Monday, December 31, 2012

Q&A with novelist Gail Tsukiyama

Gail Tsukiyama
Gail Tsukiyama's novels include   The Samurai's Garden, Women of the Silk, and her most recent, A Hundred Flowers. She lives in El Cerrito, California.

Q: Your new book, A Hundred Flowers, takes place in China in the late 1950s, and focuses on a family affected by the political turmoil of that era. Why did you pick that time period to focus on, and why did you choose those particular characters?

A: Several years ago I was fortunate enough to be asked to go to China with University of California, Berkeley's Alumni Travel Program to speak about my books.  Though I'd been to Hong Kong and Guangzhou, I'd never been to Beijing, Shanghai and Xian.  The trip left a lasting impression, and on the way home I knew my next book would be set in China again.  For some reason, the Cultural Revolution kept coming to mind though it had already been explored by so many good writers.  

I then started to do some research, only to rediscover Mao's Hundred Flowers Campaign, which was the precursor in the late 1950's to what would become the Cultural Revolution in the 1960's.  I wanted to explore that particular time more within the framework of one family that was affected by the campaign.  I knew from the onset that it would be an intimate look at these family members, and that it would all begin by the young son falling from a tree.  The rest followed a natural progression. 

Q: Your books often take place at pivotal times in 20th century history, particularly the history of China and Japan. How much research do you generally do when you start a new book?

A: Each book usually begins with my sitting down and researching a particular place or time period or a specific historical event I'm thinking about.  It's only when I feel I know the place and subject matter well enough that I begin to write the fictional story, always aware that the research material has to remain in the background.  Otherwise, it's very easy for the research material to take over the story.  Still, each book has been a different process; while some of the books demand more research before I begin writing, others work more simultaneously. 

Q: Your family background is both Chinese and Japanese. Do any of your novels include stories from your own family history?

A: No, I've always tried to write outside my family history, though every writer finds aspects of their lives invading their stories.  The closest book to contain a bit of my family's history was Nightof Many Dreams.  My mother was from Hong Kong, and we visited my grandmother there when I was young.  I didn't know it then, but the culture and my grandmother's lifestyle and friends did leave an impression. 

Q: Of all your books and the characters you've created, do you have a favorite book or character, and if so, why?

A: I've always believed that my books and characters are like having children.  It's hard to pick a favorite.  I've also felt that each book was written for a specific need and time in my life.  So they all have importance to me as the author.  That said, there are always characters that stand out for different reasons; how they live their lives or sacrifice for others, such as Matsu in Samurai’s Garden, Auntie Go in Night of Many Dreams, Haru and the grandparents in The Street of a Thousand Blossoms, or even Wei in A Hundred Flowers who was seeking redemption.      

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I've just returned from India for a project I'm involved in, which has taken up much of the past few months.  I am working on something new, but it feels too early to talk about it. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: One day I would love to write a good mystery novel!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 31

Dec. 31, 1830: Poet Alexander Smith born.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Q&A with author Lucette Lagnado

Lucette Lagnado, photo by Kathryn Szoka
Lucette Lagnado, a longtime Wall Street Journal reporter, is the author of two memoirs about her family: The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family's Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World, and The Arrogant Years: One Girl's Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn. She is also the co-author of Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz. She lives in New York.

Q: Why did you write your father's story first and then turn to that
of your mother, and did you know when you started
The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit that you would be writing a second memoir?

A: Complicated answer -- for many years the only book I wanted to do was a memoir of my Egyptian-Jewish family -- I was obsessed with that and worked on a number of drafts.  I recall how one day, it must have been father's day seven or eight years ago, I was feeling very blue, very melancholy.

And so --
Out of the blue I penned a piece for The Wall Street Journal, my paper, about my dad, Leon -- it was based on the HIAS [Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society] files I had obtained, my family's immigration record to America; the piece came out under the headline "Of Life and Debt"; it told the story of how my dad took years to repay the debt for our tickets to America on the Queen Mary -- $10 and $15 at a time, basically.

I received a call from an agent, Tracy Brown, who asked to meet with me; he said that he thought that there was a book in my relationship with my father against the backdrop of Egypt; I was absolutely enthralled with the idea; I worked on a proposal that became The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit.

The encounter with Tracy Brown was wonderful because he helped me focus this story that I had wanted to do for so many years, and that had been too unwieldy.

Still, in the back of my mind I thought -- I really want to do my mom's story next.....
Q: Do you have plans to write a third memoir about your family?
A:  Great question -- and I don't have an answer.
Q: What is the significance of the title "The Arrogant Years" in relation to your family's story?

A:  As a freshman at Vassar, one of the books I read was F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night; It was a few months after my bout with Hodgkin's Disease, I was feeling very broken very down and out -- a really awful period.

And so --
Was very struck by the novel whose heroine Nicole is this promising young girl who gets institutionalized for mental illness; there was a line that even then caught my eye, the line was about how she had lost (two of) the great arrogant years in the life of a pretty girl. And I thought wow, that is me, that is also me.  I thought about that line a lot over the years.  When it came time to work on this companion memoir I knew that I wanted it to be about personal loss, about what it is like to suffer from a major illness as a young girl; And I thought of that line and decided, that is what I want my book to be called.
It would be a memoir about the loss of arrogance, mine as well as my mother's, about the death of hope that comes with a traumatic, shattering illness.

That was the idea and I suppose I had it way back then.

Q: What was it about Emma Peel that captured your attention?

A: I loved and adored Emma Peel.  She really was my childhood passion, I was obsessed and infatuated. She had all the qualities I wanted to have -- she was of course very stylish and very pretty -- but she was also an amazing intellect, and exceedingly brave -- able to cut down bad guys with karate chops and judo moves.  The show, The Avengers, was fascinating to me -- and then there was Mrs. Peel with her gorgeous designer clothes and incredible hairdo but she never used sexuality to get her way; and I liked that too; she was so cerebral.  She became an ideal and a role-model.  Whenever anyone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up I would say, "an Avenger."  What is sad is that I became so different from Mrs. Peel -- oh a part of me is definitely an avenger, down to the stories I try to pursue as a reporter, no question, but I find that I get frightened of so much......

Q: How have members of the Egyptian Jewish community (both in the United States and in other countries) responded to your books?

A:  I have gotten wonderful responses from the Egyptian and Syrian Jewish community especially about Sharkskin which to them was the more resonant book; everyone it seemed could identify with my Dad and his fall from grace coming to America.  I recall an event I had in Ocean Parkway where the community is centered.  I came in to an audience of more than 500 people; I was treated like a rock star....I was utterly extraordinary.....they appreciated the fact that I had told their story....

Q: What is your sense of the situation in Egypt today, and what do you think is likely to happen there in future?

A:  I have been deeply worried about Egypt since the early days of the Revolution nearly two years ago; I had a very bad feeling about it, I didn't share the general euphoria about the toppling of Mubarak; on the contrary I was terribly afraid -- and my fears have come to pass; there we have the Muslim Brotherhood --
God --I have been sickened by the nice press they received; do you remember how major newspapers used to call them "moderates"? Yeah, sure.....
Take a look at poor Egypt now; the Egyptian people are so desperate, they don't want another dictator but that is what they have; and he is a million times worse than Mubarak. I am deeply pessimistic about my poor country.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 26

William Shakespeare
Dec. 26, 1606: King Lear performed at Court.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Q&A with novelist Jean Kwok

Jean Kwok, photo by Mark Kohn
Jean Kwok is the author of the best-selling novel Girl in Translation. She lives in the Netherlands.

Q: Why did you decide to write Girl in Translation as a novel rather than a memoir, and how close is Kimberly's story to your own?

A: Although Girl in Translation is a work of fiction, it is very much based upon my own life. Like Kimberly, I also moved from Hong Kong to Brooklyn as a child. My family and I found ourselves living in a decrepit apartment that was overrun with roaches and rats. The worst thing was that it didn’t have any central heating and throughout the bitter New York winters, the windowpanes were covered with a layer of ice on the inside. Also like Kimberly, I started working at a sweatshop in Chinatown almost right away. At five years old, I was even younger than she was. Fortunately, I also had a gift for school and that was my way out.

When I was growing up, I’d tried to tell friends once or twice about my real life. They didn’t believe me. I soon found myself at places like Harvard, where it seemed everyone else’s background was very different from mine. I learned to keep silent.

I wrote Girl in Translation as a novel so that no one would ask me about my past. I wanted to talk about the worlds I’d experienced but since I did it in this veiled way, I was certain my secret would be safe. Of course, as soon as anyone read the book, their immediate question was, “Is this autobiographical?” 

After practically swallowing my tongue the first few times someone asked me this, I realized I had to come clean. Readers wanted to know if it was possible for working class immigrants to live and work under such atrocious conditions, and I understood that it was a part of the message of my novel to stand up and say, “Yes.”

Q: Girl in Translation takes place in the 1980s. Have working conditions changed since then in factories in New York's Chinatown, and if so, how?

A: The descriptions of the factory in the novel are true to life. I remember how every surface in the factory was smothered in fabric dust. If I ran my hand over my arm after a few minutes, I would rub off a film of grime. We worked next to the steamers, which emitted high-pitched shrieks every ten minutes, and billows of steam added to the intense heat. I was not the only child there.

Most of the factories in Chinatown have moved back to China but there is no shortage of low-wage labor today. I think that there are still many hard-working immigrant families who cannot afford childcare. I was taken along to the factory as a child because every adult in my family was working day and night to make ends meet, and no one could afford to stay home with me. Once I was there, I worked to help as much as I could.

I think that many things have improved. There is much more multi-lingual support these days so that for example, there are Chinese-speaking counselors in hospitals to help immigrants fill out the paperwork.

Teachers have become more aware that children might come from very different backgrounds. I used to dread the “fun” assignments at school, like “draw a photo of your bedroom.” I didn’t have a bedroom. I slept on a mattress on the floor. I was ashamed of how we lived and the last thing I wanted to do was to draw a picture of it. So what did I do? I lied. I drew a picture of an idealized, American bedroom and handed it in. No one realized.

Free or low-cost afterschool and summer programs are a godsend to working class parents who don’t want to submit their children to the kind of conditions I experienced. These kinds of changes make a tremendous difference.

Q: What did your family members think about your writing the novel?

A: Actually, they didn’t know exactly what I had written and I had hoped to keep it that way. I thought, “Oh, none of them will pay much attention anyway.” That didn’t work out very well when the novel became a New York Times bestseller and was published in 17 countries. Especially the large, front-page article in a leading Chinese newspaper busted me with my folks.

My family was surprised that I’d written so honestly about our past. Yes, I was in trouble. However, as reader reactions started to filter in, the sense of shame that we’d always borne turned into pride. People were very kind about how inspiring it was that we had managed to survive our hardships and for my family, that was a revelation. They are very proud of me now, and more importantly, of themselves.

Q: Girl in Translation focuses on the experiences of a Chinese family from Hong Kong, but are there ways in which your story also has relevance to other immigrant groups coming to the United States?

A: I’ve been amazed by the reactions I’ve received not only from other immigrant groups, but from all sorts of other people. One deaf woman told me that my novel revealed how she felt when she wasn’t able to understand someone. My book’s been used in high schools and universities for literature, history and social studies classes, as you would expect, but it’s also been used in physical therapy courses to help teach what it feels like to be a patient who is unable to communicate properly.

I think that fundamentally, Girl in Translation is about being an outsider and that is a feeling that is universal.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve just finished my new novel, which is about a poor Chinatown girl who goes from being a dishwasher in a noodle restaurant to becoming a professional ballroom dancer. As she begins to train, her little sister gets very sick. Soon our heroine realizes that the only way to acquire the money to save her sister is by winning a prestigious ballroom dance competition.

I also worked as professional ballroom dancer for three years in between my degrees at Harvard and Columbia.

I’m thrilled that my current publisher Riverhead, an imprint of Penguin, will be publishing this book as well. I really feel like I’m a part of a literary family there. When I walk down the corridors at Penguin, random people pop out and tell me they read and loved my book. I think my editor must bribe them with chocolate to do this. In January, I’ll be entering the revision process with my editor and hopefully soon after that, the new book will be on the shelves.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Fans of Girl in Translation should know that Kimberly and a mystery character will be making a very brief appearance in the new book. We’ll find out a bit more about her future there but in any case, rest assured that Kimberly and Ma are doing just fine. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 22

Dec. 22, 1869: Poet Edwin Arlington Robinson born.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Q&A with novelist Stephen McCauley

Stephen McCauley's six novels include The Object of My Affection, True Enough, and Insignificant Others. He lives in Cambridge, Mass.

Q: Your novels have been described as "comedies of manners." Do you like that description, and why or why not?

A: It’s always helpful to have a shorthand way to describe your books, and I suppose “comedies of manners” is as good as any other, even if it’s not entirely accurate.  None of my books has the solidly happy ending the genre demands.  I’m able to get my characters to a point of change in their lives that has in it the seeds of happiness, but that’s about the best I can do for them.  I find books and films that end with a little ambiguity underneath the happiness, a little bittersweetness, to be the most truthful, memorable, and satisfying.  When I’m writing, I just focus on telling the stories of some specific individuals without thinking about a genre other than--to borrow a phrase from my friend Anita Diamant--“entertainment for adults.”    

Q: One thing about your characters is that, despite--or perhaps because of--their flaws, they are extremely likeable. In your own reading, does your enjoyment of a book depend on how sympathetic you feel toward the characters, and who are some of your favorite authors?

A: The characters I find the most likeable are the ones who strive for some form of good behavior or self-improvement but are constantly undone by the weaker sides of their own natures.  I find this sympathetic.  Good intentions but mixed results.  Larry McMurtry is a master at creating flawed yet completely loveable folks. They can be reckless, unfaithful, untruthful, and--in the case of Aurora Greenway from Terms of Endearment, probably his greatest creation--insufferable.  But we love them despite it all because they have a core of decency and they’re fun and interesting to watch.  If you don’t know your characters well enough to at least understand their flaws and see behind their defenses, you end up with cartoon villains, and that’s rarely interesting.  Lately, I’ve been reading tons of Anthony Trollope.  He’s a master at creating sympathetic characters.  You feel he sees into people, knows and understands their flaws but doesn’t judge them.  I find it comforting to know I’ll never live long enough to run out of Trollope novels.   

Q: In addition to your books written under your own name, you are writing a trilogy of novels featuring yoga devotees, under the androgynous pseudonym Rain Mitchell. How did this come about? How does your writing style compare with that of your alter ego?
A: Around the time I was finishing my sixth novel, Insignificant Others, an editor I had worked with years earlier asked me if I was interested in writing a series of novels set at a yoga studio in Los Angeles.  I was eager to try writing in a different style than I’d been writing in—less personal, a little more plot-driven—and this seemed like the perfect opportunity.  Plus I love assignments and I’d never before been given an assignment by a book editor.  I’ve been an avid yoga practitioner for decades, so I know the world fairly well and, best of all, I’d have an airtight justification for the time and money I spend taking classes.  

I suppose Rain and I share a certain comic attitude toward the world, but Rain is much more sentimental about true love and children and happy endings than I am.  Rain has stellar work habits and sits down daily, eager to see what the characters will do next.  Rain worries less about the way every sentence sounds than I do and just gets to the point.  I think Rain must have grown up in a more supportive environment than I did, one that promotes confidence and high self-esteem.

Q: Do you have a favorite among your characters, or among your books?

A: I love Jane Cody from True Enough.  She’s tries to do her best, but needlessly complicates her life by refusing to look at herself honestly.  I found her very funny and sympathetic.  Unfortunately, I’m not sure a lot of other people felt that way about her.  I guess if I had to choose a favorite novel, it would be that one.  Unlike my other novels, it’s written in third person.  First is more intimate--like talking directly to the reader--but it’s more difficult to sustain, and it can get claustrophobic being inside one character’s head for years.

Q: What are you working on now, and will it be as Stephen McCauley or Rain Mitchell, or perhaps someone else?
A: I took some time off writing my own novels to write Rain’s (Tales from the Yoga Studio and Head Over Heels).  A producer in New York commissioned me to turn a short story I’d written (“The Whole Truth”) into a play.  That’s been a fun learning experience and I’m still working on rewrites of that.  I teach writing at Brandeis University, and I’m working on a novel.  Under my own name, although I’m trying to channel Rain’s discipline and confidence.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m obsessed with the singer Lana Del Rey and I recently gave up coffee.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with author Lawrence Hill

Lawrence Hill is the author of several fiction and non-fiction books, including the novel Someone Knows My Name and the memoir Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada. He has worked as a journalist for The Globe and Mail and The Winnipeg Free Press, and lives in Hamilton, Ontario.

Q: The main character in your novel Someone Knows My Name, Aminata Diallo, remains in a reader's mind long after he or she finishes reading the book. Is Aminata based on a real person, and why did you decide to write the book from the perspective of a female character?

A: Aminata comes straight from my imagination. She is not based on a real person, although I did give her the name of my eldest daughter, whose name is Genevieve Aminata Hill.  As I wrote the story, I tried to imagine the character Aminata as my own daughter and to ask: "What would she do, and how would she survive --not just physically, but emotionally?" I chose to write from the point of view of my heroine, because I felt she offered the richest entry point into the novel: slavery, freedom, human dignity and -- after deracination -- the never-ending search for home. Although Aminata's personal story is imagined, I intend the social and political issues in the novel to be as true a representation as I can offer of the history of the time.  It took five years to write the novel, and I conducted research from the first day to the last.
Q: Someone Knows My Name is the book's title in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. In Canada, Great Britain, South Africa, and India, it was published as The Book of Negroes. Why were there two different titles for the book, and which do you prefer?

A: There are two titles in English, and various other titles in translation.  In France and in Quebec, for example, the French translation goes under the title Aminata. However, to return to your question, my first and preferred title for the novel was, and remains, The Book of Negroes

I like the title, because it resurrects a nearly forgotten British military ledger dating back to 1783, the purpose of which was to document the names and various biographical details of 3,000 Black Loyalists who had flocked to Manhattan to serve the British on the losing side of the American Revolutionary War, and who then fled by ship at war's end to Nova Scotia, on the east coast of Canada. Aminata, like the other Black Loyalists, is only able to flee New York and to escape the hands of those who would re-enslave her by proving that she has served the British during the war, having her name entered into The Book of Negroes and then being allowed to sail from the Hudson River.  This nearly forgotten exodus forms one of the key historical foundations of the novel, so I was pleased to name my novel after it.  

My American publisher felt that the word "Negroes" in the title would offend American readers, so I came up with a new title -- Someone Knows My Name -- for the American market.  Although there is never complete consensus on such matters, most African-American readers who have approached me on book tour in the United States have emphasized that they would never have bought or read the novel if it had carried the Canadian title.

Q: You have written, in both fiction and non-fiction, about being biracial in Canada. Your parents came from the United States, and you have relatives there. What would you say are some of the differences, and similarities, in how the two countries look at racial issues?

A: As you say, there are both differences and similarities, far too numerous and complex to address in a short reply here.  One of the most significant similarities relates to the personal, family histories of people in the African Diaspora, regardless of their country of residence. My own family and personal history -- at least, as they relate to the development of my own identity as the son of a black father and white mother who left the United States in 1953, the day after they married -- is described in my memoir, Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada (HarperCollins Canada, 2001). 

Migration seems to be a defining factor, as does an awareness of the multinational origins of one's family over time.  My second novel, called Any Known Blood, followed five generations of a Black family that moved back and forth across the US-Canada border, with a man from each generation of the family leaving his birth country and moving to the other.  So, at the personal level, family and other personal experiences can tend to blur the lines of firm national borders, and evoke much deeper points of connection through shared experiences and common ancestors. 

However, at the social and political level, one can point to many differences between how racial issues are considered in each country.  To begin with, it is important to remember that while slavery was a defining pillar of America's early economy and society, the despicable institution never became a bedrock of Canadian life. That is not due to any moral superiority north of the border that we share. Indeed, many of early Canada's prominent politicians were slaveowners and the institution of slavery did not formally die in Canada until 1834, when it was abolished throughout the British Empire.  But Canada had no climate conducive to plantation slavery, and no economic need for millions of slaves to enrich its country by working the fields of cash crops.  Slavery in Canada became a primarily urban phenomenon, and was limited to Ontario, Quebec and the Maritime provinces in Atlantic Canada.  

The number of slaves in Canada never reached a slim fraction of the number of American slaves -- in absolute or in proportional terms -- and so the fact of slavery, anti-slavery, liberation and social integration has never registered in the Canadian psyche the way it has in America. In the United States, you would have to be pretty well brain-dead not to know that the country was built by slaves, and that even presidents such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. The long fight to eradicate slavery and to desegregate America fits entirely into the historical identity and the collective memory. 

In Canada, we are still in denial. Many Canadians still have no idea that slavery existed in their own land, and many others fear that the mere fact of discussing racial issues somehow debases us. Couldn't we just ignore that ugly stuff and move on?  So, one of the most fundamental differences between our two countries is that racial history and racial issues have, traditionally at least, been discussed and debated far more openly in the United States than in Canada, because the sheer magnitude of the issues made them impossible to ignore.

Q: Could you tell us more about your novel Any Known Blood?

A: Any Known Blood is an intergenerational novel that follows the lives of five men, each in a successive wave of the same family, that moves back and forth across the US border with each family.  Each man carries the same name: Langston Cane. Langston Cane the First flees slavery in Maryland and comes to what is now Ontario, Canada, via the Underground Railroad. Later, he returns to the USA as a member of John Brown's abolitionist raid on Harpers Ferry. The novel is narrated by the fifth and last Langston Cane in this family saga: a contemporary, failed man who tries to save himself by leaving his home in Ontario and moving to Baltimore, where he will embark on a project to unearth his own family history.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on a new novel about an illegal refugee, and am writing a book of non-fiction about the ways that we see, imagine and understand our own blood, and how these perceptions shape the ways that we identify ourselves individually and collectively in society.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I am also co-writing the film adaptation (for a six times one-hour TV miniseries) of the novel Someone Knows My Name / The Book of Negroes. The Toronto film production company Conquering Lion Pictures purchased film rights to the novel, and I have been busy co-writing a six part TV miniseries with director Clement Virgo.  Clement Virgo and his business partner are currently scouting film locations in Nova Scotia and in South Africa, and hope to move into production next year. It is the first time that I have written drama for television, and have been enjoying the process very much. Since the novel is so sweeping, it is lovely to have six hours to tell it on TV.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 21

Dec. 21, 1892: Author Rebecca West born.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Q&A with Obama biographer David Mendell

David Mendell, a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune, is the author of Obama: From Promise to Power.

Q: When you began covering Barack Obama, did you have a sense that he was destined for bigger things? Why or why not?

A: The short answer: No, then yes.

When I started covering Obama regularly for the Chicago Tribune, in 2003, he was a vaguely known Illinois state legislator who had thrown himself into a crowded Democratic Party primary for an open U.S. Senate seat. Initially handicapping the field of Democrats, I estimated that he'd likely finish third or fourth in that race, behind candidates who enjoyed higher name recognition, far more campaign money or stronger ties to a Chicago political machine. A couple of years earlier, Obama had failed miserably trying to unseat Congressman Bobby Rush. So my logical side told me: Here's a smart, talented guy again trying to climb the mountain too fast, and who probably will find himself buried in another public face-plant.

However, I also knew that, even though Obama was a liberal, the Tribune's conservative editorial board was very high on him and had dubbed him a rising star. In addition, he had this bizarre name and unique biography – so, at a minimum, I found him an interesting subject. So even if my first instincts told me that he probably wouldn't win that Senate race, my curiosity about him definitely was piqued.

It wasn't until my “Obama moment” -- about a month into my coverage of the primary contest -- that I began to think he might be destined for something grand. It was always fascinating to see people have these “Obama moments,” and by “Obama moment,” I refer to the first time that Obama's intellect, seriousness, confidence, personal charm, or charisma (or all of these traits) become clear, and you're forced to take serious measure of him. Even if you disagree with his politics, it's hard to disagree that he possesses immense political skills.

For me, this realization happened far before many others – in January 2003, when I first interviewed him in depth. We were in his downtown Chicago campaign office, overlooking Grant Park, and he sat behind an old wooden desk overloaded with papers and books. Above him was a big poster of that iconic photograph of Muhammad Ali raging over Sonny Liston just after blasting him to the canvas. In the interview, which lasted about 90 minutes, Obama referenced his three heroes – Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and Gandhi – and said their lives and beliefs had deeply influenced him. In addition, he said that his life's mission was to work for social justice, to lift up the less fortunate among us.

What I recall most vividly: He grew emotional, his voice choking, when he spoke about the extent of poverty, violence and overall despair in parts of his urban legislative district. Most distressing to him: He'd met too many children whose daily lives were, at best, precarious, and, at worst, doomed. “When I think of these children, and I think about my own two children, it makes me weep,” he said.

By this time, I was a pretty jaded journalist, and I was familiar with politicians convincingly spewing BS. But Obama, who had forsaken a budding career in the business world to work as a $13,000-per-year community organizer on Chicago's Far South Side, had the credentials to back up his words. For a Chicago politician, he struck me as uncharacteristically earnest. My later biographical research revealed that that he, indeed, was genuine in this sense of mission when he entered public life -- although, by now, I imagine the depressingly small-minded and cutthroat business of presidential politics probably has jaded him even more than journalism has jaded me.

As I walked to my car after that first extended discussion, I replayed the surprisingly engaging interview in my head. “If this guy can somehow win this race,” I mused, “he won't just be another U.S. Senator.”

Adding to this feeling: Not long before, I learned that David Axelrod had been hired as Obama's lead political consultant. With one of Chicago's shrewdest political minds steering Obama's ship, I suddenly gave Obama a much better chance at winning the primary. So over the course of a few weeks, I gradually began to envision the possibility of a bigger future for him, should he win that race and go off to Washington. So I came out of that interview thinking that I better keep a close eye on him.

Q: How would you rate his performance as president? Is there anything that's particularly surprised you since he's been in the White House?

A: History, of course, will be the final judge of Obama's performance. But in my view, liberals and Democrats can't complain too much about his first term. He seems to be ably nursing an extremely sick economy back to health. He passed health care reform, even though it was politically unpopular. He successfully bailed out the auto industry. He made the tough call to dispatch a team of soldiers to kill Osama bin Laden. As he promised, he's endeavoring to wind down our military conflicts in the Middle East. Yet, in the long run, I sense that his most historically significant achievement might be steering the U.S. from a center-right, anti-government nation back to a more moderate, government-isn't-all-evil center.

Two things have surprised me about his presidency.

First, as a former constitutional law lecturer, Obama consistently fought for habeas corpus protections and individual rights while he was a lawmaker, overriding some aides who cautioned that these stances could damage his political future. Yet, as president, he's flipped on these issues when it comes to the legal rights of terrorism suspects. 

Second, I've been surprised that he hasn't given more memorable public speeches. He's such a gifted writer and orator, and yet his public voice has been more carefully muted than I anticipated. He's proving the accuracy of the adage about politicians campaigning in poetry and governing in prose! (Of course, the day after I wrote this answer to your question, Obama delivered that powerful and moving address in Newtown, Connecticut -- a speech that probably will be remembered well beyond his presidency.)

Q: What, in your opinion, accounts for Obama's political success? Did you think he would win a second term?

A: I've already mentioned his intellect and natural political talent, which shouldn't be underestimated. But those attributes can only take a politician so far if political winds aren't blowing the proper direction. In short, I think Obama has been blessed with enormous political good fortune. First, through a serious of odd events, coupled with smart politics by both Obama and Axelrod, things fell together for him in the Senate race. If that election didn't break his way, it's unlikely that he would have risen out of Chicago politics. But he won, and in so doing, he landed on the national scene at the perfect political moment, just as Democrats and Americans at large were seeking a figure like him -- a fresh, charismatic, consensus-minded politician who was the antithesis of George W. Bush. He had the perfect message of communal unity for 2008, a change election-year that was primed for a Democrat to be elected president.

As for re-election, history shows that unless a president has badly damaged himself politically, voters typically award him a second term. So even with all our political and cultural divisions, and even with inevitable disillusionment among Obama's 2008 true believers, it seems that more than half of Americans find him to be a capable president. However, given that a certain cross-section of the country remains disenchanted with Obama, and that the economy hasn't fully mended, I also think he was beatable if Republicans would have nominated a less-flawed and more moderate candidate. So in that sense, good political fortune found him again.

Q: Obama is a historic figure as the first African-American president, but what else is his legacy likely to include?

A: You're right that Obama is a historic figure simply for breaking the color line around the White House. And that probably will be his most enduring legacy -- the closest thing to a defining moment when American power, political and otherwise, ceased being held almost exclusively by white men.

But beyond race, this is a tough question, for you're asking to predict the future. In Obama's first term, health care reform certainly was a monumental achievement, and I think he'll be given much credit for that legislation. His administration also is making many significant changes in education policy that have not received widespread attention, and perhaps never will. I think he'll also be known as the president who decreased our military presence in the Middle East after years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it's also entirely possible that an unforeseen event during his second term will shape his legacy in ways that we still don't know.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm assembling a proposal for a book that examines Chicago politics. It's an endlessly fascinating subject that I know well.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 18

Dec. 18, 1870: Writer H.H. Munro born.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Q&A with author Sam Skolnik

Sam Skolnik is the author of High Stakes, and a longtime journalist with newspapers such as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Las Vegas Sun. He’s currently an editor with The National Law Journal and lives outside Washington, D.C.

Q: You write that 35 years ago, casinos were legal only in Nevada, whereas today, gambling is legal in almost every state. What caused that increase in legalized gambling, and what impact has it had?

A: States and cities have been suffering through severe financial problems in recent years, causing many local leaders to look to legalized gambling as a solution that brings jobs and can help shrink budget deficits and tax rates by boosting revenues. Politicians also claim that newly legalized gambling helps spur broader economic development in communities – a notion that’s been disproven repeatedly. They claim it’s a “painless” revenue stream, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Ultimately, I believe the costs of legalized gambling outweigh the benefits, and not just from an addiction standpoint. Gambling is damaging in a variety of ways. It changes the character of communities.

Q: Proponents of expanding legalized gambling argue that it creates more jobs and more money that can be used for education and other functions, while opponents argue that an expansion actually creates more societal costs due to an increase in addicted gamblers. In your book, you take the second view. Why, and which side of the argument currently is stronger around the country?

A: The second view, that the costs outweigh the benefits, is simply backed up by more evidence. In communities where casinos and other forms of gambling are legalized, addiction rates rise. This isn’t just common sense – that when the overall pool of gamblers increases, more of them develop problems with their gambling – it’s bolstered by academic studies and other gauges, including the growth of Gamblers Anonymous chapters around the country. When addiction rates rise, gambling-related social costs increase, including everything from robberies to bankruptcies to suicides.

Right now, though many politicians willfully ignore the downsides to gambling, citizens are conflicted. Look at the 2012 election: Maryland passed its gambling legalization initiative; Oregon voters rejected theirs; and in Rhode Island, the results were split. My sense is that increasingly, communities will be hit by gambling in the same ways as Atlantic City and Detroit – with local governments addicted to the revenues, no economic development and rising social costs and degradation. As these consequences are felt, fewer Americans will support opening new gambling outlets close to them.

Q: Online gambling, which has been around since the mid-1990s, is "especially addictive," you write. What makes it so addictive, and are there new technologies that could create other forms of gambling in the future?

A: Online gambling, including and perhaps especially poker, are much, much speedier than the traditional brick-and-mortar casino games they’re based on. This speed allows gamblers to get that gambling-related rush delivered to them faster and more consistently. Also, it’s much more convenient to gamble from your living room or dorm room than it is to drive 20 minutes or an hour to a nearby casino. And with gambling coming to mobile devices, it will be that much easier to access.

There’s another reason online gambling is especially dangerous. Younger gamblers gamble more online – and these gamblers are more susceptible to addiction. This is clear, and backed-up by studies that confirm younger gamblers are more likely to have impulse control issues that often exacerbate problems.

Q: You write that you have a personal connection to the gambling issue: that you have been negatively affected by your addiction to poker. What advice would you give to others who are struggling with a gambling addiction?

A: Get help. At a minimum, if you think might have an issue, try to diagnose how much of an issue it is. This help can be in the form of counseling, including through employee assistance programs. And I would never discount how much help Gamblers Anonymous can be. GA is free, it’s confidential, and whether the program sticks with you for a short period of time or a longer period, it aids gamblers by giving them a path to stop the losses, and needed perspective about how not gambling can give your life balance.

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: I have a few ideas percolating. My day job is keeping me busy these days, but I do hope to write another book before too long. Writing High Stakes was a great experience, and in a modest way, it’s become part of the national debate. I’m grateful for that.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with writer Mary Kay Zuravleff

Novelist Mary Kay Zuravleff is the author of The Bowl is Already Broken and The Frequency of Souls, as well as  Man Alive!, which will be published in 2013.
Q: What can you tell us about your forthcoming novel, Man Alive!?

A: Man Alive! is about a pediatric psychopharmacologist who is struck by lightning, and all he wants to do is barbecue. But it's really about the give and take within a family. How much are we each allowed to change if we want to stay in our family--and what if we don't?

Q: You worked at the Smithsonian, and used your own knowledge of the Freer and Sackler Galleries in your previous novel, The Bowl is Already Broken. What makes the Smithsonian such a good location in which to set a novel, and what or who inspired the character Promise Whittaker?

A: The Smithsonian is the home of the real thing (the Hope diamond, Dorothy's ruby slippers, Lincoln's stovepipe hat), but it is also at the mercy of the government. That combination of the precious unique object and the bureaucrats makes its own gravy, am I right?

The main character of the second book is a petite, Oklahoma-born, curator of Islamic art who is unexpectedly saddled with saving the museum. I liked wrestling with how a tiny, down-to-earth scholar might respond to a task of such magnitude. 

Q: Your first novel, The Frequency of Souls, features a character who is trying to find electrical evidence of life after death; the book is partly set in an office where people design refrigerators. How did you come up with those topics for the book, and did it require some research?

A: That novel started with the question (can you tell I always start with a question): Why do you believe what you believe? And my personal inspiration was being raised among electrical engineers, who allow certain things into their cosmology but not others. What's funny about the research I end up doing is how much fact dovetails with what I've already invented!

Q: You have taught a "Novel in One Semester Seminar" at George Mason University. What exactly does that involve, and what type of novel does it result in?

A: We (everyone in the class and I) each wrote a 40,000-word novel in 10 weeks. We also read 5 short novels and 2 books on craft! Teaching the class was like running a marathon every week. Each session started with students handing me their flash drives, and I logged their weekly word count (there were stickers and temporary tattoos along the way--whatever trinkets my two children were into at the time). I had 14 graduate students in September and 14 novelists by Christmas! My own novel has yet to be revisited; however, several of the students crafted theirs into something beautiful.

Q: What's next for you?

A: I've started thinking about the next novel!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: As a literary activist in D.C., there are two things I'm especially proud of. I serve on the board of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, where Margaret Talbot and I curate the PEN/Faulkner Reading Series. And I'm co-founder of the D.C. Women Writers, which gathers 100+ writers from the area together for mutual support.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb