Sunday, November 19, 2017

Q&A with Philip O Ceallaigh


Philip O Ceallaigh is the translator of the novel For Two Thousand Years, by the Romanian writer Mihail Sebastian (1909-1945). The book focuses on a Romanian Jewish university student. O Ceallaigh's other work includes two short story collections, Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse and The Pleasant Light of Day. Born in Ireland, he lives in Bucharest, Romania.

Q: How did you end up translating For Two Thousand Years, and what was the process like?

A: I'd love to say I immediately saw it being greeted as a lost masterpiece, being taken up by mainstream publishers, getting serious treatment both sides of the Atlantic, repeated print runs - all of which has happened - but that would be a big fat lie.

In 2004 a friend handed me a nondescript paperback of a novel that had disappeared under communism and had been brought out in the 1990s by a small Jewish-interest press in Bucharest. I'd never heard of the author and I rarely read Romanian fiction, because I rarely found it rewarding.

But For Two Thousand Years gripped me, and perhaps precisely because of its understated, reflective and intimate style; much of the fiction I like has the sound of a writer working through something primarily for his or her own self, rather than seeking to dazzle a readership. This was the perspective of a particularly perceptive outsider, observing life around him.

Mihail Sebastian
So I identified very strongly with the writer. It was a very personal thing. I admired Sebastian's writerly vocation, his lucidity and solitariness. Had I met Sebastian I would have wanted to be his friend, to spend time speaking with him, and, and I began translating his book for the same reason - I wanted to be closer to this character I admired. 

But there was another level at which the book affected me deeply. This was a book that in many ways foresees the rise of totalitarianism and if it doesn't predict the Holocaust in its scale (I don't think anyone did predict that) it was in no doubt that a time of pogroms and repression was not far away.

Under communism, there was no discussion of the Romanian Holocaust and the complicity of the Romanian state in the killing of some 400,000 Jews, in Romania and the part of Ukraine occupied by the Romanian army.

The Holocaust was not denied, it was simply that it was never mentioned. There were no books where you could read about it. It is only since 2004, when the Romanian Holocaust was recognized by the Romanian state, that it has begun to be talked about and that truth has begun to seep into the popular consciousness.

The lived experience was represented in this supposed work of fiction in For Two Thousand Years set me learning about the - relatively recent - history of the place I lived, in a climate where the accepted history was... fiction.

I was translating just for myself, so I took my time. Three years. Then when I was finished, I thought, well, I should try to get this odd book published, maybe there'll be a few people like me, interested in this nook of history.

I was convinced it was an important document and that at the very least it should be accessible outside of Romanian, for academics at least. For a couple of years I tried all kinds of presses, mostly small ones, in four different English-speaking countries. Nobody was interested, so I put it in the drawer for five years.

Then in 2014 I was contacted by an editor at Penguin Modern Classics in London who had read an essay I'd written about Sebastian and asked to see the manuscript. And now it's been published in the U.S. by Other Press, with its reputation preceding it and with a very good foreword by Mark Mazower.

Q: What do you think the book says about the situation for Jews in Romania during the years before World War II?

A: They were highly vulnerable, that is what the book tells us, even without the benefit of hindsight. But it is easy to forget, because of our knowledge of what happened to "the Jews" that there was no single Jewish community. In important ways, the creation of "the Jew" was the work of the anti-Semites. It's hard to imagine a more diverse set of communities.

Romania, between the wars, was made up of the fringes of three empires that had dissolved - the Ottoman, Russian and Austro-Hungarian. It was where the Sephardic and Ashkenazi worlds met and mingled.

The oldest Jewish communities, in the south, were Spanish speaking Sephards who came up from the Mediterranean. The Yiddish-speaking "Polish" Jews came in numbers in the 19th century, and with time the two groups mixed and communicated in Romanian. Greater Romania, after 1918, then took in Basarabia, which had been part of the tsarist pale of settlement and had many poor shtetl Jews.

The Habsburg lands of Transylvania and Bukovina were home to urban Jews who spoke German or Hungarian. So there were differences of language, wealth and assimilation and the impossibility of any concerted response to the challenges they faced.

The unnamed narrator, the assimilated Romanian, captures something of this in his portrait of Dogany, who is from Transylvania and identifies as a Hungarian.

There is Sulitzer, the Yiddishist, who argues for a living, united Jewish tradition based around language (one the narrator cannot speak) and is repelled by the Zionists for trying to replace it with Hebrew.

There are the Zionists, trying to construct a secular Jewish identity, rather in imitation of the nation-mania of the Romanians and others (but also perhaps to save their own lives), who are in turn repudiated by S.T. Haim, who argues that they are no better than Mussolini in their emphasis on nation, and it is all a capitalist distraction to divide and conquer the working class...

Had these communities not been violently obliterated so soon after the writing of the book, it would be funny that the nationalists could have perceived them as a concerted threat to the nation. 

Q: What do you see as Mihail Sebastian's legacy as a writer?

A: That he registered such madness at such a chaotic, unstable time with such measured clarity. He is not a journalist, a diarist or a novelist. He wants to be the calm point from which the disintegration is observed.

He succeeded in doing this, his work becomes of universal value. It seems to have a particular resonance because we are only beginning to comprehend the 20th century, the utter collapse of civilization, the abyss in which the Holocaust and the Gulags became possible. 

Q: What does the book's title signify for you?

A: The 1930s was an age of sudden technological development - air travel, cinema, radio - and belief that the future could be directed, that human beings had the power to bring something new and extraordinary about.

It was the same enthusiasm and naiveté the produced fascism and communism. Communism was a utopian project, fascism a mass fantasy that a messiah would arise and lead a race or nation to a glorious new stage of development. They are the illiterate dreams in some ways of people dazzled by their own technological toys and ideological theorizing.

Against this there is the Jewish experience, and it is something of an antidote. That for two thousand years history has repeated itself. There are pogroms and there are the pauses between.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm nearly finished a collection of essays, mostly about Jewish writers in Eastern Europe and the Holocaust, a work that was ignited by having translated Sebastian, and shows all the signs of being unpublishable. But there is a little more work I'd like to do on it before I put it away in the drawer and let it go.

It sounds like a heavy project and it is, a lot of research, but I started writing it when my daughter was born and she's now five, and its always a reminder to me what a fortunate time and place for her to come into the world, in Romania. No wars, famines, dictators, genocide! For now, anyway...

I'm also translating Sebastian's first book, Women, for Other Press, and that will be out next year. It shows the kind of writer Sebastian would have liked to be, had history let him get on with his life in a safe and stable country; more of a Philip Roth, interested in personal and erotic entanglements, psychological observation and character.

But I'm not a professional translator. I think of it as a demanding hobby, something like rock climbing. I don't want to be there all the time, but when I'm there it takes all my attention.

I want to get back to writing short stories. I have another collection nearly finished, and at a certain level everything else I do starts to seem like a distraction if I can't write a story. I need to get away from historical research, rock climbing, clear my desk and get back to my real work. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Yes. I enjoy the impact For Two Thousand Years has had all the more for the years no English-language publisher would touch it. It's a reminder that some things take time. I'm lucky to have been able to give my time to some things I love and enjoy.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Natalka Burian


Natalka Burian is the author of the new young adult novel Welcome to the Slipstream. She is the co-owner of two bars, Ramona and Elsa, and she lives in Brooklyn.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Welcome to the Slipstream and for your main character, Van?

A: Van, or at least a proto-Van, was actually a secondary character in another novel I was working on. I wanted to keep writing about her, and realized quickly she needed her own book. That first book never made it out into the world, but I’m glad Van has.

Q: The book is set in Las Vegas and the Southwest. How important is setting to you in your work, and do you think this could have been set elsewhere?

A: For me, the setting is like another character in every story I write. I love the contrast between Las Vegas and the desert, and found it to be kind of an irresistible location for Van’s family to end up.

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

A: I knew that I wanted to use the word “slipstream,” because it evokes movement and also Van Morrison! Beyond that, I wasn’t sure of much. When I was at the naming stage, I played around with a few titles, and bounced them off of all of my friends and family. Welcome to the Slipstream was the one that stuck!

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

A: Sort of – I knew I wanted Van to be on a new path of her own choosing, but I wasn’t entirely sure what that would be for her. It’s still kind of ambiguous, but I hope I got the sentiment right.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a book out on submission now. It's set in West Virginia, in an insular, psychoactive plant farming community. It follows the bizarre life of a foster family who mysteriously lose their youngest member. They appeal to ruthless business associates, suspicious neighbors, and even the ghostly, powerful earth beneath the battlefield at Antietam, for the child's return.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Jonathan Hennessey



Q: How did you come up with the idea for this graphic history of Alexander Hamilton?

A: Deborah, please let me start by thanking you for discovering my book and giving me the chance to talk to you and your followers about it.

Alexander Hamilton: The Graphic History of an American Founding Father is actually my fourth, out of five, nonfiction graphic novels. Insofar as I’m an established author at all, I’m established in this unconventional niche. That is, histories based on independent research done in comic book form.

My first book, published in 2008, was an adaptation in comic book (or graphic novel) form of the entire U.S. Constitution. The experience of researching and writing that book led directly to a follow-up on the Civil War. That book, The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation uses the words of Lincoln’s arguably most famous speech to tell the whole story of the Civil War—from colonial times all the way to the present.

The point of front-loading all that is to mention that Alexander Hamilton is treated in some detail in both my first two books. But the idea of a publisher being willing to give the green-light to an entire graphic book devoted entirely to Hamilton alone? Only the smash Broadway musical would have made such a thing possible.

So, when the opportunity arose to devote so much attention to this one single Founding Father—whose reputation has had major ups and downs over the centuries—I pounced on it.

This happens to be an incredibly consequential time to be writing about the Revolutionary War and Early Republic eras of American history. That’s because, on the one hand, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s theatrical masterwork has made it a subject popular with tens of thousands of people who barely gave it a second thought a few years ago.

And now with what’s going on with our national politics, Americans are contemplating and actively participating in the narrative of what this country is supposed to be all about. And they are doing so at a level of intensity not seen, I don’t think, since just before the Civil War itself.

It’s absolutely crucial that anyone who cares about the future of this nation educates herself about figures like Alexander Hamilton and the political philosophies they stood for. Because people in positions of power and influence are actively trying to re-write that history as we speak.

Q: What do you think accounts for the popularity of the Hamilton musical and other things relating to Hamilton?

A: Here let me say this: I really don’t think that the popularity of Hamilton: An American Musical has very much to do with any new mass engagement in politics. Nor do I think it has anything to do with Donald Trump or the so-called “Resistance.”

I also wouldn’t say that the Hamilton mania has very much to do with the historical figure. As a man and as a politician, the historical Hamilton does not map on very neatly at all to either a modern liberal position or a modern conservative position.

The Hamilton mania can really all be attributed, I would say, to the specific genius of the play. And—I can’t stress this enough—to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s onstage portrayal of Hamilton.

In other words, it’s not necessarily the historical Hamilton but instead the theatrical stylization of the man that Lin-Manuel Miranda adopted as an actor, vocal artist, and writer.

As performed by the playwright, Hamilton is an arresting and appealing mix of sometimes contradictory qualities. He’s vulnerable. But he’s ambitious and brave. He swaggers with his fellow Revolutionary bros, but he has enormous sensitivity as a father and husband. He’s an exhausting-to-be-around workaholic. But he also has a rich inner life and moral failings most anyone can identify with.

We also know from the very beginning that Hamilton is going to die young. So, he has this tragic pall hanging over him the entire time. It makes for a captivating experience in and out of the theater. Because even if you haven’t yet managed to see Hamilton, so much of the character still comes across in Miranda’s voice in the soundtrack album.

And I mean Miranda’s voice. Because I really don’t think that if some other possibly even more accomplished Broadway actor starred in the role—and became the performer “of record” by being the lead singer on the soundtrack—the effect would have been the same.

Miranda’s voice is great. But it isn’t the stuff of which opera stars are born. He sounds kind of like someone you would know. What his vocal performance lacks in technical prowess it more than makes up for with its ability to make you believe in and empathize with the Hamilton character.

However, the responsibility of the play for the interest in Alexander Hamilton in general doesn’t end there. It’s also how the musical was cast with people of color. How it was conceived as a musical that would channel rap and hip-hop.

Both of those choices could have been facile gags. But in Miranda’s hands they’re much more. More articulate people than I have written about how the inclusion of minorities in the cast opens up American history to communities that typically feel either excluded from or oppressed by it. Or both!

I also find it a commentary on how the British in the 18th and 19th centuries looked down on Americans as second-class citizens—and how the music world looked down on rap and hip hop.

It’s a brilliant way to approach a play on so many fronts. And to me, there is no question that Hamilton wouldn’t have been so effective a piece of theater without those choices.

Q: What type of research did you need to do to write this book, and what did you learn that particularly surprised you?

A: Thankfully, I was already pretty well-grounded in the history of the period and in “Hamiltonian” political thought. But I have been impressed by this again and again in life: when it comes to history, there is always something more to learn.

When I was writing the book, I was working with this huge advantage. I had been accepted as a reader at a private university-type research facility, The Huntington Library, in Pasadena, California. The Huntington is one of the repositories of rare books and archival materials in the English-speaking world.

It’s more or less in my backyard. But scholars from all over the world go on sabbatical to use the collection there for writing books and academic papers, especially on American or British history, art, and botany.

Unless I had been living near an East Coast Ivy League college or the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., I wouldn’t have had so many valuable documents available to me. Really, it’s easy to think nowadays that all the information you need is online. But so, so, so many good books have never been digitized.

Coming into the writing of Alexander Hamilton: The Graphic History of an American Founding Father I also knew this. That the people who were likely to pick up the book were going to have certain expectations based on the structure of the musical—and what episodes of Hamilton’s life were and weren’t included.

(For example, the figure of Hercules Mulligan—though an actual person in Hamilton’s life—did not play so large a role in his career. He could easily be left out of most Alexander Hamilton biographies. But musical fans have fallen in love with him, and would be puzzled or annoyed if my book didn’t shed some light on him).

I am always surprised and surprised anew every time I look in detail at the history of the American Revolution—and how desperate the patriot side was in so many ways. Taking a crack at it this time, it left a deep mark in me how much we really owe to France for being able to hold out against the British long enough to eke out a victory.

I had also never before appreciated how deeply dysfunctional American politics were in the Early Republic. And France comes back into this! Because believe it or not, there was in the 1790s a pro-France craze among the most radically populist anti-government people in the infant United States—the kind of people who tend to hate France and everything it stands for today.

Alexander Hamilton’s instincts to use military force, religious baiting, and elitist impulses to counter his political enemies—especially in later times when his influence was dwindling and personal misfortune and bad decisions had made him into something of a national laughing stock—were also surprising. And, I might add, unflattering.

Q: What do you think Justin Greenwood’s art adds to the book?

A: Justin, who is accomplished and naturally talented enough to excel in any style of comics, has a particular passion for crime stories. Like Stumptown and Stringers. What made that attractive to me was his approach with to portraying a more realistic universe than you would have with a typical superhero book—while retaining the savvy powers of exaggeration you need to make energetic and appealing comics.

Along with color artist Brad Simpson, there was a lot of careful work to accentuate light and dark. This is something you need when you’re in a world lit only by candles, lanterns, and torches.

Justin was also amazingly game to take direction from me with the hundreds and hundreds of historical images I provided of historical figures (often at different ages) and period locations, wardrobe, vehicles, and what in cinema or on stage you would think of as “props”—tools, weapons, personal items and so on.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Thanks for asking! Well, I may be taking a break from nonfiction graphic novels for a little while. Years ago I stumbled on a little-known story about deaf athletes that I believe deserves to be told. And I probably will not choose to do so in the comics medium—mostly because I want to concentrate on writing in a way that wouldn’t work so well in comics.

I am excited about this project because just a few weeks ago I was helped to find a bygone deaf athlete’s personal scrapbook that I had every reason to think had been tossed into a dumpster in the early 1980s.

But there’s also this. Given the uncertain political times we live in, I believe it would be irresponsible not to take what I know about American history and the Constitution and struggle to get it somehow into the national conversation.

Writing the Hamilton book gave me what I believe to be an absolutely decisive insight into a Constitutional controversy that has to do with our sitting president and several of his businesses. I recently made an hour-long free-to-watch documentary on the Emoluments Clauses of the Constitution.

And I am planning another one on the Second Amendment. I think almost everyone on both sides of the issue is coming at it wrong. And that there might be a surprisingly effective way to deal with gun violence by restoring the forgotten role of certain elected leaders in this country who have been sitting on the fence on the issue for literally generations.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I was on tour with Alexander Hamilton: The Graphic History of an American Founding Father through much of the Northeastern U.S. in October.

That gave a West Coast-based guy like me the chance to visit or re-visit many of the actual places in which Alexander Hamilton lived and breathed—including the sites of his residences in New York and Philadelphia, and many Revolutionary War battlefields in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

So all this month of November I’ve been embarking on a social media campaign I call #Hamiltonwashere.

Every day I bring you to a new location important to Alexander Hamilton history, showing what the place looked like now and then. You can find it on Instagram (instagram.com/hamiltongraphic), Twitter (@Hamiltonbook), the book’s dedicated website (hamiltongraphicnovel.com), or my personal website, jonathanhennessey.com.

Here’s something else that’s fun and entirely unexpected. Did you know that running throughout the entirety of the cult classic ‘80s teen dramedy Fast Times At Ridgemont High there is an underlying metaphor about Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson? It’s true! And I've also made a short video deconstructing that. It’s on YouTube at https://youtu.be/MNm308fP64A.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Kathryn Erskine


Kathryn Erskine is the author of The Incredible Magic of Being, a new novel for kids. Her other books include Mockingbird and Mama Africa!. She lives in Virginia.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Incredible Magic of Being, and for your main character, Julian?

A: Like all of my fictional characters, Julian popped into my head unannounced. I never know where they come from, or why, until I start writing down what they say, how they interact with a variety of characters who also arrive in my head, where they live, what’s bothering them, and eventually I figure out the real life circumstances that gave birth to them.

I started this novel not long after cancer treatment and I think my appreciation for life, and a feeling of urgency to experience and enjoy everything we can, even when things (and people) around us aren’t perfect, came through in Julian and the story itself.

Of all my characters, Julian is the most like I was as a child — except I didn’t say all the things he does, only thought them (I figured people might think I was crazy!).

I’m sure there are other kids out there who are observant, feel things strongly, worry, have anxiety, and also have so much curiosity that they want to learn about everything.

That’s why I included the “FARTS” — Facts And Random Thoughts — because so many of them are good jumping off points for more questions or research.

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 no idea what would happen in the story, and that’s almost always true of my writing. At some point, often halfway or two-thirds the way through, I get an idea of the ending but I’m not entirely sure how to get there. It’s not the most efficient way to write but the journey is always interesting!

The character who was the most difficult for me was Mr. X because I couldn’t get a handle on him for the longest time. I even tried to write him out but (as he’d already told me in his grouchy voice) it didn’t work. Now I know why it was so hard but at the time he was still a mystery.

Q: One of Julian's interests is space and constellations. Why did you choose that as a theme, and did you need to do any research?

A: I research excessively even if I feel I know the subject well, and in this case I’m only a very amateur astronomer, enjoying looking at the constellations and experiencing cosmic events (I traveled to South Carolina so I could see the total solar eclipse!).

I sometimes regret not going into the sciences — I practiced law — because I was fascinated by science as a kid, but I think classes, in my day, started making it feel dull and flat.

I was pretty sure Julian knew a whole lot more about the universe than I did, so I took an astronomy course, which was fascinating. It also meant I had two experts, the instructors, of whom I could ask questions about telescopes and all things celestial.

And I could actually look through various telescopes out in the field and in an observatory, and decide what Julian’s focus would be — finding a comet despite all of those Messier objects.

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

A: There are so many, it’s hard to choose! I think Kelly Starling Lyons writes perfect picture books and I aspire someday to master the art as well as she has. Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen has a knack for great humor, while others like Maha Addasi and Kristy Dempsey can write gentle pieces that evoke a special time or place.

For novels, there’s a whole host: Meg Medina, Lamar Giles, Tracey Baptiste, Linda Urban, Gary Schmidt, Mitali Perkins, M.T. Anderson, Jason Reynolds—I could go on and on. They inspire me, not in subject matter or specifics necessarily, but I’m inspired to write the best book I possibly can because theirs are simply stunning.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m always affected by events around me so my work is bordering on the dystopian lately, but there’s always hope in anything I write.

I’m working on a picture book biography (my first, Mama Africa, just published in October 2017), a dystopian novel where the kids save the day (of course!), a novel in verse set at Monticello around the time Jefferson dies, and another verse novel for young adults which is still in the early stages.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Like Julian, I believe there are unexplained phenomena out there that may one day be explained; for example, when you have a sudden feeling that someone is hurt and find out they were just injured, or you think of someone you haven’t thought of in ages and the phone rings and it’s that person, or you feel an urgent need to make sure your passport is valid and then minutes later are asked to go on an international trip.

Sure, we can explain things away as coincidence but eventually it becomes too much of a coincidence that these things keep happening. I think we’ll eventually find out a very logical explanation for all of it. Until then, I’ll just call it the incredible magic of being.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 19

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Nov. 19, 1909: Peter Drucker born.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Q&A with Susan Goldman Rubin


Susan Goldman Rubin is the author of Maya Lin: Thinking With Her Hands, a new biography for kids about the architect. Rubin's many other books include The Quilts of Gee's Bend and Brown v. Board of Education. She lives in Malibu, California.

Q: Why did you decide to write a book for young readers about Maya Lin?

A: As always, I love to find a woman artist to write about who’s done something significant and important and is a role model. Someone kids would want to read about.

The book started so many years ago—my granddaughter, who’s now 12, was about 3. We went to hear [Maya Lin] speak. I had talked with my editor about it. We realized what she was working on, her whole ecological program. It was so on-target for elementary school upper grades. We know she would be a marvelous subject, and of course, [the book would involve] diversity.

When I started working on the book, I realized there are many features of her life that are relevant to today’s kids. Most kids don’t know what architecture is. I had the privilege of visiting her in her studio. It gave me a sense of the projects she’s working on. It helped to visualize what a studio is, and her process.

She emphasized that her work had three [parts]—artist, designer of monuments and architect, and all her outdoor work.

Q: How did you research her life, and what role did she play in your research?

A: She’s a very strong woman. She kind of outlined the book, She has two daughters—she understood the book. I thought, I would like to do one house. As a kid, I didn’t realize architects did more than houses. She said the Box House [in Colorado] was her favorite; it’s based on a Japanese puzzle toy. She talked about bringing the outdoors in. She so loves nature. The setting becomes a part of the project—a tree growing through the deck. It’s very Frank Lloyd Wright. In a sense, she outlined which projects she thought would be best.

And she was so cooperative, and so was her studio manager. We have a slim budget; I had no art budget. She said she would give me images gratis…

Her What Is Missing project is so dear to her heart. The Listening Cone in San Francisco seemed like a wonderful thing to show. I went there and curled up inside to take notes. I didn’t know [my husband] was taking a picture. I thought it would give a sense of the size. It’s one of the only times my picture appears in a book!

One of the most important things to me was to visit as many of her sites as I could. That’s an important part of the primary research. I spent hours at the Vietnam Memorial. Her process of deciding what she was trying to accomplish, the obstacles she faced once she won the contest—that was one area she didn’t want to talk about.

When I visited the Museum of Chinese in America, in New York, I thought, Whoa! She is very clear about saying she’s an American but this is her heritage, and she honored it in the museum, and it’s terrific for readers to talk about their heritage.

Q: Can you say more about how the book was organized, in terms of her projects and the variety of projects she’s undertaken?

A: I originally planned on each chapter being devoted to one of her projects. My editor wanted one chanter on her childhood, and each chapter heading should name a material integral to that project. I thought, no, it won’t tell what the project’s about.

So my wonderful agent George Nicholson, who handled the project with me before his death, and his colleague Erica Silverman, said why not combine both? I thought that was a good way of organizing the chapters—it calls attention to the medium and what the story is going to be about.

With Storm King [in Mountainville, New York], I thought, what is outdoor artwork? I need to see it! I went up the first time during a storm. I was the only person there. I had to leave because it was too dangerous. My husband and I went back. An artist was invited to do a project for the park—it was really thrilling! As part of my research, I wanted to visit as many as I could.

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

A: Curiosity in knowing more. Wanting to see some of the projects for themselves. There may be others near where they are. Certainly I’d love for them to have new respect for diversity and how one woman honored her heritage and stood up to criticism.

And also an understanding of what a memorial is. What would kids do to remember [someone]? I also hoped they’d realize how much a woman can accomplish. There’s nothing a woman can’t do who has drive and spirit.

In the What Is Missing project she invites people to participate and notice what is missing. I noticed in our neighborhood we don’t have rabbits running around the way we used to. She invites everyone to send [observations]. Her work inspires so many ideas for what people can do.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just got the advance copy for a book coming out in March—Coco Chanel: Pearls, Perfume, and the Little Black Dress. It’s for age 10-12 and up. It was wonderful writing about her as a designer, and also she was so mean! None of this heroic stuff! She was a fabulously successful woman who rose from being very poor to being the head of a fashion empire.

And I’m doing a biography of Paul Robeson, the great singer, scholar, actor…and I’m doing a book on voting rights…

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: [Maya Lin] talked so much about what goes into her work. She says her writing is such an important part of her work. I would like readers to notice that, and hopefully read the book she wrote. She’s a marvelous writer, and is so dedicated to her work. And she’s married and is the mother of two daughters. She juggles everything.

One place I would like to visit and haven’t yet is the Langston Hughes Library [in Clinton, Tennessee]. When I’ve done other books on civil rights I have been sending the books to the library. I hope to visit some day.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Susan Goldman Rubin.

Q&A with Peter S. Rush


Peter S. Rush is the author of the new novel Wild World, which takes place in the early 1970s. He has worked as a reporter, a Peace Corps volunteer, and a police officer, and is CEO of a global management firm.

Q: How much was Wild World based on your own experiences as a student at Brown University and as a police officer?

A: My experience at Brown and as a police officer provides the context, texture and authentic characters in the book. But it is a novel that allows for the exploration of themes, settings and issues across a broad spectrum. When I was writing it, I tried to stay true to the time period in attitudes and opinions. When I finished, I realized how many of those themes are extremely relevant and important today.

Q: Did you need to do much research to write the novel?

A: I needed to go back to the era – 45+ years ago. I started with the
music because it was the social network for that generation. I found myself watching movies and reading newspapers from the time. I also dug through some memories boxes from then - letters, college papers, assignments to try to bring me back to the time and place before all our modern gadgets.  It was fun to see how we lived in the "last century."

Q: How would you compare perceptions of police officers during the Vietnam War period in which the book is set, and today?

A: In that era, police officers were “pigs” and the enemy of the hippies. long hairs,  blacks and other minorities. It was a us versus them mentality. The level of education and training on the police force was not extensive. While many of the police were motivated to do what they thought was right, the use of force was the first action. Has the situation evolved?  Definitely. Does it have further to go? Absolutely.

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

A: The book went through extensive revisions along the way. This book is about the characters and the situations they encounter and must interact with. I want the reader to be there in the scene. I wasn’t certain where the love story or the action would end when I began but I think it found the right place.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I won’t call the next book a sequel but it takes some of the characters from the book on a different journey of that era – drugs and the allure of money. It is set after this book in the early ‘70s in Florida where smuggling drugs was almost as big an industry as the  tourism.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I started my career as a working journalist and it provided me with the tools to tell a story. The challenge always is to tell a good story.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Peter S. Rush will be appearing at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., in the Bloomberg Room at 6pm on Tuesday, Nov. 21.