Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Q&A with Naomi J. Williams

Naomi J. Williams, photo by Kristyn Stroble
Naomi J. Williams is the author of the new novel Landfalls, which tells a fictionalized version of an actual expedition in the 1780s. Her work has appeared in a variety of journals, including A Public Space and One Story, and she lives in Davis, California.

Q: How did you learn about the Lapérouse expedition, and how did you research this book?

A: I learned about the Lapérouse expedition from an old map that my husband bought for me as a birthday present some years ago. He'd bought it thinking it was a map of San Francisco Bay, but it turned out to come from the atlas published with the 1798 English-language edition of Lapérouse's journals, and actually depicts Lituya Bay in Alaska, which eventually became the setting for two chapters in the novel.

I tell the story of the mistaken-identity map and how I came up with the idea for the book in some detail in a recent blog post here.

As for the research, I couldn't have done it without the Internet, and I couldn't have done it without libraries.

I found some amazing things online. For example, there's a chapter near the end of the book that concerns a royal decree that gave Lapérouse's relatives permission to use his name. I found the actual wording of the decree at some French archives that were available online.

I also relied pretty heavily on Google Earth and Street View to give me a sense of the geography of places I've never been. 

But the most important sources came from libraries. I'm very fortunate to live a 15-minute bike ride from a world-class university research library at UC Davis. I've read everything there that has anything to do with the Lapérouse expedition, and also benefited from inter-library loan to procure sources they didn't have.

I'm currently working on a new blog post about my love affair with the library and a few of my favorite library finds.

Q: What did you see as the right blend of history and fiction as you were writing Landfalls?

A: I tried to hew as closely to known "facts" as I could for this project. Not because I think that's how you're "supposed" to do historical fiction or because I owe it to readers or even to the memory of the Lapérouse expedition.

It was just a challenge I set for myself, a set of constraints around which to work, like the challenge of writing a Shakespearean sonnet, with its particular rules and conventions. I didn't, for instance, make up or conflate any members of the expedition. And I never knowingly altered the timeline of events. 

But around those general outlines, I fabricated a lot. I imagined personalities and motivations and emotional baggage, of course.

Many of the women in the book are largely or entirely my creations. I was determined to include the voices of women in my seafaring yarn, but -- not surprisingly -- the historical record isn't very helpful in this regard.

I had some salient details about Lapérouse's sister, who narrates a chapter near the end of the novel, but a native girl narrates an earlier chapter, and although I tried to make her as authentic as possible through extensive research of her culture, she herself is entirely fictional.

Q: How did you come up with the book's structure, which includes a variety of characters and settings?

A: I am not prone to flashes of insight or genius. I'm a plodder in the worst way. The book is the result of nearly a decade of incredibly slow, painstaking research and writing and revising.

But the basic conceit of the book -- the story of the expedition told by different narrators in every chapter -- did come to me in a flash, very early on.

Also the idea to see the project almost like a set of etudes on approaches to story-telling, playing with point of view, tense, structure, time, etc. -- that also came to me quite early in the process.

I've got an epistolary chapter, and another that's in first-person plural, and another that's told through a series of named sections. I wanted to try all this on while basically teaching myself how to write a book.

Q: Which authors have influenced you?

A: I can't possibly do justice to all of the writers who've influenced and inspired me over the years, but here's a sampling: The first travel narrative I fell in love with was an abridged, kid-friendly version of The Pilgrim's Progress. I grew up in an evangelical Christian family, so this was on our bookshelf. I loved that book -- more for the adventure aspects than for its heavy-handed allegory.

And I've always adored novels of the sea -- Robinson Crusoe, Moby-Dick, the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian, C. S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower books. I have no first-hand knowledge of ships or the sea. Whatever sounds authentic in that regard I picked up from reading all those books.

And I know this is a cliche, but I worship Jane Austen -- there's a chapter in the novel that I quite deliberately set out to write as a kind of homage to her genius for devastating social criticism played out in genteel-seeming conversations in genteel drawing rooms.

More contemporary influences would include writers of literary fiction who also take on historical subjects -- especially Jim Shepard and Andrea Barrett.

My undergraduate and graduate training was in Japanese literature, so although this book wouldn't seem to have any direct relation to that, it's there. I've got a chapter near the end of Landfalls that's actually a retelling of Akutagawa's story, "In a Grove," more well-known today as the basis for the famous Kurosawa film, Rashomon.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Well, I'm actually going back to my roots, both personally and academically. I'm half-Japanese and was partly raised in Japan, and, as I alluded to above, got my undergraduate degree in East Asian Studies, focusing on Japan.

I'm now working on a second novel, also historical, about an early 20th-century Japanese poet and feminist. Her name was Yosano Akiko (that's in Japanese order, with her last name first), and she's quite famous in Japan but not that well known in the West. I wrote my senior thesis about her in college and have wanted to get back to her ever since.

In 1912, Akiko traveled by herself to France. She'd sent her husband, a fellow-poet, on ahead of her, and followed him six months later, taking a ferry from western Japan to Vladivostok, then riding the Trans-Siberian Railway to Moscow and from there making her way to Paris, where she was reunited with her husband and spent several months traveling with him, meeting lots of artists and intellectuals.

As you can perhaps imagine, this was quite unheard of at the time. Japanese women rarely left the country, much less alone. Also, she left behind seven children, all under age 10. (They were cared for by relatives during her absence.) Even today it seems transgressive for a woman to leave her children for six months to pursue love and art.

So -- that's the subject of the new book. It requires lots of research in Japanese, which has required many hours of intense review of a language I've barely used in years. I'm also translating a bunch of her poems into English. I have a 2017 deadline for the manuscript, but honestly, it feels like another decade-long project.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 28

July 28, 1866: Beatrix Potter born.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Q&A with Herbert Murray

Herbert Murray is the author of the new memoir Standing Tall in Times Square, which tells the story of how he was convicted of a murder he did not commit and spent 29 years in prison before being released. He lives in the Bronx, and works for the Times Square Alliance in New York City.

Q: Why did you decide to write a book about your experiences?

A: After coming out [of prison], I was trying to find my way. I was not exonerated from the crime, [which affected] everything. Thank goodness the Times Square Alliance gave me a job.

The problem was, I was trying to get a residence, and was denied because of being prior incarcerated. Many people recognized my innocence, but I’m still on the books as a convicted murderer. People are saying, You’re still not exonerated?

Q: So as of right now, you still have not been exonerated?

A: I’m trying to work on it. There are a lot of people attaching themselves to my cause. A retired detective has signed on to the cause and is trying [to help], and maybe can get access to information the lawyers can’t.

Q: Has the book had an impact yet in your efforts?

A: Yes. People have given me a lot of positive feedback. The primary purpose is to get me exonerated.

Q: You write about some very difficult experiences in this book. How difficult was it to revisit them?

A: When I was doing my writing, I tried to write with my spirit. I didn’t want to force it. I wanted to be as truthful and authentic as possible; when I don’t feel it, I back off. I don’t want the book to have negative connotations but spiritual connotations.

I forgot a lot of the things I wrote about. It’s difficult when you reflect back; there are a lot of things you put in your subconscious and these things start coming back…it brought back all these memories. It was difficult. It was painful, but when the pain came I backed off; I wanted to be spiritual.

Q: What impact did religion have on you during your time in prison?

A: Religion was my lifeline; it helped me become focused. [I was] adapting to the Christian faith. Prior to that I was Muslim. They…helped me stand on my two feet. I was just going through the motions of praying. I attached myself to them [the Muslims] because of unity. You have to attach yourself to a group so you won’t be attacked.

Any time there was [controversy] between the [prison] officers and the Muslims, it was a problem, and I did not want to be part of that. More time would attach [to my sentence]…after I became more aware, I realized I don’t want to die in prison or have additional time.

I started getting my education, my GED. I was uneducated. [Someone] invited me to a [Christian] service because a gospel group was coming to the facility…something was stirring in my soul..I started attaching to the Christian faith.

Q: Since you’ve been out of prison, has religion been important to you?

A: Absolutely. The music on my phone is gospel music. That’s my lifeline; Jesus Christ is my savior.

Q: Throughout the book, you include quotes from Nelson Mandela. How much were you inspired by him while in prison?

A: Absolutely, because I kept reading about apartheid in South Africa…It’s a different country, and different circumstances, but being falsely accused of something you didn’t do…he never exhibited any negativity. He continued doing what he needed to get out of prison. He became my hero….

Q: You discuss how difficult it was to adjust to life outside prison after so many years inside. How are things going now?

A: Beautiful as far as the job is concerned. I can’t praise them more. They hired me two months after coming out after doing 29 years…I’m trying to get exonerated, but other than that I’m in good spirits. I feel like I’m winning now!...

Q: Are you thinking of writing another book?

A: Absolutely. I want to continue because it’s not conclusive. I will hopefully be exonerated and that’s the end, or I could get a movie from the book. I write monthly articles for my job, and that helps keep my writing up.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My family—when I went in, I was 21, and my daughter was 13 months. I came out when she was 30, a grown woman. I didn’t know her, her personality. We are in the process of developing a relationship. She’s firm in her personality; she’s 36 now.

It’s difficult. She knew I’m her father, but to have a father-daughter relationship, we don’t have [that]; we’re like friends. She doesn’t even know what to call me, Herb, or Dad—she’s not used to my being around…

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 27

July 27, 1908: Joseph Mitchell born.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Q&A with Annie Barrows

Annie Barrows, by Amy Perl Photography
Annie Barrows is the author of the new novel The Truth According to Us. She also is the co-author of the novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, and the author of many children's books, including the Ivy + Bean series. She lives in Northern California.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for the Romeyn family and why did you decide to set The Truth According to Us in the 1930s?

A: It’s funny how much cognitive dissonance this question creates for me.  Coming up with the idea for the Romeyn family?  The Romeyns, an idea?  As in, a construction? Made by me? This is a totally bizarre concept.

I was born into the Romeyn family. 
To clarify—none of the Romeyns is a portrait of any member of my family; none of the events of the book ever occurred in real life (with the exception of the part where Willa gets run over by the bicycle); and not one of the things the Romeyns say is a quotation. 

And yet, the Romeyns are inescapably like my family in the way they define themselves in relation to the world and in the way they talk. Especially in the way they talk.  

This is completely clear to all my relatives who’ve read the book, too.  My cousin refers to it as “this family history you’re calling a novel,” even though she had to admit there was not one single correlation to an actual person or event.

As for the setting in the 1930s, it was primarily dictated by the short and harried existence of the Federal Writers’ Project, which was necessary scaffolding for my plot.

The Writers’ Project was a Depression-era jobs program for writers and was, unsurprisingly, a target of conservative rage almost from the day it was founded in 1935 until its demise in 1941.

I picked 1938 for The Truth According to Us because it was one of the Project’s most productive years.  I suppose I could have found another mechanism, in another era, that would have worked just as well to precipitate my story, but the more I researched 1938, and especially 1938 small-town West Virginia, the more fascinated I became.

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

A: See attached picture of the drafts of this book, lined end-to-end across my house.  I made many, many changes as I went along.  I learned a great deal in writing this book, my first solo novel for adults, and the most important thing I learned was this: you can’t have everything you want.  

As a reader, my perfect book is story without end: one thing after another after another until—well, until I expire. So I began by meandering after every character that interested me, organized generally by proximity instead of our narrative friend, chronology. 

It was fun for me, but while I do still believe that character is plot, I came to see that the product is not a viable novelistic form.  Accordingly, I learned to impose the arc of drama (aka time) on my meandering. This is why it took me five and a half years. This is why my hair turned gray. Actually, to be honest, it didn’t. But it could have.

Q: Is Macedonia, West Virginia, a real town, and how did you research all the details in the book?

A: Macedonia is fictional, but it is based on several genuine towns in the eastern part of West Virginia, particularly Martinsburg and Romney.

I visited this area a lot as a kid, since the above-mentioned family is from that part of the world, but when it came to writing about the region, I found that my information was pretty dreamy and non-sequiturial, so I ended up doing a fair amount of hard research too.  

I’m lucky enough to be able to use the University Library at UC Berkeley as my primary research venue, and I did a lot of my basic—and not-so-basic—work there.

I’d say the most helpful single resource about the era was LIFE magazine; I read every issue of 1938 and I think it gave me a viable sense of the preoccupations of the society as a whole. 

My mom was the ultimate authority for regional speech—they really did say “poke” for sack—and for 1930s West Virginia foodstuffs, but I also found a lot of great regional information in local historical societies and through the West Virginia State Historical Society. Almost all the names in the book come from local cemeteries and yearbooks. 

Serendipitously, the Federal Writers’ Project was called into the town of Romney in 1937 to produce a bicentennial town history that was exactly like the one I needed for Macedonia, and I purloined that booklet for tone and subject matter. 

In addition, and probably excessively, I read loads of contemporary documents—restaurant menus, recipe booklets, textile manufacturing supply catalogues, the 1936 yearbook of yarn and thread producers, and advertisements for farming equipment. Ultimately, however, I’d say my best authority for contemporary products and prices was the 1937 Sears catalogue. 

As you can tell, I love research.

Q: How would you compare Macedonia with the community you describe in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society?

A: I would say that Guernsey during the Second World War was a considerably more afflicted place than West Virginia during the Depression, but the books are similar in that they are concerned with small-town dynamics.

Both books chronicle the doings of small communities where everyone knows something about everyone else, and where narratives constitute the chief interest of all our favorite inhabitants. 

And it’s just barely possible that there might be some tiny similarities of character in the two books—I think Bird would really enjoy playing Dead Bride, for instance.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ll never tell. My lips are sealed. I am the most adamantine of vaults. My resolution is unshaken by your threats. My will is steely in the face of your tortures. I am obdurate, though you fling me to lions. It’s set in California.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Annie Barrows, please click here.

July 25

July 25, 1896: Josephine Tey born.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Q&A with Nisid Hajari

Nisid Hajari is the author of the new book Midnight's Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India's Partition. He is Asia editor for Bloomberg View, and was foreign editor and managing editor at Newsweek. He lives in Singapore.

Q: You worked on a 2007 Newsweek cover story that described Pakistan as the most dangerous nation in the world. Do you agree with that assessment?

A: I do think it’s still true. But what I meant then and now is something very specific. I wouldn’t say Pakistan is the worst country in the world to visit or live in.

The issue is that elements of its security establishment, who continue to see India as an existential threat, use that fear as justification to support Islamic militants such as the Afghan Taliban and groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba (whose operatives launched the 2008 Mumbai attacks), and to build up the world’s fastest-growing nuclear arsenal.

All that raises the risk that a nuclear weapon might fall into the hands of a terrorist group, or that an outright nuclear war might break out if another Mumbai-style attack is traced back to Pakistan. However slim the chances may be, they’re greater here than anywhere else in the world.

Q: In the book, you write, “What truly continues to haunt today’s world are the furies that were unloosed in 1947…” What do you see as the most important legacies of partition?

A: This would be the greatest one, of course: the rivalry between India and Pakistan. The sense of siege implanted within Pakistan at birth still runs strong today.

One can’t entirely blame the events of 1947 for the way the country has turned out, of course -- cynical leadership and religious demagoguery over the ensuing decades has taken a bad situation and made it worse.

But the fact that tensions continue to run so high -- despite the fact that the vast majority of the populations on both sides of the border were born after independence -- says something about how fraught the official narratives about Partition remain.

Before both countries can move forward, they’re going to have to come to some more agreed, common narrative about what happened in 1947.

Q: You write that Islam became a way for Pakistan’s leaders to rally their population behind them. How did that strategy come about, and how does it play out today?

A: This is a long, complicated story -- best told in former Pakistani ambassador Husain Haqqani’s book, Between Mosque and Military.

The interesting thing is that Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, was a generally secular man -- he used to mock anyone who suggested Pakistan might become a theocracy. The problem was that he never really defined what Pakistan would be instead -- what would unify Sindhis and Bengalis and Punjabis, if not Islam.

After his death, the Army very quickly promoted itself as the guardian of the nation’s territorial integrity against a supposedly hostile India.

But the generals, too, needed some sort of unifying ideology to justify their rule, which led them to make an unholy bargain with religious right, so that the Army became defender of the faith as well as of the country.

To this day, despite the fact that religious parties tend to do very poorly in elections, the government has great trouble reining in what might be considered radical madrassas for fear of being branded anti-Islamic.

Militants supposedly fighting on behalf of Muslims in Kashmir still claim widespread popular support, despite the public’s frustration with the terrorist attacks that have wracked the country.

Q: What are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about India and Pakistan?

A: It’s hard to say -- I’ve heard from people who didn’t even realize that India and Pakistan were once part of the same country, so obviously this is a part of the world not usually covered in American media and history books.

I think one dangerous misperception is that the enmity between them is somehow inevitable -- that once the decision was made to Partition the subcontinent, violence and years of tension were somehow guaranteed.

As traumatic as that split was, I don’t think there was anything foreordained about the aftermath. Decisions -- and mistakes -- made by leaders at the time set these two countries on an unfortunate path. Decisions made by later leaders compounded those errors.

It’s within the power of both nations to get off this path -- it just requires political courage and determination.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My wife and I currently live in Singapore, where I oversee Asia coverage for Bloomberg View, the editorial board of Bloomberg News. That keeps me pretty busy, given everything from plunging Chinese stock markets to anti-Muslim riots in Myanmar.

But working on this book also got me interested in the post-WWII, pre-Vietnam era of U.S. foreign policy in Southeast Asia, which doesn’t receive all that much attention. I believe there might be an interesting narrative there to retell. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 24

July 24, 1900: Zelda Fitzgerald born.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Q&A with Ronald Goldfarb

Ronald Goldfarb is the author of the new novel Courtship: A Novel of Life, Love, and the Law (under the pseudonym R. L. Sommer) and the editor of the new book After Snowden: Privacy, Secrecy, and Security in the Information Age. His many other books include Perfect Villains, Imperfect Heroes and In Confidence. He is an attorney and literary agent based in Washington, D.C.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your novel Courtship, and why did you decide to write it under a pseudonym? 

A: It’s a strange story. From the time I left Yale Law School and started my career, I was writing pretty much straightaway, on subjects I knew about, all nonfiction. It grew out of my work as a lawyer.

I never dreamed I had the skills to write a novel; it was never my plan. I wrote it years ago, while recovering from an injury. I was reading The New York Times, and saw the list of winners of the Rhodes Scholarship. A light bulb went off, and I ran to my writing desk.

The book starts off with two unlikely lovers winning the Thayer Award, and [finding] lifelong love. I ran after this thing like it was a movie I hadn’t seen before. It was done in three weeks...

I didn’t think of it as something to send to publishers. I viewed it as my love child. I loved it…At one point…I realized it was [the character] Anne’s story. I thought, a man can’t write from the perspective of a woman, [so] I added a prologue and epilogue. I put it away but would bring it out from time to time.

Flash forward 10 years, and I’m dealing with ABA [American Bar Association] publishing. Our firm sold a number of books to ABA, and the editor said we’re starting a new imprint of fiction, and we’re looking for the right book to start it off.

A light went off in my head, and I said I have one. I didn’t want him to be polite, or reject it [because of my connection]. I said, I have a client, and I could send it to you. I said he’s writing under a pseudonym; I can vouch for him.

I had to make up a name, and my grandmother’s name was Rose Sommer. I said, R.L. Sommer. I sent it off, and I thought that would be the end of it…I sent it to [Ankerwycke editor] Jon Malysiak, and he said, We love it! What’s its title?

I had to think of a title. I had finally shown it to my wife and daughter, and my daughter said, "Courtship." I said, that’s the perfect title.

It was as much a surprise to me as anything I’ve done. I’m halfway through a book of short stories, under R.L. Sommer. It’s puzzling and I can’t understand it. I’m trying to figure it out myself...

People asked, is this an autobiography of your career?...I realized, it isn't what you've done personally--none of these things happened to me--but it is what you know.... 

Q: How does the process of writing fiction vs. nonfiction compare for you? 

A: [Fiction] is all pleasure! Nonfiction is work…when you’ve started off, you think, This is a rich subject, but once you’ve had the inspiration, which is fun, the rest is work.

This was total pleasure. I felt I was turning on the projector of a movie, and I didn’t know the ending. When I would have to turn it off, I couldn’t wait to get back to it. I had no sense of what happened next. 

Q: So you didn’t have an outline or anything like that? 

A: Nothing. It originally began with the announcement of those two people winning the Thayer Award, a lightly disguised Rhodes Scholarship. I had to make up their names…it was totally a work of imagination—what might these two people talk about to make a lifelong alliance?... 

Q: I also wanted to ask you about your new work of nonfiction, After Snowden... 

A: It couldn’t be more different [from Courtship]! When the [Edward] Snowden case burst, everybody was interested in it. My last book was on the subject of confidentiality. I thought, Everybody is interested in the Snowden case, but even the progressive community was hostile to him in a way I was kind of surprised about.

Whether or not he’s a devil or an angel, it’s interesting to take subjects his situation raised and find the best people to write about them…

Everybody was asking me what’s your view, so you had to have a conclusion. The conclusion is really mine—he is more angel than devil. He is a historical figure. He broke the law, but…civil disobedience is civil disobedience. [His actions] can be balanced by the good that comes from it…this guy did it for patriotic purposes. 

Q: What do you see as some examples of the impact of his actions? 

A: Just in terms of consciousness-raising, the world has reviewed what’s going on in terms of security and privacy….

Obama appointed a high-level review panel that proposed reform measures…Congress moved to change the Patriot Act, and the General Assembly of the U.N. has held that prevailing rules on cyberspace and international surveillance have been violated…

Remarkable changes have happened…it isn’t just the ACLU upset by what the government has been doing. We’re now reexamining the world’s rules on cyberspace, privacy, encryption.

If Snowden’s purpose was to reveal…misbehavior on the part of our government and others, he accomplished that….

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 23

July 23, 1888: Raymond Chandler born.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Q&A with Ronald J. Walters

Ronald J. Walters is the author of the new novel The Lusitania Conspiracy, which focuses on the sinking in 1915 of the RMS Lusitania during World War I. He lives in Traverse City, Michigan.

Q: Why did you decide to write a novel about the Lusitania rather than a work of nonfiction?

A: There’s a very thin margin of error when it’s nonfiction. Everything has to be succinctly researched and put. When you have something [like the Lusitania] with a lot of conspiracy theories…you have to be so fact-based to make a story of something with uncertainties; you can’t have conjectures. With the Lusitania, there’s so much that’s unknown, I thought it would be a more interesting story [as fiction].

Q: Why did you include historical figures like Mark Twain and Nikola Tesla?

A: With Tesla, I took it from the point of view, let’s assume there was a secret weapon aboard. That has been a conspiracy theory for years. The only person I felt in 1914-15 who had the expertise, the inventive genius’s viewpoint on things…would have been Tesla.

Tesla’s probably best friend was Mark Twain. That made for a really interesting dynamic, because he died in 1910 and this was in 1915.

I went with the thought process that Twain represented his conscience. Tesla did work for the Department of War in real life [but didn’t like it]. Twain was skeptical of governments. I thought, what better person to use as his quasi-subconscious, to use Twain as his conscience, his rudder, the one person who steered him.

Q: The book includes both history and fiction. What do you see as the right blend?

A: The blend in this book is probably 75-80 percent factual, and the fiction portion may or may not be fiction. If there was a weapon aboard, it probably was invented by Tesla. To do historical fiction properly, you need at least 70-75 percent fact…it makes it more believable.

Q: What surprised you most in the course of your research on the Lusitania?

A: Without question, Churchill and the British government’s involvement. Probably the single element was not in the book or the screenplay—the HMS Juno, a British naval vessel, was moored off the coast of Ireland, and received an SOS from the Lusitania.

They set sail for the Lusitania’s coordinates, and when they were in visual range, they were ordered by the British admiralty to turn around and not aid the ship…That’s probably the single most eye-opening fact.

Q: What are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about the Lusitania 100 years after its sinking?

A: Sadly...so few people know about the Lusitania, there are not a lot of perceptions or misconceptions. So few people know how important the event was, or that it occurred. Ninety percent of people worldwide know about the Titanic. I would guess 1-2 percent know about the Lusitania.

What we learned in school was one mention on one day that the Lusitania was sunk by a German submarine, and that the Germans wanted to kill American people. Truly, they were put in a position where they didn’t have a choice. If there’s a villain in the group, it’s the British government and Churchill.

Q: Can you say more about why you see them as the villain?

A: If you believe in a conspiracy, then the British Admiralty and more specifically Churchill, have to be at the center of that conspiracy. No one else could call off the escort, no one else could recall the H.M.S. Juno from helping the Lusitania and its passengers.  

Q: You mentioned your screenplay about the Lusitania. Is it going to become a movie?

A: I certainly hope so. It’s looking very good. I have met with different studios…I hope within 60 days to have some announcements about the film. 

Q: Are you working on another book now, or are you mostly focused on the film? 

A: I’m about 95 percent focused on the film. I’ve started two other projects, but every time I start to write, something comes up with the movie project…

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The film was praised by an executive as one of the studios [who said] I can’t believe I’ve never heard the story of the Lusitania. It’s the greatest story never told…This is a very well established combination of Titanic, The Hunt for Red October, and Indiana Jones—that gives a feel of what the movie would be like: high action, a lot of intrigue, mysterious settings, and a love story.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 22

July 22, 1849: Emma Lazarus born.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Q&A with Anna North

Anna North is the author of the new novel The Life and Death of Sophie Stark. She also has written the novel America Pacifica. A staff editor at The New York Times, she lives in Brooklyn.

Q: How did you come up with your main character, Sophie Stark, and why did you decide to make her a filmmaker?

A: I had the idea to write about a character named Sophie Stark years ago, long before I really started the book in earnest. In my mind she was always a filmmaker.

At first I wanted to make her more of a political documentarian, but over time I realized I was less interested in the political aspects of her work than in the personal -- how she relates (and fails to relate) to the people closest to her, how her art intertwines with her identity.

I think I was attracted to the idea of writing about a filmmaker because film feels so different from writing -- focusing on Sophie allowed me to tell a story about a creative person whose skills and outlook on the world are totally different from mine.

Q: How did you decide on your novel’s structure, and did you make many changes as you were writing?

A: It took me a long time to decide on the structure. At first I thought I'd have one character tell the story, but I could never decide who it should be -- I tried writing from Robbie's perspective, from Allison's, and from the perspectives of other characters who don't appear in the finished novel, but none of the characters felt like they could tell the whole story on their own.

Then I realized that I could tell it from multiple characters' points of view, and the book began to come together after that.

I did make a number of changes after I wrote the first draft, from changing the order of certain chapters to adding a few to cutting an entire chapter.

The structure of the book allowed me to experiment a bit, which I appreciated, but it also made it harder to decide on a final order of chapters, since the storyline doesn't always proceed in a linear way. 

Q: Of all the characters telling Sophie’s story, did you have a favorite or feel closer to some than to others?

A: I had some favorites early on, but I tried hard to care about each of them equally. Some characters took longer for me to understand than others, and I had to spend more time thinking about their histories -- what were their childhoods like? Their relationships? What happened to them to make them the way they are now? 

Q: Which authors have influenced you?

A: Some authors who have affected my writing a lot over the years are David Foster Wallace, Anne Carson, Li-Young Lee, Neal Stephenson, and Annie Dillard. I also love Michael Cunningham's The Hours and Specimen Days, and their structure may have influenced this book.

When I think of books about art I always think of Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red. And the Sherlock Holmes stories have been a big influence on me since I first read them as a kid; I think Sophie is a little bit like Holmes. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm working on a new novel that's a little bit more like my first novel, America Pacifica, than like The Life and Death of Sophie Stark.

I don't want to say too much about it yet, but it's set in the future, or at least in a time and place that's not exactly our world right now, and it deals a lot with issues of gender. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I'm also a writer and editor at the New York Times, where I'm on the editorial board and write for and edit the editorial page blog. Recently I wrote about an artist who painted Pluto during the historic flyby, and the potential mental health benefits of video games.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 21

July 21, 1899: Ernest Hemingway born.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Q&A with Barton Swaim

Barton Swaim, photo by Yevette Shaver
Barton Swaim is the author of the new book The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics, which recounts his experiences working for then-Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina. His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Weekly Standard, and he lives in Columbia, S.C.

Q: You write that your book “isn’t meant to be a ‘hit job’ or a ‘tell all’ about Sanford.” What were your motivations in writing the book? 

A: I felt I had to. Not in the sense that it was some kind of "duty," but in the sense that I'm a writer, and I felt compelled to write about this insane and hilarious experience--and about this admirable but deeply flawed political leader. 

Q: In the book, you write of your political work, “You get comfortable with insincerity. It affected all of us, not just the boss.” Why is that, and do you think your office was typical of other political offices in that regard? 

A: Politicians are asked to comment on too many things. Some of them do it willingly, as though it's required; others are asked about their "view" or "position" or whatever, and they feel compelled to respond. I don't know why we expect them to constantly issue statements on everything -- even things they can't control and things we know they don't care about.

In any case, it encourages a kind of insincerity. Statements are made just because statements are necessary; "we have to go on record about this" is the thinking. You can only do that so often before you begin to feel a disconnect between words and intention, or between language and meaning.

Q: How would you describe your working relationship with Mark Sanford, and why did you choose not to name him in the book? 

A: He's not chummy, or event friendly, toward his staff. Certainly he wasn't with me. I didn't like him as a person, and he had no regard for me except insofar as I could produce copy he liked. That was fine -- a lot of bosses work that way, and it frees you from taking his criticisms in a personal way. But of course it doesn't make your love your job. 

I didn't name him because I wanted my book to be about more than one politician, or about one scandal. I wanted it to be about politics itself somehow -- a story that a lot of people, even people who can barely remember the whole Argentina thing [when Sanford went on a secret trip in 2009 to see his mistress], can relate to or find meaning in.  

Q: South Carolina has been in the spotlight lately. As someone who worked in state politics and has lived in South Carolina for many years, what do you see looking ahead for the state?

A: It's controlled by the legislature, and the leadership has a lock on power in that state. They have no plans to give it up. The governor is not completely powerless, but he or she has much less authority than governors in other states.

The result is corruption in the legislature -- among both D's and R's -- and narcissistic, media-hungry governors. Nobody would want the job of governor in South Carolina except a politician with national ambitions. I don't see any of that changing.

Even so, things are changing. Something about the shooting in Charleston has begun something special there. I don't know what it is yet, but both whites and blacks -- and especially whites -- are admitting their past suspicions in a way I've never seen before.

Typically, though, very little of it has anything to do with our wretched politicians. If anything, they're getting in the way with their greed for media attention. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm writing a lot of reviews and essays and whatnot, and that helps to pay the bills, but I've got a few ideas for another book. I need this one to do well, though, so that my publisher will like the idea and want to pay for it!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb