Friday, March 29, 2013

Q&A with writer Tara Conklin

Tara Conklin, photo by Mary Grace Long
Tara Conklin is a writer and a lawyer. Her first novel is The House Girl. She lives in Seattle.
Q: How did you come up with the characters of Lina and Josephine, and why did you decide to write a story set in two different time periods instead of focusing on just one?
A: The character of Josephine Bell came to me very organically.  She appeared in a story I had written about Dr. Caleb Harper, a doctor who worked for a fugitive slave catcher, and I wanted to know more about her.  I really discovered her character through the writing.    
The development of Lina’s character was similar, but she had certain jobs to do within the plot, so her personality – driven, very success-oriented – was shaped by the role she plays in the story.  I never really “decided” to write a dual narrative – the stories just evolved in that way.   Even as I was writing the historic sections, I felt that they wouldn’t remain there.  I wanted to bring them into the present day and examine them through a contemporary lens.
Q: Why did you decide to make art such an important part of your story?
A: Josephine was always an artist – this was clear to me from the earliest days of writing her story.  Her character was partially inspired by an exhibit I saw 20 years ago that showed the drawings of an African-American artist named Mary Bell.  Not much was known about her, but she was born a slave and later worked in the home of a wealthy Boston family.  I remember being very taken with her art and wondering what her life had been like.   
When I started writing about Josephine, that curiosity returned.   I also thought that the art controversy (whether Josephine or her white mistress, Lu Anne Bell, made the famous Bell paintings) was an interesting way to look at questions of untold history: whose voices do we hear in the historic record?  Whose accomplishments do we celebrate today?  
Q: Your modern-day character Lina is a lawyer, and so are you. Are there certain skills that transfer from working as a lawyer to writing a novel, in your experience?
A: Yes!  I actually wrote a blog post about this for Writer's Digest magazine. As a lawyer, I billed clients in 6-minute increments (as does Lina in the novel) and so I’m very aware of time and what can be accomplished in the course of an hour (or 6 minutes) if you really put your head down.  That has certainly helped me in writing fiction.   
As a junior litigator, I spent most of my time researching and writing briefs, which required many of the same skills that I use now: developing a narrative arc, using persuasive facts, etc.   Fiction writing is also very different from legal writing, of course, and it’s certainly a lot more fun. 
Q: What type of research did you need to do to write The House Girl, and how long did it take you?
A: I researched primarily online and at local libraries.  I read a lot of slave narratives, history books about the antebellum period and the Underground Railroad, and primary documents – letters, farm records – written during the time period.  It took me about five years to write The House Girl, although I was working full-time as a lawyer during the first three years, so I was writing very sporadically then.  In those early years, I didn’t even think that I was writing a novel – just some short stories.  But the stories kept getting longer and longer…   
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m in the very early stages of working on book 2.  Not a lot is getting written yet, but the characters and story are taking shape in my brain. 
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I love visiting book clubs!  I can participate in person in the Seattle area or via Skype elsewhere.  Readers can reach me at or visit my website,, for more information.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 29

March 29, 1797: Writer Mary Wollstonecraft marries William Godwin.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Q&A with Janice Rothschild Blumberg

Janice Rothschild Blumberg
Janice Rothschild Blumberg is a native of Atlanta, Ga., who has written about the history of Jews in the South. Her most recent book is Prophet in a Time of Priests: Rabbi "Alphabet" Browne, 1845-1929, which recounts the life of her great-grandfather.

Q: How much did you know about your great-grandfather as you were growing up, and what surprised you the most as you researched your book about him?

A: I knew him slightly (I was 5 years old when he died). My one remembered incident with him is in my book, along with a picture of the two of us together taken that day. From my great-grandmother I heard much about his prominence as an orator, and from my grandmother---their daughter---I gained a jaundiced view of his sometimes embarrassing activism plus fondly remembered social encounters such as being seated with the celebrities at Grant’s funeral (because her father was one of the honorary pall bearers) and visiting the next generation of Grants in Vienna. 

My mother, Browne’s only grandchild, had only the most glowing of comments, focusing on his delightful sense of humor. Most surprising was to learn that all of it was true. 

And much more! The most surprising single revelation was that he had been an ardent Zionist and personal friend of Theodor Herzl. My parents and I came from strongly Classical Reform Jewish backgrounds, so until I married Rabbi Jacob Rothschild in 1946 and became Jewishly educated, everything I ever heard about Zionism was negative. 

Consequently, when I discovered a newspaper clipping about our ancestor’s friendship with Herzl in a scrapbook of memorabilia that my mother had assembled, I wondered why she had not told us about it. It was too late to ask her, but not too late to email the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem with a query about any possible correspondence between my ancestor and Herzl. 

The answer came in a stack of hitherto unpublished letters that, once translated from 19th century German, yielded a treasure trove of history, sharp wit and stinging insights to the challenges that Herzl faced in America.

Q: How long did it take you to research and write the book?
A: The short answer is 12 years, but that doesn’t tell the story.  In the 1950s, I saw in the partial galley of an unpublished book, a brief that Browne presented to New York Governor David Hill in 1888 appealing for the life of a Jewish immigrant falsely accused of murdering his wife. I thought it would make a great play or mystery novel, which I determined to write some day. 

Some day came 40 years later. Meanwhile I became interested in American Jewish history. My good friends historians Gary Zola and Jonathan Sarna, aware that there was much about Browne waiting to be unmined, convinced me that I would do him and Jewish history a disservice by trivializing his story as fiction. I took their advice and researched. There’s more to be found, and I hope that my book will inspire future historians to look for it.      

Q: Why did you use the title Prophet in a Time of Priests?

A: It refers to the role of prophets in ancient times, and their distinction from priests. Priests were in charge of ritual, and maintained their high position at the pleasure of the king. Prophets were men and women whose inner compass enabled them to predict dire consequences resulting from continued immorality, and to plead for change. They “told it like it was” regardless of how unpopular that might be, and frequently had to take flight after doing so. 

My husband often reminded me of this during our struggle for civil rights in Atlanta. Fortunately he did not have to leave, even after our Temple was bombed in 1958, but otherwise the parallel with Browne caused me to think of both men as modern day prophets. In Browne’s day “successful” rabbis chose not to disturb the status quo.     

Q: You have focused much of your research over the years on the history of Jews in the American South. How was their experience different from that of Jews in other parts of the United States?

A:  That is an ongoing debate among historians. I would argue that basic differences of experience exist not between the South and elsewhere, but between the areas of centralized Jewish immigration (New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, etc.) and everywhere else. The Jewish South consists of many different historical settings and therefore even the broadest generalization confuses more than it informs. 

Furthermore, until the late 19th century Jews were welcomed as part of the social, cultural and civic mainstream of all but the very largest cities throughout the country. Although until recently there were never large concentrations of Jews in the South, Jewish communities began with the earliest European settlements in colonial times. 

In the early 19th century, the city with America’s largest Jewish population was---believe it or not---Charleston, S.C.! 

Growing up in Atlanta for me was similar to that of contemporaries growing up in any other city of similar size. Differences existed within the city due to neighborhood and synagogue affiliation. As Reform Jews living near Emory University, my friends and I freely socialized with and had close friends who were Christian, and never heard anti-Semitic epithets hurled at us. We now know that this was not true for the majority of our Jewish contemporaries in Atlanta or elsewhere. 

After World War II, Jewish communities desegregated themselves from the old divisions based on European background. That condition may have existed longer in the South than elsewhere, but I doubt it.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My memoir.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Janice Rothschild Blumberg will be participating in the Temple Sinai Women of Reform Judaism's Authors Roundtable on April 27 in Washington, D.C. For information on the event, please see this link.

Q&A with novelist Karin Tanabe

Karin Tanabe
Karin Tanabe is a former reporter for Politico. Her first novel is The List. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: Your website describes The List as "inspired by" your time as a Politico reporter. How similar are the two publications, the real and the fictional?

A: A very good question! Well, I’d say what Politico and The Capitolist, my fictional newspaper, have the most in common are the pace and the drive of the employees. The hours at Politico are Long with a capital L and the reporters and editors are very intelligent and work their butts off. In both real life and in my fictional portrayal, the employees are young and smart and competitive. Also, The Capitolist is a pretty male-dominated newsroom and I’d have to say that Politico is too. But my main character, Adrienne Brown, becomes a much better reporter because of how cutthroat The Capitolist is and the same thing happened to me at Politico.

Q: What makes Washington journalism such a good subject for a novel?

A: Washington, D.C., is a great place to be a journalist because you have access to the most powerful people in the country. I remember when I first became a reporter in my early twenties, I was floored by the access I had. From Sting and Richard Gere to Newt Gingrich and John Kerry, having my media credentials around my neck allowed me to chat with the bigwigs in informal settings. Washington is where the power is and power is always a good subject for a novel!

Q: What has been the reaction to the novel from your former colleagues at Politico?

A: Well, I haven’t heard anything negative except a murmur that a few reporters there refuse to read my book and chastise others for doing so! Fair enough. But I’ve also heard that two editors were spotted reading it inside the newsroom and I’ve had wonderful support from friends who are still there and friends who have gone on to other media jobs. I had a D.C. book party and a D.C. book reading and I was thrilled to see so many former colleagues at both.

Q: Do you have any favorite novels (in addition to The List, of course) that are set in Washington?

A: I just love D.C. novels and movies. Whenever I’m abroad and homesick I always watch The Pelican Brief and All The President’s Men, which are also good books. As for novels, Gore Vidal’s Washington ,D.C. and Ward Just’s Echo House take a very educated look at power and corruption in the political system. More recently, I really enjoyed Nicolle Wallace’s Eighteen Acres, which follows the first female American president, and Kristin Gore’s Sammy’s House.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m currently working on a book about the auction industry. I really love antiques and history so this book has been fascinating to write! My protagonist works at Christie’s in New York and at 29 is already a star in her field. But throw in some art world mystery and a professional disaster and she’s left trying to rebuild her career, her life and her own identity.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: A lot of the places in The List are real places and worth a visit! If you ever have time to go to Middleburg, Virginia, I promise you won’t regret it. The Kennedys loved it and it really is one of the quaintest towns in America. Also the Freer and Sackler Museums are in the book and are two of my personal favorites. Check them out next time you’re in Washington, D.C., and see where Adrienne had her mini meltdown!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 28

March 28, 1936: Novelist Mario Vargas Llosa born.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Q&A with author Rachel S. Cox

Rachel S. Cox

Rachel S. Cox has written for The Washington Post and CQ Researcher, and has been an editor at Preservation magazine and Time-Life Books. Her first book is Into Dust and Fire, the story of her uncle, Rob Cox, and four other young Americans who, six months before the United States entered World War II, volunteered to join the British Army.

Q: Did you often hear stories about your uncle as you were growing up, and why did you ultimately decide to write a book focusing, at least in part, on him?

A: My father spoke very rarely about his brother who was “killed in the war.” As a child, I learned a basic story of heroism. He had gone to help the British before America entered the war.

 But I was left to conjecture about anything more. I would study the photographs and mementos my grandmother kept in her house in Vermont, where I spent vacations. Uncle Robbie was very handsome, he had played hockey at prep school, he won the “best boy” medal there. I knew my grandmother revered him, and that it would be very difficult to ask her for details.

Researching Into Dust and Fire was a kind of liberation from those familial constraints.  And the more I learned about Uncle Robbie and his four idealistic friends, the clearer it became that theirs was not only an inspiring story, but also a rip-roaring good yarn.

Q: How much research did you need to do, and what surprised you the most in the course of your research?

A: After World War II finally ended, my grandmother had her three sons’ letters home typed up and bound in leather. Fortunately, they were wonderful writers, so I knew a good deal about Uncle Robbie’s personal experiences. I had to find the families of the other four volunteers, and fortunately they too had saved letters.

Being a journalist, not a military historian, I had much to learn about the war -- the early years from 1941 to 1943 and the war in North Africa, especially. I comforted myself that my own newness to the material would enable me to explain it very clearly to my readers. I had to get comfortable with the peculiar slang, the unfamiliar vocabulary, the cultural assumptions of the British military.  I was lucky to find a very generous British general to advise me, and I visited the Egyptian battlefields with a tour bus of Brits. In a way, my experience was similar to the fish-out-of-water adventure of my five characters, except that I faced no real danger. They, on the other hand, met with maiming and death.

Q: What was your family's reaction to the book?

A: I was of course nervous about my family’s reaction. I don’t think I could have written the book if my grandmother and my father were still alive, although the process of researching and writing made me feel very close to them. I was relieved when my one living uncle complimented the book. As for relatives of my own generation, I think that my siblings and cousins really appreciate finally knowing the full story of our mysterious missing uncle.

Q: How did you select the title Into Dust and Fire?

A: Into Dust and Fire, like all book titles, I imagine, represents a marriage of sentiment and practicality. I originally wanted to call the book His Majesty’s Yanks, and later The Gallant Americans, placing the focus on the character of the five volunteers and the selflessness of their decisions to fight under a foreign flag. The publisher, I think, wanted to evoke the fury and excitement of battle, to attract buyers who like to read about war. 

I like Into Dust and Fire because it evokes the five naïve young Americans’ whole journey. The book is a coming-of-age story, among other things. Like all soldiers, they had to come to terms with the brutality of combat and the realities of war as they moved from comfortable lives in the U.S. to military training in England to the dusty, deadly crucible of the battlefield at El Alamein, Egypt, and beyond.

Q: Are you working on another book?

I have several ideas I’m researching, but, frankly, I am finding it difficult to put the five Yanks behind me. I’m still discovering new information! The family of the woman with whom one of my characters had a passionate, doomed love affair got in touch recently after finding my book on the internet. They have all their love letters, so I’m learning a great many new details about that part of the story.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Rachel S. Cox will participate in the Bethesda Literary Festival April 19-21, 2013. For a full schedule of events, please click here.

March 24

March 24, 1919: Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti born.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Q&A with writer Sigrid Nunez

Sigrid Nunez
Sigrid Nunez is the author of six novels, including For Rouenna, The Last of Her Kind, and Salvation City, and a memoir, Sempre Susan. She has taught at a variety of schools, including Amherst College and Columbia University, and she lives in New York City.

Q: Your most recent book, Sempre Susan, is a memoir about your friendship with Susan Sontag. Why did you decide to write about Sontag, and how did the writing of a memoir compare with that of a novel for you?

A: Several years ago I was asked to contribute an essay to an anthology about mentors and I decided to write about Sontag. I had shared a household with her and her son when I was in my twenties, and she turned out to be a profound influence on how I think and write. The essay appeared first in Tin House magazine, where it was read by the publisher James Atlas, who got in touch with me and asked if I’d be interested in expanding the essay into a short book.

Sempre Susan was much easier for me to write than any of my novels. For one thing, it’s quite short. Also, I didn’t have to do all the hard labor of making up characters or an engaging story, and I didn’t have to do any research. Getting the sentences down was challenging, as it always is, but not having to invent anything certainly made the writing easier.

Q: In your most recent novel, Salvation City, your main character is a boy who is orphaned after a flu pandemic. What do you see as the role of religion in this novel?

A: The parents of Cole, the novel’s 13-year-old main character, lived and died as atheists. The couple who take him in are an evangelical pastor and his wife who are preparing for the end times. For the first time in his life, Cole is exposed to the Bible, and he finds a lot there that’s meaningful to him. He also develops great affection and respect for Pastor Wyatt. 

At the same time, he’s confused and troubled by many Christian beliefs, above all the doctrine that says that no matter how good your life might have been, unless you accept Christ as your savior your inescapable fate is consignment to Hell for all eternity. And he’s deeply skeptical about the notion of the Rapture as well.

What I was trying to do in Salvation City was to create a space where a serious exploration of faith and individual moral responsibility could take place. I have a problem with those who respond to the question “Why do you believe what you believe?” with a flat “Because it’s how I was raised.” My novel is about a young person who comes to understand that the answers to the big questions can’t be handed down to you; you have to figure them out for yourself, and the process can be very painful.

Q: One of the main characters in your novel For Rouenna served as a nurse in Vietnam. Why did you focus your novel, at least in part, on the Vietnam War, and how much research did you do on nurses who served in Vietnam?

A: I did a great deal of research about the Vietnam War in general for this novel, including reading literature by and about women who had served as nurses. In fact, it was reading a book of interviews with some former nurses, which I happened to do sometime in the mid-eighties, that made me want to write a novel about one of them. 

It struck me as a truly extraordinary experience for a young woman to have had, and I had a powerful desire to imagine what it must have been like. However, I didn’t start writing For Rouenna until the mid-nineties. So it was an idea that I carried with me for a very long time.

Q: You said in an interview that For Rouenna was your favorite of your books. Why is that?

A: I think mostly because I believe it’s my best book, by which I mean the one that came closest to what I’d hoped to achieve when I set out to write it. Also, nothing has meant more to me than hearing from readers (all men, I have to say) who served in Vietnam and who have been generous in their appreciation of my attempt to understand what their experience was like.

Q: Another of your novels, The Last of Her Kind, also focuses on the Vietnam War period and its aftermath. What about that era interests you?

A: It’s the era in which I came of age. Although The Last of Her Kind is not an autobiographical novel, it begins on the Barnard College campus in the year 1968, which is where and when I began my own college career. It was famously a time of great tumult and radical change, and a very big part of what was happening then was the war in Vietnam. Many of the boys I grew up with ended up in Vietnam. My high school boyfriend, my college boyfriend—both of them fought in the war. So did an uncle of mine, an Army lifer, who married a Vietnamese woman he met during his first tour of duty.

So for me it’s always been something much more than just an interest in the period. I wrote both For Rouenna and The Last of Her Kind partly because I was haunted by the strangeness and the intensity of that time we’ve come to refer to as the Sixties. I wanted to get down what it was like to live through those years, to be young in the midst of the so-called youthquake. 

Also, as a college professor I’d hear students say things like “I hate hippies,” and I had to wonder whether they really knew what a hippie was, or what that period in American history was actually like. My strong impression was that they did not. It also became clear to me that their parents did not talk much about what that time—the era of their own youth—was like, at least not to them.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m in the middle of a seventh novel but I’ve also been working quite a bit on shorter work, including very short fiction, in some cases pieces that are only a paragraph or so long. I’ve published several stories since my last book came out and I’m beginning to think about the possibility of a collection.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. A version of this interview also appears on

March 23

March 23, 1842: Death of writer Stendhal.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Q&A with author Jill Smokler

Jill Smokler
Jill Smokler's popular website, Scary Mommy, calls itself "a parenting community for imperfect parents." She is the author of Confessions of a Scary Mommy, and her new book, Motherhood Comes Naturally (and other vicious lies), will be out in April.

Q: How did you first come up with the "Scary Mommy" concept?

A: Scary Mommy began innocently as a mommy blog -- a modern-day baby book -- for me to keep track of my days with the kids and share little stories and pictures with friends and family. During the time I was thinking of starting a blog, my son had taken to calling everything "scary," thanks to some Disney movie that haunted him. The moment he called me Scary Mommy, I knew I had a blog name, registered the domain and the rest is history.

Q: In Motherhood Comes Naturally (and other vicious lies), you write, "Scary Mommy has always been about lifting the veil on motherhood and helping women find comfort--and humor--in other mothers' experiences." How important do you think it is for mothers to find that common experience, and do you think fathers could benefit from reading your books too?

A: I think it is hugely important for women to realize that they aren't the only mother who has lost her temper with a whiney toddler or hid in the bathroom for a five minute break from the children who are driving her crazy. Fathers need to find those common experiences as well - the hardships of being a parent aren't always openly discussed, and we all need that comfort of knowing we aren't alone. Of course, fathers can also benefit from the book by getting a glimpse into the sometimes-secret life of women. Understanding, in whatever form the book facilities, is always a good thing.

Q: Your books are really funny--is it hard sometimes to keep your sense of humor when you're having an especially annoying day?

A: Of course! But the blog and the book also help me maintain a sense of humor about things I might not otherwise find all that funny. If I didn't have a platform to share, say the time my four-year-old decorated his two-year-old brother's face in a red Sharpie, it would have been nothing but frustrating. Having an audience who laughs along with me is hugely helpful in seeing the humor in the mundane, or even disastrous. 

Q: Are your kids (ages 9, 7, and 5) curious about all your Scary Mommy projects?

A: My daughter, the oldest, has become very interested in all things Scary Mommy over the last year or so. Most of her friends' parents have the book and it's become contraband among the curious third-grade crowd. I'm always fully conscious that the kids will one day read my words, but at the young ages they are, I do my best to shield them from the site and books. I think my deep love for them is apparent in everything I do, but I'm writing for people who appreciate sarcasm and brutal honesty, which young kids can't possibly comprehend. But I hope, one day, they turn to the books when they are parents themselves. Little would make me happier.

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: Not at the moment. Right now, I'm not sure what else I have to say -- I hear the teen years are quite interesting, though, and they're right around the corner. So, we'll see.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Jill Smokler will be participating in the Bethesda Literary Festival April 19-21, 2013. For a full schedule of events, please click here.

March 21

Andrew Marvell
March 21, 1678: Reward offered for identity of pamphlet author.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Q&A with author Amanda Bennett

Amanda Bennett
Amanda Bennett is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has worked for The Wall Street Journal, among other publications, and now serves as executive editor for projects and investigations at Bloomberg News. Her most recent book is the memoir The Cost of Hope: The Story of a Marriage, a Family, and the Quest for Life, which focuses on her relationship with her late husband, Terence Foley, and their efforts to find life-prolonging treatments for his ultimately fatal cancer.

Q: Why did you decide to write The Cost of Hope?

A: After my husband died, I realized that as an investigative journalist, I had a skill set that I could use to learn about this very common, very profound experience in a way that most people could not.  So I went back to reexamine all the decisions Terence and I made and also to find out how much they cost.  

Q: You write, "What I couldn't know then was that the thinking behind my request--keep him alive if you can--along with hundreds of decisions we made over seven years, would illustrate the impossible calculus at the core of life, of love of family, and of the U.S. health care debate." How do you think families facing similar difficult choices can navigate through that "impossible calculus"?

A: It is very difficult.  Right now the actual cost of all care, including end of life care, is cloaked in complexity and secrecy and as people are being forced to pay a bigger and bigger share of the costs themselves, the uncertainty is making it harder to plan.  

Q: Was there anything that particularly surprised you as you looked at the cost of your husband's care and the number of medical tests he received?

A: I was astounded at the quantity of tests that he had over the seven years -- for example, he had 76 CAT scans -- and also at the wide variation in price that my employers paid for them -- from about $750 to over $2000.

Q: What impact has the new health care law had on the system, and at this point are there changes that you would like to see?

A: The new health care law does nothing to increase the transparency of the medical system or to reduce its complexity. I would like to see more of both. 

Q: Are you writing another book?

A: I'm not writing another book at the moment, but I am eager to do so.  

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: This book is really a love story.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Amanda Bennett will be participating in the Bethesda Literary Festival from April 19-21, 2013. For a full schedule of events, please click here.

March 19

March 19, 1933: Author Philip Roth born.