A determined midwife and her knife-wielding servant set out to solve a murder mystery in Samuel Thomas’ first novel, The Midwife’s Tale, released in January. Thomas, a historian and former professor focused on Reformation England, weaves together fact and fiction to tell the story of Bridget Hodgson, the midwife and her servant Martha, both real women living in 17th century England. Thomas (Pomona College Class of 1991) takes his readers into Bridget’s world during the siege of York, not only creating an exciting mystery story but also revealing the complex political and religious issues of the era. The Midwife’s Tale has been met with positive reviews and is the first release in what is to become a four part series. Thomas now resides in Ohio and teaches high school history in addition to writing novels. He talks midwives, mystery, writing and more in the abridged and edited interview below.
All the fun stuff from campus: Pomona College tidbits, traditions, lore and more.
. Romy Natalia Goldberg ’02 spent four years exploring Paraguay by foot, bus, train and VW camper van, gathering information for a travel guide recently released by Other Places Publishing. Along the way she found community and adventure in the South American nation’s busiest cities and its most remote spots, traveling through fields of sugar cane to stunning waterfalls and on flooded roads to vibrant local carnivals. Goldberg’s travel guide complements her website and blog on Paraguay, making her research efforts some of the most comprehensive for prospective visitors.
Nathanael Johnson ’01, who wrote an interesting piece for PCM about C-sections a few issues back, has a new book out. The award-winning journalist who has written for Harper’s and produced stories for NPR says he spent his whole life preparing for All Natural: A Skeptic’s Quest for Health and Happiness in An Age of Ecological Anxiety. Raised in an “all-natural” family, Johnson is drawn to the controversies over natural birth, diet, the environment and alternative medicine—all ultimately as a way to understand his family and early childhood. In All Natural he examines both the polarization and nuances involved in determining whether the natural approach to living really is best for humankind.
What inspired the book?
I grew up in a family that really believed that many of humanity’s attempts to protect itself from nature were misguided. For instance, my dad insisted that I go diaper free as a baby because he thought that the natural perfection of my developing pelvis would be deformed if I constantly had a big wad of absorbent material between my legs for two to three years. Part of me starts to scoff, but then I’d think, “That actually is a plausible hypothesis.” It’s hard to assess because stories in the popular press written about the all-natural constellation of concerns are usually utterly dismissive, or utterly credulous.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing it?
I had no idea how to organize it at first, and if I’d been lazy it would have just been a series of essays without any narrative through-line, and without any larger argument. So I resolved to build the book around the development of my thinking – to tell stories from my all-natural childhood, then bring the reader along as I fact-checked the family ideology. I spent days cutting chapters apart with scissors and moving the sections around. The process is like working on a big puzzle, but all the pieces are invisible – you have to hold them in your mind. And to complicate things even more, you can change the shape of any piece, or decide that it’s actually part of a different puzzle.
Were there are startling realizations during your research?
Lots! I was surprised to learn that childbirth is getting more dangerous in this country, and that more U.S. citizens are killed by unnecessary medical care than the numbers who die because they can’t get access to care. I was shocked and bemused by the way the demands of modern America have reshaped the bodies (and the mating habits) of pigs. I expected to find at least one blind spot in the orthodoxy about vaccination, because so many intelligent, admirable people are worried by shots, so I was amazed when every fear and theory about the dangers of inoculation led to scientific dead ends.
Are you working on any writing projects now?
I started keeping a journal when my daughter was born and I was struck by how often I was writing about her our adventures with the urban wildlife of San Francisco. So I’m playing with the idea of starting with these toddler’s-eye-view stories from my journal, and then researching our observations and writing down the most interesting bits to produce a father’s field guide to the urban ecosystems that so many of us walk through without ever noticing.
Veteran TV writer John Stephens’ (Pomona College Class of ’94) first foray into children’s fantasy books, The Emerald Atlas, was a hit in a hot publishing genre. Now he is back with The Fire Chronicle, the second in the Books of Beginning trilogy. Kirkus Reviews gave the new book, released this fall a starred review: “Irreverent humor and swashbuckling adventure collide in a fetching fantasy.”
Stephens’ stories follow three children who have been hidden by the wizard Stanislaus Pym at the Edgar Allan Poe Home for Hopeless and Incorrigible Orphans, but are soon discovered by their enemies. In Chronicle, Kate is chased 100 years into the past to a dangerous and enchanted New York City and left searching for her brother and sister, Michael and Emma, who are following clues into a hidden world to find the legendary book of fire.
Stephens ’94 is already well-established in television, where he spent 10 years as executive producer of Gossip Girl and a writer for Gilmore Girls and The O.C. And while The Emerald Atlas was highly sought after among publishers, Stephens found writing the follow-up brought a new set of challenges, as he describes in this abridged interview:
Is it easier or harder to write the second book in a trilogy?
Writing the second book is both harder and easier. On the easier side, you already have your main characters. You know who they are, their strengths and weaknesses. Also, in a trilogy such as this, you have a certain level of story momentum. There are specific plot points which have to happen. Granted, you want to get to them by unexpected paths, but you know that sooner or later you have to get to them. That said, writing the second is in many ways more difficult than the first. The first I wrote more or less in private, almost on a lark. There was no deadline, no one waiting for the book. I could write in my own time, and if the book ended up stinking, well, no one ever had to know. With the second book, there was a deadline. People were waiting. The pressure was totally different. When you write a first book that ‘works,’ it feels like you somehow managed to pull a rabbit out of your hat in the privacy of your own office. Writing the second book, you’re suddenly on stage in front of a thousand people, and there’s a worldwide rabbit shortage. And you’re naked.
Did you start The Fire Chronicle soon after the first book? How long did it take you to complete it?
I started The Fire Chronicle when I was in the process of selling The Emerald Atlas, which in some ways meant going from one book right into the other. You have to understand, I was kind of terrified. I had managed to write one book, but to me, all that proved was that I could write one book. Who was to say I could write two, much less three? But I’d signed a contract promising three. I had this image where angry publishers would come to my house and take my dog when I failed to produce the books. From my first notes to the locked book was almost exactly two years. Two wonderful, wonderful panic-filled years.
Have you completed book three? What are you working on now?
I have not completed book three. I have done a rough outline and begun writing. Though right now, I’m taking a little bit of a break to direct a couple episodes of television. After two years alone in a room, I worried I was getting a little weird, and I felt it’d be a good idea to venture out into the world before I descend again into my hobbit hole.
During his Pomona College days, Dan Hickstein ’06 landed a prestigious Churchill Scholarship to study at Cambridge (where he earned his master’s in physics), co-authored articles for such publications as the Journal of the American Chemical Society and completed two internships at the National Institutes of Health.
But Hickstein also knows how to let off some steam in the great outdoors, and he recently took a year off from pursuing his Ph.D. in chemical physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder to write The Mountain Biker’s Guide to Colorado, earning rave reviews on amazon. The result: 367 pages chock full o’ trail details and ratings, maps, photos and even tidbits on bike shops and places to eat from Fort Collins to Aspen.
As Hickstein told Colorado Daily:
“A week at a time I’d drive out to some part of Colorado and ride all the trails — and ride them all with a GPS. I wanted to have really good maps in the book. I would ride with digital camera and each time I got to a turn I’d make a point on the GPS and record the instructions as a little movie on my camera. I spent hours going through the videos and GPS tracks. I really tried to be out there most every day, rain or shine, trying to get the trails ridden and get the research done.”
When Susan Beilby Magee ’66 was 6 years old, she posed for a portrait by Kalman Aron, a Holocaust survivor and fine artist who had come to Los Angeles after World War II and was barely eking out a living.
Fifty years later, Aron, a respected portrait and landscape artist, whose com- missioned subjects include Ronald Reagan, Henry Miller and André Previn, would ask Magee to write the story of his life.
The result, nearly 10 years in the making, is Into the Light: The Healing Art of Kalman Aron, co-published in October by Hard Press Editions and Posterity Press, Inc. in association with Hudson Hills Press. A compelling and graceful mix of first-person memoir, biography and commentary, the book is also a comprehensive retrospective of Aron’s work, encompassing 210 stunning color plates and 30 black-and-white images.
Aron and Magee saw each other only sporadically after her 1951 portrait sitting. Graduating in 1966 from Pomona with a B.A. in international relations, Magee became a leader in the women’s movement in Seattle. She was a White House Fellow, earned her M.B.A. at the Wharton School and held positions in domestic finance and economic development in the U.S. Treas- ury and Commerce departments during the Ford and Carter administrations.
“Pomona College,” Magee says, “gave me the foundation that a liberal arts education is supposed to give you. It was a springboard for me to explore and be curious about life.”
In the mid-1980s, Magee’s life took an unexpected turn. She became a certified hypnotherapist and meditation teacher, founded the Washington Circle of Master Healers and is involved with healing pro- grams at the Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage at the Washington National Cathedral.
Meditation would play a part, too, in Magee’s understanding of Aron’s story and how it informed his art. “If you ask Kalman, ‘Why did you paint that particular painting about that subject?,’ he’ll say, ‘I don’t know.’ His work is unconsciously done.
“Yet you can see in his work that he metabolized his experiences,” she says. “In Kalman’s early work, he was painting all of the desolation and lack of light and color that he saw. That was what was going on in- side him. As he regained texture and color in his life, his paintings exploded with it.
“I sat in silence for five months by myself with 10 groups of his paintings,” Magee says. “What was going on in his life at the time he painted them? What was he working out? What was the influence of the Holocaust? I depended on that quiet listening for the answers.”
It was during a mutual visit with Magee’s ailing mother that Aron asked Magee to write his story. (An interior decorator and art patron, Magee’s mother played a major role in Aron’s early success as a portrait painter. “She sent him all her clients,” Magee explains.)
Aron’s request came after seeing the 2002 film The Pianist. Based on a Jewish-Polish musician’s World War II memoir, the film, Magee says, had somehow given Aron the freedom to tell the story he had tried to forget.
“I wasn’t going to have anybody write it,” 88-year-old Aron says from his home in Los Angeles, “because I didn’t want to remember it.” Magee, he says, “did a good job.”
After an initial 18 hours of interviews, Magee’s research took her to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and to Europe, where she visited the sites of Aron’s childhood home in Riga and the camps where he was incarcerated in Poland, Germany and then-Czechoslovakia. Among the records that she found was the transit paper marking Aron’s arrival at Buchenwald.
From Prague to Salzburg, Magee followed Aron’s post-liberation route as he fled Russian Army custody. She went to Vienna, where the artist and his first wife lived before emigrating to the United States in 1949, and where Aron attended the Vienna Fine Arts Academy on a full scholarship after the war.
At the site of the Rumbula massacre where Aron’s mother was among 25,000 Jewish Latvians killed over two days in 1941, Magee placed a memorial stone honoring both of Aron’s parents.
Aron, who refuses to go back to Latvia, was uneasy about the trip. “I didn’t want her to go,” he says. “It was brave of her.”
Magee, who is not Jewish, believes, however, that she could not have written the book if not for her own “deep healing journey” as a victim of child abuse. “People who know me know the history of what happened to me,” she adds, “but this is the first time that I’ve written it in print.”
For Magee, one of Aron’s most revelatory pieces is a small, dark painting from the early 1950s called “Kalman Marching in the Camp.” In it, Aron is the skeletal central figure, flanked by smaller faces that appear alternately “wise, sad or terrorized.”
“I realized that those were all aspects of Kalman in the camps,” she says. “But the one that survived is the one upfront and center, the one who is utterly determined to survive, even though he has had to let go of most of his light.
“That’s what he would reclaim,” Magee says. “He wanted to live so that he could see the world and paint it.”
The critically-acclaimed, year-long Pomona College Museum of Art exhibition, “It Happened At Pomona: Art at the Edge of Angeles, 1969-1973,” ended in May. But as this photo tweeted by KSPC’s Erica Tyron shows, interest in the exhibition carries on, far beyond Pomona. The shot shows the display window of San Francisco’s famous City Lights Bookstore, and the gray-colored tome is the catalogue for “It Happened.”
If you’re reading James Thurber and Robert Benchley and composing comedic poetry at the tender age of 7, then writing a book that examines humor from every conceivable angle doesn’t feel like that much of a stretch. Indeed, when David Misch ’72 began putting together Funny: The Book three years ago, it felt like the next logical step in a four-decade career that has included stints as a comedic folk singer, stand-up comedian and writer for such shows as Mork and Mindy and Saturday Night Live. Misch credits his days at Pomona for both the beginning of his life’s work and its latest chapter. During his senior year, Misch was goofing around, making up songs on guitar with some friends in his Clark dorm room.Their laughter prompted a concert booking at the Smudge Pot coffee house and a postgraduate career as a “professional funny folk singer,” an occupation that, Misch notes, “went out around the same time as ‘buggy whip maker.’”
It’s all over the news this week: the president of Honduras has announced that a team of researchers, using airborne laser mapping, may have found a fabled lost city deep in the rain forest of the Central American nation. Reports Innovation News Daily via MSNBC:
“Underneath the thick, virgin rainforest cover in the Mosquitia region of Honduras, archaeologists have discovered ruins they think may be the lost city of Ciudad Blanca … researchers flew over the area in a small plane and shot billions of laser pulses at the ground, creating a 3-D digital map of the topology underneath the trees.”
“The project has demonstrated the power of airborne laser mapping to locate archaeological ruins in regions covered with thick forest, and it appears that the method will be used widely in the years ahead.”
And, then, via an author’s web link to the Honduran government’s press release, we learn that our very own Douglas Preston ’78, best-selling author of both thrillers and non-fiction as well as New Yorker archaeology correspondent, was along on the expedition. Can’t wait to find out what he was up to.
More about Douglas Preston and his brother Richard Preston ’76, who is also a best-selling writer:
“The Man Who Cried Plague” (an interview with the brothers))
“Of Cannibals and Monsters” (about new books from the Preston brothers)
Douglas Preston’s 2011 Commencement speech
Richard Preston ’76, Michael Crichton and Micro
Children’s author Barbara Brooks Wallace ’45 has racked up more than her share of awards and rave reviews in a career spanning five decades. And, at 89, she’s still at it, with the Cinderella-themed Diary of a Little Devil released in December and another book in her Miss Switch series coming in the fall. But she hasn’t forgotten her shaky start. Wallace, who today lives in a retirement home in McLean, Va., credits her success to an initially-nerve-wracking encounter with her freshman-year English professor at Pomona. Wallace had always pleased her high school teachers. But at Pomona she came to realize she was prone to “flossy” overwriting and for the first time in her life, she was making C’s on papers. Then English Professor Charles C. Holmes called her into a meeting.