Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Q&A with Kathryn Lasky

Kathryn Lasky is the author of the new young adult novel Night Witches, which focuses on a regiment of Russian female pilots during World War II. Her many other books for children and young adults include the Guardians of Ga'Hoole and Wolves of the Beyond series. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Q: You've noted that you became fascinated with the Night Witches after reading the obituary of one of the women. What made you decide to write a young adult novel about them?

A: Saint Augustine once said something to the effect that when people die, they don’t vanish, they just become invisible. I wanted to make Nadezhda and these other women visible.

Q: What did you see as the right blend between the actual World War II history and your own fictional creations?

A: It is a balancing act to a certain degree. But I adhered very closely to the events of the war and what was happening in Stalingrad.

For example, the transport boat that was leaving the pier really was bombed and hundreds of lives were lost. I made my character Valya a witness to this. We see it through her eyes, and she had been anxious to get on this transport out of Stalingrad and would have been on it but it was already too crowded.

The characters were definitely fictional creations in terms of their names, backgrounds, personal history. Fictional creations but informed by a lot of research.

I discovered that a lot of them had attended or were attending polytech schools. Many had joined flying clubs before the war. These clubs were popular. I read accounts of actual combat missions. So I often plucked an event from one mission or another and adapted it to a particular character.

There was a devastating night that I give an account of where at least four flights went down and eight crew members were lost. I used that event in relation to the disappearance of Valya’s sister Tatyana.

Q: Can you say more about your research for this book, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?

A: First of all, I was continually being surprised. That’s what happens when you undertake a project like this.

My research was extensive. A friend of mine had access to a Ph.D. thesis on the Night Witches and two other all-women Russian regiments and he sent that to me. By the way, the other two regiments were not bombers and did not remain exclusively women.

One of my best sources was the book Wings, Women and War by Reina Pennington. I did read some interviews, journal-type diaries that were part of another book.

The book was published in the early ‘80s and I had an eerie feeling as I was reading these accounts that they had in some way been censored. Perhaps the women had self censored these accounts. I’m not sure.

Anthony Beevor’s books on World War II and in particular the one on Stalingrad were invaluable.

Q: What would you say is the legacy today of these young women?

A: I can’t really say. But I think there is a lot of resonance, particularly when one considers Trump’s ridiculous tweet about transgendered people not being able to serve in the military. I mean, really, imagine rejecting smart, capable human beings who are passionate about their country and democracy being forbidden to serve!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Well, I am back in the animal kingdom with a new series about polar bears. The series is titled Bears of The Ice. The first book which will come out in February of 2018, is called The Quest of The Cubs.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: On the very first page of the book there is a hideous error. Not my fault. Just under the words Chapter 1 they printed a date, Stalingrad 1941. It should be 1942. It was 1942 in my original draft. Somehow it got changed. They have corrected it in the ebook and shall be correcting it in subsequent printings. Oy vey, worst error I ever experienced! 

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

Aug. 23

Aug. 23, 1927: Dick Bruna born.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Q&A with Loretta Ellsworth

Loretta Ellsworth is the author of the new novel Stars Over Clear Lake, which focuses on a woman who returns to the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, and revisits her experiences in the 1940s. She has written four novels for young adults; this is her first novel for adults. She lives in Minnesota.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Stars Over Clear Lake?

A: It was a combination of things that led to writing this book.  I grew up in Mason City, Iowa, near Clear Lake and the Surf Ballroom, and had always wanted to write about this historic place. And when I was young and on road trips with my family, my father often pointed out the remains of a German POW camp in Algona. 

It was serendipity that when I combined these two together, that the story seemed to sprout wings and take off.

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write the novel, especially about German POWs in the United States?

A: I read a great deal about the POW camps in America and Iowa, visited the POW Museum in Algona, Iowa, and spoke with a descendant of a German POW who later immigrated to Iowa. 

My novel required a great deal of research of the Surf Ballroom and Clear Lake, Iowa in the 1940s. When you’re writing about a real place, you want to make sure you get everything right. 

I spent time in the Clear Lake Library, where they have a history room, and I also interviewed people who had attended dances at the Surf in the 1940s. And I had someone from Clear Lake read my manuscript as well.

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 had a hint of the ending, but the novel changed along the way. I think it’s wise to keep an open mind and let the ending work itself out as the story evolves. My story goes back and forth in time, and I found that the present-day story changed the most during the course of writing it.

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?

A: My favorite writers are Harper Lee, E.B. White, and more recently, Anthony Doerr. I also love the Harry Potter series.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a revision of a young adult novel set in Area 51, and an adult historical novel set shortly after the end of WWII, based on a true story of a countess who came to Minnesota to marry a soldier she met during the war, only to find out he’d married someone else three months earlier. 

She sets out to find an American husband before her visa runs out in two weeks so she doesn’t have to return to the Communist country of her birth.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My parents met at the Surf Ballroom, making this a very personal story for me.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 22

Aug. 22, 1893: Dorothy Parker born.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Q&A with Melissa Scholes Young

Melissa Scholes Young is the author of the new novel Flood. It takes place in Hannibal, Missouri, the childhood home of both Young and Mark Twain. Young's work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Atlantic and The Washington Post, and she teaches college writing and creative writing at American University in Washington, D.C. She lives in Maryland.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Flood, and for interspersing historical information about Mark Twain into the story?

A: Flood began as the story of Rose and Laura’s friendship. I wanted to write a female version of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. These are friendships with so much history you can’t quit them, even as you covet what the other has. Laura and Rose have known each other their whole lives and they’ve stayed deeply connected even with distance and differences.

At the same time, I was researching the history of the Mississippi River and its running backwards in 1812 because of a series of earthquakes along the New Madrid Fault.

Growing up in Hannibal you hear stories about it, but the facts of how the river determines our daily life, as it did for Mark Twain growing up there, are fascinating. Once I realized the parallels between Twain’s story and Laura Brooks, I intentionally wove them together.

I needed another character, Laura’s high school English teacher, Ms. B, to teach the history as a book within a book for the local Tom and Becky pageant contestants. I wanted Ms. B to be an outsider shining a light on the literature for the insiders. When you grow up in a place like Hannibal, you may not realize that the history all around us is magical and mythological.

Q: Laura returns to her home town, Hannibal, after a decade away. What do you think the book says about coming home again?

A: It’s just as tough to leave as it is to return. For Laura, Hannibal holds secrets that she doesn’t want to face. Coming home again forces her to reconcile the stories she’s been telling herself about why she left with truth.

I think, like Laura, we all want a soft place to land, but sometimes home isn’t so safe. It’s not that home has changed; it’s that you have. You’re forced to consider home through your new perspective and see it more clearly for all that it offers and limits.

Q: Why did you decide to set the action of the story in 2003?

A: The flood in 1993 was a 500-year crest. It was devastating for Hannibal and all Mississippi River communities. I wanted a decade to have passed for Laura Brooks to grow and to reflect on why the river both gives life and threatens to take it away.

Q: Besides geography, what connects Laura with Mark Twain’s characters?

A: I think they’re both a bit unsatisfied. They ask questions and push back against the way things have always been done. I doubt either of them will ever feel completely comfortable wherever they roam.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My new novel is called Bug Girl. It’s the story of succession in a family pest control business. There are four daughters and a matriarch, so really it’s Little Women with bugs.

I also continue to write essays about first-generation college experiences. And I’m editing a volume of fiction by D.C. women, Grace in Darkness. It’s the eighth volume in the Grace & Gravity series founded by Richard Peabody.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice.” I’ve learned a lot from leaving, coming home, and finding new places. D.C. is an amazing place to be a writer. The literary community is rich and generous. Our independent bookstores are lovely. I’m grateful to have roots in Hannibal and a foundation in D.C. from which to grow. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 21

Aug. 21, 1943: Jonathan Schell born.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Q&A with Terry Newman

Terry Newman, photo by Pippa Healey
Terry Newman is the author of the new book Legendary Authors and the Clothes They Wore. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Guardian and The Independent. She has worked in the fashion industry for many years, and she lectures at the University for the Creative Arts in Epson, England. She lives in London.
Q: How did you pick the 50 authors you included in the book, and the order in which they appear?
A: Of course there are authors who are well known for their style and to a large extent I wouldn’t have done this book without, say for example, the Fitzgeralds, Oscar Wilde, or Joan Didion. 
However, to begin with I sat down and made a list of my favourites and tested a theory that perhaps there was something to say about all of them clothes-wise….and for me there was.  This is a book that isn’t completely exhaustive: that would have been impossible, but I hope there is a breadth of legends in there to intrigue. 
The book runs and flows organically: I started off with Beckett as for a lot of folk he probably is the most curious author to address on this subject, but as I delved in there was so much to say about him. From the Wallabies and Gucci bags he wore to his amazing quiffed hair. 
I wanted the book to have a pace and flow and I worked hard on trying to juxtapose and connect authors as I went along so that it’s a fab read from start to finish…!!
Q: Joan Didion is featured on the cover. Why was she selected for the cover, and what do her clothes say about her and about her writing?
A: Joan Didion is an icon in the fashion industry and the cover image by Julian Wasser is timeless. There is a message in my book that finding a style and being yourself is important. 
The quote I found from Maya Angelou sums this up: “Seek the fashion which truly fits and befits you. You will always in be in fashion if you are true to yourself, and only if you are true to yourself.”
Didion’s effortless and amazing style stems from her being herself and the shot I used has a simplicity and elegance to it that is perfect.  The photo was an obvious choice for me and the first one that came to mind when I started the book. Luckily Julian was keen and let me use it. 
Didion uses clothes a lot in her writing – as a way into a subject. For example, when she wrote about the Manson murders in The White Album she uses Linda Kasabian and the story of buying her a dress to go to court as a foil for the horror of what she is talking about.
Q: Can you say more about Samuel Beckett and your sense of his style?
A: Beckett is a template for the modern, stylish man, I think! He has a classic elegance that is cool and timeless: a male Didion. He worked a seductive utility-wear look that is unfussy and testimony to the enduring appeal of a capsule wardrobe of essentials. Now I’m sounding like a glossy magazine, but for me he is the perfect GQ man.
Q: You end the book with Tom Wolfe. Why did you make that choice, and how do his clothes connect with his writing?
A: Tom Wolfe is smart, sassy, and detailed in his writing. He makes a loud statement in his work about his characters and the clothes they wear. He pays particular attention to this in the narrative of all his books and essays.  
In the same way, he is a meticulous dresser himself and is famed for his white-suits. I say in my book that dressing in white is a serene and unflappable wardrobe choice, and to a large extent Wolfe has spent his life sitting on the edge watching others get embroiled in life and writing about it. He is a mighty author to finish the book with, I think!
Q: What are you working on now?
A: More books about the stories clothes tell. I’ll keep you posted!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: The book is available to buy now….!!  
--Interview with Deborah Kalb