Thursday, June 22, 2017

Q&A with Tracy Chevalier


Tracy Chevalier is the author of the new novel New Boy, a retelling of Othello set in a sixth-grade class in the Washington, D.C., suburbs in the 1970s. Her other novels include Girl with a Pearl Earring and At the Edge of the Orchard. She grew up in the D.C. area and lives in London.


Q: You've mentioned your own experience as an outsider--how did that play into your depiction of your character Osei and the themes you explore in New Boy?

A: I think it’s what made me choose the play. (It’s part of the Hogarth Shakespeare Project, where authors like Margaret Atwood and Anne Tyler were asked to write a novel inspired by a Shakespeare play.)

I have lived in London for over 30 years but still sound very American, and often feel as if I’m standing on the sidelines watching the game rather than taking part in it.

Q: Why did you decide to set your retelling among sixth graders in suburban Washington, D.C., in the 1970s?

A: I thought the enclosed society of a school playground would have the right intensity for the story. I grew up in an integrated neighborhood in Washington and happened to go to a school that was mostly black, so I had a bit of experience of having different skin color from those around me.

I liked the idea of setting it when I was 11, in 1974. At 11 you are the oldest on the playground (used to be, anyway, before the creation of middle schools), and you rule it, with adults having less and less say in your world. At the same time, you are not quite a teenager, so you may start imitating adult behavior without really understanding it.

The book is set over one day, and Osei (my Othello) and Dee (Desdemona) have to get together and split up very quickly, torn apart by the actions of Ian (Iago), the school bully. But that’s exactly what happens with kids – it’s fast and intense, and then it’s over.

Q: What parts of the original Othello did you think were especially important to retain in your novel, and what did you feel you could change?

A: Othello is about two things, I think: society’s treatment of people different from themselves, and jealousy. The jealousy part kind of takes over most productions, so that it becomes Iago’s play as he leads Othello into a jealous rage.

I decided that rather than it focusing on Othello and Iago, I would have New Boy be more about the whole community of the playground and how they respond to Osei – both the casual racism of white kids toward the only black person they know, and also the suspicion and cruelty taken out on a new student.

I also felt that the female characters in Othello (Desdemona and her servant Emilia) are woefully underwritten, so I knew I would give them much more to say and do in New Boy.

Q: What do you think your book, and Othello, say about the issue of racism?

A: I wanted to explore where racism comes from. In New Boy, kids learn it from the adults around them – their parents and teachers. I would hope that now adults are a little more aware of and sensitive to such racist attitudes.

Unfortunately, given the political tone in America right now, I’m not so sure we have actually come on very far from 1974...

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am now writing a novel set in Winchester Cathedral (an hour south of London) in the 1930s. In the choir stalls are embroidered cushions and kneelers made by a group of volunteers, mostly women. It features embroidery, bellringing, cathedral life, and the petty politics of volunteer groups, with hints of German fascism thrown into the mix.

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

Q&A with Katie A. Nelson


Katie A. Nelson is the author of the new young adult novel The Duke of Bannerman Prep, a modern-day retelling of The Great Gatsby set at a prep school. She taught high school English and debate, and she lives in Northern California.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Duke of Bannerman Prep?

A: The idea for The Duke of Bannerman Prep took a long time to marinate in my mind. I used to teach high school English, so I was always trying to find parallels between the classic literature that we read in class and my students' lives.

When we were studying Gatsby, it was often hard for my students to understand the context of the novel, the new money vs. old money, and the idea that a young person could make a lot of money in a short time--at least enough to live the lifestyle of the old money crowd. 

But they all knew who Mark Zuckerberg is, and know how much money the tech industry creates, so it made sense to me to move my story to the West Coast and into that world. 

I'd always wanted to write a story about someone on the debate team, as it was such a central part of my high school experience. Once the idea for merging the two stories came together, I had the bones of the book.  

Q: The book is described as a contemporary Great Gatsby. What appeals to you about The Great Gatsby, and why did you choose to set your book among prep-school students?

A: I have loved Gatsby since reading it for the first time in high school. I've always been fascinated with ideas about class. We have this American ideal that anyone can be anything if you work hard enough, but that isn't always the case.

Some people are born into privilege and while we applaud the stories of people who come from nothing and become successful, the reality is that those stories are pretty rare.

Gatsby does such a great job of analyzing that class structure vs. the American dream, but it was written at a different time in our country's history. I wanted to use that context to show what has changed about class in America, and what is the same.

The prep school was appealing to me because it works as a microcosm for those ideas. Even though there are scholarship students there, the majority of the people (at fictional Bannerman) come from a place of great privilege.

So I thought it lent itself well to the exploration of how that privilege works, in relation to hard work and talent.

Q: What's your writing process like? Do you work from an outline or change many things around as you write?

A: My writing process really varies. I tend to get an idea for a novel, but I don't actually sit down to write it until I've thought about it for several months. At that stage, I'll write ideas down in a notebook, but then I put it aside.

I like to have a strong sense of who my characters are, so I'll write dialogue and journal entries from their point of view as well. I usually don't have a solid outline, but I have plot points in my head that I know I want to hit. I'll then start drafting. I do many, many drafts.

For The Duke of Bannerman Prep, I played around with a past/present structure, as well as big chunks in second person point of view.

Neither of those drafts worked for the story, but they helped me figure out what I was trying to do and who my characters were, so I really believe that they weren't wasted (even though I scrapped tens of thousands of words each time).

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?

A: I think I could fill a book with all of my favorite writers! My favorite classic writers are Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, Victor Hugo, Willa Cather, and of course, F. Scott Fitzgerald!

I also love Anne Tyler, Anita Shreve, Maria Semple, and Anna Quindlen. In YA, I have so many writers I love: Melina Marchetta, Sara Zarr, Markus Zusak, Jennifer Donnelley, Rainbow Rowell, Matt de la Pena, Nova Ren Suma, and many, many more!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm working on a story about a young woman who is trying to find her sister, and has to enlist the help of her sister's ex-best friend, who she hates. It's been a labor of love as so much of my heart is tied up in this story, and I *think* I've finally figured out how to tell it. Famous last words . . .

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Thanks so much for interviewing me! I love connecting with readers and other writers! You can find me on twitter and instagram at @MsKatieANelson, or reach out via my web site, katieanelson.com. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

June 22

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
June 22, 1898: Erich Maria Remarque born.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Q&A with Gwen Strauss


Gwen Strauss is the author of The Hiding Game, a picture book for children about the work of her great-uncle and others who helped Jewish refugees escape from the Nazis during World War II. Her other work includes Ruth and the Green Book and The Night Shimmy, and she has written for various publications including The New Republic and the London Sunday Times. She lives in Southern France.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book about your great-uncle’s work during World War II, and how much had you known about it as you were growing up?

A: Growing up, in a family that had many war heroes, but not a lot of talk about what had actually happened to them during the war, I heard just vague references from my grandmother about her brother’s bravery.

There were a lot of artists around my grandmother who were “friends of Danny’s during the war.” One of my grandmother’s closest friends was Max Ernst, for example. Ernst was someone Danny [Bénédite] helped save and later introduced to his sister.

I learned more about my great uncle Danny when I moved to Paris in my mid-20s and I learned enough French to read his book, La filiere marseillaise, which is a rather dry account of what Varian Fry and the rescue committee did to save lives in 1940-41.

It’s also about the early organizations that would form the Resistance, and the world of refugees desperate to get out of the closing Gestapo net.

I met Danny a few times in Paris, but sadly he died only a few years after I moved there. (I probably met him many times as a child, but the huge loud French family kind of blurred.)

In my 20s in Paris, I became interested in his life. He killed himself when he started to feel the oncoming Parkinson’s take away his mental and physical health. I thought it was powerful that he was so determined to choose the manner of his death. He fascinated me as a character at that stage. 

There was also a tragic love story, which held my focus. And there are other more adult parts of Danny’s story that I hope someday to write about.

What set me off to write a children’s book was one particular visit to the U.S. Embassy in Marseille to renew my children’s passports. Right there in the lobby is a huge photograph of Danny. I just started to enthusiastically tell my kids, “That’s your great great Uncle Danny!  He was a hero!” They were embarrassed that I was being too loud.

But I realized they didn’t know the story, and as I tried to tell it to them, I realized I needed to learn more. I have written several other children’s books and so the thought just came then: there’s got to be a good children’s book here.

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write the book?

A: I did a LOT of research. I knew the basic story but I started to read all the books I could find on the subject. Books by Varian Fry, by Danny, but also other people who were with them at the time.

And I read more recent historical books about Fry, the rescue committee, and the refugee situation in Vichy France. I have a whole bookshelf of books and documents. I went to a few symposiums and lectures in Marseille. I talked to family members. I contacted Aube Breton.

I found a strange series of coincidences around this research. I had moved to the south of France for my professional work. I run an artist residency program in the historic Dora Maar House. Aube wrote me that she visited that house many times as a little girl—she asked me if there were still so many scorpions-- (there aren’t). 

Her mother Jacqueline Lamda and Dora Maar were close friends. As I read I saw that many of the artists that Danny and Varian hid, they hid in my village and in the villages all around me. 

The names of the characters are all around me, every day. I was inside the history in a way I wasn’t when first reading Danny’s book in Paris. It’s really a story of this region and suddenly this is my home. So that made it all the more compelling. 

I love research, and I could just do it all the time. But at some point I have to start writing. And that’s when it got difficult. I spent almost as much time crafting a story for children. I knew I couldn’t tell the whole story—I didn’t want to—but I had to find some window into a part of it.

The right structure to fit the format of a picture book. Aube and the Villa were a perfect small peek into the world of the rescue committee. It took a lot of rewriting. Children’s picture books have pretty rigid limitations, in page and word count, and vocabulary etc. So the story has to be honed carefully.

I am grateful to several editors along the way. I had to adjust the story- to make some of it fiction. For example, the real Aube called her mother and father by their first names. They were surrealist artists and non-conventional. So she did not call them maman and papa—but the editors insisted as a children’s book Aube had to.

Q: What do you think Herb Leonhard’s illustrations add to the book?

A: Herb was chosen by the art director Janice Shay, who was very helpful to me in all the stages of this book. She worked closely with him as he developed the art—this was after the text was pretty much written. But occasionally seeing his illustrations I would suggest a change in the text.

I also had more experience with the “look” of the south of France so I sent him reference pictures and ideas as he was working out the sketches.

One reason I love doing children’s picture books is the joy I feel when an artist creates a picture based on my words and it takes the story so much further. It’s really magical. I stand in awe and amazement at how much better the pictures make the story! I love the color palette and the sketchy way he approached the subject.

Part of the challenge of writing a children’s picture book is to structure a story arc that will make each spread have a dynamic “illustratable” moment. But sometimes a spread just isn’t that dynamic, it may be more subtle or emotional. Then I don’t know how the artist will show it.

Herb was able to make those more subtle moments visible, such as when Aube is thinking about the people in the camps and she’s worried about the cold and the snow.

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

A: I think that when you write for children, mostly you want to spark their curiosity, to get them to ask more questions.

As I began working on this story the refugee crisis around the world exploded. The last time there was a crisis of this size was World War II, though now, I think the numbers are much greater.

The majority of the world’s refugees are under 18. They are children. The current refugee crisis IS a children’s story. I want the children who read this book to have a way into imagining what that might mean to be a refugee, to be fleeing for your life. To start to ask themselves, How would I feel?  What would I do?

I also feel that Varian Fry is an unlikely hero. He was a Latin teacher. He simply saw something that he knew was wrong and decided to do everything he could to help.

He knew about the death camps. He was the first person in America to publish an article talking about the Final Solution in the New Republic. He was ignored.

He also did what he knew was right against the odds, against the wishes of his friends and supporters, against the demands of his country—he broke the law, because the law was unjust. And he saved over 2000 lives.

His good deeds were largely unrecognized in his lifetime.  In fact when he returned home from France the office of the Rescue Committee in New York fired him. He had done too much, they said. He was too pushy.

I really am moved by his moral imperative. Why is someone like that? What makes a person behave that way? What would I do?

Finally I really loved the artists’ response to fascism, terror, and fear mongering.  There is this idea that art is irrelevant in extreme times, that in extremity people think only of food and shelter.

But I don’t think that’s completely true. What Breton and the surrealists illustrated by their Sunday games, and with their insistence on maintaining their creative lives, was that fear could not possess them. They would remain free in spirit.

And that freedom expressed itself in collective joy and laughter. The authoritarian destructive Nazi machine would not break them. (Even in the camps, there are accounts again and again of people coming together to create poems, songs, paintings, and theater.)

I hope the children become curious about these artists. At a few of the readings I’ve done we have played Cadavre Esquise. Children love the freedom of collective drawings.

I think the artists in this story show the way out of darkness, artists are our leaders against totalitarianism. They show that fear can’t stop us from living fully creative joyous lives. We live in extreme times, so how should we keep hope alive? How do we maintain our humanity?

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have gotten stuck in the World War II period. Danny married a women named Helene many decades after the war (he divorced his wife Theo soon after the war). Helene was arrested by the Gestapo at age 21, tortured, water boarded, beaten, and sent to a series of concentration camps. Three years later, she escaped with eight other women.

This past winter I retraced their escape route with my daughter. I had interviewed Helene about her story before she died. One of the women wrote a very short book about it, which I discovered a few years later.

Another woman wrote an article in Elle—but it was published in the 60s, and I only recently found it online. And there’s a ten-minute documentary of one of the women. So out of the nine women, I had found four points of view of this same escape story.

I also only knew the names of these four women, but I knew the nicknames of all nine. So slowly with research, and with the help of the German historians we visited at the camps in Leipzig and Buchenwald, I have been able to discover the identities of seven maybe even eight of the nine women.

Each one of them has her own amazing story. They were all young, beautiful, and politically active in the resistance. They had spent at least two years in harrowing conditions of the camps. They had all been tortured, etc. They were starving and traumatized. And they were able to escape and survive together because of their tough friendship. 

I am writing about this and thinking about it. It won’t be for children. I am not yet sure what format it will be: novel, essay, or script. But the process is really so wonderful. I am thinking a lot about friendship and how essential it is, and was for these women. 

But also how differently from men, groups of women organize themselves and behave together. I think this helped women survive longer in the camps. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I am working on the above project about the nine women, but I often work on several projects in tandem. So I am also working out a simple children’s picture book about a girl and her dog. 

And I am working on a Young Adult novel, which is a thriller ghost story, set in the medieval town next door, Lacoste. This is where the ruins of the chateau of the Marquis de Sade are. So for this story I am researching the violent periods of French history from the Dark Ages to the Revolution.

Provence, where I live, is an idyllic bucolic place that is also absolutely steeped in a bloody violent past. I’m kind of exploring that contradiction for young adults!

Here's a link to a video about The Hiding Game

--Interview with Deborah Kalb


Q&A with Nicole Lundrigan


Nicole Lundrigan is the author of the new psychological thriller The Substitute. Her other novels include The Widow Tree and Glass Boys, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Reader's Digest and Mothering. She lives in Toronto.

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

A: A couple of years ago, there was a case involving two 12-year-old girls who stabbed their “friend” as a way to connect with [the fictional character] Slenderman.

Reading those articles prompted me to research juvenile criminals, as well as the childhoods of those who grew up to kill. I wanted to understand how those crimes could happen and why.

Slowly, ideas started to form about a troubled character and some terrible experiences. While the Slenderman stabbing was the tiniest seed that nudged me to begin the novel, there’s nothing about the case in the book.

Q: You write the chapters from Warren's perspective in third person, and the other character's chapters in first person. Why did you structure the book that way?

A: When I was writing Warren’s character, I wanted to keep some distance. In my mind, I was watching him from afar and learning about him.

With the disturbed character, the voice was clear and present. As I planned to keep that person completely anonymous, I felt as though I had to see through those eyes. The anonymous narrator appears cold and detached, but there is an intense vulnerability there.

Structuring it that way also allowed me to let the question of identity linger. Are there two separate main characters, or just two sides of the same coin?

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

A: While I may start out with general ideas, things tend to evolve as I’m writing. The more I write about particular characters, the more I get to know them. Sometimes I have to go back and adjust things as they were written when I had less insight.

I don’t make many notes. Many times I’ll make a decision, and that will alter what I’ve already written. I’m always padding and scraping, injecting and extracting. When I think about it, it’s very inefficient, but ideas only come to me when I’m writing.  

Q: Which authors do you especially admire?

A: I really admire writers whose characters haunt my mind long after I’ve finished the book. I recently read My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout, and it was so honest and compelling, I was convinced it was autobiographical (it’s not).

The Break by Katherena Vermette is another powerful novel that really moved me. The main character in the novel Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh is loathsome and painfully human. I will never forget Johnny in Joel Thomas Hynes' latest novel, We’ll All Be Burnt in Our Beds Some Night.

I also really admire people who create worlds for children. Sharon Creech, Kate DiCamillo, and Patrick Ness consistently break my heart, then heal it up again.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m about 2/3 through the first draft of a new novel. Strangely for me, I have a concrete idea of where it’s going. One of the characters is a narcissistic sociopath, and probably the most manipulative person I’ve ever written. I’ve been spending a lot of time with her, and have yet to see a redeeming quality.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: While the anonymous narrator in The Substitute has been called a psychopath, I think that’s a label with limitations. My character does horrible things and claims to feel no guilt, but there is tremendous depth beneath that controlled exterior. Many of those calculated behaviors are spurred on by love – a need to find it and then cling to it. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

June 21

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
June 21, 1905: Jean-Paul Sartre born.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Q&A with Phaedra Patrick


Phaedra Patrick is the author of the new novel Rise and Shine, Benedict Stone. The main character runs a jewelry shop in a small English village. Patrick also has written the novel The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper. She has worked as a stained-glass artist, film festival organizer, and communications manager, and she lives in Saddleworth, UK.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your character Benedict, and why did you choose gemstones as a focus for your new novel?

A: I was always aware, as a child, that each month of the year has a gemstone connected to it. My birth month is August, so my stone is a Peridot and I used to be a little jealous that other months had (what I thought were) more glamorous gems, such as Garnet, Amethyst and Emerald.

When I got engaged I chose a silver ring with a Peridot and decided to find out more about the gem. Peridots are supposedly good for easing tension, stress and anxiety in relationships – quite a good thing before getting married! I wanted to find out more about other gemstones so I started to read about those too.

I thought that Benedict would make a good character to take on a journey of discovery. He’s a large man, a jeweller, and stuck in a rut, so the gemstones in the book help to make his life sparkle again.

Q: The novel takes place in an English village called Noon Sun, which is almost like another character in the book. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: If you’re going to spend months writing a novel then you should spend it somewhere that you enjoy, that you look forward to visiting in your head each day!

Noon Sun is based on my own village, which is surrounded by rolling fields and beautiful scenery. When my editor commissioned the cover art for the book, I sent her photographs of where I live, which influenced the beautiful design.

Q: How would you describe the relationship between Benedict and his niece, Gemma?

A: At first it’s very strained. Benedict doesn’t want a teenager moving in with him for the summer, especially as he’s trying to persuade his wife to come home, after she’s moved out. And I think for Gemma, Benedict’s house is a convenience, a place to escape to.

But then, when Benedict and Gemma discover an old gemstone journal together, they begin to communicate and find that they can help each other more than they know. Benedict needs the challenge of making changes to his life, and Gemma needs the stability, support and family life that her uncle can offer her.

Q: As you researched gemstones, did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: What surprised me most was how far widespread the folklore and stories behind gemstones is. Each country and culture probably has some connection to them, whether that’s people wearing them in jewellery, or finding deeper meaning behind the stones.

I like the idea that Blue Lace Agate can help people to start afresh, bring peace, love and understanding…and that it’s an excellent stone which helps writers to develop inspired ideas. Always useful!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve started to write book three. My main character is a lady this time. She’s a librarian who receives a mysterious book from her grandmother, who she thought was dead…but I can’t say more than that, as at this stage as I’m not sure myself.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’d like to thank readers, bloggers and journalists in the U.S. and Canada for their response to my books.

Rise and Shine, Benedict Stone was selected for the Indie Next List June 2017, and The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper is on the Indie Next Summer Reading List. I receive some lovely tweets and Facebook messages, and I really appreciate the support!

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