Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Q&A with Joe Okonkwo

Joe Okonkwo, photo by Theik Smith
Joe Okonkwo is the author of the new novel Jazz Moon, which takes place during the Harlem Renaissance. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Promethean and Penumbra Literary Magazine, and he is prose editor for Newtown Literary. He lives in New York.

Q: How did you come up with your main character, Ben Charles, and with the idea for Jazz Moon?

A: I had been in love with the Harlem Renaissance for years and had wanted to write a short story set in the period. I found out about a short story contest and decided to write a Harlem story and enter it in the contest.

The word limit was 1,500. I said, "I can write this story in 1,500 words." I never entered that contest because the story ballooned to about 26,000 words. From that, the novel was born.

Ben Charles came about because I was interested in how blackness and gayness intersected with each other and with the Harlem Renaissance, which was a period of explosive black cultural growth and awareness.

During this period in Harlem, homosexuality was taboo and underground, but also very much in the open.

There were gay bars. There was an annual drag bar that was one of the social events of the season and tons of straight people came to see the drag queens in their fabulous get-ups. It was an open secret that female blues singers like Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey and Alberta hunter were lesbian or bisexual.

The Harlem Renaissance, like the 1920s generally, was a time of sexual awakening; a time when inhibitions and taboos were, to some extent, tossed aside. I wanted to write about that. And I wanted to create a character who was at the crossroads of all of that.

Q: Can you say more about why you picked 1920s Harlem and Paris as the novel’s settings, and how important setting is to you in your writing?

A: If there was a time machine and I could travel back to any period in history, it would be the Harlem Renaissance. It was the first time anyone--white or black--realized that black was beautiful. And marketable.

Setting is extremely important in a historical novel. You want to immerse the reader in the sights, smells, and sounds of the era. My aim in Jazz Moon is to make Harlem a character, to make Paris a character, to make each jazz club in the story a character with its own unique personality and function and idiosyncrasies.

Q: What kind of research did you do to recreate Harlem and Paris during the Jazz Age?

A: I read lots of books. I read books specifically about the Harlem Renaissance like When Harlem Was in Vogue by David Levering Lewis and The Harlem Renaissance: Hub of African-American Culture, 1920-1930 by Steven Watson.

Paris Noir by Tyler Stovall was a must read: it's a history of blacks in Paris, from the 19th century through the 1980s. 

I read books about ocean liners and books about homosexuality in Europe during the 1920s. I did lots of online research and photo research. I read about jazz and vaudeville entertainers of the era.

I read authors of the Harlem Renaissance era like Langston Hughes, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Nella Larsen, and Richard Bruce Nugent. And I listened to 1920s jazz: Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Joe "King" Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Adelaide Hall, Gladys Bentley.

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

A: I didn't know how the novel would end until I was doing the very final rewrite. The ending went through a few different iterations. I struggled with the ending. I can't say why without spoiling it for potential readers, but the ending was very much a compromise with myself, one that I'm glad to say I'm happy with.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A short story called "Luc," which is also set in Paris, but in 2016. It's a quasi love story.

I've also been submitting a story called "Picnic Street," which is set in a town in Mississippi in 1979. It's about a young woman who leaves her husband and goes back to her hometown with their son and how she deals with being labeled a "bourgie black."

In part, it's about not fitting the racial expectations that have been set by members of your own race. I also threw in some issues about reproductive choice for good measure. 

I'm also an editor for Newtown Literary, a journal dedicated to publishing writers in Queens, New York, where I live. We're currently putting together our ninth issue. Starting next year I take the reins as editor of the annual Best Gay Stories anthology published by Lethe Press.

And very soon, I'll start my next novel--also set in the Harlem Renaissance. It's based on the life of Gladys Bentley. She was a cross dresser, pianist, and blues singer known for her raunchy lyrics. She got in trouble for violating "decency codes." She also claimed to have married a white woman in an Atlantic City wedding ceremony.

In the 1950s, she gave an interview to Ebony Magazine renouncing her lesbianism and claiming to have been "cured" through the use of hormones. She actually makes a cameo appearance in Jazz Moon.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Let's see...I'm currently reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I love it. And her.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 31

Aug. 31, 1916: Daniel Schorr born.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Q&A with Michelle Brafman

Michelle Brafman is the author of the new work of fiction Bertrand Court. She also has written the novel Washing the Dead, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Washington Post and Tablet. She teaches at the Johns Hopkins University MA in Writing Program, and she lives in Glen Echo, Maryland. 

Q: You note that you wrote Bertrand Court over a 15-year period. Did you plan to write a series of linked chapters from the beginning, or did that idea develop as you wrote them?

A: I wrote a slew of random stories, and then I read Amy Bloom’s short story collection, Come To Me, and she gave me the idea to write linked pieces. Her individual stories felt complete, but then she cracked them open by writing subsequent tales that explored the characters from different perspectives and/or time periods.

I loved that and grew more curious about my own characters. Who were they when they were pushed to their emotional brink? When they were standing on firm ground? How were they perceived by their family members, friends, or enemies? 

So the same character who in one story steals the family silver, emerges as the family matriarch in another, or the rock solid dental hygienist, the glue of Bertrand Court, steals a leather jacket from Nordstrom after her husband’s business goes bankrupt.

I can be quick to judge others and myself, and writing these stories taught me to take a step back and embrace the complexities and inconsistencies that make us all so frustrating, lovable, disappointing, funny, and ultimately, human.   

Q: Did you write the chapters in the order in which they appear in the book?

A: No, but I did write in triptychs, groupings of three linked stories, which I later tied together.    

Q: Would you describe the book as a novel or as linked short stories, and why?

A: I would describe the book as a novel in stories, or is that cheating? The arc of Bertrand Court is expressed via life’s passages. The book opens with a story narrated by a fetus and proceeds to explore: a couple’s burning desire to conceive, a disastrous bris, a kindergartner’s birthday party mishap, a fading politico’s midlife torpidity, and an heiress’s desperate search for meaning.

In the final chapter, on the eve of his 50th birthday, an upstanding father and husband subconsciously risks his marriage because he is terrified of his mortality and wants to destroy his life’s blessings on his own terms.

Q: In our previous Q&A about Washing the Dead, we discussed the role of religion in that novel. How would you describe the role of religion in Bertrand Court?

A: Many of the characters in Bertrand Court are Jews; others are not. I was interested in exploring a variety of interfaith relationships from multiple perspectives, specifically the intersection between these characters’ emotional and spiritual relationships.

For example, in “Skin,” when the protagonist’s son’s bris goes bad, he must untangle his feelings about his relationships with his father, his Gentile wife, and his faith.

The stories about early pregnancy loss are also filtered through a Jewish lens. A sterling silver baby spoon smuggled from “the old country” features prominently in a series of stories about the superstitions and jealousies that attach themselves to a family’s multi-generational struggle with early pregnancy loss.

I’ve always been interested in people’s spiritual lives, perhaps because there’s a mystery to them. Religion is not a topic that emerges during conversations with my family members or closest friends. I want to understand my characters’ relationships to their faith and to God, and explore ruptures in their souls, and how they recover from them.   

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a new novel, but I’m hesitant to talk about it too much. The more I talk, the less I write!

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: I’d like to mention a little something about the setting, specifically my desire to show a side of D.C. not often found in fiction or on television.

My characters work for the people who work for Scandal’s Olivia Pope or House of Cards’ Congressman Underwood. They Metro in from the ‘burbs to Capitol Hill, drive carpools, and slide into consulting jobs if their candidates lose.

They’re cameramen, audio technicians, and editors who gather and package the soundbites we see on the nightly news, and they suit up and caffeinate when assigned to cover an election or political scandal. 

So while the book is set in D.C., I’m hearing that it has wider appeal. That makes me very happy because I wanted to leverage this larger awareness and hunger for power and status to explore the delicate power balances that exist within the marriages, friendships, and more casual relationships presented in these 17 narratives. 

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

Aug. 30

Aug. 30, 1797: Mary Shelley born.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Q&A with Lee Gjertsen Malone

Lee Gjertsen Malone is the author of the middle-grade novel The Last Boy at St. Edith's. She is also a freelance writer whose work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Boston Globe Magazine and Odyssey magazine. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Last Boy at St. Edith's?

A: Oddly enough, I got the idea from a newsletter from my husband’s old high school. He went to a Catholic school that went coed a few years after he graduated, and we still get mail from them.

This newsletter was talking about all the positive changes that had happened since the school added girls – new sports teams, increased applications – but it got me thinking.

Why would a school go coed? And (because this is where my mind goes) what if it didn’t work out? What if instead of every year there were more and more kids of your gender, there were fewer and fewer, until you were the last one?

Q: What do you think the book says about gender dynamics, particularly among middle-school-aged kids?

A: This became one of the most intriguing aspects of the book as I was writing it. I started it with a simple premise – the only boy at an all girl’s school who wants to get expelled – and it brought up so many great ideas.

For me, the best part was being able to show all the different kinds of relationships that boys and girls have at this age. Old friendships, new friendships, family, mentors, crushes.

But there’s still an aspect of gender expectations that really begin to come into play. I liked the idea of talking about those expectations, and how they affect relationships, in a way that was fun and interesting and felt genuine.

In some respects, Jeremy has everything he needs, he just can’t always see it because of what he thinks he’s supposed to want.

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

A: I tend to write endings early in the writing process. I need to know the destination, at least partly, before I can figure out the path.

So, without spoiling the book – yes, I knew whether or not he succeeded in his plan very early on. (I also had a very strong idea of who would be the major player in his failure or success...which anyone who has read the book can easily figure out!)

Q: How have your readers responded to the book?

A: I love how the readers have responded to the book. I like to ask them questions about their favorite characters, and how the friendships play out.

Though I’ve found older kids and adults find the character Emily to be much more sympathetic than younger kids do -- it’s interesting that there’s an age divide in how readers react to that one particular character.

I also ask readers about their favorite pranks – because there are a lot of pranks in the book. There’s one prank that is the most common response (hint: it’s the first big one) but a number of readers have really liked some of the other pranks. It’s always intriguing to me to hear their responses.  

One less positive thing I’ve heard from a few adults is that there aren’t enough consequences in the book (basically, punishments!). But for me I feel like emotional consequences are the important part of the story – I’d rather see Jeremy understand how what he does affects other people than talk about how long he’s going to be grounded. But that might just be me.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The age-old question. Let’s just say: Something awesome that I hope the readers of this book will like just as much that I can’t really talk about now.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: One of the coolest things about this year has been all the amazing authors I’ve gotten to know and all the amazing books I’ve gotten to read. 

There are so many good middle grade novels out there, which makes me very happy (especially since I have an 11-year-old at home who seems to be on a mission to read every book in the library). 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 29

Aug. 29, 1632: John Locke born.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Q&A with Atinuke

Atinuke is the author of Double Trouble for Anna Hibiscus!, a winner of the 2016 Children's Africana Book Awards. Her other books include Anna Hibiscus and Love from Anna Hibiscus!. She grew up in Nigeria and England, and now lives in Wales.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your character Anna Hibiscus, and for the latest book in the series, Double Trouble for Anna Hibiscus?

A: For ages I’d been wanting to write about a little girl growing up - as I did - in a busy African city. The name and character came finally when I was stuck in bed, ill and bored - Anna Hibiscus’s name and personality came in a flash - and I had the time while stuck in bed to write the first four stories about her. 

My sisters and I were called Double Trouble, when there was two of us, and then Triple Trouble, when there was three. I wanted to write about the birth of Double Trouble and the trouble it would cause for Anna, the trouble and upheaval all babies - being babies - cause their older siblings! 

I love writing about Double Trouble, the mischief they get into, and it was fun to think about the trouble that babies - so unwittingly - could cause. 

Q: Did you know when you wrote the first book about her that it would be a series?

A: Most of the Anna stories are inspired by my childhood in Nigeria - things that I did, things I wanted to do (but wasn’t brave enough), things that I wished would happen - they all happen to Anna Hibiscus.

I knew when I wrote the first Anna stories that I had lots more about this that I wanted to write - but I did not know then that I’d be lucky enough to be asked to write so many of them! 

There are eight Anna Hibiscus books now - the first four are available in the U.S. through bookshops or booksellers...and all eight can all be ordered through the U.K. Amazon site -

Q: What do you see as the relationship between the oral storytelling tradition and your own storytelling and writing?

A: I have been telling traditional oral African stories for 18 years now and undoubtedly they influence my work as an author - and that’s a great thing!

Some of the stories I tell are more than 5,000 years old, created by unknown geniuses and honed and perfected by generations of excellent storytellers. They teach me a lot about life - and I like to think that they make me a better writer too! 

Also, maybe because I am a storyteller, as I write I say the words aloud in my head. This also brings a storytelling style to my books especially its rhythm and repetition. 

Q: As someone who grew up in Nigeria and England, what do you see as some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions that people in one country have about the other?

A: I wanted to write about a girl growing up in a busy African city because many children I met in England (and elsewhere in the West) thought that life in Nigeria was one of wild animals, mud huts and poverty. Even now children gasp when I talk about drinking Coca-Cola and playing computer games in Nigeria.

On the other hand in Nigeria many people imagine that everyone in England (and elsewhere in the West) is rich, that it’s easy over here to become a millionaire! It can be hard to get people to believe that there is poverty over here too. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now I’m working on some new picture books - with new characters and a fabulous new illustrator. The first of those will be out next year in the U.K. and the U.S. - and I am so excited about it - it’s a story I’ve been mulling over for years now and it’s wonderful seeing it come to life in such gorgeous pictures.

I’m also working on my first non-fiction project - I won’t say too much about that, as it’s still a long time away from publication - but working on it is satisfying and fulfilling - I love it!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I don’t have a study or even a desk where I work. I write wherever I happen to be - in bed when it’s raining, in a hammock when it’s bright, in my favourite armchair, at the kitchen table, in hotel rooms and trains and airplanes. Ideas come to me in floods when I am travelling.

Then it’s a question of discipline - the discipline to spend the hours and days and weeks and months and years that it takes to turn those ideas into stories, and those stories into books. When I get stuck then it’s time to stop working and wander the woods and beaches near my home.

I can’t really separate writing and living - both of them feed and enrich the other. And I can’t imagine a more wonderful job - making up stories and telling them - it’s playing really! 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 28

Aug. 28, 1913: Robertson Davies born.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Q&A with John Mack Faragher

John Mack Faragher is the author of Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles. His other books include Daniel Boone and A Great and Noble Scheme. He is the Howard R. Lamar Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on frontier Los Angeles, and what do you see as some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about Los Angeles in that era?

A: The decision to do a book on Los Angeles was personal. I grew up in Southern California, outside Los Angeles, went to public school, to the University of California, Riverside, and was a social worker in South Central Los Angeles, and [then received a] Ph.D. in history.

Later in my career I had the opportunity to spend time in Los Angeles. Over the last 10-15 years we’ve spent a lot of time there. My previous book was on the expulsion of Acadian people from Nova Scotia. It got me interested in the historical problem of violence…

My wife said, When you do your next book, pick some place we’d like to be. I thought, why not a book on violence in Los Angeles? The Huntington Library has all the judicial records for Los Angeles in the early period, and the Seaver Center in Exposition Park is a repository of records of the alcalde’s office, in the Mexican period…

There was an opportunity to look at conditions under two nation states, two wars of conquest—by the Spanish and the Americans. The 1850s and ‘60s was a notoriously violent period in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles is such a 20th century city. It came into prominence in the middle of the century, and it’s associated with development and real estate. It all began in the late 1880s. Los Angeles was founded in 1781, and in the 1880s there was the real estate boom. Very few historians have written, and the general public is ignorant, about the history of the city prior to the late 19th century.

Q: You write, “Violence is the dark force of our national history.” Do you see parallels between the violence in 19th century Los Angeles and the violence we see across the country today?

A: Quite definitely. There are a number of ways to approach this. One of the things the study of violence underplays is that violence is a learned behavior. People learn to be violent. It’s not a natural behavior. People are not naturally cooperative, but the natural human instinct, of a healthy person, is not to lash out and physically trash people nearby.

One of the goals I set was I would not allow myself simply to write about public violence without attention to the place where violence is reproduced—the household.

The Huntington Library also has records of the civil courts in Los Angeles in this period, and the justice of the peace record books. The justice of the peace courts were the courts of first recourse. Nearly all domestic violence [cases] went to the justice of the peace courts.

I had hundreds of stories of women who testified. In divorce cases, there were scores of women. In that sense, there’s a direct connection with our world.

One of the great progressive developments of the last 30-40 years is attention has developed to domestic violence, partner violence, violence against children, and the resources victims have and the attention we pay to the perpetrators of domestic violence. The rates of domestic violence have declined.

In the period I study, there was a tsunami of domestic violence going on. It corresponded with a dangerous world, and people [resorted] to violence because of structural factors. Violence was learned in the home. It was as true in frontier Los Angeles as it is today…

There were more violence-inclined people on the streets [then]. The structural reasons why violence was significant in Los Angeles—it was a society that was a conquest society. Spanish men conquered the native people…the use of the lash was omnipresent. There was a structure of violence.

Then it was conquered again by the United States in the Mexican War in 1846-7. It was a violent conquest. In relation to the Hispanic people and the native people, and the Anglo people and the Hispanic people, there was a legacy of bitterness and oppression that manifested itself in violence.

Los Angeles is a long way away—from Mexico City, and from the legally constituted authority after the U.S. took it over. The justice system—of law enforcement, the court system, the penal system—was all amazingly weak and ineffective.

The tendency to engage in do-it-yourself justice, vigilantism, it also could be by vendetta, feud, or personal animus—these were very common forms in a world where legally constituted justice was weak.

When people don’t believe the system can deliver justice, they tend to take the law into their own hands. It’s just as true now as then. There’s a direct parallel between what happened in Los Angeles and other cities, and today in cities where there are large neighborhoods where people feel they have no justice.

Q: The book examines a wide cast of characters. Are there any that particularly captured your attention, and why?

A: One was Judge Benjamin Hayes, a Missourian who came to Los Angeles in 1850 and became a judge in the early 1850s. He was a young man and a very small man, but was a towering character.

He spent his career on the bench doing everything he could to build up the justice system. He was unsuccessful in doing that, but was an enormously admirable character for his attempts.

He treated people equally regardless of race. Hayes also in 1854 or ’55 heard the suit of a black woman held as a slave. He ruled, because California did not recognize slavery, that she could not be held, and she was freed then. It was overthrown by the Dred Scott case, but it was a heroic decision on his part.

Another was Francisco Ramirez, the editor of a Spanish-language paper in Los Angeles. When he edited the paper, he was in his late teens. He was a very gifted man, editor, writer, and was politically passionate about the rights of Mexican-Americans…He spent his career as a political activist. I would pick him out as one I admire greatly.

The book is full of wonderful characters, the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s hard for me to pick out who to put as top on the list.

I would pick James Barton, the sheriff who I begin the book with. He was a Democratic politician murdered at the hands of a Latino gang in 1857. It was the cause of a series of racial pogroms against Latinos. He was a commanding character.

One of the difficulties I had was that the public record emphasizes the contributions of men. I wanted to bring women into the narrative. 

Francisca Perez was the first woman to file for divorce in Los Angeles County. She tried to divorce her husband. As soon as the Americans took over, they made divorce possible, and that was the first thing she did. Unfortunately, the judge refused her request. She was not a woman you’d find in the public record, but digging into the [court] record I found many women’s stories worth repeating.

Q: How did Los Angeles change over the period that you write about in the book?

A: From the period I examine, the 1830s to the 1870s, Los Angeles grew very slowly. The average population of the county was about 10,000 people. It rose from about 5,000 in the 1830s to 15-20,000 in the 1860s.

It was a mud city, adobe, very few trees, watered by a series of irrigation ditches. The landscape would have changed relatively little.

During the Civil War, there was an enormous environmental catastrophe—an extended drought, much like the one now. The economy was based on cattle ranching; tens of thousands of cattle died.

Those large properties were divided and sold in 20-40 acre farm parcels. There was an economic boom; Los Angeles converted to producing high-quality agricultural commodities--walnuts, oranges—a highly productive, intensive, horticultural economy. That created a boom in late-1860s Los Angeles.

They built a railroad that connected the city to San Pedro and to San Francisco and the national economy. That was the beginning of the transition out of the frontier period.

It had a dramatic effect on violence. The court system expanded to take care of the requirements for more business arrangements. More properties were bought and sold. As an incidental consequence, it strengthened the justice system.

The apprehension of perpetrators and incarceration was way up, and people gained new confidence in the justice system. Violence fell, not because of anything they did directly—vigilantism didn’t work at all—but the creation of the new courts…This finally began to inch the violence rate down.

That was the big transition, from a world where the violence was at the level of low-intensity warfare, in the 1850s and ‘60s, to a level where it was very high by our standards but much lower than it had been…

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: I’m writing a history of California for [younger] readers…it’s written in a conversational tone. It’s another opportunity to get the word out.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: There was a horrific massacre of Chinese-speaking people in Los Angeles in 1871…I argue this was a direct consequence of the do-it-yourself justice. That horrific event turned people around, and forced them to pay attention to the consequences of the justice system. It was being reformed as the massacre took place.

The trial of the ringleader—they found him guilty and he was sent to San Quentin—showed people the justice system could work. Before things got better, Los Angeles had to suffer through a terrible racist massacre.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 27

Aug. 27, 1871: Theodore Dreiser born.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Q&A with Bonnie MacBird

Bonnie MacBird is the author of the Sherlock Holmes novel Art in the Blood, now available in paperback. She is a screenwriter, actor, director, and artist, and she teaches screenwriting at UCLA Extension. She lives in Los Angeles.

Q: Why did you decide to write a new Sherlock Holmes mystery?

A: I have loved this character since age 10, and when I sat down to write a novel, I knew at once it would be a mystery, and that it would take me over a year to complete.  

That’s a lot of time to spend in the company of your characters.  I thought… "who do I want to spend time with?"… and the answer came, Sherlock Holmes and John Watson!  

Also, from an artistic standpoint, I knew that the study it would take to do a good emulation of Conan Doyle, whom I consider a genius, would be worth my time, that I would be a better writer for having attempted this. I love learning and I love impossible challenges. They inspire my best work.  

And for another reason as well….I wrote the book I wanted most to read, right then. 

Q: As you were writing the book, what did you see as the right balance between the original Holmes and your own take on him and Watson?

A: My goal was to make these two as close to canon as possible. That being said, we cannot, as writers, avoid putting ourselves in our writing.  

In creating a novel-length Holmes story that would play for modern readers and yet would feel authentic and true to the originals, I knew I would have to make some concessions to strict canon adherence.  

For one thing, Doyle only used these characters in short stories and novellas. Extending an adventure to novel length would require a different structure and a more extendable and complex mystery, because Holmes is brilliant, and yet he can’t solve the thing right away, or the story is over.  

I had to place more impediments to the solution in his path, and do this by layering a multiple mystery that would take longer to unravel as well has have him deal with his own personal vulnerabilities.  

But the man is an alpha male and a bit of a superhero, co he could not be too vulnerable.  Also, Conan Doyle wrote “adventures,” not “mysteries.” 

There is quite a lot of action in the canon, at least in the aggregate. I also consciously chose to include action and danger to both our heroes and the client, which further helped structurally.

In my view, my Holmes and Watson are very like, or as close as I could get, to the originals. I have been accused of writing like BBC Sherlock because I am a screenwriter and an avowed fan of that series. But where Art in the Blood resembles BBC it is primarily because both my work and theirs is inspired by exactly the same source.

There was only one conscious “borrow” from BBC Sherlock, and that is that I like the adversarial and slightly ominous relationship between Holmes and his brother Mycroft.  That is not strictly canonical and yet has tremendous “story juice.” So I think my Mycroft is slightly less strictly canonical, and yet he is not a total departure.  

But a vulnerable Holmes who rises heroically to challenge, the loyal and brave and very active Watson who helps keep Sherlock from his demons and calls him on is BS, all this is right from canon. And the humor. Doyle was terribly funny and my aim was to exactly reproduce that camaraderie and humor of the originals. 

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

A: I knew the crime and who did it… but how they got there, and the complications along the way came up as I went along.

Several characters just walked onto the page without my consciously pre-planning them, particularly the rogue detective Jean Vidocq who claims to be related to the famous real-life character of the same last name, and the little boy, Freddie, in the silk mill.  I had no idea of them ‘til they just…showed up. 

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

A: The title came first and is extremely meaningful to me.  “Art in the Blood is liable to take the strangest forms” is a canonical quote from “The Greek Interpreter” and refers to Sherlock Holmes and Mycroft Holmes’ hereditary powers of observation----inherited from their great grand uncle, the artist Horace Vernet (a real person).  

It also obliquely refers to the Janus-faced gift of the artistic temperament, a subject very dear to my heart. Like Conan Doyle, I have one parent who was an artist, and the other an amateur but master storyteller…. and I am very familiar with the artistic temperament.  

It gifts those who possess it with the ability to see what others do not, to discern pattern in chaos, and yet often saddles them with a certain lability of emotion that can, when not handled carefully, be a detriment.  

Holmes displays all these characteristics throughout canon, and I felt an exploration of this would be a wonderful underpinning to a longer work featuring him. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am writing Unquiet Spirits, which is book two in my Holmes trilogy for HarperCollins. It has to do with ghosts, murder, and the whisky business. It takes place in London, the French Riviera, and the highlands of Scotland.  

In it, Sherlock Holmes, the ultimate rational thinker, must come to terms with a ghost from his own past in order to solve a complex series of crimes in the present day. But, of course, he doesn’t believe in ghosts. Or does he?

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I love the research part of writing period mystery, and have traveled to most of the locations in my books, and have created annotations and illustrations to Art in the Blood, both available on my website, They are great fun for those interested in the period, and would be great fodder for book club discussions.  

I’m also available for Skype appearances as well as library and other talks.  I teach writing at UCLA Extension Writer’s Program and enjoy teaching and talking about writing. 

Thank you very much for asking!  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 26

Aug. 26, 1880: Guillaume Apollinaire born.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Q&A with Fiona Davis

Fiona Davis is the author of the new novel The Dollhouse, which looks at New York City's Barbizon Hotel in the 1950s. She has worked as an actress, editor, and writer, and she lives in New York.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on the Barbizon Hotel in your novel?

A: I was looking for an apartment in New York City, and my broker took me to see a gorgeous condo in the Barbizon building. Although I had a general idea of its history, I returned home and immediately Googled it to find out more.

When I learned that a small number of hotel residents still lived there in rent-controlled apartments on the fourth floor, I realized I had the makings of a novel. The juxtaposition of old and new New York was too juicy to resist.

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to recreate the New York City of the 1950s, and what surprised you most in the course of your research?

A: I tried to immerse myself in that time period, including taking a series of classes in bebop jazz at Jazz at Lincoln Center, reading books about the early ‘50s, and watching old movies.

I studied the fashions and also read newspapers from that era to get a sense of what people were nervous about and what kind of changes were sweeping the city.

I was amazed at the way women were treated back in the ‘50s. Of course, I knew things were different then, and that the ‘60s and ‘70s had brought in sweeping changes, but the articles I read in newspapers and magazines had such a patriarchal tone to them.

For example, a woman was instructed to never directly address a waiter if she was dining out with a man. Any requests would have to go through her date. Hard to imagine today.

Q: The chapters in the novel move back and forth between your 1950s-era protagonist, Darby, and your modern-day protagonist, Rose. Did you plan out the structure of the book before you started writing, or did you make many changes along the way?

I’m a total planner. I know a lot of writers who just start writing and see where the story takes them, but because of the dual narrative and the mystery element in The Dollhouse, I had to make sure clues were dropped at the right spot in Darby’s timeline before revealing them in Rose’s.

So I plotted it out and wove the chapters together before starting the first draft. There were several changes during revisions, but the general structure stayed the same.

Q: In addition to your writing, you've worked as an actor. How do you see your acting background affecting your writing?

A: That’s a great question. I think being onstage and pretending that I was a Shakespearean heroine in the royal court, or dashing about the forest of Arden, taught me how to stretch my imagination and sense awareness. 

So that these days, when I’m sitting in front of my laptop trying to figure out how to convey the idea that a character is cold or hungry, I can pretty quickly tap into that part of myself. Of course, then I have to turn the image or feeling into words, which is a whole other struggle. But a gratifying one.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m diving into the second draft of my next book, which will also be historical fiction with an element of mystery. But I don’t want to give away too much, so it will be a surprise! I’m having a great time playing around with it on the page.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’ve worked as a journalist the past 15 years, and I think that’s helped me with fiction writing because I love calling up experts on a particular subject and interviewing them at length. They’re usually happy to chat, and provide lots of details that make it seem like I know what I’m talking about.

But the best aspect of fiction is you can then make characters do and say what you want, which offers a vast (and sometimes terrifying) freedom for the author. It’s a lethal combo.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Q&A with Edward G. Lengel

Edward G. Lengel is the author of First Entrepreneur: How George Washington Built His--and the Nation's--Prosperity. His other books include General George Washington: A Military Life and Inventing George Washington. He is a professor at the University of Virginia, and he directs the Washington Papers documentary editing project in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Q: You’ve written other books about George Washington. Why did you decide to focus this time on his role as entrepreneur?

A: The Washington Papers project, which I direct, has spent the last few decades editing and publishing George Washington’s primary correspondence—letters written by and to him during the Revolutionary War, the presidency, and so on.

A few years ago I decided to expand our operations to include the editing and publication of his extensive accounts and financial papers. Studying these documents revealed a whole new side of Washington that has been almost completely neglected (the only other book about him as a businessman was published in 1930).

I decided to take a new look at his entrepreneurial activities not just to reveal more about Washington, but to place him more firmly in the context of his family, his community, and his times—and to discover more about the lessons his story can teach us today.

Q: You describe him as “a crafty and diligent entrepreneur.” What are some of the ways in which he demonstrated that, and how did his political and entrepreneurial activities intersect?

A: Washington’s craftiness is perhaps most apparent in his ability to think beyond contemporary expectations of a Virginia planter.

When the rest of the colony was focused on raising tobacco, he switched his entire operations over the wheat. When his Scottish farm manager suggested he build and operate a distillery at Mount Vernon as a business venture, Washington agreed despite his lack of experience in distilling, and earned huge profits.

His diligence emerges in all of his business activities, for he studied every challenge carefully, pursued his ventures with diligence, and kept exceptionally careful accounts.

Ultimately, Washington came to identify his own financial health and move toward prosperity with the future of the United States.

After the Revolutionary War ended, and even before he assumed the presidency, he recognized the profoundly important symbolic role that he played in American life, and tried to ensure that each one of his activities set a positive example for his countrymen.

As president, he identified establishing the “national prosperity” as his “only aim,” and used his entrepreneurial knowledge to inform his creation of public policy in economics and other arenas,

Q: How were his views on slavery affected by his focus on business matters?

A: It seems clear to me that Washington increasingly turned against slavery as he came to understand its basic conflict with the work-benefit principle.

Like other advanced thinkers of his time, he fundamentally regarded industry and morality as two sides of the same coin. An industrious person was a moral person, and vice versa.

The more he watched slavery in operation on his own estate, and the more he witnessed the various ways in which enslaved people were indifferent to or resisted work because they had no vested interest in success, the more Washington regarded the institution as inherently corrupt.

Unfortunately, it still took him many years to break away from it altogether by freeing his slaves by the terms of his will.

Q: Given that a businessman is the Republican candidate for president, what do you think George Washington would think about this year’s presidential campaign?

A: Washington would have shared the concerns that many Americans have about the issues of today.

He would have been worried about the economy—especially the national debt and the deficit—and would have regarded war and unrest as scourges to be avoided at almost any cost. He would certainly believe that we need to focus on using business principles to build the national prosperity, and to rebuild domestic manufacturing.

At the same time, he would have decried the partisanship that characterizes this campaign and American public life generally, and would have called for strict civility in public discourse and conduct.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am currently finishing a biography of “Light Horse” Harry Lee, the father of Robert E. Lee.

At the same time, I am beginning work on a new study of the “Lost Battalion” of World War I through the eyes of five major characters, including three Medal of Honor recipients and the famed journalist Damon Runyon. It is probably the most exciting and intriguing story I have ever written.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I think that’s it. Thanks so much!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Christine Hale

Christine Hale is the author of the new book A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice: A Memoir in Four Meditations. She also has written the novel Basil's Dream, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Hippocampus and Arts & Letters. She teaches in the Antioch University-Los Angeles Low-Residency MFA Program and the Great Smokies Writing Program, and she lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

Q: You note that it took a dozen years to write your new memoir. Did it end up the way you originally expected it to?

A: The three "threads" of the book (the story of my growing-up years, the story of the tattoos, and the story of Buddhist retreats) were originally separate writing projects, and many pieces from each thread were published over the years as standalone pieces. The retreats and the together-tattoos were just too odd and interesting (a case of truth is stranger than fiction!) to not write about.

The most difficult material--speculation about the "why" of my parents' miserable marriage and examination of its effect on me--I simply felt compelled to write about as my parents aged and mellowed and died. I got to know them best at the end of their lives, and that emotional shift in me pushed me to explore it on paper. (Like many writers, I "process" by writing.)

I worked at all three threads off and on for years while earning a living and raising my children. I developed a nagging feeling that these apparently separate threads all belonged together, but for the longest time--years--I couldn't figure out how or why.

Only in retrospect is the answer crystal clear: the stories belong together because they are all about reconciliation: me coming to terms with the path I've traveled--and the people I bruised and learned from and was bruised by along the way.

I developed the collage format in order to weave the threads together, and, yes, once I realized that was the structure I was pursuing, I enjoyed the result. I believe it mimics the way we remember--in vivid, discontinuous flashes--and the way we strive to make sense of our pasts--the dots seldom connect completely, but we sense insights, anyway, when we spend time reviewing our memories.

Q: You describe many difficult personal and family experiences throughout the memoir. Have your family members read it, and, if so, what do they think of it?

A: Some have, some haven't, some probably never will, and others may eventually. I've had only very positive feedback so far, from family and from complete strangers.

What's most important when writing true stories about real people (I tell my student memoirists) is to bend over backwards during the process of revision to be fair to everyone you write about. You must try to project yourself inside their doubts, their fears, their motivations.

Otherwise you may be fooling yourself about yourself. You have to be at least as hard on yourself as you are on anyone else; if you want readers to trust you, don't make of yourself either a hero or a victim.

What is equally important is to remind readers at every opportunity that although every authentic memoirist works hard to get the facts right, memoir is inherently subjective. It is the story of a given person's recollected experiences, and we all know that two people present at the same event will remember "the facts" differently, and interpret them differently.

It makes sense to me that people close to a writer of memoir would have different degrees of enthusiasm about the writer and the writing, and thus different degrees of readiness to read that work. A wise writing friend put it this way: "There are early readers for a book, and there are late readers." It's important for writers--and readers--of memoir to know that.

Q: What role do you see Buddhism playing in the book?

A: The most powerful influence of Buddhism on this memoir is in the self-analysis. The true territory of memoir is exploration of the self: who am I, and what are the forces, inner and outer, that shaped me?

A goal of Buddhist practice is to know one's own mind--to become consciously aware of one's particular, recurrent cravings, aggressions, and delusions.

So, once I realized I was writing memoir (my first book was a novel, Basil's Dream), I had no other choice, as a student of Buddhism, but to examine with the most stringent honesty I could summon my mind, my actions, my motivations, and my judgments. This process was sometimes pleasant, often harrowing, and always, ultimately, rewarding.

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

A: The book's title arises from a moment during a Buddhist retreat (p. 80) when my Buddhist teacher wordlessly--and for that reason very memorably--provides me an insight about the nature of reality by playfully tossing grains of rice at a misbehaving child.

At the end of that retreat (p. 96), I recall the teacher instructing me, again wordlessly, to look at the sky as a reminder of impermanence and equanimity. The sky is spacious and clear, always, even though angry or sublimely beautiful weather plays out on it moment by moment.

Of course it is not necessary for readers to pick up on the meaning of the title. Those who are familiar with Buddhist teachings will quickly identify the familiar symbolism of rice and sky. But those unfamiliar with Buddhism may still enjoy a sense of peace when the sky is invoked, along with a sense of curiosity about the grain of rice, and its relationship to a piece of sky.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The work on the back burner right now is a set of linked stories, set in a fictional small town in Western North Carolina. All the stories take place in or have a seminal scene in a small, dumpy house with bad plumbing, built in the ‘40s and built-on ever since, inhabited by several generations of a working class family. The first of these stories, "Lake Tomahawk," has been published by Calyx Press; you can read the full text here

I grew up in southern Appalachia, and although I got myself out as fast as I could in my teens, and lived thereafter in New York City, Bermuda, and Florida, I came back to the region by choice about 10 years ago.

There's a saying in Appalachia that you shouldn't try to "get above your raisin'." I have, and I haven't, and both the memoir and the fictional stories I'm working on now are rooted in that personal conundrum, as well as the broader sociopolitical question of how this part of the South both is and isn't evolving past its history of exploiting and being exploited.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I want readers to take away a feeling that they are not alone in their doubts, fears, confusion, strivings, and hopes. That these feelings are the essence of being human.

I often hear from readers that they identify with the struggles and the triumphs in the book, that they are reminded of their own sweetest memories, that they feel reconnected with people they've lost, or that they have new insight into someone who was a powerful and painful mystery in their life.

It's amazing and satisfying that readers can get from the book their own personal version of what I got from writing it--clarity and release.

People can learn more about me and my work at A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice: A Memoir in Four Meditations is available through independent booksellers anywhere, as well as from the publisher (Apprentice House Press in Baltimore), and online at IndieBound and Amazon. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb