Friday, November 15, 2019

Q&A with Sidney Blumenthal

Sidney Blumenthal, photo by Ralph Alswing
Sidney Blumenthal is the author of the new book All the Powers of Earth: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1856-1860. It's the third in his series of biographies of Lincoln, preceded by Wrestling With His Angel and A Self-Made Man. He is a former senior advisor to both Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, as well as a former reporter for The Washington Post and editor and writer for The New Yorker. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: What do you see as the key to Lincoln’s state of mind during the 1856-1860 period?

A: Lincoln’s state of mind changed over time. He began this period [indicating that] politics were almost completely out of his mind—which I don’t believe. When Stephen A. Douglas proposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which potentially would open the area to slavery, he [became more involved].

But the Whig Party had disintegrated. He had no vehicle. He wrote to [his friend Joshua] Speed and others to say, I’m a Whig, but there’s no Whig Party. It took until 1856, when he invented the Illinois Republican Party.

His state of mind changed as the crisis heightened. It began with Douglas opening the question of slavery again, and led to Lincoln being completely committed and galvanized to a political cause. He realized he needed to make a new political organization.

He asked, How do I hold this together, with its disparate factions? How do I articulate what the politics of the moment are as things are changing?

Events kept intervening. Suddenly there was the lightning bolt of the Dred Scott decision. Lincoln thought the situation was more radical—he was thinking there could be a second Dred Scott decision that could nationalize slavery, not just in the South but in the North.

Lincoln was completely engaged, working on this problem. He was never out of politics. Even when he lost [to Douglas for Senate] in 1858, he recovered very quickly, and said the cause must go on.

In one letter he said there would be another explosion, and he was right: John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry. There was always something that accelerated the crisis. Each time he was both in the forefront of the political organization and at the same time internally figuring out how to respond.

Q: How would you define the relationship between Lincoln and Douglas during this period?

A: Lincoln had always been in competition with Douglas, since the 1830s, even before the 1840 campaign when the Whig Party came together and Lincoln really became a Whig. Douglas always rose above him.

Some of it was personal, dealing with Douglas’s own personal qualities. He was highly intelligent, ambitious, ferocious, and ruthless. He had legislative skill, and was a master demagogue. He had the ability to bring along other people, partly by corrupting them.

In this period, Lincoln was wandering around his judicial district, and was suddenly compelled forward—and it was Douglas who was the trailblazer. Everywhere Douglas went, Lincoln went. Lincoln initially had a sense of inferiority. Douglas was above him, was one of the leading figures of the time, was dominant in Illinois. Lincoln was now competing with him.

In the beginning of Lincoln running for Senate in 1858, Lincoln’s friend Jesse Fell, an industrialist and great reformer, proposed to Lincoln that he debate Douglas. Lincoln found himself standing under balconies where Douglas was speaking. He was not equal to Douglas, and tried to goad Douglas into debating him.

Douglas had an exclusive train on which he went from town to town. Lincoln would follow him. There are description of Lincoln jumping over fences following the crowd. Eventually, he got Douglas to debate.

Q: How would you describe Lincoln’s views toward slavery during the four years before his election as president?

A: Lincoln was always anti-slavery. Before the Kansas-Nebraska Act, everyone in party politics felt slavery had been taken off the national agenda by the Compromise of 1850. Suddenly it was put back on, and it divided the parties. It was the ultimate reason it smashed the Whigs and led to the crackup of the Democratic Party.

Lincoln was opposed to the extension of slavery. He believed slavery had to be dealt with politically. He believed the Constitution had an anti-slavery background and that there were means of doing this.

Q: Given today’s political climate, what do you hope readers take away from this biography?

A: I hope they learn about Lincoln as a man who became a great political leader, and about how he developed qualities of leadership that put him not above politics but in the middle of it.

Lincoln developed as a human being through his extraordinary life, rising through poverty, seeing America as it developed as a new nation, maturing from a raw frontier character into somebody who was incredibly self-disciplined and deeply working on himself to possess the skills required to understand the realities he faced. He anticipated what those were, and persuaded people to his position.

He understood, having encountered this through his political life, the facets and dangers of demagogues. He was in constant friction with Douglas, who was a master demagogue and knew how to manipulate falsehoods. Lincoln learned how to cope with that.

He thought about public opinion, not that it was some neutral thing. He said at various points that it’s been debauched by demagogues, and his dealings with people had been poisoned.

And then there were larger forces he had to deal with. The title of the book is his definition of the slave power. “All the powers on earth” converge to keep slaves in [bondage]. How does he undo that? He has to create the instruments of power himself.

He created a party, he worked with others—but he was the key. He was working on himself all the time, thinking things through at a personal level, a political level, and a moral level. And he captured the full dimension of the crisis, and brought people along. He didn’t shrink from the crisis and the threat to democracy.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on book four. When book three ends, Lincoln is elected, and immediately South Carolina secedes. Four begins with the politics of secession. It will go through Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: If Lincoln were alive today, he would understand that political parties change. He would not recognize the Republican Party to be his Republican Party. He would see it as a combination of the forces that he had to contend with that were opposed to him.

What they have become is the opposite of Lincoln’s Republican Party. They’ve taken on the coloration of the Democratic Party of the slave power, and the Know-Nothing nativist party, both at once. Some Know-Nothings were not pro-slavery, and some of the Democrats were not nativists. This Trump Republican Party is the worst of everything from the past that Lincoln had to deal with. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Sidney Blumenthal.

Q&A with Joseph Caldwell

Joseph Caldwell is the author of the new memoir In the Shadow of the Bridge. His other books include The Pig Trilogy and Bread for the Baker's Child. Also a playwright, he lives in New York City.

Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir?

A: It had to do with my editor, Joe Olshan, and another guy, Mark Nichols. We would have conversations about the AIDS epidemic, about being a gay Catholic, about my love for [William] Gale Gedney. At one point, Joe said, Why don’t you write a memoir? I’ll have a contract for you. Once I started, I became very interested in it.

Q: Much of the book takes place in New York City in the 1960s and ‘70s. What do you see as the similarities and differences between the city then and now?

A: Everything has changed. I came to New York in 1950. It was an inexpensive city. At that time, most of the television [industry] was still in New York, so a lot of [TV] actors were in New York. Nobody can afford to come to New York anymore.

Some things have changed for the good. At that time, and thereafter, if you were gay, you could be evicted from your apartment or be fired from you job. That’s not true anymore. It was dangerous for a politician to go against the dictates of the cardinal. In that way, New York has improved.

I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. This isn’t the city I came to, but that’s what you get for sticking around one place so long!

There was a lot wrong with the city, such as discrimination against Puerto Ricans. It was far from a utopian society. But I was young and free to do what I liked to do.

When people say, Why did you come to New York? To be a writer. But to be more honest, I said, Sex. It was sexual freedom. I could be a gay person in New York. We all supported each other. We were discriminated against, but we had wonderful support.

It was an exclusive club we were enrolled in at birth. I hadn’t had a close friend since puberty. I could find people with whom I didn’t have to be secret.

Q: You mentioned a topic you discuss in the book: being gay and Catholic. Can you say more about that?

A: They certainly didn’t make me feel very welcome. Somebody said, They don’t want you. I said, If they don’t want to share the Church with me, let them leave.

My quarrel with them is a form of intimacy. It’s a more intimate way of being Catholic.

Q: The book is divided into three sections. How did you choose the structure?

The core of the book was my love for Gale Gedney, a photographer, and the wonderful summer we had together. I didn’t want it to be over. In the middle section of the book, I wasn’t with him. In the third section, I was [again].

When the epidemic came along, I volunteered at St. Vincent’s Hospital. We would be a buddy to a person diagnosed with AIDS. We would stay with that person and give him companionship. One of the worst parts [of the illness] was abandonment. People were abandoned.

In the program, a person diagnosed with AIDS would have a nurse, a social worker, and a volunteer, a companion. We had a wonderful slogan: No demands and no expectations. Everything you did was determined by the needs of the patient. We had very extensive training.

When I found out Gale had AIDS, we became friends again. I wouldn’t dare have mentioned I still was very much in love with him.

The first part of the book was when I met him. The second part was without him. The third part of the book was when I was with him to the end.

Q: You relate some very difficult experiences in the book. Can you describe what it was like to write about it?

A: It wasn’t difficult because enough time had gone by. It had been 30 years since Bill [Gedney] died, in 1989. And the patients I had were all so different.

Out of the epidemic, I wrote two books: Bread for the Baker’s Child, about grieving, and Lazarus Rising, about my rage at the epidemic. It was so dark, nobody’s ever going to publish it.

Because I’d written those, I thought, I can’t get any gloomier, so that’s when I wrote my first Pig book. My agent said, Can you write another one? I didn’t know I was going to write a third one. It was an antidote to myself for the terrible grieving I went through. I went through grieving with each of my patients.

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

A; When I started, the original title was Digressions, Asides, and Yet Another Love Story. Joe Olshan said it should be called In the Shadow of the Bridge. I said, You’re absolutely right! It gave me the right to use the epigraph from Hart Crane’s poem about the bridge. The other title wasn’t serious enough and I really wanted it to be serious.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just gave my agent—I’m 91—a young adult novel!

I have Lazarus Rising, I wrote a Book of Job that nobody wanted to publish. But what’s important to me is that I wrote it. It’s nice to get published and get a good review, but nothing can compete with a day I get to work. I can never regret anything.

I’m a writer because I was given a gift. There’s nothing I did to deserve it. I’ve fulfilled my gift, and life doesn’t get any better than that.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Sue Macy

Sue Macy is the author of the new children's picture book biography The Book Rescuer: How a Mensch from Massachusetts Saved Yiddish Literature for Generations to Come. Her many other books include Miss Mary Reporting and Wheels of Change. She lives in Englewood, New Jersey.

Q: Why did you decide to write a picture book biography of Aaron Lansky?

A: When I was in college I focused on American Jewish history. Since then I’ve written close to 20 books for kids and young adults, but until now, not one of them was on that subject. I got to the point where I looked back on my career to date and felt it was time to return to my roots.

At the same time, my dad passed away and our family was making charitable donations in his honor. We gave money to the Yiddish Book Center and I had an ah-ha moment.

The idea of saving books and honoring books really appealed to me, and I thought kids of all backgrounds could relate to that. And Aaron talks eloquently about what those books represent—the history and culture of the Jewish people.

His story seemed like an accessible way to explore the importance of literature as a means of cultural transmission.

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

A: I started by reading Aaron’s book, Outwitting History, which is a fantastic account of his experiences with the Yiddish Book Center through 2004. I also spoke with folks at the Center and had a wonderful interview with Aaron.

I read the newspaper and magazine articles about Aaron and the Center that have appeared over the years, and interviewed Amanda Seigel, the librarian at the Dorot Jewish Division of the New York Public Library, who brought me up to date on the state of Yiddish today.

And of course I visited the Yiddish Book Center several times. I even took a weekend course on Jewish photographers from the 20th century there last fall. They have wonderful programming focusing on history and culture, as well as the Yiddish language.

As for surprises, working on the book made me realize how many Yiddish words and phrases I know. I am not a Yiddish speaker by any means, but I grew up with a grandmother and mother who spoke Yiddish, and I guess more of that imprinted on my brain than I realized.

I spend a lot of time reading lists of Yiddish expressions, to make sure I was using words correctly. I was surprised that even though I don’t use those expressions in everyday speech, they’re still a part of me.

Q: What do you think Stacy Innerst's illustrations add to the book?

A: Stacy’s illustrations add dimension and depth to the story. Some of them, including the shtetl landscape and the Holocaust spread, are poignant and emotional, while others, like the “Dumpster dive,” have just enough humor to lighten the mood.

I also love that he included a cat throughout. I didn’t mention a cat in the manuscript and in fact, we later found that Aaron is allergic to cats, though he said he has no objection to pictures of cats! I wrote the manuscript with my late cat, Annabelle Lee, by my side, so it’s a nice memory for me.

Q: What do you hope kids take away from reading about Lansky and his Yiddish book collection?

A: Aaron’s story shows that one person can make an enormous difference on a global scale. He set out to satisfy a personal need for reading material in Yiddish, but he was astute enough to realize his difficulty in finding books was part of a bigger problem.

Through his own determination and sechel (wisdom), he ended up preserving a vital resource for understanding the culture of Eastern European Jews.

I also hope that The Book Rescuer will inspire kids to consider the place of books in their lives, how books feed their imagination and present information that helps them understand the world. Maybe the next time they look at a book they will see it a little differently. I know Aaron’s story had that effect on me.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a book coming out in February from National Geographic called Breaking Through: How Female Athletes Shattered Stereotypes in the Roaring Twenties. It’s young adult nonfiction, focusing on a watershed period in both women’s sports and the changing narratives about women and femininity.

I am also working on a few picture book projects focusing on Jewish women. More will be revealed soon!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I think the hardest part of producing this book was making sure every Yiddish word was spelled and defined correctly. Fortunately, Dr. Asya Vaisman Schulman, the director of the Yiddish Language Institute at the Yiddish Book Center, reviewed those words and definitions many times. I’m glad we had an expert onboard!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Sue Macy.

Nov. 15

Nov. 15, 1887: Marianne Moore born.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Q&A with Larry Loftis

Larry Loftis is the author of the book Code Name: Lise: The True Story of the Woman Who Became WWII's Most Highly Decorated Spy. The book is now available in paperback. Loftis, an attorney, also has written Into the Lion's Mouth.

Q: You note that you first learned about Odette Sansom, the subject of Code Name: Lise, while researching other potential book topics. What drew you to her story?

A: I write nonfiction thrillers, which sounds like an oxymoron, but you can do them if you have enough action, suspense, intrigue, and cliffhangers. 

The problem is that 99.5 percent of spies do one great thing, or have one great or dramatic experience. If you want a nonfiction story that can be crafted as a thriller, you need about 20 of those things ... which means that I have to find the needle in the haystack. Odette's story was one of them. As Kirkus Reviews said, "Every chapter ends with a cliffhanger."

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

A: A quality nonfiction book about World War II always starts with the National Archives (Kew in the UK, NARA in the U.S.), because that's where the official records are kept. After that, you basically have to read everything ever written about your character and the people involved: autobiographies, biographies, interviews, etc. 

So for my book, that meant not only Odette, but Peter Churchill, Hugo Bleicher, Major Buckmaster, and the SOE [Special Operations Executive]. 

And what surprised me would be a spoiler to reveal, so I'd better not say.

Q: What does Lise's story say about the role of women in espionage during World War II?

A: During World War II, the Germans began rounding up men in occupied countries for forced labor in Germany. The SOE desperately needed women—who had far less chance of being nabbed—to act as couriers. 

The problem in France, however, was that Germans and Vichy officials could recognize a woman who spoke French with a British accent ... which in all likelihood meant that she was a spy. What they needed was the one in a million like Odette, someone who could speak French without an accent.

But it was a terribly dangerous job. SOE couriers in France had the second highest fatality rate of any Allied soldiers or operatives: 42 percent.  Only Britain's Bomber Command had a higher rate (45 percent).

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

A: As with most World War II stories, there were many heroes in Code Name: Lise: Odette, Peter Churchill, Arnaud Rabinovitch (their radio operator), Paul Frager (French Resistance), and Father Paul Steinert, a German priest who ministered to Odette and Peter while they were incarcerated at Fresnes Prison. All risked their lives to help each other. 

In writing nonfiction thrillers, my goal is to educate (about true World War II stories and events), while entertaining. Many fiction readers will not touch nonfiction books because they find them dry or boring; my hope is that they will read and enjoy my books as much as they do any novel. 

And for the hard-core nonfiction readers, I hope they will plunge into the end notes to digest and enjoy the scholarship behind the writing.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have my third nonfiction espionage thriller coming out in March 2021. It's about an American female spy who worked for the OSS (forerunner of the CIA).

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Many people ask me if I have met or talked to Odette's relatives. Indeed, I correspond almost daily with two of Odette's granddaughters, Nicole Miller-Hard (who lives in New Zealand) and Sophie Parker (who lives in England). In fact, the paperback edition of Code Name: Lise has an Afterword with stories and photos from them. They truly have been a blessing to me, and are wonderful cheerleaders for the book. 

On my website you can watch the piece that The Today Show did for the book and story. It was particularly special for me because Nicole brought her entire family over from New Zealand for the taping, and she and her two daughters (Odette and Francesca) are interviewed as well. Nicole also brought a number of family photos of Odette, which the producers seamlessly weaved into the interview.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Elayne Klasson

Elayne Klasson is the author of the new novel Love Is a Rebellious Bird. A psychologist, she has worked at San Jose State University. She lives near Santa Barbara, California.

Q: You write, "When you begin to get serious about your writing in late middle age, there is the sense that time is precious." How long did you work on this novel, and how long have you been writing fiction?

A: In my late 40s, 25 years ago, after a career in academia and raising my four kids (much of it on my own as a widowed single mother), I asked, “If not now, when?” Although I’d written a fair amount of academic material and some journalism, I had always been passionate about fiction and so began.

Early on, in my 40s, I got some encouragement: winning a few contests and awards and residencies. However, Love is a Rebellious Bird took root five years ago after attending a high school reunion in Chicago and becoming interested in how those high school relationships influence, but do not necessarily define, who we become.

Q: How did you come up with your characters Judith and Elliot, and how would you describe their relationship?

A: I soon realized that long-form fiction was where I was most comfortable. I like to tell a story over time and I like to develop a character’s backstory. Taking off from this high school reunion I attended, I wondered about this real boy/man Elliot, who had always been every girl’s crush.

What would happen if this extremely desirable and attractive person actually had and maintained a relationship with one of the more ordinary girls/women who adored him? What happens when a charismatic and beautiful man actually becomes involved with someone not quite of his stature? I was interested in the power balance of this relationship over time.

Q: You note of your decision to tell the story in second person, addressed from Judith to Elliot, "I wasn't happy with this being told to an anonymous audience." What do you think the second-person narration adds to the novel?

A: I hope it adds two things: honesty and intimacy. A contract of dishonesty existed between Elliot and Judith. She is the loyal friend. Even when they sleep together, she is not to openly admit her love for him. That admission would change everything. By addressing Elliot directly in this novel, Judith’s story becomes more honest. And because it is more honest, I hope it is more intimate.

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

A: I struggled over this. I didn’t write this novel to depict any great social message. Some readers have seen a “Me Too” story in the book. But I was hopeful that through this novel, readers would look at their choices in finding love in their own lives. I start out with that question: “Why do we love the people we do?”

I hope readers will take away Judith’s courage in looking at her choices and what they cost her as well as what they gave her. As we age, I think this accounting and self-examination is important. I like that Judith is not a victim—she is stubborn, analytic, sarcastic—but she always takes responsibility for how she lived her life.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have an unpublished novel I finished before Love is a Rebellious Bird. It is called The Earthquake Child. Having an adopted child, I was terribly interested in the interplay of nature and nurture—especially when a child is adopted by a family culturally and economically different than his biological family.

Again, following an adoptive child over decades, I tell his story from three voices. I am revising the novel and hope to publish it in 2021.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: It is a thrill and surprise that I am publishing my debut novel at the age of 72! I have worked hard and always felt that when the work was good enough, it would be published. I feel excited and exhilarated to be talking about and touring with this novel and am treasuring the experience. As I said earlier, I feel every moment if precious and I don’t want to waste any of it.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Matthew Nino Azcuy

Matthew Nino Azcuy is the author of the poetry collection My Castle. He lives in Olney, Maryland.

Q: Over how long a period did you write the poems in My Castle?

A: I wrote My Castle in September of 2017 while finishing up my associate’s degree at Montgomery College Maryland. It was a beautiful fall and I wanted to write something different than I had prior. I had independently published several works, which were very direct poetry.

My prior works did not leave anything to interpretation. With My Castle, I wanted each poem to be more subjective and universal, keeping an imaginative and fun universe within the book of poems. It took me about three to five months to get all the poems together, draft the manuscript, and revise the final version.

Q: The book is divided in two sections, The Castle and The Kingdom. What differentiates the two, and how did you choose the order in which the poems would appear?

A: Exactly, so as you can tell the theme is sort of medieval in its essence, or at least that is what I was trying to convey. So, in The Castle, the main character’s forces are defending his castle which is under attack, while he as king hides in a dark corner during the bombardment and warfare.

Those chapters are representative of both his and my own fears that reign inside all of us. The doubt, the anxiety, the past trauma, the frustration, the heartbreak, etc.

The Kingdom is when his forces have successfully defended the castle and gained the upper hand and go on the offensive towards the enemy. That half of the book is representative of when self-discovery happens so that self-improvements may begin.

It shows that inner strength can bring outer triumph over life itself. The character masters his own fears with a cry of strength and wins over his fears and anxieties, though they will always remain.

The first half of the book is sad and depressing; the second is meant to be uplifting and triumphant.  

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

A: Medieval for sure. I pictured a 1500s battleground and castle on a grassy plain. Motivational, spiritual, psychological, and a pinch of romance (just a pinch).

Q: Which authors do you especially admire?

A: Rupi Kaur is probably my favorite contemporary writer. Mark Twain is fantastic. Robert Frost writes beautifully but is not my favorite. I also love and read a lot of religious texts and philosophical texts (The Torah, The Bible, & The Quran) and anthologies are great.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on two books. One is an action thriller novel, and the other is going to be a half-anthology half-poetry book.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Though we live in a seemingly dark time, there are so many resources to still put beauty out into the world. I hope that everyone harnesses their talents and strengths and puts beautiful things into the world, whether they be popular or not.

Poetry, Music, Nature, Friends, Family, Cities, Butterflies, Trees… if art reflects life, then it can used to reflect the light within it. Blessings and peace for everyone in our time. Thank you for having me!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 14

Nov. 14, 1907: Astrid Lindgren born.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Q&A with Debbie Cenziper

Debbie Cenziper is the author of the new book Citizen 865: The Hunt for Hitler's Hidden Soldiers in America. She also is the co-author of the book Love Wins. She writes for The Washington Post and teaches at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. 

Q: What inspired you to write Citizen 865, and how did you choose to focus on the search for the men who worked in the SS camp in Trawniki, Poland, during World War II?

A: At a cocktail party in Maryland, I happened to meet a lawyer from the U.S. Department of Justice. Over a long conversation, she described a unit of Nazi hunters deep inside the massive federal agency that had spent decades tracking Nazi perpetrators in the United States.

Put simply: I was stunned that the work had gone for three decades. In a country that had sacrificed so much to defeat Hitler and save the Jews of Europe, how was it possible that Hitler's helpers were living in America's cities and suburbs?

Other journalists and authors have eloquently described the work of the Office of Special Investigations, which was established in 1979 in the Criminal Division of the Justice Department.

I found one of the unit's lesser-known investigations particularly compelling: the search for the men of Trawniki. I wanted to understand how SS leaders had managed to train, arm and empower 5,000 men from across eastern Europe, including Red Army soldiers who had been pulled from POW camps.

These so-called Trawniki men helped the SS murder 1.7 million Jews in fewer than 20 months, the span of two Polish summers. The numbers were mind-boggling and tragic. I wanted to know more.

I was also particularly intrigued by the work of the historians at the Office of Special Investigations. Over many years, they uncovered Trawniki records and rosters in the dusty archives of Eastern Europe.

I've been an investigative reporter for 25 years and could very well imagine what it must have been like to discover lost Nazi documents that had never before been seen by Western investigators.

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

A: Citizen 865 is a modern-day story of justice and the Holocaust, but it spans more than 70 years.

I traveled to Poland, Austria and the Czech Republic to do on-the-ground reporting and was actually able to retrace the steps of OSI historians when they went to the archives in Prague and found a Nazi record from 1945 with the names of more than 700 Trawniki men.

I also spent hundreds of hours interviewing the historians and prosecutors who worked on the cases and pulled records and photos from archives and museums, including the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

What surprised me most? The humane back stories of the men and women at OSI. Imagine spending year after year probing some of the darkest moments of the Holocaust. How were they able to do this and still go about life -- wedding anniversaries and soccer games and summer vacations?

I say in the prologue of the book, "Citizen 865 is a story about darkness but also about light, the pursuit of truth by a team of American Nazi hunters that worked to expose the men behind the most lethal operation of the Holocaust."

Readers of this book will come away feeling immensely satisfied and, perhaps, hopeful that our future won't be as grim as our past.

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

A: Citizen 865 tells the emotional story of two teenage Holocaust survivors from Lublin, Poland, who lost everyone they knew, fled to Warsaw and married in the ghetto with a borrowed wedding dress and wedding ring.

At every step, through a series of harrowing escapes, they managed to outrun the Trawniki men. At the end of the war, they emigrated to the United States.

What they didn't know was that some of the same men who persecuted their families and neighbors had also slipped into the United States. Many became naturalized citizens, hiding in plain sight with pensions, Social Security cards, comfortable retirements.

The title of the book refers to Jakob Reimer, one of the most trusted Trawniki men in occupied Poland. At the start of his career, the SS assigned him a military identification number: 865.

Reimer, aka "Citizen 865," looked like a most ordinary American when he was finally stripped of his U.S. citizenship and ordered deported for his service at Trawniki.

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

A: I think World War II readers will come away from this book with a better understanding of the Nazi operation in occupied Poland.

The Trawniki training camp was a critical pillar of Operation Reinhard, the most lethal operation of the Holocaust. But in the West, details about the camp and the men who lived and trained there were only recently uncovered by OSI historians and prosecutors.

Beyond the history, I hope readers come away feeling inspired by the men and women at the heart of this story.

They spent decades racing to hold Nazi collaborators to account not only for those who died, but for those who lived on and also for the benefit of a world that too often finds itself in the exact same place more than 70 years later, forced to explain bigotry, hate and mass murder.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Turning back to newspaper investigations while I figure out my next book project. I'm also the newly named director of investigative reporting at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Dean Koontz

Dean Koontz is the author of the new book Nameless, a collection of thrillers, which is available in digital and audio format only. His various bestselling novels include One Door Away From Heaven and From the Corner of His Eye. He lives in Southern California.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Nameless, and what were some of the factors drawing you toward this digital/audio approach to storytelling?

A: As a reader and a writer, I love the novelette——10,000 to 15,000 words——but most publishers have no interest in the form. Amazon Original Stories fills the void once occupied by The Saturday Evening PostCollier's, and other such magazines that, 70 years ago, welcomed vivid stories with real punch at this shorter length. It’s creatively exhilarating.

I thought it would be interesting to have a character with amnesia, but treat it in a way I’d never seen it handled before.

Nameless can remember only the past two years and the missions he’s been on, but nothing before that, and he suspects his amnesia is neither a medical condition nor the work of nefarious forces, but is something that was engineered at his request. What past act or error could a man be hiding from himself that would drive him to the extreme of arranging for his own memory to be wiped?

Although the Nameless stories are full of action, like all fiction worth writing, they depend most on an intriguing character.

Q: How would you describe the changes in technology over the decades that you’ve been writing? And what’s stayed the same?

A: When I started out, it was terribly laborious work, chiseling the words of a novel into tablets of stone, especially while fighting off saber-toothed tigers. Technology has made revision far easier than it once was, which is great because I usually rewrite a page 20 times or more. And saber-toothed tigers are now extinct.

No matter how radically technology changes, the art and craft of storytelling remain the same, and the reach of the imagination remains eternally infinite.

Q: This is your first story collection in more than two decades. How long did it take you to write these stories, and what inspired you to go back to writing shorter work?

A: The six Nameless stories were written in four months, but I work 60- and 70-hour weeks.

Some of my favorite stories are at this length——novelettes and novellas by John D. MacDonald, Roger Zelazny, Theodore Sturgeon, Philip K. Dick, Joseph Conrad, Henry James, Truman Capote. It’s challenging to pack the color and depth of a novel into a shorter work without making it frenetic. Taking on challenges is what keeps a writer fresh.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from these stories?

A: Pleasure. Fiction should transport us from the mundane, be a kind of magic carpet ride.

But these stories also explore the difference between justice and truth. Pursuit of justice can be honorable, but it can also be fruitless and sometimes destroy a society. Justice is a mutable concept, changing from culture to culture and age to age. But the truth is always what it is, one thing and one only.

Nameless might seem to bring justice to those who have been failed by a corrupt system, but in fact he is only revealing the truth of each situation and allowing the truth to destroy the guilty.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My abs. It’s hopeless. I’m also at work on the scariest novel I’ve ever conceived. Scary——yet at the heart of it is a sweet but unsentimental relationship between a former Marine and his intellectually disabled brother that moves me to tears.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The phases of the sun are the cause of 95 percent of Earth’s weather. In a few billion years, the sun will enter its Red Giant phase and bring an end to the solar system. So there’s no good reason to deny yourself that cookie.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Eleanor Foa

Eleanor Foa is the author of the new memoir Mixed Messages: Reflections on an Italian Jewish Family and Exile. A journalist, photojournalist, and corporate writer, her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and Harper's. 

Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir?

A: Writers write to find out what they think and feel about a subject. That is our way of processing life events. After my parents died I found myself writing about them. It was partly an effort to deal with my loss, and partly an effort to figure things about them – individually and as a couple – things that I didn’t understand.

Then, after a trip with my sister to northern Italy, to visit villages where my ancestors lived, and to meet living relatives we hadn’t seen in years, it occurred to me that the trip could form the spine or structure of a memoir.

It was something, frankly, I had to write for myself, and only later, over a period of 10 years, did I begin to think it might be of interest to others.

Q: You write, "Even in cosmopolitan New York, being an Italian Jew was a real showstopper...Neither Jews nor Italians nor Americans knew what to make of us." Why do you think the concept was so confusing?

A: In the 1950s in New York, non-Italians assumed that every Italian was Catholic. In fact, the majority of Italians who emigrated to America before World War II were southern Italians, particularly Sicilian, and they were 99.9 percent Catholic. Their culture and food dominated – from pizza to Dean Martin – and became the dominant image and myth of “Italian.”

In addition, most immigrant Jews before World War II were either eastern European or German. Italian Jews were and remain a tiny minority. Primo Levi – a chemist who survived Auschwitz and wrote about it – was one of the first Italian Jews to become world famous, and to put our culture and history on the world map.

Q: How much did you know about your family background growing up, and how much did you learn in the process of writing this book?

A: I knew bits and pieces of my father’s Italian Jewish family background – what I call the “good news version of our lives” – and fewer bits and pieces of my mother’s German-Jewish background, which ended horribly with the Holocaust.

But because my parents were immigrants starting a new life – like so many immigrants – they looked forward, not back. And they themselves were not all that immersed in their family’s heritage. I knew, vaguely, that my father’s ancestors migrated from Spain or Portugal to northern Italy, but that was about it.

Only as I started to do research and investigate did I discover what a distinguished and learned family – from the 1500s on -- the Foas were.

As one of the earliest post-Gutenberg printers in Italy, I Fratelli Foa, (the brothers Foa) were famous for the beauty and quality of their printing work, which is still recognized and celebrated in the walled city of Sabbioneta, which I visited for the first time in 2006. Their story was a revelation, something I really knew next to nothing about.

Q: What impact did writing this memoir have on you, and what do you hope readers take away from it?

A: Writing this book had a huge impact on me. It helped me come to terms with all the “mixed messages” of my parents. 

For example, it was okay to be Jewish as long as you didn’t look, sound or act Jewish; money was unimportant, and yet it was hugely important; “Family is everything,” my parents insisted, yet somehow they alienated me and my sister from our family.

Was it a generational clash or a cultural one? Did Europeans view marriage, money and family differently from Americans? Or was it because the central drama of their adult lives – World War II, the Holocaust, emigration and exile – bound my parents together and set me and my sister apart?

Somehow, through replaying the backgrounds and history of my parents’ lives, courtship, and flight from Fascism, I grew to understand the horrendous difficulties they faced. My anger was replaced by the recognition that, given who they were and how they were raised, they did the best they could.

I hope readers – especially children of immigrants -- will see themselves and their stories in my story. I hope readers whose parents are still alive, will ask many more questions of their parents – as one of my readers already told me she has – before it’s too late.

Because though this is about my family, the immigration experience and the parent/child divide is a fairly universal one.

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: Shorter pieces on women’s issues, including health and aging, and getting back to my photography.

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: Writing a memoir is a journey. For me it’s been a decade- long journey, both inward and outward.

As I write in my book, “Travel as a way of uncovering a family’s past is like an archeological dig with multiple layers, discoveries and interpretations. It’s about family myths that forged our parents’ lives, and in turn, our lives.”

I am a great believer in the power of personal history to transform lives. It transformed mine and I believe it can transform the lives of my readers, as well.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 13

Nov. 13, 1850: Robert Louis Stevenson born.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Q&A with Matthew Gutmann

Matthew Gutmann is the author of the new book Are Men Animals?: How Modern Masculinity Sells Men Short. He is a professor of anthropology at Brown University, and he lives in Tiverton, Rhode Island.

Q: You begin the book by writing, "We place unreasonable trust in biological explanations of male behavior." Why is that?

A: We are in an age of widespread gender confusion, debate, and renegotiation. We all have experience with and opinions about male behavior, and we want to figure out if men and women have fundamentally different natures (for example, with respect to sexuality and violence) or if the “gender binary” is itself a problem. 

For many people, biology (think: hormones-testosterone, genes-Y chromosomes) seems like a particularly good way to explain why boys will be boys.

But it’s not. A detailed look at the vast range of what it means to be man and what men do, want, and feel—an astounding diversity in the world today and throughout history—shows that social and cultural factors are far more determinant of what someone takes as more or less masculine and manly. 

Toxic masculinity is found in every corner of the globe, but whether you are determined to change it or resigned to its permanence revolves around how much you think biology determines human maleness.

Q: In the book, you discuss the concept of "boys will be boys." How did that concept first develop, and what do you see happening with it today?

A: “Boys will be boys” is a half-joke that’s no longer funny. It has increasingly come to mean that, in the end, there is only so much we can do about male attitudes and behavior, because, well, boys will be boys. It lets men off the hook by implying that there is something innate about the way males are and why they do what they do. 

Take Brett Kavanaugh and arguments during his confirmation hearings for Supreme Court justice (including by progressive media pundits) that as a teenager Kavanaugh’s actions related to the fact that he had a lot of testosterone running through his system. The unfortunate implication? There was only so much he could have done to control himself. 

This is wrong about testosterone: other boys with testosterone (and girls, too, for that matter) do not sexually assault anyone.

And it’s wrong about linking testosterone in any fundamental way to aggression and sexuality. Except for extremely low or high levels of the hormone—that is, for the vast majority of men, the vast majority of their lives—there is no correlation. 

The varieties of human male behavior is truly astounding, and to reduce all men to some kind of automatic-response mechanisms based on a magic molecule is ridiculous and frightening.

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

A: I’ve been studying men and masculinity for over 30 years. So first I drew on some of this work, especially ethnographic studies I’ve done in Mexico City, Oaxaca, Oakland, and elsewhere in the United States. 

I also have a background in Chinese language (my college major), and I decided to look more at gender confusion and renegotiation in China today. Adding in China was especially fun and gratifying. 

Much of what I’ve done is interview people, some for 30 minutes one afternoon, some for 300 hours over a period of decades. After 300 hours, it’s really an ongoing conversation more than an interview. 

I’ve lived many years in Mexico and spent a lot of time in China (and obviously the United States), and simply being part of social life—what anthropologists call “participant observation”—is in the long run the key.

Surprises? The factory worker in Shanghai who, when I asked if there was such a thing as men’s nature compared to women’s nature, responded, “When a man sees a pretty woman, his hormones go up.” 

I knew he had barely finished elementary school, so had never studied high school biology. Where did he learn about hormones? Nature shows on TV, he told me.

A young man in Mexico City who told me about a neighbor who represented the fifth generation of single mothers in her family. “One or two generations, Mateo, maybe it’s culture.  But come on, after five it has to be genetic.”

In these and other stories I learned how pervasive faulty biological explanations (and often excuses) are for people in diverse parts of the world, and how important it is that we examine the biological language we use so incautiously to describe and understand men and women. 

And don’t just think it’s people who are less formally educated: An introductory lecture on sexual selection in biology at my university starts with rams fighting and peacocks primping and ends with football players and cheerleaders, as if all animal sexuality were similarly gendered and unvarying.

Q: What do you see looking ahead when it comes to research and discussions about masculinity?

A: #MeToo has been catalytic and transformative. But as long as we think, “Well, they shouldn’t do it, and must be stopped, but they are male, after all,” we’re in trouble. 

Around the world the question I’ve gotten more than any other in the last few years is how so many tens of millions of women could vote for Trump. I believe that many did so not despite but because they think, like it or not, that’s what more men would do to women if they thought they could get away with it.

Until we change our core thinking and language about men, maleness, and masculinity and demand change of men rather than begrudging acquiescence, we will not move forward. 

Resisting the pull to overexplain male thinking and behavior by reference to hormones and genes, evolution and heredity, will help a lot. When the expression boys will be boys is used to explain why little Johnny or Billy cleaned up their rooms, maybe we’ll have made some progress.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve just begun working on a new project about masculinity and health focused on men and suicide. It’s a remarkably significant cause of death for men worldwide, but the vast majority of academic studies in the last 20 years have come from psychiatry and psychology and focused on issues of individual depression and mental health more generally.  

Yet there are clear social factors that deserve more attention. Why do three or four times more men than women commit suicide, but more women attempt suicide? Why is one of the groups with the highest incidence of suicide in the United States older, white, middle class men. Why are do certain ethnic groups have lower suicide rates? 

These are pressing questions for public health, social inequality, and masculinity.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: It’s important to emphasize that exaggerated emphasis on biology to explain maleness is not just something that people who are more conservative politically or less well read entertain. Biobabble ideas about men and masculinity permeate all our thinking, and we all need to pay more attention to our language and explanations. 

Years ago the famous French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir insisted that women’s biology was not their destiny. We need a similar understanding that men’s biology is not their destiny either.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb