Saturday, May 31, 2014

Q&A with author Elise Juska

Elise Juska is the author of the new novel The Blessings. Her other novels are One for Sorrow, Two for Joy; The Hazards of Sleeping Alone, and Getting Over Jack Wagner. She teaches at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

Q: You write from the perspectives of various members of the Blessing family. Were there some that you felt closer to than others, or that were easier or more difficult to write?

A: In a weird way, some of the characters, like Stephen or Patrick, who are men, different ages from me, have different experiences from my own—it was more challenging that way, but I found myself enjoying it. I really liked writing Stephen.

The experience varied from character to character. Some were based more closely on my actual family, and some not at all. The grandmother was challenging because she’s so much like my grandmother. My grandmother died while I was working on the book, and that made it more difficult on a personal level.

Q: Did you plan out the entire plot before you started writing, or did you change things around as you wrote?

A: I didn’t plan much. I wrote the first chapter first, and I knew the uncle was going to die and that would reverberate through the entire book and touch the characters in different ways.

It was an oddly organic process, which is not always [the case] with me. With this one, I wrote one chapter, and it seemed to organically move to the next, one character handing off to the next.

I had some questions toward the end; originally the Patrick chapter was before the Ann chapter. But the death of the uncle was a through line—with each character, how it touches them. That was the thing that was going to happen to the family and reshape the family. There were other surprises, and that was fun.

Q: The Blessings are an Irish Catholic family living in Philadelphia. In what ways are they tied to their city and their background, and in what ways is their story more universal?

A: It’s so interesting—I’ve heard from critics and readers who say, This family feels just like mine! I was surprised, because I feel it’s just like mine!

I might have thought the family was very Philadelphia-specific, but hearing the feedback [made me see that] it’s more universal than I realized.

With Philadelphia, all those things are heightened. I know a lot of families where everybody stays here. It’s a lot like other families, but Philadelphia heightens it.

Q: Why did you choose Blessing as their last name?

A: It’s a funny story. Their name originally was Callahan. In the course of writing the book, I met my husband and we got married, and he has a cluster of relatives with the last name Callahan. He was uncomfortable [about] using the name.

To change the name felt really strange! It happened in the editing process. We came up with another name that was true to an Irish Catholic family in Philadelphia.

There’s a doubleness in it—the notion of blessings, quiet and small and not all that grand. It felt right for the family.

Q: Which authors have influenced you?

A: So many. I teach writing, and I love to read, teach, and write short stories. Writing this book felt comfortable to me [because each chapter can stand on its own]. Tobias Wolff, Andre Dubus, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout--I read it once a year; a lot of my favorites are short story writers. I love Anne Tyler—I discovered her in high school.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A pretty different book. I’m approaching it from different angles, and I have half of a rough draft. It’s about a mother in New Hampshire who’s a college professor, and she hears there has been a shooting in the local mall. She realizes the shooter had been her student, and his papers in hindsight were possibly alarming. It’s about the ripple effect of the event [on her and her family].

Especially now with the frequency of these shootings, there’s a fear that [when] a student in class is writing a paper—is there something there? It’s a hard call to make. It’s an old fear [of mine]. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 31

May 31, 1819: Poet Walt Whitman born.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Q&A with author Rachel Weaver

Rachel Weaver is the author of the new novel Point of Direction. She has taught creative writing in a variety of places, including Boulder, Colorado, and Petersburg, Alaska. She lives in Louisville, Colorado.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Point of Direction?
A: I lived in southeast Alaska working for the Forest Service studying songbirds, raptors and bears for a number of years. Late one summer I was on the ferry traveling north for a vacation when we passed a serene lighthouse in a remote fjord with mountains towering over the water on either side.
There is often a naturalist who rides on the ferries in the summer and points out interesting things to tourists and anyone else on the ferry. He got on the intercom as we passed the lighthouse and said, “Hey, does anyone want to live out there? You can lease it from the Coast Guard for $1 for 100 years.”
Turns out his figures were a bit off, but the idea stuck with me. I couldn’t stop thinking about who would chose such a remote existence, hours by skiff from any town, and what might happen out there if you stayed through the winter when the weather closes in and wind whips through the fjord with force.
Q: Much of the book takes place at the Hibler Rock Lighthouse. Is that a real place?
A: Hibler Rock is based on Eldred Rock, which is the lighthouse we were passing on the ferry that day. I fictionalized the name for the book because I’ve never actually walked around on the island or seen the inside of the lighthouse.
I describe the outside as Eldred Rock actually appears from the water, but I made up how it looks on the inside. The image on the front cover of the book is of Eldred Rock Lighthouse.
Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing, or did you change things around as you wrote?
A: I knew the beginning and the ending when I started, and both stayed the same for the most part, but everything in between changed at least 25 times.
Q: Which authors have particularly inspired you?
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m about 75 percent done with another novel set in Southeast Alaska. It’s the story of a woman who commercially fishes with her young son by herself.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Listen/watch for reviews of Point of Direction in both The New York Times and on NPR’s All Things Considered in June!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 30

May 30, 1903: Poet Countee Cullen born.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Q&A with author Earl Swift

Earl Swift is the author of the new book Auto Biography: A Classic Car, An Outlaw Motorhead, and 57 Years of the American Dream. He has written five other books, including The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways. A former reporter for The Virginian-Pilot, he is a residential fellow at the University of Virginia.

Q: How did you come to write Auto Biography, and how difficult was it to track down the car's various owners?

A: The idea came pretty naturally, in that I owned a lot of old cars in my 20s and early 30s, most of them on their last legs, and I’d sometimes wonder what they were like when they were new and actually started with a turn of the key—as well as where they’d been, what adventures they’d seen, and finally, what kind of people they’d carried.

I was a reporter at The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, and realized that tracing the ownership of a single car might yield a bigger story—that through such a fraternity of otherwise unconnected lives, I might be able to build a mosaic of modern America, or Virginia, or the Norfolk area. So I set out in search of a car to serve as the story’s centerpiece.

I ran into trouble right away. States typically pitch their car title records after a few years, leaving little or no paper trail. I’d have to find an owner who remembered enough about the person he or she bought from that I could figure out who that seller was, go to that person, and repeat the process—and do it again and again, all the way back to the car’s beginnings.

Against all odds, and thanks to many lucky breaks, I was able to do it in 2004 with a Chevy wagon that was 47 years old and had passed through 11 pairs of hands. In the decade since, the car has been owned by another three people, including the book’s central character.

Q: What more can you tell us about that central character, Tommy Arney, the car’s 13th owner?

A: He’s a fifth-grade dropout and a guy with a rough and rumbling criminal past. He’s never cracked a history text in his life. But he acquires the Chevy knowing that it has provenance—the ownership history I put together for the newspaper—and recognizes that it represents history in tangible form, that its rusted steel and thrashed upholstery carry something of the lives that have shared it.

The current Tommy Arney is the product of a restoration himself, so his decision to save the car makes him a particularly fitting guy to build the story around.

Q: You write that the 1957 Chevy was "among the most universally beloved models to ever roll off an assembly line." Why was that?

A: I could catalog its individual charms: an abundance of chrome; stylistic nods to military aviation (those tailfins, the mock gunsights slotted into its hood, the rubber warheads jutting from the grille); a great new engine destined to become a GM standard for years. But I think that all of its assets add up to a wonderfully optimistic machine. It’s hard to look at it without feeling cheered.

Would the story have worked with another kind of car? Sure—a big-finned Chrysler or a Ford would have worked, though perhaps not quite as well. Fact is, the ’57 Chevy is so etched into our collective notion of what the ’50s looked like that it’s a tough character to top.

What was more important to the story than make was that the car be a station wagon. This was a status symbol in its day, advertising to the world that its owner enjoyed the safe, clean, spacious and carefree life of the American suburbs—the aspiration of a huge piece of the population.

The car’s owners don’t create a complete, gap-free American portrait, necessarily, but they’re all different, with varying relationships to the suburban ideal that the car represented when it was new.

Q: What is your favorite car?

A: Oh, I admire a lot of cars. But I find that in terms of cars I’d actually want to own, I’ve become pragmatic in recent years. I can’t imagine spending a tremendous amount of money on a car: I wouldn’t own a Porsche, for instance, when I could buy a used Honda S2000. I wouldn’t buy a BMW when Lexus costs less in money and patience. I drive a Camry.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have several projects in the works. Fear of starvation is a powerful motivator.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 29

May 29, 1906: Author T. H. White born.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Maya Angelou

Remembering Maya Angelou, 1928-2014

Q&A with author Wanda Wyporska

Wanda Wyporska, photo by Jess Hurd
Wanda Wyporska is the author of Witchcraft in Early Modern Poland, 1500-1800. She has held scholarships at Hertford College, Oxford; the Institute for Historical Research; and the University of Warsaw, Poland. She is based in London.

Q: How did you first get interested in writing about witchcraft in Poland?

A: My grandfather was Polish and I was studying Polish language, literature and history at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London.

I went to Krakow for my year out and stayed for an extra year, because I became interested in witchcraft, after taking a history course on stereotypes. Among the stereotypes we studied were witches and I realised that here was a fascinating subject with little written about it in Polish and nothing in English.

As I continued to study witchcraft, I realised it was similar to my work as a journalist - uncovering people’s stories and the circumstances surrounding them.

I was lucky, because even as a post-grad, I was invited to conferences to speak, because so little was known about witchcraft in Poland.

Q: What are some of the biggest misperceptions about witchcraft?

A: Well, where do I begin? I always start my talks with disclaimers and myth busting, in an attempt to refute the persistent myths out there.

Myth number one for me is that witches were women. Around 25 percent of those executed for witchcraft were male - rising to 80 percent or more in areas in Russia, Estonia and Finland.

In addition, witches were not predominantly midwives or healers. Certainly, as someone who’s been through childbirth, I would rather the village didn’t persecute the only person with some knowledge in this area and the evidence shows that although there may be clusters of cases where lying-in maids and midwives may have been accused (Lyndal Roper’s work, for example), it’s not a plausible theory to be applied to the persecution as a whole.

In fact be very wary of any author who claims to have an overarching theory to explain why the witchcraft persecution happened.

Trials for witchcraft were predominantly about individual conflict, but as always there were exceptions to the rules. Some trials were more political in their nature and there were clearly spats between families, lords and servants and individuals of the same social status. 

Q: How did attitudes toward witches in Poland during the early modern period compare with attitudes in other countries?

A: One of the unusual aspects of my work is that I compared the details in the trial records with representations of the witch, the Devil and sabots in lots of different forms of Polish literature of the time. I looked at drama, ecclesiastical works - both Protestant and Roman Catholic and also at calendars, herbals and comedies.

What was unusual about Poland is that there was one of the first translations of the infamous Malleus Maleficarum (A Hammer of Witches (1486)) in 1614 and there was a particular style of middle class literary comedic output as well.

What emerges from a study of both literature and trials is that representations of the witch ranged from images of women who could produce abundant supplies of cheese and milk, and who were to be envied; to the old, warty crones that have survived to this day in popular imagination. 

Across Europe and North America, during the early modern period, life was governed by religious belief and we cannot do the period justice unless we realise that there was genuine belief in the use of supernatural power and in the Devil and witches. Religion was all-pervasive, society was steeped in religious belief in a way that is very hard for some to conceive of in the twenty-first century.

We cannot dismiss early modern society as backward and people as stupid. As I often say when giving talks, I don’t understand physics, so I do not know how a telephone works, I could call it magic, I could call it physics - to me, it’s all the same. It’s just an alternative belief system with a different vocabulary. That’s a simplistic analogy, but it usually serves well to make people think again. 

It’s important to say that we need to differentiate between those who were accused of witchcraft and those who believed they were witches or had some access to supernatural power, either for good or evil purposes.

Literature reflects those differences and many sceptics had a hard time justifying their belief in the religious concept of witches and yet at the same time they decried the persecution of so-called “witches.”

Q: What did the witch trials in Poland say about the role of women during that period?

A: One of the reasons that I analysed trials of men accused of witchcraft is that I wanted to see the role that gender played and to test it in a different way.

Polish women were a paradox for the period. There were some Polish noblewomen who ruled estates in their own right; there were Polish widows who ran loan operations; and there were Polish women who were very independent in various other areas, but ultimately they were living in a fiercely patriarchal society. 

This was reinforced by the patriarchy of the Christian churches and the state. As the Polish proverb said “Ja Pan, Ja Prawo” (The Lord is the Law) and given the fragmented nature of the estates and nobility, often there was a lord in sole charge of the village and what he said went.

This is the key factor in the trials that I studied in Wielkopolska (the region around Poznan), where justice moved swiftly from charge to trial to sentence to execution. There was little room for appeal in trials when the accused rarely had the benefit of a formal defence and sometimes didn’t even know what charges had been brought against them. 

My research reveals that many of the accused were female servants, who were already in a vulnerable position, subordinate to others in someone else’s household. They could easily be caught up in conflicts of a sexual nature or be the subject of envy or dislike.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m currently working on the Tainted series - a trilogy of time slip novels based on the witchcraft trials and it’s wonderful to write without footnotes! I’ve been reading historical fiction ever since I can remember and I’ve always wanted to write a novel.

Witchcraft is such a dramatic subject, it’s filled with conflict, sex, religion, denunciation and more. That’s why I certainly had enough plots for three books. I also wanted to show the hereditary nature of witchcraft accusations since once someone was accused, the family was tainted for generations.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Witchcraft in Poland was launched at the Atlantis Bookshop, which was the haunt of Aleister Crowley and his followers. It was very atmospheric and proved to be a great choice of venue. And I’m delighted to say that my publisher Palgrave has nominated my book for the prestigious Katherine Briggs folklore prize, so fingers crossed.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 28

May 28, 1916: Writer Walker Percy born.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Q&A with author Alexi Zentner

Alexi Zentner is the author of the new novel The Lobster Kings. He also has written the novel Touch. He grew up in Kitchener, Ontario, and now lives in Ithaca, New York; he teaches at Binghamton University.

Q: King Lear is a recurring theme in The Lobster Kings. Why did you decide to include that as an element in the book?

A: I started The Lobster Kings interested in writing about fathers and daughters. I've got two girls, and I wanted to address the kind of pressures I put upon them to become the sort of strong women that I want them to grow into, women like Cordelia, the narrator of The Lobster Kings.

And once I realized that's what I was writing about, King Lear seemed like an obvious jumping off point. I studied the play in university, when I was abroad in London for the semester, and it always stuck with me.

But what I was always intrigued by was not what it meant to give away the kingdom, which is what Lear is about, but rather what it meant to be the one who was inheriting, and that's what The Lobster Kings is really about.

I really was riffing on King Lear much more than retelling the story, because I wanted to write about the version of Cordelia who could look at her father and say, how do I take on the burden of the crown?

Q: How did you come up with the character of Cordelia, and also that of Brumfitt Kings?

A: One of the questions I'm getting a lot of as the book comes out is why Cordelia? Why such a strong female voice? The honest answer is, why not? I'm a feminist and I'm trying to raise my daughters to stand up for themselves, and even though I'm a man, a man's voice doesn't have to be my default.

Because I was writing about the lobstering industry, a traditionally male dominated field, I thought, if I've got a woman who is trying to be part of this, she's going to have to be able to hold her ground.

I wanted a character who would say, I don't care how it's been done, this is the way it's going to be. And I wanted somebody who was smart and funny and charming, who was real - faults and all - and who readers would fall in love with.

I knew I couldn't do the female voice, because there is no such thing as the female voice, just as there is no such thing as the male voice. I couldn't write the voice of women, but I could write the hell out of Cordelia.

And to get to Cordelia, you had to start somewhere mythical. The Kings family is a family that traces themselves back to the beginning of Loosewood Island. Cordelia needed to be able to look back to someone who saw Loosewood Island for all of the beauty and magic that it has, and who was also able to be the anchor that held the Kings' family myth steady.

Brumfitt. A man who could sail half of the way from Ireland and then walk the rest of the way, the lobster making a road with their backs. 

Q: Is Loosewood Island based on a real place? What inspired the setting?

A: Loosewood Island is both entirely fictional and entirely real. You can't find it on a map, and it is made of bits and pieces of images and ideas, but it is also the kind of place that can be found up and down the coast.

If you live in a bigger city or in a town that doesn't survive on industry, it can be easy to forget that there are entire communities that still make their living with their hands.

But I was very deliberate about making it somewhere unique, because I wanted a place that allowed the stories and myth of the Kings family to flourish.

One of the best things about writing in North America is that the continent is so big. It gives me the space, as an author, to put stories in places where we can imagine that there might be things we don't understand, that we haven't discovered yet.

Q: Are there any authors that have particularly inspired you?

A: When I first started reading seriously, the authors that I came to were Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, and Margaret Atwood. I think I fell in love with the idea that big, serious books can also be fun. And for a boy who read a ton of science fiction and fantasy, the worlds of Atwood and Ondaatje were an easy transition. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm always working on a number of projects, but I'm loath to talk about them. I feel like the instant I talk about them is the instant that I'm committed to whatever I've said.

One of the best tools a writer has is the ability to go back and fix mistakes. I feel like I constantly have to ask, does this make the book better? And by saying, "this is what I'm doing," I've made it so I can't ask the question.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I'm proud of my first book, Touch, but it is definitely a quieter book than The Lobster Kings. That being said, I hope that anybody who picks up The Lobster Kings can do so just expecting a great book.

I think if you go in with the assumption that it will be this kind of a book or that kind of a book, you'll be disappointed. I'm a huge fan of speculative fiction and fantasy and literary fiction and, well, almost everything, but I think that The Lobster Kings isn't neatly slotted into a genre. Heck, I'm even resistant to the idea of it being called magical realism, though there is a bit of magic in it. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with author Sally Koslow

Sally Koslow's most recent novel is The Widow Waltz, now available in paperback. She also has written three novels--With Friends Like These, The Late, Lamented Molly Marx, and Little Pink Slips--and a work of nonfiction, Slouching Toward Adulthood. She was editor-in-chief of McCall's magazine and has taught at The Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College. She is based in New York.

Q: Why did you decide to write about widowhood?

A: Short answer: because I’m in awe of women who rebuild their lives.

Longer answer: while The Widow Waltz pivots around a woman who has recently lost her husband—something that’s happened at a young age to too many women that I know--the novel’s themes extend to betrayal and forgiveness.

After the main character’s husband dies his widow, Georgia Waltz, discovers that he’d led a secret life that compromises her financial stability.  Georgia needs to get past her grief to re-invent herself in midlife, a task that is never easy, even without the heartache of a lost partner.

Q: How did you come up with your three main characters, Georgia, Louisa, and Nicola?

A: Georgia was inspired by several strong women I’ve known while her daughters, Louisa and Nicola, were animated by young women I met while researching my non-fiction book, Slouching Toward Adulthood. It explores the roundabout paths American adultescents travel as they search for their bliss.

Q: Why are the chapters from Georgia’s perspective told in first person while the chapters told from her daughters’ perspectives are in third person?

A: The Widow Waltz is Georgia’s book. A first-person voice adds intimacy and as the soul of the novel, I wanted her to talk directly to the reader.

Q: As someone who’s written both fiction and nonfiction, do you have a preference?

A: Whatever genre I’m committed to at the moment becomes my favorite. A writer can’t afford not to feel this way. When you’re creating a book, it’s your mind-mate, lover and worthy adversary for as long as your patience and publisher can stand.

Earlier this year I wrote about this subject for The New York Times: “In fiction, creativity is the glue that holds the work together, and an author sells herself on the idea that a sense of childish make-believe will pull her through. In nonfiction, curiosity becomes the cement.”

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My fifth novel. Fingers crossed.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m a book club bigamist. I belong to two clubs and each one helps my writing. One club reads only books that have stood the test of time while the other is made up of writers and we’ve chosen to read exclusively recent novels.

It’s a thrill when book clubs read my books, especially if I can visit the group either virtually or face-to-face. If anyone would like me to visit their book club, I hope they’ll please get in touch through my website so we can work something out.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 27

May 27, 1907: Author Rachel Carson born.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Q&A with author Michele Zackheim

Michele Zackheim, photo by Charles Ramsburg
Michele Zackheim's most recent book is the novel Last Train to Paris. She has written two other novels, Violette's Embrace and Broken Colors, and a work of nonfiction, Einstein's Daughter. She also is a visual artist, and she teaches creative writing from a visual perspective at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. She lives in New York.

Q: Last Train to Paris was partly inspired by a true story. How did you combine the fictional and historical elements?

A: I was flabbergasted to discover, in an essay by Janet Flanner, that a distant cousin of mine had been murdered in Paris in 1937. Not only had she been killed, but her murderer was the notorious Eugen Weidmann, a German citizen called “the handsome devil” by the press.

The story created an uproar in the Western world. Blazing headlines, suggesting all kinds of sexual and spy-driven mischief, were fed to the reading public for weeks. The editors must have thought this story would get people’s minds off the impending war.

At first I planned to write a nonfiction book—a kind of family memoir; my first book, Violette’s Embrace, had begun with a true story as well. But the factual material of the trial didn’t hold my interest long enough, so I decided to create a fictional character, an American journalist, who would tell the story: Jimmy Corso, a tough but sensitive guy.

After three years of work, I turned the book in to Europa Editions. Two weeks later, I asked for it back; I knew it wasn’t quite right yet. Fortunately, my dear editor and publisher, Kent Carroll, agreed.

I decided to turn Jimmy into a new character—a woman—and found that her voice worked better for the story. I named her Rose Belle Manon and modeled her on the woman I might have been in 1937.

Now I was free to write about that dark prewar time, later called “the silent war,” and follow the trial while exploring the life of a courageous yet frightened young newspaperwoman. Then I expanded the frame: Rose, at the age of eighty-five, would look back and describe the journeys of her life.

Q: What type of research did you need to do for this novel?

A: Most of my information came from the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune, which I used as a model for the newspaper Rose works for in Paris; the writings of Colette; the essays of Janet Flanner from The New Yorker; the works of Jean Genet and André Gide; and the transcripts of the scandalous and popular trial of my cousin’s murderer.

As with all my books, I need to see and smell the places I write about. I went to Paris and Berlin, walking the streets and taking notes.

For instance, how would Rose feel as she was racing down the platform at the Anhalter Bahnhof train station in Berlin, lined with German soldiers . . . having to make a heartbreaking choice of whom to take with her on the last train to Paris? Every specific detail, I found, made the story come alive.

Oh, and I always buy postcards, lots of old postcards. I need the sensation of the “color” of the time in front of me while I write.

Q: As someone who's written both fiction and nonfiction, do you have a preference?

A: The hardest book I’ve written was Einstein’s Daughter: The Search for Lieserl. It is seriously nonfiction. I use the word seriously because it is hard for me, I admit, to stick to what is considered the “truth.”

I would rather write dialogue that I’ve created to make the scene more dramatic . . . to embellish the story with fictional moments . . . to make the emotions more intricate and subtle.

I’ve always appreciated the Einstein book’s editors at Riverhead for being so kind as they winnowed my imaginative additions from the facts. This is a long way of saying that I’ve discovered that I prefer to write fiction.

Q: How does your work as an artist affect your writing?

A: I “see” faint fragments of the story first. As if I were working on a stretched canvas, I lightly pencil in the image. Then I begin to add the color, and then the texture, and then I move the paint around to create luminosity or shadows or mundane effects.

One of the sensual tasks I could never achieve as a visual artist was the illustration of an aroma. It delights me to try to do this with language.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a new novel about three women who know each other’s creative work, but don’t meet until later in their lives.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My first reporting job was for the Compton Herald American in 1957. I covered high school and junior college football games. My editor often corrected my drafts. “It’s not a wrinkled blue jersey with a light magenta number 72,” he would say. “It’s Marvin Fleming, number 72.” Even then I was embellishing.

When I was 19, I returned to Virginia City, Nevada, where I had been born. This was the first time I had been back since I was 3. As I was walking along the wooden sidewalk, I heard a woman’s voice: “Lucius, Sam Zackheim’s back.” Straight ahead of me was a man with a giant beige cowboy hat and pointed-toed red cowboy boots. “Ida,” he said, “it’s not Sam. Must be his daughter.”

I was totally confused and must have shown it. The man laughed, put out his hand, and said “Howdy, Miss Zackheim. Name’s Lucius Beebe. Do you know who I am?” I shook my head. “Well, young lady, I own the Territorial Enterprise.” “Wow,” I said. “Mark Twain’s newspaper?” “Well, not his newspaper. He just worked there. Does your dad still have Twain’s desk?” “I think so,” I said.

Ida, whose voice had announced me, was Virginia City’s sole telephone operator. She was blind and had learned over many years how to identify people’s footsteps and voices. My walk was clearly like my father’s.

That evening Mr. Beebe—“Call me Lucius,” he insisted—took me out to dinner at Piper’s, the old opera house. He told me the story of the desk. After Twain left the Territorial Enterprise, the desk had been used by the Fourth Ward School; it was a tradition for students to write their names on its underside when they graduated.

“When your father resigned from teaching here to go to a better job in California, the school gave him the desk as a gift. Your parents lashed it to the roof of their car. The next time you see the desk,” he said, “be sure to look for Twain’s own signature on the bottom.”

Fifty years later, when I inherited the desk, I looked. I even used a magnifying glass. There were many signatures, but no Samuel Clemens. No Mark Twain.

Still, I’ve always felt a link with him—and one of his sayings seemed so perfect for me that I made it the epigraph of Last Train to Paris: “Get your facts first and then you can distort ’em as much as you like.”

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with author Kristiana Kahakauwila

Kristiana Kahakauwila, photo by Katty Wu
Kristiana Kahakauwila is the author of the story collection This Is Paradise. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at Western Washington University, and she lives in Bellingham, Washington, and in Hawaii.

Q: Why did you select This Is Paradise for the title of your story collection?

A: The title of my collection came from one of the stories. In the story “This is Paradise” a young tourist woman, Susan, is observed by three groups of women-- local surfer girls, Micronesian hotel workers, and Hawaiian career women.

When, just before the story’s climax, Susan proclaims that this is paradise-- the clubs in Waikiki, the city streets, the beaches that local surfers find dull-- the reader understands that the notion of paradise, and of Hawai'i, is complicated.

The stories that follow, which include “Wanle,” about a young woman who inherits her father’s legacy in the cockfighting world, and “The Road to Hana,” where a pair of lovers discover, on a visit to Maui, that their relationship is not what they thought, all contribute to the remaking of the idea of paradise.

Q: What are the most common images of Hawaii, and how realistic are they?

A: I don’t want to negate the idea of the beauty of the islands. In so many ways Hawai'i is a paradise, with its lush mountains and ocean life, but it’s also a place where real people live and work and struggle to survive.

Another part of this paradise myth is that Hawai'i is a land where beauty is for sale. Think of the image of the hula girl, her skin lightly tanned, her waist whittled, her breasts plump.

This image sexualizes Hawai'i, and its women, and one of its most sacred forms of storytelling (the hula), all in the name of commercialization.

I have a moment in “This is Paradise” that reflects upon this stereotypical hula girl image, but I also have moments in the other stories where Hawaiian families enjoy watching a child or tutu (grandma) dance and share the art. I wanted to contrast the stereotype against what’s real for me.

Other images of Hawai'i might include palm trees, beaches, and surfboards. I’m always worried when a place is seen through only a few images. Hawai'i isn’t all beaches and surfing.

For me, it’s about family, friends, talking story, gathering together to eat some really good smoked boar or fresh fish, sharing time together... and surfing. So, in the book, I wanted to offer that sense of fullness, how Hawai'i might start with some of these images, but it’s so much more.

Q: Which writers have particularly inspired you?

A: I read a lot of Hawaiian writers and history, and certainly this history peeks out at the edges of my stories. Queen Liliuokalani’s Hawai'i’s Story by Hawai'i’s Queen is very moving to me, and I love Waves of Resistance: Surfing and History in Twentieth-Century Hawai'i by Isaiah Walker, both of which are nonfiction.

Fiction writers I turn to include Amy Hempel, whose minimalist style inspired “The Road to Hana,” and Alice Munro, who is a master of creating deep, thoughtful characters and whose storytelling influenced “The Old Paniolo Way.”

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Now, after reading all that history, I’m working on a historical novel. The backdrop is a real water rights lawsuit on the island of Maui. But the heart of the story is a fictional Hawaiian family whose adult children must come to terms with the secrets of their childhood. 

I’m always thinking of inheritance and legacy, what we carry from our parents and grandparents and ancestors. So this current project is a way for me to imagine that coming into the present time.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb