Monday, June 30, 2014

Q&A with author Alyson Foster

Alyson Foster is the author of the new novel God is an Astronaut. Her writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including Glimmer Train and The Kenyon Review. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: How did you come up with the premise for God is an Astronaut, and with your protagonist, Jessica?

A: That’s a tough one. I feel like the premise came from several different places. I think most novels start like that. You find one idea that resonates and then you slowly start incorporating it other threads as they occur to you. It’s a messy process and you keep adding different elements in and taking others out. So sometimes it’s difficult to recall exactly where they began.

I will say that space has always been interest of mine. If I could come back in another life and choose any career, being an astronaut would be high on that list. Hence my choice of space tourism as a topic for my novel.

At the same time, I wanted to tell the story from the perspective of an outsider to the idea of space travel – someone who doesn’t know anything about logistics of it, someone who views the idea of space travel the way most people probably do – that is, with both trepidation and admiration.

That’s why I chose Jess as my protagonist. She’s a botanist; she knows almost nothing about physics or technology, and what she does know, she only knows because of her husband, because he works for a space tourism company. Then, through a series of unforeseen and tragic events, she gets more involved with his business – very risky business – than she ever intends. 

Q: Why did you decide to tell the story in the form of e-mails?

A: When I started writing this book, I didn’t know exactly what form it was going to take. I had my narrator, Jess, talking in a very intimate, confessional tone to a confidant. At some point I decided the book should have an epistolary format. Only as a concession to contemporary times, it would consist of e-mails rather than letters.

There’s also the fact that I’ve always loved reading people’s letters. There’s a voyeuristic sort of pleasure to it. I wanted to include that feeling in the book – to give the readers the sense that they were eavesdropping on a private conversation that wasn’t intended to be shared.

Q: The media, in the form of reporters and documentary filmmakers, plays a big role in the story. Why did you include that aspect of the book?

A: That’s another interest of mine – how people cope with being thrown into the spotlight. Like everyone else in this country, I’ve seen an endless number of tragic stories and scandals play out in the glare of the media and I’ve always imagined how it must feel to be one the people at the center of those stories, to have your life turned upside down, to go from being a nobody to having your whole life being scrutinized by the press and the public.

That transformation is the stuff of drama, right? So I wanted a chance to explore that in the book.

Q: How was the book's title selected?

A: It actually came from an idea that didn’t make it into the book. The protagonist, Jess, has a son named Jack, who’s 10 years old. I was going to include a section where she describes how, when Jack was younger, he used to think God was an astronaut … because his father worked on sending people into space, and because he (Jack) knew that God supposedly lived up somewhere in the sky. So he erroneously conflated the two concepts.

I didn’t end up working that section into the book, but I hung onto the line “God is an astronaut” because it seemed evocative to me, and because I thought it worked on another level.

There’s the hubris and arrogance of these men, including Jess’s husband, who do dangerous work and believe nothing is going to go wrong. And of course, there’s a documentary film that ends up with that title – so I was able to work it in. Not just the way I expected.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve started working on a new novel. I’m reluctant to give away too much about the plot, since it’s still evolving at this point, but I will say that it’s the first piece of fiction I’ve written that is set specifically in Washington, D.C., which I’m kind of excited about.

Up to this point, most of my work – including God Is An Astronaut – has been set in the Midwest. That’s where I grew up and it felt like a place I knew intimately. Now I’ve been living in D.C. for almost nine years and it finally seems enough like home to me, that I feel like I’m ready to include it in my work.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’ve discovered that there’s also a band with the name God Is An Astronaut. People like to mention that when I tell them the title of my book. I’ve downloaded some of their music, and I like it. If you don’t know them, you should check them out.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

June 30

June 30, 1911: Poet Czeslaw Milosz born.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Q&A with author A.X. Ahmad

A.X. Ahmad is the author of the new novel The Last Taxi Ride. He also has written the novel The Caretaker. He teaches at the Bethesda Writer's Center, and he is based in Washington, D.C., and Brooklyn.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Last Taxi Ride?

A: About five years ago, I was sitting in Curry in A Hurry, an Indian restaurant in Manhattan. I was eating and eavesdropping on two Indian cabbies sitting behind me.

One cab driver kept insisting he had given a ride to a famous Indian Bollywood actress, while the other wouldn’t believe it. They kept arguing, and never reached a conclusion, but that moment stayed with me. I became intrigued by the idea of a Bollywood star who is now living in New York, and taking cabs incognito all over town.

And I also realized that a cabbie would be a great character in a crime novel.

I started taking cabs wherever I went in New York, and talking to the Indian drivers.

And soon I began to write about an Indian cabbie in NYC who gives a ride to a has-been Bollywood actress, and then is accused of her murder. From this beginning I spun out an entire novel, populated with characters based on the cab drivers I had met. It’s now a book called The Last Taxi Ride.

Q: The Last Taxi Ride is the second in a projected trilogy about Ranjit Singh. What can you tell us about the third book?

A: I’m currently working on the third book in the Ranjit Singh Trilogy, whose working title is The Hundred Days.

In it, Ranjit is running a motel in El Centro, California, on the border with Mexico. All he wants to do is put down roots and live a quiet life, but once again, he gets dragged into a mystery.

The narrative arc of all three books is that of an immigrant trying to find his place in America: he moves around, and tries different jobs. During these years, Ranjit’s relationships change, he battles ghosts from his past, and his young daughter becomes a teenager.

Hopefully he finds some peace and a place to call home. And I hope readers will want to accompany Ranjit on his journey!

Q: In our previous interview, you discussed the "huge split between the literary world and the genre world." Is there a way to bridge that gap?

A: Interesting question, Deborah.

I think that the split between the literary and the genre world exists mainly in the minds of publishers and marketing departments. They like to think that they have a particular product that can be sold in a particular way. So for example, mysteries and thrillers will have blurbs talking about how fast the pacing is, and how clever the plot is, while literary novels will focus on character and place.

But the truth of the matter is that there is no such thing as a pure “literary” or “genre” reader. People like good, interesting books, period. If a friend comes up to you and recommends a novel, chances are that you will check it out. People read all kinds of things, according to their moods - sometimes it’s a slower paced, literary novel, sometimes a mystery.

The way to bridge this divide, for an author, is to not worry about it, too much, and to realize that is an artificial divide. Authors should tell the stories they want to tell, and to do it as best as they can. If it resonates with readers, all sorts of people will read it!

Q: When you're writing a novel, do you know the ending before you begin, or do you make changes along the way?

A: I have a beginning, and some characters, and some strands I want to explore. So for example, in The Last Taxi Ride, I could only visualize Ranjit meeting actress Shabana in his cab. And I knew that the book would involve the fancy apartment building, the Dakota, where Shabana lives. I spun my entire novel out of this beginning.

The real pleasure for me, as a writer, is of exploring the unknown. So I have no idea what happens, till about 150 pages in, when I step back and figure out the plot. If I can’t surprise myself, I can’t surprise my readers!

Q: Which authors have influenced you?

A: The murky morality of John le Carre’s “Smiley” spy novels. The quirky Buddhist detective of John Burdett’s “Bangkok 8” series. Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games - about a Sikh policeman in Mumbai - which blew me away, and opened up a whole world for me to explore.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I had a great time making a short four-minute movie to promote The Last Taxi Ride. In it, a distraught Bollywood fan learns of actress Shabana Shah’s murder, and goes to Manhattan’s “Curry Hill” area to interview other Indian fans, and to find out more. I think your readers will enjoy it! 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous interview with A.X. Ahmad, please click here.

Q&A with author Julia Dahl

Julia Dahl is the author of the new novel Invisible City, which is about a young reporter who covers a murder in Brooklyn's Hasidic Jewish community. Dahl has worked for CBS and the New York Post, and she lives in Brooklyn.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Invisible City, and for your main character, Rebekah?

A: I started writing Invisible City in 2007, soon after I started working as a freelance reporter for the New York Post.  

A couple things happened that sort of forced my attention toward the ultra-Orthodox community. First, my husband and I were looking at an apartment in Brooklyn and the broker told us that the previous tenant had committed suicide there.

It was a great apartment, though, and there were certainly no signs of a suicide – so we took it, and I began to form a kind of imaginary relationship with him. I even wrote an essay about the "ghost" in my apartment.

I learned from neighbors that the man was Hasidic and have lived in Borough Park before moving to our neighborhood, which was on the border of Windsor Terrace and Kensington. Apparently, he was gay and had been shunned by his family and friends.

I started getting his mail – as is common when you move. But there was no forwarding address, so I kept the mail, and started to form an idea about who he might have been.

Right around the same time, the Post sent me to cover the story of a young ultra-Orthodox groom who committed suicide by jumping from the window of his honeymoon suite.

Living in Brooklyn, I saw the ultra-Orthodox a lot on the subway, and sometimes in my neighborhood, and I couldn't help but wonder: who are these people? Why do they live the way they do? I am Jewish, so they are like me, and yet so unlike me. I wondered, how is crime treated in their community? I couldn't stop thinking about it, so I started writing about it.

Q: What kind of research did you do to write the novel?

A: I used my experience as a tabloid reporter and the child of a Christian and a Jew to create Rebekah, the narrator.

Her experience is different from mine in key ways: my mother didn't abandon me, as hers did; and I started working at a tabloid after almost 10 years in journalism, so I was more experienced and mature than she is when she starts just out of college. But the day-to-day existence of a reporter for a big city paper was something I knew intimately.

When it came to researching the haredi world, I started by reading a lot – one book in particular, called Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels by Hella Winston was particularly helpful.

And then I started to reach out to people on the fringes of the community. I decided to write an article for a publication I was working for at the time called The Crime Report about the difficulties involved in policing insular, religious communities, and the people I talked with were kind enough to spend extra time answering questions related to my book.

Slowly, I began to build connections to a network of people who have gone "off the derech" – which means off the path; meaning they grew up ultra-Orthodox, and in some cases married and had children in that world, but left.

These people were willing to open up to me, to tell me when something I was writing didn't make sense, and to connect me to other people once we had built trust. I could not have written this book without all those people.

I was also careful to make sure this book was written from an outsider's perspective. Rebekah knows less than nothing about the haredi world when she stumbles upon this murder and the book is story of her looking for answers.

I don't claim to be an expert on Orthodox Judaism; rather, I'm an observer, asking questions, trying to find connections between that world and my own.

Q: How was “Invisible City” chosen as the title?

A: My uncle, Bob Dahl, actually came up with it. My publisher didn't like my original title and I spent weeks agonizing about it last summer.

The deadline was approaching and I happened to be Chicago visiting my dad's family a couple days before I had to make a decision. So I sat in my grandma's living room with my uncle and two aunts and we started talking about it.

I explained what the book was about – none of them had read it – and my uncle asked me about the themes. We honed in on the notion that this world of hundreds of thousands of people lived inside the biggest city in the country and yet we know almost nothing about they. They are, in a word, invisible.

Q: Are you writing any more books about Rebekah?

A: I am currently knee-deep in revisions for the sequel to Invisible City, which is scheduled to be published in 2015. I'm really excited about it – and hope I'll get to write more!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

June 29

June 29, 1900: Writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery born.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Q&A with author Jennifer Senior

Jennifer Senior is the author of the bestselling book All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. She is a contributing editor at New York magazine, and she lives in New York.

Q: Did you expect this topic to hit such a nerve and get the publicity it did, both with the book and, before that, the piece for New York magazine?

A: With the magazine piece, [initially] no. I had to invent what the magazine piece looked like. There was a lot of information on how parents affect kids, but not on how kids affect parents.

I had to dive into every silo of social science. The more I did, I realized there was so much here! By the end, I thought this was pretty interesting. I had some inkling that this was an unusual piece, and I was feeling very proud of it—I had a wacky idea that paid off!

With the book, you’re in a black velvet bag. There’s no feedback. You’re alone with it. I was terrified that there would be a backlash or that no one would read it, or that people would discuss it without engaging with the material.

I was very careful to fly all around the country to do case studies, not just look at neurotic New Yorkers or Angelenos or [people in] D.C.

I knew that coming out in January was helpful; it’s a dead time media-wise. You sell fewer books because it’s cold out, and this was during the Vortex. On the other hand, you have slow news days, and you have a better chance of being talked about in a slow news month.

I was pleasantly surprised that everyone was willing to be open-minded, and that people believed it wasn’t just a padded magazine story, that it was something completely different.

Q: You mentioned your case studies. How did you find the people you interviewed for the book?

A: I wanted a sample that would pass muster with social scientists. I thought I would call university labs [to get names], but the people who participate sign confidentiality agreements. It was naïve of me.

I kept calling academics, and Bill Doherty at the University of Minnesota said he was an advisor to a parent education program, and that I could sit in on a week of classes.

Then, for elementary school kids, I was talking with my colleague Emily Nussbaum, and I knew I wanted [to talk to people in] the South. She said, go to Texas—it’s interesting! You don’t have to be as systematic as you think.

I called a friend. She said to go to [the Houston suburbs of] Sugar Land or Missouri City—they’re diverse, they’re changing. The census numbers [show that] Houston is bursting with families with kids under 18.

I ran out of time and money, and I knew New Yorkers were going to buy this book. I had to give a nod to my natural constituency. My colleague is a soccer coach, and [through him] I found a community of public school teachers [in Lefferts Gardens in Brooklyn].

Q: You look at parents of young kids, of elementary-school kids, and of teenagers. Were you more surprised by the information you found from one of these groups than the others?

A: I found the stuff from the parents of young children to be the least surprising, because I had a young kid.

[But] when Clint [one of those interviewed in the book] said “I am the standard” [about how he handles things at home] it was a huge “aha” moment for me. It made me realize men are not tyrannized by the same ideals of fatherhood. They are lucky in some ways because they have a clean slate to work from. That happened to come from the parent of a young child.

I was surprised by the fact that the Texas parents were even crazier than New York parents. They are so insane about sports, giving muscle milk to kids, and their anxiety—I was surprised by their panic over these kids [of middle-class Indian and Korean families] taking over the schools.

Being a New Yorker, I’m used to taking cues from the latest successful immigrant group coming in. It was interesting to me to see people in less diverse suburbs becoming uncomfortable with this.

Among the teenagers, everybody’s story is so different that everything’s interesting.

Q: You mentioned that a comment from a man gave you an “aha” moment—did you expect the book to be more focused on women than men, and has the book appealed more to women than men?

A: It became more of a women’s book than I thought it would be. In retrospect, I wish I had more from dads. It’s more feminist than I had expected. I have a ton of male readers; the numbers [between men and women] were pretty close. When I do readings, there are lots of women. On Twitter, I hear from men all the time.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with author Marc Leepson

Marc Leepson is the author of the new book What So Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, A Life. His other books include Lafayette, Desperate Engagement, Saving Monticello, and Flag. He lives in Middleburg, Virginia.

Q: You write that "the details of [Key's] life are largely unknown to Americans today." Why is that, and how did you first get interested in writing his biography?

A: I’m not quite sure. There hadn’t been a full biography of Key since 1937. In the last two years, there have been books that came out that had more information on Key.

One was Snow-Storm in August, by Jefferson Morley. I called him and we talked for hours. He told me he had thought he would write even more about Key, but that the race riot [on which his book focuses] took over.

Then there’s Steve Vogel’s book [Through the Perilous Fight]; it also has a lot [about Key], and he helped me as well. Key lived until 1843, and he wrote "The Star Spangled Banner" in 1814. He had a long life after that. He was a major player in the early Republic, but nothing approached what happened that night.

Q: Of Key, you say, "If he considered it problematic to represent black people in court one day and then white slave owners the next, he never said so." How would you describe Key's attitudes toward slavery?

A: When I was getting into [the research], I realized how much slavery kept coming up, from the day Key was born to the day he died. I talked to a professor at GW, and he said you can’t overemphasize slavery in this period.

Key was from a slave-owning family; he bought and sold slaves. He did free several slaves. But he was adamantly against slave-trafficking. The ownership of slaves was legal, but slave trafficking was illegal after 1808.

He represented free blacks in court, but also represented slave catchers and owners. There were cases where he argued for slave owners. That was lawyer work—they represent their client to the best of their ability.

Then there was the American Colonization Society. He was a founding member and on the board of managers. He spoke out strongly for it, and gave lots of speeches.

It was a movement to send free blacks to a colony in Africa. The constitution [of the organization] said we are not sending slaves, only free blacks. They thought it was a way to end slave trafficking and a way to “civilize” Africa. It had a strong religious component.

The abolitionists hated it, and it was not very popular among free blacks. The idea of “sending back”—these were people born in the U.S.

Q: Do you think Key meant to create a poem or a song when he wrote "The Star Spangled Banner"?

A: I’m bowing to the latest historical research, and agreeing that it most likely was a song. That’s recent—up to the last five or 10 years, historians believed he was writing a poem. He wrote very bad amateur poetry; after he died, someone printed his poems. [But] this one night inspired him to write words that millions of Americans know by heart.

The family stories were that he was unmusical, so the fact that he was a prolific amateur poet and was unmusical led most people to believe he was writing a poem.

He [almost] never spoke about this [writing "The Star Spangled Banner"] in public—[only] once, in 1834, and in no letter I could find--there was one letter where he talked about the prisoner exchange but not about writing the poem.

The evidence he was writing a song was that back in those days, it was very common for people to write words and put them to a well-known song. “To Anacreon in Heaven” was a song that lots of people put words to. Key’s rhyme and meter match the music.

In 1805, he was at a dinner at a tavern in Georgetown, and a
“gentleman of George-Town,” who was Key, wrote a poem they sang that night, called "When the Warrior Returns." It was to the tune of “Anacreon in Heaven,” and it said, “By the light of the star-spangled flag of our nation.” It’s almost certain that he knew that song.

When I started, I was going to write that it was a poem. Then I found the [new] research.

Q: You write, "When Frank Key boarded the Jackson bandwagon in 1827, his life changed significantly." How did his support for President Andrew Jackson affect Key?

A: He was apolitical right up until he fell in love with Andrew Jackson. He became a very strong partisan of Jackson. He did legal work for the Jackson administration, and was appointed U.S. attorney for Washington by Jackson. He defended Sam Houston as a favor to the Jackson administration.

Jackson sent Key on an important mission to Alabama in 1833 to help negotiate an end to a state vs. federal rights controversy. He was very devoted to Jackson.

It’s interesting--they were very different men. Key went to St. John’s College and was a very well-lettered, cultured man. And there was Andrew Jackson, a fighting general, unlettered. He was a frontiersman, an Indian fighter, a hero from Tennessee. Yet Key was a member of Jackson’s kitchen cabinet.

This was the first use of the term “kitchen cabinet.” Jackson was the first president not born in Virginia or Massachusetts. He was an outsider from Tennessee. When he came to Washington, he wanted to clean house and not have Washington insiders in his Cabinet. He was told [not to].

So his closest advisors were derisively called the Kitchen Cabinet. Kitchens were sometimes not even in the main house. The official Cabinet met in fancy drawing rooms, but the Kitchen Cabinet met next to frying bacon. Key was a member of the Kitchen Cabinet; virtually all the others were from Tennessee.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: It’s the first biography of Key in over 75 years, and this is the 200th anniversary of "The Star Spangled Banner." He was an important player in the early Republic, and all we know is that he wrote those words.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For an earlier interview with Marc Leepson, please click here.

June 28

June 28, 1712: Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau born.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Q&A with author Rabih Alameddine

Rabih Alameddine is the author of the new novel An Unnecessary Woman. His other books include the novels Koolaids, I, the Divine, and The Hakawati, and the story collection The Perv. He is based in San Francisco and Beirut.

Q: How did you come up with the character Aaliya, and why did you title the novel "An Unnecessary Woman"?

A: I began working on a novel that was completely different than what I ended up with. That earlier one had a convoluted plot about a recent widow who had to save her husband’s company for the sake of the children even though she had absolutely no interest in it.

What I was writing was a disaster, and wouldn’t work, and I realized that the only interesting thing was the woman and her not wishing to be involved in what she viewed as the silly machinations of the world. I began to pare down what I was working on until I realized that the woman I am interested in had to be somewhat of a recluse.

I called it "An Unnecessary Woman" because that’s what society considered her, and because I was interested in how during the Holocaust, the Nazis classified some Jews as necessary and kept them alive, albeit briefly, because they had a useful skill, whereas those who didn’t were deemed unnecessary.

Q: Your protagonist, Aaliya, says, "I've read so many recent novels, particularly those published in the Anglo world, that are dull and trite because I'm always supposed to infer causality." Do you agree with her?

A: For the most part. In the book, she explains why she feels that way, and I tend to agree. We seem to think that cause/effect is the primary force in humans, which is silly.

A character doesn’t know how to be intimate because her father was absent, or another is unreasonably ambitious because he didn’t get the right birthday gift as a five year old.

We live in an age where we try to explain away mysteries, as if we can. Some human behavior can be explained but most of it remains an enigma, wonderfully obscure, and if you ask me, that’s what makes for good literature.

Q: You write, "Beirut is the Elizabeth Taylor of cities: insane, beautiful, tacky, falling apart, aging, and forever drama laden." How do you see the relationship between Aaliya and Beirut?

A: Aaliya is alone, doesn’t interact with people, and doesn’t wish to. She has two primary relationships: with books, and with her apartment/home/city. She is an intelligent and sensitive woman, all the richness that usually goes into sustaining a relationship, she directs into her surrounding. Beirut for her is a city that’s alive, and she interacts with it. It is an intimate relationship.

Q: Loneliness is a key theme in the book, as is love of literature. How do the two combine in the character of Aaliya?

A: The Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa is one her idols, and he once wrote, “Literature is the most agreeable way of avoiding life.”

Aaliya hides from people in her books. Most of us who read do so. She struggles to try to understand how her life ended the way it did. She tries to figure whether she avoided human interaction by running away into a world of literature or that people shunned her so she spent her time reading. As much as books have provided her with a meaningful and bountiful life, they have also kept her separate.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a novel, but it is a mess right now, which my work tends to be until it is done, at which point, it hopefully becomes a publishable mess.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I really love ice cream. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with author Sally Warner

Sally Warner is the author of many books for children, including the EllRay Jakes series and the Emma series. She also has written nonfiction books about art for adults. She lives in Southern California.

Q: How did you come up with your character EllRay Jakes?

A: EllRay Jakes first appeared in the Emma series (Viking; Only Emma, Excellent Emma, etc.). He was one of the few boy characters at that point. (By the way, all the characters in Ms. Sanchez's class appear in all the books! And there are some new characters in the three books to come, EllRays 7, 8, and 9.)

Later, Viking decided that they wanted a "boy series," though I like to think of all my books as being fun to read for both boys and girls. I had already decided on EllRay.

News scoop: The strangest thing happened when I got one of the last Emma books to correct. There was an illustration of EllRay that could not be changed, and he was African American! In the Emma books, I had thought of him as white–and pictured some of the other characters as being African American, etc. Only I hadn't communicated this to the editor or illustrator. And I was already 1/3 of the way through the first EllRay book! 

I said that I didn't feel comfortable writing the series, as that is not my own experience. But after a few months, my editor convinced me that I was the one to write these books. So I threw out what I'd written (at least two months' work), thought a lot about the Jakes family, and started over. (Young detectives might search through the Emma books and see a very different EllRay, however.)

My reasoning was that at EllRay's age, eight, he wouldn't be dealing with the same racial issues he would probably be dealing with later. Encouraging mail from many African American moms has backed me up on this. So, while race has been mentioned in a glancing way in each of the books, it has never been the main focus of the plot.

Q: You've written for different age groups--do you have a preference?

A: I love writing for this age group, 7–10, but I also like writing "middle readers," for ages 8–12. I prefer these age groups equally, though I also like writing non-fiction for adults.

Q: You worked as a visual artist before turning to writing. How does your background in the visual arts affect your writing?

A: Interesting question about the visual arts! Strangely enough, I found myself putting almost no descriptions of people or places in my books when I first started writing fiction. You'd think it would be just the opposite, wouldn't you? That I'd put in too much detail! Instead, I would have to go back and add description. My main interest was always telling a story through dialogue and action, which is what kids--and I, reading adult fiction!--like best.

Interestingly, the thing about visual art that helped me the most was the discipline of working alone, without much--if any--feedback. Also, it got me used to rejection! I almost never take it personally. (Maybe even when I should...)

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

A: My big hero is Beatrix Potter, for three reasons. A) Her books, so simple and vivid; B) Her bravery and resilience in changing careers (to land-owning and farming) when her vision started to fail; and C) Her work conserving land in England's Lake District, and her generosity in donating land to the public. I wish I could visit there some day.

I loved Scott O'Dell's The Island of the Blue Dolphins, which figures as part of the plot in my own book, How to be a Real Person (In Just One Day) (Knopf, 2001, still required reading in places in South America!). I also loved T. H. White's series, The Once and Future King, with a passion, though I am now more interested in realistic fiction than in fantasy.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now, I am working on what is probably the last (::sob::) EllRay book, #9, though I've been told there might be another character in a spin-off series. I know and love all the kids in Ms. Sanchez's class, even the "difficult" ones, so I hope it's true!

Another news scoop: Even though the books are numbered, 1–6 so far, taking place from February to May of EllRay's third grade year, with 7–9 to come, #7 (EllRay Jakes Rocks the Holidays!) will jump back to the previous December. A confusing (group) decision, but it's a really fun book! 

This state of affairs came about when I had the not-so-bright idea of starting the EllRay series where the Emma series left off in the school year, in February. (I had figured there would only be 6 EllRays.)

When they wanted three more, and we were already in the middle of May, but they wanted to stay in third grade... well, we'll see. I'm so glad they wanted more books, though! I have lots of stories to tell about those kids.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Hmm. Well, first, I didn't start writing fiction until I was in my forties. That might encourage some of your readers if they're late-bloomers, as I was. Also, I had never taken "creative writing," always choosing art instead (one elective only in public schools).

There are lots of resources out there that can help you write, but to write well, you have to be willing to work. And I didn't have an agent at first, either. I represented myself–which was hard even then. But I think it's still do-able, and online opportunities to show your work have made publishing a whole new world!

I just wish I'd learned to code somewhere along the way. My site is about five books behind, and I've been too busy to get all the information to my site helper. Inexcusable, I know.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with author Michael Goldfarb

Michael Goldfarb is the author of Ahmad's War, Ahmad's Peace, which tells the story of Ahmad Shawkat, who worked with Goldfarb covering the Iraq War. Goldfarb, who has reported for various news organizations including National Public Radio, also wrote Emancipation. He is based in London.

Q: How, in your opinion, does the current situation in Iraq compare to the time period a decade ago in which you wrote Ahmad's War, Ahmad's Peace?

A: I have a strong sense of deja vu: Mosul was never pacified and so has exploded again. The collapse of the Iraqi Army - one of the most potent symbols of the state - I saw that in Mosul in 2003.

There is an Iraqi government incapable of overcoming its tribal and sectarian divisions; people desperate for some stability and security turning to militias to provide it because the government can't; the Kurds effectively running Kirkuk. This is all the same stuff, different decade.

What is different is that the U.S. military is not there, nor is there a quasi-governmental role for American diplomats. In Kurdistan, billions in infrastructure investment in the oil industry has turned the province into a mini-Azerbaijan. Erbil is a boomtown of skyscrapers and foreign executive compounds. The Kurds enjoy excellent relations with the Turks and, as the fighting started, began pumping oil out through Turkey to world markets.

Q: How did you end up working with Ahmad Shawkat, and why did you decide to write a book about him?

A: I met Ahmad the night before the war began in Erbil, capital of what was then the Kurdish safe area. I had got into the country via Iran at the last minute.

I was supposed to follow the overthrow of Saddam through the eyes of someone who had suffered under Saddam and come away with a radio documentary on it.

I needed to find a translator quickly but virtually every person whose English was good enough was already hired. I met Ahmad in the lobby of a hotel where the BBC had its bureau set up.

Initially I thought he was too old, but then he asked me, "Do you know William Faulkner?" I said not personally but I know his work. So did Ahmad. We spent most of the rest of the job interview talking about his work so I hired him. 

As I found out more about his life - arrested and tortured by Saddam several times - I realized he was the person I should make the documentary about.

Q: How was the book's title chosen?

A: The documentary was called "Ahmad's War." When he was murdered, I added the phrase "Ahmad's Peace" as a bitterly ironic comment.

Q: What do you think is likely to happen next in Iraq?

A: I'm here, not there and feel a little uncertain about predictions but based on trends that haven't changed much since 2003/2004 I would bet that the Kurds will finally make an attempt at true independence.

I also fear the Arab communities will continue to be used as proxies for the deeper conflict in Islam between Sunni and Shi'a - and the Washington policy establishment will continue to miss the complexities beneath those sectarian designations and not provide the best advice to an American government riven by its own political sectarianism and no longer capable of fulfilling its role as leader in the most volatile region on earth.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Staying solvent. The author business, like the reporter business, has become more difficult. People's attention spans have become shorter so I am working on something brief about the autumn of 1973, when for my generation, the party ended and the post-war expansion came to a close, incomes began to stagnate. I know why and when you read the book (after I finish it) so will you.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The fate of the book is a paradigm of the problems besetting publishing. It was published to excellent reviews and was named a New York Times Notable Book of 2005.

But the publisher, Carroll & Graf, was teetering on the brink, there wasn't much publicity and it never got into a lot of bookstores. Then the company C & G was part of was sold on to Perseus, and the title was assigned to Basic Books.

Nothing happened with it - my suggestion of adding a new final chapter reflecting changes in Iraq (I made another radio documentary on the fifth anniversary of Saddam's overthrow) was turned down. The book went out of print. Eventually the remaining copies were pulped to create warehouse space.

To mark the 10th anniversary of my friend's murder I republished it myself as an e-book and that is how it survives. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For an earlier Q&A with Michael Goldfarb, please click here.

June 27

June 27, 1872: Poet Paul Laurence Dunbar born.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Q&A with Turkey expert Soner Cagaptay

Soner Cagaptay is the author of the new book The Rise of Turkey: The Twenty-First Century's First Muslim Power. His other work includes the book Islam, Secularism, and Nationalism in Modern Turkey: Who is a Turk? He is the Beyer Family Fellow and director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington, D.C.

Q: In your book, you write that “understanding Turkey is important for understanding the changing global order.” Why is that?

A: Turkey represents a case of a Muslim BRIC [Brazil, Russia, India, and China], a rising economic power. It’s the only Muslim nation that’s a rising economic power. It’s a NATO-Muslim bridge. None of the [other] rising economic powers have deep ties with [Europe]. As such, it’s an interesting case.

Q: You write, “Turkey will rise as a cornerstone of regional stability only if Ankara can leverage its Muslim identity and Western overlay, maintaining its strong ties with the Western states even as it expands its influence as a Middle East power.” How likely is it that Turkey will succeed in this task?

A: I think the jury is still out. In some regards, it’s the glass half full and half empty. It’s half full in that Turkey has transformed itself into a majority middle-class society. It’s the first Muslim-majority country that’s a majority middle-class society, and the majority is literate.

It’s half empty because of the authoritarian tendencies of Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan. He’s responsible for Turkey’s economic rise, but also for holding Turkey down politically.

In its foreign policy, Turkey has been hubristic; it thought its economic power and status would make it a Middle East leader, and it tried to shape the Middle East, including [its actions against Syria’s] Assad regime.

Turkey is an economic power, it has soft power, but it doesn’t have the hard power, the firepower, that is necessary in the Middle East. Turkey has pivoted to NATO and the U.S. in the last few years.

Q: What does the current situation in Iraq and Syria mean for Turkey?

A: It means that Turkey’s hubris to be a stand-alone power in the Middle East, independent of the U.S. and NATO, to shape the region, has been effectively bookended.

The failure of Turkish policy in ousting Assad: the Assad regime will never forgive Turkey. ISIS now is a growing presence, an al Qaeda buildup targeted at Turkey. The Turkish mission in Mosul [was an ISIS target].

The Turks now are realizing that their Middle East policy failed and created threats to them. It will push Turkey closer to the U.S.

Only four years ago, with Turkey’s Middle East policy, it looked like Turkey was friends with its neighbors, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Now, it’s at war with the Syrian regime. It is not favored by the Iraqi government. It’s in competition with Iran in Iraq and Syria. The two countries are locked in a proxy war, and in Iraq, they’re in a proxy political battle. The Kurds sell oil through Turkey. Turkey is now strategically isolated among its neighbors.

Q: I was going to ask you about the Kurds.

A: Turkey’s only friends are the Kurds. With the Kurds, it’s a two-way street. The Kurds provide Turkey with a safety belt. Turkey provides the Kurds with a lifeline to the outside world. The Syrian Kurds realize they need Turkey for survival. Turkey is isolated—it needs the U.S., and the Kurds as a regional ally.

Q: So you think Turkey’s relationship with the U.S. will become closer?

A: Not by a sense of shared values, as in the pre-Erdogan years, but a sense of common threats. Turkey fears the rise of al Qaeda and instability in Iraq and Syria. It is using NATO and the alliance with the U.S. as a security shop.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The premise of the book is that Turkey has been dramatically transformed. The good news is that it’s wealthier, it’s a majority middle-class society, even with the authoritarian tendencies of Erdogan there is a credible opposition.

The Gezi Park rallies [last year], where Turks protested—Erdogan may have created his own nemesis. Now, middle-class Turks are challenging his policies. He delivers phenomenal economic growth, so he will continue getting reelected [if growth continues], but [this growth] will build a liberal opposition. I’m optimistic about where Turkey is headed.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb