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Conversations from the Sun Valley Writers' Conference - 2017

Author Louisa Thomas

Louisa Thomas discusses her book "Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams."

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Host Marcia Franklin interviews journalist Louisa Thomas about her book "Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams." It looks at the life and times of First Lady Louisa Catherine Adams, the wife of President John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States. The conversation took place at the 2017 Sun Valley Writers' Conference and is part of Dialogue's ongoing series there, which began in 2005.

Thomas, the daughter of journalist and author Evan Thomas, is a former writer for Grantland whose writing has appeared in many other publications as well. She came across the letters of Louisa Adams while researching Andrew Jackson, and was captivated. "I was just completely struck by this voice," says Thomas. "It was so different than any of the other letters I was reading. It was very vivid, and it was very funny, which was unusual and a pleasure. And it was very acerbic sometimes and irreverent.

And so I thought to myself, 'Who is this other Louisa?' And so I wanted to know more about her. And, you know, the more I learned, the more I wanted to know."

In her biography, Thomas uses Adams' own letters and memoirs -- including some letters she discovered for the first time -- to draw an intimate portrait of a woman whom historians had previously overlooked. She found that although Adams was both extremely self-deprecating and ill much of her life, she also had great fortitude, traveling by herself in Europe during dangerous times. She also helped her husband greatly with his campaigns.

The book also looks at the complex relationship between Louisa and John Quincy -- and the friendship she developed with Abigail and John Adams, his parents.

"She had an amazing life," says Thomas. "You know, she had adventures, she was somebody, she journeyed, she traveled; she grew."

This is Thomas' second book. Her first book was "Conscience: Two Soldiers, Two Pacifists, One Family-a Test of Will and Faith in World War I." It centers on the life and views of the famous pacifist and Socialist presidential candidate Norman Thomas, who was Thomas' great-grandfather.

Related Links:
Louisa Thomas' website
National Park Service/Adams Historical Park page on Louisa Adams

Playwright Ayad Akhtar

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar discusses the themes of his works.

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Host Marcia Franklin talks with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar about his trajectory from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Broadway. The two also discuss the often controversial themes of his works.

The conversation was taped at the 2017 Sun Valley Writers' Conference and is part of Dialogue's ongoing series from the renowned event.

Akhtar won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for his play "Disgraced," which depicts a casual dinner party that goes awry after banter between friends becomes heated. The play not only takes on hot-button issues surrounding 9/11 and Islam, but also reveals what Akhtar called the "secret tribal identities" of all humans. The play also won an Obie Award and was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play.

A secular Muslim whose parents are from Pakistan, Akhtar talks with Franklin about how he was more religious until his life was transformed by a high-school English teacher who introduced him to certain works of literature.

"It made me understand there were vistas of reflection and experience in human life that had to do with the life of the mind," says Akhtar. "I could see that asking questions could be thrilling and was the only thing I wanted to do from that point forward."

A similar transition is depicted in Akhtar's semi-autobiographical novel American Dervish.

Akhtar doesn't shy away from challenging some of the precepts of Islam in his other plays, which include "The Who and the What" and "The Invisible Hand," as well as the movie he co-wrote and starred in, "The War Within." Akhtar talks with Franklin about his philosophy of writing and how he responds to negative reactions from some in the Muslim community.

His latest play, which opens on Broadway in October 2017, is "Junk." With 30 characters and 68 scenes, it takes aim at capitalism, debt financing and "the philosophical transformation of moving from a world where we make things to a world where money makes money," says Akhtar.

When Franklin asks the prolific author what drives him, Akhtar responds, "It's outrage. And I think that outrage is human. And I think it's the job of the artist to give it form, give it shape, give it voice."

Related Links:
Ayad Akhtar's website

Investigative Journalist Jane Mayer

Investigative journalist Jane Mayer discusses her book “Dark Money.”

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Host Marcia Franklin talks with investigative journalist Jane Mayer, the author of Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.

The interview was taped at the 2017 Sun Valley Writers' Conference and is part of Dialogue's ongoing series from the renowned event.

Mayer, a staff writer for The New Yorker, worked for more than three years on the book, an expansion of an article she wrote on Charles and David Koch for The New Yorker in 2010. The two brothers, the scions of Koch Industries, have spent decades funding conservative candidates and causes. In her book, Mayer traces the history of the family and its political strategies, and examines the rise of untraceable "dark" money in the political system.

"They've built up something that hasn't really existed before in the country's politics, which is a huge, multi-state, private political machine," says Mayer about the Kochs.

"They operate in 35 states. They have a bigger budget and payroll than the Republican National Committee, yet they're private citizens."

Franklin and Mayer discuss the philosophy of the Kochs, their relationship to the Trump administration, how dark money works, and the potential effects of having so much of it in the system.

"You know, people say, 'Why doesn't the government work? Why doesn't Washington work?' says Mayer. "And the truth is it does work very well for a few people."

In two "Extras" available On Demand, Mayer talks about what it was like to be investigated herself by people working for the Koch brothers, and explains why the 2010 statehouse elections were so critical for the success of the Kochs' vision.

Mayer is the author or co-author of four books, including Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas and The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals. Both were finalists for the National Book Award.

Mayer, who started her career writing for newspapers in Vermont, was a reporter for the Washington Star and then for the Wall Street Journal for 12 years, where she was that paper's first female White House correspondent. She joined The New Yorker in 1995.

She is the recipient of numerous honors, including the John Chancellor Award, the J. Anthony Lukas Prize, the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, the Toner Prize for Political Reporting, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence.

Related Links:
Jane Mayer's website
The New Yorker page on Jane Mayer

Author Helen Macdonald

Falconer Helen Macdonald discusses her award-winning book “H is for Hawk.”

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Host Marcia Franklin talks with British falconer and award-winning writer Helen Macdonald. Her 2014 bestselling memoir, H is for Hawk, describes how she rose above grief and loss with the help of a goshawk.

Macdonald is featured in a PBS Nature documentary called "H is for Hawk: A New Chapter."

The interview was taped at the 2017 Sun Valley Writers' Conference and is part of Dialogue's ongoing series from the renowned event.

When Macdonald's father died suddenly, she was bereft. To get her mind off her sadness, she turned to what she knew, training birds. She decided to train a goshawk, a species known for its irascibility, and a kind of bird she had never trained before.

"I didn't want to train one," Macdonald tells Franklin. "They were kind of a macho murderous creature, like kind of feathered shotguns.

"And then my dad died, and I think all that rage and wildness inside myself, the wildness of grief was really filling me up. And I realized that training a goshawk would be a distraction, but also I was just drawn towards this creature of death and difficulty."

Training a bird is a solitary enterprise in the best of circumstances, but in her book, Macdonald chronicles how she became intensely close to Mabel, her goshawk, and increasingly isolated from family, friends, and her own feelings. She finally realized she needed to seek help.

"I'd taken it way too far," she says. "I'd got completely lost."

At the same time, the beauty and isolation of training the hawk helped her begin her life anew. The book struck a chord with readers who had faced similar losses, and won high awards in Macdonald's native Britain, including the Samuel Johnson Prize and the Costa Book of the Year.

The PBS documentary follows Macdonald as she trains a new goshawk, Lupin.

"I think it might be the first time that the actual real moment-to-moment training of a hawk… has been captured like this," she tells Franklin. "And it's an astonishing thing. It's a beautiful film, you know, and I'm really proud of it."

Helen Macdonald is the author of two books in addition to "H is for Hawk:" "Shaler's Fish," a collection of poetry, and "Falcon," a cultural and natural history of that species.

Related Links:
Nature: “H is for Hawk: A New Chapter”
Penguin Books page on Helen Macdonald

Author Andrew Solomon

Andrew Solomon discusses his books on depression, travel, and families outside the norm.

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Professor and author Andrew Solomon relates how he went from being a bullied child suffering from depression to an award-winning journalist traveling the world.

The conversation was taped at the 2017 Sun Valley Writers' Conference as part of Dialogue's ongoing series from the renowned event.

"I would not have chosen to be depressed," says Solomon. "And if I could redo my life without any depression, I would choose not to have depression.

"But given that I didn't have any choice, and that I was stuck with this paralyzing, awful, painful experience, the only way I could think to get through it is to insist on finding some form of meaning in it."

Solomon's 2001 book, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, looks at how the medical establishment and society have viewed and treated depression over the centuries. It won the National Book Award for Nonfiction and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His most recent book, Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, tells the stories of families raising exceptional children who not only learn to deal with their challenges, but also find profound meaning in doing so.

Franklin talks with Solomon -- who is a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University Medical School -- about those books, as well as Far and Away, his memoir about his travels as a journalist around the world. Solomon believes that many of the tensions in the world could be ameliorated if more people traveled.

"I think that if we could get a program in place which would cause everyone before the age of 30 to spend at least two weeks in a foreign country, that half of the world's diplomatic problems would disappear," says Solomon.

"I think there's so much lack of understanding simply of what it means to be elsewhere or what it feels like to live elsewhere."

Related Links:
Andrew Solomon’s TED Talks
Andrew Solomon’s website