Friday, April 30, 2021

Q&A with Kate Masur




Kate Masur is the author of the new book Until Justice Be Done: America's First Civil Rights Movement, from the Revolution to Reconstruction. She also has written the book An Example for All the Land. She is an associate professor of history at Northwestern University.


Q: What inspired you to write your new book? 


A: The book began in some ways with the question of where Republicans of the Civil War era got their ideas about racial equality. 


When I was finishing my first book, on Reconstruction in Washington, D.C., I wondered why Republican legislators were so quick not only to abolish slavery in the capital, but to repeal laws that discriminated against free Black people. I looked for answers in the antebellum North, where those legislators came from.  


Q: In a New York Times review of the book, Jennifer Szalai writes, “If this is a cleareyed book, it’s still a heartening one. Masur takes care to show not only the limitations of what was achieved at each step but also how even the smallest step could lead to another.” What do you think of that description? 


A: I loved that description. It really captured something important in the book and tension I felt when I was writing it— was it a pessimistic or an optimistic book? 


The book is about the entrenched nature of racism, the extraordinary odds the first civil rights movement faced, and the violence that white northerners often inflicted on their Black neighbors. 


On the other hand, there’s a lot in the book about the real changes this movement helped bring about, changes that were often incremental but sometimes – as in the case of the 1866 Civil Rights Act and the 14th Amendment – quite dramatic.  


Q: You begin the book by describing a meeting of Ohio-based activists in 1843. What do you see as the significance of Ohio in this first civil rights movement? 


A: Ohio was the first state carved from the Northwest Territory, and when it came to race and politics, it set the mold for other states. 


Ohio legislators, beginning in 1804, passed a series of explicitly racist laws, including requiring African American residents to register with officials, prohibiting them from testifying in court cases involving whites, and excluding them from public schools. 


But Ohio also became home to the most effective antislavery movement in the Midwest, and that movement demanded repeal of the state’s anti-Black laws.  


The more I learned about Ohio history, the more fascinated I became.  


Q: You clearly did a great deal of research—how did it go? 


A: When I first started, I was groping around, trying to figure out how to focus the book. Some of it was intuitive, and also I had some lucky finds. 


For instance, there’s a lot in the book about protests over the arrest and incarceration of northern Black sailors whose work took them into southern ports. 


I was unaware of this part of the story until I was in the Massachusetts State archives and found evidence of a very effective movement that pressed the state government and Congress to do more to protect those sailors.  


Q: You write, “The mid-twentieth-century civil rights movement echoed and expanded the agenda of its antebellum predecessor.” What do you see as the relationship between the two—and also between the first civil rights movement and today’s fight for racial justice? 


A: The first civil rights movement accomplished a lot. It pushed the principle of racial equality before the law to the center of northern politics, ensuring that a cohort of Republican legislators stood ready, when the chance arose, to propose and pass the nation’s first federal civil rights measures: the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the 14th amendment. 


Yet white Americans found all kinds of ways to circumvent those policies, and the federal government did little to enforce them after the 1870s. 


State and local governments that wanted to restrict and marginalize people, especially people of African descent, turned to vagrancy statutes and other policies that appeared racially neutral but were enforced in racially discriminatory ways. They also insisted that Jim Crow statutes that required racial segregation did not violate the 14th Amendment’s demand for “equality before the law.” 


Civil rights activists of the 20th century took all that on. They did so in a different legal and political context from their antebellum predecessors, so the struggle looked different. 


Yet 20th-century century activists shared goals that were similar to those of their 19th-century predecessors and of today’s movement for racial justice: they demanded equal treatment by law and law enforcement, respect for the freedom and dignity of all people, and a full-throated rejection of racism.


Q: What are you working on now? 


A: Right now I’m working on a graphic history of Reconstruction in the Washington, D.C., area. (Someone else is doing the illustrations!) 


I’m also collaborating with a team of students and staff at Northwestern University working on a web-based exhibit on African American life in antebellum Illinois. It’s We anticipate that the exhibit will become part of the Colored Conventions Project based at Penn State University.  


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Mariah Fredericks



Photo by Jonathan Elderfield


Mariah Fredericks is the author of the new mystery novel Death of a Showman, the fourth in her Jane Prescott series, set in the 1910s. Fredericks lives in New York City.


Q: What inspired you to create your character Jane Prescott, and did you know from the start that you'd be writing a series about her?


A: This is going to sound very creative artist woo woo, but Jane came to me. I had no intention of writing a historical mystery. I was writing contemporary young adult when one day, the first two lines of A Death of No Importance came to me: I will tell it. I will tell it badly.


And there was something about that line I will tell it that implied this was a story that had been told many times before, but everyone else had gotten it wrong. Now, after decades of silence, this woman was going to set the record straight.


The fact that she apologized told me she was not used to being heard and someone with tact. So, over time, the idea of a servant who knew the truth about a famous “crime of the century” developed. And Jane’s voice just got stronger and stronger as I wrote. I sort of think of these books as her stories; I’m just the typist.


I did not know it would be a series. When Minotaur bought No Importance, they asked if I would consider doing a series. I told them truthfully that I would be happy to spend the next few decades writing Jane Prescott. I’m very happy so many readers have grown attached to her.


Q: How did you come up with the plot for Death of a Showman?


A: Originally, the story in Showman was supposed to be for book five. Jane and the Tylers would return from Europe where Charlotte’s wedding has taken place and war has broken out, to find that Jane’s ex-boyfriend is on the verge of opening his first show—and has gotten married. Which he said he would never do.


The murder itself is based on a true crime; if I reveal the details, I’ll reveal whodunnit. But that was in place from the start.


There were some non-mystery areas of suspense: how will Jane react to Leo getting married? Will William accept Louise’s growing independence?


Beyond that, it was a matter of coming up with scenes that blended detection and theater lore, such as Jane and Louise interviewing a taxi dancer at Rector’s to learn what he knows about the secret life of the murdered producer.


Q: This is your fourth novel about Jane--do you think she's changed over the course of the series?


A: I would say in the first two books, Jane is very focused on doing a good job, protecting the Benchleys, boosting Louise—she’s a young lady determined to do things correctly. Partly because she’s a dedicated professional and partly out of insecurity.


When she encounters cruelty or injustice, her response is anguished, but maybe a little flailing: But that’s…wrong!


In the last book, Death of an American Beauty, the violence strikes much closer to home. Her uncle is accused, she herself is attacked.


And in book four, she has much more clarity and certainty in her thinking about brutality. She doesn’t defer as much.


There’s a scene in Showman where she and Michael Behan go to a seedy dive called the Nag’s Nose to talk to a suspect. Michael isn’t getting anywhere with the guy and Jane says, Step aside, I got this. She pretends to be a woman who wants to hire someone to kill her lover. Book one Jane never ever would have done that. 


Q: How do you research your books, and have you learned anything especially fascinating in the course of your research?


A: Mike Wallace’s Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919 is my bible. It’s astonishingly researched and beautifully written. I don’t know how he wrote one of these books, let alone two, in one lifetime.


I start by googling New York City and the year, just to see what comes up. Once I have the key elements of the story—theater, weddings, Tammany Hall—I go on a book-buying spree. I use digital newspaper archives a lot, because it’s always good to see how people viewed the events of their day. It’s not the same as our perspective.


That perspective is actually one of the most fascinating things I’ve absorbed. Until just a few days before war is declared, the Great War is absent from the front page of The New York Times. The murder trial of Florence Carman was the story gripping the city at that time.


I grew up thinking pre-World War I America was somewhat stuffy and old-fashioned; the ‘20s were the time of great innovation and liberation.


But women were bobbing their hair in the 1910s—and fighting for the vote at the same time. It was a wildly optimistic, bold, creative time. Yes, we had many problems, but we were making big changes to address those problems. When I step away from the era, I miss it.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have two books underway at the moment. Jane 5, which is a turning point book in the series. William opens his own law practice and engages Jane as his secretary. They get involved investigating the explosion that killed Michael Behan’s father. Strangely, Michael is less than thrilled when Jane starts looking into his family’s past.


But my next book is going to be a standalone, a true crime novel focusing on one woman’s perspective of a famous crime of the 1930s. It’s one of those stories when you trip over it, you think, Oh, my God, why has this not been done before? Let me do it right now!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I think if a writer is having fun, the reader will have fun. (Conversely, if a book is hell to write, I think you feel it on the page as a reader.) I had a blast writing Death of a Showman. I hope the reading experience reflects that.


And as we come out of hiding, please remember your local bookstore!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Dianna Rostad



Photo by Jaden Photography


Dianna Rostad is the author of the new historical novel You Belong Here Now. It focuses on three children on an orphan train in the 1920s who end up in Montana. She lives in Florida.


Q: What inspired you to write You Belong Here Now?


A: I had read a CNN article online and the pictures of all the orphans from the 1920s hanging out of trains and standing on platforms looked familiar to my eye.


I had worked with youthful offenders after the riots of the 1990s in South Central Los Angeles. It was my job to get them employed when they were paroled.


Like the kids on the streets who were rounded up by The Children’s Aid Society and put in orphanages and onto trains to the heartland and West, the kids on my caseload didn’t have significant adults, and I rarely met a parent.


It was always the same story, one parent missing and the other in jail. Some of them were raised by a grandmother or an auntie. Like the orphans riding the train West, the kids on my caseload had to make their own way and got into gangs like the Crips and the Bloods.


They had done terrible things to survive, much like my Charles in You Belong Here Now. Charles was a young man living on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen; the gangs wanted him, but he wanted a better life.


When I went to write my orphan kids from the streets of Hell’s Kitchen, I was prepared and understood the mindset and the backgrounds of these kids. Most importantly, from working with them, I knew they still had hope.


Q: The novel takes place in the 1920s in Montana--how important is setting to you in your writing?


A: Landscape is everything to me. I like to recreate the place and time as accurately as possible. Montana itself was the big draw for me. One Christmas my father drove down to Texas and he brought a bunch of old photos of the family ranches in Montana, and stories about how his family lived in this beautiful, but unforgiving land.


One picture I always remember is of my grandfather’s old ranch house with a small windmill on the top of it. My grandfather had written a note that he’d put that windmill on there as a boy, hoping it would power just one light bulb—and it did for a time.


All these photos broke open a whole big world where I could see my characters falling into place. I decided then to set my book in Montana.


Q: What kind of research did you do to write the book, and did you learn anything especially surprising?


A: There were so many facets to this book, and the research spanned many years. The what, where, and when are all major chunks of research for historical novelists.


I began by reading several books on the orphan train, and then I scoured the internet. From there, I did a pretty deep dive into the history of the early 20th century to discover what were the macro issues of that time?


World War I, The Spanish Flu, Prohibition, and Women’s Rights all had to be researched in order to bring this book into the wider movements of 1925. Who wrote books, literature during this time? What was popular? What did people wear in 1925 Montana?


The backstory on my orphans was important, so I researched 1920s Hell’s Kitchen and all her inhabitants, tenements, and specifically the gangs and their activity.


I traveled to Montana to research the landscape and went to all the museums and historical societies where I talked to historians and recovered oral histories from Cheyenne and other inhabitants.


From there, I researched all the indigenous cultures, and then The Battle of The Little Bighorn to understand the attitudes that still existed between people in 1925. It was important to me to place everyone and everything in this book that existed there in that time.


The funny thing about research is that it usually leads to more research, which I don’t mind. My family’s history was an important part of framing what this life looked like in 1920s Montana. My aunts helped me greatly here by finding the old songs, stories, and pictures.


The songs in the book came from my grandfather’s repertoire and were commonly sung in that time. My father and uncle helped me with old cars of that era, shotguns and rifles used then, how they were loaded, cocked, and shot.


The other two important aspects that had to be researched were cattle ranching in this time and wild horses.


For me, the eye-opening part of my research was discovering that we’ve made no progress on how we manage the wild horse population in the West.


They were rounded up in 1925 and canned into chicken feed, and today they are being rounded up, put into tiny holding pens, and if they aren’t adopted, then they are sent across the borders to be destroyed and likely used for animal feed.


The government and ranchers treat them like invasive species. When it’s really beef cattle that destroy our land. When cows graze on native grasses, their stomachs destroy seeds. Whereas wild horses and bison don’t.


I’ve read research by Yvette Running Horse Collin that proves they are indigenous creatures, though the popular Eurocentric myth is that they were brought here by the Spanish Conquistadors.


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


A: Hope. That even children coming from the streets that have done terrible things, can learn how to love and live in a family, a healthy one.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: A book set in 1900 San Francisco. It will be something like True Grit meets The Secret Garden.


Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I will always write big-hearted novels for all ages and genders. I will take my readers on epic journeys, and the landscape will always be a big character.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 30



April 30, 1877: Alice B. Toklas born.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Q&A with Nadia Hashimi




Nadia Hashimi is the author of the new novel Sparks Like Stars. Her other books include A House Without Windows. Also a physician, she lives in Maryland.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for Sparks Like Stars, and for your character Sitara/Aryana?


A: Much in my stories is inspired by newspaper articles. In 2009, Carlotta Gall (New York Times), wrote about a former army officer who revealed where, 30 years earlier, he had helped bury the bodies of Afghanistan’s first president and his family members.


The victims had been killed during the April 1978 military coup, an event that resulted from Cold War tensions coming to a head in an otherwise peaceful Kabul.


Universities were open to men and women. Foreign service officers from a host of countries considered Kabul to be a party post. Wide-eyed hippies were trekking across the country, taking in the scenery and enjoying Afghan hospitality.


I wanted to explore how such a dark and pivotal event could occur against such an idyllic backdrop. (Side note - I have my research rabbit holes linked through my website so if you want to see the pictures that inspired this or other stories, visit


The youngest body found in the unmarked grave belonged to an 18-month-old grandchild of President Daoud Khan. This made me wonder what it would have been like to have been a child in the palace during a coup. What if a child had witnessed and survived that brutal night?


Sitara’s story is the story of Afghanistan. Her world is rocked that night but doesn’t end there. Her past is part of her psyche and haunts her no matter how far she goes. She represents a generation of Afghans, many of whom escaped a besieged homeland and resurrected themselves in America.


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


A: I knew this novel would begin in Kabul, April of 1978 and follow Sitara into adulthood. I did not have a map of Sitara’s logistical path from Afghanistan to the United States.


Side note - if this was a challenge to write, I can only imagine what it was like for those who have had to plan an escape from a volatile and violent Afghanistan with their small children in tow. Many members of my own family, including my husband, have done this over the years.


I had an idea of where I wanted the story to end but didn’t know exactly how I would get there. I couldn’t be sure of the decisions my characters would make until I’d gotten a few chapters in. Writing is a journey and when things are going well, the story unfolds organically. When a scene is written, the next begins to reveal itself.


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


A: Here’s where I confess a writerly weakness. I can compose 300-page novels but struggle when it comes to choosing a handful of words that make for a moving title.


Thankfully, my multi-talented agent (Helen Heller) has a knack for naming stories. She’s titled most of my books and, until now, each had come from a line of classic Sufi poetry (Rumi or Hafez).


For this story, I really wanted to include the poetry of a woman in this book so you can imagine my delight when Helen called to suggest Sparks Like Stars, a line that comes from the poetry of Nadia Anjuman.


Anjuman was a published poet from Herat, Afghanistan, who was tragically murdered by her husband. In “The Night’s Poetry”, she wrote:

there is no need for my crying / Sparks pour from my sighs like stars.

I could imagine Sitara/Aryana in this line, her tortured persistence. This story is as much about survivorship as it is about Afghanistan’s history. I love the image of those sparks appearing like stars against a night sky. This gives me hope that the story creates a path from hurt to hope, from loss to light.

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


A: Some of the most surprising research came from the archives of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (ADST), an organization that catalogs decades worth of  interviews with foreign service officers stationed around the world.


I also interviewed a foreign service officer, Louise Taylor, who had served in Kabul at the time of the coup.


I spent hours reading transcripts of diplomats stationed in Afghanistan. They described parties with foreign service officers from China, Russia, and European countries. The night before the coup, the American Embassy had hosted members of the Soviet Embassy in a Soviet-American Friendship Night.


I was most intrigued to read about the Americans organizing five sold-out performances of the musical Oklahoma!. Even the marines stationed at the embassy were involved. That image is such a stark contrast to the experience of Americans who served in the embassy at any point after April of 1978.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m now working on my first young adult novel -- one that explores the Afghan American experience. I’ve written for adults and middle grade readers so it’s exciting to shift perspectives.


It’s too early to talk much about the story but I will say that stepping into the shoes of a teenager is an exercise in humility. Teens today are navigating a world in a world that moves quickly and loudly. And while so much has changed and yet there are some timeless struggles - identity, confidence, friendships.


It’s a work in (slow) progress given that, like so many other families, my four children have been doing school from home since March 2020.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I love joining book clubs! The conversations keep me inspired and thinking. Sparks Like Stars was a story I felt compelled to tell because in book club discussions around my other stories, I’ve often been asked what happened to tilt Afghanistan into decades of conflict.


I hope that this pulls the curtain back on a turbulent and intriguing time in Afghanistan’s history and gives book clubs and individual readers something to talk about.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Yang Huang




Yang Huang is the author of the new novel My Good Son. Her other books include My Old Faithful. She grew up in Yangzhou, China, and now lives in the San Francisco Bay area.


Q: What inspired you to write My Good Son?


A: My Good Son began with an image. A tailor spends his entire life making clothes for other people, and one day he puts on a form-fitting dress and heels. The image stayed with me.


The tailor is reconciling his artistic aspirations with his need to make a living.


I visited my parents, and they introduced me to a tailor in Shanghai with a son who had health problems. I was deeply moved. The father was struggling to make his way in the world.


Why was the tailor wearing a woman’s dress? I came up with a plot!


Q: What do you think the novel says about parent-child relationships?


A: I think the relationship between a parent and child is the one thing in society that’s not based on merit. Mr. Cai regards Feng as his flesh and blood. He lives through him. The more Mr. Cai pressures him, the more he retreats into his own shell.


To Mr. Cai, tailoring is a menial job. He is chagrined that Feng wants to become a tailor. Feng is happy living at home with his parents. The father and son influence each other imperceptibly. Neither likes to show respect for the other. [For that to happen] Feng needs to be independent.


Q: You have a link on your website to an essay about why you write in English. Can you say something about that and whether your writing voice is different in English than in Chinese?


A: I haven’t written any fiction in Chinese, only personal essays. Growing up in China with censorship, my parents were worried I’d be sent to a labor camp if I wrote honestly.


It wasn’t until I was working as an engineer [in the U.S.] that I used storytelling as a way to channel creativity. I had to support myself by working as an engineer. My day job involved technical work behind the scenes.


Writing fiction required me to take a risk. I like to tackle social problems in my work and use ingenuity to help the characters move forward with their lives.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: My new novel, Oasis, is about two lovers separated by the climate crisis in Northwest China. The heroine leaves her village but the village never leaves her. I’ve been working on this for many years, and it’s still trying to find its way into the world.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: My fiction tends to have the themes of work, personal aspects, and family dynamics. My Good Son is about people who love, but don’t like, each other.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Wendy Francis




Wendy Francis is the author of the new novel Summertime Guests. Her other books include Best Behavior. She lives in the Boston area.



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


A: There were a few different ideas percolating in my mind for this novel. Initially, I wanted to write a story about love in its myriad stages, hence the four different couples in the book.


There's Riley and Tom, who are recently engaged and feeling all the butterflies of new love. Then there's Jean-Paul and his wife, Marie, who have a new baby at home, a baby that's testing their marriage. Jason and Gwen, both in academia, have a passionate but stormy relationship; they're trying to figure out next steps -- walk away from each other or commit?


And finally, there's Claire, recently widowed. Even though she was married for more than three decades, Claire has always wondered what her life might have been like if she'd chosen differently. In fact, it's the reason she comes to Boston -- to seek out a long-lost love.


I also wanted to write a book set in Boston, in particular, Boston's Seaport District, which is the new up-and-coming kid on the block, so to speak. But more about that below!


Q: As you mentioned, the novel takes place in Boston--how important is setting to you in your novels?


A: For me, setting is almost like another character in the book. In fact, I probably know the settings of my novels before I know the plot! I love bringing seaside communities to life.


Most of my books also take place during the summertime, probably because it's my favorite season, that time of year when life slows down and you can take a moment soak up the sunshine.


Summertime Guests is the first book I've set in Boston proper. The Seaport District, near the Boston Harbor, has undergone an amazing transformation in recent years.


What was once a fairly downtrodden area is now home to a magnificent neighborhood filled with luxurious condos and high-end hotels and restaurants. It's the new place to see and be seen -- much like the Seafarer hotel in the book. 


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


A: This novel was a bit different from the others in that I knew how it would "end" in the first chapter -- a woman plummets to her death from a hotel balcony.


The rest of the book hinges on the four couples and the arc of their relationships as well as the question of who was the woman who died.


The characters' relationships -- and even the identity of the woman who dies -- changed a few times in revisions. I know better than to assume that the direction of my novel will hew to my outline. The story almost always shifts course simply because the characters take me where they may.


Q: Is the Seafarer based on a real hotel?


A: No, but I was certainly imagining a grand old hotel set by the sea. Probably the closest comparisons would be Wentworth by the Sea in New Hampshire, which has its own wonderful history, or the breathtaking Ocean House in Rhode Island. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I'm working on another novel, also set around Boston, in the nearby town of Hull. Hull has more of a working-class vibe to it than Boston's Seaport district, so I'm looking forward to mining its history. Back in the day, when it was a tourist attraction, it used to be known as the Coney Island of New England.


Without giving too much away, the story centers around three women who are drawn to Hull for different reasons. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Only that I'm really looking forward to summer 2021 and that I hope we can all reunite with the friends and family we've been missing dearly for the past year.


Until then, here's to hoping that Summertime Guests will give readers a summery escape that's filled with warmth, seaside views, and a bit of mystery. Thanks for hosting me! 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Wendy Francis.

April 29



April 29, 1954: Jerry Seinfeld born.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Q&A with Claudia Kalb




Claudia Kalb is the author of the new book Spark: How Genius Ignites, from Child Prodigies to Late Bloomers. She also has written the book Andy Warhol Was a Hoarder, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including National Geographic and Smithsonian. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia.


Q: What inspired you to write Spark, and how did you choose the people you profile in the book?


A: I have always been fascinated by how people discover what they’re meant to be, and one question in particular has intrigued me: what propels some individuals to reach extraordinary heights in the earliest years of life while others discover their passions decades later?


While researching my first book, Andy Warhol Was a Hoarder: Inside the Minds of History’s Great Personalities, I discovered how much I enjoy studying the lives of well-known figures as way to understand human behavior. I knew I wanted to take a similar approach in Spark.  


I started by creating lists of people who fell into three main categories: prodigies, midlifers and late bloomers. My goal was to find individuals whose moments of discovery happened in different ways and in a mix of professions.


Some of the choices were easy: I had written about Picasso for National Geographic and wanted to expand on my reporting.


Shirley Temple was a natural because of how young she was when her acting career ignited, but I picked her for a different reason: as an adult, she cultivated an entirely new profession as a diplomat.


I chose Julia Child in part because I loved the way she described the moment she discovered French cooking—the aromas of buttery shallots and fresh lemon—and I wanted to write about Eleanor Roosevelt because I found her resilience and inner strength so captivating. Each person drew me in for a different reason.


Q: You note that you organized the book "not by birth order, but by the age at which genius ignites." Why did you decide on this strategy?


A: I wanted the book to move chronologically from one person’s moment of inspiration to the next, starting with prodigies and ending with late bloomers. This made sense to me for many reasons.


For one thing, I liked the idea of following the natural arc of life, from early childhood to the final years. It also allowed me to build on research about life stages in a logical order.


In the prodigies section, I write about the influence of parents on early development; in midlifers, I explore the power of experience. Maya Angelou’s first memoir, published the year she turned 41, could not have been written earlier—she had to live it first.


By the time I get to late bloomers, I’m able to delve into research focused on the aging brain and creativity, and the importance of purpose toward the end of life.


Late bloomers Peter Mark Roget and Anna Mary Robertson Moses (Grandma Moses) are perfect examples: Roget turned to his thesaurus in his 70s after an esteemed career in science and medicine; Moses wanted to keep busy, and painting became her way to do it. She launched her career at the age of 80.


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


A: I read dozens of books and journal articles and interviewed researchers to learn about the science of creativity, inspiration, aha moments, resilience, failure, collaboration, and many other elements that contribute to success.


To learn about the individuals, I read biographies, autobiographies, news articles, magazine features, journals, and letters.


Three of the people I profile—Yo-Yo Ma, Bill Gates, and Sara Blakely—are contemporary figures.


I met Yo-Yo Ma, heard him perform, and watched him display his characteristic exuberance during a visit to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, one of the stops on his global Bach Project journey.


I interviewed Bill Gates and met Sara Blakely after she captivated a room full of entrepreneurs at the “How I Built This Summit” in San Francisco.


Where possible, I talked to family members, including Blakely’s parents, brother, and husband; two of Shirley Temple’s children; Eleanor Roosevelt’s grandson; and Grandma Moses’s great-grandson.


Thankfully, I did much of my reporting before the pandemic, allowing me to visit Isaac Newton’s bedroom at Woolsthorpe Manor in the English countryside, where he did much of his critical thinking during the plague.


I toured Fleming’s lab in London and walked along Roosevelt’s favorite path in the woods at Val-Kill, her home in Hyde Park, N.Y. I even went to a cooking class so I could learn how to make Julia Child’s famous beef bourguignon.


So many surprising things came to light: Julia’s husband, Paul, used to stick the stickers from his breakfast bananas on the underside of their kitchen table, which you can visit at the Smithsonian; 10-year-old Shirley Temple aimed her slingshot at Eleanor Roosevelt and hit her in the backside with a pebble during a cookout at Val-Kill; Angelou’s writing accouterments included a deck of playing cards, Roget’s Thesaurus, and the King James Bible.


Newton investigated the universe and Sara Blakely contemplated her place in it. I could go on and on.


Q: You write, "My own spark—the moment my curiosity erupted and the questions began to cascade—rests with Leonardo da Vinci, the Renaissance man who embodied genius in the voracious way he puzzled out the world." Can you say more about that, and about why you chose to conclude the book with Leonardo?


A: In the summer of 2017, I attended a remarkable conference about Leonardo at the Aspen Institute and became increasingly fascinated by the artist’s hunger for knowledge and the vast expanse of his mind.


In Leonardo, all the elements of genius come together: intellect, artistic talent, curiosity, perseverance, the leaping of disciplines, and even luck (he was born during the Renaissance!).


As I thought about the book, it became clear to me that Leonardo was the backbone of the story—the genius who sparked throughout his life. I knew he didn’t fit into the arc of discovery but served instead as model for others.


Concluding with Leonardo allowed me to write about the characteristics he displayed that are reflected in the lives of those I profile: a passion for investigation, observation, pushing past convention, breaking barriers, and asking questions.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m delighted to have recently finished several articles that have just been published. Each one takes a nugget from the book and unravels it in far greater detail.


In the May issue of National Geographic, I write about environmental projects that Yo-Yo Ma has helped bring to light through his music; in the May Smithsonian I tell the story of a 20-something Roget getting caught up in Napoleon’s dragnet during a trip to the continent. And in a piece for Scientific American, I highlight Fleming’s first and proudest discovery. (Hint: it wasn’t penicillin!)


I am also excited to be discussing Spark in upcoming book events and am exploring ideas for new writing projects.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: My own journey to becoming a writer was circuitous and I often wondered how, and if, I would make it. My hope is that readers will find these profiles not only inspiring, but also heartening. Achievement is possible at any age. There’s still time. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Claudia Kalb. I'm proud to say that she is my cousin!