Monday, January 16, 2017

Q&A with David Eric Tomlinson

David Eric Tomlinson is the author of the new novel The Midnight Man. His work has appeared in publications including Zouch Magazine and Phantom Drift, and he lives in Dallas.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Midnight Man, and why did you set most of it in the 1990s?

A: I was jogging. Lungs burning, legs hurting. Suddenly an image comes to me: a man running along the railroad tracks that bisect downtown Oklahoma City. Where was this guy running? What was he running from? I spent the next five years trying to answer that question.

I grew up in the manufacturing town of Perry, Oklahoma, and had always wanted to write about the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building, in Oklahoma City. Perry is where Timothy McVeigh was caught, one hour and 18 minutes after detonating his bomb.

The bombing, I decided would be my subject. Early drafts involved only a few characters. There were several detours and false starts. At one point I was writing flashbacks that followed Timothy McVeigh as he prepared for the event. But it was very dark, too dark, and I ended up cutting all of this.

Eventually the story grew into a more structurally complex but emotionally satisfying one. It takes the social forces of that time and place, personifies them – in five very different characters – and follows each, as he or she struggles with complicated racial, political, and social pressures.

While the historical and political forces of the time are all converging toward a horrifying climax, these five characters are overcoming those same forces, to form a kind of family unit. You realize, in the end, that we’re all going to be okay. It’s a much more hopeful vision than the thriller I set out to write.

Q: You tell the story from a variety of perspectives. Were there some of the characters that you especially enjoyed writing about?

A: This is really a very simple book. It’s a story about family – about finding the family you need, rather than the one you’re born into. Each of the five main characters has some work to do on themselves, some sort of emotional arc. What none of the characters realizes is that they can’t possibly do this work on their own.

In the beginning, everyone is very much alone. As the novel progresses, the characters begin pushing up against – and then slowly empathizing with – those who think and act in fundamentally different ways. We don’t become the best version of ourselves in a vacuum. It takes the humility and wisdom to ask for, and to accept, help from others.

All this being said, “Big” Ben Porter was the most interesting character to write. He was also the most difficult. The most complicated. Ben is a bigger than life character – ambitious, successful, funny, manipulative, somewhat dangerous. He represents an acquisitive, power-hungry approach to life that I’m very much opposed to. The character arc I envisioned for him was: “to help someone other than himself.”

In the early drafts, I had a lot of trouble writing Ben. Basically, I didn’t respect him. It wasn’t until I stopped judging him, and began seeing the world from Ben’s point of view, that I really began to understand how he could be, not just an interesting character, but even a heroic one.

Q: How would you describe the racial dynamics among the various characters?

A: It would be hard to write a novel about and around the Oklahoma City bombing without addressing race directly. I wanted to show these characters struggling with very real racial tensions, which necessarily requires some uncomfortable moments – but then successfully resolving them. We’re all much more alike than we are different.

I think the racial interactions in The Midnight Man are true to that time and place. Both Ben and Cecil are products of an earlier, uglier era, when racial slurs were often used in casual conversation. Dean Goodnight (a Choctaw Indian) and Aura Jefferson (an African American) are subjected to the kind of racial micro-aggressions, at work and at play, which people often intend as humorous asides. Depending on the audience, sometimes the joke lands, or, more often, it feels like a wound.

Something I came to understand, while writing this book, was the difference between bigotry and racism. Bigotry, one character explains to another, is a personal construct. It’s a feeling. Racism, however, is the institutionalized effect of that feeling. A bigot in a position of power – the power to deny someone the vote, or a home loan, or railroad them into jail – becomes a very dangerous animal.

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

A: The working title of the novel was originally American Prayer, after The Doors song, which is quoted in the epigraph. My agent suggested The Midnight Man. It’s a phrase used by a child, to describe Aura Jefferson’s dead brother Carl.

I like the new title because it captures the racial undercurrent running throughout the story, while simultaneously honoring the murder victim who brings all of these characters together.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Another novel, though I’ve become superstitious about discussing my unfinished work, and so don’t want to talk much about it. I will say that there is only one main character, so structurally it’s much simpler, and it’s written in the past tense.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m hosting a book launch, in Dallas, on Jan. 16, and a few other readings – in Oklahoma, Texas, and elsewhere – throughout 2017. There is also a book club discussion guide provided at the end of the novel. I’m happy to come talk to your club about the story (either in person or via Skype). You can learn more about all of that on my website.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 16

Jan. 16, 1933: Susan Sontag born.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

January 2017 Jewish Book Carnival

I'm pleased to be hosting the January 2017 Jewish Book Carnival. The carnival, which appears on the 15th of every month, brings together an assortment of information on Jewish themes. 

Here are this month's selections:

On My Machberet, Erika Dreifus has once again compiled a post summarizing her past year in Jewish books.

On the Fig Tree Books blog, you'll find a fresh installment in a series of posts spotlighting titles that have won the Edward Lewis Wallant Award, a prize that honors the memory of the author of The Pawnbroker and other novels. Up now: Nicole Krauss's The History of Love.

At The Whole Megillah, Barbara Krasner interviews Bruce Ashkenas, author of Shadows of Shame, a novel in which a Jewish reporter in the 1940s goes undercover and infiltrates the German-American Bund.

The Book of Life Podcast features an interview with Jeffrey Green, translator of Aharon Appelfeld’s Hebrew novel for children, Adam & Thomas.

The blog A Jewish Grandmother features a book review of Steve Sherr's memoir No Stories to Tell. Sherr was raised in an assimilated Jewish home and then spent decades even further from Jewish life until he felt a great spiritual void, became Torah observant and moved to Israel. Of course the story is a lot more complicated. 
On my website, I interviewed storyteller Joel Ben Izzy about his new novel for children, Dreidels on the Brain.

The Association of Jewish Libraries announces the 2017 Sydney Taylor Book Award winners on the People of the Books Blog!

Many thanks to everyone who participated!

Q&A with Adrienne Ross Scanlan

Adrienne Ross Scanlan is the author of the new book Turning Homeward: Restoring Hope and Nature in the Urban Wild. She is the nonfiction editor of the Blue Lyra Review, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Fourth River and Pilgrimage. She lives in Seattle.

Q: In the book, you focus on the idea of “tikkun olam.” What does it mean for you, and how do you connect it to nature?

A: Writing Turning Homeward – Restoring Hope and Nature in the Urban Wild was an education in tikkun olam (the Jewish concept of “repairing the world”).

Until I began researching the book, I had no idea how far-reaching and diverse a concept tikkun olam is, how many meanings it’s had over the centuries, or its varying importance to Jewish life. Nature isn’t static; it evolves, and so do we, and so does our understanding of tikkun olam.

Repairing the world is a process of gaining knowledge (which is different from having your assumptions validated), taking informed action, learning what worked and what didn’t  (which sometimes means finding out what you’d rather not know), and going forward from there.

Maybe your choices aren’t the best or the outcomes perfect. Just the same, a harm was prevented or repaired, and something more positive becomes possible.

Continuing with the nature metaphor, tikkun olam isn’t a matter of planting a tree and then leaving. (Sometimes that’s the best you can do.) It’s a matter of caring for the forest. A tree can live a century or longer depending on the species. Tikkun olam means being concerned with the here and now, and with the future.

Q: You are focusing in the book on the Pacific Northwest. What lessons can you draw from the nature of that region for other parts of the country and the world?

A: Most of the environmental issues Turning Homeward addresses are specific to the Pacific Northwest, but the way a place becomes a home, and the lessons to be found there occur anywhere.

Those dying bee populations, that weird weather and hot temperatures and Antarctic ice floes that are breaking away, the native birds that aren’t showing up at your feeders any longer, the reports of lead and other pollutants in your water supply?

Environmental issues are international and national, sure, but also as close as our cities, neighborhoods, and homes. We need informed actions – repairs – on all those levels. And those repairs need to be grounded in knowledge of home and place if they’re to be effective.

Q: How did you decide on the book’s organization and what was your writing process like?

A: I began Turning Homeward shortly before my daughter’s birth and completely underestimated the time it would take to research, write, and revise a book. Between a newborn at home and being hard-hit by the 2008 economic crash progress on the book was highly interrupted, to say the least.

I focused the first draft as a series of stand-alone essays that would fit into a collection. Early feedback showed the book wasn’t working. There was no connective tissue, no “why” or central question holding the chapters together.

Struggling with how to re-write it forced me to ask more deeply why I was out there being a citizen scientist at salmon streams or weeding invasive species from city parks or planting trees or protecting a bumble bee colony that had invaded my home.

I realized that so much of my motivation to restore nature was grounded in my Jewish identity and that was intertwined with tikkun olam.

That still left the problem of creating a narrative arc. One day I had the epiphany that I could re-name each chapter not thematically but after a specific place. Well, when was I at those places, and what else was happening in my life?

Suddenly I had the long view of the book as a story of finding home, and I could deepen Turning Homeward through that quest.

Q: How was the title chosen and what does it signify to you?

A: Turning Homeward is the story of a woman who comes to understand her life by discovering the place where she lives, and understand the complexities of repairing the world by learning, engaging, and literally getting her hands dirty.

What’s restored isn’t just urban nature but hope – the capacity to act out of knowledge and love even when so much is unknown.

The title needed to convey all of that. I think Turning Homeward – Restoring Hope and Nature in the Urban Wild is a tad long, but it does convey the heart of the book.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have an enormous backlog of essays and short stories in first-draft form, and I’ve also started notes towards a second book on urban nature restoration.

Last year, I asked my then 7-year old daughter if she wanted to come to a tree-planting event. She announced that she hated planting trees because it was boring and so was nature (unless she’s camping with her best friends), and she wouldn’t plant any trees with me, ever.

I was so upset I couldn’t sleep that night and literally had a midnight eureka: if she won’t plant one tree, I’ll plant a thousand. So far I’ve only gotten a few dozen in the ground so I have quite a ways to go on planting trees and writing words about it.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Turning Homeward is a great choice for a book club. It’s short (160 pages) but substantive, and goes beyond urban nature to explore issues of marriage, family life, and caring for an infirm parent.

Mountaineers Books is offering a 20 percent discount if the book is ordered directly from their site, and I’m available to talk with book clubs in person or via Skype. Details are on my website. I’d love to hear from any book club, anywhere. We’d have a lot to talk about, I’m sure.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 15

Jan. 15, 1929: Martin Luther King, Jr., born.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Q&A with Dwight Holing

Dwight Holing is the author of the new mystery novel Baby Blue, the third in his Jack McCoul series. His other books include Bad Karma and A Boatload. He lives in California.

Q: How did you come up with your character Jack McCoul, and did you know you'd be writing a series from the beginning?

A: I’d been writing short fiction for literary journals and wanted to mix it up as I believe crossing genres keeps a writer fresh. Since crime fiction has always occupied a prominent section of my own library, I gave it a go.

The result was a humorous story about a quick, hip, and shoot-from-the-lip con artist trying to go straight who is a composite of various real life people I’ve known. It was published in Spinetingler Magazine.

Halfway through writing it, I realized Jack McCoul was just too fun to let go. Or at least he conned me into believing he could play on a larger stage.

Q: How do you think the character has changed since the first book? 

A: One of the unwritten rules of the traditional private eye genre I broke was making Jack McCoul happily married. Not only does this imbue the murder mystery series with the give and take between lovers, but allows the characters to grow organically as they build a life together and start a family. Evolution reveals new layers of their personalities.

Also, having a protagonist who dwells on both sides of the law allows me to delve deeper into different themes, including crime and punishment, guilt, temptation, injustice, and social mores. As both a writer and a reader, I find few things are as rewarding as when characters find self-awareness through their actions.

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

A: I begin by arcing the story out by scenes, but I never let those box me in. They’re moveable road signs. The series has several reoccurring characters whose relationships and dialogue help set the tone and drive the pace.

New characters, whether villain or victim, determine the plot. There’s an old cliché in writing that you never close the door on any character. It’s trite but true. You gotta let ’em run. At the same time, I keep in mind what Faulkner said about killing your darlings.

Q: You've also written short fiction and nonfiction. Do you have a preference?

A: I like both and still do both. Nonfiction certainly works its way into both my short and long fiction. The Jack McCoul series is set in San Francisco and I love to share with readers its colorful history and quirky nature.

Characters, conflicts, and cool stuff inhabit the environmental issues, life sciences, and outdoor adventures I’ve written about, and so I let the natural world be a source and inspiration for stories.

Wildlife, weather, landscape – they all play an integral role in a narrative’s arc and protagonist’s journey, providing action, motivation, and revelation.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Jack, his wife Katie, and buddy Hark still have unfinished business and they’re bringing me along on their latest ride, Shake City. I plan to share the newest caper with readers this spring.

I’m also developing a new collection of short fiction. Most are new pieces; a couple, such as “A Pale Chanting,” have been published previously in literary journals. Nonfiction? There’s a documentary screenplay in the works.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: We’re all storytellers at heart. It’s what defines us as a species. Tell yours, listen to others. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 14

Jan. 14, 1896: John Dos Passos born.