Thursday, June 21, 2018

Q&A with Joanne Lipman

Joanne Lipman is the author of the new book That's What She Said: What Men Need to Know (and Women Need To Tell Them) About Working Together. She also is the co-author of the book Strings Attached. She has been chief content editor of Gannett and editor-in-chief of USA Today, deputy managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, and founding editor-in-chief of Conde Nast Portfolio

Q: You begin your book with an introduction titled “Men Are Not the Enemy.” Why did you feel you needed to start there, and what do you hope to get across in your introduction?

A: It sets the table for the book. The idea for the book is that there’s been quite a bit of literature for women, conferences for women, books for women, primarily by women for women. We’re preaching to the converted.

It’s a great conversation, but it’s only half the conversation…We need men to join us. We need a book directed toward men. We’re inviting you into the conversation. Otherwise, we’re never going to solve the problem.

This is not a man-bashing book. A lot of men feel that books for women are anti-men. We’re all in this together.

Q: So who do you see as the audience for this book, and what’s been the response to it so far?

A: The sales have been good. I would say the majority of readers and buyers are female, but a significant portion are male. It’s encouraging. Because of the #MeToo movement, men are realizing this is an issue we need to deal with.

I’m doing a ton of speaking [about the book]. What’s encouraging is now many male-dominated organizations are talking about it, and distributing it to employees. I spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos. The World Economic Forum created a book club, and chose That’s What She Said as the first selection.

The Milken Institute Global Conference had me speak about the book. The Metropolitan Club in Washington, with 92 percent male membership. Banks, law firms. I feel that increasing understanding of this is an issue for all of us.

Q: How did you research this book, and what did you learn that particularly fascinated you?

A: The genesis of the book was an article I wrote three years ago for The Wall Street Journal, called "Women At Work: A Guide for Men."

For the book, I spent three years criss-crossing the country in search of men in leadership positions trying to close the gap. I’d ask what perplexes you about your female colleagues? How are you trying to close the gap? What are your strategies?

I wanted great storytelling, and anecdotal examples—[and something that] comes away with a solution. There are cheat sheets in the back of the book. I’ve adopted these steps myself.

Q: How did your own experience at work influence your conclusions?

A: There were a lot of things I came across in my academic research about women in the workplace, the belief system, [where I’d] say, This describes me! I always thought that was just me!

I’ve been a manager for a long time, [and was able] to advocate for my team. I was flummoxed at being an effective advocate for my team, but the worst advocate for myself.

Research backs it up—this is very specific to women. Women advocate for others, and it’s seen as within gender norms. When we advocate for ourselves, we’re penalized while men are rewarded. For women, it’s seen as outside gender norms. It’s seen as pushy and selfish.

What I thought was specific to me was not specific to me. I had a lot of “aha” moments when doing the research.

One of the other things that was fascinating—I knew about unconscious bias, but I didn’t know how early it starts. It’s woven into the fabric of society. Once you’re aware of it, you can’t unsee it. It starts in infancy. Mothers overestimate the crawling ability of their sons and underestimate for their daughters. It makes you reevaluate.

Q: Given the current political situation and the rise of the #MeToo movement, what do you see looking ahead when it comes to workplace dynamics between men and women?

A: We are at an inflection point with relations between the genders, because of the #MeToo movement. There are two ways it could go. The positive [comes from making] issues discussable. Gender discrimination, whether overt or subtle, [is something] we need to address, and realize it’s harming all of us.

The negative would be if there’s a backlash, a man saying he doesn’t want to hire a woman. I haven’t seen this in practice, but you hear it talked about, you hear about men saying they’re unfairly targeted, and are afraid any woman working for [him] who’s unhappy will try to claim discrimination or harassment.

Men who are saying they don’t want to hire women—it’s an excuse. We have to get over that. I’ve heard people wary of it rather than seen that in action.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Now I’m on a pretty much full-time book tour. I’m on the road constantly. I’m back from Portugal and I’m going to London. I’m doing a lot of corporate speaking. I have op-eds in the works.

As I speak to audiences, I’m hearing a lot of ideas that are eye-opening for me. I’m going to be updating [the book] for the paperback.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: It’s a best-seller—that was exciting!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Joanne Lipman.

Q&A with Elizabeth Partridge

Elizabeth Partridge is the author of Boots on the Ground: America's War in Vietnam, a new book for teens. Her other books include This Land Was Made for You and  Me and Marching for Freedom. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area.

Q: Why did you decide to write Boots on the Ground?

A: We saw a lot of coverage of the war on television and in magazines and newspapers when I was in high school and college. I was in the San Francisco Bay area where there were a lot of protests, and I often joined them.

I just could not see why our country needed to be in Vietnam, and I wanted us to get out. In the news coverage, I could see that not only were American troops being injured and killed, but Vietnamese military and civilians were as well. It all seemed senseless to me.

After the war, Vietnam veterans and protestors didn't mix. Most veterans rarely spoke about their service, just kept their heads down and tried to get on with their lives.

We had not yet learned as a country to separate the war from the warriors. Many veterans were traumatized, and there was little or no help for them from the Veterans Administration. PTSD  (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) had not yet been invented as term to describe the complex mental health issues that some veterans face.

Several years ago I went to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It was late afternoon on a cold autumn day, and I was nearly alone at the Wall. I reached out to touch the letters of the names written on the memorial, and my eyes filled with tears.

I thought, why am I crying? I don't know anyone listed on this memorial. That got me thinking about the war, and I realized how little I knew. I needed to understand what the war had been like for the people who served there.

By interviewing seven veterans I was able to hear about their experiences first-hand. All of them had friends or buddies who died in Vietnam and whose names are on the Wall. I added the place on the memorial where their names were located. I also interviewed a refugee and included a chapter on her harrowing story, because there is never a war without refugees.

Q: The book includes chapters on a variety of people, including presidents and Vietnam veterans. How did you decide which figures to include?

A: I structured the book around the veterans, the years they were in Vietnam, and the experiences they had. Then I interspersed their chapters with chapters on what was happening back home -- the presidents, policies, and protestors.

Deciding who to include was partially intentional, and partially intuitive, as I followed one lead to another. This is actually my favorite way to write a good nonfiction book -- the research process will turn up things I have never heard of, which will send me in a new direction.

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

A: I would like teenagers who read Boots on the Ground to see that war is hell. There is just no way around it. Some young men see war as a great adventure, but it is also suffering, death, and unbelievable destruction.

I am not against anyone who chooses to join the military -- there are many reasons people do -- but I would like young men and women to have a realistic view of war.

A number of Vietnam veterans have come to my book talks. After decades of remaining silent, many are eager talk about their experiences, and to be heard.

We often don't know if it is even okay to ask veterans about their service. A good way to start a conversation is to ask, "Can I ask you a few questions about your time in Vietnam?"

Young people often know one of their grandparents or other family member served in the military, but not if they were in Vietnam. It's okay to ask! It might be just the perfect way to start a conversation.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm doing a picture book on Frederick Law Olmsted, who built so many terrific public parks in cities across America. This book is a pleasure to write, and gives me a breather from some of the more difficult subjects I like to tackle.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I think what most surprised me about writing this book is how courageous I found the veterans to be. Many of them didn't want to go to Vietnam, but they did. Some because they were patriots, and if they were asked to serve, they went. Others went because we had a draft, and they faced compulsive military service.

But once in the military, they were incredibly courageous. Not only in caring for and defending their brothers in the military, but in how they coped with the many obstacles and difficulties they faced.

And once home, they had to work hard to pull their lives together. And it wasn't something they did and moved on. It has been a lifetime issue for many of them. I have profound respect for all of them.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A also appears on

Q&A with Camille Di Maio

Camille Di Maio is the author of the new novel The Way of Beauty, which focuses on New York's Penn Station. She also has written The Memory of Us and Before the Rain Falls. She lives in Texas and Virginia.

Q: Why did you decide to center your new novel around New York’s Penn Station, and what kind of research did you do to recreate New York in the World War I and World War II periods? 

A: I knew I wanted to write about New York - my favorite city - and I had a scene in mind of a soldier kissing his girlfriend goodbye in a train station. In order to liven up the details, I chose Penn Station randomly, and saw these gorgeous pictures - marble halls, cathedral ceilings.

Having been to Penn Station several times, I thought, "I must not have gone upstairs, because I've never seen this!" Then, I read further and realized that it had been demolished in the 1960s due to declining train travel.

As I researched what led up to building it, the process, the heyday, and its demise, I was fascinated and knew that I had to write an entire book that mirrored the journey of the station. 

Q: How did you come up with your characters Vera and Alice?

A: I wanted two generations of women in the different time periods of the station so that I could show the progression of their lives - as women, as New Yorkers, and as people for whom Penn Station was an integral part of their lives.

Vera was the starting point, and I just knew that she had to be an immigrant. I wanted to tell the story of a New York that was seen through new eyes - and where the harsh reality of the struggle to make a living tarnished her parents' dreams of the city.

But in her story and that of her daughter, Alice, we see how strong women can take adverse conditions and rise above them. Alice has the benefit of being middle class and starting college. But she is also trying to find her place in the world as a woman and as someone in love.

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

A: It dawned on me that the stages of the building and destruction of Penn Station were much like human lives - our newness and youth, our middle age, and our elderly years. The characters comment on this - somewhat sad about it until another steps in and says that it is the way of beauty - she saw beauty even in the latest years.

But unlike a building, a human being can rise above age and bring about a new kind of beauty. Also as a nod to the title, one of my characters is named Angelo Bellavia - and in Italian, bellavia means beautiful way.

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?

A: Agatha Christie is my very favorite writer. I have read all of the Poirots, and I have yet to figure out even one of them! A close second is Kate Morton who writes absolutely gorgeous historical fiction. She is the #1 author for whom I will get to the book store on the morning of opening day and pay full price to read.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am editing my fourth book, The Beautiful Strangers, which will come out in March. And I've pitched a few new ideas to my agent and my editor.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I love to communicate with readers, and they can most easily find me on Instagram!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Danielle Teller

Danielle Teller is the author of the new novel All the Ever Afters, which tells the Cinderella story from the stepmother's perspective. She has written the nonfiction book Sacred Cows: The Truth About Divorce and Marriage, and has written columns for Quartz. She has a medical degree and has taught at Harvard University and the University of Pittsburgh. She lives in Palo Alto, California.

Q: How did you come up with the idea of retelling Cinderella from her stepmother's perspective?

A: When I became a stepmother, I was surprised by how difficult it was to get comfortable in that role. My stepkids and I had to slowly build trust and affection over time.

At first, they chafed under my parental rules and mourned the loss of freewheeling weekends with their dad. I felt as though my stepchildren didn’t want me around except to fulfill their various physical needs; I joked that I was a “ghost-servant.”

I worried that no matter what I did, my stepchildren would never see me as a net positive in their lives, and that got me thinking about the bad reputation of stepmothers in fairy tales.

What if those stories were inspired by real people who weren’t evil but struggling in a fraught relationship with other imperfect human beings? From that thought, the character of Agnes was born.

Q: What did you see as the right balance between your version of Agnes's story and the traditional version told from Cinderella's perspective?

A: The traditional fairy tale is morally unambiguous. We know which characters to root for and which ones to revile, and we can feel happily satisfied when Cinderella marries the prince and birds pluck out the eyes of the ugly stepsisters. This simplicity is comforting and fun, and, like many people, I treasure the versions of Cinderella I read as a child.

At the beginning of All the Ever Afters, the “evil” stepmother says that she will tell her own story and, “As for fables about good and evil and songs about glass slippers, I shall leave those to the minstrels.”

The implication is that the familiar fairy tale was inspired by true events, and Agnes’s memoir describes those events with the murky moral ambiguity of real life. The fairy tale and novel live side-by-side, not in opposition; my writing was inspired by Cinderella, and in my fictional universe, Cinderella was inspired by the lives of Agnes and her beautiful stepdaughter.

Q: The book is set in medieval England. What type of research did you do to write the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: I began by reading books about life in medieval villages and castles, as well as an autobiography by Margery Kempe, a 14th-15th century English Christian mystic. The internet was extremely helpful; I took virtual tours of medieval manors on YouTube and read blogs by fanatical hobbyists who brew beer and cook food using strictly medieval methods.

What surprised me most was how little we know about the daily lives of the lower classes; there are virtually no written records other than legal disputes and the reckonings of tax assessors. Most of what we know about the lives of impoverished children comes from the examination of bones in graveyards.

Before I started my research, I worried about getting historical details wrong; I was comforted to realize that it’s guesswork even for historians!

Q: What do you think the book says about the role of the "wicked stepmother" in fiction?

A: We read many stories from the perspectives of stepchildren, and doubtless it can be frightening and problematic for an unknown and often unwelcome adult to enter into a child’s life.

Power is not evenly distributed in the stepparent-stepchild relationship, and our sympathies lean naturally toward the weaker party. If we hear about a child’s miseries, our tendency is to vilify the oppressor, not to wonder if there are mitigating circumstances, or if the child might be misinterpreting events.

Yet there is another side to the story. There are myriad reasons why a child may be unhappy with a parent or stepparent, and not all of those add up to the adult being evil. All the Ever Afters is about looking beyond simplistic explanations and trying to understand the human being behind the evil stepmother trope. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The novel I’m working on now is set in Toronto during the massive failure of the electrical grid in the summer of 2003. The book was inspired by the poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, in which the narrator despairs that he lacks the courage to change the course of his comfortable life.

The “Prufrock” character in the novel is a woman in her 60s who is preparing to celebrate her mother’s 90th birthday; her daughter-in-law has just abandoned her husband to be with another woman.

The story traces the parallel and then diverging paths of the two women’s lives until they each have an epiphany during the blackout and come together again for the 90th birthday party.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Yermiyahu Ahron Taub

Yermiyahu Ahron Taub is the author of the new story collection Prodigal Children in the House of G-d. His other books include The Education of a Daffodil and Prayers of a Heretic. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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

A: The bulk of the first draft of this book was written during an artist's residency at The Writers' Colony at Dairy Hollow in Eureka Springs, Arkansas in October and November 2015.

This was a period of intense concentration and creative transformation. Having a significant block of uninterrupted writing time enabled my transition from poetry to prose.

I find that prose requires more time than poetry, not merely to write more words, but to map out the narrative arc of the stories (and the collection) as well as the journeys of the characters.

I may not know that arc beforehand, but each step requires care, consideration, and connectivity to the next. I continued to edit, rework, and wordsmith the stories for several additional years.

I do see common themes in the stories. All of them involve characters on or perilously near the margins — whether through choices made (Beyle in "Flowers for Madame"), actions taken against them (Khane Leventhal in "Night in the Solarium" and "Phoenix, With Hat"), or because of the self seen as transgressive (Efroyem in "Love in the Red"). 

All of the characters navigate, in different ways, issues of home, waywardness, parental disapproval, and exile. The book, as a whole, is concerned with liberation on a small scale —how to survive meaningfully in a world that often seems indifferent or cruel.

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

A: The online Cambridge Dictionary defines "prodigal son" as "a man or boy who has left his family in order to do something that the family disapprove of and has now returned home feeling sorry for what he has done." Prodigal is also defined as "wasteful, extravagant, spendthrift" as well as "generous, lavish, liberal, unstinting, and unsparing."

The characters in this collection move in the realm of prodigality, although none are exactly prodigal per se. Certainly, few of them have much money to spend extravagantly. On the contrary, most eke out threadbare existences. In addition, most are not particularly sorry for what they have done.

And yet there is an emotional extravagance, or expansiveness, in the protagonists' unsparing commitment to a vision, sometimes only just beginning to be glimpsed. So despite the lack of exact parallelism, "prodigal," with its echoes of moral seriousness and familial rupture as well as its broad recognizability, seemed to be an apt title word.  

"The House of G-d" is similarly purposeful. I liked the intimacy involved in the concept of house as well as the multiple uses of house in Jewish tradition (e.g. bet ha-midrash/house of study, bet ha-keneset/house of prayer, etc.).

Similarly, "G-d" rather than "God" refers to the Orthodox tradition of avoiding erasure of God's name. Put another way, we should not erase or destroy God's name and should avoid writing it.

Most rabbinic authorities agree that this applies only when God is written in Hebrew and not in other languages. But growing up in the Orthodox world, I remember seeing "G-d."

Q: The 10 stories are divided into two sections: "Daughters" and "Sons." How did you decide on the organization of the collection?

A: If the "prodigal son" mentioned above was an original inspiration, I sought to widen the narrative framework. I decided to write about female and male children, and to open with daughters.

As the themes of the collection emerged, the overall architecture became clear. Some might consider this division to be an example of "separate seating" as in a synagogue or perhaps a riff on/subversion of that division ... My goal was to explore these themes in discrete sections to see how gender plays (or does not play) a central role, rather than reinscribe gender separation.

Q: Some of the characters appear in more than one story. Did you plan the collection that way, or was it more spontaneous?

A: Yes, the collection includes two sets of interlocking stories. A story in each set begins and ends each of the two sections of the book. I wanted the stories to stand on their own as distinct narratives and link up with other stories. The aspect of connectivity allowed multiple viewings of the protagonists, albeit from different angles.

And I wanted there to be considerable "narrative space" between each of the paired stories so that the reader moves on to other characters, returning only later to a character previously encountered. I didn't plan it that way exactly at the outset; the trajectory became clear to me as the writing progressed.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am a 2018-2019 Translation Fellow at the Yiddish Book Center, where I am translating three memoirs by Rachmil Bryks (1912-1974), a poet and prose writer, a fiction writer and a memoirist.

Bryks masterfully depicts Jewish life in a shtetl in pre-Holocaust Poland as well as his experiences during the approach of war and the Holocaust. The translation program is wonderful, and the process of translation is endlessly stimulating. 

Both writing and translation require a process of radical listening. As a writer, I listen to my characters; as a translator, I try to be aware of the writer's ghostly presence, to get as close as possible to authorial intentionality and then to usher those words into another language.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I think of writing fiction as a way to spend more time with characters than I do in my poetry. But I don't think of poetry and fiction as utterly separate enterprises. My poetry has often been narrative and prose-y, and my prose is often focused on the interior lives of my characters and is complete with poetic passages.

In the end, I aim to follow the muse, to see where the character goes or wants to go, rather than be concerned about the genre in which s/he "belongs."

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Yermiyahu Ahron Taub.

June 21

June 21, 1912: Mary McCarthy born.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Q&A with Ann Mah

Ann Mah is the author of the new novel The Lost Vintage. She has also written the novel Kitchen Chinese and the memoir Mastering the Art of French Eating. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Condé Nast Traveler and She is based in Paris and Washington, D.C.

Q: You’ve noted that the inspiration for this novel came from your own work at a wine harvest in France. How did you come up with the idea for your character Kate and her family?

A: I've always been fascinated by professional craftsmen and women who strive to become the very best in their field.

When I learned about the rigorous Master of Wine distinction, it immediately seemed like the perfect way to explore the crossroads of ambition and personal life that affects so many people these days. While Kate is always striving, her French family is almost purposefully unambitious, which she finds both charming and maddening. 

Q: The book includes sections set in the present, and chapters from another character’s World War II-era diary. Did you write the novel in the order in which it appears, or did you move chapters around as you wrote?

A: I wrote it mostly as it appears – though I tend to write short, so after the first draft I found myself needing to add diary segments to flesh out Hélène's story.  

Q: You write, “I think a lot of regret and shame about the war still lingers in France.” Did you hear many stories that were reminiscent of the events you describe in the novel?

A: I do not ever enquire about the war among French acquaintances. I wouldn't say the subject is exactly taboo – but over 70 years later, it's still sensitive.

The truth is, France was occupied and a lot of people collaborated – perhaps not actively, but definitely passively. It was a matter of survival and it has caused many scars. 

Q: How much research did you need to do to write the book?

A: Along with reading stacks of books about World War II, I took wine classes with the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), which administers the Master of Wine program.

I wanted to write about wine accurately, and their courses were excellent preparation. It's a very rigorous and competitive program, with blind tastings and exams. I'm proud to say that I received my qualification with distinction! 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A cookbook! My dad sent me an Instant Pot last year and I fell in love with it. I was surprised to learn that French home cooks have been using pressure cookers for decades.

My cookbook, Instantly French, offers quick and easy French recipes designed for the multifunctional pressure cooker, from boeuf bourguignon to molten chocolate cake. It'll be out in September.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Ann Mah.

Q&A with Joseph A. Esposito

Joseph A. Esposito is the author of the new book Dinner in Camelot: The Night America's Greatest Scientists, Writers, and Scholars Partied at the Kennedy White House. A historian, writer, and educator, he served in three presidential administrations, and is adjunct associate professor at Northern Virginia Community College. He reviews books for the Washington Independent Review of Books and Kirkus Reviews, and he lives in Virginia.

Q: Why did you decide to write about the night John F. Kennedy hosted an assortment of scientists, writers, and scholars at the White House?

A: I met Senator Kennedy in the waning days of the 1960 campaign.  That meeting sparked an interest in public service; I subsequently served in three presidential administrations. So I was interested in writing about him on a topic that had not been given extensive attention. 

However, the more I learned about this dinner—with its unprecedented array of distinguished guests and its historical implications—I became mesmerized by the story.

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

A: I was able to use the large amount of material related to the dinner at the Kennedy Library in Boston. Although there were 175 guests at the dinner—the largest of the Kennedy era—I largely focused on about a dozen people. 

I was able to access other archives related to them and their attendance that night, such as through Linus Pauling’s papers at Oregon State University. I also profited from interviews, notably with Rose Styron, who was a guest, and Clint Hill, Mrs. Kennedy’s Secret Service agent.  Many secondary sources were also valuable.

I am a historian, I had been in government, and I have lived in Washington, D.C., since 1981 so many aspects of a White House dinner were not surprising. What did surprise me were the details about many of the people that I highlighted and their interactions with one another.

The Pauling-Robert Oppenheimer relationship, which went back to the 1920s, was very interesting. I came away with a greater appreciation for the work of James Baldwin. And Mrs. Kennedy’s extensive work in restoring the White House, which I generally knew about, became clearer.

Q: What impact did the dinner have at the time, and what do you see as its legacy today?

A: The dinner was covered extensively in the newspapers and magazines. These accounts focused on the two controversial guests:  Pauling, who had picketed President Kennedy over a stalled nuclear test ban agreement with the U.S.S.R. before the dinner, and Oppenheimer, who had lost his security clearance in 1954. 

But the glamor of the event also was covered, including its place among the outgoing series of social events at the Kennedy White House.

The legacy is that this was time when people of achievement were honored at the highest level of our government, on behalf of the American people. 

At the height of the Cold War, it was a time when the country, despite differences, worked toward consensus in attempting to solve its problems. President Kennedy was an inspirational leader, and this event reflected that role.

Q: In a Washington Post review of the book, Thomas Oliphant writes of the dinner, “And it has resonated through the decades as a symbol of what that ‘one brief, shining moment’ was capable of on its best days, and of the impact a White House can have on American culture and the creative minds who inhabit it. Comparisons to the disgusting atmosphere of the present are obvious.” Do you think such an event could happen now, and how would you compare the cultural tone of JFK’s White House to that of today?

A: This dinner, honoring 49 Nobel Prize winners and many equally prominent thinkers and doers, was unique. Nothing even approaching it has been attempted since. It was a much different time, of course, but I believe that its success, again, reflected special leadership at the White House and an appreciation for the symbolism that it represented. 

White House dinners in recent decades have included many celebrities; the Nobel dinner honored men and women of tremendous accomplishment—there were no singers or movie stars or even politicians (other than the president, vice president, and attorney general).

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on book about two somewhat obscure televised debates of the mid-1960s:  one between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley, Jr., on race relations, and the other between Ronald Reagan and Robert Kennedy on Vietnam. Baldwin and Reagan were the clear winners. 

The interactions were notable, and they speak to us not only about that turbulent decade but also are meaningful today. I’m enjoying the research.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Tish Baldrige, the White House social secretary, repeatedly referred to this event of intellectuals as “the Brains’ Dinner.” French-born chef Rene Verdon was perplexed at first, thinking he was going to be asked to prepare brains for the guests. The main course was beef Wellington.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Maryann Macdonald

Maryann Macdonald, photo by Stefan Falke
Maryann Macdonald is the author of the new children's picture book Rosa's Animals: The Story of Rosa Bonheur and Her Painting Menagerie. Her many other books for kids include Odette's Secrets and The Christmas Cat. She lives in New York City.

Q: Why did you decide to write a children's picture book about the artist Rosa Bonheur?

A: While wandering through the Metropolitan Museum one day, I ran across The Horse Fair, a huge painting that shows horses and their handlers parading past. The horses' eyes glinted; the dust kicked up by their hooves was suspended in the air. I was captivated.

I studied the painting for some time, then looked at the attribution. The artist, a woman, had been forced to dress as a man to make preparatory sketches for the painting in 19th century Paris. Women would not have been able to sketch in public without attracting negative attention.  

I read more about Bonheur and learned that she was denied a formal art education because of her gender. Despite this, she became the best-known female painter of her day. Here was a story!

Q: How did you choose the artwork to include in the book?

A: I looked for artwork that reflected or enhanced Bonheur's story. Some of what I chose is still and reflective. Some is full of action. I tried to include a little of everything, but there wasn't room for it all.

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

A: First, I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art's own library. I read everything I could find there, and then looked at other New York libraries and on the Internet. I visited museums in New York and Washington to see more of Bonheur's work.  

I made inquiries at the tourist bureau in Thomery, near Paris, where Bonheur lived, to see whether I could visit her chateau. I also visited Paris to see where Bonheur lived and died and to see some of her most famous paintings. I tried to visit her chateau, but it was unfortunately closed to the public. I approached art historians to see what I could learn from them.

Last of all, I began the lengthy process of tracking down reproducible images for the book. This all took some time, but I discovered my passion for Bonheur and her life sustained me. I never got tired of following her remarkable story.

Q: How would you describe Rosa Bonheur's legacy today?

A: Rosa Bonheur was a woman who was true to herself, who did things her own way. She loved animals more than anything in life, and was devoted to depicting them in her art as they really were. She didn't look over her shoulder to see what the trends were, and was not jealous of the work of others.  

"Every kind of painting has its masterpiece," she famously said. This ability to achieve excellence while holding to her own standards is her legacy.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have changed gears and have recently written several picture books: My Playdate is one of them. Playdates are one of the most exciting events in a child's life, yet I had never seen a book about I wrote my own!  

I am also a grandmother now, and have discovered the joys of that experience. I recently wrote two picture books, It's Good to Have a Grandma and It's Good to Have a Grandpa, about the fun and closeness that exists in the grandparent/grandchild relationship. All three of these books will be published next year by Albert Whitman.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I was sitting on a bench in Central Park the other day when a troupe of policemen rode by on horseback. I couldn't help but admire their beautiful, well-groomed horses, but they passed all too quickly.  

I couldn't help but think of Rosa Bonheur and her masterpiece, The Horse Fair, in the Metropolitan Museum nearby. How had Bonheur managed to capture these huge animals in motion with such fire and animation? What an amazing human being! What a powerful artist!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Amanda Robson

Amanda Robson is the author of the new psychological suspense novel Guilt. She also has written the novel Obsession. She worked as a medical researcher and co-wrote a book on cyanide poisoning. She lives in London.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Guilt, and why did you decide to focus on twins?

A: I have wanted to write a triangular story, about two women, and the man who comes between them, for a long time now. This stems from the fact that I have very close girlfriends, and sometimes devilishly wonder what would happen if our relationships were stretched by a third party. 

Even though I am not lucky enough to be a twin, I chose twin sisters because I imagine them to have one of the tightest female bonds possible.  

Q: The novel includes the theme of sexual harassment. Why did you decide to include that in the novel, and how does this story relate to the #MeToo movement?

A: The idea of sexual harassment came into my head as it just seemed to be the natural Machiavellian power play that a damaged character like Sebastian would use.

Writing it came naturally, as I, like many other women, was sexually harassed at work as a young woman during the early ‘80s. It does relate to the #MeToo movement because it is my own way of saying #MeToo.

Q: You tell the story from several characters’ perspectives. Did you write it in the order in which it appears, or did you move things around as you wrote?

A: I wrote the novel quite deliberately in the order it appears. I love writing through different people’s eyes and continuing the story in that way.

Let me explain: Guilt begins with a stabbing, which leaves one twin sister dead, and the other accused of her murder. As well as different character perspectives, past and present storylines are intermingled to gradually reveal the reason for the fight, and at the crescendo of the book, the person who died.

I very much enjoyed using this technique as I feel at every point of our lives we are experiencing a pivotal balance between what has been before, and the anticipation of what is still to come. And we all have a different perspective.

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing? 

A: Yes. I plan my work very carefully before I start.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m writing my third novel, Envy, which is about a young mother adored by three people. One is her husband. Unfortunately, the other two are stalkers. But it is the publication of Guilt that I am super excited about right now. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

June 20

June 20, 1858: Charles W. Chesnutt born.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Q&A with Rebecca Makkai

Rebecca Makkai is the author of the new novel The Great Believers. Her other books include Music for Wartime and The Hundred-Year House, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Harper's and Tin House. She lives in the Chicago area.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Great Believers, and why did you decide to focus on the AIDS crisis in Chicago?

A: I did not decide to write about the AIDS crisis in Chicago. I set out to write a different book. What’s now the subplot of Nora’s story in Paris in the art world was the book. An older woman had been an artist’s model in Paris, in the ‘20s…She could only live until about the ‘80s, so [the story] would be set in the ‘80s.

I had an art story in the ’80s, so AIDS could be in the book, but that could be a subplot. I wanted to set the book in Chicago, and as I started doing research, I was learning amazing and devastating stuff. That’s where the story wanted to go.

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

A: Part of the epigraph from F. Scott Fitzgerald [“We were the great believers”] is from a posthumous essay. I was thinking about Paris in the ‘20s and reading a book called Flappers. It came out a few years ago. It follows the lives of six women, and [one of them] quoted Fitzgerald as saying this.

I was so taken by it. You think of the Lost Generation as being so jaded, and he was writing about the hope they all shared. I felt like someone has to have used this as a title. When I found the essay and the quote, I felt it more strongly.

I had the title before I had the book. I could have been writing a much bleaker book, and the title was challenging me to find what these people did believe in. Where was their hope? That was my North Star as I was writing.

Q: The book jumps back and forth in time. Did you write it in the order in which it appears, or did you move things around as you wrote?

A: There was a lot of moving! I wrote about 150 pages just about [my character] Yale. Fiona was a very minor character. I needed someone at this party. I’d written a scene where they were at a benefit. There was something there—I started finding her very interesting.

I wrote about Yale remembering her brother talking about her long dangling earrings. I was having a crisis about my permission to write a book that was just about gay men when I am not a gay man. I thought about broadening the novel, and thought I’d try Fiona’s perspective.

I went back and wrote her first chapter and interspersed them. I do have a writing group—we’re all published authors. I showed them the first six chapters: Yale, Fiona, Yale, Fiona, without saying anything, and I was really concerned. They had critiques for me, but none of them felt Fiona’s perspective wasn’t original to the book.

It might have been more born of panic, but it worked for me. I love playing with time. A 30-year span, I knew, was the right move. You change one thing, and it affects the entire storyline. I was playing with notecards. 

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

A: It was a five-year process writing the book, and the entire time I was doing research. There’s not a lot out there about Chicago during the AIDS crisis. It’s all about San Francisco and New York.

Mostly I had to rely on primary sources, gay weeklies from the ‘890s, and interviews with people—people who were HIV positive, doctors, nurses, an art therapist, lawyers, journalists, historians, survivors. It was factual, but also emotional research, absorbing people’s stories.

And in terms of surprises, yeah. I thought everyone understood a lot about the AIDS crisis and it turns out we don’t. There were a lot of misrepresentations. I had no idea it was usually five years between infection and first symptoms. That really altered my timeline.

Also, there were things about the details of what people went through with health insurance that were astonishing to me. There’s a section where this guy is talking to Yale about all the jobs he had to prove he couldn’t do, to go on disability. AIDS itself was not a disability category.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now, 17,000 essays related to the book.

I had two competing novel ideas going, and I think one has won out. The title is Class of ’95. It’s not set in the ‘90s, it’s set now. It’s a murder mystery. It’s probably completely going to change!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m really excited to be doing a donation campaign for Vital Bridges. The information is on my website.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Rebecca Makkai.