Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Q&A with Connie Goldsmith

Connie Goldsmith is the author of Dogs at War: Military Canine Heroes, a new book for older kids. Her many other books include Understanding Suicide and Bombs over Bikini, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including California Kids and Highlights. She lives near Sacramento, California.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your book Dogs at War, and how did you research it?

A: Idea: I saw a Facebook posting about how loyal military working dogs (MWDs) are left behind in other countries when soldiers go home. (For the most part, that is not true.)

I wrote a note about how awful that was, and my editor saw it. She asked me if there was enough there for a book. A few days of research and a short proposal later, I discovered there was plenty of material about today’s MWDs. A month later, my editor sent me a contract.

Research. First, I filled out paperwork with the Department of Defense to obtain permission from its U.S. Air Force Book Support Program so I could directly contact the public relations manager at Lackland Air Force Base where most American MWDs are trained.

I set a Google alert for military working dogs (I do that for every book I write – it provides me with daily links to news stories about my topic). I signed up for a military newsletter. I read four books on the topic. Best of all, I interviewed the head of the breeding program at Lackland, a military veterinarian and a veterinarian student working on a MWD project.

I interviewed several soldiers who had adopted the dogs they worked with when the dog was ready to retire. I spoke with a MWD puppy foster mom. And I was in close contact with a Vietnam veteran dog handler who has made it his life’s work to support MWDs and their handlers.  

Q: What particularly surprised you in the course of your work on the book?

A: On the unhappy side, only a few of the 4,000 MWDs deployed to Vietnam came home. The military believed the dogs would be too vicious to adapt to civilian life, and that they might carry odd diseases home with them. Or perhaps it was just too much trouble.

Some were euthanized, some released, most given to the South Vietnamese Army (who didn’t like dogs and had no experience with them).

On the happy side, today MWDs are chosen as puppies for their desire to please, their drive, and excellent dispositions. After their time in the military—an average of eight years—most dogs are adopted by current or former handlers or others in the military.

The dogs love their new lives, and get along well with other dogs and soldiers’ families, including young children.

Q: What are some of the roles dogs play in the military today?

A: See the trailer to see some dogs in action. A local group of 5th and 6th grade film-making students put the trailer together. Also check out my website to see other books.

Thousands of dogs went overseas to Iraq and Afghanistan. They were all trained to catch and detain enemy suspects. In addition, they were trained to search for drugs OR explosive devices and materials.

Imagine if a dog searched for both drugs and explosive devices. The handler would certainly react differently over five pounds of drugs vs. five pounds of explosives.

But dogs each have an innate of “alerting.” Some stop and stare, some sit and look at the handler; others put their noses close to the odor. The handler must know what triggers the alert. Does the handler just need to dig up hidden drugs, or call the bomb experts to excavate and deactivate an explosive device?

As numbers of U.S. troops with boots on the ground in foreign countries declines, the dogs fill other roles such as guarding American bases around the world and in the U.S. The government calls on them to guard presidents, judges, foreign dignitaries, and others.

Q: What are some of the key features of their training?

At Lackland AFB where most American MWDs are bred and trained, puppies are evaluated from earliest puppyhood for their potential. At about two months old, they go to local foster parents who socialize them.

After a few months they return to the base and begin up to a year of training. These dogs are driven to please their handlers and that desire is what makes a good MWD.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My publisher prefers its writers not to talk about current and future projects. I have two books under contract with Lerner for 2018 that I’m working on now. One is a health/science topic and the other mostly historical.

I can say that my fall 2017 book is about addiction and overdose—sadly an issue of growing concern. In it I interview a number of current and recovering addicts, and a family that lost a son to an overdose.

It was an emotional and sobering experience for me. I’m an RN, but had no experience in this area. I had a similar experience while writing my 2016 book, Understanding Suicide: A National Epidemic. In so many cases, people want to talk about what’s happened to them and their families, but often even their closest friends and relatives are too uncomfortable to listen.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: In my opinion, nonfiction is the place for writers to be today. I love writing nonfiction. Doing the research and writing is like being a perpetual grad student without having to take final exams!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 22

Feb. 22, 1892: Edna St. Vincent Millay born.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Q&A with Glenn Frankel

Glenn Frankel is the author of the new book High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic. He also has written The Searchers, Beyond the Promised Land, and Rivonia's Children. A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, he spent many years at The Washington Post and also taught at Stanford University and the University of Texas at Austin. He lives in Arlington, Virginia.

Q: Why did you choose to focus on High Noon in your new book?

A: It was happenstance. I was at the University of Texas at Austin when my book on The Searchers came out. We had a Western film series, and a UT professor, Charles Ramirez Berg, from the Radio TV Film department, did a session on High Noon.

I vaguely knew it had blacklist connections, but I didn’t know all the details. [I thought] it was not high on the pantheon of great movies. Charles enlightened me about [screenwriter] Carl Foreman’s [testimony] before the [House Un-American Activities] Committee, and he made a good case for the excellence of High Noon as a film.

It woke me up a little. I realized this was something I could do and would enjoy doing. I’m finding myself in a sub-genre of writing about great American movies that have historical significance. I fell into it with The Searchers, and High Noon [represents] an almost contemporary moment.

Q: You write, “Clearly High Noon is a Western, but is it also…a blacklist allegory?” What do you think, and why?

A: Carl Foreman meant it to be one. It certainly has elements of it. I would argue in its treatment of the community and the community’s response when faced with a crisis of conscience—the return of the bad guy, his desire to retake the town—it’s the cowardice of the community, the inability of decent denizens to rally around the marshal, the inability of people to do so, [it was]  making an analogy to the blacklist.

In Hollywood, in 1951, the community just unraveled. People who were not supporters of the Red Scare acceded to it, and humiliated themselves to cooperate with it.

Q: What was [the film’s star] Gary Cooper’s attitude toward the blacklist?

A: Gary Cooper was a very conservative Republican, down the line. He was called as a friendly witness by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, and even then he was kind of cagey. He was clearly strongly anti-Communist, but he was a little unhappy with the committee. He comes to the situation ambivalent—he thinks politics are dangerous.

Cooper was like a lot of people who go by their gut—he works with Carl Foreman on High Noon and trusts Carl—that colors his reaction when Carl is on the hot seat. He offers him moral support, and offers to go before the committee. It was more personal than ideological.

Q: As you mentioned, you’ve also written about the film The Searchers. How would you compare the two in the pantheon of American movie classics?

A: I don’t think there’s any doubt that John Ford is considered at the top of American filmmakers. The Searchers, to me, is the highlight of his career. It’s a very ambitious movie, an epic in many ways. It covers ground that’s about families, conflict, racism.

High Noon is smaller and tighter…there’s almost no humor, no side stories. From the beginning, it marches forward. It’s a great piece of work, but it’s not as broad, or artistically ambitious, as The Searchers.

They’re both great movies, and together they show the ways you can stretch the art of the cinema. The acting is superb in both…They are from very different schools, but in the end they are really beautifully done.

Q: What do you see as the legacy of High Noon today?

A: Even though I don’t think many people know much about Gary Cooper—they know his name, they know he was in High Noon—but High Noon, it sits out on the frontier of their consciousness as a pop culture icon. We all seem to know the marshal walking down that empty street.

People confuse Cooper with the movie and the movie with Cooper. It symbolizes a type of American masculinity…willing to risk your life in a cause you believe in. It is a story we like to tell ourselves about America, a story we like to tell ourselves about the frontier…

Q: Are you working on another book about another American film?

A: Yes, but don’t ask me what! I’ve really enjoyed marrying these two things—I’m not just looking for a movie I like, but one with resonance that’s caught up in a historical moment or hasn’t been written to death. I’m slowly getting it down to a couple.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: High Noon was a movie that was a real collaborative effort. Carl Foreman wrote the screenplay. [Director] Fred Zinnemann gave it a gritty feel. Gary Cooper was a beautiful leading actor, and the supporting cast was superb. All of that was involved. It’s well edited, it has a wonderful theme song.

Then the blacklist came along and shatters this collaborative group, which includes [producer] Stanley Kramer. One of the terrible things about the blacklist was the way it destroyed creativity, and shook and damaged partnerships. That’s the tragedy of High Noon. The achievement of High Noon is how beautifully it works and how meaningful it is. 

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

Q&A with Emily Jeanne Miller

Emily Jeanne Miller is the author of the new novel The News From the End of the World. She also has written the novel Brand New Human Being and co-edited the anthology The River We Carry With Us, and her short fiction has appeared in the North American Review and the Portland Review. She lives on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for the family you write about in The News From the End of the World, the Lake family, and for this novel?

A: For me, a novel comes from so many different places. In 2010 I became an aunt to twin boys—my sister’s kids. We’re twins. I didn’t have kids then and I adored [my nephews]. I had an uncomplicated love for them. Seeing my sister being a parent, [I saw] how much less complicated it is to be an aunt! I had never read about an uncle or aunt. It started as Vance’s story and the niece he adored. He was butting heads with his brother over his niece.

Q: So it started just with Vance’s point of view?

A: Yes, I think it got about halfway through 10 times. I was at Yaddo, and had a revelation that I kept pushing away, that it had to be from other points of view. I had to start over. It was daunting. I had never written from other points of view. The more I got into it, I realized that’s what had to happen. It was fun.

Q: Were there any perspective you especially enjoyed?

A: Amanda’s point of view—I really felt for her and her predicament, how it felt being an angst-filled 17-year-old teenager, how everything feels so intense. Each character had something [good to write about].

Q: The book is set on Cape Cod, and a reader really gets a wonderful sense of the town the family lives in. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: Really important. I have to have a good idea of the setting before I get the book going. It’s rooted in the feel of the place, what the characters are going to see when they’re doing whatever they’re doing. I think about the setting first, or in conjunction with the first character.

Q: Is the town you write about real?

A: It’s a fake town [with] inspiration from things I [experienced] on the Cape…

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

A: It wasn’t the original title. I had an original title that came from a quote at the beginning of the book, a Thoreau quote. The more I thought about it, I noticed that the phrase “end of the world” came up a few times—Vance says early in the book, What’s the news from the end of the world?

When a phrase comes up more than once, it must be evident [that it’s significant]. It feels like the end of the world for Amanda. I liked the title because it means one thing at the beginning, another in the middle, and it’s different at the end. Also, there’s the geography—Chile was where Amanda was, and also the Cape. There are a lot of ways to read it. It was a happy accident!

Q: The book deals with the issue of abortion. How did you decide to approach this topic? 

A: I tried very hard to understand where each character was coming from, having divergent views on the issue…People will disagree with what Amanda does, but hopefully there will be compassion…The point of the book is not to come down on one side or the other, but explore it from a compassionate point of view.

Q: Are you working on another novel now?

A: I’m not in the drafting stage yet. I do have an idea for one, another Cape book.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Emily Jeanne Miller, please click here.

Feb. 21

Feb. 21, 1907: W.H. Auden born.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Q&A with Thomas E. Simmons

Thomas E. Simmons is the author of the new novel The Last Quinn Standing, a sequel to his novel By Accident of Birth. His other books include the works of nonfiction The Man Called Brown Condor and Forgotten Heroes of WWII. He lives in Gulfport, Mississippi.

Q: Why did you decide to continue the story you began in By Accident of Birth, and how did you research this installment in the Quinn family saga?

A: Readers of By Accident of Birth kept after me saying they didn't want it to end and wanted to know what happen to the son, Ansel Quinn, who was serving as a American neutral observer in French Army Headquarters in Paris, 1915. So I began with the sequel. 

It was fun, if a lot of work, first, because any sequel must stand alone yet somehow bring a reader unfamiliar with the original up to date, and second, because I didn't know where it was going or how it would end. 

The appendix of By Accident of Birth lists two and a half pages of research sources, unusual for a novel, but when writing a historical novel, I did not want to be found incorrect in the inclusion of an historical event, setting or character. 

The same is true for The Last Quinn Standing, although there will be no appendix of source material. I did hours and hours of research for every chapter to be sure that while the story was weaving in and around real historical events, settings or characters, especially 1915-16 Paris and World War I, the reader can depend upon such facts given in the story line.   

Sometimes when I decided to include a site or event, be it a street, restaurant, building, ship, battle, or historical character, I did meticulous research to ensure accuracy. The first thing an author of historic literature should do is to make certain that the historic facts  of the work are accurate. An author owes that to the reader.

Q: Can you say more about what you see as the right blend of history and fiction when you're writing a historical novel?

A: The right blend is one that does not let the history of the period overpower the characters and story line. When one spends enormous time and energy in broad and deep historic research, as one should do, it can cause the author to  get carried away with the results by including so much detailed historic information that the characters get lost or become secondary to the facts presented.

This is easy to do because a serious writer in researching, for instance, a battle, can easily get carried away in presenting his knowledge of the battle to the point that the work becomes an instruction in history rather than a human story of the fictitious characters and their lives.

Q: Having written about this family once before, was your writing process different this time around?

A: Not really. The story of the sequel centers around the son, Ansel, all grown up, as opposed to the child he was in the original, By Accident of Birth.  

Most of the players in the original are gone. He is left the last Quinn. His character is shaped and influenced somewhat by the history of his family, but the reader sees  a young army officer excited by his assignment and surroundings, somewhat reckless in the exuberance of youth and love of adventure. It was fun to create him and go on adventures with him.

Q: You've mentioned you're writing a third novel about the Quinns--what can you say about that?

A: My agent, Jeanie Loiacono, and the publisher, TouchPoint, wanted to make the saga of the Quinn family into a trilogy. I had to think about that. By Accident of Birth covered a period of 50 years (from the Civil War to World War l ), requiring what seemed like 50 years of research. 

After finishing The Last Quinn Standing, which covers a period of only two years, 1915 to 1916, still requiring a ton of research, I decided Book Three would have to take Ansel and his family through 20 years (from World War I to World War II), thus requiring long hours of research about a very  tumultuous period. 

The more I thought about it, the more I was intrigued about the story on the one hand, while on the other, dreading the challenge of taking Ansel and his family through the end of World War I, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression and the beginning of World War II…no small task. 

Still, being generally optimistic about my pessimism, I now find myself, after agonizing over several difficult pivot points in the story, on page 300 with the need to accelerate through a long period of history in order to finish in about another 150 to 200 pages while still keeping the reader's interest. Wish me luck.   

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Yes. Writing my eighth book, working title Yesterday a War, Tomorrow a War, A Family In-Between, I am convinced that writers are generally insane, must have skin as thick as a turtle's shell or mule's hide, are gluttons for punishment, and the good ones write whether they make any money or not because they have to.

I survive because my wife Kay is a saint, my no-account dog keeps me company at my writing desk without asking questions, my grandchildren are beautiful, and spell check works hard to keep my dyslexia from driving my editor crazy.

Thank you, Deborah Kalb, for all the interest and work you do for us writers, for God knows, in the modern, confused world of publishing, controlled mostly by accountants as opposed to true lovers of the beautiful English language and written word, we need it.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Thomas E. Simmons, please click here

Feb. 20

Feb. 20, 1902: Ansel Adams born.