Thursday, January 18, 2018

Q&A with Anna Snoekstra


Anna Snoekstra is the author of the new novel Little Secrets. She also has written the novel Only Daughter. Her work has appeared in The Guardian and other publications, and she is based in Melbourne, Australia.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Little Secrets, and for your character Rose?

A: Believe it or not, the main premise of Little Secrets is actually based on a true story.

A few years ago I read an article about porcelain dolls that were found on doorsteps of family homes. The creepiest part was that the dolls looked just like the daughters that lived in the houses.

It turned out to be an innocent misunderstanding, but the whole idea of the dolls, and the way people reacted to them, was fascinating to me.

I love crime stories that don’t have a traditional detective as their main character, but instead feature a regular person with invested interest in the mystery.

When I first started writing this book, my first novel, Only Daughter, had been accepted by a publisher but hadn’t been released yet. I had spent the previous five years working nights at a cinema/bar, and spending my days trying to get my writing career off the ground.

I channelled those feelings of desperation and drive into the Rose character. She is a budding journalist who latches onto the story of the dolls as a potential story and ticket out of her dead-end job at a pub.

Q: In this novel, you tell the story not just from Rose's perspective, but from the perspectives of various other characters. Why did you decide to structure it that way?

A: Structuring the novel to include different perspectives felt like the only way to tell the story I wanted to tell. I was fascinated with examining the way the truth can be twisted and manipulated.

Everyone sees the same events in different ways, so therefore have different ideas of what truth is. They bring their own desires, prejudices and previous life experiences to any situation and I wanted to show how much they can colour what each individual perceives as the truth.

Q: The novel takes place in a small town. How important is setting to you in your work?

A: Really important. For me, it is on par with character as the most important part of a story. Setting is usually the first part of a new concept that comes to me. Colmstock in Little Secrets is more than just a town. I created it as a symbol of claustrophobia and dashed dreams.

Before Colmstock, I’d always set my works in real places. It was really liberating to create a whole new place just from my imagination. I wanted it to feel real, and to make sense spatially, so I created road maps and set out where all the buildings and important locations were in relation to one another. It was actually really fun!

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

There’s so many! I try and read widely, not just crime but literary fiction, young adult, graphic novels and literary fiction as well.

Some of the authors I love at the moment are Candace Fox, Elizabeth Jolley, Emma Cline, Maggie Thrash, Emily Maguire, Samantha Hunt, Francoise Sagan and Angie Thomas, just to name a few.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: At the moment I’m working concurrently on another crime novel as well as a young adult novel!

The crime novel is about a young woman who is sitting in a police interview room waiting to confess to a crime. She was the victim of bullying by a group of girls in high school and has spent the next 10 years tracking down each of her tormentors, infiltrating their new lives, and getting revenge.

My young adult novel is about a group of teenagers living in a mountain town who believe them selves to be adopted. As they work together to try and find the truth of their parentage, they discover that the situation is much more sinister than adoption. It is a secret that goes to the centre of the town itself.

Both of these novels are coming out this year and I’m so excited!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just a thank you for asking such interesting questions. I’ve really enjoyed answering them.

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

Jan. 18

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Jan. 18, 1882: A.A. Milne born.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Q&A with Linda Williams Jackson


Linda Williams Jackson is the author of Midnight Without a Moon, a novel for kids, and its sequel, A Sky Full of Stars. They focus on a girl named Rose Lee Carter who is growing up in Mississippi in the 1950s. Jackson is based in Mississippi.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Midnight Without a Moon, and for your character Rose Lee Carter?

A: I have always wanted to write a story about a sharecropping family in the Mississippi Delta because of the stories I heard about my own sharecropping family from that area.

Rose’s character is inspired by a cousin who was indeed left in Mississippi to be raised by my grandparents when her mother migrated to Chicago (the true story is VERY different, by the way).

Of course, children being left behind during this period was quite common, so Rose could have been any young girl who was raised in the South while her parents sought job opportunities up north.

Q: The book includes the story of Emmett Till. What did you see as the right blend of history and fiction as you were writing your novel?

A: I tried to make the story as historically accurate as possible. So for the tie-in, I fictionalized Rose’s grandfather as an “old friend” of Emmett Till’s great-uncle Mose Wright. Since Mose Wright was a tenant farmer in the Mississippi Delta, it is not too far-fetched to blend that fiction with fact.

What I did not want to do, however, is bring a “living” Emmett Till into the story and attempt to fictionalize his life in any shape, form, or fashion. I wanted the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but.

Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?

A: Most of my research was done on the Internet. I read tons of articles, including archived copies of Jet magazine (which was quite fun actually). I did have to buy a few books, but most of what I needed was on the World Wide Web. I watched YouTube videos in addition to reading articles.

The thing that surprised me was how little I actually knew about the history of the Mississippi Delta and about my own African-American history.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?

A: I hope readers will grasp an understanding of what type of environment Emmett Till stepped into when he got off that train and traveled to Money, MS.

Emmett Till’s death wasn’t just about a wolf whistle. It was about Brown versus Board of Education. It was about voting rights. It was about Jim Crow. It was about the White Citizens’ Council.

All of those things encompass “keeping people in their proper place,” and that is what the Emmett Till murder was all about—not a wolf whistle.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Truthfully, I’m not working like I should be. But when I do, I will find myself telling the rest of Rose’s story, plus telling a story of about happenings in the Mississippi Delta during the ‘70s.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Hmmm. Nothing that I can think of except, thanks for the interview!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 17

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Jan. 17, 1706: Benjamin Franklin born.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Q&A with Allegra Huston


Allegra Huston is the author of the new novel Say My Name. She also has written the book Love Child, written and produced the film Good Luck, Mr. Gorski, and is on the staff of the magazine Garage. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Newsweek and Vogue. She lives in Taos, New Mexico.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Say My Name, and for your main character, Eve?

A: I wanted to write a love story, and I wanted to base it on my fantasy—that one of the great songs would have been written for me. It’s my first novel, and I wanted Eve to be somewhat similar to me, so I made her 48. I didn’t want an old rock-and-roller, but a guy on the verge of making it big. That led into the story of an older woman and a younger man.

Q: Do you think attitudes have changed over the years regarding relationships between older women and younger men?

A: I think they’ve changed to some extent, though not enough. It’s still, "Ooh, an older woman"--a programmed-in response that older women are more knowing and experienced. There’s something predatory, lubricious, forbidden, edgy about the whole deal, though certainly as you look around, there are more relationships between older women and younger men.

The cougar thing drives me mad. What is a cougar? A beast. There’s a sense of desperation…It’s extremely demeaning. It’s annoyed me that women have bought into this. It’s another way to demean women.

I know a lot of people in relationships of that kind, and virtually without exception, it was the man who did the chasing. The idea of a predatory cougar chasing down a boy, or a man, helpless in her wiles is so offensive.

Q: How did you think of the unusual musical instrument that you feature in the novel?

A: I can’t remember how I cane up with the idea of an instrument bringing them together. They are hard people to bring together! I came up with the idea of her doing antique hunting.

I wanted him to be a reluctant rock star, with a close and authentic relationship to a kind of primal music. The music Micajah plays when he’s not being a rock star is the kind friends of mine play—Andalusian, Middle Eastern.

His journey at the end is a reverse of [the film] Latcho Drom…he’s following the evolution of music from the far desert to Europe. Micajah does it in reverse.

Q: Is it a real instrument?

A: It’s based on a viola da gamba, but it’s smaller. The viola da gamba, you play like a cello, but you hold it between your knees. I kind of made it up, but then I researched the viola d’amore, and I imagined something that [already] existed!

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

A: The original title for the book was "Night Blooming Jasmine"; that was going to be the name of the song. But the publisher felt it sounded like an epic set in the Far East.

We moved on to "For Eve" as the title…but we tried to come up with a name that would convey romance. "Say My Name" is not as accurate a title, but I hope it conveys the flavor of being intimate and close.

The relationship between the two of them is based on being seen. It’s wonderful when you have a relationship with someone who sees you for who you are. That’s what draws Micajah and Eve together…

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The screenplay of this. And my next book, which is going to be fairly different. It’s a psychological thriller.

I hope it will hit the same thing—what I wanted to do with Say My Name was to write a novel that has a popular storyline but is well written, thoughtful, and authentic: the thinking woman’s sexy novel. Maybe the next one will be the thinking woman’s psychological thriller!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: For me, it is a love story, but it’s really the story of a woman’s self-empowerment through the medium of a love story. I didn’t want it to have a regular happy ending, “happily ever after” updated, because that didn’t feel real to me…

What is a happy ending for a 48-year-old woman whose marriage has ended isn’t finding a younger guy. That’s great, but the idea is to feel confident. She, having felt seen, can see herself…

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 16

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Jan. 16, 1933: Susan Sontag born.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Q&A with Simon Van Booy


Simon Van Booy, photo by Ken Browar
Simon Van Booy is the author of Gertie Milk and the Keeper of Lost Things, his first novel for kids. His other books include Father's Day and The Illusion of Separateness, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and the Financial Times. He lives in Brooklyn and Miami.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Gertie Milk and the Keeper of Lost Things?

A: It evolved over about eight years...sketching out characters and scenes. I've never felt completely at home anywhere in the world--so I created the mythical island of Skuldark.

Q: Why did you decide to write a children’s book this time?

A: I love Roald Dahl, and wanted to write books for children that were adventurous, but funny and scary too...

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

A: That fear brings out the worst in people. Strength is not power, but the absence of fear.

Q: Is this the beginning of a series?

A: Yes! Book Two is out in September....no plans for Book Three yet though...

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A novel about five rabbits that live in a dusty old shop in New York City.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Although stories are made-up, to me they feel true. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Simon Van Booy.

Q&A with Patricia Hawse


Patricia Hawse is the author of the new book Divine Daily Messages: A Year of Daily Channeled Messages and Journal. She also has written Messages for Lightworkers. She is the founder of KarmaFest, which focuses on holistic health.

Q: How did you first get involved in daily channeled messages, and how did the book come about? 

A: I started doing my daily channelings for the most obvious of reasons: a boy broke up with me and I was devastated. I was so devastated that I asked God/Higher Powers what I was to learn from the pain. 

I wrote on a piece of paper: “what would you have me know today?” and received an answer that didn’t seem in my words, at all. I thought the messages were just for me until other people would talk of their experiences and I would think, “My message today might help you.” 

Then I realized the messages were general enough that they could help most anyone and everyone regardless of age, sex, religion or cultural affiliation, etc. So six years ago I began posting the messages each day. 

I have not missed one day of “channeling a message” regardless of being sick or on vacation or if it was my birthday: not one day missed in over six years so I have over 2,000 of these messages. 

From there I created a small version of this book several years ago called Messages for Lightworkers, for I wanted to encourage the young people to hang onto hope and to help them through their days of struggle. 

From there, people asked for a full year of messages where they can journal beside it (some groups were even using the Messages for Lightworkers book in their spiritual groups for discussion and reflection). That is where this book came from: the past year of channeled messages which seem to be getting more sophisticated in nature as we move along (higher spiritual concepts explored).  I don’t edit the messages and if I do it is simply spelling. 

The words they give me are 99 percent accurate in grammar and meaning, even if they seem foreign to me and don’t make sense: when I look them up, they are correct. I am honored people enjoy these messages and plan to put them out there for as many people to enjoy as possible.

Q: How do you hope readers interact with the book, and what do you hope they gain from it? 

A: I hope it is a reflection tool as well as an inspirational tool. I’ve found that everyone wants a guru and teacher ~ I am not that. I believe the teacher is within so I pray people will use the words to “work on themselves” to become better humans, in general, and more “enlightened,” in particular. 

For this Daily Channeled Messages and Journal, the ultimate goal would be for them to not only “journal” beside the daily reading, but to try channeling their own daily message and see what they come up with! From Self to Source we can glean all we need to know, to grow!

Q: Who do you see as the likely audience for the book? 

A: Anyone and everyone who is trying to make this world a better place and/or is trying to grow spiritually; anyone who is suffering; if read daily, they will find tools and words to help them with greater higher dimensional understandings which do indeed affect the everyday life of any individual for the better. 

Better humans create a better world. A healed heart creates a healed world. Start with healing self and the rest will follow.

Q: Can someone start working with the messages at any point, or should someone start at the beginning of the year? 

A: They can surely start at any point and just go to that date and work from there. Time is a manmade structure and enlightenment is a lifetime of work so you one might as well start where they are and go from there! So if you begin in February, you can just eventually get to January next year! The circle continues to spin ~ no time is lost.

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I am working on a book of my awakening process. I thought there have been too many people writing too many books on “their awakening,” where people would be bored of another. 

However, I’ve found in my healing and enlightenment work, when it comes to spiritual concepts and elements, I often refer to stories of my own spiritual awakening to help explain things. 

That is where my next book will come in: to help those on the path know there will be the ups and downs and to try to put into words and stories that which is esoteric and hard to find in a manual of life.

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: My goal is to help the planet by enlightening the human condition with love. Each heart that is healed, or on the healing process, and each spirit that is enlightened by words of encouragement, is my end game. 

If my daily channelings help in that regard, I will continue writing them. They are the best part of my day: when I am connected to Source/Guides/Angels, “The Higher Realms,” so it is perfect for me and my growth, as I hope it is for others, as well. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 15

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Jan. 15, 1929: Martin Luther King Jr. born.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Q&A with Karin Esterhammer


Karin Esterhammer is the author of the new book So Happiness To Meet You: Foolishly, Blissfully Stranded in Vietnam, which focuses on her family's experiences living in Vietnam. She worked for the Los Angeles Times for 15 years, and currently resides in Los Angeles.

Q: Did you know when you first arrived in Vietnam that you'd be writing a book about your experiences?

A: I didn’t. I started writing emails to my friends and relatives. I was so excited about what I was experiencing, I wrote emails nearly every day. A few months later, more than one person said I need to write a book. Books are much harder to write than emails, so whoever recommended I do this…well, thanks.

Q: What do you think are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about Vietnam in the United States?

A: That the Vietnamese still hate us is a misconception. That’s definitely not the case. We were treated like family the whole 2½ years we were there. People might also think the country is still third-world. No entirely. Its GDP is consistently 6.5 percent. They are catching up with the world of technology, business and tourism.

Q: Of all the experiences you had during your time in Vietnam, were there a couple that especially stood out?

A: Simply watching people. The streets are amazing. So much activity, noise, smells—life going on. But my favorite experience was going to an orphanage twice a week to help hold and feed (and change diapers) the babies. It was pure heaven. They desperately needed the human touch and I wished I had more arms. At least I could share some love and kiss their little chubby cheeks.

Q: How did your experience in Vietnam change you and your family?

A: We lived in a fairly poor neighborhood. The people were so happy despite having very little. They were generous beyond measure, taught me how to get along with less, appreciate more, and pay more attention to family. I really came back changed.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Mostly marketing my book. It takes as much time as the writing of it. But I also look forward to writing a book about our son, who is autistic. Vietnam really helped him come out of his shell, as well.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The title of the book, “So Happiness to Meet You,” came from a neighbor who said that. I thought it was so adorable and it makes a catchy title.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 14

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Jan. 14, 1912: Tillie Olsen born.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Q&A with Peter Manseau


Peter Manseau is the author of the new book The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, and the Man Who Captured Lincoln's Ghost. It focuses on William Mumler, a "spirit photographer" in the 19th century. Manseau's other books include Rag and Bone and One Nation, Under Gods. He is the first curator of religion at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, and he lives in Annapolis, Maryland.

Q: How did you first learn about William Mumler, and what intrigued you about his story?

A: Each of my books has grown out of a lingering question from the one before. In this case, after my 2015 history One Nation Under Gods was published, I realized that though I had told the stories of many minority religious groups in America, I had somehow missed spiritualism.

The massive popularity of ideas concerning communication with the dead in the 19th century struck me as full of narrative potential, so it was just a matter of finding an individual in that world who had a story that cried out for telling. With that in mind I read spiritualist newspapers from the 1850s and 1860s and soon Mumler crossed my path.    

Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?

A: Having learned of Mumler in the 19th century press, I continued in that vein for my research. Mumler's career in Boston, and his arrest and trial in New York, were exhaustively covered in both spiritualist and secular newspapers.

It was possible reading through those accounts, and through the news of the world that was happening while Mumler was becoming known, it was possible to recreate the story in a dramatic way down to the smallest details.

One great surprise of my research came when I realized I needed to get some hands-on experience in order to write about early photography with authority.

I found an expert in wet plate photography -- taking pictures on small rectangles of glass, as was done at the time -- and convinced him to give me intensive lessons on the materials, chemicals, and methods involved. If I'm ever transported back to 1865, I might be able to find work as a photographer's assistant.   

Q: You also focus on other photographers of the era, including Mathew Brady. How does Mumler's work compare with Brady's?

A: The tension between the famous Brady and the infamous Mumler remains to me the most interesting thing about the book. Brady was the most esteemed photographer of his era, respected by all his peers, and lauded by history as the man most responsible for capturing a visual record of the Civil War.

Yet he was also a relentless self-promoter, as Mumler was in his own way, and both men recognized that there was something important to be discovered about the relationship between photography and death.

Brady and his collaborators brought images of the war's dead home to Americans as never before; Mumler's spirit photographs offered images of death in another way. Both photographers exploited a hunger to hold on to those who had been lost, while demonstrating the potential for photography to make permanent changes to human memory.   

Q: Do you see a modern-day equivalent to spirit photography?

A: Spirit photography has now managed to outlived Mumler by more than a century. It continues online in the form of widespread digital photographs that claim to capture ghosts and auras.

Seen more broadly, the digital sphere generally is a place where technology allows us to feel we are accessing a world of invisible entities. Facebook has an estimated dead population of 50 million -- when we interact with the social media pages of the dead, we participate in some ways in the kind of communication that 19th century spiritualists pursued through seances.   

Q: What are you working on now?

A: In addition to writing books, I am the curator of American religious history at the National Museum of American History in Washington, which keeps me quite busy! I hope at some point in the future to be able to present spirit photography within a physical space -- basically a walk-through version of The Apparitionists.

Meanwhile, my next book project is a collection of essays on religion, language, and travel called Revelation Road

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Though The Apparitionists may seem to tell a strange story of a different time, it is also very much a story that resonates with our own image-obsessed age.

I began my research looking for a quirky story that would bring the era of spiritualism to life, yet the story that soon emerged was eerily relevant to our own world. Collectively, we take a billion photographs every day; we do so often in order to hold on to people and moments we fear we might lose -- just as the clients of Mumler and other photographers did before us. 

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

Jan. 13

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Jan. 13, 1926: Michael Bond born.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Q&A with Judy Sierra


Judy Sierra is the author of the new children's picture book The Great Dictionary Caper. Her many other books include Wild About Books and The Secret Science Project That Almost Ate the School. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Great Dictionary Caper, and how did you pick the words you included in the book?

A: Even though I’m not an illustrator, my picture books nearly always begin as images in my mind. Often, they arrive unbidden.

About three years ago, I was toying with the idea of a picture book about a parade—a really silly parade. Around the same time, I was blogging about words.

I was in the midst of a post about “onomatopoeia” when I suddenly envisioned noisy words marching in a word parade (Word Parade became the working title of the book). I imagined that all sorts of words had escaped from the dictionary to attend Lexi-Con in Hollyword, and started writing the book.

How did I pick the words for the book? I used a combination of my brain and internet searches. I agonized over which words to include in each category. Eric Comstock, the illustrator, made the final choices from the lists I provided.

Q: What do you think Eric Comstock's illustrations added to the book?

A: I knew from the beginning that this would be a difficult text to illustrate. It called for an artist with a wild imagination. That’s Eric! He understood my ideas and he added many of his own.

The illustrations both delighted and surprised me, which is one of the things I love about being a picture book author—seeing the unexpected things a great illustrator comes up with.

Q: What do you hope kids take away from the story, and what age group do you think would especially enjoy it?

A: The message of the book is definitely “words are fun.” Every kid who becomes a voracious, lifelong reader goes through a stage of playing with words (some of us never outgrow that stage). Wordplay is absolutely necessary to the process, because when kids play with words, they make them their own.

The best possible reader for this book isn’t one single person, but a duo or group of adults and kids—adults to answer kids’ questions, kids to point out little details that adults often miss.

Kids reading the book by themselves need to have some background knowledge about word categories. The book is perfect for a second or third grader who knows a few of the concepts, like rhyming and onomatopoeia. The book will introduce them to other fun categories such as palindromes and archaisms.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on a biography of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. This book has a connection to The Great Dictionary Caper. The Brothers Grimm loved words, and their final project was a dictionary of the German language.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Here is a puzzle: one of the words in The Great Dictionary Caper cannot (yet) be found in any Merriam-Webster Dictionary. I like to think that if Noah Webster were still alive, he would be jolly enough to include it.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Thanks again to Judy Sierra for appearing. For other stops on the #DictionaryCaperBlogTour, please check https://www.judysierra.net.

Jan. 12

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Jan. 12, 1949: Haruki Murakami born.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Q&A with Nic Stone


Nic Stone is the author of the new young adult novel Dear Martin. She lives in Atlanta.

Q: What inspired you to write Dear Martin, and how did you create your main character, Justyce?

A: Dear Martin, for me, was a response to three things: the myriad shooting deaths of unarmed African American teenagers since 2012, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to these deaths, and the invocation of Dr. King in opposition to this movement—which didn’t sit right with me knowing what I knew about Dr. King and his M.O. So I decided to explore current events through the lens of his teachings to see what would happen.

Justyce just sort of appeared in my head one day. There’s a lot of me and my experiences in him, but really, he’s an ode to my two little boys who will one day read his story and very likely see themselves. 

Q: In an interview with the Huffington Post, you described yourself as "brazenly optimistic." Why is that, and what do you see looking ahead when it comes to race relations in this country?

A: I wish I had a more interesting answer than that’s just kinda my personality, but… well that’s just kinda my personality. I’ve always been one to seek the silver lining because in a world as rich and beautiful as this one, I think there HAS to be one no matter how dire things seem.

And to be honest, I can’t say I’ve really thought very far ahead. When things slow down a bit, I’ll have a seat and give it some thought, lol. 

Q: Can you say more about why you decided to highlight Martin Luther King in your book, and what do you think he would say about current racial issues?

A: As I mentioned above, one of the catalysts for this novel was seeing Dr. King quoted in opposition to exactly the type of nonviolent protest movement he espoused. Every time I saw “Dr. King would NEVER!” it became increasingly clear that the things Dr. King did do, that his teachings and philosophies, have been sanitized over time.

And I think he would say everything he’s already said. Yes, legislation was passed in the 1960s that made discrimination illegal—which is to say people can be sued for discriminating—but all the deep stuff, the heart stuff that he highlighted as problematic still stands.

We all just need to get to a place where we care at least as much about others as we do ourselves. That place of LOVE for all mankind he was always talking about. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 11

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Jan. 11, 1931: Mary Rodgers born.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Q&A with Meryl Gordon


Meryl Gordon is the author of the new biography Bunny Mellon: The Life of an American Style Legend. She also has written Mrs. Astor Regrets and The Phantom of Fifth Avenue. She is the director of magazine writing at NYU's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, and a contributor to Vanity Fair.

Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of Bunny Mellon?

A: I had done two previous biographies of women over [age] 100 in the Social Register with gazillions of dollars. I thought I was done with the genre.

I was asked to do a story on Bunny for Newsweek in 2011 and she agreed to speak to me. The sweep of American history involved in her life—it was so fascinating to relive the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s. Normally by the time someone reaches their 80s, you’re beginning to wind down, but she had more chapters! [It was interesting to see] how close she was to power.

Q: How did you research her long life, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: The first year you hit your head on the wall, and then things open up. The first year, I was talking to Bunny’s grandson and the estate, and after the first year, they opened the archive. She saved everything! She had saved all her first husband’s letters from World War II. I was getting 75-year-old gossip!

There were five boxes of her friendship with Givenchy. And her letters from [her second husband] Paul [Mellon]—they had a complicated marriage. They led separate lives, but wrote sweet affectionate notes.

Q: What would you say is her legacy today?

A: I think she’s known primarily for her design for the Rose Garden, which lives on. When you read about press conferences in the Rose Garden, it’s still Bunny’s basic design. It hasn’t really changed in a dramatic manner since 1962.

The other part is that she was ahead of her time in terms of personal style and her taste in art. I was fascinated by the auction of her stuff in 2014. The prices were insane, one hundred times more than what they were valued at. I couldn’t afford any of that!

There were so many articles about her as a style guru, the shabby chic style. My husband loved my working on this book—I was like, Let’s fix the place up!

Q: How would you characterize her relationship with Jackie Kennedy?

A: From everyone I spoke to, they were soulmates. Jackie was significantly younger, yet from the minute they met in 1958, they were incredibly close. Bunny was very discreet, and Jackie was aware of people gossiping about her.

I was only allowed to see a small sample of their letters. Jackie as First Lady was writing to Bunny: You hate the spotlight; I was so afraid you’ll fade away. It was touching—it showed the vulnerability of Jackie. They traveled the world. They shopped together. They both were obsessed with presentation.

Q: As a very elderly woman, Bunny became involved with the John Edwards presidential campaign, donating large amounts of money to him and eventually becoming part of a court case. Why was she so attached to John Edwards?

A: She fell in love with his Two Americas speech. She was taking care of her daughter, who was brain-damaged. Her life had shrunk. She saw him as the new John Kennedy. A friend arranged an introduction, and she felt relevant. He called her. He was a very charming, attractive man.

She never got angry about the money. She had fun with it. She wanted to elect a progressive liberal Democrat. To his credit, he stayed in touch with her afterwards. The final weekend before she died, one of the calls she made was to him.

Q: You've now written biographies of Bunny Mellon, Huguette Clark, and Brooke Astor. How would you compare the three women?

A: They had things that were very similar, and things that were very different. Brooke Astor married her money when she married Vincent Astor. Huguette Clark inherited money. Bunny had the good fortune to inherit her money and also married money. She was the wealthiest of all.

All three did not go to college. Brooke and Bunny were frustrated that they were denied opportunities in a man’s world. All three were involved in art. All three, later in life, became victims of elder exploitation. It shows that kind of money can make you vulnerable.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I don’t have a next idea, but I’m ready to do something different! After these three books, I’ve covered this area. No one has fascinated me equally from this particular time [period].

What’s fun about the three books is the mixture of people who knew them, and archival research. I don’t know. I’m open to ideas!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: What interested me about Bunny was the theme of resilience. I’m personally fascinated by what happens to people when things go wrong in their life. Bunny was inspirational. She took pleasure from nature. When things went wrong, she could take pleasure in what was around her, and was able to deal with her grief and move forward.

I got in the habit of “adding a little Bunny” to my life. I would get up from the computer and look at the sunset. It was my ode to Bunny. It’s one of the lasting things that stayed with me.

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