Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Q&A with Anita Nair

 


 

 

Anita Nair is the author of the new novel Hot Stage, the latest in her Inspector Gowda series. Her books have been translated into more than 30 languages. She is based in India.

 

Q: Hot Stage is the third in your Inspector Gowda series—how would you describe your character at this point?

 

A: In Hot Stage, Inspector Gowda has been promoted and is now Assistant Commissioner of Police. Gowda realizes that nothing has changed except his designation. This makes him even more hungry to take on cases even if it means having to work with other crime investigation agencies like the Central Crime Bureau.

 

His passion for what he does is even keener, making him take risks that could end his career and ruin his relationships as well. This is the Gowda we meet in the first pages of Hot Stage.

 

Q: What inspired the plot of Hot Stage?

 

A: When I started work on Hot Stage, I wanted to explore the world of right-wing terrorism. Around that time, I met a youngish man who worked with special children. During several conversations, he revealed that he had trained as a kick boxer and that he had been involved in illegal fights once.  

 

Until then, I had never heard anything about illegal fights in Bangalore or anywhere in India and had thought that it was restricted to cinema. That illegal fights happen in Bangalore and every other metro in India. That these are big stake bets and a whole system has evolved around it set me thinking. 

 

Q: Do you usually know how your novels will end before you start writing them, or do you make many changes along the way?

 

A: Not to the exact detail but I have a broad sense of the story before I actually capture it. But when the actual writing begins, I discover each time, how everything is dynamic and there are instances where the end I had planned on no longer works. And hence I have to let the organic nature of storytelling lead me in another direction.


Q: The novel is set in Bangalore--how important is setting to you in your writing?

 

A: The setting and the storyline almost always occur to me at the same time.

 

For instance, the Borei Gowda series is intrinsically related to Bengaluru as it is called now. But Gowda, the character is synonymous with Bangalore. The city as it once was. Borei Gowda is a Bangalore boy of the ‘70s and ‘80s.

 

His persona is drawn from his childhood and early adulthood. Which is why his understanding of crime and criminals is caught in a rather precarious place because nothing is what it seems anymore. The Bangalore of his youth has changed into something he barely recognises. The demands made on him by the city and its people are very different from what he was used to.

 

Gentle laid-back Bangalore is now this monster city that never sleeps. So to survive Borei Gowda has to evolve with the city and up his game.

 

And the city and its secrets add to the narrative in a way that wouldn’t be the same if the Gowda series was set in another city. For Bengaluru determines both the plot and pace.

 

While the nature of the crime might not differ from place to place, what drives the crime and criminal is very rooted in where the crime takes place. The scene of crime is not just an investigator’s starting point, it is also the writer’s.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: A children’s book about an 8-year-old boy.

 

And a collection of state of the nation stories spanning the last decade in India. 

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: The fourth novel in the Gowda series is already brewing in my head….

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with William Cooper

 

 


 

William Cooper is the author of the new book How America Works...and Why It Doesn't. He is also a lawyer and a columnist. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times.

 

Q: What inspired you to write How America Works...and Why It Doesn’t?

 

A: My concern that the American people are becoming unmoored from both reality and the principles that have shaped our nation. It's not a good combination.  

 

Q: In a piece on CNN's website, you wrote that “if Trump wins, my view is that American democracy will be replaced by American ‘chaosracy’ — an incoherent, volatile and unpredictable mix of some government institutions that function democratically and some that don’t.” Can you say more about that?

 

A: Trump neither understands nor respects the constitution, so his governance would be volatile and, lacking guardrails, unpredictable. 

 

Q: What do you think has led to the situation we find ourselves in today?

 

A: A mix of inherent cognitive bias, social media, and a political system that exacerbates tribalism. It's a flywheel accelerating in the wrong direction. 

 

Q: What do you see looking ahead when it comes to November's election?

 

A: The road to the election will be very bumpy. So will the subsequent four years, no matter who wins. 

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: Columns that touch on these themes. 

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 24

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY

July 24, 1802: Alexandre Dumas born.

Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Q&A with Mikita Brottman

 

Photo by Dereck Stafford



 

 

Mikita Brottman is the author of the new book Guilty Creatures: Sex, God, and Murder in Tallahassee, Florida. Her other books include An Unexplained Death. She is also a professor of literature at the Maryland Institute College of Art and a psychoanalyst, and she lives in Baltimore.

 

 

Q: What inspired you to write Guilty Creatures, and how did you learn about this case?

 

A: I first heard about the case back in 2018, right after Denise’s trial. I have a longstanding interest in court trials, and at the time I had a podcast called Forensic Transmissions, in which I aired segments of crime-related public domain audio, mostly testimony from court trials.

 

So, I’m always looking for interesting audio, trawling the Court TV archives, which is where I came across footage of Brian Winchester’s confession.

 

This was in 2018, 18 years after Brian murdered his best friend. He's confessing in public, and it’s gut-wrenching. I’d never seen anything like it—watching a 50-year-old man reveal a horrible secret he’s been keeping for 18 years. You can see and feel the deep horror and shame and guilt, and a sense of release.

 

I immediately found out everything I could about the case and started to write about it.

 

Q: The author Becky Cooper called the book a “compelling psychological double portrait of what happens when two people are forever bound by a life-altering secret.” What do you think of that description?

 

A: I think it's very appropriate because the book is really about the psychology of a couple who commit murder, in particular the ways they defended themselves against guilt through the years — this astonishing range of psychological manipulations, maneuverings, justifications, denials.

 

And their relation to one another, which began as complete united devotion to concealment at all costs, and how the murder bore down on them, driving them in different directions, then back together, then apart.

 

At different times, one of them might bear the guilt, then the guilt would be unloaded on to the other, moving the terrible burden back and forth, always unconsciously. And, how they squared it with their Baptist religion.  

 

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

 

A: The book's title is a line from Hamlet. I chose it partly because the case has so many uncanny resonances with classical literature.

 

The story is basically the plot of Macbeth, where a couple commits a murder to benefit their own social position without realizing how it’s going to come back and haunt them, destroying their relationship.

 

At first Lady Macbeth is the one in charge, the aggressive one, and Macbeth is reluctant, but over time their position changes and it’s Lady Macbeth who can’t bear the guilt, where Macbeth goes into deep denial.

 

There are also echoes of the Oresteia, by Aeschylus, in which Agamemnon is murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover. It's full of classical figures, like the seductress and the avenging mother.

 

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

 

A: Obviously, I did a lot of research—this book took four years to write. And of course, I went to Tallahassee and interviewed people, visited the places involved, and so on.

 

I can’t say much about who I spoke to, as a lot of people wanted to remain anonymous, and I want to protect my sources, but I can tell you that neither Brian nor Denise, the murderers, who are both in prison in Florida, responded to my attempt to reach out to them for interview.

 

I was surprised by how many people in the community were aware of the murder, and had suspicions about the perpetrators all along, but never came forward.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

  

A: Another Florida murder case, the Teresa Sievers case. Another bizarre murder involving lots of twists and turns, swinging, open marriages, the American tradition of quacks, charlatans, petty conmen, shady “healers” and insurance scams. It’s fascinating!

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I think the book will appeal to everyone - not only true crime fans! I tried to make it as much of a page-turner as possible.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Chatham Greenfield

 


 

 

Chatham Greenfield is the author of the new young adult novel Time and Time Again.

 

Q: What inspired you to write Time and Time Again, and how did you create your characters Phoebe and Jess?

 

A: Time and Time Again was inspired by my realization that being disabled often feels like being trapped in a Groundhog Day-esque time loop. There’s constant doctor’s appointments, being stuck in bed, repetitive conversations with people who don’t believe your pain, and even more doctor’s appointments.


I decided to play with that by writing a chronically ill character (Phoebe) who's stuck in an actual time loop. Since being disabled is often an isolating experience, I wanted Phoebe to be stuck with Jess, who's also chronically ill and inherently understands her.

 

From there, I dug into Phoebe and Jess’s backstory as estranged childhood best friends and crafted their “opposites attract” dynamic.

 

Q: The writer Rachel Lynn Solomon called the novel an “endearing, romantic, wonderfully time-bendy debut about how it feels to be seen for exactly who you are.” What do you think of that description?

 

A: One of the most exciting parts of publishing a book is getting blurbs and having the opportunity to hear what your favorite authors think of your writing.

 

I was so touched by these kind words from Rachel. I think saying the book is about “how it feels to be seen for exactly who you are” sums it up well. Time and Time Again is ultimately about Phoebe learning that she deserves to be truly seen and loved.


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

 

A: I did know the ending from the beginning, yes. What changed along the way was the details of how that ending was reached.

 

I had the amazing opportunity of being a fellow in Reese's Book Club's LitUp fellowship, which provides mentorship and marketing support to debut marginalized women and nonbinary authors.

 

Through that fellowship, I was mentored by RBC author Laura Taylor Namey, who gave me edits on an early draft of Time and Time Again. Laura advised me to really narrow in on Phoebe's motivation to escape the time loop and tie that into her arc. Although the ending was already clear to me, she helped me figure out who Phoebe would grow into by the end of the book, which was key.

 

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

 

A: I hope readers take away that they deserve to be taken seriously and they deserve to be loved. A big part of Phoebe's journey is her grappling with having a dad and doctors who don't take her debilitating IBS seriously. They dismiss her pain, in part because she's fat.

 

Just like Phoebe learns in the book, I want readers to know that their health is worth advocating for and they deserve to be listened to. 

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’m currently working on my second YA romance (a standalone) which will publish with Bloomsbury Children’s in 2025.

 

It’s similar to Time and Time Again in that it’s a lesbian love story and delves into topics of disability and the lovely mess that is coming of age. It’s different in that it’s solidly contemporary (time moves forward in this one!) and it’s enemies to friends to lovers, one of my favorite tropes. I’m having a lot of fun revising it and I can’t wait to share more details soon! 

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: Time and Time Again is my debut novel and it’s such an honor to see this disabled, Jewish, lesbian love story go from my heart to shelves. It’s sappy and summery and I hope readers have as much fun reading it as I had writing it!

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 23

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY

July 23, 1888: Raymond Chandler born.

Monday, July 22, 2024

Q&A with Sofia Robleda

 


 

Sofia Robleda is the author of the new novel Daughter of Fire. Also a psychologist, she is originally from Mexico and lives in the UK.

 

Q: What inspired you to write Daughter of Fire, and how did you create your character Catalina?

 

A: In 2018 I asked for a DNA test as my Christmas present. The results took months to come, and as I'd expected, the majority of my “blood” was European/Spanish.

 

What I didn't know, is that I also had a fair percentage of Indigenous “New World” blood, as they called it. I started reading more about our native history, especially about the Mexica and the Maya.

 

Growing up in Mexico City and Cancun, we'd been exposed to a lot of the awesome parts of those civilizations, but I wanted to know the real stories. Not just the stuff they teach you in school.

 

When I came across the fact that a bishop in Yucatan had burned thousands of Maya books, and only four had survived the conquest, I felt deep in my bones that I needed to tell this story.

 

Another consequence of that test was also that I was hit by the realization that, at some point, one of my ancestors would’ve been mixed-race.

 

Who knows how far back in time they went… I have family records showing that some branches of my family have been in Mexico for more than 300 years. Some of my ancestors fought in the war of independence against Spain!

 

But unfortunately, we’ve lost the knowledge from our Indigenous side, which is extremely common in Mexico. Everyone always wants to play up their European ancestry, which I personally find is a huge, sad loss to us. 

 

Regardless, I was fascinated with the notion of being one of the first Mestizos in the new world, and what it would’ve been like to live with the duality of two contrasting worlds, two worlds that only a few years before were trying to kill each other. I wanted my main character to be female, as well, to explore the patriarchal notions of the time, some of which remain to this day.

 

I do remember watching the Knock Down the House documentary with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and being taken by her fire, compassion, and determination. I remember saying to myself that I wanted to write a heroine like her.

 

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

 

A: I went a bit wild researching this novel. I visited half a dozen museums, read countless books, travelled solo across the world to Guatemala to climb pyramids, traverse jungles, and explore underground caves.

 

I also got support from Professor Allen J. Christenson to ensure the words I used in K'iche' Maya were correct. He gave me the most thorough and incredible notes, and I’m so grateful, because above all I wished to show my complete respect and reverence for the original authors of this manuscript & the K'iche' Maya people.

 

What struck me the most from my research, was that the Popol Vuh codex has never actually been found. What we have is a copy made by a friar in the 18th century, who copied both the K'iche' text, and added a translation to Castilian. His work is now in the Newberry Library in Chicago. I really hope to be able to see it in person one day!


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

 

A: I had some parameters I tried to stick to. If there was a historical record or if historians agreed on an event or fact, I left that as it was and tried to weave my story around it. If the record was unclear, or if there was disagreement on what happened, well, in my opinion, it was fair game to conjecture and use it to my story’s advantage.

 

At the same time, if something “snapped” the reader away from the story or era, if something broke the illusion of time and place, such as if the dialogue sounded too modern, I had to change it.

 

My approach was to weave the fiction into the blanks and the unknowns of the records of history. This is an approach I loved from writers like Hilary Mantel and S J Parris.

 

Of course, there is a lot of magical realism in the novel too, which goes further than fiction, but this is a style of writing that is inherent to me, and I think Latin American writers in general. We don’t seem to know how to write without magic, because it’s such a huge part of our daily lives.

 

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

 

A: Almost to the very late stages of the novel, I had no idea how exactly it would end. I’m a pseudo-pantser. I don’t plan too far ahead when I’m writing. I love the feeling of being led by my characters and discovering the story as it happens.

 

The best way to describe it is like walking through a dark forest with a torch and seeing the path as it illuminates ahead with each step. I do make notes of what I see happening later on, then write those scenes until they’re clear, then go off walking through the dark again. I watched a Masterclass with Margaret Atwood once, and she described writing in a very similar way.

 

Although I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to write – some authors I know plan every single scene before they start, others word-vomit for thousands of pages without any semblance of order until they pick out the common threads, then rewrite everything again.

 

R. F. Kuang writes this way – she describes it as “indulging whatever is in her Id.” I love that, although I think it would give me too much anxiety to have to rewrite 50,000 words. I don’t have the time!

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I am halfway through writing my next novel, a YA historical fiction called The Other Moctezuma Girls, which is also set in the same era as Daughter of Fire. The manuscript weaves the story of Isabel Moctezuma, who was the last empress of Mexico when the Spanish invaded.

 

In real life, she not only survived the conquest, but became one of the wealthiest landowners in New Spain, leaving behind a will, and seven children. In my story, I imagine she also leaves a second account, the true testament of her life, and all the secrets she kept hidden in order to survive.

 

She hides the different chapters around the Valley of Mexico, and her two daughters embark on a quest to find them. But of course, not everyone wants the truth to be known, and they soon discover the lengths that people will go to keep those secrets hidden.

 

It’s taking me ages to write this, because I also work two jobs as a psychologist, and have a 3-year-old son, but I’m hoping to be done by the end of the year.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I really hope readers love Catalina’s story and share it with all their friends! Thank you!

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 22

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY

July 22, 1849: Emma Lazarus born.

Sunday, July 21, 2024

Q&A with Nina Schuyler

 


 

 

Nina Schuyler is the author of the new story collection In This Ravishing World. Her other books include the novel Afterword. She lives in Northern California.

 

Q: Over how long a period did you write the stories in your new collection?

 

A: That’s a very hard question. I wrote In This Ravishing World during the pandemic, when time sloshed around. We never knew what day it was. We’d look outside and see it was light, so it was day, but what day, exactly? Even after we figured it out, we forgot it because one day was like the next, and for weeks on end, we stayed in our house.

 

With nothing to differentiate one moment from the next, I began to write this collection because I was tired of the people I lived with—i.e., my family. I began to spend the shapeless days with nine different characters who had unique points of view about the climate crisis. My life, stripped of everything, as everyone’s was, felt peopled again.

 

Out of the blue, the voice of Nature arrived and joined the chorus of my collection. I was happy, the happiest I’d been in days.

 

Q: The writer Lucille Lang Day said of the book, “In This Ravishing World is a magnificent story of hope and despair, love and fear, and the ongoing quest for personal and planetary survival. Both scientifically accurate and emotionally compelling, this book is necessary, timely, and wise.” What do you think of that description?

 

A: I’m incredibly honored and humbled that Lucy read my book and blessed it with these words. She’s a magnificent writer.

 

Her work focuses on the environment and combines science and stunning language. It’s a tricky combination, inviting such different kinds of language into the same space: facts and numbers, which are often cold and stark, rubbing shoulders with the lush and sensate. This is something I tried to do. That Lucy calls the collection “magnificent” sends tingles up my spine.

 

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

 

A: I love the word “ravish” because this verb means two opposite things: 1) to seize and take away by violence and 2) to fill with delight and enrapture. A writer friend told me a word with two opposite meanings is called a contronym.

 

“Ravish” encapsulates our complicated relationship with the planet: we see it as a resource, drilling, cutting, chopping, and destroying ecosystems. And we are ravished with wonder and awe at nature’s endless beauty.

 

In this collection, characters embody both aspects of “ravish.” Some swoon at a pink tulip or the sweep of blue sky; others take what they want from it without thinking they might be disturbing or destroying it. That’s who humans are—at least right now.

 

The double meaning offers a dilemma and therefore a choice. What aspect of this word do we want to render in the world?

 

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

 

A: At the basic level, I hope readers are entertained by the stories and the ideas. In this collection, I’ve anthropomorphized nature, letting it speak, feel, dream, and imagine.

 

I took to heart Ursula K. Le Guin’s comment made at a conference (I’m paraphrasing): Let’s give subjectivity a try because look where objectivity has gotten us.

 

What she means is that anything nonhuman has been turned into an object. It’s a lot easier to destroy an object than it is a being who is alive. I hope that hearing Nature’s voice lifts the shade of a window and allows the reader to see the world in a different way.

 

I populated the collection with many different types of characters (they are always people to me).

 

I hope that Eleanor, who is struck by grief for the planet and yet finds a way to keep going, gives the reader hope.

 

I hope the children who see the future they want and are willing to work for it give the reader hope.

 

I hope the ballet dancers who try to embody a rat and a cat provoke the reader to consider that nonhuman beings are far more intelligent than we’ve previously understood.

 

I hope Hugh, who wants to escape the calamity, engenders understanding and empathy and shows the problem's complexity.

 

There are other characters, too, who grapple with the threat of climate upheaval.

 

The judge for the Prism Prize for Climate Literature who chose In This Ravishing World as the winner said, “Riveted, I could barely put it down for the three days it took to read the compelling stories of a diverse cast of characters: there is someone in these pages for every reader to relate to.”

 

I hope the reader finds that to be true and that the full-throated chorus moves the reader to marvel at the exquisite beauty of our world and find a way to help write the as-yet-unwritten future.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’m working on a new novel and helping my middle school son take those tentative steps toward adulthood.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: Thank you so much. I’m incredibly grateful for this opportunity.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 21

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY

July 21, 1899: Ernest Hemingway born.

Saturday, July 20, 2024

Q&A with Katherine Marsh

 


 

Katherine Marsh is the author of the new middle grade novel The Myth of Monsters: Medusa. Her other books include The Lost Year. She lives in Washington, D.C.

 

Q: What inspired you to write a novel about Medusa, and how did you create your character Ava?

 

A: Medusa is such a potent character who for centuries has served as a stand-in for male fears of female power, so I was drawn to her, especially in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement.

 

What if the myths got it wrong and Medusa was not a monster but a woman who used her voice to challenge the gods? This was the premise I started with.

 

My 12-year-old heroine, Ava, is a descendant of Medusa who grapples, as many girls and women do, with how to express her anger at various injustices without coming off as unlikeable.

 

Like The Lost Year, my National Book Award finalist, Medusa is about how to use storytelling to empower yourself and challenge the prevailing historical narrative. 

 

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

 

A: Medusa is generally portrayed as loud, ugly, unintelligent, uncivilized. Just look at Carravagio's famous portrait of her disembodied head. Even in Ovid's more sympathetic versions of the original myth, she is a victim of sexual violence, a tragic figure without much agency.

 

I've been really drawn to the trend in adult literature of female authors (i.e. Madeline Miller, Pat Barker) reimagining female characters from the Greek myths and endowing them with backstory, agency, and depth. I like to think that if Percy Jackson and Madeline Miller's Circe had a baby it would be Medusa.

 

I was also inspired by Medusa's name, which curiously does not mean monster or even anything pejorative but rather "guardian." Who Medusa protects and why is answered over the course of my story. 

 

Q: The New York Times review of the novel says, in part, “In this feminist retelling, girls take the lead while boys support and trust them.” What do you think of that description?

 

A: I love it and I was so pleased with that review!

 

I have a 13-year-old daughter and I've been struck by how many of the mega-successful middle grade fantasy series feature boy heroes and girl sidekicks. Take Percy Jackson and Annabeth Chase or Harry Potter and Hermione Granger. The girls are portrayed as smart and helpful but not the leaders.

 

I purposefully wrote this series to challenge that and give my daughter another model, one in which the girls are the brave, headstrong heroines destined to lead the action and the boys are their smart, sensible sidekicks.

 

Q: Why did you decide to set the novel in Venice?

 

A: I visited Venice for the first time when I was living in Belgium where I wrote Nowhere Boy. We arrived on the last day of Carnival and I fell in love, not just with the city during the height of the festivities but with it during the misty, quiet, winter days that followed.

 

Once I realized that Poseidon wants to keep kids like Ava on edge, placing them in a city that is constantly under threat of the sea pouring in also made sense.

 

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

 

A: You bet! The second book in The Myth of Monsters series, The Gods' Revenge, will be coming out in April 2025. I'm super excited about it: there's adventure, jealousy, romance, sports and danger! Plus, vampires...

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I wrote this book not just for girls but for all kids who want a fast-paced, action-filled, smart and funny adventure. My hope is that The Myth of Monsters series will get more middle graders reading at a time when reading for pleasure has fallen off.

 

I also want to encourage young readers not to reject ancient stories but instead to reimagine them, especially with themselves in the lead roles. There's also some Hollywood interest...stay tuned!

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Katherine Marsh.

July 20

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY

July 20, 1933: Cormac McCarthy born.

Friday, July 19, 2024

Q&A with Ari Berman

 


 

 

Ari Berman is the author of the new book Minority Rule: The Right-Wing Attack on the Will of the People--and the Fight to Resist It. His other books include Give Us the Ballot. He is the national voting rights correspondent for Mother Jones, and he lives in New Paltz, New York.

 

Q: What inspired you to write Minority Rule?

 

A: I’ve been covering voting rights since 2011, and as I got deeper into my reporting I began asking myself why Republicans were making it so difficult to vote. Was it simply about gaining an electoral advantage, or was there a deeper strategy at play?

 

I realized their goal was to enshrine minority rule, so that a shrinking conservative white minority could hold on to power even as the country shifted demographically and politically in the opposite direction. I wanted to be able to tell the story behind the democratic crisis we face today and show how it goes all the way back to the founding of our country.

 

Q: In an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, you said, “We venerate the Constitution as a civic religion. I think we would be much greater served to look at the Constitution as a whole document and say, there are some remarkable parts of this document, but there's also some really flawed parts of this document that we still haven't corrected.” Can you say more about that?


A: Yes. There are some fundamental flaws in the Constitution that have never been corrected. The president is still not directly elected by the people and can be chosen by a minority of Americans. Each state gets the same number of senators regardless of population, which gives far more power to smaller, more rural, more conservative states. The Supreme Court is a product of the undemocratic way we choose presidents and senators.

 

In all of these ways our fundamental governing institutions violate basic notions of every vote counting equally. These compromises were meant to hold the new nation together but in many ways they have had the effect of making the country much less democratic and our ostensibly democratic institutions much less reflective of the people.  

 

Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, “Berman pairs wide-ranging and historically grounded analysis of America’s minoritarian political system with a trenchant critique of its departures from democratic common sense. The result is an eye-opening dissection of partisan manipulation.” What do you think of that description?

 

A: I like it!

 

Q: What do you see looking ahead when it comes to American democracy?

 

A: I think we’re at a pivotal inflection point where the question is whether America will embrace multiracial democracy or turn its back on it. We’re facing a potential authoritarian takeover of our democratic system. My biggest fear is that a second Trump term will make minority rule impossible to reverse any time soon.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’m covering the election and the high stakes for democracy. I want people to understand that while Trump is certainly an accelerant to the democratic crisis we face, he’s also a product of a broken political system that enabled Trumpism in the first place.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: There’s so many important elections happening in 2024 beyond the presidency. I hope down-ballot races like state legislative elections, state supreme court elections, and ballot initiatives on issues including abortion and voting don’t get overlooked.

 

So often these days the quickest and most impactful change happens at the state and local level, where democracy can be protected and expanded far more easily than at the federal level.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Ari Berman.

Q&A with Georgina Warren

 


 

 

Georgina Warren is the author of the middle grade story collection Tales of Virtuous Stepmothers. She works at the Library of Congress, and she lives in Washington, D.C.

 

Q: What inspired you to write Tales of Virtuous Stepmothers?

 

A: As a child, I grew up hearing countless adaptations of fairy tales in books and film, particularly those produced by Disney. It was easy to assume that all stepmothers were wicked villains because these traditional archetypes were the most visible and prominent examples I knew.

 

When my parents separated, my sister and I lived with our mother in Winston-Salem, and we only saw our father and stepmother on weekends. I was homeschooled and spent my days painting and exploring books in the local public library.

 

Later I moved to Washington, D.C., with my father and stepmother and started attending schools there. My experiences in the British School of Washington and the Field School awakened a deeper, lifelong passion for the visual, literary, and performing arts.

 

While growing up with my father and stepmother, I realized that traditional fairy tales like Cinderella and Snow White, stories that featured a “wicked stepmother,” did not reflect the life I shared with my own family. This revelation led me to develop a better narrative for modern readers.

 

My stepmother has always been an innovative, loving, and brave woman. When I started writing Tales of Virtuous Stepmothers, I imbued my stepmother characters with all the virtues that every good parent should possess like patience, creativity, compassion, loyalty, resilience, courage, and intelligence. 

 

Q: Were you influenced by any particular style of fairy tale or folk tale as you wrote the stories in your collection?

 

A: Obviously, the three famous fairy tales that inspired me were Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, and Snow White! This trio of stories codified the wicked stepmother and their subsequent adaptions have continued to portray the character of the stepmother as cruel, vain, and negligent.

 

My style of writing evokes that of classic fairy tale authors like the Grimm Brothers, Hans Christian Anderson, Charles Perrault, George MacDonald, and Oscar Wilde. But I also strive to bring a modern sensibility to my narratives so that the lessons in each story resonate with modern readers. My approach has been to blend traditional elements with modern ideas to help my audience relate to the narratives.

 

Q: What would you say are the most common perceptions and misconceptions about stepmothers?

 

A: At first glance, many people assume that stepmothers have the same traits as the ones they know from the traditional stories. The stepmother only cares about herself, she will always love her biological children more than her stepchildren, she is replacing the biological mother, etc.

 

Our culture idealizes the nuclear family with two happily married parents and children. When couples get married in real life, they usually hope to maintain a fulfilling, lifelong relationship while they raise their children, watching them grow up and attend school, get married, start a new job, and have grandchildren.

 

People apply the same standards to romantic couples in fictional settings. Keeping couples and parents happy together forever is an idealized vision. But in real life, there are many reasons why two people cannot stay together forever.

 

At the time the traditional stories were created, mothers often died in childbirth and fathers needed another wife to tend the children and the house while they worked at their jobs. Women were only expected to be wives and mothers. Young boys could attend school and learn trades while young girls could only hope to leave their family homes when they found a new husband.

 

But the modern world that we know is very different. Divorce was once considered a taboo, but many more couples now separate and remarry when they experience interpersonal conflicts that damage a relationship.

 

None of the fairytales I heard in my childhood told me that some divorced couples manage an amicable co-parenting arrangement with the children dividing time between visiting each parent in separate homes. All I learned was that children that got a stepmother needed to escape from her abuse, marry a prince and find a better home because their fathers were stupid enough to marry the wrong women!

 

Modern stepmothers can experience some of the following challenges when they are trying to establish their roles in a blended family: alienation, isolation, emotional burnout, manipulation, imposter syndrome, and struggle to mediate conflicts with step-siblings, in-laws, or the ex-wife.

 

Readers always felt sympathetic to the children of these traditional fairy tales, but in the modern world, the stepmother has always been treated as the true outcast of the family. 

 

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

 

A: Writing this book allowed me to express my own ideas about stepmothers and their families in more creative ways. I have also woven aspects of my family’s history into the narratives to pay tribute to everything that I learned from them.

 

Creating the stories helped me gain more closure on the emotional pain that I felt as a teenager. In addition, I felt a sense of turning the page and starting a new chapter in my life.

 

After the book was published, I felt a great sense of accomplishment because I made stories that would allow other readers to celebrate all the virtuous stepmothers they know and remove the stigma that has always affected modern blended families.

 

The “wicked stepmother” stereotype is a curse that has affected families for generations, I wrote this book as the first step to end that curse.

 

Stepmothers can feel vindicated because they now have a fantasy book that recognizes their daily struggles and celebrates their achievements. Children from blended families can feel affirmation that their family is normal, and they can feel proud of their unique heritage. 

 

Other readers will gain a deeper understanding of some common dynamics in a blended family from these imaginary worlds. Future authors might even be inspired to write new stories that depict a more authentic portrayal of the modern stepmother in fiction and in reality.

 

With this book, more stepmothers can wear their titles with pride, and children don’t need to be ashamed to tell other people that they have a stepmother.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: Tales of Virtuous Stepmothers is only the first part of a three-volume set I planned to write. Some of these short stories grew bigger and they will be released as companion novels later. I have one pirate story and one circus story in the works as well.

 

This summer I’m working on the stories and pictures for the second volume in this Virtuous Stepmothers treasury. I’m planning to take the next step of processing the manuscript with my editor soon.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: Each story has a heraldic crest incorporating stained glass elements which I designed myself. In the medieval era, noble families used different colors and motifs to serve as their “signature” to set themselves apart. The motif of the stained glass represents blended families as a mosaic of different people with diverse backgrounds combining into one entity.

 

The book is for middle grade readers (ages 8-12) but teens and adults can also enjoy the stories. I designed the stories to speak to the young and the young at heart. Readers can find Tales of Virtuous Stepmothers on Amazon in paperback and ebook formats. They can also follow my author links on Goodreads and Instagram for the latest writing news.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb