Sunday, September 29, 2019

Q&A with Sharon Marcus

Sharon Marcus is the author of the new book The Drama of Celebrity. She also has written Between Women and Apartment Stories, and is a founding editor of Public Books. She is the Orlando Harriman Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.

Q: The actress Sarah Bernhardt is a major focus of The Drama of Celebrity. Why did you choose to highlight her and her career in the book?

A: Before Lady Gaga, before Elizabeth Taylor, before Gloria Swanson, there was Sarah Bernhardt. Born in France in 1844, in the 1870s she became the first global superstar. A classically trained actress who was also a genius at self-promotion, Bernhardt was one of the first famous people to develop a private persona for public consumption.

We know very little about her true private life — the father of her only child, for example, remains a mystery. But by letting painters and photographers into her home, where she also granted interviews to journalists into her home, by having herself portrayed sleeping in a coffin in her bedroom, she gave strangers the impression that they knew her intimately.

The celebrity culture we live with today began in the mid-19th century with the rise of the cheap press and commercial photography, the rapid spread of information via telegraph cables, and the ability of people to move themselves around the world via steamships and railways. Born at the perfect time to take advantage of all of these technologies, Bernhardt became the godmother of modern celebrity culture.  

Q: You write, “Not only did Hollywood not invent celebrity, its version of celebrity culture was an aberration.” Can you say more about that?

A: Nineteenth-century celebrities were either distinguished artists, politicians, aristocrats, and military leaders, or they were entertainers. The majority of the entertainers who became big stars were free agents: they decided what roles they would play, where they would travel, and often also served as producers and directors, selecting and guiding their fellow actors.

The biggest theatrical stars — Sarah Bernhardt, Henry Irving, Edwin Booth — leased and managed their own theaters.

The men who started the major Hollywood studios understood that stars helped to sell movie tickets, but they wanted more control over their employees. So they tended tossing unknowns or beginners to very restrictive contracts that lasted for years and gave producers the power to decide what roles even the biggest, most popular stars would play. T

he studio system also gave directors more authority than actors over performances, since a director decided which takes to use and gave orders to the cinematographers who generated all the film footage. In the Hollywood system, even the most popular stars had very limited power relative.

Of course the canniest performers, such as Marilyn Monroe, managed to leverage their popularity to have more say over their careers, but Hollywood stars found their power constrained in ways that celebrities before them — and since — did not.

Q: You divide the book into chapters focusing on a particular aspect of celebrity culture. How did you choose the book’s structure?

A: It took a long time to evolve. Initially I was using a structure that exploded the polarities that stars so often embody: for example, the love-hate dynamic of attraction and repulsion.

But as I reflected more on what I was trying to argue about celebrity culture, I saw that my key finding was that celebrity culture is not driven by any single group — celebrities, publics, media workers — but by all three, competing, colliding, collaborating.

I then saw that the best way to structure the book was to have each chapter focus on the different ways these groups interact. “Defiance,” for example, looks at how stars use their connections to the public to bypass disapproving journalists, while “Savagery” explores how journalists get their own back by ridiculing members of the public who become too enthusiastic about celebrities. 

Q: What do you see looking ahead for celebrity culture?

A: I think that the biggest stars, including ones who became super-famous by distributing free content about themselves on social media platforms, are going to start charging people who want to see their pictures or read interviews with them.  

They are going to take the model of heritage media — People magazine, for example, has never stopped charging relatively high prices for subscriptions to their hard copy magazine — and adopt it for their own individual purposes.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Publicizing my book, teaching a seminar at Columbia University on odd women in Victorian England, and learning how to hula hoop.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My book exists as a print book, an e-book, and a captivating audiobook, read with great verve and intelligence by Olivia Vinall. Vinall was born in Belgium and educated in England — so she speaks English with a British accent but pronounces all the French names in my book impeccably. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Barbara Artson

Barbara Artson is the author of the novel Odessa, Odessa. A retired psychoanalyst, she lives in San Francisco.

Q: Odessa, Odessa was loosely based on your own family history. How much of that history did you know growing up, and did you need to do much research to write the novel?

A: Growing up I knew nothing of my mother’s history, other than her birth in Odessa. As with most immigrants, my mother refused to speak of the time prior to coming to America that I now know was the result of trauma. Hence, much of what I wrote was fictional. 

Essentially, my mother had four brothers and two sisters and worked in a sweatshop sewing elastic to the waistbands of bloomers, and in 1939 my father moved his family of four to a conservative, working-class New York suburb. And sadly, it is true that my aunt was born with a severe hearing disability. 

I decided not to replicate the actual lives of family members, rather to infuse them with what I remember as their character traits.  

Many characters in my novel, however, are pure fancies of my imagination that occurred to me unexpectedly and serendipitously. 

Bessie, for example, the young woman who befriends Henya on the voyage to America on the Lusitania and the vanished great-uncle Shimshon and his family in Israel, although palpable and dear to me, are solely invented. 

More make-believe: I never visited a Palestinian refugee camp; never visited Israel with my sister, nor do I even have family in Israel. 

But, were you to ask who among my characters are my favorites -- fantasy or factual --I would, without hesitation, avow that Shimshon holds place of honor. I shed many a tear writing his journal. 

By and large, I believe that each character includes parts of me--the good and the bad. Don’t we all, in one way or another, unconsciously write about ourselves? 

Turning to the question you posed concerning research: In addition to reading about Russian history including the revolution and the exploitation and violence toward the Jewish people, as well as the history of Palestine, I read (and re-read) some of the awe-inspiring historical fiction revealed in Odessa, Odessa’s epoch.  

Mary Antin’s The Promised Land, for one, and Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky, Michael Gold’s Jews Without Money, Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, The Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska, to name but a few.  

Q: In the book's dedication, you write, "We are all immigrants." What resonance do you think that theme has in today's climate?

A: I began to write Odessa, Odessa at a time when we had not confronted the current immigrant situation. At that time, I had been aware that Jews seeking asylum in the ‘30s and ‘40s were furtively turned away by most nations, including the United States under the direction of Franklin Roosevelt.

Reprehensible as that event remains, it is unrivaled by what is currently occurring in plain sight at our southern borders, and with our government’s authorization. 

Young children, even toddlers, separated from their parents; sick and dying kids deprived of medical care that keeps them alive -- forced to return to their country of origin; human beings housed in cages without adequate nourishment and hygiene, women and children beaten and sexually abused. 

Little did I know when writing the imagined passage portraying the ship’s guards forcefully separating Henya from her 14-year-old son that we would witness a similar situation on our television screens daily.

Q: The novel stretches over four generations of one family's history. What do you think the book says about family legacies?

A: The current preoccupation with individuals doing genealogical searches to discover unknown ancestors attests to the significance of family legacies.

For me, it has always been a burning question, most likely growing out of my early fantasy of having been adopted. 

As the only platinum-haired, blue-eyed member of my immediate and extended family, and the focus of conversations among my aunts and uncles, and because neighbors baited my mother about “the milkman’s secret visit,” who I was and where I came from was of major concern to me.   

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

A: I would hope my readers would come away with a more profound sense of what it feels like to be the object of discrimination--not only religious discrimination, as portrayed in Odessa, Odessa, but prejudice against any group of people persecuted because of race, religion, color of skin, sexual identity, or disability--and that my readers will associate my characters’ predicament to the plight of today’s immigrants who are similarly suffering from injustice, bigotry, and oppression.

Yes, we are all immigrants!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: It has been a year (Sept. 11, 2018) since the publication of Odessa, Odessa. The year, as I’m certain you know only too well, has been crammed with a book launch, several radio and on-line interviews, bookstore and book club events, the writing of blogs, and whatever PR opportunities came my way. 

It’s time to replenish my soul and so I’m spending my time reading fiction and nonfiction, studying philosophy and French, catching up with family and friends, participating in political events and, should I be so fortunate, waiting for creative inspiration. 

Some of my readers have suggested that I write a sequel to Odessa, Odessa with a focus on Roberta and Hannah and their families.

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: When, after retiring from my psychoanalytic clinical practice of 35 years, I sat down to fulfill the promise to write a novel after leaving the study of English literature, I had no notion of what I would write until I sat at my computer and wrote: Henya Chanah is a woman who no longer bleeds, so she puzzles over how this could have happened. Try as she might, she can’t remember the last time she and Mendel were together. 

Not until then did I know the subject matter of my novel. And this process continued as I wrote each chapter. The novel, it felt to me, was writing itself.

I feel so privileged that, after a meaningful 40-year career as a psychoanalyst, I can add “author” to my résumé. 

In my public talks and readings, I discovered that I loved dramatizing my character’s dialogue, especially Dora’s when I revert to my New Jersey accent. Often, I was asked if I had an acting background. 

Perhaps, just perhaps, I might add “actress” to my CV following “psychoanalyst and author.” Even at my age.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 29

Sept. 29, 1810: Elizabeth Gaskell born.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Q&A with Katherine Center

Katherine Center is the author of the new novel Things You Save in a Fire. Her other books include How to Walk Away and Happiness for Beginners. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Redbook and O Magazine. She lives in Houston.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Things You Save in a Fire, and for your character Cassie?

A: I wrote Cassie at a time when I felt like I really needed a hero. A different kind of hero. A hero who was both brave and vulnerable, both tough and tender, both strong for herself and others. 

I also needed a female hero, specifically—someone who got it, who knew what women face every day and all the countless invisible and unsung ways that women are brave every day. 

Q: You dedicated the book to your husband, a volunteer firefighter, and thanked him for his help. How much research did you need to do to write this novel?

A: I did a ton of research! Because my husband has been involved with EMS for the 25 years we’ve been together, I went in knowing exactly how much I didn’t know! So I visited firehouses, got tours, interviewed firefighters, collected stories, and filled notebook after notebook with notes about the life.

I also interviewed my husband over and over and asked him to read draft after draft. That was the most fun of all for me: getting to peek into that world through his eyes.

Q: What do Cassie's experiences say about the challenges faced by women working as firefighters?

A: Well, based on my research, there are a lot of challenges for women in that field. I think only 2-3 percent of firefighters in this country are women—so it’s not a profession with a lot of gender parity.

But, in a lot of ways, they’re not that different from the challenges women face in any field—just more pronounced, more easy to see. Women writers face all kinds of institutionalized sexism, for example, but it’s harder to spot.

That said, it’s complicated. Firefighters are good guys—genuine helpers—and so looking at all those issues in the context of firehouse life is pretty compelling. 

There are no easy villains—just complicated people with ideas about each other worth exploring. I love the guys in the firehouse, even though they consistently underestimate Cassie. There’s a lot to think about and talk about there.

Q: Do you know how your novels will end before you start writing them, or do you make many changes as you write?

A: I know how parts of them will end. Or, at least, I know how I want them to end. I start writing with an idea of where I want to go because I think it’s crucial to know what you’re trying to do before you start writing so that everything in the story is there for a reason.

That said, once the story has come to life, I often change details and defer to what the story and the characters want. Outlines are useful, but I never want to stick to them in a rigid way. I love being surprised—and it happens to me over and over while I’m writing.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m writing a new book that brings back a minor character from my book Happiness for Beginners—a guy named Duncan, who is the younger brother of the main character. In the new story, it’s 10 years later, and Duncan has grown up a lot since we last saw him—maybe too much.

I absolutely fell in love with Duncan when I was writing Happiness for Beginners, and it is beyond fun to get to hang out with him again and give him his own story. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My fourth novel, The Lost Husband, is being adapted into a movie starring Leslie Bibb and Josh Duhamel! That’s been a very exciting part of the past year for me. 

The director, Vicky Wight of 6 Foot Pictures, very kindly invited me to be an extra in the movie—so I got to spend a day on the set and meet the actors. It was pretty epic! The movie should be out sometime in the next year.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Talia Carner

Talia Carner, photo by Robbie Michaels
Talia Carner is the author of the new novel The Third Daughter. Her other novels include Hotel Moscow and Jerusalem Maiden. She is the former publisher of Savvy Woman magazine.

Q. How did you first learn about the women you write about in The Third Daughter who were trafficked from Russia to Argentina in the late 19th century?

A: In 2007, during a visit to Buenos Aires, I walked into the Jewish library and chatted with the librarian in English, but when I asked her casually about “the Jewish prostitutes and pimps,” she suddenly forgot her English. Clearly, I had touched upon a disgraceful chapter in the history of Argentine Jews, so I let it slide.

However, four years ago, I stumbled upon a short story by Sholem Aleichem, “The Man from Buenos Aires” (now in my own translation on my website), and my interest was piqued. The story about the businessman on a Russian train who brags to the author about his riches back in Buenos Aires, yet never reveals the nature of his enterprise, left me with unease, just as the author had intended. I figured that he was a pimp.

I Googled the subject and was appalled to learn how much information was hiding in plain sight about a legal trafficking union, named Zwi Migdal. Yet, the Jewish girls and women exploited by its members had been forgotten, lost in the goo of history.

Before that, my compassion for sexually subjugated girls and women had first ignited at the 1995 International Women’s Conference in Beijing. I listened to an aging Filipina who cried with a beautiful operatic voice about her past enslavement by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. Then a teenager, she had been one of many thousands of girls and women captured in the Pacific Rim and imprisoned in “comfort stations” to serve the soldiers’ sexual needs.

The plight of kidnapped women forced into sexual slavery touched me deeply. In subsequent years I learned about sex trafficking, child-marriages, and the use of mass rape as a tool of war, by attending presentations of UN-affiliated NGOs in New York City, where I live.

Once I found out about the Jewish victims of Zwi Migdal, the Filipina’s haunting cry turned in my head into a keening that compelled me to give them voice and tell their truth.

Q: How did you come up with your character Batya?

A: The above-mentioned story by Sholem Aleichem appeared in the same short story collection where Tevye the Dairyman—the character we all know and like from Fiddler on the Roof—recounts to the author his family anecdotes. In the first story Tevye said that he had seven daughters; in another he said he had six. In the end, the author wrote only the stories of five of them.

It left me wondering what would have happened if, upon leaving the shtetel following a bloody pogrom, the family encountered this wealthy businessman from Buenos Aires? Wouldn’t the poverty and strife the family suffered tempt Tevye to let his sixth daughter marry him?

That’s how Batya's character came to be. However, for the purpose of focusing the novel on the main story line, some sisters became superfluous; the defiance by two sisters of their father’s wishes was enough to motivate Batya to be more obedient and even more attentive to her parents’ needs and feelings.

Q. How did you research the book?

A: Once Google generated the name of the organization, Zwi Migdal, I found a tremendous amount of information available in translated documents, nonfiction books, and academic publications.
In the last couple of decades I had been to Buenos Aires three times, but I don’t know Spanish.

Armed with photos from the time of the novel, the late 1800s-early 1900s, I hired two freelance researchers in Argentina, and they helped me better understand what I was looking at. If Batya walked from point A to point B, my researchers verified the names of the streets 120 years earlier.

For finer texture, I presented both researchers—a man and a woman—with the same questions about clothes, food, and architecture, and was able to extrapolate more nuanced details when crossing their answers.  

For historical accuracy, I consulted the director of Jewish archives in Buenos Aires, who, thankfully, knew English. She also read the final manuscript.

Once the protagonist, Batya, started dancing tango, what choice did I have but to learn it myself? I needed to write with authenticity about this complex dance—and the passions associated with it. For almost a year I took private tango lessons and occasionally spent an evening at a milonga in close embrace with total strangers (also my reason to quit tango once my research was done).

Q: What did you learn that particularly surprised you?

A: First, the sheer fact that such a meaningful chapter in history was hiding in plain sight, and so many people who know Jewish history had never heard of it.

Second, the magnitude and power of Zwi Migdal—and most importantly, the huge number of victims, which I calculated to be between 150,000 and 220,000.

Third, another fascinating chapter in Jewish history, of the incredible vision and benevolence of the Baron de Hirsch. In the late 1800s, he literally bought the freedom of hundreds of thousands of Jews from the Russian czar, and without any blueprint for such a mass transfer of people, sought to settle them in Argentina.

Fourth, my own emotions: I struggled about whether to tell a story that featured Jews in a negative light. But the cries of the victims overwhelmed me, forcing me to write this novel at a feverish pace.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from Batya's story?

A: Through Batya as the protagonist whom we learn to care for, I would like the readers to see the humanity of the prostitutes. Regardless of how they act and what they say, they are victims.

In the USA, the foreign girls and women have most likely been duped and kidnapped; they are enslaved here with no language skills or understanding about the resources available to them. Of the USA-born, the vast majority have experienced a painful history of sexual abuse, homelessness, and foster care. They are victims of our own society’s decades-long neglect.

I hope that The Third Daughter will serve as a platform for a call to action against sex trafficking, which is, sadly, as prevalent today as it was 120 years ago.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I imagine my reader as an intelligent woman who is as thirsty for knowledge as I am, yet one who needs not be fed and told what she must think and feel. She trusts me to take her on a can’t-put-it-down journey.

However, once I grab her attention with the opening scene, or the first several pages, she falls asleep for the night, my book tossed on the floor. She doesn’t get back to it until perhaps the next evening, after a full day of dealing with a boss’s demands, fighting with her mother on the phone, overspending at the beauty counter, rushing to get stitches on a child’s gashed chin, fretting about a pile of dirty laundry, or being aggravated when her car overheats in traffic.

Throughout her turbulent day I hope that my hold on her is so tight that she wonders time and again what will happen next in that book lying on the floor…. So tight that, when she finally falls back into bed, exhausted, all she wants is to pick up my story where she’s left it. And I hope that when the journey is over, she’s left with that satisfying feeling that stays with her long after she’s read the words “The End.”

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Talia Carner.

Sept. 28

Sept. 28, 1856: Kate Douglas Wiggin born.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Q&A with Steve Vogel

Steve Vogel is the author of the new book Betrayal in Berlin: The True Story of the Cold War's Most Audacious Espionage Operation. He also has written Through the Perilous Fight and The Pentagon: A History. He was a reporter for The Washington Post for many years, and he lives near Washington, D.C.

Q: You note that your father worked in Berlin for the CIA during the period you focus on in the book. Is that what first got you interested in the story of the Berlin Tunnel, which you recount in Betrayal in Berlin?

A: That was definitely a big part of it. He was assigned there as an undercover case officer in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and I was born there in 1960. That was too late for the Berlin Tunnel, but in time for the Berlin Wall. My father used to say they built the wall to keep me out.

I don’t think that was true, but in any event, I always felt a connection to the city. I went back over the years, including a bicycle trip with high school classmates where we went through Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin.

Then I ended up back in Germany as a reporter in the fall of 1989, just in time to cover the fall of the Berlin Wall. I had planned on staying a few months and ended up reporting from Germany for five years.

So Cold War Berlin always intrigued me. Of course, I’d known nothing of what my Dad was doing there, and I never had a chance to talk to him about it as he died many years ago, even before the wall came down.

But in subsequent years I would hear bits and pieces from his closest friends, and as they got older, I realized the window was fast closing on the opportunity to learn about the intelligence battle in Berlin in the early years of the Cold War. The story that really grabbed me was the Berlin Tunnel, which really seemed to capture all the murkiness and ambiguity of espionage.

Q: How did you get to interview George Blake, the spy at the center of your book, and how would you describe his attitude now about his spying activities during the Cold War?

A: I called him out of the blue. As a reporter, I’ve learned it’s often better not to ask permission to call someone, but just to call. A friend had given me Blake’s number, and I reached him one winter evening at his dacha outside Moscow. He was polite, and he answered some questions about the tunnel, but he didn’t want to speak for too long. 

Later when I was conducting research in Europe, I flew to Moscow hoping to see him. Again, it was unannounced—I didn’t want to give Blake a chance to tell me not to come. I took the train to Kratovo, where Blake lives, accompanied by Lena Yegorova, a translator who has worked with The Washington Post in Moscow.

That was an adventure. All I had were vague directions to walk down a little road until it intersected with a gravel path, and follow that for a few hundred yards past various walled-off dachas across several little intersections and hope that we would come to it. We had no street names or addresses. Somehow we found it, this traditional-looking wooden dacha, painted green with a steep gabled roof with tall pines all around the house, all surrounded by a high wall.

Unfortunately, Blake was ill at the time and unable to meet me. But his wife was very helpful and agreed to set up a telephone interview once he felt better.

When I spoke to Blake several weeks later, he was able to answer a lot of my questions on the details of how he betrayed the tunnel, and why the KGB nonetheless decided not to do anything to stop the tunnel, to protect him. It was very helpful for understanding his mindset, what he was thinking and doing at the time of the tunnel.

Blake doesn’t regret his espionage, though of course he admits what he found in the Soviet Union after his 1966 escape was a huge disappointment, with the Soviet communist state a complete failure. His view is that he was neither a traitor nor a hero. Writing about his escape, which was like a Keystone Cops adventure, was a lot of fun – definitely one of the craziest stories of the Cold War.

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

A: The interviews I did with the people involved were the most critical. I made that my top priority when I started, for the simple reason that almost everyone involved who was still around was going to be in their late 80s, or 90s, in one case 100 years old. Many of them had never spoken before about what they did.

It helped enormously that the CIA has declassified many aspects of the operation in recent years. They felt released from their vows of secrecy. In some cases, it was cathartic for them to talk about this. I also think there was a sense among many of them that this would be the last chance to get the true story down. I was very lucky in that respect as unfortunately a number of the people I spoke to have since died.

On the other hand, it was easier finding veterans of the Berlin tunnel who were still alive than it was finding veterans for the last book I wrote, about the War of 1812.

There were a number of very helpful archival sources on both sides of the ocean. The Imperial War Museum in London holds the records for Blake’s trial, including a remarkable, hand-written 14-page life history and confession he wrote for his attorneys that gave great detail about his captivity in Korea, his decision to secretly change sides in the middle of the Cold War, and how he went about betraying the tunnel and many other secrets.

In Berlin, the files of the Stasi, the former East German security service, has documents revealing the names and fates of agents betrayed by Blake and transcripts of his talks to East German intelligence officers.

The CIA has declassified a lot of records, some of which I obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and others that have been compiled into a very useful document collection.

The University of California Santa Barbara holds the papers of Bayard Stockton, a former CIA officer who served in Berlin and compiled a lot of interesting information about the Berlin base for the biography he wrote about Bill Harvey.

There are a lot of intriguing parts to the story, but to me the most fascinating is the dilemma the KGB faced when they had to choose between protecting their great mole, George Blake, or the secrets the tunnel would expose.

Q: What is the legacy today of the events you describe in the book?

A: I think you see it all over the place, particularly at a time when U.S. and Russian relations are filled with tensions and questions about surveillance and meddling.

Much of what we’re seeing today is very much in line with what happened in the 1950s--Russian disinformation campaigns and interference in elections, undermining democracy, the rings of sleeper Russian spies in the U.S. and Britain and so on.

Also, it’s important to point out that in some ways, the Berlin tunnel--which was surveillance on a mass scale never previously attempted--was a precursor to the mass surveillance the NSA conducts now.

Maybe the most important legacy is what didn’t happen. At a time when the U.S. feared a surprise Soviet attack and had almost nothing else in the way of decent intelligence, the tunnel offered assurances that helped keep the peace.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Being a single dad with three kids and trying to keep my head above water.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: This is a very complex story, with very little black and white but lots of shades of gray. In this age of Twitter and Facebook, people are very quick to issue verdicts and make judgments based on very little information, or bad information. I’ve tried to present the story in a manner that’s fair to all parties involved—the Americans, the British, the Soviets, and the Germans – looking at it from different perspectives.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Steve Vogel.

Q&A with Annika Dunklee

Annika Dunklee is the author of the new children's picture book Eee-Moo!. Her other books include My Name is Elizabeth! and Me, Too!. She lives in Toronto.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Eee-Moo!?

A: I have always loved playing around with words in my head. 

One day I was walking through the High Park Zoo where there are emus. I took the word emu apart and came up with eee and moo (nothing fancy), and further thought a pig could squeal “Eee!” and a cow, of course, could say “Moo!”.

This led me to think: what if an egg showed up on a farm, and when it cracked open, whatever popped out would suffer from a case of mistaken identity, and ta da! – Eee-Moo! was born.

Eee-Moo travelling by all the modes of transportation was based on my own experiences as a child, travelling from Toronto to my grandparent’s cottage, on the island of Koster, in Sweden.

It took 24 hours, door to door, to get there, and I travelled by cab, plane, train, bus, ferry and moped to get there (no rickshaw, kangaroo, kookaburra or koala, however).

Q: Why did you choose a platypus as the main character?

A: I decided that a platypus should be the lead character in the story for a few reasons:  they are from Australia (I wanted the little guy coming from very far away), they are adorable, and who doesn’t love a platypus!

Q: What do you think Brian Won’s illustrations add to the book?

A: When I write stories, I always include suggestions throughout, of what I envision the illustrations to look like. Brian not only took those suggestions, he took them to a whole other level! I was speechless when I saw his finals – such artistry!

My simple text juxtaposed with Brian's elaborate artwork makes the story work all that much more – it makes it funnier! The book wouldn’t be as beautiful or wonderful, if not for Brian’s illustrations. 

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

A: Most of my books are meant to make kids laugh and feel happy. Although the message of Eee-Moo! is about finding “home,” and that home is where your family and friends are, and inclusivity to some extent, I just really want kids to enjoy the whole experience of Eee-Moo’s journey, from start to finish.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am always working on many titles at a time, but some stories I shelve when I get frustrated with them, and think maybe some time away, will help me see them with fresh, more loving, eyes.

The one story I just finished writing is Martha: The Not Quite Perfect Unicorn (title not set in stone). The story is about a unicorn who was born with a horn which was not quite perfect, and is set in Scotland.

The manuscript is currently sitting with a couple of publishers.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My next book coming out is William’s Getaway, with Owlkids, in March 2020.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Elana Rubinstein

Elana Rubinstein is the author of the new children's book Once Upon an Apple Cake: A Rosh Hashanah Story. She lives in Los Angeles.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Once Upon an Apple Cake?

A: I started Once Upon an Apple Cake in college. In between classes, I was writing a story about a little girl who lived in a magical restaurant. It was pure wish fulfillment. The restaurant could do all sorts of things—like cook meals by itself and set the table (think Beauty and the Beast Be My Guest.)

Unfortunately, the story wasn’t really working. The plot and characters felt very bland to me. Something was definitely missing. 

At a certain point, I realized that I should change the focus of the story from a magical restaurant to the little girl who was actually living there. That’s how Saralee Siegel’s super-nose was born! After changing that crucial detail, the rest of the story fell into place. Saralee’s voice and unusual perspective made the entire book feel alive.

Q: What do you think the story says about the connections between holidays and food?

A: Saralee Siegel and her family are in the restaurant business. Their entire lives revolve around cooking delicious food for the Jewish holiday cycle. For the Siegels, food is a way to connect with the community around them. It’s almost like they are opening the door and allowing their whole town to join in on their family traditions.

Q: What do you think Jennifer Naalchigar's illustrations add to the book?

A: As soon as I saw Jennifer’s artist portfolio, I knew she was the perfect illustrator for Once Upon an Apple Cake. She added so many quirky details to the book. During the editing process, I didn’t want to add too many “art notes” because I knew that Jennifer would come up with something so much better!

I especially love how she illustrated each character, paying close attention to their fashion choices, hair styles, and accessories!

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

A: I hope that readers see how much the Siegels love each other, despite each person’s MANY eccentricities. The Siegels have true acceptance for one another. They may bicker, break things, forget important details, and drive each other nuts—but their love for each other surpasses it all.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am currently writing the second book in the Saralee Siegel Series! I can’t give a lot of details right now, but I know readers will love this second installment.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: If you have any family recipes you’d like to share with the Siegel Family, you can email Who knows, perhaps your recipe will make it into the official Siegel House menu. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 27

Sept. 27, 1921: Bernard Waber born.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Q&A with Daniel B. Schwartz

Daniel B. Schwartz is the author of the new book Ghetto: The History of a Word. He also has written The First Modern Jew: Spinoza and the History of an Image. He is associate professor of history and Judaic studies at George Washington University.

Q: What first intrigued you about the idea of the ghetto, and why did you decide to write a book about it?

A: First, I have a longstanding interest in tracing words, concepts, and images that cross borders, be they borders of time, space, or identity. This was also the focus of my previous book, on the history of interpretations of the 17th-century philosopher and heretic Baruch Spinoza, who is often considered the first modern Jew.

As for the word ghetto specifically, what struck me was that this term, so central to Jewish history, had come to be associated predominantly with African Americans, not simply in the U.S. but globally, even in Europe where both the ghetto idea and the word itself originated.

Most people, when they hear the word ghetto today, think of black segregation, or simply of blackness more generally (and controversially). Yet for nearly 90 percent of its 500-year history, the word ghetto was primarily associated with Jews, albeit in diverse ways that evolved over time.

My main goal in writing this book was to illuminate this “shared” history of the term ghetto, to chronicle the different meanings and connotations the word has borne in the Jewish experience as well as the “transfer” of the word from Jews to blacks in the post-World War II period.

Q: You write, "Only by understanding the winding journey of the word ghetto within the Jewish experience can we begin to understand the complications that have attended its journey beyond it." What do you see as the relationship between the Jewish experience and a more universal experience with the word ghetto?

A: I think the main thread that connects the Jewish experience and a more universal experience of the ghetto is an essential tension between its perception as both a kind of hell and a haven.

On one hand, the ghetto is a place to which you are restricted by the majority society, impoverished, dilapidated, desperately overcrowded, crime-ridden, dangerous, full of social pathologies. On the other hand, the ghetto is seen as a sort of fortress, an asylum from an antagonistic world, a site of community and solidarity, a place associated particularly for those who have escaped with authenticity and even home.

I don’t want to imply that these two poles have always been kept in balance. One of the key arguments of my book is that the spaces that have been called “ghettos” have varied considerably in their degree of coercion, segregation, poverty, and pathology.

The ghettos of the Holocaust may initially have been seen by some as a refuge where Jews at the very least would enjoy the protection of living amongst their own, but this proved in the end to be an entirely vain hope, and for anyone sane the Nazi ghetto could not be an object of nostalgia.

The original ghettos of early modern Europe do not appear to have been sites of violent crime.

And perhaps the main point I was trying to convey in the quotation you cited above was that the very diversity of forms the Jewish ghetto assumed (the legal ghettos of early modern Italy, Jewish immigrant ghettos like the Lower East Side, the Holocaust ghettos) makes the issue of comparing ghettos of the present to the “Jewish ghetto” especially fraught—for which past incarnation of the ghetto is being invoked in the comparison?

These caveats aside, I think it is fair to say that there has typically been a fundamental ambivalence characteristic of the ghetto idea, and that this links the Jewish ghetto to its successors. 

Q: What would you say are some of the most common misperceptions about the concept of a ghetto?

A: One of the main problems is when people see earlier instances of the ghetto through the lens of one of its later manifestations. It’s difficult for Jews in particular to hear the word “ghetto” today without thinking of the Warsaw Ghetto or Lodz Ghetto of the Holocaust.

But the original ghettos of early modern Europe—though also sites of legally compulsory segregation—bore little else in common with Holocaust ghettos beside the name. 

Though there were curfews that required Jews to be back in the ghettos of early modern Italy by a certain hour, when the gates would be shut and locked, Jews (so long as they were wearing some distinguishing garment, typically in the case of the Italian ghettos a colored hat) were free to leave the ghetto by day to conduct business or visit gentile acquaintances.

The boundaries of the ghetto were porous; there were always, at least during the permitted hours, Christians entering and Jews leaving. They were not only physically, but culturally permeable: behind the walls of the ghetto, Jews absorbed everything from the language to the folkways of the surrounding society, even if they tended also to “Judaize” them.

So we make a profound mistake when we impose the prison-like reality of the Nazi ghettos on the ghettos that coined the term. This is why the project of disentangling the various applications of the word “ghetto” is so important.

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

A: I researched this book relying on a broad range of materials and media that could attest to the changing meaning and usage of “ghetto.” Digital history sources, historical dictionaries, rabbinic responsa, newspaper and magazine articles, the genre of ghetto literature, historical and sociological studies—all these and more formed the evidence base for this book.

One of the most surprising discoveries I made in my research was the degree to which early modern Jewish communities often found a silver lining in their ghettoization.

The Jewish community of Verona, which was restricted to a ghetto in 1600, held an annual celebration on the anniversary of their ghettoization at which they recited festive hymns and prayers and paraded the Torah scrolls around the synagogue—perhaps in part because they had been ghettoized in the center of the city rather than in an outlying slum, or because ghettoization meant they were spared the far worse fate of expulsion.

One rabbinic opinion in the 18th century portrayed ghettoization as an act of divine providence and even mercy for facilitating the observance of certain Jewish laws. These may have been exceptional cases, but as I explained above, the tendency to find some positive significance in clustering and concentration is a recurrent theme in the history of the ghetto.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve just begun work on a multiethnic, multicultural history of arguably the most famous of all immigrant quarters—the Lower East Side—that will trace it from its German-American heyday in the mid-19th century to its gentrification today. But this project is at a very incipient stage so I don’t have much at this point to say about it.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Among other things, Ghetto is about the power of words and language. We tend to think we have minimized the scope of disagreement when we boil a debate down to semantics. ("It's just semantics.") But the reality is that so many of our cultural arguments manifest as arguments over words (terrorism, antisemitism, concentration camps), over what they mean, how they are used, and who gets to define them.

This is one of the central points my book drives home. Any attempt to write a history of the ghetto will repeatedly bump up against the problem, What is a ghetto? How should the term be used and defined? The meaning of ghetto has been stretched and contracted, appropriated for new groups and contexts, reclaimed by its original "owners," and accepted and rejected.

I was reminded of this core idea in my book during the controversy this past summer over the application of the label “concentration camps” to the immigration detention centers on the southern border. Some of the same arguments that were made to rebut this analogy (namely, its trespassing on the memory of the Holocaust) were trotted out in the past to resist the naming of segregated African American neighborhoods as ghettos. So my book speaks to very contemporary issues and concerns.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb