Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Q&A with Melanie Wallace

Melanie Wallace is the author of the new novel The Girl in the Garden. She also has written The Housekeeper and Blue Horse Dreaming. She grew up in New Hampshire and now lives in Greece.

Q: You tell the story in The Girl in the Garden from a variety of perspectives. How did you decide which characters' points of view you wanted to show?

A: I’m not sure I can claim to have told a story from different perspectives, but I tried to use one narrative “voice” – a stylistically consistent one – to describe the different experiences of several main characters while giving each a singular way of speaking and his/her own take on the world.

As the novel took shape I realized I was concentrating on one character at a time, and so had to attempt to interweave very different lives and disparate experiences into a cohesive tale that allowed these characters to come together and interact – believably – with one another in one place.

Q: The novel is set in the 1970s. Why did you choose that time period?

A: In the 1970s, which I lived through as a young adult, it was still possible to encounter – and, in my main character’s case, survive because of – the kindness of strangers.

I also needed a timeframe in which two very different characters who had survived two very different wars – the Second World War, and Vietnam – could plausibly meet under the same roof and find common ground.
Q: Did you know how the book would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: I never know how anything will end, least of all any work of fiction I begin. Writing, for me, is a matter of letting a story unfold without much intervention – in many ways, I consider myself just a narrative stylist, albeit one who’s obsessed with structure –  and when this novel began to take on a life of its own, which it finally did, I had the suspicion that I’d better simply go with its flow.  
Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: The title was obvious to me from the beginning, as I knew I wanted to write the story of a penniless teenage mother who ends up being sheltered with her infant on the property of a recluse who, since widowhood, has lived a life centered around her garden.

The title kept me in line, in a way, for it signified that that teenager had to be and remain the common thread throughout the novel, tying into the lives of all other characters.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m actually working at learning how to be a dressage rider. As to fiction and nonfiction, well, at this moment I’m simply letting thoughts, words, and maybe even stories drift about and come to me as they may – but only after dismounting.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Only that, along with millions of my fellow citizens and many others across the globe, I consider the election of Donald Trump a disgrace, a travesty, and a danger. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Patricia Hruby Powell

Patricia Hruby Powell is the author of Loving vs. Virginia, a new book for young adults about the landmark 1967 Supreme Court case on interracial marriage. Her other books include Josephine and Frog Brings Rain. She lives in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.

Q: Why did you decide to write a book for young adults about the Loving v. Virginia case?

A: Before Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker had come out, Chronicle Books had just turned down another of my manuscripts, and I think they felt a little bad about it, because they had liked it, but . . . it wasn’t “right” for them.

My publisher asked if I would be interested in writing about the Loving v. Virginia case. I looked it up, it rekindled the little bit I’d known about the case. I thought it was fascinating—and important—so I said yes. Yes!

Q: How did you decide on the book’s structure, which includes alternating perspectives from Mildred’s and Richard’s perspectives, plus documentary information about the history relating to their case?

A: That evolved. The book still wasn’t under contract, but I’d sent in the first three chapters and an outline for a nonfiction book. My wonderful editor, Melissa Manlove, called and asked if I’d write the story as a documentary novel.

(For the first half of my career, when editors asked me to rethink a story and do it differently, I usually said, Well, no, I envision it as I wrote it. I eventually realized that editors are remarkably intelligent and know what they’re talking about—they know what they’re asking—so I changed my way of looking at things).

So, when Melissa asked, I said, Sure . . . what’s a documentary novel?

Answer: an informational book, but with liberties. (Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is the first well-known documentary novel, sometimes called “creative nonfiction.” It’s accurate, factual, but the author may see it from the character’s point of view, as if he were there.)

Melissa and I discussed all this. I chose to tell the story from the point of view of Mildred, alternating with Richard. (I could have added the sheriff, or a judge, but it seemed strongest to stay with the two main players).

This opened doors and made the writing so enjoyable. I could create scenes. Instead of saying, they had multi-generational neighborhood parties with blacks, whites, and Indians gathered together. I could show Mildred dancing at a multi-generational, multi-racial neighborhood party.

I could show them in their integrated neighborhood living in a segregated state, where the sheriff would stop a car if he saw a black person with a white person sitting together—I could build a scene to show the injustice of that. I could show Richard and Mildred falling in love as teenagers, running through the woods holding hands.

From the beginning, Chronicle Books had asked me to collect photos for the book. I also included documents which blew my mind, like the 1924 “Racial Integrity Act” which pointedly outlawed interracial marriage—as a health issue!

Rather than just captioning the photos, we decided to add quotations that would provoke thinking on the part of the readers. My editor wanted line drawings to show the personal story of the couple, so that’s when Shadra Strickland came on board.

Q: How did you research the book, and what surprised you most in the course of your research?

A: I read about the first case at the Virginia State Library on microfilm. I read books about the complete case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. I watched Nancy Buirski’s documentary, The Loving Story, a bunch of times. I watched Hope Ryden’s film footage taken of the Lovings in the '60s.

Richard and Mildred were both deceased by the time I started my research, but I interviewed Mildred’s younger brother Lewis Jeter by phone on multiple occasions. Eventually I’d interview Mildred’s older brother Otha Jeter in his home.

I interviewed Ray Green, the Lovings’ close friend, standing around a pick-up truck on a rural road outside a convenience store, with a bunch of other of their friends, when they gathered for an evening hang. A younger member of the community had told me that they hang out there most evenings.

The younger generation wanted the story told, but Richard and Mildred’s generation were reluctant to talk. Once they started, though, they were lovely, warm, charming, and fun. I just had to build trust at the beginning of each interview.

I played music that I listened to in my 20s when I was falling in love frequently, to remind myself how it is to fall in love. My husband and I talked about love. That’s research.

Q: What do you think is the legacy of the Loving v. Virginia case today?

A: I think the case applies to same-sex marriage. As Mildred said, people should marry who they want. It’s not the State’s business.

Ban on interracial marriage was seen, at the time, as the last vestiges of inequality. That’s what the young lawyers, Bernard Cohen and Phil Hirschkopf, said at an interview at the time of the Supreme Court decision—that racism could now be laid to rest.

Clearly, we have a lot more work to do in our country to eradicate racism. I think this case and, hopefully, this book help bring awareness. I hope reading it helps young readers empathize with the characters. Young adults know about love. This is a love story, with a story of the Civil Rights Movement running behind it.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Struttin’ With Some Barbecue (the story of Louis Armstrong’s wife, Lil Hardin Armstrong, jazz pianist) is scheduled to come out in 2018 with Charlesbridge.

My agent is shopping a book about civil rights worker Ella Baker, and a manuscript called Not Your Average Joe, about a young man who serves a busload of black musicians in a sundown town in 1941. I’m finishing off a book for middle grade readers entitled On the Trail of Nancy Drew. I’m starting research on the wonderful Rachel Carson.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Kayla Rae Whitaker

Kayla Rae Whitaker is the author of the new novel The Animators. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Smokelong Quarterly and Split Lip Magazine. She lives in Kentucky.

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

A: I wanted to write a novel about two women making art. And I wanted that passion to make art to be their main motivation – while there are other relationships and situations threading through the story, that passion is the central push. Mel and Sharon have this big, bombastic voice, and I wanted that sense of agency and drive to be the story.

Q: How would you characterize the dynamic between Mel and Sharon?

A: Mel and Sharon are a real study in opposites. We have Mel, this charismatic party animal who runs through girls and drugs with lightening speed before she goes home and throws herself into her work. She masks her grief – as when her mother dies, which happens early in the book – and despair with noise and humor and bluster.

Sharon, on the other hand, is quieter, more taciturn. Her drive matches Mel’s, but is powered in part with a potent insecurity that has a tendency to power her demons. She finds herself worrying that “me cleaning up from the night before has become our truest form of collaboration.” And while they are utterly devoted to each other – and to their work – this balance proves to be a threat.

Q: Another focus, as you mentioned, is the act of creating art. Why did you decide to focus on cartoonists and their work, and did you need to do much research to write the novel?

A: I’ve been a fangirl since I can remember – it began with Nickelodeon when I was very, very, young, and Warner Bros reruns. As I grew older, I discovered cartoons made for adults: much of the material aired on MTV, The Maxx and Beavis and Butthead. The Simpsons, of course. Later on I discovered Ralph Bakshi’s work, Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic.

And when I began writing about Mel and Sharon, I knew from their dialogue, that they were partners, that they made something, and that it was somewhat physical work.

Cartooning just fit. It is also historically masculine work, and I can see Mel and Sharon sinking into the practice in spite of that, and perhaps because of it. There’s a natural defiance there that’s actually lovely to witness.

I am not an animator or cartoonist – sadly, I have no aptitude for drawing – so I did quite a bit of research. The fact that I secretly wish I could draw probably made the research that much more meticulous.

I was fascinated by how immensely physical animation can be - craning over to see what you’re doing, standing or sitting. The use of the hands. The research helped me to realize the feel of the scenes – how it would be to exist inside Mel, or Sharon. Their joints, how their backs and shoulders pinched at the day’s end. It was a pleasure to get to know that world by proxy, through these characters.

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

A: The ending was not planned, no. With my projects, it never is. The resolution is always a surprise, something that comes after a period of labor. The first few drafts are always a process of discovery.

I know writers who outline, ending and all, and I envy that ability, despite the great pleasure I derive from the discovery process. There were definitely a couple of endings I trashed, because I knew they weren’t right. Every book has some growing pains embedded in the pages.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m actually working on a project that has involved a lot of research on rabies, which is interesting/horrifying. In the initial research stages, I tend to do a wide sweep, gathering all the materials I can, even the far-out stuff. I’ve picked up everything from slightly dry social and medical research sources to used copies of Cujo, just for the hell of it.

The best discovery has been this old BBC drama about rabies called The Mad Death wherein the first person to be infected, in a rabies epidemic that takes over the U.K., is a stupid American. Informative? Maybe. Entertaining? Yes.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I think this book’s biggest draw is that this is a story of two women who are ultimately fighting for influence over their own lives. It’s about creation, and about making art, of course, but it is also about identity.

Girls and women are still fighting for autonomy and agency in a way that directly affects their lives and worldviews – and that’s the most fortunate of us. The events of late 2016 have made this issue more urgent than ever. I could never have known how timely the story of Mel and Sharon would be in 2017 when I began writing it seven years ago – but it is. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Joan Holub

Joan Holub is the author and/or illustrator of more than 140 children's books, including the Goddess Girls series, This Little series, and Mighty Dads. She lives in North Carolina.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for the Goddess Girls series, and what do you see as the right balance between the original Greek myths and your own more modern additions?

A: Suzanne Williams and I started the series idea with these things: The Goddess Girls title, the premise that Greek mortals and immortals would star as middle school girls, who attend Mount Olympus Academy (along with godboys), where Zeus is the principal. And we decided that each book would feature one or more Greek myths, with a twist.

We began book 1, Athena the Brain, with a moment of change—Athena gets an invitation to attend MOA. The myths we explore in book 1 include Athena’s famed inventions, Medusa getting her snake hair and ability to turn others to stone, and the Odysseus myth.

These all happen at school. For instance, Odysseus is a game-piece figurine and his voyage takes place on a gameboard in the girls’ Hero-ology class, taught by Mr. Cyclops.

To answer your second question, the balance works itself out. The external conflict is the myth take-off, and the internal conflict is storyline additions.

In book 1 the internal conflict is that Athena feels pressure to live up to the status of the principal’s (and King of Gods’) daughter and wants to make friends. External conflict is that Medusa (who later stars in her own book, Medusa the Mean) bullies Athena and makes Hero-ology class difficult.

Book 21, Pallas the Pal, just pubbed, and we have plans for at least three more in the GG series.

Q: You also have a new board book series including This Little President and This Little Explorer. What kind of research do you do for these books, and how do you pick the people to include?

A: You hit upon the hardest thing about writing this series—deciding which people and which facts to include. After researching online and at the library, my next job is to narrow the list down to ten people (and another dozen or so for a back spread), which I propose to my Little Simon editor.

We do a lot of back and forth, choosing the characters and facts to include, and making everything informative but lively and fun (including some rhyme) to capture the interest of toddlers and pre-k. Sometimes I think it’s harder to write short like this, than it is to write a long middle grade book!

Q: Another of your books is the picture book/board book Mighty Dads, featuring father-and-child construction vehicles. What made you think of this book idea?

A: I usually think of a book or series title, which then inspires a story idea. Mighty Dads happened the other way around. I saw some kids and their dads playing with trucks in a sandpit. My heart melts when I see a dad out with his children, enjoying them and teaching them how to do things and become good humans.

I thought, What if a dad actually was the bulldozer or the crane, etc., out working with his bulldozer, excavator, etc. child to teach and help her or him along in work and life? James Dean, creator of Pete the Cat, came on board, and this became a New York Times bestseller.

Q: You've written and/or illustrated more than 150 books--how do you organize your various projects?

A: In stacks of paper on shelves, and in computer docs. Like every writer, I’m get stumped by what I’m writing at some point. When that happens, having another project or two in the works simultaneously means I can continue working, but on something else.

When I come back to the project that stumped me, I’m fresh with new ideas, and can see problems I couldn’t see before when I was too close to it.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Suzanne and I are revising the first two books in Thunder Girls, our new middle grade series featuring school-age Norse gods and goddesses. It’s got giants, friendship drama, friend loyalty, action-adventure, humor, school situations, first crushes, and an environmental component. All the stuff we like to read—and write.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Two books coming in 2017! Tool School (Scholastic, picture book), illustrated by James Dean of Pete the Cat. And Vampoodle (Random House, early reader), a follow-up to one of my best-selling readers, Shampoodle. Find me and my FB, Twitter links at my website.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 31

Jan. 31, 1905: John O'Hara born.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Q&A with Carrie Jenkins

Carrie Jenkins, photo by Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
Carrie Jenkins is the author of the new book What Love Is and What It Could Be. She is a professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, and a nationally elected Canada Research Chair. She is the principal investigator for the Nature of Love project, which is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. She lives in Vancouver.

Q: You write that "romantic love has a dual nature." Why is that, and how do the two components, relating to biology and society, interact?

A: When we fall in love, things happen in our bodies and our brains: we experience a (messy and varied) bundle of evolved bio-chemical responses.

But that's not all that happens: we are also handed a kind of "script" for how love is supposed to play out--what a relationship is supposed to look like--and that script is (at least in part) a social construct.

I'm really attracted to both the biological view of love and the social construct view, and I think choosing one to the exclusion of the other would be foolhardy: a rejection of half our accumulated wisdom.

So I don't choose! The difficult task is to see how they fit together, but I suggest it's like an actor playing a role: these ancient, evolved biological systems are expected to conform to a modern social script.

Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn't. It's in these successes and failures of "fit" that I locate a lot of the most pressing philosophical questions.

Q: In the book, you write about the concept of monogamy, as it relates to your own life and in general. What do you see as some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about monogamy?

A: In the book I discuss research finding that monogamy has a "halo" effect: people who are monogamous are regarded as being better people in general, even when it comes to things completely unrelated to relationships (like flossing, for example).

One of the other common assumptions is that non-monogamous relationships "never work" ... people often say this because they "know someone who tried it and it went wrong." By that standard, monogamy "never works" either!

Then there's the widespread perception that polyamory is all about sex ... an issue I wrote about here.

Q: What are some of the biggest shifts in recent decades regarding ideas about love?

A: Expanding the socially constructed "script" towards inclusion of same-sex love is a huge shift that I've witnessed in my lifetime, and one I never would have predicted when I was a teenager. In the decades before that, the shift towards inclusion of interracial love was, I think, comparably radical.

In some ways, though, the move towards including same-sex love has exacerbated the continued exclusion and stigmatization of non-monogamous love.

Q: You write, "Nonconformity can change the world. I mean this literally: if we start customizing, the composite image of love will change." What changes do you see looking ahead?

A: I can only guess, but one of my predictions is that we will move towards greater acceptance of intentionally temporary romantic love. Eventually, we might even see renewable marriage contracts that come with an agreed end-date.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now a lot of my time is dedicated to teaching. I have an amazing inter-disciplinary first-year class (in the "Arts One" program at the University of British Columbia) where I get to work with some of the most interesting and intelligent young people I know.

I'm hoping to write a second book on love and gender soon, and maybe eventually make it a trilogy with a third book on love and marriage.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I want to give a quick shout-out to my co-conspirators Marina Adshade (author of Dollars and Sex) and Mandy Len Catron (author of How To Fall In Love With Anyone). And my dog Mezzo! She's the best dog.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 30

Jan. 30, 1912: Barbara Tuchman born.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Q&A with Brian Yarvin

Brian Yarvin is the author of a forthcoming updated edition of A World of Dumplings. His other books include Ploughman's Lunch and the Miser's Feast and The Too Many Tomatoes Cookbook. His work has appeared in publications including The Washington Post and Serious Eats. Also a photographer, he is from Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Q: You have a new edition of A World of Dumplings coming out soon. What are some of the updates in the new version of the book?

A: I have added dumplings from Afghanistan, Switzerland, Georgia and Tibet and a few sidebars about those foods too.

Q: How did you pick the types of dumplings to include? 

A: Usually, I first discover them in restaurants. But sometimes, I'll find them in books or on television. I am a compulsive cook, when I see something new, I have to try to cook it. And if I cook it successfully, I have to develop a recipe. It's in my blood.

Including them is another story. When I was working on the first edition of World of Dumplings, I kept spreadsheets of favorite dishes and the ingredients that went in them. That way, I could see what patterns emerged. The lists of recipes emerged from there.

Q: Do you have a particular favorite to eat or to prepare?

A: Not really, Knishes bring back childhood memories and momos are a new big thing in places (like here in Lancaster, Pennsylvania) where there are large numbers of Nepali and Tibetan immigrants. I also really like Turkish Manti with a big spoonful of good yogurt.

In the end, any dumpling will do - and when I'm in places where I don't speak the language, I'll enjoy them without even knowing what they are.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A couple of things; as always, I'm trying to improve my writing and photography technique, and I'm very curious about the sudden rapid growth of vegetarian and whole grain diets in Italy. This whole new interest in Appalachian cooking has caught my eye too.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 29

Jan. 29, 1860: Anton Chekhov born.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Q&A with Rich Lo

Rich Lo is the author and illustrator of the new children's picture book New Year, which focuses on a young boy who arrives in Los Angeles from Hong Kong. He also wrote and illustrated Father's Chinese Opera. He was born in Canton, China, and lives in Chicago.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for New Year, and for your main character?

A: The writing was inspired by my childhood memories. Growing up as a Chinese immigrant child, I had many vignettes to draw from. The story is fictional, but the main character, unnamed, is me.

Q: When you write and illustrate a book, do you work on the text and illustrations simultaneously, or do you focus on one and then the other?

A: I start by writing the story. I send the manuscript to my literary agent, Anna Olswanger, for review and edits. Then I lay out the text with rough sketches for page count and the flow of the story. I made final sketches and color illustrations for the cover and 3 spreads.

Anna and I made a final review before she sends it out to the editors of the publishing houses. The story was picked by Sky Pony Press in New York, who also published my first book, Father's Chinese Opera.

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

A: I hope my story gives the readers a glimpse of what it is like to grow up as an immigrant and also help them learn about the diversity that makes up our country.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on a series of board books that have elements from the Chinese culture.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The choice to write cultural books allows me to share the Chinese culture and my childhood experiences with young readers. It has also enriched and expanded my artistic life.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 28

Jan. 28, 1873: Colette born.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Q&A with Peter Swanson

Peter Swanson is the author of the new psychological thriller Her Every Fear. He also has written The Kind Worth Killing and The Girl with a Clock for a Heart. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Atlantic and The Vocabula Review. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Her Every Fear, and for the book's title?

A: I’ve had the idea for many years although initially I thought of it as more of a love story than a murder mystery. I thought it would be interesting to have two characters fall in love with one another by living in each other’s apartment. I think it’s a much better story with a murder in it.

About the title, it was originally going to be just “every fear” which I took from James Fenton’s poem “A Staffordshire Murderer.” But I think “Her Every Fear” is catchier, and a better description of the book. Much of my main character Kate Priddy’s anxieties center on being a female.

Q: You write from the perspectives of several characters. How did you decide which characters' perspectives you wanted to include?

A: Initially it was just going to be from Kate’s perspective but as I went along, I changed my mind. This was partly due to logical reasons—I needed more perspectives in order to tell the whole story—but also because I love books with multiple perspectives. You can do a lot with that from a thriller perspective.

Q: Did you always know how the novel would end, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: I had a basic idea of how the novel would end, but not the specifics. I always start with just the premise and then I begin writing. As I go along, I am always thinking a little bit ahead, but I never outline.

Q: The novel takes place mostly in Boston. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: It’s hugely important. I think Boston is a good location for a thriller, but I write mainly about Boston because that’s where I live. In Her Every Fear, I wanted to write something that felt like a gothic thriller, and to me, a large apartment building in Beacon Hill just felt right. That section of Boston feels a little bit trapped in time. It has cobblestones, and narrow streets, and several of the buildings still have stable doors.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A novel about a college graduate who goes to live with his stepmother after his father mysteriously dies. It is set in southern Maine and also has gothic elements.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: That Her Every Fear marks an unofficial trilogy of mystery stories in which Detective Roberta James of the Boston Police department plays a crucial role. She’s a minor character in my first novel, The Girl With a Clock for a Heart, and also plays a part in my second novel, The Kind Worth Killing.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 27

Jan. 27, 1931: Mordecai Richler born.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Q&A with Elizabeth Minnich

Elizabeth Minnich is the author of the new book The Evil of Banality: On the Life and Death Importance of Thinking. Her other books include The Fox in the Henhouse and Transforming Knowledge. She is senior scholar for the Association of American Colleges & Universities, and professor of moral philosophy at Queens University.

Q: You begin your book with Hannah Arendt. What do you see as the similarities and differences between her phrase "the banality of evil" and your formulation of "the evil of banality"?

A: Well, first, there's a rhetorical difference. I know that may not seem important, but people's first reactions to the two phrases have been startlingly different.

When Arendt took me with her to public discussions of her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on The Banality of Evil, some who attended were painfully angered by the very idea that evil – in this case, the undeniable evil of the Holocaust – could be associated at all with "banality." 

No, no: it has to be monstrous, and the man, Eichmann, on trial for his effective participation in making genocide possible, had to be in a sense worthy of it by being monstrous himself. 

I wondered then if more people might be able and willing to hear what Arendt was actually saying better if she had spoken of "the evil of banality," which inflates "banality" by association, rather than seeming to deflate "evil." It turns out it works.

Asking people to think with me about the searing question that drives this book -- How is it actually possible to do horrific harm to others day after day after day, as the close-in perpetrators of extensive evils such as genocide, enslavement, child prostitution, life-distorting economic exploitation indeed do? – surely asks me in turn to speak in ways that invite minds to stay open. 

And that matters a lot: understandably, we want to shut out the realities of monstrous acts, avoid thinking about them. Unfortunately, I fear that is finally a lot more dangerous than protective.

Reversing Arendt's invaluable concept led me not only to speak differently, but also to focus more on banalities than Arendt did. I did research on many more instances of historical evils and turned, too, to study of historical instances of extreme goodness (e.g. resistance to genocides; providing health care to the most impoverished and endangered; organizing for justice).
As with the relation between hate and love, that between evil, good, and thoughtless conventionalities takes us deep into who we are individually and collectively: creatures simultaneously capable of going very low, reaching very high, but also skimming the surface like tumbling tumble weeds going wherever the wind takes them. 

I wrote The Evil of Banality also because Is altogether too ironic that Arendt's startling, thought-provoking phrase was being perverted into a banality. It was time to startle ourselves back into thought. Reversing the phrase has had that effect even as it also took me into differing, important territory.

Q: How do you define "evil" and "good"?

A: I define them with an eye on common usage. It is what we mean by "evil," by "good," and what we are doing when we think and speak those words that I think is important here. 

We use "evil" when something is evidently so violative, so horrifying, that to call it "bad" would be ludicrous. "Evil" says boundaries of what is bearable, and/or explainable, have been crossed. Thus the evil of slavery is often called "unthinkable." It would be tortuously absurd to say, Well, yes; slavery was bad.   

Cross the limits of "good," and there isn't one word with a force parallel to "evil." So, I explore some other words too. "She's not just good," we might say. "She's a saint." 

Philosophy also has a term rarely found in everyday speech. This is sad, partly because it's fun to say when you get it down: supererogatory. Not going to become common, is it? 

But the idea matters: there are good acts we are morally required to perform:  It is good to save a child from drowning in the puddle at your feet, so you ought to do so. 

But saving someone else's child by running into a collapsing burning building from which the fire fighters have retreated? That's not "good." That's "supererogatory": above and beyond. Not morally required. Maybe not even wise or good in some other respects. A saint might try, though.

We do know that there is a good that is as extreme, as almost insane seeming, as evil. Interesting that it doesn't have as common a name, or use. 

Q: You write, "There is a catch-22 right at the heart of what we are doing through this inquiry that I do have to pause to recognize." Can you say more about that, and whether it's possible to resolve?

A: I spoke earlier of the irony that the banality of evil has itself almost been reduced to a banality. That points right at the catch-22: when we try to kick-start thinking stalled by cliches, it can turn out that our best, freshest language catches on and next thing we know, it's become a thought-substitute itself.

A key point of my book is that being attentive and thinking for ourselves are matters of life and death – of more intense, engaging life in good times, of resisting becoming a perpetrator in bad times.

The evil of banality is a good phrase: it carries its contradiction right there, in its appeal. We humans are capable of turning anything into a cliché, even something life-saving. 

If I could, I'd find a way to induce at least a mild allergic reaction whenever someone hears or uses an oh-so-in phrase. We'd all itch a bit most of the time -- "catch 22" is worth it -- but if we could learn to avoid the full-blown rashes caused by those who are walking, talking, tweeting clichés, it could help us save ourselves in time.

Lacking that allergy, what to do? We can practice attentiveness so we are able to be startled back into thinking. Be present with each other. Enjoy thinking, the free play of it, its irreverence.

Reflect, replay, reconsider, imagine, opening space for a responsive conscience. Think round and about what we are doing, not only in its own terms or usual tracks. Hang out with people who startle us. 

Avoid mistaking a satisfying sense of familiarity with understanding...and see? Even this is risky. It is so easy to morph into slogans rather than prompts to reflect, and question.  

There's a catch 22 even in "catch-22" – but awareness of it, and this was Joseph Heller's genius, points up lurking absurdity and contradiction, and that's one of the ways good thinking wakes up and becomes both liberating and, wonderfully often, funny.  

So some over-used phrases may be homeopathic, but over-indulgence or dependence are still unhealthy. (Good question: that was fun.)

Q: What do you see looking ahead when it comes to the concepts of evil and banality?

A: We still dangerously romanticize evil, but we do know that most of us are neither monsters nor saints. We muddle along, making our choices not by the torches of Passion or Conviction, but the flickering candles of moderate, practical, daily virtues and vices.

We are responsible for those choices. We may be less clear that we remain responsible even when systems have gone very bad and what was once a virtue is turned into a vice, as speaking freely is re-defined as "irresponsible" when a fearful, powerful regime defines its own safety as "national security." 

Then, I fear that too many of us, history suggests, will not think but simply go along: Oh, this is the new order. Okay. To succeed, to make money, to get ahead, to belong, I'll join up. 

That is very dangerous, because then all those people really are not thinking what they are doing. In that mode, they/we can, as I have found, startlingly easily do the work of truly corrupt, even evil, systems and regimes. 

One of the things I found most often? Careerism, a mild vice in good times and in the eyes of not a few even a virtue, if a sort of banal one – common, unremarkable, conventional – can be very similar whether one is a striver in a public service non-profit, a profit-driven corporation, a military dictatorship, an extremist group, a killing squad. 

If we are not thinking about what we are doing, if we are occupying our minds instead with what it takes to “succeed,” like those whose work is deeply violative and harmful for others, for the earth, we are dangerously not paying attention.

We do need to beware of the evil that the auto-pilot of banality can carry us into all too smoothly.  

As long as we hold onto those old romanticized ideas of evil as of good that say they have nothing to do with us ordinary folks, we are like carriers of the plague who feel just fine, hopefully will never get sick, but at any moment could. (Anyone who knows the work of Albert Camus will recognize the analogy.  I speak often of Camus' The Plague in my book.)

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The book that kept wanting to be written as I worked on this one. If not thinking can be deadly dangerous, then education is even more important than most of us have thought. Education worthy of the name, that is; not just "training." 

I am thinking about how we teach thinking, and not only knowledge and skills.  I am thinking and writing about why that is the most important thing we can do as a freedom-loving, moral society. 

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: Will you excuse me if I ask myself a question I'd have if I were reading this but had not yet read the book? So, Elizabeth: Do you think all evildoing is caused by people not thinking, being "banal"? No. 

In my work, I found it necessary to make a key distinction. Extensive evils, as I call them, cannot be done without many, many reliable, ambitious people to do their work. An economy based on child labor, for example, cannot keep going without such people. While it lasts, it is “normal,” protected by the unthinking of banalities.  

Intensive evils, in stark contrast, are the ones that seem to burst out of nowhere, shock almost everyone, require only one or a few perpetrators and usually very little time. They really are the opposite of conventional. 

Intensive evils are still the default meaning of "evil": because they are in so many ways the opposite of extensive evils, this is unhelpful.

We can stop extensive evils precisely because they cannot happen at all without so many of us over time. Think about that!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb