Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Top 10 Posts of 2019: Number 1!

Concluding the countdown of the Top 10 most-viewed posts of 2019, here's #1, a Q&A with Matt Richtel first posted on March 12!

Matt Richtel is the author of the new book An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System--A Tale in Four Lives. His other books include A Deadly Wandering. He is a reporter for The New York Times, and he lives in San Francisco.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book, and how did you choose the four people on whom you focused?

A: When you see someone rise from the dead, and you’re a journalist, you pick up your pen. You ask: what the heck just happened?! That is especially true when the Lazarus figure is a good friend. This was Jason. He was my buddy in high school, and a charming stud of an athlete with a great sense of humor.

Years later, when we were in our 40s, Jason got cancer. The treatments failed, one after the next. Finally, he wound up with 15 pounds of cancer in his back, his doctor tearfully put him in hospice – sent Jason home to die.

But Jason asked for, and got, one of the first-ever immunotherapy treatments. It was a last-ditch effort, to say the least. A few days after he took his first treatment, Jason’s girlfriend woke him up and said: Jason, get out of bed; you don’t believe this, your tumor is gone.

The treatment had sparked his immune system to fight back, with fury.

So I embarked on a journey to understand the immune system. What is this complex defense network? How does it work? How have we come so far that we can tinker with it to raise people from the dead?

I also realized that the immune system story is not, of course, just a cancer story. And this isn’t a cancer book. So I went looking for other real-life medical stories that I, and the reader, might connect to.

I found some amazing people. Bob Hoff got HIV on Halloween night of 1977 and has never had a symptom. His immune system is so remarkable that the federal government studies it.

Linda Segre and Merredith Branscombe are the other characters in the book. Each suffers from auto-immunity, with very different experiences. I chose them, and Bob and Jason, because each is both remarkable and yet ordinary; they are us, and we are them, and their stories provide accessible entry points to understanding the immune system, the key to health and longevity.

This is an Elegant Defense.

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

A: I combined two essential journalistic tactics: (1) I had the privilege to interview the most authoritative, remarkable scientists in the world, the Nobel prize winners and others who have given us our wisdom about the immune system; and (2) I let myself start by asking the simplest questions.

An editor friend of mine calls these “Smart-dumb questions.” They are the questions that seek to get at the most basic, elemental, core ideas. They are questions that address the basic logic of the immune system, rather than skip ahead to expert-level analyses without first understanding the essentials.

I reported this book, frankly, thanks to the indulgence of amazing scientists who gave me a poor-man’s Ph.D., allowing me to ask the basic stuff, teaching me over the course of two years the building blocks of the immune system, and then layering on the complexities. In short, I got to sit at the feet of the elder statespeople of immunology and I bring forth their wisdom.

The thing that surprised me most, and that comes out in the book, is that the immune system is built around the idea of balance, not around the idea of zealous attack. The immune system works because it seeks to do as little damage as possible in its defense of our bodies. That core idea ripples through our everyday health.

Q: What are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about the immune system?

A: Per the previous question, it is a wild misconception that you want to boost your immune system. When your immune system gets boosted, it is more dangerous to you, arguably, than any infection in the world. What you want to do is to keep your immune system in balance, to let it do its job in the way that millions of years of evolution have designed it to do.

This book explains the science and practicality of that wisdom and I won’t belabor it here, other than to say the ideas inform how we should live day-to-day.

Q: What do you see looking ahead when it comes to understanding the immune system?

A: One word: microbiome. Well, okay, two words: microbiome and brain.

The next big leaps may well come with research into the gut and the brain – particularly around dementia – and how these two parts of the body relate together with the immune system as the point of connection.

That’s a complex idea, so what do I mean? We’re only now beginning to understand how important and complicated is the collection of bacterium in our gut. Do not be fooled by the simplistic promises that it has been figured out yet. There are just too many molecules and interactions to make quick assertions about the microbiome.

That said, as I explain in the book, some early research is showing how essential the gut is to our daily health and in no small part because it is helping inform the immune system beyond the gut’s walls. This is related literally and figuratively to the brain.

In a figurative sense, the gut and brain are related because they have both been thought to be truly apart from the rest of the body, cordoned off, and, in particular, their health governed by forces other than our immune system.

That is not true of the brain as it is not of the gut. We are seeing that inflammation may well be responsible for many of the diseases of the brain. More literally, scientists have begun to peek into the way the microbiome may be directly involved in brain health. Stay tuned.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Chiefly, I’m putting the finishing touches on a year-long project for The New York Times about the rise of drug-resistant bacteria and fungi. It is a wildly ambitious project I’ve spent a year engineering and I can’t wait to get it into the world. The name of the series, at present, is “Deadly Germs, Lost Cures.”

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Matt Richtel.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Top 10 Posts of 2019: Number 2!

Continuing with the countdown of the Top 10 posts of 2019...here's #2, a Q&A with Susan Grace Banyas first posted on June 9.

Susan Grace Banyas is the author of the new book The Hillsboro Story: A Kaleidoscope History of an Integration Battle in My Hometown. A multimedia artist and choreographer, she grew up in Southern Ohio and lives on the West Coast. 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Hillsboro Story, and how long did it take you to write it?

A: I wanted to investigate a childhood memory—go back to my hometown and find the people now who were part of the memory then. I didn’t know where this would lead, but I did know that I wanted to write a story, a history, with multiple voices, not dominated by the official story, although I was the narrator and detective, so my query dominated.

I also knew that to write about this “integration” battle, I wanted to integrate the voices. I wanted to know what happened, enlarge my own memory, activate memory to become a catalyst for seeing the larger story of my life, my society.

As a movement artist, I wanted to write a book about the movement and spiritual intelligence of protest because as a white person, schooled and socialized in America, I was denied access to this intelligence because of fear and ignorance. I had to re-member, piece a history together, retrieve the parts of my memory -- history that had been kept in the shadows, demonized, or simply ignored.

The work evolved over a long time, from the memory itself, which took root in 1955, to finding my Quaker great-great-grandmother’s Civil War diary in 1982, to discovering a piece of the memory/story in 1990 at the 25th high school class reunion, to 2003 when I began the investigation. 

I teach and direct a process called “soul stories” – penetrating a memory through movement, voice, painting, words, and identifying key images, then re-constructing the memory as a creative experiment free of habit.

The Hillsboro Story is a soul story. I decided to apply my method (body first) to the key memory—seeing the mothers and children outside my 3rd grade classroom window marching to integrate the schools.  I didn’t know where it would lead. It’s been a 16-year process!!!

I began by listening, recording the memories, transcribing words, beginning to sense the people and their experience, feeling the environments, the landscapes where the memories were born, cross-checking these memories against my own experience and the historical record. People shared photographs, articles, time.

I went to the courthouse to find documents, read what was emerging from the academy on the issues of segregation, slavery, abolitionism, the Cold War. I spent several years gathering data, interviewing, and continually tracking current American politics, which was clearly shifting farther and farther to the right. I began to see how what happened in the ‘50s, a turning point in America after the Brown decision, was coming to bear down on the present moment.

The Civil Rights movement, the Abolitionist movement, Women’s movement, Gay Rights Movement, Occupy, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, Veterans for Peace, Sunrise Movement – all the movements -- have pushed the country toward a pure democracy and the fundamental responsibility we have as citizens to nurture and care for each other and for life itself. The movements did not arise to protect the American way of life. 

Central to all of this was the fact that I’m a mother. I started the project when my son was in high school, and like the Marching Mothers of Hillsboro, I wanted to protest the terrible invasion of Iraq, the destruction of people and culture in order to control the oil fields. 

The protest story I witnessed as a child became the story of these times as well. Schools were becoming corporate enclaves of standardized testing and “no child left behind” -- children were being indoctrinated into a hyper material, violent war culture through the gaming and advertising industries who were infiltrating consciousness through the media. 

I wanted to do something because I could see the direct effects of this at the same time the infiltration was accelerating. What could I do besides worry?

The first piece I wrote was "No Strangers Here Today" about my Quaker ancestors and their participation in the Underground Railroad -- my great-great-grandmother’s diary, set against the backdrop of the Civil War and the Abolitionist movement—this was the backstory to The Hillsboro Story and a template.

Her voice inspired a sparse, simple style of observing and noting moments. The power of her action was embedded in her faith expressed simply through her memories noted day to day.

Both works began as theatre, and then I had to figure out how weave these stories, these voices, into a story about integration. Luckily, I collaborated with an African American jazz composer to create these theatre works. 

“Integration” became aesthetic and personal. Jazz history is American history, and my work has been expanded and deepened through engaging with the music, sound, and culture of jazz at the same time I penetrated the invisible wall of segregation in my hometown, and crossed the line to the other side, guided by the Muses, the call and response.

Q: You're a multi-media artist, and the book includes many photographs along with the text. How did you decide on the book's format?

A: I photograph landscapes and people as a way to see and compose. Photography is a tool in my “everyday dance,” the quality of a moment, a gesture, the arrangement. The archives people shared – family photos -- spoke volumes about their lives and exposed me to more understanding of what has value.

Memory is multi-dimensional. As a choreographer, I dance between these dimensions in order to honor the complexity and power of memory, and to have the freedom to place images on a page, play with time, slow the reader down to feel-think, construct a narrative free of logic and structure organically and with precision. I think we need to THINK differently if we want to change our society.  How do we practice this?  How do we do this?

Q: Did you write the book in the order in which it appears, or did you move the chapters around to create a certain effect?

A: I knew I wanted the story and backstory, to use these conventions of a storyteller. I had to figure out how to set up a fluid structure -- from soul and body to geopolitics. I compose in small chapters, scenes, and the book is structured like cinema, which is why my muses are both E.B. White and Federico Fellini in the book. Thankfully, I had a great editor, alive in the here and now, who saw the weaving and strengthened it.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book, given the continued focus on race relations in today's political climate?

A: I want the book to go to high school students so they know that their memories are part of history, that we are all part of history and it is alive, not something dead and over. I hope this book is part of the conversion that this country is undergoing, now that the dark side is completely exposed, and fascism is on the rise globally.

This county has never come clean about its history of slavery and genocide of Indigenous people, never owned its track record of being an empire with the big bombs, who can dominate and police the world to extract resources to run its systems. I hope the book stimulates conversation and action related to not only WHAT we learn but HOW we learn.

How do I own my history as a descendant of settlers and immigrants? Where does my memory meet the memory of those who descended from slave owners and slaves, Shawnees and Lenapes, coal miners and farmers. We all peopled the territory I grew up in. As I say in the book, the story is not about small-town drama, although drama drives the story. The story is about power, about who controls memory.

I hope the book empowers people to look at their own families and cultures honestly, to know and feel the subtle ways racism and misogyny appear and play out. We are embedded in this system built on war and genocide and colonization; and the journey to understand this at a subtle level is deeply personal. I hope we ask our Elders to share their stories in order to empower us with the truth of lived experience. I hope the book is a tool for creative action and deeper listening, a tool to give voice to history, through the body.

The book was written through the help and guidance of many people who trusted me with their memories, whose experience shaped history, history alive through shared stories. It was from a deep sense of trust, without and within -- spiritual leadership from those living and those who have passed on -- that I was able to create this kaleidoscope history. 

We are a collection of oddballs, so why not embrace our crazy differences, harness our creative voices, try not to kill each other, and co-design new systems that protect children and mothers, nurture community growth and development. We can build a new world, but we can’t accomplish this without seeing how we got here, how power works, how to shadow dance in relationship to forces designed to use and abuse people, “remove” anyone in the way. I hope we re-member to remember why we were born and our gifts we each bring to the world.   

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I moved to Astoria, Oregon, at the mouth of the Columbia River four years ago (to finish the book) and discovered how ruthless and domineering the timber industry is. Clear cuts are accelerating at the same time climate change is accelerating.

There is a direct relationship and not much discussion because of the economic domination of this industry, which is not local or family owned anymore. These are Wall Street corporations mowing down the great forests of the Northwest, to profit shareholders.

I collaborated with two other artist activists to bring the discussion forward through a series of events over the course of a year and a half -- to allow the forests to speak through the multiple voices -- scientists, activist, artists, poets, policy makers. We called it Forest Visions Project. The results are powerful and in motion.

I want to continue pushing for the Green New Deal as a vision for retooling society, with art and storytelling as the central language for thinking outside the box in order to innovate new solutions. Life or death? Climate change is the fundamental issue of our times. I am listening and learning.

I have another project -- a section cut from the book because it has its own life.  The working title is Kundalini History/Voices from the Great Serpent -- a theatre/dance/music piece in the works -- based on interviews, research, personal experiences, and six primary voices who call forth the wonder of the ancient earthwork, The Great Serpent Mound, 20 miles from Hillsboro.

This sacred site is the source of wisdom that is being recovered and reimagined. A crop circle appeared opposite the site in 2003, when I returned to Ohio to begin The Hillsboro Story. The Serpent is calling. Now what? What I am discovering is truly mind-boggling. More later.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Deborah, thank you for the opportunity to speak about the work.  I appreciate your interest in the book and the issues.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Top 10 Posts of 2019: Number 3!

On with the countdown of the Top 10 posts of 2019...here's #3, a Q&A with Tim Mason first posted on June 11!

Tim Mason, photo by David Kelley
Tim Mason is the author of the new historical novel The Darwin Affair. He also has written the YA novel The Last Synapsid. A playwright, his work has been produced on Broadway as well as Off-Broadway and regional productions. 

Q: Why did you decide to write The Darwin Affair as a novel rather than as a play?

A: It never occurred to me to write this story as a play, it's much too vast for the confines of the stage. The stage has its own expanses; one can leap from locale to locale and travel in time theatrically, but not in a Dickensian story-telling mode, which is what I was intending. (The brilliant National Theatre adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby astonished the world, and me, in the 1980s with its seven-hour length, and was worth every minute, but Trevor Nunn had the budget to treat himself to a very, very large cast).

Q: What did you see as the right blend between your fictional story and the actual historical figures included in the book?

A: I wanted The Darwin Affair to be as historically accurate as possible. I tried to insert my fiction into it as though it belonged there.

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

A: I researched the novel by reading lots: biographies of Victoria and Albert, Dickens, and Darwin, and accounts of the publication of Origin of Species and its reception.

In London I visited Sir Richard Owens' old domain, the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, and viewed its remarkable displays of anatomical aberrations. I visited the old St. Thomas Hospital, and the 19th century operating theatre there, and in Oxford, at the University Museum, was let into the room, no longer open to the public, where the famous Huxley-Wilberforce debate took place.

The diaries of Victoria were put online and available to the public for a brief period, and they were invaluable for documenting the trip she and Albert took to his childhood home in Coburg, Germany, and the near-fatal carriage accident Albert suffered there, which became pivotal to my fictional elaborations of the event.

Q: What initially intrigued you about Charles Dickens' character Inspector Bucket, an inspiration for this novel?

A: The Inspector Bucket of Bleak House is seductive. One marvels at his skills, seeming to appear in rooms without ever entering them, and knowing the minds of his investigative victims better than they know themselves. And then, later in the book, he does something that's hard to forgive. I thought I'd base my Inspector Field on Bucket, but ended by making mine less morally ambiguous.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A couple of times in The Darwin Affair an earlier case Inspector Field tackled is mentioned, and the very mention makes people blanch. That case, and its aftermath 12 years later, is what I'm working on: The Nightingale Affair

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Top 10 Posts of 2019: Number 4!

Continuing the Top 10 countdown...here's #4, a Q&A with Billy Lombardo and Cate Pitterle first posted on January 21.

Billy Lombardo is the co-founder and managing editor of Polyphony Lit, a student-run publication that compiles high school writing from around the world. He also is a high school teacher and author, and his books include The Logic of a Rose and How to Hold a Woman. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Cicada and Other Voices. Cate Pitterle is one of the student editors of Polyphony Lit.

Q (for Billy Lombardo): How did Polyphony Lit come into being, and how long has it been in existence?

A: A high school student brought me the idea to start a magazine. We decided we wanted to showcase some of the best creative writing in the country.

But in the spring of 2004, when our small staff of eight editors met to make the final calls on the pieces that would comprise the first issue, we looked at a submission of a short story that had been graded by a teacher.

The entirety of the teacher’s comments were these: Lovely 20pts. All of the work that student had put into the story, and this was all the teacher could muster? It was then that we made a decision to provide feedback to every submission, regardless of its readiness for publication. That began our deep commitment to editing.

Q (for Billy Lombardo): How are the selections in each volume chosen, and do you see themes that run through this latest volume?

A: Our student editorial board is now comprised of 200 high school students from all over the world. Any high school student can apply to be on our staff. The application involves reading our editorial guidelines and doing a sample submission. We currently have almost 200 active editors.

Each submission goes through the editorial pipeline that includes at least three readers/editors: a First Reader, a Second Reader and a Genre Editor. At each step of the process, the readers and editors recommend the piece be accepted or declined. An Executive Editor gets involved with tricky pieces and to make final decision about acceptance. 

The magic happens when we send the young authors/poets not only a letter about acceptance/rejection but also in-depth commentary from the three or four readers/editors.

Billy Lombardo
My favorite emails to receive are from authors and poets who send thank you notes to me for the commentary we provide. Even the ones who are rejected are often incredibly grateful for our attention to their work.

We had one poet whose work was rejected 32 times before she had a piece accepted. When they return to us like that, I am reminded of the value of supporting young writers.

Q (for Billy Lombardo): Since 2004, have you seen changes in the topics that high school writers choose to focus on?

Oh, I think we’ll always receive love poems and breakup poems and poems that ask the questions I suspect young people have asked of the world since the beginning of time. And I have to say that we constantly remind each other of the importance of valuing them all. 

Wallace Stevens called poetry “the cry of the occasion,” and I impress upon our editors to think of every submission, in every genre, as a testament to Stevens’ statement.

Our authors pay attention to the world and so we get stories and poems that hint at their lenses and worldviews. The occasions of the young are as varied as the occasions of grownups, and the submissions reflect that diversity.

Q (for Billy Lombardo): Who do you see as the primary audience for these volumes?

A: We make the claim that the annual magazine represents the best high school writing from around the globe. We think high school students, teachers, and librarians want to know what that looks like. The quality of the work, though, makes me also hope that the audience will one day be comprised of everyone who believes in the power and beauty of language and of the human voice.

Q (for Cate Pitterle): How did you learn about Polyphony Lit and how did you become one of the editors?

A: I found Polyphony through an internet search. I'd seen that many literary magazines employed high school students on their staffs, and I knew I wanted to edit for a magazine.
Cate Pitterle
When I saw Polyphony's website, everything clicked into place--it had a huge community, which I loved because it would allow me to learn from others, and the work they published was incredible. I emailed billy asking to join the staff, and he sent me the First Reader Files and application. I’ve been editing for Polyphony ever since! 
Q (for Cate Pitterle): What do you think the publication offers for high school writers and readers? 
A: Polyphony is so different for any other literary magazine I’ve encountered. Forget the generic, often-callous form letter; Polyphony’s purpose, unlike that of an ordinary lit mag, is to help every author improve— regardless of whether we end up publishing their piece.
We spend countless hours each year writing editorial comments for submissions, and submissions are seen and commented on by at least three editors and readers before they’re finally accepted or rejected.
We’re dedicated to politeness, too. Most of us are writers ourselves, and consequently most of us are used to getting rejection letters and know how much they can hurt.
Therefore, when we comment on a piece, we try to be as polite and constructive as possible—we work by the motto that every piece has beautiful moments, sparks of brilliance, strokes of genius within it. It’s a great pretense to work under, and I've learned so much about storytelling from the pieces I’ve read and edited.
We also don’t just provide feedback to authors; we provide it to each other. Readers all receive commentary on their work from upper-level editors, and just like we do for authors, we try to be as constructive and polite as possible in that commentary.
The commentary I’ve received has made me into a better editor, too—there are so many brilliant people on staff at Polyphony that there’s always something to learn from each other. 
Q: What are you working on now? 
BL: We never cease to be astounded by the number of teens online seeking literary engagement. So, we are working hard to provide more engaging content. I think the editor blog, “Voices,” will delight any teen who wants to geek out about writing and editing.
And our students are about to release an interview series with “real writers.” No kidding, the first writer they talk to is Pulitzer Prize Winner Jennifer Egan. We are dazzled by her attention to us, and realize that most of us are eager to work with young lit talent looking to gain wisdom.
Finally, we will be releasing an online workshop, “How to Be a Literary Editor,” to support teens who wish to grow into leadership roles in literary organizations or media.
And of course we’re always working on the next issue. So far this editorial season, we have had submissions from 21 countries. Delights us to think about an editor from Pakistan working on a submission from Nigeria.
CP: I actually have a submission due tonight! I’m writing commentary for an edgy, bold poem about adolescence and rebellion, centered around a nighttime romp to a grain silo. It utilizes some really cool poetic techniques, too. 
Q: Anything else we should know? 
BL: We are on a mission to support literary teens everywhere. Education is a great equalizer, so we are especially glad to reach teens everywhere and especially in under-resourced areas. It is free to submit to us and free to become an editor.
Some of our students have told us, “you were my entire writing education.”  We think we might just be the best thing happening on the Internet! 
CP: Polyphony also has a really cool blog called Voices. I’ve loved reading the articles on there— it has everything from editing tips to how-tos on getting through writer’s block to a very witty, very thorough investigative satire on why our managing editor, billy lombardo, only types in lowercase. 
--Interview with Deborah Kalb