Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Q&A with Alice Stephens

Alice Stephens is the author of the new novel Famous Adopted People. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Urban Mozaik, Flung Magazine, and the Washington Independent Review of Books. She lives in the Washington, D.C., area.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Famous Adopted People, and for your character Lisa?

A: Frustrated with the recent rash of novels that told the same old story about transracial adoption, I wanted to write an #ownvoices adoption novel that honestly portrayed the issues facing adopted people while avoiding the popular tropes of a needy third world child finding a forever home or a troubled adoptee finally discovering herself through a reunion with her birth mother.

I decided to set the story in my birth country of Korea, a perfect metaphor for the divided identity of an adoptee: one half a well-adjusted, modern, westernized success story, the other a dark and unknown territory. Once I started writing that first scene in the Dunkin’ Donuts in Seoul, the story surged forth with unstoppable force.

The character of Lisa shares some biographical details with me, such as growing up Asian in the white suburbs of Maryland, studying in China, and teaching in Japan, but she quickly took on a life of her own. While we share some similar flaws, her sins are (mostly) her own.  

Q: In an interview with Bloom, you said, "I did not want my book to cater to the preconceived notions of people rather than try to shake them up and make them re-examine their ideas." Can you say more about that?

A: I was adopted in 1968, right on the cusp of the era when adoption was regarded as a shameful secret. I didn’t meet another adopted person until I was in 8th grade. I was also an early example of both international and interracial adoption, a practice which is now fairly commonplace, revolutionizing the way the general public views adoption.

The old perception of adoption as something that needed to be hidden changed into something that was viewed as admirable and heart-warming, a gauzy, happily ever after fairy tale. Today, that mostly adoptive parent-driven narrative resides side-by-side with the other adoption fairy tale of the reunion of adoptee and birth mother.

For an adoptee, there is no happily ever after, there is only a life, where you have to figure out all the stuff that other people have to figure out, plus deal with confusing, sometimes crippling, identity issues.

So, I set out to depict the anti-adoption fairy tale that completely up-ends popular adoption tropes and encourages readers to question their previous notions of adoption.

And also, most particularly, to give adoptees’ themselves an honest depiction of the adoptee’s journey and lets them know they are not alone in their struggle to come to terms with being adopted.

Q: The book includes quotes at the start of each chapter. Why did you include them, and how did you select them?

A: The quotes are meant to give an idea of the sheer width and breadth of the adoption experience, the huge variety of stories, circumstances, and attitudes.

It has long been my habit to make a mental note of those people in the news who identified themselves as adopted, thus the inclusion of more obscure figures like Michael Reagan, Christina Crawford, or Melissa Gilbert. Some, like Faith Hill and Greg Louganis, I found by googling “famous adopted people,” which was something I started googling as soon as googling became a thing.

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?

A: Oh, gosh, this is a list that grows by the day! I need only refer back to the authors of the last three novels (all my favorite writers are novelists) I read: Jesmyn Ward, Esmé Weijun Wang, and Shirley Jackson. Each of those books were the first that I’d read by that writer, but I will definitely be reading more of them.

I love the boundary-treading Rachel Cusk, and the unsettling and haunting Han Kang. I was blown away by Leslie Pietrzyk’s novel, Silver Girl. I’m in utter awe of Elena Ferrante. I’m eagerly awaiting Chang-rae Lee’s next novel.

Also, and in no particular order: Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Lethem, Ruth Ozeki, Bessie Head, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Ha Jin, Elizabeth Strout, Kazuo Ishiguro, Edith Wharton, Roxane Gay, Mohsin Hamid…  I’m sure I’ll wake up in the middle of the night, gasping, “I forgot to include…”

I do read dead white men too, and especially admire Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens, and William Faulkner.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am, and have been for an embarrassingly long time, working on a novel about the Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi’s six month, voluntary (at first) internment at the Poston, Arizona, relocation center in 1942.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: It took many years and many rejections for Famous Adopted People to find a publisher, so let me be a cautionary tale to never give up on your dreams.

Along the way, I was fortunate to become part of a supportive and talented writing community through the Washington Independent Review of Books, for which I write book reviews and a regular column, Alice in Wordland

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Alice Faye Duncan

Q: What was the inspiration for your character Lorraine Jackson in your new book, Memphis, Martin and the Mountaintop

A: Dr. Almella Starks Umoja is a Memphis teacher. As a child, she marched with Memphis sanitation workers and Dr. King in 1968. She heard Dr. King give his last sermon at Mason Temple Church. Listening to her memories of the strike moved me to write my story from a Black girl’s point of view. My book is a historical fiction.  However, it is knitted from the fibers of real life. 

Q: You've noted that it took 10 years to write the book. What kind of research did you do, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you? 

A: A great amount of inspiration came from Memphis neighbors, who marched in the strike. I spoke with Ernest Withers, the noted photographer, and I interviewed sanitation workers Elmore Nickelberry and Baxter Leach.

I even spoke with a man who was on the scene during the Memphis riot when Dr. King was chased off Beale Street and a white police officer killed Larry Payne, a Black teenager from Mitchell High School. 

Dr. King was not the first person to die during the Memphis Strike. Larry Payne was the first casualty. The history books do not mention Larry Payne. I plan to write a poem that remembers his name.

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

A: I want young readers to understand that freedom is not free. The liberties we have today will dissipate like a mist, if children are not poised to resist, march, speak up and vote against injustice.

I write to prepare children for the world they will inherit. I write to arm them with an arsenal of words. Poetry is powerful enough to heal a heart and save a life.

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors? 

A: I love Gwendolyn Brooks. Her poetry inspires me to seek out meaningful metaphors and appeal to readers with toe-tapping rhythms and alluring alliteration.

However, I call Eloise Greenfield my “literary mother.” She writes poetry from a soulful place that is earthy and unapologetically--BLACK. While always poignant, Eloise Greenfield writes simply. It is my intention to carry on, wherever she stops.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Charnelle Pinkney Barlow will illustrate my new picture book—Just Like a Mama. Charnelle is Jerry Pinkney’s granddaughter. Xia Gordon will illustrate my picture book biography--A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks. If all goes well, I will write my first middle grade novel in 2020. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: What is [my] best advice for authors writing biographies: When seeking telephone interviews, use the whitepages©. Once while researching the life and times of Leontyne Price, I called her brother, George. While researching the life of Mavis Staples, I called her brother Pervis. I was able to reach both siblings in the whitepages and they granted me an interview. 

Presently, neither book has found a publisher. I am not discouraged. Write ON!

Learn more about my books here.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 17

Oct. 17, 1915: Arthur Miller born.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Q&A with Inês Pedrosa

Inês Pedrosa, photo by Alfredo Cunha
Inês Pedrosa is the author of the novel In Your Hands, now available in English. She has written many books, was director of the Casa Fernando Pessoa publishing house, and is a columnist for Lisbon's weekly newspaper, Sol. She is based in Portugal.

Q: Your novel was first published two decades ago and is now appearing in English for the first time. How did the English translation come about, and what do you hope English-speaking readers take away from the book?

A: My agent Thomas Colchie began working with me exactly 20 years ago because of this novel, which he fell in love with, eventually managing to get Gabriella Page-Fort at Amazon Crossing to read it in a Spanish translation. And happily her reaction was enthusiastic. 

The American translation by Andrea Rosenberg turned out to be excellent, and I hope that English-language readers around the world will embrace the novel, a meditation on the evolving nature of intimacy between several men and women throughout the 20th century. 

For non-Portuguese readers, the book may also prove enlightening because of its glimpses of my country's pivotal history in the context of its little known but often crucial role in world events of the period. By maintaining its neutrality under the Salazar dictatorship during World War II, Portugal became a strategic location in Europe and an escape route for refugees fleeing the Nazi advance. 

Later, during the ‘60s, still under the same dictatorship, the African colonial wars unfolded in Portugal's colonial possessions, including Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau, wars that led to the 25th of April Revolution of 1974, also known as the Carnation Revolution, which ended Portugal's long dictatorship and led to the independence of its African colonies. 

I think that good literature always manages to surpass the frontiers of the language in which it is written, because it is always about universal themes.

Q: You write that the novel was inspired by a couple you learned about. How did their story lead to the creation of this novel?

A: A friend told me the story of a distant relative of hers who had died alone and senile. After becoming a widow, she had told her nephews that she planned to marry her deceased husband's best friend, who had always lived with the couple since their marriage, because if she and the friend had continued to live together under the same roof after her husband's death, that might be frowned upon. 

She confided to the nephews that, in fact, her husband had been a homosexual all his life and more importantly the lover of the other man, whom she had gradually come to regard as a brother. Fearful of losing their inheritance because of such a marriage, her relatives had her committed to a mental asylum in order to prevent the marriage. 

This woman began to appear to me in dreams, old and disheveled, saying: "Don't feel sorry for me, I'm not some poor victim. I was happy in my way, even though it's not yours." It was this oneiric experience that led me to write the novel.

Q: The novel is divided into three sections, each told by a different woman. How did you come up with your three characters?

A: Initially, I was only going to tell the story of this first woman, but eventually, as I was writing the book, I realized that the theme of emancipation and the unfolding identity of the initial protagonist required a continuation, since evolving gender roles would become one of the most important achievements of the last century – a victory, in fact, that is still ongoing. 

And I also wanted to incorporate into the novel a variety of registers to reflect the expanded range of expression in the arts of the period. That's the reason that Jenny writes in a diary; Camila, the photographer, writes texts to accompany her personal album of photographs; while Natália, the architect, writes letters to Jenny, her adoptive grandmother, who is the pillar upon whom she erects the architecture of her own life.

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

A: No, I didn't know how the novel would end; I only knew that it shouldn't have a closed ending, because it should depict the continuity of life unfolding. Nor did I want it to be terribly sad, because I was sick of reading novels with overly dramatic endings; tragic outcomes seemed  and still seem to me too hackneyed a solution, facile and artificial.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I've just finished my eighth novel, the subject of which is passion, set in the decade of the ‘80s. a passion between a Portuguese high school teacher and her young teenage student of African descent.

The novel examines our ideas about maturity, childhood, seduction, age of consent and passion itself, as well as the underlying racism that persists within the discourse of tolerance. 

The boy in question is the product of a brief affair between a Cape Verdean woman who has emigrated to Portugal and a Portuguese count who happens to be a cavaleiro, that is, a Portuguese bullfighter on horseback. 

I particularly enjoyed investigating the world of Portuguese bullfighting, a polemical sport and a very ancient one with deep Iberian roots, which, to my surprise, has barely found expression in Portuguese literature. 

The novel is also partially set in the world of journalism during the latter half of the ‘80s – a decade of yuppies, of economic optimism and unbridled consumerism, coupled with the growth of media sensationalism.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I would only add, like Humphrey Bogart at the end of Casablanca, that I hope this will be the beginning of a beautiful friendship between my Portuguese novels and my American readers.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Lisa Joy Mitchell

Lisa Joy Mitchell is the author of the new book Sacred & Delicious: A Modern Ayurvedic Cookbook. A public speaker and wellness mentor, she teaches Ayurvedic cooking. She lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Q: What was the inspiration for this cookbook?

A: Ultimately, I wrote Sacred & Delicious because I wanted to share a healing path and an approach to eating that helped me recover from years of chronic pain and illness. I am, by nature, an enthusiastic promoter of everything I value, especially if I can help others avoid needless suffering.

I had been having digestive problems for several months when I first visited the Ayurvedic Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

When I got home, I began cooking out of Ayurvedic Cooking for Self-Healing by Usha Lad and Vasant Lad, the Institute’s founder who first inspired me on the path of Ayurveda. The process of healing that had begun at the institute was supported by the food—and especially by Usha’s classic kitchari, a simple dish of rice and split mung (a type of legume) seasoned with spices.

I read Dr. Lad’s introduction to this book many times, and I pored over his lists that categorize various foods according to their impact on the body, mind, and emotions. I treasure this book and—even though it’s tattered—still use it as a reference.

Once I began to assimilate this information, I started to experiment with making American-style dishes according to Ayurvedic principles of balance. That was the real beginning of this book, Sacred & Delicious. It’s not that I immediately thought, “Oh, I’ll write a cookbook!”

I began by recording lists of ingredients (no directions included) in spiral notebooks for each dish I created or adapted from family recipes—just so that I would remember what went into them.

Much to my surprise, I became more and more excited about the creative process of developing new dishes and adapting old favorites. Every time a dish worked—every time the food was delicious and healthy—I was thrilled. I felt I’d accomplished something wonderful. I think it was my husband—and the guests at our table—who initially suggested I share these recipes in a book.  

Q: How did you come up with the title?

A: When I began creating the first computer documents for a book, I named the file Healthy Comfort Food. A few years later, when I’d become committed to publishing a book, a marketing friend asked if I had purchased the .com for my title. Big oops—I hadn’t even thought about it. was taken and not for sale. Soon after, I sat down with a pad of paper and a pen to think about this.  

I’ve always loved sacred rituals associated with meals, having grown up in an observant Jewish family. This foundation, which I later integrated with a devotional meditation path, are likely reasons that I started playing with the word “sacred” during this contemplation.

When the title Sacred & Delicious arose from inside, it felt like a gift. Having become a true foodie during my 15 years living in Dallas, the play of “sacred” with “delicious” seemed an inspired way to communicate all that’s important to me about food.

Q: For people who are unfamiliar with the idea, could you define Ayurvedic cooking?

A: At its most basic level, Ayurvedic cooking balances the qualities of food to support an individual’s constitution for wellness or—if this is needed—to counteract disease processes or acute health problems. How to actually do this is a more complex answer!

Ayurvedic cooking starts with the understanding that food can be medicine or it can be poison. As important, specific foods that are healing for one individual can cause havoc for someone else.

I’ll give you a simple example: butter and coconut oil are excellent if you are very thin, have dry skin, and frequent constipation. These same foods, on the other hand, are best eaten in only modest amounts if you tend to put on weight easily or you experience chronic sinus problems.

Ayurveda categorizes all foods and spices according to qualities found in nature, each having a specific impact on the body, mind, and emotions. These qualities include whether a food is cooling or heating to the metabolism; whether it is heavy or light in the digestive tract; and whether its effect on the body is dry or oily. Each of six tastes (sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, astringent) also has a unique impact.

Returning to the notion of balance, the goal of Ayurvedic cooking is to balance these stated qualities because too much of any quality or taste can lead to health problems.

Much of this is intuitive. Eating cold food or foods that cool the metabolism—for instance, cucumbers—will increase the cold quality in a person. Such foods can be beneficial for many of us during the hot summertime but not at all helpful in the chill of winter, when warm foods are more helpful. Much of this balancing wisdom is employed by all cultures to one degree or another.

A more sophisticated explanation of Ayurvedic cooking includes an understanding of the dynamic organizing principles in the human body that Ayurveda calls the doshas. These are aligned with what Ayurveda identifies as the natural elements—earth, air, fire, water, and space.

Each person has a unique combination of doshas. Once someone understands their dominant dosha or which doshas are out of balance, they can choose the specific foods that support ongoing wellness or recovery from particular health problems.

Finally, let me add that Ayurvedic cooking was developed thousands of years ago when freshly cooked food was the only option. That premise remains true in Ayurvedic cooking today. In short, eat fresh food! I found that I started feeling much better when I gave up packaged and refined foods.

Q: How did you decide on the recipes to include in the cookbook?

A: I used three criteria:

Is it delicious?

Is it healthy for most people, or can it be adapted for most people? (I offer tips about adapting by dosha in most of the recipes.)

Are people going to eat these foods for special occasions, regardless of health concerns? And if so, can I create a healthier version? For instance, what is a birthday without cake! So, I’ve included a Chocolate Layer Cake and a Carrot Cake, both gluten-free, using no white sugar.

Q: Do you have some particular favorite recipes?

A: Absolutely! Soups are always a favorite, because they are satisfying dishes and often can serve as a one-dish and one- or two-pot meal.

The Chickpea Soup is a great fall and winter dish because it’s hearty and warming with Mediterranean accents of sun-dried tomatoes and olives.

When I want to wow guests who are new to our table, I offer them Broccoli Soup with Almond Butter. It uses Indian spices—black mustard seeds, cumin seeds, and curry leaves—but you won’t recognize it as Indian food because there are no chilies or cayenne, and the almond butter seems distinctly American.

During warm months, my favorite soup is Carrot Soup with coconut milk, cilantro, and mint. It’s delicious if you like cilantro, and I include some tips for how to adapt the recipe for winter using fresh basil and ginger instead.

Once a week, no matter what, I make Mung Soup because it’s an easy slow-cooker meal.  If I’ve veered off my pristine diet with a dessert treat or rare high-carb meal, I follow it up the next day with Mung Soup. And once a month, I’ll make Mung Soup three days running.

This is on the advice of Smita Naram, a well-respected Ayurvedic physician. Dr. Naram established a restaurant in her Ayurvedic clinic in Mumbai, India, and she shared her Mung Soup recipe with me. She says that cooked whole mung beans detoxify the colon, lymph system, liver, and kidneys. Mung soup is the best insurance for wellness and supports recovery from chronic health problems.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m always developing new recipes for my blog at my website. And I’m working on a memoir.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I got started on the path of Ayurveda because of my husband, Tom Mitchell, who has been a profoundly positive influence in my life. He is a chiropractic physician who has integrated Ayurveda into his practice. It was Tom who urged me to go to the Ayurvedic Institute to interrupt a scary downward spiral in my health—so I like to give him credit!

I encourage readers to recognize healthy eating as an act of self-love. At the same time, I don’t want people to think they’re going to lose out on culinary pleasures to protect their health. I’m a strong advocate of moderation in all things (unless someone has a food intolerance), and I’m a believer that delicious is always paramount on the road to healthy!

It’s also important to note that you don’t need to be vegetarian to benefit from the wisdom of Ayurveda, which also has specific insights for people who eat meat.

Finally, Sacred & Delicious is far more than a cookbook or even an Ayurvedic primer for an American audience. The book is imbued with insights from my spiritual practice along with my exploration of the phrase “food is sacred.”

My hope is that people who read Sacred & Delicious will experience what I have: a healthy and joyful relationship with food that leads to many benefits—even moments of spiritual awakening—and can be ultimately transforming.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 16

Oct. 16, 1854: Oscar Wilde born.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Q&A with Brian Murphy

Brian Murphy is the author, with Toula Vlahou, of the new book Adrift: A True Story of Tragedy in the Icy Atlantic and the One Who Lived to Tell About It. The book focuses on the ship John Rutledge, which hit an iceberg in 1856, killing everyone on board except for one person. Murphy's other books include 81 Days Below Zero. A Washington Post journalist, he lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: You write that you first learned something about this story in an exhibit about shipwrecks. How did that eventually lead to your writing Adrift?

A: The first thing, of course, was that the exhibit mentioned a single survivor. This meant there was likely some kind of diary or personal account stashed away in an archive or family records.

It became quickly apparent there was enough for a compelling story that had never been told in full. The survivor, Thomas W. Nye, was front-page news at the time when shipwrecks (without a survivor to tell the tale) were often relegated to short items in the press.

But the research soon led me to wider narratives and subplots. Early 1856 was a terrible period for North Atlantic ice. It was one of the worst in generations, according to some ship captains.

At least three other vessels went down around the same time as the John Rutledge, the ship in Adrift. More than 830 people lost their lives in the North Atlantic in the span of eight weeks. Amazingly, one of the owners of the John Rutledge was aboard one of the other ships that went down.

Irish emigrants accounted for most of those lost at sea during that horrible stretch. This created another element in the book. I wanted to give readers a sense of the perils faced at sea by 19th century travelers seeking to reach North America.

This is a story that still resonates. I wrote in the Author’s Note that I hope this book is more than just a survival story. It also serves as a kind of elegy to all the souls lost at sea at the time. The drive to take huge risks to seek a better life – because of poverty desperation, blind optimism or any other motivation – is a timeless thing. I hope readers see the parallels today.

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

A: What really surprised me is how tough my wife (and book collaborator) can be as an editor and second-reader. Nothing gets by her and her red pen. She makes every project better! So lucky to have her.

But back to your real question.

The research began in the usual places: pulling together the various account of the sinking and the unusually dangerous ice conditions during 1856. Then came the fun part. Visits to Liverpool, Fairhaven and New Bedford, Cape Cod, New York and other points helped build out the story of the John Rutledge, Nye and the age of transatlantic shipping in the mid-19th century.

I was able to find snippets of the John Rutledge log and, in the Mystic Seaport archives in Connecticut, struck gold with the full log from the Germania, the ship that recovered the survivor Nye – who was perhaps just hours from death.

As mentioned before, I was quite surprised at how tragedies at sea were simply a fact of life in that age. The loss of the ship and many lives – sometimes in the hundreds – often merited little more than a brief item in the press and shipping journals. Unless, of course, the people aboard were of a certain stature.

Usually, though, the shipwrecks were would-be immigrants or fishing crews or whalers. Their families and friends mourned. But there was little sense of any wider reckoning over what could have gone wrong.

I used a quote from a Pittsburgh newspaper that summed it up well: Souls gone down in the great deep, without leaving a ripple on the great surface of society. A cool announcement is made that they are lost, and that is all. Who can estimate the long protracted agony of surviving friends, who waited from day to day for the arrival of the missing ships, until hope faded away into despair! So passeth the world.

Q: You’ve mentioned the challenges of presenting the thoughts and emotions of the people you write about. How did you choose the method you eventually settled on?

A: This is a challenge facing any author of historical nonfiction. At the heart of everything is the need to tell a good story that brings readers into the moment. But only the most fortunate author has records that give verbatim interactions or diaries that chronicle emotions and inner struggles.

So how to proceed? In the case of Adrift, I had the facts of what happened in the shipwreck, on the lifeboat and during Nye’s rescue. I could have approached the story in a more encyclopedic way – this happened, then that happened, etc.

But I also wanted to bring more humanity to the narrative. These were people who had experiences, loves, dreams and everything else. I didn’t want to portray them as just props or background figures.

I settled on a technique – used in my last book – to create a sense of dialogue and action using the research and supportable facts as a framework. I leave out quotation marks in the words “spoken” by various characters in the places where it would be impossible to know exactly what was said. Only in parts where I have written confirmation of dialogue, do I use quotation marks.

Nearly every historical nonfiction author employs these methods to some degree or another. Some reviewers take issue with it as perhaps silly or intellectually weak. I obviously don’t agree. I believe it’s a very reader-friendly form of storytelling. At the end of the day, that is what I am trying to achieve.

Transparency is important, though. I make clear from the beginning of the book that only the dialogue that appears in quotation marks is verified. The rest is built upon research and verifiable context.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story of the John Rutledge?

A: Good question! At talks on the book, I have started reading aloud the names and ages from the passenger list on the John Rutledge. Richard Grundy, 5. Margaret Newhan, 32. Sarah Ryan, 23. James McCann, 24., and so on.

I hope readers take away some deeper appreciation of the human face of tragedy. Every disaster, every war story – and nearly every account of heroism or beating the odds – includes many others who perished. I want readers to think of them, too, even if it’s just for a moment. I believe it’s a powerful and humbling gesture to recall the forgotten dead.

In my career as a journalist, I have covered many conflicts, natural disasters and refugee crises. I try my best to remember the faces and circumstances of the dead. I may be the only one still thinking about them. I don’t really pray in the conventional sense. But this comes close, I think.  

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m casting the net. There is one project – a 19th century crime story – that has potential. But then comes the harder part: Getting my editor on board.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I know nothing about sailing. Some people have remarked that the descriptions of rigging and seamanship in the book indicate that I know my way around a sailing vessel. Not one bit. It’s all a tribute to the sailors, merchant seamen and historians who helped me with the research.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 15

Oct. 15, 1917: Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. born.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Q&A with Brian Herberger

Brian Herberger is the author of the new young adult novel Cross Country, a sequel to his young adult novel Miss E. He has taught middle school English and worked with teachers on classroom computer technology. He lives in the Washington, D.C., area.

Q: In our previous interview, you indicated that it was unlikely you'd write a sequel to Miss E. What changed your mind?

A: I didn't plan on a sequel to Miss E. I really felt like I had wrapped up all the plot threads and intentionally brought everything to a close. 

I was actually in the middle of researching for another book idea when I realized I wasn't quite ready to say goodbye to the characters I'd created in Miss E.  But just wanting to write more story for your characters isn't a good enough reason for a sequel.

I needed a plot that would allow Bets’s character to continue to evolve and grow. That was pretty easy.  Bets was only 15 in Miss E., so she has a lot of story left to tell.

Bets's view of the Vietnam War in Miss E. was very black or white. The war was either good or bad. Her father was either away or home.

I decided that I wanted her character to move beyond that, to learn that there could be many different views on the war, that having her father come home again wouldn't automatically make everything okay, that sometimes good people get tangled up in bad things, and that bad people can show up right in the middle of a really good thing.

Miss E. is all about Bets figuring out where she stands on the war and deciding what she’s going to do about it. In Cross Country, along with discovering the many places beyond her small town, she’s meeting people who have ideas, opinions, and problems that go way beyond what she was struggling with in Miss E. So I knew all that would make for a good story.

Q: How did you decide the book would involve a cross-country trip from California to Woodstock, and did you need to do much research to write it?

A: A cross-country trip seemed like the perfect way for Bets to meet a variety of people. My original idea was that the people Bets and Emmie encountered would ride with them for part of their trip and they would get a different opinion on the war from each person, a different perspective. 

That initial concept evolved as I worked at fitting each of those characters into the storyline and giving them a reason for being there.

Woodstock made for the perfect destination. Miss E. took place in 1967 and 1968 and Woodstock happened in 1969, so the timing was right, and it was certainly an event that Bets and Emmie would want to be a part of. 

Woodstock is also a positive that balances out many other parts of the book. Bets is dealing with some pretty heavy topics - PTSD, racism, people leaving for war, and others running away from it. It helps that Bets and Emmie have a destination that rises above that - Woodstock is all about peace and love, in spite of (or maybe because of) all the other things happening in our country at that time.

I didn’t do nearly as much research as I did before writing Miss E. I was intentionally vague about many of the places in the story, and there are only a few towns or cities that are named. 

That wasn’t me just being lazy about research. If I pin a name on place, then it becomes one event that happened in that one town. I really wanted much of the story to feel like it could happen anywhere, in any town. 

Even without place names though, I wanted the trip to follow a route that seemed realistic. One afternoon, I spread 10 or 15 maps across the living room floor, and then got down on my hands and knees and traced a route from Forestville, California, to Bethel, New York. Those route numbers are listed at the top of each chapter.  

I did need to research Woodstock, and that was a lot of fun.  I needed to know the bands that played, some of the stories behind the music, and what it was like for all the people gathered there.  I also listened to music from Woodstock and from those bands almost constantly while writing. That helped to put me in the right time and place.

I’ve also seen some of the original Woodstock bands, and camped out in the rain and the mud at the 25th anniversary of Woodstock in 1994. And I’ve taken a couple cross-country trips, so I had that personal experience to draw on as well.

Q: How do you think your character Bets has changed from the first book to this one?

A: Bets is about a year older than she was at the end of Miss E. That’s not a long time, but she’s gone though a lot in that one year. She’s dealing with changes in her father and the impact the war has had on him.

The optimism she had when planning her anti-war demonstrations has faded; it’s been a year and the war has only gotten worse. She’s seeing some pretty negative stories in newspapers and on TV - race riots and the deaths of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. That’s a lot to deal with, and I think Bets has grown up a lot in that one year.

She’s more sure of herself. She knows where she stands on the war, and she doesn’t hesitate to speak up in class. She’s more independent - she’s realized that even though her father is back home, she can’t really depend on him. 

At the same time, I didn’t want to lose her original character. She is still very introspective, still figuring out the world and her place in it.

The more important change for her is the one that happens during Cross Country. Bets learns a lot on her trip. She sees the issues she’s been dealing with from multiple perspectives, and she takes care of herself in some really difficult and traumatic situations. 

Bets comes back with a better understanding of the issues the country was facing, she can better relate to her parents, and she has a very mature outlook on the war and the issues her father is dealing with.  

Q: Both books deal with the impact of the Vietnam War. What do you see as the war's legacy today?

A: I think the war’s legacy is very complex.I hope I captured some of that in Cross Country. Bets has a overly-simple view on the war in Miss E. And that’s okay. She’s 15 and is still figuring out what she thinks. She just wants the war to be over and her father home again.  But in Cross Country she sees that things are not simple at all.

I was just a few years old during the last years of the war, so I have to rely on the perspectives others have given me. 

I’ve had the opportunity to speak with people who experienced the war in a variety of ways - veterans who fought in it and people who lost fathers or brothers. I spoke with a neighbor who remembers her parents’ house being a safe space where people could stay if they are in town for a demonstration or moving from place to place because they were dodging the draft.

A colleague was a college professor during the war and he shared two memories - knowing that for some students a failing grade would mean a draft notice, and the lingering smell of tear gas days after police broke up a demonstration.

I’m not sure how we come to terms with all those stories and memories.  Our country was divided on the war, and decades later we still see those divisions in the different perspectives people have. I think we’ll probably see the same years from now when we look back on the divisions we currently have in our country.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I wish I could say that I’m working on another book right now! I’ve been busy promoting Cross Country and I have a fall calendar full of book events. 

Beyond that, my wife has given me a list of things that need to be fixed around the house before another book can get started. So it looks like I’ll be busy for a while.

I have two very different book ideas that I’ve been playing with. One is another historical fiction, set during the Dust Bowl. Like Miss E., it involves a high-school-age main character and a reclusive older character who has a mysterious past.

I also have an idea for a story that takes place in a rather bleak future. There are a lot of dystopian novels out there, and I’m not sure I want to add another to that collection, but I have some interesting characters and a rough storyline that seems like it would be fun to tell.

Whatever comes next, I’m going to have fun writing it. I really enjoy the whole writing process, so I’m definitely going to keep doing it.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: As an English teacher, I always asked my students to make connections between the books we read and their lives. 

For me, that’s been the most interesting part of putting my books out into the world for people to pick up and read, because I don’t have any control over those connections. I have my own reasons for writing the story, my own connections, but that’s going to be different for every reader.

One example that keeps coming up is the protests that we’ve seen in the last two years. Miss E. came out almost a year before all of that, but readers now make connections between the protests in the book and what they’re experiencing today. 

I never intended that, didn’t anticipate those changes in our country, but I think it’s great that a book about the ‘70s can offer a lens into current events.

There’s a point in Cross Country where Bets explains how the word “draft” seemed to sneak its way into everyone’s vocabulary. They didn’t learn it in school. One day it was just in their mouths, like it had always been there.

I had a reader email to say how that image made her think of the word “terrorism” after September 11, and how it was something she never really thought about, until she realized one day that it was always on her mind and felt like it had always been there.  

I love that books can do that for us! I love that we can read something that someone else wrote and create meaning that is personal to us. Books are very powerful, and whether you’re on the writer or the reader side of that equation, it’s really exciting.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Brian Herberger.

Q&A with Norman S. Poser

Norman S. Poser is the author of the new book The Birth of Modern Theatre: Rivalry, Riots, and Romance in the Age of Garrick. His other books include Lord Mansfield: Justice in the Age of Reason. He is professor emeritus at Brooklyn Law School.

Q: You write that this book emerged from research on a previous book about a prominent 18th century judge. What intrigued you about the theater during that period?

A: I became interested in 18th century theater from working on my biography of Lord Mansfield, who presided as judge in several legal disputes involving theater people. The people, particularly Charles Macklin and Samuel Foote, had colorful personalities.

Also, theater people were friends of Mansfield. The more I learned about the actors and theater managers of that time, the more they interested me.

Q: Why did you start the first chapter with a description of a 1741 performance of The Merchant of Venice?

A: Macklin's portrayal of Shylock was revolutionary. It was a new acting style, which was a forerunner of the Method acting of people like Marlon Brando. Also, I felt that Macklin's own account of that evening in 1741 was a good way to begin the book.

Q: How did you research this book, and did you learn anything especially surprising?

A: I researched the book chiefly by reading contemporary letters, diaries, reviews, etc. in libraries, including the Victoria & Albert and Garrick Club in London; the New York Public Library, New York Historical Society, and Morgan Library in New York; and the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington.

The most surprising thing I found was how exuberant and sometimes violent the London audiences (and the society generally) was. Not at all what I had believed.

Q: What do you see as the legacy of the 18th century theater today?

A: The legacy of the 18th century theater is the acting of today in the U.S.and U.K. It broke with the artificial, declamatory style of the previous age, and it led to the more natural, psychologically based style pioneered by Constantin Stanislavski and Lee Strasberg of the Actors' Studio, who trained many of the actors of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on another non-fiction book about the 18th century.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I am an anglophile. I was born in England, though I've spent most of my life here. My wife and I go back there as often as we can. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 12

Oct. 12, 1908: Ann Petry born.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Q&A with Frances de Pontes Peebles

Frances de Pontes Peebles is the author of the new novel The Air You Breathe. She also has written the novel The Seamstress.

Q: Some reviews of The Air You Breathe call the story a fictionalized version of the life of Carmen Miranda. What did you see as the right blend between the fictional and historical as you wrote the book?

A: I love taking inspiration from actual historical figures and creating my own fictionalized versions of them. Doing this allows me a wider narrative scope. I try to stay true to the broader historical context surrounding the characters’ lives (World War II, for example, or Los Angeles during Hollywood’s Golden Age) but their emotional trajectories are mine to mold.

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

A: Dores, the narrator, is a songwriter and lyricist. When she recalls her life, she recalls the songs inspired by a particular period or event. So each chapter in the book begins with a song that represents a certain time in Dores’s life.

“The Air You Breathe” is the first song she writes in a samba circle. The title also represents how important music, and her relationship with Graça, are to Dores. They are the air she breathes. 

Q: What do you think the novel says about female friendship?

A: In our culture we glorify romantic love as the pinnacle of any relationship we could ever have, as if the primary relationship in our lives needs to be a romantic one.

What I hoped to demonstrate in this book is how many other forms of love exist, and how they can be just as important (if not more) as a romantic connection. There is the love between friends, love of art, love of work, parental love, physical love, self love, and on and on. 

Friendship between women is often dismissed or subverted into a kind of competition for dominance. (I’m thinking of the pervasive idea of “mean girls” or “queen bees.”)

These kinds of interactions do exist, but I don’t believe they are the norm between women. Yet most female relationships in film and media are characterized this way. Why? Onscreen, in books and in magazines women are seen as undercutting each other in the hopes of gaining supremacy and, ultimately, male attention.

I think this is a dangerous perversion of female friendship largely created by men’s impressions of women, and not by women themselves. In reality, female friendship is quite important, supportive, and life sustaining for most women. The bonds between women run deep. 

The book’s primary relationship is between Dores and Graça. There are men and other women, of course, but the focus is on these two friends. Their friendship is quite passionate and, at times, it crosses the boundaries of friendship into something broader, into another kind of love.

Their bond is also complicated and imperfect. Sometimes they do each other more harm than good. There is jealousy and ambition between them, but ultimately there is love.  

Q: What are you working on now?

A: When an idea is new it is fragile. It shouldn’t be shared too widely or put up to public scrutiny. It needs time to grow strong. Also, my ideas change so much between their conception and delivery into the world that they often don’t even resemble themselves by the time I’m finished writing.

So I don’t give specifics on new work. I do feel very fortunate to have an idea, and thankful for its patience with me as I attempt to decipher it. I hope to share it with readers one day.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb