Best of 2015: 12 authors on remarkable transformations

This year, I’ve interviewed many authors about moments of transformation for Q&A features in the Monitor. Here are some of my favorite answers.

How are female crime writers different from their male counterparts? Editor Sarah Weinman explains.

Transformation is an integral part of story-telling: How do we get from there to here, and what have we become? For some of us, these tales are monumental in scope.

We may embrace a new gender, declare ourselves to be another race, or find long-elusive happiness in our final days. Or we might disrupt the world of fiction, turn crime-fighting into crime-supporting or replace old obsessions with new ones. 

This year, I’ve interviewed many authors about moments of transformation for Q&A features in the Monitor. Among other things, we’ve talked about the paths from teen to terrorist, from nobody to military hero, from laughingstock to landmark.

Here are excerpts from a dozen of our conversations.

1. Sarah Weinman talks about mid-century woman crime writers

"Women crime writers display a whole bunch of different types of storytelling. There’s this incredible array of characterizations and psychological subtexts examining how people behave and react under stress.

The lack of sentimentality in these books is fascinating. And they really focused on what was frightening and what was fearful. Even if you didn’t see the stabbing on the page, you understood what happened right before or after."

– Sarah Weinman, editor of the Library of America anthology “Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s." (Click here for full interview.)

2. Jill Jonnes recalls the remarks of the Eiffel Tower’s critics

"They said it looked like a hideous factory chimney, it was going to be 1,000 feet tall, way taller than anything else in Paris, and it would be there for 20 years. People also feared it might collapse because railroad bridges had collapsed.

There this wonderful phrase in the letter about how it’s such a barbaric industrial object that even the Americans wouldn’t build it."

– Jill Jonnes, author of "Eiffel's Tower: The Thrilling Story Behind Paris's Beloved Monument and the Extraordinary World's Fair That Introduced It,” on how French critics roasted the landmark in its early days. (Click here for full interview.)

3. Kim Cross explains how social media changed disaster response

"Facebook and Twitter became mechanisms [capable] of spreading word about relief needs and supplies. It really changes the way people give. Before, if you wanted to help, you’d write a check and send it to the Red Cross. Now, someone can say “We need diapers in Alberta City,” and you could see that and respond to it and say, “I’m on the way.” You could meet the person who needed it face to face.

That was a point of healing for both sides. You want to help, and it feels better to know you can help this young mother and hug her instead of giving money to a faceless organization. That made it deeply personal."

– Kim Cross, author of “What Stands in a Storm: Three Days in the Worst Superstorm to Hit the South's Tornado Alley,” on how social media affected the aftermath of a 2011 disaster. (Click here for full interview.)

4. Allyson Hobbs comments on the black response to "passing"

"Most blacks were pretty sympathetic, although there were definitely some who were not. Particularly during the years of Jim Crow, people recognized how difficult life was for blacks and recognized this was a way of getting ahead.

There was some humor or levity to it, a kind of practical joke at the expense of whites. It was very delicious for some blacks.

But there were some blacks who definitely disagreed with the practice of passing. They felt it was important for blacks to stay within the race and fight for the race."

– Allyson Hobbs, author of “A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life,” on how blacks responded to those who “passed” as white. (Click here for full interview.)

5. Terry Alford analyzes the motives of John Wilkes Booth

"He’s not in crazy in the sense that we’re having lunch at the mall and we say, 'Hey, look at that guy' because we’d both know something was wrong.

But he’s crazy in the sense of fanaticism: He’s perfectly OK on 9 out of 10 things, but don’t bring up the 10th thing. Fanaticism overwhelmed all of his good instincts – and he had many – and his good sense."

– Terry Alford, author of “Fortune's Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth,” on the sanity of Abraham Lincoln’s assassin. (Click here for full interview.)

6. Jennifer Finney Boylan talks about being a bestselling transgender author

"When I was 18 or 19 and in my freshman year at Wesleyan University, I went into the library to find books on people like me, and there was nothing or worse than nothing, these books that were completely wrong. I saw a cartoon once that someone reading a book. The title says 'All About You,' and the credit line says 'By Not You.'

Sometimes I wish I had my privacy and I was seen as an unextraordinary soccer mom from northern New England. But now, the 2015 version of that young version of me can go into a library and find a book by me or the other transgender writers and know they exist in the world, and they’re not alone. That does good in the world and balances out the loss of privacy."

– Jennifer Finney Boylan, author of “She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders,” on the price she’s paid by being public about her life. (Click here for full interview.)

7. Erik Larson speculates on an era’s overconfidence

"The thing that characterized the age was an overweening confidence in the power of man-made objects to overcome obstacles like time and distance, and that confidence could not be deterred. Those who boarded the Lusitania on May 1, 1915, doubtless felt some anxiety, but at the same time, they took comfort in the sheer scale of the ship and its speed, and in the fact that for a century naval warfare against civilian vessels had been conducted in a chivalrous, humanitarian manner."

 – Erik Larson, author of “Dead Wake: The Final Crossing of the Lusitania,” on why passengers felt so confident riding a luxury liner during wartime. (Click here or full interview.)

8. Stewart O’Nan talks about the final days of F. Scott Fitzgerald

"He pulls it back together. When he’s sober, he’s a proper gentleman. Once he gets to Hollywood, he can recapture the person that he once was. But the bodily damage has already been done....

He redeemed himself, by not giving up and not quitting and doing really good work.

He regained that love for the world, that romantic spirit that we think of as part of him – that willingness, that openness, that receptiveness to life. And he understands what he’s going through, which makes it all the more poignant."

– Stewart O’Nan, author of the novel “West of Sunset” about F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, on whether the author of “The Great Gatsby” found happiness at the end of his life. (Click here for full interview.)

9. T.J. English explains how Whitey Bulger corrupted the good guys

"Quite often the criminal winds up being more manipulative and wily than the agents, and the criminal gets more out of it than the agents. And you have blood on your hands if you’re protecting informants who are still killing people on the street. The consequences of it are quite devastating and have been devastating."

– T.J. English, author of “Where the Bodies Are Buried: Whitey Bulger and the World That Made Him,” on how the ends didn’t justify the means as law enforcement tried to take down the mob in Boston. (Click here for full interview.)

10. S.C. Gwynne recalls the great and not-so great Civil War generals

"The Civil War was a great transformer of men, and it cut both ways.

The political generals, these great wealthy men who were powerful before the war, are exposed as incompetent and cowards. On the other side, you have Grant, who’s failed at everything he’s ever done, and William Tecumseh Sherman, who failed at all of his business ventures, and Philip Sheridan, who was nothing.

Then there’s [Stonewall] Jackson, who’s this peculiar, kind-of-failed physics professor and becomes the most famous military man in the Western world. His ascent was astonishing, 14 months from being a physics professor – whom the Army didn’t really want – to being compared to Napoleon."

– S.C. Gwynne, author of “Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson,” on the Civil War’s unlikely heroes. (Click here for full interview.)

11. Masha Gessen speculates on what drove the Boston bombers

"My sense of their ultimate goal was that they wanted to become great.

You can frame it in terms of martyrdom. You look at Jahar’s notes scribbled on the side of the boat where he hid. He says that Allah has different plans for different people, and the plan for his brother was to make him a martyr.

You see all of it in that note. You see the belonging rhetoric, and the concept that “you hurt one of us, you hurt us all.” You see the desire to have a meaningful role and to be heard, to become somebody.

The lure of terrorism is this opportunity to belong to something larger, to have meaning and greatness. It’s like a shortcut to greatness. You can go from being a nobody to declaring war on a great country."

– Masha Gessen, author of “The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy,” on what drove Tamerlan and Dzhokhar “Jahar” Tsarnaev. (Click here to read full interview.)

 12. Lucy Worsley talks about the birth of obsession with crime

"In the 19th century, more likely than not you had moved to a town. Life was cleaner and safer there, and violent death less likely. But you probably didn't know your neighbors in the same way that you'd have done in the close-knit community of the village, and perhaps your neighbor he looked a bit odd ... perhaps even like a murderer....

So, people began to have the luxury, and it is a luxury, of worrying about things as inherently unlikely as getting murdered. An obsession with murder goes along with paranoia, neurosis and anxiety – all the other things we 'enjoy' about modern life in the city!"

– Lucy Worsley, author of “The Art of the English Murder: From Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock.” (Click here for full interview.)

Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

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