In the Spotlight: Jenna Gavigan & a GIVEAWAY!

There are few things I enjoy more than shining a spotlight on authors and books that I love. And today it truly is a spotlight, in every sense of the word! Here to celebrate her very first book birthday and introduce us to her leading lady — er, mouse — is Broadway, TV, and screen actor Jenna Gavigan!

Jenna Gavigan

Doesn’t she look feisty and fun? Like someone you’d want to hang out with? You’d be right on both counts — she is! And so is her fabulous new character, Lulu, the star of Jenna’s very first book, Lulu the Broadway Mouse.

I absolutely adored this book, which Jenna and Lulu’s publisher has billed  as “Ratatouille meets Broadway.” I think you’ll love it, too, whether or not you’ve ever dreamed of being onstage and in the spotlight, as Lulu does!

Shall we help Jenna celebrate her book birthday? Pull up a chair and grab a cup of tea and we’ll settle in for a chat before we all throw confetti and cut the cake…

How did this book come about, Jenna? Can you tell us a bit about that?

Years ago, while making my Broadway debut at the Shubert Theatre, I spotted a mouse running along a water pipe in the wardrobe room. To keep myself from freaking out — I was not a city dweller at the time, so not used to seeing the occasional mouse — I told myself that the tiny mouse was just helping out with the costumes. Perhaps she wanted to be on Broadway, too! That idea has been marinating in my mind for years, and I first started writing drafts as a picture book. One of those drafts happened while I was at Columbia University. That teacher encouraged me to apply to a conference at Rutgers that paired prospective authors with mentors. Eventually, my mentor at the conference became my agent, and she encouraged me to write the story as a middle-grade novel. The rest is history. (Note: I worked at the Shubert from March 2003 – May 2004, and my book sold in June 2017. So… that was a long story very short.)

Did you have to do any research for your book? Or had that all been done during your years onstage?

Yes, most of the “research” for this book is thanks to years in the theatre! But, I did go back to visit the Shubert when I was putting the finishing touches on my already-sold manuscript, to make sure I got all the real-life details right, like what color the seats in the audience are and how many chandeliers are on the ceiling. Roaming around, especially below the stage in the basement, I spotted other details that helped me add even more color and detail to Lulu’s world.

How did you come up with the character of Lulu? A MOUSE! There has to be an interesting story behind that!

Well, we’ve already addressed the mouse part of things! But, Lulu herself is loosely based on me as a kid. All I wanted was to be on Broadway. And I just kept working and hoping and dreaming. Lulu has an enviable optimism, but she also has moments of worrying that things won’t work out. I certainly had those moments. (Still do.) Moments of wondering if all the wishing and hoping and dreaming would pay off. My dream came true. You’ll have to read the book to see if Lulu’s does too!


Young Jenna as Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz”

Any tips to share for aspiring writers — or actors?

Just do it. There’s no magic potion. No right or wrong. Practice, focus, but don’t forget to have fun! Acting and writing have “make believe” in common. Sure, there’s work and training and business involved. But at the end of the day, we’re playing make believe. (On that note, be incredibly thankful when someone pays you to make believe. Be kind to the people you work with. Be humble. Be thankful.) Also, know that “success” (you’ll need to define for yourself what success means, BTW), doesn’t happen overnight. There are a lot of variables at play and a lot of people playing the game. All you can control is your work.  Your words. Your audition. How you sing the song. I’m sure you’ve heard it over and over again, but it really is true: “Be you. It’s the only thing that makes you different from everyone else.”

What’s up your sleeve? What will you be writing next? 

Well, I’m hoping for a sequel to Lulu!! I also love the idea of writing origin stories for some of the characters we meet in Lulu the Broadway Mouse—how those characters got started in the theatre. Guess we’d call those books spin-offs.  I’m also working on a novel set in the 1930s about a girl whose family runs a boarding house in Brooklyn. It involves a lot more research than Lulu did, that’s for sure!!

And how about acting? What’s next in that arena?

Here’s the thing about being an actor: you very rarely know what’s coming next. It’s exciting, in a way, but it’s also stressful and scary. I very much hope I’ll be on Broadway again soon. If you twisted my arm and made me choose my next gig, I’d honestly want to play Anna in Frozen. Or Dawn in Waitress. I said it when I was little and I’m saying it now that I’m a grown up: “I want to be on Broadway!”

And now — cue the confetti! Happy book birthday, Jenna! Thanks so much for stepping into the spotlight and visiting with us today. And thank you, too, for providing a giveaway: there’s a copy of hot-off-the-press Lulu the Broadway Mouse awaiting one of you — and I’ve heard rumors of a tote bag as well…

Just leave a comment below, sharing one of your favorite theatre memories with us. Maybe it’s a play you saw, maybe it’s a play you were in, or maybe it’s a play you wrote, who knows? Winners will be chosen at random on October 17th. Share this giveaway on your blog or Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or other social media for additional entries. (If you share on social media, please leave a link in the comments so that I can assign you an extra entry.)  U.S. and Canada only, please. Have fun!

 

In the Spotlight: Leila Howland

There are few things I enjoy more than shining a spotlight on authors and books that I love. I have a treat for you all today — Leila Howland is stopping by my blog to dish about her delightful new book The Forget-Me-Not Summer.

LeilaHowlandsmallLeila Howland

Isn’t she gorgeous? Talented, too. Leila is best known for her YA novels Nantucket Blue and Nantucket Red, but she’s got something new up her sleeve for readers this Spring, with the release of her first middle-grade novel.

For anyone who has sisters (that would be me, the eldest and bossiest of three), for anyone who’s ever dreamed of a summer on Cape Cod, I guarantee you’ll fall head-over-heels in love with The Forget-Me-Not Summer. I did, right from the moment I first met Marigold and Zinnia and Lily. How could I resist a trio of sisters with names like these?

FMNSummerHC(1)

 

Q:  So Leila, tell us a bit about how this book came about.

A:  Several years ago I rescued a puppy. He needed two long walks a day around my Los Angeles neighborhood. On one of our walks I saw a girl I recognized from a TV show, hanging out with her friends from school. She was so poised and stylish, and I wondered what it would be like to be her. Then I thought, even more interesting, what would it be like to be her quirky little sister? Even though I’d lived in L.A. for years, for the first time I was really noticing the flowers in my neighbors’ beautiful gardens. I started looking up the names of the flowers and before I knew it Marigold, Zinnia and Lily had started to come to life in my imagination. 

 Q:  Your previous books – Nantucket Blue and Nantucket Red – were young adult novels. What drew you to middle grade? Were there any particular surprises/challenges in writing for this audience?

 A:  I absolutely love writing for teenagers. However, teenagers tend be more inwardly focused than tweens. After reading a lot of YA, I rediscovered a love for the more outwardly focused middle grade fiction. I loved connecting to a character’s search for meaning in the wider world. I started with Walk Two Moons [by Sharon Creech], moved on to When You Reach Me [by Rebecca Stead], and then I was hooked! Although I wouldn’t say it surprises me, I am continually in awe of how deep and profound middle grade fiction often is.   

 Q:  Your books (at least so far) are all set in New England – Nantucket and now Cape Cod, to be exact. Is this setting particularly meaningful for you?

 A:  I grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, and spent many summer days in small coastal towns in New England. There is something so unique and idyllic about New England in the summertime. Now I live so far from there. The Los Angeles summers are brutally hot and dry and I long for those small town New England moments. Writing about them is a way for me to be there in spirit.

 Q:  Let’s talk about family dynamics. The Forget-Me-Not Summer features three sisters (I was the eldest of three sisters, by the way!). Where were you in the sibling lineup? What prompted you to write about three sisters?

 A:  I grew up with an older brother, Gifford, and a younger sister, Maryhope. (And later in life I was lucky enough to acquire an amazing younger stepsister, Elizabeth.)  While Gifford and I were always relatively harmonious together, my relationship with Maryhope could be a little fraught. I wasn’t always the nicest big sister. As an adult I also know that some of that behavior stemmed from me trying to negotiate my place in the world and forge my own identity. I thought that tension would be rich material for a middle grade novel and a fun and meaningful way to honor the close bond that Maryhope and I now share.

 Q:  Is there an Aunt Sunny in your life?

 A:  I was lucky enough to grow up with my Great Aunt Dot, who lived just down the street from us in Providence. We had tea together every afternoon. Just like Aunt Sunny, she was a science teacher for many years. She was the kindest and wisest person I have ever met. A few summers ago when I was doing research for Nantucket Blue, I connected with an old friend and colleague of hers who lives on the island. She made me laugh as she told me stories about growing up on Nantucket. She also brought memories of Aunt Dot vividly to life. I knew I had to write about a smart, funny and wise great aunt.

 Q:  Favorite books when you were Zinnia and Marigold’s age?

 My favorite book hands down was Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt. I must have read it ten times.

 Q:  What are you reading now?

 A:  The Crossover by Kwame Alexander. One day I’d love to write a novel in verse. I bet it’s a lot harder than it looks.

Q:  Favorite thing about being a writer?

A:  Letters from readers!

Q:  What’s next for you, writing-wise?

A: Readers can look for a sequel to The Forget-Me-Not Summer, which will be out next year. It’s called The Brightest Stars of Summer, featuring the Silver sisters back in Pruet for another season of fun in the sun!

Q:  Anything else we haven’t covered that you’d care to share?

A:  I’m obsessed with the new ice cream store near my house. It’s called Salt & Straw and they have the craziest flavors. My favorite one so far is almond brittle with salted ganache. 

Ooo, Salt & Straw! I know it well — it actually started here in Portland, Oregon. You have to try their Honey Lavender!  Yum…

Thanks so much, Leila, for stepping into the spotlight and visiting with us today! And now, my friends, a giveaway: a copy of The Forget-Me-Not Summer awaits one of you — just leave a comment below, sharing one of your favorite summer memories with us. Winners will be chosen at random at midnight on May 17th. US and Canada only, please. Share this giveaway on your blog or Facebook or Twitter or other social media for additional entries. (And if you tweet or blog or otherwise share on social media, please leave a link in the comments below so I can assign you an extra entry.) 

 

In the Spotlight: Nancy McCabe

As many of you know, I’ve started a new occasional feature on my blog — a series of author interviews called In the Spotlight. I have so many friends who are writing so many amazing, wonderful,  stellar books, books that you simply MUST know about and read, that I decided it’s time I got busy and shared them with all of you!

Stepping into the spotlight today is Nancy McCabe. We’re online friends, thanks to a listserv for people who love Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy books! It’s amazing how books bring people together, isn’t it?

Nancy McCabe
Nancy McCabe

Nancy is a professor of writing and director of the writing program at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, and she also teaches in the MFA program in creative writing at Spalding University. How she manages to fit in time to write on top of her teaching responsibilities is impressive!

Another thing that Nancy and I share, in addition to a love for all things Betsy-Tacy, is a love of literary travel. Some of you may recall hearing about my trip to England in search of Jane Austen (click here to read the article I wrote about it for The Christian Science Monitor). That’s small potatoes compared to what Nancy did, though! She literally criss-crossed North America to visit the settings for a number of her favorite children’s books (many of which happen to be my favorites, too!). The result is her wonderful new book FROM LITTLE HOUSES TO LITTLE WOMEN: REVISITING A LITERARY CHILDHOOD (University of Missouri Press).

book cover

And now it’s time to pull up a chair, pour a cup of tea, and settle in for a visit with Nancy.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration for your book and how it came about?

A: I’ve always loved children’s literature and have taught a few classes in it. In my early forties, when my daughter was young, I started rereading favorite books from my own childhood and talking about them with my friend Sara. During those years, I lost my mother and her last living sister, both of whom had been a huge influence on my childhood reading, and during those years, I started making trips to tourist sites related to my favorite authors.

At first I was just doing most of this for fun, but I kept journals on my reading and my travels and they began to evolve into a book, a travel and reading memoir with literary and cultural criticism blended in. Since I am not a scholar of children’s literature, and in fact didn’t enjoy critical writing when I was in graduate school, I felt a lot of trepidation throughout the process and wasn’t sure if I’d ever finish or publish it. But I found myself getting into many inspiring conversations with others who’d loved the same books, and those nudged me on. I learned a lot in the process, and came to some unexpected insights about the books, and am delighted to be able to share my journey with other passionate readers. And I love it when they contact me to share their own insights and experiences.

Q: Looking back at your travels, can you choose one favorite literary destination? (or maybe two, if it’s not possible to narrow it down—I know how that goes!)

A: This is such a hard question!   I was fascinated by so many places for different reasons. I’d been living on the east coast for several years when I drove across Kansas to the site of the Little House on the Prairie, and I felt a much stronger sense of connection to my native state than I expected. I loved going to the farmhouse in Mansfield, MO, the motherlode of Laura Ingalls Wilder artifacts, and a place I had been to several times during my younger years. Going to Mankato, MN was like rediscovering books I had almost forgotten about, Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy Tacy books. I loved Prince Edward Island and all of the evidence of the pride people in Cavendish and Charlottetown feel there about Lucy Maud Montgomery and Anne of Green Gables. In Concord, MA, I loved learning about all of the connections between writers like Alcott, Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller, and Hawthorne—it is such a rich place, and the Wayside, where several authors had once lived, including Alcott, Hawthorne, and the children’s writer who wrote under the name Margaret Sidney, was inspiring.

I realize this answer is sort of a sneaky way of not narrowing down my answer to just one place—but I have to say that my absolute favorite place was a destination I hadn’t meant to include in the book—the Emily Dickinson house in Amherst, MA. I loved that it was not just historical, but that docents really focused on talking about her work throughout the tour. Being there brought back memories of transitioning into adult literature as I discovered Dickinson when I was young, and connected powerfully to this quirky, suberversive poet. But almost all of the places I visited led to revelations about how books had had a hand in shaping me into who I became and what mattered to me.

Q: What was the hardest part of the project? The easiest?

A: Rereading so many books—more than 100—and reading criticism and doing research were unexpected joys—work, but fun, relatively easy work, bringing back memories and leading to connections and discoveries. And I loved traveling places and then spending time every night writing about them in my journal, so it felt like I got to live everything twice.

The hardest part was that I wasn’t sure for years what the project was, what shape if any it was going to take. So I’d write parts of it, then stall for long periods. I wrote many other things in between working on it, essays and memoir about things that were more in my comfort zone, like about raising an adopted child and traveling with her back to China. But I kept coming back to this project, putting it through a lot of revision and reshaping, because the fun parts kept me motivated.

Q: What was/were the biggest surprises along the way?

A: I learned lots of things I didn’t know about many authors and books, and was repeatedly startled at the way details from the books had remained in my subconscious, influencing things from decorating choices to philosophies, my identity, and even, at times, decisions I had made. I experienced some huge moments of revelation that surprised me, and even some moments that made my head spin a little.

Like when my brother found the deed to our childhood home and discovered that the Osage Indians had sold that land around the same time that the Ingalls family had left Osage territory a little more than a hundred miles away. Or in DeSmet, SD, when it became clear to me why I’d gone through a period of disillusionment with the Little House series as a teenager. Or when I was writing about Little Women, a book I came to love because my mother and aunts loved it, especially an aunt who died of lupus when I was 17.

It was fascinating to me how much Jo had influenced my desire to be a writer, and how much Beth’s beautiful Victorian death shaped my own ideas of death and grief when my aunt was dying. When I discovered that Louisa May Alcott was believed to have had lupus, a theory that came about 25 years after my aunt’s death, I was startled by that connection. My mother and aunts read all of Alcott’s work, and may have read biographies; I will never know if my aunt recognized something familiar in Alcott’s patterns of illness and remission, but it was an idea that intrigued me.

Q: Tell us a bit about taking your daughter along, and sharing these favorite books and destinations with her. Did the experience turn out as you imagined?

A: Some of these books were a hard sell with my Chinese-American daughter, who has been dragged all over the place visiting these sites since she was nine years old—sites where she was almost always the only person who wasn’t white. She enjoyed learning about pioneer life, even if she had to play a lot of pump organs and sit in a lot of covered wagons and admire a lot of Pa fiddle replicas. Though she sometimes complained about long hours in the car, as soon as we arrived home, she said, “Let’s do that again.” That’s part of what motivated me to go with friends to PEI and read aloud to her Anne of Green Gables, which she LOVED, although she found Anne bizarrely sadomasochistic and laughed her head off at her desire for “bosom” friends.

I couldn’t get her to read the Betsy-Tacy books, which may be my all-time favorites. She was busy making her way through Coretta Scott King award winners. She was much more interested in books about people from other cultures—books by Bette Bao Lorde, Gloria Whelan, Pam Munoz Ryan, Sharon Draper, Mildred Taylor, Jacqueline Woodsen, Andrea Cheng, Christina Gonzalez. I read many of these and loved them, too. My daughter’s reading interests reminded me of how important it is to expose children to a variety of literature and backgrounds and cultures.

Going back to an earlier question, I was a bit surprised at how homogenous the books I read really were, all published within a hundred years of each other, the first hundred or so years that children’s literature was really emerging as a category. We are now in an era of amazing and wonderful developments in children’s literature and I hope that my daughter will someday remember the books she read as a child as fondly as I do mine. And I hope that we’ll continue to influence each other’s reading just as my mother and aunts and friends have passed books back and forth throughout our lives.

Q: Do you have a favorite anecdote to share from your travels?

A: We were really hungry and almost out of gas when we reached the highway that was supposed to take us to Walnut Grove, MN—and it was closed. There was no way to backtrack without running out of gas, so I drove down the shoulder of the closed highway for at least ten miles. It was deserted and kind of apocalyptic and actually a little scary, because I was in the middle of nowhere with an empty tank, a dying cell phone, and a sleeping child in the back seat. It helped me to imagine what it was like to be a pioneer, making do with what you had, venturing into the unknown.

Sophie and I also reminisce about the pantyhose people in Burr Oak, IA—life-sized recreations of the Ingalls family made out of old hose, sitting on the furniture in the living room of the Master’s Hotel. Such a strange and creepy but loving tribute made, in the pioneer spirit, with materials at hand.

Burr OakNancy and Sophie visit Burr Oak, Iowa

Q: This isn’t really a question, but I just love this picture of you and your daughter!  It really captures the spirit of the book.

A: Thank you so much for doing this interview, Heather (and I hope you will print this part!). Through my book, I really wanted to explore how the reading we do when young becomes a part of us, lives on in many different ways. I wanted to examine classic books not as dusty, static items, but as things that remain alive and inspiring even in a changing landscape of children’s literature. I admire your Mother-Daughter Book Club series because through great characterizations and stories, it also reminds us of the continuing relevance of classic stories.

Why thank you, Nancy! You and I are kindred spirits for sure. And thanks so much for visiting with me today.

And now readers, I have a copy of FROM LITTLE HOUSES TO LITTLE WOMEN to give away! Just leave a comment below, letting us know what setting from a favorite children’s book you’d travel to if you could.

Winners will be chosen at random at midnight on February 8th. US and Canada only, please. Share this giveaway on your blog or Facebook or Twitter or other social media for additional entries. (And if you tweet or blog or otherwise share on social media, please leave a link in the comments below so I can assign you an extra entry.) 

In the Spotlight: Susan Fletcher

As many of you know, I’ve started a new occasional feature on my blog — a series of author interviews called In the Spotlight. I have so many friends who are writing so many amazing, wonderful,  stellar books, books that you simply MUST know about and read, that I decided it’s time I got busy and shared them with all of you!

Stepping into the spotlight today is my friend Susan Fletcher. Talented, warm, generous with her time and her wisdom, Susan is one of the loveliest people I know. She teaches in the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults program at Vermont College, and all I can say is, her students are incredibly lucky to have her. She’s a gem.

Susan Fletcher
Susan Fletcher

I have to tell you a funny story about Susan. Years ago, when I published my first book, the writing community in Portland, Oregon, where I live–and in particular those who write for young readers–welcomed me so kindly. Susan was one of those who did, and I’ve always been grateful to her for it. I was a fan long before we were friends, so it’s been doubly fun to get to know her over the years since. She’s a member of my Soup & Solidarity group (which you can read about by clicking here), and I also get together regularly with her and with two other writer friends at a coffee shop, where we all work on our individual WIPs (that stands for “work in progress”). And OK, maybe we talk a little, too…

Writing is solitary work. It helps to have friends!

Back to the funny story. So all those years ago, when I first got to know Susan, I was bubbling over to my family at dinner one night about how nice she was, and how kind she’d been to newbie me. My son Ben, who was in about fifth grade at the time, looked at me in awe. “You know Susan Fletcher?” he said, his eyes widening. “I love her books!”

It’s true, he had read and adored her DRAGON CHRONICLES series, and I was a rock star by association! So thank you, Susan, for helping me impress my son!

Pull up a chair as we settle in for a visit, and talk with Susan about writing, her book FALCON IN THE GLASS, which is now available in paperback, and what’s next.

falcon_glass

Renaissance Venice, the art of glassblowing, intrigue, and a hint of fantasy – FALCON IN THE GLASS is such a richly imagined world. Can you tell us a bit about the book’s inception, and how the ideas developed as you shaped the book?

I guess you could say I owe FALCON IN THE GLASS to a nasty cold, but that would be flip, and I would never be flip—you know that, don’t you, Heather? Well, in any case, about twenty years ago I had this cold, and it was bad, and I wrapped myself up in a blanket and turned on the TV, just to give my mind something do to, because it hurt too much to read or think. And there was Venice, Italy on the screen—a video documentary. Honestly, it was just pictures and music, but I forgot all about my cold and became obsessed. Venice!

Well, it wasn’t a throw-it-all-away-and-join-the-circus kind of obsession, but ever since that documentary I wanted to find out whatever I could about Venice. I think it’s partly that it’s so stunningly beautiful, and when you wander through those old streets and canals you can almost imagine that the 21st century has dropped away and you’re living in the Renaissance, except with tourists. It’s partly that Venice is built on an archipelago of a hundred-some natural islands, connected by a network of canals and little bridges. And all of those ancient buildings are supported by wooden pilings driven deep in the mud hundreds of years ago. You don’t find that in, like, Nebraska. And it’s also partly that Venice is, you know, sinking, and you know it’s not going to be around forever. And I think this sort of connects on a deep level to the sinkingness of everything beautiful in life.

Wait! I mean, I don’t want to be maudlin but… Everything beautiful is temporary, yes? And that’s part of what makes it precious. And Venice reminds me of this in a piercing way that has haunted me for years.

Here’s something I found out in all the reading I was doing: During the Renaissance the authorities in Venice imposed fines, banishment or prison sentences on glass artisans who took the secrets of their craft outside of the Venetian lagoon. According to some historians it was even worse than that: If a glassmaker went to another country, professional assassins would seek him out, wherever he was, and kill him.

Yikes.

But wow. The makings of a story, I thought. And why couldn’t I be the one to write it?

In your body of work, you’ve written from both female and male points of view. Can you talk about how you choose the protagonists that you do, and the challenges (if there are any) of writing from a male POV, such as Renzo in FALCON IN THE GLASS?

Each of my first eight novels was told from a girl’s point of view. Well, in ANCIENT, STRANGE, AND LOVELY I sort of branched out and had chapters from the points of view of like a truckload of characters. But even in that book it’s clear who the main character is, and she is a girl.

I mean, this is not difficult to explain, right? I am a woman; I was a girl. This is familiar territory. However, I love historical settings; I tend to have protagonists who travel, get into scrapes, and have adventures. There were times, in a number of my books, when I thought to myself: Realistically, in these historical times, it would be almost impossible for a girl to do this and get away with it. And so in some cases my girl protagonists disguise themselves as boys. At least for a while.

And, you know, readers have noticed that the girl-disguised-as-a-boy thing happens a lot in kid’s books, and it does, but I’ll bet that in some historical eras this was going on all the time. There are documented instances of girls passing themselves off as boys in the Civil War, for instance. I’ll bet this happened throughout history way more than we’ll ever know, either because the girls managed to keep their secrets, or because they were not considered historically important.

In any case, my first thought was that the glassblower would be a girl. But historically, though some girls painted glass vessels, it would have been almost unheard of to have a girl working side by side with men in a Murano glass factory during the Renaissance. So I took a deep breath and decided to inhabit a boy, for once.

I was kind of nervous about this, and it’s probably good that Renzo isn’t an older teenage boy, which might have been more challenging. But in my girl-protagonist novels, there were often absent mothers and substitute mother figures—a number of female characters who helped each protagonist define what kind of woman she wanted to become. And I found the same sort of thing happening with fathers and father figures when I was writing about Renzo. There are three father figures in this book—Renzo’s absent father, the master glassblower who was Renzo’s boss, and the woodworker who comes to court Renzo’s mother. And so I was able to explore three different perspectives about what it is to be a man. I was imagining, yes? But that’s what writers do!

Renzo’s desire to create beauty, and his devotion to learning his craft – to “making” – with its pull toward perfection — I can’t help but see parallels to the writer’s own creative process here. Could you talk about that?

Well, there’s the whole write-what-you-know advice, which I usually totally ignore (except when it comes to girl protagonists). Jane Resh Thomas once advised writers not to “write what you know,” but to “write what haunts you.” I like that much better. I write out of my own sense of what it is to be a human being, but I get these obsessions about different times and places, and I want to go exploring.

However, while noodling around in the early stages of writing FALCON IN THE GLASS it occurred to me that I spend the bulk of my days thinking about, teaching about, writing about, and in the act of attempting to create something original and harmonious—a novel. And I thought it might be interesting to write about creating things—something in my personal experience.

So, part of learning to create things well is just practice—putting in your time, keeping at it, refusing to give up when you make mistakes, which you are going to do a lot. Nowadays, people are calling the willingness to persist like this: grit. And yet there is another aspect to this business of creating things—call it joy, or inspiration, or magic, or whatever. And this part has very little to do with stiffening your spine and pushing past difficulties. So, in Falcon, I tried to evoke that delicate balancing act of grit and magic.

The bird kenners. You’ve returned to them repeatedly over the decades, most recently with Bryn in ANCIENT, STRANGE, AND LOVELY, and now Letta and her flock in FALCON IN THE GLASS. Where did they come from originally? And what draws you to revisit them in your stories?

The bird kenners came out of my Dragon Chronicles series; in those books, people who can speak telepathically with dragons can also “ken” with birds. In the last novel in the series, ANCIENT, STRANGE, AND LOVELY, I brought the bird kenners into an alternate 21st century. I began to wonder what they had been doing in all that time between the medieval world of the earlier books and the near-future of ANCIENT, STRANGE, AND LOVELY. It occurred to me that, because they are different, the bird kenners would likely have been persecuted at one time or another. That’s just what happens historically to people who are perceived as different. Maybe they would have been forced to move from one place to another. Also, there’s a kind of neither-here-nor-thereness to the magic of the bird kenners. I mean, there are horse whisperers in real life; why couldn’t there be, like, bird whisperers, too? One of thing that makes me want to spend time in my imagination with the bird kenners is that I can almost believe they might exist for real.

Let’s talk research! We’re kindred spirits in this department – I know we both love this part of the process. Rumor has it that you have a couple of great stories to share, one involving a dungeon, and another the zoo?

Yeah, I tend to go crazy with research. I went to Iran to research ALPHABET OF DREAMS; I wanted to walk along the Silk Road, the path that my characters would have traveled 2000 years ago. Once there, I found all kinds of things I didn’t even know I was looking for. With FALCON IN THE GLASS I spent days meandering through the streets and alleys of Venice and Murano. I soaked up so much from just being there…but when you’re doing research, not everything works out as well as you might hope.

For instance, I toured the old dungeon in Venice, which is incredibly atmospheric—the ancient stone cells, the echoes, the chill… I loved having experienced the dungeon, and I thought this meant that my research on the dungeon was done. However, after I came home and got deeper into the story, I discovered that the dungeon I had visited wasn’t yet built at the time of my story! Gah! So I was going to have to do book research, after all.

With the generous help of a historian (Patricia Fortini Brown of Princeton) and a librarian (Jim Nolte of Vermont College), I found pictures and descriptions of the earlier prisons, some of which were in “the leads,” chambers just beneath the lead roof of the Doge’s Palace. As it turns out, Casanova, the famous womanizer, escaped from “the leads” in one of his many misadventures. And, lucky for me, he described the entire complex of prisons in great detail when recounting the story in his memoir, The Story of My Life.

And I’m not ready to talk too much about my current project yet, but I will say that a couple of weeks ago, for research, I went “backstage” at the zoo and stood between two polar bears—about a foot from each of them—and watched a 1500-pound critter lip a grape from a keeper’s open palm. Wow!

Anything else you’d like to share with us?  How about tips and encouragement for young writers?

One of the questions I get most often from serious young writers has to do with finishing things. So often kids tell me that they begin a story, and it’s just going along great, but partway through they lose steam, and then the story just seems to shrivel up and die on them.

I have two responses to this question. The first has to do with desire and with trouble. I think that a protagonist who really wants something will keep a story going strong—so long as she doesn’t get what she wants—at least, not until the end of the book. So long as she keeps encountering obstacles and trouble. So sometimes I tell young readers to make sure their hero has some unfulfilled desire, and throw in some more trouble, and see if that doesn’t get the story perking along.

But I also want to say that if you have tried this, and you’re still just stuck… It’s okay to let the story go. You don’t have to feel that you have to finish everything you start, especially if you’re writing just for fun—which you should be doing. It should be fun! But sometimes you outgrow a story, and that’s fine. If you’re still struggling with the same story you started two years ago, try something new. Maybe years later you will return to the story with a new perspective that shows you where to go. I would say that when you’re young, follow your interest and your passion, and don’t worry so much about finishing.

See? Didn’t I tell you all she’s amazing? Thanks so much, Susan, for visiting with us today.  Now everybody go visit her website for more fun facts (click here), then buy her books and READ THEM!

 

 

In the Spotlight: Sara Hoagland Hunter

As many of you know, I’ve started a new occasional feature on my blog — a series of author interviews called In the Spotlight. I have so many friends who are writing so many amazing, wonderful,  stellar books, books that you simply MUST know about and read, that I decided it’s time I got busy and shared them with all of you!

Stepping into the spotlight today is my friend Sara Hoagland Hunter. Sara and I go way back — back to when she was a student at Dartmouth College and I was a student at nearby Hanover High School. I looked up to and admired Sara so much back then — and I still do!

Closeup
Sara Hoagland Hunter

She’s had an amazing career as an award-winning writer, journalist, documentary filmmaker, educator, radio producer, lyricist — the list goes on. Is there anything Sara can’t do? I don’t think so!

Sara has written ten books for young readers, including THE LIGHTHOUSE SANTA and THE UNBREAKABLE CODE, about the Navajo code talkers of World War II. Her latest book is EVERY TURTLE COUNTS, an illustrated story based on the international rescue effort to save earth’s most endangered sea turtles, a species called Kemp’s ridleys.

ETC Cover for Susan

Click here to watch the trailer, then pull up a chair as we settle in for a visit with Sara.

Tell us a bit about how this book came to be — what was the inspiration behind it?

I first heard the story of the Cape Cod sea turtle rescues more than a decade ago from Bob Prescott, the director of the Audubon sanctuary who had discovered the phenomenon.  He first identified a stranded Kemp’s ridley sea turtle on the north side of the Cape about 15 years ago and was surprised since these turtles are born on just one beach in Rancho Nuevo, Mexico. At that time, there were only about 400 remaining Kemp’s ridleys in the world.

I followed up with him, shooting a documentary for a cable network called Outdoor Life.  I traced the Kemp’s ridley rescue and rehabilitation process from when the frozen turtles wash up on the beach between Thanksgiving and Christmas each year, through the rehab at the New England Aquarium, and later release in Florida and warmer waters.  No one yet knows why the two and three year old juveniles wander up as far as the Cape to munch on shellfish in the rich waters of Cape Cod Bay.  They used to stay further south, around Chesapeake Bay and sometimes Long Island. When the water temp. begins to drop in the fall,  the juveniles seem to get turned around in their natural migration pattern. They can’t figure out that they need to go north and get around Provincetown and the hook of Cape Cod before they can go south to get to Florida and warmer waters.

Between Thanksgiving weekend and Christmas, up to 200 “cold-stunned” sea turtles (mostly Kemp’s ridleys but some loggerheads, green turtles, and leatherbacks) wash in on the waves.  An army of volunteers of all ages now strolls the beach between Sandwich and Truro looking for these creatures so they can be picked up by Audubon, slowly thawed, and brought to aquariums for rehab.  The rescue record is impressive.  I knew I wanted to tell the story, since unsung heroes are my passion (THE UNBREAKABLE CODE was about the Navajo Code Talkers of WWII;  THE LIGHTHOUSE SANTA was about Edward Rowe Snow, who dropped presents to lighthouse children).

When it came to overlaying story over research, I began to think what child I wanted to rescue this particular Kemp’s ridley.  Immediately, I thought of my niece, Mimi, and her love of animals.  She is a tender-heart with a joyous, childlike thought. She is also diagnosed on the autism spectrum and has been a gift to our family.  I modeled the character on Mimi as a seven-year-old and Mimi was pleased that I would use her real name. The illustrator used photos of Mimi as a seven-year-old to help inform her art. Mimi is now 24 and has enjoyed joining me for many stops on my book tour.

Have you witnessed the turtle stranding yourself?  I’d love to hear about any research you did for the book.
I did accompany a camera crew and a rescuer on a turtle rescue and have footage of it that I show at my book talks.  Mimi and I will hike the beach again this Thanksgiving to see if we can spot one.

I love the way the book ends, with a glimpse of “future Mimi” — what are your hopes for this book, and the impact it will make on readers?
Great question. This book is an extremely hopeful one. The range of abilities and challenges of those diagnosed on the autism spectrum is huge. I actually believe that in future years, individuals will be labeled with more specific labels. The Mimi story is not every autistic child’s story. My model was Temple Grandin, who endorsed the book, and who has had a well known career as an animal scientist.

With the number of those diagnosed on the spectrum now reported as 1 in 68, there is a growing need and urgent opportunity to incorporate those with autism into our communities, helping them stretch to realize their full potential, and providing the  24/7 supervision needed for them to attain their goals. Our country has done a fantastic job providing educational opportunity through the age of 21.  As soon as someone with special needs turns 22, however, that funding disappears, and all of the investment up to that point is at risk, as families scramble to figure out babysitters, scant job programs, and unattainably expensive housing situations.

My current goal is to get the word out about finding meaningful activity for this tidal wave of young adults.  I’ve learned more from Mimi’s pure thought than from anyone I know — both about life and Love.  The day to day challenge of caring for a 24-year-old who cannot live alone is daunting.  The assembly line work offered Mimi in her state day program is not the right sense of fulfillment yet.  All of us need to be working on this.  That’s one reason I’ve enjoyed taking Mimi on tour. She loves being on stage!

Who wouldn’t love being on stage with YOU, Sara!  I love knowing more about this wonderful book, and wish you all the best with it. Thanks so much for joining us here today. Now everybody go visit Sara’s website for more fun facts (click here), then buy her book and READ IT!

To read earlier In the Spotlight interviews with Chris Kurtz, click here, and with Susan Hill Long, click here.

In the Spotlight: Susan Hill Long

As many of you know, I’ve started a new occasional feature on my blog — a series of author interviews called In the Spotlight. I have so many friends who are writing so many amazing, wonderful,  stellar books, books that you simply MUST know about and read, that I decided it’s time I got busy and shared them with all of you!

Stepping into the spotlight today is my friend Susan Hill Long. Sue is a dazzlingly talented writer and editor, the mother of two fabulous girls, an avid runner and cross-country skiier and hiker, a fellow bookworm, and also a fellow New Englander! I’m just crazy about her new book, a middle-grade novel called WHISTLE IN THE DARK. It’s already getting rave reviews, with The Christian Science Monitor calling it “wonderful” and “beautifully crafted historical fiction,” and Booklist noting that “as engaging historical fiction does best, this debut novel … vividly brings to light a period in time where values prove timeless.”

Whistle-jkt-legal

I have always been an avid fan of historical fiction. I just LOVE the way richly imagined books like Sue’s can transport me to another time and place and breathe life into history–in this case, a small Missouri lead mining town in the 1920s where 13-year-old Clem, who loves books and stories and words, has to go “down the deep dark” of the mine in order to help his family. There’s a great deal more to the story, of course, but I don’t want to give too much away. I want you to READ it!

I also love books whose characters walk right off the page and into your heart, and WHISTLE IN THE DARK is that kind of book. No wonder an excerpt from the novel won a prize even before it was published! It’s that stunning!

Pull up a chair as we settle in for a visit with Sue, and ask her about writing, her book, and what’s next.

1. Tell us a bit about how you came to be a writer, and how you came to write WHISTLE IN THE DARK.

I was first published at age 5, on my dad’s silk-screen press, which he set up on the ping-pong table in the basement. A career was born!

Not really. I worked as an editor for a while, and began to write for a living after that. I found I much preferred being on the author side of the desk than the editor’s. Of course, to be a writer, a person must learn to edit, to revise.

Susan Hill Long

2. I love Clem! He is just such a REAL boy.  And Grampy, and Old Saw, and Lindy–all of them–they’re just so solid and real. As a writer, how do you develop characters?

Thank you, Heather! I’m so glad you love Clem and his family, friends, and foils. I love them, too, and still think about them sometimes. If they seem real to you, that must be why. (I once heard Sara Pennypacker say she wouldn’t begin writing a book till she would take a bullet for her character.)

3. The book was inspired by a historic event. Can you tell us about that, and also about your research?  What were some of the most interesting things you discovered in the process?

The Great Tri-State Tornado was indeed a real event. It happened in 1925. I read two excellent books in particular about the storm, and also corresponded with a fellow who was kind enough to share his own family’s personal story from that terrible day. Most interesting to me was the way people cope with catastrophe, how they move on, because they must. People tend toward what’s good; they make some good come from bad.

4. Have you ever been down in a mine or in a cave? If you have, how did that experience inform your descriptions here, which make the reader feel like they’re standing side by side with Clem. If you haven’t, is it something you’d like to do?

I have been in a cave, and I don’t even want to talk about it!

5. An excerpt from this book won the Katherine Paterson Prize from Hunger Mountain.  Tell us about that honor, and how it made a difference.

Oh, it certainly was an honor, Heather. When I got the news, I ran down the stairs and out the door and down the sidewalk. I hardly knew what to do with my happiness and surprise. The difference the Katherine Paterson Prize made was both measurable — it encouraged me to complete the manuscript, an agent contacted me through Hunger Mountain, and eventually a book was bound — and immeasurable — the confidence it gave me to keep going, the possession of a secret message I could whisper to myself whenever I needed it. (Psst. Remember that time Katherine Paterson thought your writing was pretty good? Squee!)

6. Are there particular writers who have inspired or influenced you?  Favorite books?

When I was a child, I loved all books by Joan AikenBlack Hearts in Battersea, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase — just typing the titles gives me chills! I read The Chronicles of Narnia countless times, and I had two old George MacDonald books that had belonged to my grandfather — The Princess and Curdie and The Princess and the Goblins. Magical.

When I learned that Elizabeth George Speare had died, I burst into tears. I’m not sure why, but I think I felt such a personal connection to her books, and my memory of reading them is still so strong — I lived in Old Wethersfield, Connecticut, till I was 9 years old, and so The Witch of Blackbird Pond was “my” book, because it was set right there in my own town. I loved Kit. I loved my own outrage, reading about Kit’s plight. (She’s not a witch, you’re the witch, you old Goodwife Cruff!)  I’m going to go and read it again right after I finish typing here.

7. Do you have any writing rituals? 

I go for a run to start the day, and when I sit down at my desk I glance at this message: “keep calm and carry on,” which happens to be printed on a very large eraser — important reminder for a writer.

8. What can we look forward to next from you?

I’m working on another novel for middle-grade readers. All I can tell you for now is that I love my characters.

Thanks so much, Sue, for visiting with us today.  Now everybody go visit her website for more fun facts (click here), then buy her book and READ IT!

To read an earlier In the Spotlight interview with Chris Kurtz, click here.

 

In the Spotlight: Chris Kurtz

Today I’m starting a new occasional feature on my blog — a series of author interviews called In the Spotlight. I have so many friends who are writing so many amazing, wonderful, stellar books, books that you simply MUST know about and read, that I decided it’s time I got busy and shared them with all of you!

A born storyteller, Chris Kurtz is also a musician and a third grade teacher (lucky third graders, is all I can say). He’s stepping into the spotlight today to tell us about his book THE ADVENTURES OF A SOUTH POLE PIG.  It has a wee subtitle, too — A NOVEL OF SNOW AND COURAGE — which I just adore.  In fact, I adore everything about this book. It’s exactly what I would have wanted to read when I was in elementary school, or have read to me when I was a bit younger. A funny, heart-warming adventure starring a plucky pig named Flora, who dreams of leaving the farmyard behind and becoming a sled pig in Antarctica! Now I ask you, what’s not to love about that?

ADVENTURES OF A SOUTH POLE PIG
I bought multiple copies. One for me, one for my wee niece, and one to have on hand to give as a spontaneous present. Because there’s nothing better than being able to give a spontaneous present, right?

Here’s what some reviewers had to say about the story.  First, from Kirkus:  “Out of the way, Wilbur and Babe: Your cousin Flora has ‘adventurous hooves’!” Booklist notes: “There’s humor as well as heart, grit as well as tenderness in the telling of this Antarctic adventure tale.” Horn Book calls it “a rollicking story” and gave it a star.  I call it BRILLIANT, and give it my highest recommendation.

Pull up a chair as we settle in for a visit with Chris, and ask him about writing, his book, and what’s next.

1.  Tell us a bit about how you came to be a writer, and how you came to write “The Adventures of a South Pole Pig.”

I’m a writer because my sister encouraged me.  [Editor’s note — Chris’s sister is Jane Kurtz, who is also a friend of mine, and who I also hope will be In the Spotlight soon.] She said she thought I was good at telling stories in my letters home while I was living in another country.  My daughter has a cat that is completely white and pretty overweight.  That cat made me think about an animal that might live in the South Pole and have an adventure, and I think pigs are cute.  But in the end I put in a couple of cats in my story, too.

Chris with Kalino the cat
Chris with Kalino the cat

2.  Flora is SUCH an engaging character — I love her spunk. Did she come to you in a flash, or gradually?  I’d love to hear a bit about how you developed her character.

I came upon Flora’s character by thinking about myself.  I’ve made lots and lots of mistakes in my life and I’ve done a lot of dumb things because I thought I was smarter than I really was. So I made Flora get into the same kind of trouble as me.

3.  Are there particular writers who have inspired or influenced you?  Favorite books?

I love learning about other authors.  My favorite author is Kate DiCamillo.  But I was a big reader when I was a kid and I loved dog stories and survival stories.  I still love those kinds of stories. My favorite book when I was a kid was called DESERT DOG by Jim Kjelgaard.  I didn’t know how to pronounce his name until I was an adult.  It’s pronounced keel-guard.

4.  How does teaching influence your writing — or does it? Is there cross-pollination between the two?

I teach writing in a real way.  I know that writers get stuck.  I know that writers have to have no one talking to them when they are trying to write.  I know that writers need thinking time.  And I know that writers need lots and lots and LOTS of encouragement.  So these are some of the things I make sure to give my third grade students.

5.  What can we look forward to next from you?

I’m working on another animal book.  I really like my main character and I hope that my editor likes him too so that I get to have another book out there.  But I know that there are no promises and no sure things in the world of books.

6.  If you were to travel to the South Pole, what one item would you absolutely positively not leave home without?

If I traveled to the South Pole I would be sure to take really, really warm boots.  I hate having cold feet.  But please don’t think that I would ONLY take my boots.  I wouldn’t want arrive in the South Pole without my pants!

Thanks so much, Chris, for visiting with us today.  And for the laugh! Now everybody go visit his website for more fun facts (click here), then buy his book and READ IT!