Friday, May 31, 2013

Q&A with novelist B.A. Shapiro

B.A. Shapiro, photo by Lynn Wayne
B.A. Shapiro is the author of the bestselling novel The Art Forger. Her other books include the novels The Safe Room and Blind Spot, and she has taught creative writing at Northeastern University and sociology at Tufts University. She lives in Boston.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Art Forger and for your main character, Claire?

A: I like to write books about things I want to know more about, and I have always been very interested in Isabella Stewart Gardner, a fascinating persona. She was a feminist before the word existed. I always wanted to write a book about her, and then her museum was robbed in 1990—it was the largest art heist ever, and I wanted to write about that. I learned about art forgery, and I wanted to write about that.

I combined it into a story that revolves around Claire. She was a young version of me. She’s struggling, no one is willing to see her work. I poured all my frustrations—I wrote five novels that were published and three that were unpublished, and I was feeling frustrated and sorry for myself. That was the core of Claire. Of course, not I’m not Claire any more!

Q: You wrote the five that were published before the three that were published?

A: I wrote five novels, none of which went anywhere, over a period of 25 years. Then I wrote three [that were unpublished]. It was a 10-year period of writing four novels, including The Art Forger, without getting published, without positive feedback. I was ready to quit. This was the book I wanted to write. I said, either it’s going to make it, or I will go on to career number 6. Fortunately, I didn’t have to go to career number 6.

Q: You’ve said how interested you are in Isabella Stewart Gardner—did you think of writing a biography of her, or was it always going to be fiction?

A: My original plan was to write a novel about her, but she was so much bigger than life, I couldn’t figure out how to do it. She stood up to the Brahmin society here in the late 19th century. Women in that class really couldn’t do anything. She thumbed her nose at it all. She wore dresses from Paris that were revealing. She walked down the main street of Boston with a lion. She wore a headband to the symphony that said, “Go Red Sox.”

And she was the first great American art collector, man or woman. The rebel part of me just loved that. She was so eccentric and so amazing. If I’m asked that question, Who would you want to have dinner with, it would be Belle, hands down.

Q: Why has the heist at the Gardner Museum fascinated people for many years now?

A: First of all, it was the largest art heist in history. Nothing has been recovered in all of these years. And the whole crime doesn’t make a lot of sense. It was very sloppily done. These were guys in fake police uniforms. They tied up the night watchmen. Then they leisurely walked through the museum, ripped paintings from the walls—they took valuable stuff, but left valuable stuff. Also, they took stuff that wasn’t worth much. They casually walked in and out [with the stolen art] to a rusted-out old Datsun, and drove away….

I love art; it’s heartbreaking to think of what might have happened to the art over 23 years.

Q: What kind of research did you do about Boston’s art world?

A: We lived in Lexington, we raised our kids there, and then moved back into the city. I live within walking distance to great galleries and museums. I took a class, Art Trek, which was run by an artist, and she would take us to museums and galleries where she knew everybody. I got really fascinated by the Boston scene. That was another component—then I started interviewing real artists for the book. It was fun.

Q: What do you especially like about writing fiction?

A: It’s only novels—I’ve never written a short story in my life. I’ve always loved novels. As a little girl, I was a voracious reader. From the time I read Gone With the Wind—it’s not politically correct to say that any more—I wanted to be a novelist. You can’t make money as a novelist; I became a sociologist. … Then I got the opportunity to be able to write, and I dove into it. People think it’s magical stuff, but it’s hard work. Getting into the zone, and suddenly three hours are gone—it’s such a high.

Q: Does the book have a particular message about art and truthfulness?

A: One of the themes I wanted to bring out was that we see what we want to see. In the book, people are misjudging because of preconceptions. We need to step back and think about what really is in front of us.

In the art piece, part of it has to do with where does value lie? There’s a $15 million Degas in a museum, people love it, and then it’s deemed a forgery. It’s now worthless monetarily, but is it any less beautiful?

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on another novel, also about art, but about Abstract Impressionism. It takes place right before World War II in New York City, and [the characters include] Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner…they were all working for the WPA. Out of working for the WPA grew Abstract Impressionism, the first great American school of art that was exported. The fictional character [in the book]—she’s Jewish, and she’s trying to get her French family out of Europe before the war starts.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’ve been toiling in the trenches for 25 years, and finally at 60 years old I get this break—it’s just amazing to me. [Publisher] Algonquin Books had a big part in it. … It’s been a wonderful ride so far.

 --Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with author Eric Jay Dolin

Eric Jay Dolin, photo by Kimberly Drooks Photography
Eric Jay Dolin's most recent book is When America First Met China: An Exotic History of Tea, Drugs, and Money in the Age of Sail. His other books include Fur, Fortune, and Empire, Leviathan, and Snakehead. He has worked in the environmental policy field, including for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Marine Fisheries Service. He lives in Marblehead, Mass.

Q: How did you first get interested in writing about the early relationship between the United States and China?

A: It was a combination of things. My last book was Fur, Fortune, and Empire, and there was a chapter about the sea otter trade between the U.S. and China. … I thought there must be a broader relationship.

That was combined with the vast coverage of China in today’s press. I thought people were focusing so much attention on the current relationship, there was [also] so much fascinating material on the early relationship.

Q: How does your research help to understand the relationship today between the U.S. and China?

A: I grappled with that a lot. The book ends in the 1860s, and there’s a lot of history between then and now. The number of direct lessons are not that great. But…there are a lot of things going on then that are still going on today. The lack of understanding of the Chinese people, the stereotyping that is still going on. There was a trade deficit then; it was hard to understand what the Chinese wanted beside our silver, so we had a massive trade deficit.

The dream people had was that [China] would be a great avenue and cause American trade to boom; that didn’t happen then. It’s the same dream people have today, that this enormous country will [provide] a boom time for America. In the mid-1800s, China was the largest country in the world, but it was a very poor country. Today, it’s much larger, and it’s still a very poor country with a small group of wealthy [people].

Another lesson is the impact of the Opium Wars. Americans know very little about that, but it was seared into the consciousness of the Chinese: Western aggression--though not American aggression--and a period when China was buffeted and was pushed around by the West.

As a result of that history, the Chinese people and the Chinese government are still very sensitive to the times when the West tries to dictate outcomes. They remember the long history of being under the thumb of the Western powers. It drives them to want to become the world’s largest economy.

Q: Can you tell us more about what each country actually knew about the other in the late 18th and early 19th centuries?

A: What Americans knew about China came from reports from traders, and books written by Europeans. Americans knew that Chinese culture had been very rich and that it was a proud and great nation, but the view of the Americans was that the grand era of China had passed and that the country was going through a decline.

Americans’ personal interactions with the Chinese were through trading; they saw only a small sliver. … They often saw some of the poorest parts, the opium dens. Some traders tried to cheat, and that contributed to a very negative view that Americans had of China. It was in line with the Western view of being superior.

There were some Americans who traveled more widely and realized that [China] still was a great country. These people viewed them as meritorious in many ways. They brought back Chinese goods. Missionaries [although they were trying to convert the Chinese], still would write in very positive ways about Chinese culture. While they were putting down their [the Chinese] cultural and religious outlook, they also wanted readers back home to know about their values.

For the Chinese, when the Americans first got there, they [the Chinese] thought they were English. They didn’t know a lot, nor did they care to. They viewed the West as trading partners. The Chinese view was that they were the Middle Kingdom….they were beneath heaven, and beneath them were all the other countries in the world.

It was a very condescending view that the Chinese had of foreigners in general. At the same time, the Americans had a very condescending view of the Chinese. It was mutual condescension. Today, do Americans know a lot about Chinese culture? No. … There’s still a gulf that separates us.

Q: What surprised you the most in the course of your research?

A: Almost everything surprised me. I didn’t know much about the relationship to begin with; I was learning it while writing it.

What surprised me the most was the extent to which opium had a huge impact on Chinese society, and the Americans showed no willingness to abide by the regulations in the trafficking of opium. There are parallels to today’s drug culture and wars. When money’s on the line, people are willing to do things that in hindsight are not noble or legal. The opium traffic, and the Opium Wars, dramatically changed the relationship between the West and China.

Also, I was surprised to see how the desire to get goods [affected the environment]. My background is in environmental issues, and I’m very interested in learning about how the drive to get more sea otter pelts, sealskins—it occurred repeatedly—the profit motives were leading people to take actions that have had a very dramatic and negative impact on natural resources. By taking resources…they lost an opportunity to continue trading, but they were not concerned about the degradation of the environment.

Q: What role did tea play in the dynamic between the two countries?

A: It was enormous. Tea was the number one item that Westerners wanted to get out of China. America had been part of England, and the English were besotted by tea, and that love of tea was transported [to the colonies]. By the time of the Revolution, America was already a tea-drinking country.

Throughout the entire period I talk about, the number one import from China to the U.S. was tea. Tea was the driving force behind almost all the activities on the American side to keep trade going. …

Also, this was the era of the clipper ships, the need for speed—it largely grew out of the desire to get tea back to the United States as quickly as possible. Without tea, the relationship between the West and the East would have been dramatically different.

Britain was the [Western] country with the greatest impact on China, and its number one import was tea as well.

Q: How did you find all the illustrations used in the book?

A: It was a combination of things. There was a lot written about the China trade in articles and books. I found a number of images in my research. Also, I live one town over from Salem, where the Peabody Essex Museum is. The captains of Salem were very involved in the China trade, and brought back artwork from China. Those are now owned by the museum. I was able to get a lot of images there. …

It’s good and bad—the good part is that there are so many fantastic [images]. The bad part is that there are so many more that I couldn’t use. … It’s an embarrassment of riches.

Q: Are you working on another book now?

A: I’m trying to come up with a topic; there are a couple of topics I’m bouncing around.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with author Aviva Goldfarb

Aviva Goldfarb

Q: How did you first come up with the concept of the Six O’Clock Scramble?

A: The Six O’Clock Scramble really developed out of my own struggle as a relatively new parent. I grew up in a home with family dinners almost every day, and I wanted to create that for my own kids. I found it really challenging: that time of day is so stressful; how do you get a simple dinner on the table. 

Writing the cookbook, developing recipes, talking to my mom, what was essential to me was having a plan for the week. If you shop once a week and get everything you need for the week, you’re not having to scramble at 6. That was the genesis of the Six O’Clock Scramble online—people would join, and I would send them a plan for the week of easy, healthy, family-friendly meals.

Q: What are the advantages of weekly menu planning?

A: There are several key advantages. First, what moms especially dislike the most isn’t cooking, it’s deciding what to cook and what to serve with it. Once the decision is made ahead, dinner can be a stress-free experience with your family. Another huge advantage is that you can save a lot of money and waste a lot less food, and you’re less likely to go out or order take-out. It’s a huge waste-reducer. Twenty to 50 percent [of food in this country] is thrown out.

Q: What do you recommend for picky eaters?

A: That’s a really common topic of concern. When you plan for dinner, it can help with a picky eater; you’re not catering to their whims….but you can modify some meals. …

You want to take the long-term approach: Are they going to be part of this family meal? Include the picky eater: “Should I add this [ingredient]?” It comes down to the whole family eating one meal.

Q: You write, “Several years ago I realized that the Scramble is also a great way for us to reduce our impact on the environment.” How do you think it helps the environment?

A: [With the Six O’Clock Scramble], you’re not driving to go out, you’re not getting Styrofoam—you’re reducing actual waste.

Also, we’ve really reduced the amount of meat; one of the biggest contributors to global warming is the eating of meat.

I include meatless options. I talk about buying more locally. When I recommend fish, it’s fish that’s sustainable, on the safer range from environmental organizations.

Q: Did you expect the level of success you've reached when you began a decade ago?

A: No way! It was just something I thought seemed like a good idea; I didn’t have a long-term plan. Now we have 6-7,000 members and there are offshoots of the business. It’s the best job I’ve ever had. Helping people talk about food, creating recipes—I’m really thrilled to still be doing it.

My main mission is to make it doable for families to have dinner together most nights. My kids, as teenagers, I see how much they want to have dinner together. Everyone’s making eye contact. We’re disconnecting from technology and connecting to one another.

Q: You also contribute to the PBS Parents site with tips on cooking for families and getting kids involved in the kitchen. What have been some of your most popular suggestions on that site?

A: I’ve been doing it for a couple of years; I’m one of two weekly contributors. One of the most popular posts I had was talking about healthy options for class parties.

Q: What are you working on now? Are you writing another book?

A: Not right now. I’m taking a break from writing books. I like working in the online world. Instead of a book, this year my major priority is the Family Dinner Challenge. It’s a way of [noting] the 10-year anniversary of the Six O’Clock Scramble. I’m trying to get 10,000 people to sign a pledge to have family dinner at least three times a week for four weeks until the end of September. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 31

May 31, 1819: Walt Whitman born.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Q&A with author Steve Luxenberg

Steve Luxenberg, photo by Josh Luxenberg
Steve Luxenberg, an associate editor at The Washington Post, is the author of the family memoir Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret, which has been chosen as the Great Michigan Read for 2013-14. It examines the story of his late aunt, Annie Cohen, who had been institutionalized for decades; Luxenberg and his siblings only learned of her existence long after her death. Their mother kept her sister's existence a secret. Luxenberg, who worked for The Baltimore Sun before joining the Post in 1985, lives in Baltimore.

Q: When did you first decide to turn your family’s story into a book?

A: I always had [the idea] in the back of my mind once I heard more about the story…After I began to learn some things, I thought it would make an interesting story, more a magazine story than a book.

Frankly, it was my agent who gave me the confidence that it could be a book. If my agent hadn’t said we could sell this, I’m not sure I would have pursued it. You need someone more enthusiastic than yourself to [see] that it could be a universal story.

Q: How difficult was it for you, as an investigative reporter, to do this kind of reporting about your own family?

A: Fortunately, I had [enough] distance from myself to evaluate whether what I was hearing was enough to turn into a book. There were moments where my emotions were leading the way rather than my judgment as a journalist, but not too many.

I don’t see the book [so much] as catharsis as a story that needed to be told. I was fascinated by my mom’s motivations, by Annie’s unknown life, and whether I could turn them into a story.

I was always a son and I was always a journalist when I was doing the book. I don’t want to forget I’m the son. On the other hand, I’m not mostly a memoirist in this book, I’m mostly an investigative reporter…I wasn’t present for most of the events.

Q: What was the reaction to the book among your family members?

A: When I was working on it, and writing it, I did speak with everybody, and I did tell them what I was planning to do. Only my older brother had genuine misgivings, and they were not about the family reputation or about making our mom look bad, but were based on his own personality. He’s not someone who looks back a lot, but he said if I couldn’t interview my mom, I couldn’t test what I was learning from others. … I teased him and said Lincoln’s been dead for many years, and it doesn’t stop people from writing about him. …

Now, everybody feels [that] the book is a respectful, nonjudgmental attempt to understand what happened.

[In one interview after the book came out], the interviewer was saying, "Why aren’t you angrier at your mother for this fraud?" I was taken aback… I said later that it seems that anger comes from a part of your personality that feels wronged. All of this took place before I was born. If I make it about me, I’m being literally selfish. It wasn’t that difficult for me to keep that in perspective. My mom didn’t create a secret to do anything to me.

Q: How did Annie’s story change your impression of your mother and her life?

A: It threw everything up in the air. It required me to reconstruct the picture. But it was important for me to remember that my mother was not [just] her secret; it’s [only] a portion of what defines her. The kind, generous woman who raised me still exists.

I chose to include the italicized memoir sections because I was concerned that [the reader] would think my memories of my mom were all about the secret.

There’s a joy in getting to know a parent at an age before you were born. We are not even sentient until we’re about 8, 9, 10 years old, and most 8, 9, or 10-year-olds only think of [their parents] as parents. …Here I am examining my mom’s life, and a major decision she made at 23, and it was exhilarating [for me. I felt closer] to her than to the woman who was ailing at 80. We are left with the memories we have when our parents die, and here I am having the opportunity to reexamine [my mom's life]….

I’m asked, "Would my mother have wanted this book to be written?" and I pause for a Seinfeld moment, [and say], "Of course she wouldn’t have!" But she would have been pleased that someone cared enough to know why she [kept her sister a secret], and she would have been pleased with the description of her love affair with my father.

Q: In the book, you describe writing a note to yourself about Annie that says, “Born at the wrong time.” What might have happened to someone like Annie today?

A: I do think her life and her choices would have been a lot better. But it’s also a mistake to look at ourselves and think we have the answers and the people in the 1940s were primitive. That misses the point as well. Fifty years from now, people like us will be having a conversation about what they did wrong 50 years ago. …

What would happen to Annie today? Her deformed leg and the amputation would have caused psychological issues, and [those treating her] would have recommended counseling at an earlier age, provided that the family, which was poor, had access [to services]. With counseling, maybe the mental health wouldn’t have been a sudden issue.

Q: Are you writing another book?

A: I am. It’s not about my family….It’s a story of race. I tell the personal stories of the people involved in the Plessy v. Ferguson case in 1896.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I think one of the things I feel strongly about is how you write about the past, families, memoirs. One of the main things in Annie’s Ghosts is the fragility of memory. …

When I’m listening to people, I try to filter out what they knew at the time from what they learned at a later time that might color that memory. Annie’s Ghosts attempts to keep memories and its challenges at the forefront of the book.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with author Richard Ellis

Richard Ellis
Richard Ellis is a marine conservationist, artist, and prolific author. His most recent book is Swordfish: A Biography of the Ocean Gladiator. He is a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History, and has served on the U.S. delegation to the International Whaling Commission. He lives in New York.

Q: How does the swordfish live up to its "gladiator" name?

A: The swordfish's scientific name is Xiphius gladius, which actually means "swordfish with a sword" in Greek and Latin. Armed as it is, the swordfish is the quintessential gladiator. It hunts at the surface, and as far down as 3,000 feet. For reasons we don't understand, swordfish often stab inedible objects like boats, submersibles, whales, bales of rubber, and people. (Swordfish have no teeth, so they're not trying to carve out a hunk of meat -- certainly not from a boat.)

Q:What surprised you the most in the course of your research?

A: That all the biggest swordfish caught by macho fishermen like Ernest Hemingway and Zane Grey were all FEMALES. Full-grown males are only about a quarter the size of females. (The same goes for the big marlins.)

Q: You write that while the swordfish has been "close to extinction," it has "emerged bloody but unbowed." How did this outcome occur?

A: Once upon a time, the swordfish was very heavily hunted, but international concerns for the worldwide populations cause fishing nations to cut back.

Q: How did the swordfish's bill develop its distinctive shape, and how does the swordfish use it?

A: We really can't answer evolutionary questions such as "how did an animal evolve this way?" I suppose that there was once an ancestral swordfish with a short bill, and over time, its descendants developed longer, flatter bills. But as no one has ever seen a swordfish feeding, we're not really sure how it uses its sword.
Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm working on a comprehensive book about cephalopods (octopuses, squid and cuttlefish), and also a book about the least-known large animals on earth, the 22 species of beaked whales.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: That I've written 27 books, almost all about marine life. (The one exception was Tiger Bone and Rhino Horn, about the destruction of wildlife for Traditional Chinese Medicine.) I've tried to communicate the wonders of the marine world, so that readers will understand how marvelous it is, and why they should not be killing all these creatures.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 30

May 30, 1899: Writer Cornelia Otis Skinner born.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Q&A with author Del Quentin Wilber

Del Quentin Wilber
Del Quentin Wilber, a Washington Post reporter, is the author of Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan.
Q: Why did you decide to examine the assassination attempt on President Reagan, and what surprised you most about your findings?

A: I was covering a hearing in federal court involving the would-be assassin, John Hinckley, who was asking for more freedom from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. He had been held there since being found not guilty by reason of insanity at his 1982 trial.
It was fascinating to be in the presence of someone who nearly took the life of a U.S. president.

A few days later, I was summoned to the FBI field office to talk about a potential story I was chasing about an undercover investigation. An agent, trying to convince me not to write the story, pulled something out of his desk and slapped it in my hand. It was Hinckley’s gun! 
This stunned me and made me very curious -- how could this important historic artifact be in a desk drawer? So I went to the library and looked up books about the assassination attempt and didn’t find any that satisfied my curiosity. So I began making phone calls to former agents and doctors.

Q: How willing were people to talk to you about the events of March 30, 1981, and how were you able to amass your detailed account of what happened that day?
A: It took a lot of plugging, but I eventually interviewed more than 125 people (I stopped counting) to help me recreate the scenes in the book. Sometimes I had to interview as many as 10 people who were in the same room to cobble together what happened. I also filed several Freedom of Information Act requests and obtained never-before seen records about the assassination attempt kept by the FBI and the Secret Service. Some sources gave me critical medical records, too.

Q: You write that the assassination attempt had a lasting impact on public perceptions of President Reagan. What about his actions that day would help shape his presidency?
A: Reagan had one of the most scripted presidencies in U.S. history. On this day, the script got thrown out the window when Hinckley fired his six shots in 1.7 seconds at precisely 2:27 p.m. Reagan was stoic and brave. That was communicated to the public, and it allowed the president to form a special bond with the American people. 
What they saw is what they got because we all know the one day you can't fake it -- when you have been shot and nearly killed. This bond allowed Reagan to get his agenda through Congress and made it very unlikely that any scandal -- Iran-Contra, for example -- would end his presidency because the public simply would not have stood for it.

Q: What impact did the assassination attempt have on presidential security?

A: Presidential security grew much tighter. Magnetometers became omnipresent; perimeters were expanded; presidents rarely ever entered or exited their cars in public. The idea that a deranged would-be assassin could get within 15 feet of the president and get off six shots before being tackled is utterly astonishing. 

Q: Anything else we should know?
A: People curious about the Reagan assassination attempt can visit the book's website,, to learn more about the day. I have posted interviews with key players, documents, photos and video that help explain what occurred on March 30, 1981. "Rawhide," by the way, was Reagan's Secret Service code name.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb 

Q&A with author Nancy Tringali Piho

Nancy Tringali Piho
Nancy Tringali Piho is the author of the book My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus: Raising Children Who Love to Eat Everything. She heads the D.C.-based communications firm Nancy Tringali Associates, Inc., which works with clients in the food and beverage industries

Q: What advice would you give to those parents who would look at the title of your book and say that they couldn’t imagine their children willingly eating octopus?

A: Well, the “octopus” title is a little tongue-in-cheek, I suppose, but I hope it does at least get people thinking! The main point of it is to have parents of young children (under the age of 5) challenge what may have inadvertently become their belief about what their children will eat.

So many of us fall into a pattern of thinking that the chicken nugget/ apple juice/ buttered pasta/ hot dog repertoire is standard fare for young children because they receive this message from so many sources. These parents fall into this pattern and then don’t realize how difficult it can be later to change it.

Q: What do you consider the best healthy, balanced diet for children, and for adults? What impact does the parents’ diet have on that of their children?

A: I believe that the “best” diet for anyone – kids and adults alike – is a varied one. If you are eating a nice variety of foods from all food groups, in reasonable portion sizes, then most likely, you are eating a healthy diet. This points to the major problem with standard “kids meals” and “kids diets,” because they are the same thing over and over again, just in different packaging.

The influence of the parents’ diet on how their children eat is tremendous and cannot be overstated. We, as parents, set the tone for how our young children eat, what our children eat, and their entire relationship with food.

This is true in obvious ways -- like role modeling cooking, trying new restaurants, and generally being interested in food – to more subtle ways, such as the way that we talk about food in front of our kids. When Dad announces “I will not eat spinach,” for example, he is giving kids license to do the same, without even trying it first.

Q: Do you think classes for picky eaters are a good idea?

A: I think classes for picky eaters are a great idea, but the classes should be for the parents, rather than the children!

Q: How have changes in the food industry in recent decades affected children’s diets?

A: The proliferation of children’s foods – products developed exclusively for and marketed to kids of all ages – in recent decades is a major factor in the demise of children’s eating habits.

It could be argued that it is a circular situation – that food companies are merely responding to what consumers want and thus consumer preferences shaped this new marketplace – but the fact remains that there are more kiddie products on the market than ever before. Their availability and relatively inexpensive cost makes them attractive to many parents. I write about this issue extensively in the book.

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: Not at this time.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: It sounds so simple to say it, but research has shown, repeatedly, that the Number One Reason young children are picky eaters, or do not eat a generally healthy diet, is because they are not offered enough of an opportunity to eat in a better way. (Studies have shown that it can take up to 17 attempts for a toddler to adopt a new food. How many parents are willing to hear “NO!” 16 times, and then have the will to try yet again?!)

The good news, I think, is that parental awareness alone can make a big difference. I encourage parents to be aware of ruts and pitfalls they succumb to in feeding their kids, broaden their own food experience if need be, and make lifelong healthy eating a priority for the entire family, including the youngest members.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with writer Alex Gerlis

Alex Gerlis
Alex Gerlis, who worked for the BBC for 27 years, including serving as the head of training in the BBC College of Journalism, is the author of The Best of Our Spies, a novel. He lives in London.
Q: How did you come up with the concept for the novel and what inspired the main characters?

A: The origins of The Best of Our Spies go back to Normandy in 1994, when I was helping to run the BBC’s coverage of the 50th anniversary of D-Day.  I was so intrigued by the D-Day story that I began to think about writing a novel based around it.  

The characters and the plot came a few years later when I was on holiday in France and out of the blue, these lines just came to me:  “Owen Quinn woke with a start from a deep sleep on the morning of that first Tuesday in June. He would not sleep properly again for the next eight months.” Originally they were the opening lines of the book, but now appear at the start of Chapter 18. 

The plot and the characters flowed from those two sentences.   Owen Quinn is a young Royal Navy officer and he is the main character, along with his French wife, Nathalie. The book is an espionage thriller based on real events and explores how individuals become drawn into wider events and how they behave in those circumstances.

Q: What type of research did you do on World War II and D-Day, and also on espionage during that period?

A: I knew the basics of D-Day well enough, but until I began researching the story in more detail I had not really appreciated two essential and often overlooked elements of it: the fact that the Battle of Normandy lasted far longer and was much harder fought than Eisenhower had originally envisaged; and the extent to which the Allies’ deception operation fooled the Germans into thinking that the Allies would land further up the French coast in the Pas de Calais area.   

Even after the landings this deception operation still managed to persuade them for a few more vital weeks that the Normandy landings were a feint. The effect of this was to keep the German 15th Army tied up in the Pas de Calais. Had it moved into Normandy sooner than it did the outcome of the Battle of Normandy and maybe even of the war could have been very different.   

This deception is at the heart of my novel. I visited all the main locations of the book, in France, England and Germany, interviewed people from the time (including a member of the French Resistance) and did some original research at the National Archives in London.

Q: Your book was published under a special arrangement by Curtis Brown and Amazon. How did that come to be, and will we see more such arrangements in future?

A: I am represented by Curtis Brown, which is one of the largest literary agencies in London. At the end of last year they facilitated the publication of a number of their authors through Amazon and certainly from my point of view, it has been a very satisfactory arrangement indeed.   

I am sure that this will be very much the way publishing goes: the current model of conventional publishing will probably be seen as one of a number of routes by which books are published. I think that conventional publishers are still very important, their ability to market and distribute books is second to none, but the growth of e-books means that increasingly authors and agents will increasingly look at a variety of ways for readers to find their books.

Q: What are your favorite spy novels?

A: I enjoy the genre described as ‘literary espionage fiction’. My favourite writers in this genre include John le Carré, Ian McEwan and Graham Greene, but perhaps my favourite writer of spy novels now is the American novelist Alan Furst.  

His novels are set in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s and he manages to evoke the atmosphere of those times in an extraordinary way. The World at Night is my favourite Alan Furst novel and as far as John le Carré goes Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a masterpiece.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My second novel, which also has a Second World War theme but the plot extends into more recent times.  I am probably about halfway through the novel, although there is still a lot of structuring work to do on it, not least because the narrative is a mixture of first person and third person. The novel will be about a group of young recruits to the SS late in the war and what happens to them afterwards.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I know that the word ‘spies’ in the title of the book would seem to indicate that it is aimed at a male readership, but please don’t be misled by that. In fact, the book is as much a story about relationships and human behaviour as anything else and I think that the book has appealed to all kinds of readers, including those who do not normally read espionage.  

I would also say one other thing for aspiring writers: my advice is if you think you have a story to tell, just write it. Don’t worry too much about the process of writing and publication, just concentrate on writing a good story with a strong plot and credible characters and then worry about the rest.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 29

May 29, 1906: Author T.H. White born.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Q&A with writer Kim Wong Keltner

Kim Wong Keltner
Kim Wong Keltner is the author of the new book Tiger Babies Strike Back, her first work of nonfiction. She also has written three novels, The Dim Sum of All Things, Buddha Baby, and I Want Candy

Q: What was the impetus for you to write Tiger Babies Strike Back?

A:  I hadn’t read [Amy] Chua’s book [Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother] right away, but everyone kept asking me if I was a “Tiger Mom.” Funny, people used to just ask me if I was a waitress in a Chinese restaurant. And now it was “Tiger Mom.” It was shocking to me that these two broad stereotypes were so dominant in people’s minds.

I wanted to show and describe to readers how complex life really is for not just Asian-Americans, but for women and mothers. The challenges of being an adult daughter as well as being a new mom are cross-cultural. I wanted to depict the everyday ironies as well as the larger themes of identity and personhood when one foot is in the new world and the other is stuck in the old – or rather, the old world is trying desperately to hold on but you want to be your own woman.

Q: You write, “Tiger parenting makes lonely fools of us all.” How were you able to overcome that “tiger parenting,” and not use the same methods in raising your own daughter?

A: I have always been an emotional person. I cry during “Finding Nemo.” So it wasn’t hard for me to cast off my family’s strict ways. My husband and I are both the youngest in our families, and both sets of our parents are each the eldest in their immediate families. So it was good that we two marshmallows married each other.

That said, we are both tired of everyone else playing, “My time is more important than yours.” We have both had to work on standing up for ourselves because we both grew up desperately trying to please everyone else. Recently, when my mother was micromanaging my husband’s driving, he actually said, “Mom, I’m fifty. I know how to pull the car out of the driveway.” Saying these small things is better than holding it all in.

We are really fed up with being bossed around, but I don’t want to be one of those families where people don’t speak to each other for years or stop coming to Christmas.

Q: You write of your mother’s helpfulness when your daughter was born, “My mom and I are not exactly chummy best friends. But she was my rock when I needed one.” Did your relationship with your mother change after that point, and if so, how?

A: For a while my relationship with my mom was very good because we were both so focused on practical, day-to-day tasks. My mom is great with concrete things such as: bathe the baby, buy more diapers, etc.

However, she cannot talk about feelings. The abstract, emotional stuff is foreign to her. Everyone loves a cute and cuddly little baby and at that stage, the myriad of practical details are a great distraction. But my daughter is almost ten now, with awkward teeth and sometimes uncombed hair.

Also, the approach of puberty is something I’m very aware of. My mom, with me, met my developing sexuality with fear and her own insecurities. So I am very aware of making sure my mom doesn’t make jabbing comments to my kid about being fat, or pimply, or whatnot.

Not that my daughter is any of those things, but we all have experienced those offhand, evil comments that are then brushed off as “jokes.” That infuriates me.

And I am ready to jump all over that if I hear them coming from my mother to my daughter. I think my mom is unconscious of the hurtfulness of these comments, but nonetheless, I cannot pretend I do not hear them, and I will not let them slide.

I love my mother. But it is my job to protect my daughter. And it’s also my job to explain to my daughter why people (even her own grandmother) say weird things. I’m willing to have any awkward conversation that needs to happen.

The chapter, “Don’t Wash Pinky,” is an example of the complex dynamic between grandmother, mother and granddaughter.

Q: You also have written three novels. Do you prefer one type of writing to the other?

A: I prefer writing non-fiction now. Even with I Want Candy, I had started it in 3rd person, but that sounded a bit false, so I switched to first person. It was more immediate, and gave the feeling of being inside the character’s head, as if the events were happening to the reader as they were happening to Candace. I want that immediacy.

And with non-fiction, of course, there is nowhere to hide. I think readers crave what is real, even if it is unpleasant. I personally want to hear other people’s stories, and how they really felt. So non-fiction just feels so much closer to the truth.

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: Am I working on another book? I am always working on all sorts of things in my head, and also in my notebook, but who knows what will become of these ideas and bits of stories? Sentences and short paragraphs are always floating around, germinating.

I heard this great phrase yesterday. I live in a small town and someone was talking about a woman from school who was at our supermarket and there was an “altercation at the meat counter.” I thought, what a great title for a short story, or even a poem! Altercation at the Meat Counter.

A person doesn’t have to know where these ideas are going. Just keep working and writing, and something will happen. So the roundabout answer is, I don’t know if I’m working on another book or just amusing myself. It is all still worth it.

And it’s also the only way I know how to work. I am still just a regular person doing laundry and making dinner. I shop at the grocery store, it’s just that I also have one ear attuned all the time for the potential “altercation at the meat counter.”

Q: Anything else we should know?

A:  What else? If anyone wants to work on their own writing, please keep in mind what I just wrote about my process. You don’t need to have a book deal or even a set goal in mind.

If you want to write, do it for yourself first, and don’t worry about the outcome. You could write one sentence a day. I used to scribble words on my bus transfers on the way to work. It delighted only me. And little by little, those small words and phrases eventually became my first book, The Dim Sum of All Things

--Interview with Deborah Kalb