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For many decades, Robin Leach has been a world-renowned entertainment journalist, producer, writer, and television star. Best know for his longtime show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, Leach is that rare person who can do red carpet interviews and walk the red carpet himself as a celebrity with equal comfort. At the forefront of changing media, Leach currently is developing the digital entertainment content for Las Vegas Review-Journal. Questions for this interview were composed by students in Drexel University’s Pennoni Honors College course “The Art of the Interview,” taught by the Smart Set editor Richard Abowitz. This transcript was edited for length and clarity.

More… “Rejoinders of the Rich and Famous”

Get in touch with The Smart Set at editor@thesmartset.com.
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Molly Ball works for The Atlantic, where she writes on national politics. She has become known for her in-depth view into American political culture and her flashes of Twitter wit. She previously worked for Politico, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and the Las Vegas Sun. She has been a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow and won the Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting. She was also a winner on Who Wants to be a Millionaire.
 
This interview was conducted by students in Drexel University’s Pennoni Honors College course “The Art of the Interview,” taught by the Smart Set editor Richard Abowitz. Ball began by offering the class a brief introduction to her experiences interviewing as a political reporter.

MB: I’m a political reporter, so the people I’m interviewing are pretty different than other people that you interview as a journalist. Most people that you interview are motivated by sort of fundamental human motivations: they want you to like them, they want to be understood, they want to tell the truth, they want you to know where they’re coming from. Politicians are not like that. Politicians see an interview as a transaction; they have something they’re trying to achieve with the conversation. They’re trying to get a particular message out, so it’s not an honest conversation, where someone is saying whatever comes into their head. It’s more like a chess game where you are sort of strategizing — how can I get them to say a certain thing or push them in a direction they’re not comfortable with and force them off the talking points so they say something interesting or authentic? The politician does the opposite: They’re trying to make sure they present themselves in an advantageous way. They’re trying to make sure that they tell people what they want to hear, whether or not that’s true, and above all they’re trying not to screw up.

A lot of what I do is also talking to voters, going to political events and trying to understand what’s motivating the people who really pull the strings in American politics. It’s a very interesting interaction because some of them distrust the media; there’s a lot of that in politics and society overall, but most of them really want to be heard. That’s why people participate in politics: They want their voices heard. You can have a conversation with them that I think can be really revealing — if you’re listening. I think too many reporters aren’t listening to the people who are trying to communicate with them.

I think it’s important when you’re talking to people to always be compassionate towards them because they are pretty much totally powerless in the political system. Our job is not to judge them or pick on them: Our job is to understand where they’re coming from. When I meet a voter who tells me Obama is a Muslim, I’m not going to get into an argument with that person or try to convince them that they’re wrong. I’m going to try to understand where they’re coming from because my job is not to set the person straight, it’s to explain to my readers that these people exist out there and this is what’s driving them, this is where they’re getting their information and this is how it’s motivating their political behavior and try to shed some light on the way the whole electoral system works.

I try to talk to dozens of people at every political event I go to, and after a while it wears me out — I have to go run and hide. I think if you’re not a sort of pathological extrovert like a Bill Clinton, it’s really exhausting to talk to so many strangers, but I think it’s a really important exercise not just journalistically but as a human. It is really valuable to come into contact with so many people from so many different perspectives and different walks of life and try to understand where they’re coming from. I frankly think that in a society where we hear so often how segregated we are into our political and class and racial sort of silos, it would really be a better place if we made more attempts to seek out the opinions of people who aren’t like us and to listen to them.

TSS: Unlike most political stories, yours are very colloquial and have a lot of colorful rhetoric. Do you think you sacrifice any credibility or separate yourself in a negative way from the way other political writers write?

MB: ­I am very grateful that I get to write in that kind of style. I’m a magazine writer; I certainly didn’t write in quite this voice when I was a newspaper reporter. I’ve always thought that a good political story has to be first of all a great story. It has to have a great narrative, it has to be entertaining, it has to be fun, it has to be smart. There’s a lot of political reporting that is just sort of asking you to take your medicine and care about something because it’s important and I think that’s way too high a bar for readers. If we want people to be engaged with politics, we have to engage them. So I tend to write about people that I find colorful, like John Kasich, who is not your average sort of choreographed, scripted, buttoned-up politician. I try to find stories that I find interesting — stories that I would want to read — not just stories that are only going to be interesting to the people in them.

TSS: There are some ground rules that reporters have as far as agreeing to an interview, but depending on the situation, sometimes reporters break them. With political writing, does that come up frequently?

MB: As a political reporter, you’re constantly negotiating with people, because people in the political world, particularly staff, are very well versed in the difference between on the record, off the record, and on background. You can always assume with these people that they know that they’re on the record unless they have specified that they’re not. It’s not like when you’re talking to a crime victim that you’re interviewing about something on the street who you would probably want to explain that to more clearly. It’s pretty annoying a lot of times because staff can be very controlling and they are always trying to make sure they don’t look bad in a story but what you always have to do is just make sure you’re getting what you need. If someone says “well on background blah blah blah blah blah,” I say that’s fine, but what’s your on-the-record answer? Whatever it is, I need to know what it is because I can’t put your answer that’s on background in my story and attribute it to an anonymous source, that’s just not going to cut it for this story.

TSS: Before you get to release an article, does it have to go through anybody or their staff? Would you let a politician approve quotes before you ran a story or tell you what questions you’re allowed to ask and what subjects are off-limits?

MB: Never agree to pre-conditions for an interview, and with a public figure, they can go off-the-record if you agree to it, but they never get approval of their quotes. When someone is a figure of interest in that way, you can’t allow them to edit the information that you give to the public. With staff it’s different. I often will allow them to approve quotes because if they’re speaking on background, what I mostly need from them is to understand the situation and to get the information I need. When I need something to put in the story, usually they’ll approve whatever particular quote you want to use. But not for a politician.

The procedure is also a little bit different for the print magazine of The Atlantic. I write for both the print magazine and theatlantic.com, and our print articles go through a very laborious process of editing and fact-checking. Every person in that story will be contacted or we’ll attempt to contact them by a fact-checker who will run all the quotes by them. Sometimes they want to change something and hopefully I have it on tape or in my notes and that’s always the final authority. At that point you go back to the person and say I’m sorry, the tape is the final authority, and you don’t get to take back something you said in clearly on-the-record conditions.

TSS: How has your style of interviewing or political interviewing changed since the last presidential campaign?

MB: I’m always trying to challenge myself and write better stories and write more interesting stories with greater breadth and depth, and I’m learning new things every day about politics. I will say that this election has been pretty mind-blowing to me. I think it’s important that we be humble about that. It’s easy to try to, with perfect hindsight, explain things so that you sound smart, so that you sound like you saw it coming, so you sound like you know what you’re doing, but I think the most important tool for any reporter is humility. When someone says something that surprises you, be honest about that because it probably surprised your readers too. We don’t have all the answers, and I think it annoys people when we act like know-it-alls. Curiosity is the most important asset you have as a reporter. When something happens, you want to figure it out for yourself, you want to see it with your own eyes, and you want to understand what’s happening and why and how, instead of sort of sitting in your ivory tower and saying oh, well, if we look at this poll and that poll we can put two and two together and come up with this pat explanation. Unless you’re on the ground talking to the real people making the decisions, you’re not going to have a really deep understanding of this stuff.

TSS: When you watch Trump being interviewed, he doesn’t respond to the specific question: Often he hears the topic and he responds to the topic more than answering the exact question he’s asked. What kind of tactics do you use to get a genuine response from him?

MB: A lot of times he’ll just employ a non sequitur. It’s very common for politicians to answer the question that they want to answer instead of the question you actually asked, and over the years being a political reporter you just come to listen for that and be very aggressive in the way you follow up: not being afraid to interrupt people, not being afraid to stop them and say you didn’t answer my question. It doesn’t come naturally as a human to be rude in that way, but it’s a skill that you develop, and you become, I think, more and more fearless the more that you do this. Trump can be very evasive in a way that’s different from other politicians and I think that’s why it’s disorienting for people in my business. He can be very hard to pin down because, unlike politicians who memorize talking points and just spit them out over and over again — that’s an easy tactic to recognize, that’s an easy tactic to point out and follow up on — but Trump always seems like he’s being spontaneous. He’ll go off on some riff that’s fascinating or shocking in its own right so you get caught up in it. You get captivated by this weird story he’s telling you and you sort of forget that you were trying to get something else out of him. When I’ve interviewed Trump, I’ve been careful to keep track of what I’m asking him and what I’m trying to get him pinned down on from the interview so I can keep circling back and saying wait, that ten minutes you just spent telling me this other fascinating thing, that’s great but here’s what I asked you. He’ll sort of pretend that he doesn’t remember, like oh what was that again? Where did you hear that? What was this you’re asking me? You just have to keep at him.

TSS: This is the first election where as a reporter you’ve had to live in the possibility that a presidential candidate might start trashing you personally on Twitter. Does that enter your thoughts that you might wind up the story? Do you fear that?

MB: No, you don’t have to do this for too long to grow a very thick skin. The Twitter part is new, but when I covered the 2006 Nevada gubernatorial campaign, the Democratic candidate used to tell an anecdote trashing me at every campaign stop. It was part of her stump speech. You learn to shrug it off or even take it as a positive, like oh, I must be doing something right if I got under her skin in that way.

TSS: In this election, certain political candidates are getting more coverage than others. Do you think that the media and journalists should be forced to provide more even coverage of political candidates?

MB: No, I don’t think there should be any authority over the journalism business. I think that way leads to totalitarianism and the end of the First Amendment. Nobody should be regulating the journalism business. It’s very important to our free society that there’s no governmental or other entity that gets to say what we report on. Second of all, I’m not very receptive to those kinds of complaints because I do think that we’re going to write about what’s interesting to us and interesting to our audience. Certain candidates are boring, don’t make good TV, don’t make good copy, and readers are not going to be as interested in that — and I think that’s totally fair. This idea that the entire primary as it’s been covered on cable news has been one giant free advertisement for Donald Trump strikes me as ridiculous. A lot of the coverage has been extremely negative, and there have been a lot of other candidates who have gotten a disproportionate amount of coverage. Jeb Bush, for example, I think got covered a lot more than any candidate in his position who didn’t have his famous last name would have. It didn’t benefit him at all because people weren’t interested in buying what he was selling. The coverage process is democratic in that way. In the same way that people can decide who they want to vote for and nobody can tell them what to do, people are going to gravitate towards certain candidates. It should not be our job as journalists to scold them for it or push them in another direction or become activists who campaign for or against certain people that we’re covering.

TSS: Quotes are very powerful and they can definitely make a piece great. What is your policy on quotes from politicians? Do you edit for grammar or paraphrase and still put them as quotes?

MB: Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t and it’s somewhat arbitrary. I’m a reporter: I’m not there to make someone look bad, so if they slip up and use the wrong tense of something, I’m not going to put that in there just to make them look stupid. I think if you want to make someone look stupid because you believe they are stupid and that’s the truth that the story needs to communicate, you should do that in a less sneaky way.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got as a reporter was use as few quotes as possible. The natural inclination as a reporter is oh this person told me all this stuff and I’m going to dump it out of my notebook onto the page. Actually, you can almost always say something better than the person that you’re quoting because you’re a writer and they’re not. If you can craft a more eloquent paraphrase, you almost always should. The more sparingly you use quotes, the more potent those quotes become and the more the reader gets out of them. You can take 90 percent of what your source told you and paraphrase it as context, and then have that one quote as a zinger at the end and that becomes much more powerful in the story. People’s eyes glaze over when they read an entire paragraph of somebody droning on.

TSS: As a writer about politicians, is there an expectation that for this political figure you’ll write a certain kind of story, and, if so, how have you been pleasantly surprised or how did stories go differently than you might have expected?

MB: I am a natural contrarian, so I always want to write the piece that’s the opposite of what everyone else is writing. There’s a lot of groupthink in journalism, particularly in political journalism, so if you can stand outside of that and say you think it’s X but it’s Y, that’s a story that a lot of people are going to be interested in. I think it’s important to retain the ability to be surprised. I hate that voice that you get in political journalism that says well, nobody should be surprised by X; we knew this was going to happen. That’s not very interesting. News is what happens when you weren’t expecting it to happen. The other problem I have with most political reporting is that it doesn’t answer a question anyone was actually asking. It’s just giving you information that you didn’t know you needed and probably still don’t. I read a lot of other people’s writing and I’m always trying to figure out what’s my question about this, what am I curious about, what’s the question I want answered, and how can I go out and answer that question?

Back in November when the Paris attacks had just happened and Trump was starting his whole we’re going to keep out the Muslims, we’re going to bar all the refugees thing, this was a new phase of the Trump campaign when a lot of people started to get really alarmed about what he represented. You had even a lot of Republicans saying this person sounds like a fascist to me and you had protesters starting to get punched and kicked and thrown out of his rallies. I thought this sounds kind of scary. I wonder what it feels like — what is that like to be there? Does it feel like you’re in danger? So I went to a Trump rally in South Carolina and just tried to capture that — tried to capture for people what is this feeling and where is it coming from. I ended up feeling like he was pushing these dark buttons in human nature but the surprising thing to me was that it wasn’t a dark or scary feeling at the rallies at all. It was a lot of people brought together by this really cathartic experience of hearing someone say the things that they felt that no one else had the courage to say. So that was an instance where I felt like I got to tell readers something that was different from what they were expecting.

TSS: Your style for such strict political stuff seems very fresh. Do you emulate that from someone or is that just a you thing?

MB: I didn’t come into this as a political junkie. I came into this as someone who wanted to write cool journalism. When I started out, I was a reporter in Cambodia for a couple years, covering war crimes tribunal negotiations and refugee issues and stuff like that. When I got to Las Vegas I wrote a lot about the justice system: I did investigations, I did feature stories. I started writing about politics because it was the beat that opened up at the bigger paper when they wanted to hire me. I like politics — I’m fascinated by politics, I couldn’t do this job if I wasn’t — but I’m not the kind of person who sat down in my room when I was 12 making flash cards of the members of the House of Representatives. As journalists, you always have to see yourself as a proxy for your readers. You are their eyes and ears for something that you get to access and they don’t, so if you can bring that kind of regular-person perspective to a political story, you will be giving your readers something fresh because you’re not coming at it from this sort of rarified weird perspective of the political junkie. •

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity and prepared for publication by Karen Shollenberger. Student interviewers who contributed: Rebecca Cargan, Brandon Eng, Sarah Griggs, Susan Kelley, Grace Kerschensteiner, Charles Maguire, Trevor Montez, Melanie Ng, Ridhima Phukan, Callan Powell, James Pyne, Nicholas Santini, Arin Segal, Joshua Settlemire, Karen Shollenberger, Melissa Silvestrini, Allison Starr, and Zacharia Thottakara.

Feature image art by Maren Larsen. Source image courtesy of Molly Ball.

Get in touch with The Smart Set at editor@thesmartset.com.
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Jennifer Higdon is an American composer born in Atlanta, Georgia. Her concertos have earned her a Pulitzer Prize for Music and a Grammy Award. Cold Mountain is her first opera, and it was co-commissioned by The Santa Fe Opera and Opera Philadelphia. She was reached by phone at her home in Philadelphia. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ML: How is composing for opera different from the composition work you’ve done in the past?

JH: It’s really different, first of all, because you’re trying to take care of actual characters in a story. You have to think about, because opera is over two hours, how you structure something musically so that it’s interesting for the audience. You also have to think about what kind of music depicts these characters. Basically I’m trying to figure out how to draw an aural picture of these people, but it’s really hard. More… “Accented Arias”

Maren Larsen is the associate editor of The Smart Set. She is a digital journalism student, college radio DJ, and outdoor enthusiast.
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In her latest novel, The Past, Tessa Hadley writes about four adult siblings who come to stay for a few days at their grandfather’s house in order to decide the future of this place that has meant so much to their past. Hadley first became known in this country for her short stories that regularly appear in the New Yorker. Hadley was reached by phone at her hotel before an appearance at Free Library of Philadelphia. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

RA: When your novel was sent to me, all I knew about it was that it was called The Past, and I thought of course it was going to be a huge, mammoth work dealing with hundreds of years of histories and continents, something that’s worthy of such a huge title. Obviously the past is a huge subject in it, but it’s dealing with a tiny family. What made you put a title so broad on a subject so intensely focused?

TH: It took me ages to get that title. I was about two-thirds of the way through and I had about three or four working titles, all of which I was pretending to myself I was satisfied with, and suddenly it was just so obvious. I suppose what I really think is you’re right — there’s something funny about calling it The Past and then it’s this tiny little fragment of one family history in one country. But that huge great big billion-year past is made up of tiny little pieces, and the tiny little pieces, like that little family, the shards of individual pasts, actually capture in them bits of history, bits of historical change. In the novel, we feel the change between 1968, that moment when the great plates underlying our cultural and social life seemed to be shifting, and then the present, 40-odd years later, when, well, maybe one of the things one feels is that they haven’t shifted as much as everybody thought they were going to in 1968. I hope that always the individual story kind of opens onto the bigger history, if in a winding way. More… “A Thing of The Past

Richard Abowitz is the editor of The Smart Set. Get in touch at rabowitz@drexel.edu.
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James Kaplan’s Sinatra: The Chairman completes his two-volume biography (Frank: The Voice was volume one) of the man widely regarded as the great interpreter of American popular song. While Sinatra has already inspired a library of books, no one else has succeeded as well as Kaplan in teasing out the complicated relationship between the singer’s life and art. Reached by phone in New York, Kaplan was happy to discuss the results of his ten-year effort to document a public life that stretched across more than six decades. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

RA: Reading Sinatra: The Chairman, a quote of Joni Mitchell’s about David Geffen kept springing into my head, which is: “He’d have to spend a lot less time being generous if he spent a little being fair.” Maybe in Sinatra’s case, the word “fair” should be changed to “sensitive to other people,” or “reasonable.” I don’t know what word you want to put there, but could you explain the relationship between his incredibly legendary generosity and the sort of difficulty he could have in treating people around him well? More… “Under Our Skin”

Richard Abowitz is the editor of The Smart Set. Get in touch at rabowitz@drexel.edu.
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Kelly Cherry is an award-winning poet and novelist, and the former Poet Laureate of Virginia. Her latest book, Twelve Women in a Country Called America, is a collection of short stories. TSS assistant editor Maren Larsen reached Cherry by phone at her home in Virginia.

1.I recently read your collection Twelve Women in a Country Called America, and this collection’s title firmly sets the scene of these stories in the United States, but I would tend to argue that the true setting is the American South. You open the book with a quote from Norman Mailer: “This country is so complicated that when I start to think about it I begin talking in a southern accent.” Why do you (and Norman) think that the South is the “real” America?

Well, I don’t think that Norman thought that the South was the “real” America. He was making a sarcastic comment about how southerners talk: slow, not necessarily making much sense, putting in big words. It was a sarcastic crack, but I thought it was a funny sarcastic crack. It just occurred to me that that would be a good starting point for the stories in which the women do talk about their own states, but they also talk about America in general.

More… “5 Questions with Kelly Cherry”

Maren Larsen is the associate editor of The Smart Set. She is a digital journalism student, college radio DJ, and outdoor enthusiast.
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Orhan Pamuk
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Orhan Pamuk is one of the world’s best-known novelists. The Nobel Prize-winning author’s fictions often focus on the lives, times, and people of his native Istanbul. His latest novel, A Strangeness in My Mind, was six years in the writing and tells of the life of one street vendor in the city. TSS editor Richard Abowitz reached Pamuk by phone in New York where he teaches at Columbia University.

TSS: The title of your new novel, A Strangeness in My Mind, comes, of course, from a Wordsworth poem — a massive work, The Prelude — but I’m struck by the way you use it, because, you know, we think of Wordsworth as a poet that loved nature, and, while he was pre-industrial revolution, he wasn’t exactly a fan of what he saw coming. You use it, in your new book: “In a city, you can be alone in a crowd, and in fact what makes the city a city is that it lets you hide the strangeness in your mind inside its teeming multitudes.” How did you think of applying Wordsworth to a city and as the title for your book? More… “5 Questions with Orhan Pamuk”

Richard Abowitz is the editor of The Smart Set. Get in touch at rabowitz@drexel.edu.
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Left: cover of SPQR. Right: Mary Beard
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Mary Beard is a classics professor at University of Cambridge. Her books have covered everything from ancient art to Roman laughter. Her honors include a National Book Critics Circle Award. She is a public intellectual in the old-school sense of narrating BBC specials, as well as adding a contemporary twist with an active Twitter account and a blog. Her most recent book SPQR: A history of Ancient Rome was published earlier this year. The Smart Set editor Richard Abowitz reached Beard for this interview by phone in her hotel room in Philadelphia, where she was scheduled to make an appearance at the Free Library of Philadelphia later in the evening. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

TSS: Let me start by asking about one of the many Roman oddities: for people that were so concerned with their genealogy — so obsessed, as you point out, that they would put great effort to fabricate it back to the founders of Rome and mythic kings — they seemed remarkably willing to accept outsiders as Romans and as emperors and as consuls.
More… “When In Rome”

Get in touch with The Smart Set at editor@thesmartset.com.
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Grant Hart is a songwriter and musician best known as a former member of the 80s hardcore punk band Hüsker Dü. Hart’s most recent album The Argument is an extended musical reworking of John Milton’s poem Paradise Lost.

This interview was conducted by students in the Honors course “Writing About Rock Music” at Drexel University with guidance from Smart Set editor Richard Abowitz. The conversation was constantly interrupted with laughter spurred by Hart’s infectious humor and sharp wit.

TSS: So I read that when you were growing up, you liked more of the 50s and 60s music…

GH: Well I considered what my peers were listening to and I thought, “God if these people are listening to this stuff, this stuff has to be stupid.” I was making an association that was false and there was a lot of stuff I had to go back and learn to appreciate, things that I skipped over before. Early 50s, the people that came from, let’s say poverty, and were exploited as songwriters but could make a hit record without any instrumentation short of their vocal sounds — that was really intriguing to me.
More… “Change of Hart”

Get in touch with The Smart Set at editor@thesmartset.com.
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In April, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni sat down with Paula Marantz Cohen, dean of the Pennoni Honors College, to discuss, among other things, higher education and his most recent book Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania.

P: I’d like to discuss your life and career a bit before discussing your latest book. You went to journalism school at Columbia, then you worked at the New York Post, then at the Detroit Free Press before coming to the NYT, and that was in 1995. Now what I think is interesting is that seems to me sort of the traditional trajectory for getting into journalism at the highest level at the time.

B: Yes and no. The idea of trading up newspapers or trading up venues is traditional. I don’t think starting out at a tabloid and ending at the NYT, that’s not exactly traditional.

P: Do you think that trading up (the tabloid aside) is totally gone now? What does one do, in your opinion, now to get a career in journalism?
More… ““There is No One Path””

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a unit of the Pennoni Honors College. The Drexel InterView features a half-hour conversation with a nationally known or emerging talent in the arts, culture, science, or business. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.
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