Sunday, December 4, 2022

Q&A with Rae Meadows

 


 

Rae Meadows is the author of the new novel Winterland. Her other novels include Will Send Rain, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including LitHub and Contexts. She lives in Brooklyn.

 

Q: What inspired you to write Winterland, and how did you create your character Anya?

 

A: I was a gymnast as a child and I loved watching the Soviet gymnasts of the ‘70s and ‘80s. That period of gymnastics was like none other, so much grace and style.

 

And then I read about the gymnast Elena Mukhina, who broke her neck two weeks before the Olympics in Moscow, pushed to do a dangerous skill she wasn’t prepared for, and how the Soviets covered it up. This story made me want to understand the gymnastics system she came out of.

 

My daughter is a competitive gymnast and although the character of Anya is not based on her, I felt comfortable exploring a child’s experience in the sport. I also like the idea of focusing on the experiences of three different generations of women, and Anya served as a good connector.

 

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

 

A: Researching this novel was so fun, I never wanted it to end! I looked at photographs and read widely about the Soviet Union, pre-revolutionary Russia, the Gulag camps, and even Chernobyl, because to see what happened in that disaster is to see how the USSR worked.

 

The best part of research was watching old videos of the Soviet gymnasts, both competitions and propaganda films. I could lose myself for hours.

 

I was surprised to see some video of Elena Mukhina doing poorly in practice, landing on her knees again and again, and her coach looking angry. It seemed antithetical to the usual heroic Soviet ethos to even capture this on film.


Q: How would you compare the Soviet Union you write about to Putin's Russia today?

 

A: I am no Putin expert but I have heard the phrase “Scratch Putin and you find a Soviet” and it rings true for me. He came of age in the USSR, and recently he has lamented the demise of the Soviet Union and what he has called “historical Russia.” His brand of state control, repression of dissent, and authoritarianism certainly seems rooted in the type of communism that bloomed under Stalin.

 

Svetlana Alexievich’s books are brilliant in elucidating what it means to be Soviet, and they were very helpful to me in writing the novel. The dissolution of the Soviet Union was 30 years ago, but I have to think there is a cultural memory of that time even for those who were born afterwards. Even American basketball star Brittney Griner being sent to a brutal penal colony harkens back to the forced labor camps of the Gulag.

 

Q: In her New York Times review of the novel, Megan Abbott writes, “With every cracking bone and snapped ligament, we long for Anya’s success even as it imperils her. We long for her rescue even as we both know that success means buying only a little more time before the end.” What do you think of that description?

 

A: I love this description because it captures the duality of rooting for Anya, of wanting her to do well in gymnastics, while knowing what it exacts from her body and mind. I think there is a small hope that maybe winning will give something back to her, even though we know better. I’m a sucker for the beauty of these young gymnasts despite myself.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’m looking way back and researching a house for virgins in 15th century Florence.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I went back to gymnastics in my 40s and I now train three times a week!

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Susen Edwards

 


 

 

Susen Edwards is the author of the new novel What a Trip. She also has written the children's picture book Doctor Whisper and Nurse Willow. Also a massage therapist and health care educator, she lives in New Jersey.

 

Q: What inspired you to write What a Trip, and how did you create your character Fiona?

 

A: I wrote a short essay about losing my best friend to a drunk driver when I was in college. Writing the essay gave me the courage to confront the PTSD that had stayed with me since the night of the accident. One the essay was on paper, I knew I had much more to tell, and What a Trip was born.

 

Originally, I wanted the book to be a memoir. I envisioned writing one chapter from my point of view and one from my friend’s. After I completed a few chapters, Fiona appeared and immediately took over as the protagonist. Other characters began populating the pages and What a Trip morphed into fiction.

 

Fiona is vulnerable, naïve, and desperate to find her place in the world. In many ways she captures the universality of a young woman’s coming of age.

 

Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Fiona and her friend Melissa?

 

A: We only experience the friendship between Fiona and Melissa through Fiona’s eyes. She feels a connection to Melissa through their shared experiences. As Fiona matures, she finds herself moving away from Melissa’s insanity, but through a deep sense of loyalty stays connected to her friend.

 

I suspect Melissa depends upon Fiona for stability and a connection to reality.


Q: The writer J. Dylan Yates said of the book, “Through the eyes of the wide-eyed Fiona O’Brien, the story is a sensorial immersion in the unhinged explosion of consciousness of the times.” What do you think of that description, and how did you recreate the time period you write about?

 

A: Yates’s quote captures the times and what I was trying to achieve through my writing. I came of age during the Vietnam War era, but without research and immersion into the past, I wouldn’t have been able to achieve the “unhinged explosion of consciousness.”

 

I plugged into the music of the time, especially some of the antiwar anthems such as John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.” The lyrics and rhythms immediately brought me back.

 

I read articles written at the time and viewed photos of protests and antiwar moratoriums. In the photos I studied facial expressions, clothing, and attitudes. I researched slang from the period to ensure my characters spoke in the vernacular of the “Woodstock Generation.”

 

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 had a rough idea of the story line, but I never expected Reuben to appear. Once he did, the story took me in an entirely new direction. I worked and reworked the ending several times. The ending I chose gave me chills, so I knew it was the way to go.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’ve finished the first draft of a story of a young woman abandoned by her family who takes a deep dive into the world of international drug smuggling in the late 1970s.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I never expected to fulfill my dream of being a full-time writer, but here I am. My advice to your readers is to never give up on your dream. Stay focused on your goals and remember to enjoy the journey. It’s all we have.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Kaira Rouda

 

Photo by Kristin Karkoska

 

 

Kaira Rouda is the author of the new novel The Widow, which focuses on the spouse of a member of Congress. Rouda's husband, Harley Rouda, served as a U.S. congressman. Kaira Rouda's other books include The Next Wife. She lives in Southern California.

 

Q: How did your experiences as a congressional spouse factor into the writing of The Widow and your creation of your character Jody?

 

A: Everything about my time in DC factored into the writing of The Widow. It was a whirlwind two years while my husband was a member of Congress, and I took it all in, as a suspense writer would. 

 

Q: This is your first novel set in DC--do you have any other favorite political novels featuring members of Congress?

 

A: I loved setting a book in DC - and yes, I’d love to do it again. Stay tuned!

 

Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Jody and her husband, Martin, and were they based on anyone in particular?

 

A: You know, the New York Post reporter kept asking me if it was based on a true story. No! The settings are quite real — the characters are all a part of my imagination, including Jody and Martin.

 

That said, I did become fascinated by the tradition of the Widow’s Mandate, where if a member of Congress dies in office his spouse often completes the remainder of the term - and knew that was a great suspense angle. For most of the history of Congress, for a woman with political goals, the best husband was a dead husband, statistically speaking. 

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: My next novel, Beneath the Surface, is out in Fall 2023! It’s The O.C. meets Succession on a mega yacht. Can’t wait.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I think that’s it! Thanks for reading and sharing The Widow!

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Kaira Rouda.

Dec. 4

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY

Dec. 4, 1835: Samuel Butler born.

Saturday, December 3, 2022

Q&A with Christine Webb

 


 

 

Christine Webb is the author of the new young adult novel The Art of Insanity. She is a middle school teacher, and she lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

 

Q: What inspired you to write The Art of Insanity, and how was the book's title chosen?

 

A: After I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I read quite a few books about mental illness, both fiction and nonfiction. I found that many of them were really depressing and sad (which makes sense, since mental health issues can be very tragic and frustrating).

 

I was wishing for a book with more hope. I wanted to see a character struggle with mental illness and still be okay. That’s what inspired me to write The Art of Insanity

 

As for the title, it really just came to me one day part way through writing the book. I remember going to the basement and telling my husband, “Hey, how about ‘The Art of Insanity’? Because the main character is an artist, but also she’s navigating the ‘art’ of how to deal with her mental health diagnosis?”

 

He said it was a good idea, so I stuck with it. Sounds like enough people agreed with him that it was a good idea, because it made it all the way to publication! 

 

Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the novel says, in part, “Debut author Webb draws from her own experience living with BPD to deliver a blistering portrayal of one teen’s attempts to seem 'normal enough' while managing a mental disorder—and the stigma and stereotypes that often accompany it—amid increasingly overwhelming life changes.” What do you think of that description?

 

A: I’m honored by the description, and I think it’s true to what I was trying to do with this book. The main character, Natalie, just wants to be “normal,” but normal is a phantom anyway. No one is truly normal - we’re all weird in our own special ways. We all have our own challenges. This book is about Natalie learning to deal with hers.

 

I would use the word “overcome” her challenges, but I don’t think that’s quite accurate. You don’t “overcome” bipolar disorder in that it goes away and you’re “over it.” You learn to live with it and even perhaps lean into some of the strengths that come with it.

 

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

 

A: That answer is yes to both. I outline a book before I start writing it, so I had the basic plot worked out before I started writing. With that said, sometimes the characters run away and do their own thing on the page, so the outline gets adjusted as I go and definitely adjusted on revisions.

 

Now that you mention it, I’d be interested to see my original outline to see just how much the story changed. The bones are still there, I’m sure, but a lot of the details have changed (hopefully for the better).  

 

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story, especially about mental health issues?

 

A: The answer to that kind of depends on the angle from which a reader is approaching the book.

 

For a reader who struggles or has struggled with mental health issues, I hope they take away a message of hope. I want them to see that it’s possible to struggle and still be okay.

 

For a reader who has never struggled with mental health issues, my hope is that they can take away an attitude of empathy and compassion toward people who struggle with mental health problems. I want to humanize and destigmatize mental health issues.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: Peachtree Teen bought my next book, tentatively titled Shooting for Stars. I wrote a huge part of that over a summer when I lived in Boston for a few weeks, so it holds a special place in my heart. I’m just now diving into revisions on that one. I’m not sure how much I’m supposed to tell you about that book, so I’d better keep the plot a secret for now. I hope readers will enjoy it, though!

 

Q: Anything else we should know?


A: One of my favorite parts of The Art of Insanity is Petunia the pug. I think she adds a lot of humor to the story. Since writing the book, I got my own pug named Penny! She’s a sweetie, and she reminds me a lot of Petunia from the book. Here, have a picture! It’s one more example of life imitating art.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Monica Acker

 


 

 

Monica Acker is the author of the new children's picture book Brave Like Mom.

 

Q: You write that your sister-in-law and nieces were the inspiration for Brave Like Mom. Can you say more about that?

 

A: Absolutely. Brave Like Mom came from my heart. My sister-in-law had been feeling unwell for a while. Finally, in 2018, there was a diagnosis. It was stage IV gastric cancer. She met it head on with treatments and surgery, all while being a mom to her two young girls.

 

At one point, when my sister-in-law was unable to receive her regular chemo treatment, what would become Brave Like Mom poured out of me. About a year and a half later, when there were no treatments left to try, I started working on this story again. I knew she was going to leave us too soon. And she did. In early 2020, my sister-in-law passed away.

 

But she also left behind a legacy of strength and bravery. The way my nieces care for each other and look out for each other is for sure a gift from their mom. My sister-in-law and nieces are not the characters in Brave Like Mom, but they are the fierceness and light I tried to capture on the page. 

 

Q: What do you think Paran Kim's illustrations add to the story?

 

A: The topic is not an easy one and somehow Paran managed to capture the gravity of loving someone with a serious illness without invoking fear. The illustrations add the love and tenderness this mother and daughter feel for each other. Paran also captures that growing confidence as the main character realizes she is strong, brave, and fierce, just like her mom. 

 

Q: How would you describe the relationship between the mom and the daughter in the story?

 

A: The daughter in Brave Like Mom thinks the world of her mom. She wants to be just like her. What I hope the daughter sees, and the reader as well, is that the mom admires her daughter just as much.

 

I love the cover image because they both have an arm around the other. They are both holding each other up, supporting one another. Based on that, I would say the mother and daughter have a relationship of mutual love and admiration.

 

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

 

A: My hope is that any child who reads Brave Like Mom, whether they are in a similar situation or not, understands that being brave does not mean you're not scared. I hope the child reader can identify ways they are everyday brave or strong or fierce.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I have many irons in the fire and hope some more picture books will find a home soon.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: Paran gave the daughter a stuffed lion that appears several times throughout Brave Like Mom. I adore how she added this symbol of bravery that the daughter has had all along.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 3

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Dec. 3, 1895: Anna Freud born.

Friday, December 2, 2022

Q&A with Stacey D'Erasmo

 

Photo by Sarah Shatz

 

 

Stacey D'Erasmo is the author of the new novel The Complicities. Her other books include the novel Wonderland, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times Magazine and Ploughshares. She is an associate professor at Fordham University.

 

Q: What inspired you to write The Complicities, and how did you create your character Suzanne?

 

A: I was inspired to write The Complicities out of my curiosity about all of the people who are connected to a shady situation, but aren't the main player.

 

We see this all the time whether it's financial fraud or assault or injustice or lots of other kinds of damage: there may be one person, or a few people, who are in charge of the scene, but often there are many others who are benefiting and participating either actively or passively. I'm very interested in the hearts and minds of those people.

 

To create Suzanne, really, I just tried to put myself in her shoes. She's not an extraordinary person. She is, I hope, a pretty ordinary  person with a slightly different ethical calibration.

 

Q: In her New York Times review of the book, Lauren Fox writes, “Guilt by association is a thorny concept, especially now, in our ravaged world. How much are we to blame for the many misdeeds, intimate and global, that we may not perpetrate, but from which we benefit? And if we admit culpability, to what extent are we responsible for redress?” How would you describe the relationship between Suzanne and her husband, Alan, and what impact do his actions have on her own?

 

A: Suzanne, to my mind, does actually love Alan, and she agrees with him that the game is rigged, so it's fair to cheat at it. They are allied in this perspective.

 

His actions, however, increase the pressure on her to be honest with herself about the consequences of that perspective, and as time goes on, that pressure only increases further. In a sense, what happens with him keeps challenging her to a reckoning that she continually refuses.

 

Q: What role do you see the whale playing in the novel?

 

A: To me, the whale is the center of the book. It's very much a real whale, a magnificent creature from another world, and it's a story of its own about the way events go on and on, transforming as they continue to reverberate. The whale keeps changing, and Suzanne is so drawn to it, even though she doesn't really know why. So I hope the whale is simultaneously real, a metaphor, and a mystery.

 

Q: The novel takes place in a small town in Massachusetts, where Suzanne retreats after Alan's misdeeds are uncovered. How important is setting to you in your writing?

 

A: Setting always matters. It's as much a character as any person in the book. I spent some time going to small towns in Massachusetts like the one I describe, scribbling down details and vibes. Places, like people, aren't interchangeable.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I'm working on a nonfiction book about the lives of various writers and artists.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I know a lot more about whales now than I did before I started this book.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Stacey D'Erasmo.

Q&A with Michelle I. Mason

 

Photo by Greg Mason

 

 

Michelle I. Mason is the author of the new young adult novel My Second Impression of You. She also has written the YA novel Your Life Has Been Delayed. She lives in St. Louis.

 

Q: What inspired you to write My Second Impression of You, and how did you create your character Maggie?

 

A: There are three distinct things that inspired My Second Impression of You. The first was a dinner table conversation in which someone—I don’t remember for sure who—asked, “What if you could relive the best day of your life?” And of course, being a writer, I added the twist, “But when you did, it wasn’t the way you remembered it?” I jotted down the idea to come back to later.

 

Second, in July 2019, I broke my foot walking down some steps. I wasn’t on my phone like Maggie; I just didn’t see the steps and ended up breaking my foot in such a way that I required surgery. I figured if I had to go through it, a character should at some point too.

 

I took detailed notes about the experience, from what my foot looked like every day to descriptions of my pain level, to asking my surgeon how my injury might affect a teenager differently. I had way more information than I included in the book, but I had the primary research covered!

 

Once I had the broken foot and the story premise, I started brainstorming the character. What sorts of activities would a broken foot derail? Obviously any number of sports would have worked.

 

But also in late 2019, my daughter was cast in her first community theater production—the children’s ensemble for Frozen Jr. As I sat outside rehearsals listening to the teens in the show talking about other auditions, I realized that would be a perfect fit. Maggie became a Broadway hopeful, and I thoroughly enjoyed writing her, since I’m a musical theater fan myself.

 

Q: How would you compare Maggie and her experiences with time travel with those of your character Jenny, in your novel Your Life Has Been Delayed?

 

A: It’s so funny you ask that, because the first time someone said to me that this book is sort of another time travel, it surprised me.

 

So, to answer your question about how the two characters’ experiences with time are different, Maggie has the opportunity to relive a single day and experience it from the perspectives of the other people in her life. For Maggie, the time warp, so to speak, allows her to take another look at her own life and decide what changes, if any, she wants to make going forward.


On the other hand, Jenny is thrust out of her own time (1995) into a completely new century. She has to learn how to adjust to new technology, accept a number of personal and family losses, and make new friendships as her existing friends are all 25 years older. Ultimately, her decision is whether she will stay rooted in the past she understands or adapt and make a new life in the present in which she finds herself.

 

Q: The Kirkus review of My Second Impression of You called it “Equal parts sweet romance and thought-provoking story of self-discovery.” What do you think of that description?

 

A: I love that description, as I think it truly encapsulates the story. Maggie thinks the purpose of reliving her best day is to get her boyfriend back, but it’s really about discovering truths about herself and her relationships. It comes along with a surprising (for her) romance, but the romance is never meant to overshadow Maggie’s growth.

 

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

 

A: Most of all, I always hope readers get caught up in the story and enjoy the experience. But if they do take a message, then I hope it’s to consider other perspectives in addition to your own, because first impressions can be faulty.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I just turned in another manuscript to my agent. It’s a book I first wrote 10 years ago and keep returning to. I hope I’m finally at the point in my career where I’m ready to get it right! Like my two published books, it’s a young adult novel with a speculative twist. I’m also working on another young adult novel that’s straight contemporary.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: My Second Impression of You is available in hardback, ebook and audiobook—and I have to say the audiobook narrator, Kimberly M. Wetherell, captures Maggie perfectly. I highly recommend it for anyone who’s an audiobook listener.

 

You can find all the links to purchase the book on my website at https://michelleimason.com/novels/my-second-impression-of-you/, and I’d also love for readers to request it at their local library!

 

I’m active on Twitter, Instagram and TikTok. I’m @michelleimason on all three platforms. I also have a monthly newsletter, where I share backstage info on my books, writing tips, character corners, recipes, news and more. You can subscribe at bit.ly/MIMnews!

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Michelle I. Mason.

Q&A with James Sherry

 


 

James Sherry is the author of the new book Selfie: Poetry, Social Change, and Ecological Connection. His many other books include The Oligarch. A poet, he is the editor of Roof Books and the founder of the Segue Foundation. He lives in New York City.

 

Q: What inspired you to write Selfie?

A: I’ve been writing about poetry and ecology for more than 30 years starting with Our Nuclear Heritage published in 1991. Selfie was started seven years ago as a way to extend the reach of ecopoetics beyond the English department and into other realms.

 

My process has been less about inspiration and more carefully negotiating how to cross boundaries with poetry in the same way ecology includes studies of climate, animal psychology, daily habits, governance of corporations and nations, and finally adaptation to new conditions as ecosystems change or fail altogether.

 

Treating poetry and poetics as a kind of activism goes against the grain of both mainstream poetry and experimental writing. I have made few friends with my insistence on both writing verses with climate policy and developing social structure with bad grammar.

 

The lack of agreement in pronouns—he, she, they—helps society to include non-standard behaviors. We cannot protect our world without breaking down barriers. We cannot reduce emissions without changing how we think about ourselves.

 

Even science understands environment inconsistently depending on which ecosystems are studied. Darwin’s focus on the “entangled bank” of tropical abundance fashioned evolution through competition. Kropotkin’s assessment of the sparser cold climates produced an ecology based on “mutual aid.”

 

I’m interested in how the methods of experimental poetry open the possibility of reconciling divergent logics about how our world operates.

 

Q: You write, “But why and how would changes in language help slow global warming? How can poetry read by so few people affect the monstrous scale of global processes?” Can you say more about this?

 

A: I’ve asked two different questions requiring different answers: we must change our language that focuses self-interest on benefiting primarily the individual, corporations as profit machines for owners, and nations as vying with other nations for resources. This change is already occurring.


And I observed as I wrote that Selfie is less concerned with the ways poetry alone influences people to change how they think about their surroundings and more focused on how poetry interacts with other disciplines, ways of writing and thinking, and the social/environmental context that we all share.

 

Selfie hopes to use poetry to demonstrate how connection works even through this most solitary of arts. Of course, poetry has some influence, but in this age of digital media focused on images, poetry remains weakly connected to mainstream culture. Oddly, poetry’s underground condition in popular culture frees it to be what is wants to be rather than what the accountants and investors want it to be.

 

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

 

A: I hesitate to tell the whole story about the title, but this is the story. It’s easy to say that the main title Selfie arose from the realization that I have no choice to write from my own point of view and that my own point of view includes that background of my selfie, where I am, who I’m with, and the light and weather around me.


The sticky part was the subtitle. The publisher asked that the subtitle be optimized for search engines since Palgrave is selling the book by chapters as well as a whole. That meant that I changed the subtitle from Poetry & Ecology to Poetry, Social Change & Ecological Connection, which is actually more descriptive.

 

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

 

A: I hope that different readers will take different directions after reading Selfie. If I think about the different people who reviewed or blurbed the book, each took a different tack.

 

 The ecologist and musician David Rothenberg in his review wanted, like you, to know how poetry can “solve the titanic problem of global climate change.” The poet Will Alexander decided that Selfie was, “A stunning range of psychic value not as doppelganger or estrangement this writing specifies poetic lingual experience in depth.” And so on. I want readers to see themselves in Selfie

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: Right now I’m compiling a selected writing that I hope will be published in 2024. Rereading my work starting in the 1970s I’m trying to see if I’ve been one person or many. And the answer is yes.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 2

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Dec. 2, 1958: George Saunders born.

Thursday, December 1, 2022

Q&A with Steven N. Austad

 


 

 

Steven N. Austad is the author of the new book Methuselah's Zoo: What Nature Can Teach Us About Living Longer, Healthier Lives. His other books include Why We Age. He is Distinguished Professor of Biology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

 

Q: What inspired you to write Methuselah's Zoo, and what first intrigued you about studying longevity? 

 

A: I began thinking about the longevity of various species years ago, when I discovered by accident that opossums lived only about two years in nature. That was shockingly short. Moreover, they seemed to fall apart physically almost overnight. They lost muscle, became frail and parasite-ridden, got cataracts, all within a few months.

 

I had always assumed that you could estimate how long something lived from how big it was. We all know that dogs live longer than mice, horses longer than dogs, elephants longer than horses. So I assumed that opossums, which are about the size of house cats, would live 10-20 years.

 

I was so struck by this observation that virtually ever since I have been compiling information on how long various species lived. After decades of doing this, I realized that I knew more than anyone else on the topic and thought that people with an interest in animals would have an interest in species with exceptional longevity and their natural history.

 

Although my original intuition about size turns out to be generally true – bigger species do generally live longer than smaller species – there are dramatic exceptions and I think those exceptions give us insight into why we age and whether we might be able to modify our own aging rate.

 

Getting back to size, here are three species that are all about the same size but live dramatically different lengths of time: opossums: two to three years, house cats: up to 20 years or so. Albatrosses up to 70 years or so. Flight, it turns out, is associated with exceptional longevity.

 

Q: What would you say are some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about the aging process?

 

A: Misconception #1 is probably how important genetics is to aging and longevity. People think that how long their parents live pretty much determines how long (and how well) they are likely to live.

 

Lots of research shows that ancestry determines only about 20-25 percent to how long you can expect to live. The other 75-80 percent is environmental, meaning that you have a lot of control, by your lifestyle habits, over how long you will live and be healthy.

 

Misconception #2 is likely that in the distant past people aged much more quickly than we do today. It is true that in the distant past, average longevity was much shorter. Before we know about proper hygiene and germs or had developed childhood vaccinations, death could come quickly to just about anyone if they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

 

Infections were ubiquitous. One-third of children died before age 10. But a healthy 40 or 60 year old 2,000 years ago would have been pretty much the same as a healthy 40 or 60 year old today. The difference is that many fewer people reach 40 or 60 years of age then than now.

 

And exceptionally old people have always been with us. The ancient Egyptians 5,000 years ago considered 110 years to be about the limit of human life. Today we think that limit may be a bit over 120 years – not such a big difference.

 

Q: You describe a wide range of creatures in the book. Do you have a particular favorite, or one that especially fascinated you?

 

A: Yes. I have an inordinate fondness for bats. When I worked as a field biologist in South America, I was around bats all the time and found them endlessly fascinating. That was before I had any idea how long they lived.

 

We saw bats in our house, in the forest every night of course. I caught bats by accident in mist nets I had set to catch the birds I was researching. I probably handled 30 or more bat species when removing them from my nets and releasing them back into the forest. We even had bats in the local movie house where they put on quite the show.

 

The light beam from the movie projector would attract moths, bats of course were attracted to the moths, and the shadows of bat-moth chases showed up on the move screen, providing much more entertainment that the movies that were typically shown.

 

Then I discovered that these little creatures, a fraction as large as a mouse, could live 20, 30, even 40 years in the wild where just about everything was out to get them. To maintain the endurance and agility to catch insects on the wing in the dark, fly 50 miles or more per night, and find your way home, again in the dark, astonished me.

 

Even the fact that some bats, the longest-lived ones, could remain inactive for months when hibernating, then wake up and fly away amazed me, particularly when we all know that a week or so of inactivity in the hospital makes it difficult for people just to get out of bed and walk. How they do all these things has something to teach us about our own aging,in my opinion.

 

Q: In the book, you describe a wager you made about human longevity. Can you explain why you made that wager, and what you see looking ahead when it comes to longevity?

 

A: Sure. In 2001 I made a wager with demographer S. Jay Olshansky about when we would have a legitimate 150-year-old person. I said that I thought that person was already alive.

 

The oldest person known at the time, and still the oldest person with validated birth and death dates, lived 122 and a half years, so I was betting that advances in the scientific understanding of aging would lead to our being able to learn how to medically slow the rate of aging by at least 20 percent, which is roughly the difference between 122 and 150 years, in time for someone to become 150 years old by the year 2150.

 

Olshansky was equally convinced this would not happen. So we each put $150 into an investment account and calculated that at the historical rate of growth in the stock market that $300 would grow to $500,000,000 by 2150.

 

At that time, if there was at least one 150 year old alive and cognitively intact enough to carry on a conversation, my descendants (or in the best case I) would get the accumulated money. If not, his descendants would get it.

 

By the way, some 20+ years on, we are still both convinced we are right. A few years back, we doubled the bet, so that it would be projected to be worth a cool $1 billion by 2150.

 

Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have gotten very interested in differences between men and women in aging and longevity. As everyone knows, women live longer than men, although I doubt that many know that women have always lived longer. They live longer everywhere and in all historical epochs for which we have reliable birth and death records.

 

Even as babies, girl babies survive better than boy babies. Women survive better during famine, during pandemics, during just about any hardship. I’d like to understand that and am working on that question now.

 

There is a paradox here though. Although women live longer, in later life they tend to be in worse health. They are more likely than men to be disabled, more likely to become demented, spend more time in the hospital. This is true even correcting for the fact that they live longer.

 

If we could find a way to allow men to survive as long as women, and for women to remain healthy as long as men, we would be making a great contribution to human health and happiness.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: Everything else that you need to know can be found in my book, of course. But I do want to point out how staying physically and mentally active (say, by reading books) are about the best thing you can do for your physical and mental health.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Junior Burke

 


 

 

Junior Burke is the author of the new novel Buddha Was a Cowboy. His other books include the novel The Cold Last Swim. He is also a songwriter and recording artist.

 

Q: What inspired you to write Buddha Was a Cowboy, and how did you create your character Aaron Motherway?

 

A: Hello, Deborah. I’m both fascinated and distressed by the cultural gulf within contemporary America. An alternative institution (a true contradiction of terms) being surreptitiously taken over by fundamentalist forces seems ripe for exploration.

 

So it’s a campus novel, but the nature of that particular university makes it different than most any portrayal of the American academy. The protagonist, Aaron Motherway, comes not from academia but from Hollywood, which affords the opportunity to have fun with that genre as well. It also posits him as a genuine outsider.  

 

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

 

A: Norman Mailer said, and I mostly agree, that outlining takes all the air out of the story. As I write, however, I do identify key elements that can be activated to move the narrative forward. As Chekhov advised, if you have a pistol up on the mantel, by the end, somebody needs to pull the trigger.


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

 

A: I was careful, or felt I was careful, not to disregard anyone’s faith or practice. I did, however, portray certain aspects that I feel trivialize very profound sets of beliefs. An athlete suggesting that the Son of God is at their side helping them shut out the other team is simply absurd. How about praying in private for something that truly matters? World Peace, for example.

 

The title “Buddha Was a Cowboy” comes from a song that one of the faculty members of the aforementioned alternative school has composed. A terrible song, by the way. 

 

Q: What do you think the novel says about culture wars?

 

A: I feel that it depicts the dysfunction that’s epidemic in the vast scope of institutions, especially those that are political and religious. Greed is rampant, as is all manner of duplicity.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: Am currently on strike, looking to unionize.  

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: While I don’t get out much, were I invited to an online Book Club chat, I might show up.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Junior Burke.