Thursday, March 31, 2022

Q&A with Sara Rauch


Photo by Lee Biase



Sara Rauch is the author of the new book XO. She also has written the story collection What Shines from It, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Paranoid Tree and Autofocus. She lives in Massachusetts.


Q: What inspired you to write XO?

A: Great question, though I’m not quite sure how to answer it!


On the surface, the book was “inspired” by its main narrative thread, which was a love affair I had with a married man, while I myself was in a long-term, committed relationship with a woman.


I never wanted to write a straightforward memoir about the experience, because that felt a bit too flat for me, and originally, I’d conceived of the book as a collection of essays, non-linear, overlapping but distinct. But the book had other ideas!


As I pushed into this long-form telling, I started to see that there was no thread I was writing that was not connected to at least a handful of other threads in my life and in life at large.


An affair—and the resultant secrets and heartbreak—can feel very insular, but the truth is, it was always part of a much bigger picture, spiritually, socially, culturally, and cosmically. I wanted to portray a holistic, relational view of this experience, so I guess I’d say that’s what inspired me.


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

A: I have a couple different answers to this one. It might be said that this book started writing itself well before I had any awareness of its intentions.


I trained as a poet before I switched to prose, so titles have a lot of weight for me—I often come up with a piece’s title before I start a piece, and more often than not, that title sticks.


For XO, I’d written an essay connecting the seemingly innocent email signature that arose during a love affair and the Xs and Os that populate maps. That essay later became a sort of base for the book, both thematically and for chapter titles (several chapters are titled “XO” or some variation thereof).


Lastly, something I became aware of only while working on final edits, the book as a whole is a sort of “signing off,” a goodbye to many paths I might have taken and did not.


Q: What impact did writing the book have on you?

A: Something I often tell my students is “writing is not therapy, but it can be therapeutic” and by this I mean, writing—especially autobiographical writing—that seeks to become art has to transcend mere processing and elevate itself to a full artistic experience.


To say that writing XO didn’t “heal” me in some way would be a lie, but I didn’t write the book to heal. The bulk of the healing work, in regards to the affair, had been done when I sat down to “start” writing in June of 2020.


This moment, of committing to the book, came directly on the heels of two big events in my life: my eldest cat dying and my getting sober. With a bit of retrospect, I have a sense that without those two events, I might not have written the book.


And in some strange ways, writing the book helped me work through the grief of losing my cat and the difficulties of giving up drinking. Writing XO has, if nothing else, hammered home the wisdom of taking life “one day at a time.”


Q: Author Marin Sardy said of the book, “Something between a memoir and a meditation, this is less a straightforward narrative than a trace along the crooked whorl of self-discovery, as Rauch is shaped, reshaped, and perhaps at times misshapen by her deepest musings and most vulnerable moments of being.” What do you think of that description?


A: Marin’s description captures XO’s abiding aesthetic perfectly! I wanted the book to possess motion and stillness, weaving together action and emotion in unexpected ways—above all, I wanted the book to honor experience: the wonder and terror inherent in the mystery of being human.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Currently I’m in the generation stage of a new book, which I’ve somewhat jokingly dubbed “part autofiction, part time travel.” It’s a love story, a historical investigation, an exploration of the many forms absence takes, a coming-of-age narrative. Is it a novel? Maybe.


But something else that was freeing about writing XO was giving myself permission to defy genre. The book will figure itself out: I trust that now in a way I didn’t before.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Lene Fogelberg




Lene Fogelberg is the author of the new young adult novel The Lightning Tree, the first in The Natural Intelligence Revolution trilogy. She also has written the memoir Beautiful Affliction, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Huffington Post and Writer's Digest. She lives in Sweden.


Q: What inspired you to write The Lightning Tree, and how did you create your character Flora?


A: I love being in nature, and all of my life I have enjoyed going for walks in the woods and by the sea.


When we lived in Southeast Asia we went for hikes in the jungle where I often pondered what it would take for mankind to take deforestation and climate change even more seriously.


And then it hit me: what if nature started to strike back? I looked at the huge trees surrounding us, and the idea for The Natural Intelligence Revolution started to take form in my mind.


The main character, Flora Reed, came to me around the same time that the plot emerged in my mind.


I wanted to really connect with the reader, the way Flora connects with nature, and I knew she had to be sensitive and vulnerable but at the same time strong-minded and full of conviction that stems from her compassionate heart.


At the young age of 17, she has already experienced deep heartbreak and grief, and she taps into these emotions to find the strength she needs to tackle the mind-boggling changes to the world that she is the first to perceive.


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

A: I mapped out the story pretty much before I started to write. I did a lot of research. But at the same time, I was eager to start writing, and kept doing research while I worked on the book and consequently had to make some changes as I went along.


I loved writing books two and three, where I could tie it all together and answer all the questions raised in book one. But it was a bittersweet moment writing “the end” when I finished book three. After spending so much time with these characters, I knew I would miss them!


Q: The chapters alternate between Flora's perspective and that of Fauna, her sister. How did you choose the book's structure?


A: Flora’s younger sister Fauna emerged as a second main character while I wrote the story. I felt that her perspective and experiences were so interesting, I just had to explore them more closely and share that with the reader.


That’s how I ended up with the book’s structure of alternating chapters. This allowed me to build suspense and deepen the understanding of what is going on, as well as add subtext when the reader gets a sense of the contact between the sisters.


Even though they are tragically separated, they develop some sort of contact through supernatural means, because they are so close in their hearts. They are a kind of metaphor for how close mankind and nature are; living side by side but not really communicating.


Even though Fauna’s chapters are the shortest, they were the hardest. To capture her voice, her pain, and her longing often brought me to tears.


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


A: I hope I can share my love of nature, and that the book invites a dialogue about how we take care of our planet for future generations. I also hope that readers might take away something from Flora and her family, how they interact and deal with the dystopian realities that take place around them.


Writing The Natural Intelligence Revolution trilogy was a labour of love. A love of nature and humanity alike. It was also a way for me to channel my sorrow over mankind’s often brutal and cruel exploitation of our beautiful planet.


But most of all, it is a love letter of sorts, to nature, to the strength of today’s youth, and to the generations that come after us.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: The second and third books of The NI Revolution trilogy are already finished and I will support the book launches throughout 2022.


After that I’ll have more time for my next YA project, which will be a stand-alone novel with elements of magical realism as well. It is so much fun to write YA fiction, now I’m stuck!  


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I just want to say thank you for this thoughtful interview! I enjoyed your questions and appreciate your blog and how you support your fellow writers! I’m so glad you asked me to participate!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Barbara Francesca Murphy




Barbara Francesca Murphy is the author of the new novel Lucina's Letters. She also has written the book Second Chances. She lives in Ireland.


Q: What inspired you to write Lucina's Letters, and how did you create your character Lucina?


A: For me, creating each person and their quirks was fun and challenging at the same time. Lucina is the matriarch of the family, the go-to person, the person who wants to bring everyone together. I suppose I was looking to create a strong person who plays a key role in this family saga.


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


A: I knew how the book would end but I made small changes along the way too. I changed Theresa's story toward the end, bringing her together with a man and finding forgiveness for her nieces.


Q: The novel is set in Ireland and Italy--how important is setting to you in your writing?


A: Settings are quite important for me. Describing a location in detail can help the reader to really visualise the place and maybe even become curious about it.

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


A: Besides enjoying the reading experience, probably that families are complicated and that each situation feels unique to each individual. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on a story about four girlfriends with complicated pasts, secrets and deception. They embark on a holiday together where everything comes to a head.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 31


Photo by Ira Wood


March 31, 1936: Marge Piercy born.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Q&A with Dennis Duncan


Photo by Stuart Simpson/Penguin Random House



Dennis Duncan is the author of the new book Index, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age. He also is the coeditor of Book Parts, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement. He lives in London.


Q: Why did you decide to write this history of the index?


A: Quite simply because I thought it needed to be done. But it came about through a slightly odd route.


I had been writing an academic article about this funny group of French avant-garde writers called the Oulipo. One of the unusual things about their work is that several of the novels that have been produced by their members have got indexes. Which is something that novels don’t usually have.


So I wanted to find out when did that distinction - that novels don’t have indexes - come into being, and I asked all of my colleagues, “Where should I look? What’s the standard history of the book index?” And the answer kept coming back that they didn’t know, or there wasn’t one.


So my book really came about because I thought, “Well, someone needs to do that.” But it does tickle me that this rather dry topic - the history of the index - came about through thinking about these really very zany French novelists.


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


A: Well, I was very lucky in that I was given a fellowship from the Bodleian library in Oxford - and subsequently the University Library in Cambridge - which came with an office, and really gave me free rein to look at all their incredible collections of manuscripts and early printed books.


The other wonderful thing about working in a big research library is the conversations you get into with other researchers.


An awful lot of the stories in my book come from conversations in the cafe where people have said, “Oh, a history of the index? Well, presumably you’ve already included such-and-such,” and this has sent me away to find some old book or detail that I hadn’t encountered before.


It really can’t be overstated how much collaboration - both formal and informal - goes into any piece of work like this.


As for surprises, the biggest one was that the project would be of interest to a mainstream publisher! Don’t get me wrong, I am very proud of the book. But it has been such a delight to hear that all sorts of people have enjoyed it, not just academics. I honestly could not have predicted that when I started writing it!


Q: In her New York Times review of the book, Jennifer Szalai writes, "The straightforward utility of the index turns out to be what made it such a disruptive innovation in the first place." Can you say more about that, and why the index was so disruptive?


A: The index breaks a book up into discrete units of information. You don’t have to read in a linear way, from start to finish; the index will just allow you to raid the book for the morsel you’re looking for.


To borrow a term from modern computing, it means that a book now becomes a “random access” storage device. And this brings about an incredible shift in the relationship between time and information: suddenly you can find what you’re looking for really quickly.


But it also produces an anxiety that people won’t read books from start to finish any more. (A bit like what happens to albums when music streaming comes along!)


Q: How do you think indexes might change in the future?


A: In my book, I’ve included two indexes: one produced by modern index-generating software; the other compiled by a professional indexer called Paula Clarke Bain. And I think it’s plain to see that Paula’s is a million times better than the automatically-generated one.


Paula’s is intelligent, useful; it imagines the phrases you might want to look up, what words you might use. But also it is also full of Paula’s personality, full of jokes and wordplay. It is something that is genuinely a pleasure to read in its own right.


Now, the bad news for professional indexers, is that sooner or later - in the next few decades - the computers are coming for *all* our jobs, whether you’re a surgeon, a taxi driver, or a professional indexer.


That software is funny today, but it is only going to get better. But I don’t think it will be able to replicate the wit and character of an index like Paula’s. So I hope there will be always be a role for the artisanal index!


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m just in the very first stages of planning out a new book on literary eccentricity: writers who didn’t fit the mold of what was fashionable during their time, but kept on writing anyway.


Like the wonderful William McGonagall, who often gets referred to as “the worst poet in the English language.” If you haven’t come across his poetry before, do look it up. There’s something joyous in just how bad it is. I’m fascinated by his urge to keep producing this work in the face of universal derision.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Wednesday 30 March is National Indexing Day. If any readers are interested in what it takes to compile an index, or indeed how to make a career out of it, head to the hashtag #IndexDay and you will find plenty of friendly professionals who will be happy to help.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Edwin Hill


Photo by Thomas Bollinger



Edwin Hill is the author of the new novel The Secrets We Share. His other books include Little Comfort. He lives in Roslindale, Massachusetts.


Q: What inspired you to write The Secrets We Share, and how did you create your characters Natalie and Glenn?


A: This novel had a number of false starts. For a while, it was about an elite private school in New Hampshire. Then, it was about a therapist who spies on his clients. That character, the therapist, had two sisters and a brother. Somehow, the two sisters’ roles kept getting bigger, while the brothers finally disappeared from the story!


There used to be an abandoned factory about a mile from my house in Boston. It was dilapidated and surrounded by a chain link fence, and very close to the campus of a high school.


One day, I was driving past it and I started to imagine what might happen in that factory, and whether the students from the high school ever snuck into it. Then, I imagined one of the students daring another to go in, and what that hapless student might find. The story evolved from there!


Q: How would you describe the dynamic between the two sisters?


A: Natalie and Glenn are very, very different.


Natalie is the older sister. She’s a Boston police detective, and she’s very straitlaced and by the book, but she’s also lonely and has a drinking problem. Glenn is a high achiever. She worked as a consultant before turning her energies to baking. Now, she’s on the cusp of a huge success that the events of the novel jeopardize.

I wanted the sisters to be very different, and yet close at the same time. Like most siblings, they know how to push each other’s buttons, but, in the end, they have each other’s backs.


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, “Hill keeps the clock ticking and the twists coming right up to the shocking conclusion.” Without giving anything away, did you plot everything out before you started writing?


A: Once I figured out the inciting incident – the body being discovered in the factory – some of the pieces began to fall into place. This novel is like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, though, and for a long time I felt like I was trying to figure out how each piece fit together.


There was this wonderful moment about a month before the manuscript was due to my editor where everything fell into place. It was a huge relief.


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


A: I try to choose titles that relate to the themes of the book. One of the themes of this book is that secrets can have different meanings to different people, even when the secrets are about the same incidents.


In this novel, Natalie and Glenn both believe they know something, and they both believe they’re the only ones who know that thing, but the way they interpret that knowledge is different.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I took the idea I rejected for The Secrets We Share and am developing it into a new story, so it’s about a psychiatrist who spends more time spying on his clients than treating them. It will be a standalone thriller.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: The Secrets We Share is a standalone thriller, but fans of my other novels will enjoy some brief cameos by familiar characters!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Edwin Hill.

Q&A with Kathleen West




Kathleen West is the author of the new novel Home or Away. Her other books include Are We There Yet?. A teacher, she lives in Minneapolis.


Q: You write, “The uncomfortable tension of sports and sports parenting brought me to Home or Away.” Can you say more about that, and about why you chose youth hockey as the book's focus?


A: While most youth sports seem to require a great deal of time, money, and commitment these days; hockey, I think, has a little extra intensity wrapped up in it.


That’s because kids have to learn how to skate as toddlers in order to really compete going forward. It’s not a sport that many can take up later (meaning, after kindergarten) or drop in and out of and still be competitive enough to play in high school.


As a hockey parent, I can tell you that the intensity sneaks up on you. It’s not like I felt we were devoting so much of our free time and money to the sport at first. We felt like we were following my son’s lead, and we still feel like that–and now he plays hockey year-round and we schedule the rest of our lives around it.


Q: How did you create your characters Leigh and Susy, and how would you describe the dynamic between them?


A: Leigh and Susy have an incredibly complex relationship. They have an affinity in that they were both world-class athletes and competed together as teammates at the World Championships.


As kids and young adults, they were friends. But they were also always each other’s competition. Leigh had the edge in high school and college, but when it mattered–when the Olympics were on the line–Susy made the team, and Leigh didn’t.


It took a lot of drafts and a lot of thinking to get their relationship just right. The level of intensity required to be the best in the world at something carries over into your interactions with people inside the sport and outside of it. These two have a lot in common, and also a lot of tricky history.


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


A: I knew I was writing toward a generally happy ending. I love happy endings and find them to be satisfying as a reader. But deciding what “happy” looked like alongside “realistic” for each of my main characters was a process. There were many changes along the way.


There’s one ending I still don’t think is settled or realistic. While Gus might think he’s out of A-level hockey, I’m pretty sure the adults in his life will guide him toward the tryouts again the following fall.


Q: How would you describe your character Jeff Carlson's role in the book?


A: Jeff is a straight-up villain. He might have nuance as a person, but I didn’t spend much time, if any, inside his head. He’s a guy who didn’t reach his personal goals in athletics, and then exploited women who were willing to do anything to reach theirs.


I hate him, and I think all readers will also hate him. He’s perhaps the most one-note character I’ve ever written.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on a significant pivot in terms of genre, and I’m struggling a bit! I spent a year developing some ideas for a murder mystery that are interesting, but ultimately, not right for my next project.


I think I’ve finally landed on an idea that’s going to capture me and my editor, but I need some concentrated time to get it on paper.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’m a teacher! I work at an all-girls school in St. Paul, Minnesota, and my students bring me a lot of joy. I also have three dogs, which is a lot of dogs.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 30



March 30, 1882: Melanie Klein born.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Q&A with Lisa Scottoline



Lisa Scottoline is the author of the new novel What Happened to the Bennetts. Her many other books include the historical novel Eternal. She also writes a weekly column for The Philadelphia Inquirer. She lives in the Philadelphia area.


Q: What inspired you to write What Happened to the Bennetts?


A: Sometimes a novel arises from “what-if”, and this one specifically began its life on a route through the woods near my house. I was actually being tailgated, which I hate. I was going the speed limit and I couldn't move over to let him pass because the road was too narrow. I wasn't about speed up because I always enjoy the drive through the woods.


And of course, if you're me, you overthink everything, then you're having a moral argument in your mind about speed limits, the social compact, and standing up for what's right.


What you decide to do in that moment, whether to speed up, find a way to move over, or even go slower out of spite shows what kind of person you are or what character you have, and like a novel, provides plot and character both at the same time. (See what I mean about overthinking?)


Anyway, in answer the question, by the end of my vaguely neurotic analysis, I thought to myself, what if this tailgater carjacked me right now? I couldn't stop thinking about it, and by the time I got home, I knew I had the next novel.


Q: The Booklist review of the book says, “Scottoline’s gift for crafting human connections is displayed here in the evocative grief of Veria and the Bennetts, setting this thriller apart from other suburban-hero stories.” What do you think of that assessment?


A: I'm really honored by it and I love Booklist. I really did try to delve into the relationships of the members of the Bennett family in this novel, and flesh out what they do in a crisis, because it can make or break a marriage and a family.

I think my domestic novels have always blended family with some aspect of justice, and I really love doing that because I think it brings into focus the fact that crime, and indeed, any legal question, impact people. The purpose of law is to order our relationships so we don't commit violence against one another.


What Happened to the Bennetts raises the question of how a family reacts when the law fails them, and I think it's timely because so many institutions that we always had faith in have shaken that faith, and I like to try to address that question, writ large.


By the way, that said, I think there are so many excellent domestic thrillers being written these days and in my opinion, we can always use more suburban-hero stories. I love to look at notions of power in popular culture, and in truth, there are far more superhero stories than there are ordinary hero stories. I love both, and the more the merrier.


Q: Your previous novel, Eternal, was your first work of historical fiction. Why did you decide to turn to historical fiction, and how did your writing process compare with writing your contemporary novels?


A: I always wanted to write Eternal, or a story concerning what happened to the Jews of Rome during Mussolini's fascism and eventually Nazi occupation. Honestly, I didn't see writing historical fiction as different from what I've done before, even though it is a different genre.


As I said above, I've always been dealing with questions of family, love, and justice, and to me, it doesn't matter whether those take place in Italy or Delaware, in the 1930s or in present day. It's a distinction without a difference, and the classic form-over-substance dichotomy.


Writing both taught me that the thematic similarities are far more important than genre, and that the fundamentals of the storytelling are the same. And it follows from that, as was true, that my writing process was exactly the same.


Eternal required historical research which wasn't always easy to get, whereas Bennetts required modern-day research into FBI methods, which wasn't always easy to get.


I like to encourage people to write, because I think everybody has a novel in them, but no novel is easier or harder than the next. They’re just hard in different ways, but that's something I love about my job. I've written over 30 novels in thirtysome years, and I've never been bored a single day.


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


A: I researched Eternal any way imaginable. I did a deep dive into nonfiction about the era, which I cited in the back of the novel, and also read a lot of period fiction to get the flavor of the way people spoke and the way exposition read.


I went to Italy several times, which was awesome and full of carbohydrates. I had source material translated from Italian into English. I did so much research it’s too much to recount here, but people can see it all on my website, including actual videos I made in Rome of locations in the book.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I'm super excited because I am writing a historical epic entitled Sacred and it’s the story of two brothers and a kidnapped boy during the rise of the Mafia in Sicily in the 1800s.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Most importantly, I'm very grateful to my readers who are so supportive of me over the years. It's always scary to try new things, and is something of a career risk, to be honest with you.


But I am blessed with readers who will give me the chance to extend myself creatively, and I think they know that if I keep it fresh for me, I will keep it fresh for them, and we have an implicit bond between us, that I will deliver and make any book of mine worth their money.


I always think of it that way because I’m always aware that books are bought and sold, and I was broke for so long when I was trying to become a writer that I remember when I could buy only a single book every year, and it was a gift for my father on his birthday.


So my job is to deliver a great story, well told, and I try to do that, every time.


Thank you so much, Deborah!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Andrew DeYoung



Andrew DeYoung is the author of the new novel The Temps. He also has written the young adult novel The Exo Project. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.



Q: What inspired you to write The Temps, and how did you create your cast of characters?


A: For a long time, I wanted to write something about the time of life right after college, when you've got a lot of education, a lot of debt—but maybe not a ton of job prospects right away. But for a long time I didn't have a story idea.


What I did have was an image, or maybe a situation, of a low-level office worker sort of wandering around in an abandoned office building. It seemed to have something that connected to what I wanted to do, since I spent a lot of time in my 20s working terrible low-paying office jobs and feeling really confused and disoriented with how the corporate world worked.


So I thought I should try to spin out a story from that image. I asked myself, Okay, who is this guy, and why is he in a huge office building all alone?


From there, I came up with the idea that he was a temp worker, and that he was all alone because all the regular employees were at a special meeting—and that there was an apocalypse event that killed them all and left him, and all the other temps, stuck in the office building. Immediately, I loved it.


As for the cast of characters, I knew I wanted an ensemble cast. In part, that was because I wanted to represent different sorts of experiences of struggling in your 20s and trying to make your way in the professional world.


But also, from a plot standpoint, I really like a multi-character story, because you can have a lot of plots and subplots and have them all come together at the end. It's just the way my plotting brain works!


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, "DeYoung cleverly deconstructs academia, video game culture, and capitalism from the perspectives of the temps. The author has a lot to say, and has crafted a fine vehicle for doing so." What do you think of that description?


A: I like it! I think it speaks to something that's real about my book, which is that it has a lot on its mind. There are a lot of ideas floating around in it—ideas about corporate culture, about the future, and about the challenges facing us as a society.


What that quote misses is that, amidst all the ideas, there's a pretty fun plot here, with a mix of humor and horror sprinkled throughout. A couple other reviewers have referred to it as a "locked-room mystery," which I think is really cool.


And Booklist, in a starred review, said that The Temps is "bizarre—and surprisingly fun." The word "fun" makes me particularly happy. I do think it's a fun book, amidst all the social commentary and stuff I have to say.


Q: Your previous book, The Exo Project, was a YA novel, and this one is for adults. Was your writing experience different this time around?


A: I'm going to give you a really superficial difference, and say that I didn't have to worry about my characters using bad language! Or sex.


I realize that YA has a lot of that stuff too, but the editor for my first book didn't love it, and I suppose I did sometimes think about what parents or teachers might say about things I put in the YA book. With this book, I didn't worry about that.


The other difference between this book and that one is that in this one I allowed myself to have a lot more humor throughout the book. I don't think that necessarily has to do with YA vs. adult, so much as it does with the premise. This premise just felt like it was ripe for a bit of a satirical tone.


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


A: On some level, I just hope that readers who feel confused and afraid about living in these strange times where it seems like the world is ending every other day feel a little bit less alone with that feeling.


At a basic level, the book is an acknowledgment and affirmation of those feelings—the modern world is disorienting, it's strange to live in these times, and if you don't feel okay, that's okay and normal.


Readers may also come away thinking about the systems their lives are entangled in, and ways to make change. Political systems, economic systems. Sometimes it might seem like we can't change things to address the problems we face, and we're just doomed. But we all make the future together, and we can change things.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I've got a couple projects in the works right now.


I've got a con artist story that I'm revising right now—and I've also just started on a sort of weird spy novel about a guy who's sent to gather intelligence in an enemy territory that turns out to be a sort of surreal place. I'm not talking much about it yet because the idea's so new that I'm afraid of spooking it!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: The thing I've heard most consistently from early readers is "Wow, this would make a great streaming TV show!" And I agree—there's a lot about this book that screams TV.


And in fact, the book has been optioned, so theoretically it could become a series someday. I'm really hoping it does well enough that some Hollywood executive out there decides to make it!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Andrew DeYoung.

Q&A with June Smalls




June Smalls is the author of the new children's picture book He Leads: Mountain Gorilla, the Gentle Giant. Her other books include She Leads: The Elephant Matriarch. She lives in Virginia.


Q: What inspired you to focus on the mountain gorilla in your new book?


A: I wrote a book called She Leads: The Elephant Matriarch. This book that started as a lyrical journey to learn about the African elephant quickly became a story about leadership.


When that solo book had the opportunity to become a series I had to choose my next animals carefully for their cool factor and their leadership skills.


Gorillas are known for their ferocious power. Big canine teeth. Loud chest beats. But we don’t always see how good they are at avoiding confrontation. How goofy and playful they are. How gentle and shy they can be.


After preliminary research on a few different male-led groups of animals I couldn’t help but fall for these amazing creatures. Thus, He Leads was born.


Q: How do you see this book relating to She Leads?


A: He Leads continues the style of She Leads with a short lyrical story that guides you through the importance and the life of the silverback, which leads and cares for his troop, with nonfiction sidebars on each spread.


Like She Leads, you learn basic facts on the animals as well as having a great conversation starter about what makes a good leader.


If teachers and caregivers were to compare the two, kids could observe why different leadership styles work so well in different habitats, situations, and family structures.


Q: You worked again with illustrator Yumi Shimokawara--what do you think her illustrations added to this book?


A: Yumi Shimokawara has the most amazing style. The realistic gorillas are powerful; you can see the intelligence in their eyes. They are set off by soft hues and even negative space that really lets them be the star of the show.


Her art takes the text to a higher level.


Q: What are some surprising facts about mountain gorillas?


A: Some fun facts that I share with readers, but couldn’t add to the lyrical story: how gassy gorillas are. They are herbivores that eat very dense vegetation which causes some noisy consequences.


Also, recent studies have shown that the chest beats of the male gorilla may show everyone who is the largest male. This may be why so many confrontations end with chest beats. The smaller ape knows he isn’t a match, and it isn’t worth trying to fight.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I recently got to see the art for my next picture book, Hear Them Roar, a novelty sound book about endangered animals around the world.


I’m also working on more in the Leads series. Just wait until you see Yumi’s art for They Lead, about the wolf pack.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: When researching for a book or essay or class project, keep track of your bibliography as you go! Once I started doing this my world became just a little bit easier.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with June Smalls.