Friday, September 22, 2017

Q&A with Christopher Bollen

Christopher Bollen, photo by Danko Steiner
Christopher Bollen is the author of the new novel The Destroyers, which is set on the Greek island of Patmos and focuses on two old friends. He also has written the novels Orient and Lightning People, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including GQ and The New York Times. He is the editor at large of Interview magazine, and he lives in New York City.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Destroyers, and for your characters Ian and Charlie?

A: I’m such a place-based writer. Everything is focused around a geographical setting. I think of where I’m going to set a novel, and that defines the whole story. It’s not a story looking for a place, it’s a place, and whatever situation is on the ground will determine what happens.

In this case, I was fascinated by Patmos, the Greek island—it’s famous for being where John wrote the Book of Revelation. I grew up in Catholic schools, and for every 12-year-old by the Book of Revelation was the exciting chapter—it’s a very Hollywood book. I was always fascinated with this island.

In the early 2000s [I heard about] people recommending Patmos as a jet-set island. How do two totally separate realms overlap?

I finally got there in 2012. It’s so beautiful. It’s filled with strange Christian history and also with indulgent hedonistic European vacationers. It was hard not to write about it!

Q: And how did you come up with Ian and Charlie?

A: It’s about how I was perceiving relationships in my life. I hadn’t really written about wealth before [except] about artists and self-earners.

In metropolitan cities, you come across people with inherited wealth. I don’t judge—they’re extremely smart and gifted—but it fascinated me. I grew up having to earn and stretch every penny, and was fascinated by their decision-making process and how they live.

I set up Charlie and Ian as an example of that. Because I get to live in Manhattan, even within a wealthy bracket there are all kinds of wealth. There are just millionaires, and then there are billionaires. Ian is from a moneyed but not an indulgently wealthy family, and Charlie is from billionaire funds.

You have different views about childhood friendships. At 20, you want to escape the friends of your youth. At 40, you try to reconnect, to find that they’re not interested.

It was a yearning to talk about the bonds of friendship. Ian and Charlie are friends as kids, and they’ve drifted apart. When you’re out on a limb, thrown into dire straits, you reach out to those people who have known you longest, and remember you as innocent. It interested me.

Q: Your work has been compared to that of Patricia Highsmith. What do you think of the comparison?

A: I love Patricia Highsmith. It’s humongous fun—it’s an honor. [In a sense] we’re not that similar because she’s so concise and tight and I’m more verbose, but I do love the psychological buildup she provides. She sees something beautiful, and describes the muck around it.

She’s such an astute psychological writer. She strips out all formalities and is not afraid to make them ugly. [Her characters] want something and go after it, and it cuts out all the niceties. She’s a lover of lifestyles—Ripley is very much about Dickie’s hedonistic Italian lifestyle—but she’s a bit of a destroyer.

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

A: I don’t know where [my novels are] going. For all the books I’ve written, I start with no idea of what the reason is. I have a faint vision of what I think will happen at the end; however, if a better story occurs to me, I give it complete freedom. It’s dangerous—you can paint yourself into a corner!

There’s always the postmodern impulse to say, What if we don’t even say what happens? That’s kind of a cheat.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have started two books. I have no business writing two at a time! My first novel, Lightning People, was set in Manhattan and they were trying to get out of Manhattan. Then I went to the North Fork of Long Island with Orient. Then to Greece. I’m going to write one set in Venice and another in South America—hopefully!

It’s exciting. Venice is very hard to write about; it’s been written about so much. It’s a bit like New York—people know it very well, and you can’t really cheat. I love that city—I lived there for six months when I graduated from college.

[I’ve heard,] You should write shorter books. I would love to, but it’s very hard to say, Don’t write that scene.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I knew I was taking a risk writing on the rich—I hope people don’t see it as a book about spoiled rich people, without value. Money is a fascinating substance, and unfortunately it’s a big part of everybody’s day-to-day life, so it merits some focus. I wanted to pick at the corrupting influence of money.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Estep Nagy

Estep Nagy is the author of the new novel We Shall Not All Sleep, which takes place in Maine in the summer of 1964. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Southwest Review and The Believer, and he wrote and directed the film The Broken Giant. He also has written a number of plays.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for We Shall Not All Sleep, and for the two intertwined families who feature in the story?

A: In my experience WASP relationships, even the intense ones, have a kind of silence at their center. They often seem a bit cold, especially when seen from the outside, but in compensation there's this rich interior ambiguity that can sometimes feel like poetry. That’s where the book started, I guess, in trying to populate that silence.

I know the world from growing up in Philadelphia, which is one of the last bastions of the old WASP infrastructure, although I went to Quaker school and my mother is a sort of lapsed debutante from outside of Pittsburgh.  

I went to college at Yale, where it was impossible to miss the complex relationships coming out of the wealthy towns and neighborhoods of the Northeast U.S., the private schools and colleges — relationships rooted in where one grows up, those schools, friends, friends-of-friends, friends-of-parents, certain kinds of work, even war — and I had the clear sense that such complexity breeds strange but compelling intimacies.  

It’s more than just what you might see in a small town, for example, because this crowd overlaps in multiple cities as well as other places, like the Maine Coast, and the connections across those lines really matter, as do the number and variety of them.  

An example from the book would be how Jim Hillsinger and Billy Quick on the one hand hate each other but on the other share an island and have known each other their whole lives and married sisters.  

They have this almost total shared frame of reference, even if their stances toward it are different and they inhabit different, fiercely-guarded quadrants of the larger circle. Their hatred is of a very intimate caliber, which to me is interesting.

Q: The book is set in 1964, during the Cold War. Why did you choose that time period, and did you need to do much research to write the novel? 

A: I’m drawn to people who have callings, and I admire the Cold Warriors' sense of public purpose, which for better or worse was almost 100 percent focused on foreign policy.  

I think the emotional impact of the Cold War on those who fought it — and even on those who didn’t — has been under-written, and as someone whose emotional life was formed during the Cold War (I was 19 when the Berlin Wall fell), I wanted to rectify that.

I did do a fair amount of research for the book, but I’m afraid it wasn’t very disciplined. For example, I spent some time in the Beinecke Library at Yale, where improbably they have the undergraduate papers of James Angleton, the former head of CIA Counterintelligence, who has a cameo in We Shall Not All Sleep.  

He edited a literary magazine at Yale, and in his letters you can really see his mind working, which was helpful. And the Yale English Department, where both Angleton and I studied (50 years apart), is all over the early history of the CIA.

The CIA plotline, by the way, is based on historical events, where two defectors named Golitsyn and Nosenko arrived a year or so apart in the early ’60s and the debate about their authenticity was fierce and cost many people their careers.  

I actually submitted Freedom of Information requests to the CIA for the final agency determinations on the case, which date from 1981, and both my request and the appeal I filed subsequently were denied, presumably on grounds of national security.

Q: How important is setting to you in your work? Could this novel have only been set on this particular Maine island and its surroundings?

A: On a technical level, setting is fantastically important -- it sets the rhythm both of the story and even of the writing.  

Geographically, Maine is unique and irreplaceable. It manages to feel both raw and philosophical, at least the coast feels that way, and in the WASP pantheon Maine looms very large as both a refuge and a marker of status.  

Also, as far as the book is concerned, having just the two families on the island makes for a strange form of intimacy, which I think is crucial here.

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

A: The title is taken from a passage in First Corinthians — “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.” I love the implication of chosen-ness, of the possibility of transformation. I’m not sure what (good) writing is, if it isn’t a sort of transcendental wakefulness.  

And those ideas were all very potent in 1964 among those who experienced the Soviet threat most intensely. That passage is also in the libretto for Handel’s Messiah, which features briefly.

And then -- this is sort of inside baseball in my head -- First Corinthians is the name of a character in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, which is a book that I love. So there were different layers.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Another book in the same world, with many of the same characters. Pray for me.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’ve been astonished by the relevance of the 1964 Cold War world to that of today. Suddenly Russia is in the news again every day, espionage seems to be damaging our democracy, and we’re told that all over the world intelligence operations are impacting elections, arguably much more so than during the Cold War, where there was immense hysteria around just that.

So for me, the atmosphere of We Shall Not All Sleep feels a bit like a letter from a friend who’s living through something vital, something we all need to learn from.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Robin Stevens Payes

Robin Stevens Payes is the author of Edge of Yesterday, a new novel for kids focusing on a girl who wants to travel back in time and meet Leonardo da Vinci. The novel has an accompanying website that encourages kids to share their storytelling skills and learn more about science and history.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Edge of Yesterday and your main character, Charley?

A: I started a long time ago. I have three kids, and when the oldest was reaching the preteen years and I was being a carpool mom—soccer, band practice—I listened to their conversations, how they and their friends wanted to be everything, soccer players, diplomats.

I was thinking about it—in our society we make kids specialize in kindergarten. It began as a thought experiment. Can children growing up today become everything they want? Who was the epitome of that? Leonardo da Vinci was able to do all of that. If Leonardo was born today, could he be Leonardo?

I chose a girl because still, unfortunately, in 2017 there are [obstacles] for girls to get into certain fields, particularly STEM fields that are highly compensated and growing in demand.

Q: What inspired the interactive website that accompanies the novel, and what response have you had to it?

A: It’s been growing quite a bit. The story started as a screenplay. I’d never written a screenplay before. I realized I didn’t have the technology to make it plausible for Charley to travel back and forth through time. She needed an iPhone!

[Later] I had a screenplay and a book, and I started tweeting the novel out. I realized Charley’s voice was coming out. She started tweeting and she continues to do that to this day. It’s the 40th anniversary of when Voyager 1 and 2 launched, and we have a new article by an intern about the Golden Record. It can be very timely in that way.

All of these things seemed to be speaking to a larger need, learning through story. Stories are universal, they are vital for transmitting information, but they’re also for entertainment and inculcating moral values. It seems to be a timeless way to offer the idea that learning can be fun if it’s tied to a story.

Because Leonardo was the master of all things, there’s so much you can learn! We aggregated it on the website. The idea was to make it interactive and fun--here’s something you didn’t know—and include literature, math, science, history. That’s the way the real world works. It’s meant to be transdisciplinary.

Q: What age group do you focus on?

A: It’s designed to be middle-grade fiction, age 9-12. I feel it’s the older, upper end of the age group because some of the concepts are pretty sophisticated for younger readers, though on the website we have a word of the week and words are defined within the book to make it accessible. I’ve had older kids be engaged, and a lot of parents say, This is really cool!

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

A: For me, it’s wonderful because it’s a constant learning and growing experience. When I began, we hardly had the Internet. Research about Leonardo meant going to the library.

There has been a growth of “Leonardo-ana,” especially within the last five to six years; there’s been an explosion of Leonardo-related stuff. There’s just a perennial interest. He was an enigma in a lot of ways, though he was prolific, but it was focused on his work. Plumbing the inner Leonardo has been fun.

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

A: I didn’t start reading this series until I had finished the book, but the Outlander series, by Diana Gabaldon, is an epic; it’s rip-roaring fun, and is meticulously researched. I love her research and her attending to facts and her ability to recreate regular life in historic times…

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I received a grant from the Montgomery County Arts and Humanities Council to start a new adventure, three books in a series.

The next adventure is with an 18th century French noblewoman. Emilie du Chatelet was a consort of Voltaire, a mathematician and physicist. She translated Newton into French for the first time, she laid the foundation for relativity, and she had four kids. It’s natural that Charley is dying to meet her. She was a kick-ass 18th century woman.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: One of the pieces I’m really intentional about and proud of, part of what Edge of Yesterday is about, is promoting curiosity and creativity in readers and people who interact with the website.

The activities energize people to share their creativity with us and other people interested in the story. It’s how curiosity and creativity can express your ability to follow your dreams as a young person.

I started a hashtag, #eoymystory. I want people to share what they’re passionate about, what their dreams are, their story. I love engaging with these young people, and I hope they will enjoy sharing with each other.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 22

Sept. 22, 1908: Esphyr Slobodkina born.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Q&A with Deborah Copaken

Deborah Copaken is the co-author of the new book The ABCs of Parenthood. Her other books include The ABCs of Adulthood and The Red Book. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and The New Yorker, and she is based in New York.

Q: You said in our previous interview that your first ABC book was inspired by your son's graduation from high school. What inspired this second one? 

A: I've made a lot of mistakes in my life, but my two older kids, now 22 and 20, have consistently told me they appreciated my hands-off, start-from-a-place-of-trust-and-kindness parenting. Randy [Polumbo], my co-author, has an equally good and thriving relationship with his college-aged child.

What had we done right? What had we done wrong? Could we possibly summarize everything we'd learned, both from our mistakes and our triumphs, into 26 letters? It was worth a shot.

Interestingly enough, we started writing this in the pre-Trump era, but now that it's being published in such a mean-spirited moment of lies, corruption, and lack of empathy, it feels that much more necessary. What would the world look like right now if everyone, including our leaders, kept in mind that A is for acceptance and B is for boundaries?

Q: How did you choose the words for each letter in this new book? Was there a particular theme running through it?

A: It took us all of two hours to choose the words for each letter, and a few changed over the course of the book, but only because we came up with more compelling ideas as we started writing.

The through-thread, if I were to summarize it, is mindfulness. Or rather mindful parenting. This is not a guide for getting your kid into the best college or making them win-win-win or creating a little genius. It's about helping the tiny humans in your care learn to love themselves and the world around them.

What does mindful parenting look like? How can we approach each challenge of parenting from a place of compassion, love, empathy and kindness? 

Q: How do the two of you collaborate on these books?

A: This book, in particular, was a complete 50/50 collaboration. We each wrote 13 letters. We each shot 13 letters. There was no rhyme or reason to it: it just happened organically.

Randy would say, "Hey, I'd like to write the A," and I'd say, "Okay, cool." Or he would ask if I could shoot the letters with children in them, as he preferred to do the beautiful close-up shots of objects.

We met in person only twice: at the beginning and at the end. Everything else was done by passing the manuscript back and forth over email and by texts with photo attachments saying stuff like, "Ugh, I can't seem to get this Q right, what do you think?"

Neither of us have really collaborated in our individual work in the past, so it took getting used to. But I think the book is stronger for it.

Q: Who's the ideal reader of this book, and what do you hope people take away from it?

The ideal reader is any parent at any juncture in their parenting journey, but particularly in the early stages, when habits get solidified.

My sincere hope is that we can allow parents to see that their job is so much more than helping their child to win the prize or beat the competition. Their job is to help impressionable psyches feel okay in their own skin, love others, and appreciate the amazing gift of life. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I've been consulting on a new TV show and trying to start a new book.

I just finished writing an Op-Ed on civil rights abuses in name change laws and another story on a trip to Nepal I just took after nearly dying this summer, when I bled out due to complications from surgery.

My 20-year-old daughter, by the way, saved my life that night. Rushed me to the hospital at 1:30 AM. Told the doctors what was happening when I passed out at the entrance to the emergency room. I've never been more proud as a parent than watching her cope during that unbelievably trying moment. She was...a rock star. Truly.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Only that I appreciate your questions, and I hope I get to publish another book, so you can ask me more.

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

Q&A with Manu Herbstein

Manu Herbstein is the author of The Boy Who Spat in Sargrenti's Eye, a historical novel for kids, a winner of the 2017 Children's Africana Book Award. His other books include Ama and Brave Music of a Distant Drum. Born in South Africa, he has lived in Ghana for many years.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Boy Who Spat in Sargrenti's Eye?

A: I guess that it must have been after seeing some pictures from the Illustrated London News.

At the time when the British invaded Asante in 1873-74, a photographer still operated with a wooden tripod and a black cloth over his head. The technology wasn’t good enough to capture the live action of a war.

The ILN sent the artist, Melton Prior, to the Gold Coast to cover the invasion. The prevailing world view of the British at that time was deeply racist. However, while Prior shared the racist views of his colleagues, he drew what he saw, at least when that didn’t serve to discredit his fellow Brits.

The dispatches of the other war correspondents, and the books they wrote after the war, make painful reading today; but Prior’s images suggest a picture of the times which is difficult to convey in words alone.

I wove the story around the images, creating the fictional narrator, 15-year Kofi Gyan, to give an African account of the conflict, absent in the contemporary narratives.

Q: What did you see as the right blend between fiction and history as you wrote the novel, and what kind of research did you conduct?

A: My research for my first novel, Ama, a Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, was largely textual, conducted in the Africana Library of the University of Ghana.

By the time I came to write the Sargrenti book, I had access to the Internet and Google. I downloaded the texts of most of the contemporary accounts, all of them written by British participants, both journalists and soldiers; and all of them insensitive to African feelings and thought.

I supplemented this with reading a wide range of relevant 19th century and later writing on subjects including Asante and Fante people, history and culture; imperialist fiction for boys (such as that by G. A. Henty); Victorian culture, military history and the looting of cultural artefacts. My bibliography extends to several pages.

Then I set all that aside and did my best to create a believable and sympathetic narrator and to tell a good story.

Q: The book includes many illustrations. Why did you decide to include them, and how did you select them?

A: A writer of fiction aims to spark images in the reader’s mind. If the reader lacks appropriate visual references, that might not work well. Including the illustrations saved me writing many lines of potentially boring description.

Then again, in much past fiction, text was complemented by illustrations. Think, to give just one example, of John Tenniel’s contribution to Alice in Wonderland.

I included most of the available images, perhaps too many; but I was tempted to make this novel something approaching a complete record.

Q: Who do you see as the ideal reader for this book, and what do you hope readers take away from Kofi's story?

A: History is no longer a core subject in the Ghanaian school curriculum, so many Ghanaians remain ignorant of much of their ancestors’ stories. I’ve been gratified by the positive response of Ghanaian readers of this novel, including adults.

Its story of the impact of colonialism is repeated in many African countries, so I would hope that it might be read elsewhere on the continent and by members of the global African diaspora.

Many countries in today’s world are guilty of willful amnesia regarding aspects of their history and, in particular, the hypocrisy and cruelty of their past rulers. This story is part of British history, as well as Ghanaian history. I wish that British schoolkids might be encouraged to read this novel, but, realistically, there’s faint hope of that.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve recently self-published six works in the U.S., available as paperbacks. Self-publishing places a burden of marketing on the author; that occupies much of my time.

I’m 81. I’ve lived an interesting life and have kept many documents. My next task will be to write a memoir, perhaps publishing it initially as a series of short blog pieces.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The Boy who Spat in Sargrenti’s Eye won a Burt Award for African Literature in Ghana and the 2016 Creative Book of the Year Award of the U.S.-based African Literature Association.

It is one of seven books due to receive a Children’s Africana Book Award at CABA’s 25th anniversary dinner on Nov. 3, 2017, from 6:00 – 9:00 pm, at St Francis Hall, 1340 Quincy Street NE, Washington, DC. Tickets and more information about the CABA Awards may be obtained here.

On Saturday, Nov. 4, a free CABA family festival will be held at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave S.W., Washington, D.C. From 11 a.m. – 2 p.m., children can learn to spin a yarn and weave a story, based on tales from Ghana, Morocco, and Ivory Coast.

I’ll join a panel of CABA authors/illustrators, talking about our work, from 11:30 – 12:30. Current and past CABA winners will be signing their books after the panel discussion. The event is free and open to the public. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sept. 20

Sept. 20, 1878: Upton Sinclair born.