April's 2017's Author Spotlight is proud to welcome
Stephanie Gangi author of The Next.
Q: I have to start with this question: Do you believe in ghosts? If so, do you believe that they are capable of the things Joanna could do?
A: I don’t believe in the kinds of ghosts you see in the movies, no. I don’t think there are unresolved souls who can’t leave this plane of existence, and swoop around, misty and mischievous – or, in the case of Joanna, become violent.
But the past can haunt us, especially as we get older, and we realize that our time on earth is finite. Decisions, regrets – it all looms in the middle of the night. Who should I have been? How could I have done better? Why couldn’t I hold on to that love?
I also like the ghost metaphor for a woman of a certain age, made less visible, less sexual, less present in the world by society, because she’s getting older, or is sick, or is single. I think I may have been raging against that.
Q: Joanna is singularly focused on paying retribution to her ex Ned? Did her impending death fuel much of her desire to get revenge? Do you think she would have been so angry and unable to move on if she weren’t sick and dying?
A: When Joanna and Ned met, Jo had already been sick, and already been knocked around by life a bit. She’d lost her parents, and then her house, and then her breasts and her hair and her health to cancer. When Ned came around, everything felt renewed, including her body and importantly, her desirability. She thinks she’s cured. When she gets sick again and then left by Ned in such a heartless way, it undoes Jo. It robs her of the honor of a meaningful death. A good death. Getting dumped at that point turns Jo into a kind of a monster. Getting dumped unleashes pure rage.
Q: Joanna’s daughters were both struggling with their mother’s illness and subsequent death, each in their own way. Joanna appeared to have put her daughters aside in order to complete her mission. Did Joanna feel that she could make it up to her children later, after she was done with Ned?
A: I think it’s important to remember that when Jo is on her mission to destroy Ned, she’s not “human,” she’s in an altered state, a state of pure rage. She is initially impervious to her daughters’ struggles and grief. She is only her self-absorbed, needy, angry, and vengeful, ghost self. There is no “later,” there is only Ned. But luckily for Jo – no spoilers! – Her journey delivers resolution.
Q: Joanna appeared very reluctant to leave the earth, illness be damned, until she finished what she needed to do. Do you think that we maintain any control whatsoever over our deaths in terms of getting to finish what we set out to do while we are here?
A: I like the question because in a way, that is a theme of The Next. We may not be able to “finish what we set out to do,” but we can live our lives with conscious intent. So, if death comes suddenly, like a car crash, and there is zero control, we will have honored the moment – lights out – by living all the moments before it mindfully, with kindness towards others, with kindness towards ourselves. Joanna squandered the special “gift” of knowing she was sick and dying. She could have chosen that Beaches ending, with her daughters, with her dog, in the city she loved, and yet, she let Ned’s actions consume her. The ghost state she enters is punishment for dishonoring that. There’s a line in the book that readers love: “Dying is still living.” I think that kind of sums it up.
Q: After Joanna's death, her beloved dog very keenly senses her presence and behaves accordingly. Do you think that Joanna's presence would have likely been denied or explained away if not for her dog opening people's eyes?
A: Tom certainly cued the others to Jo's presence; even then, they didn't really, truly, unequivocally believe. But it didn't matter, ultimately. The daughters and Ned, in their own way accepted that Joanna would always be a presence in their lives. That she would become something different to each of them that offered a kind of peace or longing or ... haunting in the middle of the dark night. A memory.
About the Author: Stephanie Gangi lives and works in New York City. She was born in Brooklyn, raised on Long Island, attended the State University of New York at Buffalo, and raised her own kids in Tribeca, Rockland County and on the Upper West Side. The Next is her debut. She is working on her second novel. You can find her at sgangi.com
April's 2017's Author Spotlight is proud to welcome
Brandi Janssen author of Making Local Food Work.
Q: Do you view the Iowa farming system as a microcosm of the food system for the rest of the country? Do you think that what exists here is completely representative of what goes on across the entire country both in the conventional and organic sects?
It’s similar in that most agricultural states have both a large-scale commodity system alongside a local food system. How the systems interact is less clear. I would expect that in a produce heavy state, like California, the small-scale growers may need to work harder to be visible. If it’s easy to buy California-grown, there is less of an incentive for the consumer to seek out a smaller grower. In Iowa, if you’re a produce grower, you automatically stand out from other producers because they’re growing corn and soybeans. On the other hand, Iowa has less access to a labor force that is familiar with harvesting and handling produce, so that’s an area where a small grower in California might have an advantage. In any state, I would also expect that the systems overlap more than we might initially think.
Q: One of the most interesting points the book makes is that organic and conventional practices can both benefit from what the other provides, that there are lessons to be learned on both sides? So many of us view the two systems as completely separate and totally divisive. Do you believe that there is room for both systems and that we actually need both to sustain ourselves?
I think there will have to be room for both systems, because neither will go away anytime soon. Commodity production, especially of storable grains, will continue to be a key part of our trade systems (though things may change a bit with the current administration, which may test the power of the commodity lobbies). And, I think that the continued expansion of farmland into local food production indicates that it’s an investment that won’t quickly disappear. The question is how will they relate to each other? I’m most interested in watching farmers who really engage in both systems, and I write about some of them in the book. One farmer in our area has recently added black and pinto beans to his family farm’s rotations of corn and soybeans. He can harvest the edible beans with the same combine he uses for soybeans. This strikes me as a good creative solution, and a truly diverse farm that takes advantage of multiple marketing streams while using equipment efficiently.
Q: The wheat grass company portrayed in the book clearly showed the disparity between the company’s employees and their customer base. It was a fascinating look into how we see ourselves in contrast to how others see us. The employees had a system and resented customer volunteers who often were ignorant to the company’s practices. Why do you suppose that we tend to glamorize the consumer and seem to forget all about the people who are actually doing the work?
That’s a great question, this phenomenon is certainly not only limited to food production. Consumers have the economic power, so we advertise and convince them to buy something. In the case of local food, we then give them lots of credit for being conscientious about their choices and suggest that those purchases are a form of social action. And, to be fair, for local food to work, we do need customers who are willing to seek out and buy it, the problem is that we then ignore all the rest of the elements that support the system.
The unique thing about local food is that we do ask consumers to participate sometimes by volunteering on a farm or in the greenhouse. This is where the interactions get interesting, because the volunteer has the luxury of coming and going and we forget that people actually make their living doing farm work. As I show in the book, sometimes the customer-volunteers aren’t very good at the work or they outright offend the employees by unintentionally demeaning it. But, it’s in the farmer’s best interest to make those consumers feel good about the service they provide by volunteering, especially if they want those volunteers to keep purchasing from them. In the end, the consumer still gets more credit than the workers for being a participant.
Q: I loved the way you honored the farmers and their workers as they are more central to our food system rather than the over-glorified consumer who often hasn’t a clue of how their food is actually produced and what it takes to get it to them. How difficult has it been in your experience getting the average person to care about how their food is produced beyond basic consumerism?
I think the “average” consumer looks a lot like the women I worked with in the greenhouse; they have little time or patience to hunt down organic products or time their work-week around the farmers market. And your question brings up an interesting issue—what do we really expect of consumers and what does it mean to care beyond basic consumerism? Perhaps they should volunteer, but there are some issues with that as I note. In my community, some work on school or community gardens, farm to school, or in some of the non-profits I discuss in the book. That group is small and many of the same cast of characters can be found in multiple roles. There is a lot of talk about a “participatory” food system, but it’s hard to operationalize.
Q: One of my most eye-opening experiences while reading was your foray into a farm to school lunch program, something that I even romanticized back when my kids were in grade school. The issues that you spoke of such as food safety and responsibility, portion control, produce uniformity, and food grade shipping containers are admittedly things that never occurred to me. How is the program faring since writing the book? Have other local models been created from yours?
The program is doing very well. The last records I saw showed that the district had purchased over $12,000 in local food for school lunch. That is still only a small fraction of their food purchasing budget, but it is miles from where we started. Part of the success is a result of the non-profit organization investing in paid staff. When I was involved, the budget was so tight it was very difficult to pay anyone, and volunteers only have so much time to give. I think that the initial challenges also taught us a lot about what would work—go for watermelons, not lettuce. Finding the things that fit easily in the existing system were really important, and the initial relationships we developed with growers have continued to be important. When the grower knows that the school district can use their product, they’re more likely to make sure that they have it available and ready to go. There have also been some attempts to get some online systems in place, where farmers can indicate what they have available and food service directors can purchase, or at least begin the contract process, online. This has been a little slower to start, in part because farmers have found the process of listing their inventory online to be too time-consuming.
Q: How do you see the future of the Iowa farming system over the next five to ten years?
I think agriculture will continue to intensify across the board. For commodity production, this means we will continue to look to biotechnology to improve yields. The use of “big data” in agriculture is already pretty staggering—manufacturers are building equipment that can very precisely till, fertilize, and apply pesticides based on the specific needs of each square foot of a piece of crop land. I’m also seeing self-driving tractors and combines at farm shows. While livestock production tends to require more of a labor force, even that is becoming mechanized with automatic feeding systems, drones to check cattle, and robotic milking systems. All of this means that the agriculture-related jobs of the future are likely not going to be involved directly to farming as much as they’re related to developing, selling, and maintaining agricultural technologies.
I think local food will become both more intensive and extensive—meaning that farmers will continue to specialize in production and improve yields on existing grounds (intensify), but also that we will devote more acreage to produce production, extending the current land base. And, if local food continues to expand, that will be where there are increases in farm-related work. Diversified horticulture is always going to be more labor intensive because it won’t be feasible to buy equipment to mechanically manage different crops. I also hope that we see gains in processing and distribution capacity, which could create even more entrepreneurial opportunities and rural jobs.
And, I think that there will continue to be tension as we bump up against environmental limits. Water quality is a major issue in the state, as is soil loss. If we’re going to remain agriculturally productive, at some point we need to do more than we have to mitigate pollution and erosion.
About the Author: Brandi Janssen, PhD is a clinical assistant professor in the department of Occupational and Environmental Health and directs Iowa’s Center for Agricultural Safety and Health (I-CASH) at the University of Iowa. Trained as an anthropologist, her research considers the production and marketing strategies of direct market farmers in Iowa. In addition, she has served as president of Field to Family, a Johnson County non-profit dedicated to developing new markets for local farmers and as the Iowa City Community School District’s Farm to School Coordinator. She lives in Iowa City, IA with her husband and two teen-aged daughters. Find her online at http://www.public-health.uiowa.edu/people/brandi-janssen/ and theprairiefiddle.com
March's 2017's Author Spotlight is proud to welcome
Alexandra Oliva author of The Last One.
Q: Why did it take Zoo so long to figure out what was really going on after she separated from the group? Do you think she was suffering from something similar to PTSD? Do you believe the other contestants would have believed as she did, that it was all part of the show’s production?
A: In writing The Last One I wanted to explore a character at two opposite extremes of her personality: the bubbly, eager person Zoo is at the beginning of the show versus the broken, hardened version of herself we meet in the first-person narrative. The questions at the heart of the novel are: How and why did she go from one extreme of her personality to the other? Also: Why, in the face of so much evidence to the contrary, does she continue to convince herself that she's still on the show? Over the course of the book, I hope readers will come to understand that she has her reasons. I don't believe the others contestants would have reacted the same way Zoo did. That's one of the reasons I chose her for this role. She has a very specific psychology that I was excited to explore.
Q: You did a very comprehensive job representing customary reality show archetypes. What are your overall impressions of these types of shows and did you draw inspiration from any ones in particular?
A: Thank you. I didn't draw cast inspiration from any one show in particular, but I did watch a lot of reality television while writing (and procrastinating writing) the book. I couldn't help but notice how carefully constructed the casts of these show were: majority white, majority male, but with very deliberate nods toward diversity that often seemed to be more about leaning into stereotypes than celebrating differences. The casting of my fictitious show--and the names I gave the contestants--is a deliberate acknowledgment of this. I wanted to explore stereotyping and how some characters embrace how they're being portrayed while others chaff against it and some don't even realize they've been type-cast at all. Beyond casting, part of the spark behind the idea for this book was realizing how absurd some of these shows are with their carefully crafted challenges and their focus on interpersonal drama. That always drove me crazy--for example, I've never been able to get through a whole episode of Survivor. I can't stand the voting/backstabbing dynamic. I prefer shows where the focus is the cast actually having to learn and use skills.
So when I started writing the book, I loved the idea of exploring the contrast between these faux survival situations and a situation in which someone really does have to fight to survive.
Q: Zoo was someone I felt people would naturally root for. Did you feel when you were writing her character that the majority would choose her as a fan favorite?
A: I wanted Zoo to be someone the editor of the show could easily frame as a fan favorite, but I also wanted her to have a darker, sadder, angrier side that fights its way to the front when things get hard. I honestly wasn't sure how much readers would root for Zoo since she's not a traditional heroine, but I wanted to write a character who makes mistakes and who isn't always kind--that felt more real and interesting to me.
Q: Do you believe that those in the reality competition were better or worse off from being shielded from the horrors of this plague? Do you think their being part of the competition in any way prepared those who survived or do you believe that their experience could have worked against them?
A: This is a tough one to answer. The answer is different for each contestant and would depend a lot on where each contestant would have been--if they weren't on the show--when things got bad. But I can't say that I think anyone was better off being on the show when it happened; most were definitely worse off.
Q: When Zoo first meets Brennan, she believes him to be a decoy sent by the competition’s producers to throw her off the competition despite a number of occurrences that might refute this. Zoo continues to remain distrustful of him. Do you believe this quality is a two sided coin working both for and against her simultaneously?
A: Above all else this is a novel about perception: How the characters are perceived by others and themselves; how they perceive the world; how the events on the show are manipulated to affect viewer's perceptions. Zoo's reaction to Brennan is an extension of this. She finds a way to fit him into the world-view she's clinging to. How that affects her is... complicated.
Q: Tracker is easily the most accomplished contestant, the star of the show. What are his true feeling towards Zoo? There was a reference made at the end that sounded much like regret in terms of not reconnecting with her.
A: You're right, Tracker is very much a loner. He's there with a mission and knows he has the skills to win, so he doesn't see the point of being chummy with the other contestants. But characters are more interesting when they have their assumptions challenged, and that's the role Zoo plays for Tracker. He at first evaluates her--along with everyone else--only in the context of whether or not he thinks they're competition. But as he realizes there's a hard-worker with a real desire to learn beneath Zoo's cheer, he finds himself considering her as more than just another body standing between him and his million dollar prize. Where his feelings go from there, I'll leave it up to the reader to decide.
About the Author: Alexandra Oliva — Ali, for short — grew up in a tiny town in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. She now lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and their brindled mutt, Codex. The Last One is her first novel. You can find her at alexandraoliva.com.
February's 2017's Author Spotlight is proud to welcome
Catherine McKenzie author of Fractured.
Q: Julie and John forge a quick friendship. Though they live in close proximity, both enjoy running, and keep similar schedules, they also seem to have an underlying attraction to each other. Do you feel their relationship bordered on impropriety from the start?
A:I wanted to explore that can happen when you meet someone who is so similar to you that they feel familiar from the beginning. And clearly, they are flirting in the beginning, even Julie's husband notices. So, yes, in a way it did, but ultimately I don't think that was Julie's goal (though it may have been John's).
Q: Cindy is an overbearing control freak who is dead set on creating a certain type of community by aggressively breaching her neighbors’ privacy. Comparing her actions to a world in which privacy is fast becoming a thing of the past, do you feel that her actions are far-fetched? Why do you suppose so many were resigned to her way of doing things?
A:I think that she is the person people love to hate, but also that she had helped a lot of people out and had gained the sympathy of the neighborhood over time. She had built up a reservoir of sympathy. And I don't agree that privacy is becoming a thing of the past--that is exactly what Cindy is trying to accomplish and Julie is pushing back.
Q: Julie’s neighbors, particularly the women, are quite judgmental, keeping her on the outskirts. What are some of your thoughts regarding this aspect of women in our culture? Do you think it may stem from a lack of self-worth?
A:I don't think that women are necessarily more judgmental of men; I think they might be more self-critical and this can come across as judgmental as people project their insecurities onto others. The neighborhood doesn't know how to react to her, I think, the way people often don't around celebrities. And Julie is her own worse enemy; she creates problems for herself.
Q: Julie comes across as the voice of reason in this story even though she has been traumatized by a stalker and a string of recent events she cannot explain. Why do you suppose, in spite of her stress, she is able to bring a sense of awareness and opposition to Cindy’s boundary crossing while other female characters cannot seem to accomplish this?
A:I think that is mainly achieved because it is her story. Even John's portions are mainly about Julie. So since you are seeing her point of view, you sympathize with her. Remember, you are only getting her side of the story and she is unreliable.
Q: It seems unusual that the inhabitants in Julie’s new town are not more impressed with her blockbuster author status. In reality, they seem more intent on tearing her down. What do you suppose this is attributed to?
A:I think the two are related, actually. She is different, the other, famous and so they feel thrown off. She is also shy and reserved and nervous and I think she is actually the cause of many of the reactions around her.
About the Author: Catherine McKenzie is a bestselling author of popular fiction. She has captivated readers all over the world with her absorbing characters, engrossing storytelling, and unflinching treatment of love, loss, forgiveness and redemption – universal themes that affect the human condition. Her five published novels, Spin, Arranged, Forgotten, Hidden, and Smoke are all international bestsellers and have been translated into numerous languages. Smoke was named one of the Best Books of 2015 by Amazon. Her sixth novel, FRACTURED, was published in October 2016 by Lake Union Publishing.McKenzie’s father is from Saskatchewan and her mother from New Jersey, making her both Canadian and American, but having been born and raised in Montreal, she’s Canadian at heart. She graduated from McGill University with degrees in history and law and is partner at her law firm, where she’s worked for the past eighteen years. She recently spent three years as part of the trial team in the first two tobacco class action suits to go to trial in Canada, and has pleaded before the Quebec Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Canada.
She grew up hiking and skiing in the Adirondacks, and taught skiing for several years, so the outdoors – with all its beauty and its dangers – tends to play a significant role in her fiction.
Visit her online at www.catherinemckenzie.com, on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/catherinemckenzieauthor, and on Twitter at @cemckenzie1.
January 2017's Author Spotlight is proud to welcome
Jennifer L. FitzPatrick, MSW author of Cruising through Caregiving.