Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Q&A with Shelley Noble




Shelley Noble is the author of the new novel Picture Perfect Autumn. Her many other novels include The Tiffany Girls. A former professor, professional dancer, and choreographer, she lives at the Jersey shore.


Q: What inspired you to write Picture Perfect Autumn, and how did you create your character Dani?


A: When I see something that strikes me as special, or interesting, I grab my phone and take a quick photo, but I don’t always capture what I wanted.


So, a year and a half ago, I finally splurged and bought myself a good camera. And immediately realized I had a lot to learn. It was pretty intimidating at first. I think I had naively been counting on the camera to take care of those missed timings, blurry images, etc. Fortunately, I have a few very patient photographer friends to help me out.


But what if…someone’s livelihood depended on success. Someone who wasn’t satisfied with what she was now as an artist or a person. And gradually Dani developed. Young, self-taught, and currently the darling of the New York art scene.


She knows it could all come crashing down in the blink of an eye; it’s a competitive business. She also knows something is missing in her photographs and she’s determined to find what that thing is, because she’ll never be satisfied until her camera catches what her heart sees.


Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Dani and Lawrence?


A: It’s hard to describe. I mean what do you get when a brassy, 20-something year old Brooklyn photographer meets a bitter, reclusive 80-year-old photographer who sees what she doesn’t—yet. I wasn’t sure how it would turn out, but I went for it.


At first, they’re both distrustful. She battering rams her way into his life; he’s elusive, wary of her intentions. He purposely ignores and misunderstands her—at first. Sometimes combative, sometimes mischievous, always challenging each other, they forge a long path to acceptance and inspiration.

Q: Can you say more about why you decided to focus on photography in this novel?


A: I always try to highlight something near and dear to my heart in each of my novels, while stressing the importance of community, be it family or friends or colleagues.


Last year’s Summer Island was about a young journalist who discovers how to keep local news alive in a world too often concerned only with big headlines and not the small things that make a difference.


Photography is about seeing what others don’t see. It catches in time what most of us are too busy to notice. And it speaks to that place which lies inside of us that sees the essence of things, the same thing that Dani was looking for in Picture Perfect Autumn.


Q: Was the beach house in the novel based on an actual house?


A: Not at all. I usually decide on the kind of beach house I want to use based on a place or two I’ve seen in person or in photos. For Picture Perfect Autumn, I cherry-picked all the “bad” things that could happen to a house as it aged and created a “Gothic horror beach house from hell.” All in good fun.


The porch is sagging, the paint has faded, the turrets seem to barely cling to the rest of the house. It’s a house to make you think twice about knocking on the door, even if you are from Brooklyn. But from that very inauspicious beginning this old house became a place of growth and safety and appreciation.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on a historical novel about Daisy Harriman and the building of the first women’s club in Manhattan, the Colony Club, a place of social functions as well as societal and political activities.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Along with my contemporary novels, I’ve also ventured into the area of historical fiction. My first, The Tiffany Girls, just came out in May. It tells the story of the women who created some of Louis Tiffany’s most iconic lamps and windows.


And I found that there are many more things we share in common with those women of the early 1900s, than the things that make us different. The two genres are a perfect complement to each other.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Shelley Noble.

Q&A with Maggie Giles




Maggie Giles is the author of the new novel Twisted. She also has written the novel The Things We Lost. She lives in Ontario.


Q: What inspired you to write Twisted, and how did you create your characters Ryan and Mel? 


A: The inspiration behind Twisted is a funny one. Several years ago, one of my very best girlfriends concocted this idea that I write a story about the alternate personalities of our three-person friend group. She was even the one who came up with the names, Jackie, Melanie, and Candy.


While she didn't give me the full idea, she helped shape the first three characters and I built their story from there. The drug, Solydexran, didn't come in until a later draft when I realized what was happening to my characters. It was super fun to write.


Ryan was also a later addition. I decided with the absolute chaos of the story, readers needed a narrator they could rely on. This brought to life the detective who gets presented with all the strange occurrences and he does his best to try and piece it all together. Ryan started as a sort of guide to the reader.


Q: Without giving anything away, did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way? 


A: I had some idea of how I wanted the original story to end, however once the pieces started to fall into place I realized it wasn’t totally plausible and I realized there was more to the story than just Twisted.


As such, when I first wrote Twisted’s ending, I was certain that this was the end for all my characters; that was until Blaine’s story came front and center in my mind and I realized it wasn’t finished.


So I went ahead with adjusting the ending and starting on the draft for Twisted’s follow up novel, Wicked.


Q: The writer Lyn Liao Butler said of the book, “Twisted is the perfect word to describe the way you'll feel as this thriller reaches that OMG moment when you finally figure out what's going on.” What do you think of that description, and how was the book's title chosen? 


A: Honestly, I think it’s perfect. When I finished writing Twisted, I had no idea what to title it. I struggled to really pinpoint what to call the piece after so much chaos had happened and there were often times that readers were trying to piece together the clues.


When I landed on Twisted it just worked. And once I got it in my head there was no going back!


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


A: I am constantly researching when writing a new novel. Sometimes it is just to make sure I have the landscape and geography correct but oftentimes, as I write thrillers and suspense, I spend a lot of time trying to understand and navigate the legal system. I have worked closely with Toronto Police Officers and RCMP officers to make sure the procedure I write about is correct and believable.


Another thing I focused on throughout this novel was prescription medication, how it is prescribed, and the processes that medication goes through to get approved. I was definitely intrigued to learn more about drug trials and the hoops they have to jump through.


Q: What are you working on now? 


A: I am currently working on a new suspense novel that follows a woman who is about to be sentenced to life in prison and the twin sister of one of her victims. It’s been a lot of fun to write, having these two opposing characters play off of one another.


I am also about to start working on our round of edits for Wicked, which comes out October 2024 and is the sequel to Twisted.


Q: Anything else we should know? 


A: A little fun fact about me, I have aphantasia. Aphantasia is the inability to visualize. Otherwise known as image-free imagination. People with aphantasia don’t create any images of familiar objects, people, or places in their mind’s eye, not for thoughts, memories, or pictures of the future. We lack this visual system completely. 


This means that I am often a very "bare-bones" writer. My strength is dialogue and plot. The description, the things that make you visualize, I always have to add that in later. Often I am looking at pictures or listening to sounds to make sure I get the description down right. I’d love to know if any readers get this sense while reading my books!


I also love hearing from readers. Check out my website at and feel free to send me a note! 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Rosemary Drisdelle




Rosemary Drisdelle is the author of the new young adult novel Follow the Shadows. It's the first in her Tales of Moerden series. She also has written the book Parasites. She lives in Bedford, Nova Scotia.


Q: What inspired you to write Follow the Shadows, and how did you create your character Marise?


A: This story is a blend of my favorite things (in no particular order): fantasy fiction, particularly when it involves dragons; infectious diseases, especially those involving parasites; magic that works, even if it’s understated; writing.


People who enjoy fantasy fiction have active imaginations, which is bound to lead to more fantasy fiction, and all of those life-ling interests inspired and guided Follow the Shadows.


To start with, I really knew only one thing about Marise: she was self-absorbed like many young teens. For her the consequences were extraordinary, and it was her responses to those events that gradually revealed her potential.


She changes and grows over the course of the book as she confronts her own responsibility and the dire realities of others. By the end of the book, I don’t think anyone would describe her as self-absorbed. In fact, she’s become pretty expert at holding others accountable for their own shortcomings.


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 knew in a general sense how it would end; I knew the major events, but I didn’t have the details of how things would unfold. Some of the smaller twists and turns along the way were big surprises!


Without giving too much away, one example was the hidden truth about waever vine. Once I figured it out, I wondered what took me so long.

Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Marise and your character Javeer?


A: Both Marise and Javeer find themselves in a perilous situation, and they both need a friend. At first, they’re both guarded, for good reason, with Javeer being the less reserved of the two.


Each is curious about the other, but it might have ended there if they had not been kept together by challenging circumstances. They gradually learn to trust and understand each other as they face a suite of dangers that neither could have foreseen. By the end they’re BFFs who will literally risk everything for each other.


Q: How did you come up with the world in which the story takes place?


A: I love nature, and I’ve traveled quite a bit, always spending as much time exploring wild places as possible. There’s no lack of inspiration in our own world.


The landscape of the Cliff Rhumba was inspired by the Red Sea Hills of Egypt, for example, and Tiderook is a bit like Devils Tower in Wyoming. The resemblance to these places is superficial, however - each location in Moerden is unique.


In terms of how it all fit together, it was a matter of looking ahead as my characters did, and seeing what was there, exploring and understanding it, and letting it influence events as wild things and wild places will do.


Q: This is the first in a series--can you tell us what’s next?


A: The story leaves a couple of fairly large questions unanswered, and Marise is definitely going to want answers, so a return to Moerden is inevitable. She just has to figure out a way. But, meanwhile, things have changed in Moerden and some new challenges have arisen. It won’t be the trouble-free reunion she’s dreaming of.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Readers have disagreed about whether Follow the Shadows is a middle grade or young adult novel. I’d always intended it to be young adult but I honestly don’t think it matters a lot. Fantasy fiction is ageless in a way, and I hope people of all ages find some good adventure in the book.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio




Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio is the author of the new book Diversity Dividend: The Transformational Power of Small Changes to Debias Your Company, Attract Diverse Talent, Manage Everyone Better--and Make More Money. She is an attorney and scholar affiliated with Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Law School.


Q: What inspired you to write Diversity Dividend, and how was the book's title chosen?


A: The inspiration behind writing Diversity Dividend was a convergence of my diverse background and experiences. As a lawyer with a strong affinity for mathematics, I realized the power of data and analytics in decision-making. Furthermore, my immersion in behavioral science shed light on human interactions and responses, vital in understanding organizational dynamics.


Being an immigrant and a woman, I had the privilege of viewing the world from various perspectives, culminating in a natural inclination towards diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).


The book's title, "Diversity Dividend," reflects the core premise that DEI isn't just a corrective measure for past wrongs, but rather a strategic pathway for optimizing both individuals and businesses.


It underscores the notion that embracing diversity yields tangible benefits, fostering connections between people's potential and an organization's success.


This title encapsulates the essence of how sound decision-making, grounded in data and behavioral insights, can drive positive outcomes while embracing the full spectrum of talent and perspectives within an organization.


Q: The scholar Scott L. Cummings said of the book, “Brilliantly combining powerful theoretical insights with compelling empirical data, this book not only proves the benefits of workplace diversity but reveals how organizations can take meaningful, concrete steps to achieve it.” What do you think of that description?


A: I greatly appreciate Scott L. Cummings' insightful assessment of Diversity Dividend. His recognition of the book's blend of rigorous theoretical insights and impactful empirical evidence resonates with the core intentions behind its creation.


My aim was to provide not only a conceptual foundation for understanding the advantages of workplace diversity but also to offer practical strategies that organizations can implement to foster inclusivity.


Cummings' description underscores the book's commitment to actionable steps, guiding businesses towards embracing diversity and reaping its rewards. It reinforces the idea that Diversity Dividend isn't just a theoretical exploration but a resource that empowers organizations to catalyze positive change.


Q: How do you think companies are doing in general today compared with, say, a generation ago? And are there any particular companies you think are performing especially well when it comes to their DEI plans?


A: In recent times, there has been significant progress in how companies approach diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), driven in part by data analytics and informed decision-making. Many organizations now value diverse workforces and inclusive environments, leveraging metrics to measure their efforts.


Though there's more work ahead, prominent companies like Salesforce, Microsoft, and Procter & Gamble have showcased exemplary DEI efforts through initiatives such as dedicated roles, transparency, talent programs, and inclusive campaigns.


While progress varies by industry and region, the evolving landscape underscores the importance of DEI for enduring success and innovation. It's encouraging to witness organizations embracing this shift and actively fostering inclusivity.


Q: What do you think the politics swirling around DEI mean for diversity efforts going forward?


A: The Supreme Court's decision to ban race-based admissions in universities highlights the complex political landscape surrounding DEI, potentially influencing diversity efforts in various sectors.


As organizations grapple with the implications, data-driven decision-making and a shift toward broader diversity dimensions will likely play key roles.


Balancing inclusivity and legal considerations requires a nuanced approach, emphasizing metrics to showcase the effectiveness of initiatives while considering dimensions beyond race.


Adapting to evolving political dynamics, organizations can navigate these challenges strategically, maintaining their commitment to DEI through evidence-based practices.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on my new book that delves into the convergence of the World Wide Web 3, AI, and inclusivity.


I am also deeply engaged in collaborative efforts with companies and government bodies to implement effective and impactful solutions that resonate with the rapidly evolving landscape of technology, diversity, and inclusion.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Don't hesitate to reach out if you're interested in delving deeper into these topics. I'd be happy to share more insights. Additionally, I highly recommend keeping an eye out for Right Kind of Wrong by Amy C. Edmondson. It's shaping up to be an excellent book that's worth looking forward to.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 20




Sept. 20, 1878: Upton Sinclair born.

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Q&A with Tiya Miles




Tiya Miles is the author of the new book Wild Girls: How the Outdoors Shaped the Women Who Challenged a Nation. Her other books include All That She Carried. She is the Michael Garvey Professor of History at Harvard University.


Q: What do you see as the relationship between your experiences with the ECO Girls group you founded in the 2010s and your decision to write this new book?


A: Over a decade ago, I had the idea to develop an environmental education program for girls after attending an environmental justice conference that included a “toxic tour” of Detroit.


I had hoped to contribute one small thing to the community effort to address environmental wrongs and invisibilities in the place where I lived. (For 16 years I taught on the faculty of the University of Michigan and lived in Ann Arbor. During that time, I researched and wrote a book on Detroit history and had the privilege of learning from Detroit researchers from many different fields.)


So back then, I was an educator and the mother of elementary-school-aged twin girls; a pedagogical project focused on that group was natural and personally meaningful.


Over several years, I co-developed and co-ran (with college and graduate students and university and community staff and volunteers) a fun weekend and summer camp program that took girls outside all around southeastern and northern Michigan and encouraged them to embrace the overlapping spaces of nature, culture, place, identity, and purpose. Our activities, along with our philosophies and approaches, are preserved on a colorful website


Fast forward to a few years ago when Alane Mason at W. W. Norton asked if I would be interested in writing a short book inspired by the website for ECO Girls. My answer was an enthusiastic yes; I wanted to write in a way that captured the positive spirit of that project and imagined the former students in that program as my readers.


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


A: I researched the book in a number of ways. One key avenue was delving into the featured women’s childhoods to the extent possible. This often meant turning to their memoirs and recollections and to observations made about them by family members and associates.


I had read many of these women’s memoirs (like Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Mamie Garvin Fields’s Lemon Swamp) and novels (like Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women) before, and I recalled flashes of environmental description in this material; however, I was surprised to discover just how prominent nature was in their writings when I reread these texts for Wild Girls.


The theme I had chosen to focus on – girls outdoors, inspired by my work with the ECO Girls project -- was a much better fit than I had at first realized for framing a fresh interpretation of these women’s lives.


As I reread their writings for the book, I found certain moments, turns of phrase, and memories to be charming and even magical. The manuscript took on a quality of wonder due to these moments.


Another research method was visiting the historic sites that would appear in the study, something I find incredibly fruitful for all of my book projects.


Q: The writer Lauret Savoy said of the book, “Wild Girls invites readers on a crucial journey of insight and humanity, reminding us how each life--whether enslaved or dispossessed, marginalized or privileged--takes place on this Earth.” What do you think of that description?


A: Lauret Savoy is a beautiful nature writer. She has a knack for articulating the heart of any relationship between earth’s systems and features and our human lives. Her take on Wild Girls in this quotation is poetic and apropos. It is indeed a book about how place shapes experience, and indeed, makes lives possible.

Q: How did you choose the women you write about in the book?


A: I wrote about women who have been on my mind for years, and about whom I had a basic working knowledge before I started on Wild Girls. Many of the figures have appeared briefly in my previous essays or journal articles or on my college classroom syllabi.


Harriet Tubman inspired the thrust of the book – tracing the lives of girls with rich outdoor experiences who became active and influential in their time. For at least 15 years I have wanted to write about Tubman’s relationship with the natural world.


Once I had Tubman clearly in mind as a central figure and had drafted a chapter focused on her, I had a clear sense of the direction and argument for the other chapters. To a large extent, I was able to turn to my personal archive and reread notes and original materials that I had collected.


For instance, I have been assigning Harriet Jacobs’s narrative since I first started teaching. I had files of lecture notes on her. I had also kept notes about water, trees, and other natural elements in Jacobs’s memoir because enslaved people’s observations about nature have long been a side interest of mine.


Laura Smith Haviland, the Michigan abolitionist, is someone I researched for an (award-winning) academic article and a public history webpage around 10 years ago. I had plenty of material on her and a heavily annotated personal copy of her autobiography, A Woman’s Life-Work, Labours, and Experiences.


I used to teach about Anna Julia Cooper in a course on representations of African American women, and about Grace Lee Boggs in a class on Women of Color in the US.  


I taught about Pocahontas, Sacagawea, Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, and the Fort Shaw basketball team in a class on Native American women.


I suppose this was a book just waiting to be written. “Save Everything!” is one of my research and writing mottos, and it came in handy here. In Wild Girls, you are getting a peek behind the scenes of my courses.


The one person I would never have expected to write about was Louisa May Alcott. I remember reading Little Women and visiting Orchard House when I was a teenager, but I had never studied Alcott’s work until the pandemic.


On one of those days when the world was shut down and my family needed an escape from the confines of our house, I had the idea to take a quick day trip to Concord, Mass. We walked the grounds of Orchard House, looked at the tags for plantings in the early-spring garden, and peered through the windows. That trip planted the seed, I am sure, for Alcott’s inclusion in the book.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on a biography of Harriet Tubman told through an eco-spiritual lens. If all goes well, this book will be out in 2024 (with Penguin Random House).


Readers who find the appearances of Tubman in Wild Girls intriguing will likely enjoy the forthcoming book, which will also trace shadow as well as light in Tubman’s life journey but in greater detail than was possible in Wild Girls.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Yes! I am excited to share that in June of this year, Random House released an updated and revised version of my novel, The Cherokee Rose.


The dual time period book, set in 2008 and the early 1800s, shares themes with Wild Girls (gardens, summer camp, historic sites, and female characters finding themselves and each other outside) and is based on research for my previous histories on Black experience and slavery in the Cherokee Nation.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Tiya Miles.

Q&A with Daniel Dain




Daniel Dain is the author of the new book A History of Boston. He is a lawyer in Boston, and he lives in Needham, Massachusetts.


Q: What inspired you to write this history of Boston, and how did you conduct your research for the book?


A: I did not actually start out with a plan to write a book to be published. Initially, I just wanted to learn more about the history of my city.


Two things were going on in my head when I started my research in 2017. First, as a real estate development attorney, when my clients make decisions to build new buildings in the city, they are essentially making a bet that this period we are in where people want to live, work, play, shop, study, and visit Boston will continue into the future.


But I am old enough to remember that before Boston boomed going back to the 1990s, the city was a basket case. In 1950, the population of the city was over 800,000, but in the next three decades, the city lost close to 300,000 people. By the 1980s, the Brookings Institute was calling Boston the most blighted big city in America.


So I wanted to learn more about these urban cycles of boom and bust and try to understand what are those policies and practices that have correlated with city success and failure.


Second, as someone who loves to give people from out of town tours of Boston, I felt I needed to know the city's history better. So I approached this project as if I were a tourist wanting to learn about Boston's history.


I then spent the next four years reading every book I could find on Boston's history, visiting historic houses and museums, taking Boston tours, and taking notes on everything that I learned.


As I typed up my notes during this process, a book started to emerge such that at a certain point I thought it was actually pretty good and I should think about getting it published. 


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


A: Well, the most complicated aspect of Boston's history has been in the field of race relations. Massachusetts was the first state to outlaw slavery, it was the home of the nation's first civil rights movement resulting in Boston becoming the first desegregated American city going all the way back to the 1840s, and it was the home of the abolition movement.


Boston was the home of civil rights pioneer William Monroe Trotter, and the first branch of the NAACP. And Martin Luther King met Coretta Scott in Boston.


Yet Boston was also the home of what was called reverse redlining that intentionally created the Black ghetto of Boston and of the trauma of school bussing in the 1970s. It is fascinating that all these things happened in the same city. 


Q: What do you think Peter Vanderwarker’s photography adds to the book?


A: Peter Vanderwarker is one of the best urban photographers in the country. His contemporary photographs make the book. They are magnificent. 


Q: Boston Globe columnist Shirley Leung said of the book, “Dain offers up a compendium that spans both old and new Boston, reminding us how urban centers with staying power are hardly static. They rise and they fall, and whether they rise again depends on their ability to adapt to changing times.” What do you think of that assessment, and what do you see looking ahead for Boston?


A: Shirley may be the most influential journalist in Boston today and I am so flattered by her positive assessment of my book.


A History of Boston provides a general history of the city, from its geologic formation, through the arrival of first peoples and later the Puritans in 1630, through the American Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and the abolition movement, up to decline in the 20th century and flight from the city, and then a Renaissance in the last three decades, and covers everything from the history of Boston sports, music, and film, to the immigrant experience, and the rise and fall of different industries.


Yet Shirley's review captures what ties the book together. I focus on the importance to urban success of embracing principles of good urbanism, which I describe as the three Ds -- density, diversity, and good urban design. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: My day job! I am the president and founder of a 27-lawyer boutique law firm in Boston representing commercial real estate owners and developers. So I have a full-time job as a lawyer and also run the business side of my law firm.


I also serve on seven different corporate and nonprofit boards, run a restaurant investment fund, and find time to make all my kids' sports events (I have two kids in high school).


Yet I have loved every minute of working on A History of Boston and have been enjoying promoting the book now that it is coming out on Sept. 19. I could talk for hours with people about Boston history. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: A book on the history of a single city, here Boston, might seem to be of narrow interest to people who live in or visit that city, but my book, as a study on what makes cities successful, should be of interest to anyone who cares about the present urban challenges facing American cities today, from housing affordability, to transportation troubles, to embracing DEI, and the risks cities face from climate change, pandemics, and remote work. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Thomas Reed


Photo by Dorothy Reed



Thomas Reed is the author of the new novel Pocketful of Poseys. He also has written the novel Seeking Hyde. He taught literature, film, and writing at Dickinson College for 30 years, and he lives in Florida and New Hampshire.


Q: What inspired you to write Pocketful of Poseys, and how did you create your cast of characters?


A: Cinny Posey, the matriarch of the Posey family who decides to stop eating and drinking after she’s diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, is partially but lovingly based on my mother-in-law, Claudia Stuart Grant.


Like Claudia, Cinny makes that very difficult life decision, shows great courage in carrying it out, and is determined to have her family “take a little trip together when this is all over.”


Very unlike Claudia, though, Cinny has an irrepressible yen to be naughty—even outrageous. (When my wife Dottie was reading my first draft, she more than once dropped the manuscript onto her lap and said, “You had Mom say that? You’re kidding!”)


Once Claudia had commenced her cosmic journey and we had enjoyed our more earthly one (to Aruba, with Dottie’s two brothers and our families), I kept thinking that there was a rich and moving story there to be told.


Years later, when my own mother was ailing, Dottie and I were enjoying a pre-dinner drink with the couple who were looking after her. Somehow the conversation turned to children traveling around the globe to sprinkle their parents’ ashes in places the parents had loved. As I sometimes do, I imagined a very silly vignette, one in which a son has to deposit the “cremains” in a challengingly public spot.


I mentioned the Steve McQueen movie The Great Escape, and the way the Allied POWs managed to dispose of the dirt from their under-barracks escape tunnel by hiding it in their pants pockets and then letting it drop down their trouser legs once they’re outside.


John, the caregiver, laughed. “If the son had any trouble getting the ashes down his leg,” he said, “and if, say, some tourist noticed him shaking his foot all frustrated like and asked if he was okay, the guy could look up, smile, and say he was just trying to get his mother-in-law out of his pants!”


That nailed for me the tone of the story waiting there to be written. It also clearly suggested a title, what with the pockets full of Cinny and Frank Posey! Within a year or so, I was at it.


As for developing my characters, I was going for a complex extended family, entangled in a web of strains and misunderstandings that could then be resolved (mostly) over the course of their journeys.


I wanted matriarch Cinny to be a no-holds-barred charter member of Woodstock Nation, a kind of cross between Joni Mitchell and Janis Joplin. Her husband Frank had to be cool with her countercultural enthusiasms but different enough that there would be enough friction between them to affect Grace and Brian in one way or another.


Grace and Brian, of course, had to be at loggerheads much of the time to give the story its central conflict. I thought that making them twins whose spats might have begun in utero was a fun way to set that up.


Brian’s bisexuality not only figures in a longstanding grievance between him and Grace (in ways I don’t want to spell out here for fear of spoiling the plot) but also complicates his relationship with his wife, Ella—and more seriously with her rebellious but also very protective daughter Sage (who, by the way, became more and more like a reincarnation of Cinny the more I wrote.)


Sage worries throughout the book that her mother will be taken advantage of by Brian the same way she was by Sage’s rapscallion father.


Grace had always aimed to follow in her father’s footsteps as a literature professor, but when she got pregnant with Chelsea, all that had to go on hold.


That intractable fact drives her central conflict with her husband Jack, who she had married in the first place only after she was thrown over by her far more intellectual (than Jack!) boyfriend at Yale: so there are two substantial reasons for life disappointment there.


Finally, Grace and Jack’s daughter Chelsea is a helpful conversational foil for Grace but is also a source of motherly anxiety, since Chelsea has just moved in with a widowed father of two who is substantially older than she is. Chelsea’s dual role as Grace’s concern but also her consoler captures what I think is the vision of symbiotic human relations the book presents.

Q: The writer Robert Olmstead called the book “Witty, dark, picaresque, and joyously contrarian.” What do you think of that description?


A: I’m delighted by it! When I first decided that Pocketful of Poseys would be about funereal arrangements in what I hoped would be an honest, occasionally humorous, deeply human way, the model in the back of my head was probably Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One.


My story ended up being worlds less satiric than Waugh’s, but “witty” and “dark” were very much what I was going for. “Picaresque” always reminds me a bit of Don Quixote but also of scores of wonderful American narratives about the revelations that come with life on the road.


I don’t know that Olmstead was thinking about Huckleberry Finn or The Grapes of Wrath or The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test or The Lincoln Highway, but, for all of its transglobal scope, I think my book could just as well have been about a extended pioneer family moving west in a wagon train.


And “joyously contrarian”? That is both Cinny and Sage to a T! Cinny is the one who sets the whole story in motion, and her letters read at each location keep her marvelous irreverence front and center throughout.


And Sage’s wry teenage skepticism is finally a kind of acid bath from which all the other characters emerge cleansed of the accumulated grunge of life’s trials—all, in the end, as close as they can probably come to being “joyous.”


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 knew the trip and Cinny’s instructive confessions would bring everyone together in the end, but I couldn’t have predicted how central Sage’s role would turn out to be. Originally, she was going to be some kind of latter-day Valley girl—sarcastic, to be sure, but a little boy-crazy and more than a little self-centered.


I’d actually thought of Grace and Jack having a teenage son who would go along on the trip, someone for Sage to get caught up with in typical teen hi-jinx. Very early on, though, she copped an attitude towards Jack and his manly materialism, and that led to Sage’s in-the-bone-marrow feminism and her crusade against the sexual exploitation of young women.


One of the by-products of that attitude towards Jack was Sage becoming far more protective of her mother than I’d originally conceived of her as being. I’d initially thought of her as a thorn in Ella’s side, but she became remarkably tender and solicitous—and, in the process, far more interesting to me.


Her growing appreciation of Jack and, finally, his becoming for her the kind of father she never had was one of the happiest and warmest surprises in writing the book.


It’s funny, but the character of the Stevensons’ French maid in Seeking Hyde took the reins in her hands, too, and became a much richer character than I’d thought she’d be. I seem to write books where younger female characters just step up and take control. I honestly love it.


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


A: Wow! That’s a curiously intimidating question. I suppose what I hope, most of all, is that Cinny’s courage in making tough decisions and, even more, in insisting that honesty can be both an act and a stimulant of love will come as a useful example to some of my younger readers—and re-energize others who probably already know these things but sometimes forget.


We live in a time when people are making as many mistakes as they ever have, but they’re increasingly unwilling to admit it. On the flip side, so many people have so much to offer the world but are crippled by revelations of their slightly checkered pasts.


I hope Pocketful makes a moving, even convincing, case that we should be both forthright and forgiving. Be honest, be realistic, be willing to laugh, and then get on with it.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I recently finished a prose translation of the 14th-century English chivalric romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and I’m looking for an illustrator who’s clever at medieval imaginings. If you or your readers have any suggested candidates, please let me know.


Beyond that, a couple of other projects lurk in the hopper. One would be the expansion into a novella of a short story I published years back that I’d best describe as a “rock-climbing ghost story” (maybe a bit of a generic oddity.)


The other would be a novel about a retired man walking one of the world’s long hiking trails as a kind of life retrospective. I’ll leave it at that, because I don’t know how quickly I’d get to it. I don’t want anyone else breaking camp early and getting a head start on me!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Maybe just that when people sometimes ask me how it is that I come up with ideas for writing and how I get stories started, I tell them that it’s more like playing, back when I was a kid, than anything else. You just tip your head back a little, put your eyes into soft focus, and pretend—at a computer. Honestly.


Except, perhaps, instead of frolicking with playmates in the real world around you, you invent a few in your mind and then listen to how it is they like to have fun.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Thomas Reed.