Friday, November 30, 2018

Q&A with Caroline Bock

Caroline Bock is the author of the new story collection Carry Her Home. She also has written the young adult novels Lie and Before My Eyes, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including SmokeLong and Little Patuxent Review. She is a lecturer in creative writing at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia, and she lives in Maryland.

Q: Your book has been described as "autobiographical fiction." What did you see as the right blend between the autobiographical and the fictional?

A: In the 47 stories, ranging from flash fiction to full-length stories, in Carry Her Home, most are very close-to-the-bone fiction, autobiographical fiction. It would be a lie to say I wholly made up the characters —I even ended up using the real names of my parents—and my name.

In several stories, I envision my parents’ tumultuous courtship of which I know only the barest “true” details. I took what I had to from life and made up the rest. These are stories I had to write because I felt lost. What I found is fiction, all close to my heart, some written as if in blood.

Q: Over how long a period did you write the stories collected in Carry Her Home?

A: I wrote the stories over the past six years—since the deaths of my father and mother.

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

A: The original title was String Theory, but it ended up being too close to a recent title from the press, and probably a bit misleading – there’s very little science in this collection —actually, that story is about a string bikini.

However, when I chose Carry Her Home, I wish it had always been the title of the collection. So many of the stories in the collection are about love and tragedy, and in the title story, a young husband and father tries to carry his wife home from a state hospital.

Q: The stories are grouped into several sections. How did you choose the order in which they'd be presented?

A: Gut instinct. The stories range from the 1960s to present day, but jump back and forth in time, more like memory.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A novel, Remember the Future—what I hope to be my first adult novel (I have two young adult novels – Lie and Before My Eyes published by St. Martin’s). It’s set in 2099 in New York, Camp David, and the D.C. area.

The Arts & Humanities Council of Montgomery County awarded me a 2018 Scholars & Artist grant for this novel. So keep your fingers crossed that Remember the Future sees a future.

Q: Anything else we should know?  

A: I meet a lot of aspiring writers—I teach at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda—and so many people have stories that are wonderful, ready for the page, but they are scared/nervous/hesitant to start writing; or worse, they start and never finish; or worse, they finish and never submit it anywhere; or worse, they submit it one place and when they’re rejected, because rejection will happen, they are forever discouraged.  

I urge all writers, myself included, to not give up, to remind yourself: your writing is worth the investment of time, patience, and determination. I wouldn’t have Carry Her Home if I didn’t think that.

Last thought: I can be reached via my website or @cabockwrites on Twitter.   

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with J. Edward Chamberlin

J. Edward Chamberlin is the author of The Banker and the Blackfoot: An Untold Story of Friendship, Trust, and Broken Promises in the Old West. It tells the story of his banker grandfather Jack Cowdry's friendship with the Blackfoot leader Crop Eared Wolf in late 19th century Alberta, Canada. Chamberlin's other books include Horse and If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories?. He is professor emeritus of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto, and he lives near Vancouver.

Q: Growing up, how much did you know about your grandfather's friendship with Crop Eared Wolf, and at what point did you decide to write this book?

A: I knew my grandfather when I was a small child, and still remember the sound of his voice and the smell of his pipe as he told me stories.

After his death (at the age of 90) in 1947, I grew up with stories about his life told by my mother (who was born in 1899), as well as by my Metis godmother (who figures in my book), my father, and my cousins (who were 20 and 25 years older than me and knew my grandfather well.)

And stories were told to me over the years by friends from the foothills of Alberta, who knew a lot about the time and the place where he settled in 1885, and the history he was part of. So in some ways the book has been with me, even though it was not yet written, all my life.

I first thought about actually writing a book 15 years ago, when I did an hour-long interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) about my grandfather’s time in the Old West, where he first arrived as a homesteader in 1882.

They sent an interviewer to spend a week with me in the foothills around Fort Macleod, south of Calgary––Blackfoot territory––where my grandfather had settled in 1885, and had made friends with many of the Blackfoot, as well as with the ranchers and cowboys who were bringing cattle north from Montana to the grasslands north of the border along what was called the Whoop-Up Trail, and with the North-West Mounted Police who had come to the west a decade earlier to stop the whiskey that was being brought north by traders along the same trail and wreaking havoc in the Indian communities.

The police also came to make peace with the Indians, establishing what the government described as “law and order” on the prairies in order to make way for the railway which was being built across Blackfoot land and for the settlers who were beginning to arrive from eastern Canada and the United States.

In fact, the Blackfoot had lived in an orderly society with strict laws and stern punishments for hundreds of years, and for the next few decades their chiefs continued to “police” their people in ways that conformed to their own tribal customs, at the same time establishing a remarkably good working relationship with the North-West Mounted Police (the forerunner of the RCMP).

In the radio program, I told what I knew of the story of my grandfather and his friends, both native and newcomer, and of the dreams and disappointments of the communities that developed there; and I interviewed Blackfoot elders and chiefs about those earlier times.

But I came to this book––The Banker and the Blackfoot: An Untold Story of Friendship, Trust and Broken Promises in the Old West––much more recently, when I was thinking less about the past than about the present, and how division and distrust and disrespect have become so common and belief in the future so scarce around the world.

I was looking for a time and a place in the past that might offer hope for the future of our countries and our communities––and my grandfather’s life in the foothills of Alberta at the end of the 19th century seemed to offer that, and to provide an example of first peoples and new peoples living together in ways that defied the forces designed to pull them apart.

It certainly wasn’t a perfect time; but it was a time when many people were looking for solutions rather than problems and friendships rather than feuds, and included Sun Dances and social dances, bibles and medicine bundles, drums and piano recitals, horse races and polo matches, and rodeos and roundups to celebrate both the horse culture of the Blackfoot and the skills of the cattle range.

Also, it was a place full of remarkable characters and contradictions, which made it fascinating for a storyteller.

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

A: In writing the book, I tried to recall the stories I had heard and the ways in which they were told as accurately as possible, and to imagine my grandfather’s life and the complex and often contradictory lives of the people of the Old West where he lived, the friends he made and the challenges he faced and the ways in which storytelling shaped the lives of his fellow settlers and his Blackfoot friends, and offered common ground between them.

And then I talked with everyone else I could track down, including some who remembered him and the ranching community he supported. 

I read widely in the formal written histories of the period, and (as importantly for this book) in local reminiscences (of which I discovered a remarkable number,) each offering new insights into the period, its characters, its conflicts and its sense of community.

And of course I spent time there; and even though it was over a century since my grandfather lived there, many of the sounds and the sights and the beauties of the grasslands and the foothills and the mountains–-from sacred Chief Mountain in Montana to the Rockies in Alberta, called by the Blackfoot “the backbone of the world”––took hold of me, as I believe they did my grandfather.
One thing that particularly surprised me, and forms the storyline of my book, was the friendships that developed there.

For the Blackfoot, it was an extraordinarily difficult time––with the buffalo, upon which they had relied for their spiritual as well as material well-being for as long as anyone could remember, now gone from the northern plains; with settlers coming into their territory in increasing numbers; and with new diseases devastating many of their communities.

But they responded not by looking for whom to blame, but for what to do next; and although they were fierce warriors they made peace with the newcomers, because they trusted them. Within a couple of decades, that trust turned out to be sadly misplaced when the government broke almost all of its promises; but for a time––and with the surprising support of the newly arrived North-West Mounted Police, some of the missionaries, and many of the rancher and others who had settled in the foothills communities––they established friendships and shared their hopes for the future.

Those friendships were often remarkable, and went across all the lines that sometimes separate us, with black ranchers like John Ware becoming a respected friend to almost every cattleman in the territory and a legendary hero to all the rodeo cowboys who tried (almost always unsuccessfully) to better him in riding and roping.

At the local bar in the Macleod Hotel the lawyer Fred Haultain, first and only premier of the North-West Territories, would rub shoulders with cowboys like Harry Longabaugh, who had come north on a cattle drive from a spell in jail in Sundance, Wyoming to work on one of the foothills ranches, before becoming restless and returning to his old habits and haunts south of the border...this time as the Sundance Kid.

Q: You write in the book about the riding crop that Crop Eared Wolf gave your grandfather. What do you see as the significance of that gift, and how would you characterize their relationship?

A: The biggest surprise for me was the friendship that developed between my grandfather Jack Cowdry (who opened the first private bank in the territory, was first mayor of Fort Macleod, and was also known as Sorreltop Jack, after the colour of his hair and his favourite horse) and Crop Eared Wolf (son of the great Blackfoot warrior and peacemaker Red Crow and his successor as chief of the Blood tribe).

Their friendship started with a chance meeting, as friendships often do; it was nourished when Crop Eared Wolf looked after him when he became snow-blind after a winter Chinook raised the temperature by 50 degrees overnight and brought out a bright morning sun shining off the ice and snow near Crop Eared Wolf’s home on the reserve; it flourished when they shared a mischievous escapade in defence of the Blood land; and it was confirmed by the gift of a ceremonial quirt (or riding crop) that Crop Eared Wolf had carved and painted.

The quirt celebrated the remarkable story of Crop Eared Wolf’s heroic exploits in war parties against old enemies such as the Sioux, the Shoshone, the Cree and the Crow, and his courage on raids to bring home their best horses, which he did with such flair and finesse that his exploits were admired by the same officers of the North-West Mounted Police who were trying to wipe out that venerable plains Indian tradition.

It also represented the traditions of storytelling both in words and in the “writing without words”––the woven and beaded belts and blankets, carvings and paintings, dancing and drumming––that sustained the Blackfoot and gave them pride in their heritage in those difficult times of challenge and change, offering a powerful counterpart to the insistently triumphant storytelling of the newcomers.

Perhaps most importantly, it symbolized the generosity of the Blackfoot, who had welcomed strangers into their territory when they signed a treaty with Canada in a sacred ceremony in which both sides made promises. They kept theirs. We broke ours.

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

A: I hope they take away a sense of hope and possibility for all of us today as we try to find ways of bringing diverse traditions and ambitions together within a sense of community––local, regional and national.

I believe such achievements always begin locally; and this story, taking place in a time and place which had just experienced one of the greatest environmental disaster in human memory, the collapse of the great buffalo herds once numbering in the tens of millions; when the migration of people to the west was transforming not only the landscapes but the lives of the first peoples of the plains; and with everyone facing challenges from each other and as well as from the always unpredictable weather–-the spring round-up in the foothills after my grandfather arrived became known as the Big Die-Up because of the winter losses of cattle, many ranchers losing over half their herds.

But they carried on in the next season, helping each other and hoping for better times and not wasting any energy on figuring out who to blame. They had learned a good deal about that from the Blackfoot.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 30

Nov. 30, 1874: L.M. Montgomery born.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Q&A with Frances Bartkowski

Frances Bartkowski is the author of the new novel An Afterlife, which follows a couple, Ruby and Ilya, who meet in a displaced persons camp after World War II. Her other books include Feminist Utopias and Kissing Cousins. She teaches literature and culture at Rutgers University.

Q: How did you create your characters Ruby and Ilya?

A: Ruby and Ilya are an imaginary couple, in their surprise at finding love and devotion in equal measure at a time that was so darkened by what they had just been living and all the dying they had come to see and know. 

I wanted to stay with them in the gladness and miracle of their present, even as they both carried their hauntings of the past several years. I wanted to get a sense and give a sense of how the demands of daily life necessarily drive away the demonic because one must eat, sleep, take shelter, and then begin to love and rebuild kinship and connection. 

Ruby and Ilya had very different capacities for negotiating post-war daily life in Germany and then in America, and their differences kept them holding each other’s traumas with care and unspoken knowledge, but a shared sense that they would never let each other go. 

Q: What type of research did you do to write the book?

A: This involved two trips to Landsberg, Germany, my birthplace, in order to have a sense of the streets, the air, the river, the sounds and smells, the seasons and the people moving through a town that has not physically changed very much at the center on both sides of the river Lech. 

It also involved meeting the people who showed me around the city in 2002, my first visit, when I barely knew I was going to be writing this novel; and then seeing them again in 2009, when I was coming to see how this novel would be organized. 

I also met with others; one who had survived as an adolescent in the DP camp, the painter, Samuel Bak; I came to know Atina Grossman, who has written a definitive history of this period; I also participated in two seminars at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, one on literature and history of the Shoah, and one on gender and the Shoah, where I met numerous scholars of the war and the post-war period.

I was, of course, reading any materials I could find about the DP camps which included Irving Heymont’s letters, Gita Schwartz’ novel, Displaced Persons, all of W.G. Sebald, for style and inspiration, Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces, and Edith Pearlman’s short stories, as well as other writers who were aspirational for me, especially Julie Otsuka.

I also made a trip to Krakow and Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2003 which brought Poland to life for me, particularly the Kazimierz district which was where most Jews lived before the war. 

Walking the streets of this city where my mother was from, and seeing the sites of annihilation certainly gave me much to absorb and to bring to the writing of An Afterlife, where the pre-war period works as an engine of memory, longing and absence, but also as a site of the joy that is recalled and which the characters aim to build into their present lives.

Q: You describe An Afterlife as “fiction, forged from the autobiography of place.” What did you see as the right blend between the fiction and the autobiography as you wrote this novel?

A: What I had to go on in the way of autobiography were two places – Landsberg, Germany, and Passaic, New Jersey. My life was tied to both, and both became vivid in my imagination as locations where I could feel free to ground what was otherwise mostly fiction. 

I say mostly, because I had no stories from my mother, since she died when I was four years old, and my father in his post-traumatic way of being, worked to erase her from my memory, by remarrying very soon thereafter. 

I did know one thing, however, which was all he ever did say about his first marriage, which was that were it not for the war, he and my mother would have been very unlikely to meet, and certainly not to marry, as they were from different social classes.

When I visited Landsberg in my mind, based on a cache of photos from the post-war period that my father gave me in my adolescence, I spent time trying to see into them, around and behind them – these couples, groups, newly-made families with their babies – in sunshine, in the countryside. 

Some of these photos were of my parents, or included them in these groups, but many of them are of people I will never know by name. 

Once I was working on the novel, I let that imagination flow into what I came to know from traveling there, and from vague scenes I could recall from my immigrant childhood which included a group of refugees who had survived the labor and death camps, and who were deeply bonded in their lives in the U.S. by virtue of those scars. 

Even when they turned to Polish as their shared first languages, I kept an ear on their tone, the music of their speech, their visible despair at memories that went unspoken but were present for them each and all, and their indignant pride in having survived. 

That energy and life kept me company as I began to write what I thought of as “vignettes,” which eventually became this novel.

Q: Jayne Anne Phillips wrote of the book, “We read An Afterlife with an awareness of present streams of refugees, supported, resisted, misunderstood, and the repetition of old cycles adds to the depth of Bartkowski's novel.” What do you think of that comment?

A: While I was writing this novel, the current refugee crisis was not happening in the ways we have come to see and know, especially since 2015, with the massive exits from Syria into Eastern and Northern Europe, and ongoing refugees fleeing African countries into Southern Europe. 

However, once the novel was done and seeking a publishing home, I became more and more aware that the moment I was speaking from in the post-World War II period, the last time massive numbers of people were in flight and seeking resettlement, resonated so deeply with our current conditions. 

Though the contemporary struggles are vastly different, war, religion, ethnicity and simple daily safety for families to thrive, remain the features that drive people to leave all they know, and try to find ways of living that will require relearning languages, customs, laws, habits of everyday life that are intensely stressful, yet preferable to daily life in wartime, or the inability to find work, or persecution and violence in the face of xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny…

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The Match Girl Strikes Back, a memoir that spans the globe with stops in Poland, Germany, France, Israel, Ghana, and the U.S.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Steve Watkins

Steve Watkins is the author of the new young adult novel On Blood Road, which takes place during the Vietnam War. His other books include Sink or Swim and Great Falls. He is a former professor of journalism, creative writing, and Vietnam War literature, he cofounded a nonprofit yoga studio, and he lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for On Blood Road and for your character Taylor?

A: I guess it grew out of the idea that we were all tourists in a weird way, in terms of our involvement in the War in Vietnam. During the war you actually could go there as a tourist, and many did.

Plenty of family members made the trip over--at least to Saigon and protected areas on the coast. Continental Airlines flew direct from the States, I think.

If you read accounts of the war from the American perspective, most of them barely mention the Vietnamese, except as marginal players--either illiterate villagers who were either Viet Cong spies or hapless victims, evil North Vietnamese who happily tortured, ambushed, maimed, and killed in cowardly ways, or prostitutes.

None of which was true, except in the popular American consciousness, and the terrible John Wayne film The Green Berets.

So I wanted to take a privileged kid from the States, clueless about what was really going on and not having to think too much about it, and drop him into the center of the insanity. Also this year is the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive and the Siege at Khe Sanh.

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

A: A LOT of research, starting years ago when I first began teaching a college course on the literature of the Vietnam War. So I've read a considerable number of accounts of the war over the years--novels, short stories, poems, memoirs, historical accounts, analyses, films, documentaries--that helped prepare me to write this book.

I read a number of books and articles on the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail (Blood Road), including the definitive work on the subject by the journalist John Prados, who Scholastic actually ended up hiring to vet the manuscript of On Blood Road, which was quite an honor, and quite nerve-wracking as I waited for him to pass judgement as it were.

Not surprising, exactly, but heart-breaking nonetheless, was learning, or being reminded of, the utter devastation from the bombing we did for years in North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia to interrupt the supply lines, and the countless victims of those millions of bombs even today.

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

A: Didn't know, but certainly hoped Taylor would find a way to survive. The Vietnamese characters grew in importance as I wrote the book, as you might expect, and that determined--and changed--a lot of the directions I may originally have had in mind. I must have written the ending a dozen times or more. 

Q: How much do you assume your readers will know about the Vietnam War before coming to the book, and what do you hope they take away from it?

A: Younger readers won't know much, which is why we added the truncated summary of the war in the Author's Note at the end, and why there are some hopefully non-intrusive expository sections in the novel, to provide enough context for events for readers who aren't up to speed on the history.

I hope they come away with a thousand questions about the war they want to explore for themselves. And an understanding of the deep complexities of this and any war and the people who fight in it and are affected by it.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A novel about teenagers in the French Resistance in Occupied France during World War II, and the tragic experiences of some of them who were sent to the only Nazi-run concentration camp (and associated work camps) in France during the war, in Alsace-Lorraine. Truly terrible, terrible stuff that I'm having a difficult time getting my writer's head around how to handle. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Yes. We absolutely need stricter gun laws in this country, and it's criminal negligence that we don't. Off topic, I know, but perhaps not really.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This interview can also be found on

Q&A with Michele Weber Hurwitz

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of Ethan Marcus Makes His Mark, a new novel for kids. It's a sequel to Ethan Marcus Stands Up. She also has written The Summer I Saved the 65 Days and Calli Be Gold. She lives in the Chicago area.

Q: Did you know when you were working on your first Ethan Marcus book that you'd be writing another one?

A: I worked on the first Ethan book (Ethan Marcus Stands Up) for three years. I kept narrating the story solely in Ethan’s voice and it just wasn’t right, draft after draft.

In the eleventh draft, I switched the narration to five different alternating viewpoints and it all came together, then sold quickly to Simon & Schuster/Aladdin.

I felt there was more to the story and could envision the characters continuing their journeys. I asked my agent if we could pitch a second book. I wrote up a synopsis for a sequel, and the editor loved the idea. So the deal was made right from the outset for two books.

I'd never written a sequel before and that definitely had its challenges. I had to create new conflicts for each character, not repeating what had been done in the first book, and keep the plot moving forward.

Q: How do you think your characters have changed from one book to the next?

A: In the first book, Ethan and Erin enter their school's Invention Day competition but in the sequel, the stakes are higher. They're invited to attend a prestigious technology camp so now they're out in the larger world.

Confident Erin questions her abilities against a roomful of geniuses, and she has a few breakdowns. Ethan, like usual, sticks with his laid-back approach to life but soon learns that isn't going to cut it.

But perhaps the biggest change is that they realize in order to achieve their goals, they need to team up. And with their different personalities, that's not easy. That's a strong theme of the story -- that they learn to understand each other's differences and thrive because of them.

Q: What do you think the books say about sibling relationships?

A: Ethan and Erin are polar opposites, but they come through for each other in crucial moments. I think a lot of siblings have that deep kind of love/hate relationship. They annoy each other constantly but would stand up for the other in a heartbeat. My two older kids are like that, and I drew a lot from their relationship.

All of the characters in the book are very relatable. They go through friendship troubles, crushes, misunderstandings, awkwardness, and frustrations, but they all learn that they have a voice and can stand up for what they believe in and care about.

Q: What do you hope kids take away from Ethan Marcus Makes His Mark?

A: I think the multiple points of view with back-and-forth commentary will help readers understand that people see situations and experiences from their own lens, and we need to appreciate that not everyone draws the same conclusions we do.

There are also themes of perseverance and determination because the kids fail numerous times during their invention journey, but they keep trying. I also love how the characters come to realize they have more similarities than differences.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just sold my fifth middle grade novel, The Girl and the Lake. It will be published in May 2020 by Random House/Wendy Lamb Books.

The story is about a 12-year old girl who was abandoned as a baby in a small Wisconsin town. She teams up with her friends to save a contaminated, algae-filled lake, which is the town's livelihood. I'm very excited about this book. It has an element of magical realism, which is a new road for me.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I'm a huge observer of people and the world around me. Initial germs of ideas come from my kids, or kids I know, or things I experience in my daily life.

The spark of the idea for the Ethan Marcus books came from a comment my son said while I was helping him review for a science test. He needed to walk around our family room while I quizzed him. He told me that his “brain works better when I’m moving around.” I remember thinking, hmm…there’s a story there.

Also, I love candy. :) 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 29

Nov. 29, 1832: Louisa May Alcott born.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Reverse Q&A between me (Deborah Kalb) and Jamie Stiehm

[NOTE: Instead of interviewing myself about my new children's book, John Adams and the Magic Bobblehead, the sequel to George Washington and the Magic Hat, I asked my friend Jamie Stiehm, a columnist for Creators, if she'd take over as guest interviewer.] 

Q: In your second book of the President and Me series, you show Ava looking for a bobblehead of Abigail Adams, the strong matriarch at the family home in Braintree, Massachusetts, now a historical park. She finds Abigail “completely fascinating,” and so is disappointed to see there is no bobblehead for Abigail at the visitors center. What are you hinting at with this detail in the narrative?

A: Much of the history of the 18th and early 19th century United States focuses on the men. Less attention is paid to the women who also played an important role, mostly behind the scenes. Abigail Adams was the one who advised her husband, John Adams, to “remember the ladies” when the men were meeting to shape the future country.

John and Abigail wrote regularly to each other during the many years he was away from Massachusetts as a legislator and diplomat, and their correspondence provides a glimpse into the relationship between two strong characters.

Unfortunately, the correspondence between George and Martha Washington does not survive, so it’s much more difficult to know what Martha was like as a person and what their marriage was like. I wanted to be sure, in this second book, to focus on Abigail as much as on John.

Q: George Washington, your first historical subject, is known as the strong silent type, but you made the formal first president come across as quite human and open talking to your contemporary characters. John Adams was the opposite in real life, verbal with plenty to say on almost any subject. Did you find his talkative personality easier to capture or did you have to edit and restrain his nature and opinions?

A: I think John Adams was a lot more fun to write about because he had a quirkier personality that lent itself better to humor. Here’s a link to a piece I wrote for the website Women Writers, Women’s Books about that.

I did indeed try to make George come across as human and interested in interacting with my fictional modern-day young time travelers, but in the second book, the John Adams bobblehead is a character itself—in addition to the historical John Adams character—which lent itself to more of an exploration of John’s personality. I didn’t really have to restrain anything—I let him be himself, both in human and bobblehead form!

Q: A high point of the historical drama is the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia in 1776. Of course, Adams was in the room where it happened. He served on the committee charged with writing the document. Here you create a moment of reflection for Adams, who says it’s better for a Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, to author the document. Can you tell us what you intended by that nod to a rival?

A: Many years later, John Adams wrote that he told Jefferson: “Reason first -- You are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second -- I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third -- you can write ten times better than I can.”

Over the decades, Adams and Jefferson had a relationship that ran the gamut, from deep friendship and affection to bitter rivalry. And then, after years of not speaking, the two of them rekindled their friendship as older men, and carried on a years-long correspondence. They both died on the same day, July 4, 1826—50 years after the first Independence Day.

John Adams had a great deal of respect for Jefferson, and I think the quote reflects that. He admired his work and his intelligence.

Q: Present-day Ava and J.P. come face to face and meet Adams’ children, Nabby (a nickname for Abigail) and brilliant John Quincy. You make the past lives seem as vivid and rich as the story taking place in our time. Why did you feel it was important to portray Adams as a head of a large family, compared to the more fragmented family in the present day?

A: I wanted to incorporate Adams’ family because I thought my modern-day characters, Ava and J.P., would identify more with the Adams kids than with the parents. So I set many of the time-travel scenes in the years around the Revolutionary War, when Nabby was about 10, the same age as Ava, and John Quincy was about the same age as 8-year-old J.P.

Ava is part of a blended family, and lives most of the year with her mother, stepfather, and stepbrother in the D.C. area. She spends vacations with her father and stepmother, in California. She and Nabby bond over having fathers who aren’t around that much, as John Adams was away on government business during much of Nabby’s childhood. And it was much harder back then to stay in touch with a geographically distant parent, as Ava reflects during her visits with Nabby.

Q: John and Abigail Adams were the first presidential couple to live in the White House. Through the dialogue across time, you reveal the mansion as still rough and in the making. Abigail says it requires more servants, as hardy as she is. You seem to want to show American history didn’t just happen, but took a lot of work? Are you interested in backstory and process?

A: When the Adamses lived in the White House, it wasn’t the imposing edifice we tend to think of in more recent times. It was definitely a work in progress. And Abigail did use the East Room to hang up her laundry, as we see in the book. Not something we could imagine today!

I try to balance the scenes I show from the past. Some of them are moments of great importance, such as George Washington being sworn in as the first president, while others are more of a day-to-day nature, as in Abigail and the laundry.

Q: In this book, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both appear in cameos. Your characters seem at ease with both, and notice Jefferson’s “fancy” clothes. Can you share with readers how you shifted cultural gears again when you took up the next book in the series, featuring the Virginian Jefferson?

A: Yes, I’ve been working on a third book featuring Thomas Jefferson and more of my modern-day creations. Thomas Jefferson’s personality is quite different from that of John Adams. The issue of slavery, which I discussed in the George Washington book, is front and center with Thomas Jefferson, especially given his relationship with Sally Hemings. I don’t want to say too much yet, but I hope to move on to James Madison soon!

Nov. 28

Nov. 28, 1757: William Blake born.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Q&A with Fayeza Hasanat

Fayeza Hasanat is the author of the new story collection The Bird Catcher and Other Stories. She teaches in the English department of the University of Central Florida. She was born and raised in Bangladesh, and lives in Orlando, Florida.

Q: Over how long a period did you write the stories in The Bird Catcher?

A: The stories included in The Bird Catcher were written over the span of 10 years. I remember writing the story titled “Darkling, I Listen” in one sitting, during a stormy summer night in 2007. I wrote the titular story of the collection in March of 2017. In May of 2017, when I wrote “The Anomalous Wife,” I suddenly realized it was time. I then decided to put these eight stories together in a collection.

Q: How did you decide on the order in which the stories would appear?

A: Well, Deborah, being a writer yourself, you know how difficult it is to organize your works—giving preference to one work over the other according to some strengths or merits, or even weaknesses.

In the manuscript that I originally submitted, I lined them up chronologically. Then my editors and my publisher offered a few suggestions, and I rearranged the order of the stories.

It’s an issue-driven collection, this book. I wanted to talk about the marginal, the suppressed, the repressed, and the unheard but resilient voices of women of South Asian heritage. The ordering of the stories is meant to keep the readers focused on those issues.

Q: What themes do you see running through the collection?

A: Desire, hope, despair, desperation, resilience, rebellion, reconciliation, and the urgency to reassert one’s individuality in terms of equality (be it on an intellectual, social, emotional, or spiritual level) —all these are persistent themes.

The central theme is the role and representation of Bangladeshi women at home and abroad. A woman’s social, mental, or physical health, and her place in her house and the world are the recurrent themes.  

Family bonding, loneliness, depression, struggle for identity, discrimination based on skin color or sexual orientation, and violence—over a woman’s mind and body—these themes also run through the collection.

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

A: Our spirits are free birds, aren’t they? We are the birds and we are the catchers. And all our lives we either chase or get chased by dreams, needs, or relationships. And we end up letting ourselves get caged. We are the prisoners of our own needs.

But what we want to capture or imprison is never ours to begin with—our lives, or our souls—they are not ours. Since the titular story ponders with all these issues regarding the myth of human greed and quest for truth and meaning of life, I chose The Bird Catcher as the title for the collection.

The titular story, "The Bird Catcher," came to me one afternoon while I was chatting with a friend. I told my friend that I had this uncontrollable urge to dismantle the sentence structure and play with the fairy tale format by infusing my knowledge of Eastern and Western philosophy in a conundrum of words.

My friend asked me to start writing the first sentence then and there. And I started typing the first sentence of the story, which ended up being 82 words long. And out of those words emerged the character of a bird catcher. I did not know what the plot would be, how the story would run or where it would end. I kept writing and waited eagerly to see where the story would take me.

My love for Eastern mystic philosophy and classical music, and my obsession with the enigma of time and the phenomenological works of Heidegger and Levinas somehow blended in with some sort of magic realism and then got written—through me.

"The Bird Catcher" is the most intense story that I might have dreamt of writing—but couldn’t have written. I still think I did not write the story. It wrote me.

"The Bird Catcher" has earned its right as a titular story and as the title for the collection because it symbolizes the key theme of the collection: the longing and the quest for individual truth.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am almost done compiling a second collection of stories.  As I said earlier, I am an issue-driven writer. But I don’t follow any specific style or technique though.

Sometimes I build a story up from the end; sometimes I start in the middle, and then ponder up and down; sometimes I just start with the title, you know, where every story starts—or ends.

But I have changed my style a little in the second collection. The individual stories of this collection are interlinked. Each story has its own theme and its own beginning and ending. But the female protagonist of each story shares the same name, which works as a linking clue and unifies the stories into a South Asian woman’s bildungsroman.

I am really excited about this work. The Bird Catcher is a very serious and intense collection of stories, but in the second collection, titled Love Has No Story to Tell, I have used a happier tone and a pleasant sense of humor.

I am also working on a novel, which I plan to finish soon, very soon.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Yona Zeldis McDonough

Yona Zeldis McDonough is the author of Courageous, a new historical novel for kids, set during the World War II battle of Dunkirk. Her many other books include The Bicycle Spy. She is the fiction editor of Lilith magazine, and she's based in Brooklyn.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Courageous, and for your character Aiden?

A: I didn’t! The idea came from Scholastic; they had developed it in-house and tapped me to write it. I had already had one very positive experience with them—The Bicycle Spy—so I was delighted that they turned to me again. 

Q: What kind of research did you do on Dunkirk, and did you learn anything surprising?

A: Because I knew very little about the subject, I did a lot of reading about it—first-hand accounts, books by historians and even poems—I found several.  

I also saw the recent movie that came out, which I also found very helpful with certain small but telling visual details, like the fact that many of the small boats chose to raise the Union Jack as they crossed then channel or that the men stranded at the shore became covered with sand. Those are the sorts of things that can really bring the story to life in the mind of the reader. 

What impressed me was the enormous bravery shown by the ordinary British people who stepped up when it counted to save their boys—and so many others too. 

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

A: That war, even when it is necessary, is a brutal, horrible experience. The “enemy” army—in whatever war you consider—is not made up of nameless, faceless robots, but real, live men whose deaths rip holes in the hearts of everyone they have loved. I wanted the book to emphasize our shared humanity, even when we are on the opposite sides of an issue. 

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

A: So many that it’s hard to name them all! But authors who meant a lot to me as a young reader were L.M. Montgomery, Betty Smith, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Frances Hodgson Burnett and John Steinbeck. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Another middle grade novel set during World War II, and a book called What Were the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World?

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: That I just got a puppy! My last two dogs came to me as adults so I had forgotten how much work it is to have one. But she is so adorable! She's a Pomeranian and her name is Dottie. She keeps me company while I am writing and I'm totally besotted with her.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Yona Zeldis McDonough.