Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Hannah Tinti, Author of The Good Thief -- Loaded Questions Author Interview

The Good Thief is an exciting adventure story in which twelve year-old Ren, a one-handed orphan who has grown up in a Catholic monastery, is rescued by Benjamin Nab, a thief who at first presents himself as the young boy's brother. The story that follows is, as many reviewers and fans of the book have noted, quite Dickensian. Young Ren and Benjamin, along with a cast of frightening friends, encounter graver robbers, silver-tounged salesmen, murderers and outright thieves. Taking place in 19th century New England the novel is part Victorian drama, part Oliver Twist. The end result is a fun and fast paced debut novel that guides Ren, who the reader can't help but root for, through a world of equal parts danger and wonder.

In addition to The Good Thief, Hannah Tinti is the author of a short story collection Animal Crackers.

Kelly Hewitt: I've noticed that several reviewers of The Good Thief have mentioned fantastic elements in the book but are most surprised by the stealing of the teeth of corpses for denture making. When I was reading the book, though, this seemed somewhat plausible especially considering that body snatching for surgical practice certainly was taking place at the time the novel was set in. I wonder, where did you get the inspiration for this particular part of the book? Did you find some historical precedence for stealing teeth from the dead?

Hannah Tinti: I read many books about resurrection men and grave-robbing. Two that were particularly helpful were The Italian Boy by Sarah Wise, a non-fiction account of a trial of two resurrection men in London, and The Knife Man by Wendy Moore, a biography of John Hunter, who was a famous surgeon and resurrectionist. I knew that grave-robbers would often take the teeth as well as the jewelry of the dead and sell them to dentists. Sometimes resurrection men would also separate the teeth and sell them separately, to make more money. There is a great ghost story that I remember reading as a child, about a man who has just buried his young wife, and then hears her that night, calling for him and sees her coming down the road, covered with blood. He locks the door against her, but soon realizes that his wife was actually buried while she was in a deep sleep, and when the grave robbers were pulling out her teeth, it woke her up. So that ghost story, combined with the historical information I found, started the idea, and then Mister Bowers the dentist truly came into being when I came across a photograph of George Washington’s teeth, and I became fascinated by early dentures, and discovered that they were made from all different kinds of materials.

Kelly: In reading many interviews and reviews in preparation for our chat I was perplexed when I ran into, again and again, readers and reviewers who felt a need to designate The Good Thief as either young adult (YA) or adult fiction. You've said that you had neither in mind when writing the novel. Why do you think that there is a tendency to want to fit the story into one category or another?

Hannah: I’m not sure. Perhaps they just want to know where it should be shelved. Personally, I don’t think there should be such hard divisions in literature. Adults should be more open to the fantastic books that are being written for younger audiences, and children should be encouraged to read beyond their level.

Kelly: Ren, poor Ren. This poor kid goes through a lot in the course of The Good Thief. Was there a particular hardship, setback, ordeal or crime that you found particularly hard to put your one-handed orphan through as an author?

Hannah: Ren goes through quite a lot in the book, but I think he is the kind of child that can withstand a great deal. The hardest scenes to write were the more emotional ones—Dolly’s death, and Ren’s separation from Benjamin—because I knew they hit Ren’s most vulnerable spot: his heart.

Kelly: What kind of research goes into writing a novel like The Good Thief? It is fiction and sometimes fantastical fiction but there are some aspects of early New England that you write about that are historically accurate. Are there any particular texts you would point readers to who are interested in this period?

Hannah: I read many books, including those mentioned above, and I also spent time in the library, reading newspapers from the 1800s, which gave me a real feel for the time period. But I mainly drew on my own experience growing up in Salem, Massachusetts. Many houses in Salem are from the 1700s and 1800s. This helped me to imagine the towns, particularly North Umbrage and Granston. Granston is a combination of Salem and Gloucester, Massachusetts—where I lived briefly after graduating from college. North Umbrage is a combination of Salem and Lowell, Massachusetts, known for its factories. If some of your readers are interested in New England history, particularly shipping and trading, I’d suggest visiting the Peabody Essex museum in Salem, Massachusetts, which has a wonderful collection. If they are interested in medical history, a visit to the Mutter museum in Philadelphia is a real eye-opener.

Kelly: I read in an interview a few months ago that you were working on not a sequel but another novel that would feature a minor character and/or the same setting but that you weren't willing to share anything until you reached a hundred pages. I am wondering, as someone who really enjoyed this novel, have you reached a place that you can tell your readers anything more about this prospective novel?

Hannah: I’m sorry—not yet!

Kelly: Prior to The Good Thief you were a short story writer. You even mentioned in one interview that you had not intended for The Good Thief to be a full novel. With the success of The Good Thief, do you find yourself thinking more about writing novels rather than short stories?

Hannah: I think that in the future I will probably do both, going back and forth between the forms. My decision to write The Good Thief as a novel was driven entirely by the material—I saw rather quickly that it was too big to contain in a short story. I work from images or ideas. Often I don’t know exactly what I’m writing about until it is on the page.

Kelly: I know that you are one of the founders of One Story, a magazine that publishes one story per issue. Are you still working with One Story?

Hannah: Yes. I’m still acting as editor-in-chief at One Story. It’s something I’m very passionate about.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Rivka Galchen, author of Atmospheric Disturbances - Loaded Questions Interview

I first learned of Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen from author Lauren Groff (The Monsters of Templeton, the upcoming Delicate Edible Birds) when she reported that she was reading an early release copy of the book. Intrigued, I emailed the publisher of the book to ask about getting a copy for myself.

Atmospheric Disturbances, originally released in June arrived at a very busy time but was still a novel that I very much wanted to read, it made it into my nigh stand table where it languished for a few months. Heading out of town one weekend, I brought along my copy of Rivka Galchen's debut novel and after having read the first three chapters I was unable to put it down.

On the outside this novel, which centers on a Dr. Leo Liebenstein, a successful older therapist living in New York City with his younger and very attractive Argentinian wife Rema, looks as though it is a book heavily rooted in mystery and the science of weather and the atmosphere. However, the further I got into the novel the more I began to realize that Atmospheric Disturbances had much more to say about long term relationships and the way in which we all change over time when Dr. Leo encounters one day, in the apartment he shares with his wife, a young woman who looks and sounds just like his beloved wife Rema but is most certainly not. The novel centers on themes of love and the ways in which, just like the weather, relationships change, shift and enter different stages.

I have recommended this book to a number of people and would very much encourage anyone looking for a fresh new literary voice to give Atmospheric Disturbances and the exciting and entirely interesting voice of Rivka Galchen a look.

Loaded Questions Interview with Rivka Galchen, author of Atmospheric Disturbances

Kelly Hewitt: I have to say, first of all, that I was kind of nervous when writing the questions for this interview, partly because I liked Atmospheric Disturbances so much and partly because all of the other interviews that you have participated in have focused very heavily on science, the interviewer resorting to a scientific battle of wits with you. I know nothing about science and am not all that keen on embarrassing myself. So, I am going to let you be the scientific whiz and I will play the part of the interviewer more interested in you and your novel. Sound like a good deal?

Rivka Galchen: Sure. I’m excited about whiz costume possibilities.

Kelly: The greatest thing about Atmospheric Disturbances is that it does involve a good deal of science and yet, with my previously admitted minimal knowledge, I found the novel to be very good and profound – one of the best I read this year. The novel, for me, was more about relationships and how they change over time, sometimes quickly, almost in the same manner that weather changes, going from good to bad. Is that a fair analysis if not too woo-woo?

Rivka: I’ll go with that. Especially if you’re going to be so sweet about it. In general, I tend to take other people’s reads a bit more seriously than I take my own. I guess I go through life with the nagging suspicion that other people know something about me or my work that I don’t; this despite no past KICK ME sticker traumas. I get that mood of an Errol Morris film, thinking I’m telling one story, thinking I’m running the narrative, while everyone else understands that I’m revealing something totally else. (Which is, well, what my narrator does; I love the sound of self-deception.) I’d like to think I’m a little more in control with the voice of a fictional character than with my own voice, but, I suppose I can’t really know. That said, so far as I can tell, I could think I was writing about the estivation patterns of pond frogs and somehow I’d still somehow be writing about love. I think that’s all I ever write about. Meaning: your read sounds plenty right to me.

Kelly: Some of the reviews of the book have made a big deal about a novel with a scientific component. Do you feel like fiction and science are as odd a pair as some of the reviewers of the book have made them out to be?

Rivka: I like how in Kafka’s Amerika, there’s a bridge—the Brooklyn Bridge actually—that links New York to Boston. I mean, one wouldn’t need such a bridge, but why not? And Boston’s quite a bit farther from Manhattan than Brooklyn is, but what if there was no bridge (or tunnel) to Brooklyn, and you were afraid of water? I guess what I’m not quite saying is that it never struck me that one needed to construct a connection between fiction and science—there’s so many there already—but maybe at the same time there’s a kind of, hopefully useful, confusion on my part about where they are—according to a more generally consensus. Maybe they really are s far apart as Boston and New York. For me, fiction and science are both these wild, childish, rigorous imaginative endeavors. I know that fiction writers are more likely to be seen wearing hooded sweatshirts and scientists are more likely to be wearing—this might be based just on my dad—dowdy button-ups…but they both seem like play, and play that is very sensitive to vocabulary, striving for a very precise way of saying things.

Kelly: You received a MD degree from Mount Sinai School of Medicine with a specialization in psychiatry and then went on to get your MFA at Columbia. I don't have a question here, every interview about your includes this fact and so I felt obliged.

Rivka: Thank you for not asking more about it. Medicine, medicine, medicine, medicine, medicine.

Kelly: I was about a third of the way through the novel when I realized that the name Gal-Chen, the last name of the novel's almost mythical scientific hero, was very familiar. I sat down the book to think about where I had heard it when I glanced at the spine of the novel and realized that aside from the lack of a hyphen, it was your last name. I have since read that Tzvi Gal-Chen is your father, a prominent scientist himself, who passed away some years ago. I wonder at what point Gal-Chen became a part of the novel. Had you developed the character inspired by your father before the characters of Leo and Rema?

Rivka: My dad used to get all these wildly mislabeled junk letters. “Chewy Chen.” “Zivi Galen.” For whatever goofy reason this amused my brother and I to no end. So even when he was alive, my dad’s name had a kind of goofy talismanic quality for me. And then, I’m not quite sure how his name came into the novel, but I think a lot of it had to do with it being a first novel, which is a lonely process in which you’re mostly just trying to keep yourself entertained. And so having his name enter into the novel, having him be mistaken for a kind of heroic and wise figure who may hold the secret to the world and everything—well, that both amused me, and got at that emotional feel of my father to me…it was kind of irresistible to me to have other people—these characters—have totally other reasons than my own for putting a kind of magical excess of faith into, well, kind of my dad, kind of a ghost.

Kelly: From what I have read your mother is a fairly opinionated woman, upset that your real age has been printed in interviews. How did she feel about the inclusion of your father in the novel? Did you share portions of Atmospheric Disturbances with her prior to its publication?

Rivka: My dad’s been the family white elephant in the room ever since we lost him. My family didn’t really comment on his inclusion in the novel. I think it made them happy though. My dad used to clip out articles in which people wrote about their dads—I remember the Calvin Trillin one in particular—and then post them on my wall, sort of as a joke, sort of seriously, the idea being, you should do this! (We were the kind of family who staged tests trying to prove who our dog loved most.)

Kelly: Normally I would not ask an author a question of this nature but, given the connections between characters in the novel and your real life it begs asking. If Tzvi Gal-Chen is based on your father, a character that is all-knowing, a source of guidance and a scientific genius then does one of the other characters in the book represent you? Would you say that you are like Dr. Leo, the lost psychiatrist who is transfixed with Gal-Chen and comes to almost worship him, craving contact or are you like Rema, the woman who has a history of also being very interested in Gal-Chen to the point of impersonating him in order to help Leo with a patient? Both of these individuals have a relationship with Gal-Chen that one could see as parental, akin to a relationship that an adult child might have with a parent they have admired and have missed.

Rivka: Oh dear, yeah, it’s much more clear to me now—during composition, I really did think of putting my dad’s name in the book as just this tiny private joy—that the attention paid to him by the various characters, all the ludicrous hopes and plans centered on him, all of that, it’s kind of my own return of the repressed, the repressed showing up in a silly outfit of course, but making its return nonetheless. I’m definitely always longing for family, and not really to be a parent, but to be a kid again; we were this tight odd little tribe of four, with basically no relatives or close family friends within a thousand mile distance. I miss that. Even though maybe I’m only imagining that I ever really had it. But I don’t think so. Either way though, I think that’s something I share with Leo and Rema both; sometimes I feel like they’re both vying for the position of the one who gets to be tended to, the more difficult one, the child.

Kelly: You're quirky. I hope that doesn't offend, I mean it in a very entertaining and interesting way. You've said some very interesting and funny things in interviews. In an interview at Bookslut you said: "I would be honored if someone disliked me. There was always something mild and bland about me. That would be great. That would be exciting." How is it that you think you were mild and bland and do you still find yourself to be so?

Rivka: I eat a Six Grains pear yogurt and two sugar cookies for breakfast every single day. If I find a coffee shop or restaurant or bookstore or person I like, I jut want to go back again and again and again and never try anyplace new. And I can’t handle disagreeing with anyone in a conversation. So. I am good at origami though. And at making all sorts of tarts. I’m not sure if I dislike being a bit pale and steady of personality though. I’m ambivalent about it. It’s a kind of privacy.

Kelly: And secondly, now that your novel has become a big hit and has landed on many lists of the best books of the year I wonder if you've had the fortune of being "honored" by someone who has disliked you? It seems like if this was something you were aiming for you ought not to have written such a good book.

Rivka: Well maybe that was a bit of stretch, or a fantasy at least, my saying that I like to be disliked. I guess I do and I don’t. There’s undoubtedly something about having a book out in the world that has put me back in touch with my chubby-seventh-grade-leopard-print-pant-wearing-too-embarrassed-to-ask-my-mom-to-buy-me-a-bra self. But weirdly the most judged I’ve ever felt in my life was a few years ago when an old woman in the library started shouting at me and punching and swinging her bags of books at me for no reason that I could tell, except that maybe I was taking up too much space in the hallway. Those sorts of random acts of aggression always have the feel of divine justice to me, like I deserve them. Whereas, somehow, snipey comments here and there, about the book or about me, feel vaguely not personal at all? Maybe I have some crossed wiring in my head.

Kelly: Part of what makes the characters in Atmospheric Disturbances so interesting, entertaining is the fact that you let them make mistakes, think unintelligent thoughts and behave very awkwardly. In another interview you wrote: "I have a lot of friends who are deeply awkward, and I'm kind of seduced by the things that cripple them. But it's also a little bit cruel, even though it's seductive and interesting." Aside from finding this endearing and realizing that I sometimes feel the same way, I wanted to know what else does Rivka Galchen find herself "seduced" by?

Rivka: Ummm…I’m going to steal someone else’ language here. there’s a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem that starts: “Glory be to God for dappled things….all things counter, spare, original, strange.” I think that’s what I love. I have to stop stealing that line of his though. I think just used it in a blurb for a book that I loved. It’s hard, the vocabulary of love! Sometimes it feels all used up.

Kelly: One of the things I will take away from having read Atmospheric Disturbances is the word simulacrum, a word that Leo often uses to describe the facsimile of his wife Rema that is a lot like her and yet not at all her as far as Leo is concerned. You have come up with a number of interesting words that refer to the copy of Rema. My boyfriend, who is now reading the novel, asks me again what it means every time he cracks the book open and when I told him that we'd be doing this interview he asked me to tell you that the word gives him "a great deal of difficulty". Is this a word that you had been carrying around in your vocabulary or one that you discovered when writing the novel?

Rivka: My dad used to say simulacrum to mean Xerox copy, or carbon copy. He had this odd auto-didact foreigner’s English, and a fondness for chunky and cluttered words. He also instilled in me a habit of referring to floors as ‘the ground.’ I really think though, even if English had been his first language, that he would have still had this kind of estranged vocabulary. He liked throwing technical terms into, say, a description of a cookie. I still remember him talking about a cookie ‘cleaving along uncertain planes’—and how that made me think of a cookie and a quartz rock at the same time, and, I dunno, I could kind of ‘hear’ his language in a way that I can’t quite with ‘normal English.’ In normal English I kind of go into auto-pilot. I was thinking about this on a plane recently, about how they’d ever so slightly changed the little safety patter…to that part where they talk about the dropping of oxygen masks in an emergency landing, the stewardess added a little interjection about an emergency landing being – ‘a highly unlikely occurrence’—and somehow, amidst that drone of safety instructions, for the first time since I was little—I suddenly actually felt that I was hearing about something scary, about an emergency, about the plane plummeting to the earth, what to do, all these sorts of images coming to mind…which is to say, I could ‘hear’ what she was saying…then again, I guess pretty much anything makes me scared when it comes to flying.

Whoa, so that was a digression. I guess I’m flying tomorrow for the holidays.

Kelly: When we first began chatting via email I remember telling you that, after having completed the novel, I came to realize that over time a lot of people we have close relationships can seem like they are a simulacrums, different that the person we first met. That, in the end, is the truly beautiful thing about this novel, the realization that we are all always changing and that we aren't the same people today that we were a year ago. Having spent so much time writing a novel about a man who suddenly believes that the love of his life has been replaced by a very similar and yet starkly different stranger, did you come to feel that those close to you were simulacrums?

Rivka: Pretty much several times a day. My mom and I went to a Turkish restaurant together not that long ago, and she didn’t want to order the fried calves’ livers, and she normally talks about them the whole meal. So that made me suspicious. You know, those Sanka moments (to reference a really old commercial, that both dates me, and makes evident my terrible past of watching 9 hours of TV a day.) And little things. Like when my husband is oddly responsible about depositing a check, or getting his mom a birthday present. I doubt him in those moments.

Kelly: And finally, the question I have been waiting to ask you! What's next? Have you already started working on another novel? What can we expect from Rivka Galchen down the road?

Rivka: I think it's a novel, I think it's titled The Nature Theater of Oklahoma, and I think it has visions and ghosts, kind of. So, mostly that!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Holiday Books: Fourteen Books that Celebrate the Holiday Seasons

Fourteen books featuring children's, humor, and fiction titles that celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and the holiday season.

The Christmas Chronicles
By Jeff Guinn

This collection includes all three of Jeff Guinn's Christmas Chronicles novels:

The Autobiography of Santa Claus
, a tale that combines historical fact with legend to tell the true story of Mr. Claus.

How Mrs. Claus Saved Christmas
, a story in which the first lady of Christmas herself tells the story of how she and a very brave group of people once saved a treasured holiday from being lost forever.

The Great Santa Search, a tale that takes readers on a sleigh ride through the history of Christmas in America that lands smack-dab in 2006, as a reality TV show threatens to destroy the true spirit of Christmas.

The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story
By Lemony Snicket

A little latke is miraculously born the moment he hits the frying pan, screaming all the while. Jumping out out of the frying pan our little latke friend screams in vain while trying to explain his role in Hanukkah to flashing colored lights (So you're basically hash browns, they reply. Maybe you can be served alongside a Christmas ham) and an equally Christmas-centric candy cane and tree. Snicket has written a very entertaining book, a great gift for adults and Unfortunate Events fans.

Great Joy by Kate DiCamillo

This touching story by Newbery Medal-winning author Kate DiCamillo tells the story of Frances who discovers one day, just before Christmas, that there is an organ grinder and his monkey on the street corner outside her apartment. When things are quiet she can even hear their music. After seeing the man and his monkey sleeping out on the street very late one night Frances can't stop thinking about the two poor souls. Even as Frances prepares to deliver her lines in the Christmas play the young girl is still thinking of the man and his sad eyes. In a moment of silence while standing on stage Frances finds the perfect words to share. Parents have praised this book for its focus on those who have less, using it as a way of broaching a very difficult subject with their children.

The Night Before Christmas
By Clement Clarke Moore and Robert Sabuda

If you haven't had the chance to read and more importantly see a book illustrated by Robert Sabuda you are most certainly missing out. As enthralling for adults as they are children Sabuda's pop up books have Santa popping out of chimney, beds folding out and in what has been refered to as the pop de résistance, in which Santa's lead reindeer nearly fly right up your nose.

This is Sabuda's third Christmas themed pop-up, following The 12 Days of Christmas and The Christmas Alphabet all of which are well made, detailed and classical in their design.

Christmas Jars
By Jason F. Wright

On Christmas Eve, twenty-something Hope Jensen is quietly grieving the recent loss of her adoptive mother when her apartment is robbed. The one bright spot in the midst of Hope's despair is a small jar full of money someone has anonymously left on her doorstep. Eager to learn the source of this unexpected generosity, Hope uses her newswoman instincts to find other recipients of "Christmas jars," digging until her search leads her to the family who first began the tradition of saving a year's worth of spare change to give to someone in need at the holiday.

Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins
By Eric Kimmel

It is Hanukkah again and and the poor villagers find that the holiday-hating, hill-dwelling hobgoblins are, as usual, bound and determined to ruin yet another year's celebration. Each and every year these terrible goblins blow out the menorah candles, break all of the dreidels, toss the delicious patato latkes onto the floor and work very hard to ruin anything else Hannukka related they can get their hands on. Of course all of this was before the ingenious Hershel of Ostropol arrived on the scene. This story, wonderfully illustrated is a retelling of an ancient Hanukkah story in which the Syrians forbade the Jews to worship as they wanted. There is of course a delightful twist and humor abound even when things look their worst that make this Caldecott Honor Book so very good.

Green Christmas: How to Have a Joyous, Eco-Friendly Holiday Season
By Jennifer Basye Sander, Peter Sander and Anne Basye

We included this book about having a evironmentally responsible book to offer a little variety to the list and so that can fell hip and the good news is that all you have to do is drop a few of these trips at your holiday gathering so that you can be hip too! The book instructs readers how to choose between a real tree and an artificial one; find alternatives to holiday cards; avoid the holiday catalog crunch; find or make gifts that are green or teach green; have warm, cozy green fires and create eco-responsible lighting displays all while helping the Earth and reducing your carbon footprint.

Holidays On Ice:
Featuring Six New Stories
By David Sedaris

This collection of holiday stories has always been a friend of mine. This new collection includes all six of the original Sedaris classics including "Dinah the Christmas Whore" and "The Santaland Diaries". The most exciting thing about this new release, however, is that Sedaris has included six new stories many of which will be familiar to longtime fans but are still a wonderful addition to what was already a holiday classic. A brand new, previously unpublished, story has been included as well. Sedaris writes about the kind of Christmas revelries that most of us can easily relate to. Hillarious enough to warrant my buying the book -- again.

Celebrate Kwanzaa
By Carolyn B. Otto

This new release celebrates the candles, community and ancestry that are all an important aspect of Kwanzaa celebrated from December 26th to January 1st. Swahili words are used in connection with the observance. "The name Kwanzaa means ‘first fruits' of the harvest." A kinara (kee-NAH-rah) is the candleholder of seven candles. Each day one candle is lit and one of the seven principles such as unity, self-determination, or cooperation, is talked about. The past is remembered and the future celebrated. The colors connected to the holiday are red, green, and black. Gifts are given especially on the last day and a feast is held. Directions show how to make an African rain stick and important foods and recipes are shared.

The Curious World of Christmas:
Celebrating All That is Weird, Wonderful and Festive
By Niall Edworthy

This was a book that I picked up the other day while browsing the tables at my local book store. It is very funny. Drawing from more than two thousand years of history and culture, this collection of anecdotes, customs, tips, and recipes features more than 1,000 entries honoring one of the world’s most celebrated holidays. This unpredictable, addictive gem weaves in famous quotations, traditional sayings, verses, and wisdom to create a book that will be enjoyed long after the Christmas tree is down and the turkey leftovers finished off. Each page yields tidbits on everything from the real reason why December 25th was chosen as the celebratory day and a 19th-century turkey recipe to the origins of kissing under mistletoe and statistics showing why Christmas is proven to be more stressful than divorce or burglary.

Olive, the Other Reindeer
By J. Otto Siebold and Vivian Walsh

This is the new tenth anniversary edition of a book that has sold more than a million copies making it a Christmas classic about a real underdog.

Olive is merrily preparing for Christmas when suddenly she realizes "Olive... the other Reindeer... I thought I was a dog. Hmmm, I must be a Reindeer!" So she quickly hops aboard the polar express and heads to the North Pole. And while Santa and the other reindeer are a bit surprised that a dog wants to join the their team, in the end Olive and her unusual reindeer skills are just what Santa and his veteran reindeer team need.

Light the Lights!
By Margaret Moorman

This is a great book for families that find themselves with both Christmas and Hanukkah traditions and backgrounds and makes a great gift for children who will be celebrating both. In one of a very few such picture books to feature both celebrations, the author focuses on a household's joyous celebrations of Hanukkah and Christmas, two festivals that frequently occur close together on the wintertime calendar. The book focuses on themes that both celebrations have: candles in a menorah glow brightly in Emma's house during the eight days of the Jewish holiday; later, lights shimmer beautifully from her family's Christmas tree. The family's celebrations are purely secular, and Emma's response to everything--be it getting presents or playing dreidel--is sheer delight.

The Stupidest Angel:
A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror 2.0

By Christopher Moore

I am a huge fan of Christopher Moore (which can be attested to in an interview I conducted with him a few years ago). The Stupidest Angel in its second edition includes a brand new chapter. From the synopsis of the book which is a good deal funnier than I could ever be:

'Twas the night (okay, more like the week) before Christmas, and all through the tiny community of Pine Cove, California, people are busy buying, wrapping, packing, and generally getting into the holiday spirit.

But not everybody is feeling the joy. Little Joshua Barker is in desperate need of a holiday miracle. No, he's not on his deathbed; no, his dog hasn't run away from home. But Josh is sure that he saw Santa take a shovel to the head, and now the seven-year-old has only one prayer: Please, Santa, come back from the dead.

But hold on! There's an angel waiting in the wings. (Wings, get it?) It's none other than the Archangel Raziel come to Earth seeking a small child with a wish that needs granting. Unfortunately, our angel's not sporting the brightest halo in the bunch, and before you can say "Kris Kringle," he's botched his sacred mission and sent the residents of Pine Cove headlong into Christmas chaos, culminating in the most hilarious and horrifying holiday party the town has ever seen.

The Christmas Train
By David Baldacci

Here's something for adult readers who like a nice Christmas mystery. Disillusioned journalist Tom Langdon must get from Washington to L.A. in time for Christmas. Forced to take the train across the country because of a slight "misunderstanding" at airport security, he begins a journey of self-discovery and rude awakenings, mysterious goings-on and thrilling adventures, screwball escapades and holiday magic. Equal parts hilarious, poignant, suspenseful, and thrilling, David Baldacci's The Christmas Train is filled with memorable characters who have packed their bags with as much wisdom as mischiefand shows how we do get second chances to fulfill our deepest hopes and dreams, especially during this season of miracles.

Are there books with a holiday theme that have a special meaning to you or that you think ought to be included above? Hit reply and share your favorite holiday books. We'll edit this list and them to the list!

Here are some reader responses so far:

Loaded Question Reader Marg Suggests:

A Redbird Christmas by Fannie Flagg

Marg writes: "I read A Redbird Christmas by Fanny Flagg and just loved it!"

The book takes place in the quiet little town of Lost River, Alabama. After a startling diagnosis from his doctor, Oswald T. Campbell leaves behind the cold and damp of the oncoming Chicago winter to spend what he believes will be his last Christmas in the warm and welcoming town of Lost River. There he meets the postman who delivers mail by boat, the store owner who nurses a broken heart, the ladies of the Mystic Order of the Royal Polka Dots Secret Society, who do clandestine good works. And he meets a little redbird named Jack, who is at the center of this tale of a magical Christmas when something so amazing happened that those who witnessed it have never forgotten.

Loaded Questions reader Meg suggests two classics:

How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss

We're all quite familiar with the story of the Grinch, his dog Max, and the inhabitants of Who-ville. The Grinch, whose heart is two sizes too small, hates Who-ville's holiday celebrations, and plans to steal all the presents to prevent Christmas from coming. To his amazement, Christmas comes anyway, and the Grinch discovers the true meaning of the holiday. This book, over fifty years old, is still an important holiday story.

A Christmas Carol
By Charles Dickens

One of the best-loved and most quoted stories of "the man who invented Christmas"-English writer Charles Dickens-A Christmas Carol debuted in 1843 and has touched millions of hearts since. A Christmas Carol has been the source of countless movie adaptations and a play performed around the holidays every year.

Cruel miser Ebeneezer Scrooge has never met a shilling he doesn't like. . .and hardly a man he does. And he hates Christmas most of all. When Scrooge is visited by his old partner, Jacob Marley, and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come, he learns eternal lessons of charity, kindness, and goodwill.

Submit your favorite holiday book!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Kate Furnivall: Loaded Questions with the Author of The Russian Concubine and The Red Scarf

We first interviewed Kate Furnivall last year and since then not only has her first novel The Russian Concubine become a bestselling hit, her interview here at Loaded Questions has become one of the most read of all the interview's we've conducted. Furnivall's first novel, The Russian Concubine, is an enthralling tale that is both entertaining and educational. Fans of her first book will find a great deal of joy in her second novel, The Red Scarf. Furnivall returns to Russia to explore the lives of two very different women who find themselves united in their unfortunate situation, prisoners in labor camp in Siberia . . .

Read my first interview with Kate Furnivall in September of 2007, here.

Kelly Hewitt: The two main characters in The Red Scarf first meet in 1933 while being held at the Davinsky Labor Camp in Siberia. I have been looking around the net for any information about this particular labor camp but have not been able to find anything. Is there a real life Davinsky Labor Camp in Siberia?

Secondly, what kind of resources did you study in order to prepare yourself to write about such a harsh, stark environment?

Kate Furnivall: Davinsky Labor Camp in Siberia is a fictitious name but the camp itself is typical of many of these brutal places where prisoners worked in terrible conditions during the Stalinist years. To learn about these camps I read numerous accounts recorded by those who survived, the most famous of which was Alexander Solzhenitsyn's heartbreaking Gulag Archipelago. This provided a real insight into the way the prisoners were treated and the effect it had on them, both physically and mentally. The main difference is that most of these accounts were written by men, but my Davinsky Camp was a women's prison. So I created more of an emotional support network among the women prisoners because I believe it is important to women to function more on that level. Sofia and Anna's friendship is what keeps them alive.

Kelly: Sophia and Anna, the central characters of this book may have both landed in the same labor camp but it is clear that you have written two characters that come from distinctly different backgrounds. One is the daughter of a Russian Orthodox preist who witnesses her father's death by whipping brought upon by his beliefs. The other is the daughter of a doctor and part of a family that was prosperous and amoung the elite of Leningrad before the Revolution began. The reader finds out through the course of the novel that these two young women are also very similar. While reading The Red Scarf I couldn't help but wonder whether or not you think that, beyond being opposites, Sophia and Anna serve as archetypes, each represent the fate of a great many young Russian women during the Russian Revolution. What do you think?

Kate: Though Sofia and Anna are two young women with very different characters, they are similar in the way they both possess a core of inner strength which enables them to survive. Anna comes from a petted and pampered background and many of these elite young women died because they were unable to cope with the terrible conditions they faced after the Revolution. One of the reasons Anna survived was because of Vasily - not only did her love for him give her strength but also he had prepared her mentally. He had turned her into a fighter. Sofia, on the other hand, was raised in a village and was accustomed to a harsher life. Seeing her father whipped to death put steel in her soul and she was determined not to see another person she loved die before her eyes. So she set out to save Anna.

I agree with you that they are archetypes in that they represent in their different ways the new soviet woman, one who must rely on herself to get things done. The beginning of the Communist regime was ironically the beginning of female equality.

Kelly: I happened upon your blog the other day (click here to visit) and read an interesting post in which you discuss doing research and finding gems like "discovering about the Krokodil, the Russian Communist propaganda aircraft in the 1930s that was painted to look like a crocodile." You went on to tell your readers that you, of course, worked the Krokodil into your work because you couldn't pass up on the image, which is a great one by the way. It made me wonder what kind of resources (movies, books, etc) you frequently turn to while researching Russia during the 1920's and 30s. A lot of your readers appear to be just as enthralled in this time period as you are, where would you send them to do research if they wanted to know more?

Kate: Fortunately in recent years far greater access has been permitted to information within Russia about the Stalinist regime, and many books have been published which proved extremely helpful to me. I strongly recommend everyone to read Alexander Solzhenitsyn's whole body of work which is very revealing, not only about the facts of the time but of the mindset of its people. Sheila Fitzpatrick also wrote two detailed and invaluable works, Stalin's Peasants and Everyday Stalinism, in which she includes many first-hand personal stories.

It is only by reading accounts like these that we can understand the Russia of today. I also immersed myself in Russian literature by writers such as Dostoevsky and Pushkin, and loved to get my hands on as many old photographs of the period as possible because a picture can tell more than a thousand words. But traveling to rural Russia and seeing the villages which have barely changed since the 1930s also gave me a real sense of what it was like for Sofia in Tivil.

Kelly: It is fascinating that you have only recently become aware of your largely Russian heritage and even more amazing that you have written The Russian Concubine and The Red Scarf as a way of connecting with such a big part of your family's past. How is it that you just recently found out about your Russian roots? What would you consider to be the ultimate experience of your heritage.

Kate: It was about ten years ago that I discovered that my grandmother was a White Russian who fled from the Bolsheviks in 1917 during the Russian Revolution. I knew that my mother had lived in China for many years as a child where she had an English step-father, but she had never revealed that her mother was Russian.

It came about like this. I was going through her boxes of old sepia photographs, writing the names of the people on the back, and when I wrote "Valentina and Lily" on one (Lily was my mother's name), my mother commented, 'I was called Lydia then'. Astonished, I asked for more and out it all came like unplugging a dam. All the secrets kept for so many years. How they had fled across thousands of miles of Siberia, surviving by eating tree bark and worms, travelling by night until they came down into China where they were penniless refugees. The shame of it had kept her silent for so many years.

It was an amazing thing to discover and made me re-think myself and who I am. As I delved into research to discover more, I have been powerfully affected by the inner resilience of my ancestors in the face of brutal hardship and I hope that a small part of it still remains within me. In The Red Scarf I try to convey something of this inner strength in the characters of Sofia and Anna. To walk through the streets of St Petersburg, as I did last year, gazing down at the Moika Canal or up at St Basil's Cathedral, the knowledge that my grandparents did the same so long ago touched me deeply and forged a connection that I cherish.

Kelly: Your readers certainly aren't complaining but do you ever foresee writing a novel about a different region of the world or a different time period?

Kate: Yes, most definitely. I already have something totally different planned out in my head. But first there will be at least one more book set in Russia.

Kelly: I know that your mother played such a large role in inspiring your first novel The Russian Concubine. Are there traces of her life and experiences in The Red Scarf?

Kate: There are no specific references to my mother's life in The Red Scarf, except the hardship of the journey that Sofia undertakes which echoes the hardship of my mother's escape from Russia. But it was very much my mother's interest throughout her life in different philosophies and religions that influenced my decision to use the clash of belief systems - between Communism, Russian Orthodoxy and superstition - as a background against which the story is set.

Kelly: The Red Scarf has been getting stellar reviews, especially from regular readers who were big fans of The Russian Concubine. That's two books in a row that have been met with much deserved acclaim. Do wake up in the morning sometimes and pinch yourself?

Kate: Do I pinch myself? Absolutely yes! Every morning when I pick up my pen. The Russian Concubine and The Red Scarf have become bestsellers in the US and the UK, and also in many other countries. They have so far been translated into 16 languages. Yes, their success has taken me by surprise, but to know that my stories are being read and discussed and argued over by so many people is what every writer dreams of. I regard it as a privilege. To prompt further thought about the situations and issues I describe in my books is important to me, to encourage readers to probe further. I like to think my characters help people to open doors they haven't been through before.

Kelly: I noticed that your new book has two different titles, The Red Scarf in the United States and Under a Blood Red Sky in the UK. Was there strategic decision made in having two different names?

Kate: Titles can be difficult. The decision to use two titles was taken by my publishers. My UK publisher, Little Brown, and my US publisher, Berkley, could not agree on one title, so it was decided to use two quite different ones. I admit this can be confusing. Readers sometimes think they are two separate books, but I do my best on my website to point out that they are the same. Nevertheless I still have horrible visions of readers buying them both on the internet without reading the story descriptions, and ending up with the same book between different covers.

Kelly: The last time we spoke you made a great many of your fans (myself included) very happy by sharing with us the fact that there would be a sequel to The Russian Concubine. I am sure that this is the last thing you want to be asked right after the release of a new book but how is that sequel coming along?

Kate: I am happy to announce that I have just completed the sequel to The Russian Concubine and that it will be published in June 2009. But with conflicting titles again! In the US it will be called The Girl From Junchow and in the UK it will be called The Concubine's Secret. It has been exciting getting involved with Lydia once more and discovering where she would take me this time. To all The Russian Concubine fans out there I want to say, "The emotional journey continues. And yes, Chang An Lo does ..." No, no, my lips are sealed.

Read my first interview with Kate Furnivall in September of 2007, here.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Wally Lamb: Loaded Questions with the bestselling author of "The Hour I First Believed" Part Two

The more I read over the transcript of the interview I conducted with Wally Lamb a week or so ago the more I realize what an interesting and geuinely pleasant individual he was. Having read both of his first two books, I Know This Much Is True and She's Come Undone, as a young adult not long after I realized the joys of reading books that weren't assigned, I would say I have an attachment to the style of Wally Lamb's writings. It was partly because Lamb's novels played such an important role in my foundation literary likes and dislikes that I was very nervous to talk with him and particularly hopeful that he was amiable and interesting. I think it becomes very clear in the second part of this interview that we had a good deal of fun talking. I know from reading countless Lamb interviews that some of the information he has shared in the second half of the the interview below is new and exclusive. He shares some very interesting coincidences where his characters are concerned, the very organic nature of his book's plots and finally the interesting way he begins looking for new material.

Read Part One of our Interview with Wally Lamb, here.


Kelly: I also read in one of your previous interviews that often head over to the fiction floor of your library to write.

Wally Lamb: Yeah! I live at the back door of the University of Connecticut, in fact I taught there for awhile, but it's about a ten minute drive to get over there and a lot of She's Come Undone was written in long hand on the fourth floor of that library. Because of the way that I write, I have to sit down and discover what the story is, I am not one of these writers who can outline the whole thing and write toward a preconceived ending, I have to sit down and sort of find out what is going to happen. Very often, because that is my way of doing it, I get stuck and hit the wall. So if I am working in the library I can get up from the study carol where I am sitting and just sort of wander around and read the spines of the books, the titles and stuff, and lots of times I make discoveries that I would not have made had I not done that. Wandering in a library is definitely part of my technique.

Kelly: Right. One of the biggest discoveries that I have read about you making in the library was the one related to the Birdsey twins (from I Know This Much Is True).

Wally: Yeah that's right because I had an ancient myth and the troubled brother of the main character and I happened upon this book and it was by Claude Levi Strauss who was one of those guys who investigates myths. I opened the book and this xerox fell out of it, it was obvious that a student had been doing a paper or something and had xeroxed this article. I picked up the article and it said "Harelips and Twins" and suddenly it came to me. Oh my god, these guys are twins, they're identical twins and when I made that discovery that's when I could understand that character Dominic Birdsey and his anger and the fact that underneath his anger was this fear.

I had a similar thing with this novel, The Hour I First Believed. I was wandering again and I came upon a book called The Logic of the Labyrinth and I opened it up and I was reading about labyrinths, mythology and labyrinths in English gardens and all that kind of stuff. And then I read this thing about the irony of the maze and you're stuck in the middle of it and it is illogical, nonsensical and confusing but if you rise above it you can see that there is an order and there is a way out. So that became the metaphor of the book and I divided the novel into two parts. One is Butterfly is kind of an investigation of how chaos can screw up our lives and send us reeling in different directions that we hadn't planned on. Then part two, Mantis, is kind of like looking from above, down at the labyrinth and seeing that there is some sort of ordering principle to it all, there is a meaning to life whether it's spiritual or otherwise. So chaos and order, all part of this dichotomy.

Kelly: I think that's great. You've probably just inspired an entire generation of aspiring authors to go wandering around their local libraries.

Wally Lamb: [laughs] I just hope that when I gab on like this I'm not sounding like my own Spark Notes.

Kelly: [laughs] The other part of that question was whether or not you ever get recognized at the library.

Wally: Oh yeah, plenty of times. I tell you, I work in writer's groups and there's this one group -- people ask me "Where did you come up with that name Caelum?" and the character in the first draft that I wrote was name Milo Quirk and one day I was meeting with my writing group in a sandwich shop across from the university and this undergraduate comes up and says, "Excuse me for interrupting. Are you Wally Lamb?" I said "Yeah". And then he said "Oh, you named one of your characters after my sister." It turned out to be true, my wife is an elementary school teacher and she once had a student she liked and her name was Zahra and I liked that name so I named a Cocker Spaniel in She's Come Undone after her, Zahra. So this kid comes up to me and I am afraid he's going to be made because I named a Cocker Spaniel after his sister but he didn't. He smiled and said "Do you think you could name a character after me?" and I said "Well, I don't know, what's you name?" He told me his name was Caelum and he spelled it out for me and I said "Well, no promises." Then I went home and I was thinking it over -- Milo or Caelum and finally Caelum won out. So, not only did I name a character after him, I named the main character after him.

Kelly: That is amazing! You're going to have to call that family the next time you write a book to see if there are anymore siblings. [laughs]

Wally Lamb: Right. [laughs] Gotta keep it all equal.

Kelly: I thought it was really interesting that you placed the main character from The Hour I First Believed, the aforementioned Caelum Quirk, in the same class as Dominic and Thomas Birdsey. Can fans of I Know This Much Is True expect to see the paths of Caelum Quirk and the Birdsey twins cross?

Wally Lamb: Yeah. I'll tell you why I did that. First of all, I have created this town, they both have this fictional town as a setting, I call it Three Rivers, Connecticut, but it is sort of based on my home town and a couple of towns that I have lived in: Norwich, CT; New London, CT and Willamantic, CT where I have an office. It is a hybrid of three Connecticut working class towns. So I sort of figured that logically they are all living in a small town and it is credible that they might run into each other from time to time. So that's one of the reasons why I did that. The other reason is that I am really grateful to the people who have loved my work, people really seem to be invested in the characters, not only Thomas and Dominic but Delores from She's Come Undone, the first novel. So that's sort of my way of waving a hello and thanks to these people that have loved those characters. I am sort of giving the allusion that, okay, they are still out there, they are still struggling but doing okay.

Kelly: Would you ever return to any of the characters from your previous novels?

Wally Lamb: I did once, when I finish a novel it's not mine anymore. I let it go and it belongs to the readers, not me. But, I did go back to the characters from She's Come Undone when I was writing the screenplay for that novel. When you write screenplays there's a lot that you have cut out, you have to take a several hundred page novel and turn it into a one hundred and fifteen page script. A lot ends up on the cutting room floor. One of the things that was fun for me was that as I cut out I created new scenes for those characters. So, that's the only time I have ever gone back. I don't know what's around the corner for me. I do really like this fictional town so there may be minor characters that I can begin to make major characters -- I'm not sure.

Kelly: Interesting. Do you know that status of the She's Come Undone movie, has it been optioned or whatever those words are for a movie that's in the beginning process?

Wally Lamb: Both She's Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True both started out as
options and then both were bought by movie studios. She's Come Undone is with Warner Brothers and I Know This Much Is True is with 20th Century Fox. It is a long, long process development stuff. The projects heat up and then cool down, major stars have been attached to them and then they detach. For She's Come Undone Reese Witherspoon was going to produce and star in it. Will Smith was very interested for awhile in playing the twins in I Know This Much Is True. But what happens, because Hollywood is more about money than art, when some of these major stars express interest everyone holds their breath but the problem is that they are being offered not just your project but another five hundred projects. So, both projects stalled when they were interested so they decided to go elsewhere. They are still viable projects but a lot of years have gone by and I don't know if they will ever be made. One of the things you learn to do is write your name on the back of the check and realize that it's beyond your control.

Kelly: And never look back. [laughs]

Wally: [laughs]

Kelly: I know that this last novel too you quite awhile.

Wally: It did. [laughs]

Kelly: You were a few years past your deadline.

Wally: Yeah, like double past. I am always nervous when I have to talk to journalists who have to make their deadline because fiction writers, you know, as long as your publisher is willing to hang in there with you you can take the time you need to develop. The unfortunate thing is that it does take me a long time to come up with these stories but ultimately I needed that much time and I needed -- I was reacting to a lot of things that were happening in our country and in our world and that sort of got woven into the story. It took what it took. But thankfully Harper Collins was patient.

Kelly: I read a quote from you that you said you could have signed a three or four book deal but you weren't interested in mortgaging the rest of your life.

Wally: Right. I want to take it one at a time because I don't know how many stories I have in me. Each one has been more difficult to write than the one before it and I don't want to promise that I am going to create four more books and then decide that I only want to write two more. I am taking it slowly.

Kelly: We'll be interviewing the author of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle later this week . . .

Wally: Oh yeah! Have you read that book?

Kelly: Well, I -- this is such a sad story. The publisher was nice enough to send a copy of the book to me and I went on vacation to Hawaii. I was so excited that I had it and so I packed along with me and I left it in my hotel room. So . . .

Wally: You sound like me.

Kelly: I know, I wasn't joking earlier about losing things while traveling. I am just going to have to swallow my pride and go and buy a copy just like everyone else. [laughs] But, I am wondering, looking back what sort of advice you would give to a fairly new novelist who has been selected for such an honor.

Wally: Are you talking about the Oprah Book Club?

Kelly: Yeah.

Wally: Well, I would say it's a real exciting, thrilling roller coaster ride. Enjoy the dips and the turns around corners and then when the ride is over get off the roller coaster and start again, humbly. You know, there's nothing more humbling than the blank page. I think it is crucial that you write the story for yourself and don't worry about whatever the audience is going to be that eventually reads it.

Kelly: That's good advice. I know this is probably the last question you want to answer while celebrating the release of your new book but are you already working on something else?

Wally: I am still officially in recovery.

Kelly: I bet.

Wally: But, I do have a notebook that I carry around with me wherever I go. I've got my radar up, picture a satellite disk on top of my head and it is magnetized towards certain subjects. I have list of things that I want to start investigating. Everything from Lou Gehrig's to P.T. Barnum, Great Blue herons. I have a couple of myths that I am reading and considering for that sort of backdrop or scaffolding. So, that's where I am now, sort of generating material and seeing what is going to begin to vibrate for me.

Kelly: That's kind of exciting. It is exciting as a reader to think that things come together so organically, that you haven't sat down with a formula -- that things are fluid to change, right?

Wally: Definitely, yeah. A lot of people ask me what author I read but probably a better question is what musicians am I listening to and also who are the painters that I like, who are the artists and so forth. One of my favorite artists is René MaGritte who sort of puts these two -- he's kind of a surrealist and he puts two things together that don't necessarily make sense but create some kind of weird and interesting energy. So, that's what I do too. I'll take something like Lou Gehrig's and the Great Blue heron and and I'll put them next to each other and see if there's an electric charge that goes back and forth between them and that's sometimes how stories begin for me.

Kelly: That is really interesting. Well, I thank you very much participating.

Wally: You're welcome!

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