Sunday, September 30, 2018

Q&A with Tracy Farr

Tracy Farr is the author of the new novel The Hope Fault. She also has written the novel The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt. A former research scientist, she lives in Wellington, New Zealand.

Q: You've said that with your new novel, you wanted to create something different from your first novel. Was your writing process different this time as well?

A: It was. One of the most striking differences was that writing the second novel was a very solitary process. While writing my first novel, The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, I sought input from a number of beta readers, over several revisions (and several years!).

Then I worked with my publisher on a series of major revisions, both before and after we went to contract on that first book. I felt so lucky – and learned so much – having that level of collegial care and professional attention.

While that first book’s manuscript benefited from being shared with other writers and readers, what The Hope Fault seemed to need most was for me to read widely.

Sometimes that reading felt like distraction or procrastination, seemingly unrelated to what I was writing – and yet, whether by stumbling instinct or intelligence or serendipity, it almost always ended up feeding the manuscript.

One of the most useful things I seem to have learned from the process of writing the first novel was to be patient and gentle with myself, particularly when things didn’t seem to be moving or working.

I gave myself time to process ideas, for the work to happen in my head, and in my notebooks. I learned to back off, give myself space and time, rather than to pressure myself to make quantifiable word-count progress every day.

It wasn’t a conscious decision, but I just didn’t feel the need to show the manuscript of The Hope Fault to anyone as I wrote. Perhaps it’s truer to say that the manuscript wasn’t coherent enough to show anyone until – right at the end, when I pulled it all together – it was finished. Until that point, it was a great big amorphous thing, like a cloud, without edges, without form.

So, no one saw or read any of it until I sent it to my publisher and said, “I think I’m done.” That instinct proved to be a good one: there was only relatively minor revision required on the manuscript from that point. It was pretty much there, in its final form.

Q: Your character Iris, you've noted, originated in an unfinished manuscript you wrote a long time ago. How did you separate her from her original surroundings and write something new for her?

A: I’d written an Iris character in a few different stories over the years. In the unfinished novel manuscript, I’d written her both as a child and as an adult; there’s an early short story of mine, “Quiddity,” published in an anthology here in New Zealand in 2005, that features an adult Iris (though she’s called Ruth in that published version).

Having written Iris in different situations, and at different ages, I felt really comfortable taking her into the new setup of this novel – or perhaps it was the other way around, and in setting up the extended family that would populate The Hope Fault, I’d finally come up with the right home for Iris.

There’s one main aspect of Iris’ character that carries through all the different times I’ve written her: a sense of stillness, of being the fixed point at the centre of the lives of those around her. It was clear to me from the outset that there was something about stillness that was central to The Hope Fault, so it made sense that I turned to Iris.

In some respects, the important thing in this novel isn’t the specific landscape; it’s more about the people contained within the house. And yet … maybe landscape is everything.

When I started writing the novel, I set it in New Zealand, where I live, with Iris living in the suburbs of Wellington’s south coast, and the holiday house across the hill in the countryside just an hour or so away.

The unfinished manuscript I took Iris from was set in Wellington, too, so it felt quite comfortable to walk her into this new family situation in suburban Wellington. But at a certain point while writing the first draft, I realised something wasn’t working at quite a fundamental level.

The solution – for a whole set of logistic reasons – was to shift the novel from being set predominantly in New Zealand (where I’ve lived for more than 20 years) to being set in Western Australia (where I grew up).

That shift in setting solved the problems I was having, but also required me to make a range of downstream changes, and rethink the direction of the novel. I wonder now if that shift also helped me write something new for Iris, give her a fresh start.

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

A: I really didn’t know, at an early stage, exactly how the novel would end, though there was always in my mind a clear sense that the novel would end in some form of ritual, or celebration. I had to write my way into the novel to find the precise details of that ritual.

I wanted the novel to open out (in many senses) at the end. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that, though this novel is drenched in rain, at a certain point the rain stops. So there was always a sense that I was writing towards some sort of literal and metaphoric clearing: a clear view, clearing skies, coming out of the house and into sunshine.

I also had a strong visual sense of the final scene as a long film shot – or perhaps as frames in a graphic novel – with the camera/point of view pulling back and up and up, and widening right out, so the detail (of faces, of words, of names) is no longer visible, and we finish on a really wide, high shot – a crane shot, though perhaps a drone shot is more likely these days – looking down at the family together in the landscape, before we fade to black, or turn the final page.

Q: You've said that your next novel involves triplets. Why did that interest you?

A: I was already interested in writing about “multiples” – twins, triplets – back in mid-2015, when I was close to completing my revised draft of The Hope Fault.

I can’t recall now what had prompted me to write that novel’s sibling characters, Paul and Marti, as twins, though I recall reading The Grass Catcher, Ian Wedde’s 2014 book of memoir/essay, and his writing about being a twin made a strong impression on me.

Having decided to write Paul and Marti as twins, I was curious about how the twin relationship differed from singleton sibling relationships.

With serendipitously perfect timing, there was an exhibition in mid-2015 at City Gallery in Wellington of video installation works by Berlin-based South African artist Candice Breitz.

Factum (2010) is a series of video works, in each of which Breitz interviews a set of identical twins (and in one, “Factum Tang,” a set of triplets), all of different ages and backgrounds and circumstances.

Each work is composed and edited to examine, reveal, and play on similarities and differences in what the twins say and how they say it – how individual voices harmonise, and how they distinguish themselves from the other.

Breitz has a Vimeo channel where you can see a range of her work online, including some of the Factum works (e.g. "Factum Tremblay," "Factum Tang."

In the end, though, I didn’t write about the twin relationship as much in The Hope Fault as I thought I might; it was very much in the background. So it felt like something I still wanted to explore in my writing.

Once I’d finished The Hope Fault, and it was time to start work on this new novel, I dug out my early notes that conceptualised Wonderland as a novel about two sisters.

But on the first line (dated January 1st, an auspicious day for new starts) in my new writing notebook (titled “Wonderland the 1st”) I wrote:
Where to start? It may be that there are 3 sisters, rather than two.
Then later that same day, a few pages on in my notebook, I wrote:
Are they triplets? (identical??)

By the end of that first day of work on the new novel, I’d convinced myself: yes, they’re triplets; yes, they’re identical. And some of the themes I’m exploring as I write are ideas that shook me when I saw the video installations by Candice Breitz: the nature of identity, reflection and reproduction.

I’m interested in reproduction in a more visual or photographic sense – making a copy of something – rather than the biological sense (though that is clearly part of this novel, too); I’m interested in the extent to which a “copy” is different, and the extent to which it’s the same. I’m interested in how sibling voices harmonise.

There’s another aspect to this, too. Sisters intrigue me. I don’t have sisters – I have one sibling, a younger brother – and so the whole idea of the sister relationship is very strange and unfamiliar to me. I like writing about things I don’t properly understand, to try to make some sense of them, I suppose, or write my way towards understanding.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 30

Sept. 30, 1924: Truman Capote born.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Q&A with Abbi Waxman

Abbi Waxman is the author of the new novel Other People's Houses. She also has written the novel The Garden of Small Beginnings. She has worked in advertising as a copywriter and creative director, and she lives in Los Angeles.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Other People's Houses?

A: I knew when I was writing The Garden of Small Beginnings that I wanted to write a book about a mom with older kids. I had written the opening chapter much earlier, and then got back into Garden, so it was always sitting there.

I live in Larchmont, the neighborhood both books are set in, and there's always so much going on under the surface.

Q: You tell the story from various characters' perspectives. Did you know going into the writing who would end up being your primary point-of-view characters?

A: I knew I wanted to center the story around a middle aged, slightly overweight woman who was doing her best to just get it all done. Much like myself and many of my friends.

Q: You bring back a character from your previous novel, The Garden of Small Beginnings. Did you always plan to do that, or was it more spontaneous?

A: I'd always planned it, because I love it when other writers do it. Characters from both Garden and Other People's Houses appear in the third book, The Bookish Life of Nina Hill, which comes out early next summer. All three books are about the neighborhood, and all these people know each other in different ways.

Q: These books take place in Los Angeles. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: It's very important, but only because it's important to the characters.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Well, I just finished Nina Hill, which I'm very happy with. It's more like Garden than it is like Other People's Houses, more of a romance. It's about a young woman who works in the bookstore on Larchmont Boulevard.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The next book, which doesn't have a name yet, is set in Manhattan and has nothing to do with Los Angeles at all. It's a romantic comedy; I love them, I love rom-com movies, and I feel we all need a laugh right now.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Abbi Waxman.

Sept. 29

Sept. 29, 1547: Miguel de Cervantes born.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Q&A with Elizabeth Lilly

Elizabeth Lilly is the author and illustrator of the new children's picture book Geraldine. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Geraldine, and why did you make her a giraffe?

A: Geraldine arrived in my head fully formed as an awkward giraffe one day in my school cafeteria in art college. I had a small cup of water and wanted a straw, but could only find a huge long straw to drink it with.

I thought, the only one who would like to drink out of this gigantic straw is a giraffe. I went to my studio and drew a tall giraffe girl squished into a narrow piece of paper, bending awkwardly to drink out of a three-foot straw. Geraldine had arrived!

Only much later, when talking with a close friend, did I realize that her personality is completely based on myself. I’m Colombian, with a conservative family, and I was always in very liberal, white-American school settings, and I often changed schools.

As a result I was always the new kid in school, feeling different, awkward and left out. As I got older I figured out how to be comfortable even in places and situations where I wasn’t like everyone else.

I didn’t start with writing about myself and then go, hmm, I could communicate this better if I was a giraffe. It just happened that way!

I guess I was writing from the feelings that felt the most real and genuine to me, and accidentally sort of put those feelings into a giraffe character. Sometimes it happens that way, you stumble into a great character when you aren’t looking.

Q: Did you focus on the illustrations first or the text (or did you work on them simultaneously)?

A: I did a lot of sketches first to figure out Geraldine’s personality and find the ways she liked to move and behave. Then I developed the manuscript, and then did the preliminary sketches of what would go on each page. (This early text/sketch version of the book is called the “dummy book.”)

I adjusted the manuscript a lot at this point to fit better with what I wanted to draw. Luckily as an author-illustrator, I get to go back and forth and adjust both until I’m exactly happy with the final book.

When the sketches of each page and the text for each page are locked in and my editor and I are both happy with the dummy book, I go to make the final illustrations. In Geraldine’s case, this meant drawings made with black waterproof ink and an old-fashioned nib pen, and watercolor painted over top.

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

A: I hope kids take away that sometimes, especially if they’re in a new place, they may be different, and that’s ok. There isn’t a magic pill or trick to make you not-different when you really aren’t like other people.

But if you look for them, there are always other people around who are different too. You may feel alone, but you can always find someone with whom you can be alone together.

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?

A: I think early reader and middle grade novelists create magic. It’s an extremely tough age range to write for because the kids reading them may have just reluctantly given up picture books, and won’t take a chance on something where the plot is confusing or stilted, or the prose isn’t flowing just right.

My favorite ones at that age, which I ripped to shreds reading and rereading, were Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine, and Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan. They both have strong female main characters who have to confront extremely difficult life circumstances, and when they feel very alone, they reach inward for strength to carry them through.

As for picture book writing, it’s such a short medium that I think what’s extremely difficult is getting a strong emotional reaction (laughing, crying, huge smiles, sighs of sadness, gasps of delight or surprise) from the reader in the space of a five or 10 minute reading experience.

The worst picture books, in my eyes, are ones you flip through and just put back on the shelf without your soul being affected even the littlest bit.

Mac Barnett’s writing kills me, it’s so funny, especially in the book Extra Yarn where a little girl knits from a literally never-ending box of yarn.

Tomi Ungerer’s books are weird and quirky in absolutely the best way possible, especially Crictor, which is about a boa constrictor who loves his elderly owner and saves his town from criminals. I can’t look at any of his books without a huge smile.

Same with Serge Bloch, especially in My Snake Blake, where another silly snake helps his little boy do his homework by spelling out letters.

Gabrielle Vincent writes & illustrates the Ernest and Celestine books which are childhood classics in France, and are so genuinely sweet and tender that every single time I choke back a sigh of happiness mixed with sadness. Magic I tell you!!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I was awarded a two-book contract when I got Geraldine, and I’m working on the second book of the contract now.

It isn’t a Geraldine sequel because publishers wait to commission sequels until they hear back on the sales figures from the first one so they’ll be sure of demand. Hopefully that will be in the future! We’ll have to wait and see.

In the meantime, my second author-illustrated book (for the publisher Holiday House) is in the works, due out in 2020. It’s an autobiographical story about growing up visiting my two grandmothers, one Appalachian-American living on a mountain in West Virginia, and one Colombian living in the Hispanic palm-lined neighborhoods of Florida.

It has a lot of great images of the food they made and the houses and kitchens they cooked in. It’s been a tough, intimidating challenge to switch to something so different from the silliness of sad giraffes, but also very fun and rewarding.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: If anyone is thinking of, or hoping and dreaming of, getting into picture books as a professional, know that it’s not easy. For every single person with books on the shelves, it’s been a long, slow slog to get to that day.

If you are having a hard time of it, it’s not because you’re not good enough; it’s because that’s just how it is for everyone. Keep going!!! Children need your unique voice, the thoughts that only YOU can write, in their books and media.

I had to go on many 4 a.m. buses, spend money I didn’t have on conferences while eating ramen and beans at home, knock on doors and doors and beg for people to let me make Geraldine.

Once I had some interest from agents, I had to scrap the book almost completely and rewrite and rewrite. Finally I had the contract and went through a grueling production process. It’s said very often that nothing worth having is easy. VERY true words!

The book community is full of tryers; we all love and support each other because we know exactly how hard it is. So get into it, go to conferences, join online communities, find other people in the same boat, and keep reading, writing and drawing. It will all be worth it, I swear.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 28

Sept. 28, 1856: Kate Douglas Wiggin born.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Q&A with Meredith Goldstein

Meredith Goldstein is the author of the new book Can't Help Myself: Lessons & Confessions from a Modern Advice Columnist. She also has written the new young adult novel Chemistry Lessons and the novel The Singles. She is a features reporter and writes the "Love Letters" advice column for The Boston Globe. She lives in Boston.

Q: In your new book Can’t Help Myself, you discuss your work as an advice columnist and how you handle your own life. Do you often see parallels between your life and the advice you give your readers, and what impact has writing the column had on you?

A: I didn't when I started. In the beginning, I couldn't see the direct parallel between my own problems and those of my readers. But then, during that first year, I got a letter from someone who'd been dumped – and it was a letter I could have written myself.

After that, I felt a bond with every letter writer. Sure, their problems are unique and have nothing to do with me, but it's impossible not to learn something from every single one of them.

Often, by thinking about someone else's issues, I walk away with a better understanding of my own. I'm so grateful. (If you're interested, this is the letter that made me realize we're all in this together.

Q: Your book deals with some very sad and difficult experiences, but you also write with a lot of humor. What do you see as the right balance between the two?

A: My sister taught me to see the humor in almost all situations. I don't think my family has ever had a moment of sadness without eventually falling into laughter. Even as we lost my mother to cancer, we made jokes. She would have wanted that, I think.

Life can be miserable and funny, and I believe those emotions are meant to be experienced together. One saves you from the other.  I always think about my favorite scene in Steel Magnolias, when Sally Field cries in grief – and then her friends make her laugh. I want that in every story. I want that kind of joy in my own life during the worst moments.

I hope I pulled that off in the book. I love a good Steel Magnolias cry.

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

A: This book had so many names! We couldn't decide. And then my Globe editor, Janice Page, said, "How about 'Just Can't Help Myself'?" And I said, "Take off the 'Just.'" So we both get credit. I love that it works on three levels: helplessness, impulsiveness, and, of course, the song title. It's been in my head for a year.

Q: You’ve also written a young adult novel that was published recently. What was the inspiration for Chemistry Lessons?

A: Chemistry Lessons is about a teen who gets dumped (much like I do in Can't Help Myself), and has just dealt with the loss of a parent (like me). The rest of it is fiction; it's my breakup fantasy book. The main character, Maya, an MIT-bound science student, tries to manipulate her love life in a lab. If only I could have done that in real life.

I love reading YA and am honored to have a book out in that world. Most nights, you'll find me curled up with an excellent young adult novel. (At the moment, it's Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson.)

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Another YA book about love and loss, of course. I am always very on-brand. Laughter and tears, hopefully.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I welcome letters to my column! If you like "Can't Help Myself" and want some love advice, visit and join the party. Worth noting: There have been two marriages that have come out of my comments section. It's a good place to be.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Meredith Goldstein.

Sept. 27

Sept. 27, 1917: Louis Auchincloss born.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Q&A with Peter Nathaniel Malae

Peter Nathaniel Malae is the author of the new novel Son of Amity, which takes place in Oregon. His other books include the novels Our Frail Blood and What We Are. He lives in the Pacific Northwest.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Son of Amity, and for the family you write about?

A: I was driving home from a 500-word writing session for my last novel, Our Frail Blood, down a pretty isolated country road that leads to my neighborhood. I had a CD of CCR on and was kind of disappearing into the music, as I sometimes do as a form of recovery after a day of digging through a scene. 

Anyway, this one song of theirs, “Run Through the Jungle,” opened up on the radio. It starts with this sort of long deep yet piercing guitar chord that sounds almost like a hell-bound demon moaning about being hell-bound, and as it was really stretching out, I thought, Wouldn’t that be crazy to be sitting in a movie theater in the dark when this sound comes on full blast, and then when the song starts into its riff eight seconds later the film opens with a close-up to a guy’s face. He’s driving up from a faraway place, you discover, to confront his sister’s rapist. 

Once I got this “image,” I had about two minutes until I reached my home. By the time I turned off the car, about 75 percent of the novel’s major plot points had already filled in for me, a skeletal story, if you will. From there it was just a matter of slapping on muscle and skin, and getting the story’s blood flowing. 

This is less rare then a non-writer might think: by the end of the day, on average, I’ve written a story or two in my head, a novel start once a week, but for some reason most of them die. Son of Amity determinedly held on like lucky salmon spawn, elusively escaping the assassin of my own brain, which is the same strange entity that birthed it.

Q: You tell the story from various family members' perspectives. Did you decide on your point of view characters from the beginning, or did you change things around as you wrote?

A: I’d just finished a novel, Our Frail Blood, which had ambitiously employed three different narrative vantages: first person active present; third person limited past; third person omniscient past. 

The novel is about 600 pages and when I hit the 300-page mark, I was gonna scrap it. At that point, I’d worked on it every day for a year and a half.

I couldn’t bear the thought of cutting it loose, though, and so I printed everything up one day, and sat in a coffee shop on this big table with all the papers in chapters around me. Took me about 10 hours of shuffling, but I finally figured out a way to structurally hold those three narrative vantages together without violating the integrity of the book. 

I share that now because it gave me confidence to be able to (almost) always forge order into the book, if I stay with three things going forward: real story-telling about real humans in real situations. I did have to scrap 50 pages of that novel, and so there was “loss” of writing that I liked, in and of itself, detached from the book. 
With Son of Amity, I felt that the structure of the book was very easy coming off of Our Frail Blood. This is pertinent to the question because revolving narrative perspectives need to be buttressed by structure. 

Two things I’d sort of subconsciously planned to happen: 1. I’d build up expositional backstory in the first third of the book.

This would be somewhat tough to read because of the intensity of its situations, tension-filled to the bone, and seemingly impossible to negotiate narratively. The book, like the characters themselves, wouldn’t be able to hold this kind of story to story’s end. I wanted the book to almost break, like the characters. 

And yet 2. the last two-thirds of the book, though comprising more narrative “space,” would actually go comparatively fast. This because there would be a release of the tension, as the same people who’d been screwed in the first third of the book would conceivably try unscrewing themselves, as a struggling family unit, in the last two thirds. 

Even writing this now it seems like you’re setting up stakes you can’t stand by. But that is exactly the reason to keep writing. More importantly, it underestimates the power of a child to stoke hope in even the most desperate of us adults. 

This really is a love-story dedicated to my sons, who, by merely existing, saved me from the most screwed of positions, and even still save me from that easy somewhat tired authorial cynicism about which there are too many real-life burn-outs to detail here.  That’s for the 924 bio section of the public library to contain.  

(As I write this, I’m remembering that I’d thought of Son of Amity as a slightly different metaphor: a dam. Fill it with water in the first third of the book, release it in the second two-thirds, and see who survives the flood. Also, the work of two writers gave me confidence in the sense that I didn’t feel alone: Faulkner (structure) and Denis Johnson (tone).)  

Q: The story takes place in a small town in Oregon. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: For me writing place rightly is more than a matter of narrative vitality; without soap-boxing, I actually see it as a moral matter.  Saul Bellow wrote about this in his own way in a Paris Review interview. 

As there are real human beings living the stories you’re writing about, you have a real true responsibility as a novelist to get the story right. They are a part of the real place you’ll presumably render a version of. 

Furthermore, as literary novels are comprised of suffering, trauma, death, you’re obligated to get at the story’s deeper level with accuracy, which is a way of being respectful, and that even goes for the surface details, now that I think about it. I believe that every word is either strengthened by this, or infected by the lack of it. 

The present-day argument about cultural appropriation has everything to do with this idea: while every writer appropriates at some level, the authorial license isn’t just handed out like bingo chips. 

If people are suffering, if there is death involved, then any writer picking up the pieces and putting them to narrative order better be able to get the nod, and maybe even blessing, from the very people who’ve lived it. 

My standard is, If you’re gonna write a story about a lifer in prison, you need to get the blessing from the lifer in prison. He needs to look at what you’ve done, and say, Go, my son. You’ve done okay by my story. That standard, by subsummation, should bring every other kind of reader to the table since their standard of authenticity is lower than the person who’s lived the story. 

This is why before MFA programs and the internet “write what you know” was such a popular form of advice to young writers.
I tried holding to this same standard with Son of Amity, as I do with all my books. For instance, it took me living in small-town Oregon for half a decade before I started writing about the state. I didn’t trust my storytelling instincts to be free of the urban stories I’d been raised by and in, and had told in my three previous books. 

I worked on other stuff, set in California and Hawaii, but waited for Oregon stories to develop naturally, if at all. Actually, I did more than that: I started fishing: the Nestucca, the South Yamhill, the Row, and even some ponds like Sheridan Ponds, where I could get to know the people who live here. 

At the time I started the book (2010), Yamhill County was officially one of the poorest in the state of Oregon. Whiteson, half of Amity, Sheridan, Willamina, Grand Ronde, parts of Dayton, and even of Mac have pockets of white poverty that made me reassess certain ideas I’d had, culled of my own real-life experience. 

In the novel, the character Pika, a Samoan ex-con from urban California, references Malcolm X’s growth from a Black Muslim to a Muslim as similar to his own learning about white poverty.  Both had to be honest about what they were seeing, both had to broaden their horizons, and discharge the flotsam. 

Pika had always thought that poverty was exclusively brown, but he finds himself living in a part of Amity where the evidence suggests something else. Every place, he learns, has its own way of defining itself. 

He’s courageous in that sense: he asks questions about his own existence which could well challenge it definitionally. At the same time, he’s worried, even as he’s learning about Oregon, about his own end in Oregon.   
Q: How was the novel's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: I’m fortunate to live right up the way from Amity, which means friendship. The boy in this story, for whom each of the three adults are trying to directly face their own backstories, is born of Amity, born of the horror of friendship, or else of the dream of its potential beauty.

The story cannot exist without the boy. Each of the adults, it’s easy to see, will drown without him. I’ve often thought this: sure, we feed and protect and clothe and educate our kids, but our kids keep us from drowning in cynicism. That’s a fair trade. 

Look around, without your kids, one day, and I think you’ll feel me. The stuff that makes us unique as humans—hope—comes back at us, day after day, via our kids’ existence, and in unexpected, often unappreciated, ways. Benji, then, is the son of Amity, a living embodiment of hope. 

I played with the term throughout the book, including the scene where a Hispanic gangbanger uses the term in Spanish, un hijo de Amidad, except pejoratively. At the center of it all, holding it together, is a kid who doesn’t really get why these people he loves hate each other so much. His journey of discovery is as much their own, of themselves, of each other. 

In Pika, a savvy urban ex-con from the “browner” parts of Cali, you have, presumably, the opposite of Michael, a five-tour Iraq War decorated Marine from small-town Oregon with a secret crime that nearly defines him. 

Among the other things you want of a book you’ve written, there is the inescapable goal of showing without preaching how much people, even those with true enmity, truly have in common. They just gotta stop for a second and check it out. A book, which forces you to remove yourself from real time and then accordingly ponder your life in real time, can help with that.    

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on two big epic novels, one set in Samoa, Hawaii, and Cali over three generations, and the other set in Oregon of a man trying to keep his family together against hostile social and cultural forces. 

On the business end, I have a finished novel set in Portland I’m shopping, and a finished story collection set at the paisa migrant campos in Dayton, Oregon. 

Also, I have a play about a state execution and single fatherhood I’m trying to find a home for. I don’t really know the theatre scene, though, and so when I have a little extra time, I go fishing for theaters which I think might like the piece. 

I love to see a play more than anything, especially when it’s a low-budget small-town theater where everyone is clearly pulling a lot of weight, pound for pound, to make the story happen. 

I once saw a woman playing Blanche Dubois go off-stage to weep into her hands, and then return, a minute later, to do her next scene. Watching that, I felt a fraternal kinship to that woman and her work, whomever she was, that I’m still, 20 years later, both tormented and exhilarated by.     

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 26

Sept. 26, 1949: Jane Smiley born.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Q&A with Marvin Kalb

Marvin Kalb is the author of the new book Enemy of the People: Trump's War on the Press, the New McCarthyism, and the Threat to American Democracy. His many other books include The Year I Was Peter the Great and Imperial Gamble. He spent many years as a correspondent for CBS News and NBC News, and is the Edward R. Murrow Professor Emeritus at Harvard's Kennedy School. He currently is a senior advisor at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book?

A: Donald Trump made me write this book. After he pronounced on February 17, 2017, that the American press was the enemy of the American people, I thought he went way over the top.

He’d been critical of the press before, but now he resorted to using an expression that no other leader of a democratic country had done before. Only dictators from the 20th century had done so—people like Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong.

I was pretty sure that he didn’t know the historical origin of the phrase. I understand he got it indirectly from Pat Caddell, the once-liberal political consultant who helped Jimmy Carter become president in 1976.

And he probably thought it was politically helpful to him. But the effect was to demean and belittle the press, to rob it of its essential role as one of the foundational underpinnings of our democracy.

To weaken the American press is to weaken our democracy. I felt I had an obligation to break my own 60-year-long dedication to objectivity. I had to speak up, and I did so in Enemy of the People.

Q: This book marks something of a departure for you in that, as you mentioned, you're stepping out of your role as an observer and expressing more of your own feelings. What was it like to take that approach this time?

A: It was not easy to break a tradition that in my case lasted more than 60 years. I have always believed in the essential decency of the American press. I’m convinced that so long as we have a free press, we will have our democracy. I now intend to do whatever I can, starting with this book, to help the American people understand the essential role of a free press.

Q: In the book, you discuss Edward R. Murrow and his reporting during the McCarthy period. How would you compare that period to the politics and journalism of today?

A: Murrow was a pioneer in radio and television broadcast news. He was, in the early 1950s, the most prominent newsman in the country.

Because he covered the rise of Hitler in Germany in the 1930s, he was always terrified at the thought that American democracy could be weakened by the rise of an authoritarian leader in the U.S.

Senator [Joseph] McCarthy represented, in Murrow’s view, the possible emergence of such a political threat, and he was determined to do what he could on radio and television to underscore the threat he saw in McCarthy.

Murrow’s influence in those years was so great that after his famous broadcast against McCarthy on March 9, 1954, McCarthy’s popularity in the country slipped from 46 percent to 32 percent, and he never recovered.

That showed the power of the press to point a spotlight of truth on a political danger, and stop it in its tracks.

Q: So how does that period compare to today’s journalism?

A: Unfortunately, there is no Murrow today. And the news business, from a financial and technological point of view, has changed profoundly. Can the press today do what Murrow did then? I want to believe the answer is yes, but truly, I’m not sure.

Q: And how would you compare the politics of the McCarthy era to those of today?

A: There is a similarity between McCarthy’s tactics and Trump’s. They both thought that by using and abusing the press, they could accomplish their political aims. We know McCarthy failed.

The question today is whether Trump’s war on the press can achieve his political aim. So far, he has persuaded the majority of Republicans to believe that the press is an enemy of the American people.

But an overwhelming majority of Democrats and independents do not agree, and the future of American democracy will now rest with their judgment.

Q: What do you see when you look ahead, both for this country and for journalism?

A: I have a deep faith in the concept and practice of freedom of the press. History has shown that when a nation enjoys freedom of the press, it has a superb opportunity to live in a democracy. When freedom of the press is imperiled, it opens the door to despotism.

I want to believe that most Americans share my view and will therefore make the right decisions.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. I'm proud to say that Marvin Kalb is my father! Here's an interview we did about The Year I Was Peter the Great.

Sept. 25

Sept. 25, 1897: William Faulkner born.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Q&A with Karen Brooks

Karen Brooks, photo by Stephen Brooks
Karen Brooks is the author of the new novel The Locksmith's Daughter, which takes place in 16th century England. Her other novels include Illumination and The Brewer's Tale. An academic, social commentator, and newspaper columnist, she lives in Australia.

Q: You note that you've always been fascinated by locksmiths. How did you come up with your character Mallory, the 16th century locksmith's daughter?

A: It wasn’t easy coming up with Mallory. When I first started writing, I knew where and how I wanted her to end up, but as to how to introduce her, what type of person she’d be, I was a bit stuck. Basically, she evolved (hopefully as a fully rounded person) as I wrote and rewrote.

I wanted her be someone who, despite being given wonderful opportunities (education, learning a trade at her father’s side, a respectable upbringing) felt she needed to redeem herself in her eyes and society’s because of something dreadful she’d done – a poor choice she’s made.

I think once I pinpointed what kind of mistake she would make and why, her character – her inner strength, ability to own her errors and seek not to repeat them, her strong moral code, empathy, capacity for forgiveness etc – came forward. She learns from her blunders and those others make and doesn’t try to excuse her faults but mend them.

Does that make sense? I fell in love with Mallory as I wrote and wish I was half the woman she is!

I should also tell you, when I first started writing, I didn’t have a name for her (I did most of the other fictional characters); but my heroine’s name eluded me.

Then, one day, I was fetching the mail and there was a letter for the previous owner of the house we’d just bought. Her name was Mallory. That was it: I had my name. That it’s also a version of one of my favourite writers was serendipitous.

Q: The novel includes both fictional and historical characters. What did you see as the right blend between the two?

A: What a great question! It’s hard sometimes to know the “right blend,” but I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when you describe it that way. The real figures need to merge seamlessly with the fictional and vice-a-versa to allow the story to both ring true and sing.

Fortunately, this era had so many wonderful historical figures, so rich yet flawed in their ideals and actions they lent themselves beautifully to not only being acknowledged in their own true right but being fictionalised a little as well.

What I mean, it was relatively easy to flesh the real historical figures out with imaginary dialogue and through their relationships with invented characters. I think that’s how you do it – by making sure the relationships between the real and imagined characters resonate. 

Whether or not you achieve the right blend is, I think, something readers decide. So, you sort of hold your breath and await feedback very nervously in the hope you have accomplished this. I really hope I have with this book – and all my others!

Q: What do you think Mallory's life says about the role of women in Elizabethan England?

A: In many ways, Mallory is an exception rather than the rule. Though I think what some people overlook is, for all the restrictions placed on women in that era in terms of things women take for granted now – education (and literacy), ability to step up professionally, politically and socially and the rights we’ve accrued, and be autonomous (as opposed to having any liberties facilitated by and through men), never mind freedom of religion – England was ruled by a very, very clever and manipulative woman.

Queen Elizabeth Ist defied the typical woman of the period in so many ways by having an independence (of thought if nothing else) that was way beyond what women in other classes could ever hope for.

Having said that, she was answerable to men – her Council etc., but she managed to control and even use them in her own way. She was a remarkable woman and, really, she was a product of that time as much as anyone else.

I took aspects of Elizabeth’s life (its restrictions and freedoms) as a template for exploring what my heroine could and couldn’t do, well aware that even back then there were other women breaking boundaries and being totally corralled by them as well.

Q: You clearly did a great deal of research to write the book--did you learn anything that you found especially surprising?

A: I learned so much that surprised me. Shocked me too – from the restrictions placed on women, lack of literacy, high degree of poverty and violence, to the spendthrift ways and decadence of the court.

But I think the most astonishing/appalling thing for me was the degree of religious intolerance, persecution and the suspicion it engendered – and here I’m talking between Catholics and Protestants – don’t get me started on what was considered non-mainstream religion back then and the troubles there. What happened was horrifying and utterly deadly, which the novel explores.

I say this over and over, the more I learn about the past, I understand that we, sadly, don’t. We keep replicating so many mistakes (unlike Mallory!) which lead to hostility, division and exclusion and for what? I think we forget that what we have in common as humans – our basic humanity - far outweighs any differences.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have just finished editing my next book (out June 2019 with William Morrow) called The Chocolate Maker’s Wife. It’s set during the restoration of Charles II (1660s), another time of huge political and religious upheavals and when London particularly, after years of austerity under Cromwell, became quite hedonistic and naughty.

A range of exotic foodstuffs and drinks came to English (and American) shores during this period and one of these was chocolate, a delicious drink that was considered an aphrodisiac and very, very dangerous – just like the people that ran and occupied the houses which used to serve it…Just like the wife in the title of the book.

It was also the period in which the Plague and Great Fire ravaged the city and transformed not just London and beyond, but people’s lives.

I am also halfway through my next book, which is set in Scotland in the early 1700s and is based on a terrible true story involving witchcraft, religion, money (doesn’t it always?), war, love, loss, authority and a group of amazing strong women. I really hope I get the right blend with this one!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Thank you so much for asking such great questions.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb