Sunday, October 28, 2012

Q&A with writer David O. Stewart

David O. Stewart
David O. Stewart's most recent book, American Emperor, is a biography of Aaron Burr. He also has written The Summer of 1787, about the U.S. constitution, and Impeached, about the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson. He also is a lawyer, and is the founder of The Washington Independent Review of Books.

Q: What drew you to Aaron Burr?

A: Simply put, Burr was a vice president like no other.  Two qualities especially appealed to me:  his sheer audacity, and the mystery surrounding his Western expedition in 1806-07, which is the core of American Emperor. 

For audacity, start with the election of 1800, when he finished in an electoral-college deadlock with the ostensible head of his ticket, Thomas Jefferson, and did not withdraw in Jefferson’s favor until the House of Representatives had also deadlocked for thirty-five ballots through a weeklong crisis.  Four years later, offended by remarks by Alexander Hamilton, he demanded satisfaction on the dueling ground and took it.  Though Burr was the sitting vice president, two states promptly indicted him for murder.  Then he set off on his Western expedition and – after electrifying the West for months – ended up on trial for treason before Chief Justice John Marshall, facing the gallows if he was convicted.  As a fictional character, Burr would be entirely implausible.  What more could a writer ask for?

The mystery surrounding the Western expedition was also a huge draw.  Two hundred years later, distinguished historians still disagree about Burr’s goals and intentions.  He was unquestionably preparing a private invasion of Mexico and Florida, which is pretty interesting to start with.  Did he plan to annex them to the United States?  To set up his own empire?  To incite insurrection among the French-speaking residents of New Orleans and the Louisiana Territory?  To invite secession by the then-western states and territories of Kentucky, Tennessee, and so on?  Tracking down and sifting that evidence was a fascinating challenge.

Q: Were there specific things you learned about Burr in the course of your research that surprised you?

A: The most surprising part of the research came from the journal he kept while in Europe between 1808 and 1812, as he tried to persuade the British and then the French to underwrite an expedition to “liberate” the American colonies of Spain.  Suddenly I was inside the mind of this man of mystery and discovered a remarkable person.  I could easily understand why people liked him and followed him.  He was interested in everything – science, mechanical contraptions, literature, government, philosophy, and women.  Especially women.  The journal reveals him as charming, self-deprecating, witty, frustrated, endlessly ambitious, and desperately lonely.

Q:  How has your work as a lawyer affected your writing career?

A: Trial lawyers and authors have to organize a tremendous volume of material and create a narrative that both respects the evidence and illuminates the events at issue.  Both are story-telling of a particularly demanding sort.  When I am writing history or fiction, I often hear in my own mind the counter-arguments to any point I am making – just as I would when writing a legal brief or outlining closing argument.  Why put the evidence together that way?  Maybe the story should be told through a different character?  Would another interpretation makes as much sense, or more?  Do I believe the goals and motives espoused by a witness or by an historical actor?  Trying cases is great discipline for a writer.  In court, there is nothing more humbling than to have the other side point out something you have overlooked, or how your logic breaks down.  Once you have experienced that, you never want to do so again.  When writing, I am haunted by an imaginary adversary, poking into the murky corners of my narrative, pulling out the drawers and exclaiming over my stupidity.

Q: Your first novel, The Lincoln Deception, about the John Wilkes Booth conspiracy, is coming out next September. Can you tell us more about it, and whether you’ll continue writing novels or return to nonfiction?

A: The Lincoln Deception grows out of an historical event that has been almost entirely ignored (my favorite kind).  John Bingham prosecuted Booth’s co-conspirators after Booth’s death.  When Bingham was on his own deathbed in 1900, he is reported to have said that one of the co-conspirators, Mary Surratt, told him a secret that would destroy the republic if it became known.  He then said he would take the secret to his grave.  Then he died.  The novel’s protagonist, Bingham’s doctor, becomes obsessed with finding out what that secret is, a process that involves unearthing numerous skeletons about the Lincoln assassination.

And, yes, I will continue writing novels and return to nonfiction.  My contract with Kensington Books is for two novels, so I have another one on the schedule, which is in an inchoate form in the back of my mind.  Before taking that on, though, I must finish a book on James Madison for Simon & Schuster, which concentrates on the principal partnerships of his extraordinarily productive life – with Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Monroe, and (of course) with Dolley.  Madison seems to me like the Zelig of the American Founding:  he’s always there, but no one notices him.  You know, he was awfully short and sort of quiet.  But he was at the center of the Constitutional Convention, wrote the best of the Federalist Papers, led the ratification of the Constitution, is almost single-handedly responsible for the Bill of Rights, helped set up the new government, created the first opposition political party in our history, and was our first war president in the War of 1812.  How did he do all of that?  I think the key was not only his intelligence and political talents, but also his gift for working with others – a talent in short supply then, and ever since.

I don’t allow myself to think about what I will do after those two books...

Q: Your son is also a writer. Have the two of you ever considered collaborating on a book?

A: My son Matt is a novelist whose first book, The  French Revolution, won some terrific notices.    We did concoct a scheme for a father-son collaboration based on an ambitious cycling trip from Warsaw, Poland, to Odessa on the Black Sea.  My Jewish grandfather emigrated from the Warsaw area and my grandmother from Odessa, so we thought we could write an account of our journey through Eastern Europe, our experiences with cycling, our genealogical investigations, and (unavoidably) ourselves.  We went in the summer of 2008 and it turned out to be an amazing, demanding, and challenging trip. We made great progress in tracing Polish forebears and none at all in the Ukraine.  We took about three weeks to ride more than 800 miles, with some great adventures and some epic blowups; riding 100 miles with the temperature over 100 degrees will sour the sweetest disposition.  As Matt has said, he had to stop so often for me to catch up that his experience was more like 800 one-mile rides.  When it came time to write the book, though, I’m the one who clutched.  It involved writing about myself and the people closest to me – my parents, wife, sisters, children – which was uncomfortable.  I find it much easier to tell other people’s stories, not my own.  I encouraged Matt to write it himself, but he went on to finish his novel.  Maybe someday...

Q: You have said that you started The Washington Independent Review of Books to help fill a void left by fewer book reviews in newspapers. How is that project going, and what do you see as the future for book reviews?

A: It’s been a great ride.  We launched in February 2011 and our traffic has quadrupled since then.  We post new content every weekday, and we have a stellar group of volunteers who keep it humming (no one is paid!):  Josh Trapani, Joye Shepherd, Susan Green, Becky Meloan, Liz Robelen, Harriet Dwinell, Diana Parsell, and many, many more.  We have found great reviewers from among prominent authors and from among people who are just starting a writing career.  As for the future of book reviews, there are millions of people who want to read them but will not be served by the print media in the future.  (Though who knows the future of the print media, anyway?  Sic semper Newsweek?)  That’s what led us to start The Independent.

Q: Anything else you think we should know?

A: Heavens, no.

Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 28

Evelyn Waugh
Oct. 28, 1903: Author Evelyn Waugh born.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Q&A with novelist Claire LaZebnik

Claire LaZebnik
Claire LaZebnik is the author of several novels, the most recent of which is titled Families and Other Nonreturnable Gifts. She also has written a young adult novel, Epic Fail, and co-authored two non-fiction books about autism.

Q: You have written for adults and for young adults. What would you say are some of the differences (and similarities) for you as a writer working in both genres?

A: Overall, they're more same than different: in either case, you want to tell a fun, engaging story with a strong protagonist and memorable side characters. The main difference comes from how you tell that story. I discovered when I was first writing YA that I needed to make things clearer and to let the main character voice her thoughts more. With adult fiction, I like to step back and let the reader read between the lines, but I think younger readers prefer the immediacy of being drawn into the character's emotions and reactions.

Q: You've also co-written two non-fiction books about autism. Has your knowledge about autism shown up in your fiction?

A: Absolutely. Knitting Under the Influence has an entire plot line that centers on someone who works at an autism clinic: the interventions she uses are based on the ones developed by my non-fiction co-author Dr. Lynn Kern Koegel and her husband Dr. Robert Koegel. And the siblings in Families and Other Nonreturnable Gifts are both clearly on the spectrum (in very different ways). Even the son in If You Lived Here, You'd Be Home Now could be described as being "spectrumy"--as could his grandfather, come to think of it. So, yeah--a lot! I guess you could say autism is a recurring theme in both my life and work.

Q: Some of your characters seem to be struggling with a sense that they don't fit in, or don't meet their families' expectations. What draws you to this theme?

A: Oh, wow. That's such a good question, because I've never stopped to think about it--both those things seem universal to me, but maybe the fact I assume they're universal reflects something about ME. I certainly grew up feeling like a bit of an oddball--I was more comfortable reading than talking to people, I was young for my grade and then I skipped ninth grade and went to high school when I was 13 and college when I was 16--so that feeling of being different just grew.  It's easy for me to identify with outsiders, much harder for me to know what it would be like to be the popular kid or someone who effortlessly fits in. 

But actually I DO think there's something universal about feeling like an outsider. We're all inside our own heads, and it's lonely in there. We're hearing a narrative that no one else hears--everyone else is hearing his own--and I think that at times in your life that can make you feel like there's a huge gulf between you and everyone else. The feeling of "no one understands me" is pretty universal--at least at certain points in our lives. My characters are just stuck in that mode, I guess. But that's part of their arc: to move out of that and make some real connections.

Finally, as far as families go: well, as I wrote in an essay at the end of Families and Other Nonreturnable Gifts, we almost always feel like Cousin Marilyn when it comes to our families: we love them, but the ways in which they're like us war with the ways in which we're different and that's an odd, uncomfortable feeling. You never feel like a capable adult around your family: you always feel like the little girl you once were. We all regress to bad old habits and immature emotions around our families.

 Q: Do you have a favorite character that you've created, or one that you identify with more than the others?

A: I think I'll always love Olivia best; she narrates my first novel Same As It Never Was. She's smart and tough and capable and honest. She gets stuck with the guardianship of her half sister whom she barely knows and even though she resents the imposition and is terrified of how her life is going to change, she accepts the responsibility and does the best she can, and in the process, lets down a lot of her defenses and finds love. Writing her voice was a pure pleasure: the words just poured out of me. She gets to say everything I lack the confidence to, because she's much bolder than I am and less interested in pleasing other people. I sort of fell in love with her. I wish I were that strong.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm getting ready to launch my second YA novel, The Trouble with Flirting (due out in February 2013 from HarperTeen), and I'm writing my third YA novel. I just started a project with a friend--a novel we're planning to write together. And I'm hoping that my non-fiction writing partner and I will have a chance to update and revise Overcoming Autism in the near future. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My yellow lab is snoring on the sofa right now and the kids are doing homework. 

Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 27

Sylvia Plath
Oct. 27, 1932: Poet Sylvia Plath born.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Q&A with writer Bernice Steinhardt

Bernice Steinhardt
Bernice Steinhardt is the co-author, together with her late mother, Esther Nisenthal Krinitz, of Memories of  Survival, which features her mother's artwork depicting her experiences during the Holocaust. A movie about Esther Nisenthal Krinitz, "Through the Eye of the Needle," debuted last December. Bernice Steinhardt is also the president of Art and Remembrance, an arts and educational organization.

Q: How did you, as a child, learn about the experiences your mother had gone through during World War II?

A: Unlike many other Holocaust survivors, my mother always talked about her experiences--in fact, I can't recall a time when I didn't know about my mother's life before and during the war. As a child, I loved to sit at the kitchen table while my mother fixed dinner or baked--she was a fantastic cook, and the smells were heavenly! And as she cooked, she would tell me stories. They might have been stories about going into the oak woods to
gather mushrooms, or about the baby geese she used to look after, for example. But invariably, these stories about her idyllic life in a small village led to stories about how the war arrived and how she made the fateful decision to separate from her family in order to save her life. I think those events--which had occurred only a few years before she began to tell me about them--were still so astounding to her that she needed an audience to make sense of them, and I was near by and listening with rapt attention.

Q: Had your mother always expressed herself through art, or were these embroidered panels she began creating at age 50 really a change for her?

A: My mother always loved creating things--she sewed and knit for many years, and made clothes for me and my sister and beautiful decorative things for the house. But she never tried her hand at anything artistic until she decided that she wanted my sister and me to see what her home and family looked like. She had never been trained in art, she had never learned to draw, but she could sew anything--she was apprenticed to a dressmaker as a child. So when she wanted to depict her memories, she picked up a needle and
thread--it was the medium in which she knew her way. Once she realized she could tell her story by adding stitched captions to her pictures, she continued to work without pause until shortly before her death. She never thought of herself as an artist, though--she always said that she created the panels just for her daughters. But her technical skill, her eye for color and composition, and of course, her brilliant storytelling came together to produce a remarkable work of art.

Q: How did you end up turning her art into a book, and what has the response been?

A: The book was one of the many things that came about once I decided that I needed to get my mother's pictures out of my house. My parents lived nearby, so when my mother finished each picture, she would give it to me to hang in my house. After a while, I ran out of wall space, but by this point, it was also clear that the art work deserved an audience beyond the family and friends who came to my house. My first thought was to have the work exhibited, and in fact, in 2001 and then again in 2003, the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore--a fantastic and entirely original museum dedicated to the work of self-taught artists--had a long-running exhibition of my mother's work, where it was seen by a book editor who approached me
about doing a book. My mother  died shortly before all this, but she always wanted to have a book, so I know she would have been just thrilled to see it. We were all very pleased with the book--it presents the art work beautifully, and because it was published as a picture book for children, it's accessible to all ages. It's earned fantastic critical reviews, and it won an award from the Association of Jewish Libraries. But even more gratifying to me has been to see both children and adults poring over all the details in each of the pictures, deeply absorbed in the art and story.
Q: And how did the movie "Through the Eye of the Needle" come about?

A: Nina Shapiro Perl, a dear friend and filmmaker who knew my mother and saw all her art work as it was created, always thought that my mother's art and
story would make a great film. She wasn't the only one: In the late '90s, the filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan saw my mother's art and wanted to make a feature film about her. For three days, he videotaped my mother telling her story, which he used as the basis for his screenplay. The film was never made, but he very generously gave us all the interview tapes--abut 20 hours--to use. With this rich material, along with the visual images of the
art work and additional interviews with my sister and me and other
commentators, Nina created a beautiful and compelling documentary that tells not only my mother's story of survival, but also the story of Esther as an artist who came to tell her story in this unique way. The film debuted last December and has been making the rounds of film festivals, where it's won several awards thus far--that's been very gratifying. It's also being screened now at the American Visionary Art Museum, where the exhibit has returned for a year, until September 2013.

Q: What is next for you, and for Art and Remembrance?

A: Our next major effort is what we're calling the HeART and Story Project. When my sister and I created Art and Remembrance in 2003, we envisioned that while sharing our mother's art and story would always be at the core of our mission, we would also showcase the work of others, like our mother, who had
experienced war and injustice and conveyed those experiences in art and story. We've co-sponsored programs and exhibits, for example, of arpilleras--story cloths created by Chilean women during the Pinochet regime to remember their husbands, sons and brothers who disappeared.

The HeART and Story Project is intended to use Esther's story to inspire others to share their own personal and family histories through art and story. Working with community organizations, including those serving immigrant and underserved populations, we want to create a model for film screenings, discussions, and story cloth-making that can be replicated in communities around the country. We believe that this can serve a variety of purposes, including bridging the division between immigrant and native-born
Americans by allowing them to find their common humanity.

We've seen how deeply moved audiences have been by Esther's art and story, and I also know how telling her story helped my mother to deal with her experiences. We believe that many others can similarly benefit from this kind of healing connection.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: For those who would like to learn more about Art and Remembrance, I'd encourage you to visit our website: There, you can also see images of my mother's work and a preview of our film.

And thanks to you, Deborah, for having me as a guest. It's a great honor to be able to share with others this deeply meaningful family legacy.

Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 25

                                                ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Anne Tyler
Oct. 25, 1941: Novelist Anne Tyler born.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Q&A with writer Natalie Wexler

Natalie Wexler
Natalie Wexler is the author of two novels, The Mother Daughter Show and A More Obedient Wife. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: In your novel The Mother Daughter Show, you made use of your own experiences as a parent at Sidwell Friends School to examine mother-daughter relationships at an elite private school, in a somewhat satirical way. How is the fictional "Barton Friends" similar to, or different from, Sidwell, and how did other Sidwell parents react to the book?

A: Barton Friends is definitely not meant to be an accurate portrait of Sidwell. I certainly borrowed some things I’d observed in that milieu and used them as grist for the novel, but—this being fiction, and not just fiction but satire—I exaggerated certain things, omitted others, and invented freely. There are many things I loved about Sidwell that didn’t make it into the novel because, basically, they didn’t serve the plot and/or they weren’t funny. Needless to say, satire works best when you focus on foibles and defects rather than on things that are working beautifully.

Beyond that, I’ve heard from readers in the non-Sidwell community that Barton Friends is a lot like other elite private schools—and probably some elite public schools as well. So—although as far as I know, there’s no other school where mothers of graduating senior girls write and perform a show for their daughters every year—there’s a lot in the book that really isn’t specific to Sidwell.

As for the reaction of Sidwell parents, I would say that it has varied. The people I’ve heard from directly have generally been very positive, with some telling me that the book really resonated with them. But I understand there are others who aren’t so happy. Not having talked to them directly, I can only speculate on their reactions, but at least some of them seem to think that my characters are thinly veiled portraits of real people—which is not the case. While the characters might say or do a few things that real people said or did, they are fictional creations. And it was a lot of work to create them!

Q: Did you identify more with one of the characters in the book than with the others, and if so, why?

A: I put pieces of myself into each of the three main characters, but Amanda—who is really the protagonist—is the one I identify with the most. Like me, she’s a writer, and she finds the creative process exhilarating. In the novel, she can’t seem to stop churning out funny new lyrics to old songs, even when it becomes clear that the show is going in a different direction, because it’s way more fun than other aspects of her life (she has a daughter who won’t talk to her, and she’s under pressure to find a job after 20 years as a stay-at-home mom). In my own life, I was working on a novel that wasn’t going so well, and writing these song lyrics was definitely a way of distracting myself from that particular problem!

But in many ways Amanda is not me, and I’m wary of being confused with her. For one thing, she takes the Mother Daughter Show far more seriously than I did. And her song lyrics (which are, in fact, my song lyrics) are clearly better than anyone else’s (which, of course, I also wrote when I wrote the novel). That was most definitely not the case with the real Mother Daughter Show. Other people were writing terrific song lyrics. But for the plot of the novel to work, Amanda’s lyrics had to be better than everyone else’s.

Q: Your previous novel, A More Obedient Wife, is very different--it takes place in the 1790s, and focuses on two wives of Supreme Court justices. Was it difficult to switch from one time period and style to another?

A: No, it was surprisingly easy. I’d actually finished writing A More Obedient Wife several years before I started The Mother Daughter Show, so it wasn’t as though I plunged directly from one to the other. But aside from that, the material clearly demanded a different voice—contemporary, obviously, and lighter—and that’s the voice that emerged.

In some ways it’s easier to write about the world around you as opposed to that of a different era. You don’t have to do research to figure out what your characters would eat for breakfast, for example, and you don’t constantly worry that you’re getting some detail wrong. And it can be very satisfying to put in little riffs and observations about what’s right in front of your eyes.

On the other hand, there was something about adopting an18th-century voice (or rather, two 18th-century voices), as I did in A More Obedient Wife, that made it easier to enter a fictional world, one that couldn’t possibly be confused with my real world. Maybe partly because I was writing out of my own experience, it was a little more difficult for me to come up with a plot and characters that worked for The Mother Daughter Show.

Q: How did you gather material about these two 18th century women, and did your own background as a lawyer help you with the research?

A: I came across the two women, Hannah Iredell and Hannah Wilson, while I was working as an editor of a multi-volume project called “The Documentary History of the Supreme Court of the United States, 1789-1800.” In those days the Justices spent as many as six months of the year traveling around the country holding circuit courts, and while they were gone they wrote and received many letters from their friends and families. Reading those letters—which had been gathered by the staff of the Documentary History project before I joined it—I became intrigued by these two Hannahs and wanted to find out more about them. Of course, there wasn’t much more to find out. There were biographies of their husbands, the Justices, but women’s lives weren’t considered important enough to record in detail. So eventually I decided to write a novel about the women, using the letters as a jumping-off point, to fill in the gaps with my imagination.

I could never have done all the research myself—the other staff members at the Documentary History let me have access to the thousands of documents they’d accumulated, even after I’d left the project and was working on the novel. I would say that my background as a lawyer helped me only in the sense that it helped me get hired at the Documentary History project. They were under the impression that it was a good idea to have a lawyer around, even though what I’d learned in law school was of very little help in understanding the legal system of the 1790s. (I also have an M.A. in history, which may have helped a little more.)

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve gone back to that novel that wasn’t going so well when I was working on the real Mother Daughter Show—except that it’s changed quite a bit since then. As with A More Obedient Wife, I’m fictionalizing the life of a real but obscure historical figure, someone whose life I can partly record and partly imagine. Her name was Eliza Anderson Godefroy, and in 1807, at the age of 26, she founded and edited a magazine in Baltimore. As far as I can determine, she was the first woman to edit a magazine in the United States, although historians don’t seem to know about her. The novel focuses on that one tumultuous year of her life, 1807, and instead of interspersing my fictional narrative with real letters, as I did in A More Obedient Wife, I’m including excerpts from the magazine.

One interesting parallel: Eliza’s mission in editing this magazine was to raise the level of culture in Baltimore, then a young and raw city, and her chosen method was to satirize the foibles and follies of her fellow citizens. Some of them didn’t appreciate that, especially when they thought they recognized themselves in sketches that she insisted were meant to be “general” and fictional. I’m not sure I completely believe Eliza’s defense (she really wasn’t writing fiction), but it was odd to be writing about someone who was experiencing something vaguely similar to what I was.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just that I’m delighted to have been interviewed by you, Deborah. Thanks so much!

Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 24

Raymond Chandler
Oct. 24, 1958: Raymond Chandler starts his last novel.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Q&A with novelist Tatjana Soli

Tatjana Soli
Tatjana Soli is the author of the award-winning Vietnam War novel The Lotus Eaters, published in 2010. Her new novel is titled The Forgetting Tree.

Q: Your book The Lotus Eaters is set in Vietnam during the war. What inspired you to write about that war, and what kind of historical research did you do for the book?

A: The initial inspiration really came when as a young child I lived on Fort Ord military base in the late sixties. As an adult, it became kind of a personal quest to make sense of that time for myself. Of course it is one of those subjects where the deeper you go, the more there is, until it is an obsession. Since the book came out, many people have contacted me that are still obsessed by the war, whether through first-hand experiences, or those only involved peripherally, through other family members, like myself. As far as research, I needed so much factual information that would never find a place in the final book, but that I needed to ground the story in. Besides documentaries, I read newspapers and magazines, which were invaluable for the simple fact that they were written in the moment. I read many of the later memoirs of the journalists who covered the conflict and had the benefit of hindsight. Military pamphlets, soldier testimony, histories of colonialism, Vietnamese food, Vietnamese and American music. It was fairly exhaustive. I used whatever gave me a feeling for the time and place so it was a bit like an actor getting into a part.

Q: Your writing is very cinematic; a reader feels transported to the locations you describe. Had you been to Vietnam before writing the book? And are there plans for a movie version of The Lotus Eaters?

A: I had been to other parts of Southeast Asia, but not Vietnam. I didn't have a contract for the book so I put off going until a later point. After years of living with the story, I decided almost superstitiously that visiting might destroy the world I had created — the Vietnam of the sixties and seventies at war. I've gone subsequently, and I feel that the book would not have materially changed. A few small details at most. I tell my students that place is always filtered through character and story. If you've created a vivid reality in a book, it is not a place that can be visited. Which doesn't keep my mom from asking if I visited the yellow building in Cholon! The book has been optioned for a movie, and I have my fingers crossed.

Q: The Forgetting Tree takes place in a very different locale. How do you choose your settings, and is it difficult to switch from one to another?

A: I worked on and off The Lotus Eaters for 10 years, so I was immersed in that setting though pictures, movies, documentaries for a long time, and it's emotionally draining material. That was part of the reason I finally went to Vietnam — to experience it in a healing way. I very consciously wanted to stay away from a loaded setting and also anything historical for my next book. My second book takes place in contemporary Southern California on a citrus farm. It is a setting that I've lived near for years, that I love deeply, and that creates different kinds of resonances than a place mostly imagined. Again, I'd say that the place in my book is not a place you can visit.

Q: Was the writing process similar for you as you worked on each book?

A: Actually, I'd say the writing process of one led to the process of the other.... I chose the contemporary, California setting because it was familiar, but also because it interested me as a writer as a place in the process of disappearing. After I wrote sections of The Forgetting Tree, I did specific research about citrus growing and about Haitian history in relation to one of the characters. For the first book it was a matter of learning a huge amount about the country, the war, and the time period before I could build the story.

Q: How did you come up with the titles for your books?

A: The Lotus Eaters was an accident. I came across that section of The Odyssey while thinking about the journeys each of the characters would make in the book. I used it to remind myself of their motivations, which were really hard to explain — why someone does that incredibly important but incredibly dangerous work, year after year. In the second book, trees are a recurring metaphor, and in my research about the slaves brought from Africa to Haiti, I came across the legend of The Forgetting Trees. During the writing of a new book, you have to stay very open to these gifts being dropped in your lap.

Q: How would you compare the character Claire in The Forgetting Tree to Helen in The Lotus Eaters?
A: I think both women are very strong. They are confronted by difficult things, and they survive against enormous odds. Yet Helen's conflict is mostly exterior, dealing with a war that swallows her up. Claire is dealing with interior reactions. The way she reacts to tragedy, to illness, to betrayal, is at least as big a problem as the events themselves.

Q: Helen works as a photojournalist. Why did the idea of a female war photographer appeal to you, and what do you think of the role women journalists played in the Vietnam War and subsequent conflicts?

A: I was interested in using the viewpoint of a female journalist for a novelist's reasons: she would be a perfect outsider character. Beyond that, as a woman writer, I wanted very much to have a female inhabit the central moral conflict in the traditionally male territory of a war novel. Researching the lives of journalists I was in awe how brave many of these people were then and are today. In the particular area of war photojournalism, women had just started to have a presence in Vietnam. I believe I read somewhere that today the figure is twenty-five percent of journalists are women. It is a very difficult life for a man or a woman.

Q: What other novels about the Vietnam War do you recommend, and why?

A: I sound like a broken record, but I will forever be an evangelist for Tim O'Brien's novels. Especially with younger audiences who are only exposed to whatever is currently being published. I don't believe there will ever be a better account of the soldier's experience, or the toll of that experience, than in his work. Of course, there is The Things They Carried, but equally important is Going After Cacciato, and then further into the aftereffects of war in the book In the Lake of the Woods. Next, Dog Soldiers, by Robert Stone, because he is a master novelist, and he makes you understand the time from the inside out.

 Interview with Deborah Kalb. An earlier version of this interview appeared on

Oct. 20

Oct. 20, 1853: French poet Arthur Rimbaud born.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Q&A with author Jon Friedman

Jon Friedman is MarketWatch's Media Web columnist. His new book is titled "Forget About Today: Bob Dylan's Genius for (Re)invention, Shunning the Naysayers, and Creating a Personal Revolution."

Q: In your new book, “Forget About Today,” you describe Bob Dylan as a “role model.” Has he been a role model for you in your own life, and if so, how?

A: Yes, he has. He has been a writer who represented wit, compassion and style in his work. He has showed how someone could start his career at the bottom and go quickly to the top, all by himself. That's a role model in my book.
Q: You examine various choices he made during his career (moving to New York, “going electric,” making other changes in his musical styles). In addition to the positive lessons you found, did you also encounter any negative lessons or cautionary tales?

A: Yes. Dylan's reluctance to embrace videos in the early 1980s indicated that his stubbornness could work against him -- a cautionary tale. I admire Dylan for standing apart from the crowd, but sometimes you have to recognize that time marches on -- and you can't ignore technology. 

Q: Would you define your book as a self-help book? Why or why not?

A: YES -- AND NO! I hope folks will read it and see how Dylan went from nothing to great success, armed only with his ability and dreams. And everyone should have such grand ambitions in their lives. I don't think Dylan would take the time to teach us anything, but we can learn from his example.

Q: Bob Dylan chose not to be interviewed for your book. Do you have any sense of his reaction to the book, or, if not, what do you imagine it might be?

A: Yes. Bob has written in skywriting above the Pacific that this is the greatest book he has ever heard of! Ha ha. I don't know what he thinks of my book or if he has ever heard of it. I think he should feel flattered by the attention, and my conclusions about him.
Q: What’s your favorite Dylan song, and why? Are there any of his songs that you dislike?

A: I have about 25 favorite Dylan songs! But since I took the book title from a phrase in "Mr. Tambourine Man," I'll go with that gem as my No. 1 favorite. Right now. I do dislike a few of his songs -- especially from the 1980s albums -- but his batting average is very high in total!
Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I hope your readers enjoy reading my book. It was a true labor of love for me to write. For any more information, feel free to read my Bob Dylan/"Forget About Today"-centric website,
--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 19

Oct. 19: John le Carre born.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Q&A with Dan Rather

Dan Rather, a longtime CBS News anchor and correspondent, now hosts AXS TV's "Dan Rather Reports." His new book is titled "Rather Outspoken."

Q: As someone who covered the Vietnam War as well as subsequent conflicts, how did the relationship between the military and the press change over the years? How did it remain the same?

A: In many ways, the relationship has changed greatly. In general, correspondents and news organizations have far less access to combat operations and Americans who fight in them than was the case in Vietnam.  The Defense Department and the military allow less access and now much more tightly control who gets to go where, when and talk to whom-- in fighting areas, military field headquarters and in Washington.

Fair to say, in many cases, news organizations are less committed to extended and thorough coverage of war zones --and overall war efforts--than during the Vietnam era.  High costs, reduced resources (including personnel, overseas bureaus) and, I am sorry to say, a loss of commitment to public service by the owners of major media are among the reasons. The idea that a national-distribution news organization--whether print or electronic--is a public trust and therefore an owner should try to meet the responsibilities of that trust has pretty much disappeared.  For example, the idea that a major television and radio network should be operated at least some of the time in the PUBLIC interest--in service of the public--as opposed to only for the benefit of principal owners and share-holders is gone.

This is a major change.  It affects all coverage, but war coverage is one of the places it hits hardest. Foreign coverage in general suffers greatly. It's less expensive and easier to put four people in a room shouting at one another about a war (whether any of them have ever been to the war, or any war) than it is to staff bureaus and send correspondents into combat on a sustained basis. It's also less controversial, less likely to get the owning company into trouble with whatever powers-that-be in Washington (whether, at any given time, they be Republican- or Democrat-led).

Among what hasn't changed is this: the general population tends to view wars through the prism of their own prejudices.  Those prejudices often are created and manipulated by national politicians, who too often do it for their own partisan political purposes. This is made easier since only a tiny percentage of the overall population now has any close family member in uniform and/or actually fighting (to say nothing of the fact that it is made even easier for office-holders since very few of them have first-circle family members in the service now).

Q: Who was the most interesting president for you to cover, and why?

A: Richard Nixon because: a) he became the only president in history to resign the office. b) he became that due to having led a widespread criminal conspiracy from the Oval Office (this made him what the grand jury officially called an “unindicted co-conspirator” in criminal activity). c) this all became a constitutional crisis, which tested the validity and integrity of our treasured “checks and balances” system of separation of powers.  Covering this as it unfolded over a period of years also put the role of the press as the “fourth estate” to a hard test. It was not pleasant, and there certainly was no joy in covering it.  But it sure was interesting.

Q: How important do you think military service is for a president?

A: Important but not imperative. My opinion is that it helps but it is not absolutely necessary. I do think a president, if he hasn’t had military service, should have studied military history (especially the ancient Greeks and Romans and more modern military affairs). Also I think it would be a good idea if he saw the movies “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “Full Metal Jacket” plus a documentary or two about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Q: In your new book, “Rather Outspoken,” you discuss the controversy over the 2004 “60 Minutes” story on President Bush’s National Guard service during the Vietnam era, and your later decision to sue your longtime employer, CBS. What are your feelings today about the documents relating to Bush’s service that were called into question, and about CBS?

A: My feelings today are exactly as I wrote them in detail in the book. We reported a true story.

Q: As someone who’s been in the news business for 60 years, what do you imagine it will look like 60 years from now?

A: It’s difficult to imagine that far out. If you go back and look at the world 60 years ago, all of the technology today would have been unimaginable. That being said, I do believe that there will be a market for quality news of integrity and good story telling. How that is delivered and consumed is anybody’s guess.  I hope that the American tradition of journalists believing in, and the public supporting, a free and independent press -- truly independent, fiercely independent when necessary –- as the red beating heart of democracy will continue.

 Interview with Deborah Kalb. This interview previously appeared at

Dan Rather

Oct. 18


Oct. 18, 1851: Moby Dick published in Britain.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Q&A with writer and performance artist le thi diem thuy

le thi diem thuy, author of the acclaimed novel "The Gangster We Are All Looking For," is a writer and performance artist. She was born in Vietnam; she and her father left in 1978 and made their way to the United States.

Q: Your novel "The Gangster We Are All Looking For" depicts a Vietnamese father, mother, and daughter who become refugees and end up in San Diego. In what sense was this book based on your own family's experiences, and in what sense could it reflect the experiences of other Vietnamese-American families as well?

A: The question of how the past troubles or complicates the present is one that interests me.  I see The Gangster We Are All Looking For as a work that tells a story of aftermath and new beginnings, simultaneously.  The aftermath is of the Vietnam war, as experienced by a family of Vietnamese refugees in San Diego.  The new beginnings is how these Vietnamese refugees become Americans. The novel is autobiographical in part--the parents have my parents' names and jobs, the houses and neighborhoods are all places my family lived in--but I used facts from my own life only as points of departure, and have taken so many liberties a reader would be mistaken to look for me here.  Having said that, I will allow that every element in this book came from a personal passion, to wrest Vietnam the place (homeland) back from Vietnam the war, and to show Vietnamese people who carry entire worlds--of grief, of longing, of love-- within them, and have something to say about those worlds.  Who they are, what they have to say, and how they say it, is not incidental to the story, it is the story.

Q:  Could you explain the significance of the book's title?

A: The title comes from a moment in the book where, after her parents have had a spectacular fight--fish tank pitched out the front door, rice bowls sent sailing out the window--the narrator, a young girl, states, "When I grow up, I am going to be the gangster we are all looking for."  The statement is both matter-of-fact and touched with bravado.  Since the narrative doesn't allow us to see much of her as a grown up, we don't know if her proclamation comes true. People often ask, Who is the gangster of the title?  Is it the father (who was a gangster during his youth in Vietnam, but is no longer so in the U.S.), is it the mother (who is certainly willful), is it the girl, or is it a longed-for figure who never arrives?   I often say, I don't know.  It could be you.

Q: When were you last in Vietnam, and do you still have family members there? What is your sense of the relationship between the United States and Vietnam today?

A: I last visited Vietnam in the spring of 2010.  I do still have family there. Part of my visit was to meet with the editors of the Women's Publishing House in Hanoi.  They are working on a Vietnamese translation of the novel, something I hope can be seen to completion.  While the war between Vietnam and the US is part of the history books there, the civil war, between the north and the south Vietnamese, remains largely untouched.  I think this is the greater challenge, of course, to face what brothers have done to one another, and the very deep fractures that come out of that.  Without discussing the civil war, as well as the environmental and economic devastation that the American war left the country in, we can't appreciate the context of why so many Vietnamese would flee the only home they have ever known, and set out, in the open water, toward a multitude of unknowns.

Right now the relationship between the United States and Vietnam is one facilitated primarily by tourism.  Which, in one sense might be seen as a good thing, because it loosens the lens of how Vietnamese and Americans  approach each other, i.e. allowing for a sense of remove from the war itself, and in another sense might not be so great, as the living memory of the war, and the many questions it raised, are replaced with having a nice visit to a beautiful place.

Q:  You are a writer, but also a performance artist. Which of these art forms came first for you, and how do you blend them?

A: One of my favorite scenes from a film occurs at the end of Claire Denis' Beau Travail, when Denis Lavant dances through the closing credits.  I love how he throws his body around, falls, pulls back, sways.  I watch and hear the music, then don't hear the music at all, just see him.  Something about his body reminds me of when I saw Long Nguyen dance in Seattle, summer of 1991.  He was a dancer with the Mark Morris Dance Group.  He was doing a solo performance separate from the company, a piece about growing up in South Vietnam during the war.  I saw the poster somewhere, and decided to go, alone. 

I remember sitting in the theater at the university there, seeing this little man come on to the stage in a tank top and white swim trunks and the feeling of recognition was so strong, I sat utterly still.  Then leaving the theater immediately after his performance, not feeling able to stay and watch whatever followed (the program mentioned something about a piece to do with vampires).  I'm not sure how I got home that night.  That was the night I saw and understood that it was possible, to be a performer, to move and speak, to tell such stories.  His body reminded me of my father's body, and his voice of the voices of some of the men/uncles in my life, and the contrast/tension between the words and the movements opened up this other space for the truth, one that can't be clearly spoken, only shown, or rather, only shown to be borne within the body of the person moving across the stage.  It was as if the lesson was there, completely distilled, and I took it all in, in one sitting. 

Then I stumbled out of the theater and was on my way...  It took me three years to fully realize the momentum of that night in the development of my first performance piece, Mua He Do Lua/Red Fiery Summer.  I have moved back and forth between poetry, prose, and solo performance.   Poetry came first.  I don't blend the forms so much as engage with a question across different forms.  It's as if I follow the question from form to form, failing a little each time.  I don't think I'm trying to get anything 'right' so much as get closer, not to an answer, but to the question itself.  For instance, the first piece I ever wrote about Vietnam is a poem titled "shrapnel shards on blue water".  I wrote it for my younger sister, Trinh.  It ends with the line: let people know Vietnam is not a war.  So then the question became, What is Vietnam, if not a war?  Both the novel and the performance works are how I went on to engage with that question.

Q:  What project are you working on now?

A: I'm working on a novel that is related to The Gangster We Are All Looking For.  The less I say about it, the better or else we'll be here all day.  It writes in to the many silences of the first book, one of which is the war itself.  One of the main characters is based on the English photojournalist Larry Burrows, whose photo essays for Life Magazine provide a framework to look at the war from the point of view of someone who is neither Vietnamese nor American, yet whose job was to capture what was happening, from the ground up and the sky down.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I find it interesting that the title of your book has the word 'haunting' in it.  So much about the war in Vietnam seems to summon ghosts.

Interview with Deborah Kalb. This interview previously appeared on

"The Gangster We Are All Looking For," by le thi diem thuy

Oct. 17

Oct. 17, 1903: Writer Nathanael West born.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Q&A with author Andrew Lam

Andrew Lam, journalist, essayist, Huffington Post blogger, and NPR commentator, came to the United States from Vietnam at age 11. He is the co-founder of New America Media and the author of "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres" and "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora." 

Q: You have a new book, "Birds of Paradise Lost," coming out next year. Does it touch on some of the same themes as your previous works, or are you heading in a different direction?

A: “Birds of Paradise Lost” is a collection of short stories. It’s significantly different in that it’s a genre I’m not necessarily known for, being a journalist for many years. Epic loss and American conversion. In some way it’s a meditation on losses and gains for newcomers to the new shore. It’s played out in all the characters in “Birds of Paradise Lost” as they struggle to redefine themselves in the New World. In other words, it’s a story of Vietnamese refugees going through their process of integration with various growing pains and degrees of successes.  It’s different than my literary journalism because it’s all imagined, and it’s liberating for someone who had for two decades to deal with facts.
Q:  As someone who arrived in the United States at age 11 from Vietnam, what do you think of the current debate over immigration in this country?

A: It’s unfortunate that the country of immigrants turned its back on immigrants. The atmosphere after 9/11 is toxic. In the war on terrorism, the immigrant is often the scapegoat. He becomes a kind of insurance policy against the effects of recession. By blaming him, the pressure valve is regulated in time of crisis. Instead of a larger narrative on immigration--from culture to economics, from identity to history--what we have now is a public mindset of us versus them, and an overall anti-immigrant climate that is both troubling and morally reprehensible.

Missing from the national conversation are voices of pro-immigration reformers and civil rights leaders, who can speak on behalf of those who have no voice. Where are the leaders who can speak to the idea that it is not alien to American interests, but very much in our socioeconomic interest--not to mention our spiritual health--to integrate immigrants, that our nation functions best when we welcome newcomers and help them participate fully in our society?

Q: You have written many essays dealing with your life between two cultures. Looking back, what was the most difficult part of your adjustment to life in the United States? What was one of the easiest parts?

A: I learned English really quickly and within two years time fully integrated myself in American life. But what was difficult a few years later was to make sense of my incongruous past. How does the totally Americanized teenager reconcile with his Vietnamese childhood, one filled with extraordinary wonders and violence, with moments of high dramas—escaping from a city about to be taken over, watching his father coming home from the battlefield caked in mud, visiting scenes of battlefields in the aftermath where bodies are half-buried in rice fields, the temple dances; familial love, the insularities of clanship—all these beckon me to return.

I would say the most difficult part of my Americanization process is my struggle to appropriate my Vietnamese memories. I think were it not for my abilities to render them into stories, in words, I would be an incomplete person.

Q: When you return on trips to Vietnam, what is your sense of the attitude among your relatives and others toward American culture?

A: Let me tell you a story. A few years ago, for instance, I went back to Vietnam to make a documentary called “My Journey Home” and I did the touristy thing: I went to Cu Chi Tunnel, near Tay Ninh Province, bordering Cambodia, a complex underground labyrinth in which the Viet Cong hid during the war many years ago. There were several American vets in their late 60s there – they fought in Vietnam and lost friends. They were back for the first time. They were very emotional. They went to Vietnam to look for the meaning of the past.

But the young tour guide saw it completely different: The old tunnels had mostly collapsed, she told me. It was tourism that forced the Vietnamese to dig up the old hideouts. The young tour guide then told me: “It was a lot smaller back then. But now the New Cu Chi Tunnel is very wide? You know why? To cater to very, very big Americans.” The young Vietnamese guide does not see the past: She has a dream for a cosmopolitan future. She spoke fluent English, made lots of friends overseas due to her job and dreams of Disneyland. She crawled through the same tunnel with foreigners routinely but she emerged with different ideas. Her head is filled with the Golden Gate Bridge and cable cars and two-tiered freeways and Hollywood and Universal Studios. “I have many friends over there now,” she said, reflecting the collective desire of Vietnamese youth. “They invite me to come. I’m saving money for this amazing trip.”

I stood there looking at the mouth of the tunnel, and in the end there may never be final conclusion about that war. There can never be one story about that war. Here’s a young woman who looks at a tunnel that was the headquarters of the Vietcong and what does she see? Disneyland. The Cu Chi tunnel leads some to the past, surely, but for the young tour guide it may very well lead to the future. It’s complicated by multiple points of view, many-sided versions of the same thing, and many stories. In that sense when we talk about Vietnam we should not simplify but expand, so much so that it becomes the story of people, of human beings rather than metaphor of tragedy.

For the Vietnamese, whose population is now 90 million and two-thirds of whom were born after the war ended, America is the future. It represents the trajectory so many of their countrymen have taken and have achieved great transformation and success. America barely registers as a war to the new Vietnam – it represents what it does to all poor countries in this world: glamour and material wealth and possible cosmopolitan conversion.

Q: What do you think about Secretary Panetta's trip to Cam Ranh Bay [earlier this year] and Secretary Clinton's stop in Laos? How significant were these visits?

A: I suppose from the point of view of national interests, it cannot be helped. The futures of empires are in the balance in regards to the Pacific Region. The South China Sea carries over more than half of the world trade. Under it lie untold oil pockets and natural gas, the stuff that could make or break an empire for the next 100 years. It is why the United States has moved from a strategy of appeasement toward one of deterrence. Hillary Clinton said it as much in an essay last November in Foreign Policy titled "America's Pacific Century," which came with this sub-headline: "The future of politics will be decided in Asia, not Afghanistan or Iraq, and the United States will be right at the center of the action."

For me the developing story is one steeped in irony, and a signal for a major shift in the long, if arduous, U.S.-Indochina relations. Uncle Sam’s back! Nearly four decades have passed, but America is barely recovered from its psychic wounds. Vietnam, after all, was our "hell in a small place." It spelled America's ignominy. The country known for its manifest destiny was soundly defeated by what former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once called a "fourth-rate power." Still, here we are, at the turn of the millennia, seeking a return. For Vietnam, a country that “kicked” out the Americans the new attitude is “Uncle Sam, we need you. When are you coming back”?

But such is the fate of a weak country stuck between vying empires. There can never be true independence. Vietnam has gone so far as pleading with the U.S. to let them buy high-grade weapons. In Vietnam, often I hear young people posing this question: “If we want America so badly, why the hell did we fight Americans in the first place?” It’s a question that many struggle to answer.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Well, I am working on a novel. And I would love to teach at some point. I’ve much to share.

Interview with Deborah Kalb. A previous version of this interview appeared on

Andrew Lam