Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Q&A with Christine Wells




Christine Wells is the author of the new historical novel One Woman's War: A Novel of the Real Miss Moneypenny. It focuses on the life of World War II-era spy Victoire "Paddy" Bennett. Wells's other novels include Sisters of the Resistance. She lives in Brisbane, Australia.


Q: How did you learn about Victoire “Paddy” Bennett, and why did you decide to write One Woman’s War?


A: I have been interested in spies ever since I saw my first James Bond movie at age 7 and I’ve written several novels about female intelligence operatives. It wasn’t until I read a couple of biographies of Ian Fleming, who wrote the James Bond novels, that I understood the role Fleming played during World War II in British Naval Intelligence.


I wanted to know more about the women employed by the Naval Intelligence Division and stumbled across the name of Victoire (Paddy) Bennett in a newspaper article.


She seemed a most redoubtable character—university-educated, beautiful, and charming, not to mention the kind of woman who hit the newspapers once again at age 75 when she foiled a mugger by kicking him in a tender spot! I had to write about this woman.


Because Fleming based most of the workings of Bond’s intelligence service not on the real MI-6 but on his wartime experience of Naval Intelligence (Bond is a Navy commander, and M is known to be based on Rear Admiral John Godfrey, head of Naval Intelligence) Paddy best fits the bill as Fleming’s inspiration for Miss Moneypenny.


However, unlike the Moneypenny character in the Bond canon, Paddy was not at all impressed by Fleming’s charm!


Paddy really came into her own when she was given the chance to participate actively in Operation Mincemeat, which took place after she had finished her stint at Naval Intelligence.


Q: How did you blend the history with your own fictional story while writing the novel?


A: The action of my novel centers around Operation Mincemeat, in which the British planned to float the dead body of a Royal Marine off the coast of Spain, planting false documents on him that showed the Allies were going to invade Europe via Greece, rather than the expected (and intended) landing point of Sicily.


Spain was rife with German spies and the British trusted that whatever intelligence washed up on Spanish shores, the Germans would get their hands on it. If successful in diverting German troops from Sicily to Greece, the deception would save tens of thousands of Allied lives.


In case the Germans had spies in England who could check up on this ruse, the British created a full persona for the dead marine, complete with girlfriend—enter Paddy Bennett, who played the role of “Pam,” the marine’s fiancée, as the British prepared the evidence trail for the Germans to follow when verifying the clues left on the body.


However, the photograph of Pam that was planted on the marine’s body was of a different woman, Jean Leslie.


The wonderful thing about fictionalizing Operation Mincemeat was that because the real event read like an adventure story, it had an inherent story structure.

However, as a fiction writer it’s always incumbent on me to find the personal struggles that arise from that event. I made up a personal conflict for Paddy, imagining the strife it might have caused within her marriage to keep her mission a secret, particularly as it involved writing love letters to another man!


The second problem I had was that while everyone is in London, preparing for the operation, the enemy (and therefore the antagonist) is far away. Paddy was not on the spot to see how the gambit was received by the Germans.


To dramatize events that would only have been reported second-hand in reality, I needed someone to be an antagonist both in England and, later, in Germany.


Having researched agent provocateurs previously for my novel The Traitor’s Girl, I already knew about a glamorous Austrian double agent called Friedl Gärtner. Friedl became romantically involved with Duško Popov, one of the spies on whom Fleming is thought to have modelled James Bond. Popov was active on the Iberian Peninsula and involved in Operation Mincemeat.


Thus, Friedl became the antagonist who not only acted against Paddy in London, where Friedl was given the task of verifying the information the British had fed the Germans, but who also travelled to Berlin to report to German High Command.

Q: Can you say more about how the relationship between the real Paddy Bennett and the James Bond character Miss Moneypenny?


A: In the Bond books, Moneypenny is purely a private secretary or personal assistant to M (although recently in the movies she was given a backstory as a field agent).


Paddy had a lot more responsibility than the fictional Miss Moneypenny. During the war, Paddy would have taken part in analysing the intelligence reports that flowed into Room 39 at the Naval Intelligence Division. She worked for seven officers and had a huge workload.


She was Sorbonne-educated and very clever, so as with many women like her, she was given responsibility commensurate with her talents rather than with her status and pay.


Paddy was highly valued by her colleagues—when she left Room 39 to get married, as women did in those days, the Room 39 officers jokingly accused her husband of greatly setting back the war effort. And of course, later, Paddy’s involvement in Operation Mincemeat sent her into the field, so she played an active role.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on Operation Mincemeat in the novel, and how did you research it?


A: Operation Mincemeat was one of the most eccentric and effective intelligence operations in history. I am a huge Anglophile and I found the corkscrew wit behind the operation irresistible and the people who took part in the operation quirky and fascinating. 


Not realizing that a movie would soon be made about the operation starring Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen, I thought it was a fascinating part of history that deserved wider recognition. Incidentally, Paddy is not mentioned at all in the movie, as they conflated her character with that of Jean Leslie, whose photograph was used in the operation.


As for research, there are many books about the operation, and several excellent biographies and memoirs about the different people involved, and many newspaper articles, as well. I love reading primary sources and was particularly pleased to sift through the MI-5 file on Friedl Gärtner, which had been released to the public relatively recently.


Unfortunately, travel was out of the question due to the pandemic, but I have promised myself I will make it to the Hotel Palaćio in Portugal one day!


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Currently, I am writing a novel with the working title The Royal Windsor Orphan about Cleo, a young woman growing up in Cairo at the luxurious Shepheard’s Hotel, who comes to believe she is the love child of Edward VIII, the king who abdicated the British throne and married the American Wallis Simpson.


Cleo travels to pre-World War II Paris to investigate, but the truth is even more shocking than she imagined.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Christine Wells.

Q&A with Ned Bachus


Photo by Kathleen Bachus


Ned Bachus is the author of the new novel Mortal Things. His other books include the story collection City of Brotherly Love. He taught for almost four decades at Community College of Philadelphia, and he lives in Camden, Maine.


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


A: Sarah Goins and Mike Flannagan, two of the novel’s three protagonists, first presented themselves to me as a star-crossed couple back during my MFA program at Vermont College around the end of 1986. Right away, I grasped their backstories, which intrigued me as much as whatever direction their relationship might take.


The original short story that subsequently morphed into a novella then a novel focused on one volatile evening in their lives. I saw myself as a writer of short stories, but draft after draft left me obsessed about what would happen next to these two people.


Once I imagined Sarah and Mike moving through the next few days after the original triggering incident, seasoned curmudgeon Domenic Gallo appeared, and I realized that the story had leaped into far greater complexity, with each character’s relationship with the other two becoming increasingly intertwined, for better or worse.  


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


A: Typically, characters’ backstory contributes mightily to who they are when we meet them on the printed page, the screen, or on the stage, but so does the setting in which they exist.


My fictional terrain is populated by characters who are parts of—and, to some degree, products of—that cultural niche. Their way of speaking, cultural icons, and collective history all mark them as Philadelphians of a particular time, but their struggles, passions, and foibles are common to folks living and dying anywhere in the world.


In so many of my favorite novels, films, and plays, the deeper the artists dive into the specific cultural world, the closer they get to the universal.


I hope that readers who know Philadelphia well and those who don’t know the city at all will find the characters and the setting of Mortal Things believable and engaging.  


Q: The writer Susan Conley called the book “a gorgeously written portrait of human friendship and all its longing and connection and loss.” What do you think of that description, and how would you view the concept of friendship in the novel?

A: I’d be thrilled to learn that anyone thought that about the novel, but because Susan Conley is such a superb and soulful writer, I’m blown away by her very kind words.


I hope that people who read her endorsement and feel moved to read Mortal Things will also go out and get any of Susan Conley’s books that they haven’t yet read.


Mortal Things is very much about those personal bonds that we might call love or friendship—close connections that matter to us. Amazing that she seized on the “longing and connection and loss” that come with those relationships.


Those three powerful emotional states are both consequences of our relationships and influences upon our behavior towards others. The aftereffects of certain relationships can haunt us down the years, but they also can save us.    


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 followed the characters’ choices, one step at a time, until I saw the ending. We’re talking a process that happened over the course of decades of revision.


But several years in, I saw where the story was headed. Much of my subsequent work was making sure that the intervening steps really fit, a tricky process when you’re dealing with three protagonists who each experience a full character arc. That’s a very long story short.    


Q: What are you working on now?                                                                                  

A: A novel that I began drafting a scant 20 years ago, hopefully a mere fraction of the gestation period required of Mortal Things.


Did I mention that this is not a process I recommend to anyone? I’d love to put together a book in a year or so, but my brain has never worked that way.


It’s a picaresque adventure involving former band members who make a mid-life musical tour and discover more than they’d expected. Two of the band members make a cameo appearance in Mortal Things.       


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Readers can check out my Turning Points blog at nedbachus.com, follow me on Twitter at @NedBachus, and like my Open Admissions Facebook Page.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Barbara Rubin




Barbara Rubin is the author of the new book More Than You Can See: A Mother's Memoir. It focuses on the life of her late daughter Jennifer, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in 1991 and passed away 19 years later. Rubin lives in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania.


Q: What inspired you to write this memoir focused on the life of your daughter Jennifer?


A: It was a beautiful story that deserved to be told but only because it had the possibility of helping others. Unfortunately, just as our family had to navigate through the quagmire of brain injury, many tens of thousands of people throughout the world suffer a similar fate every year.


By writing my book, I hoped to expand the awareness of this type of injury and the ramifications it has on not only the survivors but their families, friends, and communities.


Jenn’s unique disability of not being able to communicate added more complexities to her rehab and gave an interesting twist to the story.


Not falling within the realm of what service providers usually saw in their clients, Jenn’s condition called for creative thinking for them to know how to treat her. Our family and her caregivers were also challenged to find ways for her to connect with us as we helped her relearn basic life skills. There was no script on how to do this; it was a matter of trial and error.


As her mother, I made it my mission to rebuild a life for Jenn that was interesting and filled with people and adventure. In doing so, I enabled all of us to move well beyond the normal routines of caring for someone. We were amply rewarded for our efforts by seeing Jenn’s smiling face as she found a way, without words, to touch the many people who came to know and love her.


If my book encourages one caregiver to go beyond simply providing for the basic needs of a person in their charge and inspires them to pursue new and interesting avenues in serving their client, then More Than You Can See is a success and attained a worthy goal.


Q: The author Linda Joy Myers said of the book, “This book is perfect not only for parents who want to learn from Barbara's journey as a mother but for all of us who need to be reminded that life is a gift and it's up to us to cherish and celebrate every moment.” What do you think of that description, and what do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: I love Linda Joy’s summation of my book, and her thoughtful insight into its subtle message on parenting. Throughout the story the strong bond between my husband, Mark, and me is evident. This is what helped cement our family together when stress and pain could have easily driven us apart.


Our shared goal of giving Jenn every opportunity to have a fulfilling life meant we had to support each other while keeping in mind her younger sister, Amy, was also greatly affected by the change in our family dynamics and needed our attention and guidance.


Mark and I never lost sight of our role as parents and worked together to ensure both of our daughters not only survived the trauma from Jenn’s accident but came out stronger and more resilient from it.

Recognizing how precious life is and how it can change in an instant through tragedy is at the heart of Jenn’s story. This was another of Linda Joy’s takeaways from More Than You Can See. We often need reminders to not be so caught up in our daily routines that we lose sight of the important things in our lives and what matters most in our overall happiness.


Families who face tragedy quickly understand the trivial nature of the many things we place great significance on until harsh reality strikes and awakens them to what they truly value and hold dear.


By reading my book, readers have an opportunity to not only feel tragedy as lived through my family but also experience the joy and triumphs that were part of our journey. Each chapter should give readers renewed determination to embrace their loved ones as though it were their last moment together.


I think there are as many different issues addressed in my book as there are possible takeaways. I would hope my story will stimulate conversation among fellow readers regarding empathy and tolerance, provide direction to those whose path is unclear after tragedy, or start the healing process for those who suffer from a similar painful occurrence in their family.


If nothing else, it is a human-interest story that should give readers an opportunity to reflect on what defines a life well-lived and how acts of kindness can bring out the best in them and their community.


Q: You describe some very difficult experiences--what impact did it have on you to write the book?


A: To write this book, I had to revisit some painful memories that I had carefully buried in my mind. It took years of healing before it was remotely possible for me to write this story. Even then, I wasn’t sure if I had the ability to conjure up those memories and then be able to, once again, stow them away in a place that would not be harmful to my mental and physical health.


Fortunately, enough time had lapsed so I could tell the story and survive the anguish I had to relive by remembering details long hidden in the recesses of my memory to get the story out of my head and onto paper.


I didn’t expect the writing to be a source of healing for me, but in many ways it was. In interviewing the various people who were front and center in the story, I learned important things about Jenn that I didn’t know before, things I treasure and would have missed if not for this book.


Writing offered me a chance to reflect on my family’s journey, to look deeply into myself as a mother and advocate for Jenn, and to see my daughter for all her beautiful qualities.


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


A: The original title was A Different Voice, but after one of my editors read the manuscript, she suggested More Than You Can See as it spoke to the true context of the story. I wholeheartedly agreed with her.


Because of Jenn’s unique disability of having no communication, it was hard to recognize all her talents, skills, and ways she connected to people. The title clearly expresses what I came to recognize as I started writing the book; there was so much more to Jenn than what I was able to see while living in the moment.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am taking a break from writing for now as I focus on helping to create awareness for More Than You Can See.


I do still work on my various art projects, do adventuring with my husband, Mark, and go to as many of my grandson’s lacrosse games as possible. I continue to love learning, creating, and exploring, as I race against time to pack in as many meaningful experiences as time and energy allow.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I feel that as an author, my life is literally an open book, exposed for all the world to see.


I do have many activities that I enjoy pursuing on a regular basis: reading (no surprise), painting, teaching myself to play the piano, biking (e-bike), hiking, kayaking, playing bocce and canasta, travelling (when there isn’t Covid to worry about), and having a good political debate.


I am always looking for the next new chapter in my book of life and pondering what the next thing is that I will try.


Readers can find out more about my life’s story on my website: https://barbararubinauthor.com. It also offers a way for people to contact me and share their story, comments, or insights which I welcome.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Heather Camlot




Heather Camlot is the author of the new middle grade book The Prisoner and the Writer, which focuses on the Dreyfus Affair in France around the turn of the 20th century. It involved antisemitism directed against French Captain Alfred Dreyfus and the role of writer Émile Zola in defending Dreyfus. Camlot's other books include the middle grade novel Clutch. She lives in Toronto.


Q: What inspired you to write The Prisoner and the Writer?


A: The story of Alfred Dreyfus and Émile Zola has fascinated me since I was a teenager. I used to watch classic movies late at night on television and one of those nights had The Life of Émile Zola.


I’m sure I had no idea who he was at the time, but I watched the movie anyway and I was just blown away by the part about the Dreyfus Affair. As a Jewish kid growing up in Montreal, the story struck a chord.  


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


A: I love, love, love research! I have a French copy of J’Accuse…! that I had bought decades ago, so I reread that for starters. I also pored over Five Years of My Life: The Diary of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, and read a great number of biographies and nonfiction books about France and the Dreyfus Affair, as well as newspaper and magazine articles from the time and select websites.


So much surprised me…on the negative side, how the real criminals were never punished and how the Army only publicly acknowledged that Alfred Dreyfus was framed in 1995; on the positive side, how the story of the Dreyfus Affair exploded around the world and how people from every corner of the globe rallied around these men.

Q: What do you think Sophie Casson’s illustrations add to the book?


A: Sophie’s illustrations beautifully capture the heart and soul of the story, drawing readers further in with her striking use of light and color and clearly reminding them that this is a story about real people, places, and events. I am in awe of how she transformed the words into a powerful visual narrative.


Q: The events you write about occurred 125 years ago--what themes do you think remain important today, and what do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: There are many themes that remain important today: antisemitism and prejudice, power and corruption, truth and justice. The year 2021 was the most antisemitic in the past decade. We see people being accused of crimes because of their religion, skin colour, gender, etc.


As I wrote in the book, The Prisoner and the Writer is a reminder that we must stand up and speak out, even when others stay silent.


I also hope readers finish with an understanding that the information they hear, see, and read in the media and even from the people around them may be biased, one-sided, and that they may need to do some digging to get a more full and accurate account of a story to make up their own opinions.  


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I feel like I am always working on 20 things at once! Right now, I am working on a middle-grade verse novel, a picture book about climate change and a couple of nonfiction pitches.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: January 13, 2023, is the 125th anniversary of the publication of J’Accuse…! in the French newspaper L’Aurore, one of, if not the most powerful front page in the history of journalism. I really hope readers embrace the story of Alfred Dreyfus and Émile Zola and are moved by their fight for truth and justice.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 4



Oct. 4, 1941: Anne Rice born.

Monday, October 3, 2022

Q&A with Robin Stevens Payes



Robin Stevens Payes is the author of the new young adult novel Find Me in the Time Before. It's the fourth in her Edge of Yesterday time-travel series. She lives in the Washington, D.C., area.


Q: What inspired you to focus on French mathematician and scientist Emilie du Châtelet (1706-1749) in your latest time travel adventure, and what do you see as her legacy today?


A: I was first introduced to the Marquise watching a documentary—a biography of the equation E=mc2, based on a book of the same title by David Bodanis.


First off, it’s weird that someone would want to write a biography about a mathematical formula, right? Of course, we all know that to be proof of the Theory of Relativity, Albert Einstein’s masterful and, so far, enduring breakthrough that proves that energy and matter are essentially interchangeable at the speed of light.


But what was more mindboggling to me about Bodanis’s research is that Einstein, in formulating his theory, was channeling an earlier discovery of the formula for kinetic energy, F=mv2—about two centuries earlier, in fact—by a French woman physicist, philosopher and mathematician, Emilie the Marquise du Châtelet.


Which sent me down the rabbit hole in search of this “hidden figure” and her own pathbreaking contribution that inspired Einstein, whether Albert was aware of her or not.


There was a huge controversy swirling in physics in the early 18th century, from the likes of Descartes, Newton, and Leibniz, among other notables, about the force that set and kept the universe in motion—what they termed force vive, or the living force. It was Mme. du Chatelet’s stunning insight that it was the squaring of mass x velocity that described this force.


And that was just the beginning of this woman’s contributions to her world, and ours.


Q: Your character Charley is a little older this time around--how do you think she's changed, or remained the same, since her previous adventures?


A: Great question. Charley’s now in high school after what was a pretty amazing experience—traveling through time and space to Leonardo da Vinci’s world in 15th-century Florence, and an up-close-and-personal meeting with the Renaissance genius himself.


She’s brought back a few lessons from that experience:

Curiosity is the key to learning, but it can sometimes get you into trouble.

The past influences the future, but the reverse can also happen.

Listen to your heart. Anything is possible.


Naturally, this influences her life in the present.


In some ways, based on these lessons learned, she has become more cautious. She knows there are consequences for following her passions.


But it has also made her more determined to find ways to tap and refine her newfound time-traveling abilities to learn from other “heroes of history”—especially women whose legacies have been lost. And in the process, to restore their stories to inspire other girls and women to follow their own path.


Of course, Charley is a strong social justice advocate, and that doesn’t change. Seeing—and even experiencing—injustice throughout history strengthens her resolve. Her motto: If you can speak up, speak up. If you can do something, do something. Be active not passive.


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


A: I traveled to France to follow Emilie’s path over the course of her life. I saw her family’s home in Paris, where she grew up in the shadow of the Louvre (then the palace of kings), and where her father had an appointment as head of protocol (think, chief diplomat) in the Court of Louis XIV. I visited Versailles, where Emilie learned to duel and used her mathematical talents to win at the gaming tables.


From there, I visited the charming château in Cirey, in the countryside in the Champagne region, where she lived, loved, and fought with Voltaire. They even built a little theatre in the top floor to stage Voltaire’s plays. And Emilie’s husband, the Marquis, a soldier in Louis XV’s army, would join them in playacting when he wasn’t off fighting wars.


And finally, to Lunéville, a town in Eastern France which was then part of the Court of King Stanislas of Poland (this whole patchwork of kingdoms back in the day is complicated!), under whose patronage she was working when she died in childbirth with her fourth child at the age of 42.


She was well known in her own day for her audacious work, this “daring woman of the Enlightenment.” Emilie and Voltaire held a salon in Cirey that attracted the highest minds, and the biggest gossips, of Enlightenment society throughout Europe. It was only after her untimely death that her contributions were lost to history.

Finally, I participated in a pilgrimage there on the anniversary of her death to march through the streets with banners and to the Catholic Church where she is interred without any identification of her identity to revive her legacy.


At a minimum, the story is meant to raise visibility of her accomplishments to a new generation, of young people who might find, in her story, a reason to follow their own passions, to persist, and to defy those who would tell them “you can’t.”


Q: Why did you decide to include the Covid pandemic in the novel?


A: The Enlightenment, much like today, was a time of great medical and scientific advances. Smallpox was a scourge that used to kill three out of every 10 people who caught it.


Until, that is, a new technique called variolation was discovered. It had been used in the East, and was brought back to England in 1721 in the midst of a smallpox epidemic by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, whose husband was the English ambassador to Turkey. She had seen evidence that such an inoculation was effective, and even immunized their son.


The technique involved taking a scab from someone with the pox and using a small amount of the dried scab by either blowing it up the patient’s nose, or making a small cut in the skin. Voltaire wrote about her wondrous discovery and helped to popularize the treatment in France.


In 2021, at the 300th anniversary of this life-saving treatment, we were in the time of a new scourge ravaging the globe. I wondered how the uncertainty around the coronavirus, and the rush to develop a vaccine, might parallel that earlier period and the rush to innovate something that would save thousands—and later millions—of lives.


And whether the skepticism we all experienced around the new mRNA vaccine technology to tame Covid might mirror the way people in earlier times would have reacted to a new disease, or discovery of a “cure”—is this just human nature?


What better way to test the question than to explore the paradox—what if a novel virus crops up from some unknown source. . .from the future?


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Charley’s appetite to uncover the secrets of “hidden” female polymaths is growing! She’s on to a new adventure that will take her back 100 years, to Jazz Age New York and the Harlem Renaissance.


And she’s soon off to college herself. So how will the past intersect with her life in 2024—and influence her future, or the world as we know it?


At this point in the story, it’s anybody’s guess. Suffice it to say, whatever the adventure, it’s going to be the bees knees!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I have always taken the Edge of Yesterday adventures beyond the page, working with these teens to set off on their own journey of discovery. I call it a stealthy way to advance STEM and STEAM learning through creativity. By training them in a style of narrative journalism they can actually have their own original stories published at the Edge of Yesterday through our Time Travelers portal at edgeofyesterday.com.


What I’ve learned along the way is that there’s also a hunger to advance the tools of creativity—communication, curiosity, problem solving, critical thinking, and collaboration—among their parents.


To facilitate that, I’ve created The Mother-Daughter Code, to work with moms of teen girls to give them the space, the time, and the tools—the permission to set out on their own journey of discovery.


Over this past year, I’ve designed and am building out an online program that shares the lessons I’ve learned as a mom writing at the Edge of Yesterday. It integrates stuff I’ve written about in developmental neuroscience (“teen brains”) and psychology, the programs I’ve done with teens, and insights about how our stories shape us.


We provide moms with a playbook to understand how we all get stuck in our stories—and how changing our stories can change our relationships and our lives.


I’ll be launching The Mother Daughter Code in 2023. I invite anyone who might be curious about it to take a peek at what this new adult story adventure holds in store!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Robin Stevens Payes.

Q&A with Adria Bernardi


Photo by Isaac Stovall



Adria Bernardi is the author of the new novel Benefit Street. Her other books include the novel Openwork. Also a translator, she has translated eight works from Italian to English.


Q: What inspired you to write Benefit Street, and how did you create your character Şiva?


A: Şiva first emerged first as a voice. That voice was speaking several phrases, phrases that turned out to be the opening paragraphs of the novel. Her voice was clear, it was separate from me, and it was insistent. When I heard that voice, and what it was saying, I understood that it belonged to a woman named Şiva and that it was part of a novel.


This wasn’t the first passage of the novel I wrote. A short story, “Servant to Servant,” had been written before I heard Şiva’s voice, and the story stood alone on its own for a long while as a short story.


Other fragments of the narrative emerged. I felt that these pieces were interconnected—but I didn’t understand how. When I heard Şiva’s voice, I understood that the characters in the short story, “Emiz and The Missionary’s Wife,” were linked to Şiva, and I also understood that she was the narrator of a longer work.


Benefit Street was written during the Iraq War and during involvement of the U.S. in the war in Afghanistan.


Prior to this period of time—and then again during it—friends, acquaintances, neighbors, colleagues of my husband--who’s a psychiatrist who works with patients with chronic mental illness--parents of my sons’ classmates, pulled me to tell me of a precipitous leaving from a place that had been home due to war and repression.


Some spoke of the terror of the flight itself and the uncertainty of the journey; some described the places where they lived before life had landed them to this new “here.” Most of them spoke of the impossibility of return.


These stories were shared by men and women of different faiths, of different ethnic heritages, of different cultures, of different generations. They were speaking to me, confiding in me, asking me to somehow bear witness. What they said stayed with me.


When Şiva’s voice emerged, I understood that I had a way to attempt to honor the people who had asked me to listen to them and to try to understand complex experiences associated with displacement and the conditions that precipitate traumatic displacements.


Q: The author Andrea Barrett said of the book, “What does it mean to lose a language, a culture, hard-won freedoms, a community? In this mysterious, allusive, and wonderfully economical novel, Bernardi’s characters weave a moving tapestry of friendship, courage, and deep feeling.” What do you think of that description?


A: Andrea Barrett is a great writer and a great thinker about the complexities of the human condition over the long arcs of time. She is a great teacher of writing and has been a source of generativity for many writers, including me.


So, when she described Benefit Street in this way, it signaled to me that the novel had reached its reader. That she “got” it. That she understood what the intentions of the novel were—the ethical questions guiding it, its aesthetic, and the intellectual, emotional and psychological journeying within it.


It’s a description that so succinctly and so acutely describes what it is the novel aspires to be. Reading that first sentence almost made me weep. That’s it. That’s what it’s about.

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


A: Once I heard Şiva’s voice, I understood where she was located on a specific physical landscape—at a point where three streets came together. I understood where she was in a moment in time.


When I clearly experienced and saw five women friends hugging and parting from each other after their habitual weekly gathering and going off in five different directions, I immediately understood their relationships with each other and that their lives would have different trajectories.


One of the things that never changed during the writing of the novel was the beginning point and the ending point that this moment defined. When I didn’t know very much else about her, I understood she would be displaced from her home and that she was telling the story from a great distance of time and space.  


One of the big shifts during the writing of the novel occurred once I was committed to more deeply to imagining Emiz and how she was connected to the five friends. I knew she was a painter who was now weaving rugs. I didn’t set out to write about rugmaking, but it became essential because it defined Emiz.


After this phase of writing the novel, the images, sensations, and conceptualizations related to weaving became a primary motif of the novel and helped to give it its shape.


Q: How did you create the novel’s setting, and how important is setting to you in your writing?


A: After hearing Şiva describe the five friends kissing each other on the cheeks and departing in different directions, they were located on a map. This map became the beginning of the imagining of the city where they lived.


And once I had a sense of an emerging map, I began to imagine the meeting place where five women, all teachers, met for tea every Tuesday after work before they rushed home. The map and the space inside the teahouse, where they were seated around a table, talking, complaining and drinking way too much tea, became the spaces in which these characters began to emerge, to move, and to live.


In my first novel, I understood exactly where and who the character Bartolomeo de Bartolai was the moment he was imagined in his setting: he was sitting at the edge of a mountain river among stones, and he was a shepherd, in the late 1500s, and I knew which side of the river. That was the moment I understood how the novel would be narrated.


Those spaces—whether it’s explored in a narrative present or in a reconstructed memory—is largely where I write from. Certain passages, images, descriptions don’t end up in the work because they turn out not to be essential to the overall work, even though they have contributed to more complex imagining.


To understand where the character is physically positions that character in space and time. It also establishes the place, the perspective, from which the character perceives and experiences the world.


Even though I may not have any idea about what the narrative events will be—what happened? what is going to happen?—when a character is situated inside a space, there are a multiplicity of ways to perceive, to hear, and to understand the internal life of that character. For me, the specific space and the voice speaking in it is usually where it begins.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I hope to soon complete final revisions on a work of historical fiction about an 18th century physician and scientist. It’s about the age-old tensions and conflicts between mind and spirit, involving a character whose life is resolutely and single-mindedly dedicated to rational thinking amidst a pervasive onslaught of ignorance.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: As I said, Benefit Street was written over a long period of time during the Iraq War and the during involvement of the U.S. in the war in Afghanistan. Final edits of Benefit Street were completed as the U.S. was leaving Afghanistan. The preparations for the book’s launch began in winter 2022 during the Russian invasion of Ukraine.


And so, the traumatic ruptures which the novel investigates were repeating even as I was finishing this novel, the images of destruction caused by war—apartment buildings, hospitals, schools, theaters, images of a child reaching for a parent.


The voices of Benefit Street, of characters who were dedicated to making the world new, to democracy and to freedom, who had been vigilant in attempting to prevent the authoritarianism and wars of their grandparents’ generation from repeating, had to redefine, rebuild, and rededicate themselves again to living in the changed world.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb