Q&A with Nick Trout, author of The Wonder of Lost Causes

WonderofLostCauses_PBThis week saw the release of The Wonder of Lost Causes—the sixth book written by Massachusetts veterinary surgeon Nick Trout.

And doggone, aren’t we excited!

A novel, The Wonder of Lost Causes tells the story of single mother Dr. Kate Blunt, her son Jasper who suffers from cystic fibrosis, and a disfigured, abandoned dog named Whistler. Too old and too ugly to be adopted, the dog forms an instantaneous, almost magical connection with Jasper. Whistler does not bark, but he speaks to Jasper in a myriad of mysterious ways. With the clock ticking, the dog’s future hangs in the balance. Jasper would do anything to find him a home, but Whistler has chosen them for a reason that Kate, Jasper and readers will discover together. And according to early reviews, all of us will be inspired.

Eager to learn more and help celebrate The Wonder of Lost Causes publication, Literary New England’s Cindy Wolfe Boynton spoke with Nick Trout:

LNE: You’ve shared that like Jasper, the son in The Wonder of Lost Causes, your daughter Emily has cystic fibrosis (CF). As a former medical writer, I believe CF is a very misunderstood disease. Is awareness about CF one of the reasons you wrote this book?

NT: Absolutely.  I want people to see an honest account of CF, up close and personal, an account that explores the challenges for the child with the disease, and the primary care giver battling with every fiber of their being to keep that child in the fight. But I also wanted to pay homage to care givers of those with any number of chronic diseases, in a broader sense. It doesn’t have to be CF. It could be PTSD, autism, diabetes, opioid addiction. The list goes on and on. The kind of daily fights, frustrations, and struggle to find a path forward for CF can apply far more universally than this one disease.

LNE: I’m wondering about your daughter’s reaction to the book and whether she–as well as your own experiences with CF–are why The Wonder of Lost Causes feels like such a personal story.

Nick Trout author photoNT: I couldn’t have written this book without, to some extent, living it.  I hope the reader will sense the authenticity my experiences bring to the novel.  Sometimes it has felt like I have an obligation to share these experiences, and, if possible, try to parse it into something positive and helpful.

LNE: The Wonder of Lost Causes is your sixth book. And like the previous five, it features an irresistible dog on the cover. You know that any book or magazine with an adorable dog on the cover is always going to be a best-seller, right? Pet lovers can’t resist!

NT: Oh, how I wish it were that simple.  As far as I can tell, the potential to write a bestseller depends largely on whether a receptive audience even knows that this book exists.  It’s exactly this kind of experience, answering thoughtful and thought-provoking questions, that gives me a chance to reach a broader audience, and for that I’m extremely grateful.  Writing something that entertains and resonates helps and, yes, as you rightly point out, adorable dog covers can’t hurt. However, it has to be the right cover.  It’s all about the eyes.  Definitely forward facing, definitely out to make direct contact and, ideally, capable of reaching your soul!

LNE: Where does a full-time veterinary surgeon who also has busy family rsponsibilities find time to write?

NT: It’s hard and getting harder with every book I write.  Perhaps my best opportunity to write comes from the hour-long drive to work and home every day.  Especially early in the morning, I’m at my most creative, and I’ll often dictate ideas, dialogue, character development, into my phone as I drive. Hey, this is Boston.  My quality of driving blends right in.

Patron saint of lost dogsLNE: How did writing The Wonder of Lost Causes compare to writing your previous books? It’s been–what?–five years since the publication of your last novel, The Patron Saint of Lost Dogs? Would love to hear about your process.

NT: This was trickier, but I also wanted to take my time and feel as though I had it right.  After my last book, I wrote an entire book proposal about a heroic WW2 dog named Judy, a remarkable animal with a story not dissimilar to the book Unbroken. The week before hitting up editors, another author signed a deal to write his version of the story, a story that had been sitting there for seventy years!  What were the chances?  This knocked me back, and made me want to focus on fiction, and for me, writing fiction is much more challenging and time consuming than my version of non-fiction.  I also have an excellent agent, Jeff Kleinman, without whom my creative process could not happen. Jeff is tough for all the right reasons, so to satisfy him takes time and effort.

LNE: You’ve said that dogs want to take every bite they can out of life and, unlike people, have learned to live their lives without regret. Is this you, too?

NT: I can definitely claim to be ‘trying’ to live every minute of every hour of every day in that I feel as if I am constantly busting my chops to squeeze in every commitment I take on, both personally and professionally.  But, unlike dogs, being human leaves me flawed.  Like I’ve said before, mistakes are inevitable, but what is not, and what will set you apart, is what you learn from them.

LNE: On your website, you talk about how fortunate you feel to have a job that provides you with material for “heart-warming stories [that] quite literally walk, hop and slither through [your] hospital doors. Is this a hint that rabbits and snakes might find their way onto the covers of your novels? I’m sorry to say that if you write a book about a boy and his snake, I’m going to have to pass.

NT: Have no fears, I will not be writing about a snake as a central character in a book.  Then again . . .

LNE: What do you hope people will experience, or take away, from reading The Wonder of Lost Causes?

NT: Where to begin.  A better understanding of cystic fibrosis. An awareness of how hard it is to parent a chronically ill child, no matter what the underlying disease or disorder.  A recognition of how a dog, any dog, can brighten your days, change your outlook, give you purpose and make you want to live.  Like most authors, I’m hoping to entertain my reader, but if I can leave him or her changed in some small, sensitive, even miniscule way, I will have succeeded.  It’s a book about the quest for hope and how a creature as unlikely as a dog might just be what you need to get through and lead you to a brighter side.

Lange morphs from profit-maker to political activist in Hooper’s ‘Learning to See’

I use these Dorothea Lange photographs of destitute pea pickers, taken in California in 1936 during the Great Depression, as a tool to teach my college journalism students about the difference between reporting and storytelling.

Consequently, I was thrilled to learn about, and then read, Learning to See by Elise Hooper.

The novel provides a fictionalized account of Lange’s journey from a successful and self-focused portrait photographer in San Francisco in the late 1910s, to a controversial, politically-minded photojournalist during WWII, determined to show the truth about Japanese-Americans being held in internment camps. Hooper creates a compelling narrative, doing a great job blending historical fact with the complicated inner life of her fictional version of Lange, who relentlessly works to have both a career and keep her children and family together, despite a husband unable to provide either consistent financial support or fidelity.

The result is an engaging story that shows how our relationships, circumstances and choices shape not just who we become, but those whose lives we touch. Often selfish, though also a woman who makes soul-breaking sacrifices, Hooper’s Lange comes to life on the page—challenging us to consider like Lange does how and what we are willing to see.

I gave Learning to See four stars on Goodreads and recommend it to historical fiction lovers, those interested in journalism and photography, and to anyone with a desire—or who questions their ability—to make art and a difference.

Like May Alcott, little sister to Louisa and the protagonist in Hooper’s first novel, The Other Alcott, Hooper grew up in Massachusetts. She now lives on the West Coast and had this to say about Learning to See:

Q: Why did you decide to write about Dorothea Lange?

A: After I finished writing The Other Alcott, I decided to be practical and find a new story set closer to home. I’d always found Oregon-born Imogen Cunningham’s abstracted flower photographs to be beautiful and wanted to learn more about her. During my research, discovered that her best friend, Dorothea Lange, had also been a pioneering photographer, although the women had very different views on the purpose of art and photography. When I learned Lange had photographed the internment of Japanese Americans and that these photos had been impounded due to their subversive points of view, I decided to shift my focus from Cunningham to her best friend, Lange.

Midway through writing this novel, the political climate of the United States shifted with the results of the 2016 presidential election. Women took to the streets in January 2017 to express many grievances over the direction of the nation’s policies and values. This energy and rising political consciousness made me believe Dorothea Lange was more relevant than ever since she was a woman who had experienced a political awakening in her late thirties and acted on it. As a result of the worsening economic conditions in California and the breadlines threading down the sidewalk underneath her studio window in the 1930s, she became an activist for democratic values and social justice. Though she sometimes denied any political angle to her art, she often spoke about her desire for her work to prompt conversations about labor, social class, race, and the environment. Her awakening as an activist breathed new life into this project for me and made me more excited than ever to tell her story.

Q: It’s interesting that a woman who is best known for taking such poignant images of women and children had such a conflicted family life.

A: Dorothea’s complex and seemingly contradictory feelings about motherhood fascinated me. Her own father abandoned her family when she was twelve, and this left her with a powerful sense of rejection. So deep was her hurt that she rarely spoke of it to anyone. In fact, it wasn’t until after her death that Paul Taylor learned the truth of her father’s absence in her life. Yet despite the anguish that her father’s abandonment caused her, she fostered her own sons out during the Great Depression, a choice for which her children never forgave her.

No one faulted Maynard and Paul for not attending to their children, but people questioned Dorothea’s choices and this criticism stung her. Her ambitions and talents put her at odds with many of the norms of the time when few women were the breadwinners in their families. So, although she sometimes felt guilty and selfish, she persevered with work she believed was necessary and important. This tension between ambition and parental duty drew me into her story. While I wrote this story, there were times when I struggled to make sense of Dorothea’s choices to foster her children out to strangers, especially after she married Paul Taylor, but I had to remember that in the early 1900s commonly accepted ideas about child-rearing and child development differed from today. People tended to emphasize the resilience of children and overlook their emotional needs. In some ways Dorothea reminded me of another woman from the same era who is celebrated for her humanitarian work: Eleanor Roosevelt. Like Lange, Roosevelt had a fraught relationship with her children stemming largely from her active political career outside the home. The fact is that women who chose to pursue careers in the early 1900s lacked role models, mentors, affordable childcare options, and other supports that are now widely accepted to be critical to balancing motherhood with work outside the home.

Q: Why didn’t Maynard or Paul do more to help with the care of their children?

A: The expectations of the time were that women tended to children. It was that simple. Regardless of social class, it never appears to have entered into people’s consideration that men could have played a hands-on role with raising their sons and daughters. And this trickled down to the children of this generation. Interviews with Dan Dixon when he was an adult reflect that his hurt feelings were aimed mostly at his mother. He never seemed to hold Maynard accountable in the same way that he blamed his mother for leaving him.

Q: What happened to Lange’s impounded photos of the Japanese American internment?

A: The army impounded the images until after the war and then they were quietly placed in the National Archives. In 1972, Richard Conrat, one of Lange’s assistants, published some of them when he produced Executive Order 9066 for the UCLA Asian American Studies Center. It wasn’t until 2006 when Linda Gordon and Gary Y. Okihiro published their book Impounded that the photos received widespread attention. In 2017, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum produced an exhibit entitled Images of Internment: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II to commemorate the seventhy-fifth anniversary of FDR’s infamous Executive Order 9066. I visited the show and viewed photographs by Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, and others. Seventy-five years later these photos are still relevant and serve as a powerful reminder of the importance of maintaining civil liberties in our democracy.

Literary New England interview with ‘The Age of Light’ author Whitney Scharer

“… You should own your creativity. You should own your art, and call yourself an artist, or writer, if that’s what you are. And so I hope that people read this book [and], if they are creative people, they take away this lesson from the story.”

Those are the words of author Whitney Scharer on Lee Miller, the protagonist in Scharer’s debut and much-buzzed-about novel, The Age of Light.

Literary New England’s Cindy Wolfe Boynton interviewed Scharer yesterday, just hours before she flew from her Massachusetts home to the United Kingdom for several book events. Scharer will be back in the U.S. by early March for a cross-country book tour, including several stops in New England.

Hear Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Joseph Finder & Elizabeth Alexander in the Literary New England Radio Show archives

3 booksMiss this past Monday, June 22, Literary New England Radio Show? No worries! You can hear our three enthralling guests in the Literary New England Radio Show archives. The episode features:

  • Dolen Perkins-Valdez on Balm. Set shortly after the end of the Civil War, it’s the story of three people who have come to Chicago in search of a new life: Madge, who was born with magical hands that heal; Sadie, who can talk with the dead; and Hemp, who is searching for both redemption and his missing family.
  • Joseph Finder on The Fixer. The latest stand-alone thriller by this New York Times bestselling author that focuses on a former investigative reporter forced to move back to his childhood home, where he makes an exciting and dangerous discovery about his father’s past.
  • Elizabeth Alexander on The Light of the World. A gorgeous memoir by an acclaimed poet and Pulitzer Prize finalist about the beauty of married life, the trauma of her husband’s death, and the solace found in caring for her two teenage sons.

Was a great episode! Definitely check it out!

The books you can win & authors you’ll hear on the 6/8 & 6/15 Literary New England Radio Show

June8_3booksTonight, June 8, we feature three women authors as interesting as their books. Join host Cindy Wolfe Boynton at 8 pm for novel talk and book giveaways as she speaks with:

  • Laura Kasischke on Mind of Winter. The latest novel by this bestselling poet and recently released in paperback, it’s the story of a mother who wakes up on a snowy Christmas sure that 15 years ago, something dark followed their adopted daughter home from Russia and is now afflicting them all.
  • Miranda Beverly-Whittemore on Bittersweet. Now a paperback, this suspenseful and cinematic novel tells the story of Mabel Dagmar, a young woman whose East Coast college roommate gives her friendship, a boyfriend, access to wealth and, for the first time in her life, the sense that she belongs–until everything goes all wrong.
  • Maura Weiler on Contrition. An inspiring, debut novel about very different twin sisters separated by birth and then reconnected through art, faith and the father who touched the world with his paintings.

All three of these books are paperbacks, so you can throw them right into your favorite summer bag!

3_books_June15Also mark your calendars for the 8 pm Monday, June 15, Literary New England Radio Show and an hour of lively conversations with three diverse authors about three unforgettable books:

  • Sy Montgomery on The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness. This touching, entertaining and profound memoir explores the emotional and physical world of the octopus, and the remarkable connections it’s able to make with humans.
  • Jean Zimmerman on Savage Girl. Recently released in paperback, it’s the story of a wealthy and outlandish Manhattan couple who adopt a girl purportedly raised by wolves with the goal of civilizing and introducing her into the high society of the Gilded Age.
  • Charles Dubow on Girl in the Moonlight. A scorching tale on countless summer recommended reading lists about one man’s all-consuming desire for a beautiful, bewitching and beguiling woman.

On both the June 8 and June 15 shows, listen and Tweet or email us to win one of these titles! Our Twitter handle is @LitNewEngland and our email litnewengland@gmail.com.

Jakob Crane: Author of a graphic novel about Salem’s witch trials

Lies In the Dust“Provocative and haunting” is how Kirkus Review describes Lies in the Dust: A Tale Of Remorse From The Salem Witch Trials. The graphic novel was written by New England author and visual artist Jakob Crane, illustrated by Timothy Decker of New Jersey and published by the Maine-based Islandport Press, which describes itself as being “dedicated to stories rooted in the essence and sensibilities of New England.”

Lies in the Dust certainly fits that description. The 120-page book tells a fictionalized version of the story of Ann Putnam Jr., the only girl to eventually apologize for sending 24 people to their deaths during the infamous Salem witch trials.

LiesinDUST3PICSWe air part of our interview with Jakob on tonight’s Literary New England Radio Show. Hear the complete 15-minute interview by clicking here. As Jakob mentions during our conversation, he and Decker recently established their own indie press, Box Books, which you may want to check out.

Jakob isn’t the first Islandport Press author we’ve featured on the show. Hear GA Morgan talk about The Fog of Forgetting, and Lea Wait talk about Uncertain Glory, in the Literary New England Radio Show archives. All were super interviews and guests!

Interviews & book giveaways with Sabaa Tahir, Kate Bolick, Santa Montefiore & more >> tonight at 8 on the Literary New England Radio Show

May11_4_picsAll of the books and authors featured on this episode of the Literary New England Radio Show are creating huge buzz–some in more ways than one! Join us tonight (May 11) at 8 p.m. for interviews and book giveaways with:

  • Santa Montefiore on The Beekeeper’s Daughter. The first book this No. 1 internationally best-selling author has set in the U.S., which tells the story of a mother and daughter searching for love and happiness, unaware of the secrets that bind them. It splits between 1930s England and 1970s Massachusetts.
  • Sabaa Tahir on An Ember in the Ashes. The instant New York Times-bestselling YA novel about a slave, a soldier, their intertwined destinies and their desire to be free. A fantasy set in an imagined world, it’s also a hauntingly realistic reminder of what it means to be a human.
  • Kate Bolick on Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own. A memoir that weaves the stories of five pioneering women writers into journalist Kate Bolock’s own as she explores the pleasures and possibilities of remaining single, as well as why more than 100 million American women have chosen to live life this way.

We also talk with New England writer and visual artist Jakob Crane about his graphic novel Lies in the Dust: A Tale Of Remorse From The Salem Witch Trials.

Hosted by Cindy Wolfe Boynton, and we can’t wait for you to hear it!