Thursday, September 30, 2021

Q&A with Gervais Hagerty




Gervais Hagerty is the author of the new novel In Polite Company. She has worked as a radio and TV journalist, and she taught communications at The Citadel. She lives in Charleston, South Carolina.


Q: What inspired you to write In Polite Company, and how did you create your character Simons?


A: My grandmother inspired me to write the story. When I returned to Charleston in my late 20s, she and I grew very close. We went on dates together—to hear bluegrass, eat sushi, and visit art galleries. When she died, I was heartbroken.


As a sort of catharsis, I began to write this book. I worked hard on developing a grandmother character, and this process got me thinking about how we are shaped by the place and time we are born into and that sometimes we want to break from that mold. Exploring these concepts helped me to create the story.

In Polite Company is a coming-of-age novel, so I feel very close to my protagonist, Simons. Though the book is not autobiographical (the scenes and characters are made up) the feelings Simons experiences are true to me. 


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’ve learned there are two types of writers: plotters and pantsers. I’m a pantser because I write by the seat of my pants. I had no idea how the novel would end, and I was constantly making changes. Perhaps this is the most magical part of writing—that the story almost writes itself.


Q: The novel takes place in Charleston, South Carolina. How important is setting to you in your writing, and what do you think the book says about the city?


A: Setting is very important to me. I love diving deep into a place, and as a local, I know Charleston well.


I think I’ll always be a settings-based writer. I want to brush my palm against the trunk of a live oak, to feel the particular weight of humidity that’s only experienced on the High Battery, and to study the change in light against the stucco row houses.


This is how I like to observe the world around me, and I think readers enjoy seeing the world I created through this perspective.


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


A: Originally, the title was Zinnias. My grandmother planted zinnias, and so does the grandmother character in the book.


These cheery blossoms show up throughout the novel. They represent the bond between a young woman and her grandmother, and—in a larger context—the flowers serve as a metaphor to how we fit into society.


My editor said that if we kept the title Zinnias, people would think it’s a gardening book. I thought she had a good point. We settled on In Polite Company, which does capture the essence of my book more fully.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am having a great time working on my second book, which is based on a barrier island just off the coast of Charleston.


The setting is an aging manor, and at the start of the story, the matriarch surprises the family by announcing she plans to sell the house. The story also takes readers downtown to Rainbow Row and even on the campus of The Citadel (where I used to teach).


I like to think this novel is sexy, sophisticated, and fun.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I have been incredibly lucky to have been mentored by New York Times bestselling author Mary Alice Monroe. She encouraged me to focus on the relationship of Simons and her grandmother, which, for the majority of readers, is the most meaningful relationship in the book.


Mary Alice continues to mentor me on the business side of author life, which is demanding and complex. I am very grateful for her guidance. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Rick Lenz




Rick Lenz is the author of the new novel Hello, Rest of My Life. His other books include the memoir North of Hollywood. He spent many years as a stage and film actor, and is also a playwright. He lives in Los Angeles.


Q: What inspired you to write Hello, Rest of My Life, and how did you create your characters Danny and Samantha?


A: I have had two totally involving passions, one is my love of acting (and part of any success in that world is living in an ever-competitive arena). My other passion is my love for my wife Linda, whom I didn’t meet until I was 40, when most of my acting success was behind me.


My two passions never significantly intersected in sequential time. I realized that if I could bring those passions into the same moment, one of them would probably take second place to the other, and if that runner-up was now in the same time as the other passion, which of the two would it be … I had the meat of my story.


Danny has to make a choice between acting success and life with his wife Samantha. He can’t have both.


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 love improv. I also love a story that ends in a way that when readers finish the book, they realize it always had to end that way. The trick is to give them the “It- had-to-end-this-way satisfaction,” while at the same time keeping the improv ball up in the air as the story unfolds.


With Hello, Rest of My Life these things came together in an organic way I can’t explain, but that gave me the greatest feeling of accomplishment I’ve ever had as a writer.


Q: The writer Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey said of the book, "At the heart of this time-travel adventure is a golden age love story that glows with life-tested wisdom." What do you think of that description?


A: I think it’s perfect. I love it. I’m grateful she said that.


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


A: That truth (love, peace, kindness; everything good) knows sequence, but not time, and that time perception is in no way related to the physical senses, but is a contrivance of humankind.


No two brains form the same synaptic connections and therefore no two brains register what we call time in the same manner. Quantum mechanics has it that no two humans register anything in the same manner. Stories, however, bring us together, help us feel others’ point of view.


I’d like the reader to feel it as Danny says, “When I look at Sam now, I know a kid might call her an old lady, but I see everything about her and it is nothing less than perfect.”


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on a novel, the protagonist of which is a beautiful and charming full-figured, plus-size, young woman, named Comfort. She lives in a culture of preconceptions about how people are supposed to look.


Six lines of dialogue between Comfort and a therapist:

Therapist: “Do you mind it that you’re fat?”

Comfort: “No, do you mind it that you’re rude?”

Therapist: “Do you think I’m rude?”

Comfort: “Yeah, I’m pretty sure of it.”

Therapist: “You should know that therapy isn’t about good or bad manners.”

Comfort: “What are the rules about kindness?”


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: At the risk of repeating myself, some people wonder why I quit acting to write.


The short answer is that acting roles—other than on stage, spending weeks and months away from home—became less and less gratifying as I moved into character man territory.


Since I’d always been a writer as well (mostly plays), I began experimenting with novels and discovered I liked writing stories that excited me and gave me the satisfaction of guiding my own ship more than playing roles that gave me limited challenge and joy.


I truly haven’t looked back. If someone offered me a meaty film role, I’d certainly give it a lot of thought, but it would take a wonderful project or role to tempt me away from my “second half” passion: writing novels.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Jane Elizabeth Hughes




Jane Elizabeth Hughes is the author of the new novel The Long-Lost Jules. She also has written the novel Nannyland. She is a professor at Simmons College School of Business in Boston, and she lives on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.


Q: What inspired you to write The Long-Lost Jules, and how did you create your characters?


A: Like Leo in The Long-Lost Jules, I’ve always been fascinated by the Tudor Queens.


When I built sandcastles on the beach, I wasn’t just building any sandcastle; I was building the Tower of London and Hampton Court, with the doomed Katherine Howard (Henry VIII’s fifth wife) running frantically through its halls (yes, I was that nerdy).


I’m proud to say that I share a birthday with Queen Elizabeth I, who once sent her troops off to battle by saying, “I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too.” Wow! Women’s empowerment in the 16th century!


So when I started writing novels, of course I wanted to weave the story of these queens into my contemporary fiction. My first novel, Nannyland, (Simon & Schuster, 2016) incorporated a plot about the mystery surrounding my namesake, Lady Jane Grey – queen for nine days in the 16th century.


My inspiration for Jules sprang from a biography of Katherine Parr (Henry VIII’s sixth wife) a few years ago.  


[Katherine died, leaving a baby, Mary, who was assumed to have died at a later point.] I had to figure out who would be involved in unraveling the fate of Katherine’s lost baby. Who are they? Why do they care so much about one tiny infant who died hundreds of years ago? What inspires them?


Before I do any writing or outlining, I always start with character sketches, which help me really get to know my characters – where they grew up and went to school, what books and movies they like, how they got along with their parents and siblings, and much much more.


A lot of this info will never make it into the book; it’s just the foundation for my character-building.


So Leo had to be a historian – he just had to be – because who else is so fascinated in this old mystery? And Amy had to be every bit as un-interested as Leo is interested; a book needs conflict to survive, after all.


Then I dig into my memories and observations to round out the characters. In fact, everything that I do informs my writing and my characters. Sometimes it might be a stranger on a train; sometimes it might be a chance remark by a friend or colleague – but lots of my observations and experiences creep into my books.

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


A: Yes, and yes! Being a hopeless Tudor nerd, as I’ve already confessed, I already knew quite a bit about Henry VIII and his six wives.


I knew that Katherine Parr was the one who survived him, only to marry the dashing Tom Seymour with indecent haste after Henry finally went to his reward in the sky (or elsewhere?).


I knew that poor Katherine died of “childbed fever,” and Tom was executed, basically for being idiotically ambitious, just a few months later. But I never thought about what happened to their baby until I read that biography.


So I had to really dig into Katherine and Tom and little Lady Mary Seymour. And that’s where the surprises started.


I never knew that baby Mary went to Katherine’s best friend – another Katherine, the Duchess of Suffolk. I never knew that the Duchess resented the baby, and wrote spiteful letters demanding more money to raise this royal infant. And I certainly never knew that the baby then disappeared from history!


I have one vital rule for writing about historical mysteries, and that’s that I don’t want my imagination to contradict known facts.


I refused to invent a fate for Lady Mary that would have been impossible; she couldn’t have been raised by Thomas Seymour, for example, since he died when she was just seven months old.


She also couldn’t have been raised in a royal court, since she was the daughter of an ex-Queen, not a monarch of the blood royal. So what could have happened to her…?


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


A: No, and a thousand times yes. I had an ending in mind for Amy and Leo, and I knew where the historical mystery of Lady Mary Seymour would go, but other than that I’d have to say that the ending evolved rather…organically.


After my character sketches are done, I start to outline obsessively [But things sometimes change.] For example, I realized when I was deep into the book that there was no climax; no scene where everything comes together and all secrets are revealed.


I despaired for a week or so, but then a former banking colleague told me about her invitation to a client’s yacht in Greece – and the Riviera yacht scene was born.


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


A: I want them to sigh with pleasure at the end. I never wanted to read (or write) the Great American Novel; I want to write books that I would love to curl up with.


And I’d love for my readers to take away a healthy curiosity about the Tudor Queens. I’d love to think of them picking up other books about Katherine Parr, or Katherine Willoughby, or Lady Jane Grey – and acquiring my and Leo’s obsession with the amazing women of this era!


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m always working on the next book while thinking about the one after that. My next novel, The Spy’s Wife, will be published in June 2022! After that…I’m still “ideating.”


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I mentioned that Amy has a little of me in her, as do most of my heroines.


When I was writing Jules, I started thinking a lot about father-daughter relationships, including mine. My own father was brilliant but deeply flawed, and I grew up resenting and fearing him much of the time.


Now that he’s gone, though, I’ve been reflecting on how vulnerable he was, and how little I understood him. That leaked into Amy’s relationship with her own dead father, in reverse: She idolized him during his life, and only belatedly came to realize that she should, perhaps, have been frightened of him.


So the book is, to some extent, about how we as adults come to re-imagine and re-evaluate our family relationships, often with surprising results.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 30



Sept. 30, 1928: Elie Wiesel born.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Q&A with Thor Hanson



Photo by Kathleen Ballard Photography


Thor Hanson is the author of the new book Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid: The Fraught and Fascinating Biology of Climate Change. His other books include The Triumph of Seeds. A conservation biologist, he lives in Washington state.


Q: What inspired you to write Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid?


A: The iconic image of a polar bear stranded on a shrinking iceberg has become shorthand for how climate change impacts plants and animals. In a sense, you could say I wrote this book to get beyond the polar bear!


I wanted to explore the flood of fascinating studies showing how species of all kinds are doing everything they can to cope - moving, adapting, even evolving in ways we can observe and measure.


Researching this book convinced me that curiosity is a powerful and necessary tool in the effort to combat climate change. After all, it’s hard to solve a problem if you aren’t even interested in it.


Q: In the book, you write, "When faced with a climate challenge, species don't simply give up--they do all that they can to adjust." What are some examples that particularly struck you in terms of species' adjustments to climate change?


A: Story after story boils down to flexibility. The species that can adjust and improvise have a real advantage over those with only one way of doing things.


I’ve been inspired by rapid, climate-driven changes in feeding habits for everything from tiny arctic seabirds to the brown bears of Alaska’s Kodiak Island.

I’m amazed at how butterfly fish on coral reefs can fundamentally change their behavior, switching overnight from aggressive and territorial to meek and passive depending on the health of the corals they feed upon.


And simply the number of species on the move is astounding. Over 30,000 range shifts have already been recorded, for everything from birds and whales to things we normally think of as stationary - barnacles, trees, mushrooms, and more.


Some stories are alarming, and some situations dire, but never do we find nature standing by. The biology of the climate crisis is dynamic, fascinating, and always active.


Q: What do you think humans can learn from other species about how to handle changes in our climate, and what do you see looking ahead?


A: Understanding the biology of climate change does not make scientists worry less about the crisis, but it does help us to worry smart.


Resources for research, policy, and conservation are all scarce, so it’s vital that we know which species are more resilient to rapid change, and which are most at risk. Emotional capital is also limited; we also benefit at a personal level when we know where to focus our concern.  


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


A: The title was chosen to evoke two compelling stories from the book that really capture the breadth and speed of nature’s response to climate change.


The “hurricane lizards” are a species native to islands in the Caribbean that have evolved larger toe pads and stronger front legs to hold on to branches during strong hurricanes. And biologists measured a significant step in that change during a single field season - survival of the fittest in action!


“Plastic squid” refers to the Humboldt squid population in the Gulf of California that utterly transformed their lifestyle to cope during marine heat waves - eating different foods, maturing twice as fast, living half as long, and reaching only half their former size.


All of those changes happened immediately, an inherent flexibility to change their habits and bodies that biologists refer to as “plasticity."

Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m hard at work on a new book, and also making an ongoing series of ultra short (<1 minute) natural history films for the PBS show Nature to share with their large social media following.

Q: Anything else we should know?


A: We should emulate wild species and start doing everything we can to combat climate change. If lizards can evolve and squid can transform their bodies in response to this crisis, then it stands to reason that we can change the behaviors that are bringing it about.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Thor Hanson.

Q&A with Howard Mortman




Howard Mortman is the author of the book When Rabbis Bless Congress: The Great American Story of Jewish Prayers on Capitol Hill. He is communications director for C-SPAN, and has worked for MSNBC and National Journal's Hotline.


Q: What inspired you to write When Rabbis Bless Congress?


A: A book about rabbis who pray in Congress is a niche market! The book is very much inspired by my work at C-SPAN. I’m the PR guy for C-SPAN, and I watch a lot of C-SPAN and Congress.


The first thing Congress does is they pray, even before the Pledge of Allegiance. I was very curious about that. The prayer looks like nothing else they do during the day, and I was intrigued by that concept.


The prayer is done by the official chaplain in the House and the Senate, which are taxpayer-paid positions. On occasion, the official chaplain is not there so a guest chaplain fills in; they’re not available, or they want to show diversity.


I was curious about the diversity of religious representation. On a small number of occasions, a rabbi has been the guest chaplain. Being Jewish, my antenna came up. It’s hardly every day, maybe about seven times a year since World War II.


I was curious about how many rabbis have done this, and what they said. I created a database of every rabbi who prayed in Congress, and what he or she said.


Q: How did you track down the information?


A: You can’t Google “rabbis praying in Congress”; nothing will come up. I used two resources. One was our C-SPAN library, which began in ’79, when the U.S. House started on TV. In 1986, the U.S. Senate went on TV. I was good to the mid-‘80s, but before that there was no video.


So it involved going through every Congressional Record to the late 19th century, every prayer and if it was given by a rabbi.


Q: The first rabbi to deliver an invocation before Congress was Morris Raphall, in 1860. What were the circumstances under which this occurred?


A: That first rabbi, Rabbi Morris Raphall, was born in Sweden and emigrated to New York. The invocation was in February 1860. James Buchanan was president. There are Morris Raphall scholars, and one description I saw said he was a “celebrity rabbi.” He was a big name in the 1860s.


It was the eve of the Civil War, and in his prayer he talks about brethren dwelling in unity. The Union was about to be torn apart.


What was the reaction? Bewilderment. Some contemporaneous descriptions had members of Congress befuddled. It was a shock to the system. It was on the front page of The New York Times.


Q: Was he the first non-Christian member of the clergy to give a prayer?


A: I think he was. I didn’t find evidence of anybody else.


Q: Of the various rabbis you write about, did any other ones particularly stand out?


A: The prayers that intrigued me most were the ones that were reflective of American history. Rabbis who prayed around the time of the Vietnam War—their language reflected the bravado of the early days of the war, and then in later years, it was, “Let’s bring the boys home.” There were prayers involving the space program, and the struggle for civil rights.


Plus, there were rabbis who incorporated the Hebrew scriptures and made them applicable to Congress.


And there were some whose own stories were interesting—there were Holocaust survivors and famous rabbis like Rabbi Leo Baeck and Rabbi Joachim Prinz. There were many military chaplains.


Q: When did the first woman rabbi pray in Congress?


A: In 1973, Rabbi Sally Priesand was the first. Thirteen women rabbis have prayed 14 times. Rabbi Hannah Spiro, a Reconstructionist rabbi, prayed twice.


Sally Priesand was the first woman ordained rabbi in America. It makes sense she’d be the first in Congress. Her prayer in October ’73 coincided with the day the House voted to proceed with the impeachment proceedings against Nixon.


She never mentioned she was the first woman, but the congressperson who supported her was Bella Abzug, who multiple times said, Here’s the first woman rabbi praying before Congress.


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


A: I’m Jewish and it’s about rabbis, but I don’t want the takeaway to be that this is a Jewish book. I want it to appeal to lovers of congressional history.


The topic of prayer in Congress is an unexplored area. A lot of people are puzzled, and say, “I didn’t know you pray in Congress.” I hope it appeals to people who love new things to learn, about the intersection of politics and religion.


The book is not intended to be against the practice, but it is an excavation of history. If you don’t like mixing religion and politics, which is a legitimate position, I want you to see this history.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I want to get across that people should not be scared of the topic. You don’t have to be Jewish. And you can be skeptical of prayers in Congress.


I’ve made great friendships with rabbis who have prayed, with chaplains. I have great respect for people of the cloth. As a lover of history, there’s so much to learn, and please be interested in this topic as well. And it makes a wonderful Chanukah gift!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Linda C. Wisniewski




Linda C. Wisniewski is the author of the new novel Where the Stork Flies. She also has written the memoir Off Kilter, and is a former librarian and journalist. She lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.


Q: What inspired you to write Where the Stork Flies, and how did you create your cast of characters?


A: Seeing my father's family tree at a reunion years ago, I was attracted to the entry for my oldest ancestor, a woman named Regina, who was born in 1778 in what was then the Austrian Empire.


My cousins and I were fascinated, and we got to talking about what kind of woman she might have been and what she might think of our lives today. I did some research in genealogy but found nothing more than her dates, and the names and dates of her husband and children.


This is often all we have to go on. We don't find out if our ancestors were naughty or nice, brave or scaredy cats. I wanted to know! So I decided to imagine what Regina might be like.


Her character in the novel - also called Regina - is very much like my maternal grandmother. All my ancestors were from Eastern Europe, in what is now Poland, and so I wanted to delve into that heritage.


Aniela, the translator, is named after my paternal grandmother, and is modeled after women who take their station in life very seriously. Kat, the POV character, is a composite of many women I know, myself included.


The other characters were created to put obstacles in the way of these three women or to move them closer to their goals. Drawing them was probably the most fun about writing the novel!


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


A: The stork is an important figure in Polish folklore, said to bring good luck, especially if it builds a nest on top of your house. They spend early spring to late summer in Poland, and fall and winter in North Africa.


When they fly north in flocks of thousands in the spring, there is much joy on Polish social media with lots of photos. It reminded me of Californians welcoming the swallows back to Capistrano.


My husband and I fell in love with these huge birds on a trip to Poland and were amazed at the size of their nests atop Soviet-era concrete telephone poles.


Poland, the land of my ancestors, is the land where the stork flies, so I chose the title as a nod to that and to the appearance of a stork in the novel as a guide for Kat. 


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


A: Yes, I did! I knew about the language and culture from my family and early childhood in a Polish parochial school, but I didn't know much about 19th century life.


What surprised me but probably shouldn't have is that very little is written about the peasant class my people - and Regina - came from. History is the story of nobles, rulers, warriors, and people famous in the arts.


Lucky for me, my training as a librarian helped me know where to start looking. A librarian in Poland answered some questions via email about the village where Regina lived.


And my husband and I traveled there with Road Scholars, a wonderful organization that uses local guides who were very knowledgeable and answered many more questions.


We visited a skansen, or outdoor museum, that recreated a small village from the 1800s. There I was able to see - and take photos - of what Regina's house would have been like, the clothes people wore, the foods they ate, the tools they used, and more. 


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


A: Many American women of my generation, who experienced the second wave of feminism in the 1970s, thought that "having it all" meant we had to do it all! We can sometimes be overwhelmed, like Kat, by the wide array of choices available to us.


I want readers to see that it's possible to create a good life even if our choices, like Regina's, are severely limited. All we really need are the love and support of good friends we can rely on, a strong faith in something greater than ourselves, and unconditional love for our family members and ourselves. 


I also hope readers enjoy learning about some of the beautiful Polish traditions that survived over the centuries and come away wanting to discover more about their own heritage.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: More adventures from Regina's and Aniela's points of view. An early draft of Where the Stork Flies had three main characters: Kat, Regina, and Aniela. But an agent advised me it would be a stronger book if I wrote a trilogy instead, with each book told from the point of view of one of them. 


Since my first published book, Off Kilter, was a memoir, and I teach memoir workshops, I thought it would be easier to write using those skills, as if it was Aniela's memoir. My working title was Memoirs of the Queen of Poland


But it wasn't quite so easy to switch to fiction! Plus, Kat had so much to deal with I quickly decided it had to be her story. I'm happy I started with her, and introduced readers to the land Where the Stork Flies.  


I have a very rough draft of the second book, from Regina's point of view, and the third will be Aniela's turn. All will include time travel, magical realism and Polish folklore. And more gentle let's-not-take-ourselves-too-seriously humor. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Besides memoir and fiction, I like to write personal essays, also called creative nonfiction, and I've had some success publishing them in literary journals. I've even written (not for public consumption!) some poetry.


The best part about writing, no matter the topic, is hearing from readers who have been touched by my words. It can be a lonely job, typing away in my home office, so any comments, reviews, or messages from people who take the time out of their busy lives to let me know how they connected to my work are a gift.


This opportunity from you to share my story is another gift, Deborah, and I'm very grateful. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 29


Sept. 29, 1810: Elizabeth Gaskell born.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Q&A with Pamela Seelig




Pamela Seelig is the author of the new book Threads of Yoga: Themes, Reflections, and Meditations to Weave Into Your Practice. She owned a yoga studio for nine years, and teaches yoga workshops. She lives in New Jersey.


Q: What inspired you to write Threads of Yoga?


A: After practicing yoga for a few years, I learned about Patanjalis Yoga Sutras. I was stunned and fascinated by the enduring quality of this 2,500-year-old foundational yogic text. While I loved the physical practice of yoga, I was increasingly interested in the deeper wisdom teachings.


After becoming an instructor, I strived to bring more of these philosophical teachings into my classes but found this is not so easy. I searched for books to help but was unable to locate what I was looking for.


So, I decided to write Threads of Yoga for both students and teachers interested in the deeper teachings and how to weave this wisdom into yoga practices, classes, and daily life.


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


A: Most people correctly perceive, and science is confirming, that yoga is highly beneficial for overall health. There are many studies now verifying the positive physical, mental, and emotional effects of yoga.


One of the biggest misconceptions about yoga is that it is a purely physical practice. The asanas, or physical poses, are brilliant, but yoga is so much more.


According to Patanjalis Yoga Sutras, yoga is the quieting of the mind. When we quiet our chattering minds, we can perceive reality more clearly and see who we truly are.


Yoga provides a map back to our true selves or directs us toward self-realization. While most people roll out their mats to get in shape or reduce stress, there is also potential for profound transformation.

Other common misconceptions regarding yoga are that you need to be flexible to take a class or that you need to look a certain way to fit in. 


Unfortunately, these false ideas can stop many from starting a practice and cause them to miss out on the many benefits of yoga. 


Yoga is not just for the fit or flexible, but for anyone and everyone. Finding the appropriate venue, style, or teacher may take a bit of exploring, but thankfully there are so many online options now that its possible to find yoga without ever leaving your home.


However, finding an in-person yoga community to practice with when the time is right is well worth it.


Q: What would you say to encourage people who haven’t practiced yoga to take it up?


A: Yoga is a 5,000-year-old vast system of holistic health that has stood the test of time.


At the same time, modern mainstream science has now verified and continues to discover additional benefits of yoga. Not only are the physical postures beneficial in many ways, but other key aspects of yoga, such as meditation and breathwork, are potent ways to positively affect health and longevity.


Yoga reduces stress, builds strength and flexibility, and increases immunity. However, this is not why the ancients dedicated their lives to the study of yoga. It is also a system of expanding ones awareness and affects the more subtle aspects of our being that cannot be measured scientifically.


As we expand our awareness, the benefits are limitless. Yoga is an incredible gift to us from the ancient past.


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


A: I hope that readers are inspired to begin a yoga practice or, if they have a practice, learn more about the wisdom teachings beyond the physical poses (asanas).


The world is changing so quickly that we can easily lose our footing and forget who we are and how to live a healthy and joyful life. Yoga offers many techniques and tools to help us get back on the path to balance.


Ultimately, yoga guides us to accept ourselves and understand the depth of our being. I hope that readers practice yoga to bring more of who they are into our world. Thats what the world needs right now.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Currently, I teach an online Introduction To Meditation course for those who want to get started and establish a home meditation practice. In addition, I continue to share yoga through classes, workshops, and writing.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Im very grateful to my readers and for your interest!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Jean Meltzer



Photo by Lisa Damico


Jean Meltzer is the author of the new novel The Matzah Ball. A former rabbinical student and children's television producer, she lives in Virginia.


Q: How did you create your character Rachel?


A: Rachel is a character crafted after myself. I’m Jewish, a writer, and chronically ill, having been sick with ME/CFS (myalgic encephalomyelitis/ chronic fatigue syndrome) since a freshman at college.


Though my father is not a rabbi, I spent five years in rabbinical school, so I have the benefit of an insider’s view of life in the clergy and what it means to be a “professional Jew.” It felt really natural to write Rachel because I was truly writing from my own background, memories, and experiences.


Q: What do you think the novel says about the celebration of Christmas and Hanukkah?


A: One of the jokes of the book is that Hanukkah is not Christmas. For Jews, Hanukkah is a minor holiday. But because of its prominence in our society, I think Christmas is a time of the year where many non-Christmas-celebrators feel left out.


My book isn’t actually trying to say anything about Christmas. But I am hoping to make space for more non-Christmas-centered stories on the shelves. A good place to start with that was Hanukkah.

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


A: I always know how my book will end before I start writing it. I’m a firm believer in outlining, and I love a well-crafted tale that builds to a big and swoony ending.


It’s one of my favorite things about storytelling—the hero’s journey and the three-act structure—and I always write wanting my readers to experience that same takeaway.


Q: So what else do you hope readers take away from the story?


A: Aside from just having a rip-roaring good time, I hope my readers learn something, too. Whether about Judaism, ME/CFS, or themselves, I hope they find that their time with my book was well spent.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on my second book, Mr. Perfect on Paper. I describe it simply by calling it an interfaith romance. But really, to quote a Yiddishism here, it’s about how “Man plans and God laughs.”


Like all my books, it will tackle some difficult topics. Once again, it is based on my real life. I was a rabbinical student, and deeply committed to my Judaism, when I fell in love with a man who was not Jewish.


Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I love hearing from readers. So please, don’t be shy! Feel free to connect with me on Instagram (@JeanMeltzer), Facebook (JeanMeltzerAuthor), or via my website,


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 28



Sept. 28, 1856: Kate Douglas Wiggin born.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Q&A with Savannah Johnston




Savannah Johnston is the author of the new story collection Rites. Her work has appearead in a variety of publications, including Gulf Coast. An enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, she lives in New York City.


Q: Over how long a period did you write the stories collected in Rites?


A: I started writing most of these stories in 2013, just as I was beginning graduate school. Over about three years I wrote and rewrote the bulk of them, but I finished "Rites" way back in about 2011 or 2012, and it is still one of my favorites in the collection. 


Q: The writer Dima Alzayat says of the book, "Savannah Johnston offers us characters neglected, marginalized, hurt and hurting others, with brutal honesty and intensity that's nuanced and unsentimental." What do you think of that description?


A: I am actually flattered by this description. My characters are largely drawn from people I grew up surrounded by, some of my own experiences, and the experiences of those in my community, and I believe it is important to center those stories.


I think it is incredibly difficult to be a person operating in a system designed for your extermination at worst or that deems you irrelevant at best, and I think my stories speak to that experience without delving into "poverty porn" or the exploitation of these real traumas.


As the old cliche goes, bad things happen to good people, and sometimes the best one can do is persevere, resist, and survive. 


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


A: I love a collection that starts and ends with a bang, which informed how I structured the book, but at the same time, I wanted to give readers a varied experience.


The stories all take place in roughly the same area and some characters reoccur, but I wanted to place the stories in such a way that didn't over-emphasize the through line. Especially with the opening and closing stories, I wanted to show families that persist in the face of tragedy, however difficult that may be. 


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


A: As I mentioned, the story is among my favorites in the collection, which is why I chose it as the title of the collection. It centers around an Indigenous family mourning the unexpected loss of their patriarch.


Like all fiction, the story has some truth to it in the way my own family mourned when my grandfather(s) died, and I think the rituals we attach to mourning (and celebrating the dead) are especially important to our identities within our Indigenous communities and beyond. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I'm currently working on a novel, which I hope to finish by the end of the year. Like so many people during the pandemic, my best friend and I are mulling starting a pop culture podcast. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Ann Slayton




Ann Slayton is the author of the new book Accidental Grace: Selected Poems & Prose. Her other books include Catching the Light. She is a founder of the Washington Women's Arts Center, and she lives in Takoma Park, Maryland.


Q: Over how long a period did you write the poems and other pieces in Accidental Grace?


A: A number of these poems were first published in my two chapbooks, The Music Beginning Here (1984) and Catching the Light (2001). The prose pieces and some of the narrative poems are more recent. 


In considering the poems for Accidental Grace, my first full-length book, I’ve revised some of the original versions, paying attention to such things as pacing of the lines and cadences.


I’ve also done a certain amount of decluttering, for instance, of adjectives, wordiness, and unnecessary commas, which can slow down the lines and interfere with the flow of the poem.  


Q: How did you decide on the order in which the pieces would appear in the collection?


A: While I’ve written poems in the first person “I”—particularly the early poems—many of the poems in Accidental Grace take on different voices, fictional and nonfictional; some imaginary, some that speak from my family history, some from literary and historical figures.


I wanted to find an order for the book in which all could live together harmoniously, and the book would be cohesive. The challenge arose not just with work done over many years, but was complicated by including prose pieces.


By dividing the book into sections, the reader has a place to pause, like an intermission between pieces of quite different tones. For example, the prose piece “Nothing Again is Happening,” a dialogue between the narrator’s two selves, foreshadows the different tonal elements in the poems that follow.


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


A: Years ago in first reading William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” I was struck by his words “accidental grace” in a stanza that serves as epigraph to the poem.


Immediately a contemporary interpretation struck me: that while Nature in its great power of bringing forth and nurturing growth was a female force, Man, an “accidental grace/ His hour being not yet come,” can be interpreted differently today.


In my view, “Man” applies more literally to men, not to the categorically “human,” i.e. men and women, as was Wordsworth’s intended meaning, and customary in the language until very recently.


What this distinction signifies to me is that we are on the cusp of a radical, perhaps evolutionary, revisioning of values and power, one that brings the particular qualities associated with the female into the center of our social, political, and psychological worlds.


Many of the poems in Accidental Grace imply this ascendance. In choosing "accidental grace" for the book's title, I understood that the words can easily characterize acts of profound change as well as acts of imagination, essential to all human creativity. And of course for me, the poems themselves are an accidental grace.


Q: How did you choose the various people and entities that you feature in your work, including poet Anne Bradstreet and the daughter of The Scarlet Letter's Hester Prynne?


A: I have always been drawn to accounts—actual and fictional—of female courage, especially stories that have emerged from our country’s early history.


Hester Prynne of Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter is a woman who with enormous dignity walks a fine line between the villagers’ admiration and revilement for having given birth to a daughter out-of-wedlock.


The bond between Hester and her daughter Pearl is understandably intense, and in my poem, “The Spell,” the minister’s momentary usurpation of that bond I imagined could have a lasting impact on Pearl.


I have also been drawn to accounts of “firsts,” and Anne Bradstreet was the first female poet from the American colony whose work was published, albeit in England. I first became aware of this through John Berryman’s long poem, “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet.”


A: In some of my works, I have tended to personalize these accounts of courageous women in our early history, as my own family history in America dates back almost to their times in the mid-17th century, and I have imagined how the ordinary, difficult lives of my ancestors must have taken much courage.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have a collection of about a dozen prose pieces called “Wandering Women” which I started writing on a solo trip out West. I encountered numerous women on their own and their stories of their lives were as disparate, heartwarming, fearsome, courageous, and troubling as any I have imagined. This is still a work in progress.


I have also taken to watercolor painting in the last 10 years—in some respects, a respite from words!—and with the particular pleasure of gathering weekly during summers in Northern Vermont with other artists to paint, draw, and discuss our work.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’ll mention that you can read a few of the poems in Accidental Grace on the Dryad Press website:


--Interview with Deborah Kalb