Monday, November 30, 2020

Q&A with Michelle Cameron


Michelle Cameron is the author of the new historical novel Beyond the Ghetto Gates. Her other books include The Fruit of Her Hands. She lives in New Jersey.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for Beyond the Ghetto Gates, and for your character Mirelle?


A: After I completed my first novel, The Fruit of Her Hands, I wanted to write another Jewish historical – but with a difference.


The Fruit of Her Hands, taking place as it did during the advent of antisemitism in medieval Europe, was filled with incidents of book burning, blood libel, trapping Jews in their synagogues and burning the building down, torture – you get the idea, I’m sure. (I should add that that’s not all the novel is about – as a family saga, there are plenty of lighter moments.)


But I really wanted to write about that rarest of beasts – a joyous Jewish moment in history. 


It was when I was reading Michael Goldfarb’s nonfiction book, Emancipation: How Freeing the Jews from their Repressive Ghettos Led to Revolution and Renaissance, that I found the moment I was searching for. In it, Goldfarb described how Napoleon discovered the Jews of Ancona, Italy, were incarcerated nightly behind locked ghetto gates and how he dispatched his Jewish soldiers to demolish them.


I’d been fascinated by Napoleon since my teens, but this was a story I’d never heard before. And it so clearly had “novel” written all over it!


Mirelle came about because I had to show how Napoleon’s actions would affect the people of Ancona – and to do so, I needed a main character whose life would change radically as a result.


Mirelle was a young Jewish woman who longed to be free of the restrictions not only of the ghetto but also of the confined traditional life of a Jewish wife and mother. Enlightenment philosophies had permeated Italy and, combined with the new freedoms Napoleon’s conquest would give the Jews of Ancona, they would have profound consequences for her.

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

A: I did a tremendous amount of research to write this novel, delving not only into history books, but into books about lifestyle during that time, including contemporary fashion, food, furniture, and, of course, philosophy. I love visiting museums, especially the Metropolitan Museum, not only to see the artwork of the period, but also to stand outside the beautiful period rooms they set up.


In fact, I’m now in the research phase for the sequel (more on this in a bit), and it’s reminding me just how much reading and pondering you must do before embarking on the writing.


In terms of surprises, oh yes, there were two in particular. The first was learning that Ancona was the world center at that time of ketubah (Jewish marriage certificate) making. The city artisans were the first to illuminate these certificates, and they were breathtaking.


Learning this gave me a passion for Mirelle that would conflict with the social expectations of her future. She wanted to further her family’s legacy, working in her father’s workshop and helping him manage it.


Another surprise that contributed mightily to the plot was stumbling across the miracle of a portrait of the Virgin Mary in Ancona’s cathedral.


According to a Vatican recounting of the event, Francesca Marotti and her daughter Barbara were the first to see the portrait turn its head, smile, and weep upon the congregants. The miracle was greeted by thousands of the faithful coming to the cathedral in candlelit processions, claiming they, too, had witnessed the miracle.


And I made use of a specific anecdote – that when Napoleon was looting the cathedral, something he saw in the portrait shocked him. He then took up a gold cloth, the story goes, enveloping the painting. I should add that after this incident, nothing that happens to the portrait is in fact true. But it was an amazing plot device and made a huge difference to the narrative.

Q: What do you think the novel says about the role of the Jewish community in this part of Italy during the late 18th century?

A: I think the Jews of this period – not just in Italy but in much of Europe – were faced with a significant dilemma.


The Jews of France had gained citizenship for the first time in millennia during the Revolution, which gave them all the protections and rights, as well as the duties, of their countrymen. Because the Revolution had done away with religion in entirety, they, like their Christian compatriots, were discouraged from following their faith.


So the Jewish community would have viewed the approach of French forces with a mix of trepidation and exhilaration. As I show in the character of the rabbi of Ancona, not everyone welcomed these new freedoms. Knowing where to draw the line between assimilation and retaining religious identity can be difficult, both on a social and individual basis.


Members of the Jewish community of Ancona, which welcomed Napoleon when he emancipated them from the ghetto, would be faced with making these tough decisions for themselves. 

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

A: I particularly enjoy bringing unknown episodes of history to light, and this is certainly no exception! Most of my readers have commented that their knowledge of Napoleon is limited to when he took control of France and elevated himself to Emperor, and what happens to him and the world after that.


His military campaign in Italy – as well as the one that follows – are generally unfamiliar. And of course, that includes his involvement with the Jews of Italy. After he demolished the ghetto gates in Ancona, he would repeat this action in many other Italian cities, including Venice, where the ghetto was first conceived.

In addition, I hope that by learning about this period of history, my non-Jewish readers would gain a better understanding of the difficulties the Jewish people have faced, not just in the 18th century, but before and since. Being forced behind ghetto gates from sundown to sunup each day – to say nothing of the overt antisemitism they faced – was a cruel reality for these people for centuries.


Often, people who first glimpse the title of the book think I’ve written about Eastern European ghettos during World War II and are unaware that the concept of the ghetto had a long and widespread history. (And unfortunately, Napoleon’s freeing the Jews from the ghettos of Italy would not outlast him – once he was beaten, the pope retook control of Ancona, and the Jews were forced back into the ghetto. Italy’s ghettos would exist until 1870.)

Q: What are you working on now?

A: As I mentioned above, the next chapter in Napoleon’s career is equally unknown to many readers, and that’s the period I’m researching right now. Napoleon embarked on a military excursion to Egypt and Israel to challenge the British in that region. In addition to his troops, he emulated his hero, Alexander the Great, and brought 126 savants – scientists, artists, writers, and others – with him.


This novel will continue Christophe and Daniel’s story, along with that of Mirelle, Dolce, and Francesca.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I enjoy talking about the novel, my research and its themes and am always delighted to zoom into book clubs and other groups. I’ve been doing a virtual tour with a number of Jewish organizations and would love to extend that conversation to non-Jewish groups, including church groups. I have my first event with an interfaith organization scheduled this coming January and would welcome others!


If you’re interested, you can get in touch with me via the Contact form on my website:


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Michelle Cameron will be presenting her book (virtually) at the Bender JCC of Greater Washington on Dec. 1.

Q&A with Shirin Yim Bridges


Shirin Yim Bridges is the author of the new children's picture book Get Up, Elizabeth!. Her many other books include Ruby's Wish.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for Get Up, Elizabeth!?


A: I write a lot about women and history—it stems from a lifelong interest in history. One of my favorite books as a kid was People in History. From the beginning, Elizabeth I was one of my favorites. She was a woman in a man’s world—she walked a fine line to keep power rather than giving it up in a male-dominated culture. I got fascinated by history in general. As an adult, I read a lot of Tudor biographies.


I had invited a friend, Laura Atkins, to teach a children’s book writing class, and I was sitting in on it. She set an exercise for the class—she said to take a fact and see what you can do to turn it into a story. I had just read Tracy Borman’s book The Private Lives of the Tudors, which is full of fascinating information, and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun for a kid to read about Tudor life?”


I thought about all the strange things they did to get out of bed. I’m a doting aunt and I know it’s a struggle to get kids out of bed. All you see [in Get Up, Elizabeth!] is all this red hair. Each thing she does gets odder and odder, and you find out it’s because it’s set in Tudor times and she’s Elizabeth I.


Q: What do you think accounts for the ongoing interest in the Tudors today?


A: Start with their costumes. The Tudors series on TV—I was such a Tudor nerd, I would say, “That’s not a Tudor hat!” You don’t have to fix anything with the Tudors. What they already did was so rich, you don’t have to come up with new ways of dressing them. I used to be a creative director, and it’s hard not to put your own twist on it!


They represented the beginning of modern English history. We’re out of the Dark Ages. There’s correspondence between different courts. Tudor houses are still standing. There are castles from the 1100s, but this is the first time you see a farmer’s house. They’re far back enough to be intriguing but close enough that you can put your hands on it.


And it was a short dynasty—there were six of them—but in that short time, so much happened. The Henry VIII story is melodrama writ large. Mary had a sad and dramatic story. With Elizabeth, I think a lot of people have the same fascination I do. She managed to crack the code, hang onto power for a long time, and do it well enough.


As a woman, she did it in a different way than a man would have. She didn’t throw her weight around the way her father did. The Privy Council and Parliament were on her case from the time she was 25 to her 60s—they harangued her to get married, and she resisted.


Q: What kind of research did you do for the book?


A: The research was a lot of fun. I was already starting with a topic I knew quite a lot about, and it was a matter of beefing it up and making sure all the resources said the same thing.


Q: What do you think Alea Marley’s illustrations add to the story?


A: Elizabeth I was so well known for being a redhead. I thought it would be fun if you couldn’t really see her [behind all her hair], and then she was all dressed up at the end—there was the contrast between the public figure, and the fact that she was just a little girl.


I really liked the palate overall. I never spoke directly to the illustrator until after the book was done, but the designer was careful in asking me about references and colors. It was fun working with them on the visual aspects.


Alea had the great idea of putting a mouse in on every single page. My 7-year-old niece read the book with me, and I realized she was poring through the pages trying to find the mouse. It adds a lovely sense of humor.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I came up with the idea of how to do two companion books—it’s not Elizabeth but other figures in history doing things kids need to do every day. One is due out next year and I’m hoping for a third a year after that.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 30



Nov. 30, 1912: Gordon Parks born.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Q&A with Melissa Payne

Photo by Eric Weber Studios


Melissa Payne is the author of the new novel Memories in the Drift. She lives in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for Memories in the Drift, and for your character Claire?


A: A few years ago, I came across a documentary about the town of Whittier, Alaska. It’s a stunning place carved from the shores of Prince William Sound, where nearly all of the 200 or so year-round residents live in a 14-story high-rise that overlooks a harbor abounding with wildlife.


As a writer, I was immediately drawn to this town, not because of the unrelenting rain and snow and heavy clouds that cling to the mountains for much of the year. And not because of the two-and-a-half-mile single lane tunnel that closes every night and is the only way in and out of town, unless you come by boat. Or the image of all of this set against a backdrop of glaciers and waterfalls and craggy mountain peaks.


It was the people who live in Whittier that sparked a deep interest in me. The folks who call this slice of wild beauty home. I was particularly struck by a comment from one of the town’s residents: “We don’t always love each other, we don’t always get along, but when something awful happens, everyone is going to be there to help you.”


And that’s how I began to develop a character like Claire. Anterograde amnesia is a heartbreaking condition where a person is unable to create new memories. It affects daily life, work and social activities, not to mention relationships with family and friends. To cope, people suffering from this type of amnesia must rely on familiar routines, supportive networks, and strategies that help to structure their days.


Whittier was the perfect home for Claire, whose character grew up there, and so it was a familiar and safe place for her to continue to live somewhat independently while managing her condition. Claire is resilient and brave and determined to make the most out of her every day. And just like the residents from the real Whittier, everyone in Claire’s world pulls together to help one of their own.  


Q: What was it like to write from the perspective of someone with short-term memory loss?


A: This was a huge challenge because I wanted to stay as true to her experience as I could. I had to constantly evaluate a scene to make sure that Claire stayed within her limited scope of memory. It was difficult to keep her genuine when I wanted so badly for her to remember, and at times heartbreaking and frustrating when I knew it simply wasn’t possible for her.


It made me think about anyone who deals with memory loss and how difficult and challenging it must be for both the person experiencing memory loss and their loved ones. 


Q: As you mentioned, the novel takes place in Whittier, Alaska. How important is setting to you in your writing?


A: For me, setting is crucial to my stories and I often think of it as one of my characters, whether that’s in a small mountain community in Colorado, or a remote Alaskan town accessible by a tunnel, or an old library in the middle of a snowstorm. I love figuring out how the characters interact with where they live or work and how it plays into their relationships and within a scene.


Weather plays a big role in my writing as well and that is probably due to how it affects me personally and how it can affect a scene or a character’s mood. Words flow when snow or a mountain thunderstorm batters my office window, but I have to force myself to sit and write when the sky is a flawless blue and the trails are calling my name. 


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


A: Claire’s situation will never change, but she does have the love and support of her family, friends and her larger community, and I think there is such beauty in how people come together for each other.


We see that now with the wildfires in my state and how people reach out to help complete strangers. And we've seen it the last few months, when communities rallied around those who have been physically and economically affected by a global pandemic. 


I initially wrote about Whittier because of how unique it seemed at the time, but after this last year and with the very real way we’ve had to cut ourselves off socially from one another, it feels like many of us have experienced our own sense of remoteness and alienation from people, routine and everything familiar.


My hope is that this story shows how even in seemingly insurmountable circumstances there can be light and hope and that when things get hard, we can pull ourselves together and be there for each other, even if “we don’t always love each other or get along.” 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I just submitted the manuscript for my next book, which comes out October 2021. It’s about five people stranded in an old library in the middle of an epic snowstorm. I wrote it during a very hot and dry summer and it was a welcome relief to write about so much cold.


This story is about people, stereotypes and perspectives, and about how our world views shape our actions, our thoughts, our relationships. It’s also about the deep change that occurs when we take the time to learn the stories of other people and to experience the world through a lens different from our own. I’m very excited about this book and can’t wait to share it with my readers.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I started down this writing path unsure about my destination. Could I write a book? Would I ever be published? Would anyone like my stories? So many questions and moments of doubt plagued me from the very first word I typed. (And still do at times.)


But I have found so much support and inspiration among other writers who write for the love of creating stories and worlds where readers can get lost in for a while. And I encourage all my fellow aspiring writers to do the same. Tell your story and don’t be afraid to reach out for help, guidance, or support when the going gets tough. 


Find me at or follow me on Instagram @melissapayne_writes


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 29



Nov. 29, 1832: Louisa May Alcott born.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Q&A with Heidi Slowinski


Heidi Slowinski is the author of the new novella The Package. She also has written the novel The House on Maple Street. She lives in Wisconsin.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Package?


A: The Package is based on a short story by the same title. It was inspired by two writing prompts. The first was about someone finding something in a pocket and the second was about someone discovering something while seated on a plane. In fact, the short story ended up the first chapter in the book, with a few edits in order to feed into the rest of the book.


Q: Why did you decide to write a novella as opposed to a novel or short story?


A: I think short fiction presents a unique challenge. In a novel, there is all the time in the world to develop scenes and characters, whereas in a novella, there’s a defined limit. As an author, it forces you to stretch yourself to create a complete story in fewer words. I really enjoyed it. And I hope readers will as well.

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


A: I had a good idea of how the story was going to end but I really let this story evolve as I was writing. It was very character-driven. My outline was pretty much thrown out by the middle of the second chapter. It was really a fun way to develop a story.


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


A: This is the type of story where all is not what it seems on the surface. And I hope there will be some things that will surprise the reader. Ultimately, though, I really just hope readers will spend an afternoon reading this story and enjoy the entertainment.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have a couple of projects in the works at the moment. The one I’m currently focused on is a humorous novel with something of a dark twist. The book is called Ruth Long, Age 88. Ruth Long is a wonderfully witty woman, who is reflecting on her life and family. The “dark twist” is that we met Mrs. Long on the day of her funeral.


It’s set for release in early 2021 and is planned to be the first book in a series where characters will interweave from one story to the next.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: The Package: A Novella is currently available for pre-order and will be released on Dec. 18. Readers can also learn more about my work on my website: Finally, I’d like to thank Deborah for hosting me on her website!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 28



Nov. 28, 1757: William Blake born.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Q&A with John H. Cunningham


Photo by Deborah Ganster Grooms

John H. Cunningham is the author of the new novel The Last Raft, which focuses on the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba. He also has written the Buck Reilly adventure series. He lives in Virginia and Key West.



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


A: I have lived in Florida off and on since the late 1970s and have seen both sides of the passion related to the embargo, the Castro regime, and the human rights issues in Cuba. What has now been a 60+ year policy to isolate Cuba has never worked for anybody, and I envisioned a bold American president stepping up to embrace change.


The characters are intended to represent all the classes in the so-called "class-free society," including people who lost their properties to the revolution, those who benefited, and regular folk.


The characters in the American political portion of the story are a compilation of real people, real policies that have been championed, real constraints, and a leader, who could be from either party since neither has done anything to bring about a meaningful conclusion to the stalemate, who has the vision to try a new approach in order to embrace the 11 million Cuban people, prevent thousands of annual illegal immigrants in a positive manner, and secure peace for the region.

The art of the story is combining all of that into a dramatic, entertaining, and compelling story, which was fun to do.


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


A: I was able to get a journalistic license to visit Cuba back in 2001 and went there for several weeks to see the settings and learn more about the history from their perspective and meet the people in order to portray them accurately.


One big surprise was that they use the U.S. dollar as the main currency there and the Cuban people love Americans. I also connected with Wayne Smith from the U.S. Interests Section (the closest thing we had to an embassy in Cuba), who read an early draft of the book, liked it and felt it could be a realistic scenario.


There was also a lot of history to research, which includes the perspective of Cuban families who lost everything to the Castro regime when they nationalized all private property, land, and buildings, which led to a huge flight of people to America in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.


Many remain bitter and seek reparation, which under the embargo will never happen, so while they, in many cases, argue against ending the embargo, it has not proven to be a good means to the end they seek.


Another surprise was that the children or grandchildren of the Cuban Americans who are most bitter toward the Cuban government are interested in change, so they can visit the land of their heritage.


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


A: First and foremost, the goal of the book is to entertain the reader with a story filled with all types of conflict, human tragedy combined with hope. I don't really consider it a political novel, but there are many political characters opposed to one another--even within the same parties--which tells the story of political interests dictating policy that has long been the case regarding Cuba.


Most Americans know little about Cuba because it has been a forbidden fruit for so long, but there is an amazing culture, wonderful people who have survived incredible challenges and poverty but maintained a passion for life without materialism, and there is very little racism there.


The government is a nightmare, abusive, and has tortured the citizens in so many ways. For example, Forbes estimated Fidel Castro's net worth at $900 million around the time the novel was set in 2001; meanwhile the people had little food and the majority live below the poverty level by most standards.


But that is between the lines of the hopes and dreams of the five people who leave on the raft, the difficult journey they face, which is a metaphor for the Cuban experience, and the rare American leader willing to risk everything to embrace change for the good of all people.


Q: What do you think the novel says about the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba, and what do you see looking ahead?


A: The novel portrays the entrenched, hostile, and resentful politics between Cuba and the United States, contrasted against the hope and ignorance of the people from both countries. People want change, whereas the governments use the status quo to maintain control of voting blocs and an iron fist over their people.


When there have been breaks in American policy over the years, our citizens have shown great interest in going there. And there have been a constant flow of illegal immigrants coming to America from Cuba for decades.


The Last Raft envisions what could happen if that evolved, and how so many lives could be positively impacted. If you take away the rhetoric, the people from both nations would love to engage.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am currently writing the ninth book in the Buck Reilly Adventure series. Each book in the series is set in different locations around the Caribbean with scenes in Europe, Latin America, and parts of the U.S. The protagonist, Buck Reilly, lives in Key West, where I also live part of the year. Lighter reading, but the series also contains history, and a broad spectrum of diversity amongst the characters.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: The Last Raft is written from a multiple point-of-view basis and features different female protagonists. A couple of the protagonists are on the raft, and one is in the White House. They are emblematic of not only the struggle women face in leadership positions in the United States--again, this was set in 2001--but also as the heart and soul of the Cuban struggle.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 27



Nov. 27, 1909: James Agee born.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Q&A with Kapka Kassabova


Kapka Kassabova is the author of the new book To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace. It focuses on her family history in the Lake Ohrid area of the Balkans. Her other books include Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe. She grew up in Bulgaria and now lives in Scotland.


Q: You write, "To journey to the place of your ancestors, you must be prepared to see what it is easier to deny." Why did you decide to explore this part of your family history?


A: Several reasons. First of all - artistic. I was called by the place itself, as if by a siren. Lake Ohrid is a place of sublime beauty and great cultural wealth and complexity. The fact that my maternal line originates there is a gift for a writer, and I couldn’t not accept it.


Of course, it was also a challenge, a daring - because by immersing myself in the human  history of the Lake, I had to swim in some pretty deep, dark waters too. But I was ready for it. I’d thought about this kind of ancestral exploration for a long time, and finally the right moment came where experience, courage, curiosity, and urgency came together.


Secondly, temporal - hence the urgency. At the end of my mother’s life and at this point in my own when I have been on many journeys both inner and outer, but also at this crucial point in human history where it’s so important to understand ourselves and our place in history, I wanted to explore the psychological and creative legacy of our family, but also the Balkans as a unique and complex matrix.


By doing that, I felt I was doing generational, collective work too. I sensed that the Lakes presented an encoded topography where the personal, the ancestral, the socio-political, the spiritual, and the environmental converged. As that monk said, “The Lake is a place where souls gather.”


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


A: I always begin my research by actually being there, spending time in a place and immersing myself in its physicality, its people, stories, seasons. The spirit of the Lakes was my muse, as well as memories - both beautiful and painful - of my grandmother and the women in our family. Then I read everything in as many languages as I can get my hands on, related to the region.


But because the place is only a setting, while the story is far more universal, I also read on to the broader subject of my enquiry  - which is the nature of trauma, ancestral memory, trans-generational legacies, and how the psyche and the body may manifest all of this.


Of course, the body of the land and the bodies of those who carry its memories are linked, and I was keen to explore these invisible connections. Just as the two lakes are invisibly connected by underground rivers.


Surprise discoveries, delightful or dark, were everywhere - in the form of paradoxes, correspondences, resonances, contradictions. And so it should be, when you truly get into a subject and especially a PLACE. Surprises are part of the inner expansion we experience as writers and readers. Otherwise what’s the point? 


Q: In the book, you write, "Geography shapes history--we generally accept this as a fact." How would you say the geography of the Balkans--and Macedonia in particular--has shaped its history?


A: Macedonia is a microcosm of the Balkans and the Balkans are a microcosm of Eurasia. It’s an old, much-trodden part of the world. The complex criss-crossings of the land are reflected in the collective psyche of its people.


In particular, the damage of unnatural man-made borders has scarred people and continues to wound them - by dividing nations, families (like ours), and ultimately individuals. By splitting the psyche, just as the triple national borders here attempt to split the lakes - a geographical impossibility.


This schizoid split - the result of cynical, divisive politics - is at the root of illness, and war - the spirit of war - is a form of illness. Borders are one of its manifestations. The lesson of the Lakes is ultimately a lesson about wholeness. 


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


A: Profound, as it should be when we embark on a real journey of discovery, inner or outer - in this case both. As with my previous book, Border, I was changed by the sensory, human, intellectual, emotional, symbolic, and geographical exposure to these lakes, which are both a place and a state of mind.


In a way, the full impact cannot and should not be summarised - it can only be experienced individually by the reader.  


Q: What are you working on now?


A: A book called Elixir.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Kapka Kassabova.

Nov. 25



Nov. 25, 1890: Isaac Rosenberg born.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Q&A with Darin Strauss


Darin Strauss is the author of the new novel The Queen of Tuesday: A Lucille Ball Story. His other books include Half a Life. He teaches writing at New York University, and he lives in Brooklyn.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Queen of Tuesday?


A: A kind of nightmare. I woke up one 3 a.m. with a start: I’d dreamed something dramatic, scribbled it down, and thought: “This will be my next book!” I woke up the next morning and scrambled to see what I’d written: “Lucille Ball.” That was it. 




I began doing research, anyway; I found that my grandfather had attended a party with her—a party thrown by Donald Trump’s father, of all people. A party where Trump Sr., in the name of ugly modernity, destroyed a representation of what had been dignified and special about old-time America. What a perfect real-life metaphor! 


Somewhere in my addled noggin, I must have kept that information -- grandpa met Lucille Ball! -- and, the truth was, I’d always had questions about him. About the infidelity he committed around the time of that party. 


With all these elements swirling together, I knew that’d be my next book.


Q: In a Washington Post review, Ron Charles writes, "The Queen of Tuesday is a striking exploration of how fame confounds the lives of prominent and obscure people." What do you think of that description?


A: I love it. That was one of the things I was trying to examine. What fame does to people -- to the famous, and those around the famous.


I was friendly with both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Carrie Fisher. I saw how fame affected them, and a) in Carrie's case, how it changed me around her. And b) in Philip's case, how it changed his friends. Many of his pals were struggling actors, and, seeing the way their behavior toward him mutated as he went from one of them to Oscar-winning movie star, I realized that fame warps everyone. 


And it's such a big force in this country -- an under-examined force, I think. 


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


A: I studied with E.L. Doctorow, at NYU -- where I now teach, humorously enough. And Doctorow said that, when one is writing a novel, one should do the least amount of research one can get away with. If you do too much research (the thinking goes), it will read like a textbook.


So, I think it's a balance. The "what you can get away with" is a key part of the equation: too little, and you'll lose the reader. I did a lot of research, but, as novelist, my responsibility is to tell a good story more than anything else. I think that's what Doctorow was getting at.  


In this book, the idea was to try to fill it with as many elements -- as much fun stuff -- as I could. A woman in love. Celebrity. Media. Glamour -- and set it in a period we can't turn from: The glitzy 50s, New York and LA, dream-towns at their dreaming best.  


Q: What do you see as Lucille Ball's legacy today?


A: The more research I did about Lucille Ball, the more I came not only to admire her, but to realize what a pivotal figure she was in American culture. 


Not just the most popular TV star ever -- though she was that -- but a kind of proto-feminist icon. She greenlit Star Trek, for example. Without her, no modern sci-fi: because Star Trek paved the way for Star Wars, which paved the way for everything. 


Hers seemed a story that needed to be told now—the first American woman to be a powerful Hollywood executive; the wife in the first truly famous and beloved interracial marriage in American history. Plus, she was there for the birth of TV—and, as we’re now living in the age of Peak TV, this book shows how TV got here. The Queen of Tuesday was a way for me to shed a light on these under-discussed details.


Q: What are you working on now?


Another novel, and a screenplay for Half a Life, my memoir. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I play a mean guitar. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Darin Strauss.

Nov. 24




Nov. 24, 1849: Frances Hodgson Burnett born.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Q&A with Anika Aldamuy Denise


Anika Aldamuy Denise is the author of the new children's picture book A Girl Named Rosita: The Story of Rita Moreno: Actor, Singer, Dancer, Trailblazer!. Her other books include Planting Stories. She lives in Rhode Island.


Q: Why did you decide to write a picture book biography about Rita Moreno?


A: She has a great story. Her life and career has had highs and lows… tragedies and triumphs. She’s an inspiration to anyone working hard to reach their dreams. And I love writing about powerhouse Puertorriqueñas who break barriers.


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


A: I watched hours of archival footage, read Rita’s memoir, and pored over many interviews and articles. It was some of the most enjoyable research I’ve ever done, actually! I got to revisit many of her performances I knew and loved. And I discovered others as well.


I was surprised that Rita’s historic Oscar and other prestigious awards did not shield her more from prejudice and sexism in Hollywood. I probably shouldn’t have been; it’s a problem Latinx and other entertainers of color still face. But when an actor has an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony, you’d think casting directors would stop asking them to play stereotypes.


Rita eventually got fed up and quit doing films altogether for a time.


Q: The Kirkus Review of the book calls it "An inspiring account of a woman who followed her dreams." What do you hope kids take away from the book, especially when it comes to following your dreams?


A: That dreams alone won’t get you there. You have to put in the work. And that success isn’t a straight line. You will have setbacks. There will be people who tell you no and deny you a seat at the table. When that happens, you have to try again—or build your own house, put a table in it, and pull your chair up there.


Q: What do you think Leo Espinosa's illustrations add to the book?


A: Leo’s work is super kid-friendly yet also sophisticated in its stylization. He captured little Rosita and grown-up Rita beautifully. All the details, especially in the scenes of old Hollywood, are amazing. Usually I can pick a favorite spread in a book, but I can’t in this one because they are all so vibrant and lovely for different reasons.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on a book about another trailblazing woman—but I can’t say who just yet because the book hasn’t been announced. Stay tuned!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Just that I’m grateful to those who are supporting authors and indie booksellers in these wildly stressful times. Thank you to the teachers, librarians, bloggers, booksellers, parents, and kids who read and share my books. And to you, Deborah, for having me!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Anika Aldamuy Denise.

Nov. 23



Nov. 23, 1916: P.K. Page born.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Q&A with Casey Breton


Casey Breton is the author of Going Rogue (at Hebrew School), a new middle grade novel for kids. It features a boy who thinks his Hebrew school teacher might be a Jedi master. Breton, a former elementary school teacher, lives in Gloucester, Massachusetts.


Q: You write that you came up with the idea for Going Rogue after trying to answer your kids' questions about why they had to go to Hebrew school. How did you come up with the Star Wars connection?


A: The Star Wars connection also came from my kids, who are big fans. They didn’t connect Star Wars to Judaism, of course, but I think I was trying to stack up all the things they felt passionate about against the one thing they really didn’t - Hebrew school. I tried to imagine what might get kids like mine interested in Hebrew school, or at least curious about it. Well, if the rabbi was a Jedi master…


Once I had the Star Wars idea, I started poking around the internet and found that loads of people have made a link between Star Wars and Judaism, for example, the idea of Yoda being a Jewish sage.


I just sort of ran with it from there. At first it was to spark an interest, but it slowly evolved into something readers might find meaningful.

Q: What do you think the novel says about bullying?


A: I never thought of addressing the topic of bullying in my book, but in an early revision I realized I needed some kind of antagonist for Avery to learn from.


My grandmother and great aunt, who were twins, used to tell me, “There are no bad boys, only sad boys.” It was something their father taught them, and I took that wisdom to heart. I believe it’s true. When I developed Damon, I always kept that phrase in mind.


I don’t see Damon as a bully, but rather as a kid who has a lot of pain inside. Gideon was always able to recognize that, while Avery was consistently skeptical. I can understand Avery’s side too – when someone is behaving in such a cruel and hurtful way, it’s really hard to see anything but a bad person. It was important for me to include both of those perspectives.


Q: What do you hope kids take away from the book, especially about science and religion?


A: One thing I hope kids take away from the book is a sense that their questions about religion are valid and important. Judaism has always encouraged critical thinking, curiosity, and examination.


This aspect of our tradition is a beautiful entry point for the most skeptical among us. Yes, ask questions. Yes, have doubts. Yes, hold a light to the dark spaces. We don’t need to follow blindly, nor are we supposed to. Go ahead, wrestle.


Regarding science and religion – we live in an age of information. Whether we’re learning how to get through a pandemic, or grappling with the effects of climate change and working to mitigate the consequences, one thing is true: understanding science is vital to our survival. And yet we also need to nurture our faith and study our history.


I hope readers take away the idea that science and faith are not mutually exclusive. In fact, being Jewish and being science-minded go together quite nicely!


And if a reader takes away nothing else, I hope they have a fun time reading my book and find a few laughs along the way. One of my greatest rewards from writing this book came when I heard my 10-year-old son, who is a reluctant reader, laughing out loud as he read Going Rogue in bed.


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 didn’t know how it would end before I started it. The first draft was much shorter and didn’t have the football thread. Definitely made lots of changes along the way, and wrote many, many drafts!


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have a completed draft of a young adult novel that I’ve been working on for years – it’s about a boy who stutters and fights to protect wild animals, inspired by a true story. It’s quite different from Going Rogue, and I love it dearly.  And I have started another middle grade novel about one of my personal passions…surfing! It’s an absolute joy to write.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Being Jewish, I wrote this book through a Jewish lens and focused on the experiences of a Jewish main character. However, I imagine children from different backgrounds will be able to relate to the tug between modern life and religious tradition.


A friend of mine who was raised Catholic said she would have appreciated reading this book when she was a kid. She remembers the frustration she felt as a child in religious school, always being told how and what to think, rather than being given the space to think for herself.


We cannot underestimate the strength of our children’s minds and the power of their questions. In the end of my book, Avery doesn’t have more answers. He doesn’t feel more resolved about going to Hebrew school. What changes is that he comes to understand that his questions have value.


I also had a very nice conversation with a mom and her two kids who all read the book together. They are not Jewish, but appreciated the book because it gave them a peek into a world different from their own. It was the first book they’d read with a Jewish main character.


While they thought the story was funny and relatable in many ways, they enjoyed learning about different aspects of being Jewish through Avery’s eyes. What’s nice is that different readers can access the book in different ways, and still find something in there for them.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb