Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Q&A with author Caryl Rivers

Caryl Rivers is the co-author, with Rosalind C. Barnett, of the new book The New Soft War on Women: How the Myth of Female Ascendance Is Hurting Women, Men--and Our Economy. Rivers' many other books include Same Difference and The Truth About Girls and Boys, both co-written with Barnett, and the novel Virgins. Rivers is a journalism professor at Boston University's College of Communication. She contributes regularly to the Huffington Post.

Q: Your book disputes much of the recent commentary about large gains for women in the workplace. Why do you think two such different pictures have emerged?

A: Several reasons. One is that people—including journalists—look at statistics and misread them. For example, all the stories about women being “The Richer Sex” did not tell the real story.

In 2009, Bureau of Labor Statistics released data saying that 40 percent of women outearn their spouses. But in fact, the only segment of society in which a substantial percent of wives significantly outearn their husbands is low-income workers, couples whose earnings average some $20,000 a year. This is rich?

The richer the couple, the less likely it is that a woman will outearn her husband. (Among affluent couples, it’s about ten percent). But the facts did not dampen the enthusiasm for The Richer Sex stories.

As for the “end of men,” it is based on statistics that women earn the majority of advanced degrees. But while women are doing spectacularly well in universities, in the workplace it's an opposite picture.

Women are stalling out, and the higher they go, the harder it gets. Women are not making the progress they have a right to expect, given their education and early promise. The Sloan Foundation says it is doubtful that women will be leaders in the areas they have studied in.

Gender discrimination has not gone away, it has just gone underground, and derails women as they try to move up.

Q: Your title refers to a "soft war" against women. How would you define a soft war, and how does it compare to earlier forms of discrimination?

A: Why do we call it soft? Because research finds that today’s barriers are more subtle and insidious than the old ones. It’s less a frontal assault than an ongoing and very effective guerrilla movement. Now, bias operates under a welcoming facade; the bombs are under the surface, but they still explode.

This isn’t an overt conspiracy to hold women back. Instead, it’s a perfect storm of economic, political and social factors that combine to threaten women’s progress.

Today, nobody says, “No women need apply.” But people may say, “You’re just not as likable as he is.” And even if he is not as good as you, he will be promoted because he is seen as more likable. The more competent a woman is, the more she is seen as bitchy, unfriendly, and not a good colleague.

Or, you will hear, “You women have come far enough. Now we need to pay attention to the men.” Or, “You’ve done great work, but I’ve got more confidence in Joe’s potential. He’s going to be a star!” Research finds that women are promoted on performance, while men are often promoted on promise.

If you’re a female in a top job and you slip up in a man’s world, you’re most likely out the door. If you’re working on a project with a man, he’ll probably get the credit you deserve. (We heard this complaint again and again from women around the U.S.)

You and your male colleague may both have a mentor, but he’ll get a sponsor—an advocate who will go to bat for him in a way that a woman’s champion will not.

If you are a mother who is serious about your work, you will be looked on as not really committed to that work, and not very competent to boot. A man with a résumé just like yours, however, will get a bonus for parenthood; he will be seen as serious, dedicated and responsible.

If you speak up at some length at work, even if you are in a senior position, you will be seen not only as gabby but also as incompetent. A man who talks as much or more than you do will be seen as powerful and forceful.

These attitudes—held by both women and men—put a brake on women’s advancement.

Q: Why do you think gains for women in the workplace have stalled, and what do you think could be done to change that pattern?

A: Picture two people, a man and a woman, starting out on a lifelong path of work. Both are equally qualified, both have the same sort of dreams, and both are willing to work as hard they can to achieve their goals.

But only one of these people, the man, is unencumbered. The other carries a fifty-pound pack on her back. He strides freely and swiftly. She travels much more slowly, struggling with a burden that she can’t seem to shed.

Gender discrimination is as heavy as a pack filled with large rocks that slows her down as she struggles to move ahead. She has to muster a great deal of energy and resources to continue her journey.

In spite of the extra burdens they carry, women are making progress in reaching their goals. But it’s slow going, and the number of women thins out as the top of the ladder comes into view. Gender discrimination is a drag anchor for too many women.

Q: You write, "It is both the best of times and the worst of times for women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)." Why is that, and what do you see looking ahead?

A: A 2011 U. S. Department of Commerce report said that women are vastly underrepresented in STEM jobs and among STEM degree holders. Although women fill close to half of all jobs in the U. S. economy, they hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs.

The problems women have with STEM start very early in life—in elementary school, in fact.

• In the third and fourth grades, boys and girls like math equally.
There’s no change in fifth and sixth grade for boys, but
girls’ preference declines.
• Between fourth and twelfth grades, the percentage of girls who say they like science decreases from 66 percent to 48 percent.
• Also between fourth and twelfth grades, the percentage of
girls who say they would prefer not to study math anymore
increases from 9 percent to a whopping 50 percent.

The issue isn’t lack of aptitude, according to a huge study by Jonathan M. Kane and Janet E. Mertz of the University of Wisconsin They analyzed scores from more than half a million fourth-and eighth- graders from more than sixty countries.

Their conclusion: There were essentially no gender difference between girls and boys in math. That’s the good news.

But when women do opt for STEM, there are obstacles. Women in the high-tech world too often don’t get second chances. In such a risky business, there are plenty of failures.

When women they fail, they sink, report the Athena Factor project, sponsored by IBM, Microsoft, Dell, Cisco and others. Women in high positions in male-dominated fields suffer harsher penalties than men when they slip up. Men usually get a second chance, even when they reach high but miss the brass ring. It’s much harder for women to take the kind of risks that catch the eye of higher-ups.

If a man fails, his buddies dust him off and say, ‘It’s not your fault; try again next time. Women find it extremely difficult to take these kinds of risks-- their buddy system just isn’t strong enough to save them if they fail.

Too often a woman fails and is never seen again.

So we need to encourage girls when they’re in pigtails and keep on boosting them when they are trying to move ahead in STEM fields.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Statistics tell us that a baby girl born today has a very good chance of living for a century. So we are working on “Are you ready for the hundred-year life?”

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Yes—that women too often suffer from a “rose-colored glasses” syndrome. They think discrimination is ancient history. If women buy the message that all the gender battles are over, but they still aren’t advancing as fast as they should be, they may believe there’s no one to blame but themselves.

What to do? Take more courses, beef up your credentials with more degrees, work harder, join company sponsored self- esteem-building programs and on and on.

But if the problem is subtle discrimination, along with deeply entrenched gender stereotypes, self- improvement will have only a limited payoff for moving ahead. If you put all your eggs into the self-improvement basket and forgo any concerted action with other women (or sympathetic men), your stall will be permanent. Too often, we have met the enemy, and she is us.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with children's author Jill Vialet

Jill Vialet is the author of the new children's book Recess Rules. She is the founder and CEO of Playworks, a nonprofit organization that works with schools to improve recess for kids. She also co-founded the Museum of Children's Arts (MOCHA) in Oakland, California. She is based in Oakland.

Q: Why did you decide to write Recess Rules, and how do the book's themes fit with your work at Playworks?

A: I actually set out to write a book for grown-ups about my experiences starting Playworks - sort of a combination of how to guide on play and recess and inspiration around achieving social change. But every time I sat down to write that book, it just came out in a way that didn't feel authentic.  

So I started working on this book - telling a story aimed at kids that showed them how recess could be.  It was way more fun to write  - and ultimately targeting the group that I most wanted to inspire and move to action.

Q: How did you come up with the character of Clarence?

A: I had a playground supervisor named Clarence when I was growing up in D.C. who always made sure I got in the game.  

The character was really inspired by a number of different Playworks coaches over the years - but it seemed like if I was going to have an angel, naming him Clarence in honor of my own Clarence and It's A Wonderful Life was meant to be.

Q: Do you think readers will identify with one of the kids in the book more than the others?

A: I really hope that the readers will find something in all of the characters to identify with - I think Cassie is the most obvious protagonist, but I found myself identifying a lot with Toni and Bryant, and Clarence as well.

Q: What age group do you think will enjoy the book?

A: I think 8-13 - though I'm also hoping that there will be a number of grown-ups who get into it - parents, teachers, other folks who work with kids

Q: Are you planning to write another book?

A: No immediate plans to write another book, but I really enjoyed writing it and I'm open to the possibility.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just that there is a guide to all the games that are played in the book at the very end and that I hope readers will be inspired to give the games a try after reading about them.  I'd love to hear stories and see pictures if people do end up trying some of the games out!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 30

Oct. 30, 1871: Poet Paul Valery born.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Q&A with writer Alisa Solomon

Alisa Solomon, photo by David M. Barreda
Alisa Solomon is the author most recently of the new book Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof. She also has written Re-Dressing the Canon: Essays on Theatre and Gender and edited several books including Wrestling with Zion and The Queerest Art. She teaches at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and lives in New York City.

Q: Why did you decide to write Wonder of Wonders?

A: First because the Tevye stories, and their incarnation as Fiddler on the Roof, had such a huge impact and seeped into the culture so deeply that they can really tell us a lot about how culture works in society and how collective memory is created, and a lot about the Jewish experience in the United States and beyond, and some of the universal themes that the stories [represent].

Why personally was I drawn to it? It has a lot to do with my own background, my scholarship in the theater, my study of Yiddish, my love of musicals. This is so completely overdetermined for me!

Q: What role has Fiddler on the Roof come to play in American cultural history?

A: Fiddler on the Roof is a show that was created by some of the greatest talents of the American musical stage at the height of the form of the Broadway musical. It had a pretty big reach because it was a good show.

At the same time, it turned into folklore. It became an icon of Jewishness and of folklore generally, and a touchstone for a lot of themes and identifications, practices and ideals that pertain to the Jewish-American experience and more generally [to other cultures as well].

Q: What did the play come to mean for American Jews in the 1960s?

A: It was the first major work of popular culture to represent the Eastern European past. Sholem-Aleichem had been translated before, other Yiddish writers had been translated, there were radio broadcasts in English.

But those were things people could read or listen to in the privacy of their homes. A Broadway play is very, very public; it’s a primary form of popular culture of the period.

It produced some anxiety for a number of people, who were afraid it would be too Jewish, but audiences embraced it, and it created pride in the American Jewish community.

Q: You write in the book about other productions of Fiddler in other countries or cultures. Why is this such a universal story?

A: It operates successfully on two tracks. One is the Jewish track. Jews of Ashkenazi background can identify with particular stories or practices—the Sabbath, the chuppah, other aspects of shtetl life that people may have heard about from their grandparents. They can feel proud of its representation.

At the same time, the story is one that deals with generational conflicts, the impact of change, the shift from tradition to modernity. These are absolutely universal themes.

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

A: Tons of things surprised me! The first thing was to learn about Sholem-Aleichem’s own desperate failure in the Yiddish theater of the United States. He was one of the most beloved writers of Yiddish prose; he would go on massive tours around the Pale and in Europe. He was met by cheering throngs; his work was put in periodicals there and in the U.S.; amateur groups would get together to do his work.

And yet when he came to the U.S. and tried to get his work on the stage, the plays flopped. It raised pretty interesting questions about the difference in how theater functions as public art and how other private art is consumed.

I was surprised by the translation of Sholem-Aleichem’s works and the invention of the nostalgic idea of the shtetl in the postwar United States that laid the groundwork for Fiddler.

With the advantage of scholarly hindsight, one can see specifically how the image was created in this period for a public living with the major contradictions of postwar America. Opportunity was available to Jews, [but on the other hand] they were coping with the devastating news of the Holocaust. The English-language version of a romantic, idyllic shtetl was created in this period.

And Fiddler itself—there are tons of surprises in the papers of [director/choreographer] Jerome Robbins. He kept very extensive notes and some diaries…It was fascinating to find his own anxious relationship to his Jewish background.

I read biographies of him, but to actually see in his own handwriting sometimes his disgust at being Jewish and his desire not to be different, and how that shifts in his work on Fiddler

And then there are the ways the show is taken up in other contexts.

Q: You discuss the different actors who have played the role of Tevye over the years. Which interpretation do you prefer?

A: It’s really hard to answer that. I have seen a lot of great Tevyes. I always like the one I just saw the best, and that would be Scott Wentworth, in Stratford, Ontario.

Q: How different is the play or movie from the original Sholem-Aleichem stories?

A: There are a lot of things that are different. As in any adaptation, changes must be made. There are also changes that have to do with the temperaments of the times.

There are two areas of significant change. One is that the show doesn’t deal with all the Tevye stories; it focuses on three of eight or nine. The first Tevye story is not really represented, and [Fiddler] leaves out the later stories, which get darker and darker.

He writes over a 20-year period, and the stories follow the contours of Jewish history. Tevye is a guide to life in the Jewish Pale. There’s a story of one daughter who drowns herself, and another daughter who does what her father wants, and the man [she marries] is an absolute boor, and she’s miserable. She’s left in a horrible, despairing situation, and Tevye realizes he’s responsible.

Those stories aren’t in the musical. Even in a show where the first act curtain comes down on a pogrom, and the second ends with exile, those stories were too dark.

Second, this is a very American take on the stories. The family comes to the U.S. at the end; that’s not how Sholem-Aleichem ends his stories. There’s the idea [in the show] that they are coming to escape persecution and find new lives, so that even with the bleak ending, there’s a good feeling because we know what’s going to transpire in a couple of generations.

Q: What’s been the reaction to the book?

A: It’s only been out a week, but so far I’m happy to say that it’s been very nicely received. There’s been friendly feedback from colleagues, and [favorable] e-mails from strangers. I’m very grateful that [lyricist] Sheldon Harnick admires the book; he wrote a nice blurb for it. That’s humbling and meaningful.

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: I’m kicking around a few ideas, but there’s nothing to report now.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: How much fun it was to work on this, from beginning to end. I interviewed over 100 people, and every one was revelatory and enjoyable. People were incredibly generous.

I tried to write it in a narrative style. It’s not an academic book; it’s a book that tells stories. I tried to weave the narrative storytelling with the analysis, and I hope the result is fun to read.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This interview was conducted in partnership with Moment magazine. For more, please see

Q&A with author Mark Russ Federman

Mark Russ Federman is the author of Russ & Daughters: Reflections and Recipes from the House that Herring Built. He is the grandson of the founder of the famous store on New York's Lower East Side, and ran the store for more than three decades before handing it over to his daughter and his nephew in 2009.

Q: Do you still go into the store?

A: Of course. I’ve been a fixture behind the counter. You get a persona based on what you do. I was “Mr. Russ.” The original Mr. Russ was my grandfather, but I became Mr. Russ.

What should I do in my retirement? I was around great people and great food—I was back at Russ and Daughters on the customer side of the counter. It was a great place to retire. Now I watch the next generation. I consider that success.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book?

A: I became my persona, Mr. Russ behind the counter. It’s somewhat infectious; it stays with you. People came in the store; it feeds your narcissism. I did that for thirty-some-odd years. I was Mr. Russ, the center of attention; the whole universe revolved around me. The whole world comes there.

At some point the business was getting passed on to the next generation: my daughter Niki and my nephew Josh. I had to teach them how to tell a good piece of fish from a bad one, and how to tell a good customer from a bad one.

Then it became apparent that the store was too small for too many big personalities. We Russes have big personalities. I had to get out of their way. Now there are two new Mr. Russes.

I was a lawyer. You leave it and say, Thank goodness, free at last. What do I do? I’ll write a book about the place. I’ll spend the rest of my life doing it. Plenty of writers come into the store. As a group, they all seemed fairly relaxed. Some even come in in their pajamas. I said, I can do this! I was ultimately to discover that it was harder than retail. Who knew?

Then somebody said, Hey, Mark, you need an agent. I put out the word, and now all these agents were coming around. Because it turns out that everything is a business, and I had a platform, a place to sell books, on my counter, on top of the herring. …

So I wrote the book, and it took me three years. The deadlines forced me to do the book. After 100 times of reviewing the book, by the 100th time, it’s nauseating. In the beginning when I put it down on paper, I’m in love with it. Then, the job of editing—I have a tendency to rattle on—the job was to make it somewhat readable and not 37 volumes.

By the 100th time of reviewing it, after the deadline, [I’m thinking], This is the worst piece of crap that has ever crossed the page! God forbid the Russ family ever reads it! That was my fear, even though the agent said, I love it!

Then I was praying—I’m not a man given to prayer—that nobody reviews this book. Then Dwight Garner [from The New York Times]—he’s not even a Jew—says he loves it. [And after other positive reviews], to this day, I have no idea why this book I wrote to get out of the way of the next generation and let them sell lox in peace…It’s a good feeling for me.

Q: Your book is very funny. Did you know going into the writing that it would end up with a lot of humor?

A: That’s me. It takes a while to get the voice down on paper. If I were waiting on you and all you wanted was a bagel, that would take 45 minutes. I would be interrogating you on your life. That’s what I did. The idea was to get that sort of schmooze down on the paper. At the same time, I wanted people to know that I know my business.

Q: What does your family think of the book?

A: This is in March when the book comes out. I’m in Florida, visiting my mother, the youngest of the Russ daughters, age 92, and my aunt, the oldest, age 100.

The book comes in to Random House, and they send the first two books to my mother and my aunt. I’m watching as they open it. I’m thinking, I know what they’re going to say. I started running things by [my mother when I was writing the book, and she would say], “Why’d you have to say that for? That never happened!”

Both of them were totally delighted by the book! It’s their story and they like the way it’s told. It gives them kuved, some honor, for all those years they worked and didn’t get it. It wasn’t celebrated. From the time they were young girls, they worked hard.

The book is dedicated to them; it’s probably the best piece of writing [in the book]: “To Hattie, Ida, and Anne—the Russ Daughters. Without them, there would be no store and no stories.”

[The book] turns out to have been medicine or a life extender. They hung in there until the book was out, and their friends were calling them. Now they know I go around the country talking, and they want to hear what the events were like. How good is that!

Q: Was there anything that particularly surprised you as you researched the book?

A: It turns out we were Hasidim on the other side. I’m basically a secular Jew. I go to temple on the High Holy Days. But we were Hasidim. Grandpa Russ was a Hasid in the old country…when [he] came here, he left it at Ellis Island….

He sponsored his older brother, Shmemendel, who comes over and carries on his Hasidic life. One of the great pictures of the book is of my grandfather and his older brother. Shmemendel is wearing Hasidic garb, and next to him is my grandfather, wearing a white suit and wingtip shoes and a fedora….

Q: Are you thinking of writing another book?

A: In the beginning I didn’t believe I turned out one book! But since this book has been so well received, you get that bug. The question is, what would that book be about?

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This interview was conducted in conjunction with The Lessans Family Annual Book Festival at the JCC of Greater Washington. Mark Russ Federman will be speaking at the festival on Sunday, November 10, at 9:30am.

Q&A with Professor Frank de Caro

Frank de Caro's books include Stories of Our Lives: Memory, History, Narrative; Folklore Recycled: Old Traditions in New Contexts; and An Anthology of American Folktales and Legends. He is a folklorist and a professor emeritus of English at Louisiana State University, and he lives in New Orleans.

Q: You write that Stories of Our Lives is a "memoir with a difference." Why did you decide to blend more traditional aspects of a memoir with stories and oral narratives?

A: Actually I was asked to contribute to a book by a folklore grad student who wanted pieces that blended the personal with folkloric interests. So I came up with what was sort of the first chapter of the book.

The grad student’s book project never came to fruition (I think she wandered off from grad school and started a bakery), but the idea of such a blend stayed with me (plus I had what I had written for the book and didn’t want to just stick it in a drawer).

So I decided to expand the piece into the book. In doing that I was partly thinking how amateur genealogists (genealogy is said to be the most popular indoor American hobby) gave so much attention to their efforts and so often came up with just a few bare facts like dates and how they could expand their efforts by recording family and personal stories. And I was partly thinking of how important a role stories play in preserving family and personal memory.

I wanted to write a memoir (don’t we all want to record something of what we’ve done, even if it’s not earth-shattering?) and thought that as a folklorist (folklorists are very interested in the stories we all tell) I should do that by trying to call attention to the role of oral narratives in constructing and reconstructing our pasts.

Q: Was there anything that particularly surprised you as you examined your family’s past?

A: Not the family narrative; that was in my head and I just had to bring it out.

But I was surprised at how much documentation to supplement the stories I could put my hand on. I had letters my father had written my mother in the 1930s, postcards she’d sent back from Europe in 1926, and–most of all–I had a wealth of old photographs from the late 19th century to the 1930s that I could not only use a few of in the book but could use to get a sort of visual fix on the times I was writing about.

I could actually see my Italian-American grandfather in uniform with the ethnic organization he belonged to when he first got to America; I could actually see my mother and her tour group, in the clothing of the day, in St. Mark’s Square in Venice in the 1920s.

Q: Why did you decide to title the book "Stories of Our Lives"?

A: Well, it’s about stories in the sense that I’m trying to call attention to the role of oral narratives. And I felt that it was about more than me and that other people’s stories had obviously influenced me.

So it wasn’t just my stories but "our" stories and not just my life but the lives of others whom I’ve interacted with as well.

And I hoped that readers might see a model for coming to terms with their own stories, hence "our" stories.

Q: Your last chapter deals with Hurricane Katrina. What impact did that have on your life, and why did you choose it as the subject of the last chapter of the book?

A: It’s the last chapter because it’s the last major event in my life. As for its impact, I think that even all these years later people in New Orleans are still trying to figure out the impact of that event.

In some ways its impact on me was not major. I was in exile from my home for over two months, but my part of town (the historic Garden District) did not flood (the older parts of town are evidently on "high ground," though to look at it, the whole city seems equally flat to me; obviously there are significant gradations) and snapped back to "normal" very fast.

Though there are parts of town not far away that still look devastated, we have a place that looks pretty much as it used to before Katrina, with functioning businesses, people wandering the streets, tourists still coming to check us out.

In other ways, the impact has to have been great. I know that I’m living in a place that’s not the same place it used to be (thousands of citizens didn’t make it back from wherever they were sent; areas like the Lower Ninth Ward, once full of life, have acres of open, vacant land where houses once stood).

I think we’re all waiting to see what happens now, how this place will continue to develop or if it will.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m trying to do a book on what American folklorists have done in and for America. It won’t be for folklore scholars or students but rather for a general reading audience.

I think that folklorists have done amazing things for American culture, especially in establishing the "roots" cultures that make us up and that everybody should know about this.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with writer Elinor Lipman

Elinor Lipman's latest books are The View from Penthouse B, a novel, and I Can't Complain, an essay collection. Her many other books include the novels The Family Man, Then She Found Me, and The Inn at Lake Devine; and Tweet Land of Liberty, a book of political tweets. Lipman, who is based primarily in Manhattan, has often been called a "modern Jane Austen."

Q: How did you come up with the characters of the sisters in The View From Penthouse B?

A: I can't say how I came up with Margot, the older sister who owns the penthouse--she's just one of those characters who appears fully formed.  

Originally, in an earlier draft, she'd taken in three unrelated roommate-boarders after losing all her money to Madoff, but I wasn't happy with where that story was going (nowhere).  

After my husband died, after a break, it wasn't too big a leap to start over, in the first person, with the younger, widowed sister moving in and narrating.  

And I gave them a third sister, who didn't live with them, who could be something of a one-woman Greek chorus and critic.  

Q: Do you find writing essays to be a completely different experience from writing novels, or are there many similarities?

A: It is a completely different experience for me, and easier, once I find the topic and figure out how to shape it into an essay.  

I do think my readers find similarities between my fiction and nonfiction in the way I see and report things; in "voice" as we say, and maybe in the balance between sentiment and humor.

I'm learning that the easiest essays are the personal ones, whereas the ones that are more journalistic and reportorial need a bigger raison d'etre. I don't want to wonder as I'm writing, "Why am I talking about this?"   

Q: How did you end up writing a book of political tweets? 

A: On impulse!  There's something like tweet pressure in the air when you're an author--many examples of Twitter giants like Susan Orlean--so I thought it was time to get on the bus.  

After one newsy tweet to my zero followers, I thought I know! One rhyming political tweet a day until the 2012 election! I'll enjoy that more than anything. I should've done the math and realized that meant 499 days… I tweeted the day after the election for a total of 500 poems, and have posted a few more since, but consider myself retired from the full-time daily grind. 

And the book part of it was just a wonderful fluke. At a party in Boston (the Grub Street annual conference), the publisher of Beacon Press asked me, "Someone's doing your tweets as a book, right?"  I said, "Why, no." And she said, "Well, I am." 

Q: Did you get complaints and/or plaudits from readers of your novels who saw your tweets and were either opposed to or in sync with your political views?

A: I seem to have left-leaning readers. To my surprise, hardly any negative feedback on the rhyming tweets.  There was the occasional scold on Facebook, but more along the lines of "Oh, Elinor. I've enjoyed these so much but this one is in poor taste." I wanted to write back, "I know! Thank you!" but I didn't...

Q: You’ve been called a modern-day Jane Austen. What do you think of that comparison?

A: Who could not love such a comparison? When asked what we might have in common, I supply some answers from Carol Shields's wonderful Penguin Lives biography of Austen.  

She pointed out that "mothers are essential in her fiction. They are the engines that push the action forward, even when they fail to establish much in the way of maternal warmth." And this definitely applies: that the true subject is not current events or ongoing wars but "the search of an individual for his or her true home." 

Q: Did you like the movie version of Then She Found Me? Why or why not, and what did you think of all the changes that were made?

A: I loved it.  When I read the first few pages of the screenplay, I thought, huh? Where are my characters? 

But as it went forward, I laughed and I cried. It was smart and funny and touching. And I fully understood, after some exchanges with Helen Hunt (who wrote, directed, and starred in it), that she had tried many times to be more faithful to the novel, but that studios were turning her down. 

If cheesy changes had been made to enlarge or commercialize the story, I may have had a beef, but that was never the case. 

 I was happy to represent the film at a few festivals, where I introduced it and then took questions at the end.  

It also brought the novel back to stores, 18 years after it was first published. When my son (who was 6 when it was optioned, and 25 at the premiere) met Helen, he put his arm around my shoulders and said to her, "I hope you know you made my mother's decade."
Q: Do you think writers are ever satisfied with the depictions of their characters in movies?

A: Some. I was. I'd been prepped to be realistic, having received very good advice from novelist Meg Wolitzer when the manuscript was optioned.  She said, "Think of it as a movie based on characters suggested by the novel Then She Found Me." And also, a Hemingway quote: You drive to the Nevada border. You throw them the book and they throw you the money. Then you drive like hell back from where you came." 

As it turned out, my experience was quite wonderful because Helen Hunt was most thoughtful at every turn. 

Q: Were you pleased or disappointed with the substitution of Colin Firth for the Dwight character in the movie version?

A: Well, let me see: my romantic hero in the book, a geeky librarian, would have been played by an actor who could win  the part of Ichabod Crane somewhere else. Versus Colin Firth.  I'm going to pretend you didn't ask me that...  

 --Interview with Deborah Kalb.  This Q&A was conducted in conjunction with The Lessans Family Annual Book Festival at the JCC of Greater Washington. Elinor Lipman will be speaking at the festival on Friday, November 15, at noon. A previous version of this interview was posted on December 11, 2012.

Q&A with author Ellen Kassoff Gray

Ellen Kassoff Gray is the co-author, with her husband, Chef Todd Gray, of The New Jewish Table: Modern Seasonal Recipes for Traditional Dishes. They are the co-owners of Equinox restaurant in Washington, D.C., and they run the Harvest Moon Hospitality Group.

Q: In the introduction to your book, food writer Joan Nathan discusses how you and your husband come from different food traditions. How were you able to blend them?

A: By being married for 18 years you just sort of mix and match. It helps that we are both in the food business and that my husband is a professional chef. It gives him a natural curiosity towards different culinary styles and the traditions are intriguing to him.

Q: Your book's title includes the words "new" and "modern." How are you modernizing Jewish cooking?

A: By employing new techniques to traditional dishes, like the brisket for example. He weights it down to press it, which gives a great result. 

Q: Why did you decide to divide the recipes seasonally?

A: That's how we live. It’s how we eat and it’s certainly how our ancestors ate. It’s also how our restaurant is modeled, by the seasons. It was only natural for our book to do the same. Not to mention the holidays are very seasonal, as well as their meanings.

Q: Do you have a favorite recipe from the book?

A: I love the Cauliflower with Golden Raisins. It’s a side dish but everyone who makes it loves its simplicity and blending of flavors. I also love the take on stuffed derma. We made it vegan. It’s awesome - a little tricky to make but awesome.

Q: Are you working on another cookbook?

A: I have several ideas in mind, but I haven't spoken to my agent yet - I want to make sure these sell well!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The photographer, Renee Comet, is truly amazing. The photographs are my favorite part of the book - she captured the essence so well!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This interview was conducted in conjunction with The Lessans Family Annual Book Festival at the JCC of Greater Washington. Ellen Kassoff Gray and Todd Gray will be speaking at the festival on Sunday, November 17, at 1:30pm.

Oct. 29

Oct. 29, 1740: Author James Boswell born.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Q&A with writer Dara Horn

Dara Horn, photo by Michael B. Priest
Dara Horn's most recent novel is A Guide for the Perplexed. Her other books include All Other Nights, The World to Come, and In the Image. She lives in New Jersey.

Q: How did you come up with the concept for this novel, and for telling the story in three different time periods?

A: My previous novel was about Jewish spies during the Civil War, and people sometimes showed up at my readings in costume. I developed a bit of musket burnout, and I decided I would write a completely contemporary novel this time around.

I started writing a story about a woman who creates a software app that records everything its users do, and about her acrimonious relationship with her envious sister. But that app—which promises to eliminate the need for personal memory—also becomes a kind of character in the novel, almost like a child of its creator. And like the actual child of its creator, it goes off the rails and disappoints its creator by not being quite what she had hoped for.

The creator’s sister, meanwhile, exploits her pride and weaknesses to usurp her life, and by the end of the novel the reader’s sympathies have tipped so much that it is no longer clear who is the “good” sister or who is the “bad” sister, or whose version of the past is the most true.

But soon I saw that I was writing a book about memory—and not merely about memory, but about the difference between how we remember things and how those things actually occurred, and the profound ways that that difference influences our lives and our choices. I needed to test those ideas about memory against something more consequential than merely one person’s childhood.

That’s when I began to work my way back in time to an earlier form of data-dumping: the Cairo Genizah, a medieval stash of 190,000 manuscripts that could resurrect an entire thousand-year-old community, if anyone would bother to read through it. 

The Genizah is the medieval Facebook, and that opened up the question of data storage then and now, what we save and why we save it. Later the book tests even that layer of memories by going back into the time of the medieval people who created it. And of course nothing is as it seems.

Q: You note that your husband encouraged you to work on a modern retelling of the Joseph story. Was it something that took a long time to write, or did it come together fairly easily?

A: Nothing comes easily in writing a novel. Like my other novels, this one started with about a hundred pages that I threw away. I then started working on something about two women who worked together, and how envy was altering their lives in ways they could never have anticipated. My husband suggested the Joseph idea at that point, and I made these women sisters—which of course changed everything.

Q: Sibling relationships play a major role in the book, especially the dynamic between Josie and Judith. How would you describe their relationship, especially compared with those of the other sets of siblings in the novel?

A: There are several sets of siblings in the novel (actually even more than there appear to be, but explaining that would mean revealing a few key plot points at the book’s end), and they each illustrate that braid of love, loyalty and envy.

In most of the sibling pairs, one is more successful than the other (whether financially or in terms of esteem), and that unfair imbalance of success and failure is one that haunts a relationship where two people have presumably started their lives with all the same possibilities.

I’ve always been interested in the biblical Joseph story, because Joseph is truly talented but also truly arrogant, and his brothers are truly cruel but also truly aware of a genuine injustice, and the human emotions in the story are so raw and real.

But what’s most amazing about that story to me is that everything in it appears to be foretold (through Joseph’s undeniably prophetic dreams)—and yet everything in it also appears to happen entirely through human agency. You can’t read the story without appreciating the interlocking presence of both free will and destiny.

That dynamic of free will versus fate seems embedded, to me, in everything in our lives—not necessarily from a religious point of view, but from a secular one. Religious people may believe in predestination through God, but secular people may believe in predestination through genetics, brain chemistry, laws of evolution.

The question of free will and destiny is also embedded in the nature-versus-nurture debate, which makes the relationships between siblings an amazing way to explore this question of how much responsibility we have for who we are.

Q: Can you explain more about the role of memory in the book?

A: The book questions whether or not there is such a thing as an objective reflection on the past. Our lives are now so saturated with digital recording that it’s possible to imagine that we can look back at the past with more evidence than we ever had.

My main character exploits that technological ability to create a complete system that records every aspect of our lives. It’s a fantasy I’ve had for a long time. But now, of course, social media has turned my dream into a nightmare where every idiotic thing you do is recorded forever.

In the novel, that question of how we remember the past is turned on its head, as historical evidence, whether digital or otherwise, ends up interfering with the way we actually control our past—not by recording everything, but by curating our memories, by selecting, out of that bottomless well of trivialities, what’s worth remembering. 

And it’s that act of choosing what’s worth remembering that turns a lifetime’s worth of memories into a story that gives our lives meaning. 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: Did I mention how I always start with a hundred pages I end up throwing away?

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I have an 8 year old, a 6 year old, a 4 year old, and a 1 year old—which means this is all the time I can give to this interview right now. Thanks for understanding.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb