In Case You Need Book Report Fodder…

From the very first interview I had with a sixth grade journalist from my friend Rod’s class, I’ve realized that there are a limited number of questions that anyone can ask an author that are totally new and original. If you’re in need of some basic answers, please read along. If you find you have questions that aren’t listed here, I’m open to a quick chat.

Thanks for stopping by!

  • Tell us a bit about yourself. Who are you?
  • First, I was born after 1960! For those of you looking for that for forensics competitions, there ya go. I was born in the United States, too.

    I’m a Northern California writer, youngest of three sisters, and now risen to that coveted middle child status since my parents adopted a brother and one more sister. I lived in the UK – Glasgow, Scotland – while my husband completed his PhD, and it was both the best and the more revealing time of my life. I’ve been back in Northern California since 2012. I received a Bachelor of Arts in American and British Literature, went back to school after the sale of my first book, and received my Master of Fine Arts in English and Creative Writing from Mills College in 2004.

  • What are the names of your books, and what are they about?
  • Um, I’m going to pass on that one. Since you’re on my website, you can do that tiny little bit of research, and find out for yourself, all right?

  • What inspired you to write A LA CARTE?
  • A few years ago I read a YA retelling of the Cyrano story, with some great recipes in it. However, all of the recipes were for things like ‘Death by Chocolate’ and that type of thing. I was a pudgy kid who grew into a pudgy adult, and though I loved the book, I wanted to write a story where someone incorporated healthier recipes. That was the germ of the idea that started the book.

  • What inspired you to write Mare’s War?
  • I was doing research for my MFA project at Mills College, looking into military records and such to see if I could find evidence for the family myth that my grandmother had spent time in the U.S. Army. I didn’t find my grandmother’s information right away, but I did stumble across a fact that I’d never heard of in any history course — that eight hundred women were sent, during WWII, into the European Theater. I thought, “Really?” and begin to research even more closely.

  • What inspired you to write Happy Families? (Knopf 2012)
  • This book I wrote because I realize that not everybody knows what unconditional love looks like. I wanted love to be something worth discussing, worth reflecting on, worth looking for.

  • What do you like to read?
  • Ooh, tough question! I’m a serious book addict, and I feel that YA writers really need to read – everything, from The Wall Street Journal to goofy newspapers in grocery store lines that announce the births of aliens in Kansas. Reading YA literature helps keep me aware of what teens are reading and reading everything else helps me sort of take the temperature of the world. Reading everything else informs, challenges, and expands my mind.

    I had a single, battered copy of Anne of Green Gables when I was nine, and that started my love affair with words. I love Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, and the sonorous poetry of the King James Psalms. I love Tolkien’s Hobbit, Jeanne DuPrau’s The Prophet of Yonwood and all of her Ember series. I adore Terry Pratchett, and have read all of his books – at least three times, and of course, there’s Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea series, there’s Sherri L. Smith, Sarah Dessen, Gail Carson Levine, Shannon Hale, Laurie Halse Anderson, C.K. Kelly Martin, Jack Zipes, Chris Crutcher, Richard Peck, Lois Lowry, Holly Black, Julie Anne Peters, Cory Doctorow… asking a writer about their favorite books is dangerous! The list could go on and on, and not even be a drop in the bucket.

  • What’s your daily schedule like?
  • Generally I’m at my desk by nine, and can use the first little while to read what I wrote the previous day and think about where I’m going. If I’m going to do any deleting, that’s when it happens, and then I’m writing for a solid three or four hour block. If I get stuck or derailed, I get up and wander around. Those are good times to iron or find something to clean! I’ll check email and have a snack at that point, and then, I’m back into it. I try to keep regular 9-5 work hours – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. People talk a lot about “you must write every day,” and I think some of those days, email counts. (Just don’t get involved with playing on Facebook or Twitter, or you won’t get anything else done!) Everyone has to find their own way to creativity.

  • How do you start writing a new story?
  • I can’t seem to make it through a week without thinking of something new! I have a very active imagination – and I have stories lined up in my brain, all trying to push to the forefront. There are three notebooks on my desk strictly for when I have a thought, and still I end up jotting things down on the backs of envelopes and sticky notes. I don’t have an organized mind. One of my MFA instructors advocated outlines, and we were required to write them – that was really difficult for me. I hate outlining in a traditional way, but I’m pretty good with …kind of a Venn-diagrammy looking thing, that has lots of arrows. When I get stuck working out how to get a character from where they are, to the sort of Big Picture I need to move them toward, then I start jotting down phrases and ideas and connecting them with arrows… Again, it’s not very neat, but it works.

    I never did anything but first drafts of papers in school, and I generally made decent grades. It makes me wince now – to think if I’d maybe tried a little rewriting, I could have gotten brilliant grades, but I kind of just made-do with my glib tongue, and aimed for average. I didn’t start rewriting papers until my MFA, which is sort of horrifying. The only reason I did it then is because my very smart professor made us turn in our drafts.

    Even when I first started writing, I knew better than to try to pass off my stories at only one draft – but I tend to rewrite while I’m writing the first draft – that’s just how my circuitous brain works. I take two steps forward, and then go back a chapter and rewrite several paragraphs, and then that gives me impetus to move forward another two steps… and then back one. My long-suffering writing partners got used to reading multiple copies of the same story, and by the time I’m finished with anything, I honestly feel like I know it by heart. But rewriting for other people was tough, seriously tough. My first novel took six drafts to get it where my agent liked it, and then at least another six before my editor thought it was done. And that’s not to mention the two rounds I did with copy editing! I realized I needed to learn to love the process – what I do love is the feeling of exhilaration at the teamwork that takes place, and the feeling of accomplishment that what I’ve written is understood and appreciated.

  • When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
  • …probably before I hit the first grade.

    I was a very chatty little kid (comes from having older sibs) and I drove my mother bonkers. After a certain hour of the day (or during her soaps), I had to write all the things I wanted to tell her, because she desperately longed for me to just take a breath, at least. She’d give me a pad of paper and a pen and say, “Write it down.” This gained her whole minutes of silence sometimes.

    My first and second grade teacher, Avonelle Remboldt, further fanned the creative spark by holding Author Conventions in our class, and for those years we read, were read to, and wrote our own stories. I won my first book award from Mrs. Remboldt. It had a smiley sticker on it, which sadly, they don’t give you on any other awards.

  • What advice can you offer those wanting to break into the YA market?
  • I heard author John Green at SCBWI’s L.A. Conference in 2007. He said “All writing is rewriting,” and while it’s not exactly advice, it’s a truism that means that you always have to be prepared to roll up your map and strike out cross-country in terms of your manuscript. What you have – where you’ve already been – may not be where you need to go!

    I feel like this is an horrible cliché, but I can’t apologize for it because it’s true. Aspiring writers must read, read, read, and write, write, write. Find a writing group – write through your fears, and let other people read what you’ve written. Develop that thick skin you’ll need to deal with sending your baby manuscript into the outside world. Figure out that stories have beginnings, middles and endings, and make sure you’ve got all three. And then, as Ray Bradbury once said, “You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious ones, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next.” Camp out at the library. Read what you love, and write what you love.

    The best piece of writing advice I can pass on is to get a writing group, and don’t be too stubborn to rewrite. I think the biggest mistake we can make is to be so convinced of our own genius that we want our work to stay exactly as we have envisioned it, despite comments that indicate that it’s not being understood the way we’d like. Writing is a collaborative effort, and if your writing group and your editor is nudging you into some new directions, never be afraid to at least consider them. It may sound clichéd, but letting go of our personal pride sometimes means being able to have our hands and minds open enough to have room for inspiration.

  • Will you read/publish/critique my manuscript/novel/poem or let me give you this great idea that you should write for me?
  • No. That’s just not possible. First, because I believe that if you have a story you should write it, and second, since I’m not an editor, I’m not in a position to help you professionally, nor is it really ethical for me to introduce you to my agent, editor, or publishing professionals unless you’ve done the work everyone has to do to be published. Third, I have my own work to do, which doesn’t include yours. However! Please check in with the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators to work on making your publishing dream happen. SCBWI offers so much, nationally and internationally, and something is there for all fledgling — and more experienced — writers.

You’ll notice I don’t offer writing advice, or talk like an English teacher about things like theme or structure in any of my books. Mostly I don’t because a lot of things in life are subjective, and what you “get” from reading anyone’s work is one of those things. I hope you’ve come away with something helpful; thanks for stopping by!

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