Sunday, January 31, 2021

Q&A with Michele Kwasniewski

 


Michele Kwasniewski is the author of the new young adult novel Rising Star, the first in her The Rise and Fall of Dani Truehart series. She has worked in the film and television production industry, and she lives in San Clemente, California.

 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Rising Star, and for your character Dani?

 

A: I wanted to write about my experience in entertainment, but without being specific about any person or event, which is why I switched the setting from movies and television to music.

 

Everyone imagines what it’s like to be rich and famous and the various ways it can improve your life, but I don’t think people think about the downside of all that attention and money.

 

I started thinking about the negative aspects of fame and what that might look like – in big and small ways. How do you get famous, what do you have to give up - say a normal childhood or privacy - and is what you get worth what you give up? How does it affect all the people in your life?

 

I came up with Dani because I really wanted to create a character at the very beginning of their fame and follow their progression both personally and professionally.


The teen years are the most exciting and frightening time of life, I think. You are stepping out on your own for the first time in many ways and discovering who you are and how you feel.

 

I wanted to explore how throwing someone who doesn’t have a fully developed sense of self into a lifestyle of fame and fortune see how that affects their development?

 

Adding a thirsty mother like Jodi, who throws her daughter into this lifestyle with no regard to the possible consequences for her young daughter notched up the tension and was a storyline too compelling to pass up.

 

Q: What do you think the novel says about the benefits and drawbacks of fame?

 

A: I think the book and the whole series is a cautionary tale… very buyer beware. I think fame can be a wonderful opportunity as long as you are grounded.

 

So many amazing opportunities can spring from fame – the good you can do for yourself, loved ones, the world at large, but the drawbacks can be catastrophic if you don’t keep a firm grip on who you are and your sense of right and wrong.

 

Fame comes so much easier today than when I was a kid thanks to social media. I see a big change in how society operates because many people today live out their lives on social media and they expose their lives to complete strangers who can be very critical.

 

I don’t think we were ever meant to have access to everyone’s deepest and darkest thoughts and it can be devastating when strangers post harsh criticisms or judgments online for all the world to see.  

 

It’s very easy to get swept up in trying to grab the spotlight and doing whatever you can to keep that attention on yourself. We’ve all seen how the media can raise someone up to dizzying heights of popularity in just a few short weeks.

 

And you can usually count on an equally public, dramatic fall at some point in time, because the media loves a hero and also a downfall. There’s not much money to be made on selling stories about ordinary people.  

 

Q: You work in the entertainment industry, but did you need to do any additional research to write the book?

 

A: While all aspects of entertainment have similarities, the music industry is definitely its own animal. I researched contracts, recording studios set-ups, how different stars got their start and watched a ton of documentaries on singers and bands. I love music and I sing in a choir for fun, so I really enjoyed all the research.

 

I also haunted websites for the Jonas Brothers, Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, and Ariana Grande to get a feel for their fans and how they market to them.

 

Q: Which authors do you especially admire?

 

A: Like most writers, I’m an avid reader and you can always find a book in my purse or car just in case I find a few spare minutes in my day.

 

Leo Tolstoy is one of my favorite authors. I know many people might shy away from his work because, let’s face it, his length of his books can be daunting.

 

But the way he wrote emotion and heartbreak…words fail me in trying to describe his amazing ability to capture an experience so overwhelming as love. And he writes war or politics with an equal passion. Anna Karenina was the first book that made me cry. To me his writing is beautiful and haunting.

 

I also love Ruth Ware, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Edgar Allen Poe, and Kazuo Ishiguro…such different styles. Each amazing in their own way.

 

Q: What are you working on now? What's next for Dani?

 

A: I just finished the second book in the series, Burning Bright, which was a blast to write.

 

Dani becomes an overnight sensation and as her fame and fortune grow, so does her ego. While on tour, Dani starts to live a rock and roll lifestyle and she gets a crash course at becoming an adult in the spotlight.

 

Currently, I’m taking a little break before I start book three, Falling Star.

 

I’m finishing a children’s book I’m writing for my son. It’s called Officer Small’s Big Break, which tells the story of Robbie Smalls, a hapless rookie police officer who solves his department’s biggest case with the help of a street-smart mouse detective, Francisco “Frankie” Tails.  

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: Rising Star isn’t just a cautionary tale about being famous. I think there’s a very positive message about chasing your dreams.

 

Dreams are hard to achieve and they usually require great sacrifice and risk and there’s a chance you might fail. But I think if you are passionate about something, then none of that matters. Putting in the work and taking a chance on yourself is always worth the risk of failure.

 

Being trapped at home during the pandemic, I think it’s easy to put off dreaming because we don’t know when we will be able to resume our lives in a normal way. But I hope that reading this book will inspire readers to dare to dream again. Even in these crazy times, we all need something to aspire to.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Q&A with Daniela Weil

 

Daniela Weil is the author of the middle grade historical novel The Diary of Asser Levy: First Jewish Citizen of New York. She grew up in Brazil, and now lives in Austin, Texas.

 

Q: How did you learn about Asser Levy's story? 

 

A: Being Jewish and from Brazil, I had always heard about the Recife-New York connection. It was even a theme in Rio’s carnaval parade a few years back. In Brazil, people take a little more credit than they should; they often say that it was Brazilians Jews who founded New York!

 

I always wanted to write about that story, but the accurate version. I realized that very few people in the United States knew about it. So I began to dig, and was hooked! It seemed like, being a Brazilian-American-Jewish nonfiction children’s writer, it was my story to tell.

 

During my digging, I soon came upon this character, Asser Levy, who I learned was somewhat of a legend in New York history. I became kind of obsessed with him.

 

He is the one we know most about because he was so litigious, so he is all over the New Amsterdam Records. But we know little about his origin and character, only what we can deduce.

 

Because of his humble beginnings, his court battles against religious injustices, and the fact he became one of the wealthiest citizens in New York, as well its first kosher butcher, I thought he would be the perfect protagonist for the story.

 

Q: Why did you decide to write the book in the form of a diary?

 

A: Young people often don’t read history books because they are not written with them in mind. They are often dry and boring. I wanted to make the story interesting enough for middle schoolers to read.

 

These days, there is a big movement in kids’ literature to make nonfiction more palatable. I went through many different versions of the story before I thought it worked best as Asser Levy’s diary.

 

Making the book historical fiction liberated me to write in his voice, from teen to old age. There is currently no other book in the youth market that talks about him and this bit of history.

 

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

 

A: In my mind’s eye, this was going to be a nonfiction history book. There were so many interesting historical facts, documents that still exist, letters, maps, and illustrations - I knew I wanted all of that in the book.

 

But at some point I understood that there just weren’t enough historical sources to tell the full story, so I switched to historical fiction. However, this genre does not usually come with all the fun sidebars and back matter that nonfiction does. But I thought, why can’t this book be both? Like a fusion.

 

Sadly, many publishers are resistant to venturing into unknown territory. I am very happy that Pelican let me keep my vision and allowed for the story to be fictionalized, and contain the sections that are 100 percent historical, including all the visuals. I think it’s the best of both worlds.

 

And one thing that I was so happy to include was a section with the pictures and exact locations of all the historical sites that are part of the story that you can still visit today.

 

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

 

A: I am so glad to say that every time I get feedback from readers (including adults), it’s about how interesting the story is, how much they learned, and that they had no idea about any of it.

 

New Amsterdam was an incredibly interesting colony that gave rise to the tolerant city New York is today. I hope they learn about the first Jews that arrived in America, and why. I hope they see a connection between their plight as refugees 400 years ago, and how similar it is to the immigration issues we have today.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I am working on a book for early readers, like an early reader graphic novel, that shows the experience my Black daughter had in Jewish school. It wasn’t so great. I am big into racial bias at the moment, so I want kids to open their minds about Jews of color. 

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I have a fantastic audio-visual presentation (Zoom or in person one day…) that has pictures of my journey around the world researching this story, and it is perfect for kids in school learning about colonial America, adults and kids in synagogues and JCCs, and social media Sephardic and genealogical groups.

 

I would love, love, love to share it with as many people as possible! Just contact me at info@danielaweil.com

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 30

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY

Jan 30, 1912: Barbara Tuchman born.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Q&A with Denise Williams

 

Photo by D&dorf Photography

Denise Williams is the author of the new novel How to Fail at Flirting. She is a diversity trainer and the co-creator of a women's empowerment group. She lives in Iowa.

 

Q:  How did you come up with the idea for How to Fail at Flirting, and for your character Naya?

 

A: How to Fail at Flirting started as a lighthearted romcom about ex-boyfriends and how old relationships shape us. As I got to know the character, I knew her story was much more about her journey to being open to love and open to life.

 

Naya as a character was born when I participated in a guided mediation activity based on Tara Mohr’s book Playing Big: Practical Wisdom for Women Who Want to Speak Up, Create, and Lead. As part of the guided mediation, we envisioned an ideal future self and I thought about how my character would see an ideal future self and try to get there.


Type-A Naya would want to control as much as she could, which was why I added the to-do list. The list gives her a roadmap to get where she thinks she wants to go. In the end, the list gives her the foundation to imagine so much more.

 

Q: You blend very serious topics with a lot of humor. What did you see as the right balance?

 

A: I don’t think there is one right balance. For this book, Naya’s humor is part of her personality, but it’s only something she feels comfortable sharing with people she trusts. The humor and fun in the book is the character showing more and more of herself to the hero.

 

As the author, I also wanted to show the duality of a character dealing with trauma and trying to heal and still finding joy and love and having good sex. I hope showing those as not mutually exclusive illustrates that trauma and healing don’t diminish the possibility of joy, love, and sex. At the same time, the latter don’t ameliorate the trauma and healing either.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: My second book is about a budding journalist, Britta, tasked with reviewing a fitness app as a user. Along the way, she falls for her virtual coach who is working through his own challenges.

 

Like Naya, Britta finds her strength and the hero, Wes, finds his but in different ways. I loved writing this book and the first chapter is included at the end of the printed copy of How to Fail at Flirting.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: Why I decided to make Naya a professor. That she was a professor was one of the first things I knew about Naya. I have a Ph.D. and work at a university; unlike Naya, my role is administrative, though I sometimes teach classes here and there.

 

There is so much vitriol and misunderstanding about what universities do and who professors are. It’s also the case that women and womxn of color in the academy are often unseen—a quick Google image search for professor will turn up very few images of people who look like me.

 

At the same time, there are so many womxn of color shaping our institutions, doing important research, putting in the work, and supporting students despite racism, sexism, and the politics of a racialized institution.

 

It was important to me that Naya—a character with flaws, fears, struggles, and dreams—also be on her way to tenure, a great teacher, and passionate about her research. I had a wealth of inspiration from the myriad of kick-ass womxn of color I’ve worked with for the last 15 years!

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 29

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Jan. 29, 1860: Anton Chekhov born.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Q&A with Michael Fry

 


Michael Fry is the author of Ghosted, a new middle grade novel for kids. He is the author of the Jimmy Paterson Presents How to Be a Supervillain series, and the co-creator of the Over the Hedge comic strip. He lives near Austin, Texas.

 

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

 

A: Ghosted was a work for hire for me. HMH had the basic idea of Grimm and Larry with Grimm dying and coming back as a ghost. They also had the idea of the To-Do List. I did the rest. The story, the tone, the humor, the pathos, the illustrations are all mine. 

 

Q: Did you focus on the text first or on the art, or did you work on both simultaneously?

 

A: I pretty much do both at the same time. The art in my books is more than just illustration of the text. It can comment and continue with the story. When I start writing in Word I place blue boxes with a description for the art. Then later add rough art after I’ve done of draft of text. 

 

Q: What did you see as the right mix between seriousness and humor as you worked on the book?

 

A: It’s tricky when you’re dealing with a deceased character. The question I asked myself was how would two real-world human boys react to this extraordinary situation. It’s a weird situation that sets up a lot of conflict. And conflict is the basis for humor. No conflict. No comedy.

 

Also, I played it straight. There were moments of real pathos that I wrote as authentically and honestly as I could. I think the book plays out the wild premise as honestly as possible. Or at least that was my goal. 

 

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

 

A: I hope they enjoy it. I hope they laugh. I hope they cry. But only at the sad parts. If they cry at the funny parts I’m in trouble. 

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’m about to turn in a book proposal (with Bradley Jackson) called Star Struck. It’s about a foursome of aliens masquerading as the popular boy band, ICU. They’ve come to Earth to fight disharmony. They’ve been here before. They were called The Beatles.

 

The story centers around two sisters from a broken family who try to help the alien boy band save the world. There’s a tour bus spaceship and woman in black who wants to shut the band down. Also there will be yodeling. ©2021 Michael Fry and Bradley Jackson. Query our agent, Dan Lazar, at Writer’s House.  

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I do a mean Christopher Walken impression:  "you know… snakes they don’t bother me… it’s marsupials… with the fur and duck bill…. It’s strange, very strange."

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 28

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Jan. 28, 1935: David Lodge born.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Q&A with Craig Fehrman

 


Craig Fehrman is the author of the book Author in Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote. He also has edited the new book The Best Presidential Writing. He lives in Bloomington, Indiana.

 

Q: Why did you decide to write Author in Chief?

 

A: I first got the idea back in 2008. It was an election year, and a particularly exciting one, but what really struck me was that books were in the middle of that excitement -- books by Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and especially Barack Obama.

 

I got curious. Was this the only time presidential books had been so important in American history? No one had ever written at length about this topic, so I had to start by making lists of all the books presidents had written.

 

I quickly realized that the first campaign book (like Obama's Dreams from My Father) was written by Thomas Jefferson, while the first big political memoir (like Clinton's Living History) was written by John Adams.

 

The history of presidential books was as old as the history of America itself, and that gave me a really juicy topic to research and write about.

 

Q: You begin the book with an anecdote about John F. Kennedy. Why did you choose to start there?

A: Well, first, you can't go wrong with a Kennedy in terms of readerly appeal.

 

But that anecdote finds him preparing to give a keynote speech at the 1956 National Book Awards. It was going to be a swanky New York event; Flannery O'Connor and W. H. Auden were going to be in the audience. So I hope this anecdote gives readers a hint that my book will offer not just political history but also fun literary asides, as well.

 

Also, in the anecdote you can see Kennedy sweating about his speech and wanting to impress that highbrow audience. There's something really human about seeing a powerful politician wrestling with words and ideas, and I wanted to show readers that again and again in Author in Chief they'll discover a fresh and personal aspect of presidents, even ones as well-known as JFK.

Q: What are some of the ways that books written by presidents have changed over the centuries--and what's remained constant?

A: I think the biggest constant has been money. After Jefferson died, in 1826, his family needed to pay off his enormous debts. One plan was heartlessly separating and auctioning off his slaves. Another was publishing the manuscript of his autobiography.

 

When that text appeared a few years later, along with a bunch of other Jefferson documents, it was a literary event. "These volumes," one critic wrote, "will prove to the American reader the most delicious literary treat that their own country has ever afforded."

 

Jefferson's volumes were a big bestseller, but that was always the goal -- from the very beginning, presidential authors have commanded tons of money and tons of readers.

 

As for changes, well, there's almost too many to mention. Author in Chief charts the history not just of presidential books but of American politics, celebrity, authorship, and reading practices. That last one's a fancy way to say that I show what it felt like to be a book lover in 1776 and 1920 and so on.

 

Here's a good example of the changes: in 1859, Lincoln wrote a great little sketch of his life, to help pave the way for his presidential run. But when he sent it to journalists, Lincoln told them, "Of course it must not appear to have been written by myself."

 

Think about that -- Lincoln was begging them not to name him as the author of this great text, whereas today we have politicians begging to be named as the authors of books they did not write. There are so many fascinating reasons for that inversion, and I dig into them in my book


Q: Among the books that you examined, do you have a favorite? A least favorite?

 

A: My favorite is this totally forgotten book, The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge. While no one knows it today -- I mean, honestly, who even knows much about Coolidge? -- it was an enormous bestseller in 1929. And if you read it, you can see why.

 

Coolidge was a really good writer, and he took readers inside the White House. He showed them what it felt like to be president, especially as he watched his father and his teenaged son die during his administration. It's a book that highlights the personal side of the presidency, and that's probably the biggest reason I like it -- because I'm always trying to highlight that side, too.

 

My least favorite is probably James Buchanan's autobiography. A common (and fair) criticism of presidential books is that they spend too much time blaming other people and settling scores.

 

Well, those are pretty much the only things Buchanan tried to do, which was rich given that he was a terrible president who'd just drove the country into a Civil War. Of course, his readers wouldn't let him forget this. The response to his book turned so ugly that a few weeks after his publication, Buchanan asked supporters to stop sending him the reviews.


Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: You should know that I just published a second book! It's called The Best Presidential Writing, and it's an edited collection of the best speeches and book excerpts and diary entries (and even a few poems) written by America's presidents. You'll find the greatest hits ("Ask not . . .") alongside stuff that's never been published.

 

I hope it makes a nice companion to Author in Chief. My first book tells the story of our presidents as writers. My second book lets you read them as writers -- lets you read them narrating the story of America in their own words.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 27

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Jan. 27, 1931: Mordecai Richler born.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Q&A with Alice Henderson

 


Alice Henderson is the author of the new novel A Solitude of Wolverines. Her other books include Shattered Roads. She is a wildlife sanctuary monitor, geographic information systems specialist, and bioacoustician.

 

Q: How did your own experiences as a wildlife sanctuary monitor influence your creation of your character Alex Carter?

A: It was while out in the field in Montana doing a species presence study that I first got the idea for the Alex Carter series.

 

I was on a wildlife sanctuary there, setting out remote cameras in the hopes of capturing images of elusive creatures such as wolves and wolverines.

 

I also set out bioacoustic recorders that record the soundscape of the sanctuary. By examining these recordings later, I can determine what species are using a particular piece of land, be they howling wolves, singing birds, croaking amphibians, or echolocating bats.

For years my wildlife work and writing had been separate, but out there on that sanctuary, I was suddenly inspired to bring the two worlds together. The idea came to me for a suspense series featuring a wildlife biologist who would encounter treacherous situations while studying endangered species in the field.

When I first got the idea for the series, I wanted each book's title to be the animal and its group name.

 

I chose wolverines for the first book because I really wanted to bring attention to their plight, as they have vanished from much of their territory in the lower 48 (less than 300 are left here now), and they have no federal protections.

 

But I quickly realized that wolverines have no group name. They are incredibly solitary. So I decided to make up a group name for them. Given their isolated nature, I decided upon A Solitude of Wolverines for the title.

 

Q: The novel takes place at a wildlife sanctuary in Montana. How important is setting in your writing?

A: Setting is incredibly important to me. The species I choose determine the setting, just as choosing wolverines determined the book would have to be in the Rockies or the Cascades. The remote locations where wolverines live lends itself to an isolated, rugged setting that is excellent for suspense.

 

I always try to bring all the senses of each location into my fiction. How do the forests smell? What flowers bloom in the meadows? Does the temperature plummet when the sun sets? How do whitewater rivers sound as they roar over water-smoothed rocks in their path? I really strive to bring the locations to life.

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 plot extensively before I start writing, so I knew how the book would end before I started it. I create a spreadsheet with all the scenes I need to tell the story. It's a great tool because I can easily look to the spreadsheet each day to see what needs to be written next.

 

But I don't outline so extensively that it takes all the energy and excitement out of the writing itself. There are still little surprises along the way and a sense of discovery as I join the characters on their journey.

Q: What particularly intrigues you about wolverines?

A: Wolverines are fascinating creatures that few people know about. When most people hear "wolverine," they think of Hugh Jackman in the X-Men, or perhaps the mascot of the University of Michigan.

 

But wolverines are amazing creatures who live in the high country of the Cascade and Rocky Mountains. They used to roam as far south as New Mexico and as far east as the Great Lakes region. They are the largest member of the weasel family, weighing in at an average of 35 pounds, and are important members of their ecosystems.

 

For example, foxes, coyotes, weasels, and other animals follow wolverine tracks to find the best scavenging spots. This helps those species survive the long, harsh mountain winters.

 

Unfortunately, a combination of climate change, overtrapping, habitat fragmentation and other threats have greatly reduced the wolverine population. As I mentioned earlier, in the lower 48, less than 300 are left, and instead of the wide range they once enjoyed here, they are relegated now to pockets in the Cascade and Rocky Mountains. They have no federal protections whatsoever.

 

With A Solitude of Wolverines, I wanted to not only write a suspenseful story, but bring awareness to the plight of these incredible animals.

Q: What are you working on now? Will there be more books about Alex?

A: Absolutely there will be more Alex Carter books. The second book in the series is written and off to my editor. In it, Alex ventures to the Canadian Arctic for a polar bear study. While there, she must fight for her life out in the ice, challenged both by weather and mysterious people bent on ending her study. It will be out in Fall 2021.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: If readers are interested in helping wolverines, there are a variety of non-profit organizations such as the Center for Biological Diversity and the Natural Resources Defense Council that support wolverine protection legislation.

 

There are even a few like Conservation Northwest and Cascadia Wild that offer volunteer opportunities to get out in the field and track them in winter to learn more about their population.

 

In the back of A Solitude of Wolverines, there is a section on further information on these amazing creatures, as well as ways you can get involved.

 

To get my latest publishing updates, as well as wildlife news, green tips, and volunteer opportunities, please visit http://www.alicehenderson.com.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 26

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Jan. 26, 1905: Maria von Trapp born.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Q&A with Amy Nathan


 

Amy Nathan is the author of Together: An Inspiring Response to the "Separate-But-Equal" Supreme Court Decision That Divided America, a new book for teens and adults. Her other books include Round and Round Together.

 

Q: How did you learn about the friendship between Keith Plessy and Phoebe Ferguson, whose families were involved in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, and at what point did you decide to write a book based on their story and that of their families?

 

A: I was fascinated by an article I saw about them 10 years ago in The Washington Post.

 

At the time, I had just finished writing a book about people coming together across racial lines to protest against segregation in Baltimore in the 1960s, Round and Round Together, and here was an example of two people crossing a really big racial divide to work together to create the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation.

 

As descendants of the two principals in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision that ushered in the Jim Crow era, their two families had been seen as polar opposites in civil rights history. If they could work together, there was hope for the rest of us.

 

I looked for ways to let others know about what they were doing, and decided about four years ago to see if they’d be interested in having their story told in a book for young people and adults, similar to my Baltimore book. I contacted them through their Foundation and was delighted when they said, “Yes.”

 

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


A: I already knew a little about New Orleans civil rights history from a school visit I did there in 2011 for PEN, the authors’ group, spending a day at the Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School.

 

Located in the Lower Ninth Ward, the school had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but a fellow PEN member from New Orleans, Fatima Shaik, had a personal connection with the school and its teachers. She arranges for several PEN authors to make school visits there every year.

 

During my visit, I spoke with the school’s sixth graders in the morning about how to do interviews, giving examples from interviews I did for some of my books. Then, with help from the teachers and from PEN, we had made arrangements to bring five New Orleans veterans of the Freedom Rides to the school in the afternoon and have the students interview these local heroes.

 

I had read several books before that trip to learn about major events in that history, but I learned so much more from sitting in on the interviews, which the students recorded. It was so moving to see how those Freedom Riders opened up to the students and shared so much of their lives.

 

I learned even more when I transcribed the tapes. The transcripts have now been donated to a local historical society, the Historic New Orleans Collection. That trip let me feel a personal connection to the city and its history.

 

Before I reached out to Keith and Phoebe, I, of course, had also read the major book on the Plessy case, Keith Weldon Medley’s impressive We As Freemen: Plessy v. Ferguson.

 

I live just outside of New York City, and so all my interviews with Keith and Phoebe happened by phone. After my first calls in February 2018, I saw that there was much more to learn. They offered suggestions for books to read to fill gaps in my knowledge, and others to interview.

 

I dug into the resources of Louisiana historical societies, libraries, and newspapers. The more I learned, the more books and articles I read. Together has a very long bibliography! I kept calling Keith and Phoebe with more questions over the next year and a half.

 

Then I boiled down all that reading and interviewing into a compact overview of that history (in the book’s middle chapters): pre-Civil War, Reconstruction, the Plessy case and its legal issues, the case’s disastrous Jim Crow segregation aftermath, and the impact that all this history still has on the nation today.

 

Intertwined with this history is an account of how Keith and Phoebe learned of their connection to it. The last three chapters deal with the creation and work of their Plessy and Ferguson Foundation. As Keith says, their Foundation is a “flip on the script.”

 

I was so moved to hear how puzzled they each had been as children by their encounters with Jim Crow segregation and the effect it had on each of them.

 

They were both born in New Orleans in 1957, three years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision. They never met as children and lived in totally different parts of the city. Yet they each encountered segregation in schools, parks, movie theaters, and stores during their growing up years.

 

It was surprising how little they each knew as children about the famous case that links their families. By the time they finally met as adults in 2004, they had learned about that history. Their childhood experiences with segregation had prepped each of them to feel a connection and a readiness to work together to change the ending of the story that bears their family names.

 

Their childhood memories also resonated with me personally, bringing up memories from my childhood in Baltimore, when segregation still ruled there as well. 

 

Q: At a time when many people in this country are focused on racial justice issues, what do you hope people take away from your book?

 

A: I hope people will see that it’s possible to reach across the divides that separate us and work together to try to make things better.

 

One of the Foundation’s goals is to keep alive stories of resistance to injustice, especially those that are little-known but play a part in shaping our world today. The more people learn about events and attitudes of the past that have lingering repercussions today, the better the chance for understanding and ridding ourselves of those left-over attitudes.

 

Phoebe notes in the book, “You can’t really have a dialogue on race unless we both have an understanding of what has occurred over the past 400 years.” Quoting author Michael Eric Dyson, she adds, “When it comes to race, the past is always present.”

 

Maybe this book with its compact, readable overview of the history and its story about how these two individuals are working together to help change attitudes will inspire the book’s readers to think about projects that might work in their communities to help bring people together.

 

The book’s Afterword has brief introductions to other groups with similar goals. Just by purchasing the book Together, people can help the Plessy and Ferguson Foundation. Half of the book’s earnings go to support its work.

 

Q: The book includes many photographs of the Plessy and Ferguson families and others involved in the story--how did you find the photos, and how did you choose the ones to include?

 

A: I worked in children’s magazines for many years and learned that photographs are a great way to help tell a complicated story. In all my books, I include a lot of photos, interspersed throughout the book, as in a magazine, to bring the story to life.

 

Keith and Phoebe were generous in sharing family photos. So were many of their friends and colleagues. Local historical societies and libraries had good photo collections that could be searched online.

 

I was especially pleased with a photo A.P. Tureaud Jr. sent me of his father, the famous civil rights lawyer, showing him as a young man. Many books use photos of him as an older man, but he was a young firebrand when he was filing important civil rights lawsuits, and so I thought it was important to show him as the young activist he was.

 

The same is true of the photo of Dr. Louis Charles Roudanez, the founder of the nation’s first Black daily newspaper. His great-great grandson, Mark Roudané, kindly let me use a photo that showed him as the young man he was when he started that newspaper.

 

I’m also very grateful to artist Ayo Scott for allowing us to show on the book’s cover and on inside pages some images from his wonderful mural in Plessy Park. I hope that artwork—plus the drawings Keith Plessy did for his old elementary school and a drawing that Keith Osborne made as a fifth grader—might inspire readers, young and old, to create artwork about important events happening now.

 

For the same reason, I hope student groups might be inspired to create a play on how the events described in the book resonate with their lives. That’s what students did who are seen in two photos in the book from their play Se-Pa-Rate. They created this play as part of a drama workshop held at NOCCA, the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’m collaborating with civil rights hero Sarah Keys Evans, age 91, on a book about her life. We collaborated in 2006 on a book about her for young readers, Take a Seat—Make a Stand—but so much has happened since then, as is noted in Together’s Afterword. A new book from her written for adults and teens is definitely merited. No publisher yet, but I’m hopeful.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Amy Nathan.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Q&A with Michael Stein

 


Michael Stein is the author of the new book Broke: Patients Talk about Money with Their Doctor. A primary care doctor, he also is Professor and Chair of Health Law, Policy and Management of the School of Public Health at Boston University.

 

Q: Why did you decide to write this book?

 

A: Broke is my tenth book—in addition to six novels, I’ve written three books of nonfiction that have been about the patients I’ve cared for as a primary care doctor working in a small city for decades.

 

My patients, who are mostly low income, have always talked to me about their money concerns—alimony payments, funeral costs, car bills—and in this Covid moment, these financial conversations have increased in the face of layoffs, either temporary or permanent.

 

I thought it was the right time to put my patients’ voices on the page to give readers a look into the wide assortment of lives of those without much money.

 

Each story is less than a page long. In Broke, I hope I’ve captured my patients’ many emotions: stoic nonchalance about hardships, laughter at the world. In just a few lines, you can learn the day-to-day effects of poverty.

 

Readers have told me that Broke reminds them of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, in that both are frank, entirely unsentimental depictions of persons struggling financially. But unlike the narrator of Nickel and Dimed, I am a small voice here. My patients’ words are the ones that matter. I love talking to patients.


Q: In the book, you write, "I have come to think of these conversations about money with patients—which certainly don’t occur at every visit, but only when pertinent, and only with patients I’ve come to know—as a form of preventive care." Can you say more about that?

 

A: Most adult primary care visits are for chronic medical problems—high blood pressure, low back pain. When you care for people over months and years, they let you into their private lives.

 

Health is the state of not being sick, so doctors don’t see much of their patients’ healthy lives, which take place outside of our offices. But we all know that health is determined by the conditions in which one lives, and is shaped by environmental, social, and economic forces.

 

Poverty is one of those forces that drives and determines health, so if, as a doctor, I am interested in preventive care—the care that will keep a person out of my office—I need to have a sense of what can make them ill.

 

The lack of time to care for oneself because you’re working three jobs, the lack of sleep because you share a crowded apartment, the chronic stress of living without much money, can all make you sick.

 

Q: What impact has the pandemic had on you and on your patients, and what do you see looking ahead?

 

A: Even before the pandemic, the statistics were clear that half of Americans, half, will live in poverty by the time they are 65 years old. One in six children is living in poverty. These numbers are astounding and miserable, unmatched among our peer, high-income nations, and a disgrace.

 

Covid-19 has only made things worse, and there is likely to be even worse coming.

 

Poverty has unfortunately become a technocratic word—a dollar threshold, a means test—when it is really a massive moral conundrum. My patients are barely hanging on, and the future is nebulous. But if you don’t have much money, it is the present, not the future, that dominates.

 

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

 

A: I like the idea that a nonfiction writer’s work should serve as a kind of optical instrument that allows the reader to see something she would perhaps never have discerned herself if she hadn’t picked up this book.  

 

Many people who buy books have never experienced a life without enough money to make ends meet. In Broke I do not mean to moralize, but I would like to change my readers’ awareness, or better yet the country’s, one heart at a time.

 

I write as a primary care doctor who hears stories all day, and can address poverty in only small ways. Health is a matter of politics, and our stunning level of poverty a direct result of decisions by our political leaders, who are endorsed by us, the voters.

 

Maybe this small book of stories can make us all a little more compassionate and a little more alert to the policies and programs that can help our neighbors. 

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: After the patient-by-patient intimacy of Broke, I’m working on a new book about our national confusion about the difference between health and health care.

 

As a country, we invest trillions of dollars in healthcare—the system that we turn to when we are sick, that pays me as a doctor--but comparatively little in health, the infrastructure or policies and resources that form the conditions in which we live—whether there are parks nearby, or grocery stores, whether the air we breathe and water we drink sicken us.

 

Covid-19 emerged in a context where we were still broadly conflating health with healthcare and neglecting the true causes of health that have driven the worst outcomes of Covid-19, the chronic underlying illnesses, obesity, who goes to prison, who can afford masks.

 

Health follows wealth in the United States. We spend a lot of money for healthcare (even though 20 million Americans are still uninsured due to our cockamamie non-system of health care financing), and it’s time to change the conversation to discuss spending some of those dollars on keeping us well instead.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: Maybe that my last book, Pained: Uncomfortable Conversations about the Public’s Health, is a great way to jump-start discussion about the 50 top issues in public health, again, so we can stop talking about doctors and nurses and hospitals and insurance companies, and start talking about the foundational forces, like poverty, that we need to address to get to a healthier world.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 24

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Jan. 24, 1862: Edith Wharton born.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Q&A with Karen Lynn Williams and Jessica Betancourt-Perez

Karen Lynn Williams

 

Karen Lynn Williams and Jessica Betancourt-Perez are the authors of the new children's picture book A Thousand White Butterflies. Williams's many other books include the new picture book Spirit of the Cheetah. She has been an instructor for Chatham University's low-residency MFA program in creative writing, and she lives in Pittsburgh. Betancourt-Perez, who is originally from Colombia, is a school psychologist in York, Pennsylvania.

 

Q: How did the two of you end up working together on A Thousand White Butterflies?

 

KLW: I was teaching a workshop in writing for children. I gave an assignment to write five sentences about a childhood memory. The students were to read the paragraph to a partner who shared the memory with the class.

 

When Jessica’s partner shared Jessica’s memory, it was obvious that the class found her story compelling. I saw immediately that the story had a beginning, a middle and an end with an arch to the plot for a simple story.

Jessica Betancourt-Perez

Back home at my desk I could not get Jessica’s story out of my mind. That is the kind of idea that an author needs to pursue, a compelling story that speaks to her passions.  

 

I contacted Jessica and asked if she might be willing to work on a coauthored book. She agreed. We worked back and forth by email and phone and met again the following year to make the original five sentences into a story with a likeable character and a developed plot.

 

JBP: I believe that Karen and I were meant to meet each other. We met in a summer graduate course at Millersville University, a course I was not supposed to take at the beginning of my School Psychology program.

 

Karen was invited by my professor as a guest speaker for my class. I was very impressed with her presentation; the background experience with refugees that she brought to the class was amazing.

 

In that class, she had us do a writing assignment and I shared with a partner and then with the class about watching the snow for the very first time. Karen contacted me a couple days later and asked me if I was open to the idea of collaborating for a book. I said yes and after that, our adventure of creating this book started.

 

Q: What do you think the story says about immigration?

 

KLW: In writing this book I was reminded of my grandfather on my mother’s side who immigrated to the United States from Hungary. I grew up hearing tales about the difficulties he faced growing up outside of his own culture. Indeed, my two grandparents on my father’s side immigrated from England. But I did not know them as well as my mother’s father.

 

For me, A Thousand White Butterflies is a simple story about the loneliness of a young child in a new place without her father. It is also a story about being accepted and learning about the possibilities of a new world and coming to appreciate it in spite of difficulties. I am grateful to Jessica for sharing her story.

 

JBP: I think this story shows the reader the rollercoaster of emotions an immigrant child goes through when faced with moving to a new place.

 

Isabella is in an internal battle of what she anticipates to happen, which is going to school and making friends and what actually happens on her first day of school, it snows, school is cancelled and she sadly remembers what she left behind... her friends, papa, and beautiful country.

 

After all of that, what’s beautiful about the story is that it shows at the end that immigrant children are resilient; they use playing as a universal language to communicate, make friends and make a new life in the United States without forgetting where they come from.

 

Q: What do you think Gina Maldonado's illustrations add to the book?

 

KLW: Gina’s illustrations bring the book to life. The details in the pictures add to the reality of life for the main character. The warm palette and details help young readers to understand the difficulties an immigrant can face.

 

The illustrations also help to broaden the story which is about an immigrant but ultimately about loneliness and friendship, a story anyone can relate to.

 

JBP: Gina’s illustrations bring Isabella’s story to life. The illustrations also show the reader details that are not said in words in the book.

 

For example, one of the illustrations shows the typical ruana of Colombia. The book does not mention anything about Isabella’s nationality, but thanks to that illustration the reader can guess which country Isabella is from.

 

Q: Karen, you have another new book, Spirit of the Cheetah. What can you say about it?

 

KLW: This is another book I coauthored with Khadra Mohammed. We also wrote Four Feet, Two Sandals and My Name is Sangoel together. Spirit of the Cheetah is based on a story Khadra’s father used to tell her when she was a child. Khadra is Somali. She grew up in the UAE.


I was also influenced in helping to write this book by my youngest son who was a cross country runner at the time. His spirit captured my imagination along with Roblay, in the story, who must compete in a race to prove his manhood.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

KLW: I am working on several projects currently. The Promise of Dragons is a middle grade chapter book and very different from anything I have written before. I like to think of it as a cross between Because of Winn-Dixie and How to Train Your Dragon.

 

Max is struggling with the death of his grandfather and the addition of a new baby sister to his family. To make matters worse he doesn’t have any ideas for his 4th grade first day of school project due soon.

 

When a dragon follows him home from summer camp his spirits pick up until he realizes the challenges of having a dragon for a pet. And the responsibility he has to save this endangered creature from those who might capture and harm him.

 

I have always gotten many ideas from living with my four children and now my grandchildren. The picture book Pumpkin to Pumpkin came to me when grandson Emery became so attached to his Jack-o-lantern he refused to throw it out even when it was turning to mush.

 

Nature and the cycles of life are passions of mine and so I have several projects I am working on that are nature themed. In fact, Pumpkin to Pumpkin is one of them.

 

JBP: I work full-time as a school psychologist and I spend most of my time evaluating students to receive special education services. I also do outside bilingual evaluations and translate documents for my current school district. However, I would love to have the opportunity to write another book in the near future related to my job or my own kids.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

KLW: Speaking of nature-themed works, I am delighted to say that I have another book coming put with Charlesbridge Publishers in 2022.

 

Bear Helps the Forest Do its Work: And maybe you do too is a picture book about leaves and one of the mysteries of seasonal changes…and, well, about a bear who loves to jump in leaves. Maybe you do too.

 

Childhood and other cultures have also always been topics I am intensely interested in. I have lived in Malawi, Haiti, and on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. A number of my books grew out of these experiences.

 

I am also lucky to have had the joy of coauthoring with people from other cultures. They have expanded my world and added significantly to the fulfilling journey that is my writing life.

 

So my interest in other cultures and my work with refugees and immigrants, the books that I worked on with Khadra, my grandfather’s stories, led me to appreciate Jessica’s story. And too I love snow!

 

People have often asked when I would begin writing for adults. It was always my goal to write for young people. It has always felt to me that my childhood was and is the better part of who I am. I have great respect for the child in all of us and I gather hope from young readers everywhere.

 

JBP: A Thousand White Butterflies is truly a gift from heaven!!! I hope that many immigrant children feel identified in it and realize that they are not alone and that they can achieve their dreams.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb