Friday, March 31, 2017

Q&A with Curtis Manley

Curtis Manley is the author of the new children's picture book The Crane Girl, based on a Japanese folk tale. He also has written The Summer Nick Taught His Cats to Read and the forthcoming Shawn Loves Sharks. His work has appeared in Odyssey, Faces, and AppleSeeds. He lives in the Seattle area.

Q: Why did you decide to adapt this Japanese folk tale, and how did you change it from the original?

A: Over the years I’ve enjoyed reading many different folktales and legends from around the world, but have been especially drawn to those from the Pacific Northwest and from Japan.

When I heard The Decemberists’ album The Crane Wife in 2006, I was reminded of how much I liked that specific Japanese folktale. It involves a man who rescues and sets free an injured crane; soon after that, a beautiful woman knocks on the door asking to stay. Eventually they marry.

When his new wife mysteriously weaves fabric that he sells for a good price in the market, the man’s greed for more causes the woman to leave forever.

My change was to have not an adult but a young boy rescue the crane, and it is a young girl who appears at the door seeking shelter. The boy’s father is the one who becomes greedy, not the boy, and so in the end the boy and girl are able to remain together.

My adaptation retains all the traditional elements of the plot, but involves main characters close to the reader’s age—and it ends on a more positive note.

Q: You incorporate haiku along with your story. Why did you choose to do that?

A: I tend to include specific things that I particularly like in each of my books, whether the story I’m telling is nonfiction, fiction, or even a folktale.

I enjoy poetry, and write and publish free verse as well as haiku (and its cousin, senryu). I’ve been part of a small, Seattle-area haiku group since 2005.

For me, when I’ve been reading or writing haiku, my brain will begin trying to fit what I’m seeing, hearing, or feeling into a haiku form even as I’m experiencing it. Calling that “thinking in haiku” is not truly accurate, since only some thoughts are involved—but when it’s happening, it can seem that way.

When I was just beginning work on The Crane Girl, I knew I wanted to include haiku along with references to certain foods, crops, and customs. Using the haiku to reveal the thoughts of the characters then came naturally—at least, that’s how I remember it now.

Q: What do you think the illustrations, by Lin Wang, add to the book?

A: Folktales, like epic poems and Shakespeare’s plays, retain their relevance and power even if retold in new settings. Nonetheless, setting The Crane Girl in pre-industrial Japan kept it closer to the roots of the original folktales—and the itinerant storytellers who performed them.

Lin’s images bring that setting to life in the specificity of detail in the house, village, and clothing—and the in the crane’s plumage and features.

But at the same time the beauty and luminosity of the illustrations also give the reader hints at the magic that underlies the story—magic that the boy and his father are mostly unaware of until the end.

The cover and interior illustrations are so gorgeous that I hope no one is let down by the words and poems of my text!

Q: You also have another new book coming out this spring, Shawn Loves Sharks. What can you tell us about that?

A: Shawn Loves Sharks is actually the first book I sold. It’s taken three years to appear because sometimes the road to publication has a long, winding detour! But I’m very happy with how the book turned out, with wonderful, dynamic illustrations by Tracy Subisak.

The book came to me very differently than the others. The title just popped into my head. But that’s all I had: a title. I didn’t know who Shawn was or what he was like. I didn’t know what other characters there might be. I didn’t have any idea about a plot. So I had to sit down and actively figure out all those things.

I learned that Shawn thought about sharks all the time. He loved their dark, blank eyes. He loved their big mouths full of sharp teeth. He loved pretending to be a shark at recess and chasing the other kids—especially Stacy, who screamed the loudest.

To turn those elements into a story, a conflict was needed. So I threw a challenge at Shawn: for Predator Day at school, Great White Shark is assigned to… Stacy.

And then I just let Shawn and Stacy work things out from there…

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Late last year I sold a nonfiction picture book manuscript about potentially habitable planets around other stars. Just Right—Searching for the Goldilocks Planet should be out in a few years from Roaring Brook Press.

I’m now playing with ideas for other nonfiction topics in the same lyric style. It’s possible that none of those projects will amount to anything, but an idea that feels right is always worth writing down and exploring—at least for a while.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just that I enjoyed your questions and am grateful for the invitation to be interviewed! Oh, and you can find more about me at my website,

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Ellen Meeropol

Ellen Meeropol, photo by Jamie Clifford
Ellen Meeropol is the author of the new novel Kinship of Clover. She also has written the novels House Arrest and On Hurricane Island. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Guernica and Bridges. She spent 24 years working as a registered nurse and nurse practitioner, and she lives in Western Massachusetts.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your new novel, and for your character Jeremy's relationship with plants?

A: I already knew Jeremy from my first novel, House Arrest, where he was a sensitive and shy 9-year-old. I wanted to see how he had grown, how he had survived his oddball childhood, so I imagined him 11 years later as a college biology major.

I had become very concerned about climate change, was reading widely about the science and politics, and that reading no doubt informed Jeremy’s obsession with plant species loss.

Writing Jeremy’s magical connection with plants just happened. That’s the beauty of the writing process, that we can open ourselves to ways of seeing and telling that are not our usual language.

The first day I wrote a scene with the plants burrowing under Jeremy’s skin, I was sitting with a group of writers in a library “writing room.” I was totally surprised by the actions of the plants. While I enjoyed reading magical realism, I had never considered writing in that style.

But I’ve learned to trust the process, I decided to keep going on that path, and the unusual connection between Jeremy and the plants became a central image of the novel.

Q: You tell the story from various characters' perspectives. How did you choose which characters' viewpoints to focus on?

A: Early on I knew that I wanted to write this novel from an omniscient point of view. I felt the story needed to move from character to character and also occasionally step back for some broader observations.

This point of view seemed like the best way to incorporate the interwoven stories of Jeremy and his plants, of his developing romantic relationship with Zoe, and of Zoe’s grandmother Flo, a lifelong political activist who is losing herself to dementia. It also gave me an opportunity to get inside the heads of Zoe’s father Sam and of Jeremy’s twin brother, who wants no part of Jeremy’s world.

I’m interested in writing fiction in which different characters’ beliefs and viewpoints disagree, even clash; hopefully this opens up the conversation so that the reader is invited to participate.

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

A: My working title for the novel was Next of Kin, but my publisher didn’t like it. We played around with other possibilities, but my editor (who is a poet) came up with Kinship of Clover.

I admit it took me a few days to embrace it, but now I love the lyricism of the title, and especially appreciate that clover is such an ordinary plant. To me, the title suggests the interconnectedness of all life on Earth, of humans and plants and animals.

Q: What do you think the novel says about protecting the environment?

A: I hope the novel encourages readers to consider the current assaults on our environment.

I hope people will be challenged, as I was writing this book, to learn more about climate change and the risks if we continue on our current consumption-oriented and fossil fuel-dependent path. I hope readers will think about climate activism, about what we each can do to make a difference.

The novel also dramatizes the difficult questions that come with activism – how far do we go to make change? What are we willing to sacrifice? And how do we balance our activism with staying true to the people we love.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m finishing up revisions on another environmentally focused novel. It’s a story about two sisters balancing on the fault lines between family loyalty and political activism.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Although this is primarily Jeremy’s story, I wanted to mention Flo again. She’s a feisty woman, a lifelong political rabble-rouser, facing the loss of herself to Alzheimer’s disease. Writing her character, and her journey, was both profoundly satisfying and heartbreaking.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb 

March 31

March 31, 1936: Marge Piercy born.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Q&A with Carolyn Parkhurst

Carolyn Parkhurst is the author of the novel Harmony. Her other books include The Dogs of Babel and Lost and Found. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: You’ve said, “It would be disingenuous to pretend that Alexandra’s story is not a close reflection of my own.” How much did your own life inspire this novel?

A: This is my most personal book. I’ve always included bits of my life and my thoughts in my writing.

My son has Asperger’s, and raising him has been a roller coaster of experiences I never thought I’d have. He’s a great kid, but you get plunged into a world of finding the right school, the right doctor, [and balancing] raising other kids.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to write about autism because I was living it every day, but that was what I had to talk about at that time. It can be very isolating, and it can help to read others’ experiences.

Q: You tell the story from the perspectives of Alexandra and her two daughters. Alexandra’s chapters are told in second person, and the others in first person. Why did you decide on this structure?

A: It’s one of those things writing teachers would tell you not to do, but it felt right to me.

The first piece I wrote was the epilogue. I wrote it in the second person, and I liked it because it had the effect of putting the reader right in her shoes. I liked the intimacy of that. I continued that in Alexandra’s chapters. Alexandra is like me in many ways. Iris is a child, with a different story.

Q: Besides the epilogue, did you write the chapters in the order in which they appear in the book?

A: I mostly write in order. I didn’t know the epilogue would be part of anything bigger. Once I started the book, I wrote in order. I never have the whole story figured out before—plot is harder for me than characters…

Q: How did you come up with the character of Scott Bean?

A: I guess I had the idea of writing about a family joining a cult-like group. I wanted it to be a gray area whether it really was a cult. I knew it happens that thoughtful, intelligent people end up doing things like that.

The key was that the leader be charismatic, someone you could imagine being drawn in by. He was made up of whole cloth. It took me a while to figure out his motives. In the first version, he was too much of a villain, and in the second version he was too bland. I kept working until I had a complex, human character.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m still trying to decide. I’ve started something that may become a comic novel. I don’t want to write anything heavy now—it took me five years to write Harmony.

Q: Anything else we should know about Harmony?

A: When I was writing it, I worried about, would it be OK to be writing so candidly about my own experiences, though it’s clearly fiction and the camp is something I’ve never done. Writers struggle with using real life in fiction.

I was worried about how my children were going to take it. My son really liked it, and that was a huge relief…it led to good conversations in our household, and ended up having a beneficial effect for me and my family, in addition to hoping the book will strike a note with other parents [including those] with special needs kids.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Carolyn Parkhurst will be speaking at the Bethesda Literary Festival on April 22, 2017.

Q&A with Jennifer Close

Jennifer Close is the author of the novel The Hopefuls. She also has written Girls in White Dresses and The Smart One. She teaches creative writing at George Washington University, and she lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: Your book focuses on a young couple who move to Washington, D.C., at the start of the Obama administration in 2009. How important is setting in your novels?

A: My first book, Girls in White Dresses, was set in New York and that played an important part in the lives of the characters. New York can seem so big and overwhelming at times, but it’s also just so exciting and tons of fun—especially when you’re young and new to the city like my characters were.

My second book, The Smart One, was set in the suburbs outside of Philadelphia and I think it probably could’ve taken place in any sort of similar suburb across the country.

But for The Hopefuls, the setting was like another character in the book. Washington, D.C. is such a strange and different place because everyone here (or almost everyone!) is working in politics so there’s this singular energy and drive that I don’t think you find anywhere else.

It also feels more transient than other cities because so many people come and go with the different administrations. When I first moved here, I was fascinated by these parts of the city and I really wanted to capture that.

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

A: The book was originally titled Southern Efficiency from the JFK quote, “Washington is a city of southern efficiency and northern charm.” But as we got closer to publication, everyone felt that didn’t really capture what the novel was about.

We brainstormed a lot of different titles and my editor, Jennifer Jackson, was the one who came up with The Hopefuls. It’s funny, because at first I wasn’t sure about it (I was still stuck on Southern Efficiency) but then I realized it was actually perfect.

These characters worked on Obama’s 2008 campaign and then in the administration and they were part of this whole group of young people who got their start in politics this way. This group of “hopefuls” were so inspired by the message of Obama’s campaign that they continued to want to work in public service.

But I also like how the title refers to the personal lives of the characters—the hope they had for what their lives would look like and the hope they try to hold onto when the reality doesn’t quite match up to what they imagined.

When I looked through the book, I realized how many times I say the word “hope” and “hopeful” and it just all seemed to fit. My editor is basically a genius!

Q: Your character Beth is not fond of Washington, D.C., when she first arrives. What are your own feelings about living in the city?

A: I really like D.C.! I’ll admit that (like Beth) I wasn’t such a huge fan of it when I first arrived. (I pretty much hated everything about it!)

But the city has grown on me over the years. It’s also changed so much since I’ve been here—there are whole neighborhoods that have popped up and more restaurants and shops all over the place. I also have a great group of friends here so that (of course) makes the city more appealing!

Q: What do you think the book says about the impact of politics on your characters' lives, and do you have any particular favorites when it comes to novels that focus in some way on politics?

A: I really loved writing about the way that politics influenced these characters. There’s a certain amount of power and prestige that you get working at the White House and I think some people can almost get addicted to it.

I wanted to explore the relationship between the “showy” side of politics and the working side. How important is it to be able to charm people and to give a good speech and why as voters do we put so much value on that?

I read All the King’s Men in college and it’s stuck with me for years. I also read Primary Colors years ago and was delighted at all of the drama that happens on a campaign.

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld is one of my favorites and I love that we see the politician through the eyes of his wife who is such an entertaining narrator.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a novel about a family-owned restaurant and it’s been really fun to shift topics and write about food instead of politics!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I always like to tell people what I’m reading and there are three amazing novels coming out this spring that I’m so excited about! Marlena by Julie Buntin is a debut about teenage girls and friendship that blew me away.

Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan is a beautiful story about two sisters who come to America as teenagers. Anyone who loves a great Irish Catholic family story will devour this!

And Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny is this emotional and hilarious debut novel about marriage. Her first book Single, Carefree, Mellow is so brilliant and funny and I’ve been eagerly waiting for this novel for years—and I’m happy to report that it was well worth the wait!

I’m going to be recommending these books to everyone I know this spring and I suggest that you go buy them immediately!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Jennifer Close will be appearing at the Bethesda Literary Festival on April 22, 2017.

Q&A with Teri Kanefield

Teri Kanefield is the author of a new book for older kids, Alexander Hamilton: The Making of America. Her other books include The Girl from the Tar Paper School and Rivka's Way, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Education Week, Scope Magazine, and The Iowa Review. She lives in California.

Q: What do you think of Hamilton’s emergence as a pop culture phenomenon?

A: It’s fabulous! To quote former President Obama, the Broadway musical Hamilton is “a civics lesson our kids can't get enough of.”

Q: What are some of the ideas people tend to have, right or wrong, about Alexander Hamilton?

A: The most common misconception of Hamilton was that he was a monarchist who wanted to return to a British-style aristocracy.

The misconception came about because the Jeffersonians took control of the government and basically held it until the Civil War, so their views were the dominant views.

They believed northerners, bankers, and industrialists were nothing more than British-style aristocrats, while planters and farmers embodied the true spirit of America. They disliked Hamilton’s policies, and launched anti-Hamilton propaganda.

Many of their criticisms of Hamilton have come down to us as truth.

Q: Did you learn anything about Hamilton in the course of your research that especially surprised you?

A: What I learned is that Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton started the argument, or dialogue, that we are still having today. For example, Jefferson and Hamilton argued about states’ rights versus a strong federal government, whether there should be federal taxes, the meaning of liberty, and more—all things we are still arguing about.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The biography of Andrew Jackson! The biographies of Hamilton and Jackson, taken together, show the development of the nation from the founding fathers until the mid 1830s.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: When I’ve been asked what I hope my readers take away from the book, I say it’s the importance of studying history. We can’t understand the election of 2016 unless we understand past elections, particularly the elections of 1796, 1800, and 1828.

I’ve also been asked how I’ve been able to cover mercantilism, theories of constitutional interpretation, and economic theories--in a book for kids? Really?

I was one of those high school students who basically slept through civics classes. I was bored.

I didn’t realize this stuff was interesting until I got to law school. It occurred to me that if we presented the material to young readers the way it is presented in law school—with all of its depth—young readers might engage more with history.

Also, it seems to me you can’t really understand Alexander Hamilton and his contributions without touching on these concepts. Leaving them out, it seems to me, underestimates young readers, who are just as capable as adults of understanding this stuff.

Thank you for your interest in Alexander Hamilton: The Making of America!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 30

March 30, 1820: Anna Sewell born.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Q&A with Christina Baker Kline

Christina Baker Kline is the author of the new novel A Piece of the World, which focuses on Christina Olson, the subject of Andrew Wyeth's painting Christina's World. Kline's other books include Orphan Train and Bird in Hand. She lives in the New York City area and on the coast of Maine.

Q: You write, “For many reasons, this was the most difficult book I’ve ever written.” What are some of the reasons why?

A: It was the first book I’d ever written about a real story. Orphan Train was real, but my characters were fictional. The characters in A Piece of the World are based on real people, and some of the people in the novel are alive today. I had to enter with eyes wide open.

The fact that it’s a true story made other things more difficult. In real life, Christina Olson did things I would not have chosen as a novelist, but because I was trying to stick with the facts, I had to work backwards from the consequences of her actions.

Q: So what did you see as the right blend between the actual Christina Olson and your fictional character?

A: That part was fairly easy. I set the task of interviewing a lot of people, studying art history—I immersed myself. I hammered out a document of 50-60 pages, a chronology of her life. One of her relatives would tell me something and I’d find a different version in a book.

I was writing from her perspective, trying to get under the skin of who she was in a way that would make sense of her complicated personality traits and her actions. I kept having to dig deeper…

Q: You write that you became aware of Andrew Wyeth’s painting Christina’s World in your childhood. What does it mean to you, and what do you see as its place in American art history?

A: It’s come to mean more to me. It did have a meaningful place in my childhood. As I began researching the painting, I was afraid I would get tired of it, but I didn’t. It became deeper and deeper with each viewing…

Its reputation is changing by the decade. Wyeth was famous in his lifetime, decorated with awards. In the ‘60s his reputation took a hit with the rise of Pop Art and abstract art. Art historians began dismissing him. Even his obituary in 2009 by Michael Kimmelman in The New York Times was dismissive.

That’s changing—people are beginning to reassess 20th century artists. Norman Rockwell is being rehabilitated; he had been derided as a lightweight. The truth is, Wyeth’s style was forged in the ‘30s and ‘40s; there were influences of American realism and figurative surrealism.

Now they call his style metaphoric realism. Like John Currin today, Wyeth plays with a pointillist approach but his work is almost more sinister. He was fascinated with ghosts, goblins, witches.

Q: What especially surprised you in the course of your research?

A: There were a number of things about Christina’s choices that were surprising to me. I didn’t realize she never spoke to her best friend again, that she sabotaged her brother’s only chance at having a lifelong partner.

She was stifled. She was a brilliant girl, but was taken out of school at 12. I think she had quite a lot of anger. In a bigger sense, the novel is about women in history who were silenced by domestic chores and weren’t able to flourish.

I was trying not to be overt, but I wanted to show this person was distorted in some ways. Stymied. That felt very sad to me, but it’s the story of many people; she’s not alone in this. An interviewer said the book is a Rorschach test; depending on where you come from you respond very differently.

I spoke before an audience in an affluent suburb of a big West-Coast city, and one woman said Christina was very depressing, wasn’t it a downer to write about someone like this? Another woman said, I’m from Maine—a lot of people there are like this!

I felt she had three great loves in her life—her brother Alvaro, a wonderful person; her one-time suitor Walton, a terrible person; and Andrew Wyeth, who saw her for who she was.

With Wyeth, I felt he was able to relate to her on a level nobody else could. He said, If you had ended up with Walton, you would have had a conventional life but we wouldn’t be having this conversation now. With Wyeth, she was able to achieve autonomy. I saw it as a happy ending…

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m in the middle of researching an exciting, big project—the story of convict women swept off the streets of London, Glasgow and other cities in the mid-19th century to essentially be breeders on the island of Tasmania. They transformed Australia...

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I really grew to empathize with and love the figure of Christina Olson. Her complexity only makes her more interesting to me. She's not one-dimensional, that's for sure.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Sara Lövestam

Sara Lövestam is the author of the young adult novel Wonderful Feels Like This, now available in the United States. It is her first novel to be translated into English. She lives in Sweden.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Wonderful Feels Like This, and for your characters Steffi and Alvar?

A: I was actually thinking of this jazz musician, Povel Ramel, who was also a comedian who wrote (and sang) very witty and quirky lyrics. He's kind of old school, but I really enjoyed his songs when I was a young girl.

One day, a few years ago, I started talking to a male friend of mine about Povel Ramel. He was very surprised when I said I really liked him and knew all his lyrics. Turned out, in his mind anyone who likes Povel Ramel is an old man.

So I began to ask around: Who do you think of when you imagine "a person who likes Povel Ramel"? Everyone had the same answer: An old man.

So I asked myself: What is it about Povel Ramel that makes old men like him so much but that also, evidently, attracts a young girl to his music and lyrics? And those old men and the young girls that like him, what do they have in common that attract them all to Povel Ramel?

That's how the thought of writing this book came up - I wanted to explore a friendship between a young and an old soul, solely based on Povel Ramel. As I started writing, all kinds of other themes and characters appeared and the whole story took shape.

Q: Can you say more about why you chose to focus on jazz, and what role has jazz played in Swedish musical history?

A: I myself am an amateur musician. I went to music school (the same that Steffi applies for in the book) and one of my favorite music genres is jazz. I also enjoy the feel of the stories I've heard from the old days, when jazz and swing dance were new phenomena in Sweden. Anyone who visited the legendary dance palace of Nalen talk about it like the best parts of heaven and hell combined.

When I started doing my research, I found it very easy to get into the spirit of the ‘40s jazz scene in Sweden, probably because I've heard all those stories. And, I must add, I have received a ton of response from people who did visit Nalen in their youth and who say I've captured the atmosphere in my book.

I know in the USA the book is launched as a YA, but in Sweden it was published as a book for adults, and I'm overwhelmed by the responses I've had from all those old jazz dudes in their 70s and 80s who have read it. 

Q: One of your main characters is a teenage girl and one is a man in his late 80s. Can you say more about why you decided to create a friendship across the generations?

A: I think there should be more interactions and friendships between young and old people; we can all teach each other a thing or two.

And I also think that history should be made alive, so that we can see how people who lived before us were not so different, and in the end hopefully learn not to make mistakes that have already been made before.

This is not my first, or last, book dealing with the relationship between past and present, but it's my only book where history is actually told by a man old enough to have experienced it and young enough to still be alive to tell it.

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

A: The Swedish title was actually Hjärta av jazz, meaning "Heart of Jazz." I don't know the exact reasons why the U.S. publisher wanted to change it, but I'm sure there was a good reason. I think the current English title sounds a little bit like it could be a quote from the lyrics of a '40's jazz tune, which I like.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have just started a new project, which I am so excited about. It's about this woman, Monica, who goes through a life crisis and gets into genealogy as part of sorting out her life. Parts of the book tell the story of her ancestors as she finds their traces, and parts of the book tell her present life.

There is also a teen boy in this story, her neighbor, and one of my ideas is to write a YA book about him as part of the project.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Well, I could share this video with you to give a sense of Swedish jazz in the ‘40s. This is from a Swedish film made in 1940, starring Alice Babs who was just 16 at the time. (She appears in the book as well).

The name of the song would translate to "Swing it, Teacher," and the theme of the film is the dangerous, new jazz music that excites the youth and upsets the adults (except this male teacher).

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 29

March 29, 1936: Judith Guest born.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Q&A with Sue Macy

Sue Macy is the author of a new book for older kids, Motor Girls: How Women Took the Wheel and Drove Boldly Into the Twentieth Century. Her other books include Wheels of Change and Miss Mary Reporting. She worked at Scholastic, Inc., for 16 years, and she lives in Englewood, New Jersey.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Motor Girls, and how did you select the women to include in the book?

A: My previous young adult book, Wheels of Change, looked at the liberating influence the bicycle had on women’s lives, but as I was researching it I kept coming across ominous signs that the automobile had the opposite effect in the early 20th century. I wanted to investigate that further.

I’d also been keeping a folder on women and cars for decades, throwing articles in when I came across them. I decided it was time to look into automobile history and the motor car’s impact on women once and for all.

There were a few groundbreaking women who had to be included, such as Alice Ramsey, the first woman to drive across the U.S., and early auto racer Joan Newton Cuneo. I chose the others as I did my research.

Q: In the early years, what were the prevailing attitudes about women drivers, and what obstacles did women have to overcome to drive?

A: At the beginning of the automobile age, driving a car was a dirty, physical business, and many people thought it was inappropriate for women. Some also thought women weren’t emotionally equipped for the quick decision-making necessary to drive.

Many men, and some women, felt that if women had to drive, they should choose electric cars, which had a smaller range per charge and lower maximum speeds than gasoline-powered vehicles. Fortunately, women who enjoyed the challenge and thrill of driving gasoline cars persisted. 

Q: Of the various women you researched, were there any that you found especially fascinating or surprising?

A: I loved learning more about Alice Ramsey. She came from Hackensack, New Jersey, two towns away from where I live, and she was such a dashing figure in her goggles and duster. I’m amazed at the confidence she had as she drove across unpaved roads and repaired her own vehicle all along the way.

I also was inspired by Nell Shipman, the Canadian silent film writer, director, producer, and star, who played daring women in automobiles in some of her films, and did all the driving herself.

Q: The book also includes amazing photos and memorabilia from the early 20th century. How were they selected?

A: I did the photo research for the book, with help from Lori Epstein, the brilliant photo director for National Geographic’s Kids Books.

Early on, we found the Detroit Public Library’s National Automotive History collection, which is a rich source of images from the early days of the automobile and included wonderful shots of Alice Ramsey, Joan Newton Cuneo, and other female drivers. I would say that was our go-to source, although I was constantly looking for images to supplement what they had.

For example, we tried to show ads or photographs of specific cars I mentioned in the book, and sometimes I found those through private collectors. It was an exciting treasure hunt done mostly online, but also at the Library of Congress and the Benson Ford Research Center in Dearborn, Michigan.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m writing two picture books that are taking me away from women’s history for a little while. One is on a cat sanctuary in New Jersey and the other is related to Yiddish!

I’m also hoping to follow women’s history into the 1920s in another young adult book, but I’m not quite ready to talk about it. More will be revealed.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The other day I took part in a public radio program on women and automobiles that readers might like to hear. It was on WOSU-FM in Columbus, Ohio, but it’s available here.

Hosted by Ann Fisher, the program also featured retired Indy car driver Lyn St. James and Chris Cozad, a woman who’s had her own auto mechanic shop for several decades. I learned a lot!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Eugenia Cheng

Eugenia Cheng is the author of the new book Beyond Infinity: An Expedition to the Outer Limits of Mathematics. She also has written How to Bake Pi. She is the Scientist in Residence at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and an honorary fellow of the University of Sheffield.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on infinity in your new book?

A: Infinity is something small children can think about and be intrigued by, but it took mathematicians thousands of years to understand how to deal with it logically.

I love that big gap between the idea and the explanation. For me it means there's an interesting journey there and lots to see along the way. More concretely, people often tell me that their children have asked them something about infinity and they don't know how to answer: this book is my answer!

Q: You begin the book with a comparison of airports and boat travel. Why did you start there, and what do you see linking your feelings toward math and travel by boat?

A: I think one of the misconceptions about math is that it's all about getting the right answer. But this is like thinking that all journeys are just about getting to a destination.

I started the book by talking about different types of journey to remind us that some journeys are about getting there, but others are about the experience of travelling, and what you see along the way.

In the same way, some parts of math are more about the process than the endpoint, and are about the exhilaration of travelling, and the things you see along the way.

Those are my favourite parts of math, actually, but rarely the ones you get to see in school. That's why I'm on a mission to share them widely.

Q: In the book, you write, "Mathematics suffers a strange burden of being required to be useful. This is not a burden placed on poetry or music or football." Can you say more about that?

A: Math is thought of as being useful, and too often we encourage young people to keep studying it because of career prospects. It's true that math is useful, and being good at math does make you very employable in a wide range of careers, not just obviously mathematical ones like finance.

The trouble with this, in my view, is that saying something is useful does not make it sound interesting. Also, it means that anyone can then dismiss it by saying they don't want to do any of the things it's useful for.

I think this is further backed up by the fact that most people really don't use much math in their daily lives: maybe some basic arithmetic and percentages at most, but we can all get our phone calculators to do that.

I would rather get people interested in math by showing how it can be fun and fascinating.  We don't seem to get children to play sport by telling them it's good for them - it's more likely that parents simply share their enjoyment of it naturally with their children.

I saw a meme this week complaining about being having to learn parallelograms at school, which are not useful for anything, instead of something really useful like How To Do Taxes. 

It makes me sad that math is seen as something pointless unless directly useful. Would anyone suggest a How To Do Taxes class instead of poetry, or sport, or music?

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

A: One of the common perceptions is that there's nothing much to say about it: it's "just" the biggest possible thing. But there is a vast amount to say about it - one might infinite amount. [Sorry!] It's a good example of an apparently simple idea that seems to make sense until you really scrutinise it logically, at which point it falls apart.

Unfortunately there are plenty of ideas like that floating around. One response is to simply avoid scrutinising things logically, but as a mathematician I am not satisfied with that approach. 

One of my aims is to persuade people that it's rewarding to explore why something falls apart under logical examination, and enlightening to work out how to fix it.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have many different projects on the go at the same time. I am doing a series of workshops for New York public school teachers, sharing creative math projects that I have developed while teaching art students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

I am also teaching a minicourse on my research subject, Category Theory, to high school teachers at Math for American in New York. 

I have a new monthly column in the Wall Street Journal called "Everyday Math", in which I talk about the ways in which I see the world around me mathematically, but not just in terms of numbers.

The most unusual project is that I am just finishing my first art commission, some large mathematical chalkboard installations for Hotel EMC2, a new hotel in Chicago that celebrates the intersection between Art and Science.
I also continue to run the Liederstube, my art song salon in Chicago, and have several concerts coming up with some wonderful singers.

And I am always working on my technique for making French macarons.

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