Monday, August 21, 2017

Q&A with Melissa Scholes Young


Melissa Scholes Young is the author of the new novel Flood. It takes place in Hannibal, Missouri, the childhood home of both Young and Mark Twain. Young's work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Atlantic and The Washington Post, and she teaches college writing and creative writing at American University in Washington, D.C. She lives in Maryland.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Flood, and for interspersing historical information about Mark Twain into the story?

A: Flood began as the story of Rose and Laura’s friendship. I wanted to write a female version of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. These are friendships with so much history you can’t quit them, even as you covet what the other has. Laura and Rose have known each other their whole lives and they’ve stayed deeply connected even with distance and differences.

At the same time, I was researching the history of the Mississippi River and its running backwards in 1812 because of a series of earthquakes along the New Madrid Fault.

Growing up in Hannibal you hear stories about it, but the facts of how the river determines our daily life, as it did for Mark Twain growing up there, are fascinating. Once I realized the parallels between Twain’s story and Laura Brooks, I intentionally wove them together.

I needed another character, Laura’s high school English teacher, Ms. B, to teach the history as a book within a book for the local Tom and Becky pageant contestants. I wanted Ms. B to be an outsider shining a light on the literature for the insiders. When you grow up in a place like Hannibal, you may not realize that the history all around us is magical and mythological.

Q: Laura returns to her home town, Hannibal, after a decade away. What do you think the book says about coming home again?

A: It’s just as tough to leave as it is to return. For Laura, Hannibal holds secrets that she doesn’t want to face. Coming home again forces her to reconcile the stories she’s been telling herself about why she left with truth.

I think, like Laura, we all want a soft place to land, but sometimes home isn’t so safe. It’s not that home has changed; it’s that you have. You’re forced to consider home through your new perspective and see it more clearly for all that it offers and limits.

Q: Why did you decide to set the action of the story in 2003?

A: The flood in 1993 was a 500-year crest. It was devastating for Hannibal and all Mississippi River communities. I wanted a decade to have passed for Laura Brooks to grow and to reflect on why the river both gives life and threatens to take it away.

Q: Besides geography, what connects Laura with Mark Twain’s characters?

A: I think they’re both a bit unsatisfied. They ask questions and push back against the way things have always been done. I doubt either of them will ever feel completely comfortable wherever they roam.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My new novel is called Bug Girl. It’s the story of succession in a family pest control business. There are four daughters and a matriarch, so really it’s Little Women with bugs.

I also continue to write essays about first-generation college experiences. And I’m editing a volume of fiction by D.C. women, Grace in Darkness. It’s the eighth volume in the Grace & Gravity series founded by Richard Peabody.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice.” I’ve learned a lot from leaving, coming home, and finding new places. D.C. is an amazing place to be a writer. The literary community is rich and generous. Our independent bookstores are lovely. I’m grateful to have roots in Hannibal and a foundation in D.C. from which to grow. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 21

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Aug. 21, 1943: Jonathan Schell born.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Q&A with Terry Newman


Terry Newman, photo by Pippa Healey
Terry Newman is the author of the new book Legendary Authors and the Clothes They Wore. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Guardian and The Independent. She has worked in the fashion industry for many years, and she lectures at the University for the Creative Arts in Epson, England. She lives in London.
Q: How did you pick the 50 authors you included in the book, and the order in which they appear?
A: Of course there are authors who are well known for their style and to a large extent I wouldn’t have done this book without, say for example, the Fitzgeralds, Oscar Wilde, or Joan Didion. 
However, to begin with I sat down and made a list of my favourites and tested a theory that perhaps there was something to say about all of them clothes-wise….and for me there was.  This is a book that isn’t completely exhaustive: that would have been impossible, but I hope there is a breadth of legends in there to intrigue. 
The book runs and flows organically: I started off with Beckett as for a lot of folk he probably is the most curious author to address on this subject, but as I delved in there was so much to say about him. From the Wallabies and Gucci bags he wore to his amazing quiffed hair. 
I wanted the book to have a pace and flow and I worked hard on trying to juxtapose and connect authors as I went along so that it’s a fab read from start to finish…!!
Q: Joan Didion is featured on the cover. Why was she selected for the cover, and what do her clothes say about her and about her writing?
A: Joan Didion is an icon in the fashion industry and the cover image by Julian Wasser is timeless. There is a message in my book that finding a style and being yourself is important. 
The quote I found from Maya Angelou sums this up: “Seek the fashion which truly fits and befits you. You will always in be in fashion if you are true to yourself, and only if you are true to yourself.”
Didion’s effortless and amazing style stems from her being herself and the shot I used has a simplicity and elegance to it that is perfect.  The photo was an obvious choice for me and the first one that came to mind when I started the book. Luckily Julian was keen and let me use it. 
Didion uses clothes a lot in her writing – as a way into a subject. For example, when she wrote about the Manson murders in The White Album she uses Linda Kasabian and the story of buying her a dress to go to court as a foil for the horror of what she is talking about.
Q: Can you say more about Samuel Beckett and your sense of his style?
A: Beckett is a template for the modern, stylish man, I think! He has a classic elegance that is cool and timeless: a male Didion. He worked a seductive utility-wear look that is unfussy and testimony to the enduring appeal of a capsule wardrobe of essentials. Now I’m sounding like a glossy magazine, but for me he is the perfect GQ man.
Q: You end the book with Tom Wolfe. Why did you make that choice, and how do his clothes connect with his writing?
A: Tom Wolfe is smart, sassy, and detailed in his writing. He makes a loud statement in his work about his characters and the clothes they wear. He pays particular attention to this in the narrative of all his books and essays.  
In the same way, he is a meticulous dresser himself and is famed for his white-suits. I say in my book that dressing in white is a serene and unflappable wardrobe choice, and to a large extent Wolfe has spent his life sitting on the edge watching others get embroiled in life and writing about it. He is a mighty author to finish the book with, I think!
Q: What are you working on now?
A: More books about the stories clothes tell. I’ll keep you posted!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: The book is available to buy now….!!  
--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 20

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Aug. 20, 1932: Vasily Aksyonov born.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Q&A with Fiona Davis


Fiona Davis, photo by Kristen Jensen
Fiona Davis is the author of the new novel The Address. She also has written the novel The Dollhouse. She has worked as an actress, editor, and writer, and she lives in New York.

Q: Your last novel focused on the Barbizon Hotel, and this novel focuses on the Dakota apartment building in New York. What made you choose the Dakota this time, and do you see any similarities in the role these buildings played in the history of the city?

A: I chose the Dakota as the Barbizon book was in the pipeline for publication. I was looking around, and nothing was clicking. One day I came up from the subway, and it was glowing, as if it was saying, “Pick me!” [But] with John Lennon, [who lived at the Dakota and was killed outside the building in 1980,] there’s a lot as an author that you don’t want to get into.

Both buildings have changed over time, and both were places of refuge. The Barbizon Hotel was a place young women went to stay as they pursued their careers, and the Dakota was a place for the merchant class to live for upward mobility but they couldn’t get it.

The elite only lived in brownstones, and were not interested in living communally. It was people who were willing to take a risk in an apartment, and the Upper West Side was the Wild West of New York City at that time.

Q: The Address features two main characters, Sara, in 1885, who manages the Dakota, and Bailey, who lives in the building 100 years later. How did you come up with these two women and the idea of setting them a century apart?

A: I knew I wanted to set it in the 1880s. It was when [the Dakota] opened. In the 1930s, there was a lady managerette, and I thought why don’t I put her into 1884. It was inspired by true history. 1985 was good because it was a Gilded Age of its own, and it was five years after John Lennon’s death so I could have a little distance. It was right around when I came to New York, and I remember how dangerous Amsterdam Avenue was.

Q: How did you research the book?

A: I read lots of books on the Dakota. I was able to get a tour of the building, from the basements to the servants’ floor. It’s an unusual building—the hallways are very narrow and the ceilings are very high. It’s eccentric. It becomes another character.

Q: Was your research mostly on the 1880s?

A: Yes, I had to do a lot of research about the Gilded Age for the 1880s section, but for the 1980s section it was a little easier, as that was right around when I came to New York City.

Q: The journalist Nellie Bly turns up as a character in the novel. What did you see as the right blend of fiction and history as you wrote the book?

A: I feel like history is the framework of the story and fiction is a way to bring it to life. With Nellie Bly, I knew I wanted to write about the [Blackwell’s Island] asylum—it was such a contrast from the luxury of the Dakota.

Having her show up was so much fun! There are books written about her, and I didn’t want to make her a main character, but I love books where you see events from a minor character’s point of view.

Q: Was the case you write about in the book based on anything real?

A: No, the owner of the Dakota died two years before the building was finished—of natural causes! I had the characters and created an interesting environment for them to exist in. I love mystery novels—I love having something like that in every book I write.

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

A: Geraldine Brooks, Jo Baker, Jane Smiley, Ann Patchett. Tom Perrotta—his writing is so fascinating for me.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A draft of a book set in Grand Central Terminal. I’ve discovered amazing things about it that are surprising. It’s fun to see if I can pull it off!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Fiona Davis. 

Aug. 19

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Aug. 19, 1930: Frank McCourt born.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Q&A with Sarah Shoemaker


Sarah Shoemaker is the author of the new novel Mr. Rochester, which recounts the story of Jane Eyre from Rochester's point of view. A former university librarian, Shoemaker lives in northern Michigan.

Q: How did you come up with the idea of telling the story of Jane Eyre from Mr. Rochester's perspective?

A: My book group was discussing Jane Eyre, and eventually got around to talking about the Mr. Rochester character, the sometimes dark and angry, and sometimes pleasant or even playful man with whom Jane falls in love.

Who is this guy? we wondered. How are we supposed to understand him? What did Charlotte Bronte intend us to think about him?

One of us said, “People occasionally make mistakes in love; maybe Jane did that.” Another responded, “Not Jane. She’s too intelligent, too independent to fall in love with someone she couldn’t respect.” There must be something about him that we are not seeing, someone said.

I began thinking that it was too bad that no one had written a book about Rochester, so that we could better understand where he was coming from. And then I thought, I ought to write that book. I ought to write Rochester’s backstory. By the time I returned home that day, I had challenged myself to write Rochester’s story.

It was much later, only a month before Mr. Rochester’s publication, that I ran across a quote from Toni Morrison: “If there is a book that you really want to read but no one has written it yet, then you must write it.”

Q: What did you see as the right balance between Charlotte Bronte's original story and your own inventions?

A: My intent was to write Rochester’s full story, from his earliest memories to the approximate time that Jane Eyre ends. Since Rochester is nearly 20 years older than Jane, that means that the story of his life before Jane takes more space in the book than his life with Jane does.

I used everything I could find about him that Bronte tells us in Jane Eyre (which is more than a casual reader might think) and then filled in with my own inventions.

My intention, of course, was to show the development of his character. I wanted it to be his story, and so I wasn’t thinking so much of a balance as I was in exploring his character and the events of his life that shaped it, in order to help the reader (and myself) understand him more fully.

Q: Did you need to do any research to write the novel?

A: Lots. Lots and lots. I began by re-reading Jane Eyre, underlining, writing in the margins and using color-coded Post-Its to mark things I thought I might want to go back to.

Then I read another Bronte novel, Shirley, from which I took the idea of Luddites attacking a mill. I went on from there to other contemporary novels, looking for language, rhythms, terms, descriptions, expressions, trying to immerse myself in early 19th century England.

From there I read a multitude of books, papers, journal articles about subjects and issues with which I needed to acquaint myself. All in all, I read all or parts of 60 books, plus several journal and internet articles.

Q: What accounts for the ongoing fascination with Jane Eyre, and has the book always been a favorite of yours?

A: I think that the mystery of Mr. Rochester himself has a lot to do with the ongoing fascination with Jane Eyre---there is so much to wonder about him.

And then, Jane herself is a very fascinating character: she is intelligent, independent, with a strong moral compass. Why does she fall in love with him? These two together are a pair about whom readers have wondered for years and years, because Bronte has left us so much to wonder about.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m still quite tied up in events and writings having to do with Mr. Rochester. I do have an idea, but I don’t think I’m ready to talk about it yet.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I thought that much of the difficulty between Jane and Mr. Rochester lay in their very different social positions. Of course we know those differences existed, but readers of Jane Eyre often fail to fully realize the difficulties that those differences present to the two of them.

He cannot be seen to be romancing her, for it would appear to be a case of the master of the house taking advantage of an underling. She cannot be forward in her feelings for him, as it could so easily be misunderstood---and she is too proud to shame herself in that way.

Much of his energy (in my thinking) is spent on trying to get her past that reticence to finally in some way declare herself (which he thinks must come first), and he almost doesn’t succeed. Those scenes, as Charlotte Bronte wrote them, are marvels.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 18

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Aug. 18, 1944: Paula Danziger born.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Q&A with Claire Douglas


Claire Douglas is the author of the new psychological thriller Local Girl Missing. She also has written the novel The Sisters, and she has worked in journalism for 15 years. She lives in Bath, England.
 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Local Girl Missing, and for your characters Frankie and Sophie?

A: When I was about 21 (in the mid-1990s) a girl from my street went missing after walking home from our local nightclub. It was a huge thing in our town - the police even came and interviewed me and the friends I was with that night as we would have arrived home around the time she went missing.

A few months later, in a different town not too far away, another young girl was murdered after leaving a club. Both these incidences really affected me and my friend and we promised each other that we would always make sure to leave a club together.

But it got me thinking about how I would have felt if it had been my friend who had gone missing. How would it have affected me all these years later? Would the guilt eat me up? Would I be desperate to know what had happened to her? The idea stemmed from there and the characters grew out of the story.

Q: The story takes place in a seaside town. How important is setting to you in your writing, and why did you choose this type of setting for the novel?

A: I wanted to set the novel in a small town - the sort of place where everybody knows everybody else and you yearn to escape. The sort of place I grew up in.

I loved the idea of a seaside town because, out of season, I find them very atmospheric, almost creepy, particularly in contrast to how they are in the summer when they are full of tourists holidaying and having fun.

I’ve always enjoyed reading novels with a strong sense of place and I wanted to create the same in my own stories. Oldcliffe-on-Sea is based on Weston-Super-Mare, a seaside town near where I grew up and where we used to visit often.

It also has an old, run down pier that sparked my imagination as soon as I saw it again. I just knew that this pier had to feature in the book and be the place where Sophie disappeared.

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

A: I don’t like to plan too much, but I can’t start a novel until I have worked out a) who the culprit is, b) how it’s going to end and c) what the main twist will be. I let the smaller twists, turns and sub-plots come to me as I write.

Saying that, I did make a last minute change to Local Girl Missing right at the end - the epilogue was initially from a different character’s point of view. I don’t want to say anymore just in case I give the ending away!

Q: The story includes the perspectives of both main characters. Did you switch back and forth between them as you wrote, or did you write one character's scenes first?

A: I really enjoy writing in two perspectives, as it gives me the chance to explore different voices. I wrote each character’s section in order, mainly because I find it really difficult to write a story out of synch so I switched back and forth as the novel progressed.

But in the editing stages I made sure to read through each character’s chapters separately to refine each voice and make them sound different.

One of the ways I tried to distinguish the two voices was to have the Frankie chapters in the second person and Sophie’s chapters as diary entries - I wanted them to feel young and chatty. I always kept a diary when I was Sophie’s age and I enjoyed reading mine back to remind myself of the songs, the styes and the phrases I used around that time.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Last Seen Alive - my new psychological thriller - has just come out in the UK. It’s about a married couple who decide to do a house swap but they soon realise they’ve made a mistake when they find something very disturbing.

I’m currently writing my fourth novel which is about a family that relocate to the Brecon Beacons in Wales to set up a guest house, but it all goes wrong when one of the guests is found murdered.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I live in Bath with my husband and two children. I write from my kitchen table on a laptop and I drink too much tea!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Daniel McGinn


Daniel McGinn is the author of the new book Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed. He is a senior editor at Harvard Business Review, and his work has appeared in publications including Newsweek and Wired. He lives in the Boston area.

Q: How did you first come up with the idea for this book?

A: The idea came from three different places. First, I played high school sports—football and basketball. I wasn’t very good at either sport, but I became fascinated by the things the players and coaches would do—the rituals, the music, the efforts to amp up rivalry--to psych us up before games.

Second, after I got into the workforce I would occasionally meet former athletes who were now using some of these same psych-up techniques before they litigated, or negotiated, or gave a big presentation, so I became interested in how these techniques could carry over.

Third, I started working at Harvard Business Review, and I began seeing academic research looking at how techniques like priming or rituals could help people in professional settings (like before job interviews).

So I decided to do a book looking at the science of what actually works to get people get psyched up, and how non-athletes can use this to prepare for make-or-break moments in their careers.

Q: You focus on people in a variety of fields. Can the strategies you discuss in the book be applied across the board, no matter what you're psyching yourself up to do?

A: In the book I argue that many professionals today are working in jobs where specific events—a big presentation, a sales call, a pitch meeting, even an important conversation with a boss—have more bearing on their success.

Certainly there are jobs where every day is the same, and there’s no particular need to bring your A game for some high-stakes event. But I argue more of us are in project-oriented jobs, which frequently have these moments of high stress.

In terms of the strategies, there are a wide variety of techniques in the book. Not all of them will work for everyone.

For instance, some people are really good at using anger or a focus on a rival to psych up; for others (including me), this doesn’t work well. Music will work better for some people than others. The trick is to find the tools or routine that work well for you.

Q: What have you personally learned from working on the book?

A: I’m much more aware of what I do to get ready for important moments at work. I focus on three things: Finding ways to increase my confidence, reduce my anxiety, and manage my energy level.

Not all of these “performance” moments are dramatic or public. For instance, before I sit down to write a challenging article, I will do a few things to increase my confidence, such as looking back at my Greatest Hits—an article I wrote years ago that I consider one of my best.

I even rely on a lucky object—a computer keyboard that was previously used by Malcolm Gladwell. I don’t use it every day, but I used this keyboard while writing the book, and I still pull it out when I’m on deadline with an assignment that’s particularly high-stakes or stressful.

These are small things, and no one watching me can tell I’m doing them. But I think they give me an incremental edge.

Q: Can you say more about the top three things you'd advise someone to do who needed to prepare themselves for a challenge?

A: Find a routine that does three things: boosts your confidence, reduces your anxiety, and helps you find the right energy level.

There are specific techniques you can use to do each of these things. It might involve breathing exercises, or visualization, or it might even mean trying beta blockers, a type of drug that reduces the body’s reaction to adrenaline. Too many people stand around being nervous without a plan for the last few moments before they perform.

If you have a routine and a plan, you’re increasing your odds of doing well.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m busy promoting the book (so many podcasts, which are great), and doing my daily work as an editor at Harvard Business Review.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I conceived of Psyched Up as a book for professional people in traditional careers, but it’s also finding an audience in elite coaching circles. Since it came out, I’ve been contacted by executives or coaches from the NFL, the NBA, and top college basketball programs.

These people are discovering the book on their own, through word of mouth, and several have been enthusiastically tweeting about it. I hadn’t expected this, but it’s been gratifying.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 17

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Aug. 17, 1930: Ted Hughes born.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Q&A with Chiara Barzini


Chiara Barzini is the author of the new novel Things That Happened Before the Earthquake, which focuses on an Italian teenager who moves to Los Angeles in the 1990s. She also has written the short fiction collection Sister Stop Breathing. She lives outside Rome.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Things That Happened Before the Earthquake, and for your main character, Eugenia?

A: I moved to the San Fernando Valley with my Italian family when I was 15. It was 1994 and the city was still recovering from the recent earthquake. The Rodney King riots had happened only two years earlier, and the whole city was still very much in that post-violence vibration.

It was a time of rebuilding–– spiritually, geographically, and architecturally. The city had in some sense collapsed in the course of two years, so it was an intense historical moment and a very formative one.

I always wanted to write about those early ‘90s years in L.A., so I did. The novel is fictional, but very much based on what was happening around me during that time. I anticipated the events two years earlier in the book, but even though I landed in L.A. in 1994, all people talked about was riots and earthquakes.

Q: Why did you decide to write the book using a first-person narrator?

A: I am a great fan of the first-person narrator. I like the idea of a voice that is reliable, but not necessarily trustworthy.

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to recreate Los Angeles in the early-to-mid 1990s?

A: I live in Rome and I had just had my first baby when I started working on the novel so I couldn't travel much. My partner was quite amazing and supported me when I went on a couple of research trips to L.A.

I also relied on David Ulin's anthology Writing Los Angeles. It is the most comprehensive and vibrant collection of writing about the city. Having it by my bedside table made it so I could always feel like I had a foot in the Pacific Ocean.

I discovered an incredible writer in the anthology named Lynell George. She had a heartbreaking story called "City of Specters." It held the exact mood of those early ‘90s shape-shifting times.

She captured a city of ghosts and miracles and violence and misery, but also of hope and powerful, redeeming nature. "In junior high we went to more funerals than weddings." I think that really sums it up.

Q: The middle of the book includes a section where Eugenia returns to Italy. Why did you decide to include that rather than focus it entirely on her time in Los Angeles?

A: I wanted to show that once you migrate your country, whoever you are, you are doomed to feel displaced in the world. Eugenia spends her first year in L.A. romanticizing Rome and thinking about the day when she'll finally go back to Italy, but when she returns she is able to see that her home country is an equally violent and alienating place.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am starting research on my next novel. It's still going to be set in Los Angeles and I'll still be writing about artists and expats, except it's set in the ‘30s.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I will be doing reading and book presentations in August, both in California and on the East Coast. Check my website for updates!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Elaine M. Hayes


Elaine M. Hayes is the author of the new biography Queen of Bebop: The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan. She was editor of the magazine Earshot Jazz and has contributed to Seattle magazine, and has taught classes on jazz, classical, and world music. She lives in Seattle.

Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of Sarah Vaughan, and how many "musical lives" did she have?

A: I didn’t discover Sarah Vaughan until college, and I was immediately drawn to her singing. I loved the way her voice sounded, the musical choices she made, and the sheer presence she exuded when she sang.

A couple of years later, I had an opportunity to study her in graduate school. This is when I learned more about the woman behind the music.

I was fascinated with how she, often the only woman in the band, immersed herself in the very masculine world of jazz. How she always stood up for herself and her musical choices. She insisted on singing the way she wanted, regardless of what others expected.

And I admired her lifelong mission to defy categorization, even when the world around her wanted to label and pigeonhole her. I found this all incredibly powerful and moving.

But after finishing my degree, I left Sarah behind. I went off and lived my life and pursed other projects. I always assumed that someone else would write the biography Sarah Vaughan deserved. (There were already two attempts, but both seemed incomplete.) This never happened, so a few years ago, I decided to do it myself.

Sarah Vaughan had many musical lives. She really could do it all. As a child, she sang spirituals in her church choir and played classical piano. In her teens, as a girl singer in the big bands, she was as at the forefront of bebop, the new avant-garde style that defined the direction of modern jazz.

She also sang exquisite romantic ballads and delightful showtunes. She recorded cheesy pop hits in the 1950s and later made forays into R&B, rockabilly, rock n’ roll, and disco, though she hated these. In the 1970s and 1980s, she became a master of Brazilian music and an operatic diva performing with the word’s finest symphony orchestras. She even did an album where she sang the poetry of a young Pope John Paul II.

She was always exploring, stretching, and trying new things. At her core, she was a singer and creative being.

Queen of Bebop is organized around three phases, or crossover moments, in Sarah’s career: her journey from church girl in Newark to big band girl singer; her transition from bebop innovator to pop star; and finally her transition from jazz icon to symphonic diva.

Q: How did you research the book, and was there anything that especially surprised you in the course of your research?

A: I love immersing myself in the past and sifting through old newspapers, magazines, and recordings. It’s like a treasure hunt and you never know what gems you are going to find.

So I visited a lot of archives and took full advantage of all of the new databases of digitized periodicals that have popped up in the past 10 years. I looked at publications by both the black and white press—be it newspapers from the big cities and tiny towns where Vaughan toured; trade journals like Variety, Billboard, Metronome, and Down Beat; or lifestyle magazines like Life and Ebony.

I then supplemented this wtih my own interviews of her friends and co-workers, oral histories, tapes of old radio shows, press releases, re-discovered videos of her live performances, private tapes of her rehearsals and chats with friends, and, of course, the writings of other historians. In the end, a rich, very dynamic and vibrant portrait of Sarah Vaughan emerged.

There were many surprises. Some came in the form of wonderful anecdotes about Sarah rubbing shoulders with her fellow giants of the day. (I’m not going to spill the beans on these here!)

Others were disheartening. I uncovered new stories about the racism she faced and the true extent of the domestic abuse she experienced. The abuse, in particular, was very difficult for me to write about.

For me, however, the most pleasant surprise was re-discovering Sarah’s own voice. When I first began studying her almost 20 years ago, I couldn’t find that many interviews with her and biographies really didn’t include many of her own words. There seemed to be a void.

Sarah was a quiet, introverted woman, and the interviews that she did give were often curt, abrupt, and adversarial. So I assumed that she simply didn’t give that many interviews.

This was not the case. Thanks to these new, remarkable databases of digital newspapers, I discovered that Sarah, in fact, did many interviews. (She still didn’t enjoy them, but she gave them.)

And here I found more examples of her humor and wit, musings on society and the music industry, and her place in it. She was remarkably consistent in her worldviews. Whenever possible, I’ve re-inserted Sarah’s voice into her life story.

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

A: One of the most enduring myths about Sarah is that she was the creation of her first husband-manager. He’s often described as a Pygmalion or Svengali-like figure who masterminded a dramatic, glamorizing makeover that jumpstarted her career.

Well, it’s more complicated than this. This myth was, in fact, the product of an elaborate publicity campaign devised by her husband to assert more control in their crumbling personal and professional partnership. Queen of Bebop delves deeper, separating fact from fiction while considering why this myth has endured.

Another aspect of Sarah’s legacy that has been overlooked is her involvement with the development of bebop, alongside luminaries like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, in the early 1940s. She was in the thick of it, keeping up with all of the boys, and she played an important role in popularizing the music of her fellow bebop instrumentalists.

Today Sarah is best known for her slow, romantic ballads, which don’t fit our preconceptions of bebop singing. But much of her musical style—her harmonic language and how she used her voice—and, most importantly, her worldviews were established during her early bebop days.

Q: What is her legacy today?

A: There is no doubt that Sarah Vaughan has influenced the generations of vocalists who followed in her wake. When I’m listening to jazz singers, I often hear a vocal inflection or turn of phrase that reminds me of Sarah.

But I think a more lasting part of her legacy is that she really changed the way that vocalists, especially women, thought about their voices, their approach to making music, and their role in an ensemble. 

When I interviewed singers, they told me how much they learned from watching and listening to Sarah. They saw the unwavering respect that the guys in the band had for her, the intimate musical conversations that she had with musicians, how she owned her musical choices, and it reminded them that they were more than just a “chick singer.” They were serious musicians too.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m still in the land of Sarah Vaughan, which is fine by me. I love her! And now that the book is out, people are sharing their Sarah Vaughan stories with me. This has been wonderful. It gives me new ways to think about Sarah, her legacy, and how she moved her listeners. So don’t hesitate to reach out if you have a favorite Sassy memory!

I’ve also been spending more time with my son. He heads off to kindergarten [soon], and I want to treasure these last moments while he’s still my little boy.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Well, I’d like to encourage people to listen to more Sarah Vaughan! If you are already a fan, keep on listening. And if you are new to Sarah, here are a few of my favorites to get you started:

Over the Rainbow” (television broadcast, Holland, 1958) Check out what she does at the 2:54 mark. Amazing!

Don’t Blame Me” (from One Night Stand: The Town Hall Concert, live 1947)

Shulie a Bop” (from Images, 1954, EmArcy)

Whatever Lola Wants” (1955, Mercury)

Send in the Clowns  (live, Playboy Jazz Festival, early 1980s)

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 16

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Aug. 16, 1888: T. E. Lawrence born.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Q&A with Julie Sternberg


Julie Sternberg is the author of the new children's novel Everything's Changed and the new picture book Puppy, Puppy, Puppy. Her other books for kids include Bedtime at Bessie and Lil's and Secrets Out!. She is the co-creator of Play Memory, a resource for middle school teachers, and she lives in Brooklyn.

Q: Everything's Changed is your third book about your character Celie. How do you think she's changed over the course of the three books, and did you know you'd be writing a series from the beginning?

A: In the beginning I had no idea Celie would get a series. I just set out to write a story about a girl who hates change and is confronting quite a lot of it.  

In the first book Celie’s best friend has stopped speaking to her; her sister is making decisions she doesn’t understand; and her grandmother has started behaving strangely. It was an unexpected treat to get to continue the story for two more books.  

In the most recent installment, Celie is having to adjust to dramatic developments—a new apartment, a new school, new friends. She’s taking risks she never would have dreamed of when the series began.  

She’s also learning, I think, that she will inevitably make mistakes; that her friends and family will, too; and that it’s important to forgive.

Q: Why did you decide to write this series in a diary format?

A: I didn’t start out using a diary format. I initially tried stringing together the different kinds of writings that can fill kids’ days—notes passed in class while the teacher isn’t looking, for example; texts with friends; homework assignments; family notes left on the kitchen table.  

But the writings ended up feeling too spare and disjointed on their own. So my editor and I decided Celie could tape them into her diary and add context and depth with her journal entries.  

Q: You also have a new picture book out this year, Puppy, Puppy, Puppy. What do you hope your young audience takes away from the story?

A: My family got a puppy a few years back, and it quickly became clear that puppies and babies can make life difficult for grownups in virtually identical ways. But we’ll do anything for them; and, if they bond, they’ll do anything for each other. In Puppy, Puppy, Puppy, I try to capture all of that in an entertaining way. 

Q: What do you think Fred Koehler's illustrations add to the book?

A: The book is infinitely funnier, more poignant, and more alive because of Fred’s illustrations. One of the very best things about being a children’s book writer is getting to send words on a page to illustrators like Fred and then marveling at the visual worlds they create.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: When I was growing up, my family owned a department store on Main Street in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. We were one of the relatively few Jewish families in town.  

For a very long time I’ve wanted to use those details—department store, Jewish family, Southern town—as the backdrop for a children’s book. I’ve tried many versions; and I think I’ve finally come up with one that works, if I can finish it well. We’ll see!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb