Saturday, December 16, 2017

Q&A with Karen Swan

Karen Swan is the author of the new novel The Paris Secret. Her other novels include The Summer Without You, Christmas at Tiffany's, and The Perfect Present. She lives in East Sussex, UK.

Q: You note that The Paris Secret was based on a real-life discovery of an abandoned apartment in Paris. What did you see as the right balance between the actual story and your own fictional creation?

A: It’s both a creative and a legal issue – one has to be really careful not to imply anything as true when it’s not, especially if it’s got negative connotations.

But also, the joy as a writer is in taking an idea and seeing where it leads you and in this instance, I was led by the nose on the question of why the family - having justifiably fled Paris during the Nazi occupation – never returned to the apartment in over 70 years. I had done as much research as I could but the family who own it have gone to great lengths to avoid further publicity on the issue.

Quite possibly their true reasons for keeping it locked are far more mundane than what I’ve come up with, but that’s the joy of fiction - all stories are rooted in truth to some extent and it’s enough to simply start with a question and let my imagination spool out and see where I end up.

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write the novel, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?

A: I always do a huge amount of research before I start writing – several months’ worth in fact. For this novel, I had something of a head start in that I had studied Nazi Germany at A-Level in the UK so I was already pretty well-informed on the subject.

But what was particularly interesting and surprising to me, was coming in to it at such an oblique angle – Art, I soon realized, was absolutely key to the Third Reich, not just in terms of military strategy but also as part of their peacetime aspirations.

Hitler, as is well documented, was a failed artist, having been rejected repeatedly by art academies in Munich. He continued to paint throughout his life, however, and one of his recognized objectives, once he’d won control of Europe, was to open a museum in Linz, his hometown, which would become the greatest art collection in the world.

Certainly the Nazis, under Goring who was also an avid collector, were steadily plundering state assets from monasteries, churches and museums in all their occupied territories with a view to furnishing this museum – to the point where the “Monuments Men” were formed as part of an unprecedented international aid effort to save as much of the cultural heritage of Europe as was possible during combat.

But in addition to this overarching goal, at grass roots level, art was being used to fund their armaments programme. Throughout the 1930s, as the Far Right movement grew, Jewish families had been obliged to inventory their assets.

Once war broke out, for a while, selling their more valuable items was a form of “flight tax,” in which those families were effectively able to barter their way out of Germany, but eventually, that was stopped as the Holocaust began to ramp up - documentation was falsified, money for goods was paid into blocked bank accounts and these assets were essentially stolen from them.

It was boom-time for state-sponsored agents, galleries and dealers; whatever the Reich leaders didn’t want for themselves, the so-called “degenerate” art of modern artists was sold abroad - the Dutch and American markets positively flourished - and was reinvested in the military effort. Quite literally, Jewish art assets were used to fund the very war which was intending to eradicate them.

Q: How did you come up with your main character, Flora Sykes?

A: Flora was something of a gift in that she came to me fully formed. I always use names as a starting point for “visualizing” my characters; I already knew what her job would be and that she was based in London, but as soon as I came up with her name, I could see her walking down Bond Street.

I’m not usually that lucky; in my most recent book, I only really got to grips with my heroine in the final 50 pages of the first draft, which was pretty painful.

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

A: I admire beautiful prose; language is like music to me – it has tension, rhythm, metre, shape and sound – so I appreciate authors with a similar ear.

I adore Katherine Rundell, a British children’s writer who is so good, I insist on reading her stories out loud to my daughter so that I don’t miss out!

Also Sebastian Faulks, William Boyd, and I just read the newest book by Kristin Hannah, The Great Alone, which was instant love. She’s a stunning writer - there were passages I wanted to mark with a highlighter so that I could go back to them, they were that good.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I write two books a year in the UK – a Christmas title and a “summer” book. The Paris Secret is one of the latter, and I’ve just completed next summer’s story The Greek Escape, so I’m about to go into edits for that.

I was also in Canada a few weeks back promoting my newest book, The Christmas Secret, and then I was in Norway last week researching next Christmas’s book (December 2018); I’m just in the final stretch of working out a plot and I’ll try to start writing before the Christmas break.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m a busy mother of three, I have two dogs and I absolutely love my job.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 16

Dec. 16, 1775: Jane Austen born.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Q&A with Syl Sobel

Syl Sobel is the author of How the U.S. Government Works, a book for kids. His other books for younger readers include Presidential Elections and Other Cool Facts, and The U.S. Constitution and You. He is an attorney and also has been a reporter, and he is based in the Washington, D.C., area.

Q: Why did you decide to write How the U.S. Government Works, and what updates do you have planned for the next edition?

A: I loved reading to my daughters when they were little. One night my 7-year-old and I were reading The Kids Page in The Washington Post and the topic was “How the U.S. Government Works.” 

At that time I was director of publications for a federal government agency and I told my daughters my job was “to make books for the U.S. government.” So my daughter asked me if I could “make a book” for her on how the U.S. government works.

I figured I could do that. So I wrote about 12 pages on the three branches of government and what each one does, put it in language I thought a child in elementary school could understand, put a plastic cover on it, and gave it to her. She was delighted. 

A few weeks later I told a colleague at work about it, and he suggested I try to get it published. So I wrote query letters to about 50 children’s publishers and finally heard from Barron’s, who said they wanted to publish it. We were all excited, worked on it together as a family, and had a little party when it came out. 
Then, of course, my younger daughter asked me the obvious question: “When are you going to write a book for me?” So I asked her what she wanted me to write about, and she said “cool things about presidents.” I thought that was a good idea, so I went to work on it and a few months later had written Presidential Elections and Other Cool Facts. 

Well, a few months after that my editor at Barron’s called and asked me if I had any other book ideas. I had to be honest and told her that my first book was my older daughter’s idea and my second book was my younger daughter’s idea. And she said: “That’s your problem, Mr. Sobel. You should have had more kids!” 

But she proposed that I write something on the Constitution, which was a great idea and became my third book, and then the Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence were next. I’ve always loved civics and reading and studying about government, history, law, and politics, and I’ve always wanted to write about them. Thanks to my kids, I did!

I am a big proponent of the idea that the best writing occurs during rewriting. So this new edition of How the U.S. Government Works gives me an opportunity to tighten text and clarify some of the language that I know I can improve. One topic in particular that I’m clarifying is my discussion of “democracy.”

I said in the earlier edition that the U.S. is a democracy, which is partially true, but really the form of government is a “republic,” and the system we use to elect the leaders is democracy. I am going to flesh that out. 

I also want to improve and update some of the illustrations, for example, by making sure there is sufficient diversity in drawings of groups of people and by adding the Native American and African-American museums to the illustration of D.C. that shows where important buildings are located.

Q: What age group has benefited most from the book?

A: It’s marketed for children in grades 3-5 and I think that’s about right. Depending on their reading levels children in slightly younger and slightly older classes could benefit from it. I know it’s become popular also with home schooling parents and has been recommended on several home school websites.

Interestingly, one audience that I had not thought about when I wrote the book is people from other countries who would like to learn about the U.S. government, especially immigrants studying for citizenship exams. I gather that it’s been recommended on several sites that offer resources for immigrants. I am even thinking about volunteering to teach some citizenship classes locally and to use this and my book on the Constitution as textbooks.

Q: As you mentioned, you've written various other books about the government, including one on presidential elections. What have you focused on in that book, and are you planning a new edition?

A: Presidential Elections and Other Cool Facts is like two books in one. The main text explains the presidential election process, from the primaries and caucuses to the conventions, to the election, and inauguration. Children like to know how things work, or what the rules are. So I like to explain things like how the government works, and how the election process works. It’s a common theme in all of my books.

The second part of the book is the kinds of “cool things about presidents” that my daughter asked for. It has lots of fun facts about different presidents, like who the youngest and oldest presidents were, which states have been the birthplaces of the most presidents, and which sets of presidents are related (hint: there are five of them). I also have a section about several First Ladies, and then there’s a listing at the end of all of the presidents, when they were elected, and which party they belonged to. 
The book is in its fourth edition now and I update it in advance of each presidential election, so the fifth edition will come out in early 2020. Should be an interesting one to update.

Q: How do you research your books, and what have you learned that especially surprised you?

A: I’m lucky. Most of my research comes directly from the primary sources: The Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and various statutes. I also read reference materials including encyclopedias to come up with the “fun facts” about presidents. I use David Stewart’s book, The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution, as my go to source about the writing of the Constitution.

When the girls were little, we used to go to the library together on weekends and look for kids books to read on the topic I was writing about. I learned a lot by reading how other children's authors handled similar topics as the ones I was writing about. I especially like books by Jean Fritz.

The thing that surprised me most was that there are five sets of presidents who were related. Like most people, I can easily name four. But after the first edition of Presidential Elections came out I got an email from a reader who told me about the fifth set of relatives, albeit distant cousins. I did some research and verified it. So I can always learn something, especially from people who read my writing!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I still have a couple more children’s books in me. I’m working now on one about how the courts work, then after that I may try to write something on the legislative process (though it’s hard to top the Schoolhouse Rock classic on how a bill becomes a law).  

But hey, my kids are grown, they’re 25 and 27 now, so it’s time for me to move on to different audiences, too. I’ve got a few books for general audiences in mind. One has to do with the Founding Generation, about whom I love reading and can’t learn enough. I think they were the most extraordinary collection of great people our country has ever seen at one time, and I love reading stories that tell us more about them as people and about how they got along – or didn’t.

I’ve also started working on a sports-related book. I am a big sports fan. I spend a growing amount of my time covering high school sports for my local community newspaper. I really enjoy it. My kids can’t figure out why I continue to go to high school sports events when they haven’t gone to that school for like 10 years. But I just love telling stories, and writing about kids at that age playing sports provides a never-ending variety of good, meaningful stories to tell.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Yes. I spent 30 years of my professional career working for the federal court system. I am an attorney and a firm believer in legal and judicial process and in the rule of law. I am not blind to the political problems that plague our government today. But I think our system of government is the best around and will continue to survive, even though we are testing its limits.

I think it’s important for children to understand how our government operates and why it was designed the way it was. That’s why I am happy that my publisher wants me to update my books, keep them current, and continue to promote them so that teachers and parents will buy them to teach children about civics.

My mom used to tell the story of how when I was little she once asked me what I wanted to be. I told her “a lawyer.” She asked, “Why? Do you want to go into a courtroom and represent other people?” And she said that I thought about her question and said, “No. I want to explain how the law works to other people.”

I guess that’s what I was meant to do all along.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 15

Dec. 15, 1930: Edna O'Brien born.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Q&A with Kate Hamer

Kate Hamer is the author of the new novel The Doll Funeral. She also has written the novel The Girl in the Red Coat. She lives in Cardiff, Wales.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Doll Funeral and for your character Ruby?

A: Like my first book, the original catalyst for the story was a strong central image that somehow I just couldn’t get out of my head.

This time it was a girl running through a house at top speed towards an open back door. She bursts out and looks to the sky and starts singing with joy.

The image wouldn’t leave me. I wanted to know why she was so happy, what had just happened. Then it came to me, the girl’s name was Ruby, it’s her 13th birthday and she’s just found out she’d been adopted as a baby.

The reasons why she’s so happy to hear this news is part of the core of the book.

Q: What do you think the book says about families and the connections they share?

A: It’s twofold, really. I was really interested in how the past intertwines with the present and the hauntings that occur in the book are all from family, whether from way back or nearer in time. I also love writing about survivors and Ruby is definitely one of those.

The book asks: if we are really brave, if we go through trials of ice and fire, do we get to choose who are real family are – who to love - whether they happen to be related to us or not?

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

A: I realise it’s quite a quirky title but it came to me very early on in the process of writing. There’s a scene in the very heart of the book which explains it.

There’s a Japanese practice of actually performing funerals for dolls. The logic being when we lose someone we love, their dolls need a send off too because it’s felt they are somehow imbued with the spirit of the person that owned it.

For me, the significance lies in “what do we leave behind?” It’s a major theme of the book.

Q: The book takes place partly in a forest area. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: Setting in this novel is particularly key. In fact, I tried to write the story in two other different locations before this version. Somehow it was always just a little off kilter; something was not working.

It was on a day out that we visited the Forest of Dean, which is close to the border of England and Wales. I’d heard of it before but strangely had never been there even though it’s only about an hour away from where I live.

As soon as I went under the canopy I knew my story had found its location. I think I cried! In the book the forest becomes more than a location, it’s almost like another character in the book.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m nearing the end of the first draft of my third novel. I’ve had a huge amount of fun with it.

In many ways its theme is the slipperiness of thought, but it centres around that age – late teenage – that with the wrong mix of personality and circumstance, things can go very wrong – and without giving too much away I can say they most certainly do!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Well, I could say a little about my writing process. I like to write a minimum of a thousand words a day and try and stay at my desk until I do. I also like to dream up what I’m going to write the next day in bed the night before. I drink a ton of coffee and get going.

On a good day I can have achieved my target by lunchtime and carry on. On other days any little distraction like the phone ringing or the postman delivering a parcel can feel like a blissful release. I find I never know what sort of day it’s going to be!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Kate Hamer.

Dec. 14

Dec. 14, 1916: Shirley Jackson born.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Q&A with Lesa Cline-Ransome

Lesa Cline-Ransome is the author of the new children's picture book Before She Was Harriet, which is about Harriet Tubman. Cline-Ransome's many other books for kids include Just a Lucky So and So and Words Set Me Free. She lives in the Hudson River Valley region of New York. 

Q: Why did you decide to write Before She Was Harriet, and how did you decide on the structure of the book?

A: Harriet Tubman has been a hero of mine for as long as I can remember but when my husband and illustrator, James, approached me with the idea of writing a story about her life, I was filled with absolute dread.

In part because so many authors, including Alan Schroeder (Minty) and Carole Boston Weatherford (Moses) have told her story so beautifully, I wondered what I could add. 

But when James began telling me about his research and the many different lives she lived, I decided to see if I could add my own perspective on her life.   

Telling the story in reverse chronological order allowed the reader to see her as she once saw herself, as young and vibrant, and even showed that though her physical body had experienced a great deal of change, her will, her dreams and her hope, had not dimmed. 
Q: What kind of research did you do to write this, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you? 

A: Because I had written books about Frederick Douglass and slavery in the past, I had of course, come across research on Harriet, much of it focused on her work as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. 

James' research revealed other facets of her life that I hadn't read much about including her life as a Union spy, suffragist, general and nurse. 

By adding those roles in this book, I think it gives a broader picture of Harriet and provides a more detailed picture of a life dedicated to service. I never knew that when she escaped, she left behind her name Araminta, and took her mother's name Harriet.  

Q: What do you think your husband James Ransome's illustrations add to the book? 

A: James works in a variety of mediums--oils, acrylics, pastels, and even collage. With his use of watercolor in this book, I feel he did a brilliant job of capturing Harriet's strength and passion but also her vulnerability and hope.  

Q: What do you hope young readers take away from Harriet Tubman's story? 

A: I think Harriet's life serves as a reminder that one voice and one life can impact the lives of many. 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I am completing the revisions for a collection of stories about 20 female athletes from the 1800s through the 2000s who broke down barriers in sports.  

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: I have a new picture book coming about Venus and Serena Williams, and my first middle grade novel, entitled Finding Langston, is releasing in May. 

It is the story of a young boy who migrated to Chicago from Alabama in the 1940s after the death of his mother. He feels lost and alone in the city until he stumbles upon a library and there, in the stacks, finds strength, courage and a sense of home in the works of Langston Hughes. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Lesa Cline-Ransome.