Thursday, June 30, 2022

Q&A with Kit Frick


Photo by Carly Gaebe/Steadfast Studio



Kit Frick is the author of the new young adult novel Very Bad People. Her other books include the YA novel I Killed Zoe Spanos. She is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.


Q: The writer Kara Thomas said of Very Bad People, “A multi-layered mystery and a razor-sharp indictment of privilege in all its forms, Very Bad People is a stunning thriller.” What do you think of that description, and what role do you see privilege playing in the novel?


A: Well obviously it’s a blurb, so meant to be very complimentary, but I think the description regarding privilege is apt; Kara Thomas is a smart cookie! J


At the most idyllic, privileged institutions on earth—like Very Bad People’s elite Tipton Academy—there are always imbalances of power and often corruption. For adolescents navigating the high school experience anywhere, these power imbalances—often between students and the authorities—are front of mind.


So I made addressing these relatable teen issues the focus of the novel’s secret society, Haunt and Rail. It’s the society’s goal to tip the balances of power where they see injustices, which is very noble at face value, but are their methods just and justified? Very Bad People tackles big questions about right and wrong, but it doesn’t offer up easy answers.


Q: Was the Haunt and Rail society in your novel inspired by a particular organization?


A: It wasn't, but I did as much research as I could into secret societies “in the wild” to get a frame of reference.


There are many real ones, of course, mostly on college and university campuses, but I did find some evidence of secret societies past (and possibly present, but if so, no one’s talking!) at the type of elite boarding schools that inspired Tipton Academy.

That being said, Haunt and Rail itself came mostly from my own imagination. Designing their “larks” was one of the most fun parts of writing Very Bad People!


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


A: Very Bad People came from a line in the book, and it speaks to both a specific person/circumstance in the story—which I won’t go into here because spoilers!—and to the larger moral questions the book raises.


Q: How would you describe your character Calliope's interactions with the other students at her school?


A: Often fraught! Calliope must navigate many new relationships, which is part of the experience of being “the new kid” at school, and then there are the added complications of investigating her mother's mysterious death--and the possible ties to Tipton Academy--and of figuring out her place in the Haunt and Rail Society. It would be a lot for anyone to deal with.


Those interpersonal tensions are part of what makes the novel compelling--at least I hope so!


Q: The Nerd Daily review of the novel says, in part, “Frick steeps the book in that gray area where you are not really sure of the right answer.” Do you agree with that description?


A: Very Bad People is all about the morally gray. Calliope spends the whole story seeking answers, and when she gets them, they're not as clean and illuminating as she hoped they would be.


In real life, people are not typically “all good” or “all bad,” and the novel is likewise populated by a cast of characters who challenge Calliope--and the reader--to think about moral ambiguity and the sometimes fine line separating right from wrong.


Q: Do you have any other favorite novels set in boarding schools?


A: I do! In YA, readers seeking more boarding school thrillers or dark academia like Very Bad People should check out Victoria Lee’s A Lesson in Vengeance, People Like Us by Dana Mele, Wilder Girls by Rory Power, Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious series, and the Get Even series by Gretchen McNeil.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Kit Frick.

Q&A with Janet Key




Janet Key is the author of the new middle grade novel Twelfth. She also has written many short stories and plays.


Q: What inspired you to write Twelfth, and how did you create your character Maren?


A: The inspiration for the book came from the deceptively simple thought, “What if there was a treasure hidden in quotes from a Shakespeare play?” I say deceptively simple, though, because that small spark ended up taking years of my life to work into a compelling mystery!


From there, I sifted through a lot of my own experiences growing up a theatre nerd, drew from the type of books I had loved as a young reader, and built around some important queer and/or feminist historical figures and moments that I would have loved to learn about back then. There were also a lot of elements of the book that I drew from the play Twelfth Night. 


Similarly, there are elements of Maren that are drawn from my own experience and personality at that age – I was also an introvert and dealing with some heavier issues than my peers – but I also knew she had to be an intensely observant outsider.


She doesn’t take for granted that she’s going to fit in and so is constantly watching everyone else, which ends up being her super-sleuth-power, so to speak.


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the novel says, in part, “Deftly comparing past and present, the novel explores themes of gender identity and sexual orientation during Hollywood’s ‘Lavender Scare’ and today.” What do you think of that description?


A: I think the description correctly identifies gender identity as one of the central ideas of the book, and, of course, I appreciate that “deftly.”


To be nitpicky, I get a little caught on the “Hollywood’s ‘Lavender Scare’” bit because it seems to conflate the Hollywood Blacklist with the Lavender Scare. It’s an easy mistake to make – both stemmed from the “Red Scare,” the name for a time when Americans were afraid of communist influence in America, and both appear briefly but separately in the book.


But the Hollywood Blacklist is more well-known and widely recognized as an injustice, while the Lavender Scare is a newer term and refers to a moment in queer history that is still largely unknown and untaught: the mass firing of gay people from their government jobs as the result of Eisenhower’s executive order 10450.


I’m not a scholar, but I worry that the Lavender Scare’s importance will continue to be unrecognized if it gets accidentally lumped in with other moments and/or incorrectly identified, as has happened in other instances.


That said, I appreciate that the review correctly identified the central theme of the book, including making the connection to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and spent time discussing the 2015 storyline at the summer camp and the mystery that makes up the bulk of the book.

Q: Do you think readers would need some familiarity with Shakespeare and with Twelfth Night specifically to enjoy the book?


A: I tried to make it so that someone unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night could still enjoy Twelfth, but that those familiar with it might better appreciate specific parallels.


My main character Maren is unfamiliar with the play, so unfamiliar readers get a brief summary through her eyes and see her interpretations of some of the most famous quotes. Those more familiar with the play, however, will hopefully recognize certain Easter eggs or inside jokes that I put in there – mostly to entertain myself!


My dream would be to have teachers using Twelfth in the classroom alongside Twelfth Night. I think Twelfth could prove to be a very accessible way to get students interested in Shakespeare, which is often unfairly labeled as “too hard” for kids to understand, and instead showcase his plays as the intense, hilarious, page-turner experiences that they are.


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


A: For this particular book, I knew the end almost as soon as I began. The book is building to the characters discovering a treasure, so I had to know not only where that treasure was hidden and why, but I also knew early on that the “treasure” wasn’t going to be what the reader initially thought it was.


As much as I loved the quest/treasure hunt novel when I was a kid, very rarely does the discovery and the aftermath feel like it lives up to the expectation. Sure, everybody dreams about finding a bunch of money, but then what?


So I knew two things about the ending because of the treasure: first, that the object of value they had thought they were looking for had already been used to pay for a safe and wonderful life for some people; and second, that something else of value – or something made valuable by a change in historical perspective, shall we say – was needed to take its place.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: In addition to writing kidlit, I also write adult fiction and scripts, so I feel like my desk is always filled with about 10 different projects, all in various states of chaos.


I’ve finished a YA book about time travel, Las Vegas, and the 1950 nuclear tests that my agent and I will start sending out soon, and I’m currently drafting some other projects set in my hometown of Houston.


As much as I love Texas and will defend it til I die, it’s not currently a very safe space for women and gender diverse youth, among others – but we won’t give it up without a fight. It feels urgent to put that fight into stories right now, for adults and kids alike.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Happy Pride Month, y’all!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Gayla Turner




Gayla Turner is the author of the new book Don't You Dare: Uncovering Lost Love. It focuses on the life of her grandmother, and a wedding photo Turner found of her grandmother with another woman dressed as the groom--and also on Turner's own life. Turner is also a bank examiner, and she lives in San Marino, California.


Q: What inspired you to write this book, and how much did you know about your grandmother's history as you were growing up?


A: My primary source of inspiration for writing Don't You Dare came from my grandmother's photographs. They are funny, witty, beautiful, and loving – unlike the typical stoic photos taken back then.


Initially, the book would only involve my grandmother and the other woman in the wedding photos. However, as I started researching her past, a larger story emerged. The pictures were not just one event; instead, they depicted a series of events that involved a substantial group of people. That's when I knew how important the story is as part of our LGBTQ+ history.


Growing up, I knew my grandmother, but I didn't know anything about her or the family history in Wisconsin. She never shared her personal information with me at all. She never talked about growing up on a farm and didn't even mention that she had brothers and sisters. My mother may have known about some of it but she didn't talk about it either.


Q: How did you research the book, and what did you find especially compelling in your research?


A: I did most of my research online ( and I also traveled to my grandmother's hometown twice and spent time at the local library/town archive. I talked with the town's historical society and spent time roaming the streets and cemeteries searching for facts.


Here is an example of my research: I found out who Ella was because the local newspaper wrote about Ella's visit to town the same day the local telephone girl (Grandma Ruby) called in sick to work.


I searched Ella's name ( and found her college photo and identified her as the same person in the wedding photo with my grandma. From there, I found out where Ella lived, went to school, and other details about her that I incorporated into the story.


Through my research I uncovered a secret lesbian social club formed in the early 1900s by a local businesswoman. Women from as far away as Chicago traveled by train to the little farm town of Amherst, Wisconsin, to attend exclusive parties.


The local townspeople thought private tea and card parties were held so single young ladies could talk about how to find a husband. Little did they know, finding a man was not a subject of their conversations.


My grandmother had handwritten captions under most of her pictures. When Ella and some of the other gals wore gentlemen's attire, she addressed them as "chums" or "pals." It was so clever and charming.


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


A: Weaving my own story with my grandmother's felt very natural to me. I did not want to write a book solely based on facts. That seemed too clinical.


I often thought about what my grandmother and others were doing before a photo was taken. At times it felt like I was right there with them. I want the reader to feel and understand what it may have been like to be queer a hundred years ago.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from your grandmother's story, and how would you describe the story's relevance today?


A: Don't You Dare was written to entertain and educate people. Stories like my grandmother's can help people understand that love is love and that we have every right to marry the person we love.


It's frightening how quickly the freedoms we have today can disappear tomorrow. With this past week’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, it's only a matter of time until conservative groups and the courts attack same-sex marriage.


It is not lost on me that I have written a book that might very well join the list of books banned in some libraries across the state. That makes it all the more important that I tell my grandmother's story and that of her brave friends who dared to live and love as their hearts led them over a hundred years ago.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I'm currently working on an LGBTQ+ historical fiction book that includes an element of mystery. I'm drawn to the 1920s era and want to explore some of the storylines I thought of when I was writing my first book. This new work, however, won’t have the restrictions of writing with an established timeline and event.


I'm also working on a photo book to feature my grandmother's extensive collection of photographs.       


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Representation matters. Learning about LGBTQ+ history is essential for understanding who we are and our vital role in society. I want non-LGBTQ+ people to know that we didn't just show up 50 years ago demanding equal rights. We have always been here, and our story deserves to be told.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

June 30



June 30, 1911: Czeslaw Milosz born.

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Q&A with Helen Scales




Helen Scales is the author of the new children's picture books The Great Barrier Reef and What A Shell Can Tell: Where They Live, What They Eat, How They Move, and More. Her other books include The Brilliant Abyss. She teaches at Cambridge University, and she lives in Cambridge, England, and in France.


Q: What inspired you to write this new picture book about the Great Barrier Reef?

A: I’ve been captivated by coral reefs for decades and I’ve been lucky enough to visit and study them in many parts of the world, including Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.


These are extraordinary ecosystems. They show off their tremendous diversity and colour, right before your eyes. I can’t think of any other parts of the living world where you can immerse yourself in such a kaleidoscopic scene.


But of course, all is not well in the tropical paradise of coral reefs and these ecosystems are terribly threatened by the climate crisis along with many other impacts from humanity. The Great Barrier Reef is one of the most iconic, threatened ecosystems on the planet.

So, writing this book was really a two-fold thing for me. On the one hand, I want to show readers this beautiful ecosystem and plunge them into the intricacies of corals and all the other animals that live there, as well as showing how the reef has been important for people for thousands of years.


And then, I also want readers to know that this special place is also in big trouble, and we need to act now to do whatever we can to protect it.

Q: You describe the Great Barrier Reef as “a place as fragile as it is magnificent.” What do you see looking ahead for the reef and its inhabitants?

A: I try to be optimistic about the future of the Great Barrier Reef, and other coral reefs around the world, but it can be hard. With multiple threats bearing down, I easily get overwhelmed at the scale of what needs to be done if we are going to help save these amazing places.

Where I seek the greatest hope is from the incredible people around the world who are fighting for coral reefs, and other parts of the ocean.


There are many brilliant people determined not to let them go, whether they're campaigning to slash greenhouse gas emissions, fishing communities volunteering to set up marine reserves in their local waters, scientists working on making climate-resilient corals, or anyone who’s prepared to stand up and say that we have to change the way things are done.


I see no silver bullet for saving coral reefs, and the whole of the ocean, from human harm. We need a diverse mix of people all helping in different ways — that’s where I think there really is room for hope.

Q: You also have another new picture book, What a Shell Can Tell. How do you see the two books intersecting, and what do you hope kids take away from them?

A: All of my books intersect with each other, no matter what age readers they’re for, because they all aim to bring people closer to the ocean and hopefully to persuade them to be interested in what’s there and to care.

As for What a Shell Can Tell, this is for slightly younger readers, and my particular hope for this one is to encourage people to go out and explore nature themselves, whether that’s in their back gardens or a local park, or for a day at the beach.


Shell spotting is one of the easiest and most accessible ways of interacting with ocean life (even land snails — after all, they are the descendants of sea snails!). I want readers to have fun looking for different shells, and hopefully to know some more about the stories those shells can tell, about the animals that made them, where they lived and so on.

Q: What do you think the illustrations by Lisk Feng and Sonia Pulido, respectively, add to the books?

A: What I love about the artworks for these books is how they so vividly invite readers into the ocean realm and show them what’s there, while also leaving space for readers to use their imaginations.


There’s a tremendous power in combining words and images. I have so much I want to say to readers about ocean life, and how these incredible ecosystems work, and the illustrations help me do that.


But they also do more than I can ever do with words — there’s no way I can capture that expression on a sea otter’s face who’s just caught a delicious abalone shell, or conjure the sense of being in a colourful snowstorm of spawning corals. Most of all, though, Lisk and Sonia have made two incredibly beautiful books, which I will treasure and I hope lots of others will too.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have several more book projects at various stages of development. Most of them I can’t tell you about just yet but one I can, which comes out next year, is all about restoration and recovery in nature.


At the moment we’re calling it Return of the Wild, although that may still change (I’m terrible at deciding on titles). It’s being illustrated right now by a two-woman team of fabulous artists, Good Wives and Warriors, who I am so thrilled to be working with — a real dream!

Q: Anything else we should know?


A: My latest adult title, The Brilliant Abyss, is just coming out in paperback in the US (and in the UK a little later in 2022).

Also if anyone in the UK would like to order copies of any of my books, then do please consider ordering from my page at Bookstore. I get a small commission fee on all sales, which I’m donating to the ocean conservation charity Sea Changers, who support all sorts of scientific and conservation projects around the UK seas.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Helen Scales.

Q&A with Stephanie Graegin




Stephanie Graegin is the author of the new children's picture book The Long Ride Home. Her other books include Fern and Otto. She lives in Brooklyn.


Q: What inspired you to create The Long Ride Home?


A: The Long Ride Home came about at the height of the pandemic. It was at a time when we hadn’t left our neighborhood for several months. Like everybody, I was missing family, friends…human interaction.


The idea for the book started from thinking about how places can act like a storage for memories. Passing by places you have been to, or have a connection to, can instantly bring you back in time. Memories are a tangible connection to a previous time and place, a personal collection of all the important people and experiences in our lives.


When I was a child, I had to move across the country and I was devastated when I had to move away from my best friend. But, much like our friends in the book, we kept in touch through letters; a ritual we keep to this day.


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


A: The text came first and in large chunks, along with fragments of visual ideas done in the margins. This was unusual for me, as for my previous picture books, Little Fox in the Forest and Fern and Otto, I took a drawing-first approach to figure out the story.


But The Long Ride Home is structured differently, it’s in prose, and all from the point of view of Koala, as she’s writing a letter in her head to her best friend on a car ride. The places she goes past bring up memories and thoughts she wants to share with her.


Q: What do you think the story says about friendship?


A: Your friends, especially those best ones who are kindred spirits, are always with you in your heart and memories. The great friendships of your life transcend time and distance. Friendships complete us.


Q: Why did you choose a koala as your main character?


A: I love working with animal characters, and koalas were on my mind at the time; it was a few months after those terrible Australian wildfires. I found myself drawing koalas in my sketchbook.


They have such interesting features: their large, bean-like nose and the small expressive eyes, with this beautiful gray fur; they’re so much fun to draw. And they are just so personable and lovable, it felt like the right fit. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m illustrating a picture book titled Today, written by Gabi Snyder. It's a companion book to Listen, which Gabi also wrote, and I illustrated. I’m also working on illustrating the third book in Cynthia Lord’s chapter book series about library toys, Book Buddies.


Q: Anything else we should know? 


A: I experimented with a new color palette with The Long Ride Home, so it looks a little different than my previous picture books. I wanted the color to serve two functions: to mark the passage of time on the car ride, and to create a distinction between memory and reality. 


In the present day, I start with golden hues in the morning, sepias in the midday and pinks and inky browns in the evening With the memories, I opted for clean, clear, vivid colors to try to reflect how memories are, in a way, a sharpened, distilled reality.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Lynda Graham-Barber




Lynda Graham-Barber is the author of the new children's picture book A Unicorn on a Unicycle: A Counting Book of Wheels. Her many other books include Say Boo!. She lives in upstate New York.


Q: What inspired you to write A Unicorn on a Unicycle?

A: A few years ago my husband and I packed up the dog and our little camper and headed cross country. With no established itinerary we stopped at little towns that caught our eye, like Bird City, Kansas, and Valentine, Nebraska, all the way to Florence, Oregon, on the Pacific Coast.


En route I took note of all the different shapes and sizes of vehicles and found myself actually counting wheels. At one point I counted 24 wheels on an oversize load. We stopped at countless diners and rest stops, where I struck conversations with some of the drivers.

I was told the long-distance rigs have interesting nicknames like Goosenecks and Possum Bellies. I also noticed a lot of drivers traveling with pets, from dogs and cats to birds. So I started working on a book about long-distance haulers.


I ended up putting that project aside for another, and it lay forgotten in my drawer for some time. Then an editor suggested I come up with an idea for a counting book, and I remembered my book on wheels. And one morning I woke up with a vision of a unicorn pedaling a unicycle. Ta-da.

Back to wheels with a different spin—pun intended!

Q: How did you choose the animals and vehicles to include?


A: I’ve always been a fan of toads. We named the camp we built in Vermont Toadshade. Skunks are maligned—great pest controllers and very smart. Since I’ve been rescuing dogs for decades, I had to include one.


My sister has a Jeep, her sworn first love, so I had to include one of those. And I remember bouncing along on a Jeep when I went to Africa. And the final spread brings to mind wonderful times at Coney Island, when I moved to Brooklyn after graduating college.


Q: What do you think Jordan Wray's illustrations add to the story?


A: As a young inventive artist fresh from art school in England, Jordan brought a fresh take on dealing with detail and silliness. 


I especially loved the Wookiee-like creature on the tricycle. The attention to detail is the kind of element that encourages kids to return to the book time after time. Just how many wheels are there on that jamboree spread?


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

A: I hope kids increase their awareness, in general, especially when traveling. I know long trips can test everyone’s patience, but what if kids started counting wheels on different vehicles—maybe even a contest. 


Who spots the vehicle with the most wheels first? And extra points for the child that spies a pet in the cab. It’s a throwback idea, I know. I’m a sucker for nostalgia.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on two picture books, one about a gecko, who becomes more than a cockroach exterminator before he turns up missing. And a series about a pig and hen who share a round barn and a penchant for hoarding but have very different approaches on how to detail with Too Much Stuff.


And, finally, I am researching a three-book project highlighting different ecosystems and the animals that inhabit them especially as it relates to their individual sounds. A full plate, true happiness for an author.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’d probably spend my last dollar buying grape jelly for our Baltimore oriole feeder, that I still don’t know how to fold a fitted sheet, and that I ran—and finished— the NYC Marathon.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

June 29



June 29, 1900: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry born.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Q&A with Alex Kiester



Alex Kiester is the author of the new novel The Truth About Ben and June. She also has written the novel In Her Skin. She has worked as a copy editor and a book editor, and she lives in Austin, Texas.


Q: What inspired you to write The Truth About Ben and June, and how did you create your two protagonists?


A: I tend to think that my most organic writing happens when I’m exploring my fears and at the time I began this novel, about five years ago now, my biggest fear was the ambivalence about entering into parenthood.


In most capacities, I know what I want from my life, and yet, I don’t know if I want to have children. Some days I do. Some days I don’t. And as this is probably the biggest decision anyone can make—whether or not to bring new life into the world—ambivalence about it is terrifying.


My book began as a series of scenes between two characters who are deciding whether or not to have a baby. These characters later became Ben and June, but they started as nothing more than the two sides of my brain.


One side was arguing that it’s nuts to bring a human into a world that we are killing off, a world that is home to hate crimes and loss and pain. And then, the other side was arguing that having a child is a vote for humanity and the future, a vote for hope.


June, the owner of the former voice, came to me first. While she and I are very different—she’s a professional dancer, I’m a writer; she lives in New York, I live in Texas—most of what she struggles with throughout the novel was taken from my own life. She wrestles with what it will mean to her creative career to have a kid, something I think about… a lot.


And then after she does have her baby, she suffers from severe postpartum anxiety. While I don’t have children myself, much of her experience was based on my own experience with anxiety. Essentially, poor June was a receptacle of all my existential dread.


Ben came to me more slowly. I knew early on that the book would be an exploration of their marriage, which meant that Ben had to be both a foil and a complement to June. He is, like all the best humans and characters, a complicated mess. He wants to be good and do good, but in order to do so, he must confront the unconscious biases he has that are in his way.


Once I understood that Ben’s basic desire is to be good and that his basic fear is that he isn’t, he finally fell into place.


Q: Why did you decide to write most of June's sections in the form of letters?


A: Throughout the recent months of her life, June is living two drastically disparate realities. There is the facade she presents to the world, in which she appears to be more-or-less put-together, and there is the reality behind it, in which she is grieving the death of her mom and the abrupt end of her career, as well as struggling to adjust to new motherhood.


And the hardest part is that because all of this complicates the emotions she has for her baby, June feels enormous shame.


She is desperate for someone to confide in, but she is terrified to reveal the truth to anyone, which is why she decides to write to her deceased mom—someone she deeply loves and misses and also the one person who doesn’t have the capacity to judge her or respond at all.

Because June is hiding so much in her real life, these letters were the only medium that allowed her to be honest enough for the reader to understand her truth. 


Q: Can you say more about why you chose to focus on postpartum depression in the novel?


A: As I was writing about this woman who is struggling with the same ambivalence about entering into motherhood that I have, I think I subconsciously wanted to explore through her what the worst-case scenario would be if she decided to have her baby.


As someone who has struggled with anxiety for years, I have this haunting dread that if I do have children, my postpartum experience will be plagued with heightened mental health issues. In giving postpartum anxiety to June, I was able to live out that fear from a distance.


Also, as someone who has long dealt with mental health issues, I’m constantly drawn to the idea that sometimes our own brains can be our own worst enemies. For me, this is a far more terrifying prospect than an outward antagonist.


Q: The Greek tragedy of Medea features prominently in the book--why did you decide on that as a theme?


A: I first stumbled upon Medea’s story when I was researching the Martha Graham Dance Company, the company where June dances. They have a ballet titled “Cave of the Heart,” based on the Greek tragedy of Medea, which I decided would be the ballet in which June is cast but eventually gives up in order to have her baby.


Originally, the Greek myth was only going to play a small role in the novel, but the more I uncovered about Medea’s story, the more I saw it as a parallel for what happens in Ben and June’s marriage. Eventually, both June and I got a little fixated on it.


For those unfamiliar with Medea’s story, it begins like this: Medea is a powerful sorceress who falls in love with a mortal named Jason. They get married, have kids, and everything is going well, until one day Jason leaves Medea for a princess.


The truly infuriating part about it, though, is that Jason says he’s doing it for Medea and their children—so they will have the wealth and status of royalty.


While this story was written thousands of years ago, Jason and Medea’s dynamic is eerily familiar to the one between Ben and June. Rather than taking a mistress, though, the thing Ben abandons June and their baby for is his career, which he says he is doing for them, to pay for their life together.


It’s a problematic gender dynamic, and one that I see all the time in our society, which says a woman’s value is to nurture and a man’s is to provide. Throughout the novel, both Ben and June struggle with the ramifications of this paradigm.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am knee-deep in what-the-hell-am-I-going-to-write-next angst. About once every three hours, I’ll think of a plot idea and then realize it’s either garbage or a dream I had or is actually the plot of the book I’m currently reading. So, if anyone out there has any good book ideas, let me know! Kidding! Kind of.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: To paraphrase what I wrote in the acknowledgments section of my book, I want to say that I’m deeply grateful to the women who sat down with me and shared their experiences of postpartum anxiety and/or depression with such candor and vulnerability.


While June’s experience is very much her own, I hope my book reads as I intended: a love letter to all the women who’ve suffered from a postpartum disease. If this novel makes even the slightest dent in the stigma surrounding mental illness, I will consider it a success.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Shelley Blanton-Stroud




Shelley Blanton-Stroud is the author of the new novel Tomboy. It's a sequel to her novel Copy Boy. She is the co-director of the group Stories on Stage Sacramento, and she lives in Sacramento, California.


Q: Why did you decide to bring back your character Jane Benjamin in this new book, and how do you think she's changed from one book to the next?


A: I thought Copy Boy would be a single story. One and done. But then, watching my own parents age, trying to reconstruct who they were when they were young, I found I wanted to follow Jane from girlhood to old age. I wanted to explore the tiny, rough or shiny bits that make her final mosaic.


Though I absolutely love reading and writing mystery, Jane’s evolution as a 20th century woman is really my greatest writing interest.


When I first conceived of Jane, I saw her as an old woman, an iconic San Francisco gossip columnist. I knew she came up from a very low place. I want to explore the gap between her ultimate access to upper crust society and the very gritty place that started her out. The crises Jane faces in historic moments will press in, changing her, swerving her life in new directions.


In Copy Boy, she’s a 17-year-old, cross-dressing field worker who hustles to get a job as a copy boy at a San Francisco paper. Tomboy takes place two years later. Jane’s 19, now a cub reporter, no longer pretending to be a boy, but protecting her atypical gender identity.


She faces the competing demands of family responsibility to the little sister she’s raising and a real drive to succeed in a competitive newspaper environment. She’s more confident in Tomboy but she still has to fight for every single scrap she gets.


Because she’s established herself more securely—she has a job, an apartment, friends—she’s freer to address her ambition in Tomboy, and to see how it doesn’t always align with her attachment to others. That’s the rub.


Q: How did you come up with the plot for Tomboy?


A: There are so many threads I want to manage—Jane’s personality, her family relationships, her career, her love life, her feelings about the limitation of gender roles, the pressures of the historical moment.


It helps me to use the rigor of a historical mystery, to know that she must seek and find concrete answers to something. But where would that take place?


Tomboy’s specific premise was inspired by a book club I visited. I told them I was interested in historical women’s ambition, and that I imagined there was no better place than tennis in which to explore that.

The club leader suggested I read Robert Weintraub’s The Divine Miss Marble: A Life of Tennis, Fame, and Mystery, all about Alice Marble, a San Franciscan who won the 1939 Wimbledon Championship, as well as designing and editing the Wonder Woman comic and spying during WWII.


I decided to create a major character, Tommie O’Rourke, who would share some of Alice’s experience. This led me to sending Jane to Wimbledon, where she would witness a murder. Reading that biography set it all in motion.


Q: In our previous interview, you said, “My protagonist, Jane, longs to be like magazine reporter Martha Gellhorn, who covered both the Spanish Civil War and World War II as a literary journalist.” Is Jane based partly on Gellhorn or other well-known women journalists of the period?


A: Because I continue to work on this character, I get to revisit her previous goals to see how they evolve as she reacts to facts on the ground.


In Tomboy, Jane needs a lot more money in order to take care of her little sister Elsie. She also still craves fame. These needs shift her gaze from Gellhorn to Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, syndicated gossip columnists who seem (to Jane) able to control their own destiny, making a lot more money than other female journalists.


That becomes her new writing goal, though she isn’t exactly comfortable in that role as it begins to open to her.


Necessity combines with desire, rendering a new goal, slightly more tarnished, less ideal, than the original.


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


A: I once told my sons, When you grow up, you think your needs are most important. When you marry, you (ideally) see someone else’s needs as equal to yours. When you have children, you face the fact that someone else’s needs are more important than yours.


I hope readers recognize the work that goes into trying to become the person you want to be, the person you think you are, while also meeting the needs of someone more important than you, someone who needs protection. It’s almost impossible to perfectly pursue your dreams when someone else’s needs must come before yours.


I want readers to see the accommodations a young woman must make, in history and now, to balance those competing needs, and how that balance doesn’t always work perfectly. And yet we keep trying.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m continuing Jane’s adventure in 1942. She’s working for the Office of War Information, a propaganda gig, assigned to finding a poster girl to attract women to work in the shipyards because of so many of the men having left for the battlefield.


Though she’s interested in contributing to the war effort, she doubts whether propaganda is the way she wants to do it. And, of course, there are dead bodies.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Deciding to write a series of novels about Jane Benjamin has been joyful and liberating for me. I can investigate the chapters of her life without rushing. I can surprise myself at each new phase. What a gift.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Shelley Blanton-Stroud.