Friday, July 22, 2022

Q&A with Joey Hartstone




Joey Hartstone is the author of the new novel The Local. A film and television writer, his work includes writing the films LBJ and Shock and Awe. He lives in Los Angeles.


Q: What inspired you to write The Local, and how did you create your character James Euchre?


A: A good friend of mine named Nathan Speed is an intellectual property lawyer from New England.


When he told me that his work often takes him to a small town in East Texas, I was intrigued. When he explained to me that Marshall was the largest venue in terms of patent infringement cases, I knew I had stumbled into a good backdrop for a story.


And when he explained that there are Texas trial lawyers whose specialty is joining out-of-state legal teams to serve as an interpreter of sorts between corporate clients and local juries, I knew I had a character. 


Q: Without giving anything away, 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 outlined the entire story, though it’s having a good plan that helps free me up to try new things while I’m writing. Ultimately, the end of the story was always pretty firm, though I found a new setting for that ending while I was writing. 


Q: Some of the reviews of the book compared it to the work of John Grisham and Scott Turow--what do you think of those comparisons?


A: I’m flattered beyond belief to be mentioned in the same sentence with Grisham and Turow. As a screenwriter, my first love is movies. I was sort of a weird kid, so rather than growing up on Star Wars and cartoons, it was The Firm, Presumed Innocent, and great courtroom dramas and legal thrillers that made me fall in love with storytelling. 


Q: How did your writing process for The Local compare with your work for TV and film?


A: The process wasn’t terribly different. I brainstormed, researched, outlined, and wrote.


The biggest difference was in the rewriting. I got great direction and notes from my agent, Rachael Dillon Fried, and my editor, Rob Bloom, but the notes were far less demanding that they can be in screenwriting. My wife, Abby, was the most important creative contributor to the work, as she always is.


But only a small handful of people weighed in. That’s not the case when producing a movie or TV show. So it did feel that, for better or worse, this book represents me more than anything I’ve written. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m currently the showrunner on Showtime’s second season of Your Honor, starring Bryan Cranston. I’m staying in the legal world for a while longer, which is perfectly fine with me. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: As far as the future for The Local, I hope to write more installments, as well as develop it as a TV series. I truly love these characters and this story, so I hope I get to continue writing it. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Kathleen Glasgow and Liz Lawson


Kathleen Glasgow



Kathleen Glasgow and Liz Lawson are the authors of the new young adult novel The Agathas. Glasgow's other books include Girl in Pieces. Lawson has also written The Lucky Ones. Glasgow lives in Tucson, Arizona; Lawson lives in the Washington, D.C., area.


Q: What inspired the two of you to write The Agathas, and how did you create your characters Alice and Iris?


Liz: We started throwing around the idea of writing something fun in early 2020, right around the time Covid got to the United States. The world felt bleak and overwhelming, and we wanted a way to escape—so we created the slightly off-kilter world of Castle Cove, California.


Since we were co-writing, we decided doing dual POV would make the most sense, and so we started working to create our girls who are from totally different worlds, but are both lonely and in need of a friend.


Liz Lawson

For Alice, the jumping off point was her mysterious disappearance in the wake of a bad breakup, which we modeled off of Agatha Christie’s own 11-day disappearance after she found out her husband was having an affair.


Kathleen: Liz and I share an editor and that’s how we met, initially. Liz wrote a terrific debut called The Lucky Ones, about the aftermath of a school shooting, and we started chatting about writing and books and the things we loved, like mysteries, thrillers, and true crime books.


We started brainstorming The Agathas on a lark, really, keeping it just between us, and it felt like a marvelous secret. Dual POV worked for both of us—we could play Alice (written by Liz) off of Iris (written by me) and examine Castle Cove, the crime, and their friendship, all at once.


Q: The novel has been compared to the work of Agatha Christie, the Nancy Drew series, and the Veronica Mars TV series. What do you think of those comparisons, and are you both fans of Agatha Christie's work?


Liz: I’m hugely honored by them! I’ve watched the Veronica Mars series many a time (minus that last episode, IYKYK), and looove the characters and town of Neptune, California.


I’ve been a huge fan of Agatha Christie’s books ever since I was old enough to start reading them, and it was a joy to write a book where we were able to incorporate methods her detectives used, as well as quotes from her works.


And, as I was recently reminded while back at my parents’ house, I grew up reading Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys mysteries, and found them hugely influential! 


Kathleen: I think it’s very cool to have a character (Alice) who loves a real-life mystery writer, Agatha Christie, and is inspired by their books, using them as tools to solve crimes. It works well, too, to have Alice love AC and have Iris not as familiar with her works; that means readers unfamiliar with Agatha Christie can have things explained to them via Alice/Iris.


I read a lot of Nancy Drew growing up, but started gravitating toward adult mysteries and crime fiction pretty early on; I like gritty, nerve-baring stories, I guess. I’ve read Agatha Christie and love the intricacies of the plots and the characters.


Q: Can you describe your collaboration?


Liz: Before we started writing, we plotted the book out together, so we had a good sense of where we were trying to go with each section.


That said, we each took one POV character (I’m Alice!) as our own and wrote their sections, and would trade chapters back and forth daily. Kathleen is three (sometimes two) hours behind me, and I’d write mine in the morning and send over to her mid-afternoon my time, and she’d write her chapter then.


Kathleen: We agreed early on that we would write quickly; the plot we devised and the particular nuances of our dual POVs dictated quick writing. Liz was a natural fit for Alice and I wrote Iris. We traded chapters every day. 


Q: What do you think the novel says about socioeconomic divisions in a town like Castle Cove?


Liz: It was interesting writing from the perspective of Alice, who’s been mostly naive to the class divide in her town up until this point, because she’s on the top of the heap—she’s popular, pretty, and rich. But, when the book opens, she’s lost all her friends and is now an outcast.


When she and Iris start hanging out, it opens her eyes to a whole other side of Castle Cove, but the thing is, she finds herself almost jealous of Iris, because Iris’s mom is lovely and truly cares about her daughter, whereas Alice’s parents are MIA and have left her to be raised by her nanny Brenda.


When Brooke goes missing, and the cops immediately pin her death on her boyfriend Steve, who’s not one of the haves, and can’t afford to hire a big-name attorney for his defense, Alice’s eyes start to open to the inequalities that exist in her town.


Kathleen: Iris is very attuned to the haves and have nots in Castle Cove, especially since she’d be considered a “have-not.” It was important for Liz and me to think about the socioeconomic divisions in the town, as they affect the plot of the book and Iris and Alice’s relationship.


Q: What are you working on now?


Liz: Currently we’re working on revisions for The Agathas 2 (so excited about it!) and I’m also working on revisions for my next solo book, another YA murder mystery!


Kathleen: Writing a second Agathas book! (hopefully coming out May 2023!)


Q: Anything else we should know?


Liz: Thank you so much for having us on the blog!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Kathleen Glasgow.

Q&A with Sue Fliess




Sue Fliess is the author of the new children's picture book Beatrice Bly's Rules for Spies: Mystery Goo. Her many other books include Beatrice Bly's Rules for Spies: The Missing Hamster. She lives in Northern Virginia.


Q: What inspired this new story about young spy Beatrice Bly?


A: Since I’ve never really written a series before, I was entering new ground. But thankfully, I could rely on the fact that Beatrice was getting more skilled, so I decided to give her an even tougher mission in book 2.


And I wanted to incorporate science into it somehow. With the plot surrounding a mystery goo, scientific discovery was bound to play a part.


I had also introduced the world to her BFF Nora, so it was a chance to really showcase both of their personalities.


Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Beatrice and Nora?


A: They are best friends who have very different ideas of what is important, but of course, friendship triumphs over all. Beatrice is the distracted one who is serious, but only about spying. Nora is a dedicated student, but she is also a good friend.


The spying and the science fair project are happening simultaneously, and pulling both girls in two different directions. Fortunately, the two are able to find a balance between the two, and rely on their friendship to accomplish their goals.


Q: Did you need to do any research for this book?


A: Yes, lots! I had done a lot of spy research for the first one, that I also used in book two, but for this one, I knew they would be making hypotheses about different types of gooey substances, so I was literally looking at images (via the internet) of various substances under a microscope. This is what the girls do in the book, so I didn’t want to guess. *spoiler alert* I also did a lot of research on honey bees!


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


A: That following your passions is important and can lead to unexpected joys, whether it’s a sport, an art, spying, or science!


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m always working on many ideas. Some are spoken for by editors and some are not. Currently I’m working on some backmatter for a fictional submarine story and researching octopuses for a nonfiction book. But I’m also writing another fractured fairytale.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Sue Fliess.

Q&A with Lisa Moser




Lisa Moser is the author of the new children's picture book Mama Bunny's Good Pie. Her other books include A Friendship Yarn. She lives in Wisconsin.


Q: What inspired you to write Mama Bunny’s Good Pie?


A: I had made a blueberry pie, and we had it for dessert. Later I was walking by, and there was one piece left, and I ate it. And I said, “Goodbye, good pie!” That’s how it came into being.


Q: Why did you choose bunnies as your characters?


A: I needed a group, and every time the pie blew in, someone took a bite. The idea is for kids to stop, think, and make a decision. If you stop and think, you take a better path! I needed a bunch of [characters], and bunnies came to mind. They’re all over my yard--they’re so cute!


Q: What do you think Sally Garland’s illustrations add to the story?


A: You write the words, and illustrators’ incredible gifts bring them to life. She brings incredible warmth, kindness, and coziness to the book. Each little bunny has their own personality. There’s an old-fashioned tint to it that reminds me of Beatrix Potter. I loved her work.

Q: Can you say more about what you hope kids take away from the story?


A: I hope kids laugh!


Also, I want them to think about kindness, doing good for others, and recognizing the kindness that others do for them. Stop, think, and proceed with kindness.


Q: How did you first get interested in writing picture books?


A: When I was a little girl, my grandmother would write stories, and my sister and I were the heroes of those stories. She would mail them to us. We thought it was the most incredible thing. To this day, if there were a fire in my house, I would grab those things. So when I was 6 years old, I thought regular people could write books. I was a voracious reader.


I was a fifth grade teacher in Ohio, and we moved to Wisconsin and settled in Cedarburg. I began taking classes—I wrote and learned the craft for seven years. After seven years, I was at a conference in Chautauqua, New York—my husband signed me up. I rewrote a story, and sold it. Once you sell a book, it gets easier. It opens up doors.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m in a strange situation—I don’t have to edit or rewrite anything! I’m working on several stories—one is an old story about a frog in a dollhouse. I’m working on a mouse story. And I’ve got a couple of others in the beginning thinking stages.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Part of writing the book was the encouragement of going outside. It’s crucial to fun and imagination. I sent all the bunnies outside to play. That was in my mind.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Yehudi Mercado




Yehudi Mercado is the author and illustrator of the new middle grade graphic novel Chunky Goes to Camp. His other books include Chunky. A former art director at Disney Interactive, he is based in Los Angeles.


Q: This is your second book about Hudi and Chunky--why did you decide to set this one at summer camp?


A: My time at Jewish summer camp was such a special time in my childhood that I couldn't not do an entire book about it. I wanted to celebrate my friendship with Pepe and the idea of having a friend you're so connected to also have the ability to see my imaginary mascot was so fun.


Q: Do you think Hudi's changed from the first book to this one?


A: I think by the end, Hudi knows that some adults can just be wrong. I have an idea for a third book that explores how Hudi develops contempt for authority figures and takes his comedy too far. 


Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Hudi and Chunky?


A: Chunky is a positive inner voice. As an overweight kid living in a country that is openly hostile towards minorities, it's easy to let the negative inner voice take over. I created Chunky as a way to combat those bad thoughts. Also he's like an adorable stuffed animal come to life.


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


A: I hope kids realize that if they don't feel like they fit in anywhere that it's okay to keep looking because out there somewhere you will find your tribe. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I'm working on a middle grade graphic novel for DC set in the Batman world. And I'm working on a middle grade action adventure graphic novel for HarperCollins called Viva Los Machos


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: By the end of 2022 I will have released three graphic novels that I wrote and illustrated: Sci-Fu: It Takes 2, Chunky Goes to Camp, and Shazam Thundercrack (11/29) for DC comics. That has to be a record.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 22




July 22, 1849: Emma Lazarus born.

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Q&A with Brooke Beyfuss




Brooke Beyfuss is the author of the new novel After We Were Stolen. A copywriter, she lives in New Jersey.


Q: You write that After We Were Stolen originated with a writing contest. How did you ultimately create your character Avery, and why did you decide to focus on a cult?


A: Avery had been whispering to me for quite a while before I started writing her, but I was having a lot of trouble getting a full picture of her situation. I knew she was trapped in a cult, and I knew that most of the other members had died, but she was very quiet on the details.


I tried a few outlines, but they seemed inauthentic, and I was getting frustrated with the whole thing.


When my friend sent me the link to the writing contest, and I saw that it was only asking for 75 words, I decided to give it one last shot. For whatever reason, those few sentences opened the floodgates. I think I needed time to really trust myself with such a traumatized character, and once I felt confident enough to tell her story, she began to share it with me.


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 did know the ending, which is unusual for me. Normally, I’m a pantser – I almost never outline stories. My characters always go rogue and do whatever they want anyway, so I try to keep things loose. But for this book I did a complete outline, and for the most part I stuck to it.


There were a few surprises—Toby, for example, came out of nowhere. He wasn’t in the outline, I had no idea he was lurking in the shadows, he just burst onto the page, fully-formed and ready to go. In doing so, he changed the trajectory of the story, but in the best possible way, so I was happy to break form and weave him in.


Q: How would you describe the relationship between your characters Avery and Cole?


A: In writing Avery and Cole, I sometimes felt like they were each one half of a whole person rather than two broken ones. I hesitate to define their closeness as the result of shared trauma because I don’t think it’s that simple.


Avery and Cole are far more than siblings—aside from being fiercely protective, they love each other deeply, and their actions express that even though they never say it.


In the earlier part of the story, Cole is emotional, he allows himself to be vulnerable and unsure, while Avery hides her weaknesses. But after they are separated, those roles are reversed. Avery lets her guard down and is able to finally express how she feels, but by the time she does, Cole has put up walls of his own. That, to me, is one of the saddest parts of the whole story.


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


A: Early on, I planned to give this story a happy ending. A heartwarming, feel-good, and, ultimately, completely disingenuous ending. I decided against it because I set out to write Avery’s trauma and recovery as authentically as possible, and with that came the understanding that some stories can’t be tied up in a bow.


Even so, I’m hopeful that the reader will see a bright future for Avery. The light at the end of this book may be little more than a pinprick, but it is there, and I hope the reader comes away from the story with the ability to envision a happy ending, even if it’s not handed to them outright.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I just completed edits for my second release, Before You Found Me, and I am over-the-moon excited about it. Despite being my second published work, it’s the first novel I ever wrote.


It follows Rowan, a 22-year-old woman who suffered a tumultuous childhood and nearly lost her life at the hands of her fiancé, and Gabriel, an 11-year-old boy who had been locked in his father’s basement for three years.


Rather than call the police and subject Gabriel to the kind of upheaval that plagued her own childhood, Rowan opts to kidnap him and raise him herself. What follows is a ride—a truly bizarre found family dynamic, tension on top of tension, and a tornado that changes everything.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Check out my website because I’ve got some incredible events coming up! In September, I’ll be on a panel at the Kansas Book Festival in Topeka to discuss Murder, Mystery, and the Culpable Community. If you’re in the area, I’d love to see you! You can find a list of upcoming events and other news at


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Ann Medlock





Ann Medlock is the author of the new novel Silence of the Seamaid. Her other work includes the book Arias, Riffs and Whispers. She also has worked as a publicist, actor, speechwriter, and teacher, and she founded the nonprofit organization the Giraffe Heroes Project. She lives in the Pacific Northwest.


Q: Your website describes Silence of the Seamaid as a roman a clef--can you say more about how you created your character Lee Palmer?


A: She is who I was and, at points, who I wish I had been, and at others, she's even more messed up than I was. Despite the current popularity of memoir, I chose this traditional road of making a novel out of my own experiences and my observations about them. 


It’s been quite a topic here as my guy wrote a memoir at the other end of the house. Reading his drafts I kept saying things like, “You put quotes around something somebody said 40 years ago! There’s no way you remember that exactly.” 


Me, I’d rather admit I’m making stuff up. And, as you see in the admission on an opening page, that involves a lot of lying and stealing. I often combined three/four actual people into one, set real incidents in fewer physical locations than where they really happened, made up stuff nobody ever said.


And, thanks to a marvelous editor, I totally invented the Knight’s Gambit courtship. Said editor insisted I had to give the reader a chance to be charmed by meeting “Joe” so they could understand why such a smart woman would be attracted to him.


Q: The writer Susan S. Scott said of the book, “Medlock's protagonist is a female, modern-day Odysseus... her complex and varied adventures are not about conquering kingdoms or blinding Cyclops—they are about learning how to live one's own life with the utmost authenticity and integrity.” What do you think of that description?


A: I hadn’t looked at the book as that Jungian therapist did, so I found her reaction fascinating. Maybe accidentally writing archetypically helps more people identify with the story.

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


A: Silence because Lee keeps not saying what she’s really thinking. 

         ...because the Little Mermaid agreed to be silenced in her insane pursuit of her not-too-bright prince. 

         ...because Lee didn’t defend herself until she realized she’d been silenced by letting that awful story program her life. 

         ...because too many women have silenced themselves, even Elizabeth I, one of the most powerful women who ever lived. 

         ...because it’s still a huge problem in the world, with women being told to sit down and shut up.


Seamaid because Shakespeare used the term and I liked it better than Eliot’s “sea-girls.” (Yes, I was an English major.) And because “mermaid” makes people think of Disney’s silly movie. And I like the alliteration.


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


A: I know it’s already led two people to get the hell out of godawful relationships (because they wrote to me). Short of that, it would be grand if people looked at what they might be doing that doesn’t make any sense, that’s destructive to themselves and/or to others. 


I’d love for people to adjust what they say to kids, realizing from Lee’s story how deeply they may affect the kids’ lives. 


And hey—there’s a lot to be said for being engaged and entertained. I like it when people say they’ve just enjoyed the book. 


Several young women have assumed I made up the misogyny-at-work stuff. It’s good to tell them Hell no. That really happened. Don’t take what you’ve got for granted, or assume you don’t have to fight for it. Vide losing choice. Oy!

Q: What are you working on now?


A: I just finished what might be considered a message to the world. It’s here:


The largest thing now is an actual memoir of one experience, working from piles of notes and photos to record something that’s really important to the world.


Building with Christopher Alexander, An Illustrated Memoir is intended to add to the huge body of work by and about him. Nobody’s written about what it’s like to build a house with him, as did the guy who wrote Building with Frank Lloyd Wright.


What I have so far (a lot) is here:


Wearing the social entrepreneur hat I put on 40 years ago, I’m still writing heroes’ profiles. Working on 11 new ones right now. Lots of them are here:


I sometimes write poems because they seem the only way to deal with what I’m thinking. The one that’s almost done now is a response to seeing via the ledgers of my own slave-dealing ancestors. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: That I’m ancient? That their assumptions about age may be wrong? This script popped into my mind at 3 am. Couldn’t stop laughing:

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Abdi Nazemian




Abdi Nazemian is the author of the new young adult novel The Chandler Legacies. His other books include the YA novel Like a Love Story. Also a screenwriter and producer, he lives in Los Angeles.


Q: The School Library Journal review of The Chandler Legacies says, in part, “Inspired by Nazemian’s own boarding school experiences, this gripping story reads like an insider’s exposé into abusive school cultures and trauma.” What do you think of that description, and can you say more about the inspiration behind the book?


A: I think that description is accurate, and I appreciate that they found the story gripping. As they said, the story is based on my own time at boarding school in the 1990s. It was an incredibly impactful and complicated time in my life.


On the one hand, I started my boarding school years experiencing hazing and cruelty. On the other hand, boarding school is where I met my best friends for life, and where I met mentors who recognized the creative spirit in me.


The book is my attempt to make sense of these conflicting emotions toward a place I’m angry at, a place I’m grateful for, a place where the person I am today was born, and a place I can still travel back to when I close my eyes.


The description is, of course, just one part of that particular review, but I hope readers don’t approach the story as an exposé, or read it for shock value. To me, the book is less about trauma than it is about the tools that helped me overcome it, chiefly creativity to community.

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 don’t even know how my books will begin, or who the characters will be, so I definitely didn’t know how this one would end when I started. I begin my writing process with little more than a world I want to explore, or an unresolved conflict in myself I need to write about.


With this novel, the ending was probably the part that changed the most often in the editing process, though. It took a few drafts to land on how to bring the story to a close.


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


A: I hope readers come away from the book feeling hopeful and empowered. I know this is a dark story, and to tell it I needed to go to some dark places in myself, but it’s ultimately about how we can come through the darkest parts of our lives through creative expression and the true support of a community.


I also hope some readers use the book as a writing resource, because Professor Douglas’ sessions are full of writing prompts. It would make me so happy if readers found some writing tips they find useful in the book’s pages.


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


A: The one that comes to mind is Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, because it’s the first book I read that described the kind of boarding school experience I had. It’s a really fantastic novel, as are all of Curtis Sittenfeld’s books.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m currently working on my next young adult novel, which I’m very excited about. I think it’s my favorite thing I’ve ever written, but maybe all writers always say that about whatever they’re immersed in at the moment. I think and hope it’ll come out next year, but since it’s not done and hasn’t been announced, there’s not much more I can say right now.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Kwame Mbalia




Kwame Mbalia is the author, with Prince Joel Makonnen, of the new middle grade novel The Royal Trials. It's the second in their Last Gate of the Emperor series. Mbalia's other books include Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky. He lives in North Carolina.


Q: What inspired the plot of the second book in your Last Gate of the Emperor series?

A: The idea of a return to Earth, and to the people left behind when Axum disappeared. How would they feel? Surely not all of them would be happy when the empire suddenly reappeared.


Q: How do you think your character Yared has changed from one book to the next?

A: Responsibility. Yared is a prince now. He has obligations. But he’s also still a kid. How does this conflict play out in his actions? Remember, less than a year ago he was bouncing around schools on Addis Prime, hiding in futuristic garbage trucks, and trying to figure out how he could help his “uncle” pay his tuition for the upcoming semester.

Q: What was your collaboration with Prince Joel Makonnen like the second time around?

A: The same passion to tell stories of and from the African diaspora persists, and I daresay it shines through with this second book.


Q: What do you hope kids take away from The Royal Trials?

A: A sense of adventure that the future can hold. It would be awesome if kids who might become azmari-engineers in the future read this book now. There’s also the idea that not everyone will like everything you do, and that’s perfectly fine. All you can do is continue to work towards a better tomorrow.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: More magic and wonder!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The scrappers are based on an idea that Artificial Intelligence would adapt an insect-like existence to be more efficient. A fun activity would be to imagine different ways AI might evolve, and what that would look like.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Kwame Mbalia.

Q&A with Michal Babay



Michal Babay is the author of the new children's picture book The Incredible Shrinking Lunchroom, which is based on a Yiddish folktale. She also has written the picture book I'm a Gluten-Sniffing Service Dog. A longtime teacher, she lives in California.


Q: Why did you decide to retell this Yiddish folktale, and why did you set it in a school cafeteria?

A: When I first became serious about writing, I had three young kids of my own and I was teaching second grade. Classrooms, lunchrooms, lunchboxes, school projects, and picture books took up all of my brain space.


PJ Library sent us books every month, and one month we received the classic Yiddish folktale It Could Always Be Worse, written and illustrated by Margot Zemach. I’d heard this story from my parents while growing up, and my children had fallen in love with it too.

I related so much to this book that it felt like the perfect story to retell in a modern setting. And since I was spending the majority of my days in an elementary school, it felt natural to set my version in a school!

My first drafts were actually in a classroom, modeled very closely after my own teeny tiny classroom. But... one of the most important things to have in a picture book is movement, and there simply wasn’t enough movement happening when the story occurred in a classroom.


So I switched the setting to a school cafeteria and was able to bring in more characters and create much more movement on each spread.

Q: What do you think the late Paula Cohen's illustrations add to the story?


A: I think Paula’s illustrations make the whole book sing with joy and humor. Her art brought my words to life in ways I’d never been able to conceptualize. I’m definitely not an artist (my family still discusses my Pictionary illustration of a cow on roller skates - which was SUPPOSED to be a cat in a tree. Oy!), so people who can really draw astound me.


Paula’s ability to change a plainly typed sentence into a gorgeously hilarious illustration feels like magic to me.

I’m so grateful she decided to illustrate this story! Readers are going to love all the little details that Paula sprinkled throughout our book. And the expressions on everyone’s faces... incredible! This is one of my favorite spreads in the book because there’s so much chaos, mayhem, and movement. And the frogs! Pure genius.

Paula Cohen reached out to me on social media after she agreed to illustrate the book and we became friends “behind the scenes.” Since authors and illustrators don’t usually have any contact, we felt so lucky to have connected and to be working together.


Paula kept telling me how much she loved the story and how excited she was to be illustrating it. Sometimes she’d send me samples of the page she was illustrating that day - including a drawing of her son that she’d included in the group of students!


It was truly a labor of love for Paula, and I’m heartbroken that she isn’t here to celebrate with us. Her illustrations are filled with heart, humor, and joy of Yiddishkeit, make The Incredible Shrinking Lunchroom something very special.

Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, “This book succeeds as an updated, equally humorous parable that conveys the realities of today’s schools and educators while emphasizing the moral to put life in perspective and be grateful for what one has.” What do you think of that description, and what do you hope kids take away from the story?


A: This description perfectly captures my intention for this book! I hope kids remember how important it is to keep a positive perspective in life, no matter how difficult things may feel at the moment. It’s important to take action, just like the students at Parley Elementary who write letters to Ms. Mensch.


It is also important to be appreciative of what we have in life. I hope kids walk away feeling empowered, positive, and grateful.


Q: How does your background in teaching influence your writing?


A: My whole professional life has been spent working with 7-8 year olds, so these are the voices I hear in my mind when I’m writing. It helps that my sense of humor is that of an 8 year old!


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have another book coming out with Charlesbridge in 2023 called On Friday Afternoon. In this story, Leelee and her dog, Pickles, are a little tornado of well-intentioned chaos as her family prepares for Shabbat. It’s a book that celebrates Jewish joy and traditions.


I’m also working on a number of other manuscripts, including one that’s out on submission right now. Here’s hoping...


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 21




July 21, 1899: Ernest Hemingway born.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Q&A with Lee Matthew Goldberg




Lee Matthew Goldberg is the author of the new novel Immoral Origins, the first in his The Desire Card series. His other books include The Ancestor, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Los Angeles Review of Books and LitHub. He lives in New York City.


Q: What inspired you to write Immoral Origins, and how did you create your character Jake?


A: So, even though this is technically the first book in the series, I had written three other books in the series first. I thought it was worth it to create an origin story. The main character in each book is The Desire Card itself, which is an elite card that promises “Any Wish Fulfilled for the Right Price.” It made sense to see how the Card was born.


As for Jake, I wanted a character who was flawed but loveable. Jake is the reader’s eyes into the Card, so we begin as naïve as him. Although, I think readers are more astute and catch on to the Card’s nefarious dealings before he does. Jake is doomed from the start. He’s a character that’s basically a slow-moving car-wreck personified.


Q: The novel is set in 1970s-era New York City--did you need to do much research to write the book, and how important is setting to you in your writing?


A: Yes, I did a lot of research. I was born in 1978 in NYC, so I had memories of the very early ‘80s that I was able to use. I watched a lot of films of that era – Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, Taxi Driver, Panic in Needle Park, Mean Streets, Klute, The Warriors.

Setting is very important to my writing. In a lot of books, the setting becomes a character too. Hell’s Kitchen in 1978 is very different from how it is now, so I needed to make sure it was believable.


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


A: Well, the book is an origin story, so I wanted to use “origin” in the title. Evil Origins sounded too much like horror, but “Immoral Origins” had a nice ring to it and a good flow. It signifies the earliest spark of a moral descent for the characters, especially Jake. He was already sliding in that respect; the Card pushes him over the edge.


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


A: I hope it makes them want to pick up the rest of the books in the series that will be released from July through September. There will be five books in total. The books are fun thrillers but also a commentary on morality and wealth in America. 


Q: What's next in the series?


A: Next up is Prey No More, which is set in present day and follows an operative from the Card named JD Storm, who decides to leave the organization and becomes hunted.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Look out for Prey No More along with the third book, All Sins Fulfilled, the fourth, Vicious Ripples, and the fifth and final in the series, Desire’s End.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Lee Matthew Goldberg.