Thursday, August 31, 2017

Q&A with Claire McMillan

Claire McMillan is the author of the new novel The Necklace. She also has written the novel Gilded Age. She lives near Cleveland, Ohio.

Q: You’ve noted that some of the inspiration for The Necklace came from family memorabilia. How did these letters and journals help lead to the creation of the novel?

A: My husband’s great-grandmother’s scrapbook memorializing the house parties she threw in the 1920s was a useful primary document. Looking at it was almost like looking in a portal as it provided such a direct glimpse into another time. 

We moved into a family house about 10 years ago, and the scrapbook had always been in the house. I revisited it a lot while writing the 1920s portions of the book as it helped to get me in the mood of the ‘20s.

I also had access to Amasa Stone Mather’s journals and letters of a grand tour he took around the world in 1907. The letters were most helpful to get the wording and word usage right for the letters that show up in The Necklace. 

Q: The book includes sections set in the 1920s, as you’ve noted, and also in 2009. Can you say more about how you researched the 1920s chapters?

A: Aside from the scrapbook, I spent time at the Western Reserve Historical Society here in Cleveland in their reading room.

The excellent librarians there introduced me to two society gossip magazines in Cleveland, The Bystander and Town Topics. They were the Us Weekly and People magazines of 1920s Cleveland.

I requested boxes of them, and it was incredibly helpful to just page through the magazines and look at the topics of the articles, the advertisements, the wedding announcements and the engagement announcements. They gave perspective as to the concerns and distractions of the time.

Q: Did you write the chapters in the order in which they appear in the book, or did you focus on one time period before tackling the other?
A: I wrote the 1920s story first. That story had been percolating in my head for a long time, and I wrote it straight through. Then I turned to the modern-day story and worked on that.

I was going to keep them that way, in two chunks. But then I printed them out, put the chapters on my floor, and started literally, physically combining them. I was mainly concerned with pacing at that point.

After I had them combined in a plot and pace that made sense to me, I needed to sand and polish the joints, rewriting some portions and rearranging others so that it flowed and made sense.
Q: The necklace in the book is inspired by an actual piece of jewelry. What made you choose to include it in the novel?
A: The necklace acts as an important part of the plot. It’s a physical object that joins together the two timelines. It’s also a useful device for examining what the Quincy family looks like at its peak and what it looks like a hundred years later.

Additionally, I had lived in India and became interested in Indian jewelry while living there. So that interest too, served as inspiration for the necklace in the book. 
Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m doing research and considering writing a solely historical novel.

Q: Anything else we should know?  
A: I wrote part of the book while I was an Edith Wharton Writer-in-Residence at the Mount, her home in Lenox, Mass. The program is offered once a year in the spring before the house is opened to visitors for the season. The two-week residency allowed me to work in Edith Wharton’s very bedroom where she wrote.

They’re accepting applications now for the 2018 residency.  It’s open to three women writers. The experience was productive and transformative for my work. I highly recommend it.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb 

Aug. 31

Aug. 31, 1908: William Saroyan born.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Q&A with Stephen Savage

Stephen Savage is the author and illustrator of the new children's picture book Little Plane Learns to Write. His other books include Little Tug and The Mixed-Up Truck, and his editorial illustrations have appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and The Washington Post. He teaches at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, and he lives in Brooklyn. 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Little Plane Learns to Write?

A: My agent suggested this idea. I had done other vehicle books with Roaring Brook. You start feeling like you’re in need of help in coming up with other ideas.

An airplane made sense; we already had a truck and a boat. My agent, Brenda Bowen, liked the idea of a plane that wrote. It gets the literacy element in. I tried other ideas and they didn’t work, and I went back to it. I tried a submarine, a trolley. It worked out nicely…

I can bounce things off of her. She headed Bowen Press at Harper Collins. She understands these books very well. We hatched these vehicle books together. When an agent or an editor has a vision, you follow it…

Q: Did the story come first, or the illustrations?

A: The story. I’m primarily an illustrator; I feel that’s my strong suit. The writing, I’ve had to bring up to the level of the illustrations. We all have writing skills—we’re trained as kids—but to write for a picture book is different, you’re writing more poetically, and it’s short.

I feel if you’re going to do both writing and illustrating, the writing comes first. For years, I was doing editorial illustration. It always starts with the text. I thought, I’ll illustrate it however the story demands.

We tried a couple of different ways. My editor, Neal Porter, suggested a skywriter who couldn’t get the letters to write. The idea Neal had [is that the plane] would write "READ." It’s a book about how he has problems writing “read.” We had the idea of anagrams, moving the letters around.

But I thought that’s not something kids [deal with]. My daughter was 6. [At that age] learning is probably not about the order of the letters but it’s a physical thing. They can’t write P so it isn’t backwards. I remembered when I was a kid, I was airsick. I thought, the airplane should be airsick. The experiences should touch on the world of a child.

Once you find the key, you put the key in the lock and the book is solved. Once you get the idea, the writing of it is pretty quick. It’s all about the pacing. Then you can start the illustrations. But I take much longer than the [actual] writing. You spend six months on a thing that took a week to write.

The writing process is not just writing the words. I had to spend months thinking about it. For most writer/illustrators, that’s how it goes. The exception is if you want to use a certain type of picture—say a nighttime book—[and then write something to go with it].

Q: You mentioned the idea of literacy. What do you hope your audience takes away from the story?

A: I think children’s books should be fun; they shouldn’t be didactic. Ideally you want a book that secretly, slyly, puts in a teaching method or a moral that gives it some substance, but if the book isn’t fun the message will be lost because the kid isn’t going to engage with it. The best books should be fun, should be an adventure—and you peel back the layers.

At the time I’m writing books, I’m a parent, and that’s coming through in a genuine way. I’m not trying to force a message on anyone. My daughter is 8 now and is out of the picture book [phase]—how will I get ideas? Hang around a kindergarten class?

Obviously, I like books that are inspirational and uplifting. You forget how hard that is. You want a story about a thing you’re really struggling with, just like adults want a book about something they’re really struggling with. It’s tricky. It’s trial and error.

Q: Who are some of your own favorite authors?

A: It’s always changing. Certain people pop into your mind. Crockett Johnson and Harold and the Purple Crayon. I love the simplicity of that book. It doesn’t feel like a kids’ book; anyone can enjoy that book. Just the title is brilliant.

I love Golden Book illustrations. There’s a guy I admire a lot named Rojankovsky, who did tons of books. There were a lot of Eastern Europeans and Russians. Those Golden Books weren’t so much about star authors; it was about the Golden brand. Rojankovsky did a Golden Bible book, a whole illustrated bible. [His style was] constructivist and modern. You can see Russian constructivism in his work.

There are people right now who are really good. Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell. It won a Caldecott honor. It’s about Jane Goodall. It’s really simple and sweet; it has emotion.

A book nobody knows was my favorite as a kid--The Whales Go By, illustrated by Paul Galdone. The author was Fred Phleger. It’s all about the journey of whales from Alaska to Mexico. Their journey, to me, was really exciting.

Sendak is an inspiration to me. The Nutshell Library is so good and so funny. It has a biting sense of humor, as much as you can for little kids. Sendak was good with real child-attitude.

There’s Virginia Lee Burton. You can see the influence of that [style] everywhere. I like books from that era.

Tops on my list, right behind Crockett Johnson, is Lois Lenski. She was amazing. Her books are kid-friendly. She was an amazing woman; she was married and had kids and would work after her kids were in bed. She would help underprivileged kids. She had an amazing life.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: There’s always one book finished and waiting to come out. Jack B. Ninja—it’s the first book I’ve illustrated for somebody else in eight or nine years. It’s cute—it’s written by Tim McCanna. He has a whole bunch of books coming out now. It’s for Orchard Books, part of Scholastic.

The text is really fun—it’s a rhyming text. It’s an adventure story about a little ninja, like a little James Bond. It gave me a chance to create a fantasy Japanese world. That’s for the spring. It’s going to be a big Scholastic book club book.

Then I’m working on one now that’s coming out later that year, for Neal Porter, Babysitter from Another Planet. The text is written and I’m doing the illustrations. It takes place in a ranch house from the ‘50s. It has a pink kitchen…[It’s like] the Mad Men era. I love the Mad Men era. A lot of people are interested in mid-century design…in a way, it’s the new comfort furniture style.

Then there’s another book which is not far enough along, so I’m not going to mention it. There are usually two in the works, either born or almost born.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: People who want to be children’s book illustrators want to know the path. The path is very different for everyone. I’m going to be turning 53; I was late to the game. I started when I was 40. It’s helpful for people to know it takes a long time; it doesn’t happen quickly. You spend a long time on the path.

I didn’t decide until I was 30—it seems young [now]. People like Peter Brown or Dan Santat were undergraduate art majors and started publishing out of the gate. I worked in publishing for many years. I went to graduate school at the School of Visual Arts when I was 30. For a number of years, I was doing adult illustrations. I was working for The New York Times.

When I did Polar Bear Night, I felt I had something to say. It takes time to develop the confidence. You’re drawing on your own life experience. Little Tug was the first book I wrote…I felt I had enough skills to do an entire book. There was a long preparatory period to get there. The career has been a work in progress.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 30

Aug. 30, 1797: Mary Shelley born.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Q&A with Michelle Gagnon

Michelle Gagnon is the author of the new young adult novel Unearthly Things, a retelling of Jane Eyre. Her other books include Don't Turn Around and Don't Look Now. She lives in Los Angeles.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for this modern-day Jane Eyre story set in San Francisco?

A: I’ve always loved Jane Eyre--it was such a groundbreaking book for its time; Jane really qualifies as an early feminist.

My former husband was a fourth generation San Franciscan who was raised in the uber-wealthy high society world that the Rochesters inhabit (in fact, I used the building he grew up in as a model for their mansion).

It was so strange to me to discover, after nearly a decade of living in San Francisco, that there was this entire world most of the city barely knew about, complete with such dated traditions as cotillions and men’s clubs.

I wanted to show that dichotomy through the eyes of my Janie, who feels just as much like a fish out of water as I did.

Q: What did you see as the right blend between Charlotte Bronte’s original story and your own creation?

A: I really wanted to modernize the story and deconstruct it at the same time, kind of like putting the original in a blender. So I reimagined a lot of the key scenes from Bronte’s book but made sure they were incorporated: like the session with a fortune teller, the red room, and the backstabbing crowd Janie is suddenly surrounded by.

Q: What do you think still intrigues people today about Jane Eyre?

A: I think that Jane Eyre qualifies as one of the first true heroines in fiction, in that she refuses to accept the terms society thrusts on her and insists on thinking for herself. That’s always very compelling, especially for girls and young women. Plus the Gothic vibe, the sense that there’s something sinister in the shadows, gives it a woo-woo factor that drives the story forward.

It’s funny because before I re-read the story, I mainly remembered the romantic aspects of it, but there’s a significant chunk of the book that relates to her childhood and another where she finds long-lost relatives (a little too coincidentally, IMHO).

I wanted to achieve that same balance, between Janie’s past, present, and future.

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

A: Too many to list: I love Tana French, Karin Slaughter, Don Winslow, Kate Atkinson, Dennis Lehane…really, I could go on and on. There are just so many extremely talented people out there working primarily in crime fiction right now.

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I’m actually developing a TV pilot. I’m keeping it close to the vest until I’m further along.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 29

Aug. 29, 1632: John Locke born.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Q&A with Jonathan Lynn

Jonathan Lynn is the author of the new novel Samaritans, which takes place at a Washington, D.C., hospital. He is the director of 10 films, including Clue and My Cousin Vinny, and he wrote the BBC series Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister. His other books include The Complete Yes, Minister and Comedy Rules. He is also an actor and lawyer, and he lives in New York.

Q: Your book takes place at a hospital in Washington, D.C. How do you see it fitting in with the current debate over health care in this country?

A: The book is about the utter failure of the U.S. healthcare system. The World Health Organization ranks U.S. healthcare 38th best in the world, behind Colombia (22nd) and Saudi Arabia (26th), and just above Cuba.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 25 other industrialized nations do better than the United States at infant mortality.

With more than 250,000 deaths a year, medical errors are the third leading cause of death in America, behind heart disease and cancer. And the number one cause of bankruptcy in the United States is medical debt.

Obamacare made it somewhat better but there are still 27 million Americans without health insurance, and Trunpcare is striving to nearly double that number. It’s a catastrophe for anyone who is not wealthy.

So I set my new novel, Samaritans, in the fictional Samaritans Medical Center in Washington, D.C., a struggling hospital beset (like most hospitals) by rising costs and poor management. In desperation the Board hires a hotel man as its new CEO: Max Green, the head of hotel operations at a Vegas casino.

He understands about check-in and check-out, number of dinners served, number of beds occupied but he has no interest in health care. He does, however, see how to make a huge profit out of hospital care, potentially billions.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Max?

A: You never know where your characters come from – at least, I don’t. As you write, they grow and start to live on their own.

I wanted Max to believe completely that the business school model is right for every institution and service in America. I wanted him to be a man who puts profit first, but for what he believes are sound economic reasons - he doesn’t think that, ultimately, any other reasons matter. A man who doesn’t believe in “entitlements” – in his mouth it’s a derogatory word.

To Max, paradoxically, if you need entitlements you don’t deserve them, because they go to people who are lazy, feckless or in some other way unworthy. “People can’t have what they can’t afford,” Max explains. “That’s what got America into this economic mess – people wanting something for nothing. There’s no morality in that, is there?”

He has lost all understanding of what used to be called the deserving poor. So Max had to be materialist, smart but in a limited way, a narcissist… who better than a man who had previously run casinos before becoming CEO of the Samaritans Medical Center?

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

A: I usually know approximately how anything I write will end but how it gets there is a daily process of discovery. The more you learn about your characters the more they have to take control.

Harold Pinter called it “listening to your characters.” Not that I write anything like Pinter, much as I admire him. My style is more influenced by Carl Hiassen or Elmore Leonard.

I wanted this novel to have real velocity. I hoped it would be one of those books you can’t put down, I wanted it to be a vertiginous experience. Joseph Heller, writing about Catch 22, said that Nabokov in Laughter in the Dark took a flippant approach to situations that were both deeply tragic and pathetic.

“I began to try for a similar blending of the comic and the tragic,” he said, “so that everything that takes place seems to be grotesque yet plausible.”  This precisely describes the way I have approached most of my writing although, sadly, Samaritans is much closer to reality than you might like to think.

For instance, after I started writing Samaritans I read that Aetna, one of our biggest insurance companies, had hired the CEO of Caesar’s Palace to run their health insurance division! But why not? Healthcare is the ultimate lottery.

Q: What role do you see humor playing in today’s politics? Or what role do you think it should play?

A: Art is criticism of life, and comedy is criticism by ridicule. Comedy has a vital role to play in controlling those who would have power over their fellow citizens because it criticizes the institutions of society and those who run them unjustly, unfairly or corruptly.

That’s not just politicians, of course: that’s also the cops, the courts, the prisons, the military, academia, all institutions that are capable of misusing their power. I don’t know anyone who writes comedy who is not angry, or driven by a sense of injustice and unfairness, and a desire to reveal hypocrisy.

But it has to be tempered with a sense of irony. Humor is the best way I know to make social and political ideas and paradoxes accessible. I learned that at an early age from the comedies of George Bernard Shaw, Evelyn Waugh and Billy Wilder. There’s a lot about this in my book Comedy Rules.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m toying with ideas for two new books. One is an epic, multi-generational saga, if I can find the energy. Another is a sort of memoir, not about me so much as about extraordinary people I’ve encountered in my life. 

I’ve also written two screenplays, one a comedy about a modern marriage (another of those institutions) and the other an adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s wonderfully subversive feminist play The Constant Wife. Both have producers who are trying to set them up.

And my play, The Patriotic Traitor (published by Faber and Faber), which had a sold-out run in an off-West End theater, will soon be opening in London’s West End.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: In 1987 a man called Rick Scott started a company called Columbia when he purchased two hospitals in El Paso, Texas. Scott was CEO of Columbia when it merged with the Hospital Corporation of America and he turned Columbia/HCA into one of the largest health care companies in the world.

Forbes magazine said Scott bought “hospitals by the bucketful and promised to squeeze blood from each one.” Scott wanted to “do for hospitals…what McDonald’s has done in the food business.”

In 1997, under Scott’s management, HCA pleaded guilty to 14 felonies, fraudulently billing Medicare and other healthcare programs,  and the eventual settlement was $1.7 billion. The Justice Department described it, at the time, as “the largest health care fraud case in U.S. history.”

Rick Scott stepped down and left HCA with a $9.88 million severance package along with 10 million shares of stock worth about $350 million. HCA continues to thrive and now manages 168 hospitals and 116 surgery centers.

Rick Scott is now governor of Florida.

Max admires Rick Scott and wants to emulate him. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 28

Aug. 28, 1749: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe born.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Q&A with B.G. Firmani

B.G. Firmani, photo by Michael Lionstar
B.G. Firmani is the author of the new novel Time's a Thief, which focuses on a young woman in 1980s New York City. Firmani's work has appeared in a variety of publications, including BOMB Magazine and Kenyon Review. She lives in New York.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Time’s a Thief and for your main character, Chess?

A: First, thank you for this interview—it’s beautiful to have thoughtful readers. There were a lot of different things that smashed up together that led to this book.

One really was the experience of crossing 34th Street right after the NYPD had graduated its cadet class of 2008 and having the streets around me suddenly flooded by a sea of blue—the visual moment of that was so striking.

(I’m trying to remember which of the Kieślowski “Three Colors” trilogy, maybe “Blue,” that has this crazy thing where a group of little girls with pink water-wings suddenly runs into the frame and jumps into the pool—a sort of throwaway incursion that’s just fantastic to the eye.)

It stayed with me, the idea of a character being in an accidentally charged moment and then coming into contact with a piece of “public” information that provides a very private shock to her—in this case, the obituary of Clarice Marr, a woman who has caused the narrator so much pain, right there on the front page of The New York Times.

Another current was that I’d had a notion to write a sort of retelling of Brideshead Revisited in a late 20th century American context—the class outsider captivated by a vivid, pedigreed, flawed family.

The rigor around a project like that is beyond me, and also a little dreary to contemplate, but it did help give a kind of general outline to the book: the character Chess will be drawn to this family; she’ll “engage” with them; and she’ll be in a way chewed up and spat out by them. But there will also remain the romance of it, the melancholy of a lost past.

Also—structurally speaking—when I started Time’s a Thief, I had recently read Assata Shakur’s autobiography, a brilliant book.

She syncopates chapters between a current reality and a past one—the past line moves forward in time, while the present line moves backward in time until, more or less, they meet in the middle; and then the present reality switches gears, becoming the forward-moving narrative.

This was a very sophisticated structure that, when I tried something like it for my own book, of course fell to dust in my hands. But some of its armature remained—much improved by my wise editor, Gerry Howard—and it certainly helped give me an engine to keep the novel moving as I was writing it.

Here’s the thing with Chess. I needed her to not have all the answers, to perhaps think, entirely mistakenly, that she’s quite the smartie while she’s really a sort of babe in the woods.

If she’d had the savvy to get away from the Marr-Löwensteins and not leave herself open to their particular brand of emotional abuse, there would be no story.

So while I wrote it in the first person, and while we have plenty of shared characteristics, Chess isn’t me—she’s perhaps more guileless, more porous. She’s also struggling not to collapse under others’ notions of how she should be.

When the character Jerry praises her for being “so somber and quiet,” after the mean girl at the party purposely splashes gravy on Chess, somewhere in my mind (bear with me here) was the scene in Jane Eyre when poor old Bertha Mason, the proverbial madwoman in the attic, is revealed to Jane, and Mr. Rochester praises Jane for standing “so grave and quiet at the mouth of hell.”

I love Jane Eyre, but when I was young and reading that book, I was incensed. How can Jane remain silent? I wanted her to punch Rochester in the face for being a lying bastard (of course, in the end he gets his terrible punishment—and also loses the inconvenient first wife).

So, in my book, after Jerry praises Chess for her retreating Victorian ways, I have her explode at him. Which sounds like it would be great fun to write, but it was pretty herky-jerky going—not terribly fluid, since so much of it had to do with trying to keep the whine out of Chess’ voice.

I wanted her to be strong, to stand her ground; but also she’s in love with this man, so she’s fighting her own desire to capitulate and be the person he imagines her to be.  

Q: What inspired the Marr-Löwenstein family, with whom Chess becomes involved, and how would you characterize Chess’s relationship with them?

A: Let’s maybe concentrate on the mother first, Clarice. I’ve always been interested in power relationships, who is the dominant group, who is excluded and oppressed; and also how such power relationships play out within an oppressed group.

Funny thing here: there have only been two times in my life that someone at work asked me to get them coffee, and both of those times that someone was a woman. Depressing, right? And completely understandable in some ways.

I recently read an excellent article in The Atlantic by Olga Khazan, “Why Do Women Bully Each Other at Work?” and one of the things she talks about is the idea of the queen bee protecting her territory—as well as the older woman coming down hard on the younger one, the idea being that if that older woman had to struggle to get where she is, shouldn’t the younger one know what that tastes like?

Of course I find this both cruel and specious, but I understand its genesis. There’s plenty of pain that a character like Clarice would be carrying; she’s someone who cut herself off from her past and struggled to reinvent herself, and she’s really thrilled to find a docile, dazzled Catholic girl like Chess whom she can both mold and undermine.

As for the Marr-Löwensteins, I do love the idea of a certain kind of big family that creates an alluring atmosphere around them, one that’s noisy and larger than life and has the ferment of creativity about it—so then why not, for the purposes of fiction, imagine them rich, imagine them beautiful, and have the dreaming class outsider press her nose up against their window?

Also, in New York City, there’s a real mash-up of very poor and very rich and everything in between that in some ways is hard to find anywhere else.

Even with Manhattan being increasingly homogenized by a boring and entitled money culture, sad to say—and I could go on until the cows come home about this clown of a president and his racist and divisive ways—there’s still plenty of opportunity for, as they say, a cat to look at a queen.

When I was in grad school years back, I was missing the city so much, and I’d come into Manhattan, get off the train, buy a bagel and walk for a hundred blocks, taking in the city.

I’d pass through working-poor neighborhoods, Mitchell-Lama housing, super-rich swatches of Park Avenue—and places that to an outsider might seem down-and-out because of the old housing stock, but that were actually hipster central—and it would feel amazing to me how it all coexisted, for better or worse.

So this is something, that unlikely proximity of haves and have-nots, and the texture that such a thing produces, that I wanted to explore in the book.

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

A: Time’s a Thief is taken from the lyrics of the song “Speak Low”: Love is pure gold/and time a thief.

I’ve written of this elsewhere, but I first heard the song in college, in the corny film version of “One Touch of Venus”—Ava Gardner, who is shockingly gorgeous but sort of a big ham sandwich as an actor, is singing it in a distant duet with Dick Haymes; she’s actually dubbed.

When I was in graduate school, I came upon the demo version of it on vinyl, in the listening room at the Brown library. I loved it so much it hurt. I’d put on the headphones, drop the needle on the record, and just fly away.

Kurt Weill wrote the music, and Ogden Nash wrote the lyrics, and the recording just starts right in with Weill singing, no fanfare at all. He’s very close to the microphone and it’s almost as if he’s singing to himself it feels so private.

I think of Weill’s gentle delivery in his soft German accent, and also I can’t help but think this: here’s a man who lost his country. Nash might have written the lyrics, but Weill really feels them; the song is so much about what can’t ever be regained.

My editor Gerry is always ribbing me about my alleged smart-aleck turn of mind, but when he finished my book he said to me (as if astonished), You know, you actually wrote a very romantic novel! I think the title captures that.

Q: The novel takes place in New York City. How important is setting to you in your writing, and could this story have taken place elsewhere?

A: Certainly such a story could take place anywhere, but it would be a much different book. Setting’s hugely important for me, but the thing I go back to time and again as a writer is class and ethnicity.

You could have Chess’ story play out on a different level in some smaller “second-tier” city; you could even have it on a micro-level in some tiny community.

I think of my sister Colette’s friend Sue, who grew up in a microscopic town in West Virginia, where there were folks who lived “up the holler” and folks who lived “down the holler.” I’d imagine the folks up the holler had some asinine claim to superiority over those who lived down the holler.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Something in the third person! It’s rather a “bigger” novel than Time’s a Thief in that it moves among three characters. I have to say, telling a story from a revolving point of view and being able to fly into different characters’ heads—rather than maintain a consistent first-person voice—has really helped clear out some mental cobwebs for me.

The book traces these three characters’ lives from adolescence to adulthood, mapping the choices that took them away—or nearly away—from the notions they had of themselves when they were bright young things.

One of the touchstones for this novel is the essay “Formulary for a New Urbanism,” where the writer, Ivan Chtcheglov, a poet and theorist later plagued by mental illness, has an unrealizable ideal of a city in which “…there will be rooms more conducive to dreams than any drug, and houses where one cannot help but love.”

These words are beautiful to me. Of course it’s a utopian construct, and one that in many ways mirrors each character’s purity of heart before becoming “contaminated” by concessions they make in order to live in the world.

In writing this book, besides having the characters’ voices differentiate themselves one from another, one of my tasks is to register the toll that all this living has taken on them.

So, for instance, the language used by a dreamy idealist of sixteen walking around Passaic County with a head full of William Carlos Williams will seem wholly alien to the hard-edged 46-year-old shark he has become, whose time is spent greedily calculating the split on real estate commissions.

I’m also sort of amazed to realize how much fun it is to write from the point of view of a really damaged character. I understand the glee behind certain of Martin Amis’ awful male characters, I’m dismayed to report.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just this, as inspiration for any writer out there who feels like giving up: keep going. It took me many, many years, many pages of drivel, two thrown-out novels, and two thrown-out books of short stories—at least—before I published my first novel.

I just kept writing. I had to. There was no choice. At some point I understood that this was my path, and it was foolish to compare myself with anyone else, since there’s only one of me.

As a writer, you really are “competing” with no one but yourself. So put your butt in your chair and do your work. Keep at it, sister. And don’t let the turkeys get you down. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 27

Aug. 27, 1871: Theodore Dreiser born.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Q&A with Ruth Coe Chambers

Ruth Coe Chambers, photo by Deanne Dunlop
Ruth Coe Chambers is the author of the new novel House on the Forgotten Coast. She also has written the novels The Chinaberry Album and Heat Lightning. She lives in Neptune Beach, Florida.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for House on the Forgotten Coast and for your character Elise? 

A: That is really a tough question because it’s one I’ve asked myself. I talked with Ray Bradbury about it and found him to be a great believer in the Muse. He said that I shouldn’t worry about where it was coming from and just go with the Muse. I did and have always felt she wrote House. Then again, perhaps I’m a lot like Elise…

In trying to place myself alongside the Muse, I will say that the idea began with a dream about this really hot guy sitting in a swing. Imagine my surprise a long time later when he turned up in House! And out of nowhere it seemed, I wanted to write about a young girl who dies on her wedding day. I think the Muse handled it well, don’t you?

But where did the idea come from? As a child I visited friends in Apalachicola who rented an old house big enough, it seemed to me, to hold my home in one room. I struggled to breathe as I opened and closed giant sliding doors—my first introduction to pocket doors—and discovered a very narrow, nearly hidden, stairway that led to upper rooms.

Perhaps that memory built the House of the Forgotten Coast, but how Elise came to be there is still a mystery.

Past characters have been composites or fashioned loosely on a movie star or stranger. This wasn’t true of the characters who peopled Apalachicola, and Elise was the result of numerous revisions.

Like the Muse, I wanted Elise to be jealous of her mother and spent a lot of time designing a prom dress she was never to wear because she became a ghostly girl with a rather complex personality and in her own eyes a rather unattractive misfit. Elise then was ripe to be the recipient of Annelise’s need of a living person to help her clear Seth’s name of murder.

Q: The novel takes place in Apalachicola, Florida. Could the story have taken place elsewhere, and how important is setting to your work?

A: If you are to write what you know, I know small Florida towns. I couldn’t have set the story any place but the South because a certain type person seems to populate the South, and even if I don’t know the people I create, they have southern characteristics.

Apalachicola had, I learned when I stayed there with relatives as a teenager, ghost stories, people who read cards and predicted the future, interesting things that people where I grew up, only 25 miles away, never considered a suitable pastime. Apalachicola had a big old building where teenagers could dance or hang out.

It was creative, colorful and I longed to tell its story, so different from that of the Bay Harbor I loved and wrote about in The Chinaberry Album.

Setting, you see, is very important to me, so much so that I like to make a place a character in its own right.

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

A: I’m much too disorganized to ever outline a novel or to think ahead of what might happen. I just write what I see the people do. I have no idea when or how a novel will end. When it appears to end, I stop writing. House ends that way. I loved the ending, a mystery to the very last.

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

A: I must first pay tribute to some of those who have passed on but who influenced my work in every sense of the word. These are Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, Truman Capote, Ray Bradbury, and Flannery O’Connor.

Today I read so many that it’s difficult to choose a few, but off the top of my head I think of Scott Fitzgerald, Barbara Kingsolver, Lee Smith, Ken Follett, Ian McEwan, Daphne Kalotay, Jeannette Walls, Amor Towles and so many more!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: At the moment I am struggling (no help from the Muse yet) with The Receding Tide, my third and final novel in the Bay Harbor Trilogy. When House is really out there I hope to get a better feel for these old friends. They are mature people now and Anna Lee is recovering from an illness in her old home in Bay Harbor, now owned by Lola, former resident of the lighthouse.

I am also tweaking a Christmas play called A Child’s Faith. And no, despite being about Christmas, it’s not religious in the truest sense. For those who have read The Chinaberry Album, I’d have to say it’s pure Anna Lee.

Finally, among the many things I have written, I’d like to rework and publish a short story titled Two Women. Two Women and A Child’s Faith are written as both short stories and plays.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: If we are what we eat, I am what I write. It defines me. I am young at heart, but the calendar tempers that a bit. I often burden the characters I write about as I have been burdened. I think though that the burden helped me write, and for that I am grateful.

I am fortunate to have been happily married and to have two lovely daughters. I love love love animals, especially dogs. I can handle movies where people do not survive, but bother an animal and I’m out of there! That says it all, except for one thing. I love pocket doors and live in a house filled with them.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 26

Aug. 26, 1921: Ben Bradlee born.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Q&A with Andrea M. Page

Andrea M. Page is the author of Sioux Code Talkers of World War II, a new book for older kids. Her great-uncle was a code talker during the war. She is a sixth-grade teacher, and she lives in Rochester, New York.

Q: How much did you know about your great-uncle's work as a World War II code talker as you were growing up, and what made you decide to write this book?

A: My family didn't find out about my great-uncle's service as a code talker until 1994. He died in 1949 and never talked about it. I didn't know anything about code talking while growing up. 

I began to ask questions about code talking after we read a newspaper article about his group--seven men who used their Lakota/Dakota language to send messages in secret.

I thought I could find a reference to their work in a book about the First Cavalry Division in World War II. I went to the library and planned on collecting just a bit more, a paragraph or two... to save in our family history file. But as I started searching, I realized that there wasn't anything recorded about this top secret service.

After a year or so, I connected with someone named John Langan, who witnessed the code talking in action. He gave me all sorts of documents, details, information. He persuaded me to write the book.

Q: What type of research did you do to write the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?

A: Research starts with a question. I became more curious as to why the Sioux Code Talkers would join the Cavalry. John Langan helped me understand some reasons and he gave me more clues to follow.

I called the next person and asked questions. That person provided me with another clue, which I followed... And so on. You have to realize this was the beginning of the internet, so I did a lot of calling by phone and mailed lots of letters. 

Eventually, someone suggested the National Archives, so I went there. While at the Archives, I made copies of everything I could find. I went back three times over the course of 20 years. 

I continued to gather copies of documents, maps, photos and made phone calls to museums, historical libraries, tribal historians, etc. I just kept going. I now have about 10 bins full of research I collected all these years.

Something that surprised me was the photo catalog at the National Archives. I was running out of time, so I decided to make copies of the card catalog indexes and the photos (front and back) that were pulled for me. 

I found more information listed on the backs of the photos- specific details, places and names. I wasn't expecting that. Some of those photo details came in handy when I was writing the book.

Decades later, I could use the places and names to do internet searches. I found some interesting old videos on YouTube and some digital documents that helped fill in some gaps for me. I was glad I thought to make those copies that day.

Q: What do you see as the legacy today of the code talkers?

A: When I think about what these men did, or any Native American soldier did in World War I and World War II, I am in awe. These men put aside the prejudice their family members endured years before, to stand and fight alongside a former enemy.

Imagine the strength and fortitude it took to work together in this way. There had to be some level of trust given on the front lines. These men worked collaboratively to protect our country in an honorable way. They put aside their own feelings to fight for our homeland and community. 

I've heard some veterans say they were just doing their job, but when you really stop and think about it, these men are incredible role models for all of our children, in fact, for all of us. They volunteered to serve and sacrificed a great deal to protect our country. 

Q: What age group do you think would especially enjoy the book?

A: The book is appropriate for grades 5 and up, but fits best with the 7th/ 8th grade curriculum. It is popular with an adult audience as well. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I go back to school soon--teaching 6th graders. And I went on two successful "book tours" this summer. This fall, I have several author events booked already. 

In addition, I have one nonfiction picture book I'll be submitting this week, and two more picture books in various stages of revision. Lastly, I started researching a couple more interesting people I learned about while traveling in South Dakota.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I appreciate the generosity of others in helping me get this book finished and it has been a blessing to connect with so many incredible people!

I've learned so much over the course of 20 years. I've enjoyed this journey, which was challenging at times. So, my advice to other writers is be patient and persevere. Your hard work will pay off at just the right time. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb