Monday, February 28, 2022

Q&A with Eileen Pollack




Eileen Pollack is the author of the new essay collection Maybe It's Me: On Being the Wrong Kind of Woman. Her other books include the memoir The Only Woman in the Room. She lives in Boston.


Q: What inspired you to write Maybe It's Me, and how did you decide on the book's title (and subtitle)?


A: I wrote the essays in Maybe It's Me over the past 15 years, one by one, each motivated by a question about some aspect of my experience.


What gives the book a sense of unity is that most of my experiences--and my questions about those experiences--stem from the sense that I'm not like other women. Or rather, that I'm not like the woman most of us are led to believe we should be. (In some cases, I get the slightly more specific feeling that I'm not the Jewish woman I am meant to be.)


I put the essays together in roughly chronological order and realized I had a book. But I didn't know what to call the longest essay, which was about moving to NYC, turning 60, and going out on one horrifying date after the other. And I didn't know what to call the book as a whole.


The project was kind of put on hold because of COVID anyway. I moved to Massachusetts and started dating a guy who used to be a big-time editor in New York and who claimed that one of his real talents was coming up with titles for other people's books.


We were on a long hike, and even though he hadn't read any of the essays, he simply asked me to talk about the book. I was describing the long essay about all those bad dates, and I must have used the phrase, "I don't know, maybe it's me, but ..." And he stopped me and said, "That's your title."


Later, over dinner, he asked me a few more questions and came up with the subtitle. Sadly, the relationship didn't last. But I did acknowledge the debt in the back of the book and sent him a copy. 


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book mentions your “knack for wringing humor from the mundane.” What do you think of that description?


A: Well, I don't know how mundane some of my experiences actually are. But I do wring humor from almost everything that happens to me. How could I not? I literally grew up at a hotel in the Borscht Belt, the home of American stand-up comedy.


You had all these Holocaust survivors, immigrants, people who barely made it through the Great Depression and WWII. They wanted you to know what they'd survived, but they didn't want to make you think they were asking for pity.


How do you do that? You tell your story ... but find the humor in it. No one I knew read any real literature. Even my high school English teacher thought Ayn Rand was the be-all and end-all of great writers. The only culture I grew up with was the stand-up routine, the sketch, the dirty joke.


I didn't think you could be a serious writer with that sensibility until I took John Hersey's fiction seminar at Yale and he gave us Grace Paley and Leonard Michaels and Philip Roth and Saul Bellow to read.


My seventh-grade English teacher had given me a book of E.B. White's essays ... they blew my mind, but I didn't really understand what they were until I took Hersey's nonfiction seminar. White's sense of humor is WASPier than mine, but I loved how he found humor even in the death of a pig he loved (I don't mean Wilbur ... I mean the nameless pig who dies in his essay "Death of a Pig").


And now I love David Sedaris. So that slowly has become my preferred medium, the darkly comic essay.


Q: What do you see as the importance of Judaism and your relationship to it in these essays?


A: Again, each essay is shaped around a question. I was raised nominally Orthodox in one of the most culturally Jewish towns that has ever existed in America, so some of the biggest questions in my life have concerned my experience of Judaism.


I love so much about the religion itself--the actual theology--and the practice of that religion--even though I'm no longer observant. I love the culture, the history, the language, the literature.


And yet, as a Jew, I have question about my own Jewishness, about other people's Jewishness, about Israel. I'm not the first person to say that part of being Jewish is asking questions ... and struggling to find the answers.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I'm working on a novel about a series of disturbing events that happened around the time I graduated from high school. In part, I'm re-thinking my relationships to two older men--the English teacher who loved Ayn Rand and my boss at the screwy insurance company where I worked most summers.


I'm interested in the way I saw those relationships at the time versus the way I see them now, in the #MeToo era. But I'm also very interested in the way those relationships blinded me to the violence other women I knew were suffering and the ways in which racism and homophobia were harming--even killing--the queer people and people of color around me. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Every essay in Maybe It's Me is as true as I could make it. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Eileen Pollack.

Q&A with Peter Docker




Peter Docker is the author of the new book Leading from the Jumpseat: How to Create Extraordinary Opportunities by Handing Over Control. He also has co-written the book Find Your Why. He served for 25 years in the Royal Air Force, and has worked in a variety of industries including construction, mining, pharmaceuticals, and banking. A keynote speaker and facilitator, he is based in the UK.


Q: You begin your book with an anecdote involving your own role in a potentially dangerous airplane situation that explains the origin of the book's title. Can you say more about that incident?


A: My book’s title, Leading from the Jumpseat, was inspired by an event that happened some years ago now when I was a senior pilot and officer in the Royal Air Force.


I flew large passenger jets – about the size of a 737 – and I had just certified a pilot called Calum to be a fully qualified captain. This meant he would be responsible for the safety and operation of the plane, crew and passengers, flying anywhere in the world.


We had stopped the night in San Francisco and Calum was at the controls to fly us to Washington Dulles. I had planned to be down the back of the aircraft with the other passengers, but Calum had asked me to sit on the jumpseat for the taxi and take-off from San Francisco to help look out for other aircraft during the morning “rush-hour” of departures.


The jumpseat is a seat on the flight deck of most large passenger jets and is immediately behind the captain and copilot’s seats. When seated there it’s possible to touch the pilots on their shoulders, it’s that close. The jumpseat is usually empty, but crew members can sit in there if necessary, such as when they’re hitching a ride home.


All was going well until immediately after take off. At a height of only 500 feet we were faced with an emergency and Calum was suddenly wrestling with the controls. Although I was not in the pilot’s seat, what I chose to do in the moments that followed would affect whether we, and the 140 people on board, survived.


I chose to do nothing.


I sat there calmly, with my hands in my lap. At that moment, I didn’t need to be the leader. I needed to become a great follower – to have Calum feel that I had his back – and allow him to do what he had been trained to do. If I hadn’t had confidence in him to resolve the situation, I would have had no business signing him off the day before as a fully qualified captain.


In life, it’s inevitable that we will hand over control at some stage. As the leader of a team, we will leave and move to another team. As a CEO we will retire. As parents we will watch our kids grow up, leave home and start to lead their own lives. Handing over control is inevitable.


Jumpseat Leadership is all about recognizing this inevitability and leading in such a way that we lift others up so, when the time is right, they can take the lead and carry forward those things we believe are really important.


Jumpseat Leadership is a higher form of leadership since it’s not about increasing or retaining one’s own power; it’s about empowering others. When we lead with this intention, it creates extraordinary opportunities by transforming the capability of our team in a way that serves us during normal times, in crisis, and when faced with the unknown.


Q: What do you see as the importance of control in professional situations--and of handing over that control? And what is the appropriate time to hand over that control?


A: Control is important in professional situations, but often control is retained at too high a level – and focused on the wrong things. The more senior we become, the more we need to be focused on the context of the work we’re engaged in – the reason behind the work our organization does, our vision or mission.


This is what I refer to as the “picture on the puzzle box.” Our people are usually ideally placed to work out how to bring those puzzle pieces together.


If we retain control by always being the one who comes up with the answer, we become the constriction in the pipe – our team only advances as quickly as our own knowledge allows. While it can feel good to be the “go to person” who always has the solutions, it severely limits the velocity of our team’s progress.


The British entrepreneur, Richard Branson, takes this to the next level: “It’s all about finding and hiring people smarter than you. Getting them to join your business. And giving them good work. Then getting out of their way. And trusting them. You have to get out of the way so you can focus on the bigger vision.”


And yet just handing over control to others without equipping them first would be irresponsible.


For example, to certify Calum to fly as a captain without any training would likely have been disastrous. Instead, he had spent years training to become a pilot, then served a long apprenticeship as a copilot on the specific type of aircraft he was flying that day, before receiving around six months of further training and qualification to become a captain.


Our organization had invested in him because we wanted him to be able to lead in that role – so we could have many captains to fly aircraft around the world to the standard we needed.

It’s the same in business: if our company is totally dependent on one individual to lead and deliver what they do, it is exceptionally limiting. Overcoming this dependency is at the heart of the Jumpseat Leadership approach.


In his quote, Branson also points to another vitally important aspect: trust. When we keep the picture on the puzzle box very clear for everyone to see, and then invest in our people by training them and giving them opportunity to grow within that context, trust begins to emerge.


When Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger was faced with ditching his US Airways flight into the Hudson River barely six minutes after take-off from LaGuardia Airport, he didn’t know each member of his crew particularly well.


Indeed, it’s not unusual for airline crew members to meet one another scarcely an hour before departure. And yet they have all gone through the same training, committed to the same context of keeping everyone safe, and so the trust is there for them to be able to work as a team when an emergency suddenly occurs.


For Sully and everyone on board the aircraft that day, it all ended well and the incident became known as The Miracle on the Hudson. That would not have happened without trust being present, and the trust would not have been there without training.


As well as training, trust is further enhanced through building relationships. I had known Calum, and his family, for some years before we were faced with that emergency. I’d seen him perform in high-pressure situations before. I knew his character. I knew he was ready to take the lead.


Importantly, Calum knew me, too. In the moment, he knew I would have his back. Significantly, by choosing to invite me to sit in that jumpseat, Calum demonstrated he had confidence in me to not interfere or undermine his leadership – to be a great follower. A question for all leaders is, would you be invited?


Q: In the book, you describe the role that ego plays in various situations. What advice do you have for people dealing with their own, or others’, ego?


A: Everything we do in life that is important to us is driven by Fear or Love.


Fear is valuable when our life is in danger. It helps us jump back and away from an ongoing car when trying to cross the road. But fear is also triggered when we sense our livelihood, status or reputation is under threat – a particular challenge in a business context.


In these circumstances, fear rarely serves us well since it can show up as anger or meekness, or a view of the world dominated by scarcity – a win/lose mentality that says we have to win at the expense of others.


Above all, when we let fear drive us, this is when ego can raise its head, when our focus becomes completely on self and we close down thinking about others.  The trouble with ego is that it can become infectious, with those around us allowing their own egos to take the lead too. And that’s when effective teamwork diminishes rapidly.


The good news is, we always have a choice. The choice is to recognize fear as a warning flag and to choose instead to be sourced from love. Love in a business context is about seeing the world as a place of possibility, rather than scarcity; of being in service of others, rather than self; and leading with humble confidence rather than ego.


Humble confidence is when we are resolute on where we’re going as a team or organization (the picture on the box), ready to take the decisions that are needed, but importantly, willing to be curious and listen to the input of others. What links fear and love is courage: courage can’t exist without fear, but it can only be sustained by the love for something.


So, when we feel ego starting to rise inside of us, take a breath and recognize it as a warning flag and the opportunity to choose to be driven by humble confidence instead. We can do this by reconnecting to the picture on the box – the reason we’re doing what we’re doing in the first place. When we are truly in service of others, ego will begin to dissolve.


When we see ego arising in others, take a moment to reflect on the fear behind the ego. We then have an opportunity to break the chain and respond with humble confidence. When we do that, humble confidence can become infectious too.


Q: Who do you see as the book's readership, and what do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: I believe that everyone is capable of extraordinary things, so anyone who shares that belief would benefit from what’s in this book.


Whether we are starting out in life trying to get clear on what’s really important to us (“Learning to fly”); feeling in flow with our current work and starting to think about raising the bar (“Flying”); just moved into our first management role (“Teaching others to fly”); or at the stage of taking a step back for others to fully take the lead (“Leading from the Jumpseat”), there will be value in the techniques I’ve shared. 


What I’ve noticed is that we can be at the stage of Leading from the Jumpseat in one aspect of our life (a CEO of a business), while just Learning to Fly in another (taking up scuba diving or being a parent). Leading from the Jumpseat is all about leading yourself and others, and how to create the extraordinary opportunities that happen when we are able to hand over control.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Writing Leading from the Jumpseat has helped me to really bring into focus everything I’ve learned about leadership over several decades. I’m still practicing the techniques myself and I’m keen to help others adopt them too.


So, as well as the keynotes and workshops I currently deliver, my team and I are working on a Jumpseat Leadership Course for business, together with a companion guide to help companies embed these ideas in their workplace at their own pace.


There will also be a Consider This guide that builds on the “how to” sections of the book in support of those who want to put Leading from the Jumpseat into practice each day.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: As human beings we don’t always get it right. One aspect of Jumpseat Leadership is to give ourselves some grace when we slip-up and wish we could have done better. It’s less about the single events and more about the trend over time. And, above all, seeking to always source our actions from a place of love, rather than fear.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Amy Kim Kibuishi


Photo by Kazu Kibuishi



Amy Kim Kibuishi is the author and illustrator of the new middle grade graphic novel The Rema Chronicles: Realm of the Blue Mist, the first in a series. She also has created the graphic novel duology Sorcerers & Secretaries. She lives in Washington state.


Q: What inspired you to create this first book in The Rema Chronicles, and how did you come up with the world you created?


A: The initial inspiration came as a dream when I was 12. The concept was fully packaged with a world, characters, and magic rules, but it was just a glimpse. I wanted to know more, so I kept working on it as I got older.


Most of Rema is deeply inspired by events in my life and the landscape of my mother’s hometown of Chumunjin, South Korea, but I kept adding fun stuff, too. Every time I was inspired by something – a good video game, a fantastic novel, or fun anime – it went into Rema’s development.


Q: How did you create your character Tabby Simon?

A: I don’t feel like I created Tabby, but I met her along the way. Designing her character was an effort to know her well enough to tell her story, and Tabby took years to understand. She was very shy!


In a way, the entire world of Rema centered around her development. As I got to the know the world, I got to know Tabby. Once I knew Tabby, the story wove itself together.


Q: Did you work on the text first or the illustrations--or both simultaneously?


A: Sometimes I focused only on the illustrations, sometimes only on the writing. When working on comics I act out the words in my head, hold onto the visual, then transcribe the vision into drawings as best I can.


Q: How did you first get interested in creating graphic novels?


A: When I was little, there were always comics lying around the house. My father used to buy superhero, horror, or Saturday morning cartoon spin-off comics and I would read them for hours.


As a teenager, my mother gave me Japanese comics translated into Korean and my obsession only grew! Those comics came in the form of graphic novels, which were four to five serialized issues printed together in one volume.


As an avid novel reader who loved to draw, it was my ideal medium: the visuals of comics with the length of a novel. It’s wonderful the medium is so popular now!


Q: What are you working on now? What's next for the series?


A: I’m working on book 2, which tells a part of the story I’ve been waiting YEARS to share with everyone! It’s super exciting. I won’t spoil it, but just know all questions from book 1 will be answered, and then some.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 28



Feb. 28, 1909: Stephen Spender born.

Sunday, February 27, 2022

Q&A with Scott Meslow




Scott Meslow is the author of the new book From Hollywood with Love: The Rise and Fall (and Rise Again) of the Romantic Comedy. He is a senior editor at The Week magazine and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including GQ and New York magazine.


Q: What inspired you to write From Hollywood with Love, and how did you choose the films you focus on in the book?


A: As an entertainment journalist and critic, I’m always looking for a subject I can really dig into, and rom-coms seemed like especially fertile ground.


These are movies that are so well-known and beloved, and so much of what happened in Hollywood can be traced back to them — but I’d heard relatively little about how they were actually made, in the voices of the writers, directors, and stars who had made them.


As I thought about the ups and downs of the genre over the past 30 years, I could sense there was a bigger story to be told based on all those little stories, and I was excited about telling it.


That said: It was very hard to choose the specific films to focus on.


I began with a list of about 70 or 80 rom-coms that I thought deserved this kind of deep-dive analysis.


From there, it was a matter of whittling it down to a manageable number based on a number of factors. How successful was the movie both critically and commercially? Has it retained a place in our pop-culture consciousness even decades after it was originally released?


The 16 movies I chose as case studies felt to me like a fairly comprehensive survey of the broader trends in the genre, and in the film industry itself.


The chapter on Waiting to Exhale is also about Hollywood’s stubborn, maddening reluctance to tell love stories about non-white protagonists.


The chapter on Bridget Jones’s Diary and its sequels is also about the toxic and ever-shifting cultural standards for single women.


The chapter on Friends with Benefits and No Strings Attached is also about Hollywood’s struggle to tell stories about how people are actually dating (and, consequently, why they lost a sizable chunk of the audience).


In the end, I found a balance that worked: Movies that were interesting and beloved in themselves and that said something bigger about the culture in which they were made.


That said, I think someone could write a book focused on 16 totally different rom-com from this time period, and uncover an absolute wealth of  fascinating material (and if they did, I’d be first in line to read it).


Q: You begin with When Harry Met Sally--why did you start there, and what do you see as the significance of this film?


A: I see When Harry Met Sally as the bridge between two key phases of the romantic comedy, situated conveniently at the very end of the 1980s, and setting a precedent for the decades to come.


On one hand, it resembles the rom-coms of the 15 years that preceded it — talky, adult-oriented movies like the ones directed by Woody Allen and James L. Brooks.


But then there’s that big Hollywood ending: The sprint through the streets, the beautiful heartfelt speech at the New Year’s Eve party, and the revelation that Harry and Sally are just another one of the couples being interviewed about their love story.


I was not surprised at all to learn that Rob Reiner originally thought When Harry Met Sally should end in a bittersweet way, with Harry and Sally bumping into each other on the street, each with a new partner.


But the decision to go for broke on the big, swoony ending — absolutely the correct decision, for the record — set the tone for the more heightened, mega-romantic rom-coms that would come to define the 1990s and 2000s.


(It’s also my all-time favorite rom-com, so that didn’t hurt either.)


Q: The writer and actor Rachel Bloom said of the book, “From Hollywood With Love gives rom-coms the analysis and respect they finally deserve, especially since part of the snobbery around them is rooted in misogyny.” What do you think of that description?


A: First, I was honored that Rachel Bloom enjoyed the book and felt I accomplished what I was trying to do with it. I’m a huge fan of her series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which is an all-time great example of how you can both channel and deconstruct rom-com tropes without taking lazy shots at the genre, so her vote of confidence meant a lot to me. 


And she’s absolutely right about how unfairly the genre has been treated historically. Misogyny has always been baked into bad-faith criticisms of romantic comedies: Just look at the term “chick flicks,” which is (thankfully) mostly out of use now but was prevalent, and often uttered with a sneer, during the rom-com boom I’m writing about.


It’s my experience that the men who get snobbish about romantic comedies tend to be the same men who happily indulge in the escapism of, say, an Arnold Schwarzenegger blockbuster — but, of course, treat that fantasy as entirely normal. They also tend to love movies like Wedding Crashers or The 40-Year-Old Virgin or some other raunchy rom-com that centers a male P.O.V.


The failure of imagination is entirely theirs, and it’s to their own detriment, because they’re missing out on a lot of great movies.


Q: What do you see looking ahead for romantic comedies?


A: I am very optimistic about the genre’s future. There’s the slate of rom-coms on the various streaming services, including recent standouts like Netflix’s To All the Boys trilogy and Hulu’s Happiest Season and Palm Springs, and the number of rom-coms being set up at the streamers is only growing.


I’m also excited to see the Hollywood studios getting back into the game. This year, we’ve already had Marry Me with Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson, and that’s not even the only new J.Lo rom-com — Shotgun Wedding is coming later this summer. I also think The Lost City, with Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum, looks like a fun action/rom-com.


I’m most excited of all for Billy Eichner’s Bros, a studio rom-com centered on a love story between two men, and for Andrew Ahn’s Fire Island, which is a modern-day riff on Pride and Prejudice starring Bowen Yang and Joel Kim Booster.


Those seem like great examples of what a rom-com can be today: Big, fun, zippy love stories that pay tribute to the genre’s rich past while adding diversity, in both race and sexual orientation, that should have been there all along.


Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now I’m pretty busy promoting From Hollywood with Love, but after that, I’m looking forward to getting back to writing for publications like GQ and Vulture.


I don’t have anything to announce about a second book yet, but stay tuned — and as always, you can find everything I’m working on, as well as the archives of my previous work, at


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Nicholas Reynolds


Photo by Becky Reynolds



Nicholas Reynolds is the author of the book Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy: Ernest Hemingway's Secret Adventures, 1935-1961. His other books include U.S. Marines in Iraq, 2003: Basrah, Baghdad and Beyond. He has served in the U.S. Marine Corps and the CIA, and was the historian for the CIA Museum.


Q: What inspired you to write Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy, and how did you learn about Hemingway's experiences in espionage?


A: I am not sure “inspired” is the right word for my Hemingway journey. Here’s why. I learned about the story more or less by accident when I was researching the OSS, America’s World War II intelligence agency. OSS mostly fought the Germans in Europe; both Hemingway and his son were literally on the front lines with OSS.


Near the end of my research, I looked at Spies, a book published by Yale University Press in 2009. It contained the well-documented claim that Hemingway had also had a relationship with Soviet intelligence during World War II.


This was a bombshell! If accurate, how did it mesh with the huge body of work on Hemingway’s life? He was, after all, the quintessential American male in so many ways. Were we now to believe that he was also a fellow-traveller or communist sympathizer of some sort? Was he a traitor?


A lifelong Hemingway fan, I needed to know the answers and started to dig without knowing exactly what I would find. So maybe the right word is “carried away” or “consumed with curiosity” rather than “inspired.”


Q: What do you think attracted Hemingway to the world of espionage, and how did he get involved with the Soviet Union?


A: The simple answer is the Spanish Civil War. In 1937 he went to cover the war from the Republican (loyalist/left-of-center) side and fell in love with the cause.


For him — and many other writers — it seemed just the right cause: the legitimate, democratically-elected government that was defending itself from brutal, reactionary forces that wanted to turn the clock back from 1930 to 1830.


Among the forces supporting the Republic were the Soviets. Though their methods was ruthless and brutal, he believed that in this case the ends justified the means. Along the way he embraced the Soviets — and spying — in an early display of radical chic.


Q: How did his spying activities coexist with his writing? 


A: This is really a key question. In two works, Hemingway touches on the issues.


One is his largely — and, understandably, forgotten — play, The Fifth Column, which seems to embrace rough counterintelligence work as a necessary evil — something that the Republic has to do to defend itself.


More balanced is the treatment of the war in his great war novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, where explores both sides’ faults. He touches on the ends/means debate, and talks about getting used to lying in a good cause.


He does not, however, directly address whether a writer dedicated to telling the truth about the harsh realities of the 20th century should immerse himself in espionage, which means hiding an important part of his life, and never coming clean about his activities, even at the end of his life.


This winds up costing him psychic energy as he frets about being uncovered by the FBI. Keeping secrets demands energy that could be put to other uses.


Q: What do you see as some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about Hemingway, and how do you think this additional information about Hemingway affects those perceptions?


A: There are many ways to answer this question. Hemingway has always been so many things to so many people.


One approach is to say that while he agreed to spy for the Soviets, what matters is not what he did or did not do. He gave them almost no useful information, and he did not betray his country.


Instead, what matters is the cost of his secret adventures -- how much it added to the burdens that he was carrying at the end of his life. The FBI did not hound Hemingway to death -- as some have suggested -- but he did fret obsessively that they were about to come for him.


My argument is that his relationship with the Soviets contributed to that obsession, something that is often overlooked.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m writing a book on the origins of American intelligence in World War II. Hemingway plays a small role in what is mostly a coming-of-age story.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I wondered how my Hemingway work would be received by professional Hemingway scholars and aficionados, especially those who come together in the Hemingway Society. It was a great pleasure to find a warm welcome, especially but not only for my book and my ideas.


Membership in the Society combines scholarship and friendship — plus its meetings are remarkable events in places that Hemingway frequented: Paris, Venice, Michigan, Chicago.


One the best things that Hemingway left us is a body of work and a life story that stimulate us intellectually and call for us to live as fully as we can.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 27



Feb. 27, 1902: John Steinbeck born.

Saturday, February 26, 2022

Q&A with Alexis V. Jackson




Alexis V. Jackson is the author of the new poetry collection My Sisters' Country. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Jubilat and The Amistad. She lectures in the University of San Diego's English department.


Q: Over how long a period did you write the poems in your new collection, and how did you decide on the order in which they would appear?


A: These poems include pieces composed between 2016 and 2019. Most of them written during my MFA, but one of my anchor pieces, the zuihitsu, was written prior to the program start.


The order was worked and reworked. My MFA thesis order was organized by me, my thesis professor, and my classmates, and then reordered with the fabulous editors at Kore.


I knew that I wanted to invite the reader in with more traditional verse that clearly communicated the world of the collection, and I know I wanted to have the longer pieces work as anchors.


The more "daring" pieces are met toward the end of the collection, but there is a type of story arc, a clear Genesis and Revelation if you will. 


Q: Writer Yona Harvey said of the book, "From Gwendolyn Brooks to June Jordan to the Book of Genesis, Jackson's debut poetry sizzles and samples with mischief. It's gutbucket, daredevil, Double Dutch, next-generation sass." What do you think of that description?


A: I quite enjoy it, am flattered by it, and feel it's accurate. The thing I heard most regarding my work from many readers was that it was "ambitious." It's polyvocal and nostalgic and playing with and breaking and creating form.


My take on the list poem is the playlist poem; sometimes numbered, sometimes not, sometimes using personae, sometimes not, but always acting as a form of zuihitsu.


I think the length of the poems, coupled with all that I'm able to place in conversation with one another in a single poem, and how exclusive and particular the text is can feel "bold" and "daredevil" like.


But Mark Doty is quoted as saying, "The project of poetry, in a way, is to raise language to such a level that it can convey the precise nature of subjective experience." I think the precision makes the pieces universal, leading the reader to feel what it means, even if it's not about them. At least I hope.


But the strange thing for me is that I feel the work is in clear conversation with the tradition of Black poetry in America. In that way, it speaks from all of its influences, and were they not all considered "ambitious?" 


Q: How was the book's title (also the title of one of the poems) chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: The title prior to this was one I didn't love, and Dr. Joshua Bennett and Lynn Melnick suggested that I take a look at my poem lines and titles, and see what stuck.


"My Sisters' Country" felt most true to what the project of the book was and is. The book is about constructing identity from and within the words of Black women because that's all I had when setting myself upright.


I think it's important to discuss two things first: 1) There's a tradition in African American literature of doing theology, often times understanding and picturing a God that loves on Black folk or rejecting a God that doesn't is done in Black literature. From hymns like Freedom to Stagolee to Goodbye Christ to Clifton and Morrison and Baldwin.


2) Melissa Harris-Perry's work in Sister Citizen with the "Crooked Room Theory" heavily impacted this text. 


In this text Perry wrote, “Post world war II cognitive psychology research on field dependence showed how individuals locate the upright in a space. In one study, subjects were placed in a crooked room, and then asked to align themselves vertically. Some perceived themselves as straight only in relation to their surroundings. To the researchers’ surprise, some people could be tilted by as much as 35 degrees and report that they were perfectly straight, simply because they were aligned with images that were equally tilted. But not everyone did this: some managed to get themselves more or less upright regardless of how crooked the surrounding images were. When they confront race and gender stereotypes, black women are standing in a crooked room, and they have to figure out which way is up.” 


For these reasons, the title signifies 1) I am my sisters' country and my sisters' are mine. As the words of Black women are outlined in this text, because red was too expensive to print, I am the product of their proverbs, they are my scripture and I am theirs. Being deemed countryless property at one time, I find my home and rights and identity in and to and with them and their words. 


2) It signifies the love and care that is the beauty of this for me. Understanding everything through a lens of sisterhood, having a sense of duty and connection. And in learning myself through the words of the Black women poets and writers who knew I'd need them without knowing my name--I become them for someone else, at least that's the hope.


Q: Can you say more about what you hope readers take away from the collection?


A: Perhaps I touched on this above, but I hope readers walk away reminded of language's power. How it excludes and includes.


I also hope that readers see all that's possible in poetry. Being led into the very real world of this collection, exploring loss and beauty with song, lyric, and poetic form, I hope readers see and experience something new and simply don't leave out the same way they came in.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I'm working on an essay on Personae poetry and its connection to the spiritual for Black poets by comparing Ai and Lucille Clifton. I'm extremely excited about it, just making the time to finish it.


I'm also working on a series of poems that explore sainthood and Black women. One of my great aunts, whom I've never met, was denied nunhood because of the color of her skin. My grandmother and her sisters told this story often, and they believe it broke her as her death was untimely.


I thought of her and the Black Madonna, and Josephine Margaret Bakhita, and wanted to pay homage to them. I'm still not sure how it'll all come together, but I'm writing them and letting the poems lead me.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Just that I'm grateful for the opportunity to share my work and excited to have conversation with folk about it. The work's life out in the world is the thing I'm most interested in observing as a first-time poetry book author. And I can't wait to hear what folk have to say about it. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Dean Jobb


Photo by Kerry Oliver



Dean Jobb is the author of The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream: The Hunt for a Victorian Era Serial Killer. His other books include Empire of Deception, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and CrimeReads. He is a journalist and a professor at the University of King's College in Halifax, Nova Scotia.


Q: How did you learn about Dr. Cream, and what inspired you to write this book about him? 


A: I’m always on the lookout for compelling, overlooked stories and Dr. Thomas Neill Cream’s sinister tale of madness and murder says so much about its time and place.


It exposes how the sexism, hypocrisy, corruption, and primitive forensic science of the Victorian Era allowed one of history’s earliest and most prolific serial killers to kill, again and again.


And it is a cautionary tale that resonates in our own times, as serial killers continue to prey on people relegated to the margins of society – sex workers, the homeless, transients, addicts, teenage runaways.


Despite DNA evidence, criminal profiling, and other advances in forensic investigation, detectives still struggle to connect seemingly motiveless crimes and random victims to a single murderer.


Q: The writer Charlotte Gray says of the book that it “fuses the blow-by-blow efforts to catch a serial killer with the larger picture of crime and detection in the late nineteenth century.” How did the Cream case fit into the overall picture of the time? You’ve described Scotland Yard’s police work on the case as “bungling.”


A: The investigation also highlights the primitive forensics of the time. Dr. Thomas Stevenson, Britain’s leading forensic toxicologist, conducted the laboratory tests that confirmed the presence of strychnine in the remains of Cream’s victims.


His methods, considered state of the art, were not for the squeamish. He touched samples of fluid recovered from cadavers to his tongue, and claimed to be able to identify an array of poisons by taste.


To confirm the presence of the poison, he injected fluid recovered from Cream’s victims into frogs, to see if their death throes mirrored those of frogs killed with strychnine.


Q: Why is Dr. Cream not as well known today as Jack the Ripper, and why is there speculation that the two were linked?


A: Dr. Cream was notorious in his time – London’s News of the World proclaimed him “the greatest monster of iniquity the century has seen” – but his crimes have faded from memory.


He was eventually caught and punished, so his story has not taken on the macabre afterlife of his infamous contemporary, Jack the Ripper, whose identity has become the subject of endless speculation.


Dr. Cream was, arguably, more lethal and more dangerous. He was a calculating fiend who murdered by stealth, using poison to kill his victims from a distance. He evaded justice in three countries. He preyed on desperate, vulnerable women who turned to him for medical help.


He was a Victorian Era monster and he should no longer be a forgotten figure, lurking in the shadows of history.


I hope my book finally puts to rest the bizarre theory that Cream could have been Jack the Ripper. Prison records confirm he was in an Illinois prison at the time of the Whitechapel murders in 1888.


The earliest reference I could find to Cream’s purported last words on the gallows – “I am Jack . . .,” suggesting he was in the midst of confessing to being the Ripper as the trap door was sprung, [appeared almost a decade after his execution]. It’s fake news, as we say today.


Q: What are you working on now? 


A: My new project for Algonquin Books has the working title Jewels for the Taking: The Jazz Age Heists of a Gentleman Thief. It's the story of one of the world's most successful jewel thieves, who charmed celebrities and hobnobbed with New York’s millionaires as he planned break-ins at their posh Long Island estates. 


Arthur Barry was suave and movie-star handsome and his crime wave netted millions of dollars' worth of jewels as he outfoxed the detectives on his trail. Life magazine proclaimed him “the greatest jewel thief who ever lived.” 


Imagine The Great Gatsby meets Catch Me If You Can and the hit Netflix series Lupin. It's a rollicking tale of crime and excess set against the backdrop of the Roaring Twenties.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Dean Jobb.

Feb. 26



Feb. 26, 1802: Victor Hugo born.

Friday, February 25, 2022

Q&A with Danielle Friedman



Danielle Friedman is the author of the new book Let's Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World. A journalist, her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and The Cut. She lives in New York City.


Q: What inspired you to write this book?


A: The book has a pretty organic origin story. I decided to take my first barre workout class in the leadup to my wedding. I was intrigued by the history and the subculture of barre. A lot of the moves seemed sexual in nature, and I started investigating a story about whether barre helped women’s sexual health.


I stumbled upon [barre originator] Lotte Berk and was fascinated by her story. I decided to write about her for The Cut.


I thought that I would love to talk to someone writing a history of women’s fitness, but the book didn’t exist. I started out as a book editor before I moved to journalism. A light bulb went off [about writing such a book].


Q: What were some of the surprises you uncovered in researching women’s fitness?


A: How recently it became the cultural force that it is. It’s so ubiquitous and powerful today, it’s still hard to wrap my head around it—that just 40 or 50 years ago, there were a lot of myths and taboos around women sweating or cultivating strength. One of my goals throughout was to research the history and make it known to a younger generation of women who have only known access to fitness.


The fun thing with every chapter of women’s fitness history is that there are smaller, delightful surprises along the way, or something shocking but still interesting—for example, that the sports bra was not invented until 1977. I’m a fan of hidden histories, and I’ve loved being able to share them.


Q: The first person you focus on in the book is Bonnie Prudden. Why did you start here, and what contribution did she make to women’s exercise?


A: I initially planned to focus on a woman named Debbie Drake, a contemporary of Prudden’s. She had an album, How To Keep Your Husband Happy, which was an extreme case of fitness sold as femininity.


Bonnie is usually glossed over in the histories that do exist. She also went by the name Ruth Hirschland, and some texts didn’t recognize that they were the same person. I read all about her. Not only did she have a TV fitness show, but she was a mountaineer, and she helped institute the President’s Physical Fitness Test. Her longtime associate Enid Whittaker maintained an archive with a tremendous wealth of information.


She was one of the first public figures to evangelize for exercise for men, women, and children. She advocated for women being active. She was of her time--she had a book, How to Keep Slender and Fit after Thirty—but she was one of the first when you look at the history of contemporary fitness.


Q: Jane Fonda also is a major figure in the book, something of a phenomenon for women’s fitness. What would you say about her role?


A: She was a phenomenon, and still is. There is another aerobics pioneer, Ken Alan, who sees women’s fitness as “BJ” and “AJ”—Before Jane and After Jane. I wanted to show that there was fitness before Jane Fonda. People born in the ‘80s and later think it began with her.


She was significant—she was the first Hollywood celebrity who was already a major star to go into the fitness business. There had been starlets who were ahead of the curve with what they were willing to do to be beautiful, but Jane actually made it her business. She started the business to fund her husband Tom Hayden’s political campaign.


Once she had a bestselling book and video, she brought the idea that women could benefit from taking care of their bodies to the world. She is credited with launching the home workout industry and the home video industry.


Q: The New York Times review of the book, by Alexandra Jacobs, says your book “is very much ‘pro’ exercise, but for the right reasons: not slimming down but mood management, community, spirituality in the corporal.” What do you think of that description?


A: I love that description. It’s included in my email signature at the moment! Women’s fitness is a very complex and fraught topic—there are the negative effects the industry has had on women, and there’s a history of exclusion.


I set out to explore how fitness and beauty became so intertwined, and why fitness experts were pitching the idea of a makeover to women. I tried telling the story in as clear-eyed a way as possible, to look at the good, the bad, and everything in between.


It was true for me and the majority of the women I interviewed for the book—many women are initially motivated to change the way they look but come to reap a more profound benefit. That’s why it matters, and why it is a feminist story.


Q: You mentioned exclusion, and race is an issue you discuss in the book. Is that changing? What do you see happening now?


A: It has changed. We are at the beginning of an expansion that needs to happen when it comes to fitness. It was important to me to document the overt and covert ways the industry excluded women of color.


The chapter on the rise of the gym talks about the notorious exclusion of people by marking people of color as “DNWAM,” “do not want as member.” There are stories of Black women who felt unwelcome in group fitness classes where they were the only Black woman and the ideal was held up of a slim white woman.


Peleton is walking the walk, or maybe I should say riding the ride, when it comes to representation and elevating people of color to leadership positions.


The cultural representation of who fitness is for and what a fit body looks like is starting to expand, but there’s a lot of work ahead.


Q: In the book, you talk about Olivia Newton-John’s 1981 song “Let’s Get Physical.” What was the song’s impact, and how was the book’s title chosen?


A: Her song—it’s the 40th anniversary of the music video’s debut on TV—reflected the times and the explosion of gym culture in women’s fitness by making it sexy. It encouraged participating. It was part of a trend of popular culture not glorifying gym culture—it was often poking fun at it—but it reinforced the idea that gyms were places for beautiful people to see and be seen. It was a big shift from Bonnie Prudden’s day.


It’s interesting that the song, which Billboard listed as the #1 song of the ‘80s, is linked to the idea of fitness culture. If it was not the dominant culture, it was lifted to a dominant place.


I went through a few different titles. Sweat was one possibility, but that was the title of another book that was coming out. I thought of Work Out as two separate words. We wanted something that captured the retro aspect of the book, and the playfulness. Let’s Get Physical hit those marks.


Q: How would you describe the impact of the pandemic on women’s fitness, and what do you see looking ahead?


A: The pandemic led so many people to reevaluate their priorities, take stock of their lives, and look at what truly makes them feel good, as opposed to a habit one does because one should. I’ve heard from many women with a deeper appreciation for more gentle forms of exercise like yoga and walking. It’s a way to support our mental health; it’s more explicitly positioned that way.


I think we will continue to see fitness as a tool for mental health. In exploring that, we will be looking at the parts of fitness culture that need to be changed--that hinder, not support, women’s health.


The last chapter, Expand, shows that we’re expanding the idea of what a fit body looks like and who fitness is for.


Q: Are you working on another book?


A: Not yet, but I feel very fortunate. I loved every part of this process, and I would love to continue writing books.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb