wanted to be a novelist in Chinese. That’s why my Chinese writing used to be very good. In Hong Kong I was a published freelance writer. I also helped to revise my friends’ writings.

But now, it’s just the opposite.  I have to send off my Chinese writing to my friend to help me smooth it into perfect Chinese, not English-Chinese. As for my English writing, my husband helps me smooth my manuscripts into proper English, not Chinese-English. That’s why he is my first editor.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 18

Aug. 18, 1944: Paula Danziger born.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Q&A with Sabrina Weiss

Sabrina Weiss is the author of the new picture book Ocean: Secrets of the Deep. She is based in London.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Ocean: Secrets of the Deep?

A: [Illustrator] Giulia De Amicis and I met while volunteering with a marine research nonprofit in southern Mozambique. We spent our weekdays designing infographics and creating booklets to give out government officials and the public. On weekends, we were lucky enough to dive with the animals that we had been describing in those materials: the manta rays and whale sharks.

When we both moved back to the UK, we started brainstorming ideas for the Ocean book and soon came to realise that there are so many stories and facts that people just don't know about. Having been passionate about the ocean from a very young age, I'm still amazed every time when I learn about a new species. Here's some background.

Q: Of all the animals and plants you write about in the book, are there any that especially fascinate you?

A: I like all things, big and small. But humpback whales and dolphins still amaze me every time I see them. They are so incredibly gracious, gentle and curious. It's really special when you are allowed into their world and enjoy a short encounter.

I'm actually packing my bags now to head back to Mozambique, the first time after three years. I hear the humpback whales have already arrived in the coast along Tofo, the small fishing village where Giulia and I lived. Every year, these whales travel thousands of kilometres from their feeding grounds in the Antarctic to the warm waters of Mozambique to breed and have their young. Fingers crossed that I will get to meet some of them again underwater!

Q: What do you think Giulia De Amicis's illustrations add to the book?

A: Giulia's artwork is really great for kids with a curious mind. The animal illustrations are beautiful, of course, but it the way they are presented within the environment, with facts, figures and scales that I think children can really learn a lot. There are so many things to explore in the book. I hope that some kids will pick up the book and enjoy the illustrations and maybe another day, they'll read the same pages again and dig a little deeper.

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

A: I hope it inspires them to learn more about the ocean and its fascinating inhabitants - even better, if they share the newly-acquired knowledge with their family and friends. Some might be excited to learn more about marine science at school, some will want to experience this mysterious world for themselves.

I also hope that it will inspire some change. The ocean is so important to us humans and we need to protect it. When sitting and picnicking by the beach, for instance, we should always be reminded to leave no trace and keep it clean.  

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm currently working on a new children's book exploring the incredible islands of our world.

I recently learned about Tristan da Cunha, for example, the world's remotest inhabited island. It takes six days by boat to get there from Cape Town. It's actually a group of islands, only two of which are inhabited. A small island called Gough doesn't have a settlement per se, but it has a permanent weather station with six staff living there. Isn't that fascinating? 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 17

Aug. 17, 1924: Evan S. Connell born.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Q&A with Abbi Waxman

Abbi Waxman is the author of the new novel The Bookish Life of Nina Hill. She also has written Other People's Houses and The Garden of Small Beginnings. She lives in Los Angeles.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your character Nina Hill?

A: When I was touring for my last book, Other People’s Houses, I kept meeting all these cool young women who worked in the bookstores. They were cool, smart, dressed in funky clothes, and deeply, DEEPLY in love with books. I fell in love with all of them, and decided to write them a book where they were the hero. 

Q: Nina is a bookworm who works in an independent bookstore. What do you think her experiences say about the world of bookselling these days?

A: I actually think independent bookstores are having A Moment, as the press like to say. I feel that although it’s still tough to run a bookstore, the internet has actually made it possible for booklovers to get enthusiastic and excited about books again. Who knew the internet would save the book?

Q: Nina also is a trivia expert. Do you know all the facts Nina knows, or did you have to look some of them up?

A: Some I knew, some I cheated.

Q: In this book, you've returned to the same part of Los Angeles that you wrote about in your first two books. What's it like to revisit to that same neighborhood (and some of the same characters) in your writing?

A: I love my neighborhood, and spend most of my time here. I love bringing back other characters, it feels like seeing old friends. Hopefully, readers feel the same way.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just finished my fourth book, currently called The Itinerary, which is NOT a Larchmont book. It’s about a mom and teenage daughter who take an organized college tour on the East Coast, and the shenanigans that ensue. While it’s not a Larchmont book, they do live in Larchmont, it’s just that the action doesn’t take place there.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m considering writing a Nina Hill sequel, but I’m still at the pondering stage. I had so much fun writing her, and people seem to love her, so… but I have to come up with an idea that makes sense, obviously.

I have other ideas I want to write too, so she may have to wait until another book or two has come out. I feel incredibly fortunate that I have wonderful readers who share their thoughts… maybe one of them will come up with the perfect storyline!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Abbi Waxman.

Q&A with Jo Baker

Jo Baker is the author of the new novel The Body Lies. Her other books include A Country Road, A Tree and Longbourn. She lives in Lancaster, England.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Body Lies?

A: I kept encountering dead female bodies, both in drama and fiction.

Alongside that, I became alert to the way that violence against women was being used as a cheap plot device – a means of getting a story rolling – while vital issues and real human experiences were being ignored. I kept seeing violence against women being eroticized, both in fiction and on screen.

And that, frankly, gives me hives; it makes me want to spit. Who exactly is that for? I wanted to write something counter to all of that.

Q: Many of the characters in the novel are writers, and you include samples of their writing throughout the book. What was it like to switch from one writing style to another?

A: Great fun. In fact I got rather carried away. I have a YA Werewolf novel almost ready to go, along with a collection of short stories that didn’t make it to the final draft of the novel. Unfortunately, they’re not really mine though – they were written by the characters.

Q: In her review of the book in The Guardian, Sarah Moss writes, "There is violence, but there is also a very modern interrogation of violent fiction." What do you think of that assessment?

A: I’m a massive fan of Moss – she’s an extraordinary writer; her work is so subtle, rich, needle-sharp, emotionally astute. To encounter that brilliance trained on one of my own novels was an extraordinary thing.

People usually tell me – after Longbourn and then A Country Road, A Tree, and now The Body Lies  “you write such different books”; but Moss saw the threads I’ve been following between them. I felt like she’d read the book I hoped I’d written, which is not necessarily the same thing as the book I’d actually written. She got what I was trying to do – in the most generous possible way.

Q: Why is your protagonist unnamed?

A: Ah yes. Well of course she does have a name, she just doesn’t get around to mentioning it. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m about a third of the way in to a new novel. This time it’s historical. I’m very excited; it’s really got me by the collar. And the more I write, the stranger it gets.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I write in the corner of a particular coffee shop. I find the hum – and the escape from home – conducive to getting work done. They’re so warm and tolerant of me there, and the coffee is really really good. And so I included a little thumbnail sketch of the place in The Body Lies. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Jo Baker.

Aug. 16

Aug. 16, 1917: Matt Christopher born.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Q&A with Debbie Levy

Debbie Levy is the author of the new children's picture book biography The Key from Spain: Flory Jagoda and Her Music. Levy's many other books include The Year of Goodbyes and I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark. She lives in Maryland.

Q: Why did you decide to write a picture book biography of the musician Flory Jagoda?

A: If I were more musically aware, the answer would be that I’d known and loved her music for years and wanted to bring Flory, her story, and her music to children and adults through a picture book. 

But while I did know her famous song, “Ocho Kandelikas” (“Eight Little Candles”), which is sung at Hanukkah celebrations around the world—I am not in fact all that musically aware.

I was introduced to the wonders of Flory Jagoda by Susan Gaeta, Flory’s musical protégé in the arts of Sephardic music and a musician of great talent in her own right. And I was introduced to Susan by my dear friend of many years, Karen Simon, and her husband, Jon Simon—a jazz pianist and composer who has performed with Susan. So this book came about with a little help from my friends.

Q: How did you research her life, and what did you learn that particularly surprised you?

A: Personal interviews, newspaper, magazine, and journal articles, books, existing video and audio interviews—I used all the usual tools of the nonfiction writer. Then there were the recordings on CDs, along with the CDs’ liner notes; the concerts that have been captured on video; and live concerts that I attended.

I was surprised and moved to learn of Flory and her family’s life in pre-World War II Bosnia, in a village where neighbors of different faiths lived side by side, sharing in their different cultures. I loved learning about how her family—the Singing Altaras Family—regaled their neighbors at village celebrations with their music. If only there was video of that!

Q: What do you think Sonja Wimmer's illustrations add to the book?

A: I think Sonja’s illustrations are perfect! She managed to make them intimate and warm, even as they span hundreds and hundreds of years. I love the sense they convey of other places and other times, with people of those places and times that nonetheless are immediately relatable to readers today.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from Flory Jagoda's story?

A: I hope readers enter a space that is at once familiar and unfamiliar to them, and I hope they come away with a feeling of delight from being engaged in the Sephardic culture of Flory’s youth. I also hope they emerge with a feeling of curiosity about the Ladino language, Sephardic music, and the long intertwined history of Jews, Muslims, and Christians.

Finally (well, not really finally, but this list could go on and on, and I’ve got to stop it somewhere!) I hope readers will gain an understanding of the beauty and richness that immigrants—such as Flory!—bring to the United States.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on the final-final elements of a graphic novel-style biography called Becoming RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Journey to Justice, which will be published on Nov. 5.

And I’m eagerly anticipating the re-issue of another immigrant story, that of my mother’s last year in Nazi Germany in 1938, The Year of Goodbyes. It originally came out in 2010; it will re-appear on Sept. 24 with a striking new cover, beautiful interior pages, and an excellent foreword by Tom Angleberger.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The book has a QR code on the back page that links readers to a video of Flory Jagoda singing “Ocho Kandelikas.” Do enjoy that, but don’t stop there! There are four Flory Jagoda CDs: “Kantikas Di Mi Nona” (“Songs of My Grandmother”), “Memories of Sarajevo,” “La Nona Kanta” (“The Grandmother Sings”), and “Arvoliko: The Little Tree.” And I love the music of Susan Gaeta and her Trio Sefardi

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Debbie Levy.

Q&A with Michael Parker

Michael Parker, photo by Tasha Thomas
Michael Parker is the author of the new historical novel Prairie Fever. His other books include The Watery Part of the World, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Washington Post and The New York Times Magazine. He lives in Austin, Texas.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Prairie Fever, and for your characters Lorena, Elise, and Gus?

A: My grandmother died a few weeks after I was born, so I never met her, but my mother told me stories about her. She was the only one of my grandparents not from North Carolina---she grew up in Lone Wolf, Oklahoma, where the story begins and remains for the better part of the novel.  

Of the few stories I heard about her, the one that stuck with me, was how my great-grandmother used to put my grandmother and her sister atop a horse in the winter, pin blankets all the way around them to protect them from the wind and snow, pat the horse, who know the way to school, and send them out into the elements. 

I thought about that image---of the two sisters, wrapped in blankets, travelling in darkness on the back of that horse the eight miles to and from school---for years before I decided to write about it.  

All my novels have come from images I’ve not been able to get out of my head. I don’t begin with ideas---I begin with a vision, a snippet of movement in a landscape, and from that point comes characters, and the desires of the characters, which constitute, eventually, with much rewriting, the plot.

Q: How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: I tend to think of landscape as inseparable from character. It is a repository for emotion. Ideally I’d like to avoid ever writing a tag like “she felt,” or “he thought.” I’m interested in thoughts and feelings that are suggested through the things the character sees—and, through the filter of the character’s noticing, the things the reader sees. 

So it’s crucial, in that respect. It’s inseparable from character, from plot. At a certain point there’s little point in distinguishing between the “elements” of fiction, because if the story’s working, they become indivisible.

Q: Did you need to do much research to write the novel, and did you learn anything especially surprising?

A: Most of my research came from reading newspapers from that period and that part of the country. My father ran a small-town newspaper, and he died while I was writing the book, so in a way my research was a way of honoring his life’s work---which is why the newspaper becomes such an important part of the story, of the girl’s life, of the life of the community. 

I think I was surprised at how well written those newspaper articles were, though I don’t know what was surprising about it, since aside from the major dailies, journalism these days is mostly syndicated wire material. Very few papers are owned by folks in the community. The writing no longer has any connection to the place—there’s no sense of idiom or regional distinction. 

That’s a sad thing, and it was wonderful—and yes, surprising—to reconnect with journalism that seemed to be coming from the place, and the residents of that place, rather than from some impersonal, homogeneous space.

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

A: The most I can hope for is that my work raises or poses questions about how we live, how we love, how we relate to each other, how we fail each other, and how we sometimes, despite ourselves, find our way out the messes we make. If the novel poses a question in the reader’s mind, I feel like the book is a success. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just retired after 29 years of teaching and moved full-time to Austin, where I’ve lived part time since 2010, so I’m mainly working on unpacking boxes and trying to figure out how to part with books for which I have no room.

Actually, I’ve been writing some short fiction, but stories are so much harder for me than novels—and they take longer for me to write. I’m glad to have something short to work on, though—and I welcome the intensity of story-writing, which calls for a different kind of attentiveness than writing novels. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Only that I thank you for your interest in my work, and wish you and your readers all the best.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 15

Aug. 15, 1885: Edna Ferber born.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Q&A with Karen Abbott

Karen Abbott is the author of the new book The Ghosts of Eden Park: The Bootleg King, the Women Who Pursued Him, and the Murder That Shocked Jazz-Age America. Her other books include Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.

Q: How did you first learn about George Remus, the bootlegger who is the subject of your new book, and why did you decide to write this book?

A: I usually get my ideas from dusty old archives or libraries or out-of-print books, but the idea for The Ghosts of Eden Park actually came from television--specifically the show Boardwalk Empire, which aired on HBO for five seasons. It perfectly captured the early 1920s, when bootleggers were just figuring out how to circumvent Prohibition laws, and no one had yet heard of Al Capone.

There was a character named George Remus. He was bizarre and brilliant and spoke of himself in the third person. There was one exchange where Remus was speaking to Nucky Thompson, the character played by Steve Buscemi. They're wheeling and dealing, and things get a bit heated. The Remus character says, "Remus finds you petty and resentful." And Buscemi retorts, "Remus can go fuck himself." 

Remus stole every scene he was in. I wondered if he was a real person, and indeed he was! Remus was America’s most successful bootlegger, and also a real-life inspiration for Jay Gatsby. After only one year in the business, Remus—a German immigrant who rose from poverty—owned 35 percent of all the liquor in the United States.

Then his luck turns: his wife falls in love with the same federal agent who put him in jail, sparking a love triangle that reached the highest levels of government—and that could only end in murder. It was a twisted, stranger-than-fiction tale that was far more interesting than anything portrayed on Boardwalk Empire, and I decided it was perfect fodder for a true crime thriller. 

The real Remus also spoke of himself in the third person. My favorite expression: "Remus's brain exploded." You'll have to read the book to decide for yourself if a brain explosion actually occurred... 

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

A: I've never had so much fun researching a book. When I learned that Yale University's Law Library had a relevant 5,500-page transcript, I immediately traveled to New Haven and spent 10 days, from opening to closing, sitting at this gorgeous overhead scanner. I copied every page of the transcript and it became the spine of the book.

It contained all of the details that make for a cinematic narrative: characters' thoughts and conversations, what they were wearing, how they moved, how they felt, what they feared. Nearly every page was a treasure trove. 

One of my favorite tidbits: Remus never wore underwear, which apparently was a cause for great alarm in the 1920s; it was the sign of an unsound mind.

It took me four months to go through the transcript, and by the time I was finished I had an 85,000-word outline (almost as long as the book itself!). I also loved the letters Remus wrote to his wife Imogene; they grew increasingly unhinged as he suspected her affair with Prohibition Agent Franklin Dodge.

An excerpt from one of my favorites: 

My only wife, how is it that you are a monkey, you are a centipede, you are a gem, you are a jewel, you are a combination of all the aforesaid in one; if I but had you this very moment I would demonstrate all of the foregoing with a real vigor and vim unexcelled. How about it?... I would judiciously obey all of your injunctions and restrictions with an obedience that is alarming even unto you.

Q: The book begins with quotes from The Great Gatsby and Othello. Why did you select these quotes?

A: Remus's story is so Gatsby-esque, and I wanted to make that connection from the start; it informs the book. I don't know if you noticed, but the titles of the book's three sections also come from The Great Gatsby. There are apocryphal tales about Remus and F. Scott Fitzgerald meeting when the latter was stationed in Louisville, but there is no hard evidence to support them.

But by the time Fitzgerald began writing Gatsby, the entire world knew of George Remus, and the parallels between the novel's eponymous protagonist and the bootlegger are conspicuous. 

Like Remus, Jay Gatsby owned a string of pharmacies, lived in a grand mansion, threw lavish parties, was in love with an enigmatic woman, and, as Fitzgerald writes, "sprang from a Platonic conception of himself," inventing a persona for a world he wished to inhabit, even if he never truly belonged.

As for the Othello passage, one of the major themes of the book is the human capacity to deceive—both others and ourselves. All of the main characters—Remus, Imogene, Assistant Attorney General Mabel Willabrandt, and Franklin Dodge—all engage in various modes of deception.

Q: How famous was this case at the time?

A: It made international headlines. I don't want to spoil the story for anyone who doesn't know it, so I'll leave it at that! 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I wish I could tell you! I am currently in what my friend Erik Larson calls "The Dark Land of No Ideas." And let me tell you, it truly is dark. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I just want to tip my hat to The Ghosts of Eden Park’s hero, Mabel Walker Willebrandt. When President Warren Harding appointed her assistant attorney general of the United States, she, along with all other adult female citizens, had only had the right to vote for nine months.

She was newly 32 years old, only five years out of law school, and had never prosecuted a single criminal case—and yet suddenly she was in charge of the thousands of Prohibition cases that began piling up in the courts, including cases against Remus.

To add to this pressure, she had a serious hearing problem, and spent an hour every morning styling her hair to conceal her hearing aids. She was almost inhumanly tough and thick-skinned, qualities that were reinforced by the ice-cold bath she took every morning.

Her favorite saying was: “Life has few petted darlings”—and she didn’t consider herself one of them. Her formative childhood event? She once bit a pet cat’s ear. To teach her a lesson, her father bit HER ear back. She was also partially responsible for the salacious love triangle that developed between Imogene and Franklin Dodge—and I think it's something that haunted her.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Karen Abbott.