Sunday, May 16, 2021

Q&A with Heidi Tyline King

 

 

Heidi Tyline King is the author of the new children's picture book biography Saving American Beach: The Biography of African American Environmentalist MaVynee Betsch. Betsch (1935-2005) was a well known opera singer before she became an environmentalist. She fought to preserve American Beach, located on Florida's Amelia Island. King lives in Tallahassee, Florida.

 

Q: How did you learn about MaVynee Betsch and what inspired you to write this book?

 

A: I found out about her when my daughter had to do an essay in third grade about a Floridian.

 

She’s such a colorful personality—it was an easy choice. She stuck with me all these years. This was about 2009-10. It was 2011 when I started to write the story.

 

Q: How did you research the book?

 

A: It’s a trap for me! I can research and research. I have to uncover every stone. It’s like sleuthing, looking for clues. I get caught up in it.

 

I live in Tallahassee and the state museum here had information about her. I went to American Beach and researched the laws. [Betsch is] kind of the focus of the book, but it’s on Black beaches in America. It’s a book about American Beach.

 

I watched videos, and I reached out to her family, but her sister didn’t respond. I did find a childhood friend.

 

Q: What was the most surprising thing you discovered?

 

A: There’s a video about MaVynee talking about seeing the rope in the ocean [dividing the Black and White sections of a segregated beach she visited]. I thought about that. It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.

 

I thought about [the impact] for kids. It’s such a learning point for a child. I could see the way it would be visualized. I wanted people to see that, and how stupid it is.

 

Q: What do you think Ekua Holmes’s illustrations add to the book?

 

A: Everything! She’s so talented. This book took such a long time—I started writing it in 2011, and got an agent in 2013, and we sold the book in 2015. Our editor wanted to wait to get on Ekua’s calendar, and then Ekua broke her arm. It was a decade in the making.

 

When you read about MaVynee cleaning up the beach, and sleeping on the beach, the illustrations using collage are a natural fit. It makes perfect sense.

 

Q: You discussed the idea of the rope in the ocean—are there other things you hope kids take away from the book?

 

A: One thing I really hope kids get out of this is that an ordinary person can make a difference. The Beach Lady was not ordinary. She went through profound sadness. She was very well respected for her opera singing, and no one knows why she came home.

 

Life is not just one happy stroll—but will you let sadness or disappointment stop you from doing something that really matters? That was the beach for her.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: My next book, Flash, is about John Bonner Buck, the grandfather of bioluminescence. He loved lightning bugs, and wanted to know why they flashed. He became a world-renowned researcher on lightning bugs. His research became the basis for more research—two Nobel laureates built on his work.

 

His story is more about him and his research, and answers questions about lightning bugs but also about the continuum, the wonder, of science.

 

In Saving American Beach, that’s something I also was trying to do. It felt like a very musical story. I learned about the opera. An aria starts out high, and then reaches a low point, and then high again. It’s kind of the trajectory of her life. For her, it was the continuum of music.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: There are little hidden things throughout Ekua’s illustrations. The first time through, you may not catch it. One of my favorites is when MaVynee is dancing on the stage, her dress is the pattern of Michelle Obama’s dress she sat for in her portrait!

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Colin Lancaster

 

 


Colin Lancaster is the author of the new novel Fed Up!: Success, Excess & Crisis Through the Eyes of a Hedge Fund Macro Trader. A longtime Wall Street professional, he is based in London and Miami.

 

 

Q: What inspired you to write Fed Up!?

 

A: Writing a novel is something that I have always wanted to accomplish and was motivated to do by my daughter who is the real writer in the family. I have always been an avid reader and have really admired writers like Michael Lewis.

 

For me, I wanted to capture the extraordinary period of time, fall 2019 to spring 2020, that we just experienced, through the eyes of a macro trader, which is what I know best.

 

To be able to capture this moment in time — and to be able to do it through the frenetic life of a trader during a pandemic — was an incredible challenge. Markets are always alive, but to be able to capture the heartbeat of markets during a period of isolation, quarantine, and fear was really incredible.

 

Q: How much did you incorporate your own professional experiences into those of your characters?

 

A: Quite a bit. Two key characters — Lifecoach and the Rabbi — are based on close personal friends. And, I will say that Lifecoach in real life is a very good beer pong player!

 

And the Boss is like me — at least to the extent that he shares my background. I would hope that people who know me would not think that I am quite as despicable as the Boss. But this was intentional. At the end of the day I wanted him to be this way.

 

He is cutthroat, hypocritical with his team, motivated by money. He likes to talk about wealth inequality and social injustice but doesn’t really care about these things (particularly as soon as he starts making money). But my guess is that some people will admire him.

 

This is similar to Michael Lewis and Liar’s Poker or the character of Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s movie Wall Street (both Lewis and Stone thought that they were exposing the sins of Wall Street; instead many people were attracted to these descriptions of the people involved and wanted to go work on Wall Street).


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

 

A: No, I did not know how it would end and this was something that made it exciting (and challenging) for me. I was forced to react to how the world was changing and it was changing nearly every day in terms of new facts and data about the spread of COVID, the state of the economy, etc.

 

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

 

A: I wanted to use the backdrop of the markets and the pandemic to address some incredibly important issues: I wanted to highlight the excesses in our current world and what I would consider to be a new era of greed.

 

Or as the main character, Boss, would say, "This is much more than Greed is Good. This is steal as much as you can and if you are wrong we will bail you out….”

 

I also wanted to discuss rising wealth inequality and the role of monetary policy in this development.

 

It is interesting to me that the wealth inequality issue is almost always framed as a political outcome. The book tries to make the case that, underneath it all, it's very much a monetary phenomenon.

 

Since the global financial crisis of 2007-2008, the Federal Reserve has pulled every lever imaginable (and then some) to improve the plight of the average American... but the benefits have accrued overwhelmingly to the upper class -- i.e., those who own assets.

 

I wanted to be able to describe this in the context of an entertaining cast of characters!

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: Well, a couple of things. I have another book that is nearly complete. It is a history of macro investing. It’s nonfiction and research based. 

 

And I will soon be back and starting a new project to launch a large new macro business. I love the markets, despite some of the problems that I write about, and you can’t keep me away from them for long!

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 16

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY

May 16, 1906: Margret Rey born.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Q&A with Michele Wucker

 

 


 

Michele Wucker is the author of the new book You Are What You Risk: The New Art and Science of Navigating an Uncertain World. Her other books include The Gray Rhino. She lives in Chicago.

 

 

Q: What inspired you to write You Are What You Risk?

 

A: You Are What You Risk grew out of my third book, The Gray Rhino, which argues that we need to take a fresh look at the obvious, probable dangers that we’re more likely than we think —but not condemned— to downplay, neglect, or outright ignore.

 

Readers all around the world kept asking me how to apply gray rhino theory to their personal lives. Some of them just went ahead and applied it on their own: to health, family, career, finances. This organic response was so moving and powerful that I knew I had to respond to it.

 

But it took a while to figure out how because my professional background is in policy, finance, and business, not personal issues.

 

I finally figured it out when a friend, the CEO of a private equity firm, pointed out how investors tend to overlook red flags like drunk driving or domestic violence even though bad personal risk decisions can bring down companies. 

 

So I started to look at why each person either faces down or ignores the gray rhinos charging at them. Our innate personalities are part of it, but so are the distinct environments, whether in personal relationships, organizations or cultures and societies.

 

That’s how I realized that I had an unusual but important perspective on the feedback loop among our personal, business, community, and national risk taking. All depend on creating a better understanding our relationships with risk and what habits and systems we can create to improve them.

 

And in fact, my policy work was all about making complex global issues more accessible to engage people outside of the insular policy wonk world.

 

There’s a huge cultural element too, both involving societies and organizations.

 

The Gray Rhino quickly became very big in China because people were attuned to risks and the need to respond to them, while in the United States I got a lot of pushback from people who insisted that crises were unforeseeable so-called “black swan events” even when many people had foreseen and warned about them.

 

And certain types of companies attract certain types of risk personalities, for better or for worse.

 

Q: What would you say are some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about risk-taking?

 

A: People often miss an important question about how risky something is: “Compared to what?” Is starting your own business riskier than being bullied by a micro-managing and erratic boss in a job leading to nowhere? Is embarking on a raft journey across shark-infested waters riskier than near-certain death or starvation by staying in a violence-stricken homeland?

 

Risk involves choice. By some estimates, each of us makes 35,000 choices every single day. That’s a lot of choice and a lot of risk.

 

Another common misconception about risk involves stereotypes about gender and demographic groups. If I had a dollar for every time I see women or Millennials called “risk-averse,” I’d be very rich, but I’d still prefer that people stop using that term.

 

Risk-averse means taking the less risky option, all other things being equal. But all is rarely, if ever, equal.

 

A Millennial choosing between paying down student loan debt, keeping a rainy-day fund, or putting savings into a stock market at record price-earnings ratios is more likely risk-savvy than risk-averse by weighing the first two choices more heavily.

 

Similarly, women have a lot more experience taking certain kinds of risks than men do because some choices are inherently riskier for women than for men: walking down a dark alley or potentially making a misstep in a job considered to be “a man’s job,” to cite just two examples.

 

But the research shows that not only are women not more risk-averse by many traditional business measures, they are more likely to succeed as start-up founders. So many investors are taking a big risk by not having more confidence in women investors.

 

So, next time you find your mind wandering toward calling someone “risk-averse,” check yourself: risk-savvy more likely is the term you’re looking for.

 

Finally. people need to be a lot more aware of how many factors change the nature of a risk and our response to it.

 

Professional risk management often is about assessing risks and assigning probabilities to them. But once you get into it you realize just how subjective risk can be.

 

We may think of an adventurer or daredevil or entrepreneur as a big “risk taker,” but all of them tend to be systematic about reducing risks, so that things that would be extremely risky to someone unprepared are much less so for the professionals.


Q: What impact do you think the pandemic has had on people's willingness to take risks?

 

A: For many people, the pandemic has changed the calculations of one risk relative to another. In many ways, the looming evidence of our mortality has led people to take chances that they might not have otherwise done.

 

Just as many people who are diagnosed with cancer and survive change the direction of their lives when they go into remission, many people have responded to the pandemic by seeking to make their lives more meaningful.

 

Others have become more entrepreneurial because they no longer have the choice between a “regular” job and building their own business.

 

I also think the pandemic has made everyone more aware of risk and more active in assessing risks of daily activities that we once took for granted.

 

Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what do you hope readers take away from the book?

 

A: The title comes from its central premise: that your risk choices identify you just as distinctively as a real fingerprint in a forensic investigation.

 

By understanding the sometimes surprising reasons behind your risk attitudes and responses, you will gain powerful insights into how to make better decisions and thrive, especially in a world that right now seems very uncertain and risky.

 

I want people to come away with insights into their own risk decisions and what they can do to be more comfortable with pursuing opportunities and holding back from bad risk decisions.

 

I also want people to take the time to think about the risk decisions that the people around us make, and what we can do to make them more comfortable or more prudent. 

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I want You Are What You Risk to be the just the beginning of an important conversation that goes way beyond what’s between the front and back covers, so my work with this book is nowhere near done.

 

That involves talking with media, speechifying, and giving workshops around the risk skills individuals, organizations, and policy makers need for the future: mindfulness of our own risk fingerprints and relationships, risk empathy, and creating the right risk ecosystems including protective umbrellas that can catalyze innovation, creativity, and productivity.

 

So in addition to the public education element of my work, I may just add back in some policy work.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: There’s a story behind the risk fingerprint on the cover of the book. It’s hard to illustrate an abstract concept like risk, and I didn’t want to use a cliché like a roulette wheel or pair of dice. No thank you.

 

The designer had drafted up something using the Symbol of Chaos, which people from the gaming world might recognize: four two-ended arrows that crisscross in eight directions.

 

My business writer friends “got it” and recognized that the arrows symbolized choices and navigation. But other friends drew a blank and had no idea what it meant. So we went back to the drawing board, trying different maze designs.

 

One was a round icon, which a friend on Facebook said looked like a fingerprint. That was a facepalm moment, since there was a passage in the manuscript about risk fingerprints, which encompass identity, choices, and uncertainty.

 

I couldn’t believe that image hadn’t occurred to me already. As I point out often, we don’t always see the obvious as clearly as we might.

 

Because the book was still being revised, it was a great opportunity to flesh out the risk fingerprint idea more clearly. I am so glad I did because it works so well as a metaphor for our risk choices identifying —even defining— each one of us. 

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Michele Wucker.

Q&A with Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

 

 


 

Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich is the author of It Doesn't Take a Genius, a new upper middle grade novel for kids. The book was inspired by the 2019 film Boy Genius. Rhuday-Perkovich's other books include Two Naomis. She is based in New York City.

 

Q: What inspired you to write It Doesn't Take a Genius?

 

A: After I saw the film, I was intrigued right away! The performances of Miles Brown and Skylan Brooks really made me want to imagine more for Emmett and Luke, to see them beyond the events of the film and write about how some of the events of the film might have had an impact on their identities later on.

 

Q: The Kirkus review of the book says, "The cast of characters is fully realized, distinct, and absolutely lovable, and E’s journey will resonate. An exceptional novel with broad appeal." What do you think of that assessment, and how did you create your cast of characters?

 

A: I'm very grateful for it! I so appreciate a reviewer who has so clearly spent time with a book with its intended audience in mind.


I love creating characters. Dialogue and character are my favorite parts of writing (along with revision), and the main things that get me through the dreaded first draft. I always see my characters in their communities from the start, those communities help fill out the picture of who the main character is -- so the "supporting cast" is equally as important to me. And it's just so much fun!

 

Q: Much of the novel takes place at a summer camp. What appealed to you about that setting, and was DuBois based on a particular camp?

 

A: I really wanted to give Luke and Emmett a space where they could be wholly themselves, "free within themselves" as the Langston Hughes poem goes, to be allowed to have the full emotional lives that often Black characters don't get to have in widely available stories.

 

And as Black children in particular have been through a challenging few years, I wanted to offer a space of joy and reflection and fun. A space for them to be Black without apology, to be joyful in all of the different ways that children and teens can be.

 

Since the film ends toward the end of a school year, I was thinking about summer from the beginning. I thought back to a camp that I'd attended when I was in middle school, and then researched a number of different camps and summer schools across the country.

 

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

 

A: I always hope that readers find whatever they need in a story, and sometimes that can change upon multiple readings. It's one of the best parts of getting to talk to readers in classrooms, libraries, and book clubs, or reading their letters. I love that each person makes their own meaning, and brings something unique and special to a story that makes it something new.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: A lot! I'm writing a few books now, from picture books to young adult, and I'm working on something for TV.

 

In 2022, I have a middle grade coming called Operation Sisterhood, a nonfiction book about the climate crisis called Saving Earth: Climate Change and the Fight for Our Future, a picture book biography called Mae Makes a Way, and my young adult debut, You’re Breaking My Heart.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I'm so grateful for all of the readers, educators, bloggers, and bookpeople who offer time and energy to championing the enduring power of children's literature! Books have always been a lifeline for me, and the kidlit community is a beautiful one; I'm thrilled to be a small part of it. Thank you!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Frieda Wishinsky

 

 


 

Frieda Wishinsky is the author, with Elizabeth MacLeod, of How to Become an Accidental Activist, a new book for kids. Wishinsky's many other books include How to Become an Accidental Genius, also written with MacLeod. She lives in Toronto.

 

Q: Why did you and Elizabeth MacLeod decide to focus on activists in your new book?

 

A: Probably because of what’s going on in the world. This certainly isn’t the only activists book. We tried giving it a different spin—“accidental.” There’s what you want to be when you’re a little kid, and what happens to you personally. Events tossed some people into [activism].

 

Q: How did you choose the activists to include?

 

A: I wanted a real mix of people. There were people like Greta Thunberg and Jane Goodall, who were very clear. Those people come to mind right away.

 

But we wanted to find people who were not as big a name—but what they did was important. Or they were more unusual.

 

I was in the Bowery [in New York City] taking a walk and stumbled on a long skinny garden, the Liz Christy Memorial Garden. I have a nice urban nontraditional garden, and I’m very attracted to gardens and green space.

 

I found that the garden was a national historic landmark. Liz Christy worked for the city and lived in the general area. She saw a little kid about to climb into an abandoned refrigerator in a lot full of junk. She dragged the kid to his mother, who said, Where’s my kid supposed to play? Why don’t you do something about it?

 

And she did. She and her friends tossed out the old junk and got plants, and turned the lot into the first urban city garden. The movement caught on. The only one who gave them grief was Rudy Giuliani.

 

I found it accidentally. I found a lot of the people in the book that way. She was a descendant of [landscape architect] Frederick Law Olmsted, and she died at age 40 of cancer. She seemed like one of these big personalities. The garden has been there from 1973 until now.

 

Pete Seeger is in the book. He’s famous [as a musician] but he also started a movement to clean up the Hudson River, and he was involved in civil rights. People don’t know that about the Hudson, and it’s definitely cleaner.

 

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

 

A: If  you can, do something! One of the people in the book is Josh Wong. We went to New Zealand, and on the way there we stopped in Hong Kong. This was before [China cracked down on the island]. Hong Kong was crowded, busy, bustling, and had a lot of pollution.

 

This was in 2017. A couple of years later, China started clamping down. Josh Wong and other young people did what they could. They marched in huge numbers. In the end, it didn’t work.

 

Do you tell people it’s a lost cause, don’t try? If you can make a change, sometimes it works. You feel better if you try, within the context of what you can do.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: A third book [in the series], Accidental Entrepreneurs. There are a lot of young entrepreneurs. It’s interesting to see which stories you gravitate toward. [Elizabeth MacLeod] has others she gravitates toward.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: We do something unique—we don’t just tell stories, we also introduce how you can be an activist. We have [a list] in the back of the book, of 10 things including “find your passion.” In every chapter, we focus on one of these aspects of how people approach it.

 

[Overall, though], it’s about storytelling. That’s what you remember—the story. Jane Goodall as a kid had a pet chimpanzee, and she loved Dr. Dolittle. Who she was as a kid morphed into who she is as an adult.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Frieda Wishinsky.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Q&A with Brady Hammes

 

 

Photo by Polly Antonia Barrowman

Brady Hammes is the author of the novel The Resolutions, now available in paperback. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Michigan Quarterly Review and Guernica. Also a documentary film editor, he is based in Denver.

 

Q: What inspired you to write The Resolutions?

 

A: I’m the eldest of three boys. My mom is one of nine children and my dad is one of seven.

 

I’ve always been fascinated by siblings and the way your relationship with them changes over time. When you’re young, they’re a constant and occasionally annoying presence in your life. But as you grow older, those relationships - at least in my experience - change. It’s not a loss of love, but of a kind of childhood closeness.

 

As an adult, we form different bonds - husbands, wives, partners, children - and your siblings can sometimes take a back seat. If you’re living in different parts of the country, they become faces you see once a year around the holidays, maybe a phone call placed on a birthday.

 

With the book, I wanted to acknowledge that drift, while also inventing circumstances that would return them to their youth. 

 

Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, "It almost feels like some kind of novel-writing challenge—can you come up with a plot that brings together ballet in Russia, elephants in Africa, and unemployment in Hollywood? Hammes’ debut proves he can do just that..." How did you create the three Brennan siblings, and how would you describe their family dynamics?


A: I wrote the characters that I was interested in reading about.

 

With Sam, I’d been a fan of ballet for a while and thought it would be fun to write a character who is both emotionally and geographically isolated.

 

Jonah is sort of in a similar situation in Africa. I’ve always loved elephants and saw a 60 Minutes program about a team of researchers studying elephant communication in the forests of West Africa. I just ran with that idea.

 

As for Gavin, I've spent the last 20 years working in Hollywood, and after vigorously researching the other two characters, I wanted to write about something a little closer to my personal experience. The character certainly isn’t autobiographical, but his disillusionment with the entertainment industry is something I related to. 

 

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 rarely know how a story will end. It’s a lot of stops and starts and fumbling around in the dark until I arrive at something that feels earned. With The Resolutions, the ending only came into focus once I was well into the third act. I knew I wanted all three characters to be reunited, if only for a moment. 

 

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

 

A: I would hesitate to prescribe any kind of message, but if nothing else I hope it helps to destigmatize opioid addiction.  

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’m close to having a completed draft of my second novel. Like The Resolutions, it’s a family story but with a larger scope - beginning in 1965 and ending in the mid-‘80s. It’s an attempt to make sense of our current moment - politically and culturally - through the story of an Iowa farm family.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Genevieve Gannon

 

 


 

Genevieve Gannon is the author of the new novel The Mothers. Her other books include the novel The First Year. She is a journalist with The Australian Women's Weekly, and she is based in Sydney, Australia.

 

Q: The Mothers was inspired by real-life cases involving IVF mix-ups. How did you create your characters Grace and Priya?

 

A: I knew straight away I wanted Grace to be a teacher. I thought it would be an effective way to show how patient and caring she is, which would help the reader understand her acute pain as she failed to fall pregnant.

 

By making her the boarding house mistress (inspired by a friend who ran the boarding house at her school) I was able to show a deeper connection between Grace and her students, as we get to see her playing a role that is closer to that of a mother than a classroom teacher.

 

The character developed from there. The only other thing I knew from the outset was that I wanted her to be blonde, for reasons that become clear in the later chapters.

 

With Priya, it was important to show she leads a full life outside of her hopes for motherhood because of the crucial decision she makes ― or rather doesn’t make ― about halfway through the book.

 

We see her working as an artist, and enjoying a relationship with her sister, her nieces and her cousin, and we know she has wanderlust.

 

It’s hard to give too much detail without spoiling the book, but I wanted her first reaction to the big revelation in part 2 to be believable and thought that showing her as an independent woman with a full life was a good way to help sell that proposition. 

 

When I’m writing a book, I usually let the characters shape the narrative a lot. I start with a general idea for a story, but then I create people that I want to spend time with, and let their idiosyncrasies and desires help shape the choices they make, and subsequently the plot.

 

For example, the jeweler Saskia Hill, from my last book, The First Year, was an artist who had married into a family of snobs. Her background, her passions and beliefs inform a lot of her choices, which drive the story.

 

With Grace and Priya I was a lot more restricted because I wanted to tell a story that would engage with several of the common features I had learned about when studying IVF mix-up cases. It was crucial that they both be sympathetic, but also fallible and human. I wanted readers to feel empathy for both of them.

 

Q: What do you think the novel says about motherhood?


A: I wanted readers to feel that both women could be a mother to the child at the center of the dilemma. People can become mothers through adoption, surrogacy, egg donation, and fostering as well as natural conception. Love and commitment are motherhood’s defining features, not just biology or the bonds formed in gestation.

 

IVF mix-ups are shocking and devastating, and they force those involved to answer an unnatural question: When the egg of one woman is accidentally implanted in another, who carries it to term, and they both love and want the child, who is the child’s rightful mother?

 

It’s a question that has only arisen since IVF became common practice, it occurs in only a miniscule number of cases and is by its nature accidental. Therefore those involved have no agreements or contracts to help untangle the emotional ethical and medical problems.

 

Again, without wanting to give too much away, the dispute in The Mothers did have to be resolved, and that could be interpreted as picking a side, but the reason I wrote the book was to explore everything that comes before and after that decision.

 

I based the outcome on real life judgments, and when I first started researching cases of IVF mix-ups my gut reaction was different to the outcome we ultimately see in the book. I tried to show that the resolution was not about the mothers themselves, but the child.

 

Part of what made me want to tell this story is the gut-wrenching and impossible choice that must be made, and I wanted to invite the readers to imagine what it would be like to have to make that choice and contemplate what being a mother means.   

 

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 knew exactly what needed to happen and where the story was going from the moment I started writing, although I did make a lot of changes to the form as I went.

 

For example, we start to see the story from the point of view of Dr Ashley Li in part 2, but when I first started writing the manuscript, she was a character on equal footing with Grace and Priya from the start. As the novel came together, I realised it was more effective to bring her in later.

 

Part of the reason she was initially a more prominent character is that I had become fascinated by the medical staff who find themselves involved in these mix-up cases.

 

I’ve certainly read about unscrupulous and deceitful doctors but sometimes it’s unclear how the error occurred. Or, the clinician followed the guidelines to the letter, and the mistake happened anyway. However, for the purpose of this novel, I came to see that it would be better to focus more heavily on the mothers.

 

I will say that from the outset, I knew I would be writing some scenes of despair, shock, and heartache, but knowing you have to write these scenes and actually doing it is a very different thing. To think that real women were put into the unthinkable positions these two characters find themselves in is unsettling and upsetting and was quite hard.

 

Q: The novel has been out for a while in Australia--how have people reacted to it?

 

A: The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Many people are shocked to learn the scenario in the book is based on real cases, and it’s gratifying to hear they connect with the characters.

 

I often feel I can’t take much credit for it because the thing that makes the story so compelling is the ethical dilemma at the heart of it – and that’s not something I came up with. It’s a real and unthinkable scenario that has befallen a number of unlucky couples throughout the world.

 

There was a lot of interest in the screen rights, which was exciting, and I have been answering the occasional email from the amazing screenwriters who are developing the script.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’m just finishing off the first draft of my next novel, which is untitled, but revolves around a teenager who is injured in a fight, his family, a boy who is falsely accused, and a friend who knows the truth. It is set in sunny Sydney, where I live, but it’s quite dark.

 

I’ve also just written the proposal for the novel I hope to work on after that which brings me back into the world of reproductive technology (kind of!). When I’m not writing novels I work as a journalist, so I’m always coming across interesting people and stories that inspire me.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: Priya’s sister’s name is Vivian – which is my sister’s name! Although the spelling is different because the Viv in the book is named after the cricketer Vivian Richards (though I think I cut that fact out!).

 

The book is also dedicated to my sister in part because I am so proud of the woman she has become, and because even though she is four years younger than me, I feel like I learn a lot from her.

 

In the Australian version I somehow misspelled my own brother’s name in the acknowledgements! Luckily I fixed it for the U.S. edition because he lives in Portland, Oregon, with his little boy who I am yet to meet because he was born during Covid.

 

I would have loved to have visited the States for the book release. I did a semester of my junior year of high school in Virginia and am always looking for an opportunity to come back.

 

I don’t have a website, but I love to share book reviews and my journalism on Instagram: @gen_gannon.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with J. Albert Mann

 

 


 

J. Albert Mann is the author of the new young adult novel Fix. Her other books include the YA novel The Degenerates. She is based in Boston.

 

Q: You've said that Fix was a very personal story for you. Can you say more about that, and about how you created your character Eve?

 

A: Eve was born with large, progressive IS (idiopathic scoliosis) and so was I. We both endured a double fusion of our spines. In our recovery beds, we both developed a relationship with a plastic, department store telescope. Here is where our experiences stop crossing.

 

Creating Eve as a character separate from myself took a long time and was a serious struggle. I used side writing as a tool to separate us. Writing from Eve’s perspective on everything from her spine, to her relationship to her mother, to her understanding of art, helped me bring her into being as a character who was not myself.

 

I believe many writers share pieces of their own stories inside their characters, and the closer those experiences are to their own experiences, the harder those characters will be to write. Although someone from the outside would probably think the opposite is true.

 

Q: You tell the story in prose and in verse. How did you decide on that approach?

 

A: I first wrote the entire novel in prose and edited this way for a long time. But the chapters where Eve was in pain and on medication (altered mental state) felt overwhelming.

 

Physical pain is incredibly difficult to write…and even more difficult to read.

 

Verse allowed me to control Eve’s experience of pain and suffering…slow it down. While at the same time, the use of verse intensified these moments by zeroing in on them with less words. I also used the white space surrounding the words in verse to serve as a hollowing out of these moments and to mirror Eve’s isolation in her recovery bed.


Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says that "this intense, unflinching story asks what it means to be repaired and reveals the forces that bring people back together after being torn apart." What do you think of that description?

 

A: When a reader—and a reviewer is essentially just a reader—“gets” what you tried to do, it’s an amazing feeling. Because this novel was so personal, the reviews felt even more scary. It was almost like my life experience was being reviewed. Although I tried very hard not to see it this way.

 

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

 

A: I hope readers will think differently about the disability experience. I’ve always hated the “walk in another person’s shoes,” saying because I just don’t believe we can do this. We can picture ourselves in their shoes, but then it’s us in those shoes, not them.

 

A better way to empathize is to listen to people, hear them, believe them. Their story is their story, and as humans, we can take that story in to create understanding and connection.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’m working on two works of historical nonfiction…and loving it!

 

I’ve written historical fiction but never just straight-on nonfiction. It’s actually quite intense. There is no veil of “story” or “character” that sits between me and the subject. It’s exciting to give readers an historical experience with this veil removed and thrilling to write. I’d equate the experience with tight-rope walking without a net.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: There are so many fantastic disabled writers penning awesome works for us to read. Below are some of my favorites. I hope readers will dig in!!!

 

Picture Book

 

What Happened to You by James Catchpole

MC [main character] with one leg.

 

Middle Grade

 

What Stars are Made Of by Sarah Allen 

MC with Turner Syndrome.

 

YAs

 

Sick Kids in Love by Hannah Moskowitz

MCs with rheumatoid arthritis and Gaucher’s disease.

 

Finding Balance and Brave Enough by Kati Gardner

MCs with cancer and amputation of a leg from cancer

 

Unbroken edited by Marieke Nijcamp

Anthology of stories of #ownvoices disabled writers

 

Even If We Break by Marieke Nijcamp

Multiple MCs with different disabilities

 

Cursed by Karol Ruth Silverstein 

MC with rheumatoid arthritis

 

Run by Kody Keplinger

MC who is blind

 

The Silence Between Us by Alison Gervais

MC who is deaf, brother with cystic fibrosis

 

The State of Grace by Rachel Lucas

MC with Asperger’s

 

YA Coming out in 2022:

 

One for All by Lillie Owens Lainoff

MC with POTS

 

The Threat of the Hunt by Madeline Dyer

MC with POTS and EDS

 

Breathe and Count Back from Ten by Natalia Sylvester

MC with hip dysplasia


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with J. Albert Mann.


Q&A with Laurie Lawlor

 

 


 

Laurie Lawlor is the author of the new children's picture book biography Fearless World Traveler: Adventures of Marianne North, Botanical Artist. Lawlor's many other books include Big Tree Down!. She lives in Evanston, Illinois.

 

Q: Why did you decide to write a children's picture book biography of botanical artist Marianne North?

 

A: I have always been fascinated by the idea that an artist, photographer, or writer can be a hero—someone who dedicates herself to selflessly explore new lands, plants, and animals in order to share what she discovers with the rest of the world.

 

Marianne North was just that kind of hero. She broke rules in the way she painted and how she explored an amazing range of tropical plants—some of which were unknown by European scientists at the time. 

 

Because she was self-taught in both art and science, she took risks. A late-bloomer, she was 40 years old when she set off on a series of whirlwind journeys across oceans and rivers, through jungles, deserts, and mountains to capture an extraordinary variety of plants in their native environments.  

 

She thumbed her nose at societal expectations about proper Victorian female behavior. Not only did she refuse to stay home, she traveled alone to remote, often dangerous places. I was hooked when I read about the time she journeyed by elephant!

 

A remarkable British artist and botanist, North has been relatively overlooked in the United States—even though she has had one of the longest running, one-woman art shows in history. 

 

Beginning in 1882, more than 800 of her vibrant paintings have been on display at a floor-to-ceiling gallery at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. This tribute to her generosity, skill, and energy provides a stunning, visual tour of the world for visitors—then and now.


Q: The Kirkus Review of the book describes Marianne North's story as "A life full of adventure with a lasting legacy." What do you see as her legacy today?

 

A: North was on the cutting edge of gathering important information fragile plants from remote, often inaccessible places. Several rare pitcher plants were eventually named for her. Sadly, several of her paintings are the last living records we have of plants that are now extinct. 

 

An impassioned environmentalist long before such a name existed; she wrote letters and articles about the environmental devastation she witnessed: clear cutting of forests, water pollution, and destruction of native habitat that affected so many birds and other animals. Her words and her exquisite artwork provide a haunting warning for us today.

 

Q: What do you think Becca Stadtlander's illustrations add to the book?

 

A: When I first saw Becca’s superb artwork, I was totally thrilled. She captures not only the vivid color of plants and landscape, but also the amazing array of tropical animals and insects that enthralled Marianne North. I think Marianne North would be pleased!

 

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

 

A: Marianne North was an avid letter writer to friends and family members her whole life. I found particularly helpful her hand-written correspondence at the Archives Department, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; Somerville College Oxford; and Bristol University.  

 

Paintings, photographs, and her massive autobiography, diaries, sketches were key. Reminiscences by people she met on her world tours were extremely revealing. Everyone seemed to see a different “Miss North.” 

 

I love doing research.  It is my most favorite part of the process of creating a biography.

 

Her list of friends and acquaintances reads like ‘Who’s Who of Famous Victorian Scientists, Writers, and Artists.” She knew everyone from the scientist Charles Darwin, botanist Sir Joseph Hooker, and astronomer Sir Edward Sabine to poet and painter Edward Lear (“Owl and Pussycat”), poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, and Egyptologist Amelia Edwards and suffragist Barbara Bodichon—to name a few. 

 

There were so many amazing individuals in her life, I wanted to include all of them. Space did not permit, however.

 

Other delightful surprises…I found especially revealing Marianne North’s letter from 1883 that included a rare self-portrait. Here she was, 53 years old, perched on a 30-foot high boulder deep in the rain forest of Seychelles so that she could sketch a towering coco de mer, also known as the double coconut tree.  

 

In spite of biting flies, extreme heat and humidity, and uncertainty how she’d safely climb down before nightfall, she was determined not to waste a moment of sunlight to paint. After all, she’d traveled 5,000 miles to find this tree – and she wasn’t going to give up till she was done. That is what I call inspired and heroic dedication!

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: A biography of Beethoven’s piano maker and a fascinating investigation into how a piece of restored land is helping young students rediscover nature. Two very different projects!

 

I have always been very intrigued by the power of the outdoors. Going on hikes is one of my favorite activities—no matter where I am. And among my favorite hiking companions are my curious, young grandchildren and our energetic black Labrador retriever named Lulu. There’s a book there somewhere, too!

 

Thanks for your wonderful questions!

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Laurie Lawlor.