January 2018’s Author Spotlight is proud to welcome
Rob Pharazyn author of The Benzo Devil.
Q: You spoke about not knowing if you would live to tell your story. What do you credit as being the biggest factor in your fighting through your addiction and ultimately beating it?
A: When I referred to not knowing whether I’d live to tell my story in my book “The Benzo Devil” I was alluding to the terrible weight of suicidal ideation that is a constant compulsion riding along beside you in withdrawal, as it relentlessly tries to seduce you into thinking that suicide would be a pleasantly simple answer to the hell which I was going through at the time. Fortunately, I was able to subdivide my thinking into the experience and the experiencer and see that the suicidal impulses were not coming from me holistically but from my brain’s biochemical confusion as it tried to adjust to the lack of GABA neurotransmitters which had been usually supplied by the benzos to my frontal cortex receptors over 13 years. As I recount in the book, the biggest factor that ‘saved’ me in my fight as I headed upwards towards the light, was probably immersing myself in the netherworld of the Narcotics Anonymous culture for about 8 months, in that I was surrounded by hard-core people who all had one objective which was to be drug-free.
Although I probably didn’t actually qualify to be there, given I was an “accidental addict” through no fault of my own having been prescribed the benzo pills that I was dependent on by the medical profession, the structure and non-judgmental “cloak” that was NA gave me time and respite during the deepest, darkest part of withdrawal to not feel alone and be subsumed by the weight of it. The hard core junkies at NA told me that getting off benzos was seen by the drug world as being the worst; worse than heroin etc. Given the current opioid crisis in the States right now where Oxy, Fentanyl etc. are killing people from overdose by the thousands, I would think that benzos now have some other fellow horror drugs for withdrawal hell.
Q: Do you have personal experience with people succumbing to benzo addiction or being unable to break free?
A: I never met any fellow benzo sufferers in my whole time of tapering withdrawal etc. which is ironic as I was probably surrounded by people taking them on a daily basis but the shame of feeling like you must be weak for taking such a drug meant most people never spoke of it. Unfortunately, a lot of people struggle in withdrawal and go back and never try again. If you go to Facebook and search “benzo withdrawal” you’ll find lots of real-time posts from sufferers trying to get to full recovery. I’ve posted on a few and they latch onto me, hungry for answers, as they appear to have few examples of people, such as me, who have been in full recovery as long as I have. It’s hope for freedom from their curse that they’re all seeking. I do have a dedicated Facebook page called The Benzo Devil which is well worth a visit as there’s lots of stuff on there that is very useful and interesting.
Q: In your opinion, what is a doctor’s responsibility to their patients in terms of full informed consent when prescribing benzos and other psychotropic medications? How often do you feel that informed consent is breached? Do you feel that most doctors prescribe these meds with no intention of having their patients come off them or not having a thought as to how they would do so?
A: I guess that’s the crux of the whole prescription drug issue. If I’d been told what I was being prescribed had the potential for addiction dependency within as little as 6 weeks max of taking them, there is no way that I would have! We’ve all been brought up from childhood to trust doctors. We have been taught that doctors all swear to the Hippocratic Oath, the most important tenants being Primum nihil nocere, which is Latin for “Above all, do no harm”. A basic premise of ethical medical practice is what is known as ‘informed consent’. Ethically, a doctor should present a patient with the facts concerning an offered treatment or procedure, spelling out the various dangers as well as the possible benefits, and the patient then makes, hopefully, reasoned personal and medical decisions based upon that information. Not to disclose the full risks of substances such as benzodiazepine drugs is not merely uninformed consent but is actually misinformed consent for patients and borders on worse than irresponsible, in my opinion.
Over the 13 years of dependency I never had a doctor, bar one, ever discuss the addictive properties of benzodiazepines or refuse me a script until I was in London in the early 90’s where apparently massive litigation had been launched against the major drug companies producing benzodiazepines. I went to get a repeat script and an earnest little Indian doctor in Clapham Junction told me that I would have no chance of getting my “ little helpers” due to the U K Govt. instructing doctors to start cutting back prescribing (which must have been a minor hiccup as they’re still being handed out like lollies in the U.K ) He gave me a one month script when he saw the panic on my face but told me I’d be wasting my time trying to get more as I was now loaded into the national health system and that’s when I knew I had a dependency issue which motivated me to flee back to Australia and take the steps to rid myself of my Ativan dependency. It’s all documented in the book but I was unprepared for what happened when I started into self-detox and withdrawal. Doctors generally know very little about benzo withdrawal and when I started walking into the abyss, I did it alone without any help. I wish I’d known then about The Ashton Manual which can be found online as it gives you heaps of info which would’ve made my journey through the dark days, a hell of a lot smoother. I was fortunate enough to get permission from Emeritus Professor Heather Ashton (who ran a benzo clinic in London for 12 years) to incorporate her research info into my own personal experience in the second part of my book. I should clarify that the book is essentially divided into two parts with the first being my personal story from my early life right up to freedom which is about 200 pages in all and the second part being factual solutions and info on how to go about detox, withdrawal/tapering from whatever drug you’re hooked on.
Q: Are there any cases in which you would believe that Ativan and other benzos are actually beneficial such as for extreme levels of anxiety? If so, what are your thoughts on proper administration and monitoring?
A: I think there’s a case to be made in certain cases for prescribing anti-anxiety benzos or non-benzo ( but potentially addictive ) hypnotics like the Z range of sleep drugs but it’s imperative that the patient is clearly told that they are potentially addictive and the prescribing doctor must make it clear that they are only a one off, short term buffer. In the case of major family trauma like death, divorce etc. they definitely have a beneficial application. If you’re in a highly upset state of mind and sleep-deprived then anything that can calm you down enough to handle what’s going on around you, rationally, well then, the means justifies the end, I think. I should point out that I am not a medical professional and this is not advice but opinion only. It’s also important to clarify that it is not a given that everyone who takes benzos or similar drugs will become addicted or suffer withdrawal symptoms such as I did, but anecdotal research seems to indicate that one in three likely will ?
Q: How has Heather Ashton’s work impacted you in regards to your own tapering and directing others to take charge of their own recovery?
A: Heather Ashton is treated with reverence approaching sainthood by the hundreds she has helped back to full recovery from benzo dependency. Her work is the “gold standard” for advice and as I indicated in my previous answer, I’m fortunate to have been given her sanction to use her material in my book. Unfortunately, I’d never heard of her when I went for my walk into hell and back and, ironically, there appears to be many out there who are trying to dip their toes into considering freeing themselves from the benzo devil who also have no knowledge of Professor Ashton’s work which is why I’m so happy to have her research, mixed with my personal experience, collated into my book. Sadly, she is now 88 years of age and in rapidly declining health which is why I’ve dedicated my book to her in my epigraph at the start of The Benzo Devil.
Q: At what point in your recovery did you decide to write this book? What was your primary motivation? How did the process go for you? Did you have a solid support system while writing it?
A: That’s a very interesting question as it’s multi-faceted. I first started on the book by writing it out in long-hand in school exercise books to purely document my experiences while I was still in early recovery back in the 90’s. Because of what I’d been through over the previous year when I started detoxing and withdrawal etc. I couldn’t work. My brains were scrambled and my future looked very bleak so I figured the “only string I had to my bow” was maybe I could make a survival dollar by writing my miserable little story up to that point and perhaps sell it to a women’s magazine or something. The idea never went much further than that and remained just marinating in the recesses of my mind.
Periodically I’d spot the exercise books in a bottom draw and think to myself “I must write that benzo book one day” but again nothing transpired. The whole miracle of synchronistic events and serendipity in my life kept happening and I prospered as I recovered exponentially, so going back to the dark days were, to my mind, best forgotten and not something I wanted to resurrect in any shape of form but about 3 years ago, I had an urge to revisit it all now that I had a positive story of encouragement to tell. I could see no point in writing a “misery memoir” saying how terrible dependency and withdrawal horror was without a positive solution. What’s the point in that? Addicts all know they’re trapped but I figured I could offer a map as to how my whole scene went but with proof that there was life after addiction if only you would take that first step.
So I sat down and I started writing. It wasn’t terribly hard to lay down the outline of my story as it was all true and happened to me in real time but what I did discover was that that was the easier part. Writing is all about revision, revision, add, subtract, revision until you get a coherent, fluid story structural outline together. Then comes the proofing, more revision as you slowly refine the manuscript down to a (hopefully) readable book.
Mentally taxing but time compresses in on itself when you’re absorbed in writing so the days fly by. But it’s rewarding creatively and now I have a tangible outcome from something that I never thought I would be able to turn into a positive from those hellish days of withdrawal; namely my book “ The Benzo Devil…how I recovered from prescription drugs” (sorry about that, had to give myself a free plug).
Q: How has the book been received in your circles since its publication? Have you received feedback in terms of people having been helped by the book?
A: Everybody in my personal cohort seems to think it’s a great read as I’ve injected gallows humour into the story and made a point of staying on topic and keeping the pace moving along. I could’ve filled another 200 pages easily with anecdotes of those weird times but maybe that’s another book down the track? The book has only been out for about a month on Amazon and all of the other many book sales platform globally but there’s been some good quality reviews coming in so far and sales are very positive. It’s hard to know how well the book will go as there aren’t many non-fiction memoirs, such as mine, out there, written as actual accounts of the whole dependency withdrawal process, so I don’t really have much criteria to go on. If it’s meant to be it will reach the right hands and hopefully it will help those who are struggling to break free from something that was done to them through no fault of their own. Been great talking to you and your many readers. Many thanks Maria. Buy the book everybody (smile).
About the Author: R.W. Pharazyn has been involved in radio and media for 25 years both in his home country of New Zealand and in Australia. He’s best known as a former top rating talkback radio host and music ‘rock jock’ but has also been a successful newspaper publisher. He swears that retirement is for fools and horses and instead chooses to use the term ‘refocusing’ when it comes to taking on new projects.He loves wine, craft beer, good food, happy women and Paris (not necessarily in that order). He is grateful to be alive. He can also be found on Facebook.
December 2017’s Author Spotlight is proud to welcome
Katrina Shawver author of Henry.
Q: Henry is a poignant and up-close look at a holocaust survivor. What was Henry’s initial reaction to your suggestion to pen his story? Did he waiver at any point along the way in his willingness to tell it?
A: Henry was thrilled when I volunteered to write his story. Other people had offered, but when we met he was 85 and slowing down. He had more time to talk, and I seemed to be in the right place at the right time. He did not hold anything back. Henry wanted the history remembered and used to visit high school classrooms to discuss his experiences and the war.
Q: How did you manage things such as pacing and chronology in contrast to the heaviness of the subject matter and the inevitable memories coming to the surface?
A: The pacing and organization were two of the greater challenges in molding many interviews and stories into a cohesive narrative. My writing critique group strongly encouraged me to “break up” the concentration camp scenes, because they preferred not to read further if it was one miserable scene after the next. They insisted the reader “needed a break.” Ultimately a book has to be entertaining enough to engage the reader through to the end. By writing in an interview format, I was able to retain a strong sense of his voice, interject modern day viewpoints, and weave in a lot of history necessary to establish context and place for the reader.
Q: Was Nancy, Henry’s wife, an active part of any of the interviews you conducted?
A: No. Henry did not meet Nancy until he defected to the United States in 1959. The history was Henry’s and not Nancy’s to tell. Sometimes Nancy would join us for a few stories about she and Henry, but mostly after welcoming me, she’d leave us alone and go about her day.
Q: What was the most difficult aspect for you as a writer in conducting the interviews?
A: During the interviews, when Henry discussed some of the harder aspects of concentration camps, or when we looked through books of black-and-white photos, I wanted to stop the conversation. Redirect to something more pleasant. Nevertheless, I wanted to honor Henry, and so many others who did not have the opportunity to stop the tape, close the book, and change subjects.
Equally challenging was the process of transcribing each of the interviews. There were so many foreign words in both Polish and German, or places, street names and people I could only write out phonetically. When I reviewed my notes ten years later I had so many “aha” moments as to what Henry was saying that I had not understood at the time. Up until the last revision, I had trouble finding people who understood the “old” German used in the 1940s and who could figure out words I only knew phonetically. Even some of the camp documents used an older German alphabet. At one point I even searched YouTube for the names of two songs Henry had referred to, just to be able to spell them correctly. It was sheer luck two German-speakers came into my life in the very last three weeks before going to print for the advanced reader copy.
Q: Do you feel that Henry’s resilience and appreciation for life was born from his overall experiences in the camps? Have you ever met anyone like him before or since?
A: Henry was born resilient, resourceful, and determined. For many reasons, no spoilers, he developed street smarts at a young age. Through his training as a competitive athlete, he knew how to work hard and focus on a goal. The book does not begin or end with the war for two specific reasons. To understand how someone survives horrific conditions, we need to understand who Henry the person is, not just Henry the prisoner. And he made me promise to include the good times “because those were so many more years than the bad.”
I had never met someone like Henry before, and I doubt I’ll meet another Henry. This man had been to hell and back and lived a fabulous life. I was immediately intrigued because so many survivors never get over it or ever discuss their experiences. He always insisted “I’m nobody special. I survived because I was lucky and know someone.” Perhaps a more lasting legacy of concentration camps for Henry was that living life meant living in the moment. He did not measure life by wealth and status, but rather by how much “living” one did. More than anyone, he knew that life can be cut short abruptly, unexpectedly, and unfairly.
Q: What was the prevailing mood when you visited the very sites that Henry described in the book? How has meeting Henry and writing his story impacted your life today?
A: My husband and I visited both Auschwitz and Buchenwald in October 2013. Temperatures hovered in the 30s and 40s, and we had not brought enough warm clothes so we shivered the entire time. My husband and I both agree – the best experience and time to visit a concentration camp is on a cold, overcast day. It is far easier to imagine, and almost see, miserable prisoners who had fewer clothes standing in roll calls for hours in temperatures that can drop to sub-zero levels in the winter.
Auschwitz and Buchenwald were somber experiences. The experience was invaluable to be able to finish the story with authenticity. Buchenwald really got to me. Far less has been written about this smaller camp in Germany and few tourists were there the day we toured. We shivered in the rain, and it seemed incredibly lonely, isolated, and forgotten. After visiting the evidence of a brand of evil not duplicated in Auschwitz, I went back to my hotel room, sank into a warm bath, and cried until the water turned cold. Meeting Henry Zguda did change the direction of my life. Today I am a published author. I am educated on Poland and WWII and how little Poles, and Henry, have received for their suffering and deaths. I have developed a huge respect for Poland and for Poles. My definition of a bad day has changed. Compared to a bad day in a concentration camp, if all that happens is someone cuts me off in traffic or work is especially stressful, well that means I’m blessed to own a car, and that I’m employed. I am far more conscious of not wasting food – food was a precious commodity for much of Henry’s life.
About the Author: Katrina Shawver is an experienced writer, blogger, speaker, and the author of Henry – A Polish Swimmer’s True Story of Friendship from Auschwitz to America, an adult nonfiction biography released in 2017. She holds a BA from the University of Arizona in English/Political Science, and began her writing career more than twenty years ago by writing hundreds of newspaper columns for The Arizona Republic. Her favorite quote is ”What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” She lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her husband Rick. https://katrinashawver.com/
November 2017’s Author Spotlight is proud to welcome
Ted Galdi author of An American Cage.
Q: Do you see Danny as deserving of the original sentence he received? Do you believe that it fit his crime? Was his time in prison a necessary step in his becoming a fully formed human being?
A: The first is definitely a complex question, and boils down to how important the idea of “intent” is with sentencing. Danny surely didn’t intend to commit that crime, so some may say he didn’t deserve a harsh punishment. However, the crime had a victim, who possibly would feel otherwise.
However, what Danny did at the social event before committing the crime, he did in fact have control over. Deep down he knew he was doing something wrong. In that respect, I feel some sort of a punishment is fair. As for the severity, or whether or not it “fit,” that raises a broader question about our criminal-justice system. A lot of our laws and sentences are based on generalities, not to mention the whims of local politicians, which is why there’s so much variety from state to state. In that regard, I feel the vast majority of prison sentences don’t “fit” their crimes. Many because they’re too strict, but others because they’re too lenient.
For many prisoners, time locked up does make them better human beings. It gives them a long opportunity to think about what they did and the trajectory of their life, which often leads to conscious change for the better. For others, even if they don’t grow, the time behind bars can act as a deterrent, reminding them what’ll happen if they make the same mistake once they get out, which obviously has a positive effect on the rest of society.
However, a strong force in the criminal-justice system has nothing to do with prisoner growth or deterrence, but simple revenge. “You hurt society, now society hurts you.” Simple and primal. I’m not saying this is right or wrong, but if we’re talking about all this, we should acknowledge it’s at play.
As for Danny, I’d say he grew in prison, because he’d never do what he did again. However, a lot more about Danny dwindled in prison, which of course prompts the action in An American Cage. The biggest changes of his life take place during the events of the story, once the crew breaks out of jail.
Q: Danny’s parents were willing to risk everything to help their son yet Danny’s father’s testimony played a big role in his having to go to jail in the first place. What was it that Danny father found lacking in his son and why did he feel the need to take such an action?
A: Danny’s father is a very principled man. Especially about his religion. What Danny did was at odds with how a true Christian, in the eyes of his dad, would behave. His spiritual ideals clashed with his son’s freedom. Danny’s dad certainly didn’t enjoy being in this position, but had to choose, and chose religion. Though Danny’s dad loves him, he feels he lacks strong principles, and his decision could certainly be seen as a lash-out against that, even if unconscious. Throughout the book Danny’s principles firm up, which his father surely would appreciate.
Q: Was Phil really as complex and intelligent as he appeared to be or was he just lucky that circumstances played out in his favor and was callous enough to recognize easy prey? Was it fair that Phil and Danny were paired up as bunkmates in regard to their individual crimes?
A: Phil is definitely as complex and intelligent as he appears. As for the cellmate grouping, Danny and Phil weren’t paired up originally. They only bunked together after Phil put in a special request to the prison psychologist. Which was surely no coincidence.
Q: In the story, references are made to the Aryan brotherhood and we witness blatant discrimination towards blacks. Monty comes across as accepting of these prejudices and seems relatively at peace with who he is. What accounts for his ability to rise above it all?
A: Monty is a special kind of person. Born with nothing. Expecting of nothing. Instead of focusing on what he doesn’t have, he focuses on getting the most out of any little pleasures he has a chance at. He’s able to zero in on the positive, even just traces, while shutting out the negative, like the inane racism that comes his way. He’s got more important things to worry about. Positive things. Like finally seeing the ocean.
Q: Jane is hitchhiking to California to escape an impossible home situation. She crosses paths with Danny and Phil and things take an unfortunate turn for her. Jane seems to be a solid judge of character and knows she is in danger. Do you feel she tried as hard as she could to escape her situation?
A: Jane’s home situation was horrible, but her own life was never in danger. Once her path crosses with Danny and Phil’s, however, that changes. She fears for her life. An escape attempt that doesn’t go perfectly could end up with her dead. In this regard, she herself becomes imprisoned alongside the two prisoners.
However, this doesn’t diminish her ability to judge character. As the dynamics of her individual relationships with Danny and Phil evolve, she easily goes from a place of uncertainty to one of definiteness.
About the Author: Ted Galdi is an Amazon #1 bestselling author, and winner of a Reader Views Reviewers Choice Award and a Silver Medal in the Readers’ Favorite Book Awards. He’s been featured by ABC and FOX television, iHeartRadio, and many other media outlets. Ted is a graduate of Duke University. Elixir (2014) is his debut novel, and An American Cage (2017) his second. To learn more about him and his books and sign up for his mailing list, please visit his official website at www.tedgaldi.com.
October 2017’s Author Spotlight is proud to welcome
Georgia Clark author of The Regulars.
Q: Evie is the most central character of the story and the most maternal of the three friends. She is a smart and savvy and cares about furthering the progress of women in all facets of life yet her Achilles heel seems to be her own romantic relationships. Why do you suppose a woman as smart as Evie would get caught up in a relationship with someone like Velma?
A: I think she’s enamored by Velma’s talent, sensuality, and power. Their relationship was partly inspired by a relationship I was in with someone older and more powerful than me, and who was very talented. It feels intoxicating to be the center of attention for someone whom so many people are trying to get the attention of. It really does make you feel special and can lead to you overlooking other aspects of the relationship that fall short of your own standards. Also, Velma is (to put it bluntly) out of Evie’s league: Evie’s physical transformation is her ticket into her affections. So I imagine that illicit aspect adds to the excitement of it all.
Q: Many women would love to have Evie’s job at a fluff women’s magazine but Evie feels shame being associated with what the magazine stands for and tries to pitch loftier, feminist ideas to her boss only to be denied over and over again. What is it about this environment that tips in favor of demoralizing instead of supporting women’s rights while dressing them up in packaging that tricks women into thinking they are being empowered?
A: Firstly, the relationship to consumerism. Salty, the mag as it exists in the novel, isn’t a noble non-profit. It’s a business that is funded in part by money from companies selling products. When I worked at magazines in my 20s, the relationship was clear: X make-up brand buys an ad, they expect coverage. In a more murky sense, is the complex relationship between beauty, pleasure, and true female empowerment. It’s not a black and white issue: I’m a woman and I like wearing make-up. I just don’t want to feel like I’m unattractive if I don’t wear it, or if I put on a few pounds or don’t shave my legs. Also, it’s not as if anyone is deliberately trying to trick readers into thinking they are empowered: no one’s a mustache-twirling villain. But the beauty industry still worships Western beauty ideals: thin, young, attractive women. We need to push back against that and see a wide range of age, body types, and looks in popular culture.
Q: Willow is a sensitive soul who is working to rise above her privileged life and father’s name by making a name for herself through her art. Before she is able to see the world from Caroline’s perspective, she seems seriously blocked and inhibited. Do you see her experience as Caroline as ultimately positive for Willow in terms of her art?
A: Ultimately, no. Willow does have a complex experience with the Pretty but it takes her down such a dark path that I don’t think I could say ultimately, it’s positive. All three girls approach the Pretty in a different way and it was my intent to have Willow’s journey be the darkest: for her to think your most self-destructive thoughts and then follow through on those impulses. (Sorry Willow!)
Q: Superficiality is a driving force as to how we relate to others. Evie, Krista, and Willow had the unique experience of going through an experiment which greatly altered their physical selves and they went through it together. How do you see each of them moving forward with what they learned? Do you believe all of them will necessarily fare better with the knowledge they have gained?
I like the idea that the Pretty showed at least one character that you don’t need to be “pretty” to be confident; that you can harness that confidence no matter what you look like. I also like the idea that all three characters learned from the experience, even if they wouldn’t necessarily do it again. That feels true to life for me: you come to some sort of peace with your actions and decisions even if you sort of regret making them! And sure: I like the idea the girls stay friends. You don’t know it at the time, but the friendships forged in early adulthood—post the structure of college—are very powerful. Treasure those friendships, and surround yourself with people who love you for you.
About the Author: Georgia Clark is the author of The Regulars (Simon & Schuster) and the creator of Generation Women. She wrote the YA novels She’s With The Band and Parched. Her fourth novel, The Bucket List, is out summer 2018. A native Australian, she lives in Brooklyn with her girlfriend and a fridge full of cheese. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Sign up for her monthly newsletter on her website http://www.georgiaclark.com/.
September 2017’s Author Spotlight is proud to welcome
Claire Fuller author of Swimming Lessons.
Q: When we first meet Ingrid, she is a young woman with hopes and dreams of her own however once meeting Gil, her much older professor, she falters as she is wowed by his illusion. What is your take on this phenomenon where young woman put aside their wants and needs to take up with a man? Why do you suppose Ingrid believed she didn’t have the option to finish school after she became pregnant with Gil’s child and in spite of what the Dean told her? Could it have been simply naïve on her part, a sign of the times?
A: I don’t of course, think it’s good for a woman to put aside her wants and needs to take up with a man, but I think it’s easy to say we (women) shouldn’t, when love can sweep you away, and cultural norms (especially forty years ago) said that it was okay. It’s also easy to look back at 1970s England and think that feminism had reached everywhere and everyone – it certainly hadn’t. My mother worked, but the majority of mothers still stayed at home either through choice or convention, to look after the house and children.
So, I think the reason Ingrid felt she couldn’t continue her education when she became pregnant was a combination of reasons – men, the Dean in particular, telling her that she couldn’t, the convention that pregnant women usually left education, and Ingrid’s own character. Readers are often angry at Ingrid for not fighting back, but I wanted to write about the kind of woman who wouldn’t create a fuss (and there are plenty of them in real life), and to see what problems that created for her.
Q: Ingrid’s outlet for all the stress of her life is swimming however she has put herself in danger more than one time by going down to the beach alone. Could Ingrid’s recklessness be a direct result to Gil’s behavior and his lack of consideration for her?
A: I don’t see Ingrid’s recklessness as a direct result of Gil’s behaviour – but perhaps indirect: he shows a lack of consideration, leaves her to cope with the children and is unfaithful, so Ingrid exists in the monotonous daily grind of motherhood which she finds very difficult, and she doesn’t have anyone to share her life with properly. Her ‘dangerous’ swimming is a way of showing to herself that she does exist.
Q: Gil seems to cover himself with a cloak of superiority even though he hasn’t accomplished nearly what people think he has. He seems to suffer from a form of narcissism and desperately needs others to stroke his ego. Part of this takes the form of too young, inappropriate sexual conquests. Could his excessive, unkempt collection of books be a metaphor for his baggage, feigned superiority, and lack of responsibility for his actions?
A: I don’t see it like that, or I didn’t write it with that intention, although I’m quite happy for readers to make any interpretation they like. I think he is genuinely interested how readers create books by reading them, and he hopes to understand readers by collecting books where they have left a bit of themselves behind.
Q: Flora is equal parts her mother and father at their most rebellious. She is also the only one who believes her mother still alive. Do you feel much of Flora’s behavior is driven by her perceived parental abandonment?
A: Yes, I’d say a huge amount of Flora’s behaviour is driven by her parental abandonment. And I noticed that you said, ‘parental’ and not just ‘her mother’s’, which I think is right – her father also abandoned her, in his way. She takes her examples of how to live both from her genes and the examples of her parents.
Q: My favorite line in the book is: “without readers there is no point in books, and therefore they are as important as the author, perhaps more important.” Do you believe this is true?
A: I’m not sure about ‘more important’, because without an author, you wouldn’t have a book, and therefore you wouldn’t have a reader, but just as important – yes. Without a reader, a book is just an object sitting on a shelf, or online – it might as well be a painting or a sculpture. It needs a reader to come alive. And every reader makes the book, and more interestingly, makes it a different book each time it is read.
About the Author: Claire Fuller trained as a sculptor before working in marketing for many years. In 2013 she completed an MA in Creative Writing, and wrote her first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days. It was published in the UK by Penguin, in the US by Tin House, in Canada by House of Anansi and bought for translation in 15 other countries. Our Endless Numbered Days won the 2015 Desmond Elliott prize. Swimming Lessons is her second novel. https://clairefuller.co.uk/about-claire/.
August 2017’s Author Spotlight is proud to welcome
Michelle Richmond author of The Marriage Pact.
Q: What was your motivation in writing The Marriage Pact?
A: A few years ago, my husband spent several years working on an enormously complex federal investigation. During that time, I ended up becoming fascinated with The Criminal Code, a massive tome that is released annually, and which lays out in detail every offense you can think of, as well as many you can’t, and the penalties for each. One night, as I was perusing the book, I mentioned to my husband, “There should be a set of rules for marriage, with penalties for breaking the rules.”
We talked about the fact that criminal laws are one part of the machinery that keep our society running smoothly. Most of us do not want to commit crimes; but for those who might be inclined to do so, laws act as a boundary, and oftentimes a deterrent. But for marriage, the only real rules are our own morality, and the agreements, both spoken and unspoken, that we make with our spouse. What if we had rules and regulations for marriage, enforced by an organization outside of the marriage? We started hashing out what the rules would be, and then we started talking about what could happen if you broke the rules. It quickly occurred to me that this would make a great novel, and it would be a lot of fun to write. Thus, The Marriage Pact was born.
When the case finally went to trial, I ended up sitting in on a few days of testimony. The Federal courthouse and courtroom, along with the back-and-forth among attorneys, clients, and judge, inspired the courtroom scenes in The Marriage Pact.
Q: In my opinion, one of the biggest takeaways of this story is the concept of “for the greater good” as a means to justify the abuse and torture inflicted upon those members of The Pact who do not comply with even the most trivial of rules. As long as the goal of a strong union is accomplished, the means justify the end. We can see examples of this throughout real life history and it was one of the biggest reasons I was drawn to this story. What is your take on the exact mechanism by which this occurs in this story?
A: It’s true, “the ends justifies the means” and “for the greater good” are tantalizing concepts that have been utilized by governments and corporations for a long time. It’s tantalizing because when posed with the question, “If you could save one thousand people by taking away the rights of one person, would you do it?” The mind naturally starts doing the math in terms of human cost. Who wouldn’t want to save 1,000 people? As a young reader, I was deeply affected by Ursula LeGuin’s story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” because it puts this very question in stark and startling terms: isn’t it okay for one to suffer if it saves thousands? I wanted to apply this same rationale to the powerful leaders of The Pact.
To avoid spoilers, I won’t go into detail, but I will say that I agree with Jake: the iron fist is not justified, and the ends do not justify the means utilized by The Pact. Beyond that, any organization or government that promotes the idea that “the ends justify the means when the greater good is served” is hiding something. They are not telling the whole truth. So when The Pact says that the vast majority of its members have happy, successful marriages and contented lives, one must consider the source. Like all cults and dictatorships, The Pact thrives on propaganda. When the flow of information is controlled, it’s impossible to know the truth.
Personally, I believe that a marriage is successful because both spouses want to make it successful, and both spouses work to do so. Obviously, it helps to have the support of one’s community–but in the end it comes down to two people with shared values who do their best to make it work.
Q: There is an apparent abuse of power stemming from several of The Pact’s higher ranked members however these same people did not exhibit exemplary behavior in alignment with The Pact’s laws. Why does this often seem to be the case in this as well as many other contexts?
A: Narcissists consider themselves above the law and rarely acknowledge their own failure to uphold the standards they set for others. People who rise to extremely high levels of power–in politics and religion, especially–often abuse that power. Did they rise because they have a natural inclination to abuse power, or do they abuse power because they suddenly have the opportunity to do so? I’m not sure–probably a little of both.
Q: Alice’s client, Finnegan recommends her and her new husband Jake as potential members of The Pact. Is her competitive spirit and wanting to further impress Finnegan the main ingredients in Alice’s lack of foresight and willingness to succumb to her degrading punishments or is it perhaps that she is looking for guidance to navigate a world where she feels inadequate and unprepared?
A: I think Alice is the typical A+ student: eager to please, reluctant to buck against authority if it means admitting her own failure. She wants desperately to succeed in marriage, just as she wants to succeed in all aspects of her life, which is part of what attracts her to The Pact: she thinks it will help her to be a better wife. But she also is a risk-taker, and The Pact is fascinating to her because it’s different and a little risky.
Q: Jake and Alice both seem to be unfazed in divulging sensitive information to a complete stranger while knowing nothing about how The Pact operates or even what it is all about. Do you believe that there is a shift in today’s culture to share personal information too readily and is this aspect of the story a kind of warning?
A: Definitely! Social media can be great entertainment, not to mention a way to connect with others, but it also fosters an almost obsessive need to share. There are ways to use social media that allow the scrim of privacy to remain between you and the world, ways to share a part of yourself and be part of the conversation without inviting strangers entirely into your home and your personal life. But I worry that there is an increasing feeling that it doesn’t matter, that anything goes. To me, one of the strongest and strangest evidence of this willingness to share pretty much everything is the glut of selfies taken in one’s bathroom or bedroom. The bathroom/bedroom selfie–with a dirty shower curtain in the background, or a pile of cosmetics, or clothes strewn on the floor–implies that nothing is too private to close the door on. I believe strongly in a private life and a public life, for the sake of one’s family as well as for the sake of one’s own sanity. And I do believe (or at least hope) that there will eventually be a broader cultural attempt to shift back towards privacy, However, it may be too late. For one thing, we have all become accustomed to massive corporations having access to minute details of our lives; the fact that these corporations are using our personal data for their financial gain seems to be a deal we have made with the devil, one we can’t easily back out of.
In The Marriage Pact, Jake and Alice fear that The Pact is watching every move, listening to every conversation. It’s scary because it’s the world we live in. Over the past few years, we have become accustomed to being watched: Alexa and Google Home, Amazon algorithms, ads served directly to us in our email based on our browsing or purchasing history. All of this corporate surveillance makes life easier in some respects, but, just like Alice and Jake, we have no way of knowing where it will lead.
About the Author: Michelle Richmond is the New York Times bestselling author of five novels and two award-winning story collections. Her novels include the 2014 literary thriller GOLDEN STATE, which imagines modern-day California on the brink of secession from the United States, and the international bestseller THE YEAR OF FOG. She can be found at michellerichmond.com.
Photo by Nick Elliott.
July’s 2017’s Author Spotlight is proud to welcome
T.R. Ragan author of Furious, Outrage, and Wrath (The Faith McMann Trilogy).
Q: One of the prevailing themes of this trilogy is calling attention to child trafficking. What is the most surprising thing about child trafficking that you found from your research?
A: The most shocking thing for me was realizing that child trafficking was not only happening right here in the U.S, but it was occurring in my own backyard. Because of its location, Sacramento, California is a gateway to sex trafficking. People need to be aware. We all need to keep our eyes open. If we see something, we need to say something.
Q: Faith is a typical wife and mom, working as an elementary school teacher before experiencing such a horrific tragedy. Her life looks about as typical as you can get but after experiencing such a traumatic event she becomes a very different person. One of the most interesting facets of the story is who Faith will become after this ordeal is behind her. Do you see her one day reconciling these merged aspects of herself and finding pace with who she’s become?
A: I have to believe that when something this tragic happens to a person, they are awakened. And they will never be the same. Like many people who have been through horrible tragedies, I definitely see Faith making peace with what happened and what she had to do to find her children. She is stronger and more aware of the world around her. She will go on to make a difference not only in her family’s lives, but in her community.
Q: Faith has a lot of unwavering support not just from Beast, Rage, and Vinny, her close companions and good friends but also from her family, and even parts of the larger community. Would it have been a different story if Faith had not had this support and instead been encouraged to rely solely on law enforcement? Do you believe she would have had the same resolve?
A: Faith would have never given up in the search for her children, but I have to believe the outcome would have been much different if she didn’t have so much support. Community is everything. You can accomplish so much more if you work with others as a team.
Q: Anger and all the ways it can be displayed is another central theme, particularly the kind of anger that comes through injustice and fear. Faith seems to find in her anger, a way to deal with fear and the more horrific images that would naturally come to mind in this situation. Anger also seems to mitigate the fear of consequences from such a deep seated and ruthless organization however Faith still has plenty to lose. Does someone like her have a tipping point or is this more a case of choosing her path and sticking to it no matter what?
A: Great question. I, personally, don’t enjoy being around angry people. But anger definitely has its place in society. Anger can fuel the energy needed to make a difference. Faith’s instinct as she recovers from her injuries is to curl up into a ball and waste away. But that little flicker of anger wakes her up. Faith’s only fear is endangering her family. But the path she ultimately chose had no limits. She was on a mission. There would be no tipping point. Nothing was going to stop her.
Q: This series has a strong message in that the forces of good are just as strong as those of evil however people willing to take a hard stand are not so prevalent or easy to find in our society. Besides fear, what do you believe to be some of the other main ingredients acting as a barrier to people getting more involved in rooting out things like trafficking?
A: Sadly, trafficking is growing every year. People are busy with their own lives. They have a full day of work. Chores to do, kids to feed. Time is a precious commodity. Out of sight, out of mind, unless it happens to someone very close to you. Right now, the best thing we can do is be aware. If you believe someone may be a victim of human trafficking, I urge you to call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-373-7888. Also visit the U.S. Department of State to learn the fifteen ways you might be able to help. https://www.state.gov/j/tip/id/help/
About the Author: T.R. Ragan (Theresa Ragan) is a New York Times, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal Bestselling author. Her exciting Lizzy Gardner series: Abducted, Dead Weight, A Dark Mind, Obsessed, Almost Dead, and Evil Never Dies, has received tremendous praise. In August 2015 Evil Never Dies hit #7 on the Wall Street Journal Bestselling List. Since publishing in 2011, she has sold over two million books and has been mentioned in the Wall Street Journal, the L.A. Times, PC Magazine, Huffington Post, and Publishers Weekly. http://www.theresaragan.com/books/
June’s 2017’s Author Spotlight is proud to welcome
Shari Lapena author of The Couple Next Door.
Q: What was it that caused Anne to go against her motherly instincts and agree to leave her baby to attend next door’s dinner party?
A: It was a mixture of things. Pressure from her husband who persuaded her that it would be all right. Feeling intimidated by her neighbor Cynthia who insisted she not bring the baby, and having been brought up “properly” to not be rude. The fact that they would be just on the other side of the wall, with the monitor and checking her constantly, so what, realistically, could possibly happen? And importantly, Anne is suffering, right from the beginning of the story, from post-natal depression. This undermines her self-esteem and her assertiveness; she doubts herself about everything, so she is not trusting her instincts as a mother that tell her not to leave the baby alone.
Q: Anne’s decision to monitor her baby from another home exposes her to a rash of judgment from her parent peers. Why do you think parents, particularly mothers, are so unyielding and harsh when judging other parents’ missteps?
A: That’s a good question. I think we take parenting very seriously, as we should. But sometimes people can be judgmental if they think someone is not doing the right thing. Perhaps it’s because it makes us feel that we are doing a better job, and in that way shores us up against our own insecurities. All parents have insecurities, whether they admit to them or not. And perhaps parents are resentful of other parents who allow themselves more freedom, because they wish they could allow themselves that freedom too, but don’t dare.
Q: Do you believe Rasbach was a fair and impartial investigator or do you feel his own emotions greatly colored his approach the case?
A: I feel that Rasbach was fair and impartial. I certainly intended him to be that way. I don’t think he was biased in any way in the case, but he knows the statistics—he knows that the parents are quite possibly involved. Rasbach always wants to solve the case, he wants his questions answered. Sometimes the truth is awful to know, but he always wants to know. That’s the uncomfortable reality that he, as a police detective, must always deal with.
Q: Marco seems an unlikely candidate for family man. His behavior is secretive, erratic and his priorities seem to bend towards money and a good time. Were his feelings towards Anne from the beginning less about love and more about marrying into money and furthering his own agenda?
A: Oh no! I don’t see Marco that way. He genuinely loves Anne; he didn’t marry her for her money. In a way, her coming from parents with money has just gotten in their way, at least in terms of their relationship. He loves his baby. It’s only when he runs into financial trouble that he missteps and makes some bad decisions. He’s not all bad. He’s the kind of man who really wanted to make it all on his own, and chafes against his in-laws’ help. But he’s weak enough to take it, which is kind of what gets him into the situation he’s in.
Q: Anne is hiding a dark secret which is alluded to in the story but really hits home in the end offering up a surprise plot twist. How much of Anne’s willingness to give in and not go with her gut are influenced by her past and her own health issues?
A: It’s a bit difficult to answer that without a spoiler. I can say up front that Anne is suffering from post-natal depression, and that is affecting her. Because she is depressed, and importantly, very sleep-deprived with a colicky baby, her own self-esteem and assertiveness are negatively impacted, and also possibly her judgement, so that she goes along with Marco’s suggestion. She has other issues that emerge later in the book as well that play a part in the story, but not in her decision to leave the baby at home alone.
About the Author: Shari Lapena is the internationally bestselling author of The Couple Next Door. She was a lawyer and an English teacher before turning her hand to fiction.
She lives in Toronto. sharilapena.com
May’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.