Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Q&A with Suzanne Park

 


 

 

Suzanne Park is the author of the new novel One Last Word. Her other books include the novel The Do-Over. She lives in Los Angeles.

 

Q: In our previous Q&A, you said that One Last Word was inspired by To All the Boys I've Loved Before, the YA novel by Jenny Han. Can you say more about that?

 

A: When I pitched this book, my editor said, “Oh, it’s like To All the Boys but with a tech spin for the adult market,” and that pretty much sums it up!

 

During the pandemic I watched a lot of Jenny Han’s on-screen adaptations, and after finishing the series I thought to myself, “This would SO HORRIBLE if this happened to a grown-up.”

 

Around the same time, I had been researching the challenges of women in tech and venture capital, and when the idea came to me for One Last Word, I couldn’t let it go.


Q: How did you create your character Sara? 

 

A: Sara needed to be a strong heroine who was relatable but also flawed. Tough enough to navigate the male-dominated tech and venture capital world, but also vulnerable by avoiding conflict her whole life to allow for personal growth.

 

As an author who writes stories about Korean Americans, it feels like there’s an added challenge to make sure characters in the Asian diaspora are three-dimensional— showing breadth and depth and avoiding cookie-cutter depictions and stereotypes.

 

For each book, I try to show a range in experiences and backgrounds for all my main characters and not repeat personas from book to book. 

 

Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, in part, “Park has always been good at telling stories about women who find themselves at a nadir in their professional lives, and Sara’s struggles in her industry are deeply relatable...” What do you think of that description?

 

A: This might be one of my favorite Kirkus reviews, because they considered how I always showcase the challenges of professional women in my stories, and also how I’m trying to do something in literature that you don’t see depicted often.

 

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

 

A: With all my books, I hope the reader thinks, “Marginalized nerds deserve a happily ever after in career and love.” For this specific story, I want people who read it to know that it’s okay to not have your entire life figured out by your mid-30s.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: After releasing seven books in four years, I took a hiatus and am just now coming back to that. I’m working on a new adult fiction idea that I love, and I hope to share more soon.

 

Q: Anything else we should know? 

 

A: Fun fact: the original working title was Upon My Death, and needless to say, my editor wanted me to change it because it was way too depressing. 

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Suzanne Park.

Q&A with Kara Thomas

 


 

 

Kara Thomas is the author of the new novel Lost to Dune Road. Her other books include the novel Out of the Ashes. She lives on Long Island.

 

Q: You’ve said you were inspired to write Lost to Dune Road by the Gilgo Beach murders on Long Island. Can you say more about that, and about how you created your character Lee Ellerin?

 

A: Anyone who is familiar with the Gilgo case might recall the horrifying phone call one of the victims' sister got from the killer. That detail always stuck with me about the unsolved murders, and how that call must have traumatized and shaped the next several years for the woman's sister.

 

Lee, an investigative journalist, also receives a call from a missing woman's cell phone, and is taunted by the presumed killer.

 

There are other parallels with the Gilgo story, including the Long Island setting, but I knew I didn't want to pull too heavily from an active, ongoing case. I was as shocked as anyone when police announced they had finally arrested a suspect in the murders this summer. 

 

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

 

A: We knew we wanted to incorporate Dune Road into the title, since it's a famous landmark and such a huge part of the book-- the victim in Lee's case went missing on Dune Road, in the wealthy enclave of East Hampton.

 

Making sure Dune Road was in the title gave us a lot of options for the cover to evoke a very specific tone and sense of place.

 

Q: Why did you decide to focus on the Hamptons in this novel?

 

A: I knew that I wanted to explore the darker side of the Hamptons-- it's a playground for the rich and famous, and no one really knows what goes on in the multi-million dollar estates owned by the wealthiest people in the country.

 

I'm also fairly familiar with the Hamptons, as a Long Islander. I spent a bit of time there growing up, and have visited many of the locations mentioned in the book. 

 

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

 

A: Above anything I always just want to entertain and surprise my readers, but I do hope they walk away from the book wanting to discuss the ending, and the choices the characters made, with someone who has also read the book.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I am finishing up revisions on my next novel for young adults, also a mystery. It is due out in late 2024.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I can write you a book, but I can also recommend you one--I work part-time as a librarian!

 

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

Q&A with Ona Gritz

 


 

 

Ona Gritz is the author of the new memoir Everywhere I Look. It focuses on the impact of her sister's life and violent death. Her other books include the middle grade novel August or Forever. Also a poet, she lives near Philadelphia.

 

Q: Why did you decide to write Everywhere I Look?

 

A: For many years, decades in fact, I didn’t let myself think about my sister Angie or the violent way she died. I felt numb to my grief, and my memories of the short time I got to spend with her had begun to fade.

 

Then, one day, a song she loved came on the radio. “My Baby Loves Lovin’.” It had been a hit, and I’d definitely heard it on oldies stations through the years, but in that particular moment, it struck me that I was the only person in the world who knew she had loved that song.

 

The thought made me burst into tears, and what I thought next was that she deserved to live somewhere other than in my fading memory. That’s when I resolved to learn all I could about her life and to write this book.  

 

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

 

A: The title comes from a line in the song “Angie” by the Rolling Stones: But Angie, I still love you, baby. Everywhere I look, I see your eyes. 

 

As soon as I conceived of the book, I knew I wanted the title to connect to that song, which had inspired my sister to change her name from Andra to Angie. That line in particular holds a lot of meaning for me because I often see hints of her in other people’s faces.

 

The title works on another level as well. The heart of the book is an investigative thread where I, finally, as an adult, look everywhere I can to learn what my sister went through in her brief life and to bear witness to its violent end.

 

I pursue Angie’s school records and legal documents, seek out long lost relatives and my sister’s friends, comb through the news articles and trial transcripts from the murder case.

 

All the while, I’m also looking deeply at myself: who I was as Angie’s sister, where I failed her, why I felt so distant from my grief. After years of numbness and denial, Angie was finally the focal point of my attention.  

 

Q: The writer Lilly Dancyger said of the book, “Ona Gritz has smashed familial silence to pieces, and pulled the story of her beloved sister out of the wreckage and into the light.” What do you think of that description?

 

A: I love it. In fact, it was at my request that the publisher placed that quote on the front cover.

 

There’s a fierce quality to Lilly’s words that reminds me that what I did in uncovering family secrets, in choosing to be the truth teller in a family comfortable with evasion and lies, was both brave and healing.

 

I’m also truly honored that Lilly Dancyger sees my book in that light. At a time when I was really struggling to find the shape of my story, I took a class with Lilly on memoir structure and, soon after, worked with her as a developmental editor.

 

It was her guidance, not to mention the example of her own beautiful writing, that helped me find both the through-line and the emotional center of Everywhere I Look.

 

Q: What impact did it have on you to write this book, and what do you hope readers take away from it?

 

A: My sister had a tremendously difficult life and much of what I learned about it as I worked on this book was just devastating.

 

At the same time, writing it was a way of being with her again--hearing her voice, recalling her warmth and humor. And, as I uncovered details I never knew, I felt like I was in her confidence again.

 

It was an incredibly healing experience and it stretched me. It helped me grow into the sister I wish I could have been in her lifetime. I would like for readers to come away from the book feeling as though they know and care about her too.

 

Hers is a story of what can happen to our many castaway girls and, by contrast, just how redemptive love and attention can be.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I am lucky to have two young adult verse novels coming out later this year from West 44 Books. The first is, in part, a story of sister loss and the second is a historical novel about a New York State reform school where Angie spent time as a teenager. Yes, much of what I write is connected to her in some way!

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: If you have a book group that would be interested in reading Everywhere I Look, I’d love to take part in the conversation, either virtually or, when possible, in person. You can contact me here: https://www.onagritz.com/contact. 

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Alexandra A. Chan

 


 

 

Alexandra A. Chan is the author of the new memoir In the Garden Behind the Moon: A Memoir of Loss, Myth, and Magic. Her other books include Slavery in the Age of Reason. Also an archaeologist, she lives in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

 

Q: What inspired you to write In the Garden Behind the Moon, and how was the book's title chosen?

 

A: I think I can safely say that I was less inspired than I was compelled. I have been drawn to story since I was little girl and did experiment with writing stories very young, as well as with illustrating them.

 

This is a lovely little foreshadowing for In the Garden Behind the Moon, which is lavishly illustrated in full color with my own artwork. My inner child is dancing!

 

I had also been told for decades by people everywhere I went that I should “write a book about my dad,” who was well known as an extraordinary, larger-than-life character who drew people around him like moths to a flame.

 

But while that idea did always have a siren pull on me, I could never really execute because my dad had always told me, “the only person going to write a book about me is me.” And I had to kind of agree with him.

 

Ultimately, however, his death ushered in such a profound crisis in my life that it felt like I had no option but to write. The wonderful thing about that process was discovering that I was not, in fact, writing “a book about my dad,” though he is in it well enough. The only story I really had to tell—and I did have to tell it—was my own.

 

The title is a bit of a magical accident—the kind that can heal your broken heart and make you see the world with fresh eyes, more open to wonder.

 

The working title had been something different (and I do mean entirely different) for many years. I changed it to In the Garden Behind the Moon just a couple of weeks before getting a book deal.

 

I had been struggling with a chapter (one of the last chapters) that dealt with Chinese ideas of family, healing, and the moon, and I couldn’t quite get how to link them all together, though I could feel the connection there.

 

I took a break to turn my attention elsewhere, went looking for a book of poems on my shelf, and a letter from my aunt, stuck between two books, came with it.

 

In the letter she had shared with me a short story she had written called “The Moon Dragon.” And in that story was the answer to my query, almost as if she had heard my struggles from earlier and decided to lend a helping hand.

 

Her story gave me a mythological framework for understanding what it was I was writing about, and so In the Garden Behind the Moon became the new title. It is a metaphor for where I had been the previous seven years since my father’s death.

 

And more, there is a Garden Behind the Moon in each of us. It is hard to find, and even harder to get to, but it is worth the journey.

 

Q: What do you think the book says about grief?


A: I think grief can be akin to a multi-faceted gem. When I close my eyes and visualize my own, it is in fact that—a large, shining, white gem, albeit sitting at the bottom of a natural pool of inky black water. You cannot see the gem from the surface. You must go deep.

 

So the book is a bit like a diving bell. I take the reader deep with me to examine the gem from every angle, in the earnest spirit of discovery.

 

My dad always used to tell me, “stay curious, and you’ll always be all right.” Curiosity and wonder don’t always feel possible when you are in the throes of fresh grief, but in the end, my dad was right. I am all right. And curiosity led the way.

 

I think the book lets the reader know that, to paraphrase Alice Walker, you’re never really over, even when you think you are.

 

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

 

A: I had an array of primary sources. There was a long-lost interview conducted by Roosevelt’s Federal Writers’ Project with my grandfather, T’ai Peng (Great Phoenix), who escaped his own beheading in China only to land unwittingly in the Jim Crow American South.

 

There he lived out his life as a laundryman, starching collars, writing poetry, raising children, and dreaming of a better world in Savannah, Georgia.

 

I had a basket of 300 war letters my dad had written from the Burmese jungle in WWII, which could be alternately erudite, lyrical, petulant, witty, and wise. Then there was a box of never-before-seen photographs from a century of powerful living (my dad lived to be almost 103).

 

There were surprises all along the way, and the book is at least in part a record of actually writing the book, so I hope readers will also delight in the thrill of discovery and understanding with me.

 

Perhaps the biggest surprise for an archaeologist and life-long rationalist like me was that things we call “magic” and “enchantment” are real. And they can heal the whole of a broken heart.

 

Q: What impact did it have on you to write this book, and what do you hope readers take away from it?

 

A: The impact on me cannot be overstated. I wrote myself to wellness, into an entirely new territory of spirit. Forevermore, there will be my life before the book, and my life after the book.

 

I hope readers will also experience a re-awakened sense of wonder, awe, and possibility for themselves. That they will also find some of their own answers.

 

One of the underlying themes and key takeaways is that the stories you tell become the life that you live. So, I hope the book will help shake readers free from some of their own certainties that may have kept them caught in imprisoning narratives.

 

I hope they will be inspired to start tending their own stories more mindfully because it is the best storytellers among us who have the future in our hands.

 

Are we telling the “right” stories (about ourselves, the world, each other)? Are we telling them well? The answer, for too many of us, is no, and the world is dying for people too stuck in their own certainties to love, or even live.

 

It is up to each of us, individually, to do this. It’s the old idea that when you turn to heal yourself, you heal the world. I hope readers will be entertained, but also gently guided to heal themselves.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: My primary focus now is on getting In the Garden Behind the Moon into the hands of every person it’s meant to help.

 

I also still run my Chinese brush painting business, Rising Phoenix Arts (named after my grandfather, T’ai Peng, the Great Phoenix), and love to create art that helps others soften into ever gentler and more sustainable ways of being alive and human and most authentically themselves.

 

I miss having a daily writing practice, but find that writing my seasonal newsletter, which I call The Glimmering—for magic-seekers of all stripes, and which is less news, more letter—does fulfill some of that yearning to talk deeply with others and create space for wonder.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: In the Garden Behind the Moon follows the Chinese Zodiac, from Year of the Ram (2015) to Year of the Tiger (2022). The Chinese Zodiac is the mythological “glue” that holds the stories all together and gives the underlying, bigger story its narrative arc and sense of symmetry and completion.

 

I hope readers will enjoy the unique narrative structure and begin to understand for themselves the healing power that finding our own stories in myth and archetypes can wield.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 17

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
April 17, 1928: Cynthia Ozick born.

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Q&A with Abbi Waxman

 

Photo by Leanna Creed

 

 

Abbi Waxman is the author of the new novel Christa Comes Out of Her Shell. Her other novels include The Bookish Life of Nina Hill. She lives in Los Angeles.

 

Q: What inspired you to write Christa Comes Out of Her Shell, and how did you create your character Christa?

 

A: I wanted to write about a woman who didn’t need people, or didn’t feel that she did. I was interested in the impact of sudden reappearances too, so I created a scenario where her father (supposedly lost in a plane crash 25 years earlier) came back from the dead.

 

It’s outlandish, but that was the point. What do you do about someone who chose to completely disappear, and what do you do now they’re back?

 

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

 

A: Christa is a marine biologist, so I did a lovely lot of research about the animals and environments that mean so much to her. I learned a lot, but my favorite fact is that violet sea snails float about on little rafts made of their own snot. Each to his own, I guess.

 

Q: What do you think the novel says about fame, and about the media spotlight?

 

A: Christa was forced into the public eye as a child, and then underwent a very painful public immolation as a teen. I was interested in looking at how that impacts her take on the human race, and on the trauma she has to deal with when the public comes looking for her again. 

 

Q: Publishers Weekly called the book a “lively take on legacy and manipulation.” What do you think of that description?

 

A: I’m glad they enjoyed it, lol. Manipulation within families is another important theme of the book, how we influence our family members to view us a certain way, or behave in a certain way, and how our views of each other can get set in amber when we’re young, and are hard to change.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

  

A: Right now I’m finishing up edits on my next book, which comes out in 2025.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: My next two books are going to be the first in what I hope will be a series of detective novels…time to switch genres for a while. I’m very excited about it; my mom was a detective novelist, and it’s the genre I grew up on and which I prefer to read, so I’ve always wanted to write them. Fingers crossed.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Abbi Waxman.

Q&A with Eric H. Cline

 


 

 

Eric H. Cline is the author of the new book After 1177 B.C.: The Survival of Civilizations. His other books include 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed. He is a professor of classics and anthropology at George Washington University.

 

Q: Why did you decide to write After 1177 B.C., and how would you compare the time period you write about in this book to that of your book 1177 B.C.?

 

A: Having written about the great kingdoms of the Late Bronze Age in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean regions, and the sudden collapse of their network within a matter of decades, in my book 1177 BC, I thought it would be of interest to do a follow-up book and write about what happened immediately after the collapse, looking especially at how each of the various societies dealt with the new world in which they now found themselves, i.e. what we now call the Iron Age.

 

Some were extremely resilient and able to transform, like the Phoenicians and the Cypriots. Others were less resilient but managed to either adapt, like the Assyrians and Babylonians, or simply cope, like the Egyptians. And still others were unable to survive the transition with their society intact and disappeared for all intents and purposes, like the Mycenaeans and the Hittites.

 

To me, this period is just as fascinating as that of the Bronze Age, albeit for different reasons, including the fact that we have so many inscriptions left to us that we are able to know about some things in great detail.

 

I also think that what happened during that period holds lessons which might be of use to us today, especially in terms of resilience and contemplating what we might have to do if our own societies and civilizations collapse because of any number of potential factors, not least of which is climate change, not to mention things like a world-wide pandemic and supply chain issues, both of which are factors in our world today.

 

This is, in some ways, a very different book from that of 1177 BC and yet I think readers will recognize it as a continuation of the story that I began telling in that first volume.

 

Q: The writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb said of the book, “You cannot understand human civilization and self-organization without studying what happened on, before, and after 1177 B.C.” What do you think of that description?

 

A: I am very pleased with that description, for it encapsulates and embodies what happened during the Late Bronze Age Collapse and immediately thereafter, when the network of interdependent and thriving great kingdoms in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean suddenly collapsed and the survivors were forced to deal with the aftermath.

 

Most of them never saw the collapse coming and yet a few societies were well enough organized that they were able to pivot and transform, even as other societies failed to survive.  

 

As I mentioned above, I do think that there are lessons to be learned, if we are willing to study what happened to those who have come before us, even if the events took place 3,000 years ago.

 

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

 

A: I’ve been studying the Late Bronze Age ever since my freshman year in college; it’s my favorite period in history. But, to put it into proper context, I had also studied the periods before and after it, which is where the Iron Age comes into play.

 

In addition, I’ve been teaching general surveys of ancient history for more than 30 years now, including specific classes on the history of ancient Greece; the history of ancient Israel and neighboring lands; and the history of ancient Egypt and the Near East.

 

So, I already knew the general outlines, and a lot of the specific details, from these four centuries that make up the Iron Age, from the 12th to the eighth centuries BC, and I knew basically what I wanted to touch upon as some of the highlights.

 

However, when I got right down into the nitty gritty and began catching up on all of the work that has been done in the past few decades, it was really amazing to see how much how our thinking has changed, and how much new data is now available, just since I was in graduate school.

 

What wasn’t a surprise to me, but will be a surprise to many readers, is that the so-called Dorian Invasion of Greece, which you can still find mentioned everywhere in general books and encyclopedias, especially on the Internet, probably never happened. I open with that, in the Prologue of the book, and hope that the discussion will grab the readers and draw them into the rest of the book.


Q: How did this period come to be known as the First Dark Age, and why is it now known as the Iron Age?

 

A: This era has long been called a Dark Age by previous scholars, most often those studying ancient Greece, because of comparisons both to the Bronze Age just before it and the Archaic and Classical periods that came after it.

 

It was seen, and to some degree rightfully so, as a time of lower socio-political complexity, following the collapse of the great powers of the Late Bronze Age.

 

However, the extent to which this period was actually a Dark Age has always been debated, especially by scholars of the ancient Near East, since it was clear that some societies, like the Assyrians and the Babylonians, did not retreat into such lower levels of complexity.

 

And now it is becoming ever clearer that this period also saw great leaps forward, like the standardization and spread of the alphabet across the Mediterranean and the invention and spread of iron as a replacement for bronze.

 

Thus, in recent years, so much light has been shone on this period that it really isn’t considered to be a Dark Age at all anymore by scholars. As several of my colleagues have said previously, an era which sees such dramatic innovations, like iron and the alphabet, cannot possibly be seen as a Dark Age. Therefore they, and I as well, suggest that to call it the Iron Age instead is a more meaningful, and accurate, label.

 

And yet, that new knowledge, and the changing interpretations, hasn’t really made it out into the big wide world yet, so that you still see it called a Dark Age all over the internet and even in a lot of textbooks for both high school and college classes. I hope that my book will go at least a little way towards changing that.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I am just now finishing up a book on the Amarna Letters, which is an archive from the time of the Egyptian Pharaohs Amenhotep III and his son Akhenaten that was found in 1887.

 

It consists of about 50 letters sent either from or to the Pharaohs from the other Great Kings, i.e., in Babylonia, Assyria, Cyprus, Mitanni (in modern Syria), and Anatolia during the 14th century BC. There are also more than 300 additional letters sent from vassal rulers in the various Canaanite city states to the two pharaohs during that same time.

 

In the opening chapters of the book, I tell the story of the race to decipher the tablets in the late 1800s and early 1900s, including some of their missteps, and then in the rest of the book I discuss the contents of the tablets themselves and use them to help reconstruct the world of the ancient Near East during what we now call the Amarna Period.

 

The letters provide us with a huge amount of information about the diplomacy and international relations from that period, which has allowed us to get a glimpse of what it was like back then.

 

It turns out that it was a pretty wonderful period if you were one of the Great Kings but was also a period of almost continual petty intrigues and conflicts if you were one of the lesser vassal rulers in Canaan.

 

But, as soon as I’m done with it, which will be very soon, I will begin work on the next volume in what I’m calling the “unintended trilogy” (for I never anticipated that I would write three such books and follow the course of history for a thousand years or so).

 

In that volume, which is tentatively called 776 BC: The Clashing of Civilizations, I am planning to pick up the story right where I left off at the end of After 1177 BC, starting with the first Greek Olympics in 776 BC and continuing straight on for the next four centuries or so, right down to the time of Alexander the Great.

 

It won’t be focused just on Greece, of course, but rather will cover the same regions that I’ve discussed in the previous two books, including the Aegean, Egypt, Anatolia, and the Eastern Mediterranean all the way to Mesopotamia.

 

It’s a fascinating period, of course, which sees poets, playwrights, and historians from Homer to Herodotus in Greece; great empires rising and falling across the ancient Near East, from the Neo-Assyrians to the Persians and then the invading Macedonians; philosophers and artists such as Socrates and Plato to Pheidias; and dramatic events such as the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC and the subsequent Babylonian Exile.

 

And, of course I’ll need to discuss the Persian Wars, when Xerxes and Darius tried to invade Greece, including the battles at Marathon and Thermopylae, as well as the great Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta.

 

It’s what some have called the Axial Age, which is a concept that I shall explore in the book, and is also the period that saw the invention of democracy and the Periclean building program in Athens, which gave us the Parthenon on the Acropolis, among any number of other accomplishments. However, at the same time, we see a continual clash of civilizations during these centuries.

 

I think that it’ll be a very interesting book, if I’m able to continue telling the story as I am currently envisioning it.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: Not that I can think of, except that I usually name my pet fish after ancient rulers. I have three at the moment: Suppiluliuma, Ramses, and Cleopatra. Sadly, the fourth one, Julius Caesar, did not even make it to the Ides of March this year...

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Sue Ganz-Schmitt

 


Sue Ganz-Schmitt is the author of the new children's picture book biography Skybound!: Starring Mary Myers as Carlotta, Daredevil Aeronaut and Scientist. Ganz-Schmitt's other picture books include That Monster on the Block. She lives in the Los Angeles mountains.

 

Q: Why did you decide to focus on aeronaut and scientist Mary Myers (1850-1932) in your new picture book biography?

 

A: In 2018, I was attending a graduate school program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. My advisor, Jane Kurtz, was leading a picture book intensive and she gave us the assignment to write a picture book biography. I had written and published several picture books, but I was nervous, as this was my first attempt at a nonfiction project.

 

I knew that I wanted to write about an extraordinary woman that the world knew little about. When I came across Mary Myers, I was astounded by her daring ballooning adventures, scientific experiments in the sky, and passion for flight.

 

She lived in a time where most women were contained by the expectations for their gender, and confined to small social spheres. Mary broke free from all confines to have high in the sky adventures alone in her balloon (and sometimes with her dog).

 

I could not get her out of my head and have been delving into her history ever since.


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

 

A: I researched dozens of old newspaper articles, contacted museums, historical societies, read her book (Skylarking in Cloudland), and searched through family records on Ancestry.com. 

 

I also went to the International Balloon Festival in Albuquerque for my first balloon ride. It was surreal as a big crowd gathered around our basket and we lifted off.  For a moment, I felt a rush of what it might have been like for Mary as she lifted off for her first flight.

 

The thing that surprised me the most about Mary Myers was how she saved a crowd of people being crushed while they tried to get close to her balloon. She ran across the heads and shoulders of the people from across a field and jumped into her balloon, knowing it was damaged by the crowd—to save everyone from harm. 

 

Her balloon ripped apart in the sky and she quickly gathered the flaps into a parachute. She was able to safely land at the same spot she had promised to. This was her first parachute flight. Mary always put her audience, their safety, and expectations ahead of herself. 

 

Q: What do you think Iacopo Bruno’s illustrations add to the book?

 

I find Iacopo Bruno’s artwork to be magical and exquisite! I think it will pull children into the late 1800s, and inspire them to want to know more about that time period. Iacopo did a lot of research and got the visual details right. 

 

I had him on my wish list as a possible illustrator for Skybound, but did not imagine that we would ever get him. I feel that he is one of the most talented illustrators of our era. I encourage everyone to look at his work.

 

Q: The Foreword Review of the book said, “Her story will inspire budding scientists to let their dreams carry them up, up, and away.” What do you think of that description, and what do you hope kids take away from the book?

 

A: I hope that this story inspires kids to not be intimidated to pursue their dreams in science. I wish that I had read a book like this when I was growing up. I would have loved to have been an astronaut, but there were no women role models in my time, so it didn’t seem possible. 

 

I love how Mary was a self-taught scientist and made her dream of flight happen, even though there was not a traditional path for her to follow. I hope that kids will realize that you can forge your own path and seek out the science that interests you. 

 

It is so much easier for kids today to access science today, especially with high-speed internet coming to more communities.  

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: In graduate school, I worked on nearly two dozen manuscripts. Some have been published, but there are many I would like to get back to, including some chapter books, a middle grade fantasy, and a young adult novel. 

 

I am also just beginning work on a screenplay about Mary Myers and her husband Carl. In the years I spent researching them, I gathered so much more material than could fit into Skybound and I really want to share their stories and challenges with the world. They have both been nearly forgotten from history.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: Some manuscripts come easily for me and some take a lot of revision. This book came out of over 100 drafts (there was a lot of hitting the undo button). 

 

I wanted to get the lens just right. It started with a wide-angle view, but then I narrowed the story down to her first flight. I am really grateful that my editor, Carolyn Yoder, saw my original vision and helped me stay on course when I veered off.

 

I cannot wait to launch this story so that Mary will be remembered and honored for her accomplishments. Maybe one day she will be featured on a postage stamp with other great women from the history of flight.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Lissa Soep

 


 

 

Lissa Soep is the author of the new book Other People's Words: Friendship, Loss, and the Conversations That Never End. She is senior editor for audio at Vox Media and she lives in San Francisco.

 

Q: What inspired you to write Other People’s Words?

 

A: I started writing this book after a visit to my friend Christine near the end of her life. She had almost entirely stopped speaking — she only had a few words left — and yet during our time together, at a care facility where she was dying, I sensed her presence, her voice, her poetry, in such an incredibly vivid way.

 

On the cusp of losing her, I heard myself speaking lines of her language. “Can you stop chatting, so I can concentrate?” I said, imagining her response to my incessant chatter when she was trying to focus on the stack of photos I had brought for her to look through from our friendship over the decades.

 

“Lissa, what’s gotten into you?” I said, giving voice to the dismay she must have felt when I kept telling her I loved her, again and again — a phrase that embarrassed her, but I couldn’t help it.

 

In the two words she did speak in that final visit, “brown eyes,” I heard a lifetime of love and heartbreak for Mercy, her partner of 17 years, whose eyes are black coffee, dark and warm, and who had come as well for final goodbyes.

                                   

The feeling at this visit was hard to make sense of, this mix of loss and vitality, silence and voice, a never-ending conversation that felt no less real for being mostly unspoken.

 

It made me think of my other friend, Jonnie, who had died not long before in such a different way, all at once. A speeding boat ran over him when he was swimming in a lake in Montana.

 

“Where is he? No, really, like where actually is he?” his wife, my friend Emily, kept asking, in the days, weeks, and months after he died, and she listened for his voice wherever she could find it, produced it when she needed to.

 

In voicemails saved on her phone — “Hey Sugar, it’s me, I’m just calling to check in on you.” In letters she wrote to him on birthdays or big days for their kids. In sessions with a medium. In our shared remembrances of his booming laugh.

 

Writing the book felt like a practice of honoring these two friends, the ones they left behind, friendship itself as a great love, and language as a life-giving force that can sustain us in the face of death.

 

Q: The writer Peggy Orenstein said of the book, “Other People's Words is one of those books that changes you forever. Now I can hear the ‘double voicing’ in my own life: the ways the language of my past...has fused into and shapes the language of my present; how it keeps people I have lost with me always.” What do you think of that description?

 

A: I love it. Peggy has written beautifully about her own relationship with her father as dementia came over him at the end of his life, so it meant a lot to me to know that the idea of “double voicing” resonated for her.

 

I have long been obsessed with dialogue — between people and, more surprisingly, within our own words. In the book, one of my main jobs was to fine-tune into the voices-upon-voices that echo through our speech, across our lives and maybe especially through times of loss.


I love how Peggy names this possibility of hearing something in our own voices that was there all along, but that we didn’t always notice. I love how she brings time into it, and I love her use of that word, “fuse,” which captures the capacity for language of the past to shape language of the present.

 

Something I learned living these experiences and writing the book: inside our words, we are never without companions.

 

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

 

A: The first part of the title, “other people’s words,” is a phrase I lifted from the philosopher whose expansive theory of language threads through the book.

 

“Our speech is filled to overflowing with other people’s words,” wrote Mikhail Bakhtin, a scholar I studied in grad school whose ideas became a liberation to me when I experienced the loss of my two beloved friends.

 

From Bakhtin, I learned to sustain vital conversations by lacing their voices, remembered and imagined, into my own. And I learned something essential about language itself: that it’s teeming with voices, past and present, and meanings too unruly and inexhaustible to pin down—an "inner infinity," which is itself a consolation.

 

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

 

A: I hope that this story of friendship as a great love will invite readers to reflect on relationships in their own lives that have defined them in ways that the world might not always recognize.

 

I hope that the simple observation I draw from Bakhtin — that our speech is “filled to overflowing with other people’s words” — is as transformative for readers as it has been for me.

 

I hope that readers going about their everyday lives will notice a phrase or even just an inflection in their voices that brings to mind a person they love, and that the experience will feel like a visit that sustains them.

 

I was so moved by author Rob Delaney’s response to Other People’s Words. He said that the book “illustrates how absurd the illusion is that we are separate. We don’t just whisper into each other’s ears; rather we speak to, through, for, and as each other.” How freeing and expansive, if that awareness is something readers form in conversation with my story.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: One thing I’m just starting to work on is the audiobook, which is fascinating and deeply meaningful for me, in part because I’ve spent most of my life making stories with sound. I’m a radio and podcast editor and producer. I love working with voice and other audio elements to bring a story alive.

 

There are real creative and ethical challenges in figuring out how to use audio to convey the change in Christine's writing: the proliferation of punctuation (strings of periods, exclamation points, question marks where her lines fall off mid-sentence); her increasingly unconventional use of capital letters; the fragmenting of her words into rows of letters as the dementia takes hold.

 

These typographical details are key to the development of Christine's voice, both in real life and in the story, and I love thinking through ways to do justice to these nuances and expressions of self.

 

Apart from Other People’s Words, I'm working on a small project called Bonus Chapter, researching and experimenting with bringing the creativity of narrative podcasts to literary nonfiction audiobooks, so I've given a lot of thought to the challenges and opportunities for narrative resonance as we move between text and sound, and what all this means for the future of writing, reading, and listening.

 

It’s great that the timing is working out so I can do some of this thinking within my own process of translating Other People’s Words for the ear.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb