Monday, March 27, 2017

Q&A with Christopher Corr

Christopher Corr is the author and illustrator of the new children's picture book Deep in the Woods, based on a Russian folk tale. He is based in London.

Q: Why did you decide to adapt this folk tale, and did you change it much from the original?

A: The book is based on a Russian story called “Teremok,” a word which is quite difficult to  directly translate but it means a “cosy home in the forest.”

There are lots of versions of it in Russian but I decided to keep to a simple nature-loving tale about how friendship and cooperation can make for great and wonderful things and even disasters can be overcome.

Q: Did you write the text before you drew the illustrations, or vice versa?

A: To begin with I wrote a brief synopsis of the story with some small sketches and then I started to visualise the book. I wanted the words and the pictures to be equally powerful and the colours I used to be joyful and moving … a tall order!

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

A: The central message of the story concerns the importance of friendship and support through the good and the bad times. Cooperation is so much better than conflict. Respect for nature is there too in the book. We must all respect nature.

Q: How did you come up with your style as an artist?

A: I travel a lot to paint and draw and I’m curious and fascinated by the world. I look at a lot of primitive and folk art for inspiration. The similarities and differences among people is wonderful and astonishing at the same time. You don’t need words to communicate.

I draw a lot on location, in the streets and in landscapes and I meet a lot of people. My love for colour came from travelling in India. It was overwhelming and amazing and so beautiful. I try to bring into my work elements that I have seen on my travels.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m currently working on the story of the Chinese Zodiac. It’s a wonderful story with lots of animals and great Chinese landscapes. It will be published in January 2018 by Frances Lincoln Books.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: It’s a wonderful world! Colour is astonishing. There are so many fascinating stories to be told from all over the world and they can teach us so much. I want to keep exploring and finding old stories to retell.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Jennifer Ryan

Jennifer Ryan is the author of the new novel The Chilbury Ladies' Choir. She has worked as a nonfiction book editor. Originally from the U.K., she now lives in the Washington, D.C., area.

Q: You write that some of the inspiration for the book came from your grandmother's stories about World War II. How much was drawn from her experiences and how much from your own imagination?

A: I like to think of historical fiction as the coming together of all the different threads of experience, from the tales told by my grandmother to the hundreds of books I read about the Second World War, all condensed into a general understanding in my mind in which I could let my imagination run free.

Some of the plot lines in the novel came directly from my grandmother, such as the choir and the parties, and others came from some of the old ladies I interviewed, such as the Women's Voluntary Service, the baby swap, and how everyone kept morale up with jokes and singing.

The memoirs and journals provided a lot of the atmosphere, of how it would have been like to live in a war situation, as well as the consensus about the status of women, sexuality, the upper classes, and homosexuality. 

When I began to create Chilbury, I wanted to write a story that could have really happened, and it was important to me that all of the stories came from similar situations that I'd come across in people's stories or in my research.

After that it was a case of creating the characters and piecing all the different threads together.

Q: Did you need to do a great deal of research to recreate England in 1940?

A: I must have read over a hundred books, mostly memoirs and journals, and did copious research on the Internet, where the BBC has a cache of personal stories. 

When I grew up in the 1970s, the war didn't feel so very long ago, and people talked about it a lot, which gave me a very good basis for the period.

There were still remnants of the war, such as concrete air raid shelters in the parks, and knocked-down buildings, especially in London. Food rationing didn't end until 1954, and everyone was still a bit OCD about using teabags twice and food wastage of any kind.

All of these things informed my research and my writing, and helped me conjure up the time.

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

A: No, I didn't know how it was going to end. I think the best way to write a novel is to create a situation with some really good characters and just let them go and see where it takes you.

I had a few central moments that I thought might happen, but otherwise it happened very organically. I must confess that by the end I was rather surprised that it all tied up so nicely.

There were a few changes after the first draft, one of the largest being an additional character: Miss Paltry.

After reading the first draft, I felt the need for a different kind of energy in the book, and remembered a short story I'd written a few years before, which basically followed the same plot line. I think that was one of the decisions that really made the book work.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have started a new book, which is also set in the Second World War but isn’t that all that similar to The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir.

It is, however, about women again, as I love to see how much they evolved through the war, being given new freedoms and interesting jobs, having more control over their lives, and of course facing the horrific realities of war. They have such spirit and energy, not to mention their wonderful voices.

Many people want to know if there’ll be a sequel to The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, and I would love to write one, so maybe in the future.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I'd like to leave you with a quote from the book, a coming-of-age moment for one of the central characters, facing the war and the different conundrums that it presents.

"And I realized that this is what it’s like to be an adult, learning to pick from a lot of bad choices and do the best you can with that dreadful compromise. Learning to smile, to put your best foot forward, when the world around you seems to have collapsed in its entirety, become a place of isolation, a sepia photograph of its former illusion."

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 27

March 27, 1922: Dick King-Smith born.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Q&A with Tilar J. Mazzeo

Tilar J. Mazzeo is the author of the new book Irena's Children: A True Story of Courage, also available in a young readers edition. The book focuses on the life of Irena Sendler, who rescued thousands of Jewish children during World War II. Mazzeo's other books include The Widow Cliquot and The Secret of Chanel No. 5, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Food & Wine. She is the Clara C. Piper Associate Professor of English at Colby College, and she lives in Maine, New York City, and British Columbia.

Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of Irena Sendler, and how did you research her life?

A: I'm particularly interested in writing about people who, confronted with adversity, do something unexpected. And I'm particularly interested in stories about women who break the mold, so Irena Sendler was a natural fit when I first heard about her and the women in her network.  

I researched her life using the autobiographical materials she left behind in archives in Poland, as well as by talking to a number of the children she helped to save, their families, and the children of the other women in her network.

Q: You write, “In her native Poland, Irena Sendler is a heroine today, although this is a relatively recent postcommunist development.” How well known was she in the decades following World War II, and what were the factors leading to her eventually becoming viewed as a heroine?

A: Well, she was well known to the Soviet intelligence services, which was not a great thing for Irena Sendler or her family. She was in a very difficult and often dangerous situation after the war ended because much of her work after 1943 was funded by the American and British Jewish communities with the help of the Polish Home Army.  

As a result, when the Soviets took control of Poland after 1945, she and those who had worked with her were largely branded Western dissidents. For this reason, Irena Sendler did not talk about her wartime experiences and neither did any of the others involved. It was simply too dangerous.  

That meant that these stories didn't start coming out in any significant way until the end of the Cold War, by which time many of those involved had already passed away.  

Irena Sendler and her network were, however, known in Israel and among the Jewish community. She was awarded status as Righteous Among the Nations in Israel long before the Cold War ended, in recognition of her moral courage. But the Soviets denied her the passport to go to Jerusalem to accept that award.

Q: In the book, you describe the incredible risks she took to save Jewish children during the Holocaust. What motivated her to take the actions she did?

A: I think she was simply a person with an astonishing resolute moral compass. She and her friends were largely social workers and had been committed to social justice for years in their work.
Faced with the realities of the Warsaw ghetto, they acted because they believed it was right.

They risked their lives and the lives of their own families in the process, and Irena Sendler always insisted that she was not a hero. She insisted that she did what anyone of conscience would do. But, of course, what these women did was, in fact, exceptional.

Q: What is her legacy today?

A: Since the end of the Cold War, Irena Sendler has become increasingly well known and honored. There are schools across Poland and Germany named after her, and she was decorated--despite her resistance to that label--as a hero.  

But her real legacy is the story of how a group of "average" people, confronted with something they knew to be wrong, quietly worked for justice.  

If you visit her grave today in Warsaw, people who hear her story light candles there, and I think the best image of her legacy for me is that fact there is always something flickering. It's the kind of quiet tribute that I think Irena Sendler would have most appreciated.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm finishing a biography of another resolute woman, Eliza Hamilton. There has never been a full-length biography of her, and most people don't realize that, after Alexander Hamilton's death in the duel with Aaron Burr, Eliza Hamilton lived decades longer and went on to co-found the first orphanage in New York City. That orphanage still exists today.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Arjun Singh

Arjun Singh is the author of Desert Teacher, which describes his life and his experiences working as a teacher in rural India. 

Q: Why did you decide to write this book about your experiences, and how did you choose the topics you wrote about?

A: There are three basic reasons. First, in 2009 I got the opportunity to visit New York. I stayed there for three weeks. It was a turning point in my life. I experienced that life was so different there. It was a different planet for me with so many differences in every aspect of life, like living style, food, civic sense etc.

During my stay in the U.S.A., whenever I was at an airport, a railway station or a restaurant, I found most people reading books. At that time I thought that books are the best medium to reach people, and if my book is published on an international stage, then I would be able to share my experiences with people abroad. But at the time I had no idea how challenging book promotion is.

Since my school days, I was against dogmatic beliefs and rude traditions like child marriages, the widow system, the death feast, the untouchables, etc. But it was tough to break opinions that had been held for generations.

During my college days I supported my widowed aunt to find a job, and later when I wrote the story "My Widowed Aunt," based on life of my aunt, that got published in a magazine in Hong Kong.

I was very confident that people would definitely read my stories and readers’ comments would be a moral support for me to fight against the rude system in society.

Most of the stories in my book are related to traditions, and in almost every story it is described how a perfect balance can be made between traditions and modernization. In my opinion, an educated person can do this, and life is more comfortable and happier.

Second, Jaisalmer, my town, is popular among tourists all over the world. Nicknamed “Golden City,” it is famous for its prestigious history and unique beauty.

Thousands of tourists come to Jaisalmer every year and they are amused to see the architecture of historical monuments like forts, palaces, temples, havelis, etc., but at the same time they are more interested in culture and life.

But there is no written information available. To respond to their curiosity, I thought that my book would be a good medium to answer some questions related to the life of my town.

Third, one who dares to teach must never cease to learn….so as a teacher I learn everyday and want my students to know that education opens windows to the world. To set an example among my students, I decided to publish my stories on an international stage. I wanted to prove to my students that education matters and my book is the best result of it.

I chose "Desert Teacher"as the title of the book because it’s a collection of stories about life in the Thar Desert of Western India by a teacher.

Q: As you’ve explained, you’re a teacher, and some of the chapters deal with your experiences in the classroom. What do you see as your role in the community?

A: The role of a teacher in the community is most important. I have been teaching in a rural area for 18 years and I personally feel that a teacher plays a prominent role in a community where literacy rate is very low.

In the present, everyone fights for rights and very few fulfill their duties. So as a teacher my job is to educate kids so they could understand their duties for their community and country. Although I got chances to be posted in the city, I think my duty is to promote education in a rural area and it is much needed.

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

A: I want my readers to know that my stories clarify that India is evolving, especially rural India. There is a lovely thread of opening to new ideas, generations by generations, that my family represents in my stories. I hope my readers will enjoy these short stories, written in simple English, about every aspect of life in the desert.

Most of the characters are from my family and even they have no idea that what they think is very normal in their life can be so unusual and interesting for many people.

Readers will not only come to know about the struggles of life in the desert but also understand how the people of the most typical and dry area deal with and intelligently solve their problems.  It’s a journey from darkness to light.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

March 26

March 26, 1850: Edward Bellamy born.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Q&A with Yoojin Grace Wuertz

Yoojin Grace Wuertz, photo by Nina Subin
Yoojin Grace Wuertz is the author of the new novel Everything Belongs To Us. She was born in Seoul, South Korea, moved to the United States when she was 6, and lives in northern New Jersey.

Q: You've said that your inspiration to write this book came, at least in part, from your father's comments about his time at Seoul National University, and that the book became "the bridge between my parents and me." What do your parents think of the novel, and what do you feel you learned about their lives before they arrived in the United States?

A: My parents are thrilled with the book and the reception so far, which means the world to me. I overheard a family friend joke to my mom after my book launch event, “Now you’ll have to write a book about your daughter to tell your side of the story!” and my mom replied, “No, I’m happy with what she wrote. She already wrote my story.”

I should add that the book is fiction and the events pertaining to the characters are made up, but the historical and cultural details of this generation are deeply researched, largely with their help. Perhaps that’s what she meant when she said I told her story.

What I learned about my parents is that they’ve seen more in their lifetimes, and adapted to more changes culturally, economically, socially, politically, than I will likely ever be required to in mine.

Sometimes the transitions were less than smooth, which used to create a lot of conflict between us. Writing this book helped me see what I was missing about their cultural and historical context.

Q: How did you come up with your characters Jisun and Namin?

A: My mom’s story inspired Namin’s character. Like Namin, my mother grew up with financial challenges because her father died of illness when she was just an infant. This was 1954, only a year after the end of the Korean War. Because she was academically talented, my mother took refuge in books and education.

She used to tell me how she felt ashamed of being poor, but when I think of the huge obstacles she’s overcome in her life, I am incredibly proud of her and proud to be her daughter.

Jisun was inspired by a character from an immensely popular Korean television drama series (what we would now call K-drama) from the 1990s called The Sandglass (or sometimes translated The Hourglass). I was 15 years old when this drama aired, and Koreans were obsessed with it.

This was long before Netflix and Youtube, and so Korean-Americans would have to wait until the episode aired in Korea, then it would be taped and mailed to the States, where Korean video shops would make copies and lend them out. There used to be a lot of these immigrant video shops, which have now gone the way of Blockbuster.

At the time I was too busy with school and too snobby about Korean dramas (which I thought were melodramatic) to actually watch the show, but I knew about it since everyone was talking about it. I knew one of the main characters was an heiress who wanted to be a political activist.

When I started thinking about writing this novel, it was 10 or 12 years after the series had aired, and I remembered this character because my aunt loved the actress. I wanted to create my own version of someone who had been groomed for a life of extreme privilege and decided to forge an opposite path.

So I realized I should go back and watch the show. I watched all 24 hours of it in a couple of weeks. It was tremendous. Melodramatic? For sure.

But Korean history is melodramatic. A tiny peninsula divided by one of the most militarized borders in the world, with superpower allies on either side? There’s really no getting around the melodrama.

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

A: About halfway through the novel, I realized how it would end. The writing went so much faster after that.  

Q: You've noted that you did a lot of research on South Korea in the 1970s. What surprised you most, and what do you think are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions in the U.S. about recent South Korean history?

A: There were two paradigm-changing realizations. One was that until the mid-1970s, North Korea was actually more prosperous than South Korea. 1974 was the first year that South Korea pulled a higher GDP than the North, and only just barely.

Can you imagine that? In our current reality, it seems like a foregone conclusion that North Korea was always going to suffer under communism, and that South Korea would prosper under capitalism.

But both Koreas were under dictatorships—South Korea didn’t have a true democracy until the late 1980s—and they were in active competition, economically as well as politically, through the postwar/Cold War decades. It was a competition that South Korea was actually losing for many years.

The second realization is related: the so-called “Miracle on the Han,” which describes the economic transformation of South Korea in the 1970s through 1990s is a bit of a misnomer because “miracle” connotes a magical, inexplicable happening.

In reality, the “miracle” was the result of an aggressively engineered push for development by President Park Chung Hee’s administration at the cost of democracy and human rights.

One fact that astounded me is that President Park agreed to send 320,000 troops to the Vietnam War in exchange for billions of dollars of U.S. aid. This was the second largest foreign troop count after the United States. The money earned by these soldiers, as well as the labor of factory workers, often in inhumane conditions, laid the foundation for South Korea’s modern prosperity.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a novel set in contemporary NJ/NY about an interracial couple—a Korean-American woman and a Caucasian man—who come from very different cultures and have clashing class aspirations. Again, it’s about how intimate relationships fare when issues of class and politics come into play.

I’m hoping it will be funny. At least, I find it funny because I get to write about contemporary Korean-American family dynamics. It’s a totally different lane from the historical voice, and I’m enjoying being a little more casual.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Nothing else I can think of! Thank you so much for hosting me on your blog! 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb