Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Q&A with Thomas Reed

Thomas Reed is the author of the new novel Seeking Hyde, which features Robert Louis Stevenson and the creation of his classic work The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Reed's other books include The Transforming Draught: Jekyll and Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson and the Victorian Alcohol Debate. He taught Victorian and medieval literature at Dickinson College, and now lives in Sarasota, Florida.

Q: You note that your new novel originated in a scholarly project you were working on. How did you end up writing Seeking Hyde?

A: It began with the idea of a screenplay about the way Jekyll and Hyde actually grew out of Stevenson’s personal and professional experiences.

There was some pretty dramatic material to work with: Stevenson’s life-long dependency on alcohol; his father’s outrage over his bohemian lifestyle; his guilt over contributing to the fatal alcoholism of a university chum; his bitter struggles with his willful wife over the direction of his career.

It would have ended up being a movie like Topsy-Turvy or Finding Neverland, about the origins of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado and J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.

I showed my treatment to a friend in the British film production business and, while he liked the general idea—especially the characters and their dynamic—he felt that I hadn’t quite found the dramatic arc the story needed. I set the whole thing aside for a couple of years, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

It finally dawned on me that, if I were willing to bend the historical realities, I could give the story more of the dramatic shape and punch that it needed. My real-life point of departure was the fact that a play version of Jekyll and Hyde was, for a spell, blamed for inspiring Jack the Ripper.

I thought if I were willing to stretch the historical record and involve Stevenson in tracking Jack down, I could do a couple of interesting things.

First, I could fully tease out the irony that a book Stevenson meant as a warning against a certain kind of hypocritical self-indulgence should have been blamed for inspiring an even worse variety.

Second, I could watch Stevenson work through and resolve some of the guilt he felt not only for contributing to his alcoholic friend’s early death but also for creating a villain who could reasonably be thought to bring out villainy in others. Once I had that, I had the arc of Seeking Hyde. The rest was just filling in the blanks.

Q: What did you see as the right balance between the fictional and historical aspects of the novel?

A: As you might gather, I was at first totally committed to the historical realities. I must have read six or eight Stevenson biographies and hundreds and hundreds of his letters, convinced that there was a great story in the bare facts.

Naturally, I had to invent scenes and dialogue that we can’t know ever transpired. It was frankly a little intimidating trying to put words into the mouth of a man who, along with Oscar Wilde, was one of Victorian Britain’s great conversationalists.

It was always a bit of a relief when I could literally let Stevenson speak for himself by tossing an actual letter into the narrative flow—that or parrot some of his recorded turns of phrase in my dialogues.

Once I gave myself permission to invent more freely, I still tried to take my Stevenson in directions that the real Stevenson had gone, even if it had been in different ways and circumstances.

He certainly never took a page out of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and stalked a serial killer through the alleys of the East End. In the last years of his life, though, he became very active in the politics of the South Seas, defending the rights of the indigenous populations against the abuses of the major European powers in ways that could have put his life at risk.

One of his last fictions actually involves a British protagonist who becomes disillusioned with Western exploitation of the native population and takes bold steps to end it.

I saw that moment when a newly activist author pens a tale of adventurous intervention as a kind of real-world paradigm for what my fictional Stevenson gets up to at the end of Seeking Hyde.

To put it all into one sentence, I usually tried hard to make the story adhere to the known record, and when I didn’t, I still wanted the invention to seem plausible and in line with the real man’s evolution.

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

A: Stevenson’s original novel is, of course, about the search for Jekyll’s murderous other half. In some ways, my own title grew out of my long quest to explain where Jekyll and Hyde itself came from. Even in the scholarly book that I finished before I turned to Seeking Hyde, I was in essence seeking “Hyde’s” origins.

I also came to feel that virtually everything that Stevenson wrote up to 1886, when J&H was published, was what an artist would call a study for the final canvas.

Even his famous collection of children’s poems, A Child’s Garden of Verses, turns on tensions between what the adult world expects of young people and what they, by nature, truly are.

The poems never go all the way to the dark places that Stevenson’s novella explores, but they represent the same struggles between propriety and instinct, order and spontaneity, conscience and appetite. So, Stevenson as a writer was always “Seeking (or revealing) Hyde.”

Finally, in my book, once the play based on the novella is blamed for inspiring the Whitechapel murders, my Stevenson begins “Seeking [a] Hyde” in a very literal way.

Q: What accounts for the ongoing interest in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?

A: Great question. Stevenson once wrote to J. M. Barrie, “People mayn’t be like their books. They are their books.” If I had a therapist, your question should probably be directed to her.

Seriously, though, I think that at the heart of my interest (or obsession?) is the fact that Stevenson created a core myth that speaks to virtually everyone who encounters it, even those (and I think there are many) who have never read the tale.

Everybody basically knows what it means to have a “Mr. Hyde” lurking there behind the public face we put on every morning.

What makes the story’s cultural role really interesting is the way the text uncovers the psychological or philosophical or theological assumptions a reader brings to it. It’s a kind of literary “ink blot.”

People who believe humans are innately depraved see Hyde as the chaotic—even demonic—force of unregulated desire that’s always angling to demolish civilized order.

More liberal readers see him instead as an intrinsic part of our human makeup—perfectly natural and there for a reason—even if it may not be the most “civilized” side of us. It is social repression that turns him sour.

Pop nutritionists used to tell us, “You are what you eat.” Jekyll and Hyde shows us, “We are what we read into a story.” I think that, in many ways, Seeking Hyde explores just how thoroughly we can get trapped inside our own prior assumptions. A book like that is salutary in any age, and maybe especially now.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m currently working on two very different projects. The first is a re-treatment of the classic 14th-century Arthurian romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The other is the screenplay for a comedy that features a mature brother and sister who are charged with fulfilling their parents’ curious last wishes on a global stage.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just that I think Benedict Cumberbatch would make a terrific Stevenson in a miniseries adaptation. Thank you, though, for the chance to talk about Seeking Hyde for what I hope will be an appreciative audience. I’ll always be happy to answer any questions they may have.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Nathaniel Lachenmeyer

Nathaniel Lachenmeyer is the author of the new children's picture book Octopus Escapes!. His other books include The Outsider and The Origami Master. He lives near Atlanta.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Octopus Escapes!?

A: I have always been interested in animals and animal behavior. My favorite book as a teenager was Jane Goodall’s classic about chimpanzees, In The Shadow Of Man.

I am especially intrigued by animal intelligence and the ways in which the dividing line between the intelligence of humans and other animals has shifted, as people learn more and more about different species’ capabilities.

I wanted to write something about octopuses because they are so intelligent, and so fascinating and strange.

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

A: My goal with Octopus Escapes! was to create an exciting, fun read-aloud experience for kids and their parents, one that would be appealing to very young children as well as older kids.

I wanted kids to come away from the book intrigued by octopuses and the animals all around us. One of the key components of the book is the short essay at the end on octopuses.

My hope is that the combination of the entertaining light verse story and the accessible and informative afterword make for a rich and rewarding experience.

Q: What do you think Frank W. Dormer's illustrations add to the book?

A: I love Frank’s illustrations for Octopus Escapes! I have had a number of experiences in the past where the art was not a good match for the book. For this reason, it means even more to me what a great job Frank and the publisher, Charlesbridge, did with Octopus Escapes!

Frank’s irreverent and humorous style complements and amplifies the humor of the story perfectly. I also love how his visual inventiveness matches the inventiveness of the book’s subject—the octopus!

Q: You've written for different age groups. Do you have a preference, and does your writing process differ depending on what you're working on?

A: That’s a great question. I really enjoy writing for both kids and adults. The process definitely draws on different skill sets depending on the intended audience. But at its core, it’s always about story and finding something I enjoy and think is worth communicating.

There is something special about writing for kids, especially as a parent, that I don’t find with anything else. And writing for kids is an invitation to become one again, at least for a little while, and that’s a good thing for any adult!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am finishing up work on my first novel for adults, which is inspired by the themes of my first nonfiction book, The Outsider. I have also just finished a new picture book.

I am now working on a new all-ages graphic novel (my first graphic novel, The Singing Rock and Other Brand-New Fairy Tales, comes out in 2019 with First Second/Macmillan).

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 31

Oct. 31, 1795: John Keats born.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Q&A with Sarah McCoy

Sarah McCoy, photo by Emily Martin
Sarah McCoy is the author of the new novel Marilla of Green Gables, which looks at the character Marilla from the classic Anne of Green Gables series. McCoy's other books include The Mapmaker's Children and The Baker's Daughter, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Real Simple and The Millions. She lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Q: How did you end up writing this novel about Marilla Cuthbert, the character from the famous book Anne of Green Gables?

A: I had just completed another novel called Pride and Providence, which sold internationally. I was in the process of changing North American publishing houses.

While getting to know potential new publishers, the executive editor at William Morrow/HarperCollins gave me a call. She asked me, “What do you really want to write next, Sarah? What’s something that you’d only dared dream about but really excites you?”

I’d never had an editor take an active role in the brainstorming part of book development. It was wholly refreshing.

So I followed her instructions and the first idea that came to mind was… Marilla Cuthbert. I’d always been fascinated by her as a prominent yet only partially known character in my beloved Anne of Green Gables series. I grew up with the books and was obsessed with everything related.

Marilla of Green Gables was a novel that somewhat terrified me to write. Green Gables is sacred territory. But my love for Lucy Maud Montgomery’s legacy usurped my fears. So I went into the writing with the goal to honor that and give Marilla the spotlight that I felt Montgomery would approve.

Q: What did you see as the right balance between the original Marilla and Matthew and your own creations, which show them as younger people?

A: Lucy Maud Montgomery has given us two very complicated yet deeply loveable characters in Marilla and Matthew. She left an excellent literary breadcrumb trail. I considered it a joy to follow it backwards and discover their younger selves. During their childhoods, so much was happening in Canada, Prince Edward Island, North America, and the greater world. All of those influences shape characters.

And again, Montgomery had written into the original texts so many tiny, wonderful details that gave glimpses to Cuthberts’ pasts.

So I spent a good amount of time re-reading the first few books (in which Matthew and Marilla are featured) and noting every description, emotional response, every commented opinion, every habit, routine, and preference. Then I placed them into the historical context to find the connections.

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write the novel, and did you learn anything especially surprising?

A: I love history and learning unknown truths about the past. A majority of the work on this novel was research. It was an intensive course on Canadian history.

I was in touch with Canadian author Susanna Kearsley, who graciously answered many of my questions about the attitudes within Canadian politics.

Susanna sent me copious links to archived documents related to the differing opinions of the 19th century Canadians regarding the sovereignty of England, independence, slavery, and runaway slaves from America (pre-American Civil War). I learned there was far more conflict in Canada than we (Americans) ever knew.

It was utterly fascinating and eye opening to see similar cycles of bitter division between citizens. I wrote this book curing our own conservative-versus-liberal struggle in the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The historical mirrors were undeniable.

Q: What do you think accounts for the ongoing interest in Anne of Green Gables, and were you always a fan?

A: Yes, I’ve been an Anne of Green Gables devotee since my mother first read me the book before I could read myself.  Currently, the Netflix series Anne with an E has sparked a new flame in the younger generations. The show is inspired by the original texts but not adherent to them.

The writer (Moira Walley-Beckett) has gone off the books and written a modernist’s alternative universe for Anne Shirley and the Cuthberts of Green Gables. It’s marvelously inventive and entirely its own creation. I believe watchers can enjoy the TV series but then pick up the books to understand the deep, rich territory from which the series grew.

Similarly, I believe readers who have or haven’t read Anne of Green Gables can pick up Marilla of Green Gables and enjoy the experience of this evocative place and people. There can never be too much Green Gables in the world—that’s my mantra.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: You know, I’m sort of on a pause button. I have a handful of ideas in mind for my next historical fiction project and will be discussing those with my William Morrow editor.

Yes, it’s the same editor who asked me to dare to dream and who is, indeed, a kindred [spirit]. I know that whatever we work on together will be imbued with spirit and a journey to territories of the heart.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I implore all the Anne with an E Netflix devotees to pick up the original Montgomery books. Parents, please give them to your children and read along. They are wondrous and replete with historical, emotional, and intellectual truths.

I wrote Marilla of Green Gables to be an independent prequel to those venerated originals. So if you like, you can start there. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Sarah McCoy.

Q&A with Stephanie Roth Sisson

Stephanie Roth Sisson is the author and illustrator of the new children's picture book biography Spring After Spring: How Rachel Carson Inspired the Environmental Movement. She also has written and illustrated Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mysteries of the Cosmos, and has illustrated many other books. She lives in Florida and in Mauritius.

Q: Why did you decide to write a picture book biography of Rachel Carson? 

A: Just after my previous book, Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mysteries of the Cosmos, was published, I began looking for another person to do a picture book biography on. Since science seemed to be less valued in the general public in the U.S. at the time, and especially environmental sciences, Rachel Carson seemed a nice fit.  

She also has other attributes that seemed to speak to the times: she was an introvert with something to say (as opposed to someone just speaking loudly over everyone to make an impact), worked in what was considered a man’s field at the time, and used facts  to convey her message in a poetic and easy to understand way, but was still able to change the way people all over the world looked at the environment.

Rachel Carson’s story has been told many times, but I wanted to tell it differently focusing on her childhood, making her more relatable to children. One thing that I loved about both her life story and Carl Sagan’s is that you can draw a clear line from the children they were to the adults they became. 

Q: Did you work on the text and the illustrations simultaneously, or focus on one and then the other?

A: I am relatively new to writing. Before writing Star Stuff, I had illustrated well over 65 books, so my process is evolving. So far, I do a combination of moving back and forth from sketching and writing and then finally putting text and story together.

Picture books these days cannot be text-heavy (children have shorted attention spans than they used to have), so I go through and see what can be shown and what can be told and I try to have the pictures do most of the heavy lifting.

While parents or teachers are reading the book to kids, they are looking at the pictures and hopefully reading additional parts of the story in the pictures themselves. The pictures and the words should be doing different things and not repetitive.  

For example, in Spring After Spring I begin with showing a day (using mostly the change of light and the types of sounds and animals associated with each time of day), then seasons, then years.

I repeat circles and cycles and connections on almost every page and try to show the same kinds of animals that are familiar to children. I zoom in and out of images to show the relationship between the microcosm and the bigger picture. These are all things that I show rather than tell.  

Q: How much do you assume kids know about Rachel Carson before coming to the book? 

A: Absolutely nothing. I try to writing books where kids can see the subject as a child and relate to that child and then see how that person’s affinities, passions and lives lead them to do whatever they are well known for. I want them to think about their own lives in that context.  

Also, each book [looks at] another subject. In the case of Star Stuff, we’re learning about astronomy, speculative science and space exploration. In Spring After Spring, we are learning about the seasons and about how the sounds in nature are a reflection of the health of an ecosystem and about how ecosystems work. 

Q: What do you hope kids take away from Rachel Carson’s story, and what do you see as her legacy today? 

A: I want kids to see that if you care about something, you can make a difference using your talents and skills. Rachel did not want to write Silent Spring. She was quite happy to continue writing her gorgeous nature books and live in her cabin in Maine wandering the coast studying the creatures that lived there.

But when she saw what she loved was in danger, she used her skills and was very brave and wrote Silent Spring.

Silent Spring was the first time that and entire ecosystem was talked about as being impacted by the actions of humans, not just one species. What she wanted was for us to do careful research and understand how we affect nature (and ourselves) through our actions.

Also very important was to point out that Rachel Carson never said that there is no use for pesticides and herbicides. She is often accused of wanting to eliminate them.

Her point was that we were using massive amounts of them ubiquitously without regard to their effects. She was an advocate for their wise use. She is still quite relevant today, especially with the lifting of environmental protections and safeguards. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have another picture book biography in the works as well as a completely different kind of picture book, but I’m not ready to tell what the specific topics are yet!

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: That picture books (and books in general) are incredibly important in shaping lives of kids. Ask adults about their favorite books as a kid and they will be able to tell you and remember in some detail what that book was and why it was important to them. 

Several years ago, people in my industry thought that tablets and screens were going to take the place of books, but the younger generations are choosing real books over e-books.

Reading a book with a child creates a unique space to share and connect. The book as a physical object with its pages and smell, etc., and its ability to be shared and passed down make it special and timeless. Sharing books with children is important and life-changing. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 30

Oct. 30, 1735: John Adams born.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Q&A with Eugenia Kim

Eugenia Kim is the author of the new novel The Kinship of Secrets, based on the story of her sister, who remained in Korea as a child while the rest of the family moved to the United States. Kim has also written the novel The Calligrapher's Daughter, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Asia Literary Review and Raven Chronicles. She teaches at Fairfield University's MFA program in creative writing.

Q: You write that the The Kinship of Secrets was inspired by your own family's story. At what point did you decide to write this novel?

A: When I went to Korea in 2010, my second time, I did some book events for The Calligrapher’s Daughter. My sister, Sun, joined me there and while I had some vague idea of writing a continuation to The Calligrapher’s Daughter, I was somewhat resistant and I wasn’t sure what the story might be.

We took a train to Busan, to look at the neighborhood where my sister spent the war years, and on that train ride I asked her what it was like for her to have come to America at age 11.

I was 6 when she came to the U.S., so I wasn’t aware of why she’d been separated from the family (the Korean War and problems with U.S. immigration) for 10 years. I had assumed that she, like many immigrants, were eager to come to America.

But her answer to my question was, “It was the blackest day of my life,” and this surprised me. I heard her story during that train ride, and additional interviews and photographs and documents helped explained this surprising answer. Her response was the key I had been seeking to enter into this story. 

Q: What did you see as the right balance between history and fiction as you wrote the book?

A: The fiction was always laid against the backdrop of history, so I suppose the balance was 50/50. A historical novel requires that one absorbs the historical period and imagine what life was like under those circumstances and with what particular period details.

We don’t think about living in a historical moment, but each passing moment contributes to what will become our history. My intention was always that if historical events rise up in the telling of the story, it would be because the characters are deeply influenced by them.

I was aware that in the book a fair amount of attention was given to a particular historical moment when the first president of the Republic of South Korea was routed out of office by a people’s uprising.

Two of the characters in the novel were in their mid-teens, an age when civil unrest would influence them greatly, so I felt it was an important moment to describe in some detail. I was also interested in their witnessing the birth of a new democratic nation, and what kinds of growing pains it would suffer. This incident was exemplary of that pain.  

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

A: The title came out of a few alternate titles, but when this particular combination of words arose, it felt spot on.

Kinship is a key element in this novel, between the two sisters, between the two families, and within each family dynamic. Family secrets drive intrigue among members of any family—who knows the secret, who doesn’t, and why not.

There’s a magnetic quality to secrets—much revolves around keeping it hidden, and many are drawn to discover its truth. That there is great intimacy between the sisters, but also things that are hidden, was an interesting paradox to me. 

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

A: I knew so little about the Korean War and the postwar reconstruction of South Korea. My characters live through the war and also are refugees from the invasion of North Korea into Seoul, South Korea.

Seoul was taken by the North twice. What month did these invasions happen? What was the weather? When would they have heard about the invasion and what would have spurred them to flee their home? These are questions I needed answers to.

I read dozens of books about the Korea War, some written by Koreans in translation, which were very helpful, since the American perspective is often devoted to the machinations and politics of war. I wanted to know about the civilians, and specific days when things were or weren’t known.

I developed a timeline that included things like what day of the week June 25, 1950, was and what the weather was. The war timeline was very specific because its movements would have influenced what happened to the family.

I thought that would be sufficient, but of course they lived their lives after that three-year war as well, and I had to keep track of what was happening in the U.S., too.

The research went hand-in-hand with the writing, and I was grateful for a robust Internet. I had already begun to collect Korean historical images on Pinterest, but now have about a dozen subcategories.

Most helpful was seeing snapshots of citizens during and right after the war. It gave me the visual flavor of South Korea’s transition into modernization.   
Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m failing at my third novel so far, but there can’t be progress without failure! I have been thinking lately that my total approach to this story is off the mark, but haven’t seen my way into which is the right structure, so I’m struggling. Can’t talk much more about it than that.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My sister supports this book, and I hope to do an interview with her, together. Since it is inspired by her life, this is a great honor for me. 

I’ll have an events schedule posted on my website. I know I’ll be in New York, Washington, D.C., Milwaukee, New Orleans, and Fairfield, Connecticut. You can follow me on Twitter or Facebook for updates on the book and events. 

Thank you, Deborah!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Eugenia Kim.

Q&A with Mary Morton Cowan

Mary Morton Cowan is the author of the new children's book Cyrus Field's Big Dream: The Daring Effort to Lay the First Transatlantic Telegraph Cable. Her other books include Captain Mac and Timberrr.... Ice Country, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Highlights for Children. She lives in Maine.

Q: You write that you learned about Cyrus Field in the process of researching a different book. At what point did you decide to write about him?

A: When I was writing Captain Mac, my biography of Arctic explorer Donald MacMillan, I traveled to Newfoundland and Labrador to learn more about him. I happened to visit the provincial cable station in Heart’s Content, which I found fascinating.

But at the time, I had other projects in mind, and didn’t think of it again until my editor, Carolyn Yoder, asked me for another adventure biography.

Aha! The transatlantic cable! How could anyone lay a telegraph cable not much bigger around than a garden hose all the way across the treacherous Atlantic Ocean? And why? There had to be an adventure in there somewhere. I delved in. What an adventure I found!

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

A: Thus began MY adventure! I have always liked sleuthing to get “behind the scenes” stories of people and events. First I take out all the library books I can find and pore thorough them to learn where to search further. I want as many primary sources as possible.

Cyrus Field was born nearly 200 years ago, and I knew accurate research could be challenging. I often find conflict in sources, and this time was no exception.

I drove to western Massachusetts where Cyrus grew up and I hiked in the Berkshires where he had hiked as a young boy. I consulted history experts, Cyrus’s descendants, and staff at Williams College, where Cyrus received an honorary degree.

One challenging chapter was about Cyrus’s trip to South America with artist Frederic Church. Cyrus wrote little about it, so I had to delve into Church’s diaries and letters.

It was on the internet where I did much of my research. I spent many hours at the Bates College library, not far from my home. They have online access to historic newspapers and magazines, and with help from reference librarians, I found and verified hundreds of details. I was able to access speeches and letters, Cyrus’s and others’ diaries from the cable expeditions, and much more.

Another valuable online source was, whose webmaster helped me at many turns.

Photo research helps me “see” the world I’m writing about. My story took place before candid photography, but artists illustrated events in oils and watercolor. I found hundreds of archival illustrations and about 80 of them are included in the book.

Whenever I’m researching, I keep an eye out for quotations I might use to bring my characters to life—quotes that won’t be too stilted for young readers.

I tried one new research technique for this book which worked well—downloading calendars for the years Cyrus was attempting to lay the cable. Some sources only mentioned days of the week when events happened, yet every so often a date appeared. Making notes on old calendars helped me sort out those details.

And Cyrus took so many trips to Europe that inserting travel dates helped me keep track of when he was at home and when he was in England.

What surprised me most was Cyrus’s unbelievable perseverance and determination. He was not a robust man physically, in fact he was seasick nearly every time he crossed the ocean, but he kept going, despite many frustrating delays and problems.

When the first cable succeeded, he was celebrated as a worldwide hero, then when it failed a few weeks later, he was scorned by nearly everyone. Once he was accused of treason, the men suspected sabotage—even then, he steadfastly refused to give up his dream.

Q: What do you see as Cyrus Field's legacy today? What do you think his opinion would be of today's communication technology?

A: Cyrus Field was a pioneer in instant communication, a leader in what is considered one of the greatest achievements of the 19th century, and which became an important link in the first worldwide communications network.

He would be amazed at today’s communication technology, to watch us using cell phones, able to reach anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice. He would also be horrified at its dangers. He believed the transatlantic cable would help bring peace; he would despise our ability to manipulate and abuse our technology with evil intent.

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

A: I’d like young readers to get a glimpse of a persistent man, and to realize that they too can dream, can aspire to achieve lofty goals, and with perseverance, can achieve them.

I’d also like to have all readers know where Cyrus’s story fits into our county’s history—a time of rapid industrial growth, but also involving a horrific Civil War, complicating his dealings with Great Britain.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The historical novel I put aside to write this biography now demands my attention. I also have several picture books in progress, and I continue to write nonfiction articles for children’s magazines.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: When Cyrus Field set forth to achieve his dream of connecting North America and Europe with an electric cable, little was known about electricity and magnetism. It was largely due to this project that the science advanced at that time, and that the scientific method in general was developed.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 29

Oct. 29, 1740: James Boswell born.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Q&A with Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is the author of the new story collection Friday Black. His work has appeared in publications including Guernica and Breakwater Review. He lives in Syracuse, New York.

Q: Over how long a period did you write the stories in Friday Black, and how did you decide on the order in which to place them in the collection?

A: At this point the oldest story in the collection is maybe about six years old. But the timing is hard to pin down because each of the stories have a life and growth of their own. I like to say it’s taken me 27 years to write this book. (That’s my age.)

I’m very particular about the ordering and sequencing. I like to think of the first story as the one I’d want people to read if they only read one thing. Also it’s kind of like if you can ride this ride, you can ride the rest of these. 

Then I try to watch the ebb and flow of the book all the way through. Thinking about how pieces are in conversation with each other and what it would be like to read them as a newcomer in order.

Q: You've noted, "I like to use humor to highlight the absurdity of cruelty." What do you see as the right balance between the difficult topics you tackle in the stories and the humor you employ?

A: Each story has a different balance. And also, I think each issue, based on my personal identity grants or denies me a different level of access to be able to even attempt to find that balance. I try to honor the stories as best I can within themselves and within my ability. There’s no formula.

Q: How was the book's title (also the title of one of the stories) chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: The book originally had a different title and it was changed after some strong suggestion that I’ve come to appreciate. Friday Black was suggested by my agent and I think it works because that inversion of what is familiar speaks to a lot of the work of the book. I also think that the way consumerism and the perils of capitalism are so often revisited the title works. Also, it sounds cool.

Q: You've said that although the worlds you create in your stories differ widely, there are common themes that run through them. What would you say unites the stories?

A: I think that in all the different stories my characters are beginning to ask important questions of the world and the systems around them. They are approaching an awareness that makes them somehow different. They are sensitive, meaning they can see and sense perceptively the pain of others and themselves, in various worlds that are pretty brutal and they are trying to figure out how to survive.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Top secret novel.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I am grateful for the chance to answer these. Thank you very much. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Eugenia Cheng

Eugenia Cheng is the author of the new book The Art of Logic in an Illogical World. She also has written Beyond Infinity and How to Bake Pi. She is the scientist in residence at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and an Honorary Fellow of the University of Sheffield. She lives in Chicago.

Q: In your new book, you write of today's argumentative world, "Is all hope lost? Are we doomed to take sides, be stuck in echo chambers, never again agree? No." Why do you feel that way?

A: I feel this way because I almost always feel able to understand and sympathise with people even when I completely disagree with them.

Often when I think about it very logically I can see that we are not fundamentally that different, it's just that small difference in fundamental beliefs develop into big differences in real life, a bit like someone braking on the highway causing a huge tailback hours later. It is hard to prevent the traffic jam but easier to stop someone braking unnecessarily.

Q: How do you define logic?

A: Logic is a process of rigorous deduction, where you start with some statements, and see what definitely has to be true as a result of those statements, not because of tradition, hope, statistics, or past evidence, but by something more inherent and unchanging.

Q: What do you see as the relationship between logic and emotion?

A: I see this relationship as unnecessarily adversarial. It is often thought that logic and emotions cannot coexist, that if you're emotional that shows you're not logical, and vice versa.

This gets thrown around in unhelpful arguments, often (but not always) between a man accusing a woman of being illogical, and the woman counter-accusing the man of being unfeeling.

However, I am highly emotional and also very logical - I am a professional mathematician after all. I think that if we pit logic and emotions in a battle then logic can't win.

But we don't need that battle. Logic and emotions can work together. I think we need logic to help us verify the rigour of our arguments, but we need emotions to understand other people and to persuade them of anything.

Q: Looking ahead, what role do you see for logic in what your title describes as "an illogical world"?

A: I think that logic plays a surprising role in helping us understand other people. If we find that someone holds a view with which we completely disagree, we can use careful logic to work our way backwards through their beliefs to find out where they come from.

We can then acknowledge the logic of their argument, from their point of view, using their fundamental beliefs, without agreeing with them. I think we can then use logic to examine our fundamental beliefs and theirs, and find ways to discover in what ways we think alike, instead of just thinking about how we differ.

Finding points of commonality will help us work towards a less divisive world, as we discover that most of us are really on a grey area between extremes, and that most of the issues in the world are not at all black and white.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am still teaching math to art students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and doing research in category theory, as well as writing the Everyday Math column for The Wall Street Journal, travelling around giving public talks and visiting schools, making art, playing the piano and starting research for my next book.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I am often asked how we can possibly change the minds of people who don't believe in truth, facts, logic or science. People tell me it is surely futile.

However, first of all I think our aim shouldn't be to change people's minds, but to understand why they think the things they do. Secondly, it is true that there are some very extreme people who will never be convinced about anything they don't already believe.

However, I think there are plenty of less extreme people, including those who believe in logic but want to get better at it, and those who are logical but have very different starting points from ours, and we can definitely reach greater understanding with them.

If we try to reach the whole world at once then it will indeed seem futile. But if we start by reaching the people nearest us, those people can help us reach the people a little further away, and so on.

Even if we don't persuade everyone to be logical and empathetic, if we can at least shift the weight further in that direction then I think the world will be a better place for us all.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Eugenia Cheng.

Q&A with Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch, photo by Jack Paccione Jr.
Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch is the author, with Van Ho, of the new children's book Too Young to Escape: A Vietnamese Girl Waits to be Reunited with Her Family. It connects to her book Adrift at Sea, which focuses on the same family; Van Ho, the youngest child in the family, was left behind when other relatives departed from Vietnam. Skrypuch lives in Brantford, Ontario, Canada.

Q: You note that the idea for Too Young to Escape emerged from your book Adrift at Sea. At what point did you decide to collaborate with Van Ho on her story?

A: My very first audience for Adrift at Sea were the primary students at the American International School of Bucharest. Here's a link with pics of that trip, including me reading to the Primaries.

The librarian, Stacey, had introduced the story just days before my arrival and let me know that her young students loved Tuan's [Van's brother's] story but were very concerned about Van and how she was doing now. So just before I left for the airport, Vanessa kindly sent me a smiling photo of herself with her husband and children. I shared it with the students and they were relieved!

During presentations in Canada over the next months, this response was repeated, especially when I presented Adrift at Sea to Primaries. Older students were not as worried, but young kids could see themselves in Van.

I asked Van if she would agree to do a book about her childhood with me. It took her a bit of time to get used to the idea and to agree -- and I'm so glad that she did.

Q: Adrift at Sea is a picture book while Too Young to Escape is not. How did you choose the format for this book?

A: Too Young To Escape is an introspective journey, about the feelings of a young girl who is without her family, with her emotional response being as important as the actions themselves. A picture book couldn't convey that introspection in the same way as a chapter book can.

My biggest challenge was to write it as simply as possible, yet to convey the complex feelings that Van experiences.

With Adrift at Sea, Brian Deines' oil paintings beautifully captured the physical nature of that journey -- the vastness of the ocean and just how small and vulnerable their boat was. While Tuan's journey was also an emotional one, it wasn't introspective in the way that Van's was.

Q: How did you and Van Ho work together on the book?

A: We initially spoke on the phone, and then we met for one giant-long interview face-to-face. After that, as I wrote each chapter, I would email it to Van and she would read it and give me feedback for tweaking. She also would send it to her siblings and parents so they could comment too.

Once, Tuan was so caught up in reading it that he totally missed his subway stop so his wife had to pile their daughters into the car and go get him!

There were also many late-night phone calls when I had written myself into a corner!

Q: Did you need to do additional research to write Too Young to Escape?

A: Yes. For basic things like the interior of her house, the interior of the Buddhist Temple, the route she took to get to school, the school yard and interior of the classroom. These are visuals that I needed for the story, but a 4-year-old tends not to observe specific details like that.

So I would find various historical images and street views and show them to her and that would tweak her memory and she was able to show me what was the same or different from what I was showing her so I could visualize and then write the scene.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm in the midst of writing books 2 and 3 of my second WWII trilogy.

Scholastic US is releasing Stolen Girl (Stolen Child in Canada), the third novel in my first WWII trilogy, in Feb 2019. And is releasing Don't Tell the Nazis (Don't Tell the Enemy in Canada) in the fall of 2019.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Van's story is of course a very personal one for her and her family and I am so grateful that she allowed me and readers in. She has given us all the opportunity to feel what it's like for a very young child to be separated from parents because of political turmoil.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch.

Q&A with Deborah Hopkinson

Deborah Hopkinson is the author of D-Day: The World War II Invasion That Changed History, a new book for kids. Her many other books include Titanic: Voices from the Disaster and Courage & Defiance. She lives near Portland, Oregon.

Q: Why did you decide to write a book about D-Day?

A: Although I’ve written two previous books about World War II, students kept asking for more! I’ve found young readers fascinated by World War II. And, in fact, so was I at that age.

Also, it seemed to me that I wanted to understand the invasion of Normandy better. It was, after all, not only one of the defining events of the war, but of the 20th century. Little did I know what I was getting myself into; just as the operation itself was massive, so was the research.

Q: How did you select the individuals you focus on in the book?

A: I find that one of the challenges in writing narrative nonfiction for young readers is to not have so many voices or individual stories that the work becomes overwhelming or confusing.

It’s also helpful to have first-person accounts or memoirs written fairly close in time to the events. These tend to be more vivid and detailed, as opposed to often-told stories many years later.

With that in mind, I searched for oral histories at the National World War II Museum and published memoirs. I also looked for individuals who represented a variety of experiences and roles at D-Day.

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

A: I read many books and oral histories, including books about the assaults by Canadian and British soldiers, although in the end I primarily focused on the American efforts.

Since I had only general knowledge before I began, much of the information was new. And that helped shape my approach: The things I had trouble understanding might be, I thought, the same points that would puzzle young readers.

So I organized the book as an introduction, and tried my best to make the events of the day as clear as possible. For instance, we included several “Reader’s Invasion Briefings” and tried not to assume prior knowledge.

As far as what surprised me: I don’t think I fully appreciated that for many of the units fighting on D-Day were experiencing their first taste of combat. It’s a testament to the planning and training—and the courage of those young men— that things worked as well as they did.

Another surprise for me was the role that weather played in the planning, and just how fraught those last hours before launch were.

Q: What do you think are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about D-Day?

A: One common misperception comes to mind right away. At author visits, I’ve begun asking students (and teachers) what the “D” in D-Day stands for, and the answers are fascinating. Most students think that D is an abbreviation for “death” day, “doomsday,” or “demolition” day. 

However, usually there is one person in the room (and often a young reader) who knows that the “D” in D-Day is simply a military abbreviation for the “day” of the planned military operation, just as “H” is H hour in planning.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now I’m working on a nonfiction book entitled Refugees and Survivors: Escaping the Nazis on the Kindertransport. My book follows several of the approximately 10,000 Jewish children who left their parents and went to Great Britain in 1938-39. I’ve been in touch with a few of the survivors who are still living. It’s been fascinating to learn more about 1930s Germany. The book is scheduled for Spring 2020.

Then, after that, I am heading to an entirely new (but old) time period. I’ll be writing about the Black Death.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I have two new books coming out in February 2019. CarterReads the Newspaper, illustrated by Don Tate, is a picture book about the life of Carter G. Woodson, founder of Black History Month. How I Became a Spy is a middle grade mystery set in World War II London in 1944. It includes cipher challenges, which I hope readers will enjoy.

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