Friday, December 30, 2011

An interview with Mike Schatzki, author of "The Great Fat Fraud"

Mike Schatzki, author of The Great Fat Fraud, agreed to chat with me about the obesity "epidemic", fitness and public health.  (Please see my review of his book.)  

At a time when we are blaming childhood obesity on bad mothering, perhaps Mr. Schatzki can help inject a little common sense into the conversation.

What is the fraud you refer to you in your book? 

The fraud is that fat and obesity are diseases.  They are not.  However, it is very much in the interests of the $60 billion weight-loss industry to continue to perpetuate this fraud. 

Why are you an authority we should listen to about this? 

I am the tour guide to the experts.  Over the last 20 years scientists and researchers have conducted hundreds of experiments involving hundreds of thousands of people in order to develop a clear understanding of how the body responds to weight and fitness in terms of morbidity (illness) and mortality. 

The results of those experiments directly contradict all the prevailing myths surrounding the so-called “obesity epidemic.”  However, these researchers are far more skilled at understanding how the body functions than they are in publicizing their work.  As a result, their findings have been overwhelmed by the massive propaganda efforts of the weight-loss industry. 

The purpose of The Great Fat Fraud was to bring together in one place, in an easily accessible and readable format, all of the research that has been done that exposes the fraud of the “obesity epidemic.” 

You make it pretty clear in your book that, with very few exceptions, weight and even BMI is a vanity issue, not a health issue.  However, you still talk about dieting and weight loss.   

There are really two very valid reasons why people might want to lose weight.  The first is that some people are simply not happy with the way that they look when they are heavy.  I am not sure I would use the word “vanity” since that tends to have some negative connotations.  I would prefer to say that people have every right to make “aesthetic choices” about how they look. 

The second reason is that there’s some pretty convincing research showing that people who are heavy experience wage discrimination in the workplace.
For both of those reasons I felt that it was important to discuss weight loss and some of the myths and misconceptions that have surrounded it.  The research is fairly conclusive that: 

1.  Exercise and fitness alone will not result in weight loss for the great majority of people.  To lose weight, you still have to diet.
2.  Without a continuing fitness regimen, the overwhelming majority of people will, over time, regain whatever weight they have lost.
I've met a number of people who genuinely do have trouble losing weight, even with a fitness-focused plan like the one you suggest.  They will lose some weight, but not very much- easily less than ten pounds over the course of a year.  Are those the kinds of "results" people should expect? 

The research is pretty clear that for most people fitness alone will not result in weight loss.  The reason is that the body’s set point recognizes the calorie deficit created by fitness activities and increases one’s hunger level so that they compensate by eating more.  So even with a fitness program, most people who want to lose weight will have to consciously diet. 

It is also true that some people have enormous difficulty in losing weight.  People who find themselves in this situation should seriously consider the precepts of the Health at Every Size movement.  Health at Every Size emphasizes body acceptance and intuitive eating among other things.  However, even with Health at Every Size, fitness is a critical component of being healthy.
It's very hard to dissociate health from appearance.  When we see someone who is "heavy", many automatically assume that they are unhealthy and/or a drain on our public finances.   

It is critical here to make a distinction between individuals who are sedentary and individuals who are fit.  People who are fit do not have a health problem regardless of their weight.  However, high levels of weight when combined with a sedentary lifestyle is a lethal combination. 

A thin person who is sedentary has twice the mortality risk of a person who is BMI 30 but fit.  A person who is BMI 30 and sedentary has three times the mortality risk of a person who is BMI 30 and fit.  And since fitness can be achieved either through exercise or through a 10,000 steps per day walking program, it is a lot easier for most people than losing weight. 

And even if someone still holds firmly to the position that fitness is all well and good but you still have to lose weight to be healthy, they’re still going to have to embrace fitness because without fitness, whatever weight someone loses is surely going to be regained.
There's talk about instituting higher insurance premiums and taxes on those with high BMIs.  Not coincidentally, we're also talking about taxes on sodas and candy.  How do we "decriminalize" the un-thin? 

Someone who is heavy and sedentary is most definitely going to have higher health claims costs than someone who is thin and sedentary.  But someone who is heavy and fit is going to have substantially lower health claims costs than someone who is thin and sedentary. 

It would be massively unfair to penalize someone who is fit but heavy when that person is likely to have half the healthcare claims experience of someone who is thin but sedentary.  Corporations who impose or are planning to impose obesity penalties must have a fitness exception.  People who are heavy must be given an opportunity to prove that they are fit with a simple treadmill test, and those who are fit must not be penalized.
I live in Boston.  We have banned the sale of sugary drinks and we have a campaign called "Don't Get Smacked By Fat".  In addition to showing teenagers literally getting fat thrown in their faces, it states this: "health costs of obesity in the United States are $147 billion annually".  Is this true? 

The $147 billion annual cost figure comes from a study entitled "Annual Medical Spending Attributable to Obesity: Payer and Service-Specific Estimates."  The major flaw in this study, like in so many similar studies, is that the population data base being analyzed (in this case the Medical Expenditure Panel Surveys) is not separated into fit and sedentary groupings.  If it were, we would undoubtedly see that those who are heavy and fit impose no additional healthcare costs on the system.  We would also see that those who are sedentary impose substantial healthcare costs on the system with those costs escalating as weight increases. 

Lack of fitness, not obesity, is the primary public health issue for the 21st century. 

For a first person perspective on being overweight or obese, please visit My Body Stories on My Body Gallery.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Great Fat Fraud by Mike Schatzki

The Great Fat Fraud by Mike Schatzki helps untangle the issues around fitness, weight, diet, surgery and the weight loss industry.  By the end of the book, the reader should walk away with the understanding that fitness does not equal thinness and that achieving weight loss is much simpler than Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig and LA Weight Loss would have you believe.

Within the first six chapters, the author cites the work of three large, long-term studies (some going back to 1953) that show conclusively that the most reliable predictor of mortality isn’t size but fitness and activity level.  (Although many define “fitness” differently, for this purpose it’s a measure of how well the body can use oxygen.)  An active, fit person has a significantly lower risk of mortality than a sedentary person- regardless of body mass index (BMI).  If mortality is the primary concern, activity is the answer.  Numerous studies have shown that walking 10,000 steps per day is the target for the majority of people to achieve optimal fitness levels.

The next chapters discuss losing weight.  For most people, fitness activity will not result in very much weight loss, if any.  In order to achieve lasting weight loss, people have to 1) reduce their food intake (in other words, diet) until they hit a weight plateau and then 2) follow that up with activity- ie, 10,000 steps per day.  This combination will prevent the body from going into starvation mode and hoarding fat, which is what it does when deprived of calories (ie, dieting).  Weight loss is doable- and in fact, most people on diets have done it before they regain some or all of their weight- but the author takes pains to note that for most people weight loss is an aesthetic choice, not a health imperative.  In these chapters he also cites a study that showed that people who focused on body acceptance improved their health (lipid levels, blood pressure, activity, etc.) more than those who focused on dieting and, not coincidentally, felt better about themselves.

Schatzki spends a brief chapter each on stomach reduction surgery (because of the risks, it’s only appropriate for the most unhealthy 1 or 2 percent of the obese), weight loss drugs (which, unlike other drugs, trick a healthy body into malfunctioning) and weight loss programs (most of them can help you take the weight off, but you won’t keep it off... unless you’re active).  However, the most damning section of the book deals with what he calls the “researchaganda” that promotes the idea that obesity is a public health threat when in fact is not.  

By 1998 the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Obesity Task Force of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) had been manipulated by the weight loss industry to the point that the BMIs for overweight and obese had been lowered (to 25 to 30 and over 30, respectively).  In 2004, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) published a report that obesity was responsible for 400,000 deaths every year.  

Although the CDC study was debunked shortly after it was published (by everyone from the Wall Street Journal and Science Magazine to the Government Accountability Office), the damage had been done.  The media now had a story: fat isn’t just something people didn’t find attractive, it's a dangerous public health issue, and there is nothing modern media loves like a story that scares people- even if it's not true.  

At the end, Schatzki asks readers to take up the challenge to spread the real story about weight, fitness and obesity and offers links to the information cited in his book.

Both well-researched and accessible, this is a short, easy read that debunks obesity hysteria.  Recommended for anyone with an interest in health issues.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

What I've written lately

I thought I was promoting myself to the point of embarassment, but when my own mother was surprised when I casually mentioned something I'd written, I thought it was time to give a consolidated update.


An interview with Pankaj Ghemawat, the author of World 3.0
An interview with Randal Christensen, the author of Ask Me Why I Hurt
A review of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot
A review of Unnatural Selection by Mara Hvistendahl
Shakespeare and Scarlet Letters- My Heroes
Getting Noticed Online Is Harder If We DON'T Have An Online Presence
The Blackberry vs. The Library- A Writer's Toolkit

(Special thanks to Erin Cawood and Literary Boston for allowing me to pontificate on their sites.)

Some of my selected blog posts:

Ms. Nam-Krane Goes to Washington
Why Is Infrastructure a Bad Idea?
Thank God for the Public Library System

What I'm reading right now: Fresh, by Susanne Freidberg

What I'm doing tomorrow: interviewing the author of two books that have changed the paradigm of how we think about world history.

As always, please send me book recommendations.  I prefer my non-fiction to back up any analysis with data, and I like my fiction to feature believable characters.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Dystopian fiction, dystopian non-fiction

True confession: I'm mildly horrified by the popularity of bad guys.  The Sopranos, House, True Blood, Breaking Bad- all of these feature protagonists that could in some way be described as anti-social, and I don't mean Charles Darnay anti-social.  Mobsters, drug addicts, vampires, drug dealers.  (Some would lump my favorite show, Mad Men, in there too, and I must agree- Don Draper is so empty he's a walking echo.)

The popularity of the bad guy has even invaded my old favorite genre, the soap opera.  Sonny Corinthos and his henchman Jason Morgan are mobsters and killers on General Hospital; I think we're supposed to feel a little better that their primary criminal activity seems to be smuggling and not prostitution or drugs.  Victor Newman on The Young and The Restless is a cutthroat business man who punishes his loved ones if he doesn't have total loyalty.

I get it up to a point; Othello and even King Lear are fascinating to watch- for two hours.  But a decade later and I don't care what makes you tick if I have to keep watching you do horrible things.  I just don't want to watch anymore.  (For all of the horrible things Don Draper has done, murder is not one of them- technically.)

I'm relatively alone in this because, as I said, the shows above are really, really popular.  It's not confined to television: vampires and dystopia are hot, hot, hot in publishing.  You know what's really popular?  Young adult dystopia, with vampires or some other kind of monster.   

I'm horrified, but I'm not superior.  I don't pretend that my tastes are better than anyone else's, and I don't want to get into a fight with anyone about why romance and women's fiction are better.  You can't compare by genre, you have to go by title, if you can compare at all.  But I don't want to argue with anyone's taste, I just want to understand.

With a little reflection, I think I do.

Years ago, I was watching a PBS production about the rise up to the second world war in Germany.  Despite the promises of a better world and some prosperity, many of the artists of the time were painting works filled with destruction.  They heard the underlying messages of their leaders, and they collectively shuddered.  I humbly submit that many modern-day writers are shuddering too.

American infrastructure is literally crumbling, and we have overall unemployment over 9%.  In some communities, unemployment is above 15%.  In Mexico, people are engaging in unimaginable violence to pursue and protect huge profit margins available through the drug trade.  Human trafficking, particularly for sex, has not abated.  Children are literally being bullied to death online.  Four and a half decades after the Civil Rights Act, people in certain communities are still being threatened if they try to vote.  And, classically, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.

It doesn't take much imagination to see the wasteland.

I don't read dystopian fiction, I read dystopian non-fiction.  The health problems of homeless teenagers in ArizonaThe continuing struggles of the 9/11 respondersThe constant compromise of our electronic privacyThe loss of 60 million women around the world due to sex-selective abortionNeurosex discriminationThe unconscionable inequities in our healthcare systemWorldwide food distribution issues.  And, to put a historical spin on it, the end of civilization as the Americas knew it.  I tell myself that these aren't the same because most of these books present solutions to the problems we're facing, but that's only part of why I'm reading it.  In part, I like the affirmation that someone else recognizes a problem.  I think, in part, that the people who gravitate towards fictional dystopia see the same problems a little more starkly than I do.  I cannot argue that they are wrong.

The climate disturbs me, but it would be ridiculous for me to petition HBO, Fox, ABC or CBS to change their programming or ask publishers not to publish books urban paranormal.  It makes more sense for me to try to change, well, reality through the political process.  I can't do anything about anyone else's imagination, but I can at least try to effect changes that shape our collective imagination.

Who knows?  If other people join me, we might finally see the publication of the story of the happy elves Lemony Snicket teased us with.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

An interview with Mara Hvistendahl, author of "Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, And the Consequences of a World Full of Men"

Sex selection is a big deal. By "big deal", I mean by as much as 163 million missing women in the world. To put that number into perspective, that's more than the population of women in the United States.

Are most of those women missing from Asia? Yes, but not all. As tempting as it is to say "sexism and traditional gender roles", the truth is more complicated. Mara Hvistendahl's Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, And the Consequences of a World Full of Men reaches back not only into the histories of China, India and other affected countries, but also the policies of Western nations to find out why so many women were never born. Just as importantly, she also paints a picture of what the world will look like if these trends go unchecked.

Mara was gracious enough to share some of her insights here about sex selection, history, technology and the ethical ramifications of our decisions.

Let’s start with the basics of your book: in certain relatively affluent countries that have access to ultrasound technology, women are choosing to abort female fetuses. We know this is happening because the sex ratio at birth is over 106 males to 100 females, and people have been talking about this for years now. But the real story of your book, as I read it, was, in part, the role that the First World played in this in the 50s, 60s and 70s- the same countries that are bemoaning the development now. What did those countries do and why?

There are several different threads to my book. The first simply tells the story of what's happening. Another describes the dire consequences of a shortage of women. But still another details the role played by Western countries in promoting research into sex determination technology in the 1950s through the 1970s. I included that history because it's a story that hasn't been told, and because sex selection is so often portrayed as a distant problem affecting only Asian nations and stemming from traditional values. I find that portrayal misleading.

Beginning in the 1950s population growth became an issue of major importance in the West, and over the decades that followed American and European governments and organizations funded efforts at reducing birth rates abroad. There were some very real reasons for concern, among them the fact that around the world people were living longer than ever before. But as that concern turned into hysteria a number of unfortunate strategies for controlling population growth were put on the table. In countries like India, for example, abortion was legalized under U.S. pressure as a population control method and not as a woman's right.

Another solution floated to the "population explosion" was sex selection. Groups like Planned Parenthood (which back then was a very different organization) and the Population Council had done research into the reasons women in Asia continued to have children, and one of the things they found was that women in many countries continued to have children, in part, because they wanted a son. In the late 1960s, the idea emerged to somehow figure out a way to ensure couples the boys they so desired. Prenatal sex determination was still in its early stages, but population activists advocated pushing that research along. Some even pushed for the creation of a "manchild pill" that would ensure a son upon conception, eliminating the need for abortion.

Wherever we see this, you paint a bleak picture for all of the inhabitants. Can you talk about how it’s affecting Taiwan, for example?

Taiwan was one of the first countries to really take to sex selection. Sex selective abortion became common in the early 1980s, and today the generation born in that decade has three quarters of a million more men than women. Many of those men are what demographers call "surplus" -- they can't find wives in their country. That combined with changing gender roles has yielded a situation in which many now travel abroad in search of women.

On the other side, Vietnam. They are selecting for sons, but not to the same degree as Taiwan, China or South Korea two decades ago. So it is still a “market” for prospective bride buyers. How are the Vietnamese being affected?

Vietnam's situation is doubly depressing. The country emerged as a destination for men from around Asia seeking wives in part because of the Vietnam War, which left it with a surplus of women. The trade in brides has become alarmingly formalized in the decades since, as professional agencies have been set up in countries like Taiwan and Singapore to handle the marriages. This industry is a little like the mail-order bride industry in the West, and it existed before Asia's "surplus" men started coming of age. But the gender imbalance has undoubtedly made the situation worse. Today so many surplus Taiwanese and Korean men go to Vietnam to buy brides that there are villages in the Mekong Delta where half of all new marriages are between local women and foreign men. I visited one island that has lost so many women that locals jokingly call it "Taiwan Island."

The marriage trade alone is bad enough, but to make matters worse Vietnam recently developed a sex selection problem of its own. Females now only outnumber males among the elderly, and parents in the northern part of the country have begun selecting for boys using ultrasound scans followed by abortions. When Vietnam's surplus boys come of age they'll be especially bad off.

When one thinks about this in strictly theoretical economic terms, there’s an impulse to conclude that because there is a smaller “supply” of women, 1) their bargaining power goes up and therefore 2) this can lead to an improvement in conditions for women. Unfortunately, that’s not what’s going on. What is this doing to the status of women?

Strictly speaking, the value of women has gone up. But while for some women -- mostly educated women living in developed cities -- that translates into more bargaining power, it also means the vast majority of women are now at greater risk. The shortage of wives in South Korea, Taiwan, India, and China is fueling demand for trafficked women and girls for both marriage and prostitution. Even when Asia's bought brides cross borders willingly, as many do, they typically do not speak the same language as their husbands, and they remain dependent on the men for income and immigration status. For those women, the gender imbalance is hardly a great thing.

To the extent that this was sold as a relief to the population problem, I can’t help but think of the economic, social and population pressures many African countries face. Is there a danger that this practice could be marketed there?

There is a danger sex selection could catch on in other countries if the same combination of factors that have played a role in Asia and Eastern Europe take hold there. A rapid drop in the birth rate and an influx of new technologies are two of the most important ones. That said, at the moment demographers are much more concerned about the Balkans and north Africa than they are about sub-Saharan Africa.

The other thing to watch out for is rapid advances in prenatal testing -- fetal DNA tests that make it possible to determine the sex of a fetus with a prick of the pregnant woman's finger, at seven weeks. Widely available blood tests could be a game-changer. [Interviewer's note: And it looks like they're getting closer.]

While there is some evidence that Asian American families are practicing sex selection for boys, for the most part, that’s not the issue in the United States. We are selecting for sex, but we’re selecting for girls, and we’re doing it before there’s even a pregnancy. This is also something that only the most affluent among us can do. In your book, you don’t characterize this as a positive development. Why?

To clarify: it's only the Americans who turn to preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) or sperm sorting for sex selection who favor girls, and that's only according to fertility clinic directors. There is, however, a separate trend in our culture at this moment in time toward favoring daughters -- whether because they do better in school, because they are believed to have fewer behavioral issues, or because today's generation of parents is determined to raise strong and successful daughters.

In any case, from an ethical standpoint I don't think it matters so much whether parents select for boys or girls. In both cases they are heightening the expectations put on their children from before birth. In that sense the Chinese boy who is chosen because he is expected to get married and carry on the family line has a lot in common with the American girl who is chosen because she is expected to dress in pink frills -- neither child may want that fate. Sex selection, along with many other forms of selection, isn't just harmful when it causes huge demographic imbalances. It's also harmful at the level of the individual -- the level of the child created not in wonderment but according to his or her parents' ideas of what a child should look like.

Your book was published shortly after the Republican-controlled Congress led a failed effort to defund Planned Parenthood. Conservative writers and activists have used you to support their opposition to Planned Parenthood and abortion itself (I’m thinking right now of Ross Douthat). It’s obvious to anyone who reads your book that this is a distortion of your position, but can you speak to how being critical of sex selection is not the same as opposing reproductive rights?

It's possible to support Planned Parenthood today and yet acknowledge that the organization has a very different past. And it's possible to support abortion rights while also being outraged when women are forced to abort, or when abortion is legalized not as a woman's right but as a population control method. That's a nuanced understanding of the situation. And I do hold out hope that there is still room for nuance in the American political landscape.

What needs to happen in order to end sex selection?

That's a complex question, and I'm afraid I don't have any easy answers. But for starters, the issue deserves a lot more international attention that it now gets. I'd like to see an international body along the lines of UNAIDS formed. Such a body might take up the question and give careful thought to just how we go about solving it. To truly be effective all possible solutions should be considered -- including crackdowns on sex selection and tighter regulations. That is one route tried in several countries in Asia that hasn't been given full consideration in the West, in part because of the contentious state of abortion politics in the United States.

We should also keep in mind that new technologies that make possible other, more sophisticated forms of prenatal selection are being introduced every year. Ethical issues surrounding selection are just beginning. And ultimately we cannot shy away from them.

Many thanks to Mara for a great book and a wonderful interview. Run, don't walk, to your bookstore and pick up a copy.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Another kind of e-book

Yesterday, I heard this story about news organizations selling their own e-books on the WBUR program Here and Now. Basically, some news organizations- television, print and web- are compiling the stories that fall under one topic into an e-book. Examples of topics have already included Osama bin Laden, James "Whitey" Bulger and a review of Apple's newest operating system. I can think of others that might be used under the same model: election coverage, budget negotiations, and topics in natural science or history.

Although I like paper and don't think we should be looking at digital technology as a replacement for books, I see the appeal of this approach. While some news websites already have some excellent topics sites- I'm thinking in particular of Times Topics on the New York Times site- a more extensive narrative would make it worth spending $3 on.

My quick thoughts:

1) I think Carroll is spot on when he describes e-books as "impulse buys".

2) How well could this work for some blogs that are out there, whether they're fiction, how-to or narratives?

3) I'm not the target audience, but I will say that while I can see the appeal of using this for an extensive software review or a historical topic, I wouldn't buy this for something like the Bulger story or Facebook. Those stories aren't "over" yet, and I'd hate to feel like I'd have to spend even more money to get the latest and greatest. Those impulse buys can add up.

Monday, July 18, 2011

An interview with George O'Connor, author of the "Olympians" graphic novel series

What happened when George O'Connor, an author who writes graphic novels retelling Greek myths, was kind enough to sit down with a mythology fan like me? Pure geekery. We are way past "Did you know the Romans called Zeus Jupiter?" Syncretism, hubris, morality, mythology versus religion... oh my! But there's also Batman, Robin, Superman, the X-Men and, well, Team Hades. It's all here, folks.

What else is here? The latest installment in O'Connor's series, Hera: The Goddess And Her Glory. (By "here" I mean it's being released today at a bookstore or website near you, not actually "here" on my blog because... oh, let's just get to the interview.)

How old were you when you started reading the Greek myths, and what drew you to it?

I was in the fourth grade when my class did an extended unit studying the Greek gods, culminating in an oral report while dressed as your favorite god (I was Hermes). Prior to this pivotal event of my childhood, I had always been the kid who got in trouble for drawing musclemen fighting giant monsters instead of whatever we were supposed to be learning in class. Suddenly, for one glorious half-year, we actually were supposed to be drawing musclemen fighting giant monsters. It was a real game-changer for me.

Obviously, The Muses were speaking to you from an early age, you just didn't understand what they were saying before that.

I understood what they were saying in that I knew that monsters were cool. Learning about mythology really helped to give me a focus, and helped to fuel my love of story. I suppose the Muses could take the blame for that, all right.

What is it about the Greek myths that have kept you interested as an adult?

My love of comics grew out of my love for myths, so that helped me to carry that love into adulthood. As I got older, and kept revisiting theses stories, I found more and more that I didn’t understand when I first heard of them as a child. My adult self is kind of obsessed with reading the original stories, from sources written by ancient Greeks and Romans who actually believed these stories, and trying to figure out what they meant, what they tried to explain, and marveling at how… modern they seem. These stories really are the backbone of western literature, and it’s incredible to see how fully formed things were right out the gate, so to speak. Something like The Odyssey is a remarkably nuanced and sophisticated piece of storytelling, and some of the mental pictures it paints are incredible.

You’re not the first person to write a graphic novel with themes from mythology. What makes your work different?

Ooh, a chance to show off my hubris! There have been innumerable comics dealing with mythology (I might argue, for instance, that virtually all superhero comics are direct descendants of the myths) but I like to think mine are among a select group that treats the gods, heroes and monsters in a manner that is very true to the way that they might have been perceived in their heyday. Since I hearken back to the original sources as much as I do, I like to think that my versions of the gods are less… caricaturized than they might have been in other depictions. Not that anyone else’s version is less valid, mind you; this is just what I tried to bring to the table in my retellings. Hopefully I succeeded, and hopefully people like it.

Well, I'm not much of a comics buff (Archie doesn't have a lot of street cred, does he?), but I do know that Superman was based on a myth from the Torah or Bible, although I think it might be what we would now call "fan fiction" more than a re-telling.

It’s funny that you mentioned Archie, as I based the visual dynamic of Metis and Hera in Zeus: King of the Gods off of Betty and Veronica. Archie has more street cred than you might suppose—those comics were a big influence on one of my favorite artists, Jaime Hernandez of Love and Rockets fame. I read quite a bit of Archie comics too, though I kind of hated Archie himself. I was a Reggie fan.

The way I’ve heard the Superman story was that he as a deliberate combination of Samson and Heracles. Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, they had obvious Greek mythology connections. One of my favorite characters is Namor the Sub-Mariner— the story about him was his creator, Bill Everett had been charged to create a new superhero. While he was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he saw a Roman statue of Mercury. With his winged ankles, Namor pretty much is Mercury. His name is just ‘Roman’ spelled backwards.

Hmm, I’ll assume by ‘good’, you might mean which Olympian I would most likely have an encounter with, and survive without being turned into a newt for some unintentional display of hubris (my word of the day, apparently). The ancient Greeks viewed him as the most kindly, so I would go with Hermes. Among the Olympians, he probably had the most day-to-day dealings with humanity, so my version of him has the most down-to-earth way of speaking, which drives my editor nuts. I like to think of Hermes as a bemused big brother to mortals. He’s maybe not intensely emotionally invested in us, but he at least seems to get a kick out of our shenanigans.

Funny you should say Hermes. When I was younger, I was fascinated with the dramatic or tragic deities such as Poseidon or Hephaestus, but as an adult, when you think about each god's sphere of influence, Hermes is the one that seems to be the most relevant to every day life. Games, arguing, writing, mischief, negotiation... conversation itself- it's all Hermes. I mean, how many of us are blacksmiths or sailors these days, you know?

Oh, man, Hermes totally won. If the Greek pantheon were still the principal religion today, Hermes would definitely be the top god. He’s all about travel and communication and writing and commerce. It’s interesting: when the Romans moved into other parts of Europe, who had their own gods, through the process known as syncretism, the Romans would assume that these new gods were the same gods they knew, just operating under different names. So in what would one day be Germany, reports came back that Mercury was the top god there, as Hermes was syncretized with the top god Odin. Zeus with his lightning bolts was syncretized with Thor instead. This happened all over Britain and Gaul as well. It might just be a coincidence, that he kept getting syncretized with other pantheon’s top gods, but a trickster like Hermes wouldn’t want it any other way, I’m sure.

There’s a debate going on now about whether Young Adult and even Middle Grade books are too “dark” or mature. It was kicked up last month by the Wall Street Journal, but it’s not a new conversation. As soon as I started really thinking about, I immediately thought of the morally murky characters that inhabit Olympus, and yet I think most people would consider mythology a great choice for young readers. You clearly see the value in the stories, but what do you think is the advantage for a young reader?

Unlike some other mythologies, there’s very little moralizing in the Greek myths. Murdering people is probably not so good, but after that there’s very little that seems to get the overt nod from on high as ‘bad’. That being said, I think that somehow frees up the characters to behave in a way that places them above morality. Some terrible things can happen in these stories, but somehow, maybe it’s the unreality of it, or the broadness of themes, I find it hard to feel the sense of outrage over them I might in a story that doesn’t feature Titans and Cyclopes. I think a young reader will see it the same way. They’re free to read the stories and be like “wow, that guy was a jerk just then” and realize that they’re allowed to think he was a jerk. It’s a self-applied morality, I suppose.

Is there room for moralizing when the gods act with- or on- mortals? Or what about a story that's mostly about mortals? I'm thinking to some extent about the gods finding consorts- Zeus and Europa or more to the point Semele, as well as Eos and Tithonus and Selene and Endymion- but also about the myths of Procne and Philomena, Tantalos and Pelops and, well, the entire House of Atreus.

I actually do tell the story of Tantalos and Pelops in Hades: Lord of the Dead, and well, yeah, I guess there is some moralizing there, as Zeus blows up Tantalos real good for what he did. A lot of the more human heavy stories I’ll be dodging in Olympians, as they just fall too far afield of the god-centric mandate of the series. Semele will get her story in Dionysos’s book, and some of the later members of the Atreides will be at least getting a mention in Ares. If plans hold, we’ll be seeing Selene and Endymion at some point, too. It’s tricky— the best bet when dealing with the gods is to not be noticed, I suppose. These stories seldom end happily for the mortals.

Along those lines, it’s a bit of a chestnut that our protagonists have to be sympathetic but imperfect with, well, human motivations and reactions. I think the Olympian gods and the Greek heroes supply one but not necessarily the other. Zeus is really difficult to sympathize with after a certain point in his story. How hard was it to write to that?

Wow, good question. While I was writing the first book in Olympians, Zeus: King of the Gods, I was almost simultaneously writing the second volume Athena: Grey Eyed Goddess. Now, in the first book, Zeus is definitely our hero— it’s our intro to this world, which is really Zeus’s world, and the whole story is structured as his hero’s journey. I tried, and I think I succeeded, in making Zeus a very likeable protagonist for his own story, but I was very cognizant of the fact that as soon as his book ended, he was going to take one heck of a heel turn— he swallows Athena’s mother, Metis, alive. Personally, it wasn’t that hard for me to write— I take the tack that Zeus, and the gods in general, are so beyond us in so many ways that morality doesn’t apply, and a careful reading of Zeus will show a lot of hints as to his faults so it shouldn’t come out of left field. I also use the technique of showing the goofy side of Zeus, even while he’s engaging in adultery on a cosmic scale. My retelling of the story Io from the soon-to-be-released Hera: The Goddess and her Glory is, in my opinion, one of the funniest things I’ve ever written. Ultimately, Zeus is Zeus is Zeus. He’s probably a lot more like what most of us would be given supreme power than we would like to admit.

Okay... so let's say the gods are the original superheroes. I think everyone who reads them likes to imagine themselves with infinite power. (I certainly did.) I'm thinking now about some of the early successful comic book heroes, like Batman and Superman. Popular with adults, but also very popular with kids, and they really wanted to see themselves in those stories. That's part of why we have Robin, but that's also why we have the X-Men and Spider Man. Do you think that desire for young readers to see themselves in the stories is why Greek myth fan fiction like Percy Jackson has become so popular?

I do… now. Seriously, that was kind of my whole idea behind the ‘young Zeus’ of Zeus: King of the Gods. Robin, and the other teen sidekicks, like Bucky or Speedy or Kid Flash or whoever, they were definitely placed in those stories to give kids someone to identify with. But I tell you, every Halloween, I see a lot more Batmen than Robins, you know? Later characters, like Spider-Man and X-Men got it better, where the teen characters weren’t the sidekicks to the more experienced hero, they were the heroes themselves. Rick Riordan had a great idea with his new generation of demi-gods. Kids reading could hope, could pretend that maybe one of their parents was an Olympian and imparted some awesome powers to them as well. The Muses were definitely talking to him.

Athena, in contrast to Zeus, is much more sympathetic and even heroic at times- except when she’s not, particularly with Medusa and Arachne. Was she easier to write for because of that?

It is funny, because in your question, you even pointed out instances where she herself was less-than-nice, but somehow we don’t really hold it against Athena. Maybe because she doesn’t share her father’s adulterous attitudes, it helps to keep her more of a good guy? Honestly, Athena was actually a little trickier to write than Zeus because there is that feeling that you have to keep her ‘good’, even in a book where at least half the stories have her acting out in a ‘bad’ way. Zeus is huge in so many ways, all charisma and bravado and flash, which allow him to slip into the role of clown far easier than Athena, who is very reserved, except when she’s in battle. And it’s easier to forgive a clown, I think. With Athena, I had to get you on her side with her tragic childhood stories and keep you there, even when she’s punishing some hapless mortal. Zeus, well, he’s flexible enough to bounce back and forth.

I enjoyed your treatment of Athena. She's the "smart one" of the Pantheon, but she- like most of them- always came off cold. In your version she's kicking ass and taking names... if you're lucky.

I’m glad to hear you say that. I tried my best to round out her character, but I read a couple of reviews that complained that she was still a little distant. I think that’s just in her nature.

Your next release is about Hera. She’s the goddess of marriage, but her own may be the prototypical marriage from Hell (or Hades). Like Zeus, she also doesn’t age well, so to speak- she’s definitely known more for the pain she causes than what good she does. How are you able to tell the story of a character like that?

Poor Hera, she gets such a bad rep. I ought to mention that, while Hermes is my favorite god, Hera is my favorite goddess. Part of that is I love a good underdog, and like I mentioned, she gets a bad rep. The other part is, while I was researching this series, I travelled all over Europe, wherever there was a good collection of art, or an old temple, I tried to go there. Something I noticed after a while, if you were in an old town, the oldest temple would often have been built to Hera. A lot of times, in the same town, the second oldest temple would also have been built to Hera. She was this amazingly beloved and important goddess to the ancients, who, through the process of caricaturization I mentioned earlier, has come to be known to us now as this witchy shrew.

With Zeus as her foil, I think it was relatively easy to get readers on Hera’s side. She’s married to the most famous philanderer in mythology; I think she’s entitled to act out now and then. More over, reading the old sources revealed some threads of a more subtle and nuanced relationship to Heracles than most retellings commit to. I don’t want to give away too much of Hera, but I will say this—the name Heracles translates as “The Glory of Hera”. There’s a lot more to their relationship than just outright antagonism.

I did know that his name meant "Glory of Hera", but it never made sense in any of the stories I've ever read. And if she isn't a shrew, sign me up!

She’s definitely no shrew, but I certainly wouldn’t mess with her.

I love that you are coming out with a book about Hades next year. However, his biggest claim to fame is the Persephone myth. Without giving anything away, what more is there to say about him?

Well, truth to tell, I do spend the bulk of Hades: Lord of the Dead on the myth of the Abduction of Persephone. But on that framework of the story I do manage to hang a few bits about what it might be like to be the god of the Underworld. Just like Hera, Hades gets a bad rep, much of it through being conflated with the Christian devil. He’s not really all that bad a guy, once you get past the whole kidnapping of Persephone thing. He’s maybe just a little emo. And he certainly has his charm.

Hades the Emo! George, if I see young women walking around next year in T-shirts that read "Team Hades", we're going to have to have a talk.

Several female cartoonists who I know have told me that they think my Hades is hot. But Hades could totally whup Edward. Not even a contest.

What’s after the Hades book in this series? Are you planning on doing a book for each Olympian? Do you have any plans to write for any of the heroes?

I’m working on Poseidon right now, with Aphrodite being the next scheduled volume after that. Sales willing, Olympians will run for 12 volumes, one for each of the Olympians. I cheat a little, with Hades taking the slot of Demeter, and Dionysos taking the place of Hestia, though.

Hmm... Hades and Demeter I can see, but Hestia and Dionysos?

It’s kind of an Alpha/Omega thing— she’s the first Olympian, he’s the last. Also, there’s that one story, of his ascension to Olympus, and how Hestia gives him her throne, because she’d rather be tending her hearth anyway. I wish I could do a whole book just for Hestia but there’s really just not enough mythic material for her. She has, like, two stories. She was such an amazingly important figure, religion-wise, but mythologically speaking, she’s hardly there.

I think you’ll see when Hera: The Goddess and Her Glory comes out that the 12 Labors of Heracles are pretty well-covered in that book—the plan is to tell the biggest stories of the heroes in the book of the god that most represents them, like the way Perseus was told in Athena. That being said, I do have a proposal at my publisher for an Olympians spin-off called Heroes and Monsters, should the main series sell well-enough. If you’d like to see that, everyone should barrage my publisher with letters asking for it, and, of course, buy many, many copies of Olympians ;-)

Well, obviously, we're going to the barrage the publishers! How else are we going to get the full treatment of The Trojan War and The Odyssey?

Well, you’ll be getting some Odyssey in Poseidon, but please barrage away! And tell them I sent you!

Thanks to George for a fun interview, and thanks to all of you for reading. For more on the Olympians series, check out Olympians and the Olympians Blog.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

An interview with Joyce Raskin, author of "My Misadventures As A Teenage Rockstar"

My Misadventures As A Teenage Rockstar sounds like it’s right out of a Disney Channel movie- but it’s not. Yes, the main character Alex does find a bit of fame as a musician, but it’s not the teenage version of the rags to riches fantasy. I was excited to “meet” a young girl who not only knew how to rock but also learned how to be herself, no matter what she pursued. Dare I say this book also has a strong feminist message? It does!

Joyce Raskin, singer and bassist with the band Scarce and author of My Misadventures As A Teenage Rockstar, was kind enough to chat with me about music, being straight edge, navigating the online world, growing up and following your passion til it hurts.

Joyce Raskin
Describe your story.

Alex is a younger 14 year old girl who is completely self conscious, abysmally awful at making friends, and feels like she is kind of useless in this world. One day, her life completely changes when her brother decides to teach her how to play bass because his friend Tod the Mod needs a bass player. Alex is totally in love with Tod the Mod and this is how she starts her voyage into rock and roll. Once she starts playing in bands she is thrown into a very mature world of sex and drugs. I wanted to contrast her being a younger girl for her age with the older mature things that are being thrown at her. I also wanted this book to be about a real girl, who doesn't just magically go off and have a Cinderella story of perfect success and becomes a rock star. Life doesn't work that way. I wanted Alex to fail and make mistakes and be a normal girl. Sometimes amazing things come out of mistakes and accidents.

Who is it written for?

I wrote it for girls and women of any age who ever doubted themselves or felt uncomfortable in their own skin. I started writing it first as a comic book about all the funny things that happen being in a rock band and being a girl. But then it took on another form and I started thinking about my own two girls, who are 6 and 8 years old, and how I hope they will be as teenage girls. I want them to be happy from the inside out, not the other way around. I know it's going to be hard so I wanted to write something that would help them through it. To be a positive voice along the way. To make them laugh at themselves and be able to pick themselves back up when they have fallen down. It's a brave new world with the internet; a place full of images and information displaying to teenagers how to look good on the outside, but very few role models and voices showing them how to feel good about themselves on the inside. I often think, “If I were a teenager growing up now where I would get my inner compass from?” Music really helped me through my teenage years, and I guess the message in my book I hope to get across is to find that inner compass for yourself, be it music, skateboarding, surfing, drawing, or whatever it is that makes you feel good from the inside.

How much of Alex is Joyce?

The very beginning is definitely me, perhaps a bit exaggerrated, but definitely how I saw myself as a teenage girl. We can be our own worst enemies sometimes. But Alex is much braver than I was at her age. She is much better at skateboarding too. She also has some amazing friends that she makes in the book that I didn't have until I was an adult. But I put them in there for girls to realize they are out there, these amazing women, they are all around, but you have to search them out. Or perhaps they will inspire some of the readers to be those women as they grow up.

I think it’s fair to say that even now rock and roll is marketed more by and for men, and that was certainly the case in the late eighties and early nineties. What spoke to you in rock and roll in spite of that?

I was lucky I had an older brother who was cool and he encouraged me. But I would say that the local DC punk scene really inspired me, especially Ian Mackaye and Fugazi. I remember how excited I got watching them play, going totally crazy and sweating and rocking so hard and intense, and I thought I WANT to do that. I never felt like I couldn't just because I was a girl. One of my proudest shows with Scarce we opened up for Fugazi, and I borrowed Joe Lally's bass and my finger bled all over the strings. After the show all the guys in Fugazi were taking pictures of me and in awe of me and what I had done to Joe's bass. It was pretty cool.

This is a great book overall, but you had me at “straight edge”. Why did you make that such a big part of your story?

Music ironically kept me out of drinking and doing drugs at a young age, even though I was surrounded by it. Playing music is so fulfilling that I didn't feel the need to get carried away in all the things teenagers normally do. I think I wanted Alex to be a role model, kind of an alternative to getting messed up on drinking and drugs. I wanted to show her strength. She might not stay straight edge forever, perhaps this is a stage for her like the hair dye, and music choices she is making. I wanted to show that some people do choose to not give into the peer pressure, or maybe they choose to wait until they are ready.

And why do drugs when you can bleed all over Joe Lally's guitar?


I don't know what that scene is like now, but you captured what I remembered: the kids who "indulged" could definitely be more pleasant to hang out with while those who didn't and put that on as part of their identity could be more militant, or at least strident. It can turn into a peer pressure of its own, in a way.

Anything can turn into peer pressure even the straight edge scene of course. I say everything in moderation, but when you are a teenager it's hard to find that middle ground. Sometimes you have to go to the edges to find that middle. I think that takes a long time. Alex is grasping at finding her identity and trying different ones on, and I think this is just one of her stages, her "straight edge" stage. I was hoping people would find it funny how she owns it and makes it like she can kick ass or something because she's straight edge. I also wanted to show how positive mental thinking can change a lot about what happens around you. But it's good to grow and change and try new things and to always challenge yourself as a person. And if straight edge gives you strength for a time against maybe doing something you’re not sure about at that moment, then use it. But change is always good, what might work for you at one age, might not at another age. It might be something else.

I’ve always thought the bass guitarists were the coolest members of the band. Why did you choose that instrument, other than that you’re cool?

I didn't choose the bass funny enough in the beginning, that part of the story is true. My brother's friends' band needed a bass player and I had a huge crush on the lead singer and hence I started playing bass. But I went on to learn guitar and drums. I fell in love with playing bass when I started playing with my band Scarce. Playing music sometimes isn't just about the music itself, but the chemistry between people. Scarce has that chemistry. When I play live I get totally lost in the moment, and it is such an amazing feeling. I think the bass in essence is a sexy instrument and it's tough, so I suppose I like the sense of strength I get from playing such a tough instrument. And women have hips so they feel sensuality and rhythm very naturally, and the bass is all about rhythm.

I love that Alex is a confident, independent young woman, but I also loved that she had a community of strong older women around her. How, when you’re young, do you find that community? And how do you build that when you’re older?

To be honest I didn't have that female community around me when I started playing. I just had a few rock star women like Joan Jett, Exene Cervenka, Debbie Harry, and the Go-Gos, who inspired me. However I did have an amazing mom who was strong and confident and always would say things to me about believing in myself. That can really make a difference in a young girl’s life. I didn't realize it back then, but as a mom I really do now. Recently I have been involved in the Girls Rock Alliance working at the girls rock camps in Boston and Rhode Island and what the camps are doing is what I always wanted as a female musician growing up. But I am a part of that community as an adult, and it feels amazing even as an adult. It feels like a revolution. I can't wait to hear what music and bands evolve out of these growing communities.

Fast forward to the present, and you’re a musician in a successful band. How did you get where you are today?

It's funny how you determine success. It's tough to be a musician, a writer, or an artist. You are constantly struggling but that is what makes good art, music, or writing. You don't do it for the success, you do it because you have to. You do it because it is who you are. When Scarce was touring and got signed to A&M records it was exciting and amazing to be young and be in a rock band. But it came to an end, and I had to deal with the fall out which was really hard and horrible, and I had to start over again. That perhaps is what inspired the title "Misadventures" as well, because sometimes the biggest falls and mistakes and "failures" you have in your life, is when you grow the most as a person. Playing music as an adult I think I enjoy it even more. I look forward to that feeling of being one with the moment. Those moments in life with kids and responsibilities are harder to come by so they are more precious.

What was your most valuable failure?

My most valuable failure compelled me to write my first book Aching To Be. I was a successful musician starting at 21 years old (right out of school) travelling the world signed to a major label record company, being a rock star on the way up; and then one day my best friend and lead singer of Scarce Chick has a brain hemorrhage and nothing is ever the same. Everything fell apart after that including me. It was so much that I had to write it down just to get through it. It was my therapy. I felt like a complete failure. I had start over again, with no manager, no record company, no band, no skills, and I felt so alone. It was really hard. I had a major meltdown. But then I started over again, and worked my way through it ever so slowly, and began to see what I could learn from my "failure". It took a long time. Whenever I am struggling I always ask myself "well, is it as bad as the time Chick had a brain hemorrhage?" Your failures and mistakes can help you measure how far you've grown.

What's your advice to make sure the misadventures- or the mistakes- are learning experiences and not irrevocable tragedies?

I think about this a lot, especially in relation to my two daughters. It's a brave new world with the internet. I think my best advice (I would tell my own girls) is to make sure you do things in real time, don't take risks on the computer. Go out and do things in the real world, and keep some privacy about yourself when you are online and texting. Respect your body. Don't EVER post suggestive pictures of you on the internet, or write something about something personal on the internet or on the phone. Keep those private moments private, or in person between you and the person it pertains to. Love yourself first. Take it slow and don't feel like you have to grow up so fast, go by your own clock not others. Enjoy being goofy and try to do things that help you discover who you are. Find something where you can let yourself take risks like a sport, skateboarding, or start a journal. And if you are really in trouble find someone you can trust to talk to. Don't try and deal with it alone. There are plenty of free clinics where there are amazing people to talk to if you are in trouble. And this is a hard one, never compare yourself to others. Only compare yourself to where you have been and you will learn from your mistakes and you will grow.

My daughters are older than yours, but I'm still dismayed when I see the female artists they listen to and that are getting the most play. Lady Gaga is essentially Madonna 3.0. I loved a lot of what Madonna did and I think I got the joke, but she did it in a very sexualized way. Two and a half decades later: enough already! What's out there now that's putting out a different look and a different message that you'd recommend to young listeners?

The best music is hard to find I think. It's never what's popular. You have to search it out. You have to ask friends what they are listening to. I have always been a fan of supporting local music where you are. Growing up in DC I went to shows all the time and saw a million amazing local bands. Best thing to do is to go out and see shows and take a chance on something you have never heard. Recently someone turned me on to Annie Clark of St.Vincent, she's amazing. And I love my friend Mary Timony's new band WIld Flag, and we just played a show with these two girls who sing like the Carter Family called Tig and Bean. You got to look out for it.

Who are you musical influences?

Exene Cervenka, Mary Timony, Joan Jett, Chryssie Hynde, Joan Wasser, Feist, PJ Harvey, Patti Smith, Lucinda Williams, The Clash, Fugazi, The Bevis Frond, to name a few, there a lot. All the volunteers and girls I've seen at the Girls Rock Camps, they are the the true new punk rockers.

What’s more difficult to create: music or stories?

I would say stories for me, even though I have been writing longer than I have been playing music. I have kept a diary since I was eight. But writing is a solitary thing. Music you get help from your bandmates. It can evolve a bit more naturally and organically. But I am just starting to my voyage into writing so perhaps that will change over time. I enjoy them both as something I can get completely lost in. Something that can frustrate me intensely at times. Something that can be a struggle. But in the end all the experiences remind me of being in the world around me and feeling alive.

I checked out your band page and I see that you’ve written more than one book. Can you talk a little about the other books?

Aching to Be: A Girl's True Rock and Roll Story, is my memoir about being in Scarce. So if you want to see the difference between me and Alex you can read that book. The book is about everything that happened to me in that band which was a lot in a short amount of time. What it's like being signed to a major label record company, making videos, going on tour, playing with big rock stars, and meeting rock stars.

The Fall and Rise of Circus Boy Blue, is a graphic novel woven around the lyrics to a new group of songs Scarce recorded that can be downloaded for free [follow this link for the download]. The songs are the soundtrack to the book. The book is the visual and words to the songs.

Do you have any plans to write anything else?

I am writing the sequel to this book right now. The book will follow Alex's 15th year. I would like to follow Alex up until she is an adult, a series of misadventures, maybe one for every year until she is 18. And there's a lot to write about. Being in a band a lot of crazy, stupid, funny, sad, and amazing things happen along the way. Being a girl a lot of things happen too. Combine them together and you've got quite a lot of adventures and misadventures.

Thank you so much for taking time to talk to me. I look forward to reading- and listening- to the rest of what you come out with.

Thanks Deb. It was a pleasure. Thanks for your support.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

An interview with Mary Osborne, author of "Nonna's Book of Mysteries"

Mary Osborne

Mary Osborne's Nonna's Book of Mysteries is, like so many other good books, hard to pin into one genre. At it's heart, it's historical fiction for young adults. Though mysticism plays an important role in the book, this is strictly realistic fiction; despite the theme of alchemy, there are no wizards. But there is romance, art, intrigue and a compelling discussion of alchemy, philosophy and religion, all of which works perfectly within a story of a young Renaissance girl working with and against her society to pursue her dream.

Osborne was gracious enough to answer my questions about alchemy, art and the Renaissance. If you're looking for a summer read, add this to your list- no matter your age.

What made you realize you were a writer?

For a long time, I thought that getting published would make me a bona fide writer. The first time I saw my books on the shelves at Barnes and Noble, it really was a gratifying moment. However, I think I began calling myself a writer when I started staying up late night after night to work on the Alchemy Series. A passion for the craft is what really makes you a writer.

When did you decide to write?

At Knox College I majored in chemistry and thought about a career in medicine, but then I fell in love with the creative writing program. My first short stories were awful, but my professor encouraged me to keep at it. When I told my mother I’d discovered my calling, she said, “That’s nice, but how are you going to support yourself?” I decided that I could be a nurse and still have time to write on the side. That’s exactly what I did.

Why did you write Nonna's Book of Mysteries?

I didn’t set out to write historical fiction. While working on a contemporary novel, I started reading Carl Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy. I was fascinated by the symbolism and philosophy of the medieval science. Allusions to alchemy started showing up in my writing. An astute mentor, novelist Emily Hanlon, suggested that the bits about alchemy might be a good fit for a historical novel. I doubted my ability to write this genre, but a trip to Italy brought all the pieces of the story together.

Did you go to Italy just to research your book?

The trip to Italy was a vacation, though I selected Florence because I felt that being there would contribute to my writing process. I discovered the sense of place and time for the book just by walking the cobbled streets and sitting in the churches. Visiting the home of Giovanni Boccaccio, the Medieval author of The Decameron, in the nearby, walled city of Certaldo was especially meaningful to me. I felt as though I’d met my muse when I sat in the room where Boccaccio once wrote.

Describe your story.

Nonna’s Book of Mysteries is the tale of a young woman who dreams of becoming a painter in Renaissance Florence. Her quest is guided by her grandmother’s alchemical manual, which has been passed from mother to daughter through the centuries. Essentially, the novel is about connecting to the thing you were born to do and going for your wildest dream.

I've always been fascinated by the Renaissance and the explosion of creativity that followed as people from different cultures came together. What attracted you to this period, and how easy was it to create a story for it?

As a college student I took a wonderful class in Renaissance Art history. A number of years later, when I visited Florence and took in the magnificent works of art left behind by the masters, the Renaissance came alive for me. Much of the city remains unchanged after five hundred years, so it was easy to envision life at that time. Even so, I spent an enormous amount of time researching the period. I never parted with the enormous art history book used back in my college class and often referred to it as I wrote the book.

I think I've read enough stories about writers to last me a while, but I love reading stories about any other kind of artist. What made you decide to make Emilia a painter?

My mother was a very talented painter. In grade school, I’d come home for lunch and often find mom at work at her easel in the kitchen. Like Emilia, she struggled to define herself as an artist, and it was always a challenge to find ways to exhibit and sell her work. The life of the struggling artist is definitely a theme that’s familiar to me. When I discovered that women were not granted painters’ apprenticeships in Renaissance Italy, I began to imagine how a willful young woman might find her way around this obstacle.

So your mother knew a little something about an artist needing to support herself.

Though my mother was highly creative, she was also a very practical person. When her marriage to my father began to falter, she trained to become an interior designer. She wanted to acquire a means of supporting herself as well as to continue painting after her divorce. By example, she taught me how to live a creative life, to pursue your chosen craft over your lifetime.

There's a lot going on in your book. First, alchemy. How would you describe it?

Alchemy is the ancient science of turning lead into gold. It was a common pursuit in the Middle Ages and Renaissance; practitioners were early chemists, mixing chemicals and potions in secret laboratories. Though many alchemists were intent on the simple goal of getting rich, true alchemists saw the work as a spiritual process. They believed that the physical work was actually a metaphor for inner transformation. As the metal in the cauldron was purified, so was the practitioner’s soul. Carl Jung saw alchemy as a psychological process of finding wholeness as an individual.

I'm not a religious person- at all- but I've always loved Greek and Egyptian mythology, and ancient Greek philosophy fascinates me. I steeled myself when the conversation veered toward religion, but I ended up intrigued. You made those complicated topics accessible, I think, especially for a young audience. What else could young readers pick up if they wanted to find out more?

It’s funny you say that, because I was hoping not to alienate readers when I approached religious content in Nonna’s Book of Mysteries. However Emilia’s Catholicism is true to her time; life was often interpreted in terms of church and faith in the 15th century. Renaissance minds were also fascinated with the ancient world, and manuscripts from the far away past were being sought and translated. Primary sources, like Plato and Hermes Trismegistus, are not light reading, but younger readers might be interested in reading the Greek and Egyptian myths. I still love the beautifully illustrated D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths.

D'Aulaire's Greek Myths! Are you saying that because I've already mentioned it about five times on my blog? I agree- it's beautiful and informative. I started reading it when I was ten. How old were you when you picked it up?

So we have this in common! My mother gave me D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths when I was about ten years old also. I read and reread the stories, and I loved looking at the illustrations. The myths speak to the unconscious mind and provide clues to the dilemmas we all face in life. It’s a great read for any age.

When I read Nonna's Book of Mysteries, I wasn't expecting as much romance as I ended up reading. It was a pleasant surprise- I thought the romance was well done and balanced modern expectations with historical realities. I've noticed that a lot of books with strong romantic elements aren't being marketed that way. Was that a conscious decision of yours?

Now that you mention it, perhaps this aspect of the book might have been marketed. I guess we were thinking that romance was not the focus of the book or the most unique aspect of the book. Hopefully the story sends the message that while romantic relationships add great meaning to women’s lives, they do not necessarily define our lives. Young women can identify with Emilia because she does fall in love, but she still has life goals and a strong sense of self.

You wrote in a "very special guest star" into your story, Cosimo de' Medici. Were you nervous about incorporating a character who's been so well-documented?

I actually had a lot of fun writing the scene with Cosimo de’ Medici. Having already read about his life and seen him depicted in film, I had a sense of how I would portray him. The book was already underway when I stumbled upon the fact that Cosimo had commanded his scholar, Marsilio Ficino, to translate a newly discovered text written by Hermes Trisgmegistus, whose texts were very popular with Renaissance alchemists. It was a wonderful synchronicity which occurred while I was writing the book.

I love those moments of synchronicity- it almost makes you feel like you were meant to write your story.

Yes, I think moments of synchronicity are clues that we are on the correct path. They are small affirmations that suggest circumstances are lining up in a fortuitous way so that our work might be completed. I have long felt that writing the Alchemy Series is something I was meant to do. It’s a mission I’m compelled to complete.

Finally, the technical aspect: I knew Renaissance painters couldn't simply go out and buy a tube of paint from an art supply store, but I was fascinated by the process they undertook to make the different colors and what they had to do to prepare their canvasses. Did you try any of that yourself?

While I haven’t tried preparing pigments myself, I have a good friend— Joseph Malham— who is an iconographer and paints in the traditional Byzantine style. I watched him at work and observed how a panel is prepared. I also referred heavily to Linette Martin’s wonderful book, Sacred Doorways. She did a wonderful job explaining in great detail how pigments were prepared and panels were created at that time.

Why did you decide on a prequel for your next book and not a sequel?

In truth, I started writing the “prequel” before I wrote Nonna’s Book of Mysteries. While Alchemy’s Daughter –the prequel— was sitting with my literary agent, I went on to write Nonna’s. As it turned out, this was a stronger novel because I’d become a better writer by this time. So Nonna’s Book of Mysteries went out first, and Alchemy’s Daughter came back to me for revision. I’m still not quite done with the rewrite—I have a hard time letting go of manuscripts and declaring them finished!

What can you tell us about it?

Alchemy’s Daughter is the tale of Emilia’s great-great-great grandmother— Santina Pietra, who lived during the time of the great plague of 1348. She was a midwife and the original owner of the alchemical manual— or the book of mysteries.

Do you have a release date yet for Alchemy's Daughter?

The date is currently planned for June 2012. That’s if everything goes according to plan! I will be writing furiously through the autumn.

What are you working on next?

I’m sketching out the third book in the series— The Last of the Magicians. There will be a special celebrity guest star in this novel as well. In this book, the alchemical manual will travel from Italy to England. And there will also be a touch of romance!

Thanks for taking the time to talk with me. I'm looking forward to reading your other books.

Thank you so much for the opportunity to speak with you.

Click here to purchase Nonna's Book of Mysteries. Enjoy!

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Let everyone speak

When I look for something to read for pleasure, my first requirement is that it be clearly written, whether it's about renewable energy in Scandinavia, medieval history or fiction. Having said that, I have my preferences; or, rather, there are areas of the book store I don't usually haunt. I'm not likely to check out the science fiction, horror or fantasy sections- what some people might now call "speculative fiction". I'm also not into erotica or young adult.

Those genres just aren't my thing, and that's fine. I wrote about that last week; we all have different tastes, and they're all valid. But what about... quality?

Quality is an issue that's been coming up more and more in conversations about publishing. Some of it is because of the huge crop of independently published authors, many of whom can't afford to hire an editor, and some of it is because some publishing houses aren't applying the same rigor to proofreading that they once did. (There is some discussion about whether or not this is happening on the scale people are complaining about. I can't speak to the entire industry, but I can say that I've noticed more grammar and punctuation errors in the past five years than I used to.) And some of it is about the stories themselves; the tone of one camp of the complaints is that publishing is too "trendy" or celebrity-driven, and because of weaker sales they don't want to take risks. Others are bemoaning that because it's so easy to e-publish, people are putting up all kinds of garbage that wouldn't have passed muster with their friends and family, much less an agent or an editor. (Please note: I said easy to publish, not easy to sell.) To hear some people talk, we may be looking at the end of a culture that values meaningful literature.

I may have strong feelings about meaning and quality as it relates to what I read or view, but I'm reluctant to force those on anyone. As long as we're not talking about snuff films or child pornography, I'm probably going to let it go. I may not feel that everyone is creating something worth reading or viewing, but I've learned through experience that value is subjective, especially when we're talking about art. I have a responsibility to highlight issues or stories I think are important, but I have to persuade you to agree through my writing, not simply through my insistence.

I don't read a lot of YA, but I'm still dismayed by the criticism Meghan Cox Gurdon offers up in the Wall Street Journal of the genre. It is not just that she flirts with the idea of censorship- and I don't mean by the parents; it's also that she questions the value of these books for children. I haven't read the contemporary books she describes, but I have read things others have found equally objectionable: Dracula, Fahrenheit 451, A Clockwork Orange and, oh yes, Machiavelli's The Prince. As I said, they're not the kinds of things I seek out, but what could I do? They were assigned reading in the 8th, 9th and 10th grades, and two of them were for my political science class.

You know what else I've read a lot of? Mythology. Having read Gurdon's descriptions, I can't think of how any of them are any worse than the story of Apollo flaying a satyr named Marsyas alive after he loses a music contest (and you felt bad for the American Idol losers!), a young nymph named Scylla being turned into a monster by a jealous goddess, a young nymph named Medusa being turned into a monster by an outraged goddess after she was seduced by a god, a boy named Pelops being cannibalized by his father as a sacrifice to the gods, a man named Odysseus who not only kills the suitors who have been harassing his wife but then kills the maids who helped them- after he makes them clean up the mess from the other slaughter, and a little boy named Astyanax who is hurled over the walls of Troy by the victorious Greeks. Let's not forget the king who kidnapped and raped a young prince and then later left his young son Oedipus to die. Then there's my favorite- the story of a young girl named Persephone who is kidnapped and raped by her uncle. (That her uncle just happens to be the god of the underworld has always made the story translate to me as "girl was raped and murdered by her uncle", but what do I know?)

I read all of these things when I was ten years old and under. Should someone have slapped Bulfinch's Mythology and d'Aulaire's Greek Myths out of my hands?

Oh right- remember King Arthur? Whether he existed is debatable, as Sarah Woodbury pointed out, but in the popular version of the story he does two relatively despicable things: sleeps with his sister Morgause/Morgaine/Morgan Le Fey and then kills all of the newborn boys born in one year to make sure he catches the child born from that. (And then he doesn't.)

Again, the Arthur stories were assigned reading- this time for the sixth grade. Should my parents have demanded that my teachers and principals lose their jobs over that?

I shudder to think what my world would have looked like if the answer to either of those questions had been yes. This may come as a shock to some, but I was able to incorporate those details into the larger story, even at that young age. If they did nothing else, they showed that no character- mortal or immortal- was completely good or evil. Again, what do I know, but in my opinion that is a valuable lesson for a child to learn.

The Supreme Court recently overturned California's ban on violent video games. I think our children are, indeed, too hyped up on electronics, but I approve of the decision, especially after reading the majority and dissenting opinions written by Justices Scalia and Thomas, respectively. Read what Alyssa Rosenberg of Think Progress has to say. I think she's spot on. More to the point, I think Scalia hits the nail on the head. (Forgive my shock: I don't usually get to say that.)

I cannot help but think of the dime novels and pulp fictions of the 19th century that Scalia references. Having read some summaries, I don't think I would have liked them either. Most modern readers would probably feel that those books aren't exactly high literature and that they aren't any worse for not having read them.

Fair enough, but I can't think of too many people who don't feel that there is some value in their contemporaries and immediate successors: Hawthorne, Whitman and Stowe, to name just a few. Those luminaries did not write in a vacuum. Hawthorne wasn't the first 19th century author to play with the motif of the holy man breaking his vows with the beautiful congregant, but he may have been among the few to invest the relationship with a deeper spiritual meaning. Stowe was not the first writer to call for abolition, but she married it to a literary sensibility that appealed beyond her "target audience". And Whitman... yeah, you're not imagining the pornographic imagery that was surely influenced by some of the pornography he had access to, but that does not change or dilute his themes of transcendentalism and even patriotism.

Imagine if the censors of the 19th century had prevailed and those earlier works had never come to light. Then there very well might not have been a Hawthorne, a Whitman or a Stowe. Bulfinch's Mythology was published in the 1850s. What if those same people had successfully fought against its publication? Would the world have been a better place because we did not have to confront the violent imagery those stories use?

I believe strongly that the world would have been a poorer place without those authors' works, and I believe I would have been a lesser person for not having read them. Oh yeah- censorship of literature would not have rid us of the real-life horrors and inhumanity those works describe.

Every day, with everything we do, we are part of a larger conversation, even if we believe we sit in silence. We talk about values, we talk about definitions, we talk about the past and we talk about the future. Let everyone say their peace- and then let everyone respond. For it is in those words, in that response, that we can not only find but create value.