Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Q&A with Joy Jones


Joy Jones is the author of Jayla Jumps In, a new middle grade novel for kids. Her other books include Tambourine Moon and Fearless Public Speaking. She lives in Washington, D.C.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for Jayla Jumps In, and for your character Jayla?


A: I jump Double Dutch in my real life. Not just when I was a little girl - I’m still doing it even though I’m at the ripe old age of — well, we won’t go there.


I am the founder of DC Retro Jumpers, which started as a recreational outlet for women who wanted to jump Double Dutch. Now, we offer demonstrations and classes all over town for everybody: grandmothers, little girls, grown men, teenaged boys. In 2018, we were hired as cultural ambassadors to Russia, presenting Double Dutch demonstrations in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Belgorod.


It was my agent who suggested that I do a middle-grade novel about Double Dutch. I was dubious at first. I had already written a play, Outdoor Recess, about adults jumping rope. Did I have another story about Double Dutch inside of me? It turns out I did.


Q: The novel takes place in Washington, D.C.--how important is setting to you in your writing?


A: I was born and raised in D.C. and I love my city.  So it’s no surprise that the story is set in D.C. The main character lives in Hillcrest, a gem of a neighborhood in SE. I got to know Hillcrest when I started working at the neighborhood library there. 


Q: What do you think the book says about the importance of exercise for kids (and adults)?


A: There’s so much joy in being able to move your body! Exercise isn’t something to do because it’s “good for you” like taking vitamins. Exercise feels good.


I like doing yoga, swimming, dancing - at least when there’s no pandemic to contend with. Currently, I take walks outdoors and do stretches indoors. Every now and then, I jump Double Dutch since it’s an activity where you can keep a degree of distance.


My wish is that as a result of reading Jayla Jumps In some young people get motivated to play outside. Video games are fun, television is fine, social media, fantastic. But being able to put your body in motion and use your own imagination to enjoy yourself - ah…


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


A: I need to know the destination of a story before I begin it. That doesn’t mean I have to know all the points along the way, but I need a sense of what the story is about and the general direction of where the protagonist is going. I know that there will be changes along the way; some plot devices won’t work, some characters will have to be reworked, some ideas won’t play out.


When the editor brought her perspective to the manuscript, still other changes had to be made. I learned a long time ago that much of writing is rewriting. 


For Jayla Jumps In, I knew I wanted Double Dutch to be multigenerational, just like DC Retro Jumpers. What I didn’t know was that I had to change my main character’s name. She started out as Kayla.


After I finished the first draft, I began work on the book proposal. Part of the process is to research other books similar to your own. There was another book about Double Dutch for kids - and the main character’s name was Kayla! I did not know that author nor had I read her book, but it was curious to me that we both wrote on the same topic and had a protagonist with the same name. The plots are much different, however.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have several projects underway. I just finished a picture book biography called Sound Is Ready, about the first African American to win two consecutive Academy Awards. Russell Williams was honored for his sound engineering work on Glory and Dances With Wolves.


I’m also writing, along with Tom Adams, an adult biography about the marriage of Bill & Lois Wilson, the founders of the 12-Step recovery movement.


And I’m at work on another children’s novel called Walking the Boomerang.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: If you’re a writer, join a writing group. For me, that has made me disciplined. I’m in a group of six writers who meet monthly. Knowing I have the obligation to show up and produce forced me to write when I felt lazy, write when I felt uninspired, write when I didn’t think I had anything to say. Having a deadline has proven to be a lifeline for my art. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Clarissa Harwood

Photo by Anita Watkins Photography


Clarissa Harwood is the author of the novel Bear No Malice. She also has written the novel Impossible Saints, which focuses on many of the same characters.


Q:  In the acknowledgments to Bear No Malice, you write, "Bear No Malice began, as so many novels do, with a “what if” question: what if I took the villain of Impossible Saints and made him a hero? What would Thomas Cross’s story look like from his own perspective?" What was it like to write from Tom's point of view, and how did you come up with your character Miranda?


A: To be honest, it was very difficult to write from Tom’s point of view because I’d thought of him as Paul’s nemesis for so long while writing Impossible Saints. I had to interview Tom many times and learn how to listen to him (to this day he is the only character in any of my novels who ended an interview abruptly by cursing me and walking out!).


Many times I rued the day I cavalierly imagined an annoying colleague for Paul while writing the first draft of Impossible Saints without thinking that someday I might need to spend a great deal of time with that annoying colleague. Now I love both Paul and Tom equally: it’s as if they’re two squabbling sons of mine!


My first impression of Tom was of a womanizing, arrogant, domineering man, but as I got to know him better with each draft of the novel, I saw how complex he really was underneath his lies and masks, and his good qualities began to shine through: he’s a genuinely warm person, the best kind of extrovert who wants to help others. And yes, he is deeply flawed, but he’s also willing to learn and change.


Miranda actually existed in my mind, albeit in a vague form, before Tom did. She seemed to be floating around waiting for a story. I always wanted to write about a Lady of Shalott figure who is isolated from the world because of a secret or curse in her past.


Miranda was also an easy character to develop because I can relate to her personality and understand her better than Lilia (the suffragette protagonist of Impossible Saints) because she’s more conventional on the surface, whereas Lilia is always storming around doing things that scare me! I love Miranda’s quiet strength and stubbornness, and she’s just as much a feminist as Lilia in her own way.

Q: Both novels focus on clergymen. What role do you see religion playing in the books?


A: Paul and Tom were inspired partly by my frustration with priest and minister stereotypes in fiction. At the time I had read too many too-good-to-be-true Christians in inspirational fiction and, on the other end of the spectrum, too many villainous pastors and priests in mainstream fiction.


I wanted to find a middle ground, to represent people of faith in a more realistic way, as generally good people who make mistakes. Based on responses from readers, I think I’ve succeeded.


By setting my novels in the first decade of the 20th century, I could also capture the pressure the church was feeling to prove its relevance in the modern world (a pressure that exists even more strongly today, of course).


There was a new acceptance of agnosticism and even atheism in society, which was a huge contrast to a hundred years earlier when Percy Bysshe Shelley was expelled from Oxford university for writing a pamphlet advocating atheism! I like writing about periods of change and turmoil.


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


A: Because of my academic background, I was already familiar with the language and culture of the era in which my novels are set.


Some of the more specific research I did was the same for both Impossible Saints and Bear No Malice. I needed to know Church of England history as well as the history of penitentiaries, which figure prominently in both novels. (By penitentiaries, I’m referring not to prisons but to the charities first established in Victorian England to reform “fallen” women.)


New research for Bear No Malice with respect to Miranda, my female protagonist and artist, had me delving into the art world of Edwardian England.


And without giving too many of Tom’s secrets away, I needed to research social reforms and reformers of the era. I learned about child labor, the slum areas of London, prison reform, and illegal boxing clubs.


The most fascinating discovery I made was a real-life historical person, Osborne Jay, who was the perfect mentor for Tom and an important influence on Tom’s work at the end of the novel.


This is not the first time I’ve imagined a character who would fit perfectly into my novel’s world, only to find in the course of my research that such a person really existed! What I love most about writing historical fiction is the way research and imagination trigger and feed off each other in an endless cycle.


Q: The Kirkus Review of Bear No Malice calls it "A smart and highly civilized tale about love, temptation, and second chances." What do you think of that description?


A: I love it! I think it gets to the heart of the novel and expresses my themes very well, especially “second chances.” More than anything else I’ve written, Bear No Malice takes broken people who have made serious mistakes and gives them hope. That’s a really important message for everyone: no matter what you’ve done or what you’ve suffered, it’s never too late to learn, grow, and even find love.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have several projects on the go that I’ve been circling back to, but all are still in the first-draft stage, so I don’t like to talk about them until they’re more fully fleshed out. I will say that I’m branching out into different historical periods and different countries, which I never thought I’d do. It’s exciting as well as daunting!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I think fans of the British TV show Grantchester would enjoy my novels, especially Bear No Malice. “Grantchester meets Great Expectations” is part of the book cover blurb, and I think that’s a great description. There’s definitely a Dickensian quality to Tom’s life, and he grapples with moral and ethical issues in similar ways to Grantchester’s Sidney Chambers.


Thanks so much for interviewing me, Deborah!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb


Q&A with Douglas A. Martin


Douglas A. Martin is the author of Branwell: A Novel of the Brontë Brother, which was recently reissued. His other books include Wolf and Outline of My Lover.


Q: Why did you decide to focus on Branwell Brontë in your novel?

A: My books lead to each other, the next one, though they very seldom have appeared in any sequence of completion.


Branwell was my second published novel, though between the space of its appearance and my first I had gone to graduate school and worked on a collection of stories firmly rooted in autobiography and another novel that was also.


I spent a lot of time as an early writer trying to make peace with not wanting to come across like I could speak for other people and also trying to expand beyond relationships that had marked me and I felt had made me a writer.


One of my teachers who still remains a huge force in my life, Darcey Steinke, in a conversation mentioned him to me, talking about the way the family worked and the kids played.


Something in her anecdote made me understand and see suddenly this Victorian sexuality and a personality that was in ways like dimensions of what would become some of his sisters' characters, but with him it was to become the whole art itself. And by the whole art I mean living like a "writer" more completely than actually writing.

I knew those kinds of people, or thought I did if that was him, and it created a kind of sympathy. It is like one wants to write because of not seeing anything else like you want to be, but then not having the ability to keep the character of that going because models you have access to are all wrong for you.

I played around with it for a while as something I would do as an experiment, and then a funny thing happened where my boyfriend at the time I was starting drafting read the first few pages I had gotten down and got much more excited than he had ever been with the bits he knew was me writing about us.

Q: What did you see as the right blend between the historical figures and your fictional versions?

A: The more I researched the more I felt parallels that I could navigate and see across, even if on other sides in some of the spots, and then the more I looked into him, the more he became tonally connected by virtue of other tangents to a lot that oddly interested me at the time: du Maurier I found had after what she’d done with Jane Eyre in Rebecca done a biography of him and then I would also stare at pictures of French actresses, Adjani and Huppert, in a couple stills from Les Soeurs Bronte in a book that clicked more together for me, The Bronte Myth.


I had come to Branwell after writing another book attempting to break free from more pure autobiography, where I used a different myth to link up moments of the lives of painters, Balthus and Francis Bacon, and a poet, Hart Crane. Here like there my fiction becomes informed by previous representations. I look for a kind of bass note underneath all that.

Q: How would you describe Branwell's relationships with his sisters?


A: I think he wanted to remain a part of their circle at the same time that he wanted things outside of the home. That's a hard balance.


I think he really loved Charlotte, that there was a bond there that came out of creating their fantasy world together, and Anne and Emily did this too, alongside them. In games you sometimes relax your guard and feel more allowed to be vulnerable, knowing someone is in it with you trying to maintain the charm of the fantasy.

In my telling, Charlotte’s going off to school was leaving him alone in the world, that world being how he was meant to keep his father company, keep by his father’s side. That was just the first split.


And it shifted, like for me he is close to Emily at the end because also Emily had her own gripes with Charlotte’s eventual sense of how writing was meant to be in the world and public. The lovingness of Emily for Branwell is done wonderfully in the film Sally Wainwright did for the BBC, To Walk Invisible, but that wasn’t around until after my book.


I probably would have leaned into it even more or chosen to further complicate it if I had had this prior depiction.


There’s ambivalence everywhere. Anne was potentially even more scandalized by her brother’s actions, but she also existed outside the home in a way that the others do not for me in my read. This gives her movement towards a steady placidity.

Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, "Though slender, this volume's beautiful declarative sentences are perfectly fitted to this famously imaginative, headstrong family; they bring Branwell Brontë's world to light." What do you think of that description?

A: It made me happy. Though it doesn’t seem like a slender book to me—the galley format might have given that impression. Whoever they had review my first book was nowhere near so kind to a first-time author. And Branwell is still my biggest book page count wise, aside from my study of Kathy Acker. Sometimes my books will be called novellas because of the length. There’s academic distinction and public perception.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: For so many years now I have been working on a novel around or through I guess you would say the poetry of Elfriede Jelinek, an Austrian writer who did win the Nobel Prize but mostly known for her novel of the ‘80s, The Piano Teacher, filmed by Michael Haneke. She works almost exclusively in the theater now it would seem.


The poetry is early work, written when she was still in her 20s and not yet out of college. But I am interested in how a writer carries through and can continue to recast their abiding concerns in the different phases of their life. You get to watch how an aesthetic is cultivated and shaped.

Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I'm so-so with social media, but please look for me if you do twitter or facebook, and my website is here.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 30


Sept. 30, 1928: Elie Wiesel born.

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.