Thursday, April 25, 2013

An Interview with Author Susan Froetschel

Author Susan Froetschel
I recently received a reviewer copy of Fear of Beauty from Seventh Street Books.  Set in modern rural Afghanistan, the novel could have been written by a seasoned U.S. soldier turned Afghani housewife and mother. But it wasn't. It was written by Susan Froetschel of Michigan. Susan's experience as an award-winning journalist is evident in her fiction; in Fear of Beauty, she immerses the reader in a story of human tragedy and tentative hope as real as the political conflict that surrounds it. Here I ask Susan how she does it.

Susan, you have enjoyed quite a prestigious writing career. From working for several popular New York magazines, to news reporting in Alaska, to studying at Harvard and teaching at Yale. By now, you must have the freedom to write almost anything you want. Do you still engage in reporting, or have novels taken over your life?

Novels have not taken over my life, though I did take one year off from YaleGlobal to write Fear of Beauty. I still write opinion essays and book reviews, most for YaleGlobal Online, in my work since 2005 as an assistant editor and later as a consultant. And I have many great memories of the rush-and-tumble of reporting for a daily newspaper in a small Alaskan town.

Tell us about one or two of the more memorable stories you have covered as a journalist. Do these experiences play into your novels? If so, how?

My reporting – the close observations of a small, tightknit community – is reflected in all the novels, whether it’s Sitka, Alaska, or a small village in Afghanistan. Even in small communities, non-leaders and non-experts often go ignored. My best stories emerged when I stopped and listened to ordinary people who had a hunch about corruption or a community need, and I could gave them a voice through reporting. In one case, the newspaper stopped the costly deployment of Alaska National Guard jets in distributing unneeded charitable food donations to Scandinavian countries. In another instance, a young man began a lonely task of restoring an old, hidden cemetery. Many thought the project was futile, but after a profile, he mobilized community support and won state recognition.  

Fear of Beauty is told from the first-person perspective of an illiterate Afghani woman in a farming village. How did you (of all people) write so credibly from this woman's point of view? Can you comment on the research that went into developing Sofi's character?

The research began years ago with my volunteer work as a literacy tutor, both with adults in Alaska and middle-school students in an urban setting. Most of these students were smart, capable, fully aware that they were vulnerable in unknown ways and yet terrified that their lack of basic reading and writing skills would be exposed in the workplace or classroom. Next, I’m a mother and my four books analyze the joys and conflicts of mother-son relationships. But to be honest, Kris, I found that the best research was going about daily routines, thinking deliberately about every modern item we enjoy and stripping such details from my writing.

The same question applies to Army Ranger Joey Pearson. Do you have a military background? If not, what did you do to get into Joey's head?

No military background at all – other than some non-wartime reporting on the Alaska National Guard and talking with relatives and friends who are veterans. I was shopping at the Ranger Surplus store in Bethesda, and my son pointed out a Ranger Handbook from July 1992. This compact training guide, 4 by 5.5 inches and about an inch thick, is terse and practical, and it’s the heart of Joey’s character just as the Koran is for Sofi’s husband.

And finally, the third main character: the setting. You write about Helmand Province, Afghanistan, as if you have been there. Have you? A Google search for "Laashekoh" gives me three pages of references to you and your novel - so I suspect that Laashekoh is a fictional village. Am I correct in my assumption? Are this village and its citizens based on a village you know?

I have not had the opportunity to travel to Afghanistan. The village is fictional, and the word “laashe koh” is ledge in Dari. I follow international news closely with my work – including many reports on Afghanistan. I spent one long day in Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library, paging through photography books on Afghanistan from the 1920s and 1930s, before the war with Russia, before the days of Taliban control. But I had to stop and remind myself that a lifelong resident of a village does not describe every detail – after living in a community for a while, we take our routines and everyday scenes for granted – until it changes or we must leave. And we could find characters like the villagers of Laashekoh in some small American farming communities.

I referenced Fear of Beauty in a blog post about Interweaving Subplots. There will also be a full review of this novel in a future blog post, so I won't dive too heavily into its plot here. Instead, I will merely ask Susan to comment on the non-fictional subject matter and controversies presented in the book. What might our readers not gather from reading it? What else would you like us to understand that might not be evident in a work of fiction?

The book is a product of my constant reading, writing and editing about modern globalization. All on this globe share many connections. Attempts to isolate ourselves from the mass of ideas swirling the globe in an ever-rapid pace is not easy. The worst ideas, ones that entail controlling others, are persistent. But the best ideas are penetrating, lasting and can’t be vanquished. In this era of globalization, it’s critical for people to be lifelong learners and think for themselves.

Last, what else would you like our readers to know about you? Are you currently writing another novel? Care to comment about it?

I have two books going. One is a sequel to Fear of Beauty. But I’m a very slow writer who likes an intricate plot!

I would like to call our readers' attention to your blog, at which you don your journalism hat and detail the many themes presented in Fear of Beauty: the plight of women in rural Afghanistan, the role of agriculture in rebuilding a war-torn nation, the interpretation and misinterpretation of Islamic law and the personal and political agendas that fit those interpretations. I encourage anyone interested in Middle Eastern politics to explore these pages. Susan, please also provide any additional website or contact info you'd like our readers to have.

YaleGlobal is a rich resource on globalization and my personal website is

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Uncommon Veterinarian: An Interview with Elliott Garber, D.V.M.

Elliott and family in Sicily
Elliott Garber is an Army officer and veterinarian with a passion for globe-trotting, education, and - oh yeah - writing!  He graciously accepted my request for an interview as part of my "Ask the Expert" series, and will be featured on our "Find an Expert" page henceforth.  Here, I ask Elliott about his career, his interests, and how they can play into a good mystery or thriller. 

Elliott, tell us a little bit about yourself.  You're not the average puppy/kitty vet, are you?

I actually do love puppies and kittens and see a fair number of them in my current job! I'm an active duty Army veterinarian currently assigned to a little naval base in Sicily, so along with all these cute military family pets, I also get to provide full-service medical and surgical care to our military working dogs. I'm involved in public health campaigns, food safety investigations, and humanitarian missions involving agriculture and animal health.

My tour in Italy and my commitment to the military will end in about a year, so I'm currently trying to decide if I will stay in the Army for another assignment or transition to something else. If I can swing one of my top Army job choices as a vet with the Special Forces or with the Navy's marine mammal program I will probably stay in, but there are also some cool opportunities with the Centers for Disease Control and other organizations working internationally.

Tell us a little bit about the focus of your website.

The tagline of my website is The Uncommon Veterinarian. I started the site about six months ago with several purposes in mind. First, I wanted to provide a genuine resource for aspiring and current veterinarians who are interested in learning more about less traditional career options within the broad field of veterinary medicine. Second, I wanted to begin to develop a community of interested and like-minded people who might one day be early supporters of my own published writing!

On your website, you make the statement: "I want to remind you of and expose you to all the other possibilities within the diverse field of veterinary medicine."  Do tell!  Examples, please?

Sure! I've been fortunate to have a number of unique and exciting experiences all over the world. My education and work have taken me to South Africa to work with their equivalent of the FBI in tracking down rhino poachers, to Haiti to investigate an outbreak of a new infectious disease devastating the island's pig population, and to Egypt for a yearlong deployment during their revolution a couple of years ago.

Other veterinarians work with Army Special Forces and Navy Seals, the CIA, and the FBI. I have several friends who are vets with the CDC's Epidemic Intelligence Service, and they get to fly around the world investigating new outbreaks of Ebola virus, avian influenza, and whatever new scary infectious disease might show up tomorrow. There are many vets working across the globe to help solve problems of public health and economic development. Then there are veterinarians who have become best-selling authors (like James Rollins), congressmen and senators, and astronauts.

I asked the previous question to set you up for this one: How can and do your experiences as a vet play into your writing?  What have you observed that makes good material for a mystery or thriller?

My job as a veterinarian often puts me right in the middle of real-life thriller situations. Imagine pulling the shiny round from a high-powered rifle out of a dead rhino's lung, and learning from the heavily armed law enforcement officers accompanying you in the South African bush that it probably came from a Thai mafia crime ring that they've been tracking for years. Picture yourself stuck in a taxi in Cairo as crowds of angry protesters close in on you from all directions, or conducting field research at a marsh in Lebanon when a group of armed men appear out of the reeds.

I happen to be privy to the knowledge that you're working on a first novel, and have completed about 20,000 words.  What would you like to tell us about this fledgeling work?

I'm honored that you would deign to recognize my early attempts to join the thriller-writing community! I do, of course, have a nice one-sentence summary ready to go for the New York Times bestseller list:
The appearance of an unknown virus in war-torn central Africa leads an American veterinarian into the center of an international power play that is spiraling out of control.
What do you think? Instant success?? Here's hoping. I also have a couple of working titles: A World Unleashed or The Virunga Sequence. The former is too broad, and the latter too narrow, so I'm hoping I'll come up with something in between. My goal is to finish a good draft by the time I move from Sicily in the summer of 2014. I know, that's probably more time than I really need, but with two kids under two and a full-time job it might be the best I can do.

The story features a former Special Forces veterinarian who is now working on his PhD while studying diseases of the endangered mountain gorillas of Rwanda and the Congo. He discovers a group of dead gorillas that appear to have died from a pox-like disease, and the story jumps into action with Joseph Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army, Iran's nuclear ambitions, and even the President of the United States all playing roles. Wish me luck!

Far from strictly a nerdy scientist (takes one to know one), you have also spent some time studying Spanish and religious studies.  Care to comment on your interests and activities in these and other fields outside of veterinary medicine?

I do love languages and along with the Spanish have enjoyed picking up basic conversational Portuguese, Arabic, Italian, Tamil, French, and Hebrew. I'm an avid reader, of course (connect with me on Goodreads!), and I'm also an amateur birder with over 1000 species on my life list.

What else would you like our readers to know about you?

I would love to connect with other actual or aspiring authors to share stories and expertise. As a veterinarian who also has a masters degree in public health, I'm happy to provide insights into anything related to animals, medicine, or infectious diseases. Now that I've been an active duty Army officer for almost four years, I also find myself noticing military errors in many of the novels I read. I would be honored to help others in this community avoid those errors in their own manuscripts!

Please provide any and all contact information you would like our readers to have.

The best place to find me is at my digital home. I also share more frequent updates on Facebook and Twitter. Finally, you can find me on Goodreads to see what I'm reading and share recommendations!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A picture of you part 2: how to create a button and why you should

I hope I have convinced you in part 1 of this series that a logo is an invaluable addition to your marketing repertoire.  In this post, I explain how to use that logo to create a button for your Blogger website.  For those unfamiliar with them, buttons are a way for your readers to "grab" your logo and copy it to their own sites.  When their readers click the image, they are redirected to your website.  It is a visual replacement of a link to your page.

I have to offer an enormous thank you to Cory Cuthbertson of Coryographies, as it was her step-by-step advice that permitted me to do this myself.  I now pass this information along to you, because I want your buttons on my sites.  Before we begin, allow me to share that I'm a moron when it comes to HTML.  If I can do this, so can you.  So here goes:

Creating a button on blogger is easy.  On the upper right hand corner of your blog is the "Design" link, which you enter to make any changes to your site.  Start by clicking there.  Now click "Layout" on the left hand side of the new screen, to be redirected to a page that has all of your various blog elements arranged.  Click "Add a Gadget."

A pop-up window will give you a list of gadgets to add.  Click the plus sign on "HTML/JavaScript" and a new window will open.  The title is where I currently have "Grab Murder Lab", but you can entitle your button any way you'd like.  Please don't freak out at this point: the next step is easier than it looks.  Copy this text exactly:

<center><a href="" alt="Murder Lab"><img
src="" /></a>

<textarea cols="15" rows="4" wrap="virtual"><a href=""><img src="" /></a></textarea></center>

Now paste this into the "Content" box of your "Configure HTML/JavaScript" window.  This is my HTML gibberish that works for my button.  All you need to do is replace a few bits of my HTML gibberish with your own.

First, in the two places above where I have "", replace the text between the quotation marks with your own website.  You must include the http://.  This will direct the button to your page.  You're half done.

Next, after the <img src= (again, two spots), replace this with a link to your own image (this can be a Photobucket site or any other site on the web where you have uploaded your logo.  I use Snapfish, and when I right click the image on Snapfish I have the option to "copy image URL" and paste it here.)

That's it!  Click "Save" and arrange your layout how you want it.  Then click "Save Arrangement" and you should have a brand new button for the stealing on your site.

How to steal other people's buttons?  Create a new HTML/JavaScript gadget, just as you did the first time.  Entitle it whatever you'd like (mine is called, "Kris is a fan.")  When you see a button on a website you'd like to copy, click into the text box below it and copy the HTML gibberish.  Then paste it into your new HTML text box.  You may copy and paste as many buttons as you'd like into a single HTML box.  Save, arrange, and voila!

Saturday, April 6, 2013

A picture of you part 1: creating a logo and what you can do with it

Your logo is your brand.  It is literally the picture of you.  When readers see a link to your website, they may or may not recognize - between the "http://www" and the "dot whatever" - that it is YOUR website.  But when they see your logo, there will be no doubt in their minds.  A picture is instant recognition.

What?  You don't have one yet?  Please do yourself a favor and create one.  There are multiple websites that allow you to do this for free.  Examples include Logo Maker and Vista Print.  Most of these websites allow you to choose from a variety of images, make the image the color and size of interest, and surround it with text of fonts and colors you choose.  It's kind of fun.

Or, you can do what I did, which is buy a few images from iStock Photo or  Pond5 and create your own.  For the record, I am sure this would have been easier in Photoshop but I don't have Photoshop, so I did it in Powerpoint.  Because I am completely computer and visual art illiterate, this probably took me much longer than it needed to, but that's a different blog post.  The point is, I'm happy with what I ended up with.

So now that you have a picture of you, what can you do with it?  LogoMaker allows you to upload your newly designed logo onto the web for free.  Upload it to your website, make it part of your profile on social networking sites, and create a signature on your e-mail account with it (warning: this makes all of your e-mails include attachments, which might send your messages into spam or junk mail folders).  So I have personally skipped this step.

And what about printing your logo?

If you'd like to purchase high resolution files (say, to print business cards), Logo Maker charges $50.  Vista Print has an extensive catalog of items from business cards to mouse pads to stress balls to bottle openers.

I personally invested in a pile of bookmarks from, which I'm happy to say turned out pretty great.  They cost me $40, including 3-day shipping, for 1000 of these.  And if you'd like some, please e-mail me your mailing address.  Because one can never have too many bookmarks.

Finally, you can use your brand new logo to create a button or banner.  In my humble opinion, this is the quintessential step for replacing that annoying with an image of you, when you link yourself on the web.

To this end, you may have noticed the brand new "Grab Murder Lab" button on the right hand side of this site.  This permits Murder Lab readers to easily "grab" our logo and paste it onto their own site.  When their readers click the image, they'll redirect to this page.  Pretty nifty if you ask me.

I'm also now building a collection of buttons for other sites of which I'm a fan (see "Kris is a fan" on the left hand side of the page.)  The problem is that many of the sites I am a fan of don't have buttons.  This is where you come in!

In an effort to share the button wealth, part 2 of this series will include detailed instructions for how to create a button using blogger.  If you create one on your own website or blog, I'll copy it here.

Stay tuned...

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Interweaving subplots part II: Fear of Beauty as an example

As I sit down to revisit the theme outlined in part I of this series, I'm also in the midst of reading "Fear of Beauty", by Susan Froetschel (Seventh Street Books).  I picked up this novel for the purpose of reviewing it, but now, just 70 pages in, I realize that the book provides a perfect example to use in this blog post.  And since I haven't finished the book yet, there are no spoilers.

Froetschel uses a great technique for interweaving subplots.

The story is a murder mystery set in modern Afghanistan.  A young boy has been murdered in a small, rural village that just happens to sit on the outskirts of an American Army outpost.  Of course, everyone is suspect.

The two main subplots of the story come from two different perspectives.  One is a first-person narration from the point of view of Sofi, the boy's intelligent, curious, but illiterate mother.  The other is a third-person exposition from the point of view of Joey, a seasoned but kind American Army Ranger stationed at the outpost.

From Sofi, we learn of her life in the village, the death of her son, and the suspicion of the strangers camped uncomfortably close to her home.  In a village where virtually nobody is literate, Sofi has the advantage of a husband who can read the Koran, and she secretly uses his teachings to her boys as a means to study the written word.  When her son's body is found near a mysterious box full of writings, Sofi's desire for literacy becomes desperation.

From Joey, we learn of the reason his group is in Afghanistan.  The outpost is actually populated by military and civilians alike, and the purpose of their mission is to help the villagers create a more sustainable farmland.  The problem is that the war-weary, jaded Afghans don't want the help of foreigners who have consistently brought them nothing but problems.  We learn this first from Joey's perspective, because he has been in Afghanistan long enough to know what to expect.  His sentiments are echoed by Habib, an Afghan interpreter working with the group, and Mita, the civilian leader of the agricultural unit.  The ignorant, arrogant Cameron plays devil's advocate, challenging the experienced, pragmatic viewpoints at every possibility.

These two subplots mesh at the beginning of Chapter 7.  As the foreigners set foot in the village for the first time, Sofi quietly watches from within her home.  This scene is fascinating to observe, as we have already heard the American's presumption about how the Afghans will be feeling at this moment.  From Sofi, we now realize that he was correct.  I can't wait to watch the newly intertwined plot unfold.

In general, I like Froetschel's approach of juxtaposing the first- and third-person perspectives as hallmarks of independent subplots.  The point of view of each scene is obvious right from the opening words, and it's clear which subplot the reader is in at any given moment.  It is also a fabulous way to include the intimacy of a first-person perspective while, in parallel, allowing the reader to observe scenes that the first-person protagonist would not have been privy to.