Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Q&A with Kyra Wilder

 

 


 

Kyra Wilder is the author of the novel Little Bandaged Days. She lives in Switzerland.

 

Q: What inspired you to write Little Bandaged Days, and how did you create your character Erika?

 

A: The background for the book came both from the research I did for my master’s thesis on the disturbing mother figures in Victorian sensation novels, and from my own experience of having small children and moving to Geneva.

 

As far as Erika goes, this is cliché, but I don’t feel like I created her at all. One day she was just there in my head talking to me. She never had a name the whole time I was writing the book, she was just there with me, going on and on about cooking fish and picking out avocados.

 

I only realized she needed to have a name when I was trying to write summaries of the book to send out to literary agents. So I gave her the same name as the main character in The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek, another protagonist who tends towards bad behavior on European-city trams.

 

Q: In a review of the book in The Guardian, Daisy Hildyard called it "gripping, composed, observant, wonderfully written and extravagantly cruel." What do you think of that description?

 

A: I love it, it’s everything I could have hoped for. Daisy’s review has been a total highlight of the publishing process.

 

I think she’s absolutely right too - it is a cruel book, or at least at times it can be. I know it can be a hard book to read. I was trying to create an experience, trying to get inside this one woman’s head, even more than I was trying to write a story about what happened.

 

Sometimes the project of writing the book felt a little cruel too, like I was pinning down this person who was hiding something and slowly picking her apart. Which, I suppose I was. I think there’s a balance to the cruelty though, which is that it’s also a book about a woman who is having a hard time but still trying her best.

 

As a bonus, The Guardian review got me reading Daisy’s book, The Second Body, which is absolutely stunning.

 

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

 

A: I had no idea how the book would end when I started it! I was just writing down sentences and seeing where they went.

 

I remember this overwhelming moment though when the ending clicked for me. I wasn’t even thinking about Erika at the time, I was just driving towards the lake. It was one of those gorgeous days in Geneva when the sun bounces off the water, and it hit me, this awful, I-don’t-think-this-is-going-to-be-ok, feeling about it all. It was one of those surreal moments where the characters take over and you just sit back and watch.   

 

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

 

A: I took the title from Emily Dickinson’s poem “The Soul Has Bandaged Moments.” It’s a great poem and it’s really integral to the book for me.

 

As others have pointed out in their analyses of the poem, bandages signal both injury and safe keeping. The location of a wound, and its concealment. Erika is pointing at something in Little Bandaged Days, but she’s also covering it up. She’s torn between the desire to disclose and her inability to take stock of herself. She wants to talk, but she can’t look herself in the eyes.

 

The title also evokes for me those strange quiet days with young babies where we’re tired and tender and constantly swaddling and re-swaddling them.

 

The last lines of the poem deal with what can and cannot be said about the things that haunt us, so it’s not just the title of the book that is tied up with “The Soul Has Bandaged Moments”, but the ending as well.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’m working on a modern-day take on the Hesperides - three girls trapped in a garden at the Western edge of the world. There are dogs and golden apples and social theory and caves and of course, a dragon just like in the myth.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: Just that I’m incredibly grateful to all the people who helped me turn Little Bandaged Days into the book it is, and to the people who have reached out to me after reading it. It’s been amazing, thanks!

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Allison Cobb

 

 

Photo by Studio XIII Photography

 

Allison Cobb is the author of the new book Plastic: An Autobiography. Her other books include After We All Died. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

 

Q: What inspired you to write this book, and what role do you see plastic playing in the state of our environment today?

 

A: I work for an environmental organization, and over the years I kept coming across images and news about plastic waste and pollution that I couldn’t forget.

 

Plastic is so pernicious because it essentially never breaks down, and research has revealed the ubiquity of plastic pollution, in Arctic sea ice, in the deepest part of the ocean, and falling as an invisible rain across the entire planet. 

 

It is also in us: scientists estimated that people eat and breathe as many as 74,000 microplastic particles every year. And new research in Italy found microplastic particles in placentas from healthy human pregnancies.

 

Plastic is an extremely concrete and chilling illustration of the fact that our entire system of capitalist profit and production is based on waste, but our technologies now span the globe.

 

It is not possible to throw things “away.” Whatever we discard—climate pollution, plastic waste, toxic chemicals—ends up returning to us through our planet’s vast circulatory system, of which we are a part.

 

Q: How did you decide on the book's structure?

 

A: I knew that I wanted the book’s structure to mirror what I was trying to communicate: that humans can no longer behave as if we are single individuals. Like trees, or fungus, or coral, we are ecosystems and webs, and all we do affects every other part.

 

I tried to achieve that by writing the book in brief sections that I interwove together—not in a narrative or chronological way, but more associatively and through juxtaposition.

 

The book’s structure asks readers to think about what a chemist in 19th century London might have in common with my grandfather, a World War II soldier from Illinois, and what both of them might have to do with the large plastic car part I found in my front yard. 

 

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

 

A: We live in a society so deluged with imagery and information that even the worst atrocities—children dying in cages on our borders, mass shootings—get lost in the landscape of noise.

 

I find it so easy to become numb, disconnected—especially when things feel overwhelming and hopeless. Those who benefit from the status quo depend on that numbness, in a way, to continue business as usual.

 

It keeps us from asking questions like “Shouldn’t corporations be held accountable for the plastic waste they produce, which will last essentially forever?” Our society functions by normalizing atrocity and denying crisis.

 

The book is, in a way, my own chronicle of shaking off numbness and locating hope. I find it in the friends and people I meet—nearly all women of color—who are leading struggles to stay alive and continue life in the face of violence, pollution, and destruction.

 

In the book I come to understand the struggle as an act of love that is very powerful:

 

“Love, aching love, for a wounded world that continues to hold and nourish us, love for an albatross obeying its ancient mandate to incubate a future life, even as blows rain down on it, love for the individuals who have blessed me with their friendship, a word that comes from the ancient root for “loving” (*priy-ont) friend: the present participle form of love, love in action, ongoing. It is this that comprises hope, the base condition for life, which means “to remain, continue.”

 

Q: As someone who's worked on environmental issues, what do you see looking ahead?

 

A: I think we are going to need a widespread, powerful, love-fueled struggle to achieve the transformation that is necessary to remain on a viable planet. Nearly all of the terms of our civilization—our economy, our way of life—must change. I see really awesome possibility in this.

 

As the great poet and activist Audre Lorde wrote, this will require us to also change how we conceptualize solutions. Our fundamental solutions will not be technological, based on science, they will be based on our ability to feel, and from our deep felt sense, to act, to imagine a future radically different from the present.

 

Lorde wrote: “As they become known to and accepted by us, our feelings and the honest exploration of them become sanctuaries and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas.”

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’m returning to poetry. Plastic is steeped in nonfiction writing, in witnessing and recording.

 

I am going to a deep place now to plumb some of the emotional work that needs to be done, to navigate what it means to live simultaneously in deep grief for a world where we are losing so much, and to operate from joy and for love of all of it.  

 

This is work poetry can do most powerfully and economically.

 

In the same essay quoted above, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” Lorde writes: [Poetry] forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought….Poetry is not only dream or vision, it is the skeleton architecture of our lives.”

 

The human species needs a new architecture for our lives, and it is going to take a great act of mass imagination to achieve it. Under the sign of Audre Lorde and other poets and writers who are my heroes—Emily Dickinson, Kathy Acker, Susan Howe, Alice Notley, Claudia Rankine—I’m continuing to do the work of my small part. 

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Maryanne O'Hara

 

 


 

Maryanne O'Hara is the author of the new book Little Matches: A Memoir of Grief and Light. It focuses on the loss of her daughter Caitlin, who had cystic fibrosis. O'Hara also has written the novel Cascade. She lives in Massachusetts.

 

Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir, and how would you describe your relationship with your daughter?

 

A: I needed to write from inside real-time grief, to make a record of that grief, and at the same time, ask the big life questions that had always preoccupied my fiction. I also wanted to immortalize my sage of a daughter, share her words, and document who she was before time and memory beatified her.

 

Caitlin and I were very close –– in a healthy way. I was never happier than when she was doing well and living on her own, but whenever she became sick, I was there for her. Always.

 

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

 

A: I wanted the title to reflect the main arc of the book, which was the “great revelation” I was seeking, the answers to the questions I was asking, the light I was trying to find. The title comes from a passage near the end of To the Lighthouse.

 

“What is the meaning of life? That was all - a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.” 

 

The final third of the book is where grief and light come together. It’s about coming to see that grief can coexist with joy. I’m always going to grieve Caitlin, and I’m going to honor her life—all life—by keeping her spirit alive in a positive and joyful way.  

 

As Caitlin herself wrote, in her last post, “I want to reassure you I don’t take myself too seriously. I do take life seriously though, I’ll be honest... because it’s a seriously wild business.”

 

Q: How did writing the book affect you, and what do you hope readers take away from the book?

 

A: I suppose it has made me braver. I have published fiction––short stories and a novel, with zero interest in writing about my real life, in baring all, so to speak. It’s a noisy world out there, and it can be cruel.

 

But this baring of all is for my daughter, and for the people who will read it. I hope that readers will come away from the book with a fresh appreciation for the good in life.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: In Little Matches, I recount the remarkable coincidences of how I came to be connected to Mallory Smith and to Dr. David Weill, former head of Stanford’s lung transplant program.

 

Mallory, a writer, did not survive her lung transplant either, and after her passing, her mother ensured that her memoir was published posthumously (Salt in My Soul, Penguin, 2018).

 

David has his own medical memoir publishing in May (Exhale). The three of us are currently creating a talk we will offer to medical audiences: Patient/Parent/Provider: 3 Perspectives, One Purpose. A Model for Collaboration in Medicine.

 

I will also return to the novel I was close to finishing when my daughter died. She was my best reader and was eager for me to finish it. Ironically, it is about the ambiguities of memory and record-keeping. I want to dedicate it to her.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I would love it if people also came away from reading Little Matches with a positive sense of the fact that we are all temporary, that the arc of a human life is a blink in time. I do think that by acknowledging the inevitability of our mortality, we can actually better enjoy the time we are alive, and live with meaning and purpose.

 

Q: Many thanks, and all my sympathy on the loss of your daughter.

 

A: Thank you so much, and thank you for hosting me and for helping me keep her memory alive.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 20

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
April 20, 1920: John Paul Stevens born.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Q&A with Melanie Ellsworth

 

 

Photo by Amy Wilton

 

Melanie Ellsworth is the author of the new children's picture books Clarinet and Trumpet and Hip, Hip...Beret!. She has worked as an ESOL teacher and literary specialist, and she lives in Maine.

 

Q: What inspired you to write Clarinet and Trumpet? Why did you choose those two instruments as the main characters?

 

A: Clarinet and Trumpet is based on my own musical journey growing up.

 

When I started writing picture books, I wondered how I might share that experience and at the same time address what I perceived as a bit of a musical gap in the picture book market. I had also been wanting to write a friendship story. So I combined the two ideas and created a friendship between Clarinet and Trumpet.

 

I started playing the clarinet when I was in fourth grade, and throughout elementary, middle, and high school, I sat right in front of the trumpet section in band.

 

Sometimes the trumpets were so loud (particularly in elementary school) that we woodwinds couldn’t hear ourselves at all, but the rivalry was always good-natured. So I thought a story featuring a clarinet and trumpet who were friends that temporarily got out of tune with each other would be fun to write.

 

For me, and for many people, music summons up strong emotions and memories, and I hope readers can feel that emotion in the book – all those ups and downs. But I didn’t want the book to be too heavy, so I added humor through musical word play and instrument antics.

 

The book can be a teaching tool for talking about instrument families, but it also has a broader theme around belonging to groups while also being part of a bigger, broader community.

 

Most of all, I hope Clarinet and Trumpet reminds readers that we need everyone’s voice at the table to create something amazing, just as a band needs all its sections to make music.

 

Q: You also have another new picture book, Hip, Hip Beret!. How did you come up with the idea for the beret's journey?

 

A: This book came from playing around with the phrase, “Hip, hip hooray!” and exchanging the “hooray” for various rhyming words. I came up with lots of silly book ideas but eventually settled on “beret” as the rhyming word and concept to focus on.

 

I think one of my brief brainstorms had to do with a guinea pig who wants a beret and travels far and wide looking for one. Early on in the brainstorming process, though, I realized that the beret itself should do the traveling. I imagined a windy day and the beret being carried from one head to another.

 

Each repeating “Hip, hip…” phrase needed a different rhyming end word, so that phrase formed the structure of the book, and those rhyming word choices dictated where my beret could travel and who it might meet along its journey.

 

This book is really all about the joy of playing with words, and I hope it inspires readers to do the same. And maybe to come up with a few more words that rhyme with “hooray!”

 

Q: What do you think the illustrations (by John Herzog and Morena Forza respectively) add to the books?

 

A: John Herzog’s illustrations infuse emotion, energy, and humor into Clarinet and Trumpet. The characters seem to be jumping off the page. I can almost hear them tooting their horns and making music! (The built in rainstick-like shaker in the book’s spine helps with that effect, too!)

 

I imagine it’s a huge challenge to bring objects to life, but John did. And I love how he added things never referenced in the text, like a metronome that skips around on some of the pages. My sister thinks that’s the cutest character in the book!

 

Morena Forza combined digital and hand-drawn art in a really unique way in Hip, Hip…Beret! Each little cobblestone on the street on the cover is individually drawn.

 

The book spans a full year, and I love Morena’s use of vivid colors that reflect each season. Her characters are full of joy, and she included a few of her own pets in the illustrations.

 

When we finally met on Zoom after the book was published, she told me that the other girl in Bella’s birthday scene is based on a photo of Morena when she was a child. With her warm, whimsical art, Morena perfectly matched the playful tone of the text.

 

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

 

A: Picture books were an instrumental (😊) part of my childhood, and I was lucky to have an ample supply from my library growing up. I brought a big bag of picture books to all my babysitting jobs – I could count on a child connecting with at least one of them and giving me a few quiet, calm moments on the job.

 

I think the first picture book I actually wrote was when I was traveling in my mid 20s through Kenya, and I was inspired by a particular type of tree in the Kakamega Rainforest. I wrote that book for fun, and a friend traveling with me illustrated it.

 

Later, I worked at an educational publishing company, then taught ESOL and worked as a literacy specialist, so I think the educational aspect of picture books has always interested me.

 

But I like how picture books can educate very subtly in a format that’s fun and filled with beautiful art. Themes of kindness, friendship, sharing, cultural exchange, understanding others, etc. can be introduced and shared with children and enjoyed by adults, but as a story, rather than a lesson that must be taught and learned. 

 

When you come across an old picture book that you loved as a child, you get this almost magical, tingly feeling. Perhaps that comes from a combination of memories: the cuddling while being read to, pouring over the art, and being empowered as a child to “read” the story through the art even before you could understand the letters and words.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I have lots of new ideas I’m excited to make into picture books, and I’m revising a few stories. My agent has several picture books on submission as well.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I’ll be doing a webinar event on May 5 through Print: A Bookstore (Portland, Maine) with illustrator John Herzog, and we’ll be talking about the making of Clarinet and Trumpet. I hope anyone interested in learning more about creating a picture book will come Zoom with us!

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Giles Sparrow

 

 


 

Giles Sparrow is the author of the new book A History of the Universe in 21 Stars (and 3 Imposters). His many other books include The Traveller's Guide to the Solar System. He is based in the UK.

 

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

 

A: I’d had the idea of doing a book that told the story of the Universe through a couple of small handfuls of stars for a long time - the real question was just how few I could get it down to and still tell all the stories I wanted to tell.

 

Once I had a list of the different types of stars I needed to talk about, visibility was the main guiding principle: obviously if you want to tell the whole story of the Universe youre sometimes going to have to deal with stuff thats too faint or far away to spot with the naked eye, but I wanted as many of them as possible to be either really bright and obvious stars or at least ones that you can find your way to with a map and some fairly simple directions.

 

The second issue was to find stars with interesting stories: you could just write a guidebook that simply tells people what these objects are, but I think it’s much more interesting to explain how we’ve come to understand them, and the smart ideas and lateral thinking that have led to our current knowledge of the cosmos.

 

Q: What differentiates the stars you discuss from the imposters?

 

A: The three imposters are objects where I cheated a little. All of the individual stars we can see in the sky are members of our Milky Way galaxy, so to get beyond that and tell the wider story of the Universe, I needed to look at things that are fainter and farther away.

 

Fortunately there were these three objects that have all been mistaken for stars at one time or another – a star cluster orbiting the Milky Way, the famous Andromeda Galaxy, and a distant, violent galaxy called a quasar – which filled out the gaps perfectly and meant I didn’t have to bend my self-imposed rules too far!

 

Q: The book includes information on the origins of the stars' names--are there a few that you find especially fascinating?

 

A: Star names come from a strange mix of historical accidents and stamp collecting.

 

A lot of the brighter ones have names that come from Greek, Latin, or Arabic, but when astronomers started to make the first detailed star charts after the invention of the telescope and the first European trips to the southern hemisphere, they found there were a lot more stars to catalogue and came up with various ways of filling out the gaps – a mix of Greek letters, numbers and the odd new proper name.

 

I think my favourites, however, are much more recent – there are three fairly bright stars scattered across the sky that were used for navigation during the Apollo moon programme, and they’re nicknamed Navi, Dnoces, and Regor, all of which are hidden references to the three astronauts, Grissom, White, and Chaffee, killed in the Apollo 1 launchpad fire of 1967.

 

Q: What first intrigued you about astronomy?

 

A: I’ve been fascinated by space for as long as I can remember - I think my grandma might be to blame because she’d taken a night class and used to keep the monthly sky guide from the newspaper.

 

I think it’s hardwired into us to be fascinated by our place in the Universe and I find it intriguing hat it’s often one of the first areas where kids start asking those sciencey “why” questions, just as it was the first real topic that our ancient ancestors tried to get a hold on in a semi-scientific way.

 

For me personally, the first time I remember wondering about the night sky was sitting in the back of my parents’ car at night and wondering how the Moon “kept up” with us while everything else raced past at different speeds.

 

Obviously I didn’t know then that astronomers had asked the same question centuries before, and had been using the basic principle, called parallax, to work out the distance to stars since the 19th century.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’m currently deep in research for what should be a really lovely project – a facsimile of a gorgeous 18th-century star atlas for which I’m providing a modern commentary and explanation – there’s a lot of Latin to decode but it’s fascinating to immerse yourself in the mindset of the time, and see how a lot of our modern theories of the Universe began to evolve.

 

I’m also planning out a follow-up to 21 Stars that will focus more on planets and moons in our solar system and beyond.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I guess for me, one of the most exciting things about astronomy is how we glean so much from the light of distant stars – partly through technology, but also simply through asking clever questions.

 

Outside of the solar system every other star in the Universe is so far away that we can’t ever hope to study it up close – instead we just have to work with the light we’re given, which spends decades, thousands, even millions of years crossing vast expanses of space only to end up exciting the nerves on our retina or pixels in a camera.

 

I finished this book in the midst of last year’s first coronavirus lockdown and remember thinking then how amazing it is that people who can’t be together in person can still stand outside and come together by sharing the same starlight.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Emanuel Rosen

 

 


 

Emanuel Rosen is the author of the new memoir If Anyone Calls, Tell Them I Died. It focuses on the impact of the Holocaust on his family. His other books include Absolute Value. Born in Israel, he worked as an executive in Silicon Valley, and he lives in Menlo Park, California.

 

Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir, and how long did it take you to write it?

 

A: I decided to write it 10 years after my mother died. I found letters my grandparents had sent her from a trip they took to Germany in 1956 which ended tragically with the death of my grandfather.

 

My mother had told me about the suicide, but I realized the letters might have the key to why. I had someone translate the letters from German, I went to Germany, and I retraced the journey.

 

I started this in 2003, and wrote a version in Hebrew. It was a very different book. I sent it to family in Israel and people corrected things. I had two other business books I wrote, and then a couple of years ago I came back to this project.

 

Q: How much did you know about your family history growing up?

 

A: Growing up, almost nothing. I knew the basics—that my grandfather was a lawyer, that was a source of pride in the family. They came to Israel, then Palestine, in 1933.

 

I didn’t know about the suicide. I knew very little. In the early years, very little was discussed of the Holocaust in Israel. When I was in fifth grade, I would say, no, I didn’t connect the Holocaust to my family.

 

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

 

A: The early version was called something like Insult and Happiness, representing my grandmother, who was overall a happy person, and my grandfather, who was hurt deeply by their uprooting.

 

With this version, I started with The Partners. The partnership was between my mother and her father, the dream of being partners in a firm in Germany.

 

But I never wanted to write the book as too dark—there’s no way to avoid that when writing about such subjects, but I wanted to inject some light.

 

It was something my mother would say. It’s something that has other meanings—it’s a book about suicide—but there’s also a connection to funny things she and her mother had.

 

Q: What kind of research did you do to write the book?

 

A: I started by translating the letter. Then I read books about the period. I knew quite a lot about the Holocaust, but there were things I didn’t know about the Yekke [German-speaking Jewish people] community in Israel, and the different personalities in the community.

 

There was a folder of information about the lawsuit my mother instituted [in Germany]—I had to hire a translator again. It was a very thick folder, with psychological and legal terms.

 

And the trip itself—I visited archives, but it was mainly to be there, to imagine [my grandparents] being there. It was not the same as when they visited in 1956, but it gave me some ideas.

 

Q: What do you think your family’s story says about the impact of the Holocaust on several generations?

 

A: It certainly demonstrates that even among people who were the lucky ones, who managed to leave Germany in 1933, it still had a big effect on them—uprooting, guilt, shattered dreams. Uprooting had deadly consequences for my grandfather.

 

My grandmother felt guilty about his suicide. Families very often feel guilty about it, and she also felt guilty about her mother, that she let her go back to Germany [before the war].

 

My mother felt guilty about both these things, and she had shattered dreams. She had a dream of becoming a lawyer. That never materialized, though she did work in the law field. She helped people get restitution from Germany.

 

For my generation, it’s hard to assess that. They shielded us. There was a debate over what we should know. I don’t see myself being especially affected by the Holocaust. I’m interested in it, and I want people to know how it affected millions of people all over the world.

 

Q: What do your family members think of the book?

 

A: The ones who looked at the early version are no longer with us. These were people from my mom’s generation. My family now, my age group, they love the book. I’m much happier with this version. It’s more accessible, and it’s in English.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: With the pandemic, I started working on a book about the tension between telling the whole truth and self-control. There’s a term in Hebrew, you just say everything in someone’s face, and on the other hand, there is political correctness.

 

It’s very interesting—it started as a play in Hebrew. I think it will be a work of fiction. I’ve put it on hold the past few months—I’m giving this book a chance to reach people.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 19

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
April 19, 1900: Richard Hughes born.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Q&A with Paulina Bren

 

 


 

Paulina Bren is the author of the new book The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free. It focuses on the history of the Barbizon hotel in New York City. Bren's other books include The Greengrocer and His TV. She is a professor at Vassar College, and she lives in the Bronx.

 

 

Q: What inspired you to write The Barbizon?

 

A: I was fascinated by the scene in Sylvia Plath's novel The Bell Jar when her alter ego tosses her entire wardrobe off the roof of the New York hotel where she's living. 

 

Of course that hotel was the Barbizon (although she renamed it the Amazon in the novel), and Plath did just that, despite having taken great care in purchasing her wardrobe for what she had hoped would be the most exciting summer of her life in New York in 1953. 

 

Once I began to dig deeper, I also discovered that despite the importance of women's residential hotels in women's lives throughout a large part of the 20th century, there is very little written about them.

 

Q: In a New York Times book review, Moira Donegan writes, "Nominally an account of the hotel’s history, Bren’s book is really about the changing cultural perceptions of women’s ambition throughout the last century, set against the backdrop of that most famous theater of aspiration, New York City." What do you think of that description?

 

A: I'm so glad that the NYT reviewer identified this as central to my book. 

 

Ultimately, there is just so much you can say about a hotel, but once you see it as  part of the landscape of women's lives and ambitions, and a marker of New York city and its changes over time, then the hotel becomes a living, breathing entity, and one that the reader can feel a real attachment to.

 

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

 

A: It was very challenging at first (I gave up a few times!). 

 

Turns out, there are no surviving documents from the hotel, and so instead I had to find newspaper articles from the time, scrapbooks, photographs, letters--and of course former residents. 

 

Everything became vital in telling the story; everything was another brick with which to rebuild the hotel, so to say. 

 

My greatest surprise was discovering all these ladies in their late 80s and 90s, former residents of the hotel, who were articulate, funny, and with laser-sharp memories. They were a delight!

 

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

 

A: That there is a history of women's rights but that there is also another history of women's ambition and the two don't necessarily run parallel. 

 

Women have always found a way to try to act on their hopes and dreams, regardless of the impediments. The impediments meant that often they could not succeed, but they tried, and that's saying a lot, especially considering what they were up against. 

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: This is a story that remains relevant. Women's residential hotels went up in the 1920s to help women lead independent lives after World War I and the vote, but the ideas behind the concept are still relevant. 

 

It was key that when the Barbizon was built, there were no kitchens for the residents to use, which meant they could not fall into the role of caregivers, and instead had to focus on themselves and their lives. 

 

I think it's still a struggle for women to focus on their own ambition, and to feel that that's okay.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Daisy Hirst

 

 


 

Daisy Hirst is the author and illustrator of the new children's picture book I Like Trains. Her other picture books include Hamish Takes the Train. She lives in Cambridge, UK.

 

 

Q: This is not your first book about trains--what inspired you to write this one?

 

A: I do think trains are great, but I didn’t mean to write two books about them!

 

When I had the idea for I Like Trains I felt sad because I liked it but I didn’t think I could publish another train book so soon after Hamish Takes the Train. But my publisher and I decided that it didn’t matter because it’s a completely different type of book and aimed at a younger audience.

 

I Like Trains grew out of a series of sketchbook doodles in which a little bear talked about all the ways he or she liked to play with trains, but I’m sure the character was inspired by some real, train-loving children I’ve known. I wanted to capture that particular joy trains seem to inspire.


Q: Why did you decide on a dog as the main character?

 

A: In my original doodles, the character was a bear, but that did seem unnecessarily similar to Hamish (also a bear). I tried redrawing the story with lots of different animals, from mice to rabbits, but there was just something about this small yellow dog – perhaps his or her expressive ears and tail – that stood out for me.

Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, "With sturdy artwork and reportorial language, Hirst...celebrates a young train enthusiast in a story that foregrounds experiences over engineering." What do you think of that description?

 

A: I thought it was a lovely review, and really got what we were trying to do with the book. We wanted to really focus in on all the ways a small child can enjoy their love of trains, through a simple story that’s hopefully joyful and affirming.

 

I like “sturdy artwork,” too. I have different aims when illustrating different books but with this one it felt right to be big and bold, with strong colours and lots of white space.

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

 

A: I don’t exactly set out to convey a message, but I did want to celebrate small dog’s enthusiasm – it happens to be for trains but whatever it is a person loves (as a child I loved rabbits, drawing, stories, swings…) that enthusiasm seems a wonderful thing to me.

 

It was also nice to make a book in which a grandparent is really important.

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’m screen-printing the final illustrations for my fourth book about Natalie and Alphonse, two little monster siblings who first appeared in Alphonse, That Is Not OK to Do!. It’s great to be drawing these characters again – I’ve got so attached to them over the years.

 

I’m also working on some board books, which will hopefully complement my first two, Monster Clothes and Monster Food (published by Candlewick later this year).


Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I Like Trains is aimed at younger children than my other picture books and was an interesting challenge to write and edit because I wanted to keep the story and pictures as simple as possible but still include enough story to make it satisfying.

 

What else? Well, my own favourite thing about trains is staring out of the window, so I was glad we found space to include some of the exciting things small dog sees from the train.

 

Something I’ve really enjoyed since the book was published is that it seems to inspire children to immediately start talking about their own experiences with trains.

 

I wonder if this is because the book is written in the first person, so small dog talks to us directly: perhaps this encourages or empowers children to tell their stories too?

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Daisy Hirst.