Thursday, November 30, 2017

Q&A with Sophfronia Scott

Sophfronia Scott is the author of the new novel Unforgivable Love: A Retelling of Dangerous Liaisons. She also has written the novel All I Need to Get By, and previously was a writer and editor at Time and People. Her work has appeared in a variety of literary journals, including Killens Review of Arts & Letters, Barnstorm Literary Journal, and Saranac Review. She lives in Sandy Hook, Connecticut.

Q: You note that you’ve always been fascinated by the story of Dangerous Liaisons, and that you were encouraged by a friend to write a version of the story with an African American cast. Why did you choose to set your novel in Harlem in the 1940s?

A: It just seemed obvious. It’s the first thought that occurred to me. The glamour was always there in my mind. The friend who made the suggestion—her grandmother was Lena Horne. We have an image in our minds because of her.

The more I researched, the more I realized this was the best time. I wanted to make the Jackie Robinson connection, there was obvious wealth in the community, it was a time of possibilities, right after the war, and the civil rights movement had just started to heat up.

Q: What did you see as the right balance between the original Dangerous Liaisons and your updated version?

A: I felt I had to build the story from the ground up. It had to be mostly new. The pieces I kept were the touchstones I loved about the book and the first movie—like the scene where Valmont and Merteuil are revealing something of themselves to each other. I loved the opening scene in the movie where Valmont and Merteuil are getting dressed.

But I wrote the book because there were so many questions I had of my own. The Cecily character goes back to the convent at the end of the book. That never felt right to me. She is treated as a cartoonish character. The end of the book is different because she grew as a character in ways I didn’t expect.

Q: Did you need to do much research to create the backdrop of Harlem in the late 1940s?

A: Yes. I wanted to know how money flowed in Harlem, who had money and why, to understand the real estate, how money was handled in the churches. The social structure of those places is very hard to understand. Those would be the elements that matched up with the social structures of the original book.

Q: You write, “Dangerous Liaisons has always been seen as a cautionary tale, but I see it as a love story.” Why is that?

A: He really does fall in love with her! I wanted to understand that more, tell more of that story. It was something I never grasped before in earlier versions. When people act out, it’s often because of love. Mae Malveaux can’t grasp love the way she wants to. Cecily and Elizabeth are coming to new understandings of love.

The title—once you love, it’s not something you take back. You’re changed and you have changed someone else…

Q: Was the book’s title something you’d thought of all along?

A: The publisher wanted a two-word title, to match with Dangerous Liaisons or Cruel Intentions. I wrote a list, and this is the one we all agreed on. I tend to write about forgiveness. “Unforgivable” is in my wheelhouse.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A new novel. And I have a memoir, [This Child of Faith,] with my son coming out next month, and an essay collection in February.

I wrote with my son about our spiritual journey of starting church. He’s 13. Eventually his faith developed so quickly and strongly. I didn’t realize how it was sustaining him in the wake of the shootings; we live in Sandy Hook…We still live with that. We’re hoping the book will shed light about faith and hope in general.

The essay collection is kind of like a memoir in essays. It’s about Sandy Hook but also race, motherhood, spirituality. It’s called Love’s Long Line, which is from an Annie Dillard quote—we “reel out love’s long line alone.”

Q: Anything else we should know about Unforgivable Love?

A: I didn’t want people to be intimidated by it—it’s 500 pages, but it’s really an easy read. I think it straddles an unusual place—it’s a literary book but it’s meant to be read in book clubs. I want people not to be afraid and dive in and enjoy it! It’s a guilty pleasure!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 30

Nov. 30, 1667: Jonathan Swift born.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Q&A with David Stipp

David Stipp is the author of the new book A Most Elegant Equation: Euler's Formula & the Beauty of Mathematics. He also has written the book The Youth Pill, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Scientific American and The New York Times. He lives in Boston.

Q: You've said you were inspired to write your new book by acting as your son's high school math coach. How did that lead to the creation of this book?

A: My son was driven to draw from an early age, and by his junior year in high school it was clear that he’d major in art in college. Not surprisingly, he found math classes very boring—his math worksheets often featured elaborate doodles that he’d clearly focused most of his attention on.

So I began wondering how I might get him more interested in math. I had no wish to try to turn him into a math lover like me, but I didn’t want him to lose out in the college entrance game because of bad math grades.

In the end, he managed to do OK in math. But after he left for college, it belatedly struck me that, like many people, he’d never experienced how provocative, surprising, and beautiful mathematics can be—math classes generally don’t convey that to people who aren’t drawn to the subject.

Pondering that, I started musing about taking math-averse people on a tour of a high point in math as a time-efficient way to give them a sense for what’s deeply cool about the subject. Then I ran across a survey of math experts that named Euler’s formula as math’s most beautiful equation. That did it: I set out to write a revelatory ode about math based on it.

At first I planned to just do a short essay to explore whether I could explain the formula in a way that might interest people who know little math and perhaps never liked it. (Which includes my wife, who kindly served as a test reader.) But somehow things got out of hand and I wound up writing a book.

Q: "Its simple looks are deceiving," you write of Euler's formula. Why is that, and how would you describe the formula?

A: Euler’s formula is an equation with just five numbers—it has no arcane symbols, or even x’s. Attributed to 18th century Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler, it’s usually written eiπ + 1 = 0. While three of the numbers are designated by letters—e, i and π—its basic format is as simple as 1 + 1 = 2.

But it’s a stunner under the hood. For one thing, the numbers are arguably math’s five most fundamental quantities. They arose in different historical contexts and thus would seem to be totally unrelated. Yet the equation suggests they’re closely connected—it’s as if the top five lottery winners of all time turned out to be quintuplets who were separated at birth and raised in different families.

And when you delve into the formula you find a wonderful set of hidden connections among big ideas ranging across the history of math.

They include the circle-related number π (which turns up so often in math that one famous mathematician said it even seems to come down the chimney), the number e (another fascinating, Zelig-like player in math), the nature of irrational numbers (whose discovery, legend has it, led to a murder in ancient Greece), and infinity, perhaps the most deeply puzzling concept humans have ever pondered.

High school kids typically go over these numbers and ideas without realizing they’re deeply linked. So I see the formula as a kind of Rosetta Stone that can be used to reveal what a lot of basic math means at a deeper, and more engaging, level than most people have been given to understand.

Q: Can your book be appreciated by math-phobes as well as those who love math?

A: I wrote it assuming that readers would know something about decimal numbers, fractions, percentages, and the like—the basics needed, say, to calculate a tip—but wouldn’t necessarily remember the algebra, geometry, etc. they covered in high school.

Truth be told, though, I did include a number of equations, along with lots of explanatory hand-holding of course—I felt that writing about math’s most beautiful equation without showing some equations would be like doing a book on van Gogh’s "The Starry Night" without including a sizable image of it.

But the book largely describes rather than shows the math, and so I would hope that even confirmed math-phobes might get a reasonably good idea from it about what makes great math as provocative and beautiful as great art or literature.

Q: What is Euler's legacy today?

A: Euler was history’s most prolific mathematical innovator, and his work is effectively embedded in technology all around us—everything from the design of electrical circuits to the analysis of online social networks.

Even Hollywood has taken note: In the movie Hidden Figures, one of the female NASA scientists featured in the film gets excited about using an approximating technique called “Euler’s method” to help determine trajectories for 1960s spacecraft.

Intriguingly, Euler’s formula seemed to have little bearing on the real world at first, but about a century after Euler died the math behind it was discovered to have a great many applications in engineering and physics.

I find this deeply interesting—it’s as if an abstract pattern in an 18th century tapestry were later discovered to be a basic circuit design for amplifiers now used in everything from radios to the internet. This sort of thing has occurred many times in math history, and the book offers some possible explanations.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: At the moment I’m writing an op-ed about math education—its venue remains to be seen. The point will be that our national innumeracy problem (as one pundit put it, three out of two Americans are confused by fractions) isn’t just a math-anxiety issue. It’s a fear and loathing one.

And while educators have tried hard to reduce math anxiety, they’ve paid comparatively little attention to the fact that a large segment of the population actively dislikes math. Typically, math hate becomes entrenched in high school. The article will suggest ways to address this problem without greatly watering down the current high school math curriculum.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: You might be wondering whether my son liked the book. Unfortunately, I can’t answer that yet. I recently sent him a copy—he now works as an artist for a computer-game company in LA—but he’s been too busy to read it while trying to meet a deadline.

I’m pretty sure he’ll delve into it before long, though, and I told him that I’m looking forward to seeing his copy after it’s been decorated with a lot of very impressive doodles. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 29

Nov. 29, 1832: Louisa May Alcott born.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Q&A with Laura Kumin

Laura Kumin, photo by Willem Bier
Laura Kumin is the author of the new book The Hamilton Cookbook: Cooking, Eating & Entertaining in Hamilton's World. She is the creator of the MotherWouldKnow food blog, contributes to The Huffington Post, and teaches cooking and food history. She worked as an attorney for more than two decades.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Hamilton Cookbook?

A: Actually, I didn’t! The publisher came up with the idea. But they had a title and no concept. They figured they would get a ghostwriter, but [a consultant] said, I know someone who might be interested! [And they] let me be the author.

They expected a straight cookbook, a bunch of recipes…I wanted Hamilton and his food, not just Hamilton and his name.

Q: How did you select the recipes, and how much did you need to change them for modern cooks?

A: I agreed to do the book without any understanding of what I was getting into! But it turned out to be fine. The Library of Congress has a collection of cookbooks that’s digitized. I found them online, and then I went to the Library of Congress and did research on the recipes that were popular at that time, in the areas where Hamilton lived.

I was finding more geared toward the Founding Fathers who were Southern, and Adams, from New England. I was deciding what recipes were appropriate for Hamilton. I looked at his background [in the Caribbean and the New York area] and that of his in-laws, who were from a farm near Albany.

I looked at books—I was in the rare book and manuscript room for a couple of days, and they let me touch and look through some of the very oldest cookbooks. I wanted an illustration, and there were not many in these books. The first time I touched one of those books, it was like touching a Torah!  I was transported…

Q: So did you need to change the recipes much?

A: I did change them in some respects, but part of my concept was that I wanted people to look at the book and say, That’s something you can make in a toaster oven. That’s something you can make in a slow cooker.

They did everything in weights we’re not used to. “A teacup”—well, how much is a teacup? With chocolate puffs, they say, Make them the size of a sixpence. I was screaming to my husband to look up the size of a sixpence! Is it the size of a quarter, or a dime?

And people were cooking on fireplaces—“cook until done.” It isn’t temperature or time. I researched modern versions of recipes, what people were doing with similar recipes…

Q: What surprised you most in your research?

A: The book has three distinct parts: Hamilton, his times, and food and entertaining. I learned something about each. I have not seen the play; I didn’t listen to the music. I didn’t want to be unconsciously limited. But I was very touched by how tender Hamilton was and how physically brave he was. Our current president is neither tender nor brave.

Some of the other founding fathers, I learned there was great animosity between and among the founding fathers. I had not understood that. I hadn’t really thought about the fact that the Adamses, Abigail and John, detested Hamilton. Jefferson wasn’t a great fan.

And the context of his times—I loved learning what New York and Philadelphia were like. The internet is a beautiful thing—I was learning about how small these cities were. You don’t think about those things.

There was a huge growth in entertainment. I learned with food and entertainment what the rules were, what the expectations were of people. They were trying to do things like France and England. This is the era of the royal courts…

Q: What do you think accounts for the popularity of the Hamilton musical and all things relating to Alexander Hamilton lately?

A: I think two things probably. The musical is probably genius...the Ron Chernow book is inaccessible to most people, and Lin-Manuel Miranda has a very complex grasp of it. He read it and internalized the story, and put it out in a popular way. He translated Hamilton in a way that everybody can understand.

But it goes farther back. This is a compelling dramatic story. Aaron Burr and Hamilton knew each other at all these stages. They were in the Revolutionary War together…

One of the things that fascinated me, and is a sign of what I didn’t know, is that I had not thought about the role of slavery in the non-Southern states. It was legal in Philadelphia and New York. Hamilton bought slaves for his brother-in-law…That to me, now when there’s all this stuff about the issues of what should we do with people who were slaveholders, it’s very complicated.

Hamilton and his friends started a society to abolish slavery…he thought it would be gradual. Hamilton was the only one [in the group] who didn’t own slaves. Everything I started to look at, there was something in it that blew me away. It fed my interest. There are some things you’d do because you had to finish the project, but with this, there was always something new that kept me going.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a couple of ideas. I do really love the idea of marrying history and recipes from the time. There are a lot of books with adapted recipes, old-fashioned recipes, but showing you the actual page it’s written on, it does something for me…

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I would love people to understand that it’s much more than a cookbook. I really want people who wouldn’t buy a cookbook to take a look. To me, a well-enough-sourced-historically adult can [appreciate the history] but it’s also simply enough written that a 12-year-old can learn something that’s accurate…

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 28

Nov. 28, 1757: William Blake born.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Q&A with Franklin Foer

Franklin Foer is the author of the new book World Without Mind: The Existential threat of Big Tech. His other books include How Soccer Explains the World. He is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and was the editor of The New Republic.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book, and why did you choose to focus on Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon?

A: The book is fairly autobiographical in the sense that it grew out of my own experiences as a writer witnessing Amazon’s role as a monopolist, and my experience editing The New Republic, where I had worked with a co-founder of Facebook and had a unique view into journalism’s dependence on Facebook corrupting it.

So much [of our] knowledge and culture has grown so dependent on these four companies. I had the biggest worries about the damage they are doing…

Q: As you mentioned, throughout the book you discuss your own experiences at The New Republic. How would you describe the overall impact of the tech industry on yourself and on journalism overall?

A: My first job in journalism was at Slate, then owned by Microsoft. I started optimistic about technology’s potential for extending journalism. But over time I have grown more pessimistic. The whole idea of magazines and newspapers has been taken apart. Everything is an individual piece promoted on Facebook or Twitter, separate from the institution.

It’s had the effect of destroying the character of institutions and flattening journalism. Everything has become more and more the same.

Q: What do you see looking ahead?

A: In a way I’m pretty optimistic. Since I wrote the book [the situation] has changed pretty dramatically about the big tech companies and journalism. We’ve experienced a backlash against the companies that I thought was years off into the future, and journalism has found itself in response to Donald Trump…

Q: I was going to ask you, what role do you see the tech companies playing in the rise of Donald Trump?

A: It’s been kind of shocking to watch Facebook, at first saying they had no role in spreading fake news, and over time we see the scale of it all. Donald Trump was not elected because of Facebook, or because of the mistakes the media made, but when journalism or tech stares at itself in the mirror, it has to assume some responsibility for the rise of Donald Trump.

Q: In what way?

A: It’s pretty tricky because to get to some core issues, Facebook talked about wanting to take more responsibility for fake news, and should do it, but that also calls attention to their power—Facebook then is the one deciding what’s true and not true. There are going to be some earnest, ideological websites that will pay the price and get demoted.

None of these issues is simple. The most clear is the issue of power. We want to be cautious having power concentrated in too few hands. We want to create a pluralistic environment. I don’t pretend the questions are simple.

Q: You quote Thomas Jefferson at the start of the book, “The glow of one warm thought is to me worth more than money.” Why did you choose that particular quotation?

A: Thomas Jefferson is a character who looms throughout the book. Jefferson was somebody who cared deeply about protecting intellectual property and was worried about the dangers of monopoly. He wanted anti-monopoly provisions in the Constitution. He was a humanist. He thought one end of government should be the promotion of quality media, a life of ideas. He managed to live that life himself but wanted it for the everyday citizen too.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m writing for The Atlantic—finishing up lots of pieces that I was supposed to do while I was on my book tour!

And I’m working on a book about Russia. It connects to a lot of the issues in this book. Russia also helped usher in a world where disinformation flourished, privacy is under threat, and ideological extremes have more traction than before.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Questions about technology are fundamentally spiritual questions. As we fight to preserve our attention and our capacity for independent thought, we’re fighting for the core of our spiritual being. In my synagogue on Yom Kippur, the rabbi spoke about phones and the way they draw us away from being truly present in the world…

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Franklin Foer will be speaking at the Bender JCC of Greater Washington on Dec. 7, as part of the Lessans Family Literary Series.

Nov. 27

Nov. 27, 1909: James Agee born.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Q&A with Liv Constantine

Liv Constantine is the pen name of Lynne Constantine and Valerie Constantine, who are sisters and the authors of the new novel The Last Mrs. Parrish. They also have written another novel, Circle Dance, together, and Lynne has written the novel The Veritas Deception. 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Last Mrs. Parrish?

A: We were talking about the phenomenon of the “trophy wife,” the women who intentionally go after men with money regardless of the hurt and chaos they leave in their wake. We wondered what would happen if the story didn’t turn out quite how the women intended. From that discussion, the seeds for The Last Mrs. Parrish were sown.

Q: What was it like to write a book with your sister?

A: It was great fun. We have a very similar sense of humor, so our time together is infused with lots of laughs. We wrote Circle Dance, years ago, a women’s fiction book about two Greek sisters.

Q: Did you plot out the story before writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: We typically know the beginning and the end of a story and let the story unfold as the characters develop. There are many changes that occur in the first draft, and often new characters appear that we didn’t originally include.

It’s a very organic process and we give each other the freedom to deviate from the storyline, knowing we can fix any conflicts between scenes in revision.

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

A: Ian McEwan, David Morrell, Susan Howatch, Sinclair Lewis, Dean Koontz, and Edith Wharton

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Another psychological thriller that opens with a woman trying to find out who murdered her mother.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: We’re excited that The Last Mrs. Parrish has been sold in 19 territories and was selected by People magazine as a “People’s Picks” of best new books. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Deanne Stillman

Deanne Stillman is the author of the new book Blood Brothers: The Story of the Strange Friendship Between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill. Her other books include Twentynine Palms, Desert Reckoning, and Mustang. She writes for the Los Angeles Review of Books and and teaches at the UC Riverside-Palm Desert Low Residency MFA Creative Writing Program.

Q: You write that this book’s inspiration came from a story about a horse that Buffalo Bill had given to Sitting Bull. Can you say more about that?

A: When Sitting Bull returned to Standing Rock after traveling with Cody for four months in 1885, Cody gave him a horse. That was symbolic because the horse had been stripped from the tribes during the Indian wars. It was not enough to deprive them of the buffalo; they had to be dismounted. 

Five years later, while Sitting Bull was being assassinated in his cabin doorway, the horse was outside and started to dance as the bullets were flying. That was because it had been trained to do so at the sound of gunfire in the Wild West show. 

Sitting Bull’s murder and the dancing horse that echoed it happened at the height of the ghost dancing frenzy  - an apocalyptic call for a return to the old ways and the resurrection of the buffalo. So here was this horse joining in, a ghost horse really, a representative of the Wild West and all that came with it. 

While I was working on my book, I called Chief Arvol Looking-Horse, a prominent Lakota spiritual figure, for his insight into this matter.  What he said stunned me, beyond what I already felt, and I talk about all of this in much greater detail in my book. 

By the way, I couldn’t shake the image of the dancing horse for years, and it led me to write Blood Brothers. I wanted to know what forces converged in that moment, and how did they lead there.

Q: How would you describe the relationship between the two men, and what does it say about the history of the American West? 

A:  It was complicated and interesting; they had an unspoken bond, in my view, borne of a bloody history on the Great Plains, on two sides of the buffalo coin.

They were both fathers, husbands, warriors; both were charismatic and influential; both were celebrated men among their people, surrounded by fans, hangers-on, envious people, wives and close female associates (in Cody’s case, many girlfriends).

Each was a superstar, an icon, and in that regard, they represented qualities that each culture revered. In Cody’s case, he was fearless and self-mythologizing, yet at the same time he wasn’t kidding, most of the time. Moreover, he was friends with kings and cowboys – a man who knew who he was and everyone wanted to know him. 

Sitting Bull was a true representative of the Lakota – humble, an accomplished warrior, a man who made a point of not standing out, but was well-versed in his strengths. In today’s parlance, you could say he was “comfortable in his own skin.” 

Yet we white folk really don’t have the words to describe who Sitting Bull was and what he meant to his tribe. This becomes very apparent in an interview Sitting Bull did in 1877 with a reporter from the New York Herald, which I recount in my book. The reporter keeps pressing him for labels – “are you a chief?” “a medicine man?” and so on. Sitting Bull just says no….

In his hiring of Sitting Bull, Buffalo Bill allied with the only Native American who was his equal in terms of fame, respect, and stature among his own people…although on a side note, “fame” was not something the Lakota sought in the way that white people did…nevertheless, in coming together for the purpose of show business, they were crossing a cultural barrier – “foes in 76 and friends in 85” as the advertising slogan accompanying a poster of them together in Montreal (on the cover of my book) – indicates. 

The 76 refers to the Battle of the Little Bighorn; Sitting Bull was blamed for killing Custer, though that was not the case. Cody was an army scout during those years and after Custer was killed, he avenged his death by scalping an Indian – and then re-creating the act on the stage back east, wielding the actual scalp – to the dismay of some.

The coming together of these two men - Cody and Sitting Bull – was of course sensational, but very resonant. On the road, Cody tried to deflect the hostility towards Sitting Bull as the perceived killer of Custer, saying that Sitting Bull was “the Napoleon of his people” and a warrior, fighting a good fight – just like the white man. And that he had been wronged by the white man. 

Their first meeting in, of all places, Buffalo, is truly remarkable. What this all says about the American West is loaded – but we see it playing out today at Standing Rock.

Last year during the protests, descendants of soldiers who fought at the Bighorn, themselves army veterans, came to support the Lakota – and in a ceremony that was not widely covered, seek forgiveness for certain activities carried out by the white man in the conquest of American Indians.   
This was a 180 from the old days, and it’s the most significant thing that’s happened in this country in years, in my opinion. Maybe we are finally starting to reconcile America’s original sin – the betrayal of Native Americans.

Cody gave them their due in his spectacle, but that was limited – Indians in the cast were essentially prisoners of war, and traveling with the Wild West was a way off the reservation. But many Indians came to Cody’s funeral, along with the cowboys who were able to continue living an unfettered life inside the confines of the Wild West, even as it was being closed out in the real world.

In its own strange way, Cody’s show inscribed our history forever – and the Wild West is America’s address.

Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?

A: To write this book, I did what I always do, which is traveling to various locations in my story, talking to people on all sides of this equation, reading all sorts of source material (listed in an extensive bibliography in my book), and then spending years sifting through everything and letting it all percolate. 

Also, place is a player in this story, as it is in all of my books, and I love traveling across the Great Plains and coming across its secrets and treasures.

In terms of what surprised me, there was the above-mentioned dancing horse (which some think is a legend, but I believe the tale).

There was also the fact that Buffalo Bill was dispatched by the army to Sitting Bull’s cabin shortly before he was killed, in the hope that Cody could convince his friend to surrender to authorities and thereby quell the ghost dancing, one more thing he was blamed for. Cody was waylaid en route – one of history’s near-misses, as I recount in greater detail in my book. 

Later, after Wounded Knee, the final, tragic act of the Indian wars, Cody made a film about it, re-enacting that with actual surviving participants and victims. At this point in his life, he wanted to tell the truth about what had happened – not the literally white-washed presentation of his show.

But the film was a flop; no one wanted to see the dark side – and talkies were upon us. The days of the Wild West show were over, and in case that wasn’t clear, America’s first traffic jam happened at Cody’s funeral.

Q: What would you say is each man’s legacy today?

A: Each man is revered around the world; they are two of the most famous men ever, but they are not famous for being famous, like so many people today. They meant something and they still do, each representing a way of life that is long-gone but desired, and in some ways existed only in a dream. 

Yet it cannot be denied that Sitting Bull was the last of his people to “come in,” a “rebel” who fought for his homeland for many years, until he could do so no longer, and wanted to come to terms with the white man and forge a world where his children could flourish. 

And Buffalo Bill – hunter, showman, trickster  - conjured the national scripture, the thing that keeps the dream of America going. And let’s not forget that the Wild West was an “equestrian extravaganza” – a description officially attached to the show. Galloping horses, flying manes and tails, cowboys and Indians astride – it’s the American pageant in all its glory. 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I also write plays, and I’m working on a new one, and that’s all I’ll say at this point; I rarely talk about works in progress, especially in the seedling stage.  But thanks for asking!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Yes. It’s time for a message! Let us speak about the unraveling of protections for wildlife and the land and the sea. This is the end game of the Indian wars, the last gasp I hope of manifest destiny. But it’s in full effect at the moment, and should not be seen as something that is apart from our frontier history – a thing borne of, after all, the great wide open.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with L.M. Elliott

L.M. Elliott is the author of Suspect Red, a new novel for older kids. Her other books include Under a War-Torn Sky and A Troubled Peace.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Suspect Red, and for your main character, Richard?

A: The idea for Suspect Red began with the deadly Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 as I listened to the heated debate about surveillance and how to prevent horrific tragedies like it. The issues: National security versus Americans’ right to privacy, proactive caution regarding travel visas versus unfair racial profiling.

As a historical fiction writer, I’ve learned the past often gives us the perfect prism through which to view issues of today. It takes away the heat of immediacy and diffuses the human tendency to dig in and not listen when presented arguments that we already have an opinion about, pro or con.  

One of the most powerful metaphors for McCarthyism, for instance, is the play The Crucible. Yes, it’s about the Salem witch trials, but Miller also meant it as a poignant, powerful statement about the mob mentality he was witnessing during the 1950s Red Scare.

So McCarthyism seemed the perfect springboard for me to explore the debate we’ve been grappling with since September 11, 2001. How do we protect our citizens from those who plot to harm us while still maintaining our core democratic principals and freedoms? How to recognize “clear and present dangers” but NOT succumb to unfounded suspicion, xenophobia, and hysteria?

The same questions had been raised during the 1950s Red Scare, when a handful of people endangered the United States by spying for the Soviet Union.

Much like recent terrorist groups, the USSR was infiltrating and taking over its neighboring countries, aggressively spreading anti-American fervor across the globe, and trying to plant agents to “radicalize” our citizens. Like Hitler, Stalin was rounding up and sending political dissidents, Jews, and ethnic groups he didn’t like to Siberian gulags to labor and die.

We had just witnessed the atrocities caused by our dropping an atomic bomb on Japan. Now the Soviets had developed their own—aided in part by Americans.

Physicist Karl Fuchs confessed to spying for the Soviets while he worked at the Manhattan Project that developed our bomb. The Rosenbergs were also convicted of passing our atomic secrets to the Russians.

State Department official Alger Hiss was convicted of perjury while denying he was a Soviet mole. And a double agent named Elizabeth Bentley accused 37 federal employees of secretly working for the communists. Add to that tension the Cold War and its terrifying nuclear arms race, plus the Korean War.
So the danger was real. As was our national paranoia that Senator McCarthy exploited and fanned, resulting in thousands of innocent people losing their jobs and reputations.

Convinced by McCarthy and fellow Red-hunter, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, that communists were lurking everywhere, Americans turned on one another.

Anyone with “radical” thoughts or untraditional life styles, anyone who signed petitions, protested deportations, or spoke up for civil rights or labor reform; anyone who read the “wrong books” (Steinbeck, Thoreau, Langston Hughes are examples), had “the wrong friends” (social activists, Eastern European immigrants), listened to the “wrong kind of music” (jazz or Russian classical), or liked “the wrong kind of visual art” (cubist or abstract) was suddenly suspect.

Such “subversives” were hauled in front of Loyalty Review Boards or McCarthy’s Senate subcommittee to answer questions about their beliefs and activities, their friends and romances, AND to “name names” of others the government should target for investigation.

If they didn’t, they could be smeared as “Un-American,” fired, blacklisted, or jailed for contempt of Congress. 

“There are no degrees of disloyalty. A man is either loyal or disloyal,” McCarthy barked.

In this kind of world, “guilt by association” or simply looking “soft on communist” was enough to land someone on an FBI watch list. (“If it walks like a duck and sounds like a duck, it must be a duck” became a favorite euphemism.)

As former president Harry Truman said—when McCarthy accused even him of being “a communist dupe”—McCarthyism is the corruption of truth, the abandonment of due process of law. It is the use of the big lie and the unfounded accusation in the name of Americanism or security.

Because I was a journalist first, I wanted to create a novel presenting both sides of the Red Scare—the legitimate concerns versus unfair stereotyping and targeting.  

Suspect Red became the story of two teenage boys caught up in the maelstrom of McCarthyism—one (Richard) who might be pushed to investigate or persecute the other (his best friend Vladimir).
I set it in Washington, the eye of the hurricane.

Richard belongs to an All-American family. His WWII veteran dad works for the FBI and believes deeply in American freedoms. Don is an archetype, a patriot who fought Hitler, sincerely dedicated to making the world safe for democracy.

The Bradleys are the type of family whose admirable principles and sense of service could be exploited by a demagogue. Don might overlook his misgivings about a leader because “he believes in the cause, not the man.”

Then there’s Vlad, whose career foreign service father works for the State Department—one of McCarthyism’s biggest targets.  I added in an Eastern-European immigrant and artist mother, and a bodacious, beatnik sister, so that the White family brings bold, cosmopolitan about culture and politics—(what many would label “radical” or “subversive”)—to Richard’s neighborhood.

Vlad’s family represents those Ivy League intellectuals McCarthy and Hoover hated. (Those “coastal elites” many today distrust and want “drained” away.) 

Vlad is a jazz-loving saxophonist, a sophisticated, well-traveled newcomer who can so expand another teen’s perspectives—if that teen is not conditioned to be prejudiced against differing cultures and lifestyles. Vlad is the kind of promising kid whose future and idealism could be ruined by the juggernaut of McCarthyism-style rumor.

The boys, in essence, are foils to one another. Richard is quickly drawn to Vlad’s musical sensibilities and passion for books, which he shares. “Geeks” rule in this novel!

But as pressures mount on his dad at the FBI and Richard sees things at Vlad’s house that many would suspect “Red,” the lines between friend and foe, to whom Richard owes loyalty, blur.

Richard has to weigh the country’s political definition of patriotism and the needs of his dad as a “G-man” against his best friend—whose father could be ruined by gossip or any hint that he might be sympathetic to Eastern European communists.

I hope Suspect Red shows in very human terms the devastating influence of hate rhetoric on ordinary people. It is a coming of age story in turbulent times, a parable of choices. A look at the heroism it takes to not succumb to pack-mentality, alarmist rhetoric, power cliques, or gossip (stories that have “gone viral”).

It exposes the consequences of blindly accepting insinuation as fact and spreading that innuendo to others; the unfairness of profiling/labeling a group indiscriminately because of the actions of a few; and failing to question the motives or verify the statements of national leaders who preach such condemnations.

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

A: Oh my gosh—so much! For both questions.

I always research my novels heavily before deciding what to write. For Suspect Red, I read 1950s newspapers and magazines, scholarly analysis of the Cold War, and bios on McCarthy, Hoover, and journalist Edward R. Murrow.

I watched Youtube clips of McCarthy’s speeches, Murrow’s See it Now broadcasts and witnesses’ testimony in front of McCarthy’s committee.

I re-read The Crucible, Fahrenheit 451, and Lord of the Flies—all written during and about the Red Scare—as well as books like I Led 3 Lives, Herbert Philbrick’s chronicle of his experiences as a FBI secret-agent embedded in a communist cell.  

I interviewed former State Department and congressional officials. I watched 1950s TV shows and movies to get the lingo and pop culture details to make my dialogue, clothes, food, music, and settings authentic.  

Current movies like George Clooney’s Good Night, Good Luck and Bryan Cranston’s portrayal in Trumbo of the blacklisted screenwriter infused my thinking.

So much of what I learned surprised (and sickened) me—the loyalty oaths Americans were required to take to keep their jobs, the review boards that could dismiss employees on the flimsiest hints of impropriety or lack of patriotic zeal, defined in Executive Order 10450 as “complete and unswerving loyalty to the United States.”  

In October 1953, Eisenhower announced that 1,456 federal employees had been fired as potential subversives or susceptible to coercion from communist recruiters.

Reasons included having friends or extended family trapped in communist countries; interest in Russian literature, music, or travel; once attending a party where suspected communists might have been; donating money to left-leaning political organizations, charities or refugee funds; or being homosexual (labeled “perversion” at the time).

More people were dismissed from the Library of Congress, for instance, for their sexual preference than for their political beliefs.
Speaking of libraries—books were banned and even burned during the Red Scare if they contained “proletariat” themes. Books like Robin Hood! In 1953, an Indiana State textbook commissioner called for banning all references to Robin Hood in schools because he “robbed from the rich and gave it to the poor. That’s the Communist Line. It’s just a smearing of law and order.”

Across the country, librarians pulled copies of Robin Hood—fearful of local councils, trustee boards, or neighborhood watchdog groups. By that point dozens of librarians had been fired or hounded out of their jobs.

The reasons? They might have refused to remove liberal magazines like The New Republic. Or they wouldn’t sign affidavits swearing they’d never “been a member of, or directly or indirectly supported or followed” a long list of organizations the FBI tagged as suspect. (In California, the list included 146 groups.)

No library was safe from scrutiny. The Boston Post attacked the venerable Boston Public Library for displaying Lenin’s Communist Manifesto. The insinuation being the librarians were facilitating, even encouraging communist thought.

The Post demanded Boston follow the lead of countless other libraries across the nation and “label its poison”— all books by any author thought to have any communist associations should bear a stamp.

Works about socialist governing should be quarantined in reference rooms so their messages could not be carried out into the community. That also required the reader to sign for it, leaving his/her name emblazoned on a list of people interested in Soviet philosophies.

Remarkably, the famous FBI double agent Philbrick said the library should actually stock more pro-Soviet materials to provide the public a way to study communist dogma “to better know the enemy.” 

Another, more inspiring surprise: Against this pervasive inquisition and hysteria rose up five Indiana University students.

Banning Robin Hood was their tipping point. The coeds had been looking for a symbol to use in protesting McCarthyism’s siege on freedom of speech. They found it in the legendary feather-capped green hats worn by Robin Hood and his Merry Men. The IU students went to local farms, gathered bags of feathers, and dyed them green in a dorm room bathtub.

In early March 1954—when McCarthy was in his height of power, arrogant and confident enough to accuse the Army and a decorated WWII general of coddling communists—these daring students proclaimed themselves “The Green Feather Movement” and spread their Robin Hood-defiant feathers across campus.

They were immediately attacked as being “communist dupes” and radical “longhairs.” Newspapers denounced them. Some student groups jeered them. Hoover’s FBI began watching them. 

But even with such intimidation tactics, the Merry Men protests spread. To fellow Big Ten universities, to Harvard, to UCLA (where my fictional character, Natalia, joins its ranks). Their feathers helped knock over that terrifying king-of-the-hill bully, Joseph McCarthy, and his minions.

Their legacy continued into the next decade. Many historians credit these five feather-wielding students with initiating campus-activism that would prove so important to the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s.

Their example prompted me to make my two teenage boy protagonists book-lovers. Richard and Vlad often find their answers, their courage, in what they read. Isn’t that what books are all about? 

Q: The book includes photos and documents from the 1950s. How did you decide on what to include?

A: Each chapter is a self-contained month. The news accounts and photos punctuating its opening are historic fact, occurring in that month.

I begin June 1953, with the Rosenbergs’ execution as spies, and end June 1954 with an attorney’s impassioned outcry during a particularly egregious round of questioning by McCarthy during the televised Army hearings: “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty….Have you no sense of decency, sir?”

That timeline traced McCarthyism’s influence from its height to the beginning of its unraveling. Including photos, posters, headlines, and events of those months added a graphic, first-hand experience and potent immersion for my readers into those disturbing twelve months of American history. Far better to show rather than tell!

Q: Do you see any parallels between the period you write about in the novel and today?

A: Oh my, yes. I didn’t set out to write a novel that would have such relevance to our current political scene—as much as the journalist in me would like to claim such prescience.

Many political pundits and historians have written on the echoes between President Trump and Senator McCarthy. The following is a synopsis of much discussed similarities:
A nation primed: when McCarthy burst into celebrity, a mere five years after the end of WWII’s carnage, the country was weary of what they saw as European-born crises. Many were “fed up” with FDR’s New Deal liberals and their international interests and tolerance. McCarthy played off that by dismissing East Coast Ivy-Leaguers who permeated Washington, D.C., as weak “egg-heads.” 

Compare that to what many term as this past election’s “white-lash” against our first African American president, his progressive policies and erudite diplomacy, plus Donald Trump’s blustery promise “to drain the swamp,” and his dismissal of “coastal elites” as clueless snobs.

Both McCarthy and Trump exuded a brash, irreverent outsider image, a renegade persona, that appealed to the disenfranchised and to voters deep in our nation’s heartland who felt ignored by the Washington establishment.

These were often voters with less personal exposure to immigrants or cultures outside the United States and potentially more susceptible to xenophobia and fear-mongering stereotypes.

Both men used conspiracy theories to whip up support. For McCarthy, it was the specter of Soviet spies embedded in our communities, Eastern Europeans, Jewish intellectuals, the media, and “radical,” anti-establishment writers and artists. Compare that to Trump’s Muslim bans, his promise to build the wall to keep out “bad hombres,” and his birtherism claims about President Obama.
Coining catchy, character-assassination labels. McCarthy’s favorite: “Pinko,” “dupes,” “5th Amendment communists,” “fellow travelers,” and the not-so-veiled threat of “Better dead than Red.” For Trump: “Lying Ted,” “Crooked Hillary,” “criminal aliens,” and the chilling, witch-burning chant: “Lock her up.”
Deflecting criticism by attacking the questioner. When Murrow broadcast his expose on McCarthy, the senator tried to smear the reporter as being a “pinko,” citing Murrow’s involvement with Russian student exchange programs in the 1930s.

McCarthy threatened another reporter by saying he’d hate for that journalist to give McCarthy a reason to investigate him considering the man had six kids, adding, “When you write stuff like that, you’re helping the communists.” 

Trump implies journalists are essentially an enemy of the people and discredits them by demeaning—“fake news,” “lightweights,” “over-rated,” and even debasing female reporters as having “blood coming out of her wherever.”

The irony is both men knew media attention was their ticket to power. At first, the press covered them as titillating sideshows they didn’t take seriously, unwittingly lending them credibility. In 1953, the managing editor of the Raleigh News and Observer said, “The press made McCarthy. We go hog wild whenever he speaks. How long are we going to quote irresponsible statements?” 

Unsubstantiated innuendo and outright lies: McCarthy was all about strategic exaggeration, what Trump himself would later dub “truthful hyperbole” in his Art of the Deal and his staffers would call “alternative fact.”

Bullying: McCarthy browbeat witnesses—sometimes asking if they felt they deserved the same fate as the executed Rosenbergs. Trump egged on crowds to boo or manhandle opponents as he did in Iowa, telling his rally listeners to “knock the crap out of” protestors who had tomatoes, and promising, “I will pay the legal fees.” 

McCarthy urged Americans to boycott businesses that advertised in newspapers critical of him. He threatened to have the FCC review licenses of radio stations that didn’t carry his speeches.

When millions of people were in terrible danger from hurricanes and Kim Jong Un threatened nuclear holocaust—Trump worried about whipping up boycotts to force the firing of NFL athletes exercising their first amendment rights as proof of his “making America great again.” Suddenly standing for the national anthem seems proof of loyalty required for employment.

I would simply add, as Murrow said, we must never “confuse dissent with disloyalty.”

Both McCarthy and Trump seemed determined to dismantle the State Department and target the LGBT community. During the 1950s’ “lavender scare,” any hints of homosexuality became grounds for dismissal from federal agencies.

Compare that to Trump’s recent attempts to bar transgender service members from the military, Vice President Pence’s opposition to gay rights, and Trump’s emptying the State Department.

Finally: The direct connection of Roy Cohn. An attack-dog style attorney, Cohn was an assistant U.S. attorney in the 1951 espionage trail of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. In his autobiography, Cohn claimed it was he who influenced the judge to order Ethel’s execution as well, despite the scant evidence against her and the fact she was the mother of two small boys.

Cohn became McCarthy’s chief counsel and right-hand man. His zealousness and legal expertise turned McCarthy’s investigations into harrowing prosecutions.

After the Senate finally censored McCarthy, Cohn returned to private practice and became one of the most feared lawyers in New York City. He would be indicted and acquitted four times on charges including bribery, extortion, conspiracy, securities fraud, and obstruction of justice.

Right before he died in 1986 from AIDS, Cohn was disbarred for “unethical, unprofessional and particularly reprehensible” conduct. 
Trump was 27 when he met Cohn at a Manhattan club and asked how he and his father should respond to the Justice Department suing them for housing discrimination. The 46-year-old Cohn replied: hit back harder, countersue. Muddy the waters so the actual substance of the allegations was entirely lost.

 For the next 13 years, Cohn was one of Trump’s closet allies, representing him in scores of contentious lawsuits. He tutored Trump in his credo: never settle, never admit fault; attack, counter-attack; counter-sue any plaintiff or person who criticizes you. Play the martyr and claim detractors are simply persecuting you. McCarthy tactics.

Our system, eventually, worked. Those televised Senate hearings let Americans see for themselves McCarthy’s bullyboy tactics. They didn’t like it. Journalists like Murrow and Washington-cartoonist Herblock bravely pointed to the emperor’s lack of clothes as it were—and we finally looked. 

Perhaps the same will happen as Mueller’s investigation progresses and Senate committees hold more televised hearings.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My ninth historical fiction, Hamilton and Peggy!: A Revolutionary Friendship, comes out in February!

The past year has been a bit manic—research and writing these two books overlapped. But I have to say it was a wonderful thing to counterbalance thinking on one of our nation’s darkest and least admirable eras with its awe-inspiring beginnings.

And while a bit schizophrenic, it was great fun to toggle between such different voices, male/female protagonists, and historical periods almost two centuries apart!

Hamilton and Peggy was dictated by research and primary documents as well—beginning with the impassioned letter Hamilton wrote to Peggy in February 1780 to solicit her help in his courtship of Eliza.

Their friendship and his immediate affinity with her—calling her "My Peggy" in his correspondence to Eliza—is the unifying thread that binds the novel.

But my focus is on Peggy herself, her wit and patriotic sensibilities, as well as her witnessing first-hand Philip Schuyler's work as war strategist during the Northern campaign and the Battle of Saratoga, and as GW's most trusted spy-master, negotiator with the Iroquois nations, and liaison with Rochambeau’s French troops. 

So it is not a rehashing of the story we all know so well from Lin-Manuel Miranda's brilliant Hamilton. It is an adjacent and little explored narrative of Hamilton's much loved "little sister" and confidante, a woman who was just as smart and eloquent as the better-known Angelica.

Aide-de-camp James McHenry, for one, wrote to Hamilton of Peggy taking him aback with her keen and insistent interest in talking politics with men. My kind of girl!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with L.M. Elliott.