Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Q&A with Phaedra Patrick

Phaedra Patrick is the author of the new novel The Library of Lost and Found. She also has written the novels Rise and Shine, Benedict Stone and The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper. She lives in Saddleworth, UK.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Library of Lost and Found, and for your character Martha?

A: Libraries have always been a big inspiration for me, when I was growing up and now, still. As a child, I remember going to the library each Saturday and sitting down on the carpet to look at all the gorgeous books. I think I knew from an early age that I wanted to write books too, and to see my own work sitting on the shelves.

When I started to write The Library of Lost and Found, I had an image in my head of a small library perched on top of a hill, overlooking the crashing waves of the sea. I was also influenced by my childhood love of fairy stories, and the two came together nicely.

The inspiration for Martha’s character came from a number of places. My mum is always helping out her neighbours with their chores, and a friend’s house is full of bags of stuff she’s doing for other people. I used to have an aversion to saying “no” to anyone, and these elements merged and Martha Storm was born.

But, wherever the inspiration for my characters comes from, they feel like real people to me as I tell their stories.

Q: The book focuses on a female character this time, as opposed to the male protagonists in your two previous novels. Was it any different writing about Martha than about Arthur or Benedict?

A: After writing two books with men as the main characters, it was a refreshing change to write for a heroine. It’s always a challenge to place yourself in the character of someone else, I suppose it’s like acting in a way.

So, whether I’m writing about a man or a woman, the process is similar. I think about my character’s life at the moment, what outside and internal forces are impacting on them and how they might need to change. Then I help them along on their journey.

Q: A library and a bookshop or two are key to this novel. Why did you decide to focus on those settings this time?

A: Well, it’s simply that I love books, and I think people all over the world love books. To me, The Library of Lost and Found isn’t just a story, it’s a celebration of the power of words and books, and the importance of libraries in peoples’ lives.

No matter what age you are, where you come from, or where you live now, libraries provide free reading, learning, enjoyment, and bring people together. Libraries and bookshops are often the beating hearts of communities.

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

A: Firstly, I hope that readers enjoy spending time with my characters and going on a journey with them. I hope they might like the story enough to tell their friends, family or reading group members about it. On a deeper level, the book is about finding your own voice, feeling empowered to embrace life, and to take control of your own destiny.

It’s always an honour when readers identify with, or are affected by, one of my characters or storylines. When they write a review or drop me a line to tell me so, it makes the ten months or so I spend in my garden shed writing all worthwhile.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m about to start editing my fourth book. It does feel strange when number three is just coming out and I’m sitting here completing number four. This one is about a single dad whose impromptu act of bravery inspires strangers to write to him, and how the letters help him to come to terms with a loss in his life.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just that I’m super-grateful for readers’ continued support, for making room for my books in their busy lives. Much publicity for authors comes from word-of-mouth recommendations and every bit helps and means a great deal to me. Thank you everyone!

Also, if anyone reading this is interested in writing a novel, I’ve posted some useful friendly tips on my website.

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

March 20

March 20, 1928: Fred Rogers born.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Q&A with Barb Rosenstock

Barb Rosenstock is the author of the new picture book biography Yogi: The Life, Loves, and Language of Baseball Legend Yogi Berra. Her many other books include Through the Window and Otis and Will Discover the Deep. She lives in the Chicago area.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on Yogi Berra in your new picture book biography?

A: Of course everyone knows Yogi Berra, and “it ain’t over ’til it’s over!" But I don’t really keep a list of people I want to write about and if I did, I’m not sure Berra would have been on that list. It wasn’t until I read a few tributes to Yogi that mentioned the bullying he endured, that I became interested in his story.

There was so much to Yogi, from his immigrant roots to baseball failures to military service to showing up the bullies to MLB stardom that I just couldn’t leave anything out. Yogi was a seemingly simple; entirely multifaceted character. And he was kind. I stumbled on a good story about a kind man who became an icon, and I hope kids, especially my young baseball and softball playing readers, will like it. 

Q: How did you pick the quotes from Yogi that you include in the book?

A: I used quotes that fit the section of his life I was writing about, sort of as introductions. The quotes, or “Yogi-isms” as they are called, actually function as section heads to different parts of his life.

Yogi is so often quoted (and misquoted) I also had to be very careful to only use quotes that had solid references. Sorting out what Yogi did say from what he didn’t say might have taken more time than writing the entire story itself!

Q: What do you think Terry Widener's illustrations add to the book?

A: Terry is the baseball expert in this partnership. Seriously, the amount Terry knows or learned about "The Hill" in St. Louis, baseball equipment through the eras, Yogi’s uniforms, what he liked to eat, what his family wore, etc. was just immense. This time I feel the book’s illustrator may have done MORE research than I did as the author.

The action and  emotion that Terry portrays makes a reader FEEL for Yogi in a way that the words alone cannot do.

I also think that cool white outline thing Terry drew (I have no idea what the technical name is for it is, I can’t draw much more than a stick figure) really sets off Yogi and his action from the background also. I love the way Terry made the book look and I love MORE the way Terry made the book feel.

Q: What do you hope kids take away from Yogi's story? 

A: That people who look strong have gone through many hard times. Strength is usually forged through troubles. That means troubles make us grow even if they hurt a bit (or even a lot.)  

I guess that’s why I love biography. It shows us that heroes are made not born; out of so many diverse circumstances, that anyone can be a hero or a success. Success is inside you, not outside.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Three separate projects are fighting for my attention right now: ghosts, a palace and seaweed. And I’m so in the beginning stages of each that I don’t know which will win or be finished first (if ever!)  

As far as what’s coming out next, Prairie Boy: Frank Lloyd Wright Turns the Heartland into a Home is coming from Calkins Creek this fall. I saw my first Wright house when I was about 10 years old and I think I may have been waiting to write this book all that time. It’s illustrated lovingly by Christopher Silas Neal…wait til you see it!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Coincidentally, my oldest son played baseball wearing Berra's number #8 for many years—so maybe I had a little help from fate with this book! It was like “Deja vu all over again!” but then, Yogi already said that!

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

Q&A with Josephine Cameron

Josephine Cameron, photo by Maggie Adolf
Josephine Cameron is the author of Maybe a Mermaid, a new novel for kids. She teaches music and songwriting, and she lives in Maine.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Maybe a Mermaid, and for your character Anthoni Gillis?

In all honesty, with a lot of trial and error. I started knowing that I wanted it to be set on a lake in Northern Wisconsin (where I grew up), and that I wanted it to be about friendship. Specifically, I wanted to build an interesting multi-generational friendship. But it took a lot of brainstorming to find Anthoni’s story.

At first, I was going to have her be a local kid who takes a summer job at an antiques store. And at that point in my mind, she was a boy (Anthony). Ha! I guess I’m a lot like Anthoni’s mom (who says “Gillis Girls Always Stick to the Plan”)—even though I left that storyline far behind before I started writing the first draft, I still loved the name Anthony Gillis. So I put an “i” on the end and stuck to the plan!

Q: The novel is set at a lake. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: I often get the idea for where I want a story to take place before I even know what the story is going to be!

For Maybe a Mermaid, I knew the setting well—the lake, water-skiing, summer relationships between townies and tourists, even the mosquitos—and all of these specific, place-related things helped shape the story and the characters in my mind.

I grew up near a once-famous resort with a boat-shaped building called Marty’s Showboat where ex-vaudeville acts used to perform. Once I decided to bring that place into the book, the character of Charlotte Boulay started to form. She was the piece I was missing, and I wouldn’t have found her in another setting.

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

A: I do a lot of pre-writing. Like, months of figuring out the story and characters before I start writing scenes. So I had a general sense of where I was going before I began drafting.

I knew the climax and resolution I wanted to build towards, but lots of the details changed along the way. And how Anthoni got to those final moments definitely went through many revisions. Luckily, I love revising almost more than I love pre-writing.

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

A: A sense of wonder. Hope. The knowledge that you can find True Blue Friends even in the most unlikely places…if you remain open to the possibilities.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m currently working on another book for the same age group that has a LOT of dogs, and a LOT of silliness. I’m having a ridiculous amount of fun with this one, and often burst out laughing while I type. Either that’s a good sign, or I need to start getting out of the house more!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: It’s incredible to me how many people are involved in getting a book into the world. I am so grateful to everyone who has read, edited, designed, marketed, publicized, and otherwise helped shaped this manuscript into a real, live book. My agent, John Cusick, is a rock star, and my editor, Grace Kendall, is a creative genius. There are whole days where I feel completely overwhelmed with gratitude.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 19

March 19, 1933: Philip Roth born.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Q&A with Jenn Marie Thorne

Jenn Marie Thorne is the author of the new young adult novel Night Music. She also has written The Wrong Side of Right and The Inside of Out. She is based in Gloucestershire, England.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Night Music, and for your characters Ruby and Oscar?

A: The first spark of the idea was for a fantasy novel, actually.

I wanted to write about someone who was the heir to some great magic, but who didn't have the gift, and what it would be like to be constantly confronted with magic while trying to forge a life as an ordinary person. I wanted the gifted love interest to have been brought up outside of this insular world of magic.

As soon as I realized the book would work just as well as a contemporary set-up, all the pieces quickly fell into place.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on music in this novel?

A: I love music, especially classical music. I've studied it throughout my life, but never quite had the talent to make a professional go of it. It's funny when I think of the first idea I had of this book as a fantasy novel - even if I had gone down the road of making it wizards and squibs, at its core, it was always going to be about my relationship with music.

Q: The novel also addresses racial issues and diversity. What do you hope readers take away from this aspect of the book?

A: Racism isn't a check yes or no box. I think a lot of people, even (and sometimes especially) well-meaning liberals, fall into the trap of thinking they're one of the good guys, immune to any prejudice, and it's those people whose lack of self-examination leads them to commit a million microaggressions that make life more difficult for the marginalized among us.

I wanted to write a book in which the relationship succeeds, not because I've written a "colorblind" world, but because the heroine is willing to do the work of examining herself and her own privilege in order to make herself a worthy partner for someone as exceptional as Oscar.

Q: The novel is set in New York City. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: I've lived in a lot of different places over the course of my life, and I often return to those places in my books as a sort of homecoming.

New York is funny, though - it changes so quickly that even if you spend a year away, when you go back, you feel like a tourist again. I did have to do some Upper West Side research, because I was always an East Side girl, and pretty much spent the whole process of working on the book longing to be in the city!

So the setting definitely informs the story, I think, but it's mostly a way for me to indulge my wanderlust.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I've got a few varied projects in the hopper, including a co-written historical, an adult suspense, and a YA romance set in Hollywood. I'm also writing a truly ridiculous screenplay and having a lot of fun working in a brand-new format.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 18

March 18, 1932: John Updike born.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Q&A with Deborah R. Prinz

Deborah R. Prinz is the author of the book On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao, now in its second edition. She is the rabbi emerita of Temple Adat Shalom in San Diego County, California.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for On the Chocolate Trail?

A: My husband, Mark Hurvitz, who’s also a rabbi, and I were traveling in Paris. We went to a number of chocolate shops. [At one shop] I happened to pick up their company literature, and I read something about how Jews who had been exiled from Spain brought chocolate-making to France. I had never heard this before.

I thought about how Jews followed lines of dispersion from Spain, and what chocolate centers existed in the early part of European contact. There was an overlap. It made sense that Jews who were exposed to chocolate-making would be involved in the chocolate business. I followed that first “oh my gosh” feeling.

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

A: I researched both by tasting and by reading. I tasted as much as I could! And I had three fellowships to pursue my research. I did a lot of reading, and I learned a lot of stories, not only about Jews but Catholics, Quakers, Mayans, Aztecs.

Half the material in the book is about Jews and chocolate, and the second part of the book is about other religions that had lots of chocolate connections.

In terms of surprises, the first was that there was an overlap between religion and chocolate. And how chocolate evolved over the years from primarily a beverage to an eaten product. How involved Jews were in the business surprised me. There was a lot of learning.

Q: What’s your favorite kind of chocolate?

A: The one I’m about to eat that’s right in front of me!

Q: What was the reaction to the first edition of this book, and why did you decide to write a second edition?

A: The reaction to the first edition was great. I was surprised by the number of requests I received, and the publisher was thrilled with the sales. That generated the second edition—the idea was to update it so it was available to people in its current form.

The second edition has additional information, such as about deities being formed into chocolate--Jesus, Buddha and others—and the controversies that raised.

I updated the list in the back of the book about religious and ethical values you could use when buying your chocolate. The last chapter of the first edition was a full conversation about what makes an ethical chocolate, what should I be looking for. I updated and expanded that.

There were 13 recipes in the first book; now there are 25. And there are new sidebars, about halal chocolate and kosher chocolate, and what did Alexander Hamilton drink.

Q: So what should someone look for in terms of ethical chocolate?

A: Is the company committed to sustainability? Is the packaging made from recycled material? Is it a company committed to replanting the rainforest? Is it a company that’s tzedakah [charitable giving]-minded? Are they committed to their community in a meaningful way? Are they assisting farmers and communities and improving their standard of living?

For some Jews, it’s is it kosher or kosher for Passover.

The most compelling question: Is it from a country that has child labor and slavery in chocolate growing and harvesting?...Over two million children are working in harsh situations harvesting cocoa. It’s horrible.

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: I have some ideas. I’m working on a chocolate book relating to the chocolate trail. I have a second book in the series in mind, and I’m working on something different. I’m looking at celebratory breads—challah, babka, and other examples in the Jewish tradition, and lots of other cultures with celebratory yeast breads.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The book became the basis for a museum exhibit mounted by the Bernard Museum of Temple Emanu-El in New York City. That exhibit is now available to travel.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Deborah Prinz will be appearing at the Temple Sinai (D.C.) Authors' Roundtable on March 23.

March 17

March 17, 1933: Penelope Lively born.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Q&A with Lauren Abbey Greenberg

Lauren Abbey Greenberg is the author of The Battle of Junk Mountain, a novel for kids. Her work has appeared in a variety of children's magazines, and she has written and produced videos for National Geographic. She lives in Maryland.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Battle of Junk Mountain, and for your character Shayne?

A: I knew from the beginning I wanted to have a main character return to a beloved summer spot, excited to repeat all the usual rituals and traditions, only to have unexpected change confront her from the minute she gets there. That throws her off balance and she spends much of the novel trying to reclaim the fun of yesteryear.

Meanwhile, her grandmother is experiencing problems related to hoarding, and in developing both these characters, I discovered I could use hoarding as a metaphor about the danger of trying to hold on too hard to one’s past.

Q: The novel is set in Maine. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: Very important. I find I need to have a strong sense of place before I can begin to sketch out characters. In The Battle of Junk Mountain, the beautiful coast of Maine was chosen as the backdrop because I’ve been vacationing there for over 20 years. Much of the setting is modeled after real-life places and experiences.

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

A: I had a general sense of how it would end. I’m an avid outliner, because I find plotting very difficult. There’s no way I could write without a roadmap to guide me. That said, during revision scenes were added and dropped and darlings killed, but I always stayed true to Shayne’s emotional growth.  

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

A: In The Battle of Junk Mountain, the power of memory grips both Shayne and her grandmother in unhealthy ways. Change can be scary for many folks, young and old, and often we’re reluctant to leave the comforting bubble of what we know. I want young readers to take away that sometimes “change can surprise you in a good way.”

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on another contemporary middle grade although this time it’s set at a bar mitzvah in Maryland during an ice storm.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I love connecting with kids through school visits! If you’re an educator and you’re interested in an in-person or virtual visit, please contact me through my website.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 16

March 16, 1751: James Madison born.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Q&A with Laura Kumin

Laura Kumin is the author of The Hamilton Cookbook: Cooking, Eating & Entertaining in Hamilton's World. She is the creator of the MotherWouldKnow food blog, contributes to The Huffington Post, and teaches cooking and food history. She worked as an attorney for more than two decades.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Hamilton Cookbook?

A: Actually, I didn’t! The publisher came up with the idea. But all they had was a title. They figured they would get a ghostwriter, but [a consultant] said, I know someone who might be interested!

They expected a straight cookbook, a bunch of recipes…I wanted Hamilton and his food, not just Hamilton and his name. I said that I would only do the book if I could do it in the way I wanted - with context and much more about Hamilton and his times. The publisher agreed and so I began. 

As a kid, I had enjoyed George Washington’s World, a book by Genevieve Foster that stresses the connections among historical figures and events. That “horizontal” concept motivated me to capture much more than just the food and recipes that Hamilton might have eaten. 

Q: How did you select the recipes, and how much did you need to change them for modern cooks?

A: I agreed to do the book without any understanding of what I was getting into! But it turned out to be fine. The Library of Congress has a collection of cookbooks that’s digitized. I found them online, and then I went to the Library of Congress and did research on the recipes that were popular at that time, in the areas where Hamilton lived.

Most of what I found was more geared toward the Founding Fathers who were Southern, and Adams, from New England. In order to decide what recipes were appropriate for Hamilton, I had to think about him and his family, rather than what was most popular. I looked at his background [in the Caribbean and the New York area] and that of his in-laws, who were from a farm near Albany.

Much of my research on specific recipes comes from the old cookbooks themselves —I was in the rare book and manuscript room for a couple of days, and they let me touch and look through some of the very oldest cookbooks. I wanted an illustration, and there were not many in these books. The first time I touched one of those books, it was like touching a Torah! I was transported…

Q: So did you need to change the recipes much?

A: I did change them in some respects, but part of my concept was that I wanted people to look at the book and say, That’s something you can make in a toaster oven. That’s something you can make in a slow cooker. Much of what I did was to translate the recipes into language that a modern reader and cook can understand.

In Hamilton’s day, they did everything in weights we’re not used to. “A teacup”—well, how much is a teacup? With chocolate puffs, they say, Make them the size of a sixpence. I was screaming to my husband to look up the size of a sixpence! Is it the size of a quarter, or a dime?

And people were cooking on fireplaces—“cook until done.” It isn’t temperature or time. In order to write a 21st Century version, I researched modern versions of similar recipes and used what I found to inspire me in updating the 18th Century recipes in the book.

Q: What surprised you most in your research?

A: The book has three distinct parts: Hamilton, his times, and food and entertaining. I learned something about each. (I had not seen the play before writing the book, nor did I listen to the music that Lin-Manuel Miranda used. I didn’t want to be unconsciously limited.)

In learning about Hamilton’s life, I was very touched by how tender and how physically brave he was. Our current president is neither tender nor brave.

The historical context for Hamilton gave me an appreciation for the great animosity between and among the founding fathers. I had not understood that. I hadn’t really thought about the fact that the Adamses, Abigail and John, detested Hamilton. Jefferson wasn’t a great fan of Hamilton’s either.

Another aspect of the context that enthralled me was learning how different the U.S. was at that time. In particular, I loved learning what New York and Philadelphia were like. The internet can be a beautiful thing. Using digitized census data from 1790, I learned how small these cities were. You don’t think about those things.

Perhaps the most intriguing parts of researching food and entertainment during Hamilton’s times was learning about the food and entertainment rules and expectations during that time. 

The American upper classes were trying to do things like their counterparts in France and England. There was great emphasis on rigid rules for how important meals would be set out and what should be included. Also, certain foods that we commonly eat today were thought to be either poisonous or simply not healthy - like tomatoes and potatoes.

Q: What do you think accounts for the popularity of the Hamilton musical and all things relating to Alexander Hamilton lately?

A: I think two things probably. The musical is probably genius...the Ron Chernow book is inaccessible to most people, and Lin-Manuel Miranda has a very complex grasp of it. He read it and internalized the story, and put it out in a popular way. He translated Hamilton in a way that everybody can understand.

But it goes farther back. This is a compelling dramatic story. Aaron Burr and Hamilton knew each other at all these stages. They were in the Revolutionary War together, they were lawyers in the same community, and had even been co-counsel on several cases. In the political realm, they were longtime rivals and their duel was not simply a spur of the moment decision to fight.

Part of the background that makes the Hamilton story so fascinating is the role of slavery in the non-Southern states. Contrary to what many believe in the 21st century (that slavery existed only in the American South and that the northern states and northerners were always against it), slavery was legal in Philadelphia and New York up until the late 18th century. 

In fact, Hamilton himself bought slaves for his brother-in-law. And of course Washington and Jefferson owned slaves. When he dined with those men, Hamilton ate meals prepared by slaves and it is likely that slaves served Hamilton in other ways too, even though he never lived below the Mason-Dixon line. These facts make looking at the issues of slavery and how we should view people who were slaveholders more complicated.

Hamilton and his friends started a society to abolish slavery, but they did not expect or desire to end slavery suddenly. Rather, they looked toward a gradual abolition of the institution of slavery. And Hamilton was the only one [in the group] who didn’t own slaves.

As I researched all the aspects of the book, there was always something that fed my interest in the subject - often what I learned blew me away With this project, there was always something new that kept me going.

Q: What has been the reaction to the book?

A: Overall, I think people are surprised by what they learn from the book about Hamilton, his times, and the food and entertaining of that era. The title suggests that it is just a cookbook. While the recipes are fun to read and make - the book covers much more. Readers who are cooks have enjoyed making dishes that are familiar, like beef stew and gingerbread, as well as others less familiar, such as syllabub.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a couple of ideas. I do really love the idea of marrying history and recipes from the time. There are a lot of books with adapted recipes, old-fashioned recipes, but showing you the actual page it’s written on, it does something for me…

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous version of this Q&A. Laura Kumin will be participating in the Temple Sinai (D.C.) Authors' Roundtable on March 23.

March 15

March 15, 1933: Ruth Bader Ginsburg born.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Q&A with Elliot Ackerman

Elliot Ackerman is the author most recently of the novel Waiting for Eden. He also has written the novels Green on Blue and Dark at the Crossing, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Esquire and The New Yorker. He lives in New York City and Washington, D.C.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Waiting for Eden?

A: The book started with the first line, “I want you to understand Mary and what she did …” The only thing was that I didn’t know at that point what Mary had done, only that her husband, Eden, was in this debilitated state in the hospital. I also didn’t know who the narrator was, there was just this voice.

The novel then became a series of questions: Who is Mary? What did she do and why? And who is this narrator who is pleading with us to understand her? Often that’s how my books get started, with a question.

Q: At what point did you decide who would narrate the story? 

A: Early on, I knew that I wanted this book to feel very intimate. I understood the book’s mood immediately and such intimacy usually lends itself to a first person narrator.

But the set up of the book caused all these problems with point-of-view. I’ve got Eden who is mostly non-communicative in his hospital bed, and Mary who for three years has been keeping a vigil with no indications that Eden knows she’s there. Neither of them could narrate the book because neither of them had access to the other.

Then I’ve got this voice, the first line of the book, and I wasn’t sure who that was. Eventually, the realization occurred that I could achieve the intimacy of first person narration and the omniscience of third person narration if my first person narrator was dead.

So the voice is a ghost, and who that ghost is and why that person is narrating Eden and Mary’s story becomes one of the central conceits of the book.

Q: How was the novel’s title selected and what does it signify to you?

A: The title, of course, comes from the protagonist’s name. But the idea of characters attempting to return to an original, purer state of being was one which resonated with me. Personally, politically, socially, it seems we are, all of us, often striving for such a return. This, too, becomes a theme in the book. 

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

A: I hope to tell a story that immerses the reader and leaves them thinking of the characters long after the book is finished.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My first book of non-fiction, Places and Names: On War, Revolution, and Returning, will be released in June 2019. That’s the alligator closest to the boat, though I have several other projects I’m working on.

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

March 14

March 14, 1879: Albert Einstein born.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Q&A with Laurie Helgoe

Laurie Helgoe, Ph.D., is the author of the new book Fragile Bully: Understanding Our Destructive Affair with Narcissism in the Age of Trump. Her other books include Introvert Power. A clinical psychologist, she is an associate professor of behavioral sciences at the Ross University School of Medicine.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book, and what is the difference between a narcissist and a fragile bully?

A: During the time surrounding the 2016 presidential election, I noticed a collective illness in our midst -- the kind of illness induced by destructive narcissism.

Rather than engaging from their own points-of-view, people were reacting. And as they reacted to narcissistic displays--whether the grandiose claim or the belittling attack--they were doing exactly that: re-acting.

Whether people were cheering or jeering in response to narcissistic boasts and challenges, these reactions generated more narcissistic boasts and challenges. I wanted to help people -- myself included -- to step back from this destructive dance and recover their own individual voices. 

When people think of a "narcissist," they tend to imagine an overconfident braggart. They are thinking of what we call "grandiose narcissism." At the extreme, grandiose narcissists identify with an inflated self and insist that the world support the illusion.

The other type of narcissism clinicians encounter is "vulnerable narcissism," in which the self is so fragile that any hint of criticism threatens its destruction.

What I was observing was interplay between these two types of narcissism. The fragile bully provokes and belittles, but then when others retaliate, feels victimized and hurt, bringing the focus back on the self and further justifying aggression.  
Q: What are some of the common perceptions and misperceptions about narcissism?

A: The biggest misconception is that narcissism is a bad thing. Narcissism is a human thing. At its simplest, the term refers to self interest, and we all need some self-interest to inspire self-care and self-advocacy.

Instead of seeing narcissism as a pathology, it is more helpful to look at it as a continuum, with both the lack and the excess of it being problematic. Looking at narcissism on a continuum also helps us reclaim our shared humanity and vulnerability. Narcissism is not just "out there," existing only within monsters we prop up as examples, but also "in here," fueling our own sensitivities and defenses. 

Q: In the book, you write that "the drama of the fragile bully finds a home in the White House." How would you describe Donald Trump's behavior in the context of your book?

A: I have never met or evaluated the president, so I only see what is available to the public. What becomes very visible is the mix of grandiose provocations (bullying) and retaliatory defensiveness (fragility) evident in Trump's tweets and rallying points.

The reason I resist diagnosing the president is not only because I lack the data and permission to do so, but also because this temptation is part of the drama I refer to. We are far too focused on the personality of Donald Trump, and in our reactions to that personality, we begin to evidence the very behaviors we ascribe to him.

This is the meat of my book--that destructive narcissism is bigger than any of its subscribers, and that we need to understand the ways our "solutions" end up contributing to the problem.

Q: How would you advise people to deal with narcissists or fragile bullies they encounter in their lives?

A: Start by observing your reactions. Do you retaliate? Do you disappear? Do you work to reassure or "fix" the narcissist? In order to pull back from the destructive dance of narcissism, you need to first identify the steps in that dance.

My book goes through these in detail, but most people can predict how interactions will go. Practice pulling back from these reflexive reactions.

In some cases, especially if abuse is involved, pulling out of the destructive dance may mean exiting the relationship. In other cases, where narcissism is more moderate and investment in the relationship is strong, there are ways to reduce the hold of narcissism on the interactions.

Try to find the human between the "fragile" and the "bully," that person who is neither above you or below you, and see if you can engage with that human. This will likely require you to shed the role you've taken on in relation to the narcissist, and for you to bring your own needs into the encounter. You may need help making the shift, as there will be many temptations to revert to the old dance steps.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: As Fragile Bully hits the bookshelves, I am working to educate the public on how to pull back from the destructive dance in our political lives as well as the personal.

If we start observing our reactions -- Do we share the provocative link on Facebook without reading what we're sharing? Do we react as in the Covington Catholic incident, based on dehumanized assumptions rather than honest inquiry? Do we allow ourselves to become obsessed with personality over issues? -- we can start to engage and contribute to a healthier America.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: There is much more in the book, but you have done a terrific job of getting to the crux of what Fragile Bully addresses. Most mental health problems, such as mood and anxiety disorders, induce personal distress. Personality disorders, including the extremes of narcissism, induce distress in the people surrounding the affected individual.

Pathological narcissism is particularly problematic, because even as it repels, it also attracts -- our entertainment industry is built on it. We all feel the pull to engage in this destructive affair, and I hope that Fragile Bully provides a healthier alternative. Thank you for inviting me to share my work!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb