Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Q&A with Mary Burton


Mary Burton is the author of the new novel Burn You Twice. Her many other novels include Never Look Back and I See You. She lives in Richmond, Virginia.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for Burn You Twice?


A: I’m a big fan of the Writers' Police Academy and last year I attended their conference near Raleigh, North Carolina. The very first session I sat in was conducted by a retired ATF agent and he not only discussed the crime of arson but also several case studies.


I started scribbling notes for this novel even before his presentation was finished. The idea grew from there and within a few weeks I’d fleshed out a synopsis.


Q: The novel takes place in Montana. How important is setting in your writing?


A: I consider setting a character in the book. When I wrote my first novel 20 years ago, an agent suggested I change the setting. I didn’t think it would be such a big fix, but it ended up taking me several months.


I learned that the setting not only influences descriptions of the landscape and structures, but also the character’s back story, what action may or may not be possible and in the case of a suspense, how a crime scene is processed. Just think about the difference between Montana in January and Virginia in July.


Settings are never random for me and I consider them very carefully when I begin a novel.


Q: Did you need to do any research to write this novel, and if so, did you learn anything surprising?


A: After I left the Writers’ Police Academy with the germ of an idea, I bought several books on arson and read them from cover to cover. I learned arson can be a complicated crime with a range of motivations including financial gain, thrills, or revenge.  Writers love to dig into motivations because we know that is a huge driver of the story and plot.


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


A: I always think I have the book figured out, but I’m usually surprised. I can spend weeks on a synopsis and then sit down to write and the story starts to shift. But I’ve never minded this at all. I like that I’m coming up with new ideas and plot twists to the last page. I figure if I’m a little surprised by how a book ultimately ends then so will my reader.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I just finished the book Near You, which picks up some of the characters from Burn You Twice and spins in a new direction. Near You will be out in April 2021. And as we speak, I am plotting the next suspense novel, but that’s still just notes on a page and random ideas that keep buzzing in my head.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I also write women’s fiction as Mary Ellen Taylor. My latest Mary Ellen Taylor novel, Honeysuckle Season, released Sept. 1. I came up with the first idea for a Mary Ellen Taylor book about 10 years ago when story ideas kept coming to me that I knew wouldn’t work in a suspense. The Word We Whisper is my eighth MET novel and will be released in 2021.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Heidi McCrary


Heidi McCrary is the author of the new novel Chasing North Star. She works in the advertising marketing industry, and she lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for Chasing North Star?


A: I have the beginnings of several stories, but I kept coming back to Chasing North Star. With the popularity of books such as The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls and Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, I realized that few topics are more entertaining than the simple story about the dysfunctional family.


While the book I wrote is officially a novel, it is inspired from my own dysfunctional childhood.


That theory was solidified when my sister and I joined a book group several years ago, and my sister and I spent a bit too much time entertaining the group with tales of our own colorful childhood. While my childhood was dark, it was also damn entertaining.


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


A: The research I did was with my own siblings who are older than me and often remembered more details of our youth, and yes, surprisingly, I learned a lot about my mother. I also realized just how little I knew about her upbringing. Not surprisingly, she was also raised by an abusive mentally unstable mother.


The book reflects the true stories of my childhood along with the fiction part—the backstory of my mother’s own childhood, which is where the book spins into fiction. This gives the reader a glimpse into understanding how the abusive cycle can continue. And how it can end.


Q: Most of the book takes place in the 1940s and in 1970. Did you write the book in the order in which it appears, or did you focus more on one time period before turning to the other?


A: The book started out as a memoir, with the focus on 1970, as a band of siblings deals with a mentally-unstable and violent mother.


With dual narrative being extremely popular, I wanted to give readers of Chasing North Star a glimpse into moments in the mother’s life in Germany as she grew up — beginning from her own childhood up to when she marries and travels to America. The two stories eventually collide in 1970.


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


A: As I stated earlier, nothing is more entertaining than a dysfunctional family, and I believe that the majority of us have some sort of dysfunction in our childhood. It’s funny, any time I talk with someone who has read my book, they begin sharing their own stories about their colorful childhood.


With that in mind, I hope readers finish the last page, having enjoyed the ride—a bittersweet story about a band of siblings who survived living with a mother who suffered from a cocktail of illnesses. I begin the story with a quote - “That which does not kill us, makes for a great story.” Right?


Q: What are you working on now?


A: In an abrupt left turn, I’m currently working on a bit of a hybrid — part novel, part “how-to” that looks at the world of golf through the eyes of a feminist.


Written with a humorous voice, this book coincides with the surprising interest in golf again, as the world rediscovers a sport that had been losing fans until Covid-19 reared its head. Now, suddenly, golf is the go-to activity for many families.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: In today’s world, where we are now sensitive to offensive language and racist or sexist rhetoric, there is a newfound challenge in writing about 1970 and how we dealt with mental illness and life in general. While I crafted narrative that is respectful to following this train of thought, I believe I have maintained the flavor of the times through the dialogue of 30 years ago.


I am also aware that the use of the word “crazy” is insensitive and inappropriate today. After much contemplation, I have left the word in the dialogue of the characters in this book to reflect the times and essence of the story. I hope readers will understand that this decision did not come lightly, and is important to showing the world as it was in 1970. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Ellen Distelheim and Laura Distelheim


Rochelle Distelheim

Ellen Distelheim and Laura Distelheim are the daughters of the late Rochelle Distelheim, author of the new novel Jerusalem as a Second Language. Rochelle Distelheim also wrote the novel Sadie in Love. She lived in Highland Park, Illinois.


Q: How did your mother come up with the idea for Jerusalem as a Second Language, and for her characters Manya, Yuri and Galina?


A: We spoke to our mother about this question when she first received it, and she said that, while traveling as a tourist in Jerusalem, she had begun to notice small groups of Russian immigrants -- in shops and restaurants and walking in the streets -- and that that had led her to start thinking about what it would be like to move from a country where you were denied the right to live openly as a Jew to a country where your Judaism was not only accepted, but assumed.


That thought remained with her once she had returned home, and it became the seed from which the novel eventually bloomed.


She said she has never known, in any of her fiction, how her characters come to her. She would give herself over to a story she was writing and suddenly find herself writing as another person. "I opened my mouth one day and Manya's voice came out," she said. She then had to create Yuri, as she put it, "to give Manya someone to rub up against."


In writing about their marriage, she said she had also drawn upon her own parents' marriage for inspiration. Her father had been raised in an ultra-Orthodox home, where religious rules and rituals were strictly adhered to, while her mother had grown up in a much less observant home, where Judaism was more of an identity than a daily practice.


The compromises that disparity required them to make once they'd joined their lives is something that had always intrigued her.


There isn't too much mystery about where she came up with the idea of Galina. As the mother of three daughters, she had decades of experiences to turn to in bringing that character, and her relationship with her parents, to life.


Q: The novel takes place in Jerusalem in 1998 -- what kind of research did your mother do to write the book, and do you know if she learned anything especially surprising?


A: Our mother conducted research for the book by doing extensive reading on life in the Soviet Union -- David Remnick's Lenin's Tomb was one work she relied upon heavily -- as well as on life in Jerusalem at that time.


More importantly, though, she also returned to Jerusalem, where cousins of hers (who were living there) were able to connect her to groups of Russian immigrants willing to discuss their experiences with her.  


We don't know if she learned anything that was especially surprising to her while she was there, but what is not at all surprising to us is that she was able to conduct her research this way. Our mother never met a stranger and was endlessly curious about and interested in others' lives.


It was one of her great gifts as a writer, not to mention as a person, that she was so able to empathize with others no matter what their situation, and that she was so warm and magnetic, that people happily opened their lives to her.


Q: How was the novel's title chosen and what did it signify for your mother?


A: Our mother always said that the title appeared in her mind one day, as if handed to her. It seemed to her to be the ideal way to convey the fact that Jerusalem is so much more than simply a city -- that to move there involves so much more than merely a change of address. It involves a change of heart, of soul, and of mindset as well.


In reading the novel, we noticed that its pages are so infused with the sights and sounds and smells, the energy and emotions, and even the rhythms of that city, that Jerusalem is almost a singular character in the book in and of itself.


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


Jerusalem As a Second Language is a timeless and universal story about the search for belonging. Because it has such relevance in today's complicated world, readers can easily identify with the struggles Manya encounters in that search.


Never one to accept easy answers to life's questions, she is also never one to turn away from the questions. She never says yes if she means no, just to avoid making waves, but she also never stops yearning for a path that will take her to a yes that she can mean with all her heart.


Although she continues to long for the life she'd left, by the end of the novel, Manya has, to her own surprise, begun to build a new life in this alien country that has tested her in ways she never would have thought she could survive.  


When the reader sees her last, she is bruised and battle-weary, yes, but she is also still deliberating, still debating, still negotiating, and still believing that she might very well find that sense of home that she's been craving.


We think our mother wanted her readers to turn away from their last sight of Manya with a renewed sense of awareness of all the ways in which, in even the most complicated of lives, heartache can be tempered by hope.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: At the time of her death, our mother was two-thirds of the way through a poignant and powerful novel about a Jewish widower in his 80s, living in a suburb on Chicago's North Shore. It wove a rich tapestry from his relationships with his two adult daughters and their husbands, as well as with his grandchildren and his Mexican immigrant caregiver.


Our mother's first novel, Sadie in Love, published in 2018, which tells the story of a Polish immigrant, matchmaker, suffragette, and lover of ballroom dance living on New York's Lower East Side in 1913, has been earning rave reviews from its readers. We're sure that Jerusalem as a Second Language's readers would love it as well. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 29

Sept. 29, 1810: Elizabeth Gaskell born.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Q&A with Margot Livesey


Margot Livesey is the author of the new novel The Boy in the Field. Her other books include The Flight of Gemma Hardy and Mercury. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and Vogue, and she is a professor of fiction at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She grew up in Scotland and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Boy in the Field, and for your characters Matthew, Zoe, and Duncan?


A: The idea came to me as an image offered by someone who went to the boys’ half of the girls’ school I went to in Scotland. I hadn’t seen him in many years, and I was asking him about his life.


He described coming home from school and finding the body of a young woman at the bottom of the garden. He was probably in her presence less than 15 seconds, but that 15 seconds really changed his life.


At 16 or 17 many people’s lives change, but he felt it as a distinct moment when everything changed. That image stayed with me.


I didn’t want to start the book with the body of a young woman. I felt that was, unfortunately, overly familiar. I kept thinking…what if it could be a boy? What if the injuries were not fatal, but it still feels like a primal moment?


I realized I wanted more points of view, because of the complexity you get from seeing the world from different angles. That’s how I got the idea.


And writing The Flight of Gemma Hardy reminded me of the pleasures of writing about younger people, who often have a more direct sense of morality and ethics. That’s why we need Greta Thunberg.


Q: The novel takes place in 1999—why did you choose that time period?


A: For a very practical reason, and less practical ones. The novel needed to be set before mobile phones. They would have greatly changed the nature of what happened, and teenagers had more autonomy before mobile phones, more autonomy from their parents.


And I was interested in the feeling we had in 1999—we thought danger was coming, but we were looking in the wrong direction.


Q: In our previous interview, you said that your husband, an artist, “paints large abstract oil paintings and I spent a lot of time in his company thinking about color and seeing.” How did those experiences affect your creation of Duncan and his art?


A: Eric’s presence in my life had a huge impact on the creation of Duncan. It’s that way of looking at the world—he’ll see something, a crack in the wall, a rusty lamppost. Maybe he’ll stop and take a photo to remind himself. I’m aware that he’s thinking about the world in a very particular way. I wanted one of my three protagonists to have that way of thinking.


Q: In her New York Times review of the book, Jenny Rosenstrach says, “Livesey’s writing is quiet, observant and beautifully efficient — there’s not an extra word or scene in the entire book — and yet simultaneously so cinematic, you can hear the orchestral soundtrack as you tear through the pages.” What do you think of that description?


A: I was thrilled by that description. It did capture the fact that I intentionally set out to write a short novel in which quite a lot happens. [I admire] Penelope Fitzgerald’s work, or a novel like [James Baldwin’s] Giovanni’s Room, which are quite short. What could I get by embracing that esthetic?


For a certain writer, this could have ended up at 3-400 pages, but I wanted to keep it short. I was very pleased by the word “efficient”!


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Once it was apparent in March that I was not going to be able to go back to Scotland any time in the near future, I started writing a novel set in Scotland as a way of going there every day. We shall see if it gains purchase.


It’s rooted in an old family story. I have to sabotage it a bit. I haven’t quite got to that point yet; I’m overly committed to historical fact.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: There are two things I alluded to but I wanted to say more explicitly. I’m very aware of the form of the detective novel, but very conscious that I was not writing a detective novel—though I do have a detective! My focus was on something else, though the detective novel is going on in the background.


Another thing is that writing about Matthew, Zoe, and Duncan at age 17, 16, and 13 was no different for me than writing about adult characters. It never occurred to me that this might be a young adult novel, although I’d be thrilled if young adults read it.


I’ve been teaching at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and my wonderfully talented students have made me think more about questions of form and subject matter as I watch my students’ writing. Most of them are closer to being a young person!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Margot Livesey.

Q&A with Victoria de Grazia


Victoria de Grazia is the author of the new book The Perfect Fascist: A Story of Love, Power, and Morality in Mussolini's Italy. Her other books include Irresistible Empire. She is Moore Collegiate Professor of History at Columbia University, and she lives in New York City and Sarteano, Italy.


Q: How did you first learn about Attilio Terruzi and Lilliana Weinman, and at what point did you decide to write a book about them?


A: A lovely Upper West Side New York woman had a bagful of family papers. Her son and daughter-in-law reached out to me. I went over to meet her, and her question was, Why did Cousin Lilliana—a gifted, Jewish, brilliant opera singer—marry a 20-years-older Fascist?


When I reached into the bag, three items struck me. There was a wedding album, with Mussolini as a best man. There were photographs of military conquests—the Italians conquered Libya around 1922. The third was a volume of an annulment trial.


I was interested in nailing a Fascist, but how? It’s very hard. I had to understand it so I could confront it. This was an inside story. I thought the book would write itself—that this was an opera, a Netflix show, in three acts or five acts. I deluded myself.


It was the combination of the serendipity of finding this insider story and the problem of how to open up a system—to look at a male-female power couple, how they operated in this world. And this man was very powerful, although no one had written about him before.


Q: Why not?


A: He didn’t fall into the normal categories. He was a military man, but not a top military man. He was the perfect adjutant. He developed himself as an orator. He was also very adept at being a “good fellow”—he was a best man at weddings, he sat in at christenings. He knew about the police. He knew about cheating. He wrote very long reports. He was a professional “yes” man.


Q: So how did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially intrigued you?


A: I wasn’t sure whether to write about her or about him. A young Jewish woman goes to Italy, and it only emerges later that she was deeply scathed. Is she a heroine, or an antiheroine? And what about him? Why did he marry her, and who was he?


I’m not a biographer, I’m a social historian. I set off after him. He never was really visible. I looked at him in his wedding picture, and wondered, Could he be a violent guy? He was known to be impetuous and histrionic.


It took me a very long time, going through local newspapers, and there he was, leading police and squads in raids against socialists. I could see he was very much involved in the actual fisticuffs.


Then I began to work back. He was in Africa, and they used force against the native troops. I looked into military records. By the nature of his role as a captain, he had to kick his men into [line] and if they wouldn’t go he had to shoot them.


You get a picture of dynamism—a man of order in charge of restoring order. The perfect military man. He comes home and becomes the head of the security forces. They wanted disciplined vigilantes, and he was a very powerful figure.


To Lilliana, he was a perfect gentleman—until he wasn’t any more, and he realized this woman was a liability. She was too big for the kind of operation he was involved in. Too many people were talking about her.


It’s a cumulative “so what”—fascism evolved in terribly corrupt, dubious, melodramatic ways.


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


A: Titles are so hard. I thought of The Diva vs. the Despot. I liked that—it was more of a MeToo kind of title. But then there was also the other woman [in the story], who was equally valuable.


The most surprising thing I found is that there were women everywhere. Fascists were not all male. There’s an image of an all-male operation, great virility—that’s hokum. Power is very complicated.


I really was perplexed by love—how much that word was used by Fascists. And power—that was striking, the raw power. And morality—I did have the idea that the book could be called A Moral History of Mussolini’s Italy, like a social history or a political history. That’s why there’s the threesome—love, power, and morality.


Q: Azar Nafisi wrote of the book, “Its two entwined narratives—one political and public, the other personal and private—perfectly complement one another and help us understand why the personal is political for those who insist on reshaping people and society.” Can you talk about how the personal and the political play out in the book?


A: From the way feminists have evolved, influenced by historians, we understand there is no singular personal or political. It’s more conceptual. I see a constant shifting in which people restated “this is private, this is public.”


In Lilliana’s case, she was the bearer of an American, bourgeois, immigrant family on the make in the early 20th century. She had devoted parents. She thought, I love him, I’ll marry him, we’re going to move into Mussolini’s inner circle. It was so very American. Here they are in the maelstrom of Fascist politics.


Here’s a guy with no capital of his own, trying to manipulate the system. They’re being tossed around. This big woman provides him with a whole private world. He has a primitive notion of the private protecting him. Her private pushes into the public zone.


The private and the public in these extremely polarized, reactionary politics was always changing. Mussolini was pitting everyone against each other.


If you read this, you’ll see what fascism was in its time. It was bound up in the globalism of its time. We need other terms now. The U.S. is the leading nation today; it wasn’t in the 1920s and ‘30s. We have to have a very different vantage point. This story has to be told if we want to use the past and make comparisons and connections.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Some conceptual poems.


And I really want to write about how important Italy was to the imagery of a “good Europe” from the 1960s on.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: One hope is that the book could almost be read like a novel from the 19th century or early 20th century, to get a sense of the people and what that kind of politics meant to people, to a nation, to the people conquered by the Italians. It was a local movement, but also global.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Firas Sulaiman


Firas Sulaiman is the author of the poetry collection Forgetting. His other books include Her Mirror is an Unarmed Hunter, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Banipal and The Wolf. Originally from Syria, he lives in New York City.


Q: Over how long a period did you write the poems in Forgetting?


A: There are, to my mind, two kinds of time that get factored into this calculation. One is the universal time during which my unconscious is engaging these ideas and themes and they then manifest in real quantifiable time whereby they take shape and land on the page.


Every poem I write I hope is a manifestation of all the experiences that shaped and informed me, and that gets converted into works that hope to make their way into the future, to secure a spot in unknown time and space.


Since we are never guaranteed a future or a next poem, each effort is a combination of the time we know and the time we cannot know but seek to capture through desire, dream, and idea. 


This was the first collection I wrote entirely in the United States; it took a total of eight years. 


Q: How did you decide on the order in which the poems would appear in the collection?

A: Primarily, I let my own chaotic drive organize it, particularly in the original Arabic publication. But when the text was translated and edited, the emphasis was on entering the text with short, more accessible pieces building up to longer works and then ending with more mid length pieces. It was the intent of the translator and publisher to ensure the two parts of the text offer some thematic cohesion.


Q: Can you say more about what inspired the last poem in the collection, “America”?


A: The compelling issue one faces when writing about anything that is both a tangible reality and an idea locked in abstraction. With “America,” I relied, in part on what I already knew and thought and sensed before arriving in the states. After a brief time here, I began to observe the many contradictions and paradoxes the idea and the place contained.


My relationship to place is real but it is also fabricated by misunderstanding and shaped by doubt. We often internalize what we see and augment that with what we imagine, even what we believe.


I wrote “America” soon after my arrival; I would write a very different poem today - but everything I write is a product of the time, the hour, the moment it is formed. 


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


A: Forgetting is an idea about which I have always been obsessed. I'm very interested in how the concept of forgetting can override memory and thus create additional space and newness.


I find the burden of memory is often so heavy as to be distracting and dominating - a sort of prison. So I committed myself to the project of forgetting in order to turn the abstraction into at least the illusion of fresh, liberated, and new horizons. Forgetting is a kind of erasure that allows for the opportunity to create and re-create.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am currently working on a few projects. I am about to publish a volume of several previously published works from seven or eight collections spanning 30 years of my work, an anthology of sorts.


And I just completed an experimental piece that seems genre-defying but which combines aphorisms and the use of Sufi-inspired language and ideas to interrogate skepticism, the concept of god and the notion of the absolute. 


Lastly, I am currently editing a collection of short stories that keep shape shifting and have no publication date or specific trajectory. They may remain works in progress.  


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I'm recently obsessed with longevity. I'm curious how contemporary works stay relevant in an unforeseeable future, how some literature gets cemented into our collective consciousness and remains continually worthy and deserving of revisiting over the long span of time.


With the increased speed of technological advances that affect both what and how we write, I'm interested in how works written now will get archived in the future. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 27

Sept. 27, 1921: Bernard Waber born.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Q&A with Danielle Krysa


Danielle Krysa is the author and illustrator of the new children's book How to Spot an Artist. Her other books, for adults, include Creative Block and Your Inner Critic Is a Big Jerk. She lives in British Columbia.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for How to Spot an Artist?


A: The idea actually came from talking to people who were reading my adult books about creative blocks, inner critics, and self-doubt. Literally hundreds and hundreds of people, ranging in age from 20 to 80, have told me stories about being stopped in their creative tracks when they were just little kids. It always goes something like this:


“When I was [6, 7, or 8] I was told I couldn’t be an artist because [I wasn’t talented, art is just a hobby, you’ll die a starving artist], so I haven’t made art since.”


I decided that instead of writing another book about “jumpstarting your creativity” for grownups who’d be stuck for decades, I’d just sneak around to the front of this problem and talk to the 6, 7 or 8 year olds directly. Hopefully, if they’re ever told to quit, they’ll remember this book and say, "NO WAY!"

Q: Did you work on the text first or the illustrations first, or both simultaneously?


A: I had the story completely written before working on the illustrations. For the longest time I couldn’t “see” what the characters should look like. Should they be boys or girls, which race(s), what about their age? I didn’t want any of those elements to be present, because artists run the entire gamut! 


And then I had a eureka moment while swimming laps at my local pool (that’s where all of my aha moments seem to show up), I pictured a juicy stroke of paint with little graphite legs, and voila, everything came together in an instant. 


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


A: I want them to believe in themselves, even if “an art bully” shows up somewhere along the way and tells them to give up. That happened to me, but not until I was 21 and about to graduate from art school.


I WISH I’d read a story like this over and over and over again when I was little so that I didn’t believe my painting professor when he said, “You should never paint again.” I quit for almost 20 years, and I don’t wish that on anyone.


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


A: Writing/illustrating a children’s book has been my dream since I was a kid, but it just seemed like exactly that — a dream. However, after talking to all of those people I mentioned earlier, I realized NOW was the perfect time — and the perfect reason — to finally put this dream into action!


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have a new idea for another kids’ book, but I figured I should wait until this one was out in the world — I guess I can get going on it now! Lately I’ve been concentrating on my daily posts about other artists on my contemporary art site The Jealous Curator (est. 2009) and on my own personal artwork. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: You can find me on Instagram at @thejealouscurator or listen to my art podcast, Art For Your Ear (interviews with contemporary artists about their stories, victories, and struggles).


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with David E. Lowe


David E. Lowe is the author of the book Touched with Fire: Morris B. Abram and the Battle against Racial and Religious Discrimination. He worked for the National Endowment for Democracy and the Anti-Defamation League, and is a Washington, D.C.-based consultant for nonprofits.


Q: You write, "I can't believe how many people never heard of Morris Abram." Why did you decide to write a book about him?


A: The quotation is from a partner in Abram’s law firm in Atlanta during the 1950s who sadly died shortly after I interviewed him.


Abram grew up in a small, rural town in South Central Georgia during the height of Jim Crow segregation. His was one of 12 Jewish families in the town.


Yet he rose to become one of the leading civil rights lawyers in the country and the chairman of the Presidents Conference of Major American Jewish Organizations. He led the campaign to end his native state’s racially motivated voting system that resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court’s establishment of the “One person, one vote” principle. It would be hard to argue that this is not a remarkable story.


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


A: My research combined documentary evidence from his voluminous papers at Emory University and his extensive writings and speeches with one-on-one interviews with people who knew him at various stages of his life.


That list includes former law partners in Atlanta and New York;  civil rights activists such as Vernon Jordan and the late John Lewis; past and present Jewish communal leaders; current and former members of the Brandeis University administration and faculty who recall his brief tenure as its second president; and those who worked with him in Geneva, Switzerland during the final decade of his life, when he served as US Representative to the European Office of the United Nations and after he founded UN Watch.

I also drew upon Abram’s series of oral interviews conducted with the acclaimed Southern author Eli Evans over a three-year period after contracting acute myelocytic leukemia (AML).


What I found surprising was how close he came to dying from AML, which arrived just after his 55th birthday. So much that he achieved, particularly with respect to Soviet Jewry, international human rights more broadly, and defense of the state of Israel at the United Nations came after he was declared cancer-free.


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


A: When I started writing the book, I looked to the writings of Abram’s legal hero, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., for inspiration. Holmes had fought for the Union during the Civil War during which he almost lost his life.


On the 19th anniversary of the end of the war he delivered an eloquent Memorial Day oration in which he paid tribute to all who fought in that war on both sides. It was this generation, he proclaimed, whose hearts were “touched with fire” in their youth and who learned early in life that “life is a profound and passionate thing.”


This seemed particularly appropriate for Abram. In fact, a number of those I interviewed pointed to his great passion for achievement and indeed for life itself.


Q: What do you think Morris Abram would make of today's politics and the current situation regarding racial and religious discrimination?


A: Abram, who crossed the political aisle in 1980 to support Ronald Reagan, always thought of himself as a liberal in the traditional sense of that term: one who believed deeply in civil discourse, in a vigorous defense of free speech, and in a fervent respect for the rule of law, the latter of which he argued is the key to holding our diverse country together.


Certainly, he would be appalled to see those values diminished as they are today. And he would be deeply disappointed to see his dream of a color-blind society, one he shared with his friend Martin Luther King, Jr. weakened by identity politics.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am researching the remarkable life of Melvin J. Lasky, the American-born  founder of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, for a biography I will be writing in collaboration with a former colleague at the National Endowment for Democracy. Like Abram, Lasky believed strongly in fighting to uphold traditional Western values of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: At Abram’s funeral on Cape Cod in March 2000, his daughter Ann talked about her father’s insatiable intellectual curiosity. His son Joshua said that until the day he died, Abram woke up wondering what he could learn that day.


It was this thirst for learning that led him from his humble origins in a small, rural community in the deep South to comfortable interaction with presidents, prime ministers, and even Pope Paul VI, whom he lobbied to eliminate anti-Semitism from the Church’s teachings.


What struck me in my interviews was how many of those who knew him best were most impressed by his ability to listen to, think carefully about, and engage with the ideas of others, even when they expressed viewpoints with which he disagreed. A nice lesson for all of us.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. David E. Lowe will be participating in a virtual talk with the Bender JCC of Greater Washington on Sept. 30 at 5pm Eastern. Here's the link for more information. The talk is part of the Lessans Family Literary Series.

Sept. 26

Sept. 26, 1949: Jane Smiley born.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Reverse Q&A about my new book, questions from my father, Marvin Kalb!


I am delighted to present a reverse Q&A, where my father, Marvin Kalb, asks me questions about my new middle grade novel for kids, Thomas Jefferson and the Return of the Magic Hat. It's the third in a series, following George Washington and the Magic Hat and John Adams and the Magic Bobblehead.


Q: Why are you writing books for young people about our nation's "Founding Fathers"?


A: I’ve been interested in history for a long time—it was my major in college. I’ve also worked on books about history and government for adults. But I’ve always had a soft spot for middle grade kids’ books—I was rarely without a book when I was that age—and have always wanted to write fiction. So mix it all up…and there you have it!


The books are about the early presidents, yes, but they are novels. The main characters are a group of present-day fifth graders in Bethesda, Maryland, who go on amazing time travel adventures and meet figures like George Washington, John and Abigail Adams, and, in this new book, Thomas Jefferson.


In addition, the kids deal with problems in the present day, like not speaking to your best friend, or dealing with a newly blended family, or being the new kid in town. They go back and forth between the past and the present thanks to a magic hat (in the first and third books) and a talking John Adams bobblehead in book 2.


Q: Were there any differences researching the Jefferson book from your Washington and Adams books?


A: Not really. I did the same kind of research for all three books. I read books written for both kids and adults about the relevant people. I read various letters and other material on line. You can find John and Abigail’s voluminous correspondence, as well as letters between Adams and Jefferson, and other fascinating information, on various historical websites.

And I visited the historic sites associated with each president—including a visit to Mount Vernon some years back with you!


Q: Racism clearly is a major, yet very sensitive, issue with Jefferson.  How did you decide to address it?


A: Thank you for asking about that. With Jefferson, you have the author of the Declaration of Independence who owned other people, including his own children--the family he had with Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman at Monticello. The children eventually were granted their freedom, but Sally Hemings never was.


One of the main characters in Thomas Jefferson and the Return of the Magic Hat is Madison Hemings, the son of Jefferson and Sally Hemings. As an older man, he wrote a memoir about his experiences growing up as an enslaved person at Monticello. Readers of my new book get some insight into his childhood, and how his life contrasted with that of his father.


Throughout this book and also George Washington and the Magic Hat, my present-day characters wonder how these two early presidents could have reconciled their support for freedom and democracy with their holding other people in bondage.


It’s an ongoing discussion, and ties into the current-day debates over the Black Lives Matter movement and the discussions about whether to retain statues and monuments to Jefferson and Washington. I’ve tried to provide a nuanced approach to these early presidents, acknowledging the good they did while also taking into account their failures.

Q: Which of Jefferson's characteristics appeal to you the most? Offended you the most?


A: I would say his love of learning and of books ranked high on my list. He famously said, “I cannot live without books,” a sentiment with which I concur.


And of newspapers. He said that “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” As a former journalist, I agree with that. Especially when we now have a president who considers the press the enemy of the people.


I also admire his quick mind and writing ability, and the Declaration of Independence is a historic icon.


But, as I said above, there was the other side to Jefferson. Offended is not strong enough a word to describe how I feel about slavery. Like my characters, I don’t understand how Jefferson could reconcile the words of the Declaration with owning other people, including his own children.


Q: Of all your young characters, whom do you admire the most? And why? 


A: Oh, well…I’m going to have to give a non-answer here. I love all of them. I admire Sam, in book 1, for his humor, his acting ability, and his thoughtful demeanor. I admire Ava, in book 2, for her love of writing, her clarinet playing, and her gift for friendship. And I admire Oliver, in book 3, for his capacious brain and his ability to overcome social challenges.


Join me and illustrator Rob Lunsford for a virtual book launch at Politics and Prose Oct. 7 at 7pm Eastern--here's the link: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/pp-live-deborah-kalb-rob-lunsford-thomas-jefferson-and-the-magic-hat-tickets-120069459987

Q&A with Lori Richmond


Lori Richmond is the author and illustrator of the new children's book Bunny Business. Her other books include Bunny's Staycation. She lives in Brooklyn.


Q: This is your second book about Bunny--did you always know you'd write a follow-up to Bunny's Staycation?


A: Yes! When my agent sold Bunny’s Staycation, it was done as a two-book deal. So I knew from the start that Bunny would have a follow-up. I didn't know at the time what the follow-up story would be. It was unwritten! I had some ideas, but didn't know what direction we would go in.

Q: Do you usually focus on the text first or the illustrations first--or work on them simultaneously?


A: I like to focus on the text. Drawing comes much more naturally to me, so unless I have some sense of the writing and story arc, I can feel a bit of stress while I am working on the project. To begin drawing first almost feels like I am avoiding the hard part, if that makes sense!


When I have a story outline, at the very least, I feel like I have clearer direction and can work more confidently. That said, as I work on the art, I edit the text. So the process absolutely does become simultaneous at that point.


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


A: There is often mystery surrounding what parents do at work. I hope kids and parents can have more conversations about what they do at work, and that the book helps foster curiosity and questions.


I also want kids to think creatively about problem solving. Sometimes we are in difficult situations, but we all possess the superpower to think out of the box and come up with solutions.

Q: What first got you interested in creating children's picture books?


A: I've always been in awe of picture books -- the marriage of text and images as an art form is just so special. And I love how books are often a child's first introduction to different kinds of art! I had an entire career before I started making books -- I was an art director at a media company. So this was a career change for me!

Q: What are you working on now?


A: Since the pandemic began, I have been working on a lot of client projects. Being at home in close quarters with my family has made doing creative work quite a challenge. I just got a new workstation for home, so I hope this ignites my creative fires!

Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I have a book coming out this December called Porcupine Cupid, written by Jason June. It is a really fun Valentine's Day story about mischief and love!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb