Friday, May 26, 2017

Q&A with Sidney Blumenthal

Sidney Blumenthal, photo by Ralph Alswing
Sidney Blumenthal is the author of the new biography Wrestling With His Angel: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1849-1856, the second volume of a projected four-volume biography of Lincoln. His many other books include A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1849, The Clinton Wars, and The Rise of the Counter-Establishment. He is a former senior advisor to both Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, as well as a former reporter for The Washington Post and editor and writer for The New Yorker. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: You write of Lincoln in the 1849-56 period, “Lincoln only seemed to be offstage. He did not disappear…” How would you describe Lincoln’s activities during this period?

A: In 1860 when Lincoln was running for president he dictated two autobiographies. He said he almost lost interest in politics [during this time]. But that’s not so. He was paying the closest attention to every single aspect of it.

He and his law partner William Henry Herndon occupied a small office above the post office. They also maintained the best library in central Illinois. Lincoln and Herndon got every current book on every subject from politics to science. They also subscribed to newspapers and journals.

Lincoln was devouring everything he could…he had only a few weeks of formal education, but he was constantly devoting himself to learning about the issues of the day. Having been in a dirt poor family with a father who failed at a succession of farms, he was somebody with incredible self-discipline, constantly making something of himself, particularly intellectually.

His law associates recalled him in boarding houses on the circuit staying up late at night reading Euclid. Why would he study geometry as a lawyer in central Illinois? Lincoln was trying to figure out how to be more logical, and he applied geometric laws to the arguments he’d make in his cases and in politics.

After his death, his two private secretaries discovered some fragments that had never been published. One is a discussion applying Euclidean logic to the antislavery argument, refuting the pro-slavery argument of the day.

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

A: Wrestling With His Angel comes from the Bible, the story of Jacob, who wrestles through the dark night of the soul with an angel and emerges with a sense of who he is at the end, and adopts the new name Israel.

Lincoln doesn’t adopt a new name, but he’s wrestling with himself. It’s part of his self-discipline—how he can enter into the times, change things, become the man who can do that.

He leaves after one term in Congress and returns to his law office. Herndon recounts a conversation where Lincoln says the world is dead, he doesn’t know what he’ll do. He had no political prospects—what is to be done?

Q: So how did Lincoln change during this period from 1849-1856?

A: Lincoln had suffered setbacks and tragedies. His two-year-old son Edward died of tuberculosis. His wife refused to eat. Lincoln was famously depressed, and he had to encourage Mary Todd Lincoln out of her depression. He was riding his horse from county courthouse to county courthouse, trying to make a living. Still, he was active in politics. He was waiting.

In this book, I pay so much attention to the world around Lincoln. It bears on him; it shapes his mind. He’s watching Stephen A. Douglas, his great rival of decades. He sees himself coming up short against the Little Giant. He starts stalking him after Douglas passes the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 that opens the question of slavery up.

It leads to Lincoln coming out of isolation. Douglas is from Illinois. He’s a national figure, and this gives Lincoln the opportunity to come forward by challenging him. When Douglas returns, Lincoln follows him around the state. Douglas refuses [to debate] until 1858.

It leads to Lincoln delivering the first great speech in the state capitol, the basis for the politics that would carry him to the White House. Lincoln is preparing himself for the destiny he does not know.

Q: Can you say more about the relationship between Lincoln and Douglas?

A: Douglas is not thinking about Lincoln in this period, he’s thinking about Stephen A. Douglas. He was the most dynamic figure in American politics…he believes he embodies the spirit of the age, of Manifest Destiny. He wants to be president; he is a self-made man himself.

They were constantly butting heads over the great issues of the day, from the 1830s on. The Democratic Party is the dominant party in Illinois, and Douglas rises and leaves Lincoln in the dust.

He is envious and thinks Douglas has become a colossus and he has become small. When Douglas has to come back to earth after passing the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Lincoln starts stalking him. It’s part of the making of Lincoln.

Q: What role did political parties play during this period for Lincoln?

A: There was no idea of politics apart from political parties. Lincoln was a party man, and the party of Lincoln was the Whig Party, until it fell apart. He held onto the Whig Party longer than most. In 1852, [Democrat] Franklin Pierce was elected. [The Whigs] never ran a candidate for president again. It was shattered by the Kansas-Nebraska Act and broke into Northern and Southern wings.

Also...there was the nativist movement known as the Know-Nothings. They were a mass movement. Lincoln hated their politics. He had contempt for nativism, yet he held that as a private opinion.

To create a coalition against slavery, he believed the nativists had to be defeated and some brought into the coalition. He engaged in intricate politics in Illinois to do that.

Finally, in an organizing meeting of newspaper editors in 1856, he was invited, and the meeting leads to a call for a convention to found the Illinois Republican Party.

The meeting almost breaks up over nativism. An ally of Lincoln’s proposed an anti-nativist plank, and the nativists opposed it. Maybe there won’t be a Republican Party—but Lincoln says the answer is in the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal. On Lincoln’s authority, the question is resolved. The party was created state by state over this period.

Q: Where are you with the other volumes of your work on Lincoln?

A: I wrote originally all the way to the end and went back to the beginning and redid the first volumes. Now I’m rewriting volume 3. Volume 4 is done. I’ll go back over it, and put a gloss on it, but I feel pretty good.

Q: So what period does volume 3 cover?

A: It goes from the founding of the Republican Party to Gettysburg. It’s a long period. Volume 4 goes from after Gettysburg through Reconstruction. I deal with what happens to Lincoln’s legacy.

The scope of events is so epic—after Gettysburg, the rise of Grant, the Wilderness Campaign, the reelection campaign, the assassination, and so on. I think I have something to say.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’ve written this book over years, and didn’t have in mind the situation we’re in today. You can always draw lessons from almost any period in Lincoln’s life, including the current period we’re going through.

I would say some lessons are that Lincoln understood that the crisis of democracy in the United States was not isolated to the United States. He was deeply affected by suppressed revolutions in 1848 in Europe, and chaired a meeting in Springfield urging support for those struggling in Europe.

He always thought of the struggle here for democracy as the front lines of that movement throughout the West. He says in an 1854 speech in the Illinois State Capitol that he hates slavery because it deprives us of just influence in the world. There are lessons there.

It is a period when parties are coming apart at the seams. Lincoln was able to emerge and become the leader of a new party because he was able to understand the new circumstances and articulate what they mean, and articulate them not only in a narrow way but in a historical way. New leadership arises through the ability to define events.

Not least is the lesson of the leader who is intensely self-disciplined.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Sidney Blumenthal, please click here.

May 26

May 26, 1895: Dorothea Lange born.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Q&A with Max Klau

Max Klau is the author of the new book Race and Social Change: A Quest, A Study, a Call to Action. His other work includes The Idealist's Journey and Youth Leadership. He is the chief program officer at the New Politics Leadership Academy and is on the board of the International Leadership Association. He lives in the Boston area.

Q: You write, “America came into being in a manner that was laced with paradox and hypocrisy.”  Can you say more about that, and how it affects race relations today?

A: The founding truth of the country is a mix of incredibly idealistic ideas and a brutal system of slavery based on race. American history is a struggle to narrow the gap between the ideals and the reality.

Q: In the book, you describe a “personal quest” that helped you understand race and social change in a new way. What did your quest involve, and how did your perceptions change?

A: Part of the story is that I’m Jewish, and learned a lot about how people are cruel to each other, with the progressive belief that people should be kind.

But I was a privileged white person living in an upper-middle-class suburb in Connecticut. I had the belief that the truth was out there, I was a good person, [and] the facts outside myself had to be understood.

It was a journey of waking to the consciousness that I was immersed in the system; I was blind to the existence of the system. [My perceptions changed] over years of conversation, curiosity, and willingness to be in uncomfortable situations.

Q: The book describes an experiment focusing on the topics of race and social change. Can you briefly describe the experiment and a few of its most striking findings?

A: I stumbled on a program that runs an exercise in line with social psychology exercises. Diverse high school students are segregated into different groups, and told not to talk to each other. It’s set up as a Jim Crow unjust system, but the kids have the opportunity to challenge it. [It involves] what might be learned by observing an experiment, an observable civil rights movement.

There’s the blindness of the people at the top, the people lower in the hierarchy are likely to challenge it. [Awareness of] the wholeness of the system is a challenge to the system. A segregated system is not a disconnected system. It’s a whole system unconscious of the reality of wholeness.

Q: How would you replicate this on a larger scale?

A: I spend several chapters exploring the implications of the experiment, how to extrapolate it to the real world. There’s a lot you can learn about the personal journey each person can undertake, and to understand more effectively [how] our nation [can] address these challenges.

Q: Given the political climate, how do you see these issues playing out?

A: I’ve heard from a lot of folks who are profoundly pained by the state of civic life in America and race relations in particular, and don’t know what to do; we seem to be at the same place over and over. Consciousness matters. My own lack of consciousness led me to perpetuate things over and over. [Perhaps there] is a national policy that can shift this.

Q: What do you see looking ahead?

A: I’ve arrived at clarity that all we can do is each walk our path, and live with as much courage and compassion as we can. If the book helps people understand this stuff at a deeper level and be of service as a whole, [we can] hope it influences the policymakers.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My profession is leadership development. I’m the chief program officer at the New Politics Leadership Academy. Our programs [encourage] military veterans and Peace Corps [volunteers] to run for office. We would have a different politics…

Q: Anything else we should know about the book?

A: I hope it awakens people to the interconnectedness between the inner and outer worlds. The systems are a reflection of inner ways of being. When we shift inner ways of being, we shift systems. It always seems to start with people getting together, achieving a higher consciousness, and that’s the beginning of the journey.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with A.J. Low

A.J. Low (the husband-and-wife writing team of Adan Jimenez and Felicia Low-Jimenez) are the authors of the children's book Sherlock Sam and the Sinister Letters in Bras Basah, the third in a series now published in the United States. The first two books are Sherlock Sam and the Missing Heirloom in Katong and Sherlock Sam and the Ghostly Moans in Fort Canning. Sherlock Sam and the Ghostly Moans in Fort Canning. The authors are based in Singapore.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for the third book in your Sherlock Sam series?

A: The international school in book 3 is actually based on one of the very first schools in Singapore that we visited after we published our first book (in fact, most of the students are named after kids we met during that visit!).

The idea for this book came about because Adan really wanted to write a story about how it feels to be far away from home, and how, at times, it can be difficult and lonely to be in a new and strange environment. We had met kids who had moved to Singapore from other countries and knew that many of that felt that way too.

We came up with the idea of "chain mail" because it was something that both Adan and Felicia played when they were kids (before email was invented :D).

Q: Do you feel your character Sherlock Sam changes from book to book at all?

A: When he first started out, Sherlock mainly spent most of his time with Watson, Wendy, and Jimmy. But now his team of detectives is growing and he's also gaining a reputation as a reputable kid detective (which is why Inspector Siva reached out to him) so he's learning to take on bigger, more difficult cases, and how to work with the different personalities in his team too.

In later books, he encounters his most fiendish nemesis yet and gets in lots of trouble with his parents (which has never happened before).

Q: What age group do you think would especially enjoy these books?

A: Well, the books are meant for kids between 7 and 12, but we've inserted quite a few geek Easter eggs for parents and grown-ups as well so we think anyone who likes nerdy jokes and a fun mystery would enjoy our books!

Q: Who were some of your favorite authors when you were kids?

A: Felicia read a lot of Enid Blyton and Felicia and Adan both really loved the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: In Singapore, our 11th book was published in 2016 and right now we're putting the finishing touches on book 11A--it's somewhat of a continuation of book 11, but not really. That should be out next month.

It's titled Sherlock Sam's Orange Shorts and is the first collection of short stories that we've written for the series. All the characters will be alternate reality versions of themselves! For example, Sherlock Sam's superhero alter ego is named Chicken Wing, Watson is a Star Ship captain, and Wendy has the power of colour-fu!

We're really excited about it and we hope our readers will enjoy the new take on Sherlock, Watson, and the Supper Club!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just that Sherlock Sam has multiple pairs of the exact same orange shorts that he wears in every book. Even we don't know how many he has exactly :).

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with A.J. Low, please click here.

May 25

May 25, 1935: W.P. Kinsella born.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Q&A with Simon Van Booy

Simon Van Booy is the author of the novel Father's Day, now available in paperback. His other books include the novel The Illusion of Separateness and the story collection The Secret Lives of People in Love, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and the Financial Times. He lives in Brooklyn and Miami.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Father’s Day, and for your characters, Harvey and her father Jason?

A: In a dream! I used to laugh when people said that, that it would be full of rabbits riding bicycles. I dreamed I had an artificial leg and was hobbling around a baseball field and my daughter was missing. At the time she was 7 or 8. Any parent’s biggest fear is a child missing. In the dream, I had such panic.

I thought, who is this character? The only person I knew [who resembled this figure] was the guy who ran the IT department at the university I went to. He was a loner, a heavy smoker. He unknowingly cast himself in the role of Jason. You understand the strange alchemy.

Q: The novel includes various times in the characters’ lives. Did you write it in the order in which it appears in the book, or in chronological order for the characters?

A: I didn’t write it chronologically. After, I moved bits around, [when I figured out when a certain plot point] should be revealed. I understood that the thing about the book was keeping myself out of it. My natural style with language is to go over the top. I wanted to have a trace of Jason’s vernacular.

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

A: That came to me as I was writing. The ending I originally submitted ended about a page before the ending now. My editor said it’s not the right ending. After five books, I thought I had a handle on endings, but he was 100 percent right! I worked on the ending for several more weeks, and I and he were happy with it. The reader’s supposed to know something the characters don’t.

Q: How was the title chosen?

A: It’s the idea that fatherhood is more than just a genetic entitlement, it’s an act of will. It’s a generic holiday, Father’s Day. It was probably invented by a raging capitalist to make money on cards and tool boxes. But it’s important—it gives us a chance to recognize people…we recognize elders within our tribe.

I wanted to give it a commercial title almost as a disguise. I think it’s too disguised. Nobody said, I like what you did with the irony of the corporate holiday!...

Q: Do you prefer writing novels or short stories?

A: I much prefer short stories, but novels are more satisfying in a way. You get to develop the character the way you don’t in a short story. In a novel, you can see the character through all sorts of development and personality changes. Everything hinges on the tone in a short story.

Q: Why do you prefer short stories?

A: It’s like a Rubik’s Cube I can actually do! It takes me maybe three weeks of tinkering. With a novel, there’s absolutely no sense of completion until you’re a year in. It’s so hard—it’s like dealing with a roomful of kids throwing up, and it’s all chaos, and then suddenly they’re all sitting down, in suits, and it all comes together!

The hard part of being a writer is it’s work with no sense of safety…It’s a strange process—with a normal job, you’re making progress, it’s your job, the boss is happy. 

As a writer, you tie up a story with your own life, almost as if you’ve impacted your life. In the middle of the night, you decide you’re going to rearrange your drawer. In a book, it’s like unpacking your life at a time of crisis and when you put it back you have to rearrange [things]. It’s like constant self-therapy.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Book two of a children’s series. It’s about a girl who wakes up on a mysterious island and doesn’t remember anything about herself. She’s found by an old person who takes her back to a cottage. She’s the next keeper of lost things…she has to return things to people in history.

It’s fun to write because it’s not often you can sit in bed in the middle of the day in your pajamas and write about mice rollerskating. You can indulge any whim you have!

Q: Anything else we should know about Father’s Day?

A: The main theme of Father’s Day is overcoming anger. For a lot of people, anger is the solution to things they faced in the past and felt they had no control over.

People are saying, are you in touch with your feelings? If people feel rage, it’s no good to be in touch with yourself, they just get in trouble. How can they be in touch with themselves?

For someone like Jason, or a lot of decent men, they never learned the tools to deal with themselves…Jason gets a second chance at life; he has to give what he most needs: unconditional love, care, gentleness. It’s a book about overcoming anger and terror and a terrible childhood, to making your life pretty wonderful.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Massimo Pigliucci

Massimo Pigliucci is the author of the new book How To Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy To Live a Modern Life. His other books include Nonsense on Stilts and Answers for Aristotle, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times. He is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York, and he lives in New York.

Q: Why did you decide to write your new book?

A: It took me a number of years to experiment with several philosophies of life (Catholicism, Secular Humanism, Aristotelianism) before finding Stoicism, somewhat by accident -- because of a tweet from the University of Exeter that invited me to "celebrate Stoic Week."

Once I began studying and practicing Stoicism it immediately clicked; I saw that it has the potential -- at least for some people -- to dramatically alter the way you look at things and live your life.

I love writing, so the first thing I did was to compose a column for The New York Times about my ongoing investigation of Stoicism. It went viral, so I decided to begin publishing a blog that would allow me to share my experiences with others. From there the idea of writing a book was the obligatory next step, I suppose, and here we are.

Q: How would you define Stoicism, and what are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about it?

A: Stoicism is an ancient Greco-Roman philosophy that has a lot in common with Buddhism. It teaches that a moral life is the only one worth living, and it provides you with tools to achieve serenity of mind and to develop an attitude of equanimity toward whatever the world throws at you.

In popular lore it suffers from a couple of misconceptions: that it is about suppressing emotions and going through your life with a stiff upper lip -- sort of a Mr. Spock from Star Trek type of attitude. The reality is very different.

Regarding emotions, the Stoics distinguish between negative and positive ones. In the first group you have things like fear, hatred, and anger. In the second group love, joy, concern for other human beings, a sense of justice. The Stoic attempts to shift her emotional range away from the negative and toward the positive emotions.

As far as the stiff upper lip goes, it is true that Stoicism is a philosophy of endurance and resilience -- and those seem to me positive characteristics to practice. But the Stoic also enjoys the very same things that everyone else enjoys, from good meals to the company of friends, from good readings to the love of a companion.

The only difference is that the Stoic refers to these things by the deliciously but only apparently oxymoronic phrase of "preferred indifferents." This means that the good things in life are preferred, of course, but they are indifferent to one's moral character -- meaning that we can be moral agents regardless of whether we are healthy or sick, wealthy or poor, educated or ignorant.

Q: Who are some of the most notable people over the centuries who have espoused Stoicism, and do you see them as figures to emulate?

A: Cato the Younger was a Roman Senator famous for his moral integrity, and he took arms against the tyranny of Julius Caesar, e gesture in consequence of which he eventually lost his life.

One of the most famous Stoics was the emperor Marcus Aurelius, one of the "good emperors" that governed Rome during the second century. He constantly strived to be a better person and to treat others with respect, even when they did not reciprocate. He passed laws that improved the treatment of slaves and women, and, contrary to popular perception, did not persecute Christians.

Michel de Montaigne was also a Stoic, and Stoicism influenced Rene Descartes and Baruch Spinoza. In modern times, reading Marcus Aurelius' Meditations helped Nelson Mandela get through the toughest time in the prisons of the Apartheid government in South Africa.

Of course, as with any philosophy or religion, just because someone declares himself a Stoic, a Christian, or a Buddhist, it doesn't mean either that he follows the pertinent precepts or that he is a good person. There is a difference between the ideas and the people who claim to adopt them.

Nevertheless, Stoics themselves counsel to identify role models after which to pattern your own behavior. As Seneca famously put it, "[we] must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler."

Q: You've said that "Stoicism is largely a matter of practice, not just theory." What are some strategies someone could use to incorporate Stoicism into his/her life?

A: My book includes a chapter of what I call "spiritual exercises." Other refers to them as "mind tricks," or meditations. I begin the day by reading a favorite passage from one of the ancient authors, Seneca, Epictetus, or Marcus Aurelius, reflecting on how it may apply to my own life.

I then visualize potentially delicate situations that I am likely to encounter during the day, envisioning the worst possible outcomes, and thinking about the best way to tackle them. This allows me to be better prepared for the actual problem, should it in fact occur.

In the evening I take a few minutes to write down my thoughts about the day, asking myself three questions: what did I do right? Where did I go wrong? What could I do better in the future, under similar circumstances?

All of these approaches are meant to develop a type of mindfulness about what one does and why, as well as to prepare you mentally to engage at your best with whatever problem may come your way. You also become more serene as a result of this routine self-examination.

The Stoics occasionally engaged in exercises of mild self-deprivation, which I find very useful. For instance, fasting for a day, or abstaining from alcohol for a bit, or going an entire week without shopping (other than basic necessities), or going out in cold weather a bit underdressed, or taking a cold shower.

This isn't a matter of masochism, but rather has two objectives: to prepare you for the possibility that you really might have to go through lean times and forgo some of these things by necessity; but also, and more importantly, to reset what psychologists call the hedonic treadmill, the fact that we get used to what we have and no longer appreciate it.

It works. You wouldn't believe how good the next hot shower or nice meal feel after you've done without them for a bit!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A number of projects, as usual. One of them is a book on Stoicism for kids, with the help of a friend of mine who is an excellent graphic artist. The idea is to introduce children aged 8-12 or 13 to the theory and practice of Stoic philosophy by way of a series of comic book stories featuring children who tackle everyday problems, from bullism at school to dealing with diversity and disability.

Too often writers focus on adults as if they were the only audience worth having. But kids are the next generation, it is they who are going to change the world, hopefully for the better.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I would encourage your readers to seriously consider the idea of developing a philosophy of life. It doesn't have to be Stoicism, of course.

But a life philosophy provides you with a general framework that saves you time in figuring out what is and is not important for you, and it provides you with guidance on how to navigate the small and big happenings of your life. Try it out, I think you'll be surprised by its efficacy.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb