Saturday, August 31, 2019

Q&A with Stephanie Allen


Stephanie Allen, photo by Shala W. Graham
Stephanie Allen is the author of the new novel Tonic and Balm. She also has written the story collection A Place between Stations, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Potomac Review and Gargoyle. She teaches academic writing at the University of Maryland.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Tonic and Balm?

A: In my first book, A Place between Stations, there’s a story about a small, traveling circus on the road in rural Connecticut in the late 1800s. I did some research into circuses for that story, and that research led me to read more broadly about turn-of-the-century popular entertainments, including dime museums and medicine shows, neither of which I had known much about.

Medicine shows aren’t nearly so well documented as circuses. They were much dodgier operations because they used their variety show performances to attract crowds they could coax into buying their dubious patent medicines, and quite a few were fly-by-night operations that likely avoided close scrutiny.

So naturally, I was curious about medicine shows, as I am about what falls between the cracks of official history in general, and I decided I wanted to write about one around the time of World War I, when med shows were dying out.

Medicine shows also fascinated me because they were, by nature, synthesis machines that drew, sometimes in what seemed like random ways, from a variety of other performance traditions, including circuses.

On a given night, the audience at a decent-sized med show might be served acrobatics, juggling, comedy skits, song and dance acts, melodramatic scenes from popular plays, burlesque, Wild West-style stunts, lectures about so-called Quaker or Indian remedies, even elements of blackface minstrelsy. Career grifters and talented performers worked side by side, and a variety of people had to get along with each other to keep a show in operation.

And though I did not find a lot of historical material about medicine shows, I found enough photos, memoirs and other documents to see that at least some shows had racially mixed casts. 

Clearly a medicine show in the Jim Crow era was not going to be some kind of idealistic haven of diversity. But I was curious about what sort of people might wind up in such an unusual assembly and how those people, living in a culture that fostered racial hatred and violence, created a small society for themselves that must have at times reflected, and at times departed from, the larger culture around them. 

Q: What inspired your cast of characters?

A: The cast of characters came to me slowly, starting with a short story that grew into three or four chapters while I was doing a month-long residency at the Mary Anderson Center for the Arts in southern Indiana.

Each chapter of Tonic and Balm is centered around one key member of a fictional medicine show, Doc Bell’s Miracles and Mirth Medicine Show, so that various parts of the story as a whole are carried forward by different characters: the shy woman who does sword-swallowing, the wisecracking business manager, the lone female member of the crew.

Characters were certainly shaped by the research that I continued to do throughout the writing of the book. There is, for example, a former physician who has taken refuge with the show after being scarred by the horrors of the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, a phenomenon I knew little about before researching it.

The one character who appears in every chapter is a young black woman named Antoinette, who performs in a side-show act because an illness has left her disfigured. In Antoinette’s case, it is the way that race and illness work to erase someone like her from the historical record, except as an object of curiosity, that led me to give her a central role and to try to bring her interior life alive on the page. 

Q: You tell the story from different points of view. Did you write the book in the order in which it appears, or did you move things around as you worked?

A: The chapters were not originally in the current order. I rearranged them to better balance the different personalities and to set the plot in motion more quickly. 

Q: Can you say more about how you researched the novel? Did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: I read articles and books about early 20th century history and culture, forms of popular entertainment of the day, medical practices of the time, and so on. A lot of my most useful information came from period newspapers, national and local, and from photograph collections held by libraries and historical societies, which gave me a lot of details about everyday life in another time.

Often the photos seem remarkably intimate; long-dead people stare at you from the past, standing beside their prized possessions or caught in the process of doing work that they took pride in. Photos are rarely as candid as they look, of course, since there is always a photographer selecting subjects, settings, maybe even poses. Still, you see a lot, and even the absences tell you something.

Many things surprised me. One is how the reaction to performers has changed over time. Today we have a glamorous celebrity culture of Hollywood actors and musicians whom we treat like a kind of royalty.

But in the early 20th century, popular performers typically kept up a grueling schedule of travel from one little town to another to put on live shows for small audiences. It was a vagabond life for most, and entertainers had a reputation for being shady people of loose morals.

It’s interesting to compare the disdain for show biz folks that you might hear from people in the past to the reverence for Hollywood celebrities that is common now. 

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

A: I had a working title that was awful, but I couldn’t think of anything better. My editor and publisher, Rosalie Morales Kearns of Shade Mountain Press, came to the rescue with some ideas, and Tonic and Balm, in slightly different form, was one of them.

The reference is literally to types of patent medicine: balms, which are soothing, and tonics, which are stimulating. Beyond that, I think Rosalie was picking up on the duality I mentioned earlier, the way that a med show by its nature embodied the good and the bad, the wonderful and the atrocious, and held it all together in a functioning whole that nevertheless could come unglued at any time. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Actually, I’m taking a break after spending a long time working on Tonic and Balm, which I started back in 2003 or so. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I sometimes get asked whether I’m writing about show-business people because I’m from a show-business family myself, like Cathy Day, author of the marvelous The Circus in Winter. Nope. I have no connections at all to that life. I just think that show business holds up a fascinating mirror to the larger society.

My website has more info about Tonic and Balm plus background about medicine shows for anyone who might be interested. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Friday, August 30, 2019

Q&A with Monique Truong


Monique Truong, photo by Haruka Sakaguchi
Monique Truong is the author of the new novel The Sweetest Fruits, which is based on the life of writer Lafcadio Hearn. Truong's other books include the novels The Book of Salt and Bitter in the Mouth. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including O Magazine and Real Simple. Born in South Vietnam, she lives in Brooklyn.

Q: You note that "sugar and cornbread led me to Lafcadio Hearn." At what point did you decide to write a novel about him?

A: I first read about Hearn in a Southern foodways encyclopedia--I was fact-checking my second novel Bitter in the Mouth in which I wrote that traditionally Northerners added sugar to their cornbread recipes, while Southerners did not--and I saw an entry on Hearn that included a brief sketch of his life including his contribution to Southern food--he's credited with writing the first Creole cookbook in the U.S.--and almost instantaneously I decided to write about him.

The first hook for me was that he had written a cookbook. I think of food writers as a tribe apart and very much my tribe. I feel that we look at the world through a particular set of lenses, and by lenses I mean bowls, dishes, glasses.

The second hook for me was that Hearn was a consummate traveler and an immigrant twice over. As a former refugee and someone who now often writes far from home, I also consider migratory people to be part of my tribe. I was also intrigued that Hearn in 1890 had chosen East over West (Japan over the U.S.), the reverse of the journey that I had made in my own life (U.S. from South Vietnam) in 1975. 

Q: How did you come up with the book's structure, involving parts of the book told by his mother and his two wives?

A: As I began researching Hearn, the women in his life--his Greek mother Rosa, his African American first wife Alethea, and his Japanese second wife Setsu--stepped forward because they were described in broad strokes and often in negative terms. Rosa was childish and impetuous, Alethea was illiterate and "abandoned" by Hearn, Setsu was a submissive Japanese woman who cared for his daily needs.

I, frankly, did not trust these characterizations of them. I had more questions about them than Hearn's biographers could give me. In fact, the biographers seem more intent on writing the women off as opposed to writing them into Hearn's life.

Hearn's first biographer is the fourth voice in the novel. I include excerpts from Elizabeth Bisland's book published in 1906 in order to provide for the reader the official history of Hearn. Elizabeth was a longtime friend of Hearn, and I strongly believe his true love. He left all his papers to her upon his passing.

The first-person voices of Rosa, Alethea, and Setsu push against that official history, questions it, and asks of us how do we know what we know of these Great Men of letters of the past? Were the women in their lives equally great? With stories of their own? 

Q: The book covers much ground, both historically and geographically. How did you conduct your research, and did you learn anything especially surprising?

A: I began my research in 2010 by traveling to the island where Hearn was born, Lefkada, Greece. In the novel, I referred to it by the name that the British called it, Santa Maura, when it was under their "protection" during the time when Hearn was born and when his mother Rosa is speaking.

The last part of travel for the novel came in 2015, when I travelled to Tokyo on a three-month fellowship, the city where he lived the last years of his life. I also travelled to Mastsue, the city on the coast of the Sea of Japan where Hearn met Setsu and where there is a museum devoted to him, as he's very much considered an adopted son there. 

In between 2010-2015, I also read up on Hearn, his own writings as well as the biographies that have been written about him. I found his journalistic and travel essays to be the most compelling and the stronger of his work. He also wrote novellas, was a literary translator, and wrote many volumes on Japan, collecting folklore, ghost stories, and fairytales as well as explanatory essays re the culture and mindset of the Japanese vs. the West.

What I came away with was that Hearn was in many ways a remarkable man but also a product of his time. He harbored prejudices and biases that made me want to shake him, but isn't that what makes any of us human? That he is not, in fact, a "Great Man" but a man with flaws, with blinders, and with a heart that was nonetheless open and loving toward Rosa, Alethea, and Setsu and vice versa.

Q: What do you see as Hearn's legacy today?

A: Hearn was a border crosser. His travels and migrations made his work and his life richer and more fascinating. His life and legacy exemplify for me that we are sometimes "at home" in a geography that is very far from where we were born. From my own life, I know this to be true.

While Hearn's own travels and border crossings were celebrated, those of the women in his life were not. Theirs were written off as "following" in the footsteps of a husband or compelled by other forces beyond their control, as if they had no will or decision-making power of their own.

In a time when our own country is building walls and limiting migration, immigration, and refugee resettlement, I think Hearn's legacy reminds us that we have reverence for border crossers, that they enrich our understanding of the world, of different peoples and cultures, and we are as Setsu says in the novel, "the sweetest fruits of a grafted tree." 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm writing a libretto based on the lives of Virginia Woolf and the visual artist Joseph Cornell. The project is ongoing, and I'm honored to be working with composer and vocal artist Joan La Barbara. Collaboration is a joy that novelists rarely get to experience. I'm glad to be experiencing it now. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I'm a deeply political person. Everything I write is informed by my politics, which is progressive and inclusive to the core. My novels, though, including The Sweetest Fruits, do not seek to offer readers the answers to the issues that are roiling in our national debate. Nor do they seek to give readers an escape therefrom.

What I hope is that readers will ask more questions, better questions, and overall to question their own hearts as they participate in that national debate and as they head to the voting booth in 2020.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Monique Truong.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Q&A with Teresa Sorkin and Tullan Holmqvist


Teresa Sorkin
Teresa Sorkin and Tullan Holmqvist are the authors of the new novel The Woman in the Park. Sorkin is a television producer and Holmqvist is a writer, investigator, and actor.

Q:  How did you come up with the idea for The Woman in the Park, and for your character Sarah?

A: We put ourselves in the mind of a woman who really does not know what is real and what is not and imagined an elegant New York woman who meets a mysterious man in Central Park and gets dragged into something darker.

We both have children and have spent many hours in the park with them and the story grew out of that common experience and observing people. We are both storytellers and observers, Teresa as a writer and producer of TV and film and Tullan as a private investigator and writer with a background in acting, and we both love a character-driven approach to stories.

Tullan Holmqvist
Q: One of the book's characters is a psychiatrist. Why did you decide to focus on psychiatry in the novel?

A: In today’s world, there is a need to address the darker side of people, the shadow side of the psyche. As human beings, we can have more empathy and understanding for other people if we can put ourselves in their shoes, so to speak.

We are very excited that our early readers are saying that they have experienced feeling like they are inside Sarah’s mind when reading The Woman in the Park. We really would love for our book to be just the beginning of an interesting conversation, especially about mental health and the human experience.

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

A: We developed the idea together and then we wrote back and forth, taking turns with the manuscript. It has been helpful to have a sounding board and to be able to discuss plot points together.

We complement each other and have different strengths and kept the larger goal in mind, staying collaborative with each other and moving the process forward. Writing can be lonely and it has been nice to be able to encourage each other along the way and share both the hard work and the joy.

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

A: We knew how it was going to end, but we also let the characters inform us and they spoke to us and the story wrote itself at some point. In broad strokes, the story stayed the same.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: We are working on our second book together, an exciting thriller set in Italy, a murder mystery with some supernatural psychological elements. We are drawn to psychology and after The Woman in the Park, we want to continue to explore how the mind can sometimes play tricks.  

We also have a couple of TV & film projects together – one about a female investigator in New York loosely based on Tullan’s work. 

Teresa – I am working on several film and TV projects with my production company Roman Way.

Tullan – I am writing a middle grade novel that goes back and forth between New York of today and Florence during the renaissance and involves an artistic friendship between a young girl and Leonardo da Vinci. And I also fit in my day job – my work as a private investigator in New York.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Please join us for book events – details on our websites:

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Barry Falls


Barry Falls is the author and illustrator of the new children's picture book It's Your World Now!. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Lancet and Bloomberg Businessweek. He lives in Northern Ireland.

Q: It's Your World Now was inspired by your daughter. At what point did you decide to create this book?

A: I decided to create the book about a year after my daughter was born. I had already written books for my other two kids - both of whom are boys - and when May came along I knew I would need to write something for her too.

Perhaps because she was so young, or maybe it was a daddy-daughter thing, I felt compelled to write something that would help her develop resilience and independence in a world that can be full of ups and downs. 

The book that I intended to write was very different from the final story though. I quickly realised that lessons from a parent to a child are all very well, but every child will ultimately write their own rules, and there is only one thing that they truly need to hear from their parents.

Q: Did you start with the illustrations or with the text--or work on them simultaneously?

A: I started with the text. I've been an illustrator for a few years now, so I felt pretty confident that the illustrations would come naturally, but that the text needed to be perfect before I started laying out the narrative visually.

Having said that, when you start working on the pictures, sometimes ideas for the text can be sparked by the composition, colours, or nuance of the pictures that wouldn't have occurred otherwise. Being an author/illustrator means that you can capitalise on those nice little moments.

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

A: I hope, more than anything else, that it becomes a book that both parents and children reach for when it comes to storytime. As a parent of three kids, I certainly have books that I enjoy reading to my kids more than others, and they have their favourites too. When that preference overlaps, it's sure to be a special book, and one that will always have a place in our shared story.

With this book, the takeaway is that unconditional love is the best and purest thing a parent can offer - I suspect parents already know that, I just hope my book give them another opportunity to communicate it to their kids in a fun way. As for the kids, I hope they enjoy the message, explore the pictures, and ask lots of questions!

Q: What are some of your favorite picture books?

A: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak is one of my all-time favourites. Peepo! (by Janet and Allan Ahlberg) is so good for my youngest and a perennial favourite in our house, The Tiger Who Came to Tea (by Judith Kerr) is beautiful and intriguing, and, of course, almost anything by Dr. Seuss. More recently, I love Jon Klassen's books.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm working on another picture book - this time it's a more traditional narrative-based story, and is about loneliness and the value of friendship.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Only that you can find out more about me and my work at my website.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Q&A with Hendrika de Vries


Hendrika de Vries is the author of the new memoir When a Toy Dog Became a Wolf and the Moon Broke Curfew. It focuses on her own and her mother's experiences during World War II. A therapist for more than 30 years, she was born in Amsterdam and now lives in Santa Barbara, California.

Q: Y​ou note that the events of recent years pushed you to write this memoir, although you'd been thinking about doing so for a long time. What were the specific factors that made you start writing it?

A: As a licensed family therapist in California, with a background in depth psychology and theological studies, I also taught in the Counseling Psychology and Mythological Studies programs at Pacifica Graduate Institute.

From time to time, in classroom lectures and public presentations, I would use anecdotes from my childhood to illustrate the multi-layered and archetypal depth that connects and unites us in our human experiences. When stressing the individual and collective healing power of sharing our life stories, I was often urged to write a memoir about my childhood. I eventually did include segments of my story in articles I wrote for Spring Journal.

I began writing my manuscript, but to publish it still seemed somewhat self-indulgent. I had survived to live a long successful life and so many others suffered torturous deaths.

It was really not until I saw the images on my television screen of neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, and I read of the escalating attacks on houses of worship in the last few years, the increase of hate crimes, the resurgence of racism and blatant attacks on women’s reproductive rights and freedoms under the current administration, that I began to think differently. Publishing my story no longer felt like a matter of choice, but an obligation, a duty to our human dignity and soul.

I have witnessed freedoms being erased at lighting speed. I know what it means when survival comes at the cost of your voice. I have seen human beings demeaned, dragged out of homes, and slaughtered at random, because those in power deemed them “inferior.”

But I also saw the power of resistance and human resilience. I survived, in part, because there were still enough adults who could imagine a more just world and had the goodness and courage to fight for it. I want today’s children to have the same chance. I cannot be silent.

Q:  ​Did you need to do much research to write the book, or was most of it taken from your own memories?

A: I wanted my memoir to express the undiluted experiences of the little girl as much as possible. So, the events in the book are all grounded in my personal memories and remembered conversations with my mother. Many years of Jungian analysis, when I was an adult, gave me the opportunity to articulate the emotions and explore dream images that were connected to the memories.

I also made a pilgrimage to Amsterdam in 1993, where I worked with a Jungian analyst, Dr. Sonny Herman, who was a rabbi. Under his tutelage, I revisited the particular sites in Amsterdam where the traumatic events I remembered took place. Each morning I ventured out alone to explore a different site. Later in the day, Dr. Herman and I would meet in his office to process the emotions and thoughts that had been triggered.

My work with him, which took place in Dutch, the language I spoke as a little girl, helped me root the memories in place.

Since my goal for my memoir was to convey a child’s raw experiences of war, violence, oppression, loss, betrayal, bigotry, and also a mother’s resistance and strength, I kept my research to a minimum. I used it mainly to validate the factual occurrence of my remembered experiences and to place them in a chronological time frame.

Q: What impact did it have on you to write about your own and your mother's experiences during World War II?

A: My first attempts at writing about my childhood drained me and shocked me into a deeper understanding of how the body holds trauma. In order for my experiences to feel authentic to the reader, I tried to immerse myself in the events. There were times when I would unexpectedly break into sobs, my body shaking, as I sat at the computer and literally relived the emotions of a particular experience.

But the writing also helped me to more fully appreciate my mother’s astonishing strength. As a teenager and young adult I had battled her for many years. Because of our merged wartime bond, I had needed to establish an identity that was separate from hers, which at times hurt her.

But in the writing of the events my heart opened wide to that solo mother who decided to resist oppression, and who dared to risk her own life and that of her child, because she hoped that “someone would do the same for her daughter if circumstances were reversed.” 

Writing the mother-daughter story gave me deeper insight and appreciation for the complexity of motherhood and the power of mother-daughter relationships. It was the strength my mother had modeled and inspired in me that gave me the courage to face my own memories and write my story.

Q: ​Can you say more about the book's title and what it signifies for you?

A: The images in my book’s title, the toy dog that becomes a wolf and the moon that breaks curfew, are derived from actual events described in the memoir, but on a deeper level they also carry a symbolic meaning that I consider relevant for women today.

In the actual events of my story, the tiny stuffed toy dog becomes a fierce wolf in a little girl’s imagination when her father is taken away. Her belief in its magic empowers her to ask a German guard to pass the tiny dog on to her father, who is now behind barbed wire. It is this wolf-like strength that she also later sees in her mother who joins the Resistance.

The moon that breaks curfew refers to an unexpected brilliant full moon that guides a mother and her small daughter safely home along ice-covered sidewalks and over slippery bridges on a dark cloud-covered night in Amsterdam. With blackout material covering windows, streetlights extinguished, and a Nazi-imposed curfew that could get anyone shot, the full moon breaking through the heavy clouds to light a path would always be in the mother’s mind a true “miracle.”

On a deeper level, both these images can be seen as symbols of the gathering of female strength and resistance to oppression. The culturally imposed standards of gender, into which I was born, expected a woman to be obedient and decorative as a toy dog. In my memoir the toy dog becomes a wolf, symbolizing a transformation from the domesticated feminine to the fierce wolf-like strength and courage that my mother and other women showed in their resistance to tyranny and oppression in World War II.

In the same way, our patriarchal mythologies often symbolize the moon as feminine. ​​Its cool reflective light seen as lesser than and merely reflective of a burning masculine sun. But the moon in her capacity to create light in the dark may also symbolize a power to shine light on abuses that have been hiding under cover of darkness.

In the past few years, we have become aware of the power unleashed when women collectively reflect on their experiences and tell their stories. Each story, whether of sexual abuse, domestic violence, racial or gender discrimination, unequal pay, or other, shines a light on assaults carried out and hidden in the dark. When women share their stories, as we have seen in the #MeToo movement, their shared reflections bring the light to its fullness.

Like the “miracle” full moon in my memoir, their combined reflections shine a light that breaks the oppressor’s curfew and reveal a path to guide us home. In this deeper understanding I see the moon that breaks curfew as another metaphor for the gathering of female strength and resistance to tyranny and oppression.

Q: ​What are you working on now?

A: I have outlined chapters for my memoir about a Dutch immigrant girl who comes of age in Australia in the 1950s. I have also begun my notes for a third memoir. It covers landing in Denver, Colorado, for my husband’s career in the 1960s and the midst of the Women’s Liberation movement. It explores a woman’s mid-life crisis and subsequent solo journey and spiritual quest. I may combine the two books into one, but I am not sure about that yet.

Q: ​Anything else we should know?

A: I swim a mile in a local pool a couple of times a week. It’s my meditation. I like taking long walks on the beach with my husband. I believe in dreams and synchronicities that guide us even when life brings sorrows and challenges. I believe that we need to cultivate our imagination to envision the world we want to live in and form the solidarity and courage to fight for it.

I am a mother of three adult children, and the grandmother of four millennial grandchildren. I pray for the health of our planet.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Q&A with Marjan Kamali


Marjan Kamali, photo by David E. Lawrence
Marjan Kamali is the author of the new novel The Stationery Shop. She also has written the novel Together Tea. Born in Turkey to Iranian parents, she lives in the Boston area.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Stationery Shop, and for your character Roya?

A: I’ve always loved poking around in stationery shops and looking at all the different pens, paper, and notebooks. 

My dad told me about a stationery shop in Tehran that sold books from all over the world. He said high school kids would hide love notes in between the pages of books and have the stationery shop owner pass on their messages to their beloveds in this way. I was intrigued by this gesture and kept it at the back of my mind.

Then I did a book event for my first novel, Together Tea, at an assisted living center. After the reading, we all sat down to a wonderful Persian lunch organized by the center (there is a lot of food in both my books!). 

An elderly man in a wheelchair at our table kept saying how he’d met the prince of Spain and traveled with Charles De Gaulle. Others weren’t interested in hearing his repetitions. But before I left, I asked what his name was and was surprised that it was an Iranian name.

Weeks later when I visited my parents, I told them about this elderly man. When I said his name, my father said, “He was one of our most decorated foreign dignitaries. He met the prince of Spain. He traveled with Charles de Gaulle.” 

I was stunned. That night I kept thinking about what it meant to be an elderly person in an assisted living center with a past that no one believed. Or, a past people believed but just didn’t care about. I knew then that I had the kernel for my next book.

I started with just the image of an elderly man in a wheelchair. But then I added the story of a great lost love and letters passed in books in a stationery shop. 

The character of Roya became the love interest and took over much of the story. She meets Bahman in a stationery shop in 1953 Iran when they’re both 17. They fall madly in love and plan to get married but are separated on the eve of the country’s coup d’etat. Sixty years later, they reunite when Bahman is an elderly man in a wheelchair in an assisted living center.

Q: The chapters jump back and forth in time--did you write them in the order in which they appear, or did you write them in chronological order?

A: I believe when you’re writing the first draft of a novel, you should just write whatever comes to mind without worrying about where it will appear in the final version. Anything at all should be captured and written down. That said, for the most part I wrote the chapters in the order that they appear in the novel.

But after the first draft, I went back and added many more 1953 scenes. And the emotional scene between Roya and Bahman that appears close to the end of the novel was one I wrote in a spiral notebook in a fever dream early on in the process.

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 knew that I wanted to have these two young lovers reunite after 60 years but I didn’t know what would happen once they did. The twists and turns that developed as I wrote took me by surprise.

After the first draft, I went back and made changes because I suddenly had layers to the plot that didn’t exist before. A few characters in this book did things that completely shocked me and I was breathless from the ride. It was an exhilarating, exhausting, and ultimately very rewarding process!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am in that dreamy beginning stage of my third novel. I have a sense of the setting and the timelines and a few of the characters but it’s still just forming and gestating and bubbling up so that’s all I can say at the moment.

But I do know that like my two previous novels, it will take place in Iran and America. I can’t seem to quit these two countries and how their complicated relationship shapes the characters who live and struggle in both worlds.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Only that the response to The Stationery Shop has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I never thought that the love story of two Iranian teenagers would touch so many readers. 

I get emails and messages from readers telling me how much they cried, how much they learned, and a few saying they are now going to contact their first love. Some of the responses are deeply personal and I am very moved by them.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Monday, August 26, 2019

Q&A with Shawn Levy


Shawn Levy is the author of the new book The Castle on Sunset: Life, Death, Love, Art, and Scandal at Hollywood's Chateau Marmont. His other books include Rat Pack Confidential and Paul Newman: A Life, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Sight and Sound and Film Comment. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

Q: You write that your editor first came up with the idea of a book about Chateau Marmont. What appealed to you about the topic?

A: I had long been wanting to write a book about the Sunset Strip and its iconic role in popular culture:  movies, music, fashion, sexual mores, and so on, have emerged on that bit of road and spread around the world for more than 80 years. But I never quite got the handle on the subject. 

And when the Chateau was suggested as a book topic, not only did I immediately sense the overall shape and tenor of the book, but I knew I could meld my Sunset Strip thoughts into it. So it was a kind of once-in-a-lifetime moment: a whole thing popping into my head at once.

Q: What would you say are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about the hotel?

A: As for the latter, a lot of people think that the hotel has a long history of celebrity deaths when in fact there are only two of real note: John Belushi in 1982 and Helmut Newton in 2004. 

It's also assumed that the Chateau is a rock-n-roll hotel, and while it certainly has a history to go with that thought, it pales in comparison to several other hotels on the Strip, most notably the Sunset Marquis, which is a bigger version of the Chateau and was specifically designed to encourage a party lifestyle. 

As for perceptions that are true: it is a celebrity magnet, it is exclusive, it is pricey, and you really do feel the weight of Hollywood history as you stroll the grounds and corridors. And the views from the terraces are fabulous.

Q: Jean Harlow, you write, was the "first truly famous celebrity to call Chateau Marmont home." How would you describe the time she spent there?

A: Harlow was honeymooning with husband number three soon after the suicide of husband number two -- and she entertained men, often overnight, during that honeymoon. She was only there for a couple of months (this was when the Chateau was still seen by many as an apartment house rather than a hotel) and redecorated her suites in her signature “Harlow white.” 

She nearly died of appendicitis -- her mother was a Christian Scientist who eschewed modern medicine, but her husband was more secular and really did save her life. 

And when her husband finally left her after just a few months, Harlow continued on at the hotel, often accompanied by her frequent co-star Clark Gable. They were fabulously hot together -- kind of like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in more recent times; a true movieworld dream couple. As I say, Harlow only stayed at the Chateau for a few months, but she blazed quite a trail!

Q: You write, "At age ninety, the Chateau is more youthful, polished, famous, and chic than it has ever been." What do you see looking ahead for the building?

A: It can't grow physically, either upward or outward, and the current owner, who has been a superb steward of the traditions and the physical plant of the hotel, has shown no desire to dilute it with, say, a Chateau Marmont in every city. 

So I think it will continue to be what it is: a glistening avatar of the past, modernized for contemporary needs and tastes, with a sense of history behind every door. And, of course, a prime feeding ground for paparazzi and looky-loos.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm finishing a book of poems based on obituaries in The New York Times from the year 2016 (that was when everybody seemed to die, from David Bowie and Prince to Nancy Reagan and John Glenn to Muhammad Ali and Arnold Palmer to Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds). It will be published in 2020. 

And the following year I'll have a book from Doubleday about the women pioneers of standup comedy: Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers, Elaine May, Anne Meara, etc.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 26

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Aug. 26, 1921: Ben Bradlee born.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Q&A with Lori Handeland


Lori Handeland is the author of the new novel Just Once, her women's fiction debut. She has written more than 60 novels, including romance and urban fantasy, and she lives in Wisconsin.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Just Once, and for your characters, Frankie, Hannah, and Charley?

A: The idea for Just Once came to me over a decade ago when my father, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated photojournalist, was dying of bone cancer. As I sat with him, he suddenly cried out “Where’s your mother? Why isn’t she here?” I could tell he didn’t remember that he and my mother had been divorced for over 20 years and he was married to someone else. And it made me think, what if . . .?

Over the years in between I tried many times to begin the book, but it was too soon. Eventually the time was just right.

There are many things about Charley that are like my father—the talent, the eye, the belief that photojournalism is a sacred calling to illustrate the truth. Many things are also different. Charley was young enough to go to Vietnam. He was in the Army, not the Air Force. He had an easier upbringing but a more tragic family life. It’s the way of fiction to pick and choose.

Frankie and Hannah are totally fictional and came to me as I wrote, as most of my characters do. They talk, they live, they think, they feel, and I decide what to keep and what to toss as they become alive to me and, hopefully, to you.

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 always know the beginning and the ending of my books. How I get there changes along the way. In this case, I “saw” the ending of Just Once clearly enough to make me cry but the ending also gave me hope that forgiveness can heal, and love can change everything.

Q: This novel marks something of a departure for you in your writing. Is your writing process the same regardless of the genre?

A: I was just discussing this with another writer friend who had moved from romance to women’s fiction and we both agreed that the process is both the same and slightly different. I always blab out my first drafts, then read and rewrite, read and rewrite. However, my romances were lineal, so the rewriting was reworking, tightening and so on.

My women’s fiction takes place during several time periods, for Just Once the ‘70s, ‘90s and present day, with all the characters’ stories eventually converging in the present day. This took extensive planning along with color coded charts—not kidding. I also discovered myself moving sections, combining sections, re-researching sections, changing points of view. Something I did not do when writing romance.

Q: What are some of your favorite books?

A: The Stand by Stephen King
Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase
Heaven, Texas by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K. Hamilton
The Perfect Couple by Elin Hilderbrand

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A book set during the Summer of Love, 1967, and tentatively titled Suddenly That Summer where a brother and a sister come to the same conclusion about the Vietnam War in two very different places.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just Once will be available for the first time in trade paperback on Aug. 30 in the U.K. and Oct. 1 in the U.S.

To keep up to date with what I’ve got going on you can join me on Facebook and Instagram, or sign up for my newsletter.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb 

Aug. 25

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Aug. 25, 1836: Bret Harte born.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Q&A with Marlena Maduro Baraf


Marlena Maduro Baraf is the author of the new memoir At the Narrow Waist of the World. Born in Panama, she moved to the United States as a teenager. She worked as a book editor at Harper & Row and McGraw-Hill.

Q: Why did you decide to write At the Narrow Waist of the World, and how was the book’s title chosen?

A: I didn’t decide. It really took me by surprise. I’d signed up for a course in creative writing at the Sarah Lawrence Writing Institute near me in Westchester. “Finding Your Voice,” wonderful teacher and seven other writers.

One of the first assignments was to write about a very painful moment in our lives. This one thing surfaced for me. I saw myself at the age of 5 or 6 carrying a white tray with hinged sides, hot milk in the Noritake cup and an English silver setting. I was taking dinner to my mother who was very troubled at the time and was in her bed. A story follows that I won’t reveal here.

This is how the memoir began, inauspiciously, a collage of memories that describe a difficult but also a loving childhood. The title for that first scene was “Mami,” and that’s the name that felt right for what became a memoir.

Over the years I found a group of talented writers to meet with and share our developing work. They were all novelists; I was the only memoirist. We adore each other still today.

Someone suggested I consider another title, something lyrical with the feel of the memoir. There was a line in the book describing the Canal Zone as “a cinch belt that cut across the narrow waist of Panama.” 

The key was “waist,” symbolic of so much. Feminine, like the two main characters. It was also visually Panama, a narrow isthmus that connects North and South America—and the center of the world during my childhood. When I tried “At the Narrow Waist of the World,” we knew it was right.

Q: You write, “I am becoming more and more fascinated by multilingual writing.” Can you say more about you how you employ it in your work?

A: I couldn’t leave out the Spanish of my childhood. Spanish expressions came loaded with feeling and connections to the culture in which I grew up. Phrases that my mother used, for example, are inseparable from who she was.

I tried to weave in the Spanish phrases in a descriptive context that made their meaning clear in English; I almost never employed a literal translation. Readers say it works. People tell me I should do podcast readings because the mix of languages is especially beautiful.

Q: Did you remember most of the details you write about, or did you need to do research to recreate some of the scenes in the book?

A: Most are from my own memory because I was trying to access lived experience. 

But I did rely on my sister and two brothers for their own experiences with our Mami and also things that happened when I was no longer living in Panama. I interviewed elders in the family for details in the past, because I go into generations before mine. I called my old U.S. college roommate, found her in Washington state. That was fun.

I used my sister as surrogate to interview a person in Panama who’d been important in my mother’s life. I interviewed my mother’s elderly psychiatrist by phone. I did extensive research on the history of the Spanish-Sephardic community in Panama and before--even though the memoir is a slender volume.

Q: What do your family members think of the book?

A: My sister and brothers have known all along about the book and have encouraged me to tell the truth of our childhood, It’s of course my version of it. They read portions published in journals. but they haven’t seen it all. I’m a little nervous about one or two scenes.

There’s a book fair in Panama about to begin and I’ll be there and try to communicate the themes and ideas around the memoir in Spanish. I’ll find out what my extended family thinks. I call them the galaxy; we are such a close-knit group.

In the memoir I am revealing family truths, and each person has their own memories and experiences with much of what I’ve written. They’ll either be thrilled to read versions of what they know or upset by my saying certain things in public. I’ve used real names. Please wish me luck!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m so busy now with the launch of the book, articles. events, of course. But once things settle down, I will continue to interview Hispanics in this country, a series I begun called Soy/Somos, I am/We are. I’ve interviewed about 14 people so far. I’d also like to pursue poetry in a serious way.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The broad theme of this memoir-- resonant today—is that there are so many of us in this beautiful country of the U.S. whose backgrounds are mixed in some way. There is intermarriage across culture and race. We travel. We stay in touch with people in other societies via the internet, WhatsApp calls, and so on. These are riches we have and should celebrate.

Not least—Deborah--thank you for this lovely opportunity to tell you about At the Narrow Waist of the World.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb