Thursday, July 22, 2021

Q&A with Norman H. Finkelstein

 

 


 

Norman H. Finkelstein is the author of The Shelter and the Fence: When 982 Holocaust Refugees Found Safe Haven in America, a new middle grade book for kids. It focuses on a group of refugees who took shelter at Fort Ontario in New York State in 1944. Finkelstein's many other books include Union Made.

 

Q: What inspired you to write The Shelter and the Fence?

 

A: I actually knew a bit about the Shelter through my teaching of courses on the Holocaust and even mention it briefly in several previous books.

 

The idea for the book actually came two years ago when a friend in Oswego wrote inviting me to the 75th reunion of Shelter survivors. I spent two wonderful days there listening to stories from survivors and their families and filling in holes that I never knew about the whole story.

 

It was a grand event. Seventeen of the survivors were there and a host of dignitaries. The city went all out. As my wife and I were sitting in a tent overlooking Lake Ontario listening to the speeches I nudged her and whispered, "Next book!"

 

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

 

A: To be perfectly honest, it was not the title I originally proposed. My choice was Inside the Golden Cage, taken from a musical play the refugees created during their last days at the Shelter.

 

My editor suggested the current title which I think more aptly describes the situation faced by the refugees. I always trust my publishers to make the right decisions.

 

Q: How would you describe the experience these refugees had once they arrived in the United States, and what happened to them once the war ended?

 

A: Their experiences in the United States were limited. By regulation they could not travel outside of Oswego, New York, and that made them feel really confined. Many had relatives here but the refugees could not visit them. One boy was accepted to Harvard Medical School but could not go to Massachusetts. Before boarding the ship in Italy they signed a formal document stating that when the war ended they would be returned to their homelands.

 

Life at the Shelter was pleasant. Food was bountiful and outside agencies provided niceties the government did not. They could go into the city for six hours a day and that brought them into contact with local residents, shops, the public library, and restaurants.

 

Particularly interesting was the way school-aged kids were treated in the local public schools. For some who had never been to school this was a welcome opportunity. Young people beyond high school age could attend classes at the Oswego State Teachers College (today SUNY Oswego).

 

When the war did end in 1945 the question of their futures loomed large. They did not have any homes to return to and their friends and relatives in Europe were dead.

 

President Truman realized this and cleverly devised a way for the refugees to obtain visas and become Americans. By February 1946, the Shelter was closed and the refugees scattered around the country to begin their new lives as Americans.

 

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

 

A: There are wonderful oral histories through the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Penfield Library at SUNY Oswego. Also, the Safe Haven Museum in Oswego published several very valuable books which included recollections and memoirs.

 

Also, in 1944, a congressional hearing was held at the Shelter to help determine the future of the refugees. The testimonies included in the Hearing document were particularly valuable. Also, contemporary newspaper articles were of great help.

 

I was particularly surprised by two things. First, the way the public schools bent over backward to welcome refugee children. Second, by the strength of the refugees themselves as they fled throughout Europe to find refuge in Italy and then embark on the trip to Oswego not knowing what their futures held.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: Two books. The first is a picture book biography of Abraham Cahan, founder and longtime editor of the Yiddish language newspaper, the Jewish Daily Forward. It will be published by Holiday House in 2023.

 

The second is a young adult/general reader look at antisemitism in the United States to be published by the Jewish Publication Society also in 2023. (Which means I am a very busy author with a due date looming in early 2022.)

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: The Shelter and the Fence is a Holocaust story no one knows but should. Although 982 people were brought to America, 6 million more perished in Europe. But for those 982, this was a lifesaving and altering experience. Sadly it was too little and too late for others.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Norman H. Finkelstein.

July 22

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
July 22, 1849: Emma Lazarus born.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Q&A with Andrea Wang

 

 

Photo by Elaine Freitas Photography

 

Andrea Wang is the author of the new children's picture book Watercress. Her other books include the forthcoming middle grade novel The Many Meanings of Meilan. She lives in the Denver area.

 

 

Q: What inspired you to write Watercress?

 

A: Writing has always been how I process the events in my life. After my mother passed away, I started writing personal essays to work through my grief.

 

One memory that I kept returning to was the experience of picking watercress with my family. I wasn’t sure why it figured so largely in my psyche, so I wrote about it.

 

Over many years, the piece morphed from a personal essay to a picture book, from nonfiction to fiction and finally, to the semi-autobiographical story that it is today.

 

Looking back, I think I was exploring my relationship with my parents, especially my mother. The experience of picking watercress and having her share her childhood stories with me (albeit much later) gave me a lens through which I could view the incredible impact she had on me.

 

Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, "Wang’s moving poetry paired with—and precisely laid out on—[illustrator Jason] Chin’s masterfully detailed illustrations capture both an authentic Midwestern American landscape and a very Chinese American family, together infusing a single event with multiple layers laden with emotion, memory, and significance." What do you think of that description?

 

A: I think that’s a wonderful description! Jason Chin’s amazing paintings added so much depth to the book.

 

After I wrote the manuscript for Watercress, I had no idea if it could be a picture book. The main character’s journey was so interior and emotional – how would an artist show her transformation from shame and humiliation to awareness and hope? Jason captured the facial expressions and body language so precisely.


There were also layers of memories in the story, from my own memory that inspired the book, to the girl’s memory of being laughed at, and finally to the mother character’s memory of her own childhood in China. How could those memories be conveyed through the illustrations?

 

The way that Jason used different color palettes and painting styles to convey past and present, Ohio and China, is absolutely masterful, like the review says.

 

In addition to what I mentioned about depth and emotion, Jason’s art adds authenticity and a sense of place to the story. He did a huge amount of research, and it shows – the illustrations are filled with details that are accurate to the places and time periods in the story, from the clothing down to the Corningware on the dining table in Ohio and the thermos on the table in China.

 

I am just in awe of his ability and what he was able to achieve in the illustrations. 

 

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

 

A: I hope that Watercress shows all children, especially if they’re from different cultures or marginalized communities, that they do belong, and they can take pride in their heritage.

 

I also think it’s important to show kids that they are not alone – that everyone feels different or like they don’t fit in at some point in their lives. We are all human, with our own stories and perspectives, but if we talk to each other, we can find connections between our lives.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’m excited to share that my debut middle grade novel, The Many Meanings of Meilan, comes out on August 17, 2021 from Kokila/Penguin Young Readers.

 

Like Watercress, Meilan is also a story about a young Chinese American girl who ends up in Ohio, trying to understand where she fits into the world.

 

My next picture book is called Luli and the Language of Tea and it publishes in 2022 from Neal Porter Books/Holiday House. It’s about how the word for tea in countries all over the world stem from the Chinese word for it, and how a little Chinese girl bridges a language gap with it to make new friends. Luli will be illustrated by the wonderful artist Hyewon Yum.

 

While I wait for those books to release, I’m working on another standalone middle grade novel and two nonfiction picture books. I’m really excited to be writing more stories about Chinese American characters and giving them a voice.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I was asked by another interviewer why I think it’s important for kids to read and learn about different cultures, and I wanted to reiterate my answer here:

The United States and many other countries are made up of people from all over the globe. Fear and misunderstanding of people who aren’t like ourselves can have tragic and heartbreaking consequences, as we’ve seen recently with the rise in violence against Asians and Asian Americans. Learning about different cultures fosters empathy and understanding, leading to a more just and peaceful world. It’s sometimes difficult for kids to meet people from other cultures, so books are an important way for them to see into and experience life from a different cultural perspective.

 

Thank you so much for having me on your blog, Deborah!

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Lori McMullen

 

 



Lori McMullen is the author of the new novel Among the Beautiful Beasts, which focuses on the life of environmentalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas. McMullen grew up in South Florida and lives in Chicago.

 

Q: What inspired you to write Among the Beautiful Beasts?

 

A: My inspiration for writing Among the Beautiful Beasts came from two different sources at nearly the same time, which created a burst of insight that really propelled me forward.

 

First, I realized I wanted to write a book in which place was a compelling and critical part of the story. I’d found, through writing short fiction, that a palpable sense of place both made my work better and allowed me to indulge in the sort of lyrical prose that I love to write.

 

But which place? It didn’t take long to answer that question – the place had to be South Florida, my childhood home, which remains as mysterious and miraculous to me now as it did when I grew up there.

 

The second source of inspiration was Paula McLain’s historical novel Circling the Sun, which tells the story of Beryl Markham, a pioneering aviator. As soon as I finished reading that book, I knew I wanted my book to be set in the past and to feature an intrepid, norm-breaking woman who challenged assumptions about what women could do.

 

With those two realizations – that South Florida would be critical to my story and that the story would be about an accomplished and unconventional woman – I thought immediately of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, someone South Florida schoolchildren, myself included, regularly learned about because of her enormous impact on the preservation of the Everglades. 

 

As soon as I began researching Marjory’s early life, as soon as I learned about her heartbreak and trauma and resilience, I understood that I’d found my book.  

 

Q: What did you see as the right balance between history and fiction in your portrayal of Marjory Stoneman Douglas?

 

A: This question was something I considered very carefully before beginning the book. In my view, the goal of historical fiction is to blend facts and art in just the right proportions so that something close to truth emerges.

 

And if you think about it, this is something many of us do in our own lives all the time – we reflect on our experiences and create a narrative around them; we look for meaning and themes in our personal trajectories and assign symbolism to the things we’ve encountered along the way. I tried to bring this same thoughtful reflection to Marjory’s life.

 

The foundation of Among the Beautiful Beasts is factual and rooted in history so that the essential elements of Marjory’s life portrayed in the book are accurate.


I then plucked real details from these elements – her mother’s musical talent, for example, or the complexity of Marjory’s relationship with Andy – and crafted these details into something more, something that serves the narrative and creates meaningful fiction.

 

At every step, though, I asked myself, "Would Marjory be okay with this?" I couldn’t actually answer that question, of course, but just asking it helped keep me focused on my desire to share her story and give context to her legacy.

 

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

 

A: I used different sources to learn about the various aspects of Marjory’s history. Both the University of Miami and the Miami Herald have online archives that offer valuable information about Marjory’s life and work in South Florida.

 

I also read books like Gladesmen: Gator Hunters, Moonshiners, and Skiffers by Glen Simmons to get a sense of the pioneer history of South Florida, though those books aren’t specifically about Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

 

For the most personal aspects of Marjory’s childhood and young adulthood, particularly during the years before she came to Miami, the best resource was her autobiography, Voice of the River. In it, Marjory writes frankly and factually about her life and her family.

 

I often read this book curled in my favorite chair, with a blanket and a mug of coffee and a highlighter in hand, ready for Marjory to “tell” me which of her many experiences were the most significant and needed to be included in Among the Beautiful Beasts.

 

Finally, to truly understand Marjory, I slowly read from cover to cover her seminal work, The Everglades: River of Grass. This book is entirely about the Everglades and gives no details about Marjory or her life, but the veneration and wonder of her written words offer perhaps the deepest insight into who she was and what she loved.

 

Before she became the well-known South Florida icon who fought for the health of the Everglades until she was more than 100 years old, Marjory faced several decades of real heartbreak and hardship.

 

The extent of these struggles, and the long-lasting effects they had on the course of Marjory’s life, truly surprised me during my research. I came to believe, though, that her early experiences – the ones that left her gutted and vulnerable, the ones that made her sacrifice herself for the benefit of others – gave Marjory a unique ability to empathize with the Florida wetlands and see herself in their plight, so much so that by saving that ecosystem, she was also saving herself.

 

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

 

A: For a very long time, this novel did not have a title. I just couldn’t think of the right one and referred to it simply as Marjory.

 

It was not until after the manuscript had been accepted for publication and the design team began creating a cover that I realized time was up and I had to come up with something. So I sat in the room where I’d written most of the book and visualized some of my favorite parts of the story.

 

The image that kept surfacing was one of Marjory hiding in a verdant tree hammock in the middle of the Everglades, surrounded by the magnificent creatures of the area – panthers and gators, spoonbills and herons, beetles and black bears – and I thought to myself, there she is, among the beautiful beasts.

 

At that moment, I knew I had my title, not only because it sounded nice and perfectly captured a pivotal scene in the book but also because Marjory’s fate had been so intimately intertwined with the fate of those beautiful beasts that the name worked on every level.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’m in the very beginning stages of creating a new novel. It’s not yet developed enough in my mind to say very much, but it is about a lost friendship, a forgotten place, and ghosts. There definitely will be ghosts.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: One last thought about Among the Beautiful Beasts – although the book is about the early life of Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the awakenings that led to her environmental activism, it is also, at its heart, the story of a woman who made some bad decisions, who felt torn between competing obligations, and who wondered if she had the strength to be true to herself.

 

In other words, it’s the story of any woman. And I believe that any woman who reads it will relate to Marjory, even if she has never set foot in the Everglades herself. 

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Dianne Ebertt Beeaff

 

 


 

Dianne Ebertt Beeaff is the author of the book A Grand Madness: U2 Twenty Years After. It describes her experiences as a fan of the rock band U2. Her other books include A Grand Madness: Ten Years on the Road with U2. She lives in Tucson, Arizona.

 

Q: Why did you decide to return to the subject of U2, 20 years after your first book about the band?

 

A: As time went on, and I continued to advance my writing career, I found that U2 were still informing my view of life and living. It felt personally right to continue to honor them by continuing my own U2 story with a sequel to the first book.

 

Though the books present only one fan’s perspective, as a set I feel they comment on a still vibrant and productive part of contemporary culture, marking the influence, contribution, and historical significance of this remarkable band, from an outsider’s point of view rather than from an industry one.

 

There’s something here that every fan will recognize, the simple prerequisites of admiration and enthusiasm making almost everyone a fan of something or someone.

 

Q: What is it about U2 that captured your attention initially, and have your feelings about the band changed over the years?

 

A: U2 first captured my attention with their participation in Amnesty International’s Conspiracy of Hope tour in Giants’ Stadium, East Rutherford, New Jersey, in June of 1986. I loved everything about them: the vision, the voice, the passion, the power, the lyrics, the music.

 

Even though my “involvement” is far less intense these days, the band remains an inspirational part of my life. Their work is honest and inventive, often courageous, enigmatic, and unpredictable. Those same attributes—the vision, the voice, the passion, the power, the lyrics, the music—still dominate their work.

 

Q: Do you have a particular favorite U2 song or album?

 

A: I think that after all the music U2 has given the world over the years, my favorite song remains "Bad," from their fourth studio album, The Unforgettable Fire.

 

As I wrote in the preface to my first U2 memoir, A Grand Madness, Ten Years on the Road with U2 (Hawkmoon Publications 2000; reprint 2019), “Bad came to me at a time when I was overpowered on many fronts by circumstances out of my control. ‘Let it go’ was a command I could use.”

 

The song itself addresses drug addiction, but the lyrics have so readily applied to every stage of my life and often still do. The song also exemplifies all those attributes about U2 that first captured my attention.

 

My favorite album remains The Joshua Tree. With this album, the band grew from innocence through idealism to realism. Again, all the attributes of this remarkable band apply to that extraordinary album.

 

In addition, there is a spontaneity to the songs, an unselfconsciousness which became less apparent once they’d discovered “the song” with all its formality, verse and bridge.    

 

Q: You write, “To many of us, great music is some kind of sacrament.” Can you say more about the role you see music playing in today’s world?

 

A: I think Henry Wadsworth Longfellow originally proclaimed music “the universal language of mankind.” Music can heal, level barriers, and educate. Often cross-culturally. Music can connect people to themselves and to others.

 

Emotional reactions may be influenced by specific cultural background, but music remains a powerful form of communication, conveying empathy and a sense of community, giving joy to an audience beyond sheer entertainment.

 

I think anyone who participated in or just looked in on—electronically—all the concerts marking 2021’s 4th of July celebrations in the wake of Covid vaccinations felt something of music’s great power to communicate and connect. 

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Dianne Ebertt Beeaff.

July 21

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
July 21, 1899: Ernest Hemingway born.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Q&A with Cheryl Krauter

 


 

Cheryl Krauter is the author of the new memoir Odyssey of Ashes: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Letting Go. It focuses on the impact of the death of her husband, John. Her other books include Surviving the Storm. A psychotherapist, she is based n the San Francisco Bay Area.

 

Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir?

 

A: Odyssey of Ashes: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Letting Go began to live in my mind after John’s ticket was drawn in the Casting for Recovery raffle five months after he died. He had entered this raffle for years, dreaming of a guided float trip for two in Montana combined with a two-night stay at a fishing lodge.

 

In an emotional moment while hiking a trail at Lake Tahoe, California, I received a call telling me of his winning ticket and then that the trip was kindly offered to me. I took this as a sign of a story that wanted to be told.

 

The decision seemed relatively simple and clear, the story of fulfilling a promise to scatter his ashes by a renowned river, going in his place and living out one of his dreams.

 

Yet as I grew deeper into the writing of the book there were many long nights and early mornings when I meandered through the writing like a small stream looking for its release into a mighty river rolling to the sea. The manuscript had a life of its own and took me where it wanted to go.

 

In the end, the writing revealed the narrative of moving through my grief, again, and again. It became a final love letter, a way to transform the wildness of my sorrow.

 

As the release date approaches and I feel the book fly out of my hands and into the world, I find myself asking the same question, “Why did I decide to write this memoir?” Your thoughtful question arrived just as I was questioning myself. I thought, “Wow, this is synchronistic.”

 

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

 

A: The title grew directly out of my work with the editor, Brooke Warner of She Writes Press, who was my closet companion in the writing of this book. Her holding, not only of the story, but of me in my initial stages of raw grief, was beyond invaluable.

 

Odyssey of Ashes was not the original title and when it came time to move into the publication process, she helped me to let go of my original title by working with me on other titles that she believed were more congruent with the entirety of the book.

 

Out of that exploration, I chose Odyssey of Ashes because it represented my journey from the horror of the early morning when John died, spoke to the travels I took in the deep internal underworld of grief and loss, highlighted the pilgrimage to Montana, and spoke of the winding paths through the complexities of learning to live my life in his absence.

 

An odyssey takes us through adventures and misadventures in both the inner world of our psyche and the outer world of our day-to-day lives.   

 

Q: The book begins with an epigraph, "Sometimes I go about pitying myself/And all the while I am being carried on great winds across the sky," an Ojibwe saying. Why did you choose to include this quote?

 

A: As writers, when we look back, we find themes that run throughout our work. The theme of wind runs throughout this book – some of it emotional and some of it the actual wind and weather that buffeted me about on my odyssey of scattering John’s ashes in Montana.

 

The quote means to me that we can’t always know where we are going in the present moments of our lives. Life is taking us beyond our own known universe. This is felt as a timeless quality that occurs while grieving.

 

Wind symbolizes forces beyond the limited perspectives of our conscious mind and carries us when we are crawling through that which we cannot hold ourselves. What may appear to be losing our way is actually a twist and turn on the path we are traveling on. There are moments of transformation that break open our hearts to the depth that grief can bring into our lives and all that it teaches us.

 

Being carried by great winds across the sky speaks to the mysteries we cannot know but, somehow, must trust. It shows us all that we cannot control or understand. The smaller places we inhabit within ourselves are split apart as we fly off into an unknown and mysterious place that we could never have imagined in our wildest dreams.

 

Q: How difficult was it to write about the loss of your husband, and what impact did writing the book have on you?

 

A: It was a wrenching and beautiful process. The loss I experienced took on different forms and was a way to connect with John in his abrupt disappearance from my life.

 

Writing this memoir was cathartic and brought me time and time again into the wildness of a sorrow that at times seemed to overwhelm me. There were moments when I was sobbing so deeply that I had to stop because I couldn’t see my computer screen. 

 

Now that the book is on its way into the world, I experience a different vulnerability that is almost more difficult. Reviewers might be critical, readers may be disparaging. I feel concerned about the jagged and raw expression of my story and worry that my experience was better left silent than shared.

 

My work as a psychotherapist and my writing are very connected to what I give to the other person, in this case, the reader, and I was concerned that the book was too personal and not relatable to others.  

However, as readers chimed in that they were moved and could, indeed, relate, I felt an enormous relief. In the end, I am grateful to this book for helping me to heal.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: As a psychotherapist during Covid, I am working longer and harder than I have in the 40 years that I’ve been in my profession. I feel that all my work has taken me to this present moment, to be of service during this remarkable and traumatic time.

 

The books I have written about cancer survivorship, both for patients and their communities as well as clinicians working in psychosocial oncology, continue to generate requests for workshops, classes, and presentations about life threatening illness.

 

I am currently co-facilitating a group for white-identified members of a professional organization after BIPOC members requested that the white-identified members do their own work and not depend on them to educate us. We are using the book Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad as a template for conversation.

 

I have also gotten a suggestion to write a screenplay of Odyssey of Ashes and may enter a collaboration with the screenwriter whose idea this is.  

 

Finally, I am planning to write my swan song – a novel that is based on a local homeless artist who sculpts things out of hangers, milk cartons, and other found objects that a person who lives on the streets would collect. I am in my scraps of notes, finding inspirational quotes, an internal rambling process that always proceeds my writing projects.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: That my memoir, while raw and intense, also has moments of humor.

 

That the work is mythopoetic and includes both Celtic and Buddhist stories that weave through the story as they do through my life.

 

That fly-fishing is part of the memoir and brings both an experiential as well as spiritual perspective to the story.

 

That my hope is that others who have experienced the sudden and unexpected death of a loved one will find comfort and solace in this book.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Susan Schoenberger

 

 


 

Susan Schoenberger is the author of the new novel The Liability of Love. Her other books include A Watershed Year. A longtime journalist, she now works as director of communications at Hartford Seminary. She lives in West Hartford, Connecticut.

 

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

 

A: This story started out with a challenge to myself to create more realistic and layered male characters. In fact, one of the main characters, Douglas, was the principal protagonist in my first draft.

 

But as seems to happen with me, the story and characters changed radically as I rewrote new versions of the novel. The four main characters who tell the story emerged after many iterations.

 

Strangely, two minor characters – Ollie and Tiffany – came to me almost fully formed. I greatly enjoyed employing them in different scenes with the main characters.

 

Q: The Kirkus Review of the book called it "A novel that explores how societal expectations can make people hide their true selves." What do you think of that description?

 

A: I think it’s right on the money. Almost every character in the book is in love with the wrong person at some point or another, but they hide it because they don’t think their feelings match society’s expectations.

 

The character Fitz not only hides his feelings for his college friend Margaret, but he develops an eating disorder because of what society expects of someone with his wealth and status.

 

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

 

A: Oh, gosh, I never know how my stories will end. Well, I have an idea when I start, but I’m usually proven wrong. This story, in particular, changed so many times that I couldn’t even tell you the number of drafts.

 

The ending also changed radically from one late draft to the final one, and I think that’s what ultimately brought the whole book together.

 

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

 

A: I hope readers think about the risks that we take when we fall in love, how that’s terribly fraught but also terribly exciting. I loved thinking about how liability – in the insurance industry – is a measure of risk and how that compares to the liability inherent in our emotions.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’ve started a new novel about a “hyperpolyglot,” or someone who speaks an extraordinary number of languages. It’s been slow, but it’s coming along.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I love hearing from readers. If you like The Liability of Love, or even if you don’t, please reach out to me through my website www.susanschoenberger.com

 

Thank you for the great questions!

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Viola Sutanto

 

 


 

Viola Sutanto is the author and illustrator of the new book Eat Cake for Breakfast and 99 Other Small Acts of Happiness. She began it during the time her daughter, Maika, was hospitalized with a serious illness. Sutanto is the founder of the Maika brand of sustainable soft goods, and she lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

 

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

 

A: Eat Cake for Breakfast and 99 Other Small Acts of Happiness speaks to the idea that we can find joy in simple and seemingly mundane acts every day.

 

When we think of happiness, we often associate it with this lofty ideal to be achieved after years of hard work, almost like the coveted prize at the finish line. 

 

But what if you didn’t have to wait for that perfect moment? What if happiness can be achieved every day, and through small, simple acts? What if each and every one of us could help spread a little joy every day? The world will be a much better place, wouldn’t it? I truly believe small acts can bring big joy.

 

I think Maika summed it up best: “If you take the little things for granted, you lose the joy in life.”

 

Q: What does your daughter think of the book?


A: Maika says, “I think it’s amazing. I had a lot of fun helping my mom to come up with the 100 acts of happiness.”

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: It means so much for us to be able to bring this book to life. Since a portion of book sales will be donated to the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland where Maika was treated, we are focused on bringing attention to its upcoming launch. Through this book, we hope to inspire everyday joy to those around us.

 

It’s also a tribute to our amazing community of family, friends and the incredible medical team at the Children’s Hospital in Oakland. 

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: The amazing folks at Make-a-Wish Foundation (https://wish.org/) are working hard to make Maika’s wish come true. Her wish is to invite her friends, family and our community to create a beautiful mural together here in the Bay Area.

 

Maika’s hope is to create a giant, longlasting message of hope, so everyone who sees the mural will be surprised and delighted as they go about their day. She wants to use her wish to continue to spread joy and uplift those around her.

 

Besides, as she says, what could be more fun than having a giant canvas to paint and play your heart out?

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 20

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
July 20, 1933: Cormac McCarthy born.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Q&A with Brianna Bourne

 

 

 

Photo by Barnaby Aldrick

 

Brianna Bourne is the author of the new young adult novel You & Me at the End of the World. A stage manager for ballet companies, she lives in England.

 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for You & Me at the End of the World, and for your characters Hannah and Leo?

 

A: I knew I wanted to write a YA novel about two total opposites falling in love—but I wanted it to be ultra-focused and zoomed-in on just the two of them, away from parents and friends and school.

 

When I hit upon the idea of throwing them together in a mysteriously empty city, the story really started taking off. What started out as a simple romance became a book that mixes eerie suspense,  the emotional grind of a coming-of-age story, and intoxicating first love.

 

As far as how I came up with the ideas for the characters, I’m not sure when I decided that Hannah should be a ballerina—in the earliest draft of the book she wasn’t!

 

When I’m not writing, I work as a ballet stage manager. For the decade leading up to writing You & Me at the End of the World, I spent 40 hours a week in rehearsal studios with dancers, so maybe it slipped into my subconscious.

 

Thankfully, Hannah being a ballerina fits perfectly—ballet is a structured art, and Hannah loses all of that structure and safety when she wakes up to find the city empty.

 

For Leo, I knew I had to craft him to be Hannah’s foil. I always wanted them to be opposites who bring each other towards center. My husband used to play in rock bands, and had long hair and wore eyeliner and lots of rings, so that seemed like a good place to start. But he’s a drummer, and his personality is very different to Leo’s.

 

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


A: The title has changed a few times, actually. When the book sold to Scholastic, it was called While We’re Here, but for some reason that was hard to remember and didn’t stick in people’s heads.

 

I had a brainstorming session with my editor and some of her colleagues, and You & Me at the End of the World rose to the top. Now I can’t imagine the book being called anything else—it describes the story perfectly. 

 

I will say that “the end of the world” in this case probably looks different than you might be imagining! 

 

Q: You note that you wrote the book before the current pandemic began. What impact do you think the pandemic might have on readers' experiences with the book?

 

A: When the pandemic hit, I really worried that it would steal the story’s thunder. I created Hannah and Leo’s empty streets as a playground for a reader’s mind, a space where they could safely imagine a world that was very different from the hyper, overstimulated one we lived in.

 

I wanted to explore what it would be like to walk down an empty highway and just hear nothing. To not have to constantly navigate interactions with dozens of people daily. But now that’s… normal. That’s lockdown life.

 

But now that we’re over a year in, I think seeing Hannah and Leo confront their isolation might feel really resonant and almost therapeutic for readers.

 

Hannah and Leo each have their own (flawed) coping mechanisms, and they have to struggle to find what works for them to make it through each day. They’ve had huge parts of their lives suddenly stripped away, just like all of us have had in the past year. What do they lean on? How do they survive, emotionally?

 

You & Me at the End of the World is part how-to-guide, part cautionary tale for how to navigate the situation. But it doesn’t mirror the real world exactly, which is good because I think we’ve all had enough of that!

 

Hannah and Leo aren’t facing a pandemic, political turmoil, illness, or the stir-crazy feeling of being trapped in your house. The parallels are on a deeper, more emotional level, so it still feels like escapism. But useful escapism, if that makes sense!

 

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 knew how the book would end—that was one of the first things I could see. It was so dramatic and emotional. But I did rewrite the crucial climax/reveal section three or four times, fine-tuning the details until it felt just right.

 

There was one fundamental change I made late in the game, after my phenomenal editor came on board, but telling you more would be a massive spoiler and would ruin the experience of going into the book with fresh eyes! 

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’m working on another book for Scholastic right now. It’s full of autumn vibes and sad cinnamon roll boys and STEM-genius girls, and I can’t wait to start sharing details about it on socials. It’s not a sequel to You & Me at the End of the World, but it will feel similar: it’s another a contemporary YA with a slow-burn romance and a speculative twist.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I’ll be doing some fabulous swag and ARC giveaways on Twitter/Instagram very soon, so if you want to get your hands on the book before everyone else, find me on Twitter @briannabourneYA or on Instagram @brianna_bourne_writes! Preorder links can be found on my website at www.briannabournebooks.com. Thank you so much for chatting with me, Deborah!

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb