Thursday, May 24, 2018

Q&A with Lisa Romeo


Lisa Romeo is the author of the new book Starting With Goodbye: A Daughter's Memoir of Love After Loss. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and O: The Oprah Magazine, and she is thesis director for the Bay Path University MFA program. She lives in New Jersey.

Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir?

A: In one sense, momentum carried me toward it. For about six years, I was writing and publishing essays about my experiences with grief and trying to get to know my father better after he died.

Great writing advice is to write what you can’t shut up about, what obsesses you, and for me, it was this topic. I could never understand why people don’t talk about death and about deceased people with more ease and frequency. I wanted to keep exploring that.

When it seemed a body of work was accumulating, I pulled together an essay collection, which didn’t sell. All the people I trusted told me to rewrite it as a more traditional memoir, but I resisted and I shelved it for a while.

But it kept nagging at me and eventually I challenged myself to do just that, to shape/rewrite/revise all the material into a somewhat more linear narrative (though true to my style, there’s a lot of moving around in time and place, too).

Q: You write, "Can a relationship really continue, and even get better, when one of the two is gone?" How would you answer this question?

A: I believe this is possible, yes! The love remains, and so does the essence of the beloved person; they are part of us and in a very real sense, do not depart this earth as long as they are present in our memory.

I admit this requires some suspension of belief; it’s a stretch. But actively continuing the relationship, the conversation, to me is a lot more healing and makes a lot more sense than trying to forget or “get over it” (which I do not believe is possible).

Now that I’m hearing from readers, it’s clear that many other people experience “conversations” with their departed loved ones but are very reluctant to share that with other people, lest they be thought unstable or just loony.

But who says you have to stop talking to your loved ones just because they’ve died? Or seek their counsel? If that’s how your grief unspools, then go there, indulge yourself, see how it makes you feel and what you might learn from those conversations with your dead dad, mom, sister, etc.

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

A: The title was a genuine collaborative effort between me, a small group of trusted writer friends (my “hive mind”), my husband and sons, and the publisher.

Working with those friends and family members, we came up with 20 possible titles and subtitles, a mix and match kind of list. I sent my top five of each to the publisher, who chose the final title and subtitle from that list.

I think it’s perfect because it’s literally what happened: my father and I started “talking” again when it was time, traditionally, to say goodbye. After loss, I discovered the many ways love had been present all along.

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

A: I believe we as a society should be able to talk more openly about death, loss, grief, and related issues, and this book perhaps is my one small contribution to urging folks in that direction. These are some of life’s most significant experiences and it would be great if they were more a part of our collective conversation.

I also hope the book might help reassure people that grief is not rigid; there’s no way to do grief right or wrong. It does not have to conform to some prescribed set of stages, and however you experience grief is okay.

If talking to your dead parent in the middle of the night while eating his favorite snack makes you feel good, brings back warm memories, then why not?

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Trying to decide on book number two; three nonfiction ideas are currently vying for attention and as is my way, I’m writing essays about them, seeing which one grabs me most.

In the meantime, I’m doing all the things I normally do: teach, run workshops, coach writers, edit manuscripts. I have two sons in college, so those things make up my normal workday, keep the paychecks coming. And the truth is, my own writing is always enhanced by what I learn from all of those activities, by working with so many other writers.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: When I’m having a writing problem, I do something relatively mindless like needlepoint, walking, laundry, or going for a long drive—and the solution always occurs to me. Napping is also a good way to let the writing mind settle and find new direction.

I’d like to say that dark chocolate also has the same effect, but so far, not so. I’ll keep trying though!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 24

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
May 24, 1941: Bob Dylan born.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Q&A with Jill Orr


Jill Orr is the author of the new mystery novel The Bad Break, the second in her Riley Ellison series, which began with The Good Byline. She lives in Columbia, Missouri.

Q: How did you decide what Riley Ellison's second adventure would be?

A: I'm not much of a plotter, so I really let Riley's character development guide the story and shape the plot.

I knew she was going to go to work for the newspaper (that decision was made at the end of the first book), and I knew whatever mystery she got involved with would be something she'd have to work on her own.

I wanted the main challenge in this book to be Riley learning to trust herself and her instincts and so the plot just grew out of that.

Q: How do you think Riley has changed over the course of the two books?

A: I hope she's becoming more confident, more driven to go after the things she wants out of life. When the series began, Riley was allowing life to happen to her in a very passive sort of way.

I like to believe that when her childhood best friend Jordan died in the first book, it awoke something in Riley that said, "Life is short. Live it with your whole heart."

She's definitely still figuring out what she wants from life and what she's willing to do to get it, but with each passing challenge, I think she's getting closer to answering those big life questions.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Riley's ongoing correspondence with Click.com and Bestmilleniallife.com?

A: This is one of those questions for which I wish I had a better answer. The truth is I have no idea how I came up with the idea for Click.com - that one just popped into my head with Regina H fully formed.

It ended up becoming a real fan favorite and provided a nice comic relief from the narrative, so I knew I wanted to do something similar in the second book. And of course I knew that Click.com would never miss an opportunity to take people's money!

So I came up with the idea that they'd have a sister company, bestmillenniallife.com, and give Riley a free trial with a lovable, well-meaning, if a little ditzy, Personal Success Concierge.

I found humor in the idea that a life coach would still be figuring out her own life. I also love reading epistolary novels and the email exchanges gave me the opportunity to play around with that form. Plus, it's always fun as a writer to get to be flat-out silly.

Q: What do you think your books say about the world of journalism today?

A: I hope they add to the message that journalism is more important today than ever before.

I went to journalism school myself and am a firm believer that a free and independent press is one of the most valuable things in our democracy. It sets us apart from other systems of government and provides checks and balances for those in power.

I've known many a good journalist, and good journalists fight to discover the truth. I wanted Riley to be guided by that principle as she begins her new career as a reporter. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm hard at work on Riley #3, which is provisionally titled The Ugly Truth.

There's been a shocking double murder in Tuttle Corner, Virginia, that involves some high-profile movers and shakers from Washington, D.C. This brings national attention to Riley's small part of the world-- and along with it, a lot of big city reporters competing for the story.

Holman and Riley are stunned when they discover that their friend Rosalee, the owner of Tuttle's beloved tavern, is the prime suspect in the violent crimes. But Rosalee insists she's being set up and that her life is in danger because she knows the identity of the killer.

In exchange for protection, Rosalee gives Holman and Riley exclusive information incriminating a very powerful person who she says is the real murderer. But the pair eventually begins to question if Rosalee is helping them expose a killer or using them to cover up her own crimes.

Unfortunately, they disagree on the answer. Riley and Holman end up going down separate investigative paths until one of them finds the truth... and one of them finds the killer.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Not a thing! You now know it all!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Jill Orr.

May 23

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
May 23, 1910: Margaret Wise Brown born.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Q&A with Ceridwen Dovey


Ceridwen Dovey, photo by Shannon Smith
Ceridwen Dovey is the author of the new novel In the Garden of the Fugitives. She also has written the novel Blood Kin and the story collection Only the Animals. She was born in South Africa, and raised there and in Australia. She lives in Sydney. 

Q: Why did you decide to structure your new novel In the Garden of the Fugitives in the form of a correspondence between your characters Vita and Royce?

A: I knew right from the beginning that only an epistolary form would do: I was excited by how letters between two antagonists allow for an adversarial, dueling wordplay, mimicking the dialogic form of psychotherapy but making it darker, less about healing and more about revenge.

The two contesting voices of the characters Royce and Vita in the book also mimic and anticipate the experience of reading itself, that sense of any book meeting the reader halfway, not only welcoming but challenging them. 

Q: What do you think the novel says about post-apartheid South Africa?

A: I think that is very much a question for each reader to answer for him or herself. It took me a very long time in my years of working on my craft as a writer before I could find the right tone and language to begin to metabolize in fiction some of my own life experiences growing up in South Africa.

For me, the only form in which I feel I can say anything about post-apartheid South Africa is in the form I've chosen, the novel - perhaps because, to paraphrase Elias Canetti on Kafka, it lets me preserve, above all, my freedom to fail.

Q: How would you describe the dynamic between the two characters, especially given the current #MeToo era?

A: I'm interested in understanding the dynamic between young, talented women and older men who act as their benefactors, and also what happens to talented women as they age, and are no longer protected or cushioned from certain kinds of failure by their youth (but at the same time are no longer subjected to the same kinds of male predation they were when they were young).

I've really appreciated Jia Tolentino's brilliant reporting on the #MeToo movement - especially her description of the classic "bait-and-switch" that men like Harvey Weinstein make, linking a young and talented woman's potential to her body, then threatening that body, and forever making the woman uncertain of her talent - and that is definitely a theme that I've tried to explore in the dynamic set up between Royce and Vita.

Yet Vita is not a straightforward victim, as she in turn has to confront a different kind of legacy - what it means for her to be part of a class of perpetrators, as a white South African. As one of the characters in the novel says, "We are all accountable to different phantoms from the past." 

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

A: The novel was named for the actual site in Pompeii, the Garden of the Fugitives, where in 1961 13 body cavities were discovered and made into casts, the first time so many bodies had been cast together as they'd been found, exactly where they'd died.

In the novel, Royce recalls time he spent working with a love interest at a dig site within the ancient city of Pompeii in the 1970s. The Pompeii sections of the book let me explore and deepen Freud's use of Pompeii as a metaphor for what is obscured in human life, a symbol of the hidden depths of human emotions.

It also lets me ask larger questions, beyond Vita's personal history, about the interpretation of the past, of history, and different approaches to the ancient dead: should we try to keep the past familiar, or is it more respectful to keep the past strange, let it remain alien? 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm really enjoying writing non-fiction essays for newyorker.com and The Monthly (an Australian magazine). It's nice to have a change of pace from the long, slow, deep and solitary work of working on a novel for years.   

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Ceridwen Dovey.

May 22

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
May 22, 1859: Arthur Conan Doyle born.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Q&A with Jonathan Salk


Jonathan Salk is the co-author, with his father, Jonas Salk, of the book A New Reality: Human Evolution for a Sustainable Future, first published in 1981 and now updated in a new edition. Jonathan Salk is a psychiatrist based in Los Angeles. He teaches at UCLA. 

Q: How did this new edition of A New Reality come to be?

 A: It’s an interesting story. The original was published in 1981 to very little attention. I still have copies in my basement. My dad continued to talk about it through his death in 1990, and then it just sat for a while.

Four years ago, I got a call from a young architect, David Dewane. He said it felt like the book spoke to him and his generation, and he wondered if I had any interest in revising and republishing it. The original book was not very attractive. We updated the population data, revised the text, and engaged a wonderful designer, Courtney Garvin. 

Q: Can you talk about some of the changes you made in this new edition, and why? 

A: Aside from the design, there was a lot of population data in the original book, which was requested by the United Nations [Population] Fund. We took out a lot of the data that wasn’t [necessary] for the main message. We rearranged things—there are differences in tone but not in the ultimate message.

Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4 were there. [We added] a couple of graphs about the depression generation, the baby boom generation, and the millennial generation. Part 5 is really very different…the original ended up with building a mandala of complexity of human life. It wasn’t a great way to end the book… 

Q: So you said there are differences in tone but not in the ultimate message. What are some of those differences, and what do you see as the ultimate message? 

A: The basic message of the book is a message of hope for a world in transition. It shows where we are, it shows why we experience turmoil, it shows a way out. From accelerated [population] growth to decelerated growth and plateau, there are adaptations we need to make and are making. 

Q: How do the different versions of the book fit into the world now and then? 

A: The other was much more academic in its description of the changes that were happening…There are two main differences in tone. The things we foresaw then come to pass—that more hopeful tone is there.

And the cautionary tone is more strident in this version, particularly with climate change. That was something that wasn’t known in 1981. There’s an urgency in terms of that. We’re seeing open conflict between the two [views]. 

Q: How did you and your father collaborate on the original version of the book? What was your writing process like? 

A: He got a request in the mid-‘70s to apply some U.N. data to a theory he’d put forth in the book The Survival of the Wisest. He put together a kind of slide show in a book. It was not finished at all. It sat for a couple of years. He was over-committed. At the point when I belatedly graduated from college, he asked me to help finish it.

He said, Do what you want. I dove in with both feet and produced a lengthy tome. He said, We’ve got some paring down to do. That was painful at the time, but it was a great learning experience for me. He was a stickler for concision.

Parts 4 and 5 were all relatively new. Part of the process was sitting down side by side going over the text. It really was a true collaboration. The basic concept was his, but we both thought there was enough that I added that it was a co-authored situation…

He got famous [earlier] and was very busy, and we were close but hadn’t spent much time together. I’m really pleased to have had that year with him. 

Q: What do you see as your father's legacy today? 

A: It was the things he said and the things I came to realize. In the later part of his life, he felt he had a way of looking at things, asking questions, that was useful to other people. He wanted people to appreciate how his mind worked.

He really did three major things in his life: the polio vaccine, founding the Salk Institute, where he was involved in the creative design of the buildings, and the writing he did in the last third of his life.

He really embodied the ability to make dreams into reality, to envision things and attend to details so the idea is realized. If people can do that, take creative intuition and put it into reality, you can change the world. For me, that’s his legacy, and he would be pleased with it. 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I’m a psychiatrist, and I teach. I want to get back to memoir-type pieces on my life as a psychiatrist, [writing about] some of my ideas about human behavior, the formation of personality and how that intersects with culture. There are ways people’s individual psychology reflects on our broader society. 

Q: Anything else we should know about the book? 

A: I would especially want people to know that there’s a transition we’re going through, a naturally evolving process. The conflict in values we experience is very understandable.

The basic message is that the adaptive values of cooperation, interdependence, response to limits…are so vitally important. We [should] continue to develop these values to survive this crisis and enter into a new reality. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 21

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
May 21, 1688: Alexander Pope born.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Q&A with Adam Garnet Jones


Adam Garnet Jones, photo by Jalani Morgan
Adam Garnet Jones is the author of the new young adult novel Fire Song, which is an adaptation of his film of the same name. His other projects include the film Great Great Great. He lives in Toronto. 

Q: Why did you decide to turn your film Fire Song into a young adult novel?

A: I was always too much in awe of novelists to ever imagine myself as a "real" writer. Somehow it was easier to work in the world of film, where I could gather people together to tell stories using a vehicle that drew attention toward someone else. In film, the actors are always so much more visible than the writer or the director.

But after finishing the film Fire Song, I was approached by Annick Press to discuss the possibility of adaptation. I figured that if I ever wanted to be brave and take that step toward writing prose, I would never have a more perfect opportunity.

What I had to figure out for myself was, what would a reader gain from the book that they wouldn't gain from the film? The answer I found was that the medium of fiction is by its very nature a deeply interior experience.

In the film you see Shane dealing with the trials of his life, and the performances hint at a level of interiority, but the book really gave me the opportunity to put the reader inside his head, as well as inside the story.  

Q: How similar are the film and the novel, and which was more challenging to work on?

A: The film and the book are quite similar, although there were some key edits that had to be made in order to focus the story on Shane's perspective without losing Tara. One of the great opportunities I had with the book was to give Tara more of a voice via her diaries and poetry. I loved getting to think about her in a different way and write her point of view.  

Q: How did you come up with your character Shane, and what do you hope readers take away from his story?

A: It was important for me that Shane be someone who does well in school, with some loving people in his life and who is seen as a bright light in the community.

Since the story is one where the main character is brought to the brink, but is ultimately able to save himself, I had to have a central with a long way to fall within the story, but someone who also has a core of strength and resilience.  

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?

A: There are so many! I love James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Ursula Le Guin, Richard Van Camp, Cherie Dimaline, Jennifer Egan, Eden Robinson, Thomas King. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a new film script about a group of teenaged boys who murder their fathers. It might become a book instead, though! 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I will soon be taking a break from filmmaking to become a Content Analyst and Indigenous Liaison with Telefilm Canada.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 20

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
May 20, 1799: Honoré de Balzac born.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Q&A with Gloria Chao


Gloria Chao is the author of the new young adult novel American Panda. She has worked as a dentist, and she's based in Chicago.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for American Panda, and for your main character, Mei?

A: I wanted to write the book I needed as a teen, and a book that would help Asian Americans feels seen. I hoped American Panda would show readers that they aren’t alone, that it’s okay to not feel wholly one thing or another, and that cultural gaps can be difficult.

For Mei, I wanted a conflicted, awkward teen struggling with her identity, and who loved her parents and culture even though she also had a hard time with them. She needed to be someone who was relatable to many in feeling out of place, but also specific enough to show a window into another experience.

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

A: When I set out to write this novel, I knew each character’s arc and how things would and wouldn’t be resolved at the end. My goal was always to write a realistic but hopeful ending that reflected my life experiences and the experiences of friends and family.

Q: How does your previous career as a dentist inform your writing?

A: I try to use my past to write interesting scenes. For example, American Panda has a scene in a gross anatomy lab and a few scenes in the health center. It’s not common knowledge what a gross anatomy lab smells like, so I was honored to be able to inform everyone that it smells like Fritos.

Q: Which authors have inspired you?

A: I am inspired by the YA POC authors who unapologetically write their stories despite the extra hurdles they have to face to get them published.

There are too many to list, but just to name a few, I’m inspired by Angie Thomas, Zoraida Córdova, Adam Silvera, Jenny Han, Cindy Pon, and Ellen Oh. Also, Becky Albertalli’s Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda and Nicola Yoon’s The Sun Is Also a Star have such fabulous voices that inspired my writing.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Misaligned will be released fall 2019 with Simon Pulse, and the book follows a teen outcast, Ali, who is the only Asian in her small, predominantly white Midwestern town.

The book explores racism and prejudice, and when another Asian family moves to town, everyone believes Ali and the other Chinese boy belong together. Despite her initial resistance, she begins falling for him, the one who understands her in a way no one else can, only to learn that her mother forbids them from being together.

As Ali searches for the reasoning behind her mother’s disapproval, she unearths dark family secrets that threaten her future.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Keep writing, everyone! Dreams do come true, and I’m proof that you don’t need to know people in the business, have an MFA, or grow up knowing you wanted to be a writer. If you love it, it’s worth the rejection and the time. You got this!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 19

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
May 19, 1930: Lorraine Hansberry born.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Q&A with Solange Ritchie


Solange Ritchie is the author of the new novel Firestorm, the second book featuring her character Dr. Catherine "Cat" Powers. Ritchie also has written the novel The Burning Man. An attorney, she lives in South Florida.

Q. How did you come up with your character Dr. Cat Powers and the idea for your new novel Firestorm?

A: I read quite a bit in the mystery/suspense/thriller genre. I got tired of reading about lead characters—all men, who often were either “gumshoe” detective types or ex-Navy SEALs.

I longed for a strong female lead—a woman who was an intelligent risktaker, a crusader for justice, and an ass-kicker if need be, but also who had with real work-life challenges such as raising a young son pretty much on her own. That’s the genesis of Cat.

I came up with the story line for Firestorm, having lived through several wildfires in California. I vividly remember the Laguna Beach Fire, which came close to wiping out my house. All that saved it and halted the fire from coming further was a golf course where sprinklers had been left running.

The arsonist in Firestorm is based on a lot of research and, to some extent, on real-life cases.

Q: Did you know when you wrote the first book about Cat that you would be writing more about her?

A: I didn’t want The Burning Man to have a typical conclusion: good cop gets bad guy. End of story. This kind of ending is neither interesting nor original. I wanted the reader to finish The Burning Man saying, “I want more” so that the story of Cat, her son Joey, and the criminal known as The Burning Man had to continue and come to some sort of fruition in a second novel.

Also, there was much more to Cat and Joey’s relationship that needed to be revealed, as well her own internal doubts and questions about the job she is doing.

Every law enforcement professional at some point in his or her career wonders, “Is what I am doing good enough?” “Am I up for this task today?” Cat deals with these kinds of internal questions, which in turn leads to more adventures and more novels.

Q: Do you know how your novels will end before you start writing, or do you make many changes along the way that affect the ending?

A: I always have a beginning scene and an ending scene in my head before I start to write. And before I start to write I do a ton of research. For Firestorm, my research binder was thicker than the novel.

The middle of a novel is where I develop the plot. I follow a rough formula as for where and when high points in the story line will occur. As a trial lawyer, I have heard and presented so many stories of injustice in court that I know instinctually where the high points should be.

Once I have a first draft, which I write straight through without editing, then the redrafting takes place. Sometimes, this is where changes are made.

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

A: I read all types of genres. I am into Jonathan Maberry and Stephen King for my horror fix. For a thriller fix, I look to David Baldacci, Catherine Coulter, Vince Flynn, J. A. Jance, Charles Todd, and Jeffery Deaver. I also love Michael Connelly. I’m not much into romance novels, although I do believe love can conquer all.

I minored in Japanese and Chinese politics as an undergraduate before attending law school, so novelists such as Arthur Golden (Memoirs of a Geisha) and Mineko Iwasaki (Geisha, A Life) are also favorites.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on drafts of books three and four in the Dr. Cat Powers series.

In the third novel, which is set in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area, Cat takes on a dirty international law firm dealing in sex trafficking, illicit drug trade, and the like. It draws on my extensive knowledge as a trial lawyer.

In the fourth novel, which is more of a political thriller, Cat chases down a team of international terrorist bombers who are spreading mayhem across the United States. It promises to have an explosive ending.

I also just started a horror novel, since many people have commented that The Burning Man and Firestorm push noir fiction to its limit.

I grew up in Jamaica where there is a rich cultural belief in the supernatural and “things that go bump in the night.” I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that an object can take on evil and that as the object is passed along from one owner to the next, the evil can follow and even grow in strength.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: It is important to me that readers see Dr. Cat Powers as a character who embodies women’s self-empowerment. In a genre that often portrays women as victims and femme fatales, I want Cat to represent more.

In this era where women are finally speaking up about sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace, I hope her character empowers women to stand up for justice and themselves. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 18

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
May 18, 1902: Meredith Willson born.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Q&A with Gary Krist


Gary Krist is the author of the new book The Mirage Factory: Illusion, Imagination, and the Invention of Los Angeles. His other books include City of Scoundrels and Empire of Sin. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

Q: Why did you choose to focus on early 20th-century Los Angeles in your new book?

A: I see The Mirage Factory as the third in a trilogy of city books I’ve written for Crown, after City of Scoundrels (about Chicago) and Empire of Sin (about New Orleans).

It’s been fascinating to explore how each city has grown and developed over time, each one coping with similar issues but in different ways, depending on the particular people and circumstances in each place.

What intrigued me most about Los Angeles was the fact that this remarkable urban entity grew up in a place where no city should logically be.

The site was too dry, too far from natural resources and potential markets; it was also isolated by deserts and mountain ranges and without a good deep-water port. And yet it grew from a largely agricultural town of 100,000 in 1900 to a major metropolis of 1.2 million by 1930.

That feat required imagination, not to mention some really unorthodox tactics (including plenty of deceptive advertising), and that’s the story I wanted to tell.

Q: In the book, you look at three people: William Mulholland, D.W. Griffith, and Aimee Semple McPherson. Why did you select them, and do you see them as having anything in common?

A: I seem them as representatives of the three major factors that allowed L.A. to pull off its growth trick.

Mulholland made it possible for a major urban center to develop in this arid land by imagining and then building a technological wonder—the Los Angeles Aqueduct—to bring water from a distant part of the state.

Meanwhile, the city was limited by a lack of heavy industry, but then a brand-new industry was more or less invented—the movie business. D.W. Griffith was the artist most responsible for turning what had been a vaudeville house novelty into a major money-making and job-creating industry.

And evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson helped to establish the ethos of the city as a place of unorthodox spirituality and unconventional lifestyles—an ethos that drew visitors and would-be residents from other parts of the country in droves.

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

A: I naturally spent an enormous amount of time out in Los Angeles, going through archives and libraries, talking to local historians, and just getting to know the geography and the spirit of the place.

One thing that surprised me is how relatively homogenous L.A.’s population was in the early decades of the 20th century, compared to that of other American cities. Given its current identity as a rich multicultural center, I was surprised that the L.A. of the 1910s, for instance, still lacked large Latino, Asian, and African American populations.

That changed, of course, over the 1920s and 1930s, and especially during and after World War II. But until the 1920s, the city was drawing new residents largely from the white populations of the Midwestern and Eastern states.

Q: You've also studied New Orleans and Chicago. How would you compare the three in terms of their development during this period?

A: Chicago was at the opposite end of the spectrum in this era, with huge populations of foreign immigrants from Europe and African Americans from the South.

Its growth spurt happened several decades earlier than that of Los Angeles, mainly because it had all of the urban growth factors that L.A. lacked—a strategic location for trade, proximity to natural resources, mature industries, etc.

New Orleans, on the other hand, was another sui generis city, much older, with a French, Spanish, and Caribbean history that created a unique urban environment.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m just beginning to cast around for my next topic, but I have to say that my curiosity about San Francisco has been piqued by all of the time I’ve spent in California recently.

Talk about another unique city! Thanks to the 1848 gold rush, San Francisco developed much earlier than Los Angeles, but it had to watch its rival to the south surpass it in population and importance in the early 20th century.

I’m not sure yet that I’ve got another big city book in me, but I’m seriously considering turning that trilogy of city books into a quartet.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’ve been amazed at how many people—even people who live in L.A.!—seem to think that the city has no history of any significance, that it sprang up fully formed as an entertainment and cultural capital sometime during the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Granted, L.A.’s history is compressed into a shorter time period than that of most cities, but there’s no shortage of really remarkable stories to tell. I hope I’ve done justice to a few of the important ones in The Mirage Factory.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Gary Krist.

May 17

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
May 17, 1873: Dorothy Richardson born.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Q&A with Ashley E. Sweeney


Ashley E. Sweeney, photo by Karen Mullen
Ashley E. Sweeney is the author of the historical novel Eliza Waite, published two years ago, which focuses on a woman who travels to Alaska in 1898. Sweeney is a journalist, teacher, and community activist. She lives in La Conner, Washington.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your novel, and for your main character, Eliza?

A: The story of Eliza Waite evolved after discovering an abandoned cabin on a hike on largely uninhabited Cypress Island in Washington’s San Juan Islands in the fall of 2008. I decided that day that a novel set in that locale could be both mysterious and intriguing.

Eliza grew on me during the writing process. I liked her from the beginning, but I can honestly say that I admire her even more now that I’m finished with the novel.

It’s interesting how a fictional character can help an author grow. I’m confident now that if I had been confronted with the same challenges as Eliza faced that I would be able to dig deep into faith and resolve to emerge on the other side as a stronger and more successful woman. Although I wouldn’t have relished living alone for three years on a remote island in an unheated cabin!

Q: You note in your acknowledgments that the book includes some historical figures. What did you see as the right blend between the historical and fictional in the novel?

A: Writing historical fiction hinges on weaving a story in and around actual events and characters. Although Eliza Waite, Pearly Brown, Shorty Richardson and others are purely fictional, placing them in historical context with real persons is necessary for authenticity.

Because Part Two is set in Skagway at the height of the Klondike Gold Rush, it was imperative that I inserted actual events and characters—especially Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith and the story of his infamous murder— into the narrative.

What many people don’t realize is that Skagway was a true boom and bust town, and most of its storied history happened in less than one year. I would have loved to have been there during that time!

Q: This novel takes place in the late 19th century in Washington State and Alaska. How did you research the time period and that particular setting?

A: I’ve lived in Washington since 1978 and know Northwest Washington and the San Juan Islands well. That said, it was still very interesting to research early days in the area, especially on Orcas Island, where some scenes in the novel are set.

Orcas Island has a great little museum of reconstructed 19th century cabins and shops. Just walking through the museum was a visual delight and provided fodder for several scenes.

Researching for the Alaska portion of the novel was brand new. In 2013, I traveled to Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, and Anchorage to do archival research.

Of special help were the historian at the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park and the research librarian at The Anchorage Museum. At both locales I pored over journals, photos, diaries, newspapers, and books of the era. Don’t ever underestimate the help of museum and library staff!

Q: Eliza's story highlights the role of women in that time period and that part of the country. Do you think she was typical of many women in that time and place, or was she more unusual?

A: Eliza Waite is both a product of her time and upbringing and an example of a modern woman. As the eldest daughter of a prominent judge, Eliza’s marriage outlook could have been bright, although her appearance and demeanor did not fit society’s mold.

After an incestuous rape and out of wedlock pregnancy, Eliza’s father brokered her marriage to a pastor leaving for remote Cypress Island north of Seattle. Here Eliza found herself in the short-lived role of wife and mother, but the smallpox epidemic of 1895 claimed the lives of both her husband and son and left Eliza grief-stricken and alone.

After living in an abandoned cabin on Cypress Island for three years, Klondike Fever had grasped the country, and Eliza jumped at the chance to try her luck in the far north. She was now free to make her own decisions in business, relationships, politics, and love. In this way, Eliza breaks the mold of the typical Victorian young lady and emerges as a new woman at the dawn of the 20th century.

Q: How have readers reacted to the book?

A: Since the release of Eliza Waite in May 2016, I've encountered many women and men who've been touched by Eliza's story. Of the 60+ events since the novel's release -- bookstore signings, historical lectures, extensive travels, book club events -- the most memorable encounters have been in intimate conversations with readers.

One reader expressed her gratitude to Eliza for helping her move through her three-year struggle with grief after losing her husband; she said that she was glad to be "on the far side of grief" after reading Eliza's story.

Another reader told me that Eliza helped her grieve the loss of her adult son, and that seeing the moon each night was a reminder that her son was still with her. Powerful words! In these instances, fiction truly transcended reality. I am honored that Eliza was able to touch these readers so deeply.

Two Alaskan readers also pointed out two minor errors in the novel. Goes to show you that all the vetting and editing in the world won't prevent one or two small glitches!

The novel has also been named the 2017 winner of the Nancy Pearl Book Award and placed as a finalist in the Sarton Women's Book Award and WILLA Literary Award and two other contests.

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?

A: My favorite contemporary authors are Geraldine Brooks, Paula McLain, Sue Monk Kidd, Barbara Kingsolver, and Paulette Jiles, whose News of the World was my favorite book of 2017.

I have a long TBR list and try to read 10-15 novels per month. I just finished reading an advance reader copy of a sister She Writes Press author, Ellen Notbohm, titled The River By Starlight. I loved it. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Since my interview with you two years ago, I've finished that second novel, now titled The Illustrator. It's out on review at present. I'm halfway through a third novel centered on the Donner Party and have a fourth in the research stage (that novel will be set in rural Arizona in 1900).

Also, in the past two years, I have added three more grandbabies to my incredible family, bringing the number to six. I'm blessed beyond words.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I love gardening, reading, art quilting, traveling, wine tasting, and chocolate. And my three new grandbabies!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous version of this Q&A.