Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Q&A with D.V. Berkom

D.V. Berkom is the author of the new thriller The Last Deception, the latest installment in her Leine Basso series, which also includes Serial Date and Bad Traffick. She also has written the Kate Jones thriller series. Berkom lives in the Pacific Northwest.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Last Deception?

A: I've always loved spy novels and I wanted to take my character, Leine, into that realm to see how she fared. With her past as a former government assassin it seemed the thing to do. I also wanted to bring actors from her past into the present to see what would happen, with an eye toward working with them in later books.

Another reason was that the character of the Russian arms dealer came to me fully formed and I couldn't wait to write his scenes. I wanted to take the trope of the evil arms dealer who wants to destroy the world/protagonist and stand it on its head by making Anatoly a family man who wants to do right by his country. He doesn't trust easily, which runs headlong into Leine's built-in distrust of pretty much everyone.

Q: When you first wrote about your character Leine Basso, did you know you'd be writing a series about her?

A: Not at all. Serial Date, the first novel that I wrote in the series, is different in tone than the others: there's more black humor, adult language, and satire, and I figured the book would be a one-off.

Again, I wanted to take the serial killer thriller tropes and turn them on their heads using humor, in addition to satirizing the ubiquitous reality shows that have proliferated on television. As for Leine, what better character to go head to head with a serial killer than a former assassin?

After I'd published the book, I received several emails from readers asking for more. I had no idea Leine Basso would have so many fans!

The next book, Bad Traffick, dealt with the serious problem of sex trafficking, and I decided to tone down the black humor since it didn't fit with the subject matter. There's still some snark--Leine just can't help herself--but it's more of a traditional thriller, if you can call a female assassin protagonist traditional.

Q: How has she changed over the course of the series?

A: In the beginning, Leine is tortured by her past, especially in light of one incident that's described in the prequel, A Killing Truth. She doesn't believe she deserves happiness, and thinks her failed marriage and her daughter's rejection is proof.

As the series progresses, she realizes that her particular skill set is valuable, and that "using her powers for good" brings her immense relief from the guilt she feels for what she's done. By the time she appears in The Last Deception, she's working for an anti-trafficking organization, rescuing victims full time.

Q: Who are some of your favorite suspense writers?

A: Michael Connelly and Daniel Silva always spring to mind. John Sandford and Vince Flynn are two others I absolutely adore. And, although he's not really considered a "suspense" writer, per se, I love Carl Hiaasen's characters and his satirical/cynical take on corruption and the human condition.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The next Leine Basso, currently untitled (I usually come up with the title later on in the process). This one brings Leine full circle in her quest for redemption, and features an interesting antagonist or three. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: To sample my work, just head over to my website to join my exclusive Readers' List. I'm giving away the first novellas in each series: A Killing Truth and Bad Spirits.

Thanks for having me here, Deborah!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 27

Dec. 27, 1969: Sarah Vowell born.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Q&A with Elaine Tyler May

Elaine Tyler May is the author of the new book Fortress America: How We Embraced Fear and Abandoned Democracy. Her other books include America and the Pill and Homeward Bound. She is Regents Professor of American Studies and History at the University of Minnesota, and she lives in Minneapolis.

Q: How would you compare the level of fear at the start of the Cold War to the level we see today?

A: The fear is different and difficult to measure. In the early days of the Atomic Age, citizens believed there was little or nothing they could do to protect themselves, and the government gave the message that everyone was responsible for their own protection. 

That last message has prevailed over the decades, even though the perceived danger is different. 

Now it is about crime, with exaggerated fear far out of proportion to any real threat, but citizens still feel they need to protect themselves, with locks, security systems, guns, gated communities, and a bunker mentality that leads to mistrust and more fear.

Q: How would you define the idea of "Fortress America"?

A: A bunker mentality for the nation, in terms of building walls and keeping people out, and among citizens, who live in their own self-made fortresses.

Q: You write, "The factors that propelled Trump to the White House...had been brewing for half a century." What are some of those long-standing factors?

A: Exaggerated fears of crime and danger, far out of proportion to any real threat, and a distraction from the true harms facing Americans, particularly vast inequality of wealth and lack of opportunities for true security in terms of a comfortable standard of living.

Q: What do you see looking ahead?

A: Hopefully a revitalized democracy.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Promoting my new book, Fortress America.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Please tell citizens to become actively engaged in the political process so that we can take back our country!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Carmen Amato

Carmen Amato is the author of the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series, which includes 43 Missing, Pacific Reaper, and King Peso. The books are set in Acapulco, Mexico.

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to create your character, Detective Emilia Cruz?

A: Deborah, thank you for inviting me to visit your blog. I see that I’m in good company!

Regarding research for the Detective Emilia Cruz series set in Acapulco, the end product is a mix of my own experiences living in Mexico and Central America and sifting through news in English and Spanish. I keep interesting news stories in a box of notes as well as saving them to a Facebook page where readers can see what intrigues me.

The most recent book in the series, 43 Missing, required the most research of any book. The plot is inspired by the 2014 true unsolved disappearance of 43 students from the city of Iguala, Guerrero, after commandeering buses to go to a rally in Mexico City.

I placed Emilia in the middle of a task force investigating a similar crime and drew on extensive reporting, especially that of Francisco Goldman in The New Yorker, to reveal lapses in the investigation.

Q: How would you say her experiences connect to the current focus on sexual harassment in the workplace?

A: When I conceived of the Detective Emilia Cruz series as the chronicles of the first female police detective in Acapulco, I was referencing what I saw. Women are making progress in Mexico, but traditional roles and poverty are big obstacles.

Another is machismo, what Alan Riding, author of Distant Neighbors, called “defense of the Mexican’s fragile masculinity.” No one wanted Emilia in the all-male detectives squadroom and some see harassment as a way to get her out.

Many readers cheer Emilia’s fierce reaction to being harassed by her male colleagues, including a rape attempt in the first book, Cliff Diver. Emilia is no fool. She knows to expect trouble and isn’t surprised when it happens. Her fists are clenched and her tongue is sharp.

She is not worried about the consequences of fighting back, which gives her the upper hand in the heat of the moment. Yet Emilia will face repercussions when she goes too far, as in Pacific Reaper, when she pulls a gun on a male detective.

Q: How much have you chosen to focus on drug cartel-related violence in your books?

A: One of my early role models as a writer was Martin Cruz Smith, author of the Arkady Renko series set in Russia. The Renko series plots are intrinsic to the setting, first within Soviet Russia and later as the Russian mafia emerges. They simply could not take place anywhere else because of Russian culture, politics, and circumstances.

The Detective Emilia Cruz series takes the same approach; the plots are driven by the setting. There seems to be little in Mexico that is not related to organized crime and drug cartels, which in turn connect to official corruption, missing persons, and the erosion of civil authority.

Emilia’s world will always be true to the setting. Indeed, I hope that the series can raise awareness as to the thousands of Mexicans missing amid the drug violence.

Q: Do you usually plot out your novels before you start writing them?

A: I create an outline using sticky notes on the wall, taking about a day to build before transferring the outline to a poster that I hang over my desk. The outline will be redone several times before a draft is final.

Halfway through a draft I’ll moan and groan that writing a whole book is too hard and want to stop. But that outline drives me on.

Q: Will you continue the Emilia Cruz series?

A: Absolutely. The first six books have a loyal following and I love getting reader emails. Many comment on the relationship between Emilia and hotel manager Kurt Rucker, whose relationship has been hanging in the balance over the last two books, Pacific Reaper and 43 Missing.

The next book, Russian Mojito, will be released in mid-2018. I told Felix Contreras, the host of NPR’s Alt.Latino show, that there will be at least a dozen Emilia Cruz books, but there are likely to be many more.

Thank you again, Deborah, for the chance to chat. Your readers are invited to visit here and get a *free* PDF copy of the Detective Emilia Cruz Starter Library.

It includes the story previously featured on The Huffington Post’s Fiction50 showcase, "The Beast," plus "The Angler," based on the true 2007 murder of my parish priest, and the first chapters of three Detective Emilia Cruz novels. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb 

Q&A with Sandra Hill

Sandra Hill is the author of the new novel Cajun Crazy. Her many other books include The Cajun Doctor and Snow on the Bayou.

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

A: I saw a newspaper article years ago about a Cheaters-type detective agency. I saved the clipping for future use. Then I heard a country music song where the woman was wallowing in sorrow after being dumped by her boyfriend, and her mother calls her up remarking that she's got her crazy on and she better shape up.  

I loved that expression...she got her crazy on. My heroine is Simone LeDeux, who has an addiction to Cajun men, even though she's been cheated on by yet another bayou man. Thus, Cajun Crazy.

Q: Why did you first start the Cajun series, and did you know from the start that you'd continue to write about the area?

A: I love Louisiana...both New Orleans and the bayou region. After visiting New Orleans with my husband on a business trip years ago, I was hooked.  
To me, both the city and the Cajun swamp lands are like characters in my books. Perfect backdrops. But, no, I never intended the series to go on this long. Good thing Tante Lulu is secretive about her age!

Q: Do you usually plot out your novels before you start writing, or do you make many changes along the way?

A: I've been published for 20 years now. In the beginning I plotted out my books ahead of time. Now, I write by the seat of my pants. It's like driving a car. I know where I'm going, and I picture some of the stops or scenery along the way, but mostly my vision goes only as far as the headlight beams.

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?  

A: Oh, there are so many! For romantic humor: Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Rachel Gibson, Kristan Higgins. For historicals, Mary Balogh, Mary Jo Putney. For women's fiction: Elin Hilderbrand, Dorothea Benton Frank, Mary Kay Andrews, Mary Alice Monroe. For religious or inspirational: Anything by Brock and Bodie Thoene.

Q: What are you working on now?  

A: The first book in a new series, Bell Sound, which takes place on the Outer Banks. Some characters from my old Viking Navy SEALs series will show, and some ideas from my Jinx treasure hunting series. The first book will be titled The Forever Christmas Tree.

Q: Anything else we should know?  

A: I just released a long novelette, When Lulu Was Hot, a sort of prequel to all my Cajun novels. Or at least it tells us how the outrageous bayou healer/matcher came to be the way she is. Tears and laughter guaranteed.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 22

Dec. 22, 1639: Jean Racine born.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Q&A with Tiya Miles

Tiya Miles is the author of the new book The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits. Her other books include The Cherokee Rose and Tales from the Haunted South. She is a professor at the University of Michigan, and she lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Q: You write, “Even in Detroit, in the North, and in Canada—places that we like to imagine as free—slavery was sanctioned by law and carried out according to custom.” What role did enslaved people play in the early days of Detroit?

A: The Dawn of Detroit explores how Detroit's first European settlers positioned themselves in relation to land, natural "resources," and people of color; how enslaved people persevered through adversity; and how surprising alliances were sometimes forged between white merchant elites, white working class people, and enslaved people in this borderland space. 

Native people and African Americans were both enslaved within the town and along the expansive Detroit River. Both groups were essential to the success of the fur trade, Detroit's chief economic enterprise, as well as to the maintenance of domestic households and family farms. Detroit would not have developed into a major American metropolis without the contributions of Native and black enslaved residents.

Enslaved people were men and women as well as children, Native Americans as well as African Americans. Slave owners exploited unfree labor to develop and further the lucrative international trade in animal furs and to create and sustain the fort town.

Enslaved men packed and carried pelts across vast distances, manned ships that transported items across the Great Lakes, constructed buildings, delivered local goods, and did agricultural labor on farms.

Enslaved women did all manner of work within and around households, including:  growing, preparing and serving foodstuff, sewing and cleaning linens and clothing, keeping domestic spaces livable, and caring for the children of their owners. The evidence suggests that Native women in particular were exploited in a particular form of sexual slavery.

Q: You note that this book had several origin stories. What were they, and how did they factor into the writing of your book?

A: The seed for this project was planted back in 2009 when I accompanied my class (a senior seminar in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies) on an Underground Railroad tour sponsored by the African American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County. Our tour guide, Deborah Meadows, took us to a number of places, including the Ypsilanti Historical Museum.

This experience opened a portal of inquiry for me. I began to ask questions about local abolitionist history, which led me to see a major gap in the historical narratives about Detroit and the larger Northwest Territory regarding the presence and experience of enslaved people. 

Around this same time, the University of Michigan, where I teach, began a cross-departmental discussion series on the topic of the Detroit School of Urban Studies – an area of thinking and body of scholarship that would center Detroit as a means of understanding present and future dynamics in American cities.

I started sitting in on those early discussions, where colleagues in urban planning, environmental issues, and twentieth-century history were examining questions of city politics, racial politics, community activism, social welfare, and food deserts.

And these conversations were all taking place amidst a backdrop of revelations of a former Detroit mayor’s wrongdoing, the city’s declaration of bankruptcy in 2013, the release of popular journalistic expose-style histories, and art books featuring photographs of dilapidated and abandoned buildings.

I was fascinated and disturbed by these convergences and wanted to write a history of Detroit that encompassed some of the questions of the Detroit School and undercut the image of Detroit as an ancient ruin, as a place whose time had passed.

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

A: Around six years ago, I received funding from a program at my university to create a team of student researchers. Our team spent two years hunting for sources mostly locally and in Ontario.

Our major sources included: Manuscript collections of Detroit merchants, especially their account books and probate records; Michigan Territorial Supreme Court cases pertaining to freedom suits and the recapture of escaped slaves, and local disputes involving enslaved people; the papers of Augustus Woodward, chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court; journals of British soldiers; French, British & U.S. censuses; Catholic and Moravian Church records, letters and reports of Detroit residents and military officials.

We presented our research at the Michigan History Conference of the Historical Society of Michigan.  We created a map to mark sites we had noted as being important and took our own tour of Detroit.

As colleagues began to spread word of our team’s work and especially after we produced a website, people started writing to me with more sources from their areas of expertise.

We discovered a number of surprising things; chief among these was Detroit's early diversity. People today sometimes think of Detroit as a city that turned predominantly black in the mid-20th century.

It is true that the numbers of African Americans in Detroit skyrocketed during the Great Migration, and in the 1940s in particular, but blacks had been living there for centuries. 

Detroit has always been a multiracial and multi-ethnic place. Native Americans, especially Ottawas and Hurons, were the first to camp, hunt and work the waterways in the area prior to the arrival of the French contingent in 1701.

Native villages (Huron, Ottawa, Ojibwe, Potawatomi, Miami, Fox) soon developed around the town for the purposes of the fur trade. Scores of Native people from other tribes were also enslaved in Detroit.

And Detroit has had a black presence since the earliest years of its existence as a French fur trade fort. French and British traders brought black enslaved people from Montreal and New York into the town to perform the labors that made domestic life and the economy sustainable.

There has been a significant population of color in Detroit for nearly three hundred years– not always large in number, but great in action and influence.

Q: What do you see as the legacy of this earlier Detroit, and how does it relate to the Detroit of today?

A: One of the biggest takeaways for me from this research project is that problems that are tearing apart our modern post-industrial cities are not new or natural. They trace back to old social structures and customs and to decisions people and governments have made to privilege certain groups over others and to damage the natural world – all in pursuit of excessive profit.

Detroit's challenges around the treatment of laborers as disposable, social and economic stratification, and even governmental corruption, all have roots in the colonial era. 

The most intriguing aspect of this project has been learning about the ways in which history matters for contemporary Detroiters. I have had the opportunity to talk with people who have a great love for and commitment to their city and who think that investigating history can open the door for greater empathy, collaboration, and coalition building today. History is about the present and future as well as the past. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am juggling two projects right now that have really captured my imagination. The first is a novel based on my Detroit research that will feature a contemporary African American/Native American mixed-race woman who finds herself in urgent need of the knowledge that Detroit Underground railroad operators built in the 1800s. The second is a history of African American women during slavery that features a rediscovered textile.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Thomas Weber

Thomas Weber is the author of the new book Becoming Hitler: The Making of a Nazi. His other books include Hitler's First War. Weber is a professor of history and international affairs at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, and he lives in Aberdeen and in Toronto.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on Hitler's life between 1918 and 1926 in your new book?

A: Despite all the books written on Hitler, I felt that we still didn’t understand how Hitler became Hitler. So I decided that I would try and look with fresh eyes at the year that followed World War I. I would dig deeper than other scholars before, and I would dig at different places.

Once I had found what I was looking for, I realized that I had been wrong in my previous assumptions about how Hitler had become Hitler and that I had to take my story forward to the mid-1920s.

Q: What influences shaped his ideas during that period?

A: The starting point of his politicization and radicalization was to figure out why Germany had lost World War I and, more importantly, how Germany had to be recast to survive for all times in a rapidly changing world.

He was shaped here by the then-popular idea that the world was transitioning to a world of what today we would call superpowers. Driven by geopolitical thinking, Hitler believed that Germany could only survive if it could be brought onto equal footing with the Anglo-American world.

To that end, Hitler sought to understand the primary reasons for Germany’s domestic and external weakness. Everything else – including his anti-Semitism and racism – followed from that.

Q: How influential was Hitler by the time he wrote Mein Kampf?

A: At that time, Hitler was attempting to establish himself on the national stage. The previous year, he had faced the problem that outside of Bavaria very few people knew about him. Hardly anyone even knew what Hitler looked like, as he had refused to be photographed.

He had thus desperately tried to boost his national profile prior to the putsch, even writing a short (auto-)biography and publishing it for tactical reasons under somebody else’s name. Yet this all came too late. Yet it was his trial in early 1924 and Mein Kampf that finally gave him a national stage.

Q: What do you think are possible lessons from Hitler's emergence during this period as a demagogue?

A: It is to mend the fabric of democracy when it is still possible. Once a politics of adversaries has been turned into a politics of enemies and once sectarian mindsets have take hold of people – in other words when every compromise that is not of a tactical nature is seen as rotten – demagogues will rise.

Unfortunately, there is where we are now. But it is not too late yet. We can still repair the fabric of democracy.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on a history of World War I, which brings back to light episodes that have been written out of the story because they did not fit the narrative, such as the attempt of Germans in Palestine to prevent an Armenian-style anti-Jewish genocide.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My current most pressing professional challenge is to raise funds over the next few weeks to rescue, for research and Holocaust education, one of the most important private collections pertaining to the Shoah, the Third Reich, and the Second World War, and thus to prevent it from disappearing into dark channels.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Nicholas Montemarano

Nicholas Montemarano is the author of the new novel The Senator's Children. His other books include The Book of Why and If the Sky Falls. He is Professor of English at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Senator's Children?

A: The initial impulse came when I was watching a late-night comedian lampoon a politician whose career had recently imploded in a very public way.

The audience's laughter just didn't sit well with me; it stirred a strong emotional response inside me, and that's something you need, I think, in order to undertake the long journey of writing a novel.

Because a novel can take years to write, and comes with setbacks and doubt, one thing you need—and can return to during the writing process—is a strong emotional response to something and a need to explore it further.

That joke, the audience laughing, and my feeling of sympathy for the politician and especially for his family, given what I assumed they were going through in private—that was the moment when the novel began inside me, before I'd written a word.

Q: The chapters jump around in time. Did you write them in the order in which they appear?

A: Not even close. It's hard for me even to remember the initial chronology. I have never written a novel in chronological order, so that's one thing I do know about the first draft—that it was certainly nonlinear.

Even after this novel was under contract and I was working with my editor, I ended up rewriting 150 pages. And part of that meant filling in gaps, taking further advantage of opportunities my editor pointed out to me.

I wrote many chapters late in the process and then inserted them in various places in the novel. I worked that way with all three of my novels, and I'm working that way now with a new novel I'm writing.

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing?

A: I knew only that the senator's two daughters, Betsy and Avery, one from his marriage, one from outside his marriage, would, at some point late in the novel, collide.

But I definitely didn't know what I would end up doing in the final chapter. At some point along the way, as I wrote the first draft, I did know what would happen in that final chapter—that there would be a significant and surprising time jump—but I definitely didn't know before I started writing.

Q: Can you say more about why you decided to focus on a politician's family, and what you think the book says about the impact of politics on family members?

A: My decision to focus on a politician's family is probably a result of my seeing a fallen politician—a man who had become a pariah and for whom there would be no second act—joked about and laughed at.

The important part, as I see it, is that the character I wrote about was a public figure. Of course, as I got deeper into the novel, I became more and more interested in the nature of political scandals as a unique subcategory of celebrity scandals, with its own ramifications and fallout.

As David Christie, the senator in the novel, realizes: running for president is a sadomasochistic affair. Not only for candidates, but for their families. When you add to that a scandal, a public infidelity—that's when a family can fracture.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a new short story collection that's complete. And I'm working on a new novel. I've written a draft and am now reworking it, changing a lot, the usual.

As much as I'd like to say more about it, I really believe—as many writers do—that when you speak about a work in progress, it can drain its battery. Suffice to say, this novel's spark was also an event that triggered an extremely strong emotional reaction in me—one that I keep returning to, and rely on, as I move deeper into the manuscript.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb