Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Q&A with children's author Ifeoma Onyefulu

Ifeoma Onyefulu is the author of many children's books, including Ikenna Goes to Nigeria and Here Comes Our Bride, both past winners of the Children's Africana Book Award; A is for Africa; and New Shoes for Helen. She lives in London.
Q: How do you come up with ideas for your books?
A: Sometimes conversations between fellow passengers on a bus in London where I live could be the spark I need for a story, or the way someone says something on the radio.
Also, sometimes my publisher Frances Lincoln would suggest an idea, and I’d go away and think about it; an example is Ikenna Goes to Nigeria, which earned me a second CABA (Children's Africana Book Award).
But quite often an idea would pop into my head – especially when I’m doing something less tasking – one day I was washing dishes and I heard a voice and it said My Grandfather is a Magician, so I wrote it down, but didn’t know what it meant; some days later I realised it was another book. So, I went to Nigeria in search of a place to set the book.
The texts always come first and then I’d go to any African country I think would offer me the best photos for that particular book, for example for the books New Shoes for Helen and Omer’s Favourite Place I went to Ethiopia and to Mali for my First Experience books.
Q: Why did you decide to write for children?
A: I decided to write A is for Africa, my first book for my son, then aged 2, to show him what it was like growing up in Nigeria. Most of the books set in Africa in our local library were about animals, a few were about people, but they were so boring.
In A is for Africa I decided to highlight the items that would best show cultural and traditional lives; for example, in this book, I is for Indigo shows the traditional way of dying clothes and M is for Masquerade, a mask and costume made to honour the spirit of an ancestor.
Some of the items in the book were not strictly about culture, but are some items familiar to people who aren’t from Nigeria or Africa, for example, C is for Canoe and D is for Drums, and yet there are lots that are still less familiar, and ideal for discussions in the classrooms.
When I do workshops I like to tell children about how I write, and I often bring along my writing pad, which are full of crossed-out words and terrible writings and of course some proofs complete with hand written notes by my editor.
I also do storytelling; ghost and animal stories are usually popular, and of course the cunning tortoise features heavily.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Actually, I’m working on online short stories. I’ve written two at the moment – The Goat that Vanished and What the Orange Seller Saw.
The Goat that Vanished is set in a village where the elders used to command huge respect; anything they ask is given to them unopposed but when they demanded a gift of a cow, as was the tradition when someone well known died, young people there refused. They preferred to give them a goat instead. Unfortunately the delivery of the goat didn’t go according to plan.
What the Orange Seller Saw is about a boy, who discovers lots of money hidden beside an old barrel, while selling oranges for his mother, and decides to keep it. Soon, two men on motorbike, who had hidden the loot, gave chase.
I’m also working on another book, which will be illustrated with my photos and set in a city like Lagos. Finally, I’d love to do a photography exhibition in America.
 --Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with author Kate Alcott

Kate Alcott is the author of the new novel The Daring Ladies of Lowell, and also of the novel The Dressmaker. Kate Alcott is the pseudonym of journalist and author Patricia O'Brien. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: The story you tell in The Daring Ladies of Lowell is based in part on a trial that took place in 1833. How did you blend the real figures from the trial with your own fictional characters, and what did you find to be the right balance?

A: Inviting back to the witness stand some of the real people who testified at that trial – and putting their testimony into my story – made that long-ago event come alive for me. 

In fiction, of course, the story rules. It can be tempting to stay too long with real figures, and it was important not to do that. 

But there was no way to improve on some of the actual words of, for example, the poor farmer who found the mill girl’s body. Or the prosecuting attorney who fought for justice. You just have to know when your fictional characters start tugging at you, saying, hey, get back here into our story.

Q: What type of research did you do to write this novel, and was there anything you found especially surprising or interesting as you conducted your research?

A: I ran across a book called The Lowell Offering in a bookstore one day, and became fascinated with the writing – the poetry, stories, essays – that these young women poured forth – especially when I learned they worked 13 hours a day in the early cotton mills of this country.  The stories they told! 

Next I went up to the national park in Lowell, Massachusetts, to visit the place where they lived and worked. Walking through one of the boarding houses and visiting a still-working weaving room, I found myself imagining their routines as they ran up the stairs to operate their looms. I thought of the independence they gloried in, and the price many of them paid for that independence in broken health.  

I went home and read all I could. I stared at the pictures of these women – some smiling, arms around their friends; others with their fists in the air, vainly crying for better working conditions.

And then I read about the tragic death of one of them, a girl named Sarah Cornell. Although many of the facts are different for the character I created – Lovey Cornell – this death became the core of my story.

Q: You've said that the main character in your novel The Dressmaker was inspired by your mother. Did anyone in particular inspire you to create Alice, the protagonist in The Daring Ladies of Lowell?

A: Actually, I did think again of my mother, who worked as a factory girl in a lumber mill in Canada when she first came from Ireland. I went back there with her once and it was so cool to be there to hear her memories of that time pour out. 

But there is no single model for Alice. I tried to imagine a determined young woman with plans for a larger life than living and working on a farm – how she might reach out for it, what might happen.

Q: Religion plays a big part in the story. What was the dynamic between the mill owners and local religious leaders at the time of the trial?

A: The reputations of the early industrialists – and their ability to draw cheap female labor from the farms of New England – depended in large part on offering a safe, respectable environment for the young women to live and work.

They had to protect that reputation, and they wanted a guilty verdict against the man put on trial for Cornell’s death – who happened to be a Methodist minister. 

The Methodists – themselves somewhat doubtful of their more evangelical fringe, fought to exonerate the accused man. They paid a price, both during and after the trial.  Local hostility was strong.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m writing a book on Old Hollywood, built around the making of the movie Gone With the Wind.  I’m having a great deal of fun with this, especially since my husband, Frank Mankiewicz, (whose father wrote Citizen Kane) has told me some wonderful stories which are quite likely to end up in this novel.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Hmmm…I think these questions about cover it.  I hope your readers enjoy my Daring Ladies!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. An earlier Q&A with Kate Alcott can be found here.

Q&A with author Garrett Peck

Q: Why did you decide to write a history of brewing in Washington, D.C.?

A: It had never been done before! No one had ever written a comprehensive history of brewing in Washington, D.C., so Capital Beer is a first.

The book is actually a sequel of sorts. In 2011, I published Prohibition in Washington, D.C.: How Dry We Weren’t, which looked at how the noble experiment unraveled in the nation’s capital. I included in that book a chapter called “The Bottom of the Barrel,” which examined the impact of Prohibition on the brewers.

Capital Beer is a major expansion of our brewing history, as it goes all the way back to 1770 with the start of brewing, continues through the Civil War and Gilded Age as beer became an industrial product, charts the impact of Prohibition on brewing, and looks at the new generation of craft brewers who have carried beer forward in recent years. 

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

A: A number of things proved to be wonderful surprises in researching Capital Beer. I was surprised at how early commercial brewing started in the Washington area (1770 in Alexandria, to be exact).

It was cool finding the very first image of a D.C. brewery - you can see it in an 1833 painting called City of Washington by George Cooke - then pinpointing the exact site of that brewery, the Washington Brewery at Navy Yard.

(I wrote up a report about that brewery site, which you can freely download  off the GWU Gelman Library server. It’s got lots of images, original newspaper articles, and historic maps.)

I discovered how beer exploded in demand once German immigrants in the 1850s introduced lager, a perfect antidote to D.C.’s sultry summers, and looked into who was the first to brew lager in D.C. (I’m not telling! You have to read the book to find the answer.)

And looked into the role of women in brewing - from its earliest days as a cottage industry, to the city’s first female brewer, Katherine Dentz in the 1870s, to women brewers today. It’s definitely not a man’s business, though beer has long been thought as a manly drink.

Lastly, I was amazed at how much history I was able to uncover, including images from our brewing past. The book has 90 images altogether, many of them in color. 

What wasn’t such a wonderful surprise was to see how the demand for locally-produced beer fizzled in the D.C. market after Prohibition ended.

Our last brewery, the Christian Heurich Brewing Company, closed in 1956. After that, we went without a production brewery for 55 years.

Since 2011, craft brewing has nearly exploded in the D.C. area, and bars have a much wider array of local beers on tap. It’s grand to see the resurrection of local beer - and to see how much residents have embraced it. 

Q: What are some of your favorite craft beers?

A: If I listed them all, it would go on page after page after page. So I’ll give you just a few of my favorites. 

- Great Lakes Brewing’s Dortmunder Gold is an astonishingly good lager. I can’t say enough good things about it, only that it’s almost always in my fridge. 
- Bell’s Two Hearted Ale. Another staple that’s in my fridge. It’s hoppier than most ales (outside of the pale ale and India pale ale category). 
- 3 Stars Brewing has a delicious, heart-warming brown ale called Southern Belle that will make you wish that winter would last forever. 
- District ChopHouse’s Bourbon Stout. You read that right. Bourbon. Stout. It’s good for what ails ya. 
- Gordon Biersch has a lovely Schwarzbier, a dark lager that you don’t find very often outside of Germany. 
- Schlafly's Kölsch. A crisp, light German ale that you might mistake for a lager…or a cream ale. 
- Port City’s Derecho Common. It’s a seasonal beer, meaning that they don’t make it very often, and it has a great story behind it from the June 2012 derecho (a devastating thunderstorm) that hit Washington. Plus it’s yummy. 
- Orval - the Belgian Trappist brewery. I could drink that everyday if it wasn’t so expensive! 

I should add that my suds sipping changes with the seasons. In winter I like richer, comforting beers like porter; in summer, lighter beers.

And also…taste is subjective. What I like isn’t necessarily what you like, and that’s just fine. We have an amazing array of choices to sip from. There’s truly never been a better time in human history to be a beer drinker than right now. Drink what you like! 

Q: How does Washington, D.C.'s brewing history compare with that of some other large cities?

A: Washingtonians can stand tall. Our brewing history goes back to 1770, earlier than many other cities. We have an extensive, rich history in brewing, and lager beer was absolutely essential to surviving a hot summer here. (In fact, I’d argue that it still is.) 

We’ve witnessed the modern revival of craft brewing in Washington, and many think that it is somehow something new, when in fact we’ve been brewing here for centuries.

True, we had a 55-year gap after Heurich closed in 1956, and we didn’t get our first production brewery in the city until 2011. During those dark decades many forget that Washington once had a strong legacy of brewing.

Many other cities - such as Baltimore or Philadelphia just up the road - got production craft breweries in the 1980s, but Washington missed that boat. Still we’ve made huge progress in a very short period of time, and we have a wide swath of brewers we can be proud of. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a history of Walt Whitman in Washington, D.C. He was the poet laureate of the Civil War, volunteered for two years as a one-man USO to help hospitalized soldiers, got hired as a federal clerk, and composed poems that would finally put him on the literary map during his decade in the nation’s capital (1862-1873). I’m hoping to have the book out by spring 2015.

Whitman’s partner, Peter Doyle, was in Ford’s Theatre and witnessed Lincoln’s assassination. Next year, 2015, is the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death and the end of the Civil War. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m giving a wide variety of talks, tours and beer tastings throughout spring 2014 - and probably beyond. I post all of them on the Events page on my website. Come have a beer with me and get your book signed! 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. A previous Q&A with Garrett Peck can be found here.

Q&A with author Margaret Talbot

Margaret Talbot is the author of The Entertainer: Movies, Magic, and My Father's Twentieth Century, which focuses on the life of her father, actor Lyle Talbot. She is a staff writer for The New Yorker, and has worked for the Times Magazine and The New Republic. She lives in Washington, D.C.
Q: Why did you decide to write about your father’s life, and did you have trouble balancing your roles as daughter and historian/biographer as you write the book?
A: Since my father was so much older than most fathers I knew—he was born in 1902 and was almost 60 when I was born—I always had this sense of him as a vital, living link to history, especially the kind of cultural and social history I loved.
He’d been part of touring entertainments in the teens and ‘20s—carnivals and magic shows and hypnotism acts that wowed small town audiences in the Midwest and represented what Greil Marcus calls “the old, weird America;” tent show melodramas;  close-knit  and eccentric theatrical companies that brought vaudeville and modern fashions and morals from the cities to rural areas.
And then, he’d gone to Hollywood as a leading man at Warner Brothers in the early ‘30s—an almost star who acted in movies opposite Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy, Carole Lombard, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Mae West----and a founder of the Screen Actors Guild.
In the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, he wended his way through a troubled, noir-ish period of his own life, acting in Ed Wood movies and what were then called exploitation movies (comically lurid stuff about reefer and teenage delinquency) and ended up making a comeback in classic family sitcoms of the ‘50s, notably “Ozzie and Harriet.”
He was a Zelig-like figure who was present at all these turning points in entertainment history, moments when local, sort of funky, do-it-yourself amusements were replaced by more sophisticated ones —first movies, then TV—for mass audiences whose tastes and desires they trained.
I knew I didn’t want to write a straight biography—his  story wouldn’t hold up to that—or a memoir, though there are certainly elements of both in the book.  
But I thought that he would be a great main character in a bigger social history of entertainment and its influence in the 20th century.
As far as balancing the roles of historian/biographer and daughter: it wasn’t as hard as I thought it might be, partly because by the time I started writing the book, my father had died.
Knowing he wouldn’t be reading it gave me a certain freedom to be clear-eyed in my assessments of him—thinking of the reader rather than of his feelings--which is something, I’m gratified to say, that a lot of reviewers have commended, even in the context of what is a very affectionate book.
Q: What surprised you the most in the course of your research?
A: In terms of my father’s life, probably getting the final count on his marriages. My three older siblings and I knew that my father had been married before he married our Mom, but we really never knew how many times. The total turned out to be five!
But my research also corroborated  the family legend and our own  of our parents’ marriage as a great love story, and the feeling that in some ways, my father’s varied love life with a lot of lovely and some pretty wild women in Hollywood was, as my parents conveyed, sort of a prelude to the real thing.
Q: How did you select the title The Entertainer for the book?
A: My father had a real sense of himself as a working actor, a guy whose job—and it was a job he loved and felt very lucky to have but it was a job—was to entertain people.
He wasn’t a method actor, he didn’t have attitude, and while that might have helped explain why he became neither star nor a brilliant artist, it was also an orientation I came to admire over the course of writing the book.
He was a trouper, and he was grateful all his life, that he could make a living and support a family working in a creative field that he loved. 
Every time he left the house—even just to go to the grocery store--he was impeccably groomed and sharply attired—that was his idea of upholding the social contract.  With him vanity was a kind of mitzvah.
Q: As a child, how many of your father’s movies and TV shows did you see, and have your feelings about some of those changed over the years?
A: I watched his movie with Shirley Temple, “Our Little Girl,” many times, though it always bugged me that since he plays the interloper—the suave neighbor who is moving in on Shirley’s Mom, while her Dad (Joel McCrea) spends too much time at his lab—Shirley rejects him in the movie.
It was weird seeing Shirley Temple telling my Dad he didn’t know how to be a daddy—even though I understood they were acting and even though this was a much younger version of the beloved father I knew. I guess it was just that as a little kid, I really liked and related to Shirley Temple.  
And I watched him on “Ozzie and Harriet” and “Leave it to Beaver, “ on which my brother, Stephen Talbot, who acted as a kid, and is now a documentary filmmaker, was a regular.
But we didn’t have a sort of “Sunset Boulevard” household—thank God!—where my Dad was always screening old movies of himself in a darkened room.
My parents showed us what they thought might interest us of the filmed work, and we also went to the theater to see my Dad perform, which was always exciting—both my Dad and Mom, who had also been an actress, loved live theater, and sort of considered it the pinnacle of acting.
What I didn’t get to see were what are now my favorite movies of his—racy, cynical, taut little movies like “Three on a Match,” “Big City Blues, “Ladies They Talk About,”  “College Coach,” “Heat Lightning.”
These were movies made during the early ‘30s pre-Code period—the brief interlude when the Hays Code, the moral guidelines that were supposed to dictate what could be shown in American movies—was being more laxly enforced.
The upshot was movies that were franker about a lot of things, including drug use and female sexuality, than movies would be for many years to come.
As a result, most of these movies were still not shown on TV when I was growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and they were not otherwise available. (Some movies of the era have been expurgated or permanently lost.)
There’s been a big rediscovery of pre Code movies  in recent years, through  Turner Classic Movies and its Forbidden Hollywood DVD collections, through revival houses and film societies, and through books by film historians like Mick LaSalle, Mark Vieira, and Thomas Doherty—and that’s been terrific for many reasons (among them that  it has finally allowed me to see some of the movies my Dad made when he was at the height of his appeal!).
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m a staff writer at The New Yorker where each year I usually write several long pieces that take a few months to report, as well as shorter Commentary-type pieces for the magazine and its web site.
Since writing the book, I’ve been doing more reporting about film—I did a profile of the director Alexander Payne that ran in the fall when “Nebraska” came out, for instance, and I’m  working now on a piece that has to do with special effects artists who create photoreal digital humans.
I’d love to write another book—this, my first, was so fun and satisfying to do—and I’m toying with a few ideas. But finding and committing to a non-fiction book idea really is like falling in love-- finding the right one that you can live with so intimately for so long!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Just—thank you for the opportunity to talk with you and your readers, and thank you for your blog!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 26

Feb. 26, 1802: Writer Victor Hugo born.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Q&A with children's author Louise Meyer

Louise Meyer is the co-author, with Gilbert "Bobbo" Ahiagble, of Master Weaver from Ghana, winner of the 1999 Children's Africana Book Award from the African Studies Association. A longtime educator, she lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: How did you end up working on Master Weaver from Ghana?

A: I met Bobbo, the master weaver, at the Museum of African Art, a very long time ago when it was still a private museum. They invited Bobbo to be an artist in residence at the museum. I was working at the museum; I had a background in textile arts, weaving, building looms. I became his assistant. I did a bit of everything.

When he left, I moved to the Ivory Coast with my husband and one child. I wanted to replicate all the things I learned from Bobbo. He had ambitions to open a weaving school in Ghana. The trip to the U.S. was transformative for him. In Ghana, he was just another weaver; he inherited it from his family. In Africa, they are responsible for the materials, weaving, and selling. It’s difficult. He was good at all that, and that’s probably how he ended up coming to the States, networking with the Peace Corps volunteers.

Q: What year did he come here?

A: It was 1975. In West Africa, there were opportunities to learn weaving. My family and I were in the Ivory Coast, the neighboring country to Ghana. I had ambitions to work with weavers. It was challenging; I had two small children, and it was hard to move around. Traditional weavers don’t end up weaving in big cities.

In Abidjan, I ended up working at an art school. I worked there in the weaving studio; it had fallen into disrepair, and I fixed it. That led to a job with the International Labor Organization. I was doing technology stuff, creating alternative machines for spinning cotton.

Then I was hired by the International Labor Organization to go up-country, close to Burkina Faso, to strengthen the artisan sector. Studies indicated that all the traditional weavers would disappear without support. That was a very exciting job, exactly what I wanted to do. It was similar to what Bobbo was trying to do.

I was close to Bobbo; I organized exhibits for him in Ivory Coast. They are neighboring countries; you’d think they know each other, but they don’t. One was colonized by the Brits, one by the French.

I already had a good relationship with the artists in the North. They would say, This guy is doing things we should do, too. What happened was giving them the incentive to copy what he did, and do it too.

I moved back to Europe; I was married to a Swiss man. I invited Bobbo to come, with small funding from cultural exchange programs. He did demonstrations in schools and museums. When I moved back to the States, I had him come here; he came again and again.

So the book documents the relationship, how weaving is integrated with family life. It’s a non-formal education, pride in your product, all these things we are losing.

Also, there’s so much negative press about Africa [but] there are so many good things to show us.

The book became reality—there were challenges. This was before the Kindle. I was unknown. But it did happen. Brenda [Randolph, director of the Africa Access project,] submitted it to the African studies competition and it got an award; that helped keep it afloat, and helped get it into school libraries. It is on Kindle [now]. I do have dreams of incorporating video footage into a digital book; Kindle doesn’t allow that.

Q: How did it work to collaborate with a co-author and a photographer?

A: I needed his [Bobbo’s] approval of everything I wrote. It’s factual. One of the goals was to get rid of the junk, the bad books about Africa. This included sending text back and forth, faxing. There was more impact if it was co-published with him. I have a dream of publishing it in Ghana, but it hasn’t happened.

Q: What about the photographer, Nestor Hernandez?

A: He was so important. He passed away; he was a well-known photographer. One of the children’s book consultants I talked to said why don’t you go and take pictures? I said I’m not a professional photographer. I said [to Nestor Hernandez], you can go and stay with Bobbo for a month and take pictures. We can collaborate on this book. That’s what he did. I told him before you take any pictures, I want you to learn how to weave.

Q: Did he?

A: He did. It’s hard as a grown person to learn. It’s a very physical activity.

Q: How did you become involved in weaving?

A: I’m of that generation when during the war in Vietnam, everybody was going crazy with what the world was coming to. I was in a Ph.D. program, and I got fed up. I went to Europe; I wanted to do something with my hands. A lot of people now are the same; we’re going in cycles. I did an apprenticeship.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I co-founded a group that promotes renewable energy; we promote solar cooking all over the world.

What got me into that was working with the artisans. In Ivory Coast, I was supposed to focus on women. Men do the weaving; women spin cotton. I learned that these women, if they don’t spin cotton, have no income at all. If they spin cotton, at least they earn a little. The weavers need the cotton.

The women I was working with, ages 15-45, they were so busy collecting firewood to cook food, heat the water, they don’t have enough time for anything. The old ladies would sit under a tree for an hour or two and spin cotton. But the women taking care of the households had no time for anything.

With solar cooking, using the sun to cook food, they [would have more time; they] wouldn’t have to get firewood. My goal is to return to Ivory Coast with technology and change the world! The countries we work in [in Africa] are all English-speaking countries; it’s hard in French-speaking countries.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I have an exhibit traveling from school to school. With the solar cooking project, a publication mentioned me, and it got into the hands of a refugee from Congo in a refugee camp in Zimbabwe. He started sending drawings, essays, poetry. I was overwhelmed with happiness and grief at the same time. Finally, with the help of an art teacher, I put together an exhibit. It’s traveling from school to school in the D.C. area.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 25

Feb. 25, 1937: Journalist Bob Schieffer born.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Q&A with writer Emily St. John Mandel

Emily St. John Mandel is the author of the novels The Lola Quartet, The Singer's Gun, and Last Night in Montreal. Her new novel, Station Eleven, will be out later this year. She is a staff writer for The Millions, and she lives in Brooklyn.

Q: Your most recent novel, The Lola Quartet, is told from the perspective of various characters. Why did you decide to tell it that way, rather than just from the viewpoint of one character--maybe Gavin?

A: When I started writing my first novel, Last Night in Montreal, it seemed to me that it would be a more interesting story if I told it from the viewpoints of multiple characters, and the habit has stayed with me through the novels that followed.

One of my interests is memory, particularly the way different people can have completely different memories of the same event, and the way our memories shift and warp over time.

There's also something interesting to me about seeing the same scene—in The Lola Quartet, it's the final performance of a high school jazz quartet on the back of a pickup truck behind the school, just before graduation—from different perspectives. 

But anyway, the short answer is that I thought The Lola Quartet would be a deeper and more complex story with multiple viewpoints. At some point I think it might be interesting to write a novel from a single viewpoint, but I haven't done it yet. 

Q: The Florida setting plays a major role in the book. Why did you opt to set much of the book in Florida, and how does the seemingly unrelenting heat affect the characters?

A: I started writing The Lola Quartet a few months after the economic collapse of 2008. I knew I wanted to write about that strange new world we'd suddenly found ourselves in around that time, where banks were closing at a rate of one or two a week and the unemployment rate was soaring.

Florida was particularly devastated by the subprime mortgage bubble, with abandoned and half-completed housing developments everywhere. I wanted to write about the very odd world of the brokers who deal in foreclosed real estate, so Florida seemed like a good place to set the book.

As for the heat, the only character who's seriously affected by it is Gavin. He has trouble remaining conscious in heat waves, which is admittedly somewhat autobiographical; I grew up in a much cooler climate than where I live now, and am tormented by the New York City summers.

In The Lola Quartet, I suppose one could see the oppressive heat as a sort of physical manifestation of the weight of memory and guilt that he lives with.

Q: Do you usually know how your novels will end, or does the outcome change as you're writing?

A: I never know how my novels are going to end. There's a certain point where you have to figure out where you're going, but for me that point doesn't come until I'm fairly far along, and the entire work remains quite flexible up until the point where it goes to press.

I've often removed or rewritten characters and changed settings and such, quite far along in the editorial process.

Q: You have a new novel, Station Eleven, coming out later this year. What can you tell us about it?

A: It's about a traveling Shakespearean theatre company/orchestra in a post-apocalyptic North America, and it's also about celebrity, our obsession with objects, memory, oppressive dinner parties, and knife-throwing.

It was very important to me to not write a horror novel, so the action of the book shift back and forth between the days just before an apocalyptic flu pandemic, and a point 20 years later when the orchestra and actors travel between the settlements of the altered world.

I know it will be marketed as a post-apocalyptic book, but I think of it as more of a love letter to this remarkable world in which we find ourselves, where there is civilization, order, electricity, ease of travel, and all of the other things that are too easy to take for granted.

To take just one of those things, it was fascinating to consider as I was writing it how different our lives would be without, say, a widespread electrical grid.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: It's a secret.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I am deeply appreciative of everyone who reads my books. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 23

Feb. 23, 1868: Writer, scholar, activist W.E.B. Du Bois born.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Q&A with author Adam LeBor

Adam LeBor's most recent books include The Geneva Option, a thriller, and Tower of Basel, a history of the Bank for International Settlements. He is a journalist who grew up in London and has covered events in more than 30 countries. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Economist and The Times of London. He teaches journalism at Mathias Corvinus Collegium in Budapest, Hungary.

Q: Why did you decide to write a history of the Bank for International Settlements, and why has the bank had such a low profile despite its importance?

A: I have been interested in the BIS since the late 1990s, when I wrote a book called Hitler's Secret Bankers about Swiss banks and Nazi gold.

That work included a chapter on the BIS, which I thought was a fascinating organisation, a place where both Nazis and Allied bankers could meet and work together throughout the Second World War, even while their countries were at war.

The one thing both sides could agree on was the need to keep the financial channels open, especially with regard to the rebuilding of Germany after the end of the war. 

But the BIS is of much more than historical interest. Every other month the 60 most important central bankers in the world, including the chairman of the Federal Reserve, travel to Basel to discuss global financial and economic issues.

The details of those meetings, including the attendance list, are kept secret. Central bankers are public servants, paid by the public purse but we have no idea what they are talking about together.

And even though the BIS is an enormously profitable bank, it is also an international organisation, with a similar status to the United Nations, founded and protected by international treaty.

The Swiss authorities have no jurisdiction over the BIS. The BIS does not encourage publicity. Most people have never heard of the BIS and it prefers to keep a low profile.

Q: How did you conduct the research for the book, and what did you learn that surprised you most as you were working on it?

A: Although the BIS remains secretive about its meetings its archive is open under the 30-year rule, meaning that documents more than 30 years old are available to bona fide researchers.

The archivists and historians working at the bank were extremely helpful. Also, all of the bank's annual reports, dating back to its foundation in 1930, are available for free download at the bank's website. 

There are other archival sources as well, most usefully, the U.S. National Archives, which had some interesting material about the bank in the Second World War.

For the bank's present-day activities, I interviewed a large number of central bankers with current and former knowledge of the bank who attended the meetings there. Some spoke on background, others on the record.

The bank itself was not especially forthcoming with information about its current activities, although it was very helpful with photographs. An interview with Sir Mervyn King, the former governor of the Bank of England, was invaluable. 

The most surprising thing I learnt was the close relationship between Thomas McKittrick, the American BIS president from 1940 to 1946, and Allen Dulles, who ran the American spy operation in Berne in the war and later served as director of the CIA.

I found some documents in the archives of the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA, which revealed how McKittrick was cutting deals with German industrialists at the end of the war, to guarantee their profits after the war - even as American and British boys were dying on the beaches of Normandy. This was done with the full knowledge of the State Department and the OSS.

Q: You also write fiction. How did you come up with your protagonist, Yael Azoulay?

A: Yael Azoulay is a covert negotiator for the United Nations. She was inspired in part by a character in the Bible. I first learnt about Yael at school in the 1970s. After a battle between the Israelites and their enemy, Sisera, the enemy general fled, looking for sanctuary. Yael beckoned him into her tent.

There are two version of what happened next. In the first Yael offers him milk and a blanket and a place to sleep. In the second, she sleeps with him, seven times. In both it ends badly for Sisera.

When Barak, the Israelite general, passes by, asking if anyone has seen Sisera, Yael beckons him inside. There is Sisera, lying dead with a tent-peg through his head.

At the age of 15, this story made a great impression on me. I never looked at my female classmates in quite the same way again. Women could be dangerous, I realised, and that seemed an enormously appealing idea.

The United Nations part of the story reaches back to my time covering the wars in Yugoslavia during the 1990s. The idea that this neutral organisation could cross the front-lines back and forth between the warring sides seemed bizarre to me.

So could I, all because of the small plastic U.N. press card I was issued with. I spent a lot of time with British peacekeepers and saw at first hand all the contradictions of the very concept of peacekeeping.

I later wrote a non-fiction book called Complicity with Evil investigating the U.N.'s response to genocide, focusing on Srebrenica, where Dutch U.N. peacekeepers handed over 8,000 Muslim men and boys to be slaughtered, Rwanda and Darfur. That gave me a lot of insight into how the U.N. works, or did not work, in those three cases.

The U.N. building in New York is a 38-storey tower of intrigue, conspiracy and betrayal - a fine place to set a series of conspiracy thrillers.

Q: Do you have a preference for writing fiction or nonfiction?

A: At the moment I am very focused on my Yael Azoulay thriller series. The first volume, The Geneva Option, was published in summer 2013 by HarperCollins US.

I have just finished the sequel, The Washington Stratagem, which is scheduled for publication in November 2014, if all goes well.

However I am still interested in non-fiction ideas, and I find that researching non-fiction can provide plenty of inspiration for my thrillers.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am planning out the third volume in the Yael Azoulay series, which will bring Yael to Europe, provisionally entitled The Vienna Line.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: You can try before you buy by downloading my free e-book novella featuring Yael Azoulay. The Istanbul Exchange is available in all e-book formats here.  I hope you enjoy it.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb