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Posts Tagged ‘Kate Medina’

Reader’s Guide: Q&A Between Anna Quindlen and Her Editor

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

9780812976892New York Times bestselling author Anna Quindlen’s seventh novel, Still Life with Bread Crumbs, goes on sale in paperback next week! Still Life with Bread Crumbs begins with an imagined gunshot and ends with a new tin roof. Between the two is a wry and knowing portrait of Rebecca Winter, a photographer whose work made her an unlikely heroine for many women. Her career is now descendent, her bank balance shaky, and she has fled the city for the middle of nowhere. There she discovers, in a tree stand with a roofer named Jim Bates, that what she sees through a camera lens is not all there is to life.

Read on for a Q&A between Anna and her longtime editor, Kate Medina!

Kate Medina: What does a woman want? is an age-­old, supposedly un­answerable question. I think Still Life with Bread Crumbs illuminates some answers to that question. We would love your thoughts!

Anna Quindlen: Well, we could go on and on about that question, and the short snappy answer is that there are as many responses as there are women. But I do think that after a certain point, women seek authenticity. There’s an essential phoniness to the way we sometimes present ourselves, physically and socially—­wearing uncomfortable clothes that someone, somewhere, has deemed fashionable, being nice to people we don’t even like. How many times has someone said to me about their much older mother, or grandmother, “You wouldn’t believe what comes out of her mouth!” Maybe that’s a response to a lifetime’s worth of so-­called social graces.

KM: Still Life with Bread Crumbs is your seventh novel. You write both bestselling fiction and nonfiction. How are the processes different for you, if they are? How do you decide which one to write next?

AQ: I always mean to sound purposeful when we talk about things like that, but it’s all pretty unexamined and intuitive. My last nonfiction book, the memoir Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, came to life with an offhand comment I’d made to my daughter and a piece of data I stumbled across when writing my last Newsweek column. I’d been very satisfied writing novels, and I had no intention of moving back into nonfiction. Right now I’m juggling a novel in its nascent stages and a nonfiction book, as you know, and the most obvious difference is that on the first, I eventually plunged right into the writing, but on the second I’m still doing the reporting. Sometimes the reporting is an excuse not to write; other times it is such an aid to composition because, unlike the material in the novels, it is in your notes or on tape and doesn’t have to be excavated from the sometimes hard rock of imagination.

Click here to read the rest of the Q&A! And don’t forget to keep up with Anna on her Facebook page.

Reader’s Guide: Katherine Boo in Conversation with Kate Medina

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

Boo_Behind the Beautiful Forevers Katherine Boo, author of the Pulitzer prize winning BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS, sits down with her Random House editor, Kate Medina, to discuss her inspiration for exploring the distribution of poverty in India, gaining the trust at Annawadi, choosing the stories to tell in her book, and what she hopes you- the readers- will take away from your reading. The paperback went on sale April 8th, and we are so excited to share this interview with you.

KATE MEDINA: For two decades, and currently at The New Yorker, you’ve written about the distribution of opportunity, and the means by which people might get out of poverty, in America. What inspired you to start asking the same kinds of questions in India?

KATE BOO: My husband is an Indian citizen, and since we met in 2001, I’ve been watching the landscape of his country transform as its economy grows. Some of the change is staggeringly obvious, like the skyscraping luxury condominiums with stirring views of other skyscraping luxury condominiums. But I couldn’t quite make out what had and hadn’t changed in historically poor communities. I generally find issues of poverty, opportunity, and global development to be over-theorized and under-reported. And it seemed to me that in India, as in the U.S., some of the experts most ready to describe how lower-income people are faring weren’t spending much time with those people.

KM: What made you focus your reporting on Mumbai?

KB: It’s the city in which I’ve spent most time, for one. But I also found the Mumbai of film and book to be a slightly lopsided cosmos. For all the lush and brilliant depictions of wild festivals, megalomaniacal gangsters, and soulful prostitutes, I felt stinted of some everyday truths. I wanted to know more about the domestic lives of women and girls, about improvisational labor in a temp-job city, about the educational options available to the poor—stuff like that. Economic growth had brought unprecedented opportunities for the less privileged, officially. But I longed for a fuller sense of how those on-the-books opportunities were being experienced on the ground.

Over the years I’d find myself sighing as I read descriptions of the spicy Mumbai air—the cardamom and saffron that’s supposedly wafting everywhere. Sure, why not? But to me a signature smell of Mumbai is the same as that in many other developing cities. It’s the smell of sweat—of people hustling and maneuvering to find a niche in the global economy. Of course a writer’s senses will gravitate to the un- usual, the aberrant. But a preoccupation with the exotic can also blind you to what is more universal.

KM: Speaking of aberrant: You stood out, working at Annawadi. How did you earn the trust of Annawadians, and get close enough to them to be able to portray them with such intimacy and precision?

KB: Never trust a person who tells you with certainty why other people came to trust her! I cringe to imagine how Annawadians sized me up behind my back. I was just relieved that we all managed to adjust to one another after a while. Many people were game to let me hang around if I didn’t get in the way of their ability to make a living, but in the beginning I was too much of a freak attraction to practice the unobtrusive, watch-and-listen style of reporting I prefer. As I walked through the airport slums, crowds of people would follow, some of them looking concerned and shouting, “Hyatt! Intercontinental!” They imagined I’d lost my way while going from the international airport to one of the luxury hotels.

KM: Was there a particular moment when you felt that you could do the kind of reporting you prefer to do? That people had become comfortable with your presence?

KB: I knew the novelty of my presence had worn off one night when Annawadi boys started mocking kids from another slum who got excited when they spied me sitting in Abdul’s storeroom. The Annawadi boys were so used to having a journalist taping and transcribing what they said that they couldn’t imagine why other kids would find it interesting.

KM: What was it about the stories you tell in this book that appealed to you more than other stories you saw or heard in Annawadi? How did you choose the people you would write about?

KB: When I start a project, I follow as many people as I can—go where they go, do what they do, whether they’re stealing or teaching kindergarten or running a household. The larger the pool of people I get to know, the better I can distinguish between anomalous experiences and shared ones. I’m not looking for the most flamboyant tales, or for the most virtuous and super-talented people. I’m looking for resonant stories—stories that might illuminate something about the structure of a society. And it’s difficult to predict in the beginning which individuals’ experiences, months or years later, will come to shed that light.

For instance, when I first began hanging out with Abdul, I had no idea that his story would have anything to do with questions of criminality or justice. I was simply intrigued that the excesses of the city and a surging global demand for recyclables had helped turn his stigmatized work profitable. It was something I didn’t know, hadn’t read about. I was also struck by his watchfulness, and his silence. I often find, in my reporting life and outside it, that the people most worth knowing are hard work to know.

KM: Did the Annawadians want to know about you, too?

KB: They were more curious about my Indian husband. In the months before they got to know him, they were whispering about how he must not love me, since he was permitting me to hang out alone in a slum in the middle of the night.

KM: Did your presence ever change the events you write about? Or the people you write about?

KB: A reporter’s presence is bound to change things. My efforts to understand Annawadians’ views of the world probably made some of them more introspective. And Abdul suspects that my frequent appearances at the juvenile detention facility contributed to his being released on probation—that justice officials didn’t want me poking around there. It’s not always easy to pinpoint how one’s presence alters events, though. There’s no control group.

KM: You used thousands of official documents to supplement your taped and written notes. What did those documents bring to the narrative?

KB: The documents helped me describe particular incidents, of course, but they also helped more generally. For instance, after finding false causes of death tagged to several poor people at Annawadi, I started investigating more broadly, comparing deaths that I could document in several slums with official records I secured through the Indian Right to Information Act (which is not unlike the U.S. Freedom of Information Act). The reader won’t see that or my other research obsessions in the book, but the document work allowed me to write certain passages with a conviction I wouldn’t otherwise have had.

KM: Are there audiotapes or videotapes you found yourself returning to again and again as you wrote?

KB: One set of recordings I go back to are from a night, not long after the Mumbai terror attacks, when Abdul suddenly starts talking about what sort of lives count. The boy to whom he makes this passionate speech isn’t the least bit interested, and all around him is the usual late-night music of Annawadi—fights between stoned thieves, the weeping of a woman who has just tried to hang herself, the organ music of a Tamil soap opera, and many agonized negotiations over garbage, the price of which had plummeted. The easy thing to say is that Abdul’s insight was unexpected in context. But I think the context creates such insights, and gives them their force.

KM: In the book there is such a remarkable juxtaposition between moments of hope and insight, and moments of desperation. Were some moments particularly painful to witness?

KB: Hundreds of moments—some of the losses of life and promise that are in this book, and other losses, too. When I talk to friends about Annawadi experiences that haunt me, they’ll sometimes ask, Why didn’t you write about that? But I was intent that this book not be some dolorous registry of the most terrible things that had ever happened at Annawadi. A book like that wouldn’t have done justice to what Annawadi felt like, day to day. Annawadi life was also about flagpole ring-toss and tell-all sessions with a best friend at the toilet and parents comforting and delighting in their children. It was Sunil and Sonu the Blinky Boy and the way they applied their rich imaginations to gathering trash and figuring out their place in the world.

Sunil and Sonu have tough, tough lives but if a reader comes away from this book thinking of them only as pathetic socioeconomic specimens I’ll have failed as a writer. They’re cool, interesting kids, and their partnership was an inspiring thing to be around. I want the reader to sense that, too. Because we can talk all we want about how corruption or indifference rob people of opportunity—of the promise our societies squander—but if we don’t really grasp the intelligences of those who are being denied, we’re not going to grasp the potential that’s being lost.

KM: Were there moments in your reporting when you felt a little too alone, or threatened?

KB: Sure. During a brutal eviction that I describe in Chapter 16, for one. But I was never as scared in Annawadi as I was in the Sahar Police Station. Though my experiences in the station were Ferris-wheel rides relative to the experiences of some Annawadians, I did come to understand in a deeper way what it feels like to be silenced and at the mercy of officials whose private agendas are very different than their public ones. Educational experiences, but ones I would have gladly foregone.

KM: You’ve left such “educational experiences” out of the book. Why?

KB: As a reader, I often find that the I character becomes the character—that the writer can’t quite resist trying to make the reader like him just a little better than anyone else in the book. And I think that impedes the reader’s ability to connect with people who might be more interesting than the writer, and whose stories are less familiar.

Which is not to say that the narrative without an I is a paragon of omniscience and objectivity. Does it still need saying that journalism is not a perfect mirror of reality, that narrative nonfiction is a selective art, and that I didn’t write this book while balanced on an Archimedean ethical point? My choices are reflected on every page, and I look forward to discussing with readers whether those choices were justifiable ones. But I long ago decided I didn’t want to be one of those nonfiction writers who go on about themselves. When you get to the last pages of Behind the Beautiful Forevers, I don’t want you to think, even for a second, about me sitting beside Abdul in that little garbage truck. I want you to be thinking about Abdul.

KM: Do you see him, Manju, Sunil, Asha, and the other people you’re writing about as representative of other Indians, or other low-income people in the world?

KB: I’ve been waiting years to run into a representative person. Sadly, all I ever meet are individuals. But I do see an enormous amount of connective tissue among those individuals, qualities that transcend specificities of geography, culture, religion, or class.

I mean, I see so much of myself in the people I write about, whether it’s Fatima’s fury at being defined by a physical difference or Asha’s self-rationalizing or Abdul’s fear of losing what he has, which is so much stronger as an impulse than his fear of not getting what he wants. My hope, at the keyboard, is to portray these individuals in their complexity—allow them not to be Representative Poor Persons—so that readers might find some other point of emotional purchase, a connection more blooded than pity. Maybe somewhere in the book they might even start asking, What would I do, under these circumstances, if I were Asha or Sunil or Meena? That’s what I’m always asking myself.

KM: Is that sense of connection and compassion what you hope readers will take away from this book?

KB: I’m always thrilled when readers sense the connections and get drawn into the dilemmas faced by the people I write about, because in this age of high walls and security gates it’s pretty easy not to see and think about those people at all. But I’m interested in structures as well as stories, and as I report, I’m sometimes asking myself a set of questions inspired by the philosopher John Rawls: How would I design a society if I didn’t know where in its hierarchy I would be placed—if I didn’t know whether I would be a person of wealth and power, or a poor and vulnerable person? What system would I create that would be fair? I would be elated if a few readers of Behind the Beautiful Forevers were inclined to ask themselves similar questions.

In the end, though, I’m not a utopian. Most of the people I write about don’t have the leisure in which to think about how they might design an ideal society. They’re trying to survive and get ahead in manifestly unfair societies. I take that context very seriously. If we don’t have all the time in the world to make things perfect, we can still make incremental, and meaningful, improvements. And seeing what’s wrong—seeing it clearly—seems to me a crucial part of beginning to set it right.

For more information, visit Katherine’s website or stay connected with her on Facebook.

Reader’s Guide: A Q&A between Gail Caldwell, author of NEW LIFE, NO INSTRUCTIONS, and her Editor

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

Caldwell_New Life No InstructionsBeloved and Pulitzer prize-winning author Gail Caldwell sits down to chat with her longtime editor, Kate Medina, about her latest New Life, No Instructions.

Kate Medina: Authors sometimes say that while writing their books, they learn something new about themselves or their characters; since you are a “character” in your book, did you learn new things about yourself, or others, or about the portion of your life discussed in New Life, No Instructions?


Gail Caldwell: Oh God yes. I think most writers write to find out what they think, or who they are. A friend was reading the book in its last draft, and said she was struck by how hopeful I seemed. I think of myself as determined, rather than hopeful, but writing the book made me realize those traits are often pretty good substitutes for one another. I also realized, for the hundredth time, how cool my mom was.

KM: You wrote, “Most of all I told this story because I wanted to say something about hope and the absence of it, and how we keep going anyway.” This reflects something people often feel, but don’t know how to express. Would you say a little more about this? Was this your goal of writing the book from the very beginning, or did this emerge as the book came into being? 


GC: I had a vague notion of this idea in my mind from the start—particularly because I was so struck, in hindsight, by that image of the child (me, trying to walk after polio) trying to get up again and again. One of the earliest lines I wrote was about that: “We are engineered to rise up, in every developmental sense.” And I suppose on a larger scale, I think that life is so hard—often so silently, humdrum hard for so many people. And yet they move through the day with tremendous courage. Hard not to laud that.

KM: People love the title, which came from a line in the book about what happens after what seems like a miracle. Would you say more about what the title means to you?

GC: I wrote that line in the context of the people supposedly “cured” at religious shrines—the pilgrims to Lourdes and Fatima, for instance: Miracle, new life, no instructions. It’s such an odd notion, to think that with a blink (or a visitation, or a surgery) life changes and you’re good to go. I suspect most miracles have a small-print addendum, or even caveat: PS. You have to learn how to make this work; you’re on your own now; good luck!

KM: One of the strongest themes, and discoveries in the book, is the strength of friends, and how your neighbors and friends became your family. You said that your travel for Thanksgiving was “to walk across the driveway.” Could you say more about this? 


GC: Ha! I was going to Nancy’s, a heroine in the book, who lives one house over. They’ve done studies recently showing that people with balconies and front porches are happier and more connected to the community. I don’t know that geography is destiny, but in my lucky case it’s been a deciding influence. I’m a single-woman-with-dog, and my neighborhood has parks and friends and grocery stores within shouting distance. If I fall on the ice, someone would pick me up pretty fast.

KM: You write in the book about relationships and what it means to create an alternative family, how there are many different ways to live your life without a traditional relationship path. Would you say something about your life as an independent woman?

GC: Each of these questions keeps feeding me back into the same waters! I always half-meant to get married but in retrospect I’m not sure I’d have been very good at it. I came of age during the women’s movement—I was 22 when I stumbled upon my first rally for Women’s Liberation, as it was called then—and I was wearing eyeliner and an anti-war armband. If life is a kaleidoscope of images, that’s one of mine—the young woman finding a different (and to me, thrilling) path. Consciously or unconsciously, I spent the next few decades finding communities where “traditional” was not an important word in the lexicon.

KM: Your mother is such a wonderful presence in the book, and in your life. What one thing—if one can ever say one thing about one’s mother—would you say about yours?

GC: My mother was strong as hell and did not suffer fools. Eight years after her death, I am still figuring out how smart she was. I also think (see above) she was sort of proud of me for going it alone.

For more from Gail Caldwell be sure to visit her website and connect with her on Facebook.

Reader’s Guide: A Q&A with Anna Quindlen, author of STILL LIFE WITH BREAD CRUMBS

Thursday, November 21st, 2013

Quindlen_Still Life with Bread CrumbsAnna Quindlen is beloved by all readers and book clubs alike! From her “Last Word” column in Newsweek to her irresistible New York Times bestselling books such as Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake and One True Thing (to name a few!), Quindlen has truly captured the minds of of her readers.

We are so happy to share this Q&A between Anna Quindlen and Kate Medina, her editor, with you in anticipation of her upcoming novel, Still Life with Bread Crumbs.

Still Life with Bread Crumbs is your seventh novel. You write both bestselling fiction and nonfiction. How are the processes different for you, if they are? How do you decide which one to write next?

I always mean to sound purposeful when we talk about things like that, but it’s all pretty unexamined and intuitive. My last nonfiction book, the memoir Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, came to life with an off handed comment I’d made to my daughter and a piece of data I stumbled across when writing my last Newsweek column. I’d been very satisfied writing novels, and I had no intention of moving back into nonfiction. Right now I’m juggling a novel in its nascent stages and a nonfiction book, as you know, and the most obvious difference is that on the first, I eventually plunged right into the writing, and on the second I’m still doing the reporting. Sometimes the reporting is an excuse not to write; other times it is such an aid to composition because, unlike the material in the novels, it is in your notes or on tape, doesn’t have to be excavated from the sometimes hard rock of imagination.

People love to know where the inspiration for a novel comes from. Would you say something about Still Life with Bread Crumbs in this regard?

It’s not one thing. It’s never one thing. I’ve thought a lot about the nature of art, and why women’s art, particularly if it arises from domestic life, is minimized, or denigrated—why, for instance, we pay less attention to the work of Alice McDermott, a genius miniaturist whose novels reflect the quiet everyday, then we do to the more sprawling, outward-facing work of Philip Roth. Some of my thinking on that is embodied in Rebecca’s photography and public reaction to it. I’m 61 years old, and I’ve thought a lot about aging, and the stages of a woman’s life, and that’s in there, too. From a purely mechanical point of view, I try to do some essential thing in each novel that I haven’t done before. In this book it was twofold: I’ve never written a love story, and I haven’t written a book with a happy ending, and this material lent itself to both. Anna-Quindlen-Author-Photo

We’ve been working together for 25 years, on a wide range of your books—fiction, nonfiction, memoir. We are both often asked about the editorial process between writer and editor. Might you comment briefly about that process? What is the heart of it for you?

Oh, Kate, you broke me in. I cringe when I remember the first draft of Object Lessons. You said the writing was lovely, and the characters memorable, but not much happened in the course of the book. And I replied, “That’s how real life is.” You said, so sweetly, “And that’s why we call this a novel.”

The heart of the editing process is a fresh pair of sensitive and informed eyes. By the time I’m done a draft, I have no clue. Is it the best thing I’ve ever done? Is it a complete disaster? Depends on which day you ask me. But more than that, I am so close to the material that I not only can’t get out of the weeds, I can’t figure out where they are. That’s where you come in. You read and read again and then send me your long memo, which always begins “I love this book!” Then come the buts—about murky character development, fallow areas, missed opportunities. I’m not going to go into detail and thus illuminate my own dopiness, but sometimes you ask a question about something I’ve done, or failed to do, and I want to smack myself in the head, it’s so obvious.

Of course, a critical part of this process is the trust between us. You speak fluent Quindlen and you don’t try to edit me into someone else. And once our dialogue begins, I become more confident about my own work in that I know where you are right about changes, cuts, amendments, and where I disagree and will leave well enough alone.

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