Thursday, May 31, 2018

Q&A with Guadalupe Garcia McCall

Guadalupe Garcia McCall is the author most recently of the young adult novel Shame the Stars. She also has written Under the Mesquite and Summer of the Mariposas. She is a high school language arts teacher. Born in Mexico, she moved to Texas as a child.

Q: You note that you were inspired to write Shame the Stars after learning from your son about events that happened in Texas in 1915. How did that lead you to write the novel, and how did you create your characters Joaquín and Dulceña?

A: Joaquín’s character came to me fully formed the night I read Revolution in Texas by Dr. Benjamin Johnson (the book my son gave me to read). Joaquín woke me up in the middle of the night to tell me I needed to get up and write his story. It was very much like a “visitation” in that I could see him in my mind.

At first, it was just him, telling me about Rancho Las Moras, his father’s friendship and faith in the Rangers, and his love of Dulceña. The names came from him as much as the story did. The conflict, the moral dilemma that he is facing, all came from him. It’s the rest of the story, the scene by scene action/reaction, that came from me and my research.

Q: What kind of research did you do to write Shame the Stars?

A: Once I had Joaquín’s story down, which he gave me in the form of long, narrative poems, I went back and did more research. I went to the Library of Congress online database and read newspapers of the time, printing out headline and after headline, because they were pieces of the puzzle for me.

These headlines beefed up my plot, twisted it and shaped it into something that tried to paint a picture of the rebellion that spawned La Matanza of 1915. I also read many nonfiction books about the Mexican American experience in the United States.

Something else I did was visit the Bullock Museum which, at that time, had an exhibit called “Life and Death on the Border” which centered on the Matanza.

I read every marker and took pictures of every artifact because the authentic objects, like Pancho Villa’s saddle and a bride’s wedding dress, fed my story. They were physical manifestations of the narrative Joaquín wanted me to tell.

They were proof that what Joaquín was saying was true. I was being called to action. The story had been consigned to me and I felt blessed and honored to be entrusted with it. 

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

A: I hope that readers see that our history, the Latino experience, in this country has been filled with struggle and conflict, but also that we are gente buena. We are human beings with blood in our veins and love in our hearts.

I hope they see that we are so much more than the stereotypes which movies and hateful rhetoric would depict. Latinos are part of the American fabric. We live in various parts of the country and move within many social, political, and economic circles.

To believe the stereotypes is an injustice to us and to themselves. As Latinos, we’ve suffered much, but we’ve never given up on our country. We are Americans through and through.

Q: You've written a sequel, All the Stars Denied, which will come out later this year. What can you tell us about that book?

A: All The Stars Denied is the story of Estrella, the fifteen-year-old daughter of Joaquín and Dulceña. Estrella is a spirited girl, a child of privilege, who understands that her parents and grandparents struggled and lost much for her to live in comfort and safety.

As a descendant of heroes and sheroes, Estrella longs to live up to her family’s legacy. She wants to impact the world in a positive way.

But when she leads a peaceful march against the hateful slogans that appear in every door and window of the businesses on the White side of town, her family is targeted for repatriation, the deportation of over one million Mexicans and Mexican Americans from the U.S.

Estrella and her family are rounded up, separated, and dropped off on the other side of the border without the means to survive, much less return to their home.

Like her father, Estrella is a poet, but her poetry is filled with imagery from the natural world, the foliage and fauna of South Texas, where she knows she and her family belong.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have several projects on the stove right now. Some of them are simmering on the back burner, some of them are bubbling over, and some of them I am just now beginning to prep.

There’s a Borderlands Kaiju YA novel I’ve been stirring around that I really like. There’s the finished, much beloved stew I like to call my Grand Dish, a Borderlands Gothic novel, which I think has a lot of promise and I hope to make into a proper dish someday.

There’s also the tender little petit-fours which I can’t seem to master just yet, picture books, I’m trying to perfect. It’s slow going, but I have faith. There’s lots to do, lots to play with, so I’m happy. I know these things will feed me. I just have to stay in the kitchen and keep cooking.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 31

May 31, 1819: Walt Whitman born.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Q&A with Lee Goldberg

Lee Goldberg is the author of the new novel True Fiction, the first in a new series. He has written more than 30 books and is a TV writer, producer, and consultant.  

Q: In an interview with Publishers Weekly, you said, referring to the main character in your new novel, "Ian Ludlow is me." Can you say more about that?

A: I wrote my first, published novel, .357 Vigilante (reprinted recently as Judgment), and the four sequels under the pseudonym Ian Ludlow so it would be on the shelf next to Robert Ludlum, the bestselling author in America at the time.

The hero of True Fiction is, like me, a TV writer who also writes crime novels. You've heard the old saying "write what you know" -- well, this time, that's what I did.  

Q: How did you come up with the plot for True Fiction, and did you need to do any research to write it?

A: I had three inspirations. One is that I love man-on-the-run spy movies like Three Days of The Condor  and The Bourne Identity, but the hero almost always has special skills that allow him to survive where an ordinary guy would be toast. And he always picks up a girl along the way who falls in love with him. I wanted to do a man-on-the-run movie that upended those cliches.

Secondly, I'm always struck by the difference between the schlubby guys who wrote kick-ass thrillers and the heroes of their novels. Lee Child certainly isn't a schlub, but nobody is going to mistake him for Jack Reacher. But what would happen if Lee Child found himself in a Reacher situation? How would he react?

And, thirdly, I know a lot of authors who were asked to consult with the CIA and Homeland Security about terrorism scenarios...and I've often wondered how the authors would feel if those scenarios came true.

I combined all of that together, stuck it in a blender with some Oreo cookies, and True Fiction is the result (and the sequel Killer Thriller, coming out in February 2019).

The only research I did for True Fiction was into surveillance technology, drones, and RFID chips. I've spent a lot of time in Seattle, Las Vegas and Los Angeles, so I didn't have to travel much this time to get a feel for the locales (I've traveled a lot for the Fox & O'Hare books that I co-authored with Janet Evanovich....but those were international thrillers. This book takes place much closer to home). 

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

A: I always know how my novels will end. I begin with a broad-strokes outline so I know exactly where I am going and what the key plot and character moves are going to be (or, if it's a mystery, what all the clues and misdirects are).

That said, I often make changes to the outline as I'm writing the book... the characters and the story always take on a life of their own. So that's why I call my outline a "living outline." I usually finish the outline about two weeks before I finish writing the book. 

Q: As a writer and TV producer, how do the two fields overlap for you?

A: It would take a book to answer that question (lucky, I've already written it with my longtime TV writing partner William Rabkin. The book is called Successful Television Writing).

The short answer is that in television those two jobs are often melded into one because the producer, also known as the showrunner, is in charge of everything... and it all begins with the script. The great thing about being a TV writer/producer is that you end up having a great deal of control over how your script is filmed.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The third book in the "Ian Ludlow" series of thrillers and a new mystery movie for Hallmark Channel.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I still have all of my own hair and teeth...and I'm actually 50 pounds lighter than I appear on film.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 30

May 30, 1903: Countee Cullen born.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Q&A with Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer is the author of the new book She Has Her Mother's Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity. His other books include A Planet of Viruses and Parasite Rex. He is a columnist for The New York Times and a professor adjunct at Yale University.

Q: What was the inspiration for your new book?

A: I was looking back over some of the articles I’ve written, and I noticed a pattern of writing about different aspects of heredity. I asked myself why I was so interested in it---I have two teenage kids, and maybe it’s something growing on my mind.

I decided to do broader research on the history of heredity. I decided it would be my next book. It’s so fascinating. It’s important for our identity, our culture, and scientists are delving into heredity more and more deeply.

Q: What did you learn about your own genetic makeup from working on the book?

A: I learned that I probably have a genome a lot like other people’s genome, and that’s fine. There’s nothing that makes it exceptional. But if you prowl around in your genome, you will find something. I have a variant that protects me from various autoimmune diseases. Scientists have developed a drug to treat these autoimmune diseases.

I was able to pinpoint my Neanderthal genes. It’s fascinating but perplexing. It’s hard to tell what they mean for you. I have one that’s associated with nosebleeds—I never thought of myself as someone with many nosebleeds. And why would Neanderthals be prone to nosebleeds?

A lot is still mysterious about our genome. We have given them names but [don’t know much about them].

Q: You examine a variety of traits in the book, one of which is the inheritance of intelligence. What did you learn about that?

A: The history of intelligence and heredity is filled with a lot of horrors. It’s been used to justify sterilization and to justify lifelong institutionalization, and in Nazi Germany to justify mass murder.

We have to keep that history in our minds constantly. Why is it so easy for people to make claims about intelligence and use it to make awful social policy?

At the same time, intelligence is not just a social construct. It’s a real psychological feature of the mind. It’s something you can measure. Intelligence test scores are linked to how likely [people] are to be alive at 79 years old.

We have to accept this overwhelming research on intelligence. On top of that, we know the variation in test scores is influenced by genes we inherit from our parents. They don’t determine it, but it is an influence.

Scientists are discovering more and more genes. It’s going to lead to exciting research on how our brains work. It might lead to interesting educational programs.

But at the same time, we can’t take these insights and use them to justify biases against certain groups of people. It’s easy to do so, but it’s wrong.

There’s a correlation between IQ and heart disease—we don’t understand why it’s there, but it’s there. Maybe genes that influence intelligence test scores influence how the heart functions. We don’t know. It could help come up with ways for people to live longer.

Q: Another issue you look at is the inheritance of height. Can you say more about that?

A: In the book I spend a lot of time talking about height and intelligence because there are some amazing parallels. You don’t think of height as being like intelligence. Intelligence is very controversial and height is just how tall you are.

But height and intelligence are actually two of the big questions about heredity that drove the whole science of heredity in the mid-1800s. Scientists such as Francis Galton would look at people and say that it seems tall parents have tall children.

Where it’s very difficult to measure intelligence—it took decades to come up with reliable tests—measuring height was easy.

The first important thing they did was look at twins. Identical twins tend to be closer in height than fraternal twins or siblings. We knew height was very heritable—the genes have a really strong influence—but it wasn’t until 2007 that scientists discovered the first gene that had a clear-cut influence on a broad range of people with height. If you have it, you’re ¼ inch taller.

Since then, scientists have discovered over 3,000 genes, revealing that something as simple as height is an incredible web of influences we inherit. Maybe all our genes influence our height.

And yet even with the influence from genes, it doesn’t mean we should assume heredity completely determines what our height will be. We are taller than our predecessors 100 years ago. There’s been a steady increase in height. With the same DNA, if kids get better food, medicine, sanitation, it will stimulate their bodies to get taller. It’s a sign in some ways the planet is getting healthier.

Intelligence has the same paradox—genes matter but so does environment, and IQ scores are increasing. Compare IQ scores from 100 years ago to today, and you might say the average American was developmentally disabled in 1900. That wasn’t the case…

Q: What do you see looking ahead when it comes to new genetic technology?

A: I think the ability to sequence DNA is going to affect how we think about heredity a lot. We are at the point where millions of people are getting their DNA sequenced. A generation ago, that was unimaginable.

It’s going to advance further. People are going to get their whole genome sequenced. It may influence who they decide to have children with. If you realize you and someone else might have a serious disorder, you might rethink it. On the other hand, you might rescreen for variants and avoid them.

And there’s gene editing. We have the ability to edit DNA very precisely. It’s already starting to change the way we breed crops and it could become part of in vitro fertilization. Maybe doctors will edit out a mutation that would cause Huntington’s disease or early onset Alzheimer’s. We have to decide as a society whether we’re comfortable with that.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I don’t have any huge projects right now. I’ve been focusing a lot on my New York Times column. I’ve been enjoying reporting on advances in DNA sequencing, especially from ancient bones.

When I was starting out in science journalism, no one thought it was possible. There were science fiction novels written about it. Now there are weeks when I have to pick out which ancient DNA to write about!

Q: Anything else we should know about the book?

A: I would like to stress that this is not just a book about genetics. Heredity is more than genetics. Genetics is the science of how we inherit genes and how they influence us. But heredity potentially can do more. I encourage people to think more broadly about what it means to inherit something from their ancestors.

Some scientists argue that human culture is a form of heredity. There could be bacteria that live in our bodies and we might inherit some of these from our ancestors. There may other kinds of molecular forms of inheritance waiting to be discovered. I think we’re going to see in the years to come an extended theory of heredity taking shape, and it’s going to be very exciting.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Sally Koslow

Sally Koslow is the author of the new novel Another Side of Paradise, which focuses on the lives of F. Scott Fitzgerald and gossip columnist Sheilah Graham. Koslow's other books include The Widow Waltz and The Late, Lamented Molly Marx. She was editor in chief of McCall's magazine, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and O. She lives in New York City.

Q: Why did you decide to focus your new novel on Sheilah Graham and F. Scott Fitzgerald?

A: I was like every other female English major—I believed F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lush novels were written expressly for me, and I read all his work and several books about Zelda Fitzgerald.

Nonetheless, when I ran across references to Sheilah Graham in A. Scott Berg’s biography, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, she was new to me.

I was intrigued, dug deeper and discovered that she was a fascinating woman who’d re-invented herself from a London slum kid to a Hollywood gossip columnist. I decided that Sheilah would make a fascinating subject for a biographical novel, which I’d always wanted to write.

Q: How much did you know about her early life and about their relationship before you started the book, and how did you conduct your research?

A: I knew next to nothing about Sheilah Graham when I started researching. As I read more, I found it ironic that her livelihood was exposing the secrets of celebrities—she was a powerful columnist, along with Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons—when she worked hard to bury her own past.

Sheilah was born “Lily Shiel” to impoverished, pogrom-fleeing refugees from the Ukraine who had settled in London. When her widowed mother couldn’t afford to care for her, Lily spent 10 years in a Dickensian Jewish orphanage.

At 16, she cut ties with her gritty past, and re-invented herself, not unlike Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby. She wrote many memoirs, always connected to F. Scott Fitzgerald, and gave numerous interviews, which all helped in my research.

As a fiction writer, it was a gift that Sheilah Graham didn’t always tell her story in the same way—she was a moving target. This allowed me to choose the version of her story that I thought best developed the narrative.

Q: What did you see as the right balance between the historical and the fictional as you wrote this novel?

A: Even the most fascinating people do not live their life in a plot that will sustain the interest of readers, and of course dialogue, in a work like Another Side of Paradise, comes from the author’s imagination. A fiction writer also needs to add, subtract and slightly modify timelines.

Every choice I made, however, was informed by research. I stuck closely to written records and facts, but added speculative scenes that I felt helped to relay Sheilah and Scott’s story.

The novel is told from Sheilah’s point of view and my goal was always to illustrate her emotions and thoughts. Still, as the cover says, this is a novel. I wouldn’t want anyone to mistake my book for a biography.

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

A: This Side of Paradise was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s debut novel, published in 1920. Its success—which was enormous—allowed for the Fitzgeralds to marry and soon, become the “It” couple of their generation.

Scott and Sheilah met 15 years later, when, sadly, Zelda had already been long hospitalized for mental illness. Scott’s reputation was in tatters and he was deeply in debt. He never stopped loving Zelda, but when he met Sheilah, the feelings he developed for her were authentic. Hence, the novel’s title, Another Side of Paradise.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m at the early stages of another book inspired by a remarkable woman. This one will take even more research. Fingers crossed.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Scott died young, at 44. Was Sheilah able to find love again? Never, though she married three times after his death. Each marriage was short-lived. I think it’s fair to say F. Scott Fitzgerald was the love of Sheilah Graham’s life.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Sally Koslow.

May 29

May 29, 1906: T.H. White born.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Q&A with Irene Butter

Irene Butter is the author, with John D. Bidwell and Kris Holloway, of the new memoir Shores Beyond Shores: From Holocaust to Hope, My True Story. It recounts her experiences during the Holocaust. She is a professor emerita of public health at the University of Michigan.

Q: You write that you were silent for many years about your experiences during the Holocaust. What made you decide to share your story and at what point did you decide to write this memoir?

A: Breaking the silence was prompted partly by Elie Wiesel when I heard him say, “If you were there, if you breathed the air and heard the silence of the dead, you must continue to bear witness…to prevent the dead from dying again.”  This statement had a profound effect on me. Witnessing has remained very important.

I was motivated to write my memoir by numerous messages from students about how my story affected their outlook on life and their intent to become involved in some form of social justice. It is my hope that some day when I am no longer able to visit schools my memoir would serve that same purpose.

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

A: In a literal sense the title reflects a multi-segmented journey of deportation, crossing border after border, by force rather than voluntarily. The title also is a metaphor for the meaning that swimming had for me as a form of freedom regained in Algiers after liberation from concentration camp Bergen-Belsen.

Q: What do you hope readers learn from your story?

A: First of all it is my intent that readers will learn how a child experienced the Holocaust at a young age, and from a story told in the voice of a child. Also I try to portray how one can live through a traumatic period and still live a rich, productive and harmonious life. That one can transform from victim to survivor. And other lessons as well.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Keeping busy with trying to get my book out into the world.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Young people, middle and high school students, are open to learning from stories like mine, more so than I expected. Students find ways of relating my story to their own lives as many have experienced displacement, loss, illness, discrimination or bullying, as examples. They are eager to learn about understanding and coping with tough situations.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 28

May 28, 1908: Ian Fleming born.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Q&A with Michael Cole

Michael Cole is the author of the new memoir I Played the White Guy. He is an actor whose roles included Pete Cochran on the TV show The Mod Squad, which ran from 1968-1973. 

Q: At what point did you decide to write your memoir, and how did you decide what to include in the book?

A: For many years people would listen to my stories and tell me I need to write a book. I wanted to tell the story of my life honestly, just as if I was sitting, talking with an old friend. I have had incredible highs and suicidal lows, and my hope is that readers will relate, be entertained, and possibly be inspired.

Q: What impact did your role in The Mod Squad have on your life, and what impact do you think the show had during its run?

A: The Mod Squad dealt with issues television had never seen before:  racism, the antiwar movement, guns, child abuse…we took many of our story lines directly from the headlines, and that’s what struck a chord with the audience.  

The story of three counterculture cops, one black, one white, one blond who formed a bond of caring for each other resonated in a powerful way. I knew we were having an impact when we received hate mail. 

Being cast as Pete Cochran changed my life in ways I could never have imagined. Aaron Spelling saw in me what he wanted for the role of Pete Cochran: a rebellious, angry, anti-authority kid who battled the system.

Q: You write about some very difficult experiences, including your struggles with alcoholism. How hard was it to relive those years?

A: It was very important to me to share this part of my life in the hope I could help others struggling with addiction. I had to be honest with myself and with the reader.  

It was deeply emotional and sometimes painful re-living many of those times, and reflecting on those who I hurt and disappointed along the way. I hope the book will inspire people who are still battling to know they too, can find peace, one day at a time. 

Q: What do your family members think of the book?

A: My family has been totally supportive since I started this project.  They were prepared to enjoy the book, but now that it has actually been published, they have been amazed and surprised!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Selling the book! We are doing a lot of radio and television interviews, book signing events throughout the country. It’s exciting to see that 50 years later, The Mod Squad remains relevant and meaningful to people.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Thank you for asking. I just want to say I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to touch the lives of so many people over the years, and I hope this book in some sense is a thank you. Thank you for love, sobriety, and living “one day at a time.” 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb 

May 27

May 27, 1894: Dashiell Hammett born.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Q&A with Steve Bluestein

Steve Bluestein is the author of the new book Memoir of a Nobody. He is a comedian, actor, and playwright.

Q: You write, "I wrote these words for you but it is I who has gained the benefit." How did writing this memoir affect you?

A: Coming from a background of a non-supportive family, I have always feared that I wasn’t enough…mainly because I was told I wasn’t enough. And so I carried with me the fears and anxieties all my life that there would always be someone better than me who would take what I wanted.

When I sat down to write this book, it was mainly to tell my show business war stories but as I wrote, things would come up about my childhood and I would deviate from the show business and write about childhood memories. And it was like lancing a boil…the bad stuff would come out and then it was gone.

When the book was finally published the feedback I got from readers was so overwhelming supportive that I was able to see how wrong I had been all my life in thinking of my “less than” being. I grew within me. And so, I wrote the words for the reader but it was I who actually benefited from the experience of sitting down every morning for three years and lancing that boil. 

Q: What initially inspired you to write the book?

A: I had done many things in my career and I was never one to toot my own horn. In a business like show business you have to have the ability to step over your loved one’s corpse to get on stage.

I didn’t have that. I was too kind and so those performers with that ability to think of no one but themselves surpassed me. I was afraid as I got older that I would forget my experiences and that what I had accomplished would be forgotten with my senility. And so I set out to document my career. I never dreamed it would be such a life-changing experience. 

Q: The book includes stories from various periods of your life. Did you write it in the order in which it appears, or did you write it more chronologically?

A: No, in the preface it states that the stories are not in a chronological order. I wrote as I remembered. It jumps around but it seems to work since no one has even mentioned the order the stories are written in. 

Q: How was the book's title chosen?

A: It really speaks of who I think I am. A nobody. Jay Leno, Johnny Carson, David Letterman, they are a “somebody.” I may have worked for 30 years but to the everyday person I mean nothing…until they get to know me or follow me on Facebook. So "Memoir of a Nobody" truly seemed fitting as a title. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Well, I’ve got Another Memoir of a Nobody ready to go when the publisher decides if he want to publish it… and Take My Prostate…Please was just finished last month. It documents my experience and surgery with prostate cancer. (There’s a fun romp through comedy land. Ha!)

But as it turns out I write everything serious with a comic twist and the book is funny and touching (or so I’m told).

And I have several plays waiting in the wings. Alzheimer: A Black Comedy will have its first staged reading on June 10 in NOHO @ the WACO Theater. Rest, In Pieces will be produced in the fall of 2018. This is a play I have had two productions of and am determined to get to New York if I have to carry it on my back myself. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Yes, I have a 32-inch waist… 7 3/8 hat… and 9 shoe. I’m a comedian. I see the world through different eyes. Everything to me is fodder for comic material…even prostate cancer. I never try to be mean and my button is disappointment.  

Here’s the most telling thing about me. I’m sitting in my office at home, outside the window is a bird in a nest. I just watched as the mother bird jumped in and moved the eggs around. And my first thought was, I wish I had had a mother like that. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 26

May 26, 1895: Dorothea Lange born.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Q&A with Nancy Churnin

Nancy Churnin is the author of the new children's picture books Charlie Takes His Shot, about the golfer Charlie Sifford, and Irving Berlin: The Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing. She also has written The William Hoy Story and Manjhi Moves a Mountain, and she is the theater critic for The Dallas Morning News

Q: Why did you choose Irving Berlin and Charlie Sifford as the subjects of your newest books?

A: I write books about people who inspire me, that I believe will inspire kids and that they might not know about otherwise.

When I learned the story of Charlie Sifford and how he tried to break through the color barrier of golf the way his friend, Jackie Robinson, broke through the color barrier of Major League Baseball, I could hardly believe that my picture book would be the first one about him for kids. A lot of adults don't know his amazing story.

Irving Berlin is by far the most famous person I have written about, but he is not famous to kids. When I was presenting other books, I would ask them if they knew who wrote "God Bless America." They had no idea.

They were fascinated to learn that one of our most famous, patriotic songs was written by an immigrant who came to this country as a penniless five-year-old refugee who didn't speak a word of English.

Q: What do you see as Irving Berlin's legacy today, and also the legacy of "God Bless America"?

A: Jerome Kern once said of Irving Berlin: "Irving Berlin has no place in American music -- he is American music." And yet, his music, great as it is, is only part of his legacy.

The other parts are made up of his perseverance, his charity and the way his story reminds us of the innumerable gifts immigrants have brought America.

Like many immigrants, he took the beauty of his own traditions, in particular the melodies he learned from his father, mixed them with the sounds and words he heard on American streets and came up with new songs and words that went straight to people's hearts.

As Alexander Pope described poetry, he wrote "what oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd." And like many immigrants, he gave back. "God Bless America" was his thank you, his gift to the country that gave him his "home sweet home."

It's also a reminder that "making good" is not about how much money you can pile up for yourself. He gave every penny that song earned in royalties to the Girl and Boy Scouts of America, leaving a legacy of charity that should stir us all to help others. 

Q: What impact do you see Charlie Sifford having on golf, and what's his legacy today?

A: Like Jackie Robinson, Charlie endured years of insults and discrimination with grace and determination in his successful effort to open doors for others.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Tiger Woods said: "It's not an exaggeration to say that without Charlie, and the other pioneers who fought to play, I may not be playing golf...My pop likely wouldn't have picked up the sport, and maybe I wouldn't have either."

Pioneers in any field have to have tremendous conviction and strength. They have to hold fast to their dreams and what they know is right and not be deterred when people jeer or mock them, telling them that things will never change, that things will always be the way they've always been.

I hope that kids who read his story will be inspired to follow their own vision of what is right, even if their victories benefit the next person more than it does themselves.

By the time Charlie became the first African American golfer on the PGA Tour, he won a couple of tournaments and that was sweet, but his best years were behind him.

Still, he had no regrets as he went on to dominate the senior tours. His goal was to make a difference in making things better for the next generation and that became his legacy.

Q: How would you describe the impact of the illustrations of James Rey Sanchez and John Joven on the books?

A: I have been so lucky to work with these fabulous illustrators!

I love the small touches and big emotions in John Joven's illustrations. The kids think it's so cool that when young Charlie sneaks onto the golf course at night, because African Americans aren't allowed to play there, he sees a moon that looks like a giant golf ball.

They also notice the menacing shadow of the watchman, who almost blends into the night, holding a searching flashlight emanating light that feels like danger.

As for James Rey Sanchez's work in Irving Berlin, I am blown away by how artfully he conveys music -- such a hard thing to illustrate! -- with musical notes leaping from Irving's mouth as if he can't keep the music inside.

James Rey Sanchez also brings the Art Deco look of the 1920s and 1930s to exquisite life, while adding a very special touch -- a red scarf that identifies Irving as Irving wherever he goes.

It's like a breath or love of life that grows with him and, in the end, is something we see a child wearing as if the child is following in Irving's footsteps. Glorious!
Q: What are you working on now?

It's the little-known story of how and why the very kind and caring Queen Charlotte of England, who was more at ease with children and her garden than she was with adults and fancy balls, brought the first Christmas Tree to Windsor Castle.

I hope this story will remind kids that there's more to being royal than fancy dresses and jewels. I also hope they'll think it's as cool as I do that we have a new Princess Charlotte in England right now.

Next year, my book Martin & Anne will tell the story of two babies who were born on opposite sides of the ocean, spoke different languages, had different colored skin and religions and answered terrible prejudice with words of love that continue to inspire us today.

Those children are Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank, both born in 1929. They would have been 90 next year.   

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Every one of my books comes with a free Teacher Guide and a project that you'll find on my website at

For Charlie Takes His Shot, the project is We Helped Them Take Their Shots. I'm asking kids to share stories and pictures of how they included someone new in their circle or activities or someone included them.

For Irving Berlin, it's Make America Sing. I'd like kids to share their favorite thing about their immigrant experience -- a favorite food, or song, or holiday or expression, anything at all -- or that of a friend so together we can share the diversity that makes America great.

For The Queen, it will be A Kind Holiday. In the spirit of Queen Charlotte, I'd like them to share something kind they did for others for whatever holiday they celebrate.

I have a special page for each project on my website dedicated to showcasing the great things kids do. I hope the kids will inspire each other by what they do and, in that way, help kindness spread.

Thank you so much, Deborah, for this opportunity to share my books with you and your readers!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Nancy Churnin.

May 25

May 25, 1803: Ralph Waldo Emerson born.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Q&A with Lisa Romeo

Lisa Romeo is the author of the new book Starting With Goodbye: A Daughter's Memoir of Love After Loss. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and O: The Oprah Magazine, and she is thesis director for the Bay Path University MFA program. She lives in New Jersey.

Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir?

A: In one sense, momentum carried me toward it. For about six years, I was writing and publishing essays about my experiences with grief and trying to get to know my father better after he died.

Great writing advice is to write what you can’t shut up about, what obsesses you, and for me, it was this topic. I could never understand why people don’t talk about death and about deceased people with more ease and frequency. I wanted to keep exploring that.

When it seemed a body of work was accumulating, I pulled together an essay collection, which didn’t sell. All the people I trusted told me to rewrite it as a more traditional memoir, but I resisted and I shelved it for a while.

But it kept nagging at me and eventually I challenged myself to do just that, to shape/rewrite/revise all the material into a somewhat more linear narrative (though true to my style, there’s a lot of moving around in time and place, too).

Q: You write, "Can a relationship really continue, and even get better, when one of the two is gone?" How would you answer this question?

A: I believe this is possible, yes! The love remains, and so does the essence of the beloved person; they are part of us and in a very real sense, do not depart this earth as long as they are present in our memory.

I admit this requires some suspension of belief; it’s a stretch. But actively continuing the relationship, the conversation, to me is a lot more healing and makes a lot more sense than trying to forget or “get over it” (which I do not believe is possible).

Now that I’m hearing from readers, it’s clear that many other people experience “conversations” with their departed loved ones but are very reluctant to share that with other people, lest they be thought unstable or just loony.

But who says you have to stop talking to your loved ones just because they’ve died? Or seek their counsel? If that’s how your grief unspools, then go there, indulge yourself, see how it makes you feel and what you might learn from those conversations with your dead dad, mom, sister, etc.

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

A: The title was a genuine collaborative effort between me, a small group of trusted writer friends (my “hive mind”), my husband and sons, and the publisher.

Working with those friends and family members, we came up with 20 possible titles and subtitles, a mix and match kind of list. I sent my top five of each to the publisher, who chose the final title and subtitle from that list.

I think it’s perfect because it’s literally what happened: my father and I started “talking” again when it was time, traditionally, to say goodbye. After loss, I discovered the many ways love had been present all along.

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

A: I believe we as a society should be able to talk more openly about death, loss, grief, and related issues, and this book perhaps is my one small contribution to urging folks in that direction. These are some of life’s most significant experiences and it would be great if they were more a part of our collective conversation.

I also hope the book might help reassure people that grief is not rigid; there’s no way to do grief right or wrong. It does not have to conform to some prescribed set of stages, and however you experience grief is okay.

If talking to your dead parent in the middle of the night while eating his favorite snack makes you feel good, brings back warm memories, then why not?

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Trying to decide on book number two; three nonfiction ideas are currently vying for attention and as is my way, I’m writing essays about them, seeing which one grabs me most.

In the meantime, I’m doing all the things I normally do: teach, run workshops, coach writers, edit manuscripts. I have two sons in college, so those things make up my normal workday, keep the paychecks coming. And the truth is, my own writing is always enhanced by what I learn from all of those activities, by working with so many other writers.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: When I’m having a writing problem, I do something relatively mindless like needlepoint, walking, laundry, or going for a long drive—and the solution always occurs to me. Napping is also a good way to let the writing mind settle and find new direction.

I’d like to say that dark chocolate also has the same effect, but so far, not so. I’ll keep trying though!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb