Saturday, October 31, 2015

Q&A with Matthew Guinn

Matthew Guinn is the author of the new novel The Scribe. He also has written the novel The Resurrectionist and the nonfiction work After Southern Modernism. He was the writer James Dickey's assistant at the University of South Carolina. His teaching career includes the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Tulane University's School of Continuing Studies. A native of Atlanta, he lives in Jackson, Mississippi.

Q: Why did you decide to set your novel in Atlanta in 1881?

A: That International Cotton Exposition really did take place. A lot of historians say it was the moment when the New South was born. Henry Grady [who appears in the novel] was real. He was antebellum in his attitudes toward race, but in favor of the South being industrialized. He saw how war and the end of slavery had devastated the South, and he wanted it to get more industrial.

I’m a son of Atlanta—it’s always been the same city that hosted the 1996 Olympics, the same attitude: the New York of the South. The sprawling development I’m driving through right now is the story of my life, and the story of Atlanta…

Q: You write in a historical note at the end of the book, "Writing a historical novel is a bit like a tightrope act." How did you blend fact and fiction, and what did you see as the right balance between the two?

A: It’s historical fiction, a historical novel. Some people are too caught up in factuality. I admitted [in the book] to the three things I changed [from actual fact]; I’m not jerking your chain.

It’s enough to make you feel you’re there, but not enough to make you feel you’re back in history class. Twenty-five years ago, if somebody had told me I would write historical fiction, I would say, You’re crazy! History was so dry and dull.

But I was fortunate to stumble on things that were too strange to believe. The premise for The Resurrectionist really did happen. I couldn’t believe no one had written a novel about it!

Q: Why did you decide to write novels, and not nonfiction books, about these topics?

A: My dissertation was nonfiction, After Southern Modernism...I like stories. I had just got out of grad school, and I discovered James Lee Burke. I had been reading high literature, and [I thought], I remember story now! It was a book that you could not at all figure out how it would end.

My wife prevailed on me to read In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien. It’s a literary book, but driven by plot. I thought I would like to write something like that. I was thrilled by the Edgar nomination for The Resurrectionist

This [book] was always going to be about a serial killer. It embodies the Old South, someone who wishes [the Civil War] had ended differently.

Q: So are Burke and O’Brien two of the authors you feel inspired by?

A: Yes, and James Dickey of course. Deliverance is one of the great novels. I knew Andrew Lytle, a Southern Agrarian, who wrote The Velvet Horn, which was published in 1957. He was a great teacher. And Larry Brown was the writer who drew me to Mississippi.

Q: How did you come up with your detective, Thomas Canby?

A: All your characters are either a person you aspire to be or a person you despise. Canby in some ways is somebody I’d aspire to be. He’s brave, courageous, doesn’t take pat answers from anyone. Some reviews say he’s violent…he’s violent where he needs to be. There’s the great Emerson quote, that your goodness needs some edge to it. Canby is like that. And with my Celtic background, how cool if his dad is a bona fide immigrant. There was a huge wave of [Irish immigration] in the 19th century.

Q: Do you know how your novels will end before you start writing, or do you make many changes as you go along?

A: I’m open to changing it, but I find the middle to be a great part…I get tableaus, scenes that are frozen, of the first and last [parts]. In between is the real exploration. I love it when you get surprised every now and then….

Q: Race is one of the big issues in the book. Why did you choose to explore that?

A: Shelby Foote said that if you want to understand America, you have to understand the Civil War. It’s true, and it’s very true about the South.

[A group of] writers bought an ad [recently urging the removal of the Confederate] symbol from the flag [in Mississippi]. It’s important to argue against [the symbol], unless you have ingrained racism.

The book I’m working on now is about the convict leasing system [which affected African Americans]—under trumped-up charges, they were leased to mining companies to pay off fines. It was almost worse than slavery.

It’s not to polish up liberal bona fides but…it’s not fair to expect black Mississippians to [live] under an emblem [of the Confederacy...This involves] a sense of justice….I feel like I have something left to learn.

Q: Can you say more about the book you’re working on now?

A: It’s set in Birmingham. This is a spoiler, but it follows Thomas Canby and Cyrus Underwood to Birmingham. Serial killings start up in Birmingham. I think of them as eruptions of evil in U.S. history. The convict slavery system made people rich, rich, rich. There are still families in the South whose wealth is based on slave labor.

I’m pleased that people want to know more about Underwood and Canby. This is a bit more Underwood’s story. He’s a fascinating person.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 31

Oct. 31, 1932: Katherine Paterson born.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Q&A with Tracy Crow

Tracy Crow is the author of the new book On Point: A Guide to Writing the Military Story. She also has written the memoir Eyes Right and edited the anthology Red, White, & True. She is a former Marine Corps officer, and she lives in North Carolina.
Q: Why did you decide to write this book?
A: I decided to write this book after the violent suicide of a Marine Corps friend. We’ve all read or heard the startling statistic that 22 veterans a day commit suicide, but I’d never had a personal connection to this statistic until my friend decided to end his life. I was devastated…
I feel as if I’ve been carrying a heavy chunk of shrapnel inside me since my friend’s suicide. When I began to imagine the overarching effects of 22 veterans a day choosing to end their lives, and how all these suicides every single day led to unimaginable suffering for 22 families every day and a countless number of friends, like me, I felt compelled to do something.
Writing, as well as other creative arts, has healing value. I learned this firsthand while drafting my own memoir, Eyes Right: Confessions from a Woman Marine (University of Nebraska Press, 2012), and while compiling and editing essays for my anthology, Red, White, & True: Stories from Veterans and Families, WWII to Present (Potomac Books, 2014).
Q: You say in the book that writing is “a gift you’re giving yourself.” How did that apply to you personally, and how do you see it helping others, particularly those connected with the military?
A: For 15 years after leaving the Marines under conditions that felt less than honorable, had you asked me why I resigned after 10 years, I’m sorry to say I would have lied. I would have lied to save us both an awkward moment of embarrassment. And throughout those 15 years, I repressed the shame, regret, anger, and resentment.
But at the urging of an undergrad professor, I eventually started writing about my military experiences – the emotionally safe ones, anyway. In grad school, I realized that I would have to examine and write about the deepest, darkest motivations that had fueled a drive to prove my worth as a Marine, even though that drive led to the sacrifice of my health, marriage, and motherhood.
Writing, for me anyway, is a profound gift of self-love, especially the sort of writing that encourages a deep self-examination. Too many of us are walking through life like zombies – half awake/half dead. Writing for meaning urges us to wake up and become aware. Writing for meaning also forces us to search for the patterns within our lives—for why we decided one day to turn left after a lifetime of right turns.
For veterans and those who love and support veterans—I hope no one waits as long as I did to gift themselves with some form of healing, whether that’s writing, another creative art, or professional therapy. 
Q: You advise, “Don’t quit.” How crucial is persistence for writers?
A: I’ve known writers with far more skill or talent than I have who have quit writing after receiving a rejection from an obscure literary journal. The business of publishing requires a strong constitution and an armor-like exterior for deflecting blows of rejection.
Every writer who has ever published has failed at some point—if you consider rejections as failure. I don’t. Maybe it’s because I had to make my living in sales, at one point in my life, and to survive on straight commission you learn quickly that a certain number of “no’s” are inevitable on the path toward a yes. The only true failure in writing is quitting.
Q: How did you come up with the book’s title, and what does it signify for you?
A: I wanted a military term for the title, but for the longest time while drafting On Point, I couldn’t arrive at a term or phrase that seemed like a fit. One day, I remembered the military term for being on point, the riskiest position for an infantryman. Writing is risky, too. I knew I had my title. On Point reflected the risky infantry term, and offered a metaphor on several levels—about risk and about staying the course.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Under contract, I’m working on a military-themed project with a co-author that will shine a huge light on the contributions of women veterans. That’s about all I can reveal at this point, other than the research for this book has already changed the two of us in profound ways. I hope our finished product will have the safe effect on our readers.
I’m also wrapping up revisions to a non-military novel that I’ve been working on for a few years. I hope it will eventually find its way into the world.  
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Yes, thanks! We tend to think that every military story is a story about combat. Not true. I never saw combat, yet my story about life as a woman Marine during the challenging 1980s still resonated for readers, male and female.
And I’d like to add that the military story doesn’t belong exclusively to the veteran. If you’re the spouse, significant other, parent, grandparent, child or grandchild, and friend of a veteran, you have a military story, too. Everyone has a story. 
--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 30

Oct. 30, 1935: Robert Caro born.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Q&A with Jay Atkinson

Jay Atkinson is the author of the new book Massacre on the Merrimack: Hannah Duston's Captivity and Revenge in Colonial America. It focuses on a series of events in late 17th century New England between English settlers and members of the Abenaki tribe. His other books include Ice Time and Legends of Winter Hill. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and Men's Health, and he teaches journalism at Boston University.

Q: You write of Hannah Duston, “This was the story I had been looking for.” What first intrigued you about her story?

A: The story occurred just a few miles from where I’m sitting now. It’s a story I’ve been hearing since I was a kid. As a writer, the whole thing becomes managing my time.

With this story, it was always hovering at the edges of my consciousness. It’s a good story, but I knew it would be a three-year process. Finally, it was the right project for me at the right time.

Q: The book includes so many details of Hannah Duston’s story. How did you recreate them?

A: The book’s research took about two years and six months, and the research had a bifurcated way that it developed. The first 18 months, all my research was indoors, reading all the accounts written about her, some contemporaneous with her actions—those were pretty short.

And because I’m from the same area, I was able to go to the special collections room in Haverhill where she lived. They had old deeds, and ephemera relating to the Duston family. For the first year, I tried to get my head around Abenaki warrior tactics, the English colonial government’s agrarian society taking over the wilderness.

And then there was her story—a homesteading wife with [many] children, a 39-year-old woman who had delivered a baby a week earlier, before the Indians attacked. I had all these facts, and I had stick figures performing these actions, and I had the choreography of what happened.

In the next year, I continued to spend time in libraries, but I realized as we were going through two winters—in northern Massachusetts and central New Hampshire, March is still winter--I started to realize that the modern residents of the Merrimack Valley have an appreciation of the landscape. But the homesteaders did not appreciate the landscape, but were appraising it for threats, Indians hidden in the forest, the weather…

I do a lot of outdoors writing…I started traipsing around in February and March on showshoes, over the route she would have taken. I learned that the Indian routes were [used by settlers] later. I was following the waterways, the roads, I was able to cross-country ski, and I could [recreate] the route. I could describe it, because I was in it.

On March 30, in 2014 and 2015, I took a canoe trip from where she killed her captors. We camped on a tiny island. It was 18 degrees out. We had modern equipment, and still it was incredibly uncomfortable and harsh.

By seeing the river swollen beyond its banks, there were trees floating by, pieces of ice, I realized I could take the book research and marry it to the visceral experience of being in the landscape, and that became the strategy for the book.

Q: You write, “There is no disputing that Hannah’s story is the story of the frontier, in microcosm…” How does it encapsulate many of the issues surrounding the frontier?

A: She is representative of our later strategy. The English finally conquered the Northeastern part of North America. The French role in the New World got marginalized. What she did in two weeks [could] stand for [the next] 200 years.

There was an incursion onto native land, and the savage response of the original inhabitants—originally, they went along with the settlers’ coopting some of the land…but once the Indians realized they were not going to [be allowed] to continue fishing or hunting near Haverhill [that changed].

The Indians saw [the land] as a communal and a spirit thing, that you can’t own the land. When they responded with violence, the newcomers perpetrated a solution that led to the eradication of the original inhabitants.

In her story, she was on the land, they attacked, and killed her baby. She has an opportunity, weeks later, to kill [some of] them.

That becomes the model, not consciously, for what occurred in the West in the 19th century…[the tribes] end up going through the same thing. Originally, they made room, then there was a revolt, then the eradication by the whites. Her story is the prologue of the American story.

Q: You ask, “Was Hannah Duston the prototypical feminist avenger, or the harbinger of the Native American genocide?” How would you answer that?

A: When I was right out of college, I went to a creative writing program and studied with Harry Crews. He led me to study Southern Gothic literature; all Southern writers tell their story through the landscape. That led to the stuff I write.

When I left the University of Florida and came back here, I met another writer who told me it’s the job of a narrative story to pose a question. He said the answer to the question is both yes and no.

Is she the prototypical feminist or a harbinger of genocide? To a degree, my feelings and thoughts about what happened and who has the upper hand morally continue to evolve.

I look at the story from the prejudices of the 17th century, not my own perspective. When it happened to her and to the Indians, they don’t realize it will happen all over the country for the next 200 years.

What I feel Duston represents is my own private matter. What the book does it is makes people think about, Was there a way to settle the New World…and [create] the United States we have now, and have treated Native Americans and African Americans better? I don’t know.

This kind of book conjures up questions. It’s my job to conjure up questions. As a storyteller, I’m not a moral philosopher. I want a good story; I want to write a book where people turn the pages.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a work of fiction nearly complete, and another nonfiction project I’ve been working on, off and on. And I just struck upon a concept for another nonfiction book. I have no shortage of ideas, just of time! I teach at Boston University, I coach hockey, it’s a question of trying to squeeze 18 hours [of work] into a 24-hour day.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: One thing people were startled to hear, when we were shopping the proposal, we had lengthy teleconferences with publishers, and they would say, It’s such a great story, how come no one has ever told it before? I said, How is that my problem?

On the other hand, the thing most people won’t know is that in her own time and 100 years after, Hannah Duston was one of the most famous women in America…she was a celebrity…

[It wasn’t] until the 20th century, when the ideals of motherhood changed—it was Grandma Moses in her rocking chair, not a woman who would take the fight to the Indians—[that] she was forgotten.

Well into the 19th century, she’s well known—more famous than Betsy Ross or Molly Pitcher. That’s something people won’t know—you see it as an undiscovered story, but some of the best American writers that ever lived wrote about her….

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 29

Oct. 29, 1923: Carl Djerassi born.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Q&A with Caroline Fredrickson

Caroline Fredrickson is the author of the new book Under the Bus: How Working Women Are Being Run Over. She is the president of the American Constitution Society, and also has worked for the ACLU and NARAL Pro-Choice America. She lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Q: You write, “So while the media debate ‘opt out’ and ‘lean in,’ the real focus should be on those who are ‘left out.’” What do you see as the most important problems that should be addressed for women in the workplace?

A: There are a number, but one of the most significant issues remains that with women continuing to be the dominant caregivers, we haven’t adopted the workplaces for them to thrive and also take care of their responsibilities at home.

Q: In the book, you state that many people are still left behind despite the passage of legislation over the past century to improve working conditions. What are some of the reasons the legislation did not succeed in addressing these concerns?

A: In part the origins of the exemptions that left so many women out have sort of been forgotten. It was a surprise to me, and somewhat appalling, what were the stated reasons behind the exclusions: They were forthright in saying the wanted to exclude African Americans from the law.

Q: What were some of the other things that surprised you as you researched the book?

A: In terms of child care, I was surprised by the half-hearted effort in World War II. Even some women in American history known as being protective of women in the workforce [and their access to work] were protective of mothers.

There was a begrudging understanding that women taking traditionally men’s jobs was a necessity, but they were rather concerned about the fact that mothers were working at all, despite the fact that it was necessary.

Also, [it surprised me] to uncover the history of the close call we had with universal child care legislation in this country. Legislation was passed—it’s hard to imagine in this day and age. But it didn’t make it over the finish line because of Phyllis Schlafly and the organizations she supported.

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

A: You try and come up with something that sounded catchy, but encapsulates the point of the book.

There is a visual element that’s real here. When you look at the Congressional Record, and read about how members of Congress discussed how they would carve out this group of workers...people who worked in the fields and in houses—as a result, 90 percent of African American women were carved out of any protections of the New Deal initially. There was incredible exclusion of African American workers. It was shocking.

Q: You ask, “Why do women, particularly women of color, continue to earn less than men?” Why do you think that still is true now?

A: There’s a big hangover from these exclusions. The home care industry is dominated by women of color. It’s finally beginning to get the protection it deserves [which] is a big step forward way too long in the making.

Women dominate the low-wage workforce and those women tend to be women of color. It’s two-thirds women, and a large proportion of the two-thirds are women of color. Between the two things, you start to see why wages lag so much.

Q: What impact have temporary workers had on working conditions for women?

A: It’s a big issue because even when you can make inroads for legal protections, [employers will] hire temps. A company will have workers for decades who are still designated as temps and don’t get the same benefits as other workers.

For a workforce that’s particularly vulnerable, it’s a very high burden for low-wage workers to overcome, so they don’t tend to challenge it. So unscrupulous employers, or ones driven by the bottom line, [can] take the low road and not appropriately categorize their workforce.

Q: Do you think any of the presidential candidates are addressing the concerns you raise in the book?

A: Yes! I was really pleased that in the last Democratic debate they talked quite a bit about…family leave. It was refreshing to see. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen quite as much on the Republican side, but even there, there is a recognition that [these] ideas matter. Marco Rubio announced a family leave policy—it’s purely voluntary, but that he needs to talk about it is significant.

Q: What do you see looking ahead?

A: I tend to be an optimistic person, so I’m pretty optimistic! [Actions] on the state and local level are very encouraging. There are so many places where they raised the minimum wage, even red states where it was raised through ballot initiative. [Issues like] paid sick leave, parental leave…across the board, conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans, see a real need to make changes in workplace policies.

No matter what happens at the presidential level, there will be change, because the American people want it. It has to come from the bottom up, not the top down.

Q: What are you working on now? Another book?

A: I’m so busy between my regular day job and a lot of speaking to ACS audiences and others, it’s kept me on the road and busy. I’d like to write more about a general issue facing so many workers—misclassification, and [the transferring] of high-wage jobs into contingent jobs.

I wrote about adjuncts in The Atlantic last month. It’s interesting to see how structures to protect workers are slowly being dismantled, and [employers] are using more contractors and temporary workers…

It’s started to [affect] lawyers and doctors. It deserves a lot of attention—these issues are encompassing a larger and larger percentage of the workforce, including professionals.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The one other [reason] I’m optimistic is the women I talked to are amazing. I was so buoyed by the work these women had done, often immigrant women, seeking better legal protections. It’s pretty incredible seeing how brave they are. If we all join together, we can accomplish a lot.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 28

Oct. 28, 1903: Evelyn Waugh born.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Q&A with Paula Shoyer

Paula Shoyer is the author most recently of The New Passover Menu. She also has written The Holiday Kosher Baker and The Kosher Baker. A former practicing attorney, she is based in the Washington, D.C., area.

Q: You write, "Jews who host the holiday often feel that preparing the house and food for Passover makes them feel a little too much like the Israelite slaves. The New Passover Menu has arrived in order to set you free." What are some of the ways you try to accomplish that in the book?

A: I made sure the recipes were easy and didn't require special equipment to prepare them. I also indicate the prep and cook time so people can plan and find recipes that fit into their schedule.

Q: What are some of the biggest perceptions and misperceptions about Passover food?

A: That everything is dry and made with matzoh meal. For Passover cooking I focus on the world of ingredients you can use and not on the ones we are prohibited to eat. There are so many options.

It's really the same food you make all year, just omit those made with ingredients you cannot use such as flour, rice, etc.

Q: What are some of your favorite and least favorite Passover foods?

A: I love matzoh balls, but in New Passover Menu I gave them a facelift with some new flavors. Least favorite are matzoh pies - where people layer matzoh with meat or vegetables and the result is bad taste and texture.

And don't get me started on those candied fruit wedges that they sell for Passover. In the book I love the linzer tart, the gluten-free granola and the gingered red pepper and tomato soup.

Q: What are some of your own Passover traditions?

A: All week long we eat lots of fresh vegetables prepared different ways and I kosher the outdoor grill so we can grill chicken and meat. For the seder I give everyone their own mini seder plate with little bowls of the seder plate components.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A Shabbat menu book.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Homemade is always better, especially on Passover when packaged baked goods are particularly bad. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Paula Shoyer, please click here. She will be participating in the Local Author Fair at the Washington DCJCC on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2015, at 7:30pm.

Q&A with Morton Kondracke

Morton Kondracke is the author, with Fred Barnes, of the new biography Jack Kemp: The Bleeding-Heart Conservative Who Changed America. He also has written the book Saving Milly. Kondracke has been executive editor and columnist for Roll Call, Washington bureau chief of Newsweek, and a senior editor of The New Republic

Q: You write, “Jack Kemp was the most important politician of the twentieth century who was not president, certainly the most influential Republican.” Why do you think that’s the case, and what do you think were his greatest accomplishments?

A: People need to remember what the 1970s were like--and how everything turned around beginning in 1983. Kemp was instrumental in catalyzing two decades of prosperity and more. The '70s were the era of "stagflation"--high unemployment (averaging 7 percent from 1975-80) and soaring inflation (average, 9 percent, 13.5 in 1980).

Keynesian economists, dominant in academia and government, admitted they had no explanation or cure for such a high "misery index." Neither did Presidents Nixon, Ford or Carter.

Kemp had an answer, derived from Supply Side economists Arthur Laffer and future Nobelist Robert Mundell: cut individual tax rates across the board (to promote growth) and hold down money supply (to contain inflation). The formula actually had worked in the late Kennedy-early Johnson era, but was forgotten.

Kemp's greatness results from his being the original and leading political advocate of Supply Side economics. He converted Ronald Reagan, who made it the basis of his economic program.

The 1981 Reagan tax cuts, modeled on Kemp's 1978 Kemp-Roth bill, plus his 1986 tax reform, pioneered by Kemp, lowered the top income tax rate from 70 percent to 50 percent, then to 28 percent.

After a deep recession, 1981-83, engineered by Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker to crush inflation, Reaganomics caused the economy to boom through the 1990s (it was not substantially altered by Bill Clinton). America's economic success, along with Reagan's defense buildup (made affordable by prosperity) stressed the Soviet Union to the breaking point.

The percentage of Americans believing the country was headed in the right direction went from 13 percent in 1979 to 69 percent in 1986. And, all around the world, democratic capitalism was deemed to be "the end of history." Reagan was the president who instituted the turnaround, but Kemp deserves partial credit for catalyzing it.

Q: You note in the book that “we have written this book because we believe that America is in trouble, perhaps more deeply in trouble than in the 1970s. And we think that Jack Kemp’s spirit—and his policy ideas—could again help the country turn around.” Can you say more about that?

A: Kemp's answer to almost every problem [involved] economic growth. In a stagnant or shrinking economy, he said, politics becomes a process of pitting one group against another--black against white, rich against poor, Sun Belt against Rust Belt.

America is again in a period of glacial growth, stagnant median incomes and rising costs for health care and college, causing a long-term decline in disposable incomes. Only 25 percent of voters think the country is headed in the right direction. A majority believes the next generation of Americans will be worse off than their parents.

And politicians are indulging in divisive politics, blaming "the one percent" or "the 47 percent" for profiting at others' expense. Donald Trump and others blame Mexican immigrants. The American Dream is in question.

How to re-ignite growth? I believe tax reform is imperative--lowering rates and eliminating special interest loopholes (and subsidies) that make the economy inefficient.

Also, public investment in infrastructure and scientific and medical research. More parental choice in the schools their children attend. (Kemp never did because the need was not clear in his time, but I'd add quality early-childhood education.) And entitlement reform which tames the growth of benefits (and U.S. debt) while also curbing farm subsidies, ethanol requirements and other corporate welfare.

Kemp was not a "redistributionist," taxing the rich to "give" to the poor (or middle class). He wanted to create opportunities for all to rise, and thought efforts to raise taxes to equalize would make everyone poorer. (This does not mean he'd oppose efforts to eliminate special breaks--"rents"--obtained by lobbyists for their clients.)

Kemp's spirit was optimistic, idealistic, inclusive and compassionate. He believed there were no limits to America's growth potential and, with John F. Kennedy, that "a rising tide lifts all boats." Though also, that "some boats are stuck on the bottom"--poor people who need special help to succeed: education choice and low-tax enterprise zones to attract investment to poverty areas.

Q: What would Kemp think of the current Republican presidential field? Do you think if he were alive today and running for president that he would have much support?

A: Kemp would be appalled by the tone--and much of the content--of the Republican campaign. He deplored (and never indulged in) negative campaigning and personal attacks.

He favored comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants with clean records. He also opposed "austerity" (or "Herbert Hoover," "green eye-shade," "root canal") economics--the Republican tendency to exalt balanced budgets over growth.

Deficits and debt were not the problem that they are today, but he always opposed proposals for a constitutional amendment requiring balanced budgets, which many of the GOP candidates favor--even Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and John Kasich, ostensible "growth" candidates.

(In a recession, with revenues down and unemployment benefits increased, the amendment would require tax increases or slashed spending, deepening the downturn.)

I suspect Kemp would have difficulty if he were running today. He'd be dismissed as a RINO by the Tea Party for his views on immigration and the balanced budget amendment. He was criticized in his own time for being too concerned with poverty and minorities.

On the other hand, he'd advance his positions with conviction and energy--more than displayed so far by Bush, Kasich or Rubio.

Q: What would he think of the current way Congress is operating, and the problems facing the House Republican leadership?

A: He'd be appalled by the willingness of the Freedom Caucus to shut down the government or let the Treasury go into default in order to force policy changes. He was uncomfortable with Newt Gingrich and his Conservative Opportunity Society's attacks on the Democratic leadership of his era. He'd certainly oppose the toppling of GOP leaders by a small minority of GOP members.

House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan was once Kemp's assistant and is now his truest disciple--a growth-oriented conservative who spends time with poor people....

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I've been working on the Kemp Oral History Project (interviews with 100 fellow football players, congresspersons, staff, family and friends sponsored by the Jack Kemp Foundation), researching and writing the book for nearly four years. Now I'm book-promoting.

I still blog for Roll Call and I will certainly keep sounding off. But at age 76, I think I want to do something different--help poor kids get into college. I'm on the boards of Dartmouth College, the Parkinson's Action Network and Folio, a membership library in Seattle. I don't see another book in my future. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Besides having historically important impact, Kemp lived an interesting life. He was raised in a Christian Scientist home and absorbed for life some of its tenets--or at least their corollaries.

The tenet that all reality is spiritual leads to a belief that one can do whatever one believes he or she can, and an optimism that when one door closes, another opens.

So, Kemp wanted at age 5 to be a professional quarterback. He was too small to play at a major college and, even at Occidental College, he only started in his junior year. He was drafted No. 523 in the National Football League, but was cut by five teams in three years.

He never gave up and the door that opened was the American Football League, where he became a star. He was also president of the American Football League Players Association and believed that collective bargaining is a basic human right.

In Congress, his taking up tax-writing offended senior Republicans (he was never on the House Ways and Means Committee), but he was indefatigable in pushing Supply Side, eventually converting Reagan and changing America.

He was a natural leader. And a "bleeding heart" who genuinely (if fancifully) believed that the GOP could again be "the party of Lincoln," the natural home of African-Americans (by producing growth and jobs). 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Nicholas Stargardt

Nicholas Stargardt is the author of the new book The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945. His other work includes Witnesses of War and The German Idea of Militarism. He is Professor of Modern European History at Magdalen College, Oxford, and he lives in Oxford, England.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book, and how does your analysis differ from that of some other historians?

A: There hasn’t been a history of German society in the Second World War. There are whole libraries on military strategy, the Nazi leadership and the Holocaust, but we simply have not known what the German people thought they were fighting for. And this was a war the regime could not have fought without mobilizing everyone.

So, this book does something quite different from what historians have explored till now. I wanted to know what people experienced but also how completely the war overturned and transformed their lives and perspectives.

Individual voices have a special place here, because one of the key questions which interested me was how far Germans grappled with their own consciences during the war, especially as they realised what kind of war their side was fighting.

The individual voices give us a vivid and multi-dimensional chronicle of events. But they also tell us how couples courted from afar through letters, or dealt with family separations and death. They help us to gauge the inner, emotional and moral changes wrought by the war.

Q: How did you choose the people whose stories you follow throughout the book?

A: I wanted to get beyond the normal cast of well-known literary figures who wrote diaries. There are carpenters and farmers' sons, school teachers, a florist and a female photojournalist, young men fresh out of high school.

Wartime separation meant that many people wrote letters and diaries who would not have normally left a written record of their thoughts and feelings.

I was particularly interested in collections of letters – especially between lovers, close friends, or children and their parents – where both sides of the correspondence survive. That way we can see how their relationships changed during the war – often in ways they did not expect. 

This kind of history-writing depends on what I would call "critical empathy" – a willingness to explore and do justice to the inner lives of people in the past, without forgetting that they were not at all like us.

Q: You ask, "To what extent...did [Germans] discuss the fact that they were fighting for a regime that was committing genocide?" How do you answer that question?

A: We knew that when the deportation and murder of the Jews was at its height in 1941 and 1942, people talked about it in private, and that a lot of information circulated in Germany about trains or sites of mass shootings which attracted many witnesses. Information about the death camps trickled out much more slowly, but stories about them started to circulate too.

In any case, the murder of Jews in the Soviet territories was carried out visibly by firing squads or gassing vans and so there was enough information for many people to realise that all the Jews were being murdered. But they had little cause to dwell on it.

What surprised and puzzled me was that a year later people started talking openly in public about the murder of the Jews right across Germany. This was in the summer and autumn of 1943, and the events which prompted these conversations was the saturation bombing of German cities and the mass evacuation of their inhabitants. 

People started to see the bombing as Allied retaliation (sometimes even as divine punishment) for the murder of the Jews. This was a complicated kind of response, which combined a sense of collective guilt with feelings of intense vulnerability under the impact of the bombing.

It was this that made me realise that when Germans started referring to the murder of the Jews like this, their real focus was on their own plight.

That in turn made me think that we could only understand what they meant if we knew what they hoped for and what they feared. It was at this point that I realised I had to write this book, because there was nothing else which could answer these questions.

Q: You write, "Even in 1945, there were two quite different conversations about guilt in Germany." What were those, and how did they evolve over the succeeding decades?

A: Yes, as the Allies reached the German frontiers in 1944 and 1945, there were many reports that ordinary citizens expected – and accepted – that they would be punished for what they had done to the Jews.

This continued into the early months of occupation, but then these rather frank acknowledgements of German culpability were drowned out by a chorus of voices calling the International War Crimes Tribunal at Nuremberg "victors' justice" and stressing instead the sufferings inflicted on Germans – by British and American bombing, mass rape of women by Soviet troops or the death of civilians expelled from the former German provinces in the east.

In the first decade after the war, this cult of Germans as victims of the war, even as victims of the Nazis, was much stronger, and it only began to be eclipsed in the late 1950s and early 1960s as subsequent war crimes trials were held.

But even in the last decade or so, German discussion of the suffering of their civilian population in the war tends to recreate some of this victim narrative, whereas since the 1990s it has become equally common to see Germans as a nation of perpetrators.

What I’ve tried to do is to get past these rigid categories by going back to how people experienced their roles at the time and showing how Germans could become perpetrators by imagining themselves to be victims.

Q: Is there anything else we should know?

A: What I learned [that most surprised me] is that it was not necessary to be a Nazi to fight for Germany, but that it was also impossible to remain uncontaminated by doing so. The war was rarely popular at home but it was always seen as a legitimate patriotic duty to defend the homeland.

Much as in the First World War, Germans nourished their sense of patriotic commitment from religious faith or by ransacking the texts of their great 18th and 19th century poets. But of course these deep cultural values could not escape being tainted by the brutal and increasingly genocidal way in which the war was itself being fought.

The other thing that really surprised me was how long people went on hoping for a better outcome than defeat. Even after they realised that the war would last a long time or that a complete German victory was no longer likely, they kept imagining scenarios which made going on worthwhile.

This is a very basic change to how historians have understood the war and changes our understanding of how much people were willing to mobilise themselves and to transform themselves in order to keep the war effort going.

I have been amazed by the response so far [to the book in Germany, where it is on the bestseller list]. Of course as an author you never know how a book will be received and with a work like this which takes 10 years, you really can't predict what people will be interested in by the time you're done.

What's so striking is that people have been equally positive about this way of writing and the bigger arguments. It seems as if the passing of the generations who lived through this period makes it easier for younger Germans to imagine themselves in more than one role in this past. That may partly explain this response.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 27

Oct. 27, 1872: Emily Post born.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Q&A with Sophie Cook

Sophie Cook is the author of the novel Anna and Elizabeth. She is an attorney and mediator. She was born in Budapest, Hungary, and immigrated in 1951 to the United States. She lives in Washington, D.C., and New York City.

Q: You based your main characters on your grandmother and her friend. Why did you decide to write a novel rather than a work of nonfiction?

A: It’s a hard question. The answer is I’ve always wanted to write fiction. I’m not a historian. I didn’t think I would be able to write an actual story of events. They’re not famous people, so I couldn’t resort to documents.

The principal impulse was to recreate the world that was there before my time that disappeared with the Holocaust and the war. I wanted to imaginatively recreate that world, and only fiction can do that.

Q: How much did you know about the lives of your grandmother and her friend, and how much research did you need to do to write the novel?

A: I was very fortunate insofar as both my parents felt strongly that my brother and I should know about the past, including the more tragic parts of it. I have found correspondence between my parents and my aunt, and they did not want to bring us up in cotton balls.

I knew about my grandmother’s murder in the Hungarian Holocaust, but my opportunity to talk about life before that came when my mother was living with us in the ‘70s in Washington, D.C. I was taking my first fiction-writing course. She was very supportive and very helpful. Many of the details are what she told me.

I did have to do research about the history of Hungary, the Austro-Hungarian Empire before World War II. At that time, there was no Internet, so I went to the Library of Congress. There was a small collection on this particular subject. That, with reading the Hungarian literature of the time, was enough.

There’s a wonderful saying by Henry James: When you’re doing fiction, do just enough research to get you going. That’s how I did it for this novel.

I did know one of my grandmother’s maids who was younger. I stayed in touch with her…after we left Hungary in 1947. In 1964 and 1967 I was able to visit her. She inspired part of the character of Anna. It was not a lifelong friendship [though]—I invented a great deal.

Q: The book was published in 2009 in a Hungarian-language edition. Why did you publish it first in Hungarian?

A: I couldn’t get a publisher here. The first time I submitted the manuscript in the ‘80s it was a different publishing industry, and the publishers would write back, explaining why it had been rejected. They said, We like the story and the characters, but your writing could be better—which [could have been] a polite way of saying, You write like a lawyer. I was a lawyer.

I had an opportunity to get a master’s in fiction from Johns Hopkins. I rewrote the book in 2002-3, and my cousins in Budapest said, Why don’t you publish it in Hungary? The publisher got me a wonderful translator—but then [they] took no trouble to distribute and publicize it.

I decided, at some point after my contract with him expired after five years, I was going to publish it. It’s a good novel and people would like it.

Q: Was it difficult to balance your roles as granddaughter/daughter and novelist?

Budapest, c. 1890
A: I only had that issue [briefly] and it wasn’t so much me with myself as with my mother. I left the ending somewhat open. I knew the details of my grandmother’s and great-aunt’s murder.

My mother was devastated when this happened. It was the tail end of the German occupation, when the city was liberated. She went in search of witnesses and filed an affidavit. It was a very painful subject for her. The man who committed the murder committed a number of murders, and he was hung.

This is not primarily a Holocaust novel, and I did not want to go into the terrible details of how Elizabeth died. Of course, the Holocaust is looming over the story anyway. I left that a little bit open. It was the only time I didn’t write about events the way I might have in another context. I wrote a memoir about my mother [which looks at these issues].

Q: How did you come up with the novel’s structure, which includes chapters taking place over several decades and told from different characters’ perspectives?

A: It was pretty chronological, except the opening chapter…to start at the end and [then] go backward is a contemporary convention I followed.

As far as changing the points of view and voices…there is an exchange of letters between Elizabeth and Anna where they speak in their own voice, and it brings you more directly into the relationship at that point. They become more and more equal.

There’s the section with Kate’s diary, and there’s Andrew’s voice—because it’s another generation, I thought, let them tell their stories in their own way. In the last section, I went back to the third person.

Sophie Cook's grandfather
Q: Did you publish the memoir about your mother?

A: No, I was surprised I wasn’t able to publish it. It is the story of recovering from trauma. She lived a long life, and the reunion with her sisters [in the United States after the war] meant a great deal to her. She had survivor’s guilt about her mother and aunt’s murder. She had found hiding places for all of us during the Holocaust.

Because of her sisters, because of her courage, she became serene, and was able to recover from the terrible experience…

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: I am, yes. I’m working on a fictional autobiography of a Swedish writer I loved in my childhood, Selma Lagerlof. She was very famous in her day. She was the first woman to get the Nobel Prize in Literature; she was translated into English. Now she’s forgotten, except in Sweden.

She was a very interesting woman—she was a feminist, she was gay, she was a pacifist. Again, I am not a scholar. There are scholarly biographies of her—but I wanted to recreate a part of her life she never wrote about, her relationship with her father.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: For me, the most interesting part was when I started out thinking I would recreate a Golden Age. Then, after conversations with my mother and [doing] research, I found out that after 1918 in Central Europe, there really was no Golden Age…

The story of people like Anna in some ways is more interesting than my sentimental imagery. That’s the way life is! 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Sophie Cook will be participating in the Local Author Fair at the Washington DCJCC on Tuesday, October 27, 2015, at 7:30pm.