Saturday, May 27, 2017

Q&A with Katherine Nichols

Katherine Nichols is the author of Deep Water: From the Swim Team to Drug Smuggling, a new book for adults and young adults. It focuses on the Coronado Company, a drug cartel that originated in Coronado, California, in the 1970s. A journalist and former teacher, her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle magazines. She lives in Boston.

Q: Why did you decide to write about the Coronado Company, and what did you discover in the course of your work on the book that especially surprised you?

A: Hearing tales of the Company was an inevitable part of growing up in Coronado, which inspired me to use the premise and create a fictionalized account. Based on that manuscript, Simon & Schuster offered me a contract for the nonfiction book. I did not expect to appreciate going beyond the criminal records of these multi-faceted men, and really trying to know them as human beings.

Q: How did you research the book, and were the participants usually willing to speak with you?

A: The research was difficult and elusive, so I tried to approach it in a structured manner by first obtaining archived court records. This required identifying the case numbers, submitting formal requests in writing, and receiving photocopied packets in the mail. The process is old school and cumbersome.

Then I started talking to my mother (who has lived in Coronado, California, since 1950), and calling old friends who were teachers and lifeguards or graduated from Coronado High School well ahead of me, in the 1970s. As with any type of investigative reporting, one person leads to another.

Many people hesitated to talk with me at first. Often, several conversations were required for people to understand and trust what I was doing. Sometimes I read aloud to give the source an idea of the writing and the unique approach. This helped, too, as did Simon & Schuster’s reputation.

(Please note: I can’t reveal whether or not I spoke with actual participants in the Company.)

Q: You've written that you "wanted to bring a journalist's discipline and a woman's sensitivity to the details." How do you think your own background affected how you wrote the book?

A: The elements of this book include researched and verifiable facts, an aggregation of anecdotes, opinions, and recollections, and my own creativity. My affinity for Coronado, sports, and the ocean informed the writing.

But I also knew the process of gathering information on other elements demanded objectivity and humility. Details often differed considerably, so I worked to avoid allowing this to become any one person’s perspective or story. Remaining one step removed helped me achieve a balance.

Q: You note that you didn't write the book specifically for teenagers. Who do you see as the most likely readership for the book?

A: Adults are the first readers, but I think Deep Water will become popular among teens when they discover it through their own unique channels. With any luck, it will encourage more boys to read, and could spark discussion between teens and parents. Astute parents find ways to watch and read what interests their children. These efforts open channels of communication.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: [I recently graduated] from the Yale School of Management with an M.B.A. That has been my primary task for the past two years.

Next I plan to finish a book about dementia, and its effects on patients and families. It was excerpted in The New York Times several years ago.

I also managed to qualify for the Ironman Triathlon World Championship, which takes place in October in Hawaii, so at some point I need to start training for that. At the moment, I feel quite sedentary.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m outlining an idea for another narrative nonfiction/true crime book, because I loved the challenge of infusing creativity into a framework of researched facts. But I can’t talk about that quite yet!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 27

May 27, 1894: Dashiell Hammett born.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Q&A with Sidney Blumenthal

Sidney Blumenthal, photo by Ralph Alswing
Sidney Blumenthal is the author of the new biography Wrestling With His Angel: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1849-1856, the second volume of a projected four-volume biography of Lincoln. His many other books include A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1849, The Clinton Wars, and The Rise of the Counter-Establishment. He is a former senior advisor to both Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, as well as a former reporter for The Washington Post and editor and writer for The New Yorker. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: You write of Lincoln in the 1849-56 period, “Lincoln only seemed to be offstage. He did not disappear…” How would you describe Lincoln’s activities during this period?

A: In 1860 when Lincoln was running for president he dictated two autobiographies. He said he almost lost interest in politics [during this time]. But that’s not so. He was paying the closest attention to every single aspect of it.

He and his law partner William Henry Herndon occupied a small office above the post office. They also maintained the best library in central Illinois. Lincoln and Herndon got every current book on every subject from politics to science. They also subscribed to newspapers and journals.

Lincoln was devouring everything he could…he had only a few weeks of formal education, but he was constantly devoting himself to learning about the issues of the day. Having been in a dirt poor family with a father who failed at a succession of farms, he was somebody with incredible self-discipline, constantly making something of himself, particularly intellectually.

His law associates recalled him in boarding houses on the circuit staying up late at night reading Euclid. Why would he study geometry as a lawyer in central Illinois? Lincoln was trying to figure out how to be more logical, and he applied geometric laws to the arguments he’d make in his cases and in politics.

After his death, his two private secretaries discovered some fragments that had never been published. One is a discussion applying Euclidean logic to the antislavery argument, refuting the pro-slavery argument of the day.

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

A: Wrestling With His Angel comes from the Bible, the story of Jacob, who wrestles through the dark night of the soul with an angel and emerges with a sense of who he is at the end, and adopts the new name Israel.

Lincoln doesn’t adopt a new name, but he’s wrestling with himself. It’s part of his self-discipline—how he can enter into the times, change things, become the man who can do that.

He leaves after one term in Congress and returns to his law office. Herndon recounts a conversation where Lincoln says the world is dead, he doesn’t know what he’ll do. He had no political prospects—what is to be done?

Q: So how did Lincoln change during this period from 1849-1856?

A: Lincoln had suffered setbacks and tragedies. His two-year-old son Edward died of tuberculosis. His wife refused to eat. Lincoln was famously depressed, and he had to encourage Mary Todd Lincoln out of her depression. He was riding his horse from county courthouse to county courthouse, trying to make a living. Still, he was active in politics. He was waiting.

In this book, I pay so much attention to the world around Lincoln. It bears on him; it shapes his mind. He’s watching Stephen A. Douglas, his great rival of decades. He sees himself coming up short against the Little Giant. He starts stalking him after Douglas passes the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 that opens the question of slavery up.

It leads to Lincoln coming out of isolation. Douglas is from Illinois. He’s a national figure, and this gives Lincoln the opportunity to come forward by challenging him. When Douglas returns, Lincoln follows him around the state. Douglas refuses [to debate] until 1858.

It leads to Lincoln delivering the first great speech in the state capitol, the basis for the politics that would carry him to the White House. Lincoln is preparing himself for the destiny he does not know.

Q: Can you say more about the relationship between Lincoln and Douglas?

A: Douglas is not thinking about Lincoln in this period, he’s thinking about Stephen A. Douglas. He was the most dynamic figure in American politics…he believes he embodies the spirit of the age, of Manifest Destiny. He wants to be president; he is a self-made man himself.

They were constantly butting heads over the great issues of the day, from the 1830s on. The Democratic Party is the dominant party in Illinois, and Douglas rises and leaves Lincoln in the dust.

He is envious and thinks Douglas has become a colossus and he has become small. When Douglas has to come back to earth after passing the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Lincoln starts stalking him. It’s part of the making of Lincoln.

Q: What role did political parties play during this period for Lincoln?

A: There was no idea of politics apart from political parties. Lincoln was a party man, and the party of Lincoln was the Whig Party, until it fell apart. He held onto the Whig Party longer than most. In 1852, [Democrat] Franklin Pierce was elected. [The Whigs] never ran a candidate for president again. It was shattered by the Kansas-Nebraska Act and broke into Northern and Southern wings.

Also...there was the nativist movement known as the Know-Nothings. They were a mass movement. Lincoln hated their politics. He had contempt for nativism, yet he held that as a private opinion.

To create a coalition against slavery, he believed the nativists had to be defeated and some brought into the coalition. He engaged in intricate politics in Illinois to do that.

Finally, in an organizing meeting of newspaper editors in 1856, he was invited, and the meeting leads to a call for a convention to found the Illinois Republican Party.

The meeting almost breaks up over nativism. An ally of Lincoln’s proposed an anti-nativist plank, and the nativists opposed it. Maybe there won’t be a Republican Party—but Lincoln says the answer is in the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal. On Lincoln’s authority, the question is resolved. The party was created state by state over this period.

Q: Where are you with the other volumes of your work on Lincoln?

A: I wrote originally all the way to the end and went back to the beginning and redid the first volumes. Now I’m rewriting volume 3. Volume 4 is done. I’ll go back over it, and put a gloss on it, but I feel pretty good.

Q: So what period does volume 3 cover?

A: It goes from the founding of the Republican Party to Gettysburg. It’s a long period. Volume 4 goes from after Gettysburg through Reconstruction. I deal with what happens to Lincoln’s legacy.

The scope of events is so epic—after Gettysburg, the rise of Grant, the Wilderness Campaign, the reelection campaign, the assassination, and so on. I think I have something to say.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’ve written this book over years, and didn’t have in mind the situation we’re in today. You can always draw lessons from almost any period in Lincoln’s life, including the current period we’re going through.

I would say some lessons are that Lincoln understood that the crisis of democracy in the United States was not isolated to the United States. He was deeply affected by suppressed revolutions in 1848 in Europe, and chaired a meeting in Springfield urging support for those struggling in Europe.

He always thought of the struggle here for democracy as the front lines of that movement throughout the West. He says in an 1854 speech in the Illinois State Capitol that he hates slavery because it deprives us of just influence in the world. There are lessons there.

It is a period when parties are coming apart at the seams. Lincoln was able to emerge and become the leader of a new party because he was able to understand the new circumstances and articulate what they mean, and articulate them not only in a narrow way but in a historical way. New leadership arises through the ability to define events.

Not least is the lesson of the leader who is intensely self-disciplined.

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

May 26

May 26, 1895: Dorothea Lange born.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Q&A with Max Klau

Max Klau is the author of the new book Race and Social Change: A Quest, A Study, a Call to Action. His other work includes The Idealist's Journey and Youth Leadership. He is the chief program officer at the New Politics Leadership Academy and is on the board of the International Leadership Association. He lives in the Boston area.

Q: You write, “America came into being in a manner that was laced with paradox and hypocrisy.”  Can you say more about that, and how it affects race relations today?

A: The founding truth of the country is a mix of incredibly idealistic ideas and a brutal system of slavery based on race. American history is a struggle to narrow the gap between the ideals and the reality.

Q: In the book, you describe a “personal quest” that helped you understand race and social change in a new way. What did your quest involve, and how did your perceptions change?

A: Part of the story is that I’m Jewish, and learned a lot about how people are cruel to each other, with the progressive belief that people should be kind.

But I was a privileged white person living in an upper-middle-class suburb in Connecticut. I had the belief that the truth was out there, I was a good person, [and] the facts outside myself had to be understood.

It was a journey of waking to the consciousness that I was immersed in the system; I was blind to the existence of the system. [My perceptions changed] over years of conversation, curiosity, and willingness to be in uncomfortable situations.

Q: The book describes an experiment focusing on the topics of race and social change. Can you briefly describe the experiment and a few of its most striking findings?

A: I stumbled on a program that runs an exercise in line with social psychology exercises. Diverse high school students are segregated into different groups, and told not to talk to each other. It’s set up as a Jim Crow unjust system, but the kids have the opportunity to challenge it. [It involves] what might be learned by observing an experiment, an observable civil rights movement.

There’s the blindness of the people at the top, the people lower in the hierarchy are likely to challenge it. [Awareness of] the wholeness of the system is a challenge to the system. A segregated system is not a disconnected system. It’s a whole system unconscious of the reality of wholeness.

Q: How would you replicate this on a larger scale?

A: I spend several chapters exploring the implications of the experiment, how to extrapolate it to the real world. There’s a lot you can learn about the personal journey each person can undertake, and to understand more effectively [how] our nation [can] address these challenges.

Q: Given the political climate, how do you see these issues playing out?

A: I’ve heard from a lot of folks who are profoundly pained by the state of civic life in America and race relations in particular, and don’t know what to do; we seem to be at the same place over and over. Consciousness matters. My own lack of consciousness led me to perpetuate things over and over. [Perhaps there] is a national policy that can shift this.

Q: What do you see looking ahead?

A: I’ve arrived at clarity that all we can do is each walk our path, and live with as much courage and compassion as we can. If the book helps people understand this stuff at a deeper level and be of service as a whole, [we can] hope it influences the policymakers.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My profession is leadership development. I’m the chief program officer at the New Politics Leadership Academy. Our programs [encourage] military veterans and Peace Corps [volunteers] to run for office. We would have a different politics…

Q: Anything else we should know about the book?

A: I hope it awakens people to the interconnectedness between the inner and outer worlds. The systems are a reflection of inner ways of being. When we shift inner ways of being, we shift systems. It always seems to start with people getting together, achieving a higher consciousness, and that’s the beginning of the journey.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with A.J. Low

A.J. Low (the husband-and-wife writing team of Adan Jimenez and Felicia Low-Jimenez) are the authors of the children's book Sherlock Sam and the Sinister Letters in Bras Basah, the third in a series now published in the United States. The first two books are Sherlock Sam and the Missing Heirloom in Katong and Sherlock Sam and the Ghostly Moans in Fort Canning. Sherlock Sam and the Ghostly Moans in Fort Canning. The authors are based in Singapore.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for the third book in your Sherlock Sam series?

A: The international school in book 3 is actually based on one of the very first schools in Singapore that we visited after we published our first book (in fact, most of the students are named after kids we met during that visit!).

The idea for this book came about because Adan really wanted to write a story about how it feels to be far away from home, and how, at times, it can be difficult and lonely to be in a new and strange environment. We had met kids who had moved to Singapore from other countries and knew that many of that felt that way too.

We came up with the idea of "chain mail" because it was something that both Adan and Felicia played when they were kids (before email was invented :D).

Q: Do you feel your character Sherlock Sam changes from book to book at all?

A: When he first started out, Sherlock mainly spent most of his time with Watson, Wendy, and Jimmy. But now his team of detectives is growing and he's also gaining a reputation as a reputable kid detective (which is why Inspector Siva reached out to him) so he's learning to take on bigger, more difficult cases, and how to work with the different personalities in his team too.

In later books, he encounters his most fiendish nemesis yet and gets in lots of trouble with his parents (which has never happened before).

Q: What age group do you think would especially enjoy these books?

A: Well, the books are meant for kids between 7 and 12, but we've inserted quite a few geek Easter eggs for parents and grown-ups as well so we think anyone who likes nerdy jokes and a fun mystery would enjoy our books!

Q: Who were some of your favorite authors when you were kids?

A: Felicia read a lot of Enid Blyton and Felicia and Adan both really loved the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: In Singapore, our 11th book was published in 2016 and right now we're putting the finishing touches on book 11A--it's somewhat of a continuation of book 11, but not really. That should be out next month.

It's titled Sherlock Sam's Orange Shorts and is the first collection of short stories that we've written for the series. All the characters will be alternate reality versions of themselves! For example, Sherlock Sam's superhero alter ego is named Chicken Wing, Watson is a Star Ship captain, and Wendy has the power of colour-fu!

We're really excited about it and we hope our readers will enjoy the new take on Sherlock, Watson, and the Supper Club!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just that Sherlock Sam has multiple pairs of the exact same orange shorts that he wears in every book. Even we don't know how many he has exactly :).

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

May 25

May 25, 1935: W.P. Kinsella born.