Sunday, September 20, 2020

Q&A with Kathy MacMillan

Kathy MacMillan is the author of the new children's picture book The Runaway Shirt. Her other books include Nita's First Signs and Sword and Verse. A sign language interpreter, teacher, and librarian, she lives near Baltimore, Maryland.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Runaway Shirt?


A: This story was inspired by a game my own toddler used to play: hiding in the laundry basket and pretending to be a shirt. I, of course, would play along and try to fold the shirt, which would always giggle madly while unfolding itself.


One of my favorite picture books is Pete’s a Pizza by William Steig, where the parents pretend that Pete is a pizza to cheer him up on a rainy day, and I always thought this story would lend itself to picture book treatment like that. Though my own little shirt is now a teenager, I hope other families will enjoy this playful story! 


Q: What do you think Julia Castaño's illustrations add to the story?


A: I absolutely love Julia’s illustrations! They perfectly capture the playful and loving relationship between the parent and child. I teach parent-child classes on improving communication through American Sign Language, and every class incorporates play through stories, songs, games, and more.


Play is the work of a young child. It’s how they learn and develop relationships. So the mother in this story taking the time to enter into the child’s imaginative world and play along is so important. Play is not just keeping young children entertained – it’s teaching them about where they are in the world, how to relate to other people, and that they are valuable and worthy of attention.


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


A: I hope they will see themselves and their families and be inspired to use their imaginations to make everyday chores more fun! Related to that, I hope the story inspires parents to follow the imaginative instincts of young children, and maybe find the joy in routine tasks. Even folding laundry or setting the table can be a way to foster closer relationships! 


Q: You've written for various age groups--do you have a preference?


A: I don’t think I have a preference overall, because every story has a different audience, and every writing category has its own pros and cons.


With picture books, for example, the writing and editing processes are much shorter than with novels, but so much of the publishing process is out of your hands. In many cases, the author has no contact with the illustrator at all!  I am lucky in that Familius Press is amazing about this, and I did have input on the illustrations at certain points. Illustrator Julia Castaño and I have even done interviews for the book together.


Even so, with a picture book, there might be a year or more where work is being done on your book and you are not a part of it! With novels, obviously, that’s not the case. Everything takes longer, and it’s pretty much all you and the editor until the manuscript is finalized.


Different categories have different demands as far as time, promotion, and deadlines. But every project teaches me something new about myself as a writer or about the writing process, and those lessons apply to projects in other categories too. I guess I would have to say that what I like best is the variety! 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: The next book in the Little Hands Signing board book series will be gearing up for production soon, and I am also working on a young adult novel that has been a long time coming. It is about a 17-year-old playwright struggling with the ugliness curse on her family – and how her world turns upside-down when she meets her beautiful new stepsister, nicknamed Cinderella.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Signed and personalized copies of The Runaway Shirt and all of my books are available from the Deaf Camps, Inc. Online Bookstore, with all proceeds going toward scholarships to Deaf Camp.  


Deaf Camps, Inc. is a wonderful nonprofit organization that provides accessible camps for deaf and hard of hearing children and children learning American Sign Language, and I have volunteered with them for almost 20 years now. Signed books make great gifts and purchasing through this link supports a great cause!


Purchase The Runaway Shirt at the Deaf Camps, Inc. Online Bookstore | at | at | at | at 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Kathy MacMillan.

Q&A with Susan Lewis

Photo by Antony Thompson
Susan Lewis is the author of the new novel My Lies, Your Lies. Her many other books include Home Truths and One Minute Later. She lives in the UK.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for My Lies, Your Lies?  


A: Like most books this one is an amalgam of ideas so all I can say is that the 1960s story came first and the rest followed as I sat down to write.  


Q: The novel focuses on a relationship between an underage student and her teacher. What do you think readers should take away from the relationship's presentation in the novel?  


A: I think it shows that there are two sides to every story and that our assumptions, even prejudices, can skew the reality.  


Q: The book also incorporates a novel-inside-a-novel, which highlights the theme of lying and unreliability. Why did you decide to write about writers, and what do you think the book says about the writing process?  


A: Although I haven’t done it before, it’s quite easy to write about writers as I know that they do. It was extremely satisfying playing the mind games between Freda and Joely, and to show how impossible it is to stop yourself second-guessing.


Q: What are you working on now?  


A: My next book is about restorative justice – i.e.: is it possible to forgive someone for the most heinous of crimes?  


Q: Anything else we should know?  


A: I’m worried about how the pandemic will impress itself upon the writing of current fiction going forward. Will it stifle some areas of creativity by being so much bigger than anything we can make up? Will there be a glut of stories that none of us really want to read we’re so fed up with it by now? 


It will be all but impossible to avoid it if you’re going to set a book in 2020, would probably seem very odd if you tried. A challenge and a conundrum all wrapped up in a confusion.  


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

Sept. 20

Sept. 20, 1878: Upton Sinclair born.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Q&A with Christina Baker Kline

Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

Christina Baker Kline
is the author of the new novel The Exiles. Her other books include A Piece of the World and Orphan Train, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and The Boston Globe.


Q: In the book's acknowledgments, you write, "It wasn't until I'd finished writing The Exiles that I realized I'd twined together three disparate strands of my own life history..." Can you say more about those three strands, and about how you created the novel?


A: A short article in The New York Times a few years ago caught my eye: it was about female convicts transported from Britain to Australia with their children. I was immediately curious and wanted to learn more.


As a graduate student I’d been a Rotary Fellow in Australia for six weeks; later I co-authored a nonfiction book about feminist women with my mother; I also taught in a women’s prison. These strands came together when I read that article. I knew I’d found the subject that would consume me for the next three years. 


I began the book with a focus on two convict women, but as I delved into the research I realized it would be irresponsible not to address the history of the Aboriginal people who were displaced when European colonists landed on their shores.


I discovered the real-life story of Mathinna, a Tasmanian Aboriginal girl who had been orphaned and was taken in by the governor of Tasmania, Sir John Franklin (who later achieved fame and came to an unfortunate end as an Arctic explorer) and his ambitious, complicated wife, Lady Jane.


The themes of this young girl’s story -- her tenacious spirit and her displacement -- provided a counterbalance and a contrast to the story of the convict women. 


Q: How did you research the novel, and what did you see as the right mix of fictional vs. historical characters?


A: This book involved mountains of research! I went to England, Scotland, mainland Australia, and Tasmania, where the female convicts in The Exiles end up.


I read dozens of books and hundreds of articles and interviewed historians and scholars. (I’m particularly indebted to Alison Alexander, a retired professor at the University of Tasmania who has written or edited 33 books on the history of Australia and is herself descended from convicts, and Dr. Gregory Lehman, an Aboriginal historian who traces his ancestry back to the Trawulwuy people of northeast Tasmania.)


I watched movies and studied maps. The research was completely absorbing; I had to finally tear myself away from it and begin to write. 


My research doesn’t end until the final draft is submitted. I’m always stumbling on little details to add. For instance, after writing the first draft I learned about a particular tallow made of animal fat that was used in the hallways of prisons and the homes of the poor. It was cheap and had a low melting point; its odor was terrible and it quickly pooled in puddles. I threaded this detail in. 


All but a few of the characters in my previous novel, A Piece of the World, were based on real people.


The Exiles has half a dozen real-life characters: Elizabeth Fry, Mathinna, the Franklins, a female physician in the final chapter of the book, and a few others. I like having the freedom to create, but sometimes, as they say, life is stranger and more compelling than fiction; characters based on real people  can ground the story in history. 


Q: What do you think the novel says about the idea of exile?


A: This novel had several different working titles. None were quite right. After I finished the final draft I brainstormed a list of themes in the book; when I landed on The Exiles, I knew it was a perfect fit: epic, elegiac, and accurate for each character in the novel.


Exile is a state of mind as well as a state of being. When you’re torn from everything familiar to you, the places and people you know well, you must reinvent yourself. What do you value, what do you care about, how do you find meaning and solace when you’re on your own in a place you’ve never been before?


Evangeline, Hazel, and Mathinna endure a lot of hardship, but they also learn things about themselves, and about human nature in general, that they never would’ve known. Exile can be an opportunity for growth, if a pathway to freedom exists. It doesn’t for everyone. 


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


A: As I researched the book I made a 50-page, single-spaced document with my original plan for the storyline. I stuck with quite a bit of it and deviated from it in crucial places as the characters spread their wings and the story took on a life of its own. It’s always that way, I find.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: My new novel is based on a family story and takes place in North Carolina during the time of the Civil War. I’d thought I was ready to return to contemporary fiction, but this particular story is too good to pass up!


The research is fascinating (and intimidating -- a surprising number of people know a great deal, in granular detail, about the Civil War). It’s different from anything I’ve ever done. Plunging into entirely new topics is exhilarating and terrifying.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: You can find much more information on my website about the story behind the book, questions for book clubs, etc. You can also register for one of my virtual book tour events where you can ask me any question directly!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Christina Baker Kline.

Q&A with Matt Cost

Matt Cost is the author of the new novel Mainely Power. His other books include the novel I Am Cuba. A former history teacher and coach, he lives in Brunswick, Maine.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for Mainely Power, and for your character Goff Langdon?


A: I wrote the first draft of Mainely Power years ago when nuclear power plants dotted the landscape of the U.S. and I wondered what would happen if one of them was the target of a terrorist attack. This idea morphed into a more subtle and layered issue that I think works well on several levels.


I actually owned a mystery bookstore in Brunswick, Maine. I was not a private detective, and Goff Langdon is not me, but he certainly has some of my characteristics, as well as some that I strive for. To make him a more nuanced character, I gave him some loveable failings in life. 


Q: This is the first installment of a trilogy--did you plan from the start to write three books about Goff Langdon?


A: There was no original plan to write three books. As a matter of fact, the second book takes place almost 20 years ago, and that was where the series was for the time being. The third book was written last year, giving a time lag of two decades. In the third installment, you will find Langdon, Chabal, and gang entered into middle age. I think the possibility certainly exists that there will be more Goff Langdon books if the demand exists.


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


A: I believe that writing about the Maine that I know so well is a large part of my writing, to go along with colorful characters and fast-driven plots. Reading is about being transported to different worlds, and the coast of Maine is an exotic location for so many, enough so that our state moniker is “Vacationland.”


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


A: Mainely Power is about meeting a cast of characters that I hope the reader will enjoy and take into their fold as well as getting a taste of the state of Maine. This is all woven together into an entertaining plot where nothing is as ever as it seems and keeps the reader guessing until the very end. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am currently working on a new series set in a fictional town of Port Essex, Maine. The protagonist is a former Boston homicide detective turned PI. The first one will focus on a heroin smuggling ring, the second on cults, and the third on genetic engineering.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: The second in the Goff Langdon Mainely Mystery series, Mainely Fear, comes out Dec. 4 of this year, and the third, Mainely Money, comes out May 7, 2021. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Matt Cost.

Q&A with Madelyn Rosenberg and Wendy Wan-Long Shang

Madelyn Rosenberg and Wendy Wan-Long Shang are the authors of Not Your All-American Girl, a new middle grade novel for kids. It features the same characters as their previous novel together, This Is Just a Test. They each have written other books separately, and they both live in Virginia.


Q: Did you know when you were writing This Is Just a Test that you’d return to the Horowitz family again, this time focusing on David’s sister Lauren?


WS: No, we had no idea we'd be returning to the Horowitz family! Test was part of a two-book deal, and we had pitched some other idea that didn't take. When we came up with a storyline involving Lauren, we had to go back to see what details we'd left behind. 


MR: We’d left a lot of them, thank goodness. And Lauren seemed absolutely ready for her own story. She collected buttons, so it made sense she’d start making them and selling them. She sang, and it made sense that she’d want to go on and make her own mark. 


Q: Lauren's story takes place in the '80s--how do you see the book's themes of identity resonating today?


WS: Oof - the big one is the rise of anti-Asian violence and ‘othering.’ We reference the death of Vincent Chin in the book, though at the time we had no way of knowing how relevant it would be in 2020.

MR: I think identity is always an issue in middle-grade novels, because in middle-grade life, kids are trying to figure out who they are and explore all parts of their identity. How others see them unfortunately plays into that.


When we were writing the book, it was right after Charlottesville happened, and Wendy had to hold me back from being completely didactic. My inclination was to write a book that said: Anti-semitism is bad. Racism is bad. But “othering” still worked its way into what we were writing, hopefully organically. The good news is that many people seem to be willing to do the hard work of exploring these issues. 


Q: Was your writing process similar this time around, or were there some differences in how you collaborated?


MR: It was fairly similar in that we took turns writing, with lots of overlaps. One person writes. The next person edits and writes some more. In that way, the story inches along. 


WS: For me, the most memorable moment in the writing process was coming up with the musical. We had been trying to reference, without actually quoting, an existing musical, but it just wasn’t working. Once we decided to come with our own musical featuring the emergence of hula hoops in America, we were off to the races! I truly believe that a hula hoop-based musical could be an actual thing.  


Q: What role do you see music playing in the story?


WS: Music plays such a huge role in this book! Music expresses joy and sorrow, brings people together, and creates great questions. 


MR: And it moves the plot along, too.


Q: What are you working on now?


WS: I’m working on a middle-grade novel (I know, surprise!), and I have my first picture book coming out in 2021. 


MR: I just finished up my first sci-fi middle grade, which comes out in 2021 as well. I’m working on another picture book and I hope to work with Wendy on a project to be named later.


Q: Anything else we should know?


WS: This book describes what happens between two friends when issues of racism begin to drive them apart, due to both external and internal forces.


Lauren, who is Chinese and Jewish, should have gotten the lead role in the musical, but Tara gets the role because Lauren does not look "all-American." Then Tara commits a series of microaggressions, which leaves Lauren unsure how to deal. Should she say something, or keep her mouth shut?


MR: I believe 2020 was the right year for this book to come out (aside from, you know, trying to actually sell a book in 2020).


As Wendy mentioned earlier, anti-Asian sentiment emerged this year in a way that we hadn’t expected, and I’m glad we got to explore that subject, shining light on what it means to American and on what it means to have more than one identity. Lauren spends a lot of time pondering her Chinese side, but Jewish themes such as exploring identity, questioning, and choosing a friend are also present.


Oh, and you should also know that Patsy Cline is from Virginia! (So am I, so is Wendy, and so is this story.)


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Wendy Wan-Long Shang and Madelyn Rosenberg.

Q&A with James H. Lewis

James H. Lewis is the author of the new novel Novak's Mission. He also has written the novels Sins of Omission and Breaking News. A former journalist, he lives in Pittsburgh.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for Novak's Mission?


A: When I moved to Pittsburgh four years ago, the hodgepodge of local municipalities struck me, each with its own police force, struck me.


As I write in the book, “Boyleston [my fictional borough] was one of 130 municipalities in Allegheny County, ranging in population from Pittsburghs three hundred thousand to Haysvilles seventy. They were served by 109 police agencies, some employing only one officer, many distinguished by their levels of ineptitude.”


To understand my reaction to this, it may be helpful to know that, five decades ago, I covered the consolidation of city and county government in Jacksonville, Duval County, Florida. The resulting countywide government made a lasting impression on me, and I am forever comparing how local governments are organized to that efficient model. Pittsburgh is its antithesis.


Almost weekly, local news media carried a story of some scandal or serious misjudgment occurring in one or the other of them. it struck me that the background would be perfect for a police procedural. As Carl Hiaasen has found in his Florida mysteries, at the best material comes from reading the local news.


Q: The novel takes place in a community near Pittsburgh. Can you say more about why you chose that as the book's setting?


A: Pittsburgh is such fertile ground for a novelist. Besides the governance issues I just mentioned, you have a rich industrial history, deeply entrenched family relationships extending back for generations, and a variety of ethnic backgrounds that make the area a cultural tapestry. I borrowed on all of it.


The protagonist is a second-generation Slovak. His mother was born in a rural Slovakian village and was trapped there prior to the war, even though her father had emigrated to the U.S. I based her life on that of my neighbor, Albina Senko, whose husband is the Honorary Slovak consul here. I got a lot of background from the two of them and dedicated this book to Albina.


One officer on the Boyleston force is a Black man who has been struggling to gain a foothold in this White world. Another is a woman whom the former chief has disparaged. She has lived all over the world and makes observations on the provincialism she finds in Pittsburgh.

The Catholic church provided another important theme. The protagonist feels a deep antipathy to the local priest, and I can’t disclose his reasons without giving away an important plot point. You can’t get under the skin of Pittsburgh without recognizing its three dominant religious communities—Catholic, Presbyterian, and Jewish.


Q: Given the focus lately on policing, what do you think Novak's story adds to that conversation?


A: Because I see this as the first in a three-book series, there are contemporary issues I have yet to touch, but I delve deeply into the temptations officers face for financial and sexual corruption. Most of the officers in the book resist these enticements. They are decent people, dedicated to doing the right thing, and that is a major theme of the protagonist’s—Novak’s—Mission.


Q: What initially got you interested in writing fiction?


A: I have always wanted to write fiction, but my work schedule intruded.


As we discussed when you interviewed me for Sins of Omission, the presidential election in 2016 turned something loose, compelling me to write a contemporary story based on the racial discrimination and outright violence I witnessed as a young reporter in Florida in the ‘60s. Once I had proved I could write something others were willing to read, there was no stopping me.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: While I plot the next book in the Novak series, I’m working on a novel that takes place in Canada during the Second World War. Two years ago I was reading the excellent history of British and American negotiations over conduct of the war in Europe, “Advocating Overlord” by Philip Padgett, when one paragraph jumped out.


I wrote Phil, an old friend whom you’ve also interviewed, and told him I’d found the kernel of a novel hiding in his pages. He knew the incident I had in mind without my telling him and showered me with research. I had hoped to make it to Ontario this summer to visit sites where this novel will take place, but COVID prevented that.


While I continue work on the first draft, I hope to make the trip next spring to add the texture so necessary to a believable story.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: As my grandson, Caeden, would say, "I’m still standing, yeah, yeah, yeah."


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with James H. Lewis.