Monday, July 15, 2024

Q&A with David Ignatius




David Ignatius is the author of the new novel Phantom Orbit. His other  novels include The Paladin. A columnist for The Washington Post, he lives in Washington, D.C.


Q: What inspired you to write Phantom Orbit, and how did you create your character Ivan Volkov?


A: Phantom Orbit began with two ideas: I wanted to write about space weapons—which I think are the fascinating, super-scary “high frontier” of military and intelligence activities—and I wanted to have a Russian hero who embodied the qualities of Russians whose lives and families were destroyed after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The two came together in this novel.


I had an unusual research problem: My character Ivan was born in Magnitogorsk, the Pittsburgh of Russia, deep in the Urals, a city that was devastated in the post-Soviet era. I was planning to travel to Magnitogorsk to do research and had obtained a Russian visa.


But then Russia invaded Ukraine, and for some strange reason Russia put me on its sanctions list, banning me from travel there. So, I had to invent Ivan and his world using the internet and my imagination.


Part of Ivan’s story takes place in the tragic world that followed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I’ve seen that conflict close up in four trips to Ukraine since the war began—some of them focused on reporting about the use of high-tech space weapons in the war.


Q: As a novelist and columnist, how do the two coexist for you?


A: I thought when I published my first novel Agents of Innocence in 1987 that I would have to choose between the two vocations. But I couldn’t decide which fork in the road to take, and I’m glad I didn’t—because as it worked out, my journalism and fiction support and reinforce each other.


Reporting my columns, I am constantly travelling the terrain of the spy novel—journeying abroad to Ukraine, the Middle East, Europe and Asia. I write columns about those places for The Washington Post, twice a week. But on any subject that really engages me. I have more to say than you can fit into the standard 800-word package of a newspaper column.

Writing fiction lets me unpack these stories and people—and paint on a much broader canvas where I can let the story be as complicated and ambiguous as most things are in real life.


I think being a reporter/columnist makes me a better novelist, more grounded in fact. And the imaginative stretch of writing fiction makes me a better journalist who can use language more creatively to tell stories.


The biggest reason, to be honest, is that I love both pursuits and couldn’t bear to give either one up. 


Q: Can you say more about how you researched the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I described my research in Russia—and the bizarre fact that I got put on the “banned” list—I’ll bet I’m the only novelist who can say that!


In addition, I tried to immerse myself in the world space operations. I met with two heads of the newly-created U.S. Space Force, and some of their strategists. I visited the National Reconnaissance Office, the agency the spy-satellite agency whose very existence was once secret. I visited the amazing government-backed think tank for space operations, called the Aerospace Corp., in Los Angeles.


What surprised me in my space research was the astonishing creativity of new startups in space—the best example is Elon Musk’s “Starlink.” I talked to his company and a dozen other space entrepreneurs to understand the technologies I was writing about in my book.


And as always in researching my fiction, I talked to many intelligence officers to get a feel for details—including the topic of sexual harassment in the CIA, which is a subplot in the book. 


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the novel called it “contemporary cloak-and-dagger intrigue at its finest.” What do you think of that description?


A: I was very pleased and flattered. You work hard on a book, and it’s immensely gratifying when readers—especially reviewers—understand what you’re trying to say.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on a novel about the intelligence battles between the United States and China, called The Tao of Deception, that will expand a short 25,000-word version that was serialized in four parts last summer in The Washington Post.


And I’m writing another short novel for serialization this summer about some deadly Russian intelligence operations in the United States, tentatively titled Little Moscow. I plan to expand it, as well, to book length in rich detail. I don’t think this one will get me off the “banned” list.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Ryan Prior




Ryan Prior is the author of the book The Long Haul: How Long Covid Survivors Are Revolutionizing Healthcare. A journalist, he was a fellow/journalist-in-residence at The Century Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think tank.



Q: What inspired you to write The Long Haul?

A: In many ways, this book was more than a decade in the making.


I first came down with a post-infectious illness, called myalgic encephalomyelitis (chronic fatigue syndrome), in 2006. I wrote about that experience for USA Today in 2012.


After college, I went on to travel the country directing a documentary about it called Forgotten Plague. I became a co-founding board member of the ME Action Network, which seeks to ignite global revolution for chronic illness equity. I served as a Stanford Medicine X ePatient Scholar, meeting dozens of leading health innovators from cancer to diabetes.


I was writing for the science and features desks at CNN when the Covid pandemic broke out in 2020. Everyone within the chronic illness community was vigilant that Covid would lead to long-term effects for millions of sufferers in ways that the mainstream medical establishment wasn’t ready for. At this same time, the massive attention on Long Covid could mark a paradigm shift in science, spurring a surge of research that could yield insights into why some people never recover. 


As a patient advocate and a writer for an international outlet, I felt that I had a duty and platform to tell this story in a way no one else could.


Q: The writer Ed Yong said of the book, “Long haulers are the heroes of their own story, and this important book beautifully captures their struggle and their courage.” What do you think of that description?


A: I feel deeply honored that Ed was able to praise the book. He is one of my science writing heroes. With every story I write, I try to capture my subjects with dignity and present the best version of them to the world. This is of particular importance in portraying the marginalized: the poor, the incarcerated, the neglected, and the sick. 


In striving to capture people’s core essences, journalism can transcend mere reporting and become more like literature. I did this in this book because I know the characters’ journeys intimately: telling their stories is a way of telling my own. I wanted to cast each person’s quest for health, for redemption, and for reclaiming their dreams in a global tapestry.


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


A: As a journalist, I used standard reporting techniques in reaching out for interviews to patients, scientists, and doctors at the cutting edge. As the writing took place during the pandemic, nearly all the interviews were over Zoom, rather than in person.


On CNN's health team, I had spent much of my days pouring over the latest peer-reviewed literature on Covid. As a filmmaker and patient advocate outside of work, I was already well-acquainted with many of the key sources in the book.


I wasn't surprised that Long Covid was similar to many infection-associated chronic illnesses. Most of what I learned was about the publishing industry, and how it differs from the craft of daily journalism. By far and away, the hardest part of this journey was that I had to step away from a full-time job at a company that I loved.


Q: What do you see looking ahead when it comes to understanding Long Covid?


A: Right now, Sen. Bernie Sanders is working on legislation for the “Long Covid Moonshot,” which, if passed, would fund Long Covid research to the tune of $1 billion per year for ten years. This could transform the field and lead to treatments that could help patients get their lives back.


There is a tremendous and growing body of research showing that Long Covid is linked to viral persistence, microclots, viral reactivation, inflammation, gut dysbiosis, and dysautonomia. Much of that is not a surprise.


Similarly, I’m working with a team of leaders from a host of chronic illness patient groups (for Lyme, ME/CFS, dysautonomia, Long Covid, etc.) to create a bill that would authorize an Office of Infection-Associated Chronic Illness Research at the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Patients with these types of conditions have largely been neglected by mainstream medicine, and Covid could be the moment that ushers them into the fold.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working with a co-producer in creating a pitch for a Netflix-style docuseries called Moonshots, which would profile cutting-edge innovators building new technologies that can exponentially transform human life for the better.


With each new project I take on, I try to ask myself how to build on what I’ve done before, and expand to tell a story with 10 times more impact than the previous one. We expect to begin talking with production companies or streaming platforms this summer.

In July, I will start a master’s in public administration at the Harvard Kennedy School, where I will be a William A. Starr Journalism Innovations Fellow. I hope to continue developing new ways of telling stories and transforming the whole journalism sector. I’m excited to pursue opportunities with the MIT Media Lab as well as Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy.


Q: Anything else we should know?


Q: When I submitted the draft to the publisher in February 2022, I was dismayed because I felt like the story was only half complete, and didn’t yet have the happy ending I’d been craving. However, in the first few months of 2024, that has changed. With a leading senator harnessing the power of the Long Covid movement, we are seeing real possibility for the Long Covid moonshot to become reality.


Threaded throughout this book is a faith in democracy and in bottom-up or people-powered movements to organize and coalesce to lead necessary policy changes. Although it took a little longer than I’d hoped, I’m excited to say that for the chronic illness community, that goal may finally be within reach.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Tim Piper




Tim Piper is the author of the new novel The Yellowstone Campaign, the second in his Jubilee Walker series. He retired from an IT career, and he lives in Bloomington, Illinois.


Q: This is the second book in your Jubilee Walker series--do you think he’s changed from one book to the next?


A: As The Yellowstone Campaign opens, Jubil is still the earnest, restless, adventure-lover we came to know in The Powell Expeditions, but he has matured considerably.


Now approaching his 21st birthday, the past three years with Powell have seen him mature from a boy into a young man. He has not only found the adventure he was seeking, but a solid career in the outfitting business. He has gone from being orphaned to having a strong surrogate family, and his childhood friendship with Nelly has developed into an engagement to be married.


He has survived severe hardship on his adventures, which has taught him about leadership under stress and what is really important in life. He begins The Yellowstone Campaign enthusiastic and ambitious for the future.


Q: What inspired the plot of The Yellowstone Campaign?


A: When I finished The Powell Expeditions it seemed there was plenty of opportunity for Jubil to continue his adventures. I researched events happening at that time and found the expeditions that led to the creation of America’s first national park. That seemed like something that Jubil would have been involved with, and the Jubilee Walker series was born.


I developed a plot for my fictional protagonist in which he finds his way into that series of events, and wrote The Yellowstone Campaign, book two in the series.

Q: How did you research this book, and was your research process similar to that of the first book in the series?


A: For The Powell Expeditions, I was fortunate to have access to the John Wesley Powell Special Collection at Illinois Wesleyan University’s Ames Library, and the added benefit of the archive librarian directing me to other resources. For The Yellowstone Campaign I had no such guidance.


My research was done by reading history books and other historical accounts, and some firsthand experience from visits to the area. Beyond researching the events and characters involved in the expeditions and the political process, this book also required gathering insights into the remarkable sights, sounds, and smells of this unique region.


I was able to glean some help with that from books, but there is no real substitute for firsthand experience. The amenities in the park are much improved from its earliest days, but the geological wonders are largely unchanged.


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


A: As forces maneuver to either support the preservation of this natural wonder or demand the right to exploit its resources for monetary gain, it is interesting to watch America’s values at work during this period of westward expansion. However flawed and incomplete the effort to preserve the Yellowstone area may have been, the nation showed that its heart was in the right place.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Book three in the Jubilee Walker series, The Northern Pacific Railroad, will be published Jan. 15, 2025. I’m currently working on book four, which will be published in July 2025.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I think there will be one more book in the series. We’ll see.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Tim Piper.

Q&A with Victoria Ying


Photo by Lauren Justice



Victoria Ying is the adapter and illustrator of a new graphic novel version of the late Paula Danziger's classic children's novel Amber Brown Is Not a Crayon. Ying's other books include City of Secrets. She also works in the animation field, and she lives in Los Angeles.



Q: How did you create the art for this new version of Amber Brown?


A: I used a few different digital tools to create the artwork for Amber Brown. I first used Scrivener to lay out the script and adapt the original novel and then once that was approved, I moved to my iPad with an app called ComicDraw. In comic draw, I lay out the whole book in rough drawings with the panels and text filled in.


After that, I took it into Procreate where I cleaned up the drawings and did final lineart. The colors were done by Lynette Wong in Photoshop.

Q: The writer and artist Terri Libenson said of the book, “Funny and engaging, Amber Brown Is Not a Crayon is a charming take on a classic.” What do you think of that description, and how would you describe the relationship between the original book and your version of it?


A: I so appreciated Terri's blurb! A lot of the credit for the book obviously goes to Paula who created such a lovely and classic story of friendship to work with. I'm pleased to be able to do right by this book and fans of Paula's!


I tried to stay as true to the original as possible while also finding ways to use the unique medium of comics to bring a new sense of character and emotion to the book. I used almost every dialog line directly from the book, but made sure to emphasize the emotions that the characters were going through in drawings. 

Q: What do you see as Paula Danziger’s legacy?


A: Any children's book author whose work is so beloved is a precious legacy. She introduced many young people to reading and was able to reflect their own reality back to them in a touching and relevant way. I'm always in awe of authors who can speak to a child's experience in a way that feels as authentic as Paula's.

Q: What are you working on now?


A: I'm working on a few more graphic novel projects. My next YA contemporary book will be with First Second and is called Chasing Sunspots, due out in 2027! I also am working on a games project that I can't quite disclose yet, but which is opening me up to new ways of storytelling that are inspiring. 

Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I'm glad so many people are finding the world of graphic novels and I'm so proud to be part of this adaptation! I hope everyone keeps exploring new ways of reading the stories that they loved and sharing them with the young people in their lives! 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 15




July 15, 1919: Iris Murdoch born.

Sunday, July 14, 2024

Q&A with Carol Jameson



Carol Jameson is the author of the new novel Adam and Leonora. An educator, swimmer, and pianist, she lives in Richmond, California. 

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

A: I was inspired by a visit to the Lucid Art Foundation in Inverness, California, and the studio of Gordon Onslow Ford, a surrealist artist from the 1940s. He continued to paint for many years and his last place of residence was this studio in Inverness.

Adam is loosely based on this artist, Gordon Onslow Ford, and Leonora is a composite of me and many women that I know who create art and engage in dreams and their inspiration.

When I walked into Onslow Ford’s studio, I could feel his presence there in the room; all his art was still hanging on the wall (massive canvases of cosmic worlds) and his tools and paints still scattered on the work tables a decade after he had died. This created an atmosphere of enchantment, mystery and intrigue.

At that moment, I knew I had to write about this artist and the women who were his muses, lovers, and wife.

The cast of characters comes from Onslow Ford as Adam; Leonora, like I said, is a composite of myself and other artists and academics that I know since she is also a researcher of dreams; Pauline is loosely based on Onslow Ford’s wife Jacqueline Johnson, a writer; and Mimi is entirely out of my imagination of someone who would entice Adam in Paris during the 1930s.

I also used a couple of historical surrealists: Andre Breton is a fun sidekick for Adam; and Remedios Varro, the surrealist artist, is a confidante and friend of Pauline in Mexico. Finally, Wolfgang Paalen, a surrealist artist, writer, and creator of the surrealist journal, DYN, is a mysterious love interest for Pauline.

Q: How would you describe the relationship between your characters Adam and Leonora?

A: The relationship between Adam and Leonora is one of mutual respect for each other’s art and creative process but also a deeper personal attraction that may never manifest into a physical love but nevertheless is a strong bond between the two.

Leonora has an uncanny resemblance to Pauline, Adam’s wife, and so there’s a mystery as to whether she is somehow related to Pauline. Yet the reader never really knows what this could be: is Leonora Pauline in her second life or is it just coincidence that Leonora and Pauline look so much alike or…?

Q: The writer Jonathan Lethem described the book as “a Midsummer Night’s Dream of pure storytelling intoxication.” What do you think of that description?

A: Well, of course, any writer would love to be compared to Shakespeare, so I was thrilled with this description by Lethem. I think that A Midsummer Night’s Dream has themes of whimsy and magic and transformation that are a part of Adam and Leonora. And, of course, dreams are central to Adam and Leonora’s world and their creative process.

Then the idea that a storytelling narrative can intoxicate-- that one can be drunk on a story --is high praise indeed! Why drink martinis when you can pick up a book?

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

A: I purposely did very little research for the novel because I wanted it to be a work of fiction. While it’s loosely based on Onslow Ford and his life, all of the action and details are from my imagination.

I did incorporate many excerpts from Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto and learned that his idea of automatic writing, which I knew vaguely about, actually fit very well with Pauline’s struggle in the writing process. I did a little bit of research around Mexican healers, or curanderas, and was fascinated with the ritual and magic of these healers.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m currently at work on two writing projects. One is compiling my short stories that I’ve written over the last 20 to 30 years into a collection, The Red Dress, for a publisher who may be interested in them. These are stories about my time working in a bookstore, my time teaching in China and my time working at a coffee store.

Secondly, I’m drafting a novel, Bad Attitude, about my time as a soda jerk in Santa Cruz at Polar Bear ice cream in the 1980s and how this was the most fun I’d ever had. I have a great cast of characters loosely based on the people that I worked with and there are many shenanigans that occur during these stories. However, there are also some intense moments, too, that will be incorporated.

While this could be marketed as a memoir, I feel like it’s so far from what really did happen-- again my imagination takes off-- that it will become a novel. I hope that it will entertain and transport readers back to 1980s Santa Cruz with the story of a young woman at a loss for purpose who discovers it in the course of the novel.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I have a website that people can check out: 

I also write two blogs that I work on regularly. One is stories about swimming: Pool Purrs: The other is stories about walking that I began during the pandemic when I couldn’t swim: Walk with CJ: I also teach writing and piano and love working with writers and musicians on their projects.

Finally, on a personal note, I am a swimmer, a reader, and a lover of cats in spite of the naughtiness of my orange cat, Clara! 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Mary Payne Moran



Mary Payne Moran is the author of the new children's picture book The Vita Gang Mysteries: Who Stole Vita D?. A chef, nutritionist, and educator, she's based in Los Angeles.


Q: What inspired you to write The Vita Gang Mysteries?


A: The Vita Gang Mysteries began in 2009 when I launched a cooking tour to teach health, nutrition, and cooking, in parts of California and Oklahoma. I created the Vita Gang to help children recognize how each vitamin helped the body.  The children were very opinionated about what the characters should look like, where they should live, and so many other wonderful ideas. 


Over the years I collected all the ideas and added a lot of my own and wrote The Vita Gang Mysteries: Who Stole Vita D?. I began reading the story to hundreds of children while I taught cooking at The Agoura Arts Camp. The children once again offered ideas and opinions about the story. 


Finally in 2015, I set out to illustrate my book. I found Milo Neuman, a well-known storyboard artist at Disney Television Animation, to illustrate my book. It was joyful watching my creation come to life. Like many artistic creations, it took time to find the right time to publish it.


In 2022 I launched my cooking school, The Silver Lake Kitchen, and it seemed like the perfect time to publish The Vita Gang Mysteries!


Q: One of the characters in the book is Chef Mary, but how did you create the other characters?


A: The characters were so fun. I had to take a deep dive looking into all of the health benefits for each vitamin and what colors of foods they were most prevalent in. The vitamin characters were exciting to develop. 


Some were easier than others, because their superpowers were easy to portray. Vita C was the easiest, most children know Vitamin C helps you when you’re sick, and oranges have vitamin C and are the color orange. Therefore, her character was easy to build.  


Vita K’s coloring was easy as vitamin K is prevalent in green fruits and vegetables, but his superpowers were very difficult. Vitamin K helps the body make scabs and heal, so coming up with a way to connect that healing process to something children would respond to was challenging. I finally came up with the idea of Vita K having a super sticky glue to represent scabs and healing; kids love and remember it. 


I'd also love to share about Chef Mary as she was fun to develop as well. While I was teaching early on in my career, my cousin Bennett Berry, a prominent Oklahoma artist, drew a caricature of me. As the story developed, I wondered whether the character should exist and if she did should she still be named Mary?


The kids I read wanted me to keep her and I finally decided that “marry” is a kitchen term for adding two ingredients together, and one of the important characteristics about Chef Mary is she uses cooking terms in her conversations with The Vita Gang. 


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


A: There were parts of the story I knew before writing, but others naturally developed as I continued to teach and read rough drafts to different schools.


Teaching children over the years, I recognized getting kids to eat French fries was a lot easier than getting them to eat a plate of broccoli. It became important to visually show them why eating broccoli is good for their body. 


I also knew I didn’t want Franco fry to be a “bully” and French fries to be deemed “a bad food.” There are so many indulgent foods out there that can be eaten without guilt as long as we have them in moderation, and paired with healthy foods. 


Lastly, I wanted to share with kids of all ages (even adults) that eating new fruits, vegetables, and foods sometimes requires bravery. 


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


A: There are many wonderful messages in this book, but if I had to choose a few, first and foremost, I want them to take interest in nurturing their body with good and healthy food.


Second, I love the last line in the book, “the brave always balance.” I’ve started using this motto in my everyday life since publishing the book. There are so many pressures in our busy world, and it’s important to not overindulge in one area and leave the rest untended to. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on the second book in the series, and I’m so excited about it. I’m also working on a cookbook to help children and parents cook together. Both have been a dream for years. No release dates yet, but hopefully by end of year for the cookbook and 2025 for the next Vita Gang Mysteries. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I will be doing a book tour the last weeks of September 2024 through the Midwest and there’s still slots available for your school, bookstore, or gift shop! I’d love to include you. 


Book Tour Dates and Cities

Sept. 15, 16, Des Moines, Iowa

Sept. 18, Omaha, Nebraska

Sept. 19, 20, 21, Kansas City, Missouri

Sept. 23, 24, Wichita, Kansas

Sept. 26, 27, 28, Oklahoma City

Sept. 29, 30, Dallas, Texas


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 14




July 14, 1903: Irving Stone born.

Saturday, July 13, 2024

Q&A with Natalie Linn





Natalie Linn is the author and illustrator of the new middle grade graphic novel Bunnybirds


Q: What inspired you to create Bunnybirds, and how did you come up with the idea of a bunnybird?


A: I was lucky enough to take Calef Brown's 2016 Visual Thinking class at RISD; one week he challenged us to create an animal mashup. As a child I was enchanted by Ursula K. Le Guin's Catwings, so my first thought was "cute critter with wings!" The bunny part came from my childhood pet rabbits.


Here are the sketchbook pages I brought to class (with censor bars over the bad words haha):