Monday, October 31, 2022

Q&A with Alix Rickloff




Alix Rickloff is the author of the new historical novel The Girls in Navy Blue. Her other books include The Way to London. She lives in Maryland.  


Q: What inspired you to write The Girls in Navy Blue?


A: I was poking around on the internet and came across an article about Joy Bright Hancock who joined the WAVES in 1942 and rose through the ranks until, as Captain Hancock, she took over command of the organization and helped navigate the transition of women into the regular Navy. But the author of the article mentioned—almost in passing—that Hancock got her start way back in 1917 as a yeomanette during WWI.


I had never heard of these women so, of course, I dove headfirst down the rabbit hole to find out more and discovered that the yeomanettes were the very first females to serve in the US military in a non-nursing role.


Secretary of the Navy Daniels, realizing his forces were severely undermanned, took advantage of a loophole in the law to allow for women’s enlistment. Over 10,000 of them served in bases all over the country and overseas as clerks, mechanics, drivers, switchboard operators, supply officers, munition workers, and even in military intelligence, yet a century on, their contributions have been all but forgotten.


Q: The novel is set during World War I and also 50 years later, in 1968. Did you write the novel in the order in which it appears, or did you focus more on one timeline before turning to the other?


A: I’ve always been a very linear writer so I do tend to write in the order you see it in the finished book, but there were definitely instances when my muse made it very clear that we were going to focus on one timeline and leave the other to rest for a bit.


What was the most fun was being able to play in two different eras but within the same setting of Ocean View and the little cottage on the beach.  


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


A: I started out with a quick Google search to find any easily available articles or books on the subject. From there the breadcrumb trail that are bibliographies became my best friend as I tracked down older resource material along with memoirs, maps, photographs, and background information of both my setting and my characters.


There were so many wonderful personal stories and memories captured by historians Ebbert, Hall, and Akers; some of which I tried to recreate in the book, but what was most surprising was discovering the extent of the yeomanettes’ equal treatment despite the time in which they served.


Navy Secretary Daniels, his own wife an enthusiastic suffragette, not only allowed the enlistment of women, but did so at the same pay rate and with the same benefits as their male counterparts, a rarity at the time. He was also quoted as saying that he didn’t like the demeaning “-ette” suffix that attached itself to the new female personnel. “If a woman does a job, she ought to have the name of the job.”


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


A: This book was written as a salute to a remarkable group of women whose wartime service helped pave the way for equal voting rights. But at its heart, it’s a story of friendship and sisterhood that I hope appeals to readers beyond those interested in WWI history. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: My next release is The Last Light Over Oslo, which was inspired by the real-life story of suffragette and social reformer Daisy Harriman, who became FDR’s ambassador to Norway and was swept up in WWII when Germany invaded the country in 1940. I just came back from a research trip to Scandinavia and am now madly writing in hopes of turning the book in early next year.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: In the fall of 2020, I was going through my late father’s things when I came across my grandfather’s WWI identification tag in an old box at the back of a dresser. He was 22 when he joined the Navy in 1917, serving on the hospital ship USS Comfort. What made the discovery even more meaningful was that I was working on the proposal for The Girls In Navy Blue at the time so it felt a little bit like a hand-on-the-shoulder inspiration from above.


When the book sold, I paid tribute to my grandfather by giving him a cameo in the story, and I continue to wear his ID tag because, despite never meeting the man, I feel we have a special connection through this book and the part, I believe, he played in its success. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Alix Rickloff.

Q&A with Jane Rosenberg LaForge




Jane Rosenberg LaForge is the author of the new book My Aunt's Abortion, a series of poems and essays. Her other books include the novel Sisterhood of the Infamous, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Poetry Quarterly and Wilderness House Literary Review. She lives in New York City.


Q: What inspired you to write My Aunt's Abortion?


A: A few things: A decade's worth--or possibly more--of anti-abortion legislation inspired me to write the book. And in 1989 my mother told me specifically that my aunt had an illegal abortion.


It took a long time for all the pieces of my family history--the abortion, my mother's illness, my parents' divorce--to come together. (There were many other events that intervened.) My sister died, then both my parents died; my aunt died; and Republicans introduced more legislation to curtail access to abortion.


One thing that keeps me writing is the idea that I'm creating a record for my daughter to go through one day. When it became clear Roe v. Wade was going to be decimated, I wanted to make sure my thoughts were in one place. 


Q: In the book, you write, "What we might not yet understand is how the consequences of illegal abortion extend beyond the person who may or may not survive the procedure. But if my family’s experience is any indicator, we might soon find out how vast and pernicious the lack of real abortion options is." Can you say more about what you see looking ahead now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned?


A: In the book's opening essay, I note that legal experts aren't quite sure themselves how everything will work out. Of course we already know that abortion will be safe and accessible for those who have money and means, and for those who don't, abortion will be costly and dangerous.


But what will happen to children whose relatives have illegal abortions? What will happen to marriages where an abortion becomes an issue, even though neither party is undergoing an abortion themselves? That I can't predict.


But when you surround a family in shame, even remotely, it can't be good. There will be lots of shame in criminalizing abortion, or forcing people to travel to other states to get one. Shame usually means secrets, and when secrets come out, there is always a reckoning. 


Q: How did you decide on the order in which the poems and essays would appear in the collection?


A: I tried to organize the poems chronologically, in the sense that first, here are the living arrangements, here are the characters, and this is how they work. What happened next? Someone got pregnant, someone needed an abortion, and then there was all this fuss about the arrangements and arguments, who would pay, what were their expectations, and what actually happened.


In organizing the poems chronologically, I had some of my own realizations about what my parents' marriage was all about, what cracked it open, why it could not be repaired. Those realizations led to other poems, and also helped me to organize things.


In a way I'm telling the same story over and over again in the chronology, so that you're never quite free of the events; so you know there's no easy resolution. 


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


A: I hope they realize that abortion is a private matter, and if someone has an abortion, or needs one, or wants one, it doesn't have much to do with you or your life. 


If you make abortion a public matter; if you take it out of the realm of one person's private life and make it something people can comment on, stoke resentments over, make judgments and decisions, then you're really playing with fire. You don't know who will get burned. You don't know how far the implications will reverberate. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I'm always writing poetry, and I'm trying to write a novel about my experiences as a journalist. I never know if I'll finish something until it's finished, so here's hoping I get to the end of it. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I'm not trying to foster debate with this book. I'm not arguing that abortion is a good thing, or that adoption is the solution, or that a fetus does or doesn't have rights. I'm simply saying, this is what illegal abortion looks like. It didn't look so good when it came to my family. Readers can take it from there. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Gloria Koster




Gloria Koster is the author of the new children's picture book Dance the Hora, Isadora!. Her other books include The King with a Horse's Ears. Also a librarian, she is based in Pound Ridge, New York.


Q: What inspired you to write Dance the Hora, Isadora!, and how did you create your character Isadora?


A: I wanted to write a wedding story in which the lens is focused on a child. While Isadora experiences the joy of the traditional dance and is able to teach it to her friends, she isn't happy throughout the story. It was important for me to imagine a real girl who initially experiences disappointment and who gains confidence with the  support of a loving adult.


Q: What do you think Barbara Bongini's illustrations add to the story?


A: Barbara did a fantastic job! I love the energy and playfulness of her artwork. Someday I'd love to meet her. She lives in Italy.


Q: What do you think the book says about dancing, and the hora specifically, in Jewish tradition?


A: Though I have two left feet myself, I adore dancing. It's a way to clear my head, and I think Isadora's cares also melt away when she dances. The hora is new to her and also to her dance teacher and classmates, but everyone embraces the hora - typically, though not always, a Jewish dance -  as happily as all the dances that reflect a variety of cultures (Latin dancing, step dancing, hip-hop, etc.).


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


A: I want kids to feel kinship with Isadora, who is in a bit of a funk at first but feels like a superstar at the end. And the fact that she shares her traditional dance in a more secular setting will hopefully encourage all kids to proudly share things from their own cultures or religions.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have a new intergenerational story - this one features a boy who makes a match between his elderly grandfather and a "senior" dog. And stay tuned - there may be a sequel to Dance the Hora, Isadora!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Thank you so much, Deborah! I guess I'd like people to know that I'm a longtime children's librarian as well as an author. I'm a proud member of the Children's Book Committee of the Bank Street College of Education and love reading and reviewing all the books that we consider for our annual list. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 31



Oct. 31, 1931: Dan Rather born.

Friday, October 28, 2022

Q&A with Brian Short



Brian Short is the author of the book The Band That Went to War: The Royal Marines Band in the Falklands War. He served for many years in the Royal Marines, and was a musician in the Royal Marines Band Service during the Falklands War between Britain and Argentina in 1982. He lives in Southeast England.


Q: What inspired you to write The Band That Went to War?


A: My initial inspiration for the book came from attending the last pre-Covid band reunion in Plymouth, and the realisation that seven of the band that had been involved in the Falklands war had now passed away and the close-knit group was diminishing.


It seemed to me that we had played a small but important part in the war and that needed recording before it was too late. Having raised the question with my band mates and received a positive response, the second question as to just who would write it was met with around 30 pointed fingers; the fingers were loaded and all pointed at me!  


Q: How much additional research did you need to do to write the book, beyond your own experiences?


A: I kept a diary during the war and also took a film camera, which 40 years on was a useful starting place to refresh my memory. I was lucky in that most of the surviving band members also chimed in with memories and photographs, some having very definite views on what should be included, and perhaps more importantly what should be left out.


My main reference book was The Great White Whale Goes to War, which was written by a Royal Navy Officer aboard the ship Canberra at the time. It helpfully included dates and locations recorded in the ship’s log contemporaneously, so I could be confident in their accuracy. Perhaps surprisingly there was also some input from “the enemy.”


Q: What do you think are some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about the Royal Marines Band?


A: I suppose firstly it depends on which side of the Atlantic you live, and secondly how much exposure to these fine military musicians you have had. Regarded around the world as one of the finest military bands, whether in a formal marching setting or an impressive sit-down concert, the general public know very little about their military role.


Thinking of them as somehow “toy soldiers” playing at high profile and Royal events, the Royal Marines musicians also receive military and weapon training, not to the same high degree of their Green Beret commando brethren, but certainly enough to pick up a weapon in times of crisis.


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


A: I hope the reader can get some idea what this group of musicians went through in this small war and how they contributed all their skill sets towards the success of the mission. I hope it also comes through that musical intellect, humanity, and even humour has a place in a war and also even in a book about that war some years later.


My first draft of the book seemed sterile and was not in “my voice,” so I was compelled to rewrite it and include something of my personality and sense of humour. To date, the reviews and feedback from people indicate this was the right thing to do and does not undermine or compromise some of the more serious moments in the book.      


Q: What are you working on now?


A: My next project will tell the amazing and true story of how in the 18th century a lady called Hannah Snell disguised herself as a man and joined the British Marines. Her back story and military career, including how she fought and was wounded in several actions, I find utterly fascinating.


In this age of strong women that we take for granted, to think that back in the 1700s Hannah Snell took on the Royal Marines challenge and travelled the world under arms is a story that needs telling!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: In the book the reader will find that once hostilities were over, myself and the band became armed guards to thousands of Argentine prisoners of war on our ship. For various reasons, music and humour being two to mention, we got to know our “guests” quite well and an understanding developed.


When we arrived in Argentina I was presented with what must be the most unusual war souvenir, namely a “signed thank you card from the enemy.” As a result of the book most of the signatories have been found by an Argentine historian and there is a talk of a reunion at some point.


In promoting the book I have been giving online and in person presentations to various UK and international groups and associations. I enjoy these, especially doing them in person to a live audience, so if anyone has an idea as to other suitable outlets I would be happy to hear them.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Jessica DelVirginia



Jessica DelVirginia is the author of the new children's picture book Rocky's Road to the Big City. She is the founder of the strategic communications firm Insite Strategy.


Q: What inspired you to write a picture book about Rocky, the little owl who ended up in New York City's Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in 2020?


A: I was living in NYC at the time, and the story broke that they had found a tiny owl in the Rockefeller tree. The image of Rocky wrapped in the orange blanket was all over the local news and social media, and I couldn't stop thinking about her. So I reached out to [illustrator] Courtney [Ling], and we pulled together the initial version of Rocky's Road to the Big City ahead of the 2020 holiday season. 

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: For this 2022 version of the book, we did a lot more research about the type of owl that Rocky is. We thought it was funny that everyone kept calling her a baby, when in reality, she's a saw-whet owl, a breed of owl that's naturally tiny. We included a list of fun facts about the owl breed at the end of the book, making it not only a fun book outlining her adventures, but educational as well. 

Q: What do you think Courtney Ling's illustrations added to the book?


A: This book wouldn't exist without Courtney's immense talent. Her attention to detail and inspired illustrations made my jaw drop when I first saw them, and I'm still in awe of them today. I couldn't have asked for a better friend, illustrator, and partner in this project. 

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


A: I think young readers will be excited by Rocky's adventure, and begin to dream big about future adventures of their own. I think they can also learn a bit about resilience and bravery, reading about how our feathered friend stayed strong through such a long journey.

Q: What are you working on now?


A: Right now, we are just sharing the word about Rocky with the world, wherever we can. We are open to doing readings and signings, and hope that the book continues to find success and becomes a holiday classic. 

Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Rocky's Road to the Big City is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Target, Strand Books, and most places books are sold!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Tracey Kyle




Tracey Kyle is the author of the new children's picture book The Lucky Grapes: A New Year's Eve Story. Her other books include Gazpacho for Nacho. Also a middle school Spanish teacher, she lives in Northern Virginia.


Q: What inspired you to write The Lucky Grapes, and how did you create your character Rafa?


A: Well, I've studied in Madrid twice and have travelled to other parts of Spain, and the culture fascinates me. I'm also a Spanish teacher and we study holidays and festivals in Spanish-speaking countries, so most of my ideas come from lessons I end up teaching.  There's a fair amount of preparation for my students and sometimes it turns into a book!  


I based Rafa on a New Year's Eve experience I had when I was 8. My parents let my sisters and me stay up for the first time and it was a major struggle to make it to midnight. But we did it and were so excited. No grapes were involved, though. I'm from New Jersey! We had pigs in a blanket that night. 


Q: What do you think Marina Astudillo's illustrations add to the story?


A: Marina's illustrations are unbelievably authentic because she's from Madrid and had experienced the celebration in her childhood. Aren't the colors fabulous? The illustrations glow. My two favorite spreads are the page with all the "tapas" (the small plates of food), and the celebration at the plaza. 


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


A: Since I hadn't actually celebrated New Year's Eve in Spain, I did a ton of research. I watched a lot of YouTube videos of the could get a feel for the crowd, the noise, and the overall ambiance at Puerta del Sol. I read articles in newspapers, too and dug out all my travel books. All of that helped me write the story and find the words and feelings I needed.  


I was most surprised to find out that there are special grapes sold just for New Year's Eve!! I also learned that there are a lot of New Year's Day traditions, too (like eating lentil soup). I tried working these into the story, but it was too much for a picture book. 


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


A: It's my hope with all my books that kids learn a little Spanish and a little culture and have fun with it. They may even want to learn more about New Year's Eve in other countries. But with The Lucky Grapes, I would have them talk about their wishes for the New Year.  

Q: What are you working on now?


A: Right now I've been working on a story about a cat park in Perú. I've done all the research but I've got three different versions started and I'm not sure of the voice just yet. I need winter break so I can really work on it. Teaching is SUPER BUSY.  


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Most people don't know that I went to high school with my fabulous agent, Jennifer Unter. We were in AP Spanish together senior year! It's been awesome to connect as adults and work together. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 28



Oct. 28, 1903: Evelyn Waugh born.

Thursday, October 27, 2022

Q&A with Sarah Miller




Sarah Miller is the author of the new novel Marmee: A Novel of Little Women. Her other books include the novel Caroline: Little House, Revisited. She lives in Michigan.


Q: What inspired you to write a novel based on Marmee, the mother in Little Women?


A: Would you believe it was my editor’s idea? In the midst of a discussion about something else entirely, she came up with Marmee and I leapt at the chance.


Q: You've also written a novel based on Ma Ingalls from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books. How would you compare the two characters, and did you use a similar process to writing about each of them?


A: These two women are as similar as they are different: Both are mothers of four distinctly different daughters. Both also lost an infant son. Each was the wife of an adored and idealistic yet infuriatingly impractical man. The constraints of 19th-century expectations for women impacted both of them deeply. Their devotion to family is equally strong.


Perhaps most intriguingly, Caroline Ingalls and Abba May Alcott both raised daughters whose tomboyish characters are firmly imprinted on the American consciousness — daughters who would also enshrine their mothers in beloved novels.


And yet, in temperament and outlook, the two could hardly be more different. Ma Ingalls is mild and patient, while Marmee is restless and prey to the constant vagaries of her temper. Ma Ingalls is a shining example of the traditional role of women in Victorian society, and Marmee revels in the fulfillment she finds outside the home. Ma Ingalls is 100 percent susceptible to the racism of her time, while Marmee actively rebels against it. 


As far as research is concerned, I was severely hampered by Covid-19 restrictions. In the past I’ve been able to visit the sites of my historical settings, and burrow into archives for primary sources. That wasn’t possible this time. Travel was out of the question.


Harvard University’s library, where Abba May Alcott’s letters and diaries are held, wasn’t open, even for remote research. When they did re-open, there was a six-month backup for requests.


Fortunately, Eve LaPlante, a historian and great-niece of Abba May Alcott, has written two books about the woman who inspired Marmee March — a biography, and a collection of Mrs. Alcott’s own writings. I leaned heavily on those volumes to get a sense of the woman behind Marmee. Digitized editions of antique memoirs by Alcott family friends also came to my rescue.


Eventually, after I had written two drafts, I was finally able to visit Concord, Massachusetts, and see Orchard House, the Alcott family home, in October of 2021. And finally, a human chain that began with a friend and ended with a total stranger linked together to obtain scans of the Harvard materials as soon as the library reopened in February of 2022. That gave me just enough time to squeeze in a few more details I otherwise would have missed.

Q: In writing and researching the novel, how much did you take from the fictional Marmee and how much from the life of Louisa May Alcott's actual mother?


A: Perhaps as much as half and half. Louisa May Alcott blended her own family life so readily with fiction that I felt free to do the same.


Unlike Laura Ingalls Wilder, who somewhat disingenuously insisted that “all I have written is the truth,” Alcott never claimed that her March family novels were so firmly entrenched in fact. Alcott’s more relaxed approach to her own history gave me tacit permission to include aspects of the Alcott family’s stances on social issues of the day that aren’t apparent in Little Women.


So in Marmee, Abba May Alcott’s passion for charity, humanitarianism, and the Abolitionist movement come to the forefront. The trick was in making sure that my Margaret March is still immediately recognizable as the warm and gentle Marmee that generations of readers love and admire.


Q: What do you think are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about Alcott's Marmee?


A: Marmee’s virtue always seems so effortless, when the truth is quite the contrary. Although she confesses to Jo in Little Women that “I am angry nearly every day of my life,” Louisa May Alcott gave us only the tiniest hints of Marmee’s interior struggle.


Perhaps if Alcott hadn’t been writing for children, she might have treated us to a more complex portrayal of her mother. But because she was writing for a young audience, she had to find some way to inject the morality that was expected of children’s books in the 1860s. Marmee became that instrument.


And perhaps, too, Louisa May Alcott took her mother’s feelings into account as she crafted Marmee March, for Abba May Alcott certainly wasn’t proud of her fearsome temper. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Right now I’m in the midst of a young adult biography of Lorena Hickok, the Associated Press reporter whose pioneering career in journalism has been eclipsed by her romantic relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I guess just that I love digging around in these unprobed corners of literature and history. For me it’s great fun to discover what’s been overlooked in a story that seems so familiar.


Louisa May Alcott said so much that still speaks to readers 150 years later, and yet look at how much she left unsaid – there was a war on in Little Women, for heaven’s sake, and it hardly makes a dent into Meg, Jo, Beth, or Amy’s consciousness. Marmee, essentially functioning as a single mother for the duration of the Civil War, certainly didn’t have that luxury.


And there’s also the whole issue of how perspective affects perception, which I find endlessly fascinating. How does Jo’s view of Marmee compare with how Margaret March sees herself, for instance? So far, those are the invisible threads connecting all of my books, despite their vastly different subjects. How else can you get from Lizzie Borden to Little Women, after all?


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Sarah Miller.

Q&A with Ernest Thompson




Ernest Thompson is the author of the new novel The Book of Maps. A longtime screenwriter, playwright, and songwriter, his award-winning credits include On Golden Pond. He and his wife, Kerrin Thompson, have established a prison writing program called Rescind Recidivism.


Q: What inspired you to write The Book of Maps, and how did you create your character Brendan?


A: Inspired is the word. The story was inspired by, as opposed to based on, a cross-country road trip I took with my young son 20 years ago. True of the father character in the book, I was keenly aware of the significance of the journey, showing my kid the America I knew but discovering secrets and truths I hadn’t been ready to assimilate in the past and learning, too, through his eyes.


What I couldn’t have predicted was how profound the experience would be in solidifying our bond but also in challenging the relationship we’d had up until that moment as a boy began looking at life through a wider lens and seeing the world, and his father, in a different light.


When I read the book now, I no longer see Ernest and August; I see two characters who came to life on their own and are more different from than similar to their nonfictional counterparts. I say to the writers who attend my Write On Golden Pond workshops, “Where are you in your story? Don’t leave your soul and fabulous foibles and complications and voice out of the telling of the tale.”


Brendan, like many of the characters I’ve written, from Henry Fonda's in On Golden Pond, to Robert Downey Jr.’s in 1969, is an amalgam of various aspects of myself, albeit a tad less evolved and way more reckless. My son and I may have stopped at some of the same points of interest on our trip but I somehow managed to keep us more or less out of trouble.


Q: Can you say more about why the novel is set in 2002, and about how important setting is to you in your work?


A: See above but, more than that, I wanted to write about a time in America that, even in the shadow of 9/11, seems innocent compared to the division and anger raging in our country today.


In theory, a father-son story could happen anywhere, some of the same revelations and secret truths could be revealed in the writer’s back yard, but there’s something so inviting and intriguing and even romantic about a road trip. As the lake in On Golden Pond became a character unto itself, so does a broad swath of the United States in The Book of Maps.


Q: Do you have any other favorite road trip novels?


A: On the Road by Jack Kerouac; Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck; Blue Highways, William Least Heat-Moon. I read each at a seminal moment in my life; all three have stayed with me.


Q: How did your work as an award-winning screenwriter, director, and actor affect your writing of this debut novel?


A: Whether I’m writing a three-minute song or a 90-minute play, the bible for a TV series we hope will run for years or a film, I follow the same map, as it were, and apply what I consider to be (and teach as) the basic tenets of affective storytelling: Emotion, Character, Plot, Dialogue, Message.


And Humor. If a writer can make his or her audiences or readers laugh, he or she can take them anywhere, into the scary woods or to places on the map of the human psyche they may not (know they) want to go. The Book of Maps, in addition to being deeply poignant, yearning and even perilous, is crazy funny. I have to keep asking the engineer to turn off his mic as I record the audiobook, he’s laughing so hard.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: In film, the slightly-overdue sequel to On Golden Pond and a very timely indy called Parallel America, both of which I’m directing and acting in; two new plays taking circuitous routes to New York, Ask/Answer and Some Parts Missing; a slew of new songs; and, coming out a year from now, another novel, Out Clause.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Because I’ve been teaching for nearly as long as I’ve been a functioning contributor to the arts, I love encouraging others to pursue their own creative dreams, modest or massive. I firmly believe that all of us have talent, regardless of the form it takes.


Go on any playground anywhere in the world and you’ll see little kids playing Let’s Pretend, making up characters and stories and dialogue. Sadly, that uninhibited freedom gets diluted by unhelpful teachers or parents who’ve forgotten the virtue of letting loose our better angels and facing down our demons.


I’ve proven over and over that, with the gentlest prodding and positive reinforcement, magic can happen, whether it’s for writers who attend my workshops or inmates in the Rescind Recidivism prison writing program I’ve started with my writer wife, and I hold myself up as an example, the debut novelist at 72.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Deborah Driggs




Deborah Driggs is the author, with her late grandfather, Mark B. Arrieta, of the new novel Son of a Basque. The novel is based on Arrieta's life. Driggs is an actress, model, life insurance professional, and healing coach.


Q: The author Gigi Levangie said of Son of a Basque, “Though offered as fiction, this terrific, moving, and thoroughly engaging book shares an important piece of history that I hadn’t yet discovered and gave me a new perspective on the immigrant experience.” What do you think of that description, and how would you describe the balance between history and fiction in this novel?


A: Gigi is a friend, and she knew the book was based on my grandfather's life. Because he is no longer with us, it was difficult to tell if all the events he wrote about were 100 percent accurate, but in my heart I know that my grandfather had a beautiful story to tell. He was definitely a survivor. He walked into fear without hesitation--a true warrior.


Q: What did you and your mother think when you discovered your grandfather's manuscript, and at what point did you decide to work on it and get it published?


A: It was the only item we took from my grandmother's house when she died in 2017. My grandfather had died in 1998, and the manuscript had been sitting in a box for years. By the time I opened the box and started to go through it, the pages were out of order and some were even missing. It took me months to put everything in some type of order and make sense of it.


For me it was emotional to read this work because I knew it was based on his life but I did not know about most of it, especially his working as a prison guard at San Quentin.


Q: What did you learn about your grandfather, and about Basque history, from working on the novel?


A: I learned that my grandfather was a warrior, a war hero, a survivor, and most importantly, a devoted family man. I spent a lot of time researching Basque history, and now I am on a mission to visit and spend time in the Basque Country!


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


A: Reading this story is like escaping to a different time in history. I hope readers will feel as though they are right there with the main character as he trudges through adversity and loss and keeps going. If we can learn about trauma and how people survived it, then that is knowledge we can put to use in our own lives. 


Son of a Basque puts into perspective what life was like in the military during wartime in a way I have not read before. The main character demonstrates so much strength that it stays with you days after reading.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I write a weekly blog, I am a healing coach, and I have written my memoir, which outlines my struggles with addiction. I am also in the process of turning Son of a Basque into a screenplay.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I wrote a chapter in a book called Here Comes the Sun, which was published in July 2022, and I still audition for acting parts to this day.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 27



Oct. 27, 1932: Sylvia Plath born.

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Q&A with Devoney Looser




Devoney Looser is the author of the new biography Sister Novelists: The Trailblazing Porter Sisters, Who Paved the Way for Austen and the Brontës. It focuses on the writers Jane and Anna Maria Porter. Looser's other books include The Making of Jane Austen. She is Regents Professor of English at Arizona State University, and she lives in Phoenix, Arizona.


Q: What inspired you to write a biography of the Porter sisters?


A: I first came across the bestselling historical novelist Jane Porter (1775-1850) when I was writing a book on women’s literary history. I devoted a chapter to Porter and learned this “other Jane” not only had a birthdate very near Jane Austen’s but also that the two women’s careers had interesting overlaps.


I discovered there was even a moment when could be mistaken for each other! A late Victorian title page for Jane Porter’s bestselling novel, The Scottish Chiefs (1810), describes her as the author of Pride and Prejudice (1813).


I knew Jane Porter also had a younger sister, a more prolific and slightly less famous novelist—Anna Maria Porter—who went by Maria (pronounced like “Mariah”).


But it wasn’t until I started reading around in Jane and Maria’s voluminous unpublished letters in the archives that I began to think I might write a book about them.


The sisters exchanged beautifully written and achingly honest letters. They were best friends who shared painful obstacles in becoming authors, but they had opposite personalities. They seemed like real-life precursors to Sense and Sensibility’s Elinor and Marianne Dashwood.


And the similarities didn’t stop there. Jane and Maria’s affairs of the heart with would-be heroes struck me as fun-house mirror versions of Austen’s plots, years before the novels were published.


I got absolutely hooked, trying to piece together the puzzles of their lives, partially confessed in these letters. I read thousands of them in the archives over the course of nearly 20 years. I truly hope readers will be as captivated by these loving, brilliant, and flawed sisters as I’ve long been.


Q: The author Lucy Worsley said of the book, “The Porter sisters have found the perfect biographer to uncover their scandalously neglected story.” Why do you think their story has been so neglected, and how well known were they during their lifetimes?


A: I love that generous quote from Lucy! The neglect of the Porters has been scandalous, but it actually took a while for them to fall out of literary history.


By the time I learned about the Porter sisters, in the late 20th century, the critical consensus was that they were only “minor” novelists who’d had a couple of lucky bestsellers. It didn’t take much digging into the evidence to conclude that was a disservice to their important innovations and once-great reputations.


The sisters were long seen as major figures in English literature, not only during their lifetimes but through much of the 19th century. They published 26 books, separately and together, and achieved global celebrity. Jane’s books sold a million copies in the US alone by the end of her life.


In the decades after their deaths, their novels were frequently republished, before being abridged and increasingly relegated to children’s literature.


Through it all, the sisters had never gotten the full-length biography they deserved. It just struck me as so unfair.


I thought someone ought to write a full account of their lives and careers. I just didn’t think, at first, that it was a book I might write. The task seemed daunting, with nearly 7,000 unpublished letters spread out across the US and UK.


But the sisters’ story is just so compelling, and their contributions to literary history so important, that I wanted to try to put an end to the neglect.


Q: The book's subtitle notes that the Porters paved the way for Jane Austen and the Brontës. How would you compare the Porters with Austen and the Brontës--both in terms of their work and their lives?


A: The Porters and Austens shared many life circumstances, which I describe in the book, but the style of their novels is quite different. The Porters wrote historical fiction, which Austen once said she couldn’t write from any other motive than to save her life.


So I don’t believe Austen took direct literary inspiration from the Porters, although she must have paid attention to how this more famous author-Jane was faring in the literary world, after daring to publish under her real name.


Austen must also have noticed that Jane Porter’s book was brought out by a publisher who went on to buy, but then didn’t print, her own first work—Crosby & Co.


We don’t know very much about what Austen thought of the Porters—little evidence survives—but the Porter sisters loved Austen’s fiction.


In the late 1820s, after Austen’s death, Jane Porter corresponded with Charles Austen, the novelist’s younger brother. The sisters wanted to meet him because they admired Miss Austen’s “now buried pen (alas that it is!),” as Maria put it.


Maria went on to write a novel that was an homage to Austen’s style in Honor O’Hara (1826), which Charles Austen read. The influence among the Porters and Austen likely went in both directions.


The Porter sisters directly paved the way for the Brontës, by giving them a successful model for how to market themselves as sibling-authors—and, once the Brontës’ androgynous pseudonyms fell away, as sister novelists.


Sometimes the Porter sisters discovered they were being lumped together by critics as one author, mistaken identities they used to their advantage when they could. The Porters also found they got more attention in the popular press when they were presented as a pair. The Porters would have been a model for the Brontës for how to charge onto the literary field more or less in tandem.


It’s also possible the Porters inspired the Brontës, even in childhood. The Porters, like the Brontës, wrote fantastical juvenilia together. Anna Maria Porter actually published hers, at age 14, in 1793. The Brontës wouldn’t publish their first works until Jane Porter’s last years of life, so it’s not clear how much Porter knew about them.


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


A: I was very fortunate to have gotten crucial fellowship support for the research and writing of this book, taking me to archives in California, Kansas, New York, as well as in the UK, in Edinburgh, Durham, London, Bristol, and Surrey.


The three most important awards, which allowed me to complete the book, were a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar Award, and a Rockefeller Bellagio Fellowship.


But I had early support, too, from the three libraries with the largest collections of Porter papers—the Huntington Library, the Pforzheimer Collection, and the Spencer Library—and of course from my employers, Arizona State University and the University of Missouri-Columbia.


I owe so much to those who gave me resources, time, access, and information. In fact, I dedicated the book to “the librarians, archivists, and collectors who preserve materials that make the stories possible.” Without them, this book couldn’t have been written.


I’m a library rat, for sure, which means that researching this book always had great pleasures for me.


One of the best and most surprising parts of the research was when I was at the Surrey History Centre in Woking. Manager Julian Pooley revealed to me that a previously unknown pencil drawing of Jane Porter had been placed on deposit there, thanks to a private collector.


The first time I saw the portrait, it took my breath away. It’s a casual, almost wistful image of her, from late middle age, after her beloved sister Maria had died. I’m grateful to have been given permission to reproduce it among the illustrations in Sister Novelists.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Unsurprisingly, I’m working on short essays that elaborate on material from the book, to get the word out about Sister Novelists.


I’m also working with a team of ASU students on an edition of Anna Maria Porter’s Artless Tales II (1795-96), for the Juvenilia Press. These are fabulous stories that Maria published in her teens. We’re on track for publication in 2023.


I’m still figuring out my next steps for a long-term project. I’ll continue to work on Jane Austen, of course. I’m also writing a book on roller derby, which I know will strike people as very different from Sister Novelists!


The projects have in common a focus on shining a spotlight on history’s strong, daring women. At least that’s how I describe it for the tagline for my bimonthly free author newsletter, Counterpoise, where I hope some of you might be willing to join me to remain connected to each other ( ).


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Thanks for asking! I’m putting the finishing touches on a companion website for Sister Novelists at ( ). You’ll find information there about how to order the book, of course—out Oct. 25—and some teaser content about the Porter sisters’ lives and writings.


I’ve also included a gallery of extra illustrations that aren’t otherwise found in the book’s pages. (There are 16 glorious pages of illustrations in the book; the images on the website are what I didn’t have room to include.) If you like to be able to envision 19th-century people and places as you read, you’ll want to check that out.


What I’m most proud of there is the collection of 19th- and 20th-century book covers I’ve assembled, especially of Jane Porter’s two most famous novels, Thaddeus of Warsaw and The Scottish Chiefs.


It’s intriguing to see the ways these novels were marketed. Some editions were designed for boys, featuring canoes, lassos, and American Western themes, which actually have nothing to do with the content of the novel. Other editions include cameo portraits of beautiful women. These gorgeous copies show how just popular Jane Porter remained in the late Victorian period.


If you have a collectible Porter edition that’s not in the gallery, then I hope you’ll send me a photo of it (My contact information is here: ).


To my mind, sharing our love of books of centuries past is yet another way, beyond reading Sister Novelists, that we might honor all that the Porter sisters experienced, hoped for, endured, and achieved.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb