Saturday, October 31, 2020

Q&A with Tony Keddie

Tony Keddie is the author of the new book Republican Jesus: How the Right Has Rewritten the Gospels. He also has written Class and Power in Roman Palestine and Revelations of Ideology. He is assistant professor of early Christina history and literature at the University of British Columbia.


Q: Why did you decide to write this book?


A: Starting to teach New Testament classes at a public university in Vancouver, Canada, after teaching the same classes at a similar institution in Texas was illuminating. My classes usually focus on the social and political contexts of the Bible and its interpreters.


In discussions, I started to realize that even my students who identified as “evangelical” or “conservative” Christians were often perplexed by, or frustrated at, the ways that right-wing American Christians interpret Jesus as a prophet of nationalism and economic conservatism.


My initial research started to show me that the U.S. Christian Right’s set of biblical interpretations are very much a product of the distinctive history of conservative Christian politics in the U.S., and are not always shared by conservative Christians elsewhere in the world. 


Though right-wing Christian influencers often conceal their agency as interpreters of the biblical text, preferring instead to claim their interpretations as the “clear” and singular meaning of God’s word, I discovered that their interpretations on every hot-button political issue originated at distinct moments in American history.


Corporate-funded Christian conservatives articulated the persistent depiction of Jesus as a proponent of Small Government and individual liberties (against the “virus of collectivism”) in reaction to FDR’s New Deal programs aimed at creating a social safety net for the socially disadvantaged, or what the religious right dubbed “pagan stateism.”


This Small Government gospel increasingly took on white-supremacist and patriarchal overtones as right-wing politicians and preachers cast the movements for Civil Rights, women’s rights, and LGBTQ+ rights as Big Government infringements on their religious liberties.


They turned Jesus into a gun-rights proponent after efforts at gun control became popular following the assassinations of the ‘60s. And they started to use the Bible as a foundation for climate change denial in reaction to evangelical environmentalism in the ‘90s.


In each case, the Christian Right promoted interpretations that had not previously been common. And in each case, they did so with support from self-interested corporations and their political lackeys. 


There are excellent books on the modern history of the Christian Right (and even more now than when I finished my book), but I decided to turn this research into a book because there are not enough resources available by Bible scholars that address a broad range of hot-button issues.


As a Bible scholar, I wanted to contribute a critical examination of the interpretive choices that Republican influencers make when appealing to the Bible to support their politics. But I also wanted to share ways that these texts they are citing can be understood more responsibly when they are read as an integral part of the books from which they are often plucked, and read in light of the historical contexts in which they were written.


In Republican Jesus, I recast the gospels as different windows into the social tensions of marginal Jewish Christ-following groups seeking survival and community in a brutal empire—as glimpses of diverse followers of Christ living in a world much different from our own.

Q: You begin the book by stating, “Republican Jesus is the most powerful man in America.” Can you say more about that, and about how this concept became so powerful today?


A: Republican Jesus is powerful because the Christian Right is powerful. They are well-funded and have substantial lobbying networks framing legislation and supporting Republican candidates.


The politicians, pundits, and preachers who serve as their influencers—their information-controllers—constantly appeal to Jesus to put a neighbor-loving mask on their exclusionary and discriminatory politics. For them, Jesus is a tool, a trap, that can be used to attract support for their right-wing politics from more moderate or centrist Christians.


Trump secured the votes of 81 percent of white evangelicals in 2016 and he will likely do so again. Many of these members of Trump’s Christian base are happy to vote for Trump because he promises them power. “Christianity will have power. If I’m there, you’re going to have plenty of power, you don’t need anybody else,” he said at a Christian college in 2016.


He has followed through on this promise with his Supreme Court nominations, executive orders on religious liberty, and support for the state of Israel (a major issue for Christian Zionists). 


However, many Christians also want to be able to understand Trump’s politics as consistent with the Bible. This makes the set of right-wing interpretive practices I describe using the metaphor “Republican Jesus” crucial for justifying Trump’s decisions.


Therefore, the Republican Jesus that has been developed over the past century is a key figure in current politics, and the influencers pulling his strings have even articulated some new political positions for him, like opposition to immigration and rejection of the idea of systemic racism.


I would argue that Republican Jesus is more important than ever for the Trump presidency because he compensates for the many ways in which Trump doesn’t fit the model of a neighbor-loving Christian leader. 


Q: What impact do you think the ideas surrounding the concept of "Republican Jesus" are having on this presidential election?


A: In a last-ditch ploy to capture the votes of undecided Christians, Republican influencers are trying to corner Christianity. Franklin Graham, the son of the late evangelist Billy Graham and arguably the most influential of Trump’s Christian advisors, hosted a massive “Prayer March 2020” in Washington, D.C., in late September.


The event featured the most prominent figures of the Christian Right and involved a “surprise” visit by Vice President Pence. All involved pretended to be apolitical, concerned with prayer and faith alone, yet their prayers called on God to anoint the Trump administration, end the “holocaust” of abortion, and protect law enforcement.


Attendees wore red “Make America Godly Again” hats, waved “Jesus 2020” signs, and chanted “Four more years!” This event was anything but apolitical; it was the Right’s attempt at claiming ownership of Christianity.


During the official broadcast of the Prayer March, Tea Party leader Michele Bachmann joined the anchors to explain that this election is a choice between Government and God. With reference to masks being mandated, she lamented that “so much of our life is controlled by government. …people just think that government’s our source for everything. As believers, we know that God is our source. He’s our financial support….”


This is precisely the type of gospel of limited government that Republicans have read into the gospels. It finds expression, among other places, in Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s bestselling book Killing Jesus (and the National Geographic film version), which presents Jesus as a Christian opponent of a liberal Jewish-Roman government whose excessive taxes are impeding the God-given ability of each individual to pull himself up by his bootstraps. 


Republican influencers posit several problematic interpretations of the gospels in support of their claim that the Bible as a whole, and Jesus in particular, unequivocally teach limited government and free market capitalism, though these modern phenomena were foreign to the worlds of the biblical authors.


In the process, they obscure the ways that government regulations are designed to mitigate the exploitation of the poor and discrimination against People of Color, the LGBTQ+ community, immigrants, and people with disabilities.


They spin problematic interpretations of certain biblical verses while ignoring or downplaying the many places in the gospels where Jesus calls on people to love their neighbors, love their enemies, and give their possessions to the poor in order to gain access to heaven. 


Q: What do you see looking ahead when it comes to the power of the Christian Right in the United States?


A: Regardless of what happens in this election, the Christian Right isn’t going anywhere.


Now that they have succeeded in taking control of the Supreme Court for the foreseeable future, we are going to see them focus more than ever on overturning Roe v. Wade and pursuing religious exemptions for a wide-range of anti-discrimination laws (e.g., the extension of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity).


If they don’t fare well in the elections, I suspect that we will see major fundraising and lobbying at the level of state legislature. The Right’s strategy for eroding federal laws and regulations will materialize primarily in efforts to transform state laws and appeal to the Supreme Court to create special privileges for conservative Christians in the name of “religious liberty.”


I think that we will also see much more overt attempts to demonize progressives, including Christian progressives, using the religious language of spiritual warfare.


Additionally, the increasing mixing of QAnon and other white supremacist hate groups with elements of the Christian Right could lead to further normalization of racism, antisemitism, and xenophobia within the Christian Right. This could have dangerous implications, I’m afraid. 


Q: What are you working on now?

A: My new project turns from Jesus to the apostle Paul, and specifically to chapter 13 of his letter to the Romans. This is the infamous chapter where Paul says, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; …whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed; … for the authority does not bear the sword in vain.”


We have seen this chapter used repeatedly by Republican influencers to support Trump’s authoritarianism—for instance, when Jeff Sessions used it to justify the border separation policy and, more recently, when Robert Jeffress used it to defend police officers as “ministers of God.”


I am exploring how this chapter has been used to justify authoritarian power and state violence in different periods—not just the age of Trump, but also during American slavery and in Nazi Germany. As always, I am also interested in showing what these hate-fueled interpretations miss or obscure about the ancient text and its historical context.


In this case, the fact that Paul proceeds in this chapter to give an exposition of the law to love one’s neighbor is often overlooked. As is the fact that Paul elsewhere says that God will destroy every ruler, authority, and power when Christ returns (1 Corinthians 15:24). Romans 13 is much more complex and potentially subversive than authoritarian interpreters let on.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I hope that my book may serve as a resource for those trying to understand the ways that the Christian Right uses problematic interpretations of the Bible to authorize their ethno-nationalist politics of social, religious, and economic conservatism.


I encourage readers to hold the Christian Right accountable for their biblical disinformation however they can, whether in conversations with family and friends, through social media, or in op-eds in their local papers. 


At the same time, I think it’s important to amplify the voices of the religious right. Mainstream media tends to focus on the sensational publicity stunts of the Christian Right, but the Christian Left and their interfaith allies get very little coverage in mainstream media. And if they get any attention at all on Fox News and in conservative media, it is negative.


Centrist Christians (especially mainline Protestants and Catholics), in particular, receive very little exposure to people who interpret the Bible differently than right-wing influencers—people like Rev. Dr. William Barber and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis of the Poor People’s Campaign, who interpret the Bible as a call for social justice and an invitation to critical reflection on inequalities in our world.


Their efforts need to be promoted and supported in order to quell the Christian Right’s attempt to claim ownership over Jesus and Christianity. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Kathy Kacer


Kathy Kacer is the author of The Brushmaker's Daughter, a new middle grade novel that takes place during World War II. Her many other books include Masters of Silence and Broken Strings. She lives in Toronto.


Q:  How did you learn about German factory owner Otto Weidt, and how did you come up with the idea for your character Lillian and her father?


A: It was actually a close relative of mine - someone who loves Second World War history - who sent me a short article about Otto Weidt and urged me to write a book about him. I was immediately intrigued by the story of a man who had saved dozens of blind and deaf Jews by employing them in his brush factory and saving them from deportation.


I had to put the project on the back burner for a year or two while I finished up another novel. But I finally dug it out and was lucky that Second Story Press was as intrigued with the idea as I was.

Q: What did you see as the right blend of history and fiction as you wrote this novel?


A: I always knew that I would have to create a fictional protagonist for the book. That was the character of 12-year-old Lillian, who arrives at the factory with her father, looking for a place to hide. Lillian's father is blind and no one is willing to help them until they meet Otto Weidt.


The truth is, there were no children who worked at the factory. And because this book is a middle-grade novel, I needed to have a young person in the story.


But I was also determined to fill the book with as many "real" people as I could, and add as much authenticity to the story as I was able. All of the workers whom Lillian meets at the factory were real people who were employed there. The woman who takes in Lillian and her father and gives a place to stay was also a real person. And of course, Otto is very real.


I loved being able to blend Lillian's fictional story line with the real stories of Jewish people who were actually hidden in the factory.


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


A: In addition to reading whatever I could find about Otto Weidt, I was fortunate to visit the Otto Weidt factory in Berlin a couple of years ago. It's now a small museum, open to the public. There is nothing like walking in the actual setting of a book to help bring that book to life!


I spent hours there, pouring over the stories of people who had been lucky enough to be taken in by Otto Weidt. I touched the walls of the factory and took pictures of some of the brushes that had been made there.


Not all the stories were happy ones. In fact, many of the people whom Otto Weidt protected were eventually arrested and killed in the death camps. But everything about that visit to the factory helped bring the story to life.


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


A: I am especially intrigued these days with stories of heroic people - those brave individuals who were willing to risk their lives for the Jewish friends and neighbors. Sadly, we know there were not enough of them! But each one was heroic and each one acts as a role model for young people today.


I want young readers to think about what Otto Weidt was willing to do, and to ask themselves how they can be champions for people in need and stand up for people in their community. That would be wonderful!!


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am currently writing a book about a remarkable group of German teenagers - both boys and girls - who called themselves The Edelweiss Pirates. They were opposed to everything that the Hitler Youth stood for and they became a kind of rebel group, trying to oppose the Nazi government and protest in any way they could.


The book focuses on a 15-year-old German boy who is forced to join the Hitler Youth, but also discovers the Edelweiss Pirates and is drawn to their philosophy of resistance and defiance. I'm so excited by this book; it's the first time I've written about a German teen during that time, how they were influenced by the government's propaganda machine, and the choices (or lack of choices) that German citizens had.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: As always, I'd love to connect with readers and with educators. Especially in these times of distance and isolation, I'd love to do as many virtual school and library visits as I can. I can be contacted at for more information.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Kathy Kacer.

Q&A with Gail Hovey


Photo by M. Stan Reaves

Gail Hovey is the author of the new memoir She Said God Blessed Us: A Life Marked by Childhood Sexual Abuse in the Church. She lives in New York's Lower Hudson Valley.


Q: You've said that you started writing a novel rather than a memoir. Why did you decide on a memoir, and how long did it take you to write the book?


A: She Said God Blessed Us was always a memoir. Long before, beginning in the 1970s, I wrote three versions of a novel that told a story of seduction and love between a woman teacher and a teenage girl.


Four in the Morning explored the younger woman’s confusion about her sexual identify. I chose that title because four o’clock in the morning is the middle of the night, but it is also morning. Both/and. Not either/or. The novel was a search for a non-binary identity long before I had heard the word. I wasn’t ready to think about abuse when I wrote that novel.


In the late 1980s, when my third agent finally gave up trying to find a publisher for the novel, she said, “It’s too gay for the straight market and too straight for the gay market.” I have no way of knowing if that’s true. What I do know is that very little has been published about women sexually involved with girls.


In 2005, I was living in Hawaii, and I attended a Zen retreat in which a dharma teacher spoke about the power of religious teachers on young people and about the power of first love. An unexpected sadness filled me as I took in that my religious teacher and my first love were the same person. That’s not how it’s supposed to be.


I realized I had to write my story as memoir. She Said God Blessed Us was finally published just this summer.


Q: What impact did writing the book have on you?


A: What I learned over the course of the many years it took to write the book was that I was searching for language. My early experience not only violated religious codes and civil laws, it was deeply secretive, hidden and outside the realm of ordinary existence. I could not take in and understand what had happened to me because I didn’t have language even to think about it.


Writing the memoir, I reflected on the meaning of love, of abuse, of assault, of complicity and responsibility. Finally able to choose the words that described my experience, I felt like an honest woman in the world for the first time.


Q: How was the book's title, She Said God Blessed Us, chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: To talk about the title of my memoir, the subtitle is essential, A Life Marked by Childhood Sexual Abuse in the Church.


My working title was What Goes by the Name of Love. My publisher wanted an explicit title: the perpetrator was a woman; it was abuse of a child, and it happened in the church. Publishers get to choose titles. The hardest word to find was “marked.” If the title had to be explicit, it had to say that the memoir covers the whole of my life. It is a story of the life-time impact of childhood sexual abuse.


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


A: I hope readers will take away the humanity of and my love for all the people in my book. I hope they will puzzle over the age at which we become responsible, as I did for myself and for my son. I hope they will see that without language we can’t understand our own experience. I hope they will reflect on how the mind can be colonized, so that the loss of self is not even perceived.


I hope readers will come away with an appreciation of how our understandings of ourselves sexually can change over time and of how abuse marks a life, for life.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I wrote a memoir

it took me more than twelve years

now I write haiku


It’s mid-October 2020. Not to mention the pandemic, the U.S. election is a mere three weeks away. What am I working on? Letters to get the vote out, donations to candidates and organizations, protests to save the postal system and to encourage civility and voting.  


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: If LGBTQ+ people had been honored and treated with the same respect as everyone else throughout my whole life, it would not have taken me decades to realize that what was wrong was not that I loved a woman, but that she was an adult and I was a child.  


I had a difficult time finding a publisher. It’s impossible to know why. Could it be that it’s deeply uncomfortable to take in that a woman religious teacher can sexually abuse children? Could it be that such a person is thought to be so rare that there would be no interest in such a story? What I do know is that I cannot be without company. I am curious to see what the publication of my memoir helps to bring to light.


Please visit my website for more about my memoir and my work:


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 31


Oct. 31, 1795: John Keats born.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Q&A with Barry Wittenstein


Barry Wittenstein is the author of the new historical fiction picture book Oscar’s American Dream. His other books include Waiting for Pumpsie, Sonny’s Bridge, A Place to Land, and The Boo-Boos That Changed the World. He lives in the Riverdale section of the Bronx.  


Q: How did you come up with the idea for Oscar’s American Dream


A: By looking. When you live in any neighborhood long enough, you notice its changes. Sometimes the changes are big, sometimes small. Sometimes they happen overnight, sometimes over decades. (Or as the great ballplayer and philosopher Yogi Berra is credited with saying, "You can observe a lot by just watching.") 


I lived on the Upper West Side in Manhattan for 25 years. There was a wonderful old barbershop on Broadway near 104th Street when I first moved in. It was one of those real traditional barbershops. Mirrored walls and those big leather chairs. Combs in the blue liquid. The barber wearing a white smock. One day I saw a For Rent sign in the window. I ventured in.


The barber told me he was retiring. He had been at that location for close to 40 years. He said a few Hollywood movies had even been filmed there. When he turned off the lights and locked the door for the last time, he took the barbershop pole with him. Maybe not literally, but it was soon gone! 


It made me sad, so I made sure that the barbershop pole in front of Oscar’s All-American Barbershop remained as a proud monument to the past. Architecture connects people through time. I never thought of that until I heard it in the wonderful Ric Burns documentary “New York.” 


At least that barbershop on Broadway remained a locally owned space when it subsequently became a picture frame shop and then a beauty salon. 


Then there are the chain stores. The diner becomes a bank, the flower shop turns into a 24/7 Rite Aid or Walgreens, or the entire block is torn down for expensive apartments. With rising rents, only large corporations can afford the space. Sometimes it seems like every other corner has a bank, a pharmacy or an urgent care. 


There’s a third scenario, too. As bad, or maybe worse. Many of the vacant locations never get new tenants. And I mean, empty for decades. I guess it’s to the benefit of the landlords, tax writeoffs, etc., but it makes the community less desirable, less enjoyable if services and restaurants aren’t available. 


It’s been a serious issue in NYC for a while. Pure and simple short-sighted greed. The lack of leadership and laws to prevent the hoarding of retail space is infuriating. The problem has gotten a million times worse since the pandemic. Don’t get me started.  


Q: One of the book’s themes is immigration and the impact on the United States of different groups of immigrants over the course of the 20th century. How did you decide on the various characters who worked at the corner store? 


A: I first had to choose which historic events I wanted to build the narrative around. Then I had to create characters who fit into those events. 


I began with European immigration in 1899. That turned into Oskar. He represented that wave. I also liked the fact that by changing one letter in his name Oskar/Oscar (the “k” to the “c”) he believed, and maybe rightly so, that he would assimilate better in his unfamiliar country. Becoming more American. This experience was not uncommon to those who passed through Ellis Island. 


Next I wanted to highlight the suffragette movement. I needed the store to be owned by a woman or women. Since the movement coincided with other moments in history — as history always has parallel storylines—I decided they would sell clothing. But to who? Flappers! 


For those who don’t know, “Flappers of the 1920s were young women known for their energetic freedom, embracing a lifestyle viewed by many at the time as outrageous, immoral or downright dangerous. Now considered the first generation of independent American women, flappers pushed barriers in economic, political and sexual freedom for women.” Thank you


I decided two sisters would be the owners of the store. For fun, I made their names rhyme. I mean, why not? So, I’m in the Roaring Twenties. But that was cut short by the Depression. People out of work and hungry. What better incarnation for the corner store than a soup kitchen to show how the 1929 crash affected everyone? 


With World War II, the obvious choice was a recruitment center. The nation was united (imagine that!!) in fighting an existential threat. People were back at work in factories, especially women. The Depression had ended. 


At this point we’re in the late 1940s and 1950s. Post-World War II America meant the building of suburbia for returning soldiers. At least for returning white soldiers. The result is American cities losing population and its tax base. 


Into this void comes another wave. That’s when Moises shows up in the 1950s, arriving by plane from Puerto Rico. I wanted to show how this wave of immigration mirrored the European immigrants arriving by boat a half century earlier. Same, but different. Seeing new opportunities is the common thread. 


Why a bodega? I was speaking with a teacher whose father had arrived exactly this way, on an airplane from Puerto Rico. She said two things that I always remembered. Her father carried a suitcase made from cardboard, and that he, like many other immigrants from Puerto Rico during this era, opened a small grocery store. 


But I also wanted to include the popularity of television. A seminal moment in politics was the Kennedy/Nixon debates. Moises turning his bodega into a store selling TVs would be a logical step for the enterprising fellow. He had great business instincts. He embraced change. That’s why he loved America, he said. (An early version contains a line about how Moises plugged in too many televisions, and a short circuit started the fire.) 


Then there’s the coffee shop where customers are getting ready to ride the buses to Washington, D.C., to hear Dr. King give his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. I had just written a picture book (illustrated by Jerry Pinkney) called A Place to Land about the March on Washington. I wanted to include that important civil rights moment in American history. 


The last store that I chose was Candy’s Candies. Although, once again, we don’t know Candy’s exact backstory. The end reveal is that she was one of the little kids who received a lemon drop from Oscar back in 1899, and probably was an immigrant, too. 


Then in 1999, you have the faceless Acme Construction Company that ends the decades of independent mom and pop stores that make cities so interesting to live in. That’s why I write that “history ended.” Of course, history never ends, but in this storyline, the era of the mom and pop store has become a relic of the past.  


Q: What do you think Kristen and Kevin Howdeshell’s illustrations add to the story? 


A: Absolutely amazing! Just think about all the work and research the story demanded. One hundred years of different images—clothing, hats, cars, locations, etc. Really outstanding work. I hope our paths cross again. You can see their artistry at


And, the Society of Illustrators accepted Oscar’s American Dream into this year’s show:


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


A: A few things. Actually, more than a few things. 


“Change is the only constant.” It's an important life’s lesson. People fear change. It makes them uncomfortable. I’m including myself. But probably a healthier, more constructive mindset would be to embrace change and its challenges. Change can mean opportunities. New adventures! 


Another is how immigrants add to the vibrancy of this country. This country was built and continues to be built by those who sometimes risked their lives coming to these shores. And yet, historically, there’s been a rejection of newcomers. We see it today. Even voiced by the president. It’s the fear of “others.” It’s such ignorance. A tired, old trope. And not only heard here. Throughout the world. 


I hope my book helps children believe in themselves, believe in their hearts they are valued and loved — especially if they are recent immigrants, or who have parents or grandparents who came to this country, determined to build a better life. 


I also wanted to outline a fun, simple roadmap — albeit incomplete—of some major events of 20th century America. I couldn’t include everything and everyone. I hope teachers and students will use the book as an introduction and an inspiration to further explore their own historic and cultural milestones. 


For example, maybe the corner store was a candidate’s campaign headquarters. Or a store with LGBTQ owners. Maybe a bookstore that featured a certain demographic. A jazz club? A toy store? An art gallery? A pet store? A movie theatre? The possibilities are endless because the stories of heroic immigrants coming to this country are endless. And the each store tells their story. 


Your readers might find it interesting that one early iteration of the corner store in the manuscript was a health food store called “Granny Ola’s.”


Here’s what I wrote: 

“In 1970, when the first Earth Day march closed down 

Fifth Avenue for hours, 

a health food store had already put down 

roots for over five years. 

The store had no name. 

It had no sign. 

No one knew exactly who owned it, 

but everybody called it “Granny Ola’s” 

for its excellent granola and berry mix.”  


Q: What are you working on now? 


A: I have two more narrative nonfiction picture books coming in 2022. I am always writing. There are many stories of people and their histories that need telling. I am also working on a YA novel.  


Q: Anything else we should know? 


A: A big part of my motivation in writing Oscar were the actions of the Trump administration. Their overt racism, caging of children, their Muslim ban, immoral behavior, etc. I wanted to say my piece.


I also wanted to touch on the concept of the American Dream. What is it? Do you believe it? Is it a myth or reality? Is it available for everybody? Who in the story achieved it?


I wanted to describe a few scenarios where immigrants came here to these shores to build a better life for themselves. And millions did just that. The hope for a better future, free from persecution. Their stories abound. Oscar fulfills that dream. And then gets a better job as a subway conductor. Was his dream the barbershop, or making money? Both? Something else? Would he have been able to climb the socioeconomic ladder had he stayed in Poland?


But Yettie and Nettie’s store closes because of the financial collapse of the 1920s/’30s. Moises falls victim to a fire. And Candy’s store is demolished by a faceless construction company. That’s life. But I can imagine each of them building a new business, never giving up. I hope readers feel the same. It’d be interesting to imagine what the future held for Oscar, Yettie and Nettie, Moises, and Candy. 


On a lighter note, not sure if anybody caught this, but the name of the clothing store, “Out with the Old,” is the same phrase Acme Construction uses on their billboard advertising — “Out with the old, in with new luxury apartments that kiss the clouds.” That’s me being cynical. 


Also, the corner store is located on Front Street and Second Avenue. There is no such corner in Manhattan. I intentionally did that. I didn’t want the store to have an exact city location. The store could have been located anywhere, because it is about America. 


Random House has an activity guide for Oscar at  


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Barry Wittenstein.

Q&A with Shannon Doleski


Shannon Doleski is the author of Mary Underwater, a new novel for older kids. She lives in West Texas.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for Mary Underwater?


A: A combination of missing my students from the same region of the Bay as Mary and being a new stay-at-home parent instead of a teacher! I also had a friend who was always talking about swimming across the Bay. And primarily, when I heard John Mayer's song "Walt Grace Submarine Test January 1967," it all kind of came together. I thought, Why can't a girl do that?


Q: The novel takes place on a Chesapeake Bay island. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: I always think where we live influences *how* we live and our personalities. I like to think of setting as character. So the Bay is another character in this story to me. Mary Underwater is my love letter to the Chesapeake Bay. We move around a lot, and I like to leave a note to each place we live.


Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, "Doleski draws an empathetic portrayal of an abuse victim; Mary is closed off and fearful, but her fervent determination to free herself from a toxic home situation has not yet been extinguished, placing her in stark contrast to her downtrodden and resigned mother." What do you think of that description?


A: I think that description is exactly what I aimed for, so I feel proud, despite the heavy nature. I wanted my portrayal of domestic violence to reflect real situations.


Mary's mother is like a lot of victims of domestic violence. She doesn't think life can be any different. Mary knows, because of her experiences with her aunt and friends, that life can be better. The happy ending is for Mary, not her mother. Sometimes endings are bittersweet.


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


A: I hope victims of violence feel worthy of good things and feel hope and see themselves as a hero in their own story. I hope I have provided resources for kids who might know people in Mary's situation. 


Q: What are you working on now? 


A: I sold my second book, another upper MG, about a boy living in a postapocalyptic community in a Maine island, who has to choose between searching for other survivors or staying with the intriguing new girl. It's Station Eleven meets Gilbert Blythe and due out Spring 2022.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Michael Hogan


Michael Hogan is the author of the new book Living Is No Laughing Matter: A Primer on Existential Optimism. His many other books include Abraham Lincoln and Mexico. He lives in Guadalajara, Mexico.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for your new book?


A: I had been working on a book about existentialism for several years. It was inspired by my work in the prisons back in the ‘80s. I was trying to figure out a way in which a prisoner could accept the finality of a life sentence and yet still live a meaningful life.


It seemed to me that existentialists missed an important factor. If life was essentially meaningless in the grand scheme of things (which seemed likely), why should there be any reason to hope? In 1990 I received a commission to teach in Mexico and more or less abandoned the manuscript but not the idea.


When I shared it with colleagues and friends in Mexico, one Jewish friend advised me to look at the works of Viktor Frankl and Bruno Bettelheim, concentration camp survivors who appeared to find the solution: creating meaning and therefore authentic significance. 


This led me to the idea of existential optimism. Giving one’s life purpose by one’s actions seemed to be the key to transcending the external circumstances. As Frankl said, “No matter the what in your life; it can be surpassed if there is a why.”

Q: You dedicated this book to your late son Gary. What impact did write the book have on you?


A: For the most part my work on existential optimism, finding not only purpose in life but a way, through that discovery, to overcome grief, and depression, was totally theoretical. The death of my son changed all that. Now I had to discover for myself, whether those ideas were, as William James, would say: pragmatic. Did they really work?


In the process of putting them on paper combined with my experiential loss, I found great comfort.


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


A: Well, yes. I discovered comfort was not quite enough. I did not want to simply live a stoical life of acceptance. I wanted a life of transcendence. So I began reading poetry, especially hoping for what T.S. Eliot called “the intersection of the timeless with time, the music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all but you are the music while the music lasts.”


I probably did not know at the time what I was looking for in poetry exactly, but once I found it, I knew. And it was just like one of those drawing puzzles in which they ask you to see if you can find the woman’s face in the tree. And you search and search and when you finally do, then you cannot ever unsee that face.


For me, it was the epiphanies in poetry that drew me in, and through them I discovered that several poets both traditional and contemporary had discovered a place where, to quote Wordsworth, they entered into a silence so deep they “fell asleep in body and become a living soul. It was my ah-ha moment.


Then my research branched out and I looked about other problems besides loss of a child, or that of dear companion, or sudden change in life circumstances, terminal illness, homelessness, incarceration, alcohol, and drug addiction.


Could this eclectic mixture of philosophy, psychology, poetry, and life experience be a medicine chest of holistic healing for those caught up in the tangled webs of brutal circumstance as well? If so, there might be a book which would be useful to others.


Q: The book ends with a postscript about the impact of the COVID pandemic. What do you hope readers take away from your book at such a difficult time?


A: One of the things that all these debilitating life circumstances mentioned above have in common is the feeling of being trapped, of being isolated, of having lost the connection to what is most meaningful in one’s life.


In the case of the COVID pandemic, the absence of physical contact with friends, the loss for many of meaningful work, the challenges and importance of daily interaction mirror many of the other life circumstances mentioned above.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have a collection of my own poetry which is complete, entitled Refusing to Be Ghosts. Also am working with an Irish colleague who is involved with Syrian refugees. We are doing podcasts which address some of the problems associated with global warming and unbridled capitalism, not the least of which are wars, loss of sustainable resources, and massive migration.


Finally, I am active in the North American Project, which is a site dedicated to strengthening cultural relationships between the U.S. and Mexico:


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: For reasons unknown to me, perhaps because my site was hacked too many times, I have been banned on Facebook since July. This has had a deleterious effect not only in my personal communications with friends, colleagues, children, and grandchildren, but also through my book sites, which were my main source of income.


I hope that those who would like to get in touch with me or read my books would go to either my site,, or this Amazon author link:


Thanks so much for sharing my work with your friends, colleague and fans, Deborah. I am ordering copies of your young reader’s book John Adams & the Magic Bobblehead for my granddaughters and my great grandson (now 7) for Christmas. It will make a great gift! 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Michael Hogan.

Oct. 30



Oct. 30, 1935: Robert Caro born.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Q&A with Sarah McCraw Crow


Sarah McCraw Crow is the author of the new novel The Wrong Kind of Woman. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including BookPage and The Christian Science Monitor. She lives in New Hampshire.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Wrong Kind of Woman?


A: When I first started writing the pages for this novel, I was writing about Virginia and Oliver, two characters in early midlife (late 30s, early 40s), and their marriage. I wanted to know what happens when a marriage ends suddenly because one partner dies, and the other is left to sort out what was good and bad about the marriage. So at first the novel was about grief and a marriage.


Later on, the novel grew to be more about how Virginia changes, finding purpose in her friendship with the four women faculty members at Clarendon College, women her husband had never liked.


The novel also grew to include two other characters, Virginia’s daughter Rebecca and lonely college student Sam, and how they react and change after Oliver’s death. Through their stories, we also see the pressures on women’s lives in a time when the second wave of the women’s movement was just starting to make a difference.

Q: The novel is set in the early 1970s. What interested you in this time period, and did you need to do much research to write the book?


A: Well, for starters, I love the 1970s, especially its pop culture and music. I think that’s because I was a little kid at the time, and childhood gives us such indelible memories and sense-memories.


But I also have a longtime interest in the women of my mom’s generation (women who’d be in their 80s and older), and how they navigated the choices that were, and weren’t, open to them.


The four women faculty members in The Wrong Kind of Woman faced countless challenges in getting graduate degrees and then teaching jobs when they were young. The chances of a woman getting tenure at a selective college back then were vanishingly rare.


My character Virginia, likewise, didn’t have the confidence to finish her Ph.D.; there was significant culture pressure in the 1950s and 1960s pushing back against women who wanted to follow their ambitions, especially if they were mothers. The women who dared to follow their dreams had to have a lot of confidence and support.


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


A: This novel had so many other titles before it got its final title! Early on, I gave it working titles that reflected its fictional setting, like Westfield (the New Hampshire college town) and Clarendon (the name of the college).


My agent rightly said that these titles didn’t reflect what the novel was about, so we both brainstormed lists of titles that included the word “woman,” and the title it went on submission with was “Year of the Woman.” But once the book sold, my editor said that the MIRA team wanted a new title, so I wrote up a new list. In the end, a MIRA editor came up with the final title by tweaking one of my proposed titles.


I think the title raises some good questions—who exactly is this wrong kind of woman? What does she need to do to become the “right” kind of woman? And who’s making these judgments, anyway? I hope that it reflects some of the cultural assumptions of an earlier time, and the way women are still subject to (and still subject one another to) a lot of needlessly judgy thinking.


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, “The choice to present the characters’ desperate actions in shades of gray makes for engrossing reading.” What do you think of that assessment?


A: Well, I’m very glad the reviewer found the novel engrossing! But one of the things I love most about reading and writing fiction is that we’re granted access to characters’ innermost thoughts and desires and fears. We can see how what they’re thinking doesn’t match up with what they’re saying, and we can see how they’re a lot more likely to stumble into bad choices or heroic actions than to leap into them like an action hero.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on early pages for two possible novels, one set in the late 1920s and one in the early 1980s. One is set in El Paso and Missouri, and the other in Virginia. I’m eager to get back to fiction writing—I’ve been away from it for a few weeks and am really missing it.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Thank you for hosting me on the blog! And for readers who want to know more about The Wrong Kind of Woman: please come find me on Instagram (, Facebook (, or my website  ( Thanks!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb