Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Q&A with Ellen Prager


Ellen Prager is the author of Escape Galapagos, a new middle grade novel for kids. It's the first in a new series. Her other books include the Tristan Hunt and the Sea Guardians series. A marine scientist, she is the science advisor to Celebrity Cruises in the Galapagos Islands. 


Q: How did you come up with the idea for Escape Galapagos, and for your character Ezzy?

A: I wanted to start a new adventure series for middle graders after my wonderful experience previously writing for this age.

And with my experience working in the Galapagos Islands, people are always asking me about the islands, the animals, etc. - including educators and students, so I figured it was the perfect setting for the first book in a new series.

Plus I love the Galapagos and there is so much natural wonder, beauty, and humor it makes it a special pleasure to write about and integrate into a fun story. 

As for Ezzy, a surprising number of people come to the Galapagos yet are fearful of animals, particularly birds. So I used some of what I’ve seen with ordinary visitors to create the character.

And I wanted to illustrate that everyone has fears, insecurities, and challenges, and that sometimes situations demand we face them and it can help to grow and overcome such issues (especially with help from others).

One of my nieces (who shall not be named) had a bad bird experience as a young girl and when I brought her to the Galapagos the very first thing that happened was a mockingbird landing on her head on the zodiac going to an island. It was right after I told her that the birds don’t get too close. LOL!! She was a terrific sport, especially when the bird flew away and pooped on her backpack. 

Q: You've spent a lot of time in the Galapagos--did you need to do any additional research to write this book?

A: No additional research on the Galapagos was required, but certainly some creative thinking to develop a good action-filled plot and characters. Along with Ezzy and Luke, I particularly like the elderly couple in the story, whom Ezzy calls Grandma and Grandpa Jones. Don’t want to say too much to avoid spoilers. 

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 had a general idea on how the story would end, but I tend to plot only a chapter or two ahead and let things evolve from there. And even then, a new twist or story line will develop as I write and then often I have to go back and change things earlier int the story.

But I love when suddenly I think of some very fun twist or a new part of the adventure, or even just a really good funny sentence!

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

A: My hope is that kids will take away numerous things from the story.

I want them to be amazed by and develop an interest in the true wonders of the Galapagos - the islands, the animals, the volcanoes, etc. I hope it will encourage a life-long interest in and stewardship of nature. And some subtle science learning as well.

On the character side of things, I hope they can relate to the insecurity Ezzy feels and sees how she grows, becomes more confident, and must rely on her younger brother. And that even if we are fearful, sometimes we can do things we never imagined.

I also want readers to see the importance of working together, friendship, and that just because someone is seemingly old they are not necessarily weak and or helpless.

Also how Ezzy’s father changes. In the beginning he shows his love awkwardly and isn’t very verbal about how he feels about his kids, but by the end he is much more able to express his feelings toward them.

Not everyone expresses love verbally, but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel it. But with kids, I think it is important to be able to show love and express it verbally. 

Q: As you’ve noted, this is the first in a series--what are you working on now?

A: I am in the midst of writing the second book in the series - Escape “    “! Don’t want to spoil the surprise, but it takes place in a very different and at times colder location, but is also just as wondrous.

Ezzy, Luke and their father go to number two on their mother’s wonder list and of course, adventure and humor ensue.

In this book, one of the underlying themes is climate change and it is somewhere where it is happening faster than anywhere else on the planet. The book starts with a fun and exciting action sequence and there are some new characters and a few interesting twists. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I am also working on a web site where we will post photos from each location and readers can explore other potential wonder list locations.

Also, I love to hear from readers and have Skyped with classrooms using the book. The students have been fantastic and ask excellent and sometimes surprisingly advanced questions. So, I hope you’ll encourage your readers to not only get the book, but also to get in touch with me on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Ellen Prager.
Follow more of Ellen Prager's blog tour here:

Q&A with Alison McGhee


Alison McGhee is the author of the new novel The Opposite of Fate. Her  many other books include Dear Sister and Never Coming Back. She lives in Minnesota, Vermont, and California.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Opposite of Fate, and for your character Mallie?

A: When my kids were tiny I had a recurring nightmare in which I fell unconscious for many years and then woke into a world in which my children were grown. Life had passed me by and I was wild with everything I had lost.

The questions raised by that dream are with me still: If I were to disappear forever, what would I want my children to know about me? What would I want to tell them, and everyone else I most love? Even in the absence of consciousness, are we somehow still connected to those we love?

These questions felt worthy of a novel to me. In my very first novel, Rainlight, a young girl named Mallie grappled with the same questions in the wake of her father’s accidental death.

I had always wondered what became of Mallie, and I decided to find out in The Opposite of Fate. At age 21, the grown Mallie now finds herself living out a version of my long-ago nightmare. When she finally wakes up, she has to figure out how to come to terms with everything that happened to her all the months she lay unconscious.

Q: What do you think the novel says about the idea of consent?

A: The idea of consent is simple on one level: everyone has the right to decide what to do with their own body. Everyone has the right to make decisions that are right for them. But when your agency is removed, whether by political decisions or an illness that renders you unconscious, the idea of consent no longer applies.

Who then is the best choice to make decisions for you – a religious community that abides by its own sense of right and wrong? Or the people who have known you your whole life and believe they know what you would choose to do? These are two of the central questions of the book.

Q: What role do you see religion playing in the book?

A: I’m not a religious person and I don’t trust fellow human beings who profess to channel the will of a supreme being. Everyone I know who has ended a pregnancy has done so for good and personal reasons, and never lightly, which is why the ongoing erosion of abortion rights, and the role of religion in it, troubles me so much.

Yet at the same time I’m a novelist who believes that the act of imagining myself into another’s place is our greatest tool of empathy and compassion.

One of my personal challenges in this novel was to step outside my own beliefs and imagine myself into the point of view of someone who opposes abortion. This meant that I had to think deeply about religion and the role it plays out both personally and politically.

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

A: No matter who we are, life throws things at us that we don’t want and would never choose for ourselves.

Mallie’s struggle to figure out how to live, once she wakes up into a changed world, might ring familiar and true to many readers. Not in the specifics of her situation, but in her profound desire to absorb what happened to her and somehow keep living as her essential self.

My greatest hope for The Opposite of Fate is that readers feel that they’re not alone in the human struggle to make sense of our lives and the things that happen to us all.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a new novel in which the availability of DNA kits opens up new possibilities for an ensemble cast of characters, all of whom are affected in different ways by the results of their ancestry kits.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: You should know how grateful I am to be a writer, to connect with readers in this invisible sort of way. It makes me feel less lonely as a human being, and I hope the same is true for my readers. Thank you!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Alison McGhee.

Feb. 18

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Feb. 18, 1931: Toni Morrison born.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Q&A with Denis Defibaugh


Denis Defibaugh is the author of the new book of photography North by Nuuk: Greenland After Rockwell Kent. His other book is The Day of the Dead. He is a professor of photography at Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for North by Nuuk, and what inspired you about the work of artist Rockwell Kent?

A: I always had an interest in Rockwell Kent. His woodcut illustrations that he created for the Moby Dick publication of 1930 are amazing, historic, and prolific. The quality of his graphic art work always inspired.

While visiting the SUNY Plattsburgh Rockwell Kent Museum I was introduced to Kent’s photographs of Greenland and the lanternslides that he made following his visits to Greenland. These lanternslides were delicately housed in several small wooden boxes. Each one was like a gem as I viewed them on a lightbox.

This increased my curiosity about Kent in Greenland and my traveling to Greenland as a comparative study. I was inspired by the remote location of Kent’s photographs, the people that Kent so fondly described in his writings, and my intrigue with the idea of living in Kent’s “frozen Eden.”

The title, North by Nuuk, Greenland after Rockwell Kent, was derived from N by E, Kent’s first book that he wrote about his Greenland experiences.

Q: How did you select the photographs that appear in the book?

A: A long process of editing with the help of many people brought together photographs that represented the primal landscape, cultural landscape, and people of Greenland in the four communities that I lived and photographed.

After editing to 300-500 images I was helped by editors Whitney Tressel, Ken Geiger, and photographer Gregory Halpern to finalize the edit for the book.

Q: What do you think the book says about Greenland and its people?

A: I hope the book shows the resourcefulness of the Inuit people, the immense beauty of Greenland, and the Inuit culture and lifestyle.

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

A: Fifteen months of living in Greenland enabled an unforgettable life experience in the communities that I photographed.  

My total engagement with Inuits in their work, play, celebrations, joys, sadness, and daily life enriched my research commitment. I photographed every day in Greenland while experiencing dog sledging, fishing, hunting, kaffemiks, frozen fjords, the arts, culture, and life from quiet settlements of 70 people to vibrant and contemporary Nuuk.

In addition, the project team and I worked with communities and taught eight photography workshops to Inuit students in middle schools with the support of their teachers. Nikon provided cameras and we provided photo basics. The students had about two weeks to photograph their families, friends, and community.

At the end of the two-to-four-week workshops I printed photographs from every student for an exhibition at their school. This became a very popular event. It helped the community learn about our research project and for us to learn about the community. We worked with over 140 students during the workshops.

Twenty-seven one-hour-long video interviews were also produced during my time in Greenland. All but a few of the interviews are in Greenlandic language. The translations and transcripts of the video interviews were very helpful in learning about past and present Greenland.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am still working on this project to gain exhibition opportunities, to promote the book and exhibition, and to send books to many of the people that supported the project.

I hope to produce a photobook of ICE from additional photographs from Greenland. And possibly a book that is more abstract. A study of an ancient glacial runoff flat near Kangerlussuaq, Greenland.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: While my research and photography was directed at the culture and landscape of Greenland, there is much to be said about climate change that is surely affecting the island and its ice cap.

Settlements have been evacuated due to unstable mountains and melting permafrost that has threatened the safety of some areas. The hunting and fishing culture of Greenland is changing and Inuits are adapting to these changes.

"This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Award No. PLR-1524176. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation."

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 17

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Feb. 17, 1929: Chaim Potok born.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Q&A with Elleke Boehmer


Elleke Boehmer is the author of the new story collection To the Volcano and Other Stories. Her other books include the novels Screens Against the Sky and The Shouting in the Dark. She is Professor of World Literature in English at the University of Oxford, and she lives in Oxford, UK.

Q: Over how long a period did you write the stories in your new collection?


A: The stories in To the Volcano were written across an intensive period of about three years, from late 2015 following the publication of my novel The Shouting in the Dark, to 2018.

In this period I was fortunate to be able to travel to and through a number of different countries in the far southern hemisphere, and reflect on their contrasts and correspondences, and, especially, their remoteness and their specialness.

Some of the perceptions and ideas on which the stories draw, however, date from far further back.

The first story, “The Child in the Photograph”, has been with me as a preoccupation for many years, for example; the same applies to “Paper Planes”, though its theme, of dementia and the relationship between the elderly and the very young, is very different.

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


A: Sifting and sorting the 12 stories into the order in which they appear in the collection was an interesting challenge.

It was important to me, first, that the two longer short stories, both of which reflect on lives beyond their endpoints, or on life beyond a character's death, as perceived by their loved ones, appeared at the end of the collection, and, second, that “Evelina”, a response to James Joyce's “Eveline”, appeared as the fourth story, as “Eveline” does in Dubliners.

Beyond that, there was a certain amount of chopping and changing, as I wanted to make sure that neighbouring stories resonated.

So we see for example that both “The Child in the Photograph” and “South, North” are about women characters travelling to northern European countries with large hopes, and then finding that the reality there doesn't quite meet their expectations.

Q: How was the book's title--also the title of one of the stories--chosen?

A: As my editors at Myriad will remember, we thought about many different titles before To the Volcano sprang into focus. We wanted to capture the theme of distance and remoteness, but the title South on its own didn't quite cut it, it wasn't evocative enough.

When the title of the third story emerged, though, we knew it was exactly right, signalling as it does journey and quest, reaching for somewhere and then finding that what you encounter is not quite what you were anticipating.

I also enjoyed the resonance of Malcolm Lowry and Virginia Woolf, and, as readers of the story “To the Volcano” will discover, the partial joke that's buried in the title about the volcano in question. 

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

A: As well as the themes of remoteness and encounter across distance I've already mentioned, and also of places and people eluding our expectations, a thread that runs throughout, perhaps it runs through much of my work, is the idea that the prizes we most fervently seek might be closer to home than we imagine: that thing about arriving where we began and knowing the place for the very first time...

Q: What are you working on now?


A: I've begun a new novel, a love story, about Antarctica, about a passionate love affair between two people, one on the white continent, one elsewhere, that is necessarily carried on remotely, and the consequences of this remoteness for that passion. So the theme of distance will continue. Albatrosses will feature prominently, and the demands and pitfalls of keeping a promise.

I'm also starting on a new short story collection -- I've really got the form now, or it has got me, and can't stop! I currently have three stories on the blocks I'm reasonably happy with.

In the remaining time I'm also beginning a literary history of the far southern hemisphere: the environmental and climactic themes are already proving to be very intriguing. I'm thinking about sharks coasting along the powerful currents of the Southern Ocean, and related topics. More albatrosses!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: All of the characters in To the Volcano stepped forward for me in really strong and compelling ways as I wrote the stories. They had voice, vision, a definite shape. I hope that's how it appears to the reader too.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 16

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Feb. 16, 1904: George F. Kennan born.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Q&A with Philip Cioffari


Philip Cioffari is the author of the new novel If Anyone Asks, Say I Died from the Heartbreaking Blues. His other books include The Bronx Kill and Catholic Boys, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including North American Review and Michigan Quarterly Review. He is professor of English at William Paterson University in New Jersey.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your new novel, and for your character Hunt?

A: I came up with the idea for If Anyone Asks, Say I Died from the Heartbreaking Blues in a circuitous way.

For years, off and on, I’d been writing stories set in the time period of the novel—the late ‘50s and ‘60s in New York City. These stories often featured a young male protagonist struggling with entry into the adult world, in other words, coming of age stories.

I think for this book I wanted a larger canvas, a transformational event that would include many of those struggles that we confront on our way to adulthood. One’s 18th birthday is generally accepted as a key demarcation point. So I combined this with senior prom night—two pivotal events in any teenager’s life—and I had my basic structure.

The character of Hunt, my protagonist, came about as an amalgamation of the protagonists in earlier stories, essentially a good-hearted kid who wants to understand the trials and tribulations he’s going through. He wants to make sense of himself: his enthusiasm for life’s experiences, his pain, his loneliness, his yearnings.

Q: The novel takes place over the course of Hunt's 18th birthday. Were there any challenges to writing a novel that unfolds over a single day?


A: There were some challenges to confining the time period of the novel to 24 hours, the day and night of his birthday. In earlier drafts, the time period stretched out over several weeks, but I thought that made the story loose in a way I didn’t want it to be.

I thought by compressing the time, I could add more intensity to the situation and to Hunt’s feelings, and overall add more tension to the story.

But then I had to find a way to make the various activities—the dance lesson, his job at the beach, the overhanging threat of gang violence, and especially his relationship with Debby Ann, the girl he takes to the prom, fit into that one day and night. It took some juggling and telescoping to achieve that.

Among other things, it pretty much eliminated the use of full-on flashbacks. I had to find ways to get all the exposition into the present level of the story.

Q: The book is set in the Bronx in 1960. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: Setting has always been one of the primary elements of my craft. I’d go so far as to say I really can’t write a story unless I have a firm grasp of the time and place. That becomes the foundation on which the story is built. It makes me feel connected to the work in a visceral way.

I guess that’s because, even apart from writing, I’ve always been particularly sensitive to my surroundings.

I remember walking with my father one night in our neighborhood and insisting we walk on a certain side of the street because I thought it had more character. He rolled his eyes but indulged me; from his perspective both sides of the street had the same brick buildings, the same sidewalks, the same street lamps.

For me, even the quality of light is something I consider in the scenes I write. I have to know if it’s morning, mid-morning, late evening, whatever. Is it overcast or sunny? Winter or summer? Cold or warm? And so on.

All of those things affect my characters. They affect what I see in my mind, what I feel, as I’m writing. In short, I believe setting contributes mightily to the verisimilitude of a piece.

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

A: I’d been carrying the title around for several years before I found what I thought was the right story to do it justice. It comes from an old African American folktale/song, the story of “Betty and Dupree.”

I like the title because it seems to sum up all the pain and drama and sadness of love lost, or just beyond reach. I like the romantic implications of it. It’s lack of love that kills us, as much as any disease.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now I’m working on a new novel about various people—at critical moments in their lives—who pass through a diner during the overnight hours this one particular night.

This diner, this night, I hope serves as a microcosm of human need and desire. People on the edge, trying to make what they can of their lives.

I’m also working on a novel about a writer who is asked by the husband of the only woman he’s ever loved to find her when she disappears.

And I’m writing a play and movie script of my previous novel, The Bronx Kill.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: In my novel, If Anyone Asks, Say I Died from the Heartbreaking Blues, I’ve tried to capture the feel of what it was like to live in that year, 1960. At the same time, I hope I’ve captured some of the layers of adolescence, its highs and lows, its humor, pathos, and romance.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb 

Feb. 15

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Feb. 15, 1928: Norman Bridwell born.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Q&A with Tina May Hall


Tina May Hall is the author of the new novel The Snow Collectors. She also has written The Physics of Imaginary Objects and All the Day's Sad Stories, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including SmokeLong Quarterly and The Collagist. She teaches at Hamilton College, and she lives in New Hartford, N.Y. 


Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Snow Collectors, and for your character Henna?

A: The idea for the book came from research I was doing on Lady Jane Franklin, who was the wife of Sir John Franklin (whose 1845 expedition is referenced below). I really thought the book would mainly be about Lady Jane.

Then the idea of a present-day or slightly futuristic plotline came to mind, and I thought it would be a rather evenly-split dual narrative in the vein of A.S. Byatt’s Possession.

But as I wrote, I got more and more interested in Henna’s world, which is our world set very slightly in the future and is a landscape on the precipice of environmental collapse. I was really captivated by the idea of Henna navigating an eco-gothic world that is suffused with loss even as she tries to make sense of the smaller losses she is mourning.

Q: Why did you decide to include the 1845 Franklin expedition of the Arctic in the novel, and how did you research it?

A: When I happened on some of Lady Jane Franklin’s journals and notes in the archives at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, I actually didn’t know she was the wife of Sir John Franklin and was most interested in her as a Victorian lady traveller.

Of course, I rapidly realized the connection to the most famous Arctic expedition of all time and became intrigued by Jane Franklin’s role in haranguing the British Admiralty and American industrialists to send ships out into the ice to look for her husband.

I also quickly found out that far more illustrious writers than I have written about the Franklin Expedition (Charles Dickens, Andrea Barrett, Clive Cussler, and many more), which was a bit daunting, but I felt like my focus on Lady Jane was somewhat unusual.

For research, I read many books and maps and trip logs, of course.

I traveled to the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, UK, where they hold the majority of Jane Franklin’s diaries and correspondence. During that trip, I also visited the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, which has a great collection of artifacts found in the search for Franklin’s lost ships.

As I was writing the book, a wonderful biography of Jane Franklin came out, called Lady Franklin’s Revenge, which was enormously helpful, especially since her handwriting is very small and cramped.

And, rather miraculously, as the book was going through revisions, Franklin’s lost ships were found, after over 150 years of searching. This was an exciting development, and I made two trips to the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau to view their exhibit of items dragged up out of the Arctic waters.

Q: What did you see as the right blend between the fictional and the historical as you worked on the book?

A: I have to say that as I wrote and revised, the historical material (upon which I had spent so much time!) became a smaller and smaller part of the book.

However, it serves as a backdrop and an engine for the present action in the story and seemed essential for a tale that is considering life in a world where most of the blank spaces on the map have been filled in and now the map is disintegrating before our very eyes.

I did take large liberties with the historical data to resolve the “mystery” of the novel, which was a rather delightful and frightening leap to make.

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’m the kind of writer that starts with an image or a line (otherwise known as someone who should maybe stick to short stories), so the twists and turns of the plot were discovered as I wrote and revised.

It was both an exciting and frustrating process but definitely contributed to the sense of exploration as I moved further into the narrative and started layering the threads and details over each other.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have been writing a series of flash fiction pieces based on the fictional “extinction museum” that pops up in The Snow Collectors. I’m also partway through a draft of a new novel that is concerned with perfume, 3D-printed bodies, and abandoned mansions in the Thousand Islands.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just a plug for Mary Stewart, whose Gothic romances have long been an indulgence that I try to wink at here in this novel. And thank you for the wonderful questions!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Barbara J. Ostfeld


Barbara J. Ostfeld is the author of the memoir Catbird: The Ballad of Barbi Prim. She is the first ordained woman cantor in Jewish history. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Lilith Magazine and New Jewish Feminism. She lives in Buffalo, New York. 

Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir?

A: I had a bunch of amusing anecdotes I wrote as a journal. When I had a certain number of funny stories, I thought I should write a book. Then I realized I had something to share about women and success and women and failure.

I worked with a couple of developmental editors. It’s the best of my journals edited and put into a form with an arc.

Q: Did you need to do any research to recreate the events you discuss?

A: Yes. Because I was in psychoanalysis as a young cantor, I learned how to get back to a time in my life by getting hold of a particular memory. It served me well as I was writing the book. Then I looked things up to verify them.

Q: How would you describe the changes you’ve seen for women cantors?

A: It’s so cool. I went from becoming a cantor in an era when they’d say, Oh, they have a girl as a cantor, to it being perfectly ordinary and little boys asking whether they can be a cantor because they’ve only seen women.

Now in liberal Judaism it’s approaching 60 percent. It’s an extraordinary change in such a short time. When women are on the bimah, kids realize this is open to them.

I make jokes about liturgical music being heard beyond the bass clef. There’s a whole world of human sound above it. The rules needed to be overthrown.

Q: You discuss some difficult personal issues in the book—how hard was it to write about them?

A: It was definitely cathartic and easy to write. I felt as if my brain was dictating and my fingers were just executing. Sometimes it was an automatic and easy process.

What was difficult was the editing, going back over troubling material. I polished it, but going over it time and again was painful. I figured it would be worth it, but three years of editing was painful.

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

A: I just had a young colleague PM me on Facebook. She said she was so happy to read the book. Her imperfections are different from mine, but she felt it allowed her to be herself as a cantor, and she could do her best work as herself.

That was precisely the message I intended to convey. Leaders need to be human. I don’t mean unleashed id, but people relate to you differently when you’re the real thing.

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

A: One of the short stories that stayed with me was James Thurber’s "The Catbird’s Seat"—the notion that at a certain point you get to sit in the catbird’s seat. Your vantage point is wide. You’re singing your own song, not imitating other people. I started by imitating—it took me a while to find my own voice.

The vantage point in the catbird’s seat is the point I’m writing from now, in my late 60s. Having seen things from the lower branches where things got started, now I’m in the catbird’s seat.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a children’s book about a little girl who’s plump and unattractive and has hair with a mind of its own, who grows up to find her strength and power.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Yes, about mindfulness and therapy. I wouldn’t be in the catbird’s seat without years of psychotherapy, an enormous amount of support from the mental health community, and medication. I was able to realize my goals because of mindfulness and psychotherapy.

Without them, I wouldn’t have been nothing, but I wouldn’t have the joy and focus I have now, being liberated from my demons. People should be proud of having undergone psychotherapy instead of keeping it hush-hush.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Barbara J. Ostfeld will be participating in the Temple Sinai Authors' Roundtable in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 29. 

Q&A with Kathleen M. Blasi


Kathleen M. Blasi is the author of the new children's picture book Hosea Plays On.

Q: How did you learn about Hosea Taylor Jr., the subject of Hosea Plays On, and why did you decide to write a picture book about him?

A: I learned about Hosea Taylor Jr. through an article that was published upon his passing (Democrat & Chronicle, reporter Sarah Taddeo). I saw the possibility for a picture book when I read that Hosea saw music as an art to which children could dedicate themselves. And when I learned that he offered free music lessons, I was hooked.

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

A: My research required employing a device that Hosea himself employed every day. Talking with people.

I began by meeting with the reporter, Sarah Taddeo. From there, at her suggestion, I met with a community advocacy organization. Then vendors and administrators at the Market, and others who knew and loved him. I took notes, gathering as much information as I could, until the heart of the story became clear to me.

In addition, I looked at bus routes to make sure the bus numbers were accurate and had a music professor review the manuscript to ensure I was accurately describing Hosea’s playing. And, with his feedback in mind, I revised.

One thing that surprised me was that before Hosea shared his gift of music with kids, for a number of years he taught karate—very often for free. It was when his body tired of that, that he turned to music.

Q: What do you think Shane W. Evans's pictures add to the book?

A: So much! I love how Shane depicted music as swirling and flowing throughout the story. We can almost hear Hosea’s tune carrying through the marketplace, and beyond. The whimsical color palette and elements are striking – and very inviting to readers of all ages.

Shane amplified Hosea’s place in the community, as someone who draws people together.

Q: What do you hope kids take away from Hosea's story?

A: I hope kids recognize that like Hosea, they can be everyday heroes, too. That all it takes is discovering and tapping into something in oneself that can make even one person’s day a little bit better.

I hope that when they hear a saxophone play, they think of Hosea and his kindness, affirming that he does indeed, play on. And that they can, too.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Through my agent, I have a narrative nonfiction picture book out on submission. I’m writing a poem that I hope has the chops to be a picture book. And I’m at the beginning stages of writing a story that is based on an extension of Hosea Plays On.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Thank you for the opportunity to “chat” here with you, Deborah!

One thing—I’ve relished in the serendipity on my journey with Hosea, including when Sterling told me that when Shane Evans reviewed the manuscript, he said “I’ve been to this place.” Turns out, he lived in Rochester, New York, during his high school years. How ‘bout that?

Also, I have a super-fun event coming up on the evening of Feb. 17. The public library in Hosea’s neighborhood is hosting a reading and concert, where I will do the reading of Hosea Plays On and musicians who played with Hosea will do the playing.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Tracey Garvis Graves


Tracey Garvis Graves is the author of the new novel The Girl He Used to Know. Her other novels include On the Island

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Girl He Used to Know, and for your characters Annika and Jonathan?

A: My inspiration for The Girl He Used to Know was a song called “Same Old Lang Syne” by Dan Fogelberg. It’s the one about running into your old lover in the grocery store on Christmas Eve, and it’s one of my favorite songs.

Unlike the lovers in the song who go their separate ways at the end, I wanted to write a story about a couple who once loved each other, and I wanted to see what would happen if I gave them a second chance.  

I wanted Annika to be a character who couldn’t change, no matter how badly she might want to. This meant that Jonathan would have to accept her exactly the way she was, which was something he struggled with at times.

I thought it would be interesting to view Annika’s experiences through the lens of someone on the spectrum and to show the extra challenges involved. I also thought it would be wonderful to walk alongside Annika as she fell in love for the first time.

It’s hard enough to take that leap, and it was really hard for Annika due to the way others had treated her in the past. But I think it made her relationship with Jonathan extra special. 

Q: You tell the story from both characters' perspectives--did you always plan to do that?

A: Yes, absolutely. When Jonathan and Annika first met, they weren’t really a match at all. He thought she was pretty, but he also thought she was weird.

Jonathan’s bruised ego after she beat him at chess was really the driving force that made him seek her out again. Because he was nursing his own wounds and was new to the school, Annika became an unexpected source of healing.

Jonathan also took the time to get to know Annika and by doing so, realized there was so much more to her than his first impression. He gave Annika unconditional love and support, which was a brand-new experience for her.

Annika loved Jonathan with her whole heart because no one before him had ever given her a chance. He became a safe harbor which allowed her to let down her guard and trust him. 

Showing both perspectives gave the story a layer of depth I wouldn't have been able to achieve if it had only been shown through Annika's eyes.

Jonathan did not have to change as much as Annika, but he still had to adapt to the challenges of their relationship and showing his acceptance made him a more endearing character. 

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

A: I read five or six books about being on the spectrum. I read countless online articles and blog posts.

I especially loved blogs that included the perspective of a neurotypical spouse. I remember finding a love letter online that a man wrote to his autistic wife listing all of the ways in which her autism enhanced their marriage.

It was really eye-opening to read these accounts from neurotypical spouses and it made me happy to see that they cherished the gifts their neurodiverse partners gave to them.

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

A: I hope readers will understand that everything Annika does in the book is filtered through the unique way she looks at the world. There is no right or wrong; there is just her perception. Readers may not always agree with or understand why she makes the choices she does, but I hope they can be objective about her reasoning.

The same goes for Jonathan. There are times when he’s frustrated with Annika, but he does his best not to try and save her. She is also one of the few people in his life who have ever loved him unconditionally, and he realizes that it’s one of her best qualities.

I hope readers will understand that the 9/11 sections were not meant to capitalize on a national tragedy but to show just how far out of her comfort zone Annika had to go in order to reach her goal of finding Jonathan.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: All of my books fit within the tagline I came up with a few years ago which is “contemporary fiction with a happily-ever-after.” I focus heavily on relationships and the female main character's journey, but I also need a happy ending that includes a romance.

My current work-in-progress really focuses on how the relationships we have with other people shape our lives and the relationships we enter into in the future.

In this particular case, both the hero and heroine have been married before and are getting a second chance at love with new people. Their backstories heavily influence their choices and decisions and it's created a wonderful opportunity for me to explore relationships in a way I haven't thus far in my writing career.

I think this book will be very relatable to a lot of women. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I'm more active on Instagram than I am on Facebook or Twitter, and signing up for my newsletter on traceygarvisgraves.comis a great way to stay in the loop regarding anything writing-related.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Tracey Garvis Graves.