Sunday, July 31, 2016

Q&A with Dana Spiotta

Dana Spiotta is the author of the new novel Innocents and Others. Her other novels include Stone Arabia and Eat the Document. She teaches in the Syracuse University MFA program, and she lives in Syracuse, New York.

Q: Innocents and Others focuses on female friendship. Why did you decide to write about that topic, and how did you come up with your characters Meadow and Carrie?

A: I am interested in writing about nonromantic relationships, which are less addressed in fiction. In my previous book it was a sibling relationship, and in this one a life-long friendship between two women. 

I like how a novel can track the ups and downs, the way how, over time, who has the upper hand changes and then changes again. 

There is a line that Carrie says at one point:

“Unlike a marriage, which must be fulfilling and a goddamn mutual miracle, a friendship could be twisted and one-sided and make no sense at all, but if it had years and years behind it, the friendship could not be discarded. It was too late to change her devotion to Meadow, even if Carrie hardly ever felt it returned lately.”

I was curious about those kinds of connections.  I value them, as there is nothing else quite like it.

Q: The novel is set in the film world; Meadow and Carrie are both filmmakers but their work is very different. Why did you choose that as the backdrop for the plot?

A: I love film, from the most obscure to the most commercial. But I am not a filmmaker, so that took some research. It came up from this voice I had, Meadow’s, that opened the book. 

I had first thought of her as simply a film fan (and specifically of Orson Welles), but she soon became a maker herself. I am drawn to obsessive characters, and artists tend to be obsessive, so they come up in the work. 

But I also pursued it because I was interested in images and how they dominate the cultural moment. We live in a time where we film everything, and we watch a lot of images. And I wanted to understand how that changes how we engage the world. 

The other main character, Jelly, is distinctly not visual. She counts on hiding how she looks for her power and for making up an alternate identity. All of that seemed relevant to how we interact on the internet these days. So as I wrote, I started noticing lots of paradoxes related to film/video.

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

A: I don’t know, or I know in a vague way. I usually start with voices of characters. Along the lines of how E.M. Forster once described writing a novel, I find the action or incidents come out of the specific people I am imagining. I follow the consequences of their choices. 

Only about two-thirds in do I start to see the shape and imagine how it all fits together. I write blindly. E.L. Doctorow said writing a novel is like driving at night: you see in the headlights what is in front of you but not beyond that. That is the first couple of years.

Then at a certain point I did know the ending, but I wasn’t sure how I would get there. It is a constant play between intuition/instinct and thinking about the structure. You want to be surprised, but the surprise must come from what you have put in motion, if that makes sense.

Q: How was this novel's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: The original title was Gleaners, which everyone thought was too obscure. I came up with Innocents and Others, because it is a book that has morally compromised characters, characters that make big mistakes but are also well meaning on some level.

They seemed innocent of themselves, I thought, of understanding the consequences of their actions. Then when they do understand, when they get that clarity, they are no longer innocent, they are others. No longer innocent of themselves, which is not a bad thing at all.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Blindly starting what may be a new novel or not.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I wanted to make these women characters complex, like we all are, not sentimental versions of human beings. I find that so much more interesting. 

I also wanted them to be wiser—less innocent, but deeper, better—by the end of the book, without it being a fake, feel-good thing. I want any bigger ideas of the book to be truly embedded in the very specific and intimate portraits of these women.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 31

July 31, 1919: Primo Levi born.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Q&A with Michael P. Balzano

Michael P. Balzano is the author of the new book Building a New Majority, which focuses on the role of working-class voters. Balzano worked in the Nixon White House and served as a strategist to the Reagan and George W. Bush campaigns. He dropped out of high school and worked as a garbageman and apprentice lens grinder before eventually earning a Ph.D. He is based in the Washington, D.C., area.

Q: You write, “My simple conclusion was that, from Nixon through Romney, those [Republican] candidates who reached out to the working classes won elections, while those who did not lost.” Which recent Republican president would you say was the most in tune with concerns of working-class voters?

A: From my experience both working with and for Richard Nixon, and my discussion with labor people over the last 40 years, clearly Nixon was the one seen as very, very close to the working class.

Some of the reasons: First, working-class people in America are very socially conservative. They attend church, they pray before meals, they’re genuine. The working classes I’ve spoken to believed Nixon shared their social values, and he clearly did.

Second, they believed Nixon shared their views on the work ethic: If I work hard, I’m going to succeed.

The third reason is that Nixon shared their views on patriotism, the belief in a strong national defense. They supported him in his exit from the [Vietnam] War. The college kids don’t go to war, tradespeople do.

Nixon respected workers, regardless of the views they held. He held garbage workers in high regard and they felt that.

The working-class ethnics of World War II—Poles, Slavs, Greeks—with relatives behind the Iron Curtain, believed Nixon cared about their relatives, and wanted to free them, [especially] the Poles.

Nixon also was regarded as one of humble origins. He wasn’t poor, but he wasn’t Rockefeller. They saw him as one of their own who made it.

When I talk to labor people in the last three years, I ask which of the presidents would you like to get back. They don’t mention Reagan. They mention Nixon and Kennedy...Both were good to unions.

Another element in this is that when they looked at Nixon, Reagan, Kennedy, they viewed them as people who had balls. In Reagan’s case, he exhibited what they saw as a John Wayne cowboy, nobody’s going to push me around [attitude]. They admired that. I’ve been in union meetings where people were punched out.

Nixon and Reagan were trusted by the working class. They didn’t feel, This guy is looking down on me. Rockefeller gave the same impression to them, even though he was rich. We don’t have that any more.

Q: You write in the book of the “tendency for Republican presidents not to maintain relationships with those workforce representatives to whom they appealed and whose votes they won.” What are some examples you experienced of this phenomenon?

A: This book is extremely critical of the Republicans on a number of scores. One is, you don’t know how to communicate with people. Another, you don’t keep your promises. In Reagan’s case, he put it in writing.

Republicans are not political. How is it you can appeal to working class union people to vote for you, and they cross the line [and do so], and what do you do?

The answer really requires someone to understand the business orientation of the Republicans vs. the social orientation of the Democrats.

The Republicans are being business-oriented when it comes to the government bringing businesspeople in—their goal is to reduce the cost of government when they are in power. Hence the business-oriented Republicans oppose government policies and laws that require government to pay what they believe are excessive costs for products and services in government.

The example: First, during the Depression, two Republicans, Davis and Bacon, passed a law that would say, if the government is going to build something, we don’t want you to cut the wages of the people in my state.

Davis-Bacon required the government to pay the prevailing wage for the building of any government product…What happened with Davis-Bacon is that people would go into a state five states away, set up a tent city, bring in workers, with lower pay, they wouldn’t pay the wage.

The government passed a law that said to [abide by the Davis-Bacon law]. What happens is that the prevailing wage generally works out to the union wage. It’s not a payoff to the unions but a recognition that skills require a wage [commensurate] with the skills.

Every Republican thinks, Repeal the Davis-Bacon Act. If I’m a Democrat, and I vote for Ronald Reagan, Ronald Reagan gives me a promise that he is not going to touch Davis-Bacon, but the secretary of labor decides to get rid of it. Why would he do that? A whole bunch of people joined your party.

Here’s another example. If Trump wins the election, people including the speaker of the House, will say, Repeal Davis-Bacon…

They want to repeal the Jones Act. The Jones Act requires the use of American-built, American-crewed merchant ships who move American cargo from any American port to another American port, it requires that they be American-made, repaired in American yards, have American seamen.

The Republicans can’t wait to kill it. Without the Jones Act, we would have no merchant fleet.

Another one is the Export-Import Bank. The Export-Import Bank exists because for a country to buy an American airplane built by Boeing, they can’t get a loan in their country, and the Export-Import Bank goes there and looks at their plans.

The Export-Import Bank doesn’t give them money, it guarantees loans. It’s interpreted by Republicans as corporate welfare, but we’re not paying for it, we’re guaranteeing the loans…

For Republicans to get in, they’re going to have to appeal to working-class people who don’t believe they’re going to vote to kill my job.

Another part of that: The most important issue right now in this country for Democrats is a great dilemma--the Democratic Party historically does not support defense spending. They fall to the social side of the ledger. We have cut the defense budget so bad in the last eight years…

Within the AFL-CIO, the industrial-base unions know if they vote Democrat, they’re going to lose their jobs. However, if they vote Republican, the Republicans are going to try to repeal laws that protect wages. I’ve spent my life trying to explain these simple differences in how do you build a party?

Look at the section [in the book] where Ronald Reagan went to the National Maritime Union convention, of seamen who had just endorsed Jimmy Carter. He didn’t keep his promises, but [they] said, Let’s support him. Reagan went to the convention and promised he would never cancel the Jones Act and would build the American fleet again. They reversed their endorsement of Carter and endorsed Reagan…

Q: In the book, you write about the air traffic controllers’ strike during the Reagan administration. What was your role during that period, and what do you see as the legacy of that strike?

A: Ronald Reagan was right in firing the air traffic controllers because they broke the law. They were public employees and public employees don’t have the right to strike.

At the same time, the unions had every right to strike because they had written promises by Reagan that they would have their day in court to talk to the administration.

I and Admiral [Robert] Garrick helped the union structure their letter to the candidate on what their expectations were with this endorsement. The two of us carried the letter to [campaign manager] Bill Casey….

At that time, air traffic controllers were working 60 hours a week. Worldwide, it was 35 hours. We had equipment that died on us, screens that went black, but we couldn’t get into the White House…Reagan promised he would put somebody at FAA who would understand, but they brought in an anti-union guy…

The legacy? Public employee unions never vote Republican, they’re part of the Democratic Party…The air traffic controllers was the first union to vote Republican…You won’t see a public employee union go near the Republicans; look what happened to the last one.

Q: Who is likely to win the support of most working-class voters in this year’s presidential election?

A: What I’ve been telling people is that I believe Trump has become the spokesman for issues that are affecting working-class people. I talk with unions all over the country, and in my conversations with working-class groups, I glean that they feel they are victims of the political correctness of the Democratic Party.

However, they believe they would do no better with the Republicans. They don’t trust either party. They are convinced government can’t fix anything.

They believe their jobs have been sold out--if I were 50 years old, I would build a whole company on this—by trade policies that do not favor America. They also believe they were sold out by regulations that shut their industries down.

Republicans don’t know how to take advantage of that, and how to educate the workforce. [Working-class people] believe political parties have failed them professionally and destroyed their hope for the future. They want their country back, and believe they have lost the whole thing. Trump’s collision with the Republican Party—they love it…

Today, the working class is hurting and they don’t mince words. Neither does Trump. This is the reason for his popularity with the working class. Unions have checked him out and he uses Davis-Bacon labor. They believe he’s one of them.

That’s my view of it…It goes deeper than Republicans and Democrats, it’s the soul of the people.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Three of the most powerful CEOs in the country have read the book, and all are stewards of society who have dedicated their lives to helping the poor.

They said, Michael, you must write a book on the first chapter [about my experiences as a young man]. You need to tell high-school dropouts, You’re going down the wrong road, and let me tell you how to avoid it. If you, at 21, read at a first-grade level and got a Ph.D. in classics, anybody can do it.

I’ve got two chapters pretty much done, and I see the book as five chapters at most, very short.

The last thing is I’m speaking before state Republican organizations seeking an understanding of what we’re doing wrong.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 30

July 30, 1818: Emily Brontë born.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Q&A with Sasha Martin

Sasha Martin is the author of the book Life From Scratch: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Forgiveness. Her blog, Global Table Adventure, focuses on cooking recipes from around the world. Her work has been featured in a variety of publications, including Food and Wine and Whole Living. She lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Q: You begin your memoir by writing, "This was not the book I meant to write." What book did you mean to write, and how did it end up taking the form it did?

A: Within the first few weeks of signing my book deal with National Geographic, the project shifted from a happy-go-lucky book about cooking a meal from every country in the world (a nearly four-year culinary adventure I chronicled on my blog, Global Table Adventure) to a deep exploration of the WHY behind the blog. I like to blame my editor, Hilary Black, but in reality I thank her for pushing me to go deeper.

It all started because she asked for a little background about my life. There was no way to narrow down my story to the one chapter she’d asked for; I submitted 50 or so pages for her review and when she read them she agreed - my rough-and-tumble childhood and the loss and heartbreak that came with it was the REAL story underpinning my obsessive quest.  

From the tiny, makeshift kitchen of my eccentric, creative mother, to a string of foster homes, to the house from which I launched my own cooking adventure – the story is about the power of cooking to bond, to empower, and to heal – and celebrates the simple truth the happiness is created from within.

Q: You write about some very difficult times in your life. How hard was it to relive those periods as you were writing the book?


Writing about the loss of my brother was the most challenging thing I’ve done as a writer. As I worked to make the experience real for the reader, I found myself reliving the trauma, playing the loss over in my head day and night.

I didn’t think it was going to be so hard. I went into those chapters with a fairly cavalier attitude, even beginning the process while my husband was away on a work trip. I figured I’d done the healing at those years ago. 

Turns out I’d locked down my pain pretty well as a kid – pulling it out into the daylight was it was like walking out of a cave into the blinding sunlight; I regressed emotionally to the point that I had to have help caring for my daughter for a few key days.

Writers don’t often talk about this part of the process; it’s ugly and uncomfortable. But it’s also reality. I urge all writers, especially memoirists, to have a solid support system as they work.

Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: Choosing the title was quite the process. I settled on Life from Scratch: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Forgiveness because it really gives a sense of the story within – the lifelong search for a sense of belonging coupled with a make-it-work attitude.

“Life from Scratch” is about using what you have on hand to make something delicious and nourishing, just as I had to work with the circumstances I was given to build a life of love and worth, both for myself and my family – especially my daughter.

Q: How did you decide on the recipes to include in the book?

A: I chose recipes that honored my heritage as well as recipes from the time I spent cooking the world.

Recipes from my heritage were important because much of the book is about figuring out my identity after a childhood in and out of foster homes. It also helped convey the evolution of my relationship to my mother… often we cooked together to understand each other.

Recipes from cooking the world were harder to decide on. I tried more than 650 from 195 countries. Since they are all on the blog, I knew readers could go there for the comprehensive list. In the end, I only selected the recipes for the book that directly connected to the narrative about family and me finding my place in the world.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m loving going out and meeting readers. I’m honored that the book has been a source of healing for so many. When I’m not visiting book clubs or speaking to groups, I’m writing and cooking.

Lately, I’ve been having fun pairing recipes with fairy tales from around the world (you can find these on Global Table Adventure). I’m also working on a novel but it’s too early to say much about that…

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 29

July 29, 1805: Alexis de Tocqueville born.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Q&A with Ethan Michaeli

Ethan Michaeli is the author of the new book The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America. He worked at The Defender from 1991-1996, and his work has also appeared in a variety of publications, including The Nation and The Forward. He founded We the People Media, a nonprofit organization, and its affiliated publication, Residents' Journal. He is based in Chicago.

Q: You worked at The Defender in the 1990s. What did you learn from working there, and why did you decide to write a book about the paper’s history?

A: I didn’t know anything about race in America, African American history, Chicago history, and the history of African Americans in Chicago when I got to The Defender. It all was a blind spot in my education….

The time I spent at The Defender was transformative…I learned about The Defender’s pivotal role in American history. I always felt it deserved a book. I started to get the ambition to write nonfiction, and no one else had told the story and it deserved to be told.

It came to me slowly. At times I thought it would be better to do a memoir about my time at The Defender, but at the end I thought the best way would be to walk the reader through the history of the paper.

Q: You begin the book with a preface set in 2004 featuring Barack Obama, then a senatorial candidate. Why did you choose that episode as the book’s opening section?

A: President Obama really is the end product of more than a century of organizing and planning and building on the part of the African American community in Chicago. From the earliest moments of African Americans coming to the city, they saw politics as a nonviolent way to win back some of the rights won in the Civil War and then taken away…

The project began in the early 20th century with Ed Wright, Chicago’s first African American committeeman. It is a party position, and actually was an official rank that you [needed] to get  into the smoke-filled rooms where they divided up jobs…

Oscar De Priest was the first African American congressman [in the 20th century], and the only African American legislator on the federal level for quite some time…Harold Washington was the first African American mayor [of Chicago].

These were all signposts to launching Barack Obama as the ultimate expression of this political project. It’s good to start at the end and work your way back.

I would have written the book no matter what, but it’s true that President Obama’s election put the Chicago African American community on the radar screen of pundits and publishers.

Q: How would you describe the paper’s role in the Great Migration? What about the civil rights movement of the 1960s?

A: In the Great Migration, The Defender was an essential part of making Chicago a destination for the Great Migration.

[Defender founder] Robert Abbott was born in rural Georgia and had a European-educated stepfather who gave him a great foundation in education. He went to the Hampton Institute and had a law degree.

He was exceptionally well qualified, though because he was African American, was from the South, and had a dark complexion, that prevented him from getting work…

He knew the labor unions in Chicago were discriminating against African Americans. He didn’t see much point in masses of African Americans coming from the South to the North, because there wasn’t much opportunity for them. Many worked on the trains or in service or in the red light district. These were not big employers.

Then World War I changed things. The number of European immigrants stopped, and the demand for American products surged, especially foodstuffs and factory goods.

They needed workers, and an easily available labor force was African Americans in the South. Abbott still didn’t support it because there [also] was a need in the cities in the South.

What changed is that Abbott saw that the departure of skilled workers from the South hurt the South. He saw a report about stevedores from Jacksonville, Florida, who left to work at a port in New Jersey. The white managers could not replace them, and couldn’t train workers fast enough.

When Robert Abbott saw that, that it was going to hurt the South, that’s when he began to write editorials, and said, come to the North, Chicago in particular, [using this] as a weapon against Jim Crow…

In the Civil Rights movement, there was a similar approach. The Defender was very enthusiastic about the civil rights movement when it saw the civil rights movement could be an effective weapon against Jim Crow segregation.

It became enthusiastic about Martin Luther King [during] the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It saw him as a perfect spokesman…The Defender was defending him before other media; it kept him alive [during the early] movement.

The Defender became a daily at that time, to keep up with the demands of its readership, and to keep up with the white-owned press in coverage of the civil rights movement.

It kept them honest and on point. Defender reporters were there side by side with white reporters from The New York Times and The Boston Globe. They helped to define the coverage.

They were there to chart the signposts of the movement. When Black Power became a significant force, The Defender noted its arrival. On the editorial page, they said…Let’s give them support. A few months later, they said, OK, start to refine your message, keep the momentum going.

The Defender played a nuanced role in the civil rights movement. The movement was a set of organizations operating in a new space, between the standard political world and the world of civic organizations.

Q: How is the paper doing today, and what would you say is its legacy?

A: The paper today has a very small circulation. It’s back to a weekly—about 5,000 circulation. It still punches above its weight class. At moments when people are hungry for the perspective of the African American community, the paper gets a surge of interest and its editors are brought into other media as spokespeople.

It’s challenged because it doesn’t have the resources it needs, and its staff is stretched, but that’s always been true.

The African American community in Chicago remains as politically astute and organized as it has been. In the last election, African American voters threw out a prosecutor who had done a lousy job prosecuting police accused of abuse. The Defender knew that was coming and was part of that editorially.

They knew the Bernie Sanders campaign had not made sufficient inroads into the African American community, and knew he wouldn’t do well in Illinois. Illinois was a bellwether, and showed there was no way any candidate could win without getting the African American vote, which is decisive in a Democratic campaign.

The current editor and publisher are working very hard to keep the legacy of the paper and its reputation intact.

The legacy also includes the Bud Billiken Parade, the premier social/political event for the African American community in Chicago and beyond. Every politician who hopes to get the African American vote has to show up…

The legacy is broader. It includes individuals and family members who have graduated from The Defender and benefited from being a part of it.

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: I’m just about finished with a proposal…It will be different, on a broader, more international level, but still focusing on what happens to people when they’re oppressed and flee somewhere and make a place a bastion of resistance.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m super-grateful to everyone—the book’s had a nice response, and I’m especially grateful to former staffers at The Defender who have come out to support the book and come to events and contacted me. I’m so moved by that.

My biggest hope for the book is that I would get it right for them. It was a special, amazing place to work. According to the ones I’ve spoken to, I did, and I’m very appreciative!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 28

July 28, 1844: Gerard Manley Hopkins born.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Q&A with Anna Solomon

Anna Solomon, photo by Beowulf Sheehan
Anna Solomon is the author of the new novel Leaving Lucy Pear. She also has written the novel The Little Bride and coedited the anthology Labor Day. She has worked for National Public Radio, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times Magazine and One Story. She grew up in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and lives in Brooklyn.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Leaving Lucy Pear?

A: It was a combination of two things coming together. When I was growing up, we had pear trees below the house, and when they were ripe, they would all disappear in the night. We never knew how. My father liked to say it was giraffes, special birds, or somebody who really needs the pears. That really stuck with me. He liked that idea. It belonged with the idea of the Book of Ruth—the gleaning.

And then I came across a book called The Saga of Cape Ann, which is where I’m from [in Massachusetts]. There was an anecdote about a woman, a wealthy Bostonian who summered in Gloucester and was suffering from a nervous disorder. [The sound of a nearby] whistle buoy was agitating her, and she had contacts with the Navy and was able to have it taken out. There was an afterword saying she got married, felt better, and the whistle buoy could be put back.

As a novelist, I was thinking, What would happen if when the buoy was taken out, there was a consequence? I can’t tell how it came together with the pear trees, but they coalesced. That was in the late 19th century—I transposed it [to the 1920s].

Q: So what kind of research did you do to recreate Cape Ann in the 1920s?

A: I did a lot of research, a lot with the Gloucester Daily Times archives. It’s exhausting to look at, but fun! And history books.

[But] I find that the most illuminating research I tend to do is talking with real people. I spoke with a bootlegger’s grandson and with a woman who was a writer/reporter and wrote about quarries. She told me incredible stories, sensory details you don’t get from the history books. A fishing historian was very helpful to me with a plot problem—I needed a guy to be out on a longer fishing trip than boats would have been out, and he helped me find a loophole in the facts!

Q: In the book, you switch from one character’s perspective to another. Did you plan all along to do that, or did it develop as you went along?

A: I wanted to from the beginning.  At first, it was a challenge on an artistic level. My first book was from a close third person point of view, and it was claustrophobic, intentionally.

I really wanted to give the reader the feeling of when you see the character from afar and then get their perspective. There was a long time when it wasn’t clear that it would stay that way. A lot of cuts were made to keep it more focused.

What I found was that I think the book is about how Lucy Pear influences and affects all the characters in her community. She played a role in different lives to different degrees, but it’s not just her story. The story becomes more and more hers on a point of view level as it goes.

Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: I credit Christopher Castellani for coming up with the title. Chris is a fantastic writer (I highly recommend his last book, All This Talk of Love), and also a very generous soul, and after reading and blurbing the book he was somehow willing to brainstorm titles with me.

Between my editor, agent, the marketing team, the sales team and I, we were pretty mixed up about titles at that point, but then Leaving Lucy Pear came into the conversation and people were like, Ah... That's good.

I like it. I think it captures something both literal and symbolic about the book. And the cover Viking wound up creating is such a beautiful accompaniment to it, I think.

Q: Are you working on another book now?

A: I’m in the very beginning stages; I’m reluctant to talk about it. It involves the Book of Esther and a character who’s writing that book, and characters in the 1970s and in 2015. It jumps across time, but all the characters are relating to and repeating the original story from ancient Persia.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: For me, it really was amazing writing about places I know so intimately in a different time. It’s a different kind of traveling. Parts of the book are a love letter to my home town. Place factors large in all my work, and it’s exciting to see [the book] go into the world and bring that place to my readers.

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

July 27

July 27, 1908: Joseph Mitchell born.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Q&A with Danny Johnson

Danny Johnson is the author of the new novel The Last Road Home. His stories have appeared in a variety of publications, including Fox Chase Review and South Writ Large, and he lives in North Carolina.

Q: How did you come up with your characters Junebug, Fancy, and Lightning, and why did you choose to set the book in the 1950s and '60s?

A: I grew up during that era, and the setting of the book came from my own childhood of spending every summer on the farm with my grandparents, who were tobacco farmers.

I lived in a city housing project until I was around 15, where it could get a little dicey much of the time, and tell folks the two things I learned best was the value of friends and how to be the fastest white boy in the project.

But, as soon as summer came, I looked forward to spending it on the farm, enjoying the peace of the slow life, watching how the natural world interacted, and I loved being alone.

My grandmother taught me to read at an early age, and she was an avid reader, letting me read the books she would get from the book-mobile when it came around every couple of weeks. My great grandmother also lived with them and taught me to count by sitting me on her lap as a small child and counting my knuckles.  

I made friends with a couple of black kids around the community because there were no white kids, and we spent hours playing, me learning from them and them from me. I loved it.

As for Junebug, Fancy, and Lightning, one of the things I used to do when I had no ideas, was sit in front of my computer and simply begin typing the first words that came to mind, eventually making them into flash fiction stories or short stories and not caring if they sucked or not…somewhere in the mix of that, Fancy and Lightning came to me, like they wanted me to tell their story somehow.

I trusted my instincts and tried to do that, including Junebug as some version of myself as I pictured the sights, sounds, and smells of the farm life.

The thing that always bothered me was that black families and white families would work and sweat in the tobacco field, yet when it came time for lunch, they were always separated.

The particular family that lived close by I always called “Uncle Cliff” and “Miss Pearl” and he taught me so many things…yet, when they and any other black folks were spoken about, it was always “niggers”, and I simply could not reconcile the two.

Q: Can you say more about why you chose to include racial issues among the themes in your novel, and what do you hope readers take away from the book?

A: I included racial issues because they were a fact of life, and I thought a damn sorry fact of life. My grandmother always quietly encouraged my way of thinking. What I always try to write about is the most disenfranchised among us, and they certainly were that.

What I want folks to take away from the book is the appreciation of the humanity of each of us, that there is no difference, that a person can love another person, and I wanted Fancy to come through as a wonderful, daring, loving, unafraid human being who captures the reader’s heart and they root like heck for her…I often tell people if I’d known more about the mind of a black woman, she would have been the protagonist…

I take all efforts to present them as courageous and strong, which they were, and never be condescending, even if they turn out to be like Lightning and not a good person, I try to go deeper into him, to understand what it’s like to live in his skin.

If you will notice the dedication of the book is to a wonderful African American friend of mine in the military, Dot Dorsey. Dot was the kindest, most gentle man one could ever meet, and a much better human being than me...

On the night we got our orders for Vietnam, we sat on a stone wall overlooking a bay in Japan drinking a bottle of scotch, and talking about all the things we would do when we got home. He turned to me and said, “You realize if we were home right now, we couldn’t even go anywhere together and eat supper.”

That hit me so hard, that even though I had known him all those years, I really had no idea of his reality in the world. It was a sobering thought I have never forgotten, and it made me determined that someday I would try and find a way to thank him, and I hope this book does that in some small way. I came home from the war and he did not and is buried in Arlington.

Q: The blurbs on your website describe your book as "Southern literature." How would you define Southern literature, and how do you see your novel fitting into that tradition?

A: Southern Literature is character-driven story telling. Look at any of the greats such as Harry Crews, Rick Bragg, Ron Rash, Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee, and William Gay, plus many others, it’s about the characters, with a heavy dose of place…no crazy concepts, no Freudian thinking, it’s presenting characters you hope will find a place in the reader’s heart, to demonstrate the concept of overcoming circumstances, to represent a people who have great pride, even though it has been misdirected at times…

The South has always been a population of story tellers, mostly because they were uneducated and passed them down orally through the generations…

It’s a pride I don’t know if I can explain…to represent what I think of most times when reading Southern fiction is a line I saw many years ago and cannot remember who wrote it..the sentence began: “Why, you’re dumber than a sack of assholes.”

That, to me, is the essence of southern fiction. I have workshopped, read, studied with every single successful Southern writer I could possibly get around, because the work touches me in a way no other does.

Q: Did you know how the book would end before you started writing, or did you make many changes as you went along?

A: I had no idea how the book would end, and barely knew how it would start…all I knew is I had these characters who wanted me to tell their story, so I mostly simply observed their actions, sidled up to doorways and peeped in to see what they were doing, and wrote the story to the end, letting it tell itself.

I made many changes, thanks in most part to the wonderful writers group I belong to in Chapel Hill, N.C., and is led by Laurel Goldman who has been heading these groups for over 20 years…I always knew I had stories to tell, but that group taught me how to write…I owe them everything.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a novel with the preliminary title of “Cotton”…It’s about an albino drug dealer in the late ‘60s, ‘70s and is told from his cell in the three days prior to his execution.

Again, don’t ask me where he came from, all I can tell you is he showed up one day and wanted me to write his story :) The objective with him is to demonstrate his humanity even though he was forced to become vicious in order to survive. He’s a great character.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: It may interest folks to know I wrote my first story at 62, and the reason I mention it is because one should never give up on their dreams…that I entered all the contest possible when I began writing, and never won a single one :)

That I got rejected by at least 20+ agents before I got incredibly lucky and found a person who had appreciation for my particular type of work, and she found a publisher, Kensington, who also had a similar appreciation…I consider myself very fortunate indeed.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 26

July 26, 1856: George Bernard Shaw born.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Q&A with Naomi Schaefer Riley

Naomi Schaefer Riley is the author of the new book The New Trail of Tears: How Washington Is Destroying American Indians. Her other books include Got Religion? and 'Til Faith Do Us Part. She is a columnist for the New York Post, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. She lives in the New York suburbs.

Q: You write that anger motivated your decision to write The New Trail of Tears. Can you say more about that, and do you feel the same degree of anger after having explored the issues you address in the book?

A: I don’t have a personal connection to Indian territories; I’m not, like some people, part Indian. I’m just an interested reader [looking at] the problems of poverty on reservations. It is infuriating. Indians have the highest rate of poverty, of suicide, higher rates of crime…

I am more angry after I wrote the book as when I started. Now I understand that the problems are not simply what went on 100, 200, 300 years ago, we as a nation screwed over the Indians—[but that] our policies in Washington continue to harm them.

Q: This leads into a quote from the book that I was going to ask you about. You write, “It’s not the history of forced assimilation, war, and mass murder that have left American Indians in a deplorable state; it’s the federal government’s policies today.” Why do you believe that, and what role do you think the history did play in today’s situation?

A: I think there’s no getting around the history. The reason we have reservations today is that we wanted the Indians off the more valuable land. The problem is that we continue to have reservations today. We as a nation hold the land Indians own in trust. The only other people we hold things in trust for are children and people deemed mentally incompetent. 

People may say, Is land ownership a big thing any more? But many Americans gained economic autonomy by using homes to get credit, and start businesses. If you own a tiny piece of land, you may want to sell it and earn a profit. Indians can’t do that. Any transaction, even if it’s between two Indians, has to be approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington. The results are a lack of economic freedom that has resulted in crushing poverty.

Q: Do you think the government bureaucracy dealing with these issues has changed over the years? Do you see it improving at all or getting worse?

A: I think it’s gotten worse. There’s no bureaucracy that’s going to vote itself out of business. It’s going to come up with more rules. There’s one bureaucrat for every 111 Indians. The bureaucracy is going to keep growing and growing. 

The line they will feed is that we need to devote more money and attention to the problem, we need to hire more people to manage it. They will come up with more rules to enforce. Seventy-five percent of the employees of the Bureau of Indian Affairs are Indians. This is not white man’s oppression; this is bureaucratic oppression. Imagine if your life was one long line at the DMV.

Q: So what do you see as the answer?

A: It’s very difficult. There are deep constitutional questions in terms of tribal sovereignty. The best place to start is in the realm of education. I talk in the book about the deep problems with the education system…

One problem you see, the same as in inner cities, is not enough choice. They are relegated to [inferior] schools. A few parochial schools are on the reservations, and they do better. Some states with the biggest Indian populations, for example, South Dakota, have no charter school laws. No one can open up alternatives. 

Generation after generation have lived in isolating, impoverished experience—we need to expose them to [options]. It will change their ambitions and their own desire to create autonomy for their community.

Q: You say in the book that charter schools could be the “most promising alternatives for education reform in Indian communities.” What do you see looking ahead—will that happen?

A: I think so. But one of the other problems is that the tribal governments are opposed…You need to create a revolution on the ground among the parents, and say, here are the alternatives out there. 

There is a Teach For America population on reservations; parents are becoming aware there is another world outside the reservations. You need to get them asking, Why can’t we have that too? 

There is a lot of corruption in the tribal councils. They don’t want outside interference. Sometimes it’s a cultural issue, but sometimes it’s protective of turf; they don’t want a school to compete with the tribal school for dollars.

Q: You look at Native Americans in the United States and First Nations in Canada. How would you compare their situation regarding the issues you discuss in the book?

A: There are a lot of interesting comparisons. The tribes in Canada have more political power. There are more natives relative to the population, and they are concentrated in certain provinces. In British Columbia, they have a huge amount of political sway. They can affect policies in ways Native Americans here cannot. 

As regards the legal system, the law regarding aboriginal people in Canada is constantly in flux. For me, the most interesting comparison is the First Nations Property Ownership Act that’s making its way through Parliament—they had enough of holding land in trust, and [this] would allow Indians to buy and sell land …the ownership changes hands, and they will be able to sell to non-Indians. 

Washington bureaucrats ask, what if they sold the land to white people? Well, they would have more money in their pockets. In the U.S. and Canada, [people have] created a fantasy of the reservations as…utopias that keep people living the way they were 100 years ago, but it’s not what they want. We should not be determining that.

Q: So what is happening with the legislation in Canada?

A: It hasn’t passed yet. People seem confident. They have a pretty decent chance of success. It will be a great model for the U.S. It would show the same thing you’ve seen in countries around the world—when you have property rights and the rule of law, people can prosper.

Q: Are you working on another book now?

A: I’m in the process. It’s on parenting and technology. I’m all over the place, but it’s fun to be able to follow my interests to where they lead.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: In terms of what people can expect [from the book]—I spent time in a variety of Indian communities across the country. I tried not to quote from think tanks or Washington bureaucrats. I tried to find parents, teachers, who live and work on reservations, [to talk] about what they see as the needs. 

It’s time to take the debate outside football team names and Elizabeth Warren to solutions that will help people. American Indians are Americans and deserve the same rights as the rest of us have.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Naomi Schaefer Riley, please click here.

July 25

July 25, 1896: Josephine Tey born.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Q&A with Barbara Bradley Hagerty

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, photo by George David Sanchez
Barbara Bradley Hagerty is the author of the new book Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife. She also has written Fingerprints of God. She was a correspondent for NPR for almost 20 years, and she also worked for The Christian Science Monitor. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: You write, “Midlife has gotten a bum rap.” Why did you decide to write this book, and what are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about midlife?

A: I wrote the book because I was about to have a midlife crisis. It was right after my mom had a stroke. She's a very close friend and my moral compass, and now it was possible she wouldn’t speak again. It was unnerving. It made me think about mortality. Then my dad died, and I really thought about it—I was in the hospital with a heart attack scare when he died. It made me realize [my generation was] the next to go.

The real precipitating cause for the book was when my mom had the stroke. I was very saddened at the thought that she may never speak again. I came home from the ICU. It was a beautiful spring day, but I felt absolutely nothing. I felt completely flat. I looked at my husband and said, I think I’m having a midlife crisis. He said, Don’t do that.

The next day I started to research midlife crisis—was I having one? How do you thrive when you don’t have the energy you used to have and things feel harder? At some point you feel life is harder and you can’t fake it any more.

The reason midlife crisis gets a bum rap—early on in my research I realized this thing called a midlife crisis came out of an obscure journal. It was based on [a doctor’s] clinical patients--they were not all that happy—and on so-called geniuses. A lot committed suicide in their late 30s. What happened in your late 30s to make you feel that way?

After Gail Sheehy’s Passages, there was the idea that everyone was supposed to have a midlife crisis. In fact, only 10 percent of people have this existential angst. Most of us are OK.

Life is hard in your 40s. People do suffer a dip in happiness. You are unhappier in your 40s and early 50s. There are responsibilities at work, aging parents, kids at home, [you’re] tired. If you wait long enough, some of the responsibilities lift, and you [shift] your priorities and you go up that U-curve of happiness.

What I realized early on is that there’s no such thing as a common midlife crisis. While most of us suffer a dip in happiness, most [improve].

Q: Throughout the book, you write about your own experiences. What do you feel you learned about yourself from writing the book?

A: I had never journaled before. What I did [for the book] was I wrote in a journal three times a week. There was a huge amount of research and interviews. I would make pictures, write about scenes. If I went to U-Va. to get a brain scan, I would write about it so it would be fresh, about how the research was affecting me.

There’s the saying that an unexamined life is not worth living. The flip side is that an examined life is powerfully worth living. I realized these findings were applicable to me. When I started doing the things I was writing about, [my life improved].

It’s easy to go on autopilot. I was on autopilot….I wasn’t thinking hard about how to make my marriage deeper, how to engage in the writing process, how to be a better stepmom. Life becomes richer [when you do]. The year and a half I was recording, life slowed down and became more meaningful…

[For my research,] NPR sent out a note on its Facebook page: How’s midlife treating you? We didn’t ask for bad stories or good stories. I got 700 emails in a few hours—masterpieces of the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Most people were really happy in midlife. They would not go back to being in their 20s—you may be beautiful, but you’re anxious. By midlife you know yourself well enough to know what you’re good at. You’re more settled. People were a lot happier than I thought.

Also, I saw this theme: People who do well at midlife make a pivot away from the dreams they had that didn’t come true. One reason for the dip in happiness is you realize you’re not going to be the CEO or a Pulitzer Prize winner.

People who do really well [at midlife] say, OK, now, let’s work at what’s in my control. They focus on the relationships that are important to them. They focus on the causes or activities that are important to them. You can control this. You can’t control the other stuff.

It was an important insight I needed to learn and am still learning. How do you let go of that dream?

Q: This leads to something I was going to ask you--you write that people should choose purpose over happiness. Why is that, and what does finding a purpose mean for one’s life?

A: Purpose is the Cinderella of psychological traits. No one noticed it for a long time, and now everyone realizes that having purpose keeps you happy, healthy, and keeps your memory intact.

I read the science and found that momentary happiness is just fine, but you don’t build your life around it. People who focus on momentary happiness have a weaker immune system.

Psychologists and biologists don’t know why, but suspect that if you choose a purpose—something larger than yourself—if you lose your job, you still are invested in something worthwhile, and you tend to be healthier.

My favorite study in the book was about purpose and escaping the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. The study followed people from their early 60s to the end of their lives, and every year they would give them a cognitive and psychological test.

After a person died, they had given permission to do an autopsy on their brain. One third of the people with the plaques of Alzheimer’s showed no symptoms. One third of the people escaped…Why?

The thing they did differently is these were people who had a high purpose in life, a reason to get out of bed. They retained memories two and a half times better than people without a purpose in life.

Something that dramatic, that allows you to escape the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, is something I want to do. This was huge for me. It doesn’t have to be world peace or eradicating hunger. It can be babysitting your grandchildren, or helping friends out, or a hobby. For me it was cycling. It can be a little thing that gets you up in the morning.

Q: How have images of midlife changed over the decades?

A: What’s happened is when people hit midlife they still feel young, and when they hit old age they don’t feel old, they feel they’re in midlife. Midlife changed from 40-60 to more like 45-65.

This is partly because many baby boomers—there are huge exceptions to the rule, people who are unemployed or less educated—but most baby boomers are healthier, engaged, not old, they don’t want to be thought of as old. It’s changing our notion of what middle age and old age is. I don’t plan to be old until I’m about 80, or maybe 75!

[However,] there are people who are really struggling, and spikes in the suicide rate. These are tragic things. It tends to be people who are less educated, which makes it more difficult to have meaningful work.

The biggest predictor for living a long, healthy, mentally acute life is education—but there is an exception to the rule. People with a purpose in life with a high school education are as happy, healthy, and mentally acute as people with a college education…

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: I’m figuring out the next book. I’m doing a bunch of magazine pieces and trying to figure out the next large project. Once you settle on a book, you’d better like the topic! I want to make sure it’s the right topic…

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: There were two surprising chapters. One was about the absolutely essential nature of friendships. Studies have shown that friendships are better for your health than family, because you can choose your friends.

Midlife is a time when people let friendships drop, because they’re busy. But you need your friends. The science shows that isolation kills you like smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and that friendships save you.

The other lesson is the importance of finding a little purpose—a hobby, something that’s yours…it leads to friendships, too. These hobbies are good for the brain, and for your physical well-being…if people can try to develop [these lessons], they can be so happy!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb