Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Q&A with Elizabeth Gonzalez James




Elizabeth Gonzalez James is the author of the new novel Mona at Sea. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Rumpus and The Idaho Review. She lives in Oakland, California.


Q: What inspired you to write Mona at Sea, and how did you create your character Mona?


A: Mona at Sea was inspired by my own experience of long-term unemployment during the Great Recession.


I graduated from an MBA program just a few months after the Wall Street meltdown of 2008, and it was a terrible, terrible time for people like me who were looking for jobs in finance.


While my failure to get a job was not as spectacular (or funny) as Mona's, I was out of work for over a year. I applied for between 300-400 jobs and got nothing, zip, nada.


Then I got pregnant, because my husband and I were living in his parents' basement and this was clearly a perfect time to add some more chaos to the mix. And I started writing around that time as a way to give me something to do other than change diapers, and as a way to channel my frustrations about my job search into something productive.


In 2011 I hit on the idea of wanting to write a novel about someone who's unemployed and can't get her bearings, and thus Mona was born. 


Q: The writer Cristina Garcia said of the book, "Mona at Sea is a hilarious, high-octane novel about coming into one's own without coming undone." What do you think of that assessment?


A: I'm relieved she found the book hilarious. I think I'm funny, but I also don't think my opinion should be trusted. High-octane? Sure. The stakes are not exactly life-and-death, but Mona's sanity, happiness, and sense of herself hang in the balance. When you're in your early 20s, that's kind of all you have.


And as for "coming into one's own without coming undone" I think she's hit the nail on the head. It's absolutely a coming-of-age novel, and figuring out who you are and what you want is a fraught process, even when you're not unemployed and mired in a crippling economic crisis.


Add those things to the mix and yeah, it's a rough time and there are a lot of things that can go wrong.   


Q: What do you think the book says about the 2008 recession and its impact on young adults?


A: I hoped to paint a really clear picture of what it felt like to be in the middle of that experience.


And it was kind of weird to go through the Recession as someone with a newly-minted business degree. We were sitting through classes in corporate finance and mergers and acquisitions, just watching everything fall apart before our eyes.


It was scary and surreal, but I was also grateful to have a functional knowledge of macroeconomics and whatnot, so that I could sort-of understand everything that was going on.


Mona also understands exactly what's going on, and this just feeds her compulsion to run her mouth and let everyone know how bitter she is. I hope that the story will be relatable to a lot of people, and will hopefully help bring a little comfort and levity to those who are unemployed now, as it's such a lonely and dispiriting experience.  


Q: What are some of your favorite books?


A: So many, oh my goodness. One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Great Gatsby, everything by Kurt Vonnegut, everything by George Saunders, Housekeeping and Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, The Trial, and everything by Jesmyn Ward and Valeria Luiselli. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on my second novel, a magical realism Western based on the life of my great-grandfather who was a bandido in South Texas and Mexico in the 1800s. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Shop indie!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Amber Sparks



Amber Sparks is the author of the story collection And I Do Not Forgive You. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Literary Hub and In Style. She lives in Washington, D.C.


Q: Over how long a period did you write the stories in And I Do Not Forgive You, and how did you choose the book's title?


A: The stories were mostly written after 2016, after Trump was elected - especially after 2018 and #MeToo and everything after. They came in a bit of a rush for me (I'm a slow writer!).


I chose the title based on the last line of one of the stories - it really embodied the whole revenge theme of the book for me, and I also wanted to make the point that forgiveness is not always needed or wanted. 


Q: How did you decide on the order in which the stories would appear in the book?


A: That's always so tricky for me! My usual method, I guess, which is to frontload the best stories, and then realize the last few stories suck, and write new stories, and frontload those, and repeat until the whole collection feels tight. 


Q: In a review of the book on NPR, Ilana Masad said that "while the range of emotions evoked in the collection as a whole is broad, I found myself most often sitting with that indescribable ache that characterizes the bittersweet." What do you think of that assessment?


A: I love it. I think the bittersweet is probably my favorite emotion to write - like anything that's complex, there tends to be a lot to sit with, and for a long time after.


I joke all the time that my writing is so depressing, but then I go back and read it and I'm like, oh, this isn't really so depressing - there's something lovely and also sad here. There's often an ache in my work, because I think life is mostly accompanied by aches - emotional and physical. 


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


A: I don't know that I want them to take away anything in particular - I'm very much of the school that when I'm done with a book, it's the reader's book now, not mine, and I hope they will make it their own.


But I suppose wrote the book - and published the book - because I was looking for a kind of catharsis, and I suppose that it would be nice if it helps others find that same kind of catharsis, too. 


Q: What are you working on now? 


A: A novel! It's terrible! I mean, the process, but potentially also the novel! But I'm really stubborn. I can't not do it. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: No one should actually take the revenges outlined in the book. They're for entertainment purposes only; please do not not try to imitate or carry out the actions of the characters depicted within, for your safety and the safety of others. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

June 30



June 30, 1911: Czeslaw Milosz born.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Q&A with Amy Mason Doan




Amy Mason Doan is the author of the new novel Lady Sunshine. Her other books include the novel Summer Hours, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Oregonian and the San Francisco Chronicle. She lives in Portland, Oregon.


Q: What inspired you to write Lady Sunshine, and how did you create your character Jackie?


A: I got the idea from something that really happened. One of my favorite songs is “California Stars” by the band Wilco. It’s this really beautiful, dreamy tune that got me through a rough time when I was in my 20s and living alone in San Francisco after a bad break-up.


Wilco didn’t write the words—they’re old Woody Guthrie folk lyrics that were unrecorded when Guthrie died. They might have been lost forever. But Wilco, Billy Bragg, and Natalie Merchant got together after Guthrie’s daughter asked them to, framing the lines with their own music on the ‘90s album Mermaid Avenue.


That album fascinated me. Taking a dead person’s art and melding it with your own so it wouldn’t be lost sounded at once so daunting and so beautiful.


In my story, Jackie is 37 and seemingly staid and uncomplicated. She lives a safe, quiet life as a music teacher in Boston, she has a tidy basement apartment, one cat, a boyfriend she keeps at arm’s length. It’s all a little too safe and quiet, of course.


She comes home from work one day and learns that she’s inherited “The Sandcastle,” a sprawling California property that was once her singer uncle’s wild summer artist commune and recording studio.


She flies to California to prepare the run-down place for sale, thinking she’ll get in and out quickly. But she reluctantly extends her stay when a music producer asks to record a tribute album to her uncle on site. His entourage moves in and she’s drawn into their lives.

The story pivots between Jackie in 1979 and her life in 1999, as we learn what happened two decades ago and why the one summer she spent at the legendary property left its mark on her.


We realize that Jackie was once much closer to her cousin Willa than she lets on, that Jackie used to be a bold, fiery teen, that she wanted to stay at The Sandcastle forever, until Willa vanished mysteriously that August…and we learn that the song lyrics hide as many secrets as Jackie does.


Q: In our previous interview, you said, "I seem to be obsessed with stories about reckoning with the past." What appeals to you about that theme?


A: Isn’t that what we all wrestle with? Confronting our childhoods, our past heartbreaks and dreams? As a reporter for 20 years, I learned two things. One—people lie. And Two—they lie because they’re afraid. Everyone has secrets, and I love trying to understand why they keep them.


Q: Why did you decide to set the novel in 1979 and 1999?


A: I was born in the ‘70s, and 1979 has always felt to me like the last gasp of a freer-spirited time before the more materialistic, jaded ‘80s. Before Reagan and MTV, the tech boom, childhoods spent indoors, on schedules.


1999 has that same feeling to me, of “the moment before.” There was so much fear about the Y2K bug, planning for blowout year-2000 parties. It felt like we were on the cusp of change. Bad or good—we didn’t know. Both years hold that “last-day-of-summer” feeling I try to capture in my books.   


Q: Author Elin Hilderbrand says of the book, "It’s replete with late-70s nostalgia and Doan masterfully renders the lives of musicians and those who are drawn to them, no matter the price." What role do you see music playing in the novel?


A: Jackie and Willa first bond over their love of female singer/songwriters. (They also find some untapped talent in themselves, not to give away too much.)


Jackie loves ‘70s disco dances like The Hustle, and she worships Donna Summer and Debbie Harry. Willa loves her folky “J singers” – Joni Mitchell and Joan Armatrading and Judy Collins and Joan Baez. Their tastes are totally different, but for both of them music is pure joy.


There are also concerts in both timelines of the book that play important roles in the plot and bring the time periods to life. There’s a Blondie one in ’79 and Lilith Fair in ’99 (a show I attended). On a deeper level, the story looks at which voices get amplified and which get muted, and why.  


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m drafting my fourth novel for Graydon House, which will come out in 2023. It’s about a woman who’s kept her extremely unusual childhood a secret from everyone, even her husband. That’s about all I can say right now except that I’m obsessed with it and I love the characters and setting.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Hmmmm…well, all of the “fictional” songs in the novel are ones that I actually wrote. Even if I mention only a title or scrap of lyrics in Lady Sunshine, the full music and lyrics exist on my iPhone. (I have zero experience as a songwriter and haven’t played an instrument since the clarinet in 6th grade!)


I doubt that anyone but me will ever hear them! But that’s the way I work. For the same reason that I draw detailed maps for my fictional towns, I had to know that the songs were real, so I could hum them or play them in my head as I drafted. They have to live so that I can believe in the world I’m creating. It gives the story a heartbeat.


Thanks so much, Deborah.


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

Q&A with Chantel Guertin




Chantel Guertin is the author of the new novel Instamom. Her other books include the young adult novel The Rule of Thirds. Also a beauty expert, she is based in Toronto.


Q: You've noted that events in your own life inspired aspects of Instamom—can you say more about that, and about the creation of your character Kit?


A: Growing up, I never imagined myself becoming a mother, and my own mother died when I was a teenager. So it wasn’t surprising to me that, even once married, I never had an overwhelming urge to move into the motherhood phase.


[My marriage dissolved, and in my mid-30s I met a man with kids.] I changed—and I’m now a stepmom to two teens and a mom to a 7-year-old boy. So when I set out to write Instamom, I wanted to explore the idea of a woman who’s happily childfree, whose world is turned upside down when she meets and falls for a single dad. 


Q: What do you think the novel says about women's choices when it comes to careers and motherhood?


A: There’s a scene in the book where Kit and the other moms are volunteering at Addie’s school. Without giving away the plot, Kit struggles for so many reasons as she comes to realize what being a parent means.


It’s not just showing up to a school event or juggling motherhood with a busy career; it’s about recognizing the mental headspace that comes with motherhood—all those parts of the brain that parenting takes up even when you’re not with your kids—when you’re trying to separate your mom life from your career life.


I think there are so many successful career women out there who are also moms—and I think that probably many of them struggle every single day because it’s really hard to do both really well and that feeling of letting someone down or failing is so common.


There’s also so much judgment out there that all women have to face regardless of their label, which goes past career mom and stay-at-home mom to childfree and childless women (whether by choice or not). So for the average woman, deciding how to shape her life in terms of career and motherhood is already really tough.


And then for Kit, because her career is tied to her stance on motherhood, it’s even trickier for her to balance, because just dating a man with a child meant reevaluating almost everything in her life: her beliefs, her goals, her career, her life and her relationships. 


Q: What does the book say about the role of social media influencers?


A: For many influencers, there’s more to them than the curated content that illustrates their niche. But we don’t really want to see that—it dilutes the strong content followers desire. It messes with the aesthetic appeal of the grid. What pressure!


So imagine if you were going through a life-changing period while trying to maintain that public personae? It must be so hard to decide what to share, what to keep private and how to keep up appearances while you’re internally struggling.


I think that over the past few years there’s been a shift towards a more relaxed, less curated feed; a desire from viewers to see influencers share their personal lives even if it’s not “on brand.” But of course that means they have to want to share that part of their lives with others.


So what am I trying to say? I think that what looks really glamorous must be really hard for many influencers, and it’s worth keeping that in mind when you’re scrolling through your feed.


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 I wanted a HEA ending where Kit and Will end up together, but exactly what that looked like changed quite a bit through the writing process as I really figured out who Kit was.


For a while I really struggled with how Kit could end with Will and still be true to her beliefs about a woman’s right to choose whether or not to become a mom.


It was in the editing of the story that I came to realize what really makes Kit who she is—and part of what I really love about the story: this idea that just because you don’t want kids of your own doesn’t mean you don’t like kids.


I think there is a huge misconception among those who love and have kids that those who choose to be childfree to don’t like them. Once I realized that Kit actually likes kids, I was able to write an ending that felt true to who Kit is, and a HEA for her, too. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: A new rom-com! 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Rukhsanna Guidroz



Rukhsanna Guidroz is the author of Samira Surfs, a new middle grade novel for kids. Her other books include Leila in Saffron. She lives in Hawaii.


Q: What inspired you to write Samira Surfs, and how did you create your character Samira?


A: Five years ago, I came across an article in a magazine about a group of girls who surf in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Among them was a young Rohingya girl.


What struck me immediately was how brave these surfers were. They were defying societal traditions and pushing themselves to the limit. A story was already beginning to take shape in my mind.


In creating my character Samira, I drew on my personal experiences of learning to surf and the challenges and joy that come with it. I was also raised in a part-Muslim household and am familiar with its customs and culture.


And to fully develop Samira's character as a refugee and a street seller, I spent a lot of time reading first-hand accounts and reports by NGOs and aid agencies. 


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


A: Gathering information through news articles and academic journals formed a large part of my research. I also interviewed Rohingya refugees who shared their stories with me.


After consulting a Bengali lifeguard/surf coach and a teacher, I was better able to understand the significance of being a female surfer in Cox's Bazar.


I pored over history books to learn about the history of Rohingya and the persecution they have faced for generations.


What most surprised me was the resiliency and steadfastness of the refugees. Many were brutally attacked and narrowly escaped the mounting onslaught by Myanmar police and military.


These survivors have been forced to rebuild their lives in neighboring countries, often in overcrowded camps. Many of them still hope to return to Myanmar if their basic rights are granted. In the meantime, the dream of going home sustains their daily life.


Q: Why did you decide to write the story in verse?


A: Writing Samira Surfs in verse allowed me to create an intimate space for the story. I want the reader to become fully immersed in Samira's mind and heart. The poems use the language of emotion and self-reflection, and this sincerity invites the reader to feel the story. Each line has rhythm and beat, which further enhances the reader's experience as the narrative unfolds.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from Samira's story?


A: I hope readers, young and old, remember that the human spirit has no bounds. Samira endures loss and sorrow, yet she is still able to find peace and freedom. Playing in the waves with her friends brings her those things.


The journey to finding her passion for surfing is not an easy one, but once she experiences it, Samira is determined to keep it alive.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I learned so much from writing this book. I'd like to put that hard work to more use by working on another middle-grade novel in verse.


I also have lots of ideas for more picture books that have been percolating for a long time. One of them is about food, and I need to write it to satisfy my hunger finally!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Writing takes determination and courage. When I wrote my first book, I felt exposed to the world. It was truly a heart-opening exercise, and I wasn't sure I could do it. But translating each emotion into words felt so liberating that I discovered writing is a place where I could let go and just be me.


If publishing interests you, I encourage you to pick up a pen and write the story that already lives in your imagination.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

June 29



June 29, 1900: Antoine de Saint-Exup
éry born.

Monday, June 28, 2021

Q&A with Shawna Kay Rodenberg




Shawna Kay Rodenberg is the author of the new memoir Kin. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Consequence and Salon. She is a registered nurse and a community college English instructor, and she lives in Indiana.


Q: What inspired you to write this memoir, and how long did it take to write?


A: I have always loved reading memoir, but it was poetry that I studied while at the Bennington Writing Seminars.


I believe in the value of the story as a cultural force and record, and I love the tradition of it, of the story as a kind of timeless currency, but as a writer I preferred the protective veil I believe poetry can offer, if only because creative nonfiction is so candid.


I had a poetry manuscript, after I graduated, that was selected as finalist or semi-finalist in several book competitions, but something seemed to be holding it back. My dear friend and mentor, Mark Wunderlich, suggested perhaps my poems were bogged down by too much story, and that I could relieve that burden by writing a memoir.


The idea gave me great anxiety, but he said not to think about publishing it, not yet, just to write it for myself, my kids, and the sake of my poems, so I began trying in earnest some time in 2015, and by 2017 I had a prologue to show for my efforts.


I brought that prologue back to Bennington, this time to Ben Anastas, who teaches creative nonfiction there, hoping he would tell me if I was on the right track--after all, I had very little formal training in the art of memoir.


But Ben was very encouraging about what I had written and agreed to help me write the first few chapters, then handed me off to Bill Clegg, who held my hand as I wrote the first half of the book, and who then handed me off to Anton Mueller at Bloomsbury, who saw the project completed.


So, in writing Kin I relied on help from at least four people, and completing the project took more than five years. I can’t speak to others’ experiences, but Kin was definitely a group project.


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, “Rodenberg counters the ‘hopelessly incomplete and exploitative’ narratives that commonly come out of Appalachia with a vivid coming-of-age account of her own.” What do you think of that assessment?


A: I hope it’s true--I’d like to think it is. Writing about a place that is so often terribly misunderstood and maligned by the greater world is a real challenge.


I feel compelled to render my experience of the mountains in great detail, even if that detail is at times lush and at times crushing—and to some people’s minds, unflattering, though I personally see the paradoxical beauty in the dark and bloody parts of Kentucky, too.


Ultimately, I believe that with each step closer one gets to the truth, it becomes less “cold and hard” and far more complex and compassionate, and that the idea of truth as a brutal weapon to wield is a largely patriarchal idea, born of competition, punitive theologies, and a preference for justice over mercy, all which I have no patience for or interest in.


Q: Did you need to do much additional research to write the book, or did most of it come from your own memories and other documents you already had?


A: I wouldn’t say that I had to do a ton of research, and I did find that often when I got sucked into that oubliette, it was usually because I was avoiding the work that really needed to be done, which was to return to my own experiences, my unique understanding of the world—which is, of course, so much harder than it sounds.


I did become obsessed with my family’s genealogy while writing Kin, and I’d like to think that pursuit deepened my appreciation for my family’s chapter in the great American story.


It also helped motivate me, because there are so many unsolved and unsolvable mysteries in genealogy, so many holes in my family’s collective story, and I regularly found myself wishing my ancestors had been able to write their stories down. I came to see what a gift doing so is for future generations.


Q: What impact did it have on you to write this memoir, and what do you hope people take away from it?


A: I hope my readers will come to see how interwoven and interdependent our stories are—how they bleed into one another. I hope they will come to see Kin as an American story first, and an Appalachian story second, instead of typecasting the book and assigning it to the hillbilly category, so to speak.


I’m still processing the effects of writing the book, but I can say that my mother died in 2018, when I was completely immersed in the project, and the work of Kin singlehandedly carried me through that loss. It meant spending hours and hours with memories of all my loved ones, but especially with her, which felt like an incredible gift.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m already thinking about the next book, which will pick up where this one left off and explore, among other things, my years as an inexperienced, hopeful young mother, and the humbling ways my own motherhood helped me understand my mother and her struggles and triumphs in raising me.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Only that there are so many largely undiscovered, underappreciated pockets of this country that are full of beautiful, compelling, fresh stories, and that ignoring and devaluing those stories does a great disservice to American literature. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Cliff Burke




Cliff Burke is the author of An Occasionally Happy Family, a new middle grade novel for kids. He is a middle school teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area. 


Q: What inspired you to write An Occasionally Happy Family, and how did you create your character Theo?


A: There are a number of things that inspired me, but the most direct inspiration was a trip I took with two friends through some National Parks.


As we were hiking through different parks, we kept passing traveling families that seemed to be at the lowest point of their vacation. One of the parents would be really excited and trying to cheer everyone up, but everyone else would have different degrees of complaints and irritation, particularly the kids who just wanted to sit down for a while.


So that was the first kernel – a family trip with a parent who is excited, and two kids who were maybe excited as some point, but had reached the end of their appreciation for hiking in nature.


Theo is largely modeled on how I felt as a kid. I was a very poor Cub Scout, only lasted in Boy Scouts for a few weeks (there’s a Boy Scout anecdote in the book that’s more or less true), and was not very good with outdoor activities. I was also pretty quiet, kept to myself and my own interests, but had a lot of internal opinions about everything.


And the aspects of Theo as a budding graphic novelist are a composite of some of my 6th grade students over the years. I’ve taught at the middle school level for nearly a decade now and some of the most creative students who turn in these wonderful stories are entirely silent in class, just doodling away and trying to not draw too much attention to themselves. I wanted to give them a moment in the spotlight of a middle-grade story.


Q: The Kirkus Review of the book calls it "A masterful look at loss and mourning wrapped up in a hilariously painful family vacation." What do you think of that description, and what did you see as the right mix between grief and humor?


A: I love it! I’m very appreciative of the Kirkus Review and it was my goal with the book to 1. make people laugh, and 2. realistically depict the mourning process of kids in a way that doesn’t completely overtake the narrative and turn it into more of an “issues” book.


I think it’s a very delicate balance when mixing a story of grief with humor, particularly in a book for younger audiences.


I have direct experience with losing a parent as a kid so felt that I could access that voice and those feelings in a way that was honest. I wrote the comedy scenes as more or less pure comedy connected to the characters but was always aware of when something would touch upon a painful memory for the main character, Theo.


As enough memories start to build, it naturally led towards some emotional conversations between the family towards the end of the story.


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 what the end would be before I started! I also made a lot of changes along the way.


I originally started this book as a National Novel Writing Month project, aiming to write 50,000 words in a month. The very first opening was “We would travel to 10 National Parks in 30 days. That was the plan. It wasn’t my plan, or my sister Laura’s plan. It was Dad’s plan and, therefore, not very well thought-out.”


Like the dad, I’m also not great at planning, so while I intended the family to visit many parks along the way and for an incident relevant to each park to take place at each, I soon realized that I had written 15,000 and was still on Day 1 of the vacation.


Instead of cutting all of that down, I realized the beats of the journey which I envisioned could easily take place over a single week in one location.


And without spoiling the ending, I did always have a secret visitor joining the tail end of the trip, but did not know how it would resolve until I wrote more about the characters and figured out how they would realistically respond to the situation.


Q: Why did you choose Big Bend National Park as the setting for most of the book, and how important is setting to you in your writing?


A: Connected to the above point, I originally envisioned Big Bend as the first locale as it’s the closest major national park to the family in Austin, Texas.


I was living in Austin at the time and talk of Big Bend is very present. From the first month I moved there, people asked when I would visit. So eventually I did, and there is more than enough there to write multiple books.


To the second part – setting is a big part of writing for me. Once I decided to set the book entirely in Big Bend, I took another trip there just focused on detailing the scenery, noting the people hiking and hiking, and feeling the textures of places around the park.


I try to incorporate as much first-person accounting of real areas as I can, and also read a lot of Big Bend travel blogs, watched a lot of YouTube videos and read about the history of the park from the National Parks website and local historians.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Right now I’m working on another middle-grade comedy that mixes in some sadder elements and themes. This one is also contemporary, but set in rural France on a farm hosting visiting students from around the world. I’m excited about the story and characters and hope to see it out in the world sometime in the future!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: During the early months of the pandemic – March-May 2020 – I went for one-to-two-hour walks every day and spent the time listening to music and constructing character-specific playlists connected to the book.


This was mostly just to keep my mind occupied, but quickly became something I looked forward to adding to/pruning as I walked around my neighborhood and nearest park in Austin.


I even made an extra-long, six-hour Dad’s Car Playlist with the kinds of songs the dad would play while driving across Texas – mostly ‘70s rock, country, funk, things related to the Grateful Dead. I don’t know how much appeal this has for young readers, but I enjoyed making it, and may post it on my website closer to the book release for those interested. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

June 28



June 28, 1712: Jean-Jacques Rousseau born.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Q&A with Jean Perry




Jean Perry is the author of Mozay of Pepperwick, a new middle grade historical novel for kids. It was inspired by her family history. She is a retired elementary school teacher and a former reporter for the New York Daily News.


Q: Mozay of Pepperwick is inspired by your family history. What led you to write this book, and why did you write it as a middle grade novel?


A: A voracious reader since childhood, after Alex Haley’s novel Roots was adapted for television I watched every episode and set out to learn my family’s history.


My aunt Annie Carrie Perry Jackson told me how my grandfather learned to read while a slave on a South Carolina plantation, by being chosen to be the valet and companion to the planter’s son.


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


A: I did research at the University of South Carolina’s Caroliniana Library. On my very first day I came across a small book, Elloree Home I Love, that mentioned by grandfather by name, adding validity to my aunt’s story. 


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


A: I tried to base many of the most dramatic scenes on real-life facts. For example, when the planter’s wife is berated by so-called friends they mention a school she attended. There really was a Prudence Crandall School.


To write only about that would be journalism. But I encapsulated it into dramatic scenes that deliver truth in an entertaining way. Details are in the References Section for readers young and old to consult if they want further insights into historical facts.


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


A: Never give up. Never stay down-in-spirit for too long. That’s what Mozay practiced. Don’t go it along. Choose friends who have your same values.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: My second book is about a young man who only cares about making cash and thinks history is a waste of time, until he meets a girl trapped in the chains of human trafficking.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Find something you are good at and pursue it, be it an intellectual interest, a trade or a hobby. If you enjoy it find a way to make honest money at it, or get a day job and enjoy your chief interest when you can. Stay healthy. Stay mostly happy. Make friends with people who have your same values. Have a faith in something bigger than yourself.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Sue Fliess




Sue Fliess is the author of the new children's picture book Beatrice Bly's Rules for Spies: The Missing Hamster. Her many other books include Goldilocks and the Three Engineers. She lives in Northern Virginia.


Q: What inspired you to write Beatrice Bly's Rules for Spies?


A: I loved spying as a kid. My older sister and I used to spy on our parents, and I sometimes spied on my sister with her friends. So maybe spying is in my blood.


I had written a seed of a kid spy book about eight or nine years ago. More of an outline, really. But I just couldn't find that magic to make it sing, so I never finished it.


So when an amazing editor whom I'd worked with in the past (Bethany Buck!) moved to a new publishing house and asked if I had any series ideas, I didn't hesitate to go through my idea file on my computer and see if I had anything that could work. And Beatrice Bly popped out and said hello! 


Q: What are some of your (other) favorite spy books?


A: Of course, there's Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy, and I also love the Nate the Great series by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat. That is more detective-focused, but spies and detectives often do similar work.

Q: What do you think Beth Mills's illustrations add to the book?


A: At the risk of throwing myself under my own bus, EVERYTHING. She did an absolutely amazing job of bringing Beatrice to life.


I remember seeing the sketches for possible Beatrices and loving them all! I knew we couldn't go wrong, and Beth brought the story to life with these adorable characters in a way I could never have dreamed.

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


A: First, I hope it makes them laugh and root for Beatrice. Second, that it's important to be truthful or to find out the truth. Because the truth will come out eventually. And maybe also that sometimes, things aren't what they seem at first.

Q: What are you working on now?


A: Lots! I just wrapped up the second Beatrice Bly book...and I can't wait to talk about it! Also working on revisions for my Kid Scientist series--an astronaut book, and I have an entomologist book for that series that I'm writing this summer as well.

Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I have two books publishing this September, How to Hide a Turkey and I'm a Figure Skater!. I hope you'll check them out. Also, I'm already starting to book school visits for the fall - in person (and virtual). I can't wait to get back into schools and get students excited about reading and writing.


Thanks for hosting me!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Sue Fliess.

June 27



June 27, 1872: Paul Laurence Dunbar born.

Saturday, June 26, 2021

Q&A with Colin Jerolmack


Colin Jerolmack is the author of the new book Up to Heaven and Down to Hell: Fracking, Freedom, and Community in an American Town. He also has written the book The Global Pigeon. He is professor of sociology and environmental studies at New York University, and he lives in New York City.


Q: What inspired you to write Up to Heaven and Down to Hell?


A: The inspiration was in part personal, and in part my students. I’m from Pennsylvania, and I remember hearing a report back in 2011 that my home state was poised to become the “Saudi Arabia of natural gas.” That sounded huge, important, and shocking. I wanted to know what that meant for residents.


At the same time, my adopted state of New York was considering a ban on fracking, and it was practically all my Environmental Studies students wanted to talk and learn about.


I had a sabbatical coming up, and so I thought that spending time living in a place that was experiencing a lot of gas drilling--Northern Pennsylvania--would grant me a unique opportunity to learn firsthand how fracking is impacting rural community life and the environment.


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


A: America is the only country in the world where property rights commonly extend “Up to Heaven and Down to Hell,” to quote from common law (though plane travel led to restrictions on air rights).


What this means is that landowners can lease their mineral rights to petroleum companies and profit directly from oil and gas drilling.


It also means that this incredibly momentous decision that impacts communities’ wellbeing and the planet--to drill for fossil fuels or leave them in the ground--is for the most part a private decision that thousands of ordinary people make without the public’s consent. (In other countries, the government retains most mineral rights and decides if it is in the public’s interest to drill).


You have the freedom to lease your estate for drilling, and as your neighbor I have no say in the matter even though I may absorb the externalities (e.g., air, water, noise, and light pollution). That’s a problem for the planet, and for democracy.


Q: What do you think are some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about fracking?


A: Because of the movie Gasland, which memorably featured a flaming faucet, a lot of people think about water contamination that results from drilling when they think about fracking.


That’s a genuine risk, but other aspects of the fracking process are more likely to impact community health. Gas wells in people’s backyards, for instance, routinely vent noxious fumes into the air; their emissions are unmonitored.


Toxic wastewater is probably a much larger source of contamination than fracking itself: it leaks into groundwater from impoundment ponds; it spills from trucks; it’s sprayed on roads and fields; it’s dumped into underground “injection wells.”


The idea that shale gas is a “bridge fuel” to renewable energy is another common misconception. Sure, methane emits less carbon than coal when burned. But methane is itself a potent greenhouse gas, and every stage of the fracking process leaks methane.


Also, petroleum companies are building new infrastructure, like pipelines, to facilitate fracking, making them loathe to transition to green energy.


Q: What role do you see the U.S. government playing in regulating the fracking industry, and what do you see looking ahead?


A: Things have certainly gotten better as far as regulation under Biden. Trump basically turned the Environmental Protection Agency from a watchdog into a facilitator of the oil and gas industry, rolling back emissions regulations and opening up more federal lands for drilling. Biden has decisively reversed course, including a ban on new oil and gas leases on federal land.


But the federal government is quite constrained in its ability to control fracking. Trump claimed Biden would ban fracking. He can’t, unless it is on federally owned land (most fracking occurs on private land).


A lot of the action is at the state level. New York banned fracking in 2014; California will ban new leases by 2024. Conservative states have gone in the other direction, barring towns from regulating or banning fracking locally through new state laws like zoning preemptions.


Looking ahead, I do believe fracking is in a death spiral: bipartisan support has crumbled; the industry is hemorrhaging jobs; even shareholders are in revolt over the industry’s refusal to adapt its business model in the face of climate change.


But a lot of the political action will probably continue to be at the state level, in the form of more stringent regulations or bans, or the local level, where municipalities (like Grant township in Pennsylvania) are slowly but steadily winning back their constitutional right to regulate land-uses like fracking at the local level through zoning or home rule charters.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: To be honest, between chairing my department for the last four years and working from home for the last 15 months while caring for two small children, I haven’t really had time to develop a new research project.


I am doing a little bit of new work on assessing which strategies are best suited to preventing the emergence of new human-animal disease transmission events like COVID-19 and Ebola (e.g., reducing meat consumption vs. reversing habitat and biodiversity loss).


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: My first book, The Global Pigeon, looked at how human-animal relations shape the way we experience urban life. I continue to be interested in human-animal relations, and here at NYU I helped launch the Animal Studies masters program and the Center for Environmental and Animal Protection.


Fun family facts: I have an identical twin brother, who is an earth science professor at University of Pennsylvania; my older brother is an organic farmer in Maine.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb