Monday, January 27, 2020

Q&A with Karma Brown

Karma Brown is the author of the new novel Recipe for a Perfect Wife. Her other novels include The Life Lucy Knew and Come Away with Me, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Self and Redbook. She lives near Toronto.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Recipe for a Perfect Wife, and for your characters Alice and Nellie?

A: I own quite a few vintage cookbooks—the more food splattered and well-loved the better—and had this idea of how an old house, a dark secret (or two), and a shared cookbook would link together the lives of two women—one modern and one from the past.

Having a young daughter, gender roles are often on my mind, and I also wanted to explore the expectations we continue to place on women, wives and mothers even in these more progressive times.

Nellie was the first character to come to mind, and she arrived in my brain fully formed and ready to tell her story. Alice was murkier in the beginning—particularly because gender roles are not as clear cut as they once were—but she was the character who ended up surprising me the most.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on recipes from the 1950s, and do you cook these recipes yourself?

A: I wanted to set Nellie’s story in the 1950s, and so it made sense to focus on recipes from that era.

Plus, much like the retro advice epigraphs that open each of the modern-day chapters, I decided these recipes needed to be integrated into Nellie’s chapters, as the cookbook was such an important part of her life and story.

I’ve tried a few of the recipes so far, including the Baked Alaska, which my daughter and I made. It was tasty but quite finicky to make, so the end result was likely not as impressive as Nellie’s would have looked!

Q: What kind of research did you do to recreate the 1950s portion of the novel, and did you learn anything especially surprising?

A: I spent many hours reading articles and stories from that decade, as well as watching endless home economics videos that used to be played in school during the 1950s.

I also grilled my parents and friends, who were teenagers in the ‘50s, on everything from birth control to entertainment and culture to clothing to etiquette.

And I have a large stack of vintage magazines from my stepmother, so I combed through those for the language and flavor of that particular decade.

Probably the thing that continued to surprise me (even though I was well aware of it) was simply how women were perceived at that time—one beer advertisement that still stands out in memory featured a husband and a wife (holding a spatula, with a chastised look on her face), and the caption read, “At least she didn’t burn the beer!” 

Q: How was the novel's title chosen, and what do you think it says about marriage in the 1950s and today?

A: A title is always tricky, because it needs to do a lot of heavy lifting.

While I was drafting, the book was called “The Good Wife” and then my agent and I decided that wasn’t compelling enough. So I put it out to a group of author friends, and this was one of the options we came up with--luckily my publisher also loved it!

As for what it says about marriage, both then and now, it’s a tongue-in-cheek statement based on the idea that women should be striving for perfection in the role of “wife”…even though there is no such thing as a “perfect wife” (or “perfect husband” for that matter).

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on my first non-fiction project at the moment, which is titled Time for Change and is about owning your time (and reclaiming it) in the age of increasing urgency, when many of us feel like we don’t have enough of it to even get the day-to-day stuff done. It will be out end of 2020 with HarperCollins.

I’m also working on my next fiction project, but it will remain a secret for now!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Karma Brown.

Jan. 27

Jan. 27, 1931: Mordecai Richler born.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Q&A with Alison Donald

Alison Donald's picture book for kids include AdoraBULL and The Spacesuit. A pediatric occupational therapist, she lives in Surrey, England.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for AdoraBULL, and why did you decide on a bull for one of the two main characters?

A: Alfred is real! Well sort of. My husband grew up on a farm and he told me about a bull named Alfred. I started wondering what if a boy and a bull were best friends.? What could that be like? 

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

A: Empathy for others.  That’s a tall order, I know, but I hope it gets children thinking…How would I feel if I was Alfred. What would I do if my best friend was lonely?

Q: You also have another recent book out, The Spacesuit. How did you research this book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?

A: With The Spacesuit I switched gears completely and wrote my first narrative non-fiction book. When researching the book, I read books and articles about the fabrication of the A7L spacesuit, and I also got in touch with ILC Dover (the manufacturers of the A7L spacesuit). 

I learned a ton about how spacesuits are made.

I love the true story of how Eleanor Foraker and a group of seamstresses who worked at Playtex (a division of ILC DOVER years ago) won a competition that enabled them to handmake the spacesuits worn for the iconic 1969 moonwalk. I learned about latex, properties of spacesuits, sewing techniques and so much more. 

I was surprised to learn that an x-ray machine was used to detect any pins that may have been accidentally left in the suit. 

Q: What do you think the illustrators--Alex Willmore and Ariel Landy--add to the books?

A: Illustrators breathe life into a picture book. I have been so lucky to work with some excellent illustrators. 

I love the humor that Alex brought to AdoraBULL and I love how Ariel really captured the fashion and style of the mid-1960s in The Spacesuit.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My next book, by me and Rea Zhai, A Super Sticky Mistake, will be out in the spring. It tells the story of how Harry Coover Jr. accidentally invented Superglue.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m very excited to say that The Spacesuit has been included in A Mighty Girl’s top book list for 2019.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 26

Jan. 26, 1905: Maria von Trapp born.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Q&A with Robert L. Dilenschneider

Robert L. Dilenschneider is the author of the new book Decisions: Practical Advice from 23 Men and Women Who Shaped the World. His other books include The Critical First Years of Your Professional Life and Power and Influence. He is founder of The Dilenschneider Group, a corporate counseling and PR firm, and the former president and CEO of Hill & Knowlton.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Decisions?

A: It simply occurred to me that decisions are being made every day that affect every man, woman and child in America and around the globe. Decisions, certainly for the next 12 months, are going to affect our lives dramatically.

So I thought about how people made decisions, decided to look back at history and take prominent people who had shaped the course of society and the world and took lessons from what they did that would help readers.

Q: The book is divided into four parts, War and Peace, Commerce and Invention, Science, and Breaking Boundaries. How did you decide on the book's structure and the people you discuss?

A: I made a list of about 300 people who have made decisions that were really powerful and which helped shape society and the world. Then, I drilled down and got 50 that I felt really comfortable with. 

I then looked for logical categories the 50 would fit under; and then I reduced the 50 to 23 and that's how we came up with the structure the book enjoys.

Q: Do you see any common themes running through the examples of decision-making you describe in the book?

A: Yes, indeed. People have to be strong, courageous and brave and they have to stick with what they decide.  They have to put the common good ahead of their own success and, from time to time, they have to be daring. 

When Hannibal made the decision he took major chances. Harry Truman clearly took a major chance. When Giannini opened the Bank of America he started from virtually nothing, so he took a big risk with his life and career. 

It is the people who are willing to take those risks and take those chances that make the difference and shape the future.

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

A: Some advice on how they can make their own decisions that will make their lives better and will make the lives of people around them even better, some guidelines on how to make decisions, a sense of courage to make the really tough decisions.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have three or four ideas for books that might appear in 2021/ 2022. One is an update on Decisions -- the next 23 people. Beyond that I am very active in my business trying to help clients and looking for every opportunity to improve my community and its many facets.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Decisions are going to have to be taken by our president, by the leaders of the rest of the free world, by businesses that come together in countries and by so many more which are going to shape the next couple of years. 

We are truly at a turning point in society where we can forge seriously ahead and make a huge difference for every  man, woman and child out there. The key is making the proper decisions to make this happen.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 25

Jan. 25, 1874: W. Somerset Maugham born.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Q&A with Martha Saxton

Martha Saxton is the author of the biography The Widow Washington: The Life of Mary Washington. Her other books include Being Good: Women's Moral Values in Early America. She taught history and women's studies at Amherst College for 20 years.

Q: You write, "I am normally not drawn to write about women whose fame derives from men or about slaveholding women." Why did you choose to write about Mary Washington?

A: When I encountered Mary Ball Washington, I had been researching a book called Being Good, which was about women's moral values in different early American communities--including 18th century Virginia.  

She and George had differences over money. I found that odd since--although I knew little about him--I knew his reputation for probity and also for being among the wealthiest, if not the wealthiest man in Virginia. 

But she was a widowed mother, and he was her first-born son. I already knew enough to know that property in the hands of widowed women when they had sons of legal age was likely to be viewed as illegitimate and often the source of conflict. 

Some time later, I began to look at the secondary literature about George and his mother, and after the Civil War it  became  more and more venomous. By the 1950s, she was a termagant, shrew, jealous, controlling, self-centered, greedy, illiterate, unloving, and dirty. I was amazed at how little evidence there was for these or really--any claims about her. 

So, I decided to see what I could find out about this woman who was being treated as a terrible parent whom George had to escape before he could emerge as the country's founder.

Q: Can you say more about some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about Mary Washington?

A: I mentioned in my list of negative adjectives above the  main misconceptions about Mary. She grew up a very hard-working, pious, and probably somewhat rigid woman who had been orphaned very young.

She seems to have modeled herself on her strong and independent mother, widowed three times--with whom she lived until she was 12. After her mother's death, she looked after herself and her half-sister's family as a teenager.  

She was a slaveholder from the time she was three--her wealthy father left her three male slaves and two pieces of property. So she had to learn to seem authoritative as a child. 

She grew up relatively poor, but her mother's wealthy connections and her ambitions for her children gave Mary some advantages. Marrying the widower Augustine placed her in Virginia's upper class.   

Her social mobility coupled with George's ascension to the very top of the Virginia elite has allowed his biographers to look down on her (illiterate, dirty), when in fact she was a respectable, religious, literate, diligent woman with the same commanding presence that her son acquired.

Q: How would you describe the relationship between Mary and George?

A: Mary's and George's relationship was intense and enduring. She probably favored her first-born, and this carried with it her close attention to his behavior and his moral precepts. She was a demanding mother, expected obedience and help. 

They lost Augustine when George was 11, so the relationship between mother and son grew more intense at a time when it would have normally  grown more distant. As he said, he did not have a typical elite adolescence, complete with an enslaved valet and a horse, doing whatever he wanted. 

She managed to give him a practical but not classical education and introduced him to responsibilities early, because the property she had been left produced little, and the core family was suddenly poor.  

George grew up diligent and penny-pinching like his mother, critical and  vigilant, like her. These are not characteristics that make for a mellow mother-son relationship. She loved him and raised him strictly. 

He respected her and looked after her, sometimes in an exasperated way, and sometimes without acknowledging that her needs were real.

Q: How would you define Mary's legacy today?

A: I have tried to retrieve her history as an independent woman, relentlessly focused on the survival of her family. Her start in life was traumatic, and while others suffered similar losses, they doesn't make hers any the less traumatic. 

The deaths of her parents, stepfather and stepbrother left her with fears, and her youthful experience of hard work and scraping by left her with fear as well. 

But she carried on with the duties of her life as she saw them. She ran her farm and raised five children on her own--the eldest, one of the most important figures in our nation's history.

His persistence in the face of overwhelming obstacles and losses, his courage and stoicism, and his vigilance in overseeing the needs of his army and later, his new country, owe much to his mother. She deserves much, much better than she has received at the hands of his historians.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 24

Jan. 24, 1862: Edith Wharton born.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Q&A with Tanen Jones

Tanen Jones, photo by Rachel Thalia
Tanen Jones is the author of the new novel The Better Liar. She lives in New York.

Q: How did you come up with your characters?

A: I had this thought: No one ever has perfect access to the interior conflicts of a family except the people in that family, but they never see the conflict clearly, being too close to it.

The only person who could ever truly understand a family, inside out, would be a person who somehow was allowed all the access of a family member while secretly being a stranger. 

From that thought grew my characters. What kind of person would do such a thing? What kind of family would need "solving" in this way?

As I wrote them, I discovered my characters were cut along classic noir archetypes, but I had changed them to suit my own sensibilities: the detective was a young queer actress; the troubled marriage was an equitable one; the crooked cop was a butch woman; the dead girl speaks.

At the end, as in all the best noirs, each character is presented with a wrenching dilemma.

All novelists use old tools, but the hope is always to make something new with them. 

Q: You begin the novel with a poem by Louise Gluck. Why did you choose that particular poem, "Averno"?

A: Louise Gluck is one of my favorite writers. I was reading a lot of her poetry during the period when I came up with the book.

In her poems she often uses a well-known story, like a Greek myth, and twists it, adding new information each stanza that causes the reader to reevaluate the previous stanzas.

Her speakers are obsessed with the past and with time and truth: If I'd known that then, would I still have behaved the same? If I could go back, would I change anything?

"Averno" spoke to me because it suggested that the truth of a moment exists only in that moment, and can differ from different perspectives, an idea I wanted to explore in the novel.

I tried to structure The Better Liar so that each sequence offered new information, a new light in which to see the story. It twists in on itself with each further examination.

An interesting sidenote: I just learned recently that Louise Gluck is a big fan of crime fiction and that the burning field in "Averno" is a reference to a Henning Mankell novel. Now I carry a little kernel of hope in my heart that she will read TBL.

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 knew from the start, yes. I like to have something to write toward, a big cathartic moment to reward myself with.

I made dozens of changes to the beginning and middle, and even to the people involved in the ending, but the bones of the story remained more or less the same throughout revisions. That ending kept me going through the more difficult parts of writing the book. 

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

A: I hope it entertains them, first of all; I hope I earned their time and attention.

I hope it causes them to reflect on the issue described in the author's note at the end of the book, and offers them a new perspective on it, or maybe just the comfort of knowing others feel the same.

I hope it makes them want to buy more queer books.

And I hope they feel connected in some way. I felt disconnected when I wrote this book, angry and alone. I wrote it in part because I wanted to reach for people. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm really excited about my new project, but I can't tell you about it yet! It's another thriller, a new one, not a sequel, and it diverges from the themes I explore in The Better Liar in ways readers might not expect.

It's big and bold and twisty and it has required a ton of research so far, but I think it'll all be worth it.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Tami Lewis Brown

Tami Lewis Brown is the author, with Debbie Loren Dunn, of the new children's picture book Instructions Not Included: How a Team of Women Coded the Future. Her other books include Soar, Elinor! and We Really Do Care. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: How did you and Debbie Loren Dunn come up with the idea for this book?

A: When my daughter Julia became a software engineer I discovered the women programming pioneers and right away I knew they would be great topics for a picture book biography.

I'd also been interested in writing about women who worked together as a team to accomplish something amazing and Betty, Jean, and Kay were a perfect team.

Meanwhile, my good friend Debbie Dunn had been working on a manuscript about another early female computer scientist. Debbie is a computer scientist herself and she has a deep understanding of both technology and nonfiction books for children.

Getting together to write this book seemed natural but it turned out even better than either of us expected. 

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

A: Debbie's experience as a computer scientist was incredibly helpful. She'd even programmed one of ENIAC's successors herself, when she was in school.

We found so many primary sources- everything from original electrical schematics to the newspaper ad Betty, Jean, and Kay saw, recruiting female mathematicians for what turned out to be the ENIAC project.

Betty, Jean, and Kay had all been interviewed extensively. We watched dozens of hours of interviews and panel discussions, much of which we found online.

Our biggest challenge was that when Betty, Jean, and Kay were working their contributions were minimized or misattributed to the men managing the project. We dug deeper to discover how much the women really did and to correct those historic inaccuracies.

Q: What do you think Chelsea Beck's illustrations add to the book?

A: We were thrilled when Chelsea signed on to illustrate Instructions. Her art brought a great vintage techie vibe to the story. We also love how her illustrations seem to capture Betty, Jean, and Kay's individual personalities.

Q: What do you hope kids take away from the story of these three women, and what do you see as their legacy today?

A: There are several things I hope kids will take away from the book.

One is that women and girls make a great team. When we work together we can accomplish anything!

Another is don't let someone else's expectations stop you. In the 1940s few women had careers in math or science fields but Betty, Jean, and Kay loved math and they carved out important careers for themselves. Girls belong in STEM careers-- we were the original computer programmers, after all!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have two non-fiction picture books coming out in 2020. Perkin’s Perfect Purple is about William Perkin, the teenaged boy who discovered aniline dye and changed the world with chemistry. Debbie and I co-wrote Purple, too, and we can't wait to share it with the world!

My other book is called Art Is Life. It's about Pop artist Keith Haring and it's absolutely GORGEOUS! Illustrator Keith Negley did a wonderful job of capturing Keith Haring's kind, exuberant spirit and his joyous art. I have ideas for several other nonfiction books for kids but they're all at the early research stage.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Peggy Patterson Garland

Peggy Patterson Garland is the author of the book Never Pleasing to the World: A Man and His Slaves, which focuses on the life of Robert Carter III, an 18th century plantation owner who emancipated 500 enslaved people. Garland is an attorney who served two terms as Commonwealth's Attorney in Virginia. She lives in Westmoreland County, Virginia.

Q: Why did you decide to focus your book on the life of Robert Carter III?

A: I admire him. He was a contemporary of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington and the two Lee brothers who signed the Declaration of Independence. Washington and the Lees were born in this same small county where Carter lived. 

And yet, Carter has never gotten much credit for setting in motion the freeing of 500 slaves in 1791. He had an unusual relationship with his slaves. And they are interesting people in their own right. Carter was an intelligent, farsighted, and courageous man to do what he did in his society in his time.

Q: Would you consider this book a novel or a blend of history and fiction?

A: It is a novel based on historical fact.

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

A: I researched by reading an incredible amount about the time in history and the places where Carter went. I also visited most of the places Carter went. I live in the county where his primary plantation was located and I know many descendants of his and of his enslaved people who live here today. 

The library at Colonial Williamsburg, the Virginia Historical Society, the Northern Neck of Virginia Historical Society, the Westmoreland County (Virginia) library, as well as libraries in Savannah, Georgia, and Annapolis, Maryland, were very helpful.

Colonial Williamsburg is an incredible treasure trove of information about Virginia in Colonial times and the people who lived and made history then and there. 

I relied heavily on Carter’s letter books and writings and biographies of his contemporaries. A very important source was the doctoral thesis of John Randolph Barden done at Duke University, called “Flushed with Notions of Freedom, the Growth and Emancipation of a Virginia Slave Community.”

Q: What do you see as Robert Carter III's legacy today?

A: His manumission actually created a free black community which began in 1791 and which has continued into the present. I think his story is a part of the discussion of race which we are having in this country now.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a memoir about my life as a female “come-here,” practicing law and running for elected office in a small rural county

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The story of slavery in the United States is a lot more multi-faceted than most people realize.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 23

Jan. 23, 1783: Stendhal born.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Q&A with Tishani Doshi

Tishani Doshi is the author of the new novel Small Days and Nights. Her other books include the novel The Pleasure Seekers, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Guardian and The New York Times. She lives in Tamil Nadu.

Q: A review of Small Days and Nights in The Guardian calls it "a shattering study of disaffection and belonging." What do you think of that description?

A: I think it’s pretty punchy. I don’t know many writers who set out thinking they’re going to write a shattering study of anything.

I think of my novel as rather quiet and claustrophobic, a story that draws you into a specific landscape and inner world, but I certainly was thinking about the question of belonging.

Here in India, as in so many other countries, there’s a real battle being fought between those who feel they have a certain birthright over a place and those who are considered outsiders.

So, on a micro level, I wanted this character of mine, Grace, to be caught in this battle. Someone who has never felt at home anywhere, who longs to find some place of comfort, but is reminded that she is always standing just outside the periphery.

But I appreciate greatly that someone thought it was a book with a shattering impact. Sure, I’ll take that.

Q: You've noted that you considered "A House Without Men" as the book's title. How was the actual title chosen?

A: I always have titles before I start a book because it gives me a container in which to put my words, so it felt really weird to be working for a few years on this books with a constantly changing title.

I wanted house, I wanted dogs, I wanted arboretum but nothing really felt right, and then I was reading James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime and I came across this line, “It’s in the little towns that one discovers a country, in the kind of knowledge that comes from small days and nights—“ and I basically pounced on it, recognizing that it captured everything the novel was trying to do.

This sense of the accretion of days and nights, building a life in a small place, the difficulties of that, and given that this is essentially a book about women and their lives – this sense of enshrining the small, the domestic, those traditionally “womanly” spaces – and giving them a larger platform, saying actually these stories can and should be part of the larger stories we tell about history and nation because they comprise it.

Q: How would you describe the relationship between Grace and her sister Lucia?

A: One of the main themes of the novel is this tussle between freedom and duty. I wanted Grace to change her life, to do what she thought was morally the right thing to do, but I also wanted her to struggle with it.

I wanted to write about how a relationship with a differently-abled sibling will transform your life, but how it can also cramp it. To explore the mysterious joy of a sister you never had, but not to be sentimental about the difficulty of being a sole caregiver.

My brother was born with Down Syndrome and is autistic and so I was writing from a place of understanding these things with my own particular prism.

Lucia is the only unsullied character in the book, and in some sense, it’s impossible to know her, but we get glimpses of her understanding and capacity to enlarge our sense of family and love, and Grace (I hope) begins to see that too toward the end of the book.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a new collection of poems and thinking about a memoir about the body and dance.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: All the stories about all the dogs in my book are true. When I first moved out to the beach one dog adopted me, then he brought another one, and before you know it, we had 16!

These dogs really sit on the periphery between domestic and wild, and I wanted to write about that relationship and the nature of that kind of animal, in that kind of space.

There’s also this brutal element of how people treat stray dogs here in India, and so sadly, the fate of the dogs in my book are also true to life, but I’m happy to say that I’ve had a stable population of three for the past four years and they are thriving. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Jennifer Longo

Jennifer Longo is the author of the new young adult novel What I Carry, which focuses on a teenage girl in the foster care system. She also has written the YA novels Up to This Pointe and Six Feet Over It. She lives on an island near Seattle, Washington.

Q: You note that your daughter, who had spent time in the foster care system before you met her, encouraged you to write this book. Can you say more about that, and about how you created your character Muiriel?

A: My daughter is a big reader, and like every reader, she sometimes likes stories she can recognize herself in. My husband and I were her fourth and last foster placement, and she was only a little over a year old when we brought her home.

She has no memories of her first placements, and her experience with the foster families she’s grown up with (our cousins and family friends) were different than how foster families are portrayed in many of the fiction books she read that involved foster care.

She understands, like anyone involved in the foster care system, that every child’s experience in foster care is unique.

What she was looking for was not a false, idealized narrative of how great and happy foster care is, but by the same token, not every birth family or foster placement is dark and violent.

She said she just wanted a story involving a kid living in foster care that was maybe “a little less…molest-y? Less yell-y and with like, not as much arson?”

Obviously, those events and themes are (sadly) are true, and thankfully there are many excellent middle grade and YA books involving foster care that explore those brutal realities.

The thing is, there is room in the canon for as many explorations of the facets of human experience as there are readers, and What I Carry is just one more.

My daughter likes internal conflict, and quiet, contemporary stories involving daily life and descriptions of food and weather. (Same) She likes a hopeful ending.

The character of Muir grew from me trying to make a story my daughter could see herself and her birth and adoptive and foster family members in.

So, I listened to her, and to stories told to me by current and former foster youth. I translated the very real emotions they described into fictional events, an imagined life, and that life became Muir’s.

Muir’s experience in foster care is not meant to be a factual representation of how all foster care works – this is just one story, about a white girl, who has lived in foster care since birth, and those things inform specificity - but it is a story imbued with the truths of a lot of really brave kids form varied circumstances in foster care who deserve to be listened to.

Sometimes Muir gets a little soapbox-y – that’s because kids in foster care are rarely listened to.

Adults drive the myopic narrative of the state of foster care in America, so in this book, I wanted the kids I was honored to listen to have their say through Muir – and no adult is allowed to interrupt.

If readers are looking for non-fiction books about life in foster care, one truly invaluable voice I hope people pay attention to is the author Kenisha E. Anthony.

She lived in foster care for 13 years, and is now an advocate for change, dependence case worker, and holds a master’s degree in Public Administration and a BS in Social work. Her memoir Labeled: Ward of the State published Dec. 17.

Q: The novel takes place on an island near Seattle. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: My favorite question! Every book and play I’ve written always, always, begins with a place – never characters, or a central conflict – those are built in as I write, around the setting.

I get obsessed with different places I live in or visit or read about and I get all Who lives here, and Why would they, and What the hell happens to them? 

My first novel (Six Feet Over It) began with exploring the details of a life lived in a cemetery. Then (Up to This Pointe) I could not stop thinking about and researching modern day human life in Antarctica.

What I Carry is set on an island in the Pacific Northwest that has been the setting for many books – and what fascinates me most about it, is its very complex existence and representation, for many different people, as Home; who is allowed to claim it as theirs, who gets to decide who stays or is forced away, and amidst the conflict, who is taking care of the island, or is it being abused and neglected?

The life of this island expressed the themes of home and family and belonging and caring for vulnerable lives that my daughter was wanting to read about, and so the story took shape here, in the waters of the Puget Sound. 

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

A: My editors chose the title, and I think it perfectly signifies the literal notion of how Muir’s life is made by expertly carrying physical necessities from house to house.

It indicates how Muir is influenced by learning what John Muir carried with him as he lived outside in nature, how carrying the lightest load, learning to survive on minimal food and shelter, and without the burden of companions or heavy objects on one’s back, keeps a person free.

Then, the title also refers to the lessons of survival Muir carries with her to each placement year after year, it is about the sadness and fear longing and regret she carries, and how those things keep her detached from vulnerable relationships, which Muir thinks keep her free – when truly, carrying those things so tightly may keep her trapped in isolation and loneliness. 

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

A: Oh man. There’s kind of a lot I hope readers take away! Maybe I’ll bullet point it and try to be brief: 

* Families come in an endless variety and can be a wonderful source of comfort and safety and love, and every child deserves to have a family. 

* Kids living in foster care are human beings, exactly the same way kids growing up in birth families are human beings. I am shocked by how many people do not understand this. Kids living in foster care did NOTHING to be put there. Kids are in care because of the actions of an adult or several adults in the kid’s life. End of story.

* The purpose of adoption is NOT to “find a child” for an adult to have. The purpose of adoption is to find suitable parents for kids who need them. Children are not prizes or commodities to fulfil an adult’s wishes. 

* Children living in good foster care homes or who have been adopted are not “lucky.” Every person born is entitled to at least one decent parent. Kids being cared for by decent adults do not owe the world never-ending gratitude for the fulfilment of this most basic of human needs. Human beings, children, are not burdens. And adults who care for them are not “saints.”  

* Most of us, when we are scared and especially when we are young, are braver and stronger than some adults give us credit for, and more than we give ourselves credit for. Learned helplessness is a thing - people will try to convince you not to try, that you aren’t enough of a person, that you aren’t smart or strong enough or worthy of a fulfilling and independent life. That is a lie. You are, and you can. 

* Learning to ask for help is brave, it demonstrates strength, not weakness. 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I am having the best time revising a contemporary Lit. Fiction drama about a family having a super ridiculous Thanksgiving.

I want it to be a book that Oprah tells everyone to take with them if they have to spend Thanksgiving with their in-laws and they need a funny, smart, dramatic novel to distract them. That is my dream. Oprah! Call me! 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Andrew Campanella

Andrew Campanella is the author of the new book The School Choice Roadmap: 7 Steps to Finding the Right School for Your Child. He is the president of National School Choice Week, and he lives in Florida.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book about choosing the right school?

A: When I talk to parents who have actively chosen schools for their kids, they almost universally tell me that they wish they had started the school search process earlier.

Parents want to be able to choose schools where their kids will learn, succeed, and be happy. Research tells us that when parents make these choices, students are more likely to, in fact, succeed!

But some parents hesitate to start the school choice process because they are worried they'll make the wrong choices. That concern isn't rooted in the fact that they lack confidence, knowledge, or expertise. It's because education can often be filled with confusing jargon and bizarre processes.

Bureaucracy and confusion shouldn't prevent parents from accessing a great education for their children, so I wanted to provide a jargon-free "roadmap" for parents, filled with practical (not philosophical) information, so that they could truly "own their power" and begin the important process of choosing their child's school or learning environment.

That roadmap turned into The School Choice Roadmap: 7 Steps to Finding the Right School for Your Child

Q: What do you think are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about finding the right school for a particular child?

A: There are a few.

First, you cannot look solely at a school's "grade" or "ranking" and determine whether that school will, or won't, be a good fit for your daughter or son. One school might win tons of awards and accolades, but still not be the ideal environment for your child.

Second, the myth (perpetuated by people who don't like the idea of parents picking schools) that parents don't know enough about K-12 education policy – and therefore shouldn't be empowered to make choices for their kids – is maddeningly ridiculous, but it creates a crisis of confidence for some families.

Parents know their children, and love their children, more than anyone else on this planet. Nobody has more expertise about a child's needs, wants, interests, and challenges than that child's mom or dad. 

Q: How did you come up with the seven steps you write about?

A: This was the most enjoyable part of the book to write, but it was also the most challenging.

I talked to hundreds of parents, and also hundreds of school leaders, to develop and refine steps that navigate the school choice process, but are careful not to prescribe any outcomes.

The goal is to empower parents to harness the power of their own intuition and knowledge throughout every step of the process.

At the risk of sounding less than humble, some of my favorite parts of the book are the worksheets and exercises within these seven steps –– and there are a lot of them –– because they allow parents to really delve into what they need and want from schools, within the context of their child's needs.

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

A: I hope parents will read the book and then say, "I can do this!"

I hope everyone who reads The School Choice Roadmap will also learn more about all of the different types of schools available (public, charter, magnet, private, online, and home), and be inspired by some of the parent, student, teacher, and school profiles.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I work as the president of National School Choice Week, which is an independent public awareness effort designed to let parents know about the choices they have for their children's education.

Right now, our team is working around the clock to help schools and organizations plan and promote more than 50,000 events and activities this January.

As for writing, my notebooks are filled with ideas, but nothing has taken shape! But it will!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Thank you for the opportunity to talk with me about The School Choice Roadmap. I'm excited about this book because there's nothing else like it for parents, and I hope your readers will consider it. Finally, happy new year!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb