Sunday, June 13, 2021

Q&A with Alison Weir

 

 


 

Alison Weir is the author of the new novel Katharine Parr: The Sixth Wife. It's the last in her Six Tudor Queens series about the wives of Henry VIII. The author of many novels and works of history, she lives in Surrey, England.

 

Q: This is the sixth in your Six Tudor Queens series--how would you compare Katharine Parr with Henry VIII's other wives?

 

A: It was said that Katharine was quieter than most of Henry's wives, although the same could be said for Jane Seymour. She did not display the caprices of Anne Boleyn and Katheryn Howard. She was feisty, but less mercurial than Anne, and had a forthright character, like Katherine of Aragon.

 

She was learned and well read, as Katharine and Anne Boleyn had been, but Katharine was the first queen - the first Englishwoman - to publish a book.

 

All Henry's queens were devout, and Anne, while remaining a Catholic, championed religious reform, but Katharine went further and was a secret convert to the Protestant faith.

 

She had to tread a dangerous path, for the law sentenced heretics to be burnt and the stake and there was a conservative crackdown on heresy at this time. More than once, Katharine sailed very close to the wind.

 

And she had another secret that had to be concealed from the King: she was in love with another man. Adultery in a queen was high treason. Anne Boleyn and Katheryn Howard had been beheaded for it. So Katharine had to hide her feelings. Like Henry's other queens, she knew what it was to live in fear. 

 

Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, "Weir brings her expertise of the Tudor era to bear with rich detail and historical perspective on politics and religion, and the many intelligent conversations between Katherine and Henry VIII add to the charm." What do you think of that description?

 

A: I'm deeply flattered! It's in the details that we sometimes get a broader picture, something of the texture of the age.

 

And there has to be a sense of the mindset of the period, in the context of the sweeping religious and political changes of the Tudor era. They have to be woven seamlessly into the novel, and that always poses a challenge.

 

At the same time, the book has to appeal to a modern readership. The use of language is key here. I'm very familiar with Tudor English (from historical sources, poems, the plays of Shakespeare, etc.), but I'm always aware that conversations based on contemporary quotes have to blend into a twenty-first-century narrative, so I find I'm making choices all the time.

 

When I read over the text at the end, I get a different perspective on where the language needs modifying. I really enjoy writing the conversations - they are the perfect means of conveying information, feelings, motives and opinions. Often, I base them on sixteenth-century texts.

 

Q: What do you think continues to fascinate people about Henry VIII and his six wives?

 

A: This is a story you couldn't make up! The Tudor dynasty is endlessly fascinating: a king with six wives, who had two of them executed; a 16-year-old girl, Lady Jane Grey, who was queen for nine days and lost her head for it; the religious controversies and the bloodshed of Mary I's time; and that great survivor, Elizabeth I, whose reign saw the grim romance of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the defeat of the Spanish Armada. I could go on.

 

But then you have the Tudors themselves, larger than life, dynamic characters. The “divorce” of Henry VIII brought the English royal marriage into public prominence at a time when literacy, printing and diplomacy were developing and spreading, and, for the first time in history, we have a detailed record of the private lives of monarchs.

 

We also know what they and their courtiers looked like, thanks to the portraits of masters like Hans Holbein and Hans Eworth; and we have the evocative remains of a fabulous built heritage. Go to Hampton Court and you will see something of the splendour of Henry VIII's palaces.

 

Yet there are tantalising gaps in our knowledge of the period, and it is these that endlessly fuel controversy and speculation - and that, perhaps above all, is what makes the Tudors so fascinating.

 

Q: You've written fiction and nonfiction about the Tudors--do you have a preference?

 

A: I've always loved doing historical research. You never know where it will take you. I'm like a dog with a rag!

 

I published several history books before I turned my hand to fiction, which was not as easy a transition as I had anticipated, because I had to learn a whole new craft.

 

For some years after that, I preferred writing history - but only by a short head. Now, I feel that I have relaxed more into writing fiction (no easy challenge for a historian) and I love writing in both genres. You learn something with every book.

 

I've been blessed throughout with brilliant, supportive editors, whose expertise has helped me to develop and grow as an author.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I've just completed Queens of the Age of Chivalry, the third history book in a quartet called England's Medieval Queens. This one covers the 14th-century queens.

 

I've also just finished the first in a new trilogy of historical novels commissioned by Ballantine, although I can't say what it's about as the series has yet to be announced.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I devise, run and lead 10-day high-end historical tours (one or two a year), usually based on my books, although they've been on hold due to the pandemic; we're aiming to run the next one in October.

 

I once mentored, partly wrote, and edited a rock biography, although I asked not to be credited.

 

For fun, I like writing ghost stories, especially to divert me on planes, as I'm a nervous flier.

 

My head is teeming with stories - I just don't have the time to write them all down!  

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Alexandria Bellefleur

 

 


 

Alexandria Bellefleur is the author of the new novel Hang the Moon. She also has written the novel Written in the Stars.

 

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

 

A: Hang the Moon can be read as a standalone, but it’s a companion novel to my debut, Written in the Stars.

 

Brendon Lowell, the hero in Hang the Moon, was first introduced as the well-meaning but slightly meddlesome brother of one of the heroines in the first book. Brendon is the creator of a successful dating app and he was the matchmaking force that originally brought the two leads in Written in the Stars together.

 

It was always my plan to give Brendon his own happy ever after. He’s a hopeless romantic who loves rom-coms and cries at proposal compilation videos on YouTube…but he himself has never been in love.

 

I thought it would be fitting if Brendon decided to woo his love interest, Annie, by taking cues and recreating elaborate dates from some of his favorite romantic films.

 

I also knew that I would have to challenge some of his beliefs and misconceptions around modern love and dating, and who better to facilitate that than a heroine who has given up on dating and is jaded when it comes to romance?


I wanted both Brendon and Annie’s ideas around what romance means to evolve, and of course, it’s a rom-com, so I wanted it to be funny. Every elaborate date goes slightly wrong, but what appears to be a failure on the surface actually brings them closer together.

 

Q: The Kirkus Review of the book describes its plot as a "woman who doesn’t believe in love and a man who's made finding love his life’s work discover that real romance is more complicated than either imagined." What do you think of that description?

 

A: I love that description and I think it manages to capture the heart of the story I set out to tell. Though, I’d say it isn’t so much that Annie doesn’t believe in love, as she believes lasting romantic love is rare and not in her cards.

 

Annie’s tired of being ghosted and of the swipe culture surrounding dating apps. She’s jaded, whereas Brendon is a hopeless romantic who loves love even though he doesn’t have any firsthand experience being in love.

 

They each have strong beliefs about love and romance, and over the course of Hang the Moon, they learn from each other.

 

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

 

A: I actually came up with the title for Hang the Moon prior to writing the first novel in the series, Written in the Stars. It was really one of those lucky situations where the title just popped into my head and fit the story I set out to tell perfectly.

 

In addition to keeping with the theme of celestial-inspired titles, I knew this book would follow Brendon, a hopeless romantic. The title is dreamy, but also ties in nicely with the discussions Brendon and Annie have about the differences between falling in love and staying in love, and infatuation versus real love.

 

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

 

A: I set out to write a rom-com full of nods to my favorite romantic movies and all the laughs and swoons the genre entails, so primarily I hope Hang the Moon brings readers joy.

 

Also that the best romantic gestures don’t need to be grand, but they do need to be personal.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: Recently, I finished revisions on the third book in the series and will be diving into my copy edits soon.

 

Count Your Lucky Stars will be released on February 1, 2022, and will focus on Margot, a secondary character throughout the first two books. It’s another sapphic romance like Written in the Stars and I’m so excited for readers to see Margot get her happy ever after.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I’ve put together a bunch of fun extras like book and character playlists and those can all be found over on my Instagram. https://www.instagram.com/a.m.bellefleur/ 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

June 13

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
June 13, 1893: Dorothy L. Sayers born.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Q&A with Viola Shipman

 

 

Photo by Kim Schneider

Viola Shipman, the pen name of writer Wade Rouse, is the author of the new novel The Clover Girls. Shipman's other novels include The Heirloom Garden. Rouse lives in Saugatuck, Michigan, and Palm Springs, California.

 

Q: What inspired you to write The Clover Girls?

 

A: I always begin with what I call “The Big Question.” It’s always a question I’m struggling with and want to answer in my own life, and one I believe readers are as well.

 

In The Clover Girls, I was at a place in my life where I had lost my immediate family (mother, father, brother), and my friends had really taken the place of that and been there for me – like so many of us – this last year-and-a-half. I had also lost a friend and a father-in-law to Covid.

 

I began to look back at my life and remember when I was a kid, when I had BFFs who knew everything about me, every secret, and we dreamed we could be anything: An astronaut, a movie star, a star baseball player. And then adulthood knocks, and we are forced to grow up, and it distances us from not only these dreams but also too often these friends.

 

I asked myself, “Does this happen simply because we grow up? Or is it more than that? Is it because it’s too painful to look back at those times and ask, ‘What could have been? Why did I let go of those dreams and those people? To cushion myself from the hurt?”

 

There have been many love stories written about love, but I wanted to write a love story about friendship.

 

Q: How did you create your four characters, and how would you describe the dynamic among them?

 

A: The Clover Girls is probably the most challenging novel I’ve written to date because I wanted to focus on four very different women (and I mean, very different), who know in their hearts they were destined to meet and become friends because they need each other to be the best versions of themselves.


I based the four characters – Emily, Veronica (V), Elizabeth (Liz) and Rachel (their names spell out Friends Four-EVER) – not only on myself but also on very dear friends of mine.

 

Emily is a librarian, the stem who connects The Clover Girls, an introvert and empath who believes the girls’ childhood friendship made each woman better, stronger and more complete.

 

She was recently diagnosed with a terminal illness, and her dying wish is that her childhood friends can be reunited in order to recapture their friendship and become the women they once dreamed they could be.

 

V is an aging supermodel with two teenage children in a marriage that’s lost its spark. She is based on one of my best friends, a former Wilhelmina model.

 

Liz is a divorced real estate agent caring for her dying mother, whose children are distant and who has an Etsy shop where she sells ’80s-inspired fashion, her true passion and talent. Liz is based on me, someone who let fear rather than passion dominate her life for far too long.

 

And Rachel is based on many political pundits you see on TV. She is a former teen actress who now works for a misogynistic politician. She is abrasive and confrontational, but you come to realize it’s a defense mechanism because her friends hurt her deeply.

 

She’s based on friends of mine who have been so hurt by other women that scar tissue developed and remains on their souls.

 

The dynamic between The Clover Girls is very much like many friendships from our youth: There is a hierarchy, and though the girls are incredibly close, there is also a constant underlying tension between them because they all seek to be more to one another – and the world – than how they’re seen and stereotyped. And yet they love one another more than anyone in the world. 

 

Q: The novel takes place in the 1980s and also in the present day. Did you focus on one timeline first, or did you write the novel in the order in which it appears?

 

A: I’m very much a “pantser,” but I do spend an inordinate amount of time developing my characters (I do elaborate character sketches) as well as the structure for my novels.

 

I think structure is key for telling a fascinating story, and one many authors tend to overlook (I try to structure every novel very differently and uniquely; in The Clover Girls, every chapter is centered around a traditional camp activity – Swim Test, Rope Burn, Color War, Sing-Along – which has deeper meaning for each character).

 

I did know I wanted to use parallel timelines, and I wanted to explore the 1980s, the time when I grew up, because it was so influential in my life (the fashion, music, movies, TV, hair) and also because it was really the last period of time before technology (I used a typewriter, wrote handwritten directions, I talked on rotary phones and stretched the cord from the hallway into my bedroom for privacy, I had cassette tapes and a Boom Box, my TikTok was standing in front of a bedroom mirror singing into a hairbrush).

 

It was while wrangling with structure that I thought, “We used to write letters! And we did at camp!”

 

When I knew that’s how I wanted to start the novel, I also immediately knew I wanted to parallel today’s time with the 1980s as a way to explore the girls’ friendship, histories, pasts, joys, losses, betrayals, because it’s those “ghosts on their shoulders” that make them – make all of us – who we are today, and it’s so impactful to parallel the then with the now.

 

I also wanted to explore the question, “Even with all the technology and social media we have at our fingertips today, are we more, or less, connected than we used to be?”

 

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

 

A: My Grandma Shipman (the pen name I chose to honor the working poor woman whose heirlooms, life, love, and sacrifices inspire my fiction) always used to say, “Life is as short as one blink of God’s eye, but we forget what matters most during that blink.”

 

To her, those were the “simple things,” the things we take for granted: Family, our health, a home, a sunrise and sunset. At the top of that list, for her and me, was our friends.

 

I hope readers appreciate what our forever friends have meant to us this past year (and beyond). I hope that we can find it on our hearts to forgive – not only ourselves but others. And I hope that we remember how fragile life is and not to live with regret, or live in fear, but to see the hope and possibility every single day. Because life is as short as one blink of God’s eye.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: My first holiday novel, The Secret of Snow, will publish Oct. 26, and I’m deeply proud of it. It’s a very funny, deeply personal, emotionally raw novel about how the holidays can be so painful when you’ve lost someone you love.

 

I also have a holiday novella, Christmas Angels, an e-book publishing in October (the first of three), as well as two books in 2022: Miss Mabel’s Button Jar (tentative title, coming in May) as well as my first memoir in a decade, Magic Season (coming in June) about my rocky relationship with my Ozarks father and our mutual love for baseball and the St. Louis Cardinals, the only thing that ever bonded us.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I host a weekly literary happy hour – Wine & Words with Wade – every Thursday at 6:30 p.m. ET on my Viola Shipman Facebookpage. I welcome bestselling authors and publishing insiders and discuss books, writing, hope and inspiration (all with wine).

 

I’ve hosted Mary Kay Andrews, Kristy Woodson Harvey, Susan Mallery, Brenda Novak, Caroline Leavitt, and many more.

 

It’s growing like crazy, as is my e-newsletter, which includes info on my latest books, never-before-published essays, interviews with bestselling authors, giveaways, recipes, gardening tips and more (sign up at www.violashipman.com) … and follow me on Facebook and Instagram to join in on the fun.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Viola Shipman.

Q&A with Karen Struck

 

 


Karen Struck is the author of the new children's picture book Three Paws and the Secret Cave. It's the third in her Three Paws series. Also a registered nurse, she lives in Los Gatos, California.

 

 

Q: What inspired you to write Three Paws and the Secret Cave?

 

A: When my adult daughter lost her cat of 21 ½ years of age, she was distraught and emotionally affected by this loss. We discussed loss and the stages of grief. I witnessed her fluctuating emotions, loss of joy, sadness, and loneliness for an entire year.

 

To ease her loss, she created a collage of her favorite pictures that she has beautifully displayed along with a memory candle that she lights on her cat’s birthday and day of death.

 

My daughter’s loss of her beloved pet inspired me to read children’s books about loss and the Rainbow Bridge which led to the subject matter of book three, Three Paws and the Secret Cave.

 

My emphasis was focused more on the celebration of life for Cappy, the elderly mountain goat, who knew his time was near. His granddaughter, Scarlet, refused to allow him to hide away in a secret cave and die alone. Instead, she decided to celebrate his life while he was still living and honor him after his passing.

 

My favorite quote from this book is when Cappy tells Scarlet, “As the stars twinkle above, I will be waving to you. I will always be with you…in your heart.”

 

Q: How did you create the character of Cappy?

 

A: Cappy made his first appearance in book one, Three Paws. Although he was known as an elderly and wise mountain goat, I did not name him until book three. Yet he was a very influential mentor to my main character, Boots.

 

In Three Paws, Cappy loses his balance and slides down the side of a steep mountain. Boots, a young cub with only three usable paws, wants to eat the goat as is natural behavior for bears when facing an injured animal.

 

When he is faced with the plight of the injured goat, he recalls his own accident which enhanced his compassion for the injured goat. Cappy offered to teach Boots how to catch salmon if Boots would help Cappy return to the mountaintop.

 

Because the other bears and even his own mother did not think Boots could survive the Alaskan wilderness with only three paws, Cappy’s offer was a dream come true for Boots.


The two formed a lasting bond of friendship and mutual respect. Cappy inspired Boots to learn new skills due to his disability but continue to follow his dream of one day becoming a great salmon catcher in Ketchikan, Alaska.

 

Q: What do you hope kids take away from the book when it comes to issues of life and death?

 

A: I feel it is important to discuss the concept of death, dying, and the afterlife in terms that children can understand.

 

Three Paws and the Secret Cave is a way of stimulating conversation about the definition of death, grief, rituals, funerals and heaven. Different religions and cultures have their own views of death and the afterlife.

 

For me, I believe our physical existence dies but our spirit is eternal. Children sometimes need something tangible to help explain concepts. The stars and constellations remind me of spirit. We can’t see the stars during the day, but they always reappear at night. The twinkling stars could be a symbol to children of those we have lost. Their spirit is always with us.

 

There are many wonderful picture books illustrating pet heaven. I also appreciate the concept of the Rainbow Bridge where pets go after they die awaiting to be reunited with their humans upon their death. The same concepts could be used to explain the loss of humans as well.

 

When I was creating a name for Cappy, I researched constellations and found Capricornus, half goat, half fish. Cappy felt like the perfect name.

 

Q:  What first got you interested in creating children’s picture books?

 

A: My daughter and I shared a bedtime ritual of reading together. I loved the subtle messages conveyed in her stories.

 

Children can sometimes learn to deal with occasional struggles faced by most children when they can identify with a character from a favorite book or series. It helps them learn a variety of coping mechanisms. When they realize other children face the same fears and insecurities, they realize they are not alone.

 

Picture books and children’s books also serve as an escape into a world of imagination where anything is possible. The Harry Potter series is still my favorite series of all.

 

I thought it might be fun to write a children’s picture book and enrolled in the Institute of Children’s Literature where they teach people how to write for children from the comfort of our home at our own pace.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I am writing a five-book series and book four, Three Paws to the Rescue, is due to be released sometime this summer. The illustrations have just been completed!

 

The theme of book four focuses on the hero in all of us. Boots risks his life to save Pepe, the iguana, from being crushed by a large stone slab during an earthquake. Of course, there is a happy ending, but children can learn that they, too, can be heroes by simple acts of kindness.

 

This book addresses earthquake and disaster preparedness. Not only do we need a plan to protect ourselves during a disaster, but we also need a plan for our pets. I offer the name of a website for further information.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: The last book of the series, Three Paws’ Christmas Wish, will hopefully be leased Christmas of 2022. I am working on my outline and I need it released close to Christmas. This Christmas is too early for the release as it takes several months for the illustrations to be completed.

 

I also have a Boots plushie that is created in the image of my main character from the cover of book one, Three Paws. It’s currently sold on my website, karenstruckauthor.com.

 

Thank you so much for this wonderful opportunity to share my book series and insights. 

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

June 12

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
June 12, 1929: Anne Frank born.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Q&A with David Talbot and Margaret Talbot

 

 

David Talbot, photo by Santiago Mejia

 

David Talbot and Margaret Talbot, a brother-and-sister writing team, are the authors of the new book By the Light of Burning Dreams: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the Second American Revolution. David Talbot's other books include The Devil's Chessboard. He is the founder of the magazine Salon. He lives in San Francisco. Margaret Talbot also has written the book The Entertainer. She is a staff writer at The New Yorker, and she lives in Washington, D.C.

 

Q: What inspired you to write By the Light of Burning Dreams?

 

A: The idea for the book came from our editor at HarperCollins, Jennifer Barth. Originally, David was supposed to write the book on his own. But then, in fall 2017, he suffered a stroke. He asked Margaret if she would collaborate with him, not knowing how long -- or even if -- he would recover sufficiently to complete the book.

 

Fortunately, David did heal over time and the collaboration turned into a creative family project, even roping in Arthur Allen, Margaret's talented husband, to write the chapter about the United Farm Workers movement.

 

In a way, the delay in the book's publication has made it even more timely, as a new generation of activism has come powerfully alive. Hopefully our compelling stories from a past revolutionary generation will help guide the current wave of dissent.

 

Margaret Talbot

Margaret: I was happy to jump onboard not only for the chance to collaborate on a family project, but also because I’m very interested, as a writer and reader, in stories about how people step out of their ordinary lives and make the decision to become activists.

 

Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, "Charismatic but flawed figures dominate this vibrant portrait of 1960s radical movements." What do you think of that description, and how did you select the figures to profile in the book?

 

A: The PW quote does accurately reflect our "warts-and-all" approach to profiling the radical heroes of the 1960s and '70s.

 

Our portraits of these courageous men and women aim not only to be inspirational, but unflinchingly honest. These leaders were indeed flawed humans, and the tasks of moving America forward were daunting -- made even more difficult by the repressive and even violent counter-measures taken by federal agencies and local police.


We chose a range of revolutionary leaders to represent the full spectrum of rebellion during these years, including Bobby Seale and Huey Newton of the Black Panthers; Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta of the United Farm Workers movement; Dennis Banks, Russell Means and Madonna Thunder Hawk of the American Indian Movement; Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda of the Vietnam peace movement; and Heather Booth and the women of Jane, the underground feminist abortion clinic -- and others.

 

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

 

A: One of the things that jumped out at us during our research was the extent to which these leaders and movements collaborated with one another.

 

In fact, at the end of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. was trying to pull all these dissident strands together in one powerful movement as he prepared to occupy Washington during the Poor People's March of 1968, which was aimed at forcing Congress to divert spending from the Vietnam War to urgent domestic needs.

 

Black Panther leader Bobby Seale revealed to us that King even reached out to him, and Bobby enthusiastically agreed to ally the Panthers with King. Then, of course, the civil rights leader was assassinated, and his dream of one big radical movement died with him.

 

Margaret: I would agree with that and add that it was very striking to me how many of the movements we wrote about—the antiwar movement, women’s liberation, the farmworkers’ struggle, gay rights—were seeded by activists who had cut their teeth in the civil rights movement.

 

That included many white activists who had had formative experiences as volunteers during the 1964 Freedom Summer in Mississippi, where they learned to be organizers and developed a visceral, emotional sense that there were unjust laws worth defying.

 

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

 

A: David came up with the title, and he's not even sure how it popped into his head. He'd say it was a stroke of genius -- but he's reluctant to use the word "stroke" these days. 

 

In any case, the title signifies for us the impossible stretch of these revolutionary leaders' ambitions for America -- for humanity, really. Their "burning dreams": for peace, justice and equality still illuminate the country's current struggles toward our better angels. 

 

Margaret: People keep asking me what it’s a quote from—and it isn’t! Or rather, it’s a quote from David’s head!

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: David is mercifully taking a break from writing after publishing six books in 14 years (whew). One of his books -- The Devil's Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA and the Rise of America's Secret Government -- has been optioned in Hollywood. And who knows? It might actually make it onto the screen.

 

Margaret: I continue to work as a staff writer at The New Yorker, where I’ve been reporting about politics and culture since 2004, and feel very lucky to be. No new book ideas yet, but I’m always on the look-out.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: We hope the book sparks a dialogue, particularly with today's younger generation of activists -- including our own children. 

 

As we write in the introduction, we don't subscribe to the "great man" theory of historical change because history is moved forward by countless people, most of them unsung.

 

But we do believe in the importance of visionary leadership, which is not widely valued these days. We need to keep our leaders accountable, but we also need to value and protect them.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Margaret Talbot.

Q&A with James Romm

 

 


 

James Romm is the author of the new book The Sacred Band: Three Hundred Theban Lovers Fighting to Save Greek Freedom. His other books include Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero. He is the James H. Ottaway Jr. Professor of Classics at Bard College, and he lives in the Hudson Valley.

 

Q: What inspired you to write The Sacred Band?

 

A: Many aspects of this story seized my imagination, but mainly it was the existence of the mass grave of the Band at Chaeronea -- 254 skeletons found in 1880, arranged in phalanx formation, exactly as they died in 338 BC at the hands of Alexander the Great.

 

Q: How would you describe the role of Thebes in this period, especially as compared with Athens and Sparta?

 

A: Thebes rose from subservience to those other two cities into a leadership position. But it did not have the moral standing or the prestige of Athens or Sparta, so leadership was more of a struggle.

 

Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, "This is an eye-opening and immersive portrait of a little-known aspect of ancient history." What do you think of that description, and why do you think this aspect is so little known?

 

A: I love "immersive," which I think describes the level of detail the book tries to convey. 

 

As to the period being little known: The 4th century BC is recorded mainly by Xenophon, a far less compelling and talented writer than Herodotus and Thucydides, who chronicled the 5th century. So most scholars and readers have gravitated toward the better sources.

 

Q: What did you learn in the course of your research that especially fascinated or surprised you?

 

A: The role of powerful, assertive women in this period most surprised me. I had barely heard of Phryne, the courtesan who inspired the era's foremost works of art, or Aspasia, who won the hearts of three Persian royals, or Thebe, who engineered the assassination of the era's cruelest despot.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I have a biography in hand of Demetrius the Besieger, one of the generals who competed to control the empire of Alexander the Great. 

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: The illustrations in the book include a set of sketches of the Band's remains, made in 1880 and never published before; this I think is one of its greatest contributions.  

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

June 11

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
June 11, 1925: William Styron born.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Q&A with David L. Harrison

 

 


 

David L. Harrison is the author of the new children's picture book The Dirt Book: Poems About Animals That Live Beneath Our Feet. He is the author of 100 other books. He lives in Springfield, Missouri.

 

Q: What inspired you to write the poems in The Dirt Book?

 

A: As far back as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by dirt, or more precisely, the mysteries of dirt and what lies below the surface. Like the ocean, we know a lot goes on down there but we can’t see it.

 

What made the hole beside this rock? When a cicada emerges from the dirt to crack out of its shell and sing its loud mating call, where was it before it came out? What do mole tunnels look like? How do queen bumblebees pass the winter? What makes dirt in the first place?

 

After a lifetime of wondering, I decided it was time to write a book about it.

 

Q: How did you choose the animals and creatures to include?

 

A: In most cases, the subjects in The Dirt Book are in the book because they’re in the dirt. Some live there fulltime while others spend part of their lives there or dig tunnels in which to raise their young.

 

Depending on the climate, the kind of dirt, and availability of natural food, the cast of characters changes, but in general the roots and animals I chose for the book are good representatives of what we would see from a magic elevator that could take us down into the dirt for a closer look.

 

Q: What do you think Kate Cosgrove's illustrations add to the book?

 

A: Kate’s marvelous. She has just the right touch to keep it real yet colorful and exciting for young readers. By making the book a vertical format, she has room to reinforce the notion that we’re really digging down through the soil on an adventure to see what’s there. I love it.

 

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

 

A: Kids and adults normally take dirt for granted. It’s there. We walk on it. We drive across it and fly over it without giving much thought to what it is: a world that is home to vegetation, creatures, and forms of life nearly too small to see. Without dirt, we humans couldn’t live the way we do.

 

I want kids to understand why dirt is important and how it plays a vital role in life on our planet.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: Next trade book is a simple science book for young children, written to help them understand more about how their bodies work.

 

For classroom teachers, I’m working on two Scholastic Teacher Resource books co-authored with Tim Rasinski and Mary Jo Fresch.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: In October, I’ll celebrate the 52nd anniversary since my first book for children – The Boy With a Drum – was published. I still work as a writer seven hours each weekday and wish there were more weekdays in a week. The Dirt Book will be my 101st book. Numbers 102-105 are in the works.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Alfred Nicols

 

 


 

Alfred Nicols is the author of the new historical novel Lost Love's Return. He has worked as a lawyer, a state trial judge, and a federal judge, and he lives in Mississippi.

 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Lost Love's Return, and for the characters Peter and Elizabeth?

 

A: Not really an idea, more an evolutionary process. I started writing a novel inspired by a strange case I had as a lawyer with a general practice in a small town. I soon got caught up in creating a backstory for my protagonist, which led me back to the period of World War I.

 

We were approaching the centennial of World War I. A history major, I was familiar with this war, but had no idea the horror of it for those on the battlefront, the incredible tragedy and loss of life.

 

I had read Steinbeck's East of Eden 50 years before (always my favorite novel), and for some reason decided to read it again. I was stunned.

 

In this novel Steinbeck tries to take on almost all of life, our humanity: love and hate, good and evil, sin and salvation, faith and doubt, pain and pleasure, wealth and poverty (material and spiritual)—what human life is all about, at its best and worst.

 

Steinbeck lays bare family relationships, with all the layers of ego, all the potential for jealousy, selfishness, resentment, and oppression, as well as all the potential for selflessness, concern, support and love. And he makes the point that nowhere in life is the difference between perception and reality more destructive than in family relationships.

 

Suddenly I decided: What Steinbeck did in a big way, maybe I can do in a small way.

 

But I was immediately confronted with two realities of today's literary world. Steinbeck, being a famous writer at that point, had almost unlimited ink. My debut novel needed to be less than half the length of East of Eden.

 

And, secondly, I am confronted with the often-repeated advice: if you want to write successful fiction, write to entertain, don't try to edify!

 

Thus comes the decision: do I want to write to be commercially successful or do I want to hope to touch a few lives in a positive way?

 

As a lawyer handling hundreds of divorces, giving insight into what makes a marriage succeed or fail, as a judge handling hundreds of cases involving tragic circumstances, I was in good position to do the latter, and I should try.

 

If that's my mission, what edifying messages do I want to preach?

 

The first became the tragedy of war, where men kill others (essentially just like them) because they have been told these others are the enemy—usually for political gain by people who are in no risk of death.

 

Secondly, being involved with a charity that provides for abandoned children, I wanted to preach the value of family ties, even to imperfect people. We tend to find fault in our parents, children, siblings, in-laws, other relatives; but having family heritage and support is a blessing that needs to be appreciated.

 

Having these two early goals, I needed to create my initial characters.

 

I chose to create Peter as the main protagonist, the central character of the novel. He would be a uniquely honest, lovable young man, from a strong, rigid, opinionated family background. He would be a disgrace to the family tradition, too tender-heated to kill even a squirrel, a sissy in his grandfather's eyes, yet go on to kill numerous humans. Why? How? He would bring out my theme of the absurdity and tragedy of war.

 

The second theme I wanted to emphasize was the value of family ties, even to imperfect people. I wanted a character with no family ties.

 

Thus, Elizabeth, who would be the daughter of a London prostitute, with no family ties, abandoned to an orphanage at 4, knowing no father, because her mother couldn’t be sure who he was.

 

Peter's narrow-minded, stern father and grandfather had caused Peter much emotional pain. Elizabeth would teach Peter the value of family ties, even to these imperfect people.

 

At that point, I started looking for other issues in life I could embrace in the story, emphasizing the choices we make in life and their consequences.

 

Peter needed a lot of help. If I wanted Peter to show that bullies don't pick on people long who stand up to them, I needed to put Peter in a position to do that.

 

If I wanted to make the point that men have sexual performance failures of several kinds, and the way they and their partners deal with them is important, I must put Peter in a position to experience that part of life.

 

If I wanted to preach the Golden Rule as the essence of universal morality, I needed to create a scene that was the pulpit for that sermon.

 

And, if I wanted to show that you should never give up on true love, Peter and Elizabeth would need help to do it for me.


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

 

A: Looking back, the amount of research I put into this novel amazes me. I would estimate that for every hour spent writing, four hours went into research. Being a bit of a perfectionist, I wanted every minute detail to be perfect. And this was a world I had not lived in and knew virtually no details about.

 

I started by buying everything I could find about World War I, including half a dozen histories that gave detailed descriptions of small arms, cannons and artillery, machine guns, barbed wire barricades, battlefield tactics, specific battles, and the casualties in various battles.

 

Then I bought every work of fiction I could find that might give me a feel for the life of the soldier on the Western Front: All Quiet on the Western Front, A Farewell to Arms, Generals Die in Bed, Birdsong, Pat Barker's World War I trilogy, many others.

 

About that time, my brother Randy, who worked at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, introduced me to Anne Webster. Anne was a retired co-worker and was a renowned Mississippi historian, having published several books. One was a book of letters home from Mississippi soldiers in World War I. Anne offered extensive help and advice.

 

Randy furnished me countless portfolios of period photographs that helped me have a needed feel for the scenes I wanted to create.

 

When Peter sustained a severe leg injury, where would he be treated? A young surgeon wanted to amputate immediately, an older one advised waiting. The internet began to prove an invaluable research tool at that point and would dominate my life for the next several years.

 

With hours of research, I found that he would likely be shipped to England. Where? What would the treatment facility be like? Research revealed there were over a hundred military hospitals he could have gone to. I settled on Edmonton Military hospital in North Middlesex because they would have been a candidate for his treatment, and I found many good pictures and descriptions of it.

 

From there on it was hours and hours on the internet about his hospitalization and release. What was the state of the art for his treatment at that time with no antibiotics? What would Elizabeth’s nurse’s uniform look like? What would her flat look like? What kind of vehicle could he get access to? What was a pub they could go to on their first date at that time? What would her slum where she was born look like? Her orphanage?

 

Everything about the chapters in England at that time took hours of research. What did the streets look like? The trams? When she wanted to go out from London for a picnic, I had no idea where they could have gone in 1918. I spent days researching the landscape north of London to write a very short scene that took only a few hours to write, when I got the needed picture in my mind from research.

 

I could write a book on each aspect of the novel and the hours and hours of research that went into just the description needed to make one paragraph have vivid, accurate detail.

 

Then there were big plot challenges in the novel that took days of research to work out. How could the disconnect when Peter got home be explained? What mail, telegraph and other means of communication with her were available? Where could they break down?

 

The plot needed for Peter to make some significant money at some point. How? Everything I could think of I would research and come up short. Finally, I came up with the growing pulpwood industry in south Mississippi at that time and it worked.

 

In short, virtually every page of the novel took days of research. If I write another novel and it is historical fiction it will definite be in a period of history I lived in.

 

What did I learn from all this research that especially surprised me? More than anything else, the incredible horror of war. I had read about both world wars, seen many war movies. But I never really focused on the specifics.

 

The insanity of full frontal attacks, men marching across open fields in waves to attack the enemy, had been proven to be folly in the American Civil War. But early in World War I waves of men would go out to attack and be mowed down by the hundreds with newly perfected machine guns.

 

In the infamous Battle of the Somme, for instance, the British suffered approximately 57,000 casualties, over 20,000 of them deaths on the first day. By the end of the Somme campaign approximately a million casualties had been suffered on both sides.

 

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 did not know how the novel would end when I started writing it.

 

But when I had finished the first sex scene in chapter ten, I knew that I had written scenes that brought out the two big points I wanted to make: the horror of war, where a tender-hearted man becomes a killer of men, and the value of family ties, even to imperfect people.

 

And I knew that in doing so I had a love story. If I had a love story, I wanted it to have a happy ending.

 

 And I knew that if I was going to now take on the challenge of writing a novel with as much substance as I could, as many situations where I could depict the choices we make in life and their consequences, I would need some space. I felt it needed to be a saga covering at least two generations.

 

Then I realized for a happy ending Peter would have to reconnect with Elizabeth in a credible way after decades apart. I wrote several versions of this ending before I settled on how and where to make it happen.

 

Along the way I made countless changes. At one point the manuscript was approximately 120,000 words. I kept reading that the sweet spot for a debut novel was about 90,000. Cutting 30,000 words required many changes, even eliminating whole chapters and characters. Many of the cuts were changes that were painful. But I think I ended up with a tighter, more focused, more compelling read.

 

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

 

A: There are 17 points in the Reader’s Guide that highlight issues in life I’m wanting to make the reader focus on with the novel. There could have been half a dozen more. I was determined to hold it to 15 points, but 17 was the best I could do.

 

The novel begins with Peter thinking about being in love with Hannah Nixon and being jilted by her when he could no longer give her what she wanted. But he goes on to find Elizabeth, when and in a way he could have never imagined. The point is obvious. Love is a risk. When it doesn’t work out, don’t give up. There are many other potentials that may prove even better.

 

Also, in the first chapter is the story of Bruno the Rat, a huge rat that the most experienced sergeant on the Western Front had tried unsuccessfully to kill many times with a rifle. Peter kills Bruno his first week in the trenches with a left-over duckboard slat. Why? Because Bruno got careless for just a moment. Like texting and driving perhaps?

 

In the first chapter Peter is being picked on and bullied by Sergeant Mulholland. That ends abruptly when Peter fights back and refuses to be intimidated and bullied. The message: few bully long those who stand up to them and refuse to take it.

 

In chapter thirty-five, at the end of the novel, when Peter so wants to make love to Elizabeth again after twenty-seven years, he is humiliated by his sudden impotence. Elizabeth gives him a short lecture on her belief in the power of faith.

 

I wanted to end the novel by urging the reader to realize the power in faith: realize that much of our success comes from faith in ourselves; much of our happiness comes from faith and optimism about the future, from faith in our human ability to solve our human problems, as terrifying as some of them appear; and, for many, faith in a deity who can save us from our biggest fear of all—our mortality.

 

Between chapter one and chapter thirty-five almost every chapter was created for the purpose of highlighting some issue in life, the choices we make and their consequences.

 

The Golden Rule is considered the essence of universal morality and is found in some version in every major religion. Live by that, and you will be essentially a moral person; don’t and you won’t. I wanted to create a scene where I could get that in.

 

Perhaps the greatest theological dilemma of all is the question: Why does a loving God let bad things happen to good people. I created a chapter where I could bring that big dilemma out to be confronted by the reader.

 

I could go on and on, as there are at least two dozen issues in life I’ve tried to bring into focus.

 

As a lawyer and a judge, with a long and blessed life, I’ve had enormous opportunity to see humanity at its best and worst. I thought I could give insight into the choices we make and the potential consequences. I tried to get in as much as I could in a novel of modest length and still make it an enjoyable read.    

           

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I have in mind making Lost Love’s Return the first novel in a trilogy, picking up with Casey when he comes home and becomes a lawyer. I have made a start on that. This gives me almost infinite stories from my own experiences as a lawyer where I could write from a world I lived in and would require little research.

 

Then I have a third novel in the trilogy that I see as the story of Casey, Jr., the little boy Casey comes home to in 1945. He winds up, by a strange coincidence of talent and timing, to get a full scholarship to Harvard, goes on to become a big partner in a New York law firm representing the Italian fashion industry.

 

Then he gets seduced by his secretary, loses his wife, realizes his mistakes and struggles against great odds to get her back. This would require some research, but nothing like Lost Love’s Return.

 

I also have another novel I wrote about a hundred pages on 20 years ago, before I got swamped by things involving my family and my art. I am considering revisiting it, and seeing potential to bring it in as part of the second book of the trilogy.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: Maybe the parallels between my efforts to learn to paint and my efforts to learn to write creative fiction would be interesting.

 

Almost 60 years ago, in my early Army years, on a whim, I picked up a beginning painting set in a mall in San Antonio. In time, it became obvious that I had some potential, if I would just develop it.

 

I found it hard, tedious work, but was thrilled at the ability to take my imagination, a blank canvas, brushes and paint, and create something people seemed to enjoy and desire.

 

Since that time, I have done at least a thousand paintings, primarily large Southern landscapes. They have been reproduced into approximately 12,000 prints. Anyone on Planet Earth today who searches the web for “southern landscape paintings” will likely find my website near the top out of millions of hits. My site gets hits from all over the world monthly.

 

I was invited to write a 10-page feature for International Artist magazine and suddenly found myself, to my surprise, pictured on the cover painting in my studio. The article is crosslinked on my website.

 

Early on, I sought some formal training and went to painting workshops. But it was difficult to schedule and I got little out of it, for various reasons. So I analyzed all the accepted concepts of painting: linear perspective; atmospheric perspective; line and drawing; composition; tonal climax; color and color harmony; edges, etc.

 

Then I sought to master them one at a time. I would assemble everything I could find on a concept, spend six months on that concept, conclude I had learned all I could master at that point, then move on to the next concept.

 

When I decided almost 10 years ago that I had really always wanted to write creative fiction, more than I wanted to paint, I took the same approach.

 

I analyzed the accepted concepts of writing fiction and focused on them to study them one at a time, for as long as it took to feel that I had a basic understanding of that concept.

 

Plot, months on that; point of view, months on that; good dialog, months on that; good narrative and balance of dialog and narrative, months on that; on and on, one concept at a time. As in most things, the more I studied the more I found I had to learn.

 

But when I concluded I was ready and went on to start what became Lost Love’s Return, I think this approach and effort paid off. And, like painting, writing fiction proved hard, tedious work, but I found excitement in the result.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb