An Interview with Rick Bleiweiss, Author of Pignon Scorbion & the Barbershop Detectives

Rick Bleiweiss began his career in the music industry as a recording artist, Grammy-nominated producer, recorded songwriter and record label senior executive. He worked with such music industry legends as Clive Davis, Robert Stigwood, Pink, Alicia Keys, Kiss, Donna Summer, U2, The Village People, Young MC, Tone Loc, The BeeGees, Run-DMC, Wu Tang Clan, John Mellencamp, Whitney Houston and scores of other superstars. He was named Music Executive of the Year by the Coalition of Independent Music Stores and at times ran his own record labels.

He has written numerous local and national newspaper and magazine columns and articles (including for the Ashland Sneak Preview), chapters in anthologies and books about music, and an award-winning short political humor book.

Bleiweiss is the Head of New Business Development at Blackstone Publishing & Audio, where he has worked since 2006. For Blackstone he secured works by James Clavell, Leon Uris, Catherine Coulter, Gregory McDonald, PC & Kristin Cast, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Pablo Neruda, Andrews & Wilson, Rex Pickett, HP Lovecraft and scores of other well-known and debut authors. He served on the boards of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for eight years and the Ashland Independent Film Festival for two years and on SOU’s President’s Advisory Group for ten years.

He lives in Ashland with his wife, Deborah Morgan, and a Havanese named Gracie.

Ed Battistella: I really enjoyed Pignon Scorbion & the Barbershop Detectives. What should readers know about the book? Who is Pignon Scorbion?

Rick Bleiweiss: The book is very much in the vein of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. It takes place in England in 1910, when the eccentric Scorbion becomes the new Chief Police Inspector for the countryside town of Haxford. Scorbion is very much cut out of the mold of Poirot and Holmes, but he solves his cases in a very unique environment and manner – he holds his interrogations in Haxford’s barbershop where he is assisted by a colorful group of amateur sleuths including the three barbers, the shoeshine man, a young reporter, and a beautiful and brilliant female bookshop owner. The book is a combination of historical fiction, a good old-fashioned whodunit and a cozy mystery.

Scorbion is a complex character whose heritage is Egyptian and Haitian (while he was born in Paris and raised in England). He is an immaculate dresser whose distinctive custom-made clothes are not worn by any others of the time period, he holds opinions and attitudes advanced for the era, and he has foibles – of which he is self-aware.

Pignon Scorbion & the Barbershop Detectives publishes on February 8, 2022 and is available for preorder now as a hardcover, eBook or audiobook most everywhere (on-line and at brick and mortar locations), including Bloomsbury Books in Ashland.

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EB: Scorbion is from the same time period as Sherlock Holmes and I think you even mention that Dr. Watson was a friend of his. Was Holmes an inspiration?

RB: I have been an avid reader and fan of both Holmes and Poirot my whole life and wanted to recreate the style of writing that worked so successfully for those characters. In the numerous endorsements and reviews that the advance copies of Scorbion have received, many have mentioned the book as being similar to Poirot and Holmes books, but unique in its own right. And I have set it up so that the reality that Scorbion is in (the ‘universe’ of the book) is one in which Holmes, Poirot and Watson exist as well. In the book Scorbion does talk about having met Watson and them befriending each other, and also about Scorbion’s planning to travel to meet Poirot at some time.

EB: When you think of Scorbion, whose face do you see? Who would play him in a movie?

RB: If this was 60 years ago, I would have said Anthony Quinn, but I’m withholding comment about this in the present as we are approaching actors to play him in a TV series or film, and I’d rather wait until we see who is most interested before I fully comment on that.

EB: What’s the fascination of detective – or detecting – fiction in your opinion?

RB: To me, people like detective fiction because it challenges them as they try to figure out who did it before the detective does, and also because, in most cases, the characters in a mystery book are interesting and people want to know what happens to them. In the case of my book, I have written Scorbion and the supporting characters as colorful individuals who, hopefully, become a reader’s friends during the course of the book. Also, as opposed to hard-core bloody thrillers, Scorbion’s kind of mystery is lighter fare that won’t make you cringe. Hopefully it will make people smile. In fact, Nancy Pickard, one of mystery writing’s most decorated authors, talks about how much she laughed out loud while reading the book. To be clear though, the book is not a comedy, it’s a full-on mystery with humorous elements.

I find it gratifying that the book has appealed to authors who write in many different genres, all of whom have endorsed it, including Rex Pickett (Sideways), Heather Graham (paranormal, suspense, romance), Andrews & Wilson (military fiction), Shelley Shepherd Gray (romance), Natasha Boyd and Pamela Binnings Ewen (historical fiction), Robert Arellano, Dick Lochte, Nancy Pickard, Amanda Flower and Reed Farrel Coleman (mystery), James Wade (literary fiction), Eric Maikranz (science fiction). And you as well. People just plain like a fun whodunit with interesting cases and good characters.

EB: Scorbion has a whole ensemble of helpers—the Barbershop detectives—what’s their function in the story?

RB: They serve as his foils and assistants and lend color, humor and interest to the book. They help him solve cases, and together become an ensemble that hopefully readers enjoy meeting and knowing. The female bookshop owner serves in that role as well, but also becomes a love interest for Scorbion. She is beautiful and brilliant – a match for Scorbion – and provides a voice for the modern woman of 1910 as she engages in the women’s suffragette movement and other causes. The young reporter serves as Scorbion’s chronicler, somewhat in the way that Watson was for Homes, but also contributes a different perspective at times for Scorbion to consider.

EB: The story and the roles of all the characters was really complex, so there was a lot for you to keep track of, it seemed. Any tricks you can share about the plotting a mystery?

RB: I didn’t start with an outline or anything like that. In fact, I started writing Scorbion as a short story in 2015. I, and the Ashland writing group that I was a member of at the time, so fell in love with him and his associates, that I wrote a second short story. Then, I just kept writing and writing until I expanded the stories to become this book.

You are totally correct, it is complex, and during the writing, I had to continually go back and remind myself what had happened previously in the story, so I made sure to have the entire book be consistent. I also regularly returned to the earlier parts of the book and added more red-herrings and plot points to make the story work to its fullest.

All that said, I didn’t know exactly where the book was going at any specific time. I am fortunate that the characters/story plays out in my head almost as though I am watching a movie of it and my job is to write down what I’m seeing in my mind and make sure I describe it in a way that the reader sees what I see and meets the people I meet.

Also, I did a ton of research for the book. I wanted to make sure it was accurate to the time period and the place (even though Haxford is a fictional town). Also, in the book I incorporated real-life people and events that were taking place in both England and in the world at that time so I had to make certain that everything felt and read like it could have really happened.

EB: I think you’ve mentioned that you have a series in mind? What’s Scorbion’s next case?

RB: I am pleased to say that at this time, the next Scorbion book is written, and those who have read the early, unfinished manuscript have said they love it– which of course, I’m very pleased about. The next cases Scorbion and his amateur sleuths take on are a hot-air balloonist who is shot and killed by an arrow while aloft alone in the balloon, a blacksmith who is murdered on his way home from birthing twin calves, a usurious money lender who suddenly dies in one of the barbers’ chairs and a visiting cousin of one of the characters who is attacked and left unconscious.

EB: What else are you working on?

RB: For Scorbion, video game developers FalconInteractive are creating a Scorbion “find the hidden objects” video game, centered around the book, its scenes and the characters. The game is free and already in app stores, but the last two of the six levels are locked, and the unlock code is in the book and audiobook.

I have also written, played and recorded a theme song for Scorbion called – what else(?) – Scorbion’s Theme. It will be in the audiobook and the video game, is in the video trailer for the book and will be used other places as well. In addition, Blackstone and I are making Scorbion t-shirts for both promotional purposes and to sell.

There’s a fabulous video trailer for the book on my YouTube channel (and Blackstone’s as well). I had no idea that the video maker was going to use me in it as the voiceover, but he did, and I think it came out really well.

I have just completed having my new website created – rickbleiweiss.com – and one of the unique features in it is a listing of most every independent bookstore in the U.S. so that people can find ones in their area easily. At present the list is over 1300 bookstores. I am a huge supporter of independent bookstores and libraries. Also on the website is a Cast of Characters for the Scorbion book.

I have created and am hosting a YouTube video show called Rick Bleiweiss’s Chapter & Verse. Each “episode” is a recorded video conversation between me and a best-selling author, literary agent, film/tv executive and others from the literary and entertainment industries talking about their careers, their books, their jobs and giving advice for aspiring authors and tips on writing. I am in the process of repurposing the audio tracks into a podcast. As of this writing the Chapter & Verse sessions I’ve done, or have on tap, include ones with authors Catherine Coulter, PC Cast, Rex Pickett, Heather Graham, Andrews & Wilson, Susan Purvis, and Howard Bloom, as well as literary agent Mark Gottlieb, tv/film executive Brendan Deneen, author/agent Richard Curtis, and agents Nicole Resciniti & Julie Gwinn. Many more to come. I think of it as the Inside the Actor’s Studio for authors and writing.

I have a story in a short story mystery anthology that’s being published in May called Hotel California. The book includes newly written stories by Heather Graham, Jennifer Dornbush, Don Bruns, Andrew Child (he has taken over the Jack Reacher books from his brother Lee and has contributed a new Reacher story for the book), John Gilstrap, Reed Farrel Coleman, and Amanda Flower – all best-selling and award-winning authors.

My story centers around a New York City hitman named Walker who escapes to Hawaii when he becomes the target of a hit himself, and his adventures on Maui as he plays a cat and mouse game of survival with the hitman sent to finish him off.

I also have a short story in what will be the follow-up anthology, Thriller.

For the past two years I’ve been writing, playing and recording pop/rock songs with singers Jake Howard and William Ray. And lastly, at least for now, I am finishing up a science fiction rock opera that I have co-written with an ex-bandmate of mine (from back when I was a working rock musician) called The Eye of Jupiter. It’s something like what Star Wars would be like if it was a musical combined with the Rocky Horror Picture Show. The demo music from the rock opera and my other recordings can be accessed through my second website rickbleiweissmisc.com

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

RB: Thank you for asking me to and thank you for the kind words you personally wrote about Scorbion.

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Literary Ashland Interview with Michael Niemann, author of The Last Straw

Award winning author Michael Niemann is the author of six novels featuring UN investigator Valentin Vermeulen. Niemann grew up in a small town in western Germany before moving to the United States. He has studied at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms Universität in Bonn, Germany, and the Graduate School of International Studies, University of Denver where he received a PhD in International Studies.

His novels Legitimate Business and Illicit Trade came out in 2017. Illegal Holdings appeared in 2018 and won the 2019 Silver Falchion Award for Best Thriller at Killer NashvilleNo Right Way and Percentages of Guilt followed in 2019 and 2020. All are published by Coffeetown Press.

His short stories have appeared in Vengeance, the 2012 Mystery Writers of America anthology edited by Lee Child, and Mysterical-EAfrica Always Needs Guns, Big Dreams Cost Too Much and Some Kind of Justice are available as Kindle singles. You can learn more at Michael-Niemann.com

His book The Last Straw, set on the US-Mexico border, is available in November 2021.

Ed Battistella: I really enjoyed THE LAST STRAW and its plot ripped from the headlines. Can you tell us a bit about the story?

Michael Niemann: The tragedy of what was happening at the border over the past few years really gripped me. I’ve taught human rights for thirty-four years and so I knew that the US treatment of refugees was in violation of international law. The Refugee convention is binding for the US.

Talking about this with a friend of mine, she said, “You’ve got to bring Vermeulen to the border.” To which I could only say, “How?” He has no authority, no way of doing anything inside the US. That meant I had to bring him into the story apart from his regular job. Ostensibly he’s on a break, accompanying his partner Tessa Bishonga, who’s a journalist writing about the border. His vacation is interrupted almost immediately after he lands in Tucson. A skeleton is found in the desert. Next to the skeleton lies a notebook in a foreign language. It contains a Manhattan phone number. The number is Vermeulen’s. Since the skeleton was murdered, Vermeulen is drawn into the investigation of the local DA. It doesn’t take long before he realizes that a seven-year-old case has come back to haunt him, and he begins to investigate to get ahead of the authorities. In the process, he gets a closeup view of the mess that’s happening at the southern border.

EB: What was the biggest challenge for you in doing the book?

MN: After developing the premise—a challenge in itself—the biggest challenge was writing about the plight of refugees and asylum seekers with empathy, but also casting them as whole people with complex lives who are caught in a cruel machinery that has been built over the past decades.

The history of this border is complex and painful to read. It’s easy to do that with a “fact dump” that explains how things got to be so bad. At the same time, this is a thriller, exposition must be matched by action. So I struggled a little on how to weave that history into the story in a way that furthered the plot.

That’s the challenge of bringing current politics into a novel. It has to be in service of the story being told. If it isn’t, the story falters and readers will stop reading. Not because they don’t want to read about politics, but because they bought a novel, not a non-fiction book. So the novel has to satisfy those expectations.

EB: What was the research like? I noticed you had some forensic anthropology, some criminal law and more. Do you have a group of consultants you rely on for all that?

MN: No consultants for me. My royalties don’t quite add up to what it takes to make that possible. As I indicated, I’m pretty familiar with refugees and the legal rights to which they are entitled (despite the failure of many countries to honor those). As to the rest, the internet and especially Wikipedia is a wonderful source of detailed information. I had some prior knowledge of forensic anthropology—some of the worst human rights violations in the world were documented by forensic anthropologists who examined mass graves. It so happens that the medical examiner of Pima County (Tucson) does indeed employ such a specialist. It simply takes digging a little deeper to learn how determine the approximate age, sex, and other characteristics of a skeleton.

Learning about Arizona grand juries was a bit of a challenge, but I lucked out when I found a complete transcript of a grand jury session held in Cochise County, the very county where Vermeulen has to testify. A disgruntled citizen had put it on the internet. It gave me a sense of the questions posed, the role of the county attorney and the involvement of individual jurors.

EB: What was your favorite part of this story?

MN: I must say, I had a really good time creating the key confrontations and then developing strategies for the protagonists to escape from them. Delano’s confrontation with the Cartel De Jalisco Nueva Generación was a lot of fun to develop. It’s easy getting characters into trouble, but much more difficult getting them out again in ways that are plausible but not obvious. Who knew that potatoes are a cheap and effective means to disable cars?

But I had the most fun making readers root for one villain over another. At least that was my intention and I hope I succeeded.

EB: It was nice to see Camille Delano, who appeared in Illicit Trade, return. Was that part of the idea from the beginning?

MN: Honestly, I don’t remember. All I had was the skeleton. Then I needed to find a way to link it to Vermeulen. That brought back the memories of the sad-looking character from Illicit Trade. Once he was in the story, Camille Delano became the obvious choice since she disappeared at the end of the second novel.

EB: The book ends with some changes for Valentin Vermeulen. What’s next for him?

MN: Yes, the ending does bring changes. What those changes are is up in the air for now. I wanted to keep my options open because I like Vermeulen as a character.

EB: Where can readers get THE LAST STRAW and your other books.

MN: All my books are available where books are sold. Local readers can get them at Bloomsbury Books in Ashland. Readers farther afield can try the usual online places.

EB: Thanks for talking with us. Good luck with THE LAST STRAW

MN: Thanks, Ed. I appreciate the opportunity of being a guest on your blog.

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An Interview with Arika Okrent, author of Highly Irregular

Arika Okrent has an undergraduate degree from Carleton College, an M.A. in Linguistics from Gallaudet University, and a Ph.D. in Psycholinguistics from University of Chicago. A winner of the Linguistic Society of America’s Linguistic Journalism Award in 2016 and a former contributing editor at Mental Floss, she writes about language for a popular audience.

She is the author of the 2009 book In the Land of Invented Languages, a sparkling tour of artificial languages from Blissymbolics to Esperanto to Klingon. Her latest book is Highly Irregular: Why Tough, Through, andDough Don’t Rhyme and Other Oddities of the English Language, an illustrated history of English that reveals why the language is so weird.

Ed Battistella: How did you get interested in linguistics?

Arika Okrent: I was always interested in languages, their rules, and how they differ from each other. I didn’t discover linguistics until after college (a shame, because I went to one of the few small undergraduate colleges that actually has a linguistics department, Carleton College), but I was so relieved when I did. So I wasn’t just flaky, flitting from language to language! There was a whole field for what I wanted to study! Not languages, considered one at a time and independently from each other, but LANGUAGE, that thing that underlies them all (whatever it may be).

EB: In Highly Irregular, you managed to home in on exactly the questions about English that I hear from students –and relatives—weird spellings, unlikely meanings, the pronunciation of colonel. How did you determine what to include?

AO: I wanted to include a good distribution of questions, from different levels of language: letters, spellings, sounds, words, meanings, phrases, sentence structures. I think weird spellings are the most noticeable irregularities about English, but there is weirdness at every level, and it can get harder to see the more fluent you are. But kids and non-native speakers see it right away. The best questions come from them.

I also wanted a good distribution across time periods, of where in the history of the development of English the awkward bits originated. Some we can blame on the oldest layer; things that got stuck and didn’t change. Some come in later with developments in literacy, printing, and social attitudes.

EB: What was the research like in telling the stories of all these oddities? It seems daunting.

AO: There is a lot! But I could tackle each question one at a time, and after a while it became clearer from the beginning where each explanation would fit in the general, larger historical picture. It was interesting to me that some of the stories I already “knew” from my linguistics background turned out to be not exactly what I thought they were when looked at in the larger historical frame. For example I knew that there was an l in would and should because they come from will and shall, but I never thought about the fact that the l had already fallen silent by the time of printing and the spread of literacy, making it much easier for could to then acquire an l. Could got its l from the printed form of would and should and their frequency. But if the l was still pronounced there, it probably wouldn’t have picked it up.

EB: I really loved the way that the illustrations punctuated the prose. Can you tell us a bit about your collaboration with Sean O’Neill? You two have worked before.

AO: We worked together on a series of whiteboard videos for Mental Floss, 2 or 3 minute explanations of various language topics. These are on my YouTube channel. At first the idea was that I could pack more information in by having words+pictures going simultaneously, but what his drawings ended up doing was not just adding another angle to get at the information but really humanizing the things I was explaining. Linguists can get caught up in the abstractions of words, sounds, syntax, but all of those things only have identity through humans using them, and he brings that to life in a light, humorous way. For years our workflow has been this: I send him text, he creates drawings to go with it, and the work goes up. I almost never request any changes. I’m a word person, happy to have found a picture person who can come up with ways to visualize wordy concepts.

EB: I loved the unusual words you came up with—like the fancy-pants addubitation and the down-to-earth witcraft. Are there any words or forms you’d like to bring back to life?

AO: I think we could use some of the verbs from the old patterns that disappeared or became irregular. We could say, “yesterday I boke a cake.” Or “he already clamb that mountain.” Sounds more to the point somehow!

EB: You talk about some words that are trying too hard. I loved that idea. Can you give an example?

AO: The funny thing is that there are words that sound ridiculous to us now, and sounded a bit “too much” when they were coined, that have counterparts that are just as gussied up but don’t sound ridiculous at all anymore, maybe a little fancy, but not ridiculous. So there was the ridiculous inexcogitable, meaning unable (in-, -able) to be developed (-it) out of (ex-) thought (cog-). But we have inconceivable and incomprehensible which are just as cobbled together from Latinate parts. Are they trying too hard? Maybe a little, but we use them and don’t notice so much. Inexcogitable just couldn’t get over the usage hump. It’s trying way too hard.

Shakespeare made fun of this trend in Love’s Labour Lost with the word honorificabilitudinitatibus. It would mean something like “the state of being able to achieve honors” but it is used in the play to mock a couple of scholarly types. He didn’t make it up. It was a Latin word that people knew about and found very out of place in English.

EB: What’s your favorite oddity about English?

AO: I think the way that some words have been split into two words just because someone decided it should be so. Discrete and discreet, for example. We spend a lot of time learning the spelling difference and trying to keep track of which is which, but originally they were the same word. Someone decided to use one spelling for the “separation” aspect of the meaning and another for the “able to be discerning” aspect and a few people went along with that and then everyone not only decided to go along with that, but to enforce it as if it were some inviolable rule handed down from heaven. It’s similar to the way we are starting to use two different spellings for aesthetics (in art) and esthetics (in the cosmetic beauty business). The spelling difference is not yet really enforced as a rule, but some day people may say these are totally different words. We really want spelling differences to correspond to meaning differences!

EB: Are there some emerging oddities that you are tracking?

AO: It’s so hard to predict what future speakers might perceive as odd. Why would a 12th century English speaker think the silent k in knot would ever be odd? They actually pronounced it and didn’t know it would stop being pronounced. But there are some things having to do with technologies that have already disappeared that might seem odd someday. Or already do seem odd to a young person. For example, why podcast? What is that pod in there? If you’re a teenager you’ve probably never seen an iPod, and you listen to podcasts on your phone. My lifetime experience of technology as a middle-aged person means I know why we say “roll up” a car window, and “hang up” a phone, and “rewind” a video but a teenager will be using those words without any experiential connection to the technology that produced them. They’ll probably end up like “eggplant” words. There is a good reason why there’s an egg in there, but we’ve lost our cultural connection to it.

EB: I saw that you once worked in a brain lab. What was that like?

AO: It was exciting! Can you believe it’s actually possible to see an image of brain activity as people are performing mental tasks? (After the fact, with a lot of math involved, but still!) It’s also frustrating in that while it’s possible to locate tasks in the brain, to see what areas light up when tasks are performed, it’s a lot harder to say what that means or what the significance is, especially when it comes to language.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

AO: Thank you so much for inviting me. I appreciate the thoughtful questions.

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An Interview with Michael Rousell, author of THE POWER OF SURPRISE

Dr. Michael A. Rousell is a teacher, psychologist, and professor emeritus at Southern Oregon University. Rousell studied life-changing events for over three decades and established his expertise by writing the internationally successful book Sudden Influence: How Spontaneous Events Shape Our Lives (2007). His pioneering work draws on research from a wide variety of brain sciences that show when, how, and why we instantly form new beliefs. He lives with his spouse in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

His new book is THE POWER OF SURPRISE: HOW YOUR BRAIN SECRETLY CHANGES YOUR BELIEFS (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).

Ed Battistella: Tell us about your forthcoming book THE POWER OF SURPRISE: HOW YOUR BRAIN SECRETLY CHANGES YOUR BELIEFS.

Mike Rousell: Formative moments always fascinated me, those moments that make us who we are, the ones that form beliefs about ourselves. But it’s hard to trace back a belief to when it first formed. For example, do you believe you are clever If so, how did that belief develop? Was it incremental, parents and teachers praising your efforts and commenting on your brilliant creative efforts? Did this belief erupt suddenly through a surprise? Here’s an example. Jane thinks she isn’t creative. One day her boss surprises her by saying, “You keep coming up with clever solutions.” While this isn’t all that stunning, it’s potentially transformative. If Jane already believes she is clever, she accepts this comment as praise. But, if it surprised her, a host of neurological and cognitive processes take place that just might generate an instant new belief: “I’m clever.” That’s what surprises do. And this all takes place instantly, usually outside our awareness because it happens so fast.

EB: You write about the evolutionary purpose of beliefs and your work involves neurological and cognitive research.

MR: Here’s the fascinating part. In our evolutionary past, a surprise often meant immense opportunity or imminent danger. Alert! Am I safe? Is this an opportunity? Those who stopped to think didn’t make it to the gene pool. Accordingly, evolution hard wired us to learn instantly during a moment of surprise.

Let’s take a look at the Jane example about being clever. Once the brain signals a surprise, it needs to make sense of the surprise so it doesn’t happen again. First, you need to know a little about dopamine. We usually think of it as our motivator neurotransmitter. High levels mean approach. Low levels mean avoid. But a sudden spike in dopamine is an error signal, our brain’s way of saying stop what you’re doing, pay attention, and learn. Neurologically, a surprise is a two-phase burst of dopamine, what scientists call phasic dopamine. Here’s how it works. Phase one is a sudden spike signaling that something important is going on. It only lasts milliseconds. Phase two produces a long-lasting change in the dopamine concentration, tagged to the cause or outcome. In Jane’s case, it means she shows signs of cleverness.

Here’s the cognitive part. If you see a monkey in your yard, you’d be surprised, and you’d check it out. We can confirm or disconfirm events in the concrete world. With beliefs about our identity, that doesn’t work. Our brains take a markedly different approach. They do an instant Google search in your repertoire of experiences. In Jane’s case her brain searches for and inevitable finds “times I was clever.” Also like any Google search, she will get pages of hits. That confirms her cleverness. And that’s not all. Now that her cleverness is confirmed, she starts to view life through the lens of “I’m clever.” She sees examples of her cleverness everywhere, more affirmation. That’s our friend confirmation bias at work.

Here’s a key aspect. If you asked Jane how she formed her belief about cleverness, she’d likely say she didn’t know. That’s the secret part. Her boss merely noted it. The belief formation happened so fast it bypassed conscious radar. Her instinctive Google search tells her she’s always been clever. Or her search may find an old memory when she won a coloring contest in third grade.

EB: How does surprise affect learning?

MR: Surprise boosts attention and facilitates long-term memory. So, use it as much as you can. Here’s an example I use in my teacher-preparation classes. I ask my students to predict the correlation between self-esteem and school success. Is it positive, as one increases, so does the other, and if so, is it strong, moderate, or weak? I give them a moment to think about it, then right down their answers, then discuss it within their groups. After a minute, I tell them to openly discuss their responses. The vast majority predict a strong positive correlation. They now expect me to begin a lesson on how to raise students’ self-esteem. I tricked them. I tell them that the correlation does not even exist. This surprises them, “What the,” and this surprise drives curiosity, a need to know. Now they listen thoughtfully as I give challenging examples. You know, the bully who loves himself but gets low grades, victims of ridicule that earn great grades but feel horrible about themselves. If I had simply lectured on the topic, it would have the same results as any lecture material. But because I surprised them, they will all remember this lesson and maybe even try to surprise other teachers. The media and entertainment use surprise strategically all the time to keep your attention. Think of news teasers, “And you thought dogs were your best friend—stay tuned. You won’t believe it.”

EB: How did you get interested in surprise and spontaneity?

MR: As a young man I was fascinated with hypnosis, so I gave it a try. I hypnotized everybody I could. People asked, “Can you hypnotize someone without them knowing? What if they never came out of it.” Epiphany! I started to think, are we all just hypnotized, acting out someone else’s inadvertent suggestions. That lead to a three-decade research agenda on formative moments, events that form beliefs we hold about ourselves. When I asked people to tell me about moments that changed a belief, they often told me about events in their lives that surprised them. Aha, I thought. So I started studying surprise as a catalyst of formative moments.

EB: This may seem like an odd question, but is it possible to plan surprise?

MR: If you mean, “Can we use surprise strategically,” yes, we can. Here’s an example from one of my graduate students. Karla taught junior English. Her student Jeremy regularly requested a library pass because he thought he wasn’t smart enough to participate in class. Karla knows he has impressive technical savvy because he helps his father repair computers. During one of his regular requests, she decided to surprise him by saying, “Are you kidding me? You’re one of the smartest kids I know. Anyone who can do what you do with computers is brilliant.” After that, his attendance improved, and he didn’t request library passes anymore. Karla surprised Jeremy by saying the opposite of what he thought about himself. If this comment surprised him, he has to make sense of it. He probably moved from “I’m not smart enough” to “I am smart enough, just not that interested.” And that’s a much more productive mindset.

Caveat: I don’t want to leave the impression just saying anything to someone that is opposite to what they expect will suddenly cause a character transformation. Most comments that challenge our beliefs get dismissed. The delivery of belief-changing comments requires artful and scientific wherewithal. But we can all learn it. For example, praise often sounds phony, and it’s easily dismissed. State something most others miss, like it’s an objective observation. Instead of “Wow! You’re creative.” Something like, “Your ability to think outside the box makes inventive ideas.”

EB: Do we ever surprise ourselves?

MR: That’s a fun question. Yes, we can surprise ourselves, but we can’t do it intentionally. Here’s an example. Someone challenges you to see how many pushups you can do. You haven’t done any in 10 years and think you’ll do 4 or 5 at most. You do 25. What! That surprised you. Here’s what happens instantly at a cognitive level. You instantly form a new belief, “I guess I’m in better shape than I thought.” And your brain does this Google search to understand why and it automatically finds pages of reasons: working on cabinets for the last few months, trimming overhead branches from trees in the yard, and so on. We surprise ourselves all the time.

EB: You’ve recently retired from teaching? How do you spend your time?

MR: I had planned a wonderful retirement, but COVID postponed it. I write, exercise, read, and make time to do interviews and podcasts.

EB: Thanks for talking with us. I really enjoyed THE POWER OF SURPRISE.

MR: Thank you for the opportunity. It’s a pleasure to share my passion for making lives richer.

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An Interview with Margaret Perrow, author of A Hidden History of Youth Development in South Africa

Dr. Margaret Perrow is Professor of English and English Education at Southern Oregon University, where she has taught since 2006. She has a BA from Yale University and an MA and PhD in Language, Literacy, and Culture in Education from the University of California, Berkeley and is the co-director of the Oregon Writing Project at SOU. Prior to joining Southern Oregon University, she worked at the Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools.

As part of its Perspectives on Education in Africa, Routledge has just released her book A Hidden History of Youth Development in South Africa: Learning in Transition, which draws on two decades of interviews and ethnographic fieldwork with a South African non-governmental organization called the Joint Enrichment Project.

Ed Battistella: Congratulations on A Hidden History of Youth Development in South Africa: Learning in Transition, which reflects your long involvement with education and democracy in south Africa. Can you tell us a little about your history and how this book came about?

Margaret Perrow: This book was nearly 25 years in the making! In 1997, I took an exploratory research trip to South Africa. I had both personal and professional reasons for that trip. My father, who’d passed away in 1982, was South African – but he had never really talked much about his childhood or his young adulthood there. I had relatives in Johannesburg and Cape Town, and I wanted to explore some family history.

On the professional front, I had been teaching in an alternative education (GED) program for young adults in San Francisco. My master’s thesis had investigated their perceptions of learning — what learning meant for them — and I was feeling around for a good related focus for my PhD dissertation. South Africa had recently held its first democratic elections after years of anti-apartheid struggle, and it seemed like an interesting place to do a similar study, looking at what learning might mean in alternative education settings for young adults in a country that was undergoing rapid socio-economic and political transition. Post-apartheid South Africa was also a good bet for finding research funding at the time. Several grants, including a Fulbright dissertation fellowship, made it possible for me to spend 18 months in Johannesburg. A series of fortuitous connections led me to the Joint Enrichment Project (JEP). JEP was a prominent youth-development NGO with strong roots in anti-apartheid resistance. I was privileged to be invited into JEP as a visiting researcher, where I got to know a group of young adults from Soweto, the townships outside Johannesburg.

I returned to California, completed my dissertation in 2000, and then did not follow the advice of my advisors at the time, to “write the book now!” But the friends I had made, both participants and staff at the NGO, tugged at my heart. I returned for several extended visits over the years, and periodically toyed with the idea of writing a book. By the time of my sabbatical from SOU in 2018, I was finally ready! In fact, the intervening years presented a unique opportunity to look back at how the lives of JEP’s participants and staff had changed over two decades. It was exciting and gratifying to reconnect with so many people who’d been young adults in the late ‘90s.

EB: I was intrigued by the idea that one of your interviewees had that they were “old youth”. What did that mean?

MP: Great question! In 1994, Nelson Mandela officially declared June 16 as Youth Day, making it a public holiday commemorating the young people who led and participated in the 1976 anti-apartheid uprising in Soweto. That man who wrote “we are all old youth” to me in a text message, replying to my “Happy Youth Day” message, was in his early 50s. The collective memory of the important role that youth played in the anti-apartheid struggle is still powerful today, 45 years after the Soweto uprising. You might even say that the idea of youth evokes a sort of nostalgia for agency and power that people today – particularly black South Africans, who make up the majority of the population – do not experience in their daily lives.

The people featured in my book were in their 20s when South Africa was emerging from apartheid. They were too young to have been leaders in the 1976 uprising, but as participants at JEP in the late 1990s they experienced a strong sense of purpose and agency. The memory of this feeling stuck with them – that’s one of the things I write about in the chapters on “repositioning” and “negotiating identity,” and also in the chapter titled “A time-being thing.” The NGO offered them the space and the language to gain an exciting feeling that they were in transition personally, in a country that was undergoing rapid transition. As adults today, that feeling remains an emotional touchstone for them, and they look back nostalgically at that period of their youth.

EB: How has South Africa changed since you first went there? You’ve got an interesting vantage point I think.

MP: With the 1994 elections came political freedoms, and also exuberant anticipation that socio-economic changes would be widespread and quick, especially for the majority-black population living in poverty. But change after 1994 was both astonishingly rapid and excruciatingly slow. Today South Africa is a better place in many ways for black Africans, who make up approximately 80% of the population: universal citizenship; legally desegregated education; business and employment opportunities theoretically available to all; an expanded social-grants program for pensioners and parents of dependent children; increased government housing; greater access to water, electricity and sanitation; more paved streets and streetlights in urban townships; a free press; business and government leaders who reflect the country’s racial demographics.

Yet the country is still plagued by an enormous and persistent gap between a well-off minority (which includes a growing percentage of black Africans) and the vast majority who continue to struggle with poverty and unemployment. The historian Colin Bundy has put it well, saying that in South Africa “the past permeates the present,” inhibiting real structural transformation. The JEP participants’ material circumstances have improved slightly over twenty years, but none have achieved the sort of upward mobility they hoped for when they completed the program in 1998.

EB: The subtitle of your book is “Learning in Transition.” How has learning been in transition in urban South Africa?

MP: I tried to make learning a kind of understated central character in the book. For decades under the system known as Bantu Education, education for black people in South Africa had the express purpose of developing a large supply of manual labor to support the capital interests of the minority white population. To greatly oversimplify things, it was this view of learning that young people were protesting in 1976. When high school students took to the Soweto streets in 1976, they were demanding “education for liberation” rather than education that systematically reproduced the racialized inequities of apartheid. Another significant shift in the meaning and purpose of learning took place in the 1990s, when terms like learner-centered education, a culture of teaching and learning, and learnerships became part of the language of education policy. These concepts – and a new curriculum that included “life skills” – suggested that learning could be viewed as a process of personal development. But in actual practice, learning in the schools attended by most black Africans has remained a matter of acquiring skills and information. That is, a view of learning as the development of human capital in service of the economy.

EB: The JEP or Joint Enrichment Project you worked with helped to construct identity for the Sowetan youth involved. Can you tell us a little about that identity construction?

MP: Yes, that is another shift in the meaning of learning that I tried to highlight: learning as a process of identity-construction. JEP modeled this in its youth-development programs, which emphasized what they called “personal development.” When education’s primary purpose is the producing human capital, development of the whole person is easily neglected. Emerging out of the violence and oppression of the apartheid era, young black South Africans had social and emotional needs that a human-capital view of learning did not address, even if the new curriculum had some content called “life skills.”

Many of the participants came to the Joint Enrichment Project feeling, as I came to see it, “stuck in-between” in their lives. Most were too young to have actively participated in the resistance movement, but too old to have benefited from post-apartheid changes in the education system. Many hadn’t finished formal schooling, and they all were unemployed. They had the feeling that the country was changing around them, and they didn’t want to be left behind. In addition to new skills, the NGO offered them new ways of talking and interacting that led to a personal sense of being “in transition” in a transitioning country. That shift in self-identity was palpable and powerful by the time they completed the program.

EB: In a couple of places you mention discourse paradoxes or discourse shifts. What was the role of language in the politics of education you studied?

MP: Any story about South Africa is at some level a story about language and languages – and which voices are heard or unheard. South Africa officially recognized eleven languages in its new Constitution. Eleven! You can imagine the challenge this creates for public education. Remapping the national discursive terrain, especially in education policy, is not as simple as legislating language protections.

English and Zulu tended to be the lingua francas at JEP. But all the participants were fluent to some degree in multiple languages. Language-meshing was common, with Afrikaans, Sotho, Tswana, and Xhosa woven into conversations.

My view of language in the book draws on critical discourse analysis, a methodology that analyzes how language use both reflects and constructs social realities. Shifts in the Joint Enrichment Project’s focus, purpose, and identity are visible in its shifting discourse over the years—from its formation in 1986 to its closure in 2008. It was fascinating to trace this history, especially as the NGO played a key role in the anti-apartheid movement and subsequent development of youth policy in South Africa.

I think JEP’s biggest challenge as an NGO was to shift from an anti-apartheid agenda to promoting a partnership with the government – a complete pivot in identity! Over time, a discourse of resistance gave way to a discourse of skill-building, which shifted to a focus on personal development, and eventually to a discourse of self-promotion in a free-market economy. What was fascinating to me was how these shifts in the institutional discourse were reflected in the participants’ own talk and interactions.

EB: As you point out, it’s difficult to write about race and privilege. Were there certain disciplines or perspectives that were particularly helpful for you?

MP: As a white, foreign researcher in a predominantly black African context, I worried a lot about committing what philosopher Miranda Fricker has called “epistemic injustice.” I’m acutely aware of the risk of misrepresenting people’s experiences, or interpreting their experiences in ways that would seem unfamiliar to them. At a couple of points, I almost actually gave up the project for this reason. But ultimately, I’ve come to believe that there is value in sharing my particular viewpoint, informed as it is by my whiteness, my foreignness, my position of relative privilege. So I’ve found Fricker’s concept of the researcher as “virtuous hearer” to be extremely helpful. It’s helpful to remember that in all our interactions, our relative social identities shape what people tell us, and also how we interpret what they say.There are some particular disciplinary perspectives that I think have helped me put this concept into practice. Providing readers with sufficient context is critical to writing about race, privilege, and oppression. This is why I’m a fan of the extended case-study method popularized by sociologist Michael Burawoy, which allowed me to situate particular events in a broader socio-historical context. As an ethnographic researcher, immersive participant-observation over many years helped me find an empathic stance. So did learning some isiZulu from the JEP participants. And as I mentioned earlier, critical discourse analysis has been a helpful lens for understanding how racialized privilege and oppression are reproduced or challenged through everyday language use.

EB: On a different note, how has the experience of studying youth development in South Africa shaped your understanding of learning in the US, especially in this time of pandemic?

MP: I must say first that it’s been difficult to hear the news from South Africa – they’re currently experiencing a third wave of COVID, with infection rates at an all-time high. Less than 5% of the population is fully vaccinated. Lockdowns are continuing, including school closures. This has been especially hard on people with young children living in townships or rural areas with limited or no Internet access at home. Like here in the US, pre-existing racialized inequities have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Studying youth development through the lens of a South African NGO has strengthened my belief that learning is most powerful when it’s understood not as simply acquiring marketable skills and knowledge, but as a process of identity construction. The students in my classes are human beings first and foremost; how and what they learn is shaped by who they are, and affects who they’re becoming. As teachers, it’s important to remember that learning and identity are inextricably linked. And that the process of learning – our teaching techniques, our use of language, the way we help students connect with each other – affect who our students become as much as the content or skills they are acquiring.

EB: Thanks for talking with us and sharing your insights.

MP: Thank you for the thought-provoking questions!

Book (hardcover and e-book versions) available from Routledge here: https://www.routledge.com/A-Hidden-History-of-Youth-Development-in-South-Africa-Learning-in-Transition/Perrow/p/book/9780367261412

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An Interview with Nathan Harris, author of The Sweetness of Water

Writer Nathan Harris has a MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Oregon, where he won the Kidd Prize. He was a 2010 graduate of Ashland High School.

His debut novel, The Sweetness of Water, is the story of two brothers, formerly enslaved in Georgia, who form an alliance with a white farmer who believes he has lost his son in the Civil War. Oprah Winfrey selected it as an Oprah’s Book Club pick, calling The Sweetness of Water a “kind of a Juneteenth celebration.” Writer Richard Russo said: “Harris has, in a sense, unwritten Gone With the Wind, detonating its phony romanticism, its unearned sympathies, its wretched racism.” And The Sweetness of Water is one of the recommendations on Barack Obama’s 2021 Summer Reading List.

Ed Battistella: When I read about your book, I ran right over to Bloomsbury Books and bought a copy. I really loved the book. How did you get the idea to write about this period and these characters?

Nathan Harris: A few years ago, I happened upon the transcriptions of freed slaves speaking with historians, and I was struck by how little I knew about the days that immediately followed the Civil War. If all of you could just Imagine, having spent your entire life in bondage, your every movement controlled by others, and suddenly waking up to the earthshaking revelation that the government has given you a new identity, one of being free – while you’re still occupying the same traumatized body, living with the same tortured history of your past, that has defined your entire existence. And now you must navigate the next chapter of your life with no guidance, no signposts to tell you where you might go next, or what freedom even means in this precarious, and even dangerous, new circumstance. The thought fascinated me, and I realized that no novel that I had read had covered that specific moment in time. My imagination started working then, and the seeds for The Sweetness of Water were planted. I imagined two brothers, just freed, standing before the plantation that had been their home, their workplace, their everything… and suddenly being given the option to roam the world as they pleased. Where would they go? What would they do?

EB: One thing I found myself noticing was how you kept the tension going. I was on the edge of my seat again and again. Is this building the tension something you consciously worked on as you wrote the novel?

NH: I think keeping the reader’s interest is at the core of storytelling. It’s definitely something I strive for, but I also follow the story to its endpoint organically. I’m not going to orchestrate some huge twist just to keep the reader intrigued… but at the end of the day, if someone is willing to pick up my book, it’s my job to keep them entertained to some degree.

EB: How did the characters evolve as you wrote it? I loved the ensemble of characters you created and the way that each grew and stood out at different times. Did you have that in mind from the start or did some of the characters take over?

NH: Like the storyline, the necessity of each character became clear over time. George and the brothers were always there. But then I thought, why is George grieving? What brings him to the woods that night? And so Isabelle and Caleb become more clear to me, then. Each chapter that follows simply tags along to the consciousness of the person who best represents that moment in the story. It’s almost magical to find out where the story will go, following its twists and turns naturally, and finding the proper tools to burrow into the respective characters’ mind that I must in order to progress things.

EB: What was the historical research like for The Sweetness of Water? It must have been extensive.

NH: Extensive to me! Perhaps less so for a historian. Whenever I needed to educate myself on some matter, I certainly researched it, and that work can take up a whole writing session… learning just enough to finish a paragraph at times. But it’s part of the job.

EB: Who are some of the writers whose work inspired you?

NH: I could go on for days. Edward P. Jones, James McBride, Toni Morrison, Richard Russo, Marilynne Robinson, J. M. Coetzee, to name a few.

EB: Any thoughts on what the novel has to say about living in today’s world?

NH: We live in a country in flux. Somehow, still, we are going through a lot of the trials that these characters are going through in the novel. That’s a sobering thought, but we should also consider that our country survived that crisis. It can do so again. If only we empathize with one another. Try to overcome our differences. It’s possible.

EB: What are your plans for the future, writing-wise and career-wise?

NH: I imagine I’ll keep writing. I have little else to occupy my time. What I will write . . . now that’s the question.

EB: Thanks for talking with us. I hope you get back to Ashland sometime.

NH: Ashland is home, and I’m always planning my next return. I only hope I can meet with some readers while I’m there.

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An Interview with Margalit Fox, author of The Confidence Men

photo credit: Ivan Farkas

Margalit Fox is the author of three previous books: Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals about the Mind (Simon & Schuster, 2007); The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2013), which received the William Saroyan Prize for International Writing; and Conan Doyle  for the Defense: The True Story of a Sensational British Murder, a Quest for Justice, and the World’s Most Famous Detective Writer (Random House, 2018).

Ms. Fox enjoyed a 24-year-career at the New York Times, as an editor at the Sunday Book Review and a senior writer in the Obituary News department. She received the Front Page Award from the Newswomen’s Club of New York in 2011 for feature writing, and in 2015 for beat reporting. She is one of four authors whose work is prominently featured in Steven Pinker’s 2014 best seller, The Sense of Style; in 2016, the Poynter Institute named her one of the six best writers in the Times’s history. With her Times colleagues, she stars in Obit, Vanessa Gould’s acclaimed documentary of 2017.

Her recently released nonfiction thriller, The Confidence Men: How Two Prisoners of War Engineered the Most Remarkable Escape in History, published by Random House, tells the true story of Elias Henry Jones and Cedric Waters Hill, two British POWs who orchestrated an elaborate con game, centering on a handmade Ouija board, that let them flee a Turkish prison camp during World War I. Publishers Weekly called The Confidence Men a “marvelous history” and the Washington Post said it was “enthralling.” (@margalitfox; #FoxConfidenceMen)

Ed Battistella: I really enjoyed The Confidence Men, both for the story itself, with its wonderful writing, and for its insights about the history of cons and mentalism. How did you discover the story of Elias Henry Jones and Cedric Waters Hill?

Margalit Fox: Thank you, Ed! This book, my fourth, is especially dear to my heart because of the eye-popping nature of its true story—the tale of a prison break so bizarre it should never have worked. What delighted me every bit as much as the story itself was the way in which I encountered it: thumbing through a dusty, long-out-of-print book, looking for something else entirely.

About three years ago, when my previous book, Conan Doyle for the Defense, was in production, I began casting about for what to write next. I was vaguely thinking of doing something about the nature of identity as seen through the exploits of pathological impostors—people like Frank Abagnale, of Catch Me if You Can fame, or Ferdinand Demara, the subject of Robert Crichton’s 1959 biography, The Great Imposter, and the Hollywood adaptation, starring Tony Curtis, released the next year.

From my home library, I took down one of my favorite volumes: Grand Deception: The World’s Most Spectacular and Successful Hoaxes, Impostures, Ruses and Frauds, a 1955 anthology edited by Alexander Klein. I knew it contained at least one piece on imposture, but what caught my eye was an essay with the most tantalizing title I’ve ever seen on a work of nonfiction: “The Invisible Accomplice.” That essay, written by my protagonist, the Welsh artilleryman Elias Henry Jones, and originally published in the 1930s, recounted his escapade in brief. It led me back to The Road to En-dor, Jones’s book-length memoir of 1919.

I’ve always been a huge fan of POW-escape narratives, both on the screen and the printed page—hardy perennials like The Great Escape, The Wooden Horse and Stalag 17. But Jones’s caper—rife with cunning, danger and moments of high farce that rival anything in Catch-22—was like nothing I’d seen before: It entailed no tunnelling, no weapons and no violence, all the stuff of traditional prison-camp breakouts.

Instead, Jones and his confederate, the Australian flier Cedric Hill, set in motion an ingeniously planned, daringly executed con game, worked bit by bit on their Ottoman captors—an elaborate piece of participatory theater entailing fake séances, magical illusions, secret codes and a hunt for buried treasure, with clues that appeared to have been planted by ghosts. If all went according to plan, the camp’s iron-fisted commandant would gleefully escort Jones and Hill along their escape route, with the Ottoman government paying their travel expenses. If their ruse was discovered, it would mean a bullet in the back for each of them.

Forget pathological imposters—here was my story! And to my wild delight, some quick research confirmed that with the exception of Hill’s own memoir, The Spook and the Commandant, published posthumously in 1975, there had been no book on the caper in the intervening hundred years. So in telling Jones and Hill’s story, I had not only the pleasure of levering it out of the crevice in history into which it had slipped, but also the privilege of a century’s hindsight, with its attendant advances in psychology. Those advances—in particular a spate of fascinating studies of magic, deception, confidence schemes and the implanting of false beliefs—let me answer the question that had beckoned since I first encountered Jones’s work: How could his escape plan, preposterous in all respects, actually have succeeded?

So began my enraptured involvement with Jones and Hill’s caper, one of the only known instances of a con game being used for good instead of ill. (On reading my proposal for The Confidence Men, my longtime literary agent, an elegant, erudite woman in her 70s, burst out: “Is this for real? These guys are wild!” I was happy to tell her that yes it is, and yes they are.)

EB: The Confidence Men was set roughly in the same time period as your book Conan Doyle for the Defense. Have you got a particular interest in British history of the early twentieth century or just in great mysteries of the past?

MF: I hadn’t planned to return to that period, so I can honestly say that the synchronicity is pure coincidence. But on second thought, one of the things that makes the early 20th century so fascinating (and a fount of wonderful real-life stories) is that it was very much a liminal time in social and intellectual history. On the one hand, you had the continued, hurtling onslaught of modern science, a development that had been a hallmark of the Victorian Age. On the other, you had the persistence—or, more accurately, the renewal, brought about by the Great War—of mass interest in spiritualism.

What seems counterintuitive to us, looking back from our 21st-century prospect, is that some of the most influential figures in both movements were one and the same. The distinguished English physicist Sir Oliver Lodge, for instance, wrote a deeply influential book, Raymond (1916), about his efforts—successful, he believed—to contact the spirit of his son, who had been killed in Flanders. And Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, a trained physician and the creator of the single most rationalist character in world letters, was also an ardent spiritualist.

Though the spiritualist beliefs of men like these look risible today, it’s crucial to remember that the mass-communications technologies of the period—radio, the telephone, the phonograph—had advanced to the point where they were beyond the ken of most laymen: To the general public, they seemed to be quasi-magical devices that let voices travel through the ether as if by magic, and bygone men and women speak, via wax cylinders, as if from beyond the grave. So among men of science of the period, an authentic empirical question was this: Given technology’s power to do all these miraculous things, why shouldn’t communication across the ultimate divide—between the world of the living and the world of the dead—be possible, too? I now realize that Conan Doyle and his cohort are the connective tissue that links my previous book to this one.

In addition, what unites all my books, from Talking Hands (about a team of linguists decoding a sign language newly emerged in a Deaf Bedouin community) through The Riddle of Labyrinth (the story of the race to decipher the mysterious Bronze Age script known as Linear B) to Conan Doyle for the Defense (about Sir Arthur’s real-life investigation of a wrongful murder conviction) is that they’re all heuristic: They all center on the step-by-step process of advancing from an agnostic state to one of knowing. All involve intellectual treasure hunts of one sort or another—and in the case of The Confidence Men, an actual, cunningly designed treasure hunt, engineered to spring our heroes from an isolated prison camp high in the mountains of Anatolia.

map credit: Jonathan Corum

EB: What was the most difficult aspect of this project? I was amazed at the level of historical detail.

MF: How lovely, thanks! I don’t want to say that this book practically wrote itself, because (a) no book is easy, and (b) that would be the most hubristic tempting of the Fates I could imagine. However … one of the most remarkable things about this story is that it cleaved naturally into the classic three-act structure: the men’s imprisonment, their longing for escape, and their building of the Ouija board in Act I; the conception and playing of the con game in Act II (culminating at the end of the act in a disaster that capsizes their entire plan on the eve of their escape); and the dark turn the story takes in Act III, with our heroes attempting to salvage their plan by having themselves committed to a Turkish insane asylum, before the triumphant resolution.

I literally had to do no restructuring of the story whatsoever to create the basic armature of the book—something that almost never happens when one writes narrative nonfiction. I also spent about a year, as I do for all my books, reading background literature on a host of subjects, including the relevant work in psychology and social history; the history of the war’s Ottoman theater—far less well known to Americans than the Western Front—along with memoirs by other POWs in that theater. But even so, I found I was able to interleave the material from these works in and out of the very sturdy structure that Jones and Hill’s story had given me.

So in the end, perhaps because I’ve been researching and writing books for some 20 years now, I found that The Confidence Men leapt onto the page with a kind of unitary ease that I hadn’t experienced before. And now that the book is out, it’s become apparent that its three-act structure is readily discernible by others: I’ve been spending a very happy summer in conference calls with a string of Hollywood producers who want to option it—a fascinating kind of occupational anthropology for an old-school print gal like me.

EB: In some ways, this story of pseudoscience, cons, and spiritualism is a cautionary tale as well as a thrilling escape story. Is there a lesson here for people today?

MF: Indeed, Jones intended The Road to En-dor to be a cautionary tale about how remarkably easy it is to become a spiritualist charlatan, a species of war profiteer that flourished between 1914 and 1918 to wring dividends from gold-star families. (Jones took his title from “En-Dor,” Rudyard Kipling’s bitter poem of 1919. In it, Kipling, who had lost a son in World War I, decries such mountebanks: “The road to En-dor is easy to tread/For Mother or yearning Wife./There, it is sure, we shall meet our Dead/As they were even in life. …” Kipling’s title invokes the biblical Witch of Endor, from the First Book of Samuel, whom Saul asks to conjure Samuel’s spirit.)

Though I hadn’t set out to relate Jones’s story to our own time, it turned out to be remarkably relevant. As I’ve written in The Confidence Men and elsewhere, the process by which a master manipulator instills and sustains belief (a subtle psychological art known as “coercive persuasion”) impeccably explains the wide popular delusions that have suffused our post-2016 landscape—from the contention that top Democrats are running a sex-trafficking ring out of a pizza parlor to the belief that Covid vaccinations scramble the recipient’s DNA. As Michael Dirda of The Washington Post wrote in his thoughtful review of The Confidence Men: “We are all vulnerable to psychological manipulation. More than ever, with no sure footing in our rabidly media-dominated world, the only sensible course left us is to tread very, very carefully.”

EB: As a writer, what do you keep foremost when you are drafting and revising? I think in some ways being a writer is like being a magician, where you have to attend to your task and to the audience.

MF: I’ve always loved best the two endpoints that bracket the actual writing of a book. The first comes after I’ve spent that initial year reading the literature. At the end of that time, I’ll have anywhere from five hundred to a thousand typed pages of notes. I then go through them, page by page, on a very large table (I usually hole up in the library at Columbia University, to which I have blessed access as an alumna of their journalism school), coding every paragraph thematically and marking the quotes and anecdotes I want to use. This process can take days—even weeks—but at the end of it, there is the great pleasure of getting to see what Henry James called the figure in the carpet. That gives me the first strong sense of what the structure and content of the book will be.

Fast-forward a year or so, to when the entire first draft has been written. The thing I love most of all in the entire process is the buffing and polishing one does at this stage—wielding finer and finer grits of sandpaper until the text shines like a mirror.

EB: You made your journalistic bones, so to speak, in obituaries, which is a fairly concise form of storytelling. Do you see some parallels between writing engaging obituaries and thrilling long form histories?

MF: Since I was trained in the Chomskyan tradition of linguistic innatism, I can say that I truly believe all writers come into the world hard-wired for either long-form or short-form work. I happen to be a long-form writer in my bones, and never in my wildest professional dreams did I imagine that I’d spend three decades on daily newspapers. But I can assure all would-be book writers that that life turns out to be sublime training for long-form writing … because a properly written newspaper article is simply a book in microcosm: A story of a thousand words, say, has only to be gridded up a hundred times until you find you’re holding a book in your hands.

The reason for this is fascinating, and it harks back to the early days of modern American journalism. The structure of the contemporary news story was established during the Civil War, thanks to the prevalence of one of those quasi-miraculous communications technologies: the telegraph. For the first time, war correspondents did their reporting in the field and then cabled their stories back to their editors in Boston or Baltimore or New York or wherever. But as with many new technologies, this one was buggy, and the lines often went down. As a result, reporters learned to triage their dispatches, sending the broadest-based, most essential information first, so that if the lines did go down, at least their editors would have basic information to put in the next day’s paper. If the lines came back up again later, the reporters would send finer and finer-grained information in succeeding dispatches—material that it would be nice for readers to have, but that wasn’t essential. And … voila! Thus emerged the classic “inverted-pyramid” structure of the modern news story—broad information at the top, progressively finer stuff at the bottom—which remains the standard today.

This structure has endured unchanged for a century and a half because it’s cognitively perfect: It is an information-processing model, pure and simple. Anyone who’s ever been a teacher knows this: You don’t start the semester (or an individual lesson) with the background detail. You start with the broad stuff, and work your way down over time. Nonfiction books turn out to rely on this model just as heavily: They’re identical in structure to news stories because to be accessible to the reader, they have to be—the only truly significant difference is one of bulk.

A last historical note: It’s absolutely fascinating to go back in the historical clips and see the inverted-pyramid form taking shape. If you look at the coverage of Lincoln’s assassination, for instance, you can see immediately that the form was still in transition in 1865: Some newspapers were already using the inverted pyramid, while others continued the former tradition of straight-ahead, leaden chronology. In those papers, you’ll get stories—shocking to read today—that start, in effect [my paraphrase]: “The president, Mrs. Lincoln and a party of distinguished friends sallied out last night to Ford’s Theater to see that entertaining play, Our American Cousin.” There follow several more paragraphs of blah-blah-blah-ing about the play, the theater party and the cast. Only then, in about Paragraph 4 or 5, does the reporter get around to “a shot rang out.” Talk about burying your lede—the cardinal sin of newswriting today!

EB: Along with your work at the Times, your background included training as a cellist and as a linguist. How do those experiences make themselves felt in your writing?

MF: I always tell young journalists that a life in music is the single best preparation for being I writer that I can conceive of: It gives you an acute sense of tone and color and cadence and pacing—all essential arrows in the writer’s quiver. The number of serious musicians one finds in big-city newsrooms is striking: At the Times, we have a delightful chamber-music group, in which I still play, called the Qwerty Ensemble. Our rehearsals have been in abeyance as a result of Covid, of course, but we’re all eager to resume playing together.

And needless to say, my linguistics training—I did bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the field at SUNY-Stony Brook—helps me as a writer every hour of every day. When I was studying linguistics (long before I had any thoughts of a writing career) I was especially drawn to the subfields of poetics and stylistics—the analysis of what’s happening metrically, syntactically, semantically, phonetically, et al., that makes literary language resonate in the particular ways it does. Even now, nearly 40 years after that education, the conscious awareness of those factors aids me immeasurably in writing, particularly in the 10,000-grit sanding process described above.

EB: Did you ever have aspirations to be a mentalist or con artist? Or do you now?

MF: Good Lord, no! (Unless you’re willing to bake me a cake with a file in it.)

EB: Thanks for talking with us. I hope you find many more untold stories.

MF: It’s been my pleasure, Ed. But I’m now fascinated by the wonderful paradox contained in your last sentence. Any story that I’m lucky enough to come across in the literature, as I did with The Confidence Men, is by definition a “told” story. If it were truly “untold,” then I’d have no way of finding it to lever it out of that historical crevice.

This actually brings us back to pathological imposters. One reason (besides stumbling upon Jones’s story) that I ultimately decided not to write about them is that we can only ever know about the ones who slip up: the men and women who get caught in the act and have books and articles written about them. The most brilliantly successful imposters remain, by definition, indetectable.

So through the twin paradoxes of the “told story” and the “known imposter” we’ve come full circle!

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An Interview with Nicole Walker, author of Processed Meat

NICOLE WALKER’s books include After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet and Sustainability: A Love Story and Quench Your Thirst with Salt. Her work has been published in Orion, Boston Review, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, and The Normal School and has appeared in multiple editions of Best American Essays.

Walker grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah and earned a BA from Reed College and both an MFA and a PhD from the University of Utah. Today she is a professor at Northern Arizona University in where she directs the MFA and a recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts

Her most recent book is Processed Meat: Essays on Food, Flesh, and Navigating Disaster, available from Torrey House Press.

You can find Nicole Walker’s website here.

Ed Battistella: I really enjoyed the essays in Processed Meats. Can you tell us a little about the title of the collection?

Nicole Walker: The book went through many title drafts: Salmon of the Apocalypses and Canning Peaches for the Apocalypse were among the two, but the apocalypse theme seemed to hit a little too close to home once the pandemic started. A pandemic isn’t quite an apocalypse, but making light of apocalypse when so many people were suffering felt offkey. The phrase “processed meats” covers so many aspects of the book—the way that so much food is processed and served in the U.S., the way raising children in a culture with so much conflicting advice feels like we process our kids as much as help them grow, the way so much of that advice is afflicted upon women for how to eat and cook and live. But there’s also the philosophical angle to the book that suggests we process our traumas and disasters by working through them, by being patient. That work and patience is akin to cooking—the small measures we take to get through the day are the energies that help of process those harder times.

EB: Processed Meats is very much a pandemic book. How did the pandemic affect you as a writer?

NW: I know a lot of people had a hard time writing during the pandemic, but, just like cooking, writing helps me process hard things. I wrote a lot. This spring, while teaching, I assigned myself 1000 words a day for a novel I’m working on. There’s something about being trapped at home that is very helpful to getting work done. I think of Salinger and how he was such a recluse. Of course, as far as we know, he didn’t write much in his most reclusive years. A writer needs some balance between real life and brain or it’s all just brain food and that’s only good for zombies. As we’ve begun to poke our heads back into the world, I’ve noticed how thirsty I’ve been just to drink in the presence of other humans. Zoom offers a lot of benefits but observing human behavior in its natural environment is not one of them. Everyone is weird on zoom. They’re weird in real life too but in a less self-conscious way.

The book went through a substantial reworking. Although disaster was always a primary theme of the book, immediate disaster wasn’t the central theme. I am grateful I had the chance to recast the book to touch on something we all shared. Individual disasters matter but a collective disaster made an impact on all of us. I weirdly feel honored to have had a chance to talk about that impact.

EB: The subtitle is “Essays on Food, Flesh, and Navigating Disaster” What is the relation between food and disaster—and coping?

NW: You anticipated my earlier answer! I spend a lot of time thinking about valences of words. “Coping” is exactly what we do when we try to navigate disaster. You put one food in front of the other. You chop one more onion. You make meal after meal and clean kitchen after kitchen until at some point, coping isn’t just coping, it’s living. Coping and living are two sides of the same coin. Once you start dancing in the kitchen, you know which you’re doing.

EB: Several of the pieces are about the body in sickness and wellness. Should we be thinking about food and health more? Differently?

NW: Just as with raising kids, there is so much advice on how to do it ‘right.’ Eggs are bad. Then good. Then bad again. I think they’re back to being good for you. But, because we are often far flung from our families and traditions, we have to rethink everything we do and everything we eat. It can be exhausting. But it can be good too. There’s something to be said for considering every choice and thinking through is this healthy for my body, for the planet, for my kids. Raising kids and feeding them are nearly synonymous, at least in the early years. They say that choosing what to eat is the only choice little kids get. I try to read as much as I can about nutrition and agricultural effects on the environment. Then, I like to give my kids as many options as possible within that research. More is better with both research and choice and I believe in people’s right to choose with enough research. So, I guess this is a very complicated answer to your question but Processed Meats provides some of the science behind our eating and agricultural habits. It doesn’t aim to be didactic. It says, now that you know the consequences of what you’re choosing to eat (and do and drive), choose well.

EB: You talk about some your past food experiences. What food lore do you want to pass on?

NW: Most of my food lore is about growing food more than cooking it. My mom always told me to plant peas in February. Usually, I forget. Who thinks about gardening in February? But I remembered this year and now, after snow, wind, deep freeze, the peas are going strong. My mom also said to pinch off early flowers from tomatoes so the energy can go into the plant. And then, when you have a lot of tomatoes, pinch off some of the flowers still so the energy can go into ripening the fruit you already have.

Also: use a lot of butter. My daughter cooks eggs in a pan without using any fats at all. I have to scrub that pan. Also, butter is delicious.

EB: For you, what is the best thing about food?

NW: The idea of abundance. I love going to the CSA (community supported agriculture), picking up my vegetables, laying them out on the table, cutting the tops off the beets, putting the greens in the fridge, roasting the roots. I love it when there are seven fresh carrots laid upon the table. I also love that, when I turn around, five of them are gone because my kids love fresh carrots. They like old carrots too but fresh carrots go quickly around here.

EB: What’s the worst thing?

NW: While there is sometimes an abundance of delicious vegetables, there’s often a scarcity of ideas of what to cook. I hate running out of ideas of what to make for dinner. As the end of the book articulates, chicken, chicken, chicken becomes the go-to and stand-by and the distinctly uninspired. We eat a lot of chicken and carrots. Sometimes, I run low on ideas for what to make because my kids don’t always love the same thing as the other. Sometimes, I’m just busy and what? There’s more chicken? Whoohoo. I hate the thought of going to the store too for one ingredient that a fancy new recipe has. But, after reading Tod Davies’ Jam Today and talking with her about Processed Meats, I remembered that shooting for culinary perfection is its own flaw. So, when I made asparagus soup but had not the sorrel the recipe called for, I used dandelion leaves, which I had in abundance reminding me that looking for what is abundant around you instead of searching out that which is scarce is the key to happiness.

EB: Can you tell us about some of the other projects you are working on?

NW: One of the things I mentioned above was some of the difficulties of families being far flung. I’m working on a book about how home shapes the kind of climate change future we see and how we cope with the effects of climate change and how loss of homes uproots us from that connection to land. Some of the essays have titles like “How to Be Happy When Your Favorite Tree Is Dying” and “Effluent: What Can We Do with All this Human Waste.” I try to be realistic about climate change and things like “going home.” That realism sometimes leads to hard reflection. It also sometimes leads to absurd realizations. I like the idea that even when confronted with hard things, we can cope with them with humor, as well as with delicious foods.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

NW: Thank you so much, Ed! I loved these questions and had fun answering them. I’m so grateful to you for reading and talking about Processed Meats!

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An Interview with Nicholas Buccola , author of The Fire is Upon Us

Nicholas Buccola is a writer specializing in American political thought. His book, The Fire Is upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate over Race in America (Princeton University, 2019) was the winner of the 2020 Oregon Book Award for General Nonfiction.

Buccola has MA and PhD degrees from the University of Southern California and his work has appeared in The New York Times, Salon, The Oregonian, Dallas Morning News, Baltimore Sun, Dissent and Reason.

He is also the author of The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass: In Pursuit of American Liberty (New York University Press, 2012) and the editor of The Essential Douglass: Writings and Speeches (Hackett, 2016) and Abraham Lincoln and Liberal Democracy (University Press of Kansas, 2016).

Ed Battistella: Congratulations on the Oregon Book Award and all the other accolades The Fire is Upon Us is receiving. I really enjoyed the book. What motivated you to dig into the lives of the lives of Baldwin and Buckley so deeply?

Nicholas Buccola: Thank you so much, Ed. I was really honored to see The Fire Is Upon Us (Fire) honored along so many great books (including yours). Many years ago, I watched the BBC recording of the 1965 Cambridge debate between Baldwin and Buckley and I became transfixed. It was such a dramatic and important moment. At the high tide of the civil rights movement and on an international stage, you have “the poet of the civil rights revolution” (as Malcolm X described Baldwin) and “the Saint Paul of the conservative movement” (as one of Buckley’s biographers described him) debating race and the American dream. The debate itself struck me as historically and politically compelling and as I dug into the archives, I soon realized that I had a much longer story to tell. Baldwin and Buckley were almost exact contemporaries – born in the same city, in fact – and the “backstory” of their life experiences and intellectual biographies proved to be the heart of the book. By weaving their stories together, I hope the book reveals things that might be missed otherwise.

EB: A striking moment for me was the debate that involves Baldwin and Malcolm X and the emphasis on identity as living free of myth and ideology. Would you say that is central to Baldwin’s message?

NB: Yes, I see that as one of Baldwin’s key insights. Time after time, Baldwin explained that what concerned him most were “grave questions of self” or “questions of identity” and how those questions were related to the human quest for freedom and fulfillment. Baldwin’s basic idea was that human beings construct their identities in ways that they think will make them feel safe. One of the primary ways we tend to do this, Baldwin argued, is by relying on the idea of status; by trying to figure out ways to feel superior to others. Ideologies of exclusion and inhuman ways we treat one another – large and small – have their roots in this desire for safety. As Baldwin often said, the roots of racism are within the racist, not within the object of his hatred. The same is true of homophobia, xenophobia, transphobia, and so on. Baldwin did not think any of us would wake up one fine day and fully liberate ourselves from the myths and ideologies by which we live. But he did call on all of us to engage in the sort of ruthless introspection each day that might allow us to treat ourselves and each other with greater dignity than we might otherwise.

EB: Reading some of the arguments that Buckley and others made about stability, protest, Western culture, and limiting voting, it’s hard not to see their echoes today. Is Buckley really the key figure in American conservative movement?

NB: Many readers have been struck by the parallels between the ideas Buckley developed and popularized and the contemporary American Right. I try to be careful about overstating Buckley’s importance and making overly bold causal claims about the connections between his ideas and actions and the political world we see. With that caveat, I do argue in the book that Buckley played an outsized role in American political culture. He edited the country’s most important conservative magazine (National Review), he had a syndicated newspaper column published thrice weekly in over one hundred newspapers, he was on the road speaking forty weeks of the year, he was a constant presence on radio and television, he had the ear of many leading conservative politicians, and he played a key role as a kind of “gatekeeper” and organizer in the conservative movement. From this position of considerable influence, Buckley had a great deal of influence. In the book, I provide a deep dive into his racial politics and surrounding issues and many readers have found plenty of reason to credit (or blame) Buckley for some of what we see on the contemporary American Right.

EB: I enjoyed the way you brought out the parallels between Buckley and Baldwin and the use of the alternating narratives. Was it difficult to keep the two in balance?

NB: Yes and no. I feel incredibly fortunate in the sense that the material really told me how to tell the story. The fact that Baldwin and Buckley were almost exact contemporaries made the “parallel lives” approach look rather well. And I was also fortunate that both men were compelling characters who led lives that were not only interesting, but also lives at the center of their respective movements. They were both so prolific as public and private writers so I felt like I could glimpse into their minds almost every day as they were living through and shaping this history. On the question of “balance,” there were moments when that was challenging. If, for example, one character had an especially interesting year while the other did not, I had to come up with ways of altering my “weave” technique to tell the story in the most compelling way. Sometimes that meant I would stick with one character a bit longer before switching back to the other a bit later in the timeline. I never had a real formula in mind. I did not, for example, track how many pages I was writing about Baldwin and then try to give Buckley “equal time.” I let the material guide me. In the end, I feel good about where we ended up. It’s a weighty book and earlier drafts were even weightier. I am grateful to my editor, Rob Tempio, and peer reviewers for helping me find places to trim.

EB: I hope you’ve had an opportunity to teach some of the material from the book, and I wonder what the reaction of today’s student is to the issues of the 1960s?

NB: I have had the opportunity to teach some of this material. I was able to teach a seminar on Baldwin and Frederick Douglass and it was the most extraordinary teaching experience of my life. Although the class was about two figures I have studied for a long time, it was probably the course in which I did the least amount of talking. The students were so engaged with these wonderful writers, so I got to sit back and listened to their brilliance for a few hours a week. What a joy. Baldwin’s words strike the students as so prophetic and urgent. I am now teaching him in my Introduction to Political Theory class (“Great Political Thinkers”) because I think he belongs right there alongside Plato and the other major thinkers. I think today’s students are fascinated by the politics and culture of the 1960s. Especially in the last year or so, they sense that they are living in a world in which the political culture is undergoing some major shifts. They see there is much to learn from other moments in which the ground was shifting beneath the feet of the culture.

EB: If Baldwin and Buckley were magically transported to the present, what do you suppose they would say?

NB: Oh wow. There’s a thought! They were both remarkably consistent as thinkers so I do not imagine their political philosophies would have changed very much as a result of the things that have happened since each man died (Baldwin in 1987 and Buckley in 2008). While I think Baldwin had the same moral lodestar throughout his life – the idea that we ought to pursue the conditions under which each human being can be free and find fulfillment – I think time did radicalize his thinking on how this might be achieved. Baldwin was always suspicious of ideologies and oversimplification so I resist the idea that he would fit neatly into one of our political boxes. But I do think he would call on us to think through the radical implications of the moral idea that each human being has the right to live in a world in which their dignity is respected and protected. That world is not this world and we have a long way to go. On the other side of the story, it would have been fascinating to see how Buckley would have navigated the Trump era. On the one hand, he did not like Trump personally and I think he would have been critical of Trump’s disdain for norms, institutions, and the rule of law. On the other hand, I think it is clear that he would have liked a great deal about Trump’s politics. Buckley was no stranger to the politics of racial resentment that was so key to Trump’s rise and he was, in fact, one of its architects and promoters. And he probably would have also been tempted – as so many conservatives were – to put up with Trump because he appreciated some of the outcomes he delivered (e.g., tax cuts, conservative judges, etc.) If you figure out how to magically transport them back, please let me know. I have some questions. Drinks are on me.

EB: How did writing the book change you as a writer and scholar? What’s next for you?

NB: This book has been a transformative experience for me in so many ways. Everything I had written before this was really for an academic audience of fellow “experts” or “insiders.” When I started doing the research for the book, I knew I could write another book like that, but I also knew I shouldn’t write another book like that. It was tempting to stick with what I knew how to do, but the material was pushing me in this other direction. What I had in front of me was a compelling story that was historically important and politically urgent. My job was to tell this story. This meant abandoning most of the forms and techniques of my training as a political theorist. But once I got in the groove, I never looked back and I don’t know if I ever will. I am still doing political theory (or political philosophy), which is, at its core, about asking big questions about how we ought to live together. I am going to keep doing that, but my primary method will be to address those big questions by way of (hopefully) compelling narratives.

Nowadays, I am at work on another book that looks at the same era I examined in Fire but from a different angle. As I worked on this book, I was struck time and again by the use of “freedom” or “liberty” by both the civil rights revolutionaries and the conservative counterrevolutionaries. These groups were both operating under banners of freedom, but they were viewing each other with suspicion and often downright hostility. I am using the “weave” technique once again to figure out what we can learn about the meaning of freedom – a concept we are still arguing about – by thinking about these two movements together. Who knows, this may be the second book in a trilogy about this era. We’ll see. The good news is I’ve never loved writing more than I do now and I think these stories are urgent for our politics.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

NB: Thanks so much for the opportunity. These are great questions and I look forward to visiting Ashland to talk about the book!

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An Interview with Ellie Anderson of the Ashland Public Library

Ellie Anderson is Head of Adult Services at Ashland Branch of Jackson County Library Services, which she joined in 2020. She has a master’s degree in library science from Rutgers University and a BA in theatre from Oberlin College, and she has worked in libraries in Monterey and San Mateo County in California, and in Princeton, New Jersey.

Ed Battistella: Welcome, Ellie. I suspect I’m not alone in saying that the e-books and audiobooks were two of the things that got me through the COVID lockdown of the last year. Have you noticed a shift in borrowing habits towards those resources?

Ellie Anderson: Thank you, Ed! I’m so glad the library’s electronic offerings have been helpful to you. E-books and e-audiobooks have been popular for some time, but COVID lockdown certainly encouraged new people to take advantage of how easy it is to access books and other materials electronically. Our library patrons love physical books, too, and are happy to be able to browse in the library again, but e-books have expanded options for a lot of people.

EB: What is the Library2Go?

EA: Library2Go is one of the ways library card holders can access our collection of e-books and other electronic resources. It uses the Overdrive platform, which may be familiar to long-time library users, and offers over 35,000 titles to check out on a variety of devices. In addition to Library2Go, library patrons should also take a look at Hoopla, Kanopy and TumbleBooks.

EB: As I explored a bit, I found all sort sorts of things available in the Library2Go.  What’s available in addition to audiobooks and e-books?

EA: We recently added over 3,300 e-magazines in multiple languages to our Library2Go service, accessible through the Overdrive platform. Library card holders can also stream e-books, e-audio, movies, TV shows, and music with the Hoopla App. Kanopy is a source for indie films, classics, and world cinema, as well as The Great Courses and PBS content. All the services I’ve mentioned offer content for children as well as adults, but Tumble Book Library specializes in animated books and read-alongs for grades K-6.

EB: Can folks use the Library 2 Go Resources on any type of device?

EA: Pretty much. Most of these electronic resources can be used on Apple and Android devices, as well as on a laptop or desktop computer. Library2Go e-books and e-audiobooks are compatible with Kindle devices as well. If you are using a smartphone or tablet, you will need to download an app (the Libby App for Library2Go) and do a little bit of setup the first time you access our collection but it is pretty straightforward.

EB: I noticed a new interface. What prompted the switch?

EA: As the services libraries provide grow and change, it makes sense for the ways we interact with our communities to change too. Our new website is designed to highlight those programs and services while making it easy for visitors to find the information or library materials that brought them to our site.

EB: Are the materials available forever or do they eventually go away, just as books wear out?

EA: That depends on the publisher. Some titles are a one-time purchase for the library and others are purchased for a certain time frame or number of uses. Since electronic materials don’t show wear and tear the way a physical book or DVD would, publishers and libraries have had to come up with new ways of doing business together for these formats.

EB: If people need more information or help getting started, what should they do?

EA: Library’s website, www.jcls.org, is the best starting point. You can access Library2Go and the other services we’ve talked about here and find self-help guides for your device here. If you still have questions, please feel free to call or stop by the library or contact our Digital Services specialists for a one-on-one appointment. Digital Services can be reached at digitalservices@jcls.org or by phone at 541 734-3990.

EB: Any personal recommendations? What are you reading?

EA: I’ve just started reading The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes, which is a novel based on the real-life Packhorse Librarians who brought books and information to small communities in Rural Kentucky during the Depression. Next on my list is The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune, a fantasy story about an orphanage for magical children and the power of chosen family.

EB: Thanks for sharing all this with us.

EA: Anytime. Librarians love to spread the word about our services.

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