Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Q&A with Barbara Stark-Nemon

Barbara Stark-Nemon is the author of the new novel Hard Cider. She also has written the novel Even in Darkness. She lives in Ann Arbor and Northport, Michigan.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your character Abbie and her family?

A: In my first book, Even in Darkness, the main character is a strong complex woman who must cope with the unthinkable and somehow make meaning for the remainder of her life.

I guess I wasn’t done with that concept — that a strong multidimensional woman must overcome unexpected challenges with dignity and self-determination. What might that look like for a woman of a certain age in our society? 

I also wanted to feature a woman who wants an encore career, having raised a complicated family. She wants to pursue her own long-time interest.

Q: The book focuses on definitions of family. What about that topic intrigued you?

A: Family is very important to me and the way we form families and how we define ourselves as families has changed radically during my adult life.

Medical advances in treating infertility, broadening options for adoption, the use of surrogacy, rapid increase in births to unmarried parents, and legal changes to marriage laws have all changed the landscape of how people regard the concept of family. 

At the same time that all these changes have complicated social and legal definitions of family relationships, they have broadened the acceptability of different family constellations, and brought critically important conversations into the mainstream. Hard Cider addresses a number of these considerations.

Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what role do you see hard cider playing in the novel?

A: The making of hard cider— from growing the apples right through to pressing and fermenting the juice is Abbie Rose Stone’s passion. Full disclosure: I fell in love with hard apple cider during the time I lived in England many years ago, and was very happy to do the necessary research for this book!

Two of the authors who wrote endorsements for Hard Cider said it best…

“The alchemy of turning apples into hard cider becomes a potent metaphor for the way in which time blends and distills the characters into a family.”

“A character who makes cider from a variety of different apples says, ‘I can’t help but feel that there’s some magic in the mixing.’ Barbara Stark-Nemon reminds us this is true for families, too.”
--Gayle Brandeis

I’ve never had an easier time choosing a title!

Q: Can you say more about the research you did to write the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: As noted above, I did a good bit of research on hard apple cider production. I especially loved reading Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire, which includes a fascinating history of our interaction with the apple over many centuries and the truth behind the Johnny Appleseed myth.

I was surprised to learn that cider was often the only safe drink and sometimes was used as currency during pioneer days. I also loved the cider making bible, Cider – Strong and Sweet, by Ben Watson. I traveled to northern Michigan and to New Hampshire to see state of the art cider operations.

I already knew a lot about infertility and adoption, but researched a great deal about surrogacy and the legal and emotional consequences of that way of forming family.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve just started researching and writing a new novel about a 14 year-old embroideress who has to find her way from Inquisition-era Portugal to Germany to reunite with her father. She’s a Converso who is assisted by an herbalist and healer from Girona, Spain.

I’m also working on audiobooks for Hard Cider and Even in Darkness!

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: I would like readers to come away from Hard Cider with the conviction that dreams can come true at many times in one’s life, even in the face of the unexpected and unwanted.

I also hope readers will think about the fact that we now make family in many different ways, and that we have the choice to stay open to new possibilities. 

Oh, and for the knitters among your readers, there’s a lot of knitting in Hard Cider!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Barbara Stark-Nemon.

Sept. 18

Sept. 18, 1709: Samuel Johnson born.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Q&A with Mark R. Cheathem

Mark R. Cheathem is the author of the new book The Coming of Democracy: Presidential Campaigning in the Age of Jackson. His other books include Andrew Jackson, Southerner and the forthcoming Andrew Jackson and the Rise of the Democrats. He is a professor of history at Cumberland University, and directs the university's project on the Papers of Martin Van Buren.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on the 1824-1840 period in your new book?

A: My main interest is in Jacksonian-era politics, and I wanted to write about one of the key elections during that period. Originally, I intended to write specifically about the 1840 presidential election, which historians often hail as the first modern presidential campaign.

As I researched, however, it became apparent that while 1840 was a pivotal year, it was the culmination of developments stretching over several presidential campaigns.

So, I started at what I considered the beginning of the story rather than the end. The Log Cabin and Hard Cider Campaign of 1840 is still prominent, but I think readers will have a better understanding of how the U.S. arrived at the campaign than if I had stuck with my original idea.

Q: What do you see as some of the most important changes in presidential campaigning during those years, and what led to those changes?

A: The most obvious changes to me are the public activities of presidential candidates and the role of women.

Early on the nation’s history, presidential candidates were expected to show reluctance in having their names submitted to voters and to refrain from engaging with voters directly.

Those expectations changed dramatically in the Jacksonian period. By 1840, presidential candidates had not only abandoned feigned disinterest in running for the office, they were also actively courting voters through public correspondence in newspapers and through speeches at campaign rallies.

In both his 1836 and his 1840 presidential campaigns, for example, William Henry Harrison traveled the country giving political speeches intended to bring voters into his column. It didn’t carry him to victory the first time, but it worked four years later.

Women’s political activity also changed. Women were largely sidelined throughout the period, but they became more politically vocal and visible by 1840, especially those who supported Whig candidates.

Women gave toasts at public events, writing political pamphlets, and listening to public speeches intended specifically for them as an audience. While women still could not vote, the Whigs in particular understood how important they were in swaying the votes of the men in their lives.

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

A: Having written on Jackson and the Jacksonian period extensively, I had a large base of research already available. For this book, however, I dove more deeply into newspapers and political cartoons.

Newspapers at the time often carried political songs, notices about meetings of Old Hickory and Old Kinderhook clubs, and correspondence between presidential candidates and American voters--all of these were key parts of my narrative.

Political cartoons from the period are fascinating and convey a lot of information in visual form. It made me aware of how politically literate American voters were expected to be in order to understand the images and the accompanying dialogue in the cartoons.

There were a lot of interesting discoveries. One that especially comes to mind is a series of pamphlets written by Lucy Kenney.

We don’t know much about Kenney or who she was. What we do know from her pamphlets is that she started out as a supporter of Jackson and Van Buren in the mid-1830s, but she became disenchanted with the Democrats during Van Buren's presidency. By 1840, she supported the Whigs and was an outspoken critic of Van Buren.

Historians had mentioned Kenney's work but had not looked closely at what she wrote or why she changed parties. I gave her more attention than she had received before and was also able to find a little more information about her background, although not as much as I would have liked.

Still, she is one of those historical figures I find fascinating—a woman with strong political views who argued for them in the public square, a place typically closed to women at the time.

Q: How would you compare presidential campaigning in the Age of Jackson to presidential campaigning today?

A: Presidential campaigning has obviously changed in the last 180 years or so, but there are still strong echoes of the past resonating today. For example, political cartoons aren’t as prominent or complex today, but memes are.

Images of Donald Trump’s face superimposed on the white supremacist Pepe the Frog cartoon or gifs of Hillary Clinton laughing are not dissimilar in their purpose from political cartoons of the Jacksonian period—they are sending a political message that potential voters are interpreting them through the lens of partisanship.

Political image-making in the 21st century is also reminiscent of that conducted in the 1824-1840 period. Presidential candidates openly campaign today in ways that were unacceptable until 1840, and they are intent, as William Henry Harrison was in 1840, on crafting an image that identifies them with the average American.

Just as Harrison, a wealthy aristocrat, tried to present himself as a common farmer who identified with the daily life of Americans, so, too, have more recent presidential candidates, most of whom are multimillionaires disconnected from the obstacles and struggles faced by most Americans.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am busy editing the Papers of Martin Van Buren. Van Buren was a key Jacksonian political figure, the eighth president, and, of course, the inspiration for Seinfeld's "Van Buren Boys" gang.

I am also working on a book looking at the 1844 presidential campaign. This campaign included a number of fascinating candidates: Jackson’s political protégé James K. Polk; perennial presidential loser Henry Clay; enslaver-turned-abolitionist James G. Birney; and the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (aka Mormonism), Joseph Smith.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: In addition to The Coming of Democracy, I have another book coming out in October entitled Andrew Jackson and the Rise of the Democratic Party.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 17

Sept. 17, 1883: William Carlos Williams born.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Q&A with Johnnie Bernhard

Johnnie Bernhard is the author of the new novel How We Came to Be. She also has written the novel A Good Girl. A former English teacher and journalist, her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Southern Literary Review and The Mississippi Press. She lives near the Mississippi Sound.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for How We Came to Be and for your character Karen?

A: The idea for How We Came to Be came from several sources. I am very aware of the stress today's families are under. Working parents, divorce, violence in schools, the illegal use of prescription drugs, the lonely lives of many senior citizens - are all social news items. 

This is compacted by our current forms of communication, texting and social media interaction.  

Q: What do you think the novel says about families?

A: As an author, I wanted to examine the modern family and the difficulties many of these families face. I also wanted to comment on the positive impact supportive neighbors and friends can make in a family.  

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

A: I never know how a novel will end. I have ideas about the beginning and the end, but a manuscript can take on many twists and turns as I begin writing.  

Q: How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: Setting is very important to me as an author and a reader. A strong sense of place within a novel can only be achieved by writing a setting the author is familiar with. 

I was able to create the character Leona Supak after visiting Budapest, Hungary. I was haunted by a World War II memorial to the Jewish population I saw there while visiting. I began researching the history of Budapest during that time. It served as a springboard for creating Leona and her backstory.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm currently writing a third novel, Sisters of the Undertow. The themes are centered on sibling rivalry and how choices we make often determine who we become.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I am a former journalist and English teacher. I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to write and share my work with readers.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 16

Sept. 16, 1950: Henry Louis Gates Jr. born.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Q&A with Shira Sebban

Shira Sebban is the author of the new book Unlocking the Past: Stories from My Mother's Diary. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Sydney Morning Herald and The Guardian. She is based in Sydney, Australia.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book about your mother's experiences in Israel in the 1950s?

A: As I explain in the book’s preface, after our mother Naomi’s death in 2013, my sister and I discovered a “non-descript, navy-bound volume … stashed away in a drawer of the massive wooden study desk at which [she] had worked as an academic economist for so many years.”

Imagine our surprise to find a diary, which “reads like a film script, relating vivid experiences in the Israel of the mid-1950s” of a young, passionate career woman whom we did not recognize.

“I had long abandoned any hope of uncovering more details of my mother’s past, her memories having gradually been extinguished by Alzheimer’s disease, which had afflicted her for the last decade of her life. Now, 60 years later, as I turn the diary’s yellowed pages filled with her distinctive script, I feel grateful for the opportunity to discover her anew … becoming acquainted with the person she once was before I was born.”

I thus felt compelled to write this book based on her diary, as it allowed me to explore what life was like in the new State of Israel through the eyes of Naomi as she was then: A still single, late 20-something woman searching for love, who was also somewhat of a stranger in her own land, having returned after a decade away in Australia.

Q: The book is based on your mother's diary, but you write it as "creative non-fiction stories." Why did you choose this form to tell your mother's story?

A: Originally, I wrote an overview about my discovery of the diary and submitted it to the Jewish Literary Journal. The New York-based editors, however, suggested that I focus instead on one or two of Naomi’s diary entries and make them a story on their own.

I did not want to fictionalize my mother’s diary. It was very important to me to convey her life in 1950s Israel as accurately as possible, and so I decided to teach myself how to write creative non-fiction, or as Lee Gutkind, “the god-father of creative non-fiction,” puts it, “true stories well told.”

Having started in academia, before becoming a journalist, creative non-fiction was a completely new challenge for me. I have found this genre to be liberating as it is all about writing in scenes, allowing me to use literary techniques, such as description and dialogue, to immerse the reader in the action.

I wanted you to feel as if you were walking down the streets of the divided city of Jerusalem or winding your way through Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market with Naomi, who thus became a character in her own story, which I changed from first to third person.

The Jewish Literary Journal ended up publishing my first creative non-fiction short story, “Blood in the Market,” in September 2014, and it now forms Chapter 8 of my book.

Q: Did you need to do much research to write the book, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?

A: Yes, I had to do a considerable amount of research in order to understand what life was like in the foundation years of Israel. As I explain in the Acknowledgments, writing the book “has been like putting a puzzle together, piece by piece, interspersing my mother’s personal experience with historical facts,” where it is crucial to be precise.

1950s Israeli social history has become a respected field of study in its own right, enabling me to learn intimate details about daily life, ranging from Tel Aviv café culture and the party scene to living under sniper fire around the desolate stretch of no-man’s-land between west and east Jerusalem.

Google maps proved to be a wonderful resource, as I traced the routes Naomi would have taken, while the archivist from Tel Aviv’s Cameri Theater kindly provided me with the very programs she would have seen.

A particularly arresting image, which I describe in the book, was how until 1967, an “old, dark and airless bus, crudely covered in armor plate” would make the trip along the one perilous road connecting the Jewish part of divided Jerusalem to Mount Scopus, “the driver peering through a narrow slit across the front window.”

While I was aware of the constant state of insecurity in which Israelis have always lived, it was striking to learn too how tough life was in the early years of the State. Indeed, many of those Naomi meets are keen to seek opportunities overseas. As she writes, they “claim to be great Zionists; still seem to be pleased to stay out of Zion.”

Q: How much did you know about this period in your mother's life before finding the diary?

A: I actually knew very little about this period in my mother’s life. After leaving Israel, Naomi would travel through Europe before settling in Canada where she eventually married and had a family.

As I write in the Afterword, “in later life, as Alzheimer’s took its toll and her vast world became more circumscribed, she clung to these European memories, constantly repeating them until they were virtually the only part of her past she could recall.”

While I was also familiar with stories from her poverty-stricken childhood in Mandatory Palestine, she rarely spoke of life in Israel in the mid-1950s – the period covered by the diary, when she was a post-graduate scholarship student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: In addition to my writing, I am a volunteer refugee advocate as well as a guide at the Sydney Jewish Museum, combining lessons learned from Jewish history and notably the Holocaust with my passion for social justice.

I am hoping to share the stories of some of the asylum seekers I have helped, but only when their status is secure enough for me to do so.

Please see my website for more of my published writing.

I also have family letters in Yiddish, dating back to the 1930s, from my great aunt in Lodz to her sister, my maternal grandmother Chana, in Tel Aviv. Chana also features in Unlocking the Past as she was still living in Tel Aviv when her daughter Naomi returned in the mid-1950s.

While Chana’s parents and sister had come to Palestine in the mid-1920s – even prior to my newlywed grandparents – they had made the tragic decision to return to Poland after losing all their savings, only to perish in the Shoah. I am currently having the letters translated and am hoping to uncover more details of my family history.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Unlocking the Past: Stories From My Mother’s Diary can be purchased as an e-book or paperback from Amazon or Mazo Publishers

Please see here for the launch hosted by the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival.

The book will be launched by Dr. Leah Kaminsky, prize-winning author of The Waiting Room, on 2 December 2018 at Melbourne’s Lamm Jewish Library of Australia.

We are currently working on a Hebrew edition, which will be launched in Israel at the end of the year.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb