Monday, May 22, 2017

Q&A with Hena Khan

Hena Khan is the author of a new novel for kids, Amina's Voice. Her other books include It's Ramadan, Curious George and Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns. She lives in Rockville, Maryland.

Q: How did you come up for the idea for Amina’s Voice, and for your main character, Amina?

A: I wanted to write a middle grade novel that featured a Pakistani-American Muslim girl but focused on universal themes like friendship, dealing with change, and finding confidence.

Amina is a shy girl trying to find her voice, both literally and figuratively, and in many ways she represents parts of my own personality when I was that age.

I think there are a lot of stories out there nowadays with female protagonists who are outspoken, confident, go-getters and while I think they are important role models, it’s important for the quieter girls to have their chance to shine too!

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

A: Without giving away what happens, I will say that the story ended in a completely different way when I first wrote it. And all of the readers who looked at that first draft had almost a violently negative reaction to it!

They were extremely unsatisfied by the events and the feelings they were left with. So I took their advice and reworked the ending to what it is now.

Q: The book is part of a new imprint called Salaam Reads, part of Simon & Schuster that focuses on children’s books with a Muslim theme. What impact do you think your book and the other books will have, especially in the current political climate?

A: I’m honored that Amina’s Voice was the inaugural release for Salaam Reads, and to be a part of this imprint. It’s been fantastic to see the love that Salaam Reads has been getting so far, and to know that these books are being welcomed into the world of children’s literature by those who value diverse voices and see the need for books like mine and the rest.

I have to believe that these books will make a difference in today’s climate, and that getting to know a family and girl like Amina will help people to understand American Muslims better and hopefully have more compassion and tolerance. And I want American Muslim children to feel worthy and included by having their stories out there for everyone to read.

Q: Getting back to our previous Q&A about your Curious George book, how have kids (and their parents!) reacted to the book?  

A: It’s been an overwhelmingly positive response! I never get tired of hearing kids and parents tell me how happy they are about the book, and with Ramadan around the corner again, there’s a lot of excitement around it again. I see posts on social media where the book is part of Ramadan displays and featured on reading shelves.

It’s a wonderful example of how much representation matters, and how much it means to the American Muslim community to be included and to have a friend in Curious George. It makes everything else going on in the news and some of the very concerning challenges American Muslims are facing a little easier to bear.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on an illustrated chapter book series for Salaam Reads called Zayd Saleem: Chasing the Dream, about an undersized Pakistani-American boy with big basketball aspirations. As the mother of two boys living in a basketball-obsessed household, it’s been a blast to write it!

Unlike Amina’s Voice and my personal experience, in which Amina’s parents are immigrants, Zayd is a third generation American like my kids. So I get to explore that family dynamic, which has a lot of room for inter-generational humor, and have fun with a different perspective.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Over the past several years, and especially in recent months, I’ve been so moved by the outpouring of support for me and my work from unexpected places.

For example, Kate Messner decided to celebrate her book birthday by giving away copies of Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns to teachers and librarians.

It’s beautiful to see the kid lit community stand up for love and tolerance and work to educate people and push back against this climate of fear and hate-mongering. It’s encouraging and uplifting to be a part of such a wonderful and supportive community.

And I want to thank all of the amazing advocates and allies who have championed my books. I haven’t met many of them in person, but am sending huge virtual hugs!

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

Q&A with Sarah Scoles

Sarah Scoles is the author of the new book Making Contact: Jill Tarter and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. She is a science writer, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Wired, The Atlantic, Smithsonian, and The Washington Post. She lives in Denver, Colorado.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book about astronomer Jill Tarter?

A: If I’m being totally honest, I set out to write a novel, and found I wasn’t great with plot, so I decided to think about a nonfiction topic I could bring storytelling to, without having to come up with the events myself.

I had watched [the movie] Contact when I was a young teenager, and was fascinated by the topic. I worked at a telescope in West Virginia and in Puerto Rico, and was mulling it over, doing research on SETI and Jill. She was the basis for the main character in Contact.

She had done a lot of interviews, but the books written about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence were 20 years old, and no one had told the full story of Jill’s life.

Q: So what happened when you approached her?

A: It took her a few months to return my email. She asked me to send an outline. We met in person at a conference, and I laid out a vision for the whole thing. I convinced her I was capable of writing a whole book! She said, People are trying to get me to write my autobiography [but she didn’t want to]. It was fortunate timing!
Q: Can you say more about how you researched the book?

A: I gathered books that people had already written in the ‘80s, ‘90s, and early 2000s to get an idea of the science during that period, and I dug into references in the back of those books. I tried to figure out where the scientific and political aspects fit into her life.

I did tons of reading. I have a huge Scrivener file that helped me organize everything.

She was extremely generous with her time. I moved to California when I was working on the book. She was in Berkeley. She had created a lit of the top 100 moments in her life, and that was really helpful to me. I went through papers in her office, and family photo albums.

Q: What surprised you in the course of your research?

A: I guess what surprised me and probably shouldn’t have was how many times scientists, and Jill herself, were knocked down and had to get up again—with funding, or academic obstacles. Jill began her work when it wasn’t common to have women in her field. I was surprised someone would keep going [when] it seemed a lot of people didn’t want them to.

Q: As a woman in her field, what were some of the obstacles she faced?

A: It started pretty early for her, in high school when counselors would push her away from taking science classes. In college, everything was very segregated. The boys would work together, and she would have to do it on her own. Being in classes as the only woman was not a fun thing.

After she had her credentials, things were more subtle. The difficulties were having your voice heard in a room full of men. In the book, one colleague says she can be gruff. He imagines it came out of having to have her voice heard.

Q: Has she seen the book, and if so, what does she think of it?

A: Yes, she helped me with fact-checking. She liked it. She said for most of the time, she doesn’t know why anyone would be interested in her life. I was invested in thinking that was not true!

When we started the project, she wanted me to show the bad and the good parts of her and her history. She is glad to have her story out there now.

Q: What do you see coming next for her and for her field?

A: For her, she retired from the SETI Institute but is still on the board. The SETI Institute is building and upgrading a telescope. She’s very focused on making sure it progresses…she’s dedicated to searching for extraterrestrial life.

Aside from that, her goals are more philosophical. As optimistic as the field may have started out, if we find alien life, it could be a long time. [Experts have] to convince people the search is worthwhile while we’re waiting.

If the idea of being alone in the universe can unite [people], she gives a lot of public talks, on how SETI can make people see how small a part of the universe we are. She’s working on helping people figure out if we should be sending messages to outer space instead of just receiving them.

The field has just gotten money for Breakthrough Listen—to search for messages from smart aliens. That’s exciting. Also there’s another field, astrobiology, focused on aliens that might not be smart, just microbes. Telescopes are getting to the point where you can tell if they exist. That’s also an exciting and new development.

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: I’m not. I’m getting to the point where I’m starting to think about whether I would do that again. It’s like running a marathon, [afterwards you say] I’m definitely not going to do that again, and a couple of months later, you say, maybe I could do it again!

I’m a freelance science writer, and most days I’m writing articles about the culture of astronomy and physics.

Q: Anything else we should know about the book?

A: The only thing is I read a lot of biographies before I started writing, looking at how they structured people’s lives. When you’re writing about a very famous person, you can write in chronological order and people are interested.

Jill is famous to a subset, but is not a household name. So I tried to make it a storyline that would stand on its own.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 22

May 22, 1859: Arthur Conan Doyle born.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Q&A with Peter Brooks

Peter Brooks is the author of the new book Flaubert in the Ruins of Paris: The Story of a Friendship, a Novel, and a Terrible Year. It focuses on the writers Gustave Flaubert and George Sand in 1870-1871. His other books include Henry James Goes to Paris and Realist Vision, and he contributes to the New York Review of Books. He is the Sterling Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Yale University, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Scholar at Princeton University, and he lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

Q: You note that you came up with the inspiration for this book in Paris in 2011. What elements combined in your mind that eventually resulted in the book?

A: I was leaving Paris, on my way to Charles de Gaulle Airport, gazing back at the city receding behind me. What you see last (as often first, too) is Montmartre, topped by the Basilica of the Sacré-Coeur. 

I recalled that this was built in expiation of the sins of France during the Terrible Year—the defeat of the Franco-Prussian War and then the insurrection of the Paris Commune. A story there. 

Then I remembered that Flaubert said that his novel, Sentimental Education—which I had long admired—ought to have saved his compatriots from the horrors of the Terrible Year. What did he mean? How was the novel related to the basilica? What else belonged to cultural reactions to the Terrible Year?

Q: How would you describe the dynamic between the writers Gustave Flaubert and George Sand?

A: The correspondence of Gustave Flaubert and George Sand is a delight to read—two smart, witty, unbuttoned writers and thinkers who decided they could say anything and everything to one another.  

There is a kind of sublimated eros in their letters—they were never lovers, and didn’t aspire to be. Sand was 17 years older than Flaubert, and the veteran of several well-publicized love affairs. She represented for Flaubert a knowledge of the human heart he admired. And she clearly found him both exciting and admirable.

Q: Why did Flaubert think his novel Sentimental Education might have, as you write, "prevented the devastation he found in Paris in June 1871"?

A: Sentimental Education dramatizes Flaubert’s own generation’s experience of the Revolution of 1848 and its aftermath—including the snuffing out of its generous aspirations in Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup d’état, which ushered in his Second Empire. 

Flaubert thought he was demonstrating how difficult political action is—how rarely human agents manage to control the forces of history. His primary lesson seems to be: do no harm. That may mean abstaining from trying the change the world in the name of your ideals. Better to muddle by. Better, especially, not to kill in the name of ideology. Those who experience 1848 should have remembered this in 1871.

Q: How did you research the book, and did you find anything that particularly surprised or impressed you?

A: My research involved a great deal of history as well as literature—and the discovery of how closely related they were in 19th-century France, where most of the great writers were trying to understand their place in the troubled sweep of history since the first French Revolution of 1789. Sentimental Education makes most sense understood as an historical novel.

Most surprising and impressive may have been my discovery of the photographs of the ruins of Paris left by the bloody suppression of the Commune: achingly beautiful and somber records of devastation.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am thinking about a book on an earlier and most less bloody revolution, that of July 1830, accomplished in three “glorious days.” It’s a moment of extraordinary artistic and cultural innovation coming from a younger generation: Victor Hugo, Hector Berlioz, Honoré de Balzac, Eugène Delacroix, Alexandre Dumas, Stendhal, and others. 

It’s a kind of cultural breakthrough that then is betrayed by the aftermath of the revolution, with the hegemony of the commercial and industrial bourgeoisie. This will have to be a kind of collective portrait of a year of innovation.

Q: Anything else we should know?

I hope that in Flaubert in the Ruins of Paris I have found a way to make the reading and understanding of literature exciting and important by narrating its context and consequences. If I can bring new readers to Flaubert, I will be happy.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 21

May 21, 1688: Alexander Pope born.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Q&A with Victor Ripp

Victor Ripp, photo by Charles Read
Victor Ripp is the author of the new book Hell's Traces: One Murder, Two Families, Thirty-Five Holocaust Memorials. His other books include Moscow to Main Street and Pizza in Pushkin Square. His work has appeared in the Ontario Review and The Antioch Review. He taught at Cornell University and the University of Virginia, and he lives in New Jersey.

Q: How did your own family story, particularly that of your 3-year-old cousin who died in the Holocaust, lead you to write this book?

A: I was aware that there were already many books about the Holocaust, so many that people talk about a “Holocaust industry.” I wanted to find a way to say something different.

Several years back, walking through Berlin’s Jewish Museum, I came to an intersection of two corridors – one labeled the Axis of Exile, the other, the Axis of the Holocaust.

That Jews had few options as the Nazis took control was old news, but the corridors had a personal meaning for me. My family on my mother’s side, several generations worth including some 30 members, all emigrated and escaped the Final Solution – the Axis of Exile. On my father’s side of the family, eleven members, including my 3-year old cousin, were murdered by the Nazis – the Axis of the Holocaust.

Q: You decided to visit Holocaust memorials as a way to understand your family’s history. What did you learn that was particularly revealing or surprising?

A: The memorials of course honored the six million Jews who were victims of the Final Solution but they also served to show me how my family fit into that moment of history.

For example, in the Bayerische Viertel, the Bavarian Quarter in Berlin, there are a series of signs affixed to lampposts at irregular intervals. On one surface there is a pictogram – pair of swimming trunks, in one case, a cat on another. And on the reverse side there is a reference to Nazi laws that progressively constrained Jewish life – Jews cannot swim in public pools, Jews cannot keep pets.

Walking through Bayerische Viertel showed me the Nazis moved step-by-step to a policy of extermination of the Jews. But it also made me consider why did some see catastrophe coming and others did not – why did one side of my family escape and the other get caught in the Nazi trap.

Q: What did you learn about Holocaust memorials?

A: I saw numerous memorials in six European countries. Some of them were just plaques or inscribed pillars. But many of them were highly original – attempts to represent a catastrophe that some have said defies human comprehension.

A particularly interesting memorial is in Harburg, a suburb of Hamburg.  The artist had built a 40-foot-high column that gradually disappeared into the ground. The inscription read: “In the end it is only we ourselves that can stand up against injustice.”

Several memorials I saw confronted the problem of how to represent the disappearance of whole Jewish communities – how do you show an absence? In Budapest, on the banks of the Danube, some 60 pairs of cast iron shoes are lined up. They are in various style – workers’ boots, high heels, children slippers: lives that had been cut short but whose spirit remains.

The memorial with the greatest personal meaning for me was one I saw in a small park in Paris’ Sixteenth Arrondissement. It honors 15 young children who were deported by the Nazis, including my cousin.

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

A: The main title, "Hell’s Traces," was my effort to suggest how difficult it is to get back to the past, especially with an event as traumatic as the Holocaust.

We can locate the machinery of the Final Solution, where it operated, on what dates, the hard facts. But the experience of the victims, how it felt on the ground, escapes full understanding. All we can see are the traces, the fragments of individual histories. Memorials are the tool I used to discover the past as much as is possible. 

Q: In the process of writing the book, what do you feel you learned about your family?

A: I already knew a lot, from table talk over the years and also from some recorded memoirs. But writing the book, things crystallized. I don’t believe I learned more, but I learned in a different way.

Q: Is there anything else we should know about the book?

A: The Holocaust was a singular event in human history but it is also one that is susceptible to different political interpretations, and this is reflected in some of the memorials I saw.

Hungary was part of the Axis alliance and the site of some of the most extreme anti-Jewish actions, but the memorial recently built in Budapest by the Orban right-wing government makes the country appear a victim rather than a supporter of Nazi policies.

But Holocaust memorials can also serve a national mythology in countries that fought the Nazis. The memorial in New Jersey’s Liberty State Park has a helmeted American soldier carrying an emaciated concentration camp survivor in his arms.

The inscription reads, “Dedicated to America’s Role of Preserving Freedom and Rescuing the Oppressed.” This makes it seem the Holocaust was mainly an opportunity for Pax Americana to show its stuff.

But my main impression is how successfully many memorials engage the problem that is the Holocaust – even if it is impossible to fully explain that tragic event, the best memorials make us think about it in new ways.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 20

May 20, 1799: Honoré de Balzac born.