Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Q&A with Sarah Stern

Sarah Stern is the author of the new poetry collection We Have Been Lucky in the Midst of Misfortune. She also has written the poetry collections But Today Is Different and Another Word for Love. For her new book, she visited the southern German village where her mother was born. The book's title was taken from a letter her grandfather, a Jewish German soldier, wrote during World War I. Her mother's family later emigrated to New York, fleeing the Nazis.

Q: Over how long a period did you write the poems in your new collection?

A: What became the center of the book, section two, took me about four years to complete, which includes many revisions; but many of the poems that are in this book and surround this section are from years ago, 20 or more. 

I am thrilled that those older poems have a home now. I could not have known this, and it brings me to the idea of patience in poetry. Poems need much patience from us!

Q: The book's title came from a letter your grandfather wrote during World War I. How was the title (also the title of Part II of the book) chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: The title has a deep irony, as my grandfather, of course, could not have known what lay ahead only a few years later. 

One of the things that shocked me the most was visiting the Jewish cemetery in Rexingen and seeing my mother's family's tombstones dating back to the 1600s. My mother's family lived in that town for almost 400 years. I address this in my poem "Moss" within the collection. 

And, yes, the cemetery is beautiful, too, and looks over the valley, a valley my mother often spoke of.

But the title for me also signifies the idea of hope in things we can't know. I think of my grandfather, grandmother and mother coming to New York in 1939, beginning again with nothing and living on Audubon Avenue in Washington Heights. 

My mother would speak about things that she first noticed in New York, that to her meant freedom—cockroaches, the smell of hot dogs from the cart, and cornflakes! 

My grandfather's line—We have been lucky in the midst of misfortune—resonates for me on so many levels, as a daughter of a refugee, as a woman and as an American.

Q: How did you decide on the order of the poems in the collection?

A: I struggled with the order of the poems as I felt that the poems very much talked to each other as I was ordering the collection, and I wanted to be sure that the reader heard the conversations that I was hearing amongst the poems.

Once I decided on which poems would be in the book, I laid all of them out on my living room floor and left them there over a few days. It helped me a lot to see them spread out and next to each other. From that process, I realized that there would be six sections and that the book would start in the present and move back in time. That's mostly true.

Q: Do you see any themes that link the poems in this book?

A: Yes, the title "We Have Been Lucky in the Midst of Misfortune" links the themes of the book—the tremendous loss that occurred as a result of the Holocaust, and what it was like to grow up the only daughter in a family of seven with six older brothers.

In many of my poems, I explore the grief that I experienced through my mother that seeped into everything—even into the intense joy and appreciation that she had for being alive. I have always been interested in the ripple of her grief and loss that I felt, and often had no name for, and how it profoundly shaped who I am.

Another theme that I feel runs through the book is one of redemption—how do you go on and make a life that's new and hopeful. One of the sections, "The Little Room," is a series on the process of psychotherapy with a nod to Mister Rogers.

An additional theme is gratitude, particularly for my parents and the framework by which they left me to see the world.

Poetry, for me, has a unique way of addressing all these themes—a way of coming at things from many different directions and hopefully leaving the reader with a new truth and remembrance.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm starting to work on a new collection. It's exciting to begin to think of a new project.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I want to say a special thank you to my publisher, Kelsay Books. I feel very thankful that this book is in the world, and that the poems, all 71 of them, will always be together. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Granville Wyche Burgess

Granville Wyche Burgess is the author of the new novel The Last At-Bat of Shoeless Joe. His other novels include the Rebecca Zook series, and his plays include the musical Conrack. He is CEO of Quill Entertainment Company, and he lives in Connecticut.

Q: You note that your new novel originated as a screenplay. Why did you decide to write about Shoeless Joe, and why first as a screenplay and then as a novel?

A: When I played baseball as a youth in 1950s Greenville, S.C., as an all-field-no-hit second baseman, nobody ever mentioned that Joe Jackson, whom many considered the “greatest natural hitter of all time,” lived in my home town! Such was animus towards Shoeless Joe because of the Black Sox scandal. I think Joe himself wanted to keep a low profile. I didn’t discover Joe lived and died in my hometown until the movie Eight Men Out premiered in 1988. 

Reading about the scandal, I became convinced of Joe’s innocence and wanted to put the truth, as I saw it, out into the world. I have always been drawn to stories about injustice and I think the fact the Shoeless Joe Jackson is banned from being inducted into the Hall of Fame is surely one of them.

I wrote it first as a screenplay because I think the visuals in the novel are so arresting and beautiful. Film really lets you be present in the story in ways that a novel simply cannot. There are the baseball games, of course, which are always exciting, but film allows for much more humor to be communicated.

I can write, say, about a baseball bopping a player on the noggin, but to see it happen is much funnier. Or about how cows would wander onto the field in the days when Shoeless played ball in the Textile Baseball League and an outfielder would slip on a cow paddy when trying to catch a fly ball. 

Also, a la Norma Rae, the scenes inside the textile mill with the noise and the pounding machinery really would come alive on film. And scenes in the mountains around Greenville would be incredibly beautiful. It’s a great story with great characters so it works well as a novel, but a film would add other dimensions of excitement, humor, drama, and beauty. But maybe The Last At-Bat of Shoeless Joe can have a last at-bat as a film some day!

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

A: I didn’t read all the books about Shoeless Joe, but I did read several. W. P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, of course, the book Field of Dreams is based on. Donald Gropman’s Say It Ain’t So, Joe!; Harvey Frommer’s Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball; Charles Fountain’s The Betrayal.  

The one that helped the most about the scandal is Gene Carney’s Burying the Blacksox, which offers great details about how Charles Comiskey, the owner of the White Sox, tried to cover up the scandal while claiming he knew nothing about it. I also read the transcripts of the two trials. 

Thomas Perry’s Textile League Baseball was invaluable in giving me the flavor of how baseball was played in the South around the turn of the 19th century. As for life in a textile mill village, you can’t beat Linthead: Growing Up in a Carolina Cotton Mill Village, a memoir by Wilt Browning.

I also did personal research. I drove around the mill villages that still exist in Greenville, got out, walked around some of the yards, looked up at the huge textile mill on the hill above. I visited a working textile mill. The noise was incredible, and I was wearing protective ear gear. 

When I write about Jimmy’s life in the novel, I know I can’t really comprehend what it must have been like to work in that atmosphere day in and day out, year after year. And I wasn’t even experiencing the lint that practically smothered the rooms in earlier time. As for the scenes at Caesar’s Head and Sliding Rock, I have been to those wonderful places many times in my life.

There were many surprises for me in researching this story but I suppose the most surprising thing I learned is that there were not one but two trials involving Shoeless Joe and the alleged throwing of the World Series games—and that both juries found Joe and the other defendants NOT GUILTY!  

The way the story was passed down had always made me assume that they were guilty as charged. This discovery, of course, only strengthened my belief that Shoeless Joe Jackson suffered a grave injustice.

Q: What did you see as the right blend between your fictional creation and the actual history as you wrote the book?

A: One of the great pleasures I derived from writing this novel was the opportunity to put so much of Joe’s actual history with the Black Sox scandal into the story. Starting with Joe as a man embittered by what baseball did to him, I was able to show how his painful memories run parallel with his growing love for the fictional Jimmy Roberts, who represents what Joe might have felt and thought when he was growing up playing baseball in a textile mill league.  

In this way, I was able to blend the past into the present in ways that didn’t just tell the history but advanced the plot.

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

A: I have many hopes for what my readers experience and take away from my story. I hope they take away a feeling for life in a textile mill in 1950s South Carolina, including the life lived by the black people of that time. I hope they enjoy learning about the early days of baseball. I hope they laugh at times and I really hope they are perhaps moved by Joe and Jimmy’s story to the point of tears.  

This is a story about forgiveness and love, leavened with hope, and if the reader can pause to reflect on those themes in her or his own life, all the better. I hope they take away a sense of the injustice suffered by Shoeless Joe Jackson and a desire to see justice served in the future. And mainly I hope when they finish that last page they feel uplifted by a tale well told.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have written the book and lyrics to a musical, Common Ground, about the relationship between Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. I hope this can become a Broadway musical in the tradition of Hamilton, so we are searching for producers and/or theatres where we can develop the show.  

I have finished several drafts of a play based on the book My Love Affair with the State of Maine about two New York women in 1947 who give up successful careers to open a grocery store in a Maine resort, and I hope we might premiere the play, currently entitled “Wild Gamble,” in the summer of 2020, the 200th anniversary of Maine’s statehood admission to the United States.  

My next novel will be Home on the Crick, the third installment of the Rebecca Zook trilogy of Amish novels published by Chickadee Prince Books. In between, I’m working on my golf game!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: You should know that I was not a very good baseball player when I was in Little League during my grammar school years, but that didn’t stop me from writing a book about baseball! And I am lucky to be married to a woman who was raised Mennonite on an Amish farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, but now works on Wall Street. I keep threatening Reba that I am going to write her biography and call it “Mennonite on Wall Street.”  

I also have two children, Loring—who works at the Peabody Museum at Harvard—and Clara—who works at Give An Hour in Virginia, a nonprofit in the mental health field, and I have two step-children, Emily, who works on an organic farm in California, and Morgan, who works at Blackrock, a financial firm in NYC.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Nick Trout

Nick Trout is the author of the new novel The Wonder of Lost Causes. His other books include Dog Gone, Back Soon and Tell Me Where It Hurts. He is a staff surgeon at the Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston.

Q: You write that the novel was informed by your own experiences as a veterinarian and as a parent of a daughter who has cystic fibrosis. How did you create your characters Kate and Jasper?

A: In part, I wanted to take on the challenge of writing in the first person as a woman, and as a boy. Mothers are invariably the primary care givers for most chronically ill children, and so, if I ever hoped to come close to capturing the struggles, fears and frustration of parenting a kid with CF, the female perspective felt right. 

As for Jasper, a lot has changed since I was an 11-year-old boy, back in the ‘70s, but I could still tap into some of the wonder I felt around our German shepherd, Patch. My daughter, Emily, has lived his hospital stays, his endless regime of treatments, his constant frustration of battling this relentless disease. Emily happens to be a great writer herself and she was keen to share her insight. 

I must also mention my editor's son, Xander, for educating me on the subject of Fortnite!

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

A: Let me just say that I find choosing a title extremely difficult and frustrating. Typically it takes months, the publisher and marketing department weighing in on whether or not they believe it works. 

I kept coming back to the concept of a “lost cause,” that here was a boy, battling to breathe, and here was a dog, seemingly unadoptable, and yet, given a chance, any lost cause can surprise you and change your perspective in all kinds of magical ways. Like all the best titles, when it finally popped into my brain, it seemed simple, apt and, not least, obvious.

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

A: I had a vague sense of where this novel was headed, but yes, working with my agent, Jeff Kleinman, and editor, there were plenty of tweaks along the way. For example, I wrote a prologue and an epilogue, then we got rid of both, and then we decided to finish with a new epilogue. Lyssa Keusch, my new editor, made my writing appear far better than I deserve.

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

A: Where to begin. A better understanding of cystic fibrosis. An awareness of how hard it is to parent a chronically ill child, no matter what the underlying disease or disorder. A recognition of how a dog, any dog, can brighten your days, change your outlook, give you purpose and make you want to live. 

Like most authors, I'm hoping to entertain my reader, but if I can leave him or her changed in some small, sensitive, even minuscule way, I will have succeeded.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm not sure. I have a non-fiction project that I might pursue. Then again, a story about saving companion animals during the early days of World War II might beckon.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: You can find out about me, and all my books, at drnicktrout.com. I'm on Goodreads and Bookbub and, if this book hits you in all the right ways, please share with a friend, family member, or your book club, not least if that someone is dealing with any kind of chronic illness.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 30

April 30, 1877: Alice B. Toklas born.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Q&A with Mark Obmascik

Q: You note that you came upon this story while working on another book. How did you first learn of it, and at what point did you decide to write this book?

A: I learned the first seeds of this story about 15 years ago, while working on my first non-fiction book, The Big Year. That book was about competitive birding (it was made into a movie starring Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson). Key parts of the birding book took place on Attu Island, the westernmost point of the Aleutian chain of Alaska.

While researching the history of that island, I learned that a ferocious World War II battle had taken place there. This was news to me -- I hadn’t known that Japan had invaded and conquered part of Alaska during WWII, or that Attu was the only ground battle of WWII fought in North America, or that it was the first time U.S. soil had been lost since the War of 1812, or that the battle was so fearsome that it had a casualty rate exceeded in the Pacific War only at Iwo Jima.

Still, I am a journalist and I am more interested in the stories of people than the histories of battle.

When I learned that an American war hero and an American-trained surgeon from Japan had fought each other on Attu -- and that their families had later reconciled after the recovery of one soldier’s diary -- I was hooked.

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

A: What really surprised me was how two families who were enemies in war had become friends in peace. We live in such divided times, but the Laird and Tatsuguchi families set a remarkable example of the power of peace and forgiveness.

To research this book, I spent a lot of time at the National Archives in College Park, Md.; Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska; college libraries in Alaska, Colorado, Georgia, and Oregon; and meeting with families in Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Ohio.

Q: Why is the Battle of Attu known as "The Forgotten Battle"?

A: Attu was an embarrassing chapter in the history of Japan and the United States, and neither country was interested in publicizing it.

Japan abandoned a garrison of 2,500 men on an Alaskan island. The soldiers ran out of food, ammunition, and hope. Few survived.

U.S. Army generals took American troops who had been preparing for desert warfare in North Africa and instead shipped them to fight on a desolate Alaskan island with some of the worst weather on Earth. Generals said the battle would take just three days; instead it lasted nearly three weeks. Many U.S. soldiers lost their lives and limbs because of poor U.S. preparations.

From the perspective of generals and military higher-ups, Attu was a cautionary example, not something to be bragged about.

Q: What do the families of Dick Laird and Paul Nobuo Tatsuguchi, the two men featured in your book, think of The Storm on Our Shores?

A: I am so grateful to the families of Dick Laird and Paul Nobuo Tatsuguchi. They provided me with so many letters, journals, photos, and interviews that helped me assemble this story. Since publication, family members have given me high praise for the book, but they are strong, smart people with their own informed opinions, and it’s better to ask them yourself. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m always in the market for great non-fiction stories. Hit me up! 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Chaya Bhuvaneswar

Chaya Bhuvaneswar is the author of the new story collection White Dancing Elephants. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Tin House and Michigan Quarterly Review. She is also a physician.

Q: Over how long a period did you write the stories in this collection?

A: Definitely a few years for the total sum, though some stories were written over a slightly longer or shorter period of time.  

Q: How did you select the order in which the stories appear?

A: I worked on this as I would put together a list of songs - very instinctive but then revising critically, taking out, putting in, etc. It was collaborative with the publisher.  

Q: How was the book's title (also the title of the first story in the collection) chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: It's a Buddhist image, a South Asian image, but also resonates (I hoped) with the dream the narrator of the title story has, juxtaposing Disney elephants with far different imagery.

Q: Do you see certain themes running through the collection?

A: Loss, grief; what the Kirkus reviewer called "the aftermath" - definitely a state of being that all the characters face in one form or another.  

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Two novels, one of which has a lot of research underpinning it for the past two decades, much of which, as Min Jin Lee did for Pachinko, I had to throw out and start fresh with! But I have realized once you give in to the novel's process, it's like no other. Really exhilarating to have both depth and tension pulling you to the page.  

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I am on Twitter and hope so much your readers will consider following me: @chayab77.

Also I would love to hear from readers via my website including to come visit book clubs, which I've begun to do and love doing! 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 29

April 29, 1954: Jerry Seinfeld born.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Q&A with Adam Higginbotham

Adam Higginbotham is the author of the new book Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster. He writes for a variety of publications, including The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine, and he lives in New York City.

Q: You note that you’ve been interviewing people about Chernobyl for more than a decade. What first got you interested in the topic, and at what point did you decide to write this book?

A: I grew up in England at the height of the Cold War, and was 17 when the accident happened, so the catastrophe—and the wider sense of nuclear terror that enveloped much of the world at the time—has always informed my outlook.

But I first began research into the topic at the end of 2005, ahead of the 20th anniversary of the disaster, when I set out to report a magazine story about the night of the accident based on the recollections of surviving eyewitnesses.

The experiences of the people I met on those first visits to Moscow and Kiev made such an impression on me that I immediately knew there was a powerful book-length narrative to be written about the full story of the accident, but at the time no-one was interested in publishing one. Nevertheless, I returned to Chernobyl again in 2011 to report a second magazine story—this time about the long-term consequences of the disaster.

The same month my piece was published, the Fukushima accident took place, and what many people had regarded as an old story suddenly became newly relevant. And although on that trip I found my experiences inside the Exclusion Zone sufficiently frightening that I swore I would never return, the stories of the people I had met never left me, and a few years later I found myself writing another magazine pitch—to widespread disinterest.

At that point, in 2014, I decided to write a book, began work on a proposal, and it sold to S&S the following year.

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

A: I gathered information from as many sources as I could: I found declassified documents and other primary materials including films and photographs in archives in London, Harvard, Washington, D.C., Moscow and Kiev. I found elusive Russian- and Ukrainian-language books and monographs through the research division of the New York Public library system, online and through the Russian equivalent of eBay.

I worked through an enormous trove of medical scientific papers about almost every aspect of the accident, from reactor physics to the effect of radiation on human beings. I spoke to experts who guided me through the complexities of those subjects and enabled me to translate them for a general reader. I had the help of researchers in Kiev in Moscow who hunted down obscure journals and multi-volume memoirs, and translators who rendered them into English. 

Q: What do you see as some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about the Chernobyl disaster?

A: There are many misconceptions about the disaster: some of the major ones spring from the initial attempts by the Soviet government to cover up the true scale of what happened.

For example, Western foreign correspondents in Moscow were deprived of access to first-hand information in the days after the accident, and did their best with rumors and hearsay. The New York Post reported at the time that 15,000 people had been killed almost immediately by the accident, and their bodies buried as nuclear waste; as a result many people today still believe thousands died as a result of the initial explosion.

Deliberate misinformation and confusion about the true nature of radioactivity mean that many people believe hundreds of thousands of people have since died of cancer directly attributable to the accident, although there is little or no scientific evidence to support such an assertion.

Other widespread notions of the accident have their roots in the Soviet propaganda narrative of the accident, built around the actions of incompetent plant staff and the selfless sacrifice of firefighters sent to the scene after the explosion; the truth, naturally, is more complex and compelling than that.

Q: What impact do you think the disaster had on the Soviet Union, and what do you see as Chernobyl’s legacy today?

A: The disaster was a key moment on the path to the disintegration of the USSR: it had a profound effect on the approach to reform taken by General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. Only after the accident did he realize the true scale of the rot at the heart of the heart of the Soviet system, and what he learned convinced him that, in order to save the USSR, he had to plunge swiftly and deeply into economic and political reform.

In the event, these reforms were botched and badly planned, and proved to be the undoing of the system Gorbachev hoped to preserve; at the same time, Chernobyl proved to be a test case in the more open government promised by the notion of glasnost, revealing to the Soviet people much about the lies and incompetence that had led to the accident, and, eventually, the cover-up that followed. After Chernobyl, an already distrustful public could never put their faith in their leaders again.

The legacy of the accident endures both on the land contaminated by it and among the people whose lives were overturned or destroyed by it—and in the resulting distrust the public has for nuclear energy in any form.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now I’m still spending a lot of time doing public appearances and talking about the book and the stories in it. But I have a couple of new narrative projects that I’ve been planning for a while, and I hope will keep me busy when I return to my desk...

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Nick Groom

Nick Groom is the author of the new book The Vampire: A New History. His other books include The Gothic: A Very Short Introduction and The Seasons: A Celebration of the English Year. He is a professor of English at Exeter University, UK. 

Q: Why did you decide to write this history of vampires?

A: I’ve written a lot about the Gothic, and my approach has been to think about its political context, particularly in England in the 17th and 18th centuries. It’s a way of looking at constitutional history, Protestantism, and progress.

Vampires don’t fit in that model. They’re supernatural beings. They got me thinking in a different way about politics and theology. It’s not just a history of bloodsucking demons, but that the vampire was a thought experiment used in Enlightenment thinking.

Q: Vampires are very common in today's popular culture. Why do you think that is, and what do you see looking ahead?

A: A lot of people who write books on vampires are keen to write the obituary of the vampire, that the vampire has now lost its allure. But it hasn’t. There might be even more in the next few years. The Lost Boys classic ‘80s vampire movie is being remade, What We Do in the Shadows is on TV—it’s all going to kick off again.

It’s similar to why it was popular earlier—it’s a way of trying to understand the human predicament, what makes us human, against a background of growing secularism. Some areas are losing faith, while others are more fundamentalist.

And with the political issues, there’s a renewed popularity of vampires connected to the rise of global populism. In that sense, it’s about how we deal with power, how power shapes the way we think. The vampire is a useful tool for thinking about things.

The environmental crisis is another issue. The vampire is hunted to death. It’s an endangered species. Can we coexist with a sentient, intelligent humanoid creature that survives by preying on us? There are many more ethical vampires that live on blood from a blood bank.

Vampires help us think in different ways about how we see ourselves…I see no end to it.

Q: How would you define a vampire, and at what point did vampires begin to play a role in popular culture and folklore?

A: I tried to have a very strict definition of a vampire—it’s not every bloodsucking ghost and monster. To my mind, vampires were discovered on the border of the Habsburg Empire in 1725, when the word was first used and we see the contours of what’s recognized as a vampire today.

Early vampires didn’t have pointy teeth, and they didn’t suck blood. But they were associated with blood. The Habsburg authorities sent investigative teams of physicians and magistrates to investigate. It was a bit like The X-Files. They performed autopsies and took written testimony. Vampires were tangible, not like ghosts. It’s a creature you can touch and feel.

Q: Why has Dracula retained such a grip on the popular conception of a vampire, and what do you see as its role in vampire history?

A: Dracula is absolutely central. I wanted to write a book to argue that Dracula is a symptom of the vampire craze, but Dracula is a lot more than that. It’s a great novel.

Bram Stoker took seven years to write it. It gathers a huge amount of vampire lore that had been accumulated through the 19th century. He did research, he knew about the early cases.

At the same time, he makes vampires very contemporary. We remember the garlic and the crucifix, but they’ve got Kodak cameras. He writes that [vampires] can’t be photographed….He makes the supernatural very up to date….

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m doing a collection of vampire tales, tales that predate Dracula, to demonstrate that Dracula didn’t come out of a vacuum. It was part of a cultural movement. Robert Louis Stevenson did a story. There’s Polidori’s vampire tale, published 200 years ago this month. Polidori moves the vampire into the aristocracy…

I’m also going to be working on some theater, working with a local dramatic group. We got funding to work with an epidemiologist, trying to raise awareness of blood conditions and encourage people to give blood.

In the background, I’m writing a longer history of the Gothic. I’m thinking about how vampires fit into the story, and about what happened to the Gothic novel in the 20th century.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 28

April 28, 1926: Harper Lee born.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Q&A with Susan Katz Miller

Susan Katz Miller is the author of the new book The Interfaith Family Journal. She also has written the book Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Washington Post and The New York Times. She is based in the Washington, D.C. area.

Q: Why did you decide to write The Interfaith Family Journal?

A: There are several books out there on Jewish and Christian interfaith families, but this is the first book for all interfaith families. And it's the first published interactive resource for interfaith families--a workbook filled with writing prompts, invitations to converse, and creative activities.

The book takes you through a five-week process of going deep, with your family members, into how your formative religious, spiritual and secular experiences contribute to your dreams for the present and the future. I wanted to help interfaith families to envision how to be successful, whether they choose one religion, two religions, all religions, or no religions.

Q: How do you define an interfaith family? 

A: You could say that all families are interfaith families, because no two people share identical experiences, beliefs, or practices, even if they have the same religious (or secular) label. So I think this book is going to be helpful for any family, including atheist families engaging with religion in the extended family.

And it's not just for young couples--the book takes you through a process that will be helpful for single parents, parents of teens, child-free couples, guardians, and empty-nesters--anyone who wants to have a deeper understanding of the role of religion and culture in their family.

Q: How did you come up with the specific exercises you include in the book?

A: Since my first book, Being Both, came out five years ago, I have been traveling the country speaking about and with interfaith families. I coach couples who come to me for ideas and support, and have presented at workshops for interfaith couples for many years. I also drew on my own experiences growing up in an interfaith family, and raising two interfaith children who are now young adults.

All of this went into creating the five-week process in the book. Each week, you answer a series of writing prompts, then swap journals with your partner or family members and read what they wrote, then go through a guided conversation based on what you each wrote, and then engage in a creative activity together, including fun roles for children. 

Q: How have families reacted to the book so far, and what do you hope people take away from it? 

A: The book is brand new! But I have already heard from atheist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh readers that the book is unique in the way it encourages you to think deeply about where you have come from and where you are going.

Even couples who thought they had their interfaith family all figured out have found the creative activities, in particular, stimulating--including recording the religious histories of your parents and grandparents, creating a family recipe book, and planning your own funeral.

And I have heard from both clergy and therapists that this book is going to be an important tool for them in supporting interfaith families, especially young couples, and couples who may be struggling. People are saying it's a great gift for their clergy member or therapist, and a great engagement or wedding gift. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I admit I am obsessed with supporting interfaith families, as part of the urgent need to improve interfaith understanding and bridge-building in society at large. Ultimately, I believe this work creates more peace and reduces religious intolerance in the world. So I have a whole series of projects mapped out, some of them books, some of them new ways of empowering interfaith families as interfaith peacemakers.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I am an interfaith kid. My Jewish father married my Protestant mother in 1960. And after more than a half-century of extraordinary marriage, they both died while I was working on this book. All of my work, in a way, is a tribute to their epic relationship.

But as I spent the last few years caring for them, while simultaneously writing this book, I think this book distills much of what I learned growing up in a joyous interfaith family. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Susan Katz Miller.

Q&A with Rachel Dacus

Rachel Dacus is the author of the new novel The Renaissance Club. Set in Italy, it features time travel and art. Her other books include the poetry collections Arabesque and Earth Lessons. She lives in the San Francisco area.

Q: You note that you were inspired to write The Renaissance Club after a trip to Italy. Why did you decide to focus on the artist Gianlorenzo Bernini?

A: Bernini’s art is something you really don’t see much in America. His masterpieces are life-size or larger statues, some of them entire church interiors. I was already aware of other Renaissance art, but seeing Bernini’s in person was astonishing.

The monumental scale of some, life-size intimacy of other, combined with a high level of detailed realism made me realize why Bernini was thought of as one of the great artistic geniuses. The work has such impact in person, and most of it can’t be transported anywhere else.

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write the novel?

A: There are only two biographies on Bernini that are worth looking into as primary or secondary sources. One is the biography written by his son, which is a combination between the family advertising campaign and a true chronological account of a life. The other is a recent book by Franco Mormando, a professor at Boston College.

I relied mostly on his research, along with a marvelous recent biography of Costanza Piccolomini, Bernini’s mistress, by Sarah McPhee. Her book, Bernini’s Beloved, not only gives a picture of the artist and his times, but gives a very important picture of the situation of women in Bernini’s 17th century Rome.

Q: How did you come up with your character May, and also your mysterious character George?

A: May Gold is a wishful portrait of a young woman going into a field I might have enjoyed, art history. I started with that idea, and having friends who went into that, I got a picture of how hard it is to make a living as an art historian, but how rewarding it would be to try.

George St. James is a composite from someone I know, a guide of a different kind who seemed to know so much you might have thought he could travel through time and meet everybody who was anybody. He’ll appear in a prequel I’m working on, and in a sequel I’m also planning.

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

A: I hope readers take away a renewed love of art (assuming readers of this book already love it), and a feeling for the sacrifices that make up the tapestry of love.

Q: This is the first in a series--what are you working on now?

A: I’m working on the prequel to The Renaissance Club, a story which has George St. James as the central character. And I’m also planning a sequel, with May Gold appearing, along with her cousin, who comes to join May on a summer art restoration project in Florence. So I’m staying with time travel and art! Also, love stories will feature in both books, though neither book is a romance novel.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My interest in art and my notions about time travel were both sparked by a childhood spent around art and artists, as my father was a very good painter. As a rocket engineer, he also collected science fiction and knew several of the early sci-fi writers, who were also involved with the rocket business. So an interest in time travel possibilities is natural for me.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 27

April 27, 1927: Coretta Scott King born.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Q&A with Frieda Wishinsky

Frieda Wishinsky is the author of two new books for kids, How to Become an Accidental Genius, with Elizabeth MacLeod, and the forthcoming picture book How Emily Saved the Bridge: The Story of Emily Warren Roebling and the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge. Wishinsky has written more than 70 books, and she lives in Toronto. 

Q: Why did you decide to write a picture book biography of Emily Warren Roebling?

A: I’m a New Yorker. I grew up in Manhattan and hardly ever, as a kid, went to Brooklyn. I live in Toronto, and when we came back to visit, I started to explore other boroughs. I love Brooklyn. I love the bridge—the views are unbelievable. There’s something about that bridge.

There was a plaque about Emily Roebling, and I looked her up. Her story is so amazing. There’s something profoundly smart about her, and about the way she handled the men.

I’ve written about suffragettes before. Especially after the election a lot of us are looking for women who are unsung. It was such a man’s world. She had to go on a bridge in swooshing skirts, dealing with men all the time, and she pulled it off. And then she became a lawyer! Unfortunately she died a little after that. Her husband lasted into his 70s.

Q: What kind of research did you do to write the book, and did you learn anything surprising about Emily or about the bridge?

A; I’m a huge fan of David McCullough. I own [his book] The Great Bridge, and I owned another book, one of my favorites that he did, Brave Companions. It profiled [Emily's husband] Washington Roebling and mentions Emily a lot, and he does it in a story.

That’s my big thing—story is what we’re drawn to. I used that [book] a lot. And there’s online material. Everybody refers to McCullough’s work as the definitive work on the bridge.

I don’t feel my job is to write the definitive history of anybody. I wrote two books on Einstein, kids’ books, and a writer wanted to know if he was dyslexic. I’m not an expert. I like to make it accessible and interesting and fast-paced, and give you a sense of time and place. I don’t have to tell you what they ate for dinner.

Q: Did you find anything surprising?

A: I didn’t know that she became a lawyer, that she went to Russia and attended the czar’s installation. She seemed interested in so many things. She was a woman of her times and ahead of her time, and she pulled it off in a way that didn’t antagonize the people she had to cope with. It’s one of the main reasons I like her.

Q: What do you hope kids take away from Emily’s story?

A: I always think of a show years ago where famous people would come back and see what happened to what they did. That bridge continues to stand. There’s something almost mythological about it. Like the Empire State Building. Certain places go beyond what they do. New York has a lot of bridges, but the Brooklyn Bridge is the first one we think of.

There’s something amazing about believing in something, seeing it through, and having the patience to weather the inevitable blows that come along…

Q: You also have another new book out, How to Become an Accidental Genius. What can you tell us about that book?

A: It’s the fourth book I’ve written with my co-author, Elizabeth MacLeod. Our first book was about the history of food. We’ve done these big projects together. We figure out a topic and if it’s accepted we have an even number of chapters [to write]. She’s more detail-oriented; I’m more big-picture. We balance each other well…

What I love about it is the persistence—people think they’re looking for one thing and then they say, Oh, look what I made! Velcro is in there. The inventor worked on it for years. Nobody knew what to do with it until they started to use it on astronaut suits. Post-it notes are in there. Some are not as well known. It’s about being observant and being flexible. I really admire those qualities.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Pamela D. Toler

Pamela D. Toler is the author of the new book Women Warriors: An Unexpected History. Her other books include The Heroines of Mercy Street, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including History Channel Magazine and Calliope

Q: How would you compare the women warriors you write about to their male counterparts?

A: I think the easiest way to compare them to their male counterparts is to consider why I chose the word warriors to describe them rather than soldiers. With some notable and fascinating exceptions, historical women warriors did not fight as soldiers in a regular army. That said, they fought for many of the same reasons as men, and they certainly fought as well.

Q: Of the various women you wrote about, were there some whose stories you found especially compelling?

A: I kept coming back to the story of the Contessa Matilda of Tuscany. She was the largest landowner in the Holy Roman Empire in the 11th century—an accomplishment in its own right, since few women were able to maintain control of their inheritance. 

She was deeply involved in one of the most important political and theological issues of her day. And she was a successful military commander for 40 years. And yet her career is often reduced to a supporting role in a single incident. 

I found her story fascinating in its own right and emblematic of the way women have been shoved into the corners in historical narratives.

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

A: Women have always fought. Period.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I'm fascinated by female superheroes and my inner nerd is really enjoying seeing them on the screen.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Pamela D. Toler.