Monday, February 18, 2019

Q&A with Soniah Kamal

Soniah Kamal is the author of the new novel Unmarriageable, an updated version of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice set in Pakistan. She also has written the novel An Isolated Incident. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and The Guardian. She was born in Pakistan and grew up in England and Saudi Arabia before moving to the United States. She lives in Georgia.

Q: Why did you decide to write an updated version of Pride and Prejudice set in Pakistan?

A: There were no stories written in English and set in Pakistan when I was growing up and these were something I longed to read alongside Judy Blume, L.M. Montgomery, and Enid Blyton. As such, I used to transpose stories I read, so English scones would become Pakistani samosas, etc.

As soon as I read Pride and Prejudice, a tale which seemed to be quintessentially Pakistani with its marriage-obsessed mother, themes of close friendships and sisterhood, and biting social satire, I knew that I wanted to read a Pakistani version in the form of a parallel retelling. I decided that, if I could, I would write it one day.

Q: What do you think modern-day Pakistan and the England of Jane Austen's time have in common?

A: Women in Regency England lived terribly constrained lives. They could not own property or, unlike servants, if they were from the middle class and above, they could not work for a living. Marrying well was literally their means to survival.

This is not the case at all in contemporary Pakistan where women are highly accomplished. Pakistan has seen a female head of state, a Nobel Prize winner (Hi Malala!), chefs (the late Fatima Ali, Chefati who was a contestant on Top Chef), pilots, police women, doctors, CEOs, lawyers etc.

It was actually quite challenging to find reasons why my Elizabeth Bennet and Charlotte Lucas, who are school teachers, would want to marry buffoons or arrogant men. That said, as in Regency times, the pressure to marry remains incredibly high in Pakistan as does class and status consciousness. 

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

A: I don’t think there’s a single woman who has not heard herself be called or seen as unmarriageable in some way shape or form and the title is a nod to that.

It actually came about during a tiff with my husband. I was thinking, “Alas the love of my life is he’s so unmarriageable,” and, bingo! I immediately called him up to share the good news. To quote from Unmarriageable, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that every marriage, no matter how good, will have ups and downs.”

Q: Why do you think Jane Austen's work is still so popular today?

A: The screen adaptations may have popularized the love stories, not really a focus for Austen herself, but I believe that her popularity is her satire.

She’s an astute psychologist and so brilliantly exposes hypocrisies, self-righteousness, pomposity. even as she explores the meaning of friendships and sisterhood. She’s written characters we can recognize all around us and also her prose is very modern because her pacing is excellent; there are no “dear reader” asides or preaching.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: 1) I love to cook—chopping vegetables is very relaxing.
2) I love to dance—Lady Binat being pulled in the dance floor in the novel happened to me.
3) Mansfield Park is my favorite Austen novel.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 18

Feb. 18, 1931: Toni Morrison born.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Q&A with Maureen Johnson

Maureen Johnson is the author of the new young adult novel The Vanishing Stair, the second in her Truly Devious trilogy. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and Buzzfeed. She lives in New York.

Q: Do you think your character Stevie has changed from the first book to the second?

A: She’s been through a lot, and she knows she is on the right track, so her determination has increased! She has more confidence. This will help, as her problems are only going to deepen.

Q: Your Truly Devious series has been compared to Agatha Christie and Harry Potter. What do you think of those comparisons?

A: They are pretty exciting. I mean. Yes. I kind of stammered, “Thank you?”

Q: How did you decide on the structure of the three novels when it comes to revealing various clues?

A: Mystery novels are puzzles—contraptions that have careful mechanics. So you have to place things with a lot of care. And you have to track everything. The object put down in book one may come up again in book three.

So it’s sort of like you’re doing a three card monty or the trick with the ball under the cup where you shuffle the cup around—you have always be aware of where your ace or your ball is.

That being said, the actual process involves a lot of post-its and notes and a dry erase board and pacing around.

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

A: The title has to do with a riddle discovered in book one: Where do you look for someone who’s never really there, always on a staircase but never on a stair. The book reveals the answer to that riddle.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Book three! It’s the document right under this one on the screen!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Agatha Christie was a surfer. Did you know that? She also faked her own death. HERO.

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

Feb. 17

Feb. 17, 1930: Ruth Rendell born.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Q&A with Skip Desjardin

Skip Desjardin is the author of the new book September 1918: War, Plague, and the World Series. He has worked in television for many years and now works for Google. He lives in Connecticut.

Q: Why did you choose to focus on September 1918 in your new book?

A: I’m a big fan of novelist Dennis Lehane, and I read his book The Given Day, which was set in Boston in 1919. It featured two characters that caught my imagination.

One was Babe Ruth, but as a young man, a great athlete, not the fat old guy we’re used to seeing from newsreels later in his career. The other was Calvin Coolidge, whom we think about far ore as president than as governor of Massachusetts.

The book refers often to events the previous year, like the World Series and the Spanish Flu epidemic. As a baseball fan, I wondered why the World Series was played in September instead of October. I also wondered why anyone would go out to see baseball games at the exact time that being in a crowd could literally kill you. 

As I looked into both the questions, I began to discover all the amazing things that happened in that single month. I was struck by how so many of the major issues of the era — the World War, women’s suffrage, the rise of the labor movement, shifting political fortunes — were all connected in some way to Boston.  That’s when I first thought there might be a book in all of this!

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

A: The confluence of events was the biggest surprise, and became the impetus for diving deep into the research. Two tools were key to learning about and telling this story.

First was Google Books, which is an under-appreciated resource. They’ve scanned and digitized millions of books and made them available online. It uncovered books I wouldn’t have otherwise known existed, and saved me from traveling around the country to find actual copies in libraries.

The other is the archive of the six daily newspapers that were in circulation in Boston a hundred years ago.  Reading them now gives you such a vivid picture of life back then, from major world events to the mundane daily activities of people in that time. 

Q: You begin the book with an excerpt from Amy Lowell's poem "September 1918." Why did you choose to include that?

A: I loved the way Lowell’s poem kind of foretells my own efforts. “Some day there will be no war,” she wrote. “Then I shall take out this afternoon and turn it in my fingers.” I felt this was what I was doing in writing the book — taking the events of that month and later, with the distance of perspective, examining it in a new way.

Q: One hundred years later, what do you see as the legacy of September 1918?

A: The parts of the book that deal with the influenza epidemic have the most to tell us about today. The medical profession and the government thought they were prepared for a crisis, but they weren’t. The exact right doctors were in the precise place to identify and fight the infection, and yet they were helpless to stop it.

Now, with all the advances in science over the past century, we feel we’re equipped to handle a crisis as well. But the reality is that nature is almost always more powerful than we give it credit for being, and society is as vulnerable today in many ways as it was then. 

Also, the efforts by the government to hide reality for political reasons has chilling parallels today as well. Steps taken by politicians in September 1918 to protect themselves, their positions and their reputations led to more people falling ill and dying. I fear that has not changed.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I like looking at sports events in a wider cultural context, the way I did with the Red Sox 1918 World Series in this book. So, I’m always on the lookout for stories that reflect a larger truth. 

It took me seven years to complete September 1918, but I’ve already got a couple of possible topics that may help us understand a bigger picture. The research will eventually tell me whether or not they turn into another book.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I work for Google, so I understand the lure of instant availability of knowledge. Having answers at our fingertips is great, but we also need to know what questions to ask.

For that, it’s critical to understand context. History often provides that context, so it worries me that we’re increasingly consuming knowledge in bite-sized portions rather than sumptuous meals.

I hope that telling historic stories with relevance to today’s world will spur some people to want to learn more — the way I did when I read Dennis Lehane’s novel and discovered the amazing events of September 1918.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 16

Feb. 16, 1904: George F. Kennan born.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Q&A with Renée Watson and Ellen Hagan

Photo by David Flores
Renée Watson and Ellen Hagan are the authors of the new young adult novel Watch Us Rise. Watson's other books include Piecing Me Together. She is the founder of the nonprofit group I, Too, Arts Collective. Hagan's poetry collections include Hemisphere. She co-leads the Alice Hoffman Young Writer's Retreat at Adelphi University.

Q: How did the two of you come up with the idea for Watch Us Rise, and for your characters Jasmine and Chelsea?

RW: Ellen and I worked together for several years as teaching-artists and mentors for teen girls, so we know girls like Chelsea and Jasmine—girls who are figuring out what it means to stand up for what they believe in, teens who are emerging artists and who are using their art as a way to speak up. In many ways, this book is inspired by the young people we’ve encountered over the years. 

Q: How did you work together on the book? What was your writing process like?

EH: We truly did everything together. Once we knew what the general idea for the book was, we created a timeline for the storylines and figured out where we wanted the book to go, and the journeys we wanted to create for our characters.

As for the actual writing process, we wrote most of the book in my living room in back to back desks where we would write our individual chapters (I wrote all of the chapters and poems from Chelsea and Renée wrote all of the chapters and poems from Jasmine) and then share our work for feedback and next steps.

It was the most amazing process for me. It helped me stay focused as an individual, but at the same time felt like a truly collaborative format. Writing can feel isolating, but with Renée there it felt like a constant dialogue with each other and the characters in Watch Us Rise.  

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

RW: We hope readers are inspired to take action, even if it’s seemingly small. Sharing a poem, creating art, listening and being open to conversation are all ways to engage in what is happening in the world.

We also hope that the power of friendship resonates with readers. Jasmine and Chelsea are in solidarity with each other. Their friendship is the thing that keeps them rising.

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

EH: Our original title was Write Like a Girl, and we went back and forth with Bloomsbury to determine if it was the right fit. We decided to brainstorm some other options and combed through the novel to come up with word combinations and lines from the poems.

Watch Us Rise was one of our options, and once we started saying it out loud and really thinking about the meaning behind it, we started to love it. It feels like the exact right fit. I love the idea of these young women rising up together, carrying one another, helping and caring for our another as they all show up in the world.

The line is a part of the poem Girlhood, and I love saying it out loud - hearing our voices come together, and knowing that if we show up collectively, as a community - we will all rise.

Q: What are you working on now?

RW: I’ve just finished my next middle grade novel. Some Places More Than Others is about a girl who visits Harlem with her dad in hopes to learn more about her family’s history but the trip doesn’t go as expected.

I’m excited to share this story with readers especially because the main character, Amara, is a fat girl and the plot has nothing to do with her weight. It was freeing to let a big girl exist in a book without her size being mentioned at all. The only reference to her size is the cover, which was illustrated by Shadra Strickland. Some Places More Than Others comes out in September and is available for pre-order now.

EH: I am working on a new collection of poems that I am finalizing - poems about girlhood, identity, my daughters, the landscape of who we are, where we come from and where we live now. New York City and Kentucky show up in the poems. There are praise poems and poems that hope to navigate the world.

I am also working on a new YA love story about two artists and a middle grade novel in verse about a 7th grader who has way more questions than she has answers. All of it is so much fun to work through and begin to craft the kind of stories I want out in the world. I feel excited about all things when I sit down to work, and am grateful to have the time and space [to write].

Q: Anything else we should know?

EH: We hope young people see themselves in Watch Us Rise. I hope they think about what they want out of their relationships and out of their lives - hope they find communities that help lift them up and support who they want to be in the world.

I hope they find time to celebrate friendships and create art, and that this book acts as a guide for them as they figure out who they are and who they want to be in the future.

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

Feb. 15

Feb. 15, 1909: Miep Gies born.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Q&A with Pam Houston

Pam Houston, photo by Mike Blakeman
Pam Houston is the author of the new book Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country. Her other books include Contents May Have Shifted and Cowboys Are My Weakness. She is a professor of English at the University of California-Davis and she lives in Colorado.

Q: You write, "This book has been an effort to write my way to an understanding of how to be the final days, if not of the earth, then at least of the earth as I've known her." What initially inspired you to write Deep Creek, and how did writing the book affect you?

A: I wanted to honor this piece of ground that has healed me, parented me and grown me up into an adult, this piece of ground that taught me how to take responsibility for something larger than myself. That was the original impulse. 

Over the last decade of thinking about it and writing it, I, like many people, have become increasingly aware of the climate trouble our planet is in, and that hard truth, that the earth is dying at our hands and we need to figure out how to be in that dying, is probably, whether we know it or not, the most all encompassing reality of our lives.

Loving and losing my beloved animals, dogs and horses has taught me how to be with the dying, how to love the dying right up until the moment of death and beyond, and I think that is what is being asked of us for the earth right now. We need to celebrate her, make her comfortable, and fight to keep her going as long as we can. 

Q: You note that it took you almost five years to write this book. Did you write it in the order in which it appears, or did you move sections around as you created the entire manuscript?

A: I never write anything in the order which it appears. I write in something I call glimmers. I see something out in the physical world that arrests my attention, and I grab it and record it. The way the light is glinting off a river, a conversation overheard on a hiking trail, the sound of the horses chomping their hay in the morning. 

Those become the building blocks of a story or a book. I accumulate, a little like a collagist, and then when I think I have a critical mass I start moving everything around. I have never written the first line first or the last line last. I just keep moving pieces until I feel like I have gotten the biggest bang for the buck out of the order.

Hmmm. Maybe that phrase, bang for the buck, is not one we ought to use anymore, huh?

Q: The book includes sections that you call "Ranch Almanac." Why did you decide to include those, and how do you see them fitting in with the rest of the book?

A: The calendar is really important to the ranch, and in my earliest thinking about the book, I wanted the form to be some kind of calendar, some kind of almanac.

I ended up letting go of that form in the early writing, because it was causing more trouble than it was worth, but it was always hovering up there as the most intuitive, most natural way to tell the story of the ranch, because the calendar so controls what we do there. Haying season, and lambing season, and first frost, etc. 

I noticed late in the writing that I had a lot of long chapters, and then a lot of shorter, more lyric ones, that were mostly about daily life on the ranch.

I said I am kind of a collagist at the beginning of putting together a book, but then I become a form lover. I love to know the size and shape of the boxes I am trying to fill.

The 12 ranch almanac pieces go in order of the calendar, one for each month. That was hard to pull off, but I managed to do it. I had to rewrite the ranch almanac piece that was called Persieds (a meteor shower that happens in August) to become the Leonids (a meteor shower that happened in November) to make the months run right. 

But I like the 12 calendar pieces. It gives a nice spine to the book. 

Q: You've written about some very difficult parts of your life, including events that occurred during your childhood. How difficult has it been for you to revisit those experiences?

A: Maybe not as difficult as you might think. I have had a lot of therapy over the years, and I also have good friends and students who have all had their own kinds of childhood trauma so we wind up talking about this stuff a lot, in class and out, and we talk about how to bring it to the page. 

I think one thing that kept me from telling this story this directly for a long time was a teacher I had once who said, “You can’t swing a dead cat anymore without hitting a sexual abuse story.”

This is the kind of thing some male teachers say, and some female teachers too, maybe to be funny, but it has the effect of keeping women’s stories down. But I’m older now and unwilling, especially in the current political climate to be silenced.

The hardest parts of this book to write (by far) were the whale that was tangled in the netting, and Fenton’s death. The challenge with the abuse stuff was getting the tone right. I don’t feel like a victim and I didn’t want to sound like one. Also, I love my parents, in my own way, in spite of everything, and I wanted that to come across. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on getting this book in the world, and on being a good teacher and on being a good spouse. I got married on Aug. 25 to a Forest Ranger. 

I run an organization called Writing By Writers and we offer non-University based writing instruction at six different events a year all over the west and in France and that is going great guns now and takes a bunch of my time.

I also teach at UC Davis and the Institute of American Indian Arts, and the work of my students there is very important to me. 

In terms of the writing, I’d like to find a way to write about good love. I have a few short stories for a collection, but I am not precisely sure what is next book wise. We will see when the tour ends.  

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

Q&A with Scott Hilton Davis

Scott Hilton Davis is the editor of a new English-language version of Yiddish writer Jacob Dinezon's novel The Dark Young Man, first published in 1877. Davis is the founder of Jewish Storyteller Press, and is a filmmaker and a former public television executive. He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Q: How did you first learn about Jacob Dinezon's novel The Dark Young Man, and how did you become involved in this new English-language version of the novel?

A: To be honest, I first learned about Jacob Dinezon by accident while working on a collection of retold Jewish tales. I was doing research on three 19th-century Jewish authors, Sholem Abramovitsh, I. L. Peretz, and Sholem Aleichem, who are considered the "Classic Writers of Modern Yiddish Literature."

To my surprise, I started noticing another name—the name of a writer I had never heard before: Jacob Dinezon. But Dinezon was always referenced in terms of the other authors: he advised Sholem Aleichem on his literary journal, he published Peretz's first book of short stories, he assisted Abramovitsh with his business dealings.

So I started wondering, who is this guy and what did he write? That's when I discovered that Jacob Dinezon was a very successful Yiddish novelist whose works had never been translated into English. And that his first novel, The Dark Young Man, published in 1877, is considered the first realistic Jewish romance and the first bestselling novel in Yiddish.

Unfortunately, unlike Abramovitsh, Peretz, and Sholem Aleichem, who have had several of their works translated into English, Dinezon has been completely neglected by Yiddish translators. So, as my curiosity deepened and I became more interested in Dinezon's writing career, I decided to commission an English translation of his most popular novel.

Q: How was Dinezon's work received during his lifetime, and why isn't he better known today?

A: According to Dinezon himself, The Dark Young Man sold over 200,000 copies during his lifetime, which is pretty astonishing when you realize it was written in Yiddish and limited to a Jewish audience. Dinezon would go on to write several more novels, but none ever achieved the success of The Dark Young Man.

The question of why he's not better known today is complicated. In many ways, Dinezon is a very old-fashioned writer. His plots are melodramatic—his heroes and heroines are far too good and his villains way too evil.

Also, like Dickens and others of that period, he's a social reformer. He takes the Jewish community to task over such issues as arranged marriages (he calls it slavery) and the cruel treatment of children in elementary education.

Jacob Dinezon (early 1850s-1919)
So he was an author who was committed to educating and enlightening his readers as well as entertaining them. He even admits that "art for art’s sake" didn't exist when he started out.

As the years passed, even though the Jewish masses continued to love his stories, modern critics were less enthusiastic. And frankly, there aren't any happy endings in Dinezon's novels and not a lot of humor.

So, moving into the latter half of the 20th century, if you were a translator or publishing house looking for a project that had the potential to make a little money, I'm sure Dinezon wasn't high on the list. Which is probably why we have so many Sholem Aleichem translations because as a humorist he's an easier sell.

Q: What resonance do you think the story has for today's readers?

A: The Dark Young Man is a very powerful period piece that addresses issues that still confront us here in America: the disparities between rich and poor; lying, deception, and greed; and the challenge of holding on to our values and identity in a modern, turbulent world.

I also find the historical aspects of the novel fascinating. This is not a shtetl story. It doesn't take place in a little village. This is about young Jews—17 to 21—living in the city of Mohilev in the Russian Empire. We get a realistic depiction of Jewish urban life in the 1840s. We see what young people were struggling with in terms of arranged marriages, assimilation, and the impact of modernity on traditional Jewish life.

Plus, once you get into it, it's a real page-turner with a startling ending.

Q: What do you see as Dinezon's legacy, 100 years after his death?

A: In his eulogy for Jacob Dinezon, the author S. Ansky said, "Our entire literature was brought up on his lap." Dinezon's legacy is multifaceted.

He proved with his very first novel that Yiddish was a viable literary language that could reach out and influence the Jewish masses, and he did it in an emotionally powerful way.

He moved way past rehashed Bible stories, legends, and fables, and created a realistic Jewish story that contained real characters dealing with real issues that were challenging the Jewish community in the latter half of the 19th century. He proved to publishers and other Jewish writers that the Jewish masses were ready for novels like this.

And in many ways, in my opinion, this gave a push to the explosion of Jewish creativity that would emerge in the late 1880s with writers such as Sholem Aleichem and I. L. Peretz.

Dinezon was also a significant participant in Warsaw's literary circle. He befriended and mentored many of the most important authors and journalists of that period, and although Peretz gets most of the attention, Dinezon was Peretz's closest friend and adviser. They were like brothers; they did everything together.

And finally, at the end of his life, as the First World War raged between Russia and Germany, Dinezon completely shifted gears, and became a community activist, helping to found an orphanage and schools to care for Jewish children.

When he died in 1919, tens of thousands of Jews poured out onto the streets of Warsaw to mourn the loss of their beloved folk writer and community benefactor. That, to me, is a remarkable legacy.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm still working to get the word out about Jacob Dinezon and his role in 19th century Jewish literature. And, of course, I'm still on a mission to let people know about his novels and stories that are now available in English. So there's still a lot of work to do.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I hope people will check out this website. We've collected an astonishing amount of research material—much of it translated into English for the first time—that details Jacob Dinezon's role in modern Yiddish literature.

There is also a wealth of visuals, including photographs and drawings. They say, "Seeing is believing," and it is quite wonderful to see Dinezon with his friends, I. L. Peretz, Sholem Aleichem, and Sholem Abramovitsh. It really provides an understanding of his remarkable place in that literary circle as we mark the 100th anniversary of his death on Sept. 3, 2019.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 14

Feb. 14, 1944: Carl Bernstein born.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Q&A with Peter Lourie

Peter Lourie is the author of Locked in Ice: Nansen's Daring Quest for the North Pole, a new biography for kids. His other books include Jack London and the Klondike Gold Rush and The Polar Bear Scientists. He teaches at Middlebury College, and he lives in Vermont.

Q: Why did you choose to focus on Arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen in your new biography?

A: This is one of the greatest polar survival stories that few know anything about.

Norwegian explorer, scientist, and diplomat Fridtjof Nansen built a special ship called the Fram that he hoped would get locked in ice to “float” on top of the pack ice above Siberia and carry him and 12 crew members toward the North Pole, then over to the Greenland side of the globe. 

If the pack didn’t crush them with hundreds of thousands of pounds of hostile pressure, the Fram would drift, locked in ice, at a snail’s pace on slow polar currents to the top of the world. Nansen wanted to be the first ever to reach the North Pole, a terra incognita in the late 19th century. 

His method of travel convinced everyone he was completely mad.  Veteran polar travelers were positive his boat would be “nipped,” hopelessly crushed by the ruthless Arctic floes and everyone might die.

But this amazing boat did exactly what its brilliant designer Colin Archer wanted--it floated (not without terrifying roars, screams, and ungodly creaks). As the ice formed around it, the Fram rose up slipping “like an eel out of the embraces of the ice,” and was carried for years toward its goal at one mile an hour. 

In fact, the Fram drifted at the mercy of the elements day after day, through two polar winters, through the moon-studded darkness and under the brilliance of the northern lights, until Nansen realized he would miss the actual top of the world by a few hundred miles before passing over to the other side of the globe.

Not wanting to miss the opportunity to be the first ever to reach the pole, he and crew member Hjalmar Johansen jumped onto the ice with 28 dogs, three sleds, two small, canvas-covered kayaks and 1,500 lbs of food, and set out for what might well be a suicidal mission in the disintegrating spring ice. They knew they’d never find the mother ship again. 

Once they set off, they would be on their own for months, maybe even years. The idea would be to reach the pole within 50 days and then dash back to some little-known islands in the Archipelago of Franz Josef Land.  If they could even find such a place in all that ice!

Nansen knew he might die. Before he left the Fram, he wrote a letter to his wife, Eva:

You will know that your image will be the last I see . . . when I go to the eternal rest, where we will meet…and rest for ever safely in each other’s arms. Ah Eva, my Eva, if it should happen, do not cry too hard. Remember no one escapes his fate.

My book is about Nansen’s 15-month survival out on the ice, a story that needed telling to modern audiences, young and old. We live at a time of thinning and disappearing Arctic ice cover. Modern polar explorers are literally swimming their way to the pole, but only 125 years ago, the Arctic was completely frozen throughout most of the year.

Q: How did you research this book, and what did you learn that you found especially fascinating?

A: Nansen was an amazing man. I traveled to Norway to meet other biographers and collect hundreds of archival photos (there are over 200 in the book). Nansen and the crew took these photos on their three-year sojourn. I drove across the top of Norway, a region called Finnmark, to see the places Nansen had passed through on his way north.

I wanted to know the details of how Nansen succeeded. I wanted to focus on this one expedition, to see how meticulous a planner and how great a visionary he was. From this one trip came six large volumes of scientific tables, charts and data, new information about the Arctic. I wondered also what all that ice looked like, which future generations will never see.

Of all the interesting aspects about Nansen, perhaps the one I found most interesting was how he traveled. Archer had built Nansen an ice ship strong and wide enough to be squeezed upward as the ice froze beneath the hull.

The Fram was so well built that even after being crushed and jerked and thrown about in the pack for three years, it was in good enough shape to be used by other explorers, including fellow Norwegian Roald Amundsen when he went to the South Pole in 1911. The Fram in fact is so famous in polar exploration that it now sits in its own museum in Oslo.

Q: How would you compare Nansen's work to that of other explorers, and why hasn't more been written about him?

A: Why haven’t more people written about Nansen, I wonder. A scientist-explorer, he has been called the father of polar travel, and yet Nansen is the least known of all.  

When we study polar exploration, we start with Shackleton's amazing story at the bottom of the planet 20 years after Nansen’s trip. And what a great story Shackleton has to tell of survival and triumph.

We also study the journeys of Amundsen, Peary and Scott, but the one who preceded these heroes in what we call the golden age of polar travel was this scientist/explorer/visionary who only a few years before was the first to cross Greenland on skis (1888), the first to really study the Arctic ice cap and the surrounding ocean currents. 

Nansen helped demystify the as-yet uncharted North Pole. He discovered that, unlike Antarctica, there was no land in the Arctic. It was a cap of ice sitting over water miles deep.  

And he wrote brilliantly about his North Pole journey in a best-selling book called Farthest North, a book, by the way, that National Geographic calls one of the 100 best adventure stories of all time.  

Yet Dr. Fridtjof Nansen, Norway’s preeminent hero, and perhaps the greatest scientist in that golden age of polar travel at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, is the least known of all.  Most of my friends had never heard of him.

When he gave up polar travel, Nansen had an even more illustrious career as a statesman for the fledgling country of Norway; he worked in famine relief after World War 1 and helped found the United Nations. In 1922 he won the Nobel Peace Prize.  

There are more than 50 books about Shackleton. But until Locked in Ice, there were only three on Nansen and none that focused on his North Pole expedition. The first of the three is his own book, Farthest North. The second, With Nansen in the North, is by his companion Hjalmar Johansen. The third is a biography by Roland Huntford.

So I wanted to write a book with a focus on Nansen’s greatest journey, The Norwegian North Polar Expedition 1893-96. And I wanted to explore his story and tell it to kids and adults alike. 

Q: What do you hope readers take away from Nansen's story?

A: Never give up. Imagine. And dare to succeed. Nansen said: “The Difficult is what takes a little time. The impossible is what takes a little longer.” 

When Nansen was planning his trip across the Greenland ice cap in 1888, he planned to do it differently from others who had tried, like Admiral Robert Peary. 

The Norwegian scientist would collect meteorological data as he trekked from the uninhabited eastern shore, over the ice cap toward the settlements on the west side. Everyone else had set off in the opposite direction and had run out of food only to return to the towns in failure. 

For Nansen there would be no turning back. They took only enough food to go one way, leaving only one of two outcomes: success or death. How many people today might benefit from half that determination!!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My next adventure biography will be about Henry Morton Stanley’s 1871 journey to Lake Tanganyika to find Dr. David Livingstone.

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

Q&A with Elizabeth Letts

Elizabeth Letts, photo by Nora Alalou
Elizabeth Letts is the author of the new novel Finding Dorothy. It focuses on the life of Maud Gage Baum, whose husband, L. Frank Baum, wrote The Wizard of Oz. Her other books include The Eighty-Dollar Champion and The Perfect Horse. She lives in Southern California.

Q: What first got you interested in the life of Maud Gage Baum, and were you always a fan of The Wizard of Oz?

A: I vividly remember my first time seeing The Wizard of Oz when I was 4 years old—the local TV store opened their doors to the public so that neighborhood folk could watch it on a color TV.

But I knew nothing about the life of L. Frank Baum and his wife Maud until I was reading the book aloud to my son a few years ago and I noticed anew how strong and vivid the female characters were. I wondered why I knew nothing about the author of such a famous story.

That was when I discovered the Gage women—his wife, Maud, and his mother-in-law, Matilda Joslyn Gage. I was intrigued to learn that Baum’s wife was raised to be very modern and independent by her mother, a famous suffragist and close friend of Susan B. Anthony.

But it wasn’t until I saw a photo of Maud Baum on the set of the 1939 movie with actress Judy Garland that I realized I had a story to tell.

Maud was a widow by then, strong-minded, but as an older woman it could not have been easy to make her voice heard in male-dominated 1930s Hollywood, and Judy Garland was barely 16 when she seem to capture the very essence of hope when she sang “Over the Rainbow.”

That’s what attracted me to this story— two women, one old, one young, both insisting on having a voice and being heard.

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

A: Because I have a background writing non-fiction history, I approached the writing of this book by doing a lot of research. What fascinates me about the past is that it’s kind of like Oz itself. You can read all about it but you can’t actually go there—only the imagination opens that pathway.

Through research, I often discover that the past is not exactly what I thought. Getting up close with primary sources—letters, photographs, diaries, and maps never fails to reveal something new and unexpected. 

One thing that surprised me while researching this book was remembering that when they were filming The Wizard of Oz, most special effects techniques that we now take for granted hadn’t even been invented yet. 

The studio was basically making it up as it went along—we don’t think of it now, but the idea that you could create a fantasy world on film was very novel at the time. As The Wizard of Oz celebrates its 80th anniversary this year, we realize how well their improvisations have stood the test of time.

Q: What did you see as the right balance between fiction and history as you wrote the book, and how did you choose which parts of the Baums' lives to include in your story?

A: Every writer of historical fiction has to solve this in her own way, but for me, it was very important for me to make both the broad outlines and the specific details of the story consistent with the actual historical record.

For me, this meant, researching everything from what the Tin Man’s costume was actually made of, to reading 19th century obstetric books. I very much dislike it when I’m reading an historical novel and I read things that are not factually accurate for the time period. That seems lazy to me.

On the other hand, where fiction shines is in the ability to fill in the gaps. The novelist’s art is to spin out the story from the known facts—making you feel as if you are actually there, a fly on the wall, witnessing history from behind the scenes.

As far as what to include, I always end up with a lot of material that does not end up in the final draft. In the end, no matter how interesting something is, it doesn’t stay in unless it drives the story forward.

Q: The book deals with women's rights, both in the 19th century and in the late 1930s. How do you think your novel resonates with the current #MeToo movement?

A: My book was sitting on my editor’s desk waiting to be read when the Weinstein story broke, so I did not write the story knowing how timely it would be, but it isn’t possible to read about Judy Garland’s life without thinking about the long history of abusive behavior toward women in Hollywood. 

What was so fascinating to me is that Maud and her mother, Matilda, were so far ahead of their time—and if you know where to look, this modern view of women is everywhere in Baum’s Oz—clearly Baum had absorbed their message. 

So, I think for me the big take home was how long the fight for women’s equality has been, and how many of our foremothers who fought for rights that we now take for granted did not see the results during their lifetimes. 

Matilda Joslyn Gage spent her whole life fighting for votes for women and yet she did not live to see the day when women got the vote—she was fighting for her daughter and granddaughters and future generations of women. 

And that thought gave me hope--just because we as women haven’t achieved everything that we would like to achieve doesn't mean that our fight is not worth the effort. Our daughters and granddaughters will live in a better world in part because of our efforts.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m in the middle of researching and writing a new non-fiction book—an inspiring true story about a woman, her horse, and her dog—an unlikely trio who beat long odds to complete an incredible journey across mid-century America.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just that I fell head-over-heels in love with Frank and Maud while writing this book and I hope you will too. It makes me happy to know that more people will get to know the remarkable story behind America’s best-loved tale.

 I’ll just close with a quote from Baum himself which I think sums up his philosophy—and mine!

“In this world in which we live simplicity and kindness are the only magic wands that work wonders”
― L. Frank Baum 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb