Saturday, October 16, 2021

Q&A with Susan Page

 

 


 

Susan Page is the author of the new biography Madam Speaker: Nancy Pelosi and the Lessons of Power. Page also has written The Matriarch: Barbara Bush and the Making of an American Dynasty. She is the Washington bureau chief of USA Today, and and she lives in Washington, D.C.

 

Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of Nancy Pelosi?

 

A: I was surprised that a solid, up-to-date biography of Nancy Pelosi hadn’t been written. And while everybody knows about her role as a groundbreaking woman – the most powerful woman in the history of the U.S. government – I thought that fact obscured others.

 

She’s not just the first woman to be Speaker of the House. She’s also the most consequential Speaker since the legendary Sam Rayburn. She’s one of the most effective legislative leaders we’ve ever had, male or female. That seemed worth exploring.

 

Q: In the Washington Post review of the book, Jill Filipovic writes, "Instead of offering an intimate look at Pelosi’s true self or even her motivations, Page approaches the speaker as a study in power. The result is a biography that doesn’t plumb the depths of Pelosi’s soul but does fully reckon with her as a history-changing force — it’s a kind of Great Woman biography in the style usually reserved for great men." What do you think of that description of your approach?

 

A: That was my favorite review of the book! I researched and wrote about Pelosi as a human being with a rich personal life, including raising five children as an (almost) stay-at-home mother.

 

But it was her comfort and skills with power – gaining power, wielding power, and holding on to power – that forms the spine of this biography. She is as comfortable with power as any public official I’ve ever covered.

 

I concluded that was in part because she was born into a household in which power was like running water and electricity. Her dad was the Tommy the Elder D’Alesandro, the legendary three-term mayor of Baltimore.

 

Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Pelosi and Trump?

 

A: Toxic. Contemptuous. Explosive. She impeached him – twice! There has never been a relationship so broken between a president and House speaker in our history.

 

Q: As you researched the book, did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

 

A: Pelosi’s amazing mother, Big Nancy D’Alesandro. She was smart, ambitious, restless, indefatigable. She helped forge and drive her husband’s political machine, but she always wanted to be a lawyer, an aspiration she never achieved.

 

She was a woman ahead of her times. Pelosi told me that, if her mother were born today, she would be president of the United States.

 

She invented a facial machine, patented it, had it manufactured and sold it. (My son Bill found one of them for sale on eBay and bought it for my birthday. It still worked.)

 

She loved risk. She played the ponies at Pimlico. Sometimes her husband, the mayor, would go to Sabatini’s Restaurant in Little Italy and pay off her debts with the bookies who held court there.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’ve signed a contract with Simon & Schuster to write a biography of another formidable woman, Barbara Walters. So I’m definitely in the market for Barbara Walters anecdotes!

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: Nancy Pelosi is now in the middle of what may be her toughest battle ever, to win passage of President Biden’s infrastructure bill and that huge reconciliation bill.

 

She’s won fights like this before, notably President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. But then she could afford to lose 39 House Democrats and still carry a party-line vote. This time? She can lose only three.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Timothy Cotton

 


 

Timothy Cotton is the author of the new book Got Warrants?: Dispatches from the Dooryard. He also has written the book The Detective in the Dooryard. He has been a police officer for more than three decades, and has written the "Got Warrants" posts for the Bangor, Maine, Police Department.

 

Q: What was the origin of the "Got Warrants?" posts?

 

A: The original "Got Warrants?" posts came to be on Facebook at the Bangor Maine Police Department Page. Updating the page became part of my job assignment in 2014 when I became the public information officer.

 

The feature really was a modern-day homage to the police beat columns that I read in daily papers when I was growing up in the ‘70s. I changed the tone of the reports by writing them with mildly sarcastic commentary intertwined with the story.

 

They became very popular, to the point where I began to write three new pieces every Wednesday.

 

Many departments were writing about warrant arrests that their officers were involved in, but ours was a little more in depth. Hyperbole was utilized, and sometimes musical references, comparisons to films, and really just a humorous take for folks to enjoy with coffee early in the morning.

 

In my first book, The Detective in the Dooryard, we included a long chapter of some of what we considered the best (or at least the most fun) of Got Warrants. My editor, Michael Steere, from Down East Books really pushed me to do an entire book of—mostly—new pieces. It took a while for me to sign on with the idea, but we did it.

 

We are happy with the book. I hope to see it on the toilet tanks in many homes across the world. The cover is mildly water-resistant, so that’s a win. 

 

Q: How did you choose the reports to include in the book?


A: As the PIO, my job was to read every report, every day. Later, as the lieutenant in the Detective Division, I still read all the reports every day.

 

Most police reports are not newsworthy, but they are all interesting in their own way. So much bizarre behavior needs to be shared with the citizenry. We didn’t share names, or specific locations in the column, just the details (with some spice) so that folks could have an idea of what cops deal with on a shift.

 

The dealings rarely make the news, and this was a funny way to put it in the spotlight. I selected my favorites, wrote about them, and it’s really that simple. 

 

Q: You write, "By the time you read this, there is a chance that I am no longer employed in the field of law enforcement..." Are you still a police officer at this point, and what might you want to do next?

 

A: Yes, I am still a cop. I was under the impression that I would be able to retire around November of this year, but it turned out not to be the case. I should have paid more attention. The stock market in 2008 had a lot to do with me still being here. So, I’ll be a here a bit longer, but not much.

 

In the future, without the having my wardrobe picked for me, I will probably just write, and pick up odd jobs.

 

My blog page, TimCottonWrites.com, has been a lot of fun, and that’s where I do most of my long-form daily writing now. We have about 15,000 subscribers to our “Newslog” (reads like a blog, but you get it sent directly to your email). I do at least one column each week.  

 

I still have two books to be completed under this contract with Down East Books. One will be a fiction. I’ve offered to write self-help books, but I’ve had no takers. I will publish one per year for 2022 and 2023.

 

After that, I expect to be discarded into a pile of former writers. Who knows? If the good folks who read will buy my books, maybe someone will hire me to write a few more. I remain pessimistic about it. 

 

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

 

A: I hope they read it and find a few stories that make them laugh. Seriously, I am not trying to change the world. I’ve tried that for the last 33 years as a cop. I’ve come to the conclusion that my impact has been minimal.

 

I do know that laughing makes me feel better, and I hope that I’m able to help a few other people do just that. If the last year has taught us anything, it is that we need something to do at home other than doom-scrolling and watching the next big problem develop in the world. I think this book will be a nice break from all of that. 

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I have a Facebook page @TimCottonWrites. We have about 64,000 followers. I write a few things there every week. We would love to have more folks come and enjoy it. It’s a great group.

 

Look for my books, even if you have to ask them to bring them out of the boxes in the back of the store; bookstore employees are kind. I appreciate the chance to answer a few questions.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Jennifer Sattler

 

 


 

Jennifer Sattler is the author and illustrator of the new children's picture book Rock and Vole. Her many other books include One Red Sock. She lives in upstate New York.

 

Q: What inspired you to write Rock and Vole?

 

A: I really wanted to write a book where one of the characters was the landscape. I love the idea that when you have a character that doesn’t talk or feel or move that it’s the other character’s relationship with it that forms its personality.


This seemed to fit well with what’s been going on with the pandemic. It ruined so much, changed all of our plans without our permission! But being mad and frustrated doesn’t change how real it is.

Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, "Sattler’s expressive vole wears her heart on her sleeve, and watching her come to terms with reality is both instructive and delightful." What do you think of that description, and how did you create Vole's facial expressions?

 

A: I think, like all of my characters, Vole has the heart of a child. Her openness and vulnerability goes right along with that. So, I think all of my characters “wear their hearts on their sleeves.”

 

It’s a big reason why I love picture books. I’ve always been entranced by facial expressions. I think they’re capable of saying so much. I do a lot of making faces in the mirror to make sure my characters are saying what I want them to say.

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

 

A: I was a landscape painter for years. It wasn’t until I had kids of my own that I fell in love with picture books and what they could be. I wasn’t read to very much as a child. Though I always loved Dr. Seuss! I’ve been trying to act like an adult for a looooong time. Children’s books bring me to my true self. I am a pretty silly person.

 

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

 

A: Vole’s character expresses how I’ve felt throughout my life when something doesn’t go the way I planned and we’re living in a time when that’s happening to kids all the time.

 

Anger, disbelief and begging are completely normal reactions when some giant rock blocks you from everything you thought you wanted. But will it move the rock? Nope.

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’ve just started writing a chapter book series for second graders. It is SO much fun!!! I’ve always been interested in writing, but I was focused on being a painter.

 

When I went to college, the idea of art school was always tossed around. But I really wanted to go somewhere where I could take more writing classes. I went to UNH for undergraduate school and it was one of the best decisions I made.


Writing these chapter books has me completely obsessed!

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I’ve also been doing more board books as part of my Jennifer Sattler Board Books series with Sleeping Bear Press. I have one called Little Buckaroo and Lou that comes out in the spring. And don’t forget, Christmas is only a few months away and 12 Birdies of Christmas is available now!

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Jennifer Sattler.

Oct. 16

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY

Oct. 16, 1854: Oscar Wilde born.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Q&A with Tiffany Stone

 

 


 

Tiffany Stone is the author of the new children's picture book Little Narwhal, Not Alone. Her other books include Tallulah Plays the Tuba. She lives in Maple Ridge, British Columbia.

 

 

Q: How did you learn about the real-life story of a narwhal who ended up living with a group of beluga whales, and at what point did you decide to write this book?

 

A: The publisher at Greystone Kids had seen a video clip on the news of the narwhal swimming with the belugas and thought it was a fascinating story, one that would make a great kids’ book. The editor there contacted me to see if I would be interested.

 

My dad was a helicopter engineer and worked in the Arctic a lot when I was young. Because of this, I’ve always been intrigued by the North, so I immediately said yes to the chance to write about a narwhal!

 

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

 

A: I read and watched everything I could find online about this specific real-life story. The Marine Mammal Research and Education Group (GREMM) was a wonderful resource. They are the group that is tracking the narwhal.

 

You can find photos, details and even the video that inspired Little Narwhal, Not Alone here: Narwhal (Monodon monceros) - Baleines en direct

 

I also had a lot of help from marine biologist Dr Marie Noël, who specializes in northern marine mammals (and just happens to be my editor’s sister-in-law).


Narwhals live in an often-harsh environment, which makes it hard for researchers to study them, and, as a result, there isn’t a ton of information about them online. I was so fortunate to have my own private consultant!

 

The real-life story itself is pretty surprising. It’s not unusual for young narwhals to wander, but this particular narwhal had strayed more than 600 miles (1000 km.), too far for him to find his way back. Also, narwhals and belugas are distantly related, yet they don’t usually interact.

 

Something fun I learned that didn’t make it into the book is that both narwhals and belugas have nicknames. Narwhals are called “unicorns of the sea” because of their tusks (which are actually long teeth growing through their upper lips), and belugas are called “canaries of the sea” because of all the sounds they make.

 

Q: What do you think Ashlyn Anstee's illustrations add to the book?

 

A: I love Ashlyn’s illustrations! I think they are the perfect balance of beautiful and cute.

 

It must have been a daunting task for Ashlyn to illustrate a story that takes place mostly in water, in an environment filled with ice and snow, and yet her artwork is full of gorgeous colors.

 

I also love the sense of movement and of emotion. We know how the little narwhal is feeling without him being overly anthropomorphized. There is also a real sense of play, which is so important to this particular story.

 

Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says that "this rhyming story of a real-life friendship is compelling not only for its plot, but also for its underlying message about how diversity makes us stronger." What do you think of that assessment?

 

A: I’m pleased the reviewer sensed the broader messaging. I volunteer mentoring new immigrants to Canada and definitely felt that experience helped me better understand what the little narwhal goes through when he meets others who are both like and unlike him, that he can embrace their differences while also being “sure there’s something that they share” and eventually finding this connection.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: A collection of poems for Greystone Kids about super small animals that have amazing abilities (like real-life superpowers) because of or despite their tiny size. It’s due out in 2023.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I discovered that my marketing coordinator’s grandpa and my dad used to work together in the Arctic!

 

For updates on Little Narwhal, Not Alone and my other projects, you can follow me on Instagram @tiffanystonewriter. I also post photos of Banana the ball python, who inspired my picture book Knot Cannot, illustrated by Mike Lowery.

 

To get a peek inside all my books, including Little Narwhal, Not Alone, visit www.tiffanystone.ca.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Tiffany Stone.

Q&A with Farhad J. Dadyburjor

 

 


 

Farhad J. Dadyburjor is the author of the new novel The Other Man. He also has written the novel How I Got Lucky. A longtime entertainment and lifestyle journalist, he is based in Mumbai, India.

 

Q: What inspired you to write The Other Man, and how did you create your character Ved?

 

A: The genesis of the book was really this wonderful heartwarming story between two men of completely different ages, ethnicities, backgrounds – who are united by one thing: love. And how each helps the other to understand themselves better and live their truest life.

 

I felt it was important to give an international audience a ringside view of what it was like to be gay in India. Same-sex relationships were criminalized in India until three years ago, when the archaic Section 377 law was repealed on September 6, 2018, and this book holds as a celebration of that freedom to love who you choose.

 

In fact, as it turns out, it’s possibly the first gay romcom set in Mumbai to be published internally.

 

Ved, as a character, seems to have it all on the outside – rich, successful, good looking…like the perfect GQ man. And we often look at people like this on magazine covers and think they lead such a great life, not realising what’s really going on internally for them.

 

Ved, for all his stature and money, is miserable deep down inside from being a closeted gay man. It’s something that so many similar men face. And I wanted to bring about this dichotomy of the shiny surface appeal and how riven the person might be internally.

 

Through Ved I also wanted to highlight the fact how Indian men are so duty-bound to keep their parents happy that they put a huge pressure on themselves to be the “perfect son,” even if it comes at a grave personal cost.        


Q: Can you say more about what you think the novel says about coming out and living as a gay man in India?

 

A: A key aspect behind the book was to talk about the issues that gay men face particularly in India.

 

For instance, it is that much harder to come out because many adult Indian men and women don’t move out of their parents’ homes. It’s culturally accepted to live forever with one’s parents.

 

The other issue is that arranged marriages are still common practice and many times gay men acquiesce to an arranged marriage because they want to remain dutiful sons and keep the peace by not upsetting their parents and will always remain closeted.

 

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 idea was always to leave the reader with a sense of hope, love and empowerment.

 

So many of the gay novels that I had read earlier, beautifully written stories by well-known literary heavyweights, always had something unhappy or depressing at its centre. Making you almost feel like that if you were gay, sad things would happen to you or that you would end up miserable.

 

Even the popular gay movies that one saw, whether Brokeback Mountain, Call Me By Your Name or Weekend by Andrew Haigh, left you feeling deflated.

 

And I wanted this book to be just the opposite – full of hope, full of heart. Like, I love calling it a gay romcom with a big heart. And I hope it opens the door to many more such happy love stories from India, whether with gay, bi, or trans characters in it.

 

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

 

A: It was one of the things that I had decided on pretty much at the beginning.

 

For so long we have always heard about “the other woman,” who comes and disrupts a marriage, and I felt this was pretty much the same situation except it was “the other man.” So, it’s a cheeky little swipe at that term, that also pretty much encapsulates the novel.

 

The title also teases you to want to know more.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: For the moment I’m concentrating on my day job as an editor of a luxury magazine and relishing all the love that is being showered on The Other Man by bloggers and journalists.

 

I do think there’s more that can be written about the love story between Carlos and Ved, a sequel about what the future holds, but let’s see… 

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: One sees a lot of progressive change since same-sex relationships were decriminalized in India.

 

For one, there’s far more positive representation of LGBTQ people in the media, with even fashion magazines like Vogue India putting a lesbian couple on its cover.

 

Several corporate houses have started including policies that are LGBTQ-friendly.

 

The Indian film industry has started making more realistic gay content, with the first Bollywood gay romcom having come out a year ago.

 

Just recently, a leading bank announced that gay partners could open an account together with the partner being the second nominee.

 

And one sees the fashion world being far more accepting of trans models.

 

While of course there are several issues that still need to be tackled, like same-sex marriages, steps are being in that direction. So, the future looks bright…put on those rainbow shades! 

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Rich Podolsky

 


 

 

Rich Podolsky is the author of the new book You Are Looking Live!: How The NFL Today Revolutionized Sports Broadcasting. His other books include Don Kirshner: The Man with the Golden Ear. A longtime writer and reporter, he has worked for a variety of publications and organizations, including CBS Sports, where he was a writer for The NFL Today

 

Q: What inspired you to write You Are Looking Live!?

 

A: When Phyllis [George] passed away we were all so saddened. As I was reconnecting with my old NFL Today colleagues I realized what a tremendous impact the show had, not only on me, but on anyone who loved pro football.

 

As I dug a little deeper I discovered all the incredible changes that happened in 1975 with Bob Wussler becoming the new head of CBS Sports: first live show of its kind, first woman and first person of color on a show like this, etc.

 

Then a year later they added Jimmy The Greek to discuss point spreads when the NFL strictly forbade that. At that point I knew there was a terrific book waiting to be written.

 

Q: How would you describe the dynamics among Brent Musburger, Phyllis George, Irv Cross, and Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder?

 

A: In the beginning the four of them got along like kissing cousins. They rehearsed together for several weeks before the first show and hung out together off the set. That's why it worked so well.

 

Before '75 nothing was live except the games and all the pregame show announcers were middle-aged white men.

 

The combination of the new cast and lots more information was adored by the public. They opened the show saying "You are looking live" at this stadium or that one, and that was a cue to the gamblers what the weather was like. America had never seen a show like this before.

 

But as the years went on and the show became incredibly popular, they all began fighting for air time. One Sunday in October of 1980 it came to a head when Brent and The Greek went at each other after work at a bar called Peartrees. It made front-page headlines and the following Sunday they had their highest rating of the year.

 

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

 

A: It was easy for me to research the book because I had worked on the show. I was the writer on The NFL Today beginning in 1977 for a few years and remained at CBS through '82. I was able to get back in touch with many of my old friends to recollect the stories and discuss how the show became so important.

 

As far as something that surprised me, there was one big thing. In talking to Jayne Kennedy, who replaced Phyllis George for two years in 1978, I hadn't realized all the trauma she went through just to get an interview.

 

When she finally won a live audition against 15 other hand-picked candidates, she thought the job was hers. Then she was told she had to wait for the approval of CBS's Southern affiliates, because, as Jayne put it, "If I was added to the set, there would be two Blacks and only one white."

 

They solved that problem by bringing Jimmy The Greek to the set for the opening, which balanced out the color scheme, and those affiliates approved her hiring. It was kind of shocking to learn that it existed in 1978.

 

Q: What would you say is this early football show's legacy today?

 

A: That early show in '75 became the gold standard of all pregame shows. It was so good that in its first season it won 13 Emmy Awards--an incredible amount.

 

Tony Kornheiser, a former sports writer for The New York Times and The Washington Post and now a star on ESPN, said, "That NFL Today show was simply the greatest pregame show of all time. And everybody for the last 40 years has tried to copy it." That's its legacy.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: Right now I'm still working feverishly on promoting the book. My previous two books were on music icons Don Kirshner and Neil Sedaka. I like writing about history so something will attract my interest soon and I'll begin digging to see who I can interview.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: Yes, the book will be on sale everywhere books are sold Oct. 15.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Caroline Hagood

 

 


 

Caroline Hagood is the author of the new novel Ghosts of America: A Great American Novel. It features a male novelist haunted by the ghosts of Jackie Kennedy and author Valerie Solanas. Hagood's other books include the poetry collection Lunatic Speaks. She is an assistant professor of literature, writing, and publishing at St. Francis College in Brooklyn.

 

Q: What inspired you to write Ghosts of America, and how did you create your character Norman Roth III, aka Herzog?

 

A: I got the idea because I love reading American history, but I got tired of how many men had gotten to shape it (both in deeds and then writing about those deeds) and how few women had gotten to do the same.

 

I wanted to concoct a situation where the women who had been shaped by a particular writer could speak back to him. I liked the idea even more in the case that this woman was already dead.

 

I think the Herzog character came out of a similar place. When I read a writer such as Philip Roth, I feel this division between loving his prose and not loving his portrayal of women, and even the whole grand narrative that surrounded his boys club that had called dibs on the supposed “Great American Novel.” So, in creating Herzog I wanted to reflect on all that.

 

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

 

A: Hmm. I knew I wanted Herzog to undergo some sort of transformation based on being visited by these women he had misrepresented in his writing, but that was about it. Then I just let my ghosts lead the way. No, but seriously, the book definitely flowed after I had a sense of who Jackie and Valerie were as characters.

 

Q: Did you need to do much research into Jackie Kennedy, Valerie Solanas, and the various male novelists on whom your protagonist is based? If so, did you learn anything surprising?

 

A: Yes, I actually did an enormous amount of research. I guess I figured if I was going to write such a fantastical and somewhat tongue-in-cheek take on people who actually lived, I wanted all the facts to be right. 

 

I was most surprised to find out how fiery Jackie Kennedy was. I never knew she had wanted to join the CIA at one point, for instance. There’s a fun fact for you.

 

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

 

A: I hope that after this book readers are more aware about how American history has been carefully controlled and constructed by a small group of powerful, white men.

 

But I’m not just talking about textbooks. I’m also talking about the way early American novelists played such a huge role in constructing national identity, race and gender roles, etc.

 

I also hope they leave wanting to sort of take a flamethrower to that and see what new formulations come out of it.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I am currently working on a more traditional novel. The verdict is out on whether I’m really capable of writing a traditional novel.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I guess I just wanted readers to know that these “iconic women” are more than the stories that are told about them. Do your own research.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 15

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Oct. 15, 1917: Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. born.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Q&A with James McGrath Morris

 

 


 

James McGrath Morris is the author of the new biography Tony Hillerman: A Life. It focuses on the writer Tony Hillerman, who created the fictional Navajo Tribal Police detectives Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. Morris's other books include Eye on the Struggle. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

 

Q: What initially inspired you to write a biography of author Tony Hillerman? Have you always been a fan of his work?

 

A: I’ve been a fan of Hillerman since the 1970s. However, what drew me to him was not one of his Navajo novels—there had only been two at that point.

 

Rather, it was his second book, The Fly on the Wall, a kind of cross between a journalism procedural mystery and a political crime novel. It’s still one of my favorite works of his.

 

But over the 1980s, 1990s, and into the 2000, my wife and I devoured Hillerman’s 18 Navajo mysteries.

 

What inspired me to spend several years researching and writing a biography is a belief that Hillerman’s work is more significantly important than that for which he’s usually given credit.

 

I also believed that a full-length account of his life and work would not only draw attention to his writing but also raise timely questions about cross-cultural communications in an era when we have grown sensitive about cultural appropriation.

 

Last, and this is important to all biographers, his life story is fascinating and action-packed, providing a strong narrative thread.

 

Q: In an interview with SantaFe.com, you said that Hillerman "changed the world of mystery writing." Can you say more about that, and about how you see his legacy today?

 

A: Yes, I can. When Hillerman was working on The Blessing Way, his first novel, he introduced a secondary character named Joe Leaphorn who was a Navajo Tribal Police detective.

 

Bookstore mystery shelves back then were loaded down with detective novels set in urban milieus, like those written by Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, and other masters of the form.

 

Except for a little-known Australian writer, Arthur Upfield, the world of fictional detectives was white, male, and citified. A rez cop was something new and noteworthy. It forever changed the genre.


His enduring legacy is one of the reasons my publisher agreed to do this book and a new television series based on Hillerman’s books is being produced by Robert Redford and George R.R. Martin. It will air in 2022.

 

Q: How did you research Hillerman's life, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?

 

A: Like most biographies the research included a number of challenges.

 

To portray his childhood, I spent time exploring eastern Oklahoma, in particular the town of Sacred Heart. There I learned first-hand of the importance of Catholicism in Hillerman’s life and of his time attending elementary school with Pottawatomie children. The two aspects of his childhood would become really important when he became a writer. 

 

As World War II was, as well. His near-death experience traumatized him. Later in life, when the term became used, he was diagnosed with PTSD. In my book, I suggest this was one of the reasons he became so drawn to Navajo spirituality.

 

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

 

A: I hope readers will take away a number of things from reading this book.

 

For fans of Hillerman they will learn how these books came to be created, how the plots were developed, and the struggles he had writing his books.

 

Second, I hope it might introduce his novels to another generation of readers.

 

Third, I hope the literary community will come to understand how significant Hillerman’s work was. I’m not denigrating other writers of murder mysteries by saying this, but Hillerman changed the craft in ways that very few other writers have done.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’m working on two projects, neither of which are biographies. I’m trying to edit a collection of essays about the writing of biographies and I’m toying with writing a book about how to research books.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I don’t know if I’ll write another biography after this one.

 

I’ve written about a man who murdered his wife. I’ve written about a newspaper publisher who is cruel to all his employees and his family. I’ve written about a black civil rights reporter who struggled to get the story. I’ve written about a friendship between two writers, one of whom was certainly not a pleasant character to spend time with.

 

This book has been different. Even though I studied Hillerman with critical eyes for three years, I come away with the sense that it was an honor to do this task and that is a very pleasant feeling.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with James McGrath Morris.

Q&A with Bethany Ball

 

 


 

Bethany Ball is the author of the new novel The Pessimists. She also has written the novel What To Do About the Solomons, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Electric Literature and Literary Hub. She lives in New York.

 

Q: What inspired you to write The Pessimists, and how did you create your three families?

 

A: I love small, enclosed communities to explore and to write about.

 

I started out with a few of the characters: Rachel, who was a transplant from the city and dealing with not quite fitting in to the community or the school, and Virginia, who was dealing with a cancer diagnosis and the loss of love in her marriage, and Tripp, who was dealing with loss of income and paranoia over the state of the world.

 

Their spouses came later. I really enjoyed fitting them together—what character went with who.

 

Gunter was a lot of fun to write. I love that he’s married to Rachel, who cares so much what people think. He’s really loose and sure of himself and blurts out whatever is in his head. He’s picked up on the high status of Scandinavian countries in certain American circles. He both plays up to and likes to contradict those stereotypes.

 

Q: The novel centers in part around a private school called the Petra School. What inspired your creation of this school and its headmistress, Agnes?

 

A: I attended a progressive program within the public school. It was created so that liberal white parents would send their children to the lone Black school in our community and thus skirt around Brown vs. Board of Education.

 

I loved the school, my teachers, and my classmates, but that sort of education wasn’t good for me. I would have done much better in a more structured setting. All I did was read books—no matter what it was I was supposed to be studying. My kids often wonder what in the world I learned in school since I can barely help them with homework.

 

I started out writing The Pessimists with a school that didn’t teach its students much (to be fair, OTHER kids I went to school with learned plenty!).

 

I was also interested in exploring how small communities can become cult-like. America is ripe territory for cults because it’s so vast, our communities are dispersed, people live far away from their extended families, move away from their hometowns. People like to belong to something. I think it’s hardwired in our DNA.


And parenting is a time of huge uncertainty for so many of us. We want to do differently from our parents, or maybe we want to be exactly the same parent as our own parents were to us but our children are completely different.

 

I felt terribly uncertain about myself as a parent with my first child and also kind of furious at the culture I found myself in: with little help, little money, no community. I couldn’t believe parents were expected to make play dates for 9- and 10-year-olds.

 

After the birth of my first child 18 years ago,  I had no awareness of how drastically the world had changed since I was a kid. I think it’s a huge loss for children to be so fearful of their neighborhoods and stuck inside glued to their screens.

 

And it’s a huge loss for mothers who are expected to watch over and/or entertain their children every minute of the day. If that’s what they want to do, that’s wonderful, but for many of us there is no choice. That pressure, to me, felt insurmountable.

 

Add to that ideas like “attachment parenting” or “simplicity parenting” and it feels like our society is trying to pull women backwards, into the house surrounded by children night and day and out of the workforce. Writers like Lenore Skenazy and Kim Brooks talk about these issues quite a lot.

 

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

 

A: My character Tripp is the ultimate pessimist. He has absolutely zero belief in the system. He has lost quite a bit of income in the 2008 recession and feels the walls closing in on him. He globalizes his losses, and gets sucked into a group of men who believe the end of the world is nigh—the ultimate pessimistic credo.

 

Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, "Despite Ball’s mordant humor, the pain here feels all too real." What did you see as the right blend between humor and pain as you wrote the novel?

 

A: I don’t find books without humor to be especially realistic. There is almost always humor somewhere, at least in the world I live in. My mother’s humor was mordant to the extreme and I guess I probably inherited it.

 

I discovered recently that my mother’s grandmother accidentally shot my mother’s grandfather through a screen door, killing him. They were sharecroppers in Oklahoma and my mother’s mother, my grandmother, was about 12 when it happened. It took him six hours to die and he died at home.

 

I mean, it’s a fact of my history I’d always known about, but my mother told the story with a kind of grim laugh, almost as though it was funny or a punchline.

 

I’m sure this was a coping mechanism used as a way my mother’s family could acknowledge that awful reality without getting swept up in the absolute horror of it. But I couldn’t feel how painful it must have been until I read the newspaper stories of the time.

 

Perhaps humor was my mother’s people’s therapy. A way of getting on with things when there’s no time, money, or energy to really process tragedy or trauma.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’m working on two novels at the moment.

 

The first is a novel about a city in Detroit. At a certain point I became obsessed with a factory close to where I grew up. There were three superfund sites in an area less than three square miles. But I’ve been trying to write that particular novel for five years now and in fact threw it over for The Pessimists.

 

The second novel I’m working on is set in New York City just before Y2K. It involves a young girl who’s just arrived in the city, and finds herself homeless, and an older magazine editor who is about to find himself on the cover of New York magazine for accusations of sexual harassment.

 

The second novel is frankly much more fun to write and I imagine that’s the one I’ll finish first.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Bethany Ball.