Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Q&A with Moira Butterfield

Moira Butterfield is the author of the children's picture book Home, Sweet Home. Her many other books include Welcome to Our World. She is based in the UK.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Home, Sweet Home?

A: I want children to be introduced to the diversity of the world in a positive and natural way. The best way to do that, it seems to me, is to relate material to their own lives - and the home is a perfect starting point.

I really want children to know that other children and families, though perhaps far away and living in different ways, are like them in many ways. My goal overall is to get children to notice what’s around them and be inspired by it to be curious. Actually kids are so naturally curious, aren’t they? I’m encouraging it!

I’m also very keen on the idea of children and adults sharing books together, and I thought the home would be an idea that all the generations could relate to.

Q: You include a wide variety of homes in the book--how did you choose the ones to focus on? 

A: I broke the information down into different areas of a home, then I chose examples that I found interesting and that I thought would make readers go “wow!”. I wanted the choices to be ones that stick in the mind.

Q: What do you think Clair Rossiter's illustrations add to the book? 

A: Clair’s work is perfect for this book. It’s full of tiny details to spot, and - really importantly - there are lots of diverse people living naturally, going about their day. I really wanted that. They’re not seen as “weird” or “funny.” They’re seen as both interesting and also similar to the reader.  

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

A: I hope that kids will become a) more aware of their own surroundings and b) more curious about the world.

I’m also thinking about the adults who might share this book with their children, too, and I hope they find it a good experience - sharing a reaction to the facts and pictures and perhaps chatting together and having their own questions to explore. I want everyone in the home to enjoy this book together!

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I have a couple of books on nature coming out next year (not sure when yet!). They’re about getting as much as possible from being outside. I hope they will inspire some good family walks!

I’m also really interested in inspiring children to get into science, so I’ve written a book about what the future might be like, using some of the amazing inventions happening today.

I’m about to start writing another book that I hope will inspire children to get interested in inventing for the good of the planet. I worry that children are getting a lot of negative messages and I want to try to give them hopeful thoughts for their own future and the future of the world. Big goals, huh? Well, I’ll do my best!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I am so delighted that children’s non-fiction is getting the attention and the illustrators it deserves. There are some gorgeous books out there that I’m sure will become family treasures. That’s fantastic, isn’t it! 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 27

Nov. 27, 1909: James Agee born.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Q&A with Cathy Barrow

Cathy Barrow is the author of the new book When Pies Fly. She also has written Mrs. Wheelbarrow's Practical Pantry and Pie Squared, and she writes a column for The Washington Post's food section. She lives in Frederick, Maryland.

Q: You write, “My view of pie became universal for anything wrapped up in pastry.” What exactly is a flying pie?

A: For Pie Squared, my slab pie book, I made about 200 pies while testing and creating recipes. There were always bits of dough and leftover fillings in my refrigerator and that led to making little hand-formed pastries to use up what was there.

The more I dug into pastries from around the world, the more I came to understand these pastries as a way for a little bit of food to serve and feed more people, simply by wrapping dough around something delicious.

I came up with the idea of a flying pie, one that requires no specific pan, and also, because there are so many international flavors, ones that fly around the world. 

Q: The recipes in this book span a variety of cultures. What were some of the favorites you discovered while working on this book?

A: That has to be the Kalbi short rib hand pie. I had only had these wonderful tangy, spicy, sweet, sticky ribs once but I became obsessed with the idea of wrapping that flavor up in pastry. When I discovered how easy it was to make them, I was delighted!

I think many of the fillings come from delicious leftovers, so readers can consider trying the fillings on their own, before encasing them in delicious pastry. 

Q: What would you advise a novice pie-maker to do when creating their first flying pie?

A: Make a galette - just the friendliest, most forgiving form of flying pies. And if that novice fears dough, use a grocery store pie dough. I'm not here to shame anyone. I just want everyone to make pie.

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

A: Working with all these different doughs and forms is fun and engaging. There's no reason to fear pastry. Pie making is a skill, not a talent, and with practice anyone can do it.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a proposal I'm working on, but I am not ready to talk about it. We've been renovating a sweet little house in Frederick, Maryland, since the spring and just moved in, so mostly I'm opening boxes and putting things away. I can't wait to get back into my kitchen. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Make a pie! And then share it with people you love.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Cathy Barrow.

Q&A with Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan

Jan Greenberg
Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan are the authors of the children's picture book Two Brothers, Four Hands, which focuses on artists Alberto and Diego Giacometti. Their many other books include Meet Cindy Sherman and The Mad Potter.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Two Brothers, Four Hands?

A: Two Brothers, Four Hands came about when we were visiting the National Gallery in D.C. to look at Lavender Mist by Jackson Pollock for our book Action Jackson.

Sandra Jordan
The gallery with sculpture by Alberto Giacometti was astounding and we almost forgot our train was leaving sooner than later. It inspired us to write a book about Alberto and his brother Diego, who helped him with every sculpture he ever made.

Diego Giacometti was talented, as well,, creating “furniture so magical that one sees sculpture and forgets its function.” He always said, “Alberto is the artist. I am merely a craftsman.”

This feeling that he needed to help his brother, considered the genius in the family from boyhood, kept Diego busy until Alberto died. After that he began in earnest to work on his own art, handcrafted lamps, tables, and chairs adorned with charming little animals: birds, foxes, deer, cats and more.

Q: What kind of research did you need to do on the Giacometti brothers, and did you learn anything especially surprising?

A: Along with visiting museums that exhibited Alberto's artwork, reading books about his work, as well as watching two wonderful videos, we also studied Diego's furniture, reading every source we could find and searching out the real thing in private collections and art galleries.

Many books were out of print but we tracked them down. James Lord's biography of Alberto Giacometti gave us a sense of the story in wonderful detail, especially the relationship between the brothers, each one very different in personality than the other.

We love the writing process, the collaboration, but each of us also loves research.

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

A: We thought young readers, many of whom have siblings, would relate to the bond between the brothers, even the times when they disagreed.

Q: How would you describe the relationship between the brothers, and what would you say is their legacy today?

A: Alberto struggled for years trying to find the right direction for his work. Again and again he would whittle the plaster figures he created down to nothing.

He struggled with failure again and again but [persisted with] his passion for making art and his conviction to make it right, to make it the way he felt in his heart, despite rejection, the exasperation of those close to him, and years of living with very little money. “Try again. Fail again. Fail better,” said his friend, the playwright Samuel Beckett.

The subject of “failure” just might resonate with our readers. It certainly did with us. After years working in his studio day and night, Alberto finally was willing to exhibit his paintings and sculpture. Alberto Giacometti became one of the most important and revered artists of his generation.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 26

Nov. 26, 1909: Eugène Ionesco born.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Q&A with William C. Davis

William C. Davis is the author of the new book The Greatest Fury: The Battle of New Orleans and the Rebirth of America. His many other books include Crucible of Command. He is a retired history professor who taught at Virginia Tech.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on the Battle of New Orleans in your new book?

A: The decision came out of discussions between me and my agent Jim Donovan of Dallas. 

I am very interested in the events and the characters involved in the 1800-1830 period of the new republic, and particularly in what was then known as the Southwest—Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Texas. 

There have been several books on the British Invasion of Louisiana, but none that delved deeply into the British records abroad in England and Scotland, or that exploited the incredible mass of eyewitness letters published in the newspapers of the time.  

There is still a lot of misconception about both the battles for New Orleans and their impact, and the opportunity to present some fresh ideas was also attractive.

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

A: There are two misconceptions that have been particularly tenacious. 

One is that the battle was won by Tennessee and Kentucky riflemen. That reflects a growing interest in the new “western” peoples of those states and a tendency to romanticize men who were already becoming folk heroes in their own lifetimes, like David Crockett, Reuben Kemper, Sam Dale, et al. 

It also reflected the East and West’s desire for individuality in their heroes, especially the daring, resourceful, and unerringly accurate marksman of the James Fenimore Cooper Leatherstocking novels. 

The fact is unarguable that it was American artillery that won the battle of Jan. 8, 1815, and inflicted horrendous casualties on the British. 

But cannon operated by gun crews are mechanistic things without personality. The buckskin-clad Kentucky or Tennessee rifleman was both more romantic and more acceptable to American aspirations; hence from the outset people who were not actually in or at the battle began glamorizing those individuals.

The other misconception is that, since a peace treaty had already been signed—though not yet ratified by Congress—the battle was unimportant in its impact on the peace that followed. 

It is a fact that by this time authorities in London had lost interest in reclaiming Louisiana for their ally Spain, and just wanted the war to end. But it took two months for communications to get from London to the British commanders in the Gulf, and fully a month for news from New Orleans to reach Washington, and nearly another month from Washington to London. 

In short, there was no way for quick reactions across the Atlantic. Had the British taken New Orleans in January 1815, it would have taken weeks for the news to reach London, and just as long for any response to get back to New Orleans. 

Three or more months could pass before the captor of lower Louisiana could have any instructions from home, be they orders to hold it in spite of the treaty, or to hand it over and evacuate. During those months the British could have done untold damage to Mississippi Valley trade and commerce, confiscated millions of dollars worth of cotton and other goods then stored in New Orleans. 

At the same time, the local population of Spanish heritage could have reasserted Spain’s claim, and it was a persuasive claim at that. Britain was resolved not to aid Spain in reclaiming Louisiana or at least New Orleans, but Britain was also resolved not to oppose it either. 

In the end, New Orleans and Louisiana were highly likely to have remained American possessions, but in the interim between a British victory and a British withdrawal, many things could have happened that would have impacted the region’s future for the coming generation.

Q: Can you say more about the legacy of this battle?

A: Besides the impact stated above, the battle left multiple legacies. 

For one, thanks to the growing newspaper press in America that followed events at New Orleans breathlessly, the attention of the states east of the Appalachians was refocused on the “west” as never before. 

The heroes of the battle became American heroes. It made Jackson president, our first from west of the mountains. It promulgated the “rifleman” mentioned above, who would be the dominant American folk hero until the post-Civil War emergence of the Cowboy. 

Thus the victory created a model of what Americans wanted to see themselves as being—rugged, independent, and individualistic.

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

A: The variety and quantity of primary sources available is staggering.

The Public Record Office and National Archives in England are loaded with masses of reports, diaries, series of correspondence, and more, most of which has never been thoroughly exploited. The Scottish National Archives are much the same, and private papers in the National Library of Scotland are almost as substantial. 

In the United States, the massive papers of Edward Livingston, close confidant of Jackson’s and an aide on his staff, have never been examined for material on the campaign, and several repositories in New Orleans itself have major collections, especially the Historic New Orleans Collection.

Beyond manuscripts, the newspapers of the era offered a major opportunity, especially since the development of digitization and optical character recognition programs have made it possible now to search hundreds of thousands of pages of period newspapers. 

I probably found 300 or more letters written from New Orleans in the newspapers, and for previous generations the only way to find them would have been to blow out my eyes spending years scanning microfilms. Now that same research can be done in a few weeks.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now I am working on restoring a 1928 Pierce Arrow convertible coupe, a nice break from writing. 

I have completed the editing and annotation of a remarkable Civil War correspondence until recently unknown and still in private hands, the 524 1863-1865 letters between Confederate General Gabriel C. Wharton and his wife, Nannie, which should be published in the next 18 months.  

Beyond that, I am discussing a book on the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery with my publisher, but no fixed plans as yet.

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

Q&A with J. Kasper Kramer

J. Kasper Kramer is the author of a new middle grade novel for kids, The Story That Cannot Be Told. She is an English professor, and she lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Story That Cannot Be Told, and for your character Ileana?

A: For about five years, I lived in Japan, where I taught at an international school in Tsukuba, Ibaraki. Some of my coworkers and best friends were Romanian women.

One night, a friend came over to tell me some fairytales as research for another book I was writing, but then she started telling me stories about growing up under Ceausescu and Communist reign. Sitting there listening, taking notes as fast as I could, I realized I had a very different book to write.

Ileana was inspired by my friends, who were about the same age in Romania in the 1980s. She also has pieces of me and, of course, just a lot of her own personality, which grew as I developed the story.

Q: The Kirkus review of the book says, "Kramer’s debut novel is rich with connections to today’s world while easily sidestepping the pitfall of heavy-handedness." What do you think of that assessment, and what connections do you see to today's world?

A: I think The Story That Cannot Be Told is one of those books that sort of sneaks important lessons in when you’re not really looking.

While I’m writing any story, my first goal is always to make sure it’s a good story. Anything I’m trying to “say” doesn’t matter much if people don’t enjoy reading what I wrote, because then they’ll just put the book down, right?

I suppose that’s what I felt the Kirkus review was getting at—Story says something meaningful but not at the expense of plot or character.

As to the connection to today’s world, when you look at the U.S. now and Communist Romania in the 1980s, I think there are some surprising parallels, many of which I didn’t even notice while I was drafting. I actually wrote an essay about this, which is up on Writer’s Digest.

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

A: Here’s the crazy thing: I hate titles. Desperately. I think I’m terrible at them.

But this one just popped in my head while I was still in the thinking/research stage of the book, and it was so much the perfect fit that it stayed put all the way to publication. (This will surely never happen again in my career!)

The title refers to an actual story in the book that Ileana is forbidden from telling. As a storyteller, this is difficult for her, especially because she suspects that the story may have some kind of magical power—and she just might be right.

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

A: The research for this novel was intense. I have no idea how many history books I read or articles and dissertations I ordered. I emailed experts and tracked down hundreds of blog posts from Romanian expats. My favorite kinds of research involve collecting photos and cooking food, and I got to do a lot of that, too.

Most importantly, though, my Romanian friends helped me by translating documents and speaking to relatives about their family history. After the first draft was finished, they each went through it on the phone with me, page by page, pointing out all my many mistakes. Plainly put, I couldn’t have written this book without them.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a few projects in various stages. There’s a MG ghost story set in 1910 NYC, as well as a folklore-inspired MG set in contemporary Japan. I’m also revising a YA historical fantasy set in 1850s Poland about a young woman whose family believes she’s a changeling.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Between starred reviews from Kirkus, School Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly, as well as a Junior Library Guild selection, this debut experience with Story has already gone well beyond my wildest dreams.

But more good news is coming—and it’s in the shape of a foreign rights deal and a stunning new cover reveal! If you’re interested in getting a peek, follow me on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 25

Nov. 25, 1890: Isaac Rosenberg born.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Q&A with Dave Connis

Dave Connis is the author of the new young adult novel Suggested Reading. He also has written the YA novel The Temptation of Adam. He lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Suggested Reading, and for your character Clara?

A: Back in the olden days of the internet, there were (and still are) these things called Yahoo Answers. It’s a community where you can just post questions to anything under the sun and random internet strangers would answer.

One girl’s question was spread around Twitter, “Is it okay to run a banned book library from my locker?” and I thought it was an amazing question, and I wanted to explore it, and those explorations became the plot of this book.

Q: What do you think the novel says about censorship?

A: It paints a picture that censorship is incredibly complicated and can't be boiled down to a one-size-fits-all answer. There are some places where it's clear what the answer is, but there are many more places where it's not, and we need to ask questions and figure out where those places are.

The topic of censorship is tied to things like societal ethics, moral philosophy, and other topics that people WAY smarter than us have been wrestling with for ages, and we need to be willing to admit that and attempt to uncover and unravel the depths of these questions while keeping and respecting human dignity for all involved.

Q: The Kirkus Review of the novel says, "Only a true believer could craft a work of such relevance and heart, and every facet of this novel...proves this author’s worth as a champion of literature." What do you think of that assessment?

A: It's really nice of Kirkus to say, and I'm very flattered, though, I do find it quite hilarious considering, for my last book, they said something like "readers of YA fiction about addiction would be better served elsewhere." I leveled up QUITE a bit, apparently. We'll see where the wind blows for my next book.

Q: The novel takes place in Chattanooga. How important is setting to you in your work?

A: Very! Setting, for me, often informs the story and plot. One of the first things I do when I start researching a story is go to to see what sort of crazy/unique things I can include in a story set in a particular place.

Sometimes, the setting is fine with being a minor character, but other times it demands more, but in order to know what it demands, I need to know everything I can about it.

I'd wanted to do a book based in Chattanooga for a while, and when I was thinking about the setting for Suggested Reading, I felt like I needed to devote the bulk of my brain power to the complexity of the topic and making the characters well-rounded, and I felt that I needed a setting I was more familiar with so the paths converged perfectly.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Oooh. Lots of things. The main two being a funny picture book about the similarities between a little girl who invents things and God, and a middle grade urban fantasy about a boy and a girl discovering that the giants who created America live in the National Parks.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I'm in the middle of deciding if I like Cheez-Its better than Goldfish, which is a pretty major thing considering how I've fought tooth-and-nail for Team Goldfish for the last five years.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Mark Binder

Mark Binder is the author of the new book The Misadventures of Rabbi Kibbitz and Mrs. Chaipul, the latest in his series of stories about the village of Chelm. His many other books include A Hanukkah Present. He is a former editor of The Rhode Island Jewish Herald, and is a professional storyteller.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your new book?

A: I like to compare this group of stories to the old rye bread commercial… you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy them.

That said, I’ve been writing what I call my “Life in Chelm” series for years. I was working as the editor of The Rhode Island Jewish Herald and a reporter didn’t turn in a story, so I wrote one.

I’ve written hundreds of stories for Jewish and non-Jewish newspapers and magazines, and published two collections and a novel of Chelm – A Hanukkah Present (which was the finalist for the National Jewish Book Award for Family Literature), Matzah Mishugas and of course The Brothers Schlemiel.

Although the books are a “series” they can be read in any order.

Many of the tales involved wise Rabbi Kibbitz and Mrs. Chaipul the caterer, so it seemed natural they'd finally get together.

I collected several favorites, wrote some new ones and created The Misadventures of Rabbi Kibbitz and Mrs. Chaipul. I call it “a novel of stories for adults.”

Q: What do you think accounts for the ongoing interest in the Chelm stories?

A: First of all they’re funny. Chelm stories are culturally Jewish but rarely religious, so non-Jews, Orthodox, Reform and non-practicing Jews, children and adults can all enjoy them. They’re both ageless and timeless. We need a lot of humor these days.

Q: Do you think a reader would have to be familiar with the older Chelm stories to appreciate your book?

A: Not at all.

Q: How would you describe the humor in your book--and in earlier versions of these stories?

A: The older “Helm” stories are little more than short jokes with (to be honest) flat characters. My stories have robust characters, real people who grow and change over time.

They are no more foolish than you or I. But their neighbors are certain that the villagers are fools.

Many people think that these are stories for children. Some are, but The Misadventures is a book meant for adults — and there are some stories your children will enjoy.

Most of my Chelm stories are good for a chuckle and a laugh. All of them will make you smile.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Almost as soon as I finished the last chapter of The Misadventures, I started writing new stories. So… there is a sequel in the works!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: In addition to being an author, I’m a performance storyteller. I love traveling around the world telling tales to audiences of all ages. Storytelling is a way to bring generations together.

That’s one of the reasons I enjoyed making the audiobook for The Misadventures, it’s a lovely listen.

You can find The Misadventures of Rabbi Kibbitz and Mrs. Chaipul in print, ebook and audiobook wherever such things are sold. 

For more information about my live storytelling programs, please visit my website.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 24

Nov. 24, 1849: Frances Hodgson Burnett born.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Q&A with Laura Sook Duncombe

Laura Sook Duncombe is the author of the new young adult book A Pirate's Life for She: Swashbuckling Women Through the Ages. She also has written the book Pirate Women. She lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Q: How did you choose the women you wrote about in A Pirate's Life for She?

A: I love all female pirates, but for PLFS I selected the 16 who we know the most about and are most sure they existed.

I wanted to include a broad range of ages/geographical areas/time period/ethnicities, and I wanted to make sure I chose the ones with the most exciting stories as well. So I carefully evaluated the 35 pirates in my first book and culled that list down to the 16 in PLFS.

It was tough! I was so sad to see some of them go...they've become like my daughters. My very rebellious, very wild daughters! 

Q: You write, "Readers should understand that it is difficult to separate fact from legend in pirate history." How did you research this book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: I researched this book by reading a lot of newspaper accounts and trial documents from these women's lives. I also relied heavily on the amazing research of the pirate scholars who've come before me...Dian Murray, Anne Chambers, Joan Druett, just to name a few. The female pirate researcher field is small but very mighty!

What surprised me was how many female pirates are out there but mislabeled. Some are just called "criminals," some are called "wife of pirate XYZ," and various other names, but when you read the stories it's clear that they are actually pirates! They have just been hidden in the shadows for too long. 

Q: Of all the pirates you've written about, are there one or two that you find particularly fascinating?

A: I love them all SO MUCH!

But I do especially love Sayyida al-Hurra because she's a Muslim refugee pirate queen. She doesn't look like how most female pirates are portrayed, but she was such a powerful woman and she was amazing at being a pirate.

I also love Grace O'Malley because she was a working mother pirate--she had her sons on board with her sometime. As a working mom myself, I am so stunned at all she accomplished. 

Q: You write, "The pirates in this book have a lot to teach women today about taking thing that other people say they cannot have." What do you hope readers take away from the book?

A: I hope readers can be empowered by these women to seize control of their own destinies. There's so much NO out there in the world, and I hope that readers can take NO and turn it into YES for themselves. Everyone deserves a chance to follow their own dreams, and I think pirates are a great example of people following their own dreams, however unorthodox they might be. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now I am working on a YA historical romance about two pirates, and a children's book about pirates. I just can't get enough!! Ypu know the crazy cat lady? I'm the crazy pirate lady. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I think that there's something for everyone in a pirate story. It's not all "yo ho ho" and peg legs...pirates represent freedom. And who doesn't love that?

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Susie Hodge

Susie Hodge is the author of the new book The Children's Interactive Story of Art. Her many other books include The Short Story of Art. She is based in the UK.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Children's Interactive Story of Art?

A: It was originally going to be called The Ultimate Guide to Art and it was a collaboration with Carlton Publishing and the National Gallery in London.

Q: The book features paintings from London's National Gallery--how did you choose which ones to include?

A: Once I'd planned the chapters/pages for the book, we had meetings with a consultant at the National Gallery to help choose the most appropriate works of art.

Q: The book also comes with a free app--how does it supplement the book itself?

A: The app means that whoever reads the book can create their own virtual art gallery with their own selected works of art in it and also play games about art, such as doing a jigsaw to create a work of art, spotting the differences between two images, or picking out the odd one out from a group of paintings.

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

A: A love of art – or at least an interest in it that will encourage them to look at art more and find out more about it now and throughout their lives. I believe art is so enriching and I'd love everyone else to feel that way about it too!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm writing several books at different stages at the moment; on women artists, the Dutch Golden Age, Paul Klee, Michelangelo, how to draw and some others that I can't discuss as they're only at idea stage now!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Those last books are all for adults, but I get lots of my ideas for children's books through meeting children of all ages when I run workshops in schools all over the world. Children, like art, are inspirational!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 23

Nov. 23, 1916: P.K. Page born.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Q&A with Nicholas Buccola

Nicholas Buccola is the author of the new book The Fire Is Upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate over Race in America. His other books include The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and Salon. He is the Elizabeth and Morris Glicksman Chair in Political Science at Linfield College, and he lives in Portland, Oregon.

Q: You write of the 1965 debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley, "At Cambridge [University], the powder keg of their intellectual struggle blows up, for all the world to see." What were some of the reasons you focused on these two figures?

A: My way into the book was through Baldwin. I was invited to write an essay about Baldwin for a book, and I came across the debate with Buckley. I became mesmerized by the debate—here were two individuals with radically different backgrounds and views on stage. I began to think about a smaller book, and then it grew into a larger book.

The idea was to treat the debate as a way in, but the longer story would tell about Baldwin and Buckley, weaving intellectual history, political history, and a little personal biography into the story of the civil rights and conservative movements.

I’ve gotten questions about the pairing—it’s an odd couple to be sure, how they conceived of their roles, and the kind of thinkers they were. But there’s a way in which putting them together makes sense. Baldwin provides a lens to understand someone like Buckley. Buckley was a very important popularizer of the conservative movement, the kind of person we need to understand.

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

A: Most of my work focuses on the 19th century, so this was different. I wanted to know more about how they got there that night. My students and I tried to find the people who hosted the debate. We tracked down witnesses, and got the backstory of how it happened.

I had read a lot of Baldwin, and was gathering Buckley research—all the published writing he has. Also, there’s a really deep archive at Yale, a robust collection of letters. I did a lot of archival work. Baldwin’s archive opened in 2017 at the Schomburg Center in Harlem. I’d been writing since January 2016, so I had some backfilling to do.

There were multiple methodologies for the book—interviews, memories after 50 years, trying to play that against what I found in the archives. Once I came up with the structure, there was so much material. It was a lot of work, but the subject is so rich, I had more than enough to tell the story.

Q: What would you describe as the legacy of each man, and how do you think their views would be received in today's political climate?

A: The legacies of these two individuals, the spaces they occupied on the American intellectual scene back in the day, versus the world we currently inhabit—the legacies of each are extraordinarily complicated.

Buckley has a legacy where the dominant narrative is one of appreciation. On the contemporary left, people disagreed with his politics but saw him as a thoughtful conservative, willing to engage with the other side. Firing Line was on for many years. People on the far left appreciate Buckley for giving a voice to their heroes on his show.

He was so prolific—he had a magazine, newspaper columns, a TV show—he was a fixture of a thoughtful, peculiar brand of conservatism. His legacy is intriguing—there’s a longing for his style.

Substantively, there’s been an attempt to extricate Buckley from the current moment on the right: “Buckley would be turning over in his grave.” He made it clear he was not a fan of Donald Trump, but the racial politics Trump tapped into—there are a lot of things we’re seeing now that he contributed to.

That’s a more complicated legacy for people fond of Buckley to grapple with. Having a conversation on Buckley’s views on race is important.

Baldwin was a really fascinating character in terms of his status in the American mind. In his heyday, he was one of the most famous writers in the world. With King, he was the most important in the civil rights movement.

Then he was largely marginalized—he popped up every now and then; he was anthologized. Baldwin’s voice was lost for a long time, and then after I started on the book, I was heartened to see the Raoul Peck film [I Am Not Your Negro] come out. There seems to be a Baldwinian movement.

He provides us with a powerful lens to view our current political predicament. He didn’t want to be labeled in various ways. Baldwin defied labeling, but the way he viewed the world is of enduring relevance, at the nexus of identity, morality, and power. His legacy is alive and well. My slogan would be, Make America Read Baldwin Again.

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

A: Some readers might arrive to the book without much background in either history. Some come with a deep background on studying one movement. Somebody said she devoted her time to studying Baldwin and was loathing the idea of having to read the Buckley part of the book, but she said that having to work through the Buckley stuff, though painful, was worthwhile.

Understanding that history, the evolution of American racial politics--we all have a duty to do that. If we care about racial justice, we have to think about the forces that resisted it. Powers adapt, and we have to counter that. I hope readers will take that part of the history seriously, and think through what racism is and what anti-racism is.

With Baldwin, I hope that for readers who have not spent much time thinking about Baldwin, this will be an entrée into his thought and people will read a lot of Baldwin. His legacy is most valuable in the sense that he was pushing us to dig deeper, to go beneath the surface of our politics.

Baldwin pushes us to get to the moral core of things. He helped me think through the ways I view the world.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: As I worked on this book, I kept feeling like I was examining the tip of a very large iceberg. This period in the ‘60s, there was so much happening then, and the legacies are so powerfully with us today. I was thinking about the question of the concept of freedom. I’m a political theorist by background, and I think about the big questions in politics.

I was taken by the concept of freedom, one that’s at the heart of the civil rights struggle. At the same moment, there was the rise of the Goldwater movement, “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”  I’m playing around with a book that would examine that in detail.

The latest version might be a companion to this book, looking at Martin Luther King Jr. and Barry Goldwater as leaders and as symbols of freedom. They come to mean something to those following them.

The book focuses on them, their inner circles, and gets at the competing concepts of freedom. It’s an issue in this book. It’s relevant to today—freedom and liberation today can mean such different things.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The book has a full transcript of the debate. The BBC recording of the debate on YouTube was edited to fit within an hour. The book makes available the full transcript, and the audio book has the original audio recording. The students in the Union stand up and ask questions. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Robert L. Klitzman

Robert L. Klitzman is the author of the new book Designing Babies: How Technology is Changing the Way We Create Children. A medical doctor, he is a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University. His other books include Am I My Genes? and When Doctors Become Patients, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including JAMA and The New York Times.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on reproductive technology in your new book?

A: I wrote a previous book, Am I My Genes?, seven years ago. I interviewed people about why they were getting genetic testing—people who were at risk of different diseases, including Huntington’s disease. If you have the gene, you will die of it. There’s a 50 percent chance that each of your children will have it.

People said, Should I have kids? Should I abort the fetus? If I screen my genes, what will that mean about my own life—I would have been screened out as an embryo.

And also, a friend asked me to be a sperm donor, that I wouldn’t have to be involved in raising the kid. I thought, That’s interesting. There are friends undergoing IVF, gay couples having kids. Ten percent of all people in the world are infertile, and people are using IVF, and there are a lot of questions.

The U.S. is one of three countries where you can buy or sell human eggs. It’s the only country where you can rent a womb. It’s become a multi-billion-dollar industry, and with the technology, you can change the genes of your descendants.

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

A: I started to interview doctors, patients, people at IVF clinics. I thought I’d focus on screening, but I realized there was a whole range of issues: how much it costs, how much is a child worth, how people struggle with that.

I was struck with the fact that in this country, most egg or sperm donors are anonymous. In many countries, that’s illegal. A man’s sperm can produce 130 kids. In Europe, there are no anonymous donors. In Ireland, you get a birth certificate that says, created by donor sperm.

Only three countries buy or sell human eggs. I was surprised. This is eugenics—the price of eggs go up with SAT scores. You want your son to look like Brad Pitt, they will give you a donor. We’ve turned reproduction into a multi-billion-dollar business, and it is unregulated in the U.S.

And also what struck me is for a woman who want a kid and is infertile, how hard that is. There are lot of emotional issues.

Q: What do you see looking ahead when it comes to the future of reproductive technology and the ethical issues associated with it?

A: I think one big issue is going to be gene editing. We have a technology, CRISPR, that’s like genetic scissors. It’s been done in China. Increasingly, this will be done—put in genes related to socially desirable traits. You can make children taller. There are genes associated with IQ. There may be risks involved. These are one set of concerns I have.

The other is that IVF clinics report data to the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] but it’s voluntary. We need more understanding of what’s going on. Seven percent of all births in Denmark use IVF. The prediction is that there will be 10 percent in the U.S. born this way, and with the ability to select genes.

This will enable us to get rid of certain genes, but it will be expensive. Breast cancer will be a disease of poor people, as the wealthy will be able to screen for it. Will there be a need for more insurance coverage? 

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

A: The term is sometimes used in the narrow sense, to alter the genes of a child, but I use it metaphorically, for a range of issues. What egg and sperm donor we choose, the embryos we reject—we are now in the business of designing babies. We are affecting, and have altered, reproduction. Making it technological gives us a wide range of choices.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a different project. The working title is, Doctor, Will You Pray for Me?. It’s about what patients can teach us about religion and spirituality today. Religion and spirituality issues come up, but we don’t teach doctors to deal with it.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I wrote the book with several audiences in mind. One is a general educated audience. Everyone has someone they know, even if they’re not aware of it, who have used artificial reproductive technology. But there’s a taboo about it. It’s a huge multi-billion-dollar business—you can get rid of diseases, but there are ethical issues. For people trying to have a child, it’s important, but for a general audience, there are meaningful stories.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb