Friday, October 31, 2014

Q&A with author Jamie Malanowski

Jamie Malanowski is the author of the new biography Commander Will Cushing: Daredevil Hero of the Civil War. His other books include And the War Came, The Coup, and The Book of Levon. He has written for a variety of publications, including Spy, Time, Playboy, and The New York Times, where he was lead writer for the Civil War Disunion series.

Q: Why did you decide to write about William Barker Cushing, and how did he come to be, as you say in your book, “all but unknown today”?

A: I have known about Will Cushing literally since I was eight years old. On January 6, 1961, Life magazine published the first of six issues dedicated to the centennial of the Civil War.

C.E. Monroe
The editors commissioned 10 artists to illustrate scenes from the war. In addition to creating the cover, an astonishing painting of the cavalry charge at Brandy Station in 1863, the artist C.E. Monroe painted “The Sinking of the Albemarle,” which showed Cushing--the daring 21-year-old naval lieutenant--in the midst of his great David vs. Goliath victory over the fearsome Confederate ironclad.

The painting stretched across two pages, and I was captivated. I'm delighted that Buck Monroe, the painter's son, allowed me to use the image on the cover of my book. 

In the ensuing years, I read Lincoln's Commando, Roske and Van Doren's 1957 biography of Cushing, which showed that there was more to Cushing than one magnificent triumph.

A few years ago, casting about for my next project, I proposed a new biography of Cushing. A half century had passed since Lincoln's Commando; if nothing else, I knew I could tell Will's story in a less stilted, less formal vernacular than Roske and Van Doren used.

I also knew that their book was written at a time when the average reader was less aware of psychological issues than the average viewer of Law & Order is today. I knew I could add that element. Fortunately, Tom Mayer at W.W. Norton agreed.

How is it that Will is all but unknown today? I suppose there are a lot of reasons. America's interest in history is tiny. America's interest in military heroes who held a rank below general or admiral is also tiny.

It didn't help Will's cause that (spoiler alert!) he died so young, at the age of 32; he belonged to one generation, and when that generation died, the memory of his deeds died with them.

It is also true that the North invested rather little in lionizing its heroes. It's not that the North disrespected them, but on the whole, once the war ended, it was back to business, and part of that business was reincorporating the seceded states.

In the South, however, where most of the war was fought, and where most of the destruction took place, and where most of the physical and psychological damage lingered, there was a huge investment in mythologizing the rebels and justifying their cause.

Every year in Plymouth, N.C., the folks mark the April day when the CSS Albemarle came down river and helped “liberate” the town from Yankee occupation; they do not ordinarily celebrate the day in October when a gallant U.S. Navy captain sank the rebel ironclad. This year, however, Plymouth is making a big deal of the 150th anniversary of the event. 

Q: You write that Cushing was “in a great many respects more a hero fit for our times than he was for his.” Why is that?

A: Until the 1950s or so, Americans preferred their heroes served plain--unalloyed great men and a few great women doing indisputably great things.

There were occasional scandals and more than occasional efforts to tar famous people, particularly prominent politicians, and once in a while, we admitted that maybe something we thought was great wasn’t necessarily all that good.

On the whole, however, we liked the way Parson Weems depicted Washington as the silver dollar-chuckin' lad incapable of lying who became the Father of his Country. 

In more recent decades, we have grown accustomed to the idea that a person's greatness usually lives cheek-by-jowl with his or her failings; that sometimes the source of the greatness and the source of the failing is the same thing; that sometimes it takes an insane person to get something done; that conquering the West was a mighty accomplishment, as long as you weren't an Indian or a buffalo.

During this time, we have learned that Nixon, Kennedy and so many other of our great men had monumental failings, and in a not unrelated development, we have also grown to love the antihero: from Bogart in Casablanca, James Dean, Easy Rider, all the way up to Tony Soprano and Walter White, we have seen that darkness can be more intriguing and more revelatory that constant sweetness and light.

Even the most straight up heroes--James Bond, Bruce Willis's John McLane in the Die Hard movies--are sarcastic rule-breakers. Will Cushing was as complicated as any of them: rebellious, iconoclastic, vain, immature, headstrong, and impulsive, but also brave, bold, decisive, and quite brilliant at his business.

Q: How did you research this book, and what surprised you most in the course of your research?

A: I read extensively; I visited key locations; and I tried to make use of original documents wherever possible. When I began, I did not expect to turn up very much original material about Will, but much to my delight, I did uncover a little, and it was choice.

None of Cushing's previous biographers could make much sense of Cushing's rather mystifying dismissal from the Naval Academy mere weeks from graduation. The official explanation was that he had failed his Spanish midterm in January of his senior year.

Ousting a nearly fully trained officer on such a slender pretext even as war clouds gathered always struck Will's biographers as so unreasonable as to be unbelievable, and they pointed fingers at likely suspects responsible for his dismissal.

I'm happy to say that my researcher Katelyn Fossett and I managed to find several letters and documents scattered in four separate official repositories that no biographer had ever used before.

Not only do these letters effectively exonerate previous suspects, but show that the second-ranking officer in the academy's administration really thought Cushing was a jerk—“a talent for buffoonery,'' as he wrote--and should never become a naval officer. He engineered Will's ouster.

Q: You’ve written nonfiction, fiction, plays, screenplays, and magazine and newspaper articles. Do you prefer one type of writing to the others?

A: The longer projects tend to be more absorbing. Creating the narrative structure for a longer piece is also a puzzle, and rising to that challenge offers a satisfaction that shorter pieces cannot. But I like writing short pieces, too.

One of the first problems a writer has to deal with is knowing what his/her piece needs to be. A lot of bad writing results from misjudging this key question. Sometimes you won't be able to tell the story in anything less than 300 pages, and sometimes 100 well-chosen words will be perfect in every respect.

Writing a witty, erudite 250-word intro to a photo essay is infinitely more satisfying than cranking out 5,000 words on a topic that nobody cares about.

Q: Are you working on another book now?

A: I am working on another book proposal, which is a whole 'nother breed of cat. I am also writing the book of a musical based on Henry Bushkin's recent memoir of his 18 years working for Johnny Carson.  Now that's a fun project about a complicated man!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Tell your readers that they should keep reading books, and that they should be proud that they read books.

The next time somebody starts talking about the fab new video game they've been playing, look at them like they have three heads, and start talking about a book.

When somebody starts extolling the latest cool episode of some TV series they've been watching, nod pleasantly and start talking about the latest cool chapter of some book you've been reading.

You can enjoy other activities, but do not waver. Read books. Discuss books. Champion books. Become an elitist bore. The future of the civilization depends on it.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 31

Oct. 31, 1795: Poet John Keats born.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Q&A with author Susan Jane Gilman

Susan Jane Gilman is the author most recently of the novel The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street. She also has written Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, Kiss My Tiara, and Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven. She lives in New York.

Q: How did you create your main character in The Ice Cream Queen, Lillian Dunkle?

A: There was an abstract impulse married to a very specific voice. The abstract impulse was that I wanted to write about a deliciously complicated female antihero. There weren’t many since Scarlett O’Hara…

Then I got the idea for the ice cream story, [and I thought] what if I had a difficult, unlikable, but compelling woman? I had the idea that she would be a Russian Jewish immigrant, and I heard her voice.

Q: Why ice cream?

A: I love ice cream! [I should start] the Susan Jane Gilman Institute for Advanced Gelato Studies! Tom Carvel [of Carvel Ice Cream] did his own commercials. I tried to explain them to my husband, and I Googled the old ads.

It turns out his name was Tom Carvelas; he had been a Greek [immigrant], and it was a rags-to-riches story. I thought, That’s kind of interesting! Ice cream was a natural fit.

Q: Lillian is involved in most of 20th century American history. How did you research this book and figure out which events she’d be a part of?

A: I paid several visits to the New York Historical Society. I walked around the Lower East Side. My paternal grandmother lived on the corner of Orchard Street, so I had my dad tell me about it. I went to the New York Tenement Museum. Then I just read.

When I started, I knew there had been an issue with ice cream and polio. That was it. Then the more I read about history and ice cream, it just gelled. Prohibition and ice cream. World War II.

Just the rags-to-riches story [that Lillian is a woman, is disabled, and is Jewish-Italian], that alone presents obstacles. But she’s completely tied up in American history. It got even more interesting.

Q: Did you know how the book would end when you started writing, or did it change a lot as you worked on it?

A: I knew I wanted to do her rise and spectacular fall. Like Leona Helmsley or Martha Stewart. They were reviled; there was not the [same] hatred toward Ivan Boesky or Donald Trump as there was to Martha Stewart…The actual ending came to me as I was writing.

Q: How did the writing process compare between this novel and your previous nonfiction books?

A: It was harder by the power of ten, easily! But it was also more fun. Writing nonfiction, you know how the story will end, the question is what do you tell? What do you show? How do you show it? What do you leave out? Each book gets exponentially harder.

With fiction, all bets are off. There’s a range of possibilities in how [the story] could go. A couple of times, I wrote 60-70 pages and cut it all. The first draft was vastly different from the second and third.

It’s a process of decision-making. Who are the characters, how do you make them come alive. Pacing. Timing. My husband would come home and say would you like spinach or mushroom ravioli, and I’d say, I can’t decide!

Q: You said each book was exponentially harder. Why is that?

A: Because I’m an idiot and a masochist! I could have written Kiss My Tiara 2. But that doesn’t interest me. It would probably be commercially viable, but it’s not why I wanted to write. With each book, I want to do something new.

Q: Which writers have inspired you?

A: Probably every single person I read. That sounds like a cop-out. When I was little I was influenced by the books I read and by the books my mother read to me.

When I was 7 or 8, I was reading Judy Blume, Little House on the Prairie, All-of-a-Kind Family. My mom was reading me J.D. Salinger, Charles Dickens, Katherine Mansfield. I was falling in love with telling stories, with the young adult novels [I was reading] but also with literature, language, poetry.

As a teenager, probably the people most [responsible] for making me write were John Cheever, John Steinbeck, and John Updike, the three Johns. Dorothy Parker. Truman Capote. Those people seemed obvious; I heard them talked about.

Even a crappy writer [can show me what to] try to avoid!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on selling the Ice Cream Queen. I’m on the second leg of a book tour, thanks to the Jewish Book Council Network. I still haven’t gotten the book out of my system. I’m published by Hachette, which is embargoed by Amazon, so I feel anything I can do to get the book into the hands of readers, I will do….I have to completely get the book out of my system, and then I will get inspired.

Q: Anything else we should know about the book?

A: That it’s 500 pages and it reads quickly….It’s a fantastic read—that’s what every writer wants people to know! It’s dedicated to two people close to me, both of whom have died….

I want people to be moved by it, to learn things, to feel less alone, and to be comforted and inspired.

Writers work alone, so if you read the book and like it, contact me, e-mail me! I like to Skype, and I love meeting with book clubs. It’s a lonely profession. Readers are often afraid to approach writers because they’re feeling that we’re iconic. No!

If [readers] know of any great ice cream in their areas, let me know!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Susan Jane Gilman will be participating in the Lessans Family Annual Book Festival at the JCC of Greater Washington, which runs from November 6-16, 2014.

Q&A with author Judy Chicurel

Judy Chicurel, photo by Marcia Klugman
Judy Chicurel is the author of the new collection If I Knew You Were Going To Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go. Her plays have been performed in New York City theaters and festivals, and her writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and Granta. She lives in Brooklyn.
Q: Why did you decide to set your book in the summer of 1972?

A: This is a book I always wanted to write and many of my beach memories began during the 1970s: Long Beach, where I grew up; Martha’s Vineyard, where I lived on and off for five years; Marblehead, off the North Shore of Boston.

I had initially set the collection in the mid-1970s but the story “For Catholic Girls Who Are Going to Hell When the Guilt is Not Enough,” is about an illicit abortion and Roe v. Wade happened in 1973.

Even though abortion was legal in New York before then, this was a very parochial community where there wasn’t a lot of knowledge, access or money around so things were still fairly underground for a lot of women who didn’t know their options and didn’t want to have to exercise them unless they felt forced to by circumstances.

Q: Elephant Beach is almost like another character in the book. You've said previously that it’s based on a series of beach towns, but how exactly did you decide on which details to include?

A: It’s interesting you should ask this because I was just thinking that writing these stories taught me something about myself: Though my writing is very character-driven, it’s really the setting, the sense of place that drives my work from the very beginning.

The setting for If I Knew... is primarily Long Beach, Long Island, where I grew up, with bits and pieces of other seaside settings thrown in, all those honky tonk, down-at-the heels, oceanfront hamlets left to seed during the 1970s until federal funds revived decaying wharves and waterfronts along the East Coast and turned them into tourist attractions.

The Starlight Hotel, for example, where much of the action in If I Knew… takes place, is a combination of the old Arizona bar and neighboring Americana Hotel (now a parking lot and condo, respectively) and the former Seaview Hotel in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard, which I believe has also been converted to condos.

The beach is, of course, omnipresent throughout the book; you can hear the ocean even when you can’t see it. And all beach towns share certain characteristics; I can remember walking along beaches and boardwalks in Long Beach, Martha’s Vineyard, Falmouth, Salem, Marblehead, watching that rim of gold sinking into the ocean along the horizon, thinking, “I want to write about this,” without knowing exactly what “this” was going to be, or that the motivation would come from the more memorable physical spaces of my past.

Q: How was the book’s title selected?

A: You know, it just came to me one day as the title of the last story in the collection, which I wrote ahead of most of the rest of the book. And then I fell in love with it and wanted it for the title. I was afraid it would be too long, but so far, aside from a few grumblings on Goodreads, it’s been very well-received.

Q: Your book is described as linked stories and as a novel. How do you see it?

A: I definitely see it as linked stories. I always loved the idea of stories of lives that overlap and co-exist within a contextual setting so that you get that sense of community and connection around larger themes that bind everyone together, even though they may not realize it. I hope that’s what’s been accomplished with If I Knew.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a two-book deal with Penguin and am working on the second book now. I’m actually writing two books and trying to determine which is coming out ahead; I did the same thing with If I Knew… and was sending my agent story chapters and she said one day, “I think this is your book.” And it was. I find it an effective way to write so that if you’re stuck at a point in one book, you can move on to the other.

I’ve been trying to write one of these novels for a while, where the story shifts between the New York City of today and that of the 1980s, centering around an East Village bar and the people who worked there.

The other is about a group of women of varying ages who live in a small town in upstate New York, whose lives become intertwined on several levels and through a series of circumstances. So we’ll see which comes out first. I’ll have to decide fairly soon.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just that I’m pretty thrilled about this. I’m a more mature author, shall we say, and have been writing in one form or another for a while, so it’s wonderful to have this particular dream realized. My editor sent me a copy of the hardcover book, which arrived yesterday, and I opened it and started crying.

I had a teacher in college who said that when you write a book and it gets published and you hold it in your hands for the first time, nothing quite compares to that feeling. She was right.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 30

Oct. 30, 1871: Poet Paul Valery born.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Q&A with children's author Ann Wyckoff Carlos

Ann Wyckoff Carlos is the author of the bilingual children's books Emily, The Baby Sea Turtle and Anny the Sea Turtle. She is the education coordinator for the nonprofit group AMA Mexico, which works to preserve sea turtles. Previously, she was CEO of the group Direct Relief International. She lives in California and in Mexico. 

Q: How did you end up writing these children’s books about sea turtles?

A: I never intended to publish them. We were using them as part of the curriculum for educational programs in Mexico. There are lots of people who work with us, and do turtle talks on the beach, and they came up with the idea of publishing books. I have never done any author or book workshops.

The first book, Anny, has been used in classrooms in Mexico for four years, as an animation. It’s done by university students from Mexico. They work as a team with our environmental educator…

The end of the Anny book shows her going back to the ocean. Our interns ask the children, Would you like to meet her children? They say, Yes, of course! They all pile into buses and come down to the beach to the liberation of the baby sea turtles.

Emily is one of Anny’s babies. [Her story] will be used starting this year.

Q: What’s the age of the children you work with?

A: The books are children’s books, so we start with preschool. They seem well received through sixth grade. [Husband] Manuel [Carlos], who’s an anthropologist, started doing workshops with high school students and university students to teach them to develop environmental workshops.

The young people participate. We have high-schoolers developing extra materials around the books and other facts to do with turtles. The children come early to the beach, and play games with the high school students, and the university students teach in the classroom.

Q: How did you first get interested in sea turtles?

A: It was a little bit serendipitous. My family was always interested in environmental issues in California. My grandfather would trek with John Muir. Our family has always been on the coast, Monterey Bay, for seven generations now. We are land-and-sea oriented.

When Manuel and I retired, he said, Let’s go to Mexico. We found a place on a pristine beach, and we discovered that there were sea turtles [there].

Six months into our stay, a hurricane hit the Pacific Coast and wiped out the sea turtle preserve, which was very small. The little staff at the reserve left, thinking the nests had been wiped out to sea.

We were there, and I went out, and there were thousands of babies. They would [normally] have been picked up by biologists. I didn’t have much experience with sea turtles at that point. I worked to try to save them from birds. A local biologist helped. I got involved that way.

We reconstructed a small preserve—we started in 2002. Now there are 10,000 nests a year. We established a nonprofit; the government said it wasn’t coming back. Now we have 60 volunteers and university and high school students.

The beach is no longer pristine. If you look at the drawings in Anny, you’ll see buildings. The beach was targeted by the Mexican government six years ago to be a condo resort beach.

We were able to help with some of the enforcement of setbacks so the nesting habitats were preserved. It went from 500 to 10,000 nests--the sea turtles are not intimidated!

The existing science for sea turtles says they are very put off by lights, and we have a blaze of light. In Mexico, everybody does what they want.

That’s why I like the personality of the two little turtles [in the books]. I’m not sure they think! They come up, and lights are blazing, and there they are, laying their eggs!

The babies are sometimes distracted by the lights, but it’s the call of the sea [that they focus on], and they head in the right direction. It’s mysterious.

Q: How did you work together with illustrator Lynn Clapham Holstead to create your books?

A: I’m also an artist; I do murals on the beach in Mexico, but I’m not a known artist, I just paint little sea turtle pictures!

One morning I was painting a mural, and a young woman asked, Could I help? I said yes. She said, I’m Lyn Clapham, and I love to do murals, and I’ve done several at the [California State University Monterey Bay] campus. I said, my husband was a founding faculty member there, and she said, I took classes from him!

I said I’m working on a little book to present to classes, and would you consider being a book illustrator? She said, That’s my dream; I would love to. It was born out of serendipity….

Q: How do you work on the English and Spanish text of the bilingual books?

A: In the first book, the Anny book, Lupita [Guadalupe Cervantes Camacho] and I were in close contact during the writing of the book. I’m bilingual, and that worked fine….she’s not a speaker of English.

She’s part of the preschool planning group for the municipality, which is a pretty big group—60 preschools and elementary schools in the jurisdiction. She was responsible for the curricular development and had a lot of experience with that. Watching how she worked with the idea of making Annie a little person made me think that was the way to go.

The second book, I wrote myself. Then our environmental director, Sandra Hernandez, did the translation. She is the driving force in the classroom for the program itself, and I wanted her to participate in the book.

Q: Will you be writing more books?

A: I have a little granddaughter, Anabel. who has grown up with the sea turtles. She’s 12. She wrote a play, The Jelly and the Bag. Plastic is a deadly thing that they consume. Anabel wrote this play, about a jellyfish who sees a bag floating in the ocean and tells it to leave.

I talked to her about expanding on that theme. We may have that as the third book. There’s also the idea of [writing about] predators of sea turtles. Raccoons—they eat baby sea turtles. That’s why we have to pick up every nest from the beach. I see this as an ongoing effort.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: We really do want the students we’re working with to become stewards of the wildlife of the ocean. It’s one way of articulating the human value of protecting the planet.

All our volunteers understand that. Each one of us does one small thing, and if we do that, we all contribute. Turtles happen to be the way that we offer.

With the books, my purpose is to make students have affection for sea turtles and understand their plight, and that’s how, hopefully, we get to their parents, uncles, cousins—many are people who poach sea turtle eggs, [which is] quite profitable.

We are working against the tide, but [to focus on] affection for the turtles, it’s very useful to use the little books.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with author Jesse Schenker

Jesse Schenker is the author of the memoir All or Nothing: One Chef's Appetite for the Extreme, which details his career as a chef as well as his recovery from drug addiction. He is executive chef and owner of The Gander and Recette, both in New York City, where he lives.

Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir, and how hard was it to write about the more difficult parts of your addiction? 

A: About two years ago, I began taping my history with no intention of writing a book or turning it into anything or selling it. It was very cathartic. I realized I needed to give back (one of the staple beliefs of AA) and show people that hard work and dedication can make a difference. If you're suffering from addiction, there's hope. You don't have to go to the deep, dark places that I did.

Q: In the book, you write, "I may have been clean, but my addictive behavior never went away." How did that addictive behavior show up in your successful career as a chef, and how do you manage it?

A: The same intensity that got me up every morning to do drugs, I put that into cooking. It's all or nothing for me.

Q: You write that "my time on the streets and in jail prepared me well for the crazy process of opening a restaurant in New York City." How did it help you?

A: Rather than evading reality, I focus on mindfulness, my two restaurants and time with my family. Being in the kitchen has been and always will be this kind of natural Xanax for me and it's been my saving grace. 

Q: You give your parents a lot of credit for your recovery, stating, "I was in awe of the way they cut me off at the knees right when I needed it." How did that moment change the trajectory of your life?

A: Changing my life wasn't easy - it's definitely a dark story but it has very much a light at the end of the tunnel. 

Q: Are you thinking of writing another book?

A: Yes, a cookbook.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 29

Oct. 29, 1740: Writer James Boswell born.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Q&A with editor Catherine Zacks Gildenhorn

Catherine Zacks Gildenhorn is the editor-in-chief of Redefining Moments: End of Life Stories for Better Living, by her late father, Gordon B. Zacks. She lives in Bethesda, Maryland.

Q: How did your father hope this book would help other people facing the end of their lives?

A: In December, my father received news from the doctor that he had weeks to live. The prostate cancer that had been managed for several years had misbehaved and migrated to his liver.

It’s a lot to process. He viewed the end of life as an opportunity to celebrate life and continue. He had always lived purposefully,and lovingly, and this was an extension of that. His first book, Defining Moments, about leadership, spawned leadership societies and became a cult classic. He had collaborators on that [book].

We hosted celebrations of life at our house, to share stories, love, and laughter. Besides that, he viewed the end of life as an opportunity to write a second book, in 30 days. His collaborator and graphic artist dropped everything and came to Columbus, Ohio. I went to Ohio. This is his heart and soul. We are his editors and collaborators, but this is Dad, through and through.

I was very close to my father. This experience, then and now, has kept me so busy living, I had no time to get paralyzed by grief and sadness.

Like his first book, this is not for profit. The proceeds are donated to charity. There’s a beautiful website,, for people to join the conversation about living and loving and enjoying every moment.

We’re trying to enlarge our attitudes. The end of life is as much a stage in life as birth. You create positivity if you can get the negativity out of the conversation. At every stage, we focus on living. That’s the universal message of this book. There’s something there for everyone.

Q: Do you think writing the book helped your father deal with his own mortality?

A: Yes, on some level, but Dad had an exceptionally positive spirit. He was one of the few people I can think of with a singular purpose in life, and that was the rebirth of the land and the redemption of the people of Israel. He was…very charismatic.

Death is no stranger to any of us. He felt like the luckiest man on the planet, that he had lived well. He had to learn to do things in different ways—a wheelchair, a walker. …The book did help him deal with mortality from the perspective of living, making every moment count. He was my mentor for 58 years; how lucky is that! So many people said he was their mentor…

Q: What lessons did your father pass along to you about celebrating life?

A: How important it is to say thank you to people who have really made a difference in your life. To express love, and leave nothing left unsaid. To tell your kids “I love you” every night. To be open to experiencing your connections.

I have been honored to be the MC for many of these [celebration of life] events; it’s like being charged as a navigator. The MC sets the tone: To the extent to which you can, be honest and truthful, loving and kind. [That] invites the audience to follow suit.

With my mom, we also hosted a celebration of life event…My mom had pancreatic cancer and she passed in 2012. The night before the celebration, she took a turn for the worse; she went to the hospital and she never came out. We had 100 people who had flown to Florida. We rigged up a video link so she could experience the event. Her sister wore a long dress, and came to the hospital. Then we all came to the hospital after the event, over the next day or two….

Q: How was the book's title selected?

A: It picked itself. The first book was Defining Moments. Redefining Moments was just a natural extension of who Dad is and his life’s journey. …

Q: What has the response been to the book?

A: So far it’s wonderful, but it’s only been out since July. I’m my own spokesperson and PR agent. I’m waiting until some of the book fairs, [and] this summer I filmed a guest appearance with Deepak Chopra….My goal is to start a conversation. The book is seed material for the website.

Catherine Zacks Gildenhorn will be participating in the Lessans Family Annual Book Festival at the JCC of Greater Washington, which runs from November 6-16, 2014. For an earlier version of this Q&A, please click here.

Q&A with author Thomas Maier

Thomas Maier is the author of the new book When Lions Roar: The Churchills and the Kennedys. His other books include The Kennedys: America's Emerald Kings and Masters of Sex, the basis for the Showtime series. An investigative reporter for Newsday, he lives on Long Island, N.Y.

Q: Why did you decide to write about the Kennedys and the Churchills in your new book? 

A: First, it’s never been written before. Why hasn’t it? That’s a whole discussion in and of itself. Part of why is because Winston, at the end of World War II, took all his papers and was determined to write the history of World War II from his perspective.

In the case of the Kennedys, when Jack Kennedy ran for Congress, their experience in England…was not a political advantage but a political negative for JFK in a Catholic district in Boston.

The other major reason why neither family wanted to show their friendly acquaintance was because of the liquor deal [in the 1930s involving both families], which is one of the most extraordinary things about my book.

Boardwalk Empire, in its final season, has a fictionalized Joe Kennedy who has a liquor deal with the major character Nucky Thompson. Joe says he’s hoping to line up British liquor contacts. It’s ironic that Boardwalk Empire is raising questions about the British liquor deals of Joe Kennedy.

I think the Kennedys and the Churchills together embody the transfer of 19th century and early 20th century British empire, the burden and the glory and the responsibility of the British empire,  [and] how it was transferred to the U.S. The imperial quandary the U.S. found itself in was engineered by Winston. We live with that imperial responsibility and burden very much around the world….

Finally, the thing that intrigued me about Winston and JFK is they are the warriors, the historians, and the statesmen of their times. Both have experience with war, that taste of war, and their views about war informed a lot of their decision-making. They were journalists and historians, and they knew the power of the printed word.

Q: Much of the book focuses on the World War II period. What would you say about the dynamic between Winston Churchill and Joe Kennedy during the buildup to and start of the war.
A: Joe Kennedy and Winston shared two of their best friends. Lord Beaverbrook is one of the most fascinating characters I’ve ever come across. Winston entrusted the fate of the British empire to Lord Beaverbrook, and his abilities to build up the Air Force and resist an attack from the Nazis.

Bernard Baruch, heretofore poorly reported [on]...was Winston’s best friend in America. The friendship lasted 50 years. In Joe’s case, there’s a great photo in the book, Joe and Bernard Baruch together in their heyday, with argyle socks on, two birds of a feather, brilliant businessmen.

I think Winston and Joe Kennedy were very inclined to be friends, and were friendly for years. They shared some of the same friends and business interests.

Fate intervened with World War II and their very different views of the threat of Nazi Germany. Winston saw Hitler as a fatal threat to the future of freedom and democracy, as it proved to be.

Joe Kennedy was an isolationist, very much the head of a big brood of children. He invested so much in his sons, and saw World War II correctly as a conflict that would kill his oldest son and nearly fatally injure Jack.

Also, Joe had the view of a lot of Americans, particularly Irish, who knew what it was like to be under the threat of colonial rule, as told by their Irish ancestors. If you’re one or two generations removed from the boat, you wound up being very anti-imperialist, looking at the British empire with a great deal of suspicion. That coincided with U.S. isolationism….

The great tragedy of the book is that you look at two characters who become so divisively opposed on matters of principle and war…

Q: Do you plan to write another book about the Kennedys?

A: I didn’t plan on this book! I had finished the other book—it was a big book, and I wanted to go back to traditional biography. That’s what Masters of Sex was. Masters of Sex is very insular. It’s very much a story of a man and a woman. This is history on a grand scale—war and peace, dynastic families, two large wars, one very hot war and one very cold war, spies, romance.

Q: So you weren’t thinking about going back to the Kennedys.

A: It was always in the back of my head. After the biography of Masters and Johnson, I wanted to do a book that was more history-based, a big, sprawling history.

One of the surprises to me is the role of some of the women in the book. Kay Halle—I don’t think Kay Halle ever got her due. Margaret Coit—that was an amazing story. The woman had already won a Pulitzer Prize. She had a short period of dating JFK before [his] meeting Jackie.

I had never read anything as fascinating about what it was like to date JFK. He was both very attracted to Margaret Coit’s intellect and great achievements, and then there was another side to him; he had his hands all over her. His view of women and sexuality was really captured in the oral history Margaret Coit gave at the JFK Library….

Pamela Churchill—it’s amazing to me, she waves bye-bye to Kick Kennedy on the fatal plane ride. [And then there’s] the fact that Winston apparently knew about the affair Pamela had with Averell Harriman, the man FDR sends to London to replace the disastrous Joe Kennedy…

Q: How did you pick the book’s title?

A: I was in London doing research, and we went to see, at the Globe Theater, a Shakespearean play [The Taming of the Shrew], and there’s the quotation at the beginning of the book about the roar of lions. Maybe it’s fate! I could have been talked out of it…but I always had it as my title, and my editor liked it, and the literary allusion it had. Winston always referred to the roar of the lion.

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I’m supposed to sit down [soon] with my editor and talk about ideas. I hope to see When Lions Roar become part of narrative television, as a miniseries or series.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous interview with Thomas Maier, please click here.

Oct. 28

Oct. 28, 1903: Writer Evelyn Waugh born.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Q&A with author Joshua Safran

Joshua Safran is the author of the memoir Free Spirit: Growing Up On the Road and Off the Grid. He is an attorney who has worked with survivors of domestic violence and the wrongfully imprisoned. He lives in Oakland, California.

Q: You write, "Whenever I peeled away the layers of cause and effect that brought me into the wilderness, I always came back to Saigon. That faraway, long ago city stood at the center of the strange circumstances that conspired to deprive me of everything normal." Why did Saigon and the Vietnam War play such a large role in your life?

A: I grew up in Saigon's shadow. For my mother, the war was THE defining event in American history and her life. It represented the worst excesses of evil that capitalist America could wrought and spawned an equal and opposite reaction­- a second American revolution that was to rebuild America on a new foundation.

The fall of Saigon represented hope that America could be defeated, but a stinging realization that the revolution would have to wait. My childhood was essentially framed for me as a lull between Saigon and the next Vietnam when we would emerge to lead the next revolution, so the world was sort of divided in my childhood brain as pre-Saigon and post-Saigon.

Q: What was your relationship to religion as a child, and how did it change as you got older?

A: I was exposed to stark opposites. My mother's Wiccan and shamanic paths were so obviously contrived and haphazard that I couldn't take it seriously. The fundamentalist evangelical Christianity of the surrounding communities we wandered through was very organized and full of condemnation and judgment and was kind of scary.

So I rejected the notion of religion, but in numerous life or death moments had deep and primal spiritual experiences with some sort of supernatural entity that I didn't have the words to describe.

Later, when I discovered that I was Jewish and began to immerse myself in that tradition, I felt that the ancient and sophisticated language of the Torah provided me the vocabulary to explain and connect to this Spirit.

Q: How did you recreate the parts of your life story dealing with your childhood, and how difficult was it to relive some of the experiences you went through?

A: I interviewed my mother for a year as well as my Uncle Tony and other characters from back in the day. I also was fortunate to have access to my mother's journals and diaries as well as my own writing from the time. I was also blessed and cursed to have many very vivid memories from the numerous fight or flight moments in my childhood.

Reliving some of the abuse that my mother suffered at the hands of my stepfather and my own sense of boyhood cowardice for not protecting my mother was profoundly difficult, but also very healing.

Q: What has your mother's reaction been to the book?

A: I was expecting that she would struggle with Free Spirit more than she did. Her response to the second half of the book has been to say "guilty by reason of insanity." She felt that I should have explained her thinking more fully during the first half, e.g., why she thought living without running water or electricity was a good idea.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm overdue on a book proposal that is essentially a sequel, covering my teenage years and my warlock to rabbi transition, but am struggling to balance that project with my day job.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I continue to travel the country championing the rights of domestic violence victims and survivors and the wrongfully imprisoned and to raise awareness about these issues wherever I can. I have found that an amazing number of people passionately resonate with this work and the outpouring of support and has been staggeringly rewarding! 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Joshua Safran will be participating in the Lessans Family Annual Book Festival, which runs from November 6-16, 2014, at the JCC of Greater Washington.