Monday 12 November 2018

Bettina Fabos on Proud & Torn

Bettina Fabos will be the featured reader at the Final Thursday Reading Series on November 29 at the Hearst Center for the Arts (Open mic at 7:15; Bettina Fabos at 8:00). Fabos is a Professor of Visual Communication and Interactive Digital Studies at the University of Northern Iowa. In the following interview, she discusses working on Proud and Torn: A Visual Memoir of Hungarian History, a unique digital project.

Proud & Torn is not just about the history of your family but also about Hungarian history. Can you describe what it was like to weave the two together?
BETTINA FABOS: My goal was to show how one poor, everyday, peasant family, as well as their neighbors in the small town they inhabited, both succeeded and suffered under the decisions of people in power. To me, history comes to life when you bring in the personal narrative. So, I simultaneously looked at these big historical markers, most often from “official” history, like revolutions, wars, and regime change, and tried to explore these events through the eyes of my own family members. In this way, I hoped to convey this history so it feels more real and memorable. 

Using a digital medium allowed you to do things with images, graphics, and transitions that you would not have been able to in a regular book. What made you choose to use a digital medium instead, and what do you think the advantages were?
BF: I teach in a program at UNI called Interactive Digital Studies, and I’m always inspired by beautiful, tangible web projects. I love the interactivity of parallax storytelling pioneered by the developers of the first great New York Times web project, “Snowfall.” I love the tension you get by scrolling vertically to move images horizontally (as we’ve done with our timeline interface), and I love coming across looped videos online that don’t take any time to view, but add movement and dimension to an article or story. We wanted Proud & Torn to be something people would enjoy exploring.
Proud & Torn must have been an enormous undertaking. You mention in the epilogue that you were interviewing Ari in 2005. How long did it take to do all of the research for this project?
BF: I let those early interviews with Ari (my father’s sister) and my father languish for about seven years, and I began an early version of the project in 2012. I received a Fulbright research grant to do research in photo archives in Hungary. Then my project really began to transform, because it was initially intended to be a rather short project that I could design/code on my own. But while there I had a growing unease that I couldn’t treat Hungarian history lightly—there were too many implications if I got it wrong. I also met two young American historians of Hungary (Leslie Waters and Kristina Poznan, also Fulbright recipients) who were very excited about what I was doing, and they pushed me to expand the project into a social history of the small town my family was from. I took two years to draft the story, and while I was drafting, we were designing and coding. The process of building every chapter took months, and in the end it took a full six years to complete. 

You cover a wide range of history in the memoir, from how Hungary was founded to the lives of your parents. Is there anything you found during your research that surprised you?
BF: It was fascinating to learn that my Hungarian family members were serfs working on land owned by the famous Széchényi (pronounced SAY-chain-ee) family. This family—the Széchényis—are legendary for their own involvement in building Hungary’s national identity. Everywhere in Budapest there is the Széchényi name: on the first bridge linking Buda to Pest, on the national library, on the Academy of Sciences, on the majestic thermal spa in Budapest’s city park. It turns out they owned land all over Hungary, including the castle in the town my family lived in. I chose to tell the story of the Széchényis parallel with the story of my family, and in doing so I am telling the story about power, class mobility, and social disruption. My favorite moment in Proud & Torn is when the once wealthy Széchényi countess, who had been kicked out of the family castle as the Communist regime came to power after World War II, bartered with my Aunt Ari for a sack of potatoes using one of her beautiful silver spoons. Ari still uses this spoon every day like it’s one of her prize possessions. I always knew she had the spoon, but I never fully understood the history behind it.

Why is the piece called Proud & Torn?
BF: Throughout the narrative, I’m constantly referring to “pride”: the pride of Hungarian nationalism, which rose to new heights with the Compromise of 1867 and still drives the narrative of “greater” Hungary today; the pride of Hungary’s agricultural success as the breadbasket of the Austrian Empire; the pride of Budapest’s amazing culture and architecture at the turn of the century; the pride and success of Hungarian Jewish culture; Hungary’s prideful sporting achievements, especially in fencing, figure skating (1930s) and soccer (1950s); my own family’s pride at their advancement into the middle class; the individual pride of my own father surviving torture. Too often, Hungary’s pride has veered into a dangerous nationalism, which has been the root of Hungary and its people being “torn,” even today. The nationalistic Hungarians were on the losing side of World War I, where the countryside, cities, people, relationships, and the ways of life were ripped up beyond repair. With the Treaty of Trianon in 1920, Hungarians were astonished to see Hungary reduced to one-third of its size, demoralizing an entire nation and sending three million Hungarians to live across the border in other countries, torn from their identity as Hungarians. The wretched horror of World War II (a war Hungary was also on the wrong side of, allying with Nazi Germany to regain territory) resulted in more tearing, with the Holocaust being the most extreme example. This was followed by the ransacking of Hungary, this time by the Russians, the ripping up of aristocratic estates (down to the parquet floors), the upending of class structure, and the tearing of families from their homes and livelihoods under new economic plans. Ultimately, with the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1956, my father left for the United States, although he would have preferred to stay in Hungary. Like so many other Hungarian families, this one, too, was torn apart. That is the story of Hungary: proud and torn.
-- Interview conducted by Brooke Wiese

Tuesday 9 October 2018

Jeffrey S. Copeland on Plague in Paradise

Jeffrey S. Copeland is the featured reader at the Final Thursday Reading Series on October 25 at the Hearst Center for the Arts. His new work of literary nonfiction, Plague in Paradise: the Black Death in Los Angeles, 1924 (Paragon House), documents efforts to confront an outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1920s Los Angeles. Copeland is the author of several works of literary nonfiction, including Ain’t No Harm to Kill the Devil, Shell Games and Inman’s War. He is a Professor of English in the Department of Languages & Literatures at the University of Northern Iowa.

You’ve got this knack for discovering underappreciated moments in American history. My first question, and it’s the question I have had about all of your literary nonfiction books, is how did you discover this topic and how come it had not been written about previously?
JEFFREY S. COPELAND: It was a couple years back during the Zika Virus outbreak that my wife and I first ran across references to the Black Plague outbreak back in 1924 Los Angeles. At the time I said, "Wow - I've never heard about the '24 outbreak of Black Plague - I wonder how come?" My curiosity was getting to me, so I did just a little research and discovered there was a pretty amazing story there. At the same time, I also discovered why I had never heard of it: The people involved in the 1924 outbreak were NOT proud of what transpired during that terrible time, so they did their very best to shove everything under the rug - and they did a darn good job of that. Once I discovered this "cover-up," I knew I had to dive into the research. In short, I was hooked - and wanted to bring this story out into the light.

Many people think of the Bubonic Plague as something that was a relic of Medieval times. How is it that this was an issue in 1920’s Los Angeles?
JC: Back in Medieval times, the Black Death wiped out, by most estimates, about half the population of Europe. After that, pockets kept spring up around the world -- and even to this day. Last year over 2,500 cases of the Black Plague appeared in Madagascar alone. Right now, the U.S. ranks 11th in the world in cases that pop up each year, mostly confined to the Southwest region of the country but it shows up elsewhere as well. It doesn't give away too much of the story to say that the plague came to Los Angeles in 1924 by way of a ship that had come there from another part of the world. The most frightening thought right now is that cases could be appearing in shipping ports and airports all around the globe. With international travel as easy as it is today, the possibilities are endless for transmission of a wide variety of illnesses. In a related area, NBC News reported on October 6 that an outbreak of Typhus appeared in Los Angeles at "epidemic levels" -- and this, too, was caused by it being brought in from the outside. Whether the Middle Ages or 1924 Los Angeles or TODAY Los Angeles - these outbreaks are always going to be with us.

The protagonist of this book, Dr. Matthew Thompson, was a real person. What did you have to do not just to research his experiences but to get into his head and understand the way he thought?
JC: Whenever I tackle a literary nonfiction book, I first make a large chart with several columns related to methods of revealing character: What they say; What they do; What others say about them: Their physical characteristics; and their motives (what makes them tick). I don't begin writing the book until I can fill out these charts for all the major characters in the story. Finding out this information about Dr. Thompson took time to locate, but his fingerprint was all over the follow-up reports about what happened, and there were several accounts of what others said about him at the time. Plus, I dug out his old medical school records -- and even found out more about where he grew up and what he was like as a little boy. The Catholic Diocese in Los Angeles also had a wealth of information about him that I could draw from (this will become more clear as people read the book). Dr. Thompson was fun to research, but some of the other characters were much, much tougher because so many records were hidden after the events took place.

The outbreak of the plague in this book is more than a medical issue. The social aspects of the plague, who it impacted and how they were treated, is as important as the science behind the disease. Was this something you knew about the history of this moment going in, or was it something you discovered in your research?
JC: The medical issue was what first caught my attention, but it wasn't long at all before I started seeing the "social issues" that developed as the outbreak unfolded. Then, one day while looking through the Church records kept at the time, I started learning about Father Brualla's work. Father Brualla was the priest at the church that served the part of Los Angeles where the plague first appeared. Once I started following what Father Brualla did during this dark time, I found out about the prejudice and "fear of outsiders" that reared ugly heads there. One of the biggest things I did not know until getting pretty far into the research was the prejudice and fear displayed in Los Angeles is cited by so many historians as one of the prime reasons the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta was founded. That development, the founding of the CDC, has been a game-changer in the treatments of outbreaks ever since.

Can you talk a little bit about how you conducted research for this book? Did it involve a lot of time in dark and dusty archives, or did you find yourself spending a lot of time in sunny L.A.?
JC: Quite simply put, the research for this book was the toughest to do for anything I've ever written in my writing career. Again, this was mostly because so many records were shoved under the rug, "misplaced," or destroyed -- because of how badly everything was handled there. For context: An outbreak of the Black Plague happened in San Francisco twenty years before the outbreak in L.A. In San Francisco, city and medical officials did their best to hide news of the plague; as a result, medical treatment didn't start there until over 2,500 members of the Chinese community in San Francisco died. When the cover-up was discovered, heads rolled -- and even the Governor of California was forced to leave office. The officials in Los Angeles in 1924 were very aware of all of this, and they had to decide whether to let everyone know what was going on -- or whether to hide the news, for a variety of reasons/motivations -- while knowing if they got caught hiding news of the outbreak, many of them could have faced severe consequences. So, to cover their tracks after the outbreak finally came under control, many records just "disappeared," and this made the research extra tough. However, when that happens, I just have to dig deeper. The information is always there if a writer is willing to turn over all the stones. While turning over these stones, I dug around everywhere from the Library of Congress to the National Archives of Canada, and even the CDC. Out in Los Angeles, I "walked off" the entire area of the city where the outbreak took place, visited with medical personnel who helped me with records, and even had a lovely lunch with the current Priest at the church that was at the center of the story (and who also filled me in on aspects of the story I did not know -- and needed to know!). I also got over eleven hundred dollars in traffic fines in Los Angeles and surrounding cities while doing my research there, but that "price of doing research" is a story for another day.

--- Interview conducted by Jim O’Loughlin

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Friday 14 September 2018

Grant Tracey Book Release at FTRS

Grant Tracey takes the stage for a a book release reading at the Final Thursday Reading Series on September 27 at the Hearst Center for the Arts (open mic @ 7:15; Grant Tracey @ 8:00). Tracey will be launching A Fourth Face, his second book in the Hayden Fuller series of detective novels published by Twelve Winters Press. Tracey is also Fiction Editor at the North American Review and a Professor of English in the Department of Languages & Literatures at the University of Northern Iowa. 

One thing that really comes through in A Fourth Face is your love of the language of the hard-boiled detective genre. Can you talk about what drew you to the genre and what writers of detective fiction inspired you?
GRANT TRACEY: In high school I read Dashiell Hammett, inspired by his politics and Jason Robards's portrayal of him in Julia.  I liked his clipped style (it was Hemingway-esque almost before Hemingway) and the Continental Op detective. Red Harvest was a fast-paced violent novel, and I found myself really drawn into it. It was the first book I read and then had to immediately re-read. It just had an energy to it. A dark vibe. And I've always liked film noir and Hammett wrote crime noir. I was drawn to the cynicism, I guess. But it was when I read Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep and Farewell My Lovely) that the genre really came alive for me. He had a lush, romantic sensibility mixed with a sardonic toughness. I liked the mood, the subtexts. Later, I read Mickey Spillane and I was blown away. My teachers all dismissed him as a fascist, but I liked the unapologetic way he wrote, the passion in every sentence. He was like a prose comic book writer. And I love comic books. Today, one of my favorite crime writers is Jim Thompson. Nobody wrote like him. He's jazz punk.

What about your writing breaks with some of the contentions or standard styles of the genre?
GT: I guess the thing that distinguishes my writing from many of the other writers listed here is that I invest in half-scenes, summary mode, and free-indirect discourse. PD James was an awesome story teller. She tells stories. Doesn't show them as much. I have scene work, but I like slipping into dialogue that isn't direct but summarized or free and indirect because it creates uncertainty and the landscape of a mystery novel should be full of uncertainty. So I freely move among these modes. Did the detective just say that or think that? Oh, someone's responding, so he must have said that, but did he really say that or is the author giving us an approximation? I like that. It's kind of my jam.

I know about your love of hockey, and you’ve written about the sport in some of your literary works like Parallel Lines and the Hockey Universe, so I get why Hayden Fuller is a former hockey player, but I was intrigued about why this series is set in mid-1960s Toronto, which you are too young to have had be a formative part of your life.
GT: Hayden is a guy who lives on the cusp. He's a retro, a throwback, a buzzcut guy in an era that's changing (the permissive society). Hayden is a liberal. He believes in social justice, helping folks attain the dream and making sure everyone is given a fair shake. And as a Jew, he has experienced anti-semitism and injustice, so issued of fairness or unfairness are very real to him. He believes in people. But, when it comes to sex, he's a square. That's why I set the stories when I did. He's a 1950s cat in a 1960s world, and he's navigating his place between the two.

Though Hayden Fuller is clearly a tough guy who can take care of himself, it also becomes clear in the book that he’s a character who has been wounded, psychologically. How are those two things related?
GT: I think the detective novels I like are pyrrhic.The detective dies a little bit in solving the case. It's certainly the case in all of Chandler. Spillane's hero, Mike Hammer, I think unbeknownst to the author, suffers from PTSD; what he experienced in the South Pacific during WWII. So yeah, I was drawn to that aspect of the genre and wanted to take it a step further with the reveal in this book.

There have been times when detective fiction, as a genre, has been criticized for its gender politics. There are aspects of A Fourth Face that felt like they consciously pushed back against misogyny, while at the same time recognizing the fact of violence against women, and I was wondering how much of that just happened in the writing and how much was intentional.
GT: I was very aware of it and am trying in my writing to complicate this issue. After the first novel, the character of Stana came across for some as a femme fatale. But that was never my intention. She made a bad choice. She's not a spider-woman. So, in the next two books, I'm working to ask some readers to re-evaluate her. Summarizing a character around a single truth is too easy. Stana is many truths, and I wanted to show how complicated friendships and romance can be. Hayden is still drawn to her and they might just be good for each other. Also, the end of A Fourth Face (no spoilers here) attempts to reconfigure or deconstruct the usual bondage scene, such as where a naked or nearly naked Velda is rescued by Spillane’s Mike Hammer. Ed McBain's Doll and what Steve Carella goes through in that mid-sixties classic 87th Precinct novel was a bit of an inspiration for me.

I’d like to be able to ask a good question about the ending of A Fourth Face without giving anything away, but I don’t think I can say much more than “wow, that was an ending!” So, in general, when you’re writing in a genre like this that involves complicated plotting, how much do you need to know about where the narrative is going to end up, and how much do you discover along the way?
GT: I have a blue print plot (who did what and why) before I start writing, but it changes dramatically once I get rolling. Two-thirds of the way through this novel, I saw the ending, but I didn't know who all would be in the scene. And when I got to the ending (involving water), I went through the wall to another level that totally surprised me. Sorry to be vague, but I don't want to give things away. Something did happen when I wrote that final scene that just grabbed me and shocked me. But really, as I write these books, I'm just trying to survive the scene I'm in and allow that to take me to the next scene. Often I discover what scene is happening next by following the impulses of the current scene I'm writing.

-- Interview conducted by Jim O’Loughlin

Thursday 12 July 2018

An Interview with Jocelyn Cullity

Jocelyn Cullity kicks off the 2018-19 season of the Final Thursday Reading Series at the Hearst Center for the Arts on August 30 (open mic at 7:15; Jocelyn Cullity at 8). Cullity directs the creative writing B.F.A. program at Truman State University, and she is the author of the new novel, Amah and the Silk-Winged Pigeons (Inanna Publications), a novel set in 1857 Luckow, India that Jay Parini calls “redolent of Indian life, its tastes and smells, its colors and textures.” In the following interview, Cullity talks about the process of writing this historical novel.

You write that your great-great-great aunt’s diary helped to inspire Amah and the Silk-Winged Pigeons. Can you discuss how you worked with the material from that original source to craft fiction?
JOCELYN CULLITY: Because of her diary, I was initially interested in a British character based on my great-great-great aunt. However, as I was working on early drafts, I realized that the character who seemed to be more central to the novel was Amah. Amah is based on the little-known fact that African women were a part of the (Indian) royal family’s “Rose Platoon” in Lucknow, India. She is drawn largely from my imagination. The diary, however, continued to give me insight into the events that occurred during the rebellion against English rule.

Historical fiction poses some unique challenges for a writer. What did you do to get into the mindset and to capture the language of characters whose experiences are so different from your own?
JC: I read no history later than 1858 for six years. Kind of crazy! But I wanted to get into the mindset of people living at that time as much as I could.  I found and read as many primary documents as I could about life in Lucknow between 1856-1858. I posted on the walls of my study all the sensory details I read about, along with anecdotes about people living in the city at that time. Two amazing historians helped a lot — Rosie Llewellyn-Jones and Abdul Haliim Sharar. Sharar lived in Lucknow around the time I was writing about, and he wrote down everything he could about customs, clothes, food, you name it, he recorded it. He made it clear to me that Lakhnavis in general were light-hearted, courteous, and deeply generous. I grew to love them very much.

The world of Lucknow that you present was such a richly diverse place, in terms of its inhabitants, its culture and its food. Was that something you discovered in your research and was it a surprise to you?
JC: It was so richly diverse and the more I researched, the more it seemed to me that that was entirely central to the city’s character. King Wajid ‘Ali Shah was largely responsible for the city’s makeup of people from all over India, from Europe, and from East Africa. He loved all sorts of art, music, theater, architecture —` and the city illustrated this. He was a Muslim but, from what I understand, he welcomed many different religions — which is something you find so often in India today, too. He was greatly misunderstood by the English, and greatly cheated by them.
The title character of the book, Amah, is fascinating. She is of East African ancestry, yet she plays a respected role as one of the Rose Platoon, an all-female group of royal bodyguards. How did you decide to make her your protagonist?
JC: The women of the Rose Platoon literally fought against the English, and joined Begam Hazrat Mahal, the African who led the revolt against the English — and there are so very, very few references to these women in the multiple textbooks on the subject that it became suddenly obvious to me that this had to be their story. I found it and continue to find it incredulous that they are absent from so many historical accounts when they were at the very center of the uprising against English rule. One really can’t help thinking that sexism and racism, as well as colonialism, must have had something to do with their significant absence from the English histories on 1857 Lucknow.

There was a moment about midway through the book that really caught my attention (and which I think I can ask about without revealing any spoilers). You write “The big gun above them rules the world like the English rule the world, like Red Man rules, like the Kotwal rules—like the hangman rules. The big gun watches. It tells the crowd to be afraid.” This is a novel that wrestles with questions about power and legitimacy. What does it ask readers to think about the process of colonialism?
JC: Of course many people have written about colonialism, about power and legitimacy. I hope that my book, like others, might remind people that because of the process of colonialism there is so much that we don’t know about the people who are being colonized — that we too often only get a colonizer’s story of a place and its people. I hope this book helps readers to reflect on our own lives today, too. What does the general public in the U.S. know about the people who live in countries like Iraq or Vietnam or other countries where the United States has been involved in conflict? What do we really know about the stories of those places from the point of view of the people who actually live there?

I appreciated the role of food in this book as well, particularly the insistence that even in the midst of turmoil and battles, people need to eat, and there is a wide array of food mentioned in the course of the novel. Was that something you consciously aimed to do or did it just turn out that way?
JC: Sharar (the man from Lucknow who I referred to earlier) wrote down tons of amazing details about what people ate and for what occasions they might eat a particular food. I did consciously aim for food to be a strong part of the setting because really good food and the art of putting on a great meal was clearly extremely important to Lucknow’s royal family — and it was also something that the English scorned the royal family for. The English liked to call the royal family decadent, for instance, because they liked to produce a lot of sugary delicacies. The research often made me hungry!

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