Thursday, September 29, 2016

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 books Sherlock Sam and the Missing Heirloom in Katong and Sherlock Sam and the Ghostly Moans in Fort Canning, the first two books in a series now published in the United States. The authors are based in Singapore.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Sherlock Sam, and did you know from the beginning that it would be a series?

A: The idea for a chubby boy detective series set in Singapore actually came from our Singaporean publisher, Epigram Books. They held a sort of open call for writers to pitch ideas on this kind of series, and we jumped at the chance.

When they ultimately chose us to write the books, we ended up infusing the Sherlock character with a lot of our own characteristics: he loves comics, he loves maths and science, and he loves to eat.

Then we created a bunch of other characters to round out the Supper Club because, unlike the original Sherlock, we wanted our Sherlock to have a "Scooby Gang" to work with.

Q: Are you both Sherlock Holmes fans, and do you have a favorite Holmes adventure?

A: Yes, we both love Sherlock Holmes, and read many of the stories as kids and we continue to follow his adventures as adults as well (we love both the BBC series as well as the American series with Lucy Liu).

Adan's favorite adventure is "The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter", which introduces Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock's brother. Felicia doesn't have a favorite story, but she loves the language of the original series (she's a big fan of anything Victorian) and is also a huge fan of the Laurie R. King series featuring Mary Russell.

Q: Many of the events in the books take place in specific locations in Singapore. What do you think readers both in and outside of Singapore will learn?

A: That there's lots of cool stuff in Singapore! We do a lot of research before we start writing about a specific neighborhood, and we're always discovering new and awesome things in those neighborhoods.

Singapore is a very small country, and many people (even those of us who live here) might think we've seen it all and that there's nothing new to discover because of our size.

But it turns out that's not true. Even people who have lived in Singapore their entire lives can discover cool new things about it, and they often make it into our books.

Also, as Singapore is a multi-racial, very diverse country, we have some of the best food in the world and all Singaporeans take food very seriously (which is why Sherlock Sam does as well). We feel anyone who spends time in Singapore should spend 2-3 days in this country doing nothing but eating.

However, even though our stories are set in Singapore, they are still basically the story of a very curious boy and his friends going on adventures, getting in trouble, and having fun.

We believe that these are stories that are universal and children, regardless of where in the world they live, will be able to identify with. We hope so anyway!

Q: How do the two of you collaborate as you write, and how closely do you work with illustrator Andrew Tan?

A: We have to plan the books very closely as there are two of us writing, and we can't just start writing willy nilly. That way lies madness and confusion.

So we work together to plan out the story and organize it in chapter breakdowns, so we both know what's going to happen in each chapter (including important clues and jokes).

Once we're both good on the outline, we'll tag team on the actual writing. Felicia usually starts first, then Adan tags in, then back to Felicia, then back to Adan, so on and so forth until the book is done.

We used to tag after every chapter, but we realized that tends to break our "writing flow," so now we write 2-3 chapters at a time before tagging out.

We work with Andrew (aka drewscape) quite closely, as well. We meet up before he starts any art to discuss what exactly we want him to draw. He reads the books before our meetings, so he has ideas on what to draw as well.

He'll start sketching during the meeting, to make sure we're all happy with the basic composition and positioning, then sends us updates as he gets further along in his process. He's a fantastic artist and we're super lucky to have him aboard.

He's a also a geek and a comic fan and that allows him to add nerdy stuff into his illustrations (which we love) without us prompting him either. We love that!

Q: What’s next for Sherlock Sam?

A: He's growing taller for sure. Haha.

AMP will be publishing the third book (Sherlock Sam and the Sinister Letters in Bras Basah) in the series for the North American market in February 2017, and the 11th book in the series, titled Sherlock Sam and the Quantum Pair in Queenstown will be out in Singapore next month (barring any horrible happenings).

We have plans for the next three books in the series (a collection of short stories that should be out in February 2017 in Singapore and then books 12 and 13), and are looking to go beyond that too.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: We'll be in the U.S. (primarily the West Coast) in October 2016 visiting schools and bookstores! The exact dates and times aren't fixed yet but we'll definitely post them up on our social media pages: 

Like us on Facebook at: 
Follow us on Twitter @SGSherlock and Instagram at aj_low_writers 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb 

Sept. 29

Sept. 29, 1810: Elizabeth Gaskell born.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Q&A with Larry Tye

Larry Tye is the author of the new biography Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon. His other books include Satchel and Superman. He worked for The Boston Globe for many years, and he heads the Health Coverage Fellowship, a training program for medical journalists. He lives in Massachusetts.

Q: Why did you decide to write about Bobby Kennedy, and what do you see as the most common perceptions and misperceptions about him?

A: I was fascinated as to why my mentors in journalism -- tough-minded, old-school guys like Bill Kovach and David Halberstam -- had fallen in love with Bobby, the first and only times they did that. And I was intrigued by the Kennedy brother who'd always struck me as the most passionate and ethical.

I found out Bobby started out on the other side of the political spectrum from where he ended up, as a cold warrior rather than a hot-blooded liberal.

I found he helped get us into the Cuban Missile Crisis as well as get us out.

I learned he wasn't always a champion of civil rights, but once he was nobody was more determined and effective.

And, most surprising, I saw that politicians really could learn, and grow, and get better.

Q: You begin your book by referring to "this charismatic man's little-understood transformation from cold warrior to hot-blooded liberal." What do you think accounted for this change?

A: He was changing the same way America was as we went from the conservative era of Eisenhower to the tumultuous '60s, and he was helping steer that change.
Q: How would you describe the dynamic between RFK and JFK?

A: They were the closest things this country has ever seen, and is likely to, to a co-presidency.

Q: What about the relationship between RFK and Lyndon Johnson?

A: They were bitter enemies, which is tragic since they shared the goals of caring deeply about ending poverty, bridging the racial divide, and keep progressive Democrats running America.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Can't say quite yet, other than that it's a bio of another liberal icon. More once a publisher says YES, if they do.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just that I've never done a book where half the people I interviewed cried, where 1/3 of those I interviewed died during my three years on the project, or where I had more fun.

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

Sept. 28

Sept. 28, 1856: Kate Douglas Wiggin born.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Q&A with Barbara Claypole White

Barbara Claypole White is the author of the new novel Echoes of Family. Her other novels include The Perfect Son and The In-Between Hour. She was born and raised in England, and now lives in North Carolina.

Q: How did you come up with your character Marianne and with the idea to focus your new novel around someone with bipolar disorder?

A: That’s a great question because my other novels have come from dark what if moments related to my life. Not this one. I’d already abandoned a novel about a single dad with a teenage daughter who has undiagnosed bipolar disorder, when I was visiting my mother in rural England.

A random scene, which had nothing to do with anything I was working on, started playing in my head. It was set in my childhood church, a place that celebrated its 1,000th birthday—yes, three zeroes—when I was a teenager.

An elegant American woman was sitting in the back pew wearing sunglasses while the church ladies did the flowers. They became increasingly concerned about this stranger, until one of them ran off to find the vicar. (He was whacking weeds in the rectory garden wearing ripped jeans and a U2 T-shirt.)

When he crouched down to talk with the woman, he recognized her as his childhood best friend, and said, “Marianne, what’s brought you back after all this time?” She replied, “I’ve come home to die.” Which she hadn’t, and I knew that, but I knew nothing else.

Fast forward a couple of years, and I was agonizing over what to write next. I had to take an incredibly long car journey and as I drove, that scene starting replaying. This time it didn’t stop.

But it was a hard story to find, and Marianne is the most challenging character I’ve written to date. At one point, I was ready to quit. I’m a research-heavy novelist, and my initial research into manic-depression was overwhelming.

But then I started interviewing inspiring women who live with the disease, and they helped me find Marianne’s voice. I love Marianne; I hope readers will too.

Q: In the book, you switch perspectives among four main characters. Did you plan to do that from the beginning, or did that change as you wrote?

A: I’m a fan of multiple viewpoints as a reader and as a writer. The first three drafts were written with three viewpoints: Marianne; Gabriel, my U2 fan and English vicar; and Marianne’s almost-daughter, Jade.

Then my beta reader said, “We need to hear from Marianne’s husband, Darius.” So I added one chapter. When the manuscript arrived at Lake Union, my wonderful editorial team decided readers needed more Darius. I had loads of fun weaving in his voice, and it gave the manuscript a different feel. This is why I love to be edited.

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

A: The working title was Missing in Madness, but my publisher felt that suggested a psychological thriller. Finding a new title that reflected the story was tough because nothing I came up with worked as women’s fiction.

We had already batted around a number of titles that included “echo” when the Lake Union marketing director threw out Echoes of Family, and my editor and I both loved it.

My titles have to fold into the story and have direct significance, and
the word “echoes” works on many levels. Marianne runs a recording studio with Darius and Jade—her family—and all three of them prefer to record in older spaces with natural reverb, an echo.

Plus, everything for Marianne goes back to a fatal car wreck she was involved in at 16. The other survivor was Gabriel, and he’s the only person who knows all her dark secrets—including the ones her memory erased. The title actually refers to their story, but that’s a plot spoiler. Sorry!

On a personal level, I think the title suggests that you can always hear the echoes of your past.

Q: The book goes back and forth between scenes in England and the U.S., both places where you have lived. Did you prefer one setting to the other as you were writing?

A: That’s tough to answer because both places have inspired my writing for 20 years. It was a joy, however, to reimagine my childhood village as Newton Rushford.

My 86-year-old mother, who still lives there, named the village, which I love because Echoes of Family is very much my tribute to a corner of England where part of my heart still lives. I guess it’s my echo.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on novel five (technically six since I have an unpublished manuscript). My current working title—but that will change—is The Slightly Insane Mother, which is inspired by The Catcher in the Rye and a line about all mothers being slightly insane. The story is based on the premise: can you be a good mother if you’ve abandoned your baby?

My heroine has something called harm OCD, which is a particularly nasty mutation of obsessive-compulsive disorder. It often hits new moms in the postpartum phase and traps their minds in a never-ending horror movie of physically harming their babies.

OCD is a twisted anxiety disorder that latches on to the things you care about most, often filling you with fear for the safety of your loved ones.

Since my grown son has battled OCD for most of his life, I’m painfully familiar with its impact on families, but harm OCD is, to quote the mother who runs a wonderful online group called Mamas with Anxiety, OCD, and Panic Disorder, “the dirty underwear of the OCD world.” Most mothers battle it in secrecy, isolation, and shame.

When her daughter was seven months old, Katelyn MacDonald had intrusive images of stabbing her baby. Believing that she was a psycho killer, she ran away. Ten years later, she’s done the work to get well and has reinvented herself as Katie Mack, a female metal artist.

One day, preparing for an art show, she crosses paths with her daughter and realizes 10-year-old Maisie MacDonald also has OCD. Katie must then decide how to re-insert herself into her daughter’s life for the same reason she left: to protect her from monsters.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: To receive updates on new releases and giveaways, please sign up for my newsletter at My social media links and email are also on my website, and I’m always on Facebook. Thank you for hosting me, Deborah. See y’all in cyberspace!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Kay Honeyman

Kay Honeyman is the author of the new young adult novel Interference. She also has written the YA novel The Fire Horse Girl. She is a middle school teacher, and she lives in Dallas, Texas.

Q: You've said that Interference is a cross between Jane Austen's Emma and Friday Night Lights. How did you come up with the idea of Emma at a modern-day West Texas high school?

A: I’m not sure I can take credit for starting with such a fully fleshed out idea, but it did evolve into that.

I started with the idea of a character like Emma. I know she’s not everyone’s favorite because she can come across as a little self-involved, maybe even spoiled. But what I have always liked about Emma was her earnestness and sincerity. She has the best intentions even when they go awry, and I can relate to that.

Another thing that has always struck me about Emma is how much of an outsider she is. Even though she’s spent her entire life in the same town, she can only interact with a tiny group of people according to her society’s norms. The story begins by isolating her even more when now married Mrs. Weston leaves. I think that isolation is where a lot of the conflict and story comes from.

And if you want to talk isolation, West Texas is a great setting. It is unique even with in Texas. If you have ever driven there, the land flattens and turns these beautiful earthy tones. It always felt a little like going to an island. It has its own flavor and norms. I love places with personality. It makes the setting interact with the characters. These are also great places for fish-out-of-water stories.

The beauty of [my character] Kate and Emma is that they are tough enough to isolate. They would never consider giving up. They will fight through whatever you throw at them. That’s a very “West Texas” attitude, I just realized. While on the surface Kate is an outsider, deeper down, she fits the setting perfectly.

Q: Why did you include politics as such an important part of the novel?

A: I like my characters to have a filter through which they see the world. Politics is a great filter. It has capacity. Kate can be her most noble or petty and cruel. She can be a creative problem-solver or closed-minded. These filters are like second settings. Maybe “a setting for the character’s interior life” is a good way to think of it.

Q: Kate is also a photographer. Why did you decide on that as her passion?

A: These questions are really making me think. Another trait I like a character to have is a fascination. These fascinations are often the first hook into the character for me.

I follow their passions for a little while. I took a class to learn to develop darkroom photographs. I checked out books on photographers to find the one’s Kate would like. I get interested in my characters’ talents and pursuits, and that gives me a path into the characters’ personalities.

Photography always made sense to me for Kate. It gives her a safe way to look at the world with a little distance. It also gave me a way to show her growth and her increased tolerance for the messiness of authentic relationships. As she became more connected, so did her photographs.

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

A: Painfully. I am terrible at titles. The original title was Margin of Error. Apparently, not even my mother liked that title. I like it, but I think that is because I fell in love with the vocabulary of politics while writing this book.

My editor suggested we go for a title that bridged Kate’s journey, politics, and football. I remember sending her a list of possibilities, and Interference was the last one I came up with. I think Interference is a better title. It’s the piece of her personality that the story turns on. In many ways, it is her best and worst trait.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a couple of early drafts. One is contemporary. It’s definitely starting with a Sense and Sensibility feel. The other is historical. It is set in post-war Germany and has no ties to any Austen novel at the moment. I will spare you their working titles as they are dreadful.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I really enjoyed this! Your questions made me think about some of the choices I made while writing. It is always fun to figure out why my writer instincts led me the direction they did. Thank you!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Ann E. Burg

Ann E. Burg is the author of the new children's historical novel Unbound, which focuses on a community of people fleeing slavery, known as maroons, who escaped to the Great Dismal Swamp, located in Virginia and North Carolina. Her other books include Serafina's Promise and All the Broken Pieces. She lives in Rhinebeck, New York.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your main character Grace, and how did you first learn about the history of the Great Dismal Swamp?

A: I was actually researching for another story when I came across an NPR article about the work of Daniel O. Sayers, a professor at American University, who has been leading research teams in the Great Dismal Swamp since 2004. That was my first encounter with the maroons.

The idea that an artifact can help us determine what someone ate, how they clothed themselves, or built their homes fascinates me. But it can never tell the whole story. Away from my computer and books, I began to wonder about the people. This connection is always the next step.

My imagination stretches across time and place and begins to stitch together vague shadows. These shadows knock about in my mind until they become infused with life, until they become so substantial that I can even hear them speak—that’s when I begin writing.

There is always more research to be done, but once a character begins to speak, I listen and start writing. From that point on, my characters become as real to me as my neighbors and friends.

Q: You’ve noted that you work with experts when you research your books. What were some of the things you learned that particularly surprised you about the runaways in the Great Dismal Swamp?

A: I think the very existence of the maroon community in the Great Dismal Swamp surprised me the most. I continue to be amazed by the courage and ingenuity of the individuals who forged their freedom there.

The research about this community isn’t new, but it doesn’t seem to be widely known. Dr. Sayers’s work shed light on the history for me and I wanted to learn more.

Dr. Sylviane A. Diouf's in-depth exploration of maroon society in her book Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons, was invaluable to me; I pondered over every known details of the maroons’ existence.

I’m so fortunate and grateful that Dr. Diouf fact-checked Unbound and hope my book will shed light on this rich history for young readers and lead them to learn more about the maroons.

I’m excited that the National Museum of African American History and Culture, on the Mall in Washington, D.C., [opened] Sept. 24, and will display artifacts that Sayers and his team discovered in the Great Dismal Swamp. I can’t wait to go see them!

Q: You tell Grace’s story in verse. What do you think this format contributes to the narrative?

A: Verse allows a character to tell her story in her own words without any third party interference. When I write in verse, I become totally immersed in my character's world. Hopefully, this allows my readers a more direct connection to a character's thoughts and feelings.

Q: As someone who’s written for different age groups, does your writing process change depending on the type of book?

A: Unless I am writing for the very young child where rhythm dictates words, my writing process is pretty much the same.

Each story begins with the discovery of something I hadn't known or contemplated. I research, take notes, and let thoughts and feelings simmer together until the thread of a story and a possible character emerge.

Eventually, if it is a story worth telling, that character startles me out of my imaginings with a distinct and insistent voice. That's when I begin to write.

A targeted age group or word count isn't really something I think about until after my first draft. Then I rely on my editor to determine what readers might be most interested in what I've written.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on something but am still in the gathering-simmering-waiting-for-a-story/character-to-materialize stage so I can't be too specific. I can tell you that for the past few weeks I've been researching the history of ship scrapping...

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just that I am grateful for the opportunity to share my thoughts with your readers! Thank you! 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb