Saturday, April 21, 2018

Q&A with Sara Blaedel

Sara Blaedel is the author of the new novel The Undertaker's Daughter, the first in a new series. She also has written the Detective Louise Rick series, including The Forgotten Girls and The Lost Woman. Originally from Denmark, she now lives in New York City.

Q: The Undertaker's Daughter introduces a new character, Ilka. Why did you decide not to have a detective as your main character this time?

A: I’m not committed to only centering on detectives, though I am a huge fan of crime fiction. The process must be organic for me, and I’m open to exploring what feels right and captures my imagination. I wasn’t looking for a change. Instead, the concept came to me.

It was the experience I had after losing my parents that was the impetus for The Undertaker’s Daughter and Ilka. The woman I hired to handle the burials and funerals was and remains a bright spot in my life during the most difficult time. 

I, at that time, had not the slightest idea of all that goes into being an undertaker. The whole process was a learning one for me, and I couldn’t have found a better, nicer, kinder, more sensitive, respectful, and professional person to take care of business. She was in every way a master of her trade and a natural. She resonated with and inspired me. I created Ilka because of her.

Q: The novel takes place in Racine, Wisconsin. How did you choose that as the location, and what impact has your own move to the U.S. had on your writing?

A: As Ilka is Danish and traveling to the town in which her Danish father settled, I thought it made sense to find an American region with a sizable population of immigrants from Denmark. I homed in on Racine, which fits the bill and is an altogether wonderful city. Once I traveled there and stayed for a lengthy visit, I felt certain I’d made the right choice.

Like with learning a new language, getting acquainted with a place requires immersion for me. During my stay in Racine, I shopped at the stores, ate their food, observed the daily routines, watched and read the local news, and got to know people.

Capturing Racine started with me living in the States (I couldn’t have done so without being here) and required spending time there at the heart of the matter. At the very scene.

Other than the difference in the details, my writing style remained the same.

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write the novel?

A: Research is always essential for me. In this case, given that I was tacking a new setting (Racine) and industry (undertaking), I had much work to do.

I carefully and obsessively studied the American funeral business, which varies greatly (with regard to laws, common practices, and culture) from the Danish way. In fact, I learned that regulations and laws are different within America, from state to state. I spent a lot of time in Racine, endeavoring to pick up on the local sensibility. It was such a wonderful time!

Q: Will you return to your character Detective Louise Rick at some point?

A: Absolutely, yes! I miss Louise and will revisit her when the right idea pops into my mind.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m excitedly working away on the third and final volume in The Undertaker’s Daughter trilogy. I have loved every minute of planning and digging into this series.

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: While on my book tour, I met several undertakers’ daughters who stopped by to say hello. They were lovely, and it was fabulous to meet with and get feedback from the real authorities. They said I was spot-on in my depictions and sent the nicest letters to me. That meant the world to me, both personally and professionally. As I’ve said, in my writing process, authenticity is crucial.

Signing their books to “The Undertaker’s Daughter” was joyful.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Sara Blaedel.

April 21

April 21, 1838: John Muir born.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Q&A with G. Neri

G. Neri is the author of the new children's picture book When Paul Met Artie: The Story of Simon & Garfunkel. His other books include Tru & Nelle and Hello, I'm Johnny Cash. He has worked as a filmmaker and animator, and he lives on the Gulf Coast of Florida.

Q: Why did you decide to write a picture book about Simon and Garfunkel?

A: After completing my picture book bio Hello, I’m Johnny Cash, which told of the history of American music in the first half of the 20th century, I felt there was a great story to be told about the birth of rock n’ roll.

The Cash book takes us up to that remarkable moment in Memphis in the ‘50s with Johnny, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins but so many great bands from the ‘60s came directly out of hearing those songs on the radio and feeling like they could do it too.

I learned about the childhood friendship of Simon & Garfunkel completely by accident, but that friendship hit all the things I wanted to express about this important cultural shift. And most people had no idea of their amazing teen years and what lead up to the seminal "Sound of Silence."

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

A: Everything was surprising, from the fact that they met in a 6th grade production of Alice in Wonderland to them having a hit rockabilly record at 16 years old under the names Tom and Jerry, to the wild story about how they reformed as a folk act after years of failure.

I tried to use them as source material via hundreds of interviews in print, radio, and TV spanning 1957 to today.

Q: How much do you think kids know about Simon and Garfunkel, and what do you hope readers take away from the book?

A: Most kids know very little but there is a hardcore fan base amongst certain poetic angst-ridden teen girls.

To me, it’s more important that they learn about the history of American music from the ‘50s to the ‘70s and how vital and earth-shattering it was. A lot of the story is about never giving up and overcoming adversity, which is always important for young people to see.

Q: What do you think David Litchfield's illustrations add to the book?

A: David’s work is fantastic and brought a whole dreamy, child-like quality to the story. It really elevated the book and gave it a groovy New York vibe.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: So many things. Have two graphic novels coming up. The first, Grand Theft Horse, is due in November. Doing a sequel to Ghetto Cowboy too. And a book about my adventures in Antarctica this past year!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I feel blessed to be writing about so many different kinds of real-life stories. And my readers are wonderful!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with G. Neri.

April 20

April 20, 1826: Dinah Craik born.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Q&A with J.H. Diehl

J.H. Diehl is the author of Tiny Infinities, a new novel for older kids. Her other books include the picture book Three Little Beavers and Loon Chase. She lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Tiny Infinities and for your main character, Alice?

A: One day, when my daughter was in third grade, she brought home from school a picture she’d drawn of a fantastical bug, that she’d titled “Bugfire.”

The moment I saw it – I have no idea why – an image appeared in my head of an older girl standing over a younger girl, outdoors in the dark, with their hands cupped together around glowing fireflies. The smaller girl was saying “bugfire,” and it was the first word she’d spoken in years.

I knew the story behind this scene belonged to the older girl. And that she was babysitting, and unrelated to the younger one. I saw her as a newly turned teenager, again I don’t know why. Except that, when I finally began to draft the book, it turned out that 13 was an age I had something on my mind to write about.

Among the reasons she’s called Alice is that I liked the classic associations the other characters might make with her name, versus the reality of her namesake. My Alice is named after her dad’s beloved childhood family dog.

Q: Why did you decide to have her be a swimmer?

A: It had to be a summer story, because the season for fireflies is summer. My kids participated on our local community pool summer swim team for more than a decade.

Just like I knew swim team was a great activity for my kids, I knew it would be wonderful for Alice. Swim team is an opportunity to build physical and emotional strength, and to experiencing setting goals, achieving, failing, and persevering.

A swimming goal doesn’t have to be  - like Alice’s in Tiny Infinities – to set a team record. Even if you never actually win a race, you can improve your own best time in an event.

There’s almost always a way to find something positive about swimming. You may race against other teams, but you’re really competing with yourself. As a member of the team, you get to be a part of something that’s larger than you, a wonderful community, of kids and families, with many fun traditions.

I wanted Alice to have a positive activity and community outside of her family structure, and I wanted her to have goals that were appropriate for a kid to have – unlike the impossible goals she set herself at home, to fix the things she has no control over: her parents’ decision to split and her mom’s depression.

She swears that since her dad is moving out, she’ll move out, too, and live in a tent in the back yard as long as it takes him to agree to return.

Alice cooks, picks up prescriptions for her mom and does household chores, all in the hope that she can help her mom get better. Over time, she realizes that she can’t control or fix what’s going on in the life of her parents. But she can commit herself to, and achieve goals in her sport.

As I wrote the story, it became partly about how a sport can anchor a kid through tough times. That’s true, too, for many other activities kids pursue with passion: art, music, community service…writing!

Q: What do you think the book says about parent-child relationships?

A: As Officer Gina says near the beginning of the story, every family and every situation is different. However, when parents’ lives are troubled, I think it’s not uncommon for kids to end up, in some senses, parenting their parents. It’s not a healthy situation; it’s too much responsibility in childhood.

Tiny Infinities depicts one version of what it’s like to navigate life as a child with a parent going through a period of depression. In this story, Alice bears up as best she can, and makes plenty of mistakes.

For a child of troubled parents, part of growing up is realizing that you can’t fix their situation and that it’s not on you to try. In the end, Alice – like her young babysitting charge – has to find the spark in herself, has to create her own resilience to move forward.

All that said, I don’t know if that’s what readers will take away from the story. One thing I love about novels is that each reader for whom a book resonates finds something unique in it.

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

A: The title "Tiny Infinities" comes from a conversation Alice has with her odd, new friend on the swim team, Harriet. Harriet is very into math and science. She’s fascinated by the infinite number pi, and finds it strange that pi gets rounded off to 3.14 regularly in math problems.

“Shouldn’t there be a huge difference between infinity and any number that has a definite end?” she asks. “Isn’t it interesting that the real difference between an infinite number like pi and a finite one like three point one four turns out to be a very tiny decimal? An infinitesimal decimal, to be as exact as possible about that inexactness? Shouldn’t the difference between something and nothing be the same?”

She demonstrates the classic acting exercise of transitioning from laughter to tears, with no clear delineation between the two.

Alice can’t help wondering at what “point my parents had gone from loving each other to not loving – was that a teeny tiny change, too?...What had made the difference between deciding we could all be a family of five, and my dad living someplace else?”

Alice discovers that, in order to move forward with her own life, she has to draw the lines in herself.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Another MG novel, but intended as a lighter entertainment.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: There’s a lot of science in Tiny Infinities, and I hope the story will appeal to kids interested in S.T.E.M. subjects. Alice, Harriet and their friend Owen recreate firefly bioluminescence in a make-shift basement lab.

If any readers on swim teams want to use Tiny Infinities as a summer reading book, I’m offering to come to their pool to answer questions and talk about the story if they’re in the DC-Metro area. Or to Skype in, if they’re further away.

I hope the book will be meaningful to kids whose parents have parted ways, to kids who may have experienced life with a parent suffering from depression, and to readers who may have a sibling coping with a developmental delay.

My characterization of Piper, the little girl who can’t speak, is based on my research into a rare childhood seizure disorder, sometimes mistaken for autism. I was fortunate enough to be able to consult with a pediatric neurologist who had treated kids with this rare problem.

I’m in awe of the parents, medical professionals and educators working so hard to help children suffering from seizure disorders, autism and other developmental delays.

Thank you for inviting me to your blog. It’s an honor to be here!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Roma Tearne

Roma Tearne is the author of the novel Brixton Beach, which takes place in Sri Lanka and England. Her other books include Mosquito and Bone China. Born in Sri Lanka, she is based in the U.K.

Q: What inspired your character Alice and the story you tell in Brixton Beach?

A: I suppose the answer is simply my mother. Long ago when I was still a young teenager she told me, “No one will ever hear my story. Why should the world care?”

At the time I was going through teenage battles with my mum but the words pierced my heart. Trying to show indifference I tossed them aside.

But then many years later soon after her death, as a mother of three children myself, I remembered what she had said in a moment of despair. It was to take another few years but then with wiser, sadder eyes, I saw how she had suffered with each child that was murdered.

The dedication in Brixton Beach is to her with the simple statement that her story would not be lost. Indeed, it hasn’t been. Of all my books it is the one that has sold the most around the world. And at last I felt her life had not been in vain.

And the character of Alice? Well she came out of my head really. The paintings described are some of my own but that is the only link with reality. 

Q: Many readers may come to the novel without much familiarity with the history of Sri Lanka. What do you hope they take away from the book in that regard?

A: I didn’t set out to write a political novel. In politics it is the human story that matters, always. People can judge the politics of Sri Lanka as they wish. I merely wrote about the things we do to one another.

I also wanted  (rather passionately I admit) to highlight the plight of the immigrant and how hard they have to work at integrating how long the journey is.

I address this in Simon’s thoughts in the very last paragraph of the novel, which I rewrote about 15 times. Alice brought the beach to Brixton in the end. What a triumph! 

Q: As a writer and an artist, how do you see the two coexisting in your work?

A: Well, you know, I describe the paintings and installations in the book from the inside out. And the funny intense way of seeing that an artist has, well it sort of slips into the writing too. 

Q: Are there other novels focused on Sri Lanka that you would especially recommend?

A: Look, this is a tough question. I don’t like novels based on a specific country. I would if I may recommend an atmospheric book I read recently. A Pale Views of Hills  by Ishiguro springs to mind. A wonderful, luminous novel. I could go on in this vein but won’t. I have a real horror of novels by countries! Really sorry.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Well, something entirely different. I’m dealing with the same issues that I’ve always cared about; migration, the effects of conflict, the human price, that sort of thing, but this time I’m treating the subject in a totally different way. Fingers crossed, I hope it works!

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: Oh, okay, as you are twisting my arm…I’m working on a series of small paintings, my first in 16 years! (Gulp!) You can see the drawings on my Instagram feed.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 19

April 19, 1900: Richard Hughes born.