Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Q&A with Gisli Palsson

Gisli Palsson is the author of the new book The Man Who Stole Himself: The Slave Odyssey of Hans Jonathan. It focuses on a man born into slavery who moved to Iceland in the early 19th century. Palsson's other books include Gambling Debt and Can Science Resolve the Nature/Nurture Debate?. He is professor of anthropology at the University of Iceland.

Q: You write, "The idea for this book came to me apparently out of nowhere in the summer of 2007." What was it about Hans Jonathan's story that intrigued you, and why did you decide to write a book about him?

A: It may be an overstatement when I said “out of nowhere.” I had written a B.A. dissertation on race in 1972. I dropped the interest for years until the ‘90s. I was writing about genetics and race and eventually turned to this biography…

A television documentary exposed me to this [topic]—I was in Copenhagen and there was a series on Danish slavery. I saw one part of it that happened to feature Jonathan’s case. The interviews with his descendants triggered my interest—the person on the screen had been my neighbor.

For an anthropologist, it was extremely exciting. I had the opportunity to explore the family history of some of my neighbors, and their past back to the Caribbean and the West African slave trade. He was the first black person to settle in Iceland.

I wasn’t thinking of a biography at first. It struck me when I went back to Iceland and called one of his descendants and we met, and soon I was deeply into the story.

Q: How was the book's title, "The Man Who Stole Himself," chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: At an early period of writing, I was frustrated with the working title “Hans Jonathan: A Biography.” I thought it was too flat and unappealing. I came up with the idea in midcourse and the title took a life of its own. It began to inform my take on the story.

I was at the office one afternoon and walked back home, and immersed myself in court documents from 1801-02 [from Jonathan’s trial] that defined Hans Jonathan…as a slave.

I had a hunch the documents would give me a clue…I found a quote from the defense lawyer—If he had run away he had stolen himself. Suddenly, the title was born!

It immediately appealed to me. I think the title highlights the contradictions of slavery. The case of Hans Jonathan was a borderline case. There are criminal cases; he was charged with theft and it was dismissed…a civil case established [his would-be owner’s] property rights.

It is theft—he did steal himself but that was not in a criminal case and he wasn’t charged with a crime. The borderline is interesting to me.

Kierkegaard said choose yourself, but if you don’t own yourself how do you make a choice? It’s the contradictions of slavery. These were people without rights; a man who stole himself is bound to be that kind of person [who makes choices]. It emphasizes his brave position to escape. It was risky.

Q: How well known was Hans Jonathan's trial at the time, and how did he manage to move from Denmark to Iceland in the wake of the trial?

A: It puzzled me for a long time. Copenhagen was a small city at the time, 100,000 people. Most people knew each other in the aristocratic circles. The case was fairly well known. People saw it as a test case—if the owner would lose, things would fall like dominoes.

Hans Jonathan’s case was pretty well known—there were debates…legal experts in Denmark began doubting the verdict. It was at the time of dissolution of slavery, and slowly things were moving; it was illegal to have slaves in Denmark and eventually was illegal in the colonies.

Hans Jonathan managed to come to Iceland by mobilizing support. He knew influential people…in the Army, the Navy; he must have come on one of the trade ships. He had gained recognition in the Battle of Copenhagen for bravery and used his contacts.

It’s still a mystery why he picked Iceland….Contacts between Denmark and Iceland were slowing down, and his case was a civil case. He was not charged with anything and wouldn’t be tracked down by the police.

The owner would have to follow him, and she was an elderly lady tired of domestic problems. She probably felt she was losing the battle. I imagine he lived with uncertainly the first 15 years of his stay in Iceland.

Q: How would you describe attitudes toward race in Iceland, both then and now?

A: One can outline three phases of the history of race in Iceland. The first one was the phase during which Hans Jonathan came to Iceland in 1802.

In that period, color was insignificant in Iceland. It seems not to have arrived—there were no signs of classification, arrogance, racial stigma. On the contrary, he was a popular person, he taught people navigation.

In Denmark, the slave trade had meant that [race] was on the agenda. That didn’t come to Iceland in 1802. Danes were preoccupied with color and race from the beginning of the slave trade.

Hans Jonathan probably looked slightly different from the natives in the next district or village. Icelanders have a category of “black” from almost 1,000 years earlier, black men—it meant Celts, people of Irish descent who seemed to be slightly darker, but it wasn’t a racial thing.

The second phase came after the egalitarian phase was passing—it takes place from 1850-1944. Iceland becomes independent; there’s a battle for independence for decades, and Icelanders saw the need to justify the separation from the kingdom…

They emphasized that they were the descendants of literary giants, creators of sagas, blond blue-eyed pure Nordic. You have the beginning of racist thought. Eugenics took a strong hold in Iceland.

Hans Jonathan’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren would experience this new flavor and would hide the idea of their black past and the slavery context.

This leads to the last phase. In recent years, Iceland has been a multicultural community with…immigrants from all over the world. There are some signs of racism and xenophobia, some blacks have complained, but overall it is a fairly relaxed and inclusive society.

We have parliamentary elections [coming up]—one party is running on a racist agenda, but has no sympathy according to the polls. Earlier this year or late last year, the Icelandic parliament passed a historic piece of law ensuring the rights of immigrants. It’s considered a very progressive piece of law.

Q: What would you say is Hans Jonathan's legacy today?

A: Since 2000 lots of things are brewing. Hans Jonathan’s background was finally established. The Danes realized the slave who had disappeared after the legal verdict was passed had escaped to Iceland. There are 600 descendants alive now. Icelanders realize the complex background of this guy.

The saga is now fairly well known. The other day I heard an interesting story—a friend was talking to young students in primary school, and they were talking about immigration.

One of the boys said, I know I’m the great-great-great-grandson of a black man who settled in Iceland. The teacher…asked his name, and the boy said, I don’t know his name but he stole himself.

In Iceland, there’s a lot of celebration about ancestry. The family of Hans Jonathan has a website…in 2000 or 2001 they met in the East Fjords.

For some time, early in the last century, there was a slightly racist [element]--people talked about a “mulatto” who colored a whole village. The village sometimes was called Congo.

Now he’s a heroic character, gentle, generous, clever. There’s a documentary in the making for Icelandic TV. It will be a one-hour take on his life and descendants.

I think the English version [of the book] has changed significantly from the Icelandic original. It has an interesting spin on the U.S. descendants. I’m glad I tracked it.

It provides a context of race in the U.S. and draws attention to recent police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement. I’m hoping it’s a timely [publication] in that sense.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Something radically different! It’s a book project called "Magma and Me"—on the interiors of the earth, volcanoes, eruptions, earthquakes. The story is written for the public, avoiding academic jargon.

It focuses on myself up to a point, and on a major eruption in 1973 on the Westman Islands where I grew up. It was quite dramatic. I’m tracking it from all possible viewpoints.

The book focuses on the commingling of the planet and people. The earth is in us, with the minerals in our bodies, and we are part of the earth. I’m arguing against the separation of geology and social life…

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: A Danish translation is coming out next year. It will come out in March 2017, the centenary of the sale of the Danish Virgin Islands to the U.S. There are a lot of events in St. Croix and Denmark. The book should come out then in Danish. A French publisher is also considering it.

Hans Jonathan’s genome is being reconstructed now by anthropologists in Reykjavik. It’s a fascinating project. It might help them establish the ancestry of Hans Jonathan’s mother. We don’t know anything about her or where she came from…

It’s a path-breaking project in the sense that it’s a case of mapping someone’s genome without a sample of that person. All we have in this case are genetic signatures of living descendants. Researchers suggest they can map most of Hans Jonathan’s genome on these unusual grounds.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Rebecca Kauffman

Rebecca Kauffman is the author of the new novel Another Place You've Never Been. She has worked in restaurants and as a teacher, and she lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

Q: You note that many of your book's themes are inspired by Ojibwa culture. Can you say more about that, and how you incorporated the cultural themes into the book?

A: The Ojibwa character introduced in the prologue (who appears in different forms throughout the book) is based on the Native American term Two-Spirit which, as I understand it, refers to an individual who is not strictly male or female but both, or in some cases a third or different "gender" altogether. 

My early thoughts about this were informed by the PBS documentary Two Spirits, which tells the incredibly tragic and moving story of an individual who identified as a Two-Spirit, and died young as the victim of a hate-crime in 2001. 

From this story and others, I learned that historically, Two-Spirits were thought to possess special insights and abilities, and often acted as storytellers, spiritual leaders, or healers. 

I wanted to explore the idea of a powerful healing figure walking among characters and offering words that could change a person's course in subtle yet enduring ways. 

Other connections to Ojibwa culture are less explicit, but various ideas about storytelling, death, and the after-life were inspired by related research. 

Q: How did you come up with your main character, Tracy, and with the idea of seeing her from multiple perspectives over several decades?

A: For me, characters almost always rise from a singular moment or gesture before the broader strokes (backstory, motivations, personality, etc.) emerge. 

For example, Tracy was sitting at a computer manipulating the results of her own job aptitude test before she had a name or an age or a hair color. Marty was walking the beaches of Lake Michigan with a metal detector before he had a daughter or a cancer diagnosis.  

As for utilizing various POVs through which Tracy is observed over several decades...Years ago, I fell in love with the BBC's Up documentary series, which consists of 14 individuals who are interviewed at seven-year intervals, starting in early childhood and moving all the way into late adulthood. It is riveting, surprising, and often deeply sad. 

For me, it raised questions about the idea of change, and if people are truly capable of it. Exploring Tracy at different points in life and through different perspectives was a way for me to pick at this curiosity. 

Q: Did you know from the start that you would be writing a novel, or did you initially see the chapters as short stories and later link them?

A: The chapter titled "Southtowns" is the first story I wrote about Tracy, and I quickly realized that I wanted to write an entire book about her. Even so, writing 15 contained short stories felt more manageable to me than trying to imagine a 300-page work right off the bat. 

Also, I found that having several different stories going at the same time suited my temperament - if one story became a frustration or a bore, I could work on something else for a few weeks without leaving that world altogether.

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

A: A sense of place is always important to me – its colors, textures, people, and the feeling it stirs up within you – and the initial title I had chosen for this book was Southtowns (the title of that first story I just mentioned, and referring to the cluster of suburbs south of Buffalo, Tracy’s hometown, where many of the stories take place). 

Others wisely pointed out that anyone unfamiliar with this area might assume, based on that title, that the book took place in the South. 

The words chosen for the actual title, (which was a happy compromise between my publisher, my agent, and me), are offered during a conversation in which one character is trying to help another character contextualize death. The idea of "place" as a state of mind or belonging interests me and guided this decision.  

Q: What are you working on now?

A: It's hard for me to work on anything at all during the month of October when the world is glorious and I just want to be out in it, but when I have managed to work, it’s been on a novel about five childhood friends whose bond was fractured at an early age, and they are reuniting for the first time, in their 30s. 

I'm still wondering if people are capable of change. I'm wondering what I might learn.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Derek Palacio

Derek Palacio is the author of the new novel The Mortifications, which focuses on a Cuban-American family. He also has written the novella How to Shake the Other Man, and his work appeared in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2013. He and Claire Vaye Watkins are the co-directors of the Mojave School, a free creative writing workshop for teens in Nevada, and he teaches at the University of Michigan and the Institute of American Indian Arts MFA program. He is based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Mortifications, and for your characters?

A: I was reading Roberto Bolano’s novella The Insufferable Gaucho, about a lawyer in the city and the economy collapses and he goes to his family’s ranch in the pampas. It’s funny, dark, comic, sad.

I enjoyed [the idea of] a story about people going back to a place they’ve forgotten, or can’t reconcile what it’s become. I’d been writing about Cuba and Cubans, and reading Reinaldo Arenas, and my dad is from the island.

Q: How would you describe the relationship your characters have with Cuba?

A: For me, it’s a weird one. I tend to think of it as a weird and difficult pressure that a place can put on people psychologically and emotionally once they have to leave it—and will they go back?

The father is still living there, and [his daughter] Isabel is so close to him; those feelings are magnified. It’s an exaggeration of a question a lot of Cuban-Americans have…Do I go back when my parents couldn’t? It’s pretty fraught.

Q: You switch perspective among several characters throughout the book. Was there one that you particularly enjoyed writing about?

A: When I first sat down, I thought I would mostly be writing about [Isabel's brother] Ulises…I realized [their mother] Soledad’s and Isabel’s story lines also had promise. Isabel was such a catalyst. She surprised me the most [in terms of] who I was interested in. I grew up Catholic, and I knew she’d have mystical [qualities] but it was still amazing to me that it happened that way!

Q: Can you say more about the relationship between the father and his kids, which runs throughout the novel?

A: I am no expert, but it goes back to my understanding of Cuban exiles and the Cuban diaspora. It expresses itself in family dynamics…

Knowing that the dad wanted to stay, the children had possibilities to react to that in different ways. It was a big idea I was trying to wrap my head around, and it was good to have several responses!

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

A: It took me a while to get to the final title. I had working ones to do with patria, fatherland, homeland. Looking back, it became clear to me that the transformation of the family members was not just emotional and psychological, but it also comes out physically.

Mortification refers to the way the flesh changes, and how it’s affected by faith and obsessions. The title got more at that—all the characters had something.

Q: Can you say more about the role of religion in the novel?

A: I think a lot has to do with the way I grew up understanding Cuba. My father left when he was 5 ½ years old. The family owned a sugar cane plantation. His memories were pretty fragmented. Cuba for me felt like a distant myth.

The deeper I wrote in the book, the more that truth seemed to work well with the parameter of faith—a mythic father, distance between us, in Catholicism the bodily struggle to make real something that feels distant and ethereal.

It’s clear to see in Isabel, and Ulises…[is] working his way through intermediaries, through several channels to God. When he went back to Cuba, he had to have Simon ferry him, and his great-aunt doesn’t remember. There is a delayering there—sometimes intermediaries are helpful, sometimes they obscure reality.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a short story collection I’m working on now. After that…I have a new novel off the ground. It’s about a Cuban-American swimming hopeful for the Olympics, who fails to make the swim team and defects to Cuba in hopes of making the Olympics that way.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I would just say, I try to point out that I haven’t been to Cuba. I’m going for the first time. I’m going to Miami Thursday and to Cuba Friday, so I’m making my first trip to the island this week.

I’ve been writing about it from a distance. It’s been challenging and difficult. The book is trying to bridge some of the distance.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 25

Oct. 25, 1941: Anne Tyler born.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Q&A with Gayle Forman

Gayle Forman is the author of the new novel Leave Me. Her other books include the young adult novels I Was Here and Just One Day. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Seventeen and Cosmopolitan. She lives in Brooklyn. 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Leave Me, and for your main character, Maribeth? 

A: Several years ago I was on a family vacation when I started having chest pains. This was frightening for a number of reasons—my mother had her first bypass surgery at 48 in spite of having no visible risk factors or symptoms—but also because I had two young children.

If I needed this intense surgery, who would take care of my children? Who would take care of me?  I was the default mom who worked from home. I did everything. The book began almost as a revenge fantasy, but when it turned out my heart was fine, it went into the drawer.

It came out years later, this time with Maribeth. I had some things to say about parenthood and the assumption we still have that mothers are the default parent and should martyr themselves for their families and sacrifice themselves. I wanted to look at what happens when a mother rejects these ideas.

Q: Why did you decide to include the issue of adoption as one of the book's main themes?

A: My younger daughter is adopted. By the time I started writing again I’d begun to see what a tender spot the question of her mother—more specifically: why did she give me up?—was for her, and for most adoptees I met.

When Maribeth came to me, I knew she was adopted but I only realized why I’d made that decision until I was deep in the draft. So many people have “abandoned” her, and when her life almost does, all of the things she has kept buried (because who has time to deal with that?) come to the surface.

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

A: When I started it years ago, I wasn’t really thinking about the end, so much as the beginning: Mom has heart attack, bypass surgery, family can’t stop leaning on her so she runs away.  

When it came back to me, I had a sense of how it would end but there were lots of surprises, and many, many changes in the drafting.

Which is typical. You don’t know your characters so well in the beginning, and just as you get to know people in life through a series of interactions and conversations, so too with characters and novels.

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

A: My brilliant editor Amy Gash came up with the title. My original title was Bypass, and it sort of worked but not really, and not until you’d read the book.

I love Leave Me because it seems to leave a word out that readers can fill in. Leave me alone. Leave me be. Don’t leave me. All of these are resonant for Maribeth (and me).

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A young-adult novel, an ambitious one I’ve been trying to write for years. It’s unlike anything I’ve done before.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Hmmm. Not sure if you want to link but I’ve written a lot about my feelings about default parents, and the decision for my husband to become the default parent of ours.

Here’s one.

Here’s another.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Gayle Forman is participating in The Lessans Family Annual Book Festival at the Bender JCC of Greater Washington, which runs from Nov. 3-13, 2016.

Q&A with Lisa F. Smith

Lisa F. Smith is the author of the new book Girl Walks Out of a Bar, an addiction memoir. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune, among other publications. She is a lawyer, and she lives in New York City.

Q: How did you end up writing this memoir of addiction, and how difficult was it to write about your experiences?

A: I started writing as soon as I got out of the hospital detox in 2004. Somehow, I had managed to hide my addiction from my family and friends, so everyone had a million questions. What had happened? How it could have happened? Why I hadn’t asked for help if I was struggling so badly and in so much pain?

Newly sober, I was up at 5am, well before I had to get ready for work, and just started writing everything down. It was supposed to be a way to convey the story to those close to me, but I ended up loving the morning writing ritual, so I kept going.

Eventually, I started taking writing workshops and then evening classes at NYU. Over time I decided to make it a book in the hopes that I could help the next person struggling with addiction or trying to understand a loved one who is addicted.

I also feel strongly that the stigma surrounding addiction and mental health issues needs to be broken. That can only happen if people talk about it and write about it.

I found the writing process hugely cathartic. It helped me process what had happened. Of course, there are a lot of things in my past that I’m not proud of, but I had to write about some of them for the book to tell the story in a meaningful way.

Those scenes were particularly painful because in order to write them, I really had to put myself back into the brain and body of the person that I was in active addiction. It was like reliving some of the worst parts of my life.

Q: What impact did the detox program and its follow up have on your life, and why do you think you were able to stick with it while others you know have relapsed?

A: The detox and the follow up have completely changed my life – really gave me a chance to save my life. I didn’t think I’d live to see 40 and I happily and gratefully turned 50 this year.

There are two main reasons I think I have been fortunate enough not to relapse so far. First, I believe the doctors in the detox nailed my diagnosis. They told me I had Major Depressive Disorder, which likely had led me to drink and use drugs to self-medicate.

They put me on antidepressants immediately. I think once my brain chemistry problem was addressed, I had a much stronger chance to do the things I needed to do to stay sober.

I did try once to taper off and get off the antidepressants, just to see if I really needed them. The answer was, “yes.” I spiraled back into depression and then decided I would stay on the medication for good.

Second, I had a ton of support when I got out of detox. I hadn’t lost my family and friends. They wanted to do all they could to support me. I hadn’t lost my job. I hadn’t been arrested or worse. I was as well positioned as I could be to succeed.

It’s part of why I feel so strongly about speaking up to help the next person. I got lucky and want to help others who come out of detox or rehab with a rougher road.

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

A: It popped into my brain one day as I was walking to work in New York City. That half-hour walk entails passing about 20 bars on the west side and there was something about me walking past them every day that resonated. I knew I wanted something that didn’t sound depressing or humorless, so I stuck with it.

Q: What reactions have you heard from readers?

A: I feel really blessed that the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. Nothing makes me happier or more proud than hearing that it helped someone who is struggling with addiction or has a loved one struggling whom they’re trying to understand.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a new book. This one will be fiction, but again exposing what goes on behind closed doors among professionals in New York City. They seem to have these “perfect” lives, but actually are hiding some super dark secrets.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I feel strongly about drawing attention to the importance of this issue in the legal community. The American Bar Association and Hazelden Betty Ford released a joint study earlier this year that found that one in four lawyers suffers from a substance abuse disorder. (I wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post on it here.

That’s more than twice the general population and more than other professions. So, being able to help raise awareness of this issue in my field and talk about my personal experience with colleagues and other lawyers is a gift.

I want to do all I can in the legal community and beyond to help break the stigma that surrounds addiction and mental health issues. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Lisa F. Smith is participating in The Lessans Family Annual Book Festival at the Bender JCC of Greater Washington, which runs from Nov. 3-13, 2016.

Oct. 24

Oct. 24, 1904: Moss Hart born.