Sunday, April 30, 2017

Q&A with Colleen Oakley

Colleen Oakley is the author of the new novel Close Enough to Touch. She also has written the novel Before I Go, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and Ladies' Home Journal. She is based in Atlanta.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Close Enough to Touch?

A: As a health journalist, I wrote a few articles about the astronomic rise in allergies the past 20 years— and I was fascinated by the fact that experts and researchers, while they have their theories, really have no idea what’s caused it.

As a novelist, I knew there was a lot there to explore, but I, of course, wanted to take it one step further— what if you were allergic to other people? How would that affect someone, emotionally, to not ever be able to be hugged by their mother as a child, or to hold hands with their first love? Could you even fall in love?

Q: You write the book from the alternating viewpoints of your characters Jubilee and Eric. Did you always plan to do that, or did you originally think of telling it from only one perspective?

When I started I was only planning to write it from Jubilee’s perspective, but I kept hearing Eric’s voice! So I decided to write a chapter from his POV, thinking maybe it would just help me get to know his character better, and that it probably wouldn’t make it into the final book. But I enjoyed writing his chapter so much that I kept going, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Q: What kind of research did you do on allergies, and did anything especially surprise you?

A: I read everything I could on allergies and also interviewed experts who helped me come up with the theoretical cause behind Jubilee’s condition. What surprised me the most is how many truly bizarre allergies are out there!...It made my fictional “allergy to human touch” not seem so strange anymore.

Q: How was the book's title chosen?

A: I have the hardest time with titles! I went through at least 30 different ones before "Close Enough to Touch" came to me when I was in the shower, of all places. But then, it’s never a guarantee that everyone at the publishing house will like it and that it will become the final title. I was happy that this one stuck.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A book about dream telepathy, based on a study I came across a few years ago. I’m exploring the idea of soul mates and if true love is a choice or fate.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I Skype or FaceTime into book clubs! I love chatting with readers and answering their questions. I’m also happy to help aspiring writers and dole out any advice I can to help them on their career path. Come find me on Facebook or here.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Jenna Hammond

Jenna Hammond is the author of the new children's picture book Downward Mule. She is a freelance writer and certified children's yoga instructor, and she is based in the New York area.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Downward Mule?

A: Since childhood, I have considered myself an author. It was only fitting that I write a children’s book upon becoming a parent. I tinkered with various ideas, from a board book about the seasons to a children’s cookbook.

But once I became immersed in writing a picture book that incorporated yoga and characters with lessons to impart, the protagonist Sam Mule assumed a life of his own.

Downward Mule is the first book to bridge yoga and an actual story. It thrilled me to bring something new to the marketplace, especially a transformative book that could benefit children’s minds and bodies. After all, a major impetus behind the project was the knowledge that yoga has the power to heal, among other wonders.

While a magazine editor in New York City, I became a certified children’s yoga instructor after seeing how yoga helped a child with special needs gain the ability to walk.

I wrote an article about this child, who was largely unresponsive to physical therapy and medical interventions. Practicing yoga with a personal instructor, however, enabled the girl to become mobile and eventually walk – a feat some doctors deemed impossible.

I stopped working full time as an editor and part time as a children’s yoga instructor when I had my firstborn. Yet, the child’s journey and my desire to share yoga with all children, including my own, remains part of my psyche.

I harnessed the benefits of my personal practice, my children’s love of yoga, yoga’s growing prominence in schools and popular culture, and my knack for creativity and humor to pen Downward Mule.

The book brings my upbringing full circle, similar to how yoga means union and how the book’s quirky characters come together (in a circle actually!) through yoga in the end.

Q: Can you say more about what role has yoga played for you, and do you think your readers have to appreciate yoga to enjoy the book?

A: Yoga has played differed roles for me in different times of my life. I started the practice in graduate school as a new exercise to try.

I soon discovered how yoga strengthened my mind-body connection while enhancing everything from my flexibility to my sense of calm. A bonus was how it reduced my occasional back pain before and during pregnancy.

Upon becoming a parent of super active boys, I appreciated how yoga offered my family a chance to channel our energy in positive ways and nurture our creativity with inventive poses. My 5 year old is a champ at creating new poses!

In between, I became a certified instructor gracious for connecting with children through yoga. I learned more about staying in the moment and staying calm down to my core despite any chaos in the world. This has proved monumentally helpful, though sometimes difficult to practice, as a new parent and author in New York City.

Of course, readers need not appreciate yoga to enjoy Downward Mule. The book has a plot, conflict and characters like traditional picture books. From the messages about self-confidence and community to the illustrations that lend magic to the whimsy and enhance the story, there’s much to embrace in the book sans yoga.

Many children tell me they adore Downward Mule because of a favorite character or because of the plot resolution – how Sam overcomes his shyness and acts like a superhero, saving the farm.

Kids tend not to gush about the yoga, although parents tell me that their little ones now bend, twist and pose like Sam and the farm folk during playtime. When it comes to me, I often read the book at home and to audiences without doing a single yoga pose.

The Saturday prior to this interview, I read Downward Mule straight through without pausing for the poses at Barnes & Noble. Children ages 2-10 in attendance were riveted by the prose and pictures.

It seemed best not to interrupt the book’s flow – or the kids’ undivided attention – by posing with the characters. Afterward I led movement inspired by the book. But it was nothing like the yoga you see in a gym or a yoga studio.

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

A: Downward Mule caters to 3-7 year olds. However, people of all ages with an imagination, an appreciation for kid lit or an interest in movement delight in the book.

Q: What do you think Steve Page’s illustrations add to the book?

A: Steve Page’s illustrations help make Downward Mule the zany and inspirational book I imagined. He was receptive to each direction I requested in designing the characters and pages. 

Steve also had the idea to incorporate a silent mouse in the illustrations. A fan of Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon, and an aficionado of whimsy, I was delighted when I saw Steve’s version of such a mouse. Children agree the idea was “wise” (pun intended). They cherish finding the mouse in myriad poses throughout Downward Mule.

Steve also brought to fruition my vision for the complex cover. After nearly a dozen sketches, Steve nailed it!

Fait accompli is Sam doing the downward mule (or down dog) pose atop a barn with Lila in the pose down below peeking at Sam from the outside – not an easy feat for an illustrator!

Yet Steve accomplished this as well as depicting the animals and the farmer’s daughter in pose after pose with aplomb. His skill for drawing the anatomy of animals and other characters in all sorts of positions, without forsaking creativity or wit, is extraordinary.

The end result is an adorable book that dually instructs readers how to do an imaginative form of yoga in the most fun way possible.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My brain buzzes with a number of picture book ideas. Some of these ideas I have started writing. Some I’m developing with my older son verbally as he fancies storytelling as much as his mom relies on writing.

However, as a stay-at-home mom in addition to being an author, I only have time for so much creative writing especially as I continue to freelance edit on occasion. 

Then again, MacLaren-Cochrane Publishing and I are exploring creating a coloring book starring Sam Mule. The story would be different than Downward Mule, yet just as playful and inspirational albeit in a fresh way fueled in part by children’s creativity.

Steve Page has expressed interest in the project too. For now, find printable coloring pages on the Teachers & Parents tab of

Also find me reading Downward Mule and leading interactive entertainment like children’s yoga at bookstores, children’s places and schools. As a new author, I’m enjoying spending time with audiences both in-person and through Skype.

I have at least five book-related events this month alone, including sharing Downward Mule and movement with more than 100 3rd through 5th graders at UBS in New York City for Take Our Kids to Work Day.

I am hoping to bring the book and my brand of children’s yoga to the small screen in the future, perhaps with a stint on PBS or a show like Sesame Street once time permits or the right person and I connect. Stay tuned!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m an open book with a lot to say and share with the world. But read Downward Mule for a glimpse at what yoga, humor and whimsy offers everyone.

I’ll tell my story or a fictionalized version of it if I ever get around to writing a novel or a self-inspired children’s book. For now I just hope that whether or not you’re mooooved by yoga, be open to falling head over hooves for Sam, Lila and the rest of the barnyard in Downward Mule.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 30

April 30, 1877: Alice B. Toklas born.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Q&A with Anita Sanchez

Anita Sanchez is the author of the new children's book Karl, Get Out of the Garden: Carolus Linnaeus and the Naming of Everything. Her other books include In Praise of Poison Ivy and Leaflets Three, Let It Be!. An environmental educator, she lives in upstate New York.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on Carolus Linnaeus in your new book?

A: For a science class I was teaching, I was trying to figure how to make the complex (and frankly pretty boring) topic of scientific classification of organisms seem interesting.

I started reading about Linnaeus and how he decided to take on the immense task of organizing, classifying, and naming every living thing in the world. I soon discovered he had a remarkable personality, and I loved his boundless enthusiasm for nature.

Even as an old man he would leap out of bed in the morning to go see a new bird or flower--he'd run outdoors in his dressing gown, telling his students, "Nature does not wait for powder and wigs!"

Q: How did you research the book, and was there anything that especially surprised you in the course of your research?

A: Like Karl, I've always believed that knowledge begins with "knowing the things themselves," and so I went to Sweden to visit Karl's garden. I went hiking in Lapland, north of the Arctic Circle, where Karl studied wildflowers and subalpine forests, and I marveled at the Northern Lights.

Then I visited his garden in the university town of Uppsala, where he became a beloved teacher, and saw the plants he used as his "living textbooks" to teach students about botany. Karl used to lead fun, hands-on field trips into the woods and meadows, and I followed the paths where he led his excited students.

The most surprising thing for me was finding out how young Linnaeus was--he was only about 22, fresh out of school--when he decided to classify and name all of the world's plants and animals, a pretty ambitious goal!

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

A: "Karl, Get Out Of the Garden!" was what his mother would say to him when he was a little boy, sneaking off from schoolwork to revel in the beauties of nature in his father's garden. It made the distant figure of Carolus Linnaeus seem real and human to think of him as a little kid getting into trouble.

The subtitle, Carolus Linnaeus and the Naming of Everything, reflects my amazement at his impossible goal. As he finally discovered, naming everything in the world is a job that will never be finished!

Q: As an environmental educator, what do you see looking ahead in that field?

A: Over many years of teaching about nature, I've seen kids (and adults) become more and more fearful of nature, and disconnected from it. That's why I wrote a book called Leaflets Three, Let it Be!. It's about poison ivy, so that kids will understand what it is and know how to avoid it.

I think the main challenge facing those of us who love the outdoors is simply to get people of all ages outside, and then let nature do the teaching.

Fear is a big reason people don't want to go into the wilds--fear of bugs, poison ivy, getting lost, whatever. A lot of my writing is to try to address people's fears and give them the knowledge to feel confident outdoors.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm working on a book called Itch, which is about all the things in nature that make you itch. It will be released in spring 2018 by Houghton Mifflin.

Like Karl, I'm fascinated by all forms of nature, even the creepy, icky ones no one loves, and the book is about mosquitoes, poison ivy, tarantulas, and even (I'm sorry) lice.

I got interested in this weird topic when I discovered my grandfather's diary from when he was a soldier in World War I and spent a lot of time doing battle with "cooties."

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I'm also working on an activity book (co-authored with George Steele) called Wait Till It Gets Dark!. It's a kid's guide to exploring the night, and has activities to help people feel comfortable and safe outdoors at night. 

It's about using all your sense to explore--listening to frog calls and owl hoots, watching fireflies and stars, and even practicing using your nose to sniff the night scents!

My hope is that the more kids learn about nature, the more they'll want to go outdoors and see for themselves how much fun it is to have adventures. My goal is No Child Left Inside!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Dina Khapaeva

Dina Khapaeva is the author of the new book The Celebration of Death in Contemporary Culture. She also has written Nightmare: From Literary Experiments to Cultural Project. She is Professor of Russian at the School of Modern Languages, Georgia Institute of Technology. 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your new book, and how did you research it?

A: My first personal encounter with the phenomenon that I describe as “the cult of death” happened when I entered a huge retail store to buy a tutu for my daughter, and I was stunned by a new fashion line for newborns and toddlers featuring skulls, crossed bones, and the Grim Reaper.

Dumbfounded, I asked myself – has there been any other time in Western history when millions of mothers wanted to see their kids dressed as skeletons and covered with signs of death? We are surrounded by this fad in our everyday – big retailers routinely sell skull and skeleton patterned beddings, furniture, etc.

What's more, we are no longer surprised to be greeted by the Grim Reaper in pharmacies, let alone pubs and haunted houses all year around, or to have death studies included in high school curricula. So, the question that captivated me was: what does this fascination with death say about our popular culture and is this a unique cultural phenomenon?

Anthropological studies made me realize that the fascination with death has created new industries such as dark tourism, for example, and transformed funerals — this most conservative of rituals — on both sides of the Atlantic to the point that anthropologists speak about a revolution of burials.

How can we explain why, apart from all other extravaganza, people chose to wear jewelry made from the ashes of their relatives, not to mention so-called green funerals, cryonization, promession etc.?

It has soon become clear to me that anthropology or sociology cannot fully explain the reasons behind these changes, and that other sources are needed to understand them. 

Obviously, the fascination with death, and especially with very violent death is remarkable in contemporary movies and fiction. It occurred to me that The Vampire Diaries, Twilight saga, True Blood, the Harry Potter series and the apocalyptic genre such as Rise of the Planet of the Apes may explain the nature of that cultural change.

All these narratives have several features in common: they deny the exceptional value of human life by showcasing how idealized monsters kill undistinguished humans or reduce people to food.

We should not underestimate the novelty of this image: in the entire history of Western culture, people have never been represented in arts as legitimate snacks for other species. 

Q: At what point did this new "celebration of death" become common, and what do you see as the factors accounting for the change?

A: The cult of death is a recent movement that has emerged at the end of the 1970s – mid 1980s, and reached its full expansion in the late 1990s.
The aesthetic cause crucial to its formation was the Gothic Aesthetic.

This powerful trend emerged, in the 1980s and early 1990s, when two features overlapped in fiction and movies: murderous monsters became first-person narrators with whom the audience was expected to identify, and their plots and set ups were designed to immerse the audience into a nightmare trance.

Gothic Aesthetic promoted the normalization and idealization of monsters and the denigration of humanity in contemporary popular culture.

Two philosophical ideas are at the intellectual origins of the cult of death: the critique of humanism and the rejection of human exceptionalism.

In the late 1960s-1970s, these ideas were best expressed by the French Theory, the animal rights movement, transhumanism, and posthumanism. By the 1990s, they penetrated the popular culture and became fashionable cultural commodities.

I consider the tragedies of the 20th century an important historical premise of the cult of death. The experience of the totalitarian regimes and the crimes against humanity brought about a deep disillusionment with human beings, their culture and civilization.

It compromised the Enlightenment belief in human nature and the human race as the one uniquely moral species, and created favorable preconditions for a disappointment in humanity on a large scale.

I think it is important to specify that the rise of the cult of death in the past thirty years cannot be explained away by the decline of religion, which dates back to the 18th century.

Q: One of the themes you examine is the popularity of Halloween in the United States especially. How have celebrations of Halloween changed over the years?

A: Let me begin by saying that, in the 1960s, Halloween was considered by anthropologists as a dying tradition. Today, as we all know, in the U.S. this festival is second only to Christmas in terms of spending on decorations. It flourishes in Europe, Russia, South Africa, and Hong Kong.

Why has this remnant of death-centered Celtic agrarian ritual become one of the largest American holidays in the third millennium?

The popularity of Halloween in America rose in the mid-1970s - early 1980s, when the urban legends about poisoned “treats” given to children by strangers, and the abduction and murder of young children as part of Halloween rituals created a nationwide panic.

In parallel with these urban legends, which were proven completely fake, John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) started a new trend of horror movies. The rise of Halloween’s popularity is unequivocally related to the anti-humanist and anti-modern origins of that festival.

The Halloween costumes and decorations, which have been growing more and more horrific every year, offer one more proof that Halloween, which allegedly involved human sacrifice, was re-invented to promote a denial of the exceptional value of human life as a fashionable commodity.

Q: You also look at the phenomenon of Harry Potter. How do J.K. Rowling's books fit into your thesis?

A: One of my chapters is focused entirely on the seven books of the Harry Potter series. I explain the enormous success of the Harry Potter franchise by these books' ability to express new attitudes toward humans, humanity, and human life that originated in Western culture in the late 1980s-early 1990s.

The series was among the first to combine the main features of Gothic Aesthetic: they feature a plot that imitates nightmares; and wizards, nonhuman protagonists, who despise humankind, those repulsive Muggles, as an inferior race.

Most importantly, Harry Potter – a wizard disguised as a bespectacled boy -- amalgamated the features of the latest, most prominent, and most marketable character types that had just entered the pleasure market in the 1990s: maniac, vampire, and serial killer.

The Harry Potter franchise offered a new commodity -- a violent death of the main protagonist – as a groundbreaking entertainment for children and adults alike. It also suggested new attitudes to death to its audience.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The fascination with violent death is intimately related to neo-medievalism, which I consider a social and political expression of the new attitudes to people spread by the cult of death.

Medieval allusions are omnipresent in vampire sagas, the Harry Potter series, Game of Thrones, etc. To my mind, they represent a specific form of distorted historical memory. So, my new book, Neo-Medievalism: A Social Project explores the meaning of medieval allusions in American and Russian cultures and politics. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 29

April 29, 1933: Rod McKuen born.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Q&A with Amos N. Guiora

Amos N. Guiora is the author of the new book The Crime of Complicity: The Bystander in the Holocaust. His other books include Cybersecurity and Global Perspectives on Counterterrorism. He is Professor of Law at the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah.

Q: You write that this book ended up going in different directions than you initially expected. What were you thinking you would write, and why did that change?

A: When I began the project, I began it as a traditional law book, and in the first and second drafts, I found it to be boring for the writer. How do I make it more interesting?

I was preparing for a marathon with my running partner. You have hours to kill. The more stories I shared with her, the more I realized there was a story to tell here, and simultaneously to this, my father, a healthy 86-year-old, fell. I realized he was cognitively impaired, and that I knew very little about the Holocaust and my parents’ experiences.

I put it all together and I thought, why not write something that’s law-based but tells a story about my parents as a way to honor my parents and use their experiences as a way to address a very important legal question. It came out to be personal, historical, legal, but not [only] legal.

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

A: I thought long and hard about the title. There’s great significance to titles. I came to the conclusion that the bystander commits a crime, and the crime he commits is complicity. Why not address it head-on, and point the finger at the bystander. There’s a [recent] story in Detroit about a child drowning [that exemplifies this].

Q: You propose criminalizing bystander complicity. How exactly would that work?

A: Take the case in Detroit. Those standing there with a cell phone in their hand are in a position to dial 911, alert law enforcement. Failing to do that is a criminal act. I went back and forth on the extent of liability. I decided the most appropriate punishment was a financial penalty…

Q: How do you apply the lessons from the Holocaust to today’s world?

A: …I’ve been an autodidact on the Holocaust. [The top Nazis] don’t really interest me. The lesson learned is that if not for the bystanders, I don’t think the evil that was perpetrated would have been perpetrated. The Eichmanns of the world benefited from the complicity of bystanders. That for me is the lesson.

I think it absolutely applies to society today…the failure to act on behalf of a vulnerable victim significantly endangers the vulnerable victim. That to me, for me, is the primary lesson to be learned.

As my father was dying, I said, I’ve got to finish this before he dies. I’m in a race against time. Unfortunately, I didn’t succeed; he died before I finished. But out of nowhere, all the wires for three days, two years ago, recrossed, and I was able to interview him about this stuff. It was out of nowhere.

He did not allow me to videotape him; he was conscious of how he looked and would not allow me to tape him. I feverishly took notes as he spoke for three days. He disagrees with my theory. When he was on the death march, the villagers didn’t owe any duty to save him. My mother also disagrees.

Q: So that was the only time he talked about it?

A: Except when I was 12 years old. We were canoeing…he told me his story and her story and took me home…

You write a book like this, you uncover family stories, how he escaped and how he was saved. It’s a lovely story but it’s not true. He told me he was liberated by Tito’s [forces] and a Russian jeep showed up to save him. That’s not true. He hiked through the mountains, with no coat. He never shared that with me.

I know because I met with a Hungarian historian who asked how my dad got through to Sofia. I said a Russian jeep. He said that’s not true, he walked in horrible conditions. I said my perception of my father was that he couldn’t make his way from the living room to the front door without my mother. It turns out not to be the case.

I was a rude 15-year-old, and I said [to him], You never play golf. He said, I survived the Holocaust, don’t you think that’s enough? The book is an attempt to honor my dad through the lens of the bystander. There’s a lot of personal [information] in it.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just had [another] book out [recently] on cybersecurity, and one on Earl Warren. This one took four years to write, longer than the previous ones…there was so much family history in it.

It begins with the drowning of my cousin. It has never been discussed. It’s an unimaginable family tragedy. The first picture in the book—my mother took that picture the day before he drowned. The question of the bystander for me is not an abstract academic question, it’s deeply rooted in me. A child drowning is so awful.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like people to know about the book?

A: Whether people agree or disagree with my conclusion, I leave to the reader. What’s important is that the issue be discussed. I try to make it accessible through the personal stories of my parents.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Amos Guiora will be speaking at the 92nd Street Y in New York on May 22.