Saturday, July 11, 2020

Q&A with Barbara Lowell


Barbara Lowell is the author of the new children's picture book My Mastodon. Her other books include Sparky & Spike. She lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Q: How did you learn about Sybilla Peale, and how did you come up with the idea for My Mastodon?


A: The first picture book manuscript I wrote was about how two young grizzly bears lived at Thomas Jefferson’s White House for six weeks. The president then sent them to his friend Charles Willson Peale.

Peale and his family lived in the Philadelphia Museum, the first natural history museum in America which had an adjacent zoo. The star of the museum was a fossilized 11-foot-high American Mastodon. I love visiting natural history museums and decided to learn more about the Peale family and their mastodon.

Peale and his son Rembrandt excavated the bones and tusks of two mastodons on a farm in upstate New York. They brought the bones and tusks to the museum where they were assembled. Rembrandt and his brother Rubens took the slightly smaller skeleton on a tour of Europe.

At the time, Sybilla, at 4 years old, was the youngest of Peale’s children. I imagined her becoming attached to the mastodon. When she learned that Rembrandt, her bossy brother, was taking her friend away, she had to convince him to leave her mastodon with her. But did he? For me, the story is about the importance of family.

Q: What kind of research did you do to write the book, and did you learn anything especially surprising?

A: I read everything I could find about Charles Willson Peale and his family, especially The Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and His Family. I worked with volumes 1-4.

What was most surprising was that the family lived in the museum and that the children could explore on their own. And also that Peale, a famous portrait painter, named all his children after artists. The most well-known names he chose were Raphaelle, Rembrandt, Rubens, and Titian.

My wonderful editor, Amy Novesky, at Creative Editions, is a direct descendant of Charles Willson Peale through his oldest son Raphaelle.

Q: What do you think Antonio Marinoni's illustrations add to the book?

A: Antonio Marinoni is an exceptional Italian artist. His art in My Mastodon is beautiful. His detail is amazing. He even painted miniatures of actual paintings by Peale family members.

One painting is Rubens Peale with a Geranium by Rembrandt Peale. Marinoni added the painting to the book and in some of the spreads, he painted the geranium, someone offstage watering the geranium, and finally Rubens carrying the geranium in the final spread.

Not only did he bring the story to life but he added so many original details that each time you read the story you see something new. All the illustrations were done in watercolor, which must have taken quite a bit of time to complete. The art director at The Creative Company has a very savvy approach to finding just the right illustrator for each book.

Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, "Nurtured by intelligent, eccentric family members and permitted familiarity with priceless scientific curiosities, Sybilla has an ideal Enlightenment-era childhood." What do you think of that description?

A: I think this description tells us a lot about the family. Peale believed children were unique individuals, not extensions of their parents. This was an unusual idea at the time. He encouraged their curiosity and gave them immense freedom to become their best selves.

Peale was considered to be “eccentric” only because he was very far ahead in his thinking about raising children. The scientific curiosities were priceless, but Peale believed that understanding them came from close study, and he allowed his children to do that.

Of all the books I have worked on, the research for My Mastodon was the most interesting and fun. Whenever someone tells me that they don’t know who Charles Willson Peale was, I tell them they probably have seen his paintings of some of the Founding Fathers. He painted one of the best-known portraits of George Washington during the Revolutionary War.

Q: What are you working on now?


A: This year, I finished a science-related slice-of-life biography about a child who made an amazing discovery. I am also working on a manuscript I first wrote about five years ago, trying to figure out how best to make it work. I have other manuscripts that are in the beginning stages.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Behind the Bookcase: Miep Gies, Anne Frank and the Hiding Place, a nonfiction picture book biography about Miep Gies, who helped hide Anne Frank and saved her diary from the Nazis, will be released on Sept. 1.

I wrote a funny nonfiction picture book biography about the mischievous son of a famous family that will be released in the fall of 2021. The publisher has found an amazing well-known illustrator whose illustrations are extremely funny, the perfect pick for the book.

I love to write biographies where the main character is a child throughout the story. I first wrote Sybilla Under the Bones in 2006--the forerunner of My Mastodon. Around 2010, I attended a picture book workshop given by author and teacher Darcy Pattison. It was her workshop that turned the manuscript around.

It won the Katherine Patterson Prize at Hunger Mountain in 2012 for an unpublished picture book manuscript. Kathi Appelt, an author I admire, was the judge. It was a thrill that she picked my manuscript. The title was changed to My Mastodon once the manuscript was under contract.

Thank you so much for inviting me to be on your blog again! I enjoyed working with your thoughtful questions!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Barbara Lowell.

Q&A with Lori Alexander


Lori Alexander is the author of the new children's book A Sporting Chance: How Ludwig Guttmann Created the Paralympic Games. Her other books include All In a Drop and Famously Phoebe. She lives in Tucson, Arizona.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book about Ludwig Guttmann, the creator of the Paralympic Games?

A: My daughter was born with a condition called pseudoarthrosis. It affects the tibia in her left leg. We didn’t have a diagnosis until she was bearing weight as a newly walking toddler and her leg broke. The bone wouldn’t heal and after six months, her leg was still fractured.

In many cases, children with pseudoarthrosis undergo multiple surgeries in attempts to get the affected bone to heal. If the bone won’t fuse, amputation is the next course of action.

Although we’ve had some success with surgeries, bone grafts, rodding, and a leg brace, the amputation has always been in the back of our minds. We love to watch the Paralympics to show our daughter (now 13 years old) that legs aren’t required for gold medals. Success comes to those who work for it.

Q: What kind of research did you do to write the book, and what especially intrigued or surprised you in the course of your research?

A: There was very little written about Ludwig’s life for adult readers and zero books for children. I found one book for adults based on Ludwig’s unfinished autobiography, so that was a great primary source.

As a neurologist, Ludwig published much of his spinal injury research in various medical journals. Those articles gave me specific details and statistic about paraplegia. In addition, the International Paralympic Committee and Stoke Mandeville Hospital (where Ludwig worked) both have helpful websites with historical information.

What surprised me most while I was researching was the dismal survival rate for people with spinal injuries in the early 1900s. About 80 percent of paraplegic patients died, mostly from bladder infections and infections caused by bedsores from their full-body casts. Doctors gave these patients an unfortunate nickname: “incurables.”

But Ludwig wanted to make a difference. He removed casts and worked to get his patients sitting upright in bed. He brought in physical therapists and wheelchairs and gave his patients simple jobs to do.

He wanted these young men and women, many who were soldiers in WWII, to feel like part of society again. He had high expectations. When his patients believed simple tasks, like feeding and dressing themselves, were no longer possible, Ludwig encouraged them to try until they were successful.

Q: What do you see as Guttmann's legacy today, and what do you hope kids take away from the book?

A: One day, out on the hospital lawn, Ludwig caught a group of men in their wheelchairs using upside-down walking canes to hit a puck. It reminded him of polo without the horses. Ludwig began to wonder if sports could help with rehabilitation. He brought in equipment to teach his patients archery.

In 1948, he hosted a small archery competition between two hospitals. More sports and more participants joined each year. At first, people laughed at the idea. They told Ludwig that no one would watch his wheelchair games.

But that didn’t stop him. His small competition on the hospital lawn grew into Paralympic Games we know today. In 2016, more than 4,000 athletes competed in the summer Paralympics in Rio. The Games broke viewership records with a global television audience of more than 4.1 billion people!

As for young readers, there aren’t many books that feature people with disabilities. It’s important for kids with varying abilities to see themselves in books. And it’s important for all readers to be exposed to the themes of compassion, tenacity, and social justice that are woven throughout this story.

Q: The book includes brief sections on six athletes--how did you choose the people to feature?

A: There are so many amazing Paralympic athletes, it was tough to stop at six! But I had already gone above my wordcount in writing about Ludwig’s life, so my editor stopped me at the six “mini-bios” at the end.

We tried to feature both male and female athletes from various backgrounds/countries who each played a different sport. We ended up with a swimmer, a wheelchair marathoner, a hockey player, a basketball player, a wheelchair sprinter, and a downhill skier. Lots of gold medals won by this talented bunch!   

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a biography about another figure important to the history of medicine. This one hasn’t been announced yet so I won’t give away too many details. But it will be in a similar chapter book format, with lots of full-color illustrations, for grades 3-7.

In addition, I have a board book releasing in October from Scholastic (Future Doctor is the fourth book in the Future Baby series). I also have a picture book called Mini Mighty Sweeps, about a little street sweeper with a big job to do, coming from HarperCollins in 2022. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: A lot may change in the next few months but I’m really hoping my kids and husband will be able to go back to school/work this fall. I’m not getting nearly as much writing done with a full house! Of course, we will do what needs to be done to stay safe. I hope all of your readers are taking good care of themselves. Thanks for having me on your blog, Deborah!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Lori Alexander.

Q&A with Susan Sloan


Susan Sloan is the author of the new book A Seat at the Table: Women, Diplomacy, and Lessons for the World. She works for a global nonprofit advocacy organization, and she is based in Washington, D.C.

Q: You write, "This book was inspired by my frequent interactions with American and foreign diplomats in my position at a nonprofit advocacy organization." What about those interactions inspired you to write the book?


A: Hearing from international diplomats and leaders, I realized that many people around the world do not know the stories of women working in diplomacy or the systemic changes foreign ministries have taken for gender equality and parity. In the prologue, I describe a specific gala event that was the impetus of the book. You'll have to read it!

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


A: In addition to interviewing more than 30 ambassadors, foreign ministers, and government officials, I read numerous materials about diplomacy, gender, and inequalities. There are more than 90 citations in the book from studies, publications, and organizations showing analysis and data about these issues.

Some of the research is from the United Nations, Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations, Pew Research Center, and many others. 

Something that surprised me from the research is that data proves having women at the table is better for countries and organizations.

For instance, the participation of civil society groups, including women's organizations, makes a peace agreement 64 percent less likely to fail.

Looking at companies, those with the highest percentage of women in management are 47 percent more profitable than those with the lowest.

Yet, Pew Research Center reported that women made up only 36 percent of American ambassadors and 19 percent of U.K. ambassadors in 2016. To be successful and profitable, having women at the table is imperative. 

Q: The book's subtitle is "Women, Diplomacy, and Lessons for the World." What are some of the lessons you hope readers take away?

A: I hope the readers take away many lessons including looking around the table for diversity of gender, race, socioeconomic status, and religion.

In addition, chapters 15 and 16 provide concrete steps organizations can take to improve gender equality and parity in the workplace. My hope is that readers use these stories and research as their personal mentorship guide. If one person reads this book and makes positive changes in their organization regarding diversity of gender, the book will have been worth writing.

Q: How do you see the role of women diplomats changing in recent decades, and what do you see looking ahead?


A: The role of women diplomats has changed drastically in recent decades. Read Part 1 of the book where I explain the history and challenges of women rising in the ranks of leadership from language training to the infamous marriage rule.

Looking ahead, countries and organizations who have qualified women in management and leading in diplomacy will have lasting resolutions and results. We can see the benefits of having women at the table especially in Nordic countries, a few African nations, and Australia. The goal is for more countries to institute policies, targets, and system updates. The book has more details!

Q: What are you working on now?


A: Right now, I'm working on the virtual book tour as the pandemic has stopped in-person events. I'm on podcasts, writing guest article pieces, and interviewing on Zoom webinars. Check out my website to see the updates: www.susansloan.com.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: We all engage in a level of diplomacy in some shape or form.

As the former Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik mentioned to me, "Neither the private nor the public sector can afford to disregard 50 percent of its talent, energy, and experience." Gender equality, parity, and equity benefits all people no matter their gender. If we work together, we can see the positive results.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Gerard Koeppel


Gerard Koeppel, photo by Diane Connal

Q: You write, "This book began with an endnote." What first inspired you to write Not a Gentleman's Work?

A: I was thinking about writing a book having to do with Joshua Slocum, the first person to sail alone around the world, from 1895 to 1898.

Reading an annotated version of his 1900 book about the voyage, I paused on an endnote about Slocum’s description of his small sloop’s self-steering ability, a quality in larger ships that, Slocum wrote, had been at issue “in a famous murder trial in Boston, not long since.”

The endnote briefly explained Slocum’s reference to the trial of ship’s first mate Thomas Bram, his conviction, and his sentence “to life imprisonment at hard labor.”

A quick search for Bram online indicated that, in fact, he served only a short time in prison, was pardoned by President Wilson, returned to the sea as a successful captain of his own ship, and died peacefully at an old age. It seemed to me there was a story to tell.

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to recreate the book's events, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: The essential text to research this story is the 5,500 pages of trial testimony filling eight bound typescript volumes in the Harvard Law School library. There is also the extensive newspaper coverage—local, national, and international—but the trial testimony comes without editorial affect.

What especially surprised me in the trial transcripts—something that no newspaper writer covering Bram’s trial focused on—was how close Bram’s otherwise very skilled lawyers came to showing the most important witness against him to be a liar, before pulling back and moving on.

I found myself urging on the defense attorneys in their pointed questioning of the ship’s only passenger, the near-Brahmin Harvard dropout Lester Monks, and then left bewildered by their failure to ask the logical next questions that would exonerate Bram.

Q: The title comes from a quote from Crime and Punishment. Why did you choose that, and what does it signify for you?

A: The line comes near the end of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, as Raskolnikov approaches his moral rebirth, confronted by his fellow prisoners: “‘You’re a gentleman,’ they used to say. ‘You shouldn’t hack about with an axe; that’s not a gentleman’s work.’”

It struck me that the suggestion of ungentlemanly axe hacking could be applied in different ways to the two likeliest killers in my story. If Bram had done the killings, they would have been the work of someone who, as a mixed-race sailor, arguably wasn’t a gentleman. If Monks had done it, then he, arguably a gentleman, ought not to have.

For Monks, the killings would have been a moral failure; for Bram, the killings would merely have conformed to social expectation.

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

A: As with most murders in which the facts are not readily clear—from who did it to how and especially why it was done—it’s important to clear out your preconceptions. It was very easy in the 1890s to pin the killings on Thomas Bram; to pin them on Lester Monks would have upset social norms.

In following the lives of Bram and Monks to their deaths—Monks relatively young from alcohol, Bram during retired old age—the reader can see how decisions made in youth have effects for life. When considering the decisions of others, don’t accept what third parties have to say about them: make your own inquiries and reach your own conclusions.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: After three prior books on aspects of New York City history and this one venture to sea and Boston, it looks like I’m returning to Manhattan for a story about one of its streets, actually one block of one avenue, the history of which contains the long life of the city. That’s all I can say for now.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I think that’s it, other than my apologies to Bostonians if I got any details wrong. I’m well acquainted with boats and the ocean, so I think I got all the shipboard stuff right, but if I got anything Boston wrong, please understand that I’m from New York and do at least give me some credit for being a Mets fan and properly despising the Yankees. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 11

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
July 11, 1967: Jhumpa Lahiri born.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Q&A with Terri Libenson


Terri Libenson is the author of Becoming Brianna, the latest in her series of Emmie & Friends graphic novels for kids. The series also includes Just Jaime, Positively Izzy, and Invisible Emmie. She lives in Cleveland.


Q: Why did you decide to focus on Brianna's bat mitzvah in your new book?

A: Between the characters being the right age and my being Jewish, my mind automatically went there. All my family members have had bar or bat mitzvahs, so I had an abundance of inspirational material. Additionally, I think it’s a great way to add some cultural and religious diversity to the bookshelves.

Q: What was it like to return to Brianna's perspective a couple of books later? Do you think she's changed at all since Positively Izzy?

A: I really enjoyed returning to Bri and her family. I’ve grown to love and respect her personality. She’s a force to be reckoned with.

Becoming Brianna takes place over the course of eight months, so she goes through many changes. Changes in her belief system, friendships, family relationships, as well as her relationship with the “spotlight.”

Izzy takes place during one day in March, while Brianna concludes in June, so I think Bri has definitely grown as a person in the months between.

Q: The illustrations are filled with so many funny asides. Do you go back and add things in, or do most of your ideas come to you as you're making your initial drawings?

A: Definitely both. When writing the initial manuscript, I’ll insert ideas or rough art for the illustrations, but I usually refine or tweak them later on. Sometimes many times over. Often I’ll get better ideas as I edit the book.

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

A: I hope anyone having (or had) a bar or bat mitzvah feels this is helpful and relatable, and I hope kids who aren’t Jewish really enjoy learning about the process. Mainly, I hope they find Brianna inspiring and funny. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m doing many things at once. I’m writing book five in the Emmie & Friends series (out next May) and I’m starting to look at picture books (for younger kids) to get inspired to do one myself! 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Sure. I have another book coming out this fall: a guided journal and activity book that’s part of the Emmie & Friends series, called You-niquely You. I had a blast creating it. You can pre-order it here.

Also, I have lots of new and fun info on my website, including games, videos, FAQ, and writing tips. I hope everyone gets a chance to check it out!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Terri Libenson.

Q&A with Suzanne Del Rizzo and Miki Sato


Suzanne Del Rizzo
Suzanne Del Rizzo is the author and Miki Sato is the illustrator of the new children's picture book Golden Threads.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Golden Threads, and why did you decide to focus on the Japanese art form of kintsugi in the book?

SDR: Thanks so much for the opportunity to chat about Golden Threads, Deborah!  

Golden Threads was inspired by one of my children’s stuffies, named Puppy, who you can see beside my author blurb in our book. As with many children’s beloved stuffies, they are wonderful sidekicks, best buds, snugglers, and confidants.

Over the years I would mend Puppy with colourful embroidery thread, as the most “loved up” parts, like his foot or back would become worn bare and often start to fray.

At that time, I wasn’t aware of the art form of kintsugi but I think I was considering something like it subconsciously as I wanted to highlight and celebrate the repair as it was a reminder and celebration highlighting the love and adventures Puppy and my son had encountered.

I came across kintsugi (and the wabi-sabi philosophy) one day and was totally captivated. I loved everything about it and it resonated deeply with me. It made me think immediately of Puppy, and I knew it was the wee spark of a book idea to explore further.

Also, with the "throw away" epidemic of today’s society, I think picture books with gentle themes touching on meaningful connection, finding beauty and happiness in the imperfect, kindness and resilience are needed more than ever.

Miki Sato
Q: In creating the illustrations, were you influenced by the kintsugi concept, and if so, how?

MS: I wasn't directly influenced by the concept of kintsugi per se, but the philosophy of wabi-sabi is definitely something that I should consider more often when working on my illustrations.

I can be a bit of a perfectionist, but because I work with all types of materials that each have their own quirks and limitations, there will always be some flaws.

Wabi-sabi is about accepting transience and imperfections, so coming to terms with that would allow me to not get so wound up about seeking perfection in my work. It will hopefully let the characteristics of the materials shine through instead.

Q: Why did you decide to tell the story from the fox's perspective?

SDR: I think any child who has a stuffy feel that they have a personality, a life, and voice, so I wanted to pay tribute to that.

Also, I felt the story was most powerfully told through the Fox’s POV, because Fox was the one who was lost and went on this incredible journey of both physical separation (being lost and found), but also of friendship, self-discovery, self-love, resilience, and healing. I think we all, especially children, can all relate and connect with Fox’s story, as it is universal.

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

SDR: I hope this book reminds kids how powerful they are, that they too (and their stuffies) are capable of gentle kindness, inner strength, resilience, love, and should always search for the beauty in the world, and within ourselves.  

We all have struggles, but if we embrace our golden seams, pick ourselves back up, these experiences will make us stronger, unique and more beautiful.

MS: I'd like readers to embrace the idea that everyone is perfectly imperfect. People are made up of both good and bad experiences, and that is what makes us who we are. Any perceived flaw that someone may have about themselves does not diminish their worth, and it is important to be kind to yourself through self-love and acceptance.

Q: What are you working on now?

SDR: With the Covid pandemic, a family member’s illness, and my four children home doing on-line learning, it’s been a challenging time, but I have a few new things I am working on, and also experimenting with new illustration directions.

MS: Recently, I finished illustrating my second children's book. It's called Snow Days, written by Deborah Kerbel, and is coming November 2020 from Pajama Press. It's full of fun winter scenes and children enjoying all the different kinds of snow!

Q: Anything else we should know?

SDR: This is the first picture book I wrote and did not illustrate. The fabulous Karen Li suggested Miki illustrate, and I am so thrilled she did! I was blown away by Miki’s gorgeous cut paper and thread illustrations and the “unique take” Miki brought to this project. Thanks Miki!

MS: There will always come a time when something you love either breaks, or has reached the end of its usefulness to you. When it does, please consider giving the object a second life by repairing it, or by giving it to someone else who would love it all the same.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Suzanne Del Rizzo.

Q&A with John "Gene" E. Dawson


Gene Dawson, photo by Geoff Story
John "Gene" E. Dawson is the author of the new memoir Farm Boy, City Girl: From Gene to Miss Gina. He lives in the St. Louis area.

Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir, and how long did it take you to write?

A: I had so much encouragement from many friends and relatives. A lot of people said they were interested in the family stories I had told through the years. Since I am the oldest child on both sides of my family, I knew my aunts and uncles longer than the rest of my cousins.

My cousin Judy Hilleman really wanted me to do it—she even offered to send me a tape recorder to get my memories recorded. I don’t use a computer. My good friend Lana James from Millersburg (Iowa) was very encouraging, too.

So in the winter of 2003 to 2004, I started writing by hand. Sometimes I would get the writing bug and sit up and write for a few hours, usually during the night. During that winter, I wrote about my childhood through age 28 (1959).

I would send copies of the handwritten pages to cousin Judy, who typed them out. During this time, my sister-in-law Geneva Dawson also scanned many of my photos from those early years. After they were both done, I took the typed copy with the photos to Kinko’s and had it spiral-bound. I had enough printed for family and friends.

I don’t think I ever considered getting it published then; I was just writing a summary for my friends and relatives. I also didn’t want to offend anyone with anything I wrote. Sometime after that, I told my niece Tammy Bonnicksen, since she is an editor, that she could try to get it published after I passed to make sure I wasn’t here if I did offend someone!

But people kept asking about the rest of my life, wanting to know what happened after 1959. So 10 years later, in 2014, I started again and wrote a few hours at a time. After I would write some pages, I would send them to my friends Twila Gerard and Shelly Gerard, and they would type them. When they were all done, I again went to Kinko’s and had the new section printed in spiral-bound form.

Since that time, my life has changed a lot. My health declined, and I almost died in August 2018. Thank God for supplemental oxygen! I was told then I would not be going back to my own home again, and I have lived in an assisted-living facility since.

It was after I sold my house early in 2019 that things came together that led me to being confident enough to get the book published while I was still on this earth.

My Realtor introduced me to Geoff Story, who is making a documentary, Gay Home Movie, and Geoff invited me to be part of his project. Then early last summer, Geoff and I were interviewed for The New York Times.

When I had my picture and quotes in the Times (“L.G.B.T.Q. in the Midwest,” which was in the June 23, 2019, print edition), I felt I was speaking for the Midwest LGBTQ community so I thought I might as well tell my complete story.

So I decided that I wanted to see the book completed before I was gone. Tammy and I agreed to publish on Amazon and not try to find a publisher—the goal being that I would still be around when it came out! And so she got it all in chronological order for me, proofread it and hired a graphic designer. What resulted was the book.

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

A: It just came to my head. It just did. The title really relates that it is the story of my life. I did go through stages from being a farm boy, and then to the tragedy—the death of my mother—and the transition part. Then finally, the third part of the book is about my life as a “city girl.”

When I had the two sections printed at Kinko’s, “Memories” (volumes one and two) was the title. But then I thought that anybody could just write “memories.” That was such a bland title. But since then, I kind of decided that—and have been told—that I am not bland.

Q: Your family features prominently in the memoir—have many of your relatives read the book, and what do they think of it?

A: Well, I would say the majority of my first cousins have read it. I wrote about all of my 23 aunts and uncles in the book, so the cousins do like reading about them. I have had many calls from my cousins and other relatives after they have read it, and their responses have all been positive.

There’s only one close relative who hasn’t read it and that’s my brother Bernie. I didn’t think he’d read it because he just can’t imagine his oldest brother being gay, leading a life like I did. I did send a copy of the book to him after I told him he would like the chapters about the 1930s and 1940s. He is a wonderful brother and we talk about every other day, but he just can’t quite handle that part of my life.

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

A: That life for gay people keeps improving, and you can be yourself. Always be yourself. Don’t be afraid of anything, and don’t live in fear. We gays are just like everybody else—no better, no worse. We are your brothers and sisters.

Accept others as they are. Don’t ever try to tell anybody how to live. Just encourage everyone to be the best they can in every way and do the same for yourself.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Keeping alive! Since I’m 89, I’m trying to stay as healthy as I can from day to day. I have joked that I would write a sequel when I turn 95, but I might have to take that back.

I also have been newly back in touch with some of my cousins, and it certainly has been wonderful to talk to them. Since I live in an assisted-living facility, I haven’t been able to see anyone from outside since coronavirus restrictions began. So I haven’t seen any of my brothers, other relatives or friends since the book came out.

Thank God for the phone. I don’t do texting and all that stuff.

Thank God too for the staff at my facility. They are super. They have been very supportive of the book—every one of them.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I have always liked biographies better than fiction, so that’s another reason I wanted to get my story out. Truth is stranger than fiction.

The book is honest. It all really happened, and it’s not a figment of somebody’s mind. My “Iowa-innocent,” Great Depression, poverty-stricken childhood was quite different from my not-so-innocent “City Girl” days. There’s quite a bit of Catholic guilt in there, too. But I got through it.

It’s just the story of my life and the various phases I went through. I had to be so secretive and lead a double life. Finally, I got to the point where I don’t have to lead a double life anymore. After 89 years!

I told everything like it was. I didn’t cover up anything including some things that perhaps didn’t put me in a flattering light. Some people have told me that there is quite a bit of drama in the book. I didn’t really realize that my experiences were more dramatic than a lot of people’s, but when I look back now, I think those readers might be right!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 10

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
July 10, 1931: Alice Munro born.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Q&A with Mary Simses


Mary Simses, photo by Capehart Photography
Mary Simses is the author of the new novel The Wedding Thief. She also has written the novels The Rules of Love & Grammar and The Irresistible Blueberry Bakeshop & Cafe. She lives in South Florida.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Wedding Thief and for your character Sara?

A: Ideas for my novels seem to come to me in bits and pieces over time. I don’t necessarily recognize the “bits” as story generators when they happen, but I remember them later.

I think the main idea for The Wedding Thief came from an event I attended where there was a little box at each guest’s seat at the table and inside were slips of paper with questions printed on them – conversation starters. The slip I pulled out asked, “Would you rather be the smartest person in the room or the best looking?”

I thought it was an interesting question, although I didn’t immediately think, Oh, I should write a book about this. In fact, it wasn’t until quite a while later that I decided to use it as the springboard for a novel.

Over time, things began to push me in the direction of sibling rivalry, including discussions with friends who have had difficult relationships with their sisters. Being an only child, the whole idea of siblings is something I’ve always been interested in. Somehow, it all came together.

When I started writing The Wedding Thief, I knew I wanted Sara to be an event planner because that would tie into the plan she concocts. And I wanted her to be the “smart” one who didn’t get the guy and would now be going after him in round two, against her sister. That was my main thought.

When I got further into the writing, Sara became a woman who believed she could accomplish anything and could handle any problem. This came from her years of experience working on events, where things go wrong all the time and the people handling them have to think on their feet and fix them a hurry.

Q: How would you describe the relationship between Sara and her sister, Mariel?

A: Ah, well, for a start I’d say it’s fraught with difficulty. Sara thinks Mariel has always gotten all the breaks because she’s beautiful. She thinks their mother favors Mariel and that their mother’s habit of continually coming to Mariel’s aid, financially and otherwise, has contribute to her “failure to launch.” In short, she resents her sister.

Mariel, on the other hand, thinks Sara is too critical of her, that Sara wrongly assumes she knows best about how everyone else’s life should be run, and that she doesn’t understand who Mariel really is. They have a lot to learn about one another.

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

A: I definitely made changes along the way. I had a few different ideas for the ending and I went around and around on them. Each idea would have required that certain plot points be set up along the way, which would have taken the book in slightly different directions. So I had to balance the endings with what I wanted to happen as the book went along.

I also had to decide what kind of people I wanted the characters to be by the end.

Q: Do you have any favorite books or movies about weddings?

A: I love movies and I’m a sucker for a good romantic comedy. Some of my favorite rom-coms about weddings are The Philadelphia Story, the 1991 version of Father of the Bride, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, The Birdcage, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Meet the Parents, Mamma Mia! and Bridesmaids.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve just begun another novel with, again, a woman protagonist. As usual, there will be drama and humor. I hope my readers will enjoy it when it’s done.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Well, let’s see. If you’re looking for a “true confession,” I’m a terrible dancer. I step on my husband’s feet. He’s used to it by now, but I know it’s inconvenient. I’ve always fantasized about being one of those people who goes onto the dance floor at a wedding and the crowd just steps back and watches because I’m so good. I’d need years of lessons. So far, it hasn’t happened.

When I was a kid, my best friend and I wanted to be detectives. We read all the Nancy Drew books, donned our detective attire (raincoats and handbags with magnifying glasses in them) on the hottest of summer days, and went searching through our Connecticut neighborhood for mysteries.

We never found any, but that didn’t stop us from making up stories about the people on our street and pretending they were involved in nefarious activities. Even then, I could spin a good tale.

In case anyone’s interested in pets, we have two cats. One is a female Siamese named Blossom and the other is a male Tonkinese named Cinnamon.

Cinnamon thinks he’s my assistant. He likes to keep me company when I’m working, which is great. But he has a habit of wanting to fall asleep on my laptop keyboard. He also insists he wrote The Wedding Thief, which of course is ridiculous. He’s not that good a typist.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Mary Simses.