Saturday, January 22, 2022

Q&A with Ruth Behar

 


 

 

Ruth Behar is the author of the new children's picture book Tía Fortuna's New Home. Her other books include Letters from Cuba. She is an anthropology professor at the University of Michigan, and she lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

 

Q: What inspired you to write Tía Fortuna's New Home, and how did you create your characters Tía Fortuna and Estrella?

 

A: Many different experiences inspired me to write Tía Fortuna’s New Home. I have been fascinated by Sephardic history and culture since my youth and am now involved with different groups interested in celebrating this legacy and reviving Ladino, the language spoken for centuries by Sephardim or expelled Spanish Jews. I was inspired by the challenge of finding a joyful and poetic way to share this knowledge with children.

 

I was also watching Miami change over the years, a place that seemed magical to me, with its warm ocean and palm trees, when I was a young person. Growing up in New York, we’d visit Miami for a week or two in the summer. For my family, it was the closest thing to going back to Cuba, the beloved home they’d lost.

 

Now Miami is an international city and humble seaside buildings and cottages are being demolished to make way for luxury residences and hotels. I was inspired by the idea of depicting that changing reality and how it is affecting elders and others of humble backgrounds.

 

Tía Fortuna was inspired by a real-life Sephardic aunt who lives in Miami Beach and serves me borekas and other delicacies whenever I visit her. Though she is only about 15 years older than me, I always feel like a little girl around her and that inspired the character of Estrella. But both are fictional characters and the story is fictional too.

 

The book is sprinkled with words in Spanish. My aunt and I always speak in Spanish. That is the language of home for my entire family. Spanish is an inspiration to me as a writer. I am so happy the book is also available in a Spanish edition under the title El nuevo hogar de Tía Fortuna, translated by Yanitzia Canetti.

 

Q: What do you think Devon Holzwarth's illustrations add to the story?

 

A: I love Devon’s illustrations! She makes the close relationship between Estrella and Tía Fortuna come alive, beautifully showing how their intergenerational bond nurtures both of them.


The symbols of Sephardic culture are gorgeously represented, with hamsas, evil eye ornaments, and keys, as well as Tía Fortuna’s lucky eye bracelets, filling the pages. And the Miami setting, with memories of Cuba and other lost homes woven in, is conjured in rich detail.

 

The story takes place during the course of a single day and Devon captures the flow of time, from bright sunshine on the beach in the morning to the orange-pink glow of sunset fading away and the first star shining in the sky in the evening.

 

Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, “Behar’s warmhearted storytelling turns the past, present, and future into a confluence of connections as Estrella realizes her role in a legacy of faith, hope, and resilience.” What do you think of that description?

 

A: It’s a lovely, generous description of the book. As a creative writer, I don’t work from an explanation of what I’m doing, I use intuition more than anything to craft a story. Now that the book is done, I realize I was trying to create a living history in which Estrella, though a young child, can find her place. So yes, past, present, and future do come together “into a confluence of connections.”

 

Sephardic identity can seem so melancholy, with stories about departure and weeping for all that was lost. I wanted to give children a less sorrowful image of this heritage.

 

I also thought about how we tend to view an elder’s move to a “home” or an assisted living as a sad end to a life. But what if it’s another stage of living, and you find new friends that feel like old friends?

 

This all somehow came together in my imagination. I feel that “a legacy of faith, hope, and resilience” is a nice way to weave together the positive qualities I tried to share.

 

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

 

A: I want kids to treasure their relationships with wise elders and to cherish the stories and traditions passed on to them. I also want kids to learn to see each day as precious and unique and to take in all the beauty we’re surrounded with in the world.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I am working on a new middle grade novel that in many ways builds on Tía Fortuna’s New Home. The novel focuses on four 11-year-old girls from different generations of the same family. The girls share a Sephardic heritage, their family driven out of Spain in the 15th century because of their faith.

 

Each girl lives in a different revolutionary time. The story moves from Spain to Turkey to Cuba to Miami. Each must find her own way to rally courage and learn what it means to stand on the shoulders of ancestors who chose exile rather than compromise their values.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: In terms of my life, the most important news is that I've become an abuelita! That has given me a whole new perspective on writing for children. Now that I'm officially an elder, I feel even more drawn to intergenerational stories and hope to tell more of these stories in years to come.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Ruth Behar.

Jan. 22

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Jan. 22, 1788: Lord Byron born.

Friday, January 21, 2022

Q&A with Carla Guelfenbein

 

Photo by Barbara San Martin

 

 

Carla Guelfenbein is the author of the novel One In Me I Never Loved, originally published in Spanish and now available in an English translation by Neil Davidson. Guelfenbein's other books include In the Distance With You. A Chilean native, she has worked as an art director for BBDO and a fashion editor at Elle.

 

Q: What inspired you to write One In Me I Never Loved, and why did you decide to center the book around poet Gabriela Mistral and her partner Doris Dana?

 

A: I began writing this novel while I was stranded in Manhattan for a few months. Those were days of walking aimlessly, talking with strangers, spending hours in a cafe observing, listening, taking notes. This is the scenario where the five women from One In Me I Never Loved emerged.

 

The novel begins with Margarita sitting on a bench - an artwork by the artist Jenny Holzer - in front of the gates of Barnard College, waiting to see her husband appear with one of his students. She is convinced he is cheating on her. She wants to confront him; she wants her life to explode.

 

But before her, it was me who sat on that bench while I was waiting for a friend. Suddenly I realized that some very powerful phrases were carved on its surface, such as: “Push yourself to the limit as often as possible," “Expiring for love is beautiful but stupid.” Phrases that, thanks to the kindness of the artist, ended up being part of the novel.

 

Another of the characters, Anne, the concierge who disappears in the novel, is a girl who I met every morning at the doors of the place where I was staying, and with whom, I felt, a complicity was weaved, even though she would never speak to me.

 

The third character, Elizabeth, the girl who makes love to an older man every afternoon in a room facing the street, emerged from an image, that of my own window, through which I listened to the sounds of the city.

 

The Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral and Doris Dana arrived by chance. When I was writing the novel, I discovered that Doris Dana met Gabriela Mistral in a talk the poet gave at Barnard College in 1945, just after Mistral received the Nobel Prize.

 

I also discovered that Doris Dana lived just a couple of blocks from Columbia University, the same place where I was wondering about. It was too literary a coincidence to pass up.

 

From that meeting in Barnard, Doris began to write and search for the poet, until Gabriela agreed to meet her in Mexico. A love relationship started between them, which lasted until the poet died in 1957. This love is reflected in the hundreds of letters that Gabriela sent to Doris. In her words, the passionate love that united them is evident, a love that the Mistralists have tried to pass off as filial.

 

Once Mistral entered the novel, I was interested in showing that aspect of her that had been forbidden and concealed under the image of an almost virginal, boring woman, detached from the carnal, who does not respond at all to her true nature. I think that knowing this, gives us a different and essential look at her work.

 

Q: What did you see as the right balance between history and fiction as you wrote the book?

 

A: Many of my novels have a political and historical context. Contexts which move with the characters, but which do not constitute its center.

 

This is the first time I interweave fiction and reality in such a literal way. While reading the hundreds of letters Gabriela Mistral sent to Doris Dana, I imagined their intimacy. I gathered from her words that this relationship was complicated.

 

Doris resented Mistral´s genius. She wanted to be a writer and having Gabriela by her side wasn´t helpful at all. All her inabilities and lack of talent to do so, became evident in front of the poetic talent of Mistral. Moved by these feelings of suffocation, Doris would run away from time to time to New York, to her previous life.

 

Mistral herself wasn´t fully happy neither. She always was made to feel insecure by Dana´s youth and beauty. She was 31 years older than her.

 

This was my starting point. I imagined Doris all by herself in the big city trying to be someone, trying to find the lost thread to herself, but at the same time, being followed by the phantom of Gabriela´s love and longing.

 

Q: What do you think of Neil Davidson's translation?

 

A: I think he did beautiful work. Translation is itself an exercise of writing, and Neil himself is a great writer. I admire his prose, his way of constructing the sentences, and the delicacy of his language. I feel some of the passages in the English version of One In Me I Never Loved are even better than the original. I am very grateful to him and to Other Press for choosing him.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: A couple of months ago I finished a novel that will come out in Spanish-speaking countries early April 2022. It explores the limits of passionate love. This will undoubtedly be my most daring novel. Exploring passion meant having to enter areas that I had only touched upon before.

 

In the backroom of the writing of this novel there was always Spinoza's aphorism: "Nobody knows what a body can do." I was interested in exploring the limits of a heart and a body under the influence of passion. What motivates it, what makes it lethal, what power has our judgement, our sense of logic, and our wisdom in dealing with it. And most of all, how disarmed they stand before it.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: One In Me I Never Loved is my eighth novel, and looking back I can distinguish certain constants in them, such as the choral novel. Reality seen through different eyes and experiences.

 

This responds to the idea that the absolute and incontestable reality to which we aspire, does not exist. There are as many realities as there are individuals, and an experience, a shared moment, is never unequivocal, but at most, the sum of the experiences that its participants have from that moment.

 

Maybe another aspect that my novels have in common is that they all focus on the intimacy of the characters. What interests me is what happens behind closed doors, what is hidden, what is shameful, what hurts, what moves us and can´t be said.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 21

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Jan. 21, 1925: Eva Ibbotson born.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Q&A with Jackie Azúa Kramer

 


 

 

Jackie Azúa Kramer is the author of the new children's picture book Dorothy & Herbert: An Ordinary Couple and Their Extraordinary Collection of Art. Her other books include Miles Won't Smile. She has been an actor, singer, and school counselor, and she's based on Long Island, New York.

 

Q: How did you learn about Dorothy and Herbert Vogel and their art collection, and at what point did you decide to write a book about them?

 

A: I watched the Herb and Dorothy documentary. It was an amazing story about a postal clerk and librarian amassing one of the largest modern art collections in a small NYC apartment. Dorothy and Herbert were so charming, quirky and yet, so real and personable.

 

The original story I wrote was inspired when artist Lynda Benglis said in the documentary about the many cats and turtles roaming around Herb and Dorothy’s apartment: “I could imagine being the turtles watching art works come in and out.” So, I wrote a fictional story from the perspective of Dot, a cat, and Albert, a turtle, and how they were inspired by the art as it filled the apartment.

 

Amy Novesky, my editor at Cameron, liked my Albert and Dot story but loved my back matter describing Dorothy and Herbert Vogel even more. She suggested I write the story about them and their art journey. The rest as they say, is history.

 

Q: What do you think Julia Breckenreid's illustrations add to the book?

 

A: The best picture books are those that marry the text and illustrations well. In addition, where the illustrator adds layers to the story not reflected in the text.


Julia captured the essence of Dorothy and Herbert physically and their deep love for each other. The pages are filled with much historical context: 1970s street life in NYC; iconic artists like Christo and Chuck Close. And their amazing journey from beginner artists to trusted mentors and major collectors.

 

Q: Do you have any particular favorite works of art in Dorothy and Herbert's collection?

 

A: I wasn’t a fan of minimalist and conceptual art, or at least I wasn’t sure what it was. However, after watching Dorothy and Herbert mentor these incredible artists like Richard Tuttle, Lynda Benglis, and James Sienna, I began to appreciate the genre. Not to mention seeing Sol Lewitt and Robert Mangold’s work and hearing them talk about it.

 

If I had to choose, anything by Christo and Jean Claude. Their combined artistic vision took my breath away.

 

Q: How did you first get interested in writing children's picture books?

 

A: There are a few things that inspired me to write for children and spurred me on, like my background in theatre, but in the end, I felt I had something to say, and I hoped that someone out there might feel the same.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’m thrilled to announce three picture books--We Are One, Manolo and the Unicorn, and Empanadas for Everyone coming out in 2022 and 2023. Currently, I’m drafting a story about a little indigenous girl and her family from Ecuador. Sort of a magical folklorist story grounded in reality.

 

Visit me: Jackieazuakramer.com, Twitter @jackiekramer422, Instagram jackie_azua_kramer

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 20

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Jan. 20, 1930: Buzz Aldrin born.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Q&A with Diane Chamberlain

 


 

 

Diane Chamberlain is the author of the new novel The Last House on the Street. Her many other novels include Big Lies in a Small Town. She worked as a psychotherapist before becoming a full-time writer, and she lives in North Carolina.

 

Q: What inspired you to write The Last House on the Street, and how did you create your characters Ellie and Kayla?

 

A: I’ve been interested in civil rights issues since the ‘60s, when I was a teenager attending well-integrated schools in a New Jersey town. Although we didn’t use the term “white privilege” back in those days, I was well aware that I had advantages many of my classmates didn’t enjoy.

 

I’ve remained passionate about civil rights and while my books have sometimes dealt with racial issues, the current-day threat to voting rights in the United States inspired me to dig deeper into the subject in The Last House on the Street.

 

Although the majority of white students who worked in the summer civil rights programs in the South in the ‘60s were Northerners, I wanted my main character to have a lot to deal with. That’s how Ellie, a passionate young Southern college student, came to be. She had to buck her family, friends, boyfriend, and society to do the work she was determined to do.

 

My first glimpse of Kayla was as a vulnerable young woman who was approached by a strange, threatening woman in her office. I fleshed her out by giving her a daughter to protect, a husband who died in a freak accident, and a beautiful new house tucked in a spooky forest. I wanted to see what would happen when I threw these two seemingly unrelated women together. That’s the fun part of writing!

 

Q: What is it like having this novel come out at a time when voting rights are again such an incredibly important issue?


A: At the time I started writing Last House, things were not looking good with regard to voting rights, but I still felt hope that fair-minded politicians would prevail. That is apparently not to be. There is a voting rights bill on the table that I can’t imagine will become law at this point.

 

True, people of color are no longer beaten at the polls or forced to take literacy exams or pay a poll tax, but the modern-day equivalents--no Sunday voting (the time when Black voters traditionally go to the polls), fewer polls open in Black communities, limits on mail-in ballots, etc., will have the same impact.

 

I do hope that, in addition to enjoying the story in The Last House on the Street, readers’ eyes will be opened to the injustices we’re dealing with in 2022.

 

Q: How did you research the 1965 section of the book, and what did you learn that particularly surprised you?

 

A: There is not a lot of information about the SCOPE program Ellie participates in online, but I found a great book by Maria Gitin: This Bright Light of Ours. Maria was a 19-year-old SCOPE worker in 1965 and even though her work took place farther south than Ellie’s, her book helped me create the world Ellie inhabited.

 

What surprised me in the early days of my research was that the program specifically wanted white students to canvas Black neighborhoods. Through my research, I gradually understood the reasoning: white students would get more press than Black students would.

 

Q: You set the novel in a fictional North Carolina county. How did you create this setting, and why did you opt for a fictional town?

 

A: I often use an existing place for my novels, but given how negatively I needed this county to be, I had to create my own county and town. In my mind, it’s in the area of North Carolina where SCOPE was actually active. As for the “street” in the title, it is vivid in my imagination, both in 1965 when Ellie’s house is the only one on the kudzu-lined dirt road and in 2010, when the street is full of new, upscale houses.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’m playing with ideas right now for my next book, but I haven’t settled on one yet.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I’m gratified by the wonderful reader and reviewer response to The Last House on the Street. I’d worried that the subject matter would be too tough for many readers, but I’m delighted that hasn’t been the case. My readers are pretty strong, knowledgeable and ready to embrace something different, and I’m grateful to them. 

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Charles R. Smith Jr.

 


 

 

Charles R. Smith Jr. is the author of the new picture book biography Song for Jimi: The Story of Guitar Legend Jimi Hendrix. His many other books include the new middle grade work Hoop Kings 2: New Royalty. Also a poet and photographer, he lives in Poughkeepsie, New York.

 

Q: Why did you decide to write a picture book biography of Jimi Hendrix, and how did you research his life?

 

A: I had always been interested in Jimi since college. He was wild and loud but skilled. I wanted to know how he got skilled and what was the story of his life. 

 

Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, “This creative, impassioned, in-your-face biography is as on fire as Jimi Hendrix’s guitar.” What do you think of that description?

 

A: I think it's a great description. It's written with passion because I had such a personal connection to Jimi and his work that I had to be true to his style and his artistry. 

 

Q: What do you think Edel Rodriguez's illustrations add to the book?

 

A: The illustrations make the book a full experience. Like The Jimi Hendrix Experience. The colors, the lines, the imagery, the style...it's the closest thing to the words coming to life. 

 

Q: You also have another new book out, Hoop Kings 2. How did you choose the basketball players to highlight in this book?

 

A: It's always tough choosing contemporary figures for a book that won't be out immediately. So I used the same formula that I did for the original Hoop Kings. Focus on the best of the best and make sure they are young enough to still be relevant when the book comes out.

 

That wasn't quite the case with Blake Griffin in Hoop Kings 2 since he's on the downside of his career, but I kept him in because he was one of the first players I thought of when I pitched the follow up. I kept him in because his dunks were so electrifying and not many players are known anymore for that singular skill. 

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I'm currently finishing up a biography on the first Black female astronaut, Mae Jemison. I'm also doing a collection of poems on Negro League baseball players using the Hoop Kings 2 format. It's a great way to write a collection on athletes and since they are historical, I get to add that element as well. 

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: Even though most of my books recently have used my writing and poetic skills, I am also a photographer and have illustrated many of my own books. I'm looking forward to branching out in that regard and using my visual storytelling skills to illustrate more of my work in as unique a way as possible. So keep your eyes peeled!

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 19

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY

Jan. 19, 1809: Edgar Allan Poe born.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Q&A with Jacquelyn Mitchard

 


 

 

Jacquelyn Mitchard is the author of the new novel The Good Son. Her many other books include The Deep End of the Ocean. She has taught at various universities, including the Vermont College of Fine Arts, Miami University of Ohio, and Western New England University. She lives on Cape Cod.

 

Q: What inspired you to write The Good Son, and how did you create your character Thea?

A: I was standing in a coffee line at a big hotel where I was speaking at a writer’s conference when the woman in front of me dropped her book; I picked it up and asked if she was attending the conference. No, she told me, she came every weekend to visit her son, who was in prison not far from here. He was just 19 years old. Her son had murdered the only girl he ever loved, while so strung out on drugs that he didn’t even remember.

 

She went on to tell me that one day, when she was in their hometown cemetery bringing roses to the girl’s grave, the girl’s mother appeared. The boy’s mother was terrified, but the two, who’d once been good friends, fell sobbing into each other’s arms. The mother of the lost girl then said the most heart-wrenching thing. “At least,” she told the boy’s mother, “You can still touch him.”

 

I couldn’t turn away from this woman, and I could entirely understand her actions. Years before, I’d heard a speech given by Sue Klebold, mother of the Columbine school shooter Dylan Klebold. As she spoke, I knew people wondered, how could she still love this monster? There was no doubt in my mind, however, that if I were she, I would still love my own child inside the monster. I would never give him up.

 

There are all sorts of twists and turns in this story so you don’t know what really happened that night … but I knew for sure that I wanted to create a character who was living that apparent contradiction and that is how I thought of Thea. In the story, she says that nothing in her life had prepared her for anything except moderate good fortune, but then the bottom falls out and she is only an ordinary person who has to face the unthinkable.


Q: What do you think the novel says about the prison system, and about post-prison life?


A: The son in this book, Stefan, actually had a pretty easy time in prison -- and if you read what he went through, you’ll realize how much this says about what prison can be, especially for people who are very young and inexperienced. Stefan was only 17 when he went in and 20 when he came out. Of course, prison isn’t supposed to be a good time: The goal is to punish someone for doing wrong.

 

For most of the people in there, though, it’s just an extension of a life that was already filled with punishment. The component of “rehabilitation” is largely non-existent … and yet, how would that even work? Prisons are schools for criminal behavior and also for becoming an institutional creature. When people are released, they re-offend; they have no ability to find their way in a community that doesn’t want them; they sometimes commit suicide.

 

I guess the ideal kind of prison would be one in which everyone did real-world work every day and was compelled to participate in some kind of education … but again, how would that work for people whose lives were always chaotic and structure-less? I don’t know the answers. 


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 knew exactly how it would end … that’s one thing I always know.


Q: Did you learn anything surprising as you researched the book?

 

A: I was surprised to learn that the severest challenge of being incarcerated is staying mentally fit … it’s very easy to lose your reason.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’m working on a story about a young woman who’s a globe-trotting underwater photographer who goes home to visit her widowed father -- and her best friend since eighth grade. She hasn’t seen them for a long time and she has a huge unexpected surprise for them … but she could never have imagined the surprise news each of them has for her, not if she had a hundred guesses.


Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: This book is a departure for me … I’ve never written anything resembling a “thriller,” so … although this doesn’t have car chases and letter bombs, you definitely have no idea of “the truth” until the very, very last pages.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Shauna Robinson

 


 

 

Shauna Robinson is the author of the new novel Must Love Books. She worked in the publishing industry, and she lives in Virginia. 

 

Q: What inspired you to write Must Love Books, and how did you create your character Nora?

 

A: The initial inspiration for Must Love Books was an idea about a single moment: a lowly assistant ordering the wrong sandwich for someone she needs to impress. I thought that would be an interesting way for two people to meet. The other details unspooled from there.

 

I set it in the publishing industry because I was already familiar with it--and then, since it was taking place in publishing anyway, I thought I may as well paint a grim view that reflected my reality. And thus Nora the jaded editorial assistant was born!


Q: You write that "because I felt so lost about my career, I'd wished there were more stories about people trying to figure out what they wanted to do with their lives." Can you say more about that, and about what you think the book says about the publishing industry?

 

A: When I started writing this book, I was an editorial assistant and I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life--I only knew that I didn't want to work in publishing anymore. I felt lost, and I felt alone for feeling lost.

 

Many of the people around me seemed to have their lives figured out--or, if they didn't, they seemed to be okay with that. But for me, not knowing what I was going to do next made me feel helpless. Misery loves company, and I wanted to read about a protagonist who was dealing with the same uncertainties I was.

 

Must Love Books shows the publishing industry through Nora's eyes. Nora went into publishing thinking it was a booklover's paradise, and she got a startling discovery when she learned how the realities of the job contrasted with her glittery expectations.

 

In portraying the industry more realistically--which does mean stripping away some of that fun and excitement--I hoped to provide a more truthful view that reflected some of my experiences.  


Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, "The rut Nora finds herself in is not only external, but internal, and while the book starts off a seemingly light read, it turns more serious, with insightful discussions of depression and suicidal ideation." What do you think of that description?

 

A: It's absolutely true that Must Love Books covers serious topics. It was important to me to not shy away from that. If people struggling with depression and suicidal ideation can see themselves reflected in Nora and her experiences, I hope it might make them feel like they're not alone in what they're going through.


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 found the outline I wrote back when I first got the idea for Must Love Books (over six years ago!), and I hilariously stopped outlining before I got to the end. The outline just abruptly stops. I had no idea how Must Love Books would end, but I'm glad I didn't let that stop me from writing! Once I did write the ending, it stuck--the last chapter in the final book is very close to the last chapter in the first draft.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: My second book is in the works as we speak! It's separate from Must Love Books, but people who love books about books won't be disappointed.

 

It's set in the bookstore of a small town with a literary history, from the perspective of a young woman who's working at the bookstore even though she has no interest in reading. Like Nora, our protagonist is in her late 20s and feels lost about where her life is headed, but in a completely different way.

 

There's a lot of discovery about the magic of books along the way--along with some other, more intriguing discoveries!

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Caitlin Hamilton Summie

 

Photo by Alexandra Summie

 

 

Caitlin Hamilton Summie is the author of the new novel Geographies of the Heart. She also has written the story collection To Lay To Rest Our Ghosts, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Beloit Fiction Journal and Wisconsin Review. She is the co-owner of the book marketing firm Caitlin Hamilton Marketing & Publicity, and she lives in Knoxville, Tennessee.

 

Q: How would you describe the relationship between Geographies of the Heart and your story collection To Lay To Rest Our Ghosts?

 

A: I think of the two books as a little bit like sisters. Three stories in the collection inspired the novel, though I have been writing stories about these characters for years and not all are in the story collection. The books share some themes; both include stories or chapters told by male characters; both deal with family, and often the Midwest as home; both ultimately are about hope.

 

Q: How did you create your character Sarah, and how would you describe her role within her family?

 

A: I started writing about Sarah so long ago, during graduate school in 1993 or 1994, that I don’t remember where she began, exactly.

 

I can say that the first piece/chapter/story that I wrote about her was “Cleaning House,” chapter 2 in Geographies of the Heart. At that time, I was in a similar position with my grandparents—not caretaking but watching them slip, watching my life change. I’m not Sarah, and my gentle grandmother is nothing like Catherine, but that experience of pending goodbyes is likely where Sarah started.

 

When I write, I hear a voice or a line. There is no plan initially, so I never set out to create Sarah. She just appeared, and I welcomed her.

 

Q: Some of the chapters in Geographies of the Heart are in first person and some are in third. Why did you structure the book that way?

 

A: I structured the novel that way because that is how I heard the characters’ voices. Also, I think in this very emotional novel, sometimes one needs the closeness of first person, and sometimes one needs the space that third person allows.

 

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

 

A: I felt that the chapter entitled “Geographies of the Heart,” about Sarah and her sister, Glennie, trying to mend their relationship spoke to the core of this novel—the shape of family, loss, definitions of familial love and duty, the importance of forgiveness, the weight of legacies…it seemed this particular story addressed much of what the novel as a whole tries to do. Also, the book is about the various geographies our hearts know.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: Nothing! And it is wonderful! It took me decades to write my two books, and I am enjoying other activities now.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I appreciate this opportunity to speak to you, thank you! I hope people will visit my website, www.caitlinhamiltonsummie.com, and also give my books a read.

 

Small press titles have a tougher time in the marketplace. Give one a try, mine or someone else’s. Small press titles win awards (and yes, even big ones). The quality of small press publishing is astounding, and I encourage readers to branch out.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Caitlin Hamilton Summie.

Jan. 18

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Jan. 18, 1779: Peter Mark Roget born.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Q&A with Tina Cane

 

Photo by Cormac Crump

 

 

Tina Cane is the author of the new young adult novel Alma Presses Play. Her poetry collections include Body of Work. She is the founder of Writers-in-the-Schools RI, and she has taught creative writing in New York and Rhode Island.

 

Q: What inspired you to write Alma Presses Play, and how did you create your character Alma?

 

A: Christopher Meyers, the creative force behind Make Me a World--the imprint at Random House, which put out Alma Presses Play--invited me to write a book, after reading my poetry collection Once More With Feeling. Those poems have a lot to do with an older downtown New York City where I grew up, and Chris was interested in bringing that setting to a younger readership.

 

The broad strokes of Alma's life align with mine in that she is half-Chinese, was 13 years old in 1982, and grew up downtown New York with a crew of kids. I drew on moments from my own experiences, but it was interesting for me, as a poet, to witness how a character develops as the process unfolds.

 

I identify with Alma in many ways, but she is distinct from me, almost in spite of me. I've said I wish I had been a more like her at that age--less chaotic, more self-possessed. I became very fond of Alma and her families.

 

Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, in part, "By leaning into her love of music and creating her own brand of resilience, she learns that while change is constant, she can decide how she responds to it." What do you think of that description, and what role do you see music playing in the book?

 

A: I think that's an apt description. Music, any form of art, can play an important role in a person's life. Certain songs today--some of which are in this book--transport me right back to my bedroom when I was 14 or 15 years old, smoking cigarettes and wearing too much eyeliner.


It's Proustian how deeply some lyrics still resonate with me. I recently remarked that David Bowie taught me as much about poetry as anyone--early on, but even today. Like me, Alma will grow up and have the experience of driving her kids somewhere singing songs in the car that she listened to on her Walkman as a girl.

 

Those sensory experiences also teach us about being a person, about how to move through the world, at what tempo, which rhythms.

 

Q: The novel takes place primarily in New York City. Can you say more about the importance of setting in your writing?

 

A: The setting here was the impetus--the initial, crucial element. Setting, like in the work of Thomas Hardy--which I love--can often serve as a character. Certainly, in Alma Presses Play, the cityscape of a few blocks exerts a defining influence on how the characters navigate the world.

 

Downtown New York during that era was radical and gritty, and often quite dangerous. It informed my approach to the world for years, and is still often my reference point.

 

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 made changes along the way. I didn't know exactly how the book would end until I wrote the final scene.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I am working on a new young adult novel-in-verse for Make Me a World/ Penguin about a Chinese adoptee named Emily who is growing up in downtown New York, but now--during the waning portion of a global pandemic.

 

When she switches to an almost all-Chinese middle school, she experiences a disconnect between her culture--being raised by White parents--and her new peers who are Chinese students leading very different lives.

 

She encounters the work of Emily Dickinson, and ends up using poetry as a way to navigate and understand the changes in her life and the world. I am still working it all out, but that's the rough cut.

 

I am also finalizing a new poetry collection, Year of the Murder Hornet, out in May with Veliz Books.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I like to swim. And I'm itching to go to Rome again.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb