Monday, September 20, 2021

Q&A with Saumya Roy




Saumya Roy is the author of the new book Castaway Mountain: Love and Loss Among the Wastepickers of Mumbai. A journalist and social entrepreneur, her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Forbes India and Bloomberg News. The co-founder of the nonprofit Vandana Foundation, she is based in Mumbai, India.


Q: What inspired you to write Castaway Mountain?


A: I trained and worked as a journalist in the United States and Mumbai. Then I left journalism to start a micro finance nonprofit in 2010.


Some years later, waste pickers who trawled the garbage mountains at the far end of the city for trash to resell began asking for our low-interest loans. I followed them back to the mountains, worried that their odd businesses would make our loans go bad.


In early 2016, enormous fires had erupted on the garbage mountains, engulfing the whole city in smoke. Waste pickers were being detained by police for lighting these fires.


I thought of writing a magazine story to illustrate that our partly consumed things made these mountains, which were as tall as 18-floor buildings! I wanted to show that this was a world in itself, made by our growing consumption, a world that the waste pickers lived and made their lives in.

Q: The book includes a large cast of characters, but one of the main figures is Farzana. How did you meet her, and did you know from the beginning that you'd focus on her?

A: I reported almost equally on all the characters, but some of their parts were cut during the editorial process.


Farzana became the main character because she was born at the foothills of the mountains. We see her as a child and watch her grow on the slopes. With her we see the light and joy and intrepidity that pickers bring to this dark place.


We also see the imprint of the growing garbage mountains in her. It is a lingering, troubling imprint.

Q: What especially surprised you as you researched the book?


A: So much surprised me!


One of the many surprises was to learn that these dumping grounds were established during a plague epidemic in 1897.


That epidemic had also emanated from China, it had also led to stringent quarantine measures that residents opposed. Eventually British administrators had decided to create these distant dumping grounds and a train line to carry trash there, pushing garbage and the diseases that came with it to the far edge of the city.


With our own pandemic too, some Covid waste has been dumped there.


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

A: I hope they feel a visceral connection to the characters and the world they inhabit.


While it may at first seem distant and different, people and bonds are alike everywhere. Readers will find giggly teenage parties, festival celebrations, gang rivalries - echoes of their own lives and communities - here too.  


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working in a few journalistic stories that follow strands from my reporting for the book. This includes stories on the export of waste from the US and UK to India and another one on the enormous amount of plastic waste left behind by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Mumbai is among the wealthiest cities in the world. The remains of this wealth create this growing waste, much like in Western cities. This book takes you into this world created by our waste. It is filled with real-life characters who I hope readers will love as I came to love them.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Carrie Leskowitz




Carrie Leskowitz is the author of the new book Om for the Home: A Holistic Approach to Interior Design for Your Overall Wellbeing, Body, Mind and Spirit. She is an interior designer and life coach.


Q: What inspired you to write Om for the Home?


A: It was a series of things that lead me to the book. I had been feeling stuck in an area of my life that prompted me to become a life coach so I could learn tools to change my perspective from “stuckness" to possibility because I felt as though I had no alternative.


Shortly after that, I became ill with a difficult to diagnose autoimmune disease. That experience really solidified for me the concept of the interconnection of all things: body, mind, spirit and living space.


The balance we need to create in our body is equally as important as the balance, or energy, we need to create in our home to thrive. When I couldn’t work because of pain, I came up with the idea of the book to continue to be creative and share my message.


Q: You write, "The things you choose to bring into your home are a reflection of who you believe yourself to be." Can you say more about that?


A: Our home should tell the story of our journey. Where we have been and where we want to go.


If we understand ourselves - our values, our personality, what fulfills us - we want to express that in physical form to solidify it and show others. If we have high self-worth or are interested in manifesting something, our home can express that as well.


For example, a newly single woman I worked with wanted to create a home of peace and healing. She brought in only things that were needed or gave her joy.


This environment was about her! She filled her closet with outfits for the new life she wanted to manifest and rid herself of anything that did not serve her higher self. Her fresh perspective was reflected in her new condo with its positivity and bold design choices. Positivity begets positivity.


Q: What would you advise someone to do whose house is cluttered and stressful?


A: DECLUTTER and do a deep dive into what the root cause of their clutter behavior may mean. We can have stress without clutter, but we can never have clutter without stress. I believe, oftentimes, there are unconscious beliefs we carry that show up as clutter.


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


A: This book is about personal growth and the importance of the role our home plays in a healing journey. There are takeaways in each chapter.


I say, pick an area that resonates with you whether it be eliminating limiting beliefs, how to discover what fulfills you, Feng shui, or color psychology and start there. My hope is that readers understand our home is another pillar of wellness, not an afterthought.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am busy promoting the book, speaking, and coaching. I jumped back into interior design but am doing more decorating, e-design and consulting.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Our home as I refer to it is our “internal” world as well as our living environment. Our inner space is reflected outwardly, and our outer space is reflected internally. They are not separate but interconnected. Awareness is the mirror.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Christin Essin




Christin Essin is the author of the new book Working Backstage: A Cultural History and Ethnography of Technical Theater Labor. She also has written the book Stage Designers in Early Twentieth Century America. She is an associate professor of theatre history at Vanderbilt University.


Q: What inspired you to write Working Backstage?


A: During my 20s, I worked as a theatre technician, as a college student and afterwards. I had some fantastic professors at Wake Forest University who helped me see production work as a creative and intellectually rich practice.


Pulling together the various pieces of technology on stage and making them work…I found it so much more satisfying than acting!


When performing, I never quite understood the impact or outcome of my work. But as an electrician, I flipped the switch and lights came on. Or, they didn’t, so I would trouble-shoot the problem and find an answer.


But as satisfying as I had found the work, I had yet to encounter a book that fully expressed the labor of theatre technicians in a clear, evocative language. It is essential but largely invisible industry work that is underrepresented and too often misunderstood.


So, that’s why I wrote Working Backstage: to create a Broadway history that asks its readers to understand theatrical performance from the backstage perspectives of theatre technicians.


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


A: The lack of archival resources documenting backstage labor is one reason behind the lack of scholarship around technical theatre labor and its workforces.


Unlike performers, for example, who create scrapbooks, write diaries, or hire press agents to promote their careers, technicians have little incentive to save pieces of ephemera that provide evidence of their work.


I found some archived documents at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and NYU’s Special Collections specifically connected to the unions that represent technicians and some unpublished materials gathered from the individuals I interviewed.


But I also had to get creative, interpreting production cue sheets as work choreographies or dramatic characters in plays as representative of actual backstage communities.


I also created my own “working archive” through interviews with currently working and retired technicians in New York. The skills they use today are inherited from many generations past, and they talked a lot about their mentors; this helped me create a kind of genealogical history of union stagecraft.


The thing that surprised me most was finding such a warm, opening community of workers eager to be interviewed, not necessarily because they feel they lack recognition but because they genuinely love what they do and wanted to share their Broadway perspectives.

I made my way through more stage doors than I initially anticipated as a result of the kindness of theatre technicians, a group that people mostly imagine as gruff and unapproachable.


Q: How would you describe the role of backstage workers, and has it changed over the decades?


A: The labor movement that secured protections for most American workers in the late 19th century did the same for theatre technicians.


As locals of the International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees, or IATSE, spread from New York and Chicago to other major U.S. cities, the work of stagehands, dressers, and other backstage personnel coalesced into the professional standards shared by technicians today.


In an industry where actors receive the most attention and enjoy the public’s applause, technicians rely on their unions to advance their interests and make sure the industry shows respect by paying a wage commensurate with their skills.


There were sizable shifts in the work performed by Broadway electricians in the 1970s with the shift to computer control technologies and again in the 1990s for stagehands  with the shift to scenic automation.


While there will always be boxes to schlep and flats to hang, Broadway’s stages increasingly require specialists trained in new technologies who are open to continued education when even newer technologies arise.


Of course, we’ve yet to see the biggest change. Post-pandemic Broadway will be a different place for its workers. Many left the city or the profession, unable to withstand the financial hit of the one-and-a-half year shutdown, and those who do return will do with changed perspectives and priorities.


No one can predict what’s next, but it will be interesting to watch.


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


A: First, I hope readers gain insight into the complexity of theatrical production and respect for the passion and skill backstage technicians bring to their work.


But I also hope they gain a respect for the unions that support backstage technicians. The strength and influence of New York’s theatrical unions is a bit of an anomaly in today’s labor economy, and the industry is better for it.


IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) connects today’s workers to those of past generations, giving them an occupational history and, quite honestly, a level of respect not experienced by workers in many other industries.


While New York’s technicians were eager to share stories with me, the technicians I queried in so-called right-to-work states were much more hesitant, mostly likely because they lacked the same worker protections and could face retribution talking to someone about their labor conditions.


I work at Vanderbilt University and live in Nashville, another city with a thriving entertainment industry, but local producing organizations were unwilling to connect me to their employees. Ironically, the credentials that got me through so many stage doors on Broadway failed me in my own backyard.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am returning to some interviews I conducted early in my research with scenic and costume shop personnel: carpenters, scenic artists, properties artisans, costume stitchers, drapers, milliners, and other craft workers.


They work in a variety of far-flung locations and might never see the impact of their artistry on the stage; the satisfaction they gain from their work is distinct from those technicians who work in performance venues, and I am particularly interested in documenting shop culture.


I’ve also been visiting some of the immersive Van Gogh exhibits popping up around the U.S. because they’ve put theatre technicians back to work during the pandemic shutdown.


Art critics have made their disdain known for viewing Van Gogh through a spectacle of lighting projections on large-scale screens, but I’m more interested in recognizing and, frankly, celebrating the craft behind creating this type of immersive performance at a time when people are unable to travel and see a Van Gogh in Paris, Amsterdam, or London.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Go see a Broadway show! Or a concert. Or an immersive exhibit. Or a painting in a museum. Live cultural events are the life blood of our cities, and I worry that we’ve fallen out of practice being together in civic, public spaces. So many people work in the live performance sector, and their skills make these events possible.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 20



Sept. 20, 1878: Upton Sinclair born.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Q&A with Mark Piesing



Photo by David Fisher/Fisher Studios


Mark Piesing is the author of the new book N-4 Down: The Hunt for the Arctic Airship Italia. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Guardian and The Economist. He lives in Oxford, England.


Q: In the introduction to N-4 Down, you write about finding an old book in a secondhand bookstore. How did your discovery of that book contribute to your writing this one?


A: I knew very little about the events of N-4 Down until I picked up that book. It was just so incredibly mysterious.


It was over 90 years old, written in 1930 by a U. Nobile just after the events it described and was an eyewitness account of the crash of an airship at the North Pole. I didn't know who U. Nobile was or that airships had ever flown to the North Pole.


Then when I was looking through the book, an even older newspaper cutting fluttered out. Scrawled at the top in pencil was 1928, below was the headline “Bound for North Pole,” and the cutting was about Commander Nobile’s first flight in great Arctic adventure.


Then a map at the back unfolded, and right at its centre was Spitsbergen, the old name for the Svalbard archipelago, and I knew I had to go there. When I few into Svalbard on a Boeing rather than an airship, I realised that I had to write this story, and one of the main characters was the archipelago itself.


I am a massive fan of Philip Pullman's Northern Lights trilogy. It struck me that Nobile's adventures had to have been one of the inspirations for Pullman's story. Regrettably, I haven't yet had the chance to discuss this with him.


Q: How well known was Umberto Nobile in his day, and what do you see as his legacy today?


A: The first part is easy to answer. The second, a lot harder!


In the aviation industry, Umberto Nobile was very well known as one of the leading airship designers of his day. His airships, built at his factory in Rome, were exported to countries like Britain, Spain, and the United States.


Nobile was one of the Roma designers, a United States Air Force digrible that tragically crashed in 1920. He went on to work as a consultant with Goodyear, working on the precursors to their famous Blimps.


Then the 1926 transpolar airship flight with the famous if elderly Roald Amundsen turned him into a celebrity. The flight was considered at the time one of the most outstanding achievements in aviation. The New York Times devoted three full pages to it, and he was met by crowds of people as he journeyed across the United States.


He was even called "The New Columbus" at that time. I appreciate it may have different connotations today. 


The crash of the Italia, rumours of cannibalism, and his decision to abandon his men on the ice propelled him to a new level of celebrity in a way. When he was seriously ill in 1933, The New York Times even printed his obituary while he was still alive and went on to recover. 

The hard part is his legacy today. Across Europe, there are plenty of streets named after him! Ironically, his 1926 flight is largely forgotten outside of Italy. If he is remembered at all, then it is for the 1928 crash of the airship Italia.


I think his legacy is tragic: the crash of the airship Italia helped to speed up the demise of the airship as a means of passenger transportation, and the disappearance of Roald Amundsen on the way to rescue in 1928 created one of the greatest mysteries of the Arctic.


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


A: To research N-4 Down, I tried to travel to as many of the locations I mention in the book as possible and discover manuscripts that other writers had forgotten. I have two young children, so sadly that wasn't always possible.


I spent an incredible two days interviewing Ove Hermansen in Copenhagen. In 2018 Ove was one of the last surviving friends of Umberto Nobile and had been his representative in Scandinavia. By spending that length of time with him, I felt that I was close to Nobile himself. Sadly, he passed away a year later. The only thing I didn't do was to find an airship to fly on!


I was surprised by the willingness of aeronauts to casually risk their lives in the pursuit of glory. I couldn't believe that they would fly aircraft untested in the Arctic or take off without a radio when one was coming. I think these risks were perceived differently by a society where children were lucky to make it through to adulthood, and men were mown down on the battlefield.


Another surprise was by the power of the Arctic to bore into your soul. As I said in my The Explorers Club talk, I couldn't understand why these men and women were obsessed with returning to the Arctic until I visited there myself. I just want to go back!


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


A: I hope they take away from N-4 Down an appreciation that in polar exploration, the aeronaut was as important, if not more important, as the explorer crossing the ice on foot or on a sledge.


The way technology is adopted isn't inevitable. With a little more luck, there may still have been airships flying over Oxford, or New York, as there once was, and Northern Lights was less fantasy and more reality.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: My latest piece for BBC Future has just gone up on their site. It is a long read called The Planes That Conquered Antarctic. It's about the important role that some of the minor characters in N-4 Down play in opening up Antarctica and aviation's continuing role on the frozen continent.


I am working on the proposal for my next book, which I can't say anything about at the minute!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: N-4 Down is currently a bestseller in the History of the Arctic and Antarctic, and Aviation History, on So go out there and buy N-4 Down. You won’t regret it.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Defne Suman




Defne Suman is the author of the novel The Silence of Scheherazade, originally published in Turkey and Greece in 2015 and now available in an English translation by Betsy Göksel. Suman is based in Istanbul.


Q: What inspired you to write The Silence of Scheherazade?


A: It all started with the thought of a 100-year-old woman living in today’s Izmir. I was reading One Hundred Years of Solitude by Marquez at that time and I was prone to writing in the lines of magical realism.


The moment I thought about Izmir I remembered another novel: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. Middlesex begins in Turkey. It is the story of Greeks escaping from Turkey via Smynra (Izmir in modern day Turkey).


When I was reading Middlesex I had realized that I was learning a piece of history was hidden from me, the history of Smyrna and its people. Middlesex moves on and the story continues in Detroit.


I remembered the feeling how I wished those initial chapters that take place in Smyna and Asia Minor were a bit longer. Well, I said to myself, if you want to read a story taking place in Smyrna early 1960, then you should go ahead and write it yourself. So that is how it all began!


Q: Betsy Göksel, the book's translator, said of the experience, "Translating The Silence Of Scheherazade was a heart-wrenching experience. I was bringing to life in English real people, not characters in a book, people I loved and wept over. In this book one weeps for the various individuals and for Smyrna itself."  What do you think of her comments?


A: Betsy is an amazing translator; she is the ideal reader I had imagined while I was writing the book. She reads with her heart. Funny enough when I was writing book, especially toward the end I was crying too.


The loss of Smyrna is a metaphor for all the refinement we lost in the world. It reminded me how as humanity we are losing culture, beauty and harmony under the threat of nationalism and consumerism.


I am pretty sure Betsy, being part of the old world, was feeling the same loss and her tears were partly for the beauty we lost in 21st century. We no longer have cosmopolitan harbor towns in the world where people value art, architecture, and literature. We live in a rougher world. We all feel the loss.


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


A: Yes, I conducted historical research for almost two years. I was living in the U.S. at the time. I researched in the libraries of NYU and Portland State University. I ordered tons of books from Reed College library. I read diaries, journals and collected postcards, insurance maps and clothing items from the 1920s.


When I was growing up in Turkey, in the history books we had read that in September 1922 the Greek army was in retreat and they burned Smyrna as they were jumping into the ships that were waiting for them at the Smyrna harbor. This was (and still is) something we memorized as children.


When I started my research the first thing, I learned was that by the time the Great Fire of Smyrna started on September 13 all of the Greek army was already gone. Only women and children were left in town, and they were waiting (in vain) for Greek ships to come and pick them up.


It was the Turkish side that started the fire and these Greek civilians who died from it. This new bit information altered the way I viewed the past completely.


Q: What do you hope readers, both those familiar with Turkish history and those who are new to the topic, take away from the book?


A: Like I said earlier, Smyrna and its loss is a mega-metaphor for the loss of beauty and refinement from our lives.


People of Smyrna, regardless of their religious and ethnic backgrounds, knew how to enjoy life. They knew the value of joy and value of life.


They built famous amazing theatres and club buildings. They dressed up in the evenings and strolled in the famous quay. Some got together in their neighborhood squares and chatted idly as the day came to an end.


This lifestyle is something we lost in our need to work extremely hard in a world that is getting poorer and poorer every day. Sadly, we have become machines and from the first grade onwards we do have a plan, which university to go and what profession to choose.


Everything is geared toward earning money so that we can eat, and we can pay for our shelter. This is a 21st-century reality. It was not always like that.


Besides earning money and working so hard, people did have time to create art for the art itself or get together, produce music and dance together because it was the natural thing to do.


Smyrna reminds us to slow down. It reminds us that life is nothing but a series of losses and what is most important is how you spend your day.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on a book on the destruction of Istanbul. It has so many layers. There is the physical destruction of Istanbul, historical buildings are being torn down or restored in the ugliest way in order to serve as shopping malls with food courts.


The whole city has become a center for consumption. If you are not a consumer, you are no one.


At another level my new project is dealing with the way Istanbul, the glorious capital of the Byzantium and then the Ottoman empires, became this space of one single nation with one narrow understanding of one single religion.


Christian minorities who once upon a time were the people of Istanbul/Constantinople are kicked out of their sacred town gradually, systematically.


Now the remaining intellectuals and artists are leaving the city because with its high-rises, shopping malls, five-star hotels and its terrible traffic it is not a place you can create anymore. Beauty is being extracted from the most beautiful city on earth. And my new book is a requiem for my hometown.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I am very excited that my first English book is published and available for the English readers.


When I was writing The Silence of Scheherazade I was living in Portland, Oregon, and I was writing the book at the coffeeshops of Portland. Especially in the coffeeshop of Powell’s Books in Portland.


My friends kept asking me what it is about and when will they read it. Finally it is ready in English and I am thrilled to know that all my friends in Portland will get a glimpse of my literature. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with JoAnn Ross




JoAnn Ross is the author of the new novel The Inheritance. Her many other novels include the Honeymoon Harbor series. She lives in the Pacific Northwest.


Q: What inspired you to write The Inheritance, and how did you create your cast of characters?


A: The inspiration goes back a very long time. Like Tess, I never knew my father, who deserted my mother when I was a toddler.


Over the years I’d hear stories about how they drove across the country from Brooklyn when they were very young newlyweds to study at the famed Pasadena Playhouse.


I’d never thought about it until answering this question but perhaps them being such big dreamers is what gave 7-year-old-me, growing up in a small Oregon ranching and timber town, the audacity to decide to become a writer.


A few years ago, I had an impulse to Google my father’s name and found his obituary mentioning a daughter from his second marriage.


Having that, I contacted her on Facebook and because I’d always known about her, I’d assumed she knew about me. Oops, apparently, she didn’t.  When she asked her mother why she hadn’t been told her father had a previous family, the response was “It never came up.” 


That stirred an idea about three half-sisters, who each had an entirely different relationship with their father.


Tess, the oldest, who had no memory of him, knew about the middle sister, who didn’t know about the other two. The youngest sister knew about all three, and when she learns they inherited a famous winery, she’s initially concerned that the other two will dislike her because she was the closest to their father.


Q: What do you think the book says about family history? 


A: I was a big fan of that program Who Do You Think You Are, and more recently, Finding Your Roots, and have learned that every family has secrets that can remain hidden for decades, sometimes even centuries. But they’re a valuable part of our own story.


In The Inheritance, once the three sisters put aside their rivalries and differences, they realize that the winery wasn’t the legacy their father left behind. Instead, their true legacy is the bond of family and discovering that they come from a line of strong, brave, adventurous individuals.  


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


A: Since I always begin with characters and trust that they’ll help me find my way through a story that I believe will fit them, I’d originally intended to tell Madeline and Robert’s story in a journal the sisters find. But midway through the book, she became so alive, I don’t think she would have let me get away with not allowing her to tell her story her way.


She did do one thing during WWII that actually surprised me when I found myself writing that scene.


The other surprise was how Charlotte reclaimed the girl with big plans and dreams she’d once been, and became the strong, independent woman that her father had always encouraged her to be.


One thing that was clear to me from the beginning was that the story would not be about three sisters, but three daughters.


I originally started with Jackson Swann having already died. But because each woman’s character was, in large part, formed by her relationship (or in Tess’s case, non-relationship), with their father, I wanted readers to have more of a sense of the complex, admittedly flawed man who’d been living in my head from the beginning. Even before I wrote the first word.


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


A: That blood ties are not what bonds a family, but heart. While you can’t choose the family you’re born into, you can create a family from those you choose. Those who also love and choose you. Then, together, you can decide what path in life you’ll take from there.


Q: What are you working on now? 


A: Having just finished the fourth book in my contemporary Honeymoon Harbor series set on Washington State’s magnificent Olympic Peninsula, I’m beginning to weave partially formed characters, who’ve been waiting in the mists of my mind, with scattered, colorful threads of a story into another Women’s Fiction novel that readers will hopefully enjoy and perhaps find a bit of themselves in.  


Q: Anything else we should know? 


A: I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all the bloggers and reviewers who help readers learn about new books in an increasingly crowded marketplace. Especially those who’ve taken valuable time to read The  Inheritance.


Also, thanks to the booksellers and librarians who get my books into the hands of readers, and as always, to those readers who’ve allowed me to live my childhood dream for the past 38 years.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb