Friday, August 30, 2013

Q&A with author Dana Sachs

Dana Sachs's books include The House on Dream Street: Memoir of an American Woman in Vietnam, If You Lived Here, and, most recently, The Secret of the Nightingale Palace. She has written for a variety of publications including National Geographic and The Boston Globe, and she lives in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Q: Vietnam has been a big part of your writing. What about Vietnam has captured your imagination, and will you continue to write about it?
A: I fell in love with Vietnam when I first travelled there in 1990, just as it was opening to Americans for the first time since the war ended. Subsequently, I’ve been lucky enough to live there and visit many times and it became the subject of my first book The House on Dream Street: Memoir of an American Woman in Vietnam.
It first captured my imagination because I went there thinking only of the place as a setting for a terrible war and discovered, instead, a complex and thriving nation with a dramatic history and rich culture. If a subject is fertile in your imagination, then the more you learn about it, the more intriguing it will become to you.
Vietnam’s culture, history, language, and people have continually inspired me, which is why I returned to it in my novel, If You Lived Here, and my nonfiction book The Life We Were Given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam.
My most recent novel, The Secret of the Nightingale Palace, is not about Vietnam. In fact, I made a promise to myself that the word “Vietnam” would not appear at all. I know, it’s a weird challenge! I wanted to see how it felt to write about something else. 
Happily, I found other things to inspire me—Japanese printmaking, 1940s San Francisco, World War II, mid-20th Century women’s fashion—so I discovered that I can find other subjects that intrigue me.
I have to add, though, that I couldn’t stay away from Vietnam for long. In my new novel (see below), one of the main characters is Vietnamese and another one, an American, lives in Hanoi.
Q: You've also collaborated with your sister, Lynne Sachs, on a film about Vietnam. How did that project come about, and what was it like working with a family member?
A: I was living in Hanoi in 1992 and Lynne, who is a documentary and experimental filmmaker, came to visit me. We never planned to make a movie, but as we travelled together through the country, she shot film.
After she returned to the States, she called me and said that she had all this evocative footage. Did I want to make a documentary with her? So we started working long distance on the film that eventually became Which Way is East. I’d interview people and write sections of the narrative in Hanoi and she’d work on editing the actual film in the United States. After I returned home, we finished it.
It was really interesting to work with a family member. As a writer, I mostly work alone. Filmmaking is more collaborative. The process actually revealed a lot about our characters as human beings and there was a natural tension between us (sometimes testy, but usually good-natured.)
I had more of a journalistic attitude, wanting to capture as much as we could of people’s real-life experience. Lynne was more aesthetic. She wanted to make sure the film looked and sounded beautiful. I hope that, when people see it, they’ll feel that the creative tension was productive for the film, and that it does both.
Q: What changes have you seen in Vietnam over the years that you've been traveling there?
A: Oh, so many. The obvious are things like the increase of motorbikes and cars on the streets (almost everyone rode bicycles when I first went there in 1990), fancy new restaurants, fashionable clothes.
But I think that, in many ways, the most important changes are less obvious. For example, people used to have so much free time (for years, very few Vietnamese people had work that actually produced a viable income). I learned to relax in Vietnam. I mean, really relax, like spending all afternoon sitting on a front stoop watching the traffic pass by. 
My friends can’t do that any more. They’re really busy. When I go visit, they need to schedule me in on their iPhones in order to make time to see me. It’s a good sign that the economy has improved, but I do miss that time on the stoops. I notice that sense of nostalgia in my friends as well.
Q: The Secret of the Nightingale Palace centers on a difficult relationship between a grandmother and granddaughter. How did you create these characters?
A: Well, the grandmother, Goldie, is based on my own grandmother, Rose, who is 101 years old this year. As people can see when they read the book, she’s a force of nature: tough, single-minded, outspoken, and extremely well-dressed.
I started out writing the novel by thinking of my grandmother and trying to imagine her youth, but the story itself quickly evolved away from her actual story and into something very different. Goldie’s personality comes from Rose, but her life story comes from my own imagination.
And, by the way, I did not base the character of the granddaughter, Anna, on myself. I suppose, though, that all fictional characters are, in some sense, the offspring of the authors who created them.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A new novel, which is tentatively titled Happy in Budapest. An American diplomat begins to show signs of a rare form of dementia, and his two adult daughters try to figure out what to do to help him.
 As you probably guessed from the title, it takes place in Budapest, and it’s also about art nouveau design, Raoul Wallenberg, tour guides, neo-Nazis, sperm donors, and an exceedingly difficult piece of piano music, Franz Liszt’s transcription of Richard Wagner’s Tannhauser Overture. I’ve been on a research binge to write it, which has been quite glorious.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Since this is a conversation about books, and since I have benefitted from so many great recommendations myself, let me suggest a few terrific authors. One is the British novelist Jane Gardam, who has written loads of books but seems to have only recently begun to achieve widespread fame. I’ve just devoured the first two books in a three-book series, the first of which is Old Filth.
I also, belatedly, just read my first novel by Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety, which is so wise and beautiful that, after reading it, I felt I was seeing the world in an entirely new way.
Finally, since my own work has particular focus on Vietnam and, more recently, Hungary, two really wonderful authors from those countries: The Hungarian author Imre Kertesz, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature (his novel Fatelessness is a profound and, oddly enough, often funny take on the Holocaust) and the Vietnamese author Nguyen Huy Thiep (along with Nguyen Nguyet Cam, I edited Crossing the River, a collection of his short stories translated into English). Like Kertesz, Thiep has a dry, funny tone that reveals so many layers of complicated humanity that I find myself turning back to his stories again and again.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This interview can also be found on

August 30

August 30, 1797: Author Mary Shelley born.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Q&A with writer Therese Anne Fowler

Therese Anne Fowler, photo by Tom Clark
Therese Anne Fowler is the author most recently of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, and also of the novels Exposure, Souvenir, and Reunion. She lives in North Carolina.

Q: Why did you decide to write about Zelda Fitzgerald, and why a novel as opposed to a biography?

A: Zelda has been misrepresented in popular culture almost since the day she and Scott came to New York City to be married in 1920. Some of this is due to the games she and Scott played with the media at the time, but most of it has other, less benign origins. She’s been dismissed, disregarded, underestimated, maligned, turned into a caricature… I found this unfair and disheartening, and was compelled to write about her in order to help set the record straight.

Why a novel? Well, some excellent biographies about her exist already, so I didn’t feel I could add anything by producing another one. Also, while biographies are wonderful sources of information and insight, they don’t tell a person’s story the way a novel can—indeed must—do, and I am a lover of stories, much as Zelda was. The most compelling reason for me to write about her using fiction, though, was that I wanted to give Zelda a voice, a chance to tell her side of the story.

Q: How did you do the research for the book, and did your work on this project change your view of the Fitzgeralds?

A: It’s the good fortune of anyone interested in the Fitzgeralds that they were great chroniclers of their own lives, and that their daughter Scottie was generous about sharing their collection of ledgers, photos, newspaper clippings, letters, and assorted other souvenirs with biographers, Princeton University, and the public (e.g. The Romantic Egoists). Biographers have made extensive use of these resources, as I did, and then I made extensive use of the numerous biographies written about both Zelda and Scott.

To help me better understand their lives, I also read a number of biographies and articles about Hemingway, Gerald and Sara Murphy, Sara Mayfield, Sara Haardt Mencken and her husband H.L. Mencken—really, anyone who figured prominently in Zelda’s life.

And then of course I read all Zelda’s own writings, as well as most of Scott’s.

My view of the Fitzgeralds was dramatically altered by all of this. Scott became less of a literary icon and, instead, more of a flawed, troubled—but also brilliant, in some ways—human being. Zelda was no longer simply the “crazy” flapper wife of that icon, the woman who’d supposedly ruined Scott’s career. She became, instead, the complex, sympathetic woman I’ve portrayed in the novel.

Q: Z is something of a departure from your previous novels, which were set more or less in the present time and did not focus on a particular historical figure. Do you prefer one type of writing to the other, and if so, why?

A: It’s true that my early novels are all more or less contemporary stories, made up entirely of fictitious characters, whereas Z is an historical, biographical novel. I made the change because my own interests are evolving and I wanted to write novels that are more in line with what I myself prefer to read.

Q: You have written about how your novel Exposure was based on an experience your own family faced, when your son was arrested for "sexting." How difficult was it to write that novel, and what was your family's response to it?

A: Although everything in Exposure is fiction, there was a kind of catharsis for me in the writing of it, which occurred in part during the months in which we were waiting for my son’s case to resolve. (The charges against him were eventually dismissed.) While things were pending, I couldn’t discuss the details with anyone but my closest friends, and I had a lot of frustration about that and the legal process and the situation in general, which was ludicrous.

I wouldn’t have published the book without my son’s consent and support. The wider family’s response was positive and supportive as well.

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: Yes, I’ve been researching and have begun writing my next book. This early in the process, I’m reluctant to say much about it. But I will tell you that it’s historical and was inspired by one of my all-time favorite novels, Vladimir Nabokov’s classic Lolita.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Some fun trivia in connection with my new project: Nabokov and I share a birth date (April 22) but due to adjustments in the Gregorian calendar, he elected to celebrate it as April 23rd in order to match Shakespeare’s probable birth (and actual death) date.

With regard to Z: I’m hearing from readers that they’ve enjoyed pairing the book with viewings of the new Baz Lurhrmann adaptation of The Great Gatsby—getting the story behind the story, so to speak. I have to say that re-reading and watching Gatsby has been a rewarding and intimate experience for me, too, now that I know both Fitzgeralds so well.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

August 28

August 28, 1913: Author Robertson Davies born.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Q&A with author Kim Fay

Kim Fay, photo by Julie Fay Ashborn
Kim Fay is the author of the novel The Map of Lost Memories and the food memoir Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam. She created and edits the To Asia With Love guidebook series. Fay, who resides in Los Angeles, lived in Vietnam for four years and travels often to Southeast Asia.
Q: How did you come up with your main character, Irene Blum, in The Map of Lost Memories?
A: This is always a difficult question for me to answer. Each character in my novel has a specific inspiration … with the exception of Irene. One day she simply existed when I found myself writing a scene about a twelve-year-old girl searching for “lost treasure” in the manor house of an old family friend.
Because Irene first came to me in her youth, rather than as the 29-year-old woman she is throughout the majority of the book, I suspect she owes her existence to Nancy Drew. As a girl, I admired Nancy’s independence, curiosity and determination. Of course, Irene is far less noble than Nancy—Nancy would never rob a temple, no matter how justified she felt!
But I wanted Irene to be an authentic product of her time. During the 1920s, it was acceptable for Westerners to appropriate the relics of countries they considered to be uncivilized and therefore unworthy caretakers of their own cultural treasures, and so Irene often behaves in ways that are unsavory by today’s standards.
Q: What type of research did you need to do to evoke Cambodia and Shanghai in the 1920s? 
A: This time period was long familiar to me. My grandpa was a sailor in the South China Sea in the early 1930s, and his favorite place was Shanghai. Not only did he tell me stories of his experiences there, he had numerous photographs. As a young girl I became fascinated with that part of the world, and by the time I started The Map of Lost Memories, I had been reading about it for decades.
As for research specific to my novel, I relied on period travel narratives, history books, old photographs and personal experience—visiting each location in the novel. Because The Map of Lost Memories was started in the 1990s, many of the settings in Cambodia, Vietnam and Shanghai still looked as they did in the 1920s. This is not the case today, as many historical buildings have been torn down.
Q: You also have written about Vietnamese food. Why did you decide to focus on that topic in your book Communion? 
A: Having lived in Vietnam for four years, from 1995-1999, I wanted to write a book that would express my love for the country while giving me the opportunity to deepen my knowledge of it. While I had many memorable experiences living there, I didn’t feel that a straightforward memoir was the right path for me to take.
But as a foodie whose friendships in Vietnam were most often developed in kitchens and at the table, writing a food book made sense. Once I began researching, I was hooked. The country’s cuisine turned out to be an ideal way to explore the nuances of Vietnam’s culture and history.
Q: What draws you to Southeast Asia, and how did the To Asia With Love guidebook series come about?
A: As I mentioned, my grandpa traveled in Asia as a young man, and his stories sparked my own interest in the region. I first traveled there when I was 22, and I was smitten. I loved the humidity, the food, the smell of incense at dawn and jasmine at dusk, the rich histories, the unique cultures and—when I finally moved to Vietnam—the people. I felt so at home.
While I was living in Vietnam I started writing for a small specialized magazine called Destination: Vietnam. The magazine evolved into a website, and the website into the boutique ThingsAsian Press.
By this time I had developed a strong working relationship with the publisher, and he asked if I had any book ideas I would like to pursue. I had been toying with a guidebook concept for a while—one that combined travel essays with factual information. 
Each book would rely on approximately 50 experts, people who lived in-country or had traveled to a country often. Each person would write personal stories about favorite experiences not typically found in guidebooks, and these stories would be paired with fact files so that readers could follow in the writer’s footsteps. I was fortunate to have a publisher willing to take chances, and now the To Asia With Love series is up to eight volumes.
Q: What are you working on now? 
A: There will be a sequel to The Map of Lost Memories, but it is simmering on the back burner while I pursue another novel that has been begging for my attention for a few years. Having studied various aspects of Vietnam’s history, I am fascinated with the late 1950s, that time of transition between French colonial rule and America’s ill-guided and fatal meddling.
Using a pivotal few years as the anchor, my new novel is told from the point-of-view of an American culinary anthropologist who was born in Vietnam to sociologists in 1937. When her closest friend, the granddaughter of the head chef for Vietnam’s last emperor, is murdered, she attempts to put the pieces together. As she solves the mystery, I hope to explore mid-twentieth-century Vietnam while telling a compelling story at the same time.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: The Map of Lost Memories has been marketed as a literary adventure novel, a suspense novel and a mystery novel. While it does contain all three of these elements, it is not a fast-paced book. Its pace reflects the time in which the story takes place—the 1920s—before jets whisked people halfway around the world in a day and the Internet put information at our fingertips. It spends a great deal of time developing characters, exploring history and immersing readers in a sense of place. As such, this is a novel for those who want to embark on a leisurely journey through Shanghai, Saigon and the Cambodian jungle.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A also appears on

August 27

August 27, 1871: Author Theodore Dreiser born.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Q&A with author R. Clifton Spargo

R. Clifton Spargo
R. Clifton Spargo, a cultural critic and fiction writer, is the author of the new novel Beautiful Fools: The Last Affair of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald. His writing has been featured in a number of publications, including The Antioch Review, Glimmer Train, and Newcity. He is based in Chicago.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on this particular period in the lives of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald?

A: One of the results — somewhat unfortunate, as I see it — of the recent Zelda and Scott revival, spurred by films from Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris to Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, is that we’ve focused, yet again, on the young, high-society, recklessly hard-living couple who stand for the roaring ‘20s in our collective imagination.  

Scott and Zelda, they signify all that is self-absorbed and yet somehow glamorous, beautiful and yet altogether foolish. It’s a story Scott himself started to spin about the excesses of the 1920s, well before the Wall Street Crash of October 1929.  Americans, he warned as early as 1926, were going to pay a heavy price for all the fun they were having.  

In Beautiful Fools, I wanted to investigate two famous people after their “fifteen minutes” are up. Granted, Scott and Zelda would get more than fifteen minutes in the long run. They’ve become the stuff of legend in American literature and international pop culture.

But, originally, their fame was relatively short-lived; the fall from grandeur, cruel and devastating. By the mid 1930s they were forgotten. She, no longer the “it girl” muse, suffered several mental breakdowns starting in early 1930, spending the rest of her life in and out of institutions, living most of the next decade in severe duress. He, no longer the voice of a generation or the “Jazz Age,” suffered from depression, desperate alcoholic binges, and a precipitously declining literary star. 

What they endured was, in some sense, their own personal great depression. The analogy is almost too eerie — Zelda was the age of the century, and broke down only months after the Wall Street Crash. Scott served up fictional accounts of their story — Babylon Revisited perhaps the finest among this sort — in which he treated their tragic fall from grace as a kind of punishment tale.  

So I decided to enter into their lives in the 1930s — a prologue set in 1932 in the midst of Zelda’s second breakdown; the rest of my novel set in the spring of 1939, a year and half before Scott’s death.

On the surface things appear to be as bleak as they’ve ever been for Zelda and Scott. Beautiful Fools is a tragic tale, no shying away from that tag — their lives assume tragic form in the 1930s, and as a writer I’m highly committed (though hardly exclusively) to the genre of tragedy.  

What I don’t believe, however, is that we write or read tragedy to relish the punishment of those who’ve overreached or wished for too much. It’s far too simplifying to say that a hero’s tragic flaw precipitates his or her ruin, that misfortunes suffered by the protagonist can be reckoned by a calculus of “deserving what you get.” 

As I understand the genre — and what I’ve tried to do with it in Beautiful Fools — “tragedy” is about the arbitrariness of misfortune, about external circumstances that conspire with our own mistakes, about sufferings that speak to us in our real and potential vulnerabilities. Tragedy is about the gap between what we desire in the world and what we’re able to achieve. 

Tragic heroes, such as Fitzgerald’s own Gatsby, may often be failed idealists, but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong for having tried to expand the horizons of their humanity and ours. 

Q: What accounts for people’s continuing fascination with the Fitzgeralds?

A: Many things really. For starters, there’s the ongoing attempt to do justice to Zelda in her own right, not just as the whimsical, beautiful, and reputedly unbalanced famous wife of a great author. Much of that effort started with Nancy Milford’s magnificent 1970 biography Zelda, and the fascination has ebbed and flowed for decades as so many things do in American culture.  

Still, second-wave feminism took up Zelda’s cause as a creative personality and force, as frustrated artist, as someone who was more than just some albatross on her husband’s neck (the view popularized by Ernest Hemingway), but who was a victim of her own tragic fate as a true personage. 

Milford helped us to see Zelda’s story as testimony to the historical restraints placed on women as citizens and as makers of culture.  And so much of the late, late love story of the Fitzgeralds, as I tell it, depends on a dauntless and endlessly creative Zelda, whose efforts to revive a love affair with her husband continued to the very end, even after all the internally and externally motivated adversities their love had weathered.

In some circles, the mythic force of Zelda’s beguiling if wildly unpredictable personality — perpetuated in part by Scott’s diverse portraits of Zelda-like women in his fiction — accounts for the Fitzgeralds’ allure.   

Glenn Frey wrote the Eagles’ famous 1970s hit “Witchy Woman,” or so the story goes, after reading Milford’s biography.  And yet, when he sings of a woman “who drove herself to madness with a silver spoon,” he’s imagining himself as a Scott Fitzgerald-like man spellbound by seductive charms that are indistinguishable from madness. 

In short, “Witchy Woman” owes as much to the lore of Zelda perpetuated by Hemingway and John Dos Passos — each of whom swore, separately, to perceiving Zelda as “off” on first meeting her — as to the Milford biography. 

In a similar fashion, Woody Allen portrays a young Zelda in Midnight in Paris as wildly uninhibited, free-associative, and, yes, altogether zany.  That’s the kind of women he falls for,  Allen explained in an interview, in real life and the movies:  “I've always had a... CRUSH on women like Zelda Fitzgerald.  Now, this is very self-destructive.  I've always selected in my lifetime women who had that, uh, that uh… sort of streak of insanity in them that she has.”

Maybe we’re drawn to the lore of Scott and Zelda because their extravagant behavior and often self-destructive tendencies substitute for the risks — some of them stupid, some of them brave — we won’t take. A friend said to me after reading my novel, “Everybody thrills to watch a good train wreck now and then.”  

That’s one way of viewing Zelda and Scott’s story:  There but for the grace of God go I. By embodying our reckless or illicit desires, they exorcize our capacity for excess.  It’s my sense that there’s a new cultural urgency for us in this kind of story, as we’ve been living in the greatest recession economy since the Great Depression.

But this fascination with excess and ruin isn’t a recent phenomenon. It informs, for example, the way we talk about rock stars from Elvis to Kurt Cobain to Amy Winehouse.  We’re fascinated and appalled by creativity pushed to the extreme of self-indulgence and self-destruction.  We stand and admire with stunned ambivalence, then step back from it all.

As a storyteller, though, it’s my job to break down — for a little while at least — our sense of being at a safe distance from the hurt and wreckage. I’m fascinated by the nature and extent of Zelda’s mental illness, and I want my reader to experience her symptoms as she might have experienced them.

Maybe that will lead some among us to intuit the hardships and costs of mental illness, the hurt for the patient and for loved ones such as Scott; and maybe it will inspire us to rethink simplifying premises about sanity and our use of lazy, ungenerous slang such as “crazy” or “psycho.” 

Similarly, I want to bring my reader as close as I can to Scott’s darkest hours so as to experience the toll his alcoholism and depression must have taken on Zelda, even as I also show his resilience, the graceful capacity for kindness he always retained. 

My favorite book of modern psychology is Freud’s The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, with its basic premise that everything Freud learned about those suffering from debilitating mental illnesses could be applied to himself and the rest of so-called ordinary folks as a mirror reflecting everyday neuroses in behavior. 

Freud believed that our being was inseparable from the simple psychopathologies through which we experience the world. Even something as simple as forgetting a neighbor’s name (one we remembered only yesterday) might hint at the mind’s strange workings, suggesting the ongoing struggle between retaining and losing our past selves that we undertake at every minute of every day. 

So, again for me, Beautiful Fools isn’t about the distance we create as readers between ourselves and Zelda and Scott. It’s about what we can see of – and learn about — ourselves in their brilliant passion and awful demise. 

Q: How did you blend the historical with the fictional as you wrote Beautiful Fools?  What combination of history and fiction did you feel was right for the story you were telling?

A: Much of what drew me inside this story were the gaps — or should I say the gaping holes — in the history. If you read all the biographies about Scott and Zelda, as I’ve done, you come to the end of their romance only to arrive at Scott’s death by heart attack in Hollywood in late 1940, and then suddenly you’re flipping back through the biography in question, whispering to yourself, “Wait, when did they last see each other?” 

And this novel is the story of that last meeting:  on a holiday in Cuba, in April of 1939, about which biographers or historians know almost nothing. 

History provides the frame, then, and all of the novelistic detail has to be researched thoroughly and fictionalized with verisimilitude in the fashion of strong historical fiction.

But there’s space too for the imagination in the midst of the historical facts. And I was drawn to the scenario as much as to anything else — the idea of a no-longer-famous couple getting one last chance to salvage their passionate if highly tumultuous love affair, all the while not knowing it was to be their last chance. Just that scenario alone made this a story I had to tell. 

I’ve long been fascinated by F. Scott Fitzgerald the writer, but the novel is the result of my becoming again troubled and then lured by this “lost chapter” in a great love affair.

You’re probably familiar with the famous cliché “write what you know,” attributed to Sherwood Anderson, as advice to William Faulkner; and, it’s true, every writer draws heavily and intimately on what he or she knows. But as readers of fiction we love to read for what we don’t know. The best advice I’ve ever heard given to authors is to write the book you would want to read.

So Beautiful Fools is a narrative that takes shape from what we simply couldn’t know, factually, about Zelda and Scott. 

What I could invent – as informed by months and months turning into years of research on the Fitzgeralds, on Cuba, on fashion and lingo and psychology and cockfights from the 1920s and the 1930s — had to stand imaginatively in the space of all that must remain a mystery to biographers and historians.

Q: In an article for The Atlantic, you write that you were "raiding a scene from Fitzgerald’s Gatsby and the real-life incident behind it for my title Beautiful Fools." Can you explain why you chose to do that?

A: It’s a slightly ironical title, in that it refers to Scott’s practice of taking notes on his own life and pilfering his wife’s phrases in the service of his fiction. And now here I am, in Beautiful Fools, speculating on a missing chapter from the Fitzgeralds’ lives, this trip to Cuba in 1939 of which there’s almost no record.

Most of us will recall, if properly prompted, the “beautiful little fool” line from The Great Gatsby, which occurs in the scene where Daisy reports to her cousin Nick what she said on learning she’d given birth to a girl: “And I hope she’ll be a fool— that’s the best thing a girl can be in the world, a beautiful little fool.” 

But, as I emphasize in that essay for The Atlantic  you just mentioned, I’m riffing even more so on the inspiration behind the piece of literary dialogue, the line Scott wrote in his ledger recording what Zelda said after giving birth to their daughter: “I hope it’s beautiful and a fool — a beautiful little fool.” 

Zelda, still dazed from the ether, isn’t quite making sense when she coins that phrase. She’s not in performance mode, like Daisy Buchanan, offering some staged remembrance of her witticism (though both Zelda and Scott were well known for staging stories about themselves).

Zelda responds intuitively to the news, not yet understanding what she means, and on the spur of the moment she makes that odd pairing of “beautiful” and “fool” that gives rise to my title. Scott heard the beauty and strangeness in the line, but I have to admit I like Zelda’s original phrasing even better than the words he attributes to Daisy in The Great Gatsby

Q: Anything else we should know?

With regard to the notion of “beautiful fools,” I should say that, as with any phrase or witticism, it takes on new meanings in new contexts. So, as I hear it — and I think this is consistent with Fitzgerald’s own Romantic strain, which I do share — “beautiful fools” are idealists, people who stand on hopes and dreams even past the point at which they’re likely to be fulfilled. Gatsby is the true “beautiful fool” of Fitzgerald’s most famous work.

And in my novel, of course, Zelda and Scott become the beautiful fools, living on the borrowed time of past glory, yet still believing that adversities might be overcome — they were still so relatively young! — and that the world might again prove yielding and full of promise.

So they head for Cuba to see what can happen. One piece of lore that I incorporate into my novel has Scott leaving a note on his desk at M-G-M, which reports, simply, “Gone to Cuba.” And Cuba and the cast of characters from Cuba and war-torn Europe (including a Spanish Republican refugee from the Spanish Civil War and his French wife) drive the action of the novel as much as Zelda and Scott do.  

Which is to say, much of the drama in the novel follows from random events and characters, as if fate is chasing down Zelda and Scott’s demons for them. On that level Cuba — as place so often functions in fiction — serves almost as a character.  

There’s high drama on the second night in Havana after Scott and Zelda are escorted by a local Cubano named Matéo Cardoña, a key character in the novel, to a bar that plays Cuban son music, an Afro-percussive genre of music that might be understood as a kind of step-cousin to jazz. 

Then, on the resort beaches of Varadero, there’s an erotically infused flirtation between the Fitzgeralds and a Spanish refugee and the French wife/cousin who rescued him from a refugee camp. 

And, if that’s not enough for those in search of action, toward the end of the novel there’s a cockfight that yields plenty of violence inside and outside the ring. In short, I create a chain of events for this week-long holiday that echoes, as it were, the drama of Scott and Zelda’s adventurous, always surprising lives.

In all candor, I’d say that I focus on the late 1930s Fitzgeralds, on holiday in Cuba, because at that point in time they’re most intriguing to me. As they bear up against the hard knocks, as they challenge their circumstances with their relentless, sometimes self-delusional hope — well, for my money, that’s when Zelda and Scott put the love story in overdrive. As it gets truly messy, the story becomes most compelling to me. 

Ultimately, my rendering of the Fitzgeralds takes the form an adult love story about a couple that usually typifies all that is “young” and “youthful” for our youth-obsessed American pop culture. But Beautiful Fools tells the tale of Zelda and Scott after the crash in their relationship, and depicts them, for all their idiosyncrasies and flaws, as still devoted to each other. 

In the day to day, they fight off fate, denying or beating back the increasingly inevitable result of not ending up together, and somehow the love — in whatever strangely altered form it must assume — survives.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with author Diane S. Nine

Diane S. Nine
Diane S. Nine, a Washington, D.C.-based literary agent and attorney, is the author of Get Published: A Guide to Literary Tips, Traps & Truth, and the president of Nine Speakers, Inc.

Q: How have things changed for authors (and for agents) in the years you've been working in this field?

A: As an agent for over 25 years now, I have seen a lot of changes in the literary industry. The biggest change is in the area of technology, and the advent of ebooks. In fact, the ebook area is the only growing segment of the book industry.  I think we will continue to see growth in this area, and when all the ebook readers are able to work on the same technology platform, they will really take off.

On a personal note, when I read for pleasure (as opposed to work-related reading), I only read ebooks now. I like the fact that you can have an entire library of books with you – and it saves the bookshelf space that is becoming quite limited in my home and office!

With all of this said, I don’t think the ebook phenomenon will result in the disappearance of physical, printed books in my lifetime – though it might result in decreasing sales of printed books.

The other major change I have seen in the literary area is in the diminishing number of legitimate publishing houses. This is an industry constantly in financial trouble – it is a tough industry to earn money in. 

As a result, we are seeing increasing numbers of mergers among the largest publishers, and more and more smaller publishers are closing their doors. The latest merger among the big houses is between Random House and Penguin – which are now part of the same company. This change makes it harder for agents to locate a publisher for their clients’ books.

Q: What do you think is the most useful way for an author to find an agent?

A: Word-of-mouth! If you know someone who has had a good relationship with an agent, this is a sure-fire method of locating an agent who is honest, and will work hard on your behalf.

If you don’t know any authors, there are a myriad of websites and books listing agents. My favorite one among these is -- it lists agents by areas of interest, and seems to do an honest job of keeping the information real.  I am wary of sites that rank agents or complain about agents since anyone can write disparaging things on these sites, and the reader has no way of knowing if what’s written is true or not.

Q: Would you advise an author to self-publish?

A: There is a place for self-publishing, especially now that it has become easier. For instance, if you want to write your memoir, yet you are not well-known, self-publishing may be the only way to actually have a book. Or, if you have written a book, and have tried unsuccessfully to interest an agent or publisher, self-publishing may seem like a good option.

However, self-published books still do not garner the respect of “legitimately” published books. This is because there is a perception (and even a reality) that self-publishing is not selective. Anyone can self-publish if you have the money to pay.

As a result, virtually no retailers will agree to carry the book, and hardly any media will do an interview or review the book. Therefore, in my opinion, self-publishing should be a last resort.

Q: What are the biggest misconceptions about getting a book published?

A: There are so many misconceptions in the literary industry --  I hardly know where to begin!  But, I will talk about three of the “issues” that come up with a lot of frequency.

First, authors seem to believe they will have a choice of the publishing houses they desire to publish their books. In other words, they often hold out for their “dream” publisher, bypassing early offers. 

In reality, most authors are lucky to even get one offer to publisher their “masterpiece” – so it is best to highly consider ANY offer received if it is in the norm of contracts typically offered. 

I cannot tell you the number of times one of my clients has been presented with an offer by a publisher (other than their first choice publisher), and they have turned down the offer. More often than not, they don’t get another offer (let alone an offer from their preferred publisher) – leaving them with an unpublished book. Authors need to know that getting a book published is highly competitive.

Second, authors don’t understand that most books take 1 – 3 years to see the light of day, and they somehow think that their book should be published ahead of all the other books their publisher has acquired. Everyone has a good reason why their book needs to come out sooner, rather than later. 

In reality, most publishers simply put out books in the order in which they have been acquired – because there is no fairer method. Authors need to understand that nagging their agent (or the publisher) about the release date of their book is only counterproductive. EVERYONE wants to be published tomorrow, but things move slowly in the publishing world – since things take time. 

Most books go through a minimum of three rounds of edits, proofreading, galleys, jacket design, layout, converting the files for printing and all the different platforms for ebooks, etc. You can see where this is time-consuming – and why rushing things usually result in errors. And, it is not fair to authors patiently waiting their turn to suddenly have another author’s book put in front of the queue at any stage of the process.

Finally, some authors seem to think that their job is done when the book is published – assuming, I guess, that books magically sell themselves. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, I believe there is a direct correlation between books sold, and authors’ working to sell books. In other words, in order to have a successful title, it is necessary for the author to promote their own book.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a number of exciting projects.  Among these is a memoir by Cindy Williams. Cindy was the co-star of the television show Laverne & Shirley (among other things). We met with publishers in New York not too long ago, and we have a lot of interest. Cindy has rarely, if ever, told anything about her life – personal or professional – so even I am absorbed by her writing as she completes chapters of her book!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Despite all of the pitfalls in the literary industry, it can be an intellectually rewarding area to work in. I feel fortunate to have landed in a job that (most of the time) doesn’t seem much like work, at all. After all these years, I can honestly say that I love my job 99% of the time – and that’s more than most people can say!   

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Note: I am currently working with Diane Nine on an upcoming project.

August 23

August 23, 1927: Author and artist Dick Bruna born.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Q&A with author Julie Salamon

Julie Salamon
Julie Salamon's books include Hospital, Rambam's Ladder, The Christmas Tree, and, most recently, Wendy and the Lost Boys, a biography of playwright Wendy Wasserstein. A former writer for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, Salamon lives in Manhattan.

Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of Wendy Wasserstein?

A: Initially, Ann Godoff—my longtime editor at The Penguin Press—suggested the project to me. At first I wasn’t sure for several reasons: I wasn’t from the theater world, would anyone outside that world be interested, was her work substantial enough to warrant a biography, was her life interesting enough? After doing some initial research I discovered a potential story of terrific complexity and was eager to take on the challenge.

Q: Why did you choose "Wendy and the Lost Boys" as your title?

A: For many reasons. During my research, the subject of Peter Pan kept coming up. Wasserstein was named after the Wendy of J.M. Barrie’s story, which became an American phenomenon after Mary Martin played Peter Pan on Broadway in 1954—and then in the 1960 television production.

Many of Wasserstein’s theater friends—including Andre Bishop, theatrical director of Lincoln Center, and William Ivey Long, the costume designer—were deeply influenced by the stage production. Wasserstein performed in many productions of the show in her youth. So there’s that straightforward connection.

The title also draws on Wasserstein’s innermost circle of (mainly) men of the theater—her “Lost Boys.” Most of them became quite successful, so hard to think of them as lost, but when all of them were newcomers in the New York theater world, they often felt very lost and relied on their friendships to keep themselves going.

Wasserstein was at the center of this extraordinary group, who included some of the leading lights of the New York theater world. Besides Bishop and Ivey Long, they include James Lapine, frequent collaborator of Stephen Sondheim; celebrated playwrights Christopher Durang and Terrence Malick; theater critic and columnist Frank Rich. Other “Lost Boys” included Wasserstein’s brothers—Bruce, who became a billionaire investment banker and Abner, the damaged brother who became a family secret.

Finally, the biography became a reflection on the Baby Boom generation, Wasserstein’s primary subject. The large cohort born after World War II became known as the generation that didn’t want to grow up, and has been described as the Peter Pan generation.

Q: You write of Wasserstein, "Yet after she was gone, what stunned those closest to her was how much they didn't know" about her life. What particularly surprised you as you conducted your research for the book?

A: Almost every day brought a new surprise! Wasserstein had a remarkable ability to seem very open. Through her writing she informed her audiences about the most personal details of her life, mundane and important: everything from where she had her nails done to an intensely intimate portrait of giving birth. Yet her openness turned out to be a kind of smokescreen, as though she was trying to hide in plain sight.

As a biographer, her relationships provided a fascinating window into the complexity of friendship and revelation. And the story that kept providing new twists and turns was the tale of the Wasserstein family. As one of Wendy’s close friends once said: “You were born into great material.” 

Q: Do you have a favorite Wasserstein play, and if so, which one?

A: Before I wrote them the book I would have said The Sisters Rosensweig, which is a fine play, warm and funny, very smart. But I have developed a special fondness for Wasserstein’s breakthrough play, Uncommon Women, based on her experience at Mt. Holyoke. For me, the play has become so intertwined with a turning point in Wasserstein’s life, I always find new references

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have just finished a novel for young readers about a cat who lives in Greenwich Village, being illustrated by Jill Weber, a wonderful artist with whom I’ve collaborated before (The Christmas Tree). It’s been a dream experience! Jill is finishing the paintings now. The book will be published in 2014 by Penguin’s Dial Press for Young Readers.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just thank you for your interest! The warm reception for Wendy and the Lost Boys has been very gratifying.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb