Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Q&A with Marie Mutsuki Mockett


Marie Mutsuki Mockett is the author of the new book American Harvest: God, Country, and Farming in the Heartland. She also has written the memoir Where the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye and the novel Picking Bones from Ash. She lives in San Francisco.

Q: Why did you decide to write American Harvest?

A: I recount a little bit of the genesis of American Harvest in the book. Basically, I went back to harvest with my father around 15 years ago. We were sitting in the bunkhouse together (a temporary living unit inside a Quonset hut set up to accommodate farmers and harvesters). 

I was living in New York City at the time, and buying my fruits and vegetables and meat from the farmer's market in Union Square. There were many reasons I did this--often the produce tasted better and I'm from California and accustomed to fresh produce. I also liked the ritual of buying from a farmer.

I told my father what I was doing, though, and he was not terribly impressed. He seemed to think that this was very "city" of me, and I wondered at his lack of enthusiasm.

At the same time, when I told friends in New York that I had gone to Nebraska for the harvest, they were intrigued and sometimes perplexed. But the question they most often asked me was: "Is your farm organic?" 

I started to wonder about all these disconnects. Our farmers were by and large Christian, though I did not know what this meant or what kind of Christians they were. My friends in the city were mostly atheists.

My family was very open about GMOs and my friends in the city were flocking to farmers markets, as I was, and Whole Foods to buy organic food--something my father had always lightly mocked. And I just wondered what accounted for these differing attitudes toward food, farm and religion.

Then it occurred to me that I knew very few books that investigated modern farming. I thought farming--the people, the equipment--were fascinating and wanted to bring them to life. 

Q: How would you describe the dynamic between you and Eric Wolgemuth, who is featured in the book?

A: Eric is a wonderful family friend and all around impressive human being. He has a huge capacity to open his heart and share what he knows with other people.

I am incredibly fortunate he trusted me enough to share his world, so I could spend time with the many farmers he knows and invite readers to spend time with them too. Many of us have roots in the farming world but have lost that connection.

While my story and experiences are subjective, I hope that readers have a chance, through Eric, to get to know a bit about the farming world.

Q: Given the current political polarization in this country, what do you see looking ahead when it comes to understanding people who don't share your point of view?

A: The problems in our country are very deep. Some of the problems in communication that are addressed in the book also exist around the world--as countries modernize, for example, people go to cities to look for work and fewer people run farms.

On the other hand, people all around the world still need to eat. And the question of finding enough arable land to feed a growing population, while preserving soil health and the environment, is a problem that will require us all to recognize our interdependence.

My hope at this point is that my book will help to start a conversation. I am not a pundit or a politician or an expert; but I hope I have shared what I have seen, so others who don't know about farming can have at least my own subjective experience.

I am also trying very hard to examine what biases I might have that are not helpful and to share my thoughts on these. I am trying, as they say, to take responsibility for what I can control, which is my own point of view. 

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

A: I hope they will have a greater love for the beauty of our country--I certainly did and do and I miss the plains and the sunsets and the sky.

I hope they will understand how hard men and women work to grow and raise our food. I hope readers will understand how hard such work is and that there is much to admire in this kind of work. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Creatively, I hope to write a bit more about Japan--my first two books were about Japan. I also am returning to a novel I had started back in 2011.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I am grateful to share my journey through the heartland with readers. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Marie Mutsuki Mockett.

Q&A with Michael McAuliffe


Michael McAuliffe, photo by Sydney McAuliffe
Michael McAuliffe is the author of the new novel No Truth Left to Tell. He is an attorney, and has worked at the U.S. Department of Justice and as state attorney for Palm Beach County. He lives in Florida and Massachusetts.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for No Truth Left to Tell, and for your character Adrien Rush?

A: My first job in the law was as a federal civil rights prosecutor at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.

As attorneys in the Criminal Section of the Civil Rights Division at Justice, we were responsible for investigating and prosecuting matters involving hate crimes, police misconduct, and involuntary servitude (now more commonly known as human trafficking).

While at the Justice Department, I did prosecute a large case against the Ku Klux Klan in Louisiana, and those experiences informed the novel.

While my work as a federal prosecutor–– including spending time with survivors of hate-based violence––motivated me to write about the Klan, it took almost 30 years to accomplish the goal. Hopefully, the book is an example of better late than never.

I struggled with the novel’s early drafts because of my actual experiences with fighting the Klan. I wanted to write a novel, not a memoir, and I was too concerned with fidelity to the facts as I remembered them to write anything that approached compelling fiction.

I eventually allowed myself the freedom to create the novel’s world and its characters. That’s when the story emerged, much like a gardener who realizes that spring’s wildflowers outside the tended box are as, or more, beautiful than what’s inside.

Adrien Rush is the result of imagining an ambitious, well-meaning lawyer who wants to help save the world and be universally recognized for it. Both goals are exaggerated, but real for many people––including myself.

Rush is complicated. He’s humbled by events. He grows through the novel. He starts out as an everyman type, but he keeps trying to distinguish himself by doing good.

Along the way, his motivation moves from seeking the approval of others to something deeper and more meaningful. There’s a high cost that accompanies his personal growth, and much of that cost is borne by others.

Q: The novel takes place in Louisiana--how important is setting to you in your writing?

A: Lynwood, Louisiana is an important character in the story. The town, however imperfect and at times embarrassingly lethargic in its habits, is home to the Klansmen and the victims of the Klan’s hateful acts. They all claim the town, or a piece of it, for themselves.

As a result, Lynwood is more than a place, it’s a reflection of both the good and the bad instincts of the people in the novel.

I wanted the story to pay close attention to the complicated nature of the Deep South with its cultural norms and diverse inhabitants. Lynwood’s changing, but change often proves to be a long struggle and not a clear pivot. For me, Lynwood exists even though the town is fictional.

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

A: I knew the novel’s basic conflict is between the violent white extremists and the majority of the community, but I didn’t know when I started how the criminal case would end. That is, I knew how the trial ended, but not the overall effort to hold the Klan leader accountable for the hurt and violence he inflicts.

I also made changes to the fates of certain characters as I became better acquainted with their world. However, I always knew that Nettie Wynn would play a central role in the story, and that she would guide, in some manner, the story to its conclusion.

I had the last sentence of the novel tucked away in the early drafts, just waiting for the right way to use it.

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

A: One of the novel’s messages is that we all struggle is to find our places in the world. Some do it with open minds and hearts. Others struggle and grow resentful and small in the process. Most of us fall somewhere in between. Where we ultimately land is important and is the novel’s story.

I also found comfort in the message that special expertise or knowledge can’t address a moral issue––basic goodness and generosity are what’s needed.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am writing a follow-up novel in which Adrien Rush, the protagonist in No Truth Left To Tell, must battle a vast, secretive cabal of human traffickers.

Rush finds himself overmatched by the violence and sophistication of the traffickers. The victims suffer in silence as they are moved around and abused beneath the veneer of gentility in small town America. Rush has to grow up and get tough to save them.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: One of my personal insights as a debut novelist (and aspiring repeat performer) is that there is a special joy in sharing written stories. The connections made between authors and readers are real and can help bind us together in ways that verbal exchanges do not, and cannot, match.

Maybe it’s because, with written word, one can go back with as much particularity as one needs to relive or reimagine the moment. I am in awe of the force of emotion that accompanies reading a story on a page and holding the words tight, at least for a time.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 8

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
April 8, 1955: Barbara Kingsolver born.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Q&A with Mari Coates


Mari Coates is the author of the new novel The Pelton Papers. She was a senior editor at the University of California Press, and her work has appeared in HLLQ and Eclipse. She lives in San Francisco.

Q: Why did you decide to write a novel based on the life of artist Agnes Pelton (1881-1961)?

A: I was interested in Agnes Pelton because I grew up with some of her paintings—the more conservative, realistic ones. My grandparents were friends of hers, and she was a presence in our house with the portraits they commissioned of their family and a couple of lovely landscapes.

Years later, after I moved to San Francisco, I learned that Agnes had also painted abstracts. A retrospective exhibit, the first major curated study of her art, was taking place just across the bay.

When I saw those pictures—spiritual expressions, which are brilliantly colored, astoundingly complex, and luminous—I was stunned. They were so different from the work I knew! I was enthralled and wanted to know everything about her.

Once I started reading the exhibition catalog—Agnes Pelton: Poet of Nature, a succinct and masterful rendering of her life and work by curator Michael Zakian—I was amazed at who she was and how difficult it must have been for her to make a life in art.

I was very moved, awestruck actually, at her persistence in spite of a difficult family history, her delicate health, crippling shyness, and constant worries about money.

Dr. Zakian’s account intrigued me greatly, being laced with phrases like, “We don’t know if she ever met Georgia O’Keeffe” and “We don’t know if she ever had a romantic relationship.” I had thought about writing a biography but instead felt invited to fill in those blanks by writing a novel.

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

A: A lot, and yes! Once I had read the catalogue, I had a great starting point: the Beecher-Tilton scandal of the 1870s. The charismatic preacher Henry Ward Beecher had seduced Agnes’s grandmother, Elizabeth Tilton, which led to a lawsuit and then a long, much publicized trial.

Family trauma does not end with the deaths of the participants, and in Agnes’s case, the Beecher-Tilton scandal cast an enormous shadow over her life and career.

Agnes has stated in writing that she never read the transcript of the trial in which her grandmother, out of embarrassment, recanted her confession that she had had an affair with Beecher. Beecher was exonerated and the Tiltons were ruined.

 knew that my family’s connection to Elizabeth, Agnes’s mother Florence, and Agnes herself was via membership in a religious sect called the Plymouth Brethren.

I was tremendously moved to read about Elizabeth, a shy, deeply religious woman who had been excommunicated from Beecher’s church and welcomed by the Brethren.

Growing up hearing about (but not being part of) the Brethren, I thought of them as cold and dogmatic and exclusionary, which I suppose some of them are. But at least one of the groups welcomed Elizabeth and gave her a spiritual home.

My grandparents were part of that group, and their friendship with Elizabeth, Florence, and Agnes continued until Agnes’s death.

Q: What did you see as the right blend between the actual history and your own fictional creations?

A: There is so much to Agnes’s story. Her life is a kind of template for the progress of modernism in America, and I was very interested in following that. But there were so many people who were important to her that I had to narrow the factual focus and keep the crowd down to a minimum.

I tried to stay very true to the facts of Agnes’s life as I was learning them. Agnes herself arrived as a clear voice early on, and I didn’t dare read her actual words and letters and journals until I had established the fictional voice.

Then I thought, if I’ve got it wrong, I will change her name and continue as purely fictional. But when I did read her papers (available through the Smithsonian Archive of American Art) I saw that I had it right, that it was seamless. Which made me feel that Agnes herself was having her say. 

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

A: I hope readers find in the novel a place of serenity and calm, from which they can venture to make whatever art they would like. Painting, or writing, or dancing, or just enjoying the solitude of a spring day.

I hope they admire, as I do, the uncommon fortitude of this woman who had every reason to fall victim to discouragement but who instead created a glorious and colorful world of visions for us to enter and be refreshed by. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I became very enamored and admiring of Agnes’s mother Florence, and so I am setting out to tell her story. She was the oldest of the Tilton children, and it was she who told her father, Theodore Tilton (a man given to wild mood swings and occasional violence), that she had seen Beecher and her mother together.

She was a young woman at the time of the trial and was sent to Europe to continue her music studies where she met and married Agnes’s father, William Pelton. He was also an American expat, like her own father moody and often ill, and who overdosed on morphine when Agnes was 10.

So, I am very interested in Florence, who met life squarely and courageously, supported her mother and her daughter by teaching music, and who truly set Agnes on her artistic path.  

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Let me just add that while the book is fiction, it is as emotionally true as I could make it.

Some will be offended by the choices I made, suggesting that Agnes Pelton had romantic attachments to women. But the source of this is factual and came from Agnes’s own words. For me it was a deep desire that she should know love.

But to be clear, there is nothing in the historical record to substantiate the suggestion that she was gay or straight.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Tracy Wolff


Tracy Wolff, photo by Mayra K. Calderon
Tracy Wolff is the author of the new young adult novel Crave, the first in a series. She has written more than 50 novels, and she is based in Texas.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Crave, and for your character Grace?

A: I never figured I’d write a vampire series because I didn’t want to even attempt it unless I thought I had an original take on vamps.

But when Jaxon’s world came to me (much of which will be revealed in books two and three of the series), I knew I had something a little different and that I wanted to run with it. And since I am blessed to have a publisher who is determined to bring vampires back, I got lucky enough to be able to write Crave.

Then Grace and Flint started talking to me in the back of my head and the story just kind of poured out.

As for coming up with Grace, she just started talking to me one day as I was thinking about who I wanted my heroine for this book to be. I didn’t know much about her, but she just had this witty, slightly sarcastic voice that hooked me the second I started to write her.

And, if I’m honest, I have to admit there’s a lot of me in Grace, probably more so than with any other character I’ve ever written—life experience (though I’ve never dated a hot vampire, sadly) and attitude and her unwillingness to give in to the bad things that have happened to her.

Q: What do you think fascinates people about vampires, and what first got you interested in them?

A: I’ve always, always, always loved vampires. I think The Lost Boys got me hooked when I was a kid, and I’ve never really looked back. Dracula, The Black Dagger Brotherhood, The Carpathians, The Farm, Twilight, Morganville Vampires … I’m here for all of them.

As for what fascinates people, I don’t know. I think it’s a little different for everyone. I think part of it is immortality, obviously—this idea that we can “die” and then live again, forever, with a little something extra. It takes away the fear of death, even as vampires to deal in death.

Which is a second thing I think we find so fascinating—in a lot of mythologies, vampires are pure Id. They get to do what they want, when they want, and no one can stop them.

Even though most of us don’t believe that’s okay, nor do we want to act like that in real life, there’s something kind of thrilling about the idea of that kind of power. 

And finally, people have an interest in the macabre, the supernatural, the gothic. It dies out for a while, but every decade or so it comes back around and I definitely think we’re at the beginning of that cycle.

Q: You've written many novels across a variety of genres--do you have a favorite?

A: I actually love YA. Paranormal, romance, action adventure, or all three, like in Crave. I love writing teen characters as they face difficult dilemmas, often for the first time. What does that look like for them, how does it feel, how does it change them, what does love/hate/fear/betrayal/happiness look like at 17?

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

A: I want people to take away the idea that courage comes in all kinds of forms. And that even though life knocks you down sometimes, you can still be strong and powerful and kind.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Actually, I’m currently working on Crush, which is the second book in the Crave series. Diving back into Jaxon and Grace’s story has been a lot of fun—and so rewarding as I get to delve deeper into the storyline and their world.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Alison Hammer


Alison Hammer is the author of the new novel You and Me and Us. She is a VP creative director at the marketing agency FCB Chicago, and she lives in Chicago.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for You and Me and Us, and for your characters Alexis, Tommy, and CeCe?

A: While You and Me and Us is my debut novel, it’s not the first book I wrote. The first book, which is currently hiding away in a drawer, also featured Tommy and Alexis—just 15 years earlier.

At the end of that first book, I knew a secret that Alexis didn’t even know—she was pregnant. And just like that, the idea for You and Me and Us was born.

I thought it would be interesting to show Alexis with a 12-year-old daughter, the same age she’d been in flashback scenes throughout the first book. But that was all I had, and I knew I needed something more to make it a story.

When I realized Tommy was sick, the story pretty much unfolded before me. The bones of it, at least. It went through many drafts and the story got so much stronger with the help of my amazing beta readers, critique partner, agent and editor.

Q: The novel is set primarily at a beach in Florida. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: Setting is not my strongest point as an author. As a reader, I tend to quickly skim sections where there’s a lot of physical description, so I usually keep the setting relatively brief and high-level in my books.

But as a place itself, I’ve always been drawn to the beach and the ocean. And Destin is one of the most beautiful beaches in the country with its white sand and emerald green water. It also happens to be the town where my dad and sister live!

I’ve been fortunate to spend a lot of time there over the years, so it seemed like a natural place for Tommy and Alexis to spend their final days together.

Q: Did you write the story in the order in which it appears, or did you focus more on one character before turning to the other's point of view?

A: Good question! I’m a pretty linear writer, so I wrote the story from start to finish. I wrote the first draft during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), an organization that challenges people around the world to write 50,000 words in the month of November.

Since there’s a focus on word count versus quality, I was writing to get the story down, and not worrying quite as much about crafting individual sentences. That part came later!

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

A: I had a general idea of how the book would end, but I always allow a little bit of room for the characters to surprise me. Some of my favorite scenes in the book weren’t planned in the beginning. (I don’t want to ruin it for anyone who hasn’t read it yet—but the surprise Lexie planned was all her idea!) 

This book was two years in the making, so there were a lot of small changes along the way thanks to the help of beta readers, my amazing critique partner, my agent and my editor.

One of the other big-ish changes from the first draft was CeCe’s age. In the first draft, she was 12—but several early readers told me that was too young for a girl to be drinking beer and kissing boys!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: At the moment, I’m working on edits for my second book, Little Pieces of Me, which is coming out next spring. It’s about a woman in her 40s who finds out through an online DNA test that the father she adored wasn’t her biological father.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Hmm. Nothing I can think of! Thank you for the opportunity to answer a few questions. Having a book out in the world is a dream come, and one of my favorite things about it is connected with readers and fellow book lovers! 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 7

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
April 7, 1770: William Wordsworth born.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Q&A with Tom Schamp


Tom Schamp is the author/illustrator of the new children's picture book It's a Great Big Colorful World. His other books include Show & Tell Me the World and Otto in the City. He is based in Brussels.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for It's a Great Big Colorful World?

A: I’ve been a full-time illustrator (over here in Europe) for almost 30 years and gradually color probably became one of the most distinct features of my artwork. For the last 15 years people and reviews often referred to it, while I actually didn’t have a clue why.

So after making a picture dictionary in 2015 (Show & Tell Me the World in English by Little Gestalten, 2016) in which I tried to create some order in this world’s chaos, I thought I could also try to arrange the world by color and its origins.

Otto, the little grey cat, had been the main character in at least eight previous books and I liked the idea of starting from grey to visit all colors of the rainbow. The fact that color is such a universal thing would otto-matically lead him to some kind of journey around the world without trying to tell one linear story.

Q: How did you choose the various things to illustrate for each color? Did you need to do any research?

A: Unlike most books in this genre, this one’s no teamwork at all - apart for the cutting of images and the printing part - and I must admit I’m not a real researcher either… I rather honour Picasso’s - slightly hubristic - adage, "Je ne cherche pas, je trouve" (I don’t seek, I find).

To me creating comes down to the simple stream of consciousness of an artisan while painting, one thing really leading to another (that’s where the “train of thoughts” on the content pages at the end comes from).

I know my choices might be highly personal, but I think by being as open as possible to all influences and levels in society, which leaves enough common ground for a 50 year old from Belgium and a 6 year old from China to meet one another (as probably proven by the number of translations from all over).

And of course, I know that a lot of puns and stuff will go by undetected, but no one ever died of an overdose of aesthetically arranged information (contrary to the worldwide internet).

Q: What do you hope kids (and adults) take away from the book?

A: I haven’t got such high hopes apart from wanting them to have a good time sharing things. I generally address children who might still need (a little) help for reading from an adult. And generally these young children are better viewers then we are (since they can’t depend yet on what’s written under or above things).

I have the best memories of sharing books with our two sons at that age. I’m thinking of a cocktail party where kids bring the eyes and grown-ups the knowledge.

It’s not my goal to teach anyone anything, but I’m trying to show numerous links between every field of society and different cultures. Bringing everything together from high to low culture on simple spreads might show children how everything’s interwoven and help them look with open eyes to the world surrounding us.

Q: Who are some of your favorite author/illustrators?

A: No need to hide my love for Richard Scarry, I guess. I remember his books from when I was a kid and from reading with our kids.

I love his anthropomorphic style and overview and in some way this book and its predecessor are his Busy Town 2.0 with a world that has changed over the past 50 years (with more color, more active women, more pop culture, another relationship between humans and animals, etc.).

Another major influence in my drawing and view on the world has been Miroslav Sasek with his famous city books from the ‘60s. And as a Belgian I’m of course a life-long fan of Hergé. Even after dropping the black line for years while drawing, I still try to think the way he did, like a little observant Boy Scout.

The little grey cat in an exuberant world of colors is probably a bit like Tintin amongst all these much more colorful characters throughout his adventures all over the world.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I must admit that for the first time in 20 years this is probably going to be a year without  a new book.

I’ve just received my latest one in Dutch (Waar is Iedereen? / Where is Everyone? Lannoo 2020), a smaller and simple fold out / pop up book for young toddlers which is in some ways the opposite of the great big world and I’m currently working for strictly commercial but equally artistically interesting projects in Japan and France.

Instead of heading head over heels to a third part in my more encyclopaedic books, I know it’s better now to get inspired by other commissions (being forced to paint stuff I’d never come up with) and then gradually find another interesting entrance to the book world again.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Not really. Below are some images from a PowerPoint presentation of the work in progress. Showing what the painting process actually looks like…With a lot of thoughts and quotes in different languages that don’t make it to the actual book. If necessary I can always provide some more “illustrative” materials.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 6

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
April 6, 1966: Vince Flynn born.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Q&A with Mary O'Hara


Mary O'Hara is the author of the new book The Shame Game: Overturning the Toxic Poverty Narrative. A journalist focusing on social policy and social justice, she is based in Los Angeles.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book about poverty?

A: The book was born out of a wider project I founded call Project Twist-It,  a multi-platform initiative to challenge the dominant narrative around poverty and to elevate the voices of people in poverty – who are usually marginalised, silenced and excluded.

I myself grew up in poverty and have been writing on this subject for many years, along with inequality and other inter-related social issues.

Q: You write that "every single day, people all over the US and the UK live with the gross injustice that is being poor and with the humiliation of being blamed for circumstances beyond their control. It doesn't have to be this way." How do you think the situation can change?

A: As outlined in the book and in Project Twist-It, this is a huge question that requires a multi-tiered approach across politics, society and the media and culture.

What I’m trying to do is A/ point out that vital role of the narrative in entrenching poverty and B/ argue that constructing an alternative narrative – a fact-based reality that harnesses the voices, experiences and insights of those with lived experience – is essential if we are to fight the scourge of poverty.

This means find a new story – a new way – to talk about poverty to build support for positive policy change.

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

A: That to be poor is not the fault of the individual
That poverty can happen to anyone
That we can change the way we think and talk about poverty
That we can eradicate poverty and end the shame and stigma people endure

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am currently working on an article about the impact of Coronavirus on child poverty and am also working on updating the UK Samaritans’ media guidelines for journalists reporting on suicide and self-harm.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: If about me: I’m an author, journalist, Fulbright scholar and I grew up in poverty in Northern Ireland. I am also a podcast producer and contributor.

On poverty - I think it is absolutely vital that we elevate the voices of people with lived experience. Without empathy and understanding we won’t be able to build support to challenge the policies that keep people poor.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 5

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
April 5, 1588: Thomas Hobbes born.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Q&A with Isabel Ibañez


Isabel Ibañez is the author of the new young adult novel Woven in Moonlight. Also a graphic designer, she lives in Winter Park, Florida.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Woven in Moonlight, and for your character Ximena?

A: Woven in Moonlight came to me during a tumultuous time in Bolivia. My family had been eyeing their president with growing trepidation and rising unease. Many of my cousins and aunts and uncles and my own parents took to the streets, waving their sign of protest. 

In a way, Woven in Moonlight became my own banner, my own way to walk alongside my family protesting the scary political upheaval in Bolivia.

Q: Did you need to do any research to write the novel, and if so, did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: I grew up going to Bolivia every summer, all summer. From infancy and until I turned 18, my mom sent my brother and me to Bolivia for three months out of the year.

I know Bolivia, know the way it tastes and smells, know the cities and its twists and turns. I drew from the deep well so research looked like unearthing a lot of memories.

Q: You're also a graphic designer--how do writing and graphic design complement each other for you?

A: Because illustration and graphic design is so visual, I’ve been able to use the skill in writing when picturing scenes in my stories.

In a way, they are similar because each process goes through several  rounds. Before I take on a project, I will quickly create thumbnail sketches before finalizing the artwork. In writing, you go through several drafts.

Both forms of art have taught me how to whittle down to the crux of what I’m trying to say and do with the project.

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

A: I hope they take away a feeling of curiosity about Bolivia! Truly, the most important thing is that a reader will have enjoyed a new story inspired by a country they may not know a lot about. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m hard at work on the companion to Woven in Moonlight, Written in Starlight, out winter 2021! We are currently in the middle of copy edits. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 4

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
April 4, 1896: Robert E. Sherwood born.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Q&A with Alexandra Chang

Alexandra Chang, photo by Alana Davis
Alexandra Chang is the author of the new novel Days of Distraction. She is from Northern California, and she lives in Ithaca, New York.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Days of Distraction?

A: I drew a lot from my own life. Like the narrator, I used to work as a technology reporter, and I moved across the country with my then-boyfriend, now husband. I was a few years out from those experiences, and was interested in fictionalizing what I’d experienced. From there, it took its own shape.

Q: How would you describe the relationship between your narrator and her boyfriend?

A: The relationship, like most relationships, changes and fluctuates through time. At times it’s loving and healthy, and then there are moments when it’s fraught. They go through the bumps and trials of being in an intimate relationship, having their lives so intertwined. Those struggles come up.

For the narrator, she starts to question the relationship after having moved across the country for her boyfriend. It’s an act to her that carries a lot of meaning, and puts weight, almost pressure, on the relationship.

Overall, they have a decently healthy but still complicated relationship, for reasons on both sides.

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

A: The title originally was Distance. That was too vague. This book for me is a lot about distances between people’s experiences, realities, and histories, and how it affects their relationships.

My editor said we should come up with a more striking title. I eventually landed on Days of Distraction—it more captures this time period of the narrator’s life. She is in her mid-20s, and for many of us, we’re still figuring out our place in the world and can become distracted by decisions. And it speaks to her work in the technology industry.

Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says that “stylistically, [your] debut novel can be seen as a collection of linked microfictions.” As someone who’s written short stories as well as this novel, what do you think of that description?

A: I liked it. It’s written in these fragments, vignette style. I was concerned with each fragment being able to stand on its own as much as possible. Some are microfictions. For the fragments that are more like microfictions, the short story form is really helpful—having a limited amount of space to convey the story and the emotional effect.

Writing short stories is helpful, but writing a novel, for me, was way harder. There’s so much more material to work with.

Q: You talked about people’s experiences, realities, and histories—what would you say is the role of identity in this novel, especially given today’s politics?

A: It was important for me to explore the messiness and nuances that come with the narrator’s desire to find a sense of self. Ultimately, I don’t think she figures everything out.

She is Chinese-American, the child of immigrants, and her family history has very much affected who she is, once she starts questioning more--Why am I the way I am? What parts of my past and my ancestral post affected my sense of place in the world?

This book takes place in 2012-13, in the recent past. It’s important to capture how questions for people of color and women of color were important prior to Trump’s election. In the current political moment, questions around identity do have a lot of value.

For her, she doesn’t have a sense of power as she maneuvers through the world. She’s gaining an understanding of what could have led her to be the way she is, and what outside forces affect not only how she’s perceived but how she perceives herself. Exploring these questions gives her a sense, not of power, but at least of greater autonomy.

The exploration she’s doing in the book is important for everyone, but especially for marginalized, typically underrepresented people in this country.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A short story collection. I’m going through older stories and writing a couple of new ones. It’s similar to the novel in that the stories look at Asian and Asian-American characters who live day-to-day lives but contend with loss, whether a concrete loss or harder to define losses. It’s supposed to come out at the end of 2021.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb