Thursday, April 30, 2015

Q&A with Alan Hruska

Alan Hruska is the author of the new novel Pardon the Ravens. He also has written the novels Wrong Man Running and Borrowed Time, and several plays. He is the screenwriter and director of four films, is chairman of the book publishing company Soho Press, and is a former trial lawyer. 
Q: How did you come up with your character Alec Brno, and why did you decide to set the novel in the 1960s?
A: I was a young lawyer in the 1960s. Imagining another one wasn’t that difficult. But re-entering that era – which was richly atmospheric and has almost entirely disappeared – was, I believe, something more than an indulgence in nostalgia.
Profound social changes, decade by decade, are like layers of one’s life. Cosmologists now increasingly believe we live in a pointless universe. They may well be right, but not about life itself. By revisiting any past era, feeling its differences from today, one realizes that the details do matter and how full and meaningful life really is. 
Q: How was the book’s title chosen?
A: I remembered the quote: “Pardon the ravens and censure the doves.” Always liked it; thought the first part fit.
Q: You’ve worked as a trial lawyer, written and directed plays and films, and been a book publisher, in addition to writing novels. How do all these different activities complement one another for you?
A: Writing plays, films and books are complimentary for obvious reasons. They are, of course, each expressions of imagination, and developing skills at one form will usually pay off in others. For example, plot, characterization and dialogue are generally key to any form of fiction.
Although the dialogue written for a play or novel might differ from a movie script, the three types of dialogue have less differences from each other than they have in common. And the more one writes anything, the better one gets at it.
As for book publishing: I think the better the writer, the better the publisher – and, living through the realities of the publishing world certainly contributes to the education of an author.
As for work as a trial lawyer: the art of persuasion is strongly related to communicating ideas in books, films or plays, or to directing the latter.  (Of course, I always hope my actors will remember their lines better than my witnesses.) 
And the flow in the other direction is equally clear. I would always say to young lawyers (and to myself), Tell a story! Whether you’re writing a brief, making an argument on appeal or addressing a jury, if you’re not telling a story, you will put them to sleep.
Q: Which writers have influenced you?
A: The writer most influential for me was Laurie Colwin. She was also a very dear and close personal friend. Apart from Laurie, there are others too many to list (but among near contemporaries: John Casey, Russell Hoban, Lorrie Moore, and Lee Child).
Q: What are you working on now?
A: My current projects are: three different plays at different stages of development and production; a movie (which a group in London is about to begin producing); a comedy/mystery novel (the first draft of which is now with an editor); a sequel to Pardon the Ravens (about one-third finished); and whatever issues my daughter [Soho Press publisher Bronwen Hruska] chooses to bring to me involving Soho Press.  
--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 30

April 30, 1877: Alice B. Toklas born.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Q&A with Martha Jo Black

Martha Jo Black, photo by David Durochik
Martha Jo Black is the co-author, with Chuck Schoffner, of the new biography Joe Black: More Than a Dodger, which looks at the life of her father, who pitched for the Brooklyn Dodgers. She works for the Chicago White Sox, and she lives in Chicago.

Q: Why did you decide to write this biography of your late father, Joe Black?

A: I had a dream, literally!...I was at work, and I thought, I should write a book! It came out of nowhere. I went to [boss and family friend] Jerry Reinsdorf, and said I want to write a book about my dad. He said, About baseball? And I said, No, about my dad! He said, You work for me—we need to get you a co-writer…

I wanted to keep my dad’s legacy [going]—I loved my father so much, I wanted to share his story with the world. He went through so much—he fought for his daughter [in a custody battle that he won] in the 1970s.

Q: You and your father clearly had a very close relationship, as you describe in the book. Did you feel torn as you wrote the book between your roles as biographer and daughter?

A: No, because what happened—this took seven years to write, I was here working [for the White Sox]—Chuck Schoffner and I talked and e-mailed every single day. Instead of two voices, he took notes from me, and merged them all together. That made it a lot easier—I’m grateful that Chuck was willing to take on this task.

There were times [that it was difficult], because my father and I were so close—I would have to relive my father’s death. But the big picture is that it was also a healing process.

Q: You say it took seven years—were you going over it a lot, or figuring out what parts of his life to include?

A: I did go over things a lot. I wasn’t around when my dad played baseball. To make sure everything was correct, I showed [longtime Los Angeles Dodgers president] Peter O’Malley and Jerry Reinsdorf everything.

Q: Your father played major league baseball less than a decade after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. How did this experience affect him, and how did he reflect upon those years to you as you were growing up?

A: Now that I am older, I can understand. My dad emphasized that everybody was the same, and that you should treat everybody as you would like to be treated. It was because of [his experiences with] segregation. I wasn’t getting it then.

I believe everything good, bad, and ugly that he went through helped him raise me—I can do this because it’s all how you treat people.

Sometimes women are accused of being weak—I am not weak, but I treat people how I want to be treated. When he was pitching in the World Series, another writer said [my father] was thinking about how a scout said he couldn’t pitch because he was colored. Whatever you put out there comes back to you…

Martha Jo Black and Joe Black, 2001
Q: You’ve discussed how your father won custody of you in the 1970s, which was unusual. How did that affect you?

A: I didn’t really miss anything. My dad was doing my hair. My dad’s hand was twice my size. I didn’t know anything different. He was on the phone with my cousins: What do I do with [her] hair? I started going to a hairdresser at age 6….

My dad gave me the sex ed talk, he met all my friends. I never felt I was missing anything—maybe that was me being so overprotected.…

Q: You also work in baseball. How do you see your father’s legacy today?

A: [Copies of the book are being donated to] Lost Boyz Inc., [which funds] an African-American Little League team…so young people can remember how things were then. We don’t have a lot of people talking about history, and that’s how young people learn. You have to understand the past to [figure out] the future…

Martha Jo Black
Q: How did you end up working in baseball?

A: I got out of school in 1992, and my dad said an organization was coming here [to Arizona}—it was the Arizona Fall League. My dad was a consultant for MLB, and my father and I went to the interview. I didn’t talk very much!

I started working with the Fall League, and [later] my dad sent my resume to his friends—Jerry Reinsdorf, Ted Turner. I took a job with the White Sox in 1993. I started in the ticket office, and worked my way up. Then I went to [the law firm] Winston and Strawn in 2000.

I was there until 2004. By then, both my parents were deceased. Jerry Reinsdorf would e-mail me to check on me. I needed to know somebody cares about me…I am grateful for all my father’s friends. They all have looked out for me. They knew how close we were.

Q: Are you considering writing another book?

A: I have done weddings here, and a couple of people have said, You should do baseball and weddings. I would have to ask all the people [who had weddings here] if they were OK with it.

For now, I want this book to do well. It has so much to offer, with everything going on in the country today—it’s telling this country’s story still…

I hope somebody would look at this as TV or a movie, an African-American father raising a daughter. So many people, I have a lot of African-American male friends and Caucasian male friends, who raise their kids. They need to be told they’re doing a good job…

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My father was an amazing father. He was very giving. It’s important that we all give back to somebody or to some organization. [The saying went,] I am my brother’s keeper—if I can’t figure it out, I will find somebody who can….It’s important to know.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Q&A with Gwendolyn Zepeda

Gwendolyn Zepeda, photo by Lawrence P. Lander
Gwendolyn Zepeda is the author of the new poetry collection Monsters, Zombies + Addicts. Her other work includes the poetry collection Falling in Love with Fellow Prisoners, as well as a short story collection and three novels. She is the first poet laureate of Houston, Texas.

Q: You group the poems in your new collection into four categories: Addicts and Obsessions, Monsters and Warriors, Zombies and the Bitten, and Animals and Nature. How did you come up with these groupings?

A: I'd been thinking a lot about people who find security in conformity, and how they're often uncomfortable with yet titillated by people who refuse to conform. Those themes found their way into my work.

Then I read a lot of analysis of the Walking Dead and its zombie-themed predecessors that said slow-moving zombies are a metaphor for conformists, philistines, and the like. So I made that connection, then came up with the names for the other themes that had featured heavily in the book.

Q: You also include a portion of the lyrics from Neil Young's "Sugar Mountain" at the front of the book. Why did you choose to include those lines?

A: Those lyrics have always resonated with me, since I was a teenager, because they captured my feelings about coming of age so well. Being unable to enjoy the carnival that is Sugar Mountain is about missing out on the fun and losing one's innocence. I try to write about that phenomenon pretty often and decided to finally credit Mr. Young as my inspiration.

Q: As the poet laureate of Houston, do you think your poems are heavily influenced by that city, and if so, how?

A: I've spent 75 percent of my life so far in Houston, and I'm really inspired by its climate, its urban wildlife, and its demographic diversity. It's a balmy and voluptuous place. I like the way the skyscrapers and long, gray freeways sit right next to secret swamps and tropical flowers, and you can find any kind of food or religion. It's difficult to be bored here, so there's always something to write about.

Q: You also have written novels, children's books, and short stories. Do you have a preference, and is your writing process similar no matter what you're writing, or does it differ?

A: I like writing short stories best, so it's funny that they're what I've published least, right? I like personal essays, too, which I write infrequently for magazines or online.

My process for each genre is totally different. I tend to think of an idea I want to write about, then decide what genre to employ based on the idea. Sometimes I'll try a few before settling on the form my readers eventually see.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm writing a young adult novel and putting together a tiny comic book for fun. (And re-doing a mural in my bedroom, and knitting a scarf with sock yarn.)

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: No... Well... Hmm. I hope if new readers get a chance to check out my work, they find something that resonates with them or inspires them in some way. And I hope my long-time readers know how much their support has meant to me throughout the years. (Answer: A lot!)

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 28

April 28, 1926: Harper Lee born.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Q&A with Monica Bhide

Monica Bhide is the author of the new book A Life of Spice: Stories of Food, Culture, and Life. Her other work includes several cookbooks, among them Modern Spice, and a short story collection, The Devil in Us, and her writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and Food & Wine. She is based in the Washington, D.C., area.

Q: How did you select the essays that appear in your new collection?

A: It was reader-driven! Each time I have a new essay published, I get notes from readers asking for more of the same. I looked over all my work for the past 10 years and selected a few essays that I thought would make (I hope) interesting reading. Of course, there are several new essays in the book as well. 

Q: You write that you’ve always loved food, and that “even more than cooking, I love to eat.” What are some of your favorite things to eat, and are those things you also like to cook?

A: Yes, indeed... eating is a passion! I adore anything with spices and herbs. My favorite dishes - anything cooked by my parents or baked by my kids! I do adore a good lamb biryani and, of course, Nutella. I enjoy cooking as I view it as a "getting away from it all activity" as opposed to a chore.

I won't lie to you, some days it is impossible to cook and we order take-out. Some days when I am testing new recipes and they are disastrous, the kids make themselves a sandwich! 

Q: One of the sections in your book is called “Food and Love.” What do you see as the connection between the two?

A: I strongly believe that food memories are very intimate and can heal or break hearts. If the smell of coffee reminds you of your lover, who makes a cup for you each morning, it is a healing activity... And, yet, if that lover leaves, that same smell now is betrayal! 

Q:  You write, “The food that I am like is broken wheat. I take on the flavor of wherever I am planted.” How have the various places you’ve lived affected both you and your cooking?

A: I grew up in Bahrain and love incorporating Middle Eastern flavors and spices into my recipes. These days, hummus seems to be omnipresent, but when I was growing up, it was not that well-known.

Of course, my Indian heritage makes me very biased towards spices. And living here in the U.S. has exposed me to so many other cultures and foods. We recently had an Indonesian meal and a Venezuelan meal at a friends home. These are tastes I was not familiar with but soon found myself falling in love with them! 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A novel - a love story with recipes.

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

April 27

April 27, 1945: August Wilson born.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Q&A with Mark Adams

Mark Adams, photo by Joshua Scott
Mark Adams is the author of the new book Meet Me in Atlantis: My Obsessive Quest to Find the Sunken City. He also has written Mr. America and Turn Right at Machu Picchu. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including GQ, Men's Journal, and New York, and he lives near New York City.

Q: What first intrigued you about Atlantis, and why did you decide to write a book about it?

A: What really drew my attention to Atlantis was the fact that a place generally associated with things like Bigfoot, UFOs and crop circles had actually sprung from the mind of Western Civ's greatest thinker, Plato.

From there I grew increasingly intrigued by the placement of the story in Plato's works. He seems to have written the first part of the story just after his masterpiece, the Republic, as a sort of prologue to his extremely ambitious work of cosmology, the Timaeus.

Most books about Atlantis tend to skim over this strange positioning of the Atlantis tale or to dismiss it as insignificant, but that dismissal rang a bit hollow to me.

Q: You interviewed a vast variety of people who are trying to find the lost city. Which theories did you find especially fascinating?

A: After a lot of searching, I boiled my list of possibilities down to four: southern Spain, Malta, Santorini and the Atlantic coast of Morocco. Each was compelling for different reasons.

Southern Spain seems to agree best with the detailed geographic descriptions that Plato gives, especially that Atlantis had sat "opposite the Pillars of Hercules," usually considered to be the Straits of Gibraltar.

Malta fascinated me because the man behind the hypothesis that it had been the original Atlantis, a pediatrician named Anton Mifsud, had done a ton of original research including a visit to the Vatican Secret Archives.

Santorini has the best physical evidence of a maritime city destroyed by cataclysm; a city that seems to echo Plato's description of Atlantis was found there buried under ash in 1967, and Santorini's unique bull’s-eye shape seems to reflect the concentric rings of land and water of which Plato wrote.

And Morocco was intriguing because of the methodology that Michael Huebner used to select it--he employed a sort of Moneyball algorithm using data from Plato's original story.

Q: How have you interpreted Plato’s depiction of Atlantis, and do you have a specific idea in your head of what Atlantis would look like or where it might possibly be?           

A: Plato wrote about the tension between fact and fiction, and that between oral history passed down via legend and written history as practiced by innovators such as Herodotus. Which is a long way of saying I spent three years writing this book and don't want to spill too many of its magic beans.

Q: Which other mysteries would you put on a par with the search for Atlantis, and why?

A: For mysteries on a par with Atlantis I think you'd have to look to the Old Testament--were the ten plagues real? Was Noah's Ark real? There are a lot of people out there spending a lot of money to prove that the Bible is literally true.

And a decent case could be made—in fact, has been made (including in my book)--that there is some possible overlap between the story of Atlantis and tales from the Old Testament.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now I'm trying to polish a new book idea—after Machu Picchu and Atlantis, I'm taking a break from the lost cities beat for a while—and exploring the possibility of adapting the Atlantis book for television.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The one thing I'd add is that Meet Me in Atlantis isn't a typical Atlantis book, in that I'm not trying to prove that it was real or that I've figured out where it was located. It's more a narrative about the people who are looking for it, wrapped in a travelogue.

Also, an Australian newspaper just compared it to a humorous, nonfiction version of The Da Vinci Code, which I think is fair because there are several surprises as I try to decode the truth behind Plato's original story.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 26

April 26, 1914: Bernard Malamud born.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Q&A with David Quammen

David Quammen is the author of the new book The Chimp and the River: How AIDS Emerged from an African Forest. His other books include Spillover, Ebola, and The Song of the Dodo. He is a contributing writer for National Geographic, and he lives in Bozeman, Montana.

Q: You write, “AIDS has been written about many times, from many angles, but the story as told here is drastically different from any version you are likely to have read…” What are the main differences?

A: The big differences in the story as I tell it—based on the recent work of Beatrice Hahn, Michael Worobey, and others—is that the ecological origins of the pandemic HIV strain have now been traced, in both time and geography, and those origins are VERY different from what most people think they know about the pandemic.  

Specifically, we now have it on very persuasive evidence, from Hahn and Worobey and their groups, that the AIDS pandemic began with a spillover of the precursor virus (SIVchimp) from a single chimpanzee into a single human, in the southeastern corner of Cameroon, back as early as 1908, give or take a margin of error.

How it simmered for decades among the rural populations and then in the cities of Central Africa (notably Leopoldville, later named Kinshasa), barely maintaining its presence in humans, and then finally exploded into a horrible pandemic during the later 20th century—that’s all part of this little-known and more complicated story, following from the original spillover.

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

A: I researched the AIDS story as part of my much longer and broader book, Spillover, in which The Chimp and the River originally appeared as a long chapter, in 2012.  

That research involved a combination of information-gathering modes: reading the journal literature, interviewing scientists (usually but not always in person), traveling myself to some of the relevant sites, such as the little Ngoko River draining eastern Cameroon, where I chartered a boat to go downriver toward the cities, retracing what must have been the route of the virus.  

The most surprising thing that occurred during my research was when I began reading one of Beatrice Hahn’s crucial papers—it was Keele et al (2006), “Chimpanzee Reservoirs of Pandemic and Non-pandemic HIV”—and looked at the map on its first page. That map showed the small area within Central Africa where, according to the Keele-Hahn results, the pandemic strain of HIV had passed from chimps into humans.  

I recognized places on that map. I saw a river I had traveled on, a little village where I had slept, in the course of an expedition for National Geographic. Immediately I thought: If THAT’S where AIDS began, I’ve got to go back.

Q: As you mentioned, this book is an expanded version of a chapter of your previous book, Spillover. Why did you decide to expand that chapter into a book?

A: My publisher for Spillover, W.W. Norton, and my editor there, Maria Guarnaschelli, suggested that they’d like to bring the AIDS chapter out in the form of a small, free-standing book. I had always thought of it as a set piece, almost a book to itself, so I quickly agreed.

I had to reshape the material a little bit, to make it stand alone, but not much. And I wrote a new introduction. I was glad for this chance to get the book into the hands of people who don’t have the time, or the stamina, or the interest, to read a 520-page book (meaning Spillover) on the whole phenomenon of zoonotic disease.

Q: What are some of the other zoonotic diseases you describe in Spillover, and are these diseases becoming more prevalent?

A: There has been what I call a whole drumbeat of newly emerging zoonotic diseases in recent decades. Most of them are caused by viruses: Machupo in Bolivia (1961), Marburg from Ugandan monkeys killing laboratory workers in Germany (1967), Ebola’s first known outbreaks (1976), HIV being recognized (1981, though of course, as I explain in Chimp, it had been among humans much longer), hantavirus in the U.S. (1993), Hendra in Australia (1994), Nipah virus in Malaysia and then Bangladesh (1998-2000), West Nile hitting New York (1999), SARS coronavirus out of southern China (2003), MERS coronavirus from the Arabian peninsula (2013), and many others.  

Plus some non-viral zoonoses becoming newly prominent, such as Lyme disease in the U.S. and Q fever in the Netherlands. I talk about all these in Spillover.

Why are such disease events becoming more frequent, more prominent, more consequential? I’d point to three factors.  

First, we’re now recognizing some exotic disease events that in decades or centuries past would have gone unnoticed. That’s simply the issue of better detection.  

But they are also probably more frequent in absolute terms—because of more humans causing more disruption in more species-rich ecosystems where so many viruses live within their hosts. We shake things up, we eliminate host animals, and we offer the viruses an alternative—us. So they jump aboard.  

And once aboard, if they adapt to us and find ways of efficient human-human transmission, they can travel around the world at the speed of an airplane.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m finishing two projects for National Geographic: another article on Ebola, and a special issue on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, for the centennial (2016) of the U.S. National Parks system.  

The Ebola article, which is scheduled for July, looks at the big ecological question: Why, after 39 years, have scientists been unable to identify the reservoir host of Ebola virus? The Yellowstone project is a big (but intriguing) task because they’ve asked me to write the entire issue.  

I’m also at work, in the research stage, on a new book project, involving the idea of the Tree of Life and the radical challenges to that image arising from recent discoveries in molecular phylogenetics.  

It was for the book that I’ve recently been on the road—interviewing molecular biologists in Halifax and Ottawa and Urbana, Illinois, and spending time with the Carl Woese papers archived in Urbana.  

Carl Woese is an important character in this story because he, as you may know, is the scientist who discovered the third major domain of life, the Archaea, entirely unknown to the world before his publication in 1977.  

That was one form of drastic revision in the traditional Tree of Life. Another form comes from discoveries of the phenomenon of horizontal gene transfer. And there’s more. But that book isn’t written yet so…please stay tuned.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Not much. Between research trips to Central Africa or snowy Halifax or the Yellowstone backcountry, I live a quiet life in Bozeman, Montana, with my wife Betsy, two borzois, a maremma, and a very self-possessed cat.  

I seem to have used up my knees with 25 years of telemark skiing, but I can still bicycle pretty hard. No more kayaking, no more ice hockey. We all know that it’s hell to get old, but I tell myself that 67 is a wonderful age: way better than 103 or dead.  

Otherwise, for fresh air and comic relief and doses of humility, I play golf with my father-in-law, a patient man. I like to hit the ball, and I don’t do the arithmetic.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 25

April 25, 1908: Edward R. Murrow born.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Q&A with Tracy K. Smith

Tracy K. Smith, photo by Marlene Lillian
Tracy K. Smith is the author of the new memoir Ordinary Light, as well as three books of poetry: Life on Mars, which won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize; Duende; and The Body's Question. She is a professor of creative writing at Princeton University, and she lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

Q: Why did you decide to write a memoir, and how did you choose the years on which to focus? 

A: I think that every project that I've undertaken as a writer has been an attempt to grow or change in the face of some of the constants that characterize my view of the world.

With this material, I wanted to write a prose memoir in order to examine my own private questions of family, loss, faith, and race. Those are all things that poetry is quite well-equipped to explore, but I wanted to push myself to think differently than I've learned to think in a poem. I wanted to see what an extended narrative arc might manage to help me unearth and articulate. 

I didn't have a specific span of years in mind, but I knew that my mother's death was a huge central concern. But I composed without mapping things out. I wrote into the various memories that returned to me, trying to mine them for whatever they offered, and then I went forward intuitively from there.

Eventually, the discrete scenes or chapters began to speak to one another, and so the later drafts of the book were really about trying to foster a conversation between these different time-periods and the events that characterized them.

It was amazing to discover that there was, indeed, thematic unity to a life that, because it was lived day by day and from a place of deep subjectivity (in other words, because it was like every other life), felt random and highly non-linear.

Q: Your mother is a major force throughout the book, and you write that near the end of her life, she had a vision that you would become a writer. What impact has she had on your life, both before and after her death?

A: Oh, well I'm sure in some ways it's too soon to tell. My mother shaped my view of so many things from the time I was a child. I had total access to her, and yet, because she was not me, she remained in many ways a mystery.

I think her sense of faith in God imparted a sense of belief and wonder and humility in me. I would even say that, like many blacks of her generation who came of age in the South before and during the Civil Rights Movement, she held firm to a belief that the larger arc of history is beholden to justice.

I believe that her sense of being accountable to something outside of the here and now, outside of one's own sense of the present and the private concerns that characterize it, has reached me in a fundamental way as well.
Q: Religion plays a big role in your memoir, as you describe your shifting attitudes as a young adult toward the type of Christianity that you grew up with. What are your feelings about religion today? 

A: I might have resisted some of the precise terms of organized religion as my mother employed them, but I don't think I've ever been at odds with the idea that something large and real contains us. I'm comfortable claiming that and calling it God.

But I also like the many strange and unimaginable iterations of that thing, that force. I like how the inexhaustible unknowability of the universe stands, at least in my imagination, as an emblem of that large source.

Q: Do you prefer writing poetry or memoirs, and is your writing process similar?

A: I like writing, period. I like the ways that language can foster understanding. I like the struggle to grasp and then to generate meaning. 

I think of genre as a minor distinction, a shift in tools, though the fundamental terms are mostly the same. Like a visual artist shifting from paint to engraving or sculpture.

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I am writing a libretto for an opera about Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs and their conflicting visions of New York City in the 1950s and '60s. It is a collaboration with composer Judd Greenstein and director and video artist Joshua Frankel. I'm also translating the poems of contemporary Chinese poet Yi Lei into English.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 24

April 24, 1815: Anthony Trollope born.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Q&A with Ellen Meister

Ellen Meister is the author of the new novel Dorothy Parker Drank Here. Her previous novels include Farewell, Dorothy Parker and The Other Life. She teaches creative writing for Hofstra University Continuing Education, and she lives on Long Island.

Q: Why did you decide to write a second Dorothy Parker novel?

A: I call Dorothy Parker Drank Here the "accidental sequel," because I never intended to write a second Dorothy Parker novel. In fact, I ended the first book so definitively there was no way to continue the story.

So after I finished Farewell, Dorothy Parker, I went to work on a new novel with a completely different cast of characters. But the great wit seemed to remain at my side.

I tried to ignore the calling of my muse until at last I realized a prequel was possible, and so when my publisher asked if I might be willing to bring Mrs. Parker back to life again, it seemed like fate ... and I grabbed the opportunity.

Q: How did you come up with your characters Norah and Ted?

Maybe it's because I had a brush with Richard Yates in my youth, but I've always been fascinated with the idea of being drawn to a brilliant and belligerent literary figure. So in a sense, Ted has been with me for a long time.

And as I rounded out his character for Dorothy Parker Drank Here, making him sick and isolated, I understood his hostility and he became more and more sympathetic to me. Norah's character was driven by many things, including her connection to Ted.

(I feel compelled to note that despite his reputation, Richard Yates was always kind to me. I worked for his literary agent for a short time when I was in my early 20s, and gushed so terribly every time he called that he had many opportunities to cut me down, but he didn't. I'm truly grateful for this.)

Q:  How does writing novels about Dorothy Parker compare with creating your earlier novels? Is your writing process similar?

A: The process isn't that different, even though I'm using a character based on a real person. There's research involved, of course, but beyond that it's a matter of crafting a story that will engage the reader, and taking the characters on a journey that can result in a meaningful arc.

Q: What’s your favorite Dorothy Parker quote?

A: There are so many, but if I have to pick one, it's this:
“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”

Q: What are you working on now?

A: God help me, I'm juggling three different possible novel ideas. Check back with me in a few months!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Thanks so much for this interview, Deborah. I always like to direct Dorothy Parker fans to my Facebook page, where I post quotes and poems daily. I may be biased, but I think the page has the smartest followers on Facebook!

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