Moderated By: JoAnna Hunt
Panelists: Georgina Kleege, Jo Elizabeth Pinto, and Zachary Shore
Hi, everybody, and welcome to "The AFB Centennial Book Club: Blind and Low Vision Authors Tell Their Stories." Today's event is a joint event from the American Foundation for the Blind and Amazon in celebration of AFB's centennial year. My name is JoAnna Hunt, and I'm your moderator for today. I'm a Caucasian woman and I'm speaking with you all from my home office on a slightly chilly and raining day here in Seattle. I, myself, do not identify as having a disability, but I started working to support accessibility in technology back in 2008 when my nephew was diagnosed with severe ADHD. He started to struggle to get access to the educational supports that he needed. I have always had a passion for books and for reading, and I believe that access to books is essential to improved education and employment outcomes for people with disabilities. I've actually spent much of my career over these last 15 years working to improve access to both education and books—first with a company called Blackboard in Washington, D.C., working on accessibility related topics in learning management technologies that are used by all levels of educational institutions around the world. But over the last 4 1/2 years, I've been back to my passion. I've worked to deliver high quality and delightful, accessible reading experiences with Kindle, and most recently I've assumed responsibility for the accessibility of Amazon's global digital shopping experiences on both web and mobile.
But as I said, my passion has always remained with books, and I'm incredibly excited to be with you all today to moderate what I believe will be a fantastic discussion.
Now it is my very great pleasure to introduce our panelists Georgina Kleege, Jo Elizabeth Pinto, and Zachary Shore. Georgina Kleege teaches creative writing and representations of disability in literature and disability memoir at UC Berkeley. Her collection of personal essays titled "Sight Unseen" is a classic in the field of disability studies. "Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller" transcends the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction to reimagine the life and legacy of this celebrated disability icon. And Georgina's latest book, "More Than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art," is concerned with blindness and the visual arts. Jo Elizabeth Pinto also joining us here today is among the first blind students to integrate public schools in the 1970s. As an author, she entertains her readers while giving them food for thought. She's written three books: "Daddy Won't Let Mom Drive the Car: True Tales of Parenting in the Dark,” "The Bright Side of Darkness,” and "Apples of Gold, timely advice when the world doesn't seem lovely.” And last but certainly not least, we have Zach Shore who is a historian of international conflict. Zachary is a professor of history at the Naval Postgraduate School and a Senior Fellow at the Institute of European Studies at UC Berkeley. He's the author of five books including three on enemy assessments. He's also written about decision making, the book called "Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions," as well as publishing a practical guide to success in graduate school, "Grad School Essentials." Through his company UpWords, Zachary provides services as a writing coach to authors, professionals, and students. Thank you very much, all three of you, for being with us today.
For the first question that I have for all of you, I'd really actually like to hear from everybody. So, I'm just going to go round robin. Just one quick reminder to our panelists, if you're comfortable doing so, please provide a brief description of yourself and where you're joining us from today before you respond. So, one of the reasons that I am just so excited to host all of you today is because you very obviously have different interests, different styles, and different types of work. Georgina, maybe you can start us off. I'd really love for you to first characterize your work. Tell us a little bit about your perspectives on being an author in today's publishing landscape. And then maybe tell us about some of the challenges and opportunities that you've experienced as an author who is blind or has low vision.
GEORGINA KLEEGE: Thank you very much for the question and thanks for having me here today. I am a middle aged white woman with shoulder length white hair. I'm wearing a black top, and I'm sitting in my home office with a window behind me, and I'm coming to you from Berkeley, California. In thinking about this question, you know, because of my age, my writing career goes way back into the previous century, and so I would say that the challenges of being a blind author have changed over the years, basically having to do with technology. When I first started writing in the — as a young person in the 1970s, you know, we didn't have computers. We didn't have word processing. I, you know, we had typewriters. We had tape recorders. I used to hire readers to read back to me things that I had written. So, that was the way things were done then.
You know, gradually, like a lot of blind people, I adopted different assistive technologies over the years. I've been using screen readers for 30 years now. Of course that has totally changed my writing practice. In terms of describing my work, I started my career as a fiction writer, actually, and I published short stories and a novel early on. And none of that work had anything to do with blindness. It was not something I thought about writing about. In the 1990s, I started — I kind of drifted away from fiction and started writing personal essays. I'd always been interested in the essay as a form. And people had always urged me, they said, oh, you should write about your experience of blindness, and I kind of shied away from it because when I read accounts of blindness that had been published, I found them either, you know, overly, you know, sort of about the “courage and triumph over adversity” story. Sort of inspirational things. And that didn't seem to sit well with me. Or else it was so dreary and depressing, that didn't really speak to me, either.
But I found the essay rather than a book length autobiography was really a good form for me, so that's when I started writing about blindness. I would say, in fact, you know, what I'm really writing about is sight and showing sight to the sighted people and writing about vision, visual art, different aspects of the visual experience from the perspective of somebody who is not sighted. Just to say one thing about publishing and maybe the reception to my work, particularly early on, maybe in the '90s, a story that I often tell people is when I was shopping around the manuscript for my book of essays, "Sight Unseen," I had an agent decline to represent me, and he said, “Oh, you know, I like what you're doing, but I'm already representing an author who is Deaf. And so obviously, you know, there wouldn't be a market for both a Deaf author and a blind author. So, it would be a conflict of interest.” So, I think maybe today that comment wouldn't be made. That maybe there's more of an understanding that there's room for more than one person to speak about the subject of blindness.
JOANNA HUNT: Yeah, I would very much hope that that's the case today. (Laughter) Jo Elizabeth, I have the same question for you. Can you share with us a little bit about what your work is like and your perspective on being an author today? Have you experienced similar challenges or opportunities or maybe even different ones in your — in your work?
JO ELIZABETH PINTO:
Well, I am 50 years old and I'm also sitting in my home office, which is also my dining room. I've been a — I've been writing since the '80s. And I would agree that technology has changed immensely. I started out with an electric typewriter, and my novel came about because I wrote a story on a typewriter for a high school English class, and then the characters stayed in my mind. They were friends of mine. They were kids who never left me. And so when I wanted to learn to use a word processer in the '90s, I took that story back out, and it was very raw, very amateur, teenagerish, but the story was still alive. And so I cut and pasted and deleted and added and moved things around and it got better. And so I worked on it off and on throughout my life as the computers got better and technology improved. It became my novel. And I had no idea in the '90s when I was looking for agents and having similar issues of, “Well, how would you be able to write a novel if you couldn't see? Because how would you know what the world was like?” Because I have a mind and I have other senses and I listen and observe and I'm in the world, so I kind of know what it's like.
But, anyway, I had no idea that by 2014, when I decided to self publish, that we would have the option to go on to Amazon, Kindle, and Audible and put the books out by ourselves independently and be able to sell them to the whole world without traditional publishers and agents and the whole thing. It's amazing. So, that's the opportunity that we have now that we never would have dreamed of 30 years ago, and it's really exciting. It's not completely accessible yet without sighted help, but it's exciting nonetheless.
So, I delved into both fiction and memoir with the idea of showing confident, competent blind people to a sighted world because we don't need damsels and we don't need villains. We don't need saints that can't fend for themselves, which we have had enough of in blind literature. And we don't need the total inspiration thing, like Georgina was talking about, and we don't need dreary. So, there is a blind character in my novel, "The Bright Side of Darkness," but she's not perfect, and she's not helpless. She's somewhere in between. She's a human being who happens to be blind. And then I went into memoir because I'm a mom. And I wanted to show that blindness may change a few logistics but it doesn't change what the essence of being a mom is and being a family is. I got tired of seeing blind babies taken away from their mothers in the hospital or soon after because people were afraid that blind mothers couldn't raise their children. So, I decided to write a book of vignettes about what blind parenting was like, the reality of it, and so that was where "Daddy Won't Let Mom Drive the Car: True Tales of Parenting in the Dark" came from. And then when the pandemic hit, I decided we needed a book about looking at your blessings and looking on the positive side. And it wasn't about, “Oh, I'm blind, I can do this, what's your excuse?” It was about: look at reality. Look at what's positive in your life. So, that's where all of that came from.
Thank you so much for sharing that, Jo. I think that all of those stories would be something that would be incredibly impactful to just so many people. One just quick note. Jo, sometimes your audio pops in and out, so maybe let's make sure that you're just speaking up a little bit so everyone in our audience can hear you.
JO ELIZABETH PINTO: I'm sorry.
It's mostly okay, but occasionally it gets a little soft. Zach, how about you? Can you share with us your perspectives about your work and the things you've experienced over the years in your journey as an author?
Sure. Thanks so much for having me. I should first say although I've not yet read Jo Elizabeth's work, I'm curious about it, and I have read Georgina's work, some of it, and I am a fan. It's a great honor to be on the panel with both of you. I work on understanding the enemy. Which is an unusual thing, perhaps, for historians to do. I'm in a field called international history, which is really about the causes of war and the conditions for a stable peace. And I teach — I have two appointments, actually. I'm a Research Fellow at the University of California-Berkeley, which is where I am now, and I also teach for the military at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. And my students are captains, majors, lieutenant colonels from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Special Forces. And also roughly 30 different countries send their officers to us, as well. So, I always have a very international student body.
And I should add also that I don't use video when I teach. And I'm now in the habit of not using video and I'm not using it today. I hope you all won't mind. I tell my students that I want them to think of our Zoom classes as an interactive podcast where they get to ask questions of the host. And they seem to like that. It's gone over well so far, so... My challenges, I think, in my field have largely been ones of access, as you can imagine. You have to do a lot of archival research and get into the documents that are not available online or in Bookshare for the blind, and accessible formats like that. You got to get your hands on old papers sometimes, so I've had to hire German speakers or Russian speakers or whatever the documents are that I'm working on to go with me into the archives and spend all day, morning, and late into the afternoon and closing time, and that's been a fun process, actually. It's been great to dig into what's in there.
And then the other form of access that's been a challenge, of course, is books. Now there's much more availability, of course, but there's still a lot that isn't available to us in digital formats or audible formats. So, that's an ongoing issue but getting better all the time.
Great. Thank you so much for sharing your perspective, Zach. All three of you have touched on some of these ideas around access, challenges to books today, but also representations of the expectations of authors who are blind. And I think we can all agree that just because there are authors who are blind, there is really no need to assume that their writing does or should focus on blindness. So, I'd actually love to hear a little bit from you all about how you find the inspiration for things that you do write about and the process that you use for doing so. Zach, in particular, you are a writing coach. I'd love to learn a little bit more about your creative process and how you coach others on the journey to publication.
I'm laughing because my process begins with confusion. Always. And I really mean that. Because I want to write things — I want to write about things that I initially don't understand. That's what drives my work. When I come upon a problem, a question that just doesn't make sense to me, that forms the driving force behind any article or book. So, the same is true when I coach people. I tell them and I tell my students and the people I work with, clients, always start with a question. And as a rigorous exercise, let's begin by compressing your question into eight words or fewer. And the reason for doing that is to get them to articulate very precisely what it is they're trying to do with whatever they're writing. It forces them to focus on exactly the question to be answered.
So, for example, my own works might be synthesized as — I wrote a book about Nazi foreign policy decision making. So, the question was, how did Hitler make decisions? And then you would elaborate that, of course, in an introduction, but getting that question or, you know, what produces strategic empathy was a question that drove another book of mine, "A Sense of the Enemy."
These kinds of things really help people to articulate what they're doing and also stay focused. Because when you're writing, it's easy to drift off and write about things that aren't absolutely germane to the topic at hand. So, I say keep that eight word or fewer question in mind as you write and as you research, and you can always ask yourself, is what I'm reading or writing at this moment absolutely relevant to answering this eight word or fewer question? And if it isn't, cut it out and move on to something that is directly relevant. So, that's how I try to help people get focused and stimulate their creativity. That's one way. It's the first way. Be driven by a question.
JOANNA HUNT: That's some wonderful advice, and I think that can be used in so many different aspects of writing. It's very, very easy to wander off in all sorts of directions if you don't have an incredibly well focused question. Georgina, you and Jo Elizabeth both spoke about sort of seeing people who are blind in this negative sense of inspiration that we see so, so, so often. And I'd actually love to hear your thoughts around better representation, both with authors and with the characters that are in writing and the way that we're presenting vision and blindness. In your opinion, what could be done to ensure greater authentic representation of blind and low vision authors in publishing space today? And are you seeing any new trends in inclusion related to authoring and publishing today?
GEORGINA KLEEGE: Well, thanks for the question. I think what it immediately brings to mind, I mean, if you want greater inclusion in publishing, I would say where are the blind editors? You know, I mean, I think the publishing community has examined itself over the last number of years around questions of diversity and inclusion, you know, and that's mainly focused on race and gender, but I would say disability and in this case blindness is a part of that. So, where are the blind editors? And any publishers, any editors who are listening to this, you know, if you find yourself thinking, “Well, how could a blind person be an editor? It seems like a visual task.” Well, the same way a blind person can be a writer. You know, my students are often struck by the fact that I'm quite — I'm a quite good copy editor. And in part it's because I read with my ears. So, I, you know, you pick up on things, I think, when reading aurally that sighted people don't know — can easily miss. Anyway.
But I think, you know, I think that maybe the publishing industry needs to educate itself more and to, you know, I mean, I think sometimes editors will come to a manuscript and, oh, I've never read about blindness before. You know, how unusual this is. And, you know, if you're on the receiving end of that, you know, that's sort of maybe a good thing, but at the same time, I think it's worth saying, well, my work resonates with these other blind authors, I write about blind artists. You know, I write about blind authors. It's not as if any of us on this call are the first people to take up this topic or to be in this profession. So I think there is, you know, maybe an added responsibility for those of us who have conversations with people in publishing to say, you know, I'm not the only one. You should read these other people.
JOANNA HUNT: Yeah, that's great advice. Jo Elizabeth, you've talked a few times about the way that you use your work to address a lot of the misconceptions around blindness. How are you doing that? How are you using your writing and your process to take on so many of those misconceptions and express your viewpoints?
JO ELIZABETH PINTO: Well, I think when I was pitching my work to editors and agents, a lot of them expected, you know, Helen Keller and the old movies "Mask" and, you know, a lot of the same old tropes they had always seen, and so when they didn't get that, they kind of shied away from what I had to offer. And so it was a little hard to break down the barriers that were already there, and so we need — like Georgina said, we need some education out there that, you know, it's not Mary Ingalls in her rocking chair anymore. We've come a long way. And we also need, you know, I've been a proofreader and an editor. I've had a freelance business part time since 1997. Full time since 2005. And I can edit out loud or even better when I have a screen reader. I edit manuscripts for other writers and I edit textbooks. A lot of those I do in braille, but I edit in my critique group and I'm known for being able to catch things. Because I listened all the way through my school experience. They didn't have note takers and all the technology they have now for kids to be able to have in the classrooms. I learned by ear. So, there are a lot of things blind authors need to support each other, share each other's books and band together, but also in writing, we need to get the blind characters out there who are competent but not perfect. You know, we don't need the — angels and devils belong in the church.
JOANNA HUNT: You mentioned that before. I love the idea of sort of spending a minute on that. You talked so much about humanizing your characters and making sure that you are presenting them as flawed, whole human beings, and even in the fiction work and nonfiction work that I've read myself, you all too often don't see the whole human character when characters with disabilities are introduced, and that's increasingly frustrating for me, and I can't even begin to imagine that for you, because you, yourself, are an incredibly wonderful, whole, flawed human being, and I love that you're focused on making sure that that representation gets out there.
JO ELIZABETH PINTO: I grew up with Mary Ingalls and I wanted to slap her the whole time I was growing up.
JOANNA HUNT: I did, too.
JO ELIZABETH PINTO: Oh, would you just not be such a saint? I can't live up to that.
JOANNA HUNT: I don't think anyone could be expected to live up to any of the Ingalls characters, if we're honest about that. So, we started today's session by introducing it as a book club. So, in true book club fashion, I would actually love to hear a little bit more about the books that you guys are reading today, the things that you are really passionate about and that you're pushing into the hands of your families and friends and peers and colleagues and saying, "You must read this." Jo, why don't you start.
JO ELIZABETH PINTO: Well, in true fashion of sharing other blind people's work, Kristen Witucki, W i t u c k i, has written a story called "Outside Myself" that's really good. It's got great blind characters in it. And Amy Bovaird has written nonfiction books about her sight loss from retinitis pigmentosa and journeying into the mobility situation. She has some that are serious and some that are more humorous. She's got a whole series called "Mobility Matters." That's another. It's B o v a i r d. So, those are all on Amazon. Those are really worth looking up. There are others out there. Patty Fletcher has a book about getting a guide dog. So, there are some really good ones to start looking up your journey into reading blind authors.
JOANNA HUNT: Those are great recommendations. Zach, what are you reading these days and what would you highly recommend?
ZACHARY SHORE: This is going to be the hardest question I'll be asked today, I'm sure, because I read large amounts of books and can't choose, JoAnna, but I will try. So, the things that I think a wider audience might enjoy, I like nonfiction, of course, and "Say Nothing" by Patrick Radden Keefe is one of the best page turners I've read in a while. It's a gripping history about the Irish Republican Army and the troubles in Ireland. Very artfully done. Absolute potboiler page turner. Another is Candice Millard's "River of Doubt" about Teddy Roosevelt's trip down an Amazonian tributary. I think it was 1912, 1913. That's an adventure read, also a page turner, but you learn a lot about the region and the tensions in the group that go down there. It's just a gripping read. For a more thoughtful, reflective book, there's an older book that I often go back to that I always enjoyed called "The Snow Leopard" by Peter Matthiessen, a classic. The outer journey to the Himalayas reflecting an inner journey. Those are always fun. Those are three I would choose among hundreds more I'd like to recommend, but I'll stop there.
JOANNA HUNT: I completely understand. I would be hard pressed myself to figure out a favorite. Georgina, what are you reading?
GEORGINA KLEEGE: Well, like Zach, you know, because I am an English professor, I'm reading all the time. I'll tell you what I'm reading right now because I'm teaching it, and it sort of resonates with what Jo Elizabeth was saying about devils and angels. It's a collection of dramas of plays. It's called "Beyond Victims and Villains."
It's edited by Victoria Ann Lewis. And it's a collection of more or less contemporary plays by disabled playwrights. And I'll mention one in particular is a writer that I admire, unfortunately he passed away a few years ago. His name was Lynn Manning, M a n n i n g. He was based in Los Angeles. He was an African American poet and playwright and performer. You can — unfortunately, I don't think his work has ever been collected in one place, but you can find various examples of it. And the example that's in this anthology that I'm teaching is called "Shoot," and it's a one act play which deals with the theme of gun violence, but it also deals with — Manning himself was blind and the main character in the play is blind and sort of coming to terms with his blindness. One of the things that I like about the play is it's a play that audio describes itself. That is to say that the performers in the play are telling a story and they're sort of acting out what they're — what they're doing as they're telling the story. And I think that's something that would have occurred to a blind playwright and performer more so maybe than a sighted person.
JOANNA HUNT: Those are great. I will admit, the pandemic has me back in my personal guilty pleasure series that I have been reading since college, and, and is wonderfully narrated on Audible. So, in preparation for a new title in that series coming out later this fall, I have been listening to all of the previous books in that series. It's called "Outlander" by Diana Gabaldon. And it is ridiculously guilty pleasure for anyone who is interested in historical fiction. And then most recently reading, "Being Human" before an opportunity to interview Judy Heumann a couple of months ago. Was a wonderful read as well to just sort of understand a little bit more about her experience in the early days of the civil rights movement. So, that's another one that I would recommend if you've not read that. Yeah, Judy Heumann’s "Being Human" book is available on Amazon, as well. That's where I got it. It's a great, wonderful title. You all have given me some incredibly fantastic resources to look at for other books. I have read "Snow Leopard" in the past. I really enjoyed that. Hiking and mountain climbing is something I've been very interested in for a long time.
All right. So, the overall theme of AFB’s centennial is inclusion knows no limits. I'd like to actually close off our formal part of this discussion today by asking each of you what that actually means to you. Inclusion knows no limits. Georgina, why don't you start us off.
GEORGINA KLEEGE: Wow. I think maybe I'll turn the question another way, but I think sometimes when we, you know, when you say the word "inclusion," you're already saying, you know, there are the insiders and there are the outsiders. There are people who have traditionally been excluded, and now we want to include them. Which, of course, is a worthy goal, but it's also designating, you know, there are people who need to be included and then there are people who have the power to include those people. And one of the points I often make about access is that we need to understand access as a two way endeavor. It's not just about the majority sort of opening its arms and bringing the formerly marginalized into the center, you know? It's also about giving access to people who have been traditionally excluded. It's a recognition that, in this case blind people, have something to say to the larger culture. It's not just that we need charity or we need you to give us — give us something. But you — you who inhabit the center, you need, you need the perspectives of people who have been at the margins.
JOANNA HUNT: I wholeheartedly agree with that. It's this idea that the perspectives of people who are, let's call it, quote, extreme in some circles of definition have different needs and perspectives. And I love the idea of recentering that conversation to say it's not about you needing to include us, it's about you needing to learn from us, because we have information that you don't. I love the idea of that perspective. Zach, what does that mean to you, the idea of inclusion has no limits?
ZACHARY SHORE: I don't think I can improve on what Georgina just said, so maybe as a conciser way of offering an alternative, I'd say it means focusing on the substance of someone's thoughts and spirit and not on the appearance of their form. That's all.
Absolutely. Jo, any thoughts you want to add to that?
JO ELIZABETH PINTO: Well, I think they did a good job. I would just say it's more like a tapestry or woven — a weaving in than it is gathering. We think of the marginalized and gathering in like a bundle of yarn or a bundle of straw or something. But it's more like weaving together, like, making a rug or a tapestry. We all need to be woven in, not just gathered into the center.
That is also a wonderful image perhaps to think about the idea of true inclusion. One — I have one quick just fun question to ask all of you. Mostly for my own interests, but I'm going to work on the assumption that everybody else who's listening is also very interested. You all have talked a lot about things that you have already published. Things you have already done. Who's working on something upcoming and exciting that you can give us a sneak peek about? Jo?
JO ELIZABETH PINTO:
I have a piece coming out in an anthology probably next spring. It will be called "It's an Avocado, Taco, Nacho Kind of Day."
It is not self published. It will be published through a university here in Colorado. Each piece is a recipe and a memory. So, I'm excited about that. Probably in the spring of 2022.
That sounds wonderful. Zach or Georgina, anything — any secret sneak peek projects you can tell us about?
This is Georgina. I'll step in. I'm quite excited. I didn't think I was going to be, but I got invited — this is so bizarre, but I got invited to be a guest image editor for a magazine called "Orion" magazine, which is a magazine sort of about the environment, but it's not just the science of the environment, it also includes artwork and poetry and short fiction and essays and different things. And the editor contacted me because he knew that I had written about art, and this particular issue is about disability, disability and the environment, disability and the natural world. And, you know, my first thought was, well, this is very nice to get an invitation, but, you know, I am a blind person, so, you know, it's like — and yet it was a rewarding experience. So, I'm just in the midst of writing an essay about the experience, and a lot of the experiences — I mean, first of all, it was like I sort of directed them to various disabled, including blind artists, that I know and said, you know, look at this person and see if there is something you want to use. But I was also thinking about, you know, read it, you know, as a reader, a reader of periodicals, you know, and periodicals often have images, but reading as a blind person, you don't always get the images. But, you know, nowadays if you're reading, you know, a digital version online, there may be alt text so you have an idea of the placement of the images.
So, I realized that in my conversations with the art team at this magazine, it's, like, I had a very good idea of what sighted people want from images, you know? And we had really, really interesting discussions about, well, why is — why do you want a big image? Or why do you want a small image? And why should it be there versus over there? So on and so forth. So, that's what I've been working on this week.
Sounds very fascinating, actually. I think the psychology of placement of images would be a very interesting and fascinating thing to learn a little bit more about. Zach, anything you want to share?
ZACHARY SHORE: Yeah. Your question is extremely well timed, because just this morning I received a contract for my next book.
JOANNA HUNT: Excellent.
ZACHARY SHORE: Thank you. It's from Cambridge University Press, and it's — to describe what it's about, I'd say, first, think about the chaos that just happened in Kabul and how Americans really reacted to that and thought, you know, this is — this is not who we are. And what they're really saying, of course, is this is not who we want to be.
And the same kind of sentiment you hear often. Think about when children were removed from their parents at the Southern border and locked in cages. You heard a lot of Americans saying, "this is not who we are." I wanted, as an historian, to look back at an earlier time, at a pivotal time in American history when it emerged as a superpower during and after World War II to look at what people were doing to stop or change the actions of their government. When they were also thinking "this is not who we are," and they said so in very similar words.
So, the book looks at some of the more brutal actions that the U.S. took during the war. The internment of Japanese Americans. Dropping of the atomic bombs. And one that people know less about, the decision essentially to starve the Germans during occupation after the war. And I look at how those decisions were intertwined and who was opposing them at the very highest levels. And then in trying to understand how that played out, this — these battles over vengeance versus virtue, I then look at the post war period when a lot of the same people tried, in effect, to atone for some of America's more egregious acts but launching all sorts of different campaigns, one of which was a remarkable effort to save roughly 600 million people from starving to death because of the massive food shortage that occurred after the war. And it's really a remarkable story that not many people — many non historians know about. So, the book is tentatively called "This Is Not Who We Are: America's Struggle to Be Good While Becoming Great" and I'm excited about it.
JOANNA HUNT: It sounds great and congratulations on the timing.
ZACHARY SHORE: Thank you.
JOANNA HUNT: It does look like we're actually out of time for our planned discussion. So, I want to take a second and thank all of our panelists and all of you as attendees. I want to share that Amazon is incredibly happy and proud to have had the opportunity to sponsor today's event. John Mackin from the AFB staff is now actually going to share with us any of the questions that you all posted in the chat while we were all chatting, and we're excited to facilitate that discussion. John?
JOHN MACKIN: Thanks so much, JoAnna, and thank you again to our panelist authors. I do have a question here. It was submitted in advance, and it's gonna sound like it's specifically for Zachary, but I would like to ask it to each of the panelists. If you could have coffee with any historical figure, who would you choose?
ZACHARY SHORE: Why do the hardest questions seem to be coming today? So many to choose from. I'll go with Cicero. And the reason is he was someone who lived through and witnessed and was part of the fall of a quasi democratic republic, and I'm very concerned about the stability of democracy in the world today. Not just in America, but abroad with the resurgence of authoritarianism. So, I would love to talk with Cicero and ask him, what did you learn, what would you have done differently? Give us some advice. That's it.
JOHN MACKIN: Thank you. How about you, Jo Elizabeth?
JO ELIZABETH PINTO: It would be hard to choose, but I think I would want to talk to Winston Churchill. I admire the way he took the English language and used it to inspire a nation, and I think we need that right now.
JOHN MACKIN: I think we're in agreement there. How about you, Georgina?
GEORGINA KLEEGE: This is a really, really tough question. I'd like to have a big coffee with lots of different people, but I think the person who just popped into my mind was George Elliot, the 19th century British novelist. I'm a fan of her work, and, you know, I think she had a really interesting mind, and I think it would be really rewarding just to, you know, talk about writing and, you know, an opportunity for me to be a gushing fan, I guess. So...
JOHN MACKIN: Back to writing for a second. We have a couple of questions that are all interested in the process. So, can you all talk a little bit about the process? For example, do you set aside a time each day for writing? Do you try to reach a particular word count? That kind of thing. Page count, et cetera.
GEORGINA KLEEGE: I could answer that question. Because this is advice I often give to students. You know, I do — I do try to write every day. I'm a morning person, so I get up early and I try to write early in the day. But I don't necessarily — I think sometimes people think “write every day” means “write every hour of every day,” and, of course, nobody has that luxury. And so one thing that I tell students or, you know, people starting out as writing is give yourself, like, half an hour. Everyone can find a half an hour. It doesn't have to be at the beginning of the day. A lot of people like to do it at the end of the day. I had a friend years ago who was quite a prolific fiction writer, and she as a young person had worked in an office job. It was the sort of office where people went out to lunch, they had a specific lunch hour, and so she would sit at her computer and she would eat her little sandwich she brought from home and just use that lunch hour to write her fiction. And she got a lot done.
I think the point is that it's helpful just to make a routine of it. And sometimes even in my own practice, I may not actually be writing that particular day. I may be re reading something, you know? I often have multiple projects going on at once, and so sometimes I may be editing something and sometimes I'll be working on something that's more I'm actually composing. But just knowing that tomorrow I'll get up and I'll have that time before I do anything else. And then it becomes a habit. It's like brushing your teeth. When you don't do it because you can't for some reason then, you know, it's all right. You'll survive, but it feels a little funny.
JOHN MACKIN: Thank you. Jo Elizabeth?
JO ELIZABETH PINTO: Well, I have a 13-year-old and a household to run and a job, and I squeeze it in. So, it might be first thing in the morning when my kid goes to school and it might be the middle of the night and it might be any time, but I squeeze it in between whatever else is going on, and I fight for it. So, I don't have that routine. I don't have that luxury right now. But I squeeze it in. And that's what I would say to people, is if you want it bad enough, squeeze it in. And then I would say about the process that I started — my novel came from a story from high school English class, and then my other ones have just come from things I wrote down, you know, most of my second one, "Daddy Won't Let Mom Drive the Car," came from things I wrote down to save for my daughter when she was older. My other memoir book came from just snippets. Some of them I wrote down from Facebook posts, and some of them I wrote down for essays and whatever. So, I would just say write things down. Start writing. You never know what you can use. So, get a paper and write something down. Write something down that was funny. Write something down that bothered you. Write something down and go with it.
JOHN MACKIN: Thank you. Zachary?
ZACHARY SHORE: I'm an outlier in this regard, or at least I think I am. I think the sensible, smart thing to do is have a routine, write every day, have a goal, all those things. I've never been able to do that. I have no routines. There's no set of time of day when I write. There are many days that I don't write. And that just wouldn't work for me. I'm just different in that regard. What works for me is being intensely curious about anything and inspired. And fortunately — so, I write when I'm curious and inspired, and fortunately I'm usually curious and inspired. I don't ever sit down to write until I have the ideas in my head. I'm really doing the writing when I'm walking around or lying in bed at night or in the shower or just doing other things. I start crafting sentences and paragraphs in my head, and so by the time I sit down at the computer, I know what I want to say already, and it flows much more freely. So, I never have that experience of you're staring at a blank screen and you just don't know what to type or say. I don't do that. I wait until I am inspired and I have been thinking about it, know what I want to say, and then it starts pouring out. That doesn't mean that I don't have it come out beautifully in the first draft, but I at least have something to get me started. So, that's how I roll, and it's probably not for everyone, but it's what works for me.
JOHN MACKIN: Well, I think we just had three unique perspectives there. Thank you. Another sort of recurring question. I'm going to combine a couple of questions to just try to make it the overarching — what sounds like is being asked. To each of you, what was the experience like publishing your first book? Maybe we can start with Jo Elizabeth.
JO ELIZABETH PINTO: Well, it had been a long time coming, because I started work on it and then put it down and then picked it up and put it down, and shopped it around to some agents and got a few nibbles but nothing definite. And then my mom passed away suddenly of cancer in 2014. And that was a real shock. And I learned from that experience that we don't know — none of us know how many days we have to walk on this earth. And so I got a wake up call and I decided then that I needed to get in gear. So, I decided to self publish and I got a friend who knew something about doing it and we published. It was a bit intimidating, but she knew how to work the Amazon and get the formatting and all of that. And then that was amazing, when I had that first book in my hand. There's nothing like that. There's nothing like that. And then I found out that the real work begins. Because you can publish a book. Anybody can publish a book, but if you don't market it, it just sits there. So, writing and publishing is kind of the easy part of the deal. So, that's — that was my experience. But there's nothing like having that book in your hand.
JOHN MACKIN: Thank you. Georgina?
GEORGINA KLEEGE: Yeah, I agree with everything that Jo has said. I mean, it's a great joy to have the thing in your hand, but it's such a long process from — from the time you think you're finished with the manuscripts and it goes through the editorial process and then, you know, copy editing and all this stuff. And, you know, so it's a very, very long process between the time you think you're done and when the thing is actually in your hand. But, yeah, it's a — it's a great joy to have it, to have it happen, and it doesn't, you know, subsequent books, it's maybe not quite as intense, but it's still a great pleasure. I'd say it's also a great relief, because the editorial process can be so arduous that, you know, it's like, phew, there is another one done. But I'd also agree with Jo that the marketing and sort of the publicity and all that sort of stuff that follows that, that's really, really hard. It's, you know, it's hard. It's not necessarily pleasant. It's sort of changed over the course of my career. You know, I used to have to go out and give readings in Borders bookstores and stuff like that. Right by the cash register. You know? It was just a sort of slog. So — but, yeah, there's nothing — there's nothing like the feeling of, you know, saying, look, look, here's the book.
JOHN MACKIN: How about you, Zachary?
ZACHARY SHORE: My experience publishing my first book was terrifying. (Laughter)
And for a very unusual reason. My first book, "What Hitler Knew" was the outgrowth of my doctoral dissertation at Oxford. It began — when you finish your dissertation, you then have to have a viva, or what we have in America, a defense. At Oxford, you have to get dressed up in your cap and gown, so, a long, black robe. The black cap you would picture at wearing at graduation, that square cap. I had to find my way from my college. Oxford is a collection of 40 some colleges that have spun up over centuries. Mine was up in the northern edge of the city. Down to a different college. It's raining, of course, as it always is. It's early in the morning. I'm kinning my way into town and getting wet. I was so nervous because you feel like you've put all these years into getting to this point. What if it goes wrong now? They bring in experts. I was facing the Oxford professor of war.. Yes, there is such a thing. Outside expert from Scotland they brought in. She was wonderful. But they were all tough. They bring me in, we sit down and started asking questions. I may have been just slightly too defensive in my responses. I wanted to make sure that I held my own and defended my arguments. And five minutes in, they said, you know, just to be clear, surely you realize you've not only passed, but we're recommending your dissertation to be published by Oxford University Press, which was a rare honor, and I was utterly stunned. And then totally relieved.
The process then went on and was more difficult because the editor at Oxford University Press sent off the book for reviews and that person lost the manuscript and didn't resurface for at least six months. And my editor then disappeared for six months. So, I lost a whole year in publication. It's a very unpleasant process, the academic publishing route. I do not recommend it, unless you have to do it. But ultimately it worked out, and, yes, so, I would say if you don't have to publish that way, don't. Okay. Thanks.
JOHN MACKIN: Thank you. And thank you to our panelists: Georgina, Jo Elizabeth, and Zachary. JoAnna, thank you so much for hosting. We are right at the end of the panel now. This has been the AFB centennial book club discussion and it will be archived in the future on AFB.org. Thank you very much and have a great day.