Friday, May 17, 2024

Q&A with Anna Monardo


Photo by Chris Holtmeier Foton-Foto


Anna Monardo is the author of the new book After Italy: A Family Memoir of Arranged Marriage. Her other books include the novel Falling in Love with Natassia. She teaches in the Writer's Workshop of the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and she lives in Omaha, Nebraska.


Q: What inspired you to write After Italy?


A: In various ways I’ve been telling this story all my life. After Italy is the story of my family’s immigration to the U.S. from Southern Italy.


My first novel, The Courtyard of Dreams (Doubleday 1993), was a fictionalized version of our story. The focus of my second novel, Falling In Love with Natassia (Doubleday 2006) was far from my family—that novel is about a dancer and her teenage daughter—but when I tried to move on to a third novel, the family story kept showing up in my notes, in my free-writes. I felt compelled to write the parts of our family story that I either fictionalized or didn’t include in Courtyard. 


Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything about your family that especially surprised you?


A: I learned so much about our family! Actually, the “research” sort of fell into my lap. After our father died, my brother and I cleaned out his desk and found a thick folder of all his Italian documents, beginning with his grade-school report cards! His medical-school exam booklet was there, military papers, his whole paper trail.


He was born in 1922, so his childhood and young adulthood were lived under fascism. His father was an outspoken anti-Fascist, but my father was conscripted into the Italian army and had no choice but to serve.


My research began by reading and translating those documents. Then I did a lot of reading about WWII and learned how truly devastated Southern Italy was after the war.


My father, after his father died, became head of family for his six siblings and mother. That was his motivation to immigrate to the U.S., hoping to establish his medical career and send help back to his family. An arranged marriage to an American woman would make it easier for him to immigrate.


That woman was my mother. She was 18, he was 28; it was 1948. Their mothers were second cousins. This was how things were done in that place, at that time.


Everyone was familiar with how arranged marriage worked—except for the bride, who had grown up in America. She thought it was a love match—and to some degree it was; they gaze at each other in the courtship photos!—but ultimately, she was hurt that her husband’s priority was the pledge he’d made to his family, which he was not able to turn away from.


Meanwhile, it was not easy for a young Italian doctor to get hired in the U.S. in 1950; it was too soon after the war. He worked in various hospitals in different parts of the U.S., and he and my mother were separated for five years. She kept a diary during that time, and she left the diary for me, so that became a large part of my research, too.


Eventually, they reconciled, but they were never able to heal the wounds of that separation. They were distant cousins, and yet this culture clash erupted between them.

Q: The writer Sue William Silverman said of the book, “After Italy is a kind of translation, taking big questions involving society and self and relating them in the universal language of deeply explored personal experience.” What do you think of that description?


A: I love that description. I’m grateful to Sue Silverman for seeing that in this narrative. From the start, I saw our family story as a microcosm within which I could explore the timeless, universal experience of migration. When people cross borders, change language, leave behind family, what is gained, what is lost?


These questions have been with me since I was a kid, and I hoped that, while digging deeply into my personal story, I’d also be exploring those larger questions. I’m not sure if I succeeded at that, but I do see the world differently after having written this book.


After I learned how much difficulty my parents survived in their respective lives and in their marriage, I was awed by their resilience. After everything, they still were able to give my brother and me so much love. In their way, they loved each other. I think that I previously had too narrow a vision of what love is.


Q: What impact did it have on you to write this memoir, and what do you hope readers take away from it?


A: I came away from this project thinking that, at various times in our lives, we’re all immigrants of a sort. Marriage is a kind of border crossing. So is having a child.


I recently retired from university teaching, and over the years I worked with many students who were the first in their family to go to college. That’s a huge border crossing, and again, as with my parents, I feel awe.


A lovely thing that has happened with After Italy is that readers often begin telling me their family story. It’s an honor to be trusted in that way.


There are some dark events in my family story, events I never learned about until I was in my 30s. It was hard to write those parts, but I think that many—if not most—families go through some dark patches.


Often, there’s more suffering from trying to tamp down that information than there would be if the difficulties were revealed and addressed. If my story leaves readers more comfortable thinking about or talking about their own family stories, that would be really good.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Two interconnected novellas set in the 1960s and early 1970s. I love that era.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Nothing I can think of. Thank you for these good questions and your interest in After Italy.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Lauren Claudare




Lauren Claudare is the author of the new novel Cover Stories. She lives in New York.


Q: What inspired you to write Cover Stories, and how did you create your character Annabelle?


A: Cover Stories is a work of fiction, but it is based on my experience working in a cable TV newsroom while I was in an emotionally abusive relationship with an undercover CIA officer.


That period of my life was very isolating, because there was no one I could talk to about was happening to me. I ended up writing down much of what I was feeling as a way to cope, and that ultimately led to this book.  While the events and characters in the novel are fictionalized, the story is very emotionally true. 


I wanted the Annabelle character to be someone for whom the stakes are very high. She is incredibly motivated to reach her goal of being a primetime news anchor. For TV journalists who want to be on-air, those coveted roles are very few and far between.


It takes a lot for someone like her to come undone, but at the same time she feels she cannot show any weakness or be anything other than perfect. 


Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Annabelle and Ryan?

A: When they meet, they are incredibly (and unexpectedly) drawn to each other even though neither of them was looking for a relationship. The instant chemistry and strong connection is what makes it easy for Annabelle to overlook some of the red flags in Ryan’s behavior when things take a toxic turn.


Meanwhile, Ryan leverages that initial desire to his advantage when he wants to isolate her from her family and friends so that she can keep his cover story intact.  


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


A: I always had a general sense of how it would end, though earlier drafts had a slightly different outcome for Annabelle and a very different ending for Ryan.  This version feels the most true to who they are.


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


A: I hope anyone who can relate to what Annabelle experienced (even in a small way) can feel a bit more validated after reading this book. While what Annabelle went through is obviously an extreme example, it’s a reminder that sometimes you don’t realize you’re in a bad situation when it’s happening, and it’s only when you're looking back that you're able to make sense of it.  


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Right now my focus is on generating more publicity for Cover Stories but I’ve been feeling the itch to get back to writing, too. I have a running list of ideas that I’d like to explore and I’m looking forward to diving back into that this summer.   


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Cover Stories is available in digital format only for now. You can find it on Amazon & Kindle Unlimited! 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Lauren Gibaldi


Photo by Amanda Murphy



Lauren Gibaldi is the co-editor of the young adult anthology First-Year Orientation. Her other books include Battle of the Bands. She lives in Orlando, Florida.


Q: How did your book First-Year Orientation come about?


A: After Eric Smith and I completed our first anthology with Candlewick, Battle of the Bands, we were jazzed to do another one together. Like with Battle, we wanted to focus on a time in a teen's life that's memorable, that's huge, that's relatable.


So we came up with (or, more specifically, Eric's wife came up with!) the idea of college orientation. It's a day that's full of excitement, wonder, and so many nerves. We knew it would be relatable, especially when we started collecting the story ideas. 


Q: What inspired your own story in the anthology?


A: "The Friends We Make Along the Way" focuses on Lily's day missing orientation because she's working at the campus bookstore. She's upset about missing out, about not being a part of this big experience. But she quickly realizes the day she has--and the friends she makes while working--is just as big, and just as important.


Fun fact 1--Lily is from Battle of the Bands. This takes place after our first anthology and while it's in no way a sequel, it does have a handful of fun references. Fun fact 2--I wrote my story after we compiled the rest of the book, so there's a reference to every other story in it!


Q: The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books said, “By turns realist and surrealist, funny and tender, these stories have something for any teen starting to think about college and will leave them with the reassurance that there's plenty of magic ahead.” What do you think of that description?


A: I think it's a super kind review! The book is all over the place--in the best possible way. I think every reader can find a favorite story, can relate to a story, or be inspired by a story. We have truly fantastic authors. And the book does show the different facets of starting (or, in one case, not starting) college - funny or sad or magical. 


Q: How did you choose the order in which the stories would appear?


A: They're loosely chronological. There are some stories that go together, so we had to put them side by side. And then we also separated the stories that were slightly similar, so you didn't get - say - two ghost stories in a row. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have a few projects I'm working on, but nothing official. Eric released his newest YA novel, With or Without You, and it's absolutely wonderful. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I love anthologies because they're a great way to try a bunch of authors at once. And we're lucky enough to have some top-tier authors. So try them out. Try our book out. And get ready for an unpredictable journey. :)


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Mariam Shapera



Mariam Shapera is the author of the new children's picture book Jo's Special Gifts. She also has written the picture book Up Up You Go Jo!. Also a doctor, she lives in San Diego.


Q: What inspired you to write Jo’s Special Gifts?


A: My inspiration behind this book is my 7-year-old autistic son, Jo. I wrote this book three years ago at the same time as my first one. It was put on hold as my first book was being released. I continued with it a couple of years ago and completed it.


My autistic son has an amazing neurodivergent brain. He pursues his passions and interests, and I see how much joy they bring him. His enthusiasm for these interests inspired me. I am writing from his perspective.

I also wanted to raise awareness of other aspects of autism, including autistic play, gestalt cognitive processing, and sensory processing differences. These were all things I saw in my son.


My son Jo is 7 years old and still minimally speaking. He is unable to communicate to me yet how he feels about the book. However, just recently, when I obtained my author copy, he would take it and love talking about the back cover of the book. He scripts (recites) something from his iPad game whilst looking at it, and that brought me so much happiness to see.


Q: What do you think Lorna Humphreys' illustrations add to the story?


A: After I completed writing the story, it took me quite a while to find the right illustrator. I wanted joyful, bright, and whimsical illustrations. Lorna Humphreys has done just that and more! She has brought the story visually to life.


Since the story is not a typical children’s story with a plot but more of an emotional journey, it can sometimes be hard to come up with what to illustrate. She used her great imagination, and we came up with some big ideas.


Q: What do you hope kids take away from Jo's Special Gifts?


A: Whether they are autistic or not, kids can learn to embrace their special gifts. Also, amongst families with non-autistic members, this book increases autism awareness and acceptance. In schools, it can help educate students on the neurodivergent brain- that there are other ways of seeing and processing the world around us.


It also teaches different autistic traits, such as ways they communicate, autistic play, and sensory differences. It shows examples of accommodations, such as the use of a wheelchair and noise-canceling headphones. The book also helps normalize different modalities of communication by showing the AAC device.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Right now, I am not working on any book. I am focused on spreading the message of this book and autism advocacy, continuing to work as a family physician, and taking care of my family.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Enter for your chance to win a signed hardcover copy of Jo's Special Gifts, a signed copy of Mariam's first book, Up Up You Go Jo!, and a $25 Starbucks gift card. This post is in partnership with Mariam Shapera.

May 17



May 17, 1939: Gary Paulsen born.

Thursday, May 16, 2024

Q&A with Alan Silberberg



Alan Silberberg is the author and illustrator of the new children's board book P Is for Pastrami: The ABCs of Jewish Food. His other books include Meet the Latkes. An author, cartoonist, and children's TV creator, he lives in Montreal.


Q: What inspired you to create this alphabet book about Jewish food?


A: Creating Meet the Latkes, Meet the Matzah, and Meet the Hamantaschen, I found myself doodling lots of other anthropomorphic  “foods,” which I started to refer to as “foodles.” I even pitched the idea of “Meet the Foodles.”


Though Viking didn’t spark to that as a unique concept - they suggested the idea of an alphabet book of Jewish foods. So, big high-fives to the team there for the idea!


Q: How did you come up with some of the more unusual foods in the book?


A: The first thing I did along with my editor, Maggie Rosenthal, was to create a long list of A-Z foods that would fit into the idea.


Not surprisingly, some letters of the alphabet were chock full of noshy food (B; babka, bagel, borscht, brisket, etc…) while other letters initially drew a blank from the obvious “Ashkenazi” foods we both were familiar with.


I started doing research for foods from Sephardic cultures and other atypical Jewish sources for some of the harder letters of the alphabet and knew immediately that the book needed to be expansive and include foods unfamiliar to some people.


Injera, an Ethiopian flat bread; and Quajado, a Sephardic vegetable, cheese, and egg dish not only helped fill out the alphabet - but filled the book with Jewish foods some people could learn about.


Q: Do you have a particular favorite among these foods?


A: Personally, the only food in the book that I was unfamiliar with that I have actually eaten is Shakshuka -  and not only is it delicious but I do love that page in the book too.


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


A: I really wanted to create an alphabet book that would not only appeal to Jewish families but to everybody. I think the cartoon style and jokes in the book are fun for anybody. I also hope the book finds an audience beyond “babies” because who doesn’t love a funny book about food!


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Right now I am finishing the art for a new picture book, The Bagel Who Wanted Everything, which is the story of a plain bagel in search of “more.” 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I love making funny books using food and the fact that I get to write and draw books that celebrate being Jewish is a wonderful gift I get to share.


Also, promoting P is for Pastrami I am getting to meet wonderful “Jewish foodie" people who want to feed me - so this new book is not only funny - but delicious!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Alan Silberberg.

Q&A with Rachel Bateman




Rachel Bateman is the author of the young adult novel Make the Fireflies Dance. Her other books include the YA novel Someone Else's Summer. Also a writing coach and podcaster, she lives in Montana.


Q: What inspired you to write Make the Fireflies Dance, and how did you create your character Quin?


A: Most people don't realize that Make the Fireflies Dance is actually a reimagining of a lesser-known classic. When I was in college, I read the short story "The Kiss" by Anton Chekhov. I loved it, right up until the end, which I hated.


Not because it went in a way I didn't want it to, but because it didn't seem to go in any way. It just stopped with no real resolution, and that annoyed me to no end.


So much so that, more than a decade and a half later, I was thinking about it as I was driving down the highway one day when it hit me: I could write a modern version of "The Kiss" and give it an ending that would satisfy me.


Quin was a fun character to develop. Part of her was informed by the character Ryabovitch in "The Kiss"--she was a hopeless romantic from the start because he was a hopeless romantic. From there, she came together in bits and pieces as I thought more about who she was and how she'd react to what happened in the theater.


A lot of her backstory actually came from her name; once I decided to name her Quincy, it all clicked together: the history-loving father who named her after his favorite president, and all of that.


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


A: Hopeless romantic Quin is a lover of romantic comedy movies, and since so much of that love came from watching the movies her mother loved, she grew up with the romcoms of the '90s and early '00s.


When I think of that era rom-com, one song always comes to mind: "Kiss Me" by Sixpence None the Richer. (Which wasn't actually in that many romcoms but felt like it was absolutely everywhere for a few years there.)


Make the Fireflies Dance is a line from that song. It actually came first, and Quin's mother describing love like fireflies rather than butterflies came from it. 


Q: The writer K.L. Walther said of the book, “Bateman’s romantic comedy, with touching threads of the power of friendship and grief woven in, will bring light to your life.” What do you think of that description?


A: I was so thrilled to read K.L.'s blurb because it fully encapsulates exactly what I was trying to do with the book. I love writing a plot that feels very light but that has a much deeper backstory and through line.


Several of my books have the same theme to them: that we can experience both grief and joy at the same time. Up until Fireflies that theme was unconscious to me as I wrote. This was the first time I made a conscious effort to bring it across, and I'm happy that it resonated.


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


A: Um...a bit of both. The ending was the most important thing for me to try to nail, because it's the part of "The Kiss" that I was so dissatisfied with. I knew I wanted an ending that both honored the story Chekhov told and gave me what I wished his story had for so many years. It was a fine line to walk, and I'm incredibly proud of what I came up with.


At the same time, I know it doesn't resonate with everyone. Some readers dislike the ending of Fireflies for a similar (but notably different) reason to why I dislike the ending of "The Kiss" and I'm okay with that. I'm very happy with how it ends.


As for changes, the broad strokes of the ending didn't change, but the details definitely did. Because, despite months of plotting and planning before writing the book, I realized about halfway through the first draft that I'd actually planned the wrong love interest for Quin!


My original plan for Operation Mystery Kisser and the details of how that all plays out was much different, so I had to change a lot of things leading up to the end. The core of it stayed the same from the start though, because that core honors Chekhov's original story.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I'm writing the first draft of an adult thriller, and I'm absolutely loving it! It's a different world from my young adult stuff, and it's a lot of fun to play in this sandbox.


I also write screenplays, and I'm currently splitting my time between drastically different projects: writing a Cozy Christmas Romance (think Hallmark Christmas movie) and pitching an intense, gory slasher to producers. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Aside from my own writing, my favorite thing to do is help others write their books (and screenplays), so I started a podcast to do just that.


Breaking Writer's Block has short, daily episodes to give writers the inspiration, knowledge, and encouragement they need to overcome the blocks and resistance stopping them from writing. It's a blast and I love doing it!


Breaking Writer's Block is available anywhere you listen to podcasts.


I also offer 1:1 coaching via Voxer (so writers have direct access to me anytime during office hours, rather than waiting for their weekly or biweekly coaching call, as is typical) and am getting ready to launch a low-barrier membership for writers who want the benefit of coaching without the cost of traditional coaching.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb