Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Q&A with Wendy Thomas Russell

Wendy Thomas Russell is the author of the new book Relax, It's Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You're Not Religious. A journalist and secular-parenting blogger, she is the co-founder of Brown Paper Press. She lives in Long Beach, California.

Q: Why did you decide to start your blog about secular parenting and write this book?

A: When my daughter, Maxine, was 5, she suddenly became aware of religion — not because I had brought it up, but because someone at school had told her that this incredible being in the sky named God made all the babies.

She believed it, of course, because it was so cool! And she couldn't fathom why I had withheld this piece of information for so long. Bad mommy!

It put me in awkward position. As a non-believer, I didn't want to indoctrinate her into my view or set her up to be ostracized by her peers, but I also didn't want to allow others to indoctrinate her either. I didn't want her to take everything people said as fact.

Essentially, I needed a way to explain religion in a truly respectful way — a way that would allow me to be completely honest about my beliefs but would also encourage her to reach her own conclusions. But when I added all that up, it seemed like kind of a tall order.

I looked around for advice offered by people like me — confident moms who were neither atheist activists nor shrinking violets, and who wanted their kids to grow up to be genuinely kind and understanding of the diversity around them.

There was so very little! Perhaps because of the controversial subject matter. I realized rather immediately that secularism was an area of parenting that still needed to be properly mined. And, as a journalist, I figured I was in an ideal position to do some mining of my own.

I wrote the blog and the book simultaneously — which slowed down the writing process significantly, but was well worth it. About four years ago I began reading everything I could get my hands on, interviewing experts, and developing my own philosophy of secular parenting.

The blog was a way to share my experiences and thoughts, to seek feedback, and to inject some much-needed tolerance into the atheist writings elsewhere on the Internet. The blog informed the book, and the book informed the blog. It worked out really well, I think.

Q: You write, “While secularism is clearly on the rise, this country is, by no means, secular.” What percentage of Americans describe themselves as secular, how has that number changed over the years, and what impact has that had on American society?

A: The numbers are changing all the time! The General Social Survey just announced that 7.5 million Americans left religion between 2012 and 2014. That's a huge number in just two years.

In 1990, less than one in 12 Americans were unaffiliated with any religion; today, that figure is one in five — and creeping toward one in four. Among young people, secularism is especially strong. One-third of adults under age 30 are unaffiliated with religion, which points to an even more secular future — at least in the short term.  

I tend to think it's a bit too soon to say what impact the rise of secularism is having on American society. But I can tell you for me, personally, it's a relief. It means that more people are being honest and open about their lack of belief, and that goes a long way toward knocking down stereotypes.

What worries me is the aggressive judgmentalism I see among some high-profile atheists; being nonreligious doesn't give us carte blanche to be assholes.

Listen, I get why some atheists are angry; and, frankly, a lot of them have a right to be angry. But at some point — for the good of our kids, if not ourselves — we need to move past "atheist bitterness" and start bridging the gaps between "religious" and "nonreligious." We really aren't all that different, and we can get a lot more accomplished together than we can apart. 

Q: One of your chapters deals with religious tolerance. How would you define that concept?

A: You can ask 100 people to define "tolerance," and you're likely to get 100 different answers. It really is a slippery concept.

But I think that when we talk about aiming for "religious tolerance," we are talking about adopting an attitude of general kindness and respectful conduct toward beliefs that differ from our own. Ridiculing people who believe in God or Jesus or Muhammad or Joseph Smith is not tolerance; it's bullying.

Does that mean we can't speak out against harmful conduct carried out in the name of religion? Heck no!

But a guy who abuses his son for religious reasons is no worse than a guy who abuses his son for any other reason. Just like a guy who volunteers at a homeless shelter for religious reasons is no better than a guy who volunteers at a homeless shelter for any other reason. It's time we judge people on their actions, not on their particular set of personal beliefs.

Q: Can you say more about how you researched the book?

A: I read a lot. Books, articles, essays — you name it. I interviewed demographers, scholars, authors, philosophers and fellow parents. I developed a survey for nonreligious parents that was answered by more than 1,000 individuals, none of them from the same household.

I tried to listen, really listen, to what people were saying, then cull the best ideas from those sources and distill those ideas into a practical guidebook that is hopefully as fun to read as it was to write. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Last summer I co-founded a small publishing company called Brown Paper Press with a fellow author, Jennifer Volland, here in Long Beach, California.

We were both fairly disillusioned by the traditional publishing industry on a number of fronts, not the least of which is its treatment of authors; and we decided (rather arrogantly) that we could do it better.

We have several other books in the hopper and are specializing in well-written, well-designed works of contemporary culture — mainly nonfiction, but not exclusively.

My book is our first title. Our second title, I'm Dyin' Here: A Life in the Paper (Fall 2015), is by Tim Grobaty, one of the few full-time newspaper columnists left in Southern California.

Grobaty spent his adult life at the same daily newspaper and is now facing his own mortality, as well as the impending death of his entire industry. It's compelling stuff. Plus, Grobaty is a humor columnist, so it's also very funny.

That's all to say that Brown Paper Press is where my head will be for the foreseeable future.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My message to all parents, whether you be religious or nonreligious, is to loosen up when it comes to matters of faith. Unless you truly believe your child is going to go to hell if he or she believe "incorrectly," then consider encouraging your kids to make up their own minds about what to believe.

Go out of your way to introduce them to several different world religions, as well as to the concepts of atheism and agnosticism. Talk to them honestly about what you believe and why you believe it. Talk to them about all the wonderful people in the world who have believed things different than you do. 

Encourage them to seek their own truth and assure them that, as long as they are kind to other people and happy in their own choices, you will support them. I truly believe that, by doing this one small thing, we truly can make the world a better place.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Michael Czyzniejewski

Michael Czyzniejewski is the author of the new story collection I Will Love You For the Rest of My Life: Breakup Stories. He has written two other story collections, Chicago Stories and Elephants in Our Bedroom. He teaches at Missouri State University, is the editor of Moon City Review, and heads Moon City Press. For many years, he has worked as a Wrigley Field vendor.

Q: When you started writing these stories, did you begin with the theme of "breakup stories," or did the overall concept emerge as you were writing? 

A: The latter for sure. I certainly write very domestically, for some reason, so there's always that chance that domestic dispute will play a role.

Stories need conflict, and often, when you deal with relatively normal people doing abnormal things, the end of a relationship seems like a likely consequence to those actions.

In some of the stories, the breakup is the consequence. Or really, most of them. Sometimes, though, it's the action, the impetus, and the rest of the story the aftermath, the healing.  

I think I had four-fifths of the stories done when I realized what I had, that this was a way for me to tie them together, to make a book.

The newer stories, "Opal Forever," "Hot Lettuce," and "Marrow," the ones that are so specifically about a breakup and the aftermath, those were written after I had the concept, after the book was accepted and the editor (Jacob Knabb) said, "Okay, this is how many more pages you need, how many more stories you have to write."

Oddly, those are also the longer stories in the book, the ones that aren't shorts. I guess when I had a purpose, I got long-winded.

Q: Many of your stories tend to be very short. Why do you prefer this form?

A: There's a few reasons for this. Most practically, I really like finishing something in one sitting. Since I have kids, a wife, a job, etc., sometimes I get a four-hour window on a Saturday afternoon or Tuesday night, and my goal is to finish the first draft of something.

So, I'm not writing Infinite Jest in four hours. I can sit around for an hour or two, surf the Internet, answer e-mails, go through some false starts, and then still have time to find a concept that works, a voice that fits, and write to the end.

I'm sure my practice in this length makes the arc of the story more inherent, that I can start something, like it, and just know where it goes, where it ends.
At the same time, I think short shorts are the place where you experiment with something, with a technique, a style, a voice, something that no reader will want for more than 1,000 words, 2,000 tops.

I have a story in this book that's an outline, and really, who wants to read that for more than a few pages (if that)? I have a couple of lists stories. I wrote a story that was one sentence that didn't make it into the book.

So short shorts allow you as a writer to take chances, and it allows your readers, if they don't think said chances are paying off, to move on quickly without abandoning the book altogether.

Q: You've worked as a vendor at Wrigley Field for many years. Does this experience find its way into your writing?

A: It has. It took me a long time, close to 20 years, before I was able to work that experience into fiction. It was hard to remove myself from the experience, to make up a character who wasn't me.

My experience there, comparatively, isn't very interesting. I don't get into trouble. I'm not the best (or worst) vendor. People generally like me there. I've never run onto the field with no clothes on. I go to work, sell lots of stuff, catch part of the game, go home.

But I knew I had to do something, that there was material there, the material for a novel. Who would work a job like that, be a writer, and not write that book? I had a lot of false starts, but they were too close to me, me trying to write me.

Then I saw my character, a combination of a couple of guys I worked with, guys who were way more interesting than me, guys who got into trouble, guys that were maybe the worst vendors, the guys who became my muse.

I ended up writing a good hunk of a novel about it, the first chapter appearing in a pretty major lit mag five years ago. I keep moving back to it, writing a little, moving out of it. But I know I have to finish. It's going well, but like I said earlier, I can't write a novel in one sitting and that's killing me. 

Q: Who are some of your favorite short-story writers? 

A: My all-time favorite story writer is Flannery O'Connor. Nobody has so many great stories. Carver and Saunders are close, but really, she could have eight or nine different stories anthologized, and often does.

And I like her because she’s so devious and deviously funny. The first time I read "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," I had a reaction, got this feeling of being really scared while laughing out loud. No other story since has ever done that to me.
But there's so many. Raymond Carver and George Saunders, as noted. But I'm also a big post-modernism fan, so I love guys like Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, Stephen Milhauser. Aimee Bender writes perfect short stories.

I'm so glad that most of these people are still writing. It's amazing to see a new Coover story come out and read it and realize how great he is, after 50 years. He's getting better, I think. 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: That beer vending novel! I swear! As soon as I get done with this interview. 

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: I'm lucky. I wanted to do something and I'm doing it. Because I write short stories, and people seem to like them, I got my teaching gig and I get to talk about stories, write stories, read stories, and help people with their stories—for a living.

It's how I have a house, a car, and get three (or more) squares a day, take care of my family. I know most people can't say that they are doing what they wanted and are able to make a go of it. Nothing's better than that.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 31

March 31, 1926: John Fowles born.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Q&A with Preston Lauterbach

Preston Lauterbach is the author of the new book Beale Street Dynasty: Sex, Song, and the Struggle for the Soul of Memphis. He also has written The Chitlin' Circuit, and he lives near Charlottesville, Virginia.

Q: Why did you decide to write about the history of Beale Street, and also about the history of the Church family?

A: It just unfolded. It wasn’t as if I decided I was going to write a history of Beale Street and I know the Church family are the bosses of Beale Street. I was interested in the whole story of black culture there--there are so many significant people influenced by living there. I felt like the whole collective story of how it happened hadn’t been told.

Once I started asking questions about how Beale Street started, and who the significant people had been, Robert Church was the first name that came up. Every huge figure led back first to Robert Church. The two big ones for me were W.C. Handy, the father of the blues, and Ida B. Wells, the great anti-lynching activist and journalist.

Living in Memphis, you catch a breeze from both of these characters. That’s how I got into Church. Church operated on the scene, and behind the scenes. He emerged as a really complex figure. He was credited as being the South’s first black millionaire, an impressive achievement.

What isn’t as well understood is how he was able to build up that fortune, which is largely the substance of the book—how a man born in slavery became the developer of a red-light district in downtown Memphis.

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

A: The book opens with Robert Church in the Civil War during the Battle of Memphis. He had a superb knack—he managed to be in the middle of everything….

In 1862, Union ships busted through the Confederate defenses and took the city. Robert Church was on the deck of his father’s steamboat. Legend has it that he jumped off the steamboat and established himself. Numerous histories factor into that two-paragraph anecdote. I try to bring as many different sources to bear on what I’m writing—to understand what it looked like, sounded like, smelled like to be there.

Another key sequence is the Memphis Riot. That was a blood and fire orgy for three days in 1866. It had tremendous national significance. Robert Church was also in the middle of this.

It was a nationally important event and was investigated by Congress—they interviewed tons of people. They did a top-down study—down to Robert Church’s tremendously visceral account of white policemen in Memphis invading Robert Church’s saloon, shooting him in the head and leaving him for dead….

Q: You describe both the politics and the music that came out of Memphis over several decades. How were the two linked?

A: Really critically, I think. There are two major figures synonymous with Memphis [during that period]—Mayor [E.H.] Crump, and the composer, the father of the blues, W.C. Handy.

Mr. Crump ran for mayor of Memphis the first time in 1909. At that time, it was similar to New York with Tammany Hall—there were ward heelers, a “saloonocracy.” They would gather as many votes as they could.

One of the saloon bosses decided to support Mr. Crump—Jim Mulcahy. He ran the [saloon] where W.C. Handy performed, and brought W.C. Handy to the Crump campaign. The result was “Mr. Crump,” [also known as] “Memphis Blues”—the first hit composition in the history of blues music, a craze that lasted another 50-60 years. Politics and music go together very well….

Q: How would you describe the history of race relations in Memphis during the period you examine?

A: I would say relative to the rest of the South, Memphis for black people from the end of the Civil War through the beginning of World War II was [similar] in how brutal the police could be and how difficult it could be to make a decent living due to a racist playing field.

At the same time, it was exceptionally promising. The black vote, restricted, banned, made illegal in other parts of the South, was more or less unrestricted in Memphis. Black people stayed in the practice of voting.

One, Robert Church Sr., really founded Beale Street. Robert Church Jr. became probably the most powerful black politician in the country. Race relations were both as bad as they could be in the South in Memphis—a number of lynchings took place—but as promising as they could be in the South. It’s a real enigma….

Q: Of the various intriguing figures you discuss in the book, is there one the particularly captured your imagination?

A: It’s hard to say. I have a lot of favorites. The big guys, Robert Church Sr. and Robert Church Jr., the way they so skillfully dealt with all the challenges of being black, yet still were able not only to succeed [but] to turn the tables on white people.

For Robert Church Sr. to build whorehouses in the South, staffed by white women…it was about as audacious an accomplishment as you can find. The same goes for his son and his political accomplishments. Nobody was offering assistance for him to build a black voting block…

For a more elusive character, there’s Red Lawrence. He was noted as a killer on Beale Street. I heard all these stories about him, of what a fearsome character Red Lawrence was. He was very much mixed up in the same political atmosphere regarding Boss Crump….

Q: What is Beale Street like today?

A: Now it’s a tourist attraction. If you’re familiar with Bourbon Street in New Orleans, it’s similar to that. It’s a great legendary street with an aura to it, but all the action in the book takes place on two blocks, and they’re not long blocks.

Today, about two or three blocks of it is separate as a tourist district. It’s all neon lights, dance clubs, a place to go and buy potent [drinks]. It’s where everybody goes to party. There’s some history there, but for the most part, it’s devoted to nightlife.

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: I’m working on a sequel to this. Beale Street Dynasty ends in 1940. This book picks up in the mid-50s.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Karen Deans

Karen Deans is the author of the new children's book Swing Sisters: The Story of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. She has written another book for young readers, Playing to Win: The Story of Althea Gibson. Also an illustrator and painter, she lives in the Washington, D.C., area.

Q: How did you come to write about the International Sweethearts of Rhythm?

A: A funny thing happened on the way to… a children’s book conference at Hofstra University. My book Playing to Win had just come out, and I was on a train passing through Forest Hills, where Althea Gibson had competed in what is now known as the US Open Tennis Championships.

I was in conversation with the woman sitting next to me, Rita Gray, who is also a children’s book writer. I shared my interest in writing about women in history and she told me the remarkable story of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, which totally captured my imagination.

I went back to New York and pitched the idea to my then-editor, Mary Cash, who thought it had great potential. Next I called my dad, who was a jazz pianist, to see if he knew anything about them. He happened to own a record album of their music, as well as a book that featured their story. 

During my research, I was inspired by the Sweethearts’ determination, despite the challenges they faced dealing with racism and sexism, as well as their ability to transcend discrimination through friendship and music.

Q: You're an artist as well as an author. How do the two skills complement each other in your work?

A: Since I was a child, I have always loved to draw and write. It’s funny how some things never change. I started my writing career as a journalist, while also working on a novel. I tried to get the novel published, but after many failed attempts and lots of frustration, I put it on a shelf.

I needed a break from writing, so I turned to painting as a fun distraction. Before long, I was getting hired to illustrate educational curricula and also paint murals. And yes, I was getting paid to do it!

Sometimes doors open and it would be foolish not to walk on through. That’s when I thought, “Oh, I guess I’m not a writer, after all. I’m a painter!” But the desire to write never left me. I have always kept journals. And I had acquired quite a large collection of picture books—out of sheer appreciation for the art form—with no intention of ever writing one.

And then, one day I discovered an important story (Althea Gibson’s life) had yet to be written for children, and I became a writer again. At around that same time I started my art business, Wooden Tile. So I’m still painting for the business, as well as painting sets for a local children’s theater.

Q: Can you tell us more about how you chose Althea Gibson as the subject of one of your books?

A: I was a big tennis player as a kid growing up in Atlanta, Georgia. My father was my coach, and he was also very involved in the tennis community there. In the 1950s he had seen Althea Gibson play at Forest Hills and told me stories about it, so I was aware of her from a very early age.

Fast forward many years, to when my youngest daughter Maisy—now in her first year of college— was a first grader. We went to the library for biographies, because she was a biography hound at the time.

She happened upon a book about the tennis player Arthur Ashe and, since I was a tennis player, suggested we check it out. At that moment, my girl power antenna went up, and I went to look for a book about Althea Gibson, the very first African American to win a national tennis championship. Many people wrongly think it was Arthur Ashe. This mistake is partly due to the fact that she was a woman and has often been overlooked.

Well, as suspected, we found no book about Althea on the shelf. And after some research, I discovered that no book about her for young children existed. So I set about writing one.

Q: Can you say more about why you decided to write for children, and who are some of your own favorite children's book authors?

A: Writing for children has parallels to writing poetry. Not that I’m much of a poetry writer, mind you, but you have to get to the essence and you have to touch the heart and mind fairly quickly or else you will lose your audience, whatever the age.

Children are intuitive. They need to be moved emotionally and their patience is limited. So, keep it concise, and make it matter. I find this challenge to be a real motivator, as well as a simple guideline for thinking, writing and even painting.

Plus, I just love the playfulness of writing for children. It’s wide open. Like painting sets for children’s theater, where I am constantly delighted by the endless creativity and playfulness that is allowed. It’s good to keep in touch with that part of ourselves and share it with the world whenever we can. 

Favorite authors? Such a difficult question! I loved Judy Blume growing up. Ludwig Bemelmans. Beverly Cleary. Currently I am really into graphic novels/memoirs, such as This One Summer by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki or Relish by Lucy Knisley. Talk about the power of pictures and words!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Both writing and illustrating my own picture book. I am hard at work developing story ideas that continue to mine the rich field of women in history.

The challenge of creating a visual world that complements the written word is a satisfying left brain/right brain experience. A fulsome experience, like creating theater, which I have been a part of, too.

And, not surprisingly, picture books—especially when read aloud—are like theater. They create a dramatic world to get lost in, and I love getting lost in this way. It’s something I live for!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I always stress to kids how important it is to make time to write. And draw or paint, if you have a mind to. Keeping a journal or sketchbook handy and adding to it everyday is a really good idea and a fairly simple practice. Nothing fancy.

Look at the world around you. Listen to what people say. Remember things that attract your attention. Take notes, otherwise you might forget your experiences. These ideas add up and always tell stories about who you are and what matters most to you.

And, this ultimately shapes what we, as creators, bring into the world. We are all creators. And we all have something to bring. So don’t be shy: bring it!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 30

March 30, 1820: Anna Sewell born.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Q&A with Roberta Beary

 Roberta Beary, photo by Dave Russo
Roberta Beary is the author of the new poetry collection Deflection. She also has written The Unworn Necklace. She is the haibun editor of Modern Haiku, and she lives in the Washington, D.C., area.

Q: You use a variety of forms in your new poetry collection. Do you have any that you particularly prefer? 

A: There are two main forms that I write in. The first is haiku, but it’s not the 5-7-5 you learn in school. Our syllables are more elongated than Japanese, so it sounds wordy, and I read most of my poems out loud.

I discovered the modern form of haiku in 1990 when I went to Japan with my then-husband, a Washington Post economics reporter. I was a trailing spouse. I was an attorney, and I quit my job with the government. We had two young children. We were supposed to stay three years, but it wound up being five.

I got a job with a Japanese law firm, but I had a lot of free time, and I joined a Japanese haiku group, Meguro-ku, in Tokyo. They were very welcoming… 

Q: Were you a poet before this? 

A: I had written poetry since the age of 9, but I didn’t concentrate on haiku. In Japan, haiku is part of daily life. The Japanese papers have haiku contests. Right before I left, I [entered] a haiku contest. When I got home, in 1995, there was a letter saying I had won a commended award….

When I came home, I asked on the Internet about local haiku groups. This coincided with my marriage falling apart. Someone wrote back and said there’s a group called Towpath forming….I joined the group, and we meet every six weeks….

The haibun form [of poetry] is from the 1600s—Basho did The Narrow Road to the North, a travelogue with prose and haiku: haibun. That form just clicked with me….it really speaks to me because the haiku is not supposed to repeat the prose. It resonates with it [and] makes you think about it. It’s very hard to do.

I am the haibun editor [of Modern Haiku]. I like writing fiction, especially flash fiction. It’s a hybrid form, and I consider myself a hybrid person. I don’t like gender stereotypes. I wish there was one thing to call us!... 

Q: Your poetry is often very personal. How do your family members feel about it? 

A: Most of them are OK with it, but I don’t consider them when I’m writing [or I wouldn’t write]. Writers should write for the audience they want to hear [their work]: maybe one or two people who are gay and don’t know how to come out, or who have been assaulted, or who are going through a hard time taking care of their parents. I want them to know they are not the only ones out there.

It’s not completely autobiographical; it is a composite. I don’t believe in family secrets. There is a high rate of teen suicide…and I want people to know that not only does it get better, but you’re not alone—you might feel different, but you’re not... 

Q: Why did you select “Deflection” as the title of the new collection? 

A: It’s from one of the sequences—it’s about deflecting grief or loss, because most of the pieces are about some type of loss. Either somebody died, or the loss of your innocence or of the person you knew as a parent, or your children getting older.

Some people call me the dark diva of haiku. I don’t particularly like that term! There’s one [poem] called "Caretaker I and II." These were all haiku written over the years of taking care of my mom [before her death] and I put them together…. 

Q: Did you write much of the poetry about your mother at the time you were helping her, or later? 

A: I wrote "Nighthawks" a couple of days after she died. The ones about dementia, I wrote a little after; it was too hard to write as it was going on…

[Writing about my mother] wasn’t really therapy, but it was a subject I was drawn to. I had so many friends who had just been through it or were about to, and didn’t know how to articulate what was going on… 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I’m trying to work on a full-length book of haibun… 

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: I want to spread the haiku word. It’s a form that doesn’t get the credit it deserves. I have written about the healing power of haiku—it’s better than drugs or therapy. It has helped me so much…it is a very accessible form, but it isn’t an easy form. You have to work at it.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Trudy Lewis

Trudy Lewis is the author most recently of the novel The Empire Rolls. She also has written Private Correspondences and The Bones of Garbo. She is director of creative writing at the University of Missouri.

Q: How did you come up with your main character, Sally LaChance?

A: Sally LaChance was inspired by at least a couple of real-life figures, such as one friend who is a very fierce animal rights activist and another, an avid hiker, who discovered industrial pollution in a local stream. 

In an archetypal sense, Sally is a manifestation of the huntress, a mix of protectiveness and aggression. In practical terms, Sally emerged from a series of stories I’d been writing, one of which, “Limestone Diner,” appeared in Best American Short Stories. And finally, Sally took shape through the intersections of her multiple roles as park ranger, aunt, sister, daughter, older woman, divorcee, and roller derby emcee.

Q: Your novel is set in Missouri. Could it have taken place somewhere else, or is it deeply rooted in its setting?

A: The Empire Rolls is definitely a Midwestern novel, celebrating the populism, energy, inventiveness, and independence of what some people dismiss as the “Flyover States.” So the book might be relevant to the experience of readers from Wisconsin, Indiana, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Illinois.  

But because the natural world plays such a major role in the novel, it is difficult to imagine the story taking place anywhere but Missouri. I like to think this book captures the stubborn spirit of the Show Me state, a rough mix of skepticism and faith.

Q: Why did you decide to write some of the chapters from Sally’s first-person point of view, and other chapters from a third-person perspective?

A: I wrote the novel in alternating sections because I wanted to include the perspectives of both Sally LaChance and her boyfriend Jared Mayweather. But I didn’t feel as rooted in Mayweather’s identity. Third person gave me the opportunity to suggest his voice without limiting myself to his perspective. There’s some distance and irony in these sections—although I believe it is a fond irony.

When I started writing, I tried both first person and third person and I liked the way they worked together, like melody and harmony.

Q: You’ve said the novel ties in to the Iraq War. Could you explain more about those connections?

A: Several of my characters, including Gabriella Hernandez or “Gigi Haddist,” are veterans of the Gulf War. In addition, there is a local mosque whose members are beginning to experience persecution on the basis of their ethic and religious identities—an indirect result of the conflict in the Middle East. So the story takes place in the shadow of war and the roller derby itself is a spectacle of mock violence.

The plot of the story is a commentary on war too, because it forces Sally to confront and reconsider the role of violence in defending her territory—the park, the animals, the skaters, and the young people in her care.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My current project is a science fiction novel about jellyfish.  Some scientists believe that the species turritopsis dohrnii, or the immortal jellyfish, holds the secret to eternal life because it can survive harsh environmental conditions by lingering for years or decades in its polyp form. 

In my novel, Medusa’s Bell, a corporation has patented the process as a means of extending life indefinitely. My protagonist, the daughter of a corporate executive and the sister of a rogue scientist, is forced to come to terms with her family’s political and biological decisions about immortality, religion, and genetic continuity.  

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I think it’s important to note that The Empire Rolls is set in the fall of 2007, just before the 2008 recession. It was around this time that roller derby experienced a dramatic revival. 

For me, this date also marks the point when it became difficult for the average citizen to ignore America’s decline as a world power—thus, the title of the book, "The Empire Rolls." I like to think that there is a measure of hope in this realization—that once we understand power is not static or monolithic, there is more room for us to move. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Philip Connors

Philip Connors is the author of the new memoir All the Wrong Places: A Life Lost and Found, which focuses on the impact of his brother's suicide. He also has written Fire Season, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Harper's and the Paris Review. He lives in New Mexico.

Q: You write of your life in the years after your brother’s suicide, “Anything went. Anything was permissible, as long as I lived.” How did your brother’s death affect the choices you made?

A: On the one hand, I felt as if I could do or be anything after his suicide, because nothing really mattered anymore. Life felt like a cruel joke. What did I care what happened to me? If I wanted to hitchhike across the country in the dead of winter, I just went ahead and did it without a thought.

On the other hand, in order to maintain my own personal vigil for him, I felt as if I couldn’t allow myself to be happy or content. To be happy or content would be a violation of my grief for him. So I made counterintuitive choices to ensure my feelings of alienation: working in the wrong job, living in the wrong neighborhood, and so forth.

These two impulses were at war with each other for years, the one that said I could do or be anything, and the one that said, Sure, do or be anything—as long as it doesn’t make you happy.

Q: You describe your brother’s presence in your life after his death: “He was always with me, though dimly remembered and void of substance, like a phantom limb.” What impact did writing the book have on your feelings about your brother?

A: I don’t think the writing changed much about my relationship with him. He’s been gone almost 20 years, so I’ve had time to work out my thoughts regarding him and his death.

I wasn’t using the book to sort through my feelings or achieve some new understanding of him; I had a certain story I wanted to tell—about what it’s like to be a "suicide survivor"—and I told it as best I could. And some of what I feel about him is necessarily very private, and should stay that way.

Q: Your title is “All the Wrong Places,” and you describe various situations in which you found yourself in your 20s by saying, “I was always ending up in all the wrong places.” Which places seemed especially wrong to you, and how did you end up settling in New Mexico?

A: The whole time I worked at The Wall Street Journal, it felt pretty wrong. I remember opening the editorial pages every day and reading about how the poor weren’t taxed enough, or how we should be waging all-out war across the Middle East, or how George W. Bush was the second coming of Winston Churchill.

I found it pretty hard to agree with any of it, although it was fascinating to have a glimpse into the minds of those who believed these things, to see how reality can be ignored in the service of advancing an ideology.

The book ends with me finally finding the right place, and I owe it all to my friend M.J., who invited me to visit her at a wilderness fire tower in New Mexico, where she was working during the summer of 2002.

Long story short: she knew I needed out of New York City, so she arranged for me to take over her job in the lookout. She basically handed me her mountain as a gift and said: Here, you need this more than I do.

So I flew back to New York, quit my job in an office tower in Lower Manhattan, and returned to finish out that season in a fire tower in the New Mexico wilderness—two places about as far apart as you can get in the United States of America. But I’ve been there every summer since, going on 14 years now, and have made a life in southwest New Mexico, a place where I feel very much at home.

Q: Was the writing process similar or different between this book and your first book, Fire Season?

A: I wrote Fire Season fairly quickly, most of it in one six-month burst. I knew most of what I wanted to say ahead of time, so it was merely a matter of figuring out how to say it. It’s a book about an experience I live summer after summer, and as a compulsive note-taker, I had a lot of raw material at hand. There weren’t a bunch of drafts. It just sort of flowed right out of me.

This book was more difficult. It covers many years and many diverse experiences. A lot of the work of getting it right involved deciding what to leave out — writing a draft of something and thinking, No, that won’t do, and either trying again or discarding it altogether.

And the tone was tricky: how do you write a book about suicide that people will actually want to read? Working some humor into it felt crucial. I have boxes full of paper that serve as a monument to the many failures that were required to come up with a narrative that, in the end, I think works.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just finished a couple of essays, smaller things: one on wildfires and renewal (for Orion magazine), one a memoir of growing up Catholic in Minnesota in the 1980s (which will be published in the next issue of n+1). They were things in the works for a while, and it’s been nice to get them out the door.

At the moment I’m working on nothing. Finishing this book left the well of my creative impulses pretty empty. I plan to sit very quietly and hope the well starts to fill again. It may take some time.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 27

March 27, 1923: Louis Simpson born.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Q&A with Deborah Mathis

Deborah Mathis is the author of the new book Unlucky Number: The Murder of Lottery Winner Abraham Shakespeare, written with Gregory Todd Smith. Her other books are Yet a Stranger: Why Black Americans Still Don't Feel At Home, What God Can Do: How Faith Changes Lives for the Better, and Sole Sisters: The Joys and Pains of Single Black Women. Her journalism career includes working as a syndicated columnist and serving as White House correspondent for Gannett News Service.

Q: How did you end up writing this book about Abraham Shakespeare, and how did you and Gregory Todd Smith, who was involved in the story, work together on the project?

A: I was introduced to Greg by someone who knew his story and that he was eager to reduce it to writing. He and I became fast friends and developed a mutual trust, which, of course, is essential to any collaborative effort. 

My first debrief with him was five hours long, uninterrupted, in which he told me the story from start to finish. I was in contact with him throughout the research and writing process, double-checking facts, names, addresses, etc.

Q: You write, “ Like many other winners, the man at the center of this story neglected to surround himself with wise, experienced counsel but rather relied on old friends and his own well-meaning but often misguided instincts to help him manage his multimillion-dollar winnings.” What does Shakespeare’s story say about the lottery system?

A: The lottery system is flawed in many ways, not the least being its convenience as a funding source for essential programs in many states (like public education). 

But the fallout from sudden, dramatic wealth is not something most people are prepared for and it takes a team of honest, experienced professionals to help one manage it. Most state lotteries recommend that and some provide a straight line to resources, but I don't get the impression that they really push it.

I'm not saying it should be mandatory -- that would carry its own hazards -- but the states should do more to educate players and winners. And those that require winners to go public (like Florida, where Abraham won) should stop that now. It just paints a bulls-eye for the scammers and beggars.

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

A: I had access to all of the secret audio recordings Greg made with Dee Dee Moore and others. There was also a treasury of court documents and considerable local and national media coverage to draw from. And, of course, I had complete access to Greg. 

What I found most surprising was the extent and entanglement of Dee Dee Moore's deceitful web.

Q: This is a true crime book, and a departure from your previous books. You’ve also worked as a journalist for many years. Do you have a preference in terms of the type of writing you like to do?

A: In many ways this was easier than the non-fiction books I've done before, which were more or less treatises on issues of race, single womanhood, and spirituality. 

I say that because the facts were ready-made, whereas with the other works, I had to create a narrative, to think about what I want to discuss and how I want to write about it. 

The challenge with Unlucky Number came in trying to keep all of the names, dates and occurrences straight, both for me and for the reader. There were so many to keep track of. Fortunately, I had the late, great writer Willie Morris' advice to guide me: "Tell a story in chronological order." 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I'm taking a break for now, but am churning on an idea for a novel. It would be my first work of fiction. Got to get my nerve and stamina up for that!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Deborah Mathis, please click here.