Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Q&A with Loretta Ellsworth

Loretta Ellsworth is the author of the new novel Stars Over Clear Lake, which focuses on a woman who returns to the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, and revisits her experiences in the 1940s. She has written four novels for young adults; this is her first novel for adults. She lives in Minnesota.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Stars Over Clear Lake?

A: It was a combination of things that led to writing this book.  I grew up in Mason City, Iowa, near Clear Lake and the Surf Ballroom, and had always wanted to write about this historic place. And when I was young and on road trips with my family, my father often pointed out the remains of a German POW camp in Algona. 

It was serendipity that when I combined these two together, that the story seemed to sprout wings and take off.

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write the novel, especially about German POWs in the United States?

A: I read a great deal about the POW camps in America and Iowa, visited the POW Museum in Algona, Iowa, and spoke with a descendant of a German POW who later immigrated to Iowa. 

My novel required a great deal of research of the Surf Ballroom and Clear Lake, Iowa in the 1940s. When you’re writing about a real place, you want to make sure you get everything right. 

I spent time in the Clear Lake Library, where they have a history room, and I also interviewed people who had attended dances at the Surf in the 1940s. And I had someone from Clear Lake read my manuscript as well.

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

A: I had a hint of the ending, but the novel changed along the way. I think it’s wise to keep an open mind and let the ending work itself out as the story evolves. My story goes back and forth in time, and I found that the present-day story changed the most during the course of writing it.

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?

A: My favorite writers are Harper Lee, E.B. White, and more recently, Anthony Doerr. I also love the Harry Potter series.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a revision of a young adult novel set in Area 51, and an adult historical novel set shortly after the end of WWII, based on a true story of a countess who came to Minnesota to marry a soldier she met during the war, only to find out he’d married someone else three months earlier. 

She sets out to find an American husband before her visa runs out in two weeks so she doesn’t have to return to the Communist country of her birth.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My parents met at the Surf Ballroom, making this a very personal story for me.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 22

Aug. 22, 1893: Dorothy Parker born.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Q&A with Melissa Scholes Young

Melissa Scholes Young is the author of the new novel Flood. It takes place in Hannibal, Missouri, the childhood home of both Young and Mark Twain. Young's work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Atlantic and The Washington Post, and she teaches college writing and creative writing at American University in Washington, D.C. She lives in Maryland.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Flood, and for interspersing historical information about Mark Twain into the story?

A: Flood began as the story of Rose and Laura’s friendship. I wanted to write a female version of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. These are friendships with so much history you can’t quit them, even as you covet what the other has. Laura and Rose have known each other their whole lives and they’ve stayed deeply connected even with distance and differences.

At the same time, I was researching the history of the Mississippi River and its running backwards in 1812 because of a series of earthquakes along the New Madrid Fault.

Growing up in Hannibal you hear stories about it, but the facts of how the river determines our daily life, as it did for Mark Twain growing up there, are fascinating. Once I realized the parallels between Twain’s story and Laura Brooks, I intentionally wove them together.

I needed another character, Laura’s high school English teacher, Ms. B, to teach the history as a book within a book for the local Tom and Becky pageant contestants. I wanted Ms. B to be an outsider shining a light on the literature for the insiders. When you grow up in a place like Hannibal, you may not realize that the history all around us is magical and mythological.

Q: Laura returns to her home town, Hannibal, after a decade away. What do you think the book says about coming home again?

A: It’s just as tough to leave as it is to return. For Laura, Hannibal holds secrets that she doesn’t want to face. Coming home again forces her to reconcile the stories she’s been telling herself about why she left with truth.

I think, like Laura, we all want a soft place to land, but sometimes home isn’t so safe. It’s not that home has changed; it’s that you have. You’re forced to consider home through your new perspective and see it more clearly for all that it offers and limits.

Q: Why did you decide to set the action of the story in 2003?

A: The flood in 1993 was a 500-year crest. It was devastating for Hannibal and all Mississippi River communities. I wanted a decade to have passed for Laura Brooks to grow and to reflect on why the river both gives life and threatens to take it away.

Q: Besides geography, what connects Laura with Mark Twain’s characters?

A: I think they’re both a bit unsatisfied. They ask questions and push back against the way things have always been done. I doubt either of them will ever feel completely comfortable wherever they roam.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My new novel is called Bug Girl. It’s the story of succession in a family pest control business. There are four daughters and a matriarch, so really it’s Little Women with bugs.

I also continue to write essays about first-generation college experiences. And I’m editing a volume of fiction by D.C. women, Grace in Darkness. It’s the eighth volume in the Grace & Gravity series founded by Richard Peabody.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice.” I’ve learned a lot from leaving, coming home, and finding new places. D.C. is an amazing place to be a writer. The literary community is rich and generous. Our independent bookstores are lovely. I’m grateful to have roots in Hannibal and a foundation in D.C. from which to grow. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 21

Aug. 21, 1943: Jonathan Schell born.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Q&A with Terry Newman

Terry Newman, photo by Pippa Healey
Terry Newman is the author of the new book Legendary Authors and the Clothes They Wore. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Guardian and The Independent. She has worked in the fashion industry for many years, and she lectures at the University for the Creative Arts in Epson, England. She lives in London.
Q: How did you pick the 50 authors you included in the book, and the order in which they appear?
A: Of course there are authors who are well known for their style and to a large extent I wouldn’t have done this book without, say for example, the Fitzgeralds, Oscar Wilde, or Joan Didion. 
However, to begin with I sat down and made a list of my favourites and tested a theory that perhaps there was something to say about all of them clothes-wise….and for me there was.  This is a book that isn’t completely exhaustive: that would have been impossible, but I hope there is a breadth of legends in there to intrigue. 
The book runs and flows organically: I started off with Beckett as for a lot of folk he probably is the most curious author to address on this subject, but as I delved in there was so much to say about him. From the Wallabies and Gucci bags he wore to his amazing quiffed hair. 
I wanted the book to have a pace and flow and I worked hard on trying to juxtapose and connect authors as I went along so that it’s a fab read from start to finish…!!
Q: Joan Didion is featured on the cover. Why was she selected for the cover, and what do her clothes say about her and about her writing?
A: Joan Didion is an icon in the fashion industry and the cover image by Julian Wasser is timeless. There is a message in my book that finding a style and being yourself is important. 
The quote I found from Maya Angelou sums this up: “Seek the fashion which truly fits and befits you. You will always in be in fashion if you are true to yourself, and only if you are true to yourself.”
Didion’s effortless and amazing style stems from her being herself and the shot I used has a simplicity and elegance to it that is perfect.  The photo was an obvious choice for me and the first one that came to mind when I started the book. Luckily Julian was keen and let me use it. 
Didion uses clothes a lot in her writing – as a way into a subject. For example, when she wrote about the Manson murders in The White Album she uses Linda Kasabian and the story of buying her a dress to go to court as a foil for the horror of what she is talking about.
Q: Can you say more about Samuel Beckett and your sense of his style?
A: Beckett is a template for the modern, stylish man, I think! He has a classic elegance that is cool and timeless: a male Didion. He worked a seductive utility-wear look that is unfussy and testimony to the enduring appeal of a capsule wardrobe of essentials. Now I’m sounding like a glossy magazine, but for me he is the perfect GQ man.
Q: You end the book with Tom Wolfe. Why did you make that choice, and how do his clothes connect with his writing?
A: Tom Wolfe is smart, sassy, and detailed in his writing. He makes a loud statement in his work about his characters and the clothes they wear. He pays particular attention to this in the narrative of all his books and essays.  
In the same way, he is a meticulous dresser himself and is famed for his white-suits. I say in my book that dressing in white is a serene and unflappable wardrobe choice, and to a large extent Wolfe has spent his life sitting on the edge watching others get embroiled in life and writing about it. He is a mighty author to finish the book with, I think!
Q: What are you working on now?
A: More books about the stories clothes tell. I’ll keep you posted!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: The book is available to buy now….!!  
--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 20

Aug. 20, 1932: Vasily Aksyonov born.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Q&A with Fiona Davis

Fiona Davis, photo by Kristen Jensen
Fiona Davis is the author of the new novel The Address. She also has written the novel The Dollhouse. She has worked as an actress, editor, and writer, and she lives in New York.

Q: Your last novel focused on the Barbizon Hotel, and this novel focuses on the Dakota apartment building in New York. What made you choose the Dakota this time, and do you see any similarities in the role these buildings played in the history of the city?

A: I chose the Dakota as the Barbizon book was in the pipeline for publication. I was looking around, and nothing was clicking. One day I came up from the subway, and it was glowing, as if it was saying, “Pick me!” [But] with John Lennon, [who lived at the Dakota and was killed outside the building in 1980,] there’s a lot as an author that you don’t want to get into.

Both buildings have changed over time, and both were places of refuge. The Barbizon Hotel was a place young women went to stay as they pursued their careers, and the Dakota was a place for the merchant class to live for upward mobility but they couldn’t get it.

The elite only lived in brownstones, and were not interested in living communally. It was people who were willing to take a risk in an apartment, and the Upper West Side was the Wild West of New York City at that time.

Q: The Address features two main characters, Sara, in 1885, who manages the Dakota, and Bailey, who lives in the building 100 years later. How did you come up with these two women and the idea of setting them a century apart?

A: I knew I wanted to set it in the 1880s. It was when [the Dakota] opened. In the 1930s, there was a lady managerette, and I thought why don’t I put her into 1884. It was inspired by true history. 1985 was good because it was a Gilded Age of its own, and it was five years after John Lennon’s death so I could have a little distance. It was right around when I came to New York, and I remember how dangerous Amsterdam Avenue was.

Q: How did you research the book?

A: I read lots of books on the Dakota. I was able to get a tour of the building, from the basements to the servants’ floor. It’s an unusual building—the hallways are very narrow and the ceilings are very high. It’s eccentric. It becomes another character.

Q: Was your research mostly on the 1880s?

A: Yes, I had to do a lot of research about the Gilded Age for the 1880s section, but for the 1980s section it was a little easier, as that was right around when I came to New York City.

Q: The journalist Nellie Bly turns up as a character in the novel. What did you see as the right blend of fiction and history as you wrote the book?

A: I feel like history is the framework of the story and fiction is a way to bring it to life. With Nellie Bly, I knew I wanted to write about the [Blackwell’s Island] asylum—it was such a contrast from the luxury of the Dakota.

Having her show up was so much fun! There are books written about her, and I didn’t want to make her a main character, but I love books where you see events from a minor character’s point of view.

Q: Was the case you write about in the book based on anything real?

A: No, the owner of the Dakota died two years before the building was finished—of natural causes! I had the characters and created an interesting environment for them to exist in. I love mystery novels—I love having something like that in every book I write.

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

A: Geraldine Brooks, Jo Baker, Jane Smiley, Ann Patchett. Tom Perrotta—his writing is so fascinating for me.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A draft of a book set in Grand Central Terminal. I’ve discovered amazing things about it that are surprising. It’s fun to see if I can pull it off!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Fiona Davis.