Friday, February 26, 2021

Q&A with Ginger Park


Ginger Park is the author, with her sister Frances Park, of the children's picture book The Royal Bee. It focuses on their grandfather's experiences growing up in Korea. Her other books include Chocolate Chocolate, also written with her sister. The two of them own a chocolate shop in Washington, D.C.


Q: Why did you and your sister decide to write this picture book based on your grandfather's experiences?


A: It felt like a story that must be told - to inspire children. While our grandfather’s life was marked with tragedy, what truly defined him was his perseverance and ultimate triumph in the face of adversity.


Our grandfather was born into poverty in a land ruled by royalty, but he grew up to be one of the most honored men in his region – supposedly, there is a statue of him somewhere on the China-North Korean border. Sadly, and for obvious reasons, we’re unable to visit.


Q: How much of his life story did you know growing up, and how much research did you do to write the book?


A: Growing up, our grandfather was a mythical figure as we never met the revered pastor who died in the early ‘60s (before I was born). But our mother spoke of him often, wistfully so. The more stories we heard, the more we wanted to know.


That said, the book required a bit of research – the ruling class vs the working class, how people dressed – “sangmin” vs “yangban,” descriptions of a village “sodang” school, a royal palace, the topography of the land.


Q: What do you think Christopher Zhong-Yuan Zhang's illustrations add to the story?


A: The text is long and detailed illustrations were necessary to guide children through the historical and foreign aspects of the story.


Christopher Zhang captured the beauty of the story with rich color and detail. The artist’s focus is on portrait and landscape, which clearly complemented the story.


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


A: I hope children read my grandfather’s story and find inspiration. No matter how challenging life is, look to that one glimmer of hope – it’s out there. For my grandfather, it was one great teacher who changed the course of his life.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I just completed a middle grade novel tentatively titled Mermaid Girl. Set in Korea during the Japanese occupation, the novel chronicles my family of hoteliers during an era when few hotels catered to Korean families, thus illuminating a world rarely documented in history books.


The story is spun around the affluent Hong family, focusing on 15-year-old Kwan. The brilliant but ever-so-awkward First Son struggles to find his place in a world of inequality among privileged Japanese and poverty-stricken Koreans.  


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I'm delighted to announce the forthcoming publication of my novel The Hundred Choices Department Store by Fitzroy Books, a division of Regal House Publishing/Spring 2022.


Set in Sinuiju, Korea, this historical novel is inspired by my mother’s remembrances of her family’s painful struggles during the Russian invasion of their hometown and ultimate flight south, across the 38th parallel to Seoul, just prior to the outbreak of the Korean War. You can learn more about me and the book here:


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 26



Feb. 26, 1802: Victor Hugo born.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Q&A with Laura Kumin


Laura Kumin is the author of the book All Stirred Up: Suffrage Cookbooks, Food, and the Battle for Women's Right to Vote. She also has written The Hamilton Cookbook, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Washington Post and USA TODAY. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: What are suffrage cookbooks, and why did you decide to write a book about them?

A: I had never heard of them—I stumbled on one and from that moment, I was enthralled. Suffrage cookbooks are part of the genre of community cookbooks—church or temple cookbooks, organized by groups of mostly women. They started as a fundraiser, and then were used to open up conversations. It was a way of getting in the door.

It’s an amazing political discovery. If you had a cookbook and a recipe and a conversation about how to make soup, you wouldn’t start the conversation with suffrage. You’d say, I have a cookbook, would you like to see it? It’s only 35 cents.

I didn’t think about the fact that getting suffrage for women meant [gaining support from men]—people who already voted had to vote for change. You had to reach the men through their stomachs, but also you’d reach the women who then would reach the men.

Q: When did you decide it was a good topic for a book?

A: Originally I was fascinated to find any suffrage cookbooks—it was like a treasure hunt because only a handful are still left to be seen. There’s only one I’ve never seen—there’s only one copy of it in Clinton, New York, at their historical society. It’s too delicate to be scanned.

After I’d seen them, I realized some people had discovered them, but mostly [these people] were academics. There wasn’t anything in the popular literature about the cookbooks. There was very little written about the marketing of suffrage and mainstream women’s involvement in suffrage.

The topic had never captured anyone’s attention outside of a very small academic world. They’ve written wonderful articles, but they’re not going to be read by the average reader. I wanted to reach everyone out there.

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

A: I had the misperceptions. Writing this book was my own awakening to this story. I thought the battle was won by picketing and parades. And I didn’t understand how long it took to get the vote. I also thought of them as a unit—that people were pro-suffrage or anti-suffrage. I had no sense of how much dissension there was, and how much World War I split the suffragists.

I really care about the context for suffrage, what else was going on in the U.S. and the world at that time.

Q: Can you say more about how you researched the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?

A: I am an incredible fan of the Library of Congress. It’s the most exquisite treasure we have in this country. I learned through the librarians how to research digitally. Some of it has to be done through an institution or is at the Library of Congress, but much of the rest can be done at home. I discovered suffrage cookbooks online.

The research was done three ways. I got a lot of books. I did online research through librarians and on my own—I would follow a thread. I met a woman who collects women’s political memorabilia, who gave me access to [her material]. The book is about what it was like to live then, and what the food was like then. I began cooking and researching.

Q: How did you choose the recipes to include, and how easy were they to adapt for today's cooks?

A: I had two goals. One was to represent the diversity of the cookbooks—I got something from every cookbook. Then I wanted the recipes to recreate all different parts of a meal.

The food was bland and overcooked—how did I keep the essence of the recipe but change it so it was not overcooked and was adequately spiced? I looked for more modern recipes for a similar thing, and looked at how it evolved over time and what people were adding that they hadn’t before.
Q: What reaction have readers had to the book? 
A: I've been delighted by readers' reactions. From a series of talks I've done via the Jewish Book Council all over the U.S. to an Instagram Live session with a Russian writer, readers have been fascinated by the story of the suffrage cookbooks and by the cookbooks themselves. 
So far no one has come forward during my talks with a story of an as-yet undiscovered suffrage cookbook that they know about, but I'm hopeful that one day that may happen. 
I have been pleased to find that many readers and audience members at my programs have been making the links (as I do in the book) between the fight for suffrage and more modern battles for political and civil rights. 
Q: Are these recipes difficult for a less accomplished cook? 
A: There are many adapted recipes in my book that are quite easy for a "less accomplished" cook. For example, Jack London's stuffed celery (pp.52-53) - no cooking required! 
Lots of the other recipes are simple too, such as the fruit punch (pp. 56-57), cheese rice (pp.223-224), the French dressing, which is really a simple vinaigrette (p.267) and the brownies (pp. 288-289.) Although some of the recipes have a number of steps and/or ingredients, none should intimidate a home cook. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have created a new author website. Cooking is common ground—we all cook, and we all eat. People get divided by politics and issues, but when you talk about food, you sit down and eat, you look at the cooking, you see how [so much] starts from basic things we all have in common.

There’s a gingerbread recipe in the Hamilton cookbook, and a gingerbread recipe in the suffrage cookbook. Across hundreds of years and different ethnicities, people like to eat certain things. If you look at kreplach, other people would say pierogis, everybody likes things wrapped in dough.

Gingerbread is a very common thing—you can divide us but at the end of the day we are all going to sit down and eat gingerbread or something wrapped in dough.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous version of this Q&A. Laura Kumin will be participating Feb. 27 in the Temple Sinai Authors' Roundtable.

Feb. 25



Feb. 25, 1937: Bob Schieffer born.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Q&A with Elaine Weiss


Photo by Nina Subin

Elaine Weiss is the author of the book The Woman's Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote. A journalist, her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Atlantic and Harper's. She lives in Baltimore.


Q: Why did you decide to write The Woman’s Hour?


A: The honest answer is because I knew nothing about [the history of women's suffrage]. I grew up with voting being modeled by my parents and my surroundings, being taught that it was very important to vote. I dedicated the book to my parents, who would take me as a child to the voting booth.


I had no idea how I got to vote, and I asked friends who also had no idea. If it came up, it was Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, maybe Seneca Falls, and that was it. I realized there was a gap here, and it was a strange one when you realize how important this issue is.


I started looking at a woman benefactress [to the siffcause] who makes a cameo in the book. I was deep into my research about how her bequest was spent:


First, to finance a lobbying shop on Capitol Hill beginning in 1916 for a federal amendment.


Second, to start a public relations shop in New York that would pump out articles about women’s contributions in World War I, and would send them to newspapers every day.


Third, to start the League of Women Voters.


Fourth, to finance a ratification campaign.


Then it described what happened in the last state to ratify [Tennessee], and my eyes just popped out. My husband said it’s a great story, but is there enough for a book? I found there was. The women who went to Nashville for the fight show different messages and I could reach back to the beginning.


Q: You describe three women at the start of the book, who as you said came to Nashville with different messages: the suffragists, the anti-suffragists, and the more radical suffragists. Can you describe the dynamic among the three, especially the anti-suffragists?


A: This [the anti-suffragists] was part of the story I had no idea about. I was shocked by it, and in hearing from readers, they didn’t expect that. It makes it even more pointed today. We can see the legacy.


I was reading the Nashville Tennessean and the Nashville Banner of that day and age. It was a railroad hub, and they announced the arrivals of the trains and if any celebrities had arrived. I realized all three [of the women I was writing about] arrived on the same night, and I thought, I’ve got it! I was fortunate in the narrative sense.


The idea of an organization of anti-suffrage women makes you think, This doesn’t make sense! But I wanted to make their reasoning clearer. I had to be careful. I didn’t want to make fun of them. They had to be worthy opponents; the suffragists were worried about them.


There were several types of anti-suffragists. Some were wealthy women. The status quo was working just fine for them. They didn’t feel their voices weren’t being heard. Some of them were so connected. Eleanor Roosevelt wasn’t an anti-suffragist, but she was certainly not a suffragist. She didn’t need to vote, she had Uncle Teddy in the White House. 


Also, they didn’t want immigrant women to have the vote.


Some were racists, who didn’t want Black women or Chinese women to vote. You have to parse what anti-suffrage was. It wasn’t one size fits all.


[On the pro-suffrage side] I found it sad and fascinating that in Nashville, there were two strong suffrage organizations with their own headquarters, their own staff, their own strategy, and their own lobbying, all for the same goal.


It teaches us something—not that women couldn’t work together. The same thing happened in the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement, the animal rights movement.


Q: What about the role of race in the suffrage movement?


A: It was another part of the story I was not aware of. It’s a very important part of the suffrage movement from beginning to end. It comes out of the abolitionist movement.


When I realized Frederick Douglass was at Seneca Falls but Susan B. Anthony wasn’t—she wasn’t part of the movement yet—it was very profound for me to see the role he played. A lot of the divisions and setbacks had to do with race.


I tried to be fair about it, and point out the suffragists’ hypocrisy in certain instances. It broke my heart to see [suffrage leader] Carrie Catt’s hypocrisy in acquiescing to racist sentiments.


I tried to look at political reality. Sometimes it gets lost when we rightfully point out racist attitudes. They needed two-thirds of both houses of Congress and they needed Southern racist men to vote for the amendment. They were not going to do that by bringing Ida B. Wells to the chamber to lobby.


They needed three-fourths of the states, so they had to go back to the racist men in Southern legislatures. They tried to manage it. It is abhorrent but politically clever. This was a political action, not a moral action. I try to balance that, and talk about it in my formal talks.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I just handed in my proposal to my agent. It will in some ways continue the story on voting rights.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’ve been active in talking about voting rights. Specifically, I’ve been invited to a lot of legal forums because the book won the top prize of the American Bar Association.


I made a vow, having been given a platform before a big election—I couldn’t be political in terms of the candidate, but I could be strident in terms of voting rights. I could look up each state where I was going, and see the voter suppression laws and it was horrifying, especially Tennessee.


I stood up there at the Nashville Rotary and said you can’t celebrate the centennial and Tennessee’s part in it while you’re allowing your representatives in the same state where you live, where the 19th amendment was ratified, to have terrible restrictive laws coming out. That’s hypocrisy.


I said it in Missouri, Ohio, wherever. I wanted them to realize that they’re ready for a parade and they can’t do that without realizing the connection that you’re slashing voting rights today. It’s important to bring the book’s themes into the present day.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Elaine Weiss will be participating in the Temple Sinai Authors' Roundtable on Saturday, Feb. 27.

Feb. 24



Feb. 24, 1943: Kent Haruf born.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Q&A with Janet Stilson


Janet Stilson is the author of the new novel The Juice. A journalist, she lives in New York City.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Juice, and for your character Jarat Ellington?


A: The initial inspiration for Jarat came to me when I was at a cocktail party at the Museum of Natural History in New York. I believe it was a Discovery Channel celebration tied to one of its new programs. And I was there in my role as a journalist.


We were in the Rose Center, where models of planets are displayed. A young man emerged who seemed out of place in that particular social milieu. Mostly, people involved in the TV network business are fairly conservative dressers. But this guy had much longer, scragglier hair than anyone there, and he was carrying an elegant cane. He was of our “world,” but he wasn’t.


I had a sense that he was someone who probably went to a very good school and was from a wealthy family but was an outlier. He seemed like the sort of guy who would go up to a catered bar displaying so-so wine and convince the bartender to give him a glass of the really good stuff, hidden away for the big shots.


We didn’t speak. I don’t know who he was. But I fell in love with the sense of him.  

The whole novel was inspired more broadly by my work as a journalist, covering the business of media and advertising.  My job involved talking with a lot of executives at major media companies about what they are planning to do.


All of this was fertile ground for me as I imagined what it would be like to work inside large media companies a few decades into the future – and what they might create to amuse us; to get us to buy certain products, or believe certain “truths.”


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


A: Oh my goodness. Sooo many changes. This novel was something that evolved over several years. I like to joke that it was like swimming across the ocean. This is my first novel, and so I was learning the craft of novel writing at the same time I was harnessing a huge number of ideas for characters and storylines. It took me time to see the best structure, and the best ending.


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, "Stilson creates a chilling world: the government brainwashes its citizens through subliminal messaging, and ubiquitous security cameras eliminate the concept of privacy." How did you create the world in which the book takes place?


A: It all goes back to my work covering media companies, watching as new tech innovations have emerged and creative content has evolved. I observed how certain governments around the world imposed restrictions on the information that people received, and how news is slanted by some media outlets to fit the narrative of powerful people.


And, of course, there are huge discussions today about what personal information tech companies can access and use. Subliminal messaging has been around for decades, and curbs have been placed on it. But it’s there as a possible tool.


So out of all that came some fun and scary “what if” scenarios. Like, what if people could program their mobiles to give them artificial dreams at night? What if those “dreamisodes” were served up by big media companies that embed certain messages in the storylines?


And what if there was a secret substance, called The Juice, that could transform mildly charming people into god-like presences, who had enough charisma to make anyone do just about anything?


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


A: I hope that that it provokes new thoughts about the future of media and advertising. But at the same time, I hope people are thoroughly entertained. There’s a fair bit of humor, romance, and an espionage roller-coaster ride winding through the story. So this isn’t an “eat your spinach,” “learn about media” kind of tome.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m writing a TV series pilot that’s also set in the future, with some fantasy mixed in. As with The Juice, it has to do with revealing deeply buried truths that are quite vital to the characters at the heart of the tale.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: That I’m deeply grateful for this interview, Deborah! Thank you for inviting me to share the underpinnings of a world that’s deeply meaningful for me – and which was a great deal of fun to explore.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb