Author Interview: Hannah Sternberg

Let me tell you what a treat it is to share Hannah Sternberg with you. A local DC author, she shared her book, Queens of All the Earth. This may be the first official non-baby book I read since Behr was born, and it was worth it! A story of sisters in Spain, it spoke to my heart. The intricate details Hannah weaves into the character descriptions literally make them jump off the page. She leads you through the streets in such a way you feel the energy come alive. Now you are going to have to go read it yourself...but first, and interview with Hannah. psst...I wouldn't want to lead you astray, the tagline above highlights the interview, not the actual book!

Well, I spent my junior year of college at Queen Mary College in London, and I got to know that city pretty well while I was there. It was my first time leaving the United States -- I was a late bloomer, travel-wise. My favorite neighborhood was up near the British Museum, where I would sometimes wander by myself for hours. My university's library was there too, in a gorgeous dusty Deco building that I could imagine being the set of an Indiana Jones movie, in the scene where he frantically researches his next step. I didn't do the backpacking through Europe thing that most of my friends did when they studied abroad, though, because I hate just spending one or two days in a city and then moving on -- I'd rather save up my time and money for a full week or more in one city or region and really sink into it. In only a day or two, my brain just doesn't digest all the new sights and sounds -- I'm in a daze, and I barely feel like I've arrived by the time I leave. So that year, I took a weeklong trip to Barcelona, where I started writing Queens of All the Earth after a friend and I talked about how much fun it would be to turn our travels into a novel. I also visited a few other cities in Britain -- Bristol and York were my favorites outside of London. But spending time in London, I still had plenty of adventures -- picnics on Hampstead Heath, and running into a hookah bar when it started to rain, to smoke and doodle pictures of my friends; a pub where a few of my Londoner friends were regulars, that served authentic Mongolian food on the weekends; learning how to roll a cigarette on the floor of my friend's flat while drinking cheap wine from the bottle and pondering life in the way that cheap wine generally leads one to do. Sometimes I went to class, too. That year I also visited my brother in Hong Kong, and hopped to Macau and some of the surrounding islands while I was there. I'm heading back in a week, to see more of Hong Kong, and take a side trip to Bangkok!

To be honest, I actually hated all of my hostel experiences. But I was a lot more withdrawn and self-conscious back when I did my hostel stays in college, and I think my greatest anxieties came from simply fearing that people were watching me and judging me, when really no one gave a flip. I do make more efforts now to reach out to people, learn about them and connect with them, even briefly, but I have to admit I'm a creature of comfort and I value privacy and quiet time a lot -- if I go a day or two without a silent, private moment to myself, I start to feel mentally exhausted. So I don't need a luxury hotel by any stretch, but a private room is very important to me. And plumbing. I think I would stay in a hostel again, and have more fun this time now that I'm much more relaxed and confident than I was at 19, but I would definitely need a room of my own.

Greg. Of course! And Hugo. But Hugo's the only character in the book that I shamelessly ripped from real life. He's based on the proprietor of the hostel I stayed in when I was in Barcelona. There really was a pinboard in the common room, at least when I was there, with love notes to him from previous guests.

Funny you should ask that, because I'm actually taking a 10-day trip to Hong Kong and Bangkok! My oldest brother is a journalist in Hong Kong, and this will be the second time I visit him there. I'm looking forward to visiting the crowded colorful chaotic street markets, the temples (where, last time, tiny Buddhist monks would walk up to me, smiling and gesturing, to invite me to see other parts of the shrine -- they were the friendliest faces I saw), the surrounding islands with their hiking trails through tropical forest, and the bustling nightlife. At the end of the visit, my brother and I are taking a side trip to Bangkok, a city he's visited before, though it will be my first time. These are the destinations that have been most on my mind recently, but other places I'd love to see are India, Israel, Turkey, and Morocco. And I wouldn't mind returning to London sometime soon -- it's been five years since I was there.

All no-brainers: Lots of water. It's easy to get dehydrated when you're excited and wrapped up in all that you're seeing and doing, and having a dehydration headache is a stupid way to ruin an afternoon. A map. I love getting lost and discovering new things, but I hate not being able to find my way home again. If you want to go off the beaten path and be spontaneous, bring a map, just don't look at it when you don't want to. I like to have a good book to read in quiet moments. Travel can be overwhelming, a sensory overload, and if it's possible, I like to turn to my little rituals to calm my mind and help me digest all the sights and sounds of the day. One of those rituals is reading a book every night before I go to sleep, even if I only have enough energy to make it through a few pages. It quells any homesickness I might feel, and gives me a little break from the onslaught of new things, so my mind can catch up.

A mix. I like photography, but I'm never fully satisfied with the pictures I take, and afterward I realize I spent all my time looking through a lens rather than absorbing what was going on around me and experiencing the moment. I don't like how in many things -- not just travel, but social gatherings and concerts and special events -- lots of people think that taking pictures will make the moment more meaningful, sometimes getting virtually frantic about it, constantly asking people to stop and pose. It's a great way to remember something, but if you spent all of your time in a place or at an event snapping pictures, what else have you done to make it memorable? My exception is events where picture-taking is part of the fun, like a photo scavenger hunt in the National Gallery that a friend and I organized once. But when I'm traveling, sometimes I try to take a day or two "off camera," to force myself to loosen up and enjoy the experience in the present. Another way I "capture" a trip, besides writing and photography, is in the souvenirs I bring back. I have lots of little knickknacks that I like to pick up and hold in my hand while I remember the day that I bought them or found them: little Buddha statues, shells, jewelry, post cards of art.

I take writing materials with me when I travel because I often don't bring my computer. I have a collection of old marbled-cover composition books, the kind with the pages all sewn in and the space on the front to write the subject of the class you're using it for. Some of them have lines, but my favorite are the unruled, with just blank pages. They're all leftovers from school, but I hate wasting stuff like that, so I flip forward to the blank pages at the end, wherever I'd left off the last time I was note-taking or doodling or jotting something. I used to carry a tiny little Moleskine, but it was too small and I went through the pages too fast -- convenient for throwing into a bag, but inconvenient for actually writing or sketching or doodling on! Do you write or type? Type, type, type. I can't write fast enough to keep up with the words in my head. I'm a very fast typer, and I vastly prefer to type. When I write by hand, my hand and arm cramp up and I lose my next thought in the time it takes me to finish jotting down the first one. I have erratic illegible handwriting and I switch randomly between print and cursive, sometimes word by word or between letters. I'm also an obsessive-compulsive saver -- I click save every paragraph or so when I'm typing, but there's no save on a notebook and I have no outlet for that tic. Once I drew a save button at the top of a page and tapped it with my pen while I was thinking. Probably not something I should share with the public at large. Plus, I worry about how easy it is to lose a notebook with hours of work in it, while I back up all my electronic files on the cloud so even if my computer crashes I can access them anywhere. But I do write longhand when I travel or I'm away from my computer, and it is a good challenge, mentally, to both overcome my tics, and to keep my thoughts organized and flowing even with the slower rate. Oh, and it definitely helps with word economy.

Just. Freaking. Do it. I say this over and over and over again to anyone I talk to who wants to write, in any capacity, whether it's fiction or blogging or an idea for a nonfiction project. Just get started. People put off writing for all sorts of made-up reasons. The truth is there's no such thing as writer's block. Unless your hands are cuffed behind your back, you can write something. It's the fear of dissatisfaction with what they write that keeps many people from taking the plunge. But you'll never become the better writer you want to be if you don't get started. Every writer started out, at some moment, as a pre-writer sitting in front of a page wondering if he/she was completely crazy for doing this.

We'd love to hear your secret. Gin done treat me wrong one too many times, and we've parted ways for a little while, though sometimes we still encounter each other at social gatherings and I feel a stirring of that old flame. Back in the heyday of our romance, I juiced things up a little bit with a dash of olive brine; I liked it dirty when I was with gin. These days I'm a bourbon girl, scotch when I'm feeling classy. I like my whiskey neat, or with a little ice; sometimes I'll take a Manhattan, but that's a sneaky bastard that will punch you when you're not looking. I normally don't mix scotch with anything, but I was very pleased with a creative scotch cocktail I tried at Jack Rose's here in DC lately. Summer's coming, though, which means I'm dusting off my sangria and Pimms mixing skills.

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