Thursday, July 20, 2017

Q&A with Camille T. Dungy

Camille T. Dungy is the author of the new essay collection Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History. Her other books include Trophic Cascade and Smith Blue. She is a professor of creative writing at Colorado State University, and she lives in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Q: How did you choose “Guidebook to Relative Strangers” as your book’s title, and what does it signify for you?

A: One of the first essays I wrote for the book was "A Good Hike." In it, I find myself in the midst of a precarious situation. As I wrote in the essay, "The group of people on whom I found myself dependent were relative strangers," but thanks to their care and attention I was able to reach safety (and I got a great story too!).

As I continued the journeys that informed this book, I began to understand the importance of developing community with the relative strangers I find around me all the time.

From providing windows into our common histories to sharing unexpectedly delicious treats, writing this book was like penning a survival guide that made clear to me that the ability to thrive is dependent on finding ways to connect.

Q: The subtitle focuses on three themes: race, motherhood, and history. How do the three coexist for you?

A: I can't imagine how these could not be connected. The poet Emily Dickinson once wrote, "Today, makes Yesterday mean." Equally, tomorrow will be shaped by the decisions we make today.

Who I am as a woman has evolved since I have become a mother. I am even more concerned about the ways in which history and the present will direct my child's future.

Because I am a black woman in America, my concern is heightened even further because of the many ways the legacies of our history still guide us today.

Q: You begin the book with a description of an interaction at an artists’ retreat. Why did you choose that as your starting point?

A: One of the truths about opening my life to relative strangers is that my sense of self is frequently challenged. I am a writer. That part of my identity has been key to me for all of my adult life, and well into my childhood.

At the artists' retreat I wanted to compartmentalize my experience and put the artist side of me first. But that wasn't going to be possible. Other parts of my identity were called upon, sometimes tested. My race, my gender, my interest in history and its influence on contemporary social structures.

All these parts of who I am and what I care about were called upon despite the fact I wanted to just slip away and be a writer. It becomes clear that, for me, writing can't happen in isolation from these other parts of my identity. In the opening essay and throughout the book, I write about what it means to represent all these selves.

Q: Given the current political climate, what do you see looking ahead when it comes to the issue of race in the United States?

A: I have to live in hope, because own life and my family's life is at stake, but I am also very concerned.

I know that this country, that the whole world, has been through divisive and repressive phases before. I understand that some of those moments in our history still haunt us fundamentally today. I have to stay alert and attuned to the dangerous climate, and I have to work to actively resist it.

There is quite literally a storm gathering outside my office window as I type this response. Thick gray clouds cloaking the sun, branch-bending wind, occasional flashes of lightning, that barometric depression that always threatens to give me a migraine, heavy raindrops and pebble-sized chunks of hail.

This storm will pass. I can hope we will stay safe. But I can't pretend it is not happening, that it is not potentially very dangerous. I have to acknowledge that if proper precautions aren't taken (and even in some cases despite our best efforts), a storm of this magnitude can cause irreparably devastating harm.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: As I said above, I identify as a writer, which means I am nearly always writing. Though I am not always writing a thing. It takes a while for a gravitational pull to develop around new work.

This year I've published both a new collection of poems, Trophic Cascade, and the essay collection Guidebook to Relative Strangers. I am writing, but I'll have to write a lot more in order to refill the well.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Thanks so much for spending this time with my words!!!! Much of Guidebook to Relative Strangers is about what I have discovered about myself and my country while traveling to give readings and lectures.

I am part of what one of my grandmother's favorite poems calls "a great, wide, beautiful, wonderful world." I am honored to have been able to write about it. I still love traveling and discovering the ways I can form deep connections with relative strangers. If you want to know if I'll be in your area, come visit my website!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 20

July 20, 1933: Cormac McCarthy born.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Q&A with M.J. Rose

M.J. Rose is the author of the new novel The Library of Light and Shadow. Her many other books include The Secret Language of Stones and The Witch of Painted Sorrows. She lives in Greenwich, Connecticut.

Q: This is the third of your Daughters of La Lune books. Did you know when you wrote the first book that you’d be writing a series?

A: ​They aren't really a series at all - each is a stand-alone book that takes place in a different time period with a different member of the family and are written to be read in any order at all - or just one. I have about a dozen stories I want to tell about various members of this family though time - that I'm going to be coming back to over time.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your main character, Delphine, and for her artistic gift?

A: ​I saw a series of paintings done by an artist I admire names Stephen Mackey and the idea came quickly - I was mesmerized by the paintings.

Q: What kind of research did you do to write this book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: ​I do so much research for each book - much of it reaching original source material written during the period. I try to really live in the period and become obsessed with finding out tiny details - most of which never make it into the book.

I wasn't surprised as much as fascinated by all my reading. The Jazz Age was so radical  - coming right after World War I, people were tying to escape the horrors they'd seen and heard about and lived. Their efforts led to so much art and music and literature.

And women were living through a very liberating time and exploring their newfound freedom with gusto.  Having basically had every job on the home front during the war, they weren't so anxious to give up what they'd discovered about themselves.

Q: Do you usually know how your novels will end before you start writing them, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: ​I always know. I begin knowing where I'm going but the journey to get there is the surprise.​

Q: What are you working on now?
A: It's too soon to talk about other than to say it’s the same time period and its not about one of the Daughters of LaLune – it’s a bit different.​

Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I keep extensive Pinterest boards as inspiration before, while researching, and while I'm writing the book and readers always find them really interesting. Here's the one for The Library of Light and Shadow.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Ann Marie Stephens

Ann Marie Stephens is the author of the new children's picture book Cy Makes a Friend. Her other books include Scuba Dog. She is an elementary school teacher, and she lives in Fairfax, Virginia.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Cy Makes a Friend, and for your character Cy?

A: The notion of writing about a Cyclops came to me like most of my ideas. It was random. Cy jumped out of nowhere and tugged at me off and on for years.

If I dig a little deeper then I can say it probably came from a long time love of Greek mythology that started in 7th grade. Combine that with the fact that I am drawn to books where authors take unlikeable characters (like a one-eyed monster) and make them loveable and you have Cy.

When the story first started forming I knew I would highlight Cy’s insecurities to make him relatable to readers. Almost everyone has uncertainties when it comes to making new friends. If Cy, with his giant eye and lack of social skills, can put himself out there to make a friend, then anyone can.

Q: What do you think Tracy Subisak’s illustrations add to the book?

A: Tracy really surprised me with her illustrations... in an amazing way. When I am writing a story I always see images in my head. They help me develop my character. If I can see them, then I will know what they might do or say in any situation I present to them.

In my mind, Cy was a traditional Cyclops with a human body, large eye, and hair like Homer Simpson. When I saw Tracy’s sketch of Cy with his furry body, swoopy bang, and adorable smile, my own image disappeared immediately. I was in LOVE!

She chose the perfect colors and gave Cy the vulnerability I wanted him to have. My editor and I use the word “love” a lot when we talk about Cy. He has that effect on people.

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

A: Most importantly, I want readers to see themselves in the book. Perhaps they are like Cy. Or maybe, they have no trouble making friends and need to see how hard it can be for other people.

It’s difficult at any age, to approach someone you don’t know, and attempt a conversation or friendship. I’ve had adults come up to me at book signings and say, “My kid is just like Cy,” or “I really identify with Cy because as an adult, I still have trouble making friends.”

Creating friendships requires bravery and sometimes patience. Like the book says, “Being brave takes time.”

Cy Makes a Friend seems to be helping out in the autistic community as well. Parents and teachers have talked to me about how their kids on the spectrum see themselves in Cy. Feedback like this means the world to me.

Q: Who are some of your own favorite authors?

A: This is an easy one! I’m a super fan of Bob Shea (anything and everything!), Laurie Keller (Arnie!!), Lauren Oliver (pure genius), Leo Lionni (every single mouse), Arnold Lobel, (Mouse Tales!), Ezra Jack Keats, (relatable characters), Pam Munoz Ryan (flawless storytelling), and Holly Goldberg Sloan (beautiful language).

I really like books that are funny or profound, and I gravitate to characters with strong voices. Many of my friends are children’s book authors as well, so obviously, I love and respect their work too! (Lezlie Evans, Mary Rand Hess, Sue Fliess, Kwame Alexander, Kathy Erskine, Ann McCallum... should I keep going?)

Q: What are you working on now?

A: This is a loaded question for me. I am working on lots of different things. I’m all about what I’m in the mood to work on when I sit down to write. Unless of course I have a deadline, then I don’t have a choice!

My current work in progress is a picture book manuscript. It takes place in the ocean and it’s about two creatures that have a perfect symbiotic relationship until a third party “drops in” and complicates things.

I’m writing a few other picture book stories too. That way, if I’m stumped on a plot point or even one line in my work in progress, I can jump to another story before I get frustrated.

I’m also doing some educational writing but I have to keep that stuff a secret until I don’t have to keep it a secret anymore! (Stay tuned.)

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I guess I should tell you about my other books. I have Scuba Dog, published by little bee books. Boyds Mills Press will be publishing two of my books, titled Arithmechicks Add Up and Arithmechicks Take Away, about fuzzy little farm chicks that do math.

I’ve been an elementary teacher for over 26 years. I teach first grade which is one of the most challenging yet rewarding ages to teach. Every year my students motivate me to be a good person and teacher while simultaneously wearing me out!

I’m also a little obsessed with scuba diving and traveling the world to meet new people and see amazing places.

Lastly, I’m so appreciative of people like you, Deborah, for sharing the book love. Authors and illustrators rely on kindness and generosity to keep our books alive! Thank you!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 19

July 19, 1921: Elizabeth Spencer born.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Q&A with Matthew Klam

Matthew Klam is the author of the new novel Who Is Rich?. He also has written Sam the Cat and Other Stories. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, and Esquire, and he has taught at Johns Hopkins University, American University, and other schools. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Who Is Rich?, and for your main character, Rich Fischer, a cartoonist teaching at a summer arts conference?

A: I have attended those summer arts conferences for decades, a couple of times as a student and many times as a faculty member. It seems they’re summer camps for grownups. We assemble a persona for the people we work with, our neighbors, and all that stuff is set aside.

It’s grownups indulging in another self—you set aside your mortgage, your marriage, and you’re really focused on one thing. You want to read a page of your memoir on stage…If you can get that other side of people in midlife, that’s where the general idea came from.

For the main character, for years I was casting around for someone who could be a stand-in for me, a male who doesn’t participate in capitalism the way men do. I took a class in cartooning and I met a cartoonist who said a lot of things I did as a short-story writer…

I was there studying [cartooning] just for fun. I started teaching at Johns Hopkins and it was fun to take a week out and draw…Everybody knows comics. We tap into it with our kids. When my daughter was 2 or 3, I did a lot of [that type of] reading.

Q: One of the themes that runs through the novel is creativity and how an artist works. What does Rich’s career say about the life of a creative artist?

A: It probably says it’s kind of challenging. Everybody’s life is hard. People in the arts come to understand that, especially people like Rich, who had a fairly effortless start. I share a lot of his background. He had a lot of notoriety, he published a book, and then all of a sudden he’s in his 30s, and what’s next? It’s illustrative of an early success story and what happens after that.

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

A: I was casting around for a while for a title that did a good enough job of covering the bandwidth of the book. I though of “Who Is Rich and Why?” I ran it by a friend who said it was too complicated.

I thought [Rich is] pretty obsessed with his envy of money, more than with money itself. Ron Charles did [pick up on that] in the Washington Post review, but in the early reviews I don’t see people paying much attention to that.

Q: Another theme in the book is marriage. How would you describe the relationship between Rich and his wife, Robin?

A: Yesterday I was talking to someone who said very defensively, That’s not my marriage, but I’ve been there.

You have to note that [Rich and Robin] are on the tail end of the sleepless years. They have a functioning marriage, but they do not have much insight, until the end. They’re in an awful place, but I really am hoping just by showing how much he knows about her, you’d get the sense he cares about her.

He also knows a lot about Amy [his romantic interest at the conference]. Amy is a disruptive force…

Q: Yes, how do you see the role of Amy in the book?

A: It’s a fantasy of his. She’s a real person, but they don’t know much about each other, just how good an emailer or texter they are…

She’s an American archetype, like a frightening Ralph Lauren model. What she really is is someone who wasn’t averse to going into banking, she met someone who’s in it…who is a billionaire. You can understand her staying, you can understand her leaving.

I came at [her relationship with her husband] from a few different angles. A lot of people I know have relationships that are works in process. Theirs is exaggerated. And she may not be giving [Rich] the full story.

Q: Why did you decide to set the novel in 2012?

A: It’s probably the unwieldy nature of the long haul of writing a book. I started it in 2010. In 2014 and 2015 I hoped whatever would happen in the next presidential election wouldn’t be so extreme that it would distract us. Little did I know.

I turned in the finished manuscript in July 2016. We worked on it in the summer and the fall, The die was cast in 2016. I was hoping Hillary would win.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Putting some things in a folder. That’s about as far as I’ve gotten. I’m working on a couple of little things. I’m pretty distracted by being public with the book. It will take time to calm down.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Jennifer Fenn

Jennifer Fenn is the author of the new young adult novel Flight Risk. She has been a middle school language arts teacher, and has written for a variety of publications. She lives in Downingtown, Pennsylvania.

Q: Flight Risk was inspired by a true story. What intrigued you about it, and at what point did you decide it would make a good book?

A: Flight Risk was inspired by the story of Colton Harris-Moore, dubbed The Barefoot Bandit, a teenager who evaded police for two years and stole several planes before he was eventually caught in Bermuda.

His story is fascinating. As a teenager without any flight training, how did he pull it off?  And perhaps more importantly, why? 

I became aware of this story while Harris-Moore was still on the run, and I found myself—a writer, a teacher, a generally law-abiding citizen—rooting for him not to get caught, which led me to examine why society loves certain anti-heroes, including fictional ones, like Walter White and Tony Soprano, for instance. 

The basic facts of the story provided a vehicle to tackle many other interesting topics, such as how schools approach students with ADHD and how stories are shaped by cable news pundits.

Q: What did you see as the right blend between the factual basis of the story and your fictional creations?

A: Harris Moore’s story was a jumping off point for Robert’s. The true story provided me with a “what,” and I fictionalized the “who” and “why.”  

Robert’s background and motivations are invented, as are all the secondary characters and their stories. Robert’s particular personality quirks were also inspired by several of my former students. 

As I drafted and edited, Robert’s story diverged from Harris Moore’s more and more. As the character developed, I didn’t feel any obligation to remain true to the facts of Harris Moore’s life and I don’t claim to tell his story.

Yannatok Island, where Flight Risk takes place, does resembles the actual islands off the coast of Washington where the real events occurred. Sticking to that general geographical area helped me create a realistic setting. I wanted to keep technical details involving airplanes and flying accurate, but I fictionalized heavily when it came to the narrative.

Q: You tell the story in a variety of ways, including "interviews" with other characters. How did you come up with this approach?

A: When I began my first draft of this novel, I was also teaching 7th grade Language Arts and one of my classes was reading Jerry Spinelli’s wonderful Maniac Magee. That book opens with a jump rope rhyme about the title character and all his exploits, which have been mythologized by the neighborhood kids. 

That got me thinking about how folk heroes are created today, in the age of social media and how a myth can grow around a person and becomes something apart from them and beyond their control. 

I wanted the interviews to show how different characters embellish Robert’s story as his notoriety grows. Everyone thinks they know the "real" Robert Jackson Kelly, but their interviews highlight the difference between the public perception of Robert and his real motivations and feelings while he’s on the run. 

I also love books that utilize a strong voice. Using the interviews allowed to write in more than one voice, while also using a close third-person point of view to get inside Robert’s head, which I enjoyed. 

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

A: I wrote the ending of Robert’s story early on, and the book’s last sections changed very little throughout the writing and editing process.

The image that ends the novel was one that stuck with me as I moved through several drafts. This novel actually began as a flash fiction piece, which ended with the same scene. I nearly always write the end of my stories first.

In fact, until I come up with at least an image, a single sentence, to end on, I don’t start. I don’t outline, so I like having a target I’m writing towards. Having that image in place also helped me build image patterns and foreshadowing throughout the novel as I drafted.

The ending of Robert’s story felt inevitable to me.  There’s a sense of fate that I hope comes across in the narrative. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on my next young adult novel, which is currently untitled. This novel is about a teenage drummer in a successful rock band who is deaf. 

The story deals with how undergoing cochlear implant surgery impacts his musical talent and his relationships with his girlfriend, bandmates and family. I’ve enjoyed learning more about both the Deaf community and the music business while drafting this novel.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb