Friday, January 31, 2014

Q&A with author Katherine Pancol

Katherine Pancol is an internationally best-selling novelist, including in her home country of France. Her novel The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles has recently been translated into English and published in the United States. She lives in Paris.

Q: Why did you decide to write The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles from the perspectives of various characters?

A: Because it was the only way to do it. It’s a “choral novel.” A story told by a lot of people. I wanted to have a broad perspective, to embrace our world, and I wanted the novel to “sound” realistic. So I had to include what happens in every character’s mind. That’s how, I think, you create depth and the feeling of a true story.

Q: How did you choose the book's title?

A: It came through what happens to Antoine. He is obsessed by money, success, he wants “to make it.” The yellow eyes of crocodiles represent the glimmer of money, success, and the way you are devoured by this idea of “making it.” Some people succeed, many others fail and are eaten alive. By their bills, the banks, their boss etc...

And remember, the eyes of crocodiles are yellow like gold!

Q: You've since written two sequels to this book. Why did you decide to continue the story of these characters, and will you return to them again?

A: Usually when I write a novel, at the end of it, the characters leave and say “bye bye.” The characters of The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles did not leave. They stayed with me. In my mind. All the time. I was thinking, “What are they doing now? Are they happy? Successful or miserable?” 

So I decided to write a sequel and then another one. They have become like my family and I cannot leave them. They are a part of my life!

Q: Relationships between sisters are a big part of the book. Why did you choose this as one of the book's focal points?

A: I don’t know. It came like that... When you write, you start from a[n idea], and if the [idea] stays that means you have grabbed something. It grows and grows. And then you build up the characters to match the story.  

The Yellow Eyes started with the character of Josephine, her place in the family, her shyness, her humbleness, her being exploited by everybody, humiliated by her mother, her daughter (Hortense), disregarded by her husband, and finally used by her... sister. And there it was. The story of a good woman lost in a difficult world!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just finished a novel which is going to be published in France in the coming days. It’s called Muchachas and it’s very long. So my publisher decided to cut it in three parts. Volume 1, 2 and 3.

Each part will be released with a two months interval. But it’s the same story going on and on. With a new intrigue (located in Burgundy, France) and again Gary, Hortense in New York (with new characters too), Josephine and Philippe, Zoé, Shirley, etc... The Cortès family again!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I just came back from a tour promotion in the U.S. and I loved every part of it. It was really thrilling. I met people who have read The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles and they really appreciated it.

And they had the exact same reactions than in France, Spain, Italy, Russia, everywhere in the world! That really amazes me. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 31

Jan. 31, 1923: Author Norman Mailer born.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Q&A with author David O. Stewart

David O. Stewart is the author most recently of the novel The Lincoln Deception. He also has written three nonfiction books: The Summer of 1787, Impeached, and American Emperor. A former attorney, he is the president of the Washington Independent Review of Books. He lives in Maryland.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Lincoln Deception, and how much research did you need to do as you worked on the book?

A: The episode that begins the book is drawn from an account of the life of John Bingham, who was the lead courtroom prosecutor at the 1865 trial of eight of John Wilkes Booth’s co-conspirators 

On his deathbed 35 years later, Bingham said that Mrs. Mary Surratt, one of the defendants, had told him an explosive secret. Because that secret could “destroy the republic,” Bingham added that he would take the secret to his grave. 

I was hooked. I kept trying to figure out what the secret was. I researched many accounts of the Lincoln assassination, with special attention to the current dominant theory that Booth thought up the assassination all by himself. 

I also examined theories that Jefferson Davis was behind the assassination (which was Bingham’s theory as prosecutor), or that it was Vice President Andrew Johnson, or Pope Pius IX, or Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. 

I also read the trial transcript for Mrs. Surratt’s case and examined the difficult political issues the nation faced at the end of the Civil War. 

Once I felt in command of the facts that are known about the assassination and those that aren’t known, I was able to turn to developing the story.

Q: Your novel includes a range of real and fictional characters. How did you decide on the right blend of the real and the fictional?

A: I didn’t want to change any of the facts we know about the assassination, but I knew I would have to think up Mrs. Surratt’s secret about who was behind the assassination: after all, Bingham never disclosed the secret. 

The action of the book takes place in 1900, when Bingham’s physician and his unlikely co-investigator (a black former baseball player) set out to investigate the case anew. 

So their re-investigation process was entirely fictional, but I could have them encounter members of Booth’s family, the Surratt family, and other figures in the Lincoln assassination who were still alive in 1900. 

Q: In an interview at the back of your book, you mention Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time as being a longtime favorite of yours, and perhaps a model in the sense that an investigator is looking into a long-past crime. Are there any other books that inspired you?

A: None others as directly as The Daughter of Time. I have always enjoyed mystery fiction, and have read many of the classics:  the Nero Wolfe books, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Sherlock, and so on. 

When it comes to historical novels, I always admired Gore Vidal’s version’s of America’s past, though I thought he pushed matters a bit too far when he presented Warren Harding as very smart. 

Q: Did you plot out the entire book before you began writing, or did it take various twists and turns?

A: When I write a nonfiction book, I always know what the end of a story is, and I found that important for The Lincoln Deception. I slavishly followed the advice of a very prolific thriller writer (Jeffery Deaver), who starts by writing a very detailed outline for a novel. My outline was 80 pages long, about a third the length of the final manuscript.

Once I started writing, I departed from the outline at times; sometimes I realized that I had overlooked some necessary story development. On the whole, though, I am a convert to the Deaver outline system.

Q: I know you've had plans to continue writing both fiction and nonfiction. What are you working on now?

A: I have just completed a nonfiction manuscript about James Madison, which should be published about this time next year. I examined his amazing career in the context of his five major partnerships – with Hamilton, Washington, Jefferson, Monroe, and (of course) Dolley. 

Madison’s contribution to the founding of the nation is often underappreciated, probably because he was short and quiet, and because he worked so well with partners who were often taller and more charismatic. 

And I’m starting the outline (of course!) for the sequel to The Lincoln Deception, in which Jamie Fraser and Speed Cook will have fresh adventures and (probably) still not get along too well. 

Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I hope your readers will check out the Washington Independent Review of Books, an online book review site that a bunch of us have kept flourishing for three years now. 

For example, just in the last few days we’ve posted an appreciation of the brilliant journalist A.J. Liebling, a review of the Carville/Matalin book, and an amazing review of a book that examined the junk/recycling business worldwide. 

And they should check out the Independent’s annual “Books Alive!” conference, which will be on Saturday, March 29. We have commitments from 17 literary agents to hear book pitches from our attendees, and will have some great speakers and panelists, including Chris Matthews, Laura Lippman, Evan Thomas, Phyllis Naylor, and David Maraniss. It should be a great day in Bethesda!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous interview with David O. Stewart, click here.

Jan. 29

Jan. 29, 1860: Author, playwright Anton Chekhov born.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Q&A with author Kenny Weissberg

Kenny Weissberg is the author of the new memoir Off My Rocker: One Man's Tasty, Twisted, Star-Studded Quest for Everlasting Music. A former disc jockey, journalist, and rock singer, he lives in San Diego, where he spent 23 years producing the Humphrey's Concerts by the Bay series.

Q: As someone who worked in a variety of music-related jobs (DJ, musician, writer, concert promoter), was there one that you preferred over the others? Why or why not?

A: I've loved all the hats I've worn, but if I have to pick one, I'd go with disc jockey/talk show host during the underground, freeform radio days of the 1970s.

Being on the radio had been my dream since I started listening to East Coast AM stations on my transistor radio at the dawning of the rock 'n' roll era. I announced at my eighth birthday party that I was going to be a disc jockey when I grew up. Fast forward 15 years to 1971 and that prediction came true.  

There was something so liberating about picking and playing my own favorite music music every morning. Having that responsibility forced me to broaden my horizons and sample music I'd never heard of before.  

And my radio show opened the floodgates for all my future gigs. Newspaper and magazine editors hired me to write for their publications because they liked what I said on the air.

Once I became a music critic, musicians who didn't agree with my reviews challenged me by saying "I'd like to see what you could do onstage!" I took that to heart, formed a band and played live for four years.  

Then, a former fan of my radio show called me out of the blue and offered me a job producing concerts in California. I switched careers on a dime, moved to San Diego, and presented 2,000 concerts over the next 23 years. My little radio show opened all those doors.

Q: You write that your favorite show of all the ones that you produced was a Roy Orbison concert in 1987. What made that event particularly noteworthy? On the other hand, you mention various performers who were extremely difficult to work with. Is there one concert that you would describe as perhaps your least favorite?

A: When I started presenting live concerts in 1984, I was fortunate to work with a lot of my heroes. Most of them were wonderful. A few were assholes.  

Roy Orbison's career had been in decline for a long time when I booked him in 1987. Even his agent thought I was making a mistake by booking him. I'm glad I didn't listen to her. I would never have passed up a chance to meet Roy Orbison and hear him sing. So I rolled the dice and made an offer for him to do two shows at Humphrey's, the outdoor venue I managed in San Diego.

A few months before the concerts, Roy formed the Traveling Wilburys supergroup with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne. His career resurgence was spectacular and his two San Diego shows sold out.  

He was as kind and modest as a human being as he was transcendent as a singer. I sat with my jaw on the ground watching him hit perfect crescendos during "Crying," "Only the Lonely," "Running Scared," "In Dreams" and "It's Over," not to mention the majestic "Oh, Pretty Woman." He got 10 standing ovations during each performance and I cried crocodile tears of joy.

My least favorite was probably Chuck Berry. I was repeatedly warned not to work with him but I ignored all that good advice. You can read about it in detail in Off My Rocker, but the capsule summary is that he tried extorting money from me five minutes before his show began . . . and he did it with a smile. I was being held hostage and certainly honed my negotiating skills that night.

The show went on, he sang and played horribly out of tune, and the crowd loved every minute of it. He had the nerve to invite me to have Chinese food with him after the show. You'll have to read the book to see if egg rolls were part of my denouement.

Q: In your book, you discuss all the changes in the radio business over the decades that you worked in it. What do you see for radio in the years ahead, and are there any shows or personalities that you like and listen to at this point?

A: I was on the radio on and off from 1971 to 2007. When commercial radio started tightening its playlists and lost its imagination in the late '70s, I cofounded a public station (KGNU-FM, Boulder, CO) and that was a great alternative for awhile.  

When I switched careers and moved to San Diego in 1983, I figured my radio days were behind me. But I hooked up with a visionary program director named Bob O'Connor in 1993 and created a freeform specialty show called "Music Without Boundaries," that incorporated rock, R & B, blues, jazz, folk, oldies . . . an unheard of palette for commercial radio.  

That show ran for 14 years on five different San Diego stations, but the freedom of musical choice that I continued to have was a complete anomaly in the cold, corporate world of consolidation that has destroyed FM radio.  

Satellite and internet hold the only hope for creative radio in the years ahead. I listen to Sirius XM satellite radio, mostly to Little Steven's Underground Garage or The Loft for music and Howard Stern for talk.

Q: If you were going to put together a playlist of the top songs to accompany your memoir, what would that list include?

A: Wow, Deborah, how much space are you going to give me :-)  ? A playlist of the music I love would go on for 150 pages, but here's a random list of the first songs that come into my head. Of course, my playlist would change every day until infinity with no repetition whatsoever.

Otis Redding                                  "Try a Little Tenderness"
Spirit                                              "Dream Within a Dream"
Johnny Clegg & Savuka                "Asimbonanga"
Love                                               "You Set the Scene"
Etta James                                      "Tell Mama"
The Byrds                                      "Lay Down Your Weary Tune"
Sandy Denny                                  "Solo"
Wes                                                 "Awa Awa"
Dawes                                             "A Little Bit of Everything"
Ange Takats                                    "Minnesota"
Graham Parker & the Rumour       "Fool's Gold"
Wilson Pickett                                "I'm a Midnight Mover"
Eric Andersen                                 "Blue River"
The Beatles                                     "In My Life"
The Jarmels                                    "A Little Bit of Soap"
Miles Davis                                    "Concierto de Aranjuez"
Bob Dylan & Johnny Cash            "Girl from the North Country"
The Strawbs                                  "The Flower and the Young Man"
Gene Pitney                                    "I'm Gonna Be Strong"
The Heptones                                 "Book of Rules"
Catie Curtis                                    "Radical"
John Prine                                      "Hello in There"

Okay, okay, please stop me!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Answering your questions. You set me up for that one!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I was the oldest child in a traditional, Jewish New Jersey family. My parents hoped I'd become a corporate lawyer, pediatrician, or a stockbroker.  

I loved them unconditionally but they were horrified when I relentlessly followed the music for the rest of my life. They relaxed only when I started making a good living as a concert promoter.  

As my mother lay dying in 2005, her last lucid words to me were "So when are you going to write a book?" She slipped into a coma that night and died three days later.  

I started writing Off My Rocker shortly thereafter, kind of fulfilling her final wish. This is a memoir about the joy and pain of a life devoted to music as well as a love story about my wife of 42 years and our family.  

It's the hardest thing I've ever attempted as well as the most fulfilling. I became a stronger, more honest person telling this story. There are a lot of cringeworthy moments along the way reflecting some bad choices I made. I've also been told there are dozens of laugh-out-loud moments.

 --Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with author Rebecca Mead

Rebecca Mead is the author of the new book My Life in Middlemarch, and also of One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding. A staff writer for The New Yorker, she lives in Brooklyn.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book?

A: I did it because I wanted to write about something I loved. My last book was about the American wedding industry; it was interesting, it was intriguing, but it was also horrifying. I was immersed in a world I found appalling. I decided if I was going to spend several years immersed in something, it would be something  I really loved.

Q: What did you see as the parallels between your own life and that of George Eliot?

A: There were certain things I knew about George Eliot that were parallel to my life—she was a journalist, she moved from a provincial town to a big city; there was a certain amount of kinship there. The big difference was that she was a staggering genius. But there was a certain kind of [similarity]—she remained single until well into her 30s and so did I. There was a feeling of recognition.

Then there were things I hadn’t thought through that were uncanny. She had three stepsons, as do I. I knew she’d lived many years with George Henry Lewes, I knew he had children, but I hadn’t learned much about them, or thought about the impact on her.

When I was younger, I made the mistake of thinking of her as a childless woman. She was not a mother in the conventional sense, but she was the stepmother to three boys with varying degrees of success. She found it difficult in many ways and rewarding in many ways. I married a man with the same first name as her husband, and he had three sons of the same age as her stepsons. It was uncanny.

It made me read Middlemarch differently. When I thought of her depictions of young men in that book, it was written in light of [her experiences with her stepsons], among other experiences, and it was not a direct depiction of the three Lewes boys, but she couldn’t help but be influenced.

Q: Did you see parallels between your own life and that of the characters in Middlemarch?

A: When I first read it when I was 17, I identified completely with Dorothea. I’m English, but I’m not of that class, no one was expecting me to get married at 19; they would have been horrified if I had. But I saw myself completely in her, and I failed to see the jokes George Eliot has at her expense.

When I read it in my 30s, I found the story of Lydgate, who aspires to do great things with his medical work but ends up a doctor whose most significant production is a treatise on gout—his failed professional aspirations rang more true to me. I was trying to establish a career as a writer, with ups and downs.

When I was 40-ish, I found the figure of Casaubon, who when I was younger I dismissed as awful, cruel and unfeeling—I could see the sympathy with which he’s drawn, the pathos. He expected to have done things he hadn’t done. It rang horribly true. I felt I could no longer dismiss him. I was more or less his age.

You can go back, and it has all these layers. I don’t know what it will say to me the next time.

Q: What type of research did you do to write the book?

A: I had a wonderful time doing it. I began by doing a lot of reading. I knew I wanted to write a book about George Eliot but wasn’t sure [of the approach]. I went back and read her novels, letters, journals, some of the biographies about her.

I was still a bit stuck on how to approach her. I’m a journalist, and I’m used to approaching things in a journalistic way for The New Yorker, so I went back to England to her childhood home, to see if it would inspire me. I wrote a piece for The New Yorker; it was a prompt for how to kickstart myself into figuring out what the project might be.

I went back to England several times to visit places [including] the town where she wrote Middlemarch. I went to London, I looked at pictures of her in the National Portrait Gallery, I walked around the streets she walked around. It was a physical immersion.

I also used imaginative immersion. I went to the British Library, where manuscripts of Middlemarch were made available to me. It was a phenomenal experience. It was very exciting. Also, there was material here, at the New York Public Library, and at Yale and Harvard.

Q: What do you feel you learned about yourself from writing this book?

A: I loved doing this kind of writing. I’d never written anything so personal before, that had such an emotional charge for me. Through writing about her and her life, I was writing about me and my life, and reckoning with it—it was an incredible experience.

I had spent my life trying to understand other people, and never written for other people where I made myself my subject. It was thrilling and fun.

In the piece for The New Yorker, I was trying to find the source of a quotation attributed to George Eliot: “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” [It doesn’t sound like her;] it sounds like pablum to me. I could never find it. I wrote that piece as a way of asking, and answering in the negative, that question.

I was in my early 40s, and realizing that it was too late to be certain things. I began the project in a slightly depressed spirit, but found writing it so heartening. She is so inspiring. The experience of doing it was really wonderful.

I still don’t believe she said that, but I feel more hopeful and optimistic than when I began. I hope my book will give readers some of that sense of optimism and celebration.

One of the amazing things about Middlemarch is the melancholy note it ends on, of unachieved hopes. Dorothea doesn’t get to do what she had hoped to do, and contemporaries of George Eliot criticized her for not giving [Dorothea] a more triumphant conclusion, but her embrace of [the situation] is an inspiring though ultimately melancholy conclusion.

I think it’s exactly the right ending; it’s exactly how life feels. There’s still value in messiness and half-achieved hopes. It’s the stuff of life, and it’s all we have.

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: I’m in the very preliminary stages of figuring out an area I’m interested in. With this book, I spent a lot of time thinking, but when I sat down to write, I did it very quickly. Plus I’m busy; I have a job!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The only thing that I hope is true is that I don’t think you need to have read Middlemarch to read my book. I haven’t not read Middlemarch and not written the book, but my profound hope is that the book will speak to people who love to read, and had an intense experience with books that aren’t Middlemarch

I hope the story I tell can be read by anybody. They would want to read Middlemarch [after reading the book], but I don’t want them to feel as if it’s homework [before reading the book]!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 28

Jan. 28, 1873: Writer Colette born.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Q&A with author Emily Jeanne Miller

Emily Jeanne Miller, photo by Eliza Truitt
Emily Jeanne Miller is the author of the novel Brand New Human Being. She has worked as a journalist in California and the Rocky Mountains, and is the co-editor of The River We Carry With Us. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: How did you come up with your main character, Logan, and why did you decide to write from a male perspective?

A: Logan—or really, the book’s narrative voice—was the product of a long, non-linear process. He first appeared in a 12-page short story I wrote in graduate school, around 2001.

The story, which I wrote in the third person, involved a father who, after learning of his wife’s infidelity, takes off with their young son. The pair lands at a seedy motel, where they swim in a hot-springs pool, and after some reconsideration on Logan’s part, head home.

Over the years that followed, I rewrote the story many times, from different characters’ points of view. With each rewrite, the story expanded. The characters took on more depth, the story more complications and subplots, and I experimented with different tones and points of view.

In late 2009 I started writing from Logan’s point of view in the first-person, present tense, and that felt like a breakthrough. In his voice, the story took on new energy, and I ran with that. I kept running—or writing—for almost a year, until the first draft was done.

For me, the excitement of fiction, as both reader and writer, comes from seeing the world through the eyes of people who aren’t me, and I decided to write from Logan’s—a man’s—perspective for precisely that reason; telling the story in his voice felt exciting, like I was constantly making discoveries.

If I got stuck, I focused on the things Logan and I had in common (i.e. a bungalow house, a dog, a somewhat cranky nature) instead of the things we didn’t (almost everything else). It was actually quite fun.

Q: Your website describes Brand New Human Being as being in part about "the road from child to parent," and father-son relationships play a big role in this book. How does the dynamic between Logan and his father, Gus, affect Logan's relationship with his young son, Owen?

A: You’ve basically put your finger on the book’s central theme. Logan—like each of us—is shaped by his childhood, which in his case was dominated by his father, a man he revered, loved, and resented at the same time.

When Gus is taken away, it’s as if his operating system suddenly fails. Not only is he left with no one to revere, he has no one to resent, and he sort of goes haywire. He’s so confused about his father that he’s having trouble being a father himself.

I’m so fascinated by how our parents influence us, consciously and un-, and in what we bring to bear on our children, in turn. How this inevitable—and sometimes deeply unhealthy—cycle continues, shaping people’s psyches and their lives, generation after generation. It’s kind of mind-blowing, when you think about it.

Q: Why did you choose Brand New Human Being as the book's title?

A: Actually, I didn’t. The original title was Gold, but my agent thought that didn’t give enough of an idea of what the book was, so after some brainstorming, we sold it as After Augustus.

Then, as the cover was being developed, there were some concerns about how that title would work with the images they wanted, so we went back to the drawing board, and someone at HMH suggested Brand New Human Being, taken from a line from the book in which Logan is thinking about the randomness of Owen’s conception—of all life, I guess.

Over the course of the novel though, and certainly by the end, the central “brand new human being” is Logan. Or so we hope.

Q: What have readers' reactions been to Logan and his wife, Julie? Have people tended to sympathize with one more than the other?

A: Reactions have been all over the map. That’s a really fun part of having written a novel—hearing how people respond to people you made up.

Generally I’d say Julie takes the most heat. People seem to have very little sympathy for her—interestingly, women in particular. At the same time, though, I’ve had lots of women tell me they fear they are exactly like her. She’s a controversial figure I guess; at one book club I visited, I actually thought it might come to blows.

I’ve heard mixed reactions to Logan, too: everything from, “I couldn’t believe what a terrible father he is,” to “I kept thinking, I am him.” After first reading the manuscript, my agent wrote, “I'd want to pummel Logan and then I'd want to offer him a consoling hug.” I think that about sums it up.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Another novel, populated with characters likely to be just as polarizing, and maybe even more so.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m drawn to grey areas—the more complicated aspects of family, of relationships, of work. I suspect that that’s why my characters frustrate some readers—because they’re deeply flawed.

These are not model parents or children or husbands or wives or friends; despite good intentions, they’re limited—by their biases, by their insecurities, by their desires, by their own upbringings—as we all are, I believe. So they make poor decisions, and sometimes they behave abominably. These are my people, both in the flesh and on the page.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 27

Jan. 27, 1931: Writer Mordecai Richler born.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Q&A with author Karen E. Bender

Karen E. Bender is the author of two novels--A Town of Empty Rooms, newly available in paperback, and Like Normal People--and the co-editor of Choice, a nonfiction anthology. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New Yorker and Granta. She is spending the academic year teaching creative writing at Tunghai University in Taiwan.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your most recent novel, A Town of Empty Rooms?

A: I started the book in 2006, and wanted to write about the Southern U.S., where our family had been living for a few years. I’m from Los Angeles and lived for many years in New York, so I wanted to explore the South from the perspective of an outsider, particularly a Jewish one.

I also write to teach myself something—for this book, I wanted to figure out why people tend to accuse one another. How do people turn sorrow and frustration into accusation? I come from a family of psychiatrists and love psychoanalysis myself, and I wanted to untangle the roots of this dynamic, both in context of a family and in the larger community.

In 2006, accusation felt like the language of America at that time, and in many ways, it seems like it still is.

Q: Why did you choose A Town of Empty Rooms for the title?

A: Titles are always difficult for me, and for a long time, this novel was called Allegations. But various people thought that title made the book sound too “thriller-y,” so I tried to find a line that might summarize the general themes of the book.

There’s a section in the book, after Serena and Dan, the main couple, have been arguing, in which Serena says, “It struck her how she had been walking through a faint and endless roar her whole life. It was as though the world were an enormous, empty room, and everything she heard echoed through this; in this room, there was a roar in which she could never hear anything clearly, and in which no one was able to hear her. It was as though everyone wandered through their own empty rooms shouting, and the sounds that they heard were the sounds of everyone trying to listen to themselves.” 

It was a dark section, but one that seemed important to me—how people can feel trapped in their individual selves, and how the beauty of connection is that it’s a chance for people to step out of their individual rooms.

So I started playing around with Land of Empty Rooms, or City of Empty Rooms and then my editor, Dan Smetanka, suggested A Town of Empty Rooms, and that seemed to encapsulate a general feeling in the book.

Q: Religion is a major theme in the novel. Why did you decide on that as a focus?

A: America is both a secular and a very religious culture. I find the ways in which the two collide so interesting; I also love the ways in which people find individual meaning in religion.

Serena is not an observant Jew in a “traditional” way, but she feels connected to the ways in which congregants gather at a synagogue, the way they stand up and listen to the music, the way in which people try to be a little larger than themselves.

In a way, it’s the way she defines God. It’s very different from the way the rabbi defines God, or her neighbor, Forrest Sanders, and that difference, or the inability to understand it, is one of the most interesting and complicated conflicts in this country today.      

Q: In addition to your two novels, you're also the co-editor of Choice, an essay collection about reproductive choice. How did that book come about?

A: I co-edited Choice because I think that great, specific, personal writing has the power to illuminate people, to change minds. So many people have preconceptions about what it is to make a reproductive choice—whether it is deciding to have an abortion, deciding not to have an abortion, adopting, giving a child up for adoption, using contraception, etc.

The essays were just startling in their honesty, and, in that way, had the power to help a person see another person’s point of view.

Recently, researchers at UCSF used Choice in a study to see if exposure to stories would create empathy between the book group members, and they found that it did! It was a testament to the power of honest, beautiful writing.       

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a story collection coming out with Counterpoint Press in 2015, and writing stories is really my first love, so I’m working on stories. Our family is living in Taiwan right now, so I’m taking notes on experiences here; living abroad is also about seeing America anew.    

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My husband and I have been learning Mandarin, and I’m struck by how the process of learning language is so much like the creative process.

First there’s darkness, and the sound of people speaking, and the feeling of being a baby, knowing nothing, and then, slowly, there’s a word. You say something and another person understands you. And then you understand another person. There are, slowly, shards of light.   

You can find some of my thoughts on the writing process at my website, and some of my work on the site

--Interview with Deborah Kalb 

Jan. 25

Jan. 25, 1882: Writer Virginia Woolf born.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Q&A with author Rachel Cantor

Rachel Cantor, photo by Marianne Barcellona
Rachel Cantor is the author of the new novel A Highly Unlikely Scenario. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including the Paris Review and the Kenyon Review, and she lives in New York City.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for A Highly Unlikely Scenario?

A: I was at a meditation retreat maybe 10 or 15 years ago. My rabbi-teachers happened to mention the great flowering of mystical practice around the world in the thirteenth century. They speculated about how this might be given that these mystics couldn't communicate with each other--or could they?

From this came the germ of an idea about a person who might serve as a conduit for such communication. The idea evolved quite a bit once I started writing, of course, but that's where it began. 

Q: Food clearly plays a big role in the novel. Why did you decide on that as one of your focal points?

A: I met a person at an artists' colony back in 2001 who'd been a complaints person at a pizza company (we must have been comparing bad or weird jobs we'd had). For some reason this tickled me and the idea stuck. I needed my "conduit" to have the kind of job where he might be, well, by a phone!

Once there was a Pythagorean pizza chain, of course there had to also be a Dada Dinner Diner, and so on. 

Q: The book includes fascinating information on Jewish mysticism, medieval philosophy, and other related topics. What kind of research did you do in the course of writing the book?

A: I knew almost nothing about any of the "real" people and objects in the book, so yes, I did a lot of research. I read books and articles about Marco Polo, mysticism, the Voynich manuscript, Roger Bacon, and so on, and studied old maps and engravings of ancient and medieval Rome in order to recreate the city convincingly in the final section.

It was tremendous fun, though I did a lot more research than I could ever use!

Q: Do you have any role models when it comes to writing?

A: Both my parents have been role models for me. My mother is an artist--a musician and now also a painter. She taught me how to live a life devoted to creative work.

And my father has written or co-written five books--two children's books and three ground-breaking books about law. He taught me that it's possible to see your ideas in print. Both are also avid readers!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just this week got edits back for the novel that will appear next year, also from Melville House. Tentatively titled Door Number Two, it's about an underachieving translator who gets a call out of the blue from a Nobel Prize-winning poet who says he wants her to translate his latest work.

A bit surprised, she nonetheless agrees but soon comes to realize that the poet has another agenda, one that involves her personally. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 24

Jan. 24, 1862: Writer Edith Wharton born.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Q&A with children's author Kristin Levine

Kristin Levine is the author of two historical novels for young readers, The Lions of Little Rock and The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

Q: One theme in both your novels is race relations. Why did you select that as a topic on which to focus?

A: When I was in elementary school my mostly-white neighborhood school was paired with a mostly-black school from across town.  

When I asked my parents why I had to take the bus to go to 4th grade, they replied with great enthusiasm that this was a great opportunity for me to be with and learn from people who didn't look exactly like me and hadn't had exactly the same experiences.  

I always remembered their enthusiasm for the idea of integration. And thinking back on my own elementary experiences, it IS the different people and experiences I remember most fondly.

Q: Why did you choose historical settings for your novels, and how did you select those two particular time periods?

A: The truth is, I'm kind of lazy. The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had was inspired by my grandfather's memoirs growing up in Moundville, Alabama. So for that book, I picked that time simply because it was when he was a kid.  

My mom was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. I actually was planning to set The Lions of Little Rock during the year of the Little Rock Nine, but when I went to Little Rock to interview some people, I heard so many interesting stories about the "Lost Year" that I decided to set my book during that year instead.  

(But not until I had written almost an entire first draft set the year before - I had to throw out a whole bunch of pages and start over again!!)

Q: Do you have a particular favorite character that you've created?

A: Oh dear, that's kind of like asking about my favorite child! Let's just say I really liked Dit (the narrator from Best Bad Luck) because he was the first character I had ever written that felt like a real person to me.  

Writing about him also felt like, in a way, getting to know my grandfather, who I had never known well when he was alive.

I also like Marlee, because she took SO long to reveal her personality to me. I wrote an entire draft of Lions where Marlee had no trouble talking at all.  

It wasn't until my editor complained that she didn't really like Marlee's voice yet, and I remarked to myself in a huff, "Well, fine then. Maybe she won't have a voice at all!" that I came up with the idea of Marlee not liking to talk. And that, of course, made her entire character!!

Q: Your books are described as being for kids around middle-school age. Why did you pick that age range?

A: I think I like to write for kids in middle school because books were so important to me when I was that age. It's a stressful time and I loved knowing I could always escape to a book.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Well, after writing about my grandfather and my mother, my dad started dropping hints that HE had had a really interesting life too.  

So my next book, The Paper Cowboy, is about a boy living outside of Chicago in the early 1950s. When his sister is burned in an accident, he has to take over her paper route. He also has to deal with McCarthyism when he accuses a shopkeeper in town of being a communist, and realizing that he sometimes acts like a bully at school. At least that's the plan, if I manage to pull all those themes together. It should be out fall 2014.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb