Monday, March 25, 2019

Q&A with Karen Zilberstein

Karen Zilberstein is the author of the new book Parents Under Pressure: Struggling to Raise Children in an Unequal America. She also is the co-author of the children's book Calming Stormy Feelings: A Child's Introduction to Psychotherapy. A psychotherapist, she is the clinical director of the Northampton, Mass., chapter of the nonprofit group A Home Within. 

Q: How did you meet the families you write about in the book?

A: I leaned on my professional and personal community, who came through for me. I spoke with colleagues, friends, and social service agencies, giving them written materials about the project and asking if they knew of families who had struggled with trauma, disability, mental illness, racism, or poverty who might be interested in speaking to me.

They sent a number of parents my way and invited me to present at various parent support groups, where I met others. Each family I interviewed received a $25 gift card for participating. That attracted a few of the volunteers, but I didn’t use those families in the book. The six I chose to profile all had a genuine interest in sharing their stories so that others in similar circumstances could benefit.

Q: Each chapter of the book highlights a different issue, but what common threads do you see running through the various issues you raise?

A: The families experienced different types of hardships and challenges, but each found that the social service system was not sufficiently up to the task of helping. Sometimes the services they needed didn’t exist, sometimes they existed but were hard to access, and at other times the professionals lacked adequate knowledge and expertise.

The end result was that families struggled not just with their initial problems, but also with navigating services, which added to their stresses. Families also tended to feel judged for their problems rather than helped.

I also found that income and race makes a difference. Those with privilege and means do not need to depend on public supports or, when they do, can manage them better because they have the ability to push and challenge them. It is another aspect of inequality in America. Even the helping systems favor some parents while disadvantages others.

Underlying our difficulties understanding families’ struggles and providing them with adequate supports is an American narrative of individualism and idealized parenting norms that are not well suited to the current realities. The problems are widespread because they spring from cultural beliefs.

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

A: Since I had worked in the field for years, and written a number of articles on poverty, parenting, mental health, and trauma, I had some background before I started. But I shaped the book around the stories of the families I included, delving more deeply into the issues they discussed. I looked at the literature and also interviewed professionals in the field who could speak to a different side of the issue.

What surprised me most is that none of the professionals contradicted the impressions of the families. They each agreed that the systems are infused with problems and noted that they constrain workers, as well as families. Programs simply don’t have the resources they need to meet needs. It turns out that it’s what everybody knows, but what nobody wanted to say too loudly.

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

A: If we are to do a better job of supporting parents, we need to know what gets in the way. Let’s stop judging and marginalizing struggling families and instead reach out and help them. Many families find that their difficulties isolate them. They need help not just from professionals, but from their neighbors and community. Everyone has a potential role to play in alleviating the current circumstances.

I also want families who resemble the ones in the book to know that their struggles are legitimate and understood and did not happen because they are inadequate. The families I interviewed found that acknowledgement incredibly important.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am continuing to think about the intersection between cultural ideals and the ways we construct interventions. As a psychotherapist, I see every day how our ideas about families, mental health, and helping translates into theories, treatments, policies, and the ways we research each of them.

While the field offers many helpful services, we continue to be short-sighted and hemmed in by cultural beliefs. I think we often define problems too narrowly, which limits how we assess need and deliver aid.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The backdrop to the book is the way parenting ideals have evolved over the years into an intensive parenting style that is putting stress on families. It works best for those with money, time, and education and is thus part of the growing inequality in our society.

Since the current system works for some, we are not going to be able to completely change it. But we can give more help to those who are left out and try to provide them more opportunities and fewer hassles.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 25

March 25, 1881: Mary Webb born.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Q&A with Patricia Harman

Patricia Harman, photo by Bob Kosturko
Patricia Harman is the author of the new novel Once a Midwife, part of her Hope River series, which also includes The Midwife of Hope River and The Reluctant Midwife. She worked as a midwife for more than 30 years, and she lives in Morgantown, West Virginia.

Q: Why did you decide to return to your character Patience Hester and the community of Hope River in your new novel?

A: When I wrote my first novel featuring Patience Hester, I didn’t know it would become a series. I just wanted to write about a midwife set in the Great Depression because it was the beginning of the Great Recession we recently lived through. 

Interestingly, when I finished the book, I found I didn’t want to leave Patience or her fictional community. They had become real to me and I wanted to know what would happen to them next. 

Q: How do you think Patience has changed over the course of the time you've been writing about her?

A: Patience was a radical in her youth. She was a suffragette and worked for the woman’s right to vote; she passed out birth control information on the streets of Pittsburgh. She was a socialist and marched with the United Mine Workers. 

In the new book, Once a Midwife, she is a mother of four, a midwife who does home births, a wife. She has settled down, but she still cares passionately about the world.

Q: The novel focuses in part on World War II-era conscientious objectors. Why did you choose that as one of the themes in the book? 

A: Daniel Hester, Patience’s husband, fought in the First World War. In previous books he spoke of “war as hell.” My husband was a conscientious objector during the war in Vietnam. 

When I began the book, I thought to myself, what if Daniel refused to co-operate with the draft? What if he was an objector during World War II? This was a different war than the war in Vietnam. The USA and the Allies were fighting against Hitler. 

How would Dan’s objections be received by the community? How would they affect his marriage if he and Patience didn’t agree? The questions fascinated me…so I wrote the book. 

Q: What kind of research did you do to write the book, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?

A: All my historical fiction books are extensively researched. Fortunately, you can Google anything, and I did (on almost every page). 

One thing I didn’t realize is that up until the attack on Pearl Harbor most Americans felt it was Europe’s war, something we didn’t need to get involved in. I had never heard of the America First Committee, an organization with chapters in every state that lobbied the government to STAY OUT. It all changed after the attack on our naval base in Hawaii. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m back to writing about our friends in the Hope River Valley. The new novel, A Midwife’s Song, is set in 1956, as the civil rights struggle begins in the U.S. Patience and her friend and fellow midwife, Bitsy, are actively involved. 

Patience is having trouble with her grown kids. Bitsy’s adopted son, Willie, has returned from the Korean War with a terrible wound. 

Meanwhile, someone is leaving the journals of old Mrs. Potts, a former slave, on Patience’s porch. The journals tell her story of escape to Canada. Who’s leaving the journals on the porch and why? It’s a mystery. 

As usual the book follows the story line of many characters besides Patience, but I can’t tell you more. You have to read the book!

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: Here’s a trailer for Once A Midwife. I had fun making it and you might enjoy it.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 24

March 24, 1919: Lawrence Ferlinghetti born.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Q&A with Camille Acker

Camille Acker is the author of the short story collection Training School for Negro Girls. She also co-edited the book Dismantle: An Anthology of Writing from the VONA/Voices Writing Workshop, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times Book Review and Electric Literature. She is a visiting assistant professor in the creative writing program at New Mexico State University.

Q: Over how long a period did you write the stories in Training School for Negro Girls, and do you see common themes running through the collection?

A: I wrote the initial draft of the book over the course of about a year at the end of my MFA program in New Mexico. The revisions, however, were over about five years. I certainly wasn't revising all of those five years but I would leave the stories and come back to them to redraft.

I was in a writing group when I lived in Chicago (where I moved after the MFA) and every couple of months I would be next up to be workshopped and would often turn in one of my stories to get fresh eyes on them. That was instrumental in motivating me to revise them.

Eventually, I did one last push to revise them before I sent the stories off to The Feminist Press, which became my publisher.

I think thematically, self-discovery and self-revelation are important in the book. The characters are a range of ages across different decades but they are each searching for a way to understand themselves and the world they inhabit, whether that's grappling with family issues or economic issues or for every one of them, as with us all, figuring out what they are meant to do in the world.

Q: The stories are divided in two sections, The Lower School and The Upper School. How did you decide on the organization of the collection?

A: I didn't know initially that I was writing a short story collection until maybe the third story I wrote. Then, I realized that all these characters might be in the same universe. So, when I started thinking about titles and got very connected to "Training School for Negro Girls," I thought having two schools might work to organize this universe.

It was also very important to me to represent both black women and black girls, to really concern myself with the scope of the black female experience. It felt natural to me then to also think about how at the core many of the issues these characters face are similar but to also acknowledge difference by having two sections.

Doing that too also gave me a kind of guideline as I wrote more stories to think about both the black women and the black girls who would be the focal characters.

Q: The stories are set in Washington, D.C., where you grew up. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: Setting wasn't always important in my writing. Character always seemed to come first and then I would have them meander the streets of a kind of no name place.

As a younger writer, I was still unsure about what and who I really wanted to write about. I had to get clearer about my own voice and bringing my unique perspective to the page. I see some of my writing students write about big cities they don't live in rather than thinking about what's interesting about the place from which they come.

Likewise, I really had to ask myself, why aren't you writing about D.C.? Edward P. Jones's short story collection Lost in the City, which is set in D.C., was hugely influential for me when I was a teenager and so as an adult, I returned to that feeling of seeing the place I grew up in represented on the page and started to write my stories about D.C.

Q: How was the book's title (also the title of one of the stories) chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: I was in a Black and Chicana Feminism class in grad school and reading work by radical women of color set me down this road of discovery of other voices including Nannie Helen Burroughs. She was an educator with a school in Northeast D.C., the section of D.C. where I grew up, but I hadn't known more than her name really when I lived in D.C.

I read her work and learned more about training schools, where in the early 1900s black people tried to educate our own but that education was often inclined toward training for domestic work. That's the role black people were still cast into even more than 40 years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

I started to think about how we all get trained to occupy particular roles often according to how society views us through our race, gender, and class and how we can internalize those roles, play them out even if that's not who we are. All of these characters are trying to break out of something in their lives and sometimes they succeed and sometimes they have to find the courage to keep trying.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm at work on a novel and also incubating a couple of other projects.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 23

March 23, 1912: Eleanor Cameron born.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Q&A with Jonathan Roth

Jonathan Roth is the author and illustrator of the Beep and Bob series for kids. He is an elementary school art teacher, and he lives in Maryland.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for the Beep and Bob books?

A: I was working on a middle grade novel with a character named Bob, but it was being a struggle. One day after school (I’m a teacher by day) I went to hear author-illustrator Dav Pilkey speak at my local Barnes & Noble. I’ve always admired his work, and even use some of his picture books as motivators in my art classroom.

I’m not sure why, but during his presentation it hit me that I wasn’t tapping enough into that kind of silly, zany energy that he does so well. So I went home, kicked Bob up to school in space and gave him a cute little friend named Beep.

I let myself go and wrote only to have fun, taking a break from writing something “publishable.” Inexplicably, it then became my first children’s book series to make it on the shelves.

Q: Did you know from the beginning that you'd be doing a series?

A: I had plenty more story ideas popping into my head and loved the idea of ongoing adventures. But it wasn’t until my agent took it on and told me to include some future story outlines with the submission that I realized it was going to be bought by a publisher either as a series or nothing.

Q: As a writer and illustrator, do you focus more on text or illustrations (or both together) when starting a project?

A: I do all the writing first. For me, the writing is where the characters and situations come alive, especially in the dialogue. Then I develop them visually and it all comes together.

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

A: The two most important elements in my work are humor and heart. Humor because I want my books to be fun and entertaining, and I have a good sense of what makes kids laugh (am I still a kid deep down?). And heart because I want kids to know that they can find hope and strength in difficult times and that they’re not alone.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m developing a graphic novel (series) for early elementary readers. Like Beep and Bob, it has a space focus and a fun buddy relationship. But it doesn’t have a school setting and is different in many ways. I hope kids will get to see it someday!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Because only one or two names end up on the cover, kids (and adults) often don’t realize that it takes a village to make a book.

From critique partners to professional organizations like SCBWI, to agents, editors, copy editors and art directors, to reviewers, bloggers, teachers and librarians, each book in a child’s hand is due to a large, dedicated and generous community. Thanks for being part of mine!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb