Thursday, May 6, 2021

Q&A with Eric Nguyen

 

 


 

Eric Nguyen is the author of the new novel Things We Lost to the Water. He is the editor in chief of diaCRITICS.org, and he lives in Washington, D.C.

 

Q: What inspired you to write Things We Lost to the Water, and how did you create your characters Huong, Tuan, and Binh?

 

A: I was inspired by the Vietnamese American community in New Orleans. Before moving to Louisiana for graduate school, I didn’t know there was one there. But finding them there and learning about their stories, I was inspired to write about them.

 

With this novel, I wanted to better understand the refugee experience that my parents went through. So Huong was definitely the first character I wrote and was the impetus of the story. She represents that refugee figure—someone whose life changes because they flee a country.

 

But once I had her, I felt her sons had their own stories as well and they really drove the narrative because of how different they were from their mother and each other.

 

Q: The novel is set in New Orleans--how important is setting to you in your writing?

 

A: Setting is super important in this novel. I don’t think this story could have taken place anywhere else but New Orleans. Weather, the mix of culture, the history of the city all play an important role in the book.

 

I like to think of New Orleans itself as a character, one whose moods and characteristics affect the characters as well.

 

Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, "As the characters spin away from each other, Nguyen keeps a keen eye on their struggles and triumphs, crafting an expansive portrayal of New Orleans’s Vietnamese community under the ever-present threat of flooding, and the novel builds to a haunting conclusion during Hurricane Katrina." What do you think of that description, and how was the book's title chosen?

 

A: I feel that description is accurate. I tried to focus on the struggles and triumphs of the characters, but also keep an eye on the setting of New Orleans, including the ever-present threat of flooding. In the end, both the characters and the setting kind of intersect to a crescendo that I felt was inevitable.

 

The book’s title is really about that intersection of the Vietnamese American experience—many of whom left Vietnam by water—and the Louisiana experience—which is definitely tinged with losses due to water.

 

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

 

A: I hope readers take away a story about Vietnamese Americans—or more generally Asian Americans—in the South. I think when people think of the South, people rarely imagine Asians being there. But they are! Asian Americans are as much a part of the Southern story as anyone else.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’m in the early stages of another novel! So fingers crossed for that!

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: New Orleans (and Louisiana!) is a place rich in stories. If you like Things We Lost to the Water, I highly recommend that you read other Louisiana literature.

 

Off the top of my head, I'm thinking of The Yellow House by Sarah Broom, which also takes place in the same area as Things We Lost to the Water.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Anjali Enjeti

 

 


 

Anjali Enjeti is the author of the new novel The Parted Earth and the new essay collection Southbound. She lives outside of Atlanta.

 

 

Q: What inspired you to write The Parted Earth, which focuses on the impact of the Partition of India in 1947, and how did you create your characters Shan and Deepa?

 

A: The Parted Earth was inspired by my longing for my Indian grandmother. She passed away when I was about 33. I hadn’t seen her in years, and I had always promised her that I’d bring my children to India so that she could meet them. I couldn’t fulfill this promise.

 

Five years later, when we went to India for my cousin’s wedding, my first time in the country in 19 years, I was suddenly awash in renewed grief. Being back in her country for the first time since her death made me feel her death all over again.

 

It was on this trip that I got the idea for the novel, a story that centered around a granddaughter and a grandmother who are separated from one another.

 

Q: Did you need to do much research to write the novel, and if so, did you learn anything especially surprising?

 

A: Long before I became a writer, shortly after graduating from college, I began reading every book I could find about Partition. I was very interested in this history. I knew a little about Partition before, but learned nothing about it in school. I wanted to delve deeper.

 

And I read fiction and nonfiction about Partition for a good 10 years before I was a writer, 15 years before I ever envisioned writing a book about Partition. So my research about Partition preceded the book.

 

One of the most surprising things about Partition is that there was virtually no massive, widescale effort to collect the stories of survivors until about 60 years later.

 

One to 2 million people died, and 15 million people migrated. It’s the largest human migration in world history. So many stories were likely lost in the decades that there was no formal documentation of them.

 

Q: The writer Vanessa Hua says of the novel, "Epic in scope, intimate in the telling, Anjali Enjeti’s The Parted Earth is a devastating portrayal of Partition and the trauma it wreaked in the generations that followed." What do you think of that assessment?

 

A: I became a fan of Vanessa Hua and her work as a journalist many years ago, and absolutely loved her short story collection, Deceit and Other Possibilities, and her novel, River of Stars. So reading this endorsement meant the world to me!

 

She’s also such a role model because I’m also a journalist. It helps to see other writers out there balancing both the nonfiction and fiction realm at the same time.

 

Q: In addition, you have an essay collection out this spring, Southbound. In an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Suzanne Van Atten writes that you changed the focus of the book in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. Can you say more about that?

 

A: In my previous iteration of Southbound, 50 percent of the essays had been previously published, and many of them focused on my own racialized trauma.

 

But I eventually realized that the book would resonate more if I took a look at how I had been complicit in the same kind of white supremacy that had harmed me.


Understanding complicity is crucial not only to our personal growth, but social justice work. And it’s also empowering. Because we can’t necessarily change other people, but once we understand our own missteps and flaws, we absolutely can change and improve ourselves.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’m currently rewriting my first novel. It’s set primarily in North Georgia, one of my favorite parts of the country. It’s where I escape to find peace and quiet.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: Thank you so much for having me! 

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Dawn Newton

 

 


 

Dawn Newton is the author of the new novel The Remnants of Summer. She also has written the memoir Winded. She lives in East Lansing, Michigan.

 

Q: You write that your new novel was inspired by your family and your childhood summers. Can you say more about how you ended up writing this book?

 

A: I began this book in the late 1980s, not long after I completed a master’s degree in fiction writing. At the time, I was living in Virginia with my husband, who was pursuing a Ph.D. in history at the University of Virginia.

 

As I worked on the novel, I hoped to capture the small working-class Michigan suburb where I was raised, a magical place in so many ways with its abundant lakes and vivid seasonal changes.

 

I wanted to pay homage to my parents and sisters and preserve the life we’d shared, yet I also wanted to say something about work and play and the darkness of the world that most adolescents begin to perceive as they mature.

 

Some grim events occurred in our region in the 1970s, as in many parts of America; when you live in a suburb of a metro area, the location is two things at once – a small town and a big city, especially with respect to the news.

 

During my adolescence, I was a sponge for darkness. It perplexed me, especially in the summer, when the days felt so sunny and promising in Michigan.

 

Not too long after my husband and I moved back to Michigan, while I was still mired in writing the book and working at a requisite day job, my parents both died, 36 days apart, in February and March of 1993. They were only in their mid-60s.

 

My father had been declining from multiple sclerosis for some years, but my mother’s death was completely unexpected. My sisters and I were overwhelmed with grief and the demands of raising young children and working jobs while processing our losses.

 

Our parents had divorced when we were young adults, so we’d already dealt with that sadness, but we felt that in addition to losing these two human beings we loved, we lost access to a catalogue of their histories and experiences.

 

I knew then that the novel I was writing needed to be about grief as a coming-of-age experience.

 

It also provided an opportunity for me as an adult author to say, “Yes, I am an adult now, which means losing one’s parents should be something to get over, something in the natural order of things, but I can’t seem to recover. If I memorialize them and their lost dreams in some way through this book, I will lessen the intensity of my sadness.”

 

Q: As you’ve noted, the book takes place in Michigan – how important is setting to you in your writing?

 

A: Setting is a key fictional element for me because the word “setting” itself has so many different layers. It speaks to atmosphere, weather, geographical location, topography, shades of light and darkness, country, and continent.

 

At some point in my teaching career, I used to play the song “The Big Picture” by the Chenille Sisters to teach variations of settings.

 

From a geographical perspective, I spent the first 21 years of my life in Michigan, venturing to Canada twice and Chicago twice, but I was clearly a Michigander and a Midwesterner.


I probably didn’t label myself as such until after I went to graduate school in Baltimore and realized that the Midwest was known for specific attitudes and characteristics.

 

I had started writing realistic literary fiction in high school. Since I lived in Michigan, the state was a natural setting for my stories – I followed the oft-touted advice: write what you know. 

 

I had read widely in middle school, high school, and college; in high school I became really enamored with French writers like Victor Hugo, the Alexandres Dumas and Dumas fils, as well as Irish history.

 

I also read a lot of Leon Uris books, which were set in different locations over the world, and I was a huge consumer of Harlequin romances, also set in various locations.

 

Yet it wouldn’t have occurred to me to use an exotic setting for my own fiction. I think when you start writing early in life and when you hail from the working class, there is a limit to what you know and/or imagine.

 

In addition, I did research in college on essays and research papers, but it didn’t occur to me then that people “researched” settings in order to write. I assumed they just absorbed the details of the places they lived.

 

Now that I’m older and have lived the majority of my life in Michigan, I find that I’m proud of my heritage and my state, with all its treasures and flaws.

 

I want to capture some of the things I’ve learned about it over the course of my life, so even if I need to do research now to understand things I just didn’t know about my state, I find it exciting to do so.

 

For example, I didn’t understand until the last decade or so how much the area in which I grew up was affected by several factors coming together – the growth of the auto industry, the transformation of vacation cottages into bedroom communities, the train rail system, and of course, the dynamic of white flight, one of the most troubling aspects of suburban growth.

 

When I was a kid, I didn’t know about these factors. I knew that I lived on a dirt road in a small house, and most houses in our neighborhood weren’t much to look at. But I could walk to a beach all summer long, and there was nothing quite as breath-taking as that world of sun and cool, dappled water.

 

Q: Can you say more about any research you did to write the book?

 

A: The fun part of the answer to this question is that I began the book before the Internet came on the scene, so I did different kinds of research at multiple times while writing and revising the book over the years.

 

When I first sat down to write it, I wanted to capture what my life was like growing up in this working-class environment in which we had access to an amazing network of small lakes, in addition to the Great Lakes.

 

For example, the custom for our last day of elementary school each June was for the entire student body to walk single file down the road to a state park where we had a big picnic to launch the summer.

 

Before the Internet, I read books about Michigan history to augment the sections in which I talked about lakes, much of it eventually cut out of the book. I also read Studs Terkel’s Working.

 

When I returned to the book after my parents’ deaths and my children’s births, I realized that using the Internet, I might be able to locate information on the MIA who had been a key part of my coming-of-age experience.

 

Before that point, I only knew what I’d learned one July Fourth when my parents happened to see a feature on the news about his disappearance. Because he’d gone missing on the Fourth, it was important to me that I use his true story, as accurately as I could recreate it. I was able to find more information about him over the years online.

 

In a similar way, I wanted to make sure I captured the emotional details of the Oakland County Child Killings which took place in the metro Detroit area, though I chose to fictionalize the actual details.

 

The pursuit for the killer has had so many twists and turns over the years that I knew I would never be able to approximate the details, nor did I want to.

 

Yet the experience of growing up when that series of crimes occurred in the metro Detroit area really left a mark on me – it was the first time I was so directly exposed to evil.

 

Over the last few years as I did the final revisions, I also had to go back and research several aspects of the book – from details about Nixon and Watergate to Detroit Tigers information, as well as the release dates on some of the songs I included.

 

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

 

A: Reminders about the critical importance of communication, the unpredictability of grief journeys, and the powerful value of moments, not only from a mindfulness perspective but also as a distillation of joy and the essence of beauty.

 

In the realm of communication, I continue to be amazed at how much people can just shut down emotionally to others when they are in conflict with themselves, especially adolescents.

 

Most young people I know have friends they talk to, and my own kids talked to me and their father quite a bit, just as my sisters and I talked to our parents.

 

Yet there still seem to be these boundaries that get erected whether from parent to child or vice versa with respect to whatever idiosyncratic issues.

 

As a result, we end up hearing about things that happen – from small, insignificant miscommunications to huge tragedies, and often the problem occurs because one piece of information was hidden either intentionally or inadvertently.

 

I try to be respectful of my adult children and not pry, but sometimes I think there is value to just asking the one bold question, or even making a bold statement in the form of a joke, to get kids to open up about whatever.

 

I was extremely close to my mother and asked her some things that other kids would never dream of asking. Yet as an adult, when I look back at information I withheld from her, I’m surprised at why I made the choices I made. And parents can often use lessons in opening up themselves.

 

Maybe kids need to articulate a surprising question or thought to wake their parents up to their needs or their struggles.  It’s the only way we can hope there is someone there to help us if and when things fall apart.

 

There are no guarantees, of course. Growing up is hard. Losing a family member is hard. There is no right or wrong way to grow up or grieve.

 

But communication is key. And when a family is going through grief together, the members need to communicate, yet there are no definite timetables for that communication to take place.

 

As for a takeaway about grief, I want to reinforce the idea that it’s incredibly hard work, and it may go on for a long time.

 

When Elisabeth K├╝bler-Ross came on the scene with her research about the stages of grief, it was powerful for people to recognize the complexity of the process.

 

And even after her work was out there, we had additional learning, reinforcement of the idea that yes, there are stages, but those stages don’t necessarily come in a linear step-by-step order.

 

Sometimes one’s pain doubles back and creates a regression. A quagmire. I try to honor those unpredictable blips, and I want to encourage other people to recognize that they must do grief in their own way; people are different, so we are going to all grieve differently.

 

Finally, with respect to the value of moments, I have realized that whether you’re living out your life or living out your grief, there is a kind of two-part value of the moments.

 

From a mindfulness perspective, we know that it’s helpful to stop and breathe. Pay attention to our breathing. Take ourselves out of the headiness of our thoughts and value the lived moment.

 

In addition to that idea, which has helped me quite a bit with both depression and grief, I think there is this tangible world of objects from which many of us derive comfort. Tactile objects that are an extension of our memories.

 

As a person with packrat tendencies, I found it difficult to get rid of all my parents’ things. So many other people go through this same dilemma. I try, as many people advise, to hold on to the memories. Yet I often go to moments, and I can sometimes capture them with objects.

 

I still have a small copper-plated pitcher that my mother used to use to pour distilled water into the iron when she ironed my dad’s shirts in my childhood.

 

My sisters and I all did half-day kindergarten, which meant we came home, at lunch, watched The Donna Reed Show, and then went to take a nap in my parents’ room while my mother ironed.

 

The memory itself brings me joy, yet having that pitcher around makes the moment particularly concrete and meaningful.

 

Photos do the same thing, certainly; they provide details of the past and aspects of the loved one we’re missing. But for me, it is so soothing to concentrate on objects as totems of another person’s life.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: Over the course of my adult life, I started three other novels, all of them related to family dynamics in one way or another.

 

In recent months, I’ve decided to return to one about my mother’s early adulthood. She was the youngest of seven kids, and only 18 when her mother died. When her father remarried, the new, younger woman became an evil stepmother of sorts.

 

By then, my mother was a civilian working for Selfridge Air Force Base in Mt. Clemens, Michigan. Her bosses asked her to go to Germany with the Air Force to do secretarial work. As a result, my mother escaped her life in Mt. Clemens, Michigan, and became a world traveler at a young age.

 

She spent two years in Germany after World War II, witnessing the aftermath and reconstruction but also experiencing an independent, adventurous life, travelling around Europe on her weekends and learning about the world. She sent home lots of letters.

 

I view that time as the most exciting period of my mother’s life, and obviously, I wasn’t there, so in writing the book, I’m doing an odd reverse time-travelling, cheering my mother and her risk-taking, her independence, and her educational process, since she would never have the opportunity to go to college.

 

That’s the true story from which the book springs. As a writer, I’ve been fascinated for years with my mother’s birthplace in Mt. Clemens, a town known for its mineral baths in the 1940s.

 

Thus, while part of the novel takes place in Germany, part of it takes place in Mt. Clemens and Detroit. The main character, Mattie, has a sister who remains in Mt. Clemens, working at a hotel that offers the feature of the baths, less popular in the 1950s (the story’s setting in time) than earlier on.

 

The fictional sister is envious of her travelling sibling and burdened by having to negotiate with the father and his duplicitous wife over the care of another sibling, a brother, who lost a leg in the war and needs to find a place to live while rehabilitating. Part of the brother’s story takes place in a Veterans Administration Hospital in Allen Park, near Detroit.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: In the early summer of 2020, on the way back from an appointment with the oncologist, my husband and I stopped in the old neighborhood and walked around, taking pictures of my childhood beach and the nearby canal.

 

It was a day not unlike the sunny days I describe in the novel, providing a rich, nostalgia-tinged experience. We ran into a few people who called hello from their yards, and one woman provided an update on people she knew whom I might have known in the past.

 

Hearing old family names and stories about the lake and walking on the dirt roads (some of them now paved) made me feel that I’d come full circle.

 

After we got back home to East Lansing and viewed the pictures, I sent them to my artist friend, Barbara Hranilovich, who was working on the book’s cover. 

 

Though she created other images and the publisher’s team considered some designs, I can’t tell you how pleased I am that Barb’s vision of my childhood beach graces the cover of the novel, 30 years in the making. 

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Dawn Newton.

Q&A with Maddy Mara

 

Meredith Badger, photo by Larissa Siebicke

 

 
Maddy Mara (the pen name for writers Meredith Badger and Hilary Rogers) is the author of the new kids' book series Dragon Girls. The first book in the series is Azmina the Gold Glitter Dragon. Hilary Rogers lives in Australia and Meredith Badger lives in Germany. 

 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for the Dragon Girls series?
 

 

MEREDITH: Hilary and I had been playing with the idea of a fantasy series for girls. Hil had the idea of setting it in a magical forest inhabited by human-animal hybrids. We thought about various combinations – deer-girls, fox-girls, eagle-girls. 

 

Then my daughter Madeleine suggested dragon-girls, which Hil and I immediately liked. Dragons are like fairies in that they are part of the magical world and can fly. But in our opinion dragons are even better than fairies because they are also awe-inspiring and strong. 

Hilary Rogers, by Les Hallack
 

We both recognized that dragon-girls are the kind of characters that would be great role-models for girls growing up today. Our dragon-girls are fun, loyal and friendly – but they are also determined problem-solvers and utterly in control of their destinies. 

 

Remember, if you try to trick or stop a dragon girl while she is mid-way through a mission, she is going to blast you with her roar!  

 

Q: What inspired the plot of this first book, about Azmina? 

 

A: We wanted the first book in the series to shine as much as possible – so a glittery gold dragon-girl was the perfect start! Azmina is also warm and relatable; the ideal girl to take us on our first adventure. 

 

Azmina leads us into the Magic Forest and introduces us to some of the main characters there, such as the magnificent and wise Tree Queen, and the mischievous Shadow Sprites. 

 

At the heart of the story is a mission to help the Tree Queen save the forest, and this involves making a very special magical potion (with ingredients such as Glow Honey and a flying spark from a volcano). 

 

But we’ve also weaved real-world elements into the story, too. Azmina is new in town and hasn’t made any proper friends yet, which is something many kids can relate to. 

 

Another important element in this book – and in fact, in all of the Dragon Girls books – is Azmina finding her “roar.” This is Azmina discovering her voice, and learning how to use it to stand up for herself and for what she believes in. Never underestimate a determined girl!  

 

Q: How did the two of you start writing together, and how do you collaborate on your books? 

 

MEREDITH: Hil and I have worked together for many years. I was one of the authors on a couple of series that Hil developed that were very popular in Australia (where we are both originally from). One was called Go Girl! and the other was Zac Power

 

Since then we have published many books together and quite seriously, collaborating with Hil is one of my favourite things in the world to do. 

 

We generally start by discussing various ideas and then at some point one of us gets terribly excited and starts writing and then passes it on to the other one who either does some editing or adds extra elements. I find by the end that it’s hard to tell who did what. 

 

It’s hard to express exactly how much joy our joint projects give me and through the pandemic it has been such a positive – and wonderfully distracting – collaboration. 

 

The added bonus is that we are both almost obsessively prompt on getting things done so there is no waiting around for the other to finish their “bit.” 

 

HILARY: It’s so great that Meredith likes working with me because I find our collaboration a total drag. Jokes! I am utterly smitten with our creative partnership too, and never want it to end. 

 

Being a writer can be a lonely business, and it’s easy to lose perspective and momentum when publishers are busy or delayed in getting back to you. 

 

But working as a team, we always have each other to bounce ideas off, and to pep each other up. Meredith is more of a pessimist, so sometimes needs reassuring that she’s fabulous; I’m a relentless optimist, so I sometimes need grounding. 

 

Meredith has the most amazing (and hilarious) brain, and we just spark off each other when workshopping. Meredith’s instinct is to write (she is fantastic at just jumping in and writing), and I am a longtime editor so I love nothing more than getting my teeth into something that needs my wrangling. 

 

But as Meredith says, by the end of our process of sending the manuscript back and forth, we can never remember who did what. I’m convinced all my favorite lines are hers, and vice versa. (But I’m right – the most glorious bits are Meredith’s!)  

 

Q: What do you hope kids take away from Azmina the Gold Glitter Dragon

 

A: Primarily, we’re hoping that our readers will be caught up in the story, the adventure and the magic of the forest. 

 

Escaping the real world, by diving into a novel, is so important for kids. It’s a break from screens, a break from reality, and so good for the nervous system and the imagination. 

 

We’ve worked hard to create a rich, lush realm filled with quirky and appealing characters (such as Glow Bees who hate bee jokes and don’t have a Queen; they have a democratically elected president) – and to keep the story fast-paced and full of excitement. 

 

But there is also another very important focus for the series: encouraging girls to trust their instincts, to feel able speak up, and to insist on being heard. Girls working as a team and supporting each other is another key element we’re hoping readers will get from the series.  

 

Q: What are you working on now? 

 

A: We always have things bubbling away! We’ve written a picture book called The Greatest Mistakes That Went Right, which is coming out later this year in Australia. 

 

It’s all about the happy accidents or mistakes that have led to wonderful and important inventions. We cover all sorts of discoveries, from penicillin to PlayDoh, and we do it in rhyme so it’s great fun. 

 

We wanted to remind kids that they need not fear messing up, and that even the most successful people in history have messed up along the way. As we say in the book, “Be scared of big snakes but not silly mistakes,” which is a line that’s particularly relevant here in Australia! 

 

We also have a series for younger readers coming out early 2022 about a tiny and very determined kitten who is convinced she’s as fierce as a tiger. We can tell you more about this in a few months!  

 

Q: Anything else we should know? 

 

HILARY: Yes! Two things: 

 

Firstly, because we live on opposite sides of the world (Mere lives in Germany and I live in Australia), there’s always someone working on our projects. It’s like having a 24-hour team beavering away! 

 

This means when we wake up in the morning we get to see what the other has written overnight. It’s like the elves coming overnight and making us snazzy red boots. 

 

Secondly, our pen name Maddy Mara is the combination of our daughters’ nicknames – Meredith’s Madeleine and my Asmara. We wanted our pen name to have meaning, and our girls are a great reminder of how important our writing is. 

 

We want to send strong and empowering messages to all our readers, but we strive to wrap our messages up in good stories so you can’t even tell! 

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 6

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
May 6, 1856: Sigmund Freud born.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Q&A with Pam Jenoff

 

Photo by Mindy Schwartz Sorasky

 

Pam Jenoff is the author of the new historical novel The Woman with the Blue Star, which takes place in Poland during World War II. Her other novels include The Lost Girls of Paris. She also teaches at Rutgers Law School, and she lives in the Philadelphia area.

 

Q: What inspired you to write The Woman with the Blue Star, and how did you create your characters Sadie and Ella?

 

A: I was inspired by a true story that I discovered while researching ideas for a new book of Jewish people who had survived the Holocaust by hiding and living in the sewer. I had never heard of such a thing and was stunned.

 

I created Sadie by reading the stories of several young women who had lived in the sewer and combining and fictionalizing them.

 

In real life, one of the young women in the sewer had looked up and seen a girl her own age buying flowers on the street. She was struck by the disparity and her mother promised her that someday, there would be flowers for her too.

 

I created Ella from the image of the girl buying flowers and imagined a friendship between the two.

 

Q: You say in your acknowledgments, "Like the year 2020, this book seemed, in many ways, doomed from the start." Why was that the case, and how did you turn the book around?

 

A: I believe in being very honest about my writing journey, including the failures. I turned in a draft manuscript for The Woman with the Blue Star and my editor told me honestly that it was not right at all.

 

We had hard conversations about what needed to be done and it involved rewriting 90 percent of the book. This was the first time in 11 books that such a thing had happened to me and I was devastated and overwhelmed by the task. I wallowed in self-pity for about 10 minutes and then realized that this was the work and got started.

 

It was incredibly difficult but the result was a book that is better in every way and I am so glad I accepted the rewriting challenge. I learned so much!

 

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

 

A: This book involved extensive research about the sewer: what it looked like, how it functioned, how people could survive there. Not always a pleasant topic, but fascinating to be sure!

 

I was surprised by the whole subterranean world, from great rushing rivers of water that might drown a person to tiny pipes almost too small for anyone to fit through.

 

I also enjoyed learning about the different groups of people from varying backgrounds (economic class, religious observance) who were thrown together in the sewer and how they learned to co-exist.

 

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’m a pantser (that is, I write by the seat of my pants rather than outlining.). I always have an opening image and some idea where I will wind up and one or two “high moments’ -- scenes along the way which I can see vividly that act as lighthouses to guide me.

 

But often the ending will change and surprise me before I get there, and in this case all I can say is it did for sure!

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I can’t say. I’m usually happy to talk about my work-in-progress, but right now is just too soon. Please ask me again in a few months.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: Right now, I’m in the middle of 100 Days of Books, where every day for 100 days, I post a book that I loved. I post on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest and sometimes there are giveaways. I would love readers to join me to discuss what they are reading.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with James Oliver Goldsborough

 

 


 

James Oliver Goldsborough is the the author of the new novel Blood and Oranges: The Story of Los Angeles. His other books include The Paris Herald. A longtime journalist, he lives in San Diego.

 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Blood and Oranges, and for the Mull family?

 

A: I’m old enough to know Los Angeles back to the end of World War II. That takes us to the era of oil wells on the beaches, trolleys running everywhere, a single freeway to Pasadena, comfy houses for $15,000 and UCLA open to any kid with a “B” average from public high school (which was me).

 

To explain how we got from there to the megapolis of today, America’s second city, with this magnificent transformation witnessed through the eyes of members of a single family, is what I set out to do.

 

Q: Did you need to do any research to write the novel, and if so, did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

 

A: Everything in this story is researched. Historical fiction follows the outlines of history even as it uses imagination to elaborate that history.

 

For example, the story touches on many different businesses and activities – oil, movies, land development, aircraft, transportation, religion. I researched them all.

 

I thought I knew the story of the “great transportation conspiracy,” but delving into it surprised me at how much I didn’t know and what a terrible blow to the city it was. And is.

 

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

 

A: Titles are not easy. They tend to come toward the end of the writing when you have perspective on what you’ve done. The story evolves, and so does the idea of trying to capture the gist in a title.

 

I went through dozens of possible titles before settling on “Blood and Oranges,” which in two words gives a sense of two dominant aspects of the city: violence and mayhem on one hand; the unique and irresistible beauty of the great valley between the mountains and the sea on the other.

 

Q: What do you think the novel says about family dynamics over several generations?

 

A: As for the family, the Mulls, I chose a Scotch-Irish name because Blood and Oranges is in part a story about religions, and the Scotch-Irish contrast represents two of them.

 

I wanted brothers who were different and daughters who were different in a different way. Family variety allowed me to explore historical and social variety.

 

The brothers, Willie and Eddie Mull, are twins born with identical genetic coding but defying genetic pre-destination, one brother ordained, the other a non-believer, both sinners. They love each other, but cannot understand each other.

 

As for Eddie’s daughters, Maggie and Lizzie, vastly different in character and interests, they represent women coming of age post-World War II, both choosing professions previously closed to women and making their mark in them.

 

Cal Mull, Willie’s son, named after John Calvin, was necessary leaven for his more eccentric relatives.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: My current project is to tell the story of the annus horribilis that was 2020, when the country was infected by two devastating plagues, one named Covid and one named Trump.

 

My focus is mostly on the second one, which drove friends and families apart as no political catastrophe has done in this nation since the Civil War.  

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb