Friday, March 24, 2017

Q&A with Margaux Bergen

Margaux Bergen, photo by David Hume Kennerly
Margaux Bergen is the author of Navigating Life: Things I Wish My Mother Had Told Me. She has worked at a variety of organizations focusing on international development and women's leadership, and is now with ORBMedia. She is based in Washington, D.C.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book for your daughter, and did it evolve slowly?

A: I made the decision overnight, when I stared up at the ceiling when she was 9 or 10—[various] miserable events were all happening at once, how do I teach her to survive?

I came up with the title at once, but it took 9 ½ years to write. I wrote it in real time. The complexity of the questions [changed].

Q: Do you think this book is geared toward young adults, or can middle-aged and older people also benefit from it?

A: What I’ve found in the U.S. and the U.K. is that it seems to be read by all generations—"Things I Wish My Mother Had Told Me" could be the lament of an 80-year-old whose mother is long dead.

I found people reading it in diverse ways [such as] reading it on holiday with their children. One friend doesn’t like talking about things directly with her son so she underlines [parts of the book. Some young women] are reading it to each other. I was surprised by the breadth of it.

Q: Have your children read the book, and what do they think of it?

A: Charlotte [for whom it was written] has read it and lost it and asked for it again! I believe my second daughter read it, though she has her own book. My son…sometimes one questions one’s children’s interest in the things we do for them!

Q: So you’ve written books for all your kids?

A: What they get is three of the same chapters so there’s a unifying aspect, and seven chapters written to them specifically…

Q: Will those also be published as books?

A: I don’t know.

Q: The book covers a wide range of issues, and you noticed that the types of issues changed over the years. How did you decide what to include?

A: They really depended on my view of her emerging maturity. There’s a parallel conversation and a parallel journey. She was 9 ½, so it was about right from wrong, if you lie you will get in trouble. By 18, it was death, divorce and addiction. It was a natural evolution of a parental voice to a child.

The complexity of my life had to be presented in a careful manner because I had a fair amount of drama in my life and I wanted it to be written in a way she could understand as she moved through her own ages and stages of development.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The guide to navigating life. It’s based on 10 virtues that appear in the book. Your approach to things can change—I’m interested in vices. There are 10 vices and 10 virtues. Virtue is meaningless without the counterpoint of our vices.

I’m also about to inherit five more children—there will be eight millenials! I’m getting married in July and he’s a widower with five kids—eight millenials ranging from 25 to 11. He lives in the U.K., so I commute between D.C. and London, and I have a full-time job!

Q: Anything else we should know about your book?

A: I like to think it’s for all ages—chronological age and people’s age. I hope it’s useful 10 or 20 years from now. That’s why I decided to cover all the big topics that affect us everyday, but that we don’t often get the opportunity to raise with our children.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Margaux Bergen will be speaking at the Temple Sinai Authors Roundtable in Washington, D.C., on March 25.

Q&A with K. Riva Levinson

K. Riva Levinson is the author of the new book Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa's First Woman President. It focuses on Liberia's Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Levinson is the president and CEO of KRL International LLC, a communications and government relations firm. She is based in Washington, D.C.

Q: How did you end up working with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and at what point did you decide to write a book about your experiences?

A: The book opens in Mogadishu, Somalia. It’s 1989, I am on a mission to sign a contract with a murderous dictator as anti-government rebels are surrounding the city, and then my plane gets commandeered, leaving me stranded. And so my career began. 

I was 28, and already weary and jaded with my work as an international lobbyist, burdened with meaningless client assignments, taking unnecessary risks, and uncertain of my ability to make a difference. 

And then I met Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. It was the summer of 1996, she was serving at the United Nations, in exile from her native Liberia, and considering returning home to help restore the peace. Liberia at the time was in a state of civil war, controlled by warlords, with half of the population refugees, or internally displaced.

I was blown away by Ellen’s presence and her chutzpah, her commitment to democracy, to human rights, to putting everything on the line for her war-torn country, regardless of the risks and the costs. And I made a determination, at that meeting, in her U.N. office that I would find a way to help her, and work with her. Six months later I did.

I went on to work with Ellen for 20 years, through three election campaigns, through the efforts to restore peace, and rebuild the country, and then, in 2014, to help the country battle the deadly Ebola virus disease. It was only after Ebola was defeated, in early 2015, that I felt I had earned the right to tell my story, Ellen’s story, and the story of the people of Liberia.

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

A: The title was not chosen until I completed the book, which is not unusual, because when you write a memoir, and give into the process, you don’t know where you will end up.

Choosing the hero is about the struggle we all go through to find purpose, find something/someone to believe in, about the intersection of lives, the choices we make and the impact we have on others.

The significance of the tile is revealed in the afterword of the book and is explained as follows:

“Working with Ellen has taught me to follow my heart and not to fear being misunderstood. I have come to see that certainty is a luxury, and destiny a journey that reveals itself with time. It is easy to stray off course, to doubt and lose faith, to see compromise as surrender, to feel judged, isolated and even abandoned. But there is always something to hold on to, the belief in yourself. I have come to appreciate that we need people to guide us, those we admire and those we believe in the heroes that we choose.”

Q: What impact has Sirleaf had on Liberia—and what impact has she had on you?

A: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf returned her country of Liberia into the community of nations, from what was a failed state; a state that had destabilized an entire sub-region and gave the world the vernacular of “child soldiers and “blood diamonds.”

She has maintained the peace for 12 years, restored democratic institutions, created the conditions for a vibrant civil society and a free and dynamic press. She has restored civil services, re-built the education system and begun to re-build the country’s infrastructure.

All that being said, many challenges remain and economic growth has stagnated from the collapse of global commodity prices, and the linger effects of Ebola. Moreover, institutional and societal corruption remain, and must be rooted out. But all in all, she is the best president that Liberia has ever had.

Ellen’s impact on me, like her country, has been profound. By permitting me to be part of her personal struggle, and then the fight to bring peace, democracy and development to Liberia, she gave meaning to my professional life, and through the work, I found a mission worthy of the legacy of my maternal grandmother, a refugee of the Holocaust, my Oma.

Q: What do you see looking ahead, for Sirleaf and for Liberia?

A: Liberia holds its presidential elections in October of 2017, and for the first time since 1944, political power will be transferred from one elected leader to another. I am confident that the Liberian electorate will vote deliberately, and hold their leaders accountable, and that the next generation will build upon the foundation of peace that Ellen has laid down Liberia may have its ups and downs, but its path forward is irreversible.

Ellen will be the first retired president of Liberia to live peacefully in the country for half a century. That is something. She will likely spend time with her many grandchildren, work on her presidential library, and continue to raise her voice for women, girls, gender equality, democracy and human rights in Africa and around the world.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: KRL International LLC, my company, continues to work in the world’s emerging markets, in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere. We will be supporting Liberia’s democratic transition in October of 2017, and beyond Liberia, continue to look for the next generation of heroes to support and advocate for.

Most recently, KRL supported the campaign of Nana Akufo-Addo, the opposition candidate in the West African nation of Ghana, who was elected last year as the president of the Republic of Ghana.

He, like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, fought tirelessly for rule of law and democracy in Ghana for nearly three decades, and like Ellen, it took him three tries to become the leader of his nation. We are currently working with the government of Nana Akufo-Addo for which we are honored. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 24

March 24, 1834: William Morris born.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Q&A with Ruth Franklin

Ruth Franklin is the author of Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. She also has written A Thousand Darknesses. A former editor for The New Republic, her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New Yorker and Harper's. She lives in Brooklyn.

Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of Shirley Jackson, and did your impression of her and her work change as you worked on this project?

A: I've always loved Jackson's writing, especially The Haunting of Hill House, her classic ghost story, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, her last and most mysterious novel. And of course no one forgets "The Lottery."

But it was actually Jackson's domestic work--her memoirs about her life as a mother--that made me decide to write her biography.

There's a story she tells in her first memoir, Life Among the Savages, about checking into the hospital to deliver her third child. The clerk asks her to state her occupation, and she says, "Writer." (This was only a few months after "The Lottery" was published to enormous sensation.) And the clerk replies, "I'll just put down housewife."

To me, this story perfectly encapsulates what it must have been like to be a writer like Jackson at a time when there was very little social support for that choice. It made me want to learn more about how she navigated that inherent tension.

I'd say my initial impressions of her and her work deepened rather than changed. Though she's best known for her horror stories, I became more and more aware of what a small proportion of her work they actually constitute.

For the most part, she was writing domestic realism, or a slightly more uncanny variant on it. Her main area of interest was the lives of women. 

Q: You write, “Some writers are particularly prone to mythmaking. Shirley Jackson was one of them.” Why was this?

A: Jackson was interested in witchcraft from an early age, and she played up that interest in creating her persona as an author.

She told great stories about using black magic to break the leg of publisher Alfred A. Knopf (at the time he was involved in a contract dispute with her husband, the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman) or "hexing" the Yankees so that the Brooklyn Dodgers would win the World Series. In an oft-repeated quip, one interviewer said that she wrote "not with a pen, but a broomstick."

These stories were great for publicity, but in the long run they worked against Jackson's reputation, making her seem less serious than she actually was.

Q: In the book, you discuss Jackson’s more serious and lighter work. Do you see common themes running through them?

A: Whether she's writing fiction or chronicling her children's lives, Jackson has a great eye for detail and ear for perfectly tuned dialogue.

On a deeper level, her fundamental philosophy is that people are pretty much capable of anything—from her son making up an imaginary classmate to disguise his own misdeeds in kindergarten (in the story "Charles") to the villagers who turn against one of their own in "The Lottery."

Q: What do you see as Jackson’s legacy today?

A: An awareness that what we fear—whether we call it man's inhumanity to man, forces of evil, or the devil—is always just beneath the surface of daily life. We don't have to journey to a haunted house to experience horror; it's always with us. Dark, perhaps, but true.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm thinking about a few new subjects, but haven't decided on one yet.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Ruth Franklin, please click here. Ruth Franklin will be participating in the Temple Sinai Authors Roundtable in Washington, D.C., on March 25.

Updated Q&A with Claudia Kalb

Claudia Kalb, photo by Hilmar Meyer-Bosse
Claudia Kalb is the author of Andy Warhol Was a Hoarder: Inside the Minds of History's Great Personalities. She was a senior writer for Newsweek for many years, and her work has also appeared in Smithsonian and Scientific American. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

Q: How did you select the 12 people you profile in your book?

A: It was both an exciting and challenging process. I looked for a compelling mix of individuals whose talents and livelihoods varied, and who inhabited a wide swath of history.

Among the 12, there is a president (Lincoln), a scientist (Darwin), a Russian novelist (Dostoevsky), an artist (Warhol), a composer (Gershwin), an actress (Marilyn Monroe), and a British princess (Diana).

I also sought cases in which there was ample autobiographical and biographical material about the person, as well as reliable medical studies and expert analysis of behaviors and mental health conditions.

Q: You start the book with Marilyn Monroe. Why did you choose her as the focus of the first chapter, and what do you think are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about her?

A: I wrote the chapters without a specific lineup in mind. Once they were complete, I arranged them in a way that made sense in terms of narrative flow.

Monroe was a natural opener. She continues to captivate people more than 50 years after her death. She was Hollywood’s glamour girl. She had the look, the lure—that mysterious quality that draws people in. She also appears briefly in later chapters, so it also made logical sense to place her first.

There are so many common perceptions and misperceptions about Marilyn Monroe. That things came easy, that she was empty-headed, that she was manufactured by Hollywood.

The reality is that Monroe struggled with deep feelings of emptiness, loneliness and vulnerability. Insecure about her intellect, she took art classes and collected books by Dostoevsky and Hemingway.

People who knew her well talked about her innocence. She talked about the burden of fame. Her life was a struggle—and often a very painful one—from start to finish.

Q: Why was Andy Warhol selected as the person to include in the title, and what did you learn about him that particularly surprised you?

A: Warhol and hoarding jumped out as a winning title combination. Like Monroe, Warhol is a cultural icon who will always fascinate the public. And hoarding, for its part, has become a cultural spectacle through reality TV. It’s also a condition many people can relate to.

Hoarding has also earned new status in the psychiatric world. Formerly viewed as a subtype or symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder, “hoarding disorder” earned stand-alone status as a new diagnosis in the most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published in 2013.

Warhol surprised me in so many ways. I had no idea that he was such a rabid collector of low-end and high-end items—from five-and-dime junk to artwork by Rauschenberg and Lichtenstein.

His 610 time capsules, filled with everything from junk mail to photographs, pizza dough, and even overdue invoices from the surgeon who saved his life after he was shot in 1968, are astounding. And yet he yearned for clean space.

I’m very familiar with Warhol’s famous pieces (the celebrity portraits, the Campbell’s Soup Cans), but one of my most delightful discoveries was his earlier art, which he created for fashion magazines in the 1950s. I fell in love with the artist’s colorful and whimsical illustrations of shoes!

Q: Of all the people you researched, were there some that you developed a particular fondness for? What about a particular dislike?

A: I was particularly drawn to Charles Darwin, who struggled with headaches, stomachaches, dizziness and more while writing On the Origin of Species. I sympathized with his struggles—including the difficult task of writing—and I admired his ethical character.

I was also enormously impressed with Betty Ford’s forthrightness about her battle with addiction. Here was a first lady who fought her way through rehab and then went on to help thousands of people recognize and address their own substance use disorders. She was remarkable.

I struggled most with liking Frank Lloyd Wright’s narcissistic traits—his overwhelming sense of entitlement and superiority. I have huge admiration for his aesthetic vision and architectural creations, but not the way he treated other people.

Q: Are there any figures you considered writing about but rejected? 

A: Yes, I considered quite a number of individuals who didn’t make it into the book, often because I felt that the combination of science, biographical material and expert opinion was not strong enough.

In other cases, I simply had to make a choice. Many famous people have struggled with depression, for example, but Lincoln stood out for so many reasons: his childhood, his presidency, his gift for storytelling and humor amidst the melancholy. Above all, there was so much rich material to mine about his life.

There are other individuals who didn’t make it in, but continue to fascinate me. I’m intrigued by Vincent van Gogh, for example, because there’s such conflicting information about what ailed him. Was it bipolar? Schizophrenia? Maybe syphilis?

Just a few months ago, a group of experts meeting at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam held a very lively debate about this very subject. They concluded that the artist suffered from psychosis, though they could not agree on the underlying cause of his mental illness—further evidence that mental health conditions can be so complex and difficult to diagnose.

Q: Looking at Abraham Lincoln, so much has been written about him. How did you research your Lincoln chapter, and what did you find that especially surprised you?

A: Much has been written about Lincoln’s dark state of mind, the sadness of his face, the melancholy that “dripped from him as he walked,” as his law partner, William Herndon recalled.

I read biographies, newspaper and magazine stories, and medical studies. I interviewed mental health experts who specialize in depression and I delved into historical documents, including reminiscences from Herndon and Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who worked as Mary Lincoln’s assistant and dressmaker.

I especially loved reading the work of the great muckraking journalist Ida Tarbell, who wrote extensively about Lincoln for McClure’s magazine in the late 1800s.

Ultimately, I was most surprised by the depth of Lincoln’s suffering during the depressive episodes he experienced in early adulthood. As one of his contemporaries described it, “he became plunged in despair” and even contemplated suicide.

Q: How have readers responded to the book?

A: I’ve received wonderful feedback from readers both in the U.S. and abroad.

Mental health experts tell me they’re using the book to better understand their patients and the mental health conditions they treat.

One high school counselor wrote to say that the book changed her views on clinical depression. She’s using material from the Lincoln chapter to counsel students who are depressed. Her goal: to show them how much potential each person has and to help them see the full value of their lives.

Readers have also found solace in these stories. Knowing that they are not alone in their struggles with ADHD, OCD, anxiety or any other mental health condition is reassuring. One young woman said that reading about Marilyn Monroe led her to seek therapy for the first time so that her own symptoms don’t worsen.

I’m profoundly grateful that this book has not only appealed to readers, but also enriched their lives.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m at that wonderful stage where I get to emerge from the writing cave and set the book free into the hands of readers. I’m sifting through material that I couldn’t fit into the book and shaping some of it into pieces that I hope to publish. I’m thinking about next writing assignments, next books, next adventures.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My goal in writing this book was to put a face on the complexities of the mind. I unraveled hypotheses put forth by medical experts based on the best evidence available.

In certain cases, the individuals spoke openly about their own diagnoses—Betty Ford and addiction; Princess Diana and bulimia nervosa. In others, including both Einstein and Darwin, I intentionally left room for questions. Even with wonderful advances in science, the brain is still a mystery in so many ways.

My overarching hope is that this book will help chip away at stigma by humanizing the mental health conditions that affect so many people. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Full disclosure: Claudia Kalb is my cousin! For a previous version of this Q&A, please click here. Claudia Kalb will be participating in the Temple Sinai Authors Roundtable in Washington, D.C., on March 25.

March 23

March 23, 1912: Eleanor Cameron born.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Q&A with Lynn Povich

Lynn Povich is the author of The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed the Workplace, also a series on Amazon Prime. She spent many years at Newsweek, where she was the magazine's first woman senior editor, and also has been editor-in-chief of Working Woman and managing editor at She is a co-editor of All Those the Post, a collection of the work of her father, sportswriter Shirley Povich. She lives in New York.

Q: Why did you decide to write The Good Girls Revolt?

A: I had taken the legal papers home with me when I left Newsweek in 1991; I was one of the few senior women left, and Radcliffe had requested them.

I wrote a book on my dad with my brothers in 2005. Then I thought I should send the [Newsweek] papers to Radcliffe, and I thought I should write a history of the papers [to provide more information about them]. I started interviewing people, and realized this could be a book.

This history was lost—people had heard of the New York Times lawsuit; Nan Robertson had written The Girls in the Balcony. No one knew the Newsweek women had been first.

Q: You begin the book by discussing a group of young women who faced the same issues that you had faced decades earlier with sexism in the workplace. What has changed, and what has remained the same?

A: There’s been enormous progress—women certainly are in the middle-to-senior management, but they’re rarely at the top. In the media, there have been women running news organizations in the past but there are almost none now except for Nancy Gibbs running Time magazine.

Earlier, there were women at The Oregonian, the Chicago Tribune, The Philadelphia Inquirer…Each moment is a picture in time; it ebbs and flows.

There are not enough women in leadership positions, not as many women sources and voices, not enough on television. There are still sexist depictions of women in the media. [There’s] the pay gap, the glass ceiling, and sexual harassment.

What’s interesting about the young generation is that they do really well in school. Girls do better in school. Then they go into the work world, and they’ve never before experienced discrimination in school. They meet obstacles they’ve never met before.

[The young women of today in the book] didn’t identify it with a gender issue, they thought they must not be good enough. That’s the kind of subtle discrimination that still exists--old boys’ clubs.

Q: What was the overall impact of your lawsuit?

A: The immediate impact was that it opened doors for other women to sue. Three months later there was a suit at Time, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated. Then the door opened, and there were suits at the AP, NBC, and The New York Times.

One woman [I spoke with] said that this was not only [affecting] the media, but she had worked in an advertising office, and read about the Newsweek case and [considered a suit]—there was an impact beyond the media.

It changed Newsweek. We started to hire men as researchers, and I became the first woman senior editor in August 1975. Meetings were integrated. There was an immediate impact on the magazine. [Newsweek editor] Osborn Elliott said it made it a better magazine. It changed our lives. None of us would have had those opportunities so quickly.

Q: How difficult was it for you and the other women to go into work every day during the lawsuit? How were you treated in the newsroom?

A: Some of our bosses were very supportive. But a lot of the guys didn’t like affirmative action…Osborn Elliott, had he stayed on the editorial side, would have made changes. He was the father of three girls.

It was the middle-management level where a lot of discrimination took place. The three women who tried out as writers after the lawsuit all failed their tryouts. We knew those guys didn’t want them to succeed…

Going in was a little [testy] with certain people, but most of our bosses were supportive. They worked with us every day, and knew we were talented. But it wasn’t a fun time, particularly for those women who stuck their necks out.

Q: How does the news business compare with other fields when it comes to the treatment of women employees?

A: Women are doing very well as journalists. They are covering wars, the president (not just the First Lady), business and doing investigative reporting. But again, they are not running news organizations. 

But journalism is not alone here. Women are about 50 percent of students in law school and medical school but again, they are not running law firms or major medical institutions...

I find that some of the unhappiest women I know are lawyers in firms. Many leave for corporations. The law firms haven’t changed that much.

Q: How did the Amazon Prime series adaptation of your book come about, and what do you think of it?

A: I was approached by many film and TV producers or readers for producers but my lawyer told me I wouldn't have any creative control over the project, so I rejected them. 

A year later, Lynda Obst called me. I knew Lynda when she was an editor at the New York Times Sunday magazine in the ‘70s. She went on to become a very successful film producer, including Sleepless in Seattle and most recently Interstellar.

So she was my age, knew the era and understood journalism. So I gave her the option on the condition that the series be fictionalized, which it is. Her deal was with Sony, so Sony developed a pilot and sold it to Amazon and Amazon picked it up for a 10-part series.

Q: What has been the reaction to your book and to the Amazon series?

A: It’s been overwhelming to me. I was very worried that no one would want to read about a lawsuit from 40 years ago. I’m lucky that the young women called me, and that allowed me to [incorporate recent material]…

I’ve been speaking to women’s groups, law firms, young men and women at universities. It’s resonating among a larger group. It’s a moment to talk about what hasn’t changed, and what needs to change.

What's been most satisfying is the impact of the Amazon series, Good Girls Revolt. It reached a younger audience so that now, many young women--and men--now know about the courage of the Newsweek women and what it was like for all women back then and they have been inspired by the series to become active again.

And we're beginning to see enormous energy again by women politically, which is thrilling.

Q: As someone who's been in the media and written about it, what do you think of the current headlines about the press, and what do you see looking ahead?

A: I think it's a very critical time for the media, mainstream and new media like Buzzfeed, since Trump is attacking it as fake news.

The press's job is to hold the government accountable to the people who elected it and for the most part, they are doing the job. But people's access to news has become polarized as our political system has, so people are only looking at and reading the sites they agree with.

The question is how to expose what I call "the persuadable people" to accurate reporting when so many local newspapers no longer have bureaus in their state or even investigative reporters. 

The bigger papers, The New York Times and The Washington Post, are adding reporters and non-profits like ProPublica are adding midwestern outlets, so there is some movement. But I fear the press will be under attack during the entire Trump administration.

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: No. I’m still thinking about some issues about young women and where feminism and women are today…I’ve been talking to a lot of people.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For an earlier version of this Q&A, please click here. Lynn Povich will be appearing at the Temple Sinai Authors Roundtable on March 25.