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Bloggers

 

Between the Covers with Dwayne Alexander Smith

Forty AcresThe horrors of U.S. slavery will never be forgotten, but can reviving them in modern times truly right past wrongs?

 

In Dwayne Alexander Smith’s debut novel Forty Acres: A Thriller, up-and-coming lawyer Martin Grey faces more than sudden fame when he lands a high-profile case against legal superstar Damon Darrell. Martin is willingly lured into Damon’s exclusive circle of successful African-American men who then invite him on a weekend getaway. However, this seemingly innocent trip turns into a dangerous moral journey when Martin finds himself on a secret plantation staffed entirely by white slaves, where he is now master.

 

Between the Covers: How did the idea of the reversed plantation develop? Did it evolve over time or hit you all at once?

Dwayne Alexander Smith: Forty Acres started out as a time travel story, believe it or not. An African-American astronaut has an accident in space, which causes his ship to crash back to earth. Somehow he has gone back in time and finds himself in the Antebellum South. Unable to speak because of an injury, he is captured by slavers and put to work on a plantation. I loved this idea but I couldn’t sell my people on it as a screenplay. I really wanted to write a story about American slavery, so I kept toying with the idea. After several other versions of the story, it struck me that a story about blacks keeping white slaves would be very powerful, if I could make it believable. I worked hard to figure out how such a conspiracy would be pulled off if it were real.

 

BTC: This book is exceptional not only for the controversial concept behind the Forty Acres plantation but for its page-turning suspense as well. What about the thriller genre made you choose it to tell this unique story?

DAS: I don’t think there’s any other way to tell this story. The core concept, because it’s centered around a conspiracy, just lends itself to the thriller genre. I’ve seen a few reviews where the reader wished that the story wasn’t couched in a thriller. I guess they would prefer a more straightforward approach. They feel the themes tackled in the story should be taken more seriously. I get it but I feel that the plot is too fantastic to be delivered straight. Working it into a thriller gives the reader more license to suspend disbelief and just go with it.

 

BTC: There are various representations of African-American masculinity portrayed in this book. How did you go about developing such diverse personalities and their differing views on race and history?Dwayne Alexander Smith

DAS: My approach to character is very calculated. I start out with very basic questions. What are his dreams? What is he afraid of? How would he react if a gun was pointed at him? I have a whole list of question. Another thing I do is create a detailed past. I figure out all the major events in a character’s life from birth to starting point of the story. Where did he grow up? How many brothers and sisters? How did he do in school? What major injuries did he suffer as a kid? These details never make it into the story but they inform the character’s behavior. A black man who grew up in a Bronx ghetto is going to have a different attitude toward the world than a black man who grew up in an upper middle class household.

 

BTC: How challenging was it for you to reveal humanity at its worst and best through your characters? Did any parts of the creation process keep you up at night?

DAS: There are some pretty disturbing scenes in Forty Acres that were not easy to write. I was constantly tempted to soften those moments but I had to keep reminding myself that everything that occurs in my story is a reflection of what actually took place on plantations during the slavery era in the United States. Ultimately, I felt it was important that these scenes be impactful to establish the past horrors that motivate my story’s antagonists and also to establish very high stakes for my protagonist. Martin puts everything on the line at the end of the story, the reason for his sacrifice has to be believable.

 

BTC: What research went into recreating the horrific realities of American slavery in modern times?

DAS: I tried to make Forty Acres as real as possible. I tried to figure out how a conspiracy like Forty Acres would be perpetrated if it were real. A lot of research went into where to locate the compound. There are not many places in the United States where you can hide a secret slave compound. There’s also the problem of hiding the slaves. You can’t have them picking cotton, so I had to come up with an alternative that still reflected what went on hundreds of years ago. I think that the type of slave labor I decided to use is not only historically accurate but also enlightening to the reader. I don’t want to say what it is, to avoid spoilers, but I’ve found that a lot of people are unaware that slaves were used for this sort of labor in the United States.

 

BTC: Since Forty Acres: A Thriller is receiving great praise from readers and critics alike, can we anticipate more books?

DAS: Yes. I’m working on another thriller called White Widow that involves a very unique serial killer. I also have a plot ready to go for a sequel to Forty Acres, if the book takes off.

 

BTC: If you were stranded on an island with an immortal DVD player, what one film would you want? What single book?

DAS: That is a tough question. Approaching it practically, I’d want a movie that is very re-watchable, not just a great movie. I can watch musicals over and over. My favorite musical is West Side Story, so I’d have to go with that. Same approach to what book I would choose. My choice might be surprising, but I never get tired of reading The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. I can crack that book open on any page and find a laugh. Just the type of book you would need if stranded on an island.

Sarah Jane

 
 

Between the Covers with Dan Fesperman

UnmannedLocal award-winning author and BCPL card holder Dan Fesperman has come out with a new thriller available on August 12, and gave Between the Covers the inside scoop. In his latest psychological military thriller Unmanned, Fesperman explores the domain of drone warfare.

 

Darwin Cole served his country as an accomplished pilot until he was sequestered to operate drones. As a pilot Cole found himself slightly removed from the tangible repercussions of war and was surprised to learn that the opposite is true with manning a drone. It’s this aspect that tears him apart when a crucial mission goes amiss and innocent people die, but who can be blamed for the error when the truth is camouflaged? Cole teams up with unlikely allies to find out what actually happened on that infamous day.

 

Read on to find out more about Dan Fesperman and his latest novel. 

 

Between the Covers: Drone technology plays a major role in Unmanned. I imagine you did a lot of research on the subject. How much of what is in the book is the military actually using? What is your personal opinion about how drones are used by the military?

Dan Fesperman: Well, all of the military drones I mention – Predator, Reaper, Global Hawk – they’re out there and flying. As for the experimental drones that pop up later in the book – the ones the size of insects, flying in swarms; the ultra-fast models; the ones with huge wingspans – I do know that drones like those have been tested by the military. If anything, I’ve probably underestimated their capabilities, if only because the technology is advancing at such a dizzying rate. I don’t object, per se, to the use of drones in warfare. Hey, in some cases they actually reduce the likelihood of civilian casualties, and there’s no doubt that their reconnaissance capabilities have saved plenty of soldiers’ lives. But it does make me a little queasy to think that we might be embracing certain applications of drone technology without fully thinking them through, which is always a dangerous proposition. Also, the more that you turn combat into a remote-control exercise, the more you tend to dehumanize it, for both predator and prey.

 

BTC: There is a large focus on the military and government agencies; did you work with any military personnel for authenticity?

DF: I interviewed several Air Force pilots, sensors and other officers associated with drone squadrons out at Creech Air Force Base, near Las Vegas. One pilot-sensor team was particularly helpful, especially in describing what an eerie job it could be, peering down at a small village for hours and even days on end, and then, possibly, having to target one of the houses. They established a degree of intimacy and familiarity with these places which soldiers almost never do. It personalized their potential targets even as the technological nature of the relationship – they were 7,000 miles and nine time zones apart! – made the relationship oddly impersonal. As for the intelligence side, I’ve talked with plenty of ex-CIA people in the course of my research for other projects, so I already had a feel for the way those jobs work.

 

BTC: Cole and Barbara are struggling with some of the things they saw while working in war-torn countries. Did your own travels in similar situations prompt you to include this aspect in the novel?Dan Fesperman

DF: Yes. Those kinds of places – Afghanistan, the Balkans, the Middle East – always leave you with vivid and sometimes haunting memories. They pop up later in your dreams, and at unexpected moments. And while I’ve never experienced anything quite as traumatic as what Barb endured, I got enough of a taste of it, as did many of my colleagues, to be able to write about it with some authenticity.

 

BTC: You picked Maryland as the setting for a large portion of the book. Is this because you reside in Maryland or because of its proximity to D.C.?

DF: Both, really. And it was fun, for a change, to write from a few settings on my home turf. In writing and researching my other books, I’d often worked hard to establish enough comfort with a foreign setting to be able to write about it with any authority. In the Baltimore and Maryland scenes, that came easier.

 

BTC: Was it a difficult transition to go from journalist to novelist?

DF: Not really. The hardest part was getting used to the idea that you’re in command of this world you’ve created, instead of being chained to the “facts” gleaned from interviews and observations. You have to grow accustomed to the idea of that, instead of checking and double-checking your notebook. You can control even the smallest of details. If you’re setting your book in an actual time and place you still want to be true to the spirit of that time and place, but the characters belong to you. In journalism it never works that way.

 

BTC: Several of your books are award winners in the area of crime writing and thrillers. Have you ever considered writing in a different genre?

DF: The bounds of those genres have been stretched so far and wide by now that I’ve never felt the least bit restricted or confined. You can pretty much write about any era, in any location, with any assortment of characters. And when you get right down to it, genre or non-genre, any fiction is going to concern itself mostly with conflict and personality, identity and betrayal. My only rule of thumb is to try and write the kind of book that I’d like to read.

 

BTC:  What book would you recommend to a reader who just finished Unmanned and loved it?

DF: Odd as it might sound, the first work of a kindred spirit that comes to mind is a wonderful German film from 2006, The Lives of Others. Essentially it’s a spy film about an extended and careful surveillance of a single suspect, but what it’s really about is how that sort of invasive and prying work affects those who do it for a living. It’s beautifully and artfully crafted, with some brilliant writing. Of my own books, I’d recommend The Warlord’s Son, mostly because its setting in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region gives you a much more intimate look at the insular little worlds that all those drone pilots can only watch from afar.

Randalee

 
 

Between the Covers with Jennifer Weiner

All Fall DownJennifer WeinerWith over 4.5 million copies of her books in print, Jennifer Weiner’s career is at an all-time high. Her new novel All Fall Down will almost certainly be on bestsellers lists this summer. The story follows Allison Weiss, a hardworking wife and mom who seems to have it all. In reality, she is crumbling under the pressure of her stressful life and has become addicted to prescription painkillers. With her trademark wit and relatable style, Weiner takes the reader through Allison’s downward spiral into addiction and then in her journey to recovery.

 

Weiner recently answered some questions for our Between the Covers readers. Read on to learn more about what inspired her new novel and where she writes. (Hint: It’s Carrie Bradshaw-inspired!) She also shares her picks for your summer reading list.

 

What inspired you to write this story?

 

When I turned 40 – lo these many years ago – I started thinking a lot about happiness. I think it’s in everyone’s nature – certainly it’s in mine – to set goals, and to think, When this happens, I’ll feel happy, or, as soon as I’ve achieved this, I’ll never be sad again. Writers, in particular, fall prey to this kind of thinking: When I get a book published, I’ll be happy and I won’t care if it gets a million bad reviews, or, if my book’s a best-seller, I’ll never let anything bother me again.

 

Of course, life doesn’t work out that way. No matter what you achieve, there’s always someone who’s done more, or done it faster, and no achievement guarantees perfect peace of mind. So the question becomes: What does happiness look like? How can people find it? What if it’s not what we’ve always believed?

 

I wanted to write about a character who’d hit all the mile markers, whose life looked like it should have been perfect, and to have that life not feel perfect to her. Allison’s got the handsome husband, the beautiful child, the big house, an interesting job that she likes…but none of it has silenced that voice inside of her, a voice I think so many women have, asking, Is that all? Is this it? And if it is, why do I feel so empty?

 

All Fall Down really highlights the fact that addiction impacts people of all ages and walks of life. Will you tell us a little bit about the research that you did while writing this book?

 

I spent time at several different facilities, I read a lot of books and blogs, I talked to lots of people…and then I spent a lot of time inside my own head, thinking about Allison. One of the things I heard from a counselor that really stayed with me was that addicts don’t have a problem with substances; they have a problem with feelings. They never learned how to handle sadness, or anger, or frustration, or disappointment, and the drugs or the alcohol are a symptom, not the disease itself.

 

Allison is a very relatable character. She’s a busy wife and mother who is struggling to keep the pieces of her life together. Do you see any of yourself in her?

 

Of course there’s some of me in all of my characters, even though my specifics aren’t exactly like Allison’s. I wanted to make her like me, but I wanted to make her like any mom you’d meet at Little Gym, or in the preschool parking lot. She’s funny, she’s stressed, she’s interesting, she’s overextended…she’s all of us.

 

Will you share a little bit about your writing process? Where do you write? Do you write every day?

 

I’m lucky not to be one of those writers who hate writing – I actually really enjoy it, and have ever since I learned how! I write pretty much every day, although sometimes I’ll skip the weekends if I’m busy with my kids. I do most of my writing in my closet, which sounds pathetic until I explain that I basically have Carrie Bradshaw’s Sex and the City closet. Alas, I do not have Carrie’s wardrobe. Possibly because I do not have Carrie’s figure, and a lot of those designers of dresses she wore around Manhattan do not serve my kind.

 

So I have this gigantic closet which has turned into an office-library-storage space, with my daughters’ artwork hanging on the walls, and my big girl’s old clothes in boxes waiting for my little one to grow into them, and there’s a desk with a big light-up mirror. If Carrie lived in my house the vanity would be her makeup station, but that’s where I do my work.

 

Throughout your career, you have maintained a strong online presence on your blog and social media, and that has really allowed you to connect with your readers. How has that impacted your writing?

 

Again, I’m a lucky writer because I enjoy being online. I don’t regard it as a penance or a punishment. I like being quick and quippy on Twitter [follow her @jenniferweiner], I love interacting with readers on social media, and I love using it to get instant feedback – about a character’s name, about a book cover, about what my kids are up to. My suspicion is that readers like feeling that there’s a connection with an author they like.

 

What is the best book you’ve read recently? Are there any authors on your personal must-read list?

 

I loved Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State. It’s about a kidnapping in Haiti, and it’s a very unsettling book, but oh, so good. And I’m counting the days until Lev Grossman’s The Magician’s Land, the third book in his trilogy about young adult hipster magicians that attend a college for magic (his work has been described as Harry Potter for grownups, but I think it has more in common with the Narnia books). Baltimore’s own Anne Tyler and Laura Lippman are both automatic purchases for me – I love both of their styles!

 

Weiner's fans will also be pleased to know that she’s visiting Baltimore soon. She will discuss All Fall Down at Enoch Pratt Free Library’s Central Library on June 18.

Beth

 
 

Between the Covers with Susan Jane Gilman

Susan Jane GilmanThe Ice Cream Queen of Orchard StreetSpanning the 20th century, Susan Jane Gilman’s The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street is a rags-to-riches story about Lillian Dunkle, an indomitable Russian Jewish immigrant who builds an empire and becomes America's “Ice Cream Queen.” The story is narrated by Lillian, whose sharp wit and acerbic sense of humor are a stark contrast to her public image as kindly grandmother. Her personality is the heart of this character-driven story about the pursuit of the American dream.

 

Gilman recently answered some questions about her novel for Between the Covers readers. Grab a double scoop of your favorite ice cream, and read on to get to know Gilman and what inspired this fascinating new novel.

 

The ice cream business is an unusual starting point for a novel. What was it about that industry that caught your attention?

 

First of all, I love ice cream. And if you’re going to write a book, it better be about a topic that can sustain your passion and interest for years.

 

I initially got the idea for The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street when a friend and I were reminiscing about a local ice cream chain called Carvel. The owner, Tom Carvel, did his own tv commercials, in which he would rasp, “Please, buy my Carvel ice cream?” They were so hokey and homespun, they were sort of fabulous.

 

Googling “Tom Carvel” on a whim, I learned that he was a Greek immigrant, Tom Carvelas, who arrived in America penniless, only to build an enormous empire of ice cream franchises. Then I discovered that the Mattuses, the founders of Haagen-Daz, were two first-generation Jews who came from the tenements in the Bronx. These ice cream makers’ stories were classic American-immigrant-rags-to-riches sagas. This struck me as a wonderful basis for a novel.

 

You did an enormous amount of research while working on this novel. Did it included any taste-testing? (We hope so!) What is your favorite ice cream flavor?

 

By all means, I did taste-testing! As the founder of the Susan Jane Gilman Institute of Advanced Gelato Studies, why, it was imperative! I even contacted my inspiration – the Carvel Ice Cream Company itself – and arranged to work at a Carvel ice cream franchise out in Massapequa, Long Island. For two days, the owner let me go behind the scenes, learn the ropes and work as an ice cream maker serving customers. I loved every minute of it – except the owner was no dummy. He wouldn’t let me near that soft ice cream machine unsupervised. He must have known that, given the chance, I’d place my head directly beneath the server and just let the ice cream pour directly into my mouth.

 

There is also the Carpigiani Gelato University located just outside of Italy. I live about five hours away, in Geneva, Switzerland, so of course I had to go there as well, tour its Gelato Museum and take a Gelato Masterclass. I learned the science and mathematics behind gelato-making, made my own batch of gelato, and then of course, tasted my own concoction. I was in such heaven, I thought the top of my head would explode.

 

As for my favorite flavor, if there’s no decent mint-chip to be had, I am always happy with chocolate.

 

Lillian is a force to be reckoned with in the novel, and she has a very distinct voice from the first page. Did you have any real life inspiration for this formidable character?

 

I have to say, Lillian’s voice came to me in the proverbial flash. As I sat down to write the beginning, I heard her speaking, and that was it – I just had her. There are parts of her way of speaking that are reminiscent of my paternal grandmother — particularly her word choices — but the voice was unique to me. I felt as if I channeled it. In terms of her overall character, there’s a dash of Scarlett O’Hara and Leona Helmsley, I suppose, but really, I saw her as far more than simply mean and imperious, or a caricature talking ethnic schtick, or a punchline. I wanted her to be phenomenally complex and contradictory and compelling — the way all of us really are.

 

This is your first novel. What made you want to take on this new challenge? How did the process differ from writing nonfiction?

 

Ever since I was 8 years old, when I fell in love with reading and started to write my own short stories in little notebooks, I dreamed of writing a novel.  I always assumed that one day, I’d become the author of some sort of wonderful, fictional opus. Yet as I grew up, I kept getting sidetracked. Although I got an MFA in Creative Writing and published short stories and even won literary prizes, things in our culture kept pissing me off so much that I felt compelled to respond with books. Kiss My Tiara was in reaction to a dating guide that urged women to trick men into marrying them. Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress was conceived as a smart, funny counter-point to women’s memoirs that focused on either miserable childhoods, or being single and going shopping. Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, the true story of a disastrous trip to China, was an antidote to several popular books in which women got over divorces by going to ashrams or renovating villas in Tuscany. I suppose I had to get three nonfiction books off my chest before I could finally get around to writing that novel.

 

I never expected to be a nonfiction author at all. It was an accident!  The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street may seem like a new direction, but it doesn’t feel like one to me at all. Finally, I’ve returned to my first love, to what I intended to do all along.

 

What is the best book you have read recently?

 

Let me give you three completely different ones: I loved Adam Johnson’s novel The Orphan Master’s Son; it was epic, disturbing, rich and unlike anything I’ve ever read, particularly given its setting. On a recent vacation, I read Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette; the first half made me laugh out loud from its smart, wicked wit. I was also profoundly moved by The Bosnia List, a new memoir co-written by Kenan Trebincevic and my friend Susan Shapiro. The story blew me away, and really enhanced my understanding of the Balkan conflict in an intimate way. I want everything when I read: humor, pain, transcendence, pleasure, education, enlightenment. Always, I want them to be intelligent. But I can never pick one favorite.

Beth

 
 

Between the Covers with Lisa Scottoline

Keep Quiet by Lisa ScottolineLisa Scottoline’s new novel, Keep Quiet, is a tension-filled thriller that will also spark great conversation at your next book club meeting. In an attempt to repair his strained relationship with his teenage son Ryan, Jake Whitmore reluctantly agrees to let Ryan drive home, despite the fact that it’s late and Ryan has a restricted learner’s permit. While Ryan is driving, he hits a pedestrian, and Jake finds himself forced to make a difficult choice to protect his son from the life-altering consequences of a moment of distraction. When they are blackmailed by a witness, their secret begins to unravel. Jake desperately tries to protect his family from the fall-out of the accident as the situation careens out of control. Like William Landay’s Defending Jacob, the story hinges on a parent’s love for his son and how far he will go to protect his child.

 

Scottoline recently agreed to answer some questions for Between the Covers readers. She shares more about her inspiration and demystifies her writing process.

 

Can you tell us a little about what inspired you to write Keep Quiet?

 

Many authors are inspired by what-if questions, and that’s what inspired this book. I live in the suburbs, and like everybody else, I drive around way too much and there's always one street that I drive down that has a blind curve, which drives me crazy. Sometimes I grumble that somebody should fix this, but most of the time I worry that if I turn the corner I could hit somebody if I'm not careful, [or my daughter could]. And there you have it! 

 

One of the central questions in the novel is how far a parent will go to keep his child safe. What is it about that idea that makes it so compelling?

 

I'm a single mother, and being a parent is the most important and best part of my life, even in a life as blessed as mine. I adore my daughter Francesca. Raising her has always been a question of trying to strike a balance between letting her find her own wings, but at the same time being a loving and responsible parent, which can often mean protecting her–perhaps too much. This theme is the beating heart of Keep Quiet. I love it as a theme because it's a question that every parent has no matter what the age of their child. It's the kind of question that keeps moms, like me, up at night, so I knew it would make for a compelling novel.

 

Was it a challenge for you to write about this complex father-son relationship?

 

It was something of a challenge because the main character is a father, not a mother, but I think it's really important for writers to stretch and go out of their comfort zone sometimes. I was extremely close to my late father. I can tell you at any point in the day what he would have been thinking about, so I channeled his good heart and poured that into the character of the great father in this novel.

 

Will you share a little about your writing process? Do you write every day? Who is your sounding board?

 

I'm happy to talk about the creative process because I want to demystify it and perhaps encourage others to take a shot at their own writing, whether it's fiction or nonfiction.  My personal motto is one that I borrowed from Nike, which is “just do it,” because I don't think you need a degree to become a writer, but in many cases, you just need to overcome your own self-doubts and insecurities. So just do it. That's what I do, for over 20 books now, and over 20 years. I write 2,000 words a day, sometimes I'm lucky enough to finish that by 6 o'clock at night, yet other times I won't finish until midnight. I don't have an outline, I just go with whatever the characters would logically do next. I happen to think that is what gives my novels a fast pace and logical narrative as well as, I hope, being hard to put down!

 

Some of your fiction readers may not realize that you also co-author the “Chick Wit” column in the Philadelphia Inquirer with your daughter Francesca Serritella. Have a Nice Guilt Trip, the fifth collection of those essays, will be released this summer. What are the best and worst parts of working with your daughter?

 

I love working with my daughter, and there are no worst parts.  It's important to note, however, that I do not edit her in any fashion for those humorous essays, nor does she edit me. We both write about whatever topic we want, which, I think, are topics that relate to women of all ages. Then we put them together in a book. I love it because the reviews of these books are so wonderful, many calling them reminiscent of Erma Bombeck, which is, I think, a huge honor and compliment.

 

What was the last book that you stayed up late at night to read?

 

I really enjoyed Delia Ephron's Sister Mother Husband Dog, which is a moving and charming memoir.

Beth