Monday, January 30, 2023

Q&A with Norman S. Poser




Norman S. Poser is the author of the new biography From the Battlefield to the Stage: The Many Lives of General John Burgoyne. His other books include Lord Mansfield: Justice in the Age of Reason. He is professor emeritus at Brooklyn Law School.


Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of British General John Burgoyne (1722-1792)?


A: While doing research for another book--on the 18th-century London stage--I came across a letter Burgoyne wrote to David Garrick, the great actor and manager of the Drury Lane theatre. The letter had to do with a play Burgoyne had written and Garrick planned to produce. Until then, I hadn't known that Burgoyne was a playwright as well as an army general.


In the letter, Burgoyne renounced any profits from the production of the play and suggested they be given to a fund that Garrick had set up for indigent actors. I was so impressed by the elegant style as well as the substance of Burgoyne's letter that I began to consider writing his biography.

Q: How did you research his life, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: I did most of the research in libraries in London and New York. Because of Covid, I never got to the library of Knowsley Hall, the seat of the Earl of Derby, but the curator of the Knowsley Hall library sent me photocopies of letters Burgoyne had written.


One thing that surprised me was that, in addition to being a general and a playwright, Burgoyne was a member of Parliament for over 30 years, where he was a reformer who fought the corrupt East India Company.


Q: The writer Andrew J. O’Shaughnessy said of the book, “This is a fresh account of Burgoyne, and the first major biography of the enigmatic general in decades.” What do you think of that description, and do you see Burgoyne as enigmatic?


A: How could I not like O’Shaughnessy's statement? As to his use of the word “enigmatic,” if he means that there has been, and still is, much debate over Burgoyne’s share of the blame for the Saratoga debacle [during the Revolutionary War], I agree with that. 


Q: What do you see as his legacy today?


A: I see Burgoyne’s legacy as an example for us all. I am thinking of his bravery, patriotism, humaneness, talent, urbanity, sociability, generosity, loyalty to his subordinates, support of the rule of law, and common decency.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on a memoir. Beginning in 1948, I have worked as a journalist, lawyer, consultant, regulator, teacher, and writer. So there's enough to write about.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Norman S. Poser.

Jan. 30



Jan. 30, 1912: Barbara Tuchman born.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Q&A with Samantha Greene Woodruff




Samantha Greene Woodruff is the author of the historical novel The Lobotomist's Wife. She was the senior vice president of strategy and business development at MTV Networks, and she lives in Connecticut.


Q: You’ve said that you based your character Dr. Robert Apter on Dr. Walter Freeman II. What initially intrigued you about him, and what did you see as the right blend between history and fiction as you wrote the novel?


A: When I conceived of this story, I was a housewife in the suburbs living the supposed American Dream; I had given up my corporate job and was floundering. And I thought I was supposed to be happy. I was taking a writing class for fun and working on a contemporary novel loosely based on my malaise.


That was when I happened to learn about Freeman and lobotomy. I was listening to a nonfiction book, Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them, by Jennifer Wright, and she included a chapter about lobotomy. In it, she tells an anecdote about Freeman going to the motel room of a reluctant court-ordered lobotomy patient and deciding to perform the procedure on the spot.


I had that horrified/fascinated feeling that I think true crime often gives you – this man was one beat shy of a serial killer. And this was happening in the middle of the 20th century! I needed to learn more. Was he just an evil maniacal doctor? Why did medicine embrace him?


From those questions, I had the “what if?” thought that became the seed of the novel:  What if you were an unhappy suburban housewife in that small moment in history when lobotomy was a reasonable “cure?” What if Freeman was your doctor?


My approach to writing historical fiction is to think of it like weaving a braid between fiction and fact. For this book, I wanted the timeline and medical specifics of the development of lobotomy to be as historically accurate as possible. That was my anchor. 


That said, I didn’t want this to be a biographical fiction about Freeman, so I changed things like the city where the story took place, the hospitals, and the details about the players. For instance, Edward is nothing like James Watts (the actual neurosurgeon who worked with Freeman), other than that they work together.


Wherever possible, I took real moments and anecdotes and wove them into the fictional narrative. Especially when it was something so outrageous like stopping mid-procedure to take pictures of patients or performing lobotomies with two hands at once. But, the relationships, the characters, the places where they live, the hospital, Magnolia Bluff, that is all made up.


Q: Your character Ruth Emeraldine Apter, the lobotomist's wife of the title, is fictional. How did you create her?


A: Freeman’s actual wife was essentially a footnote in most of my research. Their marriage wasn’t good. They tragically lost a child. She was an alcoholic. He was a philanderer. That wasn’t what I pictured for my story.


I wanted to make sense of how a woman could be married to a man who was doing such horrific things to women. Who could help the reader understand the evolution of lobotomy from miracle to nightmare.

In the beginning, lobotomy really was viewed as the “best worst cure” – this was the 1930s and conditions in mental hospitals (especially state-run ones) were dismal. If you were a violent psychotic, you were basically sentenced to a life of being chained up like an animal (if you were lucky.)


In this context, a procedure that rendered you docile and happy – possibly even able to go home to your family – was its own kind of miracle. I wanted the reader to understand that. To see the development of what turned out to be such a monstrous treatment from its origins, when it truly felt like it might offer hope.


Ruth provides that lens. She is an independent woman, with power and agency in a time when women didn’t. She didn’t need Robert, she believed in him. She was as invested in finding a “cure” for mental illness as he was, and she started off as a true partner to him.


But she is also the conscience of the novel. Whereas Robert’s approach to mental health treatment is clinical at best, egomaniacal at worst, Ruth’s motives are always from her heart, with compassion. That is the poignancy of the story, I think. The contrast between her evolution and Robert’s, and the way it plays out is, essentially the heart of the story.


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


A: Pretty much all of my research was reading. Since the novel spans two decades and multiple topics, I just kept reading until I felt that I knew enough to accurately tell the story.


I read books, articles, academic papers, parts of medical journals…the list goes on – and the topics ranged: Freeman and lobotomy, postpartum depression, the history of mental hospitals and treatments, New York in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, the postwar suburban boom…


I found some amazing things online too. For example, when Ruth and Robert go to the International Neurological Congress in London in 1935, I had found the official pamphlet for US attendees, so the ship they took and the hotel they stayed at were real.


Another way I like to research is to watch movies from and depicting the eras I’m writing about. This helps ground me in time and place, to see how people spoke, dressed, interacted; how women were portrayed. Plus, it’s fun to watch a movie and call it “research.”


I learned so much in my research it is hard to isolate one specific thing. One amazing factoid is that people may have suspected a connection between the physical brain and emotional behavior as far back as the Stone Age. Archeological findings from the prehistoric era indicate early healers used craniotomy as a treatment for the ill.


By the Renaissance, “trephination” (drilling into the skull) was a well enough recognized practice for painter Hieronymus Bosch to make it the subject of his 1494 painting “Cutting the Stone” (alternately called “The Extraction of the Stone of Madness”), which shows a man in the middle of a field while his head is being drilled.


The first modern experimentation with what would come to be called “psychosurgery,” was done in the late 1800s by Swiss psychiatrist Gottlieb Burckhardt, who cut portions of the frontal lobes of psychotic patients. It didn’t catch on until nearly 50 years later.


Q: The writer Elise Hooper said of the novel, “Both tense and informative, this is a timely story not only of hubris and ambition, but also of empathy and the search for truth.” What do you think of that description, and do you see any echoes of the novel's events today?


A: How can you not love that description?? It’s so great and succinctly captures so much of what I was trying to accomplish with this story!


I think part of the reality of any medical advance – good or bad -- is that we only know as much as we can with the information we have at the time.


I look, for instance, at the growing use of psychedelics for PTSD and depression and I think, in some ways, it’s probably not that different from what happened during the era of lobotomy. Right now, it seems groundbreaking, a way to rewire past experiences in the brain to alter behavior in the present and future.


And maybe in 10 years it will be commonplace, and we’ll wonder why people didn’t start using these drugs therapeutically in the 1960s. Or, maybe, they will cause some other negative neurological connections that will ultimately render them a failure. It’s too soon to tell. And that’s a scary thing. It gets even scarier when ego is involved.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m in the middle of writing my second novel (hopefully out in the world in the fall of 2024). It’s another historical fiction but a complete departure from the topic of the first. It takes place in the 1920s and is the story of a twin brother and sister, poor children of Jewish immigrants, and their journey on the rollercoaster of the stock market in the era. It is really a book about a strong woman, family bonds, the complex morality of wealth and the multifaceted meaning of success. Vague enough?


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Beyond writing, I love to read, hike, practice yoga, play games and watch movies with my kids (when they are willing), snuggle with my dogs, and drink wine or tequila with my husband and my friends.


I used to work in television, and I am a huge TV fan, especially bad reality, sappy romances, soapy teen dramas and thrillers (but not horror!) I really like to cook – my specialty is NOT following a recipe -- and I love love love to sing. I was in musicals, rock bands and even a gospel choir in college (I am Jewish, it was comical), so now I torture anyone I can with karaoke in my basement.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 29



Jan. 29, 1860: Anton Chekhov born.

Saturday, January 28, 2023

Q&A with Avery Flynn


Photo by Passion Pages.Annie Ray



Avery Flynn is the author of the new novel Witcha Gonna Do?. Her other novels include Back in the Burbs. She lives in the Washington, D.C., area.


Q: What inspired you to write Witcha Gonna Do?, and how did you create your characters Tilda and Gil?


A: Well, I am a sucker for a paranormal romance and being able to toss in some magic along with shifters and mythical beasts? Oh yes, that is totally my kind of fun.


Tilda and Gil came together really naturally because for as much as they are opposites they are so much alike. And Tilda is a witch after my heart. She’s so positive even though she thinks she is always failing. I love that through the story she really finds herself and realizes that she was amazing all along (magic or no magic).


Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Tilda and the rest of her family?


A: As the youngest sister myself, I know what being the baby of the family is like. I couldn’t imagine her sisters wouldn’t look at Tilda as both the one to be protected and the one to pick on all at the same time. It is the way of sisters. The thing about the Sherwoods is that despite all of the family dynamics, they really all love each other so much and really would do anything for each other.

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


A: So many changes! I knew how the book would end and it stayed that way but there were a lot of changes in the middle. I forever have trouble sticking to the plan. I’m always going on a tangent.


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


A: That we’re all a little bit magic, even when we don’t feel like it—maybe especially when we don’t feel like it.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Well, there’s another Sherwood story coming and it involves a secret marriage, divorce papers that never get signed, and some second-chance love. OH! And there’s a classic Caddy named Bessie, fins included.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Thank you so much for having me and I really hope everyone has a good time with Witcha Gonna Do!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 28



Jan. 28, 1935: David Lodge born.

Friday, January 27, 2023

Q&A with Omer Bartov




Omer Bartov is the author of the new novel The Butterfly and the Axe. His other books include Anatomy of a Genocide. He is the Samuel Pisar Professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies in the Department of History at Brown University, and he lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


Q: What inspired you to write The Butterfly and the Axe, and how was the book's title chosen?

A: I was inspired to write The Butterfly and the Axe when I realized that after researching my mother's birth town and region for 20 years and reconstructing its fate in the Holocaust in my historical monograph Anatomy of a Genocide, I still knew practically nothing about how my own family was murdered there.


That is, my family's life and fate before and during the Holocaust is simply missing from the historical record, save for a few fragments of stories and rumors. I felt it was simply unjust that these people had vanished from history and memory, and wanted to put them back into the story by way of imagining their lives and deaths.


For me, the beauty and ephemeral existence of butterflies, of which there are numerous species in this region of Galicia, on the one hand, and the ubiquity and utility of axes there, a crucial worktool which was often also used for killing by the locals in periods of violence, represent the combination of natural beauty and murderous inclinations of my ancestral home.


It also perhaps expresses a certain kind of hope since, as someone once told me, “you cannot kill a butterfly with an axe.” Beauty, however ephemeral as a lifeform, is also everlasting. This is how I think of the little girl who contemplates her imminent liberation moments before she is murdered.

Q: You write, “This book contains autobiographical and historical elements but is ultimately a work of fiction.” What did you see as the right balance between autobiography, history, and fiction as you wrote the book?


A: I don't think there is  “right” balance between history and fiction. That is, in fact, the underlying assertion of this novel. As a historian, I believe in facts, and disdain works of scholarship that contain fictional, or even unreliable facts and speculations.


But I am also deeply aware of the limitations of historical reconstructions of the past in “rescuing” events and people who cannot be found in the historical record, or in breathing life into eras for which there is scant documentation. In this sense, I am a great believer in supplementing history through fiction.


But for me historical fiction ought to be rooted both in a deep knowledge of the recorded history, and in an understanding, a “feel” for the spirit of that time. And, of course, ultimately it should tell a good story, yet one that is historically plausible, that is, a story that might have actually happened.


Historians want to tell “what actually happened,” but must face the fact that they would never really know; writers of fiction want to tell a story that might have happened, but precisely those parts of it that elude the historian. Together, I think, in that no man's land between history and fiction, lies some truth about the past, a truth that tells us where we came from and who we are, that neither genre can retrieve on its own.

Q: The author Leona Toker said: “We do not know how it really was, and yet we know, often more than is good for us. After so many novelists have tried to write history, it is fascinating to see what happens when a historian is impelled to write a novel.” What do you think of that assessment?


A: I think that every historian worth her salt also wants to write a novel, at least in the sense that writing history at its best is always an act of writing and imagination. We find an old document and imagine the circumstances surrounding its creation so as to bring it and the world that produced it into life.


And I think that the novel as a particular genre of writing since the 18th century has always been rooted in history and society. In that sense, the separation between the two is not as rigid as some would think, at least not when we contemplate the best products of either genre.


And here is also the rub: we both know about the human soul and the human capacity for creativity and destruction more than we would perhaps want to know, and at the same time we are always trying to fathom them, as poets and historians have done since the beginning of humanity in all cultures known to us.


That quest is in a sense what unites those who tell stories about the past--historians--and those who tell stories about the human soul--poets and fiction writers.


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


A: I hope readers will first of all grasp the inextricable links between us and the past and how we can never understand what motivates us and why we act and think and feel as we do without delving into our own making in past generations.


The protagonists of this book are tormented by an event that occurred before they were born, whose contours are only vaguely known to them. It is only by literally and metaphorically returning to the scene of the crime that the descendants of the killers and the victims not only find a modicum of peace but also accomplish some reconciliation, even love.


In this sense this book is about empathy rather than feeling sorry for oneself or the other, by listening to the other's story and telling one's own. Perhaps what I hope is that readers do not latch on to what they think is their identity, or believe they must seek it, but that they seek the human in those previously perceived as outside the boundaries of empathy.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: As a historian I am currently writing a book based on multiple interviews with Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel belonging to the first generation born after the establishment of the state (my own generation) focusing on how they understand their link to the place and how it has evolved since their childhood.


I just spent three months in Israel and these in-depth interviews with over 50 people have had a huge impact on my own understanding of this question and what it tells us about the seemingly intractable conflict in Israel-Palestine.


As an author I am planning a new, large-scale novel tentatively called “The Wars of the Philistines,” which will trace the life and fate of the child born from that explosive biblical union between Samson and Delilah. More to come. 

Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I was born in Israel to a father born in Palestine and a mother born in Eastern Europe, and lived as a child and teenager in the US and UK, while also serving four years in the IDF (including the 1973 War) and then studying in the US and UK and living for lengthy periods in Germany and France. In that sense, I have many homes and no home, and like it that way. But I have always been curious about people's need for a homeland, however defined.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Omer Bartov.