Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Q&A with Chris Whipple

Chris Whipple, photo by David Hume Kennerly
Chris Whipple is the author of the new book The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency. He is a documentary filmmaker, journalist, and speaker, and has worked for CBS's 60 Minutes and ABC's Primetime. He was executive producer and writer of Showtime's The Spymasters.

Q: In your epilogue, written last December, you say, “For Trump’s chief, the job also carries a profound responsibility. He may well represent the thin line between the president and disaster.” How do you think Reince Priebus and General John Kelly have done so far?

A: That’s more true than ever. We’re now in the midst of a crisis with an unpredictable tyrant in North Korea and a guy who tweets irrationally and calls him Little Rocket Man and the stakes are really high. Kelly is the thin line between the president and disaster.

I think I said in the epilogue that Trump is likely to go through several chiefs of staff, and if Trump of all people does not empower the chief of staff as the first among equals, he would get nothing done.

That’s what happened in the first six months with Reince Priebus. He made rookie mistakes. He was out of his depth without White House experience. At the end of the day, the real failure was Donald Trump’s decision not to empower Priebus as first among equals. Priebus never had a real chance of executing Trump’s authority. You had all these competing rivals. It was the most dysfunctional White House in modern history, but it’s not fair to pin it all on Priebus.

With Kelly, there’s no question Kelly has done a better job of making the trains run on time in the West Wing. He managed to impose discipline. But that’s the easy part. The hard part is telling the president what he does not want to hear, and it’s not clear Kelly [has done that].

We learned a number of things about Kelly in a really inept performance [in his recent press briefing]. He really was out of his depth.

There have been really good White House chiefs. I suggest he call [former chief of staff] Leon Panetta. Other good ones, James Baker, Ken Duberstein, understood that when you go before television cameras, you’re not speaking as a Marine. You have to stay above the fray. You can’t do what Kelly did and go off on a tirade against an elected official without hurting your credibility, and that is the coin of the realm for a chief of staff.

The other thing that’s important and disillusioning—let’s assume Trump learned a lesson, that you have to empower a White House chief. He has not learned that governing is completely different from campaigning, [which involved] demonizing, dividing, disrupting. With governing, you have to compromise. Trump is inept and Kelly doesn’t seem to understand governing any better than Trump does. He’s doubling down on Trump’s worst [instincts].

Q: You describe Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, as the “first truly modern White House chief of staff.” What was in place before that, and how did he define the role?

A: You can make the argument that the first modern chief of staff was Sherman Adams, under Eisenhower. He was a gatekeeper. He was called “the Abominable No-Man.” But I think Nixon and Haldeman looked at the Eisenhower model and decided to take it to another level.

Haldeman is credited with the modern template—a gatekeeper but also an honest broker of information, in charge of the information flow, the communications, making sure everybody is on the same page. There’s been no such thing as a Cabinet government since Nixon. Nixon emphasized that Haldeman would be the “son of a bitch” that everybody would answer to.

Haldeman created the template—you talk to [Dick] Cheney and others who were at a conference with Haldeman [years after he had left the White House] and they were all blown away by Haldeman. He understood how the White House should operate.

The great irony is that the guy who wrote the book on how to be chief went to prison. At the end of the day, he failed to speak hard truths to Nixon during the Watergate coverup, but that may have been Mission Impossible.

Q: You mentioned Panetta, Baker, and Duberstein—do you see any others as among the best chiefs of staff, and why?

A: Almost everybody would agree that James Baker was the gold standard. I would put Leon Panetta in the same league, and Duberstein was very effective. Erskine Bowles, Dick Cheney was a terrific chief of staff.

Baker and Panetta stand out. They could walk into the Oval, close the door, and tell the president what he didn’t want to hear. They were grounded. They were confident in their own skin. Temperament is sometimes underrated in White House chiefs of staff. Kelly showed [at the press conference] that he may not have the temperament.

In the case of both of those guys, neither Reagan nor Clinton would have had a second term without them.

Q: What about the worst?

A: Don Regan [in the Reagan administration] has always owned that. When [he and Baker] swapped jobs, it was the most disastrous job swap in political history. Regan was completely unsuited to be White House chief of staff. Baker used to say the most important word was “staff,” not “chief,” and Nancy said [Regan] liked the sound of “chief”—he was arrogant and entitled.

As Ken Duberstein put it, he thought Reagan was the retired chairman of the board and he was the CEO. It was a disaster. He didn’t notice that something was brewing in the White House basement—the Iran-contra affair. It never would have happened on Baker’s watch. Regan was not savvy enough to see it coming.

Peggy Noonan said of Baker that he’s a Texas lawyer, they don’t do bibles baked in cake. It gives you an idea of how consequential the job can be. Regan owns that.

Sam Skinner had a really rough run as George H.W. Bush’s chief, replacing Sununu. It’s too early to put Reince Priebus in his place historically, but he had a tough six months.

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: I’m working on a new chapter for this book, for the paperback, which will be out in April or mid-March. I’ve got to do a chapter on Trump and his chiefs.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Cristina Garcia

Cristina Garcia is the author of the new novel Here In Berlin. Her other novels include Dreaming in Cuban and King of Cuba. Her work has been translated into 14 languages, and she has taught at various universities. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Here In Berlin?

A: It came about unexpectedly. I went in search of different kinds of stories…looking for Cubans’ relationship with the Eastern Bloc. I didn’t find much, although I tried really hard. I got despondent. I had rented an apartment [in Berlin] for three months!

Then I just got seduced by the city, the archaeology, and its ghosts, people in the interstices of history. It became its own thing. It evolved very slowly. It became a crazy historical excavation though it takes place in the present time.

Q: The novel features a visitor in Berlin and the various characters she encounters. How did you choose the novel’s structure?

A: That was another huge problem! You’re hitting every long night of despair I had! I just kept collecting these stories, finding them in little airholes of the history books I was reading.

At one point there were over 100 of these voices and I then started organizing them. I started ranking them. It was like a Busby Berkeley routine. Then I ended up choosing the ones I was personally interested in.

Q: What do you think the novel says about Berlin, and about the impact its history has on the city?

A: It’s just in the air everyone breathes. They’re acutely aware of Berlin as the capital of the Third Reich. There are stolperstein [memorials to Holocaust victims] everywhere—In this home seven people were taken away to Auschwitz.

But there also are other stories that fascinate me—what happened to the Russians who made it to Berlin? What happened after 1990? What happened to all those Stasi agents?

I kept trying to resurrect fictitious people who would have lived under these circumstances. I was trying to complicate an already complicated history.

Q: Did you need to do any particular research to write the book, and did you learn anything that surprised you?

A: Probably the story that got me going the most initially—my friend Alfredo, who I refer to as “A” in the book, he told me the story of the Blue Division of the SS, made up of Spaniards. Even the fascists were multicultural. You think of it as one type. I felt I was onto something there. I was following those threads.

I was also imagining the overlooked person sitting on a park bench. They became the notes I later amplified and distorted. Basically, I went wild.

Q: What role do you see your character the Visitor playing in the book?

A: There are a few possibilities. She became in a sense not so much a guide because she’s so bumbling, but someone with whom the reader might [identify with] as she starts traveling around Berlin. By the end, as she feels Berlin has revealed itself to her, so it is to the reader. That would be my ideal situation.

Also, outsiders are always interesting. She could never belong in Berlin. I’m fascinated with the anthropological notion of full participation. As readers and writers we are a step or two, or maybe miles, removed from full participation, but we’re always watching. When something happens, the drift begins, the story is here.

She is in that position because she has nothing at that point…I guess you could say it’s a protracted midlife crisis. She plays the role of the stranger.

Q: What are you working on now?

I’m working on theater right now! An adaption of King of Cuba. It’s going to be produced in Berkeley. And I’m working on an adaptation of Dreaming in Cuban.

In the back of my mind when I go back to my cave, I have another World War II thing in mind, set in Stockholm. It’s focused on two artists. One was a poet, Nelly Sachs, and one was a Swedish painter who was discovered posthumously. I’m thinking of something with these two women.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Cristina Garcia.

Q&A with Adwoa Badoe

Adwoa Badoe is the author of the young adult novel Aluta, which takes place in Ghana in the 1980s. It is a winner of the 2017 Children's Africana Book Awards. Her other books include Between Sisters and The Pot of Wisdom. She also is a physician, educator, and African dance instructor. Born in Ghana, she lives in Guelph, Ontario.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Aluta, and for your main character, Charlotte?

A: It was hard to forget the student protests of 1982 through 1988, when I studied in Ghana. The political and the economic realities of those years are etched in my memory, and many years later I felt that our stories had been hijacked by those who had usurped power and held on to it for decades.

I wanted to tell a story that would benefit young adults and give them another opportunity to review the history. I also wanted to inspire young women to become leaders.

Q: Did you need to do any research to recreate Ghana in the early 1980s?

A: Yes. It’s important to have a broad knowledge base when one is writing a novel. It is also important to find relevant factual details to anchor a fictional story. I was quite impressed by how much information was online, such as the records of the National Reconciliation Commission of Ghana.

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 had a sense of the story I wanted to write but I didn’t know the ending until I got there. I made several changes along the way.

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

A: Aluta is the adopted word for Ghanaian university student demonstrations against the government of Ghana. It comes from a rallying cry used during Mozambique’s struggle for independence: A luta continua, vitória é certa — the struggle continues, victory is certain.

The word recurs in my book, Aluta. However, it was my publisher who suggested it after reading my manuscript. All I could say was, “I should have thought of that.”

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a historical novel set in Africa in the late 19th century, just before colonization.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A:  It's a great privilege for me to write fiction situated in my native country, Ghana, and I want to thank my publishers, Groundwood Books, and my readers.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 31

Oct. 31, 1931: Dan Rather born.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Q&A with Atinuke

Atinuke is the author of the new children's picture book Baby Goes to Market. Her many other books for kids include the Anna Hibiscus series. She grew up in Nigeria and England, and now lives in Wales.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Baby Goes to Market?

A: It’s an idea which I have been working on for years - the idea of a baby, and a market - and it suddenly came together in London when I saw a cheeky little toddler tied on his African mother’s back - the story came together in that instant - and I wrote it down on the bus home. 

Q: What do you hope kids take away from the story?

A: I’d like the book to give children both a little glimpse of market life in West Africa, and a lovely giggle at Baby and Mama’s misunderstanding at the end. 

Q: What do you think Angela Brooksbank's illustrations add to the book?

A: Angela’s illustrations bring the story alive. She shows the cute cheekiness of baby and also gives children an experience of the colour and chaos of a West African market.

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

A: I love so many genres of books… Right now I’d say… Ifeoma Onyefulu for all of her work, Joyce Lancaster Brisley who wrote Milly Molly Mandy, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani for I Do Not Come to You by Chance, Astrid Lindgren for Clarston on the Roof and The Brothers Lionheart, Nnedi Okorafor for Akata Witch, Jennifer Donnelly for A Gathering Light and Revolution, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for everything she’s written! Oh, and Teju Cole - I love Teju Cole for Every Day Is for the Thief!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on so many things! Some fun new picture books, a non-fiction book about Africa, an early chapter book, and a novel for teens!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The chapter book that I am working on is a first for me. It’s my first book that's not set in incredible Nigeria where I spent my childhood. It’s set in wild Wales where my own children are growing up. And there is also a picture book set in Paris coming out! 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Atinuke.

Oct. 30

Oct. 30, 1935: Robert Caro born.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Q&A with Jennifer Weiss-Wolf

Jennifer Weiss-Wolf is the author of the new book Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity. A lawyer and vice president for the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law, her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and The Washington Post. She lives in Maplewood, New Jersey.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book, and what has changed regarding attitudes toward menstruation in recent years?

A: I stumbled on this. I don’t think anybody wakes up and actively thinks about menstruation, which is part of the problem. I simply saw a post on my Facebook news feed about two kids in the community who were collecting tampons for a local food pantry.

I thought about how I never think about this but it makes perfect sense. Access to products can be challenging, and menstruation is such a maligned or off subject. The last thing anybody wants, whether you’re woke or feminist, is to be bleeding on yourself when that’s not your intention.

That was a lightbulb moment. It was New Year’s Day 2015, and I had just done a swim in the Atlantic Ocean dressed as Wonder Woman with friends for fun. I had way more energy than if I had heard about it on another day in March.

When I wrote an essay [about the issue] it catapulted me into this space. The activism of the past couple of years [wasn’t there] in January 2015. By day I’m an attorney and advocate. I work for the Brennan Center for Justice, affiliated with the NYU School of Law. I think about how to advance change and see democracy live up to its ideals.

Why do we have collection drives? Why weren’t we thinking about this as a systemic issue that could be affected by policy changes? I started thinking of it as an equity and education issue. Our bodies are not the exception but the rule. This is a matter of civic participation. I thought our politicians might be likely to respond to that.

I kept writing. Until the media started reporting on it, I figured I would write. [The writing appeared in] high-profile places, and legislators started contacting me.

A book publisher contacted me one day, saying, We’ve been noticing this. I wasn’t the only one thinking about this in 2015. Before we knew it, on New Year’s Eve 2015, NPR said we’ve achieved the Year of the Period, based on activism.

By mid-2016 we were scoring legislative victories. Laws were being passed that would encourage access to products. I’d never written a book before. People advised me it would be like writing a lot of these essays. I decided I really wanted to be the one to tell the story.

Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and how does the title relate to the stigma surrounding periods?

A: The title, the cover, the art are all very deliberate. There was no question the word “period” was going to be loud and proud on the cover of the book, advancing the discourse. It’s not in your face, but it’s not going to be delicate about it.

A Newsweek cover story in April 2016 was called There Will Be Blood. Let’s put that in the middle of all the other publications. It’s the same with the book cover. Periods gone public is a phrase I used a lot. It seemed a little Wild West, taking a stand for menstrual equity.

I also wanted that because it’s a completely unique frame for thinking about menstruation, and menstruation as a policy agenda. It’s a different idea to think of it as equity, as public participation, rather than as a health issue. I do a lot in the book of showing it in action—how one can be deprived of these capabilities…

You get a sense of what you’re in for when you see the cover. We chose pink before the March on Washington. I tend to think we got that right a little ahead of the curve…The book has a resistance feel to it. Donald Trump has put himself out there as enemy number one with his words and actions. With menstruation, he’s the first presidential candidate to tussle with the media over the question of menstruation.

There’s a lot to the cover, I think. And I’m so grateful Gloria Steinem supported this work.

Q: Yes, I was going to ask you what you think the Trump administration’s impact has been on many of the issues you describe in the book.

A: My answers have evolved over the course of the past nine months. It feels like nine years in terms of how quickly issues whirl around us.

Right after the election, there was a piece of me that felt we had picked up so much traction over two years, and I started to despair that the issue would be thrown by the wayside, it would feel too small with the tidal wave of issues and concerns that the Trump administration poses toward women’s rights, women’s bodies, civil rights issues. Who was going to care about a tampon tax compared to fights for our lives?

I went back to when Trump made the blood coming out of wherever comment to Megyn Kelly, how swift the response was. He really did insult so many, an entire swath of the population, and people weren’t afraid to put periods out there in the face of a juvenile misogynistic taunt.

As the assaults began to pile up, the contraceptive access, undoing the Mexico City deal, the House passing the 20-week abortion ban, statehouses and governors emboldened by the rhetoric to pass equally bad laws in states, I feel we have something with the menstrual movement. Maybe it catches people off guard. The menstrual policy agenda is very uniquely bipartisan. Illinois and Florida passed new legislation in the past year; both have Republican governors.

Among the most recent advances, this summer the Bureau of Prisons issued guidance [providing] menstrual products to federal inmates. This is Jeff Sessions’ Department of Justice. It’s utterly radical. If it’s a signal to other Republicans that they have cover, that’s a good thing for us. If this is one place we have bipartisan support, that’s a good sign for an otherwise toxic political agenda.

What’s exciting—these advances seem small, but they mean something to people who can’t afford menstrual products. They’re not small to [those] people. I don’t want the next four years to be beating back the worst things, but scoring points on the board…

Q: So what do you see looking ahead?

A: Looking ahead, I have two distinct ideas about how we continue to leverage advances. One, continue doing the same. The question of the tampon tax, exempting menstrual products from the sales tax, 24 states have introduced legislation in the past two years. The goal is to have all 50 states not taxing menstrual products. The legislative push for menstrual access will continue.

In New York City, we succeeded in introducing and passing three laws that made menstrual products freely available in public schools, shelters, and corrections facilities.

Many more states and cities are replicating that legislation, from Los Angeles to the state of Colorado. Just in the past week California passed a law to make menstrual products freely available in all public schools. Illinois did the same.

Two, this is going much further than continuing with the agenda that’s already activated. In addition to putting menstrual access first, I want to flip it on its head and look at the laws, and have a paradigm shift where lawmakers look at the laws and see that half the people who live by these laws have bodies that menstruate.

I take nine areas of public law and life, and examine ways the laws could look different. By no means is the agenda limited to the areas I describe in the book. You could take it to every area of life.

Q: Are you planning to write another book?

A: During the entire process of writing, I was a first-time author, I hadn’t thought of myself as an author first, but as an advocate first…I don’t know. Right now I’m having a lot of fun, going to bookstores, talking with people. It’s a thrill to share this story…

There is a book coming out this spring from Henry Holt, a collection of essays from public figures—writers, activists, 12 of us wrote essays. It’s called Periods: Twelve Voices Tell the Bloody Truth. It’s a slightly different audience.

Periods Gone Public has a pretty wide-ranging audience. I would like to see schools include it in their curriculum. Students in high school and college could hopefully be ignited by reading this. I turned 50—my contemporaries are loving it. They’re inspired by my second lease on life. Lots of people can read this and think about the issue, and become accidental activists.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I came at this with my own background in law and policy. That’s what I thought I’d bring to the table. But there are so many activists in this movement who have a variety of skills that are so grand and far-reaching—musicians, photographers, athletes, people who love doing collection drives. There’s a place for everybody in this movement…I hope people read this and see it as a call to action.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Christopher Meades

Christopher Meades is the author of the new novel Hanna Who Fell from the Sky, which focuses on a young woman growing up in a strict, isolated community. His other books include For the Love of Mary and The Last Hiccup, and he lives in Vancouver.

Q: You note that the process of writing this book took more than a decade. How different is the finished product from the original?

A: I wrote the first version of Hanna Who Fell from the Sky over three feverish, sleepless days back in 2005. As it stood, the original, novella-sized manuscript was far too rough for publication, and I set it aside to focus on getting my short stories published in literary journals.

When I finally came back to it 10 years later, I found the story was all there – Hanna and Daniel, Hanna’s battle to escape Clearhaven – but the prose was not. I knew I could do a better job of writing it and, as difficult as it was, I started again from scratch.

I think my 10 years of experience – growing older, (hopefully) more mature, and becoming a father twice – really changed my outlook on Hanna as a character.

In the first draft, she was determined. Ten years later, she’s not only determined, but brave and empathic. It was important to me for Hanna to care about others more than she cares about herself.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for the community of Clearhaven, and for Hanna, your main character?

A:Years ago I returned home from a trip to Europe and handed my (then-girlfriend, now) wife a hand-painted mask I’d purchased in Florence.

She asked if there was a story behind it, and out of nowhere I said, “This is Hanna Who Fell From The Sky. She was an angel that was so beautiful that the other angels grew jealous and cast her out of heaven. That look on her face is the shock, wonder and astonishment as she landed on the ground.”

My wife looked at me and asked “Really?” and I said, “No, it’s just a mask. I bought for $3 from a street vendor, but I bought it for you.”

Now, my wife has long grown accustomed to my stories and can no longer be so easily fooled. But, for some reason the idea of Hanna falling from the sky never left me. I felt so strongly about it that when it came time to compete in the 3 Day Novel contest that year, I tossed my original idea aside and wrote the first draft of Hanna.

Q: Did you always know how the story would end, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: I always know how my stories are going to end. If you (as a writer) don’t know where your story’s going, the reader will sense it. They’ll notice your story meandering, no matter how much editing you do.

For Hanna, I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but I wanted the ending of the book to be poignant, to stay true to who she is as a character, and show how her story – while initially one of survival – transforms into one of potential.

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?

A: My favorite writer is Patrick Süskind. I loved both Perfume and The Pigeon and wish he would write another novel, as it’s been decades since his last one. I’ve also long been a fan of Vladimir Nabokov and Janet Frame.

For contemporary writers, I read all of Erik Larson’s work, which I believe is the most compelling nonfiction being written today. For fiction, the novels The Sisters Brothers by Patrick Dewitt and All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr are both pure genius. Along with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, they’re my favorite books of the past 15 years.

For something more obscure, but completely hilarious, Fruit by Brian Francis is the funniest book I’ve ever read.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: We just had the Vancouver launch party for Hanna Who Fell from the Sky on Sept. 28. So a lot of my energy went into that, as well as promoting the book.

But now I’m writing again and while I don’t want to give too much away, I’ve plotted and started writing my next novel, which features two women in very different stages of life than Hanna.

I want to tackle even deeper subjects like how men and women think about themselves as they age, whether a sense of liberation comes with middle age, and how we reconcile the mistakes of the past, whether we’ll ever truly be free of our former selves.

But I want to do it in a way that isn’t too heavy, that shines a light on important subjects but still engages the reader.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: In 2012 I suffered a brain injury playing hockey. It was quite severe. An hour after I was struck in the head, I couldn’t speak. I could barely walk.

I thought my concussion symptoms would soon go away, but months later, I was still stuttering and still having difficulty with noise and light and dealing with everyday life (all of this with a two-year-old and a four-year-old running around the house).

About a year after my injury, my neuropsychologist encouraged me to return to writing. I thought she was crazy – I could barely focus enough to watch an hour of television, let alone write a book – but very slowly, I began rewriting Hanna Who Fell from the Sky.

Some days I would only get a single sentence done, some days a paragraph and other days a full page, but I kept going and a year later, I had the finished book in my hands. It was a very difficult time in my life and I don’t know if I ever would have recovered if I hadn’t had this project to work on.

But I did recover (I’m about 90 percent better) and while at first I was wary of sharing my story, now that my symptoms are gone, I feel it’s important to share with other people, and especially other writers, to let them know that – like Hanna in the book – no matter what obstacles are in front of you, no matter how hard life can be, if you focus and work hard, if you try your very best, you can accomplish things you never dreamed possible.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Jessica Lee Anderson

Jessica Lee Anderson is the author of Uncertain Summer, a new novel for kids. Her other books include Trudy and Border Crossing, and she lives near Austin, Texas.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Uncertain Summer, and for the idea of including Bigfoot in the plot?

A: Years before the Finding Bigfoot television show (which happened to be the original title of my first draft that I later had to change), I watched a cryptid hunting documentary featuring the Patterson-Gimlin film.

After the documentary wrapped up at close to midnight, I looked over at my dog with Sasquatch-like fur, and it got my imagination working overtime. I knew I wanted to write a book featuring Bigfoot somehow. My nephews and my niece provided much inspiration for the story.

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

A: While I knew the general direction of the book’s ending, it took at least six drafts before I felt like I got the story arc right. I rewrote the story from scratch twice and made many changes along the way, which included restructuring the plot to include the contest.

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

A: I hope kids enjoy the story first and foremost! I also hope young readers find whatever treasure they are seeking, especially the riches of friends and family.

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?

A: One of my favorite writers is Judy Blume—her voice has always connected with me, both when I was younger and as an adult. Another favorite is my critique partner and dear friend, P.J. Hoover. I feel so lucky that I get to read her work ahead of publication as I love the worlds she builds and the adventurous plots she creates!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m currently working on stories for young readers to include two new Time Hop chapter books for Rourke Educational Media.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Thanks for spending time with me! If you’re interested in writing, I encourage you to keep pursuing your goal. No matter what, believe in the possibility of the impossible! 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 27

Oct. 27, 1932: Sylvia Plath born.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Q&A with Sarah Miller

Sarah Miller is the author of the new novel Caroline: Little House Revisited, which focuses on Ma Ingalls from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books. Miller's other books include Miss Spitfire and The Borden Murders. She lives in Michigan.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on Caroline Ingalls as the protagonist of your new novel, and why did you choose 1870 as the year in which your book would take place?

A: Ma Ingalls is the person you get to know the least in the Little House books. She’s the most soft-spoken, and virtually never (ever?) reminisces about her own life before marrying Pa. Her reactions are almost always subdued.

But that doesn’t mean she feels things any less keenly. Consider the moment in Little House on the Prairie when Pa is a day late returning from a trip to town, 40 miles away. Laura wakes in the night to find Ma sitting in her rocking chair with Pa’s pistol in her lap, keeping vigil for his return.

Reading that scene as an adult made me realize that for all her outward calm, Ma is barely holding it together. Once I started to wonder what was going on behind that placid facade, I couldn’t resist looking closer. 

As for starting in 1870, I’m not entirely sure how intentional that decision was. My initial research certainly wasn’t confined to the Kansas period alone. It may have been more a matter of pacing — once I got rolling it became clear that I wouldn’t have time or space to cover more than the Kansas year in a single novel.

Consider: it takes me 161 pages to cover the same events that Laura Ingalls Wilder describes in the first 37 pages of Little House on the Prairie

Conveniently for me, this segment of Ingalls history is also familiar to almost anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Little House. At the same time, it’s a moment where someone who’s not at all familiar with Little House can enter Caroline’s life without needing heaps of context and backstory.

Q: What did you see as the right balance between the "Ma" in the Little House books and your own version of Caroline?

A: That I had to do largely by instinct. If my Caroline isn’t immediately, completely familiar to anyone who loves Little House, they’re not going to make it to the end of the first chapter. So in that sense I had to be very faithful. 

But while there are clear limits to what Ma might say or do, there are far fewer restrictions on what she might think or feel. For instance, Ma would never mention that she had known hunger or poverty as a child, yet I can’t imagine those memories were far from her mind when provisions ran low in her own pantry. 

It was also helpful for me to remember that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s version of her mother isn’t the full picture. Not only is our perception of “Ma” filtered through the eyes of a child, there’s a third factor in this equation: the real Mrs. Ingalls. She was probably not 100 percent identical to the Ma of Little House. I want my Caroline to nestle comfortably between the two.

When you fictionalize the lives of real people, you have to get used to the fact that you’ll never know if you got the character “right.” Only Mrs. Ingalls herself could tell me that. The best I can hope for is that reading Caroline will make people feel some of the same emotions they felt while reading Little House.

Q: What kind of research did you do to write the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: I read all of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s handwritten manuscripts, including her then-unpublished memoir, Pioneer Girl, and compared them with biographers’ research, learning where fact and fiction melded and diverged.

I collected heaps of literary and social criticism of the Little House books, which made me aware of the many ways (both positive and negative) Wilder’s stories have embedded themselves in our collective consciousness and culture.

I read histories of the Osage Nation by John Joseph Mathews, Louis Burns, Willard Rollings, and Garrick Bailey, as well the 1870 and 1871 annual reports of the Board of Indian Commissioners. I pored over the diaries of women who had traveled west by wagon in the 1800s.

And then, because I’m what friends like to call a “method writer,” I drove to Missouri, Kansas, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa, to see the sites of the Ingalls family’s lives, where they were born and where they were buried.

I learned to crochet so I could replicate a piece of Mrs. Ingalls’s own lacework that I’d seen on display in Missouri, as well as a shawl I saw in South Dakota — both of which appear in Caroline. I made myself a calico dress. (I thought I could sew the whole thing by hand. I was wrong.)

I bought — and wore! — a corset. I lent a hand in butchering livestock and wild game, rendered lard, fried salt pork, roasted a rabbit, and tasted head cheese. I haven’t yet made maple sugar, but I intend to.

In terms of surprises, I found it especially intriguing that in spite of her own strict compliance with the manners and expectations of the day, Mrs. Ingalls somehow made sure her daughters were as educated and as self-supporting as their individual circumstances allowed. 

It’s obvious from the Ingalls girls’ real-life biographies that gaining an education and pursuing an occupation was prioritized over finding a mate and settling into the stereotypical Victorian-era role of wife and mother. 

Mary went to college for the blind where she learned to make beadwork, lace, hammocks, and fly nets. The rest of the Ingalls sisters made their way in the world as journalists and schoolteachers before marrying. 

All of them seem to have acquired a notion that it was OK to nudge at the boundaries of what was expected of women at the turn of the century. 

Q: What's your favorite of Laura Ingalls Wilder's books?

A: Little House in the Big Woods. I think. It’s hard not to say On the Banks of Plum Creek. But I love the sugaring off dance in Big Woods. The food, the dresses — the jigging contest between Uncle George and Grandma!

And also that tiny glimpse of Ma abandoning herself to the pleasure of dancing. For just an instant even 5-year-old Laura seems to grasp that there’s more to her mother than she’s seen before.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A nonfiction account of the Dionne quintuplets!

Yvonne, Annette, Cécile, Émilie, and Marie Dionne were born in May of 1934 in a farmhouse in northern Ontario. As the world’s first surviving set of quintuplets, they were an overnight media sensation. 

When the children were 10 months old the government seized custody of them, ostensibly to protect them from exploitation...and then built a zoo-like observatory where tourists could watch the five identical sisters at play twice a day. And that’s just the first half of the story. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb