After a long career as a journalist covering politics, Deborah Kalb is tackling the equally contentious arena of family relations in her first novel for adults, Off to Join the Circus. It the story of an overly enmeshed family in the D.C. area, and what happens when a legendary relative who was rumored to have run off and joined the circus returns after 64 years.
Adele Pinsky shows up with little explanation disrupting the lives of the Pinsky family in the midst of an impending birth, budding romances, adjusting to aging and a bar mitzvah. Chaos and connection ensue. Kalb shares her journey writing the novel:
AUTHORLINK: Hi Deborah, tell me about your apprenticeship as a creative writer. Did you have a mentor who offered advice that has stayed with you that you can share with us?
Who mentored you as a writer?
KALB: Thanks so much, Ellen! I didn’t have a specific creative writing mentor, but I grew up in a family of writers, so I think that had a huge influence on me. My father has written many books, mostly nonfiction—including one I wrote with him more than a decade ago now. My mother wrote a nonfiction book. My late uncle wrote two books with my father, and my aunt also is a writer, as is one of my cousins. So it was more of an ingrained thing, I think, to want to express myself in writing. I remember trying to write a novel in third grade, in a series of black-and-white notebooks.
AUTHORLINK: James Dickey said the idea for Deliverance came to him as a vision of a man standing alone on top of a mountain. His job was to get the man off the mountain. Where did the idea for Off to Join the Circus come from?
KALB: So interesting about James Dickey. I think the idea for Off to Join the Circus came from the concept of absence. What happens when a family member is still alive but isn’t part of the family fabric for one reason or another? What legends grow up over the years about that person? What do the people who remember the person tell their kids and grandchildren? What difference does it make for the family not to have the estranged relative there? And then, in the case of Adele Pinsky, she bursts back into their lives after 64 years, and turns all their expectations on end!
AUTHORLINK: This is very much a family story. Why is the family a good canvas on which to explore issues of who we are versus who others think we are?
KALB: The thing with families is that something you did, or said, or behaved like, when you were 10 is often still reflected in how your family members treat you when you’re 35, or 45, or 65. So there’s a lot of room for misunderstanding, and humor, and love, and poignancy. The Pinsky family members really do care about one another, and I think that shows—but sometimes they care a little too much! And that’s where the misunderstandings can arise.
AUTHORLINK: With this book, you are making the shift from writing fiction for children and nonfiction for adults. How did you find the transition and how does your previous writing feed this effort?
“I experimented with writing from multiple perspectives—seven of them!”
KALB: That’s a great question. I think the tone and the style of this new book—I tend to write in close third person—is quite similar to those of my children’s books. But with this novel, I experimented with writing from multiple perspectives—seven of them! This required my creating a calendar of events—one character’s soccer games, another character’s after-school creative writing club, etc.—to keep it all straight. It was like having seven children and having to drive them all to their activities on time. I loved writing from multiple perspectives, as it turned out—it provided a lot more opportunities for humor!
AUTHORLINK: Each of your characters is so different, but seems to be searching for common ground and connection. How did you come up with this cast and why do you think they worked so well together?
KALB: Thanks for that—I love all my characters, and I agree that they’re searching for common ground and connection. Sometimes they go about it in somewhat misguided ways, but they are trying. And I admire them for that. Adele’s reappearance shakes them up and makes them reevaluate some of the way they’ve been going about their family dynamics. Adele herself changes a fair amount—although I chose not to tell any of the story from her perspective because I wanted her to remain a woman of mystery.
AUTHORLINK: What were the greatest challenges when writing Off to Join the Circus and how did you overcome them?
KALB: One challenge, as I mentioned above, was keeping seven characters’ schedules straight. My point of view characters range from age 75 to almost 13, and they all have very different activities going on, so I needed to be sure I wasn’t mixing things up when writing a chapter from that particular character’s viewpoint. The calendar really helped!
AUTHORLINK: How does writing about family intrigue compare to your career as a journalist covering political intrigue?
KALB: I hadn’t really thought about it that way! But yes, intrigue is intrigue, and I guess all those years of covering Congress and politics helped me look beyond how people were spinning their situation. You can get a lot of spin going on when you’re interviewing multiple politicians, and the same goes for multiple characters, who might think they’re presenting things the way they really are, but are perhaps a bit misguided at times.
AUTHORLINK: You have a popular author interview series Book Q&As with Deborah Kalb. I am wondering how what you learn from other writers informs your own writing practice.
KALB: I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. I think interviewing wonderful authors has helped me do a better job with structuring, pacing, and plotting my own fiction. I don’t think the tone or voice has changed much in my writing over the years, but I’ve gained a lot of insight into how to make my writing more compelling—or so I hope!
AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on now.
KALB: I’m going back to some manuscripts I’ve been working on and trying to polish them. I’m continuing with the Book Q&A blog. And I’m excited about a new podcast my friend Mary Grace McGeehan and I started earlier this year. It’s called Rereading Our Childhood, and we reread books we read as kids and discuss how they affect us decades later. Among the books we’ve talked about are Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, and Harriet the Spy.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Deborah Kalb is a freelance writer and editor. She spent about two decades working as a journalist in Washington, D.C., for news organizations including Gannett News Service, Congressional Quarterly, U.S. News & World Report, and The Hill, mostly covering Congress and politics. Her book blog, Book Q&As with Deborah Kalb, which she started in 2012, features hundreds of interviews she has conducted with a wide variety of authors.
She is the author of Off to Join the Circus (Apprentice House, 2023), as well as three novels for kids, Thomas Jefferson and the Return of the Magic Hat (Schiffer, 2020), John Adams and the Magic Bobblehead (Schiffer, 2018), and George Washington and the Magic Hat (Schiffer, 2016) — and she’s the co-author, with her father, Marvin Kalb, of Haunting Legacy: Vietnam and the American Presidency from Ford to Obama (Brookings, 2011).