Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Q&A with Tom Clavin

Tom Clavin is the author of the new book Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West. His other books include The Heart of Everything That Is and Halsey's Typhoon. He is a former New York Times reporter, and he lives in Sag Harbor, New York.

Q: You write, “Many of the myths about the Wild West are connected in some way to Dodge City.” Why is that?

A: Its location. Once the railroad came to Dodge City in 1872, it became a good destination for cattle drivers coming up from Texas…When that happened, Dodge City’s growth was pretty quick.

Once the railroad was there, Dodge City became a magnet for people heading west. It might have been a place to stop off or an end in itself. [There were] entrepreneurs, people prospecting, people on their way to find a place to farm.

I have a quote or two from Laura Ingalls Wilder, an example of a family heading to Kansas to find a place to farm. The railroad made Dodge City a ground zero type of place.

Q: What first got you interested in writing about Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, and did your opinions of them change at all as you worked on the book?

A: Definitely. I and a co-author, Bob Drury, wrote a book about the Sioux Indian leader Red Cloud—it came out in 2013. I was thinking about wanting again to do a story that took place in the American West.

I started researching Bat Masterson. It’s a name a lot of people knew, but a character few knew. Above a certain age, people know he was a gunfighter, a gambler in the American West, but not much else is known about him. I thought he’d be worthy of a book, but Simon & Schuster didn’t agree.

I was still fascinated by Bat Masterson [so I thought] maybe if you focus on a place or a time in is life—he was in Dodge City, he met Wyatt Earp—you could have those two mythical figures.

As I found out more about their lives, I became more intrigued….With Wyatt Earp, [the focus has been on] Tombstone, the O.K. Corral. There’s not much known about him as a younger man. The confluence of the two as lawmen in Dodge City is a good story.

Q: You note of Earp and Masterson that “tall tales have stuck to them like barnacles on a boat.” How difficult was it to come up with the facts about these two figures?

A: Thankfully, especially with Wyatt, there’s a lot of material out there. Some of the material made Wyatt Earp famous. I cite a book, Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal, from 1931. A lot was written about him that was more mythical than factual, which set up a reaction to that.

So there’s quite a lot of material about Wyatt Earp. It’s a gathering and sifting process; you’re prospecting for the truth. Sometimes there’s material that couldn’t be corroborated—it could be true, but it’s material that’s disputed, so it doesn’t end up in the book.

Bat was a little more difficult. There’s not a lot researched or written about him. He’s not the mythical figure Wyatt Earp was. I point out in the Author’s Note that in Hollywood they don’t lack movies about the American West that feature Wyatt Earp.

Bat Masterson, when he appears, is the junior member of the club, when in reality he was a duly elected sheriff and outranked Wyatt Earp. Even before he was a lawman, he went on a Searchers-like trek to find four girls…he was only 21 or 22 years old….

Q: What do you see as the legacy today of Earp, Masterson, and Dodge City?

A: Dodge City became shorthand for a place of chaos and trouble and danger. People still use an expression like that, This place is turning into Dodge City, or I’m getting out of Dodge…

What’s really important for me with Wyatt and Bat is they are not the only ones but the principal players in a generation of [self-made] lawmen. There was no police academy to go to. A lot of the guys who served as marshals and sheriffs were bad guys.

I liked the idea of Bat and Wyatt and their brothers—they thought they had to choose which side of the law they were going to live on, and they would make it up as they go along in terms of low and order.

They were young and fairly uneducated men; they had not much formal schooling. There was a core integrity they followed, and they represented that generation that, clawing and screaming, brought law and order to the frontier.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My writing partner and I, Bob Drury, had a book out at the end of October called Lucky 666. It’s a World War II story. When our publisher said no to Bat Masterson, [we wrote that].

In between books that Bob and I do, I do a solo project. My next book with Bob Drury is a book on George Washington and Valley Forge. My next solo project is the story of American pilots in Europe during World War II who were shot down.

Ninety-nine percent of the pilots who survived were sent to POW camps. But a group of 150 flyers were judged to be terrorists, and they were sent to Buchenwald. They had to survive the death camp…the book is focusing on that story through the eyes of one fellow from the state of Washington.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The main thing is, there are so many iconic characters in the book because Dodge City was a place of intersecting lives. That’s why the book allows for stories of Wild Bill Hickok, the James brothers, Billy the Kid, Belle Starr—all these characters were legitimately in the book because they have connections to Dodge City.

Dodge City is the doorway to thinking about the American West in the 1870s and how it changed America.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Bonnie Rochman

Bonnie Rochman is the author of the new book The Gene Machine: How Genetic Technologies Are Changing the Way We Have Kids--and the Kids We Have. She was a health and parenting columnist for Time magazine, and her work has appeared in a variety of other publications, including The New York Times Magazine and The Wall Street Journal. She lives in Seattle.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book, and how did you decide which areas within the field of genetic technology you wanted to focus on?

A: I decided I wanted to write a book because I had written a lot about genetics, ethics, and children when I was writing for Time magazine and Time.com. I was writing for their health vertical and it was a time, it’s still a time, when there was so much demand for copy that there was not a lot of oversight from editors with story assignments.

My marching orders were [to focus on] the intersection of children and health. I started in 2010—there was a lot of information about how new genetic tests were offering information that had never been available. I had kids, the oldest was 8, and the new tests were not available when I was pregnant. You were even able to determine the gender earlier.

Sequenom came out with a non-invasive test that was really groundbreaking—you could find out about Down Syndrome before you were even showing. It used to be detected in the second trimester…

I realized as the tests were being developed there were serious ethics issues—is it a good idea to know these things earlier?...I wrote about genetics a lot.

In 2012 I did a week-long series on sequencing children’s genomes. It was the last cover story in 2012. When you take on a big project and finish it, you either never want to write about the story again or you [want more]—I was the latter. It served as the foundation of the book.

Q: So were the areas you focused on in the book determined by the stories you wrote?

A: The stories were about sequencing children’s genomes. That’s part of the book. But I wanted to look at having a baby and the lifespan of having a baby, from before conception through childbirth and raising children, and how technological changes [affect it].

Q: How did you research the book, and was there anything that particularly surprised you?

A: I already laid a lot of the groundwork at Time. I had interviewed geneticists, maternal-fetal medicine specialists. I had a foothold in the area.

But then you do one interview and end that by asking if there are any suggestions for people who are good to speak to, and they turn you on to a family or a researcher. It’s almost like hopscotch, one source and another. I went to a genetics-related conference; it was a window into the world doctors are grappling with.

Q: Was anything you found especially interesting, or was all of it fascinating?

A: Everything is so new; the field is changing so quickly. There’s no shortage of surprising things.

I was surprised and impressed by a rabbi I interviewed—he was dogmatic. He will not marry a couple unless they agree to have genetic screening to see if they’re at risk for transmitting genetic diseases.

It’s one thing to recommend that but he takes it to another level to say, I won’t officiate at your wedding. I admire that. He seemed to be unique in his field—he’s having an impact on families he’s having contact with.

Q: In the book, you discuss the concept of Pandora’s Box as it relates to genetic information, and you’ve alluded to that earlier—can you say more about that?

A: All the information is really amazing and I’m a believer that knowledge is power. However, knowledge can induce a lot of anxiety. That’s where you have Pandora’s Box.

Let’s say five years in the future, or 20 years in the future, sequencing your fetus is normal, like you have HIV tests all pregnant women get, and you find out all this information about your fetus. So much of what you learn is not definitive but [indicates] increased risk.

What do you do with that information? Does it make you feel more empowered to know what diseases to be on the lookout for, or does it just make you more nervous?

So much has to do with your personal level of comfort with information. A lot of people only deal with what’s certain and true; others like to sift through tons of information. It’s a very individual choice and is a decision parents are going to have to make.

Q: You’ve mentioned Down Syndrome, which you write about in the book. What do you see looking ahead?

A: It’s such a fascinating time. What makes Down Syndrome such an interesting test case in my book is now you can detect Down Syndrome earlier than ever, and also it’s the best time to have Down Syndrome or a child with Down Syndrome in history.

There’s early intervention, there’s a lot of research going on, there’s people with Down Syndrome living into their 60s. How do you square that circle?

You’re giving people information to potentially end a Down Syndrome pregnancy—and yet people who choose to continue are finding more support than they’ve ever had.

With so many people working on potentially silencing the extra chromosome, or working on ways to enhance intelligence, it seems a better time than ever to have Down Syndrome—there’s more support and researchers working on it.

Science by design is a very laborious, and evidence-oriented, discipline, and it moves very slowly. Yet there’s a lot of promise on some of the therapies scientists are working on.

It raises the question, if you’re the parent of a child with Down Syndrome, how do you feel about these therapies? Do you want to change your child?

Different people feel very differently. Some feel if they were [going to] improve cognition and memory, that’s not changing their child, just helping them function better. Other people feel it would be fundamentally changing their child’s nature. It’s an individual decision.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I eat, dream, and sleep this book all the time! This is my first book—I’m still mired in this book…I have been a freelance writer for the past several years, and I will take some of the stories I couldn’t fit in the book, and try to have them see the light of day.

One of the most important things about writing a book—I thought I could fit everything in, because it was a book! It was not a thousand-word article! But I was stunned at the amount I could not squeeze in. I have great stories that could not fit in the book.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I hope this book will not be taken as a big scary book. The era of the genome, in which we live, is an incredibly exciting time, and I feel that there are so many opportunities to learn more about ourselves, our families, our children, the nature of who we are and how our bodies work. The caveat is that we have to so with care and caution.

This is intended to be, Wow, look at all these amazing things we can know that we never had a clue about.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Joseph Scapellato

Joseph Scapellato is the author of the new story collection Big Lonesome. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including the Kenyon Review Online and Post Road. He teaches at Bucknell University, and he is based in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

Q: Why did you opt to focus many of the stories in Big Lonesome on cowboys, and what do you see as the role of cowboys in the American West, both historical and mythological?

A: In 2005, I moved to Las Cruces, New Mexico, to earn an MFA in Fiction at New Mexico State University. As a Midwesterner, I was wowed by the high desert’s dramatic landscapes—I couldn’t spend enough time outside, whether it was hiking, standing around, or straight-up staring. 

After I finished my MFA in 2008, I moved to Central Pennsylvania with my now-wife.  As I returned to writing, I found that every story I was working on wanted to be set in the southwest. 

I began to feel a preservative urgency, a need to get something of the experiences I’d had in the southwest into my work. I wanted to hang onto what I’d felt when there, the big feelings you get in a big landscape. 

This was when cowboys started showing up in my stories. Cowboys who actually work as cowboys, as in “Cowboy Good Stuff’s Four True Loves,” but also cowboys-in-name-only, who drive pickup trucks and act tough, as in “Mutt-Face.”

But pretty soon the stories started to be about the myths of the American West, American masculinity, and American identity. The figure of the cowboy had become a vessel for mythology. And I think that’s what the cowboy is to most Americans today.

Historically speaking—and I’m no expert!—the cowboy was a poor man who took care of rich men’s cows. That’s it. 

But if I’m not mistaken, the forces behind the American beef industry were in bed with the forces behind the transformation of the American West—the forces that gave white settlers permission to endorse, enable, and execute systematic genocide in the name of taking land from Native Americans. In this way, then, the cowboy was an agent of Anglo-American culture.

Mythologically speaking, the cowboy is inexhaustible. He/she has been cast and recast countless times in tall tales, songs, art, photography, poetry, fiction, film, and TV. 

Ask an American what they think of when they hear the word “cowboy,” and you’ll get everything from the Manly Do-Gooder Who Follows a Noble Code to the Tough-as-Nails Lone Gunslinger to the Boastful Boys-Will-Be-Boys Charmer to the Melancholy Working Poet-on-the-Range to the Insecure Ignoramus to the Drunken Rampaging Monster. I’d be willing to bet that few folks will say, “A man who takes care of other men’s cows.” 

What we imagine when we imagine a cowboy might say something about what we imagine when we imagine America’s past.

For a gritty, funny, and moving take on the figure of the cowboy, check out Larry Watson’s novel As Good As Gone, which just came out last year.  It’s terrific.

Q: You divide the stories in the book into three categories: Old West, New West, and Post-West. How did you decide on these categories?

A: One of my goals was for Big Lonesome to be a “concept album” story collection—I wanted the stories to feel in conversation with one another, for there to be thematic resonation and thematic dissonance.

With this in mind, I played around with plenty of different story order arrangements. (I’m deeply indebted to Jenna Johnson and Pilar Garcia-Brown, my amazing editors, for wise guidance on this.) 

In the end, I tried to make it so that the collection goes on a journey: the stories begin in a mythic West (a centaur cowboy, a cowboy who encounters a filthy monster-boy in a laundromat, a cowboy who can sing animals into easy dying), move to a contemporary West (a mother who buries her son’s gun in a desert, a hike that results in a snakebite), and migrate to the contemporary Midwest (two troubled brothers in Chicago, an old man forced into a retirement home by his son). 

Along the way, the stories shift from the non-realistic to the realistic and from the rural to the urban. And certain ideas (American mythology, masculinity, lonesomeness) are returned to and riffed on in different ways.

My hope is that the section titles—Old West, New West, Post-West—lend another layer of meaning to this progression, as a whole, as well as to the stories themselves, on their own.

Q: How did you choose the book's title and what does it signify for you?

A: At first, I thought about calling the collection “The Bossy Bigness.” It’s the name of a character from “Mutt-Face,” a kind of personified feeling. 

This title guided me for some time—it steered me toward making the mystery of feeling central to the book—but I didn’t tell anyone about it until I went out for a cup of coffee with James Tadd Adcox and Matt Rowan, two writers I admire. We were at New Wave in Chicago, talking about our current projects.

I told them my working title: The Bossy Bigness.

They looked at each other. 

I said, “What do you think?” 

“Honestly?” they said.

“It’s not a good title,” they said.

“It’s actually a really terrible title,” they said.

I knew that they were right—I was immediately embarrassed. It was like telling someone the name of your first stuffed animal. (Mine was Leopard the Leopard.)

As soon as I got home, I made a list of words associated with the collection. It was a big list. I mixed and matched.

When I put “Big” and “Lonesome” together, I liked the way they looked—it sounded like the title of a song. Or what you might name a guitar, or a mesa, or a road, or a bar. It was somehow simultaneously specific and vague. Like my favorite myths.

Q: Some of the blurbs compare your work to that of Larry McMurtry. What do you think of that comparison?

A: I’m honored! I’m embarrassed to admit that of McMurtry’s enormous body of work, I’ve only read All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers. But I loved it. I recently went back to that novel. It’s so exuberant, funny, and emotionally powerful.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a novel called The Made-Up Man. It’s about a man who knowingly puts himself at the center of a menacing performance art project, one that mines his personal life for material in increasingly sinister ways. 

The man makes this decision partly because he’s being manipulated by the lead artist (his uncle), partly because of a woman who’s just rejected his marriage proposal, and partly because he’s having trouble seeing that he’s being ground down by an identity crisis. It takes place in Chicago and Prague.

I’m shooting for The Made-Up Man to be a kind of inverted literary film noir. It’ll come out in Spring 2017 (FSG).

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: As soon as I finished the final draft of Big Lonesome, I found that I had a sudden craving for story collections.  I couldn’t read enough of them.

At various family functions over the holidays, I was reminded that many (most?) Americans haven’t read a story collection a.) since high school or b.) ever.

Therefore, I’d like to mention a few story collections that I’ve read (or reread) recently, that I can’t stop thinking about, that family and friends and strangers should check out: Intimations by Alexandra Kleeman, Happiness, Like Water by Chinelo Okparanta, Third Class Superhero by Charles Yu, The Miniature Wife by Manual Gonzales, Man V. Nature by Diane Cook, The Unfinished World by Amber Sparks, The Era of Not Quite by Douglas Watson, A Tree or a Person or a Wall by Matt Bell, The Corpse Expedition by Hassan Blasim, The Map of the System of Human Knowledge by James Tadd Adcox, and Children of Monsters by Melissa Goodrich.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 28

Feb. 28, 1909: Stephen Spender born.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Q&A with Harriet Scott Chessman

Harriet Scott Chessman is the author of the new novel The Lost Sketchbook of Edgar Degas. Her other books include Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper and The Beauty of Ordinary Things. She has taught at Yale University, Stanford University and Bread Loaf School of English, and she lives in Connecticut.

Q: Why did you decide to write this novel based on the artist Edgar Degas and his American relatives?

A: I became fascinated with Edgar Degas when he started to become a character in my earlier novel, Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper

I hadn't actually wished for him to be in that novel, but he kind of found his way in, as a close friend of Mary and Lydia Cassatt. Somehow, well after I had completed that book, he lingered in my mind. 

Once I discovered that he had lived in New Orleans with his American Creole cousins and uncle -- and once I saw the stunning, haunting paintings he did that winter in the city of his mother's birth -- I sought a way to write about his relationship to the American branch of his family, as they all lived together in a rented mansion on Esplanade Avenue.

Q: What did you see as the right blend between the fictional and historical?

A: As with my earlier novel Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper, I tried to get all the facts right: for instance, dates of arrival and departure, baptisms, weddings, the details of daily life, race relations, medicine, the geography of the city. 

I learned so much from a wonderful book, Degas and New Orleans: A French Impressionist in America, along with other sources. 

This knowledge of the facts held as my foundation, yet I still had to discover my own story, its architecture and meaning. I had to create the characters of Edgar and his cousins -- and to imagine what might have happened in that crowded hothouse of a household in those five months. 

I felt my way, trying to give myself permission to dream and imagine, even as I kept my story tied by filaments to all that I had discovered of the actual family relationships and history.

I did have to jettison some facts, however! For instance, Edgar's other brother, Achille, also happened to be living in New Orleans that winter, and I just couldn't fit him in to my story. I already had such a big cast of characters, and as you know, I am a minimalist!  

Also, I of course had to add or envision what I couldn't find in the record. This is where fiction truly begins. Who were the servants in the house that winter?  What actually happened within the house during those months? 

And -- the impetus for my novel: what might have happened if a sketchbook by Edgar -- one that had gone missing -- had shown up 10 years later? If Tell discovered it, how could she have read it, being blind? And what might it have revealed to her?  

Q: The book deals with art, and also with blindness.What do you see as the roles of those two themes in the novel?

A: At first, my character Tell (Estelle Musson Balfour De Gas, Degas's cousin and sister-in-law) was simply one of many characters. 

I played with (and wrote over 100 pages in!) the voices of Edgar, his other cousins Didi and Mouche, a young servant, his niece Josephine, his brother René . . . yet I couldn't find my story. It was only when I discovered Tell's voice that I knew I had found my entrance into this world.  

From the start, Tell came to me as an energetic, compassionate, engaging, vivid character. Her loss of sight -- which had happened gradually, in her 20s, and which was complete by the time Edgar visited New Orleans in 1872 -- came to me simply as part of her, something with which she lived and coped, yet not the center or the primary thing. 

However, for Edgar, I imagined her loss of vision to be frightening, since he had the same condition in his own eyes (a blankness in the center that slowly increased), and he feared his coming blindness. 

In another sense, Tell's true blindness became the heart of this story, in a way I couldn't have predicted at first: her blindness to her marriage, to her feelings about her cousin Edgar, and to herself. This was what I learned as I wrote.

Q: How did you research the time period you describe in the book?

A: I gained so much help from Degas and New Orleans: A French Impressionist in America. Other books were valuable too, especially Christopher Benfey's Degas in New Orleans.

I also had a great time looking up articles in The Picayune and other newspapers, in the 1870s. You can discover wonderful, rich details about all kinds of stuff, from local sewage problems to robberies to stray dogs to weddings, in the archives of newspapers! 

I also reread a novel I have always loved, Kate Chopin's The Awakening, which helped me with a myriad of details, from lunch menus to parrots to weather.

I gained superb help too with the French language from a young historian, Johann Le Guelte, who combed through the manuscript for me.    

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am hoping to come back to a sequence of poems (or, as I think of them, "songs") I'm writing about Officer Hugh Thompson, the helicopter pilot who intervened with his two-man crew in the massacre of My Lai, March 16, 1968. 

I wrote the libretto for a one-singer opera, My Lai, composed by Jonathan Berger and commissioned by Kronos Quartet / Kronos Performing Arts Association. 

I felt so glad to have the chance to write in this form, and to hear my words sung with such power by Rinde Eckert, and accompanied by the beautiful performances of Van Anh Vo and Kronos Quartet. The libretto is complete, yet I am still listening out for my character of Hugh . . . I think he has more to say and sing! 

I also hope to write more short stories -- I am fairly new to this form, and I love it. So far I have published one, "Halliday's Treasures," in Catamaran

And one day -- one day! -- I'd like to publish one of my stories for children.  I have always loved children's picture books -- I find this to be one of the most engaging (and incredibly challenging) forms!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I feel so lucky to have become a writer. As I look past [last month’s] Inauguration, and feel the turmoil our country is in right now, I am promising myself to continue to write as well as I can -- to write fiction and poetry that will bring readers some kind of insight and understanding. 

In this era of "fake news" -- or, as I think of it, lies!! -- so flooding this political and cultural world of ours, I believe that it is more important than ever to write in a way that is genuine, clear, and resonant -- that offers something real. I hope I can continue to try.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Harriet Scott Chessman, please click here.

Feb. 27

Feb. 27, 1902: John Steinbeck born.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Q&A with Tracy Borman

Tracy Borman is the author of the new book The Private Lives of the Tudors: Uncovering the Secrets of Britain's Greatest Dynasty. Her other books include Elizabeth's Women and Thomas Cromwell. She is England's joint chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces and chief executive of the Heritage Education Trust, and she lives in Surrey, England.

Q: Why did you decide to write your new book, and why do you think people are still so fascinated by the Tudors?

A: The inspiration for this book came from listening to the sort of questions that visitors to Hampton Court Palace ask most frequently (I am based there as joint chief curator for Historic Royal Palaces). 

Although they are interested in the architecture of this extraordinary palace, as well as some of the political events of the Tudor age, what they really want to know about is rather more fundamental: where did Henry VIII go to the toilet? How did the Tudors wash their clothes?  What did they eat? Etc. etc. 

The more I heard these questions, the more I realised that I wanted to know the answers too! 

As for why we're still so fascinated by the Tudors, I think it's the sheer drama of the period that appeals. You have a king who marries six times, a Virgin Queen, Shakespeare, overseas exploration, political and religious upheaval...the list goes on. Truth really is stranger than fiction in the 16th century.

Q: How did you research the book and come up with all the behind-the-scenes details about these monarchs' private lives, and what surprised you most? 

A: I was very fortunate to have access to lots of the behind-the-scenes areas at Hampton Court and other palaces mentioned in the book. 

For archival research, I headed to The National Archives and British Library, which house swathes of letters and accounts written by those who served the Tudors in private. They made for fascinating and often surprising reading. Without exception, every Tudor monarch changed for me when I looked at the side they usually kept hidden. 

The most surprising was Henry VIII. In public, he's a larger-than-life character, stridently self-confident and the very image of majesty; in private, it was a very different matter and he was described as being “the most timid man you could hope to meet.”

Q: You begin the book with an anecdote about Queen Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex. What do you think this story says about the Tudors' attitudes toward privacy?

A: That's such a painful episode and I really sympathise with Elizabeth, who is in the twilight years of her life and desperate to maintain the pretence that she is still the most desirable woman at court. 

The episode reveals a great deal about this struggle, but also about the strict etiquette and hierarchy at her court. Even her closest favourite, Essex, was unable to break the rules - as he found out on this occasion. 

Elizabeth never forgave him for bursting into her privy chamber and seeing her stripped of her courtly adornments. Some have even speculated that it motivated her to have him executed when he later rebelled against her.

Q: How would you contrast the Tudors' private lives with those of more recent members of the British royal family? 

A: There has been an awful lot of talk about the intrusion of the press and public into the lives of modern British royals, but compared to the Tudors they have it easy! 

In some respects, the Tudors didn't have a private life as we would understand it. They were never alone: it was inconceivable for a monarch to be left unattended for a single moment of the day or night. 

Even their love lives weren't private. When they married, they had to go through what was known as a “bedding ceremony,” whereby they would be escorted to bed by about 30 courtiers, who would watch as they were undressed and put into bed. 

The courtiers would then leave - but they only went as far as the room next door so that they could listen in and make sure the marriage had been consummated! 

The monarchs would not have thought this an intrusion at all: why shouldn't their subjects take an interest in their marriage? After all, royal marriages were all about the begetting of heirs to strengthen the dynasty.

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I'm excited to say that I am working on my first historical novel. After that, there will be another non-fiction book. The subject is still under wraps but I am delighted to reveal it will be Tudor again!

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: I would like to take this opportunity to say a big thank you to all my U.S. readers. I've had some lovely emails and tweets about The Private Lives of the Tudors, as well as my last book, Thomas Cromwell. It is so thrilling to think that my words are being read on the other side of the Atlantic!

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

Feb. 26

Feb. 26, 1802: Victor Hugo born.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Q&A with Gail Holst-Warhaft

Gail Holst-Warhaft is the author of the new book The Fall of Athens. Her other books include Dangerous Voices and The Cue for Passion. She is a poet and has been a journalist, broadcaster, academic, musician, and translator. She is an adjunct professor at Cornell University, and she lives in Ithaca, New York.

Q: How did you first get interested in Greek culture, and how did this book come about?

A: It was completely accidental! I’d done an arts degree and I thought I was going to Italy. I got off the ship [in Greece] from Australia, I was 21—I thought this was the way to get a cheap ticket to Europe. I got off the boat and fell in love with Greece.

It was an instant love affair and it hasn’t worn off. It was the way people engaged with you and the music—the combination of the people, the music, the warmth of the people was overwhelming to me. It became my life’s work.

Q: And the book?

A: I had written books about Greek music, and began translating modern Greek literature…A turning point in my relationship with Greece was after I decided this was the place for me, there was a coup in 1967. It seemed unbelievable. It was like being in a B-grade movie.

The dictatorship lasted seven years. It was very brutal…I decided to leave Greece and involve myself in the anti-dictatorship movement…I became a journalist, and I could play the harpsichord, which is a rarity in Greece, and the fact that I was a journalist helped me get into that [Greek musical] society again after the dictatorship fell in 1974.

Years went by, and I published bits of this, I wrote academic books, I married an academic and came to America, and I became a poet. Poetry was the most important thing in my life. I was writing about the sad state of Greece—it was disastrous for artists I knew—and my publisher [was interested in my biographical sketches].

Q: What are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about Greece?

A: There’s the most incredible ignorance about what happened in Greece during [World War II]. The German occupation of Greece was brutal…Ninety percent of Greek Jews were killed…

There was a brutal civil war after that. [What followed] was dependent on what happened in the civil war. The people on the left and the right—the wounds were not healed even today. One of the misperceptions is how much Greece suffered.

The state of the economy, the American press covered well, but [when it comes to how it affects people]—they’ve always known how to handle good times…I don’t think people can see the underlying anxiety of people now.

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

A: I did want to make a parallel with antiquity. I have paired poems about the present situation or the 4th century B.C. and later. The idea of the fall of Greece, Rome, great civilizations in my mind—to try and link to antiquity and recognize [the time when] Greek civilization flowered.

When we talk about classicism, there was a short period of 50 years when Athens was at its apex, followed by a pretty tragic period. I wanted to point that out in the case of Greece now and Greece then.

Q: How much has changed since you first started spending time in Greece, and what do you see looking ahead?

A: The most interesting thing to me—during the ‘80s, ‘90s, and ‘00s, I saw them as decades of relative peace and prosperity for Greece. The music and poetry seemed to go a bit downhill during that period. Western music was being heard, there was a lot of tourism and consumer goods in the country.

And then this crisis now has a long history—in 2008, 2009, people began to talk to me about hardship. But it has produced poetry and music. Friends say there’s a lot going on informally now. I think in some ways Greece thrives on hardship, and can turn it into something beautiful.

[Looking ahead], what worries me is my friends remember the end of the civil war. They remember the hardship and hunger, they know how to deal with it, to live carefully.

Their children in their 30s and 40s, with children of their own, are unable to deal with this very well. A lot of them have been forced to move back in with their parents.

There’s a lot of that, and I don’t think it will be solved in the next decade. It will take longer. Greece should have got out of the Euro some time ago but now it’s very difficult to do so. [The country] produces very little and is dependent on tourism. It’s a fragile economy.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a little book about Greek island music. I wrote about the blues of Greece in the 1970s—it has become world music. At that stage, it was looked down on as low-class, from refugees from Asia Minor. I got very interested in the music, and spent time with the musicians.

It wasn’t until years later that I discovered the beauty of the songs of the Aegean, the Eastern side of Greece. It appeared to be very jolly, and then I realized how terrible and desperate life was as sponge divers, fishermen—life is dependent on the sea. As we’ve seen with the tragedies of the refugees, it can be very dangerous.

There are songs about keeping on the good side of the sea. I’m interested in the mismatch—the lovely blue sea of the Greek islands and what life is like for the people who wrote these songs.

And I’m working on some poems.

Some people said I should write a sequel [to this book], "The Fall of America." I think a lot of writers—Ithaca is top-heavy with writers—people are…asking, what can we do. Ithaca is an official asylum for refugee writers. I work with that group.

I think of the Australian tide of immigration—it’s impossible to imagine what would have happened to Australia or America without, yet both countries are trying to keep them away. Greek immigrants here form…communities here in many cities. They have seen the plight of refugees and realize life is not as secure as everybody [might think].

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: One of the things I think the book makes clear is though ancient Greece was a long time ago, ancient Greece and modern Greece have many things in common, the most important being language.

Modern Greece [continues] the development of a language—they are proud of their heritage, and are rethinking the ancient works of literature. I was involved as a musician in two productions of Aristophanes—they use ancient [literature to explore] modern [times].

For Greeks, ancient Greek literature is their big resource—they use it in a creative way. They feel as if they are on the same landscape where great myths and legends took place. They feel continuity in their country.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 25

Feb. 25, 1937: Bob Schieffer born.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Q&A with James Alexander Thom

James Alexander Thom is the author of many historical novels, including  Fire in the Water and Saint Patrick's Battalion, and the writing guide The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction. He also worked as a journalist and taught at the Indiana University Journalism School. He lives near Bloomington, Indiana.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Fire in the Water and for your character Paddy Quinn?

A: I had long been aware of the horror of Andersonville Prison because my great grandfather survived it. My fascination with steamboats began with Mark Twain, and for several summers my wife and I were historical lecturers on river cruises of the Delta Queen line, which provided opportunity for much technical research, and familiarization of the waterways.

I thought the tragedy of the Sultana was too little known by Americans, as it took more lives than the Titanic, and I felt the especial poignancy: that the sickly ex-prisoners had been keeping themselves alive by their hope of getting home.

The protagonist Paddy Quinn already existed in my fiction, having been an Army camp errand boy during the Mexican War, in my preceding novel, Saint Patrick's Battalion. The boy Quinn's diary carried much of the narrative of that novel. Fire in the Water often refers back to those formative years of Paddy's life.

By the time I undertook the Sultana story, I knew that the grown-up Quinn would be the ideal protagonist, as a Harper's Weekly war correspondent with Paddy's Irish traits.

Q: Among your other books is The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction, a guide for other writers. What do you see as the right balance between history and fiction when working on a historical novel?

A: I believe that a good historical novel should stay true to all
the historical facts, as completely as they can be determined by deep research into the events and the real historical characters.

Once that is achieved, the author might introduce fictional characters, through whose senses and thoughts the reader can experience and understand the events – like being there. But the fictional characters must not be allowed to change the actual history.

Most of my novels have been about, and from the point of view of, the real historical characters themselves. My early books had no fictional entities.

But I came to understand that a memorable fictional protagonist with his (or her) plot within a story can enrich the emotional and philosophical gist of the story, help interpret another culture, enhance the irony or humor of the true story, and so on.

Q: What type of research did you do to write Fire in the Water, and was there anything that particularly surprised you?

A: Aside from the technical and environmental research mentioned above, I wanted to convey the very personal aspects of being a soldier -- the nasty, miserable, demeaning experience of life at war -- and the kind of bond that such fellow survivors share.

I believe that too much war fiction emphasizes the so-called "glory" of soldiering. War in actuality is man's most disgusting creation, and tends to bring out the worst in everybody. Therefore I researched for the base details and the daily obscenities in soldiers' and prisoners' existence.

I know from three years in the Marines that most conversation is about excrement, copulation and getting drunk, but I needed to find the slang, idioms, and peculiar customs of the Civil War era.

The severity of military discipline in those days is almost unimaginable. For such details, soldiers' correspondence and diaries are helpful.

Then there was that particular circumstance that it was a war between countrymen, not against a foreign enemy. The blue and the gray had to maintain their own propaganda about each other in order to kill men who were basically just like them. Much of that still lingers.

And always in the story there is the undercurrent of slavery, something we can hardly imagine, but mustn't forget.

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

A: When I start writing, I think I know the ending, but it may change during the process. That's because writing demands such hard thinking that the author eventually knows more of what's important than he did when he started.

And, yes, distinctive characters like Quinn and Macombie can insist on showing their version of themselves instead of the author's. They can get out of control, and that's usually a good thing.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm trying to resume the writing of an American Indian novel that I set aside years ago to work on the Paddy Quinn books. It's historical, but not confined to the past.

It has real Indians in it, both alive and ghosts, and there will be roles in it for Paddy Quinn. I can't seem to get rid of him. Its working title is "The Bones of a Hopeful Indian."

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: What else we should know? That the main personage in Fire in
the Water
is Abraham Lincoln, although he's dead when the book begins. Quinn and Macombie keep each other alive because of their vow to get to his funeral.

I work years on a book because a story has inspired me so much I need to share it. Inspiration doesn't necessarily derive from Happy Endings. There aren't many of those in real life.  And I always write with Twain's remark in mind: “The difference between history and historical fiction is, fiction has to be believable."

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 24

Feb. 24, 1786: Wilhelm Grimm born.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Q&A with Marilyn Singer

Marilyn Singer, photo by Linda Gallop
Marilyn Singer's many books for children include Echo Echo, Mirror Mirror, Follow Follow, and the forthcoming Feel the Beat. She lives in Brooklyn and in Washington, Connecticut. 

Q: Echo Echo is the third of your books of reverso poems. How did you come up with the idea originally, and why did you choose to focus on Greek myths this time?

A: For readers who haven’t encountered it, the reverso is a poem with two halves. The second half reverses the lines of the first half, with changes only in punctuation and capitalization. That second part has to say something completely different from the first.

Reversos work particularly well based on narratives and as such fall into three categories which feature either:  1) one character with two POVs; 2) one character at two points in time; 3) two characters, usually with opposing POVs. 

My first two books of reversos were based on fairy tales, which have strong stories, so I could make them fit into one of the above categories.  Greek myths also have multi-layered narratives, and they are taught in school.  In addition, I’ve always loved them, and so do most students.  It was a natural extension to go from fairy tales to myths.

Q: One of the poems deals with Pandora's box. Why did you select that particular tale, and how does this set of poems reflect the two sides of the story?

A: Pandora’s Box is such a popular and beguiling myth that I had to use it. In the first half of my poem, Pandora, as is typical, is blamed for loosing evils into the world. 

But I always found it somewhat troubling that the poor young woman has always taken the rap.  So the second half is more sympathetic—she may be curious and weak, but she didn’t collect those evils and she might well be a pawn of the gods.

Q: You have a new book of poems coming out this spring, Feel the Beat!: Dance Poems That Zing from Salsa to Swing. Why did you decide to focus on poems relating to dance, and what do you see as the intersection between dance and poetry?

A: My husband and I have been taking social dance lessons for over 12 years, particularly in swing, ballroom, and Latin dance. For a while I’ve wanted to feature those dances in poems.

One day I decided to challenge myself—something I like to do—and write the poems in the rhythms of the dances. Poetry, of course, is also rhythmic—dancerly, if you like—so it made sense to feature dances in poems.

There is a CD which accompanies the book and on it I read the poems over music, adding another layer to the work. The wonderful illustrations are by Kristi Valiant, who is also a swing dancer.  Lots of zing all around!

Q: You've written many books--do you usually work on one at a time, or do you have several going on at once?

A: Sometimes I work on more than one at a time, especially if I need a breather from a genre. More typically, however, I do revisions (generally based on editorial comments) on one book while I’m writing a new book.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Besides revisions?  ;-)  I’m writing a middle grade novel which is a ghost story and I’m about to start on a collection of poems about presidential pets, which will be published by Disney-Hyperion.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Besides Feel the Beat!, I have a collection of poems about global New Year celebrations, Every Month’s a New Year, coming out this fall from Lee & Low and illustrated by Susan L. Roth. 

And among my books next year will be Have You Heard about Lady Bird?, poems about the First Ladies, which will be published by Disney-Hyperion and illustrated by Nancy Carpenter, and I’m the Big One Now, poems about seminal experiences for five- and six-year-olds, from Wordsong/Boyds Mills Press, illustrated by Jana Christy.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Echo Echo is illustrated by Josée Masse, and both it and Feel the Beat are published by Dial.