Monday, December 18, 2017

Q&A with Barbara Herkert

Barbara Herkert is the author of the new children's picture book A Boy, A Mouse, and a Spider: The Story of E.B. White. She also has written Mary Cassatt: Extraordinary Impressionist Painter and Sewing Stories. She lives in Oregon.

Q: Why did you decide to write a children's picture book about E.B. White, and have you always been a fan of his work?

A: I have always loved E.B. White’s work. When I started researching his life, I fell in love even more. The fact that he battled shyness and found security through writing resonated with me. I was the same way as a child.

I remember first discovering E.B. White when my teacher read Charlotte’s Web aloud in class. The words captivated me, and I checked the book out of the library soon after. I read it, returned it, and checked it out again. I felt like I was reading about myself through Fern.

Q: How did you research his life, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?
A: I started by reading everything I could get me hands on: two excellent biographies by Michael Sims and Scott Elledge, as well as E.B. White’s essays and letters and articles.

One thing that I learned that surprised me was that I was so much like him growing up. I was small and shy and related more to animals than people. I found peace and security in nature and in writing.

Q: How familiar do you think your audience needs to be with Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web before coming to your book?

A: I think my book is a great way to introduce a younger audience to Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, even if they haven’t yet read the books. My hope is that their curiosity will lead to a first reading of E.B. White’s amazing classics, and that they will be encouraged to write and to dream.

Q: What do you think Lauren Castillo's illustrations added to the book?

A: I am so fortunate to have Lauren as the illustrator of this book. She added depth and warmth to the words. The abundant details in each illustration are such fun when reading the book to a younger crowd. She took great pains in making sure her illustrations were accurate. Her glowing masterpieces are positively radiant.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: More biographies for children! I love everything about this genre—the research, uncovering those gems that will appeal to children, contacting experts, and travel.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I hope to share with children that they are capable of great things, even if they face tremendous obstacles. The power of dreams is within us all. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 18

Dec. 18, 1870: H.H. Munro born.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Q&A with Jeannie Brand

Jeannie Brand is the author of the new memoir The Folksinger's Daughter, which focuses on her life with her father, folksinger and composer Oscar Brand. She lives in the Washington, D.C., area.

Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir about you and your family?

A: I have always loved to write and growing up with a father who was famous always gave me the opportunity to have great stories to share. Of course, the Village of the ‘50s and ‘60s was full of children of artists and celebrities. This book was just my story and only from my perspective. It’s not a biography of my father, although it follows the timeline of his long life.

Q: Did you remember most of the events you write about, or did you need to do additional research?

A: Funny story about how this book came about. It was a memory exercise. Although I wrote for a now defunct literary quarterly, and enjoyed a few assignments in my 60+ years, I had an accident that severely hindered my memories of my early years.

I joined a Facebook group of people who grew up in Greenwich Village. Someone commented on a post I wrote and I responded, ”Do I know you?” Turns out we were very close friends and I attended his wedding. I had absolutely no memory of this.

So…this very gracious gentleman surprised me with a laptop and a note to write my story! I began to write and the memories came flooding back. It was perfect timing for me to reconnect with old friends, because by then my father’s health was declining.

Q: What do your family members think of the book?

A: My family was very supportive of the writing of this book, although at the time, I’m not sure they ever thought I would actually publish. 

All my brothers supported me, and my stepmother was only concerned that I not write a biography about my father because she would like to do that someday. As you read in the book, there is not much of an age difference, and I respected her wishes.

I had great advice from my father’s manager, Doug Yeager, who said that my father was a public figure and anyone can write about him. So that gave me permission of sorts to tell my story.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from your life story?

A: My life was not the fairytale fun ride I believe everyone thinks. The book is not a Daddy Dearest, and I understand that all families have problems, but it is possible that my experiences were unique to the entertainment world. 

Readers see that I have a good sense of humor and handle some very perilous circumstances with lessons from my father that we can all use.

But the book is more relevant now than ever, because there were some #metoo moments that no one ever knew about and all the things Dad and his compatriots fought so hard for seem to be unraveling.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Now I am going to teach a class on growing up in the ‘60s during the sweeping changes in our country and tell a few juicy stories of the early days of television and celebrities. With great thanks to Youtube, I have a lot of visual aids.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I would like the readers of this book to know that I adored my father; he was my hero. I have heard great feedback from children, now grown, who experienced many of the same challenges I did, but who also wouldn’t trade them for the unique perspective of being, and I quote, “a backstage baby.”

The book has a lot of names and stories of celebrities, mostly told with great affection and humor. It’s available on Amazon, and those that took the time to review it gave it five stars!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 17

Dec. 17, 1916: Penelope Fitzgerald born.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Q&A with Karen Swan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

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

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

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

Q: What are you working on now?

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

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

Q: Anything else we should know?

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

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 16

Dec. 16, 1775: Jane Austen born.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Q&A with Syl Sobel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: What are you working on now?

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

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

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

Q: Anything else we should know?

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

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

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

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

--Interview with Deborah Kalb