Sunday, January 31, 2016

Q&A with John Sedgwick

John Sedgwick is the author of the new book War of Two: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Duel That Stunned the Nation. His many other books include the family memoir In My Blood: Six Generations of Madness and Desire in an American Family and the novel The Dark House. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including GQ, The Atlantic, and Vanity Fair, and he lives in Brooklyn.

Q: You write, “Searching for the true origins of the fatal hatred between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr is like trying to trace the wind to its source.” How did you research this book, and how did you reach your conclusions about the dynamic between them?

A: The way I work is that I find the skeleton and work out from there—the organs, and the flesh. Where I started was with the basic outline everybody knows—two men pointed guns at each other in 1804 and one died. I wondered why? What got them there?

It was not so much working backward, but working down—the backgrounds of their lives. I went to Nevis; I learned about Princeton and Elizabethtown. After a while, you get a sense of what’s down there.

It’s very much like archaeology—there’s a shard there, and you discover that it was an altar, and you dig deeper, and discover that it was part of a ritual service. Then you discover there’s a whole city down there. I understood over time how much more there was to it...

A book of this kind is successful to the extent that you can evoke the look and feel of the period…you know how you got from place to place. Washington got around in a canary yellow coach. If you leave the details out, you’re missing an important [part] of Washington and of people’s expectations for him. I wanted the book to be as cinematic as possible.

Q: What are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about Hamilton and Burr?

A: The worst misconception…is this story of a saint and a sinner: Hamilton was the best man ever; Burr was the worst man ever. Not exactly!

Hamilton had lots of flaws. He was on the way down at the time he died. There is so little understanding of the emotional aspects of his life. He fought for his ideals but didn’t connect so well with people. [George] Washington had great love for him; he didn’t return it. [His wife] had great love for him; it was not clear how well he returned it…

There was a misunderstanding of human dynamics. He proved to be a poor leader of the Federalist Party and a poor appraiser of men. If he derided Burr at every turn, Burr might get angry. That didn’t occur to Hamilton.

Is Burr a sinner? Not entirely. We are applying our terms to them, and finding them wanting. We track back from his killing Hamilton and assume he was a murderer. That’s unfair because it was a duel of honor, which he followed. Then the rules changed on him. He wasn’t an upholder of honor but a murderer. That image was carried down.

Then there was the lunatic effort on his part to detach the Western element of the [United States].

The seminal incident in his life occurred when he was 2—both parents and his grandparents died. That has to have an effect on a person. I feel sympathy for him, though some of what he did was misguided.

Q: You write, “Highly publicized duels enjoyed something of a revival in New York City at the turn of the nineteenth century.” Why was that, and how did public opinion at the time view dueling?

A: I think it owed to the fact that politics post-Washington were in tremendous upheaval. When [Thomas] Jefferson offered a counter to Washington’s Federalist regime, it put in play two divergent views, and churned up a lot of public sentiment—like our time now, there was a lot of anger on both sides.

There was a lot of jockeying for position—the Jeffersonians replacing the Washington employees—you are always going to get people against each other. There were always duels, but it was more accelerated around this time.

There was popular revulsion around the duel Hamilton and Burr fought. Suddenly, duels were considered not affairs of honor but murder cases. Why would you want to get involved in that?

That caused a reconsideration of duels. It led to their being a bygone thing…

Q: You note in the book that Hamilton’s last letter was written to your ancestor, Theodore Sedgwick. What role did your interest in that letter play in your decision to write this book?

A: It was in the background. I had known about it, but never read it until 2006, roughly, and that book I was doing research for was out in 2007. This one was out late last year. It was a long delay.

I had decided on the strength of the Sedgwick book that I was more interested than I thought I ever would be in history—but not as history, but for the stories it provided that led to the present.

I was always interested in politics, and I thought political crime or violence would be wonderful in book terms, dramatic for me. I looked into Garfield and McKinley [and then thought] what about this duel?

It had been [written about], but poorly. It was written about in biographies of the two protagonists, but only one side. There was a book about the duel, but I felt it was not as complete and cinematic as I wanted. That was the opening.

Then I thought of the letter—and everything clicked together. The letter does say a lot about what Hamilton had in his mind when went off to the [duel].

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m writing a book about the Cherokee…I got interested in the Civil War. I thought I would go marching through the major wars of our country. I was surprised to learn that almost 30,000 Indians fought in the war, from 19 tribes.

One of the very few tribes where Indians came in on both sides was the Cherokee. I tracked back the explanation--it came to rival chiefs in the 1830s in the run-up to the Trail of Tears.

There were two rival chiefs. One took one side to remain there, the other said to cut their losses and start afresh in Oklahoma. The two had been fast friends but came to a bitter enmity that did not stop, and led to one having the other killed.

It broke into a clan war, and led to a civil war within the Nation that spilled over into the national Civil War. It was an extraordinary conflagration that came from one spark between two men.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I guess one of the things I would like people to understand about the past as it pertains to the Founding Fathers is that they were mere people, very much flesh and blood. We think of them as marble figures or waxworks…

These were very much flesh and blood men who had all the limitations people have—they were jealous, small-minded…all the things politicians are.

The difference was that they had a remarkable man, George Washington, there to corral them….everything fell into place in an unlikely way, not because they were perfect but because their imperfections meshed and Washington was there to oversee them.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Q&A with Rebecca Alexander

Rebecca Alexander is the author of the new memoir Not Fade Away: A Memoir of Senses Lost and Found. It examines her experiences with the genetic condition Usher Syndrome Type III, which causes progressive hearing loss and vision loss. A psychotherapist, activist, and extreme athlete, she lives in New York City.

Q: You write that your agent waited five years for you to decide to write your memoir. Why did you opt not to write it initially, and what made you decide to do it?

A: My literary agent approached me—my brother [journalist Peter Alexander] did a story about me for the Today show—he approached me, and I thought, What do I have to say? I wasn’t quite ready. All my writing was journal writing. As it turned out, that was the best kind of writing.

After we started a nonprofit organization—there was no organization specifically for Usher III—I did a spinathon. It was written up in The New York Times, and my literary agent reached out to me again.

I’d been approached by another literary agent for me and my brother to write a book. There was no way I could pin my brother down, and it wasn’t really his story, [although] it was great he got the word out about Usher Syndrome.

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

A: I think the most important thing—I was pretty disappointed [to] find the book in the disability section. It was such a bummer. We still live in a world that’s closed-minded. We’re still very much not a totally inclusive society.

Having a disability doesn’t mean that’s who you are. We’re all dealing with something. People who identify with my book are not necessarily people with disabilities. My process is similar to other people’s—a journey toward self-acceptance. I found the book on the disability shelf, and thought, We have a lot of work to do.

Having Usher Syndrome—on the one hand, people could say, That’s the worst thing. There’s no question on some days I feel terribly sad. [But] if it weren’t for Usher Syndrome, I never would have learned sign language and tactile sign language, or recognized how fragile life can be…

I don’t think people look at me and say, She’s going deaf and blind. You don’t know what people are going around with.

Q: What advances have been made regarding Usher Syndrome Type III in recent years?

A: Stem cell research is really important, and there was a big step back when stem cell research was put on hold. All different types of conditions could benefit from stem cell research.

Twenty years ago, I was told that in 10 years there would be something to stop it. Ten years ago, I was told that in 10 years there would be something to stop it. Now here we are.

I’m very hopeful. There’s a lot of work in gene therapy—to bypass the retinal cells and go into the ganglion cells. The same way we use a cochlear implant to hear. There’s a lot of promising research. I’m hopeful, but we’re not there yet. [The timing] is hard to know. I try to remain cautiously optimistic.

It was a deliberate decision I made, to become the poster child for Usher Syndrome. The word has to get out there. It doesn’t affect as many people as cancer…it’s an orphan disease.

Type III affects a very limited number of people, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look for a cure. The more awareness people have, the more people can be diagnosed, and the more people can help.

Q: You write, “With two of my senses vastly diminished, I cherish the others…” How have your other senses been affected by your decreasing sight and hearing?

A: Everybody in my life knows I’m a bloodhound. My brother says, I need you to come to the fridge—something’s gone bad, and I need you to sniff out [what it is].

Living in New York City with a strong sense of smell is not the best thing! I can name any perfume someone is wearing. I have a patient who stopped smoking. Five or six months after, I said, You’ve been smoking again! He said, Three days ago, I had a cigarette. I could still smell it. Often, smells are very faint but I still smell it. My sense of touch is very heightened too.

Q: Humor seems like a very important part of your life. How has your sense of humor affected you?

A: Going deaf and blind can be terribly tragic, but insanely funny too. Running head-on into something [isn’t] funny, but I was standing and talking to a column for five minutes before I realized I was talking to a column!

My answer may be totally off –[I’m asked] What salad do you want, and I say, It was so much fun! There’s a lot that’s absurd about it.

Today I thought I had a black camisole under my sweater, and I realized it was a workout top! These are things that happen. You can choose to feel terrible, or just roll your eyes and say, This is life.

My best guy friend, Alan, sometimes when we’re sitting next to each other…he will pull my hearing aid out of my ear and put it next to his mouth and say hello. It’s funny…

Q: How did you decide on the book’s title, and what does it signify for you?

A: I didn’t like the title. It was as if there was a vote on it and I lost! Originally it was going to be "Dancing in the Dark." But some people had concerns it would sound like the Bruce Springsteen song—about him meeting a younger woman and having sex, or something.

My literary agent came up with "Not Fade Away," and my editor thought that was brilliant. It’s also a song.

I didn’t like it because there is the word “Not”—I don’t like a negative word in the title. It’s the idea that I’ve had all these memories, and they won’t fade away even if I can’t see or hear what I could at the time. There are still things I remember vividly…

Q: Are you going to write another book?

A: I’d like to. So much has happened since the book was published. I would like to, in all my free time!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I really think my book’s message to everyone is whatever you’re facing, you’re not alone. We all have something. There is a tremendous sense of loneliness when you go through adversity. It’s important to find community.

Reading about how people came to terms with their situation, I always found things I could relate to. It’s so important to read about others’ experiences and realize we are all in the same boat, trying to do our best.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 30

Jan. 30, 1912: Barbara Tuchman born.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Q&A with Bruce Riedel

Bruce Riedel is the author of the new book JFK's Forgotten Crisis: Tibet, the CIA, and the Sino-Indian War. His other books include What We Won and The Search for Al Qaeda. He is a senior fellow and director of the Brookings Intelligence Project, and spent 30 years working for the CIA. 

Q: Why did you decide to write about the Sino-Indian War of 1962, and why is it a “forgotten crisis”?

A: It’s a forgotten crisis for an understandable reason—in October and November of 1962, Americans’ attention, and the globe’s attention, was focused on Cuba and the Soviet deployment of missiles.

Had that crisis not have been resolved the way it was, it would have meant the end of mankind. The risk of failure in the Cuban Missile Crisis was nuclear Armageddon. It tended to push out everything else.

But for two of the largest countries in the world, China and India, October and November 1962 is remembered for their brief border war, which ended in a humiliating Indian defeat. It would have been worse had Kennedy not intervened.

If you look at the two, you think the Cuban Missile Crisis was John F. Kennedy’s finest hour, but [considering the two crises together] makes the finest hour even more fine. That’s the real message of the book. The guy multitasked…at a level that was extraordinary.

I got into the issue writing a previous book about U.S. relations with India and Pakistan. I came across the 1962 incident and put it in the back of my mind—there was a whole book to be written about this…

Q: You write, “The events of the autumn of 1962 created the balance of power, the alliance structure, and the arms race that still prevail today in Asia.” What are some of the reasons for this legacy?

A: The border dispute between China and India, one of the causes of the 1962 war, has not been resolved. They continue to have the longest disputed border in the world.

It affects their relationship. China and India have been in an arms race since 1962. China has multiple reasons for the buildup, including the United States, but one is India. India also has [multiple reasons] but one is China. [India was] the loser in 1962 and they have been trying to build an effective deterrent since…

India has a second risk calculation, and that is Pakistan…1962 was the beginning of the China-Pakistan axis of today. In the last few years China and Pakistan have moved ever closer. Pakistan is the recipient of Chinese nuclear technology. Today they have an extremely close relationship.

The triangle of India, China, Pakistan was really set in motion in 1962, and has been dominating the geopolitics of [the region] ever since.

Q: In the book, you describe JFK as “the ultimate crisis manager in 1962.” How did his actions during this “forgotten crisis” compare to those he took during the Cuban Missile Crisis?

A: I think the Cuban crisis dominated White House attention, and certainly dominated the press coverage of the White House. What’s interesting is that in dealing with Cuba, Kennedy turned to a collection of aides, his Cabinet and senior former officials to get advice—the ExComm.

The advice was very hawkish, and in the end, he rejected the advice—he did not go for a preemptive strike, but a naval quarantine, and behind the scenes he was offering Khrushchev a way out.

In the China-India, crisis, he relied almost exclusively on his ambassador in India, John Kenneth Galbraith, a personal friend, a person he’d turned to for advice for years. He relied on Galbraith’s advice.

I speculate in the book that I suspect by the end of October, when the Cuban Missile Crisis was fading out, Kennedy came to the conclusion that the wisdom of collective advice was not wisdom, and that he was better off relying on somebody he could trust.

The two decision-making processes reflect a learning curve. If you ask a group of people for advice, you get group-think.

Q: You also describe the impact Jackie Kennedy had on U.S. relations with India. What was her role?

A: The first lady, who was if not the youngest, one of the youngest first ladies, played a very important role in two respects.

First, she was the hostess for state visits by the prime minister of India, Nehru, and the dictator of Pakistan, Ayub Khan. In that role, she was always looking for a way to make state visits more unique and memorable.

For Ayub Khan, she secured the use of Mount Vernon for a state dinner, for the only time in history. It provided an extraordinary venue, and a memorable evening. She had a similar idea for Nehru—he was invited to her family’s home in Newport, Rhode Island, one of the exclusive mansions in the city.

The second way she played a role was in the spring of 1962, she traveled to India and Pakistan. John F. Kennedy never traveled to India and Pakistan as president—he would have, had he lived.

It was the first foreign travel by an American first lady in the age of television, and it was an incredible success. Hundreds of thousands of people turned out to welcome her, and it was televised back in the U.S. It was an important morale-booster for the administration, and an advance in U.S.-India and U.S.-Pakistan relations.

She was an incredibly classy first lady, very attractive, handling herself with great dignity and style, conveying that America was a dynamic, vibrant country—in contrast to the image the communist world wanted to portray, that they were the future.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a book about U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia. It doesn’t have any Jackie Kennedy figure in it. In fact, it has no women in it.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Q&A with Lawrence Hill

Lawrence Hill is the author of the new novel The Illegal. His other books include Someone Knows My Name (also published as The Book of Negroes, the basis for the BET mini-series), Any Known Blood, and Some Great Thing. He has worked as a journalist for The Globe and Mail and The Winnipeg Free Press, and he lives in Hamilton, Ontario, and Woody Point, Newfoundland.

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

A: I came up with it in the 1980s—my late sister Karen lived in West Berlin and she started to integrate herself into the Afro-German community, mostly [people] who had fled violence in Sudan. I was watching how hard it was to exist [as refugees], and that set in motion the image of a stateless person, in a land that doesn’t want them.

Q: Why did you create two fictional countries as the book’s settings?

A: I’ve written 10 books, and this is the first time I’ve invented nations. I wanted them to seem real, but not beholden to the specific geopolitical reality of the States or Canada. I wanted to show a government that was elected on a platform of the deportation of refugees. Sometimes making up a nation is a way to get the reader to suspend disbelief and follow you, [as with] Harry Potter or Alice in Wonderland…

Q: You've noted that the book took five years to write. Did you expect that the issues of immigration and refugees would be such a heated topic at the time of the book’s release?

A: No, of course not, who could? I live in Canada, and we have a belief that foreign affairs never affects the outcome of a national election. In the national election we just had, refugee issues became central to the way Canadians approached the national election. 

I had no way of knowing that, but refugee crises have [been important] since the end of the Second World War. The fact that we were not at a fever pitch didn’t mean the issues weren’t serious, just that we weren’t paying attention.

Q: Why did you choose to make your main character, Keita Ali, a marathon runner?

A: Deciding on the job to give your protagonist is an interesting task for a novelist. Should she be a midwife? Should he be a rat catcher? The pursuit you give your character will say a lot about his character. I could make Keita Ali a nuclear physicist, or a chess player, or a plumber. But metaphorically, he runs for glory in his own country, he runs for freedom in his new country—a marathoner was the best way of [showing] a stateless person without papers. He’s on the run in every way….

It’s a running novel. I wanted the book to feel like a race. A marathon doesn’t usually start too fast. I wanted the reader to feel like [he or she is] stepping into a race.

Q: This book brings back some characters who have appeared in your earlier work. Did you always plan to have the overlap, or was it something that occurred to you just as you were writing this novel?

A: I had a character I’ve always loved, Yoyo Ali. I thought I might create a novel around him. This was the best I could do—it’s about his son. Yoyo makes an appearance in the book; unfortunately he has a sad fate. I guess I have a sense of a few characters I like playing with. I don’t have all the answers at the start.

Q: So do you know how your novels will end? Do you plot them out?

A: Generally I have an idea where the book will end and start. The challenge is to connect them. It doesn’t mean I won’t change my mind about the beginning and the end! But I like to pretend I know.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have three projects that will keep me going. One is the screenplay adaptation of The Illegal. Just like The Book of Negroes was turned into a miniseries, it looks like The Illegal will be too.

I’m also working on a new novel, and I’m halfway through a children’s novel.

Q: Is there anything else we should know about The Illegal?

A: It’s a novel about statelessness, alienation, and grief. Keita is fleeing a most horrible situation. As the novel unfolds, he is in such shock, having fled genocide. He doesn’t have a lot to express. 

It was a challenge to write a character who’s a little numb, to construct a novel that would be dramatic and engaging. I decided to make every secondary character a moon around the planet that is Keita. They want a piece of the protagonist. I created very vivid secondary characters, to push the novel into the level of engaging readers...They have to be very colorful and dramatic because he’s quiet and suffering and numb. It was a way for me to structure the novel.

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

Jan. 28

Jan. 28, 1935: David Lodge born.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Q&A with Thomas E. Simmons

Thomas E. Simmons is the author of the new novel By Accident of Birth. His other books include the works of nonfiction The Man Called Brown Condor and Forgotten Heroes of WWII. A pilot as well as a writer, he lives in Gulfport, Mississippi.

Q: Your website notes that By Accident of Birth is based on a true story. How did you learn about this story, and why did you choose to write it as a novel rather than nonfiction?

A: The only part of the book that is true and the basis of the novel came from two sources.

One was a conversation about the Civil War in the setting of two friends sharing a bottle of bourbon. The doctor friend mentioned that in medical school a conception such as depicted in the book (I don’t want to give that away here in order to leave the reader to discover it) was discussed in one of his medical classes on gynecology. 

Much later while in Vicksburg I picked up at the museum there a copy of an article from the American Medical Weekly, Vol. 1, No. 19 Louisville, Kentucky, November 7, 1874. The article, credited to L. G. Capers, MD, Vicksburg, Mississippi, was entitled, "Attention Gynecologist! Notes from the Diary of a Field and Hospital Surgeon, CSA."

After reading the article I pondered it. Most think the whole article was a joke and don’t take it seriously. However, my take was that the doctor was telling the truth about the conception, which he described in medical detail, but then made a joke of it at the end to keep himself out of trouble. 

That way he was giving science the idea of the possibility of artificial insemination and by making a joke at the end kept himself from being attacked by the very religious populace as was Dr. Frankenstein.   

After all, even in the 21st century there is still much controversy about test-tube babies, the artificial stimulation of multiple births, cloning, abortion etc. At the time of the Civil War it was a given that God made babies through natural conception. 

The doctor in the book treats the conception the same way as Dr. Capers, keeping it secret at the time and confiding to a friend and fellow physician that if he ever writes a paper on it he will end in in a joke to keep himself out of trouble. 

Once I accepted that the 1874 article was telling the medical truth, my imagination mulled what sort of life in those times would a child of such conception have. 

Out of those thoughts came Bethany Quinn and By Accident of Birth. The Quinn name came from my family. My great-great-grandmother was named Nannie Keturah Quinn. I gave one of the characters her name.

Q: How did you research the history you depict in the novel?

A: There was such history, real events, and characters woven in the 50-year span of the novel that I was forced to do just as much or more research as I had done for my three previous nonfiction books covering much shorter time spans. 

As a result, I insisted that my publisher include as an appendix the bibliography of research sources. The reader will find at the back of the book under the Appendix two and a half pages listing the research material. 

I wanted the reader to know that the true events and characters woven into the fabric of the book were factual due to painful in-depth research. If they should want to check any such facts I gave them a roadmap to do so.

Q: As someone who's written fiction and nonfiction, do you have a preference?

A: I do not have a preference between fiction and nonfiction. The guide is what is interesting to me. In nonfiction it is a writer’s duty to give the reader just that, nonfiction. With nonfiction I want to dig deep in research to provide true facts in order to give the reader the real story. 

I do the same for fiction as regards settings, clothing, the times, and any true historic events or characters woven into the story. 

The big difference is that in nonfiction the writer is confined to facts, events as they happened and characters as they really were. In fiction, the writer is free, within the times about which he writes, to let his muse lose to frolic through comedy and tragedy, elation and doom, love and hate...wherever the writer goes or is taken. There is fun in that. 

Q: The sequel to By Accident of Birth is set to be published later this year. Did you plan a two-book series before you started the first novel?

A: I did not plan a two-book series. The sequel was born from my agent…She liked the novel so much she did not want to let go of it. She called and said get busy on the sequel....and it has to be free-standing on its own in case a reader has not read the first book. It was hard to do, but I love the sequel and derived much pleasure from writing it. And yes, it took exhaustive research.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Wouldn’t you know it. I did not plan a trilogy but that evidently does not matter. Now I find I am tasked with finishing the sequence as a trilogy. An even harder task but I have gotten over the hardest part…starting it. Ahead is the surviving Quinns entangled in  the Roaring Twenties, the Depression, Prohibition and the cusp of WWII.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Yes. My wife, patient woman that she is, takes better care of me than they would in the great asylum where all writers should be interred. Writers write because they are driven to do so and thus are gluttons for punishment. Jack London said before he sold his first story the stack of rejection slips he had received was as tall as he was. 

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

Jan. 27

Jan. 27, 1931: Mordecai Richler born.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Q&A with Stephanie Steinberg

Stephanie Steinberg is the editor of the new book In the Name of Editorial Freedom: 125 Years at The Michigan Daily. Her other book is Michigan Football. She is the assistant editor of U.S. News & World Report's health and money sections, and her work has appeared in a variety of other publications, including The New York Times and The Boston Globe. She was editor-in-chief of The Michigan Daily in 2011.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for this book?
A: In the summer of 2013, a friend from Michigan was visiting Washington, D.C. We were talking over brunch, and he told me he was reading Those Guys Have All the Fun, which shares behind-the-scenes stories at ESPN, told by the journalists who worked there.
It got me thinking that Michigan Daily alumni also have rich, interesting stories to tell. The 125th anniversary was also coming up in two years, and I thought something should be done to commemorate the paper and the journalists whose careers started there.
So I sent an email to an editor at the University of Michigan Press with my pitch for the book. He liked it, and three years later, it’s now on bookshelves.
Q: How were the contributors selected?
A: There’s over 6,000 students who worked for the Daily since 1890. Not all are still alive, of course, but I knew it wasn’t going to be easy to narrow it down. (And I did have a word count restriction.) So I decided to limit it to alumni who continued to pursue journalism as a career after leaving the Daily.
I then made a list of successful and recognizable alumni such Adam Schefter, an ESPN Insider; Michael Rosenberg, a sportswriter at Sports Illustrated; and Jeremy Peters, a politics reporter at The New York Times.
Just in the last five years, there’s been a lot of alumni who’ve launched impressive careers straight after the Daily. These rising journalism stars include sportswriters Nicole Auerbach at USA Today, Chantel Jennings at ESPN and Tim Rohan at The New York Times.
In some cases, I chose contributors based on the story they had to tell. For example, GQ editor Geoffrey Gagnon was the Daily’s editor-in-chief in 2001, and I wanted to include a story that revealed what happened in the newsroom on 9/11.
There’s another infamous story about the Daily starting the rumor that Paul McCartney had died in 1969. So I asked Columbia Journalism School Professor Leslie Wayne, the Daily’s managing arts editor at that time, to explain how that story came to light and why it went viral.
Q: What did your work on The Michigan Daily mean for you, and what impact has it had on your career?
A: Today I’m an assistant health and money editor at U.S. News & World Report in Washington, D.C.
I honestly learned everything I need to know for my job now from my time at the Daily and the year I spent as editor-in-chief in charge of 170 college students. After working 80+ hours a week and staying up to produce the paper until 3 or 4 a.m. Sunday through Thursday, you’re prepared take on any journalism job after that.
While it was stressful and made me question the sanity of college students at times, it was honestly the best job I think I’ll ever have. Mostly that was because of the people I worked with. Michael Rosenberg, who was an editor-in-chief in 1996, wrote this in his story for the book, and it really resonated with me:
“I did not have to spend as much time at the Daily as I did, but I learned one of the most valuable lessons in life, and it’s not a journalism lesson: If you love what you do, it won’t feel like work, and you will never feel overworked. It helps if you love the people who do it alongside you.”
The editors I worked with remain some of my best friends to this day, and I owe the Daily for those friendships.
Q: Do you see common themes running through these essays?
A: Former Washington Post publisher Phillip Graham once said, “Journalism is the first rough draft of history.” I think the book provides a look at the first draft of history – from the perspective of college students.
For example, Sara Fitzgerald was the editor-in-chief the night the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade and Lyndon B. Johnson died of a heart attack in 1973. In her essay, Sara describes the feud in the newsroom over which story should run lede.
As you can imagine, that was a battle of the sexes. The LBJ headline ultimately won, but the story shows how the country’s views were changing.
Since the book starts with the March on Selma in 1965, and goes through Vietnam War protests, presidential elections and the present day, you can see the shift in the country’s values as you read through each reporter’s “first rough draft.”
Q: What do you see looking ahead for the journalism profession?
A: That’s a really tough question, since this industry is impossible to predict. I do think there will always be a need for newspapers to report the news, keep communities informed and act as a check on government officials.
There just might not be as many newspapers printing those stories off a printing press. In fact, there are now more college papers than there are daily print papers in the U.S. The Daily is one example of this trend: It became the only daily print newspaper in Washtenaw County after the Ann Arbor News shut down in 2009.
But in an ironic way, the Web has kept the profession afloat. Since I’ve graduated, it’s been encouraging to see how many journalism positions have opened up to fill Web production needs, from writing and editing to social media.
My job itself only exists because U.S. News & World Report stopped printing the magazine in 2010 and turned into a digital publication.
In the future, I think we’re going to see more online-only publications enter the media landscape. It’s been interesting to watch how The Huffington Post, Buzzfeed and Vox have become real competitors with some of the nation’s legacy newspapers such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.
But the competition is a good thing – it helps keep us journalists on our toes and striving to produce better work.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Right now, I’m working on presentations for my West Coast book tour stops in February. Once the tour is over, I’ll be ready to take on a new project, but I’ve told myself no more Michigan Daily-related books. (I published one in college on Michigan football, compiling photos and articles from the Daily archives, so this was technically my second Daily book.)
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: What many people find surprising is that the University of Michigan has no journalism school. The journalism department shut down in 1979, so the students at the Daily really teach each other everything they need to know, from how to write a new story to how to take photos.
Some come to the Daily with high school journalism training, but for the most part, students come through the doors wanting to try journalism.
In the case of Shannon Pettypiece, a reporter for Bloomberg, she just wanted to make friends. Adam Schefter joined the Daily because a fraternity on campus didn’t have an open spot, and “Michigan’s football office didn’t need another student intern to pick up dirty jock straps,” as he wrote. “The Michigan Daily turned away no one. It welcomed all.”
Still, others join the Daily because they know they want to become journalists, which was the case for me.
No matter the reason you join, you get hooked. Best of all, you discover that editorial freedom means you have the power to change the world with your words. 
--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 26

Jan. 26, 1905: Maria von Trapp born.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Q&A with Marilyn Hilton

Marilyn Hilton is the author of the new middle-grade novel Full Cicada Moon. Her other books for young people include the novel Found Things. She has worked as a technical writer and editor, and she is based in California.
Q: In the acknowledgments in Full Cicada Moon, you write, “I wrote [main character] Mimi’s story in wonder and terror and awe, not knowing if I could or should write it.” Why did you decide to write it, and why did you question whether you could or should write it?
A: I wanted to write a story about a girl whose mother was Japanese and whose father was African American, like my husband—a story that our children and children like them could see themselves starring in.
But, being of English and Scots descent, at first I felt that I wasn’t the right person to write this book. I had family stories, memories of growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s in New England, the experience of studying in Kyoto the year after graduating from college with a Japanese major, and a love for history and research.
Then the story didn’t give up on wanting to be told. Soon I was possessed by Mimi, the 12-year-old protagonist, and her family, the town they lived in, and the people they met there. So I began writing Full Cicada Moon despite my fears, approaching the story as thoughtfully and respectfully as possible, and I loved every moment of it.
Q: Why did you choose 1969 as the year in which to set the story?
A: From the start, I wanted to isolate Mimi in place and time so that it was highly likely no one in her new town would have met anyone like her before. And because the 1960s was such a turbulent decade in U.S. history, and because Mimi was a strong, determined character who would effect change in her sphere, it felt right to place her at the end of that decade.
Also, because she dreamed of being an astronaut, there was no better year than 1969, when the first humans walked on the moon.
Mimi deals not only with racism but also with sexism. She’s a girl who’s interested in science, doesn’t understand why she’s limited to learning how to cook and sew, and is fascinated by astronomy and space travel.
I asked my daughters recently if they knew of any career they could not do because they are female, and they looked at me like I was from another planet. But Mimi lived when girls were still being guided into traditionally female careers, if not homemaking.
Today these important careers are options among many that women can choose from, but in 1969 they were practically a woman’s only acceptable options. Because of people like Mimi, who fought for gender equality many years ago, my daughters (and my son) aren’t limited by their gender when choosing a career today.
Q: The book is written in free verse poetry. What impact do you think your decision to write in poetry has on the young people who read the book?
A: That the book is written in free verse poetry partly reflects the velocity at which the story came to me. I had written a lot of poetry in graduate school and beyond, so because I was writing this story quickly, the words flowed naturally in the free verse form. I was open to writing it in prose, but by about a quarter of the way through the first draft I decided to keep it in free verse. The intimacy of that form allowed me to tell Mimi’s story deeply from her perspective.
Readers, young and older alike, may be put off by reading a book written in poetry. But I hope they’ll try anyway, because they may realize it’s a great way to absorb a story. I also hope they will try writing their own story in poetry.
Q: How did you pick the book’s title, and what does it signify for you?
A: I always work for a long time to find a title that will summarize the book’s theme or offer a clue to its content.
For Full Cicada Moon, I wanted to bring together Mimi’s love of astronomy and space travel, the names of each month’s full moon, the passing of time and the seasons, and Mimi herself—her quest to discover who she is, that she was named after the song of the cicada, that a periodical cicada emerges in its fullness after several years’ gestation underground, and that Mimi’s thirteenth is the year she comes into her fullness. So, after filling several pages with title ideas, Full Cicada Moon felt perfect to me.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on another middle-grade novel and a novel for women. And I’ve been writing more poetry. There are never enough hours in the day!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I was very pleased to learn that Full Cicada Moon received the Asian/Pacific American Literature Award in the children’s literature category for 2016, and to know that readers have connected with the character of Mimi.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 25

Jan. 25, 1874: W. Somerset Maugham born.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Q&A with Ruchama King Feuerman

Ruchama King Feuerman is the author of the new children's book The Mountain Jews and the Mirror. Her other work includes the novels In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist and Seven Blessings, both for adults. She lived in Israel for 10 years, and now lives in Passaic, New Jersey.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Mountain Jews and the Mirror?

A: I first heard the kernel of the tale from a fellow writer, Ira Berkowitz, and saw its potential as a children’s story. I was particularly excited because I’m always on the lookout for stories from Morocco – my mother hails from Casablanca.    

I suggested to Ira to make it into a story, but he wasn’t interested and gave me a free hand to do with it what I liked. So I tweaked and adapted it to the point that I no longer recall the original nugget.

The truth is, stories are flitting past us all the time. If we could just press the Halt or Pause button, we might see them. I can’t help wondering how many stories I miss on a daily basis.

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

A: Sometimes you need a mirror to know how beautiful or wise or special you are. 

Q: What age group do you think would enjoy the book most?

A: I think the age group is three to seven.

Q: As someone who's written for children and adults, do you have a preference?

A: To be honest, I don’t know yet. Ask me in a few years after I’ve really immersed myself in writing for children. 

Still, I remember reading books as a child, and after each one I’d hold it close like a stuffed toy and think, this is the best book I’d ever read. I loved it with a passion and intensity I don’t find I have today when I read.

Maybe that’s because I wasn’t yet crammed full of experiences. Less clutter. So a book had a chance to have an effect, leave a real impression, maybe even save a kid from a crummy childhood.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on short stories for adults, and a children’s folktale about the most obnoxious beggar in the whole shtetl. I particularly like how almost all the characters in it – the beggars and the holy seer – are women.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Ruchama King Feuerman, please click here.

Jan. 24

Jan. 24, 1862: Edith Wharton born.