Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Q&A with Leslie Pietrzyk

Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of the new novel Silver Girl. Her other books include This Angel on My Chest and A Year and a Day. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Salon and The Washington Post Magazine, and she teaches at the Converse low-residency MFA program. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

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

A: I had a complicated yet significant female friendship that started during my college years that still reverberates through my life. So much of this book is absolutely invented, but it started with that core of inspiration from my own life.

The characters were developed in my prompt writing group, as I responded to writing prompts by sending Jess and the unnamed narrator into action, slowly discovering who they were and what secrets they were hiding.

Q: Why did you decide to set the novel in the early 1980s, and how did you recreate all the details from that time period?

A: That was a time of upheaval, with Reagan’s election perhaps (almost) close to shocking us as much as this recent election did. But for sure Reagan’s years as president sent many ripples outward as the world suddenly became re-ordered.

And the Tylenol murders were of special interest to me as an early act of domestic terrorism. Certainly this crime rippled outward as well, bringing about the need for protective packaging—and the understanding that nothing really could protect us from everything. (Maybe I was the right age to learn that lesson.) The ‘80s seemed like a provocative time to come of age.

As for working with all those details, the hardest part was that lots of early ‘80s fashion and pop culture is now mocked—giant shoulder pads, ripped up “Flashdance” sweatshirts—so I worked to find authentic details that have stood the test of time (the Rolling Stones, say).

Q: Did you write the chapters in the order in which they appear in the novel, or did you move things around as you wrote?

A: I wrote nothing in order, which was a liberating way to write, simply following the questions in my mind: what was the narrator’s life like in Iowa? How did she and Jess meet? What happened during their summers apart?

Unfortunately, the wandering of my mind was a terrible way to organize a book, so I spent days staring at a typed-up Table of Contents, scribbling in arrows and scribbling them right back out, shuffling stacks paper-clipped pages here and there.

The key to the final structure came when I landed upon the metaphor of the endless lists the narrator keeps and her numbering system, which helps support the book’s non-chronological timeline. I knew a non-linear story might be a drawback for some readers, but I really wanted the book to reflect that deep dive of pondering a time and a place and a person who both was and wasn’t “you.”

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

A: I’m the world’s worst at titles, but I do like this one. The phrase is taken from a verse in Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” though the song isn’t mentioned in the book. Such a resonant pairing of words, though…. And I liked the implication that the Silver Girl is second to the Golden Girl, which worked for my characters, as does the suggestion of commerce with those precious metals.

Once I decided this had to be the title, I had to find a way to work it into the book and I wasn’t keen on seeking permissions to quote the song lyrics, so I was inspired to create the stories the narrator tells her little sister about the mythical Silver Girl. Once you’ve got a character telling stories within your story, the danger is going overboard with metaphor and symbolism. Here’s hoping I reined myself in.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m sort of at a crossroads as I type this…dive into a new novel that’s been tickling at the edges of my brain? Or get back to a series of short stories I was a third of the way into? Or…both? Is that possible? I really miss not being immersed in a Big Project, so something is going to win out pretty soon.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: A good bit of this book was first formed in my neighborhood prompt writing group where we meet monthly and write for 15 minutes to one word and then 15 minutes to a second word. So, 30 minutes total. That’s all. You really can find your way into your creative self or through a longer project or remember why writing is joyful with just this tiny amount of time.

Here’s a link to an article I wrote about how to start your own prompt writing group.

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

Feb. 28

Feb. 28, 1926: Svetlana Alliluyeva born.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Q&A with Robin Oliveira

Robin Oliveira is the author of the new historical novel Winter Sisters, which takes place in New York State in 1879. She also has written My Name is Mary Sutter and I Always Loved You. Oliveira worked as a registered nurse for many years, and she lives in the Seattle area.

Q: Why did you decide to write a second novel about your character Mary Sutter?

A: Actually, I didn’t make a concrete decision to write a second novel about Mary; it came about somewhat organically.

I was at the beginning of writing an entirely different book about an American woman who marries a Russian in the early 20th century, when, in the process of researching that book, I discovered that in 1879, in New York State, the age of consent was 10 years old.

That changed everything. I abandoned the earlier story and returned to historic Albany, N.Y., as the setting for the book.

Early on, when I knew that a doctor’s services would be called for, I thought Mary might make a cameo appearance. But the issues explored in the novel turned out to be grave, and I knew that if Mary got wind of them, she wouldn’t stay silent or stand by while somebody else dealt with the problem. She wouldn’t be content with having a distant role.

So she needed to be intimately affected by the events of the novel. And voila! A new Mary Sutter novel was born.

Q: You’ve noted that you were shocked to discover that in 1879 in New York State, the age of consent was 10 years old. Can you say more about how that factored into the development of Winter Sisters?

A: It’s one of those shocking historical facts that seem absurd but still actively factors into our society today.

Much as the lingering aftermath of slavery continues to imperil the lives and safety of black men today, how women and girls were treated in patriarchal societies, including ours, has reverberated through the centuries and manifested in current societal issues, not just here, but across the globe.

The #MeToo movement is rooted in the kind of appalling history I discovered in my research, when girls as young as 10—10!—were considered fair game for unwanted sexual activity.

No amount of backpedaling regarding “those were different times” or “values were different then” can defend the fact that this abuse was both condoned and protected by law.

Though the #MeToo movement hadn’t even begun when I turned in my finished manuscript, what interested me about Winter Sisters is the same thing that has fueled that movement: For centuries, men have gotten away with far too much in regard to sex trafficking, oppression of women, abuse, etc. Time’s up.

Q:  What do you think the novel says about the obstacles women faced in the later decades of the 19th century?

A: I think Winter Sisters reveals that not much has changed from the later decades of the 19th century to now. It seems that women make two steps forward only to be forced backward.

What struck me most about reading the 19th century trial transcripts during my research for this book was not how different things were then, but how similar they are to what occurs now, especially when women report crime. They are disbelieved, ignored, pacified, mocked, and attacked by the very people who are supposed to protect them.

One only has to think of the lengths some famous men have gone to to cover up their misdeeds to understand that little has changed, even for supposedly powerful women.

In those last decades of the 19th century women were campaigning for the vote, fighting for changes for protection inside the law, even as they were seeking to protect themselves in a world that paid lip service to their status while undermining them at every turn.

As a result of their efforts, we have the vote, but we have only to look at current events to see how much still needs to be done to forge a completely equal society for all women and girls.

Q: How do you think your character Mary evolved from the first novel to the second?

A: Personally, she has made some changes. She has married. But her single-minded focus on medicine, her patients, and the morally correct thing to do hasn’t changed one iota. In fact, in this book, it gets her into trouble.

In My Name Is Mary Sutter, she returns from the Civil War and becomes a physician. Society accepts this unusual circumstance because it is still reeling from the depleted population of men after the war.

But Winter Sisters takes place 15 years later, and the so-called indulgent way society may have viewed her before has evaporated. Much like after World War II, when Rosie the Riveter was told to don an apron and give up her job to returning veterans, Mary and her women physician colleagues are denied access to hospitals on pretexts as suspect as faux male concern for their supposed delicacy.

I love that she won’t stay quiet in the face of injustice, no matter the consequences men mete out in their inability to curb her activities. She says exactly what needs to be said at the time it needs to be said and it is always the truth.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I took a little time off after writing three novels in a row. I needed it. I needed to go see the doctor and smell the roses and see my son get married and visit my daughter and convince my friends, who I neglect terribly while I meet deadlines, to still be my friends. (I’m always shocked when they do.)

But in the last couple of months I’ve started a new novel. I can’t say much about it, because it’s in the precarious fledgling stage, when anything can change. But it’s historical. A small clue is that in June I’m heading to Scotland to do a little research.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: That you, and all readers, have my great thanks. Writing a book is a long and arduous process. It’s genuinely a delight when readers take my books into their hands and sit down with my characters and discover meaning and hope as a result of that process. I am grateful to each and every one of you. Thank you.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Camille Pagán

Camille Pagán is the author of the new novel Woman Last Seen in Her Thirties. Her other books include Life and Other Near-Death Experiences and The Art of Forgetting. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Woman Last Seen in Her Thirties and your character Maggie?

A: I was standing in Whole Foods when a college-aged man bumped into me. He was busy talking to the friend he was shopping with, and glanced up at me with a look that said he had just looked right through me. Then he continued on his way.

Maybe he was simply rude, but it made me think about how women, in particular, often seem invisible to those around them as they get older. (I believe this is changing and will continue to change, but I still see it more than I’d like.)

In that moment, the premise of Woman Last Seen in Her Thirties was born. I had been working on another book, but the day after the supermarket incident, I sat down and wrote the first chapter of Woman and knew it would be my next novel. 

Q: What do you think Maggie's experiences say about the impact of divorce on middle-aged women?

A: I think divorce at any stage in life can bring up common questions for those going through it: Who am I without this person I’ve loved for so long? Why does a seemingly-solid relationship crumble? What now? 

Yet the ending of a relationship unfolds differently for every person. The protagonist of Woman Last Seen in Her Thirties, Maggie Halfmoon Harris, finds herself unexpectedly single just after her children had left home—the very point at which she was hoping to reconnect with her husband, Adam.

When Adam tells her he’s in love with someone else, she’s hurt, confused, and hardly in the mood to start over. But she does anyway—with courage and aplomb—and finds that her new life, however unwished for, is filled with surprising moments joy and gives her hope for a better future. I found it incredibly inspiring to write, and hope that readers will find it inspiring to read.

Q: How did you choose the book's title, and what does it signify for you?

A: Like all of my titles, this one came to me organically as I was writing.

At the end of the first chapter, Maggie has an “ah-ha” moment when she realizes she’s become invisible to those around her—and maybe even herself—and thinks, “I wasn’t sure when the woman once known as Maggie Halfmoon had vanished, but I had a strong suspicion she had last been seen during her thirties. And that was every bit as frightening as my husband walking out the door on the life we had created together.”

As soon as I wrote that, I knew I had to call this novel Woman Last Seen in Her Thirties

Q: The novel takes place in Chicago and Ann Arbor. How important is setting to you in your work?

A: Where you live can impact your mood, your routine, and even your worldview. I spent my 20s and early 30s in Brooklyn, with a brief stint in Chicago, and loved the fast, frenetic pace of city living.

Then, in my mid-30s, I moved with my family to Ann Arbor. It was a big transition at first. But soon the quieter vibe of a college town filled with interesting, intelligent people proved to peaceful and extremely conducive to my life as a writer.

I wanted Maggie to experience that same stabilizing sense of place, so I shook up her worldview with a trip to Rome, and then had her take an unexpected opportunity to move to Ann Arbor.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just finished a new draft I’m really excited about. It’s the story of a woman who learns her best friend’s marriage was built on lies—which inspires her to use radical honesty to try to save her own relationship.  

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I love connecting with readers and writers. You can find me at, on Facebook at Facebook/CamillePaganBooks, or Instagram at Instagram/camille_pagan.

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

Q&A with Amy Bass

Amy Bass is the author of the new book One Goal: A Coach, A Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Town Together. It focuses on the Somali immigrant community in Lewiston, Maine. Her other books include Not the Triumph But the Struggle and Those About Him Remained Silent. She is a professor of history at The College of New Rochelle, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Slate and Salon.

Q: Why did you decide to write about this team of mostly immigrant soccer players from Lewiston, Maine, and given the current political climate, what do you think their story says about the role of immigrants and refugees in the United States?

A: I went to Bates College, which is in Lewiston, so I lived there years before the Somali community began to arrive. When the soccer team started to climb the national rankings in fall, 2015, a friend from college posted a newspaper article about them on Facebook. 

Things in my head just began to click – there was so much heated dialogue at that moment about refugees; Syria was such a focal point; U.S. governors were saying “we don’t want you” about those who were fleeing Syria’s terror and violence.

But in Maine, these guys were playing soccer, making it work, coming together as a team, coming together as a community. This, I thought, is how America lives up to all those revered documents we keep in the National Archives. 

There was – there is – so much fear driving and dividing this country. This story, I think, puts that fear into a context, with a thrilling sports story to boot.

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

A: I spent a lot of time in Maine! I did a lot of research to prepare for my first trips up there – reading, reading, and then more reading. Newspaper clippings, histories:  you name it; I read it. 

I watched hours and hours of game reels -- everything and anything I could get my hands on. A LOT of soccer. And I went back to high school, shadowing Coach McGraw, who teaches biology; hanging out at football games and track meets; and, of course, attending the soccer games, first as a spectator, then on the sideline, and finally from the locker room.

I did endless hours of interviews, with players and their families and community members, all of whom so generously told me their stories, patiently answered my questions, and – when I was really lucky – invited me to dinner. 

I think what surprised me most was how seamlessly they accepted me – I didn’t even really notice until one afternoon I was like, whoa – I’m in the locker room!

Q: Do you see the events you write about in One Goal as relevant to many other communities, or is Lewiston's experience unusual?

A: Lewiston has some unique elements to it, to be sure – but I think there are things we can all learn from its story. Lewiston has this big moment – this soccer game – that gives us all a glimpse as to what things could be like. I hope all communities can find their moment.

Q: You wrote recently on, "But just as these families needed Lewiston, the nearly all-white former mill town needed them, too." How would you describe the relationship between the immigrant community and those who had lived there for longer, and what do you see looking ahead?

A: I think community relationships are negotiations – and that’s a good thing. It is so much more complex than an immigrant community “fitting in.” It is about the preservation of culture and language and food and dress and religion, all key things to figure out how a group lives where it settles. 

Coach McGraw often compares his players to seeds – they will grow, and the community will grow with them.

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I’m working on figuring that out. I’ve always got ideas in my head, it just depends which one will stick.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I say this all the time: listen to athletes for a change. And I really mean that. Sports can do one of two things:  pull people together, or push people apart. But either way, sports matter.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Peggy Macnamara and Katie Macnamara

Peggy Macnamara is the illustrator and her daughter, Katie Macnamara, is the author of the new children's picture book Rosie the Tarantula: A True Adventure in Chicago's Field Museum.  Peggy Macnamara is an adjust associate professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and an artist in residence at the Field Museum. Katie Macnamara teaches at John Abbott College in Montreal and Carleton University in Ottawa.

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

PM: I have been Artist in Residence at the Field Museum since 1990, and have been painting there years before that. I did a book on Illinois Insects (University of Chicago Press 2005) and got to know Jim Louderman. He has lots of live insects in his office including tarantulas. 

Now what is great about Jim is how he interacts with the public. For years he let the kids at the Field Museum hold tarantulas and whatever else he was nurturing. But about five years ago one of his tarantulas, Rosie, got loose.

Our offices are on the third floor and the Field Museum public exhibits are on the ground, first and second floors. Rosie was missing for about three months. No one knows exactly where Rosie went, but she was in good shape when she was found about 100 yards from Jim’s office.

I had taken a couple years to do paintings of the various scientists’ offices and collections, a “Behind the Scenes” series. I wrote a rough copy of Rosie’s adventure, much like my own, wandering around the Field. I wanted to tell a few stories about how collections support present-day scientific research to promote conservation and education. 

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write the book?

PM: I have been around scientific material since I began working at the Field.  I have done books on insects and bird nests, migration, the peregrine falcon’s return, so I am familiar with what research is being done at the Field.

KM: I did most of my research online, careful to engage with the most authoritative websites and diligent about having my text and notes reviewed by Jim Louderman and Mary Hennen at the Field.

(I first drafted the notes while my baby twin daughters still took morning naps and I enjoyed my year of paid maternity leave here in Canada. I refined those notes while my daughter Dorothea — super sleepy from a heart condition that kept me by her side with the twins in daycare for the first few months of her life—slept soundly. Hurray for paid maternity leave again!)

Q (for Peggy): How did you and your daughter collaborate on the project?

PM: My daughter Katie has a Ph.D. in English Literature. I send her texts all the time, but this one intrigued her. She researched specific details and rewrote the text.

Katie lives in Ottawa, Canada, and I am outside Chicago so we communicated by phone and email. Her writing was great so all that remained was to get someone to lay out the book. That took about four years. 

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

PM: I hope kids see the wonder and worth in a Natural History Museum. The collections and research can solve things like the DDT problem. So many bird species are back in force because of the egg collection and researchers’ endeavors. 

KM: I hope the book can be used interactively by parents to speak to children of different ages. When I originally did the research about tarantulas, other relevant animals, and the museum, I started keeping notes of interesting facts.

As a lapsed academic (who now focuses on teaching rather than research at John Abbott College after having dissertated and published essays on modernist literature during/after graduate school), I still have a passion for footnotes, which have inspired past scholarly pursuits and marked their completion (since I always fine tune the notes at the end of a satisfying!).

But I resisted polishing up and showing these notes to publishers until Northwestern asked me to produce a glossary. I’ve read many glossaries in books my 6-year-old son brings home from school or the library, but I often find them less than illuminating. So if I really want to answer my son’s questions, I end up googling.

Instead of a glossary, therefore, I drafted detailed endnotes that parents can turn to (with a glass of wine?) when storytime is over to mine for material to ad lib about during their next reading session.

This can help parents do the kind of interactive work speech therapists and literacy experts recommend. But it can also, more simply, save them from boredom when a child asks to be read the same book for the 20th time. As children get older, they can possibly explore the notes themselves. And even adults may be inspired by them.

(When a mom-friend of mine was asked to experiment with a cricket-based diet and write about it for a magazine, she texted me immediately to tell me it reminded her of one of my Rosie notes about the human cricket-eating craze, which I’d discussed at a reading. I like to think that she went forward with the experiment and the article despite major squeamishness partly because of my footnote).

Right now, my just-turned-4 twin daughters enjoy reading the book with me, but they certainly don’t “get” everything. And given how amazingly interactive museums are these days, my kids don’t fully understand part of my motivation for telling the story I did.

When I went to a darker (and let’s face it, drearier) Field Museum with my mom as a kid, I was kind of freaked out by the dead-ness of the place. The dioramas I mostly saw had been constructed, in part, out of animal carcasses (some of which had been killed by late Victorian natural historians). And the artifacts had belonged to people long dead.

Oh yeah, and those mummies in the basement Egypt exhibit? Spooky! I was frankly a bit more creeped out than curious. Why couldn’t I just see live beasts at the zoo? (Now, of course, zoos bother me with their animals in captivity).

All this is to say that when my mom sent me her take on Rosie’s adventures, I wanted to make the tarantula’s musing somehow mirror my own as a child.

Some kids may still ask why we have museums like these in the first place. But most probably aren’t asking this as a giant special exhibit animatronic t-rex bares its menacing teeth (but such tiny arms!) before them.

Hopefully our book helps them answer questions they might not even have realized they had. Hopefully it enables them to see how they can help many of these historical animals and cultures live on both literally and figuratively. 

Q: What are you working on now?

PM: Katie has written another kids book extending exploration of the Field. It is about octopuses and other wild fish species. I have been painting the relevant material.

I am also working on a book about painting in a natural history museum for 35 years and what it has taught me about art and science.

KM: The octopus book for sure. Also thinking about a book for kids with physical challenges ever since I wrote a blurb about my daughter Dorothea’s challenges with the low muscle tone, loose ligaments, and developmental delays exacerbated by cardiac abnormalities more common in kids with Down syndrome.

Q: Anything else we should know?

KM: She doesn’t think this fact helps her prove her dedication as an artist, but I’ll share it: Peg is the mother of seven, grandmother of 21, aunt of 53, great aunt of...who knows how many. She entertains them (and ALL their friends — anyone who shows interest) with tours at the Field Museum.

Although I had my first of four kids at 36 — the age at which my mom gave birth to her sixth and seventh...twins! — she has been an amazing working mom and teacher role-model to me despite our differing circumstances.

Work and love and life and kids can be so hard to balance. With my dad’s (and her dad’s) adoring support and her mom’s (and her own) practical wisdom, she found a beautiful balance. I’m striving to do that too. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 27

Feb. 27, 1902: John Steinbeck born.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Q&A with Celia C. Pérez

Celia C. Pérez is the author of The First Rule of Punk, a new novel for kids. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Horn Book Magazine and Latina. A community college librarian, she lives in Chicago.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The First Rule of Punk, and for your character Malú?

A: The idea and the character came, in part, from my own experiences growing up as a child of immigrants and as a reader. Growing up, I often felt like I didn't quite fit in. My dad is Cuban and my mom is Mexican so there was always a feeling of being in between cultures. Being bicultural in the U.S. added another element of being neither one nor the other.

Growing up as a reader, I didn't see a character or story that closely resembled my own until I was in college. I got into punk and making zines, which are a great way to express yourself and your interests, a long time ago.

So when I started writing this character it just felt natural to make her a little punk who not only didn't fit in with her mom's expectation of what it was like to be a girl and Mexican American, but who also didn't really fit in at her school.

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

A: Unlike in my life where I like to know exactly how things are going to play out and control everything, I did not plot the book. Which seems kind of strange when I think about it because that's a work I can actually control! I just sat down and wrote in a pretty linear fashion.

I know some writers will jump around and write the end first or later chapters before earlier chapters. There were certainly changes that happened along the way, and once it got to the later revisions I was working out of order.

I think one of the biggest changes that happened was that the original first chapter was completely cut and rewritten. There were also a few minor characters that weren't serving any purpose who ended up getting the ax. 

Q: You also incorporate your own zines into the book. Did you work on those at the same time as the book's text?

A: I did most of the zine work after the book was already far along in the revision process. So I wasn't working on each zine as it came up in the story.

While I was writing I developed, with the help of my editor, a list of the zines I wanted to include and where they would fit in the book. The idea was that the zines would follow their own arc where you see how Malú's feelings about moving and about her mom, her culture, and herself evolve.

The zines also went through an editing process both for text from my editor and for visuals from the art director working on the book.

Q: What do you think the book says about the importance of music (or other creative arts)?

A: I was reading an article recently about the strengths of introverts, something I identify with completely. One of the items listed said introverts are better at expressing themselves through writing than through speaking.

I agree with this, and I think it's one of the reasons why the creative arts are so important. They give individuals who might otherwise fells like they can't easily express themselves for whatever reason, whether it's because they're introverts or because they're isolated in some sense, a way to speak.

I remember being really shy when I was a child and realizing early on how much power writing gave me. I was a brown kid, growing up poor in an urban area, but writing made me feel like I had a voice.

The great thing about the arts, whether it's music or writing or visual arts, is that they give us all access to self-expression that is only limited by our own imaginations. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on my second book, another middle grade novel. I'm really excited about it. There's no punk rock music, but I think it contains that same punk philosophy of being yourself, taking control and making things happen in your world.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Thank you for the opportunity to answer these questions for your blog! I hope anyone who read The First Rule of Punk gets what they need from it as an individual, whether it's a mirror in which they see themselves or a new way of thinking and expressing themselves. It's been such an honor to see it out in the world and to hear how people connect to Malú's story.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 26

Feb. 26, 1802: Victor Hugo born.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Q&A with Marcia Morris

Marcia Morris, M.D., is the author of the new book The Campus Cure: A Parent's Guide to Mental Health and Wellness for College Students. She is a psychiatrist at the University of Florida, and has worked with college students for more than 20 years. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Psychology Today and The New York Times.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book, and why did you gear it toward the parents of college students?

A: I started writing articles for parents about three years ago. I noticed that college students were having more issues with anxiety and depression, and I was having more contact with parents. I felt there was more of a need to educate parents.

Thirty-one percent of college students are diagnosed with a mental health issue. Parents think it’s just a passing thing when it could be serious; they may not see a warning sign. We have What to Expect When You’re Expecting—this is kind of What to Expect When Your Kid Goes to College.

Q: You mentioned an increase in anxiety and depression—what are some of the other changes you’ve seen over the years that you’ve been working with college students?

A: The other thing that’s going up is psychiatric hospitalization for college students. It’s tripled in the last 20 years. Suicidal thinking has gone up; the rates have increased in the college-age range.

The rates of suicidality have increased since 2008 when we had the Great Recession. Students are afraid—you see students with debt worrying about paying it off. The financial pressures have increased.

Also, the academic pressures have increased. When I was in college, if I got a B,  that was okay. Students now are holding themselves up to such high [standards] with academics. Some students have trouble achieving a balance.

And social pressures have increased through social media. There’s a feeling you have to look perfect. Eating disorders have gone up. There’s pressure to appear popular on Facebook, but [social media interactions] are not a substitute for face-to-face contact. Face-to-face contact has gone down in the last 15 years. Social contact is a big thing; loneliness is a problem.

Q: The first issue you examine in the book is anxiety. Why did you choose to start with anxiety?

A: Anxiety is the most common mental health disorder college students experience, like panic disorder or social anxiety disorder. Students are extremely anxious. Twenty or 21 percent have been diagnosed with anxiety disorder in the past year.

In the past, depression was number one among college students. Now it’s anxiety. I wanted parents to be aware of the most common problem.

I make suggestions about treatment for anxiety, but also provide tips about not creating anxiety, not to be a tiger mom. Some people may get all As, but it’s not realistic. Encourage kids to do well, but don’t push too hard.

I talk about making sure kids are filling their lifestyle with wellness. Kids need enough sleep. They shouldn’t be studying until 3am. They’re still adolescents until 25. Sleep should not be sacrificed to academics. And they need exercise. Parents of high school and college students should encourage wellness techniques.

Q: You also look at the issue of sexual assault, a topic that has been receiving a great deal of attention lately. What advice do you offer parents on this issue?

A: It’s a tough one. I find often that patients don’t tell their parents right away. In the book there’s an incident where the student comes home and seems depressed. They might try to hide it from their parents. It’s okay for the parent to say, You seem unhappy, did anything happen?

Twenty-five percent of women experience some type of sexual assault before graduation. It may not be rape but it could be anywhere from forced touching to sexual activity. It can be very traumatic even if the woman was grabbed when she didn’t want to be.

Parents need to start asking questions. If your child doesn’t open up, you can ask if there’s another family member the child can speak to, or say to see a counselor on campus.

Parents should be aware that most campuses have a victim advocate office. The student may or may not want to press charges, but the advocate will make sure the student has the care they need.

Q: What about the issue the country is dealing with, especially right now, about violence on campus? What are you hearing from people?

A: The students are aware of what happened [with the recent school shooting in Florida], especially because I live in Florida. There are students who attended that high school. Ever since Virginia Tech, campuses are very concerned about these events. If an event is going on on campus, every student gets alerted by text.

I haven’t been asked by a lot of parents about it but living in Florida I know people are affected. I think the parents might be more distressed than some college students; they’re worrying about how to keep the kids safe.

There’s a behavioral consult team, which varies from campus to campus. They will meet on a regular basis and will gather material. With this shooting, there were a lot of pieces that weren’t put together.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m thinking at some point of writing a book directly for high school seniors. It might be more of an advice book about wellness in the college years. I’m trying to counsel students and give them hope that they will recover and feel better. The large majority will recover. People need a message of hope. A lot of young people don’t have the view to see that.

I want to continue writing about mental health issues. There’s a lack of understanding out there. And also I want to decrease the stigma. People associate it with weakness, but there are issues that are treatable. I want to get the message of hope out there.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I write about the problems that can occur in college, but one main message to parents is to be as positive as possible with their children as they go through the college years. It may be something they’re doing—[for example,] they were able to find a job for the summer. Parents can be hard on children because we think we’re helping them but it’s important to highlight the positive.

They are all going to have something come up. I hear from students that they don’t want to tell their parents because they don’t want to upset them. Parents need to stay calm and not get upset when their children are telling them something. I want parents to have a positive relationship with their children.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 25

Feb. 25, 1937: Bob Schieffer born.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Q&A with Victoria Redel

Victoria Redel, photo by Marion Ettlinger
Victoria Redel is the author most recently of the novel Before Everything. Her other books include The Border of Truth and Loverboy. She is on the faculty of Sarah Lawrence College, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including and Harvard Review.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Before Everything, and for your five main characters?

A: Deborah, I had been working on another novel when my best friend since I was seven passed away. After a period of deep silence, it became clear I wanted to write about friendship, about how a community of friends through life manage each other's life changes-- death being that most final change.

The characters emerged as I began writing. I knew I wanted a gang of childhood friends with all the sweetness and complication of people knowing one another through many phases and life events. And the rest of the characters--new friends, ex-husbands, the hospice nurse--all began to emerge through the writing.

Q: Did you write the book in the order in which it appears, or did you move the sections around as you worked?

A: I wrote the book in big and small chunks and, yes, moved sections around to start to shape the book's structure. It was the way I found the rhythm overall voice of the novel.

That said, after a bit, I wrote the chunks mostly knowing where they'd fit. The more I wrote the book, the clearer it became that I wanted to give many of the characters a voice.

I saw the book as moving a bit kaleidoscopically which made it all more complicated. But hopefully it's interesting. I've always worked in a collaged style though I long to be a writer who works in a neat, linear fashion. 

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

A: "Before Everything" hopefully speaks to that moment when all things are possible. That time--which perhaps doesn't ever purely exist-- when you have that deep inhale that gives strength for all that follows.

Q: What do you think the novel says about female friendships?

A: It's really all about friendship--and the strength that is woven into the way women care for one another. I believe that the women in the novel bear witness to one another's lives. Some have to learn how to accept that which they don't want to accept, primarily Anna's choice to stop treatment.

There are many women in this book and so there's room for so much--love, history, jealousy, change, physical care, fear, secrets, love. I wanted to create a big cast of complicated characters--not always likeable, often struggling, but enduring and loving. 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: It seems I'm back to writing poems. As it's turned out after the long haul of a novel, I'm always grateful to return to making poems. I love the compression, knocking one word up against another and that the arc of a poem is brief.

I'm letting myself mess around and see what these poems are pointing to. I'm throwing out a lot of them but hopefully some will withstand the revisions.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb