Monday, January 27, 2020

Q&A with Karma Brown

Karma Brown is the author of the new novel Recipe for a Perfect Wife. Her other novels include The Life Lucy Knew and Come Away with Me, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Self and Redbook. She lives near Toronto.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Recipe for a Perfect Wife, and for your characters Alice and Nellie?

A: I own quite a few vintage cookbooks—the more food splattered and well-loved the better—and had this idea of how an old house, a dark secret (or two), and a shared cookbook would link together the lives of two women—one modern and one from the past.

Having a young daughter, gender roles are often on my mind, and I also wanted to explore the expectations we continue to place on women, wives and mothers even in these more progressive times.

Nellie was the first character to come to mind, and she arrived in my brain fully formed and ready to tell her story. Alice was murkier in the beginning—particularly because gender roles are not as clear cut as they once were—but she was the character who ended up surprising me the most.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on recipes from the 1950s, and do you cook these recipes yourself?

A: I wanted to set Nellie’s story in the 1950s, and so it made sense to focus on recipes from that era.

Plus, much like the retro advice epigraphs that open each of the modern-day chapters, I decided these recipes needed to be integrated into Nellie’s chapters, as the cookbook was such an important part of her life and story.

I’ve tried a few of the recipes so far, including the Baked Alaska, which my daughter and I made. It was tasty but quite finicky to make, so the end result was likely not as impressive as Nellie’s would have looked!

Q: What kind of research did you do to recreate the 1950s portion of the novel, and did you learn anything especially surprising?

A: I spent many hours reading articles and stories from that decade, as well as watching endless home economics videos that used to be played in school during the 1950s.

I also grilled my parents and friends, who were teenagers in the ‘50s, on everything from birth control to entertainment and culture to clothing to etiquette.

And I have a large stack of vintage magazines from my stepmother, so I combed through those for the language and flavor of that particular decade.

Probably the thing that continued to surprise me (even though I was well aware of it) was simply how women were perceived at that time—one beer advertisement that still stands out in memory featured a husband and a wife (holding a spatula, with a chastised look on her face), and the caption read, “At least she didn’t burn the beer!” 

Q: How was the novel's title chosen, and what do you think it says about marriage in the 1950s and today?

A: A title is always tricky, because it needs to do a lot of heavy lifting.

While I was drafting, the book was called “The Good Wife” and then my agent and I decided that wasn’t compelling enough. So I put it out to a group of author friends, and this was one of the options we came up with--luckily my publisher also loved it!

As for what it says about marriage, both then and now, it’s a tongue-in-cheek statement based on the idea that women should be striving for perfection in the role of “wife”…even though there is no such thing as a “perfect wife” (or “perfect husband” for that matter).

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on my first non-fiction project at the moment, which is titled Time for Change and is about owning your time (and reclaiming it) in the age of increasing urgency, when many of us feel like we don’t have enough of it to even get the day-to-day stuff done. It will be out end of 2020 with HarperCollins.

I’m also working on my next fiction project, but it will remain a secret for now!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Karma Brown.

Jan. 27

Jan. 27, 1931: Mordecai Richler born.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Q&A with Alison Donald

Alison Donald's picture book for kids include AdoraBULL and The Spacesuit. A pediatric occupational therapist, she lives in Surrey, England.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for AdoraBULL, and why did you decide on a bull for one of the two main characters?

A: Alfred is real! Well sort of. My husband grew up on a farm and he told me about a bull named Alfred. I started wondering what if a boy and a bull were best friends.? What could that be like? 

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

A: Empathy for others.  That’s a tall order, I know, but I hope it gets children thinking…How would I feel if I was Alfred. What would I do if my best friend was lonely?

Q: You also have another recent book out, The Spacesuit. How did you research this book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?

A: With The Spacesuit I switched gears completely and wrote my first narrative non-fiction book. When researching the book, I read books and articles about the fabrication of the A7L spacesuit, and I also got in touch with ILC Dover (the manufacturers of the A7L spacesuit). 

I learned a ton about how spacesuits are made.

I love the true story of how Eleanor Foraker and a group of seamstresses who worked at Playtex (a division of ILC DOVER years ago) won a competition that enabled them to handmake the spacesuits worn for the iconic 1969 moonwalk. I learned about latex, properties of spacesuits, sewing techniques and so much more. 

I was surprised to learn that an x-ray machine was used to detect any pins that may have been accidentally left in the suit. 

Q: What do you think the illustrators--Alex Willmore and Ariel Landy--add to the books?

A: Illustrators breathe life into a picture book. I have been so lucky to work with some excellent illustrators. 

I love the humor that Alex brought to AdoraBULL and I love how Ariel really captured the fashion and style of the mid-1960s in The Spacesuit.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My next book, by me and Rea Zhai, A Super Sticky Mistake, will be out in the spring. It tells the story of how Harry Coover Jr. accidentally invented Superglue.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m very excited to say that The Spacesuit has been included in A Mighty Girl’s top book list for 2019.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 26

Jan. 26, 1905: Maria von Trapp born.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Q&A with Robert L. Dilenschneider

Robert L. Dilenschneider is the author of the new book Decisions: Practical Advice from 23 Men and Women Who Shaped the World. His other books include The Critical First Years of Your Professional Life and Power and Influence. He is founder of The Dilenschneider Group, a corporate counseling and PR firm, and the former president and CEO of Hill & Knowlton.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Decisions?

A: It simply occurred to me that decisions are being made every day that affect every man, woman and child in America and around the globe. Decisions, certainly for the next 12 months, are going to affect our lives dramatically.

So I thought about how people made decisions, decided to look back at history and take prominent people who had shaped the course of society and the world and took lessons from what they did that would help readers.

Q: The book is divided into four parts, War and Peace, Commerce and Invention, Science, and Breaking Boundaries. How did you decide on the book's structure and the people you discuss?

A: I made a list of about 300 people who have made decisions that were really powerful and which helped shape society and the world. Then, I drilled down and got 50 that I felt really comfortable with. 

I then looked for logical categories the 50 would fit under; and then I reduced the 50 to 23 and that's how we came up with the structure the book enjoys.

Q: Do you see any common themes running through the examples of decision-making you describe in the book?

A: Yes, indeed. People have to be strong, courageous and brave and they have to stick with what they decide.  They have to put the common good ahead of their own success and, from time to time, they have to be daring. 

When Hannibal made the decision he took major chances. Harry Truman clearly took a major chance. When Giannini opened the Bank of America he started from virtually nothing, so he took a big risk with his life and career. 

It is the people who are willing to take those risks and take those chances that make the difference and shape the future.

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

A: Some advice on how they can make their own decisions that will make their lives better and will make the lives of people around them even better, some guidelines on how to make decisions, a sense of courage to make the really tough decisions.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have three or four ideas for books that might appear in 2021/ 2022. One is an update on Decisions -- the next 23 people. Beyond that I am very active in my business trying to help clients and looking for every opportunity to improve my community and its many facets.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Decisions are going to have to be taken by our president, by the leaders of the rest of the free world, by businesses that come together in countries and by so many more which are going to shape the next couple of years. 

We are truly at a turning point in society where we can forge seriously ahead and make a huge difference for every  man, woman and child out there. The key is making the proper decisions to make this happen.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 25

Jan. 25, 1874: W. Somerset Maugham born.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Q&A with Martha Saxton

Martha Saxton is the author of the biography The Widow Washington: The Life of Mary Washington. Her other books include Being Good: Women's Moral Values in Early America. She taught history and women's studies at Amherst College for 20 years.

Q: You write, "I am normally not drawn to write about women whose fame derives from men or about slaveholding women." Why did you choose to write about Mary Washington?

A: When I encountered Mary Ball Washington, I had been researching a book called Being Good, which was about women's moral values in different early American communities--including 18th century Virginia.  

She and George had differences over money. I found that odd since--although I knew little about him--I knew his reputation for probity and also for being among the wealthiest, if not the wealthiest man in Virginia. 

But she was a widowed mother, and he was her first-born son. I already knew enough to know that property in the hands of widowed women when they had sons of legal age was likely to be viewed as illegitimate and often the source of conflict. 

Some time later, I began to look at the secondary literature about George and his mother, and after the Civil War it  became  more and more venomous. By the 1950s, she was a termagant, shrew, jealous, controlling, self-centered, greedy, illiterate, unloving, and dirty. I was amazed at how little evidence there was for these or really--any claims about her. 

So, I decided to see what I could find out about this woman who was being treated as a terrible parent whom George had to escape before he could emerge as the country's founder.

Q: Can you say more about some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about Mary Washington?

A: I mentioned in my list of negative adjectives above the  main misconceptions about Mary. She grew up a very hard-working, pious, and probably somewhat rigid woman who had been orphaned very young.

She seems to have modeled herself on her strong and independent mother, widowed three times--with whom she lived until she was 12. After her mother's death, she looked after herself and her half-sister's family as a teenager.  

She was a slaveholder from the time she was three--her wealthy father left her three male slaves and two pieces of property. So she had to learn to seem authoritative as a child. 

She grew up relatively poor, but her mother's wealthy connections and her ambitions for her children gave Mary some advantages. Marrying the widower Augustine placed her in Virginia's upper class.   

Her social mobility coupled with George's ascension to the very top of the Virginia elite has allowed his biographers to look down on her (illiterate, dirty), when in fact she was a respectable, religious, literate, diligent woman with the same commanding presence that her son acquired.

Q: How would you describe the relationship between Mary and George?

A: Mary's and George's relationship was intense and enduring. She probably favored her first-born, and this carried with it her close attention to his behavior and his moral precepts. She was a demanding mother, expected obedience and help. 

They lost Augustine when George was 11, so the relationship between mother and son grew more intense at a time when it would have normally  grown more distant. As he said, he did not have a typical elite adolescence, complete with an enslaved valet and a horse, doing whatever he wanted. 

She managed to give him a practical but not classical education and introduced him to responsibilities early, because the property she had been left produced little, and the core family was suddenly poor.  

George grew up diligent and penny-pinching like his mother, critical and  vigilant, like her. These are not characteristics that make for a mellow mother-son relationship. She loved him and raised him strictly. 

He respected her and looked after her, sometimes in an exasperated way, and sometimes without acknowledging that her needs were real.

Q: How would you define Mary's legacy today?

A: I have tried to retrieve her history as an independent woman, relentlessly focused on the survival of her family. Her start in life was traumatic, and while others suffered similar losses, they doesn't make hers any the less traumatic. 

The deaths of her parents, stepfather and stepbrother left her with fears, and her youthful experience of hard work and scraping by left her with fear as well. 

But she carried on with the duties of her life as she saw them. She ran her farm and raised five children on her own--the eldest, one of the most important figures in our nation's history.

His persistence in the face of overwhelming obstacles and losses, his courage and stoicism, and his vigilance in overseeing the needs of his army and later, his new country, owe much to his mother. She deserves much, much better than she has received at the hands of his historians.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb