Thursday, May 24, 2018

Q&A with Lisa Romeo


Lisa Romeo is the author of the new book Starting With Goodbye: A Daughter's Memoir of Love After Loss. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and O: The Oprah Magazine, and she is thesis director for the Bay Path University MFA program. She lives in New Jersey.

Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir?

A: In one sense, momentum carried me toward it. For about six years, I was writing and publishing essays about my experiences with grief and trying to get to know my father better after he died.

Great writing advice is to write what you can’t shut up about, what obsesses you, and for me, it was this topic. I could never understand why people don’t talk about death and about deceased people with more ease and frequency. I wanted to keep exploring that.

When it seemed a body of work was accumulating, I pulled together an essay collection, which didn’t sell. All the people I trusted told me to rewrite it as a more traditional memoir, but I resisted and I shelved it for a while.

But it kept nagging at me and eventually I challenged myself to do just that, to shape/rewrite/revise all the material into a somewhat more linear narrative (though true to my style, there’s a lot of moving around in time and place, too).

Q: You write, "Can a relationship really continue, and even get better, when one of the two is gone?" How would you answer this question?

A: I believe this is possible, yes! The love remains, and so does the essence of the beloved person; they are part of us and in a very real sense, do not depart this earth as long as they are present in our memory.

I admit this requires some suspension of belief; it’s a stretch. But actively continuing the relationship, the conversation, to me is a lot more healing and makes a lot more sense than trying to forget or “get over it” (which I do not believe is possible).

Now that I’m hearing from readers, it’s clear that many other people experience “conversations” with their departed loved ones but are very reluctant to share that with other people, lest they be thought unstable or just loony.

But who says you have to stop talking to your loved ones just because they’ve died? Or seek their counsel? If that’s how your grief unspools, then go there, indulge yourself, see how it makes you feel and what you might learn from those conversations with your dead dad, mom, sister, etc.

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

A: The title was a genuine collaborative effort between me, a small group of trusted writer friends (my “hive mind”), my husband and sons, and the publisher.

Working with those friends and family members, we came up with 20 possible titles and subtitles, a mix and match kind of list. I sent my top five of each to the publisher, who chose the final title and subtitle from that list.

I think it’s perfect because it’s literally what happened: my father and I started “talking” again when it was time, traditionally, to say goodbye. After loss, I discovered the many ways love had been present all along.

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

A: I believe we as a society should be able to talk more openly about death, loss, grief, and related issues, and this book perhaps is my one small contribution to urging folks in that direction. These are some of life’s most significant experiences and it would be great if they were more a part of our collective conversation.

I also hope the book might help reassure people that grief is not rigid; there’s no way to do grief right or wrong. It does not have to conform to some prescribed set of stages, and however you experience grief is okay.

If talking to your dead parent in the middle of the night while eating his favorite snack makes you feel good, brings back warm memories, then why not?

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Trying to decide on book number two; three nonfiction ideas are currently vying for attention and as is my way, I’m writing essays about them, seeing which one grabs me most.

In the meantime, I’m doing all the things I normally do: teach, run workshops, coach writers, edit manuscripts. I have two sons in college, so those things make up my normal workday, keep the paychecks coming. And the truth is, my own writing is always enhanced by what I learn from all of those activities, by working with so many other writers.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: When I’m having a writing problem, I do something relatively mindless like needlepoint, walking, laundry, or going for a long drive—and the solution always occurs to me. Napping is also a good way to let the writing mind settle and find new direction.

I’d like to say that dark chocolate also has the same effect, but so far, not so. I’ll keep trying though!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 24

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
May 24, 1941: Bob Dylan born.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Q&A with Jill Orr


Jill Orr is the author of the new mystery novel The Bad Break, the second in her Riley Ellison series, which began with The Good Byline. She lives in Columbia, Missouri.

Q: How did you decide what Riley Ellison's second adventure would be?

A: I'm not much of a plotter, so I really let Riley's character development guide the story and shape the plot.

I knew she was going to go to work for the newspaper (that decision was made at the end of the first book), and I knew whatever mystery she got involved with would be something she'd have to work on her own.

I wanted the main challenge in this book to be Riley learning to trust herself and her instincts and so the plot just grew out of that.

Q: How do you think Riley has changed over the course of the two books?

A: I hope she's becoming more confident, more driven to go after the things she wants out of life. When the series began, Riley was allowing life to happen to her in a very passive sort of way.

I like to believe that when her childhood best friend Jordan died in the first book, it awoke something in Riley that said, "Life is short. Live it with your whole heart."

She's definitely still figuring out what she wants from life and what she's willing to do to get it, but with each passing challenge, I think she's getting closer to answering those big life questions.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Riley's ongoing correspondence with Click.com and Bestmilleniallife.com?

A: This is one of those questions for which I wish I had a better answer. The truth is I have no idea how I came up with the idea for Click.com - that one just popped into my head with Regina H fully formed.

It ended up becoming a real fan favorite and provided a nice comic relief from the narrative, so I knew I wanted to do something similar in the second book. And of course I knew that Click.com would never miss an opportunity to take people's money!

So I came up with the idea that they'd have a sister company, bestmillenniallife.com, and give Riley a free trial with a lovable, well-meaning, if a little ditzy, Personal Success Concierge.

I found humor in the idea that a life coach would still be figuring out her own life. I also love reading epistolary novels and the email exchanges gave me the opportunity to play around with that form. Plus, it's always fun as a writer to get to be flat-out silly.

Q: What do you think your books say about the world of journalism today?

A: I hope they add to the message that journalism is more important today than ever before.

I went to journalism school myself and am a firm believer that a free and independent press is one of the most valuable things in our democracy. It sets us apart from other systems of government and provides checks and balances for those in power.

I've known many a good journalist, and good journalists fight to discover the truth. I wanted Riley to be guided by that principle as she begins her new career as a reporter. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm hard at work on Riley #3, which is provisionally titled The Ugly Truth.

There's been a shocking double murder in Tuttle Corner, Virginia, that involves some high-profile movers and shakers from Washington, D.C. This brings national attention to Riley's small part of the world-- and along with it, a lot of big city reporters competing for the story.

Holman and Riley are stunned when they discover that their friend Rosalee, the owner of Tuttle's beloved tavern, is the prime suspect in the violent crimes. But Rosalee insists she's being set up and that her life is in danger because she knows the identity of the killer.

In exchange for protection, Rosalee gives Holman and Riley exclusive information incriminating a very powerful person who she says is the real murderer. But the pair eventually begins to question if Rosalee is helping them expose a killer or using them to cover up her own crimes.

Unfortunately, they disagree on the answer. Riley and Holman end up going down separate investigative paths until one of them finds the truth... and one of them finds the killer.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Not a thing! You now know it all!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Jill Orr.

May 23

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
May 23, 1910: Margaret Wise Brown born.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Q&A with Ceridwen Dovey


Ceridwen Dovey, photo by Shannon Smith
Ceridwen Dovey is the author of the new novel In the Garden of the Fugitives. She also has written the novel Blood Kin and the story collection Only the Animals. She was born in South Africa, and raised there and in Australia. She lives in Sydney. 

Q: Why did you decide to structure your new novel In the Garden of the Fugitives in the form of a correspondence between your characters Vita and Royce?

A: I knew right from the beginning that only an epistolary form would do: I was excited by how letters between two antagonists allow for an adversarial, dueling wordplay, mimicking the dialogic form of psychotherapy but making it darker, less about healing and more about revenge.

The two contesting voices of the characters Royce and Vita in the book also mimic and anticipate the experience of reading itself, that sense of any book meeting the reader halfway, not only welcoming but challenging them. 

Q: What do you think the novel says about post-apartheid South Africa?

A: I think that is very much a question for each reader to answer for him or herself. It took me a very long time in my years of working on my craft as a writer before I could find the right tone and language to begin to metabolize in fiction some of my own life experiences growing up in South Africa.

For me, the only form in which I feel I can say anything about post-apartheid South Africa is in the form I've chosen, the novel - perhaps because, to paraphrase Elias Canetti on Kafka, it lets me preserve, above all, my freedom to fail.

Q: How would you describe the dynamic between the two characters, especially given the current #MeToo era?

A: I'm interested in understanding the dynamic between young, talented women and older men who act as their benefactors, and also what happens to talented women as they age, and are no longer protected or cushioned from certain kinds of failure by their youth (but at the same time are no longer subjected to the same kinds of male predation they were when they were young).

I've really appreciated Jia Tolentino's brilliant reporting on the #MeToo movement - especially her description of the classic "bait-and-switch" that men like Harvey Weinstein make, linking a young and talented woman's potential to her body, then threatening that body, and forever making the woman uncertain of her talent - and that is definitely a theme that I've tried to explore in the dynamic set up between Royce and Vita.

Yet Vita is not a straightforward victim, as she in turn has to confront a different kind of legacy - what it means for her to be part of a class of perpetrators, as a white South African. As one of the characters in the novel says, "We are all accountable to different phantoms from the past." 

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

A: The novel was named for the actual site in Pompeii, the Garden of the Fugitives, where in 1961 13 body cavities were discovered and made into casts, the first time so many bodies had been cast together as they'd been found, exactly where they'd died.

In the novel, Royce recalls time he spent working with a love interest at a dig site within the ancient city of Pompeii in the 1970s. The Pompeii sections of the book let me explore and deepen Freud's use of Pompeii as a metaphor for what is obscured in human life, a symbol of the hidden depths of human emotions.

It also lets me ask larger questions, beyond Vita's personal history, about the interpretation of the past, of history, and different approaches to the ancient dead: should we try to keep the past familiar, or is it more respectful to keep the past strange, let it remain alien? 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm really enjoying writing non-fiction essays for newyorker.com and The Monthly (an Australian magazine). It's nice to have a change of pace from the long, slow, deep and solitary work of working on a novel for years.   

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Ceridwen Dovey.

May 22

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
May 22, 1859: Arthur Conan Doyle born.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Q&A with Jonathan Salk


Jonathan Salk is the co-author, with his father, Jonas Salk, of the book A New Reality: Human Evolution for a Sustainable Future, first published in 1981 and now updated in a new edition. Jonathan Salk is a psychiatrist based in Los Angeles. He teaches at UCLA. 

Q: How did this new edition of A New Reality come to be?

 A: It’s an interesting story. The original was published in 1981 to very little attention. I still have copies in my basement. My dad continued to talk about it through his death in 1990, and then it just sat for a while.

Four years ago, I got a call from a young architect, David Dewane. He said it felt like the book spoke to him and his generation, and he wondered if I had any interest in revising and republishing it. The original book was not very attractive. We updated the population data, revised the text, and engaged a wonderful designer, Courtney Garvin. 

Q: Can you talk about some of the changes you made in this new edition, and why? 

A: Aside from the design, there was a lot of population data in the original book, which was requested by the United Nations [Population] Fund. We took out a lot of the data that wasn’t [necessary] for the main message. We rearranged things—there are differences in tone but not in the ultimate message.

Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4 were there. [We added] a couple of graphs about the depression generation, the baby boom generation, and the millennial generation. Part 5 is really very different…the original ended up with building a mandala of complexity of human life. It wasn’t a great way to end the book… 

Q: So you said there are differences in tone but not in the ultimate message. What are some of those differences, and what do you see as the ultimate message? 

A: The basic message of the book is a message of hope for a world in transition. It shows where we are, it shows why we experience turmoil, it shows a way out. From accelerated [population] growth to decelerated growth and plateau, there are adaptations we need to make and are making. 

Q: How do the different versions of the book fit into the world now and then? 

A: The other was much more academic in its description of the changes that were happening…There are two main differences in tone. The things we foresaw then come to pass—that more hopeful tone is there.

And the cautionary tone is more strident in this version, particularly with climate change. That was something that wasn’t known in 1981. There’s an urgency in terms of that. We’re seeing open conflict between the two [views]. 

Q: How did you and your father collaborate on the original version of the book? What was your writing process like? 

A: He got a request in the mid-‘70s to apply some U.N. data to a theory he’d put forth in the book The Survival of the Wisest. He put together a kind of slide show in a book. It was not finished at all. It sat for a couple of years. He was over-committed. At the point when I belatedly graduated from college, he asked me to help finish it.

He said, Do what you want. I dove in with both feet and produced a lengthy tome. He said, We’ve got some paring down to do. That was painful at the time, but it was a great learning experience for me. He was a stickler for concision.

Parts 4 and 5 were all relatively new. Part of the process was sitting down side by side going over the text. It really was a true collaboration. The basic concept was his, but we both thought there was enough that I added that it was a co-authored situation…

He got famous [earlier] and was very busy, and we were close but hadn’t spent much time together. I’m really pleased to have had that year with him. 

Q: What do you see as your father's legacy today? 

A: It was the things he said and the things I came to realize. In the later part of his life, he felt he had a way of looking at things, asking questions, that was useful to other people. He wanted people to appreciate how his mind worked.

He really did three major things in his life: the polio vaccine, founding the Salk Institute, where he was involved in the creative design of the buildings, and the writing he did in the last third of his life.

He really embodied the ability to make dreams into reality, to envision things and attend to details so the idea is realized. If people can do that, take creative intuition and put it into reality, you can change the world. For me, that’s his legacy, and he would be pleased with it. 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I’m a psychiatrist, and I teach. I want to get back to memoir-type pieces on my life as a psychiatrist, [writing about] some of my ideas about human behavior, the formation of personality and how that intersects with culture. There are ways people’s individual psychology reflects on our broader society. 

Q: Anything else we should know about the book? 

A: I would especially want people to know that there’s a transition we’re going through, a naturally evolving process. The conflict in values we experience is very understandable.

The basic message is that the adaptive values of cooperation, interdependence, response to limits…are so vitally important. We [should] continue to develop these values to survive this crisis and enter into a new reality. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb