Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Q&A with Barbara Stark-Nemon

Barbara Stark-Nemon is the author of the new novel Hard Cider. She also has written the novel Even in Darkness. She lives in Ann Arbor and Northport, Michigan.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your character Abbie and her family?

A: In my first book, Even in Darkness, the main character is a strong complex woman who must cope with the unthinkable and somehow make meaning for the remainder of her life.

I guess I wasn’t done with that concept — that a strong multidimensional woman must overcome unexpected challenges with dignity and self-determination. What might that look like for a woman of a certain age in our society? 

I also wanted to feature a woman who wants an encore career, having raised a complicated family. She wants to pursue her own long-time interest.

Q: The book focuses on definitions of family. What about that topic intrigued you?

A: Family is very important to me and the way we form families and how we define ourselves as families has changed radically during my adult life.

Medical advances in treating infertility, broadening options for adoption, the use of surrogacy, rapid increase in births to unmarried parents, and legal changes to marriage laws have all changed the landscape of how people regard the concept of family. 

At the same time that all these changes have complicated social and legal definitions of family relationships, they have broadened the acceptability of different family constellations, and brought critically important conversations into the mainstream. Hard Cider addresses a number of these considerations.

Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what role do you see hard cider playing in the novel?

A: The making of hard cider— from growing the apples right through to pressing and fermenting the juice is Abbie Rose Stone’s passion. Full disclosure: I fell in love with hard apple cider during the time I lived in England many years ago, and was very happy to do the necessary research for this book!

Two of the authors who wrote endorsements for Hard Cider said it best…

“The alchemy of turning apples into hard cider becomes a potent metaphor for the way in which time blends and distills the characters into a family.”

“A character who makes cider from a variety of different apples says, ‘I can’t help but feel that there’s some magic in the mixing.’ Barbara Stark-Nemon reminds us this is true for families, too.”
--Gayle Brandeis

I’ve never had an easier time choosing a title!

Q: Can you say more about the research you did to write the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: As noted above, I did a good bit of research on hard apple cider production. I especially loved reading Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire, which includes a fascinating history of our interaction with the apple over many centuries and the truth behind the Johnny Appleseed myth.

I was surprised to learn that cider was often the only safe drink and sometimes was used as currency during pioneer days. I also loved the cider making bible, Cider – Strong and Sweet, by Ben Watson. I traveled to northern Michigan and to New Hampshire to see state of the art cider operations.

I already knew a lot about infertility and adoption, but researched a great deal about surrogacy and the legal and emotional consequences of that way of forming family.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve just started researching and writing a new novel about a 14 year-old embroideress who has to find her way from Inquisition-era Portugal to Germany to reunite with her father. She’s a Converso who is assisted by an herbalist and healer from Girona, Spain.

I’m also working on audiobooks for Hard Cider and Even in Darkness!

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: I would like readers to come away from Hard Cider with the conviction that dreams can come true at many times in one’s life, even in the face of the unexpected and unwanted.

I also hope readers will think about the fact that we now make family in many different ways, and that we have the choice to stay open to new possibilities. 

Oh, and for the knitters among your readers, there’s a lot of knitting in Hard Cider!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Barbara Stark-Nemon.

Sept. 18

Sept. 18, 1709: Samuel Johnson born.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Q&A with Mark R. Cheathem

Mark R. Cheathem is the author of the new book The Coming of Democracy: Presidential Campaigning in the Age of Jackson. His other books include Andrew Jackson, Southerner and the forthcoming Andrew Jackson and the Rise of the Democrats. He is a professor of history at Cumberland University, and directs the university's project on the Papers of Martin Van Buren.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on the 1824-1840 period in your new book?

A: My main interest is in Jacksonian-era politics, and I wanted to write about one of the key elections during that period. Originally, I intended to write specifically about the 1840 presidential election, which historians often hail as the first modern presidential campaign.

As I researched, however, it became apparent that while 1840 was a pivotal year, it was the culmination of developments stretching over several presidential campaigns.

So, I started at what I considered the beginning of the story rather than the end. The Log Cabin and Hard Cider Campaign of 1840 is still prominent, but I think readers will have a better understanding of how the U.S. arrived at the campaign than if I had stuck with my original idea.

Q: What do you see as some of the most important changes in presidential campaigning during those years, and what led to those changes?

A: The most obvious changes to me are the public activities of presidential candidates and the role of women.

Early on the nation’s history, presidential candidates were expected to show reluctance in having their names submitted to voters and to refrain from engaging with voters directly.

Those expectations changed dramatically in the Jacksonian period. By 1840, presidential candidates had not only abandoned feigned disinterest in running for the office, they were also actively courting voters through public correspondence in newspapers and through speeches at campaign rallies.

In both his 1836 and his 1840 presidential campaigns, for example, William Henry Harrison traveled the country giving political speeches intended to bring voters into his column. It didn’t carry him to victory the first time, but it worked four years later.

Women’s political activity also changed. Women were largely sidelined throughout the period, but they became more politically vocal and visible by 1840, especially those who supported Whig candidates.

Women gave toasts at public events, writing political pamphlets, and listening to public speeches intended specifically for them as an audience. While women still could not vote, the Whigs in particular understood how important they were in swaying the votes of the men in their lives.

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

A: Having written on Jackson and the Jacksonian period extensively, I had a large base of research already available. For this book, however, I dove more deeply into newspapers and political cartoons.

Newspapers at the time often carried political songs, notices about meetings of Old Hickory and Old Kinderhook clubs, and correspondence between presidential candidates and American voters--all of these were key parts of my narrative.

Political cartoons from the period are fascinating and convey a lot of information in visual form. It made me aware of how politically literate American voters were expected to be in order to understand the images and the accompanying dialogue in the cartoons.

There were a lot of interesting discoveries. One that especially comes to mind is a series of pamphlets written by Lucy Kenney.

We don’t know much about Kenney or who she was. What we do know from her pamphlets is that she started out as a supporter of Jackson and Van Buren in the mid-1830s, but she became disenchanted with the Democrats during Van Buren's presidency. By 1840, she supported the Whigs and was an outspoken critic of Van Buren.

Historians had mentioned Kenney's work but had not looked closely at what she wrote or why she changed parties. I gave her more attention than she had received before and was also able to find a little more information about her background, although not as much as I would have liked.

Still, she is one of those historical figures I find fascinating—a woman with strong political views who argued for them in the public square, a place typically closed to women at the time.

Q: How would you compare presidential campaigning in the Age of Jackson to presidential campaigning today?

A: Presidential campaigning has obviously changed in the last 180 years or so, but there are still strong echoes of the past resonating today. For example, political cartoons aren’t as prominent or complex today, but memes are.

Images of Donald Trump’s face superimposed on the white supremacist Pepe the Frog cartoon or gifs of Hillary Clinton laughing are not dissimilar in their purpose from political cartoons of the Jacksonian period—they are sending a political message that potential voters are interpreting them through the lens of partisanship.

Political image-making in the 21st century is also reminiscent of that conducted in the 1824-1840 period. Presidential candidates openly campaign today in ways that were unacceptable until 1840, and they are intent, as William Henry Harrison was in 1840, on crafting an image that identifies them with the average American.

Just as Harrison, a wealthy aristocrat, tried to present himself as a common farmer who identified with the daily life of Americans, so, too, have more recent presidential candidates, most of whom are multimillionaires disconnected from the obstacles and struggles faced by most Americans.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am busy editing the Papers of Martin Van Buren. Van Buren was a key Jacksonian political figure, the eighth president, and, of course, the inspiration for Seinfeld's "Van Buren Boys" gang.

I am also working on a book looking at the 1844 presidential campaign. This campaign included a number of fascinating candidates: Jackson’s political protégé James K. Polk; perennial presidential loser Henry Clay; enslaver-turned-abolitionist James G. Birney; and the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (aka Mormonism), Joseph Smith.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: In addition to The Coming of Democracy, I have another book coming out in October entitled Andrew Jackson and the Rise of the Democratic Party.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 17

Sept. 17, 1883: William Carlos Williams born.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Q&A with Johnnie Bernhard

Johnnie Bernhard is the author of the new novel How We Came to Be. She also has written the novel A Good Girl. A former English teacher and journalist, her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Southern Literary Review and The Mississippi Press. She lives near the Mississippi Sound.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for How We Came to Be and for your character Karen?

A: The idea for How We Came to Be came from several sources. I am very aware of the stress today's families are under. Working parents, divorce, violence in schools, the illegal use of prescription drugs, the lonely lives of many senior citizens - are all social news items. 

This is compacted by our current forms of communication, texting and social media interaction.  

Q: What do you think the novel says about families?

A: As an author, I wanted to examine the modern family and the difficulties many of these families face. I also wanted to comment on the positive impact supportive neighbors and friends can make in a family.  

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

A: I never know how a novel will end. I have ideas about the beginning and the end, but a manuscript can take on many twists and turns as I begin writing.  

Q: How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: Setting is very important to me as an author and a reader. A strong sense of place within a novel can only be achieved by writing a setting the author is familiar with. 

I was able to create the character Leona Supak after visiting Budapest, Hungary. I was haunted by a World War II memorial to the Jewish population I saw there while visiting. I began researching the history of Budapest during that time. It served as a springboard for creating Leona and her backstory.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm currently writing a third novel, Sisters of the Undertow. The themes are centered on sibling rivalry and how choices we make often determine who we become.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I am a former journalist and English teacher. I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to write and share my work with readers.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 16

Sept. 16, 1950: Henry Louis Gates Jr. born.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Q&A with Shira Sebban

Shira Sebban is the author of the new book Unlocking the Past: Stories from My Mother's Diary. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Sydney Morning Herald and The Guardian. She is based in Sydney, Australia.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book about your mother's experiences in Israel in the 1950s?

A: As I explain in the book’s preface, after our mother Naomi’s death in 2013, my sister and I discovered a “non-descript, navy-bound volume … stashed away in a drawer of the massive wooden study desk at which [she] had worked as an academic economist for so many years.”

Imagine our surprise to find a diary, which “reads like a film script, relating vivid experiences in the Israel of the mid-1950s” of a young, passionate career woman whom we did not recognize.

“I had long abandoned any hope of uncovering more details of my mother’s past, her memories having gradually been extinguished by Alzheimer’s disease, which had afflicted her for the last decade of her life. Now, 60 years later, as I turn the diary’s yellowed pages filled with her distinctive script, I feel grateful for the opportunity to discover her anew … becoming acquainted with the person she once was before I was born.”

I thus felt compelled to write this book based on her diary, as it allowed me to explore what life was like in the new State of Israel through the eyes of Naomi as she was then: A still single, late 20-something woman searching for love, who was also somewhat of a stranger in her own land, having returned after a decade away in Australia.

Q: The book is based on your mother's diary, but you write it as "creative non-fiction stories." Why did you choose this form to tell your mother's story?

A: Originally, I wrote an overview about my discovery of the diary and submitted it to the Jewish Literary Journal. The New York-based editors, however, suggested that I focus instead on one or two of Naomi’s diary entries and make them a story on their own.

I did not want to fictionalize my mother’s diary. It was very important to me to convey her life in 1950s Israel as accurately as possible, and so I decided to teach myself how to write creative non-fiction, or as Lee Gutkind, “the god-father of creative non-fiction,” puts it, “true stories well told.”

Having started in academia, before becoming a journalist, creative non-fiction was a completely new challenge for me. I have found this genre to be liberating as it is all about writing in scenes, allowing me to use literary techniques, such as description and dialogue, to immerse the reader in the action.

I wanted you to feel as if you were walking down the streets of the divided city of Jerusalem or winding your way through Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market with Naomi, who thus became a character in her own story, which I changed from first to third person.

The Jewish Literary Journal ended up publishing my first creative non-fiction short story, “Blood in the Market,” in September 2014, and it now forms Chapter 8 of my book.

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

A: Yes, I had to do a considerable amount of research in order to understand what life was like in the foundation years of Israel. As I explain in the Acknowledgments, writing the book “has been like putting a puzzle together, piece by piece, interspersing my mother’s personal experience with historical facts,” where it is crucial to be precise.

1950s Israeli social history has become a respected field of study in its own right, enabling me to learn intimate details about daily life, ranging from Tel Aviv café culture and the party scene to living under sniper fire around the desolate stretch of no-man’s-land between west and east Jerusalem.

Google maps proved to be a wonderful resource, as I traced the routes Naomi would have taken, while the archivist from Tel Aviv’s Cameri Theater kindly provided me with the very programs she would have seen.

A particularly arresting image, which I describe in the book, was how until 1967, an “old, dark and airless bus, crudely covered in armor plate” would make the trip along the one perilous road connecting the Jewish part of divided Jerusalem to Mount Scopus, “the driver peering through a narrow slit across the front window.”

While I was aware of the constant state of insecurity in which Israelis have always lived, it was striking to learn too how tough life was in the early years of the State. Indeed, many of those Naomi meets are keen to seek opportunities overseas. As she writes, they “claim to be great Zionists; still seem to be pleased to stay out of Zion.”

Q: How much did you know about this period in your mother's life before finding the diary?

A: I actually knew very little about this period in my mother’s life. After leaving Israel, Naomi would travel through Europe before settling in Canada where she eventually married and had a family.

As I write in the Afterword, “in later life, as Alzheimer’s took its toll and her vast world became more circumscribed, she clung to these European memories, constantly repeating them until they were virtually the only part of her past she could recall.”

While I was also familiar with stories from her poverty-stricken childhood in Mandatory Palestine, she rarely spoke of life in Israel in the mid-1950s – the period covered by the diary, when she was a post-graduate scholarship student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: In addition to my writing, I am a volunteer refugee advocate as well as a guide at the Sydney Jewish Museum, combining lessons learned from Jewish history and notably the Holocaust with my passion for social justice.

I am hoping to share the stories of some of the asylum seekers I have helped, but only when their status is secure enough for me to do so.

Please see my website for more of my published writing.

I also have family letters in Yiddish, dating back to the 1930s, from my great aunt in Lodz to her sister, my maternal grandmother Chana, in Tel Aviv. Chana also features in Unlocking the Past as she was still living in Tel Aviv when her daughter Naomi returned in the mid-1950s.

While Chana’s parents and sister had come to Palestine in the mid-1920s – even prior to my newlywed grandparents – they had made the tragic decision to return to Poland after losing all their savings, only to perish in the Shoah. I am currently having the letters translated and am hoping to uncover more details of my family history.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Unlocking the Past: Stories From My Mother’s Diary can be purchased as an e-book or paperback from Amazon or Mazo Publishers

Please see here for the launch hosted by the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival.

The book will be launched by Dr. Leah Kaminsky, prize-winning author of The Waiting Room, on 2 December 2018 at Melbourne’s Lamm Jewish Library of Australia.

We are currently working on a Hebrew edition, which will be launched in Israel at the end of the year.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 15

Sept. 15, 1890: Agatha Christie born.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Q&A with J.A. Jance

J.A. Jance is the author of the new suspense novel Field of Bones, the latest in her series about Sheriff Joanna Brady. Jance's many other novels include Until Proven Guilty and Hour of the Hunter. She lives in Seattle, Washington, and Tucson, Arizona.

Q: How do you think your character Joanna Brady has changed over the course of the books you've been writing about her?

A: In the beginning she was a young married woman who is about to be left a 20-something widow, raising a single child. In Field of Bones she has married for the second time and has just given birth to her third child.

In the beginning she was in the insurance business and had no idea that she would go into law enforcement. At the beginning of Field of Bones, she has just won her third four-year term as sheriff.  

As she has matured, she’s learned to understand that both her parents were flawed but loving in their own individual ways. And now, in Field of Bones, with both of her parents gone she’s now the grownup in the room.

Q: Did you need to do much research to write Field of Bones, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?

A: Having grown up in Cochise County, I was surprised to discover the existence of a volcano in the far eastern corner of the county—Paramore Crater. When I researched it further, it turned out to be a kind of volcano I had never heard of before—a maar volcano. Maars are formed when molten rock (magma) encounters groundwater with explosive results.

Q: How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: I like to think of my settings as characters in the books. My family moved to Arizona from South Dakota when I was four. My first memory is of the day we moved into the house in Bisbee. I remember hanging on the fence, looking up and the clear blue sky and feeling the sun all over my body.  

I believe I fell in love with Arizona that day, and 70 years later, I think that very real love of place shines through my work.

Q: Which authors do you particularly admire?

A: I admire J.K Rowling, whose books created a whole new generation of recreational readers. I admire Agatha Christie, whose life and career has always been a beacon for me.  

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m currently working on the next Ali Reynolds book, The A-List.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: From the time I was in second grade, I always wanted to be a writer. It’s a wonderful miracle that I’m getting to live my dream.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 14

Sept. 14, 1860: Hamlin Garland born.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Q&A with Gail Jarrow

Gail Jarrow is the author of Spooked!: How a Radio Broadcast and The War of the Worlds Sparked the 1938 Invasion of America, a new book for older kids. Her other books include Bubonic Panic and Fatal Fever. She lives in Ithaca, New York.

Q: Why did you choose the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast as the subject of your new book?

A: As I researched my Deadly Diseases Trilogy (Red Madness, Fatal Fever, Bubonic Panic), I saw the way faulty thinking and lack of analysis led researchers  to the wrong conclusion about the cause and best treatment for each disease. 

Scientists and doctors held onto flawed beliefs even when other people presented solid proof of an alternative theory. As a result, patients suffered. 

This made me think about why people are fooled and misled, and I decided to find a hoax illustrating what can happen when one doesn’t gather evidence and think critically.

I settled on the War of the Worlds broadcast after I discovered (from an informal survey of middle school students) that my target readers had never heard about it.  The broadcast wasn’t an intentional hoax, but the results were the same—a duped audience.  

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

A: First, I read the H.G. Wells novel again and listened to the actual 1938 broadcast. Then I read autobiographies and interviews involving the radio broadcast’s creators.

Digging into newspaper archives, I read the contemporary reports about the broadcast. I tapped secondary sources and interviewed experts to educate myself about radio broadcasting and human psychology.

But the most fun was visiting archives to read the 2,000 letters and telegrams from the public to Orson Welles and the Federal Trade Commission. People had strong opinions about the broadcast, and they weren’t shy about sharing them.

The biggest surprise for me was discovering that the decades-long conventional wisdom about a widespread panic was based on a flawed scientific study. It was a twist that I didn’t expect when I chose the topic.

Q: Why do you think the broadcast had such a huge impact, and do you think something similar could happen today?

A: In 1938, the world was on the verge of war. Many people were fearful. I think their anxiety made some of them susceptible to an invasion story. In fact, a few listeners later admitted that they assumed the invaders were Germans, not Martians.

The other key element was that radio broadcasting was a relatively recent technology. Although more homes had a radio than a telephone and radio listening was a top recreational activity, the public was not yet savvy about what they heard over the airwaves.  

People had learned to pay attention to breaking news flashes, such as the reports from Europe about Hitler’s aggression. So when Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre used fictional news flashes to develop their updated War of the Worlds plot, some radio listeners assumed the reports were genuine. 

I see direct parallels with today’s Internet. Many people aren’t discerning enough about its content. Anyone who spends time with social media knows that some of us are as gullible as our ancestors were in 1938. I include a few examples of Internet hoaxes at the end of my book. So, yes, I do believe the potential for panic over content—either fabricated or unintentionally wrong— is still possible. 

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

A: Be skeptical. Don’t believe everything you see, hear, and read. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Next fall, Calkins Creek will publish The Poison Eaters, a NF book for grades 5-12. The narrative takes place in the late 1800s to early 1900s, when food and drugs were unregulated and the public was literally eating poison.

I tell the story of the amazing, hard-fought battle to better protect Americans, culminating in the founding of the Food and Drug Administration. 

Right now, I’m in the middle of researching Blood and Germs, a NF book about Civil War medicine that will be published by Calkins Creek in fall 2020. It will be the first book in my new trilogy, Medical Fiascos. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I love learning new information as I research my books. But the best part is realizing how relevant these historical topics are. History is worth our attention. Knowing about the past can help us better navigate the present.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 13

Sept. 13, 1916: Roald Dahl born.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Q&A with S.K. Perry

S.K. Perry is the author of the new novel Let Me Be Like Water. She also has written the poetry collection Curious Hands. She lives in London.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Let Me Be Like Water, and for your character Holly?

A: I started writing the book in 2012, when I'd just finished university and was working in a call centre.

I was writing on my journey to and from work and on my breaks, and the scraps of writing ever so slowly became a novel; it wasn't something I initially set out to do, and up til that point I had kept most of my writing very private.

Then I started performing spoken word poetry and so experimenting with work that is written to be heard out loud, and the book started to grow into that; I was trying to shape Holly's voice - speaking as she does to Sam - as an auditory one.

Holly was someone I got to know slowly. It was my first novel and I really enjoyed discovering this about all the characters, how they take over and do their own thing, showing you who they are themselves.

I guess one thing I did deliberately with Holly was make her as young as she is, partly because I had not encountered many depictions of women in their early 20s experiencing such an intimate grief.  

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

A: I changed it lots. Not a lot actually happens in the book, so the biggest edits I made were around the ordering of the chapters (which are very short, some just a few sentences long).

I wrote this book over several years, and so a lot of research went into it too, and that shaped the shifts and re-workings that I undertook. 

Q: What do you think the book says about grief, and also about friendship?

A: Now that it can belong to readers, I don't really think it's my place to answer that. I imagine it will mean different things to each person who chooses to read it, and that is the magic of a book, maybe.

I love that you asked about friendship too though, because whilst this is absolutely a book about grief, I really enjoyed developing the friendships in it, and the love story between Holly and Sam too, which is really (I think) at its core. 

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

A: The book takes place over a year - the first year after Sam has died - and is divided into four sections: each named for a season, and each starting with a haiku.

The phrase “let me be like water” is in one of the haikus, and so my agent and I pulled it from there. Water is such a huge part of the book; the sea, the coast, and the weather - all bound by the seaside setting of Brighton (UK) - hold the story, and hold Holly too.

I think the book is about her trying to escape grief -- to do anything she can to make it not be true that Sam is dead. She wants to run away, to disappear, to hurl herself about... these are all things that water can do. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am just about to start a PhD at Manchester Metropolitan University, with a scholarship from the AHRC to write my next novel. I am also writing a collection of short stories and maybe some poems too, that all address healing and recovery after sexual violence. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I don't think you can write if you don't read, so I'll tell you what's on my bedside cabinet.

I have just finished Virgie Tovar's You Have The Right To Remain Fat, and I believe every person should read it; it's a gorgeous, courageous, world-changing book.

I'm also partway through Daisy Johnson's Everything Under - so far it's keeping me guessing, which I like - and I'm re-reading Sophie Collins' Small White Monkeys, a bold and affirming book on the aftermath of sexual assault. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 12

Sept. 12, 1916 or 1917: Han Suyin born.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Q&A with John Lingan

John Lingan is the author of the new book Homeplace: A Southern Town, A Country Legend, and the Last Days of a Mountaintop Honky-Tonk. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times Magazine and BuzzFeed. He lives in Maryland.

Q: What first interested you about singer Patsy Cline and her hometown of Winchester, Virginia?

A: I tend to write a lot about music, particularly mid-century American music, so I just happened to be listening to Patsy one night and thought she might be fun to write about.

Then I was surprised to learn that she grew up quite close to my home near D.C. The proximity and the incredible timeless aura of her music made me want to find out more, and it ended up being a much bigger story than I ever expected.

Q: How did you learn about the Troubadour Bar & Lounge, and its owner, Jim McCoy?

A: Jim is a key figure in Patsy's life and career, the first person to ever put her on the radio. They were both teenagers at the time, and he was the sole country DJ at WINC in Winchester.

Everyone who cares about Patsy in Winchester told me to visit him, so I did, purely out of respect. I then learned about his own life and career, which is much bigger than his early friendship with a legend.

He too became a compelling subject, someone whose long life really reflected a lot of the major changes that occurred in the Shenandoah throughout the second half of the 20th century. 

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

A: Originally I wanted something more recognizable from country music, a lyric or a song title. But they sounded a little overdramatic.

Meanwhile, "homeplace" is a word that Jim, like many southerners, regularly used to describe his whole compound up in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It signified that this spot wasn't just his birthplace, his business place, his place of residence. It was everything.

That word makes me think about people's connection to their land, which was really the unifying theme of all the disparate stories in the book. Everyone is looking to protect their idea of home. I must give credit to my editor Ben Hyman for recognizing the implications and possibilities of that word as a title. 

Q: You write that one theme in the book is "the never-ending American fight between commerce and culture." How does that play out in Winchester?

A: Winchester was founded in the 1740s, incorporated in the 1750s, and played an important role in the French and Indian War, the Civil War, the Shenandoah agricultural boom of the early 20th century, and the continuing immigration battles in the southeast.

There are a lot of potential ways to define this place, lenses through which to interpret it. There are residents whose families go back hundreds of years, and many who just arrived.

There are rich people, poor people, white people, black people, immigrants, social workers, real estate developers, and many more "types" living here, trying to make sense of history and arrive at an honest representation of what this place.

Inevitably, people with money get to write the official history, even though history is often defined by the experiences and sacrifices of working-class folks, Patsy Cline being a perfect example.

So in Winchester, this divide looks like some people wanting to talk about George Washington, Stonewall Jackson, and Harry Flood Byrd, whereas others want to talk about Patsy or Jim McCoy, who were never rich while they lived here. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm scheming some freelance stories for magazines and websites while also looking for a good second book idea. I have some events and readings left for Homeplace, which you can see at my website. But it's exciting to start thinking about new subjects. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I started writing this book about rural America years before Trump became a candidate. Since the election we've of course had a lot of attention paid to communities like Winchester, the "heartland" voters who supposedly got the man to the White House.

I hope that Homeplace contributes to a conversation about the real demographic and ideological complexity of rural areas, one that is gaining steam thanks to writers like Elizabeth Catte and Sarah Smarsh.

Unlike them, I don't come from the place I wrote about, but I think I saw a lot of the same tensions and narrative blind spots that they have.

One of the biggest blind spots in our media is the inability to recognize that "Trump Country" includes boardrooms, the chambers of Congress, the coastal suburbs, Martha's Vineyard, and plenty more ostensibly enlightened places. Rural Americans don't need to be admonished, they need to be listened to. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 9

Sept. 9, 1828: Leo Tolstoy born.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Q&A with Leah Franqui

Leah Franqui is the author of the new novel America for Beginners. She is also a playwright, and has worked as a chef, a real estate agent, and a sewing teacher. A native of Philadelphia, she lives in Mumbai, India.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for America for Beginners?

A: The idea for this book really came from the tour of the United States that my now in-laws took in 2014.

They had come to the United States for the first time to celebrate the graduation of their son, my now husband, from NYU-Tisch, and because it was their first time in the United States, and, for my father-in-law and sister-in-law, their first time outside of India, they wanted to see as much of the country as possible, but they also, all three of them, reacted to being outside of India in really fascinating ways.

They reacted to me in fascinating ways. They were extremely warm and welcoming and great, but they felt so fragile, so helpless, in really interesting ways. They didn’t go places alone. They depended on my husband for everything. They took this tour, which my husband went on with them, and he just loathed it deeply, but even though it exhausted them, they sort of liked it.

They covered six cities across the States in 11 days, and the trip guaranteed 11 Indian dinners. The places the tour company picked for them, most of them were places I’ve never gone, or would go, like Niagara, and Vegas. But for my new Indian family, that is America, and that’s so interesting to me.

My mother-in-law came back and stayed with my husband and me for a month when we got married a few months later. This is typical for Indians, although I found it insane and a bit of an imposition. But it did give us a chance to get to know each other better, and for me to learn more about her.

She was unlike my parents; uncomfortable with people of different backgrounds, horrified by homosexuality, but also she was like my parents, she was and is adaptive, so smart, empathic when she has context. All those things living in one person fascinated me. I was glad she stayed, even though I was happy when she left.

Those two experiences combined became the foundation of this novel.

Q: You tell the story from various characters' perspectives. How did you select your point-of-view characters, and did you write the chapters in the order in which they appear, or did you focus more on one character before turning to another?

A: This novel went through a lot of iterations, and initially every character got chapters in a certain order. Then, with the help of my agent, I realized that didn’t serve the story, and we moved things around, and it’s much better now. But right from the start, I knew I wanted multiple perspectives.

See, the thing about travel is, that everyone’s experience is so singular, but their experience becomes the country for them. This has certainly been my experience living in India. I can talk for hours about what India is, but the truth is, that’s just what India is for me.

So because I wanted to talk about my country, I figured the only way to do it was to have different people present their feelings, because they would all be true, for a given value of truth.

I think the characters sort of rose organically. I didn’t ever have other people in the mix, it was always these four people, Jake, Pival, Satya and Rebecca.

They were the people who made sense to me, two people searching for something they’ve lost, two people escaping something. Three people on a trip, one waiting, without knowing that he is doing so. He is the beacon, and they are the ship. It just worked for me. I wish I had a better more strategic answer, but that’s it, it just made sense to me. I don’t regret it!

Q: How did you select the locations your characters traveled to, and how important is setting to you in your writing?

A: So, these tours are real. People really do these, thousands of them. There are tours set up for Indian tourists and I researched them and they are variations on a theme. That’s how I picked the destinations, and of course I was guided by my in-laws and their trip.

One thing that’s weird is that many tours stop at the Corning Glass Museum, which is just so strange, because first of all, do all these people have a burning passion for glass? Probably not, it probably speaks to the docile nature of tour groups.

A lot of them stop at Harrisburg, because it’s halfway between Niagara and D.C., and I changed that to Philadelphia because Philadelphia is wonderful and I grew up there and Harrisburg…is a city that exists. I also added New Orleans and the Grand Canyon, although longer trips have the Grand Canyon.

I would never take a tour like this, I just want to state that for the record.

I think setting is really important. It’s an essential part of story, it’s one of the tenants of Aristotle in the Poetics, where a story happens matters. Place informs action.

In this novel, the act of travel informs the story, these people are stuck together, and they are there to see things, it gives the story structure, it gives it a ticking clock, that all works to the good, I hope!

Q: You note that you did a lot of reading and research to write the novel. Did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?

A: Well, I really knew nothing about Bangladesh or its history before I started working on this novel, so I guess it surprised me that I had no idea that in 1971 this massive conflict displaced over 10 million people and totally altered multiple nations, but that’s sort of telling, in a way, too.

After all, things like that happen all the time and we don’t hear about them in the West, and that’s sort of the feeling I tried to give Rebecca, like, wow, the world is big and I should know more about it.

I also didn’t know much about tours before I started writing! And now I know more than I ever needed to know.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a few things, some new novel ideas, a television show, some screenplay concepts. I’m always pretty inundated with story! And of course, I’ve been remiss about updating my sewing blog because I’ve been busy with America for Beginners, so I’ve got to catch up on that!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: When it comes to this novel, I hope that readers take away the feeling that it’s never too late, or too early, to start over, to change your life. Movement and change are scary and loss is devastating, but standing still is another way to say paralyzed.

Perhaps this is a new world mentality, but I believe it, I believe that internalizing Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis about new frontiers as a way to keep exploring the world is something that can help you stay open.

Growing is a choice, and you must keep making it if you want it to keep happening. Bravery is contextually defined, but it’s worth trying to achieve, because it begets itself.

This is going to sound sappy, but I actually really do believe that what connects us is more important and persuasive than what separates us, and that exploring the world will remind you of that, time and again, while digging down into the depths of your own assumptions and experience can close you off to that.

I hope that people feel some sense of that when they read this book, and that they feel connected to these characters, and inspired to begin something new in their own lives, no matter the scale, no matter how painful, because it’s worth it.

I still believe, more fiercely and fully than ever before, that we need to be looking for what connects us so we can be good to each other, be kind, keep giving, keep fighting for a country and a world that celebrates what makes us different. 

The New World, in theory, is a place where you can come and what you are is supposed to be more important than what you have come from. I believe in that, in making that promise a reality, and I think we have to keep doing that work daily. I hope readers take that away, too, that mission.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb