Sunday, September 29, 2013

Q&A with author Peter W. Cookson Jr.

Peter W. Cookson Jr. is the author most recently of Class Rules: Exposing Inequality in American High Schools. His other books include Preparing for Power, Exploring Education, and School Choice. He is managing director of Education Sector, and teaches at Columbia University's Teachers College and at Georgetown University.

Q: Why did you decide to write Class Rules, and what impact do you hope it will have on the education debate?

A: In one sense I have been writing Class Rules since Caroline Persell and I published Preparing for Power: America’s Elite Boarding Schools in 1985.  High schools are theaters where the drama of class reproduction gets played out every day. This is the deep curriculum of high schools that is largely unexplored by scholars and ignored by reformers.

I have wrestled with the problem of how classes reproduce themselves for most of my career; the concept of collective memory helped me to understand how young adults internalize class values and why this deep socialization so powerfully shapes their worldviews.  It is a story that needs to be told if we are going to be honest with ourselves and begin the task of creating genuine equality of educational opportunity.

I hope Class Rules awakes reformers, educators and the public to the real problems we face in education and together we can begin the process of building an excellent and equitable system of schools for all students.

Q: Why is socialization such a key piece of the high school experience?

A: Social control begins in the human mind and heart. While we don’t like to think of schools as instruments of social control, they are. Young adults are in a formative period of development; the culture of the high school they attend --- particularly the class culture --- influences them deeply. 

Think of it this way, when most of us think back to our high school experiences, generally we have weak memories of the manifest curriculum (lectures, textbooks and tests), but very strong memories of the deep curriculum (our friends, our hurts and our yearnings). As Richard Rorty says, socialization goes all the way down.

Q: How did you pick the particular high schools you studied, and how representative are they?

A: The high schools in the study are representative of schools like them. I have been doing research in high schools for many years and have studied scores of schools arrayed along class lines. Four out of the five schools in the study I have known for many years; the fifth school I came to know more recently. 

When you study high school samples according to the social class backgrounds of their students you discover they are much more alike than different, especially in terms of their socialization effects on students.

Q: You mention Finland as a country that has implemented successful educational reforms. Are the other examples that you feel could be relevant for reform in this country?

A: We have some unique challenges and opportunities. Our Jeffersonian tradition of local control places public education in the hands of the community, which is a good thing. At the same time this radical decentralization means that we don’t have a national vision of education as James Madison advocated.

I look to reforms and policies that unify us behind public education as our most powerful national opportunity to bridge the class and race Grand Canyons that divide us. Democratizing reforms such as access to open source online materials for all students and programs to develop critical thinking are small but important steps in getting young people to get control of their own learning and lives.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: In education I am writing a book on blended learning for teachers. I continue to be fascinated with the issue of inequality and I am writing another book on extreme wealth and concentrated power in the United States today.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just that I remain optimistic and hopeful that as Americans we will keep faith with the Founders and create a system of schools that serve all students and that foster the qualities of democratic participation we so desperately need today.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with author Ann Mah

Ann Mah is the author of the new food memoir Mastering the Art of French Eating: Lessons in Food and Love From a Year in Paris and the novel Kitchen Chinese. She is based in Paris and New York.

Q: Why did you decide to write a memoir about your time in Paris?

A: I’d always wanted to take a road trip through France, using Julia Child’s classic cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, as a guide. When my husband and I moved to France for three years, it seemed like the perfect opportunity. 

Unfortunately, he left for Baghdad shortly after our arrival in Paris, and my dream of living in France changed. But with his encouragement, I still traveled throughout the country – albeit, on my own. 

The book grew from those travels, from my eating adventures, my fascination with the history I discovered, and my admiration for the home cooks and food artisans I met along the way. But, really, writing the book was just an excuse to tour around France and eat!  

Q: Why is Julia Child a continuing object of fascination for so many people, and how did she inspire you?

A: I think those of us who love Julia are touched by her story for different reasons, whether you’re a late bloomer, kitchen unconfident, or professionally unsatisfied. 

For me, I was – and am – inspired by the graceful manner with which she faced the challenges of life as a trailing spouse. I look at the loving teamwork of her marriage with Paul Child – unwavering despite personal and professional disappointments, and untimely overseas relocations – the success that bloomed from hard work and sheer will, despite the upheavals of diplomatic life. And I feel hopeful.

Q: What surprised you the most in the course of writing and researching the book?

A: It shouldn’t have surprised me, but I discovered a universal allegiance to grandma’s cooking: whether it was choucroute, boeuf bourguignon, cassoulet (or any of the other dishes in the book), Granny makes the best, of course.

Q: Among the various foods that you write about in the book, are there some that you like more than others?

A: It’s impossible to pick a favorite but some of my fondest memories are from my trip to Brittany, a region I loved as much for its buttery buckwheat galettes, as the warm welcome I received there. Being invited into people’s homes, cooking homemade crêpes, listening to their childhood stories – these were experiences that touched me very deeply.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: For several years, I've dreamt about writing a novel set in Burgundy -- a story that weaves together friendship, lost love, ambition -- and a wine mystery. Of course, the book is also an excuse to do lots of research (e.g. drink a lot of wine!).

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I hope people who read Mastering the Art of French Eating feel encouraged to travel and explore, to ask lots of questions, to embrace their curiosity and be flexible and open to new experiences – even when it means tucking into tripe sausage! 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 29

Sept. 29, 1810: Writer Elizabeth Gaskell born.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Q&A with author Douglas Bauer

Douglas Bauer's most recent book is titled What Happens Next: Matters of Life and Death, which looks at his own life and those of his parents. His other books include Prairie City, Iowa: Three Seasons at Home, The Stuff of Fiction: Advice on Craft, and The Book of Famous Iowans. He teaches at Bennington College and lives in Boston.

Q: Why did you decide to write What Happens Next, and what do you feel you learned about your family history from writing the book? 

A: I describe in the piece that begins the book being struck and moved by the extraordinary coincidence -- as I realized when replaying the events in my mind -- of my mother dying in the hospital half a continent away while I was myself in the hospital for the most routine of medical procedures -- cataract surgery.

The "size" of that metaphor -- that I began to see the world clearly in the hour my mother died -- pushed me to think patiently about all kinds of things associated with my life with her, and my father, and about their life together. Initially, I didn't necessarily have a book-length narrative in mind, but the pieces, or essays, that form the narrative just kept coming, one at a time, and at some point I saw that they were forming a structure I wanted to pay attention to.

Q: What was the reaction from family members to the book?

A: There's only my younger brother and his family to consider. I've dedicated the book him. He was incredibly generous in his time with and care of both our parents, especially my mother after my father died and I tried to describe how invaluable he was to them and to me.

I heard from him to thank me for the dedication -- no one deserves a book being dedicated to him more than he does with this one -- but haven't heard what he thinks of the book itself. I suspect he might have wished I'd left some of the family history unexplored. Not that there are deep, dark, shocking secrets I've revealed, but the devolving nature of our parents' marriage and the tiny treacheries in its daily exchanges were something I felt I needed to think about, and try to trace the sources of.

To the extent I was able to do that, I feel the resulting context puts both my mother and father's behavior toward one another in a more forgiving light. But my brother might be thinking the effort wasn't worth the exposure. I would understand it if he did.

Q: How did you combine your memories with other research to create the book?

A: The memories were just there to be tapped. The research, such as it was, came quite naturally and I didn't, at the time, think of it consciously as research.

For example, I refer in a few places in the book to the days I spent cleaning out my mother's apartment after she died. Those days were simply what one does in the aftermath of a loved one's death, not a task I took on for the purposes of writing about it. But the time I spent and the discoveries I made -- for instance, photo albums, letters, and the like -- became essential pieces of the narrative once I committed to writing the book.

Similarly, I describe an afternoon I spent in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where my parents lived as newlyweds, and my imagining their lives there. I didn't travel to Cheyenne explicitly for research. I was as it happened driving across the country from Boston to California for entirely personal reasons. But the day in Cheyenne was both inevitable and enormously informative to me, as a simple civilian, as a curious surviving son, and finally as a writer. 

Q: What do you think your book says about the aging process? 

A: That there's no way to escape it. Which, I'm embarrassed to say, has been in a real sense recent news to me as I've moved through life deluded by an idea of myself as insusceptibly youthful. The best we can hope for is to accept the aging process with patience and grace, an impossible assignment, and an unavoidable one.

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: A novel, which I've written only the first chapter of, but have been thinking about for more than a year, and which I'm incredibly superstitious about discussing. The risk for me is talking all the energy out of a book one is writing, at the expense of actually writing it.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I don't think so. It's all there in the book, more than I ever imagined I'd offer up about my life in a public way.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 24

Sept. 24, 1896: Author F. Scott Fitzgerald born.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Q&A with writer Leah Stewart

Leah Stewart is the author of the novels Husband and Wife, The Myth of You and Me, Body of a Girl, and, most recently, The History of Us. She teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Cincinnati, and she lives in Cincinnati.

Q: How did you come up with the scenario for your latest novel, The History of Us?

A: It started with my desire to write something influenced by George Eliot's Middlemarch, which follows three different couples affected by conflicts between love and money, and idealism and reality. So I wanted to have three couples of my own struggling with various takes on one issue—in my case, location and identity. Cities like Cincinnati, where I live and where the book is set, don't loom large in the national imagination, and I'm interested in how that affects the citizens' sense of themselves. 

Q: Do you have more sympathy for some of the characters in this family than for others?

A: No. Readers certainly do! I'm endlessly fascinated by the ways that people make their own lives more difficult, so characters who get in their own way often seem poignant to me, where others might find them frustrating. 

Q: When you start writing a novel, do you always know the outcome, or are you sometimes surprised?

A: I usually know where I want to land, but I don't know how I'm going to get there. Sometimes my intention changes in the writing of the book, but usually by a third to half of the way through I'm sure of the ending. Sometimes I even go ahead and write it. 

Q: As a teacher of creative writing, what advice do you give your students about creating compelling characters?

A: They have to seem like real people to the author before they'll seem real to the reader. There are different ways of getting to that imaginative place—exercises that ask you to imagine every detail about someone, or write a character's emails to his mother, or her dream journal. Sometimes I suggest beginning students model a character on someone they know (without telling the class who that is), as I find that students recognize interesting details about their friends and relatives but struggle to invent those details for a completely fictional character.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm working on a novel about a 91-year-old—a former nurse and WWII veteran—who develops a fascination with her much younger neighbor, a woman rumored to have killed her husband. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: How about good books I've read lately? Sea Creatures by Susanna Daniel, Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld, We Are All Completely BesideOurselves by Karen Joy Fowler.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with author James G. Hershberg

James G. Hershberg is a history professor at The George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs. His most recent book is Marigold: The Lost Chance for Peace in Vietnam, which focuses on a Polish-Italian effort in 1966 to broker U.S.-North Vietnamese talks. Hershberg is also the author of James B. Conant: Harvard to Hiroshima and the Making of the Nuclear Age. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: Why did you decide to write about Marigold?

A: I was running, in the mid-1990s, the Cold War International History Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center, and the whole purpose of it was to go beyond an American-centric view of the Cold War--which was almost exclusively based on American sources, and was constructed from basically the view of the U.S. government--and to incorporate other perspectives.

One day, unsolicited, I received a fax from a physicist working at the OECD in Paris. He was the son of a Polish diplomat who had recently died, and he had found in his father’s papers a never-published report based on Polish archives about Polish secret peace initiatives in Vietnam.

And I worked with the son and we published a summary of that report… The important thing is that as soon as I compared what this Polish diplomat had written about Marigold to the existing version, based on not complete but partial access to just the American side, I realized that they are very different narratives because the American side was simply based on what they heard from the Poles, whereas the Poles also had the record of their conversations with the Soviets, the North Vietnamese, their interactions with the Chinese, the intracommunist side of this….

I became fascinated by the idea that, hey, this is one of the last great mysteries of the Vietnam War but also a potentially compelling test case study of trying to end wars, and the role of mediators in communication between belligerents separated by language, culture, ideology, many other things. Why had it failed?...

I had a manuscript virtually done in 2003, and then I discovered almost by accident, going through the records, I had assumed that [key Marigold figure and Polish diplomat Janusz] Lewandowski, like [American diplomat] Henry Cabot Lodge and [Italian diplomat] Giovanni D’Orlandi, was already a senior diplomat. I hadn’t noticed that he was only 35 in 1966, so I immediately started contacting colleagues saying is Janusz Lewandowski still alive….

I was able to have a colleague get in touch with him, give me his phone number, and I called him up. No one had known that he was living quietly…no one had interviewed him.  I asked if it would be all right if I asked him some questions, and he [answered] in English because he had been posted at the U.N. for a while, and he said, Sure, that would be all right. I cashed in my frequent flier miles, flew to Warsaw, and immediately I realized that this is an entirely new book because he had a fantastic memory, was happy to talk about anything I asked him about, and was also still [believing] that this was the most important aspect of his career.

I realized that this is not just a story of Marigold, this was a year in the Vietnam War through an absolutely unique perspective, of a communist diplomat behind enemy lines in Saigon. He would hobnob [in Saigon] with Henry Cabot Lodge and William Westmoreland and play tennis at the Cercle Sportif, and…he’d wrap it up and go to Hanoi and be Comrade Lewandowski and meet with all the communists.

Q: Why was there so little focus on Lewandowski before?

A: Most of those who cared about the history were Americans who only knew English. To really delve into this you had to be able to get Vietnamese sources, Polish sources, Russian sources, but also no one knew or cared among the Vietnam historians that Janusz Lewandowski was still alive. 

Q: How many years did it take you overall to write this?

A: The first fax showed up in 1995 and by 1998 I was writing conference papers about it. In 2000 I published 100-something page single-spaced analysis of it as a working paper of the Cold War Project, and I’ve been working on it as my primary focus for about a decade, but as a partial focus for about 15 years, but of course I was doing many other things at the same time.

Q: Was there anything that you found particularly startling or surprising as you worked on the book?

A: I had numerous epiphanies. There’s something about the internet and this process—I went to archives in at least 10 or 15 countries, but I also had the experience of coming to my computer in the morning and never knowing if there would be an e-mail with an attachment with a translated Mongolian document or Albanian document or Dutch document or Italian document or Chinese source, and to know that I’m the first person to ever see this in English, and where it fits in the story—it is an incredibly exciting way to do history....

Really the most emotional moment was talking to the North Vietnamese diplomat [Nguyen Dinh Phuong] who had been a courier to carry instructions from Hanoi to Warsaw, and until he met me and talked to me he had believed that the whole thing had failed because the Vietnamese waited [for a meeting in Warsaw in December 1966] but the American never showed up. … Only when I gave him American declassified documents and he read them and we had a four-hour conversation--this was in Hanoi in the summer of 1999--and he realized that actually the American was not only ready to meet with him but wanted to meet with him, and the Vietnamese ambassador could have picked up the phone and said where are you, we’re waiting for you, but as the smaller power did not want to seem eager, and he became completely crestfallen and said, This is a pity.

Looking back, he realized that for 30 years [he] had one view of it, but that there was a completely different view, and that maybe they had made a mistake, that maybe it could have happened, and it wasn’t just that the Americans had stood them up, which was what the official North Vietnamese version was, whereas the American view of it was that the North Vietnamese had stood us up.

Q: What is the most credible explanation for what happened? Was it a miscommunication?

A: The failure of Marigold is shared by the three main actors, Poland, the United States, and North Vietnam. I think the most important point goes not only to the United States but Lyndon Johnson personally for overruling his national security team…all of whom had recommended that until they find out whether or not this is serious, they suspend authorization for bombing around Hanoi. Johnson was convinced this is the Poles trying to snooker us…The irony is that they bombed Hanoi again…. A day later, Johnson did suspend bombing, but by then it was too little, too late. … I think the primary blame goes to Johnson personally.

Q: Why did Lewandowski decide to talk to you at such length?

A: Mostly because I nagged him. I think it really enhanced his credibility with me because he was not looking to market his story…. He was quietly living minding his own business in Warsaw. I’m the one who pestered him. Had he approached me and said, Hey, I’ve got a great story for you, that would really have raised questions. He was willing to talk because he was polite, I think he did believe that he had done his best, and he did believe that it was a very important story.

Q: This is getting into counterfactual history, but what might have happened if Marigold had worked?

A: Had Marigold led to the beginning of direct talks, there’s every possibility [that] not a single fewer death would have happened. However, when you consider what did happen, the war dragging on for six more years, another 50 plus thousand Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese being killed, and the fact that the difficulty of having serious direct talks continued to plague the war and fueled the escalation, breaking the taboo on direct talks and at least beginning direct discussions, especially when they had seemingly agreed on a lot of bases, could have gone somewhere.

Q: What can we learn from this as a case study?

A: There may be times where having a hard line makes sense and if you show too much of an interest in peace you’re showing weakness and that could prolong a conflict. You’re not going to bargain with Hitler.  I’m not saying in every case you do the same thing.

But if there are ways to limit bloodshed, suffering, war, at minimal military risk, it’s probably worth taking a chance. Because in this case…the bombings of Hanoi were not about bombing some forces before they moved south, or a military target that would be somewhere else a week later. These were fixed targets of more or less minimal significance. Sometimes if it’s a 50-50 thing, go for it.

The other thing that emerged is not to let secrecy…prevent you from getting the absolute best information about the adversary that you’re dealing with. In this case, a lot of people were cut out. But also that they got as close as they did using Lewandowski and D’Orlandi—you have to be creative in your diplomacy and in your intelligence-gathering and not be so focused on controlling policy.

--Excerpted from an interview with Deborah Kalb. The Q&A can also be found on

Sept. 19

Sept. 19, 1894: Author Rachel Field born.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Q&A with author Jill Foer Hirsch

Jill Foer Hirsch, a breast cancer survivor, writer, and humorist, is the author of the new book When Good Boobs Turn Bad: A Mammoir, which recounts her experiences with breast cancer. She lives in the Washington, D.C., area.

Q: Why did you decide to write your book?

A: I had a blog when I was sick, on CaringBridge, and everyone was really responsive to that, and by everyone I mean friends, family, and a circle outside that. People were sending the link to other people who had cancer, and unfortunately everyone knows someone. The response was that this was really inspiring. I didn’t [think of myself[ as inspiring; I thought I was a goofball having fun. But it’s OK to laugh sometimes, even in the worst situations.

CaringBridge is an amazing resource—it’s a free site for anyone going through an illness or a family emergency. I was overwhelmed at first with e-mails and calls. I was grateful that people cared about me, but I don’t know: Does everyone want to know that I get my stitches out today? I set up the website on CaringBridge. It reduced a lot of the stress, especially on my husband.

Q: What has the response been to your book?

A: Most people [like it]. When I was working on it, on occasion I talked to someone who was offended by it—it’s not a book for those people. I went to Sibley [Hospital] to the infusion center to give copies of the book to the nurses, and they instinctively know which patients to tell about the book. I went back and forth on the title—If the title is a problem, then the book is not for you!

Q: How did you come up with the title?

A: Many, many times thinking things through.

Q: Your family members appear in the book—what do they think of it?

A: My family is incredibly supportive. As with a comedian, they frequently are the fodder [for my writing]. Everyone in my family has a very strong sense of humor.

Q: How was the process of getting the book published?

A: It’s really tough. It’s a whole new business for me. I was very naïve—I thought if I had something great, I would just e-mail it to a lot of publishers. Then I realized I need an agent, a business plan, a platform. 

I got an offer from one agent, who wanted to change the flavor of the book, and that didn’t feel right, so I didn’t go with him Of 60 queries I sent out, this was the only agent willing to move forward. Even if this was my only shot, I learned to trust my instinct. 

I talked to other authors who had self-published—[in the past,] that idea had left a bad taste in my mouth, the idea of a vanity press. Now it’s a completely different model. I figured, I had already written the book, and with print on demand, it was a shame not to do it.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: When you hear you have cancer, for many people, it’s, I’m going to die, or This is going to be hell. Frequently, unfortunately, that is the case, but for a lot of people, it’s not. People should take one step at a time when they hear that word, and not assume it’s going to be terrible or fatal. Of course, that’s easy for me to say because I didn’t have a terminal illness, but [one] should start out thinking there’s something they can do about this. 

Also, my advice is to start a website on CaringBridge. It took so much pressure off the people taking care of me.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 17

Sept. 17, 1883: Writer William Carlos Williams born.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Q&A with author Monique Brinson Demery

Monique Brinson Demery is the author of the forthcoming book Finding the Dragon Lady: The Mystery of Vietnam's Madame Nhu, which looks at the life of the former South Vietnamese first lady. Demery lives in Chicago.

Q: Why did you decide to write about Madame Nhu?

A: It started as a little girl—I was fascinated with the woman everyone said was so awful and evil and a “dragon lady.”

It wasn’t until I was out of grad school—I had been studying contemporary Vietnam, but to understand that, I had to look at all of the 20th century—that I stumbled [again] on the story of Madame Nhu.

I wasn’t sure at first it would be a book. I couldn’t believe that no one had written a book about her before.

Her life story read like a novel. Looking up basic information about her, I found that her parents had been murdered in the 1980s by her brother.

I never thought she would end up speaking to me.

Q: Did your impression of her change over the years that you were working on the book?

A: In the beginning, I was really in awe that she was taking the time to talk to me. What began as, “I can’t believe she’s talking to me,” turned quickly into empathy.

I was not the only person she spoke to—in the last two months, I’ve heard from two [other] people.

At the beginning, I was starstruck, and I took everything she said at face value. By the end, I was less naïve.

Q: I wanted to ask you about the relationships Madame Nhu had with various family members. What about her husband [Ngo Dinh Nhu, his brother Diem’s top political adviser]?

A: She would have described it as the perfect marriage, and that she was the perfect wife. [But] in her diary, she talked about how she resented how hard he was working, and about screaming fights. It’s a very different picture. Was she just venting, or was her marriage really that miserable? Is that [venting] what we would all do [in a diary]?

Q: What about her relationship with her brother-in-law, President Diem?

A: It seemed to me that by the end of her life, she respected him. In her heart of hearts, I think she thought her husband was a little smarter than Diem. She seemed to think he [Diem] was sort of naïve and trusting.

Q: She seemed to have a difficult relationship with her parents.

A: I tried to make sense of all the pieces that put Madame Nhu together. She struggled with trying to seem important to them [her parents], to be more than the middle child, the girl child, who wouldn’t amount to much.

Q: What do you think happened between her brother [Tran Van Khiem] and their parents?

A: Khiem stayed in the country after Diem and Nhu were killed. He wrote letters about how he was tortured and put in prison; it took a toll on him. He was not the best representative when he was 100 percent—he was seen as a playboy who was riding on his sister’s coattails. For all I know—I have not found him—he may still be living in France. He left the United States in the 1990s.

Q: Why did you decide to structure the book in alternating sections that describe your life and your reactions to Madame Nhu, and her own life?

A: It was to be the most honest I could. It was a nonfiction book. Some of the sources, like Madame Nhu herself, were unreliable.

[Also,] I was born in 1976 and a lot of people in my generation have trouble connecting to the Vietnam War. This put a younger spin on it—how Vietnam has come down through the decades.

Q: Why did you choose “Finding the Dragon Lady” as the book’s title?

A: I chose it because it was what I started out looking for—the powerful, diabolical woman. It doesn’t tell the whole story but it was what sucked me in, and I hoped it would draw readers.

“Dragon lady” is a racist thing to call an Asian woman. [It was used] in the 1960s, and it seemed like it was in keeping with the context. These stereotypes are based on sexism and racism. I chose the title because it fit with the concept of when Asia seemed so far away.

The cover is really provocative—I was blown away. It reinforces the “dragon lady” stereotype, but it really grabs you.

Q: What was Madame Nhu’s reaction to the term “dragon lady”?

A: She was strangely flattered by it. She would rather go out as a dragon lady than as a nobody. “Dragon lady” would not be her first choice, but the saddest thing to her would be to be forgotten.

Q: What do you think people who know something about Madame Nhu have as their first impressions of her?

A: The Buddhist monk who burned himself and she said she would clap her hands and [talked about] a barbecue—that was so shocking, and it cemented her reputation as the terrible face of that regime.

I’m not sure people who remember the dragon lady remember that she was no longer in power as of [the coup in November] 1963. Most people associate her with the Vietnam War, but she was there before [the escalation] even started.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The book is out on the 24th. I’m still in the thick of publicity, and I hope people will talk about and read the book.

I hope that when I’m done, I can pay more attention to my family.

I’m so grateful to Public Affairs—they believed that the book could be done by the 50th anniversary of the coup in November. For 18 months, I’ve been working very hard on the book.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: It’s been 50 years since the coup, and 50 years since Kennedy died. I hope Madame Nhu’s story is a way to look at history, personalize it, and make it more whole.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A is also posted on

Sept. 13

Sept. 13, 1916: Author Roald Dahl born.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Q&A with author Elizabeth Buchan

Q: Some of your novels take place in the present day and some in the past (and at least one has a little of both!). Do you have a preference for writing one or the other?

A: No. I think it is a good thing if the writer keeps an open mind, and their territory fluid. Some ideas lend themselves better to the past and vice versa.

Having said that, I think there are recognizable stages in one’s development!

When I embarked on writing a historical backdrop was a very tempting option and I seized on it. There is 1) a chronology in place 2) turbulent backdrops (war, revolution, etc.) against which a more rookie novelist might feel easier pitting their characters against.

Later on, I felt that it was possible to write about important moments in people’s lives – those shifts in sensibility and morality – within a domestic arena. After all, you don’t have to ride off into battle or shoot into space to be interesting.

Q: You worked as a blurb writer and a fiction editor before turning full-time to fiction. Did the experiences you gained from those earlier jobs help you when you decided to write novels?

A: It was the other way round. I decided very early on that I wanted to write but, being a really awkward lumpen child and teenager, I knew it would take time.

On the premise a cat may look at a king, I got myself a job in publishing. Writing blurbs might not seem an obvious way into writing novels but, actually, it was a brilliant nursery school for the would-be writer. You have to understand the essence of the book and every word has to earn its place. You also have to woo your reader and lure them into turning the pages.

Q: Of the characters you've created, do you have a favorite?

A: All of them I love. I find it hard to say goodbye but, when I do, they are gone out there into the ether and I forget about them while I concentrate on the next book.

Q: Many of your books deal with family dynamics. Why did you choose that as a focus, and how do you come up with your plots?

A: The family is endlessly fascinating. It is the microcosm and key to what is going on in wider society. It changes, adapts, breaks, languishes, reinvents itself. What happens to a child within in, or tragically without it, determines their future life. It is a crucible, and an important one.

As to plots: all I have do is read the newspapers. You couldn’t make it up what can be read in them. There are, of course, universal situations: parents versus children, marriage, divorce, premature death and there are many permutations which, when I start thinking about them, begin to spin out a plot for me.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Back to history! I have always been fascinated by the undercover life.

For my second novel, I wrote Light of the Moon about an agent going into occupied France during the Second World War. It was a young writer’s book and I wanted to revisit the subject and see what I did with it now.

The one I am just finishing is set in Demark during the Second World War and centres on a family whose members are divided by whom they support in the war. A couple of them become undercover agents in the Special Operations Executive. Family division again…  

Its title (not confirmed finally) is The Life That I Have.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Although there are moment of gloom and torture ( not to mention pennilessness), to be a writer is such a privilege. I am extremely lucky.

At the moment, there is much despair over the fate of books and the print industry which is going through a crisis.

But, I think, one thing is certain. We always need the storyteller – in whatever form their work is delivered. If I am counted among those, I am very happy.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb