Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Q&A with Anthony Browne

Anthony Browne is the author and illustrator of the new children's picture book Little Frida. His many other books include Hide and Seek and Willy and the Cloud. He is a former greeting card designer, and was the UK Children's Laureate from 2009-2011. He is based in the UK.

Q: Why did you decide to create a children's picture book about the young Frida Kahlo?

A: Little Frida is a story I had been trying to write for about 15 years, but always struggled to translate the idea into a book. I’ve always liked the paintings of Frida Kahlo but really fell in love with her work when I visited her house in Coyoacán, Mexico.

After reading many books about the artist I learned of a story Kahlo once told of an imaginary friend she had as a child. She had a vivid memory of drawing a door in the condensation on her bedroom window, which she was able to open and climb through into fields beyond.

At that time Frida was very ill and struggled to walk, but in the fields she was able to run. In her memory she met a girl who looked just like her, but unlike Frida she couldn’t talk. Instead she communicated through dance – something that Frida was unable to do herself.

It struck me that Frida’s imaginary friend was in fact her alter ego and there was a strong connection with the silent girl and the many self-portraits that Kahlo painted throughout her life.

Q: What did you see as the relationship between your own illustrations for the book and Kahlo's own style?

A: I like the obvious surrealist nature of Kahlo’s paintings (a movement that has greatly influenced my own work) but I also enjoy reading the many visual clues that Kahlo includes in the background of her portraits, telling us what is really going on in her emotional and mental state.

This is a technique that I also like to use in my own illustrations, as I find it’s a great vehicle for telling parts of the story that the words cannot.

Q: Did you work first on the text and then on the illustrations, or vice versa--or simultaneously?

A: The words and pictures came together more or less at the same time. After having the idea for the story I drew out a series of 24 rectangles (representing the 12 double-page spreads which form the main part of a typical picture book) and filled them with very rough drawings and scrawls of text.

In my mind there is always a kind of animation to the idea, and I view my storyboards almost exactly as a filmmaker would. Rather than the fixed pictures they will eventually become, I view the boxes as frames or scenes from the story, with a clear sense of progression through time.

“Playing out” the book in this way ensures that the visual and the textual always come to me at the same time.

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

A: I hope children will enjoy the book and perhaps identify with the character of Frida.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am currently working on The Elephant Book, a reworking of an unpublished book I wrote in 1974 to present to my future publisher (Hamish Hamilton) as an example of my graphic style and abilities. The book is very naïve and of its time, but I’m enjoying going back to my beginnings as a picture book maker and using the experience and skills I now have.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Our Girl will be published towards the end of next year. It is the next book from the My Mum, My Dad series and is based on my own daughter and granddaughter.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Nancy Joie Wilkie

Nancy Joie Wilkie is the author of the new story collection Seven Sides of Self. She worked in the biotechnology field for many years, and is also a musician. She lives in Brookeville, Maryland.  

Q: Over how long a period did you write the stories in your collection? 

A: Believe it or not — 25 years! 

The original draft of the first story, “There Once Was A Man,” was written while on a flight from Palm Springs, California, to Washington, D.C., after spending a long weekend with my parents and my aunt. 

I recall looking out the window at the amazing landscape below as I scribbled away in my notebook. I also remember that I wasn’t sure where the story was going until the end. 

“An Intricate Balance” came to me while out on a long walk a year or two later. I got home and started writing. Several hours later, I had the first draft of the story. 

“The Ledge” is based on a longstanding fear of high places that invaded my dreams about a dozen years ago. “Microwave Man” is the most recent story and came about during a long drive with not much else to think about. You just never know when the Muses will show up!  

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

A: The title and the concept of grouping together these seven stories came to me in a flash. I had just spent the morning exploring my favorite art museum. My mind was full of ideas for new art pieces and projects. I then made the short drive to the nearby artisan village. 

After visiting several shops, I found myself hungry and walked over to a little sundry shop — “simplyummy.” I placed my order and prepared myself for a wait of a dozen minutes. By the time my sandwich and salad arrived, I had sketched out the general structure for the book on a paper napkin.

As I stepped back out into the hot Southern afternoon after finishing lunch, I carried with me the seeds for Seven Sides of Self firmly registered in my mind. 

Oh, yes, and I had a beaming smile on my face! The Muses had chosen to bless me once again with their spark and inspiration. God bless them! 

As for what the title signifies for me, there are little pieces of me in each of those seven stories, hence the title of the collection.  

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

A: This is an interesting question and one that I often get when folks ask me about my CDs of original music. I think that it would be easier to tell you about the music than the stories because I can say that the songs alternate between major keys and minor keys, or between fast tempo versus slow tempo. 

But with the stories, it’s a bit different. The first story, “There Once Was A Man,” is about an author trying to start his writing career. The last story, “Old Mims,” is about an author at the end of his career, so these two stories serve as bookends of sorts. 

“Microwave Man” is also about an author before the end of his career — so I placed the story in the middle. 

Some of the stories are set in an incredibly distant future and introduce the readers to Mothersouls and the Oversoul (“The Ledge” and “An Intricate Balance”). 

“Microwave Man” also introduces the readers to the fictional planet of Aurillia and sets the stage for the events told in “Of The Green And Of The Gold.” Lastly, “Journey To Pradix” and “Old Mims” both portray rather exceptional views of our inevitable transition to an afterlife. 

The stories were never designed to be connected; it just sort of worked out that way. I do plan to introduce additional stories that will be loosely connected to some of these same topics. 

Having said all of that, I decided to alternate the rest of the stories between those occurring in the here and now and those occurring in the far future — thought it would keep things interesting!  

Q: You're a scientist, musician, and artist, as well as being a writer. How do all those different backgrounds affect your writing? 

A: My maternal grandfather was an organic chemist. As a youngster, I would watch him work in his laboratory and always thought, “That’s what I want to do when I grow up.” And so I did! I’m lucky to have known what I wanted to do; not everyone knows their calling. 

As for the music and the art, I had two musically gifted grandparents and a bunch of mostly older cousins who were musicians, artists, and writers. They were my inspiration. I also wanted to do music, art, and writing when I grew up, and so, in retirement, I have! 

As for a connection, all of these endeavors are about creating something, taking what one sees or hears in one’s mind or feels in one’s heart and then bringing the thoughts and feelings out into the real world — hence my moniker “mindsights.”

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: First, I have a collection of 101 (or maybe 102) page short stories — actually fables — each ending with a moral containing a pair of anagrams. The idea is that the fable will highlight either the humor or the irony of the anagramic pair (think “Santa” and “Satan” or “ocean” and “canoe”). 

I have also started working on a follow-up short story collection tentatively titled “Faraway and Forever.”

There are four stories (“The Natural Order of Things,” “The Wishbringer,” “Half The Sky,” and “The Last Sunday of Summer”), all a bit longer than the stories in Seven Sides of Self and all in the sci-fi/fantasy realm. I want to explore more fully the Three Laws of Spiritual Mechanics, Mothersouls, and a few other surprises. 

The third thing I’m working on is a sci-fi novel titled “The Oaks of Mamre” that I started a number of years ago. It explores one man’s quest for immortality and the lengths to which he is willing to go — even at the expense of other people’s lives. 

And lastly, there is my music! My fourth collection of original tunes, titled “Aurillian Tales,” is scheduled for release in early 2020.  

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: Absolutely! Should anyone wish to follow my creative endeavors, my website is always a good place to start. 

That URL takes one to a web portal of sorts, where there are hyperlinks to each of four separate websites: Mindsights Mediaworks (for original art and greeting cards), Mindsongs Musique (for original music), Mindstreets Musings (for original writing), and Mindsights Albums (photographs of trips and special places for family and friends. 

All my CDs are products of Mindsongs Musique and available as CDs or downloads through CDBaby, Amazon, iTunes, Bandcamp, and most distributors of music. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 10

Dec. 10, 1830: Emily Dickinson born.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Q&A with Andrew Maraniss

Andrew Maraniss is the author of the new young adult book Games of Deception: The True Story of the First U.S. Olympic Basketball Team at the 1936 Olympics in Hitler's Germany. He also has written the book Strong Inside. He is a contributor to theundefeated.com, and is a visiting author at Vanderbilt University's athletic department. He lives in Brentwood, Tennessee.

Q: You've written about basketball before--what got you interested in the U.S. basketball team that went to the 1936 Olympics in Germany?

A: Well, it was thanks to my first basketball book you mentioned, Strong Inside, which was a biography of Perry Wallace, the first African American basketball player in the Southeastern Conference.

I was visiting the University of Kansas to speak at the Dole Institute of Politics about that book, and took a detour to see Allen Fieldhouse, the legendary home of the Jayhawks basketball team.

They have James Naismith’s original rules of basketball under glass there, kind of like the Constitution at the National Archives. Next to the rules was a photo of Naismith, the inventor of the game, standing with some Japanese basketball players in the 1930s.

The person showing me around mentioned that Naismith was able to see his invention make its Olympic debut.

When I asked which Olympics those were, and he said it was the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany, I knew this would make for a fascinating book, merging the story of the invention and growth of such a popular game with important themes related to fascism, propaganda and antisemitism.

Q: What kind of research did you need to do for this book, and what did you learn that particularly surprised you?

A: I visited numerous archives to learn as much as I could about the invention and growth of basketball, the 1936 Olympics, and the state of the world at that time. This included trips to Springfield College, where Naismith invented basketball, and to his boyhood home of Almonte Ontario.

I spent time at the Avery Brundage archives at the University of Illinois, the Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas, the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, and many more.

I also visited with the sons and daughters of some of the 1936 U.S. basketball players, and spent time in McPherson, Kansas, where half of the players had worked at an oil refinery, and at the Universal Pictures archives, since the other half of the team worked at the movie studio.

I was surprised to learn about the level of coordination between Avery Brundage and Nazi officials to influence public opinion in the United States. He was asking the Germans to send “positive” coverage of the Nazi regime to American newspapers in an effort to combat a growing Olympic boycott movement in the United States.

I was also surprised to learn that the first player to dunk a basketball played on this Olympic team, and that the gold medal game was played outside on a clay tennis court in a driving rainstorm that made dribbling the ball impossible.

Q: What would you say is the legacy today of this basketball team and what they experienced?

A: In a purely basketball sense, these players were ahead of their time and left a mark on the game. They were tall, they dunked, they played a full-court pressure defense and they ran a fast break offense.

In winning a gold medal in Berlin, they launched what has been American dominance of the Olympic basketball tournament ever since. For there to be a Dream Team in 1992 with Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Larry Bird, or more recent Olympians like Kevin Durant and LeBron James, first there had to be this bunch of no-names in 1936.

On a political level, this team is also yet another example that politics and sports have always been linked. The only Jewish American gold medalist at the 1936 Hitler Olympics was a member of this basketball team, Sam Balter. He had to make a decision about whether he would compete in Nazi Germany after he qualified for the team.

He decided the best thing he could do was to go to Berlin, compete well, and win a gold medal. That was basically the same attitude Jesse Owens had. They could refute notions of Aryan supremacy through their athletic excellence.

Of course, even though they did win gold medals, it’s hard to say if anyone learned the lessons when you consider the Holocaust and the enduring racism in the United States.

There’s no greater example of the connections between sports and politics than the Olympics, and the ’36 Games were the ultimate illustration of that in so many ways that I explore in the book.

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

A: I hope the biggest takeaway is the idea of speaking out against injustice; not being a silent bystander. So many people have eloquently written about that as the most important lesson of the Holocaust. That is a lesson we need to remember today more than I can ever remember in my lifetime.

I met a 97-year-old Holocaust survivor in Cincinnati who had attended the 1936 Olympics as a 13-year-old Jewish kid living in Berlin. He escaped the following year and later joined the U.S. Army and interrogated Nazi POWs. Today he visits with schoolchildren in Cincinnati twice a month to talk about the Holocaust.

I asked him what he tells the kids when they ask him how we can prevent anything like that from happening again. He said the kids already know the answer to that question, and typically they’ve said the answer out loud that very morning with their hands over their hearts.

He said the answer is to always remember the last five words of the pledge of allegiance: “liberty and justice for all.” With an emphasis on “for all.” Not just liberty and justice for some people, some group deemed superior, but for all people. He says we’ve seen what can happen when we forget that.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am now writing what will be my third book. It will be called Singled Out, and it’s a biography of a fascinating man named Glenn Burke, who was the first openly gay Major League Baseball player for the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Oakland A’s in the late 1970s. He also invented the “high five” and died of AIDS in the mid-1990s.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My books are written for teens and adults. I love visiting middle schools and high schools to share these stories. I think that sports-related books can be appealing to many kids. I write about important issues of social justice in what I hope is an accessible and exciting way. I’ve visited schools in 25 states so far and hope to get to all 50! Teachers and librarians can email me at andrewmaraniss@gmail.com if they are interested in arranging a visit. 

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

Dec. 9

Dec. 9, 1943: Joanna Trollope born.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Q&A with Edeet Ravel

Edeet Ravel is the author of A Boy Is Not a Bird, a new middle grade novel for kids. Her other books include the novels The Cat and Ten Thousand Lovers. She lives in Guelph, Ontario.

Q: A Boy Is Not a Bird is based on the experiences of one of your teachers. Why did you decide to tell his story?

A: Nahum Halpern was my teacher when I was 10. He was loved by everyone in the school. It wasn't anything specific that he did -- as with many great teachers, it's ultimately who they are that makes them memorable and that has such a profound effect on their students. Maybe it's different today -- or maybe it's still possible for a teacher to have that kind of influence -- I hope it is.

Mr. Halpern (as I still think of him, all these years later) projected the joy of being alive along with profound generosity, a love of teaching, and kindness as a way of life. That's why his stories about his childhood, which he told us every Friday, remained with me and I'm sure with many others.

It was only much later that I understood the context of the stories. I wanted to bring those events to life and at the same time write about the historical phenomenon of exile to Siberia under Stalin's totalitarian rule.

Q: What did you see as the right balance between the historical facts of Mr. Halpern’s life and the fictional version you were creating?

A: I asked Nahum whether it was okay to fictionalize his experiences. He was, as always, enthusiastic and supportive. Quite simply, he trusted me. He didn't ask to see my early drafts, though I was in touch with his daughter Dafna, and I sent her everything I wrote before it went to the editor. Her support was crucial to the project.

Nahum told me, with typical generosity and kindness, "The story is all yours to do with as you like." He knew that I would do my best to be true to the facts while adding fictional characters and events. I researched every detail, as I didn't want to make any errors in terms of historical accuracy.

Nahum read the book only after it was published, and was very pleased -- his only disappointment was that in the novel Natt is two years older than Nahum was in real life. Nahum was 10 when he was exiled to Siberia with his mother, and the courage and intelligence that allowed this small boy to cope with catastrophic and traumatic events is indeed remarkable.

He was brilliant, and at 10 he was as mature and capable as a young teen. There are hints in the book of this aspect of Natt's character, and I plan to develop them more fully in the sequels.

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

A: The image of birds kept cropping up as I wrote. We read about refugees in the news -- families fleeing war and violence, parents running for their lives with their children, because anywhere is better than where they are -- they are desperate to survive. The displacement and homelessness that typically follow is very sad.

In spite of what Natt's mother tells him when she tries to reassure him that after the war all will be well again, and that war is a temporary dispersion, they are all in danger. Everyone who was in danger longed to escape as the shadow of World War II crept over them, but only a lucky few succeeded.

I was trying to think of a title for the novel when the memory came to me of an East European movie I'd seen when I was at university -- A Man Is Not a Bird. The title conveyed that sense of longing and frustration that Natt's mother is both expressing and trying to conceal. I adapted the title -- it may be a quote from a poem.

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

A: I was writing about resilience and courage, as well as the power of loving connections and compassion between people. I think of Natt's teacher, who is already in trouble with the authorities, risking so much in order to give Natt the book he loves to take with him to Siberia -- luckily, in the upheaval of exile, no one notices.

I was also writing about the dangers of totalitarianism and the blind worship of authoritarian leaders.

Above all, I want my readers to enjoy the book. Every reader will find something different in a work of fiction, and understand it in their own way. As readers, we are all unique, and if a story becomes personal in a positive way for any reader, that is the most an author can hope for.

Q: This is the first book in a trilogy--are you working on the other two books now?

A: Yes, I've already started working on the second book, A Boy is Not a Hammer. It's based, again, on the amazing story of Nahum's life in Siberia.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: To anyone who reads A Boy Is Not a Bird -- thank you for spending time with Natt and his friends and family. I hope you have someone like Mr. Halpern in your life. If you do, learn as much as you can from them -- it will stand you in good stead all your life.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 8

Dec. 8, 1894: James Thurber born.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Q&A with Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch is the author of Don't Tell the Nazis, a new middle grade novel for children. Her many other books for young people include Making Bombs for Hitler and The War Below. She lives in Brantford, Ontario.

Q: You note that Don't Tell the Nazis was based on the actual story of a woman named Krystia. How did you learn about her, and at what point did you decide to write this book?

A: Don’t Tell the Nazis was inspired by the true story of Kateryna Sikorska and her daughter Krystia, who hid three Jewish friends under their kitchen floor during the Holocaust.

Krystia's daughter, journalist and filmmaker Iryna Korpan, approached me in 2012 at a public event. She handed me a copy of her excellent documentary called She Paid the Ultimate Price, then explained that it was about her own mother’s and grandmother’s heroic actions in World War II Ukraine. 

She asked if I would consider writing a book about it. After reviewing the documentary and doing some preliminary research, I agreed.

Q: How did you research the book?

A: I interviewed Krystia at length and she answered my questions as they came up. Krystia herself was only 8 years old when these events unfolded, and while her experiences were seared into her brain, it's never a good idea to rely on just one person's memory.

I accessed other first-person accounts of the same era: Jewish, Polish, Ukrainian, Ethnic German and German. Before the dissolution of the Soviet Union it was nearly impossible to access accurate accounts like Krystia's but in the last decades, scholars have been filling in the gaps. Recent academic dissertations and other studies were very helpful.

Q: What did you see as the right blend between the historical Krystia and your own creation?

A: I had originally planned to write this book as non-fiction, but as I got into the interviews and research, I realized that writing it that way would not do the story justice. Many of the people who lived through those times had been killed. How could I interview them? How could I quote them?

But the other problem was that as I delved into the complicated events of the time, I realized that the story extended far beyond Krystia and her family. I ditched my original manuscript and started from scratch.

The real-life Krystia was only 8 years old in 1941, though her courageous actions were that of a mature individual. Today’s readers might have difficulty understanding that someone so young could accomplish all that Krystia did. I felt that making her older would make her actions more relatable.

Maria was only 7. Dolik and Leon were older teens. For the sake of the story I made them closer in age to Krystia so they could be classmates and friends. Krystia also had an older sister named Iryna who was 10, but it was Krystia who sneaked food and documents into the ghetto to help the Jews.

Krystia’s actual town was Pidhaytsi, which means under the wood. I’ve named it Viteretz, which means breezy, and I’ve made the town much smaller. I populated my novel with composite secondary characters based on my research.

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

A: Krystia's bravery takes my breath away. I hope that she inspires readers to step outside of themselves when they witness grave injustice.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I've just finished writing a companion novel to Don't Tell the Nazis.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Krystia died last spring, but she was the guest of honor at the Canadian launch of this novel, published there as Don't Tell the Enemy in 2018. Attached is a photo of her with me and her extended family. At the launch, the audience gave her a standing ovation.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch.

Dec. 7

Dec. 7, 1873: Willa Cather born.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Q&A with Gillian Gill

Gillian Gill, photo by Linda Crosskey
Gillian Gill is the author of the new book Virginia Woolf and the Women Who Shaped Her World. Her other books include We Two and Nightingales. She has taught ta Northeastern, Wellesley, Yale, and Harvard, and she lives in Burlington, Massachusetts.

Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of Virginia Woolf?

A: Reading Virginia Woolf was a huge influence on me as I moved from being an academic specializing in 20th-century French fiction into women studies and then into a new life as a writer. 

Woolf spoke to the dilemmas in my personal life. With clarity and elegance, she argued that women had been and still were in the late 1920s systemically kept on the fringes of professional life and creative achievement. She showed her “chops” as a social and literary critic but was never pedantic or stuffy. Thus, she gave me a model for writing and the encouragement to try and be a writer myself.

I had the canonic “room of my own.” The money my dead husband left me meant I did not have to scrounge for a living. She showed me that I too was free to try and write—if I could find the energy and motivation. 

And then, as my books began to get written and published and I changed from a literary critic of women’s texts, to a student of achieving women’s lives, to a teller of family stories, Virginia Woolf was kind of waiting for me to get round to her.

And once I did and saw how fascinating the women in her family and her adult life were, I got totally wrapped up in my project. Like so many women she knew and so many women who have just read her, I fell in love with Virginia Woolf.

Q: How did you conduct your research for the book?

A: I am British by origin and my  family members are very supportive of me as a writer, so it was cheap and easy for me to trot around Kensington where Woolf lived until her early twenties (so RITZY!!), Bloomsbury where she and her friends congregated, Sussex where she and her sister and their great friend John Maynard Keynes had vacation homes, and Kent where Henry James, Vita Sackville West, Ellen Terry and her daughter Edy Craig had homes.

But, that crucial fieldwork apart,  basically, what I do is sit at home here in the USA in my upstairs library, and I summon the books I need books from the internet, read them over and over, taking copious notes by hand in a notebook, and then, with my execrable typing, I write innumerable drafts on my computer.

As a failed academic, I used to fret over my lack of devoted graduate students and brilliant young undergraduates—now I just get on with the job as best I can. On this book I didn’t even sub-contract little bits of research as I did with my Mary Baker Eddy and Colette books. Like it or lump it, what you read in this new book is all me, my readings and reactions and analyses.

Q: Did you learn anything you found especially surprising?

A: The extent to which Woolf was not only a champion of women and women creative artists, but of small children. The sexual and psychological abuse of children was something she felt in her life, thought about deeply as an adult, bravely addressed in her autobiographical essays, and introduced  into her fiction. On this issue she was way, way ahead of her time.

Q: How would you describe the relationship between Virginia and her sister Vanessa?

A: INTENSE and extremely complicated! Until Vanessa married in her late 20s, she and Virginia were almost always together and were each other’s main support against the tyranny of their male relatives. After the deaths of their mother and older sister Stella Duckworth, Vanessa became, in essence, Virginia’s mother. 

As Virginia plunged into a sequence of serious psychotic episodes, Vanessa’s support was crucial to her. However, that dependency was a source of resentment for both sisters—to Virginia, a strong personality forced into apparent frailty by her illness, and to Vanessa, apparently strong and seeing no need of support or advice to get what she wanted from life. 

When 29-year old Vanessa married Clive Bell, the bond between the sisters was broken. Henceforward, though they are very often in the same place, the same room, they were almost never alone. Vanessa welcomed that, Virginia did not.

As the letters she wrote around the time of her sister’s marriage reveal, Virginia Woolf was in love with her sister. In the last decades of Virginia’s life, the sisters were deeply supportive of each other’s work. They were also rivals, and both sisters believed Vanessa to have the upper hand because she was not only a successful painter but also the mother of three children.

Except for Leonard, Vanessa Bell was always the most important person in Virginia Woolf’s life. She knew she needed Vanessa. Vanessa did not think she needed Virginia. That was part of her tragedy.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The often sad and sometimes tragic lives of the women in Queen Victoria’s family—her mother (Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, Duchess of Kent), her sister Feodora (Princess Ernest of  Hohenlohe-Langenburg, her daughters, Victoria (Princess Royal and Empress Frederick of Prussia,) Alice (Grand Duchess Louis of Hesse), Louise (Duchess of Argyll), Helena (Princess Christian of Schleswig-Holstein), Beatrice (Princess Henry of Battenburg), and two of her granddaughters, Alex (Tsarina Alexandra of Russia) and Victoria Eugenia (Queen of Spain), both of whom were carriers for hemophilia. 

This book will be a followup to We Two, my successful book about the marriage of Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort, Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 6

Dec. 6, 1886: Joyce Kilmer born.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Q&A with Nancy Kriplen

Nancy Kriplen is the author of the new book J. Irwin Miller: The Shaping of an American Town. Her other books include The Eccentric Billionaire and Dwight Davis: The Man and the Cup. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and Smithsonian. She lives in the Indianapolis area.

Q: Why did you decide to write a book about businessman J. Irwin Miller and his hometown of Columbus, Indiana?  

A: I had written a New York Times travel article about Columbus and its midcentury modern architecture, surprising to find in a small town in the Midwest. 

The story of how this all happened led to businessman and art patron J. Irwin Miller, which made me curious to find out more about him. My recent books have been biographies. I like the form and I was looking for a new subject for a biography. Irwin Miller seemed perfect – and friends in Columbus were very encouraging. 

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

A: Fortunately, the massive Irwin-Sweeney-Miller collection of papers is located at the library of the Indiana Historical Society in Indianapolis, only about six miles from my home office. 

In addition to searching other collections, I interviewed members of the Miller family, in New York and Connecticut, conducted telephone and in-person interviews, and interviewed Kevin Roche, one of the few architects still living, whose Columbus buildings are significant. 

I was surprised by Irwin Miller’s work with presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and his important role in the passage of civil rights legislation in 1964.

Q: How would you describe Columbus, Indiana’s relationship to its architecture?

A: Its residents, at least most of them, are proud of their buildings – the churches, schools, library, homes, even fire stations designed by such important 20th century architects as I.M Pei, Eliel and Eero Saarinen (father and son), Harry Weese, and Robert Venturi. 

There is continuing civic energy for events that build on and celebrate the town’s design heritage. Of course, not surprisingly, some residents are more concerned with the work-a-day aspects of life than with art.

Q: You have also written biographies of Dwight Davis, founder of tennis’s Davis Cup; and philanthropist John D. MacArthur. How would you compare the three men? 

A: Dwight Davis and Irwin Miller, though nearly a generation apart, were both urbane, sophisticated and educated. Davis went to Harvard and law school, Miller to Yale and Oxford, and MacArthur to the eighth grade.  

Davis and Miller built their fortunes on those of earlier relatives. John MacArthur was a scrappy, risk-taking rascal who built his fortune himself in insurance and real estate, sometimes going right up to the edge of what was legal.

The wealth of all three men benefited their country and often other nations. The silver tennis cup that Davis donated in 1900 traveled the world, and as governor-general Davis helped lead the Philippines into a new era. The money from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation continues to fund a variety of grants, including the high-profile “genius awards.” 

Irwin Miller’s corporate leadership (Cummins Engine Company) brought good jobs to thousands, encouraged civil rights, and was the spark behind his hometown’s development into a gem of midcentury modern architecture.

Q: What are you working on now?

A:  One of our children once asked why I always wrote about rich, dead, white men. One of the people I’m thinking about for a new biography is a woman, though the form may be a documentary instead of a book.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I love the lively, bright front cover that the Indiana University Press design team chose for this book, J. Irwin Miller: The Shaping of an American Town.

At the top is Columbus’s dramatic Stewart Bridge over White River, designed by J. Muller International (1999). At the bottom is the AT&T switching center with tall stacks that look like giant crayons, designed by Paul Kenyon (1978). 

To keep the front cover uncluttered, Irwin Miller’s name is on the front – but his photo is on the back. A modest man, I don’t think he would mind.

Besides, just visible through the bridge, is Isaac Hodgson’s 1874 Bartholomew County Courthouse, the historic Columbus building that Irwin Miller often said was his favorite. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb   

Dec. 5

Dec. 5, 1830: Christina Rossetti born.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Q&A with Janet Todd

Janet Todd is the editor of a new edition of Jane Austen's unfinished novel Sanditon. Todd's other books include The Cambridge Introduction to Jane Austen. A former president of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, she lives in Cambridge, UK, and Venice, Italy.

Q: You write of Sanditon that "the brilliant fragment remains enigmatic from beginning to end." Is it enigmatic mostly because it was unfinished, or are there other reasons?

A: Yes, because unfinished, but Austen lets us see round her endings even of the finished novels. Whatever she had in store for the resort of Sanditon and its shifting inhabitants, I suspect no fate would have been final.

Q: How would you compare Sanditon with Austen's other work?

A: It resembles the juvenile parodies and burlesques more than the finished psychologically subtle novels. It delights in quirks, oddities and snobberies, and in this way is wonderfully relevant to us in the 21st century as we take our selfies and aim to control media presence: the characters in Sanditon try constantly to impose their self-images on others.

Also, where the other novels depict country houses, Sanditon is a novel of seaside tourism.

Q: Do you have ideas about how the book would have turned out if Austen had been able to finish it?

A: In short, no. She supposedly wanted to call it “The Brothers” rather than “Sanditon.” In which case it might have been an interesting break with the other woman-centered novels.

Whatever couples were formed—and as comedy there would need to be a final marriage, presumably of the heroine Charlotte and the most attractive male, Sidney Parker--the fortune of the speculative project of Sanditon would, I suspect, have remained central.

Q: What first intrigued you about Austen's writing and led you to become a scholar of her work?

A: I came to Jane Austen late. She wasn’t a childhood favourite. As I worked on other, then fairly unknown, writers of her time, I found myself going to Austen for comparison. Increasingly I admired and was amazed at her skill, her succinctness, her combination of wit and realism. I now think her unequalled.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have just finished a novel called Don’t You Know There’s a War On? (due out May 2020). Its energetically angry central character lives through the Second World War and into England’s diminished post-war reality. Her life—and that of her only daughter-- unravels behind the closed velvet curtains of suburbia.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I wish I’d started publishing novels earlier! At 77 I must rush to make up for lost time.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Janet Todd.

Dec. 4

Dec. 4, 1835: Samuel Butler born.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Q&A with Niall Williams

Niall Williams is the author of the new novel This Is Happiness. His many other books include History of the Rain and Four Letters of Love. He lives in County Clare, Ireland.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for This Is Happiness, and for your character Noel Crowe?

A: I never know where an idea comes from. I generally only start with a sentence, and see where that leads.

But, having moved with my wife Christine to the west of Ireland in the mid-1980s—an account of which became the first of our four non-fiction books, O Come Ye Back, published in New York by Soho Press—I was struck by the fact that people could remember The Day the Electricity Came.

And this seemed to me a threshold time in Irish life, when, halfway into the 20th century, the west of Ireland was still living in the 19th.  

Q: The novel features your protagonist as an older man looking back at himself at 17. Why did you decide to structure the book that way?

A: I didn’t want to write a “historical” or period novel as such, by just setting it in the ‘50s.

I think many of us also have a time in our youth, maybe a very brief time like a summer or a few weeks when we were first most alive, or, as the narrator says, first discovered what it meant to be a fully human being, by which I think he means to have encountered the twin polarities of love and death.

Also, of course, I am an old man myself, and know something of what it feels like to be looking back at a raw younger self.

Q: The book begins with the line "It had stopped raining." What role do you see the rain playing in the novel?

A: So many people have asked me after reading my previous novels, “Does it really rain that much in Ireland?”—to which my answer is generally yes.

And now this question about the stopping of the rain pops up. For me, as for the narrator, it first signals just “something is happening,” something has changed.

But because of the angle of the narrative, where there is this mythic or fable quality, as is fitting for most of our pasts I think, the stopping of the rain, whether real or imagined in recall, has an element of taking the story outside of time. The book takes place literally between two drops of rain.

Q: Did you need to do much research to recreate the time period featured in the book?

A: No, not a lot. As I said, I benefitted enormously from hearing firsthand stories of people who had lived through the rural electrification, which was a huge effort and event in Ireland. This was the principal research. I also read the history book mentioned in the acknowledgements.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am in the foothills of a new novel, like the previous two, also set in Faha. I don’t seem able to leave.

But besides that, Christine and I are working on a new non-fiction book about our life in County Clare. Next year we will be here 35 years, and we have returned to writing about the way we have been living, tending the garden and trying to take care of the little piece of earth we are charged with minding, recognizing the importance of this when the picture of the larger Earth, with a capital E, is so gloomy.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: It’s raining.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb