Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Q&A with Maria Leonard Olsen

Maria Leonard Olsen is the author of the children's picture book Healing for Hallie. She also has written the picture book Mommy, Why's Your Skin So Brown?. A lawyer and journalist, she co-hosts the Inside Out radio show on WPFW-FM in Washington, D.C.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Healing for Hallie? 

A: I had just gone through a painful time in my life, including a divorce, and was reflecting on how things could have been easier in my life, from the time I was a small child, if I had not kept my feelings bottled up inside.

My father and grandfather (who lived with us) were reticent military types around whom stiff upper lip mentality was expected. And my mother was not one to discuss feelings. Perhaps it is a generational thing.

I would like to ease some of the pain I see around me. One of those ways is to encourage my children and other children (as well as my friends) to share their feelings as a means of healing. I believe sharing one's grief and troubles halves them, and sharing one's joys multiplies them.

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

A: I learned the hard way that holding my feelings inside about difficult things that happened in my life was akin to holding a beach ball under water: It can be done, but it takes a tremendous amount of mental and emotional energy, and the pain tends to pop up in various ways.

Unexpressed anger, I am told by professionals, can manifest itself in depression, for example, as it did for me years ago.

Q: Who do you see as the book's ideal readership? 

A: Perhaps I tried to write a story to my younger self.  I wish someone had given me the message of this book when I was 6 years old and my parents were splitting up. I recall feeling so scared and alone with my feelings.

I believe all children could benefit from reading this book and, perhaps, even adults who take the message to heart. It may be a helpful gift to children who are experiencing the trauma of a terminally ill relative or when someone in the family has passed, as a vehicle to encourage them to express their feelings. 

Q: At what point did you see the illustrations, and what do you think they bring to the book? 

A: My friend, Maggie Salter, showed me her daughter's art when I was away with her on one of her wonderful spiritual retreats.

Meghan ("M.R.") Morrison's art spoke to me, so we began discussing what types of illustrations she could produce for the book I had written. She sent me a sample of what she had in mind after reading the text I had written, and then other illustrations as she finished one for each page.

Her beautiful, evocative watercolors lent the contemplative feel I was seeking for this book on cultivating emotional well-being. She really captured the essence of the book and enhanced it tremendously.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My first non-fiction book was released Nov. 28, entitled, Not the Cleaver Family--The New Normal in Modern American Families. The book is about how much American families have changed in this generation.

My parents were forbidden by law from marrying in 1961 because they are of two different races (Interracial marriage was illegal in 16 states, including Maryland and Virginia, until 1967). My children were incredulous when I first told them that.

The book is based on hundreds of interviews I did with families across the country. It is designed to raise our collective consciousness about what the typical contemporary American family has become, and help educators and others expand the universal desire for inclusion, acceptance, and understanding.

In addition, I have a wonderful new agent, Diane Nine (who is excellent, as she represented you), with whom I am working on my next book about women's empowerment. Stay tuned!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Readers can stay up to date on my writing, events, and WPFW FM radio show on diversity and inclusion by checking out my website.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Maria Leonard Olsen, please click here.

Q&A with Stephen Metcalfe

Stephen Metcalfe is the author of the new novel The Practical Navigator. He also has written the young adult novel The Tragic Age. Also a playwright and screenwriter, he is an associate artist at The Old Globe theater in San Diego.

Q: How was your new novel's title selected, and what does it signify for you?

A: The title refers to a book on marine navigation. The American Practical Navigator is by Nathaniel Bowditch. It starts with – and I quote – “Marine navigation blends both science and art. The science of navigation can be taught, but the art of navigation must be developed from experience.”  This sounded a lot like everyday life to me.

Q: As a parent of a son with autism, how did your own life affect your creation of the characters of Michael and Jamie?

A: I am the proud father of an 18-year old-son on the autism spectrum. The last thing I ever expected. A life changer. Asperger’s, the doctor’s assistant said. 

My wife and I didn’t even know what the word meant. We looked it up. It was 2002, the net was in its infancy and there wasn’t a lot out there, but what there was suggested semi-retardation and a lifetime of dependency. 

We felt wronged. Why him, why us, why me? We felt helpless. Who do we go to, what do you do, how can we fix it? You don’t know anything and it’s terrifying. But you learn.  

In writing Navigator, I wanted to go back to the time when my son was 6 and put all the things my wife and I discovered through the prism of imagination. Hence Michael and Jamie.

Q: You've also written a young adult novel, plays, and screenplays. How does one type of work affect the others for you?

A: I feel plays are based in character and dialogue. Both these elements are certainly important in screenplays but more important is the emphasis on the visual. You “hear” a play, you “see” a screenplay.

It seems to me a novel combines all these elements. A novelist is the director, the actor, the set and lighting designer and, yes, even the stunt coordinator. It’s a one-man job.

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

A: I knew it would end with a green flash. I just wasn’t sure how I was going to get there.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on a new novel. I recently completed a new stage play.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Only that I feel very fortunate to do what I do. I hope the best is yet to come.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 7

Dec. 7, 1873: Willa Cather born.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Q&A with Alex Beam

Alex Beam is the author of the new book The Feud: Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson, and the End of a Beautiful Friendship. His other books include American Crucifixion and Gracefully Insane. He is a columnist for The Boston Globe, and he lives in Newton, Massachusetts.

Q: Why did you decide to write a book about the feud between Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson?

A: I definitely say a little about this at the beginning of the book. I didn’t know of the feud’s existence. A lot of people better immersed in 20th century literature have known about it, but it was a secret to me!

I was with my friend [when I heard about the feud] and I couldn’t believe my ears! My first reaction was disbelief and scoffing humor—it was the silliest thing I’d ever heard.

I’ve been thinking about the books I’ve written, and every book is about a subject I knew nothing about. Nothing was [telling me], Oh well, everybody knows that.

I didn’t know much about Wilson and Nabokov, and that it was [the Pushkin novel Eugene] Onegin [that played a big role in the feud]—I am a Russian speaker, a vestigial Russian Studies student, and the lure of Onegin is a place you can’t really take the reader, though it’s a chapter in the book.

Seeing what [the feud] was nominally about was pretty tempting. I knew Onegin was sort of the vortex of Russian literature, but I hadn’t read it. A number of things drew me in.

Q: How would you describe their friendship?

A: It was very beautiful. It’s no accident those letters [between them] were printed twice. It’s not only beautiful, it’s erudite, very candid. It’s the friendship every writer wants, the kind of friendship you’re lucky to have—people who like you and your work but can offer honest criticism.

The sense now is that a lot of the friendship was expressed itself through letters. That assigns it a slightly different quality—it could be the 18th century. We can’t see or hear their conversation, but we can savor the letters.

Q: So was it really a disagreement over Nabokov’s translation of Eugene Onegin that caused the friendship to end?

A: The book, which is blessedly short, in a not terribly profound way, takes the reader to the conclusion that the two men’s lives marched in different directions.

What had been friendly differences became sharply edged. Nabokov became more conservative, and Wilson became more liberal.

The nature of their successes—it’s real—when your friend is on the bestseller list and you’re not, the friendship didn’t survive Nabokov’s apotheosis.

I’m not an expert on Edmund Wilson but Wilson has a traditional arc for a career. In his prime, he was famous in America, as he enters his 70s, he was not a writer younger people were reading. It’s natural. Nabokov was quite the opposite.

Q: How would you describe the legacy of these two writers?

It’s radically uneven. I just did a piece for the Globe on Nabokov’s legacy. I don’t want to be overly blunt, but there is not an Edmund Wilson legacy.

Literature types like my editor know a lot about Wilson. The New Yorker occasionally publishes [pieces relating to him]. Older New Yorker writers know a lot about Wilson—the power of his voice, his left-wing politics. But for the man or woman on the street, no one’s ever heard of Wilson.

The opposite is true for Nabokov. When you strip it all away, it’s 1000 percent on the strength of Lolita. Lolita is still a book people read. Its 60th anniversary was last year. There was an incredible amount of criticism about. It made the Modern Library list…

Q: So you think it’s mainly Lolita that’s keeping his name going?

A: That’s my opinion. The academy has been in love with Nabokov for decades now. University scholars have kept him very much afloat…There are five journals devoted to Nabokov studies. There’s not one journal devoted to Edmund Wilson.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My next book is a conversation-stopper—it’s about architecture. I barely have started. It’s a book involving Mies van der Rohe and one of his famous clients.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I hope people like it! It was meant to be fun to read. I would want people to have fun reading it.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with David Savill

David Savill is the author of the new novel They Are Trying to Break Your Heart. He has worked as a journalist for the BBC, and he teaches creative writing at the University of Salford in Manchester, England.

Q: You've spent time in both Bosnia and Thailand. Why did you decide to combine the Bosnian war and the 2004 tsunami in Thailand in this novel?

A: How do we put ourselves back together after the worst of disasters? This was what interested me. The idea that in the darkest of times, we also find the most beautiful light.

It’s an idea a lot of Americans might need just now. I had witnessed the aftermath of both war and natural disaster, and it was the fact of survival, and hope, that stayed with me.

In the story, three characters have been confronted with different kinds of disaster; the pain of having a loved-one go missing, the grief of having your childhood stolen by a war, and the injustice of being a victim to a terrible crime.

The story doesn’t flinch from its realities. The world is trying to break the heart of my characters. But in the end, we are seeing these people struggle towards the light, and make their worlds anew.

Q: The book jumps around in time and location. Did you plan out the structure of the novel before you started writing, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: I began with a very organic drafting process. I didn’t plan, and I followed the dramatic journey of each character. At the heart of each narrative is the shock of the unexpected: the day of the tsunami, the day a Bosnian town is shelled, the day a human rights researcher discovers the truth behind an awful crime.

Later, I shattered the narrative, just as a bomb or tsunami would. I began to arrange the events in time and space around these shocks.

Tsunamis cannot be detected at the point of the earthquake. The surface of the water is still. The energy of the shockwave gathers as it meets the continental shelf, piling up and pushing out of the water to create the wave we see. In the novel, the dramatic energy of the three stories gathers, and time and space pile up until they all become one.  

Q: You write from the perspectives of various characters. Were there some whose viewpoints you particularly empathized with?

A: I have to empathise with all my characters, especially the most troubled. Empathy is literature’s redeeming feature. This doesn’t mean all fiction seeks empathy. But as a writer I do see it as my job to practice a deep empathy, and what I learn from this becomes my gift to the reader.

People in this book do bad things, but I don’t believe people are bad. Alice Munro said we should never underestimate the meanness in people’s hearts, even when they are being kind, especially when they are being kind.

I think this is a great key to understanding people. I understand you can be mean, and cruel, but I’m going to love you anyway. And love changes you.

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

A: During the writing I was listening a lot to the Wilco song “I am Trying To Break Your Heart.” It’s a song about seeing the other side of someone’s story, about how love can be cruel and selfish but achingly beautiful and redemptive at the same time.

There is more than one protagonist in the book, so I changed the pronoun in the song title, and suddenly it became a way of saying – these people are trying to break each other’s hearts; but the world is also trying to break their heart. Trying, but it won’t succeed.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve just finished the first draft of a novel called Disinformation. I don’t want to say too much about the plot, but it’s about journalism in the new age of political conspiracies. It’s very “post-truth.”

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Only that I deeply appreciate my readers. The book isn’t a straight thriller, and it isn’t completely literary either. It’s challenging at the beginning, but I know you won’t be disappointed by the time you get to the end. The best thing a reader ever said to me was, “This book taught me how to read it, and I’m so glad I made the effort.” 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 6

Dec. 6, 1886: Joyce Kilmer born.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Q&A with Brian Russo

Brian Russo is the author and illustrator of the new children's picture book Yoga Bunny. He has a teaching certificate in yoga, and he's based in Utah.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for the Yoga Bunny book?

A: What I came up with was the illustrations. I took a yoga teacher certification class in 2010. As part of graduating, we had to memorize a sequence, and I drew the bunny as a visual representation of the poses.

Other people in the class responded to it. I put up a website, It pretty much looks now like how it was. It got pretty popular online. People would forward me something where someone had reposted the images, and it was the kind of traffic I would get on my site with a K after it [representing thousands].

I started selling posters and T-shirts. I wasn’t supporting myself doing it, but it was bringing in a little extra cash.

Lisa Sharkey from HarperCollins had the idea of a book about a bunny doing yoga, independent from me. When she Googled it, my images came up.

First [the idea was] maybe someone else would write it…[but] I had another children’s book I was trying to get out, and they thought they’d give me a shot. I’m a big fan of Adventure Time, more adventure-based, but that was not the tone they wanted. They were interested in something small and simple.

I looked at A.A. Milne’s illustrations, and took in that feeling. I did a couple of illustrations with the bunny in the woods, and animals coming up to him. [I thought,] Maybe that’s all that needs to happen! Is this really all that needs to happen? I guess it was!...

Q: How do yoga, writing, and illustrating fit together for you?

A: One thing I discovered over the course of the yoga thing is that I feel way more comfortable illustrating than teaching yoga! It’s something about my mind—I can’t just write notes, I have to draw stuff.

I got into doing yoga, and that inspired me to draw the bunny in different poses—I was imagining animation of the bunny like a remixed pop song.

I worked as an art model—by doing poses, you find dramatic poses. They would say, Do these poses so your body understands what it’s like to hold these poses. I think when you’re drawing, there has to be a connection between what the character is doing and what you’re doing. You need to understand what that feels like.

Q: Are you still teaching yoga?

A: I took the class because it was something I was interested in, and for a little bit I would teach yoga for friends.

Maybe this is good advice for people considering yoga teaching—it takes a while to get to a point where this is your profession and people are paying you for it. It was expected that you would teach without getting compensated. It’s a long haul.

For me, I discovered that illustration is what I’m more passionate about.

[With yoga,] there’s something I need from it to keep off anxiety. It’s a physical thing that I need. That’s more what it is than the actual teaching. The thing I got from the class is those bunnies, and that gave me the opportunity to do my first children’s book!

I moved from New York to Utah, and I still do yoga, but I do it at home with videos. It can take a while to find a place you feel comfortable doing it. Different yoga studios have different vibes. I need something a little more low-key, and some places get pretty intense.

Q: What do you see as the perfect age group for this book, or doesn’t it really have an age group?

A: In writing the story, my thinking was, this is for very young children because the story is so simple. He’s doing yoga and wants people to do it with him.

Last Friday I read it to 5th graders. I was thinking this is good practice but they are a little too old. I asked them, and they said no, they said they were into it!...

I’m proud of the way the illustrations came out. I worked very hard on it, and I had a team of people coaching me. Having that pushed me beyond what I had achieved before. I’m hoping the illustrations can [amplify] the simple story and make it accessible.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve written a follow-up to Yoga Bunny. I hope it will happen—I will have to see if the publisher wants to do another one.

I have a website,—that’s the other book I’m working on. It tells the story of a mouse looking for the perfect piece of cheese he had and lost. I’m pitching the idea for a graphic novel.

[A friend and I] have a comedy pilot we’re trying to get into the hands of someone who can help us. It’s more broad comedy—a Star Trek parody.

I have a couple of other ideas that my agent thought were not quite right for children’s books. Maybe for animation—I’m starting to storyboard them out for animation. Everything takes a long time! I’m hoping the right things will lead to something!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb