Monday, January 31, 2022

Q&A with Louise Borden




Louise Borden is the author of Full Speed Ahead!: America's First Admiral: David Glasgow Farragut, a new biography for older kids. Her many other books include Ski Soldier. She lives in Cincinnati.


Q: You note that you had heard the name Farragut for many years before writing this book. What inspired you to write about David Glasgow Farragut?


A: Today Farragut’s name is unknown to most Americans, but the words he used in the famous battle of Mobile Bay, Damn the torpedoes…Full speed ahead!, are commonly used.


Learning that our first admiral signed his naval warrant at age 9 was the key inspiration for my embarking on a five-year project. I wanted to explain the why of that phrase, Full speed ahead, to young readers and connect it to Farragut’s remarkable life. I’ve spoken in 600 schools across the U.S., and kids who are 8 and 9 are my wheelhouse.


I’ve also written about the courage and perseverance of other heroes: Bessie Coleman (first African American pilot), John Harrison (solved the scientific question of determining longitude), Raoul Wallenberg (saved thousands in the Holocaust), and Margret and H.A. Rey (the creators of Curious George). I hope Glasgow’s story will stand next to these and inspire young readers.


Q: How did you research his life, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: My research process for all my nonfiction books is the same: travels, primary sources, maps, photos, paintings, and studying an array of secondary sources.


In the fog of history, there are discrepancies in dates, name spellings, etc. I have to verify each detail I’m including in my text. A kindergarten student once told his librarian that “Louise Borden is…a study-er!”. I love that term. Study-er.


On visits to Atlanta to see our grandkids, I often detoured off I-75 in Tennessee at the Campbell’s Station exit and drove ten more minutes to the site of Farragut’s birthplace, so I could stand alone on the banks of the Holston (now part of the Tennessee River) and in my mind’s eye, picture Glasgow’s childhood and his father's ferry.


This river view was the touchstone of my creative process. (In Cincinnati where I live, we have a historic ferry crossing the Ohio River that has been in operation since 1817.)


I found many facts that surprised me: Farragut was born far from the oceans he later sailed, and soon after he turned six, in 1807, Glasgow took a flatboat journey to New Orleans, almost 1,700 miles! Farragut served under 15 U.S. presidents. Incredible! Two other surprises: his father was Spanish and from Minorca…and at age 9, Glasgow changed his first name from James to David.


I hope young readers will also notice these echoes: Farragut would capture New Orleans, the same city where he’d worked at age 8 at the naval station decades before…and the Confederate ram Farragut forced to surrender in the battle of Mobile Bay was named the Tennessee.


The Farragut Museum in Farragut, Tennessee (the town took this name in the 1980s to honor its famous native son), has excellent sources. I loved seeing the admiral’s desk from the USS Hartford. The Farragut papers at the University of Tennessee as well as the Farragut collection at the Library of Congress were deep wells of information, and all fascinating.


I wanted to see places in Farragut’s life – and convey those details to young 21st century readers. So I went to Chester, Norfolk, Washington, and Mobile Bay, among others. The highlight of my research was a private cruise across the Mississippi Sound to Ship Island, aboard La Dolce Vita with its captain and his wife, to see the deep-water harbor where Farragut anchored his Union fleet in 1862.


Q: The book also includes photographs, paintings, and other art. How did you choose the art to include in the book?


A: When writing for kids, I’m always thinking about the structure of the book. And how to expand the text in a meaningful way. Farragut’s long life parallels the early history of our nation. How to choose the best from so many events, in color?


Selecting images was a team effort with my editor, Carolyn Yoder. We chose almost 90 images from many more that I’d gathered on my research travels. I made hard copies of jpegs and lined them up and matched them with the text.  


Then our talented book designer, Carol Bobolts, began her creative task: to lay out each double spread with text and the selected pictures. And add her own brilliant ideas for composition and design. Carol used the beautiful background of waves, chose the signal flags from the 1809 image on p. 37 to number each section, and found a font similar to 19th century fonts.  


So many decisions, all ending in an elegant design. One of my favorite spreads is early in the book, with the image of a vintage compass facing the page with an evocative quote by Farragut.


Plus every image has a caption. My editor was always there by my side as my teacher. Captions take time and thought. And each word counts.


The book went through nine passes, with changes along the way, after the text had been copyedited. The cover went through a dozen colors, fonts, and changes. Even the map (the end papers) was revised several times.


The portrait of James Madison, painted in 1809 just before he appointed Glasgow as a midshipman in the U.S. Navy, is an example of how we wanted the art, and black-and-white photos after the mid-1850s, to parallel the events in the text – to bring this story alive for young readers. 


Sometimes I’d see a black-and-white image of a ship and then go down the rabbit hole of tracking down the source (library/museum) of the painting - in color. All of this was quite a journey because before the pandemic shut down our lives in March 2020, we’d already decided which images we wanted.


But then gaining permission/paying fees to use the images - from archives and collections across the country - became a huge task since these institutions were closed, and their curators were working remotely.


The amazing Naval History and Heritage Command is located at the Washington Navy Yard and has a wealth of images and documents. One day, on a research whim, I emailed the NHHC to ask if they, by chance, had David Porter’s signal flag book from 1809 – BINGO! There it was on my laptop screen – in a full-color pdf.


A beautiful new museum is being built, close to the Navy Yard – to make the U.S. Navy’s history accessible to visitors from around the world.


Q: What do you see as Farragut’s legacy today?  


A: In 2017, my husband and I attended the navy’s commissioning in Norfolk, Virginia, of the USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier, the largest carrier in the world at the time. Integrity at the Helm was on a large banner. 


I think those words are Farragut’s legacy in regard to his naval career. His leadership and integrity resonate throughout his life. As the son of an immigrant who fought in the American Revolution, David Farragut also illuminates the promise of our country. Duty defined his naval life – duty to defend the Constitution – sworn at the age of 9.


I hope those who hear the name Farragut think of his confidence as a leader – as in his words “Damn the Torpedoes, Full speed ahead!” – but also his deep faith in our nation.


Farragut signed that warrant four years before the British burned the U.S. Capitol in Washington. I'd included an image of this event from the War of 1812 (it’s a color mural in a congressional hallway) and was ironically revising text for that double spread on January 6, 2021, unaware that a mob of American citizens had just stormed the Capitol. I still wonder what Farragut would say about the events of that day.


Q: What are you working on now?   


A: I have two manuscripts on my desk. Since college, I’ve been a student of WWII and six of my books are about that time period. So I’ve been revising yet another WWII story that’s a bit longer than the Farragut book, and told in first person.


I’m also working on a fictional picture book with a school setting. This is a familiar world to me that I enjoy returning to after writing a nonfiction text like Full Speed Ahead.  


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Over 20 years ago, I wrote a picture book (still in print) about the rescue at Dunkirk titled The Little Ships. People ask, “You wrote about Dunkirk for kids?” Or “You wrote about Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest for kids?” Or “You wrote a book about the 10th Mountain Division for kids?” They see these events as too complicated for young readers.


I’m never limited by the age of my audience. I know I can make any subject accessible to children if I have a passion for that subject.


For David Glasgow Farragut, I stepped into a past era and became a 21st century witness to his life, to the loss of his parents, to the ordeals he faced at sea, to his love of country, to his leadership, to his audacity in battle, to his compassion in victory. This is what I want for young readers…to step into the story with me, and see the WOW! about ordinary people who do extraordinary things.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 31



Jan. 31, 1872: Zane Grey born.

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Q&A with Fred Bowen




Fred Bowen is the author of the new middle grade book Hardcourt: Stories from 75 Years of the National Basketball Association, illustrated by James E. Ransome. Bowen's many other books include Gridiron: Stories from 100 Years of the National Football League. He writes about sports for The Washington Post's KidsPost section, and he lives in the Washington, D.C., area.


Q: What inspired you to write Hardcourt?


A: James E. Ransome and I had teamed up in 2020 to produce Gridiron: Stories from 100 Years of the National Football League. The collaboration was so much fun I looked around for another upcoming sports “anniversary.”


Sure enough, the National Basketball Association (NBA) was going to celebrate its 75th season in 2021-22. My editor was enthusiastic. So I got to work on a book about the NBA and I was lucky to be teamed up with James again.


The result is Hardcourt: Stories from 75 Years of the National Basketball Association. I am very proud of the book and think it is a book kids and the adults in their lives will enjoy.


Q: How would you compare the two leagues?


A: In some ways the stories of the leagues are similar. They both started a long time ago – the NFL in 1920 and the NBA in 1946 - and did not really catch on with sports fans for many years. The NFL started to become popular in the 1960s, while the NBA grew in popularity in the 1980s.


The games, however, are very different. Football is more of a coach’s game. Coaches set up elaborate plans (now called schemes) for their offenses and defenses. These schemes are often the reasons why teams win or lose games.


So in Gridiron, I had several chapters about important coaches in the history of the NFL, such as Paul Brown, Vince Lombardi, and Bill Walsh.


Basketball, on the other hand, is more of a player’s game. Coaches can make plans and plays but oftentimes the play breaks down and the players have to improvise. Their athleticism and creativity are usually the keys to winning or losing.


So Hardcourt is filled with more stories about the players of the NBA, from George Mikan, the league’s first superstar, all the way through the great players of today such as LeBron James and Stephen Curry.


Q: How did you research this book, and which stories did you find especially compelling?


A: I read a lot of books and articles about basketball. I also watched some key games in the history of the NBA on Youtube. The research was great fun. Basketball has a treasure trove of great writers and a deep literature about the game.


As for stories, some of my favorites include:


The original rules for basketball, written by James Naismith in 1891, had no rules regarding dribbling the ball. Players invented dribbling later.


Some early basketball backboards were made out of chicken wire!


In the 1950s, when the Boston Celtics had to travel from a game in Rochester, New York, to a game in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the team made special arrangements with the railroad because there was no direct service between the two small cities. Players would board a train in Rochester late at night and travel to Indiana and be left in a cornfield 20 miles outside Fort Wayne where they would hitch rides with high school students.


Two men who never played a game in the NBA saved the league in the early 1950s by inventing the 24-second clock and the rule that requires a team to attempt at least one shot every 24 seconds. The two men, Danny Biasone and Leo Ferris, came up with the idea while sipping coffee at a bowling alley. Ferris worked out the calculations on the back of a napkin.

Red Auerbach, the general manager of the Boston Celtics, finalized the trade that brought Bill Russell to the team (and 11 NBA championships over the next 13 years) by promising the owner of the Rochester Royals that the Ice Capades would appear at the Rochester Community War Memorial Arena.


Wilt Chamberlain of the Philadelphia Warriors scored a record 100 points in a game against the New York Knicks in 1962. The game was not played in Philadelphia or New York, but rather in Hershey, Pennsylvania, in front of about 4,000 fans.


After his rookie season with the Chicago Bulls in which he scored more than 28 points a game and was chosen the NBA’s Rookie of the Year, Michael Jordan went back to North Carolina and asked his old coach, Roy Williams, how he could improve. Williams said if Jordan improved his jump shot, he would be unstoppable. So for that summer and for several summers after that Jordan practiced his jump shot for hours every day in an empty gym.


The 1992 United States Olympic basketball team (the “Dream Team”) beat all its opponents at the Summer Games in Barcelona Spain by 32 or more points. The Dream Team’s head coach, Chuck Daly, did not call a time out during the entire tournament.


The first game with a three-point shot was an exhibition played between two colleges, Columbia and Fordham, in February 1945. The NBA, however, did not adopt the three-point shot until 1979. Now teams take more than 40 percent of their shots beyond the three-point arc.


There are many more stories like this in the book, but you get the idea. I named the book Hardcourt: Stories From 75 Years of the National Basketball Association for a reason.


Q: What do you think James E. Ransome's work adds to this new book?


A: James did a fabulous job of conveying, through his gorgeous illustrations, the beauty of the sport and how the “look” of the game has changed over the years. He also did a great job of not simply painting jump shot after jump shot. For example, his illustration that begins the chapter on Larry Bird and Earvin “Magic” Johnson is a dove emerging from a magician’s hat.


However, my favorite illustration in Hardcourt is the one at the beginning of the chapter on Michael Jordan. It shows Jordan alone in an empty gym practicing his jump shot. Aside from the skillful rendition of the light and its reflections, I think James captures perfectly Jordan’s (as well as so many other players) lonely pursuit of excellence.


As you can see, I think James is a great artist. His illustrations have been essential to both Gridiron and Hardcourt.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on a baseball book for my Fred Bowen Sports Story series (Peachtree Publishers). Those are the 24 sports books for kids ages 7-12 that combine sports fiction and sports history and always have a chapter of sports history in the back.


The tentative title of the new book is Extra Innings and was inspired by a photograph I saw in Sports Illustrated more than 10 years ago. The book is scheduled to be published in Spring 2023.


I am also continuing to write my weekly kids’ sports column for the KidsPost page of The Washington Post. It appears on the back page of the Style section every Thursday.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: During the pandemic, I wrote a history of Major League Baseball similar to Gridiron and Hardcourt. My editor at Margaret K. McElderry Books at Simon & Schuster, however, was not interested in a baseball book. So I am looking for a publisher who might want to produce a book like that for young readers.


If I can, maybe James and I could work together again. I would certainly love to do another book with him.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Fred Bowen.

Jan. 30



Jan. 30, 1912: Barbara W. Tuchman born.

Saturday, January 29, 2022

Q&A with Antoine Wilson


Photo by Noah Stone



Antoine Wilson is the author of the new novel Mouth to Mouth. His other books include Panorama City, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Paris Review and StoryQuarterly. He lives in Los Angeles.


Q: What inspired you to write Mouth to Mouth, and why did you construct it in the form of a long-ago acquaintance telling a story to an unnamed narrator?


A: The ur-seed of the novel comes from a visit to Seattle I took with some friends back in 1997. We were down by the waterfront and there was a guy walking along, headphones on, air drumming and not looking where he was going, which was directly into the path of a moving freight train.


I got his attention and stopped him just in time, after which he said to me, "Oh my God! You saved my life! I'm going to buy you a big steak dinner!" Then the train went by and he kept walking. I never got my steak dinner, and my friends razzed me for years.


About 10 years ago I started playing with the idea of someone saving someone else's life, and what might emerge from the strange and powerful dynamics that arise after such an event. 


As for the as-told-to aspect, the reasons are many, but the short answer is that after trying to find the right form for this material for far too long, it was what felt right.


Q: The New York Times review of the book, by Sarah Lyall, says, "This powerful, intoxicating book’s greatest tension is that we have no idea where it is heading, right up to the shocking final sentence." What do you think of that description?


A: I've heard from many readers about the tension they feel coming from the book, and I do think the ending addresses that tension, but as the only person around who can't actually be the reader of my book, I have to take their word for it.


I can say that my own ambivalence and uneasiness about Jeff's story is folded into both the narrative and the structure, so I'm happy it's coming through. 


Q: You've said, in response to comparisons with Patricia Highsmith, Don DeLillo, and Donna Tartt, that "the center of the Highsmith-DeLillo-Tartt Venn diagram is a place I'd be very happy to find Mouth to Mouth." How do you think your book might fit into that Venn diagram?


A: I should have added a caveat that these kinds of comparisons are extremely limiting and threaten to diminish the uniqueness of each individual work!


But there's something to be said for the "if you liked X, you might like Y" algorithm, even when it doesn't work perfectly. We have to discover new works somehow, and I think that someone whose interest is piqued by that Venn diagram will find a satisfying read in Mouth to Mouth.


As for how and why it might fit: Highsmith's Ripley has come up in a lot of reader reviews, and I understand the comparison between Tom Ripley and Jeff Cook, both of them being slippery in terms of identity and intention. (I would argue, though, that I'm after something different than Highsmith.)


Don DeLillo once said somewhere that he thinks of writing as a "concentrated form of thinking," and though I'm perhaps not as explicitly thinky as he is, readers might catch a whiff of compressed ideas in my prose.


As for Donna Tartt, or more specifically The Goldfinch, I suppose it's a matter of material. A young man initiated into the ethically gray world of art and wealth and so on...


Q: Discussions of your book have included the theme of the unreliable narrator. Do you think either the narrator or Jeff is unreliable?


A: I think everyone is unreliable. Any first person narrator, on the page and in real life, is unreliable.


That said, Jeff's story, with its retrospective cast and its salesman of the self vibe, is unquestionably self-serving. The ambiguity lies in the question of whether and how much he believes it himself.


The unnamed narrator, on the other hand, isn't meant to be tricky in any particular way, though his writing the novel itself--his passing on Jeff's story--comes with its own ethical questions, especially in light of the book's final sentence.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: A disappointing follow up? Actually, I'm in early stages of gathering elements for the next book. Woolgathering, as it were.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Fun fact: Jeff's description of meeting Agnes Martin is basically a transcript of my own experience.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 29



Jan. 29, 1860: Anton Chekhov born.

Friday, January 28, 2022

Q&A with Claire Douglas


Photo by Lou Abercrombie



Claire Douglas is the author of the new novel Just Like the Other Girls. Her other novels include Do Not Disturb. Also a journalist, she lives in Bath, England.


Q: What inspired you to write Just Like the Other Girls?


A: I read an article about the Craigslist Murders in the U.S., which was about a man who advertised for single guys with no family ties to work on his ranch but then when they arrived he would kill them. However, I wanted a more domestic setting with women, rather than men, who were being lured to their deaths.


The characters of Elspeth and Kathryn and their complicated relationship came next and the rest grew from there.


Q: The book includes a number of point-of-view characters as well as chapters set in different time periods. How difficult was it to keep track as you were writing?


A: I always write my books in chronological order and so each character telling their part of the story felt natural and in keeping with the plot as it progressed. But I did go back over the first draft after I finished the book and edited each character’s narrative separately to make sure their voices stayed individual and distinctive.


Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Kathryn and her mother, Elspeth?


A: I think their relationship is very strained, with each of them harbouring resentments towards the other.

Kathryn feels a sense of duty towards her mother, but she is also suffering a lot of hurt from her childhood and feelings of never feeling good enough for Elspeth. This has made her grow up to be a very brittle and secretive woman, but underneath it all she has a big heart which I hope comes across in how she interacts with her own children. She’s determined to give them the love she felt she never had growing up.


Kathryn was one of my favourite characters to write because she is so complicated.


Q: Why did you choose to set the book in Bristol?


A: I grew up in a town not far from Bristol and the area around the Clifton Suspension Bridge has always fascinated me because it’s so beautiful but also so rugged, with its jutting cliff edges and the Avon Gorge.


The suspension bridge itself is very old and iconic to Bristol, and I thought it would be a great setting for a thriller due to its magnificence but also how atmospheric it is. It’s very high up so looks wonderfully eerie on a foggy night.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’ve just finished my eighth book, which is due to be published in the UK in September 2022. It’s a thriller about four teenage girls travelling in a car after a night out along a notoriously haunted road when it crashes. The driver, Olivia, is unconscious for around five minutes, but when she wakes up, she’s shocked to find herself alone in the car. Her three friends have disappeared.


Twenty years later, journalist Jenna Halliday arrives in the town to make a true-crime podcast about the strange disappearances of Olivia’s friends, but someone knows what happened that night and they are determined that Jenna doesn’t find out the truth.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: My next book to be published in the US and Canada is The Couple At Number Nine, which is out in August 2022. This is about a young couple, Saffy and Tom, who inherit a cottage from Saffy’s grandmother, Rose, only to uncover two bodies buried in the garden when they begin renovations.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Claire Douglas.

Jan. 28


Photo by Joel Kaplan


Jan. 28, 1935: David Lodge born.

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Q&A with Susan L. Carruthers




Susan L. Carruthers is the author of the new book Dear John: Love and Loyalty in Wartime America. Her other books include The Good Occupation: American Soldiers and the Hazards of Peace. She is Professor of U.S. and International History at the University of Warwick.


Q: What inspired you to write this book about "Dear John" breakup letters sent to military service members?


A: Two things. First, I became intrigued by wartime letter-writing as I researched my previous book, The Good Occupation: American Soldiers and the Hazards of Peace (Harvard, 2016). I read thousands of servicemen's and women's letters in order to understand the experiences of Americans who served in the armies of occupation in Europe and Asia after World War II.


Doing so, I was struck not only by the challenges of sustaining intimacy during protracted separations-- years, in some cases-- but also how candid many couples were in acknowledging fears of infidelity and betrayal. This despite the fact that censors were scrutinizing their letters.


Reading these letters made me want to explore the larger dynamics of wartime relationships and the various technologies that have helped sustain them -- or end them, in the case of Dear John letters.


Second, having spent my whole career writing about war, I was struck by how ubiquitous references to Dear Johns are in American wartime culture-- in memoirs, novels, movies, TV drama, music. Yet no one had written anything about these letters, aside from references to a few memorable (possibly apocryphal) examples that pop up time and again in the literature on WWII and Vietnam. So, I decided to fill that gap.


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


A: I learnt many things that surprised me-- not least the fact that bona fide Dear John letters are extremely hard to track down! On reflection, this maybe shouldn't have come as much of a surprise. After all, who clings onto the letter in which their beloved tells them things are over, and by the way, she (or he) has found someone new?


So, I couldn't research this book by going to various archives and reading hundreds of break-up notes, lovingly preserved by their recipients and later bequeathed to historical collections.


One of the big epiphanies I had in researching the book was the realization that Dear John letters are best understood not as a female epistolary genre but as a male oral tradition.


In other words, most of what we know about women's break-up notes comes from stories told by men -- soldiers and veterans, and others ventriloquizing their viewpoints. And men have had a lot to say about the letters women sent to end romantic relationships and the consequences of those long-range break-ups.


The single most important site for my research was the Veterans History Project, located in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. I listened to hundreds of hours of oral history testimony in which male veterans -- and a much smaller number of women -- talk about their experience of getting "Dear Johned" or dealing with a buddy who'd been dumped while at war.


I also read a lot of different kinds of material, from advice columns in women's magazines to psychiatric literature, in which wartime break-ups are analyzed and/or warned against. And I read novels, watched movies, and listened to songs-- anything that featured a Dear John motif.


Other surprises included how much variety there was in how Dear John stories were told, particularly how often heartbreak served as a vehicle for humor. I hadn't expected to find myself laughing out loud at what I was listening to in the Library of Congress, but some veteran raconteurs delivered stories with perfect comic timing and unexpected punchlines that were extremely funny. Overall, I discovered that a Dear John could be -- and could license -- many things.


Q: You write, "The Dear John letter has helped make women, not war, the culprit for love's breakdown under pressure." Can you say more about that, and also about the impact of the Dear John letter on American culture?


A: In the book, I try to understand why -- and with what consequences -- Dear John letters have loomed so large in the stories that are told about men and women in wartime.


For individual servicemen and veterans, sharing experiences of heartbreak and loss can be cathartic. But, collectively, the circulation of Dear John stories has also often served to demonize the women who write and send these letters.

In every successive war that my book explores -- from WWII to Vietnam and the so-called "forever wars" in Iraq and Afghanistan -- women have been insistently warned, both by military authorities and civilian experts, not to end a romantic relationship with a deployed serviceman. Not only is severing an intimate connection damaging to his morale and a threat to his unit's operational efficiency, it's also "cruel" and "cowardly." So, at any rate, the received wisdom goes.


In Dear John, I challenge these persistent ideas about women who terminate romantic relationships by foregrounding the many obstacles to sustaining intimacy in wartime -- from unreliable lines of communication to separations of sometimes unknown duration, and the psychological toll that war exerts both on those in uniform and their loved ones.


For the military as an institution, it's easier to blame female "fickleness" for the breakdown of relationships rather than acknowledging candidly the emotional stress that being at war places on all in its orbit.


With regard to popular culture, as is true of the stories that veterans tell about break-up letters, fictional Dear Johns have been played both for laughs and tears. For instance, M*A*S*H's Radar receives a Dear John recorded onto vinyl -- which, of course, is heard over the camp PA to comic effect.


Other Dear Johns in pop culture also draw attention to changing modes of communication through which service personnel and loved ones stay in touch -- or split up. Anyone who read or saw the movie Jarhead will likely remember the scene in which the grunts watch a VHS video that turns out to be a pornographic Dear John.


If I were to venture a generalization, I'd say that the more apologetic Dear John -- exemplified by the Jean Shepard/Ferlin Husky country music hit of 1953 ("How I hate to write...") -- gave way to darker and more misogynistic depictions of Dear Johns in the Vietnam era.


It's also worth emphasizing that the "Dear Jane" has never caught on in pop culture in the same way -- another manifestation of how men's emotional needs have routinely been prioritized over women's.


In every war I discuss, women have tried to point out this double standard: that men can and do abandon their female partners while away at war-- with or without a letter announcing this severance-- but are given a pass, whereas faithless women have been pilloried and reviled.


But despite women's efforts to draw attention to these dynamics, most popular cultural representations of wartime love gone wrong depict men as the victims of women's malice or selfishness.


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


A: I hope that readers will come away from the book with a greater appreciation of both how much work has gone into attempts to discipline emotional life in wartime, and of how hard it is, as I said in my previous response, to sustain intimacy in wartime.


Arguably, it's even harder in the digital age to keep romantic relationships healthily alive, as round-the-clock connectivity makes "compartmentalization" much harder than it was hitherto when letter-writing was the only way for couples to keep in touch. For those in war zones, trying to be a devoted partner and a focused soldier simultaneously can be extremely challenging, if not totally impossible.


The double-edged character of new technology -- with deployed service personnel now enjoying access to the internet, cellphones, and social media -- is something repeated to me many times over by veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I've just finished a shorter piece about relationships between American women (mostly Italian Americans) and Italian prisoners in America during World War II, and these women's attempts to gain War Department permission to marry. Invariably denied.


At the US National Archives, I stumbled on hundreds of letters sent to the Provost Marshal General's office as I was researching Dear John, but since these letters are emphatically not Dear Johns, almost their antithesis, I had to find another outlet for this fascinating material.


My next book, though, will be about clothing in the aftermath of WWII and the many functions apparel played in refashioning the postwar world.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Dear John uses the story of a single WWII romance to illustrate various points about wartime relationships, letter-writing, and the consequences of break-ups.


This draws on one of the few female-authored notes that we know -- with absolute certainty -- to be authentic: a V-mail from a young woman called Anne Gudis to her boyfriend in Britain, Sam Kramer (a GI she'd never met in person), telling him to "Go to hell!"


This irate zinger broke every rule in the book. And because Sam sent it to Yank, the army weekly magazine, which then published the note in facsimile form, many people had things to say both to and about Anne, whose address was clearly legible. It's quite an idiosyncratic story.


But one reason why it resonated so deeply with me was that Anne's hometown was Newark, New Jersey. For a decade, that was my adoptive hometown too. So, I was drawn not only to Anne's feisty character but to an urban location we both shared.


I taught History at Rutgers in Newark for many years, and over the course of that time, quite a few of my students were veterans. Some generously shared their own experiences of deployment and Dear Johns. So, I'm grateful to all of them, as well as the many individuals personally unknown to me whose stories I uncovered in the archives.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 27




Jan. 27, 1931: Mordecai Richler born.

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Q&A with Cheryl Blackford




Cheryl Blackford is the author of Fossil Hunter: How Mary Anning Changed the Science of Prehistoric Life, a new biography for older kids. Her other books include Hungry Coyote. She lives in Minnesota and Arizona.


Q: What inspired you to write this book about fossil hunter Mary Anning?


A: The original inspiration was a 2014 Google doodle on what would have been Mary Anning’s 215th birthday. Even though I have a degree in geology I’d never heard of Mary Anning and as soon as I saw that doodle I wanted to know more about her.


The more I read, the more I learned how remarkable she was. She carved out a successful science career for herself at a time in England when women weren’t allowed to formally study the sciences. She found some of England’s most important fossils and worked with the best geologists of the time and yet she’d never even been to school. Her life is an inspiration and I wanted to tell her story.  


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


A: I was born in England and most of my extended family still lives there so I was able to fit short research trips into family visits. I visited Lyme Regis (the small seaside town where Mary lived) twice to soak in the atmosphere of the places where Mary would have walked and to hunt for fossils on the beach with the Lyme Museum geologist, Paddy Howe.


I also visited several libraries and museums in Oxford, Cambridge, London, and Bristol to talk to experts, and see Mary’s papers and fossils. I was sad to find that very few of her personal papers have survived – she was an uneducated woman and therefore not considered important enough for them to be saved. I read books about her and the geologists she worked with and many of the old scientific papers written by those men.


The biggest surprise for me was what a talented artist she was — her tender sketch of her dog Tray is simple and beautiful. She meticulously sketched her fossils as a sales tool to encourage wealthy people to buy fossils from her.


Q: During her lifetime, how was Mary Anning viewed by the scientific community?


A: Geologists and wealthy fossil collectors knew Mary was an expert on Lyme Regis and its fossils and often consulted with her. They also knew she was fit and strong and could guide them on fossil hunting expeditions.


But despite being good friends with eminent geologists such as Henry De La Beche and William Buckland, Mary didn’t receive the formal recognition she deserved because she was a poor, uneducated woman. Her name was often omitted when geologists wrote papers about the fossils she’d found and when her fossils were given to museums it wasn’t Mary’s name on the labels but the names of the men who’d purchased and donated them. 


Q: What do you see as her legacy today, and what do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: Science in 19th century England was dominated by wealthy men but Mary didn’t let that stop her — she was determined to make her living doing what she knew best. She also didn’t let a lack of a formal education hinder her work— she simply made up for that lack by reading and conducting her own research.


So I see Mary as an inspiration and role model to young people, and especially girls, who are interested in science. Mary’s dogged persistence and determination to overcome societal and physical barriers can inspire today’s young scientists to persevere despite hardship.


Today Mary is celebrated around the world — books are written about her and she was the subject of a recent film starring Kate Winslet. She has also inspired a young girl — Evie Swire — to begin the Mary Anning Rocks campaign to erect a long-overdue statue of Mary in Lyme Regis. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I write in several different genres so I’m currently working on two nature-themed picture books as well as a fantasy novel for middle-grade readers. The novel has pirates, mermaids, a talking cat with magical eyes, a sad dragon who loves music and several characters who are not what they seem. Are you intrigued?


I also have another fascinating woman of science I’d like to write about when I’m able to do the research.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Please visit my website for updates on events, Mary Anning-related materials, and, soon, an educator’s guide. You can also find information about my other books there. I’m also on Instagram (cherylblackford) and Twitter (@BlackfordBooks).


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 26



Jan. 26, 1905: Maria von Trapp born.

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Q&A with Heather Gudenkauf




Heather Gudenkauf is the author of the new novel The Overnight Guest. Her other books include The Weight of Silence. She lives in Iowa.


Q: What inspired you to write The Overnight Guest, and how did you create your character Wylie?


A: The inspiration for The Overnight Guest came from where many of my ideas do – the news.


I was researching possible story ideas and came across an article that discussed a young Wisconsin woman who crashed her car into a ditch during a snowstorm. The woman ventured from the safety of her car to find help and overwhelmed by the snow and the cold, she collapsed.


She was discovered the next day, eyes frozen open and near death. Medical professionals couldn’t even get an IV into her frozen arm – the needles kept breaking.


Incredibly, the woman lived, and the story got my writer mind buzzing. I began to explore the idea of what would happen, if during a blizzard, someone found a strange child on their property. From there I began to wonder what if this discovery was connected to something much more far-reaching and sinister and The Overnight Guest was born.


I’m also obsessed with true crime and the idea of having a main character who was a true crime writer really appealed to me. 


Wylie was so much fun to write. Here’s this woman who travels across the country detailing the most gruesome of crimes and she finds herself caught up in a cold case, finds a nearly frozen child in her front yard, and gets stranded in an old farmhouse during the blizzard of the century.


It’s a lot, but if anyone can handle it, Wylie can, because of course, she’s got a complicated past and a fierce will to survive.


Q: The author Hank Phillippi Ryan said of the book, "The oh-so-talented Heather Gudenkauf has created a modern day In Cold Blood." What do you think of that comparison?

A: When I read Hank’s review I was floored. I don’t think I’ve ever received a nicer compliment. I mean, In Cold Blood! I’m so grateful for the support I get from the writing community. It’s always thrilling and humbling when fellow author enjoys your work.


Q: The novel is told in three alternating strands--did you write the book in the order in which it appears, or did you focus more on one point of view before turning to the others?


A: Writing stories with multiple points of view and shifting timelines is really my favorite mode of storytelling. Before I began writing I knew the three storylines I wanted to focus on and how I wanted them to eventually come together, but how I got there was filled with many false starts and roadblocks.


I began with the chapters set 20 years earlier and then began to work on the Wylie-blizzard scenes. As I got to know my characters better, I wove in the mother and child sections.


Discovering those surprises along the way – about plot, characters, even the ending – is my favorite aspect of writing. It’s those crazy OMG moments that pop up along the way that make what I do so much fun.


Q: Much of the book takes place during an overwhelming snowstorm. How important is setting to you in your writing?


A: As with all my novels, the setting of The Overnight Guest was crucial to the telling of the story and to me, just as important as character and the plot development.


I live in Iowa, which many consider a bland, flyover state when it really has a beautiful, varied landscape. Living in the Midwest, blizzards are a reality and we’ve had our share of epic storms over the years.


In The Overnight Guest I needed Wylie to be secluded from the outside world, which was very tricky in a world filled with cell phones. Enter the snowstorm. Even modern technology can’t contend with a good old-fashioned blizzard.


Burden, the fictional Iowa town where the novel is set, is inspired by all the great small towns I get the pleasure of traveling through and visiting.


Interestingly, on the rural gravel road near the farmhouse where Wylie is staying, there is a tree growing straight up in the middle of the road. That tree plays a critical role in the novel and is based on a real tree found in Brayton, Iowa.


Supposedly, over 161 years ago, a surveyor placed a green cottonwood stick into the ground at the exact spot the county line was to be drawn. Today the tree is over 100 feet tall and 18 feet wide.


It’s such a unique spot and a fun story, I knew I had to include it in some way in The Overnight Guest. I love sharing little fun facts about my home state with readers.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m still early in the process of writing my 10th novel and storylines and characters tend to change, so I’m not able to share much. What I can say is that book 10 will take readers outside my home state of Iowa and introduce them to some of my most chilling characters. I promise one wild ride!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I love connecting with readers! Please find me in the following spots and we can chat about all things bookish!







--Interview with Deborah Kalb