Thursday, February 23, 2017

Q&A with Marilyn Singer


Marilyn Singer, photo by Linda Gallop
Marilyn Singer's many books for children include Echo Echo, Mirror Mirror, Follow Follow, and the forthcoming Feel the Beat. She lives in Brooklyn and in Washington, Connecticut. 

Q: Echo Echo is the third of your books of reverso poems. How did you come up with the idea originally, and why did you choose to focus on Greek myths this time?

A: For readers who haven’t encountered it, the reverso is a poem with two halves. The second half reverses the lines of the first half, with changes only in punctuation and capitalization. That second part has to say something completely different from the first.

Reversos work particularly well based on narratives and as such fall into three categories which feature either:  1) one character with two POVs; 2) one character at two points in time; 3) two characters, usually with opposing POVs. 

My first two books of reversos were based on fairy tales, which have strong stories, so I could make them fit into one of the above categories.  Greek myths also have multi-layered narratives, and they are taught in school.  In addition, I’ve always loved them, and so do most students.  It was a natural extension to go from fairy tales to myths.

Q: One of the poems deals with Pandora's box. Why did you select that particular tale, and how does this set of poems reflect the two sides of the story?

A: Pandora’s Box is such a popular and beguiling myth that I had to use it. In the first half of my poem, Pandora, as is typical, is blamed for loosing evils into the world. 

But I always found it somewhat troubling that the poor young woman has always taken the rap.  So the second half is more sympathetic—she may be curious and weak, but she didn’t collect those evils and she might well be a pawn of the gods.

Q: You have a new book of poems coming out this spring, Feel the Beat!: Dance Poems That Zing from Salsa to Swing. Why did you decide to focus on poems relating to dance, and what do you see as the intersection between dance and poetry?

A: My husband and I have been taking social dance lessons for over 12 years, particularly in swing, ballroom, and Latin dance. For a while I’ve wanted to feature those dances in poems.

One day I decided to challenge myself—something I like to do—and write the poems in the rhythms of the dances. Poetry, of course, is also rhythmic—dancerly, if you like—so it made sense to feature dances in poems.

There is a CD which accompanies the book and on it I read the poems over music, adding another layer to the work. The wonderful illustrations are by Kristi Valiant, who is also a swing dancer.  Lots of zing all around!

Q: You've written many books--do you usually work on one at a time, or do you have several going on at once?

A: Sometimes I work on more than one at a time, especially if I need a breather from a genre. More typically, however, I do revisions (generally based on editorial comments) on one book while I’m writing a new book.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Besides revisions?  ;-)  I’m writing a middle grade novel which is a ghost story and I’m about to start on a collection of poems about presidential pets, which will be published by Disney-Hyperion.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Besides Feel the Beat!, I have a collection of poems about global New Year celebrations, Every Month’s a New Year, coming out this fall from Lee & Low and illustrated by Susan L. Roth. 

And among my books next year will be Have You Heard about Lady Bird?, poems about the First Ladies, which will be published by Disney-Hyperion and illustrated by Nancy Carpenter, and I’m the Big One Now, poems about seminal experiences for five- and six-year-olds, from Wordsong/Boyds Mills Press, illustrated by Jana Christy.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Echo Echo is illustrated by Josée Masse, and both it and Feel the Beat are published by Dial.

Feb. 23

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Feb. 23, 1868: W.E.B. Du Bois born.

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

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
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

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
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

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Feb. 20, 1902: Ansel Adams born.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Q&A with Molly Booth


Molly Booth is the author of the new young adult novel Saving Hamlet, in which a modern-day teenager goes back to Shakespeare's time. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including McSweeney's and The Mary Sue. She lives in Boston.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Saving Hamlet, and for your main character, Emma?

A: The idea for Saving Hamlet came to me when I was taking a Shakespeare course in college, at the same time as I was yearning to try writing longer fiction.

I’d only written shorter stories, usually about awkward encounters I’d had with crushes, but I was bad at coming up with satisfactory endings. I had this gut feeling that I needed to try writing something longer, but I was scared to.

Then, in the Shakespeare class I was taking, I latched on to the historical aspect of studying Shakespeare -- the Globe, the fast-paced rehearsals. I had been a theatre techie in high school, so I loved the idea of this intense backstage.

I wanted to be there, so badly, so I sent a character there instead. I meant to write a longer short story, but then it became a novella, and eventually, a full-length novel. In many ways, I learned how to write with Saving Hamlet.

The premise for Saving Hamlet came to me before Emma did: I wanted a teenage stage manager who would time travel back to The Globe. Emma kind of announced herself to me in that first chapter, the scene with the haircut.

She was newer to theatre, and she’d just upheaved her school life and social circle. And she was trying, and often failing, to understand the people around her, and how she fit in. It all happened kind of unconsciously, but I certainly drew on aspects of my own teenage experiences.

Q: You note in an afterword, "I wanted to take Shakespeare and London's history, bring it alive, and make it relevant to our world today." What are some of the ways in which Shakespeare, and particularly Hamlet, remain relevant today?

A: In terms of history, I wanted to connect Shakespearean theatre from the 1600s to modern theatre, be it professional, community, high school, etc. I wanted to put Shakespeare’s play in its thrilling original context, and show how the passion for this art form still exists today, as long as we care about it.

In terms of his works, and why we care about them, I feel that Shakespeare’s greatness comes from his ability to tap into our minds. His language gets at what people think and feel more beautifully and accurately than anything I’ve ever read. When I first read Hamlet, these words jumped out at me:

“Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought”

Hamlet is so aware that he’s stuck in these impossible choices. I think his confusion is relatable for anybody, but particularly for young people, who are trying to make tough choices and define themselves.

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write the book, and was there anything that particularly surprised you?

A: I read so much about the Chamberlain’s Men and Elizabethan England. For me, to create a fictional account of that space, I felt I needed to know as much as possible about the original.

I also took a trip to London with my Marlboro College professor, Paul Nelsen, to visit historical sites, and most importantly, see shows at Shakespeare’s Globe, the recreated theatre. That was a transformative, magical trip.

I was surprised to discover, through the research and through that trip, that no amount of research I did could truly paint the picture of that time period for me.

It sounds silly, but it took that trip to the Globe to realize that Saving Hamlet’s Elizabethan England was solely my job, my responsibility. I had to paint the picture, and there was no way it was going to be 100 percent historically accurate.  

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

A: I did not know how it was going to end. I rarely know the plot of the story I’m working on beforehand -- I usually find it while I’m writing. However, I usually do have a vague vision of a scene from the end. It’s usually a pretty blurry idea, but I try to trust that when I get there, I’ll be able to see it more clearly.

With Saving Hamlet, I envisioned Emma lying on the floor of the lighting booth, staring up at the electrical cords like they were stars, having some kind of philosophical moment. That’s pretty much all I knew about the end of the book before I began.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now I’m about to embark on my fourth draft of Nothing Happened, my second book, which will be published spring 2018 (also from Disney Hyperion).

It’s a YA novel adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic rom com, Much Ado About Nothing. It’s multiple perspective, set at summer camp, and stars the cast of Much Ado as teenage camp counselors. I had the idea just as I was finishing my third draft of Saving Hamlet.

Like with my first book, and high school theatre, I’m drawing on a setting I love -- I worked as a camp counselor and teacher for many years, and those summers were always so much fun and so dramatic.

I had a lot of different crushes and feelings and bizarre social situations occur, much like in the original Much Ado. It’s kind of like a 300+ page Shakespeare fan fiction xD. I can’t wait for readers to meet this cast of characters! I’ve been working with them for a while now, and I adore them all.

When I’m not working on that, I’m writing papers for graduate school (I’m an English MA candidate), and developing a couple of new book ideas that probably relate to Shakespeare.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 19

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Feb. 19, 1917: Carson McCullers born.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Q&A with Uwe Westphal


Uwe Westphal is the author of the novel Ehrenfried & Cohn, which is now available in English. His other books include The Bauhaus and Berliner Konfektion und Mode. He is a journalist and TV producer, the founder of the Uwe Westphal Collection at the Leo Baeck Institute in New York, and managing director of Newest Productions, Ltd., of London and Berlin. 

Q: You have a new English-language edition of Ehrenfried & Cohn out now. Why did you decide to publish the book in English?

A: Two reasons for an English-language edition of Ehrenfried & Cohn – Goodbye, Berlin - The Last Fashion Show.

1. My novel was published in 2015 in German. I then started receiving feedback from people in the U.S. and U.K. Far more, surprisingly, than I had ever had from readers in Germany! They were all asking me when the book would be published in English.

2. Interest in the topic. I was left in no doubt that books about the Nazi period - particularly during the era when the Third Reich confiscated Berlin Jewish fashion firms and their properties - fascinated audiences abroad more than in Germany.

I believe this is explained by the fact that the German fashion industry as a whole has failed to admit publicly their involvement in this shoddy past.

For example, the history of Hugo Boss and C&A reveals they were involved in confiscating Jewish-owned companies as well as playing an active part in slave labor camps under the Nazis. Altogether, I had no hesitation in embarking on an English- language version of the novel.  

Q: Can you tell us about the process for publishing the book in English?

A: Finding a translator was quite easy as there are now so many new, online, translating services. I was lucky that KickWords in London put me in touch with a very experienced U.S. translator of historical novels.  

However, there were severe time pressures as I had been invited to do readings of the novel by the Goethe Centre in Atlanta, Georgia, as well as the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust.  Given the ebook deadlines imposed by Kindle/Amazon, the entire translation of 200 pages had to be done within four weeks.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Ehrenfried & Cohn is a historical novel about a firm that belongs to two Jewish businessmen.  It takes place within a 10-month period - from summer 1935 to June 1936 during which time they lose their business to non-Jewish fashion designers who make use of what they later called “the chance of our lifetime.”

The number of confiscated Jewish fashion firms amounted to 2,400 in Berlin alone. The story of Ehrenfried & Cohn is representative of the many brutal expropriations during the Nazi years.

Necessarily, the process of describing what happened in a fictional setting meant focusing on background details that English-language readers needed to know in order to understand the historical context. In other words, I had to go through every translated chapter word by word and check the content.

It reminded me of the Sofia Coppola movie Lost in Translation, with Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. There are some words, particularly in Berlin slang, which are simply impossible to translate into English. I felt sometimes as if I live in two different worlds – or perhaps between the two!

Indeed, in close collaboration with the translator, I had to slightly change the content in a few chapters. But nothing vital has been lost and the translated version is essentially the same as the German novel.

As with the factual book on the same topic, which I wrote in the 1990s (Berliner Konfektion und Mode: Die Zerstörung einer Tradition 1836-1939), again, this time I have received feedback from New York City, Washington, San Francisco and even New Mexico.

Family members of former Jewish Berlin fashion designers, whose parents or grandparents had to emigrate between 1933 and 1939, have been in touch with me – proving that the novel has revitalized this aspect of history.

My 12 book readings and panel discussions in Atlanta, particularly at schools and the fashion design departments at CLARK and SCAD Universities, were a great success. Altogether 620 visitors came to hear the story – achieved with the help of the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust and the Goethe Centre in Atlanta.

I’m still looking for a U.S. hardcover publisher of my novel and – even better – a movie producer to take on this gripping story of Ehrenfried & Cohn.

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

Feb. 18

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY
Feb. 18, 1909: Wallace Stegner born.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Q&A with Lydia Syson


Lydia Syson is the author of the new young adult historical novel That Burning Summer, set in England during World War II. Her other books include A World Between Us and Liberty's Fire. She lives in London, England.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for That Burning Summer, and what kind of research did you need to do?

A: It’s really very much to do with places. It comes out of where it’s set. We go there with my family on a regular basis. The area is marsh. Years ago it was a sea, and was drained in the Middle Ages. When Napoleon was going to invade, they built a canal. It’s the first line of defense.

One of my children was obsessed with airplanes. They were playing in a pillbox [built for defense]. What must it have been like to be on the other side of the canal? You’re so close to France; you can see France on a clear day.

We were going to a lot of air museums. I was getting better and better informed on World War II aircraft. A tiny local museum [shows] aircraft that were dug out of the marsh. Local enthusiasts were working out where the planes disappeared, and they were digging them up. That all was feeding into [the story].

There are lots of different place on the marsh, and they all came together. There’s a gravestone on the road to a 21-year-old pilot who was never found. We found a Polish flag near the beach—we found a very ragged torn-up Polish flag. My son said, Yes, this is Polish.

It was a homemade memorial to two Polish pilots. And on the marsh there are churches [which also factors into the story]. There’s a big tradition of smuggling stuff. I just had the idea for somebody who bailed out. I was finding out more about Polish pilots. The idea of losing your nerve would be so much worse—Polish pilots had a reputation for [bravery].

[Also there was] the exploring in books and archives, finding books and diaries with interviews with Polish pilots. I found a translation, somebody translated their grandfather’s diaries and put it on line. I used it a lot in Henryk’s journey. I got in touch with the person [who put it on line].

Q: Yes, I was going to ask you about Henryk, a Polish pilot flying for the RAF. Can you say more about what made you decide to focus on this character?

A: Partly it’s that people didn’t know much about the participation of Polish pilots. Partly it’s because Americans and British share that we were never invaded in World War II—Poland was invaded twice, in both directions. What it means to be invaded, how much more difficult choices you have to make under those circumstances—everything really changes. I was obsessed with the idea of this summer, when it was a real possibility.

I remembered that pillbox—my father’s mother lived on the south coast during the war [and I read books about it as a child, including] an American book about a German POW, Summer of My German Soldier. I felt as if I were drawing on a wonderful tradition of children’s books.

As a child it never really occurred to me—[the British] were full of the Blitz spirit, keep calm and carry on. That was never said during the war, but now it’s on every mug! It’s easy to forget a time it wasn’t so certain after all and people were wondering what they would do.

That was what really intrigued me—how you would know who to trust, the effect of all the propaganda, the faith you’d have in yourself. The government would have spies. A book I read [looked at] a collection of things people were saying in pubs and cafes because the government wanted to monitor morale.

Q: You explore the story from the perspectives of your characters Peggy, Henryk, and Peggy's younger brother Ernest. Did you originally think you’d be writing from all three perspectives, or did you originally plan on a different approach?

A: It was Peggy who came last, oddly enough. Originally I thought of a book for slightly younger readers. It was Ernest and Henryk that interested me. With Ernest, now we know so much more about learning differences. It’s still really tough, but at least differences are [worked with. In the World War II era] it must have been so demoralizing, people thinking you’re lazy or stupid. My publisher offered me a [multiple] book deal, and I thought, I can make this romantic! I like this dynamic.

Q: So who do you see as the perfect audience for this novel?

A: It started quite boyish but [became] more female. I don’t like categorizing. It’s quite frustrating—once a certain cover is going on a book, a lot of boys are not going to read it. I would love more gender-neutral covers. All my books are distributed between male and female characters…I love librarians who look at the child and think, You’ll probably enjoy this. I have three sons and one daughter, and two of my sons love reading books about relationships…

Q: What are you working on now?

A: An adult novel that will come out in the U.K. in the spring of next year. I’m waiting for my editor to get back to me with the first lot of edits. I always have some family origin—I’ve stolen from my husband’s family. It’s about a family on a small island in the Pacific in the late 19th century, called Mr. Peacock’s Possessions.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: It was very interesting doing the Americanizations [for this version of the book]. It was so tricky for some things to get the right period word. It’s so English, so of a particular moment. Translating that feel into something that made sense to American readers was interesting and quite challenging!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb