Sunday, May 27, 2018

Q&A with Michael Cole

Michael Cole is the author of the new memoir I Played the White Guy. He is an actor whose roles included Pete Cochran on the TV show The Mod Squad, which ran from 1968-1973. 

Q: At what point did you decide to write your memoir, and how did you decide what to include in the book?

A: For many years people would listen to my stories and tell me I need to write a book. I wanted to tell the story of my life honestly, just as if I was sitting, talking with an old friend. I have had incredible highs and suicidal lows, and my hope is that readers will relate, be entertained, and possibly be inspired.

Q: What impact did your role in The Mod Squad have on your life, and what impact do you think the show had during its run?

A: The Mod Squad dealt with issues television had never seen before:  racism, the antiwar movement, guns, child abuse…we took many of our story lines directly from the headlines, and that’s what struck a chord with the audience.  

The story of three counterculture cops, one black, one white, one blond who formed a bond of caring for each other resonated in a powerful way. I knew we were having an impact when we received hate mail. 

Being cast as Pete Cochran changed my life in ways I could never have imagined. Aaron Spelling saw in me what he wanted for the role of Pete Cochran: a rebellious, angry, anti-authority kid who battled the system.

Q: You write about some very difficult experiences, including your struggles with alcoholism. How hard was it to relive those years?

A: It was very important to me to share this part of my life in the hope I could help others struggling with addiction. I had to be honest with myself and with the reader.  

It was deeply emotional and sometimes painful re-living many of those times, and reflecting on those who I hurt and disappointed along the way. I hope the book will inspire people who are still battling to know they too, can find peace, one day at a time. 

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

A: My family has been totally supportive since I started this project.  They were prepared to enjoy the book, but now that it has actually been published, they have been amazed and surprised!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Selling the book! We are doing a lot of radio and television interviews, book signing events throughout the country. It’s exciting to see that 50 years later, The Mod Squad remains relevant and meaningful to people.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Thank you for asking. I just want to say I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to touch the lives of so many people over the years, and I hope this book in some sense is a thank you. Thank you for love, sobriety, and living “one day at a time.” 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb 

May 27

May 27, 1894: Dashiell Hammett born.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Q&A with Steve Bluestein

Steve Bluestein is the author of the new book Memoir of a Nobody. He is a comedian, actor, and playwright.

Q: You write, "I wrote these words for you but it is I who has gained the benefit." How did writing this memoir affect you?

A: Coming from a background of a non-supportive family, I have always feared that I wasn’t enough…mainly because I was told I wasn’t enough. And so I carried with me the fears and anxieties all my life that there would always be someone better than me who would take what I wanted.

When I sat down to write this book, it was mainly to tell my show business war stories but as I wrote, things would come up about my childhood and I would deviate from the show business and write about childhood memories. And it was like lancing a boil…the bad stuff would come out and then it was gone.

When the book was finally published the feedback I got from readers was so overwhelming supportive that I was able to see how wrong I had been all my life in thinking of my “less than” being. I grew within me. And so, I wrote the words for the reader but it was I who actually benefited from the experience of sitting down every morning for three years and lancing that boil. 

Q: What initially inspired you to write the book?

A: I had done many things in my career and I was never one to toot my own horn. In a business like show business you have to have the ability to step over your loved one’s corpse to get on stage.

I didn’t have that. I was too kind and so those performers with that ability to think of no one but themselves surpassed me. I was afraid as I got older that I would forget my experiences and that what I had accomplished would be forgotten with my senility. And so I set out to document my career. I never dreamed it would be such a life-changing experience. 

Q: The book includes stories from various periods of your life. Did you write it in the order in which it appears, or did you write it more chronologically?

A: No, in the preface it states that the stories are not in a chronological order. I wrote as I remembered. It jumps around but it seems to work since no one has even mentioned the order the stories are written in. 

Q: How was the book's title chosen?

A: It really speaks of who I think I am. A nobody. Jay Leno, Johnny Carson, David Letterman, they are a “somebody.” I may have worked for 30 years but to the everyday person I mean nothing…until they get to know me or follow me on Facebook. So "Memoir of a Nobody" truly seemed fitting as a title. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Well, I’ve got Another Memoir of a Nobody ready to go when the publisher decides if he want to publish it… and Take My Prostate…Please was just finished last month. It documents my experience and surgery with prostate cancer. (There’s a fun romp through comedy land. Ha!)

But as it turns out I write everything serious with a comic twist and the book is funny and touching (or so I’m told).

And I have several plays waiting in the wings. Alzheimer: A Black Comedy will have its first staged reading on June 10 in NOHO @ the WACO Theater. Rest, In Pieces will be produced in the fall of 2018. This is a play I have had two productions of and am determined to get to New York if I have to carry it on my back myself. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Yes, I have a 32-inch waist… 7 3/8 hat… and 9 shoe. I’m a comedian. I see the world through different eyes. Everything to me is fodder for comic material…even prostate cancer. I never try to be mean and my button is disappointment.  

Here’s the most telling thing about me. I’m sitting in my office at home, outside the window is a bird in a nest. I just watched as the mother bird jumped in and moved the eggs around. And my first thought was, I wish I had had a mother like that. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 26

May 26, 1895: Dorothea Lange born.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Q&A with Nancy Churnin

Nancy Churnin is the author of the new children's picture books Charlie Takes His Shot, about the golfer Charlie Sifford, and Irving Berlin: The Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing. She also has written The William Hoy Story and Manjhi Moves a Mountain, and she is the theater critic for The Dallas Morning News

Q: Why did you choose Irving Berlin and Charlie Sifford as the subjects of your newest books?

A: I write books about people who inspire me, that I believe will inspire kids and that they might not know about otherwise.

When I learned the story of Charlie Sifford and how he tried to break through the color barrier of golf the way his friend, Jackie Robinson, broke through the color barrier of Major League Baseball, I could hardly believe that my picture book would be the first one about him for kids. A lot of adults don't know his amazing story.

Irving Berlin is by far the most famous person I have written about, but he is not famous to kids. When I was presenting other books, I would ask them if they knew who wrote "God Bless America." They had no idea.

They were fascinated to learn that one of our most famous, patriotic songs was written by an immigrant who came to this country as a penniless five-year-old refugee who didn't speak a word of English.

Q: What do you see as Irving Berlin's legacy today, and also the legacy of "God Bless America"?

A: Jerome Kern once said of Irving Berlin: "Irving Berlin has no place in American music -- he is American music." And yet, his music, great as it is, is only part of his legacy.

The other parts are made up of his perseverance, his charity and the way his story reminds us of the innumerable gifts immigrants have brought America.

Like many immigrants, he took the beauty of his own traditions, in particular the melodies he learned from his father, mixed them with the sounds and words he heard on American streets and came up with new songs and words that went straight to people's hearts.

As Alexander Pope described poetry, he wrote "what oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd." And like many immigrants, he gave back. "God Bless America" was his thank you, his gift to the country that gave him his "home sweet home."

It's also a reminder that "making good" is not about how much money you can pile up for yourself. He gave every penny that song earned in royalties to the Girl and Boy Scouts of America, leaving a legacy of charity that should stir us all to help others. 

Q: What impact do you see Charlie Sifford having on golf, and what's his legacy today?

A: Like Jackie Robinson, Charlie endured years of insults and discrimination with grace and determination in his successful effort to open doors for others.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Tiger Woods said: "It's not an exaggeration to say that without Charlie, and the other pioneers who fought to play, I may not be playing golf...My pop likely wouldn't have picked up the sport, and maybe I wouldn't have either."

Pioneers in any field have to have tremendous conviction and strength. They have to hold fast to their dreams and what they know is right and not be deterred when people jeer or mock them, telling them that things will never change, that things will always be the way they've always been.

I hope that kids who read his story will be inspired to follow their own vision of what is right, even if their victories benefit the next person more than it does themselves.

By the time Charlie became the first African American golfer on the PGA Tour, he won a couple of tournaments and that was sweet, but his best years were behind him.

Still, he had no regrets as he went on to dominate the senior tours. His goal was to make a difference in making things better for the next generation and that became his legacy.

Q: How would you describe the impact of the illustrations of James Rey Sanchez and John Joven on the books?

A: I have been so lucky to work with these fabulous illustrators!

I love the small touches and big emotions in John Joven's illustrations. The kids think it's so cool that when young Charlie sneaks onto the golf course at night, because African Americans aren't allowed to play there, he sees a moon that looks like a giant golf ball.

They also notice the menacing shadow of the watchman, who almost blends into the night, holding a searching flashlight emanating light that feels like danger.

As for James Rey Sanchez's work in Irving Berlin, I am blown away by how artfully he conveys music -- such a hard thing to illustrate! -- with musical notes leaping from Irving's mouth as if he can't keep the music inside.

James Rey Sanchez also brings the Art Deco look of the 1920s and 1930s to exquisite life, while adding a very special touch -- a red scarf that identifies Irving as Irving wherever he goes.

It's like a breath or love of life that grows with him and, in the end, is something we see a child wearing as if the child is following in Irving's footsteps. Glorious!
Q: What are you working on now?

It's the little-known story of how and why the very kind and caring Queen Charlotte of England, who was more at ease with children and her garden than she was with adults and fancy balls, brought the first Christmas Tree to Windsor Castle.

I hope this story will remind kids that there's more to being royal than fancy dresses and jewels. I also hope they'll think it's as cool as I do that we have a new Princess Charlotte in England right now.

Next year, my book Martin & Anne will tell the story of two babies who were born on opposite sides of the ocean, spoke different languages, had different colored skin and religions and answered terrible prejudice with words of love that continue to inspire us today.

Those children are Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank, both born in 1929. They would have been 90 next year.   

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Every one of my books comes with a free Teacher Guide and a project that you'll find on my website at

For Charlie Takes His Shot, the project is We Helped Them Take Their Shots. I'm asking kids to share stories and pictures of how they included someone new in their circle or activities or someone included them.

For Irving Berlin, it's Make America Sing. I'd like kids to share their favorite thing about their immigrant experience -- a favorite food, or song, or holiday or expression, anything at all -- or that of a friend so together we can share the diversity that makes America great.

For The Queen, it will be A Kind Holiday. In the spirit of Queen Charlotte, I'd like them to share something kind they did for others for whatever holiday they celebrate.

I have a special page for each project on my website dedicated to showcasing the great things kids do. I hope the kids will inspire each other by what they do and, in that way, help kindness spread.

Thank you so much, Deborah, for this opportunity to share my books with you and your readers!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Nancy Churnin.

May 25

May 25, 1803: Ralph Waldo Emerson born.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Q&A with Lisa Romeo

Lisa Romeo is the author of the new book Starting With Goodbye: A Daughter's Memoir of Love After Loss. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and O: The Oprah Magazine, and she is thesis director for the Bay Path University MFA program. She lives in New Jersey.

Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir?

A: In one sense, momentum carried me toward it. For about six years, I was writing and publishing essays about my experiences with grief and trying to get to know my father better after he died.

Great writing advice is to write what you can’t shut up about, what obsesses you, and for me, it was this topic. I could never understand why people don’t talk about death and about deceased people with more ease and frequency. I wanted to keep exploring that.

When it seemed a body of work was accumulating, I pulled together an essay collection, which didn’t sell. All the people I trusted told me to rewrite it as a more traditional memoir, but I resisted and I shelved it for a while.

But it kept nagging at me and eventually I challenged myself to do just that, to shape/rewrite/revise all the material into a somewhat more linear narrative (though true to my style, there’s a lot of moving around in time and place, too).

Q: You write, "Can a relationship really continue, and even get better, when one of the two is gone?" How would you answer this question?

A: I believe this is possible, yes! The love remains, and so does the essence of the beloved person; they are part of us and in a very real sense, do not depart this earth as long as they are present in our memory.

I admit this requires some suspension of belief; it’s a stretch. But actively continuing the relationship, the conversation, to me is a lot more healing and makes a lot more sense than trying to forget or “get over it” (which I do not believe is possible).

Now that I’m hearing from readers, it’s clear that many other people experience “conversations” with their departed loved ones but are very reluctant to share that with other people, lest they be thought unstable or just loony.

But who says you have to stop talking to your loved ones just because they’ve died? Or seek their counsel? If that’s how your grief unspools, then go there, indulge yourself, see how it makes you feel and what you might learn from those conversations with your dead dad, mom, sister, etc.

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

A: The title was a genuine collaborative effort between me, a small group of trusted writer friends (my “hive mind”), my husband and sons, and the publisher.

Working with those friends and family members, we came up with 20 possible titles and subtitles, a mix and match kind of list. I sent my top five of each to the publisher, who chose the final title and subtitle from that list.

I think it’s perfect because it’s literally what happened: my father and I started “talking” again when it was time, traditionally, to say goodbye. After loss, I discovered the many ways love had been present all along.

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

A: I believe we as a society should be able to talk more openly about death, loss, grief, and related issues, and this book perhaps is my one small contribution to urging folks in that direction. These are some of life’s most significant experiences and it would be great if they were more a part of our collective conversation.

I also hope the book might help reassure people that grief is not rigid; there’s no way to do grief right or wrong. It does not have to conform to some prescribed set of stages, and however you experience grief is okay.

If talking to your dead parent in the middle of the night while eating his favorite snack makes you feel good, brings back warm memories, then why not?

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Trying to decide on book number two; three nonfiction ideas are currently vying for attention and as is my way, I’m writing essays about them, seeing which one grabs me most.

In the meantime, I’m doing all the things I normally do: teach, run workshops, coach writers, edit manuscripts. I have two sons in college, so those things make up my normal workday, keep the paychecks coming. And the truth is, my own writing is always enhanced by what I learn from all of those activities, by working with so many other writers.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: When I’m having a writing problem, I do something relatively mindless like needlepoint, walking, laundry, or going for a long drive—and the solution always occurs to me. Napping is also a good way to let the writing mind settle and find new direction.

I’d like to say that dark chocolate also has the same effect, but so far, not so. I’ll keep trying though!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb