Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Q&A with Xhenet Aliu

Xhenet Aliu is the author of the new novel Brass. She also has written the story collection Domesticated Wild Things, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Glimmer Train and Hobart. She works as an academic librarian, and she lives in Athens, Georgia.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Brass, and for your characters Elsie and Luljeta? 

A: Growing up in Waterbury, Connecticut, I was surrounded--at home, at work in the industrial park, in my community college classes--by a lot of women who informed the character of Elsie.

These were single moms with a ton of hustle, women who lived hard lives and still managed to have a nasty sense of humor, women who were sharp enough that, if they’d been born just a few minutes down the road in some of the wealthier parts of Connecticut, it would have been assumed that they would go to college and thrive in the obvious ways that our culture values.

I knew Elsie so well that I barely had to write her; it just took me a while to figure out that there was a reason to.

When I first started writing seriously, I was panicked because I thought a person like me, with no pedigree and not a cosmopolitan bone in my body, had no stories to tell.

I didn’t think people wanted to read about things like poor and working-class people, recent immigrants who weren’t success stories, post-industrial factory towns, because I so infrequently encountered them myself as a reader. Eventually I realized that was exactly the reason I was writing this story.

Luljeta was born of Elsie--literally, in the novel, but also conceptually, because I realized after I wrote Elsie’s story that there had to be a reason Elsie was telling it. I realized that Elsie’s story is suddenly significant because her daughter may be in danger of repeating some parts it, or of coming to the same conclusion. Suddenly there’s an imperative.

Q: The novel switches back and forth between Elsie and her daughter Luljeta’s points of view. Why did you decide to write Elsie’s chapters in first person and Luljeta’s in second person?

A: Elsie’s story was always in the first-person because it seems to me that women like her are more often talked about than listened to.

Elsie’s qualified to tell her own story, but the she didn’t rise from the ashes and get an MFA, so why would she sound like she did, and moreover, why should she? Are poor or working-class people only worth listening to if they can adopt the language and mannerisms of the educated class?

I wanted to respect the character’s language and try to find a way to make it effective and penetrating despite it not being obviously “pretty.”

I wrote Luljeta’s chapters in both the first- and third-person and just found them limp and not-quite-right.

I started re-writing them in the second-person only out of desperation, and I was both concerned and relieved to discover that this was how the story wanted to be told: concerned because I feared it might come off as gimmicky and abrasive, and relieved because the story finally unfolded naturally once I made the switch.

I don’t want to be so prescriptive as to demand a reader interpret it this way, but to me, the second-person represents Luljeta’s feeling of lack of control over her future: she worries her own fate, her own story, is being told to her, that options are a luxury not afforded to everybody.

Q: The story takes place in Waterbury. How important is setting to you in your work, and could this have taken place elsewhere?

A: There’s no shortage of post-industrial cities in this country, and a lot of them probably have plenty in common with Waterbury, whether they’re in Ohio or Pennsylvania or wherever.

I chose Waterbury as a setting not just because I grew up there--though I did discover a new interest in it once I was safely far away--but because it’s not where most people expect to find a struggling factory town.

“Connecticut” is almost shorthand for “wealth and privilege” in popular culture, but the reality is that most of the state is working- to middle-class, much of it blue-collar.

The juxtaposition between the wealthy and the economically struggling is particularly jarring in Connecticut--I wanted my characters to have a sense of the land of plenty, without having any idea how to access it.

Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: Brass is, most literally, the industry that Waterbury was both built on and wrecked by, so there’s a sense of irony in the title. Beyond that, brass is tough, like the characters, and it’s made tougher by virtue of it being an alloy, a composite of different materials.

Luljeta, I think, is like that--the first in her family to be between cultures, but maybe also the first to possibly transcend in ways her family wasn’t able to.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Something not in the second-person! It’s a novel set in Waterbury, the Bronx, and Kosova in the 1990s, and it’s required researching lots of archived early internet chatrooms. It’s been fun to research and to start getting it down on paper.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just how incredibly grateful I am that people believed in this story enough to take a risk and put it out there--it may sound corny and canned, but it’s absolutely true. I’m still astounded every day.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Lina Maslo

Lina Maslo is the author and illustrator of the new children's picture book Free as a Bird: The Story of Malala. Maslo lives in South Carolina.

Q: Why did you decide to write and illustrate this picture book about Malala Yousafzai?

A: I read Malala Yousafzai’s autobiography and was touched by her beautiful story. So I went on to read all the books and articles I could find on her, and to watch the documentaries.

At that time, I felt that the existing picture books about Malala didn’t touch on some aspects of her life I thought were important: the encouragement she received from her parents, and the power that words had in her life.

Q: What age group do you think would especially appreciate the book, and how did you decide to portray her life to younger readers?

A: As most picture book authors do, I hope that this book will appeal to all ages!

I tried to think of various age groups when I was working on this book. For the sake of the youngest readers, I decided to portray the shooting of Malala in an abstract way, allowing the adult reader to tell the child as much, or as little, as they want. (Although it is clarified in the author’s note.)

I also use a lot of metaphor in the book, which older children like to explore. And I think children of all ages can appreciate Malala’s courage in the face of adversity.

Q: Did you focus first on the story or on the illustrations (or did you work on them simultaneously)?

A: It’s always hard for me to try to think back and remember the process. I’m pretty sure I began with a few lines of the story. And notes. Lots of notes. And then I did a few sketches. And then I did a sample finished piece, which I put in my portfolio. It got a lot of great responses, and so I thought, “Well, I might be on to something here…”

I’m constantly going back and forth between writing and drawing and thumb-nailing and book-dummying. So, the answer is, I worked on the art and story simultaneously.

Q: What do you hope kids take away from Malala’s story?

A: That there is power in their words and actions, even at a young age! And I hope that they realize what a great privilege they have in being able to go to school and have an education, even though it isn’t always fun.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I think I’m allowed to say this… I’m working on my next picture book biography: it’s about C.S. Lewis, and how his childhood and life led him to write The Chronicles of Narnia. I’m pretty excited about this one!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I hope that others are as inspired as I was after reading Malala’s story!

You can find me at www.linamaslo.com and on Twitter @linamaslo.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Omer Bartov

Omer Bartov is the author of the new book Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz. It focuses on an Eastern European town and how it was affected by the Holocaust. His other books include Germany's War and the Holocaust and Erased, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New Republic and The Wall Street Journal. He is the John P. Birkelund Distinguished Professor of European History at Brown University, and he lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Q: You note that this book “spans two decades, three continents, nine countries and as many languages, and scores of archives.” Did you expect this project to encompass so much time and effort when you began?

A: No, not at all. I thought I was writing about a little town in eastern Galicia—how many documents could there be? In the town itself, there is nothing, but once you start looking, there are documents all over Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and America.

Q: What would you say was the most surprising discovery about the World War II period that you made in the course of your years of research?

A: Much of the research I did was not only about World War II; there were many other interesting findings with the other periods.

Specifically about World War II, the most astonishing aspect was the disproportion between the number of German perpetrators on the ground and the number of people they managed to murder. That was one major aspect. Between 20 and 30 [in the German security police outpost] killed about 60,000 Jews in that area.

The second was the extraordinary disparity between what they were doing and how they were living. There were not only Germans involved with the security police, but others. They were having a good time. It’s not entirely surprising, but it was so blatant and so thoughtless.

The third is the reason I started the project—to understand how such a genocide begins on the ground. It became clear it was not only an event with perpetrators and victims but an entire population who were neither perpetrators nor victims but didn’t fall under a category of bystander. The sociology of a local genocide, to me, was the most revealing, not only of the Holocaust but other [genocides].

Q: What can you say about your own family and your connections to this town?

A: About 20 years ago, I started asking the question, what does a genocide look like on the local level? I had to find a small town in Eastern Europe where [many] Jews lived and most were killed.

The one town I knew something about [was Buczacz]. Shmuel Yosef Agnon, the only Hebrew-language writer recognized with a Nobel Prize came from Buczacz. I studied him in high school and admired him. Second, my mother came from there. I thought I might as well find out about the town she came from. In 1995 I interviewed her, and that got me going.

For Agnon it represented in his writing not just that town, but the entire Eastern European Jewry. He left in 1908. He wrote a vast book that came out after his death. It represented an entire lost universe. I also thought of Buczacz in that sense—not only as that town, but as a representative of what happened…

Q: How would you characterize relations between Poles, Ukrainians and Jews in Buczacz in the centuries before World War II?

A: There were Jews and Poles and Ukrainians living side by side in the town and the surrounding areas from the 1500s. Ukrainians were called Ruthenians or just peasants, and later were called Ukrainians. They lived side by side. Most of the urban population was Polish and Jewish, and a large percentage of the peasantry was Ukrainian.

They were distinguished by religion--the Poles were Roman Catholic, the Ukrainians were Greek Catholic, and the Jewish were Jewish—and by their relationship to the place.

It became more ideologically defined in the late 19th century. Until then, they would tell each other different stories about why they lived there, but it was not necessarily antagonistic. They would interact and speak each other’s languages.

The second part of the 19th century, with nationalism, there was a question of who belongs to the place and who doesn’t. By World War I, though there was very little violence, the discourse became quite antagonistic.

The Poles claimed they brought civilization, the Ukrainians were saying they were colonized by the Poles and the Jews were their lackeys. The Jews didn’t really claim they belonged there; they viewed themselves as transitory, but they viewed the town as their town where they were [involved in] commerce, were the heart of the economy, the carriers of a distinct culture.

Once World War I began, the discourse was transformed into violence. There was the war itself, and then after 1918, it continued as a war between the Poles and Ukrainians over land. The area became part of independent Poland, and the Ukrainians felt they were striving for independence and were suppressed by the Poles.

The discourse against the Jews was traditional anti-Semitism, and associating the Jews with the other side. Both sides were saying the Jews were actually with the Bolsheviks. The growing independence movement of Ukrainians had strong fascist tendencies, and became increasingly anti-Semitic…

By the time World War II started, there was increased nationalism and there were underground organizations, people the Soviets and the Germans could mobilize to establish their own political goals.

Q: What lessons can be drawn from what happened in Buczacz during World War II?

A: One can draw all kinds of lessons. There are the usual lessons one draws when studying genocide—once you start talking about a certain group in a society that doesn’t belong, is different, is less human, you establish a precedent for violence.

What’s more interesting in this case is the extent to which there was a community of coexistence for centuries, people knew each other intimately, their children went to school together—how quickly that can change into a community of genocide, and the tipping point is not always easy to perceive in advance.

It’s important for us to understand that if you remove certain constraints, [for example] if the police disappear, all kinds of grudges can suddenly trigger major violence…

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve turned my gaze to my own country of origin. I was born in Israel, and I’ve been working on [the issue of] Israel and Palestine. I’ve been teaching it for three years. In the next year, when I’m on leave, I’m interested in [looking at] my own generation, Jews and Arabs born into the first generation of the state of Israel, and how they relate to that place.

It is a continuation of this [discussion] about the relations between communities, people and the place they live in, and how they make it their own, or not.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: There is a certain narrative about what happened in World War II and the Holocaust that this book challenges. It’s made of two points.

The first is that the Holocaust was a mechanical, highly efficient organized bureaucratic genocide, where the perpetrators never encountered the victims; they put them on trains. That’s true in 50 percent of the cases. The other side is that everyone saw it, it was a very public event. Everyone participated, and nothing was detached or secret. It was a completely public affair where everybody knew everybody else.

The other is the other narrative about Eastern Europe, that it was invaded by Germans from the West and Soviets from the East and the victims are all part of the titanic struggle between the two powers. That’s also in part true, but there was also violence that was internal, triggered in part by the Soviets and the Nazis but in part not…

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 23

Jan. 23, 1783: Stendhal born.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Q&A with Ken La Salle

Ken La Salle is the author of the new novel An Intention of Flowers, the first in a series called Work of Art. His other books include Illumination and Dynamic Pluralism. He is based in Southern California.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for An Intention of Flowers, and for your character Andy Hollis?

A: 1. The idea for An Intention of Flowers entered my noggin one day as my wife, Vicky, and I were driving across the old 6th Street Viaduct in Los Angeles, which is sadly no longer with us. From atop that bridge, I looked down and witnessed children painting a parking lot with all sorts of wild, colorful flowers.

My writer's mind began doing what it always does, looking for the story there. At first, I thought it would make an incredible setting for a fantasy novel. But upon reflection I considered it on a smaller, more intimate scale, which eventually became my story.

But what did I know about that kind of story? Sure. I had been a teenager who dreamed of being an artist - but not that kind of artist. Honestly, I know very little about painting or that kind of art.

Understanding this, I knew that my point of entry could only be with someone who didn't know very much. Enter Andy Hollis, someone finding his way later in life, a little lost, just a step behind, a guy who thinks he's not hung up on doing the right thing although he kinda is.

Decades of writing have taught me that, while I could write stories from a place of authority, it's a lot more fun to use my characters’ ignorance as well as their knowledge, to jump in the deep end with them and help them find their way.

Q: This is the first in a series--have you planned out what will happen throughout the other books?

A: Yes and no.

As a writer, I tend to look at stories as a series of whats and whys. Whats are facts about the story. Whys are avenues toward those facts: intentions, motivations, and so forth.

So, I plan out my whats but I leave my whys to the writing.

Because if the story is no fun for me to explore, how is it going to be fun for the reader?

But there are some really great moments and events (also known as whats) on the horizon. And I can't wait to unearth the whys.

Q: The novel takes place in Santa Ana, California. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: When I was in my 20s, sometime back in the Mesozoic era, I heard about this author who often set his books in Orange County, California, where I'm from.

I had never heard of such a thing, having read many fantasy novels that were set worlds away and literary fiction that hardly took place near the west coast. The author's name was Dean Koontz and I thought, "If he can do it, so can I!"

This proved to be especially helpful and, as it turns out, most of my books start near here.

The Work of Art series takes place at Santa Ana High School. I didn't attend Santa Ana High but I set the story there because I wanted the setting close but unfamiliar.

I wanted the feeling of home - and, in fact, I lived in the neighborhood near Washington Avenue for many years - but I also wanted it just outside of my comfort zone. And I know how strange that might sound but, in a way, geographical setting often equates to where my mind is at as well. This is why setting is important.

Q: What do you think the book says about the importance of art, especially for young people?

A: Work of Art is fun to write because it’s filled with the kind of people I like spending time with: passionate, engaged artists. So, it would be strange to say that Work of Art doesn’t say anything about the importance of art.

And yet, in a way, I think these books are about something bigger, set against the backdrop of art. My hope is that art will help expose these characters, their desires and their weaknesses. Work of Art is never about just one work of art but, rather, it exposes the work of art that is our lives.

Having said that, my reason for choosing artists, young and old, comes right down to that passion and engagement. This passion that infects us, that wrests our lives almost completely out of our hands, that is more powerful than any of us can know, also connects us in ways we can't quite understand. And that connection, too, can be seen as a work of art in itself.

Perhaps, if Work of Art says anything about the importance of art, it speaks to this connection that so many of us share, this connection that drives us and moves us.

It is, perhaps, a reminder that those who allow art to change them and change their lives may pay a terrible price. But it is a price we must acknowledge for the many riches art also provides.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: At the moment, I'm working on two projects simultaneously.
First, I'm recording the audiobook of another novel, Heaven Enough. I'm recording with a wonderful actress named Brenda Kenworthy and I cannot wait for people to hear it. My own reading aside, she brings a depth and compassion that honestly make my words sing.

The other project is more difficult to describe but it is a work of political satire to say the least. After one year of Trump, my rage at the harm he is doing and has done to both our country and our world has now been released into the third book in my Fun To Grow On series of "children's books for adults."

And I suppose you might get the idea of just what kind of absurdist rage I'm talking about when I tell you the title...Pussies: Disemboweling Trump.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I am an independent author with a lot of passion and dedication to wherever my art is taking me. I don't write in any one genre but I like to think that if you connect to one of my books you may find that you like some others as well. I don't write the usual stories in the usual ways; I am unapologetically me.

And you can find me at www.kenlasalle.com.

Thanks to all of my readers for their support. I need all I can get.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 22

Jan. 22, 1788: Lord Byron born.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Q&A with Rachel Braun

Rachel Braun, photo by Rabbi Gilah Langner
Rachel Braun is the author of Embroidery and Sacred Text: New Designs in Judaic Needlework. A high school math and statistics teacher, she lives in the Washington, D.C., area.

Q: How did you first get involved in embroidery and needlework, and why did you decide to focus on Jewish texts?

A: I think I need to answer that question in reverse order! I have engaged with Jewish texts (Bible, liturgy) since I was a little girl. Enhancing sacred texts via the arts is common to so many cultures. 

In Jewish culture (and others!), visual expositions such as micrography, illumination, and embroidery, literally bring the texts to light.  Art provides one of many ways to immerse ourselves and reveal truths in text.

I turned to so-called “blackwork” embroidery because it is a very mathematical type of art, and I love math. (I had a first career as a statistician and now teach high school calculus and statistics.) 

Counted thread embroidery is executed on Aida cloth, an even-weave fabric that essentially looks like an x-y grid. My embroidery designs are first created on graph paper. That medium is very intuitive and meaningful to me. 

(Fun fact: I am the Guinness Book of World Records holder for largest graph paper collection in the world. I have 1000+ pieces of distinct graph paper!) 

Blackwork embroidery uses pattern and symmetry extensively, and it struck me that some of the interpretations of text that I wanted to convey reflected those attributes. Much of Jewish practice involves patterns, repetition, symmetries, and beauty -- elements easily translatable from blackwork embroidery.

Q: How did this book come about?

A: Three years ago, my friend and fellow fabric artist Christine Spangler visited me one afternoon after I had finished an embroidery piece, and announced, “You are ready for a book.” She ultimately became the book’s designer and editor. 

Her suggestion was a real gift -- it gave me motivation to spend an intense period of many months thinking about what the discipline of embroidery meant to me and verbalizing what the designs elucidated about illustrated Biblical and liturgical texts.

Q: Some of the art you include in the book was inspired by events in your family's life. What are some of your favorite pieces?

A: In 2000, I created a piece, “LeDorotam: Throughout their Generations,” to celebrate our son Hannan's bar mitzvah. The text is from the Hebrew Bible, Numbers 15:38, “and they shall make themselves tzitzit (fringes) on the corner of their garments, throughout their generations.”

This commandment is the source of the fringed prayer shawls, called tallit or tallis, that many of your blog's readers may be familiar with. Many Jewish children start wearing the tallit for prayer at the age or bar or bat mitzvah.

Hannan is named for my husband's grandmother of blessed memory, Hannah, and remarkably, I was able to use some of her own needlework in the piece.

She had crocheted a medallion doily, and I carefully separated the individual medallions and used four for the “corners” of a mini-tallit (16” x 6”) that I stitched and framed in a shadow box. 

(Some of your readers may, in their mental image of a tallit, recall that the corners of the rectangular shawl, throughout which the fringes are threaded, are often reinforced with patches.) 

Her medallions became the patched corners of the embroidery work.

In designing and stitching this piece, I felt that the Biblical words had sprung to life in the embroidery piece. The original Biblical text, the sharing of Jewish practice, and even the cloth materials had indeed prevailed “throughout their generations.”

I have the same sense about “God Counts the Stars” (2015), on the cover of the book. The text comes from Psalm 17:4-5: “God counts the stars, giving each a name....” The verse is interpreted in the embroidery as each star has its own set of blackwork patterns, its own embroidery name.

“Bamidbar: In the Wilderness” (2011) is a favorite, too, because it is one of the most mathematical in design, with strong symmetry elements. This piece was in a juried art exhibit of the American Mathematical Society in 2014.

Q: How did you decide on the order in which to place the art in the book?

A: It was a mixture of chronology -- critical, because my designs have increased in complexity over time -- and simply, making the work fit! 

Most sections, consisting of a photo of the piece plus commentary, took two pages, with a natural layout of photo on left, interpretation on the right. Longer sections, with a photo on the left followed by two pages of text, were paired with one-pagers (a small illustration matched with a paragraph of text).

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am sketching a design based on a Mishnaic text from late antiquity, that enumerates the 48 ways that Torah is “acquired” -- that is, a list of methods by which Biblical wisdom and knowledge can grow. 

As an educator, I find this acknowledgement of many paths/intelligences for embracing Torah knowledge to be wonderfully timeless. As a blackwork embroiderer, the graph paper has become a elaborate playing field -- I am writing out the text in an ornate Hebrew alphabet I developed, and surrounding each of the 48 ways with a distinct blackwork embroidery pattern. 

That is how I am using the medium of embroidery to honor the ancient text and to illuminate the concept of 48 distinct methods of absorbing Torah knowledge. The art medium is becoming one with the text – fascinating to experience as I work the designs.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Writing the book allowed me to immerse in gratitude in so many ways -- to my husband Steven Braun for planning with me to take a year off from school to collect my thoughts; to Christine Spangler for her stewardship and wise counsel; to Philip Brookman of the Smithsonian Institution for scanning my art over many, many years; and to family members and friends who cheered me on, shared ideas for improving the book, gave me leads for book talks and shows, and celebrated its success with me.

Writing a book is a fabulous experience. It at the same time expands your experience of your subject AND sharpens the acuity with which you understand its core ideas.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb