Thursday, August 25, 2016

Q&A with Fiona Davis


Fiona Davis is the author of the new novel The Dollhouse, which looks at New York City's Barbizon Hotel in the 1950s. She has worked as an actress, editor, and writer, and she lives in New York.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on the Barbizon Hotel in your novel?

A: I was looking for an apartment in New York City, and my broker took me to see a gorgeous condo in the Barbizon building. Although I had a general idea of its history, I returned home and immediately Googled it to find out more.

When I learned that a small number of hotel residents still lived there in rent-controlled apartments on the fourth floor, I realized I had the makings of a novel. The juxtaposition of old and new New York was too juicy to resist.

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to recreate the New York City of the 1950s, and what surprised you most in the course of your research?

A: I tried to immerse myself in that time period, including taking a series of classes in bebop jazz at Jazz at Lincoln Center, reading books about the early ‘50s, and watching old movies.

I studied the fashions and also read newspapers from that era to get a sense of what people were nervous about and what kind of changes were sweeping the city.

I was amazed at the way women were treated back in the ‘50s. Of course, I knew things were different then, and that the ‘60s and ‘70s had brought in sweeping changes, but the articles I read in newspapers and magazines had such a patriarchal tone to them.

For example, a woman was instructed to never directly address a waiter if she was dining out with a man. Any requests would have to go through her date. Hard to imagine today.

Q: The chapters in the novel move back and forth between your 1950s-era protagonist, Darby, and your modern-day protagonist, Rose. Did you plan out the structure of the book before you started writing, or did you make many changes along the way?

I’m a total planner. I know a lot of writers who just start writing and see where the story takes them, but because of the dual narrative and the mystery element in The Dollhouse, I had to make sure clues were dropped at the right spot in Darby’s timeline before revealing them in Rose’s.

So I plotted it out and wove the chapters together before starting the first draft. There were several changes during revisions, but the general structure stayed the same.

Q: In addition to your writing, you've worked as an actor. How do you see your acting background affecting your writing?

A: That’s a great question. I think being onstage and pretending that I was a Shakespearean heroine in the royal court, or dashing about the forest of Arden, taught me how to stretch my imagination and sense awareness. 

So that these days, when I’m sitting in front of my laptop trying to figure out how to convey the idea that a character is cold or hungry, I can pretty quickly tap into that part of myself. Of course, then I have to turn the image or feeling into words, which is a whole other struggle. But a gratifying one.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m diving into the second draft of my next book, which will also be historical fiction with an element of mystery. But I don’t want to give away too much, so it will be a surprise! I’m having a great time playing around with it on the page.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’ve worked as a journalist the past 15 years, and I think that’s helped me with fiction writing because I love calling up experts on a particular subject and interviewing them at length. They’re usually happy to chat, and provide lots of details that make it seem like I know what I’m talking about.

But the best aspect of fiction is you can then make characters do and say what you want, which offers a vast (and sometimes terrifying) freedom for the author. It’s a lethal combo.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb


Saturday, August 20, 2016

Q&A with Edward G. Lengel


Edward G. Lengel is the author of First Entrepreneur: How George Washington Built His--and the Nation's--Prosperity. His other books include General George Washington: A Military Life and Inventing George Washington. He is a professor at the University of Virginia, and he directs the Washington Papers documentary editing project in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Q: You’ve written other books about George Washington. Why did you decide to focus this time on his role as entrepreneur?

A: The Washington Papers project, which I direct, has spent the last few decades editing and publishing George Washington’s primary correspondence—letters written by and to him during the Revolutionary War, the presidency, and so on.

A few years ago I decided to expand our operations to include the editing and publication of his extensive accounts and financial papers. Studying these documents revealed a whole new side of Washington that has been almost completely neglected (the only other book about him as a businessman was published in 1930).

I decided to take a new look at his entrepreneurial activities not just to reveal more about Washington, but to place him more firmly in the context of his family, his community, and his times—and to discover more about the lessons his story can teach us today.

Q: You describe him as “a crafty and diligent entrepreneur.” What are some of the ways in which he demonstrated that, and how did his political and entrepreneurial activities intersect?

A: Washington’s craftiness is perhaps most apparent in his ability to think beyond contemporary expectations of a Virginia planter.

When the rest of the colony was focused on raising tobacco, he switched his entire operations over the wheat. When his Scottish farm manager suggested he build and operate a distillery at Mount Vernon as a business venture, Washington agreed despite his lack of experience in distilling, and earned huge profits.

His diligence emerges in all of his business activities, for he studied every challenge carefully, pursued his ventures with diligence, and kept exceptionally careful accounts.

Ultimately, Washington came to identify his own financial health and move toward prosperity with the future of the United States.

After the Revolutionary War ended, and even before he assumed the presidency, he recognized the profoundly important symbolic role that he played in American life, and tried to ensure that each one of his activities set a positive example for his countrymen.

As president, he identified establishing the “national prosperity” as his “only aim,” and used his entrepreneurial knowledge to inform his creation of public policy in economics and other arenas,

Q: How were his views on slavery affected by his focus on business matters?

A: It seems clear to me that Washington increasingly turned against slavery as he came to understand its basic conflict with the work-benefit principle.

Like other advanced thinkers of his time, he fundamentally regarded industry and morality as two sides of the same coin. An industrious person was a moral person, and vice versa.

The more he watched slavery in operation on his own estate, and the more he witnessed the various ways in which enslaved people were indifferent to or resisted work because they had no vested interest in success, the more Washington regarded the institution as inherently corrupt.

Unfortunately, it still took him many years to break away from it altogether by freeing his slaves by the terms of his will.

Q: Given that a businessman is the Republican candidate for president, what do you think George Washington would think about this year’s presidential campaign?

A: Washington would have shared the concerns that many Americans have about the issues of today.

He would have been worried about the economy—especially the national debt and the deficit—and would have regarded war and unrest as scourges to be avoided at almost any cost. He would certainly believe that we need to focus on using business principles to build the national prosperity, and to rebuild domestic manufacturing.

At the same time, he would have decried the partisanship that characterizes this campaign and American public life generally, and would have called for strict civility in public discourse and conduct.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am currently finishing a biography of “Light Horse” Harry Lee, the father of Robert E. Lee.

At the same time, I am beginning work on a new study of the “Lost Battalion” of World War I through the eyes of five major characters, including three Medal of Honor recipients and the famed journalist Damon Runyon. It is probably the most exciting and intriguing story I have ever written.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I think that’s it. Thanks so much!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb


Q&A with Christine Hale


Christine Hale is the author of the new book A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice: A Memoir in Four Meditations. She also has written the novel Basil's Dream, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Hippocampus and Arts & Letters. She teaches in the Antioch University-Los Angeles Low-Residency MFA Program and the Great Smokies Writing Program, and she lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

Q: You note that it took a dozen years to write your new memoir. Did it end up the way you originally expected it to?

A: The three "threads" of the book (the story of my growing-up years, the story of the tattoos, and the story of Buddhist retreats) were originally separate writing projects, and many pieces from each thread were published over the years as standalone pieces. The retreats and the together-tattoos were just too odd and interesting (a case of truth is stranger than fiction!) to not write about.

The most difficult material--speculation about the "why" of my parents' miserable marriage and examination of its effect on me--I simply felt compelled to write about as my parents aged and mellowed and died. I got to know them best at the end of their lives, and that emotional shift in me pushed me to explore it on paper. (Like many writers, I "process" by writing.)

I worked at all three threads off and on for years while earning a living and raising my children. I developed a nagging feeling that these apparently separate threads all belonged together, but for the longest time--years--I couldn't figure out how or why.

Only in retrospect is the answer crystal clear: the stories belong together because they are all about reconciliation: me coming to terms with the path I've traveled--and the people I bruised and learned from and was bruised by along the way.

I developed the collage format in order to weave the threads together, and, yes, once I realized that was the structure I was pursuing, I enjoyed the result. I believe it mimics the way we remember--in vivid, discontinuous flashes--and the way we strive to make sense of our pasts--the dots seldom connect completely, but we sense insights, anyway, when we spend time reviewing our memories.

Q: You describe many difficult personal and family experiences throughout the memoir. Have your family members read it, and, if so, what do they think of it?

A: Some have, some haven't, some probably never will, and others may eventually. I've had only very positive feedback so far, from family and from complete strangers.

What's most important when writing true stories about real people (I tell my student memoirists) is to bend over backwards during the process of revision to be fair to everyone you write about. You must try to project yourself inside their doubts, their fears, their motivations.

Otherwise you may be fooling yourself about yourself. You have to be at least as hard on yourself as you are on anyone else; if you want readers to trust you, don't make of yourself either a hero or a victim.

What is equally important is to remind readers at every opportunity that although every authentic memoirist works hard to get the facts right, memoir is inherently subjective. It is the story of a given person's recollected experiences, and we all know that two people present at the same event will remember "the facts" differently, and interpret them differently.

It makes sense to me that people close to a writer of memoir would have different degrees of enthusiasm about the writer and the writing, and thus different degrees of readiness to read that work. A wise writing friend put it this way: "There are early readers for a book, and there are late readers." It's important for writers--and readers--of memoir to know that.

Q: What role do you see Buddhism playing in the book?

A: The most powerful influence of Buddhism on this memoir is in the self-analysis. The true territory of memoir is exploration of the self: who am I, and what are the forces, inner and outer, that shaped me?

A goal of Buddhist practice is to know one's own mind--to become consciously aware of one's particular, recurrent cravings, aggressions, and delusions.

So, once I realized I was writing memoir (my first book was a novel, Basil's Dream), I had no other choice, as a student of Buddhism, but to examine with the most stringent honesty I could summon my mind, my actions, my motivations, and my judgments. This process was sometimes pleasant, often harrowing, and always, ultimately, rewarding.

Q: How did you come up with the book's title, and what does it signify for you?


A: The book's title arises from a moment during a Buddhist retreat (p. 80) when my Buddhist teacher wordlessly--and for that reason very memorably--provides me an insight about the nature of reality by playfully tossing grains of rice at a misbehaving child.

At the end of that retreat (p. 96), I recall the teacher instructing me, again wordlessly, to look at the sky as a reminder of impermanence and equanimity. The sky is spacious and clear, always, even though angry or sublimely beautiful weather plays out on it moment by moment.

Of course it is not necessary for readers to pick up on the meaning of the title. Those who are familiar with Buddhist teachings will quickly identify the familiar symbolism of rice and sky. But those unfamiliar with Buddhism may still enjoy a sense of peace when the sky is invoked, along with a sense of curiosity about the grain of rice, and its relationship to a piece of sky.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The work on the back burner right now is a set of linked stories, set in a fictional small town in Western North Carolina. All the stories take place in or have a seminal scene in a small, dumpy house with bad plumbing, built in the ‘40s and built-on ever since, inhabited by several generations of a working class family. The first of these stories, "Lake Tomahawk," has been published by Calyx Press; you can read the full text here

I grew up in southern Appalachia, and although I got myself out as fast as I could in my teens, and lived thereafter in New York City, Bermuda, and Florida, I came back to the region by choice about 10 years ago.

There's a saying in Appalachia that you shouldn't try to "get above your raisin'." I have, and I haven't, and both the memoir and the fictional stories I'm working on now are rooted in that personal conundrum, as well as the broader sociopolitical question of how this part of the South both is and isn't evolving past its history of exploiting and being exploited.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I want readers to take away a feeling that they are not alone in their doubts, fears, confusion, strivings, and hopes. That these feelings are the essence of being human.

I often hear from readers that they identify with the struggles and the triumphs in the book, that they are reminded of their own sweetest memories, that they feel reconnected with people they've lost, or that they have new insight into someone who was a powerful and painful mystery in their life.

It's amazing and satisfying that readers can get from the book their own personal version of what I got from writing it--clarity and release.

People can learn more about me and my work at www.christinehalebooks.com. A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice: A Memoir in Four Meditations is available through independent booksellers anywhere, as well as from the publisher (Apprentice House Press in Baltimore), and online at IndieBound and Amazon. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Adrian Tinniswood


Adrian Tinniswood is the author of the new book The Long Weekend: Life in the English Country House, 1918-1939. His other books include The Rainborowes and Life in the English Country Cottage. He is a senior research fellow in history at the University of Buckingham, and he lives in Bath, England.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Long Weekend, and why did you focus on the period between World War I and World War II?

A: I’ve been in love with the English stately home for most of my life. At different times I’ve been exasperated by its stuffiness. I’ve despaired at the reactionary rose-tinted nostalgia that envelops it.

But all it takes is a glimpse of high chimneys across a park - a twitch upon the thread, to borrow the phrase Evelyn Waugh uses in a different context in Brideshead Revisited - and all the doubts disappear. I can’t explain it.

Part of the traditional view of the country house that I grew up with was that the decades between the wars were a period of decline. And yet it seemed to me that there was a parallel story to be told, of a vibrant social world in which the country house managed not only to survive, but to prosper.

As I say in the preface to The Long Weekend, the period 1918-1939 saw new families buying, borrowing and sometimes building themselves a country house. It introduced new aesthetics, new social structures, new meanings to an old tradition. That parallel narrative saw new life in the country house. And that is what I wanted to explore.

Q: How was the book's title chosen, and when did the concept of the "weekend" develop?

A: Back in 1940 Robert Graves and Alan Hodge wrote a book about British society and culture between the two world wars. They called it The Long Weekend. While I was working on my own book, that phrase kept haunting me: it seemed to capture perfectly that sense of a pause, a break between two cataclysmic events. It described the period and the people I was writing about. So I stole it. With due acknowledgement, of course.

As for the concept of the weekend, that’s more complicated. It is a late 19th-century invention, and one that grew out of an efficient nationwide rail network. No one wanted to go away for a weekend in the country if it took them a week to get there and a week to get back.

And no one in the British upper classes called it a weekend. It was always a “Saturday-to-Monday.” In an incident which might have come straight out of Downton Abbey, the Duchess of Buccleuch recalled that it was “awfully non-U to call them weekends. I remember being surprised that anyone should use the term.”

The phrase also distinguished the leisured classes from those who had to be at work first thing on Monday morning, and for whom a weekend began on Saturday afternoon and ended on Sunday evening.

Q: What are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about English country houses in the period between the world wars, and do you think Downton Abbey's portrayal of the English country house in this period is accurate?

A: Downton Abbey is great TV, and if it sometimes takes liberties with the historical reality, it conjures up the period wonderfully.

The big misperception about English country houses between the wars is that life was all about death and taxes. Everyone forgets the parties.

The legendary (and fabulously rich) host Sir Philip Sassoon is a great example. Weekend entertainment at one of Sassoon’s stately homes might range from an exhibition of trick shots by the golfer Joe Kirkwood to songs on the terrace from the Austrian tenor Richard Tauber or rather more startling performances by the Dolly Sisters, identical twin dancers known for their antics in the casinos and royal bedrooms of Europe.

Sassoon gilded the antlers of the stags in the park because he liked the way they glittered in the sunshine, and had his extensive borders planted overnight with flowers brought up from Covent Garden, purely for the enjoyment of his guests. Sassoon epitomises the urbane Jazz Age flamboyance which made the country house such an exciting place between the wars.

Q: How did you research the book, and what surprised you most in the course of your research?

A: The period between the wars is rich in memoirs, and those memoirs are so gloriously full of gossip, that the hardest task was deciding what to leave out.

I’ll give you just one example of a story that fascinated me, but which didn’t make it into the book. The messianic Fascist Oswald Mosley and his aristocratic wife Cimmie once played host to Cecil Beaton and Stephen Tennant. Beaton and Tennant found some clothes belonging to Cimmie’s dead mother and danced for their hosts in drag. You couldn’t make that up.

One big surprise was the transient nature of below stairs life after the First World War. There were faithful retainers who spent their lives in the service of a single family, like Carson in Downton Abbey.

But the nature of the master-servant relationship was changing. Butlers, valets, housekeepers and lady’s maids changed their jobs frequently, moving from one house to another, always on the lookout for more congenial work or for better pay and conditions.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My next project is a history of the royal household, provisionally titled Walking With Kings. I want to explore life at the English court, life as it was lived by clerks and courtiers and clowns and crowned heads: the power struggles and petty rivalries, the backstairs intrigues, the constant tension between duty and personal desires; the practicalities of cooking dinner for thousands, or providing security for a monarch who walked through crowded London streets, or discreetly ensuring the king always won when he played a game of golf.

Each monarch was both a creator and a creation of his or her time. Elizabeth I, for example, was above all a public queen, going on progress every spring and summer, and taking her court and her majesty to her subjects. Charles I, deluded by grandeur, was aloof and impersonal, expecting his subjects to come to him.

George I rarely came out of his bedroom before noon: he dined alone, he walked alone in the gardens of St James’s in the afternoons and he spent his evenings closeted with his mistress. George VI danced the conga round the state rooms of Buckingham Palace.

I hope Walking With Kings will be a domestic history of the court, a reconstruction of life behind the throne. I want my readers to feel what it was like to sweat in the royal kitchens and to play piquet with the sovereign, to dress a prince and undress a princess.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: You should know how to wire a stately home. In the 1920s Lord and Lady Braye of Stanford Hall were baffled by the prospect of having to run cables through their long ballroom without wrecking its delicate 18th-century stuccowork.

Then someone had a bright idea: they prised up a floorboard at one end and dropped a dead rabbit into the void; then they prised up a floorboard at the other end and unleashed a ferret, with a string tied to his collar. When the ferret had managed to negotiate the joists and reach the rabbit, the string was used to pull through a cable and hey presto! the problem was solved.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Friday, August 19, 2016

Q&A with Eleni N. Gage


Eleni N. Gage is the author of the novel The Ladies of Managua. She also has written the novel Other Waters and the memoir North of Ithaka, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Martha Stewart WeddingsTravel+Leisure and The New York Times. She lives in New York City.

Q: In your acknowledgments, you write, “I’m living proof that the most fun way to learn about another culture is to marry into it.” What role did your husband’s family play for you as you wrote this novel?

A: Some people say you don't just marry a man, you also marry his family. But I got an entire country! My husband was the first Nicaraguan I'd ever met; this book would not exist in any form, not even as an idea, without him and his family.

All I knew about Nicaragua before meeting Emilio came from the Saturday Night Live skits in which news anchors reporting on the Iran-Contra affairs took great pride in pronouncing the country's name, showing off the Spanish they learned in Correspondents' Language School.

On one of our early dates, Emilio mentioned that his family moved to the U.S. during the war and I said something like, "Now tell me what that conflict was about again?"

And then on a later date, he told me about his grandmother, whom he's very close to, and who attended high school in New Orleans at Sacred Heart, which many well-off Nicaraguan girls did at the time.

She really did have a clandestine romance with a Cuban that ended when her parents whisked her back to Nicaragua, and that inspired the character of Isabela. That's where her similarities to Isabela end—I invented  the specific interactions and incidents in the character's life, including the final scene in the book.

The funny thing is, my grandmother-in-law, who is a real legend in her own mind, totally identifies with Isabela; she said to Emilio, "Eleni knew about things that I've never told anyone, not even you!" Her memories of what actually happened to her started to blend with the fiction.

It's not just the character of Isabela that I owe to my in-laws, but the setting as well. Emilio's family returned to Nicaragua after the war ended and the country stabilized in the ‘90s, so we always visit them there.

And I wrote the first draft of the novel in a sort of fever-dream during seven months in which we lived in Granada while Emilio completed a project for his job as a coffee trader.

It was such an amazing experience, living in this almost magical realist town where there were parrots and turtles in our yard and religious parades on our street. I also had wonderful, affordable child care while I was there, which was critical to allowing me to write the book.

Q: How did you come up with the three generations of women who feature in the book, and did you prefer writing in one voice as opposed to the others?

A: It all started with Isabela for me. I love writing from the point of view of older women, who have seen so much social change in their lives. The older we get, the more history we carry within us, along with all of our younger selves.

Nicaraguan woman of a certain age were raised to always be well-dressed, well-behaved ladies—and it was these women whose children overthrew the dictatorship and fought in the Revolution in the late ‘70s and ‘80s. The amount of social change in one generation is huge.

I wanted to explore that tension between the lives these women expected to have and the world they found themselves living in, because I think as women, we're all raised to follow society's rules to some extent, and by the time we figure out how we think the world works, we realize that the rules have all changed.

As I started to write from Isabela's point of view, I realized that her experience could only be fully understood in the context of her relationships to her daughter and her granddaughter, the two most imported women in her life, and, after her husband dies, her two most complicated relationships.

Exploring three different points of view made the writing process really exciting for me--I couldn't wait to get to my desk the next day to examine the situation these women were in from the next character's perspective.

One of the lessons I've struggled to learn in my own life is that we all see and feel things differently—it really took me way too long to realize that not everyone will react to the an experience in the same way I would.

Writing in each woman's voice helped me realize how easy it is to misunderstand other people, even—and especially—those who are closest to us.

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've heard a lot of authors describe writers as [falling] into two camps: Plotters, who know the plot ahead of time, and "Pantsers," who fly by the seat of their pants.

I am definitely a pantser. I knew I wanted to examine the relationships between these three women, and I knew each of them had a secret she concealed from the other two, but in the beginning, I wasn't even sure what two of those secrets were.

I was really surprised by some of the things my characters ended up saying and doing. I'd be writing and thinking, "I cannot BELIEVE she just did that!"

As for the ending, it came to me when I was about halfway through writing the book. We were living in Nicaragua and Emilio's grandmother was about to turn 80. All she wanted for her birthday was to visit New Orleans, where she'd been so happy as a young girl.

We took her on a trip and I arranged a tour of Sacred Heart, her alma mater. When I was standing in the courtyard looking at the fountain, the ending came to me, and form then on I was writing to that point.

Q: As someone who’s written a memoir as well as fiction, does your writing process differ depending on what you’re working on?

A: The experience of writing is different with each book and my daily goals are different—with this novel I didn't think in terms of chapters but in terms of point of view.

Since the voices alternate in the same order, I always knew who'd be "speaking" in the section I'd be working on the next day. For me that really served as an engine that kept the writing moving forward.

One constant that remains the same whether I'm working on nonfiction or fiction is that I read anything I can get my hands on about the place or situation I'm exploring in my writing. (I always say I'm a promiscuous reader; I will read almost anything.)

When I was working on North of Ithaka, my travel memoir set in Greece, I read Patrick Leigh Fermor, travel guides, Lord Byron's "Childe Harold," anything I could find about Epiros, the remote region where I was living. For my first novel, Other Waters, I studied Hinduism and read ethnographies by Diana Eck and John Stratton Hawley.

And for The Ladies of Managua, it was Margaret Randall's oral histories of female Sandinistas, Sandino's Daughters and Sandino's Daughters Revisited, and the memorial book Sacred Heart published to celebrate its centennial.

I also found a number of novels that were written in the ‘40s and ‘50s and set in New Orleans, to get a sense of the city at that time, and that was really fun.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm not working on a new book right now; honestly, I feel like the characters of The Ladies of Managua are still with me. Plus, the book came out a month after my second child was born, so I've been pretty busy since then.

Between the kids and working full time as a magazine journalist, it's tricky to find time to write. That's why those months in Granada were such a gift—I loved being able to immerse myself in the setting of the novel I was working on, and look forward to being able to do so again sometime, I hope sooner rather than later!

I think the next thing I write will be a novel, probably set in Greece again. But I'm open to inspiration as well! An Indian astrologer predicted my wedding date a full year before I'd even met my future husband, so I'm a believer in fate. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just that Nicaragua is an amazing place to travel (and so are Greece and India!). I'm always urging readers who enjoyed my books to go visit the settings themselves someday.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Eleni N. Gage, please click here.


Q&A with Nicholas Mirzoeff


Nicholas Mirzoeff is the author of How to See the World: An Introduction to Images, from Self-Portraits to Selfies, Maps to Movies, and More. His other books include The Right to Look and An Introduction to Visual Culture. He is a professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University, and he lives in New York City. 

Q: You write that in the past 40 years, "the world has changed dramatically in four key registers. Today, the world is young, urban, wired, and hot." How have these changes affected global visual culture?

A: It's dramatic. Most people now live in cities, are under 30 and 49 percent of the world's population is online in some way.

And the result is the most spectacular explosion of images. Over a trillion photographs taken every year. 700 million Snaps posted to Snapchat every day. Four hundred hours of video posted to YouTube every minute.

To put this in perspective, Americans alone take more pictures every two minutes than were taken in the entire world throughout the 19th century. 

My argument is that the image-sharing culture in which we live is our response to the dramatic changes we see around us every day--a way to understand what's happening and then perhaps steer that change in a positive direction.

Is your neighborhood gentrifiying and pushing out the locals? Post pictures to Instagram, start a hashtag, get the council involved. Or most notably in the U.S. of late, did the police shoot or harm a person near you? Post it, use their name, start a movement. 

Look at South Africa for an example. Black South African students didn't like the fact that the University of Cape Town had a statue of the British imperialist and racist Cecil Rhodes (yes, the Rhodes Scholarships are the same person).

So they started a campaign online, #RhodesMustFall, that became a student action movement and the statue was removed to a museum. Then the government tried to raise student tuition and a new hashtag/campaign was started, #FeesMustFall. Students won again.

They identified corruption in the government and started yet another movement, #ZumaMustFall, meaning the country's president. This campaign was more complicated because all kinds of people who were not involved in the student issues picked up on it.

But the local elections in August saw the ruling African National Congress suffer its worst losses since independence in 1994. South African artist Zanele Muhole calls this “visual activism,” a term I adopted in the book.

But there's a fourth condition, global warming, and this is the joker in the pack. Young people using new forms of communication in cities to make change is a pattern we know.

Now the rules are changing. South Africa suffered its worst drought in decades this year. 2016 is already the hottest year on record like 2015 before it. In Brazil, home to the world's largest rainforest, the giant city of Sao Paolo is running out of water.

We've become used to the ways modern industry changes the environment. Dust in the air from pollution makes for beautiful sunsets. We have to learn again how to see climate change.

Q: In the book, you state, "All media are social media. We use them to depict ourselves to others." What do you see looking ahead for the social nature of media?

A: When we look at social media, it's remarkable how important sharing has become. In 2015 we posted 1.8 billion photos every day and nearly all of them were to social media sites. Places like Flickr where we used to store photographs are not expanding at anything like the same rate.

Social media are going to become even more visual--"all visual all the time," in the words of the influential Meeker Report. For all its use by a certain presidential candidate, text-based social media like Twitter face an uncertain future.

The next thing that's already here is livestreaming yourself. That means relaying your experiences as they happen live using video.

We saw a dramatic example of this recently when Diamond Reynolds used Facebook Live to stream her thoughts just after her boyfriend Philando Castile had been shot by police in Minneapolis.

Even more remarkably, President Erdogan of Turkey used Facetime to send a message of reassurance to his country during the attempted military coup last month.

With so much social media, it's easy to miss things. So both Snapchat and Instagram offer their users the chance to compose Stories of what's been happening.

Snapchat leave Stories up for 24 hours--unlike the famous 10 seconds you have to view a standard Snap. These are visual narratives being used as diaries in place of blogs or status updates.

But these things are obvious because they're already here. The most striking aspect of our social media lives is how new it all is--YouTube was set up in 2005. When the printing press began in the 15th century, the predominant use people imagined for it was to produce Bibles.

These early moments of social media will come to seem like the silent movies, or the first television shows--quaint, limited but with a certain undeniable charm. 

Q: You discuss selfies and their links to previous forms of self-portraiture. How are they connected to self-portraits from previous eras, and how do they differ?

A: Selfies are the first form of visual language created by the young, urban networked majority. Sometimes reviled, we see presidents and prime ministers taking them now. Notably, they are mostly taken by women, often two or more friends together.

Self-portraits in painted form were used to make claims about the skill and status of the artist as a heroic individual. The selfie is a crowd format: often taken in groups, it matters only when shared and liked (or not!).

We often hear them described as narcissistic. Remember though that Narcissus spent all his time staring at his reflection so that he died. He had no interest in making a physical image, let alone sharing it with the Internet. No narcissist would post something under #uglyselfie.

It's become established that a selfie has to be taken at arm's length--the selfie stick didn't catch on. Nearly all cameras come with timers to allow for self-portraits and group shots but those don't count as selfies. It's the extension of the arms that matters.

Media theorist Marshall McLuhan saw electronic media in the 1960s as extensions of our senses. “Television” literally means seeing at a distance. The selfie is different. By holding our device out, we extend the network. 

In short, there's a new “us” out there on the Internet that the selfie makes visible. The self-portrait was always about the past, a given moment in historical time. The selfie is always about the present, the current moment. 

Q: The book includes a variety of images, beginning with NASA's Blue Marble. Why did you choose that as the book's initial image?

A: In 1972 the British artist and writer John Berger wrote the best-known history of images that he called Ways of Seeing. When I began writing this book, I asked myself what I could add to Berger's work, which is still well-loved.

I realized that Blue Marble, NASA's iconic 1973 image of the planet, was the place where that story could begin. Believed to be the most reproduced photograph ever, it made an enormous impact in its time.

People saw in it the possibility of a unified world, and the necessity to be better stewards of the environment. It seemed to encapsulate the optimism of the Space Age. Little did we know then that no human would see that view again.

NASA's 2012 reissue of the photograph was a “tiled” assembly of more than 50 lower-altitude satellite images combined to form one picture and then corrected for color. As a result the USA dominates the 2012 version, where we saw Africa in 1973.

I wanted to tell the story that extended between those two photographs and see what had happened since. I don't see our present condition as a fall from the heights of 1973. I was alive then and it wasn't that great! It's different, with different possibilities and different problems.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm thinking about what it means to be able to see through the Anthropocene. That's the name geologists have given to the era of human-generated change for what they call the Earth system.

It creates new turning points in history and debates over how we recognize them that go far beyond a technical debate in earth science to put again that apparently familiar question of what it means to be human. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: People often ask me if I'm an artist. I am never quite sure how to answer this because I have done artistic projects and worked with art collectives and artists but day to day that's not how I think of myself. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Hassan El-Tayyab


Hassan El-Tayyab is the author of the new book Composing Temple Sunrise: Overcoming Writer's Block at Burning Man, which focuses on his experiences at the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert. He is the founder of the music group American Nomad, and he is based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book, and what do you hope readers take away from it?

A: The origin of Composing Temple Sunrise came from a blog I was keeping in 2009 about my cross-country road trip. After my experience at Burning Man and Fishbug [a metal art sculpture], I decided to make the blog into a book.

Writing about this journey helped me explore parts of my past and gave me a chance to share how I’ve used travel, music, and community to overcome some very traumatic childhood experiences. Through my writing I’ve gained lots of insight on some pretty complex emotions as I rebuilt my life in the Bay Area.

I had a mantra while writing this book: Start from the truth. I told myself that if I put it down on the page I could always cut it out later. By the time I finished the book I felt comfortable enough with myself to keep that stuff in there.  

The message I’m trying to relay is that community, art, and storytelling can heal us, bring us closer to each other, and push us past the limits of what we thought was possible.

I hope people read this book and see a little bit of themselves in the protagonist. And hopefully be inspired to overcome whatever it is they are battling against.

We all suffer from the self-critic and I want everyone to feel less alone in that. It’s a shared struggle that we all face in hopes of creating something unique and beautiful out of life.

I also want to use my story to counter Islamophobia and the master narrative about Arab and Muslim Americans. There is a lot of fear of the “other” in America and whenever people tell our personal stories, we poke a hole in that fear and push back against the “us vs. them” narrative.

I’m hoping that putting this book out there can help make this country a little less hostile to people from the Middle East. I’m also hoping that it will encourage others to write and share their stories too, be it through books, music, or any kind of artistic expression.

Q: As you mentioned, you describe many painful experiences throughout the book. How difficult was it to write about them?

A: It was very difficult for me to write about much of what I put into the book. The biggest complaint early on when sharing my initial drafts from my first readers was the lack of drama.

My editor told me that I was hiding from the reader. What I had written was basically a chronological sequence of events during my time at Burning Man. And then, and then, and then…

I listened to the feedback, and kept going. I knew I had a story to tell though I had to learn the craft of how to go about telling it. Or should I say, showing it!

I kept pushing and finally realized that probably the most important part of the story was my life before the road trip. These stories give insight to why I was feeling the way I did and why I was on the trip to begin with.

Writing all the backstories felt like peeling back the layers of an onion. Each piece helped me find the courage to uncover the next.

The very last part of my story that I wrote was about growing up with a cleft palate. I had convinced myself for years I’d leave that part out. It was too painful.

My editor Faith encouraged me to include it though. She told me to think about how my story might impact young children growing up with this condition. It wasn’t until a few weeks before I actually published the book that I sent in that chapter to my publisher. Sharing that part of the story is probably the thing I’m proudest of.

A friend of mine once told me, “Run at what you’re afraid of.” Those flashback chapters are my attempt at following his advice. After publishing this book I’ve honestly never felt more liberated in my life.

Q: As a musician and writer, how do the two complement each other for you?

A: My music is really about storytelling, and is fueled by storytelling about my life experiences and stories I pick up along the way from others. Writing the memoir came naturally to me in that light.

During this whole time I flowed back and forth between the two mediums, one fueling the next. And when I wasn’t feeling like writing prose, I jumped back to writing tunes and vice versa.

At a certain point you hit a saturation point and have to put whatever you are working on down. Having this other thing to go to I think acted almost as a pressure release valve and made me more a productive writer in general.

Something I found myself doing was putting some of my lyrics inside the memoir at opportune moments. Sometimes, parts of the memoir found their way into hooks or verses. If you know my tunes really well you could probably find some overlap.

What I think really helped me write the book is that I identify more as a songwriter than a writer. I learned to write in long form through this book because I had a story to tell. Not the other way around.

I think whenever you put a lot of pressure on yourself and tie your self-worth and identity into your art it’s easy to get blocked. The process becomes very tied to your emotional state, which can [fluctuate] from day to day.

I’m a lot harder on myself when writing songs. While writing Composing Temple Sunrise, I actually had fun the whole time. There was rarely a moment during the seven-year writing process that left me in doubt of wondering what to do next.

The book in a way wrote itself. I loved the process of working with skilled editors [who] pushed me to do better as well.

Q: How did your time at Burning Man change you?

A: More so than the experience of going to Burning Man, working on a large metal art sculpture helped me build confidence and develop my sense of self.

Helping to build Fishbug at the metal shop was probably the most transformative experience that happened to me in the story. Learning from the crew and getting some amazing mentoring pushed me to be a better version of myself.

They validated me in a way I hadn’t really ever been validated before. Plus, I could see this amazing sculpture morph and evolve before my eyes in real time. I can’t explain the satisfaction.

Being at Burning Man also helped me see the world in a different way. I think it made me more hopeful about human potential in general. Seeing everyone just doing the hell out of their thing is inspiring.

One scene in the book follows a time where I was trying to write a tune to no avail. Rather than give up, I grabbed my guitar case and walked across the entire playa playing for everyone I could.

This was at a time where I had an extreme fear of performing. The vibe is so open out there I felt safe to express myself to complete strangers. In fact, the size of Burning Man helped with the anonymity. I never had to see these folks again.

And people just gobbled up the music I was playing. Each performance fueled the next and helped conquer my fear of performing and eventually writing.

When I got back to the Bay, I got myself a regular Friday night gig at a café where I continued to work on my chops in front of a live audience.

Now I get up and sing in front of big and small crowds alike with my fear in check. I’ve played at huge theatres holding hundreds of people and even sang on KQED’s radio program Forum, where they get about 25,000 people tuning in about every 15 minutes.

I still get nervous at all of these things, but I handle it and find a way to do my thing! That would have been unimaginable for me before my time working with the Fishbug Crew.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a few different things. Over the past two years I’ve been working on my first solo album. I’ve had two other releases with a full band but wanted to have a recording I could sell on the road as I travel with the book and play shows solo.

It’s a nine-song record called In the Folds that I believe will be released in the fall. Featured on it is myself on guitar and vocals, my pal Dana on grand piano. It’s probably the best piece of music I’ve ever recorded and I’m pretty stoked to get it out there.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I was recently an elected Bernie Delegate and attended the 2016 DNC in Philly. I’ve been a campaign finance reform advocate for a while now and will continue working at getting free and fair elections in the U.S. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb