Friday, August 29, 2014

Q&A with author Thomas Maier

Thomas Maier is the author of Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love. Masters of Sex has been adapted into a Showtime television series now in its second season. Maier's other books include The Kennedys and Dr. Spock. An investigative reporter for Newsday, he lives on Long Island, N.Y.

Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of Masters and Johnson?

A: I interviewed Masters in 1994 as an assignment at Newsday, where I worked as a reporter. I was working on a book about Dr. Spock, the baby doctor, and then I wrote about the Kennedys. The idea of writing a book about Masters and Johnson stuck with me for 10 years.

I [eventually] pursued this project; Masters had died, but I convinced Virginia Johnson to cooperate. Once she did agree, she provided a great deal of insight. The family of Masters provided me with his unpublished memoir, and their contemporaries made Bill come alive. The idea of a man and a woman who studied love and sex, and were emblematic of the sexual revolution—to me, that was something irresistible.

Q: What did Virginia Johnson think of the book?

A: Virginia Johnson liked the book. She didn’t get a chance to look at it until after publication. She was very generous with her time and with her insights. One of the bigger surprises [included in the book’s new afterword] was that she finally acknowledged: I guess I really did love Bill Masters. She had denied it in so many ways in my initial interviewing of her. Her actions contradicted her claim: I never really loved him.  They were always mesmerized by each other; they both defined the other.

Q: You write, “The improbable Pygmalion-like rise from a lowly secretary to medical research partner—though made possible by Masters—was primarily motivated by Johnson herself…” What did you learn about the nature of their partnership, and what surprised you most as you researched the book?

A: I was fascinated by the fact that Masters gave her so much credit. In many ways, he was the top doctor in his field in St. Louis. [Dr. Spock’s] wife, Jane, had given help to Dr. Spock, yet he never really acknowledged it. Masters gave Johnson equal billing. Some people have said that Bill Masters’ greatest sign of love for Virginia Johnson was his willingness to share credit. Most men, particularly of his generation, would never have thought of that.

I was surprised also by [Johnson’s work in] developing their sex therapy…teaching couples to touch one another [after] so much of their communication had broken down. Someone who was untrained, without a degree, was able to come up with this therapy that revolutionized so many things!

Q: In the book, you describe Masters’ and Johnson’s relationship to feminism. Would you say they were feminists?

A: Virginia Johnson is like a lot of pioneering women who really made a mark in an almost exclusively men’s world, but don’t necessarily subscribe to a movement. They see themselves as classic rugged individualists, not necessarily flag-wavers but iconoclastic individualists….[but] they were [feminists] by their actions.

Q: What about Masters?

A: Bill Masters clearly was a feminist in his actions by his willingness, in his greatest work, to give equal credit to a woman. He was being open-eyed at a time in which Americans’ view of sexuality was dominated by the Freudian male-dominated view.

[Masters’ and Johnson’s work] showed women had a greater capacity to be multi-orgasmic. He was brave enough and feminist enough to come up with a scientific finding that many others would have denied. Their first book, Human Sexual Response, was two-thirds devoted to findings of female sexuality.

Being the doctor who opened the eyes of half the world to their own sexuality, and brought medicine kicking and screaming into the debate, qualifies him as a feminist, even though he was a registered Republican and lived in a tony section [of town].

Q: You write that Human Sexual Response “transformed the public discourse about sex in America, opening a new era of candidness never seen before in the media.” What was the impact of the book at the time, when sex was not really a topic of discussion?

A: The impact of Masters’ and Johnson’s work was huge. It made it acceptable to use clinical medical terms about the human body and sexual interaction…in newspapers, women’s magazines, popular discourse. There was a dramatic change between 1966, when the book came out, and five years later. By 1971, clinical discussions of sex in the mass media was widespread, due to the acceptability that Masters and Johnson brought to their work.

Q: Did you expect your book to be turned into a television show, and how would you compare the book and the show?

A: The book was at first a failure by any measure. It came out in April 2009, and it sold all of 4,000 copies. It was at the very depths of the recession, and no one was talking about sex, but [instead] about keeping their jobs. My editor was laid off; my original editor had died.

It really looked like the book was going to be a major disappointment. Then The New York Times reviewed Masters of Sex in their daily and Sunday editions, and it spurred a lot of movie and television interest. Sony bought the rights, and made an agreement with Showtime. They show it all around the world, in 30 countries. Television has really transformed the outcome for this book.

It’s been fun to see how the dramatized interpretation has really enhanced the overall enjoyment of their story. My book is a nonfiction, completely on the record version of the truth. The Showtime series is a fictionalized drama based upon my book. It takes details from the book and explores them in greater emotional depth. It’s very accurate as it shows the relationship between Masters and Johnson. Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan [the actors portraying them] do a [great] job.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a new book coming out, When Lions Roar. It’s a 750-page history of the relationship between the Kennedys and the Churchills. I am really delighted about that book; there are a lot of surprises in that book.

With the new book, I went back to history with the idea of somewhat getting away from sex, but the world of the Kennedys and the Churchills had as much sex in it as Masters of Sex.

Of course, it’s [also] about politics, fathers and sons, and [the question of] what is greatness.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: It’s amusing that some people have said, Yes, but Masters and Johnson have had a problem with gay conversion. It’s amusing to me because I’m the one who reported it in my book!

I’m very proud of the fact that in the last five or six years since the book came out, that whole discussion about gay conversion therapy has been revisited. It’s been embraced by right-wing folks, who have provocatively said to gay people that they can change their orientation, and they point to the Masters and Johnson 1979 book as “proof.”

Of course, I put the lie to that by showing that the cases were apparently fabricated by Masters. There’s been a lot of revisiting of that subject, and the book is given credit…I’m glad it’s had an impact.

For all the discussion about sex, I think the book has helped provoke a discussion about what is love. In a society awash with sexual imagery, the eternal question of what draws us to one another is at the heart of the story of Masters and Johnson.

Their story of being mesmerized by one another in the workplace setting particularly speaks to today’s generation. The younger generation knows all the mechanics of sexuality, but is clueless about the mysteries of love. …

The desire to be understood by another person is at the heart of the book and the television show, and that’s what is grabbing the audience.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 29

Aug. 29, 1898: Screenwriter Preston Sturges born.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Q&A with author Lucinda Franks

Lucinda Franks is the author of the new memoir Timeless: Love, Morgenthau, and Me, about her marriage to Robert Morgenthau, the longtime Manhattan District Attorney. Her other books include another memoir, My Father's Secret War, a novel, Wild Apples, and the nonfiction work Waiting Out a War: The Exile of Private John Picciano. A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, she has written for The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic. She lives in New York City.

Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir about your marriage?

A: I have to feel my subject before I write an entire book about a subject. In my last book, I really felt my father. He was a spy in World War II, and my discovery of this transformed our whole relationship.

One day, I looked at Bob and I felt the same feeling. I realized Bob was a hero too, but a lot of people didn’t know who he really was; they only knew the stern, tough prosecutor. I wanted him to be known in all his humanity.

I asked him, and he looked at me shyly and asked, Do you think anyone would read it? I said, I think so, sweetheart. He said, You can try it. I expected him to say no; there had been nothing [personal written] about him.

Q: What was different and what was similar about the experience of writing those two books?

A: With my father, it was a voyage of discovery. I found a Nazi uniform in his belongings. I found a lot of my mother’s pastel satin nightgowns, and [underneath them], there was a Nazi uniform. I asked my father about it, and he refused to talk.

[I thought,] My God, did my mother have an affair with a Nazi? But I realized it would not have been true. Was my father a secret Nazi? I finally broke him, using every reporter’s trick I knew. I would go to the Archives, and read about spy missions and spy weapons, and would let something drop [about a particular weapon].

“What? That was the worst weapon we ever made!” [he would reply.] After I knew a certain amount, he realized he wasn’t going to be able to keep the oath of silence.

It was a journey of rediscovery of my father, from a plain, deadpan man who didn’t relate to adults at all…I realized he was keeping all those secrets. He liberated the first Holocaust camp [taken] by the Allies, and he never got over that. This mystery man became real to me, a hero.

It was different with Bob; I already knew him. It’s a matter of how you know people. So it was a different kind of thing. I also had feelings [about] Bob that were intact; I didn’t need to rediscover them, although there is a section in the book about the rediscovery of love. I hope it will help people.

Q: You write of you and your husband, “We might as well have sprung from some dimension of No Time; we had no sense that we came from different generations.” Why do you think that is?

A: He was in his 50s and I was in my 20s. I was totally different; I was a radical, I was going with a draft dodger. He was an establishment icon, everything we pledged to overthrow.

We were the most unlikely couple, but when you’re drawn to each other by chemistry, no matter how appropriate the match is supposed to be, you can’t walk away from this kind of falling in love. I tried to! This was not the man of my dreams. The last thing I wanted to do was to marry him. But we were caught.

Bob was a very young 56. I was a more mature 29 year old. We just thought the same way. He tolerated my radical politics, until we were visiting a friend…and the shower curtain was made of an American flag, and he turned pale, and said it’s time for us to go. We became more like each other politically. We just have so much fun together.

Q: What does he think of the book?

A: He read it, very closely, several drafts. He found commas and colons [that he questioned]. He questioned facts. I had kept journals over the years, and I could point to the journals. But sometimes I was wrong. I’m so glad he was able to do this. He’s pleased with the book.

Q: As you were working on the book, did anything particularly surprise you or cause you to view events differently?

A: Yes, I understood a lot more about some of the antics I was doing. It was an attempt to get his attention and assert my independence….

It was also a discovery of things he had done that I never knew, [for example] for the Museum of Jewish Heritage or for Holocaust survivors. He is an incredibly giving and unselfish person in many ways.

It was kind of like [with] my father. I came to the breakfast table sparkly-eyed because I had discovered something about him!

Q: You’ve written fiction and nonfiction books, in addition to all your work in journalism. Do you have a preference?

A: I love memoir because you’re allowed, as long as you stick to broad facts and are authentic to the people and the situation, to use a style that is novelistic. I’m a fiction writer at heart, but memoir has captured me. I wish I could write another, but there’s no material left! I guess I’ll go back to fiction.

Q: That leads to my next question, what are you working on now?

A: I want to write historical fiction, complete with a mystery and a situation in history that would be significant, that told something about America or about the war; you get to explore higher themes than you can in a memoir.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: This book is about Bob and me, not just about Bob’s accomplishments…but really about two people who have [had] certain accomplishments over the years and then meet—how they are able to take in each other’s professions while separating them.

Bob is really a frustrated journalist, and I’m a frustrated detective. I loved hearing about his cases, and he loved helping me with my stories, although we kept a very defined line.

It’s really a book about two people separated by 30 years that made a marriage work, and work well, and both were able to rise in their professions despite a marriage that could have tied either down. We blossomed in each other’s light.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 28

Aug. 28, 1913: Writer Robertson Davies born.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Q&A with authors Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark

Q: How did the two of you come up with the idea for the book, and how did you decide on the terms to include?

A: As seasoned political journalists and authors – and friends – we realized we had similar styles and approaches to book-writing. We played around with various topics, and settled on something related to political rhetoric. We refined the idea to a dictionary/reference book type of guide.

Deciding what terms to include was one of the toughest challenges in writing the book. We wanted to present an original idea with each definition, which was hard regarding some of the well-known terms like foreign policy Hawk or Pork (the Capitol Hill, not bacon, variety). We’re confident we were able to do this in a humorous and informative way, but it took some thinking.  

Some of the terms also came from our interview subjects. Former Congressman Martin Frost of Texas, who held several Democratic leadership roles during his 1979-95 tenure, mentioned Minimum High Regard. It’s a euphemism used by an older generation of members who want to avoid directly insulting a colleague, while still making their displeasure at an opposing idea know.

Q: Who do you see as the readership for this book?

A: We’re hoping to get our ideas across to people who are interested in politics, but don’t necessarily work in it professionally or follow it obsessively (though we think those folks will like the book, as well).

In addition to the familiar phrases, we introduce some new ones that may initially cause some head-scratching. That includes Overton Window (the range of “acceptable” political opinions) and Dead Cat Bounce (temporary recovery from sagging poll numbers in a political campaign).

We figured readers who had previously scooped up Safire’s Political Dictionary or Mark Leibovich’s This Town would be interested in Dog Whistles. Though of course we’re not trying to copy the work of anybody else, but present our ideas in a new and original format.

Academic courses are also a target for us in the book. Dog Whistles could work well in a college course on political communication, or a range of other topics. We wrote the book to appeal to both political and academic audiences.

Q: What are some of your favorite terms that you describe in the book?

A: Overton Window is high on the list, particularly because it sounds like it would fit in a Star Trek episode.

Our favorite, though, has to be My Good Friend. C-SPAN viewers will find the phrase familiar to floor debate in the House and Senate, when partisans go after each other with verbal gusto, while using the goodwill-tinged phrase.

Among House members it’s particularly disingenuous. In a chamber of 435 members it’s unlikely any lawmaker is going to have that many real friends. In fact, many don’t even know the names of more than a few dozen colleagues, as we’ve learned in our Capitol Hill reporting over the years.

Another phrase we came to like in the writing process is “We need to have a conversation about …” It’s a favorite expression of President Barack Obama’s, though by no means limited to him, as explained in Dog Whistles.

It signifies that a politician wants people to slow down and listen to their version of something controversial; in Obama’s case, it has come following Edward Snowden’s revelations of domestic spying, gun control after the Newtown slayings, or legalizing marijuana after voters in Colorado and Washington state chose to do so.

Q: How did the two of you divide up the work, and what was the collaboration process like?

A: We came up with an initial list of words and phrases and simply split them in half. Inevitably, though, some of these got cut, while many more got added.

We would write up a batch of definitions – usually seven or eight at a time – and then send to the other for review. Often one of us pointed out shortcomings in the write-ups, like being too obvious or familiar. Or, they were too obscure for a reader who doesn’t deal with these matters each day.

Another challenge was fitting the definitions into relatively equal-sized chapters. Some entries were longer than others. We worked together to move around definitions to different chapters, which often meant adding on new material.

Valuable editing help also came from Jeff Greenfield, who wrote the book foreword. He’s an Emmy Award-winning political commentator and acclaimed author. In sending him the manuscript so he could write the review, he also found factual issues to clarify, and offered a few – but key – suggestions on writing style.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Chuck is updating Almanac of American Politics profiles on National Journal's website. David is busy with his day job, as editor-in-chief of Silicon Valley-based Politix. David is spending an extended period of time in Washington, D.C., this fall for book promotion, from Sept. 12 through Oct. 10. That begins with the official book launch at Politics and Prose on Sept. 13.

David’s also working on his next book proposal idea.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: We’re confident Dog Whistles will appeal to readers of all political persuasions. We wrote it in a non-partisan manner, as we’ve approached our careers. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous interview with David Mark, please click here.

Aug. 27

Aug. 27, 1871: Writer Theodore Dreiser born.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Q&A with writer Kelly Cherry

Kelly Cherry's most recent book is a story collection, A Kind of Dream. Her many other books include My Life and Dr. Joyce Brothers, Augusta Played, The Society of Friends, and We Can Still Be Friends. She has served as Poet Laureate of Virginia, and is the Eudora Welty Professor Emerita of English and Evjue-Bascom Professor Emerita in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She lives in Virginia.

Q: A Kind of Dream is the third in a trilogy. Did you know when you started writing about your character Nina that you'd write more books about her and her friends and family?

A: I didn't, Deborah. I wrote the second book because many readers did not understand that Tavy, the child Nina adopts, was meant to be "the child within" Nina. ("The child within" was a common notion and phrase in the eighties and nineties.) Since everyone thought she was real, I decided to proceed as if she were. Next thing I knew, she had a daughter herself.

Q: Did your feelings about these characters change as you wrote about them over a period of many years?

A: Yes and no. I wanted to treat all the characters with respect and--clarity. Each has his or her ambitions, likes and dislikes, problems, ways of expressing himself or herself. Each is, I trust, distinct. If my feelings about them changed, it was because they changed--they grew up, they learned, they experienced, they traveled, they faced death. It was not easy to let them go. For a little while I thought about continuing the stories with Callie's life and BB's new child, but it really was time to let them go.  

Q: Why did you choose to write A Kind of Dream as linked stories rather than as a novel?

A: Linked stories allow the writer to focus on the characters and themes and dismiss transitions. The writer Joyce Cary, who wrote two trilogies of novels, used to write his scenes for each book and put them in manila envelopes; then he'd go back and stick in the transitions. It's also the case that linked stories offer a simple way to show various points of view, which can get quite complicated within a single novel.

Q: You've written fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Do you have a preference?

A: I love them all! They offer different satisfactions. Fiction can take a writer way, way, away from herself. It involves her in a world similar to but importantly different from her own. That is exciting. Conversations occur that she never expected to hear. She goes to places she's never been, like Mongolia. She gets to know people she's never met. She discovers what they feel, what they think. That's a joy.

Nonfiction offers the writer an opportunity to approach the world logically. She writes a paragraph, then another paragraph, and the progression is straightforward and sensible. Even the strangest nonfiction proceeds step by step. As someone who did grad work in philosophy, I find nonfiction calming, no matter how personal or fantastic the material may be, because the process is always clarifying.

As for poetry, well, it's the conjunction of music and meaning, which means it is sublime. Poetry is what the world remembers, regardless of how many or how few people read it. Poetry is what we turn to when we can find no other words. It is hard, hard work but it takes one inside itself; to concentrate on a poem is to exist outside of time. There are no clocks, no calendars, no anything except the poem. Self is lost--or shall we say, self is free. To be free of one's self is a kind of heaven.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I've always worked on several manuscripts at a time; this permits me to put some on the back burner, where they can crystallize in the subconscious, while others are nearing completion. At the moment I am completing a book-length poem. Two other poetry manuscripts are more or less finished, and I have begun yet another. A Kelly Cherry Reader is forthcoming, perhaps this fall; it includes stories, excerpts from novels, essays, and poems. And a collection of (unlinked) stories, titled Twelve Women in a Country Called America, is due out from Press 53 in March 2015.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: For years I have had in mind a list of books I wanted to write. I hope I'll be able to get to all of them. Good, bad, or mediocre, they are my ideas, and I am obligated to realize them. It's a bonus that writing is so much fun.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 26

Aug. 26, 1904: Writer Christopher Isherwood born.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Q&A with author Debra Pickett

Debra Pickett is the author of the new novel Reporting Lives. A former reporter and columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, she is the founder of the public strategy firm Page 2 Communications. She lives in Wisconsin.

Q: How did you create your main character, Sara Simone?

A: The whole book began with my imagining one scene: a TV reporter thinking that she's going to do an interview with a grieving mother in a Mathare shack. It was just one of those odd thoughts that strikes you at an inappropriate time, like, "Wouldn't that be weird and awful?"  

That image stuck in my mind, though, and so I began thinking about who that reporter would be, how she'd get there. I imagined her awkwardly coming through the doorway, so she was always quite tall in my mind, which is somewhat ironic since I'm barely 5 foot 2.  

Her identity is somewhat intertwined with my own personality, kind of who I might have been had I not had other relationships and influences outside my journalism career. She is pure ambition -- at least at the start of the book. And, while I can't say she's based on any one person, I've known a lot of reporters with that element to their personalities.

Q: You've spent time reporting in Africa, as does Sara in the book. Did you need to do any additional research to write the novel, or was much of it based on your own experiences?

A: I didn't do a ton of additional research, beyond my own experiences there. I traveled back and forth to Kenya and Tanzania from Chicago about a half a dozen times in 2004 and 2005, so I had reasonably good knowledge of the places I wrote about.  

I did have to keep up with news reports from there and to check my memory on things, especially geography. Still, for the most part, my time there was so important to me that it's very clear in my mind, even with the passage of time.

Q: Which authors have inspired you?

A: The first writer I ever wanted to be like was Ernest Hemingway. I share his birthday and he's always been a literary hero to me.  

As I've grown up, I've come to have tremendous respect for writers like Barbara Kingsolver and Anna Quindlen, who write gorgeous, compelling novels and also seem to have full lives outside their fiction. I aspire to create a fictional world that a reader could get lost in, but I don't want to be lost there myself, so, as I try to grow as a writer, that's my mission: to write well and live well.

Q: As someone who has worked in journalism, what do you think of the changes in the news business in recent years?

A: When I left the Sun-Times newsroom in 2007, just after my son was born in late 2006, I wasn't really ready to go. I loved the energy of working there and the vital thrill you get from being at the center of events.  

But, as it's worked out, I am tremendously happy to have gotten out of the newspaper industry and gotten a head start on a new career. I thank my son for that all the time! It's a brutal time for the industry right now -- really talented, hard working folks can barely get paid for their writing.  

I knew, of course, that things would migrate online -- I started the Sun-Times' first blog -- and that's still the future of news. But that future is definitely not fully realized yet: we can do better than pre-packaged, say-nothing videos and click-through slideshows as "news."  

The newspapers that are adding new subscribers -- The New York Times and The Washington Post, for example -- are doing so because they are generating really high quality original reporting. So that gives me hope - there is a market for what print journalists do. We just haven't really found the right way to bring that into the digital age and make it profitable.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm working on a second novel, which I hope to finish early next year. The main character is not a reporter; she's a lawyer. And she's not young and single like Sara, either. She's married and has a daughter.  

Still, I think she's a similar kind of heroine, a "difficult" woman who is wrestling with her ambition and challenge of being a good person, even if you're not an easily likable one.  

If my first book was inspired by my journalism career, this one is definitely more closely tied to my life today, as a working mom. (My consulting business has me visiting law firms pretty regularly, so I guess that's where the setting comes from. But the lawyers I work with are all much nicer than some of the ones in the book!)

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The idea for Reporting Lives was born in 2004, with my first visit to Nairobi.  So it's taken 10 years to see it through to publication. I am so, so pleased that I finally get to share this story with readers and I hope they find some meaning in it, but I also hope it might provide a bit of inspiration or reassurance for aspiring writers out there as well. If you stick with it long enough, you can do this, too!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 20

Aug. 20, 1932: Writer Vasily Aksyonov born.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Q&A with author Josh Weil

Josh Weil, photo by Jilan Carroll Glorfield
Josh Weil is the author of the new novel The Great Glass Sea. He also has written a novella collection, The New Valley. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Granta and The New York Times. He lives in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas.

Q: You spent time in the U.S.S.R. in 1991 and returned to Russia in 2010. How did your visits inspire The Great Glass Sea?

A: They were both hugely important. In 1991 I was fourteen and just discovering who I was and to spend time living with a host family in the far north of a country that was, at that time, so drastically different from my own was eye opening and life changing.  

I always knew I’d write about it, but didn’t have a way in that felt natural until this novel came along. Then, after I’d written the first draft, I went back to Russia to do research and what I experienced there — the tremendous change from what I’d seen two decades earlier, the way Russians had grabbed hold of new freedoms and opportunities but also yearned for a lot that had been lost in the grasping — had a huge effect on the novel.  

I wrote 400 pages when I came back from that trip. It changed the entire plot, the feel of the book, anchored it not only in my memories of a Russia long past, but in the tensions between that and the one that exists now. Much of the dramatic tension in the novel comes from exactly that.

Q: Why did you set the book in an alternative version of Russia rather than the real thing?

A: First and foremost, I wanted to make it clear that I wasn’t trying to write a book that would, in some way, claim to know Russia as well as a Russian author would, a novel that would try to reveal the Russian soul, or something. I’m an American writer.  

But the story required that I write Russian characters (and not filter it through an American abroad, say). So it was vital to me that I didn’t try to do more than I could, or perhaps even had a right to do (though I believe writers have a right to do most anything so long as they do it well enough — and that’s the rub).  

But, of course, the space mirrors that surrounded the story and drive much of the novel are not present in the real Russia; they spring from an experiment that the Russians did conduct (sending satellites into orbit with reflective wings meant to carom sunlight down onto the nighttime earth in the hope of lighting northern cities overnight and ridding them of darkness), but the experiment never became more than that. I wanted to write a story in which it did. And so I had to push beyond what was actually out there.

That, and, too, the Russia of this novel owes as much to fables and folklore as it does to the Russia of today and I wanted to write in a way that allowed the story to inhabit both of those things, and not be bound to a hard-nosed realistic depiction of every aspect of the country that exists right this moment.

Q: Why did you decide to make your main characters twin brothers?

A: The bond between them was always the heart of the novel. And so I knew I wanted brothers who were very, very close (as I am with my brother). I thought a lot about whether they should be twins or not and, in the end, decided to make them twins for two reasons: it was important that their bond be something beyond the usual if the obsession with holding onto it that one of them has was going to be understandable, fully felt.

Then, too, it seemed rich with metaphor, given the split between them, the way they take opposite tracks in the world, the mirrors that surround the story, the presence of the giant greenhouse that splits the sky in two and creates two planes upon which the brothers work — all that felt like it worked well with them being twins.

Q: Which authors have inspired you?

A: Oh, so many, so many. But for this book I’d have to say Turgenev and Gogol and Pushkin, most. And, stylistically (and simply in my approach to writing), Annie Proulx and Cormac McCarthy and Toni Morrison and W.G. Sebald and Marilynne Robinson…and so many more.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A story collection, The Age of Perpetual Light, that is actually linked to the novel.  I hope it’ll be out in a year or two.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Perhaps only that the novel is illustrated, and that I did all the pen and ink drawings (I get asked about that a lot at readings).

There are 30 of them, including the end papers, and I hope that they give the book something extra, that they help create a feeling upon entering the story that is like that we had as children first reading fables, and that they help make this novel a physical object of beauty worth holding in your hands. I love when books feel that way and wanted very much to make this one that felt like that.  

I’m really proud of what we did — me doing the drawings, a brilliant designer creating a unique cover, and a brave team at Grove putting everything into the look and feel of the book.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with author Lan Cao

Lan Cao is the author of the new novel The Lotus and the Storm. Her other work includes the novel Monkey Bridge and the work of nonfiction Everything You Need to Know About Asian-American History. Born in Vietnam, she teaches at the Dale E. Fowler School of Law at Chapman University in Orange, California.

Q: Why did you choose “The Lotus and the Storm” as the title of your new book?

A: I like the contrasting images -- the lotus being a Buddhist symbol of serenity and the storm conveying the very opposite of serenity. The storm represents Bao and the lotus represents ... that's a question that different people will have different answers for. The book is in many ways a journey through the storm, chaos and fragmentation of war.

Q: What more can you say about the significance of the character Bao?

A: Bao means storm literally in Vietnamese, so the character represents the turbulence of trauma.

Q: Did you know how the book would end when you started writing, or did you make changes along the way?

A: I rarely ever know where each chapter will end, how one chapter will follow another, much less how the book will end when I start writing. It's all very organic for me and for fiction writing, that's how I like it. My first drafts tend to be a bit picaresque and my revisions once the book is finished are meant to tighten, not change the story line. 

Q: In addition to your novels, you’ve co-authored a nonfiction book about Asian-American history, and you are a law professor. How is your fiction affected by your other work?

A: My legal scholarship has focused on international trade, international economic law (World Trade Organization law)  and an area of law called law and development. The latter involves the relationship between law and economic and political development in developing countries.

My fiction deals a lot with transitions -- outsider to maybe insider, half lives to less halved lives (maybe more whole lives), war or wasteland to peace, immigrants to Americans (or one's ideas of what makes an American). My law work is also focused on transitions -- emerging economies transitioning to a different system and the legal framework that is needed (or not) to facilitate this transition.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: In law, I'm revising a legal book to be published by Oxford University Press called Culture in Law and Development: Nurturing Positive Change (looking at how the field of law and development -- and related fields such as public international law, private international law (international trade), international human rights, international relations -- have all excluded culture from their academic lens (focusing instead on states and markets)).

I argue that cultural norms must be incorporated into law and development if it is to be effective. Much of the book explores the meaning of development, how culture is bound to and affects development and controversially, may sometimes have to be purposefully changed to implement a development agenda that includes not just economic development but also human rights, particularly women's rights. 

I am going to start writing a collection of short stories loosely bound together by a core group of common characters. It's just too new now to know where it's going. So I don't have enough to say anything more about it. The characters will be from different parts of the world, so all ethnically diverse.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A is also posted at