Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Q&A with Gene Barretta

Gene Barretta is the author and illustrator of the new children's picture book The Bat Can Bat: A Book of True Homonyms. His other books include Dear Deer and Zoola Palooza. He lives in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Bat Can Bat?

A: It’s the third in a series. The first was Dear Deer, a book of homophones. It did very well, and still seems to do well. Then there was Zoola Palooza, homographs, which is being retitled in the fall. It’s going to be called The Bass Played the Bass. I wanted to find a way to complete the trilogy.

Q: How did you pick the words?

A: As I read through [lists of words], themes started to arise. There were a number that included the names of animals, so a zoo theme. Or action words, a sports theme. The theme comes to me as I go through the list. The homophones were the simplest ones to write.

Q: Did you do the illustrations first or the text first (or work on them simultaneously)?

A: [The text first.] Especially with nonfiction, the words and the story have to come first. With these, it’s the same way. A fictional story may be inspired by imagery. You don’t have the freedom with homonyms to go anywhere.

Q: What do you hope kids take away from the book?

A: I tried to write them in a fun way. In an age of Facebook and texting, grammar has gone out the window. Adults use the word “their” wrong. I hope this sets things on a clearer path for the next generation.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just finished tightening up a manuscript for a book on George Washington Carver, illustrated by Frank Morrison. It will be out in fall 2019.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: It’s fun for kids to let their imagination fly, to think about how animals might perform these actions based on their strengths or weaknesses. Cheetahs would beat you in a race, but how would they do in a swimming match?

There’s a reminder that the grammar is there, but it can be fun. The three grammar books have been fun—they’re tied together by a beginning and an end, and the middle is vignettes to take you through. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 25

April 25, 1908: Edward R. Murrow born.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Q&A with Bruce W. Jentleson

Bruce W. Jentleson is the author of the new book The Peacemakers: Leadership Lessons from Twentieth-Century Statesmanship. His other books include The End of Arrogance and With Friends Like These. He is a professor of public policy and political science at Duke University.

Q: You note that part of the inspiration for your new book was a group of students you taught several decades ago. How did the concept for the book change over the years?

A: I’d say in three main ways. One was wrestling with the classic question of whether leaders make history or history makes leaders.

As someone who has been in both the academic and policy-political worlds, the one tending to focus on broad abstract forces and the other apt to get too caught up in personalities, I’ve long thought about where the balance point lies.  

In the introductory chapter, I frame this as a “3 Cs” dynamic: recognizing the mix of constraints and conducive conditions that any leader faces while still leaving a crucial domain of choice in which who the leader is can make a big difference.

As a lightening touch, and reflecting my lifelong love of baseball, I call this “Statesmanship Moneyball,” converting the wins-against-replacement- player (WARP) stat to statesman-against-replacement-leader (SARL) to get at unique leadership qualities and choices that were unlikely to have been made by another leader facing the same constraints-conducive conditions mix.

Second is the criteria of impact had, not just position held. I started out thinking largely about presidents and prime ministers, secretaries of state and ministers of foreign affairs.

But the more I did the research, the more I also saw how important were leaders from international institutions, social movements and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) who did for peace and justice what governments were unable – or unwilling – to do. Indeed, such leaders are even more important here in the 21st century than they were in the 20th century.

Third was how much peace needed to be achieved to qualify a peacemaker. A book about full and lasting success would, sadly, be a very short book. At one point I was ready to ditch the project since there were so few perfect-pure cases.

But I continued to believe that there was much to be learned from critical junctures at which breakthroughs were made for significant even if incomplete progress on issues long thought intractable.

I also decided that inclusion was about particular peacemaking roles not leaders’ overall foreign policies, as for example with Henry Kissinger and his co-statesmanship with Zhou Enlai on the 1971-72 U.S.-China opening (Chapter 1), notwithstanding his role in the Vietnam War and other issues.

Q: One of the “peacemakers” you discuss is Mikhail Gorbachev. How would you compare relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during his time and U.S.-Russia relations today?

A: No question there’s been backsliding and backlash rather than continuation of the breakthroughs which made Gorbachev not only a peacemaker in my view but someone who, as his latest biographer William Taubman puts it, “almost singlehandedly changed his country and the world” (Chapter 2).

As fraught as today’s situations are, those who call it a new Cold War go way too far. Whatever else the tensions, they are not global, they are not as intensely ideological and they are not casting the specter of nuclear war.

I lay out a path forward that would well serve both countries’ interests – while also conveying great concern that the Trump-Putin combination of both being thin-skinned as well as bullies can all too quickly ratchet escalation to very dangerous levels.

Q: Another person you include is Aung San Suu Kyi, whose story you describe as “a cautionary tale.” Why did you include her, given the current situation with the Rohingya in Myanmar?

A: My editor and I wrestled with this just before finalizing the manuscript last fall as the Rohingya crisis escalated to the point of genocide. Could someone who was at minimum complicit in these atrocities be included in a book called “peacemakers”? Should we pull the chapter?

Two reasons why we didn’t. One is that the ending of 54 years of military dictatorship and the initial transition to democracy would not have been possible without the leadership Aung San Suu Kyi provided – and that only she could have provided, that high “SARL” ranking --- in the 1988-2015 period.

Second is that as with so many other of our profiles, there is much to be learned from their mixes of flaws and failings. Of all the commentaries, I was especially struck by New York Times columnist Roger Cohen’s column avoiding casting her as saint or pillorying her as ogre and leaving open that she may still be “the best hope of completing the task [of] completing an unfinished nation.”

So we kept the chapter, titled it “Aung San Suu Kyi: A Cautionary Tale,” addressed both her achievements and failures, and drew out both sets of lessons.

Q: What impact do you see the Trump administration having on global interactions?

A: I started the book pre-Trump. He, and Putin and all too many others, have made constructive statesmanship all the more urgent. I deal most directly with Trump (and Putin and Xi Jinping) in the Major Power Rivalries section, drawing lessons from Kissinger-Zhou Enlai and Gorbachev and Reagan and others and the end of the Cold War.

As throughout the book I make the case for what could be done, not necessarily what will be done. Indeed, I end that section stressing my wariness especially about Trump (and I’ve written on my deep concerns about Trump elsewhere, for example, 2016 and 2017 articles in Global Asia and various missives on Twitter @BWJ777).

I start the book with an epigram from Isaiah Berlin that “At crucial moments, at turning points . . .  individuals and their decisions and acts . . . can determine the course of history.” In so many ways we are at one of those crucial moments at which leaders will determine the next course history takes – for the worse or for the better.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I wrote the book very much as a trade book, not just for the academic-wonk world but for general interest readers. We’ve mused on book clubs having their own discussions of who would you include as a 20th century peacemaker. If I was a millennial I may have created a social media game!

I am giving talks on the book in various cities at think tanks, universities, bookstores, general interest groups. I believe in the book and am committed to engaging with interested readers as much as possible.

At the same time, I’m continuing my work on some pressing foreign policy issues.

I have an article on U.S. policy in the Middle East in Order from Ashes: New Foundations for Security in the Middle East, published in March by The Century Foundation and the Brookings Institution. Also one more broadly on the 21st Century world, "The Liberal Order Isn't Coming Back: What Next?", in Democracy: Journal of Ideas.

I’ll be working more on those broad international order issues which acknowledge the ways that Trump and Brexit and the like are effects of deeper dynamics that would have been there even if the U.S. presidential election/British referendum had come out differently.

Within that I’m thinking of another book that puts the current debates about U.S. foreign policy in historical perspective, along the lines of a blog I wrote on the eve of the Trump presidency, but focusing not just on our interests but our national self-concept, "Apart, Atop, Amidst: America in the World" – I’m in early stages of thinking on this, so any thoughts welcome!

I also continue to co-direct the Bridging the Gap Program, with a group of fabulous colleagues, geared to better connecting the academic and policy worlds. And at Duke my teaching, mentoring and other responsibilities remain central, not least for the privilege of working with students in the early stages of their own intellectual and professional development.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I could never say enough about my family – and readers will find more gratitude in the Acknowledgments.

And my love of baseball --- For all that’s going on in our country and the world I’ll keep watching James Earl Jones’ elegy to baseball and America in Field of Dreams and reading Bart Giamatti’s elegy to baseball and life:

“[Baseball] breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall all alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.”

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Susan Goldman Rubin

Susan Goldman Rubin is the author of Coco Chanel: Pearls, Perfume, and the Little Black Dress, a new biography for older kids. Her many other books include Maya Lin: Thinking With Her Hands and The Quilts of Gee's Bend. She lives in Malibu, California.

Q: Why did you decide to write about Coco Chanel?

A: I was asked to do the book. I had done a book, Hot Pink:The Life and Fashions of Elsa Schiaparelli, and in doing the research, it was exciting to find out about people I never knew about before.

In the case of Schiaparelli, she was the designer who introduced hot pink to the fashion world in the 1920s. I was doing a program in San Francisco on Elsa Schiaparelli, and hot pink was the color of the year!

In the course of my research I found and wrote that she and Chanel were rivals. Elsa Schiaparelli was a single mother and adored her daughter at a time when it was rare that a woman would be abandoned and make a career for herself and take very good care of her daughter. It made her less nasty.

I wrote a little about it, and to my surprise they were both designing at the same time in Paris and would make very snippy remarks. When I read about it, I thought, kids will get this. My editor said, Would you want to do a book on Coco Chanel?

I leaped at the chance. I didn’t know much about her. My 12 ½ year old granddaughter knew about Chanel. I thought, Kids know this name. Then, the minute I started, I was wowed by her story.

I begin by getting every book I can. Don’t ask about my book bill! And I said, she’s everything you want in a children’s book heroine: an orphan, miserable, and a liar. And she turns out to be one of the most successful designers.

I still had to do a proposal. The story was just waiting for me…the orphanage was to influence her and her designs. I don’t own Chanel, but am totally influenced by her innovations...

There was one picture book by Candlewick [about Chanel], and one of the criticisms had been that it overlooked her relationship with a Nazi officer in World War II. I thought, I am going to tackle that. There was a book called Sleeping with the Enemy [that looked at that issue].

Q: So your granddaughter knew about Chanel already—what are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about her?

A: My granddaughter thought she was the epitome of glamorous elegance, and high style. What she didn’t know is that she was penniless, from a poor background, her mother died when she was 11. She was such a brat no one in the family wanted her. Her dad was a scoundrel.

To be born out of wedlock was a stigma she could never escape. Men of high society couldn’t marry her. It’s so different from life today. She would say to other girls that her dad was in America making a fortune.

Time online excerpted a chapter from the book, “I Am Not an Orphan.” She denied it her whole life long, yet her years at the orphanage influenced her style—black with touches of white was her palette. When she designed her villa, she wanted to duplicate the staircase at the monastery.

There were so many things [that surprised me about her]. When she finally graduated you had a chance to become a nun…Coco Chanel did not want to be a nun. Her name was Gabrielle. She lied about how she got the name Coco.

She was a charity case at a Catholic school. When she left she got a job at a shop. They had an outdoor cabaret with professional singers, and local amateurs could sing. It was a regiment town full of dashing soldiers. They goaded her to go on stage. I didn’t know she wanted to be a singer.

She had fantasies of being a cabaret singer. One of her boyfriends said, Your voice is like a trombone. Evidently she was a rotten singer, but she was so determined.

Between the main acts, she would sing one of two songs she knew, “Who Has Seen My Dog Coco?”  The soldiers would say, More Coco! That’s how she got her name, but she lied and said her father gave her that name.

I thought, why did she lie so much? Why lie about the orphanage? There must have been so much anger and resentment and shame. Her birth brothers went to work on a farm. She didn’t want any association with them...

What surprised me was that most of the clothes I wear were generally influenced by her. I have four or five striped shirts. I had no idea it was Coco Chanel who introduced those sailor shirts 100 years ago. It was typical of her to take men’s clothes and wear them.

I always thought fashion designers would make sketches. Be an artist. I was fascinated to read that she didn’t draw at all. She worked directly with the model, with scissors. She would shape the clothes with her hands like a sculptor. The poor models would have to stand for so long.

She went out of favor and then came back. There are so many elements of her story that are inspirational...

I didn’t know what fine tailoring is. I had no idea what she did to make the clothes hang just right. It shows the care and attention to detail....At the Oscars you see actors tugging at their dresses—not if they came out of the House of Chanel! Even when something was finished, photos showed her readjusting the sleeve of a coat…

Q: In the book, you describe her anti-Semitism and the idea that she may have been a Nazi sympathizer. Can you say more about that?

A: I don’t think she was a Nazi sympathizer at all. And of course, I’m Jewish. She found the whole war annoying. For her it was an intrusion. It wasn’t like, What can I do for my country? She was asked by the government to design uniforms for nurses, and she said no.

I don’t think she had feelings of sympathy. She had been through rough times as a child, and knew how to maneuver herself into a better position. She may have used her charm and attractiveness to get back to the Ritz [where she had been based].

And then she had this romance. She always had a romance. The only one she loved was Arthur Capel, who couldn’t marry her because of her status. To have a lover 100 years ago who was encouraging [about her work, as he was], was unusual. She loved men—she was always seeking love.

She needed and wanted love, and here is an officer, 15 years younger than she. She claimed she had known him before the war. They began a romance. Her maid attested after the war that he never came to see Chanel in uniform. They couldn’t go out to restaurants.

One of her best women friends criticized her for the affair. Her friend had been married to a Jew. Chanel didn’t care. The villa she built had been used by the Resistance; it was used to help Jews escape. Whether she knew it or not, she was helping the Resistance.

Because of her romance with the Nazi officer, who may have been a counterspy, someone asked her help to use her influence with her boyfriend to get a Jew released [and she agreed].

She was anti-Semitic herself. It was typical of the times. Kids were raised by the Church, and it was drummed into them that Jews were Christ-killers. This wasn’t unique to Chanel—many of her friends were anti-Semitic....

After the war any woman who had boyfriends who were German was punished—sent to jail, had their head shaved. She was so clever. She was known for the perfume Chanel No. 5, and its producer, Paul Wertheimer, was Jewish.

He had turned the business over in name to a friend who was not Jewish. Because of the perfume, she stayed afloat. At the end of the war, she offered free bottles of Chanel No. 5 to American GIs, and they wouldn’t let a hair of her head be touched. The woman was so shrewd.

She had become friends with Winston Churchill. As soon as the war was over, young men would round up anyone who seemed like a collaborator. She told her maid, If I’m not back in an hour, here’s the number to call. It was Winston Churchill’s number.

An anonymous caller called and said to go to Switzerland. That’s why she stayed there, to be out of the public eye. She was not in favor with the majority of the French people. She stayed away, got bored, and came back.

I wanted to show how a woman coped with ups and downs, and became one of the wealthiest women in the world.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: One of my big projects is a biography of Paul Robeson. Old Man River was written for him. Most importantly, he brought spirituals to the concert stage. He was a great athlete, a brilliant scholar, he won a scholarship to Rutgers, and was the only black student on campus.

He went on to be politically involved for the cause of peace, and he used his magnificent voice to sing and to speak. I would like a soundtrack to go with the book. He was an activist before the black civil rights movement took hold. He broke all kinds of barriers—he was the first black actor to play Othello on the American stage…

I’m also doing a new book about Edgar Degas, in collaboration with the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When I was a kid in New York, I knew every one of his paintings by heart.

I’m doing a book on voting rights for older readers, and it couldn’t be more timely.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Susan Goldman Rubin.

April 24

April 24, 1815: Anthony Trollope born.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Q&A with Barry Wittenstein

Barry Wittenstein is the author of the new children's picture book The Boo-Boos That Changed the World. He also has written Waiting for Pumpsie. He lives in Manhattan.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Boo-Boos That Changed the World?

A: About 10 or 15 years ago, I made a little book (three inches by three inches!) of Photoshopped images in the shape of adhesive bandages. Just for fun. All those filters that everybody has on their cellphones today, back then, Photoshop was the king.

So, I made about 50 images. From that point, I thought I’d research a bit about how the product came to be. My little book would have a story! But I also was interested in the common usage of the cliche, “put a Band-Aid on a problem.” Meaning, not a real or long-term solution. So, that’s the genesis. 

Fast forward to 2015, for some reason I don’t even recall, I picked up the idea again. This time, what I found interesting upon reading was that each time I thought the story of the invention was over, there was another wrinkle. Now, why did I come up with the usage of “The End” joke?  I think it was only on the first page initially. Then, during the rewrites, I saw that as a comedic theme. 

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?

A: As with any of my nonfiction books, it’s dive into the Internet using different search terms. Also YouTube for the old commercials. I also found a video segment on CBS’s show Sunday Morning where they visited the company and interviewed a spokesperson. It’s just plow ahead. I also bought a few books on the history of Johnson & Johnson.

Finding info about Earle and Josephine required a lot of detective work. You learn a piece here, another piece there. Then, of all things, Earle was posthumously inducted into the Inventor’s Hall of Fame. When I saw THAT, I knew the stars were aligning.  

In terms of being surprised, everything about the events surprised me. I had no clue how adhesive bandages came to be. I just found it hilarious how they thought they figured out how to produce it, the right size, and thought they had a real marketing plan, only to see zero interest. Of course, as I wrote, giving the bandages away was genius!

Q: What do you think Chris Hsu’s illustrations add to the book? 

A: Chris’ illustrations are fantastic! Did you know this is his first book? His illustrations raise the level of my words, and provide a deeper understanding. Does that make sense? He brought my words to life.

I understand he did a good amount of research, as well, into the styles of clothing, store signs, cars. He nailed it. He did an amazing job, and I’m sure he’ll be in demand sooner than later. 

Q: Who are some of your favorite picture book authors?

A: I love the work of so many. Anything by Melissa Sweet, Drew Daywalt, Jon Klassen, Andrea Davis Pinkney, Shel Silverstein, Mo Willems, Jacqueline Woodson, Amy Krouse Rosenthal…that’s just off the top of my head. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Since I’m only working on nonfiction, I don’t like to talk about the subjects I’m currently pitching or researching. Paranoid, you say? Might be. But it also takes so long to find a unique story that I feel I can explore, and then what style to explore?, that I’m just SCARED!!! OK, I’m scared!! Paranoid and SCARED!

But, I will tell you that I have three additional manuscripts under contract. One is about MLK and the March on Washington, another about a famous jazz saxophonist, and a third about a store. Two come out in 2019, and one in 2020. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Barry Wittenstein's website can be found here, and he can be reached on Twitter here.

Q&A with Amy E. Wallen

Amy E. Wallen is the author of the new book When We Were Ghouls: A Memoir of Ghost Stories. She also has written Moon Pies and Movie Stars, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Gettysburg Review and The Normal School. She is associate director at the New York State Writers Institute and teaches creative writing at UC San Diego Extension.

Q: You begin your memoir with a memory from your childhood in Peru. Why did you choose to start there?

A: I never expected to write a memoir, had no intention of writing one. In fact, over and over I swore I was a novel writer only. But I started to write a personal essay about the time my family dug up a grave.

When I discovered that my memory of who was graveside with me, that my brother who so vividly stood out in my memory was missing from the reality, a journey to explore ALL my memories of those years living overseas became insistent.

The discovery of what really happened throughout my childhood became the nagging resource for all the scenes in the memoir. After I realized I had a book-length work and not a short essay I tried out all sorts of structures for how to tell the bigger story.

The metaphor of digging up my family’s history was too great to not use it for the opening. That scene was what truly started my journey down memory lane, so it felt right to make it both the beginning of my story and the opening metaphor. 

Q: What do you think the book says about memory?

A: I hope what it says about memory is that all perspectives, everyone’s view is valid. The science says that memory is a re-creation of an event, that each time you remember something it is more about you. Memories are not facts. But memories are important for how and what each person recalls.

My intention is to show that the Truth always lies somewhere in between all the memories. For instance, what my mother, father and I each remember is all true to each of us, while the fact may never be proven, the Truth of what the situation gave to us—who it made us, how we were moved by it emotionally—this Truth lies inside the pieces of the story and says more about who we are rather than what happened to us.

Another for instance—my mother denies she remembers a body being in the grave. She doesn’t want to think of herself as someone who would do such a heinous act. But when my father reminds her of where we kept the skull—physical proof—she finally admits to what we did, and she immediately blames all of us, calls the whole family “hideous people...ghouls.”

Her denial illustrates her self-perception, just as my macabre search to make certain the details are real show mine. If she’s going to admit we did this crime then she’s going to take us all down with her. I want us all to be together no matter what the crime. 

Q: The book focuses in large part on your childhood and the role of your family members—what do they think of it?

A: My brother said he was both touched and found it very poignant. He also said he liked the guy that represented him much better than the one he has to live with every day. I idolized my brother, so I suppose that’s the best answer I could receive.

My sister said she sat down when her copy arrived and read it cover to cover. She said she related to so many of the incidents, and that she had felt abandoned most of her childhood too.

My 88-year-old father has dementia, a diagnosis that came after the book publication was in process. So many of his memories I share in the book have a different meaning than they did when I wrote them.

For instance, in one chapter I show my father revealing more evidence of his work with the CIA, I feel he’s about to give away his secrets to me. His stories that he has always told are becoming more detailed, more vivid, more intricate—they reveal important facts that say he knew more than he was telling me before. I felt in the book that he revealed this to me because he wanted ME to know.

I found out after his diagnosis that part of dementia is that the long-term memory becomes more detailed. When I wrote the book I had no idea he had dementia, so my interpretation was valid only in the moment.

My mom says she never drank as many daiquiris as I have her drinking in the book. She also says she probably should have left me with someone instead of alone in Nigeria. A little remorse, perhaps?

No one has called and told me I got it all wrong. No one has called and said they were mad at me. No one said I am out of my mind. I don’t expect them to, and I hope they all feel they were fairly represented.

The subtitle, “A Memoir of Ghost Stories” is meant to represent, among other things, how the memories easily slip through walls, how we are never sure whether we saw what we thought we saw, and my family all understand this probably better than most.

After learning about my dad’s dementia, I could now write another book on how memory plays out for my family in new ways. Perhaps memory and its nuances will be a fascination for me always. Maybe it will always appear and disappear revealing itself to me in surprising ways. 

Q: What led you to write this book, and how long did it take you to complete it?

A: As I mentioned in the first answer, I had no intention of writing a memoir. I just wanted to write an essay about a family digging up a grave. It was a cool story that I thought I could turn into something that represented Americans' disregard for humanity.

Instead it turned into some of that, but when the truth hit me in the face that the most emotionally potent moment for me was not only not true but impossible, I found myself upside down inside the story unable to leave it alone.

A grad school professor told me I was writing a memoir. I told her she was wrong, but she kept insisting. She was right, of course. And I’m grateful to her for pushing me.

I learned a tremendous amount about the art of memoir (so much different than fiction) and I was enthralled by the exploration of memory and how to put it on the page with honesty and understanding and compassion for everyone’s memories. I didn’t want to crush anyone’s remembrances.

It took me about three years to write it from that first graveside scene which was published as an essay in The Gettysburg Review, to finding the structure and how to tell all the stories that were my memories and how to delicately weave everyone’s truth in with mine so we could find the Big Truth.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: This is the hardest question to answer because I’m working on about five things, which is driving me nuts.

I have a novel in the works about a retirement community in Burbank where has-beens and wannabe Hollywood folk live. This book plays on memory too—one resident has dementia and is scared everyone will forget HER. Another resident has had a tragic life in war-torn El Salvador and wants to forget everything.

Death is a character in this story too, of course, because you can’t have characters who are in their 80s and 90s and not have death lurking around.

I have a collaboration with a writer friend of mine who is also an irreverent illustrator and we are working on a how-to book for novel writers about how I survived writing my first novel by baking pies. It’s quirky and fun, hopefully a companion for writers since writing is a hard business, and we all need to laugh in the darkest of times to keep going.

And, I have another memoir going that has to do with the letters my mom wrote us kids each week from 1986 to 2001.

And, I have another novel about a sin-eater, which is a small-town character based on an old tradition that used to exist in the South and other backwoods communities where a biscuit was placed on the chest of the corpse in the coffin where the dead person’s sins would be absorbed.

The sin-eater would then eat the biscuit thus allowing the deceased to pass into heaven without the burden of these sins. I want to know what happens to the sin-eater who consumed all these sins. Who is this person?

All of this schizophrenia over all these stories is crazy, but eventually my mind will settle on one, I hope. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I love to bake pies. I love to bake savory pies mostly. Comfort food. And some of my favorite memories are of when we came back to the U.S. after living all those years overseas, and I loved those frozen Swanson’s chicken pot pies. I’d pick out all the little pearl onions (yuck!) but I’d eat every last crumb of one of those pies in its tin foil pan.

When I got older I couldn’t stand the cardboard crust and the gooey sticky glutinous filling with the frozen cubes of carrots and too-chewy chicken, but I still craved the comfort the pie provided, so I taught myself how to make a pie crust and made my own pies. Now it’s my way to relax, to meditate, an excuse to eat, well, pie!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 23

April 23, 1564: William Shakespeare born.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Q&A with Barb Rosenstock

Barb Rosenstock is the author of two new children's picture books, Blue Grass Boy and The Secret Kingdom. Her many other books include Vincent Can't Sleep and The Camping Trip That Changed America. She lives in Chicago.

Q: Why did you decide to write a children’s picture book about Bill Monroe and his bluegrass music?

A: I got lost. Seriously. I got lost in Indiana and wound up in a town called Bean Blossom, which is where a really big bluegrass music festival happens every year. I kept seeing that name, Bill Monroe, on billboards, and had no idea who he was.

When I learned that Monroe is often credited with “inventing” bluegrass music, I wondered how a whole kind of music could have been created by one guy.

I thought I wanted to write about a type of music, bluegrass and country, that is heard so much throughout American culture, and yet has been hardly addressed in children’s literature at all.

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

A: My research process wasn’t that unusual for the book. Reading books, articles, visiting the places, and talking to experts in bluegrass.  

I was surprised when I learned that Monroe had esotropia, his left eye turned inward. It’s what we used to call “cross-eyed.” He took a lot of very rough teasing from his own brothers and others about his eyes.

His condition wasn’t corrected until he was an adult, so he really couldn’t see very well at all while growing up, and not much better afterward. Yet his problems with his eyesight probably contributed to his sensitivity to sounds in general and the development of his music. 

Q: You also have another new book out—what was the inspiration for The Secret Kingdom?

A: Getting lost, again, but this time on the internet. I was researching Van Gogh and I typed in some string of words that had to do with art and being an outsider.

The magic Google formula showed me photos of what turned out to be Nek Chand’s huge, lush sculpture garden in Chandigarh, India, which is considered one of the largest  “outsider art” environments in the world.

I couldn’t (and still can’t) believe that Nek's Secret Kingdom, whose real name is "The Rock Garden of Chandigarh," was built from scrap and other recycled materials. There’s always a surprise with nonfiction!

Q: What do you think the illustrations—by Edwin Fotheringham and Claire A. Nivola, respectively--add to the books?

A: I love to see how the style an illustrator chooses communicates the book’s atmosphere and voice.

In Edwin’s case, the illustrations for Blue Grass Boy have a casual feel and there’s a lot of movement that mimics the farm and countryside where Monroe grew up, as well as the tone of his bluegrass music.

With The Secret Kingdom, Claire's work is almost delicate, and reminded me of Nek Chand’s physical person and his family’s sense of place. There are also many circular or curved elements (are there many straight lines in the book at all?) which goes to the book’s theme of how stories circle around to bring us home.

In both cases, which is why I love picture books, there is the story in the pictures as well as the one in the words, as well as the way they work together. Three stories in one book. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m almost finished working on a bio of Claude Monet and work every day on a MG novel in verse, that may or may not see the light of day. It feels good to stretch a bit. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m a lucky, lucky author! I have a third book coming out this same year! Otis & Will Discover the Deep is about the first explorers who built a craft that went down in the ocean below the light level. It's illustrated by the amazing Katherine Roy and will be published in June by Little Brown.  

I hope it will encourage budding scientists and fascinate those kids who like adventure stories. We just received our third starred review, so I hope you’ll look it up, find some kids to read with, and DIVE IN!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Barb Rosenstock.

Q&A with Natasha Boyd

Natasha Boyd is the author of the historical novel The Indigo Girl. Her other books include the novel Accidental Tryst.  She was born in Denmark and lives in the United States.

Q: Your novel The Indigo Girl is based on the life of an actual historical figure, Eliza Lucas Pinckney. What did you see as the right blend of fiction and history as you wrote this book?

A: I set out to follow history as closely as possible while still allowing Eliza’s remarkable story to shine through; her fortitude, her resilience, her perseverance in the face of adversity and pitfalls. I was lucky that her struggle to bring indigo as a commodity to bear is a remarkable story, complete with allies and villains, setbacks and resolutions.

She spent most of her time on the plantations, especially during the indigo years, which is the scope of this novel, so it was natural that the people she would interact with most would be on the plantation, and not in the drawing rooms of Charleston society.

While I’ve been lucky to come across records of actual slaves and personnel attached to the plantations, there were also lots of blanks I had to fill in.

Those added characters and also the fleshed-out personalities of people who before now were simply a name on a bill of sale or lading, really allowed me to explore some of the issues of colonial South Carolina and the issues facing an idealistic young girl bound by societal expectation.

Q: How did you research the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: I researched the novel by reading the meticulously recorded letters that she wrote, anecdotes written down by her descendants, as well as visiting the archives of the South Carolina Historical Society and reading surrounding historical documents of the time. I also visited places I knew she’d been, visited and lived. 

I was also fortunate that scholars and historians who studied the time period, Eliza and/or indigo as a commodity have been able to find references that were otherwise missing from the main body of history.  For example, I’m especially thankful for the work that was done to trace the names and records of the slaves that worked on her plantation. 

There were so many things that surprised me. Firstly, while I knew she must have been a spirited and determined young person in order to accomplish what she did, it was only by reading through her letters and prayers she wrote throughout her whole life that I got a real glimpse into her personality. She was passionate and had a wonderful sense of humor.

I especially loved learning about the slave, Quash, and learning what became of him. Eliza freed him in the 1750s and he ended up becoming an architect, building the home that Eliza and future husband Charles Pinckney lived in on East Bay Street. He bought his daughters out of slavery and became a landowner himself. Which in those times meant he probably also became a slave owner himself.

Q: What do you think Eliza's experiences say about the role of women in 18th century South Carolina?

A: As much as we like to imagine a TV world where women were but expensive decorations corseted up in silk and feathered finery in the 18th century, Eliza’s story reminds us that women were very much involved in the menial running of houses and plantations, and worked hard despite having little agency of their own.

Of course, Charleston society was genteel and there was indeed silk and feathered finery worn by both men and women, but in the end 18th century South Carolina was a place of pioneering spirit, but also many sociological tragedies.

Many women who were capable farmers’ wives would be left homeless and destitute when their husbands died. Their only hope would be to remarry. I was surprised to learn that Eliza taught herself rudimentary law and will writing, in order to help local women in case their husbands died. 

To put an 18th century women’s worth in perspective though: a male slave might be freed and could therefore go and buy land if he had the means. A woman like Eliza, a planter’s daughter, might be technically “free” but could work tirelessly and never be able to own even the vegetable patch over which she toiled.  That made female slaves, of course, the worst off. 

Being a woman in 18th century South Carolina was not for the faint-hearted. In my view, Eliza’s station, pioneering spirit, education, and empathetic humanitarian nature was exactly why she was able to garner so much respect and accomplish so much.

Q: The novel also focuses on the issue of slavery. What do you hope readers take away from your depiction of the plantation in your book?

A: You can’t write a book in 18th century South Carolina and not deal with slavery. And it just so happens that Eliza’s story is one of a planter’s daughter. Planters owned slaves. There’s no getting around it. Slavery wasn’t a focus of the book as much as the story cannot be told without it.

Slavery needs to be talked about, not skirted around. The slaves who helped her should be named and appreciated as part of the story, not be faceless allies. Eliza was a product of the world in which she lived, with no agency or means to take on a crusade to end slavery.

Nor should we assume, just because she was a kind and empathetic slave owner (which in modern terms feels like an oxymoron but is based on the writings of her life and her recorded actions) that she would have taken on such a cause.

Many of the planters who owned land were unable to pay for labor, it would have bankrupted them, and they were taught that this was just the way things were done. They truly believed it was economically necessary and unavoidable. When the colonists tried to begin issuing their own notes from their banks to ease up their economy, the British Crown was swift with punishment. 

I hope readers take away from my book how integrated into the fabric of colonial existence it was and that it can’t be wished away. I hope it makes visitors visiting old plantations just as interested in the decrepit slave cabins and the people who lived in them, as in the grand ballrooms. I hope it makes them think of the often faceless and nameless people who were so much a part of the building of America.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am currently working on a romantic comedy called Inconvenient Wife, which is a follow up to my recent romantic comedy Accidental Tryst. I have two other writing projects planned for this year that I’m not able to share anything about yet. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My goal in writing The Indigo Girl was to reintroduce readers to a real-life historical figure who shouldn’t have been forgotten. It was an absolute honor to write her story, and my hope is that Eliza Lucas Pinckney’s determined spirit and her important accomplishment are what people remember most when they finish the book.   

--Interview with Deborah Kalb