Saturday, April 1, 2023

Q&A with Lauren Thoman




Lauren Thoman is the author of the new novel I'll Stop the World. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Parade and Vulture, and she lives outside of Nashville, Tennessee.


Q: What inspired you to write I'll Stop the World, and how did you create your characters Justin and Rose?

A: The idea for I'll Stop the World came to me when I realized that most of the time travel stories I loved involved the main character either knowing exactly why they were traveling through time, or what they had to do while they were there, or both.


I started wondering what a time travel story might look like where the protagonist had no idea what the answer was to either of those questions. What would happen if a character just spontaneously traveled through time, and had no idea how or why? How would they go about dealing with that scenario, and what would they do to try to get back?


Probably the premise that comes closest is Groundhog Day, but I wanted to take my character in a different direction, one where they'd truly never know what was coming next, even though they're from the future. 


From there, it became a matter of what sort of character would be interesting to watch deal with this impossible scenario? I knew immediately I didn't want it to be someone who studies quantum physics for fun, or is a giant sci-fi nerd, or is used to really applying themselves to solve complex problems. That all felt a little too convenient.


I wanted my protagonist to initially feel like they had absolutely zero advantages in this situation, because I thought it would feel more satisfying to see them rise to the challenge. Of course, Justin does have a few advantages--he's a reasonably attractive, able-bodied, cis-gendered white boy, after all, even if he's also neuro-divergent and totally outside of his proper timeline--but he can't see them because all he's aware of is how heavily the odds are stacked against him.


But it's something I wanted the reader to be aware of in subtle ways through the other characters; characters like Noah or Lisa or Rose would have a number of additional challenges to deal with if they found themselves in Justin's position. 


That’s kind of where Rose came from. I realized relatively early in the writing process that this wasn't actually a single-protagonist story, and would actually need two protagonists in order to work. I needed an '80s foil for Justin, someone who would push him in all the ways he's not used to being pushed, while also going through her own growth arc. So she kind of originally came about as the anti-Justin, a character whose life experience was totally different than his, yet would see him in a way few others ever had.


On the surface, of course, Rose immediately looks very different from Justin; she's a biracial Chinese girl, raised by her dad while Justin is raised by his mom, and has a stable and supportive family whereas Justin has always been on his own. She has a solid friend group, good grades, and a bright future, all things Justin has never had. 


But on a deeper level, Rose has this certainty to her that Justin doesn't understand. And I liked that dynamic, of these two characters who are coming from diametrically opposed existential places, both tossed into this situation that resists both certainty and uncertainty.


Rose can't get the definitive answers she wants. But Justin also can't just coast through it the way he always has. I really enjoyed pushing each of them outside their comfort zones, philosophically speaking--which ultimately pushed them toward each other, somewhere in the middle. 

Q: The author David Arnold said of the book, “Thoman's sweeping debut defies categorization. A multigenerational mystery, a compulsively readable love story, an intricately woven sci-fi--whatever it is, I'll Stop the World is the mind-bendy time-travel '80s romp we all need right now.” What do you think of this description, and do you think the novel defies categorization?

A: I adore this description. I've always been a sucker for time travel stories, but I didn't want to write a story that felt just like Back to the Future or The Time Traveler's Wife or All Our Wrong Todays or any of my other genre favorites, because those have already been done so well.


Plus, none of those stories feel like each other in the first place; they barely have anything in common other than the time travel element. When you think about it, time travel is a pretty malleable genre. It can look like just about anything, which gave me a really big sandbox to play in.

So I just tried to approach this story in a way that felt specific to me and my interests, without worrying too much about trying to fit into any sort of pre-existing mold, because I'm not sure one even really exists. I just wrote something that I found interesting, and hoped others would too.

Of course, if you forensically analyze I'll Stop the World, you'll find traces of all sorts of other genres and stories woven through its fabric because I've taken inspiration from everywhere, from Interstellar to Stephen King to Riverdale. Not just time travel stories, but any story that snagged my imagination, since again, time travel can overlap with anything.


And I tried to sort of Frankenstein the bits I loved and found intriguing from all those different sources into a cohesive whole, one that isn't really beholden to any one thing, but is partially shaped by all of them.


So getting back to David's description, I love that he doesn't feel like I'll Stop the World slots neatly into any given category, because maybe that means I achieved my goal. And I hope that maybe someone else will see that description and think, "wow, that book sounds like a delicious and unexpected cornucopia of things I like," because that's definitely what it is for me. 

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

A: Not before I started writing it, but I knew the broad strokes of the ending very early in the process.


I wrote the first few chapters -- which originally were all from Justin's point-of-view, and also had him traveling to a totally different time period -- then I wrote the last chapter, which is the denouement, then I gradually filled in the middle. The first chapters changed quite a bit, but the last one is still very similar to how it began.


I also had a really solid idea of the climax very early in the process, once I finally landed on 1985 as the right time period for Justin to travel to. I didn't have every answer for how or why the events came to pass exactly as they did, but I knew what generally had to happen, and in what order, and where each character had to be in order for those things to take place.

However, I still made a ton of changes along the way. I knew the “what” and “when,” but I was very fuzzy on the “how” and “why.” As I figured out what brought each character to their final position in the story, that impacted a lot of how those last few chapters unfolded.


It turns out that the middle of a mystery is a lot harder to plot and write than the ending, and every time I tweaked the middle, it rippled out into the ending. So I both knew the ending very early on, and was also making changes to it right up until the book was finalized. 


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

A: I am notoriously terrible at titles. I would rather write an entire book than title one, and for years this was just "The Time Travel Book," because I couldn't think of anything else to call it.


It didn't get its title until I was nearly finished polishing it and getting ready to send it to my agent. I knew she wasn't going to send it out on submission without at least a somewhat decent title, and I still had zero ideas.


I saw a tweet from an author whose book title was taken from a song lyric, which seemed like a neat idea, so I started looking at lists of songs that would've played on the radio in 1985, just to see if any jumped out at me as thematically appropriate for the book. When I came across Modern English's "I Melt With You," that felt like there might be something there.

I read through the lyrics, and then started looking into the meaning behind the lyrics, and was just like, yes, this is perfect. It seems like this peppy love song, but actually the lyrics are pretty dark, and I liked the two contrasting interpretations because it felt like that perfectly encapsulated Justin and Rose's contrasting worldviews.


And really, what they're trying to do--change the past, rewrite the future--is in a way sort of like stopping the world. Actually, in the 1978 Superman, that's even how the time travel works, through Superman stopping the rotation of the Earth and reversing it.


So in addition to just being a good thematic fit for the book that also immediately evoked the '80s setting, it was also a subtle little nod to time travel.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm in that blissfully/terrifyingly free period between being completely finished with edits for I'll Stop the World and publication, and it was just a one-book deal, so right now I'm completely untethered creatively, which is both awesome and deeply intimidating.


I've got a proposal with my agent for a book that I think works as a great companion to I'll Stop the World--another speculative ensemble mystery, although in this one the speculative element is superheroes instead of time travel. We'll see if that goes anywhere. I really hope it does; I'm a big fan of those characters. 

And then in the meantime, I'm working on my first horror novel, which is just a load of fun. It's still very me--an ensemble cast, multiple points of view, a mystery, a speculative element--but also very different than anything I've ever written before in that it's darker and scarier and written for an adult audience (although I was reading Stephen King at 14, and I know I'm not unique in that regard, so who knows who might pick it up?).


I'm calling it the Post-Apocalyptic Haunted House Book for now--or, considering how bad I am at coming up with titles, maybe forever. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I'll Stop the World was not the book that got me my agent, and it was not the first book we tried to sell together. Or the second. There were a number of years when I doubted that I would ever cross the finish line to publication (and I mean, as of the day I'm answering these interview questions, the book still hasn't been released yet, so you can bet I'm knocking on every bit of wood I can find).


In hindsight, I'm glad that this is the book I'm debuting with, and that it's happening at this point in my life, but if I traveled back a few years to tell my past self that, I'd have had a hard time believing it. 

I think, in a way, that's what a lot of my characters go through in I'll Stop the World. They know where they want to wind up, but can't see how they'll ever get there based on where they are, and a lot of the story is about what you do when there is no clear path from where you are to where you want to be. That's not necessarily what I was thinking about when I was writing it, but of course it worked its way in anyway. Subconsciouses can be tricky like that. 


I know that not everyone will like my book. That's totally fine; nothing is for everyone. But I hope that for some people, at least in a small way, it gives them the fuel they need to keep going, even if the ending is uncertain. To keep taking that next step even when the path is unclear.


This story and these characters saw me through a lot of really hard twists and bumps in my own road. If they could do that for someone else, now that the book is out in the world, that would be amazing.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Alisa Lynn Valdés




Alisa Lynn Valdés is the author of the new novel Hollow Beasts, the first in a new series. Her other books include the novel The Dirty Girls Social Club. Also a journalist, she lives in New Mexico.


Q: What inspired you to write Hollow Beasts, and how did you create your character Jodi Luna?


A: A few things inspired me to write Hollow Beasts. The idea first came to me several years ago when I befriended a game warden. I was surprised to learn that being a game warden was the No. 1 most dangerous job in law enforcement in the United States. As a former reporter, this fascinated me because so little police reporting addresses the unique dangers and challenges faced by conservation officers.


The reasons their job is so dangerous are that they work alone, in thousands of square miles of vast remote wilderness, often in places without cell or radio service, and they police poachers, who are entitled, armed people who don’t mind breaking the law. For a woman to be a game warden, the stakes are even higher, as most poachers are men.


My love for the outdoors inspired me as well. As an avid hiker, trail-runner, and camping enthusiast, I spend most of my free time outdoors in rural New Mexico. My early childhood was spent in a tiny adobe house in rural New Mexico, and in my mid-life, after many years away working in cities like Boston, New York and Los Angeles, it was the rugged beauty and unique culture of rural New Mexico that called my soul home again.


I had just moved back to New Mexico when my first novel was published nearly 20 years ago, and in Hollow Beasts and the Jodi Luna series generally, I am finally allowing myself to tell the story of my place, my people, in this unique and misunderstood corner of the nation, where my family has been for 11 generations.


During a long hike in the Cibola National Forest, the character of Jodi Luna came to me, in 2020. I was in a kind of mourning for the world, gazing out across the mountains at the gash of a cement mine, thinking about climate change and the great bird die-off.


I felt trapped in a world gone mad and said sort of a silent apology prayer to the wild things, for the damage wrought by my species. I wished we had a hero who could do something about the short-sighted narcissistic self-destructive drives of human beings, who foolishly see themselves as separate from everything else.


Jodi just landed, fully formed, in my being that day, almost as a gift from the universe. The hero I needed. It’s hard to explain. Sometimes writing feels a bit like channeling, like being a conduit for stories that want to be told.


Jodi is for sure one of those characters I feel was pulling on me to help her into existence. I felt Jodi’s spirit commanding me to create a new kind of Southwestern or Western hero. Sounds pretty grandiose when I say it out loud, but it didn’t feel like that. It felt like stumbling upon a wood sprite who wanted to tell me her story. And what a story it was. I fell in love.


She was a celebrated nature poet who, in her own mourning for the wild places and things, decided to walk away from academia in order to combat overconsumption and exploitation of nature on the front lines. She was, in a way, who I wanted to be. Maybe she is who I am deep down inside. If I were younger, I’d absolutely be a game warden now that my son is grown and I’m on my own. I’d risk it all, for mother earth.


Jodi wanted to be born because America needs a new kind of western hero. A more honest one. One who lives in harmony with the natural world, rather than as a rugged individual up against it. She was the voice of my ancestors in this place, calling me home, reminding me of all that we have forgotten as a species in the wake of colonization here.


As much as I love Walt Longmire, Joe Pike, and Costner’s Yellowstone, the prevailing western heroic narrative is still far too centered around stoic white men at war with nature and non-white people.


That narrative has always been pure fantasy. Their kind weren’t here in the Southwest first. My kind were. Books, films, and TV series about the American West are unfortunately still stuck in a fundamentally racist paradigm first set forth by noted white supremacist John Wayne, who wasn’t a cowboy, but a Hollywood actor.


The very word “cowboy” is rooted in the vaquero tradition of Spanish-Indigenous people. The words chaparral, rodeo, even barbecue, all have Spanish roots. And yet the “outdoorsman” world in the US has embraced and amplified the white-dude Wayneian mythos as “truth,” when it could not be further from it, especially here in New Mexico.


I’m sure this will all be misconstrued by those in power as some kind of reconquista, but that’s only because they’ve probably never spent time in the small towns in the mountains of Northern New Mexico, where Jodi’s world is simply reality. My reality.


I started thinking about how indigenous and Hispano communities in my state have traditionally approached the concepts of the outdoors, of land, of hunting, of fishing, of farming, of community, of the place humans hold in this vast and beautiful wilderness.


There is a reverence, among our people, for nature, a humility before the wild world, a communal approach that includes all the living things, that I find totally lacking in the way white male western heroes are painted in the American imagination.


This is where Jodi walked in. She is here to bring reality back to the conversations about the outdoors, about hunting, about morality, about nature, about balance, about compassion and empathy for the sentience of all living things.


I am not against hunting for food. I do so myself. I’m against bragging about your kills, posing with an animal you’ve shot, as it bleeds to death, grinning like a freaking serial killer. I believe that the entire “look at what a macho piece of crap I am” ethos is the last acceptable bastion of colonialism, treating the majesty and sacrifice of our fellow animals like a goddamned video game.


The United States culture is big on false binaries, where the only alternative people think exists to the trophy hunting a-hole is militant veganism. Through Jodi, I show that there’s another way to be - a moral, ethical hunter, who never takes more than she needs, who thanks the earth for its bounty, who honors the spirits of the animals she protects and, at times, within balance, within reason and against the horrors of factory farming, chooses to consume.


Not a sadistic omnivore, not a reluctant omnivore. A reverent omnivore who understands she, too, is part of an interdependent web of life.


Jodi Luna is, I feel, the rugged, solitary (but not individualistic) western hero we need, because she does not conform to the colonialist “man versus nature” view of the west that has gotten us to the point of no return with environmental degradation and climate change.


Jodi is the spirit of all the beautiful, fierce, wild, and ethical things we used to be in the Americas, before contact, before colonization and industrialization nearly ruined everything. She goes to war against all the forces I wish our society would go to war against, in defense of the defenseless, the voiceless, the meek. And she wins. 


She is my ferocious call, as a woman, as a mother, as a human being who mourns for what we’re doing to the earth and ourselves, for us to reconsider our ways, before it’s too late. And she does this in a Carhartt, Justins, and a Stetson. Badass.

Q: This is your first thriller--was it a different writing experience from your previous novels?


A: I am so excited to be writing thrillers now! I have long been a huge suspense fan. It is pretty much all I read.


Dean Koontz is by far my favorite writer and has been since I was in college. He is truly a genius, and so many synchronicities have happened to me while reading his work that I feel he is also powerfully connected to Source, to the magic that is the channeling of writing, so much so that his connectedness reaches through to his readers.


He’s a survivor, a social critic, funny, caring, loving, spiritual. All the things. And he still manages, in the end, to do all those things while also delivering beautifully written stories with magnificent plots and characters we root for. This is all what I strive to do, as well. I cannot tell you how much I happy danced when Hollow Beasts was bought by Thomas & Mercer, Koontz’s publisher. Absolutely dream come true stuff.


When I first landed in book publishing 20 years ago, as a writer of commercial women’s fiction (known then by the ugly nickname “chick lit”), I was 32 years old. I’d spent the prior eight years as a staff writer for The Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times.


Being a daily news reporter is a great training ground for any kind of writing, because it teaches you to listen, to observe, to research complex truths and then deliver them to readers in clear, engaging prose written quickly and without any attachment or preciousness.


I was married back then, an ambitious young professional who was making a life for herself in big cities. I wore heels and lipstick as I chased ambulances. So chick lit was a genre that felt important to me then, relevant to me then. It was who I was, at that time. I had lots to say there and am fortunate that St. Martin’s Press gave me the chance to say it, over several books in that genre.


But in the end, I felt I’d said what I’d needed to say there and was ready to move on to other things. I think of the time the great jazz saxophonist John Coltrane was performing live and someone yelled out, requesting he play “My Favorite Things,” and he responded with, “That’s not one of my favorite things anymore,” and did not play it.


As artists, we move. We grow. We change. To expect a woman of 53, who has weathered a painful divorce and raised a son on her own, who has returned to rural New Mexico after realizing the pointlessness of the rat race in big cities, to keep writing about young women making their way in the big city is a form of artistic suffocation.


I have something new to say now, and I believe the readers who have stuck by me all these years will also have grown and changed and desire something new.


From a craft standpoint, suspense involves a great deal more meticulous plotting than chick lit did. So that has been fun and challenging. Emotionally, there is a greater range in suspense, for me. The stakes are much, much higher than they were in the plots of any of my previous books. Life and death.


I also really, really love getting inside the heads of my villains. In suspense they can be absolutely horrible, and that’s sort of fun to write, as long as they get what’s coming to them in the end. And with Jodi, they do.


Transitioning to suspense feels like a natural and important progression for me, and I am deeply grateful to Thomas & Mercer, and specifically to my editor, Liz Pearsons, for giving me this chance to explore a new genre.


Q: The novel takes place in New Mexico—can you say more about how important setting is for you in your writing?


A: In Hollow Beasts, setting is everything for me. The land that Jodi has returned home to, in order to protect it, is nothing more and nothing less than the goddess of Mother Earth. Madre Tierra. This is the physical and cultural land that made her who she is, one of the last great wild places in the United States, a land and culture that are both under siege from capitalist development, climate change, overconsumption, and colonialist exploitation.


Rural northern New Mexico is a real place, but it’s also highly symbolic of all the important and good things that we’ve forgotten as a society, a microcosm for those of us who are trying mightily to stop our species from making our planet uninhabitable for ourselves and most other living things in the name of consumerism and materialism. The setting is beautiful, but fragile. Like our earth. Like us.


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


A: The title was chosen as a double entendre. The bad guys in the book are domestic terrorists, hiding out in the national forest, poaching wildlife, and, horrifically, kidnapping brown women, hunting them like animals as a sort of test of loyalty, to gain entry to the group.


They are camped out in a literal hollow, where beasts, namely Mexican gray wolves, are known to live, and the group leader is obsessed with killing these endangered animals. So, the hollow beasts are the wolves, as beasts, in the best sense, who live in the hollow. But it also refers to the terrorists themselves, as beasts in the worst sense of the word, and spiritually hollow, without empathy.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on three things at the moment. I’m finishing up edits on the Jodi Luna book two, called Blood Mountain.


I just finished writing my first stage musical (my undergraduate degree is in music, from Berklee College of Music in Boston) for Urban Theater, a Puerto Rican Theater in Chicago, and we are about to begin workshopping that. I wrote the libretto and the songs, both.


And I’m cobbling together a stand-alone suspense novel unrelated to the Jodi Luna series, set in Patagonia, which, after northern New Mexico, is my favorite place on earth.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Yes! I’m excited to announce actress and producer Gina Torres has reached out to say she wants to make Jodi Luna into a TV series. It is going to be so amazing to see a strong woman of color and a woman of middle age in that fierce western hero role, on the screen.


New Mexico has great film incentives and often stands in as other places - for instance, Longmire was shot entirely in New Mexico as a stand-in for Wyoming. It will be wonderful to finally see New Mexico proudly playing itself, with heroes who actually look like the people who live here.


Also, the National Hispanic Cultural Center has selected Hollow Beasts for its prestigious book club, for April 2023. All good things!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Alix Christie




Alix Christie is the author of the new novel The Shining Mountains, which was inspired by her own family history. She also has written the novel Guttenberg's Apprentice. Also a journalist and a letterpress printer, she lives in California.


Q: How much did you know about your family history before beginning to write The Shining Mountains, and how did you research the story?


A: I knew my ancestors had worked in the fur trade for the Hudson’s Bay Company but not much more than that.


My brother was the one who ran across Duncan McDonald’s newspaper articles and learned that Duncan’s father was our ancestor’s brother—and that he, like so many of the early European fur traders in North America, had married a Native woman, Catherine Baptiste.


My research really began with the family: I traveled to Montana to meet Angus and Catherine’s descendants. They welcomed me as a distant cousin and supported the project wholeheartedly.


Since I am not Native I consulted extensively with the tribes whose history I was telling, including asking elders in each tribe to read the manuscript. And of course there was a lot of historical reading and research in archives, which contained letters and documents from both Angus and Duncan.


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


A: My method in this book was similar to how I approached the world of Gutenberg. I’m imagining the lives and feelings of real people who lived in the past. I try to find the story within the actual historical events: what interests me is why these people did the things they did, and how they responded to the larger forces around them.


There’s always a dance between what’s documented and what’s invented and I think the real litmus test is whether or not the characters feel like real people or not. I’m fanatical about accuracy but also know too much reliance on historical fact detracts from the human story.

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


A: It wasn’t easy to find a good title. The subject matter is hard, often violent, and yet the novel is also a love story. To me their lives are buoyed by their connection to the incredible landscape of the West, which I know well and love.


Early settlers and possibly some Native peoples referred to the Rocky Mountains as the “Shining Mountains” — in fact, in 1947 a play was performed on the reservation where the McDonalds settled in Montana with that same title. It struck me as uplifting, which is how I hope readers feel after spending time with this remarkable and resilient family.


Q: The writer Debra Magpie Earling said of the book, “Humorous and deeply tender, I admire The Shining Mountains for its vivid and emotionally rendered characters, its magnificent landscape, and how Christie captures the extraordinary power of living story.” What do you think of that description, and how important is setting to you in your writing?


A: I’m deeply honored that a writer of her stature appreciated the novel, much of which takes place on Debra’s own Salish tribal homeland.


I was tickled that she found it humorous, because I’ve been really struck by that wry humor I’ve seen in Native stories and people. You hear it in how stories are told, in the past and today—perhaps this is what she means by “living story.” We’re all still part of this country’s living story—it’s ongoing, and I found it really important to try to share this lesser-known part of it.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am finishing a family memoir that I hope to be able to talk about soon. Meanwhile I’ve started a new historical novel set in Germany after World War II.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Only what Groucho Marx said: “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. That’s because inside a dog it’s too dark to read.”


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

Q&A with Tony Ardizzone




Tony Ardizzone is the author of the new novel In Bruno's Shadow. His other books include the novel The Whale Chaser, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Georgia Review and TriQuarterly. He is the Chancellor's Professor Emeritus, English, at Indiana University. 


Q: What inspired you to write In Bruno’s Shadow?


A: Put simply, the magnificent beauty of Rome. I’d like the readers of my book to feel as if they’re traveling about Rome, and for those who know Rome to fondly remember their time there.


While writing In Bruno’s Shadow I was drawn to Rome’s popular piazzas and landmarks as well as Rome’s secrets – its hidden squares and fountains, its little-known curiosities.


Because I was in Rome celebrating Christmas in December 2004, on the day the world learned about the devastating South Asian tsunami, my novel begins with that double edge, the joy of celebrating a holiday with friends tempered by the knowledge of distant disaster.


In this way In Bruno’s Shadow is a novel with a spiritual edge, a book about characters seeking understanding, seeking individual solace, while traveling in Rome.


Connecting the novel is a woman from Croatia named Dubravka. She was betrayed in love and witness to a miracle at a holy site in Medugorje, a town in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the Virgin Mary allegedly appeared there to a group of children in 1981. Dubravka goes about Rome doing charity work when she’s not working as a housekeeper in a pensione. Chapters about Dubravka’s life alternate with the Rome chapters.


Q: The writer Stuart Dybek said of the book, “Ardizzone is a writer who writes out of love rather than anger or contempt, and his emotional palette is fittingly broad. Yet his great affection for his subjects never blinds him to the tough realities and inequalities of life...” What do you think of that description?


A: Dybek and I are both writers from Chicago, born to working-class ethnic families, and our works’ interest is in ordinary people, the kind we grew up around. We each write about characters who don’t think they’re particularly special, who work and struggle and hope to get by day to day. Characters who, like all of us, face troubles. Characters who yearn for love.

In Bruno’s Shadow has a multinational cast. The book includes a South Korean Montessori teacher from Canada who has lost one of her senses. A Roman performance artist who decides to portray the life of Caravaggio. A daughter of a Chicago barkeeper fleeing her hostess job in Tokyo’s Roppongi district. A gay centurion working outside Rome’s Colosseum, who carries a secret vendetta. A New York academic weighing evidence against a colleague who is a sexual predator. A grieving father from San Francisco walking in the footsteps of his daughter. A Serbian spearfisher. A kind Croatian priest. As I mentioned, Dubravka is the common element among all of them.


Q: As you've said, Rome is a focal point of the book--how important is setting to you in your writing?


A: Most writers treat setting as a sort of mood adjuster, like the music you both hear and don’t hear while watching a movie. I like to allow setting to be reflected in the inner lives of my characters.


For example, in Rome there’s a famous church with a trompe-l’oeil ceiling and dome. Trompe-l’oeil tricks the viewer into thinking that a two-dimensional surface has true depth and is actually three-dimensional. The bartender’s daughter who works as a hostess in Tokyo visits this church, interacts with this setting, and comes to recognize how the duality of the church’s ceiling mirrors the duality and falseness of her own life.


In Bruno’s Shadow also has many chapters set in the Croatian city of Dubrovnik as well as Mostar and Medugorje in Bosnia and Herzegovina, places deeply affected by the Croat-Bosniak War.


I’m not a minimalist. I would like readers of my novel to feel what it’s like to walk the streets of Rome, the Old City and harbor of Dubrovnik, the Muslim quarter of Mostar, and the hills of Medugorje.


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


A: Giordano Bruno was a Dominican friar who was imprisoned, tortured, and ultimately hung upside down and burned to death by the Church for his beliefs. One of Bruno’s ideas was that man and the Earth were not the center of God’s creations. Bruno believed in an infinite universe and the possibility of an infinite number of other worlds like ours. The novel’s cover design features an excerpt of the Flammarian engraving that is often associated with Bruno’s thoughts about the earth and the heavens.


Bruno represents the idea that faith and the institutions of religion are often two radically different things.


Though Dubravka was raised Catholic, she practices the Muslim way of washing oneself each morning upon rising. When living in the Muslim section of Mostar, in Bosnia, she prays each morning at a nearby mosque. In Rome she kneels in a pew in church reciting the rosary. As she walks about Rome doing charity work, a prayer often hovers on her lips.


True faith transcends the narrow boundaries of sect or denomination. The novel is about entertaining ideas that go beyond the merely scientific. The windows of Dubravka’s bedroom look down upon the statue of Giordano Bruno on the site where he was killed. Her life is governed by her spirituality and entwined with miracles.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Something different. A novel about children, told from an adult point of view.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Guernica Editions is planning a virtual launch for its Spring 2023 releases in June. More information about me and my book-related activities can be found on my website:


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 1



April 1, 1926: Anne McCaffrey born.

Friday, March 31, 2023

Q&A with Heinz Insu Fenkl


Heinz Insu Fenkl is the author of the new novel Skull Water. He also has written the novel Memories of My Ghost Brother. Fenkl teaches at the State University of New York, New Paltz. He grew up in Korea, Germany, and the U.S., and he lives in the Hudson Valley of New York.


Q: In a 2016 interview in The New Yorker, you said, “The Insu in the story is myself as a boy,” adding that you were dealing with “the often conflicting layers of my identity as the son of a Korean mother and a German-American father.” Can you say more about that, and about what specifically inspired you to write Skull Water?


A: Skull Water was originally meant to be a memoir, so initially, the reason was to write about important themes and experiences that came from my life: being of mixed-race; being marginalized, bullied, and discriminated against; living between U.S. Army bases and the Korean camp towns; surviving with no parental supervision because our GI fathers were away from home most of the time (sometimes in Vietnam) and our mothers were busy dealing on the black market; how we were exploited; how we formed our own support systems; the culture of Army brats; the daily danger in our lives, which we were oblivious to, but which is quite alarming in retrospect.


I also wanted to capture a time and place that no longer exists because it hasn’t been adequately documented. The life in camp towns in the 1970s in South Korea, under the rule of the military dictator Park Chung-hee, isn’t exactly a popular subject even in Korean literature. A lot of what I wanted to do was document that lost history for Koreans and for Americans who might have served there. The two major American military bases in Korea (ASCOM and Yongsan Garrison) are now mostly shut down.


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


A: Skull water is the fluid that is said to accumulate in the human skull after death. According to a Taoist folk belief, it can cure any human ailment.


In the novel, the main character Insu and his friends set out to rob a grave to get skull water for Insu’s uncle, who is suffering from a mysterious foot injury that never seems to heal. Insu’s uncle, Big Uncle, is dying as the infection in his foot grows more serious, so there is urgency to the grave-robbing quest, which has unexpected consequences.


Skull water also seems to be a reference to cerebrospinal fluid, the medium through which neurochemical processes in the brain occur, which means it’s the medium of human consciousness. Insu learns from a Buddhist monk about a Buddhist master from ancient times, Wonhyo, who became enlightened after drinking water from a skull.

Q: The writer Marie Myung-Ok Lee called the book “A magical, brutal novel that shines light into a little-known world of a modernizing Korea of the 1970s with its vestiges of American occupation, along with the mysteries of ancestors and the hungry ghosts of worlds we cannot see.” What do you think of that description?


A: Marie is a very perceptive reader, and she has known my work for a long time. She also touches on some of those same themes in her own remarkable novel, The Evening Hero, which came out last year with Simon & Schuster. Her description of my novel is amazingly concise, when I think about it, and it accounts for the setting, the plot, and the themes of Skull Water very accurately.


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


A: It’s hard to reduce the themes of the novel to a few main messages, but a lot of the novel is about the conflict between intention and outcome. The world can be a terrible place, and good intentions don’t always produce the intended results, and yet we still have to live with compassion, sympathy, and understanding as we try to do what we believe is right and good. What helps us with this difficult task, even when families are so dysfunctional, is the loyalty and devotion of our friends.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: One of the things I’m working on at the moment is The Monkey Puzzle Tree, a novel about my father’s experience in Vietnam working as a military advisor with the Montagnard tribespeople, the Hmong, in the highlands just before the Tet Offensive.


It will be unlike most novels about the Vietnam War because it shows the daily lives and the culture of the Hmong along with my father’s unique perspective as a German survivor of World War II and its aftermath, including the expulsion of Germans from Czechoslovakia.


There are lots of unexpected parallelisms between his background and the ultimate fate of the Hmong as they were exploited and then largely abandoned by the U.S. government. It’s another lost history of multiple displacements.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I used the I Ching, the ancient Chinese book of divination, in writing Skull Water, applying the same method Big Uncle uses in the story. That might give readers some insight into both the structure and the visual layout of the book.


I’d also like to leave readers with a bit of advice—a secret to vivid writing: first, always write by hand if possible. That engages your whole body in the act of writing in a way that typing on a computer does not.


Second, if you have to compose on a computer, do it with low ambient light and the screen off. (You may have to learn how to touch-type.) That way, you’ll be separating the act of writing from reading (which engages your impulse to judge and edit your work even in the middle of a sentence). Images are ephemeral and like dreams—if you don’t capture them quickly and  nonjudgmentally, they will disappear. Trust your intuition.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Jane Healey




Jane Healey is the author of the new historical novel Good Night from Paris. Her other books include The Secret Stealers. She lives north of Boston.




Q: Why did you decide to focus on the actress Drue Leyton (1903-1997) in your new historical novel?


A: I discovered Drue Leyton while writing my third novel, The Secret Stealers. She was an American actress who left Hollywood behind to marry the love of her life and move to Paris - in 1938. Then of course the war changed the course of her life forever.


She became essentially the first Voice of America in France - broadcasting what was really happening on the continent of Europe to an audience in the U.S. She was so effective in that role that the Germans took notice and announced on German radio she would be executed when they occupied France.


And that is only part of Drue’s extraordinary story - from her time in an internment camp for American and British women, to her role in the underground network getting Allied fliers out of occupied territory - her story was too amazing not to tell.


Q: How did you research her life, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I researched her life through newspaper articles and books about life in occupied France, among many other sources. The two primary sources that were most valuable were Drue’s letters home, which are archived at the Holocaust Museum in D.C. and her autobiography, which she wrote about her experiences during the war.


The thing that most surprised me was an event that happened post-Pearl Harbor. The Germans rounded up a couple hundred American women living in and around Paris and imprisoned them in a monkey house in a zoo just outside the city. Their friends and family had to pay five francs to talk to them over the fence. That was such an incredibly bizarre historical event that I never heard of, and I knew I had to include it in the novel.

Q: The author Aimie K. Runyan said of the book, “Goodnight from Paris is a portrait in courage, not of the men who lifted guns to rid their nations of tyranny, but of the women who fought to get the support of the United States for the cause via the airwaves.” What do you think of that description?


A: I love Aimie and I love this description. I think women played so many critical roles during WWII that are finally being recognized and celebrated.


And Drue’s role as a radio broadcaster to the U.S. was important because at the time America was weary of war after WWI and politically there were many who were isolationist, wanting no part in another European war. Americans in Europe, like Drue and the journalist Dorothy Thompson, whom Drue had on her radio show, knew what was happening in Europe firsthand, and also understood that America’s involvement was an inevitability. 


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


A: I always hope readers are entertained first and foremost, but I also hope they are inspired by Drue’s story and learn about an aspect of WWII history that they weren’t aware of before. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on a new project, but it’s very early days and I’m a little superstitious about sharing. I will say it’s a departure from WWII, though I still love learning and writing about that era.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I love zooming with book clubs all over the country. Readers can sign up for my mailing list at to find out what’s going on with me. And I have a webinar/podcast called Historical Happy Hour, interviewing other historical fiction authors about their latest projects. Past episodes are available on YouTube and wherever you listen to podcasts. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Jane Healey.