Saturday, October 22, 2016

Q&A with Vanessa Hua

Vanessa Hua is the author of the new story collection Deceit and Other Possibilities. She is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, and has worked for the Los Angeles Times and the Hartford Courant. Her work has appeared in a variety of other publications, including The Atlantic and Guernica. She is based in San Francisco.

Q: Your website describes your characters as "immigrant families navigating a new America. Tied to their ancestral and adopted homelands...these memorable characters straddle both worlds but belong to none." Can you say more about this theme, and how it runs through your stories?

A: As the American-born child of Chinese immigrants, raised in a predominantly white suburb east of San Francisco, I knew from early on that I was different, that my family was different from my neighbors. What my parents could not or would not explain about the world outside our home, I figured out through observation and through books.

Later on, I became a journalist, seeking to shine a light onto untold stories about the immigrant experience and I carried that passion into my fiction.

Q: You note that you wrote the stories over a period of more than a decade. Do you see changes in your writing over that time?

A: There were flashes of quiet humor in my work, but in the stories I wrote more recently, I pushed myself to skate the line the between real and the over-the-top, in situations ever more desperate, ever more ridiculous yet tragic.

Q: Do you usually know how a story will end before you start writing, or do you make many changes along the way?

A: I usually don’t know the end when I start writing, but the more I enter the story, the more I understand the characters, the more the stakes are raised, the more the possibilities narrow until the ending feels – hopefully – inevitable to myself and to the reader.

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

A: When I submitted the manuscript to the Willow Books contest, it was entitled “The Responsibility of Deceit” – which happens to be the first story I ever published. I thought the phrase reflected the concerns of the characters throughout the collection.

As I proceeded through the publication process, I presented a few options to writer friends to make a final decision. Some thought “The Responsibility of Deceit” was clunky and might confuse potential readers. I considered “Deceit” or “Deceit and Other Stories” as alternatives.

I asked my mother-in-law her opinion and she repeated it back incorrectly, saying “Deceit and Other Possibilities,” instead of “and Other Stories.” Perfect! The dissonance of the phrase reflected how the characters carry out their secrets and lies with the best of intentions.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: In the spring, I landed a two-book deal at Ballantine. At present, I’m revising my debut novel, A River of Stars, about a Chinese factory clerk who comes to America to give birth, bestowing her child with U.S. citizenship. When her married lover betrays her, she flees.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Thank you for taking the time to read my book and to put together this interview series! 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 22

Oct. 22, 1887: John Reed born.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Q&A with Helaine Becker

Helaine Becker is the author of the new children's book Monster Science: Could Monsters Survive (and Thrive!) in the Real World? Her more than 70 other books for kids and young adults include Worms for Breakfast and Zoobots. She also writes for kids' magazines and television, and she lives in Toronto.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Monster Science, and how did you pick the particular types of monsters to include?

A: I was in a school library before a presentation, and noticed a display of books about monsters. They had titillating titles promising to explore the truth about each one.

On closer examination, they all turned out to be debunkers - the subtext was, "These monsters aren't real, you fool" ( or so I felt when reading them).

I found it deeply unfair. A kid picking up those books is looking for thrills and chills, not to be insulted and have their goosebumps squashed to boot.

So I thought, "Why not write a book that explores the topic of monsters in a way that addresses the questions kids have, but doesn't disrespect them? That lets them come to their own conclusions?" Monster Science was born.

What I liked about the idea right off the bat was that not only does it present a lot of science information, but it also helps develop scientific and critical thinking. It says, "Don't accept what you are told by anyone - without evidence. And here's how to evaluate that evidence."

Q: This book features some legendary monsters and a lot of fact-based scientific information. What did you see as the right mix of legend and science as you were writing the book?

A: I wanted to explore the major features of each monster and present evidence to let kids decide whether each feature was plausible or impossible. It seemed logical to start with how these features originated - e.g., blood-sucking in the case of vampires, walking-deadness in the case of zombies - as part of the "setting of the stage."

Then, I looked at each key feature in turn, examining what current scientific research tells us about each topic. The results were always surprising.

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

A: I do most of my research on line, beginning with general sources, then moving to more detailed and authoritative ones, like research papers or academic websites, as I get a handle on the topic. I will also use email to get in touch with a scientist who's an expert on a particular topic if I need to.

A large part of my job parallels what kids have to do when they do their own research - specifically, evaluating which sources are reliable, and which are just plain garbage.

On a topic like monsters, you can imagine how much garbage there is out there! It took forever!!!!! to stop pulling up revolting images of melting zombies etc. to find some solid data.

I always make sure I can cross-check each fact from more than one reliable source. If you only have one website that makes a particular claim, it might not be one you should rely on.

I always look at who my sources are, and make sure I ask myself the question, "What is the goal of this organization/company/institution in putting this information out there? Is it to make money? Is it to further a personal or political point of view (propaganda?) Is it to educate?

If you're after solid facts, you might not want to rely solely on information about vampire origins from a site called "Iheartvampires."

Q: Of all the monsters you write about, was there one that particularly captured your attention?

A: I have had some issues with vampires since seeing a terrifying episode of Gilligan's Island when I was four or five.

It featured a "comical" vampire dream sequence, but at that tender age I didn't quite get that it was supposed to be funny. I wound up sleeping with the covers up and over my neck for the next 30 years. So this chapter was kind of "personal." 

On a more serious note, the appeal of the vampire, I think, comes in part from its immortal nature. The information I found that related to this topic was extremely interesting to me.

I also found it delightful that, while a human-vampire could live on a largely-blood diet (with certain genetic adaptations), it would still need to eat its vegetables.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm putting the finishing touches on Lines, Bars and Circles: How William Playfair Invented Graphs. It's a picture book about the fascinating fellow who single-handedly invented the field of Infographics. It will be out in March  - from Kids Can Press.

I'm also working on a sequel to Zoobots called Hubots. Zoobots took a look at robots inspired by animal-inspired robots. Hubots will look at ones with more human characteristics. It will be out next fall.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Science isn't scary. It's fun! And so is Monster Science

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 21

Oct. 21, 1929: Ursula K. LeGuin born.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Q&A with Susan Silverman

Susan Silverman is the author most recently of Casting Lots: Creating a Family in a Beautiful, Broken World, which focuses on her family's experiences with international adoption. She also is the co-author of Jewish Family and Life. She is a rabbi and is the founding director of the group Second Nurture, and she lives in Jerusalem.

Q: You write, "I very much want my family's story to put the orphan crisis in a personal light as part of the fight against the prevailing anti-international-adoption forces." What are some of the attitudes you hope to change?

A: ​Systemically we sacrifice children on the altars of politics and ideology. It's impossible to imagine that anyone would choose for themselves, or their own children, a childhood outside of family care either in institutions or on the streets.

Yet, in the name of cultural preservation, of heritage rights, we keep children in their home countries at all costs -- to them. If we really prioritized kids, we would make sure they were in families.

Q: In the book, you describe some very personal moments in your family's life. How did your family members react to the book?

A: As my youngest said, "Sababa (Arabic slang, used in Hebrew, for "Cool!"). Every family is weird in its own way."  

Q: You've written that the book's title "seemed to have so many meanings." How did you come up with "Casting Lots," and what does it signify for you?

A: Finding a title that I felt captured the book was really hard. "Casting Lots" came from thinking about ​the Purim story -- a central theme in finding Adar -- where lots were cast to determine a fate. And we had ​cast lots, in a sense,​ to determine our family. 

Also, like casting roles in a play, we "cast" people in our family;​ like casting a net we were reaching out into the world; and ​like casting a fishing line we had a general direction but didn't know where we would land. And we cast the lot of our children with us and with the Jewish people.

Q: What role do you see your organization Second Nurture playing when it comes to the future of international adoption?

A: The goal is to radically increase the number of children in permanent, loving families.

First, we educate strong, tight-knit communities in North America (e.g., churches, synagogues, community centers, schools) about the orphan/foster care crisis and our opportunity to become permanent, loving families for these kids and encourage a number of families from the same community to each adopt a child or sibling group.

We will then ​facilitate the adoption of children who come from the same region – ideally the same orphanage -- or all from the local foster care system, such that the children continue pre-existing relationships and/or have a network of shared experience. 
All the way, we will ​develop materials for various aspects of community life -- such as religious school, adult education and holiday enrichment -- that will integrate the particular issues and questions raised by adoption, the adoption process, and then adoption and families --​ to enrich the shared conversation and experience as well as ​cultivate networks within and from outside the community to address issues such as physical and mental health, identity development, and belonging.

Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm promoting the book and Second Nurture, hoping that the book tours and publicity will help get Second Nurture off the ground.

​I'll be in the U.S. most of November and again for March on book tours and, between book events, meeting with potential partners ad visiting congregations to introduce Second Nurture.

In another realm, I am working to re-envision Israel's response to asylum seekers. If we are the Start-Up Nation, let's create a Start-Up University tailored to different refugee populations -- in Israel that means largely Eritreans and Sudanese.

If we can work with, for example, Eritreans here to create a curriculum and training, then export that program to expat Eritreans around the world, there will be half a million people who can someday return to Eritrea and build a democratic, Start-Up Nation of their own! We can be a light in that way if we choose to.

Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I am so grateful for your interest in my book and work!​

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 20

Oct. 20, 1859: John Dewey born.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Q&A with Andrew Nagorski

Andrew Nagorski is the author of the new book The Nazi Hunters. His other books include Hitlerland and The Greatest Battle. He was Newsweek's bureau chief in Hong Kong, Moscow, Rome, Bonn, Warsaw and Berlin, and was vice president and director of public policy of the EastWest Institute. He is based in St. Augustine, Florida.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on the Nazi hunters, and how did you research the book?

A: As a foreign correspondent, I often found myself examining the legacy of the war and the Holocaust. After the Nuremberg and Dachau trials, the victors in World War II were quick to turn their attention to the Cold War and largely lost interest in bringing Nazi criminals to justice.

Defying that trend, a relatively small group of men and women known as Nazi hunters dedicated their lives to making sure that there was some measure of justice—and fought against forgetting.

The hunted, those who participated in mass murder, are always a subject of morbid fascination. But I feel strongly that the hunters also deserve our attention. They are the ones who made Germans and so many others acknowledge and deal with their recent past, which is the first step towards learning the lessons of history.

Of course the era of Nazi hunting is coming to a natural end soon because there will no more Nazi war criminals still living. As a result, the story of the hunters and the hunted can now be told almost in its entirety. As a writer, I saw this as an opportunity to weave a narrative spanning the whole postwar era.

To do so, I needed to meet the surviving Nazi hunters in Europe, Israel and the United States and get their first-hand stories—or, in the case of those who had already died, reconstruct their stories from new research and, at times, interviews with people who knew them. The connections between these individuals and their often daring actions were far more extensive than most people realize.

For instance, Fritz Bauer, a German judge and prosecutor from a secular Jewish family, provided the key tip to the Israelis that led to their capture of Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires in 1960. I was also able to interview Rafi Eitan, the Mossad agent who was in charge of the commando unit that seized Eichmann.

Jan Sehn, a Polish investigative judge whose family was of German descent, interrogated Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss before he was hanged. He then cooperated with Bauer in gathering evidence for the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial in the 1960s, which forced many Germans to confront the crimes committed in their name for the first time.

The French-German couple Serge and Beate Klarsfeld tracked down Nazi officers who were responsible for crimes in occupied France, and soon the U.S. government came under increasing pressure to deal with those war criminals who had slipped into this country and who looked, at first glance, like model citizens. As you can see, it’s a long list with an intriguing interplay of stories.

Q: You write of the Nazi hunters that "they have not been anything like a group with a common strategy or basic agreement on tactics." Why did circumstances develop that way, and what were some of the differences among the various people you write about?

A: Most people assume that the story line is always “Nazi hunters vs. Nazis.” But part of the story I tell in this book can be called “Nazi hunters vs. other Nazi hunters.” There were big differences in the way they operated.

Beate and Serge Klarsfeld, for instance, could be almost recklessly confrontational at times. In 1968, Beate slipped by security guards and slapped West German Chancellor Kurt-Georg Kiesinger who had been a member of the Nazi Party. Serge stuck an unloaded gun between the eyes of the former chief of the Gestapo in Paris, Kurt Lischka.

Those were meant to be symbolic gestures, but they could have ended very badly. Most Nazi hunters worked in more traditional ways and would never resort to such tactics.

There were also the usual personal jealousies and conflicts that you might expect in any group of highly driven individuals. One example: Isser Harel, the head of the Mossad when Eichmann was kidnapped, was furious when he felt that Simon Wiesenthal—the most famous freelance Nazi hunter—was taking credit for his operation.

Harel could not publicly say anything about his role at that point, and many of the press accounts immediately assumed Wiesenthal was behind the tracking down of Eichmann. While Wiesenthal declared he had only provided one piece of the “mosaic” of information about Eichmann, he certainly did not protest when the media cast him in a starring role.

Q: Of Wiesenthal, you write, "Among the many myths that developed about Nazi hunters, none is more off the mark than the portrayal of Wiesenthal as an avenger who was eager to confront his prey directly..." What are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about Wiesenthal?

A: Plenty of books and movies blurred the line between fact and fiction about Nazi hunters. Or were pure fiction. One of the most popular hits was The Boys from Brazil, a thriller turned into a blockbuster film about a Wiesenthal-like character personally tracking down Josef Mengele, Auschwitz’s “Angel of Death.” The two then face off in a life-and-death confrontation on a farm in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Of course nothing like that happened, and the real Wiesenthal was not that kind of character. But that kind of swashbuckling image colored the perception of him throughout his life.

I interviewed Wiesenthal, who died in 2005, many times while I was based in Europe.  He was a fascinating, complex and controversial person. But he certainly was not an avenger. His memoir was entitled Justice Not Vengeance for a reason. He firmly believed that Nazi criminals had to be brought to justice—or at least exposed—in order to teach young people about the Holocaust.

That’s why, for instance, he tracked down the Gestapo officer who had rounded up Anne Frank and her family in Amsterdam. The officer, who was working for the Vienna police after the war, was never charged with a crime. But the fact that he admitted what he did, even if he continued to insist he had done nothing wrong, was critical to countering those who were trying to question the authenticity of Anne Frank’s diary.

This was exactly what Wiesenthal wanted to accomplish. After the officer confirmed what had happened, the diary was never seriously questioned again. To this day, it remains one of the most powerful personal testimonies about the Holocaust, educating successive new generations of schoolchildren.

Q: What is the legacy of the Nazi hunters?

A: The Nazi hunters forced the world to focus on what really happened during the war and the Holocaust again and again. The trials and even the publicity they triggered were an essential part of that process: the presentation of documentary evidence, the eyewitness testimony of survivors, the showing of film footage of the liberation of the death camps and the mounds of skeletal bodies that were found there.

All of these cases have firmly demonstrated that it’s not an acceptable excuse for someone to say that he was just following orders. We all have a responsibility not to follow orders that are clearly immoral and in contravention of all the international norms of justice and human rights.

The most recent trials in Germany of Auschwitz guards also demonstrate that living to an old age should not provide automatic absolution for all crimes, no matter how monstrous.

In such trials, the punishment itself may never be carried out, but the key point is to pass judgment. We owe the victims no less than that, and we still need every lesson we can provide about the importance of individual accountability. That’s a lesson that can never be taught too often.

Many people ask how it was possible that so many mass murderers went unpunished despite those efforts. That’s perfectly understandable. But my book explains why the quest for justice was soon largely abandoned by many political leaders, which makes it all that more impressive that the remaining Nazi hunters accomplished as much as they did.

Q. How have readers responded to the book?

A: I've spoken to groups all across the country about it and found tremendous interest in the subject. Many people say they knew about some parts of this story, but had no idea how those pieces fit together. Inevitably, all of this raises questions not just about the specific situation in Europe during the war but also about human nature, what we are all capable of--in terms of both good and evil. These discussions can become very intense.

Q: Will the book be published in other countries?

A: Yes, up till now we have contracts for publications in 10 countries: the United Kingdom, Poland, Spain, Italy, Greece, Slovakia, Brazil, Japan, Taiwan and China. There's a good chance we'll have more later.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I love to get feedback from readers, so anyone who has something to say about The Nazi Hunters is most welcome to contact me through my website. I will be posting updates there on where I’ll be speaking about the book.

Or if you prefer, send me a friend request on Facebook or follow me on Twitter (@andrewnagorski). I’ll be posting updates there as well.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous version of this Q&A, please click here. Andrew Nagorski will be participating in The Lessans Family Annual Book Festival at the Bender JCC of Greater Washington, which runs from November 3-13, 2016.