Sunday, September 19, 2021

Q&A with Mark Piesing



Photo by David Fisher/Fisher Studios


Mark Piesing is the author of the new book N-4 Down: The Hunt for the Arctic Airship Italia. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Guardian and The Economist. He lives in Oxford, England.


Q: In the introduction to N-4 Down, you write about finding an old book in a secondhand bookstore. How did your discovery of that book contribute to your writing this one?


A: I knew very little about the events of N-4 Down until I picked up that book. It was just so incredibly mysterious.


It was over 90 years old, written in 1930 by a U. Nobile just after the events it described and was an eyewitness account of the crash of an airship at the North Pole. I didn't know who U. Nobile was or that airships had ever flown to the North Pole.


Then when I was looking through the book, an even older newspaper cutting fluttered out. Scrawled at the top in pencil was 1928, below was the headline “Bound for North Pole,” and the cutting was about Commander Nobile’s first flight in great Arctic adventure.


Then a map at the back unfolded, and right at its centre was Spitsbergen, the old name for the Svalbard archipelago, and I knew I had to go there. When I few into Svalbard on a Boeing rather than an airship, I realised that I had to write this story, and one of the main characters was the archipelago itself.


I am a massive fan of Philip Pullman's Northern Lights trilogy. It struck me that Nobile's adventures had to have been one of the inspirations for Pullman's story. Regrettably, I haven't yet had the chance to discuss this with him.


Q: How well known was Umberto Nobile in his day, and what do you see as his legacy today?


A: The first part is easy to answer. The second, a lot harder!


In the aviation industry, Umberto Nobile was very well known as one of the leading airship designers of his day. His airships, built at his factory in Rome, were exported to countries like Britain, Spain, and the United States.


Nobile was one of the Roma designers, a United States Air Force digrible that tragically crashed in 1920. He went on to work as a consultant with Goodyear, working on the precursors to their famous Blimps.


Then the 1926 transpolar airship flight with the famous if elderly Roald Amundsen turned him into a celebrity. The flight was considered at the time one of the most outstanding achievements in aviation. The New York Times devoted three full pages to it, and he was met by crowds of people as he journeyed across the United States.


He was even called "The New Columbus" at that time. I appreciate it may have different connotations today. 


The crash of the Italia, rumours of cannibalism, and his decision to abandon his men on the ice propelled him to a new level of celebrity in a way. When he was seriously ill in 1933, The New York Times even printed his obituary while he was still alive and went on to recover. 

The hard part is his legacy today. Across Europe, there are plenty of streets named after him! Ironically, his 1926 flight is largely forgotten outside of Italy. If he is remembered at all, then it is for the 1928 crash of the airship Italia.


I think his legacy is tragic: the crash of the airship Italia helped to speed up the demise of the airship as a means of passenger transportation, and the disappearance of Roald Amundsen on the way to rescue in 1928 created one of the greatest mysteries of the Arctic.


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


A: To research N-4 Down, I tried to travel to as many of the locations I mention in the book as possible and discover manuscripts that other writers had forgotten. I have two young children, so sadly that wasn't always possible.


I spent an incredible two days interviewing Ove Hermansen in Copenhagen. In 2018 Ove was one of the last surviving friends of Umberto Nobile and had been his representative in Scandinavia. By spending that length of time with him, I felt that I was close to Nobile himself. Sadly, he passed away a year later. The only thing I didn't do was to find an airship to fly on!


I was surprised by the willingness of aeronauts to casually risk their lives in the pursuit of glory. I couldn't believe that they would fly aircraft untested in the Arctic or take off without a radio when one was coming. I think these risks were perceived differently by a society where children were lucky to make it through to adulthood, and men were mown down on the battlefield.


Another surprise was by the power of the Arctic to bore into your soul. As I said in my The Explorers Club talk, I couldn't understand why these men and women were obsessed with returning to the Arctic until I visited there myself. I just want to go back!


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


A: I hope they take away from N-4 Down an appreciation that in polar exploration, the aeronaut was as important, if not more important, as the explorer crossing the ice on foot or on a sledge.


The way technology is adopted isn't inevitable. With a little more luck, there may still have been airships flying over Oxford, or New York, as there once was, and Northern Lights was less fantasy and more reality.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: My latest piece for BBC Future has just gone up on their site. It is a long read called The Planes That Conquered Antarctic. It's about the important role that some of the minor characters in N-4 Down play in opening up Antarctica and aviation's continuing role on the frozen continent.


I am working on the proposal for my next book, which I can't say anything about at the minute!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: N-4 Down is currently a bestseller in the History of the Arctic and Antarctic, and Aviation History, on So go out there and buy N-4 Down. You won’t regret it.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Defne Suman




Defne Suman is the author of the novel The Silence of Scheherazade, originally published in Turkey and Greece in 2015 and now available in an English translation by Betsy Göksel. Suman is based in Istanbul.


Q: What inspired you to write The Silence of Scheherazade?


A: It all started with the thought of a 100-year-old woman living in today’s Izmir. I was reading One Hundred Years of Solitude by Marquez at that time and I was prone to writing in the lines of magical realism.


The moment I thought about Izmir I remembered another novel: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. Middlesex begins in Turkey. It is the story of Greeks escaping from Turkey via Smynra (Izmir in modern day Turkey).


When I was reading Middlesex I had realized that I was learning a piece of history was hidden from me, the history of Smyrna and its people. Middlesex moves on and the story continues in Detroit.


I remembered the feeling how I wished those initial chapters that take place in Smyna and Asia Minor were a bit longer. Well, I said to myself, if you want to read a story taking place in Smyrna early 1960, then you should go ahead and write it yourself. So that is how it all began!


Q: Betsy Göksel, the book's translator, said of the experience, "Translating The Silence Of Scheherazade was a heart-wrenching experience. I was bringing to life in English real people, not characters in a book, people I loved and wept over. In this book one weeps for the various individuals and for Smyrna itself."  What do you think of her comments?


A: Betsy is an amazing translator; she is the ideal reader I had imagined while I was writing the book. She reads with her heart. Funny enough when I was writing book, especially toward the end I was crying too.


The loss of Smyrna is a metaphor for all the refinement we lost in the world. It reminded me how as humanity we are losing culture, beauty and harmony under the threat of nationalism and consumerism.


I am pretty sure Betsy, being part of the old world, was feeling the same loss and her tears were partly for the beauty we lost in 21st century. We no longer have cosmopolitan harbor towns in the world where people value art, architecture, and literature. We live in a rougher world. We all feel the loss.


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


A: Yes, I conducted historical research for almost two years. I was living in the U.S. at the time. I researched in the libraries of NYU and Portland State University. I ordered tons of books from Reed College library. I read diaries, journals and collected postcards, insurance maps and clothing items from the 1920s.


When I was growing up in Turkey, in the history books we had read that in September 1922 the Greek army was in retreat and they burned Smyrna as they were jumping into the ships that were waiting for them at the Smyrna harbor. This was (and still is) something we memorized as children.


When I started my research the first thing, I learned was that by the time the Great Fire of Smyrna started on September 13 all of the Greek army was already gone. Only women and children were left in town, and they were waiting (in vain) for Greek ships to come and pick them up.


It was the Turkish side that started the fire and these Greek civilians who died from it. This new bit information altered the way I viewed the past completely.


Q: What do you hope readers, both those familiar with Turkish history and those who are new to the topic, take away from the book?


A: Like I said earlier, Smyrna and its loss is a mega-metaphor for the loss of beauty and refinement from our lives.


People of Smyrna, regardless of their religious and ethnic backgrounds, knew how to enjoy life. They knew the value of joy and value of life.


They built famous amazing theatres and club buildings. They dressed up in the evenings and strolled in the famous quay. Some got together in their neighborhood squares and chatted idly as the day came to an end.


This lifestyle is something we lost in our need to work extremely hard in a world that is getting poorer and poorer every day. Sadly, we have become machines and from the first grade onwards we do have a plan, which university to go and what profession to choose.


Everything is geared toward earning money so that we can eat, and we can pay for our shelter. This is a 21st-century reality. It was not always like that.


Besides earning money and working so hard, people did have time to create art for the art itself or get together, produce music and dance together because it was the natural thing to do.


Smyrna reminds us to slow down. It reminds us that life is nothing but a series of losses and what is most important is how you spend your day.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on a book on the destruction of Istanbul. It has so many layers. There is the physical destruction of Istanbul, historical buildings are being torn down or restored in the ugliest way in order to serve as shopping malls with food courts.


The whole city has become a center for consumption. If you are not a consumer, you are no one.


At another level my new project is dealing with the way Istanbul, the glorious capital of the Byzantium and then the Ottoman empires, became this space of one single nation with one narrow understanding of one single religion.


Christian minorities who once upon a time were the people of Istanbul/Constantinople are kicked out of their sacred town gradually, systematically.


Now the remaining intellectuals and artists are leaving the city because with its high-rises, shopping malls, five-star hotels and its terrible traffic it is not a place you can create anymore. Beauty is being extracted from the most beautiful city on earth. And my new book is a requiem for my hometown.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I am very excited that my first English book is published and available for the English readers.


When I was writing The Silence of Scheherazade I was living in Portland, Oregon, and I was writing the book at the coffeeshops of Portland. Especially in the coffeeshop of Powell’s Books in Portland.


My friends kept asking me what it is about and when will they read it. Finally it is ready in English and I am thrilled to know that all my friends in Portland will get a glimpse of my literature. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with JoAnn Ross




JoAnn Ross is the author of the new novel The Inheritance. Her many other novels include the Honeymoon Harbor series. She lives in the Pacific Northwest.


Q: What inspired you to write The Inheritance, and how did you create your cast of characters?


A: The inspiration goes back a very long time. Like Tess, I never knew my father, who deserted my mother when I was a toddler.


Over the years I’d hear stories about how they drove across the country from Brooklyn when they were very young newlyweds to study at the famed Pasadena Playhouse.


I’d never thought about it until answering this question but perhaps them being such big dreamers is what gave 7-year-old-me, growing up in a small Oregon ranching and timber town, the audacity to decide to become a writer.


A few years ago, I had an impulse to Google my father’s name and found his obituary mentioning a daughter from his second marriage.


Having that, I contacted her on Facebook and because I’d always known about her, I’d assumed she knew about me. Oops, apparently, she didn’t.  When she asked her mother why she hadn’t been told her father had a previous family, the response was “It never came up.” 


That stirred an idea about three half-sisters, who each had an entirely different relationship with their father.


Tess, the oldest, who had no memory of him, knew about the middle sister, who didn’t know about the other two. The youngest sister knew about all three, and when she learns they inherited a famous winery, she’s initially concerned that the other two will dislike her because she was the closest to their father.


Q: What do you think the book says about family history? 


A: I was a big fan of that program Who Do You Think You Are, and more recently, Finding Your Roots, and have learned that every family has secrets that can remain hidden for decades, sometimes even centuries. But they’re a valuable part of our own story.


In The Inheritance, once the three sisters put aside their rivalries and differences, they realize that the winery wasn’t the legacy their father left behind. Instead, their true legacy is the bond of family and discovering that they come from a line of strong, brave, adventurous individuals.  


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


A: Since I always begin with characters and trust that they’ll help me find my way through a story that I believe will fit them, I’d originally intended to tell Madeline and Robert’s story in a journal the sisters find. But midway through the book, she became so alive, I don’t think she would have let me get away with not allowing her to tell her story her way.


She did do one thing during WWII that actually surprised me when I found myself writing that scene.


The other surprise was how Charlotte reclaimed the girl with big plans and dreams she’d once been, and became the strong, independent woman that her father had always encouraged her to be.


One thing that was clear to me from the beginning was that the story would not be about three sisters, but three daughters.


I originally started with Jackson Swann having already died. But because each woman’s character was, in large part, formed by her relationship (or in Tess’s case, non-relationship), with their father, I wanted readers to have more of a sense of the complex, admittedly flawed man who’d been living in my head from the beginning. Even before I wrote the first word.


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


A: That blood ties are not what bonds a family, but heart. While you can’t choose the family you’re born into, you can create a family from those you choose. Those who also love and choose you. Then, together, you can decide what path in life you’ll take from there.


Q: What are you working on now? 


A: Having just finished the fourth book in my contemporary Honeymoon Harbor series set on Washington State’s magnificent Olympic Peninsula, I’m beginning to weave partially formed characters, who’ve been waiting in the mists of my mind, with scattered, colorful threads of a story into another Women’s Fiction novel that readers will hopefully enjoy and perhaps find a bit of themselves in.  


Q: Anything else we should know? 


A: I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all the bloggers and reviewers who help readers learn about new books in an increasingly crowded marketplace. Especially those who’ve taken valuable time to read The  Inheritance.


Also, thanks to the booksellers and librarians who get my books into the hands of readers, and as always, to those readers who’ve allowed me to live my childhood dream for the past 38 years.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 19



Sept. 19, 1920: Roger Angell born.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Q&A with Dorothy Kalins




Dorothy Kalins is the author of the new book The Kitchen Whisperers: Cooking with the Wisdom of Our Friends. She is the founding editor-in-chief of Metropolitan Home and Saveur magazines, and the former executive editor of Newsweek. She lives in New York City. 



Q: What inspired you to write The Kitchen Whisperers?


A: I realized that I did, literally, hear people talking to me as I prepped and cooked.


As I wash my lettuce from the farmers market, I remember a French grandmother telling me to be sure I washed my salad greens three times. Every time I cook pasta, I hear Marcella Hazan’s warning not to add salt to the water until it boils. If I go to make cornbread or biscuits, I hear the Mississippi tones of Lola Mae Autry guiding me through handling the flour (not too much!).


As I began to test the idea. I asked friends and even people I just met, about being influenced by people they knew and cooked with, rather than cookbooks, or cooking shows. As people’s eyes seemed to light up with recognition I knew I’d found the central idea of my book.


Q: You begin the book, "Alone in the kitchen? Impossible!" What do you see as the communal or unifying aspects of cooking?


A: We all have these voices, these memories, these techniques and quirks with us as we cook, even if we are alone.

In The Stomach Club chapter, I talk about the joys (and occasional frustrations) of cooking with a group of friends. As long as nobody bigfoots it, I love the camaraderie, the nuttiness, the sheer joy of cooking with others.


People gathering together around fire to prepare something to eat is as old as civilization itself. The wisdom of our friends stays with us, life-affirming and joyous.


Q: Of the various memories you include in the book, do you have a couple that resonated even more than the others?


A: Once I began to write, I found myself treasuring the discoveries I was making. Cooking with your friends is a chance to be together, to have unstructured time, to talk about family, about life…the things you’d never get to over the phone or in an email. I have sorely missed such cooking intimacy during this pandemic.


It is impossible to ever forget the lessons I learned cooking (or watching) the chefs I’ve had the great good fortune to produce cookbooks with.


Michael Anthony’s quiet expertise could encourage me to try the scariest thing he ever cooked: a leek tart from V is for Vegetables. Mike Solomonov is the funniest serious cook I’ve ever met.


But really, if I had one wish it would be to cook again soon with Christopher Hirsheimer, now the chef at Canal House Station in Milford, N.J.,  because I learn always, by watching her, and, well, girls together in the kitchen: we get to talk about everything!


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, "While each memory is a pleasure to savor, what resonates most is the how these stories will inspire readers to take stock and appreciate their own whisperers." What do you think of that assessment, and what do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: Oh yes, nothing makes me happier that to hear from someone who’s just read the book saying that it reminds them of someone in their own life. This ratifies and legitimatizes the hand-me-down kitchen practices I write about.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: After the brouhaha around The Kitchen Whisperers settles down a bit, I will begin work with Mike Solomonov and Steven Cook on producing a big follow-up to their award-winning cookbook, Zahav, with Zahav At Home.


That is a huge project. Even though the restaurant recipes we showed in Zahav were extremely cookable, our next challenge is to translate their basic cooking methods and ingredients to the home kitchen.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Author photo by Roger Sherman.

Q&A with Larry Dane Brimner




Larry Dane Brimner is the author of the new children's picture book Without Separation: Prejudice, Segregation, and the Case of Roberto Alvarez. It focuses on a 1931 court case. Brimner's many other books include Black & White. A former teacher, he lives in San Diego and in Tucson.


Q: What inspired you to write Without Separation?


A: The story of Roberto Alvarez had been on my radar since the mid-1980s.


Ever since the Public Broadcasting Service launched in the 1960s, I had been a fan, consuming its cooking and gardening staples. (This is something that continued into adulthood and—ah—ancient age. What can I say? I was an unusual child that grew into an eccentric grownup.)


At one point after I’d begun writing seriously, I happened upon a docudrama called The Lemon Grove Incident, and it struck me that a factual book about it would make an interesting title for young people.


I like studying about civil rights denied American citizens and other social justice (or injustice) issues. I also lived in downtown San Diego and was familiar with Lemon Grove, which was a stone’s throw away.


But try as I might over the years, I was unable to find the door into the story.


As straight nonfiction, it was dull because the court case that revolved around Roberto and his exclusion from Lemon Grove Grammar School wasn’t full of twists and turns. It was a straightforward, Judge-Judy case; that is, the case was brought to court one day and the judge issued a quick opinion.


Every year or so I’d pull out my research notes and take another stab at getting into the story, and it just did not work.


Finally in 2015 or 2016, I began tinkering with it again and thought that if I gave Roberto more of a role than he had in real life—historical fiction, if you will—it might work. The result is Without Separation.


Then it seemed to take years—at least far too long—to find an illustrator. But sometimes a story takes decades to come to fruition.

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


A: To research the story, I went back to old articles in the San Diego Sun and Evening Tribune newspapers.


I also read articles about the boycott of the Lemon Grove School District by the Mexican families and their children. Mexican and Mexican American children accounted for almost half of the school district’s entire enrollment, so this posed quite a financial impact to the system.


Roberto Alvarez Jr., Roberto’s son and a college professor, had written articles about the incident, as well as more general pieces about the role of Mexicans in the settlement of California and the Southwest.


The San Diego History Center and the Lemon Grove Historical Society also provided a wealth of information and knowledgeable people to interview.


Finally, court transcripts informed the speed of the trial. The book takes its title from these transcripts and the judge’s opinion.


Did I learn anything that surprised me? I’m not sure I was surprised by it, but systemic racism reared its head in the form of the school board’s belief, and the reality, that San Diego’s district attorney at the time supported its position that a separate school for children of Mexican parentage was necessary and right and just.


But, without going into detail, I also learned that racism, which we usually think of in terms of white supremacy, also exists in people of color and this is unfortunate.


Important stories need to be told regardless of who tells them, and if they are told in a fair and an objective and well-researched, honest manner that should be the basis of judgment.


Q: How would you compare Roberto Alvarez's experiences with those of kids today who face discrimination?


A: This is an interesting question. The times were different, yet many things remain the same.


In the 1930s—the Great Depression—minority groups were often blamed, especially by politicians and those who had fallen victim to the economic conditions of the day, for the difficulties.


During this period, people of Mexican decent were encouraged (and in some cases legally forced) to “return” to Mexico, even if the United States was the country they had been born in and/or the only country they knew. Sadly, current events tell the same story.


Q: The Kirkus Review of the book calls it "A critical contribution to discussions of equal access and of systemic racism." What do you hope kids take away from the book?


A: As I said in the book, “Sometimes a person has to stand up for what is right—to fight for justice, to confront discrimination.”


Almost all of my books for Calkins Creek have been about the struggle for justice and the righting of wrongs. I hope Without Separation and my other books do add to this discussion. I present the facts, and I simply ask that readers ask themselves what is right, how would they like to be treated.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m not working on anything. As I expressed to Roger Sutton in a recent interview, Without Separation may be my last book. And yet, it may not be.


Over the years I have sacrificed a lot to achieve what little success I have gained—family, friends were allowed to fall by the wayside in pursuit of print; deadlines were always convenient excuses for not mixing and mingling (not to mention a good hideout for a shy person)—and since the death of my spouse I’ve been doing a lot of soul searching and asking whether the hours, days, weeks, and months of isolation have been worth it.


Yes, I’ve produced one or two books I’m proud of, but have they made a difference in the world?


In discussing the notion of retirement with fellow writer David Harrison, he said something that resonated: “I fear I may only exist at the end of my pen.” In my case, it would be “at the end of a keystroke” rather than pen, but I worry that I so long have self-identified and been so by others as a WRITER, that I may not be able to not-write. The pursuit of publication, though, is another matter.


At this point I’m still mulling things over and trying to determine if it’s time to type --30-- at the end of my bio.  


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Nada.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Larry Dane Brimner.

Q&A with Lee Matthew Goldberg




Lee Matthew Goldberg is the author of the new novel Stalker Stalked. His other books include The Ancestor, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Los Angeles Review of Books. He lives in New York City.


Q: What inspired you to write Stalker Stalked?


A: I had just finished a very serious, research-driven book called The Ancestor. I mostly write thrillers and wanted to write one that was a bit lighter. I pictured my main character to be a stalker and then thought, what if the stalker gets stalked?


Q: How did you create your character Lexi?


A: So, Lexi is obsessed with watching reality TV and stalks her favorite character on a show. I watched a ton of them for research and Lexi wound up becoming a mix of a few of the most out there personalities.


She’s an unreliable narrator and can be unlikeable too, but you root for her at the end. She goes on a journey with the readers.


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 knew the very last scene, which is super shocking and powerful. I don’t think readers can see it coming.


But there was a huge change I made to another part of the book. My editor was the one who suggested the change, and he was absolutely right. I’d mention what it is, but that would be spoiling the whole plot.


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


A: First and foremost, I hope they have a good time reading.


But the book is also a comment on our social media and celebrity-driven culture. We have such intimate access to everyone’s lives now, but it’s also chosen access, so is it actually real? The concept of reality has changed in the last few years, definitely for the worse.

Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m finishing the third book in my YA series Runaway Train. It’ll be the last book in the series, so I’m nervous about sticking the landing.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I enjoy writing in multiple genres. I’m a thriller writer first, but also have a YA and a sci-fi book out there. The next genre I’ll try will be horror, maybe under a pen-name. I have an idea that basically is about an interview from HELL.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 18



Sept. 18, 1947: Drew Gilpin Faust born.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Q&A with Jay Coles



Photo by Victoria Ruth Photography


Jay Coles is the author of the new young adult novel Things We Couldn't Say. He also has written the YA novel Tyler Johnson Was Here. Also a musician, he lives in Indianapolis. 



Q: What inspired you to write Things We Couldn't Say, and how did you create your character Gio?  


A: To be honest, Gio's story came to me quite easily during the period of time I was stuck in my house in quarantine this past year. I spent a lot of time thinking about Gio’s biggest desires from the world, for himself, for those people in his life and the thing he most feared: abandonment.


From there, the whole plot of the book came to me. It’s kind of magical, I know. 


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 the novel would end before starting it. I prefer to let the characters take me on a journey instead of me coming up with the journey ahead of time. I must say I was just as shocked by the ending as everyone else. HA! 


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


A: Things We Couldn’t Say went through a few title changes, but the title for this book represents all the true things that we feel like we have to keep to ourselves because of the shame we fear we’ll bring to ourselves, to others, or to the world.


There are things that we all have that we fear sharing with other people, parts of who we are, deep desires of our heart, wounds and trauma, you name it, we all have those things we feel like we just “can’t say.”


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


A: I hope readers take away that it’s okay to let people go, let people stay in the past if that’s where they want to be. This is a story about the complicated dynamic of forgiveness in relationships just as much as it is about love and family. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m very busy working on a lot of different things, but I’m not quite allowed to share anything yet!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I really, really, really want to write a Marvel book! If someone out there can make it happen, DO IT! (Please!)


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Mindy Weisel




Mindy Weisel is the author of the new memoir After: The Obligation of Beauty. It focuses on her life as the daughter of Holocaust survivors. Her other books include Daughters of Absence, and she is also an artist. She lives in Jerusalem.


Q: What inspired you to write After: The Obligation of Beauty, and how long did it take you to write?


A: In 2009 I started writing a memoir. It was called Making Marks. I worked on this slowly for another 11 years, while also painting, exhibiting and traveling. The writing/manuscript kept changing titles, as did the subject and the essence of what I was trying to explore.


In its final stages, instead of focusing primarily on my parents' history, as Holocaust survivors, I started to explore more on what being raised in a Holocaust survivors’ home meant to me, as the only daughter, and how, in fact, did I come to believe in beauty and art, coming from that bleak background.


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


A: The title of the book came after almost 10 years of title changes. The title "After": instead of talking about the Holocaust, my life before coming to the U.S., I became most interested in what happened after.


After we came to the U.S, how did we start a new life (after three years in Bergen-Belsen)? How did I survive the drama/seriousness/obligations/loneliness/tragedy of coming from a Holocaust survivors’ home? How did I become a serious painter? How did my life enter and inform my work? How did I combine being a wife and mother; losing my own mother?


The subtitle "the obligation of beauty" came from my youngest daughter (now 39, University of Chicago graduate, lives here in Israel, mother of two) who felt my life had meaning when I was involved with "beauty" in one form or another.


That beauty was what gave my life a sense of fulfillment - whether in creating it or participating in it in nature or other art forms: music, dance, poetry. My love of flowers. All came into focus while writing.


Q: As an artist and a writer, how do the two creative forms coexist for you?


A: When I'm not painting, I seem to be writing, yet when I'm painting I'm also writing. I start each work by writing directly on the canvas or paper, what I'm feeling, thinking, what's going on in the world, reactions to music, poetry, etc., and I write and write until words lose their meaning and only mark-making makes sense.


When I'm doing actual writing, no painting, it seems to come from a quieter place, and I can let the writing just almost form itself. 


I write and edit only when I've written for days. I don't judge or edit anything while working, whether writing or painting. Both in writing and painting, I seem to work in layers. Layers of time. Layers of experience. Layers of thought. Layers of emotion.


Q: You write, "We were an entire generation looking at our parents' faces to see how they felt." Can you say more about that?


A: I don't know a Holocaust survivor's child who grew up worrying about themselves. The emphasis was always on making their parents "happy." 


All I wanted, as far back as I can remember, was to be as "perfect" as I could be - not cause my parents any aggravation nor make demands on their time nor energy. I felt my entire purpose in life was to provide them with as much "ease" as possible.


All my cousins and friends, who, like me, were survivors' children, felt their mission was simply to make their parents feel fulfilled. I tried to keep my parents in the present. I could read my parents' faces from the curve of a lip, to a tip of an eyebrow, and know whether they were "here" or "there."


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I'm working on a project for Berlin, a grant gifted to me from the U.S. embassy in Berlin.


I will be creating a series in glass as an antidote to Kristallnacht, the night of the broken glass, November 9, 1938, in Germany. I am working on taking broken glass, and creating 18 new fused glass windows (18 for Chai - to life). These new glass works will represent the survival of beauty.


This exhibition coincides with the publication of my book and will also be called AFTER The Obligation of Beauty.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: That I am very grateful, Deborah, for your interest in my work and in sharing it with your readers. I send all loving regards from Jerusalem.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb