Thursday, April 30, 2020

Q&A with Charlie Mitchell

Charlie Mitchell is the author of the new book Cyber in the Age of Trump: The Unraveling of America's National Security Policy. He also has written Hacked: The Inside Story of America's Struggle to Secure Cyberspace. He is the editor and founder of the online news service Inside Cybersecurity, and he's based in Washington, D.C.

Q: Why did you decide to write Cyber in the Age of Trump, and what do you see as Trump's overall attitude toward cybersecurity issues?

A: Hi Deborah and thanks for hosting these Q&As – I love reading them and am honored to participate for a second time!

I wanted to explore the constants and the disruptions in the change from President Obama to President Trump in an area – cybersecurity – that really poses existential threats to our country.

It’s been a mixed bag, as you can imagine: The Trump administration adopted a lot of the Obama approach, which was a relief to many cyber pros. But there have been fundamental changes and some are downright baffling.

Just a few examples: The Trump team jettisoned the one White House position meant to coordinate cyber efforts across the government; their approach to partnerships with allies has been a mess; and perhaps most notably, this administration has been much more aggressive in the use of cyber offensive weapons overseas.

The overall results are still to be determined, but I see Trump’s term as a missed opportunity in cyberspace.

Trump’s overall attitude is an interesting question. As a business person he could bring a valuable perspective to the cyber policy dialogue. But he hasn’t done that.

The whole issue became hopelessly entangled, for him, with the Russia hack of the 2016 election. That’s made it hard for his government to absorb lessons because Trump seems to think any discussion of 2016 threatens his own legitimacy as president. It doesn’t have to be that way, but that’s how the president approaches issues.

This is a sequel to my 2016 book, Hacked: The Inside Story of America’s Struggle to Secure Cyberspace, which explored the early days of U.S. cyber policy, especially in the Obama years.

Q: In our previous Q&A, back in 2016, you said, "I really enjoy covering the cyber issue because it is a fresh policy debate and isn't as bogged down by the same old partisan splits or industry splits that characterize policy making in so many other areas." Do you think it's still less of a partisan issue now?

A: Cybersecurity still has a bipartisan aura, but it’s an understatement to say that’s been strained over the past four years.

In Hacked, I described the relationship between the House Intelligence Committee’s top Republican, Devin Nunes, and the top Democrat Adam Schiff as one of the most productive partnerships in Congress when it came to cybersecurity.

In Cyber in the Age of Trump, they become mortal enemies, thanks to the intense partisanship around the Russia investigation.

But bipartisanship is clinging to life. The Senate Intelligence Committee has examined the events of 2016 and is producing a series of reports and recommendations without a hint of partisan strife. There have been disagreements, to be sure, but this is a great example of lawmakers rising above zero-sum politics. It still happens!

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

A: The book came out of my daily reporting for, and then thinking through the context and implications of the things I was seeing every day in the Trump administration, Congress and around the world on cyber.

In stepping back to get a view of the whole, I was struck by how cybersecurity is essentially a battle for the survival of democracy. And it goes way beyond the debates over securing voting machines and voter registration databases, as important as those are.

At one point I found myself asking whether cybersecurity is just about credit card fraud and big companies dealing with their liabilities. It’s not.

Cyber chaos undermines democracies in so many ways, and it ultimately plays into the hands of tyrants who aren’t very interested in the internet as a medium for the exchange of ideas, creating new economic opportunities and advancing freedom.

Repressive governments see cybersecurity as a way to clamp down on dissent and new ideas; democratic countries need to find a way to secure the internet while embracing and promoting our values.

Q: What do you see looking ahead when it comes to cyber issues?

A: I do see more partisan strain in the political arena, unfortunately, and even more challenges coming in the security realm.

The Internet of Things – in which everything is connected on the internet – is creating a vast new attack surface with ramifications way beyond credit card theft.

We’re talking about interfering with airplanes and driverless cars, knocking out electricity, even targeted attacks on heat or air conditioning in homes, and much more. It’s real physical destruction and even death.

There is a lot of chatter about this among security pros, but the conversation needs to be elevated. This needs to be a national dialogue, led by the president and leaders from every domain.

The coming vulnerabilities in IoT, the frightening advances in cyber-attack tools and the ability to spoof and spread disinformation, plus our political polarization, are adding up to a challenge unlike anything we’ve faced before in our democracy.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m mostly focused on the day-to-day, week-to-week developments in cyberspace and how the policy pieces fit together to counter the threats. There’s a lot of action to cover -- along with an emerging debate that may pit security against freedom, privacy against convenience.

There are interesting proposals out there for a whole-of-society response to the cyber challenge writ large, and I’m following how they will be accepted or rejected by the body politic.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I want to give a shoutout to the talented, dedicated people working on cybersecurity in government and the private sector, and the individual researchers called “white hat hackers.” They all need support and everyone can play a role.
Cybersecurity is only in part a technical issue. There are amazing things going on in the technology sphere, and yet tech won’t answer all of our cyber questions or solve all of our cyber problems.

Cyber is about privacy, civil liberties, economic decisions and trying to build a social contract around these issues for the digital age.

We have a big challenge in front of us!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Charlie Mitchell.

Q&A with Carder Stout

Carder Stout is the author of the new book Lost in Ghost Town: A Memoir of Addiction, Redemption and Hope in Unlikely Places. He is a psychologist, and he's based in Los Angeles.

Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir, and how long did it take you to work on it?

A: It took me two years to write the memoir and another year to get in published. It was a story that I lived which I believe is unique and compelling.

I always wanted to share it with an audience but needed time to heal before I felt comfortable doing this. The present tense of the story takes place over 17 years ago, so I felt removed enough from this part of my life to put it onto paper.

I also believe that the book may be inspirational to readers as it sends a message of hope.

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

A: "Ghost Town" is a name that the addicts called the Oakwood neighborhood of Venice, California,  because so many ghosts were walking the streets.

The memoir focuses on a time in my life that I was lost both spiritually and emotionally. I was addicted to cocaine at this time in my life and was self-medicating through the pain of my childhood.

Q: You relate some very difficult experiences--what was it like to look back at them as you wrote the book?

A: It was both therapeutic and cathartic to write down some of the more emotional moments in the book.

Sometimes it feels as though I have lived two lives and feel so grateful to be sober now for nearly 15 years. I am not ashamed anymore of the choices I made back then, but it had taken time for me to feel this way. I am proud of the life I have led and feel a deep sense of love for all of the characters in the book.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from your experiences?

A: My hope is that readers will realize that my story is one that is universal. It is the hero's journey which is an archetypal tale that we all know instinctively. The hero dies and is reborn with a gift to bring into the world. This is a story of pain, sadness, courage and hope - all relatable to everyone.

The message of hope is most important to me. No matter how far anyone falls down there is always a way to get back up and have a good life on the other side.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am writing a second book now about the universal aspects of addiction. It is more of a pop psychology book that I believe will spark a robust conversation about addiction.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I am so grateful that readers are responding so favorably to the book. I have received communications from so many that have been deeply moved and grateful to hear my experience.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 30

April 30, 1877: Alice B. Toklas born.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Q&A with Oksana Zabuzhko

Oksana Zabuzhko, photo by Pavlo Botanov
Oksana Zabuzhko is the author of the story collection Your Ad Could Go Here, now available in an English translation. Her many other books include the novels Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex and The Museum of Abandoned Secrets. She is based in Ukraine.

Q: Over how long a period did you write the stories in Your Ad Could Go Here?

A: The stories included in this book range from 1997 ("I, Milena") to 2017 ("No Entry to the Performance Hall After the Third Bell"). During these two decades I published over a dozen books, fiction and non-fiction, including two collections of stories.

Your Ad Could Go Here presents many of my recurring themes developed over that time. 

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

A: The title emerged before the story was written.

This is not unusual in my work: I am sensitive to language. I like to eavesdrop, to listen to people talking on trains, to read billboards, to browse social networks, just to catch a sticky phrase here and there.

Sometimes a phrase rings the bell, promising a story coiled inside it. In my notes I have a whole collection of such “titles without stories,” with Your Ad Could Go Here off the list, now that it has finally “met” its story.

For this title – announcing the availability of space emptied by someone unknown who’s been here before you – has always sounded to my ear like a “memento mori” of the consumerist age. There’s a flavor of loss dissolved in it, something I wanted to preserve in my book.

Q: The Kirkus Review of the book describes it as "Evocative stories about the way national issues impact even the most personal aspects of life." What do you see as the relationship between the political and the personal in these stories?

A: My special object of fascination has always been to trace how history reveals itself in people’s lives on its most personal, “nuclear” level. In my debut, and still most-translated novel, Field Work in Ukrainian Sex, I used a frustrated woman’s body to map national traumas inherited from previous generations.

The family stories in Your Ad Could Go Here, can, at a certain level, be read as “political.” After all, let’s face it, Aristotle was right – we are political animals.

The human body is political, lovemaking is political, childbearing is political – everything about our lives that we’re taught to believe is private is permeated with authoritarian societal messages throughout.

Normally, we just fail to recognize how deep they reside under our skin. It took our civilization ages to develop a concept of privacy that is respected and guarded by social institutions.

We used to sigh in relief that we had won, and the age of totalitarian control over the personal was behind us. Now we find ourselves in a digital age that keeps destroying our privacy at pandemic speed.

So maybe it’s high time to have a closer look at how the private is shaped by the political, if we want to keep our sanity for post-COVID times.

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

A: Oh, this won’t show until the quotations in reader reviews start repeating themselves.

For me, this unpredictability is the most exciting part of the pleasure of being translated (which I add to the two writer’s pleasures once singled out by Virginia Woolf: the pleasure of writing, and the pleasure of being read).

Readers’ reactions to the same book can be quite different in different cultures, you can never tell in advance what exactly a new audience will recognize in your book as “theirs, too”--every new publication is like diving into darkness. I can’t wait to hear from the first readers of Your Ad Could Go Here.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My novel-in-process is entitled The Diary of Cassandra. It’s based on the story of the Trojan war, with a focus on the anatomy of women’s presence behind the war stage: a manipulative politician (Helen) versus a public servant (Cassandra).

I started writing it back in 2013, ironically, right before the current Russian-Ukrainian war began, having interrupted my work for a long while.

Now, seven years later, I know more about war, manipulation, and populism from my own experience than I could ever have expected from any research, and the question is how to incorporate this unplanned knowledge into the texture of my story without ruining it.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I guess all the rest is in the book; thank you.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with John Dufresne

John Dufresne is the author of the new book Storyville!: An Illustrated Guide to Writing Fiction. His many other books include the novel Louisiana Power & Light and the writing guide The Lie That Tells a Truth. He teaches in Florida International University's MFA program. 

Q: You've written a variety of writing guides--how did you come up with the idea for Storyville!?

A: Because I teach fiction writing, I am always thinking about it—how does it work? how might it stumble?

Then I was asked to do a TED Talk, and I thought I’ll tell the world how to write a story in 17 minutes. My first draft went 35 minutes. They said, 17. And I had to memorize it, so 17 was good. But I had all these other ideas, so I just kept going.

Q: You begin the book by stating, "You need at least two skills to be a fiction writer. You have to be able to write and you have to be able to tell a story. Telling a story is the harder skill to master." Why do you think that's the case?

A: You must have a love of words and you must the music they make when they gather in sentences. Words are all we have, after all.

But, no matter how luminous your prose or how fascinating your characters, if you have no plot—no narrative shape—if the characters have nothing meaningful to accomplish, the reader will put down your story.

Plot is the gravity that holds the world of your story together. It’s your weapon of suspense. Wield it wisely, and the reader will want to know what happens next. That’s storytelling, what Chaucer called the craft so long to learn. Plot is the architecture of action.

The reader says, tell me a story. She does not say, show me how clever you are. The reader wants to know why the characters do what they do and tell me about me. The reader wants to be moved by a character’s struggle, not to be impressed by a writer’s adverb. (But, of course, you can do both.)

Aristotle told us that plots proceed through a series of reversals (a character tries to get what she wants and makes it worse) and recognitions, (a change from ignorance to knowledge).

The basic plot of every story is (and I’m paraphrasing John Gardner here): a central character wants something intensely, goes after it, and as a result of a struggle comes to a win or a loss.

You take this definition of the basic plot and see how you might let the necessary plot do your thinking for you and lead you quite naturally to considerations of characterization, theme, tone, point of view, setting, and so on. and how you might, in so doing, create the emotional and intellectual experience our reader hopes for.

Don’t make the plot happen, let it happen.

Q: What do you think Evan Wondolowski's illustrations add to the book?

A: Besides being fun to look at and arresting to the eye, Evan’s illustrations help make some complex ideas complex ideas more accessible and understandable. They are especially helpful to those visual thinkers, like me, who find it easier to grasp what is seen rather than what is printed.

I really love all the fun he had with turning the text into art and organizing some of those long lists I have into comprehensible units.

Q: Who do you see as the readership for the book, and what do you hope they take away from it?

A: I think anyone who is interested in telling a story will find the book helpful. More specifically, I had in mind the people who don’t get the opportunity to study fiction writing at a university or in a workshop setting.

This is a book that slows down the writing process, takes you step by step through the writing of a story, demystifies what is really not so mysterious at all. Writing is work. And you need the right tools in your kit before you begin the job.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My big project is a novel I’ve been writing for a few years. I’ve just gotten notes from my editor, my agent, my writing pal Deborah Monroe, and I’m plunging into revision.

 I also have a couple of long stories that might grow into novellas or novels and a book of stories pretty much together. And I’m always writing flash fiction.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just how much I appreciate your doing this. April in the tine of coronavirus was an unfortunate time to launch a book. Had to cancel my readings and talks.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Rani Shah

Rani Shah, photo by Utsav Shah
Rani Shah is the author of the new book Wisdom from a Humble Jellyfish and Other Self-Care Rituals from Nature. She is the founder of the satirical news site Fuss Class News, and she lives in Brooklyn.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Wisdom from a Humble Jellyfish, and how did you choose the animals to include?

A: The journey of the jellyfish all began with a trip to a winery. I was with a work colleague who mentioned it would be interesting to learn about how bees communicate with one another and how humans could incorporate some lessons from the bees.

Being an animal lover, it was the perfect topic to create a blog post around—a few weeks of research later, the inspiration of the book came about in the form of a blog post: Fascinating Productivity Routines We Can Learn From Nature.

The animals included were a product of a lot of research from various sources of inspiration—from nature documentaries, asking fellow animal enthusiasts and friends, furiously Googling.

I was constantly making lists of different animals to research in hopes that their behaviors, habits, or biology could inspire a lesson in self-care.

The opposite worked as well, I’d note self-care principles important for me to share and would try and research creatures that I felt could fit the bill to exemplify those principles.

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

A: I’d say more than half of the time spent working on the book was actually spent researching.

The process of researching species was a chaotic one—not only was it trying to find creatures with behaviors that parallel with self-care and human habits, but also finding science journals with enough research to boot.

The most surprising (and inspiring) part of researching for the book was how many scientists are working on researching, documenting, and studying various facets of biological life.

For example, there are not only researchers studying sloth behavior—there are various people studying sloth eating patterns, and someone else studying the massive ecosystem that lives within sloth fur, and even a separate team that may be studying the bathroom patterns of a sloth.

Point being, scientific research is never linear, especially when studying the living world. The amount of information accrued never ceased to amaze me every time I stumbled upon another research paper.

Q: What do you think Gemma Correll's illustrations add to the book?

A: Gemma’s illustrations bring the book’s whimsical language to life. Similar to an iconic music album having the “perfect” cover to really set the tone,

Gemma’s contributions to Wisdom From A Humble Jellyfish set the colorful, youthful tone to not only the book’s design, but also its message: allow some delightful critters to guide you on a safari of self-care.

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

A: I really hope there are two main takeaways from this book:

The planet and all its creatures are so much more complicated, intricate, and mesmerizing than we think. What we may think is a “quirky” behavior or a “boring” habit may actually be the exact thing that’s protecting a plant or animal from a predator.

What we know about the natural world is still very limited; there are so many creatures that are still undiscovered, so many behaviors we still aren’t quite sure about—I hope the complexity of our natural world is translated successfully, so we can begin rallying to protect it.

Self-care is not an Instagram trend; it’s not something we need to overcomplicate either. To me, self-care boils down to: follow your gut.

When we feel stifled by people in our lives or when you notice the stress building in your body, it’s about being able to identify those issues and be willing to put yourself first on your wellness to-do list.

In our culture of work, rest isn’t seen as something we need to do properly, rather, it’s seen as “what we do in-between” work. Self-care is about intention and listening to what your body and mind need, and truly taking an effort to get yourself to where you would like to be.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: While I was writing the book, my South Asian satire news site, Fuss Class, had to take a temporary backseat. Now that my “regular” schedule is back (plus a focus on social isolation) it means that I can jumpstart satire writing once again. With two years’ worth of ideas jotted down, I’m beyond excited to get back into it.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Follow along with the humble jellyfish and learn about all sorts of fun creatures at our Instagram handle: @humblejellyfish

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 29

April 29, 1954: Jerry Seinfeld born.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Q&A with Phaedra Patrick

Phaedra Patrick is the author of the new novel The Secrets of Love Story Bridge. Her other novels include The Library of Lost and Found. She lives in Saddleworth, UK.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Secrets of Love Story Bridge, and for your character Mitchell Fisher?

A: I’ve spotted many padlocks hanging on bridges, from ones in Paris to Gran Canaria, left there by lovers, and I wondered about the stories behind them. They inspired my idea for The Secrets of Love Story Bridge.

The novel tells the story of single dad Mitchell Fisher who has given up all hope of romance, until one day he spies a woman on the famous Love Story Bridge.

When she falls into the river, he rescues her and is surprised to feel an unexpected connection to her. But then she disappears, leaving only one clue to her identity - a secret message on the padlock she hung on the bridge....

Mitchell has devised set routines for himself, to help him deal with a devastating loss in his past, and is the sole parent to his 9-year-old daughter, Poppy. I thought it would be interesting to explore how Mitchell’s impromptu act of bravery sparks huge change in his life, and also entices strangers to write letters to him.

My grandparents used to live on Mitchell Street, which gave my character his first name!

Q: Letter-writing plays a big role in the novel--why did you choose that as one of the book's themes?

A: The letters came through organically, as I was writing. I always knew the padlocks would be the main theme, to help propel Mitchell to change his life outwardly.

I wasn’t sure what a secondary plot would be until Mitchell received his first letter, from an 89-year-old lady who met her husband on Love Story Bridge when she was a young woman.

The art of letter writing has dwindled so much with the rise of social media and I thought it would be a nice touch for letters to play an important part in Mitchell’s emotional development.

Q: With this novel, did you know how it would end before you started writing it?

A: When I write novels, the ending is usually the opposite of the beginning, and I like to leave readers with a strong, visual image of how my characters have moved on with their lives. I knew how the book began but wasn’t completely sure of its ending until I got there.

However, I knew it must involve a padlock, the bridge, and a happy ending for Mitchell, somehow.

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

A: I hope they enjoy the story and, if they haven’t read my previous three novels, that they might be tempted to take a look. It would also be great if anyone felt inspired to put pen to paper, to write their own letters, after reading the book.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m delighted to have re-signed with Park Row Books (HarperCollins US) to deliver two more novels, so I have just started to write Book Five.

It doesn’t have a title yet, but I can share that it’s about a cleaner who takes on the identity of a famous novelist in order to receive a mysterious inheritance. It should take me around 9-10 months to write it.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The two new books I’m delivering for Park Row in the US will also be available in the UK (published by HQ, HarperCollins). I’m delighted that film options have been renewed on both my debut novel, The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, and my second one, Rise & Shine, Benedict Stone, too.

May I take the opportunity to say a huge thanks to readers and booksellers for embracing my books. It means a great deal to me, and I love to receive and read their comments and reviews.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Phaedra Patrick.

Q&A with Stacey Colino

Stacey Colino is the author, with Lise Van Susteren, of the new book Emotional Inflammation: Discover Your Triggers and Reclaim Your Equlibrium During Anxious Times. Her other books include Just Your Type, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including U.S. News & World Report and Prevention. She lives in the Washington, D.C., area.

Q: How did you and Lise Van Susteren decide to collaborate on this book, and what inspired the term "emotional inflammation”? 

A: Lise and I met when I was writing an article about anticipated trauma and pre-traumatic stress syndrome for U.S. News & World Report several years ago.

We hit it off and talked at length about the vague state of anxiety, grief, angst, dread, and hyper-reactivity that so many people were experiencing in response to the tumultuous events in our world—and the fact that multiple surveys were showing that people were experiencing higher levels of stress than ever before.

Keep in mind: This was long before any of us had heard of COVID-19.

As we discussed the scope of stress-related symptoms people were experiencing, we realized that “emotional Inflammation” really captures the commonality of this phenomenon, whether people feel nervous, shut down, angry, or revved up in response to what’s happening in the world.

When we casually tested this theory with friends and colleagues, we found that people felt a sense of relief when they had a name for how they were feeling.

Q: The book looks at four different types of emotional reactions. How did you define the four types, and what do you think readers can learn about their own and other people's style of reacting to the stress around them? 

A: Based on her work with patients and climate activists, Lise identified four primary reactor styles, though many people have a combination.

I think it’s somewhat comforting when people discover that they have a reaction style that others share; they also understand why they feel the way they do a bit better. And when they figure out how their family members and close friends may have different reaction styles, hopefully that helps build both understanding and compassion.

Q: What kind of research did you do to write this book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?

A: We did a lot of research, examining different stress responses and triggers and how these reactions affect people’s bodies, minds, and spirits.

One of the things that was particularly interesting to me is that there can be a priming effect where when you’re in the throes of intense stress or emotional inflammation, you can become more sensitive, both physiologically and psychologically, to the next stressor you encounter.

That explains why so many of us are living in a state of high alert these days. 

Lise and I also did extensive research on different interventions that can help relieve this form of insidious stress.

On this front, I was especially impressed by the research showing that being exposed to elements of nature—including the sights, sounds, and smells of forests, oceans, or a star-filled sky at night—can have soothing effects on our minds and bodies.

On a personal note, I realized how calming the sound of ocean waves are; my husband got an app that simulates the sound of waves gently washing onto the shore. Since we’ve been playing it at night, we have both been sleeping more soundly. 

Q: In the book, you write, "In troubling times, your mind can be your best friend or your worst foe, depending on how you use it." What advice do you have for people struggling through the coronavirus epidemic? 

A: This is an incredibly challenging time we’re living through, with this pandemic.

I think one of the most important things people can do is prevent their thoughts from spiraling out of control into worst-case scenarios or what-if propositions—because that doesn’t do us any good.

Instead, it’s better for each of us to take safety precautions to protect ourselves and our loved ones, tend to our bodies’ needs (with healthy food, exercise, and plenty of sleep), and use our minds to help us stay calm.

We can do that in lots of different ways—by engaging in deep breathing, meditating, listening to music we enjoy, immersing ourselves in a hobby (whether it’s drawing, painting, gardening, or something else) that puts us into a state of “flow,” and many others that are described in the book.

The key is to find the pressure-release valves that work for you and to use them regularly.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: As I mentioned, Lise and I conceptualized and wrote this book long before the coronavirus pandemic and it’s eerily prescient because we’re all now experiencing next-level emotional inflammation.

My hope is that the insights and advice in the book will help people get to the other side of this extremely difficult time more comfortably.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Stacey Colino.

Q&A with Iris Argaman

Iris Argaman, photo by Reuven Kapuchinsky
Iris Argaman is the author of the children's picture book Bear and Fred: A World War II Story, now available in an English translation by Annette Appel. Argaman has written many other books for children, and she lives in Israel.

Q: You note that you first learned about Fred Lessing and his bear from an exhibit in the Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem. Why did you decide to tell their story, and why did you write it from the bear’s perspective?

A: The first time I read about Bear was in a newspaper article about an exhibit at the Yad Vashem Museum. I was very curious to discover Bear’s story and to know more about Fred Lessing’s childhood during the Second World War. I felt that there was something unique and different in that bear.

I decided to write the story from Bear’s perspective because Bear is a hero; it protected Fred Lessing while he was apart from his parents.

The second reason I wrote the story this way is that it tells the reader about Fred Lessing’s character through the touching journey of the bear. 

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

A: I researched the book with the help of my dear and loving friend Fred Lessing, who generously and patiently shared his memories and thoughts with me. I also had help from Yehudit Inbar, the curator at Yad Vashem, a special woman who helped to connect me with Fred. She sent me all the materials in the archive.

The thing that surprised me most of all is the power of a “small” story to touch so many hearts—children and adult alike.

Q: What do you think Avi Ofer’s illustrations add to the book?

A; I chose Avi Ofer as the book’s illustrator. I thought he was the right artist for the story. His illustrations are very gentle and sensitive, but most of all, his work is brilliant. He knows how to give a special interpretation to the text with a simple touch.

Q: What do you hope kids take away from Bear and Fred?

A: I wish and hope kids have an understanding of the value of true friendship. I hope they will enjoy the book, and most of all, when they grow up, they will research and be curious about history and the Second World War.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have written a book titled The Wonder Room of Grandma Masha, a children’s book about Yiddish, the language of the Jewish people.

Another book is coming out in a few months, titled The Hats Store of Amelia.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The last thing to say is the greatest gift I received in this process is my friendship with Fred Lessing. We have never met, but he is in my heart.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 28

April 28, 1926: Harper Lee born.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Q&A with Paul Lisicky

Paul Lisicky, photo by Beowulf Sheehan
Paul Lisicky is the author of the new book Later: My Life at the Edge of the World. His other books include The Narrow Door and The Burning House. He teaches in Rutgers University-Camden's MFA program, and he lives in Brooklyn.

Q: Later: My Life at the Edge of the World describes your life in Provincetown, on Cape Cod, in the 1990s. Why did you decide to focus on this period, and what does Provincetown mean to you?

A: I arrived in Provincetown as a Writing Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in 1991, which was a time in which the town was a refuge for people with HIV and AIDS. There were often four funerals a week in a place with a year-round population of 3,000.

At the same time, I was coming into my own as a young queer person. How do you survive, how do you have hope when all signs point to the fact that there might not be any future for you? That was the struggle I was up against every day.

Provincetown has always been known as a place of inclusion. If you’re drawn to it, you’re likely to experience it through the frame of your own life story, your own desire for freedom.

I don’t think there’s ever really one Provincetown. It’s a place of simultaneous personal myths, and my hunch is that there’s often a rift between those myths and the town of buildings, stores, beaches, bars, and dunes.

That’s what makes it fascinating to me. A Provincetown of the facts alone could never be enough. It’s impossible to own and colonize it, because you have to leave room for all of the stories that haven’t yet been told.

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

A: Initially I thought I should come with up with something that had some poetry in it, a phrase that conjured up an image, but everything felt forced.

Late in the life of the book, I had the sense that the book wanted something casual, offhand. In many ways the book wants to enact queerness, the notion that queerness is wired toward an impossible-to-touch future.

There’s a beautiful quotation from José Muñoz that captures that: “Queerness is not yet here…. We are not yet queer. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality.”

So the word “Later” is a kind of nod to the story we’re on the way to becoming.

Q: In our previous interview a few years ago, when you were working on this book, you said, "It was a time of devastation but also a time of great humor and joy." How did those emotions blend at the time, and what did you see as the right mixture as you were writing the book?

A: One of the ways people take care of each other is through humor, even if it's gallows humor. Humor is performative. It expects a reaction, and it both engages and distances us from dread and anxiety.

And when our lives are under the most extreme pressure—well, I’m just thinking of living in our current pandemic.

There was a bee outside my living room window, darting around for a good 15 minutes the other day. And my isolation and the bee’s crazy freedom—the absurdity of our two positions brought me—well, if not joy, it made me feel supremely alive.

I tried to be mindful of folding those moments into the book, because in all honesty, so many of my memories of the early 90s are memories of laughter and all-out silliness—and I know that that was happening against, or even because of, this peculiar sense of being enveloped by an illness without boundaries.

Q: The book focuses primarily on the early 1990s, but you include a closing section set in 2018. How does the Provincetown of 2018 compare with the town of the early ‘90s?

A: Provincetown is one of the few places I know of that’s an actively loved place. It’s impossible to take it for granted if you live there, or even visit for a few days.

A lot of that has to do with its beauty, its startling light, and what the full moon does to the surface of the harbor on a night when the wind isn’t blowing.

I arrived in Provincetown at a time when the whole town might as well have been a hospital. Everything was attuned to staying alive, taking care of the sick and the dying.

It was a place of ongoing emergency, but there was an extraordinary sense of community in the atmosphere. I didn’t yet know that that that emergency would subside with the arrival of life-sustaining drugs in 1996.

These days it’s very expensive on every level, and it’s next-to-impossible for those without the means to live there, even visit.

Many of the people who live in Provincetown now are in their 50s and above; it’s no longer a town of kids. It would be wrong to romanticize that town of kids, given what that place was up against back then.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve been writing a book about my late father, a guy who was so many things: idiosyncratic, charming, demanding, dismissive, impulsive, obsessive, and that’s only the beginning. He refused to be still.

He also seemed to be an archetype of a certain kind of driven, self-inventing American character, and so far he seems to be resisting any stable container I try to come up with for him. It could just be that the text needs to be more upfront about that, and that needs to be one of its subjects.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’ve been asked a lot about the relationship between those especially fraught AIDS years and the era of COVID-19. It seems to me a function of our human craving for structure and patterns: it’s hard to see B on its own terms unless we’re holding it up against A.

But maybe that’s why I feel a compulsion to name the differences. One pandemic has been around for 40+ years. The other has been around since late fall.

One was ignored, or thought by some to be the domain of people not like us, people who did bad things. The other strikes all levels of society, people of all ages, though primarily older people, those who are already immunosuppressed, and, especially in the U.S., black and brown people.

One has brought about the deaths of almost 38 million people, one million globally as recently as last year, and I could keep going.

This is not at all to enter into a competition between the two pandemics, but I’m struck by this feeling of time being crushed, of this moment being awfully familiar once again.

If anything, the present might be a way into greater numbers of us having compassion for—or attending to the ramifications of another ongoing struggle, which has been dismissed and undervalued for too long. Maybe that’s the only way for us to better deal with the possibility of a future.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Paul Lisicky.