Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Q&A with Eric Lotke

Eric Lotke is the author most recently of the novel Making Manna. He also has written the novel 2044.  An attorney and advocate, he has written for a variety of publications, including The Huffington Post and Truthout, and he has worked for the Service Employees International Union and the Campaign for America's Future. He is based in Washington, D.C.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Making Manna? 

A: Hmmm. The world is a mess. The newspapers are all bad news. Iraq, the economy, Congress … yuck.

Well, I didn’t want to write about that. I wanted to write something nice. Something happy. Escapism. You deserve a break today. You bought my book: I owe you a good time.

Except that would be boring. I couldn’t go that far. It’s a happy tale but between the lines is a critical social commentary, especially about our justice system. Making Manna is about victims who don’t get what they need – protection and healing — because the system is too busy locking people up for no good reason.

But that’s only if you want to think about it. What the pages show is clever, creative, enterprising people finding their way. The critical social commentary is wrapped up in a story of resilience and hope.

Where exactly did the idea come from? Spoiler alert! I once worked on a death penalty case where the defendant was the product of an incestuous rape. Talk about bad news. I started there but gave it a better ending. 

Q: Poverty is a constant theme throughout the book. How do you see it affecting your characters? 

A: What an interesting question. I think the characters are like a lot of poor people. First, they don’t see themselves as poor. They don’t have time to be poor; they’re too busy making ends meet. They need to work an extra shift so they can fix that door.

So at the same time that they are defined by poverty and scarcity, they are also defined by constant success at putting food on the table. A lot of American poverty looks like that. 

Q: How did you come up with the book's title, and what does it signify for you? 

A: First, Making Manna is about food. Food appears throughout the book, as a matter of sustenance and independence. In the beginning, the characters learn that boiling spaghetti is cheaper than the McDonald’s Dollar Menu. By the end they’ve opened a bakery.

Second, it’s about more than food. In the Bible, Manna comes from heaven. In the real world, we need to make our own. Whether Manna is bread, money, free time or a legal action, we have to make it ourselves. Manna won’t come to us.

But please don’t understand this as rugged individualism. Yes, they have to make manna on their own. But they aren’t truly alone. They don’t make manna by themselves. Everybody is always giving and receiving help from others.

They survive as a community. When you need a tool, someone else has it on their shelf …and can even show you how to use it. 

Q: You've written that the book is a Horatio Alger story. What do you see as the elements of a modern-day Horatio Alger tale? 

A: Thanks, I do think of it as Horatio Alger. I present it that way in my "coming out" blog post

Horatio Alger does two things. First, he’s full of good old-fashioned virtue. Alger shows that you can do the right thing and still come out ahead. Nice guys do not need to finish last.

Second, Horatio Alger shows readers the truth behind things they see but don’t think about. In Alger’s case it was beggars and street urchins. In my case, it’s women who clean houses for a living and poor kids in rich suburbs.

I also show a justice system that looks nothing like CSI. The real justice system isn’t about crime labs and DNA exonerations. The real justice system is about “Hands up, don’t shoot” and cops who book you so they can get paid overtime for your court date.

Hollywood shows us courtroom dramas with explosive closing arguments. I show people with really bad lawyers who accept really bad plea bargains, and kids who miss their parents in prison. 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: Sadly, right now I’m a little too much like my characters: I’m working on finding a job. But I’d like my next novel to be about unions. In Making Manna, unions are just part of the scenery. Life gets better after they get a union job.

But unions deserve more than that. Workers organizing to get their fair share – that deserves a book of its own. 

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: Here are some things I didn’t learn until after the book was out. First, a smart reader described it as a “coming of age” story of both the mother and son at the same time. I think that’s exactly right. The mother was so young when he was born! She has so much to figure out, and so does he.

Second, I’ve been surprised by how popular the book is among teenaged girls. Just like the characters, they push past the scary beginning and pull it together in the end.

Lastly, here is something I didn’t figure out until I was discussing Making Manna in book groups. Really, the book is about parenting. I couldn’t have written it if I weren’t a dad. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Eric Lotke will be participating in the George Mason Fall for the Book Festival on Oct. 2.

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