Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Q&A with Elizabeth Bradfield


Elizabeth Bradfield is the author of the new book Toward Antarctica. Her other books include the poetry collections Once Removed and Approaching Ice, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New Yorker and West Branch. She is a naturalist on Cape Cod, she runs Broadsided Press, and she teaches creative writing at Brandeis University.

Q:  How did you first get interested in Antarctica, and at what point did you decide to write this book?

A: My obsession began when I was 24, right after I left a year-long deckhand gig and landed a desk job. I was pining for my old life at sea, and I spotted a used copy of Alfred Lansing’s iconic book, Endurance, about Sir Ernest Shackleton. I devoured it. Then I wanted more. And more. Eventually I looked back and saw I had spent 10 years reading. 

As James Tate once wrote and as I at last thought to myself, “Why don’t you try writing something?” What resulted became my second book, Approaching Ice, which came out in 2010. The following year, I was invited—at last!—to work as a naturalist-guide in Antarctica. I’d been working on ecotour boats as a guide in Alaska, Baja, and the Canadian Arctic for a while at that point, and this offer felt, to me, like hitting the jackpot.

I was so excited to finally “go south,” I leapt out of my skin. I’d had to turn down a National Science Foundation Antarctica Artists and Writers Program grant a few years earlier, and I’d been kicking myself ever since. 

I knew I’d want to write about the experience, if only as a ground-truthing exercise for myself. I’d learned of Basho’s 17th-century writings about his journeys in remote Japan and his invention of the prose/poetry hybrid haibun form to chronicle the different emotional registers of that experience soon before my contract started; the form intrigued me. I started writing while I was on the boat, something I’d never before done. Until this point, I’d kept my naturalist-self and my poet-self separate.

Partly, this was just practical: on board, my days began at 6 am or earlier and didn’t really finish until 10 pm. Any time I could take for a break, I didn’t want to use to read or write, because there was more sea to scout, more wildlife to search for. But the longer Antarctica trips involved more “sea days,” and I found I could duck inside when the weather got foul and spend a bit of time looking inward rather than outward.

When I got home, I kept going. At first, I thought I was working on something that might become an interesting chapbook. I am grateful to the few trusted readers who encouraged me to keep going and see if something larger might emerge.

Q: You write, "Although drawn from personal experience, I would not call Toward Antarctica nonfiction or memoir. It lives in the crepuscular world of poetry..." How did you decide on the format of the book?

A: In many ways, the decision was not rational. In my essence, I am a poet. I’m interested in the ways poetry can play with experience, the ways poems can shade the truth in search of a deeper understanding yet still hold some of the authority of the autobiographical. 

Nonfiction must be accurate and truthful in order to maintain its credibility. Fiction presents itself as invention, even if it is drawn from experience. Poetry though… the lines blur. I gravitate toward that space as a writer. I like the freedom of that liminal space. So the choice to use haibun as a form/format was quite intuitive. It felt right.

As for the use of haibun, footnotes, and photographs in combination—well, travel is a very layered experience. It contains logistics, longing, confusion, memory, knowledge of history or ecology, and the shock of expectations upended or met in unexpected ways. All of that tumbles together. I wanted a format that might represent those various layers. The effort to fully bring together my poet-self and naturalist-self required a hybrid form to carry those different registers.

Q: How did you select the photographs for the book?

A: When I travel, and even more when I am working as a guide/naturalist, I take thousands of photographs. In part, this is spurred by a desire to document what I experience, to bring back images I might share with friends and family and thus communicate the experience. 

In part, it’s because I never know what image might be useful in a lecture I give in the future—on board the ship, I give illustrated talks, and good images can really help communicate the ideas behind the ecology and science. I suppose there’s also a personal pride in being able to take a stunning image of an albatross, bear, or bed of moss. 

For Toward Antarctica, I started thinking about using images as part of the book’s exploration once I got home from that first contract. I’d been combining images and writing for years at Broadsided Press, the publication I founded in 2005. The power of images and words resting alongside each other not as illustration but as conversation is very potent. I was curious to see if I could find photographs I’d taken that might reach beyond the pedestrian and do something new and different in conjunction with the words. 

Antarctica, like many iconic wild places, has its own set of “classic” images. Everyone wants a shot of a wandering albatross cutting over raw ocean. Everyone wants the massive edifice of a tabular iceberg or a leopard seal stretched out and yawning on ice.

I deliberately stayed away from those types of images for the book, because I think sometimes those iconic and beautiful images don’t challenge us enough to consider what can be discomfiting or surprising. Where are the humans in all of those wild shots? I know that, for the most part, people are not alone when they take them. Where is the rust? The awkward? The threatening?

I wanted the images to reflect the beauty of Antarctica and my true awe of it, but I also wanted some of the images to challenge a viewer to make sense of the story behind an image and, sometimes, to grapple with the evidence of the human in this “wild” place.

Q: What do you see looking ahead for Antarctica?

A: I see a lot more tourism. The tourism industry increases there each year. From the 2016-17 season to 2017-18, there was a 15 percent increase in tourism to Antarctica. 51,707 people. 

Is that a good thing? Even beyond the carbon footprint of getting to Antarctica via plane and ship and the actual physical boots on the ground, we know that our presence is not benign. In 2018, scientists documented strains of campylobacter and salmonella in penguins, skuas, and southern giant petrels that can only be traced back to human sources 
(citation here).

I do think that IAATO (the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators) does a wonderful job of managing tourism to Antarctica, as much as they’re able. But there are big challenges ahead. Is creating opportunities for people to connect to this amazing place and potentially inspiring stewardship both there and back at home worth it? Can capitalism and ecotourism coexist as it “scales up?” I don’t know.

I haven’t mentioned global warming yet---but of course that is on the radar, too, as I look ahead. Antarctica is changing in response to climate change. We’ve done some good things in Antarctica: protection of large whales, establishment of ocean sanctuaries, the mitigation of long-line bycatch of albatross, and more. 

I hope we will see the positive effects of these important change—and I hope the increased concern about ocean plastics and ocean warming will lead to actions that will correct our dangerous courses in those areas.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve got a few writing project irons in the fire. One is a general interest nonfiction book about a natural history topic I’m not yet ready to be less than coy about. I’m also editing a literary “field guide” with some amazing collaborators. 

And I’d love to get closer to finishing a book of poems I started several years ago inspired by the life of Arctic explorer and educator Rear Admiral Donald B. MacMillan—this summer, I’ll work on a ship in Greenland and the Eastern Canadian Arctic, visiting some of the places he worked. I’m hoping the experience will lead me to poems.

The most concrete “next thing” is a collaborative art book titled Theorem that I have created with the amazing Chicago-based artist Antonia Contro. In the fall of 2019, Theorem will be released as a very small-run edition (30 or so copies) through Candor Arts

The collaboration has been very rich and inspiring, and Antonia and I are now working with a composer, violinist, animator, and others to transform the book into a performance/installation we hope to debut in the later half of 2020.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’ve been asked sometimes, while working as a naturalist, how I can be positive or joyous (I am often at my most joyous when outside, looking and learning) in the face of so much ecological precarity. Like many people, when I look at the numbers and the news, I see a dire situation. I think it’s important to be clear-eyed and aware, to speak out and advocate for any action that will curb our human harm to all living beings on this planet, including humans. 

At the same time, when I go outside and look at the warblers coming through the leafing-out beech and oak trees in the woods near my home, I am filled with joy and awe.

There is a lot to celebrate—just the other day, I walked out into the marsh to look for diamondback terrapins and a black racer slithered through the grasses, such a surprise and gift. The week before, I found the tiny tracks of Fowler’s toads in a spring puddle where they’d no doubt lain their eggs. A hooded warbler, the second I’ve ever seen, popped out of the greenbriar and perched at the edge of the clearing and stopped all the birders on the path dead in their tracks the other day. 

These small and wondrous moments are worth seeking and celebrating, and they are going on all around us, wherever we are. Urban or rural, North or South, home or away.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Caitlin Horrocks


Caitlin Horrocks, photo by Tyler Steimle
Caitlin Horrocks is the author of the new novel The Vexations, which focuses on the life of composer Erik Satie. She also has written the story collection This Is Not Your City, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New Yorker and The Best American Short Stories. She teaches at Grand Valley State University, and she lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Q: Why did you decide to write a novel based on the life of composer Erik Satie?

A: Years ago, as a piano student, I was assigned one of Satie’s most famous compositions, “Gymnopédie no. 3.” I can pretty much guarantee that anyone reading this has heard the piece, whether you think you have or not. I found it incredibly beautiful, and immediately went looking for more of Satie’s music; what I was really looking for was music exactly like the Gymopédies. Instead I discovered a lot of very playful, experimental pieces, and at the time, I was annoyed.

But I ended up with the question of who the person had been who created this surprising, diverse body of work. I didn’t tackle that question for a long time, but once I started researching, the material was fascinating—not just what I learned about Satie, but about his friends and family, who ended up being equally compelling to me in their own, very different, ways. The novel ended up being less of a Great Artist Biopic and more about the relationships and the mingled admiration, love and resentments that tangled around Erik.

Q: What did you see as the right balance between the historical record and your own fictional creations?

A: As a reader, I’ve enjoyed fiction that stuck very close to the historical record, and fiction much more loosely inspired by its source material. I think a range of approaches are valid, both ethically and artistically, so the challenge was arriving at what felt right for these characters and this book. I went back and forth changing the real-life names to fictional ones, to give myself more freedom, and then changing them all back. 

I felt a great deal of loyalty to the facts, while knowing that my versions of these people were always going to be “my” versions, rather than acts of resurrection, and that they needed to work as characters on the page.

I ended up abiding more or less by a rule that if I knew something couldn’t have happened, I didn’t include it. Occasionally there are people who would have been present in real life that the book doesn’t discuss, largely for reasons of crowd control, but for the most part I chose to color inside the lines of what is known. Where the record stops is where I did my inventing.

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

A: The early-stage research included a trip to France, to explore Satie’s old stomping grounds. Then reading lots and lots of books and articles by biographers and music scholars. 

Then, realizing that while that wasn’t the “wrong” kind of research, it was insufficient; I needed much more information on daily life in the period, which I accessed via works of scholarship but also contemporaneous novels, memoirs, and travel narratives. 

As the book took shape I also had to dig for specific information I needed about, say, French custody and divorce law in the early 20th century.

One of my favorite discoveries, which appears nowhere in the book: many Parisians could have had running water in their homes much sooner than they did. 

The problem was that water hookups were available before city sewer hookups, and most buildings drained into individual cesspools which the landlords had to pay to have emptied. In the landlords’ minds, improved access to water would lead to more water usage, which would lead to increased expenses. Of course, it would also have contributed to better health, hygiene, and ease of living, but oh well.

I find this fascinating for what it says about human self-interest, about the piecemeal nature of “progress,” and about the power of governments and large public institutions to enact social change (both for better and for worse).

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

A: For a long time the book’s working title was La Belle Excentrique, which is the title of a piano piece by Satie. Then for a while it was rendered in English as The Beautiful Eccentric, but that title seemed to be both focused on Erik, and telling the reader how to feel about Erik.

We then used the title of another Satie piano piece, “Vexations,” which I hope better represents the chorus of people the book came to be about, and the varied ways they trouble or support each other. 

I also hope the book echoes the mix of playfulness and sadness I hear in that piece: the manuscript is only a few lines long, but Satie added a note about performing them 840 times in succession. To do this takes 12-20 hours, and I have a hard time imagining Satie ever having the patience to stage it himself. 

That blend of sincerity and provocation is something I found endlessly intriguing about Satie as a composer, historical person, and character.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a book of short stories coming out in 2021, also with Little, Brown, currently titled Life Among the Terranauts; most of the stories I wrote during the years I was “cheating” on the novel with side projects, but I’m also working on adding some new stories.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Since I started working on The Vexations, I’ve had conversations with people who are passionate about Erik Satie’s music, and with others who have never heard of him. I think there’s something in this book for both those camps, and for the readers in between. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Joshilyn Jackson


Joshilyn Jackson, photo by Wes Browning
Joshilyn Jackson is the author of the new suspense novel Never Have I Ever. Her other books include the novels gods in Alabama and The Opposite of Everyone. She lives in Decatur, Georgia.

Q: Your new novel marks something of a departure from your past work. How did you come up with the idea for Never Have I Ever and for your characters Amy and Roux?

A: I didn’t realize I was departing. Not at first. I didn’t wake up one morning and proclaim, And now I shall write a thrillahhhh. I was just writing the book I wanted to write. It began in my head the way all my books do, with the characters. I was so interested in a clash between Amy and Roux, two strong-willed women who are more alike than either wants to admit.

Three chapters in, I knew Never Have I Ever felt different. Twistier. A little darker. More invested in narrative drive. I felt I had to show it to my editor and my agent–a thing I never do before a book is done.

Luckily they were excited about it and encouraged me to lean in. From that moment on, I got deliberate about it. I started thinking of it as a suspense book and structuring it as such.

It wasn’t a hard transition. First, because most of my up-market, book club fic titles are built over the engines of mysteries or suspense stories. I have always had plot twists, and dark secrets, and crime. This book just moves those always present elements to front and center.

Second, I read all kinds of fiction, and I love suspense. It is probably the kind of book I read most, so I was already very familiar with the conventions of the genre. 

All this said?  It’s still my book. My kind of fierce, female characters who act instead of reacting. My weird sense of humor. My themes. The changes are mostly in terms of structure. I think if you like my other books, especially the darker ones that dabble in murder, like gods in Alabama or The Opposite of Everyone, then you are going to love this.

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

A: I thought I knew how it ended. I always think I know it ends. I don’t use outlines or storyboards, but I am always walking towards something.

But Amy had a mind of her own. I have learned that when a character begins doing things that don’t feel as if they come from me, especially things that make me feel very uncomfortable, I should follow the character. It saves time, because fighting it only means I will write a bunch of bad, flat pages I will have to trash.

When characters take off in their own directions, it means I have written my way down into the dark and salty marshes of my undermind, where all my mental illnesses and primal fears and secret hopes and dearest loves dwell unseen. That’s where the good stories are.  

So Amy wanted to do things, and then, yikes, Roux began having ideas–that woman is a font of wicked ideas! I followed them, and it changed both the arc of the book and the end.

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

A: Well, I was raised on fried chicken and Eudora Welty, so. Very important.

This is my second novel set in Pensacola. I spent the second half of my childhood there. It’s where I met my husband and graduated from high school; my mother-in-law still lives there. So I know it intimately. I don’t think I could write well about a place if I didn’t know it that way. I have to know how a place smells.  

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

A: I believe a novel is a conversation between a book and a reader, and the reader brings at least half of the ideas and thoughts and images to the table. I know what I set out to do in terms of theme and character and plot, and I hope these things shine through, but I have learned that absolutely no one ever reads the exact book I wrote.

What I hope is that the reader has a good conversation. I have done my best to make the book an interesting dinner companion.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Another suspense novel; I love this genre! It is called Two Truths and a Liar and the first line is, “The day my baby disappeared, I woke up to see a witch peering in my bedroom window.”

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I learned to scuba dive in order to write the book. I tried interviewing divers and watching You Tube, but the book’s underwater scenes didn’t feel as alive or as true as I wanted them to feel. 

So I took lessons. My husband took them with me, and now we are addicted. We still dive regularly, even though our trips are no longer tax deductions. It’s our favorite thing; everything Amy says about diving is how I feel about it, too. If you get the chance---try it!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Robyn Harding


Robyn Harding, photo by Tallulah
Robyn Harding is the author of the new suspense novel The Arrangement, which focuses on a dangerous relationship between a young woman and a wealthy older man. Her other novels include The Party and Her Pretty Face. She lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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

A: The idea was inspired by a news article I saw about how many sugar babies there are in my hometown of Vancouver, BC. At the time of writing, UBC (the university just a few minutes from my house) had the most in the country. 

I wanted to explore what drives a young woman to get into that life, and how it could lead to emotional and physical jeopardy. I wanted to create a relatable protagonist in Natalie. I grew up in a small town like she did, and when I moved to the city, I was very naïve. I can understand how she got in over her head.

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

A: I hope readers will see how an average girl can end up selling her sexuality for money. I think removing the stigma of the sugar bowl (and sex work in general) makes it safer for women. They won’t be ashamed to tell a friend or family member where they’re going or who they’re with. And I hope that my novel will spark the important conversations that are finally being had about female sexuality and empowerment.  

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m currently finishing up a manuscript about a couples’ swap that goes very, very badly. Open relationships are becoming increasingly common. As a thriller writer, I wanted to explore how it could all go so wrong.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I did a lot of research for The Arrangement. I created an online profile for my character on one of the sugar dating sites. Within minutes, I had numerous messages from “daddies” offering my character $400 for a glass of wine, a thousand-dollar allowance to see them once a week, and some were suggesting weird sex games. What an eye-opener! 

I also chatted with sugar babies who were really open with me about how it all works. It’s a fascinating, sometimes dangerous, place.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 31

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
July 31, 1919: Primo Levi born.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Q&A with Fiona Davis


Fiona Davis, photo by Deborah Feingold
Fiona Davis is the author of the new novel The Chelsea Girls. Her other novels include The Masterpiece and The Address. She lives in New York.

Q: Why did you decide to focus this novel around the Chelsea Hotel in New York?

A: I watched a documentary about the hotel and fell in love with its rich history. Since its opening in the 1880s, the building has been a home for artists, musicians, designers, poets, playwrights. Folks like Arthur Miller, Bob Dylan, Dylan Thomas, and Janis Joplin have passed through its doors. There was just so much to play with, I couldn’t resist.

Q: The novel is set during the 1940s-1960s, and much of the activity centers around the search for Communist sympathizers in the early Cold War era. What intrigued you about that period, and how did you conduct your research?

A: I first learned about the blacklisting of New York actors (as opposed those in Hollywood, which is more widely known), during an interview with an actress in her 90s who spoke with vivid detail about the time, about how hard it was to get work if you were considered a communist back then. The more I learned of careers derailed and innocent lives ruined, the more I wanted to bring the past to light in the story.

Q: How did you use your own theater background in creating the characters of Hazel and Maxine?

A: I worked with a theater company when I first came to New York – a wonderful group of actors, directors, and designers – many of whom are still my friends today. We produced three shows a year and everyone pitched in to help hang lights, shop for costumes, sweep the stage, and collect tickets. At the same time, we were all holding down day jobs and going on auditions – I don’t think anyone slept much, but we were happy, fulfilled, and challenged. That was a fun time to draw on as my characters Hazel and Maxine try to mount a show on Broadway.

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

A: I hope they enjoy a behind-the-scenes look at the theater world, and are moved by the plight of the victims of McCarthyism. Looking back, it’s easy to point out that what the politicians were doing was wrong, but at the time, they were able to steamroll over the rights of Americans pretty much unimpeded.

Q: What are you working on now?


A: My next book will be set at the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue, a fascinating landmark, to say the least. In my research, I learned that the superintendent of the building lived with his family in a seven-room apartment right in the heart of the building, which provides a terrific jumping off point for my plot.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Fiona Davis.

Q&A with Dunya Mikhail


Dunya Mikhail is the author of the new poetry collection In Her Feminine Sign. Her other books include The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq and The War Works Hard. Born in Iraq, she now lives in the United States.

Q: You note that you wrote the poems in In Her Feminine Sign in English and in Arabic. Did you experience them in different ways as you wrote?

A: Some lines came in English first due to their cultural connotations and I had to follow the movement of my poems the way they wanted in the page, from right to left or left to right, which is annoying but also liberating because I didn’t have to follow the first text. In the book preface, I wrote that “to capture the poem in two lives is to mirror my exile, with all of its possibilities and risks. But as home is flashed through exile, a poem is sometimes born on the tip of another tongue.” 

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

A: In Arabic, the title refers specifically to a feminine symbol we use in Arabic language to identify a feminine word. It’s a circle with two dots over it and it’s called “taa-marbuta” meaning “tied circle.” The literal translation of the title into English would probably not make sense. Some of the poems in this book were written in between stories I heard from women who were enslaved by ISIS and escaped. 

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

A: I was not so sure about the order of the poems but they felt right with the tablets section in the middle. The tablets are short sections in imitation of ancient Sumerian tablets which were the first communication in history through images inscribed in those clay tablets. They are like Iraqi Haiku, if you will.

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

A: I believe that poetry is useless but effective. One of my poems in the book is titled “my poem will not save you” and it might be an answer.

Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on my first novel. I don’t want to write a novel, but this novel in particular.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: When I get lost,
they find me in a poem.
Poetry is my four directions.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Dunya Mikhail.

Q&A with Emily Ford


Emily Ford is the author of the children's picture book The Big Book Adventure. She lives in London.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Big Book Adventure?


A: The Big Book Adventure came out a conversation with a book-loving friend about our first experiences (that we can remember!) with books and storytelling and the joy of visiting the local library. With so many public libraries closing and constantly feeling under threat in the UK, I wanted to write something about loving and sharing books - a celebration of reading and of libraries too.

Q: What do you think Tim Warnes's illustrations add to the story?

A: I’m very lucky to have such a great illustrator responding to my words and Tim’s wonderful illustrations really do make the story. As with all picture books, the illustrations are integral and Tim’s brilliant and varied illustrations and his imaginative interpretation of the text, not to mention his charming and funny characters, add a richness and energy that makes this a story worth stepping into - and a journey the reader will hopefully want to be a part of. I hope the enthusiasm and joy of the two characters is infectious. I feel it is and that’s all thanks to Tim.

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

A: That books can take you anywhere, they will feed your imagination, broaden your mind and expand your world - and that’s something worth shouting about. So if you love something, talk about it and share it. Especially if it’s a book!

Q: How did you choose the books and stories the characters read about? Are they favorites of yours?


A: I was spoilt for choice when it came to references for this idea, so I wrote more verses initially, to be sure I had plenty of variety, then I selected the strongest and the most fun! I don’t have a particular favourite amongst the stories referenced, but I do love a fairy tale (who doesn’t?) and when a story or concept is so widely known and understood you can have real fun playing with it.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on a number of different stories and ideas at the moment and all are at different stages. But today I’m writing something about the sea, primarily because I wish I was by it and I’m not. I think this is my way of coming to terms with the fact that I’m in the middle of a busy city on a very hot and sticky day.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m currently reading book after book by Eva Ibbotson - all copies that have been shared with me and I will absolutely pass on. If you haven’t read anything by her then do, because you’re in for a treat.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 30

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
July 30, 1818: Emily Brontë born.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Q&A with Jane Singer


Jane Singer is the author of the new book The War Criminal's Son: The Civil War Saga of William A. Winder. Her other books include Lincoln's Secret Spy and The Confederate Dirty War, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Washington Post and The Washington Times. She lives in Venice, California.

Q: How did you first learn about William A. Winder, and at what point did you decide to write a book about him?

A: I’m an avid collector of Civil War ephemera—photos, portraits, letters. I have to restrain myself in my compulsion! I was prowling through eBay and I saw an interesting face—a man with a patriarchal beard and a troubled middle-distance gaze. There was something about him that was compelling to me. I wasn’t sure why, but sometimes we see a face from another time and wonder what roads they traveled.

On the photo was written “William A. Winder, USA.” Clearly the portrait was done around the early 1880s. The name Winder was familiar to me from writing about the Civil War almost my entire adult life. I thought I knew about the Winders. During the Civil War, they were infamous. The name was synonymous with brutality.

I thought, Was this an unknown Winder? Was he a distant cousin? A lot of them were named William. Once I realized he was a Winder, I decided to look up John H. Winder, who was associated with the [Civil War] death camp known as Andersonville prison.

I started there. It was a stab in the semi-darkness. Sure enough, I found he had a first-born son, William Andrew Winder. It was the beginning of my journey.

From when I first began writing about the Civil War, I made a decision not to be the 180,000th person to write about battles and generals, but to write about people hitherto unrevealed. It was mandated to me by my late mentor James O. Hall. He would impress upon me the importance of finding people who hadn’t been written about before.

Q: How would you describe the relationship between William A. Winder and his father?

A: I would say initially complex, uneasy, and ultimately terminated. William Winder’s father, John H. Winder, was a career Army soldier, moving from post to post. William A. Winder, the first-born, probably didn’t see as much of his dad as another person might, living in the same area. William A. Winder’s mother died when he was only 3.

As the first-born son, many expectations would land at his feet—to get into West Point. His dad had graduated from West Point. Never mind that John H. Winder was fired as a trainer of cadets. Rumor had it he was brutal toward one cadet.

He made six applications to get his son into West Point, and not one succeeded. Already, we have a level of disappointment.

John H. Winder was a fairly well-regarded soldier, but he never rose above the rank of major.

The son had no feelings for an Army career. William A. Winder was artistic. He wanted to be a doctor. None of the things the family business would be happy with.

The Civil War period of his life was preceded by the Mexican War. His dad, in the Mexican War, was accused of potentially a war crime.

William A. Winder had a feeling he should do something, so he applied to be a civilian paymaster’s assistant. He slipped sideways into the Mexican War. At the battle of Buena Vista, rumor had it, he was near the battle but posted with a group of teamsters around some wagons. The Mexican cavalry came toward them, and William A. Winder organized the group and said, Let’s repel the Mexican cavalry. So, the story goes, they did.

It was a turning point in his story. He was awarded a second lieutenancy. Okay, here’s a career path. William A. Winder, avid painter—here we go into the family business, I don’t think happily.

When the Civil War came, the biggest decision William A. Winder had to make was do I go South? The entire family with the exception of two uncles and a grandmother had already bolted to the South.

His father was in Richmond, and was given the rank of general. His two uncles were living in the Northeast but were jailed for treason because of their secessionist proclivities. It was an incredible crossroads. Does he go South, or remain a soldier with the Union?

It knocked me over. When he was stationed in California, at the Mission de Alcala, one of the first missions built by Father Junipero Serra, he developed empathy and promoted the well-being of Native Americans, contrary to what was going on as settlers moved West and brutality ensued. I began to see his uncommon humanity.

[During the Civil War] he wanted to fight at the front even if he was fighting his own family.

There was a lot of primary source material. Personal sentiments would occasionally float up from the official documentation. One of the most compelling was that a Pinkerton spy approached him, posing as an agent of his father. The order was to come South and join the rest of his family, or desert, or kill himself rather than betray his family. What a decision! He never ever went South.

There were split families, but I never encountered a family where one son stood against so many others of the family. He became the enemy in blue, the enemy of his 84-year-old grandmother.

The family shame had begun long before the Civil War. His grandfather William Henry Winder was also a soldier, who fought in 1814. This Winder became infamous. In the battle of Bladensburg in 1814, he allowed British troops to break his lines and rampage through Washington, D.C. There was shame in the name, and a desire to reclaim lost honor.

It was a heavy burden for John H. Winder and also his brother. Their reputation was damaged.

Q: Can you say more about the research you did for this book, and whether there was anything that especially surprised you?

A: I took a common direction—to find his service record. The National Archives were invaluable. I have online subscription services, so I was able to get William A. Winder’s service records and a 282-page file from a site called Fold3. I could learn about what happened to him during the Civil War and after.

The Library of Congress was invaluable—they gave me correspondence William A. Winder had with General Sherman.

The most surprising piece had little to do with the fighting. In the middle of William A. Winder’s struggles as he was accused of dual loyalty, he was posted at Alcatraz because his name was Winder and because he tried to do things [seen as controversial]. He was asked to defend a schizophrenic soldier who had murdered another soldier.

He mounted such a prescient and humane defense of madness, it knocked me out. What did we know about madness in the 19th century, the difference between a premeditated act and an act committed in the middle of a spell? Either he read studies of mental illness or just had a sense of it. That was perhaps the most interesting.

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

A: It could be any number of things. But more than anything to experience the saga of a man with the struggles he had, family disarray, and a self-imposed exile.

I hope readers take away the idea of fortitude, reclamation of self, reinvention. He became a beloved doctor in San Diego. He would see patients for free, and was never stopping after that, becoming an Indian agent at the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. His long life took many twists and turns.

It’s a metaphor not only for what happened to this person but also a reclamation of self, of putting yourself together no matter what. He inspired me. I am very protective of his legacy.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a nonfiction project about my hometown of Arlington, Virginia.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: One of my recent Eurekas was the discovery of a memorial plaque to General John H. Winder. It stands on the courthouse grounds in Salisbury, Maryland. Folks contacted me who had heard I was writing about the Winder family.

The plaque is controversial. General Winder was from nearby, and it says he served in the Mexican War and was the head of prisons in Richmond and further South, not mentioning Andersonville, where 13,000 prisoners of war perished. Had John Winder not died shortly after the Civil War, he would have been hanged as a war criminal.

Some people wanted the plaque taken down, but the petitioners lost. It stands to this day without any explanation of who John Winder was. This family is not going to go away anytime soon.

A few feet from where the plaque stands was a lynching in 1931 of an African American. That was not commemorated. Also, the great orator Frederick Douglass spoke in that courthouse. That was not commemorated. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Jane Singer.

Q&A with Maggie Gee


Maggie Gee, photo by Nick Rankin
Maggie Gee is the author of the new novel Blood. Her many other books include the novel Virginia Woolf in Manhattan. She is a professor of creative writing at Bath Spa University, and she lives in London and Ramsgate in the U.K.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Blood, and for your character Monica?

A: Inside every quiet, well-behaved, over-socialised woman is an inner Monica - outrageously frank, big-hearted, outspoken, sexy, brave and unstoppable.

My Monica is an enormously tall and strong senior teacher who took boxing lessons as a schoolgirl. She speaks her thoughts aloud and does exactly as she wants to. It's Monica vs the Patriarchy in the shape of a bullying and abusive dentist father, macho terrorists and, metaphorically, the whole cast of absurd male bullies who seem to be running the world at the moment.

Q: The review of the book in The Scotsman, by Allan Massie, says, "Monica is absurd; she’s given to self-pity as well as anger; she deceives herself rather than others. Even to herself, she is sometimes a figure of fun." What do you think of that assessment?

A: He's a good novelist but he's also an octogenarian white male and I think he missed the consistent cheery self-mockery in her voice, which is also a quality I love in my female friends - we laugh at ourselves more than men do, don't we? The Guardian reviewer found her “hilarious” and the Times thought she was “unforgettable” and “blackly comic.” Maybe Allan, like the men in my novel, just didn't know what to make of my naughty Monica.

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

A: Honestly, no. I did know what question I was answering - how can liberal democracies deal with ISIS and the absolute violence of terrorism? - but I wrote the new ending on a trip to Russia last spring, where I was invited to talk about a short story of mine set for a national Russian translation competition.

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

A: A sense of relief that the terror in the story has resolved. A nuanced view of whether or not there is a happy ending. Love for children and determination that they are listened to and respected, as Monica herself was not. Courage to speak out against liars and bullies.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A fable where Neanderthals are still alive. Driven north by global warming they mysteriously start arriving along the South Coast of England about five years into the future. They have much to learn but also much to teach us. It's a gentle, hopeful, affectionate book.  

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Yes, all my books are different. Fentum also published Virginia Woolf in Manhattan in the U.S. this year - a literary fairy-story where Virginia Woolf comes back to life 70 years after her death and has a wonderful time in New York and Istanbul.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Maggie Gee.