Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Q&A with John Scherber


John Scherber, photo by Gail Yates Tobey
John Scherber is the author of the Murder in Mexico mystery series, which began with Twenty Centavos and The Fifth Codex and now includes 17 additional novels. His other books include the work of nonfiction San Miguel de Allende: A Place in the Heart. Also an artist and a Minnesota native, he lives in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your mystery series, and for your main character, Paul Zacher?

A: I was on a painting trip to Taos, N.M., in 2005 and I came up with the image of a young woman coming to pose for an artist in his studio. They each have a quite different idea as to what was going to happen.

As I drove, I rehearsed the scene in my mind and nearly memorized it. When I got to the hotel I wrote it down, and that became the beginning of Twenty Centavos. I had begun as a writer right out of college, but I had run off the rails and had writer’s block for 37 years until that day.

The painter, Paul Zacher, is drawn into a murder case because he might see things differently. This perspective gives a different angle to the standard private detective genre.

He is joined by his Mexican girlfriend, Maya Sanchez, who has a master’s degree in history and offers her own cultural slant, and Cody Williams, a retired homicide detective who brings the procedural skills to the team.

As a painter myself, I can bring that experience to the character of painter/detective Zacher.

Q: The novels are set in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. How important is setting to you in your work, and do you think these books could have been set elsewhere.

A: Setting is critical to me. It is always a character in my fiction. San Miguel, with its expat colony of nearly 10,000, provides a closely knit community within the context of an old colonial Mexican city of 75,000.

The possibilities for both cultural connection and misunderstanding are limitless. The expat community is constantly a little bit off balance within its own numbers and with its Mexican neighbors, so the opportunities for conflict and drama are always on offer.

People who live in San Miguel, or visit there, can recognize places where they eat or hang out, so it has a personal connection. For others it can be an interesting semi-exotic setting for a mystery series. Readers of mysteries also like to follow the same group of core characters that they can get to know.

It’s possible that these books might’ve been set elsewhere, but I knew San Miguel from many visits before I started writing it, and having lived here now for 10 years it seems like the perfect spot.

Q: Did you know when you wrote the first book in the series, Twenty Centavos, that you'd end up writing so many more?

A: I was about halfway through the first one when the plot and concept of the second one, The Fifth Codex, came into my head. By the time I started writing it, I had the idea for the third one in place, titled Brushwork. They just seemed to flow like that. Now I have 19 of them in print and two more moving toward publication.

Q: Who are some of your favorite mystery writers?

A: I was influenced by Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Patricia Highsmith, and Tony Hillerman. My characters are almost never black and white, simply good or evil. I’m interested in the way people can rationalize what they do.

I don’t write about the drug trade in Mexico because those are mostly business crimes and they tend to lack the kind of complexity that drives a good story.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: As I bring out mysteries #20 and #21, I’ll be doing another nonfiction book on the expat experience in Mexico, and starting mystery #22, titled The Missing Matisse.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The Paul Zacher mysteries are in development for a television series by Dorothy Lyman, two-time Emmy Award winner, actor, producer, director, and screenwriter. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 12

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Dec. 12, 1821: Gustave Flaubert born.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Q&A with Margaret Peterson Haddix


Margaret Peterson Haddix is the author of Children of Refuge, the second book in her Children of Exile series for older kids. Her many other books for kids and young adults include the Shadow Children and Missing series. She lives in Columbus, Ohio.

Q: How did you come up with the world you create in the Children of Exile series?

A: I first started thinking about it when I was reading a book about genocide while I was at a Disney hotel. (As you can probably imagine, there’s a long story there.)

But once I decided I was going to write the series, I embarked on lots of other research, mainly by reading anthropology. I found that so fascinating that I wondered how I had gone all the way through college without taking a single anthropology class—I felt a little like I was making up for that!

I started from the premise of wanting to think about how societies train their citizens to rely on or avoid violence for resolving conflicts.

From there, I broadened my search to thinking about how societies train kids in general, and what exactly kids are trained for—to think for themselves, or to blindly obey? To have hopes and dreams they are free to pursue, or to stifle their own desires in order to serve some supposedly higher purpose?

It was probably a good thing my own kids were already mostly grown up and away at college when I was doing all this research, because I started questioning a lot of basic assumptions about parents and children and societal intent.

I especially enjoyed having my ideas challenged by reading about societies who have entirely different viewpoints than the ones common in American life.

Some of the books that were particularly influential in my thinking were Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, and Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?

Then I started imagining what a society might do if its entire focus was ensuring that kids were raised well—not just to be non-violent, but to be happy, healthy, well-adjusted, etc. I did not want to portray the Freds as doing everything right, obviously (there’s no story in perfection!), but it was an interesting thought exercise.

It was also a little depressing, because one conclusion I reached was that American society definitely is not designed for the good of children.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on Edwy in book two of the series?

A: Some characters are just gifts for writers, and Edwy was one of them.

When I first wrote his name when I was writing the first chapter of the first book, I thought, “Oh, wait, who’s this?” To my knowledge, I’d never heard of anyone with that name, and I have no clue why that combination of letters popped into my mind just then.

But I knew right away that he was important, not just to Rosi, but to me. He intrigued me as much as he did her, and I knew he would be a catalyst for a lot of the action from then on.

I think I needed to put him at the center of the second book so I could figure him out more.

Q: Did you know from the beginning that you'd be writing more than one book about these characters?

A: Yes. I planned the series as a trilogy from the beginning.

Q: What do you hope kids take away from Children of Refuge?

A: Mostly I hope they enjoy it, but I also hope it makes them think. And, really, they are welcome to think about the book in any way they want.

I would be happy if this book helped kids think about how lots of events that happened before they were born have a huge impact on the way the world is now, and how they experience it.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just turned in the first book of a new trilogy. We’ve switched around the title for both that book and the series as a whole, so I’m a little hesitant to say what it’s called yet. But it will come out in 2019, and I am very excited about that launch!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Oh, yes—the third and final book in the Children of Exile series, which will be called Children of Jubilee, comes out November 2, 2018. I also have a Young Adult book called Summer of Broken Things coming out April 10, 2018.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 11

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Dec. 11, 1911: Naguib Mahfouz born.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Q&A with Jason Fagone


Jason Fagone is the author of the new book The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America's Enemies. It focuses on the life of Elizebeth Smith Friedman, a pioneering codebreaker. He also has written Ingenious and Horsemen of the Esophagus, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and GQ. He has just joined the staff of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Elizebeth Smith Friedman and her husband, William Friedman, both of whom worked as codebreakers?

A: They were a duo, a team of equals. That's how they saw themselves from the very beginning, when they started working together in 1916, as young people still in their twenties.

It was a true meeting of minds in that sense -- as individuals, they were both pretty good, but when they sat at the same table with their pencils and pads of graph paper, solving these important puzzles together in the era before computers, they felt like they were suddenly way more powerful.

Not just twice as good but four times as good. That's how they felt about it, because they clicked so seamlessly.

And as they fell in love, this beautiful thing started to happen, which is that they incorporated bits of secret language into their love letters. William would write to Elizebeth and sign off with a little term of endearment written in cipher, and Elizebeth would reply in the same cipher.

Q: You've noted that one big surprise you discovered in the course of your research involved the work Elizebeth did during World War II. Can you say more about that?

A: When I first began researching Elizebeth's life, I went to the library in Virginia where the Friedmans left their personal papers. Elizebeth left behind 22 boxes of letters and other documents. Eventually I went through all 22 boxes, start to finish, to get a handle on what was there.

And as great as these materials were, they didn't seem to include anything from World War II. Her experiences during the 1920s and 30s were well-documented, and also her life during the 50s and 60s, but the years 1939 through 1945 were pretty much a blank. So I had to look for those records. No one I asked seemed to know where they were or even if they existed at all.

It ended up taking me two years to find that stuff, and when I finally found it, at the National Archives in College Park, I realized why it had been difficult to find -- most every page that spoke to her war experiences was stamped TOP SECRET ULTRA at the top.

These files were classified for 50 or 60 years because they were part of the biggest secret of World War II, which is the ULTRA program -- the immense Allied effort to break the codes of the Nazis and read their secret messages.

And I discovered, reading these files, that Elizebeth played an important part in that effort. Her job was to monitor the clandestine radio stations used by Nazi spies. She spent the war breaking the codes and mapping the secret networks, allowing the FBI to arrest the spies and destroy the rings.

And then after the war, J. Edgar Hoover took credit for all of that, claiming that the FBI had stopped a huge Nazi spy invasion by using traditional sorts of FBI crime-fighting techniques, when really it had been Elizebeth and the codebreakers who stopped the spy rings.

But Elizebeth couldn't stick up her hand and say that, because the codebreaking part of it was so extremely secret, and she didn't have Hoover's power.

Q: How difficult was it for Elizebeth, as a woman in her field in the early- and mid-20th century?

A: It was tough. At every step of her career, there were men who didn't give her the respect she had earned. Early on, the U.S. Treasury Department only hired her as a sort of consolation prize because they couldn't get William, her husband.

But as soon as Elizebeth started to solve puzzles in some new job, she always proved her ability, and by 1931 she was leading a team of young male codebreakers, as their boss.

Q: What is her legacy today?

A: She was a heroine of World War II, a pioneering woman technologist, and one of the greatest codebreakers of all time. And she helped invent the modern science of cryptology that's now at the foundation of the intelligence and information security fields.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Moving across the country, from the Philly area to San Francisco, to join the staff of the San Francisco Chronicle. It's an exciting time for our family and kind of chaotic. Our life is in boxes right now and every day we dig out a bit more.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Yes -- please buy the book! It's available at any of your favorite stores, physical or online (links here). And if you read the book and enjoy it, please consider writing an online review. They really do help.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 10

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Dec. 10, 1830: Emily Dickinson born.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Q&A with Nancy Churnin


Nancy Churnin is the author of the new children's picture book Manjhi Moves a Mountain, which focuses on the accomplishments of a man named Dashrath Manjhi who lived in India. She also has written another picture book for kids, The William Hoy Story, which is about a deaf major league baseball player in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She is the theater critic for The Dallas Morning News.

Q: How did you learn about the story of Dashrath Manjhi, and what type of research did you do to write Manjhi Moves a Mountain?

A: I came across a newspaper article about Dashrath Manjhi and I was astonished and moved by the task he set himself and how nothing could deter him until he accomplished it.

I related to it, in a way, after having spent 10 years learning how to write children's books while working on my first book, The William Hoy Story. There were many times that I knew people thought I was crazy to keep working on that book and there were times when I thought I was a little crazy.

But I believed in William Hoy and I felt kids would be better off for knowing his story and I felt the same way about Manjhi. I looked up more stories about Manjhi and found YouTube interviews with him.

It also struck me that while he had become famous in India, there were no picture books about him in America and kids might not know about what he had done if I didn't write this book.

While it took a matter of months rather than years to write Manjhi Moves a Mountain, it involved many rewrites and revisions over those months as I chipped away at that mountain, trying to figure out the best way to tell his story.

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

A: I hope readers identify with Manjhi and realize that you don't have to be the biggest or the strongest to accomplish your goals. You have to have a vision, you have to be willing to work hard, you have to keep going no matter how long it takes.

Also, don't be deterred if others don't see what you see at first. Don't give up because others laugh or say something can't be done. Many people will tell you things can't change -- that a mountain is there before you're born and after you die.

But you can change things. All of us can change things. All of us can find ways to be Manjhis to make things better for others.

That's why I started a Move Your Own Mountain project, to encourage kids to move mountains in their schools and communities by doing something kind for others.

We celebrate "wins" all the time. Every act of kindness is a "win." I want to celebrate kids who do acts of kindness and through sharing their good deeds, encourage kindness to spread.

Q: What do you think Danny Popovici's illustrations add to the book?

A: Danny Poppovici's illustrations show kids that illustrators are storytellers, too. I love to stop and point out all the extra things that Danny slipped into his watercolors.

Was there anything in the text that said there should be a constellation about a man hitting a mountain with a hammer and chisel or a constellation of a mountain? They shake their heads. But do you love it? And they nod happily.

These are Danny's ideas, I tell them. An illustrator tells his or her own version of the story -- reminding us that we all have our own unique takes on any story there is to tell.

Plus, I love to point out how often Danny takes two separate pages and merges them so seamlessly they look like one large page -- something very difficult to do. And how the watercolors bleed subtly into each other, the complex variations of the colors reminding us of the complex variations of life. 

Q: You've also written The William Hoy Story, about a deaf baseball player. How did you find out about him, and what did your research involve for that project?

A: A Deaf man named Steve Sandy, who is a friend of William Hoy's family, told me he was sad that more Deaf and hearing kids didn't know the story of this Deaf hero and how he had introduced signals to baseball, the ones we still use today, so he could play the game he loved.

He also told me about his dream that one day William Hoy would be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, which didn't have any Deaf players honored there.

I knew he was right and I promised, then and there, that if he would help me with the research, I would write a book for kids so the kids would know about him and would help by writing letters to the Hall of Fame.

I am a longtime journalist -- I write for The Dallas Morning News -- and I thought how hard could it be to write a children's book? It took me a while to realize it was a completely different art from journalism.

It took YEARS of classes and study and critique groups and trial and error before I finally came up with the manuscript that got me my agent, Karen Grencik of Red Fox Literary, and my editor, Wendy McClure of Albert Whitman & Company.

But I couldn't give up, because I had made a promise. And kids have been sending letters to the Hall. Last time I checked it was close to 1,000.

Also gratifying is that Steve and the Hoy family are proud of the book and it has received strong support from the Deaf community. I am so grateful for that! 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have three books coming out in 2018! While writing The William Hoy Story, I fell in love with the art of writing children's books and seeing what they could mean to kids.

Charlie Takes His Shot, How Charlie Sifford Broke the ColorBarrier in Golf, comes out Jan. 1 from Albert Whitman. It's the true story of Charlie Sifford, a friend of Jackie Robinson's, who fought long and hard to become the first African American player on the PGA Tour.

Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing comes out June 1 from Creston Books. It's the true story of Irving Berlin, who came to America as a five-year-old refugee, mixed the sounds of his heritage with what he heard on the street to make a uniquely American sound, and gave back to the country that gave him a home.

The Queen and the First Christmas Tree comes out Sept. 1 from Albert Whitman. It's the true story of Queen Charlotte, a queen with a heart for children, who introduced the first Christmas tree to Windsor Castle in a party she threw for 100 kids. The tradition continues today.

All my  books come with free Teachers Guides and projects. For The William Hoy Story, the project is writing letters to the Hall of Fame. For Manjhi, it is Move Your Own Mountain.

For Charlie, it's We Helped Them Take Their Shots, encouraging kids to share stories of how they included someone new in a group or activity.

For Irving Berlin, it's Make America Sing. I'm asking kids to share about their own immigrant experience or the favorite things they've learned about a friend's immigrant heritage.

For The Queen, I'll be asking kids to share stories of what they've done to brighten the celebrations of kids in need at the holidays.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I love sharing and telling stories and I love hearing from kids, teachers and parents. Please feel free to contact me on my website. I am happy to answer questions, to set up in-person or Skype visits to schools as I can.

I am thankful for the opportunity to be a conduit between these heroes and heroines who inspire me and the children that I hope will be inspired to believe in themselves and do good for others after reading these stories. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb