Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Q&A with Carolyn Meyer

Carolyn Meyer is the author of a new novel for older kids, Girl with a Camera: Margaret Bourke-White, Photographer. Her many other books for children and young adults include Diary of a Waitress and Anastasia and her Sisters. She lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Q: Why did you decide to write a novel based on the life of photographer Margaret Bourke-White?

A: I’d been noodling around with a list of American women who were pioneers in their fields. I always focus on the early lives of the characters I write about: who they were before they became Somebody, what their formative years were like. Margaret Bourke-White was high on the list, and she was unique.

Q: What did you see as the right blend between the historical facts of her life and your own imagination?

A: I try to find the best and most interesting facts to form the narrative’s framework; then I invent dialogue and add likely details that suit the personality and are accurate for the time period but for which I have no actually proof.

Q: How did you research the book, and what did you find that especially fascinated you?

A: I read biographies and various books about MBW. Then I backed that up with online research on other characters, like the Mungers, who financed her education.

I used to have a neighbor who collected old cameras; I asked him to show me how they worked. I called the historical society in the town where she grew up and asked if they had copies of the yearbook from her era. Etc., etc., etc.  That, of course, is the fun of it!

Q: Why did you decide to write the novel in the first person?

A: First person is the best way I know to get the emotional closeness to the character. I’ve tried third person, and it never works as well for me.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Georgia O’Keeffe! She was on my list of pioneers. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 25

April 25, 1908: Edward R. Murrow born.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Q&A with Renée Rosen

Renee Rosen, photo by Charles Osgood Photography
Renée Rosen is the author of the new novel Windy City Blues. Her other novels include White Collar Girl and What the Lady Wants. A former advertising copywriter, she lives in Chicago.

Q: Why did you decide to write about the Chess brothers and the Chicago blues in your new novel?

A: This was definitely a group decision made by my editor, my agent and myself. We all knew that we wanted to do one more Chicago historical novel and we needed a compelling anchor or backdrop.

It was my editor who first said, “What about the blues?” I honestly didn’t know that much about Chicago Blues at the time so I did some preliminary research and it quickly became apparent that any story about the blues had to include the Chess brothers.

I couldn’t have dreamed up better characters than Leonard and Phil Chess. I think what’s so remarkable about their story is that here you have two white Jewish guys, with zero musical abilities of their own, who go on to launch the careers of such icons as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Etta James, Chuck Berry and so many others.

Q: You have a combination of fictional and historic characters--how did you come up with Leeba, Red, and your other fictional creations?

A: Originally this was just going to be Leeba’s story—a young Jewish girl who falls in love with a black guitarist from the Mississippi Delta. I wrote close to 200 pages from her POV before I realized the book wasn’t working and trashed them all.

Those pages weren’t working because the story was too big to be told through one character’s POV. I needed three, someone to represent the music industry (Leonard Chess), someone to represent the bluesman (Red Dupree) and a young woman trying to follow her heart (Leeba Grosky). 

Leeba and Red’s story really takes center stage and both these fictional characters. and the others, sprang out of research. For example, I interviewed a famous deejay from Birmingham, Shelley Stewart. Shelley was a central figure during the Civil Rights Movement and after talking to him, Red Dupree began talking on new dimensions and his storyline grew and deepened.

Leeba is a combination of many women from that time period that I read about, including Carole King. Her memoir gave me some insights into how someone like Leeba would become a songwriter.

Q: Did you learn anything in the course of your research for this book that especially surprised you?

A: Great question! I learned so much. It would be impossible to convey it all here, but some of the key points would be the parallels between Jewish immigrants and blacks in Chicago during this time.

I was also surprised to learn about how important blues music was to the Civil Rights Movement.

Most surprising of all however, was realizing how timely this story is. Even though it’s set in the 1950s and 1960s, we find ourselves facing the same issues today: racism, anti-Semitism, discrimination against immigrants.

Q: You've written several books now about different periods in Chicago's history. How does this period compare with those you've focused on before?

A: I think the 1950s and 1960s played a more crucial role in terms of social change and perhaps because we’re still dealing with these issues today, it makes this time period more relatable than say the Gilded Age or the Roaring Twenties.

Those time periods seem so far away, so quaint and foreign to us whereas, I don’t think you can read about the ‘50s and ‘60s without feeling the significance of what was happening and feeling like you’re still part of what was started 50 or 60 years ago.

As far as writing about this time period, it’s tricky. Many of the people and places you’re writing about are still around and many of your readers lived through the very time period you’re basing your story on, so you have to get it right.

No one’s going to know if you fudged something back in the 1870s or 1920s, but you’ll absolutely pull the reader out of the story if you get even a single fact wrong in this case. It’s a great challenge and very rewarding when I hear from readers who say the book brought back memories for them. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Very excited for my next book about Helen Gurley Brown and how she resurrected Cosmopolitan Magazine in 1965. It’s told from the POV of her secretary. Now, you might be thinking it sounds like The Devil Wears Prada, but HGB was no Anna Wintour. In many ways, she was the polar opposite.

This novel will be a departure for me on several counts. It’s my first historical novel set outside of Chicago. This one takes place in New York City and unlike my other books which have spanned a few decades, this will be more concentrated—just one year.

One of Helen Gurley Brown’s greatest contributions to women was removing the stigma about female sexuality and that’s great fun to write about! I’m having a blast with it—bring on the go-go boots and Nehru jackets. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I love being a writer. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do, from the time I was a young girl. I’m truly grateful that I get to spend my days surrounded by words and books and fellow book lovers.

I’m sure everyone’s TBR piles are at least as high as mine and I know there’s a likelihood that we’ll never get to read all the books we want, and so I never take it for granted whenever someone chooses one of my books to read. I hope that when the last page is turned they feel their reading time was rewarding. 

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

Q&A with Maria S. Costa

Maria S. Costa is the author and illustrator of the new children's picture book How to Find a Friend.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for How To Find a Friend?

A: Sometimes, when I start thinking about a new project, I doodle or I write phrases that come to my mind, waiting to see if an idea interesting enough shapes up.

In the case of How to Find a Friend I started by writing a bunch of sentences, mainly thoughts about loneliness. Those sentences evolved to a dialogue between two lonely persons. Or should I say instead, two monologues, like when you have two persons who talk about their own problems but don’t even care to listen to what the other is saying.

This gave me the main idea of the story: two lonely animals so immersed in their own thoughts and busy lives that they keep missing each other and the opportunity to start the friendship they both wish.

By now this must look like a depressing idea for a children’s book. However, I related the subject to what a child must feel when it is hard finding new friends after moving to a new neighborhood. I tried to create a cheer-up story to show that to find a friend could be easier than we think if we keep alert to the opportunities in front of us.

Q: Did you write the text as you drew the illustrations, or did you do one part before the other?

A: I first wrote the text of How to Find a Friend. Then I started making character studies and sketches of the scenes. But along the way the text suffered changes.

Also, I cannot say that the illustration work was secondary to the text. In fact, the book has a strong correlation between text and pictures as we cannot understand the story without both.

That is because text and pictures show us different things. What we see in the illustrations is even the opposite of what characters tell us. And that creates the dynamic and humor of the story.

Q: What inspired your style as an artist?

A: My inspiration comes from several places. I love, for instance, the graphic look and colors of vintage posters, Miroslav Sasek vintage travel books or the use of color in David Hockney’s art. 

The current rediscovery of old printmaking techniques, and their mixing with new digital techniques, was also an inspiration to me. I started doing monoprinting, and then I was attracted by the boldness of linocut prints and that persuaded me to try this technique.

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

A: How to Find a Friend intends mainly to convey a positive message about life to its readers, whether they are children or adults, using humor to create great moments of fun.

In the meantime, it would be wonderful if it would be able to help lonely children or adults to feel more confident that somewhere there is a friend waiting to meet them, as long as they don’t give up. And to remember that sometimes a friend may be nearer than they think.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m always thinking about ideas for new children’s books and I work on several projects at the same time. Those projects are not necessarily limited to picture books. For instance, I’m developing a project for a novelty book, but I have also in my mind an idea for an early reader/chapter book that I would like to develop in the near future.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Well, I can tell you something about me: I like to hum while I’m illustrating, I’ve already slept on the top of a volcano and I would like to have a chameleon but I’m afraid to lose sight of him.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 24

April 24, 1815: Anthony Trollope born.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Q&A with S. Mitchell Weitzman

S. Mitchell Weitzman is the author, with his mother, Lucia Weitzman, of the book The Rose Temple: A Child Holocaust Survivor's Vision of Faith, Hope and Our Collective Future. He is a counsel with the Food and Drug Administration in the Washington, D.C., area, and his work has appeared in publications including Washington Jewish Week and Coping.

Q: Why did you and your mother decide to write a book about her life?

A: Publishing a book was the last thing my mother imagined doing.  Her childhood vulnerabilities and fears as the lone Jew remaining in her postwar Polish hometown still lingered. Privacy was her natural impulse.

Placed by her parents into the care of a Catholic couple in a desperate attempt to save her, my mother’s background merits documentation for historical purposes. 

Unlike the Jewish children hidden with Catholics and later reunited with relatives, or those who learned later in life that they were Jewish, my mother found out she was Jewish at age five. She struggled with, and because of, her dual identity throughout the remainder of her childhood and adolescence.  

But the main impetus for writing the book began once she undertook a spiritual journey in midlife, after my father died. On one level the journey was personal, addressing her search for her authentic self and her life purpose after others had long since labeled or defined her. 

However, on another level, Biblically-symbolic messages she received through dreams and inspired writings spoke to a broader purpose and our decision to publish. They indicated the need for a shifting global consciousness from a paradigm of divisiveness and intolerance to one of healing and connectedness.

Q: How did you separate your roles as son and writer as you examined your mother’s story? How did the two of you work together on the project?

A: As a writer, I tried to maintain a certain distance so that I captured a real-life woman, not just an admired, beloved mother. I would write her story independently, imagining how she must have felt, and then she would send me notes or an interview transcript.

Sometimes we found amazing synchronicity; at other times, I captured thoughts and emotions she hadn’t yet acknowledged or internalized, like her relationship with Jesus. In fact, I once went to Mass so I could better understand her experience.

That said, there were several very emotional, revelatory moments during our writing process. At one point during a trip to her hometown in Poland, she disclosed that her adoptive father had made advances to her after she turned 13. She lived in constant fear of him.

I’d always thought that her home was a refuge from the challenges she faced at school and in her neighborhood. This was a shock—and I was already midway through the book. Needless to say, the need to revise was the least of my concerns.  

Q: You begin and end the book by reflecting on a question about God’s involvement—or lack of involvement--during times like the Holocaust. How would your mother answer this question?

A: As we say in the book, the question about God’s presence or absence during the Holocaust is one that theologians, scholars, and others have asked for decades. There may be no definitive answer. 

Interestingly, the question itself emerged from my mother’s “inspired” writing, which is writing that originated as a thought perceived or sensed as a voice which she believed to be Divine. It was as if God wanted the question to be asked as a means of engagement. The answer, for my mother, is that God was, is, and always will be present in her life.

Is her answer the answer for everyone? “People must follow their own path,” my mother says, “and questions and answers about God’s presence must come from within."    

In the epilogue, I turn the question around.  Instead of asking about God’s presence in our world, I pose that we consider our presence in His.

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

A: My mother’s birth name was Rose. At a pivotal point during her spiritual journey, she sensed the Divine voice entering her consciousness, telling her that her work will “help rebuild the temple.” 

She had no idea what that meant, but later learned that the temple is a temple of love, not a physical place.  She explains: “For me, The Rose Temple is about God’s love for us and what I believe is His hope for us to love each other.”

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Inspired by my 9-year-old niece, I am adapting The Rose Temple for children. She read the book and felt empowered enough by it to confront someone in her class who was bullying her.

The children’s version, entitled Rose’s Gift, will focus on my mother’s schoolgirl years. Hopefully it will inspire any child who has ever felt the pain of being different, and who has searched for strength in situations where they might otherwise feel powerless.
I am also working on another children’s book that, improbably, combines baseball, religion, mysticism and music. Stay tuned for that one.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: A spiritual journey doesn’t end when a book does. My mother continues to write and share her experiences with me, touching on topics that are at the very core of religion and history.

The book’s website is intended to offer more than just informational or promotional support for the book. We see it as an evolving virtual place; a concept, a community, or a movement—however you wish to define it—whose mission is to help transform our troubled world into an era of global harmony blessed with Divine love and light: in short, a force for good in the world. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Ann Bevans

Ann Bevans is the author, with Matthew Ethan Gray, of the Bean in the Garden children's book series. She also has written the marketing book Selling with Stories. A marketer, graphic designer, and web developer, she lives in Maryland.

Q: How did you and Matthew Ethan Gray come up with the idea for your Bean in the Garden series?

A: We were kicking around ideas one day and Matt said, "I have an idea that won't leave me alone. It's about a bean who's walking across a garden." Then he proceeded to describe what was (more or less) the plot of our first book, Bean Takes a Walk.

The idea grew out of a bedtime story Matt told his kids. It resonated with me because my husband and I also told our son (now 10) bedtime stories about beans! It was a moment of synchronicity that set Matt and I on the path toward creating Bean in the Garden.

Q: What age group do you think would especially enjoy the books, and what do you hope young readers take away from the stories?

A: The books are designed for preschool and primary grades, ages 3-7. Our aim with Bean in the Garden is to help kids learn to be brave and kind in everyday life, but we approach this in a lighthearted way.

So far, kids have really responded to our characters and seem to enjoy the books. As a side note, we've also enjoyed hearing that kids are learning the names of new veggies! 

Q: How do the two of you collaborate on the books?

A: Matt lives in Australia and I live in the U.S., so there's definitely some back and forth. We usually start by brainstorming in a Google Hangout. I create the first draft, then we revise it together.

When it's in pretty good shape, Matt creates the illustrations and puts everything in an InDesign document. Then we usually do another round of revisions and lots of editing before we publish. 

In the final stages, it's important to compare the text to the illustrations to make sure they agree. Sometimes we need to adjust the illustrations to match the text, and sometimes it's the other way around!

It's great fun creating books with Matt. We really enjoy the process.

Q: Bean in the Garden is now on YouTube--how do the videos coordinate with the books?

A: YouTube has really stretched our muscles, and we love it! Our first few videos have been read-alouds, which are lightly animated versions of the books.

We're also working on some alphabet videos and other educational content for young viewers. Parents can subscribe to our channel by visiting here

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm really excited about book 6! In this story, Bean and Bella are on a mission to discover if the real Amazing Pickle has come to the Garden! We are also focused on expanding our presence on YouTube and squeezing in a few more school visits before the end of the year.

Outside of the Garden, I always have quite a few balls in the air. Currently, I'm revising my young adult science fiction novel, Ghost, and I'm doing research for a middle grade novel as well!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Parents and teachers may want to check out our school visits program. I enjoy chatting with kids in all grade levels, from preschool through high school. (Shh. Don't tell anyone, but I think the high schoolers enjoy Bean more than anyone!) I love reading the books and sharing information about the writing process.

Also, kids should check out our games center for some fun online games, including memory, character puzzles and a coloring app.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb