Sunday, December 31, 2023

Top 10 Posts of 2023: #1

Ending our countdown of the top 10 most-viewed posts of 2023, here's #1, a Q&A with Joyce Maynard first posted on May 20, 2023.

Q&A with Joyce Maynard




Joyce Maynard is the author of the new novel The Bird Hotel. Her many other books include the novel Count the Ways. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and Vogue.


Q: What inspired you to write The Bird Hotel, and how did you create your character Irene?


A: For over 20 years, I’ve had a house on the shores of a very beautiful lake in Guatemala called Lake Atitlan, where I go to write and host workshops for women in the art and craft of telling one’s story.


I was there at my house on the lake in March of 2020 to lead my annual workshop. The airport closed down. My writing students managed to get back to the United States, eventually, but I stayed on in Guatemala, knowing there could be no better place to be in a pandemic.

I invited two young women who’d attended my writing workshop to stay on with me at the lake. In the beginning, I figured we’d be there for a few weeks at most, but in the end we stayed in that small Mayan village on the lake for nearly six months. We could have returned home…but we were having a beautiful, productive time there—and a healthy one.


Every day I worked on my novel, Count the Ways. Every night, under the stars, I read to the girls from whatever chapter I’d written that day. We were having a happy time.


When I finished that novel, the girls were very sad that our nightly readings were over. So there was nothing for it but to start a new novel. That was The Bird Hotel. I read the chapters out loud to the two young women like a nightly bedtime story. They were always eager to hear what happened next. That kept me working hard.


The country depicted in The Bird Hotel is a fictional one. But of course it was inspired by my place in Guatemala. I spent my days looking out at a lake and a volcano. Naturally, I had to put them in my book.

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


A: As with most of my novels, my research is my life. I’ve been spending time in Central America for most of my life, and–for the last 22 years–have spent a significant time in a small indigenous community very close to my heart. This novel–though a work of imagination—was inspired by my time there.


Q: In your acknowledgments, you write that “the mere fact of my having chosen to locate my story in a country not of my birth was deemed by many as unacceptable.” What types of feedback did you get about the novel’s location, and why did you choose that location?


A: There is a school of thought, in the world of publishing, that puts forward the view writers should not go beyond their own ethnic heritage and background in their writing.


To me, this is a dangerous trend that limits an essential aspect of the creative process, which is imagination, and the freedom not simply to express what is known and familiar to us, but to explore worlds beyond the one of our birth.


In this novel, I do not write from the point of view of an indigenous person, or a Latina person. I write from the point of view of a woman who—like me—experiences a Latin/indigenous culture as a foreigner. That’s an experience I know well.


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 never know how my novels will end. I get up every morning exited to get to work so I can find out what my characters do next.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’ve just finished the sequel to my novel Count the Ways—titled How the Light Gets In. I’ll be revising this one over the summer. It should come out next spring. I can’t wait to share what happens next in that one.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Though this was not true at the time I wrote The Bird Hotel, like the central character of The Bird Hotel I actually DO now run a hotel/retreat center in Central America now. It’s called Casa Paloma Retreat.


We built it during the pandemic as a way of creating jobs when tourists disappeared from my village. (When I say “we” I am talking about a crew of over 30 men, and some women, who worked so hard to build the place.) You can see pictures here:


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Saturday, December 30, 2023

Top 10 Posts of 2023: #2

Counting down the top 10 most-viewed posts of 2023--here's #2, a Q&A with Adele Myers first posted on March 2, 2022.

Q&A with Adele Myers



Adele Myers is the author of the new novel The Tobacco Wives. She works in advertising, and she lives in Brooklyn.


Q: In your author’s note, you write that the “seeds of the book ‘germinated’ for many years, over twenty years to be exact.” What made you decide to write the book?


A: I always knew that I wanted to write a novel at some point. I wrote mostly short stories and essays for many years, while building a career in public relations and advertising. My days were spent writing press releases and remarks for media events. At night I took classes in short story writing at The New School.


It was there that I met the teacher who planted the first seed of what would become The Tobacco Wives. I had written a short story about the wealthy wives of tobacco executives. I still have it actually, along with her note scrawled on the back page. “I think this could be a longer piece. There could be a novel here.”


My job took up most of my creative energy in those years, and then I got married and had a son. My own writing took a backseat, but my teacher’s comment stayed with me. Eight years ago, I decided it was time. I made a commitment to write a book based on that short story.


A combination of factors spurred me to make the decision at that time. My son was older, my work was less demanding, and I had grown as a person. I gave myself permission to focus on my passion.


Q: The writer Kristin Harmel said of the book, “The Tobacco Wives is a perfect example of the kind of historical fiction I love best: a story firmly grounded in the past that still feels powerfully resonant today.” What do you think of that assessment, and how would you compare the two eras?


A: I was thrilled when I first read Kristin’s comment. First of all, just because I’m such a big fan of her work, but also, I totally agree with her assessment.


The Tobacco Wives explores issues that are still relevant today; the parallels between Big Tobacco and the opioid epidemic, for instance. Both are situations where greed and deception led to public health crises.


My book also explores women’s rights. The cigarette factory workers had no job protection and made less than men. Even the wealthy wives of tobacco executives in fictional Bright Leaf, North Carolina, had no real power, and certainly no seat at the boardroom table.


Unfortunately, those same problems persist today. As of last year, only 8 percent of Fortune 500 companies are run by female CEOs. The gender gap in pay has remained relatively constant over the past 15 years, with women typically earning 84 percent of what men earn in similar roles. 


Q: How did you create your character Maddie, and why did you decide to make her a seamstress, as one of your grandmothers was?


A: The Tobacco Wives was inspired by my childhood growing up in tobacco country. Both sets of my grandparents lived and worked in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and my summers there were magical. Maddie came from those early experiences and evolved from there.


I decided to make her a seamstress because it gave me a way to put her inside the mansions of the tobacco wives. At that time, dressmakers visited the homes of wealthy clients. I loved the idea of dropping Maddie into this glamorous, unfamiliar world. What might she overhear? What might she find? There’s also an intimacy between a dressmaker and her client that I find fascinating.


Q: How did you research the novel, and what did you see as the right blend of history and fiction as you wrote it?


A: I started my research by going through old photo albums and talking to family members. I drew upon my relatives’ deep connections to tobacco, as well as my love of Winston-Salem.

I went through my father’s high school yearbook and noticed that the RJ Reynolds High School mascot was a devil. I noticed that the charm bracelet my mother left to me had a Jr./Sr. Prom charm with a big black R for Reynolds. I had always admired the antique thimble my grandmother left me, but didn’t realize at first that the beautiful flowers painted on it were tobacco blossoms.


My grandfathers also served the wealthy tobacco families, one as a senior executive with Wachovia Bank and the other as a home builder and cigarette factory worker. My great uncle was a portrait artist who painted seven RJ Reynolds presidents as well as countless wives and children.


What struck me most about my family’s experience was the immense pride that people felt back then about helping to build “the tobacco capital of the south.” In hindsight, it’s hard to believe that they didn’t know about the dangers of smoking, but during those years they had no idea.


What was it like for them, I wondered, to have such pride in their work and community, only to learn that they're producing products that kill people? How did proud tobacco town executives and workers react when medical studies linking smoking to cancer emerged in 1950? How would a tobacco wife react if she was the first to know, or better yet, if she discovered her husband had been covering it up?


These questions took the book in an exciting direction and spurred me to learn all I could about the fall of Big Tobacco.


The tobacco industry cover-up and campaign to deceive the American public is well-documented, and I found two sources in particular that were incredibly helpful -- The Gilded Leaf: Triumph, Tragedy, and Tobacco: Three Generations of the R.J. Reynolds Family and Fortune by Patrick Reynolds and Tom Shachtman; and Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition by Robert N. Proctor.


I also combed through congressional archives, read transcripts from tobacco executives’ testimony, and watched every movie and interview I could find on the topic.


While The Tobacco Wives is set in the fictional town of Bright Leaf, North Carolina, in the 1940s, I borrowed from the Big Tobacco revelations that came later, well into the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, and chose to focus on smoking’s effects on women in particular.


The 1940s was a time of social unrest, wartime conflict and emerging new options for women, a time that some historians say spurred the modern women’s rights movement.


Setting the book in this period and taking liberties with the timeline and nature of tobacco studies emergence enabled me to explore themes such as Southern women’s role in society, the impact of WWII on the workforce, and the use of advertising to shape public opinion. 


Anne Firor Scott’s book The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics 1830-1930, gave me an invaluable perspective on women’s lives and the influence they wielded behind the scenes.


My expertise in public relations and advertising gave me insight into the strategies employed by tobacco executives to mislead the public. 


I spent 18 years of my career at Porter Novelli public relations, a company that pioneered public health marketing campaigns like The Truth Anti-Tobacco Campaign, and The Know Your Numbers Campaign, which encouraged people to learn their numbers related to cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar, weight and body mass index (BMI). 


I drew upon my experience in the field to develop Mr. Winston's plan, using techniques like credentialing, target audience insights and attribution of health benefits to ingredients vs. the final product.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on a second novel that is based in the South and involves another cover-up situation.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: If you want to write a novel, go for it. As Victorian novelist George Eliot said: “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Friday, December 29, 2023

Top 10 Posts of 2023: #3

Counting down the top 10 most-viewed posts of the year--here's #3, a Q&A with Francis Levy first posted on March 15, 2018.

Q&A with Francis Levy

Francis Levy, photo by Hallie Cohen
Francis Levy is the author of the new novel Tombstone: (Not a Western). He also has written the novels Erotomania and Seven Days in Rio. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The New Republic.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Tombstone: (Not a Western)?

A: I have always been obsessed with death and the notion of the way that life and matter comes into being and then falls into oblivion. It’s the old philosophical question of something out of nothing and the reverse. 

Birth and death are both inexplicable mysteries that it’s impossible to fathom. The other is divinity and whether from a teleological point of view there is a first cause and prime mover.

I’m a rationalist and have trouble with the notion of an anthropomorphic conception of God—God as some cosmic telephone operator fielding requests. On the other hand the notion of the indifference of the universe, of the cosmic yawn is a little difficult to countenance for a weak and fearful creature like myself.

On a more pragmatic basis I simply had to deal with what my survivors would do with my remains, as everyone does. And before I knew it I had a novel.

Q: Did you know from the beginning how the novel would end, or did you change things around as you wrote?

A: I always think of Dante, but that didn’t lead me to the notion of an ending. The paradigm of paradise, hell and purgatory, however, present signposts and provide a map, along with way stations, particularly when it comes to suffering.

And so I envisioned a whole journey beginning on a lower level of pragmatic considerations, which I tended to dispose with humorously and then proceeding to other levels. Along the way, there would be obstacles, like the financial crisis and there would be teachers like the gurus you meet at the all-inclusive resort whose guests deal with death related matters.

I glommed onto the notion of the retreat, the sanitarium, a la Mann and The Magic Mountain, and that led me closer to the idea of the kind of ascendance you see at the end of the novel when the characters cross over into the afterlife.

Q: You've noted that you wrote about death before, including writing your own New Yorker obituary and a parody of Sherwin Nuland's book How We Die. Are there similarities in the approach you take to writing about death in Tombstone?

A: Yes, it’s very similar. I have a tendency to use humor to deal with issues that I actually take quite seriously. I can’t make a joke out of something unless I'm truly attracted to it. Again the resort dealing with afterlife issues exemplifies this.

On the one hand all the characters are imposters and frauds modeled on Moliere’s Tartuffe. On the other, I take them totally seriously. Just like my most deluded characters, I’m a seeker. The difference is that I’m a trifle more defended and that’s reflected in my use of parody.

Q: You describe the funeral industry as "a total rip-off." Why?

A: I was rather young when I arranged my first funeral. By the way, the original title for this book was “The Arrangements.” I guess I was kind of traumatized by what a business it turned out to be. You pick out caskets the way you do cars, only there are no trade-ins and you can’t buy a used one.

Jumping to the chase, I have a deep aversion to memorial services, the chapel, the sacrosanct speaker who receives his or her gratuity, the whole commodification of something which is ineffable. It’s more expensive to be buried than cremated since you have more paraphernalia and you have to buy real estate, i.e., a grave.

But after all is said and done what drives me crazy is the fact of the congregating. It’s supposed to be for the survivors, but every time I attend a funeral, people are in a rush. They're in a rush to get to their yoga and therapy appoints or to their trysts and they’re actually impatient.

I personally don’t want to be responsible for forcing people to come to some event that's going to cost my estate money and that they feel they have to attend to save face.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My next novel is The Wormhole Society. It’s a kind of reversal of classical therapy. Instead of working inside out. I propose the sci fi idea of traveling to a parallel universe in which you can attain a more adaptable mode of living.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Top 10 Posts of 2023: #4

Counting down the top 10 most-viewed posts of's #4, a Q&A with Ted Gioia first posted on Dec. 12, 2019.

Q&A with Ted Gioia

Ted Gioia is the author of the new book Music: A Subversive History. His other books include How to Listen to Jazz and Love Songs: The Hidden History. A music historian, critic, and performer, his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

Q: You write, "This work has been in the making since the early 1990s, and it all started when I asked a simple question that led to some very complicated outcomes: How does music change people's lives?" What was the journey between that idea and this eventual book?

A: We are taught nowadays to view music as mere entertainment—a kind of diversion for our leisure hours.

Ivy League professor Steven Pinker has even described music as “auditory cheesecake.” He believes that the only purpose of a song is to stimulate the brain, and listening to music is no different from drinking a martini or using recreational drugs.

When I started the research for this book, more than 25 years ago, I had a very different view about music. I believed music is a source of transformation and enchantment in human life. It’s a change agent that possesses great power—over our bodies, over our communities, over our society as a whole.

I wanted to write the history of music from this perspective. I wanted to show how music has transformed the world around us.

This required a different kind of research.  The stories I wanted to tell don’t usually show up in music history books. Instead I had to dig into a range of different sources—from scientific literature to folklore and mythology, and everything in-between.

And the more I dug into these alternative sources, the more interesting the story became. Even I had underestimated the power of music in human life.

In my book, I show that music has been a major force in expanding human freedom and personal autonomy. And this has been true for centuries.

The very first songs of personal expression, back in ancient Egypt, were linked to the earliest labor strikes. In modern times, almost every transformative movement—whether Stonewall or the Summer of Love or punk rebellion—has been closely linked to music.

In just the last few weeks, I have seen protesters in Hong Kong use a Broadway musical song to confront the government, and activists in Lebanon have turned the “Baby Shark Song” into a protest anthem.

Maybe the music industry thinks that songs are just entertainment, but governments know that music possesses tremendous power. That’s why they repeatedly try to censor and control it.   

Q: In a Washington Post review of the book, Michael Dirda writes, "For Gioia the music that truly matters is the kind that upsets Mom and Dad — and it almost always emerges from the dispossessed." Do you agree with his assessment, and if so, why do you see that as the music that truly matters?

A: As a parent myself, I am sometimes on the side of Mom and Dad. But I do recognize that music possesses power, and that power can be used for either good or bad. 

Just in the last few decades, we have learned so much about how music impacts our bodies. Our brainwaves adapt to the rhythms of music. Our blood cell count changes when we hear music, and our immune system is strengthened.

When we are exposed to music, our body produces the hormone oxytocin, and this bonds us together with the people around us. This bonding can lead to a romantic encounter, or it also might bring together soldiers on the battlefield.

It’s not a coincidence that almost every violent gang has its own favorite theme songs. Even Charles Manson used a Beatles song, “Helter Skelter,” as his anthem.

So we can’t be indifferent to our musical culture. Music is like nuclear energy. It has the potential to give illumination to an entire nation, or it might blow up everything too. 

Q: What surprised you most in the course of your research for the book?

A: I was most surprised how the same patterns recur again and again in music history. 

For example, the oldest songs we know about were used in ancient fertility rites, and are all about sex. Today, you hear very similar songs on the radio. A researcher even did a statistical analysis and showed that 93 percent of hit songs today refer to sex.

Madonna and Lady Gaga have a lot in common with the high priestesses of ancient Mesopotamia, who gave us the earliest songs documented in the historical records. 

Q: How is your book "subversive" as compared to other works of music history?

A: So much of the music establishment wants to be respectable. But the real history of music is filled with shameful and embarrassing ingredients. When you remove these shameful parts, you get rid of the sources of innovation in human music-making.

In my book, I show how new ways of singing have been linked repeatedly with sex, violence, magic, supernatural beliefs, altered mind states, trance and ecstasy, generational conflict and social upheavals. These are precisely the ingredients that respectable music history books prefer to leave out.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Because I am a music historian, people expect me to be focused on the past. But I am even more concerned about the future of music.

One of the goals of my new book is to show how a better understanding of the past can help us create a healthier music ecosystem in the 21st century. That will be a major focus of my research and writing going forward.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I believe that music is a leading indicator—not much different from those economists use to forecast the future. All the great social changes are first announced in music. So the best way of anticipating what will happen in the coming years is by listening to the songs that are going viral today. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Top 10 Posts of 2023: #5

Counting down the top 10 most-viewed posts of 2023--here's #5, a Q&A with Lisa See first posted on June 6, 2023.

Q&A with Lisa See




Lisa See is the author of the new historical novel Lady Tan's Circle of Women. Her other books include the novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan


Q: You write that you learned of the historical figure Tan Yunxian (1461-1554) during the pandemic. What intrigued you about her, and at what point did you decide to write this novel based on her life?


A: I was moping around at home like many of us were during lockdown and in the months before the vaccine became available, feeling totally at loose ends and like I couldn’t do what I love to do.


Yes, writers are supposed to be glued to their desks and work from their imaginations, but I write historical novels that require a lot of research. I couldn’t go to China to do research on what I’d thought was going to be the next book, and all the institutions and libraries where I do research were closed.


As you might imagine, I collect books about China. I could never hope to read them all. Seven months into the pandemic, I was walking by the bookshelves in my office when the spine of one of the books jumped out at me. I don’t know why, but I pulled it off the shelf. The book was about pregnancy and childbirth in the Ming dynasty. I decided right then to read it.


I got to page 19 and found a mention of Tan Yunxian, a female doctor in the Ming dynasty, who, when she turned 50 in 1511, published a book of her cases. That seemed extraordinary to me. I set the book down, went to the internet to see what else I could find out about her, and discovered that her book was available in English! I ordered it and received it the next day.


So within about 26 hours, I’d discovered what the next book would be. That had never happened with any of my other books.


Several things intrigued me about her. There weren’t many female doctors in China, let alone the rest of the world, at that time. She was an elite woman, highly educated, married, with children. In the introduction to her book, she writes very humbly to deflect criticism that what she was doing defied Confucian values about women. In this way I suppose we could call her a quiet feminist.


But what’s most extraordinary to me is just the fact that she got her book published and that it remains in print. How many books spring to mind that were written before 1511 and have remained in print for over five centuries? The Bible, the Iliad and the Odyssey, some Greek tragedies and comedies, Beowulf, and, in China, the I Ching and a few others. And all of those were written by men.


We can add to the list The Tales of Genji and Physica, both of which were written by women, but these are rarities in the history of world literature.


Q: What do you think the novel says about the role of women in Chinese medicine, particularly during the period you write about?


A: During the Ming dynasty and until relatively recently in China, male physicians were not allowed to see, question, or touch their female patients. The doctor sat outside the room or perhaps behind a screen, while a woman’s father or husband acted as a go-between. He’d be sent in to ask the most embarrassing and intimate questions, and the woman was supposed to reveal the answers.


Imagine that for a moment. Even today, how comfortable would most women and girls feel about their husbands or fathers being the intermediary with a gynecologist or obstetrician? I’m not talking about the “we’re-having-a-baby” types of conversations. Rather, the most intimate details about reproductive health.


If a woman was in dire straits, a doctor might be allowed to take her pulse, if her wrist was wrapped in cloth and she was still hidden behind a curtain. Not very effective!


As a woman, Tan Yunxian could be in the room with her patients. She could look at her patient’s complexion and her skin (if she was pale or flushed; if she had a rash, tumor, boils, etc.). She could take a woman’s pulse with no barrier between her fingertips and the patient’s wrist. (In Chinese medicine, there are 28 distinct pulses, which are key to diagnosis.)


Most importantly, she could ask questions—woman to woman. She had sympathy and empathy because she herself shared the societal, familial, and emotional realities of being a daughter, wife, and mother, as well as the physiological and biological experiences of being a woman—menstruation, pregnancy, giving birth, nursing, and menopause.


But—and this is a big but—doctors, whether male or female, were forbidden to come in contact with blood. They thought about Blood, with a capital B. This had nothing to do with the blood that comes out of us when we get a cut. In Chinese medicine, this was, and still is, more philosophical.


Physical blood was seen as dirty and polluted, which helps to explain why midwives were a necessity. Someone had to deliver babies, which is a bloody business, after all. Since midwives were already considered polluted, they also assisted coroners when they performed autopsies.


Drum roll for the entrance of the character of Meiling—a midwife in training, who, despite all odds, becomes friends with Yunxian.


Q: Can you describe the terminology you use in the novel--such as “child palace” for the uterus?


A: I used the classic Chinese terms wherever I could. Child palace is still used in China today. I find it to be a beautiful and evocative description.


Q: What did you see as the right balance between history and fiction as you wrote the novel?


A: Not that much is known about Tan Yunxian’s life. There’s the forward she wrote to her book. There are also the prefaces and postscripts written by men—some of whom were her relatives—that also give details of her life.


Some of what she wrote sounds fantastical. The incident that immediately springs to my mind is when it was believed she was dying. Everything had been done to help her get well, but she kept getting sicker and sicker. Her husband and mother-in-law even began planning her funeral—right next to her bed!

Tan Yunxian wrote about a ghostly visit from her grandmother, who told her what remedy to make, said that Yunxian would never suffer from illness again, and prophesied that she would live to be 68 years old. It turns out ghosts don’t know everything, because Tan Yunxian lived to age 96.


Still, there weren’t that many details about her life or a full roadmap for me to follow, so I did other kinds of research and used other real-life stories from the Ming dynasty.


For example, the stories of the midwife writing “go home” on the foot of a baby who was coming out feet first as well as the story of the midwife who miscarried in front of the empress both happened to other real women in the same time period. Oh, and the worm! That was a real story too.


I was also interested in exploring different aspects of yin and yang—dark and light, female and male, death and life, earthly and heavenly.


As you know, Tan Yunxian’s grandfather became a doctor after years of working for the Board of Punishments. One job is responsible for inflicting pain, torture, even death. The other is about healing and prolonging life. This contradiction that he faced in his own life seemed to me to be the very essence of yin and yang—and it’s one that Tan Yunxian also struggled with.


During my research, I discovered that China was the first country in the world to develop the field of forensics. The Washing Away of Wrongs, published in 1247, was the first book on forensics and was used in China well into the 20th century.


I was able to use a lot of that material—and more real cases—so that Meiling, as a coroner’s assistant, and Yunxian, as a doctor, could explore the darkest aspects of yin—death by violence.


This is my long-winded way of saying that striking the right balance between fact and fiction is probably what I think about the most. In this instance, I used all the real details about Tan Yunxian’s life that I could find and then filled out the empty spaces with the real details of lives and experiences that happened to other real women in the Ming dynasty.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: The next novel has as its historic backdrop the 1871 Los Angeles Chinatown massacre, when 18 Chinese men and boys were shot, stabbed, and hung. The incident is considered to be one of the largest mass lynchings in the history of our country.


Most people don’t know this, but Los Angeles was the wildest of the Wild West towns—worse than Deadwood, Dodge City, or Laramie. The city was tiny then—just 5,000 people. Of those, 190 of them were Chinese, and of those, 34 were Chinese women. These women were true pioneers, and their lives were incredibly hard.


I’m telling the story from the eyes of three women. Yut Ho was the very young wife of an older but very wealthy merchant. Her kidnapping is what sparked the violence that triggered the massacre. I think of her as the Helen of Troy of the story.


Tong Yue was the wife of a Chinese doctor who was well respected in the community and had mostly white patients. He was the second person to be killed. In the aftermath of the massacre, Tong Yue became the first Chinese woman to file a lawsuit in the city.


The last woman is a composite of two women, both of whom were kidnapped from their homes in China, taken across the Pacific to Los Angeles, and then sold and traded as prostitutes. They then spent years trying to escape their indentured servitude.


This is yet another story of women’s courage, endurance, and persistence in the direst of circumstances. It’s about how women—then and now—find friends who lift us up and support us. Last, it’s another story to show that women haven’t just sat on the sidelines of history. They were participants in it. They were there every step of the way, and we stand on their shoulders today.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Maybe I should talk for a moment about the “circle of women” in the title. I’m not giving anything away when I reveal that at the beginning of the novel Tan Yunxian’s mother dies and her father departs for the capitol to complete his studies for the imperial exams. Yunxian, who’s only 8 years old, is sent to live with her grandparents. I think it’s fair to say she feels orphaned and alone.


These feelings are exacerbated when she turns 15 and goes to her husband’s home in an arranged marriage, where she spends her days in the women’s chambers with her mother-in-law, other wives, concubines, and servants, who aren’t exactly warm or welcoming.


But over time, a circle of women come to surround and support Yunxian. Isn’t that what happens to us in life? We find other women—or they find us—who encourage and support us, who make us laugh and embrace us when we weep. The members of the circle may change over time, but they help us endure and persist in the most challenging circumstances.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Lisa See.

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Top 10 Posts of 2023: #6

Counting down the top 10 most-viewed posts of the's #6, a Q&A with Susan Reinhardt first posted on March 7, 2023.

Q&A with Susan Reinhardt



Susan Reinhardt is the author of the new novel The Beautiful Misfits. Her other books include the novel Chimes from a Cracked Southern Belle. She lives near Asheville, North Carolina.


Q: In the book’s acknowledgments, you mention your son as one inspiration behind The Beautiful Misfits--can you say more about that?


A: My son, Niles Reinhardt, is now 30, but for nearly half of his life, he battled addiction, mainly alcohol. His brave and at times devastating journey inspired me to dedicate The Beautiful Misfits to him. He helped me with research and introduced me to other addicts who opened up and told me their stories. Some recovered. Others didn’t. Sadly, street drugs today are laced with deadly fentanyl, and many don’t survive even one bad hit.


My son entered a few treatment centers, and finally, got clean. He credits much of his recovery to therapy, medication, and CBD products. I’m so proud of him. A couple of years ago, he opened his own business, CBD and More Company in Fletcher, North Carolina.


Q: How did you create your character Josie Nickels?


A: Writers draw from what they know and their life experiences. I worked for nearly 30 years as a feature writer and syndicated columnist for a major newspaper chain. When I was let go during company-wide lay-offs, the kind that toss older employees out to pasture, I was still writing books but needed a part-time job. And I wanted it to be a fun job.


I was hired by Lancôme, the French luxury cosmetics company, and worked for five years as a beauty advisor and regional makeup artist for them. My only prior experience in the field had been makeovers I did for the girls in my dorm. They paid me in pizza and cheap beer. I knew with all the layers of humor and drama at the mall makeup counters, I had to feature this as a setting in a novel.

Josie, the main character in The Beautiful Misfits, is a former Emmy-winning TV anchorwoman who falls from grace during an on-air meltdown and ends up as a beauty advisor for a luxe line in a mall.


Q: The author Robert Tate Miller said of the novel, “Susan is a wonderfully gifted storyteller who combines biting wit and laugh-out-loud humor with a beautifully moving writing style. She can turn tears of laughter into the other kind in a single paragraph.” What do you think of that description, and what do you see as the role of humor in the book?


A: I love Robert and we were in college together at the University of Georgia. He’s such an amazing writer and his movies are filled with hope and humor, but also don’t shy away from real-life issues.


When I read novels, I want them to contain humor, especially if the material is dark or heavy. When I write novels, I want my readers to experience every emotion. Dark and dreary isn’t my thing. Happy, satisfying endings are a must in what I write, and humor is a tool that gives readers a chance to release the pressure valve, have a laugh, and bond with the characters.


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


A: Great question. I rewrote this novel many times, even eliminating an entire secondary character at one point.


I knew the ending would be a great one. I work on endings as much as I do the opening chapters and the middle of the book. I hate when I’m reading a great book and it ends either on a downer note or so abruptly, I’m left thinking pages must be missing. With The Beautiful Misfits, I knew the ending early in the writing process so all I had to do was fine-tune the final chapter.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m doing one more edit on a novel I finished a year ago. It’s had so many titles, but the latest is Rebound for Rent. It’s my first romcom. I also have two other novels in various stages of editing and will shop them in the coming year. One of those is humorous women’s fiction and the other is romantic suspense.


Q: Anything else we should know?      


A: Just that I’m grateful to those who read my books and would love to connect on social media. I answer all messages. Readers and other writers are some of the most wonderful people I know. I am also available to Zoom or chat with book clubs and love giving away fun author swag for those who invite me to speak to their book clubs and events. Most of my swag is related to the beauty industry.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sunday, December 24, 2023

Top 10 Posts of 2023: #7

Counting down the top 10 most-viewed posts of's #7, a Q&A with Claudia Gray first posted on May 16, 2023.

Q&A with Claudia Gray


Photo by Stephanie Knapp

Claudia Gray is the author of the new novel The Late Mrs. Willoughby, a sequel to her novel The Murder of Mr. Wickham. Both books feature characters from the classic works of Jane Austen. Claudia Gray is the pseudonym of Amy Vincent. She lives in New Orleans.


Q: This is your second book featuring various Jane Austen characters involved in a murder mystery. Why did you choose Mrs. Willoughby as the victim this time?


A: After The Murder of Mr. Wickham, we'd already established that Marianne hoped for Juliet to visit her soon, to bolster their new friendship. So that already brought us to the world of Sense and Sensibility. Then it was a matter of asking which person might have the greatest number of people who might, plausibly, want them dead. Unfortunately for Mrs. Willoughby, her suspect list was too long to pass up. Also, her death frees Willoughby from matrimony, which is something very interesting for the newlywed Brandons to confront. 


Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Juliet Tilney and Jonathan Darcy, your detectives, and do you think it's changed at all from the first book to the second?


A: They have come to greatly trust each other, even to the point of being willing to--not necessarily break, but definitely nudge social conventions together in the pursuit of justice. Juliet and Jonathan also greatly enjoy each other's company, which in that time and place necessarily raises the question of whether or not the two of them are courting. So far they aren't...and I'd say neither one is precisely sure how they feel about that. The relationship definitely develops more in book two!


Q: The writer Anna Lee Huber said of the book, “Gray remains true to Austen’s style and intent for her beloved characters while still adding her own spin on them and their progeny—one that is both refreshing and absorbing.” What do you think of that description?


A: How could I not love that? It's precisely the way I hoped the book would feel, and may the rest of its readers feel the same. I'm having so much fun writing these, so it's wonderful to hear that they're fun to read, too. 


Q: Marianne Brandon plays a big role in both novels--what intrigues you about her?


A: She's certainly one of Austen's liveliest heroines. Beyond that, though, she may be the heroine who errs the most, but also the one who is wronged most hurtfully. (At least in the romantic sense.) We both want to see her learn from her own mistakes and watch her triumph over the pain inflicted upon her.


Finally, the romance between her and Colonel Brandon is more told than shown, in the end, though I have come to believe they are in truth very well suited to each other. So visiting her at the point where her marriage is new is intriguing to me. 


Q: You imply that this isn’t the last we'll see of Jonathan Darcy and Juliet Tilney--can you say anything about what’s next?


A: I can't give out too many details yet, but I can say that this is now a proper series--the Mr. Darcy and Miss Tilney Mysteries--and the next novel is in final edits now. It's one I think readers are going to absolutely love. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: You can always order signed copies of any of the Mr. Darcy and Miss Tilney Mysteries--and, in fact, of any of my published novels or graphic novels--from Octavia Books in New Orleans. And I hope to meet more readers out there on the road soon!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Claudia Gray.