Interview: Kirsten Hubbard

I read Wanderlove by Kirsten Hubbard (Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc. 2012) (my review) and fell in love, with the book, the writing, the characters, and travelling. I’ve always like going places, but Wanderlove just reinvigorated that love, as well as reminding me to open my eyes to the pleasures and wonders around me.  

I was happy to learn that Kirsten would be happy to answer a few questions!

So, here, an interview with the author of one of my Favorite Books of 2012:

Liz B: What was your inspiration for Wanderlove?

Kirsten: I wanted to write this epic backpacking book, featuring some of my favorite places. That’s really about it. I’d already written the first version of Like Mandarin, and shelved it; I’d traveled once through Central America, and was heading back again with two of my best friends. I fell for the backpacking lifestyle hard, and couldn’t believe there wasn’t much out there in the way of YA books that featured it. So I decided to write one myself.

Liz B: I know from your blog you’re a backpacker; was there a particular moment or trip when you realized you were “traveler” and no longer a “tourist”?

Kirsten: I love this question. I wish I had a great answer for it. Maybe when we decided to go to Guatemala on a whim. It was my first backpacking trip at age 20: six weeks in Central America with my then-boyfriend/now-husband. I’d planned out the whole trip in advance, with only minor flexibility.

But on the boat to Belize, we met a Swedish guy who’d been traveling from Colombia up the Central America isthmus. He told us his all-time favorite destination was Guatemala – specifically, a place called Lake Atitlan – and couldn’t believe we weren’t going there. We realized we had a few extra days, and decided, why not? It turned out to be one of our favorite places, too. I still think many of the most serendipitous travel tips come from strangers in passing.

Liz B: What three must-haves does a backpacker need to have with them? What three things do people think they need, but really don’t?

Kirsten: Everybody needs several pairs of earplugs, because you never know when there will be roosters. A blank sketchbook or journal; because even if you don’t draw or write, there will be things you want to jot down. And a daypack, or smaller backpack, for hiking, day trips, and keeping important stuff close when your main backpack is riding on top of a chicken bus.

As for what travelers don’t need: I usually recommend travelers bring an underclothes moneybelt, and I often do, but I haven’t really used the thing in years. Nowadays, Traveler’s Checks are pretty much obsolete. Lastly, I despise those synthetic chamois travel towels. They’re just silly, as are a lot of the bells and whistles travel stores try to sell you.

Liz B: What is your favorite location in Wanderlove?

Kirsten: It’s a toss-up between Lake Atitlan and Laughingbird Caye. The latter is based on a real-life island called Caye Caulker, which is where I married my husband a few years ago.

Liz B: And was there a place you love that you wished you could have included but had to leave out?

Kirsten: To be honest, Bria’s journey didn’t really vary from my original plan for her. In the first version of Wanderlove, she hiked a Guatemalan volcano, which is where she first saw Rowan and Starling. That’s about it. However, there are so many other destinations in Central America I would love to write about. Sharing places I adore with readers – and having them fall in love too (and start Googling airfares!) – has been both magical and humbling.

Liz B: Thanks so much!

Photo of author from author. In Central America, of course!

Interview with Alyssa B. Sheinmel for the Summer Blog Blast Tour

Welcome to day 5 of the 2011 Summer Blog Blast Tour!

Today we have Alyssa B. Sheinmel, author of two of my favorite books, The Lucky Kind (Knopf, 2011) and The Beautiful Between (Knopf, 2010).

From my review of The Lucky Kind: “Nick Brandt, 16, doesn’t know that answering the phone will shake up his world. A strange man asks for “Sheffman Brandt,” knowing Nick’s father’s name but not knowing he goes by Rob, his middle name. A stranger, whose call upsets the tight, close world of Nick and his parents. The man calling is Sam Roth. As Rob Brandt later explains to Nick, thirty years ago Rob had a son who was given up for adoption. Sam is that child. His father had a child, a child given up for adoption, and Nick never knew. His parents never told him.”

Liz B: I adored The Lucky Kind!  I loved Nick and his family, and could easily see how and why both Stevie and Eden are attracted to how stable and typical they appear.  What inspired The Lucky Kind?

Sheinmel: Well, first of all, thank you!  The idea for The Lucky Kind came to me when I found myself giving adoption thought in a way I never had before.  Up until a few years ago, I’d gone most of my life without being personally touched by adoption (as far as I know). Seemingly all at once, I became close with several people who’d been adopted, and a dear friend confided to having given up a child for adoption. Adoption became something I couldn’t stop thinking about, and I knew it was only a matter of time before it became something I would write about.

Nick’s father gave a child up for adoption, and that impacts his current family. What research do you do about adoption and adoptees and birth families?

After I learned about my friends’ experiences on both sides of adoption, I began to think about it a lot. Two of the adopted adults that I’d met had no interest in finding their birth parents. I wondered how I would feel, had I been adopted; I honestly don’t know.  I can imagine feeling both ways about it: wanting to know from where I came; wanting to know if I looked like my birth parents; wanting to develop a relationship with the people who gave me the life I came to have. And yet, I can also imagine the opposite feeling: not wanting to meet the people who didn’t want me; not wanting to hurt the feelings of my adoptive parents by somehow suggesting that I needed something more than they could give me.

Around that same time, I read an unforgettable book called The Girls Who Went Away, about women who’d been essentially forced to give up their children for adoption in the years before the Roe vs. Wade decision. The book spoke to the long-term effects that giving up these babies had had on the women who bore them, and on their families, years later. It was heartbreaking and deeply moving; I couldn’t put the book down. But I was also struck by the fact that mostly the birth mothers’ stories were told. The biological fathers were barely mentioned. I began to wonder about the effects that giving up children for adoption had on fathers; surely some of these fathers were every bit as deeply touched by the experience as the mothers had been.

And I thought, most of all, about my friend who’d given up a child for adoption. My thoughts were often not about the baby who had been given up, but about the family my friend was going to go on to have someday. I couldn’t stop thinking about that future family—that spouse, those children—and the impact that an adoption that had taken place so many years earlier might have on that future family. I couldn’t get that idea out of my head, and that’s where the story for The Lucky Kind began.

Liz B: When rereading The Lucky Kind, I was impressed with the structure.  While the book takes place in the months after Sam Roth’s phone call, you also showed the reader what Nick’s family was like before so that the reader could appreciate the small but significant changes that went on in Nick’s world as he dealt with his new world view.  I’m curious, especially because of the layers within it, whether your writing style is one of outlining or plunging forward?

Sheinmel: Somewhere in between.  I don’t outline, but I make a lot of notes both before I begin and as I write the story.  I usually have a pretty good sense of where my story is going to go, and how it’s going to get there.  (At least, I think I do.  Occasionally, a story can take on a life of its own!)  I did, at one point, put The Lucky Kind aside to try to write something else; but I kept coming back to Nick and his family. 

Liz B: As with The Beautiful Between, I adored the writing and descriptions. As you can tell by my outline question, I’m fascinated by how writers work and what goes into their craft. How would you describe your process? Are you an early morning writer, late at night, or weekends?

Sheinmel: Well, thank you again!  Because I have a day job, writing for me is mostly an evenings and weekends activity. I’m much, much more of a morning person than an evening person, so my most productive writing time is probably Saturday and Sunday mornings.    And, I actually come up with a lot of story ideas, and with a lot of phrases and plot points, when I’m on the subway to and from my day job.  I’m constantly making frantic notes in between stops.

My writing process is definitely still a work-in-progress in and of itself.  So far, I’ve written each of my books a little differently than the last.  I’d like to think that my process won’t ever stop developing; I hope that I learn something more about how to write every time I put pencil to page (or fingers to keyboard, as the case may be!).

Liz B: Any special music?

Sheinmel: Nope.  I can’t listen to music while I write; I get much too distracted.  I like to have my narrator’s voice in my head when I write, even when I’m writing in the third person.  With music on, I end up with the musician’s voice in my head. 

Liz B: Was The Lucky Kind always the title?

Yes, although I didn’t know it until I was about halfway through my first draft.  But as soon as that phrase popped up in the dialogue between Eden and Stevie and Nick, I knew I’d found my title.

Liz B: Both The Lucky Kind and The Beautiful Between share a New York City setting. When I began reading The Lucky Kind, I wondered if Nick and Eden went to the same school as Connolly and Jeremy (from The Beautiful Between) but then saw that they don’t, so I wondered if maybe they went to the same parties. New York City is almost another character, but not the rich, privileged, trendy, version of New York that appears in shows like Gossip Girl.  Why New York City?

Sheinmel: I’m a big fan of writing what you know—or at least, writing some of what you know – so I always try to ground my stories in real details.  For me, that meant placing The Lucky Kind in New York City.  That’s where I went to high school, and those are the restaurants and movie theaters that I grew up going to, the subway I grew up taking, the streets I walked with my friends.  That’s not to say I’d never write a book that takes place anywhere else.  (I hope that I will!)  But New York seemed like the natural setting for this story.

And, I’ve definitely thought that even though Nick and Connelly don’t go to the same schools, they bump into each other at inter-school parties and events from time to time!  I like to think that they might know each other, at least as vague acquaintances.

Liz B: What are you working on now?

Sheinmel: I’m a little superstitious about talking what I’m working on.  When I began writing, I wouldn’t even admit that I was working on anything at all!  (My husband used to see me working at the computer, and I’d insist I was just shopping online.)  Now, I’ll admit when I’m writing—but I still don’t like to talk about any new project until it’s really taken shape.

Liz B: What is your next book?

Sheinmel: Thank you for asking!  My third book is called The Stone Girl, and it’s publishing in August 2012.  It’s a bit different from my previous books – it’s in the third person, which is a first for me, and it’s a bit darker than either The Beautiful Between or The Lucky Kind.  It’s about a very troubled girl named Sethie, a character I loved so much that I wanted to protect her, even as I created and wrote the difficult things she experiences over the course of the novel.  The Stone Girl means so much to me, and I can’t wait to hear what readers will have to say about it.

Liz B: Thank you!

Remember, Chasing Ray has links for the other interviews in today’s Summer Blog Blast Tour

Genevieve Valentine at Shaken & Stirred
Stacy Whitman at The Happy Nappy Bookseller
Matthew Cody and Aaron Starmer at Mother Reader

Interview with Micol Ostow for the Summer Blog Blast Tour

Welcome to the Summer Blog Blast Tour!

Today’s interview: Micol Ostow, author of family (Egmont USA, 2011). Ostow is the author of numerous books, including Emily Goldberg Learns to Salsa (Razorbill, 2006) and So Punk Rock: And Other Ways to Disappoint Your Mother (Flux, 2009).

From my review of family: “Melinda Jensen is seventeen, lost and broken, looking to be healed. She goes to San Francisco where she is found and made whole by Henry. He is her answer, her salvation, a promise. He brings her into his family, a family of people whose bonds are created not by blood but by wanting to be together. What is more beautiful, what is more healing, what is more hopeful than that? But blood will come. Because Henry is both more and less than what Mel wants and needs. Eventually she will realize that Henry is broken, that Henry is not giving but taking. What she sees as beauty and healing is a lie. By that time, though, there will be blood and it may be too late.” family is loosely based on the Manson Family murders.

Liz B: family is told in a unique style –episodic verse, as broken as Mel, and jumps around in time, as Mel tries to figure out how she got to a place of blood and screaming. The style is as important and telling as any plot point or character. Why episodic verse? Was this always your choice for Mel’s voice?

Ostow: Mel’s voice came to me long before the nuances of her story did, so yes, I would say the choice was intrinsic. With most of my previous novels, I conceived of a premise first and foremost, and voice tended to follow when I set about writing. This story, however, was borne of a writing exercise I was given during the final semester of my MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. The first piece of the novel that I wrote was the vignette entitled “undertow,” which at the time was a standalone short story. After that, I wrote a short story from a young “Henry’s” point of view, and only then did it become clear to me how Mel and Henry’s stories would intersect. At that point, I sat down to try and attempt a long-form narrative (though I still wasn’t certain that this concept would lead to, or sustain, a complete novel). I would say that certainly in those early days, Mel’s voice was perhaps the *only* aspect of the story that was clear to me! When I wrote, I literally heard her speaking to me. It was almost in like transcription in that way.

Liz B: What, artistically and creatively, went into creating a non linear story like family?

Ostow: Well, as I say above, I wasn’t completely sure what the story arc for “family” would be, only that I was interested in exploring how someone “normal” might find herself caught up in a dangerous cult like the Manson family. So really, I was just feeling my way through the story as I went. I started at the end of the novel mainly because that was the one plot point I had a distinct impression of — that Mel, a reinterpretation of Linda Kasabian, would find herself on the cusp of unspeakable violence, trying to decide what to do or how to proceed. Then I began to work backwards to determine how she’d arrived at that point.

Obviously since the story isn’t linear, I wasn’t writing linearly, but I will say that almost all of the vignettes that appear in the book appear in the same order in which they were written, and in which they were first arranged. Once I had my first draft down, I edited out a few segments and wrote new segments in for clarification, and to help flesh out certain plot elements and characters. But I think, when writing, I jumped around in time as I needed to as an author, to allow the story to reveal itself, and fortunately, that seemed to work for my early readers (meaning, my agent and editor), as well.

Liz B: Readers who are familiar with the Manson Family murders will see some similarities in family, but Henry could be about any destructive guru. What research did you do?

Ostow: I didn’t do very much formal research, mainly because the book stemmed from my own innate fascination with the Manson story; by the time I sat down to write, I’d already read quite a bit about Charles Manson out of sheer curiosity and seen several versions of the Helter Skelter movie. I read Helter Skelter again when I realized that I was going to go further with the novel, and a few other biographies of Charles Manson and the Manson Family, and also watched a few documentaries. Wikipedia, though not the most reliable source, was also very helpful for urban legends and anecdotes about Manson that helped me fight through bouts of writers’ block (in particular, the story about how his mother once traded him for a pitcher of beer is an unconfirmed rumor that made its way into the book, as colorful and unbelievable as it is).

All in all, I probably did as much research as anyone would do for a project based on a true story, but again, the “research” was purely recreational and brought me to the project, rather than the other way around.

Liz B: How did family change during the revision and editing process? It was emotionally draining to read Mel’s story. My heart still breaks for her, I still want to save her. But that was just from reading it! You lived with Mel for months and months. What did you do to disconnect  from the darkness of family when you weren’t working on family? When you returned to writing or editing family, was there anything you did to get back into Mel’s head?

Ostow: I mostly did my writing first thing in the morning, so that once I was done, I could leave the house and go to the gym to pound all of the darkness out — running was a particularly good antidote to writing “family.” And I wrote slowly — maybe one or two vignettes a day — because, as you say, it was very draining. I did read a lot of dark fiction to help keep me “sharp” for writing, but when I wasn’t reading or writing, I was seeing friends, practicing yoga, watching sitcoms…all of the things we do to normalize and clear our heads. If I wrote at night, then I generally needed to spend at least an hour binging on “Office” DVDs before bedtime.

I also developed stricter and different writing routines, in that I wrote almost exclusively in the little office nook I have carved out in my bedroom, or at a particular local cafe. Having a designated “family” writing spot also helped me to compartmentalize all of the emotions that went along with writing that story.

Going back wasn’t necessarily pleasant, but it was easy to do! One read-through and I was immersed again. And reading the dark fiction and watching dramas, thrillers, and horror movies kept me in that mind frame. The good news is that I’m one of those weirdos who watches horror movies to relax.

Liz B: What are some of the books you read as a teen?

Ostow: My number one favorite author when I was teen was Stephen King — no surprise there. I think the only surprise (to me, at least) is how long it took me to write something creepy myself! I also loved Margaret Atwood‘s The Handmaid’s Tale. I guess I was on to the dystopian trend a decade or so in advance!

Liz B: What are some of the books you are reading now?

Ostow: I’m back on a dark kick (though to be fair, I never *really* go off of the dark novels): last week I read Stephen King’s Full Dark, No Stars, and Adele Griffin’s Tighter, which is a modern-day Turn of the Screw. I also went back to Shirley Jackson earlier in the year: We Have Always Lived in the Castle, The Haunting of Hill House. And my big BEA coup was Marianna Baer’s Frost. So good.

Liz B: I have Full Dark, No Stars on my shelf, waiting to be read; and now I have to get Frost! What are you working on now?

Ostow: My next book with Egmont is due in November, and my first baby (!) is due in December, so I’m plugging away on that (the writing, not the pregnancy. The pregnancy is fairly passive though no less consuming). It’s a ghost story that, like “family,” alternates in time. Unlike “family,” it has multiple point of view characters (for now — ask me again in a month!), neither of whom speak in verse. So, similar in tone, but nonetheless, a departure. I’m excited!

Liz B: Congratulations on the baby! And I’m looking forward to your next book. 

Thank you!

Check out Chasing Ray for links to the rest of today’s interviews: 

Tessa Gratton at Writing & Ruminating
Maria Padian at Bildungsroman
Genevieve Cote at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast

Interview: Dana Reinhardt

Welcome Dana Reinhardt, author of the The Things a Brother Knows (my review), the Winner of the Sydney Taylor Award for Teen Readers!

Dana is here as part of the Sydney Taylor Award Blog Tour, arranged by the Association of Jewish Librarians. A full schedule of the week-long tour is at AJL’s blog, People of the Books.

Liz B:  What does getting the Sydney Taylor Award mean to you?

Dana: My first book, A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life was a Sydney Taylor honor book, and thrilling as that was, I have to confess, with some degree of embarrassment, that I’d never heard of Sydney Taylor. I’m not really sure how this happened… I was a real reader as a kid, and her books are just the kinds of stories I’d have loved. But now, five years later, all of that has changed. My oldest daughter is eight, and I recently watched her burn her way through the entire All of a Kind Family series, so this time around, winning The Sydney Taylor Award is particularly meaningful to me. For one thing, as was the case last time, the quality of all the nominated books is staggering and I’m so flattered to have won, and for another, my daughter thinks I’m cool.

Liz B: After reading The Things a Brother Knows, two things in particular stay with the reader. First, the family and friends of Levi Katznelson are amazing. I want to go his house for Friday dinner. Second, there are no easy answers, but much to think about, when it comes to sending young people to fight wars. What inspired this story? In creating such a complex world, were you a “plunger” or “plotter”?

Dana: For better or worse, I’m a plunger. This does tend to get me into trouble when I reach a certain point in my writing, as I inevitably do, where I have no idea where the story is going next. I start with characters. I begin at the beginning. I usually have some sense of where they’re going, and often I find out later that it’s somewhere I didn’t imagine.

With this book I started with listening to the radio and hearing the voices of the mothers of returning soldiers telling the stories of their changed and damaged sons, and I started to wonder about the other son, the brother who didn’t go. What has his life been like the last few years? What will it be like now that his brother is back? This is where I found Levi and the rest of the Katznelsons. They’d love to have you over for Friday night dinner, by the way.

Liz B: Boaz returns home after serving in combat. What type of research did you do about Marines, combat, and homecoming experiences?

Dana: In addition to listening to a ton of radio stories and reading the newspaper, I watched documentaries and news reports. It would be difficult to have lived in our country for the last decade and not come up against these stories about the personal cost of fighting in a war. I read many memoirs and war novels like The Things They Carried (my title is a not so veiled tribute to that amazing book), If I Die in a Combat Zone Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (wow, what a title) both by Tim O’Brien, A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo, Jarhead by Anthony Swofford, Catch 22 by Joseph Heller, and Blood Brothers: Among the Soldiers of Ward 57 by Michael Weisskopf, to name only a few.

Ultimately, this is Levi’s story because what happened while Boaz was at war is a mystery to him– all he knows about is what it’s like to see his brother come home again—and for that sort of research I just placed myself in the role of bewildered younger sibling, which wasn’t too much of a stretch for me.

Liz B: Two brothers take a road trip… but without the car! Not only does the trip provide a way to get from “here” to “there,” it helps the two brothers to start to connect. Was “Boaz won’t get in a car” always part of the plot and Boaz’s character? Have you ever done any hiking like Boaz and Levi?

Dana: Originally the book opened up with some lines about how Bo wouldn’t get in a car or on a bus or a train or a plane (that sounds a little Seussian—not on a train, not on a plane—but that wasn’t how it read), so yes, that was very much an idea from the early beginnings of this book. I didn’t know why, exactly. It was one of the mysteries I had to untangle, but such is the plight of the plunger.

And no, I haven’t done any kind of long hike like the brothers, but I do try to take a long walk most days. It’s good exercise, but it’s also good for thinking and plotting and figuring out endings that still are shrouded in mystery.

Liz B: What are you working on now?

Dana: I have a book coming out in July called THE SUMMER I LEARNED TO FLY. It’s about a girl who hangs out at her mom’s cheese store and the boy who collects the day-old bread from the alley, and what happens when they find each other. It’s about taking risks, embracing life and searching for miracles. I’m really, really excited about it.

Liz B: I can’t wait to read it!

Thanks so much!

Liz B at YA Librarian Tales

I had the privilege of being interviewed by Sarah at YA Librarian Tales for her “Life Behind the Reference Desk” series.

If you want to learn more about my day job — being a children’s / teen services librarian at a regional library for the blind and physically handicapped — go over to YA Librarian Tales and learn more than you ever wanted to know.

Thanks to Sarah for interviewing me, and stay tuned to YA Librarian Tales as Sarah adds more interviews to her Life Behind the Reference Desk series.

Interview: Sofia Quintero

Welcome to the 2010 Winter Blog Blast Tour!

Sofia Quintero is the author of Efrain’s Secret (Random House, 2010). Quintero’s works for adult include Divas Don’t Yield (One World/Ballantine, 2006) and stories in the collections Friday Night Chicas (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2005) and Names I Call My Sister (Avon, 2007). Writing as Black Artemis, she has written Explicit Content (NAL Trade, 2004), Picture Me Rollin’ (NAL Trade, 2005) and Burn (NAL Trade, 2006).

From my review of Efrain’s Secret: ” I started this book a bit reluctant because I was afraid. Afraid of liking Efrain, afraid of getting angry as he took the wrong path, afraid of what would happen because these things never end well. I was right to be afraid; I liked Efrain, rooted for him, understand (but disagreed) with his choices, and was so caught up in his family and friendships that as Efrain’s Secret worked its way to the end, I was hesitant to read the final pages. One of the teen readers I know likes books that make her cry. I’ve found the perfect book to hand to her. . . .  What I like about Efrain’s Secret, what I am thankful for,  is just how Quintero resolves Efrain’s dilemma without being melodramatic. It rings true, it is satisfying, and it breaks your heart. I was right to be afraid — but I was wrong to let that stop me from reading this book.”

Liz B: I loved “Efrain’s Secret,” especially how Efrain’s two worlds were depicted. His “good son” world, with his mother and sister, doing well in school, aiming for Ivy League. His other world, with Nestor, on the street, selling drugs. What type of research did you do for for “Efrain’s Secret“?

Sofia: First, I’m so glad that you enjoyed the novel.  Some of my understanding of Efrain’s “shadow” life came from my previous career that included a stint running two alternative-to-incarceration programs in the South Bronx created by the Vera Institute of Justice.  The overwhelmingly majority of our clients were drug sale and possession cases.  I also interviewed an attorney at the Bronx Defenders and occasionally tossed a few questions at my brother who is a vice detective. But to get the gritty details of the economic, psychology and even the sociology of that lifestyle, I read so many other books.  Of particular note were, Random Family by Adrian Nicole Leblanc, Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Vankatesh and, especially In Search of Respect by Philippe I. Bourgois.  With the exception of shows like The Wire and The Corner, I stayed away from popular TV and films because they tend to sensationalize if not glorify the scene.

Liz B: One sentence from “Efrain’s Secret” that really touched me was when his mother said, “Your education and your home are investments in your future. They’re the only things you’ll ever own.”  This totally echoed what my own mother, and her parents, said to me growing up: Education is the one thing they cannot take away from you. This probably explains the alphabet soup after my own name – -BS, JD, MLIS. So I have to ask, is this something you heard growing up?

Sofia: It wasn’t what I heard explicitly as much as I what I saw repeatedly.  My parents never said this to me, per se, but what they did say and do got the message across to my siblings and me. They were (im)migrants who never finished high school, and that is precisely why they impressed upon us the importance of doing well in school.  College was not an if for us but a when despite the fact that they never had the opportunity to go.  My grandparents owned their own home and so did my aunts and uncles, and my parents are now retired with two homes so homeownership is something we saw modeled in my family. 

Liz B: Each chapter starts with a SAT word. The word is meaningful to the chapter, but is also a constant reminder to the reader how focused Efrain is on his studies. In your writing process, what came first, the chapter or the words? I just have this image of you going through an SAT guide with post-its!

Sofia: Definitely the chapters, and I had something better than an SAT guide. On the Internet, I found a PDF called The 1000 Most Common SAT Words. And index cards instead of Post-its! At one point, I had an outline where I listed the word followed by a 3-5 sentence summary of what happens in that chapter. I changed that all the time as I would revise the manuscript.   In fact, there were quite a few times when I found a better word than the one I had originally chosen to capture the nuances and subtexts of a chapter.  I’m glad that the titles delivered on my intention for them.   Even though I did want the novel to have educational value, my primary intention behind the SAT words as chapter titles was to remind the reader why Efrain was enduring these tribulations. So much happens to him once he makes his choice that I worried readers might lose sight as to why he made that choice in the first place so the chapter titles were meant to serve as a constant reminder.

Liz B: Efrain’s Secret” includes music references. I confess, I didn’t realize Chingy was a real pop culture reference to a rapper — I thought it was a rapper created for the story. The music references makes me wonder, do you have a playlist for this book, of songs you listened to while writing? Or songs that you think Efrain and his friends listen to?

Sofia: I usually do have a playlist when I’m writing a novel that includes songs that the characters would like or capture their emotional experiences as well as songs that reflect the story’s larger themes and issues. Efrain’s Secret being a contemporary young adult novel in an urban setting, Efrain and his friend were pretty much listening to anything that was current at the time I was writing. But when developing these characters, I also give though to how their tastes might be different.  There are a great deal of artists that Efrain and Nestor would both enjoy, but being distinct individuals, there are also artists that one would like that the other would not. So I definitely use things like songs, books, television shows and films to help me give each character his or her distinct voice.

When I write, I much prefer to use current popular culture references. I’m aware that it can date the book, but then again, I think if a story is compelling, that will not stop a reader from returning to it again and again. If anything, I’m drawn to the novel being at once a time capsule of the time it was written but also a testament to the things that do not change, particularly about the human experience. That’s how I feel about the work of YA authors that I still reread at my age like Judy Blume and Marilyn Sachs to name just two, and maybe that’s a bit of arrogance on my part to think that anything that I will write will ever have that kind of lasting impact, but, hey, you can’t achieve if you never aspire to it.

Liz B: Efrain doesn’t receive much guidance from his guidance counselors at school (something I also found very familiar!)  What advice do you have for the real-life Efrains out there? And any advice for the adults in their lives, the parents, teachers, librarians, guidance counselors?

Sofia: Thanks for affirming that experience. Some people believe that the most incompetent advisor would still know about the things that Efrain eventually discovered on his own too late, but that skepticism misses the point. Mrs. Colfax is not so much incompetent as she is condescending. She’s blind to this though, believing that she is helping Efrain by telling him to lower the bar for himself. I myself went through what Efrain did when I was in high school. That was my experience, and you are not the only person – adult and child – who told me they know or experienced a Mrs. Colfax. Luckily, I also had wonderful teachers who encouraged and helped me to go for it.  To the real life Efrain’s I say there is plenty of information out there and people who are chomping at the bit to give it to you. Seek them out and start your search in your junior year of high school. Talk to your librarian, ask your favorite teachers and approach anyone else you know who went to college. Visit the admissions office of a nearby school or two regardless if they are places you think you want to attend. If someone at your school is trying to discourage you, make it your business to prove them wrong and find the people who will delight in helping you do that. They do exist.

To adults in the lives of the real-life Efrains I would say look out for the Mrs. Colfax among you. You’d be surprise at who the dream-killers are in the lives of the youth that you are trying to encourage and champion. Sometimes they are the very people who are paid to help them! Confront these people.

Liz B:  At the YALSA YA Lit Symposium, I learned about your “other hat” as author Black Artemis, writing Feminist Hip-Hop Noir. Could you explain what Feminist Hip-Hop Noir is? And your inspiration for writing it? For someone (like me!) who hasn’t read your grown-up books, which one would you recommend starting with?

Sofia: Among other things, the novels I write as Black Artemis are a form of cultural activism for me. I often say that I write them for women who love hip-hop even when hip-hop fails to love them in return. Although one cannot always separate the two, there is a distinction between hip-hop the subculture and hip-hop the commodity. Hip-hop the subculture has always been and continues to be a location of creative resistance, and in writing these novels I hope to contribute to that. Because of the misogyny in hip-hop, many women who once love it have given it up. I can understand and respect that, but I choose to carve out a space for myself and other women in hip-hop by writing the Black Artemis novels. Our support – as consumers, practitioners, the mothers, partners and sisters of the men in the culture – was and is integral to the survival and success of hip-hop as both a grassroots culture and a multibillion dollar global industry so I’ll be damned if we’re driven out of it! So these stories are both critique and affirmation.

Of the three I’ve written so far I would say read Picture Me Rollin’. I think it’s the best one. I sometimes describe it as my feminist response to Hustle and Flow, but it actually takes the familiar felon-come-home trope and imagines how it might change if the convicted felon who returns to her community after a stint in prison was a young Latina woman. And at one point in the story she is introduced to feminist ideas and is mentored by a woman who was once a member of the Young Lords Party of the 60s. For that and other reasons, it tends to be the one that university professors most frequently assign to their students and invite me to campus to discuss. My company Sister Outsider Entertainment even produced a book trailer for it that I directed. But the stories are very different, and the synopsis, reviews and first chapter of each is available at so you and other readers can decide for themselves which they may want read first.

Liz B: What are you working on now?

Sofia: I’m working on my second young adult called Show and Prove that is set in the early 80s in New York City. That one definitely has one heck of a playlist! I am also a filmmaker and video producer. In March 2011 I’m launching a web series called HomeGirl.TV. My best friend and business partner Elisha Miranda (who is also an amazing young adult novelist ) are developing a television series called Sangria Street. We call it a Latina Sex and the City because the entertainment business likes its shorthand, but we being who we are, you can bet it is going to be something more than Carrie Bradshaw and her friends in brownface.

Liz B: What books have you read recently that you’d recommend to teens?

Sofia: Recent books that I highly recommend to young people are Jumped by Rita Williams-Garcia and Rikers High by Paul Volponi. Some that are a few years old, but I continue to recommend include The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang and Upstate by Kalisha Buckhanon.  For the most part, I prefer to recommend authors rather than just titles so among the ones I just mentioned, I also encourage them to try anything written by Angela Johnson, Coe Booth, Walter Dean Myers, Sharon Flake and Rene Saldaña. And that’s just for starters!

Liz B: Thank you! And this is why in the battle between me and my to-be-read pile of books…the pile of books always wins and never gets shorter.

The rest of the Winter Blog Blast Tour for today, with a round up of links and quotes at Chasing Ray:

Marilyn Singer at Writing and Ruminating

Jennifer Donnelly at Shelf Elf

Ted Chiang at Shaken & Stirred

Maria Snyder at Finding Wonderland

Interview: Charles Benoit

Welcome to the Winter Blog Blast Tour, 2010 edition!

Charles Benoit is the author of You (Harper Teen, 2010). It is his debut young adult novel; his previous novels are adult mysteries: Relative Danger (Poisoned Pen Press, 2004), Out of Order (Poisoned Pen Press, 2006), Noble Lies (Poisoned Pen Press, 2007).

From my review of You: “Told in second person, Benoit pulls you into the story, makes the story about you and your choices and your friendships. Your slacking off (why?) in middle school, so you didn’t go to High School with your friends from the gifted program, and you began hanging out with the hoodies and drinking and getting Cs and you liked Ashley but couldn’t tell her and now you’re standing there, with shattered glass and blood and screaming won’t help because it’s already too late and how did you get here? Some people say the teen books that scare the hell out of them as parents are the books where bad things happen to teens.  Me, – while not a parent, I’m an aunt, and a friend of many a parent – I am scared by the books about kids who get lost. Not literally, but figuratively.”

So, You is a serious book. But here is a secret: Charles is one of the funniest people I’ve met. OK, maybe that isn’t a real secret, and maybe we as readers should know that very funny people can write very serious, heart-wrenching books. But my point —  if you have the chance, run, don’t walk, to hear him. You’ll come back and thank me. And now, on with the interview!

Liz B: Writers call themselves either “plungers” or “plotters.” Which one are you? Can you describe that process for us?

 Charles: I tend to plan my books the same way I plan a vacation – I know where I want to go and the things I want to see along the way and the general route I’m going to take, but I leave the details (where I’ll stay, who I’ll meet, what I’ll try) to chance. This semi-serendipitous approach has helped travel (and write) with confidence while also ensuring enough surprises along the way to keep it interesting.

Liz B: What was your inspiration for “You”? What type of research did you do?

Charles: When you write mysteries like I’d been doing, you really can’t have endings that leave the reader guessing. It’s not the way the genre works – you have to wrap it all up, make sense of the ending and serve out justice in some form. When I started You, I knew I wanted a book that would have a WTF? ending (that stands for Wild, Thought-provoking Finish). I wanted readers to be, shall we say, uncomfortable with how it ends. I wanted them to get involved and figure it all out. That was the goal – to what degree I hit it is up to readers.

As far as research, I’m a former high school History teacher and I have many nieces and nephews, none of whom appear in any way shape or form in the book. At least that’s what I tell their parents. I also recycle a lot of the events from my youth and I’ll let readers guess which ones those were.     

Liz B:  Your other books are for adults. Why write a young adult book?

Charles: I’d already written three adult mysteries and was going to start the fourth when Rose (my wife, who is a 9th grade English teacher) challenged me to write a Young Adult novel. I needed a break from writing mysteries and felt it would be a good creative exercise. I really came to this out of ignorance and it’s a good thing I did. I’ve read many YA books since finishing You and I’m blown away by the quality of the writing. If I had known then what I know now, I would have never attempted it. There are so many great YA writers out there. It’s an honor just to be on the same shelf with them.

Liz B: “You” is told in the second person. Was that always the narrative for that story? Why?

Charles: As I said, I started writing it as a challenge from my wife, but of course, being the cocky jerk I can be, I said that simply writing a YA wasn’t a challenge enough, that I’d go further and write it in the dreaded second-person. Turns out there are many reasons why people don’t tend to write in second-person, one of them being that it’s hard, but I stayed with it. Somewhere around the twentieth page I knew I was onto something. The voice came easier and by the last third of the book, I didn’t have to think about it at all. The hard part was to stop writing (and thinking and talking) in second-person. I think it started to freak people out – “You get a note from Charles Benoit. He says he’s going to stop by your house to see your new pool table.” Yeah, strange. 

Liz B: Now that you’ve experienced two different areas of the publishing world, what surprised you most about young adult and being a young adult author?

Charles: I am amazed at the quality of writing that’s considered the norm in the YA world. I’ve learned that it’s less “Young Adult Literature” and more “Literature that Young Adults Also Like.” I’ve also been impressed by the level of the questions I’ve been asked by teen readers. The depth of understanding and complexity of the analysis shocks me. If I thought at that level in high school—and I’m quite sure I did not—I might have made something of myself.

Liz B: “You” has both a fabulous cover and terrific interior design. Did you have to offer up any sacrifice?

Charles: It is great, isn’t it? I did share some ideas and I’d love to say that these were them, but they weren’t and I am very happy that my ideas were politely dismissed by my editor at Harper Collins. My idea involved a shiny, mirror-like reflective paper…ugh, I can’t believe I’m admitting this. Don’t tell anyone, okay?

Liz B: Your secret is safe with me. I pinky swear.

Are you working on another YA book? Can you tell us anything about it?

Charles: I’m a writer, of course there’s another one! This one’s a YA Ro/Co Caper, and that means that it’s written with teen readers in mind (but not exclusively), that it’s a romantic comedy (a guy and a girl who are not supposed to be together end up together, sortta), and it involves a series of elaborate capers (thefts) that have to be planned and carried out, with a zillion things going wrong along the way. There’s also a story line about getting away from helicopter parents (the super-protective kind that hover over their kids till they’re well into their late 20s) and the desire to be famous (when there’s nothing fame-able about you). It’s all quite fizzy and fast with zippy dialog and tense action scenes and I’m having a blast writing it. That’s always a good sign!

Liz B: You are quite the storyteller! Actually, I will show off my snazzy vocabulary by saying you are a raconteur. (It’s a good thing this is a written interview, otherwise I’m afraid I’d say that word wrong.) I almost hesitate to ask you to share a story, because it’s also how you tell the story. Though, if you want to, I won’t stop you. What are some of your upcoming appearances so that people can hear you in person?

Charles: I appear daily at the advertising agency where I work (Dixon Schwabl) and I assume they like that since they let me stay. I’m doing a bunch of Skype events with schools and book clubs across the country (hint, hint) and I’m very excited about the Teen Book Fest here in Rochester in the Spring as well as the first ever Young Adult Book Fest in Keller, Texas in April. I also do a radio show called The Smart Set on Jazz90.1 FM in Rochester (Saturday nights from 5-6 EST) – it’s a strange sortta show that requires some imagination and a good sense of humor. You can Friend the show on Facebook (it could use the friends) and listen live online at

Liz B: You have a radio program. And a full time job. What is your writing schedule, or, in other words, do you sleep?

Charles: I work at the ad agency (writing, mostly) from 7am to 3pm, get home around 4ish, play my saxophone for an hour, eat dinner, say hello to Rose and the head up to my office to write. My rule is that I must write for at least 2 and a half hours or write at least 500 words. I catch up on my sleep when I can, usually while driving.

Liz B: What books did you read as a teenager?

CharlesEverything written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Michael Moorcock, Terry Brooks and Robert E. Howard, and anything with a cover of a guy with a sword and a girl in a metal bikini and a dragon or some sort of beast from hell that had to be slayed. I was sort of in a Sword & Sorcery rut for a few years. I also read a lot of P.G. Wodehouse and anyone who ever wants to be a writer should study Wodehouse. Wildly fun and complex boy-meets-girl plots, plus at least three brilliantly original and hilarious similes per page. Start with The Code of the Woosters and go where you will after that. My favorite is Uncle Fred in the Springtime. I read it once a year. Genius. 

Liz B: What books have you read recently that you’d recommend?

Charles: Here are the five I’ve read most recently that I’d recommend:

The Things a Brother Knows by Dana Reinhardt.

Struts & Frets by Jon Skovron

Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel

Tinkers by Paul Harding 

Kenneth Fearing: Selected Poems, edited by Robert Polito

Liz B: Thank you so much!

Head over to Chasing Ray for links and quotes from the other interviews today:

Andrea Seigel at Shaken & Stirred

Adele Griffin at Bildungsroman

Susan Campbell Bartoletti at Chasing Ray

Sarah MacLean at Writing & Ruminating

Allen Zadoff at Hip Writer Mama

Interview: Paolo Bacigalupi

Welcome to the Winter Blog Blast Tour, 2010 edition!

Paolo Bacigalupi is the author of Ship Breaker (Little, Brown, 2010) (National Book Awards finalist) and The Windup Girl (Night Shade Books, 2009) (Nebula and Hugo Awards for Best Novel). His short stories are available in Pump Six and Other Stories (Night Shade Books, 2008). The complete list of novels and short stories is at his website.

From Bacigalupi’s website: “Paolo Bacigalupi’s writing has appeared in High Country News,, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. His short fiction been anthologized in various “Year’s Best” collections of short science fiction and fantasy, nominated for two Nebula Awards and four Hugo Awards, and won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for best sf short story of the year. His debut novel THE WINDUP GIRL was named by TIME Magazine as one of the ten best novels of 2009, and also won the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, Compton Crook, and John W. Campbell Memorial Awards. His short story collection PUMP SIX AND OTHER STORIES was a 2008 Locus Award winner for Best Collection and also named a Best Book of the Year by Publishers Weekly. His debut young adult novel, SHIP BREAKER, is a National Book Award Finalist. He currently lives in Western Colorado with his wife and son, where he is working on a new novel.” Also at his website is a list of other interviews, including Sci-fi phenom Paolo Bacigalupi has seen the future — and it’s scary as hell at Denver Westword.

From my review of Ship Breaker: “SHIP BREAKER is breathless, non stop action, with barely room to breathe. Getting lost in ships, hurricanes, deadly infections, knife battles, and that’s just the first third! The world-building is done so seamlessly that it’s not noticed. Along the way, much is given to the reader to think about. This is set in the future, but all the big questions are about our today: the divide between the haves and have nots, the ecological impact of actions, the use of child labor, as well as questions about loyalty, choice, and fate.”

And now, on with the interview!

Liz B: One of the bleakest parts of SHIP BREAKER is the terrifying, dangerous ship breaking process. Like many readers, I was surprised when I found out that ship breaking is not a “what if” but is very real. How did you learn about ship breaking? How did it become a part of this story?

Paolo: The first time I really encountered it was in a documentary called “Manufactured Landscapes” about the photographer Edward Burtynsky. I remember seeing the photos he took of Chittagong in Bangladesh and just being stunned at the scale of the work, the conditions that it was done in… and the images stayed with me.  A little while later, I was working on the first draft of this YA book idea I had, and I had Nailer doing a different kind of work entirely, working on coastal wave generators in the north Atlantic…. and it just didn’t seem to work. It just wasn’t compelling to me. And the images of Bangladesh were still in my head. So I moved to story to the Gulf, set up Bright Sands Beach, and suddenly everything clicked together, and I was writing a book called Ship Breaker.

Liz BAnd now I’ve added Manufactured Landscapes to my Netflix queue.

The world of SHIP BREAKER is wonderfully realized and complex, not just on a technical level (ship breaking, future technology) but also on a social and cultural level (blood oaths, class hierarchy, tattoos). What was your research process in creating Nailer’s world?

Paolo: I think in some ways, you’re always researching. I travel a lot. I read a lot of books. It all becomes mulch.  And then when you’re building a fictional society, you have lots of touchstones to guide you. Sometimes you steal something, sometimes you use a real world example as a template, but you’re looking for those touchstones. So something like work tattoos can relate to ritual scarrings of manhood (I knew a guy who branded himself to get into a fraternity, for example), or it can connect to something like internment camps, and the labeling and commodifying of human beings. And then you use it in your own way, so maybe it seems both real and new, at the same time. At root, though, I feel like my job is to take in tons and tons of pieces and then let them rattle around in my head, so that when I’m sitting down to write, I have details and ideas at hand.

Liz B: SHIP BREAKER is a young adult novel, and has three starred reviews and is a National Book Award Finalist. The award winning THE WINDUP GIRL and your short stories are for adults. What about SHIP BREAKER made you think, “young adult”? Is writing for young adults different than writing for adults? Which of your short stories would you recommend to your teen readers?

Paolo: SHIP BREAKER was always intended as a story for young people– the story that I would have enjoyed when I was in my teens.  I work with the same sorts of themes regardless of whether I’m writing for adults or teens, so it’s really a question of focusing on your audience, and saying “Here, this is something that I think will be cool for you.”  You’re trying to give your reader a gift– the excitement of discovery, the horror of understanding, whatever it is… and knowing who you’re talking to tells you how you’ll go about it.   As far as which of my short stories I would recommend… I’ve had teens read all of PUMP SIX AND OTHER STORIES and enjoy them, which isn’t surprising to me, as I read plenty of stories for adults when I was a teen, and found them completely accessible. As far as stories that I think would be particularly appealing for teens– probably something like “The Fluted Girl” or “Pocketful of Dharma.” And maybe “Pump Six.”  But mileage will vary because the stories definitely get edgier when I write for adults.

Liz B: I’m a bit of a process junkie — I love hearing about how a story was created. In rewriting and editing SHIP BREAKER, were there any surprises for you as an author? Something that was either added or had to be taken away?

Paolo: There were a lot of surprises, actually. The ship breaking was a huge surprise, as I described before, because I really had no intention of using ship breaking initially, but so were characters like Richard Lopez, and Sadna, and Pima and Tool.  I didn’t know they were going to be in the cast, and then they suddenly were, and they were really strong and alive, in ways that I didn’t anticipate.  And the ending was a surprise. I thought I was going to write a different ending, and I had a different goal in mind, where I had intended the story to end in Seascape Boston, instead of on Bright Sands, but about two-thirds of the way into the book I realized that I was wrong, and that everything was going towards a final showdown between Nailer and his father.  I didn’t see that coming, but suddenly all the themes and dramatic elements were just staring me in the face, so I went with them.

Liz B: What is your writing process? Are you a “plunger” or “plotter”?

Paolo: It’s different for every book. I think of myself as a “meanderer” or a “fiddler” maybe. I write some parts, try some scenes, and do some dialogue, readjust my characters, and all the while, I’m looking for something to spark, and for the world to come alive, and for me to believe enough in the world and the premise so that I can keep going.  Once I find that element, things move very quickly, the building blocks line up and stack themselves, but in the beginning, it’s all trying and testing and deleting, and retrying until the story snaps into focus, and then suddenly you’ve got it, and Nailer’s in the belly of an oil tanker stripping out copper and worried about making quota and there’s a big storm looming on the horizon… and it all suddenly works.  Magic.

Liz B: What are you working on now? And if it’s not a sequel to SHIP BREAKER, can we hope for a sequel? What if I promise you chocolate for a sequel?

Paolo: LOL. Well, it depends what kind of chocolate we’re talking about.  In all seriousness, it’s more of a companion novel rather than a sequel. It’s set in the same world, but Tool is the only character who overlaps, and the thematic focus is very different.  The story is set in a place called the Drowned Cities, and focuses on a sister and brother pair who have been orphaned by war. At least, that’s what I think it’s about.  We’ll see if it’s still about that when I reach the end.

Liz BRight now, there is a bunch of buzz in the blogosphere about James Frey’s Full Fathom Five book packaging company. No, I’m not going to ask you about that! However, some authors (such as Maureen Johnson and John Scalzi) have pointed out that MFA programs and other areas that don’t teach students about the business end of writing —  contracts and payment and royalties and such. Do you have any practical advice for writers hoping to make a living out of writing?

Paolo: Write a hell of a lot, and don’t give up.  After you’ve taken that bit of advice, I’d say that the best you can do is to ask as many questions as possible of people who are more experienced than you are, or who are working through the same stage of writing as you are. I do it all the time, and I’ve benefited a great deal from it. I’ve asked authors about agents, about contracts, about publishers, about what they wished they’d known, about how the broke in, about how they organize their careers, how they resuscitated their careers, how they manage their finances–all kinds of stuff.  And I keep asking questions. Any time I’m dealing with new territory, I try to ask a lot of people for their wisdom.   And get an agent.  Don’t sign any book deals without an agent.  That’s a big one.

Liz B:  What books are you reading now that you’d recommend to teen readers?

Paolo: I just read LOCKDOWN and liked it quite a lot.

Liz B: Thank you so much!

At Chasing Ray, find highlights of all of today’s interviews:

Elizabeth Hand at Chasing Ray

Maya Gold at Bildungsroman

L.K. Madigan at Writing & Ruminating

R.J. Anderson at Hip Writer Mama

Author photo by JT Thomas Photography.