Friday, June 24, 2022

Q&A with Betty Culley

 


 

 

Betty Culley is the author of the new young adult novel in verse The Name She Gave Me and the new middle grade novel The Natural Genius of Ants. Her other books include the YA novel Three Things I Know Are True. She is also a nurse, and she lives in Maine.

 

Q: What inspired you to write The Name She Gave Me, and how did you create your character Rynn?

 

A: Thanks for the question! Part of my inspiration came from the circumstances of my own life. I went into foster care at nine months old and was adopted three years later. As an adult I was found by five siblings I never knew I had.

 

Growing up, I loved to read but never found any books that really spoke to the thoughts and feelings I had about being adopted. Also, as a labor and delivery nurse, there were times I cared for mothers who relinquished their babies for adoption.

 

My inspiration for The Name She Gave Me is a combination of all these experiences. And Rynn’s voice spoke very clearly right from the beginning.

 

Q: The writer Joy McCullough said of the book, “Told in spare, evocative verse, The Name She Gave Me is a love letter to anyone finding their way home.” What do you think of that description?


A: I’m so appreciative that Joy McCullough generously read an early copy of the book. Her description gets to the heart of what the novel is about.

 

In fact, the dedication in the front of the book says, “To anyone searching for their true home—wherever that may be.” I meant it to say that there are many ways of finding your place in the world and the people who feel like family to you and I hope everyone can find that true home.

 

Q: You also have a new middle grade novel, The Natural Genius of Ants. What was the inspiration for this novel, and for your character Harvard?

 

A: I admit it. I’m afraid of making mistakes! And I spent a large part of my adult life living with that fear. Especially since, as a nurse, making a mistake could have had tragic effects.

 

The inspiration for The Natural Genius of Ants was thinking about the consequences of making the worst mistake and how it would affect a family, especially a child in that family. I also considered what we teach our children about forgiveness, for themselves and others, because in the end we are human, and we are all bound to make mistakes.

 

In the novel, Harvard Corson has a huge task in front of him and only a short summer to accomplish it—trying to get his father to forgive himself for a very big mistake. Not only that, but Harvard also needs to keep an ant colony alive!

 

Despite the seriousness of some of the subject matter, I had a lot fun writing this book and getting to know Harvard, his little brother Roger, and his poet friend Nevaeh!

 

Q: Do you usually know how your novels will end before you start writing them, or do you make many changes along the way?

 

A: I usually don’t know how my novels will end until I get there! As I write, I see what is happening, and I write what I see. That means I’m often surprised by new characters that appear and events I didn’t see coming!

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’m working on another young adult verse novel.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: My family lives on 85 acres of woods and fields in a small town in Central Maine. Also, like Rynn’s adoptive father, we grow a lot of garlic!

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Robert Steven Goldstein

 


 

 

Robert Steven Goldstein is the author of the new novel Will's Surreal Period. His other books include the novel Cat's Whisker. He is a former healthcare information executive, and he lives in San Francisco.

 

Q: What inspired you to write Will's Surreal Period, and how did you create your character William Wozniak?

 

A: A brief twinkle of inspiration was spurred by an article I read—a sculptor who had developed a unique style of work learned that his much-admired artistry was actually the product of a life-threatening brain tumor.

 

I thought that a character faced with that dilemma, in the context of a novel I was already contemplating about sibling rivalry within a dysfunctional family, would work well. But now I needed to flesh the character out.

 

Throughout my life I’ve met a number of struggling artists who were eventually forced to find paying jobs in other fields—a few had become teachers of one sort or another, and they came to find that calling very personally meaningful. William Wozniak began to take shape in my mind.

 

Q: Author Michael Rose said, “A Jiu-Jitsu master of literary plotting, Robert Steven Goldstein flips the script on a dysfunctional family comprised of two emasculated adult sons and their cantankerous wealthy father, who, with petulant vagary, reallocates their respective inheritances at the fulcrum of his paternal control.” What do you think of that description?

 

A: It’s very apt. I was especially gratified that Mr. Rose praised the novel’s plotting.

 

Will’s Surreal Period chronicles the often humorous, but sometimes serious and emotionally-moving machinations of an eccentric and dysfunctional family. Like all of my novels, it’s primarily character-driven, but I do believe that Will’s Surreal Period is the most compellingly plotted novel I’ve written.

 

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

 

A: It’s an unwritten rule in the publishing industry that publishers, rather than authors, have the final say on a book’s title. I never before had an issue with this, as my publishers have liked and accepted my proposed book titles, but not in this case.

 

The original title I submitted for this novel was Dali-esque, because the character William Wozniak suddenly and inexplicably begins painting in a style that some people find reminiscent of Salvador Dali. My publisher was unhappy with the title for two reasons.


First, she posited that the -esque served to diminish Will’s work as a painter, characterizing it as more derivative and less original than is actually the case as depicted in the novel.

 

Second (and this was a surprise to me) it seems that Dali is out of favor with some people these days. While many still regard Dali as a great artist, there are others who feel that he was more of a self-promoter who usurped the surreal movement, and that there were actually lots of other artists doing far better work in that arena.

 

My publisher wanted the title to reference surrealism in general, rather than Dali in particular—and she came up with Will’s Surreal Period, because the cadence and implication inherent in that title were similar to a title she’d given a novel a few years back, which wound up selling quite well.

 

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

 

A: First and foremost, of course, I hope that readers enjoy it. That’s really a novelist’s primary duty—to offer readers a book they’ll find engrossing and entertaining. Over and above that, I do think the novel has some good and possibly inspiring things to share about yearning, aspiration, growth, and healing.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’ve begun work on my fifth novel, and am about 90 pages in. It’s shaping up to be more thematically ambitious than anything I’ve tackled to date, and I’m very happy with my progress thus far. Beyond that, it’s probably too early to say much else about it.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: Occasionally, we writers come up with a snippet that continues to amuse us every time we reread it. I just have to share this brief bit-of-business from Will’s Surreal Period, which occurs between Joyce, the director of a senior home, and her friend Sybil, when the two are dining together in a Chinese restaurant:

 

“Sybil, do you remember that handsome younger man I told you about who made a pass at me in my office at the senior home?”

 

“You mean the sexy art teacher you’d been seducing for months, who you then mercilessly tormented once he succumbed to your feminine wiles?”

 

Joyce tried to stifle a laugh but failed, and the pulverized amalgam of beef, peanuts, and spicy pepper that had already slithered halfway down her esophagus lurched back into her throat, where she inadvertently inhaled just enough of it to send her into a fit of spasmodic coughing. She hacked ignobly into her napkin for half a minute, then finally took a couple of gulps of jasmine tea from her tiny porcelain cup, at which point she felt relieved enough to speak.

 

“Yes,” she said, chuckling and coughing. “That guy.”

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Robert Steven Goldstein.

Q&A with K.B. Jensen

 


 

K.B. Jensen is the author of the new story collection Love and Other Monsters in the Dark. Her other books include A Storm of Stories. She lives in Littleton, Colorado.

 

Q: Over how long a period did you write the stories in Love and Other Monsters in the Dark?

 

A: It has been a long journey assembling this collection with the threads of love and horror. I’d say over half of Love and Other Monsters in the Dark was written during the pandemic, and this is when the theme found its shape. A ton of revision happened during this time.

 

Some first drafts of the stories go back well into the before times. I wrote a first draft of “The Hoarder” about 10 years ago at a writer’s circle at an old mansion taken over by artists in Chicago.

 

“Grandma,” which won an award around the time I moved to Denver, well, the first draft was written eight years ago at class, and during a time when Ebola was all over the news, hence the reference to Ebola.

 

“Paper Dolls” is the oldest story in the collection and was actually written when I was in my late 20s, I believe. It was a time when I was so tired of being objectified that I actually looked forward to becoming less attractive. I had to do some updating to that story as my writing style has evolved.

 

Some stories were written in sessions with Indie City Writers, a writing collective on the South Side of Chicago I formed before I moved to Denver. It was my unofficial build-your-own MFA writing workshop with prompts, live-lit readings, author talks and critiquing.

 

I also wrote some stories during an amazing flash fiction writing retreat in Casperia, Italy, with flash fiction queens Nancy Stohlman and Kathy Fish. If I had a spark for flash fiction before hanging out with them, they doused it with gasoline. I also enjoyed revising and reading my stories at Denver’s infamous F-bomb readings.

 

I’m not a fast writer by any means, and I like stories to ferment.

 

Q: How did you decide on the order in which the stories would appear in the collection?

 

A: Some of the stories felt natural on placement. The opening story, “A Siren in Stone,” was all about excavation and discovery. I felt that it was a good metaphor for what was going on with me as a writer. It was the perfect starting point because of the things you find in your own stories. The whole book is an excavation of my subconscious mind.

 

I tried to balance the light and the dark, the long and the short throughout. I didn’t want a lopsided book, but as you get to toward the end, there are more pandemic stories.

 

The last story, “Arnav and the Apocalypse,” seemed like a natural fit for the ending. It’s kind of a crescendo, a grand finale.


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

 

A: I had the working title for several years. At first it was Love and Other Monsters, a title I loved and felt so natural given the mix of horror and relationships, but then that movie Love and Monsters came out and I was like what now?

 

I also looked at Amazon and realized it would be buried with that title so for the purpose of good SEO [search engine optimization], I opted for Love and Other Monsters in the Dark. I actually like the title better than the original. Because love and monsters are both with you in the dark.

 

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

 

A: Two things. One is that monsters come in all forms. Two is a greater sense of empathy regarding people who are struggling with grief or mental health issues. That’s the power of fiction really, to create a greater sense of empathy and understanding.

 

Nowhere on my back blurb does it say: this book has characters experiencing depression, grief, or mania, and not all of them have that experience, but some do. I didn’t want to be sidelined or marginalized.

 

I enjoy writing stories that are quietly subversive. I want my readers to experience feelings without judging or labeling my characters. I want my readers to see their humanity. 

 

My intention was that this is subtle, not something that’s hammered in.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: The funny thing is I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve already started my next project but I haven’t realized it yet officially. Now is a time for exploration and dabbling.

 

I tend to struggle with commitment issues when it comes to new projects, but poetry has been calling me lately. I feel like my writing just gets shorter and shorter. I started a paranormal novel, but the characters aren’t speaking to me right now.

 

I also have been playing with short memoir style pieces. I’d like to write more about my life but I also feel like I have to live more of it to do so.

 

Like some of my characters, I’ve had some mental health challenges and I’d love to write more about that, but it’s one chapter of my life and a little thread that streaks through my story. It’s not who I am. It doesn’t define me. I feel like poetry might be the best language to tell that story, but it may take me a moment to commit to it.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I have two other books out, Painting With Fire, a crime novel, and A Storm of Stories, which veers literary and handles love, craziness, and impossibility, as well.

 

You may also notice two other books under my umbrella on Amazon, juvenile fiction anthologies written by the kids in the online summer camp program I run with my colleagues at My Word Publishing.

 

It’s an honor to work with these diehard, serious writers. Their first book, A Thousand Feelings, won first place in the Colorado Independent Publishers Association Evvy Awards for juvenile fiction. The second book, Other Realities, is critically acclaimed too.

 

My daughter, also a writer, is part of the program and why I started it. We were inspired to help kids publish when summer camps were cancelled in 2020. When times are hard, turn to art.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

June 24

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
June 24, 1937: Anita Desai born.

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Q&A with Shirlene Obuobi

 


 

 

Shirlene Obuobi is the author of the new novel On Rotation. Also a physician and a cartoonist, she lives in Chicago.

 

Q: What inspired you to write On Rotation, and how did you create your character Angie?

 

A: I’ve written my entire life, but I’ve always been scared to write about a character who was like me. I thought it delegitimized me as a writer.

 

But in medical school, I went to a talk by Junot Diaz during which he spoke directly to the writers of color in the room and told us not to be afraid to speak from experience. And it really opened my eyes.

 

Most writers write from experience, but it’s those of us whose experiences are considered “alien” or “niche” who get scrutinized for it - so often, people assume that On Rotation is autobiographical, or that Angie’s voice is my own, when really I worked quite hard to craft her and it. 

 

Angie Appiah is supposed to represent, in a lot of ways, the average Ghanaian American girl. Her name is like a Ghanaian Sarah Jones. Her body type is what one of my Nigerian friends refers to as a “regular West African” figure.

 

And I really wanted to challenge the concept of Black women, especially dark skinned ones, being strong, capable, and noble all of the time.

 

And so in making Angie, I attempted to create a character who tries hard to be strong and dutiful, but is also profoundly sensitive and, well, young. She’s only 25. She’s figuring out what she wants, and she makes mistakes.

 

It was so important to me to really present a woman with her features, her identity, as fully human and fallible and still deserving of love. 

 

Q: You include very helpful footnotes about medical terms throughout the novel--why did you decide to make those a part of the book?


A: On Rotation is written in a very close first person, but is also chock full of niche info that would be inaccessible to people outside of medicine and those who aren’t Ghanaian.

 

I tried, initially, to include those explanations, in text, but I felt like it rang false– why would Angie interrupt her thoughts to explain what “pimping” was, for example?

 

I’m also biased - I LOVE footnotes in fiction. They feel like little Easter eggs. They’re optional - you could read all of On Rotation without looking at a single footnote and probably still follow the story - but full of little asides that I hope enrich the narrative. 

 

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 actually rewrote On Rotation. The original draft had both of Angie and Ricky’s POVs. But the first and last chapters are largely unchanged. The meat of the sandwich was the toughest part. 

 

Q: How would you describe Angie's relationship with her parents?

 

A: Many eldest daughters in immigrant families will find Angie’s relationship with her parents to be familiar. Angie carries the full weight of her parents’ expectations. They’ve worked very hard to thrive in the United States and to provide Angie with an easy upper-middle class life.

 

(You’ll note that Angie doesn’t really worry about money– she buys clothes all of the time and doesn’t panic about rent when Nia says she’s moving! That’s some serious financial privilege right there!)

 

For many of our parents, self-determination is a luxury, and something they may pursue later in life: survival and success are more paramount. Angie, as the first born, is expected to live that way too to ensure that her parents’ investment lasts another generation.

 

But she’s been raised in the United States, with a different set of priorities and values from her parents, and also without the perspective that her parents are also full people who were once floundering 20somethings! It creates some tension. 

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’m trying not to jinx things, but I’ve got two drastically different WIPs going right now. Both will involve Black female doctors, because I’m probably always going to write about Black women in medicine. We’re a tiny but mighty group, and I’ve gotta represent. 

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I wrote On Rotation to present a point of view that I hadn’t really seen extensively explored in women’s fiction. I hope readers work to immerse themselves in Angie’s mind, her inner thoughts, and try to understand what it might be like to walk in her shoes. They’re a different pair than we’re used to!

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Judith Berlowitz

 

 

Photo by Victoria Mauleon

Judith Berlowitz is the author of the new novel Home So Far Away. She has taught Spanish and cultural studies at a variety of institutions, including Mills College, and she lives in San Francisco.

 

Q: Home So Far Away was inspired by a relative's life--how did you learn about your relative, and how did you research her life?

 

A: First of all, Deborah, I’d like to thank you, for your interest in my book and in Klara.

 

In 2014, I was searching the Internet for all possible Philipsborn relatives for a narrated genealogy project when I happened upon an article, in German, about the participation of German antifascists in the Spanish Civil War.

 

The only woman in the group of volunteers from the state of Schleswig-Holstein was a “persecuted Jew” called Clara Philipsborn. This was the first inkling I had of Klara/Clara’s existence.

 

Digging into genealogical sources (e.g. Ancestry.com) I was able to locate her in Berlin and trace family members down to living relatives, with whom I began to correspond.

 

These contacts provided conflicting results: Clara’s nephew reported that she returned to Spain after visiting him in London in the last months of the Spanish Civil War, and he never heard from her again. He was sure that she had been killed.

 

But Clara’s nieces stated that she escaped to “one of those South American countries” and remained a loyal Communist to her death from cancer.

 

I soon gathered a group of Facebook allies involved in Spanish Civil War history from England, Canada, Spain, Austria, and Belgium.

 

They introduced me to an invaluable source: the digitized archives known as RGASPI (The Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History), and the assorted documents of the International Brigades, transferred to Moscow in 1938 by the Spanish Communist Party.

 

From RGASPI I have gathered 10 documents that mention Clara’s name, about 16 from other sources, about five family photos (Germany) and one snapshot (Spain) housed at the Tamiment Library at NYU.

 

Most of this work was done via the Internet in my isolated little office at home, aside from two visits to the Tamiment and one trip to Spain where I delivered a paper and was able to visit some of the spots where Clara had lived and worked.


Q: Why did you decide to write the novel in the form of a diary?

 

A: All this conflicting information, many documents with serious accusations! I felt in these artifacts the presence of “hot spots” branching out and intersecting like nerves through time and space. How could Clara defend herself and what had she gone through?

 

I had to hear her voice. A biographical study felt like a lifeless undertaking and anyway, there was no documented resolution. The diary format was the most appropriate way to give her a voice within her own possibilities and the limitations of the facts.

 

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

 

A: I think I was partially guided by Ortega y Gasset’s “I am myself and my circumstance.” I also feel the two areas as inseparable so I tried to show the history through Clara’s eyes and through her responses to her experiences, a blend of the interior and exterior.

 

Clara’s inner growth is fueled as much by outer events as by her own development and her background – her culture, her education, her ancestors.

 

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

 

A: Of course I want people to sympathize with Clara, with her imperfections, and to learn and grow with her, maybe even yell at her at times: (“No, Clara, don’t go there!!”).

 

I’d like readers to be conscious and sympathize with some “isms” that guided me, without being doctrinaire. Present in the book are various shades of feminism, socialism, geographic belonging, sexual freedom….

 

I hope people will be motivated to learn more about Spain’s history and culture and about some of the historical characters featured in the book. I would like people to become advocates of historical memory.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I am beginning to draw out some of the “supporting cast” of the book in the form of blogs that will follow the individuals (and their circumstances) beyond the period of the book. You can see some of these on my website. I am also working on questions about my book for possible book club use.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: The ongoing search for stories behind this book has yielded some amazing coincidences and fun anecdotes that I’d love to talk about.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Mark Rubinstein

 


 

 

Mark Rubinstein is the author of the new novel Assassin's Lullaby. His other books include the novel Mad Dog House. He is a psychiatrist, and he lives in Wilton, Connecticut.

 

Q: What inspired you to write Assassin’s Lullaby, and how did you create your character Eli Dagan?

 

A: I’ve always been intrigued by covert operations, assassins and especially by a clandestine organization like the Mossad. There’s something ominous about their activities and worldwide reach; they’ve even been implicated (along with the CIA) in the Stuxnet operation that shut down many of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges some years ago.

 

Eli Dagan just arose from the workings of my imagination as a deadly guy but one with a sensitive soul and a tragic past. To some minor extent, I suppose Daniel Silva’s protagonist, Gabriel Allon, may have had some small influence on me, though Eli Dagan is very different from Allon. 

 

Q: The writer Reed Farrel Coleman said of the book, “An edge-of-your-seat thriller stretching from Israel to Russia to Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, it is a novel both grand in scale and incredibly intimate.” What do you think of that description?

 

A: I think Reed Farrel Coleman’s description of Assassin’s Lullaby encompasses Eli as an individual with regrets, hopes, and anxieties, and as a man who once belonged to a top-secret organization from which he is now estranged.

 

I think his description also makes note of the fact that much of what influenced Eli happened in the context of terrorism and its worldwide presence.

 

His description also takes into account that while Eli’s exposure to terror and criminality occurred years earlier, he must still deal with the reverberations of past events, especially as they relate to contemporary criminals and organized crime, namely Russian organized crime. 

 

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

 

A: The title Assassin’s Lullaby seemed to pop into my head out of nowhere, though it has significance since the word “lullaby” is associated with going to sleep. In a sense, Eli has spent the last 10 years putting certain people to sleep and is always under the threat of being put to sleep himself. 

 

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 can’t say I knew how the book would end when I began it. I had some vague notion about the ending which became more and more solidified as the writing progressed.

 

I often find myself making changes along the way so that when I’ve completed a novel and look back at my preliminary notes (not an outline) the final product is far different than what I envisioned it would be at the start. In a real sense, the novel takes on a life of its own and evolves (as does the protagonist) as the storyline progresses.

 

But yes, there were changes as the chapters and the story moved toward the final conclusion, so I can’t really say I knew the ending when I started writing the book.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’ve just completed a novel entitled Downfall, about a young physician, Rick Shepherd, who comes across a crowd of people gathered in front of his street entrance office. A dead body lies covered over on the sidewalk and the police have cordoned off the area.

 

When he turns on the local news that evening, a photo of the victim is shown, Rick is aghast when he sees the face of a man who could almost pass for his twin brother. What happens next is the stuff of thrillers as he finds himself uncovering past events of the most threatening and ominous kind.

 

Q: Is there anything else we should know about Assassin’s Lullaby?

 

A: When I think about it, I realize that the novel is the expression of a final common pathway of ideas that have rattled around in my head for years. In a true sense, it’s a synthesis of my years of writing crime novels.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Mark Rubinstein.

June 23

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
June 23, 1889: Anna Akhmatova born.

Friday, June 17, 2022

Q&A with Jefferson Morley

 


 

Jefferson Morley is the author of the new book Scorpion's Dance: The President, the Spymaster, and Watergate. It focuses on the dynamic between Richard Nixon and CIA director Richard Helms. Morley's other books include The Ghost. A longtime journalist and editor, he lives in Washington, D.C.

 

Q: What inspired you to write Scorpion’s Dance?

 

A: The book originated when I was surfing the web 10 years ago, and found the site nixontapes.org. They compiled all the Watergate tapes, but most had never been listened to. The recordings between Richard Nixon and Richard Helms are the only known recordings between a president and a CIA director. I thought it was a good peg for a story.

 

A few years ago, after I’d written a few books about the CIA, I came back to it. The relationship between the two men culminated in the Watergate affair. The book was 10 years in the making as it gestated in my mind. I got a contract in 2019 to write it.

 

Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Nixon and Helms?

 

A: These were two men who spent a lot of time at the pinnacle of American power. Helms was a career CIA officer who was director for six years. Nixon was vice president for eight years and president for close to five. These were two men of power who were very Machiavellian, very devious, and very realistic.

 

Feeling besieged by the antiwar movement, Nixon wanted to attack his perceived enemies and expand domestic surveillance. And Helms enabled him.

 

Helms provided the [Watergate] burglars to the president. This is a side of the story that’s never been told. He provided them. We have it on tape, [chief of staff Bob] Haldeman telling Nixon that he wants to plug the leaks and that Helms recommends [E. Howard] Hunt.

 

The idea over the years that the CIA was a bystander is false. It was Dick Helms’s cover story. The burglary was a joint venture between the White House and the CIA.

 

I tried to reframe it. Watergate is usually told as a chapter in the history of Richard Nixon’s mind and his presidency. Four of the seven burglars worked for the CIA. Hunt put together the burglary team. It mainstreams the story—it’s not just Richard Nixon’s paranoid mind, but a broader streak in the American government: If we want to break the law, we can.

 

The collaboration of the CIA and the president in the Watergate affair is the driving force. Over the years, we’ve come to understand Watergate through the lens of All the President’s Men, the media myth that us newspaper reporters love. But there was much more to the story.

 

Q: Can you say more about the most common perceptions and misconceptions about Watergate?

 

A: I was on a panel with Tim Naftali, who was director of the Nixon library, and he said one result of Watergate was the belief that our institutions are strong. It’s the All the President’s Men story—that the free press prevailed over the president. Naftali said it wasn’t that the institutions worked, but that idiosyncratic factors led to Nixon’s downfall. He didn’t want to defy the Supreme Court, or burn the tapes.

 

Now, there’s a [former] president with no compunction about that. One way that we’ve talked about Watergate is too optimistic. People connect the Nixon presidency to the Trump presidency. Roger Stone was connected to both, and he and others learned the lessons: not to obey the Supreme Court, to destroy evidence, to be proud about it. There’s a continuity between the Nixon and the Trump presidency—Trump learned from Nixon’s mistakes.

 

Q: We’re now in the middle of another set of congressional hearings. What resonance do you think Watergate has in today’s political climate?

 

A: There’s a sense of, can Congress hold a lawless president accountable? That was the question in Watergate, and it’s the question today.

 

And what is the role of the CIA today? Institutionally, it was hostile to President Trump since it saw the dealings with Russian state actors in the 2016 election. In Watergate, the president and the CIA were working together. That’s a difference.

 

One thing that’s worth thinking about: if the Watergate affair resulted from a lawless president and an agency acting with impunity, what happens if  Trump gets back in and gets control of the CIA? He didn’t really try to do that the last time. He denigrated it. If he’s president again, he will try to get control of the CIA.

 

You see former CIA officials on TV who are critical of Trump, but there are people at the CIA who support him. If he finds a supportive faction, you’re back to the Watergate situation. It’s a pretty scary prospect.

 

Q: How did you research the book?

 

A: Mostly, except for the first couple of months, I was doing this during the pandemic. So there was no archival research. It was difficult. Instead of going to an archive, I would identify folders that might be relevant, and would get a big package of material. I could get access to some archival material that way.

 

But the Nixon Library didn’t take document requests during the pandemic. I wanted to see his correspondence during his “wilderness years” in the 1960s.

 

I borrowed a friend’s cabin, and would go out and write all day. For my books, I develop a complete chronology that makes the writing much easier. I did research remotely, I did interviews remotely, I put the chronology together, and I started writing.

 

I had a very tight deadline. If we wanted the book to be out in June 2022 for the 50th anniversary of Watergate, I had to get the book in by June 2021. Ideally I would have had more time, but this is the time to do a Watergate book. On deadline in a pandemic—it was challenging!

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’m writing a memoir of my high school basketball team. It won the Minnesota state championship in 1976. It’s a great sports story—I’m looking at what happened to all the guys on the team.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: Something that’s genuinely new in the book is that part of the backdrop of Watergate is the politics of assassination and how it played out at the highest levels of government.

 

[Senator] Howard Baker said Nixon and Helms had so much on each other. They knew about the deadly business of assassination, going back to the Cuban revolution. How it played out between the two men is most revelatory…it’s a cautionary tale.

 

Related to that, it’s almost Shakespearean, the seriousness and deadliness of their ambition. As a biography of power, that’s one of the things that’s the most interesting about the book. I didn’t set out to do that, but I realized that’s what I did.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Jefferson Morley.

Q&A with Brooke Hartman


 

 

Brooke Hartman is the author of the new children's picture books The Littlest Airplane and Pega Sisters Go to Camp. She lives in Alaska.

 

Q: What inspired you to write The Littlest Airplane, and what do you hope kids take away from the book?

 

A: I grew up flying in a bush plane with my father (for airplane enthusiasts, we had a Super Cub), and then later in life with my husband in our Cessna 185, which is a slightly larger bush plane than the one my father owned.

 

One day my family and I were flying back from our cabin and I thought, you know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a children’s book about a bush plane?

 

But I assumed I must be wrong. There was no way the KitLit publishing industry had skipped over such a fun combo—aviation and a story about the little guy! Plus there was so much room here for a STEM component along with a fun story. So when I did my research and discovered such a book didn’t exist, I hurried to write one.

 

Q: You also have another new book out, Pega Sisters Go To Camp. How did you come up with this idea, and what do you think it says about sisters?

 

A: I have two girls who really are Lilly and Filly in every way (minus the wings and hooves). One day we were playing My Little Ponies, a personal favorite ever since my own childhood, and we kept using the term “pegasus sisters” to describe two winged pony sisters until my oldest and I realized what we really should be calling them is Pega Sisters!

 

We then wrote the original version of this story together based on the personalities of my two girls, and the rest is history (pegastory?).

 

While the book is a lot of fun and fantasy, it’s really a story about the interactions of two sisters who love each other very much, but have very distinct personalities. The big sister, Lilly, wants everything to be perfect, while her little pega sis Filly just wants to have fun—and be with her big sis at all times!

 

The result is, as you can imagine, a lot of frustration for Lilly. But by the end she’s realized that though they might not always get along, her little sis will always be her biggest ally and friend.

 

Q: What do you think the illustrations, by John Joseph and MacKenzie Haley, respectively, add to the books?

 

A: These illustrators are masters of their craft, and it shows in both books. Each style adds so much to the characters, whether with Haley’s winged horses or Joseph’s planes. The expressions, whimsy, and backdrops really shine through and add so much to their respective stories.

 

Q: What would you say are some of the similarities and differences between the two books?

 

A: On the surface, these might seem like very different books. And while it’s true that one is truly a nonfiction book including STEM back matter and the other is about mythological horse, these books actually have a lot in common.

 

First and foremost, they both star characters who fly (I did NOT plan that, but it’s made for some very fun book launch themes!) and both have fun, exciting topics that lure kids in.

 

But the real reason these books are similar is that they both feature characters with heart who really want to do their best. With The Littlest Airplane, the bush plane wants to be brave and help in whatever way he can, while with Pega Sisters they both want to have an epic camp day and figure out how to do that together as sisters.

 

With both stories, I was really reaching for that fun + heart factor, and I hope I found it!

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I have four titles coming out in 2023: Watch Out for the Lion with Page Street Kids, Little Narwhal Lost and All Aboard the Alaska Train with West Margin Press, and Klyde the Kraken Wants a Friend with Hazy Dell Press. It’s going to be a busy year, but I love all these books and I’m so excited for them to finally come out!

 

Aside from that, my agent (Sera Rivers of Martin Literary Management) and I have a few projects on sub, so my fingers are crossed for a 2024 title as well.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: If you’re looking to write books for kids, don’t write another word before you join SCBWI. While I still feel like I’m just getting started as a published author, I credit the many conferences, workshops, and critique groups I’ve attended through SCBWI for any KidLit success!

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb