Friday, October 20, 2017

Q&A with Nathan Englander

Nathan Englander is the author of the new novel Dinner at the Center of the Earth. His other work includes the novel The Ministry of Special Cases, the story collections For the Relief of Unbearable Urges and What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, and the play The Twenty-Seventh Man. He is Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at New York University, and he lives in Brooklyn.

Q: You’ve said that your new book was inspired by your heartbreak over the end of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. How did your feelings about the peace process result in this novel, and what do you think the book says about the possibilities for Middle East peace?

A: I’ve always gone distant to write close. My story about dreaming about being a writer I set in a Stalinist camp. I’m a private person, though not a shy person. Over four books, I was able to write closer and closer. My first book was also about Israel, and the book about Argentina was about another disappeared person…

It’s a subject that obsesses me, and a personal heartbreak. Since [the peace process] fell apart, I wanted to talk about it on a personal level and explore that time. I know a Mossad traitor and a general seem distant to myself, but in one sense he is me…I’m seeking the big story with the personal story. They don’t separate.

This book is everything and its opposite. Every character is somebody else. That’s how my brain works. The further peace recedes, the more I’m grabbing onto it…People feel there’s no one to make peace with on either side; whether Israeli or Palestinian, [they think] we can have cycles of violence until somebody wins. I don’t see what winning is.

As a person in the world, the further peace recedes, the more I think it’s the only option. We can transplant a face. We’ll have self-driving cars. We make choices. We do the impossible all the time.

It’s clear to me with the structure of the book—I like books that ask questions and don’t offer answers. I wanted a book that allowed people to explore notions of a moral fiction. You don’t write a book about fly-fishing and come to it with a fierce position. If you’re coming to this book, you probably have a set position [on the Israeli-Palestinian issue]. I worked so hard to build just character, just story, a place to reflect. It’s hopeful about peace in some way—that’s not a position.

In America we now have dual realities like they do there. If your position is cycles of violence, that’s not a position. Not everything is a discussion. Not to be working toward peace—I don’t understand how that’s a position.

The American metaphors—Ivana Trump says I’m the real first lady. A newsperson says, Melania fires back, we will discuss this. I said, There’s not a discussion! It’s become almost bizarre. Offering children healthcare is one thing, but removing millions of children off it—children will die. You can’t argue that as anything but cruel and greedy. There’s no world where you can argue that’s right.

My position on peace is that I’m open to anything. I’m willing to hear everything…

Q: In an interview with NPR, you described the novel as a “turducken,” and some reviews of the book have called the novel an example of genre-switching. Did you envision the novel as something in particular when you started writing it and it changed as you wrote it, or did you know from the beginning how it would turn out?

A: I’m alone in a room all day. I compare it to sport. I’m obsessed with CrossFit now. You can have a genetic feeling—I’m 5’7”, I can keep training but I’m never going to dunk. With writing, it’s a weird craft where you don’t know where you can get to until you try. I call it executing the unexecutable.

It’s terrifying every time, and overwhelming. Every book feels like the first book. At 47 I’m a baby, really. I was ready to work; I waited almost 20 years to find the form for this book.

I wasn’t aware of the form…I’ve never written a Jewish book, my books are about people. I’m someone who grew up Orthodox and broke out. The normal way to be is Jewish. The idea that I should present myself as a hyphenate is ridiculous….

I think and talk in circles. I’m a Jew, I’m a New Yorker, I’m a yeshiva boy. I had to learn how to unravel my sentences. Marilynne Robinson taught me. The part I was aware of is that this conflict breaks my heart in its circularity…

It was in the paper [the other day]. If you can’t see things coming—I have the mapmaker in my book do reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. It’s obvious to me, they’ll do it next time. I’m dreaming that back to 2012. It’s those crazy circles of history that break my heart. That’s what I was aware of for the structure of the book in a deep way…

It was the circles I was aware of and different stories. When they say the front part is a political thriller, then magical realism, then a love story, and an allegory, that I wasn’t too conscious of. That’s the subconscious part.

Even the names, “the General” and “the waitress”--it doesn’t work unless it’s an allegory. I must have been aware of that in my subconscious. Jonathan [Safran Foer] said the whole book is doubled. Everyone is someone else. He said the book doesn’t work without it—it comes together, and then there are the mirror dinners at the end.

It crossed both our minds—the book literally doesn’t work without the two dinners…everything matches. I’m very interested in the conscious and the subconscious.

Q: I was going to ask you about the names. One of your characters is called “Prisoner Z” and another—who resembles Ariel Sharon—is called “The General.” How did you decide on the naming of your characters?

A: I love titling but I picked a shorter title for the fourth book. I mumble it [with long titles]; I had to pick something shorter. I’m fascinated by how the process works…Now I’ve done a dozen cities, 30 or 40 events on the road, you start learning things. It’s what the brain can handle explanation-wise…

The double answer to your question—I have Arafat as Arafat, Olmert as Olmert, Ben-Gurion as Ben-Gurion. But the General—the people who embraced Sharon as the protector of Israel embraced him for the wars he fought, as the father of the settlements, and the people who loathe him loathe him for his wars and massacres. He’s too loaded for me, even as a fictional character. I have my General…

There was a guy who became a Mossad traitor. We know why people become traitors. We understand why people collude—knowingly, unknowingly, blackmail. In America there’s an investigation going on. We know people were in the room with Russian intelligence.

This guy was so close to my life [in his upbringing]. The guy adopted a foreign country’s ideology and became a traitor. It was what I was looking for for 20 years. What would it take to flip someone through empathy? [The real-life] Prisoner X became Prisoner Z.

Why not pick someone less extreme, like [Yitzhak] Rabin? I think Rabin adopted peace. Ehud Barak got in huge trouble—Israel was in Lebanon and he said, if I were a young Lebanese kid I would join Hezbollah. If America’s occupied by a foreign force, you’re going to be quiet?...

I think Rabin had empathy. With Sharon—his whole life, he was a fighter. It was the only way he understood the world. This is a fighter, the father of settlements, he’s unkillable. You see Arafat as an old man, his plane crashes in the desert, and he walks out. When Sharon got out of Gaza, he didn’t do it because he was suddenly heartbroken for the state of affairs in Gaza. Even a great warrior understands.

Prisoner Z is empathy. The General is coldhearted. Peace is the next war to fight. I can’t believe it was out of the warming of his aging heart. He wants Israel to exist and the way to do that was not to be an occupier. If [Rabin’s assassin] Yigal Amir had not voted with his gun, if Sharon had stayed close to the hospital, I see how right there [the prospect for peace] was. How many times, even the ones we didn’t even know about.

Q: So what are you working on now?

A: I feel like I haven’t slept in forever. It’s sodium pentothal. It’s just bananas. The nice thing about my life—it’s my Joyce Carol Oates [phase], there were only five years between the last book and this one. I’m working differently. I’m so close with the next book, the next play is drafted, I want to write about my time in Malawi. It’s a nice feeling.

Five years and counting, to have a novel so close to done—I’ve never had that. I disappeared for nearly a decade the last time. The play changed me so much. It’s a different way to write and execute… Everyone’s so delicate with you in fiction. [With the theater] we would finish a rehearsal, and we need a new scene the next morning. I was learning to be of the world that way. It freed me up.

As a parent, people would say, you’re never going to write until your daughter is in college. I said, You must have a better trust fund! It’s the freeing of time—I’ve always spent all my time writing.

Having a beginning and an end has cut out my ennui time, the time I would look out the window and think. It’s the play, age, and experience. It has to count for something! It’s a much more framed day, having a shape to it.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: With my wife’s Ph.D. research, we spent last year in Malawi. The book is drawing off my memory. I teach for NYU in Paris, and spent time living in Berlin. Memory is one reality, and then you have your book reality.

Then there’s time sitting on the Zomba plateau—it’s a reality that’s so different. I’ve been an expat—I spent time abroad, but to be in a place so foreign, working on the Zomba plateau was [yet another] reality, a day-to-day reality that’s more foreign than those in my head. I’d still be writing it now if not for that.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Nathan Englander will be participating in the Lessans Family Literary Series at the Bender JCC of Greater Washington on November 3.

Oct. 20

Oct. 20, 1940: Robert Pinsky born.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Q&A with Gilly Macmillan

Gilly Macmillan is the author of the new novel Odd Child Out. She also has written The Perfect Girl and What She Knew. She lives in Bristol, England.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Odd Child Out, and for your characters?

A: I have always loved stories about friendship, and particularly the intense sort of friendship which can develop when we are children and teenagers.

One day, I had an idea about a dreadful yet mysterious incident happening to two best friends. The incident leaves one of them unable to say what has happened and one refusing to say.

As is often the way with an idea that develops into a novel, this one wouldn’t leave me alone. What could possibly have happened to them, I wondered, to trigger such a heart-breaking outcome?

Q: Abdi, one of your main characters, is from a refugee family. Why did you choose to incorporate this theme into the novel, and given the political climate surrounding refugees and immigration issues, what do you hope readers take away from the story?

A: One of the things I like most about the crime and thriller fiction genres is how both have historically been unafraid to dig into contemporary society and its issues from a human angle.

My home city of Bristol, where all my books are set, has refugee communities from all over the world. For the most part Bristol prides itself on being an inclusive, welcoming city, but tensions still exist here, as elsewhere, around the issue of refugees.

I wanted the book to reflect that situation. I saw it as an opportunity to introduce tensions into the story that would resonate with many of us, by exploring the different ways in which a refugee family and a non-refugee family might react to the situation their loved ones are in, and how people around them – the police and the public – might react, too.

Writing from the point of view of the Somali-British characters in my book was inevitably a tremendous and daunting challenge. I did months of research to help me understand some of the experiences they may have gone through, but in the end, I left almost all of it aside and concentrated on developing their characters with empathy, above all else.

That is the message I would most like people to take from this book: that every person is deserving of our empathy first and foremost, not just in fiction, but in life.

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

A: I usually have only a very loose idea of how I want my novels to end before I finish them. I might start a novel with just a compelling scene or character in mind and work out the rest as I write, though usually it’s not long before I begin to form a plan.

The plan won’t be much at first: it sometimes consists simply of major plot points and a rough shape of the ending for each of the characters. The rest of the detail will come as I write more. All my best ideas emerge then.

For me, there’s a certain intensity to the act of writing that creates much better ideas than those I might have when I’m sitting staring at a blank page where I’d like a plot outline to be.

The downside of my process is that it can involve an awful lot of rewriting and editing as my first draft can be a bit of a mess.  I don’t mind that too much, though, because that’s when you begin to shape your work into something that is – hopefully – a good book.

Q: You bring back your character Detective Inspector Jim Clemo in this novel. Do you think he’s changed since his previous appearance?

A: I think readers will certainly recognise the Jim Clemo they know from What She Knew, but there’s no doubt his time away has changed him.

At the start of Odd Child Out he is a man who is very much aware both of his potential for failure and of the fact that he must fight to regain the trust of his colleagues. Memories of the Ben Finch case linger for him, especially as his new case involves young people, too. Life is not straightforward.

However, he remains ambitious and determined to rebuild what he has lost both personally and professionally and he seizes on the case in Odd Child Out to help him do that.

The case in Odd Child Out tests whether Jim has learned to put aside his personal feelings and do his job with the professional detachment required.

As in What She Knew, there is a chance that Jim’s empathy for the victims and their families could affect his decision-making in Odd Child Out. It’s what I love about him but it can cause him problems, too. I hope readers will enjoy this new encounter with him.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have just delivered my fourth book to my publishers and I’m waiting to hear what edits they will suggest – always a nervous time! The book’s working title is Time To Tell, but that might change.

It’s a standalone novel introducing a new detective. It tells the story of a podcaster, Cody Swift, who returns to Bristol 20 years after his two best friends were murdered to investigate whether the man originally convicted for the crime is guilty or not, after suggestions are made that his conviction could have been wrongful.

The book is narrated via the podcast itself, the mother of one of the victims and the detective involved both in the past case and a present-day investigation involving a skeleton dug up near the site of the boys’ murders. This book was so thrilling to work on! I hope readers are going to love it as much as I do.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I have exciting plans for my fifth novel! As I wait for edits on Book 4, I am turning my mind to research for the next one. It’s another standalone, and my agent has been working with me to develop a terrific idea for it.

Readers might recognise at least one of the characters from What She Knew and Odd Child Out in this book, though I’m not saying who that might be just yet!  Watch this space…

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 19

Oct. 19, 1931: John le Carré born.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Q&A with Alix Rickloff

Alix Rickloff is the author of the new historical novel The Way to London, set during World War II. Her other books include Secrets of Nanreath Hall and Dangerous Magic. She lives in Maryland.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Way to London, and for your main character, Lucy?

A: Thank you so much for inviting me here to chat with you about my new release.

The Way To London very much grew from the character of Lucy Stanhope. She’d been referred to briefly in my previous novel Secrets of Nanreath Hall as the pampered, headstrong Yankee cousin of the main character who is living a life of luxury in Singapore.

So in telling her story, I had to dig into the wartime events of late 1941 on the Malay Peninsula and how they affected the Europeans living there at the time. It quickly became obvious to me that Lucy was one of the thousands who were sent home ahead of the Japanese invasion to a country not their own and relatives they barely knew.

Her traveling companion, Bill Smedley, took shape after I read No Time To Say Goodbye by Ben Wicks, which is about the evacuation of British schoolchildren during World War II.

A city boy who’s not been farther from home than Whitechapel, Bill finds himself uprooted to the wilds of the Cornish countryside where he’s handed over to indifferent people who regard him as nothing more than a nuisance and a source of a few extra shillings a week.

The idea of the spoiled little rich girl from Singapore and the street-smart bad boy from London’s East End pairing up on a journey across country appealed to me. On the surface, they are two very disparate characters, but as we get to know them we realize they are both in search of a home and a happy-ever-after.

The Way To London is much different from my first book in tone and style. This time, we experience war-torn England from Lucy’s rather flippant, world-weary point of view as she navigates her journey to London as well as her own internal transformation. It makes for a lighter more irreverent ambience, which was especially fun for me to write.

Q: The story takes place in Singapore and Britain during World War II. What kind of research did you need to do to recreate the time period, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: I love the research aspect of writing and can spend hours tracking down the most mundane and trivial of facts. I really enjoyed learning about Singapore and the Malay Peninsula, which was completely new territory for me.

I discovered wonderful newsreel footage of the city, as well as contemporaneous travel guides that included amazing researcher gems like street maps, retail advertisements, and hours and menus for hotels and restaurants.

I searched out memoirs and other first person accounts of the Far East both prior to and during the Japanese invasion as well as information regarding the dangerous shipboard journeys of those who managed to escape.

One of the more interesting facts I uncovered while writing about Lucy and Bill’s antics in London was the ability of those with funds to avoid the harsher deprivations faced by the rest of England.

Swanky hotels like the Savoy and the Ritz maintained lavish accommodations for their guests—even their bomb shelters boasted high-class staff and comfortable quarters. In 1942 the government capped the price and number of courses for a meal, but if one had the money, one could continue to eat like a gourmet in their restaurants.

Obviously, this doesn’t square with our overall impression of Britain’s collective patriotic sacrifice, which makes it all the more interesting to me as a writer.

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

A: I’m very much a seat of the pants type of writer. I begin with a premise or a character and the story grows from there. I might have a few pivotal scenes in my head but otherwise I follow my characters where they lead.

Unfortunately they often lead me into blind corners, dead ends, and around in circles, but eventually they take pity on a poor author and show me how it’s all supposed to turn out in the end.

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?

A: I have to give top billing to Mary Stewart, Rosamunde Pilcher, Georgette Heyer, and Lois McMaster Bujold. Four very different writers coming from four very different genres, but all can suck me in from the first sentence. They have pride of place on my keeper shelf, and I reread them regularly.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a new project set once more in England during World War II, though it’s much more a domestic drama rather than taking its cue from the wider conflict.

A young woman, recovering from the death of her child, inherits an old house in the country. Once there, she discovers the existence of an aunt she never knew she had; one who died under mysterious circumstances over 50 years earlier.

As she uncovers the truth about what happened, she is forced to confront the reality of her own troubled past. I’ve always loved those brooding gothics from such masters as Daphne DuMaurier and Victoria Holt so this is my attempt at writing one.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: It’s been wonderful having a chance to chat. If anyone wants to continue our discussion or keep in touch, they can connect with me on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Thank you again for the invitation.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Jacqueline Jules

Jacqueline Jules is the author of the new children's picture book Drop By Drop: A Story of Rabbi Akiva. Her many other books for young readers include the Zapato Power series, the Sofia Martinez series, and Never Say a Mean Word Again. She is also a poet, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Balloons Lit, Cicada, and Cricket. She lives in Northern Virginia.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for this picture book about Rabbi Akiva?

A: In June 2015, I was the moderator for a panel on children’s literature at the Association of Jewish Librarians conference. The program ended with a spirited discussion about topics needed in Jewish children’s literature.

Several librarians said we needed more books on Biblical and Talmudic heroes. This interested me. I have four other books with Kar-Ben Publishing about Biblical figures: Abraham’s Search for G-d, Sarah Laughs, Benjamin and the Silver Goblet, and Miriam in the Desert. Could I find another Biblical figure to share with young readers?

I went home from that conference and started looking for subjects. It wasn’t an easy task. There are not too many kid-friendly Bible stories for the picture book crowd. For the most part, the Torah depicts complex characters with adult flaws engaging in adult activities.

So I did quite a bit of searching online and in various texts, rejecting one idea after another until I came across the story of how Rabbi Akiva learned to read. It was not the first time I had heard this tale, but the first time I had considered retelling the story for children.

Q: You focus on the idea that he learns to read at the age of 40. What do you hope young readers take away from his story?

A: Akiva was originally an illiterate shepherd who married the wealthy daughter of his employer. It was his wife, Rachel, who encouraged him to study Torah at age 40.

Akiva was dubious at first. He questioned his abilities, afraid he was incapable of learning. Many kids with learning delays or disabilities feel that way about themselves.

Akiva’s epiphany—the moment he decides that he is capable—is not only inspirational, it is poetic. While out tending his sheep, Akiva observes a phenomenon in nature, how water can slowly carve a hole in rock. Akiva sees a metaphor and makes a connection to himself. He says:

“My mind is not harder than a rock! I can learn—just like water cuts through stone—a little bit each day.”

I am hoping that after reading Drop by Drop: The Story of Rabbi Akiva, children will draw parallels to their own challenges. Complicated subjects can be tackled in small pieces, a little bit at a time.

It takes persistence to acquire a new skill and it doesn’t happen overnight. We learn just like water wears down stone, a little bit at a time. So this book offers an important role model. You can always learn new things if you are determined and patient with yourself.

Q: How did you decide on the book's title, and what does it signify for you?

A: As a rule, I struggle with titles. Many of my books have been re-titled by my editors because the titles I came up with were entirely too bland.

The title, Drop by Drop: A Story of Rabbi Akiva, was different because it comes directly from the text of the traditional story. Akiva’s realization that he can learn to read, just like water erodes stone—drop by drop—is an essential part of every version of this Talmudic tale.  

Q: What do you think Yevgenia Nayberg's illustrations add to the book?

A: Nayberg’s illustrations are stunning. I love the warm earth tones and the angular lines. It is always exciting to see how an illustrator interprets the text I write. They often add dimensions I had not imagined and Nayberg’s illustrations certainly do that.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am in the midst of several projects right now. I am happy to say that I have a new book in the Zapato Power series, Zapato Power #7: Freddie Ramos Hears It All, coming out in 2018.

I also have two new titles in the Sofia Martinez series, Hector’s Hiccups and Sofia’s Party Shoes, coming out in January 2018. I also have a new Hanukkah book in the works and two new picture books under contract.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Drop by Drop: A Story of Rabbi Akiva is a fairly faithful retelling of a traditional tale. Some versions say that Akiva saw the erosion in a well and other minor variations, but the arc and chronology of the story are generally consistent.

Unlike most of my manuscripts, this book only went through seven drafts. Most of my work goes through 20 or 30 drafts. Many of them go through so many revisions over a period of years that the final published product bears no resemblance to the first draft.

But the source of the Rabbi Akiva story was pure in the original, and already child-friendly, making it relatively easy to write. Still, a picture book is like a poem. Every word must be justified. And I agonize over every word, changing things over and over.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Jacqueline Jules.

Oct. 18

Oct. 18, 1897: Isabel Briggs Myers born.