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

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

April 7, 1770: William Wordsworth born.