Thursday, June 30, 2016

Q&A with Shawna Yang Ryan

Shawna Yang Ryan is the author of the new novel Green Island. She also has written the novel Water Ghosts, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including ZYZZYVA and The Asian American Literary Review. She lives in Honolulu.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your main character and her family, and why is she an unnamed narrator?

A: I struggled through multiple drafts with different narrative voices. Ultimately, I narrowed down the time frame for the book, and then it was easier to envision a character who could move through that time period.

For a long time, I was set on having a more male-centric book, but I found the father-daughter relationship very poignant, especially from the POV of a woman yearning for a better relationship with her father.

I was so consumed inside her head, I didn’t feel that I could go outside her and give her a name, some way that others identify her. And then when the book was done, I’d known her so long this way that no name seemed right. I also like the metaphorical resonances with being unnamed and Taiwan’s own issues over naming.

Q: You write that you spent 14 years on this book. What was involved in your writing and research process?

A: There were so many layers to this process. First of all, I was certain that I needed to have some fluency in Mandarin! So that was one very arduous, long-term layer as I learned to speak and read Mandarin.

Then I wanted to feel very comfortable in my knowledge of Taiwan and its history. I moved there for a few years.

I believe that when you tell a story, you should tell it with the certainty of a memory, and so I had to integrate this story so intimately into my mind that it felt like my own memories before I could write it. I think I need to find a more efficient technique so that the next book doesn’t take as long!

Q: What are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions in the U.S. about Taiwan?

A: The most common misperception I hear is that Americans believe Chiang Kai Shek was a noble hero. He was our ally, it’s true, but he was just as corrupt as any dictator. For the U.S., it was either him or Mao, so they chose him.

The other misconception is that Taiwan is a part of China. I hope my book demonstrates why it is not—culturally, historically and legally.

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

A: I didn’t know how it would end, but I did know the last line because it mirrors the first line. So I knew those two sentences would be in conversation with each other. The more I wrote, the more I realized that the story was just as much about the act of telling history as it was about the family itself.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a few projects. The central one is a novel about water in California, where I grew up. I’m trying to resist the feeling that I should learn Spanish for this project!

Right now, I’m trying to immerse myself in the history of the water wars. It’s also been a great opportunity for me to learn more about the geography and history of California, which I took for granted when I lived there.

Along with that, I’m interested in the role people of color played in the building of California, and how some people are thought of as suitable for labor but not suitable to be citizens. Who gets to belong? Who do we identify as “like us” and who is too “different” to be one of us? I want to do this in a historical context, but these are still relevant questions today.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: People looking for a fun and well-done political thriller about Taiwan can check out the film Formosa Betrayed. I think of my book as the feminist counterpart to that movie.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

June 30

June 30, 1920: Eleanor Ross Taylor born.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Q&A with Beverley Naidoo

Beverley Naidoo, photo by Linda Brownlee
Beverley Naidoo is the author of the children's book Who Is King?: Ten Magical Stories from Africa, a winner of the 2016 Children's Africana Book Awards. She has written many books for adults and for children, including Journey to Jo'burg and S is for South Africa. She grew up in South Africa and is based in the U.K.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Who Is King?, and how did you select the stories to include?

A: Animals feature strongly in traditional African folktales and I grew up enjoying many such tales as a child in the 1940s/’50s. However, in books they were often accompanied by stereotypical, offensively racialised representations of black Africans.

In colonial literature for children, it was common for animal characters to be humanised and attributed with a humanity that was denied to black characters, the real people.

Indeed, one of the reasons I focused during the first 20 years of my writing career on realistic fiction was to write the kind of books that I never had as a child.

It took Julius Lester’s fine rendering of The Tales of Uncle Remus (beautifully illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, Dial Books & Bodley Head, 1987) for me to realise that Brer Rabbit had his roots in Africa and the same little trickster hare tales that I had loved as a child.

I knew Lester as a powerful writer of realistic fiction about African American experience and his Foreword to his Uncle Remus got me thinking more deeply about the purpose of these ancient folktales. 

Nevertheless, writing has its seasons and it was a while before I returned to thinking about that little trickster hare. With The Great Tug of War and Other Stories (Frances Lincoln, 2006), I had the good fortune to be introduced to Piet Grobler as an illustrator.

I was a Jo’burg “city girl” and Piet was a “farm boy” from the bushveld. I loved the quirkiness and mischief in Piet’s drawings.

A few years later we collaborated on Aesop’s Fables (Frances Lincoln, 2011), transporting them to a South African setting. From there, it seemed a natural step to broaden the canvas to retelling tales from across the continent of our birth, as in Who is King?.

As a young adult, in exile from apartheid South Africa, I voraciously began reading contemporary literature by African writers... and now, grey-haired, I’ve allowed myself the pleasure of roaming through tales from north, west, east and south of this huge diverse continent.

How did I select the tales? Their sources are varied, with many of them collected, by others, directly from storytellers. But apart from wanting to reflect diversity of geography and characters, I looked for tales that made me laugh, raise an eyebrow, sit up straight or touched my heart.    

Q: Do you see any similar themes running through the 10 different stories?

A: African folktales invite us to talk about how characters behave.  If there is any uniting theme, it is simply that humans, as well as the animals who behave like them, are capable of being mischievous or kind, foolish or wise, jealous or generous. Life requires that we use our wits... and woe betide those filled with self-pride!

Q: You’ve mentioned Piet Grobler—what did he bring to the illustration of this particular book?

A: I’ve mentioned earlier the quirkiness and mischief in Piet’s illustrations. Underlying these qualities is a strong humanity that reflects the wisdom in these tales.

For instance, in the tale “Unanana and One-Tusk,” a scary rogue elephant swallows the children of a poor widow who then bravely recovers them. Piet’s humour offsets the goriness, as disaster turns to delight. Thank goodness.     

Q: You've written for a variety of age groups. Is your writing process different depending on your audience?

A: My writing process - and the stages through which I need to go - varies depending on the task in hand rather more than the age group. Creating a novel is a very different task from retelling a folktale, indeed a much longer and more arduous journey.  

It’s interesting to reflect that many traditional tales are essentially cross-age, originally being told to adults with children probably listening in. Whatever age I am writing for, I want to tell the story as vividly as possible.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Sorry to be mysterious, but it’s currently under wraps. All I can say is that I feel a bit like the city-girl Marika in my story “The Dare” in Out of Bounds when she is tasked with capturing flies to feed a one-legged chameleon that the farm children have trapped. That one-legged chameleon is depending on her and those flies are pesky.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I hope that I shall be more successful than Marika.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

June 29

June 29, 1900: Antoine de Saint-Exupery born.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Q&A with Michelle Latiolais

Michelle Latiolais is the author of the new work of fiction She. Her other books include the short story collection Widow and the novel A Proper Knowledge. She is an English professor and codirector of the Programs in Writing at the University of California at Irvine.

Q: How did you come up with the structure of the book, which features one character's story alternating with those of other characters?

A: I only know one writer who ever worked off outlines and knew precisely how the structure of a book would unfold, and that was John Williams of Stoner, Butcher’s Crossing and Augustus fame. He made extensive outlines and character sketches. 

But my influences are pretty obvious here: Winesburg, Ohio, In Our Time, The Wild Palms, and I’ve talked about this, but I was realizing the other day in answering the question of what books I admire most in the world that Last Exit to Brooklyn continues to be a huge influence on me. That’s a book with several sections or stories linked by place, and certain characters, but not completely, and certainly not slavishly. 

In hearing more and more about the Orlando, Florida, shooting, Omar Mateen, I kept thinking about “Strike” in Last Exit. Powerful, painful writing that articulates a certain psyche, and I think might even get at the confusion of the wife, her contradictory statements.

So, I’m perhaps far afield of my own writing, but we hear over and over this search for a motive, or the question of whether or not “the shooter” was mentally ill. Read some serious fiction folks; you’ll hear the news, the real news. DeLillo’s Libra, brilliant, even Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins. Listen to that.

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

A: It’s not that I made many changes so much as I originally ended the book with “Promotion,” and that was a kind of metafictional gesture back at the reading process, or what the book is now, filtered through the reader’s reading, et cetera. 

Too clever by half, dumb, dee u em, as my sister would say. And Elizabeth Tallent said, hey goofball, you can’t end the book without us knowing where she lays her head that night, can’t, can’t, can’t, and I do everything Elizabeth tells me to do, because I’d be a fool not to, and John Glusman also very much wanted a closing section of She. 

So, I wrote that after the book was taken. I love that phrase, “after the book was taken,” as though it got ravished off a Récamier chaise longue!

Q: The book takes place in Los Angeles. How important is setting to you in your writing, and could this have taken place somewhere other than L.A.?

A: Now Deborah, are you really asking me that question. As my colleague Ron Carlson says to students, “nothing happens nowhere,” and if the writing could happen anywhere, are there sentient characters on the page? Or perhaps the writing takes “place” in a deprivation chamber? 

Of course, now, I suppose, we have a lot of stuff happening online, or in the ether, that place, or realm, or domain, love it, domain, technology’s feudalism! 

But being serious, that is an amazing arena of freedom for some people, and for a kind of artistic collaboration, and I respect that, but I’d be lying if I also didn’t say that one of the pre-eminent reasons I go to books, serious books, is to be in the presence of a single mind thinking or creating singularly; I want to read the emanation of a single mind at work; character matters to me; product is product and I’m much less interested in that than I am in something that has really tussled itself into the world. I know why product makes it into the world. So what.

Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: It was just always the title. She. Some things in writing have squatter’s rights. I think it was the poet Juan Delgado who I first heard say that, or tease someone about something that writer was holding onto in a piece of writing. “Hey,” Juan said, “it doesn’t have squatter’s rights.” I always loved that, but She just always had squatter’s rights. 

Plus, my late husband always refused to introduce me as “my wife,” because he said that people then rarely if ever asked any subsequent question. “Wife” seemed definition enough to people, and that angered him.

So, something in my thinking about the word “she” being both an erasure and mystery at the same time, though this book is not autobiographical. Pronouns also just keep us closer in on the character. At least I think they do.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A cherry tarte for guests tomorrow night; I just made the pastry dough, and tossed it in the fridge. I need to walk up to the world’s most expensive grocery store and buy some hazelnut oil for a dressing for green beans, and I was thinking maybe I’ll just roast the asparagus with olive oil and lemon. I don’t know. I’m thinking . . . you can smell the burning.

If I was cool, I’d say I was Tweeting something; I just always find people are hungry afterwards, though.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

June 28

June 28, 1891: Esther Forbes born.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Q&A with David R. Hardiman

David R. Hardiman is the author of the book Bailey's Remarkable Plan, which focuses on his life and his interactions with his service dog, Bailey. He is a businessman and entrepreneur, and he lives in Arlington, Texas.

Q: Why did you decide to write a book about Bailey, and what role has she played as you face your health challenges?

A: I was working on another book when I realized, one morning, I needed to write this book. Bailey and I had been denied the right to be in a local shopping mall; and, even when I requested the police respond, they were no better and stated they did not care what the ADA regulations allowed. If I refused to leave, they were going to arrest me.

I was issued a criminal trespass ticket like a common shoplifter. This was all because the mall did not allow “pets” which, of course, are not the same as service dogs.

Without Bailey, I have significant difficulty in public due to my struggles with PTSD. I have problems handling the stress of the noise, the crowd and the interaction with people, and I become shaky and feel the need to escape.

With Bailey, I am able to handle most situations. She alerts me before I start to experience a panic attack, and I have time to adjust. She makes it possible for me to have a better quality of life.

Q: What level of acceptance in society do you see for service dogs? Has that changed at all in recent years?

A: Service dogs and their humans often face challenges in public because people, including business owners, employees and even public servants, do not understand or recognize the rights afforded us under federal and state laws.

This is especially true for individuals who don’t show obvious disabilities and for small dogs who may be more easily confused for pets. 

Bailey is beautiful and is show quality, which sometimes causes the public to react as if she is just another pretty face. I think they sometimes believe she could not possibly be intelligent enough to take care of me. Others with service dogs have experienced this difficulty. 

Some improvement has been made, but much more education needs to occur. I have had occasions where people get in my face and scream that I either don’t have a service dog or that I can't have her with me regardless.

As more of us age or experience other issues in life, we are finding help from these marvelous gifts from God. That is part of why this book is so important and timely.

Q: You write in the book about various periods of your life. Did you plan out the book’s structure before you started writing, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: Bailey’s Remarkable Plan came together so quickly and easily. It was like my hands just somehow knew what to write.

I made some changes as I wrote the book, and I went back often to blend the events together; sometimes differently than first written. After I finished, I changed the structure to make the book more appealing and to help keep the interest higher from chapter to chapter. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on two prequels to Bailey’s Remarkable Plan that will tell the story of my first years of life and some other scattered episodes, and another that tells the story of my grandfather and some very interesting aspects that turned out to be important in my future life.

I also am working two science fiction books. One is about time travel and encompasses a series of events in my own life. The other is about another world and is based on an interesting theory that is scientifically logical.

Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Bailey’s Remarkable Plan is a timely book about those of us who have disabilities, especially when they are not obvious, and who have service dogs that do not look like typical service dogs. The book helps inform people about all of us with service dogs in an entertaining fashion, while also educating and encouraging all. 

My challenges in life were many, and my ability to not only survive but to thrive is unique with the congenital condition I fought throughout my life. This book and my life are a testament to God’s power and the blessings he offers.

My story clearly defines by my life why it is so important to never give up, regardless of the difficulties and barriers that can be placed in the way of success. Taking the negatives and turning them into momentum can change the future to a positive. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

June 27

June 27, 1880: Helen Keller born.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Q&A with Mark A. Jacobson

Mark A. Jacobson is the author of the new novel Sensing Light, which focuses on the early years of the AIDS crisis. He is an attending physician at San Francisco General Hospital and a professor of medicine at the University of California San Francisco, and he has specialized in HIV/AIDS. 

Q: Why did you decide to write this book, and why as a novel rather than nonfiction? 

A: I’ve always loved reading fiction and, as a young man, once dreamed of writing a novel that could move people in the way my favorite authors moved me. 

I never committed the effort for such an undertaking until 2008, after a bicycling accident left me unconscious for several hours. That experience caused a tectonic shift in attitude toward my own mortality.Instead of simply comprehending the abstract fact that I wasn’t going to live forever, I now fully believed that fact, accepted the limits on the time I have left, and reconsidered my life goals accordingly. 

I certainly didn’t want to stop taking care of patients or teaching medical students and residents in our HIV clinic (and I still don’t), but I also realized that writing any more grants or research papers wasn’t going to add substantively to the modest impact I’ve had on the practice of medicine. 

Suddenly, that youthful dream of writing a novel didn’t seem so impossible. I could imagine a story I was actually well-equipped to tell. I began gradually winding down my research commitments and developing that story.

In answer to the second part of your question, while I very much enjoy reading good non-fiction, I don’t feel a passion for writing it. 

Q: How did your own experiences as a doctor during this period help you create your three main characters?

A: I graduated from medical school and began my internship in 1981, days after the CDC reported a mysterious, fatal form of immunodeficiency in five gay men.

A few months later, I was assigned responsibility for the first patient in my hospital to be diagnosed with this disease. He was critically ill with Pneumocystis pneumonia, on a ventilator because of respiratory failure and dialysis for kidney failure. I spent many hours every day for the next month doing my best to keep him alive and ultimately failed. 

That experience and many subsequent ones led to my commitment to scientific discovery and alleviation of the suffering caused by this disease. The three protagonists of Sensing Light share a similar experience in the first part of the novel, which leads to a similar commitment on their part.

To feel the freedom I needed to write this story, I had to imagine a unique personal history and emotional logic for each character that had absolutely no basis in the lives or behavior of any of my colleagues during that time. 

However, details from my own life were fair game. I could distribute many specific challenging situations I had faced among my three protagonists. Some examples include having a patient plead with me to give him the means to end his life, a close colleague dying of AIDS, accidentally sticking myself with a needle contaminated with blood from an HIV-infected patient, and facing the fury and impossible, yet righteous, demands of AIDS activists. 

Q: The book is set in the first decade of the AIDS epidemic. Why did you decide not to continue it further into the 1990s and beyond?  

A: Sensing Light began as a short story based on my experience in November 1989, in West Berlin. I had been invited to give a talk at an international symposium on lung complications of AIDS.

Hours after my arrival, the government of East Germany collapsed, and thousands of its citizens began streaming across the unguarded wall into West Berlin. The collective mood was a heady mixture of fear over what might happen next (Would the East German army invade?) and exhilaration (The Cold War had just ended!). 

After writing this story, in which the protagonists are American doctors attending this symposium, I began working backwards, imagining these characters’ lives and interactions before the drama in Berlin occurs.  Continuing the story after Berlin, other than with a brief epilogue, would have been anti-climactic.

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

A: Albert Camus said this so eloquently that I will defer to him.  “What we learn in a time of pestilence is that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Another novel, more ambitious in historical scope and aiming for more narrative suspense and complex character development than Sensing Light did, but employing just a single protagonist—someone with a minor role in Sensing Light as one of Kevin’s junior faculty protégés. 

I want to grow as a writer by creating empathy for a character who has a more troubled past and is more susceptible to moral compromise than any of the protagonists in Sensing Light.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: AIDS no longer needs to be the fatal disease it was in Sensing Light.  Simply by testing everyone at risk for having HIV infection and treating those who test negative with a single antiretroviral pill daily, we can end HIV transmission and ultimately its associated illness and mortality. 

Even those already infected with HIV can have lives of normal duration and health by adhering to modern antiretroviral drug regimens, just as people with diabetes can by controlling their blood sugar with diet and medication. Treating those already infected also greatly reduces their risk of transmitting the virus!

For those interested, I have posted an update on the current global status of the HIV pandemic on my website. An excellent source for far more information about HIV/AIDS is available on the University of California SanFrancisco HIV website.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Q&A with Piet Grobler

Piet Grobler is the illustrator of the children's book Who is King?: Ten Magical Stories from Africa, a winner of the 2016 Children's Africana Book Awards. He has illustrated many other books, including The Great Tug of War and Aesop's Fables. He grew up in South Africa and lives in the U.K., where he teaches at the University of Worcester.

Q: How did you end up working on the illustrations for Who Is King?

A: I have made previous books with Beverley Naidoo and our ways of working and understanding of Africa (We are both ex-South Africans living in England) resulted in books that we and our publisher were happy with. So Janetta Otter-Barry, the publisher, approached me to illustrate Who is King?.

Q: Have you used a similar style in illustrating Beverley Naidoo’s other books?

A: No. With The Great Tug of War, a chapter book, there were only black and white fairly realistic line-drawings. In Aesop's Fables, I used watercolour and ink drawings in thin line.

Who is King? was illustrated in watercolour and ink drawings as well, but I used a dip pen that resulted in bolder line work, and to the water colour I also added colouring pencil. I consciously made the colours quite vibrant.

I think in terms of visual language (this is a better choice of word than style) Who is King? and Aesop's Fables are in some respects also similar. In both cases I made use of caricature with more of a "folk" feeling rather than mainstream or generic approach.

Q: You've had a career that included serving as a minister and working as a graphic designer. How did you decide to go into the field of children's book illustrations?

A: I already started to illustrate my first picture books when I was still a church minister. I have always, since I was a child, been very fond of drawings and stories. It was then a natural progression to illustrate more and more, while I was a graphic designer too.

Q: You also teach illustration. What are some of the most important things you tell your students?

A: Draw every day!

Know your strengths so you can depend on them to better your work and know your weaknesses so you can work harder on those areas of your work.

Be curious: read, travel, listen to music, meet people so that you are aware of the world in which you are working as an illustrator.

Everything has potential meaning: be conscious that your decisions (in terms of medium or visual language) could influence the meaning your audience will attach to your work.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on two books: One is titled Antonia - a book about a rather flamboyant bird, for my Dutch publisher Lemniscaat. The second is a Chinese folk tale about a chicken and an earthworm for CCPPG, a Chinese publisher.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I cannot wait for the summer break! I have the sun in my blood and England can be soooo wet and cool. I am off to Portugal and then to South Africa for the summer. I think I need the sun and warm colours to inspire my illustrations.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Friday, June 24, 2016

Q&A with Janet B. Taylor

Janet B. Taylor is the author of the new young adult novel Into the Dim. She has written for CBS's fan site and interviewed authors for the Historical Novel Society.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Into the Dim, and for your main character, Hope?

A: [I thought,] “I’d like to see what would happen if you took a modern teenager and thrust them into the Middle Ages, and see how they would deal with it."

As far as Hope goes, I had her in mind for a long time. I adore all those awesome kick-ass heroines in literature nowadays.

But...most of us are not sword or martial art experts, trained since birth to be killers. Many of us at that age were awkward and socially inept. Hope is all that, plus a big old bunch of phobias.

The only thing she has going for her is her brain, and I think that's probably true for most of us, don't you? 

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

A: I first wrote Dim as a total pantser! I had no idea what I was doing, and had no idea how it would end. So most of it was as much as surprise to me as it is to the readers--ha! 

Having said that--I will never, ever do that again! It nearly killed me. So for Book II, I did a lot of planning! 

Q: Which writers have influenced you?

A: Diana Gabaldon, of course. She's the undisputed queen of time travel and I will be forever grateful to her for the lovely endorsement.

And a lot of other hisfic authors like Sharon Kay Penman, Elizabeth Chadwick, Kate Quinn.

And then there are the major YA authors like Susanne Collins, J.K. Rowling, Lois Duncan, Madeleine L'Engle. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just finished the final edits on the second book in The Dim Series! So excited about this one! Hope and the gang are on the move again, and this time it's to a brand-new place and time period. It was a lot of fun researching this era, and I can't wait for the title and cover reveal, which is coming up soon! 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just that I am so, so grateful to all the amazing readers out there who've read Into The Dim, and Tweeted or emailed or Facebooked me to tell me how much they loved it! That means the world to authors.  It makes all the hard work worthwhile!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Q&A with Drema Hall Berkheimer

Q: You write of the book, “Begun as a legacy to my progeny, Running on Red Dog Road ended as a tribute to their forebears…” Did you know exactly what you would write about when you first started the book, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: Yes, of course I knew exactly what I would write. After all, Running on Red Dog Road and Other Perils of an Appalachian Childhood is memoir, and who better than I to know how to write my own story. 

That is a big fat lie. I didn't have a clue where this was going when I began to write stories of my Appalachian childhood for my children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. 

I've heard it said that when you want something, all the universe conspires to help you get it. I found that to be profoundly true.

Although I dawdled and dragged my heels and whined to anyone who would listen, I was compelled to finish my book. It took me six years, the universe poking and prodding me all the way. It was the hardest thing I've ever done. And it was the best.

Q: You write, “I was unprepared for the emotional physical spiritual toll this writing could and did exact.” What was the writing process like as you relived your childhood memories?

A: It nearly killed me. I was someone who never cried, not even at funerals. Now I was a big bawl-baby. I couldn't figure out why. I'd had a happy childhood surrounded by quirky kith and kin, with gypsies, moonshiners, snake handlers, faith healers, and hobos dropping in to play character roles in the story of my life.

Then the reason for the tears came to me--sometimes you don't know what you have until you lose it. This, then, is a book of atonement. But it is also a book of joy. Readers tell me it made them laugh and cry. I hope so. It made me laugh and cry too.

Q: Did you keep a journal as a child, and did you conduct much research to write the book?

A: I didn't keep a journal as a child but I wrote poetry and essays, mostly nonfiction, many of which I still have.

I started my first and only journal while I was writing the book. I called it Outta My Head. It was a great journal, full of witty observations, to-die-for quotes, and lofty philosophical ideas. One day, I mused, someone will dig it out of a musty trunk and publish it, revealing my true genius to the world.

Meanwhile, my real writing, the book writing, had dried up, become bloodless as old roadkill. Then it occurred to me I was spending more time writing about writing than I was writing.

Could it be the journal I was so invested in was simply the self indulgent rambling of a writer who had discovered yet another way not to finish her book? I read it again. The answer was a sobering yes. I gave up journaling. 

I believed the book would be best served if my memories as a child were left unaltered, so I made a conscious choice not to do much research. Still, I think I got most things right, and friends who grew up with me say I did.

Q: What do your family members think of the memoir?

A: This memoir was written for my family--dead or living or yet to be born. I wanted to pay tribute to the West Virginia kin I wrote about, all gone on before me, and I wanted the ones who came after them to know they came from coal. 

I wanted them to feel the Appalachian DNA rushing through their veins. I wanted them to hear the twang of the voices and see the glory of the hills and hollers. And I wanted them to see it through my eyes. Of course, that wasn't possible, so I did my imperfect best with words.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A book that covers the same time and place and people, so it is a companion book rather than a sequel. The title is Still Running on Red Dog Road, More Appalachian Stories I Meant to Tell You.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I probably should define what red dog is, because it explains the title: When mining companies burned piles of trash coal, the heat turned it red and pink and lavender. Trucks dumped loads of that sharp-edged rock on our dirt road. We called it red dog. Grandma told me not to be running on that red dog road. But I do.

Deborah, thank you for providing this great opportunity to share my writing experience with your readers. And thanks to my wonderful writer friend Kathleen Rodgers for recommending my book.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Q&A with Margaret Dilloway

Q: Sisters of Heart and Snow follows women in two different time periods. How did you come up with the idea for the book and for its structure?

A: My mother was from a samurai family so I knew I wanted to write something along those lines.  I looked up "samurai women" and found Tomoe Gozen, who lived in the 12th century, and wanted to write about her. She was a female captain, said to be the best archer in Japan, an incredible swordswoman, and stunningly beautiful.

Q: You've written that your own family history connects with that of your historical protagonist, Tomoe Gozen. What more can you tell us about that?

A: Tomoe fought for the Minamoto clan. My mother's family line became an offshoot of the Minamoto clan in the 15th century. 

Q: The relationship among sisters is important to the novel. Why did that interest you as a topic, and why did you write Rachel's sections in first person and her sister Drew's in third person?

A: Sisters of heart is a term for two women who are so close they're like sisters. In real life, Tomoe was Yamabuki's lady-in-waiting, and they would have been very close.

I wanted the historical to inform the contemporary but not be exactly parallel. So I have two contemporary sisters who used to be close but are not any longer in the parallel story. 

I wrote Rachel in first person and Drew in third because it came the most naturally.

Q: You also include the issue of mail-order brides. Why did you focus on that topic, and how did you research it?

A: When I lived in Hawaii, someone told me about a lady who was a mail order bride, a young woman who married an older man.

There's always a lot of judgment about these women, and they're generally viewed as little better than prostitutes; but the reality is that this situation works for some. Unless you can wave a magic wand and change the economics and cultural realities of the places where these women come from, you shouldn't judge.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm working primarily on my new children's series, Momotaro, published by Disney-Hyperion. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

June 22

June 22, 1898: Erich Maria Remarque born.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Q&A with Sarah McCoy

Sarah McCoy is the author most recently of the novel The Mapmaker's Children. Her other books include The Baker's Daughter and The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Real Simple and The Millions. She has taught writing at Old Dominion University and the University of Texas at El Paso.

Q: Why did you decide to pair the stories of Sarah Brown, daughter of the 19th century abolitionist John Brown, and Eden Anderson, a fictional modern-day woman?

A: I’m spellbound by this interplay—by the impact of Sarah Brown on us, the contemporary Eden Andersons of today….Sarah Brown and Eden Anderson mirror each other in so many subtle ways. The beauty of their interwoven story is how readers interpret their reflection….

They differ in the way each of us differs from our neighbor, our sister, our friend, even the closest person to us. Because our life recipes are composed of different ingredients, in a different timing, and influenced by external and internal components that we might not transparently see.

Q: How did you research the book, and was there anything that particularly surprised you in the course of your research?

A: I chronicled my city by city research in the Author’s Note at the back of the book…. I didn’t set out to follow [Sarah Brown] for character crafting purposes. I was simply desperate to find more information! None of which was available on the Internet or digitally by museums in each location (Massachusetts, West Virginia, California). …

I bought the one remaining pamphlet with facts on Sarah Brown from the Saratoga Historical Museum. Titled The Californias: After Harper’s Ferry: California Refuge for John Brown’s Family, it is 90 percent about the rest of the Brown family with a few pages on Sarah Brown….

I try not to anticipate where the story is going so every bit of research is a fresh ah-ha! moment. It makes the writing of the novel as much of an adventure as I hope it is for readers. 

From the beginning, the smuggling doll was a favorite historical discovery. I was first introduced to this Civil War artifact at the Confederacy Museum in Richmond, Virginia.

There was an exhibit on the theorized use of children’s toys and dolls to smuggle contraband across Civil War lines. The “Nina” doll was on display, and I couldn’t take my eyes off her.

Such a beautiful, childhood memento put to a covert, dangerous mission and now, simply regarded as creepy—creepy good to a storyteller. 

Another favorite surprise was the Underground Railroad colors, symbols, and code talk. Such an intricate system of striking images.

I was captivated by art’s mighty force of salvation, hope, faith, and guidance to escaped slaves and abolitionists of the time; but also a great reminder to the modern world of its power to catalyze change today.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: What I can share is that I’m pushing out of my comfort zone in [my] next novel by giving over entirely to the historical voices. There’s a dual narrative, yes, but from a real-life man and woman.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A:  I’m moving! My gypsy ways have me piling up my chuckwagon and heading out of El Paso to the Windy City of Chicago. A 1,500 mile change of scenery.

My husband (Doc B, as he’s affectionately known on Facebook and Twitter) has taken an orthopedic sports position at the hospital there. So off we go!  

I’m curious to see how the new landscape will affect my characters and writing. I’ve never lived in the North. It’s going to be an adventure.

Thanks for having me on your blog, Deborah! When we chat books again, I’ll have traded in my sun parasol for an umbrella.

Readers can connect with me on Twitter, on my Facebook Fan Page, on Goodreads, or via my website

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

June 21

June 21, 1905: Jean-Paul Sartre born.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Q&A with Ellen Prager

Ellen Prager is the author of the new middle-grade novel Stingray City, the third in a series for kids called Tristan Hunt and the Sea Guardians. Her other books include The Shark Rider and The Shark Whisperer. She is a marine scientist, freelance writer, and consultant, as well as the science advisor to the Celebrity Xpedition in the Galapagos Islands. 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for the settings and themes for this third book in your Tristan Hunt series?

A: Even while finishing the second book in the series, The Shark Rider, I was already thinking about book three; the locations and marine life I wanted to integrate into the story, and ideas for the plot.

Part of what I look for are wondrous natural settings that readers can potentially go to or learn more about online and that provide numerous undersea habitats to explore, some excellent sea creatures to feature as well as opportunities for humor. Both Monterey Bay where the book starts and Grand Cayman where the bulk of the story takes place fit my needs perfectly.

As for themes for the third book, in general I look for real-world important ocean issues and in this case chose two topics that have been in the news lately: the global problem of illegal fishing and how in some places in the world it is still legal to capture (or kill) wild dolphins and whales.

In addition, while in Grand Cayman doing location research for the book, I visited Stingray City with ocean advocate, painter, and scientist Guy Harvey.

He told me a story about how several years ago stingrays went missing from Stingray City. They had been tagged during an annual survey and were later discovered in a local marine park. The kidnapped stingrays were released and in Grand Cayman it is now illegal to capture or kill sharks and stingrays. For potential readers of Stingray City - that’s not a spoiler!

Q: As a marine scientist, can you say more about the issues you try to make young readers aware of in your Tristan Hunt books?

A: In addition to highlighting many of the absolutely amazing animals in the sea and marine habitats, I try to bring real-world ocean issues into the stories. These are serious problems that impact the ocean today and will continue to do so into the future.

Young readers can have a powerful voice now with their parents, peers, and teachers and they will have to tackle problems such as overfishing, marine pollution, coral reef destruction, climate change, and wildlife smuggling well into the future. 

Q: How did you initially come up with the idea for your character Tristan Hunt, and did you know from the beginning that you’d be writing a series about him?

A: When parents and educators starting asking me for an ocean-oriented book targeting middle graders (8 to 12 years old), I did my homework to see what kids that age like to read. The results were very clear - fun fiction and preferably a series!

With that in mind, I began writing the Tristan Hunt and the Sea Guardians series. The main characters, including Tristan, are based on some of the typical emotions and insecurities we all have, but that are especially heightened as a young teenager. I also added to these characters and others in the stories personality traits of people I know or have met. 

Q: You’ve written for various age groups. Does your writing process differ depending on the age of your reader?

A: Definitely! However, more than age, the real difference in my writing process comes if I am writing fiction (Tristan Hunt and the Sea Guardians series) versus non-fiction.

In every case I try to stay focused on my audience: What they are interested in? What can they relate to? And what level of understanding I am writing for.

In writing fiction, I enjoy being more creative and showcasing my sense of humor. I tend to use storytelling in both non-fiction and fiction, but I thoroughly enjoy being able to “make things up” while writing fiction and include sarcastic humor (my favorite part along with the adventures and sea creatures). I also like coming up with villains that have a humorous slant.

Some of the adventures the characters have or situations they find themselves in are loosely based on my own experiences.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now I’m busy giving talks, visiting schools, and trying to find sponsors for some of my ocean education and outreach work that doesn’t fit traditional funding models for science. I’m also working on a book that may be the first in a new series for middle graders.

And I continue to work with Celebrity Cruises as the science advisor and consultant to their three ships in the Galapagos Islands (they recently purchased two small ships in addition to Celebrity Xpedition, which has been operating in the Galapagos for years).

I feel incredibly fortunate that I get to repeatedly go to the Galapagos and work with our local crew to showcase the amazing wonders of the islands in an environmental-award winning program.

I am also headlining some Caribbean cruises, which is a fantastic way to reach broad audiences and make ocean science understandable, relevant, and entertaining!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: While I am very proud of the traditional jobs I’ve had in science including doing research, teaching, and in administration, the response of young readers, parents, and educators to my middle grade fiction series has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career.

With a small publisher, getting the word out about the Tristan Hunt series has been difficult and it has yet to be profitable, but it remains a labor of love!

I look forward to continuing my efforts to find new and effective ways to bring ocean and earth science to people of all ages and make it relevant, engaging, and understandable!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb