Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Q&A with Alex Beam

Alex Beam is the author of the new book The Feud: Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson, and the End of a Beautiful Friendship. His other books include American Crucifixion and Gracefully Insane. He is a columnist for The Boston Globe, and he lives in Newton, Massachusetts.

Q: Why did you decide to write a book about the feud between Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson?

A: I definitely say a little about this at the beginning of the book. I didn’t know of the feud’s existence. A lot of people better immersed in 20th century literature have known about it, but it was a secret to me!

I was with my friend [when I heard about the feud] and I couldn’t believe my ears! My first reaction was disbelief and scoffing humor—it was the silliest thing I’d ever heard.

I’ve been thinking about the books I’ve written, and every book is about a subject I knew nothing about. Nothing was [telling me], Oh well, everybody knows that.

I didn’t know much about Wilson and Nabokov, and that it was [the Pushkin novel Eugene] Onegin [that played a big role in the feud]—I am a Russian speaker, a vestigial Russian Studies student, and the lure of Onegin is a place you can’t really take the reader, though it’s a chapter in the book.

Seeing what [the feud] was nominally about was pretty tempting. I knew Onegin was sort of the vortex of Russian literature, but I hadn’t read it. A number of things drew me in.

Q: How would you describe their friendship?

A: It was very beautiful. It’s no accident those letters [between them] were printed twice. It’s not only beautiful, it’s erudite, very candid. It’s the friendship every writer wants, the kind of friendship you’re lucky to have—people who like you and your work but can offer honest criticism.

The sense now is that a lot of the friendship was expressed itself through letters. That assigns it a slightly different quality—it could be the 18th century. We can’t see or hear their conversation, but we can savor the letters.

Q: So was it really a disagreement over Nabokov’s translation of Eugene Onegin that caused the friendship to end?

A: The book, which is blessedly short, in a not terribly profound way, takes the reader to the conclusion that the two men’s lives marched in different directions.

What had been friendly differences became sharply edged. Nabokov became more conservative, and Wilson became more liberal.

The nature of their successes—it’s real—when your friend is on the bestseller list and you’re not, the friendship didn’t survive Nabokov’s apotheosis.

I’m not an expert on Edmund Wilson but Wilson has a traditional arc for a career. In his prime, he was famous in America, as he enters his 70s, he was not a writer younger people were reading. It’s natural. Nabokov was quite the opposite.

Q: How would you describe the legacy of these two writers?

It’s radically uneven. I just did a piece for the Globe on Nabokov’s legacy. I don’t want to be overly blunt, but there is not an Edmund Wilson legacy.

Literature types like my editor know a lot about Wilson. The New Yorker occasionally publishes [pieces relating to him]. Older New Yorker writers know a lot about Wilson—the power of his voice, his left-wing politics. But for the man or woman on the street, no one’s ever heard of Wilson.

The opposite is true for Nabokov. When you strip it all away, it’s 1000 percent on the strength of Lolita. Lolita is still a book people read. Its 60th anniversary was last year. There was an incredible amount of criticism about. It made the Modern Library list…

Q: So you think it’s mainly Lolita that’s keeping his name going?

A: That’s my opinion. The academy has been in love with Nabokov for decades now. University scholars have kept him very much afloat…There are five journals devoted to Nabokov studies. There’s not one journal devoted to Edmund Wilson.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My next book is a conversation-stopper—it’s about architecture. I barely have started. It’s a book involving Mies van der Rohe and one of his famous clients.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I hope people like it! It was meant to be fun to read. I would want people to have fun reading it.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with David Savill

David Savill is the author of the new novel They Are Trying to Break Your Heart. He has worked as a journalist for the BBC, and he teaches creative writing at the University of Salford in Manchester, England.

Q: You've spent time in both Bosnia and Thailand. Why did you decide to combine the Bosnian war and the 2004 tsunami in Thailand in this novel?

A: How do we put ourselves back together after the worst of disasters? This was what interested me. The idea that in the darkest of times, we also find the most beautiful light.

It’s an idea a lot of Americans might need just now. I had witnessed the aftermath of both war and natural disaster, and it was the fact of survival, and hope, that stayed with me.

In the story, three characters have been confronted with different kinds of disaster; the pain of having a loved-one go missing, the grief of having your childhood stolen by a war, and the injustice of being a victim to a terrible crime.

The story doesn’t flinch from its realities. The world is trying to break the heart of my characters. But in the end, we are seeing these people struggle towards the light, and make their worlds anew.

Q: The book jumps around in time and location. Did you plan out the structure of the novel before you started writing, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: I began with a very organic drafting process. I didn’t plan, and I followed the dramatic journey of each character. At the heart of each narrative is the shock of the unexpected: the day of the tsunami, the day a Bosnian town is shelled, the day a human rights researcher discovers the truth behind an awful crime.

Later, I shattered the narrative, just as a bomb or tsunami would. I began to arrange the events in time and space around these shocks.

Tsunamis cannot be detected at the point of the earthquake. The surface of the water is still. The energy of the shockwave gathers as it meets the continental shelf, piling up and pushing out of the water to create the wave we see. In the novel, the dramatic energy of the three stories gathers, and time and space pile up until they all become one.  

Q: You write from the perspectives of various characters. Were there some whose viewpoints you particularly empathized with?

A: I have to empathise with all my characters, especially the most troubled. Empathy is literature’s redeeming feature. This doesn’t mean all fiction seeks empathy. But as a writer I do see it as my job to practice a deep empathy, and what I learn from this becomes my gift to the reader.

People in this book do bad things, but I don’t believe people are bad. Alice Munro said we should never underestimate the meanness in people’s hearts, even when they are being kind, especially when they are being kind.

I think this is a great key to understanding people. I understand you can be mean, and cruel, but I’m going to love you anyway. And love changes you.

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

A: During the writing I was listening a lot to the Wilco song “I am Trying To Break Your Heart.” It’s a song about seeing the other side of someone’s story, about how love can be cruel and selfish but achingly beautiful and redemptive at the same time.

There is more than one protagonist in the book, so I changed the pronoun in the song title, and suddenly it became a way of saying – these people are trying to break each other’s hearts; but the world is also trying to break their heart. Trying, but it won’t succeed.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve just finished the first draft of a novel called Disinformation. I don’t want to say too much about the plot, but it’s about journalism in the new age of political conspiracies. It’s very “post-truth.”

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Only that I deeply appreciate my readers. The book isn’t a straight thriller, and it isn’t completely literary either. It’s challenging at the beginning, but I know you won’t be disappointed by the time you get to the end. The best thing a reader ever said to me was, “This book taught me how to read it, and I’m so glad I made the effort.” 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 6

Dec. 6, 1886: Joyce Kilmer born.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Q&A with Brian Russo

Brian Russo is the author and illustrator of the new children's picture book Yoga Bunny. He has a teaching certificate in yoga, and he's based in Utah.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for the Yoga Bunny book?

A: What I came up with was the illustrations. I took a yoga teacher certification class in 2010. As part of graduating, we had to memorize a sequence, and I drew the bunny as a visual representation of the poses.

Other people in the class responded to it. I put up a website, bunnyoga.com. It pretty much looks now like how it was. It got pretty popular online. People would forward me something where someone had reposted the images, and it was the kind of traffic I would get on my site with a K after it [representing thousands].

I started selling posters and T-shirts. I wasn’t supporting myself doing it, but it was bringing in a little extra cash.

Lisa Sharkey from HarperCollins had the idea of a book about a bunny doing yoga, independent from me. When she Googled it, my images came up.

First [the idea was] maybe someone else would write it…[but] I had another children’s book I was trying to get out, and they thought they’d give me a shot. I’m a big fan of Adventure Time, more adventure-based, but that was not the tone they wanted. They were interested in something small and simple.

I looked at A.A. Milne’s illustrations, and took in that feeling. I did a couple of illustrations with the bunny in the woods, and animals coming up to him. [I thought,] Maybe that’s all that needs to happen! Is this really all that needs to happen? I guess it was!...

Q: How do yoga, writing, and illustrating fit together for you?

A: One thing I discovered over the course of the yoga thing is that I feel way more comfortable illustrating than teaching yoga! It’s something about my mind—I can’t just write notes, I have to draw stuff.

I got into doing yoga, and that inspired me to draw the bunny in different poses—I was imagining animation of the bunny like a remixed pop song.

I worked as an art model—by doing poses, you find dramatic poses. They would say, Do these poses so your body understands what it’s like to hold these poses. I think when you’re drawing, there has to be a connection between what the character is doing and what you’re doing. You need to understand what that feels like.

Q: Are you still teaching yoga?

A: I took the class because it was something I was interested in, and for a little bit I would teach yoga for friends.

Maybe this is good advice for people considering yoga teaching—it takes a while to get to a point where this is your profession and people are paying you for it. It was expected that you would teach without getting compensated. It’s a long haul.

For me, I discovered that illustration is what I’m more passionate about.

[With yoga,] there’s something I need from it to keep off anxiety. It’s a physical thing that I need. That’s more what it is than the actual teaching. The thing I got from the class is those bunnies, and that gave me the opportunity to do my first children’s book!

I moved from New York to Utah, and I still do yoga, but I do it at home with videos. It can take a while to find a place you feel comfortable doing it. Different yoga studios have different vibes. I need something a little more low-key, and some places get pretty intense.

Q: What do you see as the perfect age group for this book, or doesn’t it really have an age group?

A: In writing the story, my thinking was, this is for very young children because the story is so simple. He’s doing yoga and wants people to do it with him.

Last Friday I read it to 5th graders. I was thinking this is good practice but they are a little too old. I asked them, and they said no, they said they were into it!...

I’m proud of the way the illustrations came out. I worked very hard on it, and I had a team of people coaching me. Having that pushed me beyond what I had achieved before. I’m hoping the illustrations can [amplify] the simple story and make it accessible.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve written a follow-up to Yoga Bunny. I hope it will happen—I will have to see if the publisher wants to do another one.

I have a website, theperfectcheese.com—that’s the other book I’m working on. It tells the story of a mouse looking for the perfect piece of cheese he had and lost. I’m pitching the idea for a graphic novel.

[A friend and I] have a comedy pilot we’re trying to get into the hands of someone who can help us. It’s more broad comedy—a Star Trek parody.

I have a couple of other ideas that my agent thought were not quite right for children’s books. Maybe for animation—I’m starting to storyboard them out for animation. Everything takes a long time! I’m hoping the right things will lead to something!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Megan Shull

Megan Shull is the author of Bounce, a new novel for kids. Her other books for young readers include The Swap and Amazing Grace. She lives in Ithaca, New York.

Q: You’ve said that the idea for Bounce came from various inspirations, including the movie Groundhog Day and a documentary project called Where Children Sleep. How did you unite these ideas into one novel?

A: Yes! Here’s the story: I came across a stunning collection of photos by James Mollison, a documentary photographer. The exhibit, now a book, called Where Children Sleep features portraits of children around the world, and their bedrooms.

The project was conceived as a way to highlight childhood poverty and the side-by-side single snapshot comparison—that juxtaposition of poverty and privilege, is incredibly striking. So much of who we are and how we turn out to be is grounded in our story of origin and the family that we land in….

And yes, the 1993 film Groundhog Day was certainly kindling for Frannie’s journey. One of the things I love about the film is that the story is so tight that there’s not really a need to understand the “rules” behind the magic (waking up over and over and over again reliving the same day) that drives the story forward.

You end up so invested in the transformational journey that you sort of forget about the moving through space and time part. 

Q: What does the idea of "bouncing" from one experience to another signify for you, and how did you decide on the book's title?

A: The title was really inspired from the image of Frannie literally dropping down and bouncing into the beds and lives. But soon, I had one of those “Oh, whoa!” moments when I realized I had written a whole story about resiliency and learning how to bounce back.

I love that the title works on a couple different levels, and I think learning how to bounce back when times are tough is truly half the battle of . . . everything.

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

A: Luckily I know the author ;) So, yes. I knew how the story was going to tie up going into the whole deal. 

Q: What do you think the book says about relationships between parents and children, or among siblings?

A: One of the things I love about the story is that the teenagers in the book, (Frannie’s siblings) are seen in a very different light from the start of the book to the end.

I don’t think that they necessarily had a huge internal transformation . . . more, it’s a little window into the fact that most humans have the innate ability to be good and to be not so good, or kind.

To be human is to be both and as you get older and grow, you hopefully are able to harness more kindness than unkindness. We are works in progress.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Ahhh . . .more books! Stay tuned!

Q: Anything else we should know?

Yes! My goal always as I write is for my readers to want to keep the book close, or tuck it under their pillow because the protagonist’s journey somehow helps them (the reader) feel seen, safe, soothed, and—as with my new novel, Bounce—more resilient, and more capable of bouncing back after falling…

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 5

Dec. 5, 1830: Christina Rossetti born.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Q&A with Alyson Richman

Alyson Richman, photo by Robert Presutti
Alyson Richman is the author of the new novel The Velvet Hours. Her other novels include The Garden of Letters and The Lost Wife. She is a painter as well as a writer, and she's based on Long Island.

Q: The Velvet Hours was inspired by a true story. Can you describe how much of the novel is historically based, and how you balanced the historical and the fictional as you wrote it?

A: The novel came about after I read a newspaper article about an apartment in Paris that been mysteriously shuttered for over 70 years and had once belonged to an elusive courtesan by the name of Marthe de Florian. 

When the apartment was opened, it resembled a time capsule. Thick veils of dust covered sumptuous antiques and gilded mirrors. Most striking of all was a magnificent portrait by the 19th century Italian painter Giovanni Boldini of Madame de Florian that hung over the marble fireplace. Adding to the allure, love letters, written by the artist, were found in Marthe’s vanity.

No one knows why Marthe de Florian’s granddaughter, Solange Beaugiron closed the apartment during World War II, but as a historical novelist I knew I had plenty of rich material to create a novel.

Factually, we know the apartment was located in the ninth arrondisement of Paris on La Square Bruyere, but other than that, the information is rather scarce.  

What we do know is that “Marthe de Florian” was born under a different name, Mathilde Beaugiron. Her birth certificate states her to be the daughter of a laundress and a French census cites her as being a seamstress during her early 20s.

She had two children, both named Henri, though the first Henri, died shortly after childbirth. The other Henri we know later became a pharmacist and had one daughter, Solange Beugiron, who many believe became the writer Solange Beldo. 

In 1938 Solange Beaugiron claimed that one of her plays had been plagiarized. This is why I create Solange as a budding writer who is fascinated by the story of her grandmother.

Q: How did you research the novel, which takes place in France over several decades? 

A: As this book tells the story of a Belle Epoque I steeped myself in books and literature that brought that time period to life. I did extensive research on the life of courtesans during that time, working with both historians and experts in the field of fashion and art history.

As there is a rare Haggadah in the book so I worked with scholars with background in conservation of rare books. I was lucky enough to have three Boldini paintings pulled from storage at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City so I could study his unique brushwork and accurately bring his artistic style to life. 

For the World War II portion of the novel, again I worked with experts in the field to make sure the novel was historically accurate. I also used a lot of photo archives and diaries from that time period so that the contrast between the sumptuous world of the Belle Epoque and the dark tumultuous days of early World War II.

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

A: There is a sentence in The Velvet Hours when Solange ruminates on the time she spends with her grandmother in the apartment, when Marthe reveals much of her past to her granddaughter after they had been estranged for most of Solange’s life: “Those hours were like velvet to me. Stories spun of silken thread, her own light and darkness, unabashedly drawn.”

Both Marthe and Solange reveal their personal stories in the novel, not only the most beautiful parts of their pasts, but also ones that are less flattering. In essence, every life has its own shadow and light.  

The texture of velvet is particularly intriguing to me. It can be soft in one direction, yet bristly in another. It can appear dark at times, or iridescent in others. That contrast defines much of The Velvet Hours. Beauty within the shadow. Darkness still threaded with light.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m currently working on a novel called The Family Cloud. It’s a very different novel that takes place in modern day and explores the bond between parent and child and teacher and student. Stay tuned.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb