Friday, November 27, 2020

Q&A with John H. Cunningham


Photo by Deborah Ganster Grooms

John H. Cunningham is the author of the new novel The Last Raft, which focuses on the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba. He also has written the Buck Reilly adventure series. He lives in Virginia and Key West.



Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Last Raft, and for your cast of characters?


A: I have lived in Florida off and on since the late 1970s and have seen both sides of the passion related to the embargo, the Castro regime, and the human rights issues in Cuba. What has now been a 60+ year policy to isolate Cuba has never worked for anybody, and I envisioned a bold American president stepping up to embrace change.


The characters are intended to represent all the classes in the so-called "class-free society," including people who lost their properties to the revolution, those who benefited, and regular folk.


The characters in the American political portion of the story are a compilation of real people, real policies that have been championed, real constraints, and a leader, who could be from either party since neither has done anything to bring about a meaningful conclusion to the stalemate, who has the vision to try a new approach in order to embrace the 11 million Cuban people, prevent thousands of annual illegal immigrants in a positive manner, and secure peace for the region.

The art of the story is combining all of that into a dramatic, entertaining, and compelling story, which was fun to do.


Q: What kind of research did you do to write the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I was able to get a journalistic license to visit Cuba back in 2001 and went there for several weeks to see the settings and learn more about the history from their perspective and meet the people in order to portray them accurately.


One big surprise was that they use the U.S. dollar as the main currency there and the Cuban people love Americans. I also connected with Wayne Smith from the U.S. Interests Section (the closest thing we had to an embassy in Cuba), who read an early draft of the book, liked it and felt it could be a realistic scenario.


There was also a lot of history to research, which includes the perspective of Cuban families who lost everything to the Castro regime when they nationalized all private property, land, and buildings, which led to a huge flight of people to America in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.


Many remain bitter and seek reparation, which under the embargo will never happen, so while they, in many cases, argue against ending the embargo, it has not proven to be a good means to the end they seek.


Another surprise was that the children or grandchildren of the Cuban Americans who are most bitter toward the Cuban government are interested in change, so they can visit the land of their heritage.


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


A: First and foremost, the goal of the book is to entertain the reader with a story filled with all types of conflict, human tragedy combined with hope. I don't really consider it a political novel, but there are many political characters opposed to one another--even within the same parties--which tells the story of political interests dictating policy that has long been the case regarding Cuba.


Most Americans know little about Cuba because it has been a forbidden fruit for so long, but there is an amazing culture, wonderful people who have survived incredible challenges and poverty but maintained a passion for life without materialism, and there is very little racism there.


The government is a nightmare, abusive, and has tortured the citizens in so many ways. For example, Forbes estimated Fidel Castro's net worth at $900 million around the time the novel was set in 2001; meanwhile the people had little food and the majority live below the poverty level by most standards.


But that is between the lines of the hopes and dreams of the five people who leave on the raft, the difficult journey they face, which is a metaphor for the Cuban experience, and the rare American leader willing to risk everything to embrace change for the good of all people.


Q: What do you think the novel says about the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba, and what do you see looking ahead?


A: The novel portrays the entrenched, hostile, and resentful politics between Cuba and the United States, contrasted against the hope and ignorance of the people from both countries. People want change, whereas the governments use the status quo to maintain control of voting blocs and an iron fist over their people.


When there have been breaks in American policy over the years, our citizens have shown great interest in going there. And there have been a constant flow of illegal immigrants coming to America from Cuba for decades.


The Last Raft envisions what could happen if that evolved, and how so many lives could be positively impacted. If you take away the rhetoric, the people from both nations would love to engage.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am currently writing the ninth book in the Buck Reilly Adventure series. Each book in the series is set in different locations around the Caribbean with scenes in Europe, Latin America, and parts of the U.S. The protagonist, Buck Reilly, lives in Key West, where I also live part of the year. Lighter reading, but the series also contains history, and a broad spectrum of diversity amongst the characters.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: The Last Raft is written from a multiple point-of-view basis and features different female protagonists. A couple of the protagonists are on the raft, and one is in the White House. They are emblematic of not only the struggle women face in leadership positions in the United States--again, this was set in 2001--but also as the heart and soul of the Cuban struggle.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 27



Nov. 27, 1909: James Agee born.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Q&A with Kapka Kassabova


Kapka Kassabova is the author of the new book To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace. It focuses on her family history in the Lake Ohrid area of the Balkans. Her other books include Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe. She grew up in Bulgaria and now lives in Scotland.


Q: You write, "To journey to the place of your ancestors, you must be prepared to see what it is easier to deny." Why did you decide to explore this part of your family history?


A: Several reasons. First of all - artistic. I was called by the place itself, as if by a siren. Lake Ohrid is a place of sublime beauty and great cultural wealth and complexity. The fact that my maternal line originates there is a gift for a writer, and I couldn’t not accept it.


Of course, it was also a challenge, a daring - because by immersing myself in the human  history of the Lake, I had to swim in some pretty deep, dark waters too. But I was ready for it. I’d thought about this kind of ancestral exploration for a long time, and finally the right moment came where experience, courage, curiosity, and urgency came together.


Secondly, temporal - hence the urgency. At the end of my mother’s life and at this point in my own when I have been on many journeys both inner and outer, but also at this crucial point in human history where it’s so important to understand ourselves and our place in history, I wanted to explore the psychological and creative legacy of our family, but also the Balkans as a unique and complex matrix.


By doing that, I felt I was doing generational, collective work too. I sensed that the Lakes presented an encoded topography where the personal, the ancestral, the socio-political, the spiritual, and the environmental converged. As that monk said, “The Lake is a place where souls gather.”


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


A: I always begin my research by actually being there, spending time in a place and immersing myself in its physicality, its people, stories, seasons. The spirit of the Lakes was my muse, as well as memories - both beautiful and painful - of my grandmother and the women in our family. Then I read everything in as many languages as I can get my hands on, related to the region.


But because the place is only a setting, while the story is far more universal, I also read on to the broader subject of my enquiry  - which is the nature of trauma, ancestral memory, trans-generational legacies, and how the psyche and the body may manifest all of this.


Of course, the body of the land and the bodies of those who carry its memories are linked, and I was keen to explore these invisible connections. Just as the two lakes are invisibly connected by underground rivers.


Surprise discoveries, delightful or dark, were everywhere - in the form of paradoxes, correspondences, resonances, contradictions. And so it should be, when you truly get into a subject and especially a PLACE. Surprises are part of the inner expansion we experience as writers and readers. Otherwise what’s the point? 


Q: In the book, you write, "Geography shapes history--we generally accept this as a fact." How would you say the geography of the Balkans--and Macedonia in particular--has shaped its history?


A: Macedonia is a microcosm of the Balkans and the Balkans are a microcosm of Eurasia. It’s an old, much-trodden part of the world. The complex criss-crossings of the land are reflected in the collective psyche of its people.


In particular, the damage of unnatural man-made borders has scarred people and continues to wound them - by dividing nations, families (like ours), and ultimately individuals. By splitting the psyche, just as the triple national borders here attempt to split the lakes - a geographical impossibility.


This schizoid split - the result of cynical, divisive politics - is at the root of illness, and war - the spirit of war - is a form of illness. Borders are one of its manifestations. The lesson of the Lakes is ultimately a lesson about wholeness. 


Q: What impact did writing this book have on you?


A: Profound, as it should be when we embark on a real journey of discovery, inner or outer - in this case both. As with my previous book, Border, I was changed by the sensory, human, intellectual, emotional, symbolic, and geographical exposure to these lakes, which are both a place and a state of mind.


In a way, the full impact cannot and should not be summarised - it can only be experienced individually by the reader.  


Q: What are you working on now?


A: A book called Elixir.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Kapka Kassabova.

Nov. 25



Nov. 25, 1890: Isaac Rosenberg born.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Q&A with Darin Strauss


Darin Strauss is the author of the new novel The Queen of Tuesday: A Lucille Ball Story. His other books include Half a Life. He teaches writing at New York University, and he lives in Brooklyn.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Queen of Tuesday?


A: A kind of nightmare. I woke up one 3 a.m. with a start: I’d dreamed something dramatic, scribbled it down, and thought: “This will be my next book!” I woke up the next morning and scrambled to see what I’d written: “Lucille Ball.” That was it. 




I began doing research, anyway; I found that my grandfather had attended a party with her—a party thrown by Donald Trump’s father, of all people. A party where Trump Sr., in the name of ugly modernity, destroyed a representation of what had been dignified and special about old-time America. What a perfect real-life metaphor! 


Somewhere in my addled noggin, I must have kept that information -- grandpa met Lucille Ball! -- and, the truth was, I’d always had questions about him. About the infidelity he committed around the time of that party. 


With all these elements swirling together, I knew that’d be my next book.


Q: In a Washington Post review, Ron Charles writes, "The Queen of Tuesday is a striking exploration of how fame confounds the lives of prominent and obscure people." What do you think of that description?


A: I love it. That was one of the things I was trying to examine. What fame does to people -- to the famous, and those around the famous.


I was friendly with both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Carrie Fisher. I saw how fame affected them, and a) in Carrie's case, how it changed me around her. And b) in Philip's case, how it changed his friends. Many of his pals were struggling actors, and, seeing the way their behavior toward him mutated as he went from one of them to Oscar-winning movie star, I realized that fame warps everyone. 


And it's such a big force in this country -- an under-examined force, I think. 


Q: What did you see as the right blend of history and fiction as you wrote the book?


A: I studied with E.L. Doctorow, at NYU -- where I now teach, humorously enough. And Doctorow said that, when one is writing a novel, one should do the least amount of research one can get away with. If you do too much research (the thinking goes), it will read like a textbook.


So, I think it's a balance. The "what you can get away with" is a key part of the equation: too little, and you'll lose the reader. I did a lot of research, but, as novelist, my responsibility is to tell a good story more than anything else. I think that's what Doctorow was getting at.  


In this book, the idea was to try to fill it with as many elements -- as much fun stuff -- as I could. A woman in love. Celebrity. Media. Glamour -- and set it in a period we can't turn from: The glitzy 50s, New York and LA, dream-towns at their dreaming best.  


Q: What do you see as Lucille Ball's legacy today?


A: The more research I did about Lucille Ball, the more I came not only to admire her, but to realize what a pivotal figure she was in American culture. 


Not just the most popular TV star ever -- though she was that -- but a kind of proto-feminist icon. She greenlit Star Trek, for example. Without her, no modern sci-fi: because Star Trek paved the way for Star Wars, which paved the way for everything. 


Hers seemed a story that needed to be told now—the first American woman to be a powerful Hollywood executive; the wife in the first truly famous and beloved interracial marriage in American history. Plus, she was there for the birth of TV—and, as we’re now living in the age of Peak TV, this book shows how TV got here. The Queen of Tuesday was a way for me to shed a light on these under-discussed details.


Q: What are you working on now?


Another novel, and a screenplay for Half a Life, my memoir. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I play a mean guitar. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Darin Strauss.

Nov. 24




Nov. 24, 1849: Frances Hodgson Burnett born.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Q&A with Anika Aldamuy Denise


Anika Aldamuy Denise is the author of the new children's picture book A Girl Named Rosita: The Story of Rita Moreno: Actor, Singer, Dancer, Trailblazer!. Her other books include Planting Stories. She lives in Rhode Island.


Q: Why did you decide to write a picture book biography about Rita Moreno?


A: She has a great story. Her life and career has had highs and lows… tragedies and triumphs. She’s an inspiration to anyone working hard to reach their dreams. And I love writing about powerhouse Puertorriqueñas who break barriers.


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


A: I watched hours of archival footage, read Rita’s memoir, and pored over many interviews and articles. It was some of the most enjoyable research I’ve ever done, actually! I got to revisit many of her performances I knew and loved. And I discovered others as well.


I was surprised that Rita’s historic Oscar and other prestigious awards did not shield her more from prejudice and sexism in Hollywood. I probably shouldn’t have been; it’s a problem Latinx and other entertainers of color still face. But when an actor has an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony, you’d think casting directors would stop asking them to play stereotypes.


Rita eventually got fed up and quit doing films altogether for a time.


Q: The Kirkus Review of the book calls it "An inspiring account of a woman who followed her dreams." What do you hope kids take away from the book, especially when it comes to following your dreams?


A: That dreams alone won’t get you there. You have to put in the work. And that success isn’t a straight line. You will have setbacks. There will be people who tell you no and deny you a seat at the table. When that happens, you have to try again—or build your own house, put a table in it, and pull your chair up there.


Q: What do you think Leo Espinosa's illustrations add to the book?


A: Leo’s work is super kid-friendly yet also sophisticated in its stylization. He captured little Rosita and grown-up Rita beautifully. All the details, especially in the scenes of old Hollywood, are amazing. Usually I can pick a favorite spread in a book, but I can’t in this one because they are all so vibrant and lovely for different reasons.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on a book about another trailblazing woman—but I can’t say who just yet because the book hasn’t been announced. Stay tuned!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Just that I’m grateful to those who are supporting authors and indie booksellers in these wildly stressful times. Thank you to the teachers, librarians, bloggers, booksellers, parents, and kids who read and share my books. And to you, Deborah, for having me!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Anika Aldamuy Denise.

Nov. 23



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

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Q&A with Casey Breton


Casey Breton is the author of Going Rogue (at Hebrew School), a new middle grade novel for kids. It features a boy who thinks his Hebrew school teacher might be a Jedi master. Breton, a former elementary school teacher, lives in Gloucester, Massachusetts.


Q: You write that you came up with the idea for Going Rogue after trying to answer your kids' questions about why they had to go to Hebrew school. How did you come up with the Star Wars connection?


A: The Star Wars connection also came from my kids, who are big fans. They didn’t connect Star Wars to Judaism, of course, but I think I was trying to stack up all the things they felt passionate about against the one thing they really didn’t - Hebrew school. I tried to imagine what might get kids like mine interested in Hebrew school, or at least curious about it. Well, if the rabbi was a Jedi master…


Once I had the Star Wars idea, I started poking around the internet and found that loads of people have made a link between Star Wars and Judaism, for example, the idea of Yoda being a Jewish sage.


I just sort of ran with it from there. At first it was to spark an interest, but it slowly evolved into something readers might find meaningful.

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


A: I never thought of addressing the topic of bullying in my book, but in an early revision I realized I needed some kind of antagonist for Avery to learn from.


My grandmother and great aunt, who were twins, used to tell me, “There are no bad boys, only sad boys.” It was something their father taught them, and I took that wisdom to heart. I believe it’s true. When I developed Damon, I always kept that phrase in mind.


I don’t see Damon as a bully, but rather as a kid who has a lot of pain inside. Gideon was always able to recognize that, while Avery was consistently skeptical. I can understand Avery’s side too – when someone is behaving in such a cruel and hurtful way, it’s really hard to see anything but a bad person. It was important for me to include both of those perspectives.


Q: What do you hope kids take away from the book, especially about science and religion?


A: One thing I hope kids take away from the book is a sense that their questions about religion are valid and important. Judaism has always encouraged critical thinking, curiosity, and examination.


This aspect of our tradition is a beautiful entry point for the most skeptical among us. Yes, ask questions. Yes, have doubts. Yes, hold a light to the dark spaces. We don’t need to follow blindly, nor are we supposed to. Go ahead, wrestle.


Regarding science and religion – we live in an age of information. Whether we’re learning how to get through a pandemic, or grappling with the effects of climate change and working to mitigate the consequences, one thing is true: understanding science is vital to our survival. And yet we also need to nurture our faith and study our history.


I hope readers take away the idea that science and faith are not mutually exclusive. In fact, being Jewish and being science-minded go together quite nicely!


And if a reader takes away nothing else, I hope they have a fun time reading my book and find a few laughs along the way. One of my greatest rewards from writing this book came when I heard my 10-year-old son, who is a reluctant reader, laughing out loud as he read Going Rogue in bed.


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


A: I didn’t know how it would end before I started it. The first draft was much shorter and didn’t have the football thread. Definitely made lots of changes along the way, and wrote many, many drafts!


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have a completed draft of a young adult novel that I’ve been working on for years – it’s about a boy who stutters and fights to protect wild animals, inspired by a true story. It’s quite different from Going Rogue, and I love it dearly.  And I have started another middle grade novel about one of my personal passions…surfing! It’s an absolute joy to write.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Being Jewish, I wrote this book through a Jewish lens and focused on the experiences of a Jewish main character. However, I imagine children from different backgrounds will be able to relate to the tug between modern life and religious tradition.


A friend of mine who was raised Catholic said she would have appreciated reading this book when she was a kid. She remembers the frustration she felt as a child in religious school, always being told how and what to think, rather than being given the space to think for herself.


We cannot underestimate the strength of our children’s minds and the power of their questions. In the end of my book, Avery doesn’t have more answers. He doesn’t feel more resolved about going to Hebrew school. What changes is that he comes to understand that his questions have value.


I also had a very nice conversation with a mom and her two kids who all read the book together. They are not Jewish, but appreciated the book because it gave them a peek into a world different from their own. It was the first book they’d read with a Jewish main character.


While they thought the story was funny and relatable in many ways, they enjoyed learning about different aspects of being Jewish through Avery’s eyes. What’s nice is that different readers can access the book in different ways, and still find something in there for them.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 22



Nov. 22, 1819: George Eliot born.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Q&A with Tina Cho


Tina Cho is the author of the new children's picture book The Ocean Calls: A Haenyeo Mermaid Story. It focuses on the haenyeo divers of Jeju Island in South Korea.


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


A: I saw a Tweet on Twitter about the haenyeo and was intrigued. When I found out they were in South Korea like me, I knew I wanted to write about them.


Q: What kind of research did you do to write the book, and did you learn anything especially surprising?


A: I researched on the Internet reading articles and watching many You Tube videos of haenyeo diving. When that wasn't enough, I flew my family to Jeju Island, at the southern tip of Korea, to see them with my own eyes.

I think the most surprising fact about haenyeo is their age. Most of them are between 50-80 years old, and they dive without any breathing apparatus.


Q: What do you think Jess X. Snow's illustrations add to the story?


A: Jess's illustrations are amazing and bring my characters to life. Her scenes are breathtaking and make me feel like I'm on the island. Her illustrations also add another layer of magical realism to the story, something that wasn't in my text.


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


A: I hope readers take away the idea that they can learn something from their own grandparents or an elderly person and vice versa, that an elderly person would pass down a tradition to the younger generation.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I'm working on two stories, one takes place in a rice field and the other takes place in a beautiful mountainous area of Korea where there are fireflies.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Keep reading and writing. Never give up! Share book love and leave reviews of your favorite books.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 21



Nov. 21, 1694: Voltaire born.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Q&A with Emily Adrian


Emily Adrian is the author of the new novel Everything Here Is Under Control. She also has written The Foreseeable Future and Like It Never Happened. She lives in New Haven, Connecticut.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for Everything Here Is Under Control, and for your character Amanda?


A: When I started writing Everything Here Is Under Control, I had just given birth to my son and was feeling shocked by both the realities of childbirth and the loneliness of those early post-partum days.


Living through those experiences really changed the way I related to the women in my life who had become mothers before I did. I wanted to write a novel about a new mom who, with the birth of her first child, finds herself desperately wanting to rekindle an estranged friendship from her past.

Q: How would you describe the relationship between Amanda and Carrie?


A: Fraught, uncertain, cautious--and yet, in spite of it all, they are deeply familiar to each other. When they're together, they feel the way you might feel if you suddenly took up residence in your childhood home. 

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


A: That giving birth does not automatically transform you into the kind of person who has the patience, self-awareness, endurance, and skills that motherhood requires. That it takes a lot of work to adapt to the demands of motherhood. It's a very ambitious project. 


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


A: The book's title comes from a scene in which Amanda, who's at the doctor with her newborn son, feels ostracized from a conversation about her own mental health. The doctor asks her a question about how she's feeling, and when he's unsatisfied with her answer, he looks to her husband for clarification. The men exchange a look that implies "everything here is under control."


Of course, in Amanda's mind, nothing is under control--and her opinion should be the only one that matters. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I'm working on a novel about a basketball reporter who wants to be the first woman to call NBA games on national television. But in a deserted locker room at halftime, she makes a discovery that shatters her vision of the future. She ends up having to choose between the two things she's always wanted most: to make basketball history, and motherhood. 


Q: Anything else we should know? 


A: Thanks for having me! You can order Everything Here Is Under Control from your local independent bookstore. I've also heard that the audiobook is very good!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Barbara Dee


Barbara Dee is the author of My Life in the Fish Tank, a new middle grade novel for kids. Her other books include Maybe He Just Likes You and Everything I Know About You.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for My Life in the Fish Tank, and for your character Zinny?


A: A few years ago my oldest kid was in treatment for cancer. Our whole family went through it with him, each of us coping in our own ways. I wanted to write about that experience, or a related one, through the eyes of a younger sibling—the “easy” one who is internalizing her emotions.


It’s important for kids to see that in a family health crisis, mental or physical, everyone is affected, and everyone’s needs must be addressed.  


Q: Why did you decide to focus on mental illness in this novel?


A: With all that’s going on in our culture right now-- Covid, racism and the ugly political landscape-- kids and their families are under unprecedented stress. Mental health needs to be a focus, and it needs to be destigmatized. It’s important for kids to hear that mental illness happens even in “normal,” “nice” families like the Mannings, and that help comes in many forms.


Q: In our previous interview, you said that this new novel takes on "a "tough topic," but one I hope I've handled with humor, truth and optimism." What do you see as the right mix of seriousness and humor in your writing?


A: I’m a big believer in using humor when you’re writing about “tough topics.” Middle grade (and upper middle grade) readers are eager to explore these challenging real-world subjects, but they don’t want to read books that are preachy or depressing.


So I always try to weave in other threads—subplots about friendship, crushes, school, etc. And I always try to include some levity to give kids a break from the serious subject.


In the case of My Life in the Fish Tank, a lot of the jokes involve Zinny trying to distract her little brother during a family crisis. You can’t just sprinkle a bunch of jokes on top; they have to be organic to the story you want to tell.  


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


A: I hope kids who read My Life in the Fish Tank get to the last page with a deeper understanding of mental health. I hope they take away the notion that mental illness is not a secret to hide from the world—and in fact, it’s the secrecy itself that’s unhealthy. I hope the book sparks some conversation about the difference between “privacy” and “secrecy.”


I also hope the book shows that growth and change may be hard at times, but help is always available, and “survival is realistic.”


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m just finishing the final revisions for my next middle grade novel, Violets Are Blue, which will be published by Aladdin/S&S in Fall 2021. This one is about a girl who’s obsessed with special effects makeup—especially YouTube tutorials—and doesn’t realize that her mom, a nurse, is struggling with an opioid addiction. I’m very excited about this next book!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Barbara Dee.

Nov. 20



Nov. 20, 1942: Joe Biden born.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Q&A with Yxta Maya Murray


Yxta Maya Murray is the author of the new story collection The World Doesn't Work That Way, but It Could. Her other books include the forthcoming novel Art Is Everything. She is the David P. Leonard Professor of Law at Loyola Law School.


Q: Over how long a period did you write the stories in The World Doesn't Work That Way, but It Could?


A: In the fall of 2019, I began to study the career of Scott Pruitt, the former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, who was forced to step down on July 6, 2018. His combination of kleptomania and frightening environmental protection rollback stunned me, and I wanted to make sure that I had all the facts and wasn’t just reacting to Twitter feeds and rumors.


When I finished compiling a dossier on his activities, I thought that I would write a law review article about administrative law and corruption (I am a law professor), because I had been able to track in news reports and FOIA-disclosed internal documents how Pruitt had fattened up his security detail in an unprecedented way; taken overseas trips with lobbyists, which looked like vacations; ordered an expensive soundproof phone booth; requested a bulletproof desk; rented a condominium at a deeply discounted rate from a person in the energy industry; and appeared to be cozy with Dow Chemical.


This last fact became all the more alarming when it was decided by the EPA that it would not ban the dangerous pesticide chlorpyrifos, a Dow product, though it had decided to do so under the Obama administration.


Faced with this gluttony and disregard of the public welfare, I wound up writing a story titled "Acid Reign". The tale is about a Latinx EPA lawyer who is tasked with the job of writing the order denying a real-world petition to ban chlorpyrifos. She finds this task unendurable because of her own history with cancer and her farmer family’s exposure to the toxin.


I worked to get inside of the heads of career administrative lawyers in the EPA and how they would be dealing with the trauma of working within a government that had abandoned its responsibility as a guardian of the people.


This story then seeded other stories, and I began to write around the legal and norm breakdowns that this country has witnessed since the election in 2016. In the summer of 2019, I arrived at a residency at Ucross, in Wyoming, and I dedicated the next month to the writing of the book. It progressed very quickly.


Q: The stories are prefaced by quotations from publications, often dealing with news relating to the Trump administration and the repercussions from its actions. How did you come up with the book's structure?


A: Based on my experience with compiling the background facts for Acid Reign, I began to sift through the news and legal cases and legal scholarship for other sites of legal and social trauma associated with the Trump administration.


The stories in The World Doesn’t Work That Way, but It Could began as a kind of trial that indicts and condemns the current administration for its offenses against the people, but as it is literature, it also blossomed into more ambiguous narratives about how we as a community can be harmed and even felled in a political system where overt racism and disregard for the vulnerable are the order of the day.


Everyone in my book is trying their best to be a good person and do the right thing, but they are often faced with such a limited set of options that they wind up failing.


I showed these cascades of horribles by focusing each story on one political catastrophe -- Trump’s anti-Latinx rhetoric, where he described Mexican men as “rapists;” the relaxation of rules on drilling and fracking; the family separation orders; the retrenchment of anti-choice laws prohibiting abortion; the abysmal performance of FEMA in Puerto Rico -- and then showed how the problems in our society right now stem not only from government malfeasance but also on account of the psychological corrosion and exhaustion that it imposes.


Q: How did you choose the order in which the stories would appear?


A: The book is organized in chronological time, marking one trauma as it bleeds into another. It begins with Trump’s assertion in June of 2015 that Mexicans were “rapists,” and proceeds from there, to the tragedy of Hurricane Maria in 2017 and onwards.


Q: How was the book's title (also the title of one of the stories) chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: As reviewers have often noted, this book of stories does not always reach out a comforting hand to the reader. It lays out, as I believe it should, the catastrophic effects of the Trump presidency, which include a general lowering of moral and ethical standards and a kind of psychic exhaustion in the face of continuing atrocities.


But there are moments when I bend forward to give some love and some hope. The last story in the novel, from where the book gets its title, is based on an experience that I had tutoring in a Los Angeles shelter for queer unhoused youth, and found that my sometimes despairing outlook could be freshened by the strength and optimism of my tutees.


We are in a very bad time, but it will end, as it must. We will and must discover a new way of living that rejects this particular version of the world that we have created, a world that works in a certain way to the detriment of “the other”; we will and must build together a world that works in ways that are egalitarian and connected, empathetic and caring.


The world does not seem to work that way right now but it could, and I believe that someday it will.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: In January, I am coming out with a novel from Triquarterly Books about a queer Chicana performance artist who stops making art on account of poverty and sexual assault, but slowly remakes herself into an arts writer. It is titled Art Is Everything.


I am also working on a book about a real-life radionuclide contamination that occurred in the 1950s in Simi Valley, California, and has never been effectively cleaned up.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Rebecca Warner


Rebecca Warner is the author of the new novel My Dad My Dog, which focuses on a woman who is taking care of her father, who has Alzheimer's, and her elderly dog. Her other books include Moral Infidelity and He's Just a Man. She lives in Asheville, North Carolina.


Q: You note that My Dad My Dog was based on your own experiences. What was it like to revisit those experiences in fictional form?


A: It was a bit tricky, actually. My dad never lived with me, but I saw him every day, year in and year out, so that the love and attachment I had to him was very real and was poured into the fiction prose. But to put him in my home 24/7 for the purposes of the book required a lot of heartfelt, tearful conversations with in-home caregivers. I just wrapped all of that into the novel, but it was an emotional ride. 


Q:  What do you think the novel says about caring for someone with Alzheimer's?

A: A Stanford University reports that 41 percent of Alzheimer’s disease caregivers die from stress-related disorders before the patient dies; and that caregivers have a 63 percent higher mortality rate than non-caregivers. Many caregivers do not have the support of family and spouses and take it all on themselves.


I think the novel says it's a darn hard job, in many cases the hardest job anyone will ever have; and it is made even more difficult because it is a job that must be done, but with no training and no compensation. Caregiving for Alzheimer's-afflicted loved ones should be considered a valuable contribution to society. 


Q: What do you think it says about the relationships between humans and dogs?


A: This question gave me goosebumps because I have such strong feelings about this phenomenon. When there's love, there is such give and take of emotional support, not to mention the actual physical comfort and health benefits which both get from the relationship.


One Goodreads reviewer said it very well: "A powerful tribute to the contribution which animals make to human well-being. Yes, there is pathos here, but the biggest message is one of love and the Joy of friendship which transcends species."  Isn't that lovely? 


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


A: A better understanding of the physical and emotional toll on the familial caregiver, and the need for greater appreciation for the job they do. Maybe an uninvolved sibling to a parental caregiver will read it and realize he/she could be doing more to help. But most importantly, how family--and all species within--can give each other the strength to get through the hardest, saddest times.   


Q: What are you working on now?


A: A book called Ballet Barres, about a group of women who took ballet lessons together for 20 years from their beloved Madame Sophie, and who come together years later to save her from a dastardly, menacing relative who has taken over her life and is keeping her a virtual prisoner in her own home. Her life is becoming imperiled through neglect.


When the ballerinas discover the situation, they come together from all points to save her. Lots of shared memories, humor, life-lesson stories among the kick-a** women who get the job done in banishing him in the most satisfying way from Madame Sophie's life! 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Thanks for asking this question. One of the main reasons I wrote the book was to bring awareness to the caregiving crisis we're experiencing in this country. Sadly, and scarily, it has become much more evident during this time of coronavirus. People are moving their loved ones out of nursing homes and bringing them home, where they are doing the very hard job of caregiving.


It's a shock to many, but love motivated them to remove their loved ones from a dangerous situation. They fear their loved ones are imperiled on two levels: Catching the virus, and rapid deterioration through imposed isolation. Sometimes things have to hit a crisis level to bring about awareness.


I hope that my book will give comfort, perhaps a little hope, advice and direction to those people who find themselves in that position.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb