Monday, November 30, 2015

Q&A with Eric Rauchway

Eric Rauchway is the author of the new book The Money Makers: How Roosevelt and Keynes Ended the Depression, Defeated Fascism, and Secured a Prosperous Peace. His other books include The Great Depression and the New Deal and Murdering McKinley. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The American Prospect and the Financial Times. A historian at the University of California, Davis, he lives in Davis, California.

Q: What are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about FDR's monetary policies?

A: There's a lot of confusion about Roosevelt himself owing to the way his mind worked. As I explain in the book, Roosevelt came into office in March 1933 determined to end the gold standard, already persuaded that the gold standard had, through deflation, helped cause the Depression.

The first substantial act he took as president was to end the gold standard. Over the next 10 months or so of his presidency he took a series of further steps to replace the gold standard with provisions for managing the value of the dollar domestically and coordinating currency management internationally, so nothing like the Depression would happen again; by the end of his presidency he had realized this vision for both the U.S. and the world.

He was consistent in this purpose. But he did not lay out a detailed plan for it nor, I think, did he have one. Which is what seems to bother a lot of people.

Roosevelt had a particular kind of mind; as he said himself, early in his presidency, he was like a football quarterback: he knew he wanted to get his team to the end zone, and he knew what play he was going to run next.

But as for what he was going to do after that—well, he didn't see any point in thinking about that, because it all depended on how this next move worked out.

So he knew where he was going, but he didn't know, step-by-step, how he was going to get there—because Roosevelt knew he had to work through a political process, where there was opposition, and advances came piecemeal.

That way of thinking seems to me typical of one kind of goal-driven, competent mind, but it's also infuriating to another, more methodical kind of mind, which wants to know exactly how things are going to play out.

Many historians seem to belong to that latter sort, and therefore have been eager to say that Roosevelt didn't know what he was doing and that the U.S. lucked into a good monetary policy.

But I think if you note what Roosevelt said and pay careful attention to what he did, you can see how it is he operated, and how he achieved both short-term and long-term successes.

Q: How directly did Keynes's ideas influence Roosevelt, and how much did the two interact?

A: Keynes came to the U.S. and met Roosevelt in 1934, and again in 1941 (twice) and 1944. More importantly, though, Keynes's ideas were circulating among Roosevelt's closest advisors from before the time he took office, and were widely discussed.

Keynes worked directly with Roosevelt's advisors to articulate the president's proposed international monetary plan in 1933; he wrote to Roosevelt (both publicly and privately) about recovery policy in the 1930s; and worked with officials in the administration and the president directly to plan both Lend Lease and the peace policies in the 1940s.

The ideas seem to have had considerable impact on Roosevelt, but it's also true that Roosevelt's actions had considerable impact on Keynes's ideas—so it's not entirely clear which way the causality runs.

Q: What were some of the most important impacts of FDR's monetary policies outside the U.S.?

A: Roosevelt used monetary policy to support international resistance to fascism during the 1930s, when by law he could not use the budget of the United States to do so; he worked with the British (in the person of Keynes) to intertwine monetary policies and aid to Britain in the fight against Nazism in 1940 and 1941; later in 1941 he did likewise for the Soviet Union; and of course at the end of the war, the idea of using monetary policy as a way to ensure peace, prosperity, and economic development became a cornerstone of the United Nations' plan for peace.

Q: Looking at FDR's monetary decisions during his presidency, what are some of the lessons for today's financial and government leaders?

A: Roosevelt knew that bankers were first and loudest in their call to avoid inflation, even amidst severe deflation, and he discounted their views accordingly. He knew that managing a nation's currency to ensure prosperity was vital not only for economic purposes, but for political purposes—to avoid a turn to fascism.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm writing a book about the period between the presidential election of 1932 and Roosevelt's inauguration, the last time a president waited until March 4 to take office (it's been January 20 ever since). I'm taking the view that the hundred days before the New Deal began are as important, or more so, in understanding Roosevelt's presidency than the hundred days after.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 30

Nov. 30, 1874: L.M. Montgomery born.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Q&A with Ceridwen Dovey

Ceridwen Dovey is the author of the new story collection Only the Animals. She also has written the novel Blood Kin. Born in South Africa and raised in South Africa and Australia, she now lives in Sydney, Australia.

Q: How did you come up with the concept for this book?

A: One day halfway through my degree in social anthropology at NYU in New York, I was talking to the department secretary who was going out to Utah to volunteer at an animal shelter filled with dogs and cats that had been airlifted out of Beirut during the 2006 bombings.

She showed me some photos of these creatures while she was telling me about the shelter, and I felt some very powerful emotions – sorrow, pain, right to my core – that I somehow could not feel for the human victims of the same conflict.

And around the same time, one of my favourite professors at NYU, the brilliant anthropologist Emily Martin, told me about her pet parrot Ruben, who had witnessed the second plane hitting the Twin Towers on 9/11 with her, and had become very sick and stressed in the weeks afterwards.

And this story just brought me to tears on the spot. I wrote the parrot story – in very different form – that year, and it was the start of the whole project.

I didn’t really realise it was going to be a “project” until I found myself wanting to write from the perspective of an ape after finishing the parrot story – so I did that. And then I suddenly wanted to write from the perspective of a camel in colonial Australia.

That’s when I think I realised I was going to have to work through these animal voices in my head and see where they might lead me.

Q: The book includes a variety of time periods and locations, as well as different animals. How did you select them?

A: They really emerged organically, from wide but quite unstructured reading and idiosyncratic research. I had a sense that I wanted the stories to span the whole century and its turnings, and to be from diverse parts of the world, but other than that, I let my reading guide me, and waited until I had found the right “voice” (whether animal or author) for each conflict.

I also tried to set the stories in countries I had visited so that the local details could be drawn from observation and not just research or imagination.

In terms of selecting the animals, I again let my reading of authors who had written about animals in the past century or so inspire me - so as soon as I knew I was going to write about a parrot, I went back and re-read Flaubert and Julian Barnes, and as soon as I started working on an ape story, I knew I had to re-read Kafka, and so on.  

Q: Can you say more about the research you conducted to write the stories?

A: Again, this differed for each story as I was aware that the book's premise could seem formulaic if each of the stories didn't respond to the brief I'd set myself in a creatively different way and form.

Sometimes I could only find the animal's voice after I'd read the work of contemporary animal behaviorists who are studying animal sentience and consciousness; at other times I found the animal's voice after reading the journals or original writing of one of the authors I admired (for example, Colette's articles, stories and journal entries about her obsession with her pet cat, Kiki-la-Doucette).   

Q: On your website, you ask a number of questions about writing and about animals, the first of which is, "Why do animals sometimes shock us into feeling things we can’t seem to feel for other humans?" How would you answer that?

A: This book was really an attempt to understand the human capacity for empathy - across species lines, but also the radical empathy that I think any project of fiction-writing attempts.

I don't have any answers, unfortunately! But the stories, taken together, perhaps go some way to at least nudging us towards thinking about these questions, and remembering what is unique and remarkable about our species (this very capacity for empathy for the fellow suffering of our creatures) but also what is worst about our exceptionalism, that is, thinking that we are not part of the animal world.

The only more direct answer I can think of is that somehow animals free us up to feel something that is authentic because we don't put up defenses against animal suffering the way we do for human suffering.

Precisely because we don't feel obliged to feel something for animals, we are freed up to feel more deeply for them - but when faced with human suffering, we often feel completely helpless or defensive, as it is too much for us to really try to understand another human's pain, and reminds us uncomfortably that we, too, are mortal and able to suffer.  

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A new novel - I loved writing the stories, but I'm not sure it's my natural form, and feel more comfortable within the space of a novel.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 27

Nov. 27, 1909: James Agee born.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Q&A with Sarah L. Kaufman

Sarah L. Kaufman is the author of the new book The Art of Grace: On Moving Well Through Life. She is the Pulitzer Prize-winning dance critic for The Washington Post, and she lives in Takoma Park, Maryland.

Q: You write, “I’ve written this book to locate grace and hold it up for examination.” How did you decide on the examples to highlight?

A: The book really grew out of an essay I wrote five or six years ago about Cary Grant. As a dance critic, I’ve always written about concert dance, but also about performance and movement in other ways, not in theaters—the dance of life, celebrities who move well.

I was looking at actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age, when movement was so important and delivered a lot of information about your character. I became fascinated with what Cary Grant could do with everyday movement, the awareness of what he was doing in every scene.

It boils down to attention, detail, attention to the actors around him. It struck me that this was unusual. I began to read books about him, and discovered that he practiced that elegant ease and attention off screen. He was a good friend. He paid attention to current events. He donated his salary from The Philadelphia Story to the British war effort.

He conducted his life very thoughtfully. He stood up for Ingrid Bergman when she was attacked for her love affair with Roberto Rossellini. The same with McCarthyism. He embodied the idea of inner and outer qualities of grace—physical and behavioral.

Then I wanted to look at where these qualities were found elsewhere—celebrities, ordinary people, political leaders, people we meet in our work life—the everyday and the extraordinary.

Q: I was going to ask you why you started your book with Cary Grant—I guess it’s because the idea for the book started with him!

A: He’s a good jumping-off point. He came through adversity. A lot of the examples [in the book] had rough edges. Grace is not perfection. It’s not prestige. It’s not a quality of your birth. It’s composed of other kinds of qualities that are available to all of us. His rough start in life, his struggles as a performer helped give him that kind of sensitivity.

Q: The book covers so much ground, looking at so many different people and different topics—how did you research it?

A: It was so much fun! The bumblebee flight of this idea was darting here and there, but I was trying to anchor it in the principles of the examples I use.

I did a lot of research at the Library of Congress, going back to very old topics, and not finding very much new at all. One of the oldest texts I used is the oldest text in existence, [from ancient] Egypt, in hieroglyphics. It’s the first book, a set of lessons for [the author’s] son in how to be in the world.

It’s amazing because when you read it, it sounds kind of biblical, or like old books on civility, but it also sounds very modern—not getting angry at the table, listening to other people, if you’re in leadership, listen to what your subordinates are saying. It’s the idea of paying attention. Only by paying attention to one another can we understand each other.

Q: You state that these days, “we’ve lost sight of grace.” Why is that, and what can we do to find more of it?

A: There are so many reasons. There was a big shift in social mores in the mid-20th century as postwar life was so different from everything that came before.

The fragmentation of families, baby boomers rebelling en masse, as every generation does at what their parents are trying to stuff down their throats—but this was the biggest generation.

A lot of good things came out of this—civil rights, women’s rights, the antiwar movement. They all needed to happen. But along with it was the idea of the old ways and behavior [seeming] not very appealing.

Now, there are so many ways our attention is splintered. We’re plugged into electronic devices, checking social media feeds, overwhelmed at work…there are so many ways our attention is fragmented. We are not aware of each other in the same way.

The word “grace” is not very common anymore. It’s a beautiful notion of being with other people, and [taking] care of other people’s feelings. It has become devalued.

Q: Is there a way to get it back?

A: Absolutely, there is a way! We have to turn ourselves outward, and have real conversations where we’re actually listening to someone. It calls for slowing down.

These qualities underlie grace: compassion, care, nonjudgment, and generosity. They are all things that take time to cultivate, and take time to demonstrate. It’s really through slowing down our responses, slowing down our impulses, really focusing on other people, we can get to a point where we are more gracious.

I don’t in any way want to be a scold. The book is really about pleasure, and how it’s a delight and joy to experience moments of grace.

The way to experience them is to pay attention, the way…the people in the book all managed to do—through a sense of humor, stopping and attending to people. The notion of taking care, of giving people space. We all must live together—we can’t if we’re thinking of ourselves first.

Q: As a dance critic, what role do you think dance, or training as a dancer, plays in achieving grace?

A: This isn’t a dance book, although I do have a chapter on dancers. There is a dance sensibility weaving through it. Dancers, from the point of view of physical grace—they’ve got that down! They’ve devoted their lives to it.

I would love to inspire people to achieve a measure of that by moving in their life—you don’t have to run a marathon or go to the gym every day. You can simply take a walk, and feel how wonderful that is, without being glued to your headphones.

The thing dancers do really well—they have to pay attention to one another. They develop empathy in being a dancer. They feel what the other dancers are [feeling]. They need to be aware of the audience and the other dancers around them.

The notion of awareness and paying attention is very heightened among dancers. It had a very profound influence on me, as a serious dance student in my younger days, and as a dance critic. It made an impact on me—the deep empathy that arises when you’re paying attention to your surroundings.

Q: Are you planning to write another book?

A: I would love to! I’m thinking of ideas. I have two ideas I’m tossing around in my mind….I loved the process of writing this book. It was a complete and utter joy, beginning to end, and it hasn’t ended yet. The continuing conversations are extremely exciting.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: As we move into the holiday season, where dining rooms around the country can become very fraught, tinderboxes of contrasting opinions and claims of territory, I love to put out the idea that grace is [the way] different people can exist together.

We don’t have to respond to every perceived slight…we can do something about our own reactions, if we focus on what brought us all together. In a holiday setting, that’s usually family, friends, love. If we keep focused on that and let the other stuff drop away, we can have a nice time together.

In big ways and small, there are so many things you see around the world, so many bad things—people are not able to transcend rigid positions. In a situation with other people, rigidity is not helpful. You have to bend.

The epigraph [in] the book is, “In life, as in art, the beautiful moves in curves.” I love the idea of curving—curving to accommodate. The curve is a graceful path, not a straight line. It’s smoother, gentler, with smoother edges and a more accommodating position.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 25

Nov. 25, 1909: P.D. Eastman born.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Q&A with Travis Vogan

Travis Vogan is the author of the new book ESPN: The Making of a Sports Media Empire. He also has written Keepers of the Flame. He is an assistant professor at the University of Iowa.

Q: Why did you decide to write a book about ESPN?

A: I’m interested in the relationship between high and low culture, and how attitudes define one object’s status from another object's. Sports media is an interesting case of that. It’s pervasive, but it doesn’t have the respectability associated with other forms of expression.

ESPN, of sports media, is the most pervasive brand. I’m fascinated with how they would work to create an association with practices that would have more respectability attached to them.

I teach courses on sports media, and there wasn’t much on ESPN out there, except more journalistic pieces focused on trying to do an expose.

Q: You write, “In short, we live in an ESPN culture.” How would you define that culture, and what impact has ESPN had on the U.S.?

A: I think it tries really hard to equate itself with sports media. There’s a suggestion that sports media wouldn’t exist without ESPN. It's the lens through which a lot of us experience sports. There’s a mistaken notion that the version of sports ESPN presents is the version in which sports exists in the world. But it is a very controlled version of sports that reflects ESPN’s priorities.

One of ESPN’s goals, and the rationale behind its self-given nickname as the worldwide leader in sports, is to convince us it’s the way sports exists in the world.

Q: And how did it change American culture?

A: Even though the version of sports it presents is not necessarily how sports [operates], it has created an expectation for people—the style and tone folks on the programs tend to adopt: sarcasm, humor, snarkiness.

At a more basic level, people expect sports television is something we can access whenever. That wasn’t always the case…ESPN is identified with creating and propelling the transformation of sports media into something [ubiquitous].

When all is said and done, people will remember that about ESPN—its relationship to cable television and how sports is consumed.

Q: You describe the “convergence” of the various types of media in which ESPN has been involved. How has that affected the company and its viewers and readers?

A: On the one hand, you have media convergence providing opportunity for new touch points. You don’t just watch ESPN, but you read ESPN, you wear ESPN, you visit ESPN if you go to its restaurants.

There’s also…a benefit with its association with different media. When they hired David Halberstam, they were hiring a person with an image steeped in print culture; at the time, it had a more respected association with it than internet media did.

Q: You write of ESPN, “It will attach its brand to a Hunter S. Thompson column that insults the president, but not to a PBS documentary that critiques the NFL.” Why is that?

A: Because its practices are not just for creating prestige or sophistication for the sake of doing it—but in a way that advances its industrial goals.

With the documentary League of Denial, they were initially collaborating with PBS. It looks at the NFL’s role in attempting to suppress the health effects of concussion. ESPN decided to remove its brand.

Signs point to [ESPN] trying to [preserve] its relationship with the NFL. This is a high-profile project; it won a Pulitzer. They decided that even though they wanted to build prestige, [they] won’t go that far. They won’t ruin their relationship with their most [important] client.

Q: What do you see looking ahead for ESPN?

A: It’s interesting to see some of this transformation happen. In a way, they’re moving away from some of these issues—they discontinued Grantland. They’re still doing things like producing documentaries. I think they will continue to do a lot of these, and expand their reach in other areas.

My focus is on the effort to build credibility, but that’s just one strand in ESPN’s set of priorities. It’s an important one, but not necessarily the one that creates the most revenue for them. They make most of their money off live broadcasts, SportsCenter.

One thing about ESPN as a huge multi-platform sports outfit is that it’s trying to expand in multiple directions—[reorganizing] its website, buying a contract to show cricket, expanding in new directions. It’s trying to build credibility [relating to its] commercial and industrial practices.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a book about ABC Sports, considering the practices that guided the network and sports television from 1960 to the ‘90s. It’s a way to connect the dots: the Wide World of Sports, the Olympics, Evel Knievel—network TV sports in its heyday…

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 24

Nov. 24, 1849: Frances Hodgson Burnett born.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Q&A with K.K. Goldberg

K.K. Goldberg is the author of the new book The Doctor and the Stork: A Memoir of Modern Medical Babymaking. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and the Gettysburg Review. She lives in Berkeley, California.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book, and did you make the decision to write it while you were pregnant, or once the twins were born?

A: There’s so little written for women pregnant with twins, after infertility or otherwise—and there’s a particular absence of stories from a mother’s first-person perspective. I hoped that a memoir, rather than something strictly factual or advice-oriented, would amuse, comfort and distract women going through these experiences.

I rigorously recorded my thoughts throughout IVF and the high-risk pregnancy, but didn’t start shaping the book until afterward. When my twins were babies, I was awake at odd hours anyway, the pregnancy still fresh in my mind. It seemed important to speak about how extreme and challenging it had been—and also to try to capture some of the beauty and humor.

Q: Can you say more about how you remembered all the details you include in the book?

A: As a means of venting difficult feelings through IVF and the resulting twin pregnancy, I kept detailed journals. These became basis of The Doctor and the Stork—I even preserved the week-by-week format, since that’s how I kept time while gestating.

Without those notes, the minutiae of what I ate and wore, of what people said and how I reacted, surely would have been lost to the fog. There’s a good reason there’s not much written about twin pregnancy—the mind tends to wipe itself clean. I like to capture things in things in writing for precisely this reason.

Q: What are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about being pregnant with twins?

A: In my experience, the most common misperception about twin pregnancy is that it’s a heftier version of carrying a single baby. It’s radically different. That’s one reason why parents of multiples form clubs and support groups. Doctors will of course mention greater “discomfort” for expectant mothers of multiples, but at least in my case, this term became a profound understatement.

There are also numerous complications that can arise with twins—I knew this intellectually, but I hadn’t fully grasped the emotional impact until in the thick of it. For example, with twins there’s a constant risk of catastrophic prematurity, and then constant medical monitoring in attempt to prevent it. The fear and worry can be intense.  

Q: What do your family members think of the book, and what do you think your sons will think of it when they're old enough to read it?

A: For the most part my family has been supportive. Certainly some members recall events differently—and I try to tackle this exact dynamic in the book itself.

I don’t expect my parents and siblings to cherish the fact that I write memoir. I’m grateful they accept it. I believe that cycles of conflict and coming together are more the norm for families than the exception, and a huge life transition like pregnancy—and in my case twin pregnancy—brings these relationships center stage.

As for my sons, I think by the time they are old enough to have interest in their mother’s pregnancy memoir, their reaction will probably be, Wow, she had more marbles back then! I hope they see how much they were wanted.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m writing essays for the Huffington Post Parents and other parenting venues about infertility, its treatments, and all things related to twins. I’m looking forward to doing another book, perhaps venturing into fiction. I’d like to write “a mother’s guide to napping,” after completing extensive personal research.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Since the publication of The Doctor and the Stork, I’ve been immensely touched by the responses I’ve gotten from people who have either had twins, endured infertility, or both.

I barely discussed IVF with anyone while going through it, and now I share it with everyone. As a result people continuously share with me their own fertility travails. I’m honored and humbled to receive these stories, and hope that in the end, we all can be less alone. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 23

Nov. 23, 1916: P.K. Page born.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Q&A with Dinah Lenney

Dinah Lenney is the co-editor, with the late Judith Kitchen, of the new anthology Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction. Her other books include Bigger than Life and The Object Parade. She is also an actor, and she teaches at the Bennington Writing Seminars, the Rainier Writing Workshop, and the University of Southern California. She lives in Los Angeles.

Q: How did you and Judith Kitchen come to edit Brief Encounters?

A: So, Brief Encounters is the fourth in a series that began with In Short in 1996. Judith edited the first two books (In Brief was published in 1999) with Mary Paumier Jones. The third, Short Takes, for which she was the sole editor, came out in 2005.

As a student of nonfiction, I had all the books, of course—and used them and loved them—long before I met Judith. But in 2008 I was hired to teach in the Rainier Writing Workshop, founded by Judith and her husband, Stan Rubin.

In short time, we became such good friends, she and I—Judith was the most generous friend, mentor, editor, publisher, reader, writer (anyone will tell you, so many of us on the receiving end of her astounding generosity)—anyway, in the spring of 2014 she asked me if I’d like to collaborate on a fourth volume. And that was that.

Q: You include a wide variety of writers in the collection. How did you pick the authors to include, and how did you organize the essays?

A: Some had written for the series and we asked them to submit again. And, of course, one of the reasons Judith enlisted me was because she knew I’d bring in a new bunch of writers.

Then there were people we admired from afar—not known to either of us personally, but we were bold enough to go after them; and we read journals and newspapers and zines and blogs and found writers we hadn’t been aware of before, too.

Once we had a good selection it was a matter of creating a narrative. Not that most people will read from beginning or end, but we wanted to the whole to add up to at least the sum of its parts.

And this goes to Judith’s generosity all over again—she insisted I come up with my own order. She wanted me to have the experience of putting the puzzle together all by myself; but what was wonderful—surprising and not—was how similar my version was to hers.

From there it was exciting to work together to come up with an arc that pleased us both.

Q: Your own essay in the collection focuses on members of your family, and they play a major role in your other books as well. Why have you chosen your family as one of your subjects, and how do they react to your writing?

A: Why have I chosen my family... That’s funny, that’s not a question I’ve been asked before. But I’m writing about myself, aren’t I? These relationships—these moments, these memories—they seem to have much to do with helping me to define who and how I am in the world.

And how do they react? It’s kind of a mixed bag. I think at this point, they mostly don’t read. But when they do, they are sometimes pleased and sometimes not.

Q: You're also an actor--how do writing and acting coexist for you?

A: Well—they don’t literally co-exist for me as often as I’d like. But when they have, I’ve found myself writing about acting. Then, too, I’d say there’s considerable overlap having to do with not only craft, but with the original impulse.

It’s not just that actors also have to remind themselves to show and not tell, or that less is more. Or that, as concerns acting for the stage, rehearsal has much in common with revision. It’s that fundamentally, the impulse to write or to act is an impulse to perform.

And, either way, in writing and acting (and painting and cooking and gymnastics and film-making and playing an instrument), the most satisfying performances—the most exciting and authentic and seemingly natural—usually require a whole lot of prep.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m doing a whole lot of editing these days, which I have to believe is good for the work.

But what is the work, that’s what you want to know. I seem to have a few different things going at the moment. For a while I felt like I was striking matches, hoping a flame would catch somewhere somehow.

Now what I’ve maybe got is candles—votive candles—each one a little prayer, if you know what I mean. I am not writing about family. At least I don’t think I am. What am I working on...? Essays! I’m working on essays. I’m assaying. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 22

Nov. 2, 1819: George Eliot born.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Q&A with Caroline Giammanco

Caroline Giammanco is the author of the new book Bank Notes: The True Story of the Boonie Hat Bandit, which chronicles the story of Keith Giammanco, whom she met when he was in prison for bank robbery and she was working in the prison. She is a public school teacher, and she lives in Missouri.
Q: Why did you and Keith Giammanco decide to write this book, and how did the two of you collaborate on the project?
A: Writing Bank Notes wasn’t something I planned on doing. Keith had been approached by many people, starting with a police officer the night he was arrested, interested in writing a book about his experiences.
My involvement actually began as an inside joke between the two of us.  Keith was taking a college class at the time, and I would proofread his (and my other tutor’s) papers before they turned them in. Keith is a terrible speller!  I told him, “If you ever write a book or a screenplay, you may want me to proofread it!” We laughed and joked about it off and on. 
As time went on, it was a natural progression that I should be the one telling his story. No one knows Keith better than I do. We wanted his story to remain true and not be “interpreted” by someone who had his own agenda. 
The more time went by, we realized the story should be more than simply a tale about the robberies. There was a bigger story to be told, and I was becoming a part of that story. Originally I was only going to write from Keith’s perspective, but he told me my experiences had to be a part of the book too.  Increasingly, our shared experiences were tied so closely, there was no separating them.
We saw things happening inside the system that were wrong, and we knew we had the capability of getting awareness out in society. While I don’t go into them in the book, I had a number of hostile work environment issues well before I ever met Keith. It’s not as though I thought the system was great and then Keith changed my mind. We both were looking at the way things operated as two, normal, middle-class people who were shocked at what our tax dollars have been paying for. 
Every experience I tell about in Bank Notes is true. No poetic license was taken, and in many instances, things were worse than I portray.
While I worked at the prison, Keith and I collaborated during our conversations. He has an incredible memory for details from years past, and he could verbally paint vivid pictures of what happened in his past. I got to know who he is as a person, share his family stories with him, and it was easy to write from his perspective.
After I left the prison, Keith wrote me letters, detailing events so that I could put them into chapter form. While working together, I had already decided the name of the book was going to be “Bank Notes.”
I chose it for two reasons: Keith had used notes to rob banks, and currency is called bank notes. Once he began having to write the information to me, it took on a third meaning.  I was gathering information about Keith’s experiences through the notes he wrote to me.
Q: Can you describe the dynamic of your relationship?
A: Literally from the moment we met, we were like old friends catching up. There was no sense of, This is a stranger. We were never strangers. We always thought, Oh, it’s you…We were going, Hey, you’re losing your mind, because we’re in a maximum security prison. It’s not where you find the love of your life.
Q: Had you heard of Keith's crimes before meeting him in prison?
A: Yes, I had known about the Boonie Hat Bandit. I lived in southern Missouri, but his crime spree was featured on nightly news broadcasts on the Springfield television stations. My brother lives in the St. Louis area, so I tended to pay attention to news from that area anyway, but perhaps fate had something to do with the fact that I knew about the crimes years before meeting him.
Keith is not a braggart, and he never told me who he was. During our interview, he told me he had robbed banks using notes. Not a lot of guys will admit what they did to end up in prison, but Keith was straightforward about it.
He said if I hired him [as a tutor], he thought I deserved to have an idea of what kind of person I was spending 10 hours a day with.  Never once did he mention that he was known as the Boonie Hat Bandit.
A few weeks after he started working for me, one of the younger students in class was harassing him at his desk, insisting that Keith “admit it.” Keith finally told him he was too high profile to lie about what he was in prison for, and he redirected the man to get back to work.
When I asked him what that exchange was about, he told me the accusation was that he was a child molester (a middle-aged white male with no previous criminal background did fit the profile). When I asked if he was really high profile, he said, “Well, I was on the front page of USA Today and on Good Morning America.” 
Suddenly, everything clicked into place in my mind, and I said, “Oh my god! You’re the Boonie Hat Bandit!” He admitted he was. Keith never brags about his notoriety, and he feels remorse for his crimes. He also has no problem admitting what he did to end up in a maximum security prison. That’s not a common trait for inmates.
Q: How well known was he when he was caught, and why did he decide to rob banks?
A: Fox 2 News referred to Keith as “St. Louis’s most notorious bank robber,” so he was very well known when he was caught. He had kept authorities scrambling for 11 months, and he had become a Robin Hood figure for many in the St. Louis metropolitan area.
His motivations are deeper than the simple answer of needing money to stay afloat. While his desperate financial straits pushed him to the brink, it was a combination of things that finally caused him to cross the line.
In the book, I give a brutally honest self-assessment by Keith as to what caused him to break the law. He wasn’t a criminal in the past, and he had close friendships with people in the law enforcement field. Crime was far out of Keith’s normal behavior, and I think people will be able to relate to (or at least understand) what drove him to such reckless measures.
Q: What is the current status of his case?
A: Keith is currently incarcerated at the Southeast Correctional Center in Charleston, Missouri. Keith was given a sentence of six years and four months by the federal government after he pled guilty to all 12 bank robberies.
St. Louis County then prosecuted him a second time for the seven robberies that took place there. He was given a 20-year sentence by the state. He has been in prison for seven years, and in September 2014 he was given his detainer release from the federal system. That means his term with the federal system is served.
Because of Missouri’s 85 percent mandatory minimums law for first degree robbery, he must serve a total of 17 years in the Missouri prison system. Even as a first-time offender, and even as someone who never used a weapon or even threatened to have one.
There is a legislative reform effort underway to reform the 85 percent mandatory minimums statutes in Missouri (which began in 1994 after the Clinton administration offered short-term federal funding incentives for states to adopt the increase in percentages. The funding went away, and now states are paying for a policy that even the Clintons admit was a mistake). That effort is a part of the story in Bank Notes as well.
Keith’s case is currently under federal appeal.  His attorney is Kevin Schriener out of Clayton, Missouri. We are awaiting the decision as it is still pending.
Q: How are you and he reacting to the current situation?
A: Some days are tougher than others. If we dwelled on the fact that it could be 10 more years before we saw each other, it could make you very depressed. At the same time, even if it has to be 10 years, I feel confident in waiting for him.
Also, our relationship—I had one interviewer say, Your relationship is on hold. Actually, it isn’t on hold. It exists and is alive and well. Our separation is the problem. Getting him home is on hold.
He is a very optimistic person. I ground him and he buoys me. I tend to be a realist and try to think, what’s the worst-case scenario? If I can survive it, I’m good with the rest of it…
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am currently working on a book about prison relationships. They are a mystery to many and carry a huge social stigma. I am going to share vignettes about different couples and families showing not everyone in a prison relationship is a Crazy Cat Lady. 
Some people end up there by circumstance, and some by choice, but people may be surprised by some of the stories there are to be told. It is amazingly easy to find yourself connected to an inmate, and with 2.4 million people incarcerated in the United States, it’s less of a fringe element and more mainstream than people realize.
A lot of prison relationships live in the shadows because of the scorn women in them face. This new book gives them a moment in the sunshine.
Keith and I have had our share of ugly family reactions, both to his incarceration and our relationship. It’s something I can personally relate to. After the New York prison escape and the focus on the female employee who aided in their escape, I thought it was necessary to provide a more realistic view for people of what most relationships are like for inmates and their families.
Q: How have you overcome that stigma relating to prison relationships?
A: We have that certainty about the relationship. It would be nice if other people could be completely understanding and accepting. It’s peripheral. We know the strength of the relationship, and have utter trust with each other.
Last Thanksgiving, I was visiting my cousins, and [one cousin] said, I hope you’re not being scammed. I thought, Who’s the most vulnerable, me or Keith? I have power of attorney…if anyone is vulnerable, it’s Keith….
Q: How have you come to terms with the idea that he committed crimes?
A: He told me I was the first person who never asked him why he committed the crimes. Part of it is the connection we had, and part is because for periods of my life, I was a single parent with two little boys. Our kids are close in age.
In the same situation, I would never have robbed a bank, but I understood the situation [with his bills] and you look at your kids and say, How am I going to take care of you?
People say they would do anything for their kids, yet they are the first to attack Keith for doing something outside normality. I’m not saying what he did was right…we’ve all had periods in our lives when we say, Why did we do that?
He looks back now with the ability of having a clear head…He needed to trust in God more and [recognize] that his kids would love him if [they] didn’t have the life he expected. When you’re successful, if you lost everything, and become homeless…he didn’t want that.
The important thing is, he has had an awakening as far as whether it’s important that people like you, and what other people have to say. When the absolute worst has been said about you and has happened to you, it doesn’t matter as much what the neighbors think.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Keith’s twin daughters, Elise and Marissa, who were 17 at the time of his arrest, have always been topics of interest by people who know about Keith’s case and incarceration. The girls definitely play a role in Bank Notes, but Keith and I made a conscientious effort from the start to not tell their story. They are 25 now, and they are getting closer to telling their experiences. We respect them enough to give them that opportunity.
Elise and Marissa are beautiful, capable, intelligent, caring women who have gone through a lot in their young lives. They both took different paths after Keith’s arrest, but they have maintained a close and devoted relationship with him. I am very close with both of them, and we are very proud of how they are doing now.  Both are supportive of us and this book.
I mentioned that we have had negative family reactions. We do not, nor do we intend to, publicize individuals’ lack of compassion or loyalty. Bank Notes was not used to publicly attack anyone. What we did was remain silent about them. The people who have been the cruelest know who they are, and we believe our silence better represents the void they have created.
This book has been endorsed by the former director of Colorado prisons, Robert Cantwell. He calls it a "must read for all criminal justice students." We peel the lid off the worm can of the Missour Department of Corrections, but everything we say is true. Names were changed, but the actual events and quotes are exact. 
--Interview with Deborah Kalb