Sunday, July 23, 2017

Q&A with Linda Ragsdale

Linda Ragsdale is the author of two new children's picture books, How I Did It and Alphabetter. Her other books include Words and Not Opposites. A peace educator, she is the president of the group The Peace Dragon

Q: How did you come up with the idea for How I Did It, and what do you hope kids take away from the story?

A: You know those choices you’ve made where the consequences feel like giant scribbles all over your life canvas? That’s how I was feeling at the time I wrote How I Did It. We all have those moments.

Through the tale, [the story's protagonist, the letter] I started out with a goal to be rounded like J; after the fall, initially I can’t see how well rounded I became. I went beyond achieving just the slight curve of the J.

Through this journey, I wanted kids to understand that even though we sometimes have a goal in mind for ourselves, whatever the results of our trying, they can be greater than we ever imagined, and lead us onto grander adventures.

My goal is to have children looking for the positives. This is a prevalent underlying theme in my books and truly a life motto, too.

I think the oddest note about this book, is how I needed it to be in my head and heart for some of the bigger challenges coming in my own life. 

As authors, sometimes our stories help us navigate through an issue at hand, as this story did, but it also confirmed a message I needed through the terrorist attack and eventually cancer.

Q: Alphabetter and How I Did It are part of the Peace Dragon Tale Series. What does the series hope to accomplish?

A: Alphabetter is a follow up to Words, from the first release of The Peace Dragon Tale Series. The book Words takes on the challenge of name calling by encouraging kids to call people names – kind names.

Words have a positive power and by redirecting word choice to an affirmative approach, we’re opening a path to more constructive thinking processes. Words also reveal the power of language to encourage, inspire and repair relationships with others and ourselves.

Alphabetter explodes with the silly and playful possibilities of our language to amp up their positive energy. The use of portmanteaus expands vocabulary and introduces an awareness of the sounds and syllables.

Voice is a key skill in teaching and finding peace, and The Peace Dragon Tales present words as a powerful peacekeeper. Ultimately, how ubice (uber + nice) with our words can we get?

Q: How did you invent the words in the Alphabetter dictionary?

A: All words come into play because of a need. I needed a word to help kids feel beyond amazing- so Beyazing came out during a school presentation.

When I was working with a community group, we were talking about an event to establish a more compassionate vocabulary, a compabulary, to unite our city. The event was born, and the tickle to keep creating new words took hold. 

While using Words to teach peace, I put up the challenge before school visits for students to create their own words – Upwords, words to compliment, encourage and inspire. Kids were involved with language, sound, and syllables.

Each classroom presented a word, but children made it a point to come to share their personal words with me. They were so proud! You’ll find a dedication of appreciation to one of those schools in the front of the book.

I’m composing a page on my website for all the words and any additional words kids (and teachers) have submitted. I’ve even taped some of the pronunciations!

I do want to take a moment and talk about the “peace compabulary” that runs along bottom of each page of Alphabetter. These mixed words offer an opportunity for parents teachers, librarians, to create a 26-week reflection whether in a discussion, as writing prompts or weekly goals on the ideas that offer an inroad to finding and keeping peace.

Q: What do you think the illustrations (by Anoosha Syed and Martina Hogan, respectively) add to the books?

A: I cannot give enough praise to the brilliant illustrators. Their spirited work amplifies the message and words with their unique styles.

Their art is the call from the shelf that beckons people to even open the covers. They’re the visual voices of the message, tone and emotional impact of the books.

(And a quick side note to praise the editors and book designers from the publishing end, who are the people who gathered us all together. A book takes many hands and hearts to complete!)

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The next two releases are very personal and are the heart of my peace work. The year 2018 will mark the 10-year memorial of me being shot in a terrorist attack in Mumbai. Two of my friends, Alan and Naomi Scherr, a father and daughter, were killed that night at our dinner table.

The Peace Dragon Tale was the story that came to me while I was healing from my wound. It’s a “heart” warming romp of friendship, and offers a path through some of the fears and fires alight in the world today. I’m so excited for Omani the Peace Dragon to make her debut! And wait until you see the art!

The little boy and the dragon were written in honor of my two friends. Sherwyn is the name of the little boy, and if you look at the name Omani, it’s Naomi’s name all jumbled up.

It was also our favorite chant, Om Mane Padme Hum, a tune we were singing together hours before we were shot. We laughed at how off key we were.

Naomi is also why I named my organization The Peace Dragon, as she had asked me to teach her how to draw a dragon earlier that day, and I didn’t get to do it. I’ve drawn well over 27,000 Peace Dragons all over the world, all with empty hands, so the artist can decide what gift their dragon will bring to the world.

The second title is drawn from real life about a Polar Bear who turned purple after getting some medicine. I heard about Pelusa a very long time ago, and had always kept the story in my heart, wanting and waiting to find the way to tell her tale.

In Positively Purple, Jeli the polar bear turns purple after her medicine. Visited by her zoo friends, they share their colorful feelings, all to help Jeli deal with her “purple- ness.” It’s a frolic in fun with a message of hope.

As a survivor of stage three breast cancer, I lost my hair during treatment, it was my purple time! I’m hoping to help kids and adults start conversations about how to move through life’s challenges that may make us feel different and alone, and on a more direct note, how to address being a patient and the friend of a patient.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m a full believer in Happily, even after. (It’s also the name of my upcoming autobiography!)  Stories are a gift to every generation providing paths to resolution and resilience and a safe path through our emotions by experiencing them through the safe distance of the characters in a book.  

The Peace Dragon Tale Series books weave the threads of the peace skills View, Voice, and Choice subtly through the lines of the tales with a goal of learning to see and speak to ourselves and the world with compassionate, and make loving choices knowing the consequences effect us and those around us.

I teach these ideas through The Peace Dragon, my non-profit organization, which has just reached over 37,000 students and adults from countries all around the world with this peace message. Flowerpot Press has given these books wings to travel further and into more hands and hearts. Thank you for also giving wings for these ideas!   

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Norman Brewer

Norman Brewer is the author of the new novel Blending In: A Tale of Homegrown Terrorism. A retired journalist, he worked for Gannett News Service and the Des Moines Register. He is based in the Washington, D.C., area.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Blending In?

A: I started looking for a book project after retiring in the spring of 2011. After one of the mass shootings or acts of terrorism that have become a national plague, I had the thought that such attacks are usually committed by people who are undisciplined, poorly trained or societal misfits, or all three.

That suggested how much worse the consequences could be if attackers were relatively well-trained, organized and seemingly ordinary. In other words, people who could blend in, such as Stickman and Maple in my novel.

Also, news stories sometimes suggest homegrown terrorists give little thought to escaping and living to attack another day. That’s not Stickman and Maple.

Q: What type of research did you need to do to write the book?

A: I needed to ensure that the munitions, including explosives, were compatible with carrying out the crimes and that my portrayal of places was reasonably accurate. On cross-country driving trips, I visited key places in the story, or talked with friends familiar with those places.

I also read studies looking at personal characteristics and motivations of people who had carried out mass attacks. One thing in the studies that struck me was that the motivations of perpetrators do not appear to follow a predictable pattern. That gave me considerable license.

Q: How realistic do you think your scenario is?

A: That’s a question I asked family members and friends who edited Blending In for me. They said it holds up on that score. Personally, I like action novels where the bar is set lower than realistic, at plausible. If you’re expecting plausible, you’re less likely to be distracted from an otherwise engrossing story if it sometimes stretches credulity.

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 roughly knew how it would end, and I made a lot of changes. More accurately, I seriously stalled half a dozen times along the way and had to just wait until the plot clicked, and I could start writing again.

During those times, it made little sense to go to the computer. The screen would have remained blank. I’m in awe of people who obviously are able to write every day, creating the plots needed to churn out a book every year.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Marketing the book. I self-published because, at age 73, the challenges of marketing seem more exciting than chasing agents and traditional publishers.

Hopefully within a few months I’ll know what readers think of the book. If I’m encouraged, I have an idea for another novel, again told primarily from the perspective of the terrorist(s).

As an alternative, it is obviously a great time for political novels that have a president mixing things up with my former colleagues in the news business. But there will be a ton of those books, creating fierce competition for readers.  

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: An elderly couple plays a prominent role in Blending In. Wilbur has Alzheimer’s. His confusion and stories can be touching or funny or risqué. They are based largely on the experiences of my mother, an aunt and a dear friend, all of whom have died after suffering from Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.

When I told another friend I was trying my hand at writing at an action novel, his advice was: “You can’t have too many bullets.” But I like action books that give me an occasional respite from the bullets. That’s what Wilbur and Violet do.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 23

July 23, 1888: Raymond Chandler born.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Q&A with Robin Merrow MacCready

Robin Merrow MacCready is the author of the new young adult novel A Lie for a Lie. She also has written Buried. She lives on the coast of Maine.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for A Lie for a Lie, and for your main character, Kendra?

A: Kendra’s story is based on a few different events that took place when I was a teen. Without disclosing too much, let’s just say that it was shocking to find out the real life stories of friends and their families.

Even more intriguing were the ways in which they coped, or didn’t cope with their new realities. These events stuck with me and over time two separate novel ideas became one. I loved these characters!

Q: The book takes place in a community in Maine. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: Both my novels are set in coastal Maine, as is my current work in progress, though half of the story takes place in the New Hampshire mountains.

Kendra (A Lie For A Lie) and Claudine (Buried) struggled to come to terms with things they couldn’t face, and though a person doesn’t have to live on the coast to go through such things, I know this place intimately and love developing my stories around the woods and water.

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

A: The original title was Snapshot. In fact, it was still Snapshot until marketing spoke up. I think they saw a snapshot as dated, since people don’t print many photographs these days. And also, snapshot sounds similar to Snapchat.

When my editor told me they wanted a change she some a few ideas and suggested I make a list of possible titles if I wanted some input. I love brainstorming titles and tag lines.

A Lie for a Lie was their favorite. It’s a play on “An eye for an eye…” and because Kendra is all about revenge as a result of what she sees, the new title worked. It left a question hanging in the air: If someone lies to you, should you lie to them, expose it, or hurt them?

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

A: My original synopsis had a different ending. The story changed a bit along the way. Characters disappeared, jobs changed, relationships ramped up, and so the ending changed, too. I imagine I’m not the only writer that revises more than once.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m writing a novel set in 1840s Maine and New Hampshire. My main character has special powers, but she won’t embrace them. She wants only to be a common girl with common problems. When a tragedy results in her getting to live the life of a village girl she finds that being common isn’t as easy as she thought.

I’m deep in the research stage and love the way the language of the time shapes the narrative. I love this new adventure!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Jeff Attinella

Jeff Attinella is the author of the children's sports book series It Had To Be Told. He is a professional goalkeeper for Major League Soccer’s Portland Timbers.

Q: How did the It Had To Be Told series come about, and how did you pick the four topics you've written about?

A: It Had To Be Told got started after my daughter, Remy, was born. She was about three weeks old and my wife and I were watching the Chicago Cubs win the World Series.

I couldn’t believe that my little girl would never know about the curse of the Cubs and the “Lovable Losers.” She was born into a world where this longstanding headline in sports had come to an end.

Fast forward a few months, I was home in Tampa about to go watch my Buccaneers play and I thought to myself, “How am I going to get Remy to care about the Bucs with me?”

I started jotting down this little rhyming story on my phone and realized I might be on to something. I told the idea to my father-in-law, who is also a big sports fan and entrepreneur, and he really took my ideas and ran with them.

The first story was obviously about the Bucs, but it was very rough and unfortunately, they haven’t had any really noteworthy story lines to share, so that was tabled.

The Cubs’ World Series win was still pretty fresh on everyone’s mind and the story sort of told itself. The history of the curse and the way they won made it really fun to write. 

The Cavaliers had also just won the first championship for Cleveland in a very long time, so it seemed like a natural choice. 

The wins in Chicago and Cleveland meant so much to their cities and to the people. The misery of never winning, coming so close for so long and then to ultimately win a championship after so many years, made for a great story that deserved to be passed down to the next generation of fans.

The Super Bowl this past year fell right in line with the other stories - just a whirlwind of emotions as a fan and a huge comeback that everyone was talking about. Anyone watching would have thought that the New England Patriots had no chance of winning that game.

Yet they had Bill Belichick on the sidelines and the greatest quarterback of all time, Tom Brady, and they did the impossible. Plus, this Super Bowl win cemented the two of their legacies, which in itself makes for an inspiring story. 

Lastly, we decided to tell the story of the Space Race because it simply is an incredible story. Putting politics aside, it was two huge world powers literally racing to the moon. It was a fun process to turn this monumental moment in American history into something that younger kids would enjoy and understand. 

Q: What do you hope kids take away from the stories?

A: My hope is that kids who may not typically like reading find these stories enjoyable enough to actually look forward to reading them. I know that growing up, sports played a huge part of my life. Professional athletes were who I looked up to and aspired to become; my favorite teams were the reason I stayed up late at night on a school night.

By channeling this same excitement and influence, I hope that young kids get excited to read and learn about the legacies of their sports idols and the history of their favorite teams.

I also want them to be inspired by the incredible triumphs in sports. Not only can kids learn to read or learn about their favorite sports teams, they can also aspire to achieve greatness like the stories we tell.

I was never a kid who liked reading, but I was always interested in sports. I have friends with children that are the same way. I truly hope that my stories speak to kids like myself that are looking for a book that is different from the rest – one that speaks to one of their main interests, sports.

Q: What role do you think sports play in kids' lives today, and as a professional soccer player, do you plan to write a book for this series about soccer?

A: I’ve been around sports my entire life, whether I was playing in or attending games, and I can’t help but notice the amount of kids that attend sporting events, from professional to high school.

Professional sports emphasizes youth involvement. We are constantly working with kids in the local community and our job extends well beyond the boundary lines on the field.

Even as a collegiate athlete, I remember seeing how kids looked up to us and how their parents leaned on us to set great examples. This responsibility should not be taken lightly, and unfortunately, many professionals don’t consider the impact that their decisions make.

I can remember going to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (now Rays) games before batting practice with the hope of getting an autograph or just a chance to see some of the players. Those players never realized it, but those were some of the happiest moments of my childhood.

Now, as an adult, I am fully aware that my decisions and the choices I make have a huge impact on the children that I see or work with. I hope that my stories can ensure that the impact I make on kids is a long-lasting, positive one.  

I definitely have a few soccer stories in the works. The soccer stories have been especially fun because the sport reaches around the globe, and to women and men alike. As a new dad to a little girl, there’s a huge soccer story I’m especially excited about. 

Q: What age group do you think would especially enjoy the books?

A: Since our launch, we are realizing that these books are not just great for kids but sports fans of all ages. I’ve had dads telling me how much more they are enjoying reading time because it is telling stories that stir up an emotion and they’re getting to share moments that were really magical to them with the next generation. 

Basically, if you are a parent that loves sports and wants a book you’ll enjoy reading at night to your kids -- these stories are for you. If you’re a kid who loves sports or just wants to enjoy an entertaining and artistic picture book – these stories are for you. If you’re an avid sports fan with no kids, you’ll appreciate the history and incredible artwork of the books – so, these stories are for you.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now I’m working on a story about the many traditions in the Alabama football program, as well as a story about Pittsburgh, the City of Champions. Each place has such long-standing traditions and diehard fan bases. We’re hoping the stories we tell can bring joy to the lifelong fans, while providing new generations a great way to catch up on the history.  

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I started writing these stories because I want my daughter and future children to love mine and my wife’s teams the way we do. It’s where our relationship first started, and it’s one of the things that keep us close to our families, even though we live clear across the country from them.

I hope these stories help share that bond with other families, too. The books were written for children, but as we’ve grown and learned more about our audience, I’m seeing that these books resonate with the parents, as well, and that’s been awesome.  Kids grow up and people move away but having that hometown team can be one more thing to keep everyone close. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 22

July 22, 1849: Emma Lazarus born.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Q&A with Julia Glass

Julia Glass is the author of the new novel A House Among the Trees. Her other books include the bestselling Three Junes and I See You Everywhere. She is a Distinguished Writer in Residence at Emerson College, and she lives in Marblehead, Massachusetts.

Q: One of the themes you address in your book is artistic creativity and how it affects your characters Mort, the children’s book author, and Nick, the actor who’s playing Mort in a film. Do you think their experiences of creating art are similar, despite their different mediums?

A: I like to think that the fiction writer’s work is almost identical to that of the actor, with one difference: the writer does it in private while the actor must, at some point, do it in public. (Yes, big difference!)

But we are both tasked with immersing ourselves in hearts and minds other than our own—and in making our characters come alive for the audience we want to entertain and move.

We are soul mates, perhaps, when it comes to the way we exercise our imagination. (The Nobel Prize–winning Australian novelist Patrick White once said that the only reason he became a fiction writer was that he couldn’t be an actor.)

So in that respect, Mort’s work is parallel to Nick’s, and it’s part of why they “bond” so quickly in their e-mail correspondence, prior to Lear’s sudden death, and why Mort entrusts Nick with a secret he needs to unburden.

Yet the public quality of a successful actor’s work bestows on him genuine celebrity, which a writer’s work rarely does. I’m sure that even Maurice Sendak, who was the inspiration (though not the model) for Mort Lear, could walk down a busy street in New York City without being stopped for an autograph or its modern-day version, the selfie.

Probably most authors cherish this anonymity—but not all. I am certain some would envy the Nick Greenes of the world, who are widely recognized, even adored, by total strangers. I think my character Mort, as he aged, had a craving for true stardom, which led him toward the folly of hubris.

Q: As you mentioned, the issue of fame also arises in the novel. Why was that something you chose to explore, and how do you see it affecting your characters?

A: Fame—which comes in forms other than tabloid celebrity—is a subject I did not anticipate addressing when I started writing A House Among the Trees.

I love how dim-witted I often am at the outset of a story! Because here I am portraying an iconic, revered children’s author and a newly minted movie star. (“Duh,” as my teenage son might say.)

What I loved, as I wrote my way in and got wise to this issue, is that I accidentally created two characters on opposite sides of their fame: one just emerging into its blinding brilliance, the other fighting (if subconsciously) to keep his place in the spotlight over decades of a career following the book that made him a household name.

People often talk about achieving public recognition of their success as “having arrived.” But here’s the thing: the place at which you’ve arrived is as much like the peak of a mountain as it is like a fabulous party.

It’s a precarious place, and if you want to stay there, it takes a lot of hard work—which can lead to vanities, insecurities, and even jealousies that threaten the integrity of your work. Remaining true to the talent, vision, and plain old hard work that earned you success and fame (and maybe wealth) is never easy.

Readers of my novel see the consequences of this challenge in Mort Lear (and his loyal guardian, Tommy Daulair)—and the revelation of the challenge to Nick Greene. Merry Galarza, the museum curator who feels betrayed by Lear’s final wishes, suffers the collateral damage of fame.

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

A: Titles do not come easily to me, and they often change. This novel was, in my mind, The Inseparables right up to my turning in the first finished draft. For various reasons, that title wasn’t viable. I was disappointed.

My editor and I struggled with a number of alternatives, and then I began to think about how important Mort Lear’s house is throughout the entire story, not just as a setting but as the repository of Lear’s material and spiritual legacy.

And it stands on a property that he bought because he loved all its marvellous old trees (of which the reader gets a kind of tour toward the end of the book). I have always been captivated by trees, and whenever I visit a new place, I’m constantly bugging people to find out the names of the ones that are new to me.

What I didn’t realize when I settled on A House Among the Trees (choosing it over A House in the Woods, with its stronger fairy-tale allusions) was that I had unconsciously quoted the first line of Lear’s breakthrough picture book, Colorquake.

That fictional book begins, “Ivo’s mother kept a perfect house, a house among the trees.” Of course, my editor noticed it right away! (Again, DUH!)

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 never know the end of a novel till I’m well into writing it—and still I may change my mind a few times. I write my novels the way that E. L. Doctorow claimed to write his: as if I’m driving in the dark, on a long journey, and all I can see is the short stretch of road illuminated by the headlights.

Yet I have faith I will reach my destination, even if, once in a while, I get lost along the route and have to—as a newfangled GPS would put it—“recalibrate the route.”

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Speaking of long journeys, I’m currently out on the road, promoting this novel, but once my touring winds down, I hope to return to the novel I set aside when these characters (Tommy, Morty, Nick, and Merry) knocked too loudly on my door for me to refuse them entry.

The suspended (I hope not abandoned) novel is set in Vigil Harbor, the seaside town I created at the end of The Widower’s Tale, and features at least one of the characters from that earlier novel. More I cannot say at this tender juncture!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My favorite part of being on the road to promote a new book is getting to meet the booksellers who sell it and the readers who will read it (or, to my astonishment, have done so already!).

I continue to learn new things about my own characters and themes as I answer questions and chat with fans—so far, in the Midwest and along the West Coast.

But I have several remaining events back in the Boston area, as well as in New Orleans, Nashville, and at the National Book Festival in D.C. I’ll be adding a couple of other venues to my fall schedule as well. Anyone interested in dates and details should keep an eye on my author Facebook page

--Interview with Deborah Kalb