Monday, September 23, 2019

Q&A with Allison Sarnoff Soffer

Allison Sarnoff Soffer is the author of the children's picture book Apple Days: A Rosh Hashanah Story. The book focuses on the Jewish New Year holiday. She has a background in journalism, and she teaches at Temple Sinai Nursery School in Washington, D.C. She lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Apple Days?

A: The idea for Apple Days is a deep story. When I was growing up, I had wonderful memories of Rosh Hashanah and my family, preparing, cooking, getting ready for everyone to come over. It was a joyful time.

Very sadly, my mom passed away before my children were born. The idea of Rosh Hashanah and how to celebrate was weighing heavily on me. I wanted to give my children the same sense of joy, but the holiday brought up painful memories.

A friend suggested we go to Homestead Farm to go apple picking. It was around Rosh Hashanah. We came home and made everything with apples—applesauce, apple pie, apple cake. It was so much fun, and it smelled so good. It was great to get outside and have this experience. I had a sense I was going back to the earth.

It ended up becoming a tradition. I realized I was starting to look forward to this aspect of the holiday in a new way. It helped me get through the early holidays and turn it into something new.

It was a personal story. I ended up telling the story at a retreat. We were tasked with bringing our favorite fruit, and I brought apples. I found myself telling the story, and people seemed very interested in it.

At the retreat, they ended up making fruit salad. It inspired the idea about all the people bringing something to contribute to a community dish.

Q: What do you see as the role of food-related traditions in the book?

A: I think food is such an intrinsic part of any holiday—Thanksgiving is obvious; others less so, but if you tap into anybody’s holiday experience, there will always be food. The smell, the preparation, the feel of it, the sensory experience has a huge effect on a child. They’re so open to sensory experiences. I was trying to focus on all that.

Q: What does a new year symbolize for your character Katy?

A: When the book starts, it symbolizes the apple picking ritual. But if you look deeper, it means she’s going to be with her family and they’re going to have a meal she’s going to contribute to.

Hopefully by the end, she’s learned more about what it means to be part of a community. Maybe by the time she’s a year older, it will have significance beyond her family.

Q: What do you think Bob McMahon’s illustrations add to the story?

A: Bob McMahon did a really beautiful job capturing relationships between characters, especially the parent-child relationship. It’s a very gentle connection, particularly in their eyes and the way the characters are placed in relationship to each other. The book is a lot about relationships, and that’s not always the easiest thing to convey, and he did a good job.

He also did a particularly beautiful job on the disappointment page, when her mom is talking to Katy about the fact that they’re not going to be able to go apple picking. He really conveyed that sadness—mostly in the eyes, but in the position of the mom. She’s getting on her knees and empathizing.

It’s interesting—the way Katy is drawn is very different from how I originally envisaged her, and in some ways he changed the emotional arc of the story in drawing a very spunky little girl. I originally thought she was more reserved and shy, and what happens in the story brings her out of herself. But now this is Katy!

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

A: What I hope is captured on the page where all the children are handing Katy an apple to put in her backpack—that’s the essence of the story. There’s an illustration on the title page of a child’s hand holding an apple. That pretty much says it all. Children can help, can be part of the community, can make a big difference in their own way.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve been thinking a lot as a teacher about kindness, and how to convey the idea of kindness and empathy, even in a very young nursery school class. I came up with an experimental way of taking pictures of the children in moments when they’re being kind to each other—sharing, or comforting each other.

They’re little moments in a school that focuses on social-emotional learning. If I could capture it and bring it back to the children: What do you see here? It inspired the most meaningful conversations, and became a reference point. I’m trying to develop that into a children’s book.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My training is as a journalist, so the first thing you’re trained as is to recognize: This is a story. What I realized I’ve done is internalize that as a teacher. I’ve studied the Reggio philosophy—every child is the protagonist in their own story. That really resonated with me. It’s a fun and interesting way to be a teacher—to bring my training as a journalist into the classroom, where news has a different connotation.

What’s news in a nursery school classroom is a child seeing something for the first time, or moments of growth. Each could become a story arc for that child. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Kristín Eiríksdóttir

Kristín Eiríksdóttir is the author of the novel A Fist or a Heart, now available in English. A poet and playwright as well as a novelist and short story writer, she is from Reykjavik, Iceland.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for A Fist or a Heart, and for your character, Elín?

A: Initially, A Fist or a Heart was a short story. It was published in an Icelandic magazine called TMM and I thought that was that. But then Elín just stayed with me and the story kept evolving, so I ended up putting aside the novel I was working on, and opening up the short story again. A little bit like being in the midst of cleaning house and then finding a tangle of yarn that you get stuck with.

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

A: The story itself is about the fate of the narrator and her hold on language. I knew that it would lead to a point where neither I nor the reader could follow or comprehend anymore, but I wanted to get as far as I possibly could. It doesn't mean that I believe there is no life after language and comprehension, but that’s where this story ends...

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

A: The sentence is used, very haphazardly, to describe the size of the space that opens up in the overcrowded psyche of Ellen—a young playwright—when she first starts writing. So the title of the book describes a positive space.

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

A: My biggest hope is always that the characters invoke empathy, which can open up some new dimension. The main character of this story is very strong and independent, but lacks the ability to connect emotionally with other people. So maybe I was also just trying to help her out.  

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm writing a novel about a middle-aged woman who is raising two boys on her own. One is a toddler, the other a teenager.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Yes, how much I loved working with my translator Larissa Kyzer, a young woman who made the original decision to move to Iceland and learn Icelandic, and to then translate, not only words, but an eccentric voice from a different culture.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 23

Sept. 23, 1889: Walter Lippmann born.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Q&A with Virginia Reeves

Virginia Reeves, photo by Suzanne Koett
Virginia Reeves is the author of the new novel The Behavior of Love. She also has written the novel Work Like Any Other. She teaches at Helena College, and she lives in Helena, Montana.

Q: You note that your late father-in-law inspired your character Ed. How did his life story lead you to create Ed, and how did you come up with the idea for your character Laura, Ed’s wife?

A: My late father-in-law, Mike, was a behavioral psychologist (not psychiatrist, like Ed) who worked at the institution in Boulder. His timeline was later than Ed's, but that experience definitely gave me a starting point.

The most poignant part of Mike's life that inspired Ed's character, however, was his tragic aneurysm and subsequent stroke at the age of 39. Like Ed, my father-in-law led two different lives—one before and one after his brain injury.

I only knew Mike in that second life, and there were times I was envious of the people who'd known him before. It took time and perspective to realize how fortunate I was to share in that second life. I like to hope I imbued Ed with some of Mike's better second-life qualities.

Though Laura shares some surface-level traits with my mother-in-law (they are both artists, for example), she is a complete amalgamation of various people (which is true of most all of my characters, I'd say). There are parts of Laura that are me, and parts of her that are my own mother. There are parts of her that mirror a dear family friend, and there are parts I'd never met before they arrived in her. 

Q: The novel is set in Montana. How important is setting to you in your work?

A: Setting is incredibly important to me in my work. My first novel took place in Alabama, and it really couldn't have taken place anywhere else. The same is true of this book. It couldn't happen anywhere but Montana. This state is my home, and I share Ed's love affair with it.

The physical beauty of the landscape here is an essential element of the story, especially when juxtaposed with the ugliness inside the institution.

Q: Why did you choose to place the novel in the 1970s and early 1980s, and did you need to do much research to recreate that time period?

A: The time period is pretty critical to the story, too. The earliest time in the novel coincides with the national deinstitutionalization movement. The public was seeing inside institutions for the first time and realizing how terrible the conditions were in many of them. That historical point is part of Ed's story, and he's passionate about change.

More specifically, the institution in Boulder where much of the book takes place was suffering its own tragedies—many of the incidents within the novel really occurred: a patient choked to death on a green bean in his bed; a boy drowned in a bathtub; a comatose woman was impregnated; several patients drowned in the river. When I read about those awful events, I knew I had to include them in the story.

I did do quite a bit of research, and it's honestly one of my favorite parts of the process. Before my first novel, I'd only written in contemporary times and places, but I loved everything I discovered when I started digging into the history of Alabama.

The same was true for this book. Even though I know Montana much better than I do Alabama, I didn't know the details of Boulder's past, and it was like a treasure hunt (sometimes with the treasure being terrible moments, of course) digging through the archives.

Q: The chapters from Laura's point of view are told in first person, while the rest of the book is in third person. Why did you decide to structure it that way?

A: The decision to give Laura her own chapters in first person came later in the process. In early drafts, Laura was turning out pretty flat and one-dimensional. The first go at writing from her point of view was really just an experiment to see if I could get more out of her, and then I realized maybe that was the key—give her her own space on the page. Let us see things from her perspective. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I've often shared work and ideas before they're ready, so I'm keeping my current project pretty quiet right now. I will say that it's a pretty big departure from my first two books.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Christina Thompson

Christina Thompson, photo by Maria Stenzel
Christina Thompson is the author of the new book Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia. She also has written Come On Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All. She is the editor of Harvard Review, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Vogue and Best Australian Essays. She lives outside Boston.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book about Polynesia, and how did you choose the aspects of the region's history and culture to focus on?

A: I have been writing about the history of the Pacific for more than 30 years, ever since I went to Australia for graduate school. I am especially interested in stories of people who came to the Pacific from elsewhere, and in the beginning I was largely focused on Europeans and their encounters with the indigenous peoples of the Pacific.

But these indigenous peoples, including the people we now know as Polynesians, also came to the Pacific from someplace else. And so in this book I look deep into the history of the Pacific and try to answer a series of questions about who Polynesians are, where they came from, and how more than 1,000 years ago they succeeded in colonizing every habitable bit of land in the world's largest and most daunting ocean. 

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

A: I read and read and read. For several years I had more than 200 books out of the Harvard library system; I also read hundreds of articles, which I accessed through Harvard's library. Indeed, I could not have written this book if I had not had access to a library of this caliber.

In terms of method, I followed the classic research practice of beginning with trustworthy secondary sources and following the footnote trail to more obscure materials.

Did I learn anything that surprised me? I learned hundreds of things that surprised me! One was that some Maori of the 13th and 14th centuries were buried not just with grave goods like adzes and pendants but with drilled (i.e., hollow) moa eggs. 

Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Captain James Cook and Tupaia, a Polynesian navigator and priest who worked with him?

A: I think of Cook and Tupaia as equals. I describe Tupaia, using Joseph Banks' terminology, as a "man of knowledge," but this is also how I see Captain Cook.

They came from completely different worlds and their knowledge bases were quite different, of course, but they were both men of stature in their respective societies, they were about the same age, they were both used to having authority, and I believe they were both strong in their own ways of thinking and views.

There is some indication that there was some friction between them, though I think there was also mutual respect. I rather like to think of them as two sides of the same coin.

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

A: One of the old misconceptions was that Polynesians never had to work, when in fact they had to work to survive just like everyone else. They had to fish and collect shellfish and garden and prepare food. So the idea that they lived in a paradise where food just fell from the trees was an early, but very persistent, false idea.

I also think people often misunderstand Polynesian formality. Polynesians are very polite and I think that sometimes people fail to grasp the underlying formality of their friendliness. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: At the moment I am just trying to figure out what I want to write about next. I will continue to write about the Pacific and there are a couple of female figures (historians, anthropologists) who interest me, including Teuira Henry and Willowdean Handy. But it's early days yet.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I'm happy to report that Sea People just won the NSW Premier's General History Award, which is an Australian history prize. So that's exciting for me.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 22

Sept. 22, 1908: Esphyr Slobodkina born.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Q&A with Lisa Lutz

Lisa Lutz, photo by Morgan Dox
Lisa Lutz is the author of the new novel The Swallows. Her other books include the novels The Passenger and How To Start a Fire. She lives part-time in New York's Hudson Valley.

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

A: I had the idea to write about a gender war and a private school setting made the most sense. I can’t say where the germ of the idea came from. My ideas are rarely sparked by an article or something in real life.

That said, after I had the idea, I did read up on private school scandals mostly to confirm my theory that what happened in The Swallows was entirely plausible.

Q: The novel is set at a private school. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: It depends on the book. With The Swallows it was more important than other books. It needed to be its own universe. I do prefer creating a setting from scratch rather than working off of a real location.

That said, a fake location has to be consistent in your descriptions, which can be tricky for someone with a sub-par memory and a sub-sub-par spatial memory. I drew a map, which was fun and I definitely indulged in place naming, which was constantly shifting as new, better ideas cropped up.

Q: The story is told from several perspectives. Did you write the book in the order in which it appears, or did you focus on one character before turning to the others?

A: During revisions, I would occasionally review only one character at a time just to stay in that voice, but I generally write in the order that the story will be read. I think that’s necessary in terms of pacing. That said, whenever I had to rejigger a plot point, it became a major headache since not all characters would be privy to certain moments in the story.

Q: The Kirkus Review of the novel calls it an "offbeat, darkly witty pre–#MeToo revenge tale." What do you think of that characterization?

A: It’s inevitable that people are going to talk about the #MeToo movement in connection with this book. However, I conceived of the story and began writing long before #MeToo. I don’t see a clear demarcation of societal standards before or after. I think the story was relevant before and I think it’s relevant now.

I understand that people see the movement as a sign of awareness and progress. I just see it as more awareness. I’m not sure I see the progress just yet. We are not as evolved as a society as we think we are.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a crime novel that involves a 20-year platonic friendship. I’m not sure this is the perfect pitch, but think When Harry Met Sally with a couple murders.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I wouldn’t know where to begin. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Eric D. Goodman

Eric D. Goodman, photo by Nataliya A. Goodman
Eric D. Goodman is the author of the new novel Setting the Family Free. His other books include Womb: a novel in utero and Tracks: A Novel in Stories, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Baltimore Review, The Pedestal Magazine, and Writers Weekly. He lives in Baltimore.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Setting the Family Free?

A: Although the novel is entirely fictional, it was inspired by a real incident. In 2011, a man in rural Ohio released dozens of exotic animals from his private reserve into the neighboring community.

When the story broke, I was fascinated by the idea of these animals—not really wild but certainly not tame—being released into a community and what it would be like to have predatory animals put on even footing with people. Humans have done such a complete job of isolating ourselves from nature, but what if the barriers were removed?

At one point I had considered doing narrative nonfiction, but realized that fictionalizing the story would allow me a lot more freedom to turn it into something more exciting and interesting.

Fiction allowed me to remove the constraints and to explore a lot of “what if” scenarios: what if the animals did kill some people; how would different people react to seeing these animals on their normally safe turf; how would different people and organizations react; why did the owner of the animals do what he did? Those questions and others made for some interesting exploration.

Q: The novel includes many different techniques, including sections consisting of various quotes from characters in the book. How did you decide on the writing style you employed in this novel?

A: Part of what interested me about this story was the concept of how such stories exist differently for different people based on perception.

For example, with breaking news stories like this, oftentimes people feel like they have an understanding of what happened and who was at fault after just a few minutes of viewing the news or reading a news summary. But there’s that sensationalized version of what happened, and the reality of the situation from the perspectives of those closer to the story.

I wanted to explore how a story—real or fictional—can be different to different people. The reporter looking for a headline, the reporter looking for a deeper understanding, those attacked, those who knew the owner of the animals, and the owner himself.

I also liked the related concept of who some of the people are and how that depends on who is telling the story.

For example, the owner of the animals is everything from a deranged criminal to a misunderstood veteran to a loving man, depending on who you ask. Using interview sound bites and news stories and different points of view allowed me to explore that, and to show the situation and the characters in a more rounded way.

I looked to Tim O’Brien’s novel In the Lake of the Woods for inspiration and direction here. In that novel, O’Brien is a master at telling parts of the story and applying depth to multifaceted characters through “evidence” chapters that include quotes and items to imply things not said in the narrative. I tried to do something similar in some of the sections of Setting the Family Free.

Q: The story takes place in southern Ohio. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: Setting often plays a central role in my writing. Tracks: A Novel in Stories took place on a train traveling from Baltimore to Chicago, but many of the scenes took place in real Baltimore and Chicago places. Womb: a novel in utero also took place in Baltimore.

Setting is another thing that attracted me to this story. I lived in Ohio for several years in the 1990s, including in Columbus and Portsmouth. Columbus is about an hour from Zanesville, where the incident happened.

I wanted to change the location a bit since I fictionalized the story, so it wouldn’t look like I was trying to relay the true events. But Chillicothe—another city I was familiar with—is also only an hour or so from Columbus, so it made the perfect setting for the book.

Another fun detail is that I was able to set some scenes of the book in places where I studied and worked and lived since they were close enough to Chillicothe for the animals to reach them: downtown Columbus and the Shawnee State University campus in Portsmouth. This book offered a way for me to revisit places that were also a part of my past.

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

A: First and foremost, I hope readers are entertained by the events and can empathize with the characters. Not agree with all of them, but understand them. I’ve always felt that part of the reason I write is to be understood or to promote understanding; to make a certain idea or feeling relatable. I hope people can understand and relate to the characters even when they make poor or difficult choices.

And I’d like readers to see that none of the characters exist as one true thing—they’re all composites of how others seem them in different ways. In a sense, once you get outside of your own way of thinking, that’s sort of true in real life, too—at least from a certain point of view.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m finishing up some final revisions on a thriller called The Color of Jadeite. It follows a retired government investigator turned private eye as he ventures to China in search of an artifact from the Ming dynasty. It’s my first novel of this sort, and in some ways it was my first “novel in settings” since I take the main characters from exotic location to exotic location.

I also have a few other draft manuscripts that I’ll pick back up soon, one of them being a continuation of a story I wrote back when the cicadas came out in the early 2000s. I may try to finish that in time for the return of the cicadas in 2021.

And I’m toying with the idea of a collection of stories centered around dogs, after noticing that I have a few somewhat related stories with pet dogs at their hearts.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Loyola University’s Apprentice House Press has been great to work with, and I’m excited that Setting the Family Free is coming out as a hardcover, trade paperback, and ebook at the same time, on Oct. 1, 2019.

My book launch will be at The Ivy Bookshop in Baltimore on Sunday, Oct. 6 at 5 p.m. and should be a fun event. I’ll have other events lined up soon, and look forward to sharing a professional book trailer shortly.

I'm also thrilled at some of the endorsements Setting the Family Free has been getting for the book, from authors like Jacquelyn Mitchard, Rafael Alvarez, and Lucrecia Guerrero.

This and other related information can be found at my website and on my Facebook page.  

Thank you, Deborah, for taking the time to read Setting the Family Free and to interview me; I appreciate it!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Eric D. Goodman.

Sept. 21

Sept. 21, 1934: Leonard Cohen born.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Q&A with Edward J. Delaney

Edward J. Delaney, photo by Beowulf Sheehan
Edward J. Delaney is the author of the new story collection The Big Impossible. His other books include the novels Follow the Sun and Broken Irish, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Atlantic. Also a journalist, filmmaker, and playwright, he teaches at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island.

Q: Over how long a period did you write the stories in The Big Impossible?

A: Over many years, at least 10 years. I don’t have an agenda for writing stories; I just write when an idea strikes me, and I see where they go.

Some of the stories in the book (in the final section) are related and stand as a novella; “House of Sully” started as a story, got longer, but didn’t turn into a novel.

And some stories just come from an urge. The opening story, “Clean,” was a story I wrote in a day, which is the only time that’s happened for me. But the story was published in The Atlantic and got a good bit of attention; the idea sprang up and I just dove in.

Q: How did you choose the order in which the stories were arranged?

A: We start with the stand-alones, and I think trying to vary in theme and style. Then on to the novellas. “Clean” seems to be a gripper, so for someone who doesn’t know my work, it’s a good start. I hope some of the less-intense stories create a bit of a variation.

Arrangement of stories is an interesting problem in itself, thinking about how one might lead to another. But I also know that as a reader of story collections, I rarely read the books in order. I usually bounce around with the presumption that each story was meant to be its own universe.

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

A: A key theme in my novels, I’ve come to see, is people in relation to their work, or their place. In other words, people as direct products of a place they occupy, and how that shapes them. Some of the stories in here do that, but others move a bit away from that.

Another theme I know is there is people in relation to the world as it exists now. We’re in a world of technology and of the changes technology has brought – the way the internet, and social media, and other such tools changes our sensibilities. Several of the stories are trying to think about that.

I am always fascinated how my students, in their own stories, rarely have characters using their phones, even though it’s all they do in real life. It’s like all those old TV shows in which you never saw people watching TV. But I think there is so much to confront in our increasingly complex and divided and information-saturated world, it’s fertile ground for fiction.

Q: In our previous interview, you said, “There’s very little of my experiences in my writing.” Was that true with these stories as well?

A: Absolutely. The novella “House of Sully” is a first-person reminiscence of growing up in a certain time and place, and has almost no relationship to my life or experiences. Because my life and experience wouldn’t make for as compelling a story.

Certainly there was a more “proper” era where people wrote autobiography as fiction to spare embarrassment or hard feelings; now those people just write memoirs – and probably sell more books because of it. And the record has shown a lot of those memoirs have a dose of fictionalizing, which seems to be accepted – the “based on a true story” approach.

So anybody trying to write fiction has to think about what fiction does that makes it useful. I think, and hope, part of that is a writer being able to see a reality in a situation that the person who lived it is unaware of, or whose predispositions keep them from seeing.

Some of the stories, such as in the “Big Impossible” section of the book, come directly out of my experiences as a journalist in the West. And “My Name is Percy Atkins” is inspired by a great-uncle who was indeed gassed in World War I, but all the rest in the story is fabrication, trying to imagine his experiences.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I always work on multiple projects that therefore take a really long time to finish. So right now I’m on three fiction projects at various stages, and I’m beginning to imagine a nonfiction work for the future. I work on things for the pure pleasure of working on them; I stopped worrying long ago about what might get published and what might not. I think the engagement with the work is what is the true pleasure.

For example, in The Big Impossible, I worked on “House of Sully” for a long time, meaning with no real hurry, with pleasure, and without a clue what it would turn into. I’m thankful to my wonderful publisher, Ruth Greenstein at Turtle Point Press, for putting it in this book, and the early responses seem to suggest it was worth writing.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Nothing coming to mind here, except my sincere thanks for your interest in the book.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Edward J. Delaney.

Q&A with Deborah Blumenthal

Deborah Blumenthal is the author of the new children's book Parrots, Pugs, and Pixie Dust: A Book About Fashion Designer Judith Leiber. Her other books include Polka Dot Parade and Fancy Party Gowns, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and The Washington Post. She lives in New York City.

Q: Why did you decide to write a book for kids about designer Judith Leiber?

A: Actually my publisher came to me with the idea and I was delighted to do it since I always admired Leiber's work.

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

A: I read whatever there was – books, magazine articles, obits and all types of tributes. What surprised me was the level of devotion she had to her work and the fact that she was a total workaholic!

Q: What do you think Masha D'Yans' illustrations add to the book?

A: I think she captured the spirit of the glitter and magic of the bags as well as the darker parts of Leiber’s childhood when she and her family were captives of the Nazis in Hungary during the war.

Q: What do you hope kids take away from Leiber's story?

A: That we should follow our dreams, and that living in the world of our imagination can sometimes shelter us from the harsher realities around us.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Two other biographies. More to come!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Judith Leiber loved her work, but more than that, her bags showed us that she always had fun and was open to the world around her, accepting whatever was new and quirky and sometimes silly. We all need to play and have fun and get involved in some form of self-expression if we’re going to lead a full and happy life.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 20

Sept. 20, 1878: Upton Sinclair born.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Q&A with Brian Jay Jones

Brian Jay Jones is the author of the new biography Becoming Dr. Seuss: Theodor Geisel and the Making of an American Imagination. His other books include biographies of Jim Henson and George Lucas. He lives in Virginia.

Q: Why did you decide to write about Dr. Seuss, and how would you compare him to the subjects of your previous books, George Lucas and Jim Henson?

A: For any writer, coming up with “the next one” is always tough—and for biographers who write about the kind of big subjects that I do, it’s a particularly messy process because you’ve got a lot of factors to consider: popularity, relevance, the passage of time.

Has the subject been done recently—and if it has, can you bring something new to it? And if you can, is it a subject that readers might be interested in knowing about?

Also: Is it the right subject for you as a biographer? That may sound odd, but the fit between biographer and subject is crucial. I *always* have people coming up to me with suggested topics—and lots of times, they’re really *good* suggestions, but I might feel I’m not the right guy to do it, or it’s not a subject I feel I can embed myself in for three to five years.

So, coming up with your subject requires a LOT of conversation and bouncing around of ideas.

Dr. Seuss, then, was one of those subjects that came about from a lot of conversation and bouncing around of ideas, finalized over a long lunch in New York with my editor and agent. Once it was on the table, it was such a logical next subject that we all said, Oh my god yes, of COURSE, why didn’t think of that in the very beginning? 

It really does seem like a logical progression from my previous books—one critic noted that I’ve written a trilogy of American creative geniuses—and while I wish I could tell you, George Lucas-style, that I had it all planned from the start, it was about 40 percent inspiration, 60 percent perspiration.

That said, I think it’s natural to compare him with both Jim Henson and George Lucas. All three are creative geniuses who did something new with what many regarded as a stale format, whether it was television, film, or children’s books. All three were absolutely driven by a creative vision and energy—a commitment to their art that overrode nearly everything, no matter how inexplicable a particular project might seem.

And, interestingly, all three of them had brilliant wives and creative partners who they genuinely loved, whose talent they admired, and who they ultimately lost through intentional or benign neglect.

Q: The book's subtitle is "Theodor Geisel and the Making of an American Imagination." How would you define the concept of "an American imagination" as it relates to Dr. Seuss?

A: While it seems inconceivable to us today, Dr. Seuss wasn’t always the bearded, bespectacled icon we can all summon up on our mind’s eye—heck, he didn’t even look like that until very late in his life.

Dr. Seuss didn’t emerge onto the scene fully formed—it took him a long time to actually become what we think of today as “Dr. Seuss,” and there were any number of places along the way where he could’ve gotten sidetracked and gone on to earn a very successful living in a completely different career.

And so, along the way, Dr. Seuss did what Americans have always done: he adapted and improvised, soaking up and learning from his experiences, keeping what he thought was important or what worked, discarding what he didn’t. 

He was shaped by his environment—whether it was Springfield, Massachusetts, or Dartmouth or Oxford—and influenced by fellow artists and collaborators like Frank Capra and Chuck Jones.

His was a melting pot of artistic and literary styles and temperaments, all of which he stirred around and ground and distilled into something unique and greater than the sum of its parts—creating that distinctly Seussian rhyme and rhythm and the very distinct artistic style.

Q: The book deals with Dr. Seuss's political work and controversies in which he was involved. How would you describe him politically?

A: Dr. Seuss, even in his lifetime, identified himself as a Democrat, which was the source of some friction between him and his Republican father—particularly when it came to discussions about Franklin Roosevelt. He later joked about how hard it was to register to vote as a Democrat in the conservative southern California of the 1940s.

In the years leading up to World War II, he put aside work on children’s books—he’d done less than 10 at that point—to become the full-time editorial cartoonist for the proudly progressive New York newspaper PM, airmailing cartoons from his home in California back to New York every afternoon.

Even today, his work is work for PM is astoundingly relevant, as Dr. Seuss took on racism, America First, anti-Semitism, and corruption—you’ll see his cartoons still passed around social media today. He was proud of the work he did for PM—he called himself a “cockeyed crusader”—and by early 1943, he enlisted in the Army at age 39, joking that since he’d convinced the country to take on Hitler in his cartoons, the least he could do was join the effort.

While for the most part, Dr. Seuss tried to never put overtly political messages in his work, when they did show up, they tended to be so-called progressive, such as The Lorax with its environmental message, or The Butter Battle Book, which takes a rational albeit left-leaning view of nuclear proliferation.

Q: What's your favorite Dr. Seuss book?

A: As part of my research for the book, I went back and re-read (and in a few cases, read for the first time) every Dr. Seuss book—and my answer to this question changed from the time I started the book to when I finished it.  

Growing up, the one Dr. Seuss book that captivated me was The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins which is probably one of the least “Seussian” of all his books – it’s Dr. Seuss working very much in the traditional fairy tale tradition, with a king and a castle and an executioner and so on. It has none of those whimsical Seussian creatures, and it’s not even written it verse!

But I was fascinated by the idea behind it – a hat that can’t be removed! And at the climax, the king actually orders his executioner to chop off a little boy’s head! It was wild and scary and funny and sincere all at the same time.

But as much as I like that book, as I was reading the entire Seuss oeuvre, the book I fell in love with was If I Ran the Zoo, from 1950 – that “in between” period after World War II, when he’s beginning to take the job of writing for kids much more seriously, but before his really big breakout The Cat in the Hat.

It’s a set-up similar to that of And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street! where a little boy imagines what he would do if he ran a zoo, and the scenario—and animals—gets more and more fantastic as the book progresses. It’s built on his usual anapestic tetrameter rhyme scheme, but it’s some of his cleverest and bounciest verse, and the art in it is absolutely spectacular—some of the best of his career.

Q: What would you say is his legacy today?

A: Dr. Seuss’s impact continues to be felt today, because he fundamentally changed how we think about books for children—including the books we like to see kids reading today. Dr. Seuss spoke to kids, not down to them, and I think today’s best kids lit—and I’d even apply this to middle grade and YA—embraces that.

We don’t expect children’s reading books to be the turgid primers of Dick and Jane. We want them to be fun to read and fun to look at. We don’t want reading to be a dreadful and dreaded experience for children—and we can thank Dr. Seuss for that.

Dr. Seuss wanted to give kids books that they wanted to read, not books that adults thought they should read. That’s a seismic shift in the way writers for children viewed their audience. And it mostly prevails today.

If you were to ask me who his heir apparent is, I’d actually point to J.K. Rowling. She doesn’t write specifically for the age group that Dr. Seuss did, but she writes smart, fun books that kids want to read, and she brought young people the same absolute joy of reading—that desire to actually want to pick up a book and read—that Dr. Seuss did when he changed everything in 1957 with the publication of The Cat in the Hat, a book with teacher-approved vocabulary list that both parents and their children loved to read.

And finally, if you were to ask Dr. Seuss himself what his legacy might be, he would give you one of two answers. First, he would likely say he was proudest of the fact that the chaotic Cat in the Hat had eventually swept Dick and Jane and their lives of quiet desperation right out of the classroom, ensuring that primers would no longer be such a disheartening chore to read.

And his second, humbler answer to “what is your legacy?” would be, “just to spread joy.” Mission accomplished there, too.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: For biographers, who’s next? is the most terrifying question we get—and I hate not having an answer to it. This is the first time in 10 years that I haven’t really known what’s next.

I’ve written about creative geniuses in print, television, and film – I’d like to look at similarly kinds of groundbreakers in other fields. I’ve got a few ideas, but I’ve got some work to do at the moment to see if I can make them go anywhere.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Fun fact: If I Ran the Zoo marks the first appearance of the word nerd in print—though in that book, it’s merely a Seussian name given to a Seussian bird. But the definition would evolve quickly. So, to my fellow nerds everywhere, let us pay homage to one of our Founding Fathers, Theodor Seuss Geisel.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Brian Jay Jones.