Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Q&A with Emily Midorikawa



Photo by Rosalind Hobley


Emily Midorikawa is the author of the new book Out of the Shadows: Six Visionary Victorian Women in Search of a Public Voice. She also is the coauthor of the book A Secret Sisterhood. She teaches at New York University London.


Q: What inspired you to write Out of the Shadows, and how did you choose the women to include in the book?


A: My interest in Victorian spirit mediums dates back to me reading an unpublished letter from Harriet Beecher Stowe to George Eliot while doing research for a different book a few years ago.


In this letter, Stowe mentioned an American woman called Kate Fox who, along with her sisters Leah and Maggie, took the late 19th century by storm, thanks to their apparent abilities to contact the dead. I was intrigued by Stowe’s descriptions of Kate, whom she depicted as a strange, sprite-like character, and so I decided to discover more.


Researching the Fox sisters opened up a door to a mysterious world, led by other individuals—many of them women—who shared the same supposed talents.


I was particularly fascinated by the women who used their unusual fame to carve out huge public profiles for themselves that often took them far beyond the realms of private spirit readings and even mass public séances.


Emma Hardinge Britten, for instance, made controversial political speeches to crowds of thousands, and delivered New York City’s first public commemoration to assassinated president Abraham Lincoln.


Victoria Woodhull leveraged her notoriety into a successful Wall Street career and a highly-publicized run for the U.S. presidency.


Georgina Weldon's belief in the spirit world almost saw her confined to a London asylum, but she would go on to become a famous campaigner against archaic lunacy laws.


Along with the Fox sisters, these were the women whose stories I ultimately decided to include in Out of the Shadows.


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


A: After that letter—which I read in one of the New York Public Library's scholarly reading rooms— sparked my interest, I followed up my research closer to home, in the UK where I live.


The University of London's Senate House Library contains the Harry Price Library of Magical Literature, which is as weird and wonderful a resource as it sounds. The materials it holds did a great deal to enrich my understanding of 19th-century Spiritualism.


Eventually, my research would take me to many other libraries and museums on both sides of the Atlantic.


I was surprised to learn what prolific writers many of the women who feature in my book were, and grateful to discover that rare editions of their published works survive, as well as many of their handwritten papers.


I’m always interested in any links I discover between each of the separate life stories in my group biographies. In the case of Out of the Shadows, some of these women were admirers of each other; others were friends; a couple didn't get along at all, and had a longstanding rivalry.


Q: How would you compare the Spiritualist movement in the United States and in England, and what do you see as the connections between Spiritualism and women's suffrage?


A: There was a political element to both British and American Spiritualism as a great many Spiritualists were also committed to the idea of progressive social reform. However, this element was perhaps more pronounced in the United States.


Certainly, in the case of the American women's suffrage movement there were well-established links between many key Spiritualists and suffrage campaigners of the era, which means that representatives of both appear at historically significant moments in my book, including the inaugural women's rights convention, at Seneca Falls in 1848, and Victoria Woodhull's address to Congress in 1871.


Q: What do you see as these women's legacy today?


A: The legacy of these women is complicated. On the one hand, all six of them were genuine trailblazers, who achieved astonishing levels of cultural and political influence at a time when women's voices were seldom heard in public.


On the other, although many educated and deep-thinking individuals of their era had unshakable confidence in these women's abilities, advances in science over the passing decades mean that few people today will place as much trust in their talents.


In general, modern readers will believe that these women were involved in some trickery and deception, including sometimes of themselves. It is therefore a challenge to fit their stories into straightforward histories of the journey towards greater female empowerment.


However, as I argue in Out of the Shadows, we should not only be willing to give our time to straightforward figures. The Fox sisters, Kate, Leah, and Maggie; Emma Hardinge Britten; Victoria Woodhull; and Georgina Weldon all played crucial parts in the social landscape of the late 19th century, and I believe their lives are absolutely worth exploring on that basis.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: At the moment, I am mostly working on getting the message out there about this book—doing interviews like this one, writing commissioned articles, preparing talks to give.


But, when I have a spare moment at my desk, I spend it on research for a new project—a novel this time, set in roughly the same period covered in Out of the Shadows, but with a very different subject.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I have an almost-two-year-old daughter and another baby due next month. I mention this because, when I think of this book's journey from research, to writing, to publication, they are very much part of it.


I was already researching and writing the book before I learned I was expecting a baby, but I undertook my most extensive research trip (to the U.S.) four months into my pregnancy.


I completed the book's first draft a week before giving birth, and later (after taking a few months off), I spent many more hours working in libraries with a timer set to remind me when I needed to take breaks to pump milk.


It wasn't always easy, but I'm lucky to have a husband with whom I share the childcare. Without his support, completing the book would have been impossible.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Emily Midorikawa.

Q&A with Damhnait Monaghan


Photo by Rachel Elizabeth Photography UK


Damhnait Monaghan is the author of the new novel New Girl in Little Cove. She also has written the novella The Neverlands. She lives in the south of England.


Q: What was the inspiration for New Girl in Little Cove, and for your character Rachel?


A: The inspiration for my novel was the province of Newfoundland & Labrador. We moved there, from mainland Ontario, when I was 12.


Almost immediately we all fell in love with the island: its rocky coastline, unpredictable weather and the constant presence of the sea. Most of all though, we loved the culture - music, laughter, warmth. In many ways, the novel is an homage to both the province and its people.


To a certain extent my main character Rachel was inspired by my own experiences as a novice teacher. Like her I taught French in outport Newfoundland in my early 20s. Unlike her, I was not newly arrived on the island.


But it makes a far better story to drop a complete outsider into a unique setting and see how she copes (or doesn’t as the case may be!) Like Rachel, I had my own difficult moments as a new teacher - I was also asked how to say seal in French on my first day.


Q: As you’ve noted, the book takes place in a small community in Newfoundland. How important is setting to you in your writing?


A: Setting was important to me for New Girl in Little Cove. From the opening chapter, I wanted the reader to experience the claustrophobic nature of Little Cove contemporaneously with Rachel.


For me setting includes the timeframe. I set the novel in the 1980s in part because that’s the period during which I lived and taught in Newfoundland. But I also wanted Rachel to feel a real sense of isolation, to be fully immersed in a foreign culture and totally reliant on the locals: no texting, email, or FaceTime.


I also believe that dialect contributes to setting, helping a place and its people come alive. Douglas Stuart does this so brilliantly in Shuggie Bain. Newfoundland & Labrador has a distinct (and varied) dialect which Rachel initially struggles to understand. I only hope I’ve done it justice.


Q: Did you need to do any research to write the novel, and if so, did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: Because the novel is inspired by my own experiences, it was less a case of research and more of reminding myself about events from the relevant time frame – hit songs and current events from the 1980s, for example.


I also looked through old photo albums. However, rug hooking is a feature of the novel and I knew nothing about it, so had to research it. I spent some time studying instructional videos on the website of Deanne Fitzpatrick, a wonderful rug hooker originally from Newfoundland.


Something that surprised me? A few months before the book’s publication in Canada, I discovered there was a Little Cove beginner’s kit on Deanne’s website. I had never tried hooking, but with that coincidence, how could I not? Even more surprising was the fact that I completed the project and enjoyed it! I suspect I’ll do more hooking in the future.  


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


A: I hope they take away a strong desire to visit the wonderful province of Newfoundland & Labrador post pandemic!


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I don’t want to say too much in case I jinx it, but I’m working on a novel that takes place over the course of a summer, not in Newfoundland, but in mainland Ontario. My main character Maisie is at rock bottom and has to claw her way back up. We’ll see if she makes it!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I mentioned the distinct Newfoundland dialect above. The Dictionary of Newfoundland English is available online: https://www.heritage.nf.ca/dictionary/ and I’d love your readers to explore it.


Like any good teacher, I’ll even assign some homework. Look up these three words: “angishore,” “mauzy,” and “bangbelly.”


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Marcy Campbell



Marcy Campbell is the author of Rule of Threes, a new middle grade novel for kids. She also has written the picture book Adrian Simcox Does NOT Have a Horse. She lives in Ohio.


Q: What inspired you to write Rule of Threes, and how did you create your character Maggie?


A: It was actually my agent who suggested I try writing a middle-grade novel (I’d been writing picture books up to that point).


I started with the age-old storytelling trope of a stranger coming to town, in this case, a stranger who is related to Maggie, which sets the plot in motion.


I wanted Maggie to have a hobby that I haven’t seen much (yet) in middle-grade. Though you might not think of tweens and teens as being into interior design, I haven’t met one yet who doesn’t enjoy personalizing their bedroom.


Maggie starts there, and loves that process so much, she makes a whole business out of decorating. That hobby tied in well with her perfectionism, and once I brought in a bunch of design “rules,” it really helped shape the plot.


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, "Campbell’s engaging tale of redefining family is anchored by occasionally prickly Maggie’s voice as she learns to loosen her own rules and find harmony in the imperfect." What do you think of that description?


A: I love that description! The idea of finding “harmony in the imperfect” really gets at the crux of the story.


Maggie prides herself on being able to put everything in its place, both in terms of interior design, and her personal life. She has to learn to loosen her expectations a bit and allow the people she loves to be imperfect. This starts with accepting imperfection in herself.


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


A: The title refers to an interior design rule that odd-numbered items look better (when grouped on a table, for example) than even-numbered ones. When I envisioned Maggie and knew she had a love of decorating, I decided to make use of various design rules throughout the book.


For Maggie, though, this particular rule is also personal. She thinks three is the perfect, balanced, number, in part because she has two best friends (the three of them make up her trio of partners in her design business, Best Foot Forward aka BFF). She also has a family of three, with her parents and herself.


All this “perfection” quickly gets thrown out the window when her previously unknown half-brother, Tony, arrives on her doorstep, and one of her friends starts pulling away. She has to make different rules, and that isn’t easy for her.


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


A: Yes, I knew how it would end, for the most part. I once tried to write a novel (for adults) by just winging it, letting the plot happen as I wrote, and it was a disaster.


Now, I know I need to outline. I actually spent a great deal of time figuring out my characters and the basic plot before I wrote a thing.


I did change some things as I went along, deciding I didn’t need certain scenes, and adding some others, but knowing where I needed to end up helped me point the rest of the book in that direction, which meant fewer drafts.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m ramping up publicity for a fall picture book I have coming out titled Something Good. It’s about a school community having to rebuild their trust in each other after something bad is found written on a bathroom wall. It’s out in September and illustrated by Corinna Luyken.


I’m also working on more picture books and another middle-grade novel. I don’t like to give much away at this stage, so I will vaguely say that novel is about “happiness.”


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: That middle-school kids (and all kids) are dealing with a lot these days. I am the parent of two middle-schoolers myself. Yet, I still run into grown-ups who don’t think books for kids, even contemporary, realistic ones like mine, should include any of the harsh realities kids face.


Mostly, these are older adults, reminiscing about a worry-free time in the past, which was never real to begin with. The difference today is that we’re free to examine current issues and work toward solutions, even in books for the youngest children, and thank goodness.


Thank you for hosting me, Deborah!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 11



May 11, 1918: Richard Feynman born.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Q&A with Jon Grinspan



Jon Grinspan is the author of the new book The Age of Acrimony: How Americans Fought to Fix Their Democracy, 1865-1915. He also has written the book The Virgin Vote. He is curator of political history at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, and he lives in Washington, D.C.


Q: What first intrigued you about this period of American history, and why did you decide to write this book?


A: The first thing, years ago, was seeing a chart of voter turnout—how high it was in the 19th century and how quickly it crashed. It posed two questions: Why was it so high, and why did it crash? I was trying to put a human face on the statistics.


Another thing is that I started studying the era because there was an attitude growing up in the 1990s that capital-P politics was boring to people. By the time I finished the project, it’s all we talk about!


Q: What are some of the numbers on voter turnout?


A: Turnout was high in the 19th century in general. Right after the Civil War the turnout was 77 percent. And women, children, African Americans were still paying attention. The numbers only tell half the story.


By 1924, it was 49 percent. Only a minority of people were voting.


Q: Why did you choose the father-daughter pair of Will (a congressman) and Florence (an activist) Kelley as the focus of the book, and how did you research their lives?


A: I wrote my first book on young people in politics in this era. I was struck by the idea of politics as an intimate family relationship. I was especially struck by fathers and daughters. Men voted, it was a male world, but there were diaries from girls describing how their fathers explained to them if they were Republicans or Democrats.


I wanted to get from the 1820s to the 1920s, and by going from Will to Florence, it was a narrative device. Will’s papers are in Philadelphia, where I’m from. I saw letters from Abraham Lincoln, from Frederick Douglass.


They were always in the room where it happened, for 100 years of American history. They both were fascinating people, and flawed people. They were not two-dimensional heroic figures. They were difficult. They had their downsides.


Q: How would you describe the changes over the course of the timespan you write about?


A: The end of the story describes a world familiar to most Americans. The beginning of the story is so foreign. There’s so much change in politics. To get from the earlier period to the New Deal, I felt like I was on an elevator going through American history.


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, “Today’s political vitriol pales beside the 19th century’s rabid partisanship as depicted in this raucous history of Gilded Age electioneering.” How would you compare the two periods?


A: It gets me dangerously near to becoming an “it was so much worse back then” guy. We have problems they didn’t, and they had problems we don’t.


It was a more violent era than ours—the assassinations of presidents and congresspeople, labor unrest. But I live on Capitol Hill, and I was here for the riot, and as a Smithsonian curator I go all over the country. We have our manifestations of that today.


When it comes to turnout and partisanship, I don’t think we have anything on them.


The key to me is that they had these moments and found a way to reduce it. Is there a way to change or reform politics?


Q: As a historian at the Smithsonian, what do you hope people take away from your book?


A: What I always want from every project—more human engagement with the past. I’d like to get people to think more about history. History is about tradeoffs. The ability to reduce partisanship led to less participation. It’s a nuanced understanding of change.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: When I talk about the book, there’s a tendency to discuss the structural stuff about democracy. But I’m glad we were able to talk about the human aspects. I’m glad to discuss Will and Florence. They made a big story feel human to me.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Melissa Ginsburg



Photo by Chris Offutt


Melissa Ginsburg is the author of the new novel The House Uptown. Her other books include the novel Sunset City. She is Associate Professor of Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Mississippi, and she lives in Oxford, Mississippi.


Q: What inspired you to write The House Uptown, and how did you create your characters Ava and Lane?


A: Some big philosophical questions led me to write this book.


My mother suffers from dementia, and in watching her decline over the past several years, I have wondered about the nature of identity and its connection to memory. What happens to the self when the mind stops working?


At the same time I had been thinking a lot about feminist issues, particularly the obstacles that female artists face. We are trained to orient our lives around relationships, which demand our time and creative energy. Women’s relationships to art and art-making falls outside of this stricture.


The character of Lane emerged from all these concerns, as well as a belief in the enduring nature of art. She believes in her own artistic vision more than any other thing in her life.


Her granddaughter Ava is based on children I knew in Iowa, including my stepsons. She is an outsider who looks at New Orleans and Lane with clarity and curiosity. She cares about right and wrong, and about people.


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

A: Setting is extremely important. I’ve been wanting to write about New Orleans my whole life, and about this house in particular. My mother grew up in this house, though I’ve embellished it slightly in the book, and I spent a lot of time in it as a child. It still holds a mystical power over my imagination.


I grew up in Houston and went to New Orleans all the time. My parents were so homesick for it, in the particular and thorough way that only New Orleanians are homesick. I was raised with the belief that this city was the center of the world.


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 the ending of the plot more or less, but I wasn't always sure how to get there. The middle of the book changed the most. I had the beginning and end and the four main characters before I started.


But the idea for the very last chapter did not come to me until fairly late in the writing process. I allowed myself to approach it as I would a poem, and it felt right for the book. I could not have known that or been able to do it in advance.


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


A: I hope these people, Ava, Lane, Oliver, and Artie, stick with readers afterwards. They feel so real to me, and I still think about them all the time. I care so deeply about each one, though they are all flawed and hurt others in various ways, intentionally and unintentionally.


Each character is struggling to figure out how to live a life that is meaningful, and the compromises and mistakes they make inform that question as much as their most noble impulses.


I hope readers will love this vicarious visit to New Orleans, too. I’ve missed it so much during Covid!


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m writing poems—I have a poetry book coming out in 2022 called Doll Apollo. It deals with paper dolls, the moon, conspiracy theories, female anger and desire.


I’m also working on a short story set in New Orleans about teen girls who have fled their unsafe family homes and are squatting in an abandoned house. They read Tarot for change on the street and try to protect each other.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Lisa Marie Rankin



Lisa Marie Rankin is the author of the new book The Goddess Solution: Practical Wisdom for Everyday Life. A wellness coach and yoga and mindfulness teacher, she lives near Boston.


Q: What inspired you to write The Goddess Solution, and how did you choose the goddesses to include in the book?


A: I have always been interested in yoga and spirituality. Well, since college, anyways.


In my late 30s, my marriage was ending, and I found myself less and less inspired with my day job. I began to look for happiness and validation through external factors like men, appearance, and career success.


When that didn't work, I found myself drinking habitually in an attempt to mask my feeling of unease. I remember saying to myself: "I don't feel like a goddess." 


For some reason, saying those words inspired me to start figuring out what a goddess feels like. I began to research goddesses across traditions and started a blog to explain how I experienced their presence in my life.


I learned that a goddess is sovereign and whole. She doesn't need to look outside of herself for contentment and joy - she creates it on her own. I began to practice what I was learning, and this wisdom changed the course of my life.


I moved on from my marriage. Ended a cycle of toxic relationship patterns. Minimized my alcohol consumption. And started to take exceptional care of myself - body, mind, and spirit. When I began to take accountability for my life, I found joy, ease, and meaning. 


Just as I was looking outside of myself for happiness, I observed so many other women doing the same. Many women don't feel good about themselves. They think they'll feel better after they lose 10 pounds, get the guy, or make more money.


But it doesn't work that way! We feel better when we can learn to love ourselves unconditionally. That's not something someone else can give us. 


The intent of my book is to teach women that they are already whole. They already possess everything they need - they don't need to look outside of themselves. They can tap into goddess energetics to overcome challenges, experience pleasure, and create the life they were meant to live. 


I researched hundreds of goddesses, and the ones I selected were the ones that resonated with me the most. People will experience the goddesses and their myths differently - and that's ok. The goddess shows up uniquely for all of us, and myths evolve to fit the time, place, and person who needs them. 


Q: You begin the book by writing, "I was born a goddess." How do you define goddess in that context, and why did you move away from that as you got older?


A: Like a young child, the goddess is in touch with her feelings and emotions, not curating them for the benefit of others. A goddess doesn't try to alter herself to be more likable. She just is. 


As we get older, we start to form conditioned behaviors. We do this to win approval from our caretakers, friends, and partners. We are dependent on our caretakers at a young age, so we need to do this to stay alive. However, this conditioning takes us further away from ourselves.


Tapping into our inner goddess is really a process of remembering: What lights us up? What brings us pleasure? What makes us feel good? It's coming back to a more authentic and honest version of ourselves where we care less about what others think and more about what we believe. 


Q: How does meditation fit into the goal of the book?


A: A key component of connecting with your inner goddess is understanding the nature of your mind. Meditation helps us to observe our thoughts but not fuse with them. We can experience anger and anxiety - but that doesn't mean we are anger and anxiety.


Meditation is a tool that helps us create space between our triggers and reactions. Within that space is our inner wisdom. That's when we can access our goddess self.


It's also vital for women to take the time to be still and silent. We need to create space to hear our inner wisdom and reconnect with our spirit. 


Q: Overall, what are the most important things you hope readers take away from the book?


A: I want women to understand that they are sovereign and are entirely in charge of their health, happiness, and wellbeing. I hope these goddesses inspire them to stay true to themselves. It takes courage to walk outside the lines society prescribes, but it is a much more fulfilling journey.


Our culture is always trying to sell us on something - the idea that we need either a relationship, children, a particular car, or an ageless face. We don't need anything but a connection to the divine.


Yet, when we start to do the inner work and begin to love ourselves unconditionally, we begin to attract the things we desire. Our outer reality reflects our inner reality - so it makes sense to focus on ourselves. That is the only thing we can truly affect. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am currently launching a course, also called The Goddess Solution. It is a five-week wellness program that teaches women to care for their physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual wellbeing through myth, Ayurveda, and ancient and modern practices.


This will be my second time offering it, and I've received terrific feedback. It changes the way women view their bodies, sexuality, emotions, relationships, and spirit. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Yes! Women, please remember: You are already a goddess! Becoming a goddess isn't about doing more. If anything, it's about doing less. It's about removing the different facades or masks that you present to the outside world and remembering who you are at your core.


You are more than a mother, wife, employee, or daughter - you are a goddess. Becoming a goddess isn't a look - it's a way of life. 


People can find me at www.lisamarierankin.com. I offer a free book club with women worldwide to connect and dive deep into what it means to be a woman in my private Facebook group, Goddess Wisdom for Modern Women. Please join me there! 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb