Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Q&A with Ross King

 

 


 

Ross King is the author of the new book The Bookseller of Florence: The Story of the Manuscripts That Illuminated the Renaissance. His many other books include Brunelleschi's Dome. He lives in Woodstock, UK.

 

Q: How did you first learn about Vespasiano da Bisticci, and at what point did you decide to write this book?

 

A: I occasionally came across Vespasiano’s name when I read books about the Medici. He would be mentioned as “Cosimo de’ Medici’s favorite bookseller”—but usually without any further explanation or information.

 

For a long time I’d wanted to do a book on manuscripts in Florence, and so Vespasiano, as the biggest manuscript dealer in Europe, was an obvious choice as a place to start.

 

But the more I read about him, the more I realized that he was the perfect person to help me give a panorama of Florence in the 1400s. He knew absolutely everyone, from popes to kings and princes, to three generations of the Medici.

 

Luckily, he wrote biographies of them all, leaving a wealth of gossipy detail.

 

Q: What impact did the invention of the printing press have on Vespasiano's work?

 

A: Printed books, invented in the 1450s, were much cheaper than handwritten manuscripts—roughly 20 percent cheaper.

 

But they were also, Vespasiano believed, uglier and full of mistakes, unlike his beautifully produced manuscripts from which he carefully eradicated errors.

 

He refused to have anything to do with printed books, but obviously they became the new information technology—and so he was eventually forced to close his bookstore! The only good thing is that he then had free time to write his memoirs of his famous clients.

 

Q: How well known was Vespasiano in his time, and what do you see as his legacy today?

 

A: Vespasiano was extremely well known in his own lifetime, both in Italy and abroad. He was very well connected, and foreign dignitaries coming to Florence sometimes visited him first because he knew everyone and could make the introductions.

 

He was known, quite justifiably, as the “king of the world’s booksellers.” Anyone who wanted to have a beautiful copy of a manuscript, written on parchment by the finest scribes and decorated by gorgeous illumination, knew who to turn to. 

 

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

 

A: I hope readers will enjoy immersing themselves in a fascinating moment in world history, and learning about things such as manuscript production and the rise of the printing press. And ultimately, I suppose, I’d like people to consider that books and manuscripts were as important to the Italian Renaissance as paintings and sculptures. 

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I haven’t started a new book yet, but I’m filming a series of short talks for my YouTube channel on “Renaissance Discoveries,” which covers many of the intellectual and technological advances of the 1400s. Unlike Vespasiano, I’m trying to embrace new technologies!

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I love to quote one of Vespasiano’s lines to everyone: “All evil is born from ignorance. Yet writers have illuminated the world, chasing away the darkness.” More than 500 years later, it’s still important for us to look for wisdom and guidance in books.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Kathy Kacer

 


 

Kathy Kacer is the author of Call Across the Sea, a new middle grade novel for kids. It's the fourth in her Heroes Quartet series, which includes Louder Than Words. She lives in Toronto.

 

Q: How did you learn about Henny Sinding, and why did you decide  to write a novel based on her life?

 

A: I was looking for a fourth "hero" in the Heroes Quartet series. I knew I wanted to write about a woman. That would even things out; the first two books about male rescuers, and the last two about female rescuers.

 

I was reading the stories of many women who had rescued Jews and came across Henny's story. It just stood out for me - a young woman who had sailed Jews to safety across the channel from Denmark to Sweden.

 

Q: As you noted, this is the fourth in your Heroes Quartet series. What do you see as the relationship between Call Across the Sea and the other three novels?

 

A: They are all stories of rescuers - those who saved Jews during the Second World War and the Holocaust. Some were famous (e.g. Bronislaw Huberman), and some were hardly known at all (e.g. Henny Sinding).


It was important to me to find a balance in the stories between those who were well-known and those were rather ordinary but demonstrated such remarkable courage.

 

I think that all those who saved Jews, including the four I write about in this series, are role models for young people today, showing what was possible during that terrible time in history.

 

Q: How did you research this novel, and how did you blend your historical research with the fictional aspects of the story?

 

A: Research is such an important and interesting part of the writing process for me - reading books, exploring websites, finding personal testimony, etc. Sometimes, I get so carried away by the research and the history that I forget it's time to write!

 

All the time that I was researching Henny Sinding, I kept notes that roughly plotted out the fictional aspects of the story I wanted to write. I asked myself things like "who will Henny rescue? Who might help her? What is her relationship like with her father? How else might she stand up for the rights of Jews?"

 

Then, when I was ready to write, I started combining the fictional aspects of the story with the real history.

 

Q: Can you say more about what you hope young readers will take away from the book?

 

A: As I said earlier, I hope readers will see the rescuers in all four of these books as heroic examples of what was possible in that terrible time in history.

 

There were certainly not enough rescuers like Henny Sinding - or the others. But each one of these brave people were willing to demonstrate moral courage by standing up for their Jewish friends and neighbours despite the dangers to themselves. I think that's pretty heroic and people like Henny should be celebrated by all!

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I have a new book coming out in the fall called Under the Iron Bridge. It tells the story of a remarkable group of young German teens who were part of a resistance group called The Edelweiss Pirates.

 

They offered shelter to escaped prisoners from concentration camps. They made armed raids on military depots, stole explosives, and supplied them to resistance groups, and so much more. This is the story of a boy who is forced to join the Hitler youth but discovers the Edelweiss Pirates and becomes one of them.

 

I'm also working on a new book about a Jewish woman named Irene Danner who was a circus performer in Germany before the war. During the war, she and her mother were hidden in another circus by another remarkable rescuer, a man named Adolf Althoff. There are incredible stories that I discover nearly every day, and so many more that I want to write!

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I'm so excited that my website www.kathykacer.com has been completely redone and is live and ready for you to visit! It's got lots of information for young people, for adults, and for educators.

 

Blurbs about all of my books are listed along with information on how to contact me for a school/library/book club/conference visit. Hope you have a chance to check it out!

 

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

Q&A with Syl Sobel and Jay Rosenstein

 

 

Syl Sobel

 

Syl Sobel and Jay Rosenstein are the authors of the new book Boxed Out of the NBA: Remembering the Eastern Professional Basketball League. They grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and now both live in the Washington, D.C., area.

 

Q: The two of you have been interested in the Eastern League since you were kids – what first intrigued you about it, and at what point did you decide to write this book?

 

A: We grew up together in Scranton and have been friends since kindergarten. Our dads first took us to Eastern League games at the Scranton Catholic Youth Center when we were 7 years old, back in the early 1960s, to watch the Scranton Miners play.

 

We immediately became huge fans. We were fascinated by the game, the players, the crowds, the energy. After the games we’d even get a chance to see and meet with some of the players. The Miners had a huge following in Scranton, especially with boys.

Jay Rosenstein
 

One of our favorite stories in the book is about how Jay’s parents made the mistake of scheduling Jay’s brother Bruce’s 1964 Bar Mitzvah party on the same night as a Scranton Miners home game against the Camden Bullets.  

 

Well, Jay’s brother put up a fuss and threatened to leave the party to go to the game, which was possible because the CYC was only one block away from where the party was to be held. Thank God, Jay’s parents solved the problem by agreeing to let Bruce, Jay, and their friends listen to the game on a pocket transistor radio. 

 

We went to Eastern League games together through high school, then left Scranton and went to college together at Georgetown and later became professional writers. And when we’d get together through the years we’d almost always talk about the Eastern League and say, “We’ve got to write a book.” So we did.

 

These great players, coaches, and refs – many no longer with us, others in their 70s, 80s and 90s – needed to have their stories told. We’re happy to be doing that.

 

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

 

A: We did a lot of interviews – almost 40 former Eastern League players, owners, referees, and fans.

 

We found former players in a number of ways – Google searches, social media, college and pro sports information offices for former players who had gone on to become coaches or to play in the NBA.

 

Some former players kept in touch with former teammates and they shared contact information. The former owner of the Scranton team is a friend of Jay’s family and he shared a lot of telephone numbers with us.

 

And early on we posted about our project on the Eastern League fan Facebook page and asked people to share stories, photos, mementos, etc., and several members of that group shared contact information with us.

 

We also read books that mentioned the Eastern League in some way, although to our knowledge ours is the first book published about the Eastern League.

 

For example, books about the early years of the ABA mention the Eastern League as a source of players during the ABA’s first years, books about the college point-shaving scandal of the 1950s helped us learn why some of the best players of their time had to play in the Eastern League, books about African American players in professional basketball explained why so many great black players ended up in the Eastern League, and books by former Eastern Leaguer and CBA coach Charley Rosen described some of his Eastern League experiences.

 

And, of course, we scoured the internet for everything we could find about the Eastern League, including newspaper and magazine articles, Wikipedia, articles and statistical tables prepared by basketball researchers. We even did some microfiche research at the library in Hazleton, Pa., where we found articles about the league’s founding in 1946.

 

Along the way we came across a few surprises, of course, like learning that in the early years of the league there were so many professional and semi-pro basketball leagues popping up that some cities had more than one team, and some players used to play in several different leagues, sometimes using assumed names.

 

But the best surprise – or should we say realization – was, in our conversations with many of the players who we idolized as kids, we found out that not only were they great players in their day, but they were great people.

 

Many of them became teachers and coaches who made a difference. Tom Hemans was the head of the New York City public school athletic league. “Big” Bill Green became a school principal noted for turning around troubled high schools.

 

Tony Upson became a secondary school principal and mentor to other principals. Howie Landa and Rich Cornwall became coaches and ran one of the first basketball camps in the country for girls. John Chaney, Jim Boeheim, Bob Weiss, Ray Scott, Hubie Brown . . . the list just goes on and on.

 

It was such a pleasure to get to know what successful lives these men went on to lead after they stopped playing.

 

Q: How did this league compare to other leagues of the time, and what do you see as its legacy today?

 

A: The Eastern League was formed in early 1946, amidst a boom of professional and semipro leagues popping up to capitalize on the large number of young men back from the war and the public’s desire for entertainment.

 

Two nationwide pro basketball leagues – the American Basketball League (ABL) and the National Basketball League (NBL) – already existed. Six weeks later a third nationwide league – the Basketball Association of America (BAA) – was created. The new BAA merged in 1949 with the NBL to form what is now the NBA.

 

A few years later the ABL folded, leaving two main professional leagues in the country – the NBA nationwide and the weekend-only Eastern League located mostly in small Pennsylvania cities and considered second best to the NBA.

 

While the NBA was the top league in the world, from the early 1950s to the end of the 1966/67 season, the Eastern League had its glory years.

 

That’s thanks in large part to great college players who were involved in gambling scandals and banned from the NBA but not from the Eastern League, and the NBA’s unofficial quotas on the number of black players that resulted in amazingly talented black players joining the Eastern League.

 

Moreover, for most of that time the NBA had only 10 or fewer teams and around 100 players total, compared to 30 teams and 450 NBA players today. So the Eastern League was the next-best alternative for a lot of great players who couldn’t squeeze into the NBA.

 

Some worked their way up to the NBA – like Bob Love, Bob Weiss, and Fred Crawford – while other former NBA players came down to the Eastern League to finish their pro careers, including greats like K.C. Jones and Paul Arizin.

 

Starting in the 67/68 season, the new, nationwide American Basketball Association (ABA) took many of the best players away from the Eastern League. It was the beginning of the end for the league. For the players who stayed and new players coming in, the Eastern League remained tough and competitive, but it was not the same.

 

By the 1978/79 season, the Eastern League was rebranded as the Continental Basketball Association (CBA), still with teams in places like Allentown and Wilkes-Barre, but expanding throughout the country. After 32 years, the Eastern League was gone and replaced by the CBA, which lasted as a minor league until 2009.

 

As for the legacy of the Eastern League, it could be remembered for several things.

 

It took the three-point shot (created by Abe Saperstein’s American Basketball League in 1961) from a rarely used scoring option to a necessity for winning games.

 

The league, thanks in part to its many black players in the 1950s and early ‘60s, played a creative, up-tempo style of basketball that thrilled the fans – something the NBA, ABA and major colleges finally adopted in the late ‘60s.

 

And the Eastern League gave small, predominantly white communities a chance to see and meet African Americans, up close and personal, and break down social barriers.

 

One player recalled a night when he and several other black teammates entered an empty bar and were at first refused service, but then grudgingly served drinks. Eventually, however, the bartender realized they were professional basketball players from the local team, and started talking with them and giving them free drinks.

 

As customers entered the bar, he introduced them, and the fans bought the players drinks. By the time the night was over, the bartender, players, and fans were all friends and the bartender invited them to come back to his bar after every game, which they did.

 

Q: Can you say more about the role race played in the league?

 

A: Professional basketball was essentially a segregated sport when the Eastern League was formed in 1946. Though some African American players had played in the NBL during World War II and into 1946, none were in the BAA before it merged with the NBL in 1949 to form the NBA.

 

It wasn’t until 1950 that the NBA allowed its first black players – three in total, with a fourth joining the league after the season started. Through the 1950s and into the early 1960s, most players and observers from that time say the NBA had an unwritten “quota” on African American players (starting with no more than one per team, then two, then three).  

 

The Eastern League, meanwhile, had three black players, all on the Hazleton team, in its first season in 1946-47, and two in each of its next two seasons.

 

In 1953, when a number of players implicated in the 1951 college gambling scandal – several of whom were black – entered the league, the doors opened for top African American players to become Eastern Leaguers.

 

The Hazleton Hawks had the first all-black starting lineup in 1956, while the NBA didn’t have one until 1964 (Boston Celtics). By 1960, when the NBA was still only about 20 percent black, the Eastern League was probably around 50-50.

 

The NBA’s quotas brought a lot of talented players to the Eastern League and elevated both the league’s level of competition and its stature in basketball circles.

 

Greats like Hal “King” Lear, Wally Choice, Dick Gaines, John Chaney, Tom Hemans, and Julius McCoy had little or no chance to play in the NBA, so spent almost their entire professional careers in the Eastern League.

 

During the summer these players competed against NBA players in the summer leagues like the Rucker League in New York and the Baker League in Philadelphia and held their own.

 

Black players from that era acknowledged that while the fans in the league’s small, blue-collar towns were generally supportive, the players did encounter off-court issues of racism.

 

One player recalled being turned away from a prospective apartment with the admonition: “We don’t rent to coloreds,” and players had problems getting served at some restaurants and finding anything but menial jobs if they decided to live in the towns where they played.

 

Nonetheless, as the story above about the ballplayers and the local bartender illustrates and as several players observed to us, the league did help to open doors and break down barriers in these small cities.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: At this point, we’re mostly working on launching this book. We’re also exploring the possibility of turning it into a documentary. We think these players have a great story to tell, one that’s in danger of being lost in the history of professional basketball.

 

At a time when only 100 or so players could make it into the NBA, the men who played in the Eastern League were some of the top basketball players in the world. Yet few people have heard about them. We think it’s time they get their due recognition.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: Yes. When we were kids growing up watching the Eastern League, we admired and even idolized these players. They were professional athletes and we were getting to see them up close in basically a high school gym, the Scranton Catholic Youth Center. So we have very powerful memories of the players and the games we watched.

 

And as we talked with fans from other towns and followed the Facebook page for Eastern League fans, we realized that our experience was not unique.

 

The Facebook page has over 1,000 members, and many of them posted memories similar to ours in their home cities like Allentown, Sunbury, Wilmington, Wilkes-Barre, and Trenton, and expressed the same kind of strong connection to the league.

 

So it was really cool to learn that many of the players felt the same way. Many of them told us how much they loved playing in the league and the energy they got from the fans in the small towns. Some players used to stay at the homes of fans, so they could save the few bucks a night it cost for a motel.

 

So there was a bond between the players and fans that could only have happened in these small towns and to players who weren’t jaded by playing in the “big leagues” and in large arenas where they didn’t have that kind of close connection with the fans.

 

In a way, the book is a love story between players who savored the opportunity they had to continue playing professionally and to fans who appreciated the opportunity to see great players up close. We hope that comes across in the story. 

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Syl Sobel.

April 14

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
April 14, 1921: Thomas Schelling born.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Q&A with Marvin Kalb

 

 


 

Marvin Kalb is the author of the new memoir Assignment Russia: Becoming a Foreign Correspondent in the Crucible of the Cold War. His many other books include the memoir The Year I Was Peter the Great. A former longtime correspondent for CBS and NBC, he is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. I'm proud to say that he is also my father!

 

Q: This is your second memoir, following The Year I Was Peter the Great. Why did you decide to write this new book?

 

A: When the first memoir came out, I thought it might be the last one, but there were a lot of favorable comments about the story I tell of a young American in Russia in 1956. I was working at the U.S. embassy, which allowed me to be at various meetings. I was able to meet with top Soviet leaders, including Nikita Khrushchev. He nicknamed me Peter the Great.

 

I was given the opportunity to work at CBS News, as their Moscow correspondent. The story is so compelling. Russia in the Cold War was an eye-catching headline. People kept asking me what was going on there, so I decided to write the second memoir.

 

Q: Do you think young journalists today could have any similar experiences to yours of 60 years ago, or has the world changed too much?

 

A: In one respect they can. Russia remains an incredibly interesting story. Whether it’s led by Khrushchev, Putin, or Gorbachev, it’s a terrific front-page story.

 

In another respect it would be radically different: the changes in technology. We had to send all our copy through a government censor. They could eliminate the story, throw us out of the country, or clear it.

 

Now, that’s not the case. With iPhones, iPads, new technology, reporters can use it to advance their study of Russia. The story of Navalny would never have been possible in the old days. Now it’s possible with social media.


Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, “Kalb’s fond, generous memoir, which vividly delineates a bygone era of early journalism, will appeal to students of 20th-century American history as well as aspiring broadcast journalists.” What do you think of that assessment, and what do you hope readers take away from the book?

 

A: I hope readers will enjoy the excitement I felt at that time in Russia. I wrote in the book that this could be considered a long letter home after an exciting experience. I wanted the book to be an opportunity to share the excitement I felt, anticipating going to Russia, being in Russia, and covering so magnetic a political leader as Nikita Khrushchev.

 

In this respect, he was a very modern leader—he loved being on television, being the center of attention, giving interviews to foreign correspondents.

 

To the degree that I’m able to convey the excitement of covering Russia, I have succeeded as a writer.

 

Q: Often when I ask people about their memoir, I ask what their family thinks of it. Obviously that’s not something I will ask you because I know we all really love the book! But I will ask how you decided on the amount of personal information you included in the book.

 

A: The book is a memoir. It’s my story. My story in the years 1957-61 was absorbed with two major issues. One was personal and one was professional.

 

On the personal side, I met and married Madeleine Green, a recent Wellesley graduate absorbed at Columbia with the pursuit of a Ph.D. in Soviet studies. She was as much part of the story as anything I was covering. So she had to be in the book, and I’m delighted to include those elements of the Russia story that the two of us discovered. It was not just my discovery.

 

Second, I spoke at some length in the book about the role my brother Bernard played in my selection of a specialization like Russia and a career like journalism. He is an essential part of the story of my life at that time, and he played a major role in the book.

 

Q: Would you like to write another memoir?

 

A: I do have another memoir in mind. It’s pretty well sketched out in my mind. It will be a continuation of the story of a journalist covering the Cold War. It was one of the most dangerous periods in world history. I was very fortunate to have a job as diplomatic correspondent for CBS and NBC. At both networks, I was able to cover the highlights of the Cold War.

 

One possible title for the new book would be Highlights. I look forward to writing it, finishing it, and having you all as readers!

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: There’s one point I would like people to bear in mind. This book for me was my way of saying thank you to the United States for welcoming my mother and father in the years before World War I. They both came from Eastern Europe, and had suffered forms of religious persecution.

 

They came to this country hoping it would live up to the advance billing among many Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who thought of the country as a golden paradise.

 

In many ways, my parents were not disappointed. Nothing was easy, but they were given the opportunity for economic advancement and religious and political freedom. The book is my way of saying thank you to this country. I’m “paying back” with this memoir.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with my father.

Q&A with Kim Todd

 

 


 

Kim Todd is the author of the new book Sensational: The Hidden History of  America's "Girl Stunt Reporters". Her other books include Sparrow.

 

Q: What inspired you to write Sensational?

 

A: I was reading Ten Days in a Madhouse by Nellie Bly, her story of pretending to be mentally ill to get committed to Blackwell’s Insane Asylum for Women in 1887. When she emerged, after witnessing rotten food and beatings, she wrote an exposé  for the World.

 

I was struck by her voice, so unlike much of the other 19th-century writing of the day. It was fresh and funny and created a narrative filled with tension, and I wondered about its impact.

 

When I started to poke around, like the research nerd that I am, it became clear to me that her articles were so popular they created a career path for an entire decade of female reporters whose main qualifications—like hers—were ambition, bravery, and a willingness to go to extreme lengths in pursuit of a story.

 

Scrolling through microfilm of all these old newspapers, I became particularly curious about a writer referred to only as the “Girl Reporter,” who wrote an expose of abortion practices for the Chicago Times in 1888. Her series shook Chicago, but she remained anonymous.

 

One of the projects of the book was to see if I could figure out who she really was and learn what happened to her.

 

Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, "Todd casts a sprawling net, rescuing some of her profile subjects from obscurity and adding depth to the popular portrayals of others." How did you choose the women you focused on in the book? 

 

A: These journalistic stunts opened the door to the newspaper office for many women, a door that had been firmly closed before. I wanted to show the different outcomes of this opportunity.

 

So I chose some who became activists, some who switched to writing novels, some who had to retire because their articles were deemed so scandalous, and some, like Ida B. Wells and Victoria Earle Matthews, who weren’t stunt reporters at all but who pushed investigative journalism in other ways.

 

I also chose based on research materials available. It helped if they kept their letters or wrote a memoir. Some of the most fascinating characters, though, left hardly any trace.

 

Q: In the book, you discuss the concept of the "Girl Reporter" (as well as the actual "Girl Reporter" who wrote for the Chicago Times). What would you say are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about women reporters of these earlier times?

 

A: When these reporters are discussed today, their work is often dismissed as frivolous and sentimental. And part of their charm is the way that they don’t take themselves too seriously.

 

Bly, for example, was always joking about her vanity about her hair, and Nell Nelson painted a picture of herself covered with feathers as she attempted to make dusters in a factory. They treated themselves lightly so as not to appear intimidating.

 

But if you call their bluff and take them seriously, it’s clear that their work was highly significant, both in terms of changing laws and in terms of demonstrating that a woman’s body could be vigorous and strong, not the frail figure of Victorian medical school texts.

 

Q: What do you see as these women's legacy today?

 

A: The fields of investigative journalism and immersion journalism are indebted to them, particularly in pieces where the writer creates a vivid first-person narrator who takes the reader along for the ride.

 

Another legacy is the character of the smart, brave, curious “girl reporter.” While many of the identities of these journalists are lost to history, the idea of the “girl reporter” lives on and continues to inspire, whether in the guise of Harriet the Spy or Lois Lane.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: Both Nellie Bly and Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the World, spoke eloquently about the possibilities of journalism. Bly got frustrated with the institution at times, but it’s easy to see why people are still encouraged by her.

 

“I write the truth because I love it and because there is no living creature whose anger I fear or whose praise I court,” she wrote. Words to live by.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Darrin Doyle

 


 

Darrin Doyle is the author of the new story collection The Big Baby Crime Spree and Other Delusions. His other books include Scoundrels Among Us. He teaches at Central Michigan University, and he lives in Mount Pleasant, Michigan.

 

Q: How long did it take you to write the stories in your new collection, and how did you choose the order in which they'd appear on the book?

 

A: Each story took four to six months to complete, so I guess that would total about two years. I was actually asked by Wolfson Press if I had 100 pages of short fiction that could form a collection, and I found five stories from different periods in my life (some old, some new) that featured similar themes, voices, and moods.

 

The editors gave me arrangement suggestions for the order (the collection originally opened with “The Odds,” for example, but the editor thought the narrator of that one was less sympathetic than the narrator of “The Kaleidoscope,” so we switched it around).

 

Basically, I followed the editors’ lead, and I love what they suggested. This order walks the reader from normalcy into the dark and delusional regions of the psyche more gradually, so by the time you realize what’s happening, it’s too late.


Q: The writer Christine Sneed compared your work to that of filmmaker David Lynch. What do you think of that comparison?

 

A: I’m very flattered by this comparison because I’ve been a huge David Lynch fan since I saw Eraserhead as a teenager. I don’t consciously try to make stories like a Lynch movie (or like anyone, for that matter), but some influences just get into your blood.

 

 I admire Lynch so much for being a pure artist who never seems to care about commercial success. He does what he does, and there’s nobody else like him.

 

There aren’t many people who have an adjective based on their name: it’s pretty much just Kafka and Lynch. When someone says a work of art is “Lynchian,” we know it means off-center, quirky, surreal, darkly funny, and yet grounded in a core of realism. I can only hope to ever attain such a singular vision as David Lynch.

 

Q: Do you usually know how your stories will end before you start writing them, or do you make changes along the way?

 

A: I never know where my stories will end. I either start with a premise or a voice (or both). I never have a plan for the plot until I sit down and write.

 

When I get a little further into the story and begin to find the conflict(s), then of course I start to envision what might happen, but if I don’t surprise myself while I’m writing, then I don’t feel like the reader will be surprised either.

 

I know some writers who want to know the endings before they begin, but I can’t do that until I know who the characters are.

 

This doesn’t generally crystallize until deeper into the story, and then, if the story’s a keeper, the ending usually falls into place – with hopes that it feels, as Flannery O’Connor said, “surprising yet inevitable.”

 

Q: What do you hope readers take away from this collection?

 

A: Above all, I want readers to be entertained. By this I mean I hope they find the sentences compelling or the characters interesting (or maddening) or that there’s some humor or strangeness or other emotion that they can connect with. I just want them to keep turning the pages, intrigued by what might come next.

 

Beyond that, I hope they laugh; I hope they’re surprised; I hope they’re a little scared and concerned. This collection has a haunted baby doll, a gambler who bets on his own grandmother’s death, a street-chalk artist who stalks his models, and a hospital janitor who hopes to kidnap newborn babies.

 

Maybe the reader will take away more questions than answers, but I believe that’s what the role of art is – to raise questions about what it means to be a person, why people do the things we do, how we process grief and loss, and so on.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’m ecstatic to announce that I have a second book coming out in 2021. I still can’t believe it myself.

 

But this next book is a comedy-horror novel called The Beast in Aisle 34, and it’s about a guy named Sandy who works at Lowe’s, is married, has a baby on the way – and also is a werewolf.

 

His family lives in rural Michigan near lots of wooded land, so he believes he can satisfy his werewolf needs each month by eating the local deer. Of course, things don’t turn out the way he plans…dark humor and terror ensue.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 13

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
April 13, 1891: Nella Larsen born.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Q&A with Philippa Dowding

 

 


 

Philippa Dowding is the author of Firefly, a new middle grade novel for kids. Her many other books include the middle grade novel Oculum, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Adirondack Review and The Literary Review of Canada. She lives in Toronto.

 

Q: What inspired you to write Firefly, and how did you create your protagonist?

 

A: Firefly lives in the park across from her mother’s house all summer. Then one night a social worker finds her, and sends her to live with her Aunt Gayle in The Corseted Lady costume shop.

 

The costume-shop setting of Firefly is inspired by a real costume company run by my extended family, which provides costume and wardrobe for film, television and theatre productions.

 

It’s an amazing, magical place with 7 million pieces (if you count all the buttons, costume jewellery, boots and so on as well as the costumes), and I’ve always wanted to write a story set there.

 

So I’ve had the setting inspiration for the book for a long time, but the plot idea came to me in a sudden “who knows where ideas really come from” moment.

 

A few years ago, I had a vivid image pop into my head: two kids in Halloween costumes stand on a huge bridge, hold hands and look down onto the traffic below. The image was sweet and sad at the same time.

 

It was so vivid that I started to explore it. Who were the two kids? Why were they on the bridge in Halloween costumes?

 

I wrote the scene, which is now a pivotal scene in the book, then I realized it was part of a much bigger story about costume and disguise, family and self-discovery.

 

Once I realized that, the character of Firefly came to me almost fully formed: a smart, indomitable kid, struggling with PTSD due to a difficult home life, trying to take care of herself in a big city.

 

My real-life setting of a movie and television costume warehouse had found a protagonist, and a story: in the magical, you-can-become-anything setting of The Corseted Lady, which costume is the real Firefly?


Q: What do you think the novel says about definitions of family?

 

A: One thing I’ve learned from raising my family in a busy city is that our definition of family is constantly changing, and that we help, support and love each other in ways that make us family, whether we’re related by blood or not.

 

Firefly has a friend in the park who looks out for her, a homeless man named Moss Cart, who despite his own challenges helps her as best he can. She helps him, too.

 

There’s also a group of therapists at Jennie’s, a women’s drop-in centre, who teach Firefly coping techniques for PTSD (the therapists don’t know she is only 13).

 

And there’s Aunt Gayle who barely knows her niece, but agrees to shelter and care for Firefly as soon as the social worker contacts her. Aunt Gayle’s staff at The Corseted Lady all care for Firefly, too. As they spend time together in the days before Halloween (a busy time in a costume shop), they give Firefly support and validation in the most unusual way (and a plot twist that I can’t give away!).

 

When she starts grade nine six weeks later than everyone else, Firefly also discovers a family of school friends she never expected.

 

The only traditional family member in the story is her mother (who she calls Joanne-the-mother), who has failed Firefly. At the end of the book, they are not reconciled although there are supports in place for Firefly if she ever wants to connect with her mother.

 

What is a family? Ultimately in this book, it’s up to Firefly.

        

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

 

A: There is a scene near the end of the book, where a boy without a shirt, socks, or shoes runs into The Corseted Lady, and Aunt Gayle hands him a shirt. That scene was crystal clear in my head before I started writing.

 

The bridge scene I’ve mentioned, which is also near the end of the book, was very clear. There is another scene on Halloween day (that plot twist I can’t give away again!) that I saw with a gazer-beam intensity, too.

 

The entire book was pretty clear to me right from the moment I started writing, which is quite rare for me. They’re not all like that! But I think writing about a real costume shop that I know so well, with such a vivid main character in Firefly, kept the story clear in my head from start to finish.

 

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

 

A: I hope that young readers learn some terms they’ve never heard before, or they may have heard but not understood well, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or dissociation.

 

 I hope Firefly’s story builds empathy in readers for classmates, neighbors, friends, or for anyone who lives in a family experiencing a crisis of mental health, addiction, or homelessness.

 

I also hope that any child in a similar situation to Firefly’s will ask for help. I want that child to hear: find your crew, let them love you and help you. You're not alone.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’ve just finished a sequel to Oculum, my award-nominated dystopia for middle-grade readers (with Shakespeare and robots!), which is with my publisher.

 

I’m also polishing a fun, high-fantasy, middle-grade story about kids who hunt stories, The Story Hunters of Fen. And I’ve just started a new horror series for middle-grade readers, one of my favourite genres to write. The first story is about a girl hiking in the mountains, pursued by an elusive bug.

 

The pandemic has made me spend a lot of time alone in my office, getting better acquainted with the strangers in my head!

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: Firefly has PTSD because of a tough childhood with her mother, but it’s not what defines her. She’s smart, kind, indomitable, and she’s also quite funny.

 

In fact, I think this is one of the funniest books I’ve ever written, a balancing act of humour and pain. In one of my favourite chapters, for instance, a main character runs down a busy city street in a huge, leafy carrot costume. I’ll just leave that there!

 

By the end of the book we know that Firefly has a long journey ahead of her, but she’s got support and her strong, loving Aunt Gayle at her side, no matter what. And of course, Firefly lives in a costume shop so she has all the opportunities she could ever want for fun and self-discovery.

 

Keep reading, everyone. Here’s my motto these days: we can’t hold each other right now, but until we can, it may help to hold a book.

 

Thank you for hosting me and Firefly, Deborah!

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Nicki Chen

 

 

Photo by Lifetouch

 

Nicki Chen is the author of the new novel When in Vanuatu. She also has written the novel Tiger Tail Soup. She lives in Edmonds, Washington.

 

 

Q: What inspired you to write When in Vanuatu, and to create your character Diana?

 

A: Vanuatu was my original inspiration. It’s such a beautiful, fascinating country that it cries out to be the setting for a novel.

 

Port Vila, the capital, has a large population of expatriates, so it seemed appropriate to tell the story from an outsider’s point of view. I’d written short stories before about people living abroad, but never a novel. And having been an expat for 20 years, I had a lot to say about that experience.

 

I chose Diana because I wanted a woman who relocated to Vanuatu for her own reason. Most of the women I knew found themselves in Vanuatu as a result of their husbands’ jobs.

 

There were occasional unusual stories, though. For example, the woman from Australia whose husband had heart trouble for which his doctor advised the move; the couple who sailed from Alaska, tied up on the city dock, and stayed; the couple from Italy who were heading to Australia but left the ship in Vanuatu instead and stayed.

 

I chose Diana because her reason for wanting to be in Vanuatu corresponded with my feelings about the country’s quiet beauty.

 

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

 

A: My first novel, Tiger Tail Soup, required extensive research. It took place during a war I’d never experienced in China, a country I’d never lived in. In comparison, I needed only minimal research for When in Vanuatu.

 

Nevertheless, my research did turn up a few surprises. I hadn’t realized that so many coups were attempted after former Philippine president Marcos was driven from power.

 

And, even after experiencing the December coup (which I included in my novel), I was surprised at how bad it actually was. Once the attack was over and we’d survived, it was easy to forget about it.

 

Another surprise: When I was looking for topics of conversation and gossip at a farewell party for Diana and Jay, I was surprised by how many problems and emergencies happened in the Philippines in or around the date I’d chosen for the party.

 

Other revelations from my research were related to infertility and associated problems. Most surprising were the open and heartfelt stories women posted online. In my experience, women often seem hesitant to talk about these experiences. So, the posts I read were more candid and open than I’d expected.

 

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 absolutely did not know how the novel would end before I started writing it. In fact, I didn’t make a couple of crucial decisions about Diana’s fertility issue until I neared the time when one thing or the other would have to happen.

 

Along the way, I made many changes, some small, others large. The biggest change was my late decision to add a Manila section. Before that, I thought the novel would start and end in Vanuatu.

 

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

 

A: All novels give the reader an opportunity to take a peek into the lives, experiences, thoughts, and feelings of other people—people who may be in some ways like the reader and in some ways different.

 

I hope readers of When in Vanuatu will expand their empathy and understanding of people, especially women searching for their path in life and facing roadblocks along the way, in Diana’s case, infertility.

 

I hope readers will be entertained by the lives and experiences of an international group of expats in the late 20th century who, successfully and not so successfully, made their temporary homes in foreign lands. And I hope they will enjoy some armchair travel to Asia and the South Pacific.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’m working on a collection of short stories set in the South Pacific.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I wrote When in Vanuatu from my home in Edmonds, Washington, sometimes (before COVID) from a nearby tea shop or from Starbucks. I composed by hand while sitting on a high stool at my kitchen island, afterward transferring the day’s writing to my computer. Although I wrote far from the Philippines and Vanuatu, I consulted my old journals for details.

 

A big thank you to Deborah for conducting this interview. And I’d love to hear from her readers. Thank you all.

Behind the Story – Across the ocean and back with Nicki Chen (nickichenwrites.com)

Blog – Behind the Story (nickichenwrites.com)

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb