Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Q&A with Jessica Strawser

Jessica Strawser, photo by Carrie Schaffeld
Jessica Strawser is the author of the new novel Not That I Could Tell. She also has written the novel Almost Missed You. She is editor-at-large for Writer's Digest, and she lives in Cincinnati.   

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Not That I Could Tell?

A: I lost a close friend to domestic violence nearly a decade ago, and have spent many sleepless nights since grappling with difficult questions surrounding the issue. 

I wanted to put a group of characters in a situation where they had no idea what, if anything, was really going on next door, but found themselves similarly unsettled by that arm’s length vantage point: How much should we know about the behind-closed-doors lives of our friends and neighbors? 

And if we suspect something is wrong, what is our responsibility to one another? In the unfortunate past tense, what could we have done differently? From there, the concept for Not That I Could Tell began to grow. 

Q: You tell the story from several characters' perspectives, as you did in your first novel. How did you decide on the point-of-view characters for this book?

A: The story is told largely from the point-of-view of the two (geographically) closest neighbors to a missing woman. Only one of those was a close friend; the other is more of a curious bystander, and yet both were among the last people to see her before she vanished, and thus thrust into the scrutiny of the investigation. 

I also wanted the missing woman to have a voice, and so she talks directly to the reader in short flashes throughout the book. 

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

A: I did know how this novel would end, though I didn’t know when I set out how I was going to get there. It was a new experience for me, writing toward something so definitive, and I liked that it enabled me to add more nuance from the start. 

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

A: I seem to freeze up every time this question is posed, because I love so many authors. But since you let me off the hook with your “some of your favorite” phrasing, I’ll simply say I hang onto every word Maggie O’Farrell writes, love Liane Moriarty, even more for her lesser-known works, and adore Alice Hoffman and Jodi Picoult.  

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m under contract for another stand-alone suspense/women’s fiction novel with St. Martin’s Press, so I’m working my draft over now before it’s due to my editor later this spring. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I love to video chat with book clubs that choose either of my novels to read and discuss (and if you’re in the Cincinnati area or near a bookstore where I have an event scheduled, I might even join you in person)! Simply drop me a line to check my availability to join your meeting (or to access a discussion guide).

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

Q&A with Michael Straus

Michael Straus is the translator of Revelation, a new translation of the Book of Revelation. He practiced law in New York and then went to graduate school in classical languages. He lives in Alabama. 

Q: Why did you decide to embark on this new translation of the Book of Revelation? 

A: I had recently completed a graduate degree at Cambridge in Ancient Greek and was considering various writing projects, including a new, “literary” translation of the New Testament that would allow some freedom beyond the strictly literal. 

I happened to attend an “open studios” event at an artist residency program in Brooklyn where artists are given studio space and other facilities for a year. A sculptor I know was one of those artists and the event was a sort of “end of the year” event/celebration/party where visitors can see works done by the various residents (a few dozen artists) during the course of the residency. 

One of the open studios was Jennifer May Reiland’s, someone I didn’t know at all, but on the wall was a large and intricate drawing tracing the course of the Book of Revelation through a modern setting in what I thought was an entirely novel way but that also conveyed the combined sense of terror and elation found in the book itself. 

It seemed to me then and there that if she were interested, her drawings plus a new translation had the makings of a real collaboration. We discussed the idea and both enthusiastically agreed to start work on it. 

Q: How do you think this translation differs from previous translations, and what do you hope readers take away from it? 

A: As I indicated, I view this as a “literary” translation in that I took the Greek text as its baseline, of course, but from there tried to break free from the normal constraints of English grammar and vocabulary in an effort to capture in words what the author of the work – the Apostle John living in exile on an island – himself says cannot be expressed in words. 

So it is the inherent impossibility of seeing things that John says can’t be seen and saying things that John says can’t be said that presented the challenge. 

In distinction from previous translations, I therefore rendered certain phrases not in English but variously in French, Latin, Dutch, Spanish, Greek or Hebrew – not to be showy but because John often indicates that countless different people are present in a given scene speaking a multitude of languages. 

Likewise, I included excerpts from musical scores where song was indicated and, on occasion, links to videos of Handel’s Messiah, where passages from Revelation are also found in that work. 

Taken as a whole, the translation alternates – as does John’s vision itself – from relatively straightforward passages to those where he seems at a loss for words, in which case I have taken poetic license with some of the imagery and references and dispensed with punctuation or other normal structures, all in an effort to sweep the reader along as the vision unfolds.  

Q: What do you think Jennifer May Reiland's art contributes to the book? 

A: Jennifer’s illustrations are key to the book. For one thing, she too has taken what seem to be the literal outlines of the vision as her base but then departed in her own visionary way, thereby complementing the approach I have taken with the words of the text. 

In large part this involves transporting the vision to present day New York, such that (for example) the Twin Towers are aflame as an image of Babylon’s destruction. And where the saints are beheaded for their testimony she has drawn ISIS members decapitating a victim in front of a video camera. 

All in all the “action,” as it were, follows a wandering path along which ride the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse passing by vividly-drawn creatures derived from John’s efforts to put in words the often terrifying things he sees, whether multi-headed beasts or angels whose wings covered with eyes. 

Her illustrations are also in line with a great tradition art historically, inasmuch as the Book of Revelation has been illustrated by masters such as Albrecht Durer, William Blake and others. Simply put, these are illustrations for the 21st century and given the timeless nature of the vision, transposing it to the present day is in perfect harmony with the kind of dislocations ones sees as one reads.  

Q: Who do you see as the likely audience for the book? 

A: I would hope that the audience isn’t a narrow one. 

To be sure, the book should be of interest to anyone who considers herself a Bible reader – my goal is to be respectful and even true to the spiritual nature of the work and its core images of the End Times and the return of Christ should be fully intact, even if rendered more poetically and I hope more vividly then what can often seem like the pedestrian prose of most translations written in the shadow of the majestic English of the King James Version. 

At the same time, the book should appeal to those who simply appreciate seriously written and seriously illustrated books of whatever genre; and I therefore also see the book as of interest to bibliophiles in general. 

Beyond that, Jennifer’s work has recently received very positive critical attention by virtue of some shows in New York (including by way of a review in The New Yorker magazine) and I would guess that the work as illustrated by her will therefore also be of interest to those in the art world.  

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I am in the final proof and editing stages of a translation from Spanish of a long poem by Pablo Neruda, a poem in fact that has never previously been translated into English in whole or in part despite Neruda’s having won the Nobel Prize in Literature. 

The poem concerns his travels in exile from his native Chile because of his membership in the Communist Party and it reflects a deeply leftist perspective. 

Having first been published in Spanish in the mid-1950’s and thus the height of the Cold War and “Red scares” it could be that’s why it was left to the side. Regardless, it was written during Neruda’s mature poetic period and bespeaks the romance and lyricism of his finest works. 

The book is accompanied by a scholarly essay written by a Spanish professor from Columbia University and I am hopeful that it will now reach the English readership of which it has long been deprived. 

Oh yes, it’s also illustrated! This time in elegant and allusive drawings by Anna Pipes. The book is set in a special typeface designed by one of Neruda’s countrymen from Chile and I’m looking forward enthusiastically to its release this Spring.  

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Next project? Probably translations from certain Greek poetry of the 6th and 7th centuries B.C. And of course I’d love to see those illustrated as well…..

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Sarah Albee

Sarah Albee is the author of the new children's book Dog Days of History: The Incredible Story of Our Best Friends. Her many other books include Why'd They Wear That?. She lives in Connecticut. 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Dog Days of History?

A: The short answer is, it arose out of a brainstorming session with my lovely editor Ariane at National Geographic. She was also the editor of my 2015 book, Why’d They Wear That?

The longer answer is, it was a natural thought progression. I love dogs. I love history. Why not a mashup? 

Also, if there’s a genre called “dog literature,” I was one of those kids who read the complete oeuvre. I love being able to provide kids with a nonfiction dog book that can pair up with their beloved fictional dog stories. 

Q: The book includes so many fascinating facts about dogs--what did you find that especially surprised you?

A: Well, one thing that surprised me was that modern breeds haven’t necessarily progressed in a linear fashion from ancient breeds. We can see what looks like a greyhound pictured on a Grecian urn, or a toy poodle in a Renaissance painting, but they’re not necessarily genetically linked to our modern breeds. 

We’ve been shaping and reshaping dogs for specific purposes—hunting, herding, working, companionship—for thousands of years.

Modern breeds as we now define our pets are a relatively recent phenomenon. They emerged during the 19th century with the growing spending power of the middle class. Before that, dogs as pets were a luxury reserved for the wealthy. Prior to the latter part of the 19th century, most dogs, like most people, had to work for a living. 

Q: How were the illustrations and photos selected for the book?

A: It was definitely a collaborative effort! For most of my books, I do all the image research myself. Picture research is one of my favorite parts of the book process. 

With Nat Geo, it’s a team effort. That can be amazing—the photo editors and design team at Nat Geo found some gorgeous images I would never have discovered myself. But that is not to say we always agreed. There were quite a number of “discussions.” 

I’ve come to appreciate the fact that my agenda—finding the coolest, most historically accurate picture—is not always the same as a book designer’s agenda—to find the most dramatic, gorgeous-to-look-at image. We did a lot of compromising on both sides, and the book is all the better for it!

Q: What do you see looking ahead for the relationship between dogs and humans?

A: As long as we are here on earth, dogs will be trotting alongside us. I am thoroughly convinced of that. Dogs are eminently adaptable—they can live in cold climates, warm climates, crowded cities, high rise apartment buildings, ships, soldiers’ barracks…in short, anywhere humans can live. And we will always be each other’s best friends.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a new book that has yet to be announced, so I can’t reveal much except that I am SUPER EXCITED about it and cannot wait to send it out into the world. And after I finish writing this one (it’s almost done!), I have a new project all lined up that is going to challenge me a lot, but I can’t wait to start in on it. I know I’m being vague. I’ll get back to you with details as soon as I can!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Yes! Wait. I want you to know two things. Can I mention two things?

First, I’m grateful to have the chance to show kids that history can be fascinating, thrilling, and yes, even funny to read.

And second, I want to say again how grateful I am to teachers and librarians. They’re why it’s such a great time to be a nonfiction writer for kids right now. Teachers and librarians are on the front lines, finding the right books for the right kids, and they are putting nonfiction books into the hands of a lot of kids. They’re awesome.*

*The teachers and librarians are awesome, I mean. Well, so are the nonfiction books. And also the kids.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 28

March 28, 1868: Maxim Gorky born.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Q&A with Jefferson Morley

Jefferson Morley is the author of the new book The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton. His other books include Snow-Storm in August and Our Man in Mexico. He spent 15 years working for The Washington Post, and his work has appeared in a variety of other publications, including Salon and The Atlantic. He lives in Washington, D.C.  

Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of James Angleton?

A: I knew a lot about him—my first book, Our Man in Mexico, was about a top CIA officer of the same generation, Win Scott. 

There were a bunch of good books written about him in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but a lot had come out since the ‘90s. The old picture of Angleton as an eccentric mole-hunter was very narrow. He was a much bigger, stranger, and more powerful character than anybody realized.  

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

A: I started by going to archival material. That meant presidential libraries, especially Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, archival manuscript collections of people who knew him.

And interviewing people. There are not many around who knew him, but a very interesting source was the kids of CIA agents who knew him. They knew about his world, his personality. It was an important source to bring him to life. 

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

A: We thought about a lot of titles, but we settled on The Ghost because Angleton was a special presence in American government. The phrase captured the invisible presence of this guy. I thought it was a good metaphor for his invisible power. And with the black and white Avedon cover photograph, it goes well with that, too. 

Q: You write, "Angleton's most significant and enduring legacy was to legitimize mass surveillance of Americans." What impact did his actions have on the issue of surveillance as it exists today?

A: What Angleton did was the first mass surveillance on the U.S. mail. He took a small Pentagon program—if U.S. servicemen were writing letters to people overseas, it would copy addresses and see who they were writing to. 

From a military point of view, it was understandable. When military personnel defected, it was because they fell in love with an East German girl.

Angleton took the program and transformed it into something very different. He made a huge list of people. [A few years later] they wereopening 8,000-10,000 letters a year, resealing the letters, filing and indexing material. There was no pretext of a warrant, or getting permission.

He expanded the program and ran it for 20 years. It was one of the first times the U.S. government surveilled its own citizens en masse. 

When this was exposed in the 1970s, the question was should he be prosecuted. The Justice Department said no, it was too difficult to try. What that meant is that there were no legal inhibitions to launching mass surveillance.

After 9/11, no criminal case said, Are you violating the law? It was a set precedent, and it connected to the mass surveillance conducted by the NSA.

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

A: He’s become iconic of the figure in spy fiction—the eccentric fisherman, the orchid grower, meticulous, paranoid, caught in the complexity of his own thoughts. That’s what people think of him today.That’s all very true—he had paranoid characteristics. 

But he was not just that—he had a wider influence. The mass surveillance part is true—it’s a lasting legacy. But he was a big character—he had influence across a lot of agencies and in other countries. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m doing another CIA book—I don’t want to say more about it than that. 

Q: Anything else we should know about The Ghost?

A: The other piece of the story that was never told before is the concern for surveillance of Lee Harvey Oswald. This book tells for the first time that Angleton and his people monitored Oswald for four years before Kennedy was killed. 

He was under surveillance. Whenever anybody in the U.S. government got information on Oswald, it was sent to the CIA, to Jim Angleton’s office. By the time Kennedy was killed, they had a fat file on Lee Harvey Oswald. It was never shared with any investigators.

The Ghost tells that story. I’m telling you what definitely happened: Angleton had Oswald under surveillance for four years. It’s a very interesting story, it’s never been reported anywhere else. It’s very solid—it’s based on declassified CIA documents and interviews…

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

Q&A with Roberta Silman

Roberta Silman is the author of the new novel Secrets and Shadows. Her other books include The Dream Dredger and Beginning the World Again, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New Yorker and The Atlantic. She lives in Boston.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Secrets and Shadows, and for your characters, Eve and Paul?

A: Years ago I had the opportunity to meet a man who was sent as an American spy behind the German lines during the early years of the Second World War. He had been born in Germany, was Jewish, very intelligent and had fabulous German. 

His mission was to try to help Jews and Catholics and Gypsies and others whom the Germans were hunting down before they could be picked up and sent to concentration camps. 

At one point when he was telling my husband and me about his adventures he stopped and said, “Most of the people were loners, occasionally there was a pair of siblings, but most of the time people were on their own. There was one exception, though, an intact family of a father, a mother, a two children, a boy and a girl.” 

Somehow that stuck in my head and I must have subconsciously thought about it for a long while.

Although I was a small child when the Second World War started, it was the defining event of my life, and I have also been very interested in its long-term effects, especially the effect of losing one’s home and language. 

My father and his family left eastern Europe at various times and escaped the Nazi surge eastward, but I was always very aware that they had had to make a new home in a new country and learn a new language in order to live. And that my mother was the only one of her large family of eight children who had had the luck to be born in the United States. 

What did it feel like to leave a place where you had been born and expected to die? Especially if you were privileged, well-educated and felt secure? 

And what would you do if you finally got to safety? Wring your hands over your experiences, or reinvent yourself and try to put the past behind you? 

I had met both types as I grew into adulthood. But I sensed that behind the brave and successful facade there might be a story, lots of stories. I think that’s how I came up with Paul. 

And I had known very submissive women who married in the ‘50s, who were taught by their mothers to be supportive and cheerful and not ask too many questions. Women who were changed enormously by the Feminist Revolution in the ‘60s and ‘70s. A woman like Eve who thought she had everything, only to discover that there were problems beyond imagining. So she divorced him, but then what? 

When I watched the Berlin Wall come down, these two people suddenly seemed to be standing in front of me, telling me their story. A story that I was compelled to tell. I started doing research and my husband and I went to Berlin in 1993 and after that trip I knew what I needed to write. 

Q: What do you think the novel says about the impact of the Holocaust on survivors and their families? 

A: I think people write about what they don’t understand or fear, and as a child growing up during the war and as an adult meeting people who had survived unspeakable things and/or hearing about them, I was driven to understand their stories. 

Each of those who was annihilated in the Nazi killing machine that propelled the Holocaust had a story. An unimaginable, cruel story, but an untold one because they died with their stories. Yet what about those who survived? How did they maneuver through the world? 

I knew about the ones who couldn’t manage to survive but who had written eloquently in an effort to understand what had happened to them — people like Primo Levi and Paul Celan — but what about the ones who were living more ordinary lives? Who had married and had careers and children? Who had tried to escape the past? 

I think this novel is about those people, people who have survived unspeakable things and tried never to speak of them, to bury them, to “move forward,” in today’s parlance. But I don’t think that’s possible, especially if you are intelligent and thoughtful. 

So I tried to write about the long-term effect of the Holocaust and the War on a marriage. A marriage that looked successful until it wasn’t. A marriage that couldn’t bear the burden of an unspeakable past. 

But I also believe, firmly, that the bonds of love are powerful, that the love that grows with the years and having children and just doing the daily ordinary things that life requires can be very strong, can overcome great obstacles, and can free people to unburden themselves, to open up. And that is why Paul called Eve and why she went with him.

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

A: A friend who had come with his family from Germany in 1939 knew I was interested in the people who survived, and he told me about a book called Last Jews in Berlin by Edward Gross. 

I had read Goodbye to Berlin as a young writer and admired it and even saw Julie Harris in the first theatrical adaptation of it which was called “I Am a Camera.” So when I went back to those stories I got a feeling for what life was like in Berlin, who Berliners really were. 

I loved the works of Thomas Mann and Stefan Zweig and so many German writers, and all the music — I play the piano — and I became obsessed with how this great culture could have also produced the Nazis. 

So I just read and read, about the years before the rise of Nazism in Otto Friedrich’s book Before the Deluge, in all of William Shirer’s fabulous books and in Marie Vassiltchikov’s Berlin Diaries, and lots of others. 

I have also always been interested in the righteous Christians, the people who didn’t just become Nazis because everyone around them had embraced Hitler. 

I addressed that in my novel Beginning the World Again in which the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is woven into the narrative about the Jewish scientists and their families who came to America to make the atomic bomb. 

In Secrets and Shadows, I wanted to explore what it might feel like to be helped by righteous Christians and also what the cost might be for them. That’s how I came up with the Friedmann family. 

What surprised me was the amazing bravery of those who resisted Hitler and the Nazis. How they stuck to their principles and refused to give in even though they died doing it.

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

A: I knew Eve and Paul would go together, and I had a vision of the house in Berlin, but I honestly didn’t know how it would end. The working title was "Journey to Berlin" because it really was a journey in which I was a participant. 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I am copy editing another novel called Nothing Was Simple which I would like to bring out next. It starts when two people meet at Roosevelt Field when Lindbergh takes off on his famous trans-Atlantic flight in 1927 and ends a few months after JFK is assassinated. It is an intergenerational novel about parents and children and also about race. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Recently a friend who doesn’t read much fiction asked me: Why fiction, why not just read about the past in historical documents? I was a little surprised and at first I thought he was teasing me. But he was serious. 

Even after I asked him Why War and Peace? or The Magic Mountain? or The Great Gatsby? or Farewell to Arms? Or Howards End? or the Raj Quartet? or To The Lighthouse and Jacob’s Room and Mrs. Dalloway

To put it as simply as I can, I think fiction is the history of the world, that fiction gives us the breadth of vision that we need to cope with the world now, that it is as necessary as food and water and air. 

And that those of us who write it are contributing to that river of imagination that has lasted since Homer and Beowulf and will be here long after we are gone.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Rachel Hildebrandt

Rachel Hildebrandt is the translator of the novel The Happiness Bureau by Andreas Izquierdo. She has translated many works of fiction and nonfiction, and she is the founder of Weyward Sisters Publishing

Q: How did you come to translate The Happiness Bureau?

A: I am firmly convinced that this book found me at a time that I really needed it.

Two years ago, I was early in my days as a literary translator. I knew very little about the publishing industry, but I stumbled across the New Books in German website, where I learned that books chosen for review on that platform were guaranteed a translation grant from the Goethe Institut.

I began to skim the reviews, thinking that I might have better luck convincing a publisher to publish a translation if a grant were attached to it, and after reading about a dozen reviews, I found the one for The Happiness Bureau.

This book stood out to me because, unlike many of the other books, it was clear that there was something less heavy and more hope-filled about it. It wasn’t as darkly serious many of the other reviewed books were.

I contacted duMont Verlag, the German publisher, which sent me a copy of the book, and I fell in love with it by page 20. I spent over 18 months working on the text - which I translated in full before I even had a U.S. publisher lined up for it - and submitting it to various publishers in the U.S., before Gene Hayworth at Owl Canyon fell equally in love with it.

I believe this book was just as fortuitous a blessing to me as a reader and translator, as Anna’s request is to Albert in the book itself.

Q: When you’re translating, how do you convey not only the words the author is using but also the flavor of the author’s writing style?

A: Andreas Izquierdo writes some of the most sparkling and intoxicating fiction that I have ever read. I have never encountered an author who had the ability to make me both laugh out loud and cry within the span of a single page. As I told him once, I can’t read his books in public for this very reason.

As a translator, this beautiful and dextrous use of language presents some very unique challenges. With fiction, it is always about capturing the voice of the author. As I worked on Happiness, I kept thinking that I needed to reflect Andreas’ effervescent use of language.

I also needed to create a crescendo effect, since the book opens quietly and builds from there. I intentionally used certain words to evoke the still depths of the book. I selected color adjectives and time-bound nouns, such as “accordion file,” to convey Albert’s old-fashioned character.

Lastly, I was very fortunate to have Andreas as a co-creative partner in the translation process. I was able to share and discuss the translation with him, and there were points when he would say, “This isn’t quite what I meant. Can you look at it again?”

This challenged me to be more creative, to make my language more elastic, in order to convey the charm and light-filled depths that are critical to Andreas’ style.

Q: You’re also the founder of a publishing company that tries to bring the works of women writers from German-speaking countries to English-speaking readers. What can you tell us about that?

A: One of the many parts of the international publishing space that needs attention is that of contemporary women authors. If translations only compose 3-5 percent of a given year’s publishing output in the U.S., of that number, only 30 percent of the works being published are written by women.

I founded Weyward Sisters as a means of helping to remedy that weakness in the industry. I focus on contemporary Germanophone women authors who write political crime fiction.

I want my readers to realize that there is fascinating international crime fiction being written outside of Scandinavia, and that women authors are writing some of the most socio-critical and illuminating fiction out there.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now, I am translating SPQR: The Falcon of Rome, an adult science fiction novel from Sascha Rauschenberger. It is my first work of science fiction, and I am learning about all the interesting challenges that are part of this genre.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: To truly transform the way Americans read and accept international literature, we need to expand our vision beyond the sales / commercial framework.

I am actively involved with the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, which strives to raise the visibility of global literature in public, school, academic, and prison libraries around the U.S. As one of our country’s most democratic and equalizing institutions, libraries present an ideal context in which to engage readers and community members of all kinds.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 24

March 24, 1919: Robert Heilbroner born.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Q&A with Sally Hepworth

Sally Hepworth is the author of the new novel The Family Next Door. Her other books include The Secrets of Midwives and The Mother's Promise. She is a former human resource professional and has lived in Singapore, the UK, and Canada. She lives in Melbourne, Australia.

Q: You tell the story in The Family Next Door from a variety of perspectives. Did you write the novel in the order in which it appears, or did you focus on one character at a time?

A: I wrote it in the order that it appears. Even though there are multiple characters, writing linearly is important for me so I’m conscious of pacing, structure and the way each character intertwines with the others. If I broke them up I think it would be like a Rubik’s cube, trying to slot everything back into the right spot.

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

A: I rarely know how my books will end. I tend to start with a premise and an idea of the challenges my characters will face along the way, but I never really know how it will end until I’ve written it.

For me, it takes time to get to know the characters and understand how they will react. After two or three (or 17) drafts, the ending usually reveals itself to me.

Q: The novel deals with the issues of family and motherhood. What do you hope readers take away from the book?

A: I try not to anticipate what readers might take from my books, purely because that’s not my role. People come to books with their own lenses—tinted by their experiences, morals and beliefs. 

I often receive emails from readers who have been touched by something so minor or incidental that I could never have anticipated—or even intended—it, and yet, it’s affected them profoundly. That’s why I stick to writing the most informed, entertaining book I can and leave the rest to the reader.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have just turned in my 2019 book, The Mother In Law, to my editor. There will be edits to come on this book before I start on my 2020 book. No rest for the wicked!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I am currently finishing up my tour for The Family Next Door but readers can visit my website for information for how to have me Skype into their bookclub. They can also sign up to my newsletter, The Secret Life of Authors, on my website, where I spill the dirt what it’s really like being an author. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Marc E. Agronin

Marc E. Agronin, M.D., is the author of the new book The End of Old Age: Living a Longer, More Purposeful Life. His other books include How We Age, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and Scientific American. He is a geriatric psychiatrist and is director of mental health services, clinical research, and the outpatient memory center at Miami Jewish Health.

Q: You write, "This book has a simple message: aging brings strength." What do you think are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about the aging process?

A: We tend to define aging only as a process of decline, loss and disease, with its benefits seen as mere survival against the odds. This definition is realistic but it's only half the story.

I describe in The End of Old Age how the aging process itself grants a variety of strengths through ongoing growth and development of our experience, knowledge, skills and their integration over time.

Thus, we gain greater wisdom, deeper purpose and heightened creativity because of age. These factors must be seen as a counterbalance to the decline perspective.

Q: In the book, you describe "creative aging." How do you define that, and what do you advise your patients about living creatively?

A: Creative aging refers to aging in a way that creates and develops new endeavors, relationships and perspectives that go above and beyond our previous selves. It's aging as growth and not decline. 

It's based, in part, on Gene Cohen's concept of developmental intelligence in which our experiences and abilities grow with age and achieve greater integration and synergy.

Q: In your years as a geriatric psychiatrist, have you seen any changes in how your patients are approaching aging?

A: I see more and more people coming to me in the 80s and 90s who are in good physical and mental health but want to enhance relationships and personal endeavors. They see aging more in terms of potential than problems.

I wouldn't say that 80 is the new 70, but that 80 is just new for so many people. These individuals may not have had aging role models when they were younger, and so they have to be pioneers of aging, blazing a path for all of us heading into those years.

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

A: I hope that readers will feel excited about their own potential as they age, seeing aging itself as the secret sauce to a better life.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am leading an amazing project at Miami Jewish Health to create the very first village in the U.S. for individuals with dementia, with a care model based in empathy.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The best way to learn about one's aging self is to build relationships with older individuals. Find elders to be your teachers, mentors, role models and inspirational figures.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Beth Benedix

Beth Benedix is the author of the new book Ghost Writer: A Story About Telling a Holocaust Story. It focuses on the life of Joe Koenig, a Holocaust survivor, and Benedix's efforts to tell his story. Her other books include Subverting Scriptures, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications. She is a professor at DePauw University, and is the founder of the nonprofits arts organization The Castle. She lives in Greencastle, Indiana.

Q: Your book is subtitled "A Story About Telling a Holocaust Story." Why did you decide to take this approach to your book, and how long did it take to write it?

A: Thank you so much for asking this question! It took about nine years to write, and it went through a number of different iterations.

Somehow I always knew that the story I most wanted—felt I needed—to tell was the story of the process of trying to tell this story, which sounds terribly convoluted when I say it this way. But the truth is that the earlier iterations fell flat because I attempted to mute my sense that it had to be this way. 

The questions that I obsess over—the ethical questions concerning how to tell someone else’s story, what it means to choose one method over another, what it means to impose a narrative arc, how to draw out the universal implications of an insular set of memories—are essentially questions of process, and, so, it seemed natural to me to bring these questions out into the open. 

My biggest inspirations in memoir--Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) and David Harris-Gershon (What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?)—are painstakingly, playfully, process-driven, and the authenticity of this approach came as a revelation to me the first time I read their books. 

There’s a vulnerability to this approach that feels necessary to me, a tentative quality that conveys the reality of what it feels like to just not know how best to communicate the weight of Joe’s story. 

I gesture to Paul Celan at the close of the book, and this gesture captures my full sense that a story like this, a story of encounter—raw, real, unscripted—is always “en route.” 

Q: Throughout the book, you discuss both Joe Koenig and your father. What do you see as the connection between then?

A: Yes, this connection becomes a central motif, even as it surprised me to make the connection. In the book, I try to make clear that, in so many ways, Joe and my father couldn’t be farther from one another. 

There’s a conversation we have, for instance, where I tell Joe in no uncertain terms my sense of the chasm between them: I tell him that, where he is a true survivor, my father—who died when I was 20—squandered his life. 

And yet… my relationship with Joe, the time I spent with him poring over his story and learning who he is and what makes him tick… somehow this all brought my father back to me in the most vivid way. 

Somehow the relationship we developed—his sense of humor, his brute honesty, the way he challenged me to face my fears, the way he knew how to master the world around him—all of this brought my dad back.  And I started to process Joe’s story through the residual ache of losing my father. 

In an act of what I can only call grace, Joe told me once that we are “the same” because we both lost our fathers too soon. The weight and generosity of that statement loomed somehow over the book for me; I wanted to understand what it meant that Joe could have said this, when our experiences seemed so far apart to me, when his losses were so profound and mine seemed so prosaic. 

So I think the connection is mainly that he validated my sense of loss.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from Joe's story and your approach to telling it?

A: Oh, this is hard, because I most want readers to have their own authentic encounters with the book and I’m so interested to see where those moments of encounter might happen for them. 

I guess I would like readers to come away primarily with a sense that they really know Joe. I want readers to see him as a flesh and blood man with a history and a family and a wicked sense of humor, a man who refuses to be labeled and defined by his experience in the Holocaust.

It was so important to me to introduce Joe in this way to readers, because it’s in this kind of meeting that his story becomes most meaningful. Joe’s memories are of unfathomable loss, and I feel an obligation to share these memories, both for his family’s sake and for the sake of recording and collecting his testimony. 

Alongside of that sense of obligation is another: the obligation to show that stories of memory take on lives of their own for the people who listen to them. It has to be a shared act, this kind of story-telling, this kind of testimony, it has to be about the attempt to make a connection—even if the attempt feels clunky or flawed or incomplete.

Q: What impact did writing the book have on you?

A: At the risk of sounding melodramatic, it’s pretty fair to say that writing this book has changed my life. I live in a perpetual state of gratitude that Joe came into my life, a perpetual kind of wonder at the workings of the universe. 

Knowing Joe has changed the way I’ve thought about… well… everything, from writing to teaching to being a mom. Everything feels more applied now, more hands-on, more in-the-thick-of-it.  There’s a clarity that wasn’t there before, a sense of what really matters.

In the book, I talk about the Jewish concept of beshert—fate.  Allergic as I am to any form of institutionalized religion, this concept—that there are others with whom we are fated to cross paths—resonates with me in a way that I always sort of sensed but was never quite able to articulate until writing this book. 

The magic simplicity of the not-so-chance encounter… I’ve come to honor this as something that can only be felt intuitively and viscerally, and to acknowledge the power of connection when it happens.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now I’m working on marketing this book! It’s been such a long road, and I’m really looking forward to the conversations that I’m hoping this book will facilitate. 

I’m waiting for the next writing project to announce itself to me. In the meantime, I’m keeping busy being a mom, teaching, directing a nonprofit organization and gigging with my band.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: This question makes me anxious! I feel like I should have a perfectly witty response. The only thing that comes to mind, strangely, is a line from Rush’s song “Free Will”: “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” 

Oh, and a quote from the newly released movie adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time, which I just saw with my kids, a line from Rumi: “the wound is the place where light enters you.” So beautiful.

Thank you so much for the opportunity to talk about Ghost Writer, Deborah!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb