Thursday, September 20, 2018

Q&A with Eric Jay Dolin

Eric Jay Dolin is the author of the new book Black Flags, Blue Waters: The Epic History of America's Most Notorious Pirates. His other books include Brilliant Beacons and Leviathan. He lives in Marblehead, Massachusetts.

Q: Why did you choose pirates as the subject of your new book, and what do you think accounts for the ongoing fascination with them?

A: This book’s origin story begins with my kids. After I finished Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouse, I began searching for a new book topic. I asked Lily and Harry, who were then in their teens, what I should write about.

When I raised the possibility of pirates, their eyes lit up, both of them saying, “That’s it, you have to write about pirates.” Lily even threw out two possible titles for the book: “Swords, Sails, and Swashbucklers;” and “Argh”—or, perhaps more emphatically, “Arrrgh”—which, I had to tell Lily, much to her chagrin, is a word that probably was never uttered by a Golden Age pirate, and is more likely a creation of movies in which pirates dispense arghs with relish.

My children’s strong support is, of course, not the only reason I wrote this book. But the fact that they were early adopters of the pirate idea, was encouraging. Great credit is also due to my editor and the sales director at Liveright (part of W. W. Norton), who loved the idea, and picked it from a list of eight book ideas I had generated. 

The many fictional representations of pirates, both in print, in plays, and on the silver screen has probably had the greatest impact in getting the general public interested in pirates, even though the perception of pirates created by these various sources is often quite different from what actual pirates were like.

Pirates have long been among the most colorful and memorable celebrities in popular culture. Much of this has to do with the impact of books and movies that use pirates as a motif, such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and the 1935 film Captain Blood, which launched Hollywood idol Errol Flynn’s career.

More recently, Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise, starring the flamboyant, sassy, and charismatic Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, has generated a new pirate-mania, further cementing the hold that pirates have on the human psyche. No wonder, then, that pirate costumes are among the most popular donned on Halloween night, and International Talk Like a Pirate Day is observed by legions of devoted fans every September 19.

Many people view pirates in a romantic light, but there was absolutely nothing romantic about them, other than the legends woven about their exploits after they were gone.

That is not to say that pirates were boring. Far from it. While the pirates in the pages that follow can’t compete with the magnetic charms and witty repartee of Captain Jack Sparrow, they are compelling characters nonetheless. And the real story of America’s pirates is even more astonishing and fascinating than any fictional pirate adventure ever written or cast on the silver screen.

It is largely because of dramatic fictional representations that pirates have grabbed hold of our collective imagination. Many have daydreamed about leaving traditional society behind, boarding a ship, and throwing in their lot with hearty men— and women—intent on taking what they want and getting rich while enjoying the luxurious freedom of sailing the world’s oceans with a hold full of rum, going where the wind will take them.

Mark Twain captured this longing in his memoir, Life on the Mississippi (1883), when he admitted that even though he and his friends had one “permanent ambition,” to be steamboatmen, “now and then we had a hope that, if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates.”

Historians can certainly poke holes in the fictional representations of pirates, especially those that depict them as unusually attractive, rakish yet good-natured rapscallions, having a grand old time looking for love, adventure, and treasure on the waves.

Although it is true that greed and lucre is the main motivation for both fictional and real pirates, the supposed romance and glamour of piracy is imaginary.

The reality of piracy is nothing like the breathless musings of a New York Times reporter in 1892, who complained: “It cannot but be a source of regret to every true lover of the picturesque that pirates are no more and piracy has lost its popularity. What tremendous fellows they must have been! What heroes, dandies, wits, were to be found among them! They were immensely superior to land brigands, . . . [who] are mere milk compared with Blackbeard and Capt. Kidd.”

While real pirates were incredibly intriguing and compelling characters, they were most definitely not “tremendous fellows”; instead, they were sea-borne criminals who were neither endearing nor heroic.

But I also think that good non-fictional accounts, which contribute to setting the record straight and actually informing people about what pirates were really like, have created compelling portraits of many pirates, and increased interest in piracy in general.

Finally, there is a reason why people love books, shows, and movies about horrible people, such as murderers, thieves, con artists, and various unethical people – I am not sure what that reason is, perhaps the ghoulish thrill of seeing physical and mental violence depicted or safely witnessing circumstances you hope you never experience. But, whatever the reasons, people seem to not be able to get their fill of the bad boys and girls of history.

Q: You begin the book with an incident in April 1726. Why did you choose to start here?

A: I started with a story about the end of the Golden Age of Piracy, and hence the endpoint of my book, for two reasons.

First, it created a dramatic, gripping, and relatively quick and complete opening for the book, which will hopefully draw the reader in, and make them want to read more.

Second, by beginning at the end, so to speak, I thought it would be an effective way to give the reader a very direct sense of the bounds of the book, and of the Golden Age. And, then at the end of the book, by mentioning the 1726 incident again, I give the book closure. I certainly could have begun the book in many different ways, but for reasons both clear to me, as well as for those that are more mysterious and harder to articulate, I chose the story of the pirate William Fly to open the book.

Q: What are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about pirates?

A: Pirates are often portrayed as bloodthirsty brutes who left a trail of corpses in their wakes. In truth, most pirates got what they wanted through intimidation and the threat of violence, rather than actual violence.

For many years, in the late 1600s, pirates were not considered misanthropic loners and criminals with anger issues, but rather they were upstanding members of their communities who were welcomed by citizens, merchants, and politicians alike for all the wealth they brought back to the colonies.

Although a few pirates became rich, and were able to enjoy their profits, most failed to achieve great financial success, and had brief careers that often ended in violent death.

Much has been made of the pirates’ use of democratic decision making, especially since democracy was hardly in vogue in the society at large, this being many decades before the American and French Revolutions ushered in broadly, though certainly not completely, democratic forms of government in the United States and France.

For example, the entire crew comprised an informal body, called the common council, which selected the captain by a majority vote. In the same manner it determined when and where they would go to search for prizes, which ships they would attack, and how they would resolve particularly thorny issues not covered by the pirate articles.

Nevertheless, pirates adopted such democratic principles not because of any political theory, but rather because a pirate ship was, in effect, a floating society, and pirates simply set up practical, sensible, and easily enforced rules to ensure that their society functioned as smoothly as possible.

Pirates are often portrayed as heavy drinkers, and that is absolutely true! Whenever they got a cargo of rum or wine, they went on epic benders.

Pirates are also often portrayed as wearing flamboyant clothes, and that too is true in some cases. Typically, sailors were attired like other sailors of the day, with “loose ‘slop trousers’ or breeches to the knee, a standard work shirt made out of canvas or calico, a belt, from which a knife could be hung, a neckerchief or bandana draped around the neck or head, a waistcoat or short blue jacket, wool stockings, and a Monmouth cap knitted from wool or a tricorn hat [one that has the brim turned up on three sides, giving it a triangular shape with three points].”

However, if plundered vessels happened to be transporting passengers of the upper crust of society, or merely carrying cargo for that class, pirates would eagerly help themselves to the finest garments and jewelry for their own use, either by looting the cargo, or literally stealing the shirts off their wealthy victims’ backs. Pirates of this period were happy to dress in a way that signified their success, and as a means of disrespecting the class-based norms of the society of which they were no longer a part.

Q: How did you research the book, and did you find several of the pirates you write about particularly fascinating?

A: All of my books are on topics I initially know little about, so research is critical to becoming expert enough to write an authoritative and interesting book. I typically spend about nine months to a year doing research, and delve deeply into both primary and secondary sources.

My outline is my book proposal, which lays out the chapters. Then, I create multiple computer files for each chapter, loading them with information I have gathered. These files grow quite voluminous, and they essentially contain much of the raw material – the facts, the stories, the quotes – that I use to construct the book.

Once I complete most of the research, I start writing from the beginning to the end. I do additional research while writing to fill in holes. Once I have a complete draft, then I spend a month or so editing, filling in any remaining holes, and trying to make the narrative fun, fast-paced, and informative. The entire process, from research to finished book takes from eighteen months to two years.

The farthest from my house that I ventured for research was to London, where I tapped the vast holdings of the British National Archives and the National Maritime Museum. I also made good use of libraries in Boston and near my house in Marblehead, with much of my time being spent at Harvard’s Widener Library and Houghton Library. But most of my research was done in my home office.

I bought about fifty books on pirates to create my own mini library. I also was able to find an unbelievable number of primary and secondary materials on line. With a few keystrokes, I could bring up digitized images of primary documents hundred of years old, as well as any number of secondary materials, especially books on piracy written in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The difficulty wasn’t finding enough information; it was deciding what I wanted to use to write the book, out of the vast avalanche of information available to me. I could have easily spent five years researching and writing this book, but that wouldn’t serve my purposes or those of my publisher, so I had to make dozens of decisions a day about what to leave in and what to leave out—what to read, and what to leave alone.

Historical researchers and authors today have an embarrassment of riches, which is very nice, but it also means that you have to be very selective—that is if you want to finish your book in a reasonable amount of time.

Pirates are not very loveable fellows, to be sure, but if I had to pick a favorite it would be Blackbeard, not only because of the larger-than-life mythology that has grown up around his exploits, but also because he had one of the most interesting piratical careers, and his life ended in a bloody battle with his head being hung from the bowsprit of his own sloop.

Edward Low was another fascinating character. He was a sadistic, most likely psychopathic, pirate who relished torturing or killing many of his victims. His signature move, other than running people through with a sword or shooting them, was slicing off ears and slitting nostrils.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am writing a narrative history of hurricanes in America.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: This might sound a bit self-serving coming from a writer, but I would ask readers, and their friends, to buy more books. In an era where many seem to believe that information should be free, and reading often loses out to TV, movies, videos, and social media, many authors are finding it more difficult to earn a living, or even a semblance of a living.

While it is true that overall books sales are holding steady, and are even improving in some sectors, a significant number of sales are attributed to a relatively small number of “celebrity” or major bestselling authors. If you like the work of an author who doesn’t fall into this category, help them produce more books you might like by buying one or more of their recent offerings. They will greatly appreciate that, and you will get a good read.

One final thing. I use my professional Facebook page (@ericjaydolin) to post interesting stories about history and natural history, and, of course, about my books. If people want to see what I post, and follow my travels, I would encourage them to like or follow my page. Thanks for reading!

Editor’s Note: Eric Jay Dolin drew from the text of his book in answering these questions.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Eric Jay Dolin.

Q&A with Tilar J. Mazzeo

Tilar J. Mazzeo is the author of the new biography Eliza Hamilton: The Extraordinary Life and Times of the Wife of Alexander Hamilton. Her other books include Irena's Children. She is the Clara C. Piper Associate Professor of English at Colby College, and she lives in Maine, New York City, and British Columbia.

Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of Eliza Hamilton?

A: I had just finished writing Irena's Children, about one inspiring woman who helped the children of other people, and I was interested in the story of how Eliza Hamilton also did pioneering work and helped to found the first private orphanage in New York (which is still around today as Graham Windham).

Q: How would you describe the relationship between Alexander and Eliza?

A: Eliza was stoic and deeply loyal, and for Alexander that meant everything. 

Q: What do you think accounts for the ongoing fascination with the Hamiltons, especially considering the musical's popularity?

A: I think we all find it fascinating to see the "real people" behind the founding of the American republic--and of course everyone loves a great love story.

Q: How did you research this book, and what surprised you most in the course of your research?

A: My focus was on telling the story of Eliza and her family, including the Schuyler sisters and brothers, and so I wasn't focused in my research on the affairs of state but on domestic family correspondence.

Those family archives were in places ranging from New York City and upstate New York to Michigan, and they were a wonderful sneak peek into the private life of Eliza and her circle.

What surprised me most was learning that many people at the time--and some very important scholars since--believe there never was an affair [between Alexander Hamilton and] Maria Reynolds. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Tilar J. Mazzeo.

Sept. 20

Sept. 20, 1878: Upton Sinclair born.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Q&A with Barbara Stark-Nemon

Barbara Stark-Nemon is the author of the new novel Hard Cider. She also has written the novel Even in Darkness. She lives in Ann Arbor and Northport, Michigan.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your character Abbie and her family?

A: In my first book, Even in Darkness, the main character is a strong complex woman who must cope with the unthinkable and somehow make meaning for the remainder of her life.

I guess I wasn’t done with that concept — that a strong multidimensional woman must overcome unexpected challenges with dignity and self-determination. What might that look like for a woman of a certain age in our society? 

I also wanted to feature a woman who wants an encore career, having raised a complicated family. She wants to pursue her own long-time interest.

Q: The book focuses on definitions of family. What about that topic intrigued you?

A: Family is very important to me and the way we form families and how we define ourselves as families has changed radically during my adult life.

Medical advances in treating infertility, broadening options for adoption, the use of surrogacy, rapid increase in births to unmarried parents, and legal changes to marriage laws have all changed the landscape of how people regard the concept of family. 

At the same time that all these changes have complicated social and legal definitions of family relationships, they have broadened the acceptability of different family constellations, and brought critically important conversations into the mainstream. Hard Cider addresses a number of these considerations.

Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what role do you see hard cider playing in the novel?

A: The making of hard cider— from growing the apples right through to pressing and fermenting the juice is Abbie Rose Stone’s passion. Full disclosure: I fell in love with hard apple cider during the time I lived in England many years ago, and was very happy to do the necessary research for this book!

Two of the authors who wrote endorsements for Hard Cider said it best…

“The alchemy of turning apples into hard cider becomes a potent metaphor for the way in which time blends and distills the characters into a family.”

“A character who makes cider from a variety of different apples says, ‘I can’t help but feel that there’s some magic in the mixing.’ Barbara Stark-Nemon reminds us this is true for families, too.”
--Gayle Brandeis

I’ve never had an easier time choosing a title!

Q: Can you say more about the research you did to write the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: As noted above, I did a good bit of research on hard apple cider production. I especially loved reading Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire, which includes a fascinating history of our interaction with the apple over many centuries and the truth behind the Johnny Appleseed myth.

I was surprised to learn that cider was often the only safe drink and sometimes was used as currency during pioneer days. I also loved the cider making bible, Cider – Strong and Sweet, by Ben Watson. I traveled to northern Michigan and to New Hampshire to see state of the art cider operations.

I already knew a lot about infertility and adoption, but researched a great deal about surrogacy and the legal and emotional consequences of that way of forming family.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve just started researching and writing a new novel about a 14 year-old embroideress who has to find her way from Inquisition-era Portugal to Germany to reunite with her father. She’s a Converso who is assisted by an herbalist and healer from Girona, Spain.

I’m also working on audiobooks for Hard Cider and Even in Darkness!

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: I would like readers to come away from Hard Cider with the conviction that dreams can come true at many times in one’s life, even in the face of the unexpected and unwanted.

I also hope readers will think about the fact that we now make family in many different ways, and that we have the choice to stay open to new possibilities. 

Oh, and for the knitters among your readers, there’s a lot of knitting in Hard Cider!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Barbara Stark-Nemon.

Sept. 18

Sept. 18, 1709: Samuel Johnson born.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Q&A with Mark R. Cheathem

Mark R. Cheathem is the author of the new book The Coming of Democracy: Presidential Campaigning in the Age of Jackson. His other books include Andrew Jackson, Southerner and the forthcoming Andrew Jackson and the Rise of the Democrats. He is a professor of history at Cumberland University, and directs the university's project on the Papers of Martin Van Buren.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on the 1824-1840 period in your new book?

A: My main interest is in Jacksonian-era politics, and I wanted to write about one of the key elections during that period. Originally, I intended to write specifically about the 1840 presidential election, which historians often hail as the first modern presidential campaign.

As I researched, however, it became apparent that while 1840 was a pivotal year, it was the culmination of developments stretching over several presidential campaigns.

So, I started at what I considered the beginning of the story rather than the end. The Log Cabin and Hard Cider Campaign of 1840 is still prominent, but I think readers will have a better understanding of how the U.S. arrived at the campaign than if I had stuck with my original idea.

Q: What do you see as some of the most important changes in presidential campaigning during those years, and what led to those changes?

A: The most obvious changes to me are the public activities of presidential candidates and the role of women.

Early on the nation’s history, presidential candidates were expected to show reluctance in having their names submitted to voters and to refrain from engaging with voters directly.

Those expectations changed dramatically in the Jacksonian period. By 1840, presidential candidates had not only abandoned feigned disinterest in running for the office, they were also actively courting voters through public correspondence in newspapers and through speeches at campaign rallies.

In both his 1836 and his 1840 presidential campaigns, for example, William Henry Harrison traveled the country giving political speeches intended to bring voters into his column. It didn’t carry him to victory the first time, but it worked four years later.

Women’s political activity also changed. Women were largely sidelined throughout the period, but they became more politically vocal and visible by 1840, especially those who supported Whig candidates.

Women gave toasts at public events, writing political pamphlets, and listening to public speeches intended specifically for them as an audience. While women still could not vote, the Whigs in particular understood how important they were in swaying the votes of the men in their lives.

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

A: Having written on Jackson and the Jacksonian period extensively, I had a large base of research already available. For this book, however, I dove more deeply into newspapers and political cartoons.

Newspapers at the time often carried political songs, notices about meetings of Old Hickory and Old Kinderhook clubs, and correspondence between presidential candidates and American voters--all of these were key parts of my narrative.

Political cartoons from the period are fascinating and convey a lot of information in visual form. It made me aware of how politically literate American voters were expected to be in order to understand the images and the accompanying dialogue in the cartoons.

There were a lot of interesting discoveries. One that especially comes to mind is a series of pamphlets written by Lucy Kenney.

We don’t know much about Kenney or who she was. What we do know from her pamphlets is that she started out as a supporter of Jackson and Van Buren in the mid-1830s, but she became disenchanted with the Democrats during Van Buren's presidency. By 1840, she supported the Whigs and was an outspoken critic of Van Buren.

Historians had mentioned Kenney's work but had not looked closely at what she wrote or why she changed parties. I gave her more attention than she had received before and was also able to find a little more information about her background, although not as much as I would have liked.

Still, she is one of those historical figures I find fascinating—a woman with strong political views who argued for them in the public square, a place typically closed to women at the time.

Q: How would you compare presidential campaigning in the Age of Jackson to presidential campaigning today?

A: Presidential campaigning has obviously changed in the last 180 years or so, but there are still strong echoes of the past resonating today. For example, political cartoons aren’t as prominent or complex today, but memes are.

Images of Donald Trump’s face superimposed on the white supremacist Pepe the Frog cartoon or gifs of Hillary Clinton laughing are not dissimilar in their purpose from political cartoons of the Jacksonian period—they are sending a political message that potential voters are interpreting them through the lens of partisanship.

Political image-making in the 21st century is also reminiscent of that conducted in the 1824-1840 period. Presidential candidates openly campaign today in ways that were unacceptable until 1840, and they are intent, as William Henry Harrison was in 1840, on crafting an image that identifies them with the average American.

Just as Harrison, a wealthy aristocrat, tried to present himself as a common farmer who identified with the daily life of Americans, so, too, have more recent presidential candidates, most of whom are multimillionaires disconnected from the obstacles and struggles faced by most Americans.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am busy editing the Papers of Martin Van Buren. Van Buren was a key Jacksonian political figure, the eighth president, and, of course, the inspiration for Seinfeld's "Van Buren Boys" gang.

I am also working on a book looking at the 1844 presidential campaign. This campaign included a number of fascinating candidates: Jackson’s political protégé James K. Polk; perennial presidential loser Henry Clay; enslaver-turned-abolitionist James G. Birney; and the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (aka Mormonism), Joseph Smith.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: In addition to The Coming of Democracy, I have another book coming out in October entitled Andrew Jackson and the Rise of the Democratic Party.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 17

Sept. 17, 1883: William Carlos Williams born.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Q&A with Johnnie Bernhard

Johnnie Bernhard is the author of the new novel How We Came to Be. She also has written the novel A Good Girl. A former English teacher and journalist, her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Southern Literary Review and The Mississippi Press. She lives near the Mississippi Sound.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for How We Came to Be and for your character Karen?

A: The idea for How We Came to Be came from several sources. I am very aware of the stress today's families are under. Working parents, divorce, violence in schools, the illegal use of prescription drugs, the lonely lives of many senior citizens - are all social news items. 

This is compacted by our current forms of communication, texting and social media interaction.  

Q: What do you think the novel says about families?

A: As an author, I wanted to examine the modern family and the difficulties many of these families face. I also wanted to comment on the positive impact supportive neighbors and friends can make in a family.  

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

A: I never know how a novel will end. I have ideas about the beginning and the end, but a manuscript can take on many twists and turns as I begin writing.  

Q: How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: Setting is very important to me as an author and a reader. A strong sense of place within a novel can only be achieved by writing a setting the author is familiar with. 

I was able to create the character Leona Supak after visiting Budapest, Hungary. I was haunted by a World War II memorial to the Jewish population I saw there while visiting. I began researching the history of Budapest during that time. It served as a springboard for creating Leona and her backstory.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm currently writing a third novel, Sisters of the Undertow. The themes are centered on sibling rivalry and how choices we make often determine who we become.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I am a former journalist and English teacher. I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to write and share my work with readers.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 16

Sept. 16, 1950: Henry Louis Gates Jr. born.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Q&A with Shira Sebban

Shira Sebban is the author of the new book Unlocking the Past: Stories from My Mother's Diary. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Sydney Morning Herald and The Guardian. She is based in Sydney, Australia.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book about your mother's experiences in Israel in the 1950s?

A: As I explain in the book’s preface, after our mother Naomi’s death in 2013, my sister and I discovered a “non-descript, navy-bound volume … stashed away in a drawer of the massive wooden study desk at which [she] had worked as an academic economist for so many years.”

Imagine our surprise to find a diary, which “reads like a film script, relating vivid experiences in the Israel of the mid-1950s” of a young, passionate career woman whom we did not recognize.

“I had long abandoned any hope of uncovering more details of my mother’s past, her memories having gradually been extinguished by Alzheimer’s disease, which had afflicted her for the last decade of her life. Now, 60 years later, as I turn the diary’s yellowed pages filled with her distinctive script, I feel grateful for the opportunity to discover her anew … becoming acquainted with the person she once was before I was born.”

I thus felt compelled to write this book based on her diary, as it allowed me to explore what life was like in the new State of Israel through the eyes of Naomi as she was then: A still single, late 20-something woman searching for love, who was also somewhat of a stranger in her own land, having returned after a decade away in Australia.

Q: The book is based on your mother's diary, but you write it as "creative non-fiction stories." Why did you choose this form to tell your mother's story?

A: Originally, I wrote an overview about my discovery of the diary and submitted it to the Jewish Literary Journal. The New York-based editors, however, suggested that I focus instead on one or two of Naomi’s diary entries and make them a story on their own.

I did not want to fictionalize my mother’s diary. It was very important to me to convey her life in 1950s Israel as accurately as possible, and so I decided to teach myself how to write creative non-fiction, or as Lee Gutkind, “the god-father of creative non-fiction,” puts it, “true stories well told.”

Having started in academia, before becoming a journalist, creative non-fiction was a completely new challenge for me. I have found this genre to be liberating as it is all about writing in scenes, allowing me to use literary techniques, such as description and dialogue, to immerse the reader in the action.

I wanted you to feel as if you were walking down the streets of the divided city of Jerusalem or winding your way through Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market with Naomi, who thus became a character in her own story, which I changed from first to third person.

The Jewish Literary Journal ended up publishing my first creative non-fiction short story, “Blood in the Market,” in September 2014, and it now forms Chapter 8 of my book.

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

A: Yes, I had to do a considerable amount of research in order to understand what life was like in the foundation years of Israel. As I explain in the Acknowledgments, writing the book “has been like putting a puzzle together, piece by piece, interspersing my mother’s personal experience with historical facts,” where it is crucial to be precise.

1950s Israeli social history has become a respected field of study in its own right, enabling me to learn intimate details about daily life, ranging from Tel Aviv café culture and the party scene to living under sniper fire around the desolate stretch of no-man’s-land between west and east Jerusalem.

Google maps proved to be a wonderful resource, as I traced the routes Naomi would have taken, while the archivist from Tel Aviv’s Cameri Theater kindly provided me with the very programs she would have seen.

A particularly arresting image, which I describe in the book, was how until 1967, an “old, dark and airless bus, crudely covered in armor plate” would make the trip along the one perilous road connecting the Jewish part of divided Jerusalem to Mount Scopus, “the driver peering through a narrow slit across the front window.”

While I was aware of the constant state of insecurity in which Israelis have always lived, it was striking to learn too how tough life was in the early years of the State. Indeed, many of those Naomi meets are keen to seek opportunities overseas. As she writes, they “claim to be great Zionists; still seem to be pleased to stay out of Zion.”

Q: How much did you know about this period in your mother's life before finding the diary?

A: I actually knew very little about this period in my mother’s life. After leaving Israel, Naomi would travel through Europe before settling in Canada where she eventually married and had a family.

As I write in the Afterword, “in later life, as Alzheimer’s took its toll and her vast world became more circumscribed, she clung to these European memories, constantly repeating them until they were virtually the only part of her past she could recall.”

While I was also familiar with stories from her poverty-stricken childhood in Mandatory Palestine, she rarely spoke of life in Israel in the mid-1950s – the period covered by the diary, when she was a post-graduate scholarship student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: In addition to my writing, I am a volunteer refugee advocate as well as a guide at the Sydney Jewish Museum, combining lessons learned from Jewish history and notably the Holocaust with my passion for social justice.

I am hoping to share the stories of some of the asylum seekers I have helped, but only when their status is secure enough for me to do so.

Please see my website for more of my published writing.

I also have family letters in Yiddish, dating back to the 1930s, from my great aunt in Lodz to her sister, my maternal grandmother Chana, in Tel Aviv. Chana also features in Unlocking the Past as she was still living in Tel Aviv when her daughter Naomi returned in the mid-1950s.

While Chana’s parents and sister had come to Palestine in the mid-1920s – even prior to my newlywed grandparents – they had made the tragic decision to return to Poland after losing all their savings, only to perish in the Shoah. I am currently having the letters translated and am hoping to uncover more details of my family history.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Unlocking the Past: Stories From My Mother’s Diary can be purchased as an e-book or paperback from Amazon or Mazo Publishers

Please see here for the launch hosted by the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival.

The book will be launched by Dr. Leah Kaminsky, prize-winning author of The Waiting Room, on 2 December 2018 at Melbourne’s Lamm Jewish Library of Australia.

We are currently working on a Hebrew edition, which will be launched in Israel at the end of the year.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 15

Sept. 15, 1890: Agatha Christie born.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Q&A with J.A. Jance

J.A. Jance is the author of the new suspense novel Field of Bones, the latest in her series about Sheriff Joanna Brady. Jance's many other novels include Until Proven Guilty and Hour of the Hunter. She lives in Seattle, Washington, and Tucson, Arizona.

Q: How do you think your character Joanna Brady has changed over the course of the books you've been writing about her?

A: In the beginning she was a young married woman who is about to be left a 20-something widow, raising a single child. In Field of Bones she has married for the second time and has just given birth to her third child.

In the beginning she was in the insurance business and had no idea that she would go into law enforcement. At the beginning of Field of Bones, she has just won her third four-year term as sheriff.  

As she has matured, she’s learned to understand that both her parents were flawed but loving in their own individual ways. And now, in Field of Bones, with both of her parents gone she’s now the grownup in the room.

Q: Did you need to do much research to write Field of Bones, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?

A: Having grown up in Cochise County, I was surprised to discover the existence of a volcano in the far eastern corner of the county—Paramore Crater. When I researched it further, it turned out to be a kind of volcano I had never heard of before—a maar volcano. Maars are formed when molten rock (magma) encounters groundwater with explosive results.

Q: How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: I like to think of my settings as characters in the books. My family moved to Arizona from South Dakota when I was four. My first memory is of the day we moved into the house in Bisbee. I remember hanging on the fence, looking up and the clear blue sky and feeling the sun all over my body.  

I believe I fell in love with Arizona that day, and 70 years later, I think that very real love of place shines through my work.

Q: Which authors do you particularly admire?

A: I admire J.K Rowling, whose books created a whole new generation of recreational readers. I admire Agatha Christie, whose life and career has always been a beacon for me.  

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m currently working on the next Ali Reynolds book, The A-List.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: From the time I was in second grade, I always wanted to be a writer. It’s a wonderful miracle that I’m getting to live my dream.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 14

Sept. 14, 1860: Hamlin Garland born.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Q&A with Gail Jarrow

Gail Jarrow is the author of Spooked!: How a Radio Broadcast and The War of the Worlds Sparked the 1938 Invasion of America, a new book for older kids. Her other books include Bubonic Panic and Fatal Fever. She lives in Ithaca, New York.

Q: Why did you choose the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast as the subject of your new book?

A: As I researched my Deadly Diseases Trilogy (Red Madness, Fatal Fever, Bubonic Panic), I saw the way faulty thinking and lack of analysis led researchers  to the wrong conclusion about the cause and best treatment for each disease. 

Scientists and doctors held onto flawed beliefs even when other people presented solid proof of an alternative theory. As a result, patients suffered. 

This made me think about why people are fooled and misled, and I decided to find a hoax illustrating what can happen when one doesn’t gather evidence and think critically.

I settled on the War of the Worlds broadcast after I discovered (from an informal survey of middle school students) that my target readers had never heard about it.  The broadcast wasn’t an intentional hoax, but the results were the same—a duped audience.  

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

A: First, I read the H.G. Wells novel again and listened to the actual 1938 broadcast. Then I read autobiographies and interviews involving the radio broadcast’s creators.

Digging into newspaper archives, I read the contemporary reports about the broadcast. I tapped secondary sources and interviewed experts to educate myself about radio broadcasting and human psychology.

But the most fun was visiting archives to read the 2,000 letters and telegrams from the public to Orson Welles and the Federal Trade Commission. People had strong opinions about the broadcast, and they weren’t shy about sharing them.

The biggest surprise for me was discovering that the decades-long conventional wisdom about a widespread panic was based on a flawed scientific study. It was a twist that I didn’t expect when I chose the topic.

Q: Why do you think the broadcast had such a huge impact, and do you think something similar could happen today?

A: In 1938, the world was on the verge of war. Many people were fearful. I think their anxiety made some of them susceptible to an invasion story. In fact, a few listeners later admitted that they assumed the invaders were Germans, not Martians.

The other key element was that radio broadcasting was a relatively recent technology. Although more homes had a radio than a telephone and radio listening was a top recreational activity, the public was not yet savvy about what they heard over the airwaves.  

People had learned to pay attention to breaking news flashes, such as the reports from Europe about Hitler’s aggression. So when Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre used fictional news flashes to develop their updated War of the Worlds plot, some radio listeners assumed the reports were genuine. 

I see direct parallels with today’s Internet. Many people aren’t discerning enough about its content. Anyone who spends time with social media knows that some of us are as gullible as our ancestors were in 1938. I include a few examples of Internet hoaxes at the end of my book. So, yes, I do believe the potential for panic over content—either fabricated or unintentionally wrong— is still possible. 

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

A: Be skeptical. Don’t believe everything you see, hear, and read. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Next fall, Calkins Creek will publish The Poison Eaters, a NF book for grades 5-12. The narrative takes place in the late 1800s to early 1900s, when food and drugs were unregulated and the public was literally eating poison.

I tell the story of the amazing, hard-fought battle to better protect Americans, culminating in the founding of the Food and Drug Administration. 

Right now, I’m in the middle of researching Blood and Germs, a NF book about Civil War medicine that will be published by Calkins Creek in fall 2020. It will be the first book in my new trilogy, Medical Fiascos. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I love learning new information as I research my books. But the best part is realizing how relevant these historical topics are. History is worth our attention. Knowing about the past can help us better navigate the present.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb