Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Q&A with Mary Simses

Mary Simses is the author of the new novel The Rules of Love & Grammar. She also has written the novel The Irresistible Blueberry Bakeshop & Cafe. She has worked in the magazine industry and as a corporate attorney, and she lives in South Florida.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Rules of Love & Grammar, and for your main character, Grace?

A: The idea started with something that happened when I was a teenager. When I was 14, I had a huge crush on a boy in my ninth grade class. He was very cute and very popular. Unfortunately for me, he was dating another girl who was also very cute and very popular (definitely more in his league). But he was always friendly to me, as he was to everyone…

That memory [of our one dance together] had been rattling around in my head for years, and I guess it was destined to emerge in a story sooner or later. Although I wanted to use an incident like that as a springboard, I didn’t know where one dance was going to take me in terms of a whole book.

And then another idea came to me through a conversation I had with a friend. We were talking about how people often feel guilt over the death of a loved one – they didn’t do this or they should have done that – and how it can haunt someone forever. It was an idea I wanted to explore and with those two fragments, I began to build a tale.

I think the character of Grace came to me largely because of a little article I read years ago in a newspaper. It was a story about two guys who were traveling across the country and along the way they were correcting all the grammatical mistakes they encountered – in restaurant menus, posters, newspapers, flyers, you name it.

They explained how they would approach the “owner” of the mistake and ask if they could correct it. Most people said yes; others were insulted or thought they were crazy. I loved that story and I decided to use it as the foundation for Grace.

Q: Throughout the novel, Grace tries to come to terms with her sister's death more than a decade earlier. Can you say more about why you decided on that theme, and did you know how the book would end before you started writing, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: The theme of Renny’s death came out of the conversation I was just mentioning – about people feeling guilty over the death of a loved one. I thought it would be interesting to have a character experience something wonderful (the dance, in this case, although it’s a much more meaningful event in the book) and then almost immediately experience a tragedy, so that those two events are intrinsically entwined.

In terms of the ending, I had an idea about how the book would end before I started writing, but it was complicated getting there. It was a much harder story to write than my first book, but that’s fine because I learned a lot doing it.

Q: The book also deals with coming home to the place you grew up. How important is setting to you in your writing, and is the town of Dorset, Connecticut, based on a real place?

A: The setting of a story is very important to me. It may be the most important thing because it feeds everything else I do. I have a very visual method of writing, where I picture things as though they’re scenes in a movie, so settings are critical. I’ve always loved photography – I’ve had cameras ever since I was a kid – and I think the act of taking so many photos over the years has helped hone my ability to describe scenes.

My favorite settings are small, coastal towns in New England. I love to create fictional towns because I can construct what I need for the story. That said, I based both of my fictional towns – Beacon in The Irresistible Blueberry Bakeshop & Café and Dorset in The Rules of Love & Grammar – on amalgams of real places.

For example, there is a real Sugar Bowl luncheonette in Darien, where I grew up. It was there when I was a kid, although it looks much different now, especially inside. I used the idea of the Sugar Bowl in the new book, although I made up my own décor for the place.

I also borrowed other elements from real towns in Connecticut, including a harbor in Rowayton, where the Five Mile River flows out to Long Island Sound. That was the inspiration for the harbor in Dorset. The village greens in Fairfield, my summer home, and Guilford, farther north, were the inspiration for the Dorset village green. The Fairfield green has a lovely gazebo, like the one in the book, and there is live music there once a week on summer evenings.

The scene at Miller’s Orchards was inspired by two Connecticut apple orchards – Silverman’s Farm in Easton and Blue Jay Orchard in Bethel. It was at Silverman’s Farm, years ago, where I first picked an apple off of a tree and ate it. My reaction was the same as Grace’s – it was the best apple I’d ever eaten and I still remember every detail about that moment.

Q: Are you really strict when it comes to the rules of grammar, or is that just Grace?

A: Ha! No, I’m not nearly as strict as Grace. That’s largely because I don’t know the rules as well as I should. My grammar is okay – it’s not terrible, but it’s not stellar. Thank God I had a wonderful copyeditor who is an excellent grammarian. She saved me.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I can’t provide too much detail because I’m still working it out, but I’ve started a third novel. As with The Rules of Love & Grammar and The Irresistible Blueberry Bakeshop & Café, the story will involve family relationships, drama, humor, a setting in New England, and, more than likely, good food.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Hmm … let’s see. Well, if we’re talking about “true confessions,” I’m a terrible dancer (my husband complains that I step on his toes), I do obsess a bit about needing things to be organized (I’m a lot like Grace in that way), I wish I could sing (well), and although I have found plenty of spelling mistakes in restaurant menus I’ve never pointed them out to the management. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Kris Calvin

Kris Calvin is the author of the mystery novel One Murder More, which is now available in paperback. She also contributed to the anthology Tinsel and Temptation. A former local elected official, she is based in the Sacramento area.

Q: You’ve worked in politics. Why did you decide to write a mystery novel set in the political world as opposed to some other sort of book about politics?

A: I read two to three novels a week, all types. It’s my entertainment and escape. But it never occurred to me to write a book of my own until a few years ago when I picked up Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories, a complex, challenging mystery that tells several distinct stories and then brings them together in the end to solve a puzzle.

Having worked in politics for years, I realized a similar structure might work to explore the many motives for murder and mayhem that exist in politics. 

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

A: Most people think of lobbyists as little better than untrustworthy hired guns. I wanted to go against type by writing a thriller/mystery featuring an ethical lobbyist. That idea sparked the creation of Maren Kane, a principled lobbyist who finds herself embroiled in a murder investigation.

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: When I started writing I had an idea for a motive for a murder and a twist that might keep readers guessing, that was it! I don't outline, so everything else, including the ending, developed along the way. The murderer even changed between the second and third draft. 

Q: The book takes place in Sacramento. Do you think it could take place in another state capital, or is this a story that could only happen in that particular city?

A: Certainly, other state capitals have been witness to political scenarios as outrageous as the fiction in my novel. A former Chicago governor was convicted of trying to sell an appointment to a state senate seat. 

But the particular diverse set of suspects and sidekicks and trajectory of the plot in One Murder More may be best suited for California.

There’s a gorgeous young public defender, half African-American, half Latina, who is the spitting image of a well-known (imaginary) movie starlet, an openly gay dedicated junior homicide detective, and a governor who plays jazz piano and left office to establish nonprofit schools in impoverished areas in Africa. 

Q: Which mystery novels do you particularly like?

A: I like series best. There are so many good ones. John Lescroart’s Dismas Hardy legal thrillers. Catriona McPherson’s amateur sleuth Dandy Gilvers in 1920s Scotland. Kirk Russell's John Marquez California-based ecothrillers, and Mark Wheaton’s new crime fiction/thriller series about a former gang member turned priest in L.A. who solves crimes.

And I consider some literary fiction to be at its heart a mystery—To Kill A Mockingbird may be the greatest “whodunit.”

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The second book in the Maren Kane series, working title "A Timely Mystery." It’s in the first stages of development, where anything seems possible, There’s arson, kidnapping and a lost treasure.  Some will need to fall out in rewrites, but for now it’s pleasant chaos. 

Q: How have readers responded to the first book?

A: I feel so fortunate that readers have been overwhelmingly enthusiastic in their response to One Murder More in online reviews and in real life when I get a chance to meet them at book clubs or conferences! 

Many seem to connect with Maren, who despite being smart and well-meaning still gets things wrong a lot of the time!

The most common suggestion for improvement has been that some of my characters' names can be hard to follow and are not necessarily gender-specific, so I'm paying attention to that in Book 2.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Camper, the real life inspiration for Maren Kane's canine companion in  the series, passed away peacefully recently at age 16. As a new author, it has been a revelation to me how comforting it has been to have Camper live on in my books! 

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

May 31

May 31, 1819: Walt Whitman born.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Q&A with Fauzia Burke

Fauzia Burke is the author of the  new book Online Marketing for Busy Authors: A Step-by-Step Guide. She is the founder and president of FSB Associates, an online publicity and marketing firm focusing on books and authors. She previously worked in the marketing departments of Henry Holt and John Wiley & Sons. Her writing has appeared in publications including The Huffington Post, and she is based in Carlsbad, California.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book, and do your suggestions apply to beginning authors as well as those who are more established?

A: I decided to write Online Marketing For Busy Authors because I found that I was answering the same questions over and over again, so I wanted to put all my advice in one place and make it available for more people, so I could help more authors.

While my book is an introductory book for strategic online marketing, the tools, worksheets and tips are applicable to both beginning and more well established authors. Sometimes we all can benefit from a reminder of the fundamentals—no matter how much experience we may have.

I wrote my book for the authors who get overwhelmed with the thought of having a website and doing social media. I wanted to help them navigate this landscape.

Effective branding and marketing is about authors creating meaningful conversations with their readers. Having visibility online is not just about selling a book; it’s about building a career. An author’s online brand will serve them in all that they do and will open the door to new opportunities. 

Q: How has book marketing changed over the years, and how much of it is online these days?

A: Social media has completely changed the publishing landscape. There’s really never been a better time to be an author…

Forming a long-term strategy for building and growing your brand online is key to the success of an author today. While marketing offline still has its value, an author will likely spend more of their time building their brand and community online.

Another thing that has shifted with our digital world is that there are more demands on our time and no one has any time to waste, so books that provide content of high value are more important than ever.

Q: What would you advise an author who's nervous about plunging into the world of online marketing?

A: Well, it’s understandable that some authors struggle with the thought of branding themselves because they would rather write their book than spend time marketing.

For some there’s a negative connotation with the word “marketing” that sounds fake. So I reassure authors who say, “I don’t want to be a brand” by telling them a personal brand is just an author sharing his or her expertise. 

Once authors think about branding as making authentic connections with their readers online, they are more open to the concept of personal branding. A brand is really what an author wants to be known for.

Q: How much of the marketing of a book does the author usually do (as opposed to the publisher or a publicist)?

A: Excellent question. Book marketing is most effective when a publicist works in sync with an author, so it really is a team effort….The development of an online brand is essential for a book’s success.

While I encourage authors to work with a publicist or someone experienced in online marketing, an author is front and center in their overall marketing strategy. I encourage authors to create a conversation with their readers as soon as they have an idea for a book.

An author’s reason for writing a book drive their objectives online, and serves as a motivating reminder to build their brand and community for the long haul.

Q: What are some key things you’ve learned about the book writing, publishing and marketing processes over the years?

A: Oh, that’s a good question. So many things! Here are some of the things that stand out to me most. 

Like I mentioned before, there’s never been a better time to be an author, so that’s good news. 

You also have to be patient as an author. As a marketer, I can tell you publicity won’t happen just because an author has a goal to become a best-selling author

It’s those secondary goals authors have that lead to opportunities and build a loyal following. When authors tell me they wrote a book to solve a problem, help people, and provide solutions, that’s when I know an author will see results from their online branding and marketing efforts.

Authors who lead with their secondary goals, start conversations, spark interests and it often leads to interviews and other opportunities. Authenticity connects and resonates….

Remember all of us, experts and novice, are learning as we go. You don’t have to become a social media strategist to be effective. By using the most important online marketing outlets in a targeted way, your book, brand and bottom line can benefit.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I actually have two book ideas mapped out. One is more memoir-oriented and is about embracing a life full of risks. The second book idea is a follow-up to Online Marketing For Busy Authors to help authors take their marketing to the next level.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: There’s a lot of people who throw ideas and jargon at authors and it can feel quite stressful and overwhelming for them. Most authors I know don’t want to be marketing experts, they just want the information that will help them reach their readers and sell books.

So I wrote my book Online Marketing For Busy Authors to reduce the anxiety for authors, and provide them with information that will help them build their platforms and enjoy the process.

I want every author to know that they can market their books in a smart and strategic way regardless of their budget.  

Fauzia Burke can be reached on Facebook and Twitter.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 30

May 30, 1901: Cornelia Otis Skinner born.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Q&A with Marion Neubronner

Marion Neubronner is the author of the new book Turning Gen Y On: What Every Leader Needs to Know about Recruiting and Retaining the Millennials. She is a coach, consultant, and applied psychologist. She is based in Singapore.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book and how exactly would you define Generation Y?

A: I realized there was a gap in the workplace. I’m particular about how people stereotype [in] articles about Gen Y. It is a mental model that we carry, not an age model.

As a developmental psychologist, [I look at] how do people turn out the way we turn out. Our brains are different. The achievement and hard work that baby boomers enjoy, it’s not the same for Gen Y. Gen Y prefers self-expression, novelty, seeing the world.

Q: You write, “With my generation, we asked for more and settled for less. This new generation is not going to settle for less anytime soon.” What do you see as the main differences between Generation Y and older generations in the workplace?

A: America started it because it’s affluent. In any country that’s affluent, they start dreaming bigger—take time off, explore their passions. It’s the American Idol [model]—everyone thinks they can sing. I live in Los Angeles—everybody is an actor or a model. There’s no bad in this [because some will succeed].

In Asia, it’s the same thing—in China and India it’s the same thing. In Indonesia and Thailand, leaders are coming to me saying my Gen Y doesn’t want to work. They don’t want to work for a boss they don’t like.

Q: You’ve mentioned some countries--can you say more about whether you see similar tensions or issues in other countries in which you’ve worked?

A: As long as they’re affluent. In Spain and Greece the economy’s bad, but they grew up in affluence. You think your allowance will come from somewhere. Germans work harder; their mental model is different. In Greece and Spain they were living off the land, and now young people have to see things differently…

In the workplace, someone needs to work so the company can go on. Now some young people don’t stay in the workplace. I’m addressing people who want to stay [but if] the leadership doesn’t understand them, then they’re going to jump to another company.

Q: What would you say are the most important ways for older managers to connect with younger workers?

A: Stop judging them as selfish and self-absorbed. They grew up [in a way that] they could be self-centered, but not selfish. If you share a bathroom with seven siblings, because you grew up at a time when you shared, you think about everybody else.

If you have one phone, one bathroom, one computer, one bedroom [growing up], you can’t call them selfish. You give them options and choices.

Q: What has been the reaction to the book among company leaders?

A: The people who read the book are converted; they know this is happening….Companies where retention has hit hard are open to realizing something’s wrong—hospitality, media, retail—they know they have to manage young people better…

Q: Who do you see as the perfect readership for your book?

A: I think leaders who…don’t understand why Gen Y keeps leaving. It’s not the money. If you pay them the same [as another company] and it’s equitable, they will stay if you treat them well. If there’s no way to grow, they will have to leave…

Q: What do you see looking ahead when it comes to generational issues in the workplace?

A: Companies that know will do well and live longer. Companies that don’t will die earlier. Gen Y don’t think about companies, just think about relationships...

Q: You’ve said that you identify with Gen Y. What are some of the ways you do?

A: There are a lot of options. I’m still energetic, I have a good education, I’m willing to get the job done. I’m 44—most of the time if I were married with children and I was tired, I would have less options. I’m very global. A lot of Gen Ys travel and speak multiple languages.

Number two is technology. There are so many things technology can do…

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: Yes, love at work. I realized it’s my next topic—I think we forgot what good leadership looks like. I want to collect good stories about staff who felt loved at work, stories from companies and customers. I will write chapters around real letters.

Love needs to be at work again. Work is our second home. Work is not separate from life.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: There is a hidden agenda—turning ourselves on at work again. What does it take to turn ourselves on at work again?

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 29

May 29, 1935: Andre Brink born.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Q&A with Elizabeth Wein

Elizabeth Wein is the author of the young adult novel Black Dove, White Raven, a winner of the 2016 Children's Africana Book Awards. Her many other novels include A Coalition of Lions and The Sunbird. She lives in Scotland.

Q: You write, "I see myself as slipping plausible characters and situations into a historical setting without changing the actual facts--a bit like a discreet time traveler." As you wrote this particular book, what did you see as the right blend of the historical and the fictional?

A: Actually, the most fictional thing about the book is the characters and their home. It’s 1930. Take the most unlikely American family possible: a black woman and a white woman and their children – give them the most unlikely of jobs, aerial photography – and take them to the most unlikely of places, the invented village of Tazma Meda in the Ethiopian highlands. It wouldn’t have been impossible, but it would have been unlikely.

I loved developing the unlikely family. I based Rhoda and Delia, the grown-ups, on my mother and her best friend in Jamaica, where we lived for three years when I was in elementary school. My mother Carol and her friend Rona raised their babies together for a couple of years, sharing clothes and chores, and often plunking their children into the same baby buggy or playpen.

Rona and Carol, Jamaica, 1972
I loved figuring out a plausible back-story for these two women that would allow them to work and dream together on their own terms. There’s no reason it shouldn’t have happened that way.

For Tazma Meda to work as the Menottis’ home, I had to make up a village and populate it with a very progressive foreign farmer – unlike most British expats the Sinclairs don’t own the land their coffee farm sits on, but rent it from a local landowner. That landowner, Ezra, himself Ethiopian, is a doctor trained in a European institution. No such people with those credentials existed at the time of the book’s setting, but they could have.

I gave my village a wealth of modern conveniences: I built them a clinic and a school and a radio mast and an airstrip. Such things existed, but rarely all in one place.

And it’s not just aspects of modern life that are idealized in Tazma Meda. Its medieval monastery is also a place of marvels, with its priest who rescued church treasures in the battle of Magdala in 1868. Tazma Meda is too good to be true.

The thing is, when I set up a place – or in Delia and Rhoda’s case, a relationship – that’s too good to be true, it’s with the purpose of tearing it down.

For Tazma Meda, I took all the best aspects of the emperor Haile Selassie’s new progressive ideals in the 1930s and threw them together, and then let the war that followed tear them apart, just as it did in real life wherever progressive change had been introduced.

The benevolent farmers leave fearfully, the village is bombed, the doctor is killed, the pilot is blinded… In a metaphoric sense, this is something that Ethiopia keeps suffering again and again. When I was visiting Ethiopia with my aunt in 2004 I was struck by her saying, “If only they could just make it through ONE GENERATION without a war or a drought.”

So, the central focus of the book, the unlikely mixed-race family and their modern village, is fiction. But it is based on the ideals and policies of early 20th century Ethiopia. The war that swallows the family and their village is real in almost every detail, right down to the dates of the battles.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your characters Em and Teo?

Elizabeth's sister Maria and Rona's son Carlton, Jamaica, 1972
A: The idea for their background – one white, one black, raised together as siblings – came from a kind of “What if?” question in my head – What if my little sister and my mother’s best friend’s Jamaican son really had grown up together, instead of just spending the first two years of their lives together? What if they’d grown up side by side, treated as equals, sharing everything?

Em and Teo are pretty much themselves in terms of personality, developed for the book and by the book as I was writing it, but their close and loving relationship is based very consciously on me and my own younger brother, Jared.

My grandmother, one of my biggest fans, was unable to read this book herself due to poor eyesight and a head injury at the age of 98. The advance reader’s copy of the book arrived and my aunt started to read it aloud to her. My grandmother’s comment was that it reminded her of Elizabeth and Jared! So obviously that relationship does shine through.

One thing I really like to do with my characters is give them a skill or an interest, something they are good at, or something they can get good at by developing their interest, which will help them in later life.

I had Em be good at negotiating and at writing – I’m not sure what she’ll do with that, but perhaps she’ll be a journalist or a lawyer (though she is very theatrical, too)! And Teo clearly needs to do something with his design and engineering skills. These personality aspects develop as part of the plot – the story itself helps to guide me in deciding what the characters will be like.

Q: How did you research the novel, and was there anything that particularly surprised you in the course of your research?

A: I am an old-fashioned book-researcher, so that’s where I started and that’s where I got most of the information about the Second Italo-Ethiopian War in 1935.

Information about the war is dense, difficult to find, or not in English (or all three), so that was quite frustrating. I can’t read sources in Amharic, the main spoken and written language of Ethiopia, so that limited me.

I supplemented my reading with the Internet, which is obviously a valuable and incredibly easy source for all kinds of details – and it leads you to places like the Ethiopian Red Cross, which has its own history page on its website (and was founded as a result of the Italian conflict), and to film clips of Haile Selassie in the 1930s, and to real live humans who can answer your questions.

I visited Ethiopia in 2004, and most of the locations in Black Dove, White Raven – the capital Addis Ababa, the ancient city of Aksum, the monastery at Debra Damo – are places I’ve been to (in the case of Debra Damo, I didn’t actually go inside the monastery because women have never been allowed in).

Village in the Ethiopian highlands. This is not Tazma Meda, but it looks like it.
The chapel cut in the rock at Tazma Meda and the hermitage there are based on Lalibela and smaller rock-cut churches which I’ve also visited.

I spent a lot of time poring over UK Ministry of Defense aerial maps of Ethiopia, and with Google Earth, pinpointing exact locations for the flights that take place in the book. If you check out the coordinates of “Delia’s Dream” you’ll find a tiny plateau that matches the description.

I think that the most surprising – indeed, shocking – thing I discovered in my research was the Italians’ relentless use of mustard gas against the Ethiopians.

It was banned according to the Geneva Convention, but they used it anyway, pretty indiscriminately. Very few people that I talk to actually know this. The British fear that gas would be used on civilian populations during World War II makes so much more sense to me now.

I was also pretty stunned – and delighted! – to discover that one of the young Ethiopian pilots training with the emperor Haile Selassie’s fledgling air force in the 1930s was a woman! Her name was Mulumebet Emeru. (This photograph is plausible.)

Q: What role did your own experiences as a pilot play in the creation of this novel?

A: The flight sequences (but not the chases!) are partly based on a trip that I made with my husband across Kenya before we were married, when our most important item of equipment was water in case we had to do an emergency landing in the middle of the wilderness.

But actually, Em’s learning to fly is based on my own learning to fly – that feeling of “I am so scared of landing I want to die” – and spending all your time dreading your next lesson! It is the hardest thing I have ever done.

All the pilots in my other books are so confident and natural; I thought it was about time I wrote about the difficulty of learning to fly.

Elizabeth in a Tiger Moth
I also once had a flight in an open cockpit aircraft, a Tiger Moth bi-plane, so I drew on that for some of the detail of what it’s like to fly in an early 20th century plane.

But then when I was nearly finished writing the book I discovered that there is a British company that offers wing-walking flight experiences – so I arranged to try wing-walking! I got strapped into a harness on top of the plane (a Stearman bi-plane) and the pilot took off and roared through some dives and steep turns.

It was absolutely glorious. And it certainly gave me much more of an appreciation of what it would be like to have to stand on the body of the aircraft in flight, as well as a small lesson in how the plane handles differently when there’s a person standing on it.

That is probably the craziest thing I’ve ever done in the name of research.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My aunt and uncle, Susan and Roger Whitaker, lived in Ethiopia for two years in 1968 – 1970, teaching English with the Peace Corps. I probably wouldn’t have any connection with Ethiopia if it hadn’t been for them.

It was Rog who suggested to me that the ancient Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum would make a good African connection to mention in my first book, which was set in Britain in the 6th century AD and based on legends of King Arthur.

I went on to use Aksum as the setting for four more books. They’re all available as e-books now from Open Road. A Coalition of Lions and The Sunbird are the ones with the strongest Ethiopian focus and the easiest to pick up on their own.

Susan and Rog took me to Ethiopia with them in 2004 when they went back for the first time in 35 years. We had a wonderful journey, visiting schools and churches and many of the historic sites where I’ve set my books; we went to visit the house where they’d lived and discovered that their old landlord was still living there.

I wrote a blog post about that trip which can be viewed here.

And the other thing you should know about me is that my maternal grandmother, whom I mentioned earlier, raised me from the time my mother died when I was 14.

Betty Flocken passed away herself last year at the age of 98, and by the strangest kind of fortune – after a brief visit with her I’d postponed a flight back to Scotland due to a winter storm – I was at her side when she died.

She was and remains the single most wonderful figure in my life and in the lives of many others, and she made me what I am today. If I have “the writing bug,” as she called it, I got it from her, along with my name – Elizabeth.

Thanks so much for the interview, Deborah, and for allowing me to share some of the background for Black Dove, White Raven!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 28

May 28, 1908: Ian Fleming born.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Q&A with Sonia Shah

Sonia Shah, photo by Johnny Martyr
Sonia Shah is the author of the new book Pandemic: Tracing Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond. Her other books include The Fever and The Body Hunters. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

Q: You write that "for most of the twentieth century, the conventional wisdom...was that developed societies had vanquished infectious diseases for good." What were the key factors leading to the discrediting of this belief?

A: Probably HIV, which first came to national attention in the early 1980s. It came along with a flurry of other novel pathogens that routed our medications: new forms of influenza, coronaviruses like SARS, Ebola and others. 

Q: In the book, you note, "Many experts believe that a cholera-like pandemic looms." Why did you focus much of the book on cholera, and why do many experts believe a similar pandemic will arise?

A: Only a handful of pathogens have been able to cause pandemics in modern times. Among them, cholera stands alone--it has caused no fewer than seven global pandemics, and the latest one is going on right now.

The conditions that allowed cholera to cause pandemics--human invasion of wildlife habitat, urbanization, acceleration of global trade and travel, weakening of public protections--are being re-created today, but on a global scale.

Q: You describe your own family's experience with the MRSA bacterium. What can readers learn from that experience, and how are you doing now?

A: I'm fine, thankfully! I still get MRSA abscesses but over time they've become much less painful and long-lasting. It's a tough infection that is becoming increasingly common, unfortunately.

Q: You write that "we still can't rely on modern medicine to save us from the threat posed by new pathogens." What are the strengths and the limitations of modern medicine when dealing with this threat?

A: Modern medicine is great at figuring out how new diseases are transmitted (for example, the fact that Zika is spread by mosquitoes and through sex was figured out within weeks of the current outbreak). That's important because it gives us the understanding we need to change our behavior to avoid infection.

But it still takes years to devise new drugs and vaccines to tame infectious pathogens. For most of these pathogens, which spread exponentially, that is too slow. That's why for new pathogens, it makes more sense to focus on prevention, rather than treatment.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm currently investigating the migrant crisis in Europe and how that might alter the disease landscape there.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 27

May 27, 1894: Dashiell Hammett born.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Q&A with Adina Hoffman

Adina Hoffman is the author of the new book Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architects of a New City. Her other books include House of Windows and My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Nation and The Washington Post. She lives in Jerusalem and in New Haven, Connecticut.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for this book, and for focusing on these three particular architects?

A: When I’m not sitting at my desk, I’m often walking and looking around me. I’ve spent some 25 years in Jerusalem, in fact, more or less alternating between those modes—sitting, walking, looking.  

Since I tend to think biographically, it was really only a matter of time before my musing about the shapes of the various buildings I was seeing on those walks gave way to wondering about the architects who’d conceived what I think of as the most striking buildings in the modern cityscape.

Where had these men come from? What ideas had they brought with them and what had they learned from the stones and the sunlight, the people and ethos of the place? What future had they each envisioned for this endlessly compelling, endlessly trying place?

Q: One of the architects you examine has left very little biographical trace. How did you research that part of the book, as compared with your research for the first two sections of the book?

A: The first two architects I write about accumulated a great deal of paper in the course of their rich and busy lives, and much of that paper has, thankfully, been preserved.

The modernist maverick and German-Jewish refugee Erich Mendelsohn worked mostly for institutions or politically powerful Jewish patrons with ample secretarial staffs and spacious filing cabinets, and his wife was obsessive about saving every scrap on which he wrote or sketched.

During his Jerusalem years, the deeply private public servant and British expat-in-the-East Austen St. Barbe Harrison built exclusively for the British Government. Even though he burned some of his own correspondence later in life, I still had a lot to work with because of a certain English fixation on posterity and paperwork.

So when it came to writing about those two, it was pretty clear to me which archives I’d need to explore.

The Greek-Arab Spyro Houris, meanwhile, left very few footprints that were evident to me when I set out looking for him in the summer of 2014, in the midst of Israel’s latest war in or on Gaza.

There were both personal and political reasons for this absence. Houris built entirely for private clients, many of whom were members of the non-Jewish elite of the city during the late Ottoman and early Mandate periods.

Much of the history of those communities has been erased or pushed underground since 1948. As a result, I had to be fairly relentless and, well, improvisational in thinking of other places to hunt for his traces: I did root around in various archives, but that was just the start of it.

Throughout that hot, violent summer, I haunted graveyards and consulates, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and ecclesiastical court in the old city’s Christian quarter, ancient churches and newer-fangled cultural centers.

I talked my way into homes and offices and also spent a great deal of time just squinting at his buildings, trying to read them for clues about who Houris was and what he meant to say with his buildings.

Q: Do you see particular themes that link all three architects' work in Jerusalem?

A: In one way or another, they were all devoted to a kind of hybridity—buildings that fused east and west, old and new, foreign and local. They each evolved syncretic forms and variations on a vision of the city that was itself profoundly mixed: they saw Jerusalem as historically and potentially a polyglot, polymorphous, essentially plural place.  

They were also each mavericks, people thinking and designing not primarily in the name of some ideology or political party but, first and foremost, according to their own, hard-won notions of what a particular building—and the city at large—might be.

Q: You write that during Houris’s lifetime, "the bonds that stretched across what are now considered nearly impassible ethnic, national, and religious borders were not only conceivable, they were critical to what made the city the city." How has the city changed since the time of these three architects, and what is their legacy today?

A: Jerusalem is still a terrifically diverse place—but that diversity has become severely endangered.

The entire conversation that surrounds the city has devolved in recent years to an often brutal and reductive game of nationalist tug-of-war. You’re either pro-Israeli or you’re pro-Palestinian; the city is either Jewish or it’s Muslim; you’re either with us or against us; and so on.

Those blunt either/or terms are, frankly, not only thin, they’re a travesty, given the cultural abundance and complexity of the city’s very long and very varied past.

It’s hard to use grand terms like “legacy” about these architects, who have been pretty much forgotten as individuals by modern Jerusalem and its residents—though their buildings remain some of the most recognizable and beloved in the city. Does such an unacknowledged presence count as a legacy? I’d like to think so.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A short biography of Ben Hecht for Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives Series. Hecht was one of the greatest screenwriters in Hollywood history, a highly energetic novelist, an important member of the Chicago Renaissance, accomplished playwright, old-fashioned, cigar-chomping, big-city newspaperman, and charismatic propagandist for Israel’s pre-state Jewish terrorist underground, the Irgun.

He called himself a “child of the century” and he was just that: he drank with, ghostwrote for, dashed off letters to everyone from Harpo Marx to Menachem Begin, Ezra Pound, Sherwood Anderson, Lotte Lenya, H. L. Mencken, David O. Selznick, George Grosz, and Marilyn Monroe, and he led what we might call a great big Jewish life—or in fact multiple lives, Jewish or no.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: That Jerusalem is infinitely more interesting than you’d ever know from reading The New York Times. It’s amazing how anemic and repetitive the story is that most journalists tell about it—amazing since the city itself is brimming with fascinating historical layers and forgotten lives. It’s those layers and those lives I seem to spend much of my time trying to unearth.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Ben Wilson

Ben Wilson is the author of the new book Heyday: The 1850s and the Dawn of the Global Age.  His other books include Empire of the Deep and What Price Liberty!. He lives in Suffolk, England.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on the 1850s, and what surprised you most in the course of your research for Heyday?

A: That decade seemed at first glance to be so transformative for so many people. The world noticeably accelerated, with expanding networks of telegraph lines, railroads and fast ships.

Boomtowns in America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand erupted out of the ground and the global economy began a vertiginous upward trajectory. This was a frenzied, exciting time and many people were intoxicated with optimism. What a time to write about!

But at the same time this giddy progress was destabilising. Indigenous peoples all over the globe fell victim to the wildfire pace of change, as did societies in China, Japan, India and elsewhere. Both the United States and Europe teetered on the brink of catastrophe.

I was drawn to the light and the dark – the fantastic contrasts of this rollercoaster decade.

Researching this time was full of surprises. For one thing, news travelled with unprecedented speed meaning that events in one place could set off a globe-spanning chain reaction. I was struck by how interconnected the world had become.

I also found myself researching places that don’t often get a look in when it comes to global history. Minnesota became incredibly interesting to me because it experienced a frenetic boom and a cataclysmic bust in a short space of time. It seemed to illustrate so perfectly the mood that gripped much of the West.

For all kinds of reasons Nicaragua took on an importance that I never expected when I began. I guess that’s the thing about an interconnected world – follow one line of enquiry and suddenly the story takes you in a funny and unpredictable direction.

Q: You write, "In this period, the United States became bound up with the rest of the world in an entirely new way." What changed during this period that allowed for this connection, and what was the impact?

A: In part it was the speed of modern communication. The U.S. could communicate with the rest of the world much faster, and this inevitably opened up new possibilities for entrepreneurs.

The gold rush to California made Americans look across the Pacific to Asia. Discoveries of gold in Victoria (Australia) in 1851 made that continent a major overseas market literally overnight.

Americans, with their use of technology and new techniques, were good at exploiting a fast-changing and richer world, scenting opportunities in unlikely places.

But there is another side to the story, and it rhymes with what is going on in the current presidential race. In the 1850s Britain was a bit like China in the 21st century. Thanks to free trade, it was able to sell its manufactures very cheaply in the States and invest large amounts of money in things like railroads.

In turn, Britain’s rapid economic liberalisation opened up lucrative markets to American farmers. Easy credit and booming overseas markets encouraged people to settle the prairies.

At the same time, this era of free trade alarmed many, because it made the American economy dangerously reliant on the fortunes of other countries.

Look at a newspaper from this time and you will see a fixation on foreign news. How much are people paying for pork in Liverpool? What is the state of the French harvest?

A war or famine elsewhere in the world could have profound consequences for Americans. The faster the news came, the more money they could make. Hence there was considerable pressure for a telegraph cable under the Atlantic so that the U.S could be plugged into the main current of news.

At the same time economic advance in Europe was sharply increasing the demand for slave grown cotton. Southern slave owners began to see themselves as indispensable to the world economy and therefore a serious power.

This sense of global importance inflated their sense of entitlement and convinced them that countries like Britain and France (whose economies depended on cheap cotton) would aid them against abolitionists. Their notion of being key players on the world stage only encouraged the move towards secession and Civil War.

In so many ways, the U.S. was bound up with the wider world. Then, as now, an awful lot of people hated it. Even before the Civil War the Republicans were winning votes with the promise of protective tariffs. Lincoln’s victory made that a reality. By the 1860s the U.S. had moved towards isolationism. It was a sharp contrast with the openness of the previous decade.

Q: You begin the book with a look at the material gutta-percha. What is its significance, and why did you start with it?

A: Gutta-percha is one of those incredible, world-changing materials that is now completely forgotten. Look up gutta-percha and you will find a whole range of 19th century knickknacks.

It is a natural latex that comes from Malaysia. Its most important use was as an insulator for copper telegraph wire. Now telegraph lines could dive deep below the sea.

When this use was discovered in about 1850 it suddenly became apparent that the whole planet could be girdled in wire. Contemporaries were dazzled by the prospect and this sense of impending technological revolution sets the tone for Heyday.

Instantaneous communication across the world would change everything, they believed. It would bring peace and harmony, and kick start a period of rapid economic growth.

Of course, things did not quite work out like that, but the utopian belief motivated a series of high-risk endeavours, most notably the Atlantic Telegraph that (eventually) put the U.S. into immediate contact with Europe, then India and China and Australia.

A single telegraph line across the Atlantic required gutta-percha taken from 250,000 trees. The demand kept increasing as global communications became ever more vital. By the early 20th century the Malaysian rainforests were almost depleted.

The story of gutta-percha, little known at the time and entirely forgotten now, is an intriguing one – and it tells us a lot about the development of the modern world.

Q: The book examines the decade in various parts of the world. Was it a "heyday" for at least some of the people in all of these countries, or just for some people in certain parts of the world?

A: The word "heyday" sounds very positive. But I was keen to make the point that a heyday can addle minds even as it sparks progress.

Sure, the advances of the time provided tremendous opportunities for people. But progress crushed those who stood in its path, particularly native peoples. Their capacity to resist or compete was reduced by new technologies, particularly those of communication and war. The torrent of settlers became impossible to resist.

In countries such as China, Japan or India various groups benefited greatly from new technologies and patterns of trade. But many more found what we call "globalization" profoundly disturbing and harmful.

Millions of people in India, for example, found their lives tied to pulses of information sent down the wire from, say, Manchester. They had no control over these new technologies let alone the world market. While traders in Bombay prospered they sacrificed a lot of their independence and economic control.

The result was repeated famines and periods of misery when the global economy went into meltdown. It was a pattern repeated across the world in an age of electric communication and steam power.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: That’s still very much being explored! I have developed a bit of a taste for globe spanning, interconnected stories after Heyday. I am in the process of refining a whole range of ideas and I’m waiting for that eureka moment when things fall into place.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb