Saturday, December 28, 2013

Q&A with publisher and author John A. Jenkins

John A. Jenkins is the founder and CEO of Law Street Media, a new company and website focused on legal issues. He is the author of three books, the most recent of which is The Partisan: The Life of William Rehnquist, and he is the president and publisher emeritus of CQ Press. He lives in New York City and Washington, D.C.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Law Street?

A: I’ve been writing and publishing about law, crime and the courts for my entire professional life – three books, hundreds of magazine articles – so in that sense it’s a natural topic for me.  

But what really provided the creative spark is that both law and publishing have reached big inflection points. Both fields are undergoing huge, disruptive change. In the legal profession, there hasn’t been this kind of disruption since the early 1970s – so, it’s truly generational. Law Street is all about these changes and how you build a new business model based on them.      

Q: Based on your own experiences over the years, how has the publishing world changed, and what additional changes do you see happening in the future?

A: It would be easier to talk about what hasn’t changed. The trade is still best-seller driven, now more so than ever, but it’s interesting to see what’s happening in the self-publishing world: there are more and more cool sites where many best-sellers and best-selling authors get their start.

So, in spite of the retail consolidation that’s happening with Amazon, I see a lot of good things evolving in the trade space, and a lot of worthy experimentation as models evolve.

In the world of reference and textbook publishing where I’ve spent a lot of time, there’s just so much more price sensitivity, and library budgets have been slashed; the reference-book market as we knew it is drying up. So specialized publishers have to become more nimble, and must find new revenue sources. 

Ultimately, open access will be the new publishing business model for many traditional publishers. I use the term advisedly, because it may seem “free” but someone has to pay.   

I think the next big battleground for authors and publishers will be in the realm of copyright and fair use. Given some of the recent court decisions that are making their way up to the Supreme Court, we could see copyright protections falling away. It’s a reality of the electronic age, but bad for authors and publishers – and, thus, readers.  I could go on.

Q: What type of audience did you expect when you started the Law Street website, and has it met expectations?

A: Our target demographic is young and involved, ages 18 to 30, high school and college students, law students, and young lawyers. They’re very much directed by social media. The analytics we’re getting back tell us that we’re hitting our sweet spot. 

Q: Getting back to your book about Justice Rehnquist, The Partisan, which came out last year, what reactions have you received from readers?

A: The book was reviewed all over, and I was glad to see the support it received from reviewers: overwhelmingly positive. Your question is about “readers,” but if I could rephrase your question, I’d make it about “commenters,” because in the case of The Partisan that’s more relevant. 

As soon as the reviews were posted online, wham! the comments started pouring in. By the hundreds. The book obviously touched a nerve; many people reacted viscerally to Rehnquist the man, and they didn’t separate their views on the man from their views on the book. 

Everyone had an opinion about the book – even if they hadn’t read it, and most hadn’t – because everyone had an opinion about Rehnquist. That’s his partisan legacy. 

So, the online chatter was the big surprise for me. With all the anonymous, often vicious commenting that goes on, the web can seem like some giant Halloween event, everyone behind a mask. It’s another of the big changes that publishing has undergone.    

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: Yes, and it’ll be another book about the Supreme Court. My researchers and I are hard at work on it. More later.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Check out for all my latest news and goings on!  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. An earlier interview with John A. Jenkins appeared on November 29, 2012.

Dec. 28

Dec. 28, 1895: Author Carol Ryrie Brink born.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Q&A with Professor James Tobin

James Tobin is the author of the new book The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency. His other books for adults include To Conquer the Air and Ernie Pyle's War. He also has written books for children, including The Very Inappropriate Word. He was a reporter for The Detroit News for 12 years, and he teaches in the Department of Media, Journalism, and Film at Miami of Ohio.

Q: How did you get interested in this topic?

A: I grew up in a house dominated by my grandmother, a matriarchal New Dealer who adored FDR. I always remembered her telling me the story of FDR at the 1924 Democratic convention, crossing the stage to give his speech. 

The image came back to me as I was looking for a new book topic. My previous book had been about the Wright brothers, and I enjoyed writing about the dynamics of a family, the Wright family. I also had some experience as a medical writer. And I was inspired by David McCullough’s Mornings on Horseback, which looked at asthma in the life of Theodore Roosevelt. I wondered, has anyone done a good narrative job on FDR and polio?

Q: Your view of how much Americans of the time knew about FDR’s disability differs from that of some other scholars. How did you come to your point of view about it?

A: It started with my memory of being a kid in the ‘60s. We in the generation after World War II were well aware of FDR having polio. This idea that became prevalent in the ‘90s—that FDR had engaged in an elaborate deception to cover up the fact that he was disabled—I was just sure that was wrong. And the evidence bears that out.

How so many people came to have the wrong idea is still rather mysterious to me.

Hugh Gallagher’s book (FDR’s Splendid Deception), despite its title, does not argue that there was a massive coverup or deception; it’s much more subtle. When Gallagher went on TV to talk about it, the debate became oversimplified. And with the debate over the FDR memorial in the ‘90s, it became even more so. It’s a case of the public deceiving itself about a fairly important historical topic.

Q: What type of research did you do to write the book?

A: I did a great deal of primary research in the manuscript materials at the FDR library. I found a fair amount of material in certain important memoirs and oral histories—Frances Perkins’s oral history was the most important of those. I read quite a bit of medical literature about polio and about the psychological response to trauma and disability. 

Newspaper coverage was the frosting on the cake. As a former journalist, I trust newspaper reporting more than most historians do. I looked at a lot of photographs too.

Q: What surprised you most?

A: I was surprised by how FDR insisted from the very beginning that he was going to get completely better—at the same time that his doctors’ private correspondence was saying that was extremely unlikely. So I knew how bad it was, yet he was telling everyone he knew that he was going to make a splendid comeback. 

I concluded that he was talking himself into that point of view, flying in the face of what seemed like obvious reality. It was sheer denial, which can be a powerful force for good.

Q: You argue that FDR would not have been as successful, perhaps not even have become president, without having had polio. Why is that?

A: There are two main things. The first is primarily practical. Polio kept him on the sidelines during the warfare waged inside the Democratic party in the mid-1920s. FDR was allied with Al Smith in those years, but because of polio he couldn’t run for office himself, so he escaped that fight.

Second, polio gave FDR a story to tell and a new political identity. Before, he had been seen as a golden boy with the most popular name in American politics—charming, yes, but an aristocrat who hadn’t had to work for anything. 

After polio, his message was: I was struck down by adversity, and came back. It made him a much more sympathetic character, especially when so many Americans in the early ‘30s were going through such terrible hardship themselves. A crippled man was distinctly in tune with the times.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I haven’t started a big new book project, but I’m working on a children’s picture book now.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: With a book like this, people tend to talk about the book’s analyses and arguments. But I consider myself less an analytic historian than a storytelling historian. I’m trying to create an absorbing narrative. 

I know the academic history side, but I think the narrative history is equally important, and that academic historians have lost the common touch with readers. I’m trying to establish points of contact—emotional contact—between readers and the past. That’s what I hope this book does.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 23

Dec. 23, 1896: Author Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa born.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Q&A with author Lauren B. Davis

Lauren B. Davis is the author most recently of the novel The Empty Room. Her other books include Our Daily Bread, An Unrehearsed Desire, and The Radiant City. She teaches writing at a men's prison, and also runs monthly writing workshops. Born and raised in Montreal, she lives in Princeton, N.J.

Q: You write on your website that The Empty Room is "a speculative look at how a day in my life might have looked had I not stopped drinking alcohol 18 years ago." How do you identify with the issues facing your main character, Colleen?

A: I identify with Colleen in many ways.  Like her, although I knew for a long time before I quit drinking that I was an alcoholic, I didn't want to admit it to anyone else, nor did I want to do anything about it.   

I blamed other people, and things that had happened to me in the past, as a justification for my drinking. All nonsense, of course.  

Although I never lost a job because of my drinking, and I never puked in a night club, and unlike Colleen I was married and living in France at the end of my career as a drunk, certainly the psychological and emotional states were similar.

I was filled with a nameless dread, with anxiety, with the sense there was a gaping hole in the middle of my soul. And the idea of getting through the next day, the next week without a drink seemed impossible.  

Those of use who stay sober one day at a time call alcoholism a disease of perception and, like Colleen, my perceptions were certainly skewed.

Q: Why did you decide to title the book "The Empty Room"?

A: That goes back to the gaping hole. As an active alcoholic -- and I think long before I even started drinking -- I suffered with feelings of emptiness, of hollowness, of missing something.

I have yet to meet a drunk who didn't feel the same way. I've heard it called "The God-shaped hole." And by "God" I'm not talking about a religious figure necessarily, although it certainly can be, but rather a sense of spiritual wholeness and connection.  

Because, like so many drunks, Colleen's life has narrowed down to such a small thing, symbolized by those rooms in which she finds herself, alone and frightened, I thought that would be a good metaphor for the "empty room" in the alcoholic's soul

Q: Do you know when you start a novel how the plot will proceed, or do your characters sometimes do unexpected things?

A: I always start with an idea about which I'm obsessed or something I can't figure out or some niggling problem -- in this case the overwhelming sense of gratitude that I got sober and wondering what my life might have looked like if I hadn't -- and then I begin thinking about what sort of character would find him or herself in such a predicament, or dealing with such an issue.  

When I have the character, I put him or her in various situations, all relating to the theme of whatever issue I'm exploring. I have no idea what's going to happen in the end when I start writing. And then, about a hundred pages in or so, an end scene pops into my mind and I start following the path towards that scene.  

Now, by the time I get there the people in the scene may have changed, and the setting may have changed, and what happens might even have changed, but the atmosphere, the emotional resonance, if you will, never does.

Q: You've written novels and short stories. Do you have a preference between the two?

A: The form is dictated by the subject matter. Short stories, while universal in theme, are like lockets in which a single image creates the moment; novels are more like necklaces. Both are beautiful in their own way, but quite different forms, with different purposes.

I love both forms, and in fact I'll be part of the 13th International Conference on the Short Story in English in Vienna in July 2014. So delighted Alice Munro won the Nobel prize; it's giving whole new life to short stories.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm editing my next novel, which will come out in early 2015 in Canada with Harpercollins and in the US with Chizine. It's a different sort of novel for me, set in 7th century Northumbria (England), about a seithkona - a "spell-woman"  - and a Christian monk who confront each other during a time when King Edwin decided everyone should convert to the "new religion."

An adventure, a fable, a rollicking good tale (I hope), and an inquiry into the difference between experiential faith and dogma.

I spent a month in England with my husband on what he calls "The Forced Anglo-Saxon March Northwards" from Sutton Hoo to Lindisfarne. I talked to archaeologists, anthropologists, church historians and museum curators, and spent some truly inspirational time wandering the Yorkshire moors.  

In the course of writing the novel, which took about three years, I read over a hundred books and had a wonderful time! I wanted to tell what I hope will be a damn good story with intriguing characters set in a time not that many people know about. What fun it was to write.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I love keeping in touch with readers. I'm on Twitter and Facebook and as well I have a blog. It would be lovely to see some of your readers there.  

Also, if anyone's interested in my book reviews they might want to join and follow me there.  It's a good independent social network for booklovers. And thanks for the great questions. I really appreciate it.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 21

Dec. 21, 1917: Author Heinrich Boll born.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Q&A with author Lisa Gornick

Lisa Gornick is the author of the new novel Tinderbox, and also of another novel, A Private Sorcery. Her writing has appeared in various publications, including AGNI and Prairie Schooner. She has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, and she lives in New York City.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Tinderbox?

A: The emotional kernel of Tinderbox comes from a story I once heard about a young woman who fell apart in the context of her work for a loving family -- her buried longings for mothering stimulated by the love she witnessed the parents bestowing on their child. 

After that, everything else was transformed and fictionalized: where she came from, the family, what transpired.   

Part of the great fun of writing a novel is spending time learning and thinking about topics that fascinate you. After all, if I were a weaver, I would be spinning with the wool and colors I love. 

In Tinderbox, the skeins include the Jewish diaspora, the ecology and politics of fire, the interplay of compliance and rebellion between generations, the centrality of class, Werner Herzog, psychoanalysis.

Q: You have a degree in clinical psychology, and your character Myra is a psychotherapist. How did your own professional background help you write this book and better understand your characters and their relationships?

A: Freud was wrong about a lot of things, but the aphorism attributed to him by Erikson -- “lieben und arbeiten,” love and work, are what a healthy person can do well -- strikes me as absolutely right. 

In novels, the work that a character does too often feels tacked on -- either superficially portrayed, like a handbag being carted around, or dutifully researched so that the details are correct but the integration into who the character is and how he or she sees the world is lacking. 

In both my first novel, A Private Sorcery, and Tinderbox, it was natural for me to have central characters who are psychotherapists: it’s work that I love and know in my bones. As with most psychotherapists, my training changed me and is part of who I am. 

Although I don’t interact with people outside my office in the same way I do inside (that would be a mistake on many levels), I still see and understand the world through an analytic lens -- most centrally, a belief in the unconscious, in transferences, in symptoms created by compromises between desires and prohibitions. 

Because as a novelist my characters are real to me, I think about them in this way, too.     

Q: Fire is a major theme in the book. Why did you choose that as one of the topics to explore?

A: I was in Montana and Idaho in 2000 while horrific wildfires were blazing. It was my first experience with nature overpowering man, and it was both shocking and eye-opening about the precariousness of our place on this planet and the damage we intentionally or unintentionally cause. 

The Smokey Bear policy that dominated mid-century wildfire management was, we now understand, deeply misguided. By eradicating small blazes, we create an overgrown underbrush that can set the stage for out-of-control conflagrations. 

In Tinderbox, both my title and the theme of a tragedy of good intentions grew out of my experience that summer. 

Q: What research did you need to do to write the book?

A: Like many writers, I find that there’s a fine line between research as inspiration and a necessity to accurately depict a subject, and research as resistance to writing. 

For Tinderbox, I did extensive research on Iquitos, the history of the rubber trade, Moroccan Jewish communities, the Jewish community of Lima, Werner Herzog and Fitzcarraldo, John Ford and The Searchers, wildfires, the history of smokejumpers, burn treatment, skin grafts, Frank Lloyd Wright and the tragedy at Taliesin.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a collection of linked short stories, Louisa Meets Bear, coming out in early 2015, also with Sarah Crichton Books/ Farrar, Straus & Giroux.  And, I’m at work on a new novel.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: For the rest, you’ll have to read Tinderbox!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 20

Dec. 20, 1911: Author Hortense Calisher born.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Q&A with author Jonathan Schanzer

Jonathan Schanzer is the author most recently of State of Failure: Yasser Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas, and the Unmaking of the Palestinian State. His other books include Al-Qaeda's Armies and Hamas vs. Fatah. Schanzer is vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book?

A: I had a meeting in Europe with a former Palestinian official two years ago, and also with a democracy activist who worked for the P.A. [Palestinian Authority] in the Arafat era, and an Israeli. All three were eager to talk about the problems of governance with the Palestinians.

It piqued my interest, and it prompted me to dig more. I found that just about every analyst in the region had an understanding about the problems with the P.A., and the reports were consistent. It was troubling; it had gone unaddressed.

On my next trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories, that was one of my lines of inquiry. I heard quite a bit from the Palestinians. A small but serious group of Palestinians wanted this sort of thing -- the corruption and mismanagement -- to end.

They all were largely supportive of Salam Fayyad, the prime minister at that point, and believed that he was the answer and the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] machine was the problem. This helped shape the narrative for me. I testified before Congress and began to write about this problem.

More recently, when I spoke with former peace negotiators, there was quiet resignation among them as well that they had allowed this problem to fester. The idea was: Let’s just get the deal done. But in the process, they were not necessarily ensuring that a future Palestinian state would be a viable one. There was very little attention devoted to that.

Q:  You ask, “Is the Palestinian Authority…an efficient, transparent, or financially viable authority that is prepared to function as a government for the Palestinian people,” and your answer is no. Is that because of the reasons you’ve just cited, or do you see other reasons too?

A: We have failed to stress that as a deliverable. We’re not asking for performance. We’re just asking them to sign on the dotted line.

Also, the cornerstone of the Palestinian Authority is the PLO, which has never been a transparent organization. It was founded as a terrorist organization, it never submitted year-end reports to Ernst & Young. Terrorist organizations are secretive by nature. Their decision-making is opaque. Their leadership is not geared toward streamlining bureaucracy, but rather toward populism, and destruction in many cases.

It all started out on the wrong foot. The PLO, a longtime terror group, became the P.A. The P.A. was therefore immediately operating at a disadvantage. There were efforts to reform and help shape it, but it was secondary or even lower than that when it came to our priorities in the U.S. It’s not what we emphasized. We emphasized getting a diplomatic deal done

Q: What would the Palestinian government have to do to be more effective, in your opinion?

A: First, one very obvious thing is that the Palestinians have been a house divided, including over the existence of Israel. It’s a primary issue that needs to be settled.  I’m, of course, referring the internecine conflict between the PLO and Hamas.

Next, they need to focus on governance.  It’s unexciting, and it’s not sexy, but the Palestinians need to cultivate a political system where the press is allowed fully to investigate and criticize their own government. They also need a fair judicial system that is completely independent of the executive.

The thing I hear constantly is you can’t ask the Palestinians to do this while under occupation. My answer is that following through on these things is probably the greatest weapon they have to change Israeli policy. If they can demonstrate that they are prepared for statehood, it’s virtually impossible for the Israelis to challenge these aspirations.

The government now is dogged by reports of waste, nepotism, abuse of power. It’s difficult to imagine the Israelis saying, “Let’s give this a shot.”

Look at what the early Israelis did before the creation of the state. They were under the British Mandate; yet they had a functioning interim government.  The Yishuv bureaucracy was respected.

Fayyad, in his attempts to transform Palestinian society, was sometimes called the Palestinian Ben Gurion. He understood the Yishuv model. Fayyad is the protagonist in my book. And now he’s been undermined by Mahmoud Abbas.

Q: Can you speak more about the split between Hamas and the leadership in the West Bank, and also more about the situation facing the West Bank leadership?

First, the Hamas split is undeniable. It’s a fact that you’ve got Hamas controlling Gaza and the West Bank is under a separate government. That in itself makes it difficult to see a two-state solution. That’s a three-state solution. No one wants to talk about it here in Washington.

Then, in the West Bank, it’s a question of whether Abbas is the rightful leader. His is a repressive government not allowing for political participation. There are no elections in sight. Why do we negotiate with him if he’s not going to be recognized as a legitimate leader? The same with the Palestinian parliament.

The bottom line: we are looking at a very dysfunctional and fractured Palestinian political system that does not appear to be prepared to declare statehood, and yet this is what we’re negotiating for.

Even if it doesn’t happen by the bilateral process under the direction of Secretary of State John Kerry, we’ll almost certainly see the Palestinians returning to the U.N., to the member agencies at the U.N., gaining recognition and leverage there.

At the U.N., they are not addressing the question of whether the Palestinians are prepared for governance. These are uncomfortable questions to ask.

I still would like to see a Palestinian state side by side with Israel. But the question is: can it emerge with the ability to function properly? I have many doubts.

Q: How important is Yasser Arafat’s legacy today as far as the Palestinian government is concerned?

A: It’s hugely important. There would not be a P.A. without Arafat. However, he ran it the way he ran the PLO -- highly centralized, where a great many decisions were made by a select few, with little transparency, and a huge amount of corruption.

His legacy is not only that the P.A. was dysfunctional and corrupt, but also that it descended into war and chaos with Israel when he elected not to continue with diplomacy with Israel, but instead launched the second intifada.

He’s still very popular to this day, but his legacy is one of disaster. The Palestinians are not prepared for statehood as a result.

Mahmoud Abbas inherited this mess. He began to fix it. For example, he had Fayyad come in. But Abbas presided over the split with the Hamas faction. Since that time, Abbas has effectively relinquished a program of transparency.  He reminds me of Arafat with a tie. He’s not interested in allowing political participation. There are monkey trials of corruption; he’s gone after his political rivals. It’s not the kind of state I think has a good chance of success.

Q: What impact did the Arab Spring have on the Palestinians?

A: It’s history that’s not yet written. I look at the Palestinians now, and they look like other regimes that have fallen during the Arab Spring, the ones that were autocratic and corrupt.

The Palestinians have escaped an uprising because the anger is directed at the Israelis. But if there was another intifada, the risk would be that the unrest initially directed at the Israelis would ultimately be directed toward the P.A. as well. Frustration is simmering there.

The U.S. policy during the Arab Spring was calling for the end of the rule of multiple dictators, autocratic regimes, other governments deemed to not be inclusive. Yet there is continuing support for and endorsing a Palestinian state led by another government that looks a heck of a lot like those. It exposes the inconsistency of U.S. foreign policy. The idea here is to simply get the peace process done.

Q: What is the future for the Israelis and the Palestinians and the peace process, in your opinion?

A: The peace process itself will either collapse or renew with a continued framework indicating that they were not able to get to final status agreement. I doubt they’ll get to final status agreement.

More important is what happens when the Palestinians go back to the U.N. and campaign to join the member agencies and to launch a delegitimization campaign against Israel. They will largely get the support they are looking for from the member states. It will create massive problems for the U.S. We have a law prohibiting funding these agencies if the PLO joins and is not a state yet; our policy is to cut off funding. The Palestinians could make a mess of U.S foreign policy come springtime.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The Palestinians don’t like it when people like me ask these questions. You can talk about allegations of terrorism, and you never see them push back as hard as when you talk about financial issues and mismanagement. It’s hitting on an issue that clearly strikes a nerve. That’s point number one.

Point number two is that this has taught me that the Palestinians and Israelis debate is one that sometimes defies logic. This book is seen as critical of the Palestinians but is as pro-Palestinian as you can get. I advocate for better governance for the Palestinians. Yet, the response is very partisan: How dare you criticize the Palestinians? Even if the end result is a better future for the Palestinians. That’s food for thought.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 19

Dec. 19, 1861: Writer Italo Svevo born.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Q&A with author Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is the author of two novels, Kaylee's Ghost and Miriam the Medium, and a writing guide, I Dare You to Write. In addition, she works as a phone psychic and teaches writing at UCLA Extension. She lives in Great Neck, N.Y.

Q: How did your own experiences as a phone psychic affect the writing of Kaylee's Ghost?

A: All the clients in Kaylee’s Ghost are fictional, but reading it, you get a chance to see what my life is like as a phone psychic. Miriam Kaminsky, my psychic heroine, deals with everything that every woman does—errands, chores, family brouhahas, but when her business phone rings, she’s in another zone.

What is different about Kaylee’s Ghost is that it’s the only novel about a psychic actually written by a psychic, so you can see how visions arise in her mind. Just like me, Miriam will often be able to see the caller without benefit of Skype. Images, scents, tactile sensations begin to arise in Miriam’s mind and body that give her information about the person.

Recently, when working with a client who had a dog, I smelled something foul. “Does Chumley have bad breath?” I asked and it turned out that Chumley was in her lap, panting out his halitosis.

And like Miriam, I get symbols, as if I have a personal tarot deck in my head. When I see hands playing the childhood string game of Cat’s Cradle, it tells me that the client has an enmeshed relationship with his mother. A shovel against a starry sky tells me that the person is a night binger.

Sometimes I actually get a pain just where the person is hurting. The other day, I limped to the phone with shooting pains in my right knee. I asked the client, “Does your right knee hurt?” He told me he was scheduled for a knee replacement. The pain in my knee stopped immediately. And I’m sure his pain will too after several months.

Like Miriam, I hear things—coughs, music, shouts that are more clues, all of which I have to interpret. Being a psychic involves a lot of the same gifts as being a writer—the ability to notice deeply and express what you see, feel, taste, hear.

Q: One of the book's themes involves relationships from one generation to another. Why does the psychic gene seem to skip a generation in Miriam's family, and what impact does that have on her interactions with her family members?

A: Any trait can skip a generation or two—musical talent, math prodigy, etc. In Miriam’s family, her Russian grandmother, her bubbie, was a psychic like mine. In fact, Bubbie looks just like my own bubbie who made herbal concoctions, potions, and salves, along with her predictions to cure her family and the neighbors.

In Kaylee’s Ghost, Miriam’s bubbie mentored her, teaching her to see spirits in shining surfaces, how to spot the colors around people, to read omens. Miriam adored her.

Cara, Miriam’s daughter, didn’t inherit Miriam’s psychic gift. Instead, she has her own business producing and merchandising the knitted hats she designs. She learned to knit from Miriam’s American-born mother who had little use for Miriam’s psychic gift, calling it “voodoo” or something from “the dark ages.”

Cara seems to have inherited Miriam’s mother’s attitude along with her talent for clothing design. She wants to be a modern businesswoman, not a “babushka lady.” And Cara knows all too well the pitfalls of growing up with a mother who is psychic—who could know where her daughter was at any moment or what was about to happen to her.

When Cara’s daughter, Violet is born and seems to be psychic, Miriam wants nothing more than to mentor her the way Bubbie had done with her. But Cara digs in her heels.

As things become more and more fractious within the family, Violet, a brilliant and sensitive child, is torn between her mother and grandmother until Miriam’s gift backfires, bringing terrible danger to those she loves. Can Miriam put things right in time, or is it already too late?

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

A: Kaylee is a distinct individual, full of her own quirks and foibles, yet, to me, she represents an alter-ego of Cara.

Cara tries to differentiate herself from her mother, be her own woman, independent. Kaylee is ruled by her mother and has never been even been able to work, let alone have a career. Cara openly rebels. Kaylee can only act in secret.

She also reminds me of those who carry new age thinking way too far at their own peril.   

Q: Kaylee's Ghost is a sequel to your first novel, Miriam the Medium. Do you plan any more sequels?

A: Yes, I’m writing one with the psychic granddaughter, Violet, as the main protagonist. These characters live in me. I can’t let go of them and they can’t let go of me.   

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I also write poems and essays. My poem, The Sticky Grid, has been nominated by the lit journal, Crack the Spine, for a 2015 Pushcart Prize. And I teach writing at UCLA Extension. Writing is a way of life for me, not limited to any one form or genre.  

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Being psychic is so much a part of me that tonight when a friend asked me if my daughter was a medium I said, “No, she isn’t even psychic.” My friend burst out laughing. She had a jacket in a size Medium that she was wondering if my daughter could wear. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 18

Dec. 18, 1870: Writer H.H. Munro (Saki) born.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Q&A with chef and author Enzo Fargione

Chef Enzo Fargione of Osteria Elisir in Washington, D.C., is the author of the new book Visual Eats: A Behind the Scenes Look at Modern Italian Cooking. He grew up in Torino, Italy, and has worked in the United States for many years; he is based in Washington, D.C.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book, and what do you hope readers will learn from it?

A: I felt the necessity to send a clear message about my culinary experiences and knowledge, how easy it really is to cook when the passion for what you are doing is present.

I wanted people to really appreciate the restaurant industry and to learn from it while reading all the behind-the-scenes stories I wrote in my book. After all, this is a colorful industry and chefs are often considered or labeled as crazy.

Q: What have been the most important influences on your cooking?

A: For sure my two mentors. The first one is my culinary professor back home in Italy and the second a chef I worked for many of my young years. I watched him climbing the stairs of success internationally, while delivering a sense of professionalism and pride in everything he did and in details in the kitchen. They both changed my life forever.

Q: Do you have a favorite dish you like to cook? To eat?

A: I get excited when I cook pasta as well as meats, fish, soups salads, you name it. What I feel whenever I step in the kitchen cannot be described in words. I don't see this as a job, to me my work is a fun playground, a vehicle that allows me to express my skills and vision of cooking while driving to unknown destinations.

I often eat out and I love a great deal of well prepared Chinese food, especially Dim Sums; Mexican cuisine is a weakness of mine as well as a simple board of charcuterie and cheese with a great bottle of Super Tuscan or Brunello. Now I 'm happy!  

Q: How has the restaurant scene in Washington, D.C., changed over the years that you've worked there?

A: Washington is a very cosmopolitan and diplomatic town. A little reserved with a European feel. I guess this is one of the reasons why I fit in here so well and I fell in love with it.

Twenty-five years ago the restaurant scene in D.C. was very poor. Over the years the culinary progress and the always changing trends made it possible for many great chefs to settle in Washington, bringing their quality work and their knowledge.

About 10 years ago Washington finally rose to be one of the top 10 restaurant cities in the U.S., but frankly we are still a little far away if we compare it to great food cities such as Chicago, San Francisco or New York. We are on the right path; at least it is wonderful to know that nowadays it's pretty hard to have a bad meal in D.C.

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: Yes! I constantly feel the need to tell a story. I guess everyone comes to a point in their lives when you feel compelled to criticize, tell the truth and share life experiences.

In my line of work there are so many injustices. Too much success, not enough, celebrity status with very little knowledge and others who hold the secret of the culinary holy grail hidden away and incapable of sharing I decided to write about it involving some of the biggest international names of the culinary industry. The book is called "I Have Something To Say." 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Everything else is in my book. Laughs, recipes, real-life stories, celebrity chefs’ trips and so many odd and confusing moments I finally decided to collect them all in one book.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb