Thursday, December 31, 2015

Q&A with Serhii Plokhy

Serhii Plokhy is the author of the new book The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine. His other books include The Last Empire and The Cossack Myth. He is the Mykhailo Hrushevsky Professor of Ukrainian History and director of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University, and he lives in Arlington, Massachusetts. 

Q: You write of The Gates of Europe, “The title of the book…is of course a metaphor, but not one to be taken lightly or dismissed as a marketing gimmick.” Why did you select this title for your history of Ukraine?

A: There is a long tradition in historiography to treat countries in Eastern Europe as bulwarks against the East—anything from the Mongols to the Russians. I appreciated that this metaphor was there.

I look at this region not only as a battlefield…but also as a contact zone, an area where different ethnic groups lived together and cultural exchanges were taking place. Gates can serve as a perfect metaphor. Also, it’s a battlefield occasionally and the gates are closed. But through most of history, they’re open, and that’s where I hope the future of the region lies.

Q: Describing the situation today in Ukraine, you write, “For Ukraine, Russian aggression raised fundamental questions about its continuing existence as a unified state, its independence as a nation, and the democratic foundations of its political institutions.” What do you see looking ahead?

A: Some elements of the story are very familiar with historians-- starting in the early modern period you see an interregnum and a neighboring state acting as a perpetrator [who] tries to use the confusion and grab some territory and gain some political advantage. In a sense it’s as old as the world itself.

But there are elements that could only occur in modern times—the justification of aggression with the claim that there are minorities in need of protection. Russia gets in with the idea of Russian-speaking [people in Ukraine against] the alleged threat of nationalism. The idea of the definition of the Russian world against the decadent West is very prominent…

What is challenging for Ukraine is that most of the country belongs to the Orthodox Church and a good part of the country speaks Russian. The aggression has as its goal to mobilize the Orthodox and the Russian speakers and split Ukraine in half. It worked in Crimea only after Russia took over. It became a contested issue in Donetsk.

The majority of Ukraine opted for a different idea of nationhood, not the model of equation of language and identity and nationhood, but a political model of nationhood where nationhood is about dedication to certain values, democratic values, identification with Europe, patriotism to the place you were born, identity that crosses religious and cultural lines. That’s what happened in 2013-14 in response to aggression.

In terms of the future, it looks like it’s born out of history and recent history—the political Ukrainian nation has a future, it showed its ability to defend itself against a stronger neighbor, and [has shown an] idea of what a nation is and isn’t.

Q: In the book, you locate Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine not so much in its imperial history as in the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Why do you see it this way?

A: In a sense, that was a claim I was making in my previous book, The Last Empire. What I was doing was saying that the Soviet Union was a continuation of Russian imperialism, and its disintegration was part of that history.

What I didn’t realize when I was writing The Last Empire and I realize now is that the fall of the Soviet Union wasn’t the absolute last page of the imperial story.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union continues to a degree. One person who helped me come to this conclusion was President Putin—in his speech on the annexation of Crimea, he pointed to injustices done to Russia in the process of the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

That is a sore point for him and his generation of Russian rulers. They don’t consider the page to be closed. They used the newly acquired might of Russia, from the high price of oil and gas, and a rebuilt military to rewrite the history of the Soviet collapse.

They go back to the Russian imperial heritage. A special medal that was struck in 2014 at the annexation of Crimea [is the model of] an image struck with Catherine II in the annexation of Crimea.

When they wanted to divide Ukraine, there was the idea of a buffer state that would be called New Russia---the name comes from an imperial province. There are a lot of parallels as they are trying to change and rewrite the history of the Soviet collapse.

Q: What do you think are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about Ukraine, especially here in the United States?

A: One thing that certainly is very much there is that most educated Americans, especially the more mature types, people who got their educations before 1991, think in terms of the region as Russia. The Soviet Union was known as Russia. In that sense, there is little knowledge or expertise allowing for a differentiation between the different parts of the Soviet Union.

There is a readiness to think that Russians think this is part of the Russian sphere of influence and maybe they have a good point in saying that. Most of that comes out of the traditional thinking [about] Great Powers.

That I see as a major challenge, a kind of legacy of imperial thinking about history. When you look at American history and the history of Ukraine and Eastern Europe, there are certain parallels between American and Russian history, but there also are parallels between America and the countries trying to get out of [the control of] an imperial power.

The U.S. came into existence trying to get out of an imperial power, Britain, and trying to defend its independence against an imperial master with help coming from France.

If you look at the story of disintegration of empires, nations trying to set themselves free, a lot can unite [U.S.] history with Ukraine [and Eastern Europe].

There’s a desire to suggest to American readers another way to look at the region, and connect through certain elements of American history. I hope the book will help bring that about.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: There is another project, probably what will come next is to be titled The Man with the Poison Gun. It is a Cold War thriller. I’m a historian, so it’s all researched, partly archive-based. It’s about the Soviet assassination in Munich of one of Ukraine’s nationalist leaders abroad.

He was assassinated with a specially designed poison gun. It was difficult to figure out if it was a heart attack. It made such a splash it ended up on one of the James Bond novels…

We know a lot about the story. The assassin eventually fell in love with a German woman and together they escaped to the West…he confessed and went on trial.

Q: What year was the assassination?

A: It was in 1959. Then in 1961 he escaped, and went on trial in 1962 at the height of the Cold War. It’s an interesting story in itself—a love story, espionage, remorse—and also in the bigger context of the Cold War, the Soviet empire trying to save itself by killing an opponent abroad. That also resonated with certain things that happen today.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: When I was doing research, I didn’t realize [some things about] the fictional character Conan the Barbarian. I had an idea he was leader of the Cimmerians, the first group of nomads from Ukraine that came in contact with the Greeks.

The Black Sea border was the ultimate frontier of the Greek world. In that sense, Herodotus turned out to be the first historian of Ukraine, and Ukraine enters the annals of world history early on.

I kind of knew that, but I didn’t pay much attention. There were some surprises, and that was one of them!

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

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Q&A with Eric Bennett

Eric Bennett is the author of the new book Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing During the Cold War. He also has written the recent novel A Big Enough Lie. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including VQR and A Public Space, and he is an associate professor of English at Providence College.

Q: You write, “To understand creative writing in America, even today, requires tracing its origins back to the apocalyptic fears and redemptive hopes that galvanized the postwar atmosphere.” What impact did the ideas of that post-World War II period have on creative writing?

A: Individualism of one sort or another has been a defining feature of the American experience since the beginning—Alexis de Tocqueville testified to its significance almost two centuries ago. 

But my research suggests that in the 1950s, personal accounts of minor experiences gained a new political urgency, and that that urgency found expression in creative writing programs, which were just emerging.

At first, little voices—mostly white and male ones—did their duty contrasting the freedoms of the United States with the programmatic oppressiveness of the Soviet Union. At least that was the theory. 

Later, during the Vietnam era, little voices engaged more and more in national self-critique. People silenced by racism and sexism finally started being heard. 

At a glance, female writers and writers of color would seem to differ drastically from the G.I. Bill students, and in many ways of course they did. But the spirit of countercultural enfranchisement was the same: good souls crushed by corrupt systems, and fighting back by telling their stories.    
What, if anything, this means for writers today is not a simple question—which, in my opinion, makes it all the more worth discussing and digging into. 

Q: Why did you choose to focus in particular on Wallace Stegner and Paul Engle?

A: For 25 years Engle directed the Program in Writing at Iowa, the first in the country. And symbolically and materially, Iowa has greatly influenced creative writing culture since the 1940s. Engle taught many people who went on to staff and teach in new programs. The same goes for Stegner and his influential writing seminars at Stanford. 

Beyond that, both men came out of the same conservative intellectual tradition, headed up by Irving Babbitt. This back story has been neglected in many accounts of Iowa, Stanford, Engle, and Stegner. 

Q: You ask the question, “How did the rebel earn a place in the classroom?” How would you answer that?

A: By having his or her rebelliousness given subtle or not-so-subtle anti-Communist boundaries—as a trade-off for new, newly comfortable positions on campus. 

The majority of writers in the 1930s had leaned far left. With the conservative turn in the 1940s, the establishment figures who waged the cultural Cold War were committed to de-radicalizing American literature, and they threw their weight behind places like Iowa and Stanford. 

By “establishment figures” I mean the directors of philanthropic foundations, like Ford and Rockefeller, publishers devoted to American exceptionalism like Henry Luce and Gardner Cowles, Jr., and intellectuals formulating a postwar vision for the humanities, like Lionel Trilling and Robert Penn Warren. 

These days, you can write individualistic fiction or poetry and call yourself a leftist. In the 1930s, when the American left still had teeth, this would have been a strange proposition indeed. 

Creative writing programs have played a role in this effacement of collective modes of thinking, and even the most progressive poets and novelists (present company included) operate within a publishing world and an aesthetic universe that’s all about self-branding.     

Q: You’ve also had a novel published recently. How did you come up with the idea for A Big Enough Lie, and what messages do you think the book has about truth and about war?

A: George W. Bush headed up an administration that fabricated a case for war against a secular dictator who had only the most fleeting ties to the fundamentalist Islamic terrorists who had attacked the United States in 2001. Despite the fabrications, Bush was reelected president in 2004. 

In A Million Little Pieces, James Frey fibbed about one man’s life experiences (his own) and was later shamed for it on Oprah. I found this contrast between Bush and Frey—between two very different case studies in the public tolerance for fabrication—dramatically fascinating. I wanted to get that contrast into a story that moved. 

Although it includes a fake memoir about combat in Iraq, A Big Enough Lie mostly tackles as its main theme the writing life in the U.S. Also, it’s a love story, or a pair of love stories, though there’s no sign of that in the cover image.   

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Everybody Can’t Be Naked, a novel about varieties of artistic aspiration—tales of actors, photographers, musicians, and writers in a gothic city on the East Coast. It entails shame, shamelessness, narcissism, and rip-roaring plots.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 30

Dec. 30, 1865: Rudyard Kipling born.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Q&A with Natasha Solomons

Natasha Solomons is the author of the new novel The Song of Hartgrove Hall. Her other novels include The Gallery of Vanished Husbands and The House at Tyneford. She lives in Dorset, England.

Q: Music plays a big role in The Song of Hartgrove Hall, and serves as a form of communication for some of the characters. Why did you choose music as a main theme in the novel?

A: I’m a terrible musician and a dodgy singer – and perhaps that’s why I’m so fascinated by musicality in other people. As a writer I’m intrigued by different forms of creativity – I’ve written about painters, sculptors, singers, but this time I wanted to focus on a composer.

I’m really lucky to have a lovely studio in the garden with a gorgeous view of the hill. It rises up out of the fields and I sit and watch as the weather forms above the ridge. As Pooh Bear would say, “it’s my thinking place.”

I wanted to explore a musician’s relationship with the landscape. I draw my inspiration from where I live, and Fox, the curmudgeonly narrator of The Song of Hartgrove Hall, does likewise. 

He discovers the theme for his first symphony when he hears the folk songs sung by the local shepherds and labourers. For Fox music is as much part of the landscape as the gorse bushes dotting the hillside.

I also wanted to explore how people connect through music. At the start of the novel the elderly Fox is lonely and grief-stricken after the death of his beloved wife, Edie. Then, one morning, he discovers his troublesome young grandson is a musical prodigy on the piano.

This connection becomes utterly central to Fox – they are not only grandfather and grandson but simply two musicians, and through this relationship he discovers the route back from loneliness and grief. Similarly, through music, he hopes to introduce his young grandson to the grandmother he never really knew.

Q: The book takes place during two time periods--post World War II, and the beginning of the 21st century. Why did you pick these time periods, and how do they serve as a contrast to each other?

A: I wanted the first part of the story – where the 19-year-old Fox first meets Edie – to take place at the end of the Second World War.

In an earlier novel, The House at Tyneford, I wrote about the last days of a great house before the army requisitioned it during the Second World War. This time I wanted to see what happened when a house was returned to the family. Frequently country houses were given back in terrible repair and the families often lacked the funds to restore them.

At one stage it was estimated that great English houses were being destroyed at the rate of one each week in the years after the war. In the novel the Fox-Talbots are in a state of genteel poverty and are facing the sale or destruction of Hartgrove Hall.

I wanted to compare this portrait of a house and family at the end of the war with a modern view of the country house. Later in the story, Fox once again is faced with the dilemma of selling the house. The role of the country house has changed totally over the last century, and I provide glimpses of the house and its owners during different times.

The other simple reason for the two time periods is that I liked the idea of telling a love story backwards. At the start of the story we know Fox and Edie have been married for 50 years but we don’t know how it happened. When we first meet Edie, she’s inconveniently the girlfriend of Fox’s rather dapper brother Jack.

Q: Is Hartgrove Hall based on a real house, and what does it signify for the characters?

A: The house is an amalgamation of houses near where I live in Dorset, England. The one it resembles most closely is one that used to be called Turnworth House but was destroyed at the end of the Second World War.

It had fallen into disrepair and there was no money to restore it, and so it was pulled down. It was supposed to have been a particularly beautiful manor – I include the incidence of its demolition in the book.

Fox loves Hartgrove Hall but his affection for his family home is complicated. He realizes that if he chooses to stay and help his brothers keep hold of the estate, he won’t be able to have a career as a musician. While his musical inspiration comes from the landscape around the house, by staying at home and making the house his life, he won’t be able to dedicate himself to music.
The house, much like music, is also the glue that binds the Fox-Talbot brothers together.

Q: What role do you see Judaism playing in the novel?

A: Edie has an uneasy relationship to her Jewishness. She became the quintessential English Rose during the Second World War – a symbol of patriotism. Fox feels like a fool when he realizes that he didn’t know she’s Jewish, or that Edie Rose is her stage name.

He can’t bear the wartime ditties she used to sing – the songs he loves are the Yiddish melodies she occasionally sings. They express something hidden and private and also rather other.

Latterly this sense of otherness irks Fox, he feels separated from Edie by her Jewishness. It’s a part of her that he can’t reach. She wants to be buried at the Jewish cemetery and not in the woods – something that he finds very difficult to reconcile.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m just starting to think about a new novel. I’d like to write about the sea again.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m answering this questionnaire while my nine-week old baby is being tickled by her father next door. So if my answers are a little sleep-befuddled that’s why!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Terry E. Hill

Terry E. Hill is the author of the new novel The Committee. His other novels include Come Sunday Morning and When Sunday Comes Again. He has worked in the social services field, on issues including homelessness, for more than 25 years, and he lives in Oakland, California. 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Committee?

A: It ties into a recurring theme of my writing—powerful women. Starting off in the conceptual stage, the only thing I knew was that the main character would be a powerful woman. It took months to hone in on who she was.

You write about what you know. I know local politics. I’ve always been intrigued with New Orleans—that felt really comfortable. Then I had to figure out how to tie in the politics in Los Angeles and [the scenes in] New Orleans. Months go by and you’re thinking on it, and this was the end product!

I enjoy the supernatural a lot; I’ve never written about it as much as in this book. I’m intrigued by conspiracy theories—the Illuminati—so slowly, it came together.

My process is, I do an outline of the book first. I know where it’s going, section by section. Then, I’m having to sit on that a few more months—is it entertaining? Am I entertained by it? Originally, I was not!

We are writing to sell books—how can I make this more interesting? Throw in action, throw in intrigue, throw in a few sex scenes, and you’ve got a book!

Q: Some of the characters in The Committee appear in your previous books. Did you plan the links among the characters before writing the earlier books, or did they develop along the way?

A: I can’t take credit for the characters turning up again. At the end of The Last Sunday, in my head, I felt I had done a decent job of wrapping it up. My sense is readers didn’t feel cheated or frustrated…

The publisher and my agent—we were going back and forth about the new book—they suggested I keep three of the characters; my readers were resonating with these characters, why let them go?

Hattie was the main one. They suggested I keep her, Danny, and Gideon. It was a big help. It gave me some direction. I feel like it worked—we picked up in a new chapter in their lives, and I hope I did good enough background in filling in who they are.

Q: Your character Gideon, one of your recurring characters, is a reporter. What role do you see the media playing in your novels?

A: The media is incredibly powerful. Not only do we see that with Gideon, but on the Committee there are media moguls, from the 1800s and current. I think it’s the obvious: the media nothing short of controls our national dialogue, what we’re talking about over lunch or dinner. The media decides what’s happening in our country.

For example, with Hillary Clinton and her e-mail, [for the] average American, it was, all right, she used the wrong server, but the media whipped us into this horrible frenzy, and then it just kind of died out.

Q: You also include a historical element in this novel. Why did you add the historical flashbacks?

A: There were two motivations for that one. The biggest motivation was the challenge of doing a historical piece, which I have always wanted to do, but was afraid…I really wanted to challenge myself.

The second is I really wanted to give Gillette, the current-day woman [living in] Los Angeles, as much gravitas as possible, and to be very clear that this woman is very powerful, and there’s a story about how she came about having all this power. The historical piece laid that foundation…

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The sequel. This is also part of a trilogy…I’m deciding whether or not I’m going to bring back the historical piece in New Orleans, or move to the next generation. Maybe I could place it at the turn of the century, or fast-forward to the ‘60s and Kennedy’s assassination.

I used to panic when I couldn’t come up with the concept for the next book, but I’m much less panicked now. I feel it will come to me. Then it just kind of flies.

What I do know about the next two books is that Camille starts off as mayor of Los Angeles. In the second, she’s governor of California, and in the third, she is president.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The Karen character, the assassin—she’s such a cool character to me. She epitomizes what I enjoy doing. There’s one public image, and a totally different life behind the scenes. That dynamic shows up a lot in the book.

Sheridan is Camille’s loving husband, but behind the scenes he has a giant real estate company nobody knows about. Camille is beautiful and powerful but has an amazing dark side. The same with Juliette—she is just stunning but is fully immersed in voodoo and dark magic.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Terry E. Hill, please click here.

Dec. 29

Dec. 29, 1922: William Gaddis born.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Q&A with Charles Haverty

Charles Haverty is the author of the new story collection Excommunicados. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including AGNI and The Gettysburg Review. He lives in Lexington, Massachusetts.

Q: How did you decide on the order of the stories in your collection, and do you see certain themes running through them?

A: Part calculation, part intuition. I was shooting for variety of subject matter, setting, point of view, tense, age, gender, etc., along with a less articulable sense of progression. Of course, if my readers are anything like me, they’ll jump around from story to story according to their own intuitions—and that’s okay, too.

As for recurring themes, I suppose most of the stories concern questions of identity in one way or another. My characters seem to share a special awareness of what one of them calls “the performative aspect” of life—the dissonance between what one is supposed to feel and what one actually feels. This is often played out in families, where that disconnect feels especially acute.

It also occurs to me that there’s a secret or lie driving each of these stories; that I might very well have called the book Secrets and Lies; that most short story collections could probably be called Secrets and Lies.

Q: Do you know how your stories will end before you start writing, or do you make many changes as you go along?

A: I like to think I know the ending, but more often than not I’m wrong—and happily surprised. The truest, most useful piece of writing advice I know of comes from Robert Frost’s “The Figure a Poem Makes”: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”

Without giving too much away here, the endings to “Crackers” and “Black Box” genuinely surprised me—arrived—to my great pleasure.

Still, there are times when I begin with the ending and work my way backwards (that was certainly the case with “The Cherrywood Heart”), but the story invariably goes where it wants or needs to. The task, the trick, is to make the ending feel both surprising and inevitable.

Q: Several of the stories are linked. Why did you decide to explore those characters at different points in their lives?

A: You know that Jesuit business, "Give me a child of seven, and I will show you the man"? The three linked stories here (“Excommunicados,” “The Angel of the City,” and “Trappings”) let me play out that notion by following the progress of Lionel Detweiler from his Catholic school boyhood through middle age.

The less highfalutin truth is that it’s always fun (and a little liberating) to write about Lionel. He’s my Zuckerman, my Rabbit, my Nachman. He allows me the freedom to live a sort of alternative life on paper in a way the specific demands of other stories might not.

Q: Which writers have inspired you?

A: Saul Bellow said that a writer is a reader who’s moved to emulation. Reading Bellow works that way for me: I can’t get through a paragraph of “Something to Remember Me By” or Herzog or “The Old System” or even his letters without reaching for pen and paper.

There’s an engagement with the language that’s contagious, that inspires me, that makes me want to write (and God knows, I don’t mean in an imitative way). Despite their different styles and sensibilities, Don DeLillo, James Salter, and John Updike have a similar effect on me.

And then there are those writers who confer a sense of permission, of possibility, formal and otherwise, and here I’m thinking of Alice Munro, Muriel Spark, Evan S. Connell, Jane Gardam, William Maxwell, Lorrie Moore, Peter Taylor, and many others.

Anyway, that’s the long answer to your question. The short answer is James Joyce’s “The Dead,” my alpha and omega.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve put together a second collection of short stories, which will doubtless require further fiddling; I’m writing a novel; and I’ve been invited to participate in the development of something for television, though the less said about these the better.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I practiced law for two decades before quitting to write fiction. So I’ll put in a plug for joy here, the joy of working with language and memory and imagination, of making things up and getting them down right. I’m very lucky to get to do what I do, and I know it.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 28

Dec. 28, 1932: Manuel Puig born.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Q&A with Cate Holahan

Cate Holahan is the author of the new thriller Dark Turns. A journalist and former television producer, her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including BusinessWeek and The Boston Globe. She lives in New Jersey.

Q: How did you come up with your main character, Nia, and why did you decide to have her be a dancer?

A: I started to think about the book when my daughter was 3 and was taking ballet. They had her up against a cement wall [so the kids] could do a full straddle split….Suddenly her small face started crying.

I thought, What does that do to kids who start competing at a young age, and push past the pain before they have the tools to deal with that type of competition?

After that, the idea for the book started generating. I wanted Nia to be a dancer and the characters to be young women who had to dedicate themselves [to this type of competition].

Q: Are you a dancer?

A: I had never done it! I took dance for a year while I was writing the book, and for a year while it was going through the editing process. Hopefully it comes across as true to that world…

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

A: I always know. I have themes I want to deal with, and I sense how it will end…I’m a plot-driven author.

Q: Why did you set the novel at a prep school?

A: I wanted a closed universe that could limit the characters and have it be believable—it intensifies the competition. Family is grounding for kids, and [the boarding school setting] takes away the support system. You can imagine things happening that wouldn’t happen [otherwise].

Q: Do you think you’ll write another novel about Nia?

A: Not about Nia, but my second novel will be out in August. It’s called The Widower’s Wife. It deals with an insurance investigator looking into a woman who fell off a cruise ship. Hopefully that will be the first of a series…

Q: Which authors have influenced you?

A: I love Gillian Flynn and Karin Slaughter--I don’t do as much blood as she does, but I enjoy her books. I love Stephen King. Mr. Mercedes was great, the way he gets you into the characters.

What they all have in common is that they can create characters who are villains but not just a sociopath…I appreciate it when bad guys have a lot of layers and I feel I can believe this.

Q: So are you working on the sequel to The Widower’s Wife?

A: It’s outlined and I have a summary and a chapter-by-chapter breakdown. And I’m also working on another stand-alone. I’m playing around with the movie The Swimming PoolThe Swimming Pool meets Gone Girl…It’s a way to do an unreliable narrator.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: One thing that’s overlooked with thrillers, because they’re so plot-driven, [people] assume the authors don’t have a moral, but a lot do.

For me, it’s what we focus on when we decide who we admire. [The character] Aubrey is a good-looking girl; she’s very successful--but there’s an emotional chip missing. But everyone excuses it [because of her success].

As a society we put a lot of pressure on kids, to have things on their resume…but “are you being a good person” is lacking. Having children of my own, what kind of parent are you supposed to be? Push the ballet? But she’s crying. Parents have our internal struggles.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 27

Dec. 27, 1910: Charles Olson born.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Q&A with Kerry Eleveld

Kerry Eleveld is the author of the new book Don't Tell Me To Wait: How the Fight for Gay Rights Changed America and Transformed Obama's Presidency. A former reporter for The Advocate, she is now a columnist for Daily Kos. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Salon, The Atlantic, and The Daily Beast. She lives in Berkeley, California.

Q: In the book, you ask, “Was Obama’s evolution [on same-sex marriage] born of principle or political expediency? Did he lead the nation or follow it?” What is your answer to these questions?

A: First of all, in terms of whether he led or followed, he was smack-dab in the middle. The answer is, a little bit of both. He followed half the nation and led half.

Both signal something politically. It’s a good way of looking at the book. It was a mixed bag. He had to be pushed, but then he cleared the way for people following the trend line….

He provided some leadership but trailed the trend line initially. He wasn’t what people thought he’d be when they voted for him—they thought he’d be ahead of the curve. That’s why I look at it as a mixed bag.

In terms of political expediency vs. principle, I think both could be argued. You could argue it was political expediency…in 2008 to support civil unions over same-sex marriage.

Some might say [his stand] was principled—he couldn’t have been elected, and wouldn’t have been able to bring people along and get them to support same-sex marriage along with him. People could make the argument it was both.

People are trying to figure out when did he change his mind? Was he really pro-same-sex marriage already? Did he change his mind partway through? This is a question that still dogs him to this day…Aides don’t want people to think he was behind the curve [but] at the same time you don’t want it to look like he was lying about his civil union stance. It’s still a problem for them…

More important than when he changed his mind and whether he was pro-same-sex marriage when he came to office—at some point he’s going to write a book, and I’m not sure we’ll even know then—more important is that the LGBT movement changed the goalposts from the time he was elected in 2008 and was reelected in 2012.

His advisors, and Barack Obama himself, decided the best political stance was civil unions. It was exactly the opposite stance four years later. The more important story to me is that the goalposts moved on what would make him more electable….

Q: You describe a “tipping point” in the history of gay rights during the Obama administration. What accounted for the tipping point, and why did public opinion shift during this time?

A: In some ways they’re related, but it’s two separate questions. The tipping point in the book is the political tipping point in Washington. LGBT issues go from toxic and untouchable to a winner for the Democrats.

That tipping point was helped by public opinion, but not completely determined by it. Washington is in a bubble [ruled by] conventional wisdom…

On Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal, the polling was at between 65 and 70 percent going into 2009. Those types of numbers should have given nervous Democrats a spine. But Democrats were still afraid of taking that vote. You have to prove to politicians there’s a bigger downside to not acting than to acting.

LGBT activists managed to convince politicians that there would be a bigger downside to not acting on LGBT issues than acting.

Through all the protesting that happened through 2009-10, Democrats and the White House started realizing, We’re going to take it on the chin over and over on this issue unless we make it go away.

They still had to be pushed, but it was clear that if repeal didn’t happen, it would be a big problem in terms of fundraising and bad press in the progressive movement.

The same was true for same-sex marriage…it wasn’t just activists, it was watching the polls shift and state after state started legalizing same-sex marriage. Obama’s position was looking antiquated. He and his aides came to a decision that they were going to do something on this. It was in the middle of an election year—ideally, you make [changes] in an off year.

Public opinion is not deterministic, but it is helpful. On a slightly separate note, a lot of pollsters say, I’ve never seen anything like this in my lifetime. No one would have imagined in 2004 and 2006 that a decade later we’d end up with marriage equality.

One reason politicians and journalists had a hard time was that it’s an emergent movement. People are coming out to [those they know]. You didn’t have a central figure like you did with Martin Luther King, Jr. He was a way to gauge how much energy the civil rights movement was gaining…

Q: You write, “I had gone to bed every night and awoken every morning wondering, what question can I ask, what story can I write, what truth can I reveal that will help clear the path for repeal [of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell].” What do you see as your role in covering these issues as a journalist?

A: I definitely struggle with the question, Am I a journalist or am I an activist? I evolved into an activist. In the first couple of years I was covering the White House, I saw myself as a journalist, covering a beat. There was no question what was right and wrong…that maybe separated me from other mainstream journalists…

It wasn’t a question of that type of “objectivity.” For me, it was my role to uncover the discrepancy between the campaign promises Barack Obama made and what actually was happening.

I was trying to provide transparency so LGBT Americans who had voted for him would have the information they needed about what to do, whether the [administration] was proceeding to achieve their campaign promises…

Q: I know we’ve discussed that it’s hard to know exactly what the president’s views were, but what impact do you think the vice president’s remarks on same-sex marriage had on the president?

A: I’m not so sure it had very much effect on the president’s views, but the vice president’s remarks pushed the White House past the point of no return. President Obama first mentioned he was evolving in October 2010. Then he started repeating the “evolving” scenario.

That had been going on—by the time we get to the spring of 2012 no one in their right mind believed someone could be evolving for that long and hadn’t reached their destination. How long can you continue to roll that out? As I noted in the book, he started saying things like, That question has been asked and answered. It was wearing incredibly thin.

By the time Vice President Biden goes on Meet the Press and signals he has no problem with same-sex couples getting married, you have his White House trying to hold back the floodgates.

They tried saying, Biden is in the same place the president is, but no one took Biden’s comments that way…

Q: What do you think of how the presidential candidates are dealing with gay rights issues, and what do you see looking ahead?

A: The comparison between Democrats and Republicans is a no-contest situation. None of the prominent Republicans are signaling themselves as friends of the LGBT community.

Even younger people--Marco Rubio is saying, I’m going to appoint Supreme Court justices who might roll back marriage equality. He’s signaling that he wants to get it done. Same with Ted Cruz.

There’s all this talk about a war on religion in this country. There are not a whole lot of positive signs coming from the Republican side. I’m sure there are Republican strategists who might try to paint a different story, but I don’t buy it.

The American public has moved beyond…where the Republican base is on this, the smaller slice, the primary and caucus-goers. It’s not necessarily inclusive of the whole broad Republican party. Hillary Clinton has positioned herself as a friend of the LGBT community, as has Bernie Sanders…

What I’ve seen from LGBT activists, I don’t see them being quite as active as the activists [involved with] the dream movement, climate change, Black Lives Matter…

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: I feel like this book hasn’t ended yet. You write and write and write, and edit and edit and edit, and it arrives on the market. Then there’s a lot of marketing to get people to pay attention to your book. I’m still in the marketing phase of the book I just published.

If there’s one thing that intrigues me, it’s what I see [with] Obama-era movements, the resurgent progressive movement that developed when a lot of progressives who helped elect Obama were not thrilled with his first two years in office, when Democrats had both houses of Congress [and the White House]….

These movements are less Washington-based and more an emergent movement. They’re not as streamlined and glamorous. They make it up as they go along. These movements are very interesting.

If there’s one thing I would want to look at for a second book, it’s looking at the power of these progressive movements, and whether they will provide a course-correct for the country’s drift to the right…

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 26

Dec. 26, 1894: Jean Toomer born.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Q&A with Caroline Heller

Caroline Heller is the author of the new book Reading Claudius: A Memoir in Two Parts, which looks at her family's history in Europe before and during the Holocaust, and later in the United States. She is a professor at Lesley University and director of the school's interdisciplinary Ph.D. program in educational studies. She also has written Until We Are Strong Together. She lives in Boston.

Q: You write, “Shortly after the death of my father in 2001, I felt compelled to craft my family’s story into words on the page.” Why did you want to do this, and did the experience of writing this family memoir end up being what you expected?

A: The latter question first, it ended up being far more than I expected it to be…[While I was getting an MFA at Bennington] one of my teachers, Sven Birkerts, said, Knock off this academic stuff—you’ve got to write your family history! He had written about my uncle [scholar Erich Heller], and was intrigued by the triangle [among my father, mother, and uncle].

When my father died, I felt that sense that the memories were going with him, and the longer he was dead, the less I’ll remember him. It felt important to start it right away.

Q: The book is divided into two parts. Why did you divide it, and was one part easier to write than the other?

A: The decision was very much the suggestion of my editor at Random House, Sam Nicholson. I felt he was absolutely right—it needed separation between the aspects of life that I didn’t witness and have to imagine, though I did a lot of research—to separate that from those parts of the Heller life that I was part of…

Q: How did you pick the book’s title, [which refers to the family's reading the works of the German poet Matthias Claudius,]and what does it signify for you?

A: The publisher, Susan Kamil, the uber-editor who bought the book, she [originally] wanted Reading Claudius as a placesetter because I had suggested that title. She felt people would think it was the emperor. When it was about to go to the printer, Susan said, It’s always been Reading Claudius, and I want it to be Reading Claudius. That was wonderful because I did too!

Those two words came from [realizing that] my father’s death and the encouragement at Bennington made me want to do this—but the deeper genesis was where my uncle was reading from my mother’s book of Claudius poems when she was close to dying.

I was anticipating losing my mother, and I [saw] the connection between my uncle and my mother that I’d never seen before. That intimacy through poetry—a window on the past. I was thinking, Oh, my God, there was a whole life I wasn’t part of that was so intimate and real.

Q: How much did your parents discuss their experiences before coming to the U.S.?

A: Very little. It was nothing of my father being in a concentration camp, except to describe him as a prisoner…it tended in the 1950s and early ‘60s to be very much clouded over in American culture. I knew pretty much nothing of that.

I was read Claudius poems and German nursery rhymes. My father romanticized [his home town of] Komotau. I thought of it as a fairy-tale town. My mother talked about Frankfurt…But I was told almost nothing about anything else. I knew there was a war, and that they weren’t born in the United States.

Q: Did you know they were Jewish?

A: I did and I didn’t. I tried in that scene [in the book] when I was already 16 years old, and was no longer shy. I felt the passion of defending the meaning of being Jewish. But I didn’t know the answer, or that I was permitted to speculate on the answer.

On the one hand, that filled me with dread. On the other hand, when I realized I didn’t know how to answer the question was a profound moment for me. I don’t quite remember how it unfolded [afterwards].

Q: How did you learn about the relationship between your uncle and your mother?

A: It was something I was told. I always felt this combustion between the three major adults in my life, a sense of darkness and secrecy, a passion often around ideas. My mother was very shy as well, so I was taken with all that came out of her during those moments.

When I was a teenager—my parents were always very worried about me—I went every week to a child psychiatrist in Chicago. On the train or in the car, there were intimate moments between my mother and me. I don’t remember going alone on the train…

On the way back, I would talk about what we talked about [in the session] and my mother would tell me things—I was involved with your uncle before your father…she minimized it until much later. I didn’t know until much later the extent of that triangle.

Q: How did you differentiate your roles as writer and daughter as you wrote the book?

A: It was a tremendous battle the whole time—I doubt I ever fully won it…I knew I had to sympathize with each character even though I had a hell of a time with my uncle.

I knew I had to find all that was wonderful about him. I found it in his books and in the gay connection. But I didn’t want to write a book about, Erich Heller and Caroline Heller are gay! I knew I had to find a way to love them all. I could be a daughter and a niece in finding that love, but the writer in me knew I had to do that.

Q: I wanted to ask you about what was the role of journalist Edward R. Murrow in helping your father leave Europe?

A: I think about that a lot because of what’s going on now in terms of refugees. The whole story would have been 100 percent different had Edward R. Murrow not made that connection with my father. It was quite serendipitous.

In April 1945 the camps were quasi-liberated but there was still a lot of death. My father [who had gone to medical school] summoned the doctor in him and [separated] the prisoners with TB…

When Edward R. Murrow came in with the soldiers, he went to that building. My father was one of the strongest physically in that building, and he became one of Murrow’s guides. Murrow said, What can I do for you? [My father] said, Please, get my name on air. No one knows I survived.

In one of my research trips I met with [my parents’ friend] Eve Adler Road. She was with Erich and Eve’s husband [in England] the night of that broadcast. They heard it as live as it could have been at that time.

There was a postscript to the evening news—no one ever knew what it would be. That evening, they said, Let’s keep the radio on. And it was the Buchenwald broadcast. I was so blessed that Eve lived so long [and could describe it to me]—Erich never talked about it in that detail.

It’s very much as it shows up in the letters my father wrote to my mother. Murrow stayed in touch, and [my father] got his personal assistance in getting a visa…if you’re just a number, one of thousands of refugees who needs help, it can happen or not, unless someone is your advocate. That was Murrow for my father.

When we lived in Washington, they were pretty closely in touch. I knew my father visited Edward R. Murrow when he was dying, and had a chance to tell him of his importance in his life. My father stayed in touch with Janet and Casey [Murrow’s wife and son].

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: I want to, but not yet…I’m trying to remember the ideas I had before Reading Claudius. I’m on sabbatical so I’m allowing myself space to not be yet fully involved in anything else. I have to do a few things for my university. I don’t know what my next creative project will be…

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Q&A with Neely Tucker

Neely Tucker's most recent novel is Murder, D.C. He also has written the novel The Ways of the Dead, which also features protagonist Sully Carter, and a memoir, Love in the Driest Season. He is a reporter for The Washington Post, and he lives in Maryland.

Q: How did you come up with the story for Murder, D.C.?

A: I was aware of D.C.’s slavery history from being around and doing other stories. There was an…article about a mother and son, shot to death in the same park in Southwest D.C. five years apart to the day.

It was a little less mysterious than it sounds—it was a drug park, and they had drug problems. It had never been solved. I thought it was a fascinating scenario for the book. 

Q: One of the main locations in the novel is Frenchman’s Bend, which you say is fictional. Is it based on a real place at all?

A: No, there is no Frenchman’s Bend down there. There’s the Titanic Memorial, and that bumps into Fort McNair. I just expanded the earth a little bit!

The first quote in the epigraph is true [about a slave pen]—it was just across the river, over in Alexandria. It was the nation’s biggest slave-trading pen. There’s a museum there today. In Twelve Years a Slave, that’s where the guy was taken.

I blended them all into one particular hellish spot, building a metaphor of D.C. as the nation’s capital, blending slave history with the nation’s history. It’s a very slight fictional license. I really just moved it a quarter of a mile…Frenchman’s Bend was named after a spot in Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, where the Snopes are from. 

Q: Was the writing process similar or different to that of The Ways of the Dead, the first Sully Carter novel?

A: Similar but different. It was harder in some ways—I had to do it in a year, around my day job. It was easier because I already knew the main character, what he was like. Some of the practical matters—that was easier.

You can spend as much time [as you like on the first one] but once you put something in the marketplace, it creates expectations about when the next one is coming out. The clock starts ticking. 

Q: On your second time writing about Sully, did his character develop in ways that surprised you at all?

A: Yeah, that’s in every book. Stuff just starts happening. Billy Ellison is gay—that just popped out in the writing. In writing the scene where Sully’s interviewing [Billy’s] friend at Georgetown, it just popped out on the page….Sully had no idea.

O Street, where the Nationals stadium is now, was a hangout with gay clubs. That led that whole aspect into it. It gave the book a nice twist. I was using the name “Ellison,” [thinking of] Ralph Ellison. This makes Billy Ellison invisible to his family—not because of his race, but because of his orientation. 

Q: The characters’ dialogue is really great—do you revise it a lot, or does it just emerge that way as you write it?

A: You always revise; it’s one of the few privileges you get. If something sounds like a first idea, I change it. Most if the time, the dialogue comes pretty naturally. I don’t say it out loud when I write it, but I read it out loud before I send it off. I’m always shortening it.

I was friends with Elmore Leonard for a long time—[he said] dialogue is about attitude. In the Sully books, as a technical matter, because they’re told from a single point of view, close third person, that’s the guiding narration of the book.

Dialogue is one of the main ways he finds out about anything. Dialogue becomes a real way you learn about who people are—how they present themselves. Particularly in reporting, you have to be highly attuned to the ways people are—what they say and how they say it often deliver contradictory messages. 

Q: So what can you say about the next Sully Carter book?

A: It’s done. It’s called Only the Hunted Run. It’s about the birth of the modern terrorist movement in the United States. All the Sully books are based on real incidents.

In 1998 Russell Weston burst into the Capitol building and shot a couple of officers before he was subdued. You could just walk into the Capitol with a gun. It was interesting to exploit for the basis of the book.

The books mix high and low D.C. This puts Sully in the Capitol building for the dramatic assassination, and takes him out to St. Elizabeths. St. E’s is a fascinating place in D.C.—a huge mental institution that was state of the art when it was created but devolved into being a gothic horror show… 

Q: Anything else we should know about Murder, D.C.?

A: You don’t have to read Ways to get Murder, D C. It probably helps a little bit…In writing a longer series, in some aspects it’s like doing those television series they have now. You’re writing each specific episode or book that has to carry its own weight, but [also follows] a longer arc.

In doing the second book…one of the harder things—I understood we were doing a series, but now we were into the weeds. You have to decide on the tone—is it going to be really unrealistic, or a much more natural progression of things?

For Murder, D.C., you don’t have to be that interested in the history. It’s mainly about family secrets and how people lie to each other.

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