Thursday, May 19, 2022

Q&A with L.M. Elliott

 


 

 

L.M. Elliott is the author of the new middle grade novel Louisa June and the Nazis in the Waves. Her many other books include Across a War-tossed Sea. A former journalist, she lives in Virginia.

 

Q: What inspired you to write Louisa June and the Nazis in the Waves, and how did you create your character Louisa June and her family?

     

A: I had been wanting to write about the WWII maritime families of the Chesapeake Bay region ever since publishing Across a War-tossed Sea, the home-front companion to my first and still most successful novel, Under a War-torn Sky.

 

The frustrating thing about researching historical fiction is there is always some fascinating tidbit that just doesn’t fit into that particular character’s story and arc.

 

Across was focused on two young British evacuees living with Henry Forester’s high school sweetheart, struggling to assimilate in Tidewater Virginia and large farming family while worrying about their parents and friends left behind in London.

 

German P.O.W.s working Virginia farms during the war, Richmond’s decoy airfield filled with fake plywood planes, and the intense wartime shipbuilding going on in Newport News became the linchpins of that plot.

 

While researching, I read about the devastating and little-remembered U-boat attacks along our East Coast in the first six months of 1942. Just days after Pearl Harbor, Hitler sent five submarines to take out as many freighters, cargo ships, and tankers sailing our Atlantic shore as possible. We were totally unprepared.

 

Those five U-boats averaged taking down a ship a day from January through July—and during the worst month, one ship every eight hours. Millions of tons of precious fuel and supplies to the ocean’s bottom, miles of waves burning from the explosions and spilled oil, and hundreds of sailors thrown into the sea or killed.

 

The brave men of the merchant marine who reupped repeatedly even after suffering through their ship sinking—some as young as 17 and others as old as 70—suffered the highest casualty rate of any service during WWII. Hardly anyone talks about them.

 

I wanted to explore that forgotten history, those unsung everyday heroes, and what that harsh reality and anxiety was like for the fishing families who sent their husbands, fathers, and sons to a sea where Nazis lurked beneath the waves, waiting and watching.

 

William Geroux’s wonderful The Mathews Men: Seven Brothers and the War Against Hitler’s U-boats helped provide some inspiration, but Louisa June and her Tidewater family and farm are very familiar to me.

 

My father and his family were from that region, so their soft drawl, the area’s love for good stories well-told, fierce multi-generational family ties, matter-of-fact bravery, and spiritual communion and understanding of nature are very much part of my vernacular. 

                          

Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, "Successfully tackling the devastation of depression on family relationships, the bitter cost of war, and the uplifting strength of no-nonsense friendship, this story has impressive depth." What do you think of that description?

 

A: Oh my, well, I teared up when I read that starred review, because the writer captured and appreciated all I was trying to do with this novel. Louisa June’s story is about many things: WWII on the home-front, but also emotional health, sudden loss and grief, and its impact on family.

 

I wrote Louisa June and the Nazis in the Waves during the worst of COVID, as we grappled with its unforeseen, terrifyingly unpredictable, and deadly menace.

 

The lightning quick appearance and sweep of the pandemic was not unlike that of Nazi U-boats suddenly appearing along our coastline, rising up from the sea to torpedo a ship and then disappearing again.

 

Life turns on a dime and with earthquake force for Louisa June as she faces the shocking, out-of-the-blue death of her beloved brother—a loss similar in its grief to the death of immediate caregivers (parents, grandparents, extended family) which the NIH says close to 200,000 children under the age of 18 are currently struggling through because of COVID.

 

I hope those readers find reassurance in Louisa June’s strength, optimism, and journey to healing, and that their friends, who were luckier during the epidemic in terms of not losing someone, find compassion and understanding of the grieving process.

 

Louisa June’s elderly Cousin Belle advises her: “Don’t dismiss it. Stare sorrow in the face. Recognize the pain for what it is. Then it will back down a tad and walk beside you, maybe give you a little bit of a limp for a while, or for forever. But it will not undo you or sneak up on you from behind in a surprise attack. Of course, facing sorrow head-on and accepting its presence takes honesty, courage, and a bit of spit. Which you have in spades, child.”

 

May is mental health awareness month. Louisa June’s story carries an additional undercurrent about depression in family members—which is a different thing entirely from sorrow, as Cousin Belle wisely says.

 

These are the first words we hear from Louisa June: “My mama has the melancholy. Always has. But recently it’s gone from her customary pinkish-gray—like a dawn mist in the marshes, still hopeful and able to clear into bright blue with the right sprinkle of sunshine—to thick, storm-surge purple black.”

 

Louisa June is watchful, always assessing her mother’s mood to know how to act, hoping to help by finding little amusing stories and “somethings nice,” as Louisa June’s mama calls them, to cheer her up. 

 

As many as one in five children live with a severely depressed parent, according to NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Health). The impact on their children is vast.


In 1942, there were no truly viable treatments for depression and anxiety disorders. That was then. Today, a carefully prescribed regimen of CBT talk therapy (cognitive-behavioral) and medication can provide relief in eight weeks in 60 percent of people.

 

My goal is that Louisa June will help my teen and ‘tween readers who might be in a similar situation to feel seen and understood. To be encouraged by the supportive example of Cousin Belle—that “uplifting strength of no-nonsense friendship” as the Kirkus review kindly says—to ask adults they trust for help, especially in this time of increased, COVID-sparked mental health issues.

 

Q: How did you research the novel?

 

A: I researched it through some fairly esoteric naval histories and scholarly webpages. (See my website for these links and resources if you’re interested in learning more yourself:  https://www.lmelliott.com/book_landing_page_historical/louisa-june-and-nazis

 

The novel’s specific events and Louisa June’s family were largely spawned by information I found on https://uboat.net/, which posts a page for each ship hit by a German U-boat during WWII, giving details of the attack and a list of crew members.

 

Skimming through the site, I came across the brutal sinking of a small tugboat in March 1942. Reading the list, I spotted a 17-year-old able seaman and realized, given the last names and ages, there seemed to be two sets of fathers-and-sons in the 18-man crew.

 

Only two people survived. The teenager and both of those 22-year-old sons perished. One of the fathers lived. As a mother, that information made my heart stop and my eyes tear up.

 

I was able to find more information about that terrible night and the two survivors because of a lawsuit against the shipping company that owned the tug for failing to adequately update the life flotations.

 

In those details was the fact the captain (one of the survivors) had placed a ship-to-shore call home to tell his family all was well the night his tugboat steamed out of Norfolk hauling three barges of coal and timber. The Nazi U-boat likely located the tug by catching that radio signal.

 

Again, I caught my breath at the tragic irony, the regret and recrimination that fact would likely cause. The novel wrote itself from there.

 

Q: In your author's note, you write that this novel “features a more intimate and idiosyncratic first-person voice than I usually use for historical novels.” Why did you choose this voice for the novel?

 

A: Because of those undercurrent themes of loss and sadness, of “melancholy” as Louisa June calls her mama’s emotional health struggles, that kind of voice creates a palpable immediacy. It takes the reader straight into Louisa June’s poetic heart and mind, and her deep love of the delicate beauty of the marshes surrounding her home.

 

For her to be able to say things like: “I was learning that blame was like the sea nettles that clog the bay in the summer, their threads of poison floating outstretched, waiting. The first brush of one of those long tenacles would sting a little—survivable, for sure, but definitely enough to slow a thing down. The kill came when that jellyfish quick-closed its fanned-out strings to entangle the injured prey. . . The question—what if—was the first sting that began the death-dance of blame.

 

That voice also allows me some deadpan humor, which does permeate the novel, too. I promise Louisa June has a counterweight of light, whimsical moments, and wry commentary! Take Louisa June’s quirky friend, Emmett, with his outrageous plans that he convinces her to join in on.

 

“You know the tides are coming in higher these days because of all them Nazi tinfishes floating around out there, right?”

 

Emmett is one for half-baked conspiracy theories. “I don’t think a bunch of submarines can make the entire ocean level rise, Emmett.”

 

“LJ, you don’t have no imagination, do you?” Emmett drew his twelve-year-old-self up tall and looked at me with pity for my limited brain power and tried to explain his higher understanding of the universe. “You ever take a bath? Maybe you take a jug and put it down to collect water for rinsing your head? And the water rose up when you did?”

 

“Yes, but that’s a bathtub, Emmett.”

 

Shrugging, he ignored my disbelief. “Well, they’re out there, LJ. Thick as sharks. I ain’t gonna stand by and do nothing. I’m going to build me an observation tower and join the Confidential Observers.”

 

In addition to Emmett, there’s Louisa June’s sassy big sister. Her Cousin Belle is a bodacious, outspoken great-aunt/cousin who has had an adventure-filled life, collects stray cats, (or should I say they collect her), and names them for Musketeers. A pig chase. Netting for elvers that instead lands a whale of an eel. And eventually, a life-changing, harrowing search-and-rescue.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: A YA novel set during Watergate, for Algonquin, following the docudrama formatting of Walls and Suspect Red. As you would imagine given Watergate’s parallels to today’s headlines, the research is fascinating and infuriating, which always makes for good writing.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: Education and literacy expert/advocate Rachael Walker (https://www.belleofthebook.com/ ) developed a thoughtful and thought-provoking discussion guide, using Louisa June as a springboard for educators (and parents!) to talk about mental health with ‘tweens and teens.

 

One of the exercises is an art project that plays off a comment from Louisa June’s beloved brother, Butler, about finding stars—moments of uplifting beauty—in the waves. It is such a beautiful, proactive concept that Rachael created, I would wish for all of us to do it. Please see: https://www.lmelliott.com/application/files/7716/4830/0346/Louisa_June_and_the_Nazis_in_the_Waves_Discussion_Guide.pdf

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with L.M. Elliott.

Q&A with Jacquetta Nammar Feldman

 


 

Jacquetta Nammar Feldman is the author of the new middle grade novel Wishing Upon the Same Stars. She lives in Austin, Texas.

 

Q: In the book's Author’s Note, you describe your own family background and how it influenced the creation of this novel. How did you create your character Yasmeen?

 

A: My inspiration for my character Yasmeen in Wishing Upon the Same Stars came from a poem I had written. It was a poem about me as an adult tucking away my feelings into desktop poems on my computer, while a middle school version of me found a way to dance her feelings into the light.

 

The poem kept going and became the story of an Arab American girl who is a little like me—she has a Palestinian father, she moves to Texas from the Midwest, and she dances in her Maronite church’s dance troupe—though many aspects of our families and lives are very different.

 

While Yasmeen makes a Jewish best friend at age 12 when she meets Ayelet, I didn’t make a Jewish best friend until l turned 18 when I met the boy who would later become my husband. But I could easily imagine what it might have felt like for Yasmeen to meet and make such a friend during middle school.

 

Q: The author Veera Hiranandani called the book, “A hopeful and big-hearted story about second chances, the undeniable weight of history, and the rocky road we travel when we aspire to connect as humans first, beyond religion or beyond anything that separates us.” What do you think of this description, and what do you hope readers take away from the story?

 

A: Veera’s review of my book is so touching, warm, and generous. I felt like she recognized the heart of my story and what I hoped to accomplish.

 

I wrote Wishing Upon the Same Stars because I wanted to give readers a glimpse of what a friendship like Yasmeen and Ayelet’s could do. That even people who share hard histories filled with mistrust, violence, and suffering might one day find paths to better understanding and friendship. Small steps can add up.


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 from my poem that Yasmeen would be proud of her culture and heritage at the end of the story. I also knew that Yasmeen and Ayelet, along with Waverly and Esme, would all find understanding and friendship in various ways. In fact, I wrote my early chapters, the midpoint chapter, and my end chapter well before filling in the rest of the story.

 

Originally, however, the story took place in an abridged timeframe, January to June. But my editors felt that the friendships were too rushed and could be more deeply developed during the whole school year. I agreed and revised to this goal, which was no small task. But I’m so glad I did because it made the story much better!

 

Q: The book is set in San Antonio, Texas. How important is setting to you in your writing?

 

A: Setting is extremely important to me since my writing is heavily influenced by natural landscapes. I spend part of every single day outside, where I often do my best story generating. Sometimes, I’ll even dictate a whole scene into my phone while I’m on a hike.

 

San Antonio, where I spent a big part of my childhood, has a natural landscape that reminds me of Jerusalem, where my father grew up. It seemed like the perfect place for Yasmeen and Ayelet’s story to unfold!

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’m excited to be in copyedits for another middle grade novel that will be released by HarperCollins on 1/17/2023, The Puttermans Are in the House. It’s a story told through the points of view of two fraternal twins and their first cousin during Houston’s Hurricane Harvey and the World Series.

 

The heart of the story is about changing and growing relationships and relearning how to cheer for one another when you’ve forgotten how.

 

I’m working on a few other middle grade stories as well, both set in the Adirondacks: one lower middle grade called Lucky George about a boy who becomes aware of luck and privilege though some new friendships; and an upper middle grade called A Small Kind of Miracle about a girl who keeps climbing mountains, even after a hard fall.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I’m an MFA student at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in the Writing for Children & Young Adults program, and I just submitted my critical thesis on nonfiction picture book refrains (reach out if you are a fan, I’d love to chat!). During my time at VCFA, I’ve fallen in love with the picture book format, so I hope to find homes for some of my favorite manuscripts soon!

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Kate McMullan

 


 

 

Kate McMullan is the author of the children's picture book Happy Springtime!. Her many other books include As Warm as the Sun. She lives in New York City. 

 

Q: What inspired you to write Happy Springtime!?

 

A: At Christmastime several years ago, a good friend of mine sent me a 1952 recording of a poem by E.B. White wishing everyone a Merry Christmas from The New Yorker Radio Hour. The poem was very specific – and very funny – about who was getting these Merry Christmas wishes:

 

“To tellers who’ve made a mistake in addition,

to grounded airline passengers,

and to all those who can’t eat clams….”

 

It had a wonderful rhythm that got caught in my brain, and I’d find myself repeating the lines when I walked along the icy sidewalks of New York City. Winter was very slow to end on this particular year, and I found myself longing for springtime.

 

One gray, cold morning I sat down at my desk and instead of working on what I’d been working on the day before, I found myself writing a message of hope that spring was coming:

 

“To all those whose snowsuits have stuck zippers

and those with their boots on the wrong feet.”

 

The words pretty much flowed out of me. It was a great joy to write this book.

 

Q: What do you think Sujean Rim’s illustrations add to the book?


A: I love Sujean’s art for this book. She took what I’d written and lifted it up with unexpected images, like the beautiful, textured umbrellas in the puddle-jumpers scene. I particularly loved what she did in the “smock-wearing painters of flowers and bugs,” turning the little kid artist into a Parisian painter, complete with beret. She has a wonderful sense of fashion and style.

 

Q: What's your favorite season and why?

 

A: I love springtime for the renewal. Trees that look totally dead all winter long begin to sprout leaves; plants poke up from the ground. It’s a celebration of coming back to life.

 

But I love all the seasons, really, because without winter, spring wouldn’t be so sweet. Fall is a gorgeous time of year even if the brilliant red and yellow leaves eventually wither and drop. And then there are the long days of summer and cookouts and mosquitoes. Every season has its plusses and minuses.

 

Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, “Though not written in verse, the gently rhythmic text is almost poetic and reads beautifully thanks to its liberal use throughout of well-chosen alliterative and assonant words and phrases, demanding that this book be read aloud.” What do you think of that description?

 

A: I love this description, of course! I do hope parents and teachers and librarians read this book aloud to kids over and over and that those kids will be inspired to write their own Happy Springtime poem or Happy Winter, or whatever season. I’m always so grateful to teachers and librarians who think up wonderful ways for kids to add their own takes to my books.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: One project I’m working on I call Hawkeyes. When the pandemic started, I’d go out to Central Park almost every day because it was safe to be outside. When I’m in the park, I always have my binoculars and I look at the many Central Park birds.

 

At that time, the schools were closed, so were museums. The playgrounds were padlocked. It was very hard for city parents to find interesting things to do with their kids, and some of them – actually, many of them -- took their kids to the park to look at birds.

 

They’d see my binoculars and call me over to see if I knew what bird they were looking at. Once you see a bird, you try to identify it. And once you identify it, you can learn amazing things about that bird. Lots of these parents and kids became very interested in birds and birding. They’re my inspiration for Hawkeyes.  

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Abbigail Nguyen Rosewood

 

Photo by Marie C. from Ibakefilms

 

 

Abbigail Nguyen Rosewood is the author of the new novel Constellations of Eve. She also has written the novel If I Had Two Lives, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Electric Lit and LitHub

 

Q: What inspired you to write Constellations of Eve?

 

A: The novel is an alchemical blend between my own experience in love--how to nurture it, fight for it, free it--and my spiritual belief in the idea of the souls meeting again and again across time and space.

 

Q: The author Binnie Kirshenbaum said of the book, “With each discrete episode chronicling Eve’s life, Rosewood unflinchingly exposes the disturbing complexities, conundrums, and fears that accompany love, marriage, and motherhood. The honesty is sharp; the truth is piercing.” What do you think of that description?

 

A: I think it’s an apt description of the story, and the ways we have to endure even the great love of our life.


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

 

A: No, I never know where a story is going. I write one word at a time. I like to be surprised.

 

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

 

A: Maybe that beauty and pain are intertwined--there isn’t one without the other. Actually, I hesitate to prescribe anything to the reader. Once the story departs from me and into the world, it has its own life. The reader is entitled to their own unique experience.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’m working on an essay about familial gossips that have gained traction, influence, and power of myth. I’m examining how myths inherited from family shape our experience and interpretation of our life.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 19

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
May 19, 1941: Nora Ephron born.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Q&A with Rochelle B. Weinstein

 


 

 

Rochelle B. Weinstein is the author of the new novel When We Let Go. Her other books include This Is Not How It Ends. She lives in Florida and North Carolina.

 

Q: What inspired you to write When We Let Go, and how did you create your character Avery?

 

A: Initially, the book was inspired by the setting, Vizcaya [Museum and Gardens in Florida]. I toured the museum and gardens several years ago and knew I needed to create a story there. WWLG went through multiple iterations before becoming a story of letting go and second chances.

 

Avery is all of us. She's a woman deeply affected by past experiences. Through her journey, and Elle's, the reader comes to understand the steps we must all take in order to live fuller lives.

   

Q: Can you say more about the novel’s setting?

 

A: Setting is another character in my novels. While initially I chose Vizcaya as the setting for the book, it was merely the starting point, and the plot ended up taking root in the North Carolina mountains.

 

This Florida girl spent her summers in Hendersonville, North Carolina, where my mother worked as head of girl's hill at a sleepaway camp. A nature girl at heart, I had always believed in its power of healing and grounding. I knew that Avery's own journey of recovery and self-discovery would involve the earth and a place that had given me my foundation.

 

Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Avery and Elle, the daughter of Avery's boyfriend?

 

A: They were my two favorite characters to write. Stubborn and broken, the unlikeliest allies, their shared grief drew them in and pushed them apart. Sometimes we're drawn to those who share our suffering, other times we don't want to see the mirror staring back at us.

 

Building their relationship and watching them let down their walls and boundaries was especially gratifying. The gifts they gave each other made for a satisfying finish.

 

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

 

A: The original title we sold to the publishing house was Let Me Let GoWhen We Let Go felt more universal and thought-provoking...imagine all that is possible when we let go of.....and fill in the blank here. For me, personally, we must let go of what weighs us down in order to truly move forward.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I am so excited about book 7, working title: What You Do To Me. This is the story of a Rolling Stone reporter on the hunt for the story behind a famous love song. Along the way, her own relationship is tested, and we're taken on a journey through forbidden love and mending past relationships (more letting go, I guess!). The novel releases Spring 2023.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: How grateful I am to do what I love to do. I've been a voracious reader my entire life--I still read two books at a time while writing--and I'm amazed that I'm able to provide the magic that others have given to me.

 

I'm also most grateful to the readers for having a choice and choosing my work. My wish is to continue sharing heartfelt stories with all of you. Thank you, Deborah. It's because of YOU, we write! Readers can connect with me at www.rochelleweinstein.com or social media.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Rochelle B. Weinstein.

Q&A with Robin Farrar Maass

 


 

 

Robin Farrar Maass is the author of the new novel The Walled Garden. She lives in Redmond, Washington. 

 

Q: What inspired you to write The Walled Garden, and how did you create your character Lucy?

 

A: I’ve been a voracious reader all my life and I’ve always dreamed of creating a reading experience that would enchant readers just as I’ve been enchanted by my favorite fictional worlds.

 

When I was 22, I went to England for the first time and fell totally in love with Oxford. I’d read Dorothy L. Sayers’s classic mystery Gaudy Night in college, and being in Oxford made me want to write my own novel set there.

 

Part of that was probably wish fulfillment—I was newly out of college and smitten with the idea of thinking (and writing!) great thoughts amongst the ancient stones. There was something about England that felt like home to me—and still does—in a way the small town in western Washington where I grew up never did.

 

The funny thing is, though I set out to write an Oxford novel, it turned out not to actually be about Oxford—except tangentially. Most of the action takes place in two fictional villages I created outside Oxford, Bolton Lacey and Bolton St. George.

 

The character of Lucy came from a dream I had more than 20 years ago about a young woman and an older English gentleman. I started writing about them, trying to figure out who they were, and the young woman eventually became Lucy.

 

I’ve always been drawn to stories of young women setting out to make their way in the world, like me at 22, naïve and hopeful, and both well-educated and completely ignorant at the same time.

 

In some ways, Lucy is that twentysomething version of me, in love with everything English and longing to study in Oxford and find her place in the world; and in other ways, she’s not like me at all. She’s much more impulsive and outspoken than I was at that time in my life—and even now, I wouldn’t mind being a little more like her!

 

Q: Did you need to do much research to write the novel, and if so, did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

 

A: I was totally delighted when it dawned on me that traveling to England could be considered research! My all-time favorite research experience involved living in college at Christ Church College, Oxford, for a week, studying English country houses.

 

That said, I did a fair amount of research on the Language of Flowers and ley lines, and also peripheral topics like life in England during WWII, French monasteries, Jaipur gardens and palaces, and various flowers and plants.

 

The thing that surprised me most when I was writing was how many times something I thought I’d invented turned out to be “true” or to already exist.

 

For instance, Elizabeth Blackspear’s garden is based on a lovely garden I’ve visited called Waterperry. It’s in the village of Wheatley, just outside of Oxford.

 

When I was creating Sam’s theory about the east-west ley line of Oxford’s High Street extending out to Bolton Lacey, I got an Ordnance Survey map of Oxfordshire and laid a ruler along that line and found that the line extended straight to Wheatley, the fictional site of Bolton Lacey!

 

I had several experiences like that which helped me feel like I was on the right track.

 

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 definitely did not know how the novel would end before I started writing. I didn’t even know if it would be a novel! I went through multiple drafts of the first half of the book before I ever even got to the end, and then I rewrote the ending several times.

 

Part of this was due to my (foolish) reluctance to create an outline at the beginning—I had this idea it would take all the fun and surprise out of writing the book. Ultimately, I found out that wasn’t true, but unfortunately, it cost me a lot of time!

 

But I also think that I had to let the book teach me what kind of book it was, so that I knew what kind of ending it needed. Now I feel like it couldn’t have ended any other way.

 

Q: The writer Suzanne Berne said of the book, “Part literary mystery, part love story, part gently ironic send-up of both, The Walled Garden captures our American tendency to romanticize all things British, particularly lush gardens, eccentric poets, Oxford, and aristocrats.” What do you think of that description?

 

A: I think it’s a pretty good description—it’s definitely part literary mystery and part love story, two of my favorite genres.

 

I’ve been in love with mysteries since I started reading Agatha Christie as a teenager (and Nancy Drew and Mary Stewart before that), and I especially love mysteries with some sort of link to the past, like clues in old letters. A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession was a definite inspiration when I started writing The Walled Garden.

 

I’m always curious about what life was like for people in other time periods, and I love the idea of modern characters trying to imagine their way into the lives of characters who lived in a different time, and possibly falling in love themselves along the way.

 

As far as Americans romanticizing all things British, I think that’s largely true—witness the popularity of shows like Downton Abbey, The Crown, and Bridgerton. Perhaps we all have a secret fantasy of being the lady of the manor!

 

Oxford is more personal for me—I fell in love with it when I was young, as I mentioned earlier—and I’ve been back many times. It’s been a lifelong love affair.

 

My appreciation for lush English gardens came later, when I had the space to try and create one of my own. (Yes, it’s a mess—somehow it didn’t dawn on me when I began that country houses employed armies of gardeners!)  And who doesn’t love a good eccentric poet, not to mention a sprinkling of English aristocrats?

 

Though I’m definitely poking fun at certain things along the way, I’m not sure if the book is truly a send-up. I hope it’s a light-hearted, comic, and fun read that gives readers a fictional vacation before they have to return to the real world, as heavy as that feels right now.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’m about a quarter of the way into a new novel, also set in England, about an American artist who’s been married to a Brit for 10 years when she discovers that he’s been unfaithful.

 

Seeking a fresh start, she moves out of London to a cottage in the countryside where she finds a cache of letters and diaries from a young woman who was evacuated there during WWII. This discovery launches her on a quest to find out who the people in the letters were.

 

There’s a mystery about some paintings that were done during the war that have disappeared, and an abandoned summerhouse that the artist claims as a studio, even as she wonders if she’ll ever paint again. There’s also a bearded estate manager—and she hates beards—who keeps popping up when she least wants to see him!

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I just want to say thank you, Deborah, for inviting me to do this guest post—it’s been so fun!

 

I’d also like to say how grateful and how impressed I am with the online book blogging community. I really had no idea there were so many talented and passionate booklovers out there writing about and showcasing books, and helping debut authors like me get the word out about our books—just out of the goodness of their kind hearts. Thank you all so much—you are my people!

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Anita Barrows

 

Photo by Nora Barrows-Friedman

 

 

Anita Barrows is the author of the new novel The Language of Birds. She is also a poet, and her poetry collections include Testimony.  A clinical psychologist, she is a professor of psychology at the Wright Institute, Berkeley.

 

Q: What inspired you to write The Language of Birds and how did you create your characters Gracie and Jannie?  

 

A: The Language of Birds began 20 years ago as a long single chapter I titled "Missing."

 

The chapter, not included in the book as it is now but alluded to, was a sort of poetic evocation of a mother who was beautiful and intriguing and compelling and deeply disturbed, and a daughter – the sister of the narrator – who was equally compelling and autistic. 

 

In that chapter, each of the two characters the narrator describes continually goes missing – both actually and metaphorically. 

 

The chapter stood by itself for years, as I found myself unable, despite my intention, to figure out what would happen to these three people.

 

I am a clinical psychologist who works with children and adolescents, some of whom are on the autism spectrum. 

 

When I was first starting out in this field I worked in the psychiatry department of Children’s Hospital, Oakland, and was given, as one of my first patients, a 5-year-old child who was brilliant and poetic but definitely on the autism spectrum. 

 

This child taught me nearly everything I know about doing therapy. She also lost her mother (to cancer) at 10, and ended up seeing me in therapy until she graduated from high school and occasionally afterward. 

 

My colleagues and supervisors kept insisting that I write about her, but I couldn’t imagine doing that without somehow compromising her confidentiality, so I declined. Yet she haunted me, and it was that child whose voice I eventually gave Jannie. 

 

Jannie’s story is not that child’s except for the autism and the fact of her mother’s death; and in many ways Jannie is a composite of that child and many other autistic children I’ve worked with. But when I wrote Jannie’s dialogue, it was the voice of that child I heard.

 

Gracie is in some ways myself, though I never became a chronic liar nor deliberately isolated myself as she does in adolescence. I had a mother who was profoundly depressed and unavailable, and though my mother never killed herself, she also never embraced me, comforted me, listened to me. 

 

Like Gracie, I never told anyone when I was in high school that my mother was so troubled; nor did I tell anyone about my father’s beatings of her and me, my father’s sexual abuse of me, my younger brother’s early inability to speak in any comprehensible way. 

 

Although I had a wide circle of friends (unlike Gracie), I hid a great deal and therefore did not feel that anyone really knew me. 

 

From second grade on, I had written stories and poems, and a beloved camp counselor and an equally beloved sophomore year English teacher suggested that I was a writer; so, like Gracie, I began to turn my hiddenness into writing.

 

Q: How would you describe the relationship between the sisters?

 

A: Young Gracie is embarrassed by Jannie and also envious of the symbiotic bond between Jannie and their mother. She often wishes Jannie would run away and go missing for good. 

 

After their mother’s death, she resents being pulled in as Jannie’s caretaker and also feels unseen – her needs seem so minimal compared to Jannie’s. But she also kind of counts on her responsibilities for Jannie to shield her.

 

Jannie does not seem to relate to anyone but their mother at first; but somewhere in mid-childhood, when Jannie has joined the world through her relationship with birds, she begins seeing her sister more clearly and feels more bonded to her than Gracie realizes. 

 

When she draws a portrait of Gracie, she reveals how clearly she actually “sees” her.Yet she senses Gracie’s resentment of her and feels a distance she can’t bridge. She sees in some way that Gracie can’t stand her birds, and she takes that deeply personally.

 

After Jannie goes missing in the mountains Gracie comes to know her own deep love for her younger sister, and the respect for Jannie which has gradually been developing in her grows enormously. 

 

She comes to see how extraordinary her younger sister actually is, and realizes that they have indeed shared experiences with one another which Gracie had felt she had gone through alone.


As an adult, Gracie feels protective of Jannie and admiring of her; and Jannie feels that Gracie is someone she can count on and trust. Part of what was compelling for me about writing this novel was developing their relationship and allowing each of them to emerge from their loneliness and find the other.

 

Q: The writer Elizabeth Rosner says of the book, “We meet characters etched by pain and loss…Yet through the profound empathy of this writer, we are also granted an intimate window into the subtle art of saving and being saved.” What do you think of that description? 

 

A: I am so deeply grateful to Liz Rosner for her reading and commenting on my book. My characters – including the girls’ mother, their father Sam, his partner Kate (who becomes the girls’ stepmother), and Gracie’s friends Gina and Nick, are all etched by pain and loss; each has found their own adaptation. 

 

Gracie and Jannie at first embody their pain and loss nearly exclusively, and birds and writing begin to allow them to find a way into connection. 

 

I am moved by Rosner referring to my “profound empathy;”  it’s certainly the case that I love all these characters and am able to find, even in their stumbling and not always compassionate attempts at adapting to their losses, the parts of them that want to connect. 

 

Saving and being saved, for me, are implicit in connection -- are literally dependent on it – whether the connection is to other humans or to sentient beings other than humans. So I feel that Elizabeth Rosner has touched upon the core of what my novel is about.

 

Q: As a clinical psychologist, a poet, and a novelist, how do the three areas inform one another for you?  

 

A: When I was in my 20s I hesitated to contemplate working in any job that would challenge me too much and possibly “take away” from my writing. At the time I considered myself a poet and nothing else. 

 

Once I’d had my first daughter and begun to realize that I was not happy in my marriage to her father, it began to be clear to me that I did need work that would support me better than clerking in bookstores or teaching six-week gigs with Poets in the Schools, and I thought either medicine or psychology would serve me well. (Talk about challenges and time stolen from writing!!!!)

 

Medicine, I reasoned, would take longer to prepare for, so I applied to a psychology doctoral program and was accepted despite having had no courses in psychology in my undergraduate work.

 

I have found again and again – another daughter and two grandchildren and countless animals later – that it was absolutely the right choice for me: what I have learned from doing clinical work about all the things encountered in living – and the vast range of people I have worked with – has been invaluable, has tempered and deepened and made and remade me as a human being and has fed my writing of poetry and my novel with understanding and probing – more than with content but certainly with kinds of “slant” content – in ways that I can’t imagine having had the money or the privilege or the support to sit at my desk and write all day could have done.  

 

Being the single mother of two daughters and a very involved grandmother, being a socialist and activist who has worked clinically with children in Bosnia and India and Occupied Palestine, I have found that all these threads have fed my writing. 

 

What they might have taken in sheer hours has been more than repaid in vision and scope. I am a highly social being and I love talking and listening to people, and the practice of listening has certainly fueled my clinical work as well as my writing. 

 

Poetry, which I still consider my organizing principle, has definitely shaped my writing of prose, my sense of sound and timing. And my novel (it may be only my first novel, as I am already cooking up a second….) is in many ways an outgrowth of the ways I tend to tell stories in my poems. 

 

Q: What are you working on now?   

 

A: In May of 2021 a volume of poetry I titled Testimony was published by Kelsay Books, a sequence of 20 poems and a coda that documented events from war-torn, occupied, carceral parts of the world and internal stories of struggle and imprisonment – and juxtaposed these against the beauty that surrounds us, the natural beauty which, imperiled as it is, still nourishes our souls. 

 

I found that, after those poems were published, I was having a hard time writing altogether  -- maybe just as well, since I had a lot of detailed work to do to ready The Language of Birds for publication – but when I began writing again in the fall of ’21, what I realized was that I wanted to continue that sequence with new material. 

 

I’m finding that the new material, while still addressing the “big picture,” is possibly a bit more “personal” – not about myself (I have an aversion to confessional poetry) but, for instance,  telling some stories of individuals in more intimately developed ways, like the story of the great-grandmother of a friend of mine who grew up rural-poor and had her first baby at the age of 11. 

 

I’m also beginning to imagine a second novel which might be the story of Gina in Birds – a very different person from Gracie – working class, queer, politically very engaged, and a committed poet.  I’m not sure yet what she will “do” in the novel, but her character is revealing itself to me and I find myself listening.

 

Q: Anything else we should know? 

 

A: Let’s see…..I am a huge optimist and believe, even in this very fraught moment in time, in the vigor of the imagination and in the capacity of the life-force to renew and restore itself and to find ways to endure; this may relate back to what Liz Rosner says about “saving and being saved” in her blurb for Birds.

 

I am, I’ve discovered, far more defiant than I am fearful. I have a lot of energy, even at 75, and I don’t need a lot of sleep. I’m curious about everything.  

 

I am a terrible cook and, while I’d like to be a good gardener, I am continually promising myself to take good care of the vegetables I plant and continually failing them (I just this morning planted kale, fava beans, beets, and lettuces and am going to try once more….).

 

I’ve been blessed to translate four books from the German of Rainer Maria Rilke’s work with my great friend Joanna Macy. Before that, I translated something like 11 books – novels, plays, nonfiction – and a lot of individual poems – from the French and the Italian for American and British publishers.

 

I’m studying Spanish now with a lovely small group of people I’ve seen only on line, since we started during the height of COVID. 

 

Both my grandfathers were rabbis and I believe in God as the writer Chris Hedges defines God – “the name we give to the belief that life has meaning.” 

 

I have three dogs, two cats, and seven birds, and my birds – parakeets and finches and a canary -- have helped me understand Jannie.

 

I am relentlessly passionate about dogs (I have two Golden Retrievers and a Cardigan Welsh Corgi, and I walk with all of them three miles every morning) and no one who knows me could imagine me without dogs. (There’s a wonderful dog, Lizzy, in The Language of Birds and I hope readers fall in love with her.) 

 

I guess the last thing that’s important to know is that if I had to choose between my writing and my clinical work on the one hand and my children and grandchildren on the other (as in Life saying to me years ago, “you can have what’s in this hand but not what’s in that one”) there would be no contest: my children and grandchildren would win in a fraction of a second.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb