Monday, April 30, 2018

Q&A with Zack Davisson

Zack Davisson is the author of Kaibyo: The Supernatural Cats of Japan. His other books include Yurei: The Japanese Ghost. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Weird Tales Magazine and Japanzine, and he also works as a translator. He lives in Seattle.

Q: What role have cats played through Japanese history, and what accounts for the focus on supernatural cats?

A: Cats have risen and fallen in their status through all Japanese history. They arrived in Japan during the Heian period as living treasures, precious palace pets that were traded between emperors to curry favors. Cats were given court rank and servants catered to their feline whims. One emperor famously even had the court tailor sew costumes for all his previous kitties.

But then as centuries passed they spread across the island until they were no longer rare. They became common mousers, protecting households and silkworm crops. In 1602 an edict from the government evicted all cats, forcing them outside in an attempt to control a rat infestation across the nation. In modern Japan they are somewhere in between—mostly strays, but still beloved.

As for the supernatural, well … that is just me! I like the weird and wonderful. I am far more interested in magic cats instead of regular cats, although in their own ways all cats are magical.

Q: You note that cats in folklore have been seen as shape-shifters. Why is that, and which stories do you find especially intriguing?

A: Henge—transformed animals—are a common part of Japanese folklore. According to Japanese myth, almost all animals can transform once they live sufficiently long. Japanese stories are full of transformed foxes, tanukis, snakes, and pretty much anything else. Cats, already having an air of mystery about them, easily fall into this bestiary of magical creatures.

There are sooo many stories of magic cats. I tend to the like the odd ones the best, the ones that don’t make sense, like the Gotoku Neko that blows up cooling fires at night to stay warm. And wears a trivet on its head, for whatever reason.

Q: The book includes some incredible artwork involving legendary supernatural cats. How were the images chosen?

A: My book designer Carla Girard chose most of the images. She did an amazing job finding sources for so many cool cat pics, many of which I have never seen before. They are beautiful. Although the images I am most happy with are the included pictures from artistic genius Shigeru Mizuki. Mizuki’s family gave us special permission to include them, and they are appearing in an English language book for the first time.

Q: One cat you look at is the Maneki Neko, which is popular all over the world. How did this cat become so well-known?

A: I would guess the proliferation of Asian restaurants in the West. Maneki Neko are often used at business as a good luck charm to “invite” customers in. As hundreds of thousands of Asian restaurants spread across the world, they brought the Maneki Neko with them.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m currently working on the next book on Japanese magical creatures, on a dog-like animal called a tanuki. They are also a shapeshifter, with magical powers similar to cats, but with some highly unique … peculiarities. It should be fun!!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My previous book was on Japanese ghosts, so if you like spooky Japan you should check that one out as well! I hope to keep going until I have covered as many monsters as I can! 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Paul Goldberg

Paul Goldberg is the author of the new novel The Chateau. His other books include the novel The Yid. He is the editor and publisher of The Cancer Letter, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: In his review in Tablet, Alexander Aciman writes, “The sign of a great literary noir is one that cannot decide whether it is about crime or about an existential crisis. This is the story of Paul Goldberg’s novel The Chateau…” What do you think of that description?

A: It was so on target. That’s exactly where I was going with this. My character is going through an existential crisis, and also the country is going through a political crisis. Every crisis you can imagine is taking place outside in the streets, and this character is trying to deal with this. [It takes place] during the week prior to the inauguration of Donald Trump, and everything is going to be a crisis.

[The main character, Bill,] lost his job. That’s my fear—how can I be [in that situation]? Some people find a next act, but it’s an existential crisis to do that. It’s not a job, it’s a “you.” Here’s a guy who loses his identity. I love my job. I decided to make the character something I’m not, if I were trying to deal with the [work] bureaucracy…

Q: So how did you come up with the idea for your character Bill?

A: Bill comes out of two fears I have. I deal with the fears and see how I go from there. I’m trying to imagine a reporter stuck doing something he hates—give me a story I hate, and I’ll cry. There’s a fear of being superfluous.

One reviewer called him nihilistic. That’s like calling [Israeli leader David] Ben Gurion a Zionist. Yes, he’s a nihilist. But he also came out of a novel by Turgenev, Fathers and Sons. It came out of fear: I spend my life chasing bad guys and bringing them to justice, and what if my parent is a bad guy?

I decided to do that in Florida. It’s a hilarious place to do that. In Turgenev’s novel, the father is closer to Bill’s age. I delayed it by a generation and moved it to Florida. It came out of my own fears entirely, what a noir could come out of…I wasn’t going for noir, but it ended up noir. I was going toward Turgenev.

I had some turns; the story is going to take some turns. There’s only so much you can do to structure the narrative.

Q: What about the timing of the novel?

A: I started it in 2016. Fathers and Sons in Florida—that was there from the outset. When the [2016 presidential] election kept going, I was in Florida collecting information. There was a battle going on in my father’s condo association. He ran for a seat on the condo board.

[The novel] is not even loosely based on that. My father, thank god, is not [the father in the book]. None of the events occurred, except the national election. I thought it was ambitious enough to go toward redoing a classic novel.

The other thing that makes this a classic Russian novel is it’s an immigrant story. Then Trump shows up, from an improbable candidate to a candidate everybody feared, to a candidate who’s winning—and Russians becoming important in this.

What I’m ending up with is a microcosm for a national macrocosm. I went back and changed it [given the election], but almost everything was in there. I just decided to move it up a year. As I was doing that, there was the shooting at the airport in Fort Lauderdale [and I decided to begin on that day].

I like my stories to play out rapidly, over six or seven days. Seven is the outer limit for me. The very compressed story and the setting—those things are realism. The rest is total fiction.

Q: How have readers reacted to the book?

A: It’s interesting. I looked at the Amazon ratings, and it’s right smack in the middle. Trump supporters give it a one. Non-Trump supporters give it a five.

There’s more of a current political battle playing out around this book than with my previous book. It tells you that what I ended up doing shows that dialogue is impossible in this country right now.

People say we need dialogue, but something needs to change. Maybe books like this will do it, who knows. I’m just describing the bewilderment I felt seeing these people come to power.

The book is set among former Soviet Jews who love Trump, and it’s not stated that they love Putin but they do. It’s this license to let out the inner bigot. There are people who hate the book, which is fine—they are not invited to my house.

It is journalism in that sense. It’s a 50-50 book. With my previous book everybody was very happy with it because we were killing Stalin. In this one, it’s more like our tyrants are very much in power. That’s what writers should do—stand up and be counted.

To me, with the 2016 election, I saw it from the beginning as a time for artists to be able to make a statement. They may be taking away our democracy, but they’re giving us material, and the truth always wins.

I want to see more artists and writers become politically relevant. I took a chance but this was the book I needed to write at this time.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The book is called The Dissident. It’s set in Moscow in 1976. It’s a noir comedy Cold War thriller. I like taking a genre people think they understand and putting them on their ear. I happen to know a lot about this subject—I wrote two nonfiction books about it. One was an oral history of the Soviet dissident movement.

My character is Jewish. I can’t really write about anything that’s not, because I know the characters better. I was not in Moscow in ’76, I was graduating from high school here in America, but I was there four years earlier. I was born there.

I happen to have 100 hours of audiotapes of conversations with people from that era. I conducted them around 1987-88. They’re interviews that I conducted to put together anecdotes and give the history more of the feel of a novel…

I thought The Chateau could become a trilogy, but then I abandoned Florida. But Russia can never be done with, and the question of Jewish identify can never be done with. This [new book] might be several books…

It’s a very interesting time and place. You’re dealing with a country that’s totalitarian but falling apart. Pressures are rising, internally and externally…

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The most important thing for me in the book is that the presidential election of 2016 is an opportunity for artists to create art, respond, be politically relevant. It’s going to get worse before it gets better, and the worse it gets, the more relevant [this art] will become. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Nisha Zenoff

Nisha Zenoff is the author of the book The Unspeakable Loss: How Do You Live After a Child Dies?. She is a psychotherapist, grief counselor, and teacher, and she lives in Marin County, California.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book?

A: In 1980 my son Victor, my oldest son, died in a hiking accident in Yosemite. I was already a grief counselor and a dance movement therapist. I found that nothing I knew professionally did anything to help with the devastation, the shattering of my heart.

I’m blessed, I had a husband and two other beautiful children, but at the time I didn’t think I could live. There are no guidelines for how you live the rest of your life with a broken heart.

I vowed that if I could find the answers, I would share them with as many bereaved people as possible. I reached out to mothers who had experienced the sudden death of their child. They are the experts.

I didn’t intend to write a book. But after I did my doctoral dissertation, I interviewed many mothers, and their words were like jewels to me. I couldn’t believe their meaningful words.

People were telling me it was unusual at the time to have your dissertation become a book but why don’t you try. I spent about 10 years, and I said I don’t know how the book should end. Or the title. I could only think of, "The Death of a Child Sucks."

I put the manuscript, 1,500 pages of my own story and my research, and put it in storage.

Three years ago, I had a powerful dream, a man’s voice saying to take the manuscript out of storage and get it published now. I was about to be 75. My husband and I went to the storage, and found the box with the research and the manuscript papers. I stared at it for two weeks. I hadn’t worked on the book for 15 years.

I finally opened it up, and looked in the box, and there were all the quotes from the mothers, the information—it was as alive as it had been, and the book started writing itself. I couldn’t get it to stop.

During the last three years, I interviewed 46 other people—fathers, grandparents, siblings. In meditation one day, I had a meditation that the title came to me. I knew it was going to happen.

Q: In the book, you share your own experiences after the loss of your son. What do you hope readers absorb from the tragedy faced by your own family?

A: One of the things I realized is that [when I first worked on the book] I hadn’t lived long enough to know how the book should end. Now it will be 38 years since Victor died.

One of the first things I would like readers to know is that the book is for anyone who’s lost anyone they loved. We do not have to grieve alone. Reaching out to other people who have faced unspeakable loss is so important.

More important than anything, what I know from my own experience and other people’s, is that even though the physical body dies and our challenge is to live without the physical body, our love does not die, and will continue as long as we are alive.

So many people think if they do not stay in touch with their pain, they will love touch with their loved one. And that’s not what’s happening. Our relationship transforms--there’s the spirit, the soul, memory, dreams, that keep us connected to our loved ones.

Another thing is that grief is not a contagious disease, it’s not a pathology, it’s not a condition that needs to be fixed or recovered from. It is part of a process, a response to the loss of someone we no longer have. The grief is the engine for healing.

Grief is terrifying—it can feel like we have a flu. On every level of our being, grief can affect us. To not fight against it, Sheryl Sandberg after her husband died said to lean into the grief. What that means to me is not that you like it, but that you surrender to a process you have to go through to get through it.

Grief is something we have to almost embrace. Especially with the death of a child, there’s no timeline. It’s a lifelong experience. It changes. It doesn’t go away, but it gets softer. It’s like sea glass, it gets softer over the years, and grief is the same way.

One of the reasons I finally wanted to write the book is to bridge the gap between the bereaved and the non-bereaved, to take some of the stigma away from having a child die.

When it is suicide or murder, there is a stigma. Having a child die is a stigma—no one wants to mention it. I wanted to take it out of the closet. Children are dying all over the world. In so many different ways, at so many different ages. At whatever age. Even if the child is 40, 50, 60.

Q: How have people reacted to the book?

A: It was incredible and surprising to me—when I first started, and I showed it to people in the industry, they said, nobody wants to read about grief. That’s not the reaction I’ve gotten to the book. It’s been overwhelmingly positive. People have embraced the book.

It’s helped bring the idea of a child’s death out of the closet. When I was writing the book, a friend called me one day, and whispered, Did you know Melissa had a child die? I said, I didn’t, but why are we whispering? She said, I don’t want to gossip. I said, telling me a child died is not gossip.

That’s part of why I had “the unspeakable” [as part of the title]. Bereaved parents and grandparents love to speak about their child. Other people are so afraid: I don’t want to bring up their pain. Bereaved parents will tell you that the pain is already there.

The Compassionate Friends is a nondenominational organization started by an Anglican priest in England in the ‘70s…An American couple in Florida had a child die in a train accident. The mother was suicidally depressed. She heard about the priest, Simon Stephens, and he came and stayed with them.

That began The Compassionate Friends, 41 years ago. Now there are 600 chapters across the country. I had the honor to be one of their keynote speakers. It’s a very important organization. Group support is not for everyone, but grief support is.

Another organization, Open To Hope, was started by Gloria Horsley and her daughter Heidi Horsley, when Gloria’s son Scott died.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The only other book I thought I might do is a book on poetry from parents. Their words are such gems. I put them into poetry form. That’s one of my wishes, to have that book come out. Now I’m focused on The Unspeakable Loss, and getting it out in the world.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The book is written in a question and answer format so people can read the book by picking it up and skimming it, looking for a subject they are interested in at the moment. It’s something that can be given [to someone who is bereaved] a week or a day after their child dies, or years later.

Often we have grief brain. I wanted it to be something people could pick up according to where they are in the process.

It also has a section if you’re the friend or family member—what to say and not to say. People want to be loving and supportive, but they say things that are not loving and supportive because of lack of knowledge.

Also I think of the book not as my book but as our book. There are so many experiences and wisdom from other parents and families. It’s a collaboration of other people wanting to help.

I narrated the book—it is on all the Audible sites. It is six hours when recorded….

Grief can change you. You have so many choices about how to life after your child dies. You can open your heart to other people who have sorrow, not to be afraid but to go toward life and love. The book is really about the choice to go toward life and loving.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 30

April 30, 1877: Alice B. Toklas born.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Q&A with Hena Khan

Hena Khan is the author of Power Forward, the first novel in a new series for kids, and Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets, a new children's picture book. Her other books include Amina's Voice and Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns. She lives in Rockville, Maryland.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your new series, featuring your basketball-loving protagonist Zayd?

A: The idea came from a funny story my husband told me from his childhood. When he was in grade school, he used to sneak into the gym to play basketball when his mom dropped him off for violin practice.

This plan was working out great for him, and he was having a blast . . . until he left the violin in the car one day. His mom discovered it, came inside the school to give it to him, and of course was furious when she went to the music room and his teacher said he hadn’t been there for weeks!

This hilarious scenario became the inspiration for the new series, which includes a big dose of basketball, along with humor and an underdog protagonist to root for, who makes a few mistakes along the way.

Q: What do you hope kids take away from Power Forward, the first book in the series?

A: I hope kids will take away a lot of things—like realizing the importance of standing up for your dreams, recognizing the importance of family and friends who support you, and seeing how working hard can help you get closer to your goals.

I also hope to make kids laugh in the process and get to know a Pakistani American family that includes a few colorful characters and strong personalities that resemble a few people in my own life. Plus they might pick up some interesting tidbits about our culture, like some special foods, a sport that shares its name with an insect, and the intense drama of Pakistani soap operas!

Q: You also have a new picture book that just came out, Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets. What inspired the idea for this book?

A: This book is a sequel to Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns, which is a book of colors that introduces objects and themes that are important to Muslims, like a prayer rug, the hijab, or the Quran. In the new book, we use shapes to introduce more things, like a minaret, the ka’aba, and the iftar or sunset meal of Ramadan.

The book is written in verse, and each page introduces a shape, an object or a concept, and offers a little description or explanation of what it is. I also include a glossary and author’s note that expands on why shapes and geometry are so significant in Islamic art. 

Q: What do you think Mehrdokht Amini's illustrations add to the book?

A: Her art is just stunning, and I’m so thrilled to have been able to partner with her for both books! In Golden Domes, one little girl is narrating the story, which takes place in a western setting with her family featured throughout the pages.

For Crescent Moons, we decided to include characters and settings from different places around the world, such as Turkey, Tanzania, Malaysia, and more, on each spread. This allowed Mehrdokht to showcase the beauty of Islamic art and cultures, as well as the diversity that exists among Muslims.

As usual she incorporates exquisite details, patterns, and textures that make the book a visual feast! And the different colored endpapers with a gorgeous pattern make my heart happy.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m writing a new middle grade novel for Salaam Reads at the moment. For me the initial draft is always harder than going back and editing, so I’m looking forward to getting through it. I’m also excited to be co-authoring a book in the brand new Unicorn Rescue Society series with the incredibly talented Adam Gidwitz this fall.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Power Forward releases on May 8 and I will be touring to promote the book starting on May 2. You can find details of the tour and the different stops on my website and on my social media sites. I’d love to see you there! The second book in the series, On Point, releases on May 29 and the third, Bounce Back, will come out on Oct. 2. And I hope there will be more after them!  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Hena Khan.

Q&A with Sweta Srivastava Vikram

Sweta Srivastava Vikram is the author of the new novel Louisiana Catch. Her other books include Perfectly Untraditional and Mouth Full. She has written 12 books, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times. She lives in New York City.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Louisiana Catch, and for your character Ahana?

A: Several nuggets of ideas were at play when I was thinking of writing Louisiana Catch: Global issues of violence against women, the unpredictable interactions emerging from social media networking, multicultural romance in a never-before-told style, and the impact of grief on our vulnerabilities and ability to conduct ourselves in the world.

Honestly, I wanted to write a female protagonist who was very different from anyone I know personally. Ahana represents the unexpected survivor. Highly educated, she comes from a wealthy upper-class Delhi family. From the outside, she seems to have it all together. 

She doesn’t fit any labels or stereotypes that society expects us to believe about South Asian women or survivors of violence. To some, she might even come across as flawed, privileged, and spoilt. But you still root for her because she is relatable and real.

Like so many of us, Ahana is a product of her circumstances. You can say, I wanted to create a character that felt real and evoked emotions in people, which Ahana has gone on to achieve.

Q: One of the themes in the novel involves the issue of abuse against women. How do you see the character in your book fitting in with the #MeToo movement, and what do you hope readers take away from her story? 

A: #MeToo movement and Louisiana Catch converging at the same point in time is nothing more than a coincidence—I started to write Louisiana Catch in 2012. Having said that, Ahana takes the #MeToo movement to another level.

The No Excuse Conference organized by Ahana in the book empowers women by reminding them to speak up and speak out and not tolerate any kind of sexual violence. She helps break the barrier of shame. I feel, both the #MeToo movement as well as No Excuse foster the spirit of community together and offer a safe space to women.

I hope Louisiana Catch and Ahana’s story can help dispel stereotypes about survivors, women, and South Asian stories. Research shows that every 98 seconds, someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted. In India, a woman is reportedly raped every 15 minutes.

How can we blatantly argue that every survivor belongs to certain socio-economic strata or sexual violence exists only in certain parts of the world?

Much like the United States, India is made up of different micro-communities and unique, personal experiences. Just as the U.S., India too has its Park Avenue penthouses and Greenwich zip codes to homelessness and housing in the projects.

If we can lessen our judgment about others and knock off some of the preconceived notions about other cultures, we can grow together as a society.

Q: The book takes place in New Delhi, New York, and New Orleans. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: New York is home to my heart and writing, so I was naturally biased and wanted some parts of the novel to be based in The Big Apple.

I wanted to show southern charm and pride in my book—I felt Ahana could relate to that given her New Delhi upbringing, which (like NOLA) is also famous for its hospitality and party scene. New Orleans is one of my favorite cities in the whole world, and I like to visit often. Even though I haven’t lived in New Delhi, I have visited it plenty since my extended family lives there.

I found striking similarities between New Delhi and New Orleans. Be it the sweltering summers, rich heritage, tongue-tingling cuisines, unpredictable streets, increasing violence, and pride in the heritage. I wanted to draw a similarity between the two urban spaces with their suburban flavors built within the city. 

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

A: The title was huge for this book. Both male antagonist and protagonist in the novel—two diametrically different men—are from the state of Louisiana. And right until the middle of the novel, we can’t tell which of them is actually a “good catch” for Ahana and who is the one “catching” her in his net. One of them is not what he seems—hence the suspense.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: There has been talk about writing a sequel to Louisiana Catch. But I have not decided. I have some ideas for a new novel but not exploring them yet. Ahana and Rohan Brady have “lived” with me for six years. I am so emotionally invested in them and deeply immersed in their world that I can’t think of new “people” right away.

Going to enjoy doing the book tour for the next couple of months and savor moments where people start hashtags on social media #BeLikeAhana and design yoga classes based on Ahana’s personality and preferences. And then listen to my inner voice and figure out the next project. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I am the CEO-founder of a wellness company, NimmiLife, which helps people nurture their overall health and wellness—while elevating their productivity—using alternative healing sciences of yoga, Ayurveda, holistic nutrition, mindfulness, and yoga. 

In writing Louisiana Catch or even during the publicity phase of it, I have relied heavily on the philosophy of NimmiLife.

How? The creative life is a gift, but it is also full of ups and downs. Be it reviews or rejections or awards and exhilarating moments like hitting the bestsellers list, we writers traverse through plenty of instability. Boy, do our adrenals hate us! We are quite capable of losing our sense of priority, health, and relationships.

Yoga and Ayurveda have helped me stay connected to reality and taught me to be compassionate towards my own fleeting emotions. No self-judgment, no self-criticism just mere observation. It’s amazing how the minute you start showing compassion towards yourself, you become more compassionate towards others.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Sweta Srivastava Vikram can be found on the following sites: Twitter (@swetavikram), Instagram (@swetavikram), and Facebook.

April 29

April 29, 1937: Jill Paton Walsh born.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Q&A with Alexandra Monir

Alexandra Monir is the author of the new young adult science fiction novel The Final Six. Her other books include Timeless and Suspicion. She is also a composer and recording artist, and she lives in Los Angeles.

Q: You’ve said that your character Naomi from The Final Six is your favorite of all the characters you’ve created. What do you especially like about her, and how did you come up with her and your character Leo?

A: Yes, Naomi is totally my favorite! And I think that has a lot to do with the fact that she is the first protagonist I’ve written who shares my Iranian-American heritage. We both come from immigrant families, and so much of who we are was shaped by this beautiful culture we share, so that made her feel closer to me than all my other characters. I also love how brilliant and brave Naomi is—she’s not just a brainy science whiz, she’s also quite the rule-breaker!

Meanwhile, Leo is actually the character who came to me first. As soon as the idea for The Final Six flew into my brain, I envisioned an Italian boy who was one of the last survivors of a flooded Rome. I could hear his voice speaking to me, and once I sat down to write his chapters, the character formed naturally from there.

Q: Do you usually know how your novels will end, or do you make many changes along the way?

A: It actually changes with every book! Sometimes I go into a story knowing the outcome, and other times I let my writing surprise me, or I change the ending in revisions. But with The Final Six, I knew very early on, when I was writing the book proposal, how it would end and that ending stuck!

Q: Did you need to do much research to write The Final Six?

A: Oh my goodness, yes! I did tons of hands-on research—including actually attending Space Camp! I also met with a key NASA leader, Dr. Firouz Naderi, and a Europa Mission Scientist, also from NASA, Dr. Robert Pappalardo. And then one of my close friends, Dr. Teresa Segura, is a climate and planetary scientist, so she not only read the manuscript and gave me notes, but she answered probably a million of my questions!

Q: You’re also a singer. What overlap do you see between your writing and your music?

A: My music and novels fulfill different sides of me creatively, but they’re both under the same umbrella of storytelling! Something I love doing to tie them together is writing and recording songs to release along with my books, which I did for my first three novels, and will definitely do again!

Q: You’ve said that you’re working on a sequel to The Final Six—what can you tell us about that?

A: The sequel takes us into new territory—literally!—with the characters’ journey into deep space. You can expect a lot more high-stakes action in this one, plus twists and turns for our key relationships in the story.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I love to keep in touch with readers, so please follow me on Instagram @alexandramonir, on Twitter @TimelessAlex and on FB @AlexandraMonirAuthor!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 28

April 28, 1926: Harper Lee born.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Q&A with Melissa Ostrom

Melissa Ostrom is the author of the new young adult historical novel The Beloved Wild. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Florida Review and Quarter After Eight. She teaches English literature at Genesee Community College, and she lives in Batavia, New York.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Beloved Wild, and for your character Harriet?

A: The history of the Genesee Valley has interested me ever since I moved to Orleans County 20 years ago to teach English at Kendall High School.

This area holds special historical significance in terms of our country’s first wave of westward expansion: in the early 1800s, many young men left the comforts of their New England homes and, after purchasing their parcels from the Holland Land Company, settled here.

The region (sometimes called Lake Ontario fruit country) still fosters prosperous farms. Between the sweeping lake, orchards, quaint cobblestone houses, and Erie Canal, it’s quite lovely. Genesee comes from the Seneca word for “beautiful valley.” An apt name, indeed.

But though the area’s history has long intrigued me, an idea for a novel didn’t begin to take shape until one day when I was trudging around an old cemetery, searching for a patch of trilliums that I remembered spying the previous spring.

I came upon a family plot that gave me pause. If I was interpreting the names and dates on the antique headstones correctly, they suggested that one man must have had three consecutive wives. The nearby infant burials provided some explanation.

I wondered what it must have been like for a girl to grow up in the early 19th century when pregnancy and childbirth posed such great risks to women.

Worse yet, since society prescribed marriage as the only suitable future for a girl, how nearly impossible it would have been to avoid these dangers! I imagined how a girl would feel about this, especially if her own mother had died giving birth to her.

From this woolgathering, my character Harriet Submit Winter was conceived. And Harriet does find a way to escape her lot in life. She disguises herself as a boy.

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

A: I’m lucky to have some very good friends who know quite a bit about our local history. These women—Diane Palmer, Adrienne Kirby, and Sharon Root—shared significant stories about the Genesee Valley pioneers (some of whom are their ancestors!), as well as family memorabilia, access to the Orleans County Chapter of the DAR, and several relevant books.

Of the books, none was more helpful than Pioneer History of Orleans County, New York, a collection of firsthand accounts compiled by Arad Thomas. These reminisces amazed me. Most of the early settlers were young—just teenagers with little money and few worldly possessions—but they were astonishingly brave, industrious, stoic, and bright.

They worked hard to finagle clearings in the wilderness and faced every kind of trial, from sickness and hunger to blighted crops and encounters with bears. But most persisted, and eventually their farms thrived.

The pioneer accounts really inspired me. I recall reading about a young gentleman who owned nothing but an axe when he broached the wilderness. To start with almost nothing and yet make something of oneself and one’s surroundings? Remarkable.

Q: What do you think Harriet's experiences--and the experiences of your other female characters--say about the role of women in the U.S. in the early 19th century?

A: It was certainly a rigid role, marked by sameness, as evident in women’s housebound chores which persisted year-round (as opposed to men’s labors which tended to vary according to the season) and in terms of what women could do with their lives. Marry, then bear children: that was pretty much it. Young women like Harriet couldn’t easily pursue a different path, not without incurring society’s wrath.

The lack of autonomy wasn’t only unjust; it could prove extremely problematic.

Rachel (a parentless girl who must rely on the kindness of distant relations and neighbors to keep a roof over her head and then maintain her place in a household by toiling without complaint) suffers abuse and is taken advantage of. She has no father, brother, or husband to protect her. In fact, not even the law fully protects her.

Situations like Rachel’s starkly reveal why laws, mores, and societal perceptions needed to change.

Harriet and Rachel hopefully provide a realistic picture of the limited opportunities available to girls in the early 1800s and the challenges they faced because of their restricted status.   

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 had a pretty good sense that the novel had to end in the way that it did.

I’ve always been fond of the “boy disguise” trope that shows up in so many wonderful historical novels. It’s fun to see a girl upend the social order and escape the drudgery of spinning, sewing, cooking, and canning by masquerading as a boy. Cross-dressed, she accesses freedoms and enjoys adventures previously denied her.

Plus, the disguise beautifully fuels titillating imbroglios and (since the girl might be unmasked at any moment) generates great tension.

Usually such novels do end in an unmasking. But that customary outcome half-perturbs me. If the disguise makes possible our heroine’s power, what hope does she have of retaining that power when she gives up the cravat, boots, and britches—in short, when she dons her corseted dress again, withdraws to the drawing room, or returns to the hearth?

This is the worrisome downside of the boy-disguise trope. I tried to devise an ending that got around it.     

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m very excited about my second novel, The Unleaving, currently at the copy-editing stage at Macmillan. It’s contemporary YA, and Feiwel & Friends will publish it in March of 2019. Here’s a description:

Maggie is a freshman at her hometown college when she attends an off-campus party in March. Never in her worst nightmare does she foresee what ends up happening: a gang rape orchestrated by the Carlton Tigers’ star quarterback, Matt Dawson. Though devastated, Maggie reports the crime, and her assailants face a serious repercussion. Unfortunately, this doesn’t put an end to her ordeal—the outraged Tiger fans see to that. 

Wanting only to escape the backlash, Maggie flees Carlton for western New York and moves in with her Aunt Wren, a sculptor who lives in a cabin buffered by woods and Lake Ontario. But this isolated location harbors secrets and situations that are anything but peaceful. Even worse, the trauma Maggie hopes to leave behind follows her, haunting her in ways she can’t control—insomnia, flashbacks, and a panic that persists. These troubles are intensified when she begins to receive mysterious messages from another Carlton girl who may also have been attacked. Just when Maggie musters the courage to answer the emails, the young woman goes silent. 

With a plot that is both urgent and timely, The Unleaving explores the intricacies of shame and victim-blaming that often accompany the aftermath of assault.        

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Only that I appreciate having the chance to talk about my YA historical debut on your blog, Deborah. Thanks for interviewing me!  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Terence Winch

Terence Winch is the author of the new poetry collection The Known Universe. His other books include This Way Out and Falling Out of Bed in a Room with No Floor, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Paris Review and The New Republic. He is a founding member of the Irish band Celtic Thunder.

Q: Over how long a period did you write the poems in your new collection, and do you see a common thread running through them?

A: Most of the poems were written between the publication of my last book in 2014 and this new book. But I did uncover a few old poems I'd forgotten about ("Saint Patrick's Day 1980" e.g.) and decided to include them as well.

I think it would be easier for someone else to see a common thread in these poems than for me. Sex and death are always primal ingredients in poetry, and my work is no exception. Mortality is increasingly difficult to evade and deny, and I think that reality comes through quite clearly in a lot of these poems. But mortality is also good for a laugh. 

Q: How did you decide on the order in which the poems would appear?

A: That for me has always been an intuitive process, depending on my own feel for the flow of the work.

Q: As a musician and writer, how do you see the two coexisting for you in your work?

A: The most conspicuous intersection comes through my use of my music life as subject matter for some of my poems ("Dead Stop," e.g.). But I also think that the sense of rhythm and structure in my writing is affected by my being a musician and composer. 

Q: Who are some of your favorite poets?

A: As a student, I fell under the spell of Chaucer and Shakespeare, like multitudes before me. I also loved the Romantics, especially Coleridge. As a young poet, I found it hard to resist the New York School, especially Ashbery and O'Hara. From the so-called 2nd Generation NY School poets, Ted Berrigan's work had a real impact on me.

My best friend, Michael Lally, has been one of my favorite people and poets since we met in 1971. Doug Lang, another close friend, is an extraordinary poet whose work is not as well known as it should be.

Lately, I've been reading a lot of women writers---books by Amy Gerstler, Patricia Lockwood, Lucie Brock-Broido (who recently passed away), and two young Irish poets, Elaine Feeney and Sarah Clancy, are all right now piled on my desk.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve been writing poems pretty steadily since late last year, and I hope that continues.  I blog occasionally for the Best American Poetry site. I think about writing some new songs, but nothing has gotten off the ground.  

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I'm very fortunate to be married to Susan Campbell, who is an amazing painter and designer. If you ever visit us, you will see, in our living room, the real-life version of the couch and piano on the cover of The Known Universe.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 27

April 27, 1759: Mary Wollstonecraft born.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Q&A with Roxane Orgill

Roxane Orgill is the author of Siege: How General Washington Kicked the British Out of Boston and Launched a Revolution, a new book in verse for older kids. Her other books include Jazz Day and Skit-Scat Raggedy Cat. She spent more than two decades working as a music critic, and she lives in Dobbs Ferry, New York.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book in verse about the siege of Boston in 1775-76?

A: I’d written in verse once before, in Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph (Candlewick Press 2016), a picture book about the 1958 photo of jazz musicians in Harlem. I loved how poetry allowed me to zero in on particular scenes, personalities, and fleeting events (and leave out the bits that didn’t interest me!).

Then, in a review of Joseph Ellis’s Revolutionary Summer, the critic, Andrew Cayton, used a phrase that stuck in my mind: “cacophony of voices.” Although I’d hardly begun researching, I knew that was what I wanted my book to be.

I wanted to make heard the voice of Washington, his generals, aides, wife, and servant-slave William Lee; the artillery officer Henry Knox; the enemy (Sir William Howe); a deserter; various privates, and a servant boy. Verse seemed the most immediate and concise way to realize the “cacophony of voices” I imagined.  

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

A: This is my first book that is not about the arts. I had a lot to learn about the American Revolution, and I could not have written a word without Founders Online ( and its wonderful search engine and extensive notes and links.

It’s the source for all of George Washington’s papers. His General Orders to his officers were the first primary sources I consulted, and I was hooked on the idea of “how do you build an army? How do you start a war?” The Orders provided the detail I needed, also a wealth of new-to-me words such as fascines, gabions, pickets, and redoubts. Poetic words!

I was especially excited to have so many primary sources at my disposal because my previous choices of subject had been so lacking in that area.

Take for instance, Ella Fitzgerald: Writing about her young life in Skit-Scat Raggedy Cat: Ella Fitzgerald (Candlewick Press, 2010), I had almost no primary sources, because Ella didn’t write letters, and newspapers didn’t review her performances until she was famous.

By contrast, George Washington left a trail that seemed endless. Privates left diaries. A lieutenant wrote to his wife. And so on. I was knee-deep in original material, contentedly so. 

Many things surprised me. I couldn’t imagine how one transports cannon until, visiting Fort Ticonderoga in New York, I saw reenactors use a complicated system of poles, ropes, and pulleys just to move an eight-pounder (cannon) a few yards.

How the troops were pretty well fed – no hardtack, not yet. How when Washington, ever the surveyor, got to Cambridge, he drew a map to orient himself. I came upon this crude map by chance on a visit to the Library of Congress. A real find!

Q: How did you choose the cast of characters you include in the book?

A: Choice of characters was based mostly on availability of primary sources. I was restricted to people who kept diaries or wrote letters in a specific place -- Boston and its environs -- in the narrow time frame of just ten months in 1775-76.  I couldn’t use, say, the well-known boy soldier Joseph Plumb Martin, because his service occurred later.

In the end, I read a few boys’ accounts and made up a character, Cyrus (the only fictional character in the book), who I hoped was representative.

Obviously, I wanted a variety of people to show different aspects of the siege, and a mixture of known and unknown. I also didn’t want them to be all men. I was happy to learn that Abigail Adams experienced the siege, albeit from a distance in Braintree, and wrote vividly about it to her husband, John.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from Siege?

A: Good question. All I can say is that this is the kind of history book I would have liked to read as an older kid. Not a succession of battles but the experience of starting a war -- and not made up, as in historical fiction, but a true story.

I hope I put the reader there, in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1775, with Washington as he tries to figure out how to mount a siege with a rag-tag militia and virtually no ammunition, with the soldier who hasn’t been paid and wants to go home to his farm, with Henry Knox as he figures out how to move sixty artillery pieces three hundred miles, and so on.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: In Siege, I was able to work in Martha Washington and Abigail Adams, but it’s basically a men’s story. What did women do during the Revolutionary War? We’ve heard about Mary Hays bringing pitchers of water at Monmouth and Margaret Corbin taking over the guns at Fort Washington, but others? I’m curious how women advanced the cause for independence.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Since I was a child I’ve been keen to know how people lived in other times. I devoured anything about pioneer life; Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth was a favorite book. I hope Siege satisfies at least some of that urge in readers and inspires them to seek to know more, as I do. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb