Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Q&A with Julia Phillips

Julia Phillips is the author of the new novel Disappearing Earth. Her work has appeared in various publications, including Glimmer Train and The Atlantic. She lives in Brooklyn.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Disappearing Earth, and how was the book's title chosen?

A: Disappearing Earth is about two young sisters who go missing in a remote Russian peninsula and how their disappearance affects their community. It really is the result of putting one of my obsessions (stories of young women in peril) inside another (contemporary Russia). I had studied both writing and Russian separately for years, and this project was the best way I could imagine to combine the two and explore how each informs the other. 

The novel gets its title from a story about a tsunami that one sister tells the other in the opening chapter. In her telling, a huge wave literally pulls a piece of the peninsula away. 

But more metaphorically, the title speaks to the instability, upheaval, and dread experienced by the girls' community in the years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. They've lost a political system, a nation, and funding for the formerly well-supported military region where they live. For many of the peninsula's residents, the world they knew has vanished, and what comes next is unknown.

Q: The novel takes place on Russia's Kamchatka peninsula. How important is setting to you in your writing, and what type of research did you need to do to write the novel?

A: Setting is fundamental to this novel. Kamchatka is huge, beautiful, and isolated – it's effectively an island, only reachable by air or sea. Its remoteness makes it a particularly compelling place to set the story of a disappearance. Thanks to that unique geography, Disappearing Earth is a locked-room mystery, only the room is the size of California. 

I spent about a year from 2011 to 2012 living in Kamchatka to research this book, then returned in summer 2015 with an early draft to gather more details. 

Q: The book's chapters focus on a variety of characters who are connected to one another in different ways. Did you write the novel in the order in which it appears, or did you move some of the chapters around?

A: No and yes. The book's chapters take us month by month through a year in Kamchatka, with each chapter focusing on a different character related in some way to the sisters. 

I wrote the chapters out of order; the May chapter was written first, then November, then...maybe February? But who each person was in each month never changed. Their individual stories are shaped by their place in the larger sequence, so they couldn't be shifted around.

Q: Did you always know how the novel would end, or did you make changes along the way?

A: I always knew the general shape of the book – that is, with which characters it would start and finish – but my original idea for what exactly would happen in its conclusion was much more pessimistic. As I became more invested in this fictional world through the writing process, though, it didn't feel right to wrap it up in a desolate way. I shifted my expectations for the ending about halfway through the project. I'm so glad I did.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm working on a second novel that explores similar themes to Disappearing Earth in ways that feel new and totally challenging to me. I remain obsessed with identity, violence, what our authority figures do or don't do for us, and how we might connect to help each other. I expect those ideas will keep driving my stories forward for a long time yet.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Erin Gough

Erin Gough is the author of the new young adult novel Amelia Westlake Was Never Here. She also has written the YA novel Get It Together, Delilah!, and her work has appeared in various journals and anthologies, including Best Australian Stories and Griffith Review. She's based in Sydney, Australia.

Q: You note that the idea for Amelia Westlake came from your own high school experiences. How did that lead to your writing the novel?

A: That's right. The original idea came from a hoax I did with two of my school friends when we were in our final school year. That hoax was the best thing about high school as far as I’m concerned, and I thought it would be fun to revisit it in fiction.

As I began writing the story - about three years ago now – I realised it was developing into an exploration of power and privilege. As it happened, those concerns were becoming central to the cultural conversation as well, and we’ve since seen them culminate in the “me too” movement. 

Q: How did you come up with your characters Will and Harriet, and did you always plan on writing from both points of view?

A: Will and Harriet were both part of my original plan for the novel. I liked the idea of having two people behind the hoax, and the opposites attract trope has always been a favourite of mine - I could see these ideas working well together. I was also excited about having two contrasting voices telling the same story - it created a natural space for humour. 

To be honest, I came up with Harriet by thinking about the type of annoying person I used to be - naive, ridiculously optimistic and completely unaware of my own privilege. Will is more like the person I am now - cynical, negative, and probably far less woke than she thinks she is. Both characters still have a lot to learn, and the journey they undertake throughout the novel is towards a place where they come to appreciate that. 

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

A: I drafted a detailed synopsis early on, and while many of the plot details changed throughout the writing process, the main story arc remained the same. I find developing a road map at the start of a project really helps me stay focused on what has to happen as I write every scene. 

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

A: I want readers to enjoy the ride - I had a lot of fun writing this book! But I also want them to think about the power structures in their lives, and how they can disrupt those structures.

Young women like my characters Will, Harriet, and Nat face certain disadvantages in this world, but there are also ways - often creative ways - in which they can harness their talent and skills and find ways to speak to power, to challenge power, to find their voice.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm working on a third novel for young adults that is unrelated to my first two novels. Unlike the first two, it has a speculative fiction element to it, which has been an exciting challenge for me.

Without giving too much away, the novel looks at how we experience and tackle change as individuals and communities, and how our actions affect (or incite change) for others. Like Amelia Westlake, it also considers how young people can be agents of change.  

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: While researching Amelia Westlake I spent a lot of time on the internet reading about hoaxes that have been perpetuated throughout history and boy, have there been a few.

In 1951 at a famous dinner party the host pretended to serve his dinner guests prehistoric sloth meat.  In 1998 David Bowie and his friends made up a fake artist called "Nat Tate" and published his supposed biography, fooling much of the New York art world.

I also found out that there are a lot of people on the planet who think AUSTRALIA ITSELF IS A HOAX. I want your readers to know this is not true! I can personally vouch for the existence of the continent, and can provide photographic evidence of me with a kangaroo if required. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 22

May 22, 1859: Arthur Conan Doyle born.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Q&A with Randy Susan Meyers

Randy Susan Meyers is the author of the new novel Waisted. Her other books include The Widow of Wall Street and The Murderer's Daughter. She lives in Boston.

Q: In our previous interview, you said of Waisted, "It was hard to write." Why was that?

A: I played with the first line of this book for over a decade: “Everyone hates a fat woman,” but I wrote and published four books before using it in Waisted. The story screamed in my head, but I kept it locked away because writing it meant facing myself. Writ honest, the novel would have to include tales of self-loathing, hiding food, and scale-terror. All of which I face daily.

Feeling ready to hit the personal nadir that delving into issues of women and weight could/would ignite took years. Hiding from the truth was far more inviting. And yet, “Everyone hates a fat woman” wouldn’t let go. So, I began.

Once embroiled in the story, I wanted to never eat again, and I wanted to eat every minute. I never wanted to look at a scale, and I wanted to weigh myself three times a day. Part of me wanted to continue denying the cruelty we face from ourselves and others, but I also felt the urge to open myself to every loathsome thought I’d ever had about myself and every bit of self-hatred I (and I imagined other women) held.

I reckoned with my mother teaching me to hate anything short of perfection. I remembered and confronted the question she’d ask on almost every phone call: “How’s your weight?”— as though “my weight” was something separate from me. Like a roly-poly puppy I dragged behind me. Or a snarling feral bear.

Inhabiting my characters forced terrifying introspection. Could I be at peace with my body and choose who I wanted to be? Could my life be other than a reaction to my mother, magazines, and impossible societal standards? Could I stop denying how my weight—whether up or down—controlled me?

Q: Can you say more about how you came up with the idea for the novel, and for your characters Alice and Daphne?

A: What’s it like to have the scale be the scariest thing in the house? And why is that more true for women than for men? Those were my initial questions.

I wanted to write (and read) a novel based on “What if a woman’s desire to be thin overrides everything else in her life” — including all ranges of women, in weight, in background, and in class.

My characters are not my family or me—and yet they are. The inner lives, traumas, and history of novelists always flavor their work. I knew my experiences with issues around body image would be baked into Waisted, but I didn’t want this novel to be my autobiography, just the emotional butter in the story’s cookies.

Alice and Daphne —seemingly so different—confront the same issue, though their back story is completely different. Both are so damaged from fat-shaming, they willingly leave their families and jobs for over a month to take part in what they think will provide the magic bullet. When reality hits that they are caught in a cruel experiment, I wanted to explore how far women will go to lose weight—and if they can rescue themselves.

I drew from a multiple of cultures (racial, ethnic, religious, class) because this is the world in which I/we live. Women from every group in America must face fat-shaming, and the pressure to be thin. I looked forward to putting these women together on the page.

Q: What do you think their experiences say about the role that appearance play for women, and also about how weight factors into family dynamics?

A: Alice, Daphne, and the other women of Waisted, represent too many of us in America. We are judged (or ignored, or feted) daily based on the quality of our appearance. Even in the most careful of families, girls are complimented on their appearance while we note boy’s strength and smarts.

When I spoke to women about Waisted, more than a few mentioned that their brothers were given desserts, but not them. One had to do push-ups while her brother ate cake.

Women are often the decorations of the media. Fighting that constant barrage is close to impossible.

When I reached out to women across the country, asking for their essays, poems, and stories about body image, their submissions (which turned into Women Under Scrutiny, a non-fiction companion book for Waisted) filled with pain, rage, and hope, overwhelmed me. Ages 17-76, representing a wide swath of women, family dynamics & weight was an overwhelming truth they put forth.

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

A: I hope women take away at the very least these four messages:
* You are not alone.
* Smart is beautiful.
* Be kind to yourself.
* Be kind to others.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My current projects are way out of my comfort zone. I’m trying to reach yet another world I haven’t yet explored. I’m not ready to talk about it for fear of breaking the nascent state I’m building!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I knew this novel would incite strong feelings and reactions, but I still found myself unprepared. Writing this book was a trauma, a blessing, and a ride into my past, and future. Putting out this novel, more than any I’ve written, blew up and revealed all the hidden craziness about my body that I’ve carried all these years.

Writing this novel was a creative and personal experience.

At this moment, I am thinking of how much I will share of this as I set out on book tour.  I’m truly looking forward to talking to women about it when I visit their book clubs in person and via Skype. Whether I am with them or not, I hope Waisted will engender intense honest discussion.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Randy Susan Meyers.

Q&A with Kaira Rouda

Kaira Rouda is the author of the new novel The Favorite Daughter. Her other novels include Best Day Ever. She lives in Southern California.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Favorite Daughter, and for your character Jane?

A: Much like Paul in Best Day Ever, Jane popped into my head one sunny day. And the rest of the book flowed from there. I’m intrigued by what goes on behind closed doors of seemingly perfect lives. And, although her family has been struck by tragedy, Jane still believes it’s almost perfect, and can be again.

Q: You write of narcissists, "Although it may seem terrifying to some that I enjoy getting inside the heads of these types of people in my most recent novels, to me, it's cathartic." Why is that?

A: No idea. I suppose once you know these personalities exist, and you see them in action in the world, causing commotion wherever they go, a good way to try to understand them better is through writing about them. That’s my theory.

Q: The novel is set in Orange County, California. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: Setting is everything to me. I cannot write a good story without knowing the place where it is happening. It’s another, important, character in the book.

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

A: I have so many but I’d say if pressed to narrow the list: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Shirley Jackson, Eudora Welty.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My next novel!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: That’s it. Thank you so much for reading The Favorite Daughter and for having me here.

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

May 21

May 21, 1688: Alexander Pope born.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Q&A with Penny Farmer

Penny Farmer is the author of the new book Dead in the Water: My Forty-Year Search for My Brother's Killer. She is a freelance journalist, and she lives in Oxford, UK.

Q: You write that in 2015 you had an epiphany about finding your brother's murderer and his sons. What happened at that point to make you think you could find them so many years after your brother's death?

A: While on a dog walk with my then 91-year old mother I had this conviction like a bolt out of the blue that I could find Silas Boston and his two sons on the internet. To this day, I have no idea where that thought came from or why it should happen some 38 years after my brother, Chris, and his girlfriend, Peta, had been murdered. All I can say is that they have never been forgotten and we still miss them to this day.

I had a firm conviction that if I just looked hard enough and drilled down on the internet that I would find them and, of course, I did.   I actually felt cross with myself that I hadn’t looked for them before but we had been told so many times by law enforcement that he and his sons had disappeared off the radar.

Q: You say of writing the book that it was cathartic but emotionally draining. What made you decide to write the book, and what are your emotions now that it's published and people are reading it?

A: To be quite honest I hadn’t actually thought of writing a book until early on in the investigation one of the detectives, who was working on the case at Greater Manchester Police, knowing that I was a journalist, asked me if I had plans to write it up. I was also motivated by the fact that my father, a BBC TV director who sadly died in 2013, some two years before the case was reopened, had always wanted me to write Chris’s story.

I felt it was very much my family’s story to tell and being a journalist and PR consultant it seemed natural that I should write it. I believe and hope that I have written it without prejudice. As the story got bigger, we were approached by many to write it but as a family we feel very protective of Chris’s memory and I wanted to take rightful ownership of it.

My primary aim in writing the book was for it to stand as a lasting memorial to a very dear brother. He was one of life’s big characters, was hugely popular, and touched many people’s lives not just as a doctor but as a friend. It is heart-warming that so many of his friends from school and university have seen the story in the media and got in touch.

My mother and I feel that we have revisited Chris’s memory all over again and know him better now than when he died as of course he had been living away from home for five years at university. The book is like bringing him home.

Q: What do your family members think of the book?

A: My mother and older brother are delighted that I have written it. My only wish is that my father had been alive to know the story and know that Chris died defending someone less able than himself.

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

A: That evil doesn’t in the end pay. You can run but you can’t hide from judgment – after 50 years on the run Boston was arrested and charged with their murders. Boston didn’t stand trial because in choosing to stop all his meds and refuse food and liquids, he effectively chose the coward’s way out.

We were just two weeks away from travelling to Sacramento to give pre-trial evidence when he died, which was a further body blow to mine and Peta’s family. Boston followed in his father’s criminal footsteps and I am glad that [Boston’s sons] Russell and Vince didn’t become carbon copies of their father. I like to think that, though I am not religious, that Chris and Peta showed both sons a better way to live.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have planned my second book and have started researching it but have so far been unable to start writing it as I have a full-time job but I will! I am still heavily involved in promoting Dead in the Water as the BBC have made a major 10-part podcast called Paradise.

For the making of it, I went to Belize and Guatemala in December with the investigative journalist Dan Maudsley and I was stunned to find Chris and Peta’s graves in Puerto Barrios Cemetery in Guatemala when the FBI had failed to find them. It took us one hour of being in the cemetery and the FBI said they had spent at least a month looking for them so it begs the very puzzling question why didn’t they find them?

It is particularly significant given the fact that had Boston not chosen to exit life, we were facing going to trial with a body-less crime. Fortunately, I was able to add this last minute to the U.S. edition of my book.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My website features a lot of information on the case and photographs and videos. I can also be found on Twitter @PennyFarmer18 and my Dead in the Water Facebook page

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Dee Garretson

Dee Garretson is the author of the new young adult historical novel All is Fair, which takes place during World War I. Her other books include Wolf Storm and Wildfire Run. She lives in Cincinnati.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for All is Fair, and for your character Mina?

A: I love history and had self-published a historical mystery set in 1878, The Gargoyle in the Seine, which I always intended to continue as a series but have not yet gotten around to that. Then I fell in love with Downton Abbey and started to ponder a story with a similar setting.

One of the characters in the 1878 book was a spy for the British government and though he’d be far too old in 1918 to be a main character in a YA book, I came up with a life that could have happened to him after 1878. That’s how his youngest daughter, Mina, becomes the main character of this book, and why there are spying and code elements in it. It was so much fun to write and so much fun to imagine their whole family’s history in those intervening years.

Mina’s personality developed as I wrote the story-it’s always hard for me to figure out a character completely until I’m actually writing.

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

A: When I’m writing historicals, I first immerse myself in the general history of the time period so I can get a better feel of how to focus. As I’m reading, I always find references to events that intrigue me, and I note those down and then delve into more specific research.

When I first started researching All is Fair, I only knew the very broad outlines of the history. Stumbling on books about how the Belgian underground operated and the raid on Zeebrugge were like finding hidden treasures. I knew I had to incorporate both of those.

After the structure of the story comes together, I focus on memoirs and autobiographies to get a sense of the smaller details of daily life. I do tend to get so interested in the research, I have to cut myself off at some point so I’ll actually write the story!

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

A: The basic plot didn’t change but there were many, many other changes along the way. In the original story, the first part of the book, the spy element, had more characters and more twists and turns. At one point I almost turned the story into two books, but then we decided to edit it down. I cut three characters and really pared it back.

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

A: I think it’s so important that we all know something of history and how the major events affect ordinary people. I’m a firm believer in the statement that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. While this is a story which has a happier ending for the main characters than many would have at the time, I hope readers come away with a bit of understanding of that time and how it changed the lives of everyone who lived then.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just finished the majority of the work on another YA historical fiction story, this one set during the Russian revolution, called Gone by Nightfall. It’s inspired a bit by The Sound of Music. An American girl lives with her Russian stepfather and a whole unruly assortment of younger siblings and stepsiblings in Petrograd.

She’s hoping a new young Russian tutor, who just happens to be rather handsome and dashing, will stick out the job of wrangling the children so she can go back to the United States, but then the revolution happens and everything gets turned upside down.

The book will be out in January 2020. I’m not sure what my next book will be after that, but I’m exploring lots of ideas.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just that I hope readers walk away with a sense that the characters are going to go on and have interesting lives. That’s what I want with all my books. I also hope readers find many more historical fiction stories to embrace. Historical fiction a bit of an underdog in genre term and it’s hard to reach readers, so thank you very much for reading the book!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 20

May 20, 1799: Honoré de Balzac born.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Q&A with Tembi Locke

Tembi Locke, photo by Jenny Walters
Tembi Locke is the author of the new book From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home. It focuses on her relationship with her late husband, a chef from Sicily. Locke is an actor and is the creator of, an advocacy platform. She lives in Los Angeles.

Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir, and what impact did writing it have on you?

A: There were perhaps two main reasons I decided to write From Scratch. One, I wanted to share what I had learned about love and loss. Two, I wanted to create a kind of love letter to my late husband and his homeland for our daughter. I had reached a point in my life where to not tell the story would have been another kind of grief.

Plus, I am a firm believer that there are times when we need to look back and find meaning into order to go forward. It gives us a better understanding of our present and perhaps our future.

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

A: From Scratch has multiple meanings. On the one hand, it directly connects to the theme of food in the book. But it is also about building an improbable life from scratch and then starting over from scratch.

Q: How did you select the recipes that you include at the end of the book?

A: I always felt the book should have recipes. It seemed like a perfect way to honor Saro, who was a chef.

But also, I was inspired by two books, Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel and Many Beautiful Things, a book of stories and recipes by food writer (and actor) Vincent Schiavelli. I wanted the recipes in From Scratch to accompany the narrative and pull from the delicious foods prepared by the people who passed through my heart.

Q: How would you describe the impact that Sicily has had on your life?

A: Sicily has taught me more than I can ever fully articulate. It has seeped into my bones and enriched my life, teaching me about the constancy of love and place as well as the beauty for our natural world.

Its people and ancient, kaleidoscopic culture have also taught me there is no finish line in grief. That “island of stone,” in all its visual lushness, customs and contradictions, gave me a stillness when I needed it most. It helped me find safe harbor when I was adrift in a sea of loss.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now, I am largely focused on the book launch. But I have a recurring role on the FOX drama Proven Innocent, and recently completed an independent film, The Obituary of Tunde Johnson. And I am toying with a new book idea.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 19

May 19, 1930: Lorraine Hansberry born.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Q&A with Rachel Howard

Rachel Howard, photo by Emmet Cullen
Rachel Howard is the author of the new novel The Risk of Us. It focuses on a couple and their foster daughter. Howard also has written the memoir The Lost Night, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle and The New York Times. She lives in Nevada City, California.

Q: You note that The Risk of Us originated with your own family's story, but that you decided to write the story as fiction "to make a space for readers to be in this tension and ambiguity of trying to become a family, but I didn't want it to be about me." What did you see as the right blend between your own experiences and your fictional creations as you wrote the novel?

A: Ah, that’s a tough question. The honest answer is that I didn’t decide on a right proportion for the blend. I’ve spent a lot of years wrestling with the question of “What is the difference between memoir and fiction?” because I’ve long loved to read and write fiction, but my first book was a memoir.

I’ve come to believe that, for me, the differences are primarily two: First, the impetus for memoir (at least for me) has to do with self-excavation and self-discovery, maybe even a cathartic writing myself to the end of one life story and the beginning of another.

Second, memoir can do some relying on the power of telling the reader “This really happened.” The inner reality of its pages connects to outer, real-life reality. Whereas to me, in fiction—even if I know the story aligns in some ways with the writer’s life facts—the story has its own internal reality. Either its internal reality is fully and self-sufficiently convincing, or the work is not quite whole.

For that reason, as I wrote The Risk of Us, I treated my own family’s experience in the foster care world as a starting point for the internal reality of the book. Very quickly as I thought about the dynamics I wanted to set up between the characters and the story shape, some things shifted.

I’d feel I failed if the reader has to know exactly which things line up to have the story feel “real,” but two quick examples, my husband does not have an atrial septal heart defect, and I was not (to my knowledge) unable to have biological offspring. Things about Maresa and my real-life daughter differ, too.

But rather than deciding on a right blend, I entered the world as wholly imagined. Whether something lined up or didn’t with real life was immaterial. I didn’t track it. This way of working can have strange effects. Now, for instance, I sometimes fleetingly think that things I imagined for the book really happened to me in life.

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

A: It’s funny, it actually took a long path to arrive at the title The Risk of Us, even though it felt so right when it came. The working title of the novel was Finalizing—as in, finalizing an adoption. I suppose that title has some obvious faults!

When it came time to change it, after weeks of brain-wracking (and my agents’ brain-wracking!), I was lying awake at 1 a.m. and the word “risk” came to me. I remembered the line early on about the brochure the novel’s narrator sees, a brochure from a foster services agency saying they needed families that “take risks.” I remembered that the line—which I saw in a real-life brochure—had been an important early catalyst for the novel.

To me The Risk of Us signifies the essence of the experience these three characters—the husband and wife who want to adopt and Maresa, the seven-year-old-girl in foster care—are about to enter. They each have a lot on the line, and no guarantees that they will make it to becoming a bonded family. In fact, the odds are against them.

Q: Did you need to do additional research to write the novel?

A: I researched the parenting books recommended to foster parents, and the kinds of therapy that were primarily practiced. I also researched the newer laws of foster care, a model in California called “concurrent planning,” where foster parents are asked to commit to offering the foster child a permanent home, but simultaneously be open to the possibility of the child reunifying with a birth parent. It asks a lot of the foster parents, but I do think it’s the best model.

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

A: I hope readers will take away a sense of just being with truth and reality in all its complexity. That they’ll feel they inhabited a space, within these pages, where pain and beauty exist side by side, and where truth is complex.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a spiritual memoir about learning to sing at an old piano bar in Oakland called The Alley, with a pianist who played there five nights a week from 1960 until he died in 2017, Rod Dibble. The memoir is a serious exploration of the idea of “true religion,” but at the same time, it’s a lot of fun! Quite a shift from writing The Risk of Us.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I don’t think so! I’m grateful for your provocative questions.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 18

May 18, 1902: Meredith Willson born.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Q&A with Elizabeth Zunon

Elizabeth Zunon is the author and illustrator of the new children's picture book Grandpa Cacao: A Tale of Chocolate, from Farm to Family. She has illustrated a variety of books, including I Am Farmer and Martha and the Slave Catchers. She lives in Albany, New York.

Q: You note that your new book was inspired by your own family history. Can you say more about that? 

A: The book was inspired by the life of my grandfather, whom I never met, and our family's love for chocolate! My grandfather owed a cacao plantation in the Ivory Coast, West Africa, where my father remembers accompanying him to the cacao farm and witnessing all of the work that my grandfather and others in the community did to get cacao beans ready to be shipped off to factories where they are turned into chocolate.

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

A: Yes, I had to do a lot of research to write this book, as well as interview my father and ask him tons of questions. I spent my childhood in the Ivory Coast, but have never been to a cacao plantation, so I needed to learn as much as I could. One piece of information that was surprising to learn was how little money farmers earn from their backbreaking work.

Q: You used two different artistic styles in the book. How did you choose which style to use for the girl's story and which for the grandfather's?

A: I decided to use a more realistic style for the girl's story (oil paint and collage), and a more dreamy style for the grandfather's story (silk-screen). Since the images of the grandfather are coming from the girl's imagination, I wanted him to have a less real, more mythical appearance. I was thinking of the grandfather as a John Henry, heroic type of figure.

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

A: I hope kids take away from the book that chocolate comes from cacao fruits that grow in faraway places! And that farmers who work very hard to prepare these fruits go give us chocolate, don't often get to eat chocolate themselves! According to Richard Scobey, President of the World Cocoa Foundation, most cacao farmers in the Ivory Coast and Ghana make less than $1.90 per day.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I've just finished illustrating Bedtime for Sweet Creatures by Nikki Grimes, and I'm working on the illustrations for As Big as the Sky by Carolyn Rose.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Buy chocolate! Cheap chocolate, expensive chocolate, craft chocolate, chocolate made from cacao from Africa, Central and South America, Southeast Asia... enjoy it all! Cacao farmers and chocolate makers work very hard to bring it to us.

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

Q&A with Brandy Scott

Brandy Scott is the author of the new novel Not Bad People. She is a radio presenter and she's based in Dubai.

Q: You note that you came up with the idea for Not Bad People while viewing a letting-go ceremony. How did that experience turn into this novel?

A: I’m constantly auditioning ideas for novels in my head. Things that happen to me and others, things I read about in the newspaper. The letting-go ceremony I went to – where a group of us tied resolutions to sky lanterns and let them off a balcony – stuck in my head afterwards, along with the possible consequences. I just kept thinking “what if?”. I’m a born worrier and in this case, that was an asset – I basically worried my way into a plot.

Q: How did you come up with your characters Aimee, Melinda, and Lou, and what do you think the book says about old friendships?

A: My characters are all completely fictional, but tend to be sparked by things I’ve experienced or witnessed. I can be a bit anxious – see above! – which is where Aimee’s issues started; I’ve had long chats with my girlfriends about the subtle indignities of being single in your forties, which I’ve given to Melinda. Lou and I are very similar in temperament. But these are just launchpads for character. 

I think Not Bad People highlights the casual carelessness we can slip into with our oldest friends. It’s a cruel truth that we often treat our old friends far worse than our newer ones, because we expect them to just put up with us, like family. This novel investigates what happens when they don’t.

Q: The novel is set in a small town in Australia. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: I knew the setting was going to be important, but I didn’t realize how much fun it was going to be creating it. I’m based in Dubai, so I took a month of work, borrowed a car and drove around country Victoria. I wanted to make sure I got it exactly right – from the time of sunset to the type of birds that would be stealing grapes in the vineyard. 

The town Not Bad People is set in is a mixture of a number of places I visited – Echuca, Beechworth, Heathcote. I spent time helping out on vineyards to learn what the physical work felt like, and interviewed half a dozen winemakers about their daily life. I even found a New Year’s Eve fireworks ceremony over a river, just like in the book. 

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

A: No. I knew the accident would have to result in some kind of inquiry or trial, some kind of reckoning – but I didn’t know how the story would end until I was about half-way through. The imagination is an amazing thing. I think while I was concentrating on all the issues and challenges my characters had to deal with in the first half of the book, my brain was quietly figuring out how they’d have to be resolved in the second.  

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve just started writing a new novel, also set in Australia, although in a very different sort of town. It’s not a sequel, but one of the minor characters in Not Bad People is the main character in this one. I’ve booked three weeks off work for a new research road trip this summer and can’t wait to get back over there.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’ve just signed a TV deal with a New Zealand producer, John Barnett, with a view to turning Not Bad People into a television series, which is hugely exciting. So let’s see what happens next! 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb