Thursday, January 31, 2019

Q&A with Octavio Solis

Octavio Solis, photo by Anne Hamersky
Octavio Solis is the author of the new book Retablos: Stories from a Life Lived Along the Border. He has written more than 20 plays, including Alicia's Miracle and Se Llama Cristina, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including the Chicago Quarterly Review and Catamaran Literary Reader. He was born in El Paso and spent many years in the Bay Area. He lives in Medford, Oregon.

Q: Why did you choose to write this memoir in the form of stories?

A: I would say I didn’t choose to write in this form, but rather the form chose me. I was just writing. It came out at a time when I was having writer’s block issues on a play. In the absence of anything constructive, I decided to fill a blank page with something else. It took a lot longer than I’d thought.

It was something from my past. I also wanted it to be something from my dreams, and if I didn’t get it down, I would consign it to something I’d dreamed. When Oscar Villalon from ZYZZYVA journal asked if I had anything from the play to submit, I said no, but I have this—and he published them!

Every time I wrote one, another one revealed itself to me, and it was another door that would open.

Q: You write, “One thing I have learned from writing these retablos: the shit on the border never changes.” What do you think of the current situation, and do you have a sense of what will happen looking ahead?

A: The book is meant to be a personal reflection on my experience growing up around the border. It’s not meant to be political. I don’t have any solutions.

I just know that since they established the border in 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that made the Rio Grande the border, people have crossed it at will because they separated populations, families, communities that were established.

People, like animals, are migratory creatures. Establishing a border just means establishing another procedure for crossing. Before, it was just wading across a river.

[On the border during my childhood] I saw it in play—people walking past our home, walking north to somewhere where people were waiting for them, or we’d see Border Police vans looking for them.

There will always be contraband, always something being smuggled across. That was always true. Weapons were smuggled into Mexico during the Mexican Revolution. Leftist leaflets printed in El Paso were smuggled into Mexico. Contraband worked both ways, and still does.

The situation will never change until there’s economic parity between both nations, and Mexico has long been hindered in trying to reach that parity, by usurpation by a larger power and by corruption of the government there.

I don’t think it’s as dire as has been expressed to be—it’s created a climate of xenophobia, racism, fear, that’s been exacerbated over the last several years.

What I said in the introduction—[now] it’s actually worse. But I’m glad I got it off my chest so I could just tell stories. That’s what I’m about, experiencing it all as personal.

Q: How did you select the particular events you wrote about in the book, and did you write the chapters in the order in which they appear in the book?

A: They all came of their own accord in a non-chronological way. I thought people might read them that way. My editor sought to find an arc in the book so people might find linearity to it. But it shifts—sometimes there’s an adult perspective over an event when I was 5, or sometimes it’s a child’s perspective.

Q: Do you have one story that’s a special favorite?

A: There are some I pick to read aloud because they feel more like a complete story.

“The Want” is one of them. People assume there’s a difference between the Octavio who is reading and the Octavio experiencing the story. It’s a character and I have a responsibility to tell that character’s story. I’m not even that bothered by autobiography. I want to tell a really good story. “The Want” feels complete to me.

I also like ones that feel like character studies, that take me to a different narrative place. “Red,” about my little brother—I wanted to do a character study of him, but it shifted away from him to the red lens in his glasses and how that gives me an inkling of what the end of the world might be. I was surprised by that. I didn’t intend it to end at that point. That’s the writing I [enjoy most].

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now I’m working on Mother Road, a new play for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. We’re in rehearsals right now.

It was a commission for the National Steinbeck Center. I went on a trip with two other artists, a film crew, and the Steinbeck Center staff on a road trip. We started in Oklahoma where the Joad family [from The Grapes of Wrath] lived, and took the route they took on Route 66.

We did everything from camping in old WPA cabins to helping hot air balloonists in Albuquerque. We interviewed survivors of the Dust Bowl. Many hadn’t seen each other since they were children.

The whole trip was a remarkable experience, but I couldn’t find a way in…I had no idea what I was doing [as a writing project]. It wasn’t until we arrived at the Arvin Migrant Center outside Bakersfield, which was featured in The Grapes of Wrath, that I knew what I had to do.

We interviewed a young man who was the only one we interviewed who had read The Grapes of Wrath. When he told me he was the new Tom Joad and Mexicans working on the fields were the new Okies, I knew the way in.

So I wrote this play. Since then, I tried to find the right theater company, and luckily it’s a company in my new home.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: These stories are coming from my memory, and memory is a tricky muse. It shifts all the time, like a river. You can never step into the same river twice, and you can never step into the same memory twice. I love that. You can own it only for as long as you write it, and then it shifts again.

I gave myself permission to [invent] what I couldn’t remember, and to peel away layers to get to the center of what I remember.

El Paso is a large community, but it’s one of the most isolated cities in the continental U.S. The nearest large city might be Dallas. But across the river is Juarez. If you take the river away, it’s one large metropolitan area.

I hope these stories demonstrate that despite the divide, there is so much we have in common with people from Mexico. I want to complicate our expectation of what people south of the border mean and represent.

I had a community of artists I’ve known and collaborated with for years as a theater artist. Then I started working on the book, and I became part of another community, the literary community, that is as supportive as my theater community. It’s been fantastic getting to know writers I truly respect and admire…it’s opened up a new chapter in my life that I hope can continue.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 31

Jan. 31, 1872: Zane Grey born.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Q&A with Ladee Hubbard

Ladee Hubbard, photo by Vilma Samulionyte
Ladee Hubbard is the author of the novel The Talented Ribkins. She says the book's title and many of its themes were inspired by the work of W.E.B. DuBois. Hubbard's work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Guernica and The Times Literary Supplement. She lives in New Orleans.

Q: The Talented Ribkins takes place over the course of a week. Why did you decide on that time frame?

A: Honestly it was largely a practical consideration. In that sense, giving the novel a limited time frame was a way to increase tension and create a sense of urgency. There is a lot of backstory to the novel and I wanted to make sure that this was balanced by a real sense of forward momentum.

Q: Your writing has been compared to that of Toni Morrison, Colson Whitehead, and Thomas Pynchon. What do you think of those comparisons?

A: They are flattering, to be sure. I am greatly inspired by many writers and especially Toni Morrison who was my thesis advisor in college.

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 did not know how the novel would end when I started writing it. The novel actually began as a short story which, although significantly altered, is now the first chapter of the book.

I published the story and realized I wanted to tell more about the characters, particularly Johnny and his niece, Eloise. So the novel really began with the characters and my desire to explore who they were and the dynamic between them in greater depth.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now I am working on two projects. The first is collection of short stories which are all narrated by members of a single African-American community in Florida. They take place over a 20-year period (1988-2008) and document the changes the community as a whole undergoes during that time.

The second is a historical novel. One of the main characters is the grandfather of Johnny Ribkins. He invents what becomes a nationally popular meat sauce and tours the country giving cooking demonstrations. He takes to calling himself The Rib King, which is the origin of the Ribkins’ family name.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 30

Jan. 30, 1912: Barbara Tuchman born.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Q&A with Jennifer Robson

Jennifer Robson is the author of the new novel The Gown, which takes place in England in 1947. Her other novels include Somewhere in France and Goodnight from London. She lives in Toronto.

Q: You write that in post-World War II Britain, “For many people, life seemed to be getting worse, not better.” How did you recreate this period in your new novel, and what role did the 1947 royal wedding play at the time?

A: It was the contrast between the two – the pageantry and joy of the wedding, set against a backdrop of everyday life that was unrelentingly bleak – that first caught my attention.

I didn’t want to write yet another book about the royal family, since that ground has been covered pretty thoroughly; but I also didn’t think my readers would appreciate one long sob-fest about how dire things were in Britain after the war.

In terms of bringing the period to life, it was simply a matter of capturing the details of everyday life: the shortages, the queues, the terrible weather, and above all the way people resigned themselves to continuing on and making the best of things.

Q: How did you research the actual gown worn by Princess Elizabeth, and did you learn anything about the British Royal Family that particularly surprised you?

A: Most of my research was conventional enough, since there’s no shortage of information on the appearance of the gown, and as with any royal wedding the day itself is very well-documented in terms of photographs.

I saw the gown when it was on display at Buckingham Palace as part of the “Fashioning a Reign” exhibit in 2016, and that was invaluable.

But it was much harder to find out how the gown was made, for there was practically no trace of the embroiderers themselves in the historical record. No one interviewed them at the time, there were hardly any photographs of the workrooms where the gown was made, and Norman Hartnell’s personal papers and archive are held privately.

I had to get creative with my research to fill in the gaps, so in early 2017 I went to England to learn how the embroidery was done – and not from anyone who had been at Hartnell, but instead from people who do such work today.

I went to Hand and Lock, a renowned hand embroidery studio founded more than 250 years ago, and spent a day with one of their master embroiderers. That day gave me valuable insights into what it was like to do such exacting and tiring work, and also showed me that it’s intensely creative work. The embroiderers, I realized, were nothing less than artists.

While I was at Hand and Lock, I learned there was one woman, Betty Foster, who had worked at Hartnell—a seamstress rather than an embroiderer, which I suppose explains how I’d missed her before—and she was willing to speak with me.

The very next day I travelled out to Essex to meet her, and she was the person who opened the door for me. It was Betty who told me what it was really like to work at Hartnell, and who shared all sorts of lovely details about the work and Mr. Hartnell and, of course, the royals.

One detail I loved was the queen’s thoughtfulness (and here I mean the Queen Mum). She always made a point of thanking the women who made her gowns, and on one occasion Betty and some of the other women from Hartnell were invited to Buckingham Palace so they might see the queen in the gown they had made.

They were introduced to her, and the queen smiled at them in the way we all remember, and at one point she commented, “I do love it when they [my gowns] sparkle!”

Q: How did you come up with your characters Ann, Miriam, and Heather, and did you focus more on one character’s story at a time and then move things around as you wrote, or write it in the order in which it appears?

A: Ann and Miriam came to me very early in the process, and their voices were so clear there were times I felt as if they were shouting at me.

It was only as I came to the end of planning the book that I realized I wanted a modern-day voice to act as a contrast, or perhaps complement, to theirs—and I knew immediately that it had to be the granddaughter of one of them.

When I got to writing I did so in the order the chapters appear, although I did find I needed breaks in order to ensure their voices remained true to their characters.

Q: What did you see as the right blend between the fictional and the historical as you wrote The Gown?

A: As with all my books, the fictional elements are something that act as an overlay to the documented history; you might also say that history is the fabric and my fictional additions are the embroidery.

In The Gown, I did have to invent characters for the purposes of establishing a dynamic narrative, but my intent, always, was to ensure that my creative additions fit seamlessly into the real world I was describing.

With the people who worked at Hartnell, for instance, the only person about whom we know much of anything is Mr. Hartnell. So he is as true to life as I could make him; other characters, like Miss Duley, are fictional imaginings of real-life figures whose names and not much else are known; and the central characters, of course, are my own creation.

I think the moment I realized I had succeeded in weaving them all together was when my husband looked up from an early draft and asked me how I’d found out about Miriam Dassin and her work—he assumed she was real. He was actually pretty disappointed when I confessed she was a product of my imagination!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m still at the very early stages of writing my next book, and as such I’m feeling a little cagey about discussing it.

I can say that the main characters are two sisters. I’m very close to my own sister, and I started thinking, some months ago, that I needed to explore the relationship between two very different sisters for my next book.

It’s set for the most part in England, again with war as its backdrop, and that’s about all I can say for now. But there will be tea—I can’t imagine ever writing a book without characters who are making, drinking, or thinking about their next cup of tea!

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

Jan. 28

Jan. 28, 1706: John Baskerville born.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Q&A with Caroline Hulse

Caroline Hulse, photo by Anna Bilsand
Caroline Hulse is the author of the new novel The Adults. She lives in Manchester, England.

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

A: I was trying to write a suspense novel (strangely, the book wasn’t originally written as a comedy) and I wanted to write about a situation in which were people behaving badly because they felt insecure. I remembered an article I’d once read about people going on holidays with their exes.

At the time, I’d thought, why would anyone do that? Surely that would be hard. I realised this was a perfect conflict scenario, and everything flowed from there.

Q: You tell the story primarily from three characters' perspectives. How did you decide on your point-of-view characters?

A: I like writing from more than one perspective because, in real life, people can perceive the same situation in very different ways and this disconnect is a great opportunity for conflict and humor.

I decided I wanted to write from the perspective of the two incomers to the family so I could go deep into some characters’ heads while still retaining some of mystery about the feelings of the other two adult characters.

The third perspective is the child Scarlett’s, and this perspective was added later. I wanted to bring out the imaginary rabbit character more and realised that, if I wrote some scenes from the child’s perspective, then Scarlett would see and converse with the rabbit in her chapters and, therefore, the reader would also “see” the rabbit.

This was so much fun to write. If I could, I’d put an imaginary rabbit into every book from now on. I’m not sure I’d get away with it.

Q: The novel takes place at a holiday park in North Yorkshire. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: Interesting question! The actual geography is probably the aspect of writing I put least focus on. My writing’s all about dialogue and character – my books are not the place to go for beautiful detailed descriptions about a particular place.

However, the setting of the holiday park itself was important because I wanted the characters to be in a situation that raised the stakes, with the pressure that comes with being somewhere they were obliged to have fun.

A lodge in a holiday park was ideal, as a claustrophobic place with a hint of absurdity about it. It’s an affectionate portrayal. I love holiday parks! But then I’ve never been to one with an ex…

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?

A: I like contemporary fiction with a dark or dark comic edge. I love anything and everything by Maria Semple, Katherine Heiny, Megan Abbott and Caroline Kepnes.

Some specific favourite comedy books that I’ve read many times over are James Lever, Me Cheeta; DBC Pierre, Vernon God Little; and Steve Toltz, Quicksand.

I also love crime with a twist, so recommend Eva Dolan and Imran Mahmood for bang-up-to-date British thrillers with an undercurrent of social commentary.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m editing my latest novel right now. It’s about adult children returning to the family home for one big party, with undercurrents of sibling rivalry, secrets, dysfunctional family dynamics, and people trying to do the right things the wrong way.

It’s similar in feel and perspective to The Adults and is on the same theme of social awkwardness in a meant-to-be-fun situation, demonstrating that that humans are generally not good or bad, but they can do really bad or unhelpful things when they’re feeling insecure and under pressure. And this can have comic results.

I’m really happy with how the book’s going, but the title is under debate right now, so I’m afraid I can’t tell you what it’s called.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: A strange fact about me and my career is that I love writing, but I’m an extrovert and don’t like being on my own. This is a bit of a paradox and, as you can imagine, is a bit of a problem for a writer. Still working on it!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 27

Jan. 27, 1931: Mordecai Richler born.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Q&A with Elizabeth Wein

Elizabeth Wein is the author of the new young adult book A Thousand Sisters: The Heroic Airwomen of the Soviet Union in World War II. Her other books include the YA novels Code Name Verity and The Pearl Thief. She lives in Scotland.

Q: How did you learn about Soviet pilot Marina Raskova and her regiments of all-female flyers in World War II?

A: I confess that I don’t remember when or how I first became aware of the Soviet women who flew in World War II. I’ve known about them for at least 10 years – since before I wrote Code Name Verity, which I began writing in 2009.

In its earliest form I wanted to make Code Name Verity’s pilot heroine a Soviet flyer (absolutely true – this is why the character Maddie Brodatt is of Russian heritage.)

My notes tell me that in 2010 I read an obituary for one of Marina Raskova’s pilots, and heard a feature on BBC radio about them. My fictional character Irina Korsakova in Rose Under Fire is a Soviet fighter pilot, loosely based on the real pilots Anna Timofeyeva-Yegorova and Lilya Litvyak.

So they’ve been on my radar for about a decade – since I first started writing about women as pilots – and possibly longer!

Q: Why did Stalin choose to create these regiments, and were there similar squads of women pilots in other countries' armed forces during the war?

A: There’s no simple answer about why these regiments were created – as I soon discovered when I started to do the background research for A Thousand Sisters! I’ll try to be brief:

The USSR encouraged flight training for its youth in the 1930s, and although girls weren’t actively encouraged to become pilots, they were given the same opportunities as boys if they signed up to learn to fly. By the time World War II started, as much as a third of the USSR’s pilots were women.

Marina Raskova, a national celebrity for her record-setting flight achievements, convinced Stalin that these young women should be given an opportunity to fly in combat after the USSR entered the war. It’s not clear why he gave his seal of approval to the project.

It’s important to remember that these women were definitely an exception, even in the Soviet Union – there were only three women’s aviation regiments among hundreds of men’s regiments.

The idea that there was a “shortage” of male pilots is erroneous. The women’s regiments may have been intended as a propaganda opportunity, but it was never seriously exploited as such.

There weren’t any similar female squadrons anywhere else in the world. In the USA, the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) flew transport missions on the home front. In the United Kingdom, women (and men) from a dozen Allied nations flew similar missions with the Air Transport Auxiliary.

Both these organizations were civilian, not military, and they did not engage in combat. By contrast, the women’s regiments in the USSR were part of the Soviet Air Force and flew both fighter and bombing missions in battle over the front lines.

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

A: The Soviet women who worked in aviation in World War II left behind a wealth of literature in memoirs and interviews, so that’s where I started.

And although they’re not widely known (even in Russia it seems like they’re not widely known), every now and then they attract some researcher’s attention and it becomes an obsession. So there is a lot of material available about them, in both English and Russian.

I also travelled to Russia in 2016, where I was able to visit museums to see the actual aircraft I was writing about, and to talk to contemporary Russian women pilots who had met some of these veterans – the one living vet that I was aware of was too frail for a meeting at the time, alas!

I was hampered in my research by the fact that I don’t read Russian. I was very lucky that so many primary source interviews are available in English – but it is something I have had to be very careful about, because I can’t cross-check the originals.

So many things about this story are surprising! The extremes of Russian winter cold that these women (and everybody else) worked in are pretty amazing – flying in open cockpits in -40 degrees, having to drain the aircraft radiators every night so they wouldn’t freeze, living in trenches dug underground in conditions so harsh that your hair would freeze to your bed overnight.

Also, just the intensity and determination of the aviators was surprising. One of the bomber regiments flew without parachutes for most of the war – the planes that regiment used never had radios, and by the end of the war each flight crew had flown nearly 1,000 missions – pretty much 10 missions each, every night of the war!

Q: What do you see as these women's legacy today, and what do you hope readers take away from the book?

A: I think that their legacy is only now coming to light. They were encouraged to keep quiet about their achievements, to go back to domestic life after the war. There are scarcely any women pilots in contemporary Russia – and only in this decade have all restrictions been lifted on American and British military women in combat.

So I think it’s important to remember and celebrate these women who fought and flew alongside men, even if it’s over 70 years since World War II ended, because the rising global generation is still fighting for gender equality.

If it doesn’t do anything else, I hope A Thousand Sisters broadens readers’ minds about what women are capable of achieving – as individuals and when they work together, with each other and with men. But even more than that, I hope it inspires young readers – whatever their gender – to realize they can make a difference. Maybe to learn to fly themselves!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m writing a new novel about young pilots in World War II!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Random aviation trivia: Only 5 percent of commercial pilots worldwide are women. In India that number is around 12 percent, though! I would love to see America catching up!

Thanks again for this interview, and I hope people enjoy A Thousand Sisters!

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

Jan. 26

Jan. 26, 1905: Maria von Trapp born.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Q&A with Chris Cander

Chris Cander is the author of the new novel The Weight of a Piano, which focuses on the impact one particular piano has on those who are connected with it. Her other books include 11 Stories and Whisper Hollow. She lives in Houston.

Q: The Weight of a Piano moves between a present-day time period and earlier flashbacks. Did you write the novel in the order in which it appears, or did you move the chapters around as you wrote?

A: It evolved. In the first draft, Katya was only a minor character, but as I continued working on the manuscript, it was clear that she needed much more space in which to tell her side of the story. In general, however, I wrote the book with alternating chapters, because it allowed me to learn about the narrative in the same way future readers would.

Q: Did you know how the book would end before you started writing?

A: I knew that I wanted Clara's and Katya's lives to have inverse relationships to the piano. I felt early on that Katya's journey would move from light to heavy, treble to bass, and that Clara's would do the opposite. The themes (love and loss, burden and release) in the two narrative threads work together like counterpoint in music.

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

A: In this case, the word is a double entendre. There's the psychic, emotional weight of the piano in the characters' lives, which grows heavier and heavier for different reasons, and the actual physical weight, which makes it not only a symbolic burden but a real one. (By the way, this particular Blüthner weighs 560 lbs. That's a lot of piano to drag through a desert--and a life.)

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm working on a novel about the unseen forces that affect and connect us.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: That I'm grateful to you and anyone who decides to read one of my novels. There are millions of excellent choices available. Thank you for selecting mine.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 25

Jan. 25, 1882: Virginia Woolf born.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Q&A with Terry Gamble

Terry Gamble, photo by Cristiana Ceppas
Terry Gamble is the author of the new historical novel The Eulogist. She also has written the novels Good Family and The Water Dancers. She lives in Sonoma and in San Francisco. 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Eulogist, and for your character Olivia?

A: The genesis for this book literally came from digging up the ancestors. Their exhumations occurred in the last decade of the 19th century, but I came across the receipts for the bodies when going through my father’s desk after he died in 2004. 

The receipts – along with a letter exchange between my great-great-uncle – contained names that were unfamiliar, including the name “Olivia.” 

Olivia, along with her siblings, had traveled to Ohio from Ireland as children, and in 1890, their bodies were exhumed from various churchyards to be replanted in the Olmstead-designed Spring Grove cemetery in Cincinnati. 

I had traveled to Cincinnati several times for book readings and family weddings and was intrigued with the city that was hardly a village when my ancestors arrived on a flatboat 200 years ago in 1819. 

I began to ask, “Who were these people?” “Why did they leave Ireland?” “What did they make of this new country – in particular, Cincinnati, that promised so much opportunity and yet which lay little more than a stone’s throw across the river from a slave state?” 

These questions led me down a rabbit hole involving slavery, evangelical Christianity, immigration, gender, race, class – many of the issues we are dealing with today. 

Olivia came to me almost immediately as I started writing, although she wasn’t originally the narrator. Rather, it was her nephew William recounting the story. But Olivia’s personality was so strong, and my editor Jen Brehl encouraged me to rewrite from her point of view.

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

A: As with most research these days, I started poking about online to get a sense of what life was like in that particular place at that particular time. I had no idea how interesting Cincinnati was or how it embodied the zeitgeist of Jacksonian America. 

Frankly, I knew little about Jacksonian America, but soon enough I was reading Francis Trollope and Alexis de Tocqueville’s writing about democracy, and Cincinnati in particular. The Underground Railroad Museum and the Cincinnati History Museum in Union Station held a trove of information. 

I invited myself to Civil War Roundtables. I acquainted myself with re-enactors. I drove up and down the Ohio River, spending extra time in Ripley, Ohio and Maysville, Kentucky – two main stops on the Underground Railroad. 

I read as much primary source material as I could get my hands on – diaries and letters – and learned about candle-making by visiting the archives of Procter and Gamble. 

In New York, I visited Cooper Hewitt, the design museum of the Smithsonian in Manhattan, to learn about the fashion of the time. I even traveled to Ireland to see the kind of village my ancestors came from and the ship log of the Lucretia on which they sailed to America. 

My best book sources were Ann Hagedorn’s Beyond the River as well as an early piece of writing by an African American hairdresser, along with a book from the 1940s called Slavery Times in Kentucky. 

The shelf over my desk held books on autopsy, graveyards, gas lighting, theology, fossils, and hat making. I was constantly surprised. The 19th century was such a clash of science and superstition, of freedom and repression.

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 don’t write from an outline – and even if I did, I’m sure it would change along the way because the very act of writing challenges one’s presuppositions. The only constant held from the inception of this book was that the bodies needed to be laid to rest. 

I came across the story of a white woman being sold as a slave in several sources recounting how Calvin Fairbanks arranged for her purchase in order to liberate her.

Of course, the level of outrage was correlated with the lightness of her skin, but that episode, along with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, did more to engage the sympathies of the white community than much of the misery that had transpired over the previous two centuries of slavery in America.

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

A: The original title was The Illuminator because the family makes its fortune in candles. I thought it was a perfect title until I Googled it and saw it’s been used, like, a hundred times. 

For a while I considered The Resurrectionist because of the digging up of bodies, and “resurrectionist” is the term used for grave robbers. Again, it’s been used. 

I believe I was reading about sermons and memento moris such as the little skull with angel wings used in the section breaks of the book when the “eulogist” came to me – the one who gives the eulogy at a funeral or memorial service. 

My editor and I had a back and forth about it, my defense being that it was an intriguing title and a bit ambiguous, which I like.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: It’s so nascent. All three of my novels have been intergenerational family histories set in the near or distant past, but now I’ve been playing with a story set in the not-too-distant future. The current climate lends itself to dystopia, and I may need to get it out of my system. 

My son is a game-designer, and we always discuss how alliances can be forged through game-play. Since I’ve played few video games, it’s challenging… but then, I never lived in a time when there was no electricity, and I inhabited that world for 10 years writing The Eulogist. 

So why not create a virtual world in conjunction with a real world that is ever so slightly out of whack?

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 24

Jan. 24, 1862: Edith Wharton born.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Q&A with Amanda Sthers

Amanda Sthers is the author of the novel Holy Lands. She is a playwright, screenwriter, and director, in addition to having written 10 novels. She was born in Paris and lives in Los Angeles.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for the Rosenmerck family, and why did you decide to write their story as an epistolary novel?

A: I read an article in a very serious French newspaper explaining how to raise pigs in Israel. For once, Muslims and Jews were agreeing on something or more precisely against the same thing.  I found the paradox hilarious; it was the starting point.

Then, I wanted a metaphor on what is happening between Israelis and Palestinians. At the end it’s a big family affair. How can you fix a broken family?

I felt that letters will give a sense of immediate promiscuity and help us enter in a very personal story. Also, in a dysfunctional family like the one I am describing, silences are as important as words and only letters could give this feeling. I think we all instinctively hear what is left unsaid.

Q: You tell the story from various characters' perspectives. Did you write the novel in the order in which it appears, or did you focus more on one character and then on another?

A: Like I do in most of my work, I started at the end. I always write for the last words… The last emotion…. My destination. Then I write the beginning… I amused myself to answer to the characters being one after another… I wrote the letters almost in the same order that it appears at the end. But I had a very clear idea of the trajectory of each one of the family members.

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

A: It was hard to find a title as there are so many subjects in this book, but “Holy Lands” made sense because we are all looking for ours:  the skin of our lover, the place where we were born, we all have a promised place where we want to end up and all those contradictions are crystallized in the land of Israel that everyone fights about: we all want a piece of a dream.

Q: You're also a screenwriter, playwright, and director. Do you have a favorite form of creative expression?

A: I love telling stories and I try to keep it all very playful but writing is how I started and is my only necessity.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am writing another novel, as always…. And adapting one of my previous novels, Promises, soon to be a motion picture…

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Yes, but it takes time. Can I take you out for lunch?

--Interview with Deborah Kalb