Sunday, May 31, 2020

Q&A with Jean-Baptiste Andrea

Jean-Baptiste Andrea, photo by Vinciane Lebrun-Verguethen
Jean-Baptiste Andrea is the author of the novel A Hundred Million Years and a Day, now available in an English translation by Sam Taylor. It was published in France last fall. Andrea also has written the novel Ma Reine, and in addition is a director and screenwriter.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for A Hundred Million Years and a Day, and for your character Stan?

A: I always find it difficult to track the origins of an idea. I remember the moment this particular one happened: I was just standing in my study and bang, the whole story hit me.

If I do a bit of forensic digging, it doesn’t come from nowhere, though. As a child, I first wanted to be a writer, and was told it wasn’t really a job. So, for a while I decided I would be a paleontologist instead. This new pursuit just lasted a few years, until everybody realized I only had good grades in literature studies and would probably never advance science.

Retrospectively, I wondered, “Why did I ever want to go from writing to paleontology, such  a different path?” I realized there was a logical connection between a writer and a paleontologist. They’re both storytellers. So, they’re not that different, except the former tends to deal with fiction, the latter with historical facts.

Stan was born out of this rather fertile common ground.

Q: You've said that the book tells the story of a man who, “for the first time ever...decides to follow his dreams. This is a book about the dreamers of the world.” What do you think the novel says about following one's dreams?

A: Very simple. The novel says, “Do it.” It’s not going to be easy, and you might not reach your goal. But success is not reaching one’s goal - that’s a Western vision of the concept of success, I think. Success is never giving up.

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

A: I tend to avoid research, because it’s very easy to get bogged down, and then to impose your work on your reader.

For me, and for the type of novels I write, research is a distraction. All I did was reopen my old “paleontology for dummies” manuals, and then check the latest discoveries, just to make sure everything would be accurate. But we’re talking about a grand total of three hours of research. 

A Hundred Million Years and a Day is not about paleontology anyway. It’s a personal quest, a man going deeper into himself as he ascends a mountain, in a reverse narrative movement. It's an adventure novel too, about nature and about friendship. The truth, if it’s to be found in this book, lies not in science but in emotions.

I wasn’t surprised by any single fact but like every time I read up about our history, I was awed by the sheer scale of it. It’s hard to grasp (unless you’re a Creationist, then everything becomes much easier).

Q: What has been the reaction to the novel in France, where it was published last fall?

A: It was amazing. Even better than my first novel, Ma Reine (My Queen), which had already enjoyed a very warm reception, to say the least. I was actually worried readers might try to hold me back, expect the same kind of novel from me. It didn’t happen.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My third novel. Won’t say more until it’s finished!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m a vegetarian, and I could sometimes be accused of loving animals more than humans. I’m not proud of it and I’m working on it.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Katja Ivar

Katja Ivar is the author of the new mystery novel Deep as Death, the second in her Detective Hella Mauzer series, which began with Evil Things. Katja Ivar was born in Moscow, lived in Texas as a teenager, and now resides in Paris.

Q: This is the second in your Hella Mauzer mystery series. How did you come up with the idea for your character Hella, and for this installment in the series?

A: When I started writing my debut, Evil Things, the story lived in my mind long before I had my protagonist. And then one day, I had this image of a woman tramping alone through the snow to solve a crime no one cares about. She just sort of appeared on the page, stubborn as Hell, smart and misunderstood. 

At the end of Evil Things, Hella's life is a despicable mess, and worst of all, she's been fired from the police squad. Several months later, as Deep as Death begins, Hella has succeeded in getting her life under control: she runs a small, barely profitable PI business, she's back with her boyfriend Steve. 

And then a new client comes in, and suddenly, she is not sure of anything any longer. 

Q: The novel takes place in Helsinki in 1953. How important is setting to you in your writing? 

A: The story starts in February 1953, and this is not a coincidence. Even at the best of times, the month of February is dreary: the sun is low, bitter wind is blowing off the sea. Also, Helsinki is a lovely city, but in February, it is not at its best. I wanted the setting to contribute to the hostile environment that Hella has to face in her investigation.

And then there's the year - 1953. While writing the novel, I had a lot of fun weaving in historical facts big and small. Newspaper headlines feature Ethel and Julius Rosenberg’s campaign for clemency, and the denouement coincides with Joseph Stalin’s death on March 5, 1953.

Q: Can you say more about the research you did to write the book, and whether you learned anything that especially surprised you?

A: Just like for the first installment in the series, I did quite a bit of research because, obviously, I haven’t lived in the 1950s, and I wanted to get things right.

Luckily for me, the Police Museum in Tampere was a treasure trove of information, while the Helsinki City Museum exhibits include a reconstructed 1950s apartment, which gave me an idea as to how my character might have lived.

As to what surprised me the most... I'd say the introduction of roof signs on police cars. To me, it seemed such an obvious thing, but apparently, the decision to equip the police cars was not obvious at all (and Finnish police was the first in Europe to do that). 

I have my characters argue about that, with some claiming that citizens risk to be scared by these innovations, and drive into ditches (by the way, the anecdotal evidence collected after the introduction of roof signs actually supports his point of view).

Q: Do you think Hella has changed from the first book to this one?

A: Hella is her own worst enemy. She has lots of stellar qualities: she is honest, and kind, and generous to a fault, but she is also socially awkward, and brusque.

At the end of Evil Things, she finally manages to make some friends who matter a lot to her. And in Deep as Death, I have her pitted against a most unlikely roommate: a pretty young wannabe detective, who sees herself as Hella's sidekick. Hella has no choice but to change at her contact.
Q: What are you working on now?

A: The new installment in the series - and contrary to the first two volumes, it takes place in the summer, during the polar day. I like the idea that when midnight sun shines, all shadows disappear and caution is thrown to the wind. But here’s the thing: bad people don’t necessarily wait until after dark. Daylight is no shield.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Being published is a dream come true for me - so I wanted to say huge thanks to my readers and to the kind book bloggers who spread the word.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Robert McCaw

Robert McCaw, photo by Calli P. McCaw
Robert McCaw is the author of the new mystery novel Fire and Vengeance, the third in his series featuring his character Detective Koa Kāne. The series, which also includes Death of a Messenger and Off the Grid, is set in Hawaii. McCaw practiced law in Washington, D.C., and New York, and he lives in New York City.

Q: This is your third novel about your character Koa Kāne. How do you think he’s changed from the first book to this one?

A: In Fire and Vengeance, Koa’s relationship with his brother Ikaika deepens and evolves.

In the earlier novels, Ikaika is the bad brother who commits crimes, alienates his family, mistreats Koa’s girlfriend, and creates problems for Koa within the police department.

In the latest novel, Ikaika’s character becomes more complex. After Ikaika collapses in jail and is rushed to a hospital in a coma, Koa discovers there is more to his brother’s criminality than Koa had imagined. 

In the pressure cooker of emotions surrounding Ikaika’s medical crisis, Koa discovers a different side of his brother. This intra-family journey of discovery forces Koa to choose between conflicting loyalties.

In doing so, he forges not only a new relationship with his brother but also a more profound understanding of his Hawaiian roots and the principles that must guide his life.

Q: How did you come up with the plot for Fire and Vengeance?

A: Three disparate themes informed the plot of Fire and Vengeance— (1) the volcanic nature of the Big Island, (2) how the dynamics of family relations can trigger personal reinvention, and (3) the power of past events to trap people and dictate the future in unpredictable ways. I discuss each theme below:

The Big Island of Hawaii is a land of volcanic activity ruled by Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanic fires. Pele created the islands, built their mountains, and continues to add to the Hawaiian landscape.

Always capricious, she lays waste to what humans have built, and most efforts to avoid her destructive power end in failure.

Yet, like the Japanese near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant or the Italians on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, people in Hawaii continue to expand communities in areas of high natural risk. Witness the destruction of more than 700 homes in Puna during the May 2018 Kilauea eruption.

I created the fictitious event at the heart of Fire and Vengeance to illustrate the arrogance of betting we can avoid nature’s fiery wrath.

In Fire and Vengeance, Koa’s relationship with his incarcerated brother parallels the volatility of Hawaii’s volcanic nature, changing in an instant and creating a whole panoply of new conflicts and challenges for Koa.

Like various personal misfortunes we endure, an unanticipated event in Koa’s brother’s life forces Koa to reassess his values. I wanted readers to see Koa, drawing on his mother’s inspiration and his Hawaiian heritage, reinvent a part of himself.

Experiences shape people, but those forged in the crucible of the same event often emerge with vastly different mindsets. An event that imbues one person with guilt or shame may empower another or provide opportunities for a third. Secrecy often exaggerates those responses.

In Fire and Vengeance, I wanted readers to join me in exploring the power of a secret past to ensnare people and dictate their future in unimaginable ways. 

Q: Did you need to do much research to write this novel, and if so, did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: I have long believed that life is research for a novelist. In writing Fire and Vengeance, I drew upon my experiences as a criminal defense lawyer and my 20-plus years traveling and living in Hawaii.

From that starting point, I searched the history and legends of volcanic activity on Hualalai, one of the five volcanoes that make up the Big Island. I delighted in discovering the Hualalai legends involving Pele and King Kamehameha which I relate in the book.

Although Hualalai has not erupted for two hundred years, the USGS warns that it remains a high risk to the developments that blanket its western slopes. As reflected in my Author’s Note, Hawaiians' obliviousness to Haulalai's volcanic hazards came as a surprise.

Writing Fire and Vengeance also required a dive into research on the effects of brain disorders. The cutting-edge medical breakthroughs coming out of injuries in the Afghan and Iraq wars, together with technical advances in brain imaging, are fascinating. Some of the literature is opaque, but I found doctors who were wonderfully generous in sharing their insights.

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

A: First and foremost, I want readers to be entertained and enjoy the story. I hope they get involved, try to guess the end, and are surprised by the twists.

Throughout the Koa Kāne series, the Big Island of Hawaii is a kind of character from which readers can learn about the history, legends, language, and people of this unique and complex place. For me, writing the book was a journey into aspects of the islands that I wanted to share with readers.

Beneath the surface, readers might also draw insights about prejudices ingrained in family relationships and how they might be subject to reexamination.

Personal relationships need not be as strained as those between Koa and his brother Ikaika to benefit from a reset. Opening the mind to different possibilities, even in close relationships, often yields surprising benefits.

Finally, I hope readers share my fascination with the unpredictable effects of long-buried personal secrets, especially those that evoke strong moral reactions or those we attempt to suppress.

We like to think in terms of cause and effect but are frequently confronted with unintended consequences beyond our control and even our wildest imaginings. That disconnect is central to Fire and Vengeance.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am hard at work on drafts of two new novels. One, as you might expect, is another Koa Kāne story which explores the deepest recesses of his past. The other takes me in a whole new direction to be revealed in due time.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’ve had requests for audiobooks, and Off the Grid, the second book in the Koa Kāne series, is now available in that format.

In addition, Oceanview Publishing has agreed to reissue Death of a Messenger, the first book in the series, in December 2020.

Finally, I’d would be remiss if I didn’t express my heartfelt appreciation to all the readers who have contributed to the success of these stories and energized me to add new ones.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Robert McCaw.

May 31

May 31, 1819: Walt Whitman born.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Q&A with Jesse J. Holland

Jesse J. Holland's books include the novel Who Is the Black Panther? and the nonfiction books Black Men Built the Capitol and The Invisibles. A former reporter for the Associated Press, he is a host for C-SPAN's Washington Journal. He is based in Washington, D.C.

Q: You've focused in a couple of your books on African American history in Washington, D.C. What did you learn about the people who worked in the White House and built the Capitol?

A: I’ve always been a fan of history (being from Mississippi makes that almost a requirement. And being African American myself, I’ve always been fascinated about African American history and the ways it has — or has not — been told in the United States.

So when I arrived here in Washington, D.C., in 2000, I naturally started investigating African American history in the nation’s capital and found some great stories.

I immersed myself in the stories of old Georgetown, U Street, Anacostia, Howard University and other places around the city _ but I noticed very few people talked about African Americans in America’s front yard, The National Mall.

So I started questioning and researching, and found there was tons of African American history in and around the National Mall. It just had never been acknowledged in a major way.

So I made that my mission: to discover the African American history in and around the National Mall and that led me to write about the enslaved African Americans who were used to build the original U.S. Capitol and my book, Black Men Built The Capitol: Discovering African American History In and Around Washington, D.C.

During this time, I also found out that black slaves were used in the construction of the White House and then were used as domestic slaves inside the White House, but no one has ever bothered to find out who they were, where they came from or what happened to them after their president left the White House.

That was a book I wanted to read, and so I started researching again and that became The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African American Slaves Inside the White House. There are so many stories out there about this unrecognized people that I suspect future authors will be still be writing about this years from now! 

Q: You've also written a novel based on the Black Panther character. What did you see as the right blend between the original character and your own creation?

A: I’ve always loved comic books, so when given a chance to work on Black Panther, I was immediately excited.

I had already completed a junior novel for the Star Wars franchise called Star Wars: The Force Awakens - Finn’s Story, so I already had an idea of how to combine my creativity with someone else’s property.

There’s only so far you can go, and so much you can do with someone else’s creation but I think of it like "it’s only polite to return someone else’s toys in the same way you received them.”

There are a bunch of stories you can tell without permanently changing the characters (at least physically!), and being given the freedom to play with the story and some modern adult themes was totally exciting!

Q: As someone who's worked as a journalist and written both fiction and nonfiction for different age groups, do you have a preference when it comes to what you write?

A: I write what interests me, whether it’s a news story, a news column, a book, a magazine piece, a screenplay or whatever strikes my fancy.

I love the freedom that fiction gives you (The world is whatever you say it is, and once I convince my reader that world is real, then anything can happen!) and I also love discovering and telling people more about the real world, so nonfiction is also the place to be.

At heart, it’s all about the story and what I’m interested in at that moment. My ground rules are: Are you interested in this, because if you’re not interested in it, how can you expect someone else to be? and Will this be a good story? If both of those answers are yes, then I’m in!

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

A: With my nonfiction, I’m hoping people take away a greater knowledge of their world. There’s so much that has happened that we don’t know about, and I love being able to bring a little extra knowledge into the world.

With my fiction, I’m just hoping readers enjoy it and that it brings a little excitement and some reading joy into their lives. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now, I have three major projects going at the same time: I’m putting together the first Black Panther prose anthology for Marvel Entertainment/Titan Books called Black Panther: Worlds of Wakanda, which you will see next spring, featuring all new stories of the Black Panther and the world of Wakanda from some of America’s brightest new African American writers.

I’m also working on my next nonfiction book, which will tell the story of the people of Freedmen’s Village, a town of freed slaves and abolitionists that sat where Arlington National Cemetery is today.

I’m also in the planning stages of my very first documentary, which I still have to keep under wraps for now, but I’m really excited about it!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m soon going to be announced as a new assistant professor of journalism at George Washington University, where I’m hoping to eventually teach a class on turning your journalism into books, so look for that in the future.

I’m also continuing my work as a Saturday host for C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, and doing guest stints as a commentator on DC Live Today on the new Black News Channel. I also have some more TV gigs coming up soon revolving around literature, so keep your eyes peeled for those announcements!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Billy Lombardo

Billy Lombardo is the author of the novel Morning Will Come. His other books include The Logic of a Rose and The Man with Two Arms. He is the founder and managing editor of the literary magazine Polyphony Lit, and her lives in Chicago.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Morning Will Come, and for the family you write about?

A: It began with four stories told to me by two people. I thought they were just too beautiful not to write about.

By the time I had five somewhat disconnected stories written, Other Voices Books announced that they were looking to publish a collection of short stories or a novel-in-stories as their next book, and so I wrote three more stories and sent them off.

I was in my first residency at Warren Wilson, a low-residency MFA program, and my workshop class had read an early draft of one of the stories, "The White Rose of Chicago."

I think a couple of students in the workshop didn’t quite know what to make of the story that seemed to be taking place beneath the apparent story. And at some point the teacher, Wilton Barnhardt, stood up, gestured fluently, and said, “But what if Audrey is grieving over the death of a child?”

I had written that draft without knowing what Audrey was grieving over, or even that she was grieving.

The daughter, Isabel, was only in one of the stories at that time, and so, when Gina Frangello, the editor at Other Voices, encouraged me to connect the stories, I realized, sadly that Isabel had to make the sacrifice for the novel.

To break my heart further, I revised that first story in a way that made me fall for Isabel even more.

I didn’t realize until much later, that I wasn’t attempting to tackle the unbearable subject of the disappearance and death of a child, as much as I was trying to language my own grief by trying to understand Audrey’s.

Q: The book was first published a decade ago as How to Hold a Woman. Why is it being reissued, and are there any changes in this version?

A: I had recently gotten released from the contract with the publisher of How to Hold a Woman, and was encouraged to reach out to Jerry Brennan of Tortoise Books to see if he might be interested in re-issuing the book, and to my delight, he agreed to acquire it.

He edited it pretty closely, and so there were a few changes, but mostly minimal. The biggest change was the title from How to Hold a Woman to Morning Will Come. And, of course, the gorgeous cover is new.

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

A: I absolutely loved the original title, How to Hold a Woman, but after all these years, it felt like a misrepresentation of the book. It was missing the hope that was always essentially a part of the story for me.

And when it was clear that the book had a shot at being re-introduced to the world and to a new generation, Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein and hordes of other terrible humans had assigned unwanted permutations to the former title.

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

A: I love the idea of a reader putting down the book and looking forward to getting back to it. If something in the story stays with them—a story, a character, a scene, a line—I don’t know if I can ask for more than that.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve got a couple of novels and a novel-in-stories I keep going back to, and I’m writing a book on craft for apprentice writers.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Billy Lombardo.

May 30

May 30, 1901: Cornelia Otis Skinner born.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Q&A with Marjorie Sandor

Marjorie Sandor is the author of the new novel The Secret Music at Tordesillas. Her other books include The Late Interiors and The Uncanny Reader, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Georgia Review and AGNI. She teaches creative writing at Oregon State University in Corvallis.

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

A: The idea came from listening to music: an album called Music for Joan the Mad by the contemporary Canadian ensemble La Nef.

The musicians were inspired by the story of “Joan the Mad” (or Juana I of Castile)—a queen of Spain who spent most of her life in forced seclusion in a small palace in Northern Castile, and their CD includes both 16th century court music and haunting Sephardic ballads: songs that travelled with the expelled Jews of Spain, and are still with us today.

In their liner notes, the musicians imagined that in Granada, in 1492, the princess Joan (the third child of Fernando and Isabel) might have heard the music of the departing Jews.

Gradually a character began to shape itself in my mind. Not a princess or an imprisoned queen, but an old man curled protectively over an unidentifiable stringed instrument in an abandoned castle.

Who was he? And what did he have to say?

What if he’d been a boy in Granada, in 1492—a boy raised in the now forbidden faith of Judaism? What if he hadn’t left Spain, but stayed, living and playing music inside the very power structure that made the smallest whisper of his family’s cultural and religious traditions a crime?

Q: What role do you see music playing in a society like that of the Spanish Inquisition?

A: Music played an astonishing range of roles in that time and place. It served the monarchs and court in every context, from the great hall to the conjugal bedchamber. Folk songs mirrored the mood of the populace—prejudices included.

At its most hidden, a forbidden music was kept alive in the walled courtyards of the Albaicín (the Moorish quarter of Granada), and even more secretly, in the kitchens, cellars, and caves where a handful of New Christians (converted Jews and Muslims) might have gathered—at incredible risk—to practice their now forbidden faiths, and hold “zambras” or parties rich with music and dance.

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

A: I began reading—and interviewing scholars—on everything from life at court and 16th century Spanish music to the Inquisition. This led me, in time, to documentary material: Inquisition trial transcripts, palace inventories, recipes, account-books, and journey-diaries.

The trial records of the Inquisition are harrowingly detailed: the defendants’ answers are heartbreaking, and include the smallest possible details of domestic life. It seems that no gesture or bit of clothing was too small to scrutinize and record.

I was surprised to learn that it was often women who were accused of “Judaizing” (practicing Judaism in secret). The simplest rituals of private daily life—from housecleaning to food preparation could send a person—and her whole family—to prison or the stake.

Consider the motivations of an envious neighbor, a disgruntled servant, a spurned lover—or an imprisoned cousin “confessing” under torture.

Q: What do you see as the legacy of the time period depicted in the book, and what do you hope readers take away from it?

A: It’s difficult not to feel the Inquisition’s goals and machinery today, in our own nation, as minority populations fall under increasing scrutiny and restriction. In the last few years, as I neared the last third of the novel, that legacy became clear.

I’m thinking of our government’s stepped-up efforts to round up and deport immigrants who have been longstanding members of their communities; of people afraid to answer their doors or go to the doctor’s office lest ICE be waiting for them.

On the other hand, the experience of writing this book taught me that art can save traditions—and possibly even lives, and this is something I hope my readers will feel, too.

There’s a stunning array of well-researched and reimagined music from the 16th century, from court music to compilations of Sephardic ballads out in the world now. There are books and websites devoted to the recovery of these traditions.

It’s exhilarating and comforting to think about this legacy: the way people kept a beloved tradition alive in the face of utterly daunting opposition. It seems both a miracle, and a hopeful sign.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have two manuscripts in progress: one is a story collection called The Singing Bones of Braehouse: the stories are all, in one way or another, improvisations on very old folktales and ballads of various traditions.

The second manuscript is an essay collection focused on the relationship between music and literature. Some of the pieces are personal essays about my life-long love affair with music, while others were more researched essays and profiles commissioned by Opera News over a decade.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Because The Secret Music at Tordesillas is so heavily “musicked” I am actively working to involve local musicians and singers to join me in creating musical/literary events rather than typical readings.

A couple such events are already scheduled, and I’m so looking forward to listening, with the audience, to someone sing the heartbreaking Sephardic lullaby “Nani, Nani.”

I want music to be at the center of these events.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Lian Dolan

Lian Dolan is the author of the new novel The Sweeney Sisters. She also has written the novels Helen of Pasadena and Elizabeth the First Wife, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Pasadena Magazine and O, the Oprah Magazine. She is the producer and host of the the talk show Satellite Sisters, and she lives in Pasadena, California.

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

A: There are a lot of books, movies and TV shows about multi-generational families with strong matriarchs or patriarchs, but I wanted to write about adult siblings making their way in the world without the “older” generation. 

I wanted to answer the question of what happens when Mom and Dad are gone and the siblings have to create a new kind of relationship. I thought that question might be even more heightened if one of the parents was famous, like the father in The Sweeney Sisters.

And then I started seeing posts on Facebook from people in my circle about welcoming a new sibling into the family, thanks to an over-the-counter DNA test.

That seemed like a great wrench to throw into a sister story. Imagine being in your 30s or 40s and having a new sibling show up. Wow, gamechanger!

The characters of Liza, Maggie, and Tricia Sweeney came very quickly to me.

Character development is my favorite part of the writing process! I love building the pieces of characters that will fit together and serve the story.

I have been thinking about sisters for years, thanks to my podcast Satellite Sisters. And knew I wanted to include the uber-responsible oldest sister, the freewheeling middle sister and the disciplined and independent younger sister. The Sweeneys have the same parents, but different lives, and I thinks that’s pretty typical in most families.

Q: The novel is set in Southport, Connecticut. Why did you choose that location, and how important is setting to you in your writing?

A: As a reader, I love novels with a strong sense of place. It feeds into the “take me away” reason I read books. So. It was natural for me as a writer to want to create a setting that resonated.

My first two novels are set in Pasadena, my current hometown, and I knew from the many, many book club events I’ve gone to that readers love being a part of that world with the Rose Parade, the gorgeous houses, the famous art and architecture and institutions like Caltech and The Huntington.

For this book, I chose Southport, the town where I grew up, because it lent itself to a story about long-kept secrets and chaos behind the perfect façade.  Southport is a picture-perfect town but what goes on behind those doors with the big brass knockers may not be so perfect.

Plus, I miss those East Coast summers, especially Fourth of July. There’s a Fourth of July scene that’s a real centerpiece of the book with the traditional bunting on historic homes, the homegrown bike parade, annual fireworks at the beach and lobster and blueberry muffins on the table.

Q: Can you say more about what you think the novel says about concepts of family?

A: To me, family is an ever-evolving story. But a lot of families get stuck, plain and simple. I think a lot of disfunction comes from families repeating the same patterns of behavior over and over again, without growth or in.

With The Sweeney Sisters, I wanted to write about how families can move through disfunction, can open up to new people and new relationships and build a stronger, bigger unit.  

Q: The Sweeney sisters' late father, William, was a famous writer. What was it like to create a book about a writer?

A: Bill Sweeney is definitely a writer from a generation that is almost gone—when writers were rock stars and covered in gossip columns and The New Yorker in the same week. 

His work is the sort of fiction that would still be read in high school or college, part of a canon that would include Roth, Vonnegut, Knowles, even Salinger. I imagined him looking like John Irving but acting like John Cheever.

That’s the kind of male writer I remember from my youth. In fact, Robert Ludlum, the superstar thriller writer, lived nearby and I used to see him walking on the beach all the time.

Putting all of those pieces together for The Sweeney Sisters was a fun mash-up of memory and make-believe. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I host a weekly podcast called Satellite Sisters and write a monthly humor column for Pasadena Magazine, so I always have a lot of story ideas in the hopper.

As far as fiction. I’m thinking about the next novel but nothing ready to share yet! I’m getting a lot of calls for a sequel to The Sweeney Sisters, which is something I never considered, so now my brain is working on that.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I hope the book’s themes of reconnecting and resiliency resonate with readers during this time. There are laughs and parties and romance in The Sweeney Sisters, but there’s also a lot of love. I hope it provides a hopeful escape for people. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Lian Dolan.

May 29

May 29, 1917: John F. Kennedy born.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Q&A with Deborah Lee Rose

Deborah Lee Rose is the author of the new children’s picture book Astronauts Zoom!. Her many other children’s books include Scientists Get Dressed and Beauty and the Beak. She lives in the Washington, D.C., area.
Q: Why did you decide to write an alphabet book about the International Space Station, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year?

A: When I was researching my most recent children’s book, Scientists Get Dressed, I found thousands of photos of astronauts doing all kinds of things on the space station—from spacewalking to eating pizza to taking photos of Earth.

Photos from NASA and other international space agencies inspired me to start writing Astronauts Zoom! even before I knew Nov. 2, 2020 was the 20th anniversary of astronauts continuously on the International Space Station.

I had also been wanting to write a new alphabet book for a long time, since my first alphabet book, Into the A, B, Sea, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year too.

Once I decided on the title Astronauts Zoom!, I knew the book should capture what astronauts really do while they’re zooming in orbit around Earth.

The process of creating my children’s books has often started with a title idea, like Scientists Get Dressed or The Twelve Days of Kindergarten.  

Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything especially surprising or fascinating?

A: By amazing chance, I was working on the book when astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch made their historic all-woman spacewalk from the station.

Watching their livestreamed EVA (extravehicular activity), I learned how carefully planned and executed every move is on a spacewalk—with constant communication back and forth between the astronauts and Mission Control on Earth.

In addition to watching live and recorded videos of astronauts outside and inside the International Space Station, I read astronaut interviews to find out how it felt to be away from Earth, what they did in space besides work, and why seeing Earth from space changed their lives.

I learned SO much doing this book, which I why I love writing about STEM, especially as a human endeavor. Here are just a few of the things I didn’t know about astronauts and the International Space Station as I started the book:

When astronauts go on spacewalks, they sometimes ride on the space station’s huge, external robotic arm. That AHA! is captured in the NASA spacewalk photo chosen for the book cover.

Astronauts appear to float because they’re also falling in free fall towards Earth, at the same speed as the International Space Station itself is falling towards Earth.

Astronauts who look like they’re upside down on the station don’t feel upside down. Most of the photos in the book could be turned “upside down” and still be correct!

Astronauts find lots of ways to have fun and relax on the space station—reading, doing sports with unusual moves like soccer somersaults, throwing pizza parties, dressing up as superheroes, and watching and taking photos of Earth far below.

Q: What do you see as the importance of the International Space Station, and what do you see looking ahead for it?

A: Through peaceful collaboration, astronauts from around the world have helped make and continue to make countless scientific discoveries and engineering advances on the space station.

I hope their extraordinary cooperation can inspire people on Earth to work together, to solve the hugest problems of our time like protecting people from COVID-19 and protecting Earth from climate change.

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

A: I hope kids (and the adults who read to them and teach them) take away the fun of playing with language. I took poetic license to phrase two of my favorite spreads for the book: L-M-N-O/Astronauts love to make pizza, but need a space oven; V-W-X/Astronauts view Earth from space. “Wow!!!” they exclaim.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on virtual author visits that let me talk to kids and adults anywhere in the world. To arrange a virtual visit, I can be contacted via my website at

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Astronauts Zoom! includes lots of STEAM ideas for creating a “space station” learning and fun environment anywhere.

Here is one idea using a fantastic resource for photos from space, the TERC Windows on Earth project which is a partner of the ISS National Lab’s Space Station Explorers (

Using real photos of Earth taken from the space station, you can create/decorate your own “cupola” (dome) area—for reading, doing space-themed projects, or trying hands-on STEM experiments.

The cupola is the area of the International Space Station where astronauts can look out through multiple windows to see huge vistas of Earth below or space all around. 

Photo credits: Astronaut spacewalking, hurricane forming, astronauts “rightside up” and “upside down,” astronaut looking out from cupola, and astronauts with pizzas, all NASA; astronaut taking photos, ESA/NASA; spread from Astronauts Zoom! text ©2020 Deborah Lee Rose.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Deborah Lee Rose.