Thursday, January 30, 2020

Q&A with Hollie Overton

Hollie Overton is the author of the novel The Runaway. She also has written the novels The Walls and Baby Doll. In addition, she is a TV writer and producer. She lives in Los Angeles.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Runaway, and for your characters Becca and Ash? 

A: When I set out to write my third novel,  I knew I wanted to write a mother/daughter story. Being adopted, I'm interested in families that aren't blood related so that's how they came to life. 

I've also been trying to have a baby, and a lot of Becca's experiences and struggles were informed by my own. 

My decision to make Becca a therapist seemed like it would have a lot of built in conflict, especially if she were dealing with a troubled teenager. 

Ash was a product of a lot of research I did about homeless street kids. She's such a survivor and I really love her, even though she makes some pretty terrible decisions in the book.  

Q: You note that you had to do research on a variety of topics to write the novel. How did you do your research, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

I researched a lot about the homeless and L.A. and how they survive and the ways in which the system fails them.

I knew that in order to properly portray the work Becca does as well as the police investigation that makes up a lot of the book, I'd have to talk to experts.

I was so lucky to find a psychologist who worked with the LAPD and did the job Becca did for over eight years. He read the entire book and answered hundreds of emails.

I also was fortunate enough to have several police officers I turned to. One was from L.A. and one was a friend from high school and their input was invaluable. I really don't think I could have written a book without their help. 

Q: Do you usually know how your novels will end, or do you make many changes along the way?

A: As a TV writer, it's drilled into your head that you need to outline. I'm a stickler for that. But when I wrote my first book, I sort of winged it and figured out the ending halfway through.

It would be a much easier process if I was a bit more of a plotter and it's something I may attempt with Book 4, but I'm also a big fan of doing whatever works for you. The process is the process and as long as you're getting to the end of your story, it doesn't really matter how you do it. 

Q: How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: It's interesting because in my first book, Baby Doll, I set it in a small town in Pennsylvania but it wasn't an important part of the story.

The book ended up doing quite well and sold in a lot of countries and I think it's partly because it felt like those events could have happened in any small town. But it wasn't a calculated choice. It was the right choice for the book. 

That changed with my next two books. The Walls was set in Houston and The Runaway was obviously L.A. Those cities have a great deal of personality so I knew once I picked the setting, it would end up being pivotal to the storytelling. 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I just wrapped the second season as a writer/producer on Tell Me A Story for CBS-All-Access. I'm currently developing several TV projects of my own, and I'm working on my fourth novel. I'm also teaching TV writing at Script Anatomy, an L.A.-based TV writing company. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: If anyone wants to follow my writing journey, or see what I'm working on next they can visit my website or my instagram @hollieoverton  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Bobby Duffy

Bobby Duffy is the author of the new book Why We're Wrong About Nearly Everything: A Theory of Human Misunderstanding. He is director of the Policy Institute at King's College London, and he lives in London.

Q: You begin the book with a discussion of whether the Great Wall of China is visible from space. Why did you start there, and how does that question, as you write, "highlight why there might be this gap between perception and reality"?

A: It’s a great way to get people to see the wider causes and implications of even simple misperceptions – partly because we know from surveys that about 50 percent of people wrongly think it is visible from outer space. And I confirm those sort of figures in just about every talk I do, with a huge range of audiences. 

The point is not to make people feel stupid in any way, it’s to highlight how even this shows the four to five key points from the book and why we get things wrong and the implications. 

First, we tend not to think about this sort of question very deeply, because it’s quite trivial. But we don’t give lots of day-to-day decisions a lot of thought either; that would be exhausting. Instead we use what Daniel Kahneman calls fast thinking, where we’re not engaging in careful consideration. 

We also struggle with scales as humans, often mixing them up. So the Great Wall of China is extremely big, in fact it is one of the largest man-made structures on earth, but it’s its length that gives it that scale, and that doesn’t make it visible from outer space. 

We also suffer from illusory truth bias, which means we’re more likely to believe and accept something when we hear it repeated several times. We’ll have heard this “fact” in many circumstances, and not thought much of it, but its repetition alone helps make it seem more real. 

But it’s also more emotional than it might seem for such a trivial fact – we want it to be real, because it’s just a cool and unusual fact that we can make something visible from space. 

This is a key point of the book – that our views of reality are more affected by our emotions and identity than we often realise or would like to admit. 

But finally, when I tell audiences I’ve looked into it, and the best evidence is that it’s not visible from outer space, they (usually!) believe me. 

Again, this is an important point – people do change their minds with new information, and we need to hold on to that fact, that we’re not all completely set in our ways.

Q: In the book, you discuss Brexit and the 2016 U.S. presidential election. What do those events say about why people misinterpret what's going on?

A: Well, I think they tell us more about how political actors and communications play on the causes of our misperceptions to make a connection with people. 

So in the UK, Boris Johnson made a big play about how the EU is banning bendy bananas! This wasn’t really true, not in the sense it was presented, but it was very effective – because it’s such a vivid story, but also implies that if the EU are meddling with our bright yellow potassium rich food, what else are they interfering in? 

And in the US, on the campaign trail in 2016, Donald Trump repeatedly said that – incorrectly – unemployment was above 30 percent in the US, and that crime was much higher than decades ago. But his messages were less about the facts, more about showing he understood people’s sense of decline. 

These plays on key biases – that we naturally focus more on negative information and we think things were better in the past than they really were. 

Our focus on the negative is a deep evolutionary trait, as in our cave people past, negative information was often threat information, like a warning of a lurking sabre tooth tiger – and people who didn’t take notice were edited out of the gene pool. 

We’re the end of a long line of humans who did very well by focusing on the negative.

Q: What are some answers to this ongoing problem of human misunderstanding?

A: The key point of the point of the book is that we go wrong because of both “how we think” and “what we’re told.” 

This isn’t just about our biases on the one hand or fake news or misleading politicians on the other hand – it’s about how the two interact. One plays off the other, and that points to what we can do. 

The main point is that we can’t just teach people critical or news literacy and expect them to cope better. And it doesn’t mean we can just get the social media platforms to clean up their act and for that to solve it. 

What we need are actions that deal with both sides of this “system of delusion”: do better at bringing our skills up to meet the hugely different information environment we’re in now, and regulate and control how people can abuse this system more effectively, focusing on key decision points, such as round elections. 

We’re not even applying the same standards to online campaigning that we do to offline campaigning in many countries, and that’s a big gap, considering how important and effective online campaigning has become.

Q: What do you see looking ahead, given rapid technological advances?

A: It’s a really good question. There is a worrying combination of three technologies that could come together.

First we have greater ability to micro-target people online, based on a huge amount of data that is known about our behaviours and attitudes. 

Second, AI has allowed communicators to create and test huge numbers of variations of messages to see which is most effective. So, for example, it was common for 100,000 tiny variations of message to be tested every day in the 2016 campaign, using the speed and processing power of AI to do something that just would not be possible by humans. 

And finally, the deepfake capabilities, of being able to realistically fake videos, have come on hugely in recent years. The risk here is not so much fake videos of presidents or prime ministers starting wars, but how the tech can be used in campaigns.

Taking these three together, this means that we could have personalized messages targeted to tight groups of individuals, where the president or PM is saying something entirely different to you from what he or she is saying to me. 

This means we lose our common understanding of political positions and discourse, where it is all hidden, which is scary.

But much more important than any of these individual applications is the more general point that tech is always evolving beyond our ability to regulate or control it. 

This is the real issue – that the accelerating pace of change means we’re always behind the curve. While we’re still worrying about how to deal with deepfakes, something else pops up. 

It means we have to shift our approach to be less about the individual capabilities and more about the principles we want to hold up. Then future innovations need to be tested against whether they fit with these principles. 

That’s difficult to do, but vital if we’re not always going to be legislating for old threats.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve got two main themes. 

The first is generational differences, which is the subject of my next book. I’m looking to separate myth from reality on this too – as there is a lot of nonsense talked about generational differences, but this obscures the very real changes that are going on underneath. 

And in my “day job” I’m focusing on the growing threat of polarization in the UK, and how we need to understand that better to again not jump to the wrong conclusions. We think we’re more divided than ever, but actually there is a lot that brings us together, and we need to focus on supporting that, not talking up division. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with J.A. Jance

J.A. Jance is the author of Sins of the Fathers, the latest in her J.P. Beaumont series. Her many other books include The A List and Field of Bones. She lives in Seattle.

Q: Did you know when you first started writing about your character J.P. Beaumont that you'd write two dozen books about him?

A: When I met J.P. in 1982, I thought I was writing a stand-alone book.  I had no idea that an editor would buy Until Proven Guilty as the first book in a series.

Q: How do you see him changing over the course of the series?

A: My first husband died of alcoholism. Writers are supposed to write what they know, and I happened to know a lot about drinking.

So when I met Beau he was a heavy drinker. (The fact that he was also an alcoholic was invisible to me until my readers started pointing it out several books later.)  

He was also a divorced alcoholic who was estranged from his children. In the course of almost 40 years a lot has changed.

Q: Did you need to do any research to write Sins of the Fathers, and if so, did you learn anything surprising?

A: Because that book harkens back to a much earlier book, I had to go back and read Taking the Fifth, the fourth book in the series.  I was shocked to encounter that much younger and still-drinking Beau. The character he was back then is not the character he is now.

Q: What role do you see Seattle playing in the novel?

A: I write about places I know. That enables me to report on the locale—distances, landscapes, traffic—in the background while keeping my eye on what the characters are doing in the foreground.  

When I started writing the Beau books, he was a lifetime Seattleite and I had lived in the city for less than two years.  I learned about the city as I wrote about it.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I couldn’t just write about Beaumont. My first hardback, Hour of the Hunter, is the first of five Walker Family books. I’m currently at work on Missing and Endangered, book 19 in my Joanna Brady series. And Credible Threat, Ali Reynolds # 15, is due out in June.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I always wanted to be a writer, and now I am. I, too, write a blog. I’ll be doing one today, although I have no idea what the subject will be. It gives my readers a window on my world.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with J.A. Jance.

Q&A with Paul Kent

Paul Kent is the author of the new book Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, Volume 1: "This is jolly old Fame." It focuses on P.G. Wodehouse, author of the Jeeves and Wooster books. Kent also has written books about Voltaire, Shakespeare, and Montaigne. He has worked for BBC Radio and is a producer of audiobooks. 

Q: How did you first become interested in P.G. Wodehouse, and why did you decide to write this book about him?

A: I absolutely hated fiction at school, refusing to read any of the set texts. Then one inspirational English teacher took me to one side and proposed that he sat watching while I read the first five chapters of a book of stories – which he did.

After about 15 minutes, I told him his services were no longer required. I was hooked. That book was The Inimitable Jeeves, and I set out to buy all the Wodehouses I could find. From that point on, my nose has seldom been out of a book.

I decided to write the book about him because I’d been meaning to for years, yet couldn’t find a way “in.”

Then I realized there was a gap in the market; the vast majority of books about Wodehouse didn’t get to grips with the writing itself, majoring instead on his biography, or in surveying small, discreet themes.

A comprehensive, detailed exploration of Wodehouse’s creative imagination hadn’t recently been attempted, so I thought I’d have a go. And here we are!

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

A: My research methods are very simple. Read the books. Then read them again. And again, and pick out all the recurring themes, tropes and motifs.

Given that Wodehouse published over 100 books – not to mention hundreds of newspaper articles, poems, song lyrics and plays - this has taken quite some time!

What surprised me was quite how much the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. There’s something about Wodehouse, which, when read in quantity, provides you with a philosophy for life.

Not that he ever intended to, of course – that’s just my personal impression. But it’s a good, practical philosophy, and I explore its development and influence over the course of my book(s).

Q: What are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about Wodehouse and his work?

A: The most annoying misconceptions are that his work’s just enjoyable froth; and that the fact he wrote so much means he didn’t take much trouble over his books.

Both these views are categorically wrong. The first one’s particularly troublesome, as it’s regularly trotted out by Plum’s fans as a reason for liking him. Trying to convince them that Wodehouse should be taken seriously (without, of course, harming the humour) is a tough nut to crack.

Q: How would you describe Wodehouse's legacy today?

A: Wodehouse would be faintly amused to think that he had left a legacy – he certainly didn’t plan it that way. But he clearly has, or no-one would bother reading him any more.

I think Stephen Fry sums it up brilliantly, albeit on a personal level: “…his writings awoke me to the possibilities of language. But more than that, Wodehouse taught me something about good nature. It is enough to be benign, to be gentle, to be funny, to be kind.” Spot on!

Q: This is Volume 1 of your work on Wodehouse--how many volumes will there be, and what are you working on now?

A: There will be three (or perhaps more the way things are going). Volume 2 is currently being edited, and I’m just starting to write the intro to Volume 3. I’m having the time of my life in Wodehouse’s company, and I hope my readers will, too.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’d just like to add that my book isn’t a dry, academic study. I’m doing my best to channel Wodehouse’s lightness and humour as I write. Fortunately, some of Volume 1’s early reviewers have picked up on this, so I guess I’m heading in the right direction!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 30

Jan. 30, 1912: Barbara Tuchman born.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Q&A with Colleen Oakley

Colleen Oakley is the author of the new novel You Were There Too. She also has written the novels Close Enough to Touch and Before I Go, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and Ladies' Home Journal.  A former magazine editor, she lives in Georgia.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on the idea of dream telepathy in your new novel?

A: A few years ago, I was working on an article for WebMD magazine about sleep and came across a study on dreams—specifically one that suggested that dream telepathy, or mutual dreaming, was a real phenomenon.

I’m a really vivid dreamer and have always been intrigued by dreams and what they mean, so I found the idea of two people sharing the same dream on the same night fascinating and I knew I had to turn it into a novel.

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

A: I delved deep in the world of dream science and dream analysis online, read a couple of books, like The Mind at Night, and interviewed a few experts.

I learned a lot of really interesting tidbits—like the fact that Abraham Lincoln dreamt of his own death two weeks prior, that Google was invented in a dream, and that Paul McCartney heard the entire melody of Yesterday in a dream, woke up and wrote the lyrics.

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 did know how it was going to end, and I never wavered. Now the path to getting there… that took about 58 drafts.

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

A: This is an interesting question because I know what the novel means to me, but I think each reader will take away something different. That’s one of the fun parts of putting a book out into the world—hearing what people connect to and what it means to them.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just finished a draft of my next novel, The Invisible Husband of Frick Island, which will hit bookshelves in May 2021.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I love hearing from readers! And I Facetime into book clubs when I can. Come find me on Instagram @writercolleenoakley or at my website.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Colleen Oakley.

Q&A with Chad Dundas

Chad Dundas is the author of the new suspense novel The Blaze. He also has written the novel Champion of the World, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including the Beloit Fiction Journal and Sycamore Review. He has worked as a sportswriter for ESPN, NBC Sports, and other outlets, and he lives in Missoula, Montana.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Blaze, and for your character Matthew?

A: I think writing about a character suffering from some form of memory loss had been on my mind for a long while.

It’s obviously not a completely unique notion; we’ve seen books and movies featuring characters with amnesia before, but I was drawn to the potential of building a mystery around a protagonist who has lost much of their biographical memory. I wanted to use it to experiment with the idea of truth and the nature of memory in a novel.

Plus, I thought it would naturally help build tension in the book to feature a person who could experience the mystery, setting, and other characters the same way the reader experiences them.

The specific character of Matthew Rose came out of that interest.

In my day job as a sportswriter covering mixed martial arts fighting, I’ve unfortunately ended up writing about brain injuries more than I would like.

Then to read news reports about soldiers coming home from combat situations with what is being described as the “signature wound of modern warfare” in the traumatic brain injury was heart-wrenching and fascinating to me.

I think all those factors came together and ended up becoming The Blaze.

Q: Matthew is a veteran of the Iraq War who suffers from memory loss. Did you need to do much research to create a character with that condition?

Q: Yes, I did. In my job as a sportswriter I’ve talked to people living with the effects of TBI and I’ve interviewed brain doctors and researchers at the Cleveland Clinic, some of whom are on the cutting edge of looking into the science of the brain. So I had developed a very shallow knowledge base.

From there, I read everything I could find about TBI and specifically about soldiers dealing with TBI. I’m by no means an expert and, while the kind of brain injury Matthew suffers from is real and fairly common, some of his unique symptoms are fictionalized. I hope that every part of his experience feels organic to the world of the book.

There was also a lot about Matthew’s experience that is foreign to me.

I never served in the military, for example. Luckily, I have some close friends who did serve and experienced combat situations overseas. They were kind and patient enough to suffer through some early drafts of the book and offer me some notes on what was working and what wasn’t.

Anything about those sections of the novel that feels particularly good is likely due to their input and any mistakes are my own entirely.

Q: The novel takes place in Montana, where you live. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: It’s very important to me. I’m admittedly biased, but I’ve always felt Montana was a great place to set a mystery. It's a big, wild state that is beautiful and full of natural splendor, but it can kill you, too.

The people are generally full of Western hospitality, but with such a massive land area and fairly sparse population, it can feel isolated.

There are places in Montana where, if you get yourself in some kind of trouble, you’re probably 20 or 30 minutes from getting any help from emergency responders. So all of that makes it a natural setting for this book.

But I also wanted to write about the new West, the place where I grew up and see every day, without the sepia-toned mythologizing that so often influenced depictions of the region in movies and books of the past. There’s a certain independent Western spirit that probably shows up in my work.

At the same time, writing about the West in 2020 carries a duty to correct the previous historical record, which has often been full of stereotypes and largely ignored the experiences of people of color, women, indigenous people, immigrants, and workers. So, I want this vision of the west to be updated and to be more inclusive, more accurate and maybe even a little more hopeful. 

Q: Your first novel was historical fiction, and this is a suspense novel set in modern times. Was your writing process different this time around?

A: It was different, for sure. With my first book, Champion of the World, the research was so pervasive that I ended up writing a lot of it in the basement of the University library in Missoula. That way, any time a historical question came up, I could stand up and go into the stacks to find the answer.

With The Blaze, the research wasn’t quite as all-encompassing, though there were clearly aspects of the book that required me to seek outside help. In some ways, the second book was an easier project.

In other ways, however, it was much more difficult. Champion of the World was written in the comfort of knowing that, if it failed, nobody besides myself and a few close friends would know about it.

With The Blaze, I had an existing contract with my publisher and, if this one didn’t work out, it would have had a negative impact on a lot more than just my feelings. So there were different psychological hurdles I had to clear to get myself in the chair in front of the computer doing the work every day.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m tinkering with a couple of different novel projects, both of them contemporary Montana-based thrillers. I’m waiting to see which one asserts itself the most in my mind, which one feels like it has more creative juice and which one causes me to get obsessed with it in the way you need to be obsessed to complete a full book.

I am also working on a history/true crime podcast with a group of talented historians and journalists in Montana called Death in the West. It will focus on the unsolved, historically significant crimes of the west and we hope to start putting out episodes in 2020.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Getting a book into the world is huge, collaborative effort. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the tireless work of my editor, Sara Minnich, and the entire staff at G.P. Putnam’s Sons. Through two books, they’ve been unfailingly terrific.

My agent Julie Stevenson is also outstanding and put a lot of work into launching The Blaze. My publicist for this book, Beth Parker, is wonderful and pulled out all the stops in setting The Blaze up for a successful launch. They are all the best and I’m very much indebted to each of them.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Serena Burdick

Serena Burdick is the author of the new novel The Girls with No Names, which takes place in New York City in the 1910s. She also has written the novel Girl in the Afternoon. She lives in Western Massachusetts.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Girls with No Names?

A: I was inspired by a story I heard on the BBC of a woman who had been in an Irish Magdalene Laundry. I knew immediately I wanted to write a novel that addressed what women had gone through in these institutions.

At the time, I assumed I’d be writing about Ireland. It was not until I began my research and discovered The House of Mercy, a laundry located in New York City, that I decided to set The Girls with No Names in the United States.

It felt important to write a story that exposed the reality of what these women—our not too distant ancestors—went through and give us a way to talk about it through fiction.

Q: You tell the story from the perspectives of several characters. How did you choose your point-of-view characters?

A: I knew from the outset I was going to tell the story from Effie and her mother Jeanne’s alternating perspectives. In Effie’s confusion, we needed to see what was really going on through her mother’s eyes.

Mable was never part of the original plan! Her voice and story emerged out of nowhere. It was one of those writer moments where you feel things are happening beyond your control. After I wrote Mable’s story, I had to find a way to weave it into the narrative with Effie and Jeanne.

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

A: My research involved reading non-fiction books on the Romani people and New York City at the turn of the 19th century, and also a lot of Edith Wharton. Fiction written in the era I am writing about provides details of daily life, while non-fiction provides the facts, which is a nice balance.

There wasn’t a lot written on the House of Mercy, but I found articles from old New York City newspapers with women’s accounts of what went on inside. Most of my detail came from these accounts.

I was most surprised to find that there really were Romani people camping in Inwood Park at this time. I knew I wanted this community to be part of the story, but I imagined they were only in Europe and I was going to have to make it up.

When I found that the Romani had immigrated here and there was an actual encampment right in the very spot I needed them to be, it was a little bit magic.

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

A: My hope with any story is that my readers walk away feeling completely satisfied and fulfilled, that I’ve given them a world they can disappear into and characters whose emotions they feel in their own hearts. If people learn something along the way, are exposed to a time and place and viewpoint that piques curiosity, I’ll take that too.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A novel based on the true story of a Cuban actress who had an outrageous life and a tragic death. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Alex Gallo-Brown

Alex Gallo-Brown is the author of Variations of Labor, a new collection of stories and poems. He also has written the poetry collection The Language of Grief, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including the Los Angeles Review of Books and The Brooklyn Rail. He works as a union organizer, and he lives in Seattle.

Q: Over how long a period did you write the stories and poems in Variations of Labor?

A: I started writing the earliest poem in the book in about 2010, and I finished the latest poem in 2019, so about nine years altogether.

Q: Poet Claudia Castro Luna wrote of the book, "Gallo-Brown argues with tenderness that to balance expectations and desires, to mourn a loved one, to grow into adulthood, is work too." How would you define the concept of work, or labor, as it appears in your book?

A: That’s a good question. I think that part of the implicit argument of the book is that work can mean many things—it can mean wage labor, it can mean the emotional stewardship of a friendship, it can mean overcoming depression or grief, it can mean caring for a partner or child, it can mean political activism.

All of these are important forms of work that my characters engage in and that I have engaged in.

Q: The stories and poems are set in Seattle. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: For this book, and for the stories, in particular, the setting was very important.

I originally conceived it as a book of fiction set entirely in Seattle. I had grown up there (here—I moved back five years ago), and felt like I had read almost no fiction that spoke to my experience of the city—its poker players and union organizers, its drug dealers and prep cooks, its palpable racial tension and fading '70s counterculture.

I especially wanted to represent the more working-class precincts of the city, which are often unseen amid the glitz of the tech economy. 

Q: The book includes a section on Charlottesville and racism. Why did you include it in the collection?

A: I included that poem because I think that dealing psychologically with racism is an important form of work for both white people and people of color in this country.

That’s another part of the argument of the book, in my mind—that we are all doing work all of the time, much of it unpaid, much of it unseen or unrecognized, even by ourselves.

To me, this is important because it gives lie to the political idea that only people who “work” deserve to have their basic needs met—food, shelter, and healthcare.

Of course, we deserve to have those needs met because we are inherently valuable as human beings. But we are also workers who are working all the time, whether or not we have jobs that pay enough to afford to buy those things on the private market.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m not sure yet! Fiddling with poems. Trying to think about how to integrate my political beliefs with my poetic and literary practice.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I really appreciate you giving this small book attention! It’s taken a big chunk of my life to produce, so I’m extremely grateful that you’ve taken the time to read it.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 29

Jan. 29, 1860: Anton Chekhov born.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Q&A with Lydia Denworth

Lydia Denworth, photo by Jessica Barthel
Lydia Denworth is the author of the new book Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life's Fundamental Bond. She also has written I Can Hear You Whisper and Toxic Truth. She is a contributing editor for Scientific American, and she lives in Brooklyn.

Q: You begin your book with a visit to the monkeys on the island of Cayo Santiago. Why did you choose to start there? 

A: I thought hanging out with the monkeys on Cayo would be a surprising way to start the book. Since you’re asking, I guess I was right! I was fascinated by the monkeys and thought readers would be, too. They make for a good story and a good scene.

But Cayo was also an appropriate place to begin because I wanted to signal right away that I was following scientists’ lead and thinking about friendship in a new way.

Furthermore, a lot of the interesting and important recent research on the biology and evolution of social bonds has been done in nonhuman animals, so I started as I meant to go on by introducing that work and showing what it has to do with why you want to call your girlfriend when you need a good cry or why boys playing video games together might be getting in more quality social time than their parents imagine.

Q: In the book, you write that "by comparison with relationships forged in blood and love, science has historically given friendship short shrift." Why do you think that is?

A: Friendship is hard to define and measure, which makes it hard to study. The scientific process depends to a large extent on being able to measure change and the influence of one variable on another.

Friendship is also a little squishy and for a long time, I think it seemed unscholarly to care about it. One scientist called it “the ‘F’-word.”

The pioneering work of people like John Bowlby forced scientists to give relationships generally new respect.

Even then, you could say they were looking under the lamppost because that’s where the light was. They could see the biological relevance of kin or sexual relationships so that’s what they studied first. Appreciating how much those relationships mattered ultimately led to the changing view of friendship.

For example, Bowlby recognized that attachment didn’t just exist between mothers and babies, it could apply to friends.

Even so, it took a major mental leap to imagine that friendship, a relationship that exists entirely outside the body, could have an effect on not only emotional but physical health, or that the quality of a relationship might matter more than its origin.

But scientists weren’t alone in missing this. With a few notable exceptions, philosophers and writers routinely described friendship as pleasurable, but not essential. C.S. Lewis famously likened it to philosophy and art in that it had “no survival value.” That’s wrong. Survival value is exactly what friendship turns out to have.

I love that one of the critical turning points in understanding that came when Jeanne Altmann and other primatologists in Africa realized that all the attention was being paid to male behavior—lots of sex and fighting—but that females, who were quieter but busily building strong bonds with each other, might be “where the action was.”

By watching those females carefully over the long haul, Altmann and her colleagues changed everything.

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

A: I visited field sites and laboratories, interviewed scientists in person and on the phone, and read piles of books and journal articles.

I also went to a lot of relevant scientific conferences. I find it really helpful to listen in when scientists talk to each other. It’s a great way to figure out what they think is interesting and important, and it’s how I got the idea for the book in the first place.  

I was surprised mainly by how much we don’t know and take for granted about friendship. It’s one of these things that is so familiar we think we know all about it, but we do not.

And I loved learning little details like the fact that sheep recognize the sheep they grew up with after years apart.

Some of the big details were pretty cool, too, like the fact that the similarity between my sense of humor and my friend Moira’s sense of humor will show up in how our brains process video clips of late-night TV skits. That blew my mind.

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

A: Friendship is as important as diet and exercise for health and wellness. The thing that most predicts how healthy and happy you will be at 80 is not your wealth or professional success, it’s your relationships when you are 50.

I hope readers come away from the book understanding that fact, taking it to heart and planning their days accordingly. I’m not trying to burden people with more to do. Rather I hope to give them permission even amidst busy lives to make time for friends. People are a great investment of your time.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: For the first time in a decade, I’m not working on a new book . . . yet. Instead, I plan to focus on journalism this year. As a contributing editor at Scientific American and in my other work, I get to explore all kinds of subjects.

A few of the things I’m interested in and hope to write more about in 2020 are gene therapy, autism, mental health and animal cognition.

I’m also spending a whole lot of time with friends!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I find that once I start talking about this, people invariably start thinking about their own friendships and relationships. So, here are some things to think about based on the science:

First, there is no one way to do friendship—some people prefer to focus on a handful of close friends, others to gather tribes of people around them. But there are some universals: strong friendships make you feel good, they have staying power, and they involve some reciprocity and cooperation.

And second, having even one friend makes an enormous difference in health and well-being because quality matters more than quantity. That said, it’s best to have more than one person to rely on. The average number of “close friends” is four, including family members.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb