Friday, May 31, 2024

Q&A with Holly Gramazio


Photo by Diana Patient


Holly Gramazio is the author of the new novel The Husbands. She is also a game designer. She is from Adelaide, Australia, and she's based in London.


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


A: A bunch of different things came together to inspire The Husbands.


For example:
* Sitting with friends while they went through their online dating chores - watching them scroll through this endless carousel of faces, the exhaustion and frustration of it.
* The weird tension between the feeling of really, really liking my partner, feeling lucky that I met him when I did - and the intellectual knowledge that there are probably other people out there who I'd be just as happy with.

* An interest in the way that friends and partners can nudge us in different directions, teach us new hobbies, introduce us to new people, leave us someone we wouldn't otherwise have been - I thought a lot about what it might be like to be parachuted into a differently-partnered version of your life, how it would feel to find yourself at a different edge of the plausible range of people you could be.


And part of it was that when the pandemic lockdowns kicked off, I was back at home visiting my family in Australia. And being unable to leave the city you grew up in is definitely a good way to encourage you to think about different versions of people's lives, different ways things might have turned out! 


Lauren, I think, was shaped a little by the needs of the story - she had to be someone who struggled with decision-making, who didn't like to risk being wrong, who wanted to be in a relationship but probably wasn't going to do anything much about it, who would be curious and not TOO terrified by the whole magic attic situation.


And then once I had that basic concept of what she was like, I built it up by experimenting with her in different situations. 


Q: You’re also a game designer--do you think that background influenced the writing of your novel?


A: Absolutely. I wrote in a very piecemeal kind of way, a scene here, a character there, very much out of order, building up a huge stack of material and then using that as something to work with to shape the novel.


I think that's definitely influenced by games writing, where quite often you write things out of order, or directly into spreadsheets. 


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the novel said, in part, that “there’s plenty of intelligence and candor in the author’s creative spin on the conundrum of commitment.” What do you think of that description, and what do you think the novel says about commitment?


A: I think it's a very kind thing to say!


For me, what The Husbands is saying about commitment is pretty simple, I guess: that it can be difficult, that it can be hard to give up on the idea of finding something or someone that's absolutely perfect, so clearly correct that the choice washes away all objections.


But for pretty much anything - what do you want for dinner, what movie do you want to watch, where do you want to live, what course do you want to enroll in, and of course relationships - the same thing is true: there are good options, and bad options, and okay-ish options, but there's not one perfect option that's so much better than all the others that we should wait to find it.


If you're hungry, eat some lunch, right? Don't walk around the city for two hours looking for the perfect combination of cheap, delicious, good vibes, not too busy, seat isn't too near the bathroom.


There's a value in just making a decision over and above the value of whatever the option you've picked might be. (Can you tell I struggle with where to eat basically every time I'm in town on my own?)   


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


A: I had NO idea - I knew that there wasn't going to be one perfect match for Lauren, but beyond that I didn't really know where it was going.


And in fact, the version of the book I sent to my agent had a branching ending, with three versions of the ending quite different from the version we ended up with - she came back to me and said: look, this needs a better ending.


And I stomped around crossly for a month thinking "if I could have THOUGHT of a better ending I would have WRITTEN it" until finally - I think - I found one.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: A couple of different ideas that I'm hoping will turn out to be the next book, but it's all still a little bit up in the air - I'm just accumulating scenes and characters and words and hoping it shakes out into something! Might have a better idea of where it's going in a couple of weeks...


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: None of the major husbands are based on anyone I know, but at least four of the annoying short-lived husbands who only turn up for a sentence or two are based on me. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Jeffrey O.G. Ogbar




Jeffrey O.G. Ogbar is the author of the new book America's Black Capital: How African Americans Remade Atlanta in the Shadow of the Confederacy. He is professor of history and founding director of the Center for the Study of Popular Music at the University of Connecticut, and he lives in Hartford, Connecticut.


Q: What inspired you to write America’s Black Capital?


A: I am from Los Angeles, but attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, and was immediately struck by the curiously interwoven histories of the Confederacy and that of African American achievement as imprints on the city.


There were streets, neighborhoods, and monuments dedicated to Southern white nationalists and enslavers, overlapping with streets and monuments dedicated to civil rights leaders.


Moreover, Atlanta, which was once the “Imperial City” for the Ku Klux Klan, eventually elected the first black mayor of any major Southern city, and would boast more black-owned businesses, black colleges and universities, and black millionaires than any city in America. I thought, “Someone has to write this history!”


Q: The writer Jelani Cobb said of the book, “Elegantly written and exhaustively researched, America’s Black Capital is a brilliant chronicle of both Atlanta, the Southern city, and Atlanta, the metaphor for a segment of the American experience.” What do you think of that description?


A: I think that more than any concise description, this one alludes to how central the Civil War is to the book’s historical arc. Roughly, the first third of the book is on the Civil War and its immediate aftermath.


Histories of Atlanta rarely attempt such a long arc; and no history centers the Confederacy as an indelible feature on the city’s social, cultural and political character as I do here.


What is also notable is the degree to which the narrative of Atlanta’s development resonates with that of the country itself: from the origin story of strident white nationalism, to staggered steps toward expanded democracy.


From popular culture, through education and politics, there are many resonate elements in the book that provide insight to a wider national history.


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


A: This was originally supposed to be a history of Atlanta since 1970, but I found it hard to say something new about a time period so thoroughly investigated by historians, journalists, political scientists, and others.


Eventually, I opted (perhaps naively) for an ambitious history of the city since its beginning. Of course, it added years to the project, while I researched at the Library of Congress, various archives in Atlanta, interviewed people, and poured through the secondary literature.


I was especially struck by two things: (1) how central Atlanta was to the outcome of the Civil War and (2) how effective the city’s leadership class had always been in making people believe that the lofty aspirational images of Atlanta were reality.


At the start of the Civil War, Atlanta was a finalist for the new capital of the Confederacy. It became the veritable heart of Southern war manufacturing; and its capture in 1864 turned the tide of Abraham Lincoln’s floundering reelection campaign.


Lincoln’s victory for a second term avoided what would have been a catastrophic loss for America, freedom, and humanity. Millions of people would have remained enslaved for decades more.


For more than a century after the Civil War, generations of city leadership promoted the Gate City as progressive and especially open to opportunities for all. In reality, it lagged most Southern cities in a range of indices from civil rights, to education to poverty and crime. The boosters never let facts get in the way of a good narrative!


Q: You began the book with a description of the conclusion of Georgia’s two Senate races in January 2021. Why did you choose to start there?


A: I found that from 1864, to 1964 and 2021, Atlanta has continued to have an outsized presence in the arena of national politics. It is important to anchor this narrative in the immediate example of how critical this one city has been in shaping the fate of the nation and its hold on democracy.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am completing a book on the history and development of black nationalism, which will be more directed at an academic audience.


While there are some chapters that may appeal to laypeople (such as an exploration of how popular television shows engage components of black nationalist goals), I think that this book’s market is likely scholarly, unlike America’s Black Capital.


I am also finishing an edited book on African American urban history since the Great Migration. This will be the first history of African Americans and the city that solely centers its focus on the decades after 1970, the end of the migration of millions from the rural South into northern and western cities, which started in 1915.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I want readers to know that America’s Black Capital offers a broad historical examination of more than black Atlanta.


It is a narrative of contested notions of democracy, freedom, and citizenship. It investigates the resilience of the Confederacy on local and national politics. It offers insight into urban history, popular culture, and commentary on the origins of terms and ideas that readers have heard about (like “Forty Acres and a Mule” or W.E.B. Du Bois’s “Talented Tenth”). It is a rewarding read!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Cara Lopez Lee




Cara Lopez Lee is the author of the new novel Candlelight Bridge. Her other books include the memoir They Only Eat Their Husbands. She lives in Ventura, California.


Q: You’ve said that Candlelight Bridge was inspired by stories your Mexican Chinese grandmother told you. Can you say more about that?


A: Grandma was born to a single teenage mother in 1924. Both sides of her family treated her like an outsider, and she grew into a bitter woman. I know this because she raised me.


Once when I was 4, I ran home crying because a bully beat me up. She said, “I won’t always be here to help you. You have to learn to work things out yourself.” I was always running home but never getting there.


Then, in 2008, at 45, I started this novel, to explore my burning question: how do you find home if you feel like you don’t belong? All my life, people have asked me, “What are you?” Candlelight Bridge is part of my answer. I hope it leads readers to ponder the bigger American question: Who are we?


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


A: My research took me to China, San Francisco, and the borderlands of the U.S. and Mexico. I wandered villages and archaeological sites, visited museums and historical societies, read histories of all sorts, interviewed family members and locals and historians. All to imagine the story of a young man from China and young girl from Mexico immigrating to America in the early 1900s.


In China, I was excited to discover my great-grandpa’s village in Toisan. There, I met a 99-year-old cousin, Old Mr. Ma, who shared local history and traditions. I celebrated the Ching Ming tomb sweeping festival with distant cousins—walking with them across rice paddies to their cemetery to feast with the dead.


I didn’t know what town my great-grandma came from, only that she was born in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, and came to El Paso as a child. I decided to send her fictional alter ego on a dangerous journey across the desert with her family to flee the oncoming Mexican Revolution.


I pored over maps to find a path they might have taken across the desert, setting them on a collision course with revolutionaries and federal soldiers. Then I took a road trip to explore that passage with Mexican friends from Juarez and El Paso.

During my research, I came across a shocking 2010 article about a town along our passage: In AscensiĆ³n, police arrested two teenage boys suspected in a rash of kidnappings that had terrorized local families. Hundreds of enraged locals mobbed the cops, grabbed the two young suspects, and beat them to death.


I wanted to send that moment back in time 100 years, imagining something similar might erupt from the tensions of a rising revolution.


We stopped in real AscensiĆ³n, a town that looked too sleepy to kill anyone. In the plaza, weak little trees rose from dying grass, aging cowboys sat muttering on a bench, and a bored barber in an apron leaned against his shop.


An eerie silence stretched out to parched cotton fields and endless desert. It felt like an Old Western before a shootout, the perfect backdrop for an explosive scene.


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


A: As little as I planned the ending, even those plans upended. I’d hoped to follow two generations of Riveras and Wongs. But it took so long for the Riveras to cross the desert that the character inspired by my great-grandma remained 3 years old for too many pages. That’s not old enough to have agency. I had to pick a more dynamic hero: her 12-year-old sister, Candelaria.


Candelaria was born to domesticity and motherhood, and it became my goal to liberate her. That also took more complex development than expected. In the end, I had to focus only on one generation. My grandma’s generation would have to wait for a sequel. 


Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Candelaria Rivera and Yan Chi Wong?


A: The relationship between Candelaria and Yan Chi is no romance. They come together only because marriage seems a safe bet for a secure life as immigrants. They become grudging partners in the struggle to survive the American Dream. 


Candelaria and Yan Chi—nicknamed Yankee—are also survivors of violent traumas, who hope family might be a haven in an unwelcoming new world. But is it? This story poses questions about the meaning of home, family, and how far we go to protect those things.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’m also the author of a memoir, coauthor of several other books, and a winner of The Moth StorySLAM who tells true personal stories onstage.


To find my books and storytelling shows, please check out my website,, or find @CaraLopezLee on my socials, including Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok. Thank you for supporting stories!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 31



May 31, 1819: Walt Whitman born.

Thursday, May 30, 2024

Q&A with Katie Sise




Katie Sise is the author of the new novel The Vacation Rental. Her other books include the novel The Break. A former TV host and jewelry designer, she lives outside New York City.


Q: What inspired you to write The Vacation Rental, and how did you create your characters Georgia and Anna?


A: I was inspired to write The Vacation Rental after listening to a friend's story about how she planned to rent out her beautiful country home during the pandemic. I kept thinking ... hmm, turning your keys over to a stranger, letting them inside your home, inside your life ... It just felt like the perfect backdrop for a thriller. 


Georgia and Anna felt like nice counterpoints for each other. I remember being Anna's age (26) and living an artistic life in the city. And then Georgia, a mom to a 12-year-old, living in the countryside; I know that life, too. So I felt like I could do them justice and that they'd complement each other. Hopefully, I did! 


Q: The novel is set in New York City as well as two towns in New York State and Connecticut. Why did you choose these locations, and how important is setting to you in your writing?


A: Setting is so important! When I read other writers who do setting well, it's almost like the setting is a character herself. I love the feeling of a living, breathing place. I tried to do that with New York City, Southport, and then the fictional town of Waring Ridge, which is inspired by the town in which I live. 


Q: What do you see as the role of the supernatural in the novel?


A: This was a tricky element of writing this story; and it underwent many revisions.


I wanted my characters to be open to the idea of something supernatural occurring and driving events. But I didn't want to be prescriptive--I didn't want there to be an exact answer. I wanted the characters to wonder alongside the reader what was really going on inside the house.


I wanted the main driver of events to be the real live humans in the story, not the supernatural, but I loved the idea that an old house would hold the energy of the people who once lived there. 


Q: Did you know all the twists the plot would take before you started writing the book?


A: No, and I never do. I always find that to be the fun part of writing: that I have to keep going to see what will happen! 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I'm working on the next book in my contract, titled What Must You Think of Me, another thriller. I'm really excited about it! It's being published with Amazon Publishing/Little A in 2025.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Katie Sise.

Q&A with Hillary Harper




Hillary Harper is the author of the new children's picture book 1-2-3, A Deep Breath for Me. Her other work includes the picture book Thankful FUR You. She is also an educator.


Q: What inspired you to write 1-2-3, A Deep Breath for Me, and how did you create your character, Mack?


A: The inspiration for this book originated from our family dog, Mack, who grapples with anxiety. We've tried different approaches to soothe him.


Drawing from our experiences with our dog, my aim was to address the increase in anxiety among children after the pandemic. The objective was to create a new picture book focused on teaching self-regulation techniques and relaxation methods to children dealing with anxiety.


Q: What do you think Felipe Calv’s illustrations add to the book?


A: We have received amazing reviews of Calv’s illustrations for this book, and they are all well deserved. Kirkus Indie Review sums up my feelings about his work perfectly:


“Calv brings Mack and Gertie to vivid life through his deceptively simple full-color illustrations—even without the text, young readers will likely be able to determine what Mack and Gertie are feeling, thanks to the telling looks on their faces. The calming colors—browns and deep reds as opposed to brighter hues—emphasize the sense of calm that Mack is looking for.”

Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Mack and Gertie?


A: Mack and Gertie are best friends. Gertie was Mack’s guide in real life, as she is in the story. They did everything together when she was still with us. Mack misses her very much. You can find details about both dogs and real-life photos in the back of the book,


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


A: I aim for this book to serve as a tool for teaching children self-regulation skills and as a comforting story for them during emotional moments. My hope is that they can use the rhyme (1-2-3, A Deep Breath for Me) as a new calming technique used in the classroom for all of the students.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am developing a journal to complement this book. It will include a segment for children to draw, write, and contemplate their feelings. Moreover, there will be coloring pages and interactive tasks to assist children in redirecting their attention during anxious moments.


At the moment, I am working on my third book, centered on a lively cat and her dearest friend. They employ their imagination to uncover the reason behind the cat's daily deliveries of piles of leaves to her owners. This tale is influenced by Mary, the renowned Instagram cat of my friend.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: The first children’s story I wrote was during my junior year of college, and it was titled “The Girl with the Pink Roller Skates.” I may turn it into a children’s book at some point.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This post was created in partnership with Hillary Harper. Enter the giveaway for the chance to win a copy of 1-2-3, A Deep Breath for Me, signed by Hillary Harper as well as a children’s journal companion to the book.

May 30



May 30, 1938: Billie Letts born.

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Q&A with Ray E. Boomhower




Ray E. Boomhower is the author of the new book The Ultimate Protest: Malcolm W. Browne, Thich Quang Duc, and the News Photograph That Stunned the World. It focuses on the Vietnam War, highlighting the experiences of journalist Malcolm Browne and his photograph of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc. Boomhower's other books include a biography of journalist Richard Tregaskis. Boomhower is a senior editor at the Indiana Historical Society Press.


Q: Why did you decide to write about Malcolm Browne and Thich Quang Duc in your new book?


A: My biography of Malcolm Browne and his famous photograph of Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation grew directly out of my previous book for the University of New Mexico Press, which focused on the life of World War II correspondent Richard Tregaskis.


In the early 1960s, Tregaskis had traveled to South Vietnam to obtain a “firsthand, eyewitness look at the strange, off-beath, new-style war” in which U.S. advisers tried to turn the Army of the Republic of Vietnam into a professional fighting force against guerilla forces backed by Communist North Vietnam.


During his stay, Tregaskis clashed with one of the young journalists covering the war—David Halberstam of The New York Times, with the older reporter telling Halberstam: “If I were doing what you are doing, I’d be ashamed of myself.”


Tregaskis’s uncharitable view of the younger man continued when he reviewed Halberstam’s 1965 book The Making of a Quagmire. Instead of Halberstam’s work, Tregaskis suggested that a “more temperate example” of the new books about Vietnam came from a reporter named Malcolm Browne, who had been head of the Associated Press bureau in Saigon since 1961.


I was intrigued by Tregaskis’s mention of Browne, who shared the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting with Halberstam. Although I had known about the Quang Duc photo, I did not know that it had been captured on film by Browne.


How did Browne manage to be in the right place at the right time to snap his famous photo? I was determined to find out. After all, my recent biographical work has focused on journalists and their work. To me, Browne was the perfect subject.


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


A: Browne’s papers are in the Library of Congress’s Manuscript Reading Room in the James Madison Memorial Building in Washington, D.C. I knew I had picked the right subject early on while reviewing Browne’s correspondence.


In 1967 he had outlined for an interested reader what he believed his role as a journalist should be. Browne wrote: “In a free society the duty of all newsmen is to tell all of the people all of the truth all of the time. The newsman is obliged to fight forces that interfere with this vital process.” Quite the goal!


I was surprised by the scope of Browne’s career as a foreign correspondent. He reported from the Vietnam War from 1961 to 1966, returning to South Vietnam in 1972 to cover a North Vietnamese offensive for The New York Times, and returning three years later to be there for Saigon’s fall to the Communists.


Although Browne was close to turning 60 at the time, the Times sent him to the Persian Gulf in the winter of 1991.


President George H. W. Bush had assembled an international coalition of approximately 40 countries to face off against Iraqi forces, who had invaded and taken over the oil-rich nation of Kuwait in August 1990.


The rules imposed by U.S. military authorities made the Gulf War “more difficult to cover” than anything Browne had experienced before, except for the Indian-Pakistan conflict in 1971.


During the month he spent in Saudi Arabia, he could not escape the feeling that the military had learned all the wrong lessons from its 1983 invasion of Grenada, a smashing triumph for American troops, all without the bothersome presence of civilian journalists.


Q: What do you see as the legacy of Browne’s photograph? What are some other photos that you think had a similar impact since then?


A: Although Browne left Vietnam in 1966 for a reporting career that took him all over the world, from South America to Eastern Europe and even the frozen Antarctic, his legacy has always included his haunting photograph of Quang Duc in flames, often cited under the title “The Ultimate Protest.”


The photograph has become one of the iconic images of the Vietnam War, seared into the collective American conscience alongside two other AP photographs—Eddie Adams’s “Saigon Execution,” his graphic shot of a suspected Viet Cong guerrilla being summarily executed at point-blank range by a South Vietnamese police chief, and Nick Ut’s “Terror of War,” showing a naked, 9-year-old girl screaming as she runs down a road with her skin burned from a South Vietnamese napalm bombing that mistakenly hit her village.


Browne, who won a Pulitzer in 1964 for his reporting from Vietnam, was often asked if he could have done anything to prevent Quang Duc from taking his life.

But Browne realized that it would have been fruitless to try to intervene. The monks and nuns gathered for the protest stood ready to block anyone who dared to interfere. When a fire truck appeared, some of the monks had leapt in front of their wheels to stop them.


Quang Duc’s sacrifice weighed on Browne, who died on August 27, 2012. “I don’t think many journalists take pleasure from human suffering,” he noted, but he did have to admit to “having sometimes profited from others’ pain.”


Although by no means intentional on his part, that fact did not help, Browne noted. “Journalists inadvertently influence events they cover, and although the effects are sometimes for the good, they can also be tragic,” he said. “Either way, when death is the outcome, psychic scars remain.” 


There were other deaths that Browne witnessed in Vietnam—losses that became mere “footnotes” in the history of the war compared to the “theater of the horrible” that Quang Duc’s sacrifice represented for his cause.


Browne, however, never forget them. He had learned during his career to deal with “the ugliest events of our times,” including keep his wits as he observed the dead and wounded on a battlefield. Browne was able to do his job by “concentrating on the mechanics of news covering. I have the nightmares afterwards.”


Thinking about what images might have the enduring impact that Browne’s has had, I immediately thought of another enduring image of protest—“The Tank Man,” a photograph made by Jeff Widener of the Associated Press of a lone man standing in front of a line of tanks leaving Tiananmen Square in Beijing on June 5, 1989, after the Chinese government crackdown on pro-democracy protestors.


I believe that no other photograph captures bravery and determination in the face of impossible odds.


Q: The historian Mark Atwood Lawrence said of the book, “With meticulous attention to detail, The Ultimate Protest deftly captures the dilemmas that faced journalists during the Vietnam War--and that continue to face reporters in more recent times.” What do you think of that description?


A: Mr. Lawrence does a great job of describing the book in just a few words, as well as posing the continuing difficulties a reporter faces.


Despite the frustrations Browne faced when dealing with those in authority who wished to tailor the news to fit their own needs, he persevered, believing that the free press would remain alive and vibrant.


Browne took as his inspiration the example of the great Irish reporter William Howard Russell, who had been sent by The Times of London to cover the Crimean War.


British authorities threw Russell out of its headquarters area, going as far as depriving him of food, shelter, and transport. The British commander, Lord Raglan, prohibited his officers from talking to the reporter. “Despite their hostility, Russell covered every major action of that war, in mortal danger most of the time,” Browne noted.


In his dispatches for The Times, Russell did more than just “root for the home team,” Browne recalled.


Although he had touted the bravery of British soldiers—the “thin red line tipped with steel”—Russell let his readers know that the commanders who had ordered the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade into the deadly fire of Russian artillery had also mishandled every other aspect of the war.


They had bungled the supply situation, leaving their men with inadequate stocks of blankets and uniforms, and British soldiers were “dying in large numbers of illnesses and infected wounds, for want of medical attention,” Browne said.


Russell’s words mattered: “Parliament and the English public were electrified. The commanders were changed, Florence Nightingale went to the Crimea (incidentally founding the Red Cross) and the fat was pulled out of the fire.”


Because of his articles, Russell became known as “the man who saved an army.” Browne always tried to remember that his idol had not earned that title by being “a brainless journalistic cheer leader.”


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I recently signed a contract to work with the University of New Mexico Press once again, writing the first biography of pioneering Black journalist Wallace H. Terry, who covered the civil rights movement in the 1960s from Malcolm X to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and risked his life writing for Time magazine on the battlefield during the Vietnam War.


While in Vietnam, he captured the voices and experiences of Black soldiers, using the insights he gained to produce the classic book Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans (1984).


The book will examine the life and times of a journalist who displayed great determination and drive from the beginning of his start in the profession, which included groundbreaking positions at his high school and college newspapers.


Terry became used to being in the public eye, as his career received sustained attention from his hometown African American newspaper, the Indianapolis Recorder. He possessed the self-assurance of someone who loved to ride rickety wooden roller coasters for fun. 


Terry’s trailblazing in journalism continued at The Washington Post newspaper, where he served as one of only three Black reporters there in the early 1960s, and Time magazine, where he became the first black correspondent working for a major American news magazine.


He became deeply enmeshed in reporting about the civil rights movement, considering it “the biggest story in the county. It was a story that I passionately cared for because it was going to affect me, my family, my children, and generations of black people to come.”


After volunteering to serve as a Time correspondent covering the Vietnam War, Terry discovered that war often brought out the worst in men, but also sometimes their best, especially compassion and love for each other regardless of the color of their skin—a camaraderie forged in battle.


“That’s the lasting message, the only positive message, about Vietnam,” he said. “The rest of it is nonsense. Foolishness.”


Terry found it ironic that the closest America came to the kind of society Martin Luther King had dreamed about came during “the middle of a war he hated.”


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: There were some fun facts I uncovered while doing my research: I learned that Browne was a distant relative of English wit and writer Oscar Wilde.


Browne considered himself an “accidental journalist,” as he started out as a laboratory chemist, switching to journalism after service in the U.S. Army in postwar South Korea.


His early experience came as a newspaper reporter for the Middletown Daily Record in Middletown, New York, working with a young journalist named Hunter Thompson, and reporting from Havana, Cuba, during the early days of Fidel Castro’s regime.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Ruth Behar




Ruth Behar is the author of the new middle grade novel Across So Many Seas. Her other books include Lucky Broken Girl. She is an anthropology professor at the University of Michigan and lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.


Q: You’ve written that Across So Many Seas was inspired in part by your grandmother--can you say more about that, and about how you created your four protagonists?


A: My father’s mother, Rebecca, grew up in the Sephardic Jewish community of the small Turkish seaside town of Silivri, near Istanbul. Her parents sent her all alone to Cuba in the 1920s. Her younger sisters and brothers stayed in Silivri, as did her parents, whom she never saw again.


No one in our family is entirely sure why she traveled to Cuba all alone. The story I always heard was that she was sent on an arranged marriage, but by the time she arrived in Havana the man she was supposed to marry had already married someone else. She was taken in by an uncle.


She had brought an oud to accompany her singing in Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish, the language of Sephardic Jews. Sitting in the entranceway of her uncle’s house, singing and strumming on her oud, she attracted the man who became my grandfather. But after they married and had four children, she stopped singing, hung her oud on a nail on the wall, and never touched it again.


I was so touched by this story that it became the inspiration for the book. Rather than simply tell her story, I chose to place it in a larger historical frame.

Toledo, Spain

Reina’s life parallels that of my grandmother. I imagined her ancestor, Benvenida, who is forced to leave Toledo, Spain in 1492, after the Spanish queen and king ordered the expulsion of the Jews from the kingdom, as well as two of her descendants, her daughter, Alegra, who is born in Cuba and participates in the Cuban Revolution, and her granddaughter, Paloma, who is born in Miami and seeks to understand the stories and songs and dreams that the women in her family have passed on to her.


Q: How did you decide on the time periods to focus on in the novel?


A: I chose time periods that were moments of historical transformation. I start with 1492, the era of expulsion and displacement when thousands of Jews who had deep roots in Spain were forced to leave to hold on to their faith.


That year is better known for Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas, and maybe for Spain’s conquest of Granada, the last Muslim kingdom on the peninsula. I wanted to call attention to the “other 1492,” which readers may not know about at all, but which is of huge significance to Sephardic Jews.


I then move to 1923, the era after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, when Turkey gains its independence as a nation and begins to enforce nationalist changes that Sephardic Jews are concerned will affect their ability to hold on to their language and traditions.


After that, we are in 1961 in Cuba, two years after the triumph of the revolution led by Fidel Castro, when a literacy campaign takes place bringing thousands of young people from Havana to remote towns and villages the countryside to teach farmers how to read and write.


And then, in the last section, we move to 2003, the year that Celia Cruz, the “Queen of Salsa,” dies and a memorial is held for her in Miami, and soon after, Paloma travels with Reina and Alegra to Toledo, Spain, where they find a connection to 1492, and Benvenida, in the Sephardic Museum that is housed in what was once a 14th-century synagogue.


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


A: I did historical research, reading about the four historical periods that I write about – medieval Spain, modern Turkey, revolutionary Cuba, and contemporary Miami.


I had already immersed myself in all the places that became the setting for the story. I’ve lived in Spain and have visited Toledo and its Sephardic Museum many times. I visited Turkey and was able to step inside the house where my grandmother lived in the town of Silivri.


I’ve gone back numerous times to Cuba and have researched the Jewish presence there. And I have spent time in Miami over the years, getting to know the Cuban immigrant community.


For me, being in places is extremely important. That comes from my background as a cultural anthropologist, but also from having been an immigrant child and experiencing displacement and the need to create memories of places in order not to lose them.


I travel to the lost places of my history seeking the memories which become the foundation for my storytelling.


In researching Across So Many Seas, there were many interesting surprises.


One of the early ones was learning that as the Jews left Spain, though they were heartbroken, they sang to keep their spirits up. This was recorded in a chronicle by a Spanish priest who watched the Jews as they departed and wished they’d taken an easier route by staying and accepting baptism. An excerpt from that chronicle is the epigraph to the book.


Q: The author Alan Gratz said of the novel, “As lyrical as it is epic, Across So Many Seas reminds us that while the past may be another country, it’s also a living, breathing song of sadness and joy that helps define who we are.” What do you think of that description?


A: I love it! I am grateful for these kind words from Alan Gratz, whose books I admire so much and have found hugely inspiring. And they are profound words too. The past lives on in cultural traditions, language, identity, storytelling, religion.


It’s a theme I’ve found fascinating as both an anthropologist and a writer of historical fiction. The first book I wrote, based on my dissertation, was about “the presence of the past in a Spanish village.”


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on a middle-grade verse novel. I’ve been an admirer of the genre for a long time and I thought I’d give it a try. I can’t say more until it’s done. If I talk too much about it, the story will lose its magic… I’m also working on a couple of picture books, inspired by my new role as a grandmother!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Ruth Behar.