Sunday, February 28, 2021

Q&A with Ifeoma Onyefulu


Ifeoma Onyefulu is the author of Sing Me a Song, Ma, a new poetry collection for children. Her many other books include A Is for Africa. She is based in the UK.


Q: What inspired your new poetry collection?


A: I’d say schools. I’ve never written a poem in my life, or even read that many, either, until January last year when something strange happened. I began to get requests from schools to do poetry workshops, and no sooner had I said no to one school another one would pop up like a jack-in-box. It was very weird indeed.


Then, two days before I was due to travel to Scotland to do a writing workshop for a school, I was asked again.


I would gladly have done a workshop on writing plays, if such a thing exists in schools, because of No Water in The Jungle, one of my plays, staged in London in 2019.


Anyway, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to turn the school down with two days before I leave for Scotland, and not to mention a lot of work had gone into organising the trip. 


Finally, I rang a friend for some moral support, and she chuckled. “But when I read your books, I think of poetry… it is the way you write,” she said breezily.


Poetry - that word again.


I decided I was going to stick with the timetable and do the workshop for the school as we had originally planned.


Relieved, I sat at my desk to email the school about my decision, but just then my eyes drifted to the wall on my left where a photograph I took years ago of a Fulani woman in northern Nigeria was hanging. The young woman was dressed in bright clothes and had beads of every colour on her hair.


After staring at it for what seemed like hours but was only a few seconds I heard a voice in my head. It was about a girl who liked many colours but would only wear blue when she went to see her grandma. Why, I thought to myself, is it because she likes blue or because her grandma likes blue?


So I grabbed a pencil and paper and began writing. I didn’t know if it was going to be a short story or not, but I remember reading it back and thought it felt like a poem. To me it had some intensity and imagery, which surprised me a lot. And that was how I began to write poetry.


Q: What themes do you see running through the poems?


A: I’d say family, perhaps because I was born and raised in Nigeria, where family ties are very strong. It’s still very rare to meet someone who lives alone in Nigeria.


So I’d say family themes run like a thread in my poems; for example, Play Child, Play, a mother, like all parents, is faced with the challenge of getting their children away from the screen and finds a creative way to do so. The mother and her child are outside, but the child is interested with what is going on the screen, so the mother makes up a game she calls the clouds game to coax the child away from it.


I must also add that two of my poems touched a bit on the environment, especially the way we treat our trees. In Grandma’s Tree, inspired by a conversation I had with my late mother about her avocado tree, which had stopped bearing fruits. The grandma in the poem, like my mother, has a tree that isn’t producing fruits, and she calls in a tree shepard for some advice, and he finds a neglected tree.


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


A: I felt that Sing Me a Song, Ma would make a good title, and chose it. It’s so universal and hopefully will appeal to readers, especially younger children. Children everywhere must have at one time, or another have asked their parents to sing them a song or to play a game when they should be going to sleep. The child in the poem Sing Me a Song, Ma has a trick up her sleeves when she requests a song from her mother.


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


A: I hope children will first of all, enjoy the poems, and perhaps learn a bit about other cultures, or at least become curious and start asking questions. Also, I hope a poem or two from the collection would inspire them to write their own. If I can do it, so can they.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on some more children’s poems, and I am looking for a publisher for some of my out-of-print books. When I go into schools to do writing workshops I am often asked by schools about where someone could buy some of my out-of-print books, and it would be a great thing to see them in print again.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I hope in future to do more short stories for children, I wrote The Girl Who Married a Ghost, a book of short stories, years ago, too long if you ask me.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Ifeoma Onyefulu.

Feb. 28



Feb. 28, 1533: Michel de Montaigne born.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Q&A with Chella Courington


Chella Courington is the author of the novella Adele and Tom: The Portrait of a Marriage. Her other books include the poetry collection In Their Own Way. She lives in Santa Barbara, California.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for Adele and Tom?


A: Ten years ago a writer friend introduced me to Ben Lerner’s Leaving The Atocha Station, which covers a part of Lerner’s life, almost a transcript of his daily affairs. The content, close to autobiography, is called auto-fiction as writers take fictive freedom with their actual detail.


In her essay “Modern Fiction,” Virginia Woolf says that a novelist should look within and write about the complexities and subtleties of being a human being. Indeed, an engaging novel or shorter novella can focus on the often unrecorded, smaller events like dinner at home or discussing a novel.


In light of my respect and love for Woolf’s novels Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, I began to think my day-to-day existence with my husband deserved closer examination. I decided to tell a story of two married writers navigating their journey together, loosely based on our lives yet with much narrative license.

Q: How would you describe the relationship between the two characters, and what do you think the book says about marriage?


A: Adele and Tom have a complicated relationship as do most partners. Both independent and creative, careful of space and time, they try to focus on their writing and marriage while maintaining different professional lives.


Job, writing, relationship—that’s a lot to negotiate. Unless Adele and Tom are cautious, they may wind up sacrificing their love for each other to their writing. In the throes of living, we often neglect and take for granted those closest to us without whom we would feel exceedingly lonely.


Tom strikes me as more secure in his person than Adele. But his security and her doubts may be an illusion. Having grown up in a stereotypically ‘50s-defined heterosexual home where the woman was the caretaker and the man was the hunter-gatherer, Adele and Tom rebel against the conventional roles of developing domestic art.


Tom is the cook and the cleaner, the one who often puts his passions aside for Adele. He is quiet, shows little of his emotional turmoil while Adele assumes a certain liberty to express whatever disturbs her, rarely hiding her fears. She often appears the center of concern, in both her interior and exterior life.


For me, Adele and Tom show how difficult and rewarding marriage can be. The shine and newness have worn off. They know each other’s stories and when and how these narratives are prompted in public.


But together in private, folding clothes or reading side by side, they still travel to those deeper places we often avoid, like loss and death, the diminishing of our existence.


But they are survivors, having faced ulcerative colitis and breast cancer, and still take immense joy in their sensuality, enjoying each other’s touch and voice, though different from the rowdy excursions of their youth. They are empaths who know that time is limited and try to live accordingly.


Q: Why did you decide to write a novella? What do you like about the form?


A: As an undergrad, I fell in love with Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd—the protagonist’s innocence, the way his path changes drastically in a moment’s mishap. Honestly, I don’t know what charmed me more—Billy Budd the character or that I could read his story in a morning.


While I was intrigued by Moby Dick and its complex exploration of good and evil, I had to work to finish the novel, waylaid by chapters on whaling. With Billy Budd, however, I was drawn to the faster-flowing narrative.


Then as a teacher of literature, composition, and creative writing at the local college, I found the shorter form easier to enter and exit as a writer with a never-dwindling pile of student essays. It gave me enough space to become immersed but not overwhelmed. A poet at heart, I’m equally interested in language and story.


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


A: There are several things I’d like readers to take away.


First, I hope the novella resonates in such a way that they think about what’s been said after the last page and want to reread sections, if not the entire work. The novella raises the questions of purpose, identity, loss and love that continue to touch us deeply as we grow older.


Second, I hope the everyday details are relatable. Yes, we all ponder the big issues, but we also attempt to enjoy what we experience in the moment. Whether making a pizza or visiting a pet store, we take pleasure in being alive.


Ideally, I’d like the language as well as the flashes of a relationship to transport the readers. Yet above all, I want them to find delight in Adele and Tom.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Recently I finished the first draft of a novel set in Alabama and South Carolina, states where I spent many of my early years.


Reminiscent of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Ian McEwan’s Saturday, the novel takes place in a day.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: From her childhood Adele shows a deep attachment to words, mirroring my own feeling. Being able to read and write is necessary, I believe, for a fulfilling existence. When I look back, I know that reading and writing have helped me cope with sorrow while finding beauty.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 27



Feb. 27, 1807: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow born.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Q&A with Ginger Park


Ginger Park is the author, with her sister Frances Park, of the children's picture book The Royal Bee. It focuses on their grandfather's experiences growing up in Korea. Her other books include Chocolate Chocolate, also written with her sister. The two of them own a chocolate shop in Washington, D.C.


Q: Why did you and your sister decide to write this picture book based on your grandfather's experiences?


A: It felt like a story that must be told - to inspire children. While our grandfather’s life was marked with tragedy, what truly defined him was his perseverance and ultimate triumph in the face of adversity.


Our grandfather was born into poverty in a land ruled by royalty, but he grew up to be one of the most honored men in his region – supposedly, there is a statue of him somewhere on the China-North Korean border. Sadly, and for obvious reasons, we’re unable to visit.


Q: How much of his life story did you know growing up, and how much research did you do to write the book?


A: Growing up, our grandfather was a mythical figure as we never met the revered pastor who died in the early ‘60s (before I was born). But our mother spoke of him often, wistfully so. The more stories we heard, the more we wanted to know.


That said, the book required a bit of research – the ruling class vs the working class, how people dressed – “sangmin” vs “yangban,” descriptions of a village “sodang” school, a royal palace, the topography of the land.


Q: What do you think Christopher Zhong-Yuan Zhang's illustrations add to the story?


A: The text is long and detailed illustrations were necessary to guide children through the historical and foreign aspects of the story.


Christopher Zhang captured the beauty of the story with rich color and detail. The artist’s focus is on portrait and landscape, which clearly complemented the story.


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


A: I hope children read my grandfather’s story and find inspiration. No matter how challenging life is, look to that one glimmer of hope – it’s out there. For my grandfather, it was one great teacher who changed the course of his life.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I just completed a middle grade novel tentatively titled Mermaid Girl. Set in Korea during the Japanese occupation, the novel chronicles my family of hoteliers during an era when few hotels catered to Korean families, thus illuminating a world rarely documented in history books.


The story is spun around the affluent Hong family, focusing on 15-year-old Kwan. The brilliant but ever-so-awkward First Son struggles to find his place in a world of inequality among privileged Japanese and poverty-stricken Koreans.  


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I'm delighted to announce the forthcoming publication of my novel The Hundred Choices Department Store by Fitzroy Books, a division of Regal House Publishing/Spring 2022.


Set in Sinuiju, Korea, this historical novel is inspired by my mother’s remembrances of her family’s painful struggles during the Russian invasion of their hometown and ultimate flight south, across the 38th parallel to Seoul, just prior to the outbreak of the Korean War. You can learn more about me and the book here:


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 26



Feb. 26, 1802: Victor Hugo born.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Q&A with Laura Kumin


Laura Kumin is the author of the book All Stirred Up: Suffrage Cookbooks, Food, and the Battle for Women's Right to Vote. She also has written The Hamilton Cookbook, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Washington Post and USA TODAY. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: What are suffrage cookbooks, and why did you decide to write a book about them?

A: I had never heard of them—I stumbled on one and from that moment, I was enthralled. Suffrage cookbooks are part of the genre of community cookbooks—church or temple cookbooks, organized by groups of mostly women. They started as a fundraiser, and then were used to open up conversations. It was a way of getting in the door.

It’s an amazing political discovery. If you had a cookbook and a recipe and a conversation about how to make soup, you wouldn’t start the conversation with suffrage. You’d say, I have a cookbook, would you like to see it? It’s only 35 cents.

I didn’t think about the fact that getting suffrage for women meant [gaining support from men]—people who already voted had to vote for change. You had to reach the men through their stomachs, but also you’d reach the women who then would reach the men.

Q: When did you decide it was a good topic for a book?

A: Originally I was fascinated to find any suffrage cookbooks—it was like a treasure hunt because only a handful are still left to be seen. There’s only one I’ve never seen—there’s only one copy of it in Clinton, New York, at their historical society. It’s too delicate to be scanned.

After I’d seen them, I realized some people had discovered them, but mostly [these people] were academics. There wasn’t anything in the popular literature about the cookbooks. There was very little written about the marketing of suffrage and mainstream women’s involvement in suffrage.

The topic had never captured anyone’s attention outside of a very small academic world. They’ve written wonderful articles, but they’re not going to be read by the average reader. I wanted to reach everyone out there.

Q: What would you say are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about the suffrage movement?

A: I had the misperceptions. Writing this book was my own awakening to this story. I thought the battle was won by picketing and parades. And I didn’t understand how long it took to get the vote. I also thought of them as a unit—that people were pro-suffrage or anti-suffrage. I had no sense of how much dissension there was, and how much World War I split the suffragists.

I really care about the context for suffrage, what else was going on in the U.S. and the world at that time.

Q: Can you say more about how you researched the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?

A: I am an incredible fan of the Library of Congress. It’s the most exquisite treasure we have in this country. I learned through the librarians how to research digitally. Some of it has to be done through an institution or is at the Library of Congress, but much of the rest can be done at home. I discovered suffrage cookbooks online.

The research was done three ways. I got a lot of books. I did online research through librarians and on my own—I would follow a thread. I met a woman who collects women’s political memorabilia, who gave me access to [her material]. The book is about what it was like to live then, and what the food was like then. I began cooking and researching.

Q: How did you choose the recipes to include, and how easy were they to adapt for today's cooks?

A: I had two goals. One was to represent the diversity of the cookbooks—I got something from every cookbook. Then I wanted the recipes to recreate all different parts of a meal.

The food was bland and overcooked—how did I keep the essence of the recipe but change it so it was not overcooked and was adequately spiced? I looked for more modern recipes for a similar thing, and looked at how it evolved over time and what people were adding that they hadn’t before.
Q: What reaction have readers had to the book? 
A: I've been delighted by readers' reactions. From a series of talks I've done via the Jewish Book Council all over the U.S. to an Instagram Live session with a Russian writer, readers have been fascinated by the story of the suffrage cookbooks and by the cookbooks themselves. 
So far no one has come forward during my talks with a story of an as-yet undiscovered suffrage cookbook that they know about, but I'm hopeful that one day that may happen. 
I have been pleased to find that many readers and audience members at my programs have been making the links (as I do in the book) between the fight for suffrage and more modern battles for political and civil rights. 
Q: Are these recipes difficult for a less accomplished cook? 
A: There are many adapted recipes in my book that are quite easy for a "less accomplished" cook. For example, Jack London's stuffed celery (pp.52-53) - no cooking required! 
Lots of the other recipes are simple too, such as the fruit punch (pp. 56-57), cheese rice (pp.223-224), the French dressing, which is really a simple vinaigrette (p.267) and the brownies (pp. 288-289.) Although some of the recipes have a number of steps and/or ingredients, none should intimidate a home cook. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have created a new author website. Cooking is common ground—we all cook, and we all eat. People get divided by politics and issues, but when you talk about food, you sit down and eat, you look at the cooking, you see how [so much] starts from basic things we all have in common.

There’s a gingerbread recipe in the Hamilton cookbook, and a gingerbread recipe in the suffrage cookbook. Across hundreds of years and different ethnicities, people like to eat certain things. If you look at kreplach, other people would say pierogis, everybody likes things wrapped in dough.

Gingerbread is a very common thing—you can divide us but at the end of the day we are all going to sit down and eat gingerbread or something wrapped in dough.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous version of this Q&A. Laura Kumin will be participating Feb. 27 in the Temple Sinai Authors' Roundtable.

Feb. 25



Feb. 25, 1937: Bob Schieffer born.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Q&A with Elaine Weiss


Photo by Nina Subin

Elaine Weiss is the author of the book The Woman's Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote. A journalist, her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Atlantic and Harper's. She lives in Baltimore.


Q: Why did you decide to write The Woman’s Hour?


A: The honest answer is because I knew nothing about [the history of women's suffrage]. I grew up with voting being modeled by my parents and my surroundings, being taught that it was very important to vote. I dedicated the book to my parents, who would take me as a child to the voting booth.


I had no idea how I got to vote, and I asked friends who also had no idea. If it came up, it was Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, maybe Seneca Falls, and that was it. I realized there was a gap here, and it was a strange one when you realize how important this issue is.


I started looking at a woman benefactress [to the siffcause] who makes a cameo in the book. I was deep into my research about how her bequest was spent:


First, to finance a lobbying shop on Capitol Hill beginning in 1916 for a federal amendment.


Second, to start a public relations shop in New York that would pump out articles about women’s contributions in World War I, and would send them to newspapers every day.


Third, to start the League of Women Voters.


Fourth, to finance a ratification campaign.


Then it described what happened in the last state to ratify [Tennessee], and my eyes just popped out. My husband said it’s a great story, but is there enough for a book? I found there was. The women who went to Nashville for the fight show different messages and I could reach back to the beginning.


Q: You describe three women at the start of the book, who as you said came to Nashville with different messages: the suffragists, the anti-suffragists, and the more radical suffragists. Can you describe the dynamic among the three, especially the anti-suffragists?


A: This [the anti-suffragists] was part of the story I had no idea about. I was shocked by it, and in hearing from readers, they didn’t expect that. It makes it even more pointed today. We can see the legacy.


I was reading the Nashville Tennessean and the Nashville Banner of that day and age. It was a railroad hub, and they announced the arrivals of the trains and if any celebrities had arrived. I realized all three [of the women I was writing about] arrived on the same night, and I thought, I’ve got it! I was fortunate in the narrative sense.


The idea of an organization of anti-suffrage women makes you think, This doesn’t make sense! But I wanted to make their reasoning clearer. I had to be careful. I didn’t want to make fun of them. They had to be worthy opponents; the suffragists were worried about them.


There were several types of anti-suffragists. Some were wealthy women. The status quo was working just fine for them. They didn’t feel their voices weren’t being heard. Some of them were so connected. Eleanor Roosevelt wasn’t an anti-suffragist, but she was certainly not a suffragist. She didn’t need to vote, she had Uncle Teddy in the White House. 


Also, they didn’t want immigrant women to have the vote.


Some were racists, who didn’t want Black women or Chinese women to vote. You have to parse what anti-suffrage was. It wasn’t one size fits all.


[On the pro-suffrage side] I found it sad and fascinating that in Nashville, there were two strong suffrage organizations with their own headquarters, their own staff, their own strategy, and their own lobbying, all for the same goal.


It teaches us something—not that women couldn’t work together. The same thing happened in the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement, the animal rights movement.


Q: What about the role of race in the suffrage movement?


A: It was another part of the story I was not aware of. It’s a very important part of the suffrage movement from beginning to end. It comes out of the abolitionist movement.


When I realized Frederick Douglass was at Seneca Falls but Susan B. Anthony wasn’t—she wasn’t part of the movement yet—it was very profound for me to see the role he played. A lot of the divisions and setbacks had to do with race.


I tried to be fair about it, and point out the suffragists’ hypocrisy in certain instances. It broke my heart to see [suffrage leader] Carrie Catt’s hypocrisy in acquiescing to racist sentiments.


I tried to look at political reality. Sometimes it gets lost when we rightfully point out racist attitudes. They needed two-thirds of both houses of Congress and they needed Southern racist men to vote for the amendment. They were not going to do that by bringing Ida B. Wells to the chamber to lobby.


They needed three-fourths of the states, so they had to go back to the racist men in Southern legislatures. They tried to manage it. It is abhorrent but politically clever. This was a political action, not a moral action. I try to balance that, and talk about it in my formal talks.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I just handed in my proposal to my agent. It will in some ways continue the story on voting rights.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’ve been active in talking about voting rights. Specifically, I’ve been invited to a lot of legal forums because the book won the top prize of the American Bar Association.


I made a vow, having been given a platform before a big election—I couldn’t be political in terms of the candidate, but I could be strident in terms of voting rights. I could look up each state where I was going, and see the voter suppression laws and it was horrifying, especially Tennessee.


I stood up there at the Nashville Rotary and said you can’t celebrate the centennial and Tennessee’s part in it while you’re allowing your representatives in the same state where you live, where the 19th amendment was ratified, to have terrible restrictive laws coming out. That’s hypocrisy.


I said it in Missouri, Ohio, wherever. I wanted them to realize that they’re ready for a parade and they can’t do that without realizing the connection that you’re slashing voting rights today. It’s important to bring the book’s themes into the present day.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Elaine Weiss will be participating in the Temple Sinai Authors' Roundtable on Saturday, Feb. 27.

Feb. 24



Feb. 24, 1943: Kent Haruf born.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Q&A with Janet Stilson


Janet Stilson is the author of the new novel The Juice. A journalist, she lives in New York City.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Juice, and for your character Jarat Ellington?


A: The initial inspiration for Jarat came to me when I was at a cocktail party at the Museum of Natural History in New York. I believe it was a Discovery Channel celebration tied to one of its new programs. And I was there in my role as a journalist.


We were in the Rose Center, where models of planets are displayed. A young man emerged who seemed out of place in that particular social milieu. Mostly, people involved in the TV network business are fairly conservative dressers. But this guy had much longer, scragglier hair than anyone there, and he was carrying an elegant cane. He was of our “world,” but he wasn’t.


I had a sense that he was someone who probably went to a very good school and was from a wealthy family but was an outlier. He seemed like the sort of guy who would go up to a catered bar displaying so-so wine and convince the bartender to give him a glass of the really good stuff, hidden away for the big shots.


We didn’t speak. I don’t know who he was. But I fell in love with the sense of him.  

The whole novel was inspired more broadly by my work as a journalist, covering the business of media and advertising.  My job involved talking with a lot of executives at major media companies about what they are planning to do.


All of this was fertile ground for me as I imagined what it would be like to work inside large media companies a few decades into the future – and what they might create to amuse us; to get us to buy certain products, or believe certain “truths.”


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


A: Oh my goodness. Sooo many changes. This novel was something that evolved over several years. I like to joke that it was like swimming across the ocean. This is my first novel, and so I was learning the craft of novel writing at the same time I was harnessing a huge number of ideas for characters and storylines. It took me time to see the best structure, and the best ending.


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, "Stilson creates a chilling world: the government brainwashes its citizens through subliminal messaging, and ubiquitous security cameras eliminate the concept of privacy." How did you create the world in which the book takes place?


A: It all goes back to my work covering media companies, watching as new tech innovations have emerged and creative content has evolved. I observed how certain governments around the world imposed restrictions on the information that people received, and how news is slanted by some media outlets to fit the narrative of powerful people.


And, of course, there are huge discussions today about what personal information tech companies can access and use. Subliminal messaging has been around for decades, and curbs have been placed on it. But it’s there as a possible tool.


So out of all that came some fun and scary “what if” scenarios. Like, what if people could program their mobiles to give them artificial dreams at night? What if those “dreamisodes” were served up by big media companies that embed certain messages in the storylines?


And what if there was a secret substance, called The Juice, that could transform mildly charming people into god-like presences, who had enough charisma to make anyone do just about anything?


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


A: I hope that that it provokes new thoughts about the future of media and advertising. But at the same time, I hope people are thoroughly entertained. There’s a fair bit of humor, romance, and an espionage roller-coaster ride winding through the story. So this isn’t an “eat your spinach,” “learn about media” kind of tome.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m writing a TV series pilot that’s also set in the future, with some fantasy mixed in. As with The Juice, it has to do with revealing deeply buried truths that are quite vital to the characters at the heart of the tale.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: That I’m deeply grateful for this interview, Deborah! Thank you for inviting me to share the underpinnings of a world that’s deeply meaningful for me – and which was a great deal of fun to explore.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 22



Feb. 22, 1925: Edward Gorey born.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Q&A with Marisa Meltzer


Photo by Sarah Shatz

Marisa Meltzer is the author of the book This Is Big: How the Founder of Weight Watchers Changed the World (and Me). She writes the Me Time column for The New York Times Style section, and her work has appeared in a variety of other publications, including The New Yorker.


Q: Why did you decide to write this book?


A: I was in my late 30s, trying to reckon with a lifetime of dieting and feeling I had failed at it. I saw an obituary of [Weight Watchers founder] Jean Nidetch—I hadn’t known who she was. I was so intrigued, and the idea came to me.


Q: You write of Jean Nidetch, "When I look at old photos of her before she lost the weight, the physical resemblance between us is so strong, she could easily be my aunt or cousin; she could almost be me somehow transported back in time to New York City in 1961." What do you see connecting the two of you, and how did writing the book affect you?


A: We have a surface similarity—similar height, weight, we’re Jewish, blonde, grappling with weight our whole lives.


In some ways I’m more interested in how we’re different. She lost weight and kept it off. I wanted to understand how she succeeded with that, and with starting a multimillion-dollar business.


It wasn’t easy to put a magnifying glass over yourself and your life. Part of my writing process was taking endless notes on my weight and Weight Watchers information. I felt like I was journaling all the time, being a little too tuned into [my] own emotions. It was good for creating a record, but not always the most fun to live through.


Q: What do you see as some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about Weight Watchers?


A: Maybe some of the misconceptions involve Weight Watchers’ constant rebranding and changing itself. It’s sort of sleight of hand—every January they have a new iteration of how dieting will be easier than ever.


The truth is, there’s no version of dieting that’s easy. And because it’s always changing, there’s an idea that Weight Watchers is still like the 1960s or 1980s version of a diet—hot cocoa with NutraSweet, and you’re weighing things. They do make a big effort to evolve with the food tastes of the times, but it’s confusing.


Weight Watchers is cheap, there’s relatively easy access to it, and it’s a pretty positive place from my forays into it. The people are not mean to each other. You get support.


But it’s easy to get a vintage idea of what Weight Watchers is, housewives sitting around in the middle of the day complaining about the size of [the portions].


Q: In a review of the book in The New York Times, Lily Burana writes, "People — women, especially — who ping-pong around the weight spectrum will feel less alone when they read it." What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: I definitely hope people feel a sense of being seen or being understood. Weight is very individual, and it’s such a common concern. For me it does feel that there’s comfort in knowing you’re not alone.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m writing a lot of articles, and mulling over book projects.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 21



Feb. 21, 1940: John Lewis born.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Q&A with Maria Espinosa


Maria Espinosa is the author of the new novel Suburban Souls. It focuses on Holocaust survivors in the San Francisco Bay Area during the 1970s. Her other books include the novel Longing. She is also a poet, translator, and teacher.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for Suburban Souls, and for the family you write about?


A: The story is based on  people I have known intimately, but each character is also a composite, composed of distinct individual qualities.


Q: What do you think the book says about the impact of trauma and how it’s passed down to later generations?


A: Trauma lodges in the very cells of the body. It is passed on through memories, both voiced and unvoiced, to immediate family members. I believe it embeds itself in chromosomes that affect future generations.


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 had no idea when I first began that it would end as it finally did. I had envisioned a more fantastical ending, with the so-called psychic playing a pivotal part. But with each draft, characters and events changed. It went through numerous drafts. As it stands, each draft could have become an entirely different novel.


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


A: An enlarged sense of compassion and greater understanding of human beings. A greater awareness of how individuals affect each other, whether tangibly or intangibly.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have so much that I want to write, and I don’t know if I will live long enough or have enough creative strength to do it all. I’ve written rough drafts of several novels. I’d also like to write a nonfiction account of homelessness in Albuquerque, which has been wrenching to observe in my own neighborhood.


Q: Anything else you should know?


A: I love to dance. I miss parties and social life during this pandemic!! At the same time, I’d like to go on a solitary meditation retreat.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 20



Feb. 20, 1927: Sidney Poitier born.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Q&A with Caroline Adams Miller


Caroline Adams Miller is the author of the book Creating Your Best Life, now available in a new edition. Her other books include Positively Caroline and My Name is Caroline. A speaker, coach, and educator, she is based in the Washington, D.C., area.


Q: What led to this new edition of Creating Your Best Life?


A: The book is a reissue of the 2008 version of CYBL and Sterling Publishing decided to reissue it because it has become an international bestseller with over 100K in sales!


It’s also been recently ranked on several lists as the #1 goal setting book, even 12 years after its publication! It was the first evidence-based goal setting book for the mass market that linked the science of happiness to the science of goal success, and it is still considered pioneering and practical in many spheres of work and life.


They approached me last spring to ask if I was okay with it being reissued in time for New Year’s resolutions, but told me that I was only able to write a new introduction, add new testimonials, and they did a fresh look, bigger font and more colors inside. It is being sold through Target, Walmart, Amazon, and lots of places. Very exciting!

Q: What would you advise people today, in the midst of the pandemic and other stresses, when it comes to life goals and positive psychology?


A: It is more important than ever that people learn that happiness is a choice and that everyone has the responsibility to find ways to initiate flourishing themselves through what is called “positive interventions” like journaling, exercise, gratitude, altruism, the use of character strengths, and other things I talk about in Creating Your Best Life.


In the book, I also detail the important research that happiness precedes all success in life, so if people want to have a shot at successfully pursuing their life goals, they have to learn how to flourish first.


I also think that the pandemic has put a spotlight on the things that really matter in life, which is caring for others and being compassionate. For that reason, many are choosing to think about ways to work from home more, if possible, when the virus is at bay, so that they can have more time with loved ones, less hurry and bustle, and perhaps a different way of making money.


Many people are also struck by the preciousness of life in a new way, and are asking themselves if they need to look at their life goals carefully so that they can live without regrets as much as possible.


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


A: The importance of choosing meaningful goals and then learning the science behind successful goal pursuit. I believe that learning the evidence-based ways to achieve goals could cut down on the anxiety, depression, and frustration that is plaguing the world, along with the epidemic of “fake news,” which makes people think they can’t even trust their own eyes.


We must learn to have control over our lives and our environments in order to feel autonomous and masterful in our own lives, and learning how to make things happen in your life is a good place to start.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Two books - an update on CYBL that includes the latest research on goal setting and success, and an ebook on how women need to form and get into mastermind groups so that they can put their own goals front and center in their lives and create the right friendships to support them.


There is obviously much more to those topics than I have time to share, but they are important subjects that I must cover to continue to make the difference in the world that I want to make.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Thirty-four years ago, I was on the cover of Washingtonian with an excerpt from my first book, My Name is Caroline, that broke the silence around bulimia as an epidemic that was ravaging girls, teens, and women at all ages.


No one had ever spoken openly about it, nor was there a cure for it, which meant it was mostly considered a death sentence with a hopeless prognosis. People still remember the craziness that erupted as a result of that cover.


One year later, My Name is Caroline was published and it was the first autobiography by anyone who recovered from bulimia and began the genre of eating disorder memoirs that are so popular now.


A few years ago, I wrote Positively Caroline, which was about how I got into unbroken long-term recovery that has stretched for 30+ years, and as I look back on all of this, it’s worth noting that:


1.   When I did all of these things for the first time, I was pilloried everywhere from the Sunday New York Times to the Post and beyond and was called “selfish” for writing about this “revolting disease” that no one would want to read about.

2.   And The New York Times implied I didn’t love my husband because I briefly described a possible binge when I was overwhelmed by his grand mal seizure. 


I write this because recently Susan Burton wrote another eating disorder memoir 30 years later, this time about her bout with binge eating and now her short time in recovery. She has been called brave and bold and vulnerable! So what was judged harshly by female book reviewers about another woman’s pain in the 1980s is suddenly praised as brave. Go figure!


I just wish more people would find and get into lasting recovery, which is truly the most important thing that matters to me. And if I read one more article or blog post about people relapsing and binging during the pandemic instead of hopeful articles that might inspire people, I will scream!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Caroline Adams Miller.