Friday, November 30, 2012

Q&A with novelist Debra Dean

Debra Dean is the author of two novels, The Madonnas of Leningrad and The Mirrored World, and a short story collection, Confessions of a Falling Woman.

Q: Your new novel, The Mirrored World, involves the story of St. Xenia, a Russian holy figure. How did you learn about her, and why did you decide to write a novel based on her life?

A: When I finished The Madonnas of Leningrad I thought I was going to follow it with a novel set in my hometown of Seattle. Best laid plans. It was a good idea, but that's where it stayed -- an idea -- and it just wouldn't come to life. You can usually tell by about page 50 if you've got a dead book on the table. I had signed a contract and taken an advance and I was panicked. 

And what kept returning to my thoughts was an intriguing little historical footnote I had come across in my research for Madonnas about an 18th century Russian saint. A wealthy young woman on the periphery of the Court, after the death of her husband she renounced material possessions and went to live on the streets of the city's worst slum. I'm not Russian Orthodox or Catholic, I was raised Presbyterian, so I've tended to view saints as being like superheroes. But something about her got under my skin. It was said she went mad with grief, and I kept thinking of Joan Didion's remarkable memoir The Year of Magical Thinking where she talks about the radical dislocation that followed the sudden death of her husband. 

Q: The Madonnas of Leningrad, your first novel, also is set, at least in part, in Russia. Have you always been interested in Russia, and how much research did you need to do to write your novels?

A: Yes, "Why Russia?" It’s a good question for which I have never been able to provide a logical answer. I have nothing in my background to explain this: I'm not Russian, and it wasn't a focus of my studies. My husband says I was Russian in a former life, and that may be as good an explanation as any. But given my former ignorance, I had to do years of research for each book, almost none of which served both. St. Petersburg in the 18th century and Leningrad in the 1940's are very different worlds, and each in their own way very strange places. There's a practical reason why creative writing teachers counsel their students to write what they know. But for good or ill, I happen to be much more fascinated by what I don't know. I think writing historical fiction may be the next best thing to the pleasures of being a student.

Q: You also have worked as an actor, and that background is reflected in your short story collection, Confessions of a Falling Woman. Are the disciplines of writing and acting linked, in your opinion, or do they require completely different skills?

A: When I made the move from acting to writing fiction, I didn't realize what a short hop it is. I'm doing very much the same thing I did as an actor: pretending to be other people. Of course, as an actor I was given the lines and here I have to make them up for myself, but it's all deep play and invention. And then, the public part of being a writer -- the book tours and public speaking -- that, too, is similar to what I did as an actor. Luckily, it's easy for me to go from the solitary to the public sphere.

Q: Of the fictional characters that you've created, do you have a favorite?

A: Hmm, it's a bit like asking which of one's children is the favorite. I love them all. But I do have a special fondness for Gaspari -- he's an Italian castrato in The Mirrored World. He was a lot of fun to write, and is someone I would like to have for a friend in real life.  

Q: What are you working on now?

A: At this moment, I'm on hiatus because I broke my wrist and can only type one-handed. But I have a new book underway. I'm playing it a bit close to the vest right now, but I will say it's a departure for me, to non-fiction. It's a biography of three artists, and it follows their stories from pre-war Europe to Greenwich Village in the 50's and 60's.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Well, there's more on Facebook and at

 Interview with Deborah Kalb.

Nov. 30

Mark Twain
Nov. 30, 1835: Author Mark Twain born.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Q&A with author John A. Jenkins

John A. Jenkins
John A. Jenkins, the president and publisher emeritus of CQ Press, is the author of three books, including the recently released The Partisan: The Life of William Rehnquist.
Q: What most intrigues you about Chief Justice Rehnquist, and why did you decide to write a biography of him?
A: I’ll answer the last part first:  The short answer is that the job of Chief Justice is one of enormous importance in our tripartite form of government, and that makes him a worthy subject of great historical significance.  It’s a biography that really matters.  In terms of what intrigued me and drew me to him as a subject:  he put up something of a “Do Not Enter” sign around his life.  No memoir, very few interviews, papers not easily accessible.  A journalist’s job is to find out things that people don’t necessarily want us to know.  And I had the only substantive interviews with him – for The New York Times Magazine – that delved into his own views about the Court.  So it was a logical project. 
Q: You write, "Rehnquist's judicial philosophy was nihilistic at its core, disrespectful of precedent and dismissive of social, economic, and political institutions that did not comport with his black-and-white view of the world."  What caused you to come to that conclusion, and what are some examples of that philosophy and worldview?
A: That one sentence has received a lot of attention, as I expected it would.  But it’s an inescapable conclusion for anyone who objectively examines the full record of Rehnquist’s life.  Or for anyone who reads The Partisan.  Rehnquist had a view of the world that was flash frozen at childhood.  His world had good guys and bad guys.  He voted against every affirmative-action program the Court ever considered.  He called stare decisis, honoring legal precedent, a “sham.”  Rehnquist came to the Court with a personal agenda to steer it to the right, and he was very direct about that in our interviews.  He was also pretty successful – although, as I write, not as successful as he could have been.    
Q: Both your new biography and a 1985 New York Times piece you wrote about Rehnquist are titled "The Partisan."  What do you see as the significance of that title as it relates to Rehnquist and his role on the court, and can you tell us about Rehnquist's reaction to your 1985 article?
A: When the editors at The Times Magazine gave my article that title, they were actually quoting Rehnquist.  He openly acknowledged his partisanship during our interviews.  He was very comfortable with the description.  I thought “Partisan” it was the best possible title for his biography, because that one word really captures him.  When the magazine article first came out, I think he probably thought he’d been accurately portrayed.  But I know he didn’t like the cover photograph, because he told his sister so in a letter the next day.  He did sort of look like an avenging angel in that photo, but I had nothing to do with it!  Later on, particularly during his 1986 confirmation hearings, his comments to me about Plessy and Brown caused him trouble.  By 1996, he was vowing never to give another such interview and citing my article as the reason why.    
Q:  Which of the current justices would you describe as partisans, and do you see partisanship continuing on the court in the future?
A: I think the Court is comprised now of partisans on both sides, probably to a greater extent than at any time in its history and certainly since academic experts got serious about analyzing the philosophical drift of the Court starting with the administration of FDR.  That is actually Rehnquist’s most potent, enduring legacy.  Yes, it will continue. 
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Among other things, another book project about the Court.  Stay tuned. 
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: One of the fascinating things I uncovered during my research was the great regard that Rehnquist had for a justice who in many ways was his polar opposite:  Bill Douglas. Rehnquist had made no secret of his disdain for Douglas, going all the way back to Rehnquist’s clerkship at the Court in the early 1950s.  And yet Douglas reached out to young Justice Rehnquist from the day Rehnquist arrived there in 1972.  Both men were rugged individualists, fiercely independent.  Politically, they agreed on almost nothing.  Yet there grew to be genuine affection and mutual regard.  That is my favorite part of the biography.    
Interview with Deborah Kalb.

Nov. 29

Louisa May Alcott
Nov. 29, 1832: Author Louisa May Alcott born.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Q&A with author Caroline Adams Miller

Caroline Adams Miller
Caroline Adams Miller is an author and professional coach. Her books include My Name is Caroline, which looked at her struggle with bulimia as a teenager and young adult, and Creating Your Best Life: The Ultimate Life List Guide.

Q: In your book Creating Your Best Life, you discuss the importance of making life lists. Why do you see that as an important tool for someone to use to improve his or her life?

A: I picked lists as a euphemism for "goals," because the book is really the first empirical and evidence-based book on how to set and accomplish goals, and putting them on lists was how the publisher wanted to frame it.  The Bucket List movie had just come out and they were excited about the concept of bucket lists and my work fit the bill. 

Q: You've written about your experiences as a teenager and young adult with bulimia. How difficult was it for you to write about those experiences, and what was your family's reaction to your decision to write about it?

A: I felt compelled to write about my experiences with bulimia and my recovery because there were no resources available when I was struggling.  I wanted to demystify the lives of people like me and provide an inside look at why so many high-functioning, bright people were falling victim to eating disorders, and since no one knew how people got well back then, my book was the first of its kind to shine a light on one possible avenue.  

It wasn't hard to write the book because I'm a writer, and that's how I process things and make meaning.  My family of origin never stood in my way, but they may have had some self-conscious moments at times.  I was careful NOT to ever implicate anyone else in my disorder, so it wasn't a book of blame, too.  Ultimately, my parents saw that my book saved thousands of lives and I think that erased any possible embarrassment.  In fact, not a week goes by - and it's been over 25 years - that I don't get a call or email thanking me for writing that book.  I'm still amazed at the power it had and continues to have in giving people hope, and starting them on a path of recovery.

Q: You received a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) from the University of Pennsylvania, and you work as a professional coach in addition to pursuing your writing career. What was the focus of the MAPP program, and how do you use that material in your coaching work?

A: I wanted to get a rigorous education in the science of happiness because it helped to give my profession a theoretical framework that our profession needed at that time.  Coaching is about getting people to flourish and accomplish goals, and positive psychology involves all of that, and more.  I connected the science of well-being with the science of goal-setting, and was the first to pull together a variety of motivational theories on how to set and accomplish goals, which informs my coaching practice.  I work with men and women all over the world, in a huge variety of professions, who want to make changes in their work and personal lives. 

Q: What advice would you give to someone who knows they want to make changes in their life, but isn't sure how to go about it?

A: My book would be a good place to start.  After reading it, you could make a decision about hiring a coach who is especially trained in goal accomplishment if you couldn't pull off change yourself.  Therapy is more designed to talk about change than actually do it, so I find that many people who benefit from coaching are people who have lots of insight but who never had the ability to act upon that insight. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm finishing Positively Caroline, which is the sequel to My Name is Caroline.  It will be the first autobiography about how someone got into recovery from an eating disorder and then stayed in recovery.  There is a dearth of role models who can demonstrate long-term recovery, and the field desperately needs it at this point because we still see epidemics of eating disorders.  I'm not exactly sure how much better off we are as a society when it comes to tackling and overcoming eating disorders, and I think that pressures are higher than ever on young women to be perfect.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Everyone should take a course somewhere on the basics of the science of happiness - it's that important.  There's a reason why Positive Psychology was, and remains, the most oversubscribed course in the history of Harvard.  Positive psychology gives people tools to use that can change their lives for the better immediately.  I have a lot of information about where to get started at

 Interview with Deborah Kalb.

Nov. 28

William Shakespeare
Nov. 28, 1582: William Shakespeare marries Anne Hathaway.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Q&A with author Karen Sommer Shalett

Karen Sommer Shalett
Karen Sommer Shalett, editor in chief of DC Magazine, is the co-author of a new cookbook, True Blood: Eats, Drinks, and Bites from Bon Temps, based on HBO's True Blood TV show.

Q: How did the idea of a True Blood cookbook come about?

A: After having passed on the highly successful Sopranos cookbook, Chronicle Books reached out to HBO in advance of a decision to create a cookbook for its incredibly popular True Blood show. After cementing that relationship with a successful project, the partnership has been extended to a cookbook featuring cuisine from the HBO (and also Louisiana-themed, though solely New Orleans) show Treme. I understand that the original Sopranos cookbook broke all kinds of records in publishing, not limited to cookbooks or spinoffs from TV shows. I'm sure Chronicle hopes these cookbooks will do as well.

The cookbook for True Blood works because every episode features authentic cuisine from the area of Louisiana in which it’s set. There are Cajun classics and a few Creole ones, too. There are also low-country Louisiana dishes and traditional Southern fare featured in the show and that was the source material from which we pulled each of the entries. 

Q: How did you get involved in the cookbook?

A: I got very lucky. A food writer friend of mine, Pableaux Johnson, who lived in New Orleans, contacted me to ask if I watched the show. I did and do. He knew I'd understand the cuisine as I'd lived in Louisiana and had family roots there--at least in-laws--and he said he'd be passing on the project as he didn't watch the show. I spoke to the Chronicle editor on the project and she was a dynamo. We agreed we really wanted to work together and we turned what otherwise would have been a six-month schedule into a seven-week one because that was all the time she had to ensure the appropriate publication date. 

Q: There are several authors--what role did each of you play in the project?

A: Alan Ball is given lead credit on the book as he created the characters whose voices I used to introduce each of the recipes. Gianna Sobol edited the character's voices to ensure authenticity. The recipes are created and tested by celebrated recipe writer Marcelle Bienvenu. She works with famous chefs, such as Emeril Lagasse, on a variety of cookbooks, most of which have roots in Louisiana. 

Q: Would someone who's not a fan of True Blood enjoy the cookbook, or do you have to be an aficionado to appreciate it?

A: Given the packaging of the book with fantastic photos from the show, it is the perfect gift for a True Blood fan. However, the recipes--which include cocktails, home cooking, restaurant-style dishes and desserts--stand on their own as excellent examples of the regional cuisine. But perhaps it is best for a fan.  

Q: What are a few of your favorite recipes from the book?

A: My boys are very excited for the frosted cake on the cover. It is the most angelic of the dishes...funny for a vampire-related show and for my devilish boys. 

Q: Are you working on another book now?

A: I'm not working on a book right now. I have several ideas for books that Chronicle is more than excited to receive proposals for, but as a mother of two, wife and editor-in-chief of a magazine, finding the time has been the hurdle. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I was struck by how silly a project this was until I really gave it thought about why people cook for each other in the first place. I love that I've helped to create a project that people can share both in the humor of it, but also in the nurturing the dishes bring. 

Interview with Deborah Kalb.

Nov. 27

James Agee
Nov. 27, 1909: Author James Agee born.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Q&A with author Linda Killian

Linda Killian
Washington journalist Linda Killian is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Her most recent book is The Swing Vote: The Untapped Power of Independents. 

Q: In your book The Swing Vote, you look at four different groups of independent voters. Can you describe each of these, and summarize what role they ended up playing in the 2012 election?

A: There are four demographic groups of swing voters I identify in The Swing Vote and all of them were important in the 2012 election.

The first group I call the NPR Republicans – they have previously been known as Rockefeller Republicans but I thought it was time for a new term for fiscally conservative but socially moderate/tolerant Republicans. Because of the rightward move of the Republican Party and the influence of the religious right on the party including things like a party platform that would outlaw abortions in all cases including rape, incest and to protect the health of the mother, many of these NPR Republicans no longer feel welcome in the party and many have become independents.   

There are a lot of NPR Republicans in New England but they do exist all over the country. Even though they are disappearing among GOP office holders, there are plenty of voters who are NPR Republicans. In 2008 many of these NPR Republicans voted for Barack Obama. Mitt Romney was a candidate tailor-made for these voters, despite his gyrations in the primaries in an attempt to appeal to the conservative wing of the party including the declaration that he was “severely conservative”.

These voters do not turn out in party primaries in the same proportion as the right wing and Tea Party voters and so a number of the candidates who were nominated – such as Richard Mourdock in Indiana over the more moderate and bipartisan Richard Lugar - went down to defeat in the general election.

Of all of the four groups I talk about in the book the NPR Republicans probably had the smallest impact on this election. However, after the Republican Senate defeats in states like Missouri and Indiana as well as the 2010 defeat in Delaware, a number of GOP activists are talking about the need to solve their “primary problem” and nominate people who can win statewide and appeal to Independent, centrist voters and not just a narrow, conservative constituency.

The second group I talk about are the “America First Democrats” who we have known traditionally as Reagan Democrats. These are socially more conservative, largely white, working and middle class males. These voters were not with Barack Obama in 2008 and while it’s true that nationally Obama did not carry white male voters, the America First Democrats were incredibly important in Ohio. 

The Republican anti-union effort in 2011 after the GOP took over the state legislature and governorship, which was decisively repealed through a ballot measure, really activated these voters. I don’t think the national media totally got this – although there was a lot of attention paid to the auto bailout, which was also important in winning support from this group. The Obama campaign’s coalition in Ohio included minority voters and young people but the America First Democrats also helped him carry the state.

Young voters, who I call the Facebook Generation, are an interesting swing group even though a lot of people write them off either as not voting or voting largely Democratic as a bloc. Both things are increasingly untrue. The participation level of voters under 30 has increased in each of the last three presidential elections. In 2004 it was 17 percent of the electorate, in 2008 it was 18 percent and this year it was 19 percent. That is a larger percentage of voters than those over 65, which is also something I think most of the media has missed. That means this group of voters actually should have a lot of clout and they need to make their voices heard. 

Also, while Barack Obama decisively carried this group, Mitt Romney actually got six points more from voters under 30 than did John McCain. What I heard from the young voters I interviewed is that they are socially libertarian but are open to a more fiscally conservative message, which is why Ron Paul was such a rock star on college campuses. These young people are concerned about finding a job – remember the first question from a college student at the debate for undecided voters?

The final group is the Starbucks Moms and Dads – suburban voters who really decide elections. More attention was paid in the media to the mom component of this group. More than 50 percent of all Americans live in suburbs and exurbs and these voters were incredibly important in all the key swing states, especially Colorado, Ohio and Virginia.

Q: Do you think independent voters will take on even more importance in future elections, or will their numbers end up declining?

The number of registered voters who call themselves Independents – some states call them undeclared or unaffiliated – now stands at 40 percent nationally. That’s the highest percentage since Gallup started keeping track 75 years ago and that is more voters than in either the Republican or Democratic parties. A lot of academics and pundits like to write off these voters as people who consistently lean toward one party or another or who don’t pay attention. 

But that is not at all what I found in interviewing them. These voters do care, but both parties have turned them off with their refusal to compromise and by creating government dysfunction. This group will be closely watching what happens in the lame-duck session of Congress and whether the two parties can work together on deficit reduction and other important issues facing the nation.

Q: You looked at four particular swing states in your book: Colorado, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Virginia. Why did you pick those four, and what makes each of these especially interesting?

A: I spent a long time thinking about the four states I wanted to focus on in The Swing Vote. I wanted states from different regions of the country which illustrated the demographic changes talking place in the nation and which I could match with one of my four demographic groups. Obviously I thought about Florida but that state is so huge and unique that I decided not to include it.

New Hampshire used to be a very Republican state but it has been voting more Democratic in the past two decades as more people move here from Massachusetts. There are a lot of NPR Republicans in the Granite State and of course Mitt Romney has a home here. He kicked off his presidential campaign at the farm of a politically active, moderate Republican couple named the Scammans that I talk about in The Swing Vote

He undoubtedly thought he could win New Hampshire but there was a Democratic wave here in 2012. Not only did the Democrats hold the governorship and pick up seats in the state legislature, they also won back both of the state’s congressional seats. New Hampshire also made history in being the first state in the country to elect women to fill all of its congressional and Senate seats as well as the governorship.

Virginia also used to be a reliably Republican state when it came to presidential elections. Barack Obama was the first Democrat to carry it since Lyndon Johnson. But the changes taking place in the northern Virginia suburbs, much more diverse than they used to be, are happening all over the country. It also has a history of electing moderate, pro-business politicians who can work in a bipartisan way. Mark Warner, who was governor before he was elected to the Senate, is an example of this, like Tim Kaine, just elected to join him in the Senate. Kaine talked a lot in his campaign about working in a bipartisan way to get things done.

Colorado is an example of the changes happening in the West. There have been huge increases in the Hispanic populations in states like New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Colorado. The national media talked a great deal about the margin by which Obama won the Hispanic vote and as the population grows and more Hispanics register and turn out to vote, this will be a really important voting bloc. Colorado is also a very young state and I interviewed a lot of interesting young people there who are looking for something they aren’t really getting from either political party. Hispanics, young voters and suburban voters were all key to Obama’s win here.

Ohio - It seems pretty obvious that it would be a huge mistake to do a book about swing voters and not include Ohio. It is incredibly important not only because no Republican has ever won the presidency without it but also because it is such a microcosm of urban, rural and suburban America.

Q: Your first book, The Freshmen, looked at the large class of Republican House members elected in 1994. What is the legacy of this group, and how do they compare to the Tea Party-backed freshmen elected in 2010?

A: The House Class of ’94 was special because it gave the Republicans the majority for the first time since the Eisenhower administration. It reflected a big political sea change. Like the Tea Party freshmen of 2010, the Class of ’94 believed their mandate was to cut federal spending and reduce the deficit. But they were not elected in the middle of a terrible recession. It was a less serious time for the nation and the Class of ’94 was full of interesting, larger-than-life characters and of course they brought Newt Gingrich the House speakership. Neither group wanted to compromise and exerted pressure on their leaders not to do so. 

It’s hard to point to a lasting legacy for the Class of ’94. Most of the spending reductions and balanced budget the 104th Congress achieved were reversed by later Republican congresses. There are a number of national leaders who were a part of the Class of ’94, including Sens. Tom Coburn, Lindsey Graham and Saxby Chambliss. There were also a number of infamous members of the class, including Mark Foley. Mark Sanford and Bob Ney.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m not really sure what my next project will be. I currently write mostly for The Atlantic and Politico. You can see all of my work on my website –

It would also be great if you would follow me on Twitter @lindajkillian.

Thanks so much for taking the time to read this and for your interest.   

Interview with Deborah Kalb.                 

Q&A with author Rick Newman

Rick Newman
Rick Newman is the chief business correspondent for U.S. News & World Report. His most recent book is titled Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.

Q: What do you see as the most important ingredients in being able to rebound from adversity, and did you use those lessons in your own life?

A: My book is basically about resilience, which is the ability to overcome hardship and even benefit from it. Most of us have some innate resilience, and just about everybody can build more. Here are a few pragmatic things nearly everybody can do to become a better “Rebounder:”

Start by knowing that hardship often presents terrific learning opportunities. Hardship sucks, but while in the midst of it, have the presence of mind to realize that it may make you stronger and help in other important ways in the future. Remain as open as possible to the vital learnable things that present themselves during bouts of adversity.

When something goes wrong, try to take the emotion out of it, focus on your contribution to the setback, and figure out what you might do better next time. We all feel tempted to blame others and make excuses when there’s a problem, but we don’t usually learn anything that way.

Be willing to change your mind when new information gives you a good reason to do so. “Wallowers,” as I call them, often remain stuck because they spend too much effort trying to validate their biases and preexisting views. Rebounders get better through setbacks because they identify bad ideas and discard them.

Rebounders are usually passionate about what they do, but they realize at some point that passion isn’t enough. You also need drive and sometimes, humility. A sense of humor helps too.
When you begin to learn intuitively that failures and setbacks can be enormously instructive, you fear them less and you become more comfortable taking risks. 

I gained many personal insights from researching this book and learning about the Rebounders I profiled. Among other things, I now take a kind of pride in my own screw-ups and misfortunes. I’ve learned that the poise and grace I’m able to muster in lousy circumstances may end up contributing more to my ultimate accomplishments than the usual things we think account for success.

Q: How did you pick the people to highlight in the book?

A: It’s an eclectic group of people ranging from Thomas Edison to Vanguard founder Jack Bogle to the great baseball manager Joe Torre to musician Lucinda Williams. These were all people I knew had failed or struggled in some serious way before becoming successful. I felt personally interested in their work and their stories. And other than Edison, they all agreed to talk with me in detail about the struggles in their lives. There were other people I would have liked to profile, who didn’t want to tell me about their setbacks. The fashion designer Michael Kors is one example.

Q: What advice would you give someone to avoid becoming what you call a "wallower"?

A: Most importantly, resist the urge to blame others when something goes wrong—even if it’s not your fault. We learn way more from examining our own behavior than we do from criticizing others. Challenge your own thinking from time to time and invite others to challenge it as well. If something isn’t working out, ask what you could do differently to get a better outcome. Anticipate what might go wrong instead of assuming everything will go the way you want. And don’t whine about unfairness when something goes wrong. Rebounders have a powerful belief in their own ability to succeed, but that’s usually because of their determination to overcome any obstacle—not because they think they deserve to succeed.

Q: Your first book, Bury Us Upside Down, was about the Vietnam War's top-secret Misty pilots. Do you think recent U.S. administrations have applied lessons from the Vietnam War to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Why or why not?

A: They’ve learned some of those lessons and forgotten others. The many drone attacks on supposed terrorists in the tribal areas of Pakistan are an effort to deny the enemy “sanctuary,” which is something American forces failed to do during the Vietnam war. The ability of communist forces fighting in Vietnam to retreat to Cambodia, where they were generally safe from attack, was a major U.S. vulnerability. So that’s one lesson still learned. On the other hand, the sketchy justifications for the second Iraq war and our long involvement in Afghanistan seem to be at odds with the idea of only committing troops when there’s strong public support for military action.

Finally, there may be some lessons from Vietnam that are no longer appropriate and need to be unlearned. The concept of overwhelming force--rather than the incremental actions that made Vietnam such a quagmire--may still be fitting for traditional conflicts between nations. But it may not be helpful against the kind of dispersed, stateless enemy that today’s terrorists represent. It seems like policymakers are still grappling with the right approach to that challenge.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A book on the American tradition of “rugged individualism,” which is much more popular in concept than it is common in practice. We seem to be at a point in American history characterized by a national embrace of individualism, coupled with a widespread rejection of government and other institutions. Yet Americans have never been more dependent on the institutions many of them reject in principle. I hope to explore this paradox while laying out some practical ways everybody can become more self-reliant, because I think that’s a quality we’re all likely to need in the future.

Plus, I write every day about the up-and-down economy and the changing nature of prosperity, as a business writer for U.S. News.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Almost nothing feels better than bouncing back from a setback and becoming better than before. People who have this ability belong to a kind of special club. But membership is open to anybody who struggles and fails with dignity.

 Interview with Deborah Kalb.

Nov. 26

Eric Sevareid
Nov. 26, 1912: Journalist and author Eric Sevareid born.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Q&A with Professor Donald Zillman

Professor Donald Zillman
Donald Zillman is the Edward S. Godfrey Professor of Law at the University of Maine School of Law. His books include Strategic Legal Writing, and his areas of study include veterans in Congress.

Q: What can you tell us about the newly elected veterans in Congress? Do you see any particular patterns when you look at the numbers, particularly in terms of gender or party identification?

A: I located 13 legislators with prior or present military service who joined the Congress since the 2010 election.  That dropped the total number of vets to about 100 (two elections still undecided as I write)—a loss of about eight in the total population in Congress over the last two years.  That continues the consistent decline in veteran membership since I started keeping figures in 1992.

Two of the vets are women, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and Rep. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois.  That beats the prior record of one woman vet per Congress.  Four of the new vets are Democrats, including both Reps. Gabbard and Duckworth.  In fact, the split by party is much more than 2-1 for the GOP.  For the entire Congress the split was 70 GOP and 29 Democrats.  The split is more pronounced when the age of the members are considered.   Veterans of the World War II and the early Cold War vintage are split about evenly by political party.  The divide of vets born after 1955 (the products of the non-draft, all-volunteer military) was 30 GOP and 6 Dems.  In brief, those veterans with a service experience in recent years are overwhelmingly Republican.

All of the new veterans also have substantial years of military service of one kind or another (active duty, reserves, National Guard).  The common description might be an officer with 10 or more years of service, but with a considerable likelihood that some or most of that service is in a reserve or Guard capacity—very often in the Iraq and Afghan campaigns.  They should bring some very useful perspectives to shaping legislative military policy.

Q: What has happened to the overall percentage of veterans serving in Congress in recent decades, and where do you see that trend going?

A: I suspect total veteran numbers will continue to decline.  This election saw a good number of long-serving veterans leave Congress either by retirement or electoral defeat.  Another 16 legislators are 75 years of age or older.  By the next election we may have reduced the “Greatest Generation” vets to a handful.  I will confess to a sense of loss when Sen. Dan Inouye (World War II combat hero and the only Congressional Medal of Honor winner in the Congress) ends his service.

Q: For politicians, how does service in Iraq and/or Afghanistan affect their campaigns and political careers? How does that compare that to previous generations' service in World War II, Korea, or Vietnam?

A: This election continues to suggest that honorable military service remains a positive credential in almost all elections.  However, it is hardly a promise of victory against a non-veteran opponent in either a primary or general election.  Numerous veteran candidates lost to non-veterans.

The challenge to keeping a useful number of veterans in Congress is to seek out good veterans who would make good legislators and give them financial and political encouragement.  I and others have noted that a long-time active duty veteran would face a number of handicaps in seeking political office, including frequent military moves that would deprive the vet of a home base, limited chance to build a personal fortune, and proper military limitations on participation in political activity while on active duty.  This election may suggest the model is the National Guard officer (often following service on full-time active duty) who builds or already has roots in a community and who is able to quietly build political support while doing his/her civilian career work between periods of activation.

This generation of vets won’t have the World War II benefits of fighting in a popular and victorious war and of having large numbers of their electorates sharing those experiences.  However, they may not have any of the stigma that the Vietnam generation faced.  Most current surveys continue to indicate that the military is the most admired employer/organization in American society.  Congress could wish it was doing half as well.  Which may leave many veterans wondering:  “Why would I want to get into that….?”

Q: This presidential election was the first in the post-World War II period where neither of the two major-party candidates had served in the military. Is that trend likely to continue?

A: I think we are unlikely to see a presidential election in which both candidates are veterans.  Two weeks ago, I might have thought General David Petraeus might provide one veteran on a presidential ticket.  I’m not sure I see one plausible prospect now.  But I’d welcome suggestions.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m having fun on two research and writing projects.  The first examines the potentially explosive growth in oil and gas production from fracking and other techniques and the potential for carbon capture and storage underground to reduce the risks of climate change.  Oxford University Press will publish this multi-author, international study in early 2014.  The second continues my long fascination with the first hundred days of the 65th Congress in 1917.  That group, many of whom were elected with Woodrow Wilson in the “he kept us out of war” campaign of 1916 suddenly faced a declaration of war, massive expenditure increases, the initiation of the military draft, and considerable restraints on free speech and other civil liberties.  The decisions that they debated with great vigor and intelligence have impacts today.

Interview with Deborah Kalb. This interview also can be found on

Nov. 25

Agatha Christie
Nov. 25, 1952: "The Mousetrap" opens in London.

Thursday, November 22, 2012


Happy Thanksgiving, and many thanks to the authors who have participated in Q&As and the readers who are following and looking at this blog!

Nov. 22

George Eliot
Nov. 22, 1819: Novelist George Eliot born.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Q&A with novelist Caroline Leavitt

Caroline Leavitt
Caroline Leavitt's novels include Pictures of You, Girls in Trouble, and Is This Tomorrow, to be published next May.

Q: Why did you decide to set your forthcoming novel in the 1950s and 1960s rather than in the present day? What were some of the challenges or pleasures of writing a novel set in a different time period?

A: Well, everyone tends to romanticize the 50s, that it was a prosperous era, that everyone had big homes and families and they were all happy, but actually it was an age of great paranoia and frustration. The Cold War was on, women were forced into their roles as wife and mom, and no one liked anyone who was different. It actually seemed a lot like what was going on today in the country--the war against women, against gay people. I thought that that particular time would really work for my novel. Plus, I admit, it was so much fun to research. I now know what things float in Jell-o, and what things sink, thanks to my 1950s cookbooks!

Q: Your novels often deal with a tragic or difficult situation facing a family. How do you decide on a topic for a new book, and how do you put yourself into the minds of those characters? 

A: The subjects find me. I almost always write about something that has been haunting me for years, something I want to know the answer to. Is This Tomorrow came out of a story about a family that lived in my neighborhood in Waltham. There was no missing child, but this family was ostracized because the mother was divorced (shocking back then!) and they were poor and one day, the mother gave up her daughter, who was 16, for adoption to a rich family and vanished with her son. I never forgot it. I tried to write that story, and it veered off into Is This Tomorrow

Q: What kind of research do you do for your books?

A: I did so, so much research. I had three research assistants to help me, plus Ask a Librarian, plus FaceBook and Twitter. I would post, I need to talk to any male nurses from the 1960s, and instantly I would have two or three people who would tell me the best stories. Books can tell you a lot of things you need, but those personal details are just amazing. Some of the research took me forever. It took me two weeks just to find out what police used instead of crime tape back in the 1950s (they used rope and sawhorses).

Q: Do you have a favorite character that you've created?

A: I love them all. Even the ones who are not so nice. I understand them.

Q: Are you already planning your next novel after Is This Tomorrow?

A: Yep. Yep. I have about 100 pages of a new novel called Cruel Beautiful World, which is set in the 1970s, when all the peace, love, etc. began to turn ugly.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I also teach writing online at UCLA and Stanford and I work privately with writers on developing their manuscripts! Oh, and for twenty years, I was the proud owner of a cranky tortoise.

Interview with Deborah Kalb.

Q&A with children's author Carolyn Feigenbaum

Carolyn Feigenbaum
Carolyn Feigenbaum's book for children, A Bench in London, looks at her uncle's experiences as an American soldier in London during World War II.

Q: Did your uncle often tell stories about his experiences during World War II?

A: I wish I had heard more tales from my uncle about his World War II experiences. However, after he returned home from Germany, his final post, to Chicago, he became busy starting a career, getting married, and moving to New York. During those years, my high school classes and activities, music lessons, and friends occupied my time and interests.

Q: How did you get the idea to turn your uncle's story into a children's picture book?

A: After 9/11 I knew Americans were searching for heroes.  Then in November 2001 I read my aunt's article in the New York Times about a bench in London she bought to honor the memory of her husband, my uncle, who served in the U.S. Army and was stationed for a while in London.   I thought that might make a story for children.    I liked reading and learning about her memories and action to preserve some of them and thought her story could help teach young people about some events of World War II.  
Also, during the years 2002-2007 I read many picture books to my grandchildren and realized how almost every experience could become subject material for a children's picture book.   So why not the story about a special bench??

Q: Did your experience as a longtime teacher help you as you were writing the book?

A: Throughout my teaching career in elementary and secondary schools, I was eager to introduce my students to wonderful stories and books from many cultures.
In addition to reading to them, guiding them to discover books to meet their interests, helping them to write their reactions to their reading, and finally leading them to write well, both narrative and creative writing--all influenced my own writing.

Q: How did you find your illustrator, Jordan Cutler, and what was the collaboration process like?

A: After searching for a while and sending inquiries to recommended artists, most of whom lived far from Maryland, I found my illustrator close to home!  Jordan Cutler is the son of good friends and neighbors of mine, Susan and Warren Cutler.  Warren, Jordan's father, is a former illustrator for the Washington National Zoo.  He had recently illustrated a children's picture book, "The Seal Pup."  At a party to celebrate this book, I chatted with Jordan and told him about my story and my need of an illustrator for the book.  He was interested and after reading the story agreed to the project.   He also designed the book and prepared it for the printer.

From the beginning of his work, he was sensitive to the story, the characters, the setting, and what I wanted to convey to the readers.   He would prepare sketches, share them with me, and then return home to make adjustments to some of the drawings and continue illustrating the next sections of the book.  (Jordan has a full time position as a graphic artist and he did the illustrations for my book after his regular work.)   He is familiar with places mentioned in the book-- Chicago, New York and London--and he used some family photos to get ideas for the characters in the book.

As you can probably conclude, it was a comfortable and satisfying collaboration between Jordan Cutler and myself.

Q: Are you thinking of writing another book?

A: I think I would enjoy another book-writing experience.  Last summer I visited the Montreal Botanical Garden.  Near the reception center is the Rose Garden, where among the paths is a memorial bench.  The inscription on the bench reads in French: "Pour Toi Grand-Maman, La Plus Rose des Roses."  Who was this special "Rose?"   If I can find out, I could write a book about her, and if not, I could create her story for a book!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Writers of any age should consider their own family memories when looking for appropriate topics for required or free writing.   Events in our lives offer rich story-building materials.   If you keep or kept a journal, that could be a source to support your memories.   Keep talking to your relatives, especially your favorite ones, to learn about their lives and the times they knew.

Berkeley Square is a lovely small park not far from Buckingham Palace.  If you go to London, I hope you will take a few extra moments to visit it.  It is so interesting to walk on the paths and read the inscriptions on many of the benches.   In addition to the one in memory of my uncle I recall seeing one in memory of a man from Bethesda, Maryland, which is quite near my home.

And for a special treat, find a copy of the Glenn Miller recording of the wonderful ballad by Eric Maschwitz, "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square."  The famous singer Vera Lynn often sang it too.  It was so popular during World War II.

Please visit my website.

Interview with Deborah Kalb. (Full disclosure: I helped with the editing of this book, and have a special fondness for it!)