Sunday, July 25, 2021

Q&A with Erin Gordon



Erin Gordon is the author of the new novel Peeps. Her other books include the novel Beshert. A longtime journalist, she lives in San Francisco.


Q: What inspired you to write Peeps, and how did you create your character Meg?


A: As my YouTube viewing history proves, I’m fascinated by van/RV life and I knew I wanted my next book to be about a middle-aged woman who takes a cross-country road trip.


All of my novels feature deeper themes that I’m personally exploring at the time: Cheer is about parenthood; Heads or Tails is about friendship; and Beshert is about faith. Like me, Meg is middle-aged and sorting out what the second half of her life will be.


Q: Why did you decide to focus on a podcast in the novel, and to include transcripts from your fictional podcast in the book?


A: Meg’s podcast Peeps, in which she asks everyday people the same seven questions as a way to uncover shared humanity, is the podcast I’ve always wanted to listen to.


Around the time I was plotting Meg’s journey, I was also exploring whether I should start a podcast like Peeps. I realized podcasting would actually be a perfect career for Meg – she could interview people as she traveled – so I gave it to her.


Including the podcast “transcripts” was a great way for me to enhance the themes of the book and to intersperse fun, short-story-like elements into the broader journey story.

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’m a huge plotter – the outlines for my novels typically run about 60 pages! Although outlining the whole story enables me to know how it will end, I do allow for shifts and changes if new ideas emerge during the writing process. I also have a wonderful cadre of beta readers who provide recommendations for changes to the early drafts so sometimes I pivot then too.


Q: Do you have any (other) favorite road trip novels?


A: Peeps is inspired by both The Wizard of Oz and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild.


In plotting Peeps, I realized those two iconic stories were, essentially, the same: one is about a young girl and the other is about a young woman; they both take a road (the Yellow Brick Road and the Pacific Crest Trail, respectively) on a journey to find themselves; they both meet people along the way who help them complete their journey and find their place in the world.


Peeps is an homage to those favorite road trip books – my version features a middle-aged woman who takes the interstate to achieve the same story goals as Dorothy and Cheryl. In fact, discerning readers will spot many name checks and symbols pulled from those beloved stories.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: In addition to getting as many eyeballs on Peeps as possible – my dream is to have Reese pick it up! – I’m sketching out my next story. This exploratory phase of novel-writing, in which the themes, characters and settings begin to gel, is my favorite.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’d love your book-loving blog readers to know how important they are to the success – or not – of a novel. If they love a book, they should review it, talk it up to their local book stores, and tell every fellow book lover they know about it. Reader enthusiasm can dramatically impact a book’s success.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Erin Gordon.

Q&A with Laura Hall




Laura Hall is the author of the new memoir Affliction: Growing Up with a Closeted Gay Dad. She lives in San Francisco.


Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir, and how long did it take to write it?


A: My father’s last words to me were a request that I turn back the clock. Three years after he died, I felt a story brewing in me.


I stopped in a bookstore on my way to work and picked up a book on writing. A former columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, someone whose writings my father had admired for years, was the author.


I boarded my train and began to read it. A fellow passenger, an elderly man, noticed what I was reading and told me that the author led writing workshops in San Francisco close to where I live. I signed up that day.


One of her first writing prompts was titled "my dad’s clothes.” In no more than 2-3 minutes, my title became "my dad’s closet," and the idea of my book was born.


My first approach was a biography of my father and how society had mistreated him. Three years in, a writing coach asked me, “But where’s Laura in the book?”


I began looking at myself, my life, my behavior, my choices, and how they related to my parents’ star-crossed marriage. This introspective journey took me on an additional three-year journey.

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

A: My father told me that when he was a teenager he knew he was different than other boys and that he considered his homosexuality an affliction. Once he came out to me, keeping his secret became my affliction.

Q: What impact did it have on you to write this book about your dad?


A: In looking deeply into my parents’ lives and marriage, and at my father’s past before he closeted his sexuality, I learned and understood far more about them than I knew when they were alive.


Their struggles and sacrifices came into sharp focus in light of the fact that they rarely complained about the hardships of life. I could see that they never gave up, despite major setbacks, and that I could persevere in writing my book despite the emotional toll it took on me.


I discovered the thread that connected me to my lifelong fear of abandonment, that at some point early on I sensed that my father didn’t wholly belong to us.


For much of my life I thought I had some kind of affliction, fearing men’s betrayals and abandonment. Once I understood the root cause, that my father’s heart always partly belonged to another, or longed to have it belong to another, that he always had one foot out the door, I was able to strip away my own self-judgment and being irrational around men.

Q: How would you describe your relationship with your parents?


A: Aside from petty quarrels from time to time, my relationship with each of them was strong, loving, kind and respectful all my life. They loved me unconditionally and fiercely. I consider them exceptional human beings and parents.

Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am writing essays and preparing slide shows for talks. My interest is in sharing my story widely for the purpose of helping to heal injustice towards the LGBTQ+ community. 

Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I have a happy, fulfilling, and meaningful life. My husband and I have been together for three decades and have a loving marriage.


I work at the Environmental Protection Agency with mission-driven co-workers, all of us serving EPA’s noble mission of protecting human health and the environment.


I am the mother of one happily married daughter and mother, and the grandmother of two independent granddaughters.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 25



July 25, 1896: Josephine Tey born.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Q&A with Norman H. Finkelstein




Norman H. Finkelstein is the author of The Shelter and the Fence: When 982 Holocaust Refugees Found Safe Haven in America, a new middle grade book for kids. It focuses on a group of refugees who took shelter at Fort Ontario in New York State in 1944. Finkelstein's many other books include Union Made.


Q: What inspired you to write The Shelter and the Fence?


A: I actually knew a bit about the Shelter through my teaching of courses on the Holocaust and even mention it briefly in several previous books.


The idea for the book actually came two years ago when a friend in Oswego wrote inviting me to the 75th reunion of Shelter survivors. I spent two wonderful days there listening to stories from survivors and their families and filling in holes that I never knew about the whole story.


It was a grand event. Seventeen of the survivors were there and a host of dignitaries. The city went all out. As my wife and I were sitting in a tent overlooking Lake Ontario listening to the speeches I nudged her and whispered, "Next book!"


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


A: To be perfectly honest, it was not the title I originally proposed. My choice was Inside the Golden Cage, taken from a musical play the refugees created during their last days at the Shelter.


My editor suggested the current title which I think more aptly describes the situation faced by the refugees. I always trust my publishers to make the right decisions.


Q: How would you describe the experience these refugees had once they arrived in the United States, and what happened to them once the war ended?


A: Their experiences in the United States were limited. By regulation they could not travel outside of Oswego, New York, and that made them feel really confined. Many had relatives here but the refugees could not visit them. One boy was accepted to Harvard Medical School but could not go to Massachusetts. Before boarding the ship in Italy they signed a formal document stating that when the war ended they would be returned to their homelands.


Life at the Shelter was pleasant. Food was bountiful and outside agencies provided niceties the government did not. They could go into the city for six hours a day and that brought them into contact with local residents, shops, the public library, and restaurants.


Particularly interesting was the way school-aged kids were treated in the local public schools. For some who had never been to school this was a welcome opportunity. Young people beyond high school age could attend classes at the Oswego State Teachers College (today SUNY Oswego).


When the war did end in 1945 the question of their futures loomed large. They did not have any homes to return to and their friends and relatives in Europe were dead.


President Truman realized this and cleverly devised a way for the refugees to obtain visas and become Americans. By February 1946, the Shelter was closed and the refugees scattered around the country to begin their new lives as Americans.


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


A: There are wonderful oral histories through the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Penfield Library at SUNY Oswego. Also, the Safe Haven Museum in Oswego published several very valuable books which included recollections and memoirs.


Also, in 1944, a congressional hearing was held at the Shelter to help determine the future of the refugees. The testimonies included in the Hearing document were particularly valuable. Also, contemporary newspaper articles were of great help.


I was particularly surprised by two things. First, the way the public schools bent over backward to welcome refugee children. Second, by the strength of the refugees themselves as they fled throughout Europe to find refuge in Italy and then embark on the trip to Oswego not knowing what their futures held.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Two books. The first is a picture book biography of Abraham Cahan, founder and longtime editor of the Yiddish language newspaper, the Jewish Daily Forward. It will be published by Holiday House in 2023.


The second is a young adult/general reader look at antisemitism in the United States to be published by the Jewish Publication Society also in 2023. (Which means I am a very busy author with a due date looming in early 2022.)


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: The Shelter and the Fence is a Holocaust story no one knows but should. Although 982 people were brought to America, 6 million more perished in Europe. But for those 982, this was a lifesaving and altering experience. Sadly it was too little and too late for others.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Norman H. Finkelstein.

July 22



July 22, 1849: Emma Lazarus born.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Q&A with Andrea Wang



Photo by Elaine Freitas Photography


Andrea Wang is the author of the new children's picture book Watercress. Her other books include the forthcoming middle grade novel The Many Meanings of Meilan. She lives in the Denver area.



Q: What inspired you to write Watercress?


A: Writing has always been how I process the events in my life. After my mother passed away, I started writing personal essays to work through my grief.


One memory that I kept returning to was the experience of picking watercress with my family. I wasn’t sure why it figured so largely in my psyche, so I wrote about it.


Over many years, the piece morphed from a personal essay to a picture book, from nonfiction to fiction and finally, to the semi-autobiographical story that it is today.


Looking back, I think I was exploring my relationship with my parents, especially my mother. The experience of picking watercress and having her share her childhood stories with me (albeit much later) gave me a lens through which I could view the incredible impact she had on me.


Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, "Wang’s moving poetry paired with—and precisely laid out on—[illustrator Jason] Chin’s masterfully detailed illustrations capture both an authentic Midwestern American landscape and a very Chinese American family, together infusing a single event with multiple layers laden with emotion, memory, and significance." What do you think of that description?


A: I think that’s a wonderful description! Jason Chin’s amazing paintings added so much depth to the book.


After I wrote the manuscript for Watercress, I had no idea if it could be a picture book. The main character’s journey was so interior and emotional – how would an artist show her transformation from shame and humiliation to awareness and hope? Jason captured the facial expressions and body language so precisely.

There were also layers of memories in the story, from my own memory that inspired the book, to the girl’s memory of being laughed at, and finally to the mother character’s memory of her own childhood in China. How could those memories be conveyed through the illustrations?


The way that Jason used different color palettes and painting styles to convey past and present, Ohio and China, is absolutely masterful, like the review says.


In addition to what I mentioned about depth and emotion, Jason’s art adds authenticity and a sense of place to the story. He did a huge amount of research, and it shows – the illustrations are filled with details that are accurate to the places and time periods in the story, from the clothing down to the Corningware on the dining table in Ohio and the thermos on the table in China.


I am just in awe of his ability and what he was able to achieve in the illustrations. 


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


A: I hope that Watercress shows all children, especially if they’re from different cultures or marginalized communities, that they do belong, and they can take pride in their heritage.


I also think it’s important to show kids that they are not alone – that everyone feels different or like they don’t fit in at some point in their lives. We are all human, with our own stories and perspectives, but if we talk to each other, we can find connections between our lives.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m excited to share that my debut middle grade novel, The Many Meanings of Meilan, comes out on August 17, 2021 from Kokila/Penguin Young Readers.


Like Watercress, Meilan is also a story about a young Chinese American girl who ends up in Ohio, trying to understand where she fits into the world.


My next picture book is called Luli and the Language of Tea and it publishes in 2022 from Neal Porter Books/Holiday House. It’s about how the word for tea in countries all over the world stem from the Chinese word for it, and how a little Chinese girl bridges a language gap with it to make new friends. Luli will be illustrated by the wonderful artist Hyewon Yum.


While I wait for those books to release, I’m working on another standalone middle grade novel and two nonfiction picture books. I’m really excited to be writing more stories about Chinese American characters and giving them a voice.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I was asked by another interviewer why I think it’s important for kids to read and learn about different cultures, and I wanted to reiterate my answer here:

The United States and many other countries are made up of people from all over the globe. Fear and misunderstanding of people who aren’t like ourselves can have tragic and heartbreaking consequences, as we’ve seen recently with the rise in violence against Asians and Asian Americans. Learning about different cultures fosters empathy and understanding, leading to a more just and peaceful world. It’s sometimes difficult for kids to meet people from other cultures, so books are an important way for them to see into and experience life from a different cultural perspective.


Thank you so much for having me on your blog, Deborah!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Lori McMullen



Lori McMullen is the author of the new novel Among the Beautiful Beasts, which focuses on the life of environmentalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas. McMullen grew up in South Florida and lives in Chicago.


Q: What inspired you to write Among the Beautiful Beasts?


A: My inspiration for writing Among the Beautiful Beasts came from two different sources at nearly the same time, which created a burst of insight that really propelled me forward.


First, I realized I wanted to write a book in which place was a compelling and critical part of the story. I’d found, through writing short fiction, that a palpable sense of place both made my work better and allowed me to indulge in the sort of lyrical prose that I love to write.


But which place? It didn’t take long to answer that question – the place had to be South Florida, my childhood home, which remains as mysterious and miraculous to me now as it did when I grew up there.


The second source of inspiration was Paula McLain’s historical novel Circling the Sun, which tells the story of Beryl Markham, a pioneering aviator. As soon as I finished reading that book, I knew I wanted my book to be set in the past and to feature an intrepid, norm-breaking woman who challenged assumptions about what women could do.


With those two realizations – that South Florida would be critical to my story and that the story would be about an accomplished and unconventional woman – I thought immediately of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, someone South Florida schoolchildren, myself included, regularly learned about because of her enormous impact on the preservation of the Everglades. 


As soon as I began researching Marjory’s early life, as soon as I learned about her heartbreak and trauma and resilience, I understood that I’d found my book.  


Q: What did you see as the right balance between history and fiction in your portrayal of Marjory Stoneman Douglas?


A: This question was something I considered very carefully before beginning the book. In my view, the goal of historical fiction is to blend facts and art in just the right proportions so that something close to truth emerges.


And if you think about it, this is something many of us do in our own lives all the time – we reflect on our experiences and create a narrative around them; we look for meaning and themes in our personal trajectories and assign symbolism to the things we’ve encountered along the way. I tried to bring this same thoughtful reflection to Marjory’s life.


The foundation of Among the Beautiful Beasts is factual and rooted in history so that the essential elements of Marjory’s life portrayed in the book are accurate.

I then plucked real details from these elements – her mother’s musical talent, for example, or the complexity of Marjory’s relationship with Andy – and crafted these details into something more, something that serves the narrative and creates meaningful fiction.


At every step, though, I asked myself, "Would Marjory be okay with this?" I couldn’t actually answer that question, of course, but just asking it helped keep me focused on my desire to share her story and give context to her legacy.


Q: How did you research Douglas's life, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I used different sources to learn about the various aspects of Marjory’s history. Both the University of Miami and the Miami Herald have online archives that offer valuable information about Marjory’s life and work in South Florida.


I also read books like Gladesmen: Gator Hunters, Moonshiners, and Skiffers by Glen Simmons to get a sense of the pioneer history of South Florida, though those books aren’t specifically about Marjory Stoneman Douglas.


For the most personal aspects of Marjory’s childhood and young adulthood, particularly during the years before she came to Miami, the best resource was her autobiography, Voice of the River. In it, Marjory writes frankly and factually about her life and her family.


I often read this book curled in my favorite chair, with a blanket and a mug of coffee and a highlighter in hand, ready for Marjory to “tell” me which of her many experiences were the most significant and needed to be included in Among the Beautiful Beasts.


Finally, to truly understand Marjory, I slowly read from cover to cover her seminal work, The Everglades: River of Grass. This book is entirely about the Everglades and gives no details about Marjory or her life, but the veneration and wonder of her written words offer perhaps the deepest insight into who she was and what she loved.


Before she became the well-known South Florida icon who fought for the health of the Everglades until she was more than 100 years old, Marjory faced several decades of real heartbreak and hardship.


The extent of these struggles, and the long-lasting effects they had on the course of Marjory’s life, truly surprised me during my research. I came to believe, though, that her early experiences – the ones that left her gutted and vulnerable, the ones that made her sacrifice herself for the benefit of others – gave Marjory a unique ability to empathize with the Florida wetlands and see herself in their plight, so much so that by saving that ecosystem, she was also saving herself.


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


A: For a very long time, this novel did not have a title. I just couldn’t think of the right one and referred to it simply as Marjory.


It was not until after the manuscript had been accepted for publication and the design team began creating a cover that I realized time was up and I had to come up with something. So I sat in the room where I’d written most of the book and visualized some of my favorite parts of the story.


The image that kept surfacing was one of Marjory hiding in a verdant tree hammock in the middle of the Everglades, surrounded by the magnificent creatures of the area – panthers and gators, spoonbills and herons, beetles and black bears – and I thought to myself, there she is, among the beautiful beasts.


At that moment, I knew I had my title, not only because it sounded nice and perfectly captured a pivotal scene in the book but also because Marjory’s fate had been so intimately intertwined with the fate of those beautiful beasts that the name worked on every level.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m in the very beginning stages of creating a new novel. It’s not yet developed enough in my mind to say very much, but it is about a lost friendship, a forgotten place, and ghosts. There definitely will be ghosts.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: One last thought about Among the Beautiful Beasts – although the book is about the early life of Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the awakenings that led to her environmental activism, it is also, at its heart, the story of a woman who made some bad decisions, who felt torn between competing obligations, and who wondered if she had the strength to be true to herself.


In other words, it’s the story of any woman. And I believe that any woman who reads it will relate to Marjory, even if she has never set foot in the Everglades herself. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb