Thursday, October 28, 2021

Q&A with Nadine Epstein

 

 


 

Nadine Epstein is the author of the new book RBG's Brave & Brilliant Women: 33 Jewish Women to Inspire Everyone. She collaborated on the book with the late Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Epstein's other work includes the book Elie Wiesel: An Extraordinary Life and Legacy. She is the editor in chief and CEO of Moment Magazine.

 

Q: How did you and Ruth Bader Ginsburg end up working together on this book?

 

A: Justice Ginsburg was a devoted reader and supporter of Moment, and I interviewed her a number of times over the years and we became friends.

 

In 2019, we gave her Moment’s first Human Rights Award in New York City. So that she wouldn’t have to take the time to write a speech, we flew up Nina Totenberg up to interview her.

 

Nevertheless Justice Ginsburg showed up with a speech in hand about Henrietta Szold, Emma Lazarus, Anne Frank, all of whom had inspired her. She gave it and it inspired everyone in the room.

 

That night we also gave her the “Tzedek Collar,” which we had commissioned for her. She loved it and announced she would wear for it for the first day of the 2019 Supreme Court term, and asked me to bring it to her in her chambers.

 

When I did, she started talking about the women in her speech as well as the many other women who had sustained her during challenging times in her life.

 

I said something I probably say once a week, “That would make a great book, let’s write a book.” And Justice Ginsburg said yes. And that was it, we were writing a book!

 

This was October 2019. Although her cancer had not yet returned, she was pretty frail. We had no idea this would be the last year of her life.

 

But her interest in passing on the stories of great women was incredibly strong and she was dedicated to getting this book done. In retrospect, I understand that it was an important part of her personal religious journey.

 

As a young girl in the 1930s and ‘40s, she was a conscientious Hebrew school student who absorbed the Torah stories and learned the prayers. But when she was 16, her mom died of cancer, and she was not allowed to say prayers for her because she was not a male.

 

At that moment, she left patriarchal Judaism. She remained a Jew, she was deeply Jewish, but replaced traditional practice with her passion for the humanity and bravery of Jewish women. Eventually, the Jewish world caught up with her, women became rabbis and she could return to the synagogue.

 

But I think the core of her Judaism was centered on the Jewish women who had been her role models. She wanted their stories to be told and passed on. She wanted them to be part of her legacy.

 

Q: How did you choose the women to include in the book?

 

A: She wanted so many women in the book! She started listing women she met or knew about or had read about. I added a few more women such as Queen Salome Alexandra—no one thinks about a queen of Israel. When Justice Ginsburg learned about her, she was very excited.

 

Really, it was very hard to narrow the list of women down to a doable amount. If she hadn’t died, we may have done more books.

 

Q: How does RBG fit into the group of women in the book?

 

A: All together, the women in the book tell the story of the evolution of women’s rights in the Jewish world and beyond. When Justice Ginsburg died, I realized we needed a section on her. She was a critical part of the evolution of women’s rights in the United States. Most people don’t really understand what it is that she achieved and how.

 

I learned a lot about her from doing this book. One of the things I think about often—that I hadn’t known—is that this brave and brilliant woman had applied to be a clerk of the Supreme Court and was rejected because she was a woman.

 

Q: At what point in the writing of the book did she pass away?

 

A: We were both very busy. I was running a magazine and had other projects, and of course she was on the Supreme Court and was totally dedicated to her work.

 

The first thing we did was to choose the women and work on her introduction. Then in July 2020 I took off two weeks so I could start writing the biographies. I rented a cabin in Virginia.

 

That same day I got an email from Justice Ginsburg asking if she could see the manuscript right away because she would soon need to start reading for the Court’s fall term. I hadn’t started the manuscript! I asked her if I could have 10 days.

 

For 10 days I poured everything I could on paper. When I sent it to her she marked up every page with copious comments. Plus she kept sending me the names of more women she thought we should include.

 

In August 2020 we were doing one of our Big Question projects at Moment. The question was “Is society getting better or regressing?” and she participated. Then in September, she was gone.

 

I was shocked. I knew she was staving off cancer, as she described it, but I hadn’t expected her to die. I don’t think she expected it either. Her emails were all about the future, the term, our book. Her death was huge. After all, this was a joint project.

 

After she died, I wrote many more drafts and had a lot of people read the book. Justice Ginsburg, like me, was a perfectionist, and I wanted the book as close to perfect as possible. The project was a labor of love, and I hope that comes through in the book.

 

Q: Who do you see as the book’s audience, and what do you hope readers take away from it?

 

A: This is an intergenerational book for people 10 and up. Women and men and girls and boys of all ages will learn something from the book.  

 

At first, though, we thought were writing for girls and women. But one of our readers, a 12-year-old boy read the first draft and said, “These women are amazing! Why is this book only for women and girls?” So I went back to the Justice, and we agreed that the book would be for all genders.

 

At events for the book, women and men buy the book for themselves and for their friends as well as the young people in their lives. It’s a beautiful gift book, and it’s very accessible.

 

And there’s a call to action at the end of the book. I discovered that our young test readers had no idea that women didn’t always have the same legal rights as men, and no idea that they still don’t. So we ask, now that you’ve learned about all these women and the evolution of women’s rights, what can you do?

 

The call to action includes some of Justice Ginsburg’s advice. She felt emotion did not belong in the struggle for women’s rights and human rights—that getting upset and calling people names is not how we bring people together to create positive change.

 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg changed the world by calmly focusing on long term strategy and changing the law, and then by becoming a role model to the nation. There’s so much to learn from her dedication, persistence and strength.

 

I hope the women in the book will inspire readers to continue Justice Ginsburg’s work on behalf of justice and fairness—and to find their own paths to truly making the world a better place for all of us!

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Nadine Epstein.

Q&A with Charis Cotter

 

 


 

Charis Cotter is the author of The Dollhouse, a new middle grade novel for kids. Her other books include The Ghost Road. She lives in Newfoundland.

 

Q: In The Dollhouse's acknowledgments, you note that that part of the inspiration for the book came from a visit your father made to a friend's Georgian house. How did that contribute to your writing this book, and how did you create your character Alice?

 

A: A few years ago, my father told me he had visited an old friend who had moved into a lovely Georgian house with a very steep, scary staircase. I love old houses, so immediately I wanted to see it. I met the elderly woman who lived there and she and I became friends. I fell in love with the house immediately, scary staircase and all.

 

Right away I started making up stories in my head about a girl who came to live in this house with her mother, who was working for the owner. My friend had a dollhouse in her bedroom and she and I would play with it when I visited sometimes. The dollhouse and the larger house almost haunted me… I couldn’t stop thinking about them.

 

Eventually I saw the attic, which had another scary staircase, this one hidden in a closet. The attic was shadowy and mysterious, and at that point the story started coming together. It was wonderful to have the entire house as my inspiration, because whenever I go there, I feel as though I’m half inside my book.

 

Alice came very early in the process--she came along with the house, the first few visits I had there. She is a very curious girl with a dangerous imagination. Dangerous because sometimes she can’t tell what’s real and what’s imagined.

 

When my daughter was young, her imagination would often take her to scary places, and this, and my own sometimes out-of-control imagination were the inspirations for Alice’s flights of fancy. Alice is also very observant and thoughtful, as well as determined and courageous. Like many of my characters, she just kind of walked into my head, fully formed.

 

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

 

A: I had a vague idea of how the central mystery would resolve itself. I knew what had to happen but I didn’t know how. I’m not an author who can do an outline and then write the book. I take it chapter by chapter, relying on instinct as to what happens next and how it all connects.


However, this approach is difficult, because I can get sidetracked and find myself writing a few chapters that I have to discard, because my characters just took me on a little detour that doesn’t carry the plot where I want it to go.

 

I did a lot of puzzling over the plot and how to make it fit, and I wrote several drafts. I also work with a really good editor, Samantha Swenson at Tundra Books, who identifies the inconsistencies and helps me smooth out the bumpy parts.  

 

Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says about two of your characters, "Both Lily and Bubble are developmentally delayed; they are described respectfully and are fleshed-out characters." You note in the acknowledgments that they were inspired by a young woman you know. How did your meeting her lead to the creation of Lily and Bubble?

 

A: The characters of Bubble and Lily were inspired by a girl I met at my father’s church. I first noticed her in the choir: she was about 16 and had a very pretty, open face, and she was always beaming, as if she had a light inside her.

 

I got to know her and like her, and I learned that she had a developmental delay that meant she would always relate to the world as if she was about 6. I was so drawn to her bright energy and her outgoing, friendly personality that I wanted to put her in a book.

 

I was beginning to get the idea for The Dollhouse at about this time, so I interviewed her and her family and did some research. Her mother helped me by reviewing my first draft and giving me advice on what was authentic and what needed work.

 

This girl is very excited about having a book dedicated to her. She shares the dedication with the owner of the Georgian house that inspired Blackwood House.

 

Q: What do you think the novel says about ghosts?

 

A: This is an interesting question! It’s got me thinking. There is a tension throughout the novel as to who is a ghost, and the answer could almost be, “everyone,” and we could get into a philosophical discussion about the nature of reality.

 

One of the characters is seeking out the ghosts of their past, the people they loved who are dead, but they are also haunted by a younger self whom they abandoned years before. So the ghosts have a psychological resonance.

 

I suppose you might say that ghosts can be memories as well as people that do not rest easy. In my book these memories are embodied as “ghosts.” I am using the ghosts in The Dollhouse to explore how people deal with pain and how time does not necessarily heal all wounds.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I’m working on another mysterious story where there are ghosts and tragedy and young girls trying to find their place in the world. This one is set in a bird-watching camp in a wilderness park and it is very loosely inspired by the Grimm’s fairy tale of the Twelve Dancing Princesses. The working title is The Mystery of the Haunted Dance Hall.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: Virtual Visits: I do virtual school visits that involve readings from my books, ghost stories, and class discussion. I also do virtual visits to book clubs. You can write to me at chariscotter@gmail.com for more information.

 

Discussion Guide: Tundra Books and I have prepared a discussion guide for book clubs and classrooms that is available here:  https://tundrabooks.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/The-Dollhouse_discussion-guide.pdf

 

Website: https://www.chariscotter.com/

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Charis Cotter.

Q&A with Tony M. Quintana

 


 

 

Tony M. Quintana is the author of the new young adult novel Doizemaster: Phantasm Creed.

 

Q: What inspired you to write Doizemaster: Phantasm Creed?

 

A: I am a firm believer that everything and everyone around us is a source of inspiration if we open up our minds and allow our imaginations to craft new purposes and meanings. My inspiration to write Doizemaster Phantasm Creed is divided into three pieces.

 

The first piece of inspiration was my memories of my hometown. The city I was born in, Cancun, is a place where the earth’s natural beauty is abundant, and people are blessed to see it every day.

 

I forged a strong connection with everything that surrounded me and learned from the jungles, the lagoons, and the vast sea. I have also witnessed with great dismay the destruction of my home’s nature by the hands of cruelty, selfishness, and greed.

 

The second piece of inspiration came from my travels around the globe. I have been incredibly blessed to have been able to visit many different countries and get to know the wonderful minds of those who live in them.

 

I am a history nerd, so I gazed in awe at the grandiosity of every museum piece and architectural achievement. I need to admit that I have a particular predilection for anything conceived during the 19th century.

 

The third piece of inspiration was my own romanticized notion of friendship and loyalty. While not perfect, the world would be better off if we shed prejudices and malice and learned to respect those around us. Believe me when I tell you that having friends that accept you for who you are is a rare treasure. To find this treasure, you must be someone else’s.

 

Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, “Quintana’s novel sublimely fuses elements of fantasy and real-world elements of history.” What did you see as the right balance between the two as you wrote the book?

 

A: This is an excellent question! When I was brainstorming for this title, I constantly told myself that this new place had to be filled with the charm of my magic system yet be realistic enough to make people feel like they could visit it if they had a time machine.

 

As I have said, I am an absolute sucker for anything that comes from the 19th century, so I perfectly knew how the elaborate clothes, elegant buildings, and strict social interactions were back then. Any important details that I was not familiar with I learned from the many books I bought at The Frick Collection and The Met museums in Manhattan.

 

In my story, which takes place in this world, magic is dwindling to the point of extinction, so people are more dependent on machines like the rest of the world. The historically accurate inventions you see in Doizemaster Phantasm Creed have been given a magical twist, and my own creations have been harnessed by realism and accuracy.

 

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

 

A: I did know how the novel would end before I started writing it. Azahar, my main character’s forest town, and all of its characteristics was one of the first things my mind conceived. I also knew about a certain duel that would be tied to Azahar and the ending.

 

There were some changes along the way. Unfortunately, I am a perfectionist. The execution of certain events had to be rewritten and refined many times to fit into the story. What was perfect yesterday might not be today; it is a blessing and a curse.

 

I do not know if this is good or not, but Dashiel Ermitage, my main character who is tied to the ending as well, was the last thing I fully fleshed out.

 

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

 

A: I wish to remind whoever reads my book that nothing is what it seems. The smallest and weakest creatures in the world can make the most impact. We should always respect others regardless of background because true wisdom and strength lie within them.

 

Furthermore, our protection and respect should transcend humanity. There are times in our lives when we are so absorbed with our own growth that we forget to nurture what allows us to exist/grow in the first place. Directly or indirectly, we have regarded nature as a steppingstone, much more so than our motherly home.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: I am currently working on the continuation of the story of Doizemaster. I already know the structure of this sequel, so it will be enjoyable to bring it to life little by little and share it with my readers.

 

There is still so much more to explore in Zaphyrelia and the rest of the continent. Readers will meet new characters that will spice things up, delve deeper into the mind of beloved characters, and finally learn the truth about characters that the mystery of the past has shrouded.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I would like to say that I am grateful for all of you and your support. The world of Doizemaster is a dream of mine that has become a reality thanks to so many great people, including you. I shall feel blessed if I can inspire you to dream, create and make the world around you a better place.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 28

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Oct. 28, 1903: Evelyn Waugh born.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Q&A with Fiona Hill

 

 


 

Fiona Hill is the author of the new memoir There Is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century. Her other books include Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin. She is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, served on the National Security Council from 2017-2019, and testified in Donald Trump's first impeachment trial. She lives in the Washington, D.C., area.

 

Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir, and how did you choose the book's title?

 

A: I decided to write the book in the wake of the testimony I ended up giving in the first impeachment trial.

 

I made the decision to put myself into my opening statement because of the line of questioning I got behind the scenes by Republicans who were trying to discredit me and others—that we were deep-state coup-plotting.

 

In my public testimony, I felt I had to explain myself and who I was. I had to lay things out there. I wasn’t what they were trying to portray me to be. I got hundreds of letters saying I should tell more of my story.

 

I came out deeply worried about American democracy, and felt I had to do something to explain how we got here. The best way to do it was maybe I should write a book laying out what I started to say in my testimony.

 

If not for those conditions, I wouldn’t have written it the way it turned out. Originally I was going to compare the U.S., the UK, and Russia. But in the end, I couldn’t go back to the UK, and I was using Russia as a cautionary tale. I looked at how the U.S. got to two impeachments and the storming of the Capitol on January 6.

 

There was constant reframing. The book became evolutionary. There was so much happening.

 

The title was what my father said when I was leaving high school. He said, if you get an education and a good job, there’s nothing for you here. It was a wrenching thing. My dad was a great dad. The idea was profoundly sad that I’d leave my parents behind.

 

Also the title fits with the current moment. A lot of people feel America is not giving them what they want politically or economically--though for me, this was the land of opportunity. That feeling of being left out then leads to bad things politically.

 

Q: Speaking of opportunity, the book's subtitle focuses on that idea, and you say toward the end of the book, “Far too many people who were born into similar circumstances in the generations after me did not have the same opportunities” you had. Do you think that can be changed?

 

A: It will change. There’s a lot of legislation on Capitol Hill that would address that. There are things in the back of the book that I lay out—we can change things, too. It’s not just the big public policy interventions.

 

It isn’t ideological, either. I’m not suggesting revolution or big-government solutions. Government is going to have to do a lot but also communities and individuals need to band together to get things done. We need the political will.

 

Q: In the book, you write that "Trump would come more to resemble Putin in political practice and predilection than he resembled any of his recent American presidential predecessors. Sometimes even I was startled by how glaringly obvious the similarities were." Can you say more about this, and about what you see looking ahead for U.S. democracy?

 

A: I don’t want to create an equivalency between the U.S. and Russia, but with the presidency, you see Putin as one man standing above everyone else, and Trump admired strongmen, where no one else mattered.

 

The Constitution begins with “we the people,” and we need to put “we the people” back. We can’t be held hostage to two political parties, red and blue. There’s a discussion in the book about how to get people to see they need to engage, to use self-agency so there are no forgotten people. Put the “we” back in, not the “me.”

 

Q: Do you think Trump will run again?

 

A: I do, unless he tells us otherwise. He wants to be the center of attention. Maybe I’ll be proven wrong. If Trump runs, democracy will be [lost]—he’s running on the basis of a lie. If he wins the popular vote, that’s a different matter.

 

It becomes a kind of minority rule, with revenge and divisiveness.

 

Q: What impact did testifying in the impeachment trial have on you?

 

A: It’s put me in a spotlight that I would never have anticipated. It’s created a platform I could never have envisaged. I was just going there to do my duty, participate in democracy, and tell the truth.

 

It’s astounding to me that I would become a celebrity for telling the truth. Everybody should tell the truth. I keep quoting George Orwell, that in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act. That’s not what I thought I was doing when I set foot in the building.

 

The book is a message: Hey, look, this is where we are now, how we got there, and we all have to do something. You can stand up. Give everybody else a hand up. We’re all in this together.

 

Q: Will you be working on another book?

 

A: I only just finished this one at the end of May. I’m trying to get the message out, to speak out. I’m hoping to figure out the next steps of how I can engage with others to take some action.

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: I was the exception. I had plenty of challenges, but the bigger story is of the help I had on the way. If people realize that, it’s not just pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps—you need the boots and the straps. Nobody does everything completely on their own. For the most part, we are products of our society and environment.

 

If we could scale all that up, it might take the edge off some of the political polarization.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 27

 


 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Oct. 27, 1932: Sylvia Plath born.

Q&A with JJ Amaworo Wilson

 

 

Photo by Claudia Dextre

 

JJ Amaworo Wilson is the author of the new novel Nazaré. His other books include the novel Damnificados, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including African American Journal and Justice Journal. He is the writer-in-residence at Western New Mexico University, and he lives in Silver City, New Mexico.

 

Q: You note that you were inspired to write Nazaré by the Arab Spring. How did that movement lead you to write this novel?

 

A: I’d lived in Egypt in my 20s and walked in Midan Tahrir, the epicenter of the movement in Cairo, almost daily.

 

When the Arab Spring arrived, I was stunned that ordinary people were forcing change against the greatest of odds. Mubarak had been in power for 40 years, Gaddafi 34, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali 24. It reminded me of Mandela’s line: “It always seems impossible, until it’s done.”

 

Then I started mentally linking the Arab Spring to other revolutions and rebellions: Fidel Castro and los barbudos swooping down from the Sierra Maestra to take Havana; Tupac Amaru at his execution saying “I will return and I will be millions;” Toussaint L’Ouverture routing the French in Haiti.

 

It felt like an epochal moment in world history. From a writer’s perspective, I just wanted to transform the people’s energy into a piece of fiction that was as beautiful and wise as the rebellions.

 

Q: What did you see as the right balance between humor and tragedy as you wrote the book?

 

A: Tragedy is a given. Just look at the state of human affairs. We’re a car wreck.


But life is also comic, at least until the calamity of the fifth act. There’s humor everywhere, but as a writer you pick your moments. You don’t want to deflate tension by going for laughs. Ultimately, the goal is for the humor to emerge naturally from the situation and characters.

 

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

 

A: I knew it would end with the wave called Nazaré. That’s the novel’s motif. The rest was more or less improvised, like the revolution it describes. Except I did about a dozen drafts. Revolutionaries usually only get one.   

 

Q: The writer Denise Chávez said of the book, “Its mighty and potent message is simple and true: evil will ever be defeated by the goodness of great souls.” What do you think of that assessment, and what do you hope readers take away from the story?

 

A: Denise is right. The Syrian composer Malek Jandali once said: “The power of the people is stronger than the people in power.” That’s critical to this novel.

 

But a novelist is an entertainer. I hope readers enjoy the story, first and foremost. If they find some eternal truths there, or if it leads them to think about how to live with courage and dignity in an unjust world, that’s a bonus.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 

A: Something connected with refugees. We’re seeing great swathes of humanity moving from one place to another because of wars, oppression, and environmental devastation. We’re watching wealthy countries close their doors, turn their backs on their brothers and sisters. It’s a great subject to confront. The trick is to find the form. 

 

Q: Anything else we should know?

 

A: Nazaré is a multilingual book. Characters slip into different languages and their names and the setting reflect a global outlook.

 

This is a reflection of my life experiences. I’m a German-born Anglo-Nigerian-American. My parents spoke five languages between them. I’ve lived in 11 countries and visited 70, and I speak four languages.

 

I’ve spent much of my adulthood in large polyglot cities. In London, you turn a corner and suddenly everyone’s speaking Portuguese. You cross a road and it’s Punjabi or Amharic or French. I find this linguistic richness alluring. Unsurprisingly, it’s found its way into my fiction.

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb