Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Q&A with Kit Frick

Kit Frick, photo by Carly Gaebe Steadfast Studio
Kit Frick is the author of the new young adult novel I Killed Zoe Spanos. Her other books include the YA novels All Eyes on Us and See All the Stars. Also a poet, she edits poetry and literary fiction for a small press.
Q: You note that the inspiration for I Killed Zoe Spanos came from Daphne du Maurier's classic novel Rebecca and from podcasts. How did you decide to combine the two, and how did you create your character Anna?

A: Yes—the initial spark came from a marriage between two obsessions of mine: Rebecca and true crime podcasts. I kept thinking: What if Rebecca de Winter had gone missing today, in the age of Serial and The Vanished and Bear Brook and all the other excellent true crime podcasts that have sprung up over the last five years? What would that look like in a YA context?

The character of Anna is inspired by the second Mrs. de Winter, who in du Maurier’s classic comes to the Manderley estate as Maxim’s second wife and finds herself confronted with an antagonist she can never live up to—the memory of the first Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca.

When Anna arrives to the Hamptons for her summer nanny job, she likewise finds herself the instant subject of gawking and scrutiny due to her uncanny resemblance to Zoe Spanos, a local teen who disappeared a few months prior. In the novel’s opening chapter, Anna walks into the police station and admits to playing a role in Zoe’s death—which of course opens an entire Pandora’s box of questions.

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

A: Very! I love a vivid, atmospheric setting, and creating the fictional Hamptons town of Herron Mills Village—which is based closely on East End villages like East Hampton and Amagansett—was key for me as a writer to getting to the heart of this story. The setting is truly a character in its own right.

I took a research trip to the Hamptons while I was working on the book, and I also did a lot of research online. There are a plethora of in-depth virtual real estate tours of amazing Hamptons homes available online. I watched a lot of those. I watched Grey Gardens, which along with Manderley, served as partial inspiration for Windermere, the neglected estate next door to Anna’s summer abode.

Q: Did you know how the story would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: I had the basics down before I started writing (whodunnit, and how, and why) but I didn’t know how the scenes would unfold, how information would be revealed.

Many writers despair of the “murky middle,” but it’s endings that give me the most trouble. Not because I don’t know where I’m writing toward, because I generally do, but because getting all the necessary information to the reader in a mystery novel in a way that is both organic and surprising is a real challenge. It took many drafts to get it just right.

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

A: I Killed Zoe Spanos deals with a lot of the questions I struggle with myself as an avid consumer of true crime media—whose stories get told, and how, and to what end. I hope readers will come away from the book thinking deeply about those questions while also experiencing the thrill of a twisty summer read.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My next book is still a secret! (Ssh.) I hope to be able to spill some details soon.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The first hardcover printing will have blue sprayed edges—so fun! And I Killed Zoe Spanos is also available as an audiobook featuring a full-cast recording! I cannot wait to listen to the podcast chapters in particular. It’s going to be killer.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Janet Todd

Janet Todd is the author of the new novel Don't You Know There's a War On?. Her other books include Radiation Diaries and A Man of Genius. A former president of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, she is based in Cambridge, UK.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Don't You Know There's a War On?, and for your character Joan?

A: The immediate inspiration was from childhood: the memory of a mysterious house where a widow lived with a grown-up daughter who’d suffered a “breakdown” and returned home. The curtains were closed whenever I passed, and I never saw either woman.

The claustrophobia of the lives they must have led haunted me. The pair seemed an image both of strangling motherhood and of loneliness.

In my novel my main aim was to make an unlikable character understandable. I was living abroad through most of the 1960s and all the 1970s when my book is set, and I based my protagonist Joan on women I encountered briefly on my trips to England. Once she’d been “born,” I found her irrepressible: her voice spoke quite clearly to me!

Q: In the acknowledgments, you note that the novel "has had a long gestation." Can you describe how you created this novel?

A: I always wanted to be a novelist and, during the years when I was primarily an academic writing biography and criticism, I started many novels but never gave myself time to finish and revise them.

This one was begun in the 1980s just after I returned to England. Having been abroad so long, I was the more struck by the snobbery and class obsessions of my native country.

Coming from liberal American academia, then dominated by considerations of race and gender (though not class), I was impatient with those I met who seemed unable and unwilling to accept post-war cultural changes or to take on board England’s diminished position in the world. When I came to rewrite the book, however, I felt more interested in understanding than in condemning.

Q: How would you describe the relationship between Joan and her daughter, Maud?

A: As a mother, Joan seems to us now quite appalling in her insistence on complete domination. Yet she was not entirely untypical of women in her time.

In the 1940s and ‘50 the guru of motherhood and parenting was Truby King. He stressed that children should, above all, be taught self-control or they would grow up spoilt, needy, and even criminal. Babies had to be fed on a rigid timetable, toilet trained quickly, and not picked up or cuddled when they cried.

Joan has an acute sense of duty and she does her duty to Maud as she sees it. I wanted to paint a picture of mothering in the pre-Spock era before indulgence and protection became the norm. To us Joan’s 1950s sort of mothering may seem repellent, but I hope I have made it comprehensible in the context of the time.

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

A: The phrase “Don’t you know there’s a war on?’ was used constantly during the Second World War whenever someone complained of bad service or incivility. My mother used it in a jolksy way as I was growing up. It struck me that the post-war period continued a kind of warfare, cultural rather than military.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have been rather floored by my book’s coming out at the wrong time! The launch was set for just before lockdown, the actor Miriam Margolyes was engaged to do readings, and the wine was bought!

I was very disappointed as I’d like to have seen whether people engaged with the anger and savagery (as well as humour) of the book. Now of course we are all in our homes--not quite like Joan and Maud but nonetheless confined—happily in kinder times and with far better food!  

I am still fascinated by misfits and outliers, but I don’t want to create another character with so definite and fierce a voice. 

In my two recent novels I have not used my own particular memories—and I would quite like to do that now, while sticking with fiction. 

As for setting, I want to investigate something quite different from the Venice of A Man of Genius and the Midlands of Don’t You Know There’s A War On?--the great man-made reservoirs that drown villages for the benefit of towns far off.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: We are living through strange times, but for writing, researching people, life is not so very different from what it ordinarily is--except that there’s more cooking, cleaning, mending and gardening than usual or desirable!  

Like other elderly Luddites I have had to try to come to terms with WhatsApp and Zoom and I wonder what the effect of this communication will have had on us when we are let out.

My generation is much impressed by younger people taking Selfies in front of the wonderful in art or nature rather than looking at it. Will we emerge from this lockdown addicted to seeing the world and people on a screen?

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Janet Todd.

June 30

June 30, 1911: Czeslaw Miłosz born.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Q&A with Michele Weber Hurwitz

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of Hello from Renn Lake, a new middle grade novel for kids. Her other books include Ethan Marcus Makes His Mark and Ethan Marcus Stands Up. She lives in the Chicago area.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Hello from Renn Lake?

A: I was feeling really disheartened by the worsening climate crisis and the inaction of our leaders to address the problems. But at the same time, I felt an enormous sense of hope with the growing numbers of young people who were marching, striking and making their voices heard.

I started envisioning a story where a main character and an element of nature had a deep connection and they helped each other.

I had a strong visual opening scene in my mind -- one moonless night, a baby girl was abandoned near the back garden of a store in a small town and across the street, an ancient lake that had been part of people's lives for eons, was the only witness. The lake sends a surge of water so that the baby is discovered by the shopkeeper.

I knew that later in the story, the lake would suffer from a climate-related problem and the girl, now older, would do whatever she could to help it heal. I had read about harmful algae blooms and how they've been increasing in bodies of water -- harming plants, animals, and entire ecosystems -- and this unsettled me so much that I decided this would be the issue with the lake.

I've often felt that nature is there for us, but we often aren't there for it, so I wanted to get the message across that we are interconnected with everything on this planet and every action we do, or don't do, has an effect.

Q: You tell the story from the perspectives of Annalise and also the lake itself, plus a nearby river. What was it like to alternate among those perspectives as you wrote?

A: In my first few drafts, I didn't narrate from the perspectives of the lake and river, just Annalise. I wasn't sure if voices of nature elements would work or be believable.

But as the story took shape, I realized the only way to fully tell it was to include their perspectives.

It turned out that it wasn't hard at all to imagine the feelings of a lake and river. They're very different characters in the book. Renn Lake is more sad and wistful, while the river Tru is angry. Hearing their inner thoughts allows readers to better understand the sense of water being covered with a toxic algae bloom and not being able to breathe.

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

A: I did a ton of research online and since the novel is set in Wisconsin, I also worked with amazingly helpful people at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Wisconsin Division of Public Health to make sure the info was accurate. Even though this is fiction, I wanted to be as factual as possible about algae blooms and lake ecology.

I also met with a technician who cleans up polluted lakes. When he told me that the problem starts on land, not water, it really struck me how everything we do -- pouring something down the sink or even washing our car in the driveway -- can negatively affect a nearby body of water.

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

A: I hope readers will come away with a more complete understanding of the importance of taking better care of our earth, and feel inspired to do something in their communities -- no matter how big or small.

During the spring months while we sheltered in place, many cities had remarkably cleaner air. This proves that if we all work together toward a common goal of improving our air, land, and water, it's achievable!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm taking a much-needed breather over the summer! I've written five middle grade novels in 10 years. In the fall, I plan to start working on a tween novel about a hate crime and how it affects a group of friends.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The heart of Hello from Renn Lake is about a community fighting for something that matters to them and is an essential part of their lives.

There's a strong theme of roots throughout the novel, both with Annalise and Renn Lake. Instead of searching for where she came from, Annalise makes a choice to put down roots in the place she was found. Roots also play a role in the possible solution to help the lake recover. So this thematic element further weaves together their story arcs.

There are also some terrific side characters -- Annalise's spunky “won't take no for an answer” little sister Jess, Annalise's best friend Maya who's babysitting rambunctious twin boys, and Zach, who is staying in Annalise's family's lakeside cabins over the summer and struggling with a recent breakup with his boyfriend.

Kirkus Reviews summed it up as: "An earnest and disarming tale of human and environmental caring."

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Michele Weber Hurwitz.

Q&A with Kos Kostmayer

Kos Kostmayer is the author of the new novel Fargo Burns. A novelist, poet, playwright, and screenwriter, he lives in Mississippi and the Hudson River Valley.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Fargo Burns, and for the character of Fargo?

A: In 2000 I was making my living as a screenwriter, traveling back and forth between Los Angeles and our family’s farm in Mississippi, and I became increasingly unhappy with the work I was being called on to do for Hollywood. I love movies, but I always felt a bit lost in Hollywood, and I had a strong sense that my sensibility was deeply at odds with the demands of the studio system.

For me, being a screenwriter was a terrific way to make a good living (and to make some good friends) but a terrible way to do good writing. It just wasn’t my world, and I had the feeling that the requirements of the job were separating me from myself and drawing me further and further away from the kind of writing I had always loved.

Truth be told, I felt a bit desperate, and more than a little frustrated, so I started writing Fargo Burns, not in the hope that it would turn into a finished novel, but simply to exercise whatever deeply held and personal gifts – however meager – I might possess.

The character of Fargo obviously betrays some autobiographical elements, but those elements primarily served as trigger points to start the book and then propel it forward.

Most of all I wanted to experience the very thing I was unable to experience as a screenwriter, namely freedom. Freedom was what I wanted, and freedom was what I found with Fargo Burns. Incidentally, the first draft was an incredible mess, roughly three times the length of the published book.

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started working on it, or did you make changes along the way?

A: When I began writing Fargo Burns, I had an opening sentence and nothing else. In fact, I didn’t even have an opening sentence until I picked up my pen and began to write, and then the first words of the book came out: Howling and half-naked in his torn and bloody clothing Fargo is a desperate man and dangerous to himself and others.

Sometimes I felt as if were following the book rather than leading it, and sometimes I felt as if I were chasing language down the road, running after the words that had already gone on ahead in pursuit of something I wasn’t able to identify until the words revealed it.

Maybe that’s one reason the first draft, for all its eager grasp at freedom, was such a rambunctious mess. I had no idea where the book was going, so I guess it’s fair to say the book and I traveled together from start to finish, helping one another along in our search for resolution.

One of the cardinal influences on the book was my love of modern jazz and its ability to create freedom through improvisation and surprise. I’m not a musician and have little or no expertise in that area, but I love the spirit of liberation that lies at the heart of so much of the work accomplished by jazz from its inception to the present day.

There’s great beauty there, as well as great daring, and I don’t see why writers shouldn’t avail themselves of the freedom that musicians enjoy. In Hollywood I was always obliged to create a plot in advance of the writing (something I never liked doing) but with Fargo Burns I let the story emerge and allowed myself to be surprised along the way.

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

A: The novel travels freely back and forth between New York City and the Mississippi Delta and draws its peculiar rhythms from both those remarkable places. I was born in Louisiana and spent summers in Mississippi as a child and later lived in Mississippi on the farm that my wife’s family had owned and operated for generations.

But I was raised in and around New York City, where I also raised my own three children, and the energy and vitality, the reckless high-speed rhythm and sardonic wit of New York, are part and parcel of my nature. I consider myself a New Yorker first and foremost, but the south is in my blood and plays a role in Fargo’s life as well.

Obviously place is important to me, but I think one could argue that the true setting for any work of fiction is the author’s mind, or rather the entire scope of his or her sensibility, which includes mind but also encompasses history, feelings, wishes and facts.

Borges says that one of the great joys of reading is that it allows us to think with someone else’s mind. Fiction amplifies that joy.

Q: You’ve also written poetry and plays. Do you prefer one form over another?

A: I don’t really separate the three forms. In fact, in my work I try to fuse them. I’ve worked extensively in television, film, and theater, and I’ve written and read poetry all my life.

All these disciplines have blended together in my thinking about the art and craft of fiction, and I’m happy to exploit the various kinds of freedom each of them represents. Speed and compression play an important role in my writing, and the kind of compression to be found in film and theater have heavily influenced my own development as a writer.

Joseph Brodsky once defined poetry as a form of accelerated intelligence, and acceleration is one of the gifts that modernity lends to contemporary writing through the disciplines we associate with film, theater, music and poetry. Italo Calvino has written brilliantly about this in Six Memos for The Next Millennium.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have three more novels coming out in the next 18 months from Dr. Cicero Books – my wonderful publishing company, which has provided unstinting support throughout every phase of the publishing process.

All three of these novels are finished, and I’ve just completed a final polish on The Avenue Of Sad Days, which will come out next spring following the publication this fall of The Politics Of Nowhere. Lost Religion will be published in the fall of 2021.

Now that my work on these four novels is done, I’m revising and polishing two volumes of poetry, The Year The Future Disappeared and The Marriage Bed. Then I’ll start work on something new, which is to say I’ll soon be living in a state of daily worry sufficiently unsettling to suggest some sort of drastic remedy - hard drugs, for example, or grain alcohol.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Well, two things come to mind – one strictly professional, the other strictly personal.

On the professional side, I’ve been compared to an odd, somewhat surprising, sometimes flattering and often misleading list of writers.

People magazine said I was a combination of Samuel Beckett and Henny Youngman, a very odd pairing indeed. There’s not much of Beckett in my work, although I share his affection for sardonic humor in the face of catastrophe, and not much of Youngman either, although his backward and inappropriate jokes often make me laugh.

I’ve been called the Saul Bellow of extreme emotions, but I’ll admit I don’t identify at all with Bellow, nor do I share any of his stylistic graces.  

I could make a long (and loving) list of writers I admire, and while I’ve certainly done my best to learn from the example of writers I revere, I sometimes think that the greatest influence on my work, aside of course from my own history, has been the work of modern painters, musicians and filmmakers.

On a personal note, I live at the center of a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-colored, multi-lingual family, many of whom have suffered direct insults as a result of racism, bigotry, homophobia, anti-immigrant fervor, and xenophobia.

I can’t help but feel cautiously hopeful as I watch the uprisings that are sweeping across our country in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. These uprisings are a sign of grace, a national blessing, and proof positive that honesty and courage, when combined with passion, can be transformative and truly revolutionary.

For a writer, and speaking now also as a husband, brother, father, uncle, and grandfather, I can’t help but hope that the political geography of this country is on the verge of being permanently and beautifully rearranged.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

June 29

June 29, 1900: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry born.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Q&A with Karin Tanabe

Karin Tanabe is the author of the new novel A Hundred Suns. Her other books include The Diplomat's Daughter and The Gilded Years, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Politico and The Washington Post. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for A Hundred Suns, and for your characters Jessie and Marcelle?

A: I knew I wanted to do all my research in French and I knew I wanted to do something about the atrocities of colonialism. I considered the Belgian Congo, as I’m Belgian on my mother’s side, but since I had never been there, I didn’t think I could write a strong story. But I had spent a few months in Vietnam and though I’d be able to write a good story set there.

So often Vietnam is associated with war and I really wanted to write about the country during a time of peace. That said, it was certainly not a time of happiness considering French colonialism. It was smack dab during the anti-colonial movement.

Jessie, I came up with first – an American who had to bootstrap her way to the top, and I came up with Marcelle as her antagonist because I wanted a heavy dose of French glamour!

Q: The novel takes place in Indochina in 1933. How did you research the book, and did you learn anything especially surprising?

A: Most of my research was done by reading real French historical documents from the colony. I learned the most about how the French were trying to keep communism from gaining momentum.

In ’33, the French had cracked down on all of the nationalist parties, communists and anti-colonialists. They were all forced to go underground. Two years later there were huge demonstrations against the French and 10 years later massive revolution. This time was the calm before the storm, but it is not calm for the characters in my book!

Q: The Michelin family plays a major role in the novel. What did you see as the right mix between actual historical characters and your fictional ones as you wrote the book?

A: I read a lot of reports written by the Michelins and kept their history in Indochine pretty true to life. But they didn’t have a member of the family living in Indochine, so I strayed from the story there.

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

A: I hope that they feel like it’s a unique book with characters they haven’t seen before.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now I’m working on a book set in 1950s Manhattan. It’s a bit of a celebration of New York, a bit of a spy novel and also a very honest look at the difficulties of motherhood.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I feel like there’s no better time for historical fiction than right now! Not only can you travel around the world with historical fiction books, but you can time travel. And aren’t we all desperate for a little travel – even travel of the mind. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Karin Tanabe.

Q&A with Emma Lazell

Emma Lazell is the author and illustrator of the new children's picture book That Dog!. She also wrote and illustrated the picture book Big Cat. She is based in the UK.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for That Dog!?

A: After Big Cat, I really wanted to create a book with a similar humour to appeal to the dog people. I called upon some of my favourite things: crime shows, furry friends, and silliness, and combined them to make That Dog! happen.

The story actually began with the clumsy dognappers mistaking a baby for their favoured pooch, and the hilarious mix-up that ensued. But, along the book's journey, my publishers and I decided that there was far more humour in Penny and Pat mistaking other pets for their desired canine.  

Q: Did you work on the illustrations first or the text, or did you create them simultaneously?

A: For That Dog! the process was pretty simultaneous. Usually I start with the illustrations, and the words happen once the action for each page has been decided and made into rough illustrations, but with That Dog! I had a firm idea for the story before I began work on the illustrations.

Although, the story did change multiple times along the way, and often this was as a result of problem-solving in my illustrations. The very beginnings of That Dog! began as illustrations in my sketchbooks. I started off with pages and pages full of doodles of dogs getting up to mischief, and after a while, a story began to take shape. 

Q: How did you get interested in creating children's picture books?

A: Making picture books had been my dream career for a long time. I’ve been in love with a good story all my life.

As a child I always knew I wanted to do something creative, and after a degree in illustration, a few years working in schools and a house full of collected picture books, I decided to do an Masters of Arts in children’s books at Cambridge School of Art, and it was there that my debut book, Big Cat, took shape. 

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

A: I hope mostly that they have a really good giggle! But also I think that the story has some clear takeaway messages about loyalty, bravery, and right and wrong. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: At the moment I am working on a story for the youngest readers about a bear and his potty, and also a fun and empowering story set in a dinosaur art school. I’ve also been using my time during the pandemic lockdown to experiment more in my illustrations, and painting the wildlife in my surroundings. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: While I’ve been at home during the lockdown, I have been busy creating That Dog! drawing videos, character workshops, sneaky peeks into the book, and lots more interactive resources. Find them all on Instagram @emmallazell.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

June 28

June 28, 1891: Esther Forbes born.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Q&A with Jennifer Chiaverini

Jennifer Chiaverini is the author of the new novel Mrs. Lincoln's Sisters. Her many other novels include Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker and Resistance Women. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

Q: You've written about Mary Lincoln before. Why did you decide to return to her story in your new novel?

A: The idea for Mrs. Lincoln’s Sisters first came to me when I was researching and writing Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker about nine years ago.

Mary Lincoln experienced many tragedies during her years in the White House, but two were particularly devastating—the loss of her young son Willie to illness, and the assassination of her beloved husband.

After Willie died, Mary was absolutely distraught. Elizabeth Keckly, her dressmaker and confidante, cared for her in her distress, but Robert Lincoln also summoned his aunt Elizabeth Todd Edwards, her eldest sister, from her home in Springfield, Illinois.

For many weeks, Elizabeth lived at the White House and looked after Mary until she was able to leave her bedchamber and resume some of her ordinary daily activities.

After Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, however, Mary did not ask any of her sisters to come to her, nor did Robert summon any of his aunts, so her care fell to Elizabeth Keckly and a few other friends.

At the time, I found this very curious. Why did Mary not summon Elizabeth, who had helped raise her after their mother died? Why did Mary not seek comfort from her beloved Little Sister, Emilie, who was also a widow and might have been uniquely capable of comforting her?

When Mary left the White House and returned to Illinois, anguished and grieving, why did she not go to her sisters, and why did they not come to her? I knew that they had been estranged, but if ever there had been a time to reconcile, this should have been it.

This question haunted me long after I finished writing Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, and eventually I decided to investigate and to tell the sisters’ story.

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

A: Mary had many siblings and half-siblings, and I chose four of them—Elizabeth, Frances, Ann, and Emilie—to narrate Mrs. Lincoln’s Sisters.

Elizabeth, the eldest, had watched over her younger siblings from an early age; she was only 12 and Mary not yet 7 when their mother died. Elizabeth became caregiver and counselor to her younger siblings, but especially to the precocious Mary, who took it especially hard when their father remarried a year later.

At 19 Elizabeth married, and soon thereafter she moved to her husband’s hometown of Springfield, where she often invited her two next-oldest sisters, Ann and Frances, to come for extended visits.

They were Mary’s rivals for attention and achievement, and they often banded together to put her in her place whenever disagreements erupted at home. Stifled within her strict stepmother’s household, Mary envied her sisters and ached to join them when they wrote home about the balls and parties they attended and the handsome young men they danced with.

Only after Ann and Frances married was it finally Mary’s turn to embark on her own romantic adventure. Her one regret about leaving Lexington was bidding farewell to her adored younger half-sister—pretty, lively Emilie, whose tenderness, loyalty, and appeals for harmony reminded the young women of the Todd family what sisterhood ought to be.

As the years passed and the sisters navigated their young marriages and bore children of their own, they turned to one another in times of joy and heartache, even when miles separated them, even when disagreements and petty jealousies threatened their bonds of love and family.

Q: The story is not told chronologically--did you write it in the order in which it appears, or did you focus more on one time period before turning to others?

A: I wrote the chapters in the order in which they appear. There are essentially two parallel timelines: the present, which runs from 1875 to 1882; and the past, which runs from 1825 to 1875. The two timelines converge on the fateful day when Mary attempts to take her own life.

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

A: Despite the volumes of historical and psychological research devoted to Mary Lincoln, she remains an enigma. She was the first wife of a U.S. president to be called First Lady, and she was then and remains to this day one of the most controversial.

Regrettably, descriptions of her tend to fall into the extremes of caricature: She is either portrayed as an unstable, shrill, vicious, corrupt shrew who made President Lincoln utterly miserable, or as a devoted wife, loving mother, and brilliant political strategist whose reputation was savaged by biased male historians.

Her sisters were able to observe Mary closely in moments of triumph as well as tragedy, and so they knew her as a real woman, full of flaws and virtues and surprises like any other.

Since they are my narrators, the Mary Lincoln that readers meet in Mrs. Lincoln’s Sisters is this far more nuanced woman, shaped according to their perceptions and biases.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a historical novel about the woman’s suffrage movement in the early 20th century United States. The story is told from the perspective of three different activists: Alice Paul, Ida B. Wells, and Maud Malone.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The Todd sisters’ fortunes were forever bound to their husband’s choices, and inevitably, the conflict that divided a nation strained—and sometimes shattered—the bonds of family.

As one state after another seceded, the sisters found themselves allied with some siblings and unexpectedly opposed to others.

Mary’s staunchly Unionist and abolitionist beliefs were well known to her close friends and family, but were constantly scrutinized and condemned by everyone else.

Northerners questioned her loyalties since she had been raised in a slaveholding family and her brothers fought for the rebellion, while Southerners condemned her for renouncing her southern heritage.

With the family so fractured, as the war churned on, the sisters knew it was bound to end in tragedy for some—and therefore unhappily for all, for none of them could be truly happy while a sister suffered.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Sarah Glenn Marsh

Sarah Glenn Marsh is the author of the new children's picture book Anna Strong: A Spy of the American Revolution. Her other books include Alice Across America and The Bug Girl. She lives in Richmond, Virginia.

Q: How did you learn about Anna Strong, and why did you decide to write this book about her?

A: I first read about Anna in an article highlighting lesser-known women in history who contributed to important causes.

When I began researching, wanting to know more about her, I realized she was only the second woman I'd read about in connection with the Revolutionary War, after Betsy Ross (who, of course, designed the early American flag).

Until Anna, I hadn't known of any specific women who contributed to the war effort in such a significant way, and I wanted students to grow up having an inspiring story about someone different who was just as much a hero in this period of our country's history.

Q: How did you research Anna's life, and how well known was she during her lifetime?

A: I relied primarily on the local historical society around Anna's birthplace, the Three Village Historical Society, who have done meticulous research into Anna's life.

Like any good spy, Anna didn't have much notoriety during her lifetime, at least, not as a spy; however, she was a known associate of George Washington, and she and her husband Selah remained so close with him after the war that they named their new son George Washington Strong, so she certainly wasn't a complete unknown, either.

She also had relatives who were prominent in British high society, so she may have been somewhat known on the fringe of those circles, too.

Q: What do you think Sarah Green's illustrations add to the book?

A: Sarah was so thoughtful in her illustration process; my favorite tidbit is that the patterns on Anna's dresses change with each scene in a way that's meant to camouflage her in with the background, a nod to her being a spy and hiding in plain sight.

I think that's the mark of a brilliant illustrator; when they bring a whole new element to the story through their art.

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

A: First, I hope they see that women can be heroes and contribute to important causes. Perhaps this story will inspire them to seek out unsung heroes of other genders who may have contributed to major historical events the way Anna did.

Second, I hope the book inspires them to be brave and stand up for causes they believe in; perhaps they'll see a bit of themselves in Anna and realize that no matter where they are in life, they too can make a difference.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now, I'm preparing a new nonfiction book for publication! It's about the amazing life of Mary Anning, who discovered several new species of dinosaur-era reptiles buried in the cliffs around her home in the U.K.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I also write young adult novels with Penguin Random House, and you can look for some fun news about new books from me soon!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

June 27

June 27, 1936: Lucille Clifton born.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Q&A with Mia Birdsong

Mia Birdsong is the author of the new book How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship, and Community. She is an activist, facilitator, and storyteller, and a senior fellow of the Economic Security Project. She lives in Oakland, California.

Q: What inspired you to write How We Show Up?

A: Writing a book was something I’d thought about as a someday kind of thing, but I didn’t have a specific book in mind.

I was approached by an editor after an event where I spoke. We met up and she asked me great questions that helped me articulate something that had been trying to come forward from the back of my mind.

It was very much about things I needed answers to--questions about belonging, intimacy, interdependence, and accountability. As soon as I realized what the questions were, I knew where to look for answers.

The people I have seen with the most expansive, inclusive, loving, interdependent relationships of family and community are Black, queer, unhoused--folks who experience marginalization. How we show up is very much the book I needed to read.

Q: Your first chapter focuses on the American Dream, and you write that it is "both an illusion and an aspiration." Can you say more about that?

A: The idea of an America meritocracy where anyone can make it with a little hard work is a lie. Most people weren’t even included in the Founders vision of “we the people.”

They didn’t mean women, they didn’t mean Black or Indigenous people, they didn’t mean poor people. They were talking about land-owning white men, like themselves.

That foundational history is the foundation of our systems and institutions. Most wealth in this country is concentrated in the hands of white men.

In my mind, the aspirational part is not about leveling the playing field, but re-envisioning the dream itself. I want things to be more fair, it’s not like having more diversity among the wealth hoarders is better. That would still leave most of us struggling to get by without basic human rights like housing, food, health care, and education.

We’re seeing our greater aspirations articulated in movements that are calling for things like guaranteed income and the abolition of police and prisons. And the progress that’s being made makes clear to us that nothing we want to create a generous, caring, just world is too much, nothing we want to create the future we deserve is unrealistic.

Q: What are some approaches people can take toward community-building during this time of pandemic?

A: There are so many things! I’ve been focusing on how to give and receive support.

For example, I’ve been doing a lot more sharing with neighbors and friends to avoid going to the grocery store. My neighbors across the street just left a bunch of artichokes on my porch. The day before they texted asking if we had any mirin so we gave them an extra bottle we had.

I just gave my next-door neighbor a dozen eggs from our chickens. He has a steady supply of mustard greens for us. I have a neighbor who works at a drug store and she brought me a couple containers of disinfectant wipes when I mentioned that I was having a hard time finding any.

I have a friend who texts me and a couple of other folks when she goes grocery shopping to ask if she can get us anything from the store. At first, I hesitated to say yes because I know what a pain in the ass grocery shopping has become. But I push past my discomfort every time because it’s legitimately helpful. This last week I actually texted her ahead of time to let her know we needed coffee.

This cycle of mutuality strengthens the connections between us, it carves out the grooves of healthy interdependence. These are the kinds of community bonds that build our sense of belonging and actually make us safer.

Q: What do you see looking ahead when it comes to "showing up" for others?

A: I’m mostly focusing on what I know we can do. Covid and this latest cycle of white violence has made it even more clear that our “normal” was failing. Our systems and institutions are supposed to provide us with basic human rights, but they won’t do that unless we demand it.

We’re seeing people show up in opposition to white violence in ways that are creating powerful change. I am hopeful that that level of solidarity continues and becomes more deeply embedded and normalized in our culture.

And then there are some things that systems and institutions can’t and shouldn’t try to do for us.

For example, the government should provide us with excellent health care. But if I’m sick, a friend or a neighbor is going to bring me soup and help me get to and from medical appointments. There is a kind of love, care, consideration, and connectedness that we can only get from each other.

Covid has many of us leaning more deeply into our interdependence. It has us practicing solidarity in ways we haven’t before. I hope that no matter what comes next, we keep tending to our solidarity and interdependence. I hope we allow ourselves to be more vulnerable and intimate with others and reject the lie that we can make it on our own.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m collaborating on a guided journal for the book. It will allow readers to think deeply and creatively about their own relationships and create plans for the kind of growth they’d like to see.

I also started a TV show called My Brilliant Friends. Several weeks ago I realized that the people I wanted to guide me through this uncertain time and into a better future are people I know. And I thought other people might want to hear from them too, so I started this live video series. It’s been fun and has expanded a lot of my thinking in meaningful ways.

Other than that, a lot of my work has disappeared because it involved in-person speaking or facilitating, so I’m also spending a lot more time working on my little city farm. I’ve been gardening for a long time and a few years ago, I added bees and chickens. It’s sanctuary for me and the people in my household. That’s helping to keep me grounded.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’ve been doing a series of Instagram posts to share more about many of the people I interviewed for the book. So many of them do incredible work and I wanted to say more about them. If you follow me on Instagram @miabirdsong, you can see all that.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb