Saturday, November 18, 2017

Q&A with Susan Goldman Rubin

Susan Goldman Rubin is the author of Maya Lin: Thinking With Her Hands, a new biography for kids about the architect. Rubin's many other books include The Quilts of Gee's Bend and Brown v. Board of Education. She lives in Malibu, California.

Q: Why did you decide to write a book for young readers about Maya Lin?

A: As always, I love to find a woman artist to write about who’s done something significant and important and is a role model. Someone kids would want to read about.

The book started so many years ago—my granddaughter, who’s now 12, was about 3. We went to hear [Maya Lin] speak. I had talked with my editor about it. We realized what she was working on, her whole ecological program. It was so on-target for elementary school upper grades. We know she would be a marvelous subject, and of course, [the book would involve] diversity.

When I started working on the book, I realized there are many features of her life that are relevant to today’s kids. Most kids don’t know what architecture is. I had the privilege of visiting her in her studio. It gave me a sense of the projects she’s working on. It helped to visualize what a studio is, and her process.

She emphasized that her work had three [parts]—artist, designer of monuments and architect, and all her outdoor work.

Q: How did you research her life, and what role did she play in your research?

A: She’s a very strong woman. She kind of outlined the book, She has two daughters—she understood the book. I thought, I would like to do one house. As a kid, I didn’t realize architects did more than houses. She said the Box House [in Colorado] was her favorite; it’s based on a Japanese puzzle toy. She talked about bringing the outdoors in. She so loves nature. The setting becomes a part of the project—a tree growing through the deck. It’s very Frank Lloyd Wright. In a sense, she outlined which projects she thought would be best.

And she was so cooperative, and so was her studio manager. We have a slim budget; I had no art budget. She said she would give me images gratis…

Her What Is Missing project is so dear to her heart. The Listening Cone in San Francisco seemed like a wonderful thing to show. I went there and curled up inside to take notes. I didn’t know [my husband] was taking a picture. I thought it would give a sense of the size. It’s one of the only times my picture appears in a book!

One of the most important things to me was to visit as many of her sites as I could. That’s an important part of the primary research. I spent hours at the Vietnam Memorial. Her process of deciding what she was trying to accomplish, the obstacles she faced once she won the contest—that was one area she didn’t want to talk about.

When I visited the Museum of Chinese in America, in New York, I thought, Whoa! She is very clear about saying she’s an American but this is her heritage, and she honored it in the museum, and it’s terrific for readers to talk about their heritage.

Q: Can you say more about how the book was organized, in terms of her projects and the variety of projects she’s undertaken?

A: I originally planned on each chapter being devoted to one of her projects. My editor wanted one chanter on her childhood, and each chapter heading should name a material integral to that project. I thought, no, it won’t tell what the project’s about.

So my wonderful agent George Nicholson, who handled the project with me before his death, and his colleague Erica Silverman, said why not combine both? I thought that was a good way of organizing the chapters—it calls attention to the medium and what the story is going to be about.

With Storm King [in Mountainville, New York], I thought, what is outdoor artwork? I need to see it! I went up the first time during a storm. I was the only person there. I had to leave because it was too dangerous. My husband and I went back. An artist was invited to do a project for the park—it was really thrilling! As part of my research, I wanted to visit as many as I could.

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

A: Curiosity in knowing more. Wanting to see some of the projects for themselves. There may be others near where they are. Certainly I’d love for them to have new respect for diversity and how one woman honored her heritage and stood up to criticism.

And also an understanding of what a memorial is. What would kids do to remember [someone]? I also hoped they’d realize how much a woman can accomplish. There’s nothing a woman can’t do who has drive and spirit.

In the What Is Missing project she invites people to participate and notice what is missing. I noticed in our neighborhood we don’t have rabbits running around the way we used to. She invites everyone to send [observations]. Her work inspires so many ideas for what people can do.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just got the advance copy for a book coming out in March—Coco Chanel: Pearls, Perfume, and the Little Black Dress. It’s for age 10-12 and up. It was wonderful writing about her as a designer, and also she was so mean! None of this heroic stuff! She was a fabulously successful woman who rose from being very poor to being the head of a fashion empire.

And I’m doing a biography of Paul Robeson, the great singer, scholar, actor…and I’m doing a book on voting rights…

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: [Maya Lin] talked so much about what goes into her work. She says her writing is such an important part of her work. I would like readers to notice that, and hopefully read the book she wrote. She’s a marvelous writer, and is so dedicated to her work. And she’s married and is the mother of two daughters. She juggles everything.

One place I would like to visit and haven’t yet is the Langston Hughes Library [in Clinton, Tennessee]. When I’ve done other books on civil rights I have been sending the books to the library. I hope to visit some day.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Susan Goldman Rubin.

Q&A with Peter S. Rush

Peter S. Rush is the author of the new novel Wild World, which takes place in the early 1970s. He has worked as a reporter, a Peace Corps volunteer, and a police officer, and is CEO of a global management firm.

Q: How much was Wild World based on your own experiences as a student at Brown University and as a police officer?

A: My experience at Brown and as a police officer provides the context, texture and authentic characters in the book. But it is a novel that allows for the exploration of themes, settings and issues across a broad spectrum. When I was writing it, I tried to stay true to the time period in attitudes and opinions. When I finished, I realized how many of those themes are extremely relevant and important today.

Q: Did you need to do much research to write the novel?

A: I needed to go back to the era – 45+ years ago. I started with the
music because it was the social network for that generation. I found myself watching movies and reading newspapers from the time. I also dug through some memories boxes from then - letters, college papers, assignments to try to bring me back to the time and place before all our modern gadgets.  It was fun to see how we lived in the "last century."

Q: How would you compare perceptions of police officers during the Vietnam War period in which the book is set, and today?

A: In that era, police officers were “pigs” and the enemy of the hippies. long hairs,  blacks and other minorities. It was a us versus them mentality. The level of education and training on the police force was not extensive. While many of the police were motivated to do what they thought was right, the use of force was the first action. Has the situation evolved?  Definitely. Does it have further to go? Absolutely.

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

A: The book went through extensive revisions along the way. This book is about the characters and the situations they encounter and must interact with. I want the reader to be there in the scene. I wasn’t certain where the love story or the action would end when I began but I think it found the right place.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I won’t call the next book a sequel but it takes some of the characters from the book on a different journey of that era – drugs and the allure of money. It is set after this book in the early ‘70s in Florida where smuggling drugs was almost as big an industry as the  tourism.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I started my career as a working journalist and it provided me with the tools to tell a story. The challenge always is to tell a good story.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Peter S. Rush will be appearing at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., in the Bloomberg Room at 6pm on Tuesday, Nov. 21.

Nov. 18

Nov. 18, 1939: Margaret Atwood born.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Q&A with Beverly Gray

Beverly Gray is the author of the new book Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation. She also has written biographies of Roger Corman and Ron Howard. She has written for the Hollywood Reporter and teaches at the UCLA Extension Writers' Program. Her blog can be found at She lives in Santa Monica, California.

Q: Why did you decide to write about The Graduate, and what do you see as its legacy 50 years after it first appeared?

A: I’ve long been interested in films from 1967, the films honored at the 1968 Oscars. It was the time I, as a young person, got interested in movies, many of which would be honored with accolades. It was the first time that movies had resonance for me as a young person living in America. There was violence, with Bonnie and Clyde; civil rights, with In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner; and moving beyond our parents, with The Graduate.

I was especially intrigued by The Graduate. It was not expected to be a movie blockbuster but a fun, sexy little comedy. But it happened to tap into the Baby Boom generation—not only the war in Vietnam, though it was not in the movie, but also something about the discomfort of young people [trying to] move beyond the life their parents were [planning] for them—so people like me latched onto it.

Q: What about its legacy?

A: It’s interesting to me as well, of the movies I mentioned above, some have left a legacy. There’s Cool Hand Luke – “What we have here is a failure to communicate” – and Bonnie and Clyde, which upped the ante on screen violence, yet these films don’t seem to get mentioned any more.

But The Graduate wormed its way into our culture. It had a tremendous influence in Hollywood. It influenced young filmmakers—Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, Ang Lee, the Coen brothers. People took ideas away and put these in their own films. But also The Graduate has left a residue in our culture—“plastics.”

In politics, when Robert Dole was going to be the nominee to be the leader of the Republican Party, and Pat Buchanan was trying to wrest the nomination away, he predicted he would be like Benjamin Braddock, saving the party from an uninspired marriage to Bob Dole.

Q: You mentioned that the film wasn’t expected to be a big hit. Can you say more about that?

A: The people involved with it had very little Hollywood track records. The producer, Lawrence Turman, had produced one movie but wasn’t a big-name producer. Mike Nichols had never directed a movie; he had just started moving beyond his reputation as a comic performer. Dustin Hoffman was starting to make a name for himself in quirky roles Off-Broadway. Charles Webb, the novelist, was unknown. Anne Bancroft was the one with sort of a name. [These were mostly] unknown people.

Trying to adapt The Graduate for film, Turman went around to the studios and everybody turned the project down. He found Joseph E. Levine, who was best known for shlock movies. By no means was this a mainstream Hollywood product. It was sexier--it dealt with subjects that were not [usually] dealt with. It was a little European in terms of its use of sex.

Q: What impact did the casting of Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft have on the film?

A: Dustin Hoffman’s casting was really interesting. I should mention it was not his first role. I knew he had a tiny part in an offbeat indie but I discovered he also played the lead in a strange movie shot in Spain, Madigan’s Millions, where he does a Jerry Lewis shtick.

In The Graduate he was playing a romantic lead in a part people imagined as an academic success story, about a young man who was also a jock, a big man on campus—basically Robert Redford, tall, handsome.

People were really surprised and almost appalled by the casting of Hoffman in this role. There were a lot of references in Hollywood to the casting of “this ugly boy.” There was a write-up of Dustin Hoffman in Life magazine, a big photo spread introducing this new young actor, that said “a swarthy Pinocchio makes a wooden role real.” It went on and on. It makes him sound like a horrible deformed little cretin. Other reviews made him sound like a troglodyte.

[But] young audiences fell in love with Dustin Hoffman. The Hollywood people would say, it’s a great movie, too bad you miscast the lead. They didn’t expect the outpouring from young people for someone who looks like them, who not only gets the girl but gets more than one. They were rooting for him.

Part of conventional Hollywood’s dislike for his looks was along ethnic lines. He is not the tall blond WASP…there was nothing Jewish in the story, but he [brought] the look of being ethnic with him, and suddenly that was okay. All of a sudden leading men were being played by Elliott Gould, Richard Dreyfuss, Richard Benjamin, Al Pacino.

It became possible to have a leading man who doesn’t look like Paul Newman or Steve McQueen. McQueen was the classic Hollywood hunk. His wife described how he was in a panic about Hoffman’s screen success. He started worrying about his own place in the Hollywood pantheon—is that [Dustin Hoffman] the type everyone’s going to want? Hoffman’s casting has ultimately loosened up Hollywood. Ben Stiller or Seth Rogen can now be romantic leads.

Anne Bancroft was the one name performer. She had won an Oscar for The Miracle Worker. She was not the first choice. The first person was not officially offered the role, but was someone Lawrence Turman was interested in attracting—he sent the novel to Doris Day. He thought that would be a strange and interesting switch on her usual virginal image. She said it offended her values, but I’m not sure she received the book—her husband, a controlling guy, kept it from her.

Other people who were considered included Jeanne Moreau, but a Frenchwoman wasn’t appropriate. Ava Gardner was still beautiful, but when she said she was going to phone Ernest Hemingway and he had died five years before, [they thought] maybe she wasn’t up to the part. Another actress who would have been an interesting choice was Patricia Neal, but she had had a stroke.

Anne Bancroft was a great choice. She wasn’t quite old enough for the part, she had to be made up to look older. Years later she said, I used to think I looked really ugly in The Graduate, and now I think I was the most gorgeous thing I’ve ever seen.

Q: How did you come up with the book’s title—and subtitle—and what do they signify for you?

A: I’m proud to say it was my idea. I liked the idea of putting Mrs. Robinson in the title but for copyright reasons I couldn’t quote directly from the song, “Mrs. Robinson.” “Seduced” is such a seductive word. We in the audience were seduced by Mrs. Robinson. The name “Mrs. Robinson” has come to evoke titters. There was a woman named Mary Robinson who was elected president of Ireland, and everybody joked, Mrs. Robinson is now the head of Ireland!

And the touchstone of a generation—I meant that to allude to the fact that an awful lot of what was going through our heads in the late ‘60s was captured in that movie. I talked to a lot of people [affected] by the movie. They felt attitudes and belief systems were changing. Most movies we shrug off, but some lodge in our brain, and this was one of them.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Good question. I’m working on staying on top of the excitement about this book. I have written two biographies, one about the man I once worked for, Roger Corman, who is famous for B movies. He is a fascinating individual. I wanted to write a genuinely independent biography of Roger, and I did. And a biography of Ron Howard. That was a very different kind of book, and a very different kind of person.

Writing biographies can be tricky. I’m also interested in some of the other groundbreaking movies of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. I have some ideas, but no time to develop them. I need some sleep!

Q: Anything else we should know about your new book?

A: The Graduate was lucky enough to come out at a time of great social ferment. It was originally supposed to be shot in 1965, a quieter time. By ’67 a lot of things had formed to affect my generation. People like me were very much aware of the fact that we had a young handsome president killed on November 22, 1963. That darkened the world for a lot of us.

We were very aware of the civil rights movement, which started out as idealistic and hopeful and then there were racial disturbances in the streets of major American cities. Our lives were feeling less stable than we had imagined. Then of course there was the Vietnam War, which had been going on in miniature for quite a while but ’67 was when it hit the fan. Virtually every young man I knew was trying to figure out what to do to save himself from being drafted.

By the summer of ’67 President Johnson had signed a bill abolishing most graduate student deferments. Here’s Benjamin Braddock having graduated from college, lying around his parents’ backyard, and nobody’s saying, But you’re going to be drafted. The filmmakers hadn’t thought about that. It was an odd coming together of a story based in 1962, but it came out in ’67. People saw things in it that weren’t there, but seemed to fit the mood of the times.

After The Graduate, a lot of movies were made about the draft and the other problems I’ve mentioned. Those films were period pieces, and they’ve drifted out of sight. The Graduate was not trying to be about a particular era [but] we recognized it back then. Some young people today see it as who am I, where am I, who can I be? All those feelings are still with us.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb, from a transcription of a phone conversation. 

Q&A with Robert W. Merry

Robert W. Merry, photo by Gregory Strom
Robert W. Merry is the author of the new biography President McKinley: Architect of the American Century. His previous books include Where They Stand and A Country of Vast Designs. He has spent many years as a journalist in Washington, D.C., including twelve years as CEO of Congressional Quarterly, Inc. He also lives in Langley, Washington.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on President McKinley in your new book?

A: He was not on my radar screen, though I was always interested in that period, and I had a favorable impression of McKinley, as suggested in my previous book, Where They Stand, which suggested he was underrated. Jonathan Karp at Simon & Schuster asked if I would like to rehabilitate the standing of Mr. McKinley.

Q: Your subtitle describes him as “architect of the American Century.” What were some of his actions that led the country in that direction?

A: It’s an audacious subtitle and is purposely audacious. He set the table for the 20th century. He was followed by Teddy Roosevelt, who never shared credit with anyone, and his biographers raised Teddy as the person who created America for the 20th century. I don’t think that was true. I think it was McKinley.

America became an empire in the McKinley years, acquired Hawaii, pushed toward the project of building the Panama Canal, crafted the concept of non-colonialist imperialism. The Boxer Rebellion led to the question of how we were going to treat China. He did not want to gain a colony, yet wanted to gain American influence. In his administration we fashioned the special relationship with Great Britain. There had been intermittent hostilities.

And one can say, this is not original to me, that he was the first modern Republican president in many ways—how he handled Congress and the press, how he handled communications with the American people—he was a very consequential American president. He set the table for the American Century.

Q: Getting back to Teddy Roosevelt, could you say more about the differences between the two?

A: They couldn’t have been more different in temperament. Roosevelt was brash, bold, he marked his territory with audacity, he was competitive. His kids said he wanted to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.

McKinley was very unassuming. He hated bragging. He was the opposite of Roosevelt. Roosevelt operated as president through brashness. He took the American people on a roller-coaster ride. McKinley was cautious and careful. He nudged people in his direction without people knowing. He didn’t care about getting the credit. He was very different but very effective…

Q: What would McKinley think of American politics today?

A: He’d be aghast. But so would Roosevelt. Anyone from that period would wonder how we could get to this point that’s so rancorous. McKinley was a man of decorum, he wanted politics to be conducted in a decorous manner…he managed to keep good relations with people.

The modesty came from his family—his mother was on a train going to see the governor of Ohio, her son. She was asked if she had family in Columbus, and she said, I have a son there. She didn’t mention her son was the governor!

Q: How did you research the book?

A: There hasn’t been a popular book about McKinley since 1959. It was unused territory since 1959. I had difficulty initially—I didn’t understand McKinley and how he operated stealthily, so I thought he was boring. He didn’t keep a diary, and there were very few letters in the archives.

I had to rely on people writing about their experiences with him, so I had to cast a huge net. It was somewhat frustrating. But as I began realizing how he was operating, it became an exercise in explaining what he was up to.

What did I use? Archival material at the Library of Congress, papers at the McKinley museum in Canton, Ohio, an awful lot of newspapers, The New York Times and The Washington Post day-to-day through his presidency and leading up to it. Newspapers are always a great source.

Q: The book’s discussion of McKinley’s relationship with his wife was really interesting—can you describe that dynamic?

A: I learned as I went, and it became increasingly intriguing. Ida Saxton was the belle of Canton, Ohio. Her grandfather had brought a printing press by oxen cart to start a newspaper, and her father used those resources to get into mining, which was very lucrative, [and banking].

Ida grew up in luxury, was very attractive, had a lot of suitors. Her father believed there was no reason she couldn’t have the same job a man could have, and he had her running the bank, effectively.

McKinley was in love with her from the minute he set eyes on her. They got married, had a daughter, and everything seemed wonderful.

When she was pregnant the second time, everything started to go awry. Her mother was sick, her second daughter was sickly and died of cholera, Ida went into a terrible depression. She probably never quite survived it—she had a carriage accident that must have damaged her spine. Sometimes she could walk, but she was always very careful.

She developed epilepsy, and would have fits. Her husband had to be very concerned about it. It was assumed epilepsy was a mental disease. William McKinley resolved he would never allow her to be put in an institution, and he would care for her. He never slackened in his devotion to her, through a lot of difficult times. She became somewhat brittle, and could be peevish, but he didn’t care. He continued to be devoted to her.

Q: What do you see as McKinley’s legacy today?

A: It’s in the subtitle; he was the architect of the American Century. He was president when it became clear how much potential America had for projecting power outward. We were developing a big Navy, developing the Panama Canal, obtaining Hawaii.

He went to war with Spain—it was clear he wanted Spain out of the Caribbean. The Cubans wanted independence from Spain, and he wanted them out without war, but that proved impossible. There was a three-month war, a “splendid little war” as John Hay called it. We picked up Cuba [and gave it independence] but also picked up Puerto Rico, Guam, [the Philippines].

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: I’m editing The American Conservative magazine, but I know I will want to do another book. I did Polk and attempted to bring him from obscurity, I did McKinley, I don’t see another president that deserves to be brought out from obscurity.

Q: Anything else we should know about the McKinley book?

A: One interesting thing was he was much more calculating than it appeared. He was viewed by some as a passive guy buffeted by events, but those who knew him well knew he was a man of great resolve…He was the nicest guy in the world, but he wanted his way and he got his way. A lot of people underestimated him, to their great detriment…

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Robert W. Merry.

Nov. 17

Nov. 17, 1916: Shelby Foote born.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Q&A with Jennifer Robson

Jennifer Robson is the author of the new novel Goodnight from London. Her other books include Somewhere in France and After the War is Over. She lives in Toronto.

Q: While your other novels focused on World War I and its aftermath, your new novel focuses on World War II. Why did you decide to move on to a different time period?

A: I think it was largely a feeling of wanting to keep things fresh – it’s easy to find yourself revisiting similar themes or conflicts if you stay focused on one period for too long. And the Second World War is nothing short of a gold mine for any novelist who is looking for inspiring and memorable stories to tell.

Q: Your main character, Ruby, is an American journalist working in London, and your own grandmother was a journalist during this same time frame. What do Ruby's experiences say about the role of women journalists in the WWII era?

A: The barriers that Ruby faces, along with the prejudices against women in her profession, are pretty typical of the era; to quote my own grandmother, newspaperwomen (her preferred term) needed to have the “hide of a rhinoceros” to simply get through an ordinary workday.

Add in the dangers and emotional trauma of life in wartime, and a job that was already challenging then became even more difficult. I should add that I have many female friends who are journalists and they tell me the dinosaurs can still be found in newsrooms everywhere.

Q: You note that you had conducted oral history interviews in the 1990s with women who lived in Britain during World War II. How did these oral histories inform the writing of this book, and did you learn anything in your additional research that especially fascinated or surprised you?

A: I was really surprised, when I went back and read through the transcripts of those interviews I did twenty-odd years ago, to discover so many details of day-to-day life. That’s what made the book come alive for me – those tiny but oh-so-telling bits of information about what it was like to live through the Blitz, or feed your family under the constraints of rationing, or make over old clothes into something that lifted your spirits.

One amazing resource I turned to was the oral history archive at the Imperial War Museum in the U.K., much of which is available online. There are thousands of hours of recorded interviews with people who lived through the war, and their reminiscences are a treasure trove of information.

Simply listening to the participants speak, and hearing the way their voices would tremble when remembering a past trauma or moment of grief, was intensely moving.

It was also a useful reminder that I can only tell the stories of my fictional characters after first listening to the recollections of real people who suffered and endured and loved. Although many of them are now gone, their memories live on.

Q: I like the way you brought back a few old characters from previous books. Do you intend to continue doing that in future novels?

A: I will! One of the secondary characters from Goodnight from London plays a significant role in my next book. I don’t plan to ever return to previous characters for an entire book -- I feel as if I’d be going over old ground – but I do like the idea of expanding on the stories of secondary characters whenever possible.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now I’m working on the final chapters of a novel set in London in 1947, when life in postwar Britain was especially bleak. The one bright spot for many people was the forthcoming wedding of Princess Elizabeth, and that gave me the idea of looking at the royal wedding from an interesting point of view: that of the women who helped to create the princess’s wedding gown. My working title is The Gown and it will probably hit the shelves in late 2018.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I am completely obsessed with The Great British Bake-Off, which I can finally watch on streaming video here in Canada, and with the Canadian version that’s now airing, The Great Canadian Baking Show.

I haven’t watched TV in years, mainly because I tend to read or do research in the evening, but if I have an hour to spare there is nothing more enjoyable or relaxing than watching people bake. It’s reality TV with none of the angst!!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Jennifer Robson. 

***BOOK GIVEAWAY!! The first to respond (in comments below) will receive a signed and personalized copy of Goodnight from London!***