Friday, February 24, 2017

Q&A with James Alexander Thom

James Alexander Thom is the author of many historical novels, including  Fire in the Water and Saint Patrick's Battalion, and the writing guide The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction. He also worked as a journalist and taught at the Indiana University Journalism School. He lives near Bloomington, Indiana.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Fire in the Water and for your character Paddy Quinn?

A: I had long been aware of the horror of Andersonville Prison because my great grandfather survived it. My fascination with steamboats began with Mark Twain, and for several summers my wife and I were historical lecturers on river cruises of the Delta Queen line, which provided opportunity for much technical research, and familiarization of the waterways.

I thought the tragedy of the Sultana was too little known by Americans, as it took more lives than the Titanic, and I felt the especial poignancy: that the sickly ex-prisoners had been keeping themselves alive by their hope of getting home.

The protagonist Paddy Quinn already existed in my fiction, having been an Army camp errand boy during the Mexican War, in my preceding novel, Saint Patrick's Battalion. The boy Quinn's diary carried much of the narrative of that novel. Fire in the Water often refers back to those formative years of Paddy's life.

By the time I undertook the Sultana story, I knew that the grown-up Quinn would be the ideal protagonist, as a Harper's Weekly war correspondent with Paddy's Irish traits.

Q: Among your other books is The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction, a guide for other writers. What do you see as the right balance between history and fiction when working on a historical novel?

A: I believe that a good historical novel should stay true to all
the historical facts, as completely as they can be determined by deep research into the events and the real historical characters.

Once that is achieved, the author might introduce fictional characters, through whose senses and thoughts the reader can experience and understand the events – like being there. But the fictional characters must not be allowed to change the actual history.

Most of my novels have been about, and from the point of view of, the real historical characters themselves. My early books had no fictional entities.

But I came to understand that a memorable fictional protagonist with his (or her) plot within a story can enrich the emotional and philosophical gist of the story, help interpret another culture, enhance the irony or humor of the true story, and so on.

Q: What type of research did you do to write Fire in the Water, and was there anything that particularly surprised you?

A: Aside from the technical and environmental research mentioned above, I wanted to convey the very personal aspects of being a soldier -- the nasty, miserable, demeaning experience of life at war -- and the kind of bond that such fellow survivors share.

I believe that too much war fiction emphasizes the so-called "glory" of soldiering. War in actuality is man's most disgusting creation, and tends to bring out the worst in everybody. Therefore I researched for the base details and the daily obscenities in soldiers' and prisoners' existence.

I know from three years in the Marines that most conversation is about excrement, copulation and getting drunk, but I needed to find the slang, idioms, and peculiar customs of the Civil War era.

The severity of military discipline in those days is almost unimaginable. For such details, soldiers' correspondence and diaries are helpful.

Then there was that particular circumstance that it was a war between countrymen, not against a foreign enemy. The blue and the gray had to maintain their own propaganda about each other in order to kill men who were basically just like them. Much of that still lingers.

And always in the story there is the undercurrent of slavery, something we can hardly imagine, but mustn't forget.

Q: Do you usually know how your novels will end before you start writing them, or do you make many changes along the way?

A: When I start writing, I think I know the ending, but it may change during the process. That's because writing demands such hard thinking that the author eventually knows more of what's important than he did when he started.

And, yes, distinctive characters like Quinn and Macombie can insist on showing their version of themselves instead of the author's. They can get out of control, and that's usually a good thing.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm trying to resume the writing of an American Indian novel that I set aside years ago to work on the Paddy Quinn books. It's historical, but not confined to the past.

It has real Indians in it, both alive and ghosts, and there will be roles in it for Paddy Quinn. I can't seem to get rid of him. Its working title is "The Bones of a Hopeful Indian."

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: What else we should know? That the main personage in Fire in
the Water
is Abraham Lincoln, although he's dead when the book begins. Quinn and Macombie keep each other alive because of their vow to get to his funeral.

I work years on a book because a story has inspired me so much I need to share it. Inspiration doesn't necessarily derive from Happy Endings. There aren't many of those in real life.  And I always write with Twain's remark in mind: “The difference between history and historical fiction is, fiction has to be believable."

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 24

Feb. 24, 1786: Wilhelm Grimm born.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Q&A with Marilyn Singer

Marilyn Singer, photo by Linda Gallop
Marilyn Singer's many books for children include Echo Echo, Mirror Mirror, Follow Follow, and the forthcoming Feel the Beat. She lives in Brooklyn and in Washington, Connecticut. 

Q: Echo Echo is the third of your books of reverso poems. How did you come up with the idea originally, and why did you choose to focus on Greek myths this time?

A: For readers who haven’t encountered it, the reverso is a poem with two halves. The second half reverses the lines of the first half, with changes only in punctuation and capitalization. That second part has to say something completely different from the first.

Reversos work particularly well based on narratives and as such fall into three categories which feature either:  1) one character with two POVs; 2) one character at two points in time; 3) two characters, usually with opposing POVs. 

My first two books of reversos were based on fairy tales, which have strong stories, so I could make them fit into one of the above categories.  Greek myths also have multi-layered narratives, and they are taught in school.  In addition, I’ve always loved them, and so do most students.  It was a natural extension to go from fairy tales to myths.

Q: One of the poems deals with Pandora's box. Why did you select that particular tale, and how does this set of poems reflect the two sides of the story?

A: Pandora’s Box is such a popular and beguiling myth that I had to use it. In the first half of my poem, Pandora, as is typical, is blamed for loosing evils into the world. 

But I always found it somewhat troubling that the poor young woman has always taken the rap.  So the second half is more sympathetic—she may be curious and weak, but she didn’t collect those evils and she might well be a pawn of the gods.

Q: You have a new book of poems coming out this spring, Feel the Beat!: Dance Poems That Zing from Salsa to Swing. Why did you decide to focus on poems relating to dance, and what do you see as the intersection between dance and poetry?

A: My husband and I have been taking social dance lessons for over 12 years, particularly in swing, ballroom, and Latin dance. For a while I’ve wanted to feature those dances in poems.

One day I decided to challenge myself—something I like to do—and write the poems in the rhythms of the dances. Poetry, of course, is also rhythmic—dancerly, if you like—so it made sense to feature dances in poems.

There is a CD which accompanies the book and on it I read the poems over music, adding another layer to the work. The wonderful illustrations are by Kristi Valiant, who is also a swing dancer.  Lots of zing all around!

Q: You've written many books--do you usually work on one at a time, or do you have several going on at once?

A: Sometimes I work on more than one at a time, especially if I need a breather from a genre. More typically, however, I do revisions (generally based on editorial comments) on one book while I’m writing a new book.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Besides revisions?  ;-)  I’m writing a middle grade novel which is a ghost story and I’m about to start on a collection of poems about presidential pets, which will be published by Disney-Hyperion.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Besides Feel the Beat!, I have a collection of poems about global New Year celebrations, Every Month’s a New Year, coming out this fall from Lee & Low and illustrated by Susan L. Roth. 

And among my books next year will be Have You Heard about Lady Bird?, poems about the First Ladies, which will be published by Disney-Hyperion and illustrated by Nancy Carpenter, and I’m the Big One Now, poems about seminal experiences for five- and six-year-olds, from Wordsong/Boyds Mills Press, illustrated by Jana Christy.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Echo Echo is illustrated by Josée Masse, and both it and Feel the Beat are published by Dial.

Feb. 23

Feb. 23, 1868: W.E.B. Du Bois born.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Q&A with Connie Goldsmith

Connie Goldsmith is the author of Dogs at War: Military Canine Heroes, a new book for older kids. Her many other books include Understanding Suicide and Bombs over Bikini, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including California Kids and Highlights. She lives near Sacramento, California.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your book Dogs at War, and how did you research it?

A: Idea: I saw a Facebook posting about how loyal military working dogs (MWDs) are left behind in other countries when soldiers go home. (For the most part, that is not true.)

I wrote a note about how awful that was, and my editor saw it. She asked me if there was enough there for a book. A few days of research and a short proposal later, I discovered there was plenty of material about today’s MWDs. A month later, my editor sent me a contract.

Research. First, I filled out paperwork with the Department of Defense to obtain permission from its U.S. Air Force Book Support Program so I could directly contact the public relations manager at Lackland Air Force Base where most American MWDs are trained.

I set a Google alert for military working dogs (I do that for every book I write – it provides me with daily links to news stories about my topic). I signed up for a military newsletter. I read four books on the topic. Best of all, I interviewed the head of the breeding program at Lackland, a military veterinarian and a veterinarian student working on a MWD project.

I interviewed several soldiers who had adopted the dogs they worked with when the dog was ready to retire. I spoke with a MWD puppy foster mom. And I was in close contact with a Vietnam veteran dog handler who has made it his life’s work to support MWDs and their handlers.  

Q: What particularly surprised you in the course of your work on the book?

A: On the unhappy side, only a few of the 4,000 MWDs deployed to Vietnam came home. The military believed the dogs would be too vicious to adapt to civilian life, and that they might carry odd diseases home with them. Or perhaps it was just too much trouble.

Some were euthanized, some released, most given to the South Vietnamese Army (who didn’t like dogs and had no experience with them).

On the happy side, today MWDs are chosen as puppies for their desire to please, their drive, and excellent dispositions. After their time in the military—an average of eight years—most dogs are adopted by current or former handlers or others in the military.

The dogs love their new lives, and get along well with other dogs and soldiers’ families, including young children.

Q: What are some of the roles dogs play in the military today?

A: See the trailer to see some dogs in action. A local group of 5th and 6th grade film-making students put the trailer together. Also check out my website to see other books.

Thousands of dogs went overseas to Iraq and Afghanistan. They were all trained to catch and detain enemy suspects. In addition, they were trained to search for drugs OR explosive devices and materials.

Imagine if a dog searched for both drugs and explosive devices. The handler would certainly react differently over five pounds of drugs vs. five pounds of explosives.

But dogs each have an innate of “alerting.” Some stop and stare, some sit and look at the handler; others put their noses close to the odor. The handler must know what triggers the alert. Does the handler just need to dig up hidden drugs, or call the bomb experts to excavate and deactivate an explosive device?

As numbers of U.S. troops with boots on the ground in foreign countries declines, the dogs fill other roles such as guarding American bases around the world and in the U.S. The government calls on them to guard presidents, judges, foreign dignitaries, and others.

Q: What are some of the key features of their training?

At Lackland AFB where most American MWDs are bred and trained, puppies are evaluated from earliest puppyhood for their potential. At about two months old, they go to local foster parents who socialize them.

After a few months they return to the base and begin up to a year of training. These dogs are driven to please their handlers and that desire is what makes a good MWD.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My publisher prefers its writers not to talk about current and future projects. I have two books under contract with Lerner for 2018 that I’m working on now. One is a health/science topic and the other mostly historical.

I can say that my fall 2017 book is about addiction and overdose—sadly an issue of growing concern. In it I interview a number of current and recovering addicts, and a family that lost a son to an overdose.

It was an emotional and sobering experience for me. I’m an RN, but had no experience in this area. I had a similar experience while writing my 2016 book, Understanding Suicide: A National Epidemic. In so many cases, people want to talk about what’s happened to them and their families, but often even their closest friends and relatives are too uncomfortable to listen.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: In my opinion, nonfiction is the place for writers to be today. I love writing nonfiction. Doing the research and writing is like being a perpetual grad student without having to take final exams!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 22

Feb. 22, 1892: Edna St. Vincent Millay born.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Q&A with Glenn Frankel

Glenn Frankel is the author of the new book High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic. He also has written The Searchers, Beyond the Promised Land, and Rivonia's Children. A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, he spent many years at The Washington Post and also taught at Stanford University and the University of Texas at Austin. He lives in Arlington, Virginia.

Q: Why did you choose to focus on High Noon in your new book?

A: It was happenstance. I was at the University of Texas at Austin when my book on The Searchers came out. We had a Western film series, and a UT professor, Charles Ramirez Berg, from the Radio TV Film department, did a session on High Noon.

I vaguely knew it had blacklist connections, but I didn’t know all the details. [I thought] it was not high on the pantheon of great movies. Charles enlightened me about [screenwriter] Carl Foreman’s [testimony] before the [House Un-American Activities] Committee, and he made a good case for the excellence of High Noon as a film.

It woke me up a little. I realized this was something I could do and would enjoy doing. I’m finding myself in a sub-genre of writing about great American movies that have historical significance. I fell into it with The Searchers, and High Noon [represents] an almost contemporary moment.

Q: You write, “Clearly High Noon is a Western, but is it also…a blacklist allegory?” What do you think, and why?

A: Carl Foreman meant it to be one. It certainly has elements of it. I would argue in its treatment of the community and the community’s response when faced with a crisis of conscience—the return of the bad guy, his desire to retake the town—it’s the cowardice of the community, the inability of decent denizens to rally around the marshal, the inability of people to do so, [it was]  making an analogy to the blacklist.

In Hollywood, in 1951, the community just unraveled. People who were not supporters of the Red Scare acceded to it, and humiliated themselves to cooperate with it.

Q: What was [the film’s star] Gary Cooper’s attitude toward the blacklist?

A: Gary Cooper was a very conservative Republican, down the line. He was called as a friendly witness by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, and even then he was kind of cagey. He was clearly strongly anti-Communist, but he was a little unhappy with the committee. He comes to the situation ambivalent—he thinks politics are dangerous.

Cooper was like a lot of people who go by their gut—he works with Carl Foreman on High Noon and trusts Carl—that colors his reaction when Carl is on the hot seat. He offers him moral support, and offers to go before the committee. It was more personal than ideological.

Q: As you mentioned, you’ve also written about the film The Searchers. How would you compare the two in the pantheon of American movie classics?

A: I don’t think there’s any doubt that John Ford is considered at the top of American filmmakers. The Searchers, to me, is the highlight of his career. It’s a very ambitious movie, an epic in many ways. It covers ground that’s about families, conflict, racism.

High Noon is smaller and tighter…there’s almost no humor, no side stories. From the beginning, it marches forward. It’s a great piece of work, but it’s not as broad, or artistically ambitious, as The Searchers.

They’re both great movies, and together they show the ways you can stretch the art of the cinema. The acting is superb in both…They are from very different schools, but in the end they are really beautifully done.

Q: What do you see as the legacy of High Noon today?

A: Even though I don’t think many people know much about Gary Cooper—they know his name, they know he was in High Noon—but High Noon, it sits out on the frontier of their consciousness as a pop culture icon. We all seem to know the marshal walking down that empty street.

People confuse Cooper with the movie and the movie with Cooper. It symbolizes a type of American masculinity…willing to risk your life in a cause you believe in. It is a story we like to tell ourselves about America, a story we like to tell ourselves about the frontier…

Q: Are you working on another book about another American film?

A: Yes, but don’t ask me what! I’ve really enjoyed marrying these two things—I’m not just looking for a movie I like, but one with resonance that’s caught up in a historical moment or hasn’t been written to death. I’m slowly getting it down to a couple.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: High Noon was a movie that was a real collaborative effort. Carl Foreman wrote the screenplay. [Director] Fred Zinnemann gave it a gritty feel. Gary Cooper was a beautiful leading actor, and the supporting cast was superb. All of that was involved. It’s well edited, it has a wonderful theme song.

Then the blacklist came along and shatters this collaborative group, which includes [producer] Stanley Kramer. One of the terrible things about the blacklist was the way it destroyed creativity, and shook and damaged partnerships. That’s the tragedy of High Noon. The achievement of High Noon is how beautifully it works and how meaningful it is. 

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