Monday, September 23, 2019

Q&A with Allison Sarnoff Soffer

Allison Sarnoff Soffer is the author of the children's picture book Apple Days: A Rosh Hashanah Story. The book focuses on the Jewish New Year holiday. She has a background in journalism, and she teaches at Temple Sinai Nursery School in Washington, D.C. She lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

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

A: The idea for Apple Days is a deep story. When I was growing up, I had wonderful memories of Rosh Hashanah and my family, preparing, cooking, getting ready for everyone to come over. It was a joyful time.

Very sadly, my mom passed away before my children were born. The idea of Rosh Hashanah and how to celebrate was weighing heavily on me. I wanted to give my children the same sense of joy, but the holiday brought up painful memories.

A friend suggested we go to Homestead Farm to go apple picking. It was around Rosh Hashanah. We came home and made everything with apples—applesauce, apple pie, apple cake. It was so much fun, and it smelled so good. It was great to get outside and have this experience. I had a sense I was going back to the earth.

It ended up becoming a tradition. I realized I was starting to look forward to this aspect of the holiday in a new way. It helped me get through the early holidays and turn it into something new.

It was a personal story. I ended up telling the story at a retreat. We were tasked with bringing our favorite fruit, and I brought apples. I found myself telling the story, and people seemed very interested in it.

At the retreat, they ended up making fruit salad. It inspired the idea about all the people bringing something to contribute to a community dish.

Q: What do you see as the role of food-related traditions in the book?

A: I think food is such an intrinsic part of any holiday—Thanksgiving is obvious; others less so, but if you tap into anybody’s holiday experience, there will always be food. The smell, the preparation, the feel of it, the sensory experience has a huge effect on a child. They’re so open to sensory experiences. I was trying to focus on all that.

Q: What does a new year symbolize for your character Katy?

A: When the book starts, it symbolizes the apple picking ritual. But if you look deeper, it means she’s going to be with her family and they’re going to have a meal she’s going to contribute to.

Hopefully by the end, she’s learned more about what it means to be part of a community. Maybe by the time she’s a year older, it will have significance beyond her family.

Q: What do you think Bob McMahon’s illustrations add to the story?

A: Bob McMahon did a really beautiful job capturing relationships between characters, especially the parent-child relationship. It’s a very gentle connection, particularly in their eyes and the way the characters are placed in relationship to each other. The book is a lot about relationships, and that’s not always the easiest thing to convey, and he did a good job.

He also did a particularly beautiful job on the disappointment page, when her mom is talking to Katy about the fact that they’re not going to be able to go apple picking. He really conveyed that sadness—mostly in the eyes, but in the position of the mom. She’s getting on her knees and empathizing.

It’s interesting—the way Katy is drawn is very different from how I originally envisaged her, and in some ways he changed the emotional arc of the story in drawing a very spunky little girl. I originally thought she was more reserved and shy, and what happens in the story brings her out of herself. But now this is Katy!

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

A: What I hope is captured on the page where all the children are handing Katy an apple to put in her backpack—that’s the essence of the story. There’s an illustration on the title page of a child’s hand holding an apple. That pretty much says it all. Children can help, can be part of the community, can make a big difference in their own way.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve been thinking a lot as a teacher about kindness, and how to convey the idea of kindness and empathy, even in a very young nursery school class. I came up with an experimental way of taking pictures of the children in moments when they’re being kind to each other—sharing, or comforting each other.

They’re little moments in a school that focuses on social-emotional learning. If I could capture it and bring it back to the children: What do you see here? It inspired the most meaningful conversations, and became a reference point. I’m trying to develop that into a children’s book.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My training is as a journalist, so the first thing you’re trained as is to recognize: This is a story. What I realized I’ve done is internalize that as a teacher. I’ve studied the Reggio philosophy—every child is the protagonist in their own story. That really resonated with me. It’s a fun and interesting way to be a teacher—to bring my training as a journalist into the classroom, where news has a different connotation.

What’s news in a nursery school classroom is a child seeing something for the first time, or moments of growth. Each could become a story arc for that child. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Kristín Eiríksdóttir

Kristín Eiríksdóttir is the author of the novel A Fist or a Heart, now available in English. A poet and playwright as well as a novelist and short story writer, she is from Reykjavik, Iceland.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for A Fist or a Heart, and for your character, Elín?

A: Initially, A Fist or a Heart was a short story. It was published in an Icelandic magazine called TMM and I thought that was that. But then Elín just stayed with me and the story kept evolving, so I ended up putting aside the novel I was working on, and opening up the short story again. A little bit like being in the midst of cleaning house and then finding a tangle of yarn that you get stuck with.

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

A: The story itself is about the fate of the narrator and her hold on language. I knew that it would lead to a point where neither I nor the reader could follow or comprehend anymore, but I wanted to get as far as I possibly could. It doesn't mean that I believe there is no life after language and comprehension, but that’s where this story ends...

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

A: The sentence is used, very haphazardly, to describe the size of the space that opens up in the overcrowded psyche of Ellen—a young playwright—when she first starts writing. So the title of the book describes a positive space.

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

A: My biggest hope is always that the characters invoke empathy, which can open up some new dimension. The main character of this story is very strong and independent, but lacks the ability to connect emotionally with other people. So maybe I was also just trying to help her out.  

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm writing a novel about a middle-aged woman who is raising two boys on her own. One is a toddler, the other a teenager.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Yes, how much I loved working with my translator Larissa Kyzer, a young woman who made the original decision to move to Iceland and learn Icelandic, and to then translate, not only words, but an eccentric voice from a different culture.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 23

Sept. 23, 1889: Walter Lippmann born.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Q&A with Virginia Reeves

Virginia Reeves, photo by Suzanne Koett
Virginia Reeves is the author of the new novel The Behavior of Love. She also has written the novel Work Like Any Other. She teaches at Helena College, and she lives in Helena, Montana.

Q: You note that your late father-in-law inspired your character Ed. How did his life story lead you to create Ed, and how did you come up with the idea for your character Laura, Ed’s wife?

A: My late father-in-law, Mike, was a behavioral psychologist (not psychiatrist, like Ed) who worked at the institution in Boulder. His timeline was later than Ed's, but that experience definitely gave me a starting point.

The most poignant part of Mike's life that inspired Ed's character, however, was his tragic aneurysm and subsequent stroke at the age of 39. Like Ed, my father-in-law led two different lives—one before and one after his brain injury.

I only knew Mike in that second life, and there were times I was envious of the people who'd known him before. It took time and perspective to realize how fortunate I was to share in that second life. I like to hope I imbued Ed with some of Mike's better second-life qualities.

Though Laura shares some surface-level traits with my mother-in-law (they are both artists, for example), she is a complete amalgamation of various people (which is true of most all of my characters, I'd say). There are parts of Laura that are me, and parts of her that are my own mother. There are parts of her that mirror a dear family friend, and there are parts I'd never met before they arrived in her. 

Q: The novel is set in Montana. How important is setting to you in your work?

A: Setting is incredibly important to me in my work. My first novel took place in Alabama, and it really couldn't have taken place anywhere else. The same is true of this book. It couldn't happen anywhere but Montana. This state is my home, and I share Ed's love affair with it.

The physical beauty of the landscape here is an essential element of the story, especially when juxtaposed with the ugliness inside the institution.

Q: Why did you choose to place the novel in the 1970s and early 1980s, and did you need to do much research to recreate that time period?

A: The time period is pretty critical to the story, too. The earliest time in the novel coincides with the national deinstitutionalization movement. The public was seeing inside institutions for the first time and realizing how terrible the conditions were in many of them. That historical point is part of Ed's story, and he's passionate about change.

More specifically, the institution in Boulder where much of the book takes place was suffering its own tragedies—many of the incidents within the novel really occurred: a patient choked to death on a green bean in his bed; a boy drowned in a bathtub; a comatose woman was impregnated; several patients drowned in the river. When I read about those awful events, I knew I had to include them in the story.

I did do quite a bit of research, and it's honestly one of my favorite parts of the process. Before my first novel, I'd only written in contemporary times and places, but I loved everything I discovered when I started digging into the history of Alabama.

The same was true for this book. Even though I know Montana much better than I do Alabama, I didn't know the details of Boulder's past, and it was like a treasure hunt (sometimes with the treasure being terrible moments, of course) digging through the archives.

Q: The chapters from Laura's point of view are told in first person, while the rest of the book is in third person. Why did you decide to structure it that way?

A: The decision to give Laura her own chapters in first person came later in the process. In early drafts, Laura was turning out pretty flat and one-dimensional. The first go at writing from her point of view was really just an experiment to see if I could get more out of her, and then I realized maybe that was the key—give her her own space on the page. Let us see things from her perspective. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I've often shared work and ideas before they're ready, so I'm keeping my current project pretty quiet right now. I will say that it's a pretty big departure from my first two books.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Christina Thompson

Christina Thompson, photo by Maria Stenzel
Christina Thompson is the author of the new book Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia. She also has written Come On Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All. She is the editor of Harvard Review, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Vogue and Best Australian Essays. She lives outside Boston.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book about Polynesia, and how did you choose the aspects of the region's history and culture to focus on?

A: I have been writing about the history of the Pacific for more than 30 years, ever since I went to Australia for graduate school. I am especially interested in stories of people who came to the Pacific from elsewhere, and in the beginning I was largely focused on Europeans and their encounters with the indigenous peoples of the Pacific.

But these indigenous peoples, including the people we now know as Polynesians, also came to the Pacific from someplace else. And so in this book I look deep into the history of the Pacific and try to answer a series of questions about who Polynesians are, where they came from, and how more than 1,000 years ago they succeeded in colonizing every habitable bit of land in the world's largest and most daunting ocean. 

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

A: I read and read and read. For several years I had more than 200 books out of the Harvard library system; I also read hundreds of articles, which I accessed through Harvard's library. Indeed, I could not have written this book if I had not had access to a library of this caliber.

In terms of method, I followed the classic research practice of beginning with trustworthy secondary sources and following the footnote trail to more obscure materials.

Did I learn anything that surprised me? I learned hundreds of things that surprised me! One was that some Maori of the 13th and 14th centuries were buried not just with grave goods like adzes and pendants but with drilled (i.e., hollow) moa eggs. 

Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Captain James Cook and Tupaia, a Polynesian navigator and priest who worked with him?

A: I think of Cook and Tupaia as equals. I describe Tupaia, using Joseph Banks' terminology, as a "man of knowledge," but this is also how I see Captain Cook.

They came from completely different worlds and their knowledge bases were quite different, of course, but they were both men of stature in their respective societies, they were about the same age, they were both used to having authority, and I believe they were both strong in their own ways of thinking and views.

There is some indication that there was some friction between them, though I think there was also mutual respect. I rather like to think of them as two sides of the same coin.

Q: What would you say are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about Polynesia?

A: One of the old misconceptions was that Polynesians never had to work, when in fact they had to work to survive just like everyone else. They had to fish and collect shellfish and garden and prepare food. So the idea that they lived in a paradise where food just fell from the trees was an early, but very persistent, false idea.

I also think people often misunderstand Polynesian formality. Polynesians are very polite and I think that sometimes people fail to grasp the underlying formality of their friendliness. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: At the moment I am just trying to figure out what I want to write about next. I will continue to write about the Pacific and there are a couple of female figures (historians, anthropologists) who interest me, including Teuira Henry and Willowdean Handy. But it's early days yet.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I'm happy to report that Sea People just won the NSW Premier's General History Award, which is an Australian history prize. So that's exciting for me.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 22

Sept. 22, 1908: Esphyr Slobodkina born.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Q&A with Lisa Lutz

Lisa Lutz, photo by Morgan Dox
Lisa Lutz is the author of the new novel The Swallows. Her other books include the novels The Passenger and How To Start a Fire. She lives part-time in New York's Hudson Valley.

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

A: I had the idea to write about a gender war and a private school setting made the most sense. I can’t say where the germ of the idea came from. My ideas are rarely sparked by an article or something in real life.

That said, after I had the idea, I did read up on private school scandals mostly to confirm my theory that what happened in The Swallows was entirely plausible.

Q: The novel is set at a private school. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: It depends on the book. With The Swallows it was more important than other books. It needed to be its own universe. I do prefer creating a setting from scratch rather than working off of a real location.

That said, a fake location has to be consistent in your descriptions, which can be tricky for someone with a sub-par memory and a sub-sub-par spatial memory. I drew a map, which was fun and I definitely indulged in place naming, which was constantly shifting as new, better ideas cropped up.

Q: The story is told from several perspectives. Did you write the book in the order in which it appears, or did you focus on one character before turning to the others?

A: During revisions, I would occasionally review only one character at a time just to stay in that voice, but I generally write in the order that the story will be read. I think that’s necessary in terms of pacing. That said, whenever I had to rejigger a plot point, it became a major headache since not all characters would be privy to certain moments in the story.

Q: The Kirkus Review of the novel calls it an "offbeat, darkly witty pre–#MeToo revenge tale." What do you think of that characterization?

A: It’s inevitable that people are going to talk about the #MeToo movement in connection with this book. However, I conceived of the story and began writing long before #MeToo. I don’t see a clear demarcation of societal standards before or after. I think the story was relevant before and I think it’s relevant now.

I understand that people see the movement as a sign of awareness and progress. I just see it as more awareness. I’m not sure I see the progress just yet. We are not as evolved as a society as we think we are.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a crime novel that involves a 20-year platonic friendship. I’m not sure this is the perfect pitch, but think When Harry Met Sally with a couple murders.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I wouldn’t know where to begin. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb