Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Q&A with Simon Van Booy

Simon Van Booy is the author of the novel Father's Day, now available in paperback. His other books include the novel The Illusion of Separateness and the story collection The Secret Lives of People in Love, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and the Financial Times. He lives in Brooklyn and Miami.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Father’s Day, and for your characters, Harvey and her father Jason?

A: In a dream! I used to laugh when people said that, that it would be full of rabbits riding bicycles. I dreamed I had an artificial leg and was hobbling around a baseball field and my daughter was missing. At the time she was 7 or 8. Any parent’s biggest fear is a child missing. In the dream, I had such panic.

I thought, who is this character? The only person I knew [who resembled this figure] was the guy who ran the IT department at the university I went to. He was a loner, a heavy smoker. He unknowingly cast himself in the role of Jason. You understand the strange alchemy.

Q: The novel includes various times in the characters’ lives. Did you write it in the order in which it appears in the book, or in chronological order for the characters?

A: I didn’t write it chronologically. After, I moved bits around, [when I figured out when a certain plot point] should be revealed. I understood that the thing about the book was keeping myself out of it. My natural style with language is to go over the top. I wanted to have a trace of Jason’s vernacular.

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

A: That came to me as I was writing. The ending I originally submitted ended about a page before the ending now. My editor said it’s not the right ending. After five books, I thought I had a handle on endings, but he was 100 percent right! I worked on the ending for several more weeks, and I and he were happy with it. The reader’s supposed to know something the characters don’t.

Q: How was the title chosen?

A: It’s the idea that fatherhood is more than just a genetic entitlement, it’s an act of will. It’s a generic holiday, Father’s Day. It was probably invented by a raging capitalist to make money on cards and tool boxes. But it’s important—it gives us a chance to recognize people…we recognize elders within our tribe.

I wanted to give it a commercial title almost as a disguise. I think it’s too disguised. Nobody said, I like what you did with the irony of the corporate holiday!...

Q: Do you prefer writing novels or short stories?

A: I much prefer short stories, but novels are more satisfying in a way. You get to develop the character the way you don’t in a short story. In a novel, you can see the character through all sorts of development and personality changes. Everything hinges on the tone in a short story.

Q: Why do you prefer short stories?

A: It’s like a Rubik’s Cube I can actually do! It takes me maybe three weeks of tinkering. With a novel, there’s absolutely no sense of completion until you’re a year in. It’s so hard—it’s like dealing with a roomful of kids throwing up, and it’s all chaos, and then suddenly they’re all sitting down, in suits, and it all comes together!

The hard part of being a writer is it’s work with no sense of safety…It’s a strange process—with a normal job, you’re making progress, it’s your job, the boss is happy. 

As a writer, you tie up a story with your own life, almost as if you’ve impacted your life. In the middle of the night, you decide you’re going to rearrange your drawer. In a book, it’s like unpacking your life at a time of crisis and when you put it back you have to rearrange [things]. It’s like constant self-therapy.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Book two of a children’s series. It’s about a girl who wakes up on a mysterious island and doesn’t remember anything about herself. She’s found by an old person who takes her back to a cottage. She’s the next keeper of lost things…she has to return things to people in history.

It’s fun to write because it’s not often you can sit in bed in the middle of the day in your pajamas and write about mice rollerskating. You can indulge any whim you have!

Q: Anything else we should know about Father’s Day?

A: The main theme of Father’s Day is overcoming anger. For a lot of people, anger is the solution to things they faced in the past and felt they had no control over.

People are saying, are you in touch with your feelings? If people feel rage, it’s no good to be in touch with yourself, they just get in trouble. How can they be in touch with themselves?

For someone like Jason, or a lot of decent men, they never learned the tools to deal with themselves…Jason gets a second chance at life; he has to give what he most needs: unconditional love, care, gentleness. It’s a book about overcoming anger and terror and a terrible childhood, to making your life pretty wonderful.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Massimo Pigliucci

Massimo Pigliucci is the author of the new book How To Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy To Live a Modern Life. His other books include Nonsense on Stilts and Answers for Aristotle, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times. He is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York, and he lives in New York.

Q: Why did you decide to write your new book?

A: It took me a number of years to experiment with several philosophies of life (Catholicism, Secular Humanism, Aristotelianism) before finding Stoicism, somewhat by accident -- because of a tweet from the University of Exeter that invited me to "celebrate Stoic Week."

Once I began studying and practicing Stoicism it immediately clicked; I saw that it has the potential -- at least for some people -- to dramatically alter the way you look at things and live your life.

I love writing, so the first thing I did was to compose a column for The New York Times about my ongoing investigation of Stoicism. It went viral, so I decided to begin publishing a blog that would allow me to share my experiences with others. From there the idea of writing a book was the obligatory next step, I suppose, and here we are.

Q: How would you define Stoicism, and what are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about it?

A: Stoicism is an ancient Greco-Roman philosophy that has a lot in common with Buddhism. It teaches that a moral life is the only one worth living, and it provides you with tools to achieve serenity of mind and to develop an attitude of equanimity toward whatever the world throws at you.

In popular lore it suffers from a couple of misconceptions: that it is about suppressing emotions and going through your life with a stiff upper lip -- sort of a Mr. Spock from Star Trek type of attitude. The reality is very different.

Regarding emotions, the Stoics distinguish between negative and positive ones. In the first group you have things like fear, hatred, and anger. In the second group love, joy, concern for other human beings, a sense of justice. The Stoic attempts to shift her emotional range away from the negative and toward the positive emotions.

As far as the stiff upper lip goes, it is true that Stoicism is a philosophy of endurance and resilience -- and those seem to me positive characteristics to practice. But the Stoic also enjoys the very same things that everyone else enjoys, from good meals to the company of friends, from good readings to the love of a companion.

The only difference is that the Stoic refers to these things by the deliciously but only apparently oxymoronic phrase of "preferred indifferents." This means that the good things in life are preferred, of course, but they are indifferent to one's moral character -- meaning that we can be moral agents regardless of whether we are healthy or sick, wealthy or poor, educated or ignorant.

Q: Who are some of the most notable people over the centuries who have espoused Stoicism, and do you see them as figures to emulate?

A: Cato the Younger was a Roman Senator famous for his moral integrity, and he took arms against the tyranny of Julius Caesar, e gesture in consequence of which he eventually lost his life.

One of the most famous Stoics was the emperor Marcus Aurelius, one of the "good emperors" that governed Rome during the second century. He constantly strived to be a better person and to treat others with respect, even when they did not reciprocate. He passed laws that improved the treatment of slaves and women, and, contrary to popular perception, did not persecute Christians.

Michel de Montaigne was also a Stoic, and Stoicism influenced Rene Descartes and Baruch Spinoza. In modern times, reading Marcus Aurelius' Meditations helped Nelson Mandela get through the toughest time in the prisons of the Apartheid government in South Africa.

Of course, as with any philosophy or religion, just because someone declares himself a Stoic, a Christian, or a Buddhist, it doesn't mean either that he follows the pertinent precepts or that he is a good person. There is a difference between the ideas and the people who claim to adopt them.

Nevertheless, Stoics themselves counsel to identify role models after which to pattern your own behavior. As Seneca famously put it, "[we] must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler."

Q: You've said that "Stoicism is largely a matter of practice, not just theory." What are some strategies someone could use to incorporate Stoicism into his/her life?

A: My book includes a chapter of what I call "spiritual exercises." Other refers to them as "mind tricks," or meditations. I begin the day by reading a favorite passage from one of the ancient authors, Seneca, Epictetus, or Marcus Aurelius, reflecting on how it may apply to my own life.

I then visualize potentially delicate situations that I am likely to encounter during the day, envisioning the worst possible outcomes, and thinking about the best way to tackle them. This allows me to be better prepared for the actual problem, should it in fact occur.

In the evening I take a few minutes to write down my thoughts about the day, asking myself three questions: what did I do right? Where did I go wrong? What could I do better in the future, under similar circumstances?

All of these approaches are meant to develop a type of mindfulness about what one does and why, as well as to prepare you mentally to engage at your best with whatever problem may come your way. You also become more serene as a result of this routine self-examination.

The Stoics occasionally engaged in exercises of mild self-deprivation, which I find very useful. For instance, fasting for a day, or abstaining from alcohol for a bit, or going an entire week without shopping (other than basic necessities), or going out in cold weather a bit underdressed, or taking a cold shower.

This isn't a matter of masochism, but rather has two objectives: to prepare you for the possibility that you really might have to go through lean times and forgo some of these things by necessity; but also, and more importantly, to reset what psychologists call the hedonic treadmill, the fact that we get used to what we have and no longer appreciate it.

It works. You wouldn't believe how good the next hot shower or nice meal feel after you've done without them for a bit!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A number of projects, as usual. One of them is a book on Stoicism for kids, with the help of a friend of mine who is an excellent graphic artist. The idea is to introduce children aged 8-12 or 13 to the theory and practice of Stoic philosophy by way of a series of comic book stories featuring children who tackle everyday problems, from bullism at school to dealing with diversity and disability.

Too often writers focus on adults as if they were the only audience worth having. But kids are the next generation, it is they who are going to change the world, hopefully for the better.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I would encourage your readers to seriously consider the idea of developing a philosophy of life. It doesn't have to be Stoicism, of course.

But a life philosophy provides you with a general framework that saves you time in figuring out what is and is not important for you, and it provides you with guidance on how to navigate the small and big happenings of your life. Try it out, I think you'll be surprised by its efficacy.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

May 24

May 24, 1928: William Trevor born.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Q&A with Shirley King

Shirley King is the author, with Dave Smitherman, of the new book Love Is King: B.B. King's Daughter Fights to Preserve Her Father's Legacy. It focuses on her relationship with her late father, the famed blues musician. A singer and entertainer, she is based in Chicago.

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

A: I am always asked what it's like to be B.B. King's daughter and it's not what people thought when he was alive and now that he has passed it is much different. So this book is my story about living with my father's side of the family during the school year and then my mother's side over the summers.

I think it gives readers a better picture of life in entertainment and what it's like to be the daughter of a legend like my father.

Q: How would you describe your father's musical and personal legacies?

A: He was very passionate about life. He loved people, he loved performing, and he of course loved the blues. Personally, he affected a lot of people and his generosity was endless. He also rarely forgot someone's name and always made them feel special.

Musically, he made "the Blues" accessible to people around the world and by working with musicians in different genres, he reached so many people that might have never experienced my father's music.

Q: Do you feel that writing this book changed any of your feelings about your family and your life story?

A: I think looking back at my life has helped put things into perspective and helped me see why things happened the way they did. It took a lot of self-reflection and it was very emotional for me, but I really enjoyed the process. I hope readers love it too.

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

A: I talked with my co-author about something that would be meaningful and memorable. We wanted it to be about love and positivity. There's a saying that "cash is king" and we thought what about "Love Is King"? Because above everything else, that's what is most important.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Of course I am doing a lot of interviews and book signings this year for the book, but I also tour around the country as much as I can and I headline Blues festivals overseas. This year I'll be in Portugal and possibly Brazil.

I also promote a program called Blues in the Schools to teach students about blues music and I perform for seniors and tell stories about my father. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I'm very excited about this book and I have ideas for even more books in the future. I can't wait to meet people on the road, talk about my wonderful father, and hopefully bring a smile to a few faces along the way.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Martin R. Ganzglass

Martin R. Ganzglass is the author of the new historical novel Spies and Deserters, the fourth in a series he's writing about the Revolutionary War. The other books in the series are Cannons for the Cause, Tories and Patriots, and Blood Upon the Snow. He is a former Peace Corps volunteer in Somalia and a retired attorney, and he lives in the Washington, D.C., area.

Q: In this new book, you focus in part on what life was like for people of color during the Revolutionary War period. Can you say more about your character Adam, and his role in the book?

A: Private Adam Cooper is the first in his family to be born a free man. His parents were slaves. He is a fisherman who enlisted in Colonel Glover’s Marblehead Mariners out of Marblehead, Massachusetts, just north of Boston.

The thought for his character came from the black man in the uniform of a Marblehead Mariner at General Washington’s right knee in the famous painting by Emmanuel Leutze of  “Washington Crossing the Delaware.”

Through Adam I explore the contradictions of free blacks fighting for independence from Britain, when confronted with the continued existence of slave labor on the farms of Long Island and New Jersey, house slaves in the homes of rich merchants in New York and Philadelphia, and even slaves in the kitchen at Washington’s Headquarters at Valley Forge.

What is a person like Adam to think when the British offer freedom to any slave who joins their forces, while the Revolutionary Army reluctantly permits blacks to enlist in a few discrete regiments but bars black recruitment in large numbers.

Historically, there was an African-American slave, 53 year-old Hannah Mason, who was a servant in General Washington’s kitchen at Valley Forge. I have made her a much younger and more attractive woman in the character of Sarah Pence.

In writing about the romance that develops between Adam and Sarah, I explore what it means for a free black man to court a piece of property, one who can be sold at a moment’s notice, returned to her master, and whose time is not her own.

She can become free only if her freedom is bought, and her price is beyond the meager resources of Adam and Sarah, adding to Adam’s anger and frustration.

Q: This is your fourth book featuring some of the same characters. What is it like to write about these characters for several books?

A: I enjoy the opportunity to develop characters and have them mature or succumb to their worst weaknesses. For example, Will Stoner matures from a headstrong teen-ager to an impetuous young man in love and finally a husband and calm battle-hardened veteran.

His brother, John, propelled by unprincipled greed, overweening pride and a total lack of integrity, works the system of graft and corruption and by his constant toadying to the British, becomes more of a despicable character as time goes on.

These same characters are alive in my imagination and I derive some pleasure from deciding how they would react to the historical events unfolding around them.

I hope the reader can recognize in my characters some of the traits of people they know today - love and hate, forgiveness and revenge, greed and integrity, self-interest and patriotism - and thus better connect with my novels.

The main disadvantage to writing about the same characters for several books is that I have to avoid too much explanatory background so as not to bore the reader who has read the previous novels, but include just enough so that a person starting anywhere but with Cannons for the Cause, the first in the series, is not lost.

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

A: The title seemed natural because one of the themes of Spies and Deserters is the espionage efforts of both the Americans and British, centering around the British occupation of Philadelphia. A prominent character also deserts for entirely understandable reasons. I don’t want to spoil the surprise by answering this question. You will have to read the book to find out.

Q: In your research for this book, what did you learn that surprised you?

A: I knew of the starvation and suffering during the winter at Valley Forge. We were all taught some version of the terrible sacrifices made by ordinary soldiers. But I did not know the toll – over 2,000 men, one-sixth of the entire army died that winter, primarily of disease.

In addition, 1,500 horses died and others were distributed in the Pennsylvania countryside where forage was more readily available. This meant that the soldiers, weakened by meager rations and disease, were forced to be beasts of burden, pulling sleds of firewood and other supplies.

I also did not know that as of August of 1778 one-fifth of the total army were African-American soldiers nor, that as bad as the winter of 1777-78 was at Valley Forge, the weather was actually more severe during the winter of 1779-1780 when the army was encamped near Morristown.

There was a planned major British operation to cross the ice-frozen waters between Staten Island and New Jersey and kidnap General Washington from Morristown. Obviously, it failed but due to snow and hail storms, not for lack of trying.

On the back cover is the actual wording of General Benedict Arnold’s oath of allegiance to the United States of America. When I wrote the first novel, Cannons for the Cause, and made Henry Knox a central figure, little did I know that as Brigadier General in 1778 he was the officer who actually witnessed Arnold’s sworn signature and attested to that in writing.

Finally, I was surprised that General Friedrich Wilhelm August von Steuben, the Prussian Baron who, by his physique and discipline, epitomized the manly warrior, was accused in writing of being homosexual and fled Europe to the United States.

Two sources I read confirm that Baron von Steuben was in fact a homosexual, not that it matters today. What does matter is how history is taught and whether historical figures are accurately portrayed or behavior, thought to be reprehensible at the time the history books were written, is obliterated from the record.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am writing the fifth novel in the series that will take familiar and new characters through Benedict Arnold’s treason at West Point and the American victory at Yorktown. After that, the sixth and final novel in the series will cover the last two years of our War for Independence.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I have some ideas for a series of inter-related short stories and have been jotting them down as they occur to me. If I cannot write an entire book about dogs, from the animal’s point of view, I at least think I can sustain the tale (no pun intended) for one short story.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Martin R. Ganzglass, please click here.

May 23

May 23, 1898: Scott O'Dell born.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Q&A with Hena Khan

Hena Khan is the author of a new novel for kids, Amina's Voice. Her other books include It's Ramadan, Curious George and Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns. She lives in Rockville, Maryland.

Q: How did you come up for the idea for Amina’s Voice, and for your main character, Amina?

A: I wanted to write a middle grade novel that featured a Pakistani-American Muslim girl but focused on universal themes like friendship, dealing with change, and finding confidence.

Amina is a shy girl trying to find her voice, both literally and figuratively, and in many ways she represents parts of my own personality when I was that age.

I think there are a lot of stories out there nowadays with female protagonists who are outspoken, confident, go-getters and while I think they are important role models, it’s important for the quieter girls to have their chance to shine too!

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

A: Without giving away what happens, I will say that the story ended in a completely different way when I first wrote it. And all of the readers who looked at that first draft had almost a violently negative reaction to it!

They were extremely unsatisfied by the events and the feelings they were left with. So I took their advice and reworked the ending to what it is now.

Q: The book is part of a new imprint called Salaam Reads, part of Simon & Schuster that focuses on children’s books with a Muslim theme. What impact do you think your book and the other books will have, especially in the current political climate?

A: I’m honored that Amina’s Voice was the inaugural release for Salaam Reads, and to be a part of this imprint. It’s been fantastic to see the love that Salaam Reads has been getting so far, and to know that these books are being welcomed into the world of children’s literature by those who value diverse voices and see the need for books like mine and the rest.

I have to believe that these books will make a difference in today’s climate, and that getting to know a family and girl like Amina will help people to understand American Muslims better and hopefully have more compassion and tolerance. And I want American Muslim children to feel worthy and included by having their stories out there for everyone to read.

Q: Getting back to our previous Q&A about your Curious George book, how have kids (and their parents!) reacted to the book?  

A: It’s been an overwhelmingly positive response! I never get tired of hearing kids and parents tell me how happy they are about the book, and with Ramadan around the corner again, there’s a lot of excitement around it again. I see posts on social media where the book is part of Ramadan displays and featured on reading shelves.

It’s a wonderful example of how much representation matters, and how much it means to the American Muslim community to be included and to have a friend in Curious George. It makes everything else going on in the news and some of the very concerning challenges American Muslims are facing a little easier to bear.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on an illustrated chapter book series for Salaam Reads called Zayd Saleem: Chasing the Dream, about an undersized Pakistani-American boy with big basketball aspirations. As the mother of two boys living in a basketball-obsessed household, it’s been a blast to write it!

Unlike Amina’s Voice and my personal experience, in which Amina’s parents are immigrants, Zayd is a third generation American like my kids. So I get to explore that family dynamic, which has a lot of room for inter-generational humor, and have fun with a different perspective.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Over the past several years, and especially in recent months, I’ve been so moved by the outpouring of support for me and my work from unexpected places.

For example, Kate Messner decided to celebrate her book birthday by giving away copies of Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns to teachers and librarians.

It’s beautiful to see the kid lit community stand up for love and tolerance and work to educate people and push back against this climate of fear and hate-mongering. It’s encouraging and uplifting to be a part of such a wonderful and supportive community.

And I want to thank all of the amazing advocates and allies who have championed my books. I haven’t met many of them in person, but am sending huge virtual hugs!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Hena Khan, please click here.