Friday, May 31, 2019

Q&A with Dean Robbins

Dean Robbins, photo by David Giroux
Dean Robbins is the author of the new children's picture book biography The Astronaut Who Painted the Moon. It focuses on the life of astronaut and artist Alan Bean (1932-2018). Robbins' other books include Margaret and the Moon and Two Friends. He is based in Madison, Wisconsin.

Q: You've also written about NASA computer expert Margaret Hamilton. How did you choose astronaut Alan Bean as the subject of your new book?

A: I was obsessed with space as a child, growing up during the heyday of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. Writing Margaret and the Moon revived my childhood passion, and I began reading more about that period.

By chance, I saw a New York Times story profiling every astronaut who walked on the moon. Their stories were similar until I got to Alan Bean. He was the only visual artist in the bunch, devoting his post-NASA career to paintings that expressed the wonder of walking on another world. I couldn’t believe I’d never heard about the only artist to travel in outer space. That was the genesis of The Astronaut Who Painted the Moon.

Q: How closely did you work with Alan Bean on this book?

A: I was shy about contacting one of my lifelong astronaut heroes about collaborating with me. But Alan couldn’t have been nicer, offering to read over my manuscript and even to contribute images of his own art to the book. His suggestions were invaluable, and it’s so meaningful to me that he gave The Astronaut Who Painted the Moon his stamp of approval.

Q: What do you think Sean Rubin's illustrations add to the book?

A: Sean had a daunting task: rendering another artist’s work within the context of his own visual style while doing justice to my story. And he pulled it off masterfully.

He immersed himself in research, poring over images of historical aircraft and making a trek to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. But rather than using all that information in a literal-minded way, Sean created a one-of-a-kind work of art, with magic on every page.

For example, in the spread where Alan is learning to be an artist, he paints on the space between us, the readers, and him, the character in the book, as if it were a pane of glass. This imaginary plane fills up with brushstrokes as Alan masters his craft. As I said, magic.

Q: Especially given that this is the 50th anniversary of astronauts walking on the moon, what do you hope kids take away from the book?

A: I hope they come to appreciate Alan Bean and his remarkable contribution as the only artist to travel in outer space. Alan is a lesser-known astronaut, despite his heroic achievement as only the fourth person to walk on the moon.

I also hope young readers gain a sense of how artists approach their work, uniquely expressing what they see and feel to give the rest of us a new perspective on the universe. Alan’s paintings convey a personal vision of outer space in a way that no photograph ever could.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My next picture book is very different from The Astronaut Who Painted the Moon, portraying the connection between Latin jazz and the civil rights movement in 1950s New York City. Back down to earth!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Dean Robbins.

Q&A with Susan Welch

Susan Welch is the author of the new historical novel A Thread So Fine. She lives in Washington state.

Q: How much of your own family history is reflected in A Thread So Fine?

A: The stories in A Thread So Fine aren’t directly taken from my own family experiences. But the story is imbued with imaginings of how women such as my mother and birth mother might have faced challenges as young women in the post-World War II years.

My mother contracted tuberculosis in the mid-‘40s and spent a year in quarantine in St. Paul, Minnesota, when she was still a teenager.  Her stories about that time always fascinated me, so I was excited to be able to create a character who underwent a similar experience. 

My birth mother gave me up for adoption in 1962—something I only discovered about myself 10 years ago. As I began my journey to understand my own beginnings, I also wanted to understand what about society has changed and what has stayed the same for women as we struggle through challenges such as these. 

Although the story itself is completely imagined, many of the characters, the vignettes or anecdotes are borrowed from recollections of my youth and upbringing.

Q: How did you research the novel, and did you learn anything especially surprising?

A: To begin with, I read about life in the 1940s—during and after World War II, and especially about the Catholic Church’s approach to dealing with women who were out of wedlock and pregnant. I discovered The Catholic Home for Infant Children, Watermelon Hill, which, although it is a small part of the novel, represents the unfortunate culture of shame and secrecy around unwed mothers.

Having said that, Catholic agencies such as that also did quite a lot of good in the world – supporting women and families in need since the early 1900s or before.

The stories of first and second wave feminism in the 19th and 20th centuries—the inspiring female characters who were fighting not only for the right to vote, but all sorts of equity issues--did surprise me.  
Frances Perkins became a key secondary character, although somewhat fictionalized, as a way to highlight the work of women such as her – and there were many, across all sorts of issues –to improve equal access to work, fair pay, work conditions, etc. across the country. 

I’m hopeful that through literature, we can make more of these women “household names”–as they should be, for all they did to improve federal and state policy for women, children, immigrants, and people living in poverty.

Q: What do Eliza and Shannon's experiences say about the role of women in mid-20th century America?

A: This question relates to a central theme in the novel. After the war, the country was recovering from almost two decades of economic hardship from the Depression and wartime rationing; it was also imbued with optimism for the future, given the defeat of fascism and tyranny in the World Wars I and II.

The rise of economic affluency and other social changes underfoot were dynamic and fast-evolving, but unevenly applied across segments of the population, such as gender and race. Shannon and Eliza, as daughters of an academic scholar, were encouraged and supported in their dreams for the future, and had many opportunities to define success on their own terms.

But the structures in place—the church, workplace, society at large, entrenched gender roles---made it an uphill battle even for women from supportive families.

Shannon struggled to believe that she could find marital happiness because of her physical scars, both external and internal—and she retrenched into loneliness.

Eliza, despite being a victim of sexual violence, still found the path to her own dreams of academic success through education—but society’s insistence on shame and secrecy around misogyny in the pre-#MeToo era forced her to deeply bury her own trauma in order to do so.

We owe a great debt to the women of mid-20th century America–despite any number of obstacles, they truly did persist in advancing the voice of future generations, by having the courage to strike out on their own and redefine what was possible, one step at a time. 

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

A: Primarily, I hope that through Shannon and Eliza, Miriam and Nell, readers can celebrate the truly wondrous nature of family, no matter how an individual comes to define it.

The ties that bind through our childhood are often imbued with secrets and generational traumas that carry forward in all sorts of ways that make for good story-telling. But those richly textured, imperfect bonds are also the threads that we can rely upon to strengthen or support us as we move through life’s journey—even if we have let go of them in the past. 

The old terminology of blood-relations has, I think, in recent years been challenged as we think about adoption, or as we discover secrets about our own family tree, or as we redefine family in all sorts of ways – but what seems to never change is our yearning to remain connected to one another and to find, if necessary, those invisible threads to come back home.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on a second story in the Malone Family saga based on the characters of Miriam and Nell. I am also working on reviving a screenplay I wrote in the 1990s – a multi-generational murder mystery. I’ll have to wait and see which of these projects will become my “favorite child” for the next few years! 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: As a self-published author, I feel especially appreciative of readers who choose to pick up my novel and engage with my story and characters. With the thousands of options out there, it is truly wonderful to me!

I would love to hear from you through my website or Facebook. Please give me feedback of any kind (positive or negative – but please, not mean-spirited!) about A Thread So Fine and whether you’d like to read more about the Malone Family in the future!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Arushi Raina

Arushi Raina is the author of the young adult novel When Morning Comes, a winner of the 2018 Children's Africana Book Awards. Born in India, she grew up in South Africa--where When Morning Comes is set--and now lives in Canada.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for When Morning Comes, and for your four main characters?

A: My characters inspired me. I was standing in a restaurant in downtown Joburg and saw an image of a jazz singer. And then a character sort of slid into my brain—a jazz singer, who had secrets, and not the best singing voice. And I wanted to find out what those secrets were. And why did she sing, if she wasn’t any good?

This book started by trying to answer these questions, and as I wrote, I realized that Zanele’s story was interconnected, twisted around three other very important, distinct voices.

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

A: I grew up in South Africa in the late ‘90s. I was among the first group of children growing up in the new, democratic South Africa. So in many ways my research draws from my experiences of experiencing South Africa following apartheid. Our education, for the first time, tried to make sense of what had happened, including the significance of the Soweto Youth Uprising.

Years later, when I tried to put this story together, I started pouring through patchy archives in the U.S. – and found a number of first-hand accounts, retellings, in print. And patching these events, this recent history was staying true to these primary retellings but also, fictionalizing this story. Paradoxically, for me, adding those fictional details, is what makes history breathe.

I think the main finding through my later research only further substantiated what I’d thought before. The black youth of South Africa, disempowered, in poverty, lacking access to basic amenities, were incisive, forward looking, visionary.

I once had some feedback from an early reading saying that I’d made my characters “too articulate” – and I would beg those folks to actually read the first-hand statements, manifestos, and speeches given by the youth leaders of the time. Those speeches often put our current leaders’ levels of articulation to shame.

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

A: The novel’s title was really difficult to find. There were months of debate, going back and forward. As an immigrant to the West, it was important to me that I had a title that didn’t turn away a Western audience by telling themselves this was a “foreign book” – we need people to read different things, challenging things, and if they stumble into it, all the better. I wanted to lure the reader with a title that gave very little away.

At the same time, the title operates on a number of levels. I am not much of a metaphor user, but When Morning Comes is about the daily morning grind, the labour people of colour put in, day after day after day in the apartheid system. 

It is about how uprisings, especially this one, can start in the schoolyard, in the morning. It is about how, in the most difficult moments of oppression, there is a break, a moment of dawn where you can see the end to that oppression, the beginning of that end.

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

A: I want them to connect with my characters – my characters have their flaws, they are from far away, but I hope that the choices they make, what they feel and how they try to make sense of their reality connects with the reader. The emotional journey in books is what changes us, and we can never predict what that change is for each reader.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A modern Pride and Prejudice retelling (I know, another one. But can there ever be enough?) set in the 2008 recession in York. I think. You never know till you actually finish writing it.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I recently did a webinar with the wonderful CABA team – for teachers and anyone who is interested! You can check it out here.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 31

May 31, 1819: Walt Whitman born.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Q&A with Leila Aboulela

Leila Aboulela is the author of the story collection Elsewhere, Home. Her other books include the novels The Kindness of Enemies and Lyrics Alley. She grew up in Sudan and lives in Scotland.

Q: Over how long a period did you write the stories in Elsewhere, Home, and do you see changes in your writing over the years?

A: Over 20 years. The earliest was "Coloured Lights" (one of the shorter stories) and the most recent "Pages of Fruit" (the longest). I find it easier to write now than I did when I first started. The writing flows faster, I suppose, because I have more confidence.

Early in my career, the writing was somewhat sluggish, the paragraphs denser, the reading pace slower. Also, my early writing had more descriptions of Sudan and my childhood/youth there as it was all still fresh in my mind. I left Sudan in 1987 and even when I go back there now, I find that it has changed dramatically.

So in a sense, what I captured of Sudan in my early writing has become elusive. The sense of acute homesickness and alienation has also lessened in my work. In the most recent stories such as "The Circle Line," the characters are more sophisticated, more at ease as they move between cities. I wanted to capture how younger generations respond to having a mixed identity, how they can feel equally at home in different places.

Q: How did you decide on the order in which the stories would appear?

A: To be honest, I can’t remember. For sure, though, I wanted the longest story to be at the end and I wanted to start off with a strong story - "Summer Maze."

Q: You've said that your focus has been on themes of migration, homesickness, and belonging. How have your own experiences as someone who moved from Sudan to Scotland affected your writing?

A: It was the move that made me start to write. So in fact, my writing is grounded in the experience itself. I hadn’t grown up wanting to become a writer. True, I loved reading and I was always reading but I felt no desire to write.

When I moved, I was in my mid-20s with two young children and the move also coincided with my failure to complete a Ph.D in Statistics.  This disoriented me and to navigate my way through all this newness, I felt compelled to write.

I felt that I was writing about things that couldn’t be said in polite society. Contrary to expectations, when immigrants get together they never talk about homesickness or their anxieties about bringing up their children away from their home culture. Fiction offered me a space to say these things.

But of course, writing was not all about venting my particular feelings. I wanted to write well, I wanted to produce good stories. Without a Creative Writing degree (or even an English Literature one) I had to educate myself by reading, practicing and figuring out things on my own.

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

A: My editor and I discussed the title at length. At first, I thought that the title of the book should be the title of one of the stories. It was my editor who came up with the idea of using another phrase that would be evocative of the stories as a whole.

I warmed to the word “home” straightaway. How it carried the sense of warmth and belonging. It also reminded me of “homesickness” which is also an important presence in the book. Many of the characters experience homesickness and yet they are resigned to their situation as immigrants.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on more short stories, although I should be researching my new novel, which is set in 19th century Sudan!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My novel Bird Summons, about three Muslim women on a road trip to the Scottish Highlands, has recently been published in the UK and is due to be published in the US next year. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Leila Aboulela.

Q&A with Kathy MacMillan and Manuela Bernardi

Kathy MacMillan
Kathy MacMillan and Manuela Bernardi are the authors of the new children's book She Spoke: 14 Women Who Raised Their Voices and Changed the World. MacMillan's other books include Nita's First Signs and Sword and Verse. She is a nationally certified American Sign Language interpreter, and she lives near Baltimore, Maryland. Bernardi is a film and TV writer who has written for shows on TV Globo, TBS, and others. She lives in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for She Spoke, and how did you choose the women to include?

Kathy: This was the first time in my writing career where a publisher pitched a book to me instead of the other way around! David Miles, who was the publishing director at Familius Press at the time, had the idea of using the sound book format, usually only seen in books for very young children, to highlight the inspirational words of trailblazing women.

Manuela Bernardi
I had worked with Familius Press before, with Nita’s First Signs, and David knew my research background as a librarian would be a good fit for the book. When Familius presented me with the idea, I immediately knew that I wanted to work on this book and who I wanted my co-author to be!

Manuela: Kathy and I have been long-distance friends for more than a decade. We met writing Harry Potter fanfiction online - I was a Brazilian teenager in Rio de Janeiro who was trying to write in English for the first time, and she was an awesome librarian and American Sign Language interpreter near Baltimore, Maryland. We fell in immediate "writerly love" and began writing together and giving feedback on each other's stories and screenplays (as I became a screenwriter here in Brazil).

Kathy and I have always worked together with incredible sync, but this was the first time we got to write together officially for the world, and I was so excited. Especially about the subject matter. Speaking out as a woman is still something I struggle with every day, and having so much inspiration has made me much bolder.

Kathy: When I told Familius about Manuela and her screenwriting accomplishments, they quickly agreed to bring her on board. Then began the long process of research. We started by looking for appropriate audio clips, so the availability of the sound clips narrowed the field somewhat. Even so, there was a lot of back and forth before settled on the final list.

Manuela: It was so hard. Especially because we wanted to reflect the fact that there are so many inspiring women speaking out about so many important causes, and they are all so different - but the clips had to be in English. That narrowed the field even more.

That, and the availability factor, kept me from adding amazing Brazilian women such as Marielle Franco, Lota de Macedo Soares, Marta Silva or Maria da Penha. Even so, we were left with more wonderful women than could fit in the book.

Kathy: We also wanted to make sure we included some women that the reader would have heard of, but also some that everyone should have heard of. 

Q: The book also includes the original voices of the women in the book. How did you select those excerpts?

Kathy: We had to find appropriate clips, in English, that were either public domain or that we could get permission to use. We found some wonderful historical clips that we would have loved to use, from figures like Mother Jones and Amelia Earhart, but some were so old that we couldn’t even identify who owned the rights to them, and some we were not able to get permission to use.

Manuela: And then came the problem of cutting such poignant full speeches into bit-sized clips that had to stand on their own and drive home their message. They had to be inspirational - but they also had to relate somehow to the “She Spoke” theme of the book: defending women's rights to speak, or a group's right to be heard, or these women's journey to be heard, or a cause that they were passionate enough to be outspoken about.

Q: How did the two of you collaborate on the project?

Manuela: Long distance! The two of us have been friends for such a long time, but we've actually only spent time together in person a few times over the years, when I was living in the U.S. while in my Writing for Screen and Television MFA program at the University of Southern California, and when I visited for the launch of Kathy’s debut YA novel, Sword and Verse.

So for the book, we used a lot of the same technologies we have always used to chat and give each other feedback: email, instant messages, and videochat.

Kathy: We also used shared documents, electronic databases, and international text messaging apps. It required a lot of planning and communication. Once we had identified the subjects for the profiles, we divided the research and drafting work, and then edited each profile together in a shared online document while discussing them via videochat.

When I read the book now, I can’t actually identify who wrote what, because so much collaboration went into it! 

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

Manuela: I hope they can understand that speaking out about what you believe in is the most generous thing you can do for the people around you, especially the ones that, like yourself, might be afraid to express themselves. Especially, of course, women and girls, for historical reasons.

Speak out! Don’t be afraid of sharing your voice and your views. And listen to other women and girls when they speak. If we support each other, we can do so much more together. Anyone, no matter their gender, can learn to listen more so that everyone has a voice.

Kathy: I hope that hearing these powerful words right from the source will inspire readers not to give up, no matter what. Girls are often given the message that they must tone down their passions or that they will only be heard if they express themselves in soft, “polite” ways. But if girls and women - and allies of any gender - become aware of this and challenge those expectations, we can quite literally change the world.

Q: What are you working on now?

Manuela: I'm still writing screenplays here in Brazil, and I'm currently working on two projects that I'm very excited about.

One is a Brazilian feature titled Primetime Villain, about a woman who finds out that the villain of Brazil's most popular soap opera is based on her. It's going to be distributed by Fox/Disney and (hopefully) filmed this year. The other project is a TV show I created, which I still can't say much about, but I hope it's announced soon.

And of course, Kathy and I are hoping to collaborate on more books about inspiring women, either sequels to She Spoke or new concepts. We’ve already played around with lots of ideas.

Kathy: I am working on a middle grade fantasy series about centaurs, unicorns, pegasus, and kelpies, and preparing for the release of two more books from Familius Press: the newest board book in the Little Hands Signing series, Nita’s Day, in Fall 2019, followed by a picture book titled The Lady and the Laundry in January 2020. I’ve also got a YA fantasy novel I’m dying to get back to working on!

Q: Anything else we should know?

Kathy: We’re so excited for this book to be out in the world! So many wonderful books have been published in the last few years highlighting amazing women and their accomplishments, but we feel the audio clips really set this book apart. There is nothing like hearing the passionate words directly from the source.

Manuela: Women have been silenced for so long. It's powerful and poignant to hear their actual voices speaking out on important issues. The book is geared to ages 8-12, but I wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone. The audio clips make it accessible and fun for younger readers, and they add so much for teen and adult readers as well - of any gender.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 30

May 30, 1901: Cornelia Otis Skinner born.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Q&A with Emma Rous

Emma Rous is the author of the new novel The Au Pair. She worked as a veterinary surgeon for 18 years. She lives in Cambridgeshire, England.

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

A: It sprang from a combination of two things: my love of mysteries involving uncertain identities, and my fascination with the idea of having an emotional connection to a place. I moved around a lot and lived in several different countries when I was a child, and I’ve always been intrigued by how it might feel to stay living in the same community – and especially in the same house – that you were born in.

As for the uncertain identities – I knew I wanted a mystery at the heart of the novel, and I was definitely influenced by an early love of identity-swapping tales, like Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, Mary Rodgers’ Freaky Friday, and Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley.

The Au Pair is narrated by two characters: Laura, the au pair, whose arrival in her host family’s home is the spark for the drama; and Seraphine, a young woman who is deeply attached to her ancestral family home, but who begins to question whether she really belongs there.

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

A: At the very beginning, I mapped out the events of the critical day – the day Seraphine was born – in detail. The rest of the story spiralled out from those events in the planning stage, and then I wrote back towards them in the first draft. I certainly made plenty of changes and additions along the way, but the core events of the story never changed.

Q: The novel takes place at a seaside estate – how important is setting to you in your writing?

A: Setting is incredibly important to me. I particularly wanted Summerbourne – the grand country house on the cliffs – to be a place that the characters could form a real emotional attachment to. In my mind, Summerbourne is almost a character in its own right.

Q: What are some of your favorite books?

A: My all-time favorites include The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell, and The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. I have nowhere near enough time to read at the moment, but I have recently finished The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m writing my second novel – it’s still a work in progress, but I’m loving it. The story isn’t connected to the events in The Au Pair, but it should have a similar feel to it.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I worked as a veterinary surgeon for 18 years before I began to write fiction. I’m in awe of the many talented writers out there in their 20s and 30s, but to all those who’ve expressed a desire to start writing when they’re 40-plus, I’d say: Go for it!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Gianna Marino

Gianna Marino is the author and illustrator of the new children's picture book Just Like My Brother. She also illustrated Chelsea Clinton's new picture book Don't Let Them Disappear. Marino's other books include Meet Me at the Moon and Following Papa's Song. She lives in Northern California.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Just Like My Brother?

A: After Meet Me at the Moon and Following Papa's Song, I wanted to create another story about family. Having an older brother, I thought that would be the perfect direction. I started with a "sibling rivalry" story, but it soon turned to the older sibling watching out for the younger one, which is really what my big brother did for me.

Growing up in San Francisco in the Haight Ashbury, there were some bigger, tougher kids in the neighborhood. One day, while I was walking home, some kids started to harass me and then one of them said, "Hey, don't mess with her. That's James' little sister." He always had my back!

But this story is also about admiration and love, and the little sibling not feeling as good/tall/fast as the older sibling, which I think is a common theme in family dynamics!

Q: Did you work on the illustrations first or the text first, or both at once?

A: Every book is a little different. Some I write out the text first, then move to illustrations, like Meet Me at the Moon or Too Tall Houses. Others I actually do the illustrations first and then add the text, which I did for If I Had a Horse and Night Animals.

For Just Like My Brother, I went back and forth as both the text and the illustrations were needed to bring this story along. Especially the leopard in the background, who has a huge part in the story but is not mentioned in the text until the very end.

When I write the text first, I often add words to carry the story in its early stages without pictures. But there are so many things the illustrations then show, I end up taking out a lot of the text once the illustrations begin.

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

A: I think siblings are always comparing themselves to one another and trying to be as good or smart or tall as their sibling. They often compete for the attention of parents and friends. But really, all of us need to discover who we are and what OUR strengths, passions and interests are. And with siblings, because we are always with them, it is more intense than friendships.

I hope this story inspires children to see the beauty in their siblings, but also in themselves. And know that, in the end, siblings always look out for each other.

Q: How did you come to illustrate Chelsea Clinton's new picture book, Don't Let Them Disappear?

A: Chelsea's publisher is Philomel, which is an imprint of Penguin. I publish many of my books with Viking, also an imprint of Penguin. Chelsea's editor was familiar with my work and thought I would be very interested in working on a book about endangered species.

I wanted to bring emotion into a non-fiction book and let each animal show its character and personality, which is what I love to do. It is also how I see animals, having spent my entire life with them.

This was such an exciting project for me to work on! I think one of the best parts was creating each spread with a different scene, color layout and feel. My own books are one or several characters throughout, but this story is a different animal and environment on each page. And what an honor to work on a book to help save the animals of the world!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: It has been a busy year! I just finished working on the sequel to Night Animals, called Night Animals Need Sleep, Too. It was wonderful to revisit the same characters (Possum, Skunk, Wolf, Bear and Bat) and add a few new friends to the game.

This book, unlike Night Animals, takes place during the day and these night loving critters are having a hard time finding somewhere dark and quiet to sleep. Release date is next spring! It is sure to induce giggles :-)

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I often get asked why I tell my stories though animals and not people. Animals have so many characteristics that convey a fear, thought, emotion or habit.

For instance, I chose Owl and Rabbit as the characters in Too Tall Houses. They are neighbors and good friends and, as I tell my readers, that is very unlikely as Owls eat Rabbits! Owls are also nocturnal and Rabbits are not. Because this story is all about working together, and friendship, I thought these two unlikely friends would tell the story better than two humans.

In another book, Meet Me at the Moon, I used elephants to show their love for one another as they are known for extremely strong family bonds and memory (the mother tells the baby what to do when they are away and the baby has to remember).

In Night Animals, of course these funny nocturnal animals were the perfect critters to talk about fears of the dark.

As for Just Like My Brother, I chose giraffes to tell this story. Younger siblings are often smaller than their older siblings, so size difference is a common thread in sibling rivalry. The giraffe's long legs really accentuate the height difference a youngster would feel being next to a giant sibling. And, truth be told, I am not very tall and I always wanted to be a bit taller, just like my brother!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 29

May 29, 1917: John F. Kennedy born.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Q&A with Hala Alyan

Hala Alyan is the author of the new poetry collection The Twenty-Ninth Year. She also has written the novel Salt Houses, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Missouri Review and Prairie Schooner. She lives in Brooklyn.

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

A: I jotted down fragments and memories and images over the course of several months, and then stitched the collection together over a few weeks during a residency in Marfa (Texas). I then left the poems alone for about half a year, then started editing the pieces properly.

Q: How did you decide on the order in which to place them in the book?

A: To be honest, a lot of the order was decided by my brilliant editor, Jenny Xu. I've learned to trust others with aspects of the writing/publishing process that aren't my strength. Ordering poetry collections is definitely one of them. I like to print all the poems out and play with them on the floor, like one massive jigsaw puzzle.

But by the time I started working with Jenny, I knew the order wasn't quite perfect, and she really stepped in. She came at it with a fresh perspective and saw narratives and emotional chronology that I totally missed. I'm very grateful to her for that.

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

A: It's relatively straightforward, in that the poems were all conceived and written during my literal twenty-ninth year, a time of turmoil and transformation in my life. More metaphorically, the poems often contend with themes of transition, grief, hope and reworking memory, and the idea of the final year of a decade being a time to do both past and future work resonated with me.

Q: What themes do you see running through the collection?

A: Definitely themes of womanhood (i.e. wifehood, sisterhood), as it intersects with dislocation and exile. The collection deals a lot with this concept of re-membering, taking apart and reassembling memory, and in the process changing it. Altering our positionality in our own lives and histories. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm working on some poetry inspired by my partner's work as a full-stack computer programmer. I've also recently finished the first draft of my second novel, and am starting to storyboard my third one.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just how grateful I am for the attention and care readers have been giving this collection. I've heard from a number of people who have really sat with the pieces, taking in their vulnerability and giving theirs in return. It's an incredibly humbling and restorative feeling.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Hala Alyan.

Q&A with Laura Tucker

Laura Tucker, photo by D. Crowell
Laura Tucker is the author of All the Greys on Greene Street, a new middle grade novel for kids. She has written, co-written, and ghostwritten a variety of books, and she previously worked as a literary agent. She lives in Brooklyn. 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for All the Greys on Greene Street, and for your character Olympia?

A: I wanted to write about an artist living in a time and place where making art was as natural as breathing.

Q: The novel takes place in New York City in the early 1980s. Why did you choose to set it there, and how important is setting to you in your writing?

A: Setting is really important to me; I’ve always loved books that give you insider access to special or unusual worlds. By 1981, artists and galleries had taken over a lot of abandoned industrial spaces in SoHo. I was curious to know what it would have been like to be a kid growing up there.

Q: Can you say more about why you decided to focus on artists in this novel?

A: I'm fascinated by visual art, and by artists; they tend to have a very unique way of seeing the world. By writing about an artist, I got to borrow that perspective for a while. (I loved it. Still can't draw, though.)

Q: Another focus of the book is depression. Why did you choose that as a theme?

A: It's important to talk about it. There's still an enormous amount of shame and stigma surrounding mental health, which leads to secrecy and can mean that people don't get the help they need. Ollie's mom does get better, but she needs help—and it's not until her community becomes involved that she gets it.  

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My day job is co-authoring and ghostwriting nonfiction books, and I've got a deadline coming up. But I have started to play around with some ideas for a new middle grade, and I'm really (really) excited to get back to it. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Some early readers have been saying that Olympia and All the Greys inspired them to break out their art supplies! This was unexpected, and makes me very, very happy. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb