Monday, March 31, 2014

Q&A with authors Paul Norden and David Smitherman

Paul Norden and his brother, JP Norden, were severely wounded in the Boston Marathon bombing last April. Together with author David Smitherman, they have written Twice As Strong: 12 Seconds, 2 Brothers, and the Marathon That Changed Their Lives.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book, and how did you choose "Twice As Strong" as the title?

PN: My brother and I wanted to write the book to share our story.  We had so much support from strangers and this community (in Boston) that we wanted to give something back to them. This allowed us to show them how much it meant to us and offer them insight into our lives. We also hope this book will inspire others.  Both JP and I were fortunate enough to meet so many inspirational individuals over the last year, we wanted to pay it forward. For the title, we were both so proud of each other’s strength, we decided on “Twice As Strong!” 

DS:  I had heard about the Nordens after the tragedy and was amazed by how they were affected and how they were dealing with the challenges they faced. Then a few months later my agent contacted me to help two Boston Marathon survivors with a book, and it turned out to be JP and Paul Norden. I was excited to help them tell their story, and I thought their choice of a title was perfect and played nicely on the Boston Strong mantra.

Q: How difficult was it to revisit the events of and following the marathon as you wrote the book?

PN:  For me it was quite difficult revisiting the events after the marathon. I did not like seeing my brother or my girlfriend injured and hearing about that was hard on me. I was in a coma for the first week so I learned about their injuries and difficulties as we wrote the book and it was heart wrenching. I could handle hearing about my own injuries, but hearing about people you love is very hard.

DS: When I interviewed everyone involved, I could tell it was still very emotional and difficult, but they were eager to tell their story, their way, and they knew a book was the best way to achieve that. The book is written in their voice, but in a third-person perspective to give a complete picture of all of the people involved.  

Q: How did the three of you collaborate on the book? What was the writing process like?

PN:  It was easy to share our story with Dave. There was a lot of talking and interviewing, but Dave made the process relaxing and fun. Every time I would remember something new, I would send him a message because I knew it should be in the book. From there, he would ask about all the details and emotions from that moment.

DS:  While working on the book, I talked with them a lot on the phone, through email, and even text messages. Then I flew to meet them and spend time learning more about them. It was interesting talking to everyone and getting their reflections on that day. There are so many emotional angles to their story that to me it was very important to provide a complete picture of what they have experienced. 

Q: What message would you like readers to take from your book?

PN:  The message I would like readers to take away from this book is – to never give up. In our book you hear how truly devastating our injuries were: legs were amputated, burns covered most of our bodies and shrapnel littered the rest. It was a very hard road when I first woke up -- my own injuries, my brother’s injuries and the injuries of our friends -- yet we never gave up, and pushed forward. We worked hard through the physical and emotional pain, but we never gave up. Now almost a year later, we are enjoying our ‘pretty normal’ lives.

DS:  The Nordens are such a humble, down-to-earth family that readers will be able to relate to them and their struggles. People will find themselves wondering what they would do if they found themselves in a similar situation. How would they respond? Would they rise to the challenge? Would they have the same support system?

Q: What's next for you?

PN:  For me, I am planning a wedding… my fiancée and I got engaged a couple of months ago, which we are very excited about.  For JP and I, we hope to start our own roofing and sheet metal company so we can work together again. We will run the shop and business since going back on the roof is still very questionable at this point.

DS:  Since their story is still evolving, a paperback version of the book will come out in the fall with updates and more surprises.

Q: Anything else we should know?

PN: We always like to say thank you to everyone for all of their support over the last 11 months. It truly meant the world to us and each person has had an impact on our recovery. The prayers, the support, the donations – Thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

DS:  Theirs is a timeless story that is not so much about the Boston bombing as the Boston bonding.   

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 31

March 31, 1926: Author John Fowles born.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

March 30

March 30, 1844: Poet Paul Verlaine born.

Q&A with author Anna Funder

Anna Funder is the author of the novel All That I Am, and the nonfiction book Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall. She has worked as an international lawyer for the Australian government, and a documentary producer at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. She grew up in Melbourne and Paris, and now lives in Brooklyn.

Q: How did you come upon the story you tell in All That I Am, and how did you blend the fictional and historic elements?

A: I was researching the life of my friend Ruth Blatt (1906-2001). Ruth was in the SWP, a small, left-wing anti-Hitler group, and had had to go into exile in London when Hitler came to power in 1933. So, I was researching the activities of anti-Hitler groups long before the war.

Dora Fabian was in the same political party as Ruth, and also in exile in London in the early 1930s, and when I came across her story, and the ridiculous official reasons given for her death (along with her flatmate, the politician Mathilde Wurm) I knew that I wanted to write a book that represented the extraordinary courage these people had, and that restored us to them in some way.

It fascinated me to find out about the very early, very prescient resistance to Hitler, so much of it led by Jewish intellectuals and activists.

Q: Why did you decide to tell the story in alternating chapters from Ruth's and Toller's perspectives?

A: Because between them their points of view build up an intimate portrait of Dora. No one knows everything about anyone; I wanted to avoid any hint of that kind of omniscience, whilst still making a "surround-sound" portrait of the time.

Q: You've also written a nonfiction book, Stasiland. Did you consider writing Ruth's story as nonfiction?

A: I considered writing Stasiland as fiction, but it just wasn't ethically or aesthetically appropriate to get into the heads of heroes, resisters or Stasi men who were still walking around Berlin and could talk for themselves. I felt they could be their own witnesses in history.

With All That I Am the fundamental task was to get inside the heads of the characters to show what it feels like to be so brave, which is to say what it feels like to be so afraid, but continue what you are doing anyway in order to try to save others. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Another novel.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Q&A with Professor Tom Mascaro

Tom Mascaro is the author of Into the Fray: How NBC's Washington Documentary Unit Reinvented the News. He teaches media history at Bowling Green State University, and he lives in Livonia, Michigan.

Q: You write, "My purpose is to fill in the historical narrative of NBC news and documentary, which is lacking compared to the bibliography on CBS." Why do you think there's been more written about CBS?

A: One chief reason is Gary Paul Gates, a veritable chronicler of CBS News. Air Time: The Inside Story of CBS News is a classic. Gates also contributed to books by Dan Rather (The Palace Guard); Bob Schieffer (The Acting President); and Mike Wallace (Close Encounters and Between You and Me).

CBS’s editorial courage on subjects like McCarthyism, The Selling of the Pentagon, or Vietnam intelligence disputes have generated much literature. The Murrow biographies and Fred Friendly’s books established useful frameworks for others.

CBS has been a beacon of broadcast journalism since World War II, so its health is a bellwether for journalism and the nation, which is why Who Killed CBS? The Undoing of America’s Number One Network, by Peter Boyer, is another classic.

However, the revered NBC News visionary, Reuven Frank, writes in his important (and overlooked) memoir Out of Thin Air: The Brief, Wonderful Life of Network News about CBS’s emphasis on words versus NBC’s commitment to picture: “The CBS staff modeled television news on radio news, the same structure for writers and editors, the same standards, purposes, and emphasis on words.”

Frank continues, “Pictures are the point of television reporting. Television enables the audience to see things happen, and that is what newspapers and magazines and radio cannot duplicate.”

Reuven also famously wrote, “The highest power of television journalism is not in the transmission of information but in the transmission of experience.” This helps explain the logic and importance of the documentaries produced by the NBC Washington unit and chronicled in Into the Fray.

Q: Three of the major figures in your book are David Brinkley, Ted Yates, and Bob Rogers. What did each of them contribute to the legacy of NBC News during the Cold War period?

A: Brinkley emphasized intelligent common sense. He was appalled by official and institutional neglect of obvious issues—landlords profiting from the squalid conditions of their renters; incompetence and corruption in highway construction projects; and one particular theme of the Cold War—disposition of U.S. aid to Latin America, where the privileged few profited from the scrum between Castro communism and U.S. capitalistic democracy, while peasants continued to suffer. “A hungry child should not be mixed up in international politics,” Brinkley stated in one installment of David Brinkley’s Journal, “he should just be fed.”

Yates is a pioneering figure in NBC News and American journalism history. Although Rogers was the better writer, Yates was still a gifted storyteller. But he was also extremely committed to and courageous about reporting from dangerous sites of Cold War struggles in Latin America, Congo, and the Middle East, where he was killed.

Yates had a sense of the overall. He was not content to produce just one program on Vietnam; Yates led the production of The Battle for Asia, a prescient documentary trilogy on Thailand, Laos, and Indonesia that revealed the full sweep of the Cold War in Southeast Asia. He was the first to appear as an on-air correspondent and producer-director of documentary programming, made most evident in his award-winning coverage on Santo Domingo: War among Friends.

Rogers established standards of in-depth research, a practice of seeking out all available voices on a region or issue, peerless writing (especially the blend of word with image), and making the best possible call on a story based on the evidence. Rogers won the Writers Guild Award two times for NBC documentaries. He mentored a coterie of women researchers and associate producers and bequeathed his Jesuit-inspired standards to those who were able to work with him.

Rogers also took up the mantle of the NBC Washington documentary unit after the death of Ted Yates in 1967 and kept the unit viable until his death in 1989. His career spanned the life and death of the Berlin Wall—all as a documentary news producer for NBC—and Rogers reported and produced numerous reports on Cold War issues.

Q: What impact did the Vietnam War have on the journalists you write about?

A: It varied. Cameraman Jim Norling always had a bad feeling about Vietnam, although Jim went to many dangerous parts of the world. He filmed Papa Doc Duvalier with a machine gun pointed at his back; he took machine-gun fire in Santo Domingo; and he was shoulder-to-shoulder with Yates when Ted was shot in Jerusalem. Norling was fearless but had reservations about covering Vietnam.

Julian Townsend shot one of the most important documentaries ever on the subject, Vietnam: It’s a Mad War (1964, before the escalation). His footage is extraordinary! Townsend also shot the Congo program and the trilogy on Southeast Asia, including going back to Vietnam. He understood Vietnam was a singular war and a regional conflict, and he knew how to cover it on film. But he too began to worry about how risking his life risked his family’s livelihood.

Vietnam taught Yates to look at the bigger picture. He saw (and wrote about) the beginnings of what he viewed as “World War III,” in which hundreds of small proxy wars around the globe were putting peasants at risk under the thumb of Cold War superpowers. Vietnam sensitized Yates to how U.S. policies favoring right-wing dictators or military governments and oligarchs versus communist efforts to appeal to the resultant poverty of Latin Americans and Southeast Asians, created conditions that pushed the poor, the peasants into the arms of communist revolutions at the same time the revolutions risked their lives for an ideological struggle. Vietnam taught Yates to see the interconnectedness of U.S. foreign policy.

Rogers—who was a distinguished military officer, intelligence analyst, and general’s aide—had a Graham-Greenesque sense about Vietnam. He saw the end at the beginning. It was Rogers who pointed NBC cameras at the French gravesite outside Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) warning of America’s fate—in the summer of 1964.

The person most affected by Vietnam, though, was Judy Bird Williams. Judy was hired as a researcher, equal in college credentials and ability to any of the men, but suffering from the 1950s mores for women, translated into low aspirations. Williams pushed her way into the program on Indonesia, part of the Southeast Asia trilogy on the widening Vietnam War. As a result of her impeccable research and understanding of the region’s cultures, Williams contributed to a signature documentary, Indonesia: The Troubled Victory. Emboldened by her success, Judy left NBC and became an independent journalist in the region for many years.

Q: What do you think of NBC News these days, and how does it compare with the era you examine in the book?

A: Despite real concerns about contemporary society’s lack of appreciation for serious journalism and competent journalists, I still believe all of the broadcast networks continue to feature highly skilled reporters, especially on foreign affairs.

Richard Engel at NBC is a one-man global hot-spot reporter, complemented by Senior Foreign Correspondent Keith Miller, and others. Andrea Mitchell continues to inform and educate NBC and MSNBC viewers about foreign affairs policy. Jim Miklaszewski is a stalwart Pentagon correspondent.

The issue is not people or the quality of the reporting at NBC or any respectable news network. It is a lack of personnel and bureaus for expansive foreign coverage compared to the era of the NBC Washington documentary unit; lack of interest in regular documentary journalism (Frontline being the notable exception), and the regulatory devaluation of documentary journalism caused by 1980s FCC policies and the relaxation of anti-trust regulation.

Documentary journalism by nature challenges the status quo and society to stop looking at the mythology of popular culture for a moment and take stock of some reality.

The global conglomerates enabled by relaxed anti-trust regulation have subsumed network news divisions into enterprises that drown out and diminish the valuable journalism still produced by network news and many media organizations.

It may also be more difficult today to duplicate the kind of in-depth, on-site documentary filmmaking that Yates, et al, did in the 1960s and through the 1980s. The dangers to journalists in the present have amplified exponentially.

Perhaps because of the impression that America “won the Cold War,” average citizens and media executives believe there’s no longer a need for broadening rather than contracting our collective news footprint. Of course global and domestic terrorism reveal the folly of this position.

One of the reasons I wrote the book was not only to honor the legacy of Ted Yates, Stuart Schulberg, Bob Rogers, Judy Bird Williams, and their compatriots, but also to show—by recreating the history of the documentary era—what we are missing and what we have lost. Only PBS honors the network tradition of regularly scheduled, prime-time, long-form documentary journalism.

So the difference is there was no PBS then and the networks were committed to serious documentary journalism, because society expected them to be.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: While researching and writing Into the Fray, I became more interested in the field of “engaged” writers, men and women who believed in taking action and writing to rectify social wrongs. I found similarities connecting Yates, Schulberg, and Rogers to familiar journalist-novelists, Hemingway, Gellhorn, Saint-Exupéry, Camus, Sartre, Beauvoir, and others.

I’m working on an article about their history and philosophy. I think in our 24-7 info-atmosphere, part of what is missing is a sense of philosophy or set of common values, which has been replaced by falsely equating opinion with evidence. The engaged writers delved into realities to understand human conflict.

I’m also preparing the proposal and draft of the second book about the NBC Washington unit, which has the working title “Our National Self-Respect: The NBC Washington Documentary Unit of Robert F. Rogers,” which carries the story through 1989 and the end of network documentaries.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I sincerely hope journalists and general interest readers will engage the story of Ted Yates. Yates was the heir-apparent to Edward R. Murrow in the color television age, but he was cut down at age 36 while reporting from Jerusalem during the first hours of the Six-Day War. He was a colorful, well-loved figure whose story has yet to be appreciated.

I think readers who want to know the story of Ted Yates will find a compelling tale in Into the Fray, as well as a saga of a band of brothers and sisters who devoted their lives to thoughtful documentary journalism in service to human freedom everywhere.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A can also be found on

March 29

March 29, 1936: Author Judith Guest born.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Q&A with author Alan de Queiroz

Alan de Queiroz, photo by Tara de Queiroz
Alan de Queiroz is the author of the new book The Monkey's Voyage: How Improbable Journeys Shaped the History of Life. He is an evolutionary biologist who teaches at the University of Nevada, Reno, and he lives in Reno.

Q: You write, "When it comes to explaining distributions broken up by oceans, biogeography has been as fickle as fashion. Back and forth the pendulum has swung..." and you ask, "Why should we believe that we're finally getting it right?" Why do you think you're finally getting it right?

A: Scientific views change for a lot of reasons, and, as the philosopher Thomas Kuhn pointed out, only some of them have to do with actual evidence. I think that, in this case, views could keep changing because there wasn’t enough evidence or, at least, there wasn’t enough evidence that enough people agreed was legitimate.

In the absence of evidence, scientists’ beliefs often were based on intuition—for instance, the feeling that there’s no way monkeys could have crossed the Atlantic—and on the influence of certain very persuasive individuals (the ichthyologist Gary Nelson is one I wrote a lot about in the book).

The difference this time around is that the swing back to ocean-crossing explanations has been driven by evidence, especially DNA sequence data that have been used to estimate when different evolutionary lineages (such as New World monkeys and Old World monkeys) separated from each other.

The information from DNA about when things happened is critical for distinguishing between ancient fragmentation and more recent dispersal, and we suddenly have much, much more of that information than we had before.

I’ve seen the explosion of DNA evidence, of course, but there’s also a kind of psychological argument for my interpretation that this latest swing of the pendulum isn’t a case of people just believing what they want to believe or have been taught to believe.

The argument is that a lot of the people who are now saying that ocean crossings are really important actually started out with a bias against that explanation.

That is, when they began studying biogeography, they were thinking that continental drift and other processes that fragment landmasses were the dominant explanations for distributions broken up by oceans. They had to have their arms twisted by the evidence to come around to thinking that ocean crossings have been really significant as well.

Two of the scientists I wrote about in the book—Miguel Vences, who studies frogs, and Matt Lavin, an expert on bean plants—followed that kind of an intellectual arc. For that matter, so did I. 

It will be fascinating to see what happens to this field of study going forward. There are still quite a few scientists who don’t believe the DNA evidence and haven’t budged from their view that relying on chance ocean crossings is delusional.

At this point, given all the evidence that’s piled up, these people seem to me almost like creation scientists and, like the creationists, I don’t expect them to ever change their minds. But I suspect that their influence won’t persist much into the next generation or two of scientists.   

Q:  Why did you decide on "The Monkey's Voyage" for the title, and what is especially intriguing about the monkey's journey?

A: I chose that title for two reasons, one obvious and one almost completely cryptic. The obvious one is that the case of monkeys rafting across the Atlantic is probably the most startling, well-established illustration of a natural colonization across an ocean.

The book kind of builds up to that as the centerpiece example (although the fundamental conclusions wouldn’t be changed even if that example didn’t exist). It’s a case that’s especially surprising because it involves land mammals, animals that aren’t supposed to be able to survive long ocean journeys.

What I hope readers take from that example is something like “Wow, if monkeys crossed an ocean, lots of other species must have done it also.” 

The less obvious reason for the title—and sort of an inside joke—comes from the notion that humans are monkeys; that is, we’re one, admittedly peculiar, species within the monkey evolutionary group.

That idea was in my mind when I was writing the book, so the phrase “the monkey’s voyage” almost invariably made me think about my own intellectual journey and those of other scientists who have explored this subject. On the cover of the book, my name is right under the image of the monkey, which I think is perfect, because I’m the monkey.

Q: You write that without chance ocean crossings, life would be very different today. What are some of the most notable examples?

A: There are several levels of answers to that question. A somewhat superficial, but still striking answer is that many species that people use frequently wouldn’t even exist if their ancestors had not crossed oceans naturally.

Some of the many examples include the common bean, squash, the most widely-used cotton species, watermelon, eggplant, nutmeg, and guinea pig. If you took away those species, the history of humans would certainly be different, probably radically different.

For instance, without beans and squash, the indigenous cultures of North America could not have developed as they did, and those differences would have affected the course of European colonization, and on and on down the line.

A deeper answer is that there have been so many successful colonizations across ocean barriers that, if you could make all of them disappear from the history of life, the entire biota of the world would be almost unrecognizable. It would be like an alien planet.

For instance, well over half of all living land mammal species in South America—the monkeys and almost all of the rodents, things like the capybara and guinea pig—are the descendants of mammals that crossed a sea or ocean to get there.

But it isn’t enough to just imagine subtracting those species from the modern biota; the immigrant rodents and monkeys undoubtedly have had huge effects on the evolution of other groups, including other vertebrates, various kinds of parasites, and plants. And the mammals are just one of many South American groups that include overwater colonists, so the total influence of these colonizations is hard to even fathom.  

In the book I focused on South America to make the point about the great influence of ocean crossings, but I think you could make a similar case for almost any part of the world. From this, it follows that the global impacts must be enormous.

Finally, there are fossils that suggest that the anthropoid primates originated in Asia, and that members of this group dispersed to Africa something like 50 million years ago.

If that’s true, it means that these ancient primates had to raft across the sea, because Africa was an island at the time. Now, these African anthropoids were the ancestors of all living monkeys and apes, which means that they were our ancestors.

So, if you took away just that one chance sea crossing, humans would never have evolved, which is an interesting thing to ponder. There would be a lot less carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the planet would be cooler, there would be many more species of native island birds, more forest, more fishes and whales in the ocean, and nobody would have written anything about biodiversity or anything else for that matter.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just took a short trip to the California coast to collect some jumping bristletails that will, hopefully, help us figure out whether these flightless insects colonized Hawaii from North America or the other way around, something I mentioned in the book.

We may also have discovered a new species of bristletail, which I’m irrationally happy about. There’s a saying about scientific contributions—“theories pass, the frog remains.” And this new bristletail hopefully will remain too. 

On the writing side, I’m thinking about another general audience book on evolution, but the ideas are a little bit fluid at this point. However, I’m pretty sure that this next book will deal with humans and the human condition, but without being about the usual sorts of things categorized as “human evolution.”

That is, it won’t be about how we got opposable thumbs, or became bipedal, or ended up as the only surviving human lineage. I hope it will be the kind of book that will make people think about a lot of things they’ve never considered before.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just something to get rid of a little guilt: In reading reviews of my book, I’ve noticed that people often talk about my “far-flung travels” in a positive way. And I know that, in at least one place in the book, I implied that journeys to exotic places to encounter exotic creatures are really desirable.

However, given the fact that traveling great distances in fossil-fuel-powered planes and cars generally isn’t in the best interests of the ocean-crossing and other organisms on this planet, it’s hard to sustain an entirely positive view of world travel.

I won’t say that traveling is bad, period, or that I’ll never again take a big international trip, but I do think that, in this era of obscene consumption that’s driving environmental destruction, we shouldn’t be glorifying exotic travel as I did in the book.

Maybe, instead, we should emphasize the exploration of our own backyards a little more. From a biologist’s perspective, for instance, there are intriguing species to be seen and discoveries to be made anywhere.

I’ve done a fair amount of traveling—certainly too much—both within and outside the U.S., but the first new species I ever had a part in discovering was a bristletail insect that lives in mountains we could see from our dining room windows.

Also, the most satisfying contemplative experiences I’ve had within the natural world usually have been in familiar places, where I’m comfortable and have some history, so that’s another argument (at least for me personally) for staying put.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 28

March 28, 1936: Writer Mario Vargas Llosa born.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Q&A with author Kimberly Palmer

Kimberly Palmer is the author of the new book The Economy of You: Discover Your Inner Entrepreneur and Recession-Proof Your Life. She is the senior money editor and Alpha Consumer blogger at U.S. News & World Report, and she also has written the book Generation Earn: The Young Professional's Guide to Spending, Investing, and Giving Back. She lives in the Washington, D.C., area.

Q: You write, “We all need more than one source of income today. Relying solely on a single employer is a sure-fire way to end up struggling, as so many Americans do.” How did you come to that conclusion, and what percentage of Americans has more than one source of income? 

A: The simple fact that no one can guarantee their current job -- we're all vulnerable to lay-offs -- means that we all need more than one source of income. Otherwise, we, and by default, our families, are simply too vulnerable. I couldn't live with that kind of vulnerability, which is why I decided I had to launch a side business. I quickly learned that many other people feel the same way.
As for numbers, the best ones I could find come from the Young Entrepreneur Council, which found that one in three 20-somethings have launched side-businesses. When it comes to older Americans, MetLife has found that 12 percent of baby boomers earn extra money on the side. So this is a trend that cuts across all ages and stages.

Q: How do you balance your own job, family, and side business?

A: I prioritize my family, of course, and then I focus on my job during the day and I fit my side-business into the extra snippets of time I can find in the evenings and weekends.

Most importantly, I chose a side business -- selling digital money planners on Etsy -- that works with my life. While I have to invest a lot of time on the front-end, designing the planners and marketing them, I can then just let the shop run itself. Each time someone makes a purchase, they automatically get access to the PDF - I don't have to do anything else. So in that way, my business really fits into my life.

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

A: How incredibly satisfying it can be to launch a side business. I started out focused on the financial security aspect -- launching a side business to generate more money.

But what I found for myself and the 100 people I interviewed is that the money often takes a back seat to the new and powerful identity that comes from going into business for yourself. To create something that others buy and find useful is so empowering. You know you are helping others, even if it's in a small way.

Q: Do you expect the number of people with side businesses to rise in coming years?

A: Absolutely. I think this is one of the biggest trends of our time in terms of the workplace. And workplaces are adapting, too, to allow and even encourage their employees' side businesses, because it often benefits them, too.

That's because people are picking up new skills on their own time and then applying them to their day jobs, too. They're also happier employees because they're more fulfilled and more financially secure.

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: Not quite yet -- I've been focusing on growing my Etsy shop, which is so much fun.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: If you have an idea for a side business, consider getting started now! There are such powerful and easy to use e-commerce platforms out there now, from Etsy to Fiverr to Elance, that make it so easy to get started. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 25

March 25, 1934: Writer Gloria Steinem born.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Q&A with author William Martin

William Martin's latest novel is The Lincoln Letter. His many other books include Back Bay, Cape Cod, Annapolis, and City of Dreams. He lives in the Boston area.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Lincoln Letter?

A: I have always wanted to write about Lincoln and the Civil War. He is the central figure in the central event of our history. But what would my angle of approach be? My editor suggested the Emancipation Proclamation, and I was on my way. 

Q: Why did you decide to tell the story from the perspectives of two characters, one in the present day and one during the Civil War?

A: It's what I do. I've written all sorts of novels - straight thrillers, biographical fiction, Michenerian chronicle, historical adventure - but over the years, my readers have enjoyed the Peter Fallon novels the most.

In those, rare book and document dealer Peter Fallon goes in search of lost documents, and as his search progresses, the history of the documents comes to life.

I used the back-and-forth format the first time in 1980, in my first novel, when I was trying to do something I had never seen done in this kind of novel before. That novel, Back Bay, spent 14 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, so I must have done something right.

This genre, which I call "the really smart guy goes looking for lost stuff" genre, has grown hugely popular, but no one tells these tales quite the way I do.

And there is a thematic reason, too. In all of Peter's adventures, as the history comes to life through his research, we realize how closely linked we are to the people of the past and their decisions.

Q: Did you feel more connected to one of the two main characters, given that your present-day character, Peter Fallon, has appeared in others of your books, or not?

A: I love working both sides of the coin. I love telling the fast-moving modern story that may unfold over a few days and the much broader historical mural that may cover years.

Q: What kind of research did you do for the book, and was there anything that especially surprised you?

A: I usually start my research by reading the most generalized texts, the classics, about a time or place, like Doris Kearns Goodwin's book on Lincoln, or the famous Reveille in Washington by Margaret Leech, the 1942 Pulitzer Prize-winner about the social life in the city during the Civil War.

Then I dig deeper into primary sources like newspapers and more obscure texts like the 1895 book that David Homer Bates, a cipher operator, wrote about the War Department telegraph office during Lincoln's time.

Then I walk the ground and try to feel the historical vibrations. I visit the battlefield and the historical buildings, like Lincoln's summer cottage and Ford's Theater.

Q: Do you usually have an idea how your book will end when you start writing, or do you change the plot around as you work?

A: I try to work from an outline or general idea, but I hope that the characters cry out for me to change things as I go. That means they are taking on a life of their own. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The new novel is a Peter Fallon novel about the Gold Rush called The Mother Lode, so I'm visiting San Francisco a lot and going up into the Sierras.  

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: When I was a kid, I loved telling big stories on broad canvases, and it's what I have gotten to do in a career that has run for more than 35 years.

I count myself pretty lucky, especially because I know that somewhere, right now, someone is reading one of my books and seeing American history through my eyes. That's a great satisfaction and a great responsibility with every book.   

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. William Martin will be participating in the Bethesda Literary Festival, which runs from April 11-13, 2014. For a full schedule of events, please click here.

March 24

March 24, 1919: Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti born.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Q&A with author Stephen Jimenez

Stephen Jimenez is the author of The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard. A journalist, writer, and producer, he has worked for ABC News, Dan Rather Reports, Nova, and more. He lives in New York and Santa Fe.

Q: You write that “what compelled me as a writer and a gay man to go to Wyoming was neither the brutality of the murder nor its suddenly iconic place in the national landscape.” Instead, you say it had to do with Matthew Shepard’s father and what he said at the sentencing of the man who killed his son. What exactly was it that first pulled you into this story?

A: A few things. First, I think it really drove home to me what a loss it was for this family. The statement really grabbed me emotionally. … It became very clear that a huge hole was left in the life of the family.

I felt that the statement was almost as if Dennis Shepard was speaking to sons and daughters everywhere, and talking to parents everywhere. There was a universal quality to his statement. It also hit me in terms of my relationship with my own father.

Also, I felt that the story was told in much shorter news stories, and…deserved a longer treatment.

Q: Some of the conclusions you draw have been controversial. Did you expect that when you first began the project?

A: Of course, I knew the book was going to stir debate. How could I be surprised, given that [it involved] a crime with such significance, a turning point in the culture around gay rights and violence against gay people—I knew it would stir discussion.

Q: You write, “It would…be a disservice to Matthew’s memory to freeze him in time as a symbol, having stripped away his complexities and frailties as a human being.” What do you think those who see him as a “symbol” are missing?

A: To me, this is a classic American tragedy. What is missing to me, if we freeze him as a symbol and believe the entire tragedy was caused by anti-gay hate, is that the same crime could happen today, and our understanding of the human complexity of the story would be [lost]. Matthew suffered with a lot of issues. The original media story was that two homophobic rednecks targeted Matthew because he was gay, and that they were strangers [to him].

In the book, I trace several iterations of the story. One is the [story that appeared in the] popular media. One is Aaron McKinney’s girlfriend’s version, that Matthew made a sexual advance, and they [Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson] decided to beat him up and teach him a lesson.

Then there are Aaron McKinney’s versions. In one of his versions, Matthew Shepard asked for a ride home. Later, he said that in the truck, Matthew reached over and grabbed his leg. For me, part of this was looking at what’s really going on. This was a significant change in the story. [If you see that] there was a friendship for months between Matthew and Aaron, that creates a very different perspective.

Many reports at the time stated that Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson were equally involved, and had the same motive of homophobia. Russell Henderson’s involvement was grossly misunderstood….

McKinney was a meth addict, he had been [actively using drugs] for a week [before the murder], and he and Matthew had a prior relationship. This is not to say that [there was no hatred], you can’t have a crime this violent and not have hatred. But I am trying to distinguish between hatred and what a hate crime is in the legal or technical sense.

This was, as far as the public was concerned, a de facto hate crime. Matthew was targeted because he belonged to a group of people. The question is, is that true?…The human complexities—it really alters our understanding of the [Shepard] case. But it doesn’t attempt to excuse the crime.

Q: What are some of the lessons you think could be learned?

A: One thing is that the methamphetamine epidemic was in its early stages when the crime happened. It has had a devastating impact in the United States…The meth epidemic continued unchecked for a while. It was not a significant media story…

People who are experts in the field of drug abuse will tell you this is the worst [drug] they’ve ever seen. Awareness about this drug, drug abuse, alcohol abuse—prevention with particularly the young, is one important lesson.

Another is, with a significant case, looking at how does the media treat it. It went for the most graphic, shorthand [approach]—stating that it was a crucifixion--that Matthew was hanging on the fence in the manner of Jesus. It never happened. Matthew’s mother has stated that it never happened. The story has been repeated, even today. It’s how the media tells a story, and how we as citizens are receiving information.

Also, it’s important to look at politics and how they can take place in a case like this. In 1998, earlier that year, the gay community was under siege. Trent Lott made a comment about gays being sinners, Pat Robertson made a statement….the community felt under siege from the religious right. When the attack happened, it was just four months after the dragging death of James Byrd. A hate crimes bill was stalled in Congress. And this was when Bill Clinton was clinging to his presidency during the Monica Lewinsky scandal….

What happened to Matthew Shepard was an important moment of national awakening for the country. People were startled awake by the horrific violence of the crime and where it happened. It jolted them awake. It was very important for the country to see that there is violence against gay people.

People say the book could hurt gay rights. I say, by understanding human complexity, it will not take away from gay rights. There’s a movement toward gay marriage, gays in the military; the arguments are strong.

I find it offensive as a gay man that we are not entitled to look at human complexity like everyone else. We don’t need a one-dimensional figure. Am I going to think less of Heath Ledger or his performance in Brokeback Mountain because he had an addiction problem? No….

What happened was murder, but there were tragic circumstances before that night. The world of methamphetamines that Matthew was swept up in has devastated a lot of lives.

Q: This book took many years to write. What about it kept you working on it for so long, and was there anything that particularly surprised you as you researched the book?

A: First, when I finished the ABC News piece [about the case] in late 2004, my producing partner and I had come on some new information that in some cases required further reporting. We said it was apparent that Aaron McKinney and Matthew Shepard had known each other, but we didn’t go into great detail. The deeper I got into that, that was certainly something driving me forward to try to understand what were the factors that came into play the night of the attack.

What was very interesting to me was that there were people on both sides, Aaron McKinney’s and Matthew Shepard’s, cases involving drug dealers. It took me a long time to gain access to these records….

Q: You write at the end of the book about visiting Wyoming in April 2013, and seeing various people you got to know in the course of writing the book. Are you still in touch with them now?

A: Most of them, actually. I went back to Laramie on February 4. It was the last official date of the book tour. That entire event in Laramie was filmed for C-SPAN. One of the things that was fascinating was that it was between 7 and 10 degrees below zero. A few hundred people came out. There was ample time for discussion. Not one person got up and disputed my findings. People kept getting up and saying thank you for coming [and that the book was accurate]. …

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m actively researching a few things. Some fictional screenwriting to take me away; I’ve been working on this [book] for a long time and talking about it for months. I’m researching a couple of new book ideas.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: You mentioned some criticism of the book, that people have spoken both positively and negatively about it. In my experience of touring the country, I’m in Charlottesville, Virginia, city 35, I’ve toured almost every area of the country since the end of September, people have been very interested in the book, in remembering the case, talking about their memories of when it first happened. People in the audience have worked on productions of The Laramie Project. What has been the most striking to me is that there was no negativity. Only in one place, in Washington, D.C., at Politics & Prose, there was [criticism from a couple of people in the audience]. …

In the early stages, there was a lot of reaction to the idea of the book…Only two or three LGBT journalists were willing to write positively about the book; that has changed.…More and more LGBT people got behind the book. Early on, it was, This guy shouldn’t have written this book.

What I’ve noticed is that it has been an arc over time. The discussions will continue; the paperback will be out in September. There will be more conversations in the fall; I’m writing a new epilogue for the paperback. New sources have come forward since the book was out, adding more validation to what I’ve said in the book.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Stephen Jimenez will be participating in the Bethesda Literary Festival, which runs from April 11-13, 2014. For the full schedule of events, please click here.