Monday, July 16, 2018

Q&A with Dunya Mikhail

Dunya Mikhail is the author of the new book The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq, which focuses on women who were captured by ISIS. Mikhail was born in Iraq and now lives in the United States. A poet, her other books include The War Works Hard.

Q: How did you end up writing about Abdullah, the beekeeper, and the women he rescued in Iraq?

A: In 2014 when I learned that women were sold, I felt so insulted. I made contacts with friends and relatives back home to ask what on earth was going on.

I spoke with Abdullah by chance. I called his cousin who escaped from Daesh. He translated between us because I don’t understand Kurdish. She mentioned that he rescued her.

When I called him again to ask another question about her, I learned more about his own story. When I asked him what could I do to help, he said that writing and making the world know about what happened to them is the best help.

We agreed that every time he rescued someone, he would tell me their story. Our calls were cut off several times due to the urgency of the other calls he receives from people trying to run away from captivity. So it took us a whole year of speaking on the phone to collect those stories.

Q: Were the people you interviewed hesitant to speak with you at first? How did you conduct your interviews?

A: A couple of them were hesitant in the beginning but most of them did want to speak about what they went through. Some of them I met in person when I went to Iraq in the summer of 2016 after 20 years of absence. Some of them spoke with me on the phone. Abdullah also told me about how he rescued them.

Q: What do you hope readers learn from your book?

A: I hope readers learn about the kindness of strangers, not only about the brutality of the extremists.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on a novel, which is a strange thing to do for me!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I don’t consider myself a fiction writer. I am a poet who is writing a novel, a particular novel.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 16

July 16, 1928: Anita Brookner born.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Q&A with Gavin Francis

Gavin Francis is the author of the new book Shapeshifters: A Journey Through the Changing Human Body. His other books include Adventures in Human Being, and his work has appeared in publications including The Guardian and the London Review of Books. A physician, he lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for this book, and did you need to do additional research beyond your own work as a physician?

A: People come to me as a doctor because they want me to bring on some change in their lives, or influence some ongoing, unstoppable change.  

My first books were travel books about the Arctic and Antarctic, and my most recent book, Adventures in Human Being, brought the perspective of a travel writer to the geography of the human body. I wanted it to explore the body historically, culturally, philosophically, not just anatomically.  

With Shapeshifters my aim was to reflect more on the body as a place in space or a zone that is constantly changing. It changes in very rapid ways from moment to moment, but also in slower ways decade to decade. 

And I wanted each chapter to be grounded in my own clinical experience working as a physician, mostly in Edinburgh, but taking in experiences working as a doctor in polar regions, and in Africa.

Some of the chapters look at the big rites of passage we go through - puberty and pregnancy, menopause and dying. Some look at the way our mental experience doesn't stand still but shifts ceaselessly, woven moment to moment by memory, taking in dreaming and drug use, mental illness and dementia. 

There are chapters that look at crises like anorexia, or those disruptions in the hormonal balance of the body that can make us grow into giants, or those maladies that led sufferers once upon a time to be branded as werewolves. Then there are those changes we impose on the body through willpower - such as building up our muscles, having our bodies tattooed, crafting and sculpting ourselves through cosmetic surgery. 

Regarding research, the clinical passages in the book didn't need much as they're all grounded in what I see and do every day. But there was a great deal of reading involved, all of it pleasurable, and the kind of reading I'd do anyway to fully inform myself about the cultural hinterland of some of these changes. 

The book takes in reference points from Ovid's great poem of transformation The Metamorphoses, to the latest neuroscience and genetics examining the ways in which our DNA is ceaselessly shifting.

Q: You write, "To be alive is to be in perpetual metamorphosis." What would you say are the most common changes your patients seek help with?

A: It's impossible to say - one of the wonderful things about being a general family physician is the plurality, the wealth of diversity, of the kinds of problems you're called on to address. No two days in the clinic are ever the same. 

On a single day I might be checking over a newborn baby, assessing a healing fracture, helping someone mitigate their depression, diagnosing a new cancer, offering condolences over the death of someone's spouse, injecting someone's shoulder joint to ease its stiffness. 

I might assess someone with severe anorexia, and counsel someone else about being overweight, help one woman to conceive, then prescribe contraception for another. And easing the difficulties of ageing is one of the most important roles of medicine today - helping people to live as long and as healthy lives as they possibly can.

Q: Some of the issues you look at, such as aging, are inevitable, while others, like tattooing or bodybuilding, are voluntary. How did you choose the topics on which you focus in the book?

A: The choice of chapters was led very much by my enthusiasms, and particularly vivid stories that I have encountered in the clinic and wanted to share. There are many themes I'd love to have included but the changes the mind and body go through are near-infinite, and the book had to stop somewhere. 

I wanted to keep it within a certain narrative arc, from conception to the end of life, woven through stories from the great literary classics of transformation - whether that was Ovid's poem on Metamorphosis, Kafka on alienation, or Margaret Atwood on pregnancy.

Q: The book includes a section on prostheses. What do you see looking ahead when it comes to scientific advances affecting the body?

A: The technological advances we are witnessing right now are extraordinary, the pace of change  feels dizzying. But we seem to be getting close to prosthetic limbs that can actually sense directly from the brain an individual's intention of movement - though we're not there yet. 

In the chapter on amputation and prosthetics I spoke to someone who has one of the latest generations of prosthetic limbs, and someone else, a quadruple amputee herself, who runs a charity providing low cost prosthetics in Malawi and Zambia. 

The founder, Olivia Giles, said to me, “The most transformative thing about prosthetic limbs is the potential they offer for children. The kids we work with, if they lose a limb in an accident, they become trapped in the home, a burden on their families, often ashamed of the disfigurement. Having a prosthetic leg makes it possible for them to go back to school. You can see it in the mothers’ faces when the new limbs are fitted, their faces light up, because they know that this means that their child has a future. The prosthesis gives them a future.”

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm always working on something, and ideas I'd love to find time to write about are usually percolating somewhere in my mind. Sooner or later one of them will take hold, and grow, and gather its own momentum.  When a book starts to flow it's a wonderful feeling - it takes on its own life. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: From my perspective the necessity, the inescapability, of ceaseless change means there's always hope.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Gavin Francis.

July 15

July 15, 1919: Iris Murdoch born.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Q&A with Marianne Levy

Marianne Levy is the author of Katie Cox vs. the Boy Band, a new novel for kids. It's a sequel to Katie Cox Goes Viral. She has worked as an actress, and has written for The Independent and The Guardian. She lives in London.

Q: At what point did you know you'd be writing this sequel to your first Katie Cox book?

A: I always knew there'd be a second book for Katie, although I have to say, I wasn't entirely sure of exactly how the plot would go until I embarked upon it. That's the magic of writing books, and what keeps me at it, that sense of discovery. I love it when my characters surprise me.

Q: What was it like to write about Katie again, and do you think she's changed at all since book one?

A: The second book picks up just a month after the end of the first, because I wanted to keep exploring Katie's sense of discombobulation.

She's famous, but she doesn't feel famous, her life is changing, in that she's got a recording contract and a fan base, but day to day, many things, like her messy bedroom and her school routine, are exactly the same.

She's caught between these two worlds now, almost two different versions of herself. And that's provided loads of writing material, which is great for me, although not much fun for her...

Q: Are there any differences between the UK and US versions of your books?

A: The covers are different, and the titles. In the UK the book is called Face The Music. And a few of my British terms have been changed for US readers.

I love how, on the back cover of the US version, Katie is described as being the owner of the World's Worst Bangs. It feels so exotic. Here in the UK, we call bangs a fringe.  

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?

A: The answer to that question changes every day. I've just finished reading the latest collection by David Sedaris, which is utterly sublime. And I'm a big fan of Ann Patchett; her novels are absolute perfection and I want to press them into the hands of everyone I meet.

Now that I come to think of it, what both those writers share is a sense of  effortlessness. Their books are so incredibly well-crafted, but they seem to flow from a well of pure inspiration.

When it comes to children's writers, my favourites right now are Lemony Snickett, Katherine Rundell and Andy Stanton.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Something absolutely and completely different from anything I've ever written before! 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The collective noun for a group of hippos is a bloat. Isn't that wonderful?

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Marianne Levy.

Q&A with Vicki Salloum

Vicki Salloum, photo by Kelly Allerton
Vicki Salloum is the author of the new novel Waiting for You at Midnight. Her other books include  Candyland and Faulkner & Friends. She lives in New Orleans.

Q: What was the inspiration for your new book, Waiting for You at Midnight, and for your character, Arabella?

A: My husband was the inspiration for Waiting for You at Midnight.  Like the fictional character, Logan, in the book, my husband was dying of cancer.

After he died, I wrote this book as a final goodbye to him, to say all the things I didn’t say when he was alive and to let him know how much he meant to me. I don’t think he just disappeared somewhere. Somehow, I believe he is aware of all this and knows that I wrote this book to honor him. 

And I was the inspiration for Arabella. Her emotional needs in conflict with the workings of her moral intelligence mirrors that of the author in that disorienting first year of widowhood.

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

A: Everybody’s grief is different. I don’t know of any widow who acts like Arabella, but then I don’t know the workings of the minds of most women who lose their husbands. 

I only know what Arabella feels. She feels like the place in her heart where he lives is bleeding. She feels the rawest kind of aching, in her shoulders and upper arms and throat and back of the neck. The emptiness is so intense that she feels everything human in her is about to die. She is scared to death of being alone and is obsessed with finding someone to take her husband’s place. 

This is widowhood for Arabella, but it doesn’t say anything about widowhood for anybody else. Widowhood is personal. How a woman handles it depends on her emotional and psychological makeup and her moral character.

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 am an instinctive writer. Like Flannery O’Connor, I want to be just as surprised by the ending as everybody else. O’Connor also said that good stories come from the heart. I try to write from the heart and whatever the ending turns out to be, the heart has led me there. 

As far as changes, the manuscript changed for the better after the editor I hired got hold of it. Most of her suggestions were about the writing itself, not about structure or content. Fiction deals with reality through what can be seen, heard, smelt, tasted, and touched. I have a lazy habit of wanting to tell the story rather than show through sensory detail. My editor put a stop to that.

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

A: The main character, Arabella, met Logan, the man who was to become her husband, more than 20 years earlier. Their first significant time together was on the night of New Year’s Eve, when they slept together, and then the next morning, when they went walking around the city of New Orleans, holding hands and telling each other their life stories. 

Fast forward more than 20 years when Logan dies in late September. Three months later, the widow Arabella realizes she will be alone on New Year’s Eve. She thinks of all the past New Year’s Eves that she’d spent with her husband and becomes terrified at the thought of being without him on this night that meant so much to them. 

She scrambles to find friends to be with—parties to go to—and, when her plans fall through and New Year’s Eve finally arrives, she begins to see things in a different light. In her thoughts she speaks to Logan, This is New Year’s Eve. You are no longer with me. Everything I have of you is right here in this house. 

Grief-stricken, she longs for his spirit to appear to her at midnight and she realizes that on this special night there is nowhere she would rather be than alone with him at home, in the place where they loved each other.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I can truthfully say I’m working on nothing. Don’t even have an idea for a novel in my head. Lately I’ve been thinking of other things.  This morning, I volunteered to work for the homeless at one of the local Catholic churches. 

And I’ve also been thinking of teaching fiction writing to children or adults on a volunteer basis somewhere, thinking that all these classes and workshops I’ve taken over the years should be put to some good use. 

But I can guarantee you that I’ll be starting another novel within six months. Fiction writing is not only an addiction, it is the only thing in this world I absolutely love to do.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: People who have not been through what Arabella has been through don’t understand how intense grief can be, how it manifests itself, and how long it can last. 

But when you experience it yourself, you realize that, in your aloneness, you are stuck with the problem of what to do about it. How to get rid of the pain. How to occupy your time so that your days have purpose.  How to feel peace. And joy. And how do you do all these things when your thinking is so muddled that you can barely wash your face in the morning. 

Finally, how do you find the strength to make a triumph of your life because that is what you most want to do. People who have been caregivers are the ones who most want to make a triumph of their lives. More than anybody else, they understand how precious life is and how fleeting. So this book is an examination of the soul in turmoil.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 14

July 14, 1903: Irving Stone born.