Friday, September 30, 2022

Q&A with Julia Scheeres


Photo by Christopher Michel



Julia Scheeres is the author, with Allison Gilbert, of the new book Listen, World!: How the Intrepid Elsie Robinson Became America's Most-Read Woman. Scheeres' other books include A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown. She lives in Northern California.


Q: What inspired you to write this biography of journalist Elsie Robinson (1883-1956)?


A: The project kind of fell into my lap. I was approached by Allison Gilbert, a former CNN producer who’d been researching Elsie for years and wanted help turning Elsie’s story into a narrative. Once I started learning about Elsie’s incredible life drama, I was hooked. Allison and I made a great team; she researched, I wrote, and together we hammered out a book.


Q: How well known was she in her time, and why do you think she's so little known today?


A: One hundred years ago, Elsie Robinson was a household name – she was the highest-paid female columnist employed by Hearst.


I think she’s fallen into oblivion for many reasons. She didn’t have any heirs to keep her memory alive. She didn’t donate her “papers” to a university archive. Also, the public has a short memory. Who remembers the great columnists from 50 years ago, much less from 100 years ago?


Q: The historian Debby Applegate said of the book, “If you are a fan of spunky, spitfire heroines in the tradition of Hester Prynne, Elizabeth Bennett and Jo March, you will love the true story of Elsie Robinson.” What do you think of these comparisons?


A: I’m incredibly flattered! And yes – it’s true. But the cool thing – as she notes – is that Elsie Robinson was a real-life heroine, not a fictional character.


Q: How did you research Robinson's life?


A: Allison and I divvied up the labor. Allison used her producer acumen to conduct interviews and track down primary sources, I figured out the narrative puzzle to present the information in a compelling fashion. It was a fun collaboration.  


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m juggling a few projects – including one that returns me to the Jonestown story. That’s all I can really say at the moment.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I started a soap business with my daughters during the pandemic called “Sustainabar.” We make zero-waste bars of common household products including shampoo, conditioner, lotion, etc., to reduce plastic pollution. We’re now in five local retail stores.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Julia Scheeres.

Q&A with Cheryl J. Fish




Cheryl J. Fish is the author of the new novel Off the Yoga Mat. Her other books include the poetry collection Crater & Tower, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Iron Horse Literary Review and CheapPop. She teaches at BMCC/City University of New York.


Q: What inspired you to write Off the Yoga Mat, and how did you create your characters Nate, Nora, and Lulu?


A: The characters appeared to me as characters often do. They are struggling but full of passion.


Nate’s a perennial graduate student with a hostile adviser. Nora wants to have a baby with Nate, but he isn’t ready. She gets the chance to work in Finland and seizes it. Lulu is a successful yoga teacher, beautiful and spiritual, but she’s having nightmares of someone who harmed her in childhood.


The concept of thresholds appealed to me. What prompts a person to move past setbacks, inching closer to their true self? Age 40 now seems young to me, but it’s a time we realize we won’t live forever. My characters face that crossroad. How do they find healthy relationships and work where they can thrive? What does it take to heal?


I was inspired to draw on humor, grit, and the irony of repeating patterns in our lives. I wrote about how Nate, Nora, and Lulu face their challenges in ways that were often uncomfortable yet liberating.


How could these characters interact with and impact each other, even as each one takes a separate physical, geographical, and emotional journey? Those tensions kept me coming back to the story.


Q: You tell the story from all three characters’ alternating perspectives--did you write the novel in the order in which it appears, or did you focus more on one character before turning to the others?


A: I worked on all three in various sections, not necessarily in order. I kept a notebook with backstory, ideas, and preferences for each character, small details that helped me distinguish their beliefs. Many times, I rewrote and switched the sequences and chapters around.


My fiction seems to be shaped by more than one narrative voice at a time. Juxtaposing characters reveals who they are in relation to the others and deepens my ability to show contrast and diversity.


Q: Why did you choose to set the book in 1999?


A: I set the book in 1999 mainly because I didn’t want to deal with the ways in which 9/11 impacted these characters. It has been a significant force in many of our lives. I live near ground zero of the attack on the World Trade Center. My novel starts and ends in New York City’s East Village neighborhood.


I had PTSD from 9/11; I have published a book of poems that deals with my displaced reactions to 9/11 by using another disaster, the volcanic eruption in 1980 of Mount St. Helens to reflect on environmental and societal impacts.

For Off the Yoga Mat, I chose the proximity of a new millennium and the anxiety it provoked along with the Y2K threat of crashing computers, technology disrupted, and the ways we envisioned time keeping. In retrospect, 1999 feels like a gentler period than what has followed. As we age our sense of time changes too and that is a theme that runs through the novel.


It just so happens 1999 was also the year the Columbine High School shooting took place. When Nora is in Finland, she hears the news and has a strong reaction to what’s happening in her country. Of course, Prince’s famous rock n’ roll riff on 1999 is also reflected upon near the ending of the book.


Q: The author Lee Upton said of the book, “Fish’s deep knowledge of yoga and of the psychological, geographical, and sensory terrain renders this ambitious novel absorbing and impressive.” What do you think of that description, and what impact has yoga had on your own life?


A: Lee Upton’s generous description of the novel pleases me a lot. I hoped to reveal the ways in which psychological, geographical, and sensory experience are related and ever shifting through the characters’ journeys, so I am grateful that Lee came away with that impression.


Humor is also essential in my writing. It’s a pleasure to write and read something that makes us smile (humor, like taste in music and books, is subjective).


I am a sporadic practitioner of yoga. My mom watched a TV yogi and practiced asanas on the living room floor we found amusing; my sister is now a yoga teacher.


The array of easy poses I do helps me with flexibility and balance, and in Off the Yoga Mat, I illustrate the humor and competition to be found in some Western practices of yoga, while also respecting and reflecting on yoga’s roots in India, Hinduism, and Sanskrit.


My character Lulu Betancourt, a long-time hatha yoga teacher, mixes asanas, pranayama, and mantra chanting in her classes and she finds solace through them in her own practice. Over the years I have had inspiring yoga teachers in various places and wish I was more disciplined to stick with it. Like Nate, I laugh at some metaphors teachers come up with when giving instructions.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on a number of projects. I have had two recent writing residencies in Iceland, and have been inspired by the geology there, as well as by Norse mythology and the isolation and quirkiness.


I am working on fiction that features young international workers who come to Iceland to work in the service and tourism industries and get caught up in various intrigue. I also am working on series of poems about Iceland.


In addition, I have several nonfiction essays I am working on, and a new collaborative project with a Swedish Sami friend of mine. I also write flash fiction and am considering a flash novel or novella, and I am revising several short stories.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I want to thank you for featuring me on your blog, and I’d like to let you readers know I am available for book club visits, readings, book signings and events, possibly live or virtual.


My website is where you can find information on events, order the book, and check out my other activities.


 I’d like to mention some upcoming events (more to come!)


Free Virtual Reading at the Peter White Public Library in Marquette, Michigan on Wed., Aug. 24 at 7 p.m. EDT


Panel discussion with Cheryl J. Fish, DeMisty Bellinger, and Celia Jeffries, “Mighty/Small: Publishing a Debut Novel with Independent, University, and Hybrid Presses,” Women’s National Book Association virtual event on Wed., Sept. 21, 2022 at 7 p.m. EDT.


I will be appearing at the Livingston Press booth at the Brooklyn Book Festival all day on Sunday, Oct. 2, 2022 signing copies of Off the Yoga Mat. Come on by!


Virtual reading and conversation between Cheryl J. Fish and Christy Alexander Hallberg, sponsored by Malaprops Bookstore, Ashville, NC, 6 p.m. Thurs., Oct. 27, EDT. Virtual events require you to RSVP from the event page on the Malaprops calendar. 


Thanks again. I’d like to hear from readers—get in touch.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Eileen Joyce Donovan




Eileen Joyce Donovan is the author of the new historical novel A Lady Newspaperman's Dilemma. She also has written the novel Promises. She lives in Manhattan.


Q: What inspired you to write A Lady Newspaperman's Dilemma, and how did you create your character, Alex?


A: I wrote A Lady Newspaperman’s Dilemma because I wanted to tell the story of the first, and only, time the US Army bombed a US city.


I knew I had to construct a story around that incident, so I thought about how people got the news at that time, then focused on newspapers, then narrowed that down to a reporter covering the story. I wanted the bombing to be the climax of the story, so I had to imagine what Alex’s life might be like prior to the bombing.


I created Alex as the reporter for two reasons. I wanted to show the prejudices women reporters faced in the newspaper business at the time, and I wanted to write a story of a strong independent woman who goes after her goals against all odds.


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


A: I initially wrote the entire book set in 1940, which is when the actual bombing took place. But I decided to change it to the 1920s after realizing that there were lots and lots of books being published that were set in the World War II era.


Even though this story is not connected to the war, I knew it would be lumped in with all the WWII books and get lost in the shuffle. So, I decided to rewrite the entire manuscript and set it in 1926.


All the research I had done on what WWII life was like here at home had to be scrapped and instead I had to start reading books about the 20s, fashion, food, speakeasies, women reporters, lifestyles in general.

I was very surprised by the amount of attention newspaper gave to what we would call everyday murders, although that term seems callous at best. A murder in a small town and the subsequent trial could occupy the front page for days, sometimes weeks. And in large metropolitan papers too, not just the local weeklies.


It seemed after WWI, people were anxious to read anything out of the ordinary, or sensational. And the papers thrived on sensationalizing crime.


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 had no idea how it would end. I don’t outline my novels, so the writing process becomes an adventure and I find out what’s happening to my characters as I’m writing, in much the same way my readers do when they’re reading.


Q: What do you think the novel says about life for women journalists in the 1920s?


A: Life for women journalists was tough. They were usually assigned to society pages, community news, as Alex was, or advice columns, home hints, anything domestic that didn’t involve solid reporting.


In fact, I’m reading The Manhattan Girls by Gill Paul right now, and one of her characters is a lady reporter who has gone through tough battles to be taken seriously. She’s still called Fluff by her male colleagues, due to her time covering the “fluff” news of the day. It was a hard job to be recognized as a serious reporter, even for Alex.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on a romance novel, which is a totally new genre for me and surprises even me to be there. It started as a possible short story to get away from constant research on my next historical book and has morphed its way into a novel. I don’t know what will happen with it, but I’m having fun writing something that’s pure imagination, no research involved.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I have another book coming out in March 2023, working title: The Campbell Sisters. It’s set in 1956 New York City and tells the story of three sisters, all in their early 20s.


The eldest one wants the conventional life of wife and mother, the youngest one wants to become a doctor—a tough road even in the 1950s, and the middle sister wants to become the “toast of the town” adored and treated like a princess by all the men of New York City.


After that release, and maybe the romance, I’m planning on a story about a woman prospector in the old West of the 1800s.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Suzanne Feldman




Suzanne Feldman is the author of the new story collection The Witch Bottle & Other Stories. Her other books include the novel Sisters of the Great War. She lives in Frederick, Maryland.


Q: Over how long a period did you write the stories in your new collection?


A: At least one of these stories is at least 10 years old—The Lapedo Child—which was published previously in Narrative Magazine. Another one, Goat Island, took me about 10 years to get right. Those are the two novellas in the collection, and novellas, I find, take a long time to get right.


The other stories are shorter and took a LOT less time, but overall, I’d have to say I spent the last decade putting this collection together—slowly but surely. It was so gratifying, especially after the pandemic, to win the Washington Writers’ Publishing House 2022 Prize for fiction with this collection. I feel like all that work has gotten some wonderful recognition.


Q: The writer Dennis Danvers said of the book, “The self, art, the self as a work of art--The Witch Bottle explores these journeys with wisdom, humor, compassion, and more often than not, hope.” What do you think of that description?


A: Well, I like to think of myself as wise, humorous, and compassionate, and as long as I stay off Twitter, I’m fairly optimistic.


Many, many of these stories are about artists struggling with the choice between making a living or making their art, which is a struggle I’m pretty familiar with. I went to art school in the ‘70s, and it wasn’t until I was ready to graduate that I realized I had zero job skills. I went into teaching (high school) art because there were so few options at the time.

Over the 30 years I spent in the classroom, I tried to convey to my students that they could pursue both a career and their artistic path, but I’m certain that some of them faced the exact same problem I did—how do you make a living doing what you love when there’s no way to make a living? It’s a persistent conundrum in the arts.


Q: How did you decide on the order in which the stories would appear in the book?


A: The title story, “The Witch Bottle,” used to be first, but the wise folks at Washington Writers’ Publishing House suggested I move it to the middle and put the novellas at the end. I think the pacing of the stories works better now. Plus you have the hilarity of the title story followed by the sorrow of “The Stages.” There’s a nice contrast between the pieces the way they’re arranged right now.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Currently I’m finishing a novel called The Marble Art Palace (it may eventually be called something else) which revisits the theme of young women in art school in the mid-1970s, trying to make a name for themselves in what was a male-dominated art world.


There are three characters—two young women who’re students, and one who was a student—but because it was the only job she could get in the arts, she’s now a model. The three of them are out there on the front lines of fame against a background of wonderful, gritty Baltimore, and a world of punk rock. It’s a fun book to write…and not quite autobiographical.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Come to a reading! Anthony Moll, who won the WWPH prize for poetry, and I will be reading in DC, Baltimore, and Frederick during the month of October. Here’s the schedule:


         10/2 - Politics & Prose (Connecticut Ave) 3 pm

         10/13 – The Ivy Bookshop (Baltimore 7 pm

         10/18 – Inner Loop Bookstore (DC) 7 pm

         10/25 – The Writers Center (Bethesda) 2 pm

         10/30 – Gravel & Grind (Frederick, MD) 3-5 pm


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Suzanne Feldman.

Sept. 30



Sept. 30, 1924: Truman Capote born.

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Q&A with Christine Nolfi




Christine Nolfi is the author of the new novel A Brighter Flame. Her many other books include The Passing Storm. She lives in South Carolina.


Q: What inspired you to write A Brighter Flame?


A: For weeks a question kept popping into my head. What would happen if estranged sisters—unexpectedly living under the same roof—were forced to reexamine their shared past?


A Brighter Flame explores the unreliability of memories as Vale and Blythe examine the secrets that tore their family apart. In many ways, they’re both victims of a past hidden since they were children. Together they forge a surprising path forward. I hope readers will be surprised—and delighted—by the choices they make to heal their relationship.


Q: How did you create your characters Vale and Blythe?


A: In all the novels I’ve written, the key players appear fully formed before I nail down the plot. I have four sisters and three daughters, and for some time now I’ve wanted to write a sisters’ story.


Although Vale and Blythe weren’t directly inspired by personal experience, they were colored by past interactions within my family. There’s something deliciously competitive about sisters. At the same time, there are few relationships as close and devoted.


Our closest relationships are often the most nuanced, frustrating, mysterious—pick your poison. And finding solutions for past grievances (whether real or imagined) takes effort. A Brighter Flame also required medical research and related interviews that were quite fascinating. I hope the story will have book clubs debating the novel’s secrets long into the night.

Q: The author Kerry Anne King said of the book, “In this layered family drama, Nolfi explores the unreliability of memories and how perceptions of past events impact the present.” What do you think of that description, and what role do you see memory playing in the novel?


A: Kerry’s description captures the essence of A Brighter Flame. The memories of childhood carried by Vale and Blythe ignite the story and highlight the reasons why they’ve never been close. Their memories are utterly divergent.


As the story progresses, they must discover how past events affected each other. And once they begin to compare those memories, they both realize there were undercurrents in their childhood that they were both unaware of.


Coming to grips with those undercurrents—and learning how to forgive the hurts of the past—made for some very poignant scenes that will carry readers through the gamut of emotions.


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


A: Before writing any manuscript, I have a general idea of the book’s pivotal scenes including the ending. However, I never attempt to flesh out those scenes during the outlining stage. Once I begin writing and the characters lead me through the story, I know they’ll guide me in how to craft those scenes. It’s a nearly magical process I’ve learned to trust.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: My current WIP is a bit darker than A Brighter Flame, with a cast of complicated and deceptive characters. The book will feature a dual timeline and lots of surprising twists. It’s a story with similar drama and tension as my 2021 bestseller, The Passing Storm.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I love hearing from readers! They can find me at:


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Ainslie Hogarth




Ainslie Hogarth is the author of the new novel Motherthing. Her other books include The Lonely. She lives in Canada.


Q: What inspired you to write Motherthing, and how did you create your character Abby?


A: There are a million answers to this question, but one of them is that I became very interested in stories about folie a deux, which is a psychiatric syndrome in which delusions are transmitted from one person to another. The most sensational examples of folie a deux are about couples who murder together.


Though that’s not Ralph and Abby’s story, I wanted to know more about the process of two brains becoming sick together, sharing madness, and, more importantly, I wanted to explore the extent to which shared madness is possible in any close romantic relationship.


Maybe even a necessity for close romantic relationships, particularly as we’ve defined them for straight women: hopeless devotion, blurred boundaries, implicit trust, the expectation that you and your husband will fulfill one another’s every physical, emotional, and mental need.


So that’s how the story, and Abby—a lightning rod for all the bad intel passed down to women about marriage and relationships—started.   


Q: The writer Courtney Maum said of the book, “This novel is bursting with smart, provocative, heart-breaking things to say about the nature of grief and its ability to take up just as much—if not more—physical space than the actual person lost.” What do you think of that description?


A: I think it’s such a lovely interpretation of the book! And one that I really appreciate. Because as much as Motherthing is a horror story, it’s also very much a love story. And “what is grief, if not love persevering?” I thought this line from WandaVision (another narrative that’s as much about the action as the love story) was actually a very good line, despite what the internet had to say!

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it?


A: Not exactly. I’m not sure how to explain more without giving away the ending.


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


A: There is a study I read way back in high school, I write about it in the book, about baby laboratory monkeys, taken from their mothers, attaching themselves instead to a bit of foam and terrycloth. Essentially these baby monkeys were able to get some semblance of what they needed from a terrycloth surrogate.


I was so struck by this idea that a baby creates its mother, as much as a mother creates her baby, and this is something that Abby does all the time, forever creating motherthings out of unwilling participants, getting what she needs from them whether they realize it or not. Desperate too, to become a motherthing herself. So that’s where the title came from.


Plus the word thing is part of a long lineage of horror titles. And for good reason—it’s a very creepy word!


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on another novel right now, though I’m not sure how much I can say about it other than it’s about mothers and capitalism.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Basic first aid!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Carol Dines




Carol Dines is the author of the new young adult novel The Take-Over Friend. Her other books include The Queen's Soprano. She lives in Minneapolis.


Q: What inspired you to write The Take-Over Friend, and how did you create your characters Frances and Sonja?


A: I have always valued friendship, and when one of my closest friends and I went through a break-up, I was devastated. We had become friends during a very hard time in both our lives and we had helped each other through those difficult times. But we both emerged from that period in very different circumstances, and she expected me to be there for her all the time, and I couldn’t.


Around the same time, my teenage daughter was also going through a break-up with her best friend after she felt her friend had betrayed her.


What I realized in that moment was how common this experience is, of losing a friendship, and how no one seems to talk about it. We assume most romantic relationships among teens will end as they continue to grow and change, but we don’t have the same understanding with friendship. And yet, friendship break-ups can be just as traumatic.


Over the years it has become clear to me we don’t really talk about how and why friendships fall apart, and I began to think this would be great material for a novel.


Both Frances and Sonja were inspired by my own life.


I wrote Frances’s character as if I were writing from my younger self. She wants to be more assertive and creative, but she often lacks confidence. She also has bonded deeply with her father and has taken on a caretaking role, (which I, too, did as a teenager for my bipolar sister) and that role has given Frances an identity in her family and a sense of self-worth. She’s her dad’s ally.


But eventually that caretaking role becomes her role with Sonja too, taking care of Sonja’s feelings instead of focusing on her own needs. This felt very real to me, as it took me years to feel comfortable establishing healthy boundaries to protect my own energy and focus, instead of taking care of others’ needs.


Sonja’s character was based on a very close and very controlling friend from my past; she has plenty of confidence, but her confidence belies the underlying pain she feels from her parents’ bitter divorce and their lack of support.


She wants to control the friendship because the rest of her life is out of control, so she tries to create “premises for friendship.” That too felt very real to me from my past friendships.

Q: Can you say more about the dynamic between the two girls?


A: In creating Frances and Sonja, I created opposites who form a symbiotic relationship—each sees in the other qualities she wants to develop in herself.


What Frances is missing is confidence and courage to go after what she wants. What Sonja is missing is a family that enjoys being together. Gradually, through each other, their friendship allows each of them to grow in new ways.


But when Sonja’s attachment to Frances’s family crosses all Frances’s boundaries—boundaries she doesn’t know she has—Frances has to distance herself in order to regain a sense of her own life, and this throws the friendship into a period of turmoil.


Through these two characters, I wanted to show how friendships can sometimes become too close. And when one friend tries to establish or differentiate her life from the other’s, it feels like a betrayal, as it did to Sonja when Frances didn’t want her to move in with her family.


Q: The writer Gary Eldon Peter called the book “a compelling story about the complex nature of adolescent friendship with a deep and thoughtful dive into the impact of mental illness on one family.” What do you think of this description?


A: I was so happy he wrote that description because I think it’s true—Frances’s father has bipolar disorder and during the novel he’s in a manic phase and then he descends into a depression.


His illness has no boundaries and spills over into the lives of those who love him. Both older siblings are angry at their father for refusing to take his medications. Frances’s mother wants Frances to liberate herself from feeling she needs to take care of her father and remain his ally.


The father is very likable and tender, and so it isn’t easy for Frances to see the patterns that have evolved within her own family. But the lack of boundaries around her father’s illness also creates a sense of closeness to him—and that dynamic of unhealthy boundaries is carried into Frances’s friendship with Sonja.


Likewise, Sonja’s parents’ have created a very unstable life for her, which is why she tries so hard to control her friendship with Fran. Sonja’s mother is deeply depressed and self-medicates with alcohol.


The families behind both main characters are a driving force for the intense closeness the girls form in in their friendship, but also the unhealthy lack of clear boundaries that eventually causes them to come into conflict.


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


A: This novel went through many revisions. It was started long ago, and I sold an early version to a large publisher that was then sold to an even larger publisher, and they released the contract for the book the day it was supposed to go to print.


Heartbroken, I put the book aside until the pandemic, when I took it out and fell back in love with my characters. I then updated it and tightened the plot lines. I think it’s a better book now than it was then, so I’m happy I put it aside.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on a novel about a family that is torn apart politically. The question the novel raises is whether the family should keep trying to be a family, or should they just live their separate lives and let go of each other?


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I feel incredibly lucky to be able to write every day because it keeps me thinking about the world we live in—its challenges, contradictions, and joys. Writing is a wonderful way to feel tethered to the deeper currents in the world.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb