Sunday, August 7, 2022

Q&A with Jenny Colgan

 


 

 

Jenny Colgan is the author of the new novel An Island Wedding. Her many other novels include Christmas at the Island Hotel, which features some of the same characters. She lives in Scotland.

 

Q: Why did you decide to continue the story of your characters Fiona, Joel, Saif, and the others in your new novel?

 

A: I felt I just had a lot to say about these characters, I just wanted to finish the story! Plus I wanted to write a lovely summery story, I write so many set in winter time. I love the way the sun never sets in the north in the summertime, it's such a beautiful time of year.

 

And finally,  because of all the weddings that had been cancelled and postponed over the last few years I wanted to remind myself: it's so joyous to have weddings back again. We have two this year and I'm never missing a wedding again, I have decided. 

 

Q: What do you think the book says about wedding planning?

 

A: Oh I LOVED doing all the mad hypothetical wedding planning! I now think I'd probably be quite good at it. Although I am good at thinking up cool stuff, I'm not exactly sure how you get, e.g., an ice rink assembled at short notice. I really really loved all of that element of it, how, if you had a limitless budget how totally crazy would you make your wedding.

 

I loved reading about stupid over-the-top celebrity weddings too. My favourite detail was at Kim and Kanye's wedding they hired a stonemason to chisel each guest's name into a marble table instead of having place cards. That's the kind of craziness I was after. My husband and I got married at the same drive thru in Vegas as Ben and Jen. 

 

Q: Without giving anything away, did you plan for Saif's story to take the turn it did, or did the idea come to you as you were working on the story?

 

A: I knew exactly what way it was going to go and had for a while. I very rarely do this, I don't think anyone does,  but I wrote this book end first. 

 

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

 

A: I hope you laugh, remember terrible weddings, remember lovely weddings, cry your eyes out, laugh again, cry a little bit then laugh one more time then put it down with a contented sigh. 🙂

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I have just finished a cool book about a pilot. I had to do a ton of research. I couldn't believe how ignorant I was about what pilots do all day. Now I know I have decided they are in my opinion totally amazing. There's also a chicken in it called Barbara but I didn't do quite as much chicken research. 

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Jenny Colgan.

Aug. 7

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY

Aug. 7, 1928: Betsy Byars born.

Saturday, August 6, 2022

Q&A with Megan Weiler

 


 

 

Megan Weiler is the author of the new novel The Spring. She also has written the novel The Night Bell. She grew up in Germany and lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

 

Q: What inspired you to write The Spring?

 

A: I grew up in Germany, and like many families, we went south for our vacations. When I was 13 my parents bought an abandoned and crumbling farmhouse in Tuscany, and we gradually made it habitable. We spent our vacations working on it—my brother and I had mixed feelings about that.

 

Water was always an issue. We got our water from a spring up in the hills that we shared with several other houses. Almost every year, we had to get to the bottom of the mystery of why it wasn’t coming to our house this time. In the process, we got to know people and had little adventures.

 

I eventually realized that the problem would probably never be resolved once and for all, and maybe that wasn’t even the point. I’ve wanted to write about all this, in some form, for a long time.

 

An interesting thing is that while water is a literal problem, it also becomes a kind of overarching metaphor in the novel. Water is naturally a metaphor for so many things, like the flow of time, or hidden underground currents. These meanings kind of happened by themselves.


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

 

A: Setting is not always important to me, but in The Spring it’s crucial. Since the 1960s, when sharecropping was abolished in Tuscany, foreigners have been living in restored farmhouses alongside the local people.

 

At one point Christine, the narrator, looks through her binoculars at a man on the next hill, and sees that he’s looking back at her through binoculars at the same time. The moment is emblematic of the relationship between locals and foreigners, each group viewing the other with curiosity and incomprehension. The Spring shows both perspectives.


Renato, a former sharecropper who has become a successful farmer and power-broker, says that before the foreigners came, life used to be so quiet and dull. “Now, at least, there’s something going on.” The Germans next door have affairs, quarrels, and so on, providing his own personal soap opera.

 

In the course of the novel, Christine forms a friendship with an older farmer woman, Silvana. To come back to your question, the setting is important because it conveys a feeling I have about the human condition in general. I think we are all separate worlds from each other—on different hills, so to speak. The effort to reach across that gap is, for me, the most meaningful thing there is.

 

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 didn’t know how it would end, and it went through many drafts. I wanted it to be almost a plotless novel, about small occurrences and human interactions.

 

The problem of water and Christine’s attempts to solve it are the strand that ties everything together. But there is no resolution: each time she thinks she’s found the answer, the situation changes. There are various culprits, but nobody is a really bad person. The worst you can say about Renato, for example, is that he is driven by self-interest.

 

I decided early on that Christine would have to give up the house, even though it’s the one place in the world that feels like her home. She would like to keep it, but it’s just not possible. The other, more important event that happens at the end is something which happened in life, as I was writing this. It was unexpected, but looking back I saw that the signs were there all along.

 

So in a way the novel is about how the real stories in our lives often go unrecognized. They’re not what we think they are as we’re living them.

 

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

 

A: I would hope a feeling of pleasure, and of having had a respite from this terrible time we’re living through. Though I don’t completely subscribe to the idea of readers “taking something away” from a novel. I think writing and reading are a two-way street.

 

When I was a teenager, I loved Kafka. I wrote in my diary that we helped each other: Kafka helped me because he understood me, and I helped him, by understanding him. It makes me blush now, but there is some truth to it. It comes back to us all being on separate hills, wanting to communicate.

 

Right now we are in a dark place, and we’ve been in the hands of ruthless people who made the disasters we face worse than they had to be. There is a lot of grief and anger. What helps me on a daily basis are little human interactions, like the ones that Christine has in The Spring. Literature is just another form of human interaction.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’ve just finished a novel manuscript entitled Johanna. It’s a coming-of-age story about a young German woman who travels to Italy circa 1980. Johanna has a summer job in Florence prior to setting out for college and a new life in America. She is bookish, naïve and judgmental, thrilled to be finally on her own. She worries about existential questions. Is it possible to be a “person” and a “woman” at the same time?

 

As she explores her new environment, she bonds with an Ethiopian maid, is befriended by a psychiatrist and his beautiful wife, and enters into an ambiguous quid-pro-quo with an elderly German woman. Her experiences set her on the course toward becoming who she wants to be.

 

The story is semi-autobiographical, though in a different way from The Spring. I like what Saša Stanišić says in his novel, Where You Come From, about fiction. “Fiction, in my view, […] is an open system of invention, perception, and memory that rubs up against real events.” The mix of these elements is a bit different in each case.

 

In Johanna, I use the third person, which allows me to see my protagonist objectively, as well as knowing her thoughts.

 

I am currently reworking a short story that I drafted a few years back.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I have a website, www.meganweiler.com. For speaking engagements at stores, public libraries, or book clubs people can reach out to me directly or to my publicist, Mary Bisbee-Beek (mbisbee.beek@gmail.com).

 

Thank you for having me on your blog!

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 6

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Aug. 6, 1809: Alfred, Lord Tennyson born

Friday, August 5, 2022

Q&A with Louis Bayard

 

 


 

Louis Bayard is the author of the new novel Jackie & Me. His other books include the novel Courting Mr. Lincoln, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Washington Post and The New York Times. He is an instructor at George Washington University, and chairs the PEN/Faulkner Awards.

 

Q: What inspired you to write Jackie & Me, and why did you choose JFK’s friend Lem Billings as your narrator?

 

A: Lem was the gateway from the start. I found him a few years ago via my college alumni weekly. On the cover was a photo of Jack Kennedy, an almost unrecognizable freshman, and there, alongside him, was Lem: this big grinning bespectacled guy whose main claim to fame, in his and everybody else’s mind, was being Jack’s best friend.

 

Then I learned that Lem had this interesting life of his own, that he was a closeted gay man and had a unique ringside view on the Jack-and-Jackie courtship. So I figured he could be both a fascinating guide to that era and a poignant character in his own right.

 

Q: How did you research the novel, and did you learn anything especially surprising?

 

A: Well, because of Covid, I didn’t have my usual access to the Library of Congress, but I did have the usual stack of books on each side of my writing chair.


What surprised me most, probably, was that even though the events in the book all happened within living memory, you can’t get any of the historical accounts to agree with each other. Nobody can even agree on when Jack and Jackie met or how he popped the question. Which just confirms my long-held opinion that history is in itself fiction.

 

Q: In the book's acknowledgments, you write, “Jackie & Me is, without apology, a fictional work and an exercise in alternative history.” Can you say more about the concept of alternative history as it relates to the novel?

 

A: I would call it one of the central themes here – the roads not taken, the choices that we might have made and that we might, in some alongside world, still make. So the book becomes a kind of meditation on contingency, those moments in every life where a potentially infinite number of outcomes radiate out from a single point.

 

Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, in part, “While Lem Billings was an actual Kennedy intimate, narrator Lem is reminiscent of The Great Gatsby’s Nick Carraway, and his fictional reminiscences structure the novel around the triangular friendship he shares with Jack and Jackie in the years leading up to their wedding in the early 1950s.” What do you think of that comparison?

 

A: Well, first of all, any time somebody compares me in some way to Fitzgerald, I’m going to kvell a little. But, oddly, I never drew that analogy myself. My frame of reference going in was The Remains of the Day, where the narrator comes to see—too late to do anything about it—that he has sacrificed his whole life to a man, to a way of life that didn’t deserve it.

 

But hey, I’ll take Nick Carraway, too. And it may just show the way in which Gatsby is wired into our cultural DNA. We draw on it even when we don’t know we’re doing it.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I tend not to speak too much of works in progress, but I can say that it’s set, at least partly, in Norfolk, England, and that it does not involve any presidents! I’ve done three so far, and I’d say that’s enough for now.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: Just that I’m happy to still be still doing this. Jackie & Me is my 10th novel, and I’ve still got a lot of stories I want to tell. So I’ll see you down the road, Deborah.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Louis Bayard.

Q&A with Lisa LaBanca Rogers

 

Photo by Carolyn Mackin

 

 

Lisa LaBanca Rogers is the author, with Jean Leibowitz, of the new children's book Discover Her Art: Women Artists and Their Masterpieces. Rogers' other books include 16 Words. She lives in Massachusetts.

 

Q: Why did you and Jean Leibowitz decide to write this book?

 

A: Hi Deborah! I’m so glad you enjoyed Discover Her Art! A few years ago, my coauthor, who is a painter, and I were talking about the lack of representation of women artists in museums and in books that teach about artmaking.

 

We asked: Why weren’t there many books about artmaking that featured art created by women? Why do most people know few artists beyond the wonderful Mary Cassatt, Frida Kahlo, and Georgia O’Keeffe? What could we offer to readers that would be unique and important?

 

From my perspective as an elementary school librarian and picture book author, I knew that a successful way into an art book for children was through story. At the time, children’s picture books focusing on women artists–other than those greats mentioned above–were just beginning to come to the fore.

 

We wanted to create a book that combined substantive biography with detailed tips on how to look at art and make art. We decided to use Jean’s insights as a painter and my strengths as an art appreciator and picture book biography author for this project.

 

We know that it’s hard for many people to know what to look for when they’re looking at art. An overarching goal was to present art as enticing, not intimidating, as we highlighted women artists and their stories.

 

Q: The School Library Journal review of the book says, “The conversational tone will make readers feel as if they’re in a women-only, more diverse ‘Intro to Art History’ class.” What do you think of that description, and how did you choose the artists to include in the book?

 

A: It’s spot-on, and we’re so grateful that our goals were clear. We were intentional about our structure and our selection of artists and works, and I think our approach helped create that feeling of comfort and inclusion. 

 

We give our readers time to look at the paintings and simply explore them. We suggest how the artist might have created the painting, guiding the observer through its composition and use of techniques such as light and color, and explain strategies that young artists could try themselves. Last, we reveal the stories of how these determined, talented women stayed their course despite obstacles.

 

For example, when French artist Adélaïde Labille-Guiard married at age 20 in 1769, she listed “artist” as her profession on her marriage certificate. German artist Paula Modersohn-Becker overcame the objections of her family to realize her dream of creating art in Paris. The US’s Alma Thomas taught for nearly 40 years before being able to focus on her art–and  was the first black woman artist to have a painting chosen for the White House! Each woman in this book has a remarkable, inspirational background.

 

I’ve enjoyed visiting art museums all my life, and I paint as a hobby, but like many people, I would have been hard-pressed to name more than a handful of women artists before I began this project. I doubt my high school art history class included any women artists. 

 

Through my research for this book, I have many new art heroes, such as Amrita Sher-Gil of India, Maria Izquierdo of Mexico, Amelia Peláez of Cuba, and Japan’s Yuki Ogura, who had a solo show in Paris at age 104!

 

To select the artists, we spent countless hours delving into artwork independently and together via Zoom, considering the wonderful possibilities! Our goal was to find women who were professional artists, specifically painters, and whose work might tell a story of the evolution in painting styles over generations.

 

An important part of that goal was representing painters from areas other than the US and Europe as well as including American artists of color, like Angel De Cora, Loïs Mailou Jones, Alma Thomas, and Laura Wheeler Waring. Each painter featured in our book was well-known, lauded, and made her living creating art.

 

We initially planned to feature 12 women artists. But as we researched, we realized that we needed more room to tell as full a story as we could for our audience. Our list grew to 18, and then to 24! Fortunately, our fabulous publisher, Chicago Review Press, agreed. But oh! there were many more artists we would have been thrilled to include.

 

Q: How were the specific works of art chosen for each artist?

 

A: With a great deal of difficulty! It was so hard to choose just one painting per artist, but we hope that this book will encourage readers to view more examples of each artist’s work! 

 

We attempted to balance still lifes, self-portraits, landscapes, figure works and abstracts, created by artists from different locations, who painted in different styles, and in different time periods.

 

We hoped that our choices would speak to each other, so that, for example, readers could compare Paula Modersohn-Becker’s still life with that of Maria Leontina, or Amelia Peláez’ playful painting of a vase of hibiscus with Rachel Ruysch’s realistic cascade of flowers, or Loïs Mailou Jones’ self-portrait with that of Lluïsa Vidal. There’s so much to discover in this book!

 

In terms of practical details, we needed to select works for which we could secure permissions, which included not only museum permission but also in some cases permission from artist foundations. It was especially exciting to connect with some artists’ family members in the process.

 

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

 

A: I hope that they take away the confidence that there’s a path for them as artists that goes back a long way, and there are many women creators to emulate – whether it’s their way of painting, their subject matter, or the lives they lived. And I especially hope that they’re inspired to make art that is completely their own.  

 

Q: What are you working on now? 

 

A: This has been an exciting year for me! This spring I signed contracts for four picture book biographies about artistic creators and a fifth about a major political figure. I’ve completed revisions for four of those, and the first book is due out next year.

 

It’s been an amazing experience to learn from each editor. Working with different editors on multiple projects at the same time has helped me grow tremendously as a writer. 

 

Now I’m diving back into manuscripts that have been waiting for revision and inspiration. I have countless ideas and not enough time to write them all, which is exactly the situation in which I thrive. And I’ve had a chance to work on some paintings, too.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I’m thrilled to report that Discover Her Art is in its second printing! I hope that readers find it informational and inspirational!

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Ingrid Laguna

 



 

Ingrid Laguna is the author of the new middle grade novel Kit and Arlo Find a Way: Teaching Consent to 8-12 Year Olds. Her other books include Bailey Finch Takes a Stand. Also an educator and a musician, she is based in Australia.

 

Q: What inspired you to write Kit and Arlo Find a Way?

 

A: With the #MeToo movement in full force in early 2021, I was reminded of my own non-consensual sexual experiences of the past. I wanted to be part of the change that needed to happen in our non-consent culture.

 

I had seen Vanessa Hamilton, sexuality and respectful relationships educator and expert, when she presented to parents at my daughter’s school. Her candid, evidence-based and inspiring talk stayed with me, so when I wanted to do something to make a difference, I contacted her and she embraced the opportunity to create something together. Kit and Arlo Find a Way (Teaching Consent to 8-12 year olds) is the result of that collaboration.

 

Q: How did the two of you work together on the book?

 

A: Vanessa shared her vast and nuanced knowledge of the meaning of consent with me, in all its complexity, in writing and through discussions and meetings over the period of the development of the manuscript. Together we came up with 13 scenarios, each of which embodied a different aspect critical to consent, and child-appropriate.

 

I then created a cast of relatable characters and wove the scenarios into an engaging narrative and fictional chapter book.

 

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


A: I knew that the two key protagonists, Kit and Arlo, had to start out with a dysfunctional and harmful dynamic and that by the end of the story they both needed to have learnt how to make mutually consensual and respectful decisions with one another and with their peers. They needed to recognise their own behaviours and choose to change.

 

They had to reach a point at which they had the best friendship ever as a result of their effective communication, respectful behaviour and positive self-beliefs.

 

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

 

A: I hope that kids will internalise the key values that will lay the foundations for healthy, positive interactions and relationships as they move into adolescence and then adulthood. I hope they see the importance of asserting their true identities, and practising effective verbal and non-verbal communication.

 

I hope they understand there are strategies for managing your disappointment when someone changes their mind, and, above all, I hope they learn that practising consent leads to fulfilling shared experiences and mutually rewarding relationships.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I am contracted by Text Publishing for my next two middle-grade novels. The one I am working on is inspired by the true history of an amazing Polish photographer and artist who lived in a forest in Poland for 30 years with a wild boar and a lynx in her hut!

 

The protagonist, 11-year-old Daria, has Polish heritage, and her sense of belonging and identity blossoms when she learns about her connection to this woman. The novel is based on the notion of curiosity sparking interest in the past and the way our heritage is part of who we are.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: One of the best things about being a children’s author is that I get to visit lots of schools and engage with my readers. Kids have wild imaginations and open minds. The experience of working with them is a pleasure and a privilege.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 5

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Aug. 5, 1850: Guy de Maupassant born.

Thursday, August 4, 2022

Q&A with Nan Fischer


 

Nan Fischer is the author of the new novel Some of It Was Real. Her other books include the young adult novel When Elephants Fly. She lives in the Pacific Northwest.

 

Q: What inspired you to write Some of It Was Real, and how did you create your characters Sylvie and Thomas?

 

A: Thanks for interviewing me, Deborah!!

 

Some of It Was Real began with my fascination with psychics and the power they can have in peoples’ lives, especially in cases of grief. We all seek an end to emotional pain, and for some, psychics provide a way to accept loss and move on.

 

I thought it would be interesting to have a psychic who’s unsure of her gift but who provides so much relief for her fans but can’t find personal respite, and to explore that contradiction.

 

I’m also interested in imposter syndrome—the inability to believe one’s success has been legitimately achieved or deserved. I wanted to create a character, Sylvie, on the cusp of achieving great success, but who doesn’t quite believe she deserves it. I made Sylvie a psychic as that gift is controversial—the perfect job for someone doubting her abilities due to all the critics!

 

In order to make Sylvie’s emotional arc even more complex, I wanted her own origin story—childhood memories, tales we’re told by family, and sometimes even lies that we use to define ourselves—to play into her imposter syndrome.

 

Over the course of the novel, Sylvie learns that much of what she was told in childhood is a lie. She must figure out how to become her true self by discovering what in her life is actually real.

 

Thomas, Sylvie’s love interest, on the other hand, is a journalist and for him, life is black and white and he operates inside the lines of logic.

 

But he, too, suffers from his own version of imposter syndrome and when he clashes with Sylvie and forces her to figure out what’s real in her life, he gets the opportunity to look at his own origin story, something he’s always seen through the eyes of a child, and re-examine it as an adult.

 

In the end, both Thomas and Sylvie give each other the opportunity to be the people they were meant to be—the people they secretly wish to become—if they’re brave enough to risk losing everything in pursuit of the truth.

 

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 did know how the novel was going to end, but I wasn’t sure how Sylvie and Thomas would react to learning the truth about Sylvie’s early life.

 

My hope, as I created these characters, was that I’d given them enough dimensions that they’d be capable of rising to the occasion. But characters take on a life of their own, and as an author I try to give them the space they need to make decisions, even if they’re the wrong ones!

 

Q: The author Andrea Bartz called the novel “an unflinching exploration of identity, trauma, and transcending the past.” What do you think of that description?

 

A: When I first read Andrea Bartz’s blurb, I looked over my shoulder to see if she was writing about someone else. Obviously, I, too, suffer from a bit of imposter syndrome!

 

Andrea’s reaction to Some of It Was Real was so incredible and I’m just grateful that she loved the story and was willing to take time out of her busy schedule to both read and blurb it! The fact that she truly understood what I was trying to do with the story and Sylvie and Thomas’s journeys, and conveyed that so eloquently, meant the world.

 

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

 

A: Ah, titles! They are the bane of my existence. It’s easier for me to write a 400-page novel than come up with a title.

 

Some of It Was Real was the product of my wonderful agent, Stephanie Kip Rostan’s, imagination. Once she came up with it (it’s a line in the story) I knew that she was on to something. My fantastic editor, Kerry Donovan, and the team at Berkley agreed.

 

In the end, the title signifies choice to me. Believe everything about Sylvie’s gift, her love affair with Thomas, their feelings for each other, or just some of it. Regardless, enjoy the mystery, game of cat-and-mouse and all the twists and turns that hopefully leave readers fulfilled!

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I am so fortunate to have a second book with Berkley that will be published in August 2023! That story is about a woman named Constance who is so desperate for love and security that she accepts a proposal from a boyfriend she’s unsure she should marry.

 

When he gives her an antique engagement ring, Constance researches its history and discovers the long-dead man who originally created the ring was an American ambulance driver in France during WWI who wrote letters home from the war that were compiled into a book.

 

Constance finds that book of letters in the library, recognizes a kindred spirit, and writes a note to the deceased man sharing her fears about her engagement. When she returns the next day to read more letters, she discovers that he’s written her back…

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: What I hope my readers take away from Some of It Was Real, besides my fascination with psychic-mediums, family secrets, and romances that overcome huge roadblocks, is that just like Thomas and Sylvie, your origin story isn’t necessarily the truth. It’s based on your perceptions. And self-doubt and feeling like an imposter at times is part of the human experience.  But what we choose to do, despite our insecurities and fears, is what matters.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb


Q&A with Charles Lambert

 

Photo by Patrizia Casamirra

 

 

Charles Lambert is the author of the new novel The Bone Flower. His other books include the memoir With a Zero at its Heart. He lives in Italy.

 

Q: What inspired you to write The Bone Flower, and how did you create your characters Edward, Settie, and Marisol?

 

A: The first inkling of The Bone Flower came in June 2020. I was living with my husband in a small rented apartment in Rome, under strict lockdown conditions, and we’d slipped into a fairly nocturnal lifestyle, getting up late and going to bed even later, watching TV until the early hours.

 

The offer was limited – no Sky, no Netflix - and crime fiction, costume drama and horror movies, particularly horror movies, made up a large part of our TV diet. I don’t remember the film that triggered the initial idea, if that was what it was.

 

What I remember is waking up one morning with a scrap of dream in my head and a What if? question. I scribbled it down and put it to one side, but it stayed with me and became the central event around which the plot revolves. At the beginning of July, we were able to leave Rome and return to our house further south, and the business of writing began.

 

To answer the second part of this question is much harder. Where do characters come from? Minor characters are easier to account for and two of the supporting actors, so to speak, are based on people I know. But Edward? Settie? Marisol? The main characters in any novel invent themselves, I think, and then let you in on their secrets as you write.

 

Q: The author Edward Carey called The Bone Flower a “dark, beautiful beast of a book, tender and harrowing, full of cruelties and redemptions, ghosts and orange trees, London in filth and luxury.” What do you think of that description?


A: How could I not love it? Praise of any kind from Edward Carey is an honor and praise that focuses so precisely on what I think my book is about is both an honor and a joy.

 

The Bone Flower actually shares a location with Edward’s wonderful spin on Pinocchio, The Swallowed Man, and it’s a place that possesses many of the characteristics this quote attributes to my novel. I’ll leave it to readers to discover what the place is, but be warned. Once visited, it won’t allow itself to be easily forgotten.

 

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

 

A: My normal practice as a writer is to start with a situation, or a character, and just dive in, but The Bone Flower was an exception to this. Using the scribbled note (see above) I began to work out how to reach that point and then to see where it might lead. I ended up with a chapter breakdown and, within each chapter, a fairly detailed synopsis. Miraculously, I stuck to it!

 

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

 

A: The working title was Always, but that was, quite rightly, overruled by my agent and publisher and we brainstormed until we came up with The Bone Flower, a title I’m delighted with. I think it captures perfectly that hybrid of tenderness and cruelty that Edward Carey talks about.

 

Both elements – flower and bone - are natural, but woven together they turn into something altogether more unsettling.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I have some ideas for stories in my head, and a possible sequel to an earlier novel of mine called The Children’s Home. I’m also working on a project with a writer friend that may or may not come to something, but I’m superstitious enough to want to keep that under wraps for a little while longer!

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: Well, I’ve lived in or near Rome for over 40 years now and my next novel, entitled Birthright and out early next year, is set in this extraordinary city at the start of the 1980s, when I first arrived here.

 

It’s about family, and love, and not getting what you want, and then getting it and not being sure what to do with it, and there are no ghosts, except for the ones we make for ourselves every day, and have to live with.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Rebecca Stirling

 


 

 

Rebecca Stirling is the author of the new book The Shell and the Octopus: A Memoir. She lives in Aspen, Colorado, and Kauai, Hawaii.

 

Q: What inspired you to write your memoir, and over how long a period did you write it?

 

A: This story did not begin as a memoir. It did not even begin as my own story. I was asked by a close family friend, after his fourth bout with cancer, to write his story, because I knew it the best.

 

Charlie is now a character in my memoir. He inspired my father to go to Peng Chou and build a boat, and then to sail around the world with his family (me and for a short time, my mom). Charlie had sailed the same route we did, but had encountered pirates, typhoons, and was thrown into Changi Prison for carrying weapons (to defend himself). 

 

When Charlie was released, my dad was inspired. So, a year later, Charlie, my mom, my dad, and toddler me, were hanging out at the shipyard in Peng Chau as our boat, The Cattle Creek, was built. 

 

I lived on that boat on and off for 24 years, and wrote journals the entire time. When I tried to publish Charlie's story, mine came out. It was difficult to write, and also very cathartic. It took about seven years in total, including writing Charlie's story, disseminating mine from it. 

 

Q: How would you describe your relationship with your father?

 

A: I loved my father. I adored him and almost glorified him. I realize now that we did not have a very healthy relationship, but I still miss him and admire the good in what he taught me.

 

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

 

A: A friend showed me a shell that had a perfect circle drilled into it by an octopus beak. The fragile tendril of calcified support was still intact inside the shell, but the creature had been eaten. It reminded me of how we create shells to protect us, but they do not always work.

 

The octopus is a mysterious, shape shifting, intelligent, and beautiful creature. Like we can all be. It must survive though, and will do anything to do so. 

 

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

 

A: I hope readers gain a new, supportive perspective on many subjects this book touches on: womanhood, on the state of the earth and her climate, on plastic in the ocean, on women needing women and culture and weaving and dyes. On markets and cooking.

 

It speaks to the importance of taking care of yourself, family, culture and the earth. Of the mystery of living in a man's world. Of living within religions that intertwine and also clash. It touches on the need for family. For fidelity. For truth and love.

 

In writing this book, I realised that I had a new awareness of myself, and that I was OK, and so are you, even with the hidden parts and the secret past. I hope readers may take this with them.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I am working on a new novel that juxtaposes how cultures, our lands, commercialism, and spirituality have worked together, and also been destroyed with the growth of colonialism, capitalism, and a more worldly community. I am also working on getting Charlie's sailing story out there again. 

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: The writing of this story was a very painful and important healing process for me. I acknowledged that sailing, and my father, had in fact been a huge part of my life, and I missed them both.

 

I missed the passion, the adventure, the curiosity and acceptance, the magic and the beauty. I did not miss the drinking and too many women, and knew in my heart that the dysfunction did not have to be such a huge part of life. 

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Kenneth Wishnia

 


 

 

Kenneth Wishnia is the editor, with Chantelle Aimee Osman, of the new book Jewish Noir II: Tales of Crime and Other Dark Deeds. His other books include Jewish Noir. He is a professor of English at Suffolk Community College in Brentwood, Long Island.

 

Q: What inspired you to edit this second volume of Jewish Noir--and how would you define “Jewish Noir”?

 

A: Authors began asking me about a second volume of Jewish Noir as soon as the first volume appeared, and the publisher liked the idea as well, so the seed was already planted. Then Chantelle came along and offered to co-edit the volume, which made it a lot easier to say yes.

 

As for a definition of “Jewish Noir,” one story in the first volume, “Your Judaism” by Tasha Kaminsky, includes the following line: “I’m opening myself to the idea that maybe the universe isn’t indifferent and it’s actively against me,” which is as close to a definition of “Jewish Noir” as you can fit into a single sentence.

 

But of course I’ll take it further: According to Catholic doctrine, Adam and Eve brought death into the world, but Jesus gave us the gift of eternal life. So thanks to Jesus, everyone gets a shot at living happily ever after.

 

Traditional rabbinic Judaism says: Don’t ask what’s above and below. Judaism is a religion of this world, and this world is hopelessly messed up, and it’s our job to fix it—even though that’s impossible. And you are not free to walk away from the impossible task of healing the world.

 

It’s a fundamentally different view of human agency, and it’s pretty darn noir.

 

A famous example instructs us that if you’re planting a tree and someone announces that the Messiah has arrived, finish planting your tree first, then go meet this Messiah guy. It’s hard to imagine a Christian responding to such news in this manner.  (Source: 1st century CE Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, cited in Avot de-Rabbi Nathan 31b, compiled c. 700–900 CE.)

 

Q: How did you choose the stories to include, and how did you decide on the order in which they'd appear in the book?

 

A: Chantelle brought a bunch of literary authors to the project, and with a solid base of crime writers on board, I was free to seek out authors who were not the “usual suspects” as well, like Gabriela Alemán of Ecuador, whose story I translated from Spanish.

 

Our editorial collaboration was positive, fruitful and respectful, and there were only a handful of instances where I basically said, “Yeah, that’s a great idea, but we’re doing it my way.”

 

The order of the stories was one of those instances. Chantelle suggested dividing the stories into three main sections, representing three central tenets of Judaism: “First, that there is one God, incorporeal and eternal. Second, that people are to act with justice and mercy. And last, but perhaps most importantly, that all people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.”

 

I liked her idea enough to use two of the divisions, which we called “The God of Mercy” and “The God of Vengeance,” but there was such a variety of stories that we went with six divisions, and Chantelle was nice enough to let me get away with that.

 

Q: The writer Jesse Kellerman said of the book, “Jewish Noir II is a fun, eclectic, globetrotting collection unified by its embrace of classic Jewish themes; love of language, passion for justice, and the irresistible charm of a good story.” What do you think of that description?


A: I’ll respond in classic presidential debate style by answering a different question. Crime writer Lawrence Block, a living legend who has won the Edgar Allan Poe Award four times in addition to numerous other prestigious awards, has kept to an ironclad policy of not giving out blurbs, period.

 

Somehow Chantelle convinced him to write the Foreword for Jewish Noir II, in which he describes the book as “a rich collection of wonderful tales wonderfully told.” So we got our blurb from Lawrence Block! It’s just inside on page xiv, instead of the front cover.

 

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

 

A: That you don’t have to be Jewish to write Jewish Noir. (But it helps.)

 

One constant in the collection is that violence rarely solves anything. A couple of tales feature arguably justifiable homicide, but they are the exception.

 

There’s a common misconception about crime and punishment in the Bible, based on passages about “an eye for an eye” (Deut. 19:21), when no such case of legally sanctioned mutilation is recorded in the Bible.

 

The standard rabbinic interpretation is that these passages refer to monetary compensation, “the value of an eye for the loss of an eye; the value of a limb for its loss” (Plaut 263).

 

There is little evidence that the many offenses requiring the death penalty listed in the Torah (like the one for disobeying your parents) ever led to judicial executions during the Hellenic and Roman eras of late antiquity.

 

In fact, in the Mishnah (compiled c. 200 CE), Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah says a court that imposes the death penalty “once in seventy years” may be considered “murderous.”

 

Two other rabbis add that if they were on the high court, “no one would ever be put to death,” prompting a fourth rabbi to note that their actions would lead to an increase in murders (Neusner 612), thus demonstrating that the death penalty remains controversial after more than 18 centuries.

 

Instead of a literal eye for an eye, the Israelites are instructed: “Justice, justice shalt thou pursue” (Deut. 16:20). In my own story, “Bride of Torches,” one aim is to show how the legacy of violence in ancient Israel, especially during the time of the Judges, does not necessarily lead to lasting peace.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: Finally, a question about me! (ha ha) I just completed a Jewish-themed historical novel set in Iron Age Israel and modern day NYC. It’s a radical revision of a biblical story featuring my favorite type of protagonist: a seriously kickass woman whose abilities are undervalued by society.

 

I first got the idea in graduate school in the early 1990s, while working as a teaching assistant for a prominent feminist Hebrew Bible scholar. I’m hoping it will be out within a year or so. I’ll just leave you with that teaser.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: Although you don’t have to be Jewish to write Jewish Noir, some expertise was required.

 

One author’s submission included the line, “she lit and blessed the candles, and he sang the psalm Eyshet khayil praising a woman of valor.” Something didn’t sound right about that, and I confirmed that the passage in question is not a psalm, but a 22-line poem in the book of Proverbs (31: 10-31).

 

I also had to correct the transliteration of some of the Yiddish (e.g., nisht gefeyle, which should be nisht geferlekh), and, in the final stage of page proofs, I was the only member of the production team to spot an error in the printing of two phrases in Hebrew.

 

So it was nice to know my expertise had some value and I can’t be replaced by a machine just yet.

 

Works cited:

 

Jacob Neusner. The Mishnah: A New Translation. New Haven: Yale UP, 1988.

 

W. Gunter Plaut. The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Vol II. New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1983.

 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb