Thursday, June 17, 2021

Q&A with Maureen Johnson

 

 

Photo by Angela Altus

 

 

Maureen Johnson is the author of the new young adult mystery novel The Box in the Woods. It features her character Stevie Bell, who appeared in Johnson's Truly Devious trilogy. Johnson lives in New York.

 

Q: Why did you decide to return to your character Stevie Bell after completing the Truly Devious trilogy?

 

A: When I wrote the Truly Devious series and introduced Stevie Bell, the detective, I always intended to have her solve other cases. So this has been planned for some time. But I didn’t decide what I wanted Stevie to work on until all of Truly Devious was complete.

 

That series ends as school lets out for the summer, so I thought about summer, and murder, and remote locations…all of that leads up to camp.

 

Q: The Kirkus review of the book says, "Johnson’s hallmark charming humor and lovable characters provide a robust foundation for another cracking mystery, this time ingeniously working with summer-camp and locked-room–mystery tropes." What do you think of that description, and how would you define those tropes?


A: I certainly appreciate it. The Stevie Bell mysteries are written along classic mystery lines—closed environments where you can meet all the players and see all the locations. I play fair! The clues are all there.

 

Q: With this novel, did you know how it would end before you started writing it?

 

A: Oh yes. The mysteries are plotted out very carefully. I don’t do any writing until I know the why, how, and who, until I’ve worked out the timelines and all the mechanics.

 

Mystery plots are built around the clockwork of their crimes, and it’s essential to know who was where, why everyone did what they did, who could see what—you get the idea.

 

Q: In an interview with USA Today, you described Stevie as "completely serious about solving the case." What do you think motivates her this time around? Are her motivations any different from those in the Truly Devious books?

 

A: Stevie is always going to be focused on solving the case, often to her own peril.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: Stevie will be back! I’m already at work on her next case.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Maureen Johnson.

Q&A with BonHyung Jeong

 

 


 

BonHyung Jeong is the author and illustrator of Kyle's Little Sister, a new middle grade graphic novel for kids. She lives in Korea.

 

Q: What inspired you to create Kyle's Little Sister, and how did you come up with your character Grace?

 

A: I read other middle grade graphic novels, such as Awkward, Brave, and W.I.T.C.H. It gave me the idea of setting Kyle’s Little Sister in a school, because that’s where all the fun stuff happens!

 

Since Kyle’s Little Sister is about sibling rivalry, when creating Grace, a girl who is introverted and finding her way, I wanted to make her the opposite of her brother Kyle, a boy who is extroverted and confident. That’s how I made her.

 

Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, "With a soft color palette and stylized faces, bouncy illustrations interplay seamlessly with denser speech bubbles, making this ideal for intermediate graphic novel readers." What do you think of that description, and how did you decide on the book's appearance?

 

A: It was great seeing how they described my style, ‘cause I’m not good at describing things in English. Lol! I really hope readers perceive my drawings in that way. I didn’t spend too much time deciding on the appearance—that’s just how I draw kids.

 

Q: How would you describe the relationship between Grace and Kyle?

 

A: I would say they’re the typical brother and sister. There are always fights between siblings and plenty of misunderstandings, especially if one is considered “better” when compared to the other, a common occurrence since people often compare siblings to each other.

 

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

 

A: Bad things can happen, but don’t be afraid. Things will get better as time passes. 

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: It’s not ready to be shared, but following my debut graphic novel, I hope you all really like what is coming next!

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I want to remind people who read my book that Grace and other kids are still in middle school. They’re still maturing and learning to make things better yet.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Meg Pokrass

 

 


 

Meg Pokrass is the author of the new flash fiction collection Spinning to Mars. She also is the co-editor of the forthcoming collection Best Microfiction 2021. Her other books include The Dog Seated Next to Me, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Washington Square Review and Electric Literature. She is based in the UK.

 

Q: Over how long a period did you write the pieces in your new collection, Spinning to Mars?

 

A: About 10 years. Some of the pieces in the collection are very old. Others are relatively new. I hadn’t been aiming for a collection with the pieces in Spinning to Mars. I didn’t have a conscious plan for them.

 

Finally, I saw that they belonged together, these tiny stories, and that they were loosely connected. They tell a longer story that could only be realized in moments. It’s strange and wonderful when this happens.

 

Q: What initially appealed to you about microfiction?

 

A: I am smitten with how good microfiction draws us into a feeling of intense collaboration between reader and writer, a place that is both private and shared.

 

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

 

A: A girl’s father tells her, in the beginning, that he’s got a ride to Mars. He’s an untrustworthy dreamer. Not long after that, he deserts the family. The title signifies the ruined promise. But it’s also about the dream.

 

Q: You also have an edited work coming out soon, the Best Microfiction 2021 anthology. How did you choose the work that appears in the book?

 

A: This is our third year, and Gary Fincke and I are more excited than ever about 2021’s anthology. Our illustrious guest editor/judge Amber Sparks made the final selections.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’ve been involved in collaborative writing projects. A collection of fabulist pieces I co-wrote with Jeff Friedman will be published by Pelekinesis Press in 2022. Another book co-written with Aimee Parkison, Disappearing Debutantes, will be published by Outpost 19 in 2023.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Ashraf Kagee

 

 


 

Ashraf Kagee is the author of the new novel By the Fading Light. He is a professor in the department of psychology of Stellenbosch University in South Africa. 

 

Q: What inspired you to write By the Fading Light?

 

A: I wanted to tell a story about childhood, the loss of innocence and coming of age. The period of boyhood just before adolescence sets in is an interesting time and I wanted to capture a sense of that developmental moment.

 

I also wanted to comment on how children are often at the whim of adults who, for various reasons, conscious and unconscious, don’t necessarily have their best interests at heart.

 

In this story the adults are consumed with their own pain and grief and the emotional needs of these young boys are to some extent neglected.

 

And then there’s the time period, the early 1960s, which was just before the onset the hippie movement, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., the Beatles, and various other cultural shifts that took place later in the 1960s.

 

The Sharpeville Massacre features prominently in the book, though, and is a backdrop for the story. I think in some sense the events at Sharpeville also represented a loss of innocence for South Africa. The armed struggle against apartheid began and Nelson Mandela would soon after go to prison.

 

So even though there are political events that are referred to, this is essentially a human story about growing up.

 

Q: The literary critic Michele Magwood said of the book, "Kagee expertly pulls back from sentimentality to present a moving, simmering story of loss of innocence.” What do you think of that description?


A: I think it is quite a generous comment and I appreciate it. I didn’t want to write a sob story and bore the reader.

 

So I tried to make it funny and a little absurd in places, to reflect some of the fun and laughter that many 11 year olds enjoy and then also suggest that things on the surface are not as they seem, that there is danger and that the world is not always a safe place.

 

There are some absurd moments such as the family where the three sons all have the same name because the parents are too lazy to think of different names for them. And so they refer to them as numbers, 1, 2, and 3 to differentiate among them. It’s silly but I had fun writing it.

 

Q: As a novelist and psychologist, how do the two coexist for you?

 

A: Well, I didn’t specifically set out to write a psychological book. In my day job I’m more of a researcher than a therapist.

 

I think novels tell a different kind of story about human beings from the formal study of psychology. A novel doesn’t have to be empirically correct. It can tell broader, overarching truths about the human condition, about relationships, about the inner world of the characters.

 

I also like the fact that there are no rules, and if there are, I can break them if I like. I can’t do that as a psychologist or a researcher without losing my professional credibility.

 

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

 

A: There were some details about historical events and music and popular culture that I needed to look up, to make sure there were no anachronisms. This is the wonderful thing about the internet. You can find almost anything.

 

I’m generally quite interested in world events, in the coming together of cultures, and in history and politics. In some sense this book brings together these themes but ultimately it’s a human story about the inner worlds of the characters.

 

I often look up the technical aspects of writing, such as words and grammar. William Strunk’s book The Elements of Style is very useful.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I want to try to write a book on slavery. It’s a topic that has not being given much attention in South African literature, unlike in the United States where slavery has been the topic of many books and other art forms. South Africans sometimes forget their slave history because apartheid has eclipsed so much of the national narrative.

 

But of course good stories are about people, their lives, their relationships, their failings and successes.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: One of the books I like is Stephen King’s memoir On Writing. He tells the story of his own personal journey as a writer and tries to give other writers ideas about what has worked for him.

 

He says to be a good writer you have to read a lot and write a lot. And you have to kill your darlings. In other words, a lot of what you write is not usable so you should be ready to delete it. It’s hard, but you have to kill those darlings, those precious words and sentences that you have so lovingly crafted.

 

The final version of By the Fading Light is quite different from the first version, after I did a lot of rewriting and editing. It’s par for the course I guess.

 

I really do like witty, interesting writing and a book should want to be read. The words should leap out at the reader and say “Read me!!”. But of course that’s easier said than done.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

June 17

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
June 17, 1871: James Weldon Johnson born.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Q&A with Camille Aubray

 

 


 

Camille Aubray is the author of the new novel The Godmothers. She also has written the novel Cooking for Picasso. She lives in Connecticut and in the south of France.

 

Q: What inspired you to write your new novel, and is the family you write about based on a real-life family?

 

A: The fictional family in The Godmothers is not based on a real-life family.

 

I disagree with Tolstoy when he said that all happy families are alike. Even happy families have their unique and secret troubles, and that’s what interests me.

 

In this novel, I wanted to write about four women from totally different backgrounds, each with their own secrets, who become sisters-in-law. Those are my fictional characters.

 

But I also couldn’t resist writing about the outsized, real-life characters of that time period, especially the famous gangsters of the Five Families of New York.

 

Q: The book focuses on the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. What kind of research did you need to do to recreate that time period?

 

A: It’s just like visiting a foreign country—there are universal ways that all human beings behave, no matter the time and place; and then there are the things that are particular to a locale or an era.

 

So for The Godmothers I read all kinds of history and nonfiction. But I especially loved looking at the newspapers, magazines, films, art, and music of the time. They tell you a lot that you don’t get in history books!

 

Q: What intrigued you about the idea of godmothers, and what role do you see the four women playing in the lives of their family?

 

A: A godmother is very different from being a parent—who has total responsibility for the upbringing—and different from an indulgent and slightly subversive grandparent.

 

As the child grows up, the godmother can often step in as a wise counselor at the time of an impending marriage, or a mentor at the crossroads of career.

 

Think of the importance of the fairy godmother in children’s stories! She offers alternatives, so that you don’t give up when the world is dealing you a bad hand. That’s what my four godmothers—Filomena, Lucy, Amie and Petrina—try to do.

 

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

 

A: Yes, I knew how the novel would end.

 

But writing The Godmothers was like having a navigation system in a car: I knew what the destination was, and I’d mapped out the roads that could take me there, but once I started my journey, my instincts were like warning systems—Don’t go there, because there’s too much traffic that way; make this turn instead, because even if it curves and twists, it’ll get you where you want to go, in a better way.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: Two more historical novels! But I’ve learned to finish writing before I speak of them—just to make sure that it all makes it onto the printed page and doesn’t float away in the air of conversation.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: Yes, I’m doing some exciting signings and virtual events this summer, which I will soon post on the events page of my website: camilleaubray.com. Also, I have great fun talking with book clubs, who can reach me at my website contact page.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Camille Aubray.

Q&A with A.M. Linden

 

 


 

A.M. Linden is the author of the new novel The Oath. It's the first in The Druid Chronicles series. She is a retired nurse practitioner.

 

Q: The Oath is the first in a series. What inspired you to write The Druid Chronicles?

 

A: There is either a long or a short answer to this.

 

The long one begins begins with the Native American folk tales that my mother read to me at bedtime, runs through the works of J.R.R. Tolkien that captivated me as a teenager, and then to my belated discovery of young adult epic fantasy.

 

The short one is the impact that the African proverb “Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter” had on me the first time I read it.

 

It was unquestionably this adage which inspired me to wonder how the conquest of Britain, theologically by Christian missionaries and militarily by Anglo-Saxons, may have been experienced by the polytheistic pagans who were being supplanted.

 

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

 

A: Having come up with the idea of writing a story about the struggles between pagan Celts and early Christian Saxons, I began my research by googling “Druid.” The result was over 40 million listings that ranged from academic treatises to internet games.

 

Narrowing my focus to the academic and historical pages, I used the rich online resources, as well as those of my local bookstore and library, to become acquainted with the complex interactions between these cultures and religions.

 

In the following years I had the opportunity and the privilege to travel to England, Scotland and Wales, visiting museums and ancient heritage sites and exploring the remains of Celtic hillforts that were being browsed by modern-day sheep.

 

The process of delving into the history of a time and place I’d previously only known from fiction held a great many surprises—the first of which was that Druids do not appear in the historical record beyond the first centuries A. D. and, despite their being mentioned in folklore, there is no documentation that there were any left by the time the Anglo-Saxons had been Christianized.

 

This potential problem for my main plotline was offset by finding out there are sufficiently large gaps in what is known about this period that there was room for me to insert my fictional cult and its priests and priestesses without anyone being able to prove that they couldn’t have been there.

 

Q: What do you see as the right blend of fiction and history in your work?

 

A: On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is almost entirely fiction and 10 is mostly historical, I would put my work somewhere between a 2 and a 3. There are only rare mentions of historical figures in the series, and none of those figures have any significant role in the narrative.

 

While I did my best to avoid anachronisms—having cottages with fireplaces instead of hearths or characters who are wearing clothes with pockets—I definitely took liberties with the landscape and put rivers in where I needed them.

 

At a deeper level, my characterization of how ethnic and religious divisions can be perpetuated, exploited, or overcome says more about my concerns about human behavior in my own time period than my insight into people living 12 centuries ago.

 

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

 

A: First and foremost, I hope that readers will enjoy The Oath and its admittedly quirky characters, and that they will finish the book wanting to find out what happens to them.

 

Beyond that, I frankly have confidence that readers who chose to read about Druids and Christians from the Druids’ point of view are already fully endowed with any principles of social justice that I may have tried to slip into the story’s subtext. 

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’m finishing the fifth and final book in the series. It’s titled The Challenge, and while it’s clear how things work out for the main characters, I will admit that the challenge for me is making sure that I’ve tied up all the loose ends for the minor but still significant ones.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: That additional information about the series can be found on the website: www.Druidchronicles788ad.com 

and on Goodreads:

www.goodreads.com/author/show/20566180.A_M_Linden?from_search=true&from_srp=true

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Marissa Levien

 

 

 


Marissa Levien is the author of the new novel The World Gives Way. She lives in New York.

 

Q: What inspired the world you write about in The World Gives Way?

 

A: I wanted to create a world similar enough to ours so there was not a lot of world-building. It was our world, but the world is a relative concept. You can play around with what people see as a world, and how human perception can change that.

 

Q: How did you create your characters Myrra and Tobias?

 

A: For Myrra, the seed of an idea for the book was an apocalypse. I wanted the type of thing where the character was having to understand what that means. I was looking at what the character’s headspace would be if they had to face something that catastrophic, how a person would find a way to conceive of it.

 

Story-wise, the easiest way to tell it was that she knew, but maybe not everyone else knew. It was imperative that she be in a high-up-enough place that she would find out the secret.

 

I was not interested in writing about someone privileged. I thought that people who know as much as the privileged people do are the servants. It seemed like a much more interesting character.

 

I was reading The Odyssey at the time, and I took from that. Odysseus is good at lying. Myrra had to go on a journey.

 

Tobias came out of the need for more conflict in the story. It’s hard to write a full-length book about someone realizing that everyone would die. I needed an antagonist, someone similar but opposite to the character, so they can shed light on each other.

 

Tobias is very similar to me. I’m a very ordered person, although hopefully I don’t help uphold terrible government practices! I found Tobias’s voice easily, because it’s so much from my own.

 

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

 

A: When it comes to writing for me, I’m pretty good at figuring out how it starts and how it ends, but the middle is the part where I get muddled up.

 

I love outlines. I started with a scriptwriting background, where you tend to outline more. I don’t necessarily live or die by the outline—the exciting thing is where the characters take on a life of their own and surprise you!

 

Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, “Combining detective work and slow-burn romance, Levien offers plenty for lovers of cross-genre sci-fi to engage with.” What do you think of that assessment?

 

A: That’s actually right on the money! I’m the type of person who reads a little of everything. I work in a bookstore, and the customers ask what kinds of books I like to read. Good books! Anything that’s good.

 

I tried to follow the adage of writing the type of book you’ve always wanted to read. This book ended up being a little of everything, and I’m proud of that.

 

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

 

A: I hope they take away a sense of what life is. I wanted to write a book where people took wonder out of the world around them, a sense of human connection. The characters are alone at the start, and then coalesce.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’m very excited about the novel I’m working on now. The World Gives Way took a decent amount of editing, and I was living in that world for so long, it’s nice to have a different headspace.

 

It’s a haunted house story set on the Oregon coast where I grew up. It’s a good place for a haunted house story—it’s gray and foggy.

 

It’s about love in a lot of ways. It’s about people who have loved deeply but loved wrong and are destroying things because of it, and how that could infect a house and the fallout could get destructive in a supernatural way, and how people can climb out of that and fix the wrongs of the past.

 

I got to do a road trip to the Oregon coast—I hadn’t been back in a long time. It was wonderful to see, and very inspiring.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: The World Gives Way is definitely a cross-genre thing that’s near and dear to my heart. I hope people love it. It was a blast to write. It’s fun to design worlds like that.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Kathleen M. Blasi

 

 


 

Kathleen M. Blasi is the author of the new children's picture book Milo's Moonlight Mission. Her other books include Hosea Plays On. She lives in western New York.

 

Q: What inspired you to write Milo's Moonlight Mission?

 

A: The story was inspired by a personal experience I had with my family around 20 years ago. We had heard about a forecasted meteor storm, and given that the skies were expected to be clear, the viewing was predicted to be spectacular.

 

I have always loved taking in the night skies. When I was a little girl, my family spent summer vacations in the Adirondack Mountains. We’d go for walks at night, when all you could see was the sky above. There was no light pollution, so those star-studded skies have stuck with me.

 

That’s why we didn’t miss a beat when we heard about the Leonid Meteor Storm that inspired Milo’s Moonlight Mission. The Leonids occur every November, and I live in western New York, so we bundled up for the cold and went outside at 4AM.

 

I never wanted to forget what we’d seen, so the next morning, I began writing about it, not as a story at first, more so simply notes on the experience.

 

Q: What do you think Petronela Dostalova's illustrations add to the story?

 

A: Petronela’s illustrations enhance the multi-dimensional character of Milo. And Mom. She invites us into Milo’s vivid imagination, just as Milo invites Mom into his world.

 

I absolutely love what her art adds to the story. He is a patient, helpful child, which can be gleaned from the text. But Petronela amplified his passion for outer space, by bringing his imagination to the page.


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

 

A: Yes, I researched what meteors are and learned the difference between a meteor shower and a meteor storm. It’s all in the numbers! A staff member at our local planetarium reviewed the Author’s Note to ensure its accuracy. I learned how rare the type of storm we saw is and how fortunate we were to witness it!

 

Q: What do you hope kids take away from the book, about space and about family?

 

A: I hope that the story sparks kids’ curiosity. And that with our imaginations, we can soar! I hope that a sense of community and helping one another, even if that community is within the parameters of our own homes, comes through.

 

With a little patience and cooperation, our Milo got what he wanted—precious time spent with his mom. And she got what she wanted, too—quiet time with her child, enjoying the wonders of nature.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’m working on a lyrical picture book centered on my Italian heritage and starting to explore a picture book with a conservation slant. And always revising pieces I think are “finished.”

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: For readers and writers, and anyone, really, who has a dream, keep at it! If you stick with it long enough, along the way there will be disappointments, but there will likely be the joy in having worked hard to reach your goals.

 

And in our busy world, if you think you don’t have time for someone, right now, think about that again. These moments of connection don’t have to be elaborate or long in duration. They just have to be.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Kathleen M. Blasi.

June 16

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
June 16, 1938: Joyce Carol Oates born.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Q&A with Scott Borchert

 

 

Photo by Addie Borchert

 

 

Scott Borchert is the author of the new book Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America. It focuses on the Federal Writers' Project during the Great Depression. A former assistant editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Southwest Review and Monthly Review. He is based in New Jersey.

 

Q: You note that you discovered books from the Federal Writers' Project in your uncle's house. What initially intrigued you about them, and at what point did you decide to write this book?

 

A: When I learned about my great-uncle’s collection of American Guides, I didn’t understand the full story of how they were created, and by whom.

 

I didn’t know that they were part of a massive effort to support jobless people during the Depression, including artists and cultural workers, and I didn’t know that many significant American writers found jobs with the FWP.

 

But I was intrigued by the idea that these books—which were not only readable but surprisingly absorbing—were created by the federal government. It seemed like a highly unusual thing for the government to do in the best of times, let alone during the Depression, a moment of deep national crisis.

 

That was in 2005, and more than 10 years passed before I started researching the FWP in earnest. The American Guides had been hanging out in the back of my mind through those years, especially during the Great Recession, when there was a lot of talk about a “New New Deal.”

 

But in 2016, after a contentious election (to say the least), I found myself wondering if the American Guides held any lessons for us—if these books, products of a “New Deal America,” were still relevant in “Trump’s America.”

 

After all, we were still grappling with many of the same issues that the FWP reckoned with in the 1930s: periodic economic crises and extreme inequality, racial oppression and xenophobia, threats from homegrown fascists and other anti-democratic forces, along with basic questions about the role of government and how to capture, in prose, the story of America and its people.

 

So I started to research the story behind the American Guides and, around the time Trump was inaugurated, began to sketch out a book plan.

 

Q: What impact did working on the guides have on the writers you focus on in the book?

 

A: All federal writers benefited from the project because it gave them a sorely needed paycheck and, in one way or another, put them to work as writers, researchers, or editors. That was the basic mission of the FWP: to provide economic support and to conserve, or even foster, the skills of jobless writers and other white-collar workers.

 

The specific writers I focus on, though, joined the FWP at different stages of their careers, so they all experienced things differently. (Some of them didn’t work on the state guides at all, or not directly, but instead focused on collecting folklore or individual life histories or the testimonials of formerly enslaved people, among other tasks that the FWP carried out.)

 

Zora Neale Hurston, for instance, was already a well-established writer who’d published most of her finest work, although she didn’t always get the recognition—and certainly not the monetary reward—that she deserved. The FWP probably benefited more from her participation than vice versa.

 

Younger writers, such as Richard Wright and Nelson Algren, were able to hone their reporting and editing skills while working for the FWP; Wright, along with some others, was even able to focus on his creative writing through a special arrangement in the New York City office.

 

It’s my impression that the FWP put many younger writers into close contact with their communities—allowing them to see, in detail, how people lived out their daily lives, what kind of language and expressions they used, how they remembered the past, and so on—and that this left a lasting mark on the tone and content of the work these younger writers went on to produce.

 

There were also mid-career writers such as Vardis Fisher, a novelist from Idaho, who ended up becoming the director of the project in his state, and whose later work involved a shift toward deeply researched historical fiction that, I think, shows the impact of his time with the FWP.

 

Along with these writers and a few others, I tell the story of Henry Alsberg, the FWP’s unlikely director, whose role in the project ended up being the work of a lifetime.

 

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

 

A: The title doesn’t come from any FWP literature—I made it up—but it’s meant to convey something about how the project approached the task of creating a national portrait.

 

In a way, the FWP’s mission was pretty simple: put jobless writers to work and create some straightforward, unoffensive, practical guidebooks for travelers.

 

But, in practice, this mission became much more complex, and the American Guides ending up being much richer, more surprising, and more expansive than anyone could have imagined.

 

If the FWP ultimately created a portrait of America, then it’s a shaggy, rambling, unfinished one—the portrait of a republic assembled out of many pieces, especially forgotten or ignored bits of history, lore, and the everyday experiences of diverse groups of people, including those who were excluded from positions of official power.

 

The detours, you might say, are the point, and the key to a certain understanding of America. And, like the American Guides, my book takes quite a few narrative detours as well, into the biographies of federal writers and the fraught cultural context of the FWP, among other areas.  

 

Q: In the book, you ask whether there should be a new Federal Writers' Project today. What might be some of the pros and cons?

 

A: People have called for a new FWP at various points, but such calls have increased tremendously since the onset of the covid-19 pandemic.

 

And I agree that we need a robust, expansive federal jobs program—a new WPA, or something like it—which ought to include support for writers and other cultural workers. (Performing artists in particular have seen their livelihoods decimated by the pandemic, for obvious reasons.)

 

As in the 1930s, a new WPA would provide decent-paying jobs for people who need them, and would carry out beneficial projects that aren’t likely to happen otherwise (such as repairing infrastructure and taking steps to address climate change).

 

A new FWP could take up all sorts of valuable tasks: researching local history, documenting daily life, preserving rapidly eroding (and newly emerging) folkways, providing education for children and adults—not to mention producing new publications that, like the original American Guides, would enrich our national literature.

 

But there are risks and challenges involved with launching a new FWP. For all the similarities between our contemporary moment and the 1930s, there are some extraordinary differences.

 

Far more people today have the sort of writing-adjacent, white-collar jobs that might qualify them for spots with a new FWP—should they all be considered, as they were in the 1930s, or should positions be reserved for published writers and professional editors?

 

How should a new FWP address the digital revolution—not just the fact that millions of people are documenting their daily lives through social media, but that published books and pamphlets now exist in a sea of websites, blogs, podcasts, tweets, and so on?

 

Perhaps more crucially, there’s the question of how a new FWP would survive in today’s hypercharged political climate.

 

The original FWP was attacked by opponents of the New Deal from the outset, and it’s easy to imagine the same thing playing out today—but to far greater, and perhaps more debilitating, extent.

 

The 1930s arts projects also proved to be soft targets for conservatives who sought to undermine the entire WPA and, indeed, the New Deal as a whole. I suspect the case would be the same today, especially when you consider the right’s powerful and well-funded media apparatus.

 

This doesn’t mean that a new FWP isn’t worth pursuing, but it’s important to see the FWP as a cautionary tale as much as a source of inspiration.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’m doing the preliminary research for another book of cultural history, which seems like an abrupt shift from the subject of Republic of Detours. (I’m in the very early stages, so I can’t say much more about it.)

 

But it’s prompting me to think about how a group of writers, through unconventional means, ended up saying something about America—even if they didn’t necessarily intend to at the start.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: The FWP is a vast subject, and there’s been quite a lot written about it over the last half century. I’ve included some suggestions for further reading in my book, which I hope people will explore, but I could only scratch the surface.

 

Anyone interested in the FWP or the other cultural projects of the New Deal will find a huge amount of rewarding material out there—including what is available in public archives, which is there for everyone to explore.

 

You can access some of that material online, especially through the websites of the Library of Congress and the National Archives, as well as through various archives in the states.

 

I highly recommend spending a few moments, or longer, exploring what the FWP left behind—and of course, checking out the American Guides, which is where my own book project began. 

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb