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BLOG-O-RAMA (not to be confused with Illinois's disgraced governor)


Q and A with Anne Raeff about her new story collection THE JUNGLE AROUND US

1. The stories in The Jungle Around Us take place mostly in the U.S. and in South and Central America.  I know you've traveled extensively and have also lived abroad.  Would you say that one of the themes you're most interested in is how being a foreigner - either as an exile or as a tourist - exerts pressure on character, and as a result, often creates internal and external conflicts? 

Living and traveling abroad has certainly been a major part of my development both intellectual and emotional, and, thus, has very much influenced my writing. In fact, I began to write seriously when I was living in Madrid in the early 1980s. Though I had traveled with my parents in Europe and even to the Soviet Union, this was my first big adventure on my own. I arrived in Spain with just a couple hundred dollars and a few dozen Spanish words. When I moved to Spain, I preferred reading about people to being with them, but Madrid pulled me into life, and it was there that I learned not only to appreciate stories but to be part of them.

 Traveling and living abroad are also an essential part of my life and relationship with my wife Lori Ostlund. Together we have lived in Spain and Malaysia and traveled extensively. Just this summer, for example, we spent a month in Eastern Europe, focusing on Ukraine, where my maternal grandmother was born and lived until she moved to Vienna (where my mother was born) when she was fourteen.

I agree that there are stories in the collection that deal with how a foreign place exerts pressure on a character and, in some way, forces the character to confront something in himself. This has been my experience as a foreigner as well. Traveling and living abroad have exerted pressure on me as a character and as a writer. Yet, in my writing I am equally interested in the conflicts that cause my characters to leave, and, in many cases, flee where they are from and how those places and those conflicts carry over into their lives in exile. My parents were refugees from the war in Europe.  Their youths were consumed by the upheavals of war and revolution, and, though I grew up in the New Jersey suburbs, the echo of war was always there just beneath the surface, beneath the sound of lawnmowers on Saturday mornings, beneath the call of crickets on hot summer nights. This is what so much of my writing is about—the influence of the place that was left behind.

2.  I love that some of the stories feature the same main characters, the sisters Juliet and Simone Buchovsky, in particular - what kept you returning to them as point-of-view characters?


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Q and A with Gioia Diliberto about her most recent book, Diane von Furstenberg: A Life Unwrapped

1. Tell us a little about your book.

Diane von Furstenberg: A Life Unwrapped is a biography of one of the most influential and controversial legends of American fashion, an iconic designer whose creations captured the modern feminist spirit and whose private life kept the gossip press busy for decades. I’ve taken a “life and times” approach in the book, so that it’s more than the story of one woman’s life. It’s the portrait of an era – the very particular and vanished Manhattan of the 1970s. At least, that’s what I tried to do.

2. Diane von Furstenberg has been considered a fashion icon since the early ‘70s, but I don’t think as many people are aware that she's also a feminist figure.  Was it both of these characteristics that first interested you in writing this book?

Diane’s feminism definitely played into my decision to write about her. I’m always looking for subjects who either in their personalities or accomplishments or circumstances embody the spirit of their time. Diane, to me, symbolizes second wave feminism. She showed how a woman could have a man’s life of power and money and success and still be a woman. She could also smoke a lot of pot and sleep around and still make it to the top!

3. What were the biggest pleasures of researching and writing A Life Unwrapped?

Meeting people I never would have met otherwise (like Fran Lebowitz), and traveling to places (like Bruges, Belgium) I never would have visited otherwise.


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Q and A with Zoe Zolbrod about her new memoir THE TELLING

1. Tell us a little about your new book.

It’s a memoir that’s structured around the times I told about my childhood sexual assault.  When I was four, a teenaged cousin came to live with our family, and he molested me for the year he was there. It wasn’t until I approached puberty that I understood the nature of what had occurred. I told a friend then, and I told a handful of other people as I grew into adulthood, interpreting the events differently according to what was going on in my life and in the culture at the time. But it wasn’t until I had my first baby and learned that my cousin was now in jail awaiting trial for abusing another little girl the same age I had been that I had a visceral reaction of horror that led to me reexamining my experience and the topic of sexual abuse and pedophilia in general.

That said, the book is about more than child sexual abuse, and I’ve been so grateful that readers and reviewers are picking up on that. It’s also very much a coming of age story—sometimes a joyful one—and a parenting story. It weaves together sections from my childhood, from my adolescence and early adulthood, and from my contemporary perspective as a writer and parent. It’s a story about forming an identity and finding a voice.

2. You weave a lot of compelling cultural commentary into your memoir.  It’s an expansive and engaging book, not solely a record and synthesis of a difficult time in your past.  Describe how The Telling became a memoir that addresses many different aspects of America and its attitudes toward parenting, adolescence, female sexuality, and sexual abuse.

One way I tried to make sense of my experience was by researching child sexual abuse. I learned so much! For example, I learned that I basically came of age with the awareness of the issue in the US. When I was born in the late 1960s, there was hardly any information about identifying or preventing child sexual abuse. In 1974, the year after my abuse ended, Congress passed the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, which funded research and prevention initiatives. In 1979, the National Abuse Coalition was created in order to pressure Congress to create more laws specifically around the area of sexual abuse.  And then in the 1980s, when I became a teenager and started learning enough about sex and taboos to realize what had happened to me, public awareness of child sexual abuse exploded to the point of mass hysteria.  It was in the news all the time, along with talk of victims’ rights and victims’ voices. I wasn’t consciously aware of most of this, but looking back, I can see the way it affected my interpretation of what happened to me.

What I was more consciously aware of, because early on I identified as a feminist, were issues around gender and sexuality. And—probably again because I’ve identified as a feminist for so long—I do believe that not only is the personal political, but that the political is personal. I’ve always had an instinct to connect individual stories to larger systems, which has informed this book.

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Q and A with Alison Umminger about her new novel AMERICAN GIRLS

1. An overview of American Girls (American title)/My Favourite Manson Girl (UK title):    Anna has had a miserable year. Everything feels wrong with her life. And rather than stay and face the mess, she steals a credit card and books herself a seat on the first flight out of town to Los Angeles, to crash with her sister. But soon after she lands, cold reality soon dawns on her: Hollywood isn't the escape she needs. She is trapped in a town full of lost souls and wannabes, with no friends, no cash and no return ticket.

    When she's offered a job researching the murderous Manson girls for a dubious film, she reluctantly accepts - she needs the money. But soon enough, among the fake smiles and glitter-fueled parties, things turn from strange, to dark, to dangerous . . .

    This is not going to be the summer Anna had in mind.

    American Girls/My Favourite Manson Girl is a chilling story about being young, lost and female. This is a story about how girls disappear.

2. Anna is a very smart and irreverent 15-year-old girl - where did she come from?

    That’s such a hard question to answer!  You always risk sounding crazy or mystical if you say the voice “comes to you”—but Anna was one of those characters.  Once she emerged, she sort of came fully formed and I felt in many parts like she was telling me her story -- like I’d caught some kind of creative wave and all I had to do was ride it.  For the record, this is not something that happens to me, as a writer, on a regular basis.  Usually I have to spend a good amount of time to get a character’s voice down.

3. I think this novel will appeal to adult readers as much as YA ones, but did you write it specifically with YA readers in mind?

    While I did have YA readers in mind, I’m one of those people who thinks more about whether a book is good or not, as opposed to where it will be shelved.  I happen to love writing teens--maybe I have a bit of the perpetual adolescent about me :)  And I love many of the same books now that I did when I was fourteen, so I figure there are probably lots of other people who feel the same.

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Q and A with Grace Tiffany about her new novel, GUNPOWDER PERCY

1. Tell us a little about your new novel.

Gunpowder Percy is a tale of early-modern intrigue, religious obsession, and Machiavellian statecraft intertwined. Shakespeare’s plays are central to the action. Performed in a seedy part of London – as they were – the plays become a focal point for an unhappy Catholic gentleman named Thomas Percy, who comes to believe Shakespeare is speaking to him through his plays, and finally, insanely, that he is the reincarnation of the dead warrior Hotspur from Henry IV, part 1. Hotspur’s called “gunpowder Percy” during the course of one of the plays, and this becomes – in this fiction – the seed of the treason that became the famous Gunpowder Plot, wherein a group of Catholic gentry attempted to blow up the House of Lords with the Protestant king in attendance.

2. You include so many impressive details about the Jacobean age in which this novel is set; I know that many are authentic (and some, interestingly, are fabricated).  What research did you do before writing Gunpowder Percy?

I read quite a bit of primary and secondary material related to the Gunpowder Plot, though I stayed away from other fictions based on it. I also immersed myself in the plays that were being performed at the time, since my premise is that the history plays – which were very popular among disaffected gentry – contributed to the zealotry of the plotters. And the plays also contain a wealth of cultural detail.

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