Friday, August 31, 2018

Q&A with Sharon Rowe

Sharon Rowe is the author of the new book The Magic of Tiny Business. The founder and CEO of Eco-Bags Products, she defines "tiny business" as "conscious business where profit, planet and people are all part of the puzzle vs. driving for profit only while punishing or putting at risk planet or people." Rowe lives in the Hudson Valley.

Q: Over the years, have you changed your goals for your own business, or have they remained more or less the same?

A: My goals with the mission of the company have remained the same while my financial and structure goals have changed with market conditions and as I’ve grown older. I started the brand and business to be a platform for a culture shift I wanted to see…” to clean up the planet one bag at a time.”

What do I mean by this? I started the business to kickstart the conversation around single-use plastic waste and to kick the single plastic bag habit.

I wanted to do this in a way that was compatible with raising a young family and responsibly providing a good financial return for everyone involved in my business, from production to sales. I decided early on that vacations, evenings and weekends were non-negotiable, as were mid-day swims.

I deliberately chose to limit my work hours to have personal time vs. slotting my personal life around the business. This created efficiencies and the ability, over time, to prioritize. Not that I’m perfect! I’d say my approach worked 80 percent of the time.

Q: What do you think people need in order to start a new business?

A: To start a new business you need to start…wherever you can, even if it’s a conversation to get a sense of whether your idea will fly.  Whether you’re sparked by a new idea or opportunity, you need to know that starting a business takes time, persistent, energy and capital and you may not have everything at the beginning and that’s OK.

Starting a new business requires having very frank conversations with yourself about what’s most important to you, your family, about time and money, and articulating what’s enough and what your expectations are. None of this will be perfect and it will change over time. It’s a process.

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

A: I would like readers to take away the following—the confidence to start something, the humor that’s required for perspective and skill sets to practice in order to create a valuable asset.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Since the book launched in May I am working on promoting the book and the concept of Tiny Business. I’ve been invited to speak to various organizations as well. I’m considering writing a play next and getting back to my earlier career as an actor as well. AND – there is my tiny business Eco-Bags Products. Somehow it will all work out. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: When I started I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and while I absolutely did question myself along the way, I didn’t give up. It’s not that I stayed the course but, rather, I curated my path. About 80 percent of the time things worked out. The 20 percent challenged me to make new decisions about the growth of the business and my own personal goals.

There is so much about building a business that’s about learning to embrace process while keeping your eye on goals and practicing being comfortably uncomfortable. I know that my acting and improvisation training helped me along the way. I’d like to add as an end note, be kind to yourself, pick a direction, pick yourself (as Seth Godin says) and go.

Thanks for asking!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 31

Aug. 31, 1916: Daniel Schorr born.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Q&A with Cozbi A. Cabrera

Cozbi A. Cabrera is the author and illustrator of the new children's picture book My Hair is a Garden. She has illustrated several children's books, and has been an art director and a clothing designer. She also makes muñecas, collectible cloth dolls. She lives in Evanston, Illinois.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for My Hair is a Garden?

A: On any given day in New York, women would stop me on the street to ask about my hair – how did I handle it, what products did I use, etc. 

In the ‘80s and ‘90s, it was primarily professional women who thought natural hair wasn’t a match for work demeanor, yet felt stuck. Their damaged hair signaled the end of the road for relaxers, yet they felt limited by styling options for natural hair. My mod suit and natural hair were not in conflict!

In the early 2000s more mothers approached me. The trend was to keep children’s hair natural up to a point, then opt for straighteners for ease of handling or rite of passage. Occasionally, it’d be an adoptive mother with a child of color who didn’t know where to begin handling extremely curly hair. 

So My Hair Is A Garden grew out of all that questioning. I wanted it to reinforce the mindset that cultivating anything approached with love and respect requires patience and brings joy.    

Q: Did you work on the illustrations first, or the text—or was it simultaneous?

A: My publisher signed for the text. They were going to assign it to someone else to illustrate, then thought to ask me if I would do it. So I did. Again the angst, true of most illustration projects – to capture a fraction of the lovely images floating through my head and somehow translate them with the limitations of paint!

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

A: I hope little black girls will walk away with a sense of pride and appreciation for their God-given characteristics. There’s a message that’s sent to little girls of color that beauty is characterized by long flowing hair, keen features, and yes, lighter skin. Without these characteristics they are excluded from celebrating beauty.

Older children tease each other relentlessly as they practice stratifying, categorizing and creating community. Unenlightened, untaught, unchecked they’ll go as far as “othering” or exhibit cruelty.

In any group of little people, we find most have kindness written in their hearts and are pricked by cruelty. Sometimes they lack the boldness to intervene.

My hope is that with the metaphor of the garden we don’t have to rely on measures of kindness. Language can fuel thought and supply understanding. This includes the understanding that all of creation has strengths, features and characteristics that make the whole of mankind (just like the whole of the garden) a true marvel.

Some grown women have purchased the book, feeling it’s a message they didn’t get growing up, one that feeds a portion of their souls that wasn’t nourished and cherish the book for that reason. I get it.

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

A: I love Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison and Isabel Allende. They engage in a telling that transcends the limits of language. They construct a world and the waters surrounding it, then people that world, like creators. 

I admire some of the work of David Foster Wallace. I marvel at his granular, detailed depictions – the ballseyness in having no compunction in taking up the reader’s time and the power to serve up keen insight and observation.

I’ve watched Tayari Jones in editing mode, scratch out entire segments without remorse or attachment, determined to tell it better.

I’ve cried over passages in Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father, thinking what an insightful human being, crestfallen when I learned this same man was running for senator –how could such a stupendous human being become a politician! Little did I know there was more inspiration in store. 

For YA it’s Jason Reynolds and Renee Watson. Zetta Elliott persists with and without “support.” Her creativity and proliferation isn’t based on acknowledgement. She has stories and she’s telling them. 

My daughter lived with Rita Williams Garcia’s characters the better part of the summer and cried at the end of the trilogy, unwilling to let her intergenerational companions go.

Kidlit: still pricked by the transparency and honesty of Judy Blume.  The humor and lack of condescendence of MaryRose Wood. 

My cherished picture book volume is of vintage photographs and verse by Walter Dean Myers entitled Brown Angels. I purchased it many years before my daughter was born and read aloud the entire book each night since she was a baby. Once the book was memorized, we would recite it in the dark, its sentiment and cadence like bath water for that baby. It’s a treasure.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m completing the illustrations for a book about the life of Gwendolyn Brooks written by Suzanne Slade (Abrams Books 2020).

The research for it was eye-opening, as Ms. Brooks lived in a community called Bronzeville. These square miles of rich history and overcrowding are where Blacks had to settle during the Great Migration because housing covenants would not allow landlords to rent or sell to persons of color outside of that constricted area. She quietly and powerfully made lemonade. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 30

Aug. 30, 1944: Molly Ivins born.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Q&A with Daniel Lawless

Daniel Lawless is the author of the new poetry collection The Gun My Sister Killed Herself With. He is the founder and editor of the poetry magazine Plume, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Ploughshares and Prairie Schooner. He lives in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Q: How did you choose the poems to include in your new collection, and how did you decide on the order in which they would appear?

A: The poems in The Gun My Sister Killed Herself With represent an overview of the work of my 30s and 40s -- years in which I did not attempt to publish at all. God knows why, but there it is. Oh, the thought would cross my mind once in a blue moon, as they say, but soon passed.

And, indeed, after I founded the journal Plume: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry some seven years ago, and read daily work from some extraordinary poets – big names, and should-be big names -- one would think these fleeting temptations would finally have ceased altogether.

Instead, the opposite was true. Immodestly (quite unlike me, given as I am to an almost pathological self-effacement) I thought, I can do that. And this. And the other thing, too. And so I began to send out poems, met some success, and then a little more success, and soon enough I had enough poems for a book. Who knew?

The order of the book took some time – it was not my first consideration by a long shot. I knew the first poem in the book would be “A” – simply because it seemed to encapsulate many of the book’s themes and spoke to a certain style-throughline. And the last I had as well -- “Midpoint”—with its sense of a looking ahead implicit in its title.

The middle poem is the book’s title poem – I sensed that it was a natural break between the more personal memory-pieces of the first sections and the broader reflections on poetry and, well, death, that comprise the second half of the book. Early readers of the manuscript (shout out to David Breskin) helped me fill in the rest.

Q: How was the collection’s title (also the title of one of the poems) chosen?

A: It’s a poem that was featured in Nin Andrews’ posts for Best American Poetry, from Cortland Review. In her interview with me and her introduction, she mentioned that the poem had received 1,500 “hits” or some number that seemed absurd to me; I’d never looked. So, I thought it was popular.

And the poem’s title seemed almost not-a-poetry-book one; browsers could imagine a noir short story or novel with that name, and I liked that, the directness and violence of the gun and the act, and the slightly awkward construction of the phrase – it was to my mind striking, and memorable.

Speaking of which: The original title was “The Memory of My Memory is My Memory.” Many of the early readers and blurbs mentioned this as a particularly appealing title, in fact, and I almost went with it. That would have been fine. Still, I think the present The Gun My Sister Killed herself With is, for the reasons noted, the better one.

Q: As the editor of Plume, what do you see as the role of poetry in today’s world?

A: Well, not as “instructive” or as a moving political force; I am not of the “unacknowledged legislators” persuasion. The role of poetry, like that of all the arts, is for me simply the offering of beauty to the reader. Though beauty, as Rilke so astutely observed, is the beginning of terror. It’s tough work – not a respite, by any means, if it’s serious. And if it isn’t serious, why bother?

Q: Which poets do you especially admire?

A: I won’t mention those we have published in Plume over the years – that way lies madness – as is “angry,” as in hurt feelings, or at least that is my fear.

So, I will stick to the poets I admired before I began Plume and still treasure. Mostly, Europeans and South Americans: Follain, Reverdy, Transtromer, Trakl, Milosz, Parra,  Paz, Pavese. In the U.S., Simic, Beckian Fritz Goldberg, Yusef Komunyakaa. So many.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: In my writing, a hybrid book of poems and essays, tentatively titled Louisville, 1962-1972. A memoire of that pivotal time in my early life, and in the culture’s at large. Other projects include a from-the-roots overhaul of the Plume website and a transition to a new publishing venture for the annual print anthologies.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I don’t think so.  But, thank you – it’s been fun thinking about these things this evening – a pleasant distraction from the Florida heat, and student essays on the film American Beauty – nice enough, but after the 23rd iteration, one comes to appreciate the midlife crise of Lester Burnham as something more like a guide than a cautionary tale. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 29

Aug. 29, 1936: John McCain born.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Q&A with J.M. Mitchell

J.M. Mitchell is the author of the new mystery novel Killing Godiva's Horse, the third in a series featuring his character Jack Chastain. It's a sequel to Public Trust and The Height of Secrecy. Mitchell worked for the National Park Service for many years, and at the time of his retirement was chief of the agency's Biological Resource Management Division. He lives in Colorado.

Q: This is your third novel featuring Jack Chastain. Did you know when you started the first one that you’d be writing a series?

A: I admit I was uncertain about how the first would be received, but even with the possibility that Public Trust could be the end of it, I dove into writing The Height of Secrecy immediately after sending the first draft of Public Trust to the editor.

Each book is written to stand on its own, but each connects to a back story, the foundations for which were created in Public Trust and built upon in The Height of Secrecy and Killing Godiva’s Horse.

Q: How has Jack Chastain changed over the course of the series so far?

A: That’s an insightful question. When Jack Chastain first appeared in Public Trust he was a damaged man, having been moved to a national park in New Mexico after an unexpected turn of events in Montana.

He’s shocked, uncertain, not quite sure what happened … where everything he and the public had worked for in Montana had gone up in flames, a failure he didn’t quite understand. He’s not sure what to do next, but he’s been dealt a pain and he’s determined not to let it happen again.

But, as much as Jack tries convincing others that he’s not the right guy to turn to when things get tough—he’s trying to avoid more of the pain—he is, in fact, the right guy. 

So, back to your question. I’ve given a lot of thought to that matter. How will Jack change over the course of the series? (And remember, there’s two more books to come.)

I don’t want the change in Jack to necessarily follow the seven stages of grief, or to suggest that what he went though was as tough as what a war vet might have gone through, with stages of recovery as in PTSD. But Jack went through something difficult, and much of it he doesn’t yet understand. It’s made him a different man.

He has uncertainties and doubts, and he puts on a public face that he uses to not give away his true fears, but he also has a strong constitution to turn to when things get tough.

He has changed over the course of three stories, and without giving too much away, Killing Godiva’s Horse ends with him in a state of anger. He’s angrier than the reader has come to know him, but he’s also strangely grounded. You can expect that state of mind to be with him as he enters his next challenge, and that challenge will change him as well.

Frankly—and I admit, and I’ve said this to my wife many times—I don’t know how Jack will change between now and the end, but he’ll be wiser. Will we meet the Jack Chastain of old … the guy we’ve never met, the man he was in Montana … or will it be a Jack of a different dimension? Stick with me, I’m anxious to find out as well.

Q: How much do you rely on your own professional background with the National Park Service as you write your novels?

A: A lot. I can tell when an author has no clue about how things really work. I see it at times in works by some very popular authors.

To give the reader a feeling of authenticity, I do indeed draw from my professional background, but I also remember to do so in a measured way, trying not to explain or bore the reader with unnecessary detail, but instead to pull them into the action.

I have the opportunity to give the reader an experience most of them will never have—that of being a ranger, or a biologist, or in some other role. Not a Hollywood interpretation or an outsider’s guess, but the real deal … the work, the culture, the feeling of responsibility to a cherished place or the people who love it. Even the excitement and uncertainty of doing the work—on research, a fire, a rescue, the routine.

Because of those aims, I challenge myself to sharpen my writing, not to “tell” the reader what it’s like to do those things, but to write in such a way that the reader is in those shoes, doing those things, thinking about those uncertainties, drawing from experience and training, working through complexities, doing what needs to be done.

And I admit, I hope to put the reader not only in the shoes of the ranger, but also into the mindset of a public servant, the poor SOB caught in the middle of the public battles that are so common in our society today.

Why? Because I feel it’s a perspective rarely given a voice. In today’s world, people like to treat those souls as if they were the problem, someone who at worst is a leach and at best is a caricature easily replaced, when in fact, most public servants are dedicated to a mission and trained to carry it out.

But, they make good scapegoats and the objects of political games, and that can help make for an interesting story. 

Q: Which authors do you particularly admire? 

A: John Grisham: Even when it has felt like he didn’t have as much to say as in his earlier novels, I loved getting to the end … his writing mastery, his putting us into the story, a world he knows and makes us feel we do, too, his putting the reader into the head of his protagonist.

Trevanian: When I was younger and dreamed of someday writing a novel, I enjoyed and studied The Eiger Sanction, Shibumi, and others.

John le Carre: The world loves Bond and the works of Ian Fleming—me included—but even though it takes me a bit to get into the pace and pattern of le Carre′s writing, his Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy gives me more of a sense of spycraft than the writing in Goldfinger or Casino Royale.

A current favorite, Daniel Silva: I was told my action scenes were written in a manner similar to Silva’s, so I read one to understand the comparison. One novel has turned into many. In addition to the action, I appreciate how he treats sense of calling and purpose.

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: Jack Chastain’s next adventure, novel number four, working title, Entitled to Lie. As with the others, it’s its own story, set primarily in New Mexico. There’s a murder and more international and political intrigue, and by the end Jack will know even more about what actually happened in Montana, and more about the bad guys who caused it.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Yes. Mary, my publicist, thinks I’m not very good at asking people to do reviews of my books. So, …

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 28

Aug. 28, 1913: Robertson Davies born.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Q&A with Thomas de Padova

Thomas de Padova is the author of the new book Alone Against Gravity: Einstein in Berlin: The Turbulent Birth of the Theory of Relativity, 1914-1918. A physicist, he has written many other books focusing on science. He lives in Berlin, Germany.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book about Albert Einstein during World War I?

A: During World War I. Einstein transformed from being a “pure” physicist into a pacifist and politically engaged scientist and crowned his General Theory of Relativity. Above all, I wanted to know what provoked this transformation and how in the same time he accomplished to revolutionize our understanding of space and time.

Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that particularly intrigued you?

A: It particularly intrigued me, how fast the outbreak of World War I. changed the activities and minds of scientists like Max Planck or Fritz Haber.

Therefore, one of the most difficult parts of my research was to get an idea of Einstein’s relationship to his German colleagues, especially Haber. In 1914 the chemist Haber had done everything to make life comfortable for his new Berlin colleague and his family. Einstein had his office in Haber’s institute, his apartment nearby. 

To give an example how thankful Einstein was to Haber: The great scientist gave private lessons in mathematics to Haber’s 12-year-old son Hermann for three months.

However, Einstein gave up his office in Haber’s institute and moved away from Berlin-Dahlem as soon as the director’s preparations for the chemical warfare started. Their correspondence, lively before, almost stopped.

From 1915 to 1918 the two scientists did not meet anymore in the German Physical Society or the Prussian Academy of Science, because Haber did not participate in such proceedings and conferences during the war. They frequented completely different social and political circles.

What motivated them? At which point could they have made a different choice? Posing such questions, I learned a lot about the role of German scientists in World War I. and Einstein in particular.

Q: During the 1914-1918 period, how famous was Einstein, and what was his reputation at the point, both scientific and political?

A: In the scientific world, Einstein already enjoyed the reputation of being the most significant physicist of his time. Max Planck called him the "new Copernicus." He himself registered with some wonder how rapidly news of his revolutionary worldview spread in Berlin and beyond.

Nevertheless, during the war only a small fraction of physicists, astronomers and mathematicians payed attention to his new achievements. Among them were the British scientists Frank Dyson and Arthur Eddington.

Enthralled by general relativity, they started to prepare for an expedition to test Einstein’s theory during an eclipse predicted for May 1919. A really remarkable scientific project in the midst of war.

Politically, Einstein in Berlin felt “alone, like a drop of oil on water, isolated by attitude and cast of mind” as he expressed in a letter. It took some months, until he started to frequent the meetings of pacifist organizations.

His persistent advocacy of peace and democratic ideals augmented his popularity, even though it was seen as “naïve” by many of his colleagues. When in fall 1918 new democratic parties were founded in Germany, Einstein’s name was expected to provide a strong political backing. He could do little against the misuse of his name in political campaigns in newspapers.

Unfortunately, even 100 years later some of Einstein’s biographers used his supposed partisanship for the “Deutsche Demokratische Partei” or the “Demokratischer Volksbund” insisting again on his “naivety” regarding political questions.

Q: Can you say more about how well Einstein got along with other leading scientists of the time?

A: Einstein first of all was a physicist, who needed discussions with other scientists to develop new thoughts and concepts. He could be sharp in his judgments and in the same time humanly tolerant. This unusual mixture led to long lasting relationships with people like Max Planck, even though Planck badly disappointed him from a political point of view.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just started to work on the history of mathematics.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: People often ask me about Einstein’s famous letter to President Roosevelt in 1939, warning that Germany might develop atomic bombs.

The period 1914 – 1918 is crucial for the understanding of Einstein’s political activities in the United States. Einstein had seen what German scientists were capable of doing in World War I., when his friend Haber transformed a small science institute into a facility for chemical weapons of mass destruction.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 27

Aug. 27, 1871: Theodore Dreiser born.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Q&A with Yael Shahar

Yael Shahar is the author of the new book Returning, which has been described as a fictional memoir based on two true stories. It focuses on her own life, but also on that of a Holocaust survivor named Ovadya.

Q: Would you describe your new book as a memoir?

A: Yes and no (OK, you expected that one, right?). Returning emerged out of the experience that it describes, but was also molded by the writing itself. 

It’s a true story, certainly. But here we run up against the issue of how truth bears on storytelling. In order to tell the story in a way that readers will continue to turn pages, I’ve had to tell it out of its strict chronological order, often leaving out those happenings that, while important to the protagonists, are not crucial to the story I wanted to tell.

I’ve told the story from Ovadya’s point of view throughout. This was a natural choice, considering that the story begins with his retelling of his experiences in Birkenau. Of course, that meant telling my own experiences in third person, a novel experience in itself!

I came to see that, to Ovadya, my childhood in Texas and eventual aliyah to Israel seemed almost mythical, a sort of fairytale existence of horses, miraculous coincidences, and improbable characters. Seeing it through his eyes made me see how magical is the age in which we find ourselves.

And yet, though the voice was that of Ovadya, and the hands on the keyboard were the hands of Yael, the perspective was that of Rav Ish-Shalom, whose presence is felt throughout the book. 

Ovadya’s experiences had been written down over the course of several decades, and the choice of what to tell was easy—all of it! But the order in which the story was revealed was based on that fateful meeting with Rav Ish-Shalom.

Throughout the book, the reader ends up knowing as much about Ovadya as the rabbi does, until the moment when Rav Ish-Shalom finally learns the full extent of the case he’s agreed to judge.

All this is to make the point that, yes, Returning is a memoir in the sense of being a true story about real people. On the other hand, because of issues which will be clear to the reader, the publisher preferred to classify it as literary nonfiction, and where that category is not available, as literary fiction.

Q: The book focuses on questions of memory and of trauma. What impact did writing it have on you?

A: I think it’s fair to say that the writing was therapeutic, probably in many different ways. Ovadya’s correspondence with Masha was certainly an exercise in “the talking cure” for PTSD.

Describing my own experience with traumatic memory was more an exercise in understanding what was behind my life choices—the move to Israel to start a new life at age 18, and all that followed. I learned a lot about the power of subconscious choices while getting it all out into the open: writing as confession!

But what’s even more telling, in terms of how trauma impacts writing is that Returning is not the story that I had originally intended to tell.

I had originally thought to use the extensive correspondence between Ovadya and Masha to tell a love story, emphasizing how the relationship between them allowed each of them to overcome the barriers to telling their experiences.

I had thousands (!) of pages of correspondence, and over the course of two years, I’d managed to winnow it down to a several hundred letters that would tell the story in a way that would be both engaging and moving.

And then something happened. Into all this stepped Rav Ish-Shalom. What happened next was not only unexpected, but life-changing.

And so the story was rewritten as the events unfolded, in some cases lagging behind events by mere hours. The final scene of the book was written out the same day it happened in a letter to the rabbi. (To which he wrote back that it was a good thing his keyboard was resistant to tears)

So, yes, the writing was transformative on many levels. For Ovadya, the realization that he had finally kept his promises to the dead brought him more peace than he had known since Birkenau.

For my part, telling his story and mine helped to heal wounds that I had scarcely been aware of until I saw them open again on the page before me.

But mostly, the events themselves brought about a sense of having reached closure. I can say with certainty that death is not all it’s cracked up to be, and that T’chiat HaMetim—the revival of the dead—holds surprises of its own.

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

A: The title, Returning, has multiple layers of meaning. The central theme of the book is the Jewish notion of Teshuvah, which translates literally as “returning.”

Often (mis)translated as “repentance,” teshuvah is actually a complex and many-layered concept, encompassing the return to physical and mental health, rebuilding self-confidence and trust after failure, and recapturing something of who we were before a life-shattering event.

But of course, “returning” also captures something of Ovadya’s situation, finding himself alive when by all rights he should have died, and having to face the reality of his choices.  The essence of Ovadya’s return to life under the tutelage of Rav Ish-Shalom is a “return” on many different levels.

And lastly, the title captures the final denouement of the story, which I won’t reveal here for fear of spoiling the story for readers. 

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?

A: Probably at the top of the list would be Thomas Wolfe, Ursula Le Guin, and Peter S. Beagle, and of course J.R.R. Tolkien. Their writing has left a lasting impression on me, and has shown me the power of words to transmit memory from mind to mind.

Others who have had an impact are naturalists Loren Eiseley and Stephen Jay Gould. Eiseley manages to capture the magic of life in words that have a magic of their own. Gould is known for conveying complex ideas with clarity and eloquence.

One of the things all these writers have taught me is that humans are born storytellers; we learn best by making a story out of knowledge.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My next project is guaranteed to be a lot more fun, if less profound, than Returning. I’m digging into the past six years of notes from a variety of Talmud and Torah classes for hints into how and why the Jewish people has survived in circumstances that no other nation has managed to weather.

The end result will go into a work tentatively titled Havrutah with a One-Eyed Cat: a whimsical foray into Jewish philosophy. Here I plan to apply gleanings from my long career in counter-terrorism, ideas about Jewish organizational dynamics honed during years of following sub-state organizations around the world.

As the subject matter could easily become dry and academic, I’ve livened it up with a series of imaginary conversations with a cynical feline study partner, who brings ideas from sociology, political theory, and organizational dynamics to bear on Jewish themes.

You can read a few sample chapters here.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 26

Aug. 26, 1921: Ben Bradlee born.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Q&A with Mary Cappello, James Morrison, and Jean Walton

Mary Cappello
Mary Cappello, James Morrison, and Jean Walton are the authors of the new book Buffalo Trace: A Threefold Vibration. They first met in the 1980s as graduate students in SUNY/Buffalo's English department. Cappello and Walton both teach at the University of Rhode Island, and Morrison teaches at Claremont McKenna College.

Q: How did the three of you decide to work together on Buffalo Trace?

A: Buffalo Trace consists of three longform essays--one each by James, Jean, and Mary. We came to know each other in the ‘80s at SUNY/Buffalo’s famous English Department, known then as a cauldron of deconstruction, psychoanalysis, and experimental poetics.  

The essays tell our very different “stories”; but more than that, they sketch out the intellectual contexts of our coming into queer adulthood.

Mary led the way with her essay, written after our last trip to Buffalo, to visit her former professor Marty Pops during the last days of his life.

The fact that all of us had converged on Buffalo, then and now, and had our own very different yet interlocking stories to tell based on that very particular time and place in our lives as young, gay readers and writers eventually inspired all of us to enter into an experiment of writing our own long form meditations. We soon began to realize there was a book in this.

Perhaps our book could contribute to a tradition of tripartite books to emerge from a queer sensibility from Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives to David Plante’s Difficult Women, to Hilton Als’ The Women to Roland Barthes’ Sade, Fourier, Loyola. Our contribution  is “A Threefold Vibration.”

Q: Did you share your work with one another as you wrote, and do you see common themes running through the three essays?

A: Mary’s piece came first, so Jean and Jim had it as a touchstone while working on theirs. We set a goal of roughly 100 pages, each shaping the writing in the way that seemed most true to our own experiences and reflections.

To seal the pact, we’d shared a toast from a bottle of Buffalo Trace bourbon, so the title – with its suggestion of the “traces” Buffalo left on us – virtually proposed itself.

When all the essays were done, we gathered to read them one sunny California afternoon and discovered a surprising surfeit of micro-echoes and little ripples of affinity across the three pieces that we thought would make them work together as a collection in an almost musical, polyphonic way.

Among other things, these reverberations had to do with discovering exciting, dynamic, world-revealing ideas in the state university’s English department while, at the same time, viewing Buffalo itself as something like a caricature of an American city, ugly and unexpectedly beautiful in equal measure.

This tension has a lot to do with how the book treats the twinned themes of coming into queerness in the 1980s and being initiated into the “Life of the Mind” – a phrase that always required scare-quotes in that particular location, however momentous the ideas.

James Morrison
One thing we noticed right away – and will have to wait for someone else to diagnose – is the fact that each of us references Nabokov’s Lolita in some significant way.

Among the other recurrent themes are the limits of expression, the gender of ambition, secrecy, eroticism, academic time, and snow.

We also each inadvertently created portraits of one another, then and now. How did we appear to and for each other 30 years ago, and who are we in this refracted mirror of three long form essays now? We think it’s an experiment worth pursuing for any relationship.

Q: What impact did your years in Buffalo have on you?

Jim: After 22 years in Detroit, moving to Buffalo might have seemed like a lateral move at best. But for me, moving there was as good as roving abroad for one of Henry James’s proverbial innocents.

It opened up the world to me in a very particular way – I could never forget that I was still stranded in the provinces, but I felt in contact with galaxies of thought and being I would never have found at home.

I knew there was still a whole world left to see, but had also learned that the so-called provinces only looked marginal to those whose cosmopolitan inclinations were still too complacent, who had not yet discovered that every corner of the world is a place of its own, and one to be reckoned with.

Jean: There was no one impact—it was a cumulative effect, I would say. I went in to grad school with a very naïve idea of what it entailed, and yet, after my “gap year” working at office jobs after my undergrad degree, I felt very much at home in Buffalo’s program, like I had “come home” as it were.

Then again, even though it was clear that I was not cut out for anything but a life of the mind, my eight years there (it took me that long to finish the degree) were fraught with doubt almost the whole time.

I’d say that the graduate program there was capacious enough, and sort of “free-wheeling” enough that it allowed people like me to “find myself” as an intellectual, without feeling that I had to become someone’s disciple.

Jean Walton
In fact, in comparing my own essay with Jim’s and Mary’s, I’m struck by how much I come across as embattled with my professors, seeking always to define myself “against” even as I was learning so much from them.

Mary: I think of Buffalo as the city that tutored me in the importance of interiors and interiority, and SUNY/Buffalo’s English Department as the place where I came to know the extreme pleasure of thinking, not just alone and on one’s own, but with others—the relationship between thinking and sociality.

The place was a cauldron of new ideas, and it was dedicated to a kind of radical originality, a quirkiness that helped me feel validated in my own odd turns of thought and imagination.

No two professors in Buffalo’s English department thought alike, which might seem like an obvious thing to say, but it was very much the case that the professors I had the privilege to learn from were not much interested in orthodoxy, so even if a seminar represented a shared, new vanguard, which might seem, on the surface, predictable, what happened in these seminars never was.

As a graduate student, I was car-less, and getting to know the city by bus and by foot forged a kind of circuit of desire that is hard to put into words.

It had to do with traversing snow-covered tundra – and the quietude of that – but also the working class cast of the cityscape, which resonated with my own origins in a working-class town in Pennsylvania and which yet was quite distinct from it.

The transit from one small room to another small room where something of great moment was unfolding but for which one had no name. That’s it. Buffalo and the department were the place where I met James Morrison and Jean Walton, life-changers, forever. With both of them, I experienced “love at first sight.”

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

A: Buffalo Trace is intended in the first instance as a tribute to many great teachers and thinkers. We hope that readers are borne along by the prose of our thinking, that there is a pleasure of the text for them, regardless of what they “take away” in terms of a message or a learning experience.

That’s what we look for in the books we seek out ourselves – a prose style that does any of a number of things: challenge, nourish, revive faith that creative facility with language DOES make a difference, even though so much of what we are immersed in at present seems indifferent to how language sounds, or to the absolutely inimitable environment a book, a really well-written book, can create for us.

Where “content” is concerned, we hope that the book can bring readers to a very specific time and place, UB’s English graduate program in the `80s, where education, and an emergent “sexuality” (for each of us) took a shape that was very specific to that particular historical moment.

One of Mary’s favorite texts is an interview that the French philosopher Michel Foucault carried out in which he proposes that homosexuality’s real threat to the social order has to do with the new forms of friendship it makes possible.

We hope that readers experience an uncommon kinship in the book not just between the three of us, but between themselves and us or the stories that we bring to the page in these essays.

We want readers to experience what the reading of literature always holds out for us—new forms of thought, new ways of imagining how to be in the world.

But we also hope that readers will be led to ask for more interesting things from publishers, along the order of the experimental, the poly-vocal, even books that get beyond the cult of the author.

Q: What are you working on now?

Jim: I am working on a collection of stories and novellas called Late Start, all about characters engaged in belated enterprises, most of them comically misbegotten; or characters starting over in life, a process that is inherently ridiculous but still potentially redemptive.

I’m also working on a triptych of essays on, respectively, failures, renunciations, and prohibitions, called Couldn’t Wouldn’t Shouldn’t – a project given new life, recently, by Trump’s “would/wouldn’t” kerfuffle.

Jean:  I’m in the final stages of two other book projects: Mudflat Dreaming: Waterfront Battles and the Squatters Who Fought Them in 1970s Vancouver is on its way out this fall with Vancouver’s New Star Books—a really great independent literary press.

A place-based crossover book, it is a kind of bittersweet “love song” to the Vancouver of my youth, but also a portrait of the city that anticipates its calamitous current housing situation.  

And I’m in the final revisions of Dissident Gut, a scholarly feminist book (under contract with Duke UP) set in early 20th century Britain and Europe. It’s about how hysterics and suffragettes expressed the desire to resist and change the social order through their bodies.

Mary: I’m working on a book-length essay along the order of one of my other books, Awkward: A Detour, but this time with a focus on dormancy, on all that sleeps and what stirs something to wake, psychologically, physiologically, and culturally/socially.

I’m also working slowly on a collection of short form prose pieces that I am calling “studies” or literary études inspired by what feels like a diminishing ability to study anything at all in the digital age.

Meanwhile, I just finished composing a long form essay on the subject of intimacy between strangers, and am curating a collection of e-mails from my mother, Rosemary Petracca Cappello, for Ninth Letter, called “The Dearest Mary Project.”

Q: Anything else we should know?

Buffalo Trace launches on Sept. 1 (prior to the Sept. 4 release) with an '80s dance party in Providence, R. I. Any prospective reader is invited!

A reading in Buffalo follows on Sept. 28 at the legendary arts venue Hallwalls, co-sponsored by the great Talking Leaves Bookstore.

Later that weekend we’ll appear at the following NYC venues:
Sunday, Sept. 30 at 4 pm.
(208 W. 13th St., NY, NY 10011)

And The Red Room at the KGB Bar, Monday, Oct. 1 from 7-9 pm.
(85 E. 4th St., NY, NY 10003)

We’re generous listeners, readers, and discussants who would be happy to come talk to your group or class or community about writing, reading, and learning. Please feel free to contact us, or to look for other future events around the book on our author websites.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb