Friday, June 30, 2017

Q&A with Karin Bojs

Karin Bojs, photo by Ulrica Zwenger
Karin Bojs is the author of the new book My European Family: The First 54,000 Years. Her other books include The Pickling Handbook. A science journalist, she is based in Stockholm, Sweden.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for My European Family, and how did you research it?

A: The idea grew for some years. It was a fusion of two strains.

First, as the science editor of Dagens Nyheter, the leading daily newspaper in Sweden, I have covered the advancements of DNA technology for nearly 20 years.

With increasing fascination, I have seen DNA technology transforming the fields of medicine, biology and forensics, and also archeology, anthropology, population genetics and genealogy.

Second, I felt an increasing urge to investigate my own family story. Having been brought up in a small and broken family, I wanted to know more about my ancestors.

There was a point, some four years ago, when an inner voice was kind of talking to me, demanding that I leave my position at Dagens Nyheter and start to write the book. I spent two years doing this. The first year was just spent with research. I read hundred of scientific papers, travelled to 10 countries, and interviewed many leading scientists in the field. 

Q: What did you learn that especially surprised you, both in terms of DNA research in general and in terms of your own family history?

A: I was not particularly surprised by the science, having followed the field closely for many years. My family story was a bit more turbulent than I had imagined: people going from tenants to landowners to prisoners and again to landowning farmers in a few generations.

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

A: Every word in the title is chosen carefully. "My" because the story is told in a very personal style, even though it is based on solid scientific ground.

"European" since it is a story about Europe and its population history.

"Family" since the book is both about my own family story, and about the family that we all belong to if we have European roots.

"The last 54 000 years" since it was about 54 000 years since a little group of people came out of Africa, had some sex with Neanderthals and become ancestors to the entire out-of-Africa population of the world, including Europeans.

Q: What do you see looking ahead when it comes to DNA research?

A: Personal tests will become cheaper and more accessible. DNA will become even more important for genealogy, archeology and history. We have just seen the beginning here.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: There has already been a follow-up, more focused on Scandinavia, with the title "The Swedes and their fathers - the last 11,000 years."

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Pat Thomas

Pat Thomas is the author of the new book Did It! From Yippie to Yuppie: Jerry Rubin, An American Revolutionary. He also has written Listen, Whitey!, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Mojo and Crawdaddy. He lives in Los Angeles.

Q: Why did you decide to write this biography of Jerry Rubin?

A: In the 1960s and ‘70s, Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman were equally as “important” and “infamous.” When Rubin become an entrepreneur in the 1980s, there was a backlash against him. Meanwhile, Hoffman was deemed a saint after his suicide in 1989. Rubin was killed jaywalking in 1994.

In the decades since their deaths, there’s been half a dozen books about Abbie, absolutely none about Jerry. It was time to balance it out, but also to point out that Jerry wasn’t the devil nor was Abbie “perfect.”

Q: As your subtitle notes, Rubin went from "Yippie to Yuppie." How would you define each of these terms, and what accounted for Rubin's shift from one to the other?

A: In the 1960s, a Yippie was a politicized Hippie! Someone who loved protesting the Vietnam War and mocking Nixon as much as they loved to get high.

In the 1980s, a Yuppie was either a young college graduate climbing their way to the top or someone older like Jerry who had cleaned up their act, gotten married, had kids and now wanted to make a decent living, have a nice house and own two cars. Not exactly a crime.

And for the record, Jerry never became a Republican – he was still a liberal while being a Yuppie. Why did he shift? For the reasons that I just mentioned.

Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Rubin and Abbie Hoffman? 

A: Like any good couple, they completed each other. Hoffman was funnier, Rubin was a better organizer. They were competitive, which worked in their favor sometimes and screwed them up at other times.

One thing that many of their mutual friends told me – Hoffman still liked and respected Jerry during Jerry’s Yuppie phase, even if he claimed otherwise to the media. 

Q: What do you think Rubin's legacy is today?

A: In my opinion, there isn’t enough of a legacy and/or a misunderstood legacy, which is what inspired me to write this book. But for those who knew Jerry, they remember him as an important kick-ass activist, who used humor to defuse very serious situations. We could use a Jerry in 2017!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Frankly, I’m still working on this Jerry Rubin book! It took me five years to interview 75 people, boil that down and catalog thousands of photos, letters, journals, etc. (with help from my editor Katherine Wolf and others) – and with the book finally coming out in August, I’ll be spending six months to a year, crisscrossing the country and promoting it.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Yes! Jerry did not become a right-winger when he put on a suit, nor was Abbie beyond reproach in his final years. Both of these guys were, like all humans, contradictory and complex. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

June 30

June 30, 1911: Czeslaw Milosz born.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Q&A with Barry Kalb

Barry Kalb is the author of the novel Cleaning House. Originally published in 2003, it has been newly reissued. He also has written the novel Chop Suey and the writing guide You Can Write Better English. He has worked for a variety of news organizations, including Time and the Washington Evening Star, and taught for 10 years at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong. He is based in Hong Kong.

Q: Why did you decide to reissue your novel Cleaning House?

A: The small Hong Kong publishing house that originally published the book went out of business, and never had the kind of clout in the first place to publicize the book the way I hoped it would be publicized.

In the meantime, I had published my second novel, Chop Suey, by myself on Amazon, and the enthusiastic reception that book has received led me to reissue Cleaning House on Amazon.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for this book, and for your character Noah Archer?

A: The overriding theme of the book is the overpopulation of the Earth. As a longtime resident of Hong Kong, I watched China’s population pass a billion, and continue to grow despite the government’s attempt at population control. India was close behind. The reality was hard to ignore. But finding a way to write about it was something else.

A writer typically reads or hears something that makes him or her think, “That would be a good theme for a book.” In this case, there were two things that led to the writing of Cleaning House.

First, I was reading Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, and I came across the line, “These (laws of the universe) may have originally been decreed by God, but it appears that he has since left the universe to evolve according to them and does not now intervene in it.” In other words, God created Man and then left him to get on with it.

It also occurred to me that the six “days” of creation each averaged a couple of billion real earth years: in other words, mankind has been on its own for long, long time, and has made quite a mess of things along the way – including “being fruitful and multiplying” out of all control.

Second, I was reading about some terrible act or other in the newspaper one day, and I thought, wouldn’t it be nice if we could just do away with all the bad people?

Then I thought – here’s the writer at work – if we actually could do that…how would it work? And would eliminating only the bad people bring the population down to a workable level, or would the cuts have to be deeper? The result was Cleaning House.

Mass death is hardly a pleasant subject, so I decided that the book would be a satire, with a lot of humor in it to offset the main theme.

I then realized that in order to carry out a plan to eliminate mainly bad people, God would need someone who knew the politics and idiosyncrasies of the world’s many nations and peoples.

I chose for that an unassuming but very knowledgeable risk analyst, the kind of person who travels all over the world getting to know local conditions on an intimate basis. That led to the creation of Noah Archer.

Q: Given that the novel first came out in 2003 and focused on the start of a new millennium, have reactions to it been different at all this time around?

A: Not really. I haven’t received that much feedback about the book, but people who have contacted me generally appreciate both the social and political commentary, which is still valid today, and the humor, just as they did when the book was first published.

Bits of the book are dated – Saddam Hussein is no longer with us – but in general I think the book holds up quite well.

Q: Do you have any favorite satirical novels?

A: I guess my favorite, and in many ways a model for my book, is Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Heller took a real-life situation, World War II, turned it on its head, and then took the improbable situation he had created to its logical conclusion.

That’s what I tried to do with Cleaning House: I asked myself, if God decides to eliminate a third of mankind, and he picks someone to do it with the help of a computer, how would that actually play out? Which other individuals and organizations would get involved and how would they react?

There’s an African priest who believes in birth control and who is accidentally elected pope. There’s a shape-shifting angel, the Archangel Wong, whom God assigns to assist Noah. I just let my imagination run wild, and I had a great deal of fun writing the book.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a third novel pretty much written. It’s set just a year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but it harks back to the communist era in Eastern Europe and the Solidarity movement in Poland (which I covered as a Time magazine correspondent).

The main character is a man who was a young journalist in Poland back then, who underwent a terrible trauma, and who, to rescue his sanity, returns to one of his early passions, the world of wine. The novel talks about how past actions continue to affect our present (a theme I also explored in Chop Suey).

I call it “a gripping tale of wine and international terrorism.” I have a couple of people looking at it, and I hope to publish it later this year.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Noah’s name is an obvious play on the name of the person God chose to manage His first housecleaning (Noah’s ark/Noah Archer). In fact, almost all the names in the book are plays on words.

Most are just the names of foods – Monsignor Kielbasa (a type of Polish sausage); Cardinal Guanciale (Italian for a type of cooking fat); Chinese President Tang Mianji (Mandarin Chinese for chicken noodle soup) – but there are also hidden historical and cultural references in the names and elsewhere.

The improbable name of the colonel in charge of ending the mosque takeover in India, for example, is Ali Singh Patel, Ali being a typical Shi’ite Muslim name, Singh being a traditional Sikh name, and Patel a common Hindu name: the colonel embodies Gandhi and Nehru’s ideal of a multicultural India, even as sectarian violence tears the country apart.

The book is full of such hidden references, and I enjoy it whenever a reader discovers one of them.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Barry Kalb, please click here. As far as we know, we are not related!

Q&A with Evan Turk

Evan Turk is the author and illustrator of The Storyteller, a children's picture book focusing on storytelling in Morocco. The book is a winner of the 2017 Children's Africana Book Awards. He also illustrated the book Grandfather Gandhi. He is based in New York City.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Storyteller, and what do you see as the importance of storytelling today?

A: I came up with the idea while researching for a trip to Morocco back in 2012. I read a book called The Last Storytellers, by Richard Hamilton, that talked about the dying art of Moroccan storytelling and its thousand-year-old history.

When I went to Morocco that fall and discovered that most storytellers were not telling stories in the squares anymore, I decided to write this ode to storytelling as a way to talk about that. The form of the story was inspired by 1001 Nights, and how Scheherazade used stories to save herself.

I see storytelling as important in many different ways in today’s world. There is the power of oral storytelling, like in the book, which is something that really connects us to past generations in a unique way.

But there is also the idea of storytelling in all of our different media today (movies, video games, books, TV, and even political campaigns), and how being able to tell a story and captivate an audience is such a powerful art form. There are more venues than ever for being a storyteller.

Q: Did you write the text at the same time that you created the illustrations, or did one come before the other?

A: The text was written before the final illustrations, but I usually work back and forth on a project, tweaking the text and the style and content of the illustrations as the story evolves and grows. But there is always a draft of the text to see how the story will be paced first.

Q: Did you need to do much research to write the book?

A: Research was very important for the book, because I wanted to make sure the book was accurately representing Morocco, the art of their storytelling, and the types of stories they tell.

I did a lot of reading of Moroccan folk tales, and tales from the Middle East that are popular in Morocco, such as 1001 Nights, to try to understand how their stories were formed and how they flowed.

I also tried to get a sense of how the stories fit into Moroccan history (with their use to pass messages during French occupation) and their relevance in today’s Morocco.

Equally important was the visual and experiential research done in Morocco getting to meet, talk to, and observe the Moroccan storytellers and carpet weavers, and give the book, its characters, and the stories more depth.

I also developed the style of the art while on location in Morocco. I find that drawing on location forces unexpected choices in art-making, and makes for a more unique, responsive feeling in the art.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?

A: I hope that readers take away the importance of preserving traditions and the power that comes from passing this knowledge and these traditions down.

One question I always like to ask on school visits is whether the kids have any storytellers in their own family. I am always amazed at how many children hear incredible stories from their parents and grandparents, and I always urge kids to really listen the next time these stories are told.

It is stories like these that are often never written down, and if we don’t listen now, they might disappear forever. So I would like readers to feel the preciousness of that gift.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a few projects at various stages in the pipeline! A book I illustrated called Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters, written by Michael Mahin, will be out in September and I’m very excited to see that book come into the world!

I just finished the illustrations for my next book as author/illustrator called Heartbeat. It’s about a baby whale who loses her mother during the heyday of American whaling in the 19th century, and swims through the next 200 years seeing how human attitudes towards whales shift throughout the decades.

In the end, she’s able to find solace in the compassion of one young girl who hears her song and sings with her, with hope for a brighter future.

It’s based on the reality of whaling, in that there were many orphaned whale calves, and that recently some whales have been discovered to have been over 200 years old! Heartbeat will be out in 2018.

And finally, I’m in the research phase for a book called A Thousand Glass Flowers that takes place in Venice during the Renaissance, that will be out in 2019.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m so honored to receive the Children’s Africana Book Award, and thank you so much for having me on your blog!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

June 29

June 29, 1900: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry born.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Q&A with Jessica Strawser

Jessica Strawser, photo by Carrie Schaffeld
Jessica Strawser is the author of the new novel Almost Missed You. She is the editorial director of Writer's Digest magazine, and her work has appeared in various publications, including The New York Times and Publishers Weekly. She lives in Cincinnati.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Almost Missed You?

A: The idea came not necessarily from the book's premise--which is that a woman's husband absconds with their child in the middle of a family vacation, leaving her blindsided and heartbroken--but from its themes: The question of whether there's really such a thing as fate, or an outcome (romantic or otherwise) that's "meant to be."

I wanted to take a couple who everyone seems to believe IS fated to be together--their story is a long one of near misses and second chances--and call everything into question. 

We’re all unreliable narrators, to a certain extent, and in Almost Missed You the characters do discover that sometimes the stories we tell ourselves are not the whole truth.

Q: You tell the story from several characters' perspectives. Was that your original plan, or did you change that as you wrote?

A: That was my intention from the start. As a reader, I find myself more and more drawn to multiple POV stories—they tend to leave me thinking about things from more complex angles.

Building on that idea that every narrator is a bit unreliable, I wanted to challenge myself to tell a story in which you would need all of their perspectives to get the whole story.

Q: The story jumps back and forth in time. Did you write it in the order in which it appears, or in chronological order for the characters?

A: I wrote the story out of order, always writing whatever scene was most vivid to me in my mind, regardless of what came next. Some things moved around a bit in revision, but the overall trajectory is surprisingly similar to my first draft, given that I wasn’t working from an outline.

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

A: I love titles that take on a dual or different meaning after you’ve read the book, and I hope that’s what I’ve achieved with Almost Missed You.

I hit on the title in the late stages of my revision after bouncing a few ideas off of my beta readers, and neither my agent nor my publisher ever suggested changing it.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have another stand-alone women’s fiction/suspense blend forthcoming in March 2018. It’s called Not That I Could Tell, and I just had a cover reveal this week!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Jennifer Kitses

Jennifer Kitses is the author of the new novel Small Hours, which examines a single day in the life of a married couple, Helen and Tom. Kitses has worked for Bloomberg News and Columbia Business School, and she lives in New York.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Small Hours, and for your characters Helen and Tom?

A: For me it was all pretty tied together—I had the situation, I had Tom’s storyline I wanted to deal with. I wanted to capture the feeling of how much can happen in a single day.

I have twin daughters—they were in preschool, I was freelancing and trying to take care of them. Going back and forth between Tom and Helen—that was the kind of life I was living. My husband and I were having intense days that weaved together. [It’s the idea of] having separate days in separate worlds.

Q: So you knew from the beginning that you would go back and forth between them?

A: I had the two storylines, and I wanted to go back and forth.

Q: How did the idea that the action would take place in one day affect the writing process?

A: There were constraints because of that. I was checking train times to my imaginary town. Devon isn’t real but I didn’t want to create a train that wasn’t there. Even the sunrise time [which plays a role in the story].

The other part is that I allowed myself the ability to jump back in time. The backstory is woven into the early chapters. I let myself do that. For the most part, the story moved forward, except for a few times…in the middle. You don’t want to let yourself be backed into a corner.

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

A: I think I had a pretty clear idea of it early on. There was a little back and forth in the revision stage and the editing stage. I had a pretty clear idea, but I let it stay not specific in my head.

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

A: There were at least 50 others! I did want to stress that it’s not just the time frame, but that each hour is so full. Tom thinks about his hours being so full, and that his whole life can seem to be going by in the course of an hour. I was trying to evoke that.

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

A: A big influence in terms of the time frame is The Sportswriter by Richard Ford. It takes place over a few days. You go through his day step by step in the present tense.

I also love Tom Perrotta’s books, especially Little Children and Election. Once you’re in the story, you’re in.

I’m a huge fan of Elizabeth Strout. She’s amazing at putting you into a story. She’s also amazing with timing. Amy and Isabelle moves back and forth and jumps around, and you almost don’t notice it.

[I like] Kate Atkinson, especially Life After Life. I buy so many books. I have ridiculous piles of incredible books. There’s never enough time.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m in the very early stages of a couple of things. My early drafts tend to be a mess. The last few months, I’ve been pretty busy gearing up for this [book launch]. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

June 28

June 28, 1712: Jean-Jacques Rousseau born.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Q&A with Gian Sardar

Gian Sardar, photo by Joseph Schwehr
Gian Sardar is the author of the new novel You Were Here. She also co-wrote the book Psychic Junkie. She lives in Los Angeles. 

Q: You've said that you've "always been fascinated with invisible layers." How did that fascination lead to the creation of You Were Here?

A: I love the idea that we’re inside a living, breathing history. That everywhere and everything we touch is full of a life we just can’t see, and that sometimes we might sense those past stories in ways that don’t seem logical; a strange moment of pause on a street corner where someone took their last breath, an unexpected feeling of happiness in a place where someone said “I do,” or a feeling of loss in a place where someone said a final goodbye.

I’ve always been fascinated by those invisible worlds that came before us, as well as with the stories of the past that create our present, yet another layer.

Everything that came before us forms the platform on which we stand and I love to imagine how far back that might stretch - whether it’s your life, your parents’ lives, or even a life you could have lived before. 

In so many ways our histories began long, long ago, and it’s that idea and that fascination that led me to write a book in which one layer is exposed.

In You Were Here, you see the past, and with that you understand the history of objects and places, as well as glimpse the components that shaped characters and their choices, choices that would resonate for all the years that follow.

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

A: Yes, I actually saw the ending right away in my mind – or 90 percent of the ending. I tend to write that way, coming up with a vague idea but seeing the ending rather clearly. With that goal in mind, I create characters who will get me there, but who inevitably take me to many places along the way I’d not seen coming.   

Q: You've noted that research can be a "rabbit hole" for you. What are some examples of things you discovered that particularly fascinated you?

A: I had to research World War II for various reasons, and one thing I looked into were personal accounts from soldiers. I spent days reading testimonials, simply because I was so interested in them, even though what I needed amounted to just about one line of backstory. But they were so fascinating, I just put everything aside to read the words of these incredible people.

I also spent a lot of time looking up plants, how they smell, where they grow, just trying to get the seasons and setting just right.

Another things I loved was trying to determine products that were appropriate and authentic for my past story-line, which involved me buying a 1947 Sears Roebuck & Company’s catalogue. As you can imagine, I spent hours pouring through it. Ultimately maybe four products got listed, but I still have fun with that book.

Q: Dreams play an important role in the novel. How have dreams affected you, and how did they affect the writing of the book?

A: For as long as I can remember, I’ve had dreams that ended up coming true. Of course I also have random dreams that seemingly mean nothing, but dreams have become very important to me because I know they just might be prophetic.

One dream was key in the formation of this book: When I was 12 I had one of those dreams when you’re you but you’re not you, where you identify as yourself though you look different, or you know streets you’ve never actually set foot on.

So I had one of those dreams, and in the dream I was running through a forest with a little boy, a person I knew was my (actual) brother. It was during a war. The sky was white and there were leaves on the ground, all the trees bare.

We were running from something, I don’t know what, and then stopped at a barbed wire fence. And there, when we turned, was a soldier. Because it was winter he was bundled up and we couldn’t see his face, but we knew he was there to help us.

When I woke, I opened my eyes and he was in my room. I blinked my eyes. And he was still there. I blinked again, and he was still there. Finally he was gone, and I just passed it off as a figment of my imagination, or decided I might have still been asleep.

Later that year, my mom decided to take me and some friends to a psychic for my 13th birthday. While we were there, this woman held my hands and said, “You and your brother have been brother and sister in a past life. I see you in a forest, during a war, and you’re running and then you meet a soldier.”

Of course then I stopped her, and said, “I just had that dream. When I opened my eyes, he was in my room.” She just said, “I know, he’s coming back into your life.”

So who was he? My best friend? Husband? Child? I have no idea, but the idea that perhaps we’ve been here before, that perhaps we’ve known the people in our lives before, was a concept that stuck with me.

When I was in my 20s, I was still fascinated by this idea, and I read somewhere you could try and dream of the name of the person you used to be. Over and over as I was falling asleep, I said give me my name, I want to know, and then one night it happened: I had dream of a name, nothing else, repeated over and over.

I’ve never actually investigated the name, since I didn’t know where to begin – what continent, what year, what anything. But it made me wonder, what if a character had a dream of a name, and had just enough to go on? What could she find? In the most basic way, right there, the book was born.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m at work on another novel, but am keeping it a bit quiet to not jinx anything.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: When I’m having issues writing, I tend to throw myself into gardening. So one knows, when my garden suddenly looks amazing, don’t ask me how my writing is going! 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Anne Sibley O'Brien

Anne Sibley O'Brien is the author of In the Shadow of the Sun, a new novel for kids that focuses on North Korea. She has written and illustrated many children's books, including The Legend of Hong Kil Dong and I'm New Here. She lives in Maine.

Q: You've noted that you spent 10 years working on In the Shadow of the Sun. Can you describe the process?

A: In 2007 I was being interviewed on Radio Free Asia in Washington, D.C. (about my 2006 graphic novel retelling of a Korean hero tale, The Legend of Hong Kil Dong: The Robin Hood of Korea), when the interviewer mentioned that the broadcast reached into North Korea and did I have a message for the North Korean people?

Within the month I had an image of two kids on the run, one of whom could pass and one of whom couldn't. But my first response was that I couldn't possibly write a book set in North Korea, because how could I possibly get enough information about what life is like there?

That fall I stumbled on a rare opportunity to view clandestine footage of the modern North Korean countryside and was amazed to realize that I recognized it. It looked just like rural South Korea in the 1960s when I was growing up there.

(Of course it did; the peninsula was all one country the size of Minnesota just over 60 years ago.) I realized that, with enough research, I might be able to find my way.

I wrote the first draft during NaNoWriMo 2008, then spent the next 8 years rewriting — I was also learning how to write a novel, not just crafting this particular story — all the way to draft #13 (my lucky number) which Cheryl Klein bought.

Tons of research and assistance from so many people along the way, including crucial contributions from the seven cultural experts/sensitivity readers who critiqued the close-to-final draft.

Q: As you noted, you grew up in South Korea. How did that affect the writing of this novel?

A: I can't imagine how I could have managed without that experience. One of the issues of writing across cultures is understanding your own lens as an insider or outsider.

Growing up in Korea I was both, a foreign, high-status American child, while living in the Korean community, absorbing Korean life and language through my young eyes and ears, skin and bones.

It's given me the gift of lifelong relationships with close friends and extended and immediate family who are Korean — including our daughter — and so many connections within the Korean American community. All of this informed everything in the book and the process of writing it. 

Q:  You've written and illustrated many picture books. Do you have a preference when it comes to the type of book you like to write?

A: I like to follow the impulse wherever it takes me, into whatever form. I'm not grounded in any particular genre or age group. Right now my grandson, born in 2014, is exerting a powerful influence that's inspiring young picture books, while at the same time I'm getting ideas for older, longer-form work. 

Q: Given that North Korea is very much in the news these days, what do you see looking ahead when it comes to the dynamic between the U.S. and North Korea?

A: I hope that we come to our senses and start listening again to highly informed experts — especially Korean voices — who understand the complexity and delicacy of the situation and why the DPRK leadership behaves as it does.

Based on the history of U.S. carpet bombing of the northern half of the peninsula, when the DPRK was a brand-new country, from a North Korean perspective it's quite sensible to view the U.S. as a dangerous threat. 

So often we view North Korean leaders as cartoonish caricatures, to be ridiculed, but if you look at their decisions and actions from their point of view, they are actually quite rational, focused on the survival of the Kim dynasty, in many ways a continuation of the tradition of Korean monarchies. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: This summer I'm completing illustrations for a companion to my picture book I'm New Here, about three immigrant children and how they learn to adjust to a new country, language and culture.

This one, called Someone New, is like a mirror book: it features the same cast of characters, but tells the story  from the perspective of the new kids' classmates and the process they go through to figure out how to be welcoming.

I've got a handful of other picture books at various stages of development.

And I'm musing over seven or eight beginnings — everything from just a concept to casts of characters to 8,000 words in — for possible novels and waiting to see if one catches fire. I don't know yet if I'm a picture book writer who wrote one novel or a novelist in the making. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I'd like to recommend that readers seek out Korean voices on North Korea, especially those who were born and raised in the DPRK before escaping.

Here are some of the books that helped me most as I was researching my novel, including a number of memoirs. There's also the new collection The Accusation: ForbiddenStories from Inside North Korea, by Bandi, a North Korean writer still living in the DPRK. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb