Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Q&A with Professor Carol Berkin

Carol Berkin is the author of the new book Wondrous Beauty: The Life and Adventures of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, which looks at the life of the American woman who married Napoleon's younger brother. Her other books include Civil War Wives and Revolutionary Mothers. She teaches at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and taught at Baruch College for many years; she is Baruch Presidential Professor of History. Berkin lives in New York City and Guilford, Connecticut.

Q: Why did you decide to write about Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte?

A: Actually, I was having dinner with a friend who makes historical documentaries and I mentioned I was searching for a new book topic. I have just the subject for you, he said—and he told me about Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte. I did a little digging and realized hers was the story I had to write.

It was a wise decision. The story is fabulous, but more than that, it gave me the opportunity to show how historians must explore the intersection between “private” lives and public and political decision making.

And, it gave me the chance to demonstrate how the American gender ideology of the era thwarted individuality in women even as it touted it in men.

Q: You describe her as "an American celebrity, perhaps the first of her era." What accounted for her fame? Was it mostly due to her marriage to Napoleon's brother, or was that just a part of it?

A: Of course, her marriage to Jerome catapulted her into the limelight. Both the young Betsy and her new husband loved being the center of attention. Washington society went wild over her—both favorably and unfavorably. Newspapers carried accounts of what she wore, where the couple went, what they said.

Later, her celebrity returned because of the tragic tale of her betrayal by her husband. In the early 19th century, the struggle between England and France meant that everything that happened to Betsy had political and diplomatic repercussions.

Her terrible treatment by Napoleon, England’s generosity to her, the romantic pursuit of her by English noblemen, and then the pension Napoleon gave her—all of these shook the American government and swayed public opinion vis a vis Napoleon and the English.

Her celebrity thus endured. When Betsy sued in French courts for her only child, Jerome’s son, to be recognized as legitimate, when Jerome died, when her son died—newspapers around the country retold the tale of her marriage and betrayal. I found accounts of her early life in newspapers as far away from her home state of Maryland as Oklahoma.

Q: Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte's difficult relationship with her father is one of the major themes of the book. How would you describe the dynamic between the two of them?

A: This was the true tragedy of her life. She and her father were temperamentally very similar—and of course never realized it. He longed for her to let him protect her; she longed for him to respect her decisions. He saw her as disobedient and scandalous; she saw him as a hypocrite because of his infidelities and a tyrant to his children.

And yet…it was clear that the central emotional connection in both their lives was with one another. They never made peace with each other.

Q: What does her life say about the role of women in that era, both in Europe and in the United States?

A: Betsy’s desire to be more than just a wife and mother, her longing to be seen and appreciated as a smart, interesting individual ran hard up against the gender ideology of early 19th century America. That ideology—domesticity—confined women to the parlor and the nursery. Betsy found this smothering.

France, on the other hand, permitted elite women a public social role. Women ran salons where intellectual and artistic men and women gathered, for example. This is what Betsy wanted for herself. And, after Napoleon was exiled, she achieved it.

In her letters, she raged against bourgeois American society, against its men who pursued nothing but money, its women who led cloistered, confining lives. And, to a great degree, she was correct. She sacrificed much to escape this world. Liberation had its price.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just turned in a new manuscript to Simon and Schuster on how we got the bill of rights. It is titled The Bill of Rights: Securing America’s Liberties.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I just became a grandmother for the first time. This is even more thrilling than seeing your books in print!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 30

April 30, 1877: Author Alice B. Toklas born.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Q&A with author Gina Frangello

Gina Frangello is the author of the new novel A Life in Men. Her other works of fiction are Slut Lullabies and My Sister's Continent. She is the Sunday editor for The Rumpus and the fiction editor for The Nervous Breakdown, she teaches at UCR-Palm Desert, and she runs Other Voices Queretaro, a writing program in Mexico. She lives in Chicago.

Q: You dedicated A Life in Men to two friends. How did they affect you and the writing of this book?

A: One of my friends, Kathy, who died shortly after A Life in Men sold to Algonquin, was not at all sick at the time I was writing the novel. Her death of ovarian cancer happened extremely unexpectedly and suddenly, with only four months from diagnosis to death. So there was nothing about her illness or death that actually impacted the writing of the novel.  

Rather, it was that I found my own life—and my grief over Kathy—eerily mirroring my own novel in the months after Kathy’s death, as I was waiting for the novel to come out. I found myself experiencing many of the emotions and behaviors Mary had exhibited, whether talking aloud to my dead friend on dark streets at night or writing to her or feeling her haunting absent presence everywhere I went, and it radically calling into question how I viewed my own mortality, decision making, and concept of time itself.  

That was very different from my friend Sarah, who was a much more casual friend and someone I knew only briefly when I was younger—Sarah had cystic fibrosis, like Mary does in the novel, and she was an avid traveler, like Mary (and, of course, like I myself am).  

She was a kind of “creative inspiration” for the book in these kinds of ways, although when I was writing the novel, she had already passed away nearly a decade before, and she and I had not been close since we were 20 years old, so the character of Mary is based on her only “conceptually,” not in terms of any real-life-plot details.  

In the end, Mary would not be more “like” Sarah than she would be like any person with a shortened life expectancy or physical struggles who is trying to live her life on as large a canvas as possible in limited time. But had I not known Sarah then I would probably never have been inspired to write this particular book.

Q: Why did you decide to structure the book's chapters around Mary's relationships with various men?

A: I wanted to structure the novel based on both geography and intimate interpersonal relationships. Each chapter has both a country and a person tied to it.  

It so happens that Mary, who loses her best female friend very young, separates very volitionally from her adoptive mother emotionally, and never gets to meet her biological mother, leads an adult life wherein her intimate relationships are with men—not just lovers, but her biological father, half brother, a gay male friend…she leads a life in which her intimate terrain is somewhat male-focused, although ironically this is driven by a very deep sense of female loss—that of her birth mother and origins, and also that of her closest childhood friend, who is arguably the most driving emotional force in her life, despite dying when they are still in college.

Q: You write that you've dedicated some of the book's proceeds to cystic fibrosis research. How have people with cystic fibrosis and their families responded to the book?

A: The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation has been supportive on an individual basis, in the sense that the women I’ve met from that organization have been very enthusiastic and have attempted to be helpful to me with outreach—but the CFF is a very large organization and its prime focus, of course, is not literary, so to some extent there has also been red tape that has prevented much from really getting off the ground beyond my financial donation.  

However, the novel seems to have, through other channels like blogs or friends, reached quite a few adults with CF, or parents of children with CF, and the response has quite literally blown me away.  

The letters I’ve received, particularly from one woman who was diagnosed late in life like Mary is, and to whom the novel’s portrayal of a woman who is simultaneously struggling with illness while also being a sexual and adventurous person, have been…unforgettable. It’s been beyond moving.  

I’ve also found out that I knew far more adults with CF than I realized, at least indirectly. A former writing student divulged to me that she has it, and we were able to discuss her barriers to incorporating it into her own work, and I have also found out that many people I know have family members with CF, or have lost family members or spouses.  

This is all something that happens quite behind-the-scenes, in a very different way from, say, having a book reviewed in a media outlet…and yet it’s been, in a very core way, the biggest reward of writing the novel.

Q: How did you research this book?

A: Wow…in many ways, and for a long time. I mean, I read medical books and articles in medical journals; I read self-help books; I read blogs and got on chat lines.  

I also had to research a certain amount of the travel/countries because even though I had been to all of the 10 countries in the novel, except one, I hadn’t always been there in the same exact time period as Mary. For me, the trick was knowing when to let go of the research and give myself permission to begin entering a more imaginative space.

The vast majority of my “research” didn’t make it onto the pages of the novel. It existed more to create a psychological and knowledge framework from which to approach the writing, not so that I could actually…information-dump, if that makes sense.  

I needed to gain confidence before I could write, but then I also needed to let go of some need to “prove” what I knew and allow Mary’s world, and that of those close to her, to become a breathing thing, a living space, not a regurgitation of research.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My new novel is called Every Kind of Wanting. I hope to finish it this summer. It’s about a gestational surrogacy…and about family secrets…and desire…and it spans 30 years and is set mainly in Chicago, Venezuela, Beaver Island and Miami.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 29

April 29, 1933: Poet Rod McKuen born.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Q&A with children's author Candace Fleming

Candace Fleming is the author of many books for children, including most recently The Family Romanov, Papa's Mechanical Fish, On the Day I Died, Tippy-Tippy-Tippy, Splash!, and Oh, No! She writes biographies, historical picture books, novels, and other picture books. She is based in Chicago.

Q: How do you pick the subjects of your biographies?

A: I choose biographical subjects with whom I already feel a personal connection. I emphasis the word because I'm interested in the emotions their lives evoke in me.  

Let me give you an example: During my sophomore year in high school, on our way back from the homecoming dance, my boyfriend of three whole weeks – Doug Cougill – broke up with me; dumped me for another girl he’d actually spent most of the evening dancing with. I was devastated.

Still wearing my wrist corsage and my farm chic gunney sack dress I’d bought off the shelf at Nordstrom’s (this was 1978, after all) I flung myself onto the soft and sobbed out my anguish. 

Then I waited for my mother to share a similar story of rejection from her past, one that would reflect my own emotions, one that would comfort me in the way of that age old adage – misery loves company.

Instead, my mother told me this unexpected story. It was July 3, 1937 and my mother – fourteen at the time – was listening to Fibber McGee and Molly on the radio when an announcer broke in with stunning news. World famous female pilot, Amelia Earhart, was missing. En route to Howland Island from New Guinea she had simply vanished. Authorities believed she had gone down at sea.

My mother couldn’t believe it. It seemed impossible. Amelia Earhart was the woman who could do anything – a larger-than-life role model who symbolized endless female possibilities. She couldn’t be lost at sea. She couldn’t!
Devastated, my mother stumbled down to the beach – she lived in a small town on the shores of Lake Michigan at the time. And she stood there in the sand, gazing up into the cloudless blue sky. Watching. Waiting. Willing Amelia home. 

She was convinced that if she stood there long enough, she would eventually spy the flyer winging her way to safety. She just knew she would. But Amelia didn’t come. And she didn’t come. She never came.

And even though more than 40 years had passed between the day Amelia had gone missing and the day Doug Cougill threw me over for another girl, I could still hear the sadness, and the longing in my mother’s voice.

This is why I wrote Amelia Lost – a book a long time in the coming. Amelia had broken my mother’s heart. And in turn – through my mother’s memories – she had broken mine. And broken hearts make for good books.

Q: What are some of the things you've learned that have surprised you most as you've researched your nonfiction books?

A: Big question! Research is always surprising, isn't it? Every time I've tackled a biography, I've ended up discovering something astonishing.  

So I'll tell you a story about my newest biography, The Family Romanov. When I began I the project I had this misguided idea that I would write a short, breezy story about Anastasia.  Middle schoolers, I've learned over the years, are fascinated by her.

Research quickly proved, however, that she was incredibly dull.  She wasn't especially bright. She didn' t have any interesting hobbies. She had few precocious childhood adventures. In truth, I was surprised. I'd just assumed that the youngest daughter of the richest man in the world would be interesting. 
Nope. So I expanded my focus to include all five of the Romanov children. And guess what?  Research quickly proved that all five were all incredibly dull. They weren't especially bright. They didn't have any interesting hobbies. They had few precocious childhood adventures.

So I expanded my research to include their parents, too. And things grew more interesting -- crazy monks, genetic diseases, royal romance. But now a question sprang up. A nagging question. 

How did this happen? How did this rich, splendidly privileged, and yes, beautiful family end up in that Siberian cellar? Something had gone terribly wrong. But what? What forces were at work? What personalities? And was there really nothing Nicholas and Alexandra could have done to change their fate?

That question, which sprang from my research, began my research. And I eventually found a story much more meaningful than the one I thought I was going to write.

Now I was not only researching the Romanov family, but looking beyond their fairy-tale existence to examine the lives of lower class Russians – peasants and workers, revolutionaries and soldiers. 

The result?  A book that is essentially three stories in one – the first is an intimate look at the Romanovs themselves, the second follows the sweep of the revolution from worker strikes of 1905 to the rise of Lenin; the third – conveyed in their own words – is the personal stories of the men and women whose struggle for a better life directly affected the Romanovs’ fate.

And all because of the surprising discovery that Anastasia Romanova was a bit… um... boring.

Q: You've written for older and younger children, and have written fiction and non-fiction. Do you have a preference, and are you usually working on more than one book at a time?

A: I really don't have a preference between fiction and nonfiction/ younger grade and older grade. I am, after all, a storyteller. Some of those stories are true. Others are not.

Besides, I believe writing both forms keeps me balanced. When I was in the blackest moments of the Romanov story -- standing in the trenches beside those starving, Russian soldiers during World War I, or following the family to their deaths in that Siberian basement -- it was a relief to be able to turn to an entirely different genre. Nothing helps a person creep from the darkness faster than writing a story for preschoolers about bed-hogging farm animals.

Yes, I always work on more than one project at a time. Right now on my desk, I'm wrestling with the first draft of a new biography about Buffalo Bill Cody. I'm also writing a funny (I hope) middle-grade novel about a 5th grade boy whose family is on a reality show. And I'm in the final throes of a new picture book. 

Q: Are there any authors who have especially inspired you?

A: William Steig. His stories are not only funny, they’re heartwarming. And his language is sophisticated and lovely. He never talks down to his audience. He understood, as Mo Willems always says, that "kids aren't stupid, they're just short." Oh, and Steig's illustrations are pretty great, too.

I always think that if I could write just one story as perfect as Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, I could die satisfied.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I think I've probably said way too much already.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 25

April 25, 1873: Writer Walter de la Mare born.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Q&A with author Anna Cottrell

Anna Cottrell is the author, along with Agbotadua Togbi Kumassah, of Once Upon a Time in Ghana: Traditional Ewe Stories Retold in English, a winner of the 2014 Children's Africana Book Award. A former longtime teacher, she has frequently visited Ghana. She lives in Norfolk, England.
Q: How did you come to write Once Upon a Time in Ghana?
A: In 2006 I spent three months in the Volta Region of Ghana as a volunteer with Cross Cultural Solutions (CCS) and, as I had recently retired from teaching French in the UK it was decided to use me as a teacher. I therefore worked at Keta school just a few miles from where I was living and taught at Primary, Middle and Senior levels.  
As I approached my final month I was very aware that it was important for me to find a way of penetrating the society I was living in so that I had a better understanding of the culture which had fashioned the thinking of the people I was mixing with on a daily basis.
Being older than most of the other volunteers, I was personally investing a great deal in these three months at the same time as asking my family to make an investment in me in that I was living a life apart, a life to which my husband and children could not relate in any way.
So I asked to be introduced to someone who could tell me about traditional oral storytelling and a local traditional chief, Agbotadua Togbi Kumassah, came to our volunteer compound to talk to us. A couple of weeks later, Togbi invited me to accompany him to Klikor, a village where there is a group of storytellers.
After much persuasion and the transmission of some cash, they agreed to tell me four stories. Fortunately, I had with me a very old and simple cassette recorder complete with batteries and I was able to record everything.  
At this stage, I was only thinking that I had had a fascinating experience but, as I learned that the stories are rapidly disappearing with the death of the tellers and the fact that young people professed to be no longer interested in them, I began to feel that I had something of real value that did not even belong to me. But what was the point in only having four stories?  
In 2007 I returned and, partly with Togbi's help and partly through further contacts I made, I was able to record about 70 stories in three further locations, all in the Volta Region and all in the local language, Ewe.  
Visiting one of the villages, Anyako, I saw two boys lifting a bottle out of the lagoon. Togbi told me that the boys were fishing. If there was a fish trapped inside, then the boys had a decent meal for the day and if not, then all they had was a bowl of hunger appeasing carbohydrate.  
Then I knew what I had to do. I had to use the stories in such a way that they could benefit these people who had shared their ancient wisdom with me.  No longer would these people, always portrayed in our media as the recipients of our handouts, be reliant upon the vagaries of fortune. I determined that they should receive a fair return for their art, just as an artist, a musician, a sculptor has a market for what his creation.
Togbi Kumassah listened to many of the recordings and gave me the meanings of the stories while I scribbled frantically the day before returning to England in May 2007.  
Arriving home, I began the recreation process and was able to have the first book published on September 1, 2007, presenting the very first copy to an Ewe chief in London as the UK Ewe population was holding a big celebration in London and this chief had been specially invited.  
For me it was a thrilling moment as I returned the stories to the Ewe people of Ghana, something I had promised them I would do.
Q: What was the writing process like as you recreated the stories?
A: Exhilarating and daunting. Exhilarating to be given this wonderful opportunity to share the stories but daunting to think that I could so easily throw away the opportunity by not properly understanding their wisdom, their moral values, the insight they give into the thinking of a society. 
How could I give a timeless feel to the stories? How could I invite readers to enter a world outside recorded memory? How could I persuade readers to willingly suspend disbelief, especially when I was targeting a Western audience with Western sensibilities which are often worlds away from the African sensibility. 
Would I let the storytellers down? Would I reduce the tales to humdrum banalities? Would I lose the grit? Only time would tell and so I followed my sense of what worked for me, frequently spending considerable time searching for the “mot juste.”
Q: How did you select the stories to include?
A: I was very aware that oral stories are not normally categorised in any way.  There is no such thing as a story for adults, for teenagers, for boys, etc., but I needed to find a way of structuring the book and so I did indeed categorise the stories in to children’s stories, Ayiyi (the spider) stories, morality stories, etc.  Having made these distinctions, I needed to make sure that I had enough stories to justify the designation of a category.
Furthermore, having taken the stories from four locations in the Volta Region I was anxious to include stories from each of these and to have an approximately even spread between the four. It was important to me not to appear to favour any one source.
Q: You write that profits from the book are being returned to the storytellers and their communities. What has the impact been?
A: The impact has been considerable. I will give the example of my very recent visit to Have Domefe, one of the storytelling communities. In 2008 I gave them money with which they bought land and on which they planted moringa, every part of which can be used; the leaves as a herbal infusion with medicinal properties, the seeds as we use paracetomol, the bark as animal feed.  In 2010 I gave them more money which they used to buy plastic chairs which are hired out for functions such as funerals. 
When I visited in March this year I took money for a poly tank and concrete base as, with the proceeds from the moringa and the chairs, the storytellers had saved enough money to pay for fresh piped water to be brought from the main road to their village.
The frequent power cuts mean that the water does not always flow so the poly tank will be kept full and used to provide water at these times. Moreover, the storytellers will make money from the water as it will be sold at a reasonable rate to the other villagers. So here we have the perfect example of self-managed projects which generate income to feed further projects.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am currently working on a continuation of last year’s project which was to build a lagoon  defence wall round a primary school in Anyako. The wall will prevent water from entering the school compound as the lagoon rises during the rainy season. The water quickly becomes filthy, carrying all sorts of infections which the children pick up as they wade through in order to get to class.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Maybe you might be interested to know how I raise the money for the projects. All proceeds from the sale of the UK book go to the projects. The book is sold through the UK publisher, Troubador Publishing Ltd., and the book has also sold in a number of London bookshops in response to demand from Ghanaians living in London. 
I raise money by giving talks, telling stories and, along with friends, holding fund raising concerts of music and storytelling. The book is also on sale at all these events. A composer friend of mine, Kenneth Ian Hytch, has just written the music to accompany one of the stories, The Catfish and the Birds, and we shall be giving its premiere performance on June 29. I have built up a loyal band of followers, including a Norwich Rotary group, all of whom are very generous in their annual support of all the projects.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 24

April 24, 1815: Writer Anthony Trollope born.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Q&A with author Monica Edinger

Monica Edinger is the author of the children's book Africa Is My Home: A Child of the Amistad, a winner of the 2014 Children's Africana Book Award. She also has written two books for educators, Seeking History and Far Away and Long Ago. She teaches fourth grade in New York City.

Q: How did you end up writing Africa Is My Home, and what kind of research did you need to do to write the book?

A: I first learned of Margru and the other children at a 1999 meeting of the Friends of Sierra Leone meeting at Mystic Seaport. When I had served in Sierra Leone as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the mid-1970s there was no knowledge of the Amistad story and so I’d first learned of it by way of Spielberg’s movie where the children were left out.

Preoccupied with events in Sierra Leone, it was only when I got home from the meeting that I began to wonder about those children. Here at last, I realized, was a way to bring something of the Sierra Leone I knew, one that was more than the sensational headlines of child soldiers and death, to young people.  

My early research into the children led me to Margru and her remarkable story. I read many accounts of the Amistad and then tracked down many primary sources about the affair and Margru.

One of my most helpful resources was Mystic Seaport's “Exploring Amistad” site which contained huge numbers of scanned and transcribed newspaper articles, documents, letters, and more materials that are otherwise only available on microfilm (sadly no longer available).

I was privileged to handle Margru’s letters as well as those of others at Tulane University's Amistad Research Center and saw evidence of her time at Oberlin in that institution’s archives. I also retraced her steps in Farmington and New Haven. Joseph Opala, an archeologist who brought the story of the Amistad to Sierra Leone, referred me to Konrad Tucherer of St. John’s University who was enormously helpful to me over the years.

For those interested in learning more about my research I've many resources on my blog here.

Q: How did you combine the historical and fictional elements in the book? 

A: Because I wanted young readers to know that the story was true I worked to keep the historical material up and center. As I wrote in my author's note, I tried for many years to write the book as nonfiction, but found the lack of sufficient first-hand material from Margru herself about her childhood made it problematic to bring her close to young readers.

And so I moved across the border to fiction. I kept the focus on the true story while providing young readers with a sense of Margru's own feelings of loss and despair when taken and have her resiliency through such a harrowing period of her life.

That it took quite a few years for me to get to this point was important. When I began the project and people suggested I write it as historical fiction I resisted feeling it was presumptuous of me to even try to imagine what Margru might have felt. But after a few years of immersion in her life and story it seemed like something I could try to do in order to bring her story to young people.  

Q: You've also written books for teachers. Do you have a preference?

A: I wrote the books for teachers quite a while ago.  At first I was considering doing another one, but at that point I had started work on this project and eventually realized that I wanted to focus on it. I am now particularly interested in writing another book for young people.

That said, I do write for adults --- my blog, Huffington Post, reviews for publications like The New York Times, and articles. If someone approached me to turn some of that into a book for adults I'd be interested!

Q: How closely did you work with Robert Byrd, the illustrator of Africa Is My Home?

A: Generally the practice for children's book publishers is to keep the writer and illustrator of a book pretty separate. I was fortunate in having some input in the selection of the illustrator and, knowing Bob's earlier work, suggested him and was thrilled when he wanted to take on the project.

We did not have any direct communication while the project was in process. The art director sent his sketches to my editor who showed them to me. I provided her with some feedback and that was given back to the art director who then communicated with Bob.  

Because I'd originally seen the book as having many primary source images I had done a lot of research on this and so I recognized that Bob had used many of them in his own illustrations. I was blown away at the depth and care of his research in addition to the gorgeous illustrations. He completely captured the sensibility of Margru's journey.  

A funny side note --- I'm a lapsed illustrator. One of my jobs as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Sierra Leone was to produce illustrators for several NGOs for educational projects. While there, on my own, I did a series of illustrations and it is amazing to me how the colors I used for the flora and fauna are similar to those Bob used. (He doesn't know this, by the way! I never told him about this piece of my past.)

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am currently working on a totally different project, but one on a topic that is similarly hugely important to me personally. This is the story behind Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

It is a book I have always loved and have been reading aloud to my 4th grade students for decades. We have so much fun with this. I help them learn about life for Victorian children and how Carroll was having fun being incredibly subversive with their lives.

And so I want to create a book that provides this information to young readers so they can have the playful experience I provide for my students and that Carroll's original Victorian child readers had. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just my great thanks again for the CABA award and for the overall positive reception the book has received. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 23

April 23, 1895: Writer Ngaio Marsh born.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Q&A with poet Deborah Nodler Rosen

Deborah Nodler Rosen is the author of the new poetry collection Sight/Seer, which focuses on travel. She is the co-editor of Where We Find Ourselves: Jewish Women around the World Write about Home, and the author of the biography Anwar el Sadat. She is an editor of the poetry journal RHINO, and she lives in the Chicago area.

Q: Did you write the poems in your new collection as you were visiting the countries you describe, or did you store up your impressions and create the poems once you were back at home?

A: Were I to be honest when filling out questionnaires and applications that ask for occupation, I would write "voyeur." I love to visit new places, explore and wait for them to reveal themselves to me. I find great joy in "noticing" and "discovering." I write these observations down immediately and then turn them into poems when I return home and have time to play with the words, cadence, and rhythm.

Q: You've edited an anthology, Where We Find Ourselves. How did you and your co-editor decide which selections to include?

A: My co-editor Miriam Ben-Yoseph and I were very much in sync. We both wanted as many countries and points-of-view represented as possible.

Miriam grew up in Romania, went to college in Israel and knew writers in both places. I'm an editor of the poetry journal RHINO and knew a variety of poets whose work I admired. A professor at my college (Wellesley) put me in touch with many Latin American writers.

Essentially we wanted writers who could capture emotion and make their pieces come alive. We wanted our readers to be able to see, hear, be part of the experience and place written about.

The good writing stood out and if we disagreed there was always enough merit in a favorite piece to include it. Miriam's favorites and mine added diversity--always welcome in an anthology.

Q: How did RHINO come into existence, and how did it get its name?

A: RHINO was born in 1976 when a small group of Chicago-area writers wanted a place to publish their work. One of the writers was also an artist and had a black and white sketch of a rhino. That sketch became the cover and variations of that rhino have graced the cover each year.

RHINO has grown from a local journal to one of international acclaim. We receive thousands of submissions each year from all over the world. RHINO 2014 was just launched with poems translated from Arabic, Persian, Slovenian, French and Spanish as well, of course, in English.

Q: Of the various forms of writing and editing you've done, do you have a preference?

A: I much prefer writing and reading to editing. I love the element of surprise and pleasure when slitting open an envelope and reading someone's secret thoughts--ideas and feelings that I doubt the poet has ever expressed to a spouse or friend.

The actual act of editing (correcting/changing/formatting) is not my forte and I don't feel comfortable in that capacity. However I have been lucky in that I have been asked to write the Editor's Note in recent issues.

Reading through the entire issue in one sitting and discovering a
theme that has assembled itself is magical--everything from "earthquake" before Haiti's, to "how boundaries have weakened," to "nature not people in control."

We've met as a group of editors over a 10-month period choosing poems one by one and in some extraordinary way a theme emerges.

But writing itself is my favorite. To take an observation or feeling and find the exact words to describe and explain it is so gratifying. One word which keeps coming up in my writing is "reify." There is such satisfaction in making the inchoate real.

As I tell my students when I teach a poetry class in a school, "Look what you have done! You have created a poem that never existed in the world before." The glow in that student's eyes is priceless. The act of creation is a gift you give yourself.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Sight/Seer, my first book of poetry, contained my travel poems. Now I'm in the process of choosing poems for a second collection. I'm finding that "time" and "finishing" are recurrent obsessions interspersed with poems about my childhood, which brings me to your last question.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My mother read poetry to me starting as soon as I could understand words--lots of A.A. Milne and later Edna St. Vincent Millay. I wrote my first book of poetry when I was about three--dictating the poems to my mother because I could not yet write.

The poems, though original, were highly plagiarized from
Christopher Robin and I confess that I still hear that A.A. Milne cadence, slightly camouflaged, in the poems I write today.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 20

April 20, 1953: Author Sebastian Faulks born.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Q&A with artist and illustrator Rudy Gutierrez

Rudy Gutierrez is an artist who has illustrated many children's books, including K'naan's When I Get Older: The Story Behind "Wavin' Flag", a winner of the 2013 Children's Africana Book Award. He teaches at the Pratt Institute in New York, and he is based in New Jersey.

Q: How did you end up illustrating When I Get Older, and what inspired your illustrations?

A: I was contacted by Alison Morgan of Tundra Books who had seen my work and apparently thought that I would be a good fit. 

I'm first inspired by what I would call my purpose and that is to lift the viewer's spirits and to inspire so that one can feel his or her own divinity or validity, which is why I do art in the first place. As much as I love to create I don't feel that my purpose is to do art for art's sake or for what I would call aimless creativity.  

I am in no way saying this is what art should be for anyone else but rather what it is for me. I feel a sense of responsibility to use my art in this way whenever it is possible. In a humble sense if I can speak for some who maybe cannot speak for themselves then this is the highest that I can aspire to. 

As far as the book goes, of course I was inspired greatly by K'naan's story of growing up and the challenges as well as the relationship with his grandfather, which showed the beauty in the progression of spirit that runs through us.

In this case K'naan clearly has the poetry of his grandfather as an inspiration and a thread to the ancestors as well, and it is clear that he sees this power in the spreading of the word as a sense of responsibility to bring forth in the present day in his own way which manifests as Rap and then became the basis for the written words for this book.

He tells of how his famous song "When I Get Older" originated through the inspiration of his grandfather's words, which of course grew from the spirit those before him.

Q: Do you work closely with the authors of the books you illustrate, or do you work separately?

A: Typically it is a separate process, which was the case for this project. Alison Morgan had set up a meeting in NYC for K'naan and myself but apparently he was recording the night before and ended up not being able to make it. I was disappointed not to meet him and feel his vibe, which for me goes a long way towards inspiration and feel for the art that will come.

Instead, I listened to a lot of his music, watched his videos, and checked out his interviews, and what I found was a very positive conscious young man holding a wisdom that was clear with a sense of interpreting his experiences.

This inspired me and helped supply me with energy towards making art for the book. We have not met or communicated physically, although his written words of course connected us.

Q: You've illustrated books for children of different ages. Do you have a preference at all, and how much do you think about the age of the intended audience as you create your illustrations?

A: All age groups are equally important to me in the children's realm and out of it. Each have characteristics that I can grab onto to have some fun and use for communicating in whatever area that we talk about. I don't believe in borders, labels, and so-called categories that create boxes around us that function to limit our reach and fulfillment of our purpose.

It is important, however, to know your projected audience and to reach out to them. Visual language can be manipulated to speak just as orally we may change our vocabulary for better

Q: Your website states: "Rudy Gutierrez's art has been described as Wall Medicine, ancient yet contemporary, urban in a sense and musical in feel." Does your work process differ when you're illustrating a book rather than creating a stand-alone work of art?

A: The process and technique can vary on art as a stand-alone piece from one to another depending on how much information that I want to give for the purpose of communicating and certainly the approach is somewhat different when doing a book.

When doing art for a book there is text that has to be followed somewhat but I also think that it is important to get "off of the page" as well. So interpretation and imagination become just as important as long as it is following the story.

The difference between stand-alone pieces and a sequential bit of storytelling is that all of the information that you want to convey will not happen on one page but will take place over the course of the book with ebbs and flows in a sort of cinematic sense.

Another important reality is that when doing a book one must remember that it is not just about your art but you have a responsibility to the story, writer, and publisher, so in fact this becomes a very collaborative process.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I recently did a stamp for the USPS of Jimi Hendrix that has just been released, and this was very exciting and much fun for me to work on. They did a video interview that shows some of my process that can be viewed at

I also just finished a project for Los Hermanos Wine that will hopefully be seen later this year that will include a video as well.

Right now I am working on a book cover dealing with Afro-Cuban Spiritualism that I really can't say much more about and there are another couple of projects that I am waiting on to see if they will happen.

I am also constantly working on personal work for the idea of doing gallery exhibitions. This work is different than what I typically do for a children's book and somewhat different from my editorial or book cover work.

In addition I hope to start shopping around stories that my wife, DK Dyson, the renowned musician/vocalist, has written for children that will feature my art.

I also am blessed to be teaching at Pratt Institute, my alma mater, and I teach a spring graduate class at The Fashion Institute of Technology.

So, whether it is in children's books, murals, magazines, gallery walls, or classrooms, the aim is the same, and that is to uplift and inspire, to assist others on their path, and hopefully help them to understand that who they are is as important as everyone else!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb