Saturday, July 31, 2021

Q&A with Penny Haw




Penny Haw is the author of the new novel The Wilderness Between Us. Her other work includes the children's book Nicko, The Tale of a Vervet Monkey on an AfricanFarm. A longtime journalist, she is based near Cape Town, South Africa.


Q: You’ve said that your novel was inspired by a camping trip you took. How did you create your characters Clare and Faye?


A: Faye is among the group of closely-knit friends on the hike and Clare is the daughter one of those friends, who joins them at the last minute when her mother can’t make it. Faye and Clare are thrown together when floods separate them from the others. They’ve known one another for years but aren’t particularly close.


I wanted to have two women from different generations, each wrestling with their own problems, brought together under difficult circumstances.


Clare has anorexia. Faye finally acknowledges how toxic her marriage is and sees that she’s lost touch with who she was as a result. She’s allowed herself to exist in the shadow of her husband and, after years of being bullied, has forgotten her strength. Clare and Faye are deeply ashamed of their individual predicaments.


I was anorexic in my late teens and Clare’s experience of the condition is loosely based on my own. I wanted her to quickly learn what took me decades to discover and liked the idea of her learning that in the wilderness with an older woman who simultaneously finds her own path to healing. Of course, not everything goes to plan.


Q: The novel is set in South Africa's Tsitsikamma region. How important is setting to you in your writing?


A: The Tsitsikamma area is a combination of mountain fynbos (a distinctive type of vegetation found only in parts of South Africa), grass plateaus, deep and thick indigenous forests, steep ravines and riverways, and some overgrown commercial plantations. It is diverse, magnificent and a great backdrop for a story.


Add to that my love for animals and nature at large, and how being in the wild and with animals soothes and restores me, and I was set to write the novel.


[Setting is] crucial. The area was one of the things that inspired me to write The Wilderness Between Us. I’m moved by places, particularly unspoiled countryside. I grew up on a farm here in South Africa and no doubt that has played a part in it. I’ve also done a fair amount of travel writing as a journalist and enjoy describing places and my experience of them.


Then there’s the impact of location on the psyche, which emerges in most of most of my writing. The places people choose to visit and how they respond to their surroundings says a great deal about them. It adds an interesting dimension to their characters and stories—and when there are animals, birds, and other critters there too, the bar is raised.


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 didn’t know exactly how it would end when I began, but once I’d finished the first draft, it was decided and didn’t change much.


That said, there was a tiny tweak quite far down the publishing line, which I made when I accepted that a certain action—however intriguing—wasn’t in keeping with one of the character’s personalities.


Before I wrote a novel, I was amused by authors who said things like “the characters led me,” but now I get it. In this case, the character complained bitterly about what I suggested she’d done, and I changed it accordingly. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have several things on the go but am rather occupied with pre-launch activities for The Wilderness Between Us, which will be released on July 31.


I have two other completed manuscripts at various points in the publishing pipeline and am hoping that they will find their way to readers soon. One is a work of historical fiction, which tells the story of an extraordinary woman and her work with animals. I am particularly excited about it and hope to be able to share more soon.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’d been a journalist for more than three decades before I plucked up the courage to write a book. There was something terrifying about the idea. It’s all writing but reporting and creating fiction are very different.


My first, Nicko, The Tale of a Vervet Monkey on an African Farm, is a children’s chapter book. I think of it as my gateway to authordom as it gave me the courage to get serious about writing novels, which I am now thoroughly enjoying. It’s particularly exciting to be learning how to do something new.


Thanks very much for your interest and for hosting me on your site.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Debra Bokur



Photo by James P. Rawsthorne


Debra Bokur is the author of the new novel The Bone Field. It's the second in her Dark Paradise Mystery series that began with The Fire Thief. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including National Geographic Traveler and Islands.


Q: This is your second novel about your character Kali Mahoe. How do you think she's changed from one book to the next?


A: Through the series, Kali is stepping more firmly into her role as a detective, and slowly coming to terms with the loss of her fiancé, a fellow police detective. She’s learning to accept the things she has no control over, which includes helping her fiancé’s teenage daughter, who has a debilitating drug addiction.


Kali’s tentatively opening herself to new possibilities, and exploring her own heritage and her individual role within it. My hope is that readers will become invested in both her personal and professional journeys, and the challenges she overcomes along the way.


Q: The novels take place in Hawaii--how important is setting to you in your writing?


A: It’s vital. When I pick up a book to read, one of the most important elements I look for is how far away it can transport me from my day-to-day. As a writer, it was essential to me to create a place that would provide a portal for others to escape through, and to experience, for at least a time, another place or way of life.


Also, for many people, Hawaii is a dream destination that they may or may not ever travel to—and I hope to give those readers a small taste of Hawaii’s powerful landscape and beauty.


Q: What inspired the plot of The Bone Field, and what do you hope readers take away from the story?


A: In The Bone Field, the discovery of a headless corpse left in an old refrigerator in an abandoned pineapple field leads Kali on the trail of an ancient legend and a killer who may have ties to a disbanded religious cult.


I’ve always been fascinated with legends—and with cults; in particular, what it is that drives people to follow a person or specific doctrine, even if it’s likely to be to their own detriment.


After watching a number of documentaries profiling various cult leaders, I recognize that one of the most powerful aspects of these individuals is their charismatic quality. I wanted to play with that idea while creating the characters for this 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: The only things I’m ever sure of when I begin a book is what the inciting incident will be, and how the mystery will eventually be resolved.


I write the first and last chapters before anything else, and though I have a pretty good idea of plot points or events that will unfold along the way, the middle part is a kind of adventure that I get to embark upon each day when I sit down to write.


There are a lot of surprises for me that happen between that first chapter and the last, and I’m learning to trust my characters to direct me in that space.


Q: What are you working on now? 


A: I’ve just turned in the manuscript for the third book in this series, so I’m preparing for edits.


In this book, the body of a young woman is discovered hanging from a tree in a heavily forested area of Maui, and all signs point to sorcery. Kali’s on a wild ride connecting the dots between a witch, a marine mining center, a few angry academics, and an out-of-control methamphetamine problem that’s negatively affecting the tranquility of Maui.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I spent a decade as an editor at a literary journal, and a lot of my poetry and short fiction has been published in literary publications—but I started out as a newspaper editor and moved on to magazine journalism. That’s where I’ve spent the bulk of my career. I enjoy research, so delving into the myths, lore and legends of Hawaii for this mystery series has been tremendous fun.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Maya Myers




Maya Myers is the author of the new children's picture book Not Little. Also a freelance book editor, she lives in North Carolina.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for Not Little, and for your character Dot?


A: My youngest daughter was very small as a young child, and a precocious reader. She was perpetually indignant that the school librarian wouldn’t let her check out big chapter books, and was often looked at skeptically when she would order (and polish off) a whole pizza in a restaurant.


My older girls, both tall, each had a close friend who appeared much younger than she was, and all these “little” kids seemed to make up for it with outsized spunk and determination.


When I wrote this story a few years ago, there was a new level of vitriol and unkindness flying around in the world, and I wanted to remind my own kids and others that anyone can fight back against cruelty without being cruel.


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


A: I knew what kind of kid Dot was, but I didn’t know exactly what she was going to do until I got to writing. Most of the book came out about as it is in the first draft, with some revisions based on feedback from my top critique partner (my husband).


I shared the manuscript with Neal Porter (my editor) soon after I wrote it, and at that time, he passed on the book. A few months later, one of my editorial clients was talking about bringing the end of a story back around to its beginning, and I realized that was what Not Little was missing. So I pulled it up and tweaked the ending, and that turned out to make it a book Neal wanted to publish.


Q: What do you think Hyewon Yum's illustrations add to the book?


A: When I first saw Hyewon’s sketches, it was like finally meeting Dot for the first time. She’s got all the fierceness I imagined for her, plus that amazing gigantic bun and a polka-dotted wardrobe I never imagined. Her expressions are so funny, and you can see her energy in every scene.


The soft rainbow palette Hyewon used from the cover through the last page makes the book feel friendly and happy, even when Dot is outraged.


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


A: I hope they feel empowered to speak up when they see that something isn’t right. Our hearts and voices are as big as we make them, regardless of the size of the body that contains them.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I just finished revisions on the next book about Dot and Sam: Not Perfect (coming 2024 from Neal Porter Books). I’m also in the early stages of writing a first encyclopedia for National Geographic Kids.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I loved the big, blended family Hyewon created for Dot so much that they are all featured in Not Perfect.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 31



July 31, 1919: Primo Levi born.

Friday, July 30, 2021

Q&A with Daisy Wood




Daisy Wood is the author of the new novel The Clockmaker's Wife. She has written young adult books under the name Jennie Walters. She lives in London and Dorset, UK.


Q: What inspired you to write The Clockmaker's Wife?


A: Big Ben has been in the news recently, because of the extensive program of renovation work that’s been undertaken to restore the clock tower to its former glory.


I learned about the part Big Ben played in the Second World War, when people were encouraged to pray for their loved ones in danger while listening to the great bell toll before the nine o’clock news on the wireless every evening. Big Ben came to represent the sound of democracy, the voice of a nation that wouldn’t be silenced.


But what if Britain’s enemies came up with a plot to destroy this beacon of hope? St Paul’s Cathedral only narrowly escaped destruction during the Blitz, and the Houses of Parliament were an easy target; a pilot only had to fly up the Thames to find them. And so an idea was born!      


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


A: Yes, I did a lot of research before I started writing, into London and the Houses of Parliament during the war, into Big Ben and the clock tower, and also into the activities of the British Fascist party.


I was lucky enough to meet two wonderful guides at the Houses of Parliament who have taken countless visitors up the clock tower, and they told me how it feels to climb up the open spiral staircase to the Ayrton Light at the top, over three hundred feet above the ground.


I was surprised by the sheer scale of the clock (the minute hand is over 14 feet long), and by the fact the original Victorian mechanism is still in use today.

I was also amazed and saddened by the tremendous destruction wrought on London by the Blitz. On the night of 29/30 December, a Sunday, around 100,000 bombs were dropped on the city and thousands of ancient buildings were destroyed as fire leapt between the empty offices and warehouses.


Finally, I was taken aback to discover the number of Fascist sympathisers in British high society leading up to and during the war.  


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 one inescapable fact to contend with: that my lovely heroine, Nell, would lose her life to save the man and the country she loved. I wasn’t exactly sure how at first, and there were a few logical conundrums to solve, but I tried to make the ending satisfying and uplifting, as well as terribly sad.


Originally the story was a little downbeat, as my editor pointed out, so I needed to inject some hope, a sense that Nell’s sacrifice wasn’t in vain, and a little more romance to sweeten the plot!  


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


A: I hope readers will come away with an appreciation of the tremendous hardships everyone endured during the Second World War, and the sacrifices that were made to preserve the freedom we enjoy now. At a time when far-right views seem to be on the rise, it’s important to recognize where the language of division and hatred can lead.


I also hope readers will be entertained, transported to another world and time when extraordinary things were happening to ordinary people, just like them.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’ve recently finished rewriting another Second World War novel that I’ve been working on for years, but I’m also tempted to look further ahead and plan a story set in the ‘50s or ‘60s. That postwar period fascinates me: so many hopes and ambitions, especially for the women who had gained independence and confidence during the war.  


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Renovation work on Big Ben and the clock tower has been delayed by Covid, but should be completed next year. The tower will look stunning: freshly gilded and repainted, with the metalwork on the clock dials restored to the original Prussian Blue that forensic analysis has revealed. Come to London next year and take a look! 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Brad Parks



Photo by Sara Harris


Brad Parks is the author of the new novel Unthinkable. His other books include the novel Interference. A former journalist, he lives in Virginia.


Q: What inspired you to write Unthinkable, and how did you create your character Nate Lovejoy?  


A: Really, I asked myself one question: What was the most terrible thing I could ask a character to do? Because I love my wife so much, the first answer to pop into my head was: What if he had to kill his own wife? I then began constructing a scenario where he might have no choice but to do that.  


As for Nate, he’s a stay-at-home dad—much like I was for a time. Naturally, this is a thriller, so he’s being called on to save the world. And I figured the only thing harder than having to save the world was to do it with two toddlers in tow.  


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


A: At some point in the writing, it struck me that I was calling on Nate to make an absolutely unthinkable choice. The moment I typed the word “unthinkable,” a little bell went off in my head. From then on, that was going to be the book’s title.   


Q: The Kirkus Review of the book calls it "A textbook one-sitting read whose fiendishly inventive details only intensify its remorseless momentum." What do you think of that description?  


A: It’s one of my favorite reviews of all time! Really, there’s nothing more—and nothing less—that I’m attempting to do than hook a reader so thoroughly that they feel like they simply can’t put the book down.  


Q: In our previous interview, you said you did some research for your last novel, Interference. What about this one? Did you need to do much research?   

A: There’s a bare minimum of research required in any book to make sure you get the details right. But beyond that, I’ve decided it’s mostly a form of procrastination. So I try to do as little as possible.  


Q: What are you working on now?  


A: My next novel involves a newly discovered species of hominin that has been hiding in plain sight on a remote Pacific Island. I throw them into a bag with a team of paleoanthropologists, a CIA operative who is falling in love, and some special forces soldiers. What could possibly go wrong?  


Q: Anything else we should know?  


A: Just that I love what I do, and I’m grateful whenever a reader decides I’m worth checking out!  


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Brad Parks.

Q&A with Diane Papalia Zappa




Diane Papalia Zappa is the author of the new memoir The Married Widow: My Journey with Bob Zappa. It focuses on her relationship with her late husband. A psychologist, she taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and now is based in New York.


Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir?     

A: I never made a conscious decision to write a memoir, or at least a publishable one! I wrote primarily to preserve my memories of my relationship with my late husband, Bob Zappa, before they began to fade and to share these memories with my daughter, Anna, and a few close friends.


When I wrote, though, I found the words kept tumbling out, so I eventually had written about 90 percent of what became The Married Widow.


Q: How would you describe your relationship with your late husband, Bob?


A: When Bob and I were together in the physical plane I would often tease him, “Besides being Italian, what do we have in common?” And he would answer in all seriousness, “We are one person.”


I only recently became acquainted with the idea of “twin flames.” I believe that describes us: one soul in two bodies. We were immediately drawn to one another, with a connection so powerful it could not be broken, even after he passed away! 


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


A: After I finished the manuscript, I decided The Married Widow was an appropriate and somewhat mysterious title. I describe how I decided on it in the last chapter.  


In that chapter, I talk about how one day in June 2019 I discovered all of my wedding and engagement rings had disappeared from my left hand, not to reappear until the following December! I believe Bob managed to remove them and when they reappeared in December I immediately put them back on. I still wear them.


I believe my putting them back on was my way of telling him I’d marry him again. Thus the title, The Married Widow


Q: What impact did writing the book have on you? 


A: I started writing in January 2019, the month after Bob passed away. I was devastated, especially since his death was sudden and unexpected. So writing helped me cope with this monumental loss. But I also found that other widows who read the pre-publication manuscript were also helped. And that also had an impact on me. 


Q: What are you working on now? 


A: After Bob passed I began a series of “Dear Bobby” letters that were meant to keep his memory alive and our connection going. These are a series of brief and intimate glimpses into our relationship. It is my way of talking with him, sharing my reflections about our life together, and some thoughts about how I deal with being apart. They are on my blog.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Since I never seriously planned to publish a memoir, I was rather casual in how it was “prepared.” 


Then, one day in August 2020,  I saw a post on Facebook from former McGraw-Hill editor-in-chief Emily Barrosse, who had recently founded Bold Story Press. She said she was looking to evaluate manuscripts by women authors.


I told her about mine, and we spoke the next day. I explained that I didn’t have a formal manuscript. What I had was a series of “chapters” written using the Evernote app on my iPad.


Since Emily was intrigued about how Bob and my love story spanned decades, she said that she’d like to see my chapters anyway. She loved what I wrote, wanted to publish it, and so I sent her the manuscript in a series of emails, chapter by chapter! She then had them uploaded to a Word document and in July 2021 The Married Widow was published.


One last thought: a number of readers saw similarities between my real life story and the popular novels The Notebook and The Bridges of Madison County. When I reread those books recently, I see it, too. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 30



July 30, 1818: Emily Brontë born.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Q&A with L.M. Elliott




L.M. Elliott is the author of the new young adult novel Walls, which takes place in Berlin in the early 1960s. Her many other books include the YA novel Suspect Red. A former journalist, she lives in Virginia.


Q: What inspired you to write Walls?


A: I was a magazine journalist for 20 years before becoming a novelist. One of the biggest lessons I learned as a reporter was to look for “holes in coverage”—topics that hadn’t yet been fully plumbed.


These days, as a YA author, I spend many happy hours talking with teenagers, and a few years back during school visits, I “spotted” such a hole. Next to no YA books exploring how the 1950s Red Scare affected teens—despite the fact so many high schoolers study The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s play that used the Salem witch trials as allegory for McCarthyism. 


So I decided to write a contextualizing historical novel—a precursor to Walls—titled Suspect Red.


During that disturbing era, fear-mongering politicians and their oft unsubstantiated accusations pushed Americans to turn on one another—resulting in blacklisting, book banning, Loyalty Review Boards and oath requirements, and labeling people as “un-American” if they challenged the status quo or advocated for change.


I hadn’t anticipated just how relevant to recent political polarization and rhetoric it would become.


Walls had a similar genesis. When the former president undercut NATO, I wondered if people remembered the frightening reasons NATO formed 72 years ago—Russia’s brutal annexation of Eastern Europe after WWII to create a Soviet Bloc of puppet states, and the Berlin Wall, which caged millions.


Beyond knowing that the alliance and the Wall existed, teens and Gen Zers I asked knew little else. I found several wonderful novels about life behind the Wall in later years, but nothing about the tense lead up to its raising or what it was like being American military kids stationed in a place where their dads could be mobilized at any moment against a nuclear-armed foe.


A hole in coverage. And what could be a more dramatic, show-rather-than-tell story humanizing the Cold War standoff between Western democracies and totalitarian communist regimes?


Especially given the fact that cruel barrier was raised literally overnight after methodical, secret plotting by East Germany and Soviet Russia.


While spewing disinformation to convince East Berliners that Americans and NATO planned to attack their “worker utopia” and “new just society,” East Germany quietly stockpiled 330 tons of barbed wire, concrete posts, and protective gloves. Then, following a strict, pre-set time-tick, “Operation Rose” kicked into gear just a few minutes past midnight on August 13, 1961.


It was a holiday weekend and most Berliners had been joyfully preoccupied with children’s festivals and citywide fireworks and did not notice military armed vehicles quietly gathering on the city’s edges.


Mobilized at the very last moment to avoid detection, thousands of GDR soldiers, paramilitary police, and factory workers began unfurling the wire. By dawn, they had strung up a 27-mile barricade through Berlin’s streets—splitting the city in half. East Berliners awoke trapped. Without any warning, families, neighbors, and sweethearts were separated—most forever.


In Suspect Red, I wanted to give proverbial beating hearts to the Red Scare hysteria from both sides of the debate, since communism was a real threat.


My protagonist is the son of an idealistic FBI agent. His friend, and foil, is the son of a State Department diplomat and a native Czechoslovakian artist, precisely the type of liberal intellectuals McCarthy ridiculed and targeted.


It was a creative formula that seemed to work well. So for Walls, I again created two teens from enemy political philosophies in a divided city. This time they are cousins—an American Army kid stationed in West Berlin and an East German raised in the Soviet sector. 


At the novel’s opening, people can still cross back and forth within the city’s free and Soviet sectors. The boys’ mothers want them to be friends despite all the obstacles and the dangerous scrutiny it brings both teenagers. Soon the cousins are embroiled in the spy-thriller-worthy intrigues that swirled around Berlin as the Cold War’s toe-to-toe epicenter.


The question of what it would take for that East Berlin youth—inculcated in communist dogma, bombarded with anti-American propaganda, spied on by ardent Freie Deutsche Jugend (“Free German Youth”) and paid neighborhood informants —to trust a Westerner, and vice versa, felt a poignant and powerful question to explore.


Q: How did you create your character Drew?


A: I so enjoyed writing Drew! Growing up in Northern Virginia, I knew many military “brats” whose parent was doing a “Pentagon tour.” My junior high BFF was an Air Force kid who went on to become an intelligence officer herself. And as the daughter of a WWII veteran and 22-year reservist, I heard my dad’s peers tell extraordinary anecdotes of their service.


So I grew up with a deep respect both for our military and their children who follow parents into perilous overseas postings and are uprooted constantly in service to our country.


I researched and built Drew by interviewing a number of “Berlin Brats,” whose fathers were stationed in West Berlin when the Wall went up. They were incredibly generous with their memories and time.


Drew’s experiences and outlook—the menacing overtures and harassment of Allied personnel and their families by the KGB and their East German minions, the Stasi; the unnerving aura of being 100 miles behind the Soviets’ “Iron Curtain” and surrounded by 400,000 Russian troops; the eerie anxiety of traveling in a duty-train through the communist zone to play other high school teams; and living in a landscape still dotted with reminders of the Nazi idealization of “the master race”—are all haunting details these gentlemen shared. 


Because of them, I think I was able to capture (I hope convincingly!) the gutsiness of Americans holding “an outpost of freedom,” deep within communist territory, outnumbered 10 to 1.


Where a teenage prank or mistake could potentially spark an international incident or undo a parent’s military career. No joke, as those “Berlin Brats” would say with a characteristic touch of bravado.


Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, "An afterword points to similarities between the Khrushchev-led Communists’ disruptive sowing of fear and suspicion in 1960 and Putin’s in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections." What parallels did you hope to draw with this novel, and what do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: History shows that disinformation and propaganda are terrifyingly potent tools in suppressing nations, creating mob beliefs by deadening free thought and obliterating resistance. Look to Hitler’s Third Reich and the then Soviet Union for example.


It also, however, can be more subtle in its impact—seeding fear and distrust to poison the productive conversation and sense of collaboration for a greater good that is the engine of a democracy.


Calculated conspiracy theories or outright lies knowingly repeated and spread, build prejudices and unyielding tribalism that make a society vulnerable to in-fighting, all-or-nothing thinking, scapegoating, cults of personality, and the rise of authoritarianism.


Nikita Khrushchev, Russia’s combative leader from 1953 to 1964, famously threatened, “We will take America without firing a shot. We do not have to invade the U.S. We will destroy you from within.”


He did not hide his contempt for JFK or his hatred of Nixon. He believed Kennedy was less experienced, overly idealistic, and would be a weaker adversary.


He bragged about manipulating our 1960 presidential election by refusing to release captured U-2 spy plane pilot, Francis Gary Powers, during Nixon’s term as vice president to deny him that boost in public opinion.


“As it turns out,” Khrushchev wrote, “we’d done the right thing. Kennedy won the election by a majority of only 200,000 votes or so, a negligible margin if you consider the huge population of the United States. The slightest nudge either way would have been decisive.” In his memoirs, Khrushchev claimed he told JFK, “You know, Mr. Kennedy, we voted for you.”


Today, Vladimir Putin, the current leader of Russia—which is credibly reported by all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies and the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee to have interfered in our 2016 presidential election—seems to adhere to Khrushchev’s hopes of “picking” our leaders and that ginning up titillating conspiracies to smear the integrity of foreign leaders will unravel a rival society.


Putin was well schooled in such tactics, having served as a KGB secret police officer for 15 years. Stationed in East Germany for six of those years, Putin worked with the infamous Stasi to monitor the thoughts and movements of its citizens, arrest dissenters, and recruit informers to steal Western technology and NATO military secrets.


When Putin rose to power in 2000, Russian dissident writer Feliz Svetov said he was a typical KGB type. “If the snow is falling,” said Svetov, “they will calmly tell you, the sun is shining.” Spreading lies dressed up in catchy phrasing, then perpetuating the deception with denial, distraction, re-direct, and “what about”ism are all proven blue-smoke-and-mirrors disinformation tactics.


There are so many things I’d like readers to take away from this story—like enjoying what I hope is a fast-paced and compelling narrative!


In your question’s regard, though, I hope the narrative will inspire teens to resolve to think for themselves, to work for what educators call “media literacy.”


To not swallow unsubstantiated accusations or labels without doing a little reading and thinking on their own.


To not stubbornly hold onto opinions promulgated by their community, parents, or peers that do not stand up to the light of fact. (Just as Drew’s cousin Matthias had to do.)


To listen and open up their hearts and minds to others who differ from them (like Drew), and to accept our responsibility as a free people to not simply stand by when witnessing others fighting for their rights—whether in a foreign nation or marching peacefully on our own streets.


Our country is anything but perfect. But it is formed on the most magnificent of ideas and the promise to work toward betterment and equality for all. We have much work left to do to achieve that.


And that requires our voters to be informed and involved, respectful and empathetic, in whichever party they affiliate, remembering that e pluribus unum means: out of many, one. 


I love writing YA novels because our youth tend to listen with instinctive compassion and curiosity—they fill me with hope.


Q: Can you say more about how you researched this novel, and what did you learn that particularly surprised you?


A: As I mentioned, the “Berlin Brats” shared so many anecdotes and “revealing details” that gifted the narrative substance and authenticity.


I also was able to get my hands on some stunning and heart-breaking eye-witness reporting about the night the Berlin Wall went up as well as vivid descriptions of the city before that night of infamy—facts that often were startling in their irony and surreal quality. (See my webpage for a bibliography of books and film.)


Here are some examples:


In East Germany (the GDR), youth were encouraged and rewarded for spying on one another. If teenagers didn’t shout the state-prescribed greeting of “Freundschaft!”  (Friendship!) with enough exuberance, or admitted to being religious, or cut-up during a classmate’s presentation on a Soviet martyr, or didn’t wave a flag high enough during a parade, their “friends” might report them to school authorities, destroying that youth’s chances of going to university.


Offenders might also be pulled in front of a peer tribunal for questioning and a Selbstkritik (self-criticism).


Matthias’ poignant recounting of what his supposed friends accused him of—everything from his less-than-neat personal appearance being disrespectful of “workers’ dignity” to Kultubarbarei (spreading culture corruption) because he tuned his radio to catch American music broadcasts from the other side of town—were all culled from memoirs of survivors.


Despite the dangers, East German youth so longed to hear Western music they even managed to make pirated recordings of American jazz bands on old, discarded X-ray film.


To counter “degenerative” American dances like the Twist, the GDR created a state dance called the Lipsi, an arms-length, odd mixture of waltz and rhumba movements in 6/4-meter—which, according to GDR authorities, was pure and free from “trash, hot music, or wiggle-hip dance.”


Rubble from WWII bombing remained everywhere, and East German children played in gutted lots under gargantuan photos of Khrushchev, blood-red Soviet flags, and billboards turned toward the America zone proclaiming: “Marxism means Peace!”


During the year leading up to August 1961 when the Wall was raised, East Germans fled in droves. But they’d have to cross the “death zone” of Soviet sealed borders that encircled Berlin, the city being the only escape hatch to the West still open.


They would leave behind everything to slip through forests and bluff their way past checkpoints. Any suitcase, any pockets bulging with belongings, might get them pulled aside and questioned.


If they got past those guards, they then had to fake their way across town into Berlin’s American sector, where they could finally seek asylum in the Marienfelde refugee camp and eventually be airlifted to the safety of West Germany.


Most were caught along the way, charged with Republicflucht and sent to re-education labor camps. If they did manage to escape, family and friends who remained behind could be imprisoned for three years in punishment for not alerting authorities. The German film The Lives of Others opens with a chilling portrayal of a Stasi interrogation of such a hapless friend.


1961’s Miss Universe was actually a GDR refugee representing West Germany. An electrical engineer, she had been well-employed and favored in the GDR’s socialist state and had no plans of leaving—until she was threatened with jail for not turning in her own sister and mother.


The GDR condemned her as being seduced and prostituted by the West, a victim of Abwerbung (Americans wooing away talented citizens) and Menschenhandel (Western abduction, capitalist “man trade”).


On the other side of town, American military kids faced far more dangers than I imagined. If their fathers were intelligence officers, for instance, and they got too close to the sector border, they were vulnerable to Stasi secret police picking them up to hold overnight as a way of threatening, or trying to turn, those parents.


“Berlin Brats” had to be careful if they volunteered at Marienfelde, as Stasi double agents posed as refugees to eavesdrop on conversations to gain useful information about American personnel or relocated Germans for coercive blackmail.


One Berlin alumna shared that being picked for the cheerleading squad could be adversely affected by a girl’s prettiness. Cheerleaders traveled with the teams to away games on the duty-trains that had to go through multiple checkpoints in communist territory.


It was out of concern for a girl’s safety—the worry being that a particularly beautiful teen, through no fault of her own, might be singled out for harassment by Soviet troops.


There’s a lot more, but please read the book!


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’ve just finished writing another WWII narrative, titled Louisa June and the Nazis in the Waves that Katherine Tegen Books (HarperCollins) will publish in March.


This one’s a little different for me. I use a slightly younger, more regionalized, first-person, and (I hope) poetic voice than I typically do for one of my historical works. (Not unlike Ariel’s voice in Storm Dog.) Louisa June just spoke to me that way.


I am so grateful to Katherine, who is such a gifted and generous editor and has nurtured me through nine novels, for letting me experiment a little with this story and grow myself as a result. 


Set in Tidewater Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay, the historical peg is an attack on a tugboat by a Nazi U-boat.


It’s a little-discussed fact that immediately following Pearl Harbor, Hitler’s submarines relentlessly attacked our merchant ships sailing along the East Coast, averaging a sinking a night during the first six months of 1942.


Louisa June’s overarching odyssey is learning to cope with her mama’s pervasive depression and the grief of sudden loss—something, sadly, that many teens will be dealing with post-COVID. I hope readers can find solace in her story and joy in the quirky, endearing characters who help her find her way.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with L.M. Elliott.